"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
One minute, you’re tooling along the bustling superhighways of downtown Houston with its sleek office towers and important-looking people driving fancy cars. Then you exit at Scott Street, enter the Third Ward Bottoms, and head back in time — back to those old sepia photos of the Mississippi Delta, circa 1940.
This neighborhood’s name tells you pretty much everything you need to know about it. It’s a high-density, low-income area of crumbling, pocket-sized houses, propped up on concrete blocks, filled with people who aren’t going anywhere. Men aged 18 to 60, shirtless and shoeless, hold down the porches in the middle of the day, with postures that speak of uninterrupted idleness. They brush their hair, brush their teeth,and just hang out. That’s it.
There are a number of well-tended homes here too, but somehow, they only highlight the desolation that’s all around. One common sight is a pregnant 15-year-old pushing a stroller down the street. Not-yet-pregnant 15- year-olds hold down the corners, laughing and joking with their boyfriend-pimps as they wait for paying customers.
Flashy SUVs cruise by slowly so young black boys can ride up on their bikes to buy and sell drugs. Children, much too young to be unsupervised, run around unsupervised. Four people will die violently here in the Bottoms during the 36 hours of my visit.
This is where the Martin Luther King Community Center has been located for 31 years. Reporters have been calling or coming by here lately, but not to talk about the children filling the Crisis Center and the Alternative School across the street, or the just-completed transitional housing units for the homeless down the way. No, they want to catch George W. Bush with his pants down. This is the place, the MLK Center, where the presidential hopeful is rumored to have done community service to clear his record of a cocaine conviction in the early 1970s.
Madgelean Bush (no relation to the governor) has lived in the Bottoms since the 1940s and owns several homes in the neighborhood. The creator and director of the center since its inception, “Madge” Bush doesn’t bother to hide her disgust at the current media frenzy (she fields several more calls from reporters while we speak).
“George W. Bush did not do community service here,” she intones angrily, “and I’m insulted by all of this. When did white folks start asking black folks to provide references for them? Never, that’s when. When (they’re) running for office, they don’t need to hear from me on their policies. But when its something low-down like drugs, here they come.”
That sentiment is shared by her colleagues. “Who would know better than us, right?” sneered one of Madge Bush’s staffers. “We got folks in this neighborhood getting 20, 25 years for microscopic amounts of drug residue on their clothes that they had to take to the lab to find and y’all think somebody like George W. Bush even got community service? You’re not from around here, are you?”
As has been well documented, Gov. Bush refuses to discuss his possible past drug use, but he is not shy in championing some of the harshest drug laws in the country against kids who come from neighborhoods like the Bottoms. Under the previous Texas governor, Ann Richards, first-time offenders received automatic probation with drug counseling; when he ran against her, candidate Bush ridiculed this approach, calling it ‘Penal Code Lite.’
Once he was in office, Bush signed a law ending such foolishness. Now, recreational users, first time offenders and even those caught with less than a gram face jail time: six months to two years.
Cynthia Cline, a Houston criminal defense attorney who is often appointed by the court to defend such cases, says most of her clients are poor, minority, and will lose. At $130 a day, Cline says, “you’re not paid to prepare. The police will stop people of color in certain neighborhoods for any reason you can think of, like not wearing seat belts, routine traffic stops, not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign. Then they search everyone and everything.”
Although she doesn’t like seeing the governor’s privacy invaded by the press, Cline is angered by what she sees as Bush’s hypocrisy on the drug issue.
“Ann Richards talked about overcoming her alcoholism. Why can’t he? He could tell people about why they should get off drugs, not just throw away the key, but it looks like he’s forgotten about rehabilitation.”
(Actually, Bush does talk about rehab. “Incarceration is rehabilitation,” he has stated.)
In one typical case recently, a 27-year-old mother of two pled guilty to an eight-month sentence for trace amounts of cocaine in an empty pipe that had to be lab-tested in order to uncover the evidence needed to convict her. She was a first-time offender.
The police claimed the car she shared with two companions was illegally parked, and that she had made a “furtive movement.” Thus armed with probable cause, the police searched until they found the non-smoking gun in her purse.
“Ah, yes,” Cline chuckles ruefully, “Furtive movements and residues. That’s every day here.”
As hard-line as these police actions are, many first-timers still receive probation provided they have a job or are in school, though judges have full discretion in these matters. Even so, “Probation is hard in Harris County,” says Cline. These lucky ones have to adhere to strict requirements as well as perform concerted community service, and get permission to move or change jobs, as well as hold to all sorts of other restrictions.
“It’s not easy. Lots of people fail probation,” Cline says. Walking around the Bottoms with Madge Bush is an instructive way to see the devastation wrought by statehouse policies like these. No one’s harder than she is on the local crackheads and drug-dealing low-lifes who use guns and involve the innocent, but then again, no one’s more outraged by the political elites’ unwillingness to differentiate between the bad guys and the rest.
There’s the case of the well-liked neighborhood mom, right across the street from the center: five years on a first offense for possession of cocaine. There’s a 51-year-old grandfather known as a steady, hard-working delivery man: $666,000 bond and 25 years in a Corpus Christi-area prison far from loved ones. Locals claim he was a first offender. Regardless, “He’ll die in there,” they say bitterly. “Grandkids will forget they ever knew him.”
Given the way the parole system works under Bush, the locals are probably right. Bill Habern, co-chair of the parole and prison committee of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Association, says the Texas parole system does a great deal of unnecessary damage to people’s lives. “In 28 years of practice, I have never seen the parole approval rate as low as during the Bush administration. It makes no sense,” he says.
Under Gov. Bill Clements, Richards’
predecessor, Habern says, the parole board granted releases to 79 percent of eligible inmates, a rate Habern acknowledges was probably too high due to prison overcrowding. Under Bush, however, the release rate has fallen to 19.9 percent of first-time, non-violent offenders.
“Below 30 percent is a crime,” Habern says. “This ‘compassionate conservative’ line is horseshit. It may be conservative but it sure ain’t compassionate.”
Meanwhile, kids who were being raised by people like the neighborhood mom, the delivery man and the 27-year-old first-time offender end up in the Madge Bush’s “crisis nursery.”
On the day of my visit, the center is caring for 88 children, aged 1 day to 10 years. Eight little white girls are among the current residents in the nursery. They run up to us as we enter, desperate for the attention of grown-ups unlikely to hurt them. One has an arm in a cast, hopefully from a bicycle spill or jungle-gym tumble. How many are here because a parent parked illegally and then made a ‘furtive movement’?
The little girls swarm all over “Miz Bush.” Indeed, everywhere she goes in the Bottoms, she commands respect. On the street, local youngsters stop their various depredations and straighten up at the sight of her. One little girl who had just thrown her empty soda can with a flourish into the middle of the street, turned to see Miz Bush approaching and froze in horror. Without a word from her elder, the girl sprinted to retrieve the can and apologized.
Bush has the kind of presence I haven’t seen since my ’60s childhood — when any random adult could smack you across the room to the general approval of all.
On our walking tour of the Bottoms, Bush stops traffic; every passing car slows for its occupants to pay their respects. Several times, I have to step aside while she is asked for some assistance too personal for a stranger’s ears. Many of these people probably don’t realize how closely her own story resembles theirs.
“My mother was a mulatto. She had nine kids and didn’t want none of us. We was all over the place. Couple of us lived with my grandfather. He did something wrong and swore to beat me if I told it. I told anyway and he used the mop handle on me. After that, I gathered my little brother and sister and walked to another grown sister’s. She took them — they had red hair and hazel eyes — but told me to get my black ass on somewhere else,” Bush says.
Eventually, Bush’s family “gave” her to a white family as a servant. She was 11. She’s been on her own ever since. Now 69, the fourth-grade dropout runs a public service empire with 40 employees and an operation funded by foundations, churches and businesses, as well as contracts from government agencies.
Though she disagrees with his policies, Madge Bush let George Bush announce his welfare reform plan from the center. “Yeah, the white politicians have their uses for this neighborhood, don’t they?” Bush says wryly. “But I’m nonpartisan when it comes to this center. And besides, who’s more affected by welfare reform than these folks? Folks need to know how bad things are around here.”
In whatever capacity they visit this end of town, folks like George W. Bush seem to come and go quickly. Meanwhile, the real story of drug use, and its consequences, goes on and on. Whatever else she may (or may not) know about what young Bush did (or did not do) around here, that’s the story Madge Bush wants the larger world to notice.
Otherwise, her neighborhood will stay exactly where it’s always been — at the bottom — while politicians like George W. Bush make their way to the top.
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Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)