"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)
The overwhelming news of the past two weeks for the Eastern United States was the slow spin and drift of Hurricane Floyd across the Atlantic from the crucible of hurricanes off the western tip of Africa. Grazing Florida and meandering up to Maine, the storm slammed some places and left others virtually untouched. Unlike last month’s devastating earthquake in Turkey and this week’s quake in Taiwan, both of which came without warning, Floyd’s slow advance was reported with excruciating thoroughness as its rapacious claw, like the giant red maw of a Blakean carnivorous flower, floated on radar across the sea. The Weather Channel becomes my obsessive focus at such times, since its sublime theme of omnipotent nature is the central doctrine of my brand of Italian pagan Catholicism, which was born in the shadow of slumbering but ever-lethal Mount Vesuvius.
The major media were guilty of their usual elitist provincialism as they paid enormous attention to Floyd when it was a Category 4 storm threatening the vacation resorts of the Caribbean or the Florida coast, where so many affluent New Yorkers or their retired parents own property. As the storm weakened slightly and turned north toward the Carolinas, however, the Manhattan media lost interest — as if rural Southerners don’t have the same claim to national attention and concern. Hence it was poetic justice when Floyd ended up smacking metropolitan New York with record rains that turned the streets into rivers, snarled traffic and emptied the skyscrapers. By early this week, the media woke up from their trance and headlined North Carolina’s terrible suffering with its floods of “almost biblical proportions,” as a local official put it.
Television pictures have been unable to capture the full extent of Hurricane Floyd’s destruction, since it was both scattered and widespread. As a resident of one of the southeastern Pennsylvania counties declared a disaster zone last week by the federal government, I feel lucky to have escaped the worst effects of Floyd, which pelted us with torrential rain and knocked out power to a quarter million customers, including me. Many homes and businesses in the area were gutted by dangerously overflowing streams, and hundreds of people who lost everything have had to seek shelter elsewhere.
Nature, I have constantly argued in my work, is the real superpower of this godless universe. It is the ultimate disposer of human fate, randomly recarving geography over 10,000-year epochs. Hence my disdain for the prissy social constructionism of poststructuralism and postmodernism, which are blind to nature and which produce such shallow, jaded minds in faculty as well as students. High Romanticism shows you nature in all its harsh and lovely metamorphoses. Flood, fire and quake fling us back to the primal struggle for survival and reveal our gross dependency on mammoth, still mysterious forces.
On the political front, I’m relieved that Hillary Clinton and her tag-along hubby and cub have gotten the hell out of my old neck of the woods in central New York, where I grew up and where my family is still centered. Pristine Skaneateles Lake, for example, where the Clintons briefly “vacationed” (those people can’t draw a tranquil breath since it entails self-examination), looms large in my personal history. I cheered when I heard that the irascible owner of Doug’s Fish Fry in Skaneateles satirically vowed he would not serve the interlopers (despite civil rights laws about public accommodation) on the grounds that the Clintons are “intoxicated with power.” As I picked up my fish platter and steamed clams at Doug’s wildly popular East Syracuse branch on a visit in August, I enthused to the bemused cashier, “Please tell Doug that we’re behind him!”
Salon reader Bob Carlson writes to ask about the “sympathetic” article on Hillary in the October Esquire where Tom Junod calls her “the most interesting sexual persona of our time.” While I naturally approve of all invocations of my own terminology, I must say that this piece is one of the gushiest pots of creamed tripe since Wayne Koestenbaum did his affected pirouettes around the hapless Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Psychological analysis requires deep cultural immersion as well as acute powers of observation, little of which is apparent here. Esquire, once a showcase for masculine sophistication, should be embarrassed by this syrupy exercise in sycophancy, which is studded with fake sexual plums that would choke a starving goat.
Carlson also asks why Hillary “inspires an unprecedented, visceral hatred.” Liberal Democrats like to claim that dislike of Hillary is simply reactionary fear of strong women. But it’s Hillary’s own record of hypocrisy, pretension, manipulation and deceit that repels. When feminist superwonk Susan Faludi and I went head to head on the Phil Donahue show in 1992, the one thing we beatifically agreed about was our warm support of Hillary Clinton, fresh video footage of whom Donahue ran for our comment: It was the very day that Hillary’s smiling mask slipped and she made her immortal, head-tossing quip, “Well, I could have stayed home and baked cookies!” — a sardonicism that nearly cost the Clintons mainstream support.
If such “visceral hatred” exists, it should be directed against the major media, who have wrapped Hillary in a glamorous partisan fog since she arrived on the national scene. Into her have been projected the frustrated dreams of aging women journalists, those who fell for the first brave promises of feminist ideology and have slowly, decade by decade, hit the big chill of careerist melancholy, as their value has fallen on the sexual marketplace and as their husbands escape to younger, more nubile women. Militant, mechanistic, calculating Hillary is the standard-bearer of a demoralized white, upper-middle-class feminism that left many women with high status but little personal happiness. Hence Hillary’s ultimate triumph must be assured, by hook or by crook.
I view Hillary at this point as a parasite on the Democratic Party, draining its energies and locking it to the past at a time when it should be remaking itself for the millennium. With her practical experience as a mayor and U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein is a far more worthy candidate for high public office than the cloistered Hillary Clinton, a backroom pol like the cigar-reeking ward-heelers of the bad old days. While I probably should have some pity for the progeny of our imperial White House duo, I couldn’t help but laugh uproariously at the wacky Web site, “Is Webster Hubbell Chelsea Clinton’s Real Father?”
Further political news is the burgeoning candidacy of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, being touted as a quick sub for Gov. George W. Bush should the latter stumble in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. My reaction: You’ve got to be kidding! McCain’s snobbish removal from the Iowa straw poll in August should have been a warning sign that he is not in fact the “all-around good guy” that certain inside-the-Beltway reporters have been claiming.
The TV camera does not lie: Just as it showed from the get-go that ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was a nervous, shifty, sweaty, petulant mental adolescent, so has it exposed McCain over time as a seething nest of proto-fascist impulses. Despite his recent flurry of radiant, P.R.-coached grins, McCain has the weirdly wary and over-intense eyes of Howard Hughes and the clenched, humorless jaw line of Nurse Diesel (from Mel Brooks’ Hitchcock parody, “High Anxiety”). Alert, all good Republicans! Please produce a strong, credible nominee for president. Until you do, my own Democratic Party will go on spiraling downward in its accelerating ethical vertigo.
Items from the culture desk: In preparation for this fall’s Shakespeare course, which I teach in rotation at the University of the Arts, I’ve been reading and tremendously enjoying Park Honan’s “Shakespeare: A Life” (published in 1998 by Oxford University Press). Unlike the ham-handed New Historicists, Honan weaves literary and sociological issues with great deftness and precision. His portrait of Shakespeare as a reserved, cautious, rather conservative countryman feels exactly right and is a welcome corrective to Joseph Fiennes’ appallingly vulgar depiction of the poet as a silly goose in “Shakespeare in Love.”
I also heartily recommend Joy Behar’s hilarious new book, “Joy Shtick: or What Is the Existential Vacuum and Does It Come With Attachments?” (Hyperion). There’s a fiendish invented dialogue between me and Gloria Steinem (“Listen, you pillar of weltschmerz,” I tell Steinem, “Hugh Hefner is a saint”), but my favorite chapters are the imaginary interview with director Leni Riefenstahl (“Does the word Treblinka ring a bell?” Joy asks) and the illustrated travelogue, “Picnics in the Cemetery,” which accurately details the morbid Italian fondness for family outings in cemeteries.
The book also prints Joy’s now-classic flight on Catherine Deneuve’s Chanel No. 5 commercials (“Je Ne Regrette Rien”). It’s in the hip-intellectual style of the Mike Nichols-Elaine May sketches of nearly 40 years ago, a brilliantly ambitious mode of comedy that unfortunately passed from the scene after Steve Martin began to make rabbit ears out of sausage balloons.
Like me, Joy is an Italian-American attracted to the great tradition of Jewish comic discourse, which contains infinitely more truth about modern life than does foggy, froggy poststructuralism. Stand-up comedy after Lenny Bruce is a major art form, improvisatory at its best. On ABC’s “The View,” Joy has been pushing the limits of daytime TV, her deadpan voice cutting through the often chaotic hen party with exquisite timing and zinging one-liners that bring down the house. The perspicacious Joy has been doing genuinely radical work in what is still a stubbornly middlebrow medium. I’m a huge fan.
On the pop front, I’ve been reveling in the sensational photographs of Michael Douglas’ mercurial fiancee, Catherine Zeta-Jones, which have been featured for months in Hello magazine (the glossy British bible of “Absolutely Fabulous”). American magazines, with their stilted portrait shots, have not done Zeta-Jones justice. The luminous color printing of Hello (whose parent publication is Spain’s !Hola!) gives the stylish Welsh actress an Ingres-like amplitude and Mediterranean lushness. What a treat for tired eyes she is, after the endless images of armadillo-jawed Gwyneth Paltrow and her pedestrian army of fellow ingenues, like margarine-browed, ox-hoofed Renie Zellweger.
Finally, the recent repeat TV airings of “Titanic” have enraged me anew about the injustice done to Kate Winslet, who deserved the Oscar for her emotional bravura and physical fortitude in that film. The tense footage of Winslet carrying an ax as she fights her way through the cold flood of seawater in a dusky corridor will be one of the few canonical moments of 1990s cinema, equal to cigarette-flaunting, leg-crossing Sharon Stone’s flouting of the police from her interrogation throne in “Basic Instinct.”
Retchingly vanilla Helen Hunt, who walked off with Winslet’s Oscar, goes on piling up undeserved awards, as at last week’s Emmys. But a quarter century from now, when people are still admiring Winslet in “Titanic,” no one will remember who the hell Helen Hunt was. Hollywood, get your priorities straight: Please reward artistic merit, not popularity in your chummy entertainment elite.
Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems." You can write her at this address.More Camille Paglia.
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)