"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)
Brilliant Careers: Elvis Costello
BY BILL WYMAN
Bill Wyman’s piece on Elvis Costello is typical of the treatment Costello
has received from rock critics over the past 10 years; once the electric
guitar and the snide putdown ceased to be the focus of his work, their
adoration turned to ridicule. Costello’s ambition and sophistication should
be welcomed as relief from the witless, one-dimensional rubbish that passes
for popular music in 1999, but instead the media has cast him as a poseur
and has-been. The prevailing critical wisdom that rock ‘n’ roll must be
loud, simple and angry has consistently discouraged the kind of stylistic
experimentation that would keep rock alive as an art form. Wasn’t rock ‘n’
roll about freedom once? It has now become the most conservative music there
is, and that’s why Elvis Costello has outgrown it.
– Neil Oliver
Bill Wyman’s brief emotional sketch of Elvis Costello’s career was quite on
target. Most music of the ’70s forgot that music is more than an outlet for
hedonistic impulses (I can still hear those Giorgio Moroder synthesizers
imploring me to dance, dance, dance). Rock was supposed to be about
rebellion, whether real or not.
Costello and the punksters gave new life to the rapidly dying medium called rock
music. To this day I can feel Elvis Costello’s rage as he sang, “I want to
bite the hand that feeds me” in “Radio, Radio.” That rage can never be
captured again. Costello was more than brilliance, more than a shining moment
in rock history — he was a savior just when we needed one.
– Robert Salti
Bill Wyman loses interest in Elvis Costello midway through Costello’s
career and somehow that’s a betrayal on Costello’s part? Bill, he’s not
dating you, he’s just writing and playing music in close enough
proximity to you that you can hear it. Try not to take it so
Elvis isn’t the 23-year-old punk prodigy he used to be. We all have to grow old; the worst thing is to pretend
we don’t. We should be thankful that Costello is, unlike some in the rock pantheon Wyman mentions, growing,
not just getting, old. Each Costello album, even the ones Costello himself dislikes, contains
at least a few pieces of brilliant songwriting that put him head and
shoulders above so many of his contemporaries and others putting out
music today. The songs on “Trust” are meaningless, you say?
Compared to what?
As long as we are overanalyzing Elvis Costello’s music instead of just
enjoying it, it’s worth pointing out that Costello has been one of the
most consistent male voices addressing gender issues with any sort of
complexity. It was clear to anyone who really listened that all those
scabs picked over in the first few albums were from self-inflicted
wounds. His nerd pose was a reaction against the overstuffed,
overripe testosterock of the ’70s. And his song “Why Can’t a Man
Stand Alone” (from “All This Useless Beauty”) is one of the most
poignant commentaries on the subject ever set to music.
As for Costello turning up at the Fleadh and Woodstock, he is, you know,
a performer. Sometimes performers like audiences. So sue them.
– Jeff Hagan
Although I’m his contemporary, I’m not “in the punk generation,” as Bill
Wyman is, and so can appreciate Elvis Costello from a far different, and
perhaps more rewarding, perspective. I cherish Costello’s work as
music, often exceptional music, and I’ve found a rare pleasure in
hearing his work age just as I have, expressing views that are in tune
with my own sympathies which change and mature through the erosion of
time and experience. “This Year’s Model” was the perfect record for my
high school years, just as “All This Useless Beauty” and “Painted From
Memory” fit with the life and concerns I find myself with 20 years later.
Wyman seems trapped in a place that I find so many other music critics
in — the past. Whether it’s a 60′s-era
oldies tour, or a Sex Pistols reunion, stasis is stasis. While
looking at pop from an avowed punk perspective can be interesting, it
limits the quality of the criticism. Wyman actually lodges a
complaint that is essentially hypocritical — that Costello dared to
change, to realize that the punk era, like the ’60s, is dead and gone.
His attitudes, ideas and music changed, and, contrary to Wyman’s
assertions, that was always reflected honestly in his work — which is why
he took chances with things like “The Juiet Letters.” I say
that’s to Costello’s great credit.
– George Grella
NBC strikes slur from “Will and Grace”
While I fervently believe in respect for everyone — regardless of sex,
color, race or creed — I also believe in equal opportunity insults. Get a
grip: “Will and Grace” is a sitcom, not a social commentary. While I don’t think that
calling a Latina a “tamale” is funny, I also don’t think the network should
cave under minority pressure. Shame on NBC: They should address their feelings of guilt
for lack of ethnic diversity by adding it, not by editing out a word.
– Sandra Smith
Let me get this straight. Hispanics are offended because a female is
called a “tamale” — but they’re OK with the fact that the female is
stereotypically cast as a Salvadoran maid? And they don’t find the
substitute word, “honey,” to be any more demeaning? And the
overwhelmingly Catholic (and homophobic) Hispanic interest group is
otherwise OK with the general concept of “Will & Grace”?
These folks have way too much time on their hands.
– Rich Karakis
School’s out for Eid
BY MICHAEL KRESS
The debate over school closure should be a no-brainer. Forget
percentages, absenteeism: Cancel all religious-based
school closures and farm community harvest-based closures.
Instead, establish year-round school with two-week seasonal and one-day national holiday breaks. In addition, each child should be given five free-choice days per year to use as their parents desire, either for religious or family celebrations.
The breaks should be nationally standardized as follows: summer, fall, winter, spring,
July 4, a “famous Americans” day and Memorial Day. That’s it, end of discussion. It is not the responsibility of public schools to accommodate religious or any other private requirements. Religion
is a personal responsibility and if parents wish to have their children’s
academic atmosphere cater to their personal religious beliefs, they should
send their children to private, religious schools.
We as a nation and as part of the larger global community have more
intensely serious problems to address — inner city, rural, and third-world
poverty, lack of national health care, illiteracy, violence, etc. To waste time and serious debate on when schools should and should not close is silly.
Let’s quit focusing on how religiously, sexually, racially,
intellectually, politically and ancestrally unique we are, and concentrate on
our similarities. Let us work toward a consensus of the serious problems
concerning all of us and unite to achieve our common goals.
– Beverly Hill van Joolen
Michael Kress almost gets it, but not quite. Especially given the history of conflict over the last 100 years between Protestants and first Catholics, then Jews (which Kress recites), it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that we cannot forever rely on stripping down religious beliefs and practices to more and more fundamental assumptions in order to accommodate people of other religious backgrounds. It was convenient that congregationalists could expand their scope of worship to find commonality with the larger Protestant community; that Protestants could ultimately look at Catholics and see them as other Christians, and that Christians could look at Jews and see them as part of a mythical “Judeo-Christian” tradition. And I suppose those in the “Judeo-Christian community” can still slide for a few more years on the principle that, like Muslims, they are all “monotheistic” people of “the book.”
Ultimately, however, Christian (and Jewish) Americans are going to have to face the fact that we do not all ultimately believe in the same fundamental truths; we don’t all simply worship the same god by different names. The answer, as wise people — including those who drafted and have interpreted the First Amendment for many years — seem to recognize, is that religious practices and teachings must work their way out of public, shared communal American life and find a comfortable place in private homes and places of worship. There just aren’t enough days in the calendar to give everyone his token holiday. And even if there were, such a plan will never be fair to non-Christians if we start by assuming that, of course, schools will still have to close on Good Friday, Sunday and Christmas.
I also don’t want my state or local school administration deciding, from its parochial Christian perspective, which Hindu, Muslim or Sikh holidays rank in importance with Christmas, Easter and Yom Kippur for special treatment, or which religious pageants are acceptable enough to Christian sensibilities to be played out at school assemblies. Let’s find a way for newer Americans from non-Christian traditions to find freedom from religious tyranny without simply carving up little pieces of tyranny for everyone to share.
– John M. Hartenstein
Public schools closing for Jewish holidays? Call
me a naive Californian, but I had no idea such
things ever happened anywhere in the United States.
Michael Kress’ article touches on some interesting
issues relating to religious pluralism in American
schools, but I think that he overestimates the extent
to which Judaism has become “mainstream” in American
culture. Outside of the large urban centers of the
Northeast and Midwest, lip service is paid to “the
Judeo-Christian tradition,” but in my experience this
often results in a Christianization of Judaism. I’ve
lost count of the number of people to whom I’ve explained that Chanukah is a minor Jewish holiday whose
importance has become inflated due to its proximity
to Christmas. This year the company I work for
unwittingly scheduled a company picnic for Rosh Hashanah.
(How did this happen? Simple. The people who were
planning the picnic had never heard of the holiday.)
The controversy over schools closing for the holidays
of various religions covers over a deeper problem:
the abiding ignorance of non-Christian religious practices, and the smug assumption that Christian holidays
and traditions are universal and “American” in a way
that the traditions of other religions are not.
– Janet Lafler
As a family that is a “religious minority,” we struggle with this issue every year. It strikes
me as blatantly biased that Christians get all their holidays off while
others have to request special arrangements for their children. The nation
has to work out a system that is more equitable.
– Dawn Franks
There certainly would be a problem if schools closed for EVERY religious
observance. I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I read
about the ACLU suing some school district or other for constitutional
violations. The absentee criterion for closing a school seems reasonable to
me, and then lowering it a few percentage points also does not appear to be a
violation of anyone’s rights.
I would like to see the school district in Ohio meet with the Muslim,
Buddhist and Hindu (and any other) families and come to some kind of
agreement with them. I hate seeing everything debated in a courtroom. It is
beginning to appear that the last place that we can find justice is in our
– Chris Dugopolski
Reformers from hell
BY JOE CONASON
It’s not surprising that the Reform Party should have four
weirdos as its most prominent leaders. Third parties have a way of
attracting the vote of whatever group of Americans most feels
disenfranchised. So it makes sense that we should have two billionaires,
a wrestler and a newspaper pundit as our lead reformers. Note that there are
more outsiders in this presidential race, both Hollywood actors. (But as
Ronald Reagan demonstrated, an actor gets some valuable training for
being a president: He or she learns to play a role and feign
Meanwhile, someone has to come up with a
mascot for this Reform Party, comparable to the GOP’s elephant and the
Democrats’ donkey. My idea is that the Reformers’ newspaper alter ego
should be one of those mythical beasts made up of parts of ordinary people and animals. We have Pan, with his goat legs and his pipes; the Chimera, with the head of a lion, the
body of a goat, and the tail of a snake; and the eagle-winged and -headed
lion known as the Griffin, not to mention the snake-haired Gorgons,
winged-horse Pegasus and the centaurs.
– Fred Dawson
Joe Conason’s article concerning third parties is incomplete. It only
discusses the radical and dysfunctional Reform Party, and never
mentions the Libertarians, who represent a platform for the return to the
way the government was intended by the founding fathers — small
administratively and unobtrusive. They are also standing up for fair taxes throughout America. We need third parties and individual candidates to have a wider selection and to keep
the other parties in line with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
– Keith Lehman
An honorable murderer?
BY NAN GOLDBERG
So Alan Dershowitz believes that “it would have been better for
Germany to have become communist than to reward it by rebuilding it so
quickly after the war”? Perhaps he forgets that one part of Germany did
become communist after the war — remember East Germany, taken over by the
Soviets? They helped rebuild, too — albeit less efficiently than the
English, French and Americans.
And guess what happened: East Germans now have a greater problem with
neo-Nazism than their West German brethren. If Dershowitz doubts
that this is so, let him read Ingo Hasselbach’s autobiography,
“Fuehrer-Ex,” which details just how rebellious the communist takeover
left East Germany’s disaffected youth in the 1970s and ’80s, and how the
problem exploded after the Berlin Wall came down and the golden promise
of capitalism also failed.
Hasselbach certainly doesn’t conceal his contempt for the two systems,
Nazi and communist, that let him and his comrades down. And while his
book is not an easy or a comforting read, it is a highly instructive
one. It shows in the most graphic terms how political collapse fosters,
rather than corrects, the very corruption that it was supposed to
Atonement for the Holocaust is impossible, and the sooner we all realize
this, the better. We can hunt down old war criminals and imprison or
execute them, but this will do nothing to eradicate Nazism at its root.
The best thing we can do is remember, and educate, and encourage the
young to consider the moral implications of history for themselves.
Germany is striving to do just that. The scenes of the most infamous
concentration camps have been made into museums, and their exhibits are
the most graphic and disturbing in the world. German youth volunteers
help to maintain them in a condition as close to their original state as
possible. There is a Holocaust memorial monument in the works, and the
precise form it will take is being debated in painstaking detail. None
of this would have been possible if the Allies had not agreed to help
rebuild the country.
Is this plan working? It certainly seems to be. In a report on a German satellite channel, schoolchildren were learning about the Holocaust, and they took up the subject with enthusiasm. For decades after the war, according to the report, German public schools refused to
teach this piece of history, not because of residual Nazism but because
no one knew how the kids would take it, or whether they would
understand. But, amazingly, not only do the children understand better
than anyone had hoped, they are eager to help prevent those atrocities
from ever happening again. It would be unfair to punish these children
for the sins of their parents and grandparents, most of whom literally
had no choice but to go along or be killed. Education is doing more for their moral growth than
punishment ever could.
Just imagine if that had been done right away after the war, under the
aegis of the Allies, as part of the rebuilding Dershowitz thinks is
only a reward for Nazism! Ingo Hasselbach and his neo-Nazi
contemporaries, who were “punished” by communism, might have turned out
very differently. The rebuilding of Germany was not a “reward” — it was
reform. If Dershowitz is still unconvinced, let him visit
East Germany and ask around in any economically depressed town about the
neo-Nazi problem. He should get an earful.
– Sabina C. Becker
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)