"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)
About five years ago, before it was so easy to make big bucks writing for the World Wide Web, I had a near-miss experience with advertorial. A large tobacco company hired me to “consult” with them about a magazine for men they were planning. A magazine for real men, the kind who like to smoke. They had already shopped a prototype to focus groups of men who smoked one of their manly brands of cigarettes. All I had to do was create something along the lines of the dummy magazine they had created.
The dummy had no stories, mind you. Maybe a headline or two — “On the Road,” or “When Blues Get Hot” — and all the photos were from stock. Guys in pickups, hoisting tallboys. Guys in pool halls, sizing up the kind of sultry, tight-jeaned babes you only see in beer commercials. Guys rafting, surfing, biking and, oh yeah, smoking. The text was dummy text — “loeahkh fenasnmn xzoehrnl” and words to that effect — and there were no ads. They didn’t need them. The whole magazine was an ad.
I left before that magazine became a reality (and before Satan took my soul) but about two years later I saw something very similar. It was called Maxim and it had been transplanted from the U.K. where it and its brethren — known as “lad mags” there — were doing quite nicely. The United States followed suit and by May of this year the American Maxim had over 100 ad pages per issue.
The product of Dennis Publishing (whose owner, Felix Dennis, once appointed a hamster as interim editor, figuring it could choose photos of chicks as well as the next fellow), Maxim followed a simple formula. Lots of pictures of scantily clad women busting out of underwear and lingerie, accompanied by slim articles about the women (often models, B-movie or cable TV actresses). Consumer stories about tools and toys. And guy tales of sex — getting some, getting none, bad dates, a-funny-thing-happened-while-I-was-fucking-this-chick stories. Mike Soutar, the editor of U.K. lad mag FHM, attributed Maxim’s success here to the aridness of its competitors. “It’s like the first person in the desert with water,” he said, though he may have meant milk. Maxim, it turned out, was Latin for “big tits.”
This did not win it respect among the other men’s magazines. “That whole magazine is aimed at losers,” Art Cooper, editor of GQ, snarled. “Their advertising is beer, underwear and condoms. I always wonder why there is so much condom advertising because their readers are all masturbators.”
You may recall that Onan’s sin was spilling his seed on the ground, so perhaps the readers are sanctimonious masturbators, but no matter. No one argues with success, and soon all of the men’s mags were paying respect to Maxim with the sincerest form of flattery. Suddenly, big-breasted babes were jumping out of every men’s magazine you could find. The competing editors expressed surprise when the trend was noted, of course; they spat when the name Maxim was uttered and denied dumbing down to fit the Maxim model. But the pressure was on. As Maxim’s readership grew — the thing boasted a circulation of over a million — the others seemed to stagnate. GQ was hovering in the 800,000 range, Esquire was about 600,000 — only Men’s Health, which has done more to fetishize the male body than anything since “Scorpio Rising,” bested it, with an estimated 1.6 million copies sold in May.
Condi Nast decided that it would steal away Maxim’s canny editor, Mark Golin. After months of denying that changes were afoot, the company tapped Golin for the job of editor at the languishing Details (though the announcement was made in March, he was bound by his Maxim contract until this summer), sending editor Michael Caruso packing. Maxim brought in the aforementioned Mike Soutar, onetime editor of FHM (formerly For Him Magazine). The great sucking sound continues across the Atlantic, leaving us to wonder: Who will edit Britain’s trashy glossies? Suddenly Art Cooper had to face bumping into the man he once called a one-trick pony in the new Condi Nast building and Mike Soutar had to learn to call a lift an elevator.
But a funny thing happened since those hirings and firings: The lad mags began tanking. As reported in the New York Times earlier this month, FHM’s circulation declined almost 10 percent from June 1998 to June 1999. It’s now about 700,000. (Circulation had grown over 50 percent in the previous year.) And Loaded, another laddie, was in even worse straits, dropping almost 15 percent in circulation. Even Maxim U.K. felt the sting, dropping 3 percent of its circulation where it had risen by over 60 percent the year before.
Now come the October issues of Details and Maxim by new editors Golin and Soutar, respectively. These are the first that they fully had their hands on, and the question is raised: Are they too late? Has the moment for a suds-and-buds revolution already passed? Is the fall-off in interest in lad mags in the U.K. a portent of things to come here? Or will it fail to translate, sort of like Mr. Bean?
Those who had the long knives out for Golin’s first issue of Details will be disappointed to find no radical departure as yet. Ever since Si Newhouse bought the downtown publication from Annie Flanders 10 years ago, Details has struggled for an identity. Some Condi Nasties like to point to James Truman’s tenure as editor in chief in the early ’90s as a sort of golden age for the monthly, though truth to tell, it was a little wobbly coming out of the gate. An odd mix of harsh reality (photos of a just-executed prisoner and a purportedly tortured lab monkey) ran side by side with music and movie coverage and photo spreads of fine young cannibals in sharkskin suits.
Within a year or so it had found its niche and its audience, though this was seemingly accomplished by putting Christian Slater on the cover of every other issue. The trajectory of the actor’s career mirrors, perhaps, the success of the early Details formula. Truman left to become editorial director of Condi Nast and a succession of editors tried to duplicate his success with decidedly mixed results in the eight years since.
Golin makes a nod to the magazine’s checkered past in his initial editor’s note, ID’ing himself as “#5-in-Chief” (as in fifth editor and leave your hat on). It’s a cheeky move, the first of many, and it’s plain he wants humor to be paramount in Details. How funny you actually find it will depend on your taste (and perhaps your age). Questions of male identity haunt even the fluffiest pieces. A colorful spread featuring cereal boxes from around the world notes that Russia’s Grech “bills itself as ‘a real breakfast for real men,’ [though] a photo on the back of the box shows a father sweetly playing with his child. Hmmm.”
Meaning real men don’t play with their children? Or play with them “sweetly”? Susan Faludi could have a field day with this stuff — and, in fact does, writing about the plight of Details and the Maxim influence in her new book on men, “Stiffed.” More troubling are some of the columns that seem edited into oblivion. Golin worked under Bonnie Fuller, formerly of Cosmo and now at Glamour, and her style of strip-mining copy (no big words, little background, no math) seems to have stuck with him. (In the interest of disclosure let me say that my wife worked at Glamour before Fuller and left after her arrival.) A column by Stephanie Dolgoff (the next Anka?) describes her attempts to find a guy to experiment with her using “a Viagra-like cream” for women. Would naming the cream be so hard? And a column by actor Bruce McCulloch (essentially a long promo for his new movie, “Dog Park,” which he directed and stars in) refers to Kids in the Hall without first establishing he had been in the Canadian comedy troupe. Careless editing, or a deliberate assumption on the new editor’s part that readers don’t want to be slowed down by, well, details, no matter how salient?
There are meatier pieces, including a hair-raising feature on hepatitis C in Hollywood and another on the difficulties of selling a house someone was murdered in. And “50 Things We Learned from the Movies” (“In France a Quarter Pounder is called a Royale with cheese,” and so on) is exactly the kind of trivia fest some young readers crave, all in short, bite-sized bits. Whether these were in the works when Golin came and represent the old Details or this is the kind of mix he’s looking for remains to be seen. The much vaunted redesign (courtesy Rhonda Rubinstein) doesn’t seem that radical, though the features are more distinctive (a big bonus for those of us who look at so many magazines that we don’t want to need a map to find the editorial). The tagline “For Men” has been restored to the cover, just in case there was any doubt. And despite the cover, featuring Milla Jovovich in a see-through slip, you’ll find precious little cleavage in this issue.
Which you certainly can’t say about the October Maxim. From the nearly-nude Melissa Joan Hart on the cover (who sprawls provocatively over an eight-page photo feature/interview inside) to the panty-wrestling Jaime Pressly and Tia Carrere (together in their undies for the first time!) to the pictures of Alison Armitage in her see-through underpants (she’s the star of “Acapulco H.E.A.T” and, no, I’d never heard of it either), Maxim knows what its boys like. Columns are sensationalistic (the dangers of pro-sports betting) and the regular service section (entitled “Grinder Torture Test”) is downright manic. Chainsaws are tested on sides of beef and sofas in the October issue, while hiking boots are offered to a Rottweiler named Bruno for the chomp test.
The overall effect is like Argosy on acid. That may be just what Brit-import Soutar is looking for. It’s hard to take the whole thing seriously (and it would certainly be a mistake to), but no one’s ever going to confuse it with GQ. “The phrase we came up with is, ‘Maxim is the magazine that says it’s OK to be a guy,’” Soutar told the Los Angeles Times in May. He’s hired Steve Perrine (late of Men’s Health) and Steve Kaminsky (Men’s Journal) to make it American. (Are chain saws even legal in the U.K.?)
A lot of the writing seems clichid and amateurish to me but that too may improve. When asked about the decline of the lads’ mags, Soutar called it “a timely reminder that we need to keep evolving,” and perhaps that evolution will include better stories. (The big investigative piece here concerns the death of a member of Iron Butterfly.) The problem with editing either of these magazines is identifying the audience and then keeping it. According to Soutar, the dilemma of males in their 20s is “when part of you wants to settle down and get a mortgage but part of you thinks your mates are more important and you want to shag anything that moves.” That’s a tough one, OK. But when your days of shagging anything are through, what are you going to read?
It may just be that magazines like Maxim and Details will have an ever-changing readership, with new lads rising to replace the old. Like the brides-to-be who start picking up Brides and the new parents who subscribe to Parenting for a few years, their audiences may be more ephemeral than the titles themselves.
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Dining Out on Rupert
In his review Wednesday of the midtown Manhattan restaurant Beacon, New York Post food critic Steve Cuozzo wrote, “A high-ranking New York magazine editor, at the banquette next to me at Beacon, is comparing the corporate cultures of two media giants: It’s like Jeane Kirkpatrick said: Time Warner is authoritarian, but Disney is totalitarian.”
Call it shoddy note-taking, selective listening or plain old censorship but that New York magazine editor was a guest of mine at that lunch and I happened to be taping him. What he really said was, “It’s like Jeane Kirkpatrick’s distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian governments. Rupert Murdoch and Time Warner are authoritarian — loyalty, blah blah blah. But Disney is totalitarian. Everything has to serve the prime directive …”
Does the exclusion of Murdoch’s name have anything to do with his owning the Post? What an authoritarian concept.
Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.More Sean Elder.
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)