"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)
Top 40 radio used to be a big tent. Not big enough to include Captain Beefheart, but still, it was a hell of a lot more eclectic than today’s specialized air play menus. Happily, bookstores are unaffected by this stultifying trend — you can re-create that bygone musical banquet with judiciously selected celebrity bios.
New this week on the “Can’t-we-all-just-get-along” playlist: rapper Snoop Dogg’s autobiography, “Tha Doggfather,” and Ace Collins’ unofficial quickie, “All About the Dixie Chicks.” You might call the Dixie Chicks country music’s answer to the Spice Girls. Country-bio hack Collins (“Pam Tillis: Out of Her Father’s Shadow”; “The Tanya Tucker Story”) just calls them swell.
You might call Snoop Dogg the same thing he calls himself, but you’d better not unless you’re a) black, or b) not planning to testify at any future O.J. trials. Suffice it to say that the audio version of “Tha Doggfather” ought to be read by Mark Fuhrman. “Truth comes in many disguises,” claims Snoop, “even a skinny nigger with braids from the east side of Long Beach, California … I just tell the truth and let you motherfuckers sort it out for yourselves.”
Dixie Chick Emily Erwin pretty much agrees. “Our clothes are just another way to express ourselves,” she says.
Cordazar Broadus, aka Calvin Broadus, aka Snoop, came from the ‘hood, and he’s proud of it. “I never thought of my hometown as a place I had to escape from,” says Tha Doggfather. “I’m part of it, and it’s part of me.”
The sisters who make up two-thirds of the Dixie Chicks, Martie and Emily Erwin, are from Dallas, and chances are they’re proud too. Who wouldn’t be? Dallas, Collins reveals, is “Famous worldwide as the home of television’s Ewing family.”
Right away, the different approach taken in these volumes asserts itself. Snoop Dogg, with help from ghostwriter Davin Seay, tells his own story: “The family I came up in, the homies I ran with, the secrets I kept and the lessons I learned.”
Collins, on the other hand, is not a member of the Dixie Chicks. In fact, it’s not clear that he’s ever met the Dixie Chicks. He tells of the interviews they’ve given, the records they’ve released, the thank-yous they’ve written in liner notes. Plus a lot about Barbara Mandrell. Collins really likes Barbara Mandrell. Dedicates the book to her, even. “Like Martie and Emily … Barbara Mandrell was a child prodigy who came from a musical family … When she first arrived in Nashville — Music City — at the age of 20 in 1968, Mandrell didn’t look like the revolutionary leader who would fire the first shot in a war that would open a huge musical door for female country acts.”
Yes, revolution was in the air in the early ’80s, with Barbara “Che” Mandrell on NBC and Ronald Reagan in Washington. “You got the L.A. riots with Reginald Denny and Rodney King and all the other shit that comes down when a society gets sick in its soul,” Snoop reflects. “And there’s more than enough blame to go around. Sure enough, Ronald Reagan was an asshole who didn’t give a fuck about the poor black man … But what about the brothers themselves? None of them ever want to cop to the hard truth that it wasn’t some politician that burned down the ghetto, got all the bitches pregnant and all the youngsters hooked on crack.”
So the parallel destinies of these musical superstars take shape. The young Erwin sisters take violin lessons that will eventually help them score in a country trio. Snoop Dogg loses his virginity as part of a threesome. The Erwin girls join a group called Blue Night Express, playing bluegrass. Young Snoop joins a group called the Rolling 20 Crips, snatching purses. (Remember, Snoop lacked the Erwin sisters’ formal musical training.)
If there is a key element that distinguishes the Dixie Chicks’ career from that of Snoop Dogg, it’s probably the lack of street-corner crack dealing. Even here, though, the parallels exist. For it was on the mean streets of Dallas that the Dixie Chicks — at the time a quartet — played their first public gig, busking for passersby. They made $375 in a single hour. Out in Long Beach, Snoop’s grosses were similar. Although he never does mention the Dixie Chicks by name (and in fact, “chicks” would not likely be the word he would use), it’s clear that Snoop thinks they were on the same road even then. “I can’t think of a better way to get into training for the music business than to be selling dope on a street corner in broad daylight,” Snoop attests, “unless it would be selling your ass like a whore out of the back seat of a car.”
Words of warning for the Dixie Chicks to heed. And in fact they, like Snoop, would experience many setbacks on the road to fame. Whereas the rapper’s dues-paying would consist largely of jail time, the Chicks would merely be trapped in that big prison called Texas. From their beginnings on the bluegrass scene and their debut album “Thank Heavens for Dale Evans,” the Dixie Chicks gained a loyal following for their traditional, rootsy sound, often compared to outfits like Riders in the Sky. But as their self-appointed chronicler frequently admonishes, that roots crap is never going to make you rich. “Most music critics now believe,” Collins writes, “that the Dixie Chicks probably would have moved easily toward the musical center if not for Robin Lynn Macy.” The group’s original lead singer, Macy is the villain who stands in the way of the Chicks’ destiny: “She didn’t really care as much for what Nashville wanted or the country radio stations played as she did about keeping her vision of the group and the sound pure and untarnished by commercialism,” Collins writes. If platinum blond success was ever to be achieved, those dark, nasty roots had to go. Macy was out.
Later in his own history Snoop, too, must distance himself from a collaborator to set a different course. Having left jail behind and hooked up with master producer Dr. Dre on hit records like the single “Deep Cover” and Dre’s album “The Chronic,” Snoop Dogg found himself on the roster of Death Row Records, run by Dre and the intimidating gangbanger named Suge Knight. “I was always proud to be part of a record label that was as successful and influential as Death Row, from a creative point of view,” Snoop says. “But when it came to extortion and assault and hanging people out of windows to get them to sign over their publishing … that kind of shit I’d just stay the fuck away from.”
Politics and show business are inseparable these days, as both of these books demonstrate. Even before their recent breakthrough, the Dixie Chicks proved remarkably popular with presidents, vice presidents and presidential candidates. They’ve played for Bush (Sr.), Clinton and veep Al Gore, and even at a fund-raiser for candidate Ross Perot.
Snoop hasn’t. But candidates looking for stump-speech material with a little street cred would do well to bypass the Dixie Chicks bio and head straight to “Tha Doggfather.” Naturally, Snoop Dogg’s philosophy would appeal only to certain presidential hopefuls. Pat Buchanan comes to mind. In a particularly entertaining passage, Dogg explains how he first came to realize white people couldn’t be trusted. When rich white kids invited him home to play video games, he’d slip away to other rooms to steal watches, crystal or whatever he could grab. “And none of those white folks ever said a word about it. My opinion of whites took shape around those experiences, and what got hold of me was believing that you had to be careful around assholes like that … You’ve got to be stupid to hang around with stupid people, and I’ll tell you one thing, free of charge: If I owned a big fine house on the hill full of Gameboys and goat cheese hamburgers and crystal figurines, I sure as shit wouldn’t let some little nigger kid from Long Beach have the run of the place without a full cavity search at the end of the day.”
“White is white and black is black and I figure God must have made us different for a reason,” states Snoop Dogg, future Republican candidate. “Word: I’m not saying the races don’t have a common human bond. I’m just saying that bond isn’t about compassion and equality and tolerance. What we all share together is the drive to get what’s ours and keep it as long as we can.”
Still, everything that rises must converge, and these days black Snoop and the white Chicks are part of the same big megastar aristocracy. The DCs got there after discarding yet another member, Laura Lynch, in favor of the younger, blonder, hipper Natalie Mains. Thus reconstituted, the Dixie Chicks were ready for Nashville’s official blessing, and their “Wide Open Spaces” sold millions and won station-wagon loads of little statuettes.
Snoop Dogg hit the top with his first solo album “Doggystyle,” but his royal procession still had a major pothole ahead of it — namely, a minor-league gangbanger who called himself Little Smooth and was intent on making a name for himself at the now-famous rapper’s expense. A showdown with Snoop’s bodyguard puts an end to that, and it’s back to court for our hero, this time on a murder charge. The trial drags on, Snoop meets Johnnie Cochran (who is defending a pal), and is found not guilty.
There’s really nothing comparable in “All About the Dixie Chicks” (although one of them does have a dance with President Clinton). In fact, if you can only purchase one of these biographies, there’s really no question about which one gives you more gangbang for your buck. “Tha Doggfather” is the clear winner for action, adventure, sex and even religion. Especially religion. (“We’re all sinners, God says, and I always believe what God tells me. Because he’s God.”)
As for philosophy, Snoop is all for it, asking himself: “Where did I come from? Why am I here? What was here before me? That kind of shit …”
And his personal credo: “Increase the peace. Spread the music. Elevate and educate. Word: it starts with you and me.”
Or, as Ace Collins puts it: “Chick Power is a great thing!”
Isn’t it all the same in the end? Don’t answer that, Snoop.
Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.More Steve Burgess.
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)