"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)
It’s a testament to Michael Lewis’ achievement as a chronicler of Wall Street that no matter how much and how incisively he writes, the single phrase that will always follow him will undoubtedly be Big Swinging Dick. Anyone who has read his first book, “Liar’s Poker,” will recall Lewis’ appellation for the cowboys who pulled in the big bucks on the Street in the junk bond-besotted ’80s.
In his preface to “The New New Thing,” his new book about Silicon Valley, Lewis calls his tale “an old-fashioned adventure story.” He’s right, of course (why shouldn’t he be? It’s his book), but there’s more to it than that. “The New New Thing” is an old-fashioned adventure story with the old-fashioned arc of a Bildungsroman — a biographical novel. The biography is of Jim Clark, a onetime professor of computer science who came to Silicon Valley, started three companies — Silicon Graphics, Netscape and Healtheon — and became a billionaire. A simpler way of putting it, though, is that “The New New Thing” is the story of how Jim Clark became Silicon Valley’s Biggest Swinging Dick.
Like all Lewis’ writing, “The New New Thing” is funny. It is funny in a wry, carefully observed way — “Gibagibagibagiba,” babbles a baby unfortunately brought to a gathering of investment bankers. It is funny also in a slashing, profane way: “Clark’s friends who did not know Ed McCracken,” writes Lewis of Clark’s early nemesis, “came to believe the man’s name was Fucking Ed McCracken.” Yet what makes “The New New Thing” an exceptional book is not how funny it is, but how closely it sticks to a mission of investigating the mythic properties of Clark’s singularly mercurial character.
Books about the culture of Silicon Valley have proliferated in the last year. Some, like David Kaplan’s “The Silicon Boys” or Joshua Quittner and Michella Slatalla’s book about Netscape, “Speeding the Net,” have touched on the same themes, and even the same characters. The difference between Lewis’ book and the others is that, put bluntly, “The New New Thing” is a lot less about Silicon Valley than it is about a greater and much more ambitious theme — the clash between the two cultural archetypes that drive our economy. You can call this clash the showdown between the farmer and the locust.
The farmer and the locust are my words, not Lewis’, but they seem to me to capture the starkness of Lewis’ vision. In his view of the world, there are very few farmers and a lot of locusts. The farmers of Silicon Valley are the scientists, engineers and programmers who come up with the technologies that make the next big thing. They are the ones who design the machines and write the code. They are stubborn, impossible to manage, contemptuous of the traditional mores of American business and intermittently brilliant.
The locusts are everybody else. The Big Swinging Dicks of Wall Street. The venture capitalists with their term sheets, their valuations, their craven battles to get into the next hot deals. The company psychologists and middle managers. The Serious American Executives — especially the Serious American Executives. Or maybe, on second thought, especially the glorified money managers of the banks and venture capital firms.
The farmers, as you’ve probably guessed, come up with the goods. The locusts grab the rewards. “The New New Thing” is about how Clark, an engineer, learned to think like a very powerful locust and chased the other locusts off the field.
Clark’s Silicon Valley odyssey starts in 1978. Dismissed from a teaching job at the New York Institute of Technology for “insubordination,” 38 years old and newly divorced, Clark winds up at Stanford, designing a groundbreaking microchip, which he calls the “Geometry Engine.” The Geometry Engine leads to a computer and (with funding from one of Silicon Valley’s more prestigious investors, the Mayfield Fund) a company, Silicon Graphics (now known simply as SGI).
Silicon Graphics quickly becomes the hottest company in Silicon Valley, attracting its best technical talent and developing its coolest machines. And for his efforts, Clark winds up with well, not diddly, but an awful lot less than he’d bargained for. It wasn’t just the money; Clark had effectively ceded control of the company to the money managers. They, in turn, had brought in a Serious American Executive (“Fucking Ed McCracken”) to run his company. McCracken, who brought in corporate shrinks to reform the unruly engineers, naturally wound up running Silicon Graphics more or less into the ground.
From early in the history of Silicon Graphics, Clark figures out that there’s something wrong with the picture. Writes Lewis:
It didn’t take long for Clark to become deeply irritated by the rules of American capitalism. In his opinion, the game was rigged so that the people who really mattered got the shaft. He believed in his bones that the people who really mattered most were the engineers: the chefs who cooked up new recipes. This opinion was hardly surprising; he was one of them. What he did with that opinion, however, was astonishing. He forced it down Silicon Valley’s throat.
Out of the crucible of Silicon Graphics rises a new Jim Clark, the Jim Clark who won’t be screwed over again. In 1994, Clark walked away from Silicon Graphics to start still another company, Netscape.
Here the narrative of Clark’s life takes a manic turn. Clark’s life before 1978 is a mystery. He does not want to discuss it; the little information that Lewis gleans comes from interviews with his family and a big crate of old papers. From 1978 to 1994, Clark is involved with one company, Silicon Graphics. By 1994 he is a multimillionaire, but still very far from his first billion.
Then in 1994, Netscape. The story of Netscape has been told so many times that Lewis wisely chooses to talk about it as little as possible. Suffice it to say that Netscape is the platform for Clark’s revenge. This time the money managers get to invest in it only on his terms. Glenn Mueller, the Mayfield partner who had backed Clark in Silicon Graphics, get brusquely turned down — and promptly kills himself. In 1996, famously, Netscape goes public — in the most successful public offering in anyone’s memory.
Boom! Netscape started! Boom! Clark is a billionaire! Boom! It’s on to Clark’s next company, Healtheon. With every new venture it is as if Clark, like some mythical beast that grows every time it has made a conquest, gets progressively stronger — and greedier in proportion. Where once he had hoped to make $100 million and retire, later he hopes to make a billion, and still later he hopes to make, well, at least more billions than fellow technology billionaire Larry Ellison. Through it all, Clark keeps going back to “Hyperion” — his huge, computer-controlled yacht, and the book’s central metaphor for Clark’s quest for the next step, the “new new thing.”
Meanwhile, the locusts gather ever more eagerly to grab a few crumbs. But with every move, the locusts get smaller and less powerful, and Clark becomes a Bigger Swinging Dick. In his first venture he went hat in hand to the money managers, but by the end they come to him, as if on their knees, begging to be let in on his latest venture. The big names of technology — like John Doerr, the powerful venture capitalist, or Jim Barksdale, the CEO of Netscape — get grudging nods from Clark. The lesser names are simply interchangeable, a procession of minor characters ever willing to trade their self-respect for a spot in Clark’s game.
It sounds like Clark is the hero of his own story, and yet that is very much only part of it. In fact, Clark comes off over and over again as careless, occasionally as brutal. His annual visits to his mother in Plainview, Texas, consist of Clark setting down at the local airstrip and calling his mother to drive over to his airplane for lunch. He is loyal to his engineers, and painfully intolerant of everyone else. Always he is tortured, sailing Hyperion like a latter-day Ahab chasing his own soul.
“No matter how well Jim Clark did for himself,” writes Lewis, very near the end of the book, “it was always two in the morning in his heart, and he was lying awake.”
It is a strange picture of a man who by any conventional standard is sitting on top of the world. The sentence comes from Chapter 18, the penultimate chapter of the book and curiously the one that lends its title, “The New New Thing,” to the whole.
Throughout the book there are two strands, or even two stories, that compete for prominence. You can think of the first as How Jim Clark Changed Silicon Valley, and the second as How Silicon Valley Changed Jim Clark. For Lewis, the conclusion of the first story is clear: Clark proved that an engineer could devour the locusts and turn himself into the top man on the totem pole. As far as the second story goes, Lewis’ ending is much more equivocal.
“[Clark's] pursuit of the new, new thing depended on his curious amnesia,” Lewis continues, “His ability to forget what he said he would do next, or what he thought would make him happy, was the mortar on which he laid his endless tiers of self-renewal.”
This is the only point at which Lewis, a masterful analyst, seems less than certain of his footing. He has gravitated, quite intentionally, to the realm of uncertainty and myth. And, intentionally too, the words don’t quite manage to take the measure of the mythic “Jim Clark” that Lewis has written, the ultimate sui generis character of Silicon Valley.
Yet as “The New New Thing” leaps to greater levels of abstraction, and speculates more freely about the psychology of Jim Clark, it leaves open lots of questions about where the new new Jim Clark fits into Lewis’ complex and hilarious taxonomy of Silicon Valley life. Does he belong with the engineers? With the financiers? With the farmers, or the locusts, or somewhere in between? This question, too, deserves some kind of an answer.
A few weeks ago, I found myself discussing Clark’s newest company with a friend experienced in the complicated flows of ideas and money in Silicon Valley. The company, MyCFO, was billed as the ultimate solution for the mega-rich looking for a way to manage their money. A number of Clark’s associates — Barksdale, Doerr, John Chambers (the CEO of the giant networking company Cisco Systems) — had signed on as investors. The premise was that MyCFO would let people with $10 millionor more in assets manage their portfolios through the Web. The idea, frankly, struck me as preposterous — an idea that could make sense only to a Silicon Valley billionaire. And yet, I was also aware that if Jim Clark had an idea, it was very unlikely to be simply stupid.
“You don’t get it,” the friend told me, “The investors are also the clients. That’s all you need. If they alone use MyCFO, it’ll have billions of dollars under management. And then it can go public.”
I am not sure that I would readily subscribe to a view quite as cynical as this, but it does seem to penetrate to a nugget of truth. Clark’s first company, Silicon Graphics, was the ultimate engineer’s company: Clark designed a powerful chip, and thanks to that chip he started a company that built powerful computers. In his second, Netscape, he backed a group of programmers who had designed a very clever and even world-changing piece of software. In his third, Healtheon, Clark had simply pointed to a problem, and launched a company on the promise that a crack group of programmers could help solve it.
In his newest company, the product hardly seems to matter. The accountants that MyCFO is hiring en masse are easily replaceable, and perhaps so are even the engineers who design the software. It is not an engineer’s venture, but a financier’s company, a company that seems to find its origins in the fancies of a very rich man who can quickly gather together the money and support of some very rich friends.
It is pointless to begrudge Clark success in his new company simply because it smells of the financier’s touch — smells, that is, less of the spirit of invention than of the spirit of acquisition. Certainly, Clark is no less worthy of his billions than anyone else in Silicon Valley. And yet it is a striking fact that, having himself devoured the locusts who so badly plagued him, Clark, the Über-engineer, is no longer an engineer at all. He has become some kind of hybrid inventive locust, a financier who trumps all other financiers — a Big Swinging Dick who has proven that an engineer, once the minnow of Silicon Valley life, can turn himself into a shark, and then into the Biggest Swinging Dick of all.
Perhaps that is why, in “The New New Thing,” Clark returns constantly to Hyperion — spending hours programming the boat’s 25 powerful computers, proving to himself that he is still at heart an engineer, an inventor, the only kind of man that Clark himself would ever profess to respect.
Mark Gimein is a staff writer for Salon Technology.More Mark Gimein.
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)