"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)
When my husband and I honeymooned in Nashville a few years back, we found a souvenir that both appalled and delighted us: a pair of shot glasses bearing the likeness of George Jones. There’s something grimly cheerful about them (“Here’s to killing yourself slowly!” they seem to say), but I don’t think of them as a joke. These souvenirs from Music City, a place where some of the saddest music on Earth is weirdly commingled with touristy fun, are little emblems of the way the work of certain artists can creep into your bloodstream and change you from the inside out. The process is slow, revelatory: It has nothing to do with line dancing or big hats. Greatness often has so little to do with fun. Even as it has everything to do with pleasure.
And that’s why I can listen to George Jones — not just the world’s greatest living country singer, but one of the greatest singers, ever — on both good days and bad ones. People who genuinely love country music are often hard pressed to explain why. (It’s especially difficult when you find yourself cornered by a “sophisticate” who thinks of it only as hick music.) But the stammering, seemingly inadequate explanation we often come up with seems to be the best: It’s all about living. Jones, unlike his idol Hank Williams, who died at 29, has had plenty of it under his belt, and while it’s never a good idea to assume that anything a singer performs is necessarily autobiographical, there’s just no way to listen to Jones’ singing and not hear his life written in it.
His battles with drink and drugs have been covered well enough in the press and elsewhere: Although he claimed in his 1996 autobiography, “I Lived to Tell It All” (written with Tom Carter), that he’d kicked his bad habits, an accident last March nearly took his life — and, it turns out, occurred because he was driving while impaired. (As a public service announcement, over the Fourth of July weekend the mangled remains of the sport utility vehicle Jones was driving were dangled from a crane off Interstate 40 in Tennessee, along with a sign that read, “Drive Safely.”)
The accident was a wake-up call of sorts, not just to Jones himself but to his fans — a reminder that the artists we love best rarely behave as we’d like them to, sometimes almost willfully refusing to live lives that keep them safe and happy and productive. And if you’ve spent any time listening to Jones’ music, there’s no getting away from his deep and intimate — and often almost tender — relationship with alcohol.
He didn’t write his 1981 hit “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will),” but he sure as hell owns it. “With the blood from my body, I could start my own still,” he sings, and if, written out, the line reads like nothing more than a cornball joke, the way Jones sings it, it’s a painfully rueful one. No feeling human being could laugh at the mournfulness he wraps around that line: He soaks it in self-loathing that goes far beyond self-pity. You don’t want to light a match anywhere near it.
In “I Lived to Tell It All,” Jones admits that he started drinking early, coming up as a singer in Texas honky-tonks in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Jones was born in Saratoga, Texas, near Beaumont, in 1931, himself the son of a temperamental drinking man. As with so many country musicians, the story of his impoverished childhood is bound tight with his love for music. “On one Christmas I got a guitar that was about six inches long. It wasn’t really a guitar at all, just an imitation,” he writes. The next one was better — a Gene Autrey model with a horse and lariat on the front — and at age 11 Jones put it to good use, performing for his first real audience outside a penny arcade in Beaumont. As a young man he made his way performing in various East Texas roughhouses, eventually hooking up with husband-and-wife singing team Eddie & Pearl. He married the first of his four wives in 1950 — the third and most notorious marriage would be to the late, and great, country singer Tammy Wynette — and joined the Marines briefly after the marriage ended. In 1955, after his release from the service, he cut his first record, “Why Baby Why,” for the Starday label, co-owned by Jack Starnes and Harold “Pappy” Daily, who became Jones’ producer and manager until the end of the 1960s.
The song, co-written by Jones, became a top-five hit and inaugurated a remarkably rich, varied and long-lasting recording career. Jones’ early recordings, first for Starday and later for the merged Starday-Mercury label (collected on the fine two-disc Mercury compilation “Cup of Loneliness”), make for wonderful listening, but they’re also fascinating as documents. Jones’ voice — he hadn’t yet discovered its gnarled-and-burnished mahogany lower register, which a later producer, Billy Sherrill, would showcase beautifully — is supple and twangy, sounding only just a little bit rusted-out in what we’ve come to know as that glorious George Jones way. It’s clear it took him a while to become George Jones. On “Why Baby Why,” in particular, he handily borrows Williams’ inflections and even mirrors his vocal tone.
But it didn’t take long for Jones to find his footing, as the outright confidence — you could say cockiness — of later ’50s recordings like 1959′s “White Lightning” (his first No. 1 hit) prove. His early ’60s duets with Melba Montgomery, particularly the loping ballad “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds,” approach perfection. In his autobiography Jones admits to having fallen for Montgomery, though she refused to entertain the idea of becoming romantically involved with him; their sturdy, lissome harmonies (Montgomery’s willowiness stood up beautifully next to Jones’ almost petulant willfulness), not to mention their simpatico phrasing, suggest they were perfectly suited to each other, in the studio at least.
But Jones met his match — musically and probably personally, as far as any outsider can tell — in Tammy Wynette. By the time the two were married, in 1969, Jones had already racked up an impressive number of hits, among them the exquisite “She Thinks I Still Care” (1962); “The Race Is On” (1964), one of the most wonderfully sustained extended metaphors in the history of popular music; and the dorky but ridiculously seductive novelty number “Love Bug” (1965).
Both Wynette and Jones have acknowledged to some degree that their personal troubles were played out in their songs, and material they co-wrote or performed together during their partnership (the two split for good, bitterly, in 1975) is all the proof you need. “These Days (I Barely Get By),” a 1975 song written by the pair and cut by Jones, outlines a litany of the worst things that can befall a man: a killing hangover, a mile-high stack of bills, the news that he’s about to be let go from his job. Somewhere in there, dropped almost casually, is the news that “My wife left and didn’t say why”; it seems to be mentioned in passing not because the leaving isn’t significant, but simply because it’s inevitable.
Jones’ and Wynette’s 1976 duet “Golden Ring” opens with a cautiously happy little Appalachian-flavored guitar fillip — a trick beginning for a casually devastating little song. “Golden Ring” traces the history of a wedding ring from pawnshop to bride’s finger. The first few verses detail a painfully innocent kind of happiness. But by the end we realize that the story of the ring is less a benign history than a curse: It ends up cast onto the floor of a two-room apartment, just before the woman storms out for good. The ring finds its way, once again, to the pawnshop; the story, like the ring itself, is a chilly golden circle.
“Golden Ring” may be merciless, but, surprisingly, it isn’t bitter. Wynette and Jones fought their bloody personal battles in public before their split, and then fought them over and over again (for kicks, perhaps?) for years afterward. In her 1979 autobiography, “Stand By Your Man,” Wynette claimed that Jones once came after her with a 30-30 rifle. A few paragraphs later she referred to the weapon as a shotgun, a discrepancy that Jones gleefully seized upon in his book to attack the story’s veracity. You say “potayto” and I say “potahto”: It’s likely that neither Jones nor Wynette exactly played fair.
No outsider can know what the inside of a marriage is like or diagram the exact nature of its disintegration. But I have no doubt that a couple who could conjoin so perfectly and so completely in a number like “Golden Ring” — a song that cuts to the core of love’s mutability and thus its preciousness — were once deeply, deeply in love. That it blew up in their faces doesn’t negate it.
In “The Battle,” an astonishing LP released in 1976, just a year after the split, Jones both poked around the charred rubble of his marriage and tried, at least somewhat, to distance himself from it. (The album, legendary among Jones fans and long out of print, has just been released on CD by Koch, as a two-fer with Jones’ 1976 “Memories of Us.”)
With numbers like “I Still Sing the Old Songs,” he retreats into the refuge of his Southern roots, singing the words “I still pray to Jesus now and then” almost tentatively — will Jesus still have him? But two songs on the record sketch a more painful picture of Jones’ crumpled life. The title track opens with the first few notes of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and segues into a wrenching description of a bedroom as a bloody battleground, complete with satin-nightgown-as-armor metaphors — ending, all too optimistically, with a “sweet surrender,” clearly a case of wishful thinking. And on “Wean Me” (which Jones co-wrote with Wynette toward the end of their marriage), the singer admits he’s “the biggest baby that you’ve ever seen,” and begs, “Take this bottle from my hand and wean me.”
I find the song almost unbearable to listen to, for both Wynette’s and Jones’ sake. It so baldly casts the man in the role of the helpless child and the woman in the role of noble mommy. The invincible woman has the power to redeem the man (if she fails, it’s all her fault); meanwhile, the man is so weakened and diminished he’s given up even trying to be a man. It’s about as depressing a song as I can imagine, made even more so by the fact that its almost jovial melody tries (and fails) to hint that it’s all in jest.
Before, during and after Jones’ marriage to Wynette, he had a reputation for being difficult and unreliable, particularly, of course, when he was drinking. He earned the nickname George “No Show” Jones by missing countless shows. His autobiography details all kinds of run-ins with the law, inebriated brawls and instances of going after assorted individuals with firearms (most of which Jones denounces, believably or not, as at least partial falsehoods).
In the ’80s he compounded his drinking problem with his voracious consumption of cocaine. He credits his current wife, Nancy, whom he married in 1983, with helping to turn his life around. (His March accident, and the subsequent news that he was driving while impaired, shouldn’t be taken as evidence that he’s no longer a “changed man,” but it does underscore the point that habits like Jones’ aren’t easily kicked.) Although his songs don’t chart like they used to — today’s country radio is a different and much more malevolent creature than the one it was in the 1970s and early ’80s — he still continues to now and then release a record that can knock you for a loop. His latest, “Cold Hard Truth,” has a clean, honest sound, and Jones’ voice sounds beautifully weathered and mellowed, as if it were the voice he was intended to grow into, not simply the aged one he has to settle for.
Jones’ career has had such a long arc that it’s impossible for me to pick a favorite Jones era. It may be cheating, but the best I can do is to choose one song from each of Jones’ two great producers, Pappy Daily and Billy Sherrill (who worked with Jones through the ’70s and well into the ’80s).
I’m always amazed at the way the Sherrill-produced “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (1980) gets me every time, given that its theme is so shameless: A man’s love for the woman who left him years ago finally dies, but only because he’s drawn his last breath. Sherrill’s style of production is the kind I love to hate. I instinctively shrink from his overwrought, molasses-glop sound, his knack for making strings sound disingenuous. But I can’t say any producer has shown Jones’ voice off better.
On “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Jones’ phrasing is restrained, easy, conversational. His unvarnished, third-person narration is one of the purest examples of country-music storytelling I can think of: “He kept some letters by his bed, dated 1962/He had underlined in red every single ‘I love you.’” His voice swerves a little — and almost cracks, but not quite — on the word “love.” It’s as if he’s righted himself at the last possible moment, knowing that giving in to the song’s mawkishness would result in disaster. Instead, he works a miracle with it.
But few songs can take me apart with the precision of the Pappy Daily-produced “A Good Year for the Roses” (1970), recorded in the last years of the Jones-Daily collaboration (which would end badly in 1971, when Jones left the Musicor label for Epic). “Roses” addresses that recurring and universal subject, the devastation wrought by a partner’s leaving. But “Roses” is so painfully resplendent precisely because of what Jones doesn’t say — and the way he sings it: “When you turn to walk away, as the door behind you closes/The only thing I know to say, It’s been a good year for the roses.” His reading of the last line has a crispness to it that’s almost matter-of-fact, like a news report — and it’s achingly representative of the way so many men of his generation dealt with their feelings.
Yet the desperate evasiveness of “A Good Year for the Roses” is hardly a copout: Jones shows us all the contours of suffering simply by outlining its shadow. I’m always brought down by “A Good Year for the Roses”; but as with just about everything else George Jones has ever recorded, I find its truthfulness and its refusal to shrink from suffering immensely comforting. That’s why I can listen to George Jones on both good days and bad ones: I’ll take my pleasure straight up, even if it burns going down.
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)