"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)
Before Ellen DeGeneres, Barney Frank and the characters of “South Park” made coming out acceptable, many gay men lived vicariously through Hollywood’s women. In Judy Garland’s drugs and multiple comebacks, they saw their own closeted battle between loneliness and survival. In the lines of Bette Davis’ characters — “You can lose everything else, but you can’t lose your talent” — they recognized the ability to overcome, even cackle at life’s villains. And Joan Crawford, with her broad shoulders and masculine air, embodied the in-your-face assertiveness that gay men longed to express.
Through the early ’90s, revealing a love for these women often meant expressing a love for men. Gay singles scenes grew up around film revivals, and phrases like “friend of Dorothy” were code, a way to come out, but only to someone who was also in the know. Later, Cher, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand and then Madonna also offered gay men real-life versions of Davis’ and Crawford’s wonderfully bitchy characters.
But with the new millennium upon us, diva worship is dying in the gay community. With extended life spans for HIV sufferers becoming reality, a booming economy and the increasing ease of assimilation, divas are no longer needed as a unifying force against oppression and discrimination in the gay community.
“There was a time when divas were very much a part of closeted gay culture, when gay men had to be united by talking about the same things to reveal themselves,” says John C. Clum, an openly gay English professor at Duke University and the author of “Something for the Boys: Musical Theater and Gay Culture.” “But people aren’t looking for that kind of connection anymore.”
Just look at Garland’s own daughter, Liza Minnelli. She’s back on Broadway, but it’s her chorus of six beefcake behemoths that are drawing the stares. And while ’80s Madonna videos still induce gushes of respect, many gays say that when these women pass on, there will be no universal cry of gay grief. In fact, no one under 40 has managed to unify the fantasies of America’s vast gay population.
For men like Marc Heustis, a gay promoter who hosted “A Judy Garland Christmas” on Dec. 17 at San Francisco’s Castro Theater, such a loss would be tragic. “Never,” he says of the shift away from divas. “People are still absolutely worshipful.” Yet for a growing mass of gay men, divadom’s descent heralds progress. Men need no longer identify with flawed women who, for all their talents, remain psychologically suspect, Clum says. “Divas got their start at a different time in gay culture, and no one is going to create that kind of excitement again.”
It’s not for a lack of contenders. Divas must be anti-establishment figures who overcome the limits of mainstream taste, either through style, strength of character or sheer energetic talent, says Michelangelo Signorile, a columnist for the Advocate, a national gay and lesbian magazine. Their lives must intertwine with their careers, and they must be capable of reinventing themselves.
Judy Garland remains the archetype. Entering the public eye in 1939 as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” this wisp of a woman sang her way through more than 30 films, and dozens of stage appearances. At her best, Garland gave everything to her audience. As “the little girl with the grown-up voice,” she often trembled, her strong vibrato sending shivers through her fragile frame. But her worst troubles — the drugs, the suicide attempts and breakdowns — seemed to draw the most die-hard fans. She was one of the first stars to let her bruised life be seen, and gay men felt her pain. In her voice, they could hear the intense anguish that they also felt; in her words (“somewhere over the rainbow”) they heard the chance to overcome.
Similarly, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford traveled a frost-heaved road, ending their lives as battered, not-quite-together stars. But while Garland remained a girl for most of her career, Davis and Crawford were women, “bitches” in every positive sense of the word. When Davis descended the stairs in “All About Eve,” regally gowned, her eyes burning with thoughts of vengeance, she was a portrait of strength. When she quipped, “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” she put into words the thoughts of every gay man who struggled to come out, or get laid with a not-so-safe stranger.
Plus, it’s a damn fun line to repeat — another important requisite for divadom, Signorile says. And there are plenty more: “I detest cheap sentiment,” also from “All About Eve,” bears repeating, as does Davis’ classic exclamation from “The Letter”: “Yes, I killed him, and I’m glad, I tell you. Glad, glad, glad.”
Meanwhile, Crawford’s best zingers, besides “He promised me the world and I’ve got to have it” (“The Damned Don’t Cry”), come from Faye Dunaway’s portrayal in “Mommie Dearest.” The square-jawed star had died four years earlier, but lines such as “Don’t fuck with me fellas, this ain’t my first time at the rodeo” live on, attributed posthumously (and perhaps apocryphally).
Today’s stars rarely get the chance to speak such gems. Still, several would seem to deserve admittance into the diva club. Signorile elevated Hillary Clinton to diva status in his September column, but eyeing only the younger crop of talent, he pointed to
Courtney Love, who despite suffering through drugs and the death of her iconic husband, Kurt Cobain, has remained a scratch-throated wolf of song and screen.
Drew Barrymore is another one who has lived a “Behind the Music” life of despair and redemption. Like Garland, she began young with sugar, spice and everything nice (“E.T.”), then nose-dived into depression, only to transform herself into an adolescent leading lady (“Never Been Kissed,” “The Wedding Singer”).
And there are others: Audra McDonald, the Broadway siren now starring in “Marie Christine,” Sporty Spice, recently refreshed with a new solo album and Britney Spears, who reportedly became the drag phenomenon of this year’s Halloween parade in New York.
The lead candidate, however, remains Christina Ricci. Though she didn’t do much in “Sleepy Hollow” (“besides show off her boobs,” one gay man exclaimed), Ricci cemented her spot with “The Opposite of Sex,” which many consider the sharpest anti-homophobic commentary of the ’90s. Her “I’m bad and won’t get better” voice-overs turned more than just a few gay heads, including the curly-headed dome of Michael Musto, the flamboyantly gay Village Voice gossip columnist who probably explained Ricci best, saying: “[She] has the appropriate ‘What the fuck’ attitude and quirky appeal to make her a gay man’s wet dream.”
Still, even Ricci hasn’t managed to tickle a collective fancy. Diva die-hards, and some feminists, have tended to blame the new talent for not measuring up. But iconic stardom requires more than Promethean talent. Such status only rises from the kettle of context, the mix between a star, his or her fans and the sociopolitical backdrop that brought them together. Without AIDS, would Madonna’s tell-all sexuality have drawn such cheers? Without the claustrophobic closet, would Garland have induced violence? (The Stonewall riot occurred on the day of Garland’s funeral. Some say that emotion-charged event may have been a contributing factor in pushing things to the breaking point at Stonewall.)
No way, Clum and others say. But collective reminiscing only goes so far, particularly when so many are too young to have been there. Today, gay Americans can see their lives reflected in TV’s “Will and Grace” or in Kevin Kline’s gay character from “In and Out.” They can ogle and repeat the lines spoken by gay stars such as Rupert Everett (“An Ideal Husband”). They may even continue to wonder about the oft-debated proclivities of Tom Cruise.
With such culture, and without a collective enemy to spur fans on, how can the divas measure up? Musto, Signorile and others insist that the second generation of divas — Streisand, Cher, Liza Minnelli — are stronger than their predecessors. Indeed, Garland, who died at 47, was not exactly the picture of psychological or physical strength.
But the boomers are hardly without flaws. Their campy charm simply doesn’t resonate as powerfully as it did in the ’80s, when AIDS caught the gay community unaware, and created a desire for life-affirming (think “Mask”) catharsis. These days, Cher looks like a shrink-wrapped version of her former self, while Streisand has retreated like a female Howard Hughes: We only find out about her when she auctions off her hair dryers, or a piece of her furniture.
On-screen, neither has broken away from the sentimental. The weepy roles made their careers, but when they’re played at middle age they inspire big gulps of pity, if not disgust. Gay Gen Xers — those who often don’t fit the “hopeless romantic” stereotype, who want monogamy and are marrying across the nation in droves — don’t want to identify with another Yentl, says D.J. White, 27, an associate producer for “After Stonewall,” the PBS documentary that captured the collage of gay culture, 1969 to the present.
No one wants Minelli either. Trafficking in the obsession with Garland, her mother, she is filling seats, but her all-male chorus has drawn at least as many eyes as the star herself. Even Madonna, despite her techno-reemergence with “Ray of Light,” can’t inspire longings that match her days as the material girl who, on MTV, always seemed to be on her knees “praying.”
“To me, they’ve meant nothing,” White says of divas, past and present. They are, after all, only entertainers. Other role models abound. And perhaps not surprisingly, many live in the world of finance. Though most of America is enjoying prosperity, gay men — statistically wealthier and better-educated than their straight counterparts — are best positioned to take advantage of the investing frenzy. And White, among others, has noticed.
“I have more respect for the guy who started Quark, Inc.,” he says, referring to Tim Gill, the openly gay businessman who spearheaded gay philanthropy in 1994 by founding the Gill Foundation, a charity with an $80 million endowment. “He built his life out of intelligence. I respect someone like that much more than an entertainer.”
And White is not alone. The New Hampshire native dresses chiefly in Gap-style clothing and sneakers, wears his hair closely cropped, attends the gym only occasionally and like many gay men of his generation, has grown tired of being cut out of the homosexual family portrait.
“The media is obsessed with flamboyance,” he says, stressing that gay culture — assuming it exists at all — means more than Ru Paul. White traveled across the country for “After Stonewall” and discovered that many gay men have little interest in diva figures, just as few now own Garland albums, or care for the sappy sentimentalism of Streisand or the many masks of Madonna. When looking for heroes, most look to those around them.
“Everybody’s out of the closet now,” White says. “Before, ‘friend of Dorothy’ was a code for being gay, while only the most flamboyant were out of the closet, chiefly because they had no choice. It was obvious. But now, so many more are out, and those code words aren’t needed anymore. I didn’t look up to celebrities. I looked to history, to Leonardo Da Vinci, or to gay friends.”
Clum, the diva-loving professor at Duke, considers this progress. “I don’t think Judy Garland is someone that an all-together person would identify with,” he says. And White agrees, noting that he shouldn’t have to wear his homosexuality on his body, nor reveal it through his CD collection. While filming “After Stonewall,” many gay men expressed a similar lack of interest in divas, but they all spoke of such matters in hushed tones. The media and the older veterans of the gay community often don’t recognize the pressure they put on those who don’t fit the mold, he says.
“It’s kind of annoying. Why should I have to prove to them that I’m gay?”
It’s not that White doesn’t respect the older generation of gay men. He does, particularly Larry Kramer, the playwright and activist who founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. And he tends to laugh off most of the hostility as ardor rather than anger. But older gay men need to understand the lack of interest in divas not as a loss, but rather as a welcome result of today’s freer society.
“We’ve always been this way,” White says. “But before everyone came out, there wasn’t as much freedom to be open about your views.”
That freedom may not spring eternal. The killing of Matthew Shepard proved that homophobia endures, just as Clinton proved that political promises can easily end up diluted. Divadom may once again rise if discrimination or AIDS once again grabs hold of the gay consciousness. But until then, the gay community has itself to scrutinize. The fall of the divas is only a minor point — they are, once again, only entertainers. But it signifies other rifts, fault lines that have only recently started to shake.
At the 1998 gay pride parade in New York City, White watched through a camera lens as Mayor Rudolph Giuliani trotted down Fifth Avenue flanked by a dozen Log Cabin Republicans, members of the “nation’s largest gay and lesbian Republican organization.” Out from the curb rushed a militant crew of 20 lesbians and gays. Their shirts read, “Rudy, get out of our parade,” and that’s what they screamed, White says. Security guards whisked them quickly away, but shock remained on the Republicans’ faces. Already, they stood out if only for their preppy attire. But their faces are what stuck in White’s mind. “They were really confused. That was the craziest scene of the day.”
And it was one that contrasts sharply with Stonewall’s June evening of 1969.
“They may be dorks,” he says of Giuliani’s gay supporters. “But let them do what they want.”
Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.More Damien Cave.
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)