"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)
I read somewhere that only two species will survive in the event of a nuclear holocaust: cockroaches and Cher. It’s been nearly four decades now, and she betrays no signs of wear, no hint of eventually going away — indeed, she is a testament to sturdy, career resilience and an inability to accept “No” for an answer. She just keeps shape-shifting, from questionable pop singer to surprisingly good movie star, from mortifying hair-care shill to cash-money cosmetics endorser, dipping her insensibly shod feet in books, politics, good causes and men 20 years her junior along the way.
Cher has truly Lived.
Cherilyn Sarkasian LaPiere was born in El Centro, Calif., on May 20, 1946. She’s the only child of Georgia Holt and John Sarkasian, an Armenian farmer, whom Georgia divorced while pregnant with Cher. Cher was (mostly) raised by her mother and Gilbert LaPiere, one of the several stepdads her dishy, blond mom would provide her with. Despite mild feelings of inadequacy Cher suffered as a result of gawky skinniness, bad clothes and a swarthy complexion, she seems to have had a fairly fun, goofy childhood, filled with boy-craziness, a couple of memorable shopping trips (she was the first girl in her clique to wear a midriff top) and learning about sex from nasty Catholic schoolgirls with lots of black eyeliner.
While she was no rocket scientist (she learned in adulthood that she was dyslexic), Cher always knew she had a “special” quality, and dropped out of high school at 16 to take acting lessons in Hollywood. She began her career the right way by having a teenage one-night fling with established actor Warren Beatty, who she met as the result of a fender-bender. “What a disappointment,” she would later comment. “Not that he wasn’t technically good, or couldn’t be good, but I didn’t feel anything!”
In a Sunset Boulevard coffee shop in 1962, Cher met a strange yet groovy guy named Sonny Bono, who ended up being the most influential person in her life. Though he couldn’t have been less interested in her at the time — he was 28, she was a skinny 16 — Cher, as she remembered in her autobiography “The First Time,” “thought the sun rose and set on his ass.” In the book, she recalls seeing him and the world going into soft-focus “like Tony and Maria at the dance.” She knew, she says, that she would never be the same again.
When Cher got kicked out of the apartment she was sharing with some actresses and showgirls, Sonny took her in as a cook and cleaning lady. The relationship was strictly platonic. He “didn’t find (her) terribly attractive,” he said. Even though they slept in twin beds, they had to hide the arrangement from Cher’s mother; every time she visited, Cher would take all of Sonny’s clothes and hide them in a friend’s house blocks away. Her mom eventually found out about the arrangement and threatened to lock up Sonny; a devastated Cher had to move back home.
In one of the most touching parts of her autobiography, Cher writes, “Up to this point, the warmest thing that Son had ever said to me was that I was a pain in his ass. But when Son started to help me pack my meager belongings, he just looked at me, and we both started to cry.” After that, S&C had the kind of love that parents have nightmares about.
In 1964, Sonny, who then had a gig as an occasional percussionist for Phil Spector, dragged Cher into Spector’s Gold Star studio, where she was asked to sing backup when a Ronnette didn’t show for a session. Cher was invited to the studio for more backup work regularly over the next few months. Terrified of singing solo, she recorded a few duets with Sonny; this evolved into a singing act they performed in bowling alleys, calling themselves “Caesar and Cleo.”
When Cher moved a couple of teenage seamstresses into their upstairs apartment and kept the girls busy making clothes she designed, she started up the machinery of the fashion victimhood that elevated the duo to stardom. After finding a bobcat vest for Sonny in a pawn shop, the two finally had a bold look that would bring them the attention they craved. That same year, Sonny and Cher romantically married themselves with their own vows and souvenir rings in a hotel bathroom in Tijuana.
In 1965, Sonny and Cher recorded “I Got You Babe.” The Rolling Stones, who, at the time, were a new band they were hanging out with, suggested to S&C that they try to take England by storm, since their proto-hippie outfits weren’t going over so well in the still-conservative U.S. English newspaper photographers showed up when S&C were thrown out of the London Hilton the night they arrived — literally overnight, they were stars.
London went gaga for the heretofore-unseen S&C look, which was neither mod nor rocker. “I Got You Babe” was an instant mega-hit in the U.K. that booted the Beatles out of the No. 1 chart spot. By the time Sonny and Cher got back to America, the hit was No. 1 in the states and they had to disembark from the plane onto the tarmac or be ripped to shreds by scrap-seeking fans.
Over time, Sonny & Cher did pretty well — a few more singles; a million-seller here and there.
In 1969, Cher got knocked up, and she and Sonny got married the legal way before their daughter was born on March 4. They named the baby Chastity,
after one of the two movies they’d recently made, both flops. Sonny had sunk most of their own music money into the movies, leaving them in a financial crunch (they also owed the IRS $270,000).
Then, at the worst possible time, hippies took over America, dubbing S&C “out of touch” and “passi,” especially when the two went on TV to emphatically denounce marijuana, which they’d never tried. The day of the pothead was at hand, and S&C records flew Frisbee-style into the bargain rack.
Cher liked the hard new way music was moving: “Jimi Hendrix playing his guitars with his teeth.” In her autobiography, she insists: “Left to myself, I would have changed with the times, because the music really turned me on, but Son didn’t like it — and that was that.”
So Bono and obedient wife bravely embarked on a terrible nightmare-stint of singing tepid standards to middle-aged drunks in carpet-walled hotel lounges while dressed in pastel formal wear. It was a slow, dark period of hot plates and humiliation. Nobody liked them, they didn’t like themselves. But they had a nice baby; as-of-yet-non-lesbian Chastity was cute enough to keep them going.
Their lounge act was so depressing, people started heckling them. Then Cher started heckling back. Sonny, ever the proper conservative, reprimanded her; then she’d heckle Sonny. Cher had had enough. She would never suppress her snappy invective again. The heckling became the best part of the act and the audiences slowly returned.
Eventually, S&C’s comedy shtick was so slick and relaxed, they were tapped to do a little TV, and finally, in 1971, “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour” hit the small screen. Its success was enormous. The show was the beginning of Cher’s lifetime collaboration of love with absurd “fashion” designer Bob Mackie, who said of her, “No one else has Cher’s ease. And no one else has those armpits. Cher has the most beautiful armpits in the world. As much as anything else, I designed for her armpits.”
Cher’s dusky beauty, exposed navel and saucy, outspoken personality were a liberating twist on the generally prim, blonde women of prime-time TV. This aided the popularity of her 1971 hit “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.” It was the best use she’d ever gotten out of her non-white looks, so she milked the gimmick for all it was worth, generating her second No.1 solo single, “Half-Breed” in 1973, and the 1974 hit, “Dark Lady.”
Despite the fun they were having on the show, in February of 1974, Sonny and Cher were having serious problems offstage. Sonny had always had women on the side — he was a bit of a fatherly control-freak — and eventually things blew up. David Geffen, who Cher was beginning to hang around with, read Cher’s contract and discovered that 95 percent of “Cher Enterprises” belonged to Sonny, and the other 5 percent belonged to their lawyer. Divorce was the only way out of the contract. Sonny, realizing the end was imminent, filed for legal separation; a week later, Cher filed for divorce.
It was then that Cher began learning to think for herself (“I couldn’t find my ass with both hands”). “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour” ended its season prematurely. The tabloids went ape shit as Sonny and Cher started chucking bitchy verbal grenades at each other.
Cher had her own TV show, called “Cher,” in 1975, and although it featured high-profile guests like Bette Midler and Elton John, it was fairly awful. Within three weeks, Cher was begging Sonny to come back; not to her, to “Cher.” She had other problems in the man department. Three days after her divorce from Sonny was final, she naively married alcoholic dope fiend Greg Allman at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, and cried all the way home after the wedding. She knew it was a bad idea.
Ten days later, Cher filed for divorce. Meanwhile, Sonny’s show was flopping on ABC, so he came back to Cher for her show’s second season. Now their monologues were a little too real for prime-time; Cher was pregnant with estranged rebound-husband Gregg Allman’s child, Sonny and Cher had their own failed marriage, and they openly joked about it all. It worked for a couple of weeks thanks to America’s prurient curiosity, then “Cher” failed.
Elijah Blue Allman was born in July 1976, bringing with him a short, hapless reconciliation between Cher and Greg Allman. They released an album: “Allman and Woman: Two The Hard Way,” featuring a jacket-photo of them looking sultry, serious and undressed. It was neither Allman rock nor Cher TV lounge-pop, and was rightfully shunned by both of their audiences. In 1977, they divorced, Cher unable to compete with alcohol and heroin for the rocker’s affection.
A bummer period followed during which Cher was an unemployed 33-year-old single mom, with a laughable image that only drag queens could seriously appreciate. She started a rock band, Black Rose, with rocker/boyfriend Les Dudek, which critics chain-whipped into obscurity. She performed in casinos; she dated Kiss front man Gene Simmons, she sang a duet with Meat Loaf. Nothing worked.
What she really wanted to do was be a serious actress, so she went to New York to study with Lee Strasberg, founder of the Actors Studio. But she never got a chance to take classes — Cher immediately landed a part in Robert Altman’s “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean,” and did a pretty good job. She actually had a flair for drama, and went on a legit acting tangent that would resuscitate her whole persona in a brave new way, and give her the moxie she needed to sustain affairs with men decades her junior and get more plastic surgery.
In 1983, she won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Academy for her performance as the lesbian roommate of Meryl Streep in “Silkwood,” but she was dissatisfied with how big her nose looked on the screen, so she had some of it removed (at the time she was dating a very young Val Kilmer).
She won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985 for her role as the biker-mom of a kid with severe craniofacial deformities in “Mask” (the role of her son was played by Eric Stoltz).
She was so pissed she didn’t get nominated for an Oscar for that performance that she had Bob Mackie design her an especially eye-popping wing-ding of a gownless evening strap, resembling a cross between a Mexican ferris wheel and the garment of the Last of the Mohican Liberaces, as an “up yours” statement to an Academy that didn’t feel she was a “serious actress.” Nobody remembered that she presented the Best Supporting Actor award to poor Don Ameche (for “Cocoon”), but her terrifying outfit lives on in infamy.
Cher released the album “Cher” on Geffen Records in 1986, and had hits with songs written by rock-hair ballad men Michael Bolton and Jon Bon Jovi, respectively: “I Found Someone” and “We All Sleep Alone.” Also, on her 40th birthday, she met and conquered swarthy 22 year-old commoner and Queens “bagel boy,” Rob Camilletti. Some say that was perhaps the closest Cher ever came to True Love.
By 1987, you could barely go to the movies without seeing Cher: “Witches of Eastwick”, “Suspect” and “Moonstruck” all came out, her role in the latter finally earning her the universally coveted Academy Award for Best Actress. Anybody who previously doubted Cher’s acting abilities now knew where they could stick her Oscar.
After all that film credibility, she could afford to do more questionable music. In 1988, Cher released “Heart Of Stone.” She had big hits with “If I Could Turn Back Time” and “Just Like Jesse James,” the video of the former featuring Cher in a transparent body stocking dry-humping various armaments in front of a crowd of sailors. “Heart of Stone” sold millions of copies.
In 1987, Sonny and Cher reunited for one night on David Letterman, and performed an impromptu rendition of “I Got You Babe” which was surprisingly emotional; the audience cried, Sonny cried, Chastity cried. Cher held it together — barely. It was a complicated moment.
Cher cranked out eight hit singles for the Geffen label from 1987 to 1992 and starred in another movie, 1990′s “Mermaids.” She toured like a fiend during that period and was getting sick all the time. She needed a break, so she made the colossally bad, but lucrative decision to star in a ubiquitous infomercial for a friend’s line of hair-care products, and botched up all of her carefully assembled career credibility overnight. Letterman and “Saturday Night Live” mocked her. “There’s nothing like an infomercial to slam-dunk your ass,” she wrote later. “I had really fucked up!”
Nobody in Hollywood would even think about casting her in a film, ever again. So Cher, with little else to do, schtupped Richie Sambora for a while, and got some more of her trademark tattoos. When grilled about her increasingly controversial appearance, she remarked: “Am I obsessed with the way I look? Ooh … Do you know what I’d like to say to that? I don’t give a flying fuck.”
A few years later, the infomercial travesty blew over, and she did cameos in the films “Ready to Wear” and “The Player” and even gave directing an arguably successful whirl in HBO’s “If These Walls Could Talk.”
When, at about the same time, Chastity Bono came out of the closet, Cher “went ballistic” for about a week, then invited Chas and girlfriend Heidi over for a visit. Things worked out, Cher eventually dubbing Chastity’s girlfriend her “son-in-law.”
Over the years, Cher had become a glutton for championing good charities like Childrens’ Craniofacial Association and those benefitting AIDS research. Chastity’s gay status now gave her mother an opportunity to get cozy with the cause: In open support of her daughter, Cher attended a Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays conference, and accepted the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Vanguard Award. “I feel like the gay poster girl,” she said at the podium, before her gay fans. “Chastity, are you sufficiently proud of me now?”
Cher suffered her greatest loss when in 1998 Republican U.S. Rep. Sonny Bono was killed in a skiing accident. She took center stage at the funeral, delivering an emotionally reckless eulogy which some critics felt upstaged the grief of Sonny’s wife, Mary. “After Son and I split up,” Cher said at the ceremony, “I would always say that leaving him was the toughest thing I would ever have to face. But that turned out to be not exactly true. The toughest thing was him leaving me.” In her autobiography, Cher writes that she placed her hand on Sonny’s coffin, and thought to herself, “This is not goodbye.”
Apparently it wasn’t. Four months later, Cher told TV Guide that she was speaking to Bono beyond the grave, through a psychic. According to the National Enquirer, Sonny’s disembodied voice told Cher “Don’t worry about me, Babe. I’m fine. It’s great here.”
Cher would dig in her spiked heels and climb back on top of the world again that year, with the greasy teen-cum-gay dance anthem “Believe,” which quickly became a monster hit in the U.K., displacing Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love for You” as the most successful single by a female artist — ever. It was Cher’s best selling album.
By 1999, “Believe,” was ubiquitous in every gym and 7-11 in America and the universe, with a death-grip on the Top 40. Cher held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart once again, something she hadn’t done since 1965, and received the dubious honor of singing at the 1999 Super Bowl. She also appeared in another fancy film, rebuilding her old classy “serious” actress edifice again: Zeffirelli’s “Tea With Mussolini.” It paired her with Unquestionably Great Women of the Serious Acting Profession, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.
Next year she’ll probably charter a shuttle and drive a chimp to Mars or something.
Nothing that Cher does matters anymore. She is locked forever in a Teflon celebrity that no further tastelessness or fuck-up can erode. She has gone the distance. She can wear whatever she wants, she can sing whatever she wants, as long as it has this year’s popular minority dance beat.
I remember watching her on the 1999 Monaco Music Awards. Cher happily lip-synched her song, wearing some ersatz-teen skateboard outfit, then accepted happily the award, encouraging her fans to learn by her success by saying something about how she had always done exactly as she pleased, and how, in the end, she’s always had the “last laugh.”
Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.More Cintra Wilson.
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)