"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)
Having blessedly spent last week out of the country on spring break, I followed the delirious climax of Super Tuesday’s primaries by newspapers rather than TV, which is normally the All-Seeing Eye of my daily life. Yes, I would have enjoyed watching the ham and eggs spread across various pundits’ faces as their anointed favorite, that weaselly mini-martinet, Sen. John McCain, went crashing down to defeat.
But the big event I missed appears to have been reporter Maria (“The Hair”) Shriver nearly getting into a scratch fest with Cindy (“Stepford Sally”) McCain as the NBC cameraman trampled over a random daughter — a tacky scene reminiscent of the paparazzi frenzies of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” where hunted children glimpse the Madonna in a rainy meadow and where Anita Ekberg gets slapped around by her lush of a boyfriend in front of a Rome hotel.
Most of those who cast their ballots for McCain did so, I maintain, with little sense of his flawed character and thin legislative record. Thanks to the manipulations of the Northeastern press corps, McCain’s brittleness, evasions, inconsistencies and hypocrisies were concealed from an electorate that had barely if ever heard of him before the publication last fall of his ghostwritten autobiography, which implicitly offered his early experiences in a Vietnamese prison camp as a credential for the presidency.
I have consistently argued in this column, which has opposed McCain from the start, that there is no necessary connection between being a prisoner of war and governing the nation and, furthermore, that McCain completely lacks the administrative and managerial skills of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who served as military commander of the fractious Allies during World War II.
If there were any principles left in journalism, at least a dozen high-profile print, Web and TV reporters would have been fired outright or put on probation by now because of their gross mishandling of the McCain boomlet, which they effectively created to disrupt the campaign of Gov. George W. Bush.
The strategy succeeded because of Bush’s own weaknesses and immaturity as a candidate. If reporters actually believed McCain was ever shooting “straight talk” at them, they’re fools and patsies. But if they were playing a cunning game to help the Clinton-tarred Democratic Party, they’re amoral goons who have corrupted democracy and compromised their own profession.
When the strutting McCain started shrilly proclaiming, “I’m Luke Skywalker trying to get out of the Death Star!” every rise-of-Hitler red light should have gone on in the dull media mind. It’s frightening in national security terms to think how easily a seething megalomaniac like McCain could gain credibility through the collusion of the press corps. The TV camera has always shown that McCain’s still stuck in adolescence, sulking in the shadow of his dictatorial Darth Vader father, whom he has delusively projected into the scowling faces of the big, bad Republican establishment.
Only the pussy-whipped princelings of a press terrain soaked with feminist cant could mistake a stunted Uriah Heep like McCain for a “real” man. Ironically, liberal journalists’ blindness or malice has enormously strengthened their arch foe, Rush Limbaugh — whose radio show was the one reliable place, day by day amid the saccharine swill, to hear the refreshingly tart truth about McCain. After the McCain fiasco, Limbaugh’s cultural indispensability as an ideological counterweight should be acknowledged by every honest observer across the political spectrum.
The shocking ineptitude of Bill Bradley’s campaign has mortified many Democrats like myself who were praying that he could and would tap the intense anti-Washington sentiment in the country and win the presidency with rousing bipartisan support. Bradley’s humiliating withdrawal from the race last week will not change my vote for him (partly motivated by distrust of Al Gore) in next month’s Pennsylvania primary.
But it’s pretty clear that a basketball player will never make it to the White House until he or she takes time out to study football, the pagan language of modern American warfare. Didn’t Bradley even learn chess, for heaven’s sake? Gore knocked Bradley’s pieces right off the board. Whether Gore the epicene lie-monger can mobilize the disaffected Bradley Democrats remains to be seen, particularly if alternative candidates get on the ballot this fall.
There’s not much to report on the Hillary Rodham Clinton front this week, except for two intriguing letters from Salon readers. Roy Hill responds from Fort Smith, Ark., to my puzzlement at the odd silence of his fellow native Arkansans about Hillary’s touted achievements in that state:
In Arkansas, Hillary was always seen as a bit of a carpetbagging Yankee albatross around ole Billy’s neck. In fact, public dislike of her was an issue in more than one gubernatorial campaign, and she started calling herself Rodham-Clinton, instead of just plain Rodham, in a deliberate effort to soften her image more to the liking of traditional, Junior League, tea-and-cake types who held positions of power and influence in the state.
Hillary seemed to stay out of the spotlight and away from taking credit for policy decisions, which does not mean that she was not involved. She took steps to stay in Bill’s shadow and to soften and magnolia-ify her image, especially when he lost the governor’s office to Republican Frank White.
And as for the “Silence of the Hams” down in Razorback land, let’s just say that Hillary was never really “one of ours” to begin with, and as a group, we don’t really much care where she lands, just as long as it is far away.
Oh, dear, I couldn’t help visualizing Hillary here as a giant pterodactyl menacing Manhattan (see “One Million Years B.C.,” starring Raquel Welch in her famous fur bikini). Get out the umbrellas, you native New Yorkers! Peter Borregard, writing from El Cerrito, Calif., sharply observes about Hillary’s diner dust-up:
Actually, when H.C. stiffed the waitress, she was displaying that she is a woman of iron principle. When H.C. was pushing her notorious health care initiative, she said she opposed medical savings accounts because if people had control over their own health care dollars, they wouldn’t spend the money wisely.
This is consistent with her idea that the government should get and spend all the money, except of course for H.C. and her friends. Thus, when she didn’t tip the waitress, she was actually doing the waitress a “favor” and preventing this working class ignoramus from having money to spend unwisely.
Nice thrusts, Mr. Borregard! Until my party confronts these harsh truths — that Great Society Democrats have become robber barons flying the flag of fake populism — the Republicans will win the economic debate. It’s American ingenuity and entrepreneurship, not Democratic stewardship, that produced this booming economy. Democrats owe their recent political successes, including the survival of the tottering Clinton regime, mainly to the chaos and leadership vacuum in the Republican Party, which often seems overrun by clods, trolls, grouches and buffoons.
We’ll see if Hillary, who’s mostly been mouthing cautious platitudes, will continue her cheek-by-jowl affiliation with Eve Ensler (author of the ravingly anti-male play, “The Vagina Monologues”), whom Hillary handpicked to serve on her exploratory committee for the Senate campaign. In a hilariously scathing piece in the Feb. 11 Wall Street Journal, Christina Hoff Sommers quotes Ensler on women’s “vagina brain” and describes the spread of virulent Ensler propaganda to campuses. According to the New York Times, Hillary has promised to write the foreword to Ensler’s next book.
If anyone is in doubt about the lunacy of this painfully outmoded branch of feminism, please glance at the three foaming-at-the-mouth protest letters against Sommers’ article that were published by the Wall Street Journal on Feb. 25. The screechy yet ponderous and amazingly stupid letter from Ensler herself must be seen. What a dreary, pedestrian, unliterary mind! It’s early Kate Millet all over again.
Sommers has triumphed anew by flushing the feminazis out of the cupboard, where they still crouch like cobwebby pouter pigeons ready to get their tiny claws into women students. I can’t wait for Sommers’ new book, “The War Against Boys,” a deeply researched project that will be published by Simon & Schuster in June.
David Bensey chides me for my continuing references to David Koresh’s Waco property as a “ranch”:
It is not correct that the property was a “ranch” before Koresh acquired it. Koresh did not found Mount Carmel. It was begun in 1934 by Victor Houteff as an offshoot of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The theological traditions of the group can be traced to the early 19th century. Koresh didn’t show up until 1981.
The Mount Carmel complex is best described as a church camp, a “retreat,” a religious commune or perhaps a seminary. It certainly was not a ranch in the sense that they were engaged primarily in animal husbandry. Neither was it a “bunker,” “fortress” or “compound.” Nothing about the complex suggested any military design. Most of it was constructed with wood stud walls, with sheetrock on the inside and wood siding on the outside. Such a structure will not stop a rifle bullet, and it obviously was not designed to do so.
The significance of all this is to correct the common belief, created by the mainstream press and the government apologists, that Mount Carmel was some sort of armored bunker, built and designed to resist attack by heavily armed government troops. It is implied that the formidable nature of the complex justified sending a company of light infantry to attack the church camp on the first day of the disaster. In fact, the flimsy structure of the Mount Carmel complex was less well designed to resist attack than the typical YMCA building.
Thanks, Mr. Bensey. Many readers have voiced support of my persistent attacks on the major media for their refusal in 1993 to challenge the Clinton administration’s irresponsible actions at Waco. David G. Wrone writes from St. Louis:
David Koresh could easily have been arrested on one of his frequent trips outside the Davidians’ complex. He often went jogging by himself and was a regular patron of local businesses. As the local sheriff repeatedly stated, the BATF could have nabbed him miles from the women and children — but of course chose to send an armed mob of thugs to his front door (after notifying local media so as to ensure the dramatic video footage they intended to present to Congress during their budgetary hearings).
With unflagging assistance from the national media, the feds smeared Koresh as a child molester, illegal gun dealer and general menace to society. They lied. It is no crime to worship in a manner that contrasts sharply with that of mainstream America. It is no crime to own firearms. It is no crime to raise one’s child without first reading a Donna Shalala biography.
No, these were not crimes. But try telling Koresh and his followers that. But why bother? Even had they not been broasted alive, after being gassed by their own government, they were just “zealots.” Right? At least that’s what Bill Clinton told me.
Charles Booker endorses this position:
I have yet to see any convincing evidence that Koresh was engaged in anything illegal, certainly nothing that warranted such violence and murderous intent. The state child welfare authorities had on a number of occasions conducted on-site investigations of child abuse allegations and found no credible evidence.
Koresh was legally selling weapons under a federal firearms license. The charges of manufacturing automatic weapons rests on very questionable evidence provided by the FBI, which had admittedly falsified evidence.
The BATF and FBI lied (and later admitted to it in court) to the governor of Texas in order to get the armored vehicles and helicopter. The agents falsely claimed drugs were manufactured in the compound. The FBI prevented firemen and Texas Rangers near the site until the fire had consumed most of the evidence. They also used bulldozers to pile burning rubble over exit doors.
I see very little honorable or admirable in the behavior of the FBI, BATF, the national media or our federal court system. Koresh is certainly not a hero of mine. I think his theology is nuts. But that does not alter the fact that he was apparently doing nothing wrong, when he and his followers were subjected to a murderous attack by heavily armed thugs in the pay of the government.
While I have no way of factually corroborating these allegations, Mr. Booker, I fully agree with your assessment of the Waco disaster. Given the excesses by government agencies, followed by the massive coverup, liberal Democrats are on shaky ground when they argue that law-abiding citizens have no foreseeable need for arms in modern society. Ronald Brady adds this testimony to my warning that civil disorder can quickly follow a severe climatological disturbance:
When Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida, law and order would have collapsed, except that many people who were not in law enforcement took it upon themselves to go around packing firearms. I think of these individuals as being the militia as described in the Second Amendment. It was the actions of these people that prevented widespread looting in the aftermath of that hurricane. Of course, this did not get reported in the mainstream press.
It’s a premise of all my work that civilization is a frail structure through which the forces of barbarism can break at any time. Although I’m not a gun owner, I strongly suspect that liberal hostility to guns often springs from a sentimental misinterpretation of reality. Tim Hartin, who began our long-running gun debate, writes again on this matter from Mount Horeb, Wis.:
I was delighted at the way the anti-gun responses in your last column proved the very point I was trying to make: namely that support for gun control is an emotional/cultural/class issue that has nothing to do with the facts.
There is almost no correlation between the level of gun ownership in a nation and the level of criminal violence in that nation. In the U.S., we have guns and violence, but guns were not used in nearly three out four violent crimes, and 99.8 percent of firearms will not be used to commit a crime in any given year. In Switzerland, they have an assault rifle in every house and little violence. In England, they recently confiscated all the guns, and were rewarded with a crime wave.
In the U.S., there is a direct correlation between gun control and violent crime. Almost without exception, jurisdictions with gun control have higher crime rates than jurisdictions without gun control. The historical record shows that when gun controls are loosened, crime goes down, and when gun controls are tightened, crime goes up.
Gun controllers continue with their crusade in the face of these facts, demonstrating 1) that they are not rational on this topic and 2) that they are not really trying to reduce crime or violence but are instead after something else.
I speculate that their motives are an unhealthy mix of the following:
1) Fear of the unknown (guns). 2) Fear of those unwashed “others” who might own guns. 3) Insecurity about their ability to protect themselves, with or without a gun. 4) Childlike desire for some big, burly father figure to protect them. 5) Childlike desire for a soft, pink, fluffy world with no sharp corners, threats or dangers. 6) Sublimated fear of penises/male power, as embodied by phallic guns. 7) Deep denial about the roots of violence in human nature and, by extension, their own capacity for violence. 8) A self-righteous belief in their own moral superiority.
When the Second Amendment was passed, a “militia” was commonly understood to be a group of armed citizens, such as those unofficial groups that resisted the British during the early days of the Revolutionary War. The old concept of a militia is best preserved today in Switzerland, where every male of military age belongs to the militia and keeps a fully automatic assault rifle in his house.
Thanks, Mr. Hartin, for yet another eloquent litany on this explosively controversial issue, which the media (with help from a whiny President Clinton) are already maneuvering front and center for the presidential race. As I’ve indicated in the past, I firmly agree with this view of the Second Amendment as the crucial recourse of private citizens against government tyranny, which world history shows can arise with stunning speed.
I’m very grateful for a just-arrived letter from John Coates, who notes of a column of mine from over a year ago that the great sociologist Erving Goffman (from whom Michel Foucault shamelessly pilfered) was not, as I said, American but in fact Canadian. This flabbergasted me, since Goffman’s entire career was spent in the United States. Sure enough, it turns out that Goffman (like Marshall McLuhan) was born in Alberta and received his B.A. from the University of Toronto in 1945. He received his graduate degrees from the University of Chicago, where he began teaching.
As a fan of Goffman from my college days, I wish I could have cited his Canadian roots in my Feb. 17 lecture at Fordham University, “The North American Intellectual Tradition,” the Second Annual Marshall McLuhan Lecture co-sponsored by the Canadian Consulate.
While the excerpt published in Toronto’s Globe and Mail did not mention Goffman, the original lecture did. I traced Goffman’s classic 1956 work, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” back to Thorstein Veblen and noted that both Veblen and Goffman were invoked in the pioneering work of Norman O. Brown.
I called Brown’s 1959 book, “Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History,” one of the great nonfiction works of the 20th century and declared, “It is what Michel Foucault longed to achieve but never did.” Throughout the lecture, I denounced the fatiguingly idolized Frankfurt School (notably Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno) for their “overschematic” and yet “imprecise” system of thought, which I find completely useless for analyzing the age of media or culture in general after World War II.
Finally, my top pop moments of the past three weeks:
1) Ava Gardner, with her moist red lips and bright green dress, lip-synching “Lovin’ That Man of Mine” in “Showboat” (1951), broadcast by Turner Classic Movies. This is the hypnotic scene that, when I saw the film at its first release (I was 4), turned me into a lifelong idolater of pagan goddesses.
2) Audrey Hepburn flouncing charmingly about as Holly Golightly (“Quel rat!”) in one of the seminal films of my adolescence, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), also broadcast by Turner Classic Movies. Like Kim Novak in “Bell, Book and Candle” (1958) and Hayley Mills in “The Parent Trap” (1961), Hepburn represented a physical and spiritual freedom that was electrifying in that cloistered, conventional era.
3) Bo Derek being interviewed last week on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” Derek’s mediocre acting career as a simpering, vapid Southern California blond did not prepare one for her amazing warmth and natural intelligence. Even her diction has Euro-class. How centered she seems! Derek has matured beautifully in ways that Madonna, for example, hasn’t, despite the latter’s still-manic claims of magical transformation by motherhood.
4) Congratulations to Maxim for yet another sensational cover photo. The March issue, with its blazing red headline, “Return of the Ultra Vixen!” fairly lit up the sky from 500 feet away at airport newsstands. Maxim’s talented art directors sure know how to feature a bust: The smoldering Jenny McCarthy in her bursting black-vinyl brassiere and short shorts looks like a bold ship’s figurehead — the Winged Victory of Samothrace on a midnight pirate raid. Month by month, Maxim is driving the last nails into the coffin of American Puritanism.
Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems." You can write her at this address.More Camille Paglia.
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)