"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)
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Warren Zevon’s new record, href="/media/col/marc/2000/01/24/marcus12/index.html">“Life’ll Kill Ya,” is
prime Zevon. Toxic. Sardonic. Melodic.
One song’s refrain is, “My shit’s fucked
up.” In another, Zevon unsuccessfully
saws a woman in half. He covers that old
Steve Winwood hit “Back in the High Life
Again” with the resigned detachment of
someone sitting on death row in Texas
wearing a “Bush for President” button.
Zevon is an acquired taste, like sloe
gin … or capital punishment. He is
best known, perhaps, for his musical
stints for the href="/people/bc/1999/07/20/letterman/index.html">David Letterman show. You
may even remember “Werewolves of
London,” his novelty hit in the 1970s.
But Zevon is a highbrow. When he was a
young man, he was befriended by Igor
Stravinsky. Zevon himself can write a
symphony in his sleep. His best rock
songs are literate elegies about lawyers
and love and detoxing in Los Angeles.
I had lunch with Zevon recently on the
other coast. In New York. At
first Zevon seems as terse as an L.A.
“Where are you living?” I ask.
“Los Angeles.” Zevon spits out the name.
“The same place?” I ask. (I’m
unintentionally speaking in shorthand.
Thirty years ago he lived in Hollywood.
Is Zevon living in the same place?)
“The same place for a long, long time,”
“Where?” I ask again.
“Where in Hollywood?”
He frowns. “I’ll never be more specific
than that. It’s just a squalid apartment
“No,” he says, with an edge to his
voice. “I don’t think Tom Waits lives in
the Tropicana anymore.”
Oh course. Waits hasn’t lived there
since the 1970s. The same decade that
introduced Zevon records to the world.
I’ve followed Zevon’s personal mythology
for more than 20 years. I would have
imagined that we’d lunch in a joint with
proximity to lawyers, guns and money (to
appropriate one of his song titles). But
we’re not. His record company set us up
in a tea shop in Chelsea.
Yes, tea. I could have imagined Zevon
speaking tenderly of the perfect grip
of the Smith & Wesson model 41 match pistol,
but instead I’m sitting here and
he’s having a conversation with our
waitress about goddamn tea.
When she asks me what I want, I say,
“I’ll just have coffee.”
“We don’t serve coffee,” the waitress
says. She says this pleasantly, but she
says it like I must be an idiot.
I order hot chocolate. “No whipped cream
or anything,” I insist.
I’m having hot chocolate with Warren
Zevon? At least let us talk about
handguns. But when I bring up the
subject, he’s evasive. I ask if he owns
“I wouldn’t answer that if I did or
didn’t,” he says. “If I had enemies I
might want them to think I was heavily
armed and fortified. As opposed to
readily available and cheerfully,
good-naturedly available as we know that
I change the subject. “The new record is
great. Are you hearing that from
“Not too many have really heard it,” he
says. “I kinda made the record for six
people.” He says he recorded it for the
most part at home. “I thought this might
be my last album. I gave a tape to David
Letterman and he plugged it on the air.
At some point, I played it for Jackson
[Browne]. ‘I don’t think I’m gong to do
anything with it, but I think you should
hear it.’ We sat in my car and I played
it for him. He said, ‘Are you going to
do anything with these?’ I said, ‘I
dunno. Maybe not.’”
Brown knew a guy starting a label and
Zevon popped a tape in the mail. As
ambivalent as Zevon was, he had a new
“Your last few records sounded too much
like ‘Warren Zevon’ records,” I say.
“The new one sounds like you’re trying.”
“I’m always trying exactly the same
thing,” he says. “I don’t have any
agenda. No commercial ones.”
While the waitress sets up the tea and
hot chocolate, I ask Zevon for personal
details. He has a “significant other.”
He has two grown children — a son
who’s a film producer and an actress
daughter. Zevon then asks the waitress
for “phony sugar.” I look at the menu
for food. Everything is fishy. Does fish
go with tea? I don’t want fish. I ask
for something “bread-ish.” She suggests
Zevon doesn’t want anything to eat.
“Is your health OK?” I ask.
“I hope so,” he answers slowly. “I think
“I’m not asking because you’re not
eating,” I tell him. “There are three
different songs about health on the new
record. ["Life'll Kill Ya," "My Shit's
Fucked Up" and "Don't Let Us Get Sick."]
It made me think, ‘I hope he’s OK.’”
“It made me think that, too,” Zevon
says, sipping tea. “But I try not to
think about it too much. I write songs
about things that I’m simultaneously
trying to not think about.”
I’m silent a moment. “Do people expect
you to be a Graham Greene type?” I say.
“I’m more like Mao,” he answers. “He was
a nicer fellow. He was a lot better
writer. Don’t you think?” I don’t answer
right away. “Can I get a witness?” he
I smile. “My favorite Mao quote goes
something like, ‘After the enemies with
guns have been wiped out, it will be
time to wipe out our other enemies who
do not have guns.’”
Zevon smiles. He won’t talk about guns.
He takes a long sip of tea, then says,
“The fact of the matter is, what I am
actually, no one ever talks about. I’m
actually an art guy.”
“An art guy?” I repeat.
“Yeah. An art guy. That’s my job. That’s
what I know. I know an encyclopedic
amount about visual art. Poetry. And
music. Classical music especially. All
that stuff. That’s the actual rest of my
“Didn’t you go to Juilliard?” I ask.
“No,” he answers softly, “I didn’t
finish high school.” He then reveals he
wrote a classical piece a couple of
“What happened to it?”
“Could something happen if you wanted it
“I suppose so. It’s an orchestral piece.
Maybe there are orchestras that will
play a kind of pleasantly modern piece
by someone mildly famous. I assume it’s
kind of good. I played it for a couple
of people. I’m missing an ambitious link
in the presentation.”
I ask him what that means. He tells me,
“I have a tendency to finish things and
say, ‘That’s good.’” He pauses.
“Frankly, when I finished the initial
part of this record I wasn’t sure
whether I wanted to do anything with it.
One is conflicted by the need to make a
living, too. Something presents itself
and you have to write this theme for a
TV show. And they’ll humiliate you and
it will be hard work and you’ll get paid
and it will be great.”
“Have you done that?” I ask.
“Yes indeed,” he says, and tells me
about writing music for William Shatner.
Zevon even does a wicked imitation of
Capt. Kirk saying, “Wait! Don’t we need
more driving guitars here?”
“Hollywood is the big nipple for
writers,” I say. I get my scones. “I’d
sell out in a New York minute if I
actually had something anybody wanted to
“You should,” Zevon says. “You should.
Distinctions are kind of vague between
art with a capital A and art with two
R’s, don’t you think?”
It’s a rhetorical question. I don’t
answer. Instead I dunk my scone in my
“Which is better,” Zevon asks, “the
screenplay that William Faulkner wrote
for ‘The Big Sleep’ or ‘Absalom,
Absalom!’? Which is better: ‘Chinatown’
or ‘Tender Is the Night’? I had this
discussion with href="/books/feature/1999/03/cov_16feature.html">Ross Macdonald once.”
“The last one is easy,” I say.
Zevon gives a friendly smile. “That’s
what he said. Absolutely. And Macdonald
was a great Fitzgeraldian. In other
words, I don’t think you can sell out.
No one is interested. It’s important to
have those kinds of issues for yourself
every day, but no one really cares. They
shouldn’t care. The distinction between
a decent sitcom and what went on in the
index.html">Brooklyn Museum of art
are for others with idler hands than
ours to play around with, don’t you
think?” Without waiting for an answer,
he continues, “I started out in life
writing serial music when I was 12 years
old. Writing [Pierre] Boulez and [Karlheinz] Stockhausen. So
I know a little something about
self-declared fine art.”
“What exactly is ‘serial music’ anyway?”
“Twelve-tone music,” he says, then rubs
his face. “Oh God, you don’t want to
know. It’s a paradigm. A technique. It’s
a way to cloak an uninspired
composition. With simple melodic music,
you know right away it’s bad.”
“How did you learn it as a kid?”
“Just like a model airplane kind of
deal,” he answers.
I ask, “Were you a prodigy?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t think I was
prodigiously talented. But people took
an interest in me. Robert Kraft. Know
who he is? He’s a writer and a
conductor. I think he tried to get a
grant for me when I was a teenager.”
“How did you go from 12-tone to rock ‘n’
“Peer pressure. Puberty. There’s more
that’s better in popular music than
classical music. Classical music was
popular music in the 19th century.”
I ask him, “What led you to stake out
the noir ‘Roland the Headless Thompson
He answers, “It just sort of happened. I
wrote like what I’d always read and what
was in the movies. I read every word of
[Norman] Mailer growing up. And [John] Updike. And not
being in school I hadn’t read the
classics. [Thomas] McGuane once told me
that he read Flaubert for my sins. If I
thought about it, and I may have, I
thought, ‘I’m sure popular music is
supposed to be like this.’”
“Did Jackson Browne help you get
started?” I ask.
He doesn’t really answer the question,
but he does. “I was always starting. I
always worked as a musician one way or
another. Jackson Browne comes along
every 15 years and helps me get a job as
Warren Zevon. I’ve done other things. TV
themes. The first thing I did in the
1960s, when I was a kid, was write
He tells me that he scored the famous
ketchup commercial where a whole tomato
sits on the bottle and then magically
appears inside. As he talks, Japanese
flute music starts playing. (God, I
really hate this tea joint!) At this
point, Zevon notices that I’m carrying a
book about suicide with me. I tell Zevon
I once interviewed the woman who wrote
it. “She claims only maniac depressives
kill themselves,” I say, and then tell
Zevon, “I’ve always believed if things
got really bad — if my shit ever got
really fucked up — I’d kill myself
rather than go to a concentration camp
“Do you?” he asks me, raising an
“Yeah,” I answer. I polish off a scone.
“I think that’s a mistake,” Zevon says.
“We don’t know enough shit.” He says
that and the Japanese flute starts
really wailing away like the soundtrack
to an Akira Kurosawa movie. “We don’t know
enough to make any decisions. I wouldn’t
set myself up to make those decisions.”
“My wife is into the Eastern shit,” I
say, pointing at the air as if the flute
music was visible.
“And she doesn’t agree with you, does
she?” Zevon says.
“No,” I answer. “The karma of it –”
“No,” he says quickly. “It’s not just
the karma. The Tao says, ‘Old men like
being old and young men like being
young. And good is good, and bad is good
too.’ As my father used to say in his
late 80s, ‘It’s all good.’ But I don’t
get depressed. I don’t know.” He raises
his teacup. “I’m insane. I’m fucked up.
I have problems. But I don’t get
depressed and I don’t get bored.”
He downs the rest of his tea in a single
gulp. No gongs ring, but I guess my
lesson is over.
Life’ll kill ya …
David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."More David Bowman.
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)