"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)
Bob Jones University is a beautiful place. I know. I’ve been there.
I’ve walked beneath the arcing fountains embellished with multicolored lights. I’ve weaved my way down the yellow brick walkways that slice through almost-too-green grass. I’ve trod among the well-groomed Christian scholars as they herd to morning chapel, clutching dogeared Bibles, all of them sharing at least one thing — their love of and trust in God.
Well, two things, really. The students at Bob Jones University are almost all, like me, white. The girl on my arm, however, is not.
In case you’ve just returned from a lengthy prison sentence, let me fill you in: Bob Jones University has in one short month gone from being a small, rather nontoxic Christian college in Greenville, S.C., to a symbol of monomaniacal right-wing intolerance.
A number of politicians, including Ronald Reagan, Alan Keyes, Bob Dole and Dan Quayle, have visited the school in the past. Their appearances didn’t have the same fallout as when presidential hopeful George W. Bush made it a stop on his campaign trail. Sen. John McCain was quick to condemn the appearance because of the school’s intolerance toward Catholics and its policy that forbade interracial relationships. The theory is that mixed breeding could lead to the destruction of earth and disintegration of humankind as we know it, according to Genesis 10 and 11, in which God destroys the Tower of Babel, scattering humans across the globe to prevent them from creating a one-world government. Sound like a stretch? “The university wishes to give God the benefit of the doubt,” explains the BJU Web site.
Bob Jones III, president of BJU (or “Dr. Bob,” as he is affectionately known to students and faculty), made a March 3 appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” During the show, Jones offhandedly remarked, “As of today, we have dropped the [interracial ban].” Three days later, Dr. Bob clarified his statement, saying that students would need to submit a signed parental consent form to the dean before the school would allow them to commingle. The policy was further modified two days after that; now students are asked to inform their parents about any interracial relationship, and if the parents disapprove, the messed-up delinquents will be referred to a campus counselor.
In a March 3 “Letter to the Nation” printed in full-page ads in USA Today and South Carolina’s three biggest newspapers, Dr. Bob implored the nation, “Racially bigoted? You decide.”
And, well, I had a couple of days off.
I am white and 24. Denise is black and 22. Although neither of us was sure what BJU defines as a “serious dating relationship,” we figured it was somewhere between first and third base. We also knew of several campus taboos: no alcohol, tobacco or rock music, no holding hands and no sitting closer than 6 inches for members of the opposite sex.
We considered driving around campus in a four-wheeler airbrushed with the slogan “Pope-Mobile 2000,” blasting “Welcome to the Jungle” from a boombox and throwing our cigarette butts into empty Schlitz cans, but that seemed too sacrilegious. So Denise and I hit the campus grounds on foot, tucked and buttoned into our Sunday best and full of ersatz evangelical zeal. To get the full campus tour, I thought I’d pose as a gung-ho prospective student who, along with my chocolate honey bear, had managed to avoid every single newspaper and television and radio broadcast in the past six weeks. I was either a hermit or an imbecile.
Craig, a senior in the humanities department, meets us at the admissions desk. He is gregarious, charming — why, downright neighborly. His blond hair is perfectly combed. He makes pleasing small talk. He slings a blue blazer over his starched-cotton shoulder as we walk.
I take Denise’s hand.
“You know, I’m surprised you haven’t heard more about this place,” Craig says without missing a beat, still sounding friendly, a little too friendly. “All the press has been really misrepresentative.”
I nod dumbly. Craig hands us over to Michelle, the tour guide, saying, “These are my friends Denise and Daniel.” We are still holding hands, but Michelle determinedly doesn’t notice. Michelle is a third-generation Bob Jones disciple, a grad student only months away from graduating. Despite this impressive educational record, she has forgotten how to look downward.
The first place Michelle takes us is the “Dating Room,” a place where couples can “be together.” Dating Room activities include chess, pool, Ping-Pong, Foosball and sitting an arm’s length apart from each other. The room is open until 10 most nights, except for Wednesdays, when it closes early for prayer sessions. The campus curfew is 10:25 p.m., and small-group prayer lasts until 10:45 p.m. A bell signifies lights out at 11 p.m.
Then we visit the library, where I do a quick flip through the BJU yearbooks. For 1970, the year blacks were first admitted to BJU, I find the grinning mug of a lone black student. In 1980, I see six. By 1990, the figure has grown to 20. And in 1999, there are 24 blacks (out of a total student body of 3,500). As its Web site proudly declares, “BJU is not here to teach men and women how to make a living, but more importantly, how to live.”
The students — “the bright, happy faces of redeemed students,” the BJU Web site insists — look like the cast of a high school theater adaptation of Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street.” Because of their crisp shirts, ties and coats, the men naturally carry their shoulders back and, instead of sauntering like slackers, buzz about as if they have some important meeting to make and some poor sucker to fire. The women, meanwhile, float by in the distinctive, quick shuffle of someone wearing a very long skirt. Long hemlines and hosiery are the school uniform.
A female student notices that part of Denise’s bra is visible through a slit in the back of her blouse, and she is compelled to tell me about it in a manic whisper, a fluttering hand over her heaving chest, as if I should take charge of the scandalous situation. Indeed I do, leaning over and admiring the stunning ensemble.
Denise and I pick a spot heavy with cross-campus traffic and sit close together, making a point of flashing our pearly whites and laughing with the jolly, carefree mirth of young interracial love. The students pass, and look. It is a complex, three-part maneuver: First, from afar, they acknowledge us with a sort of surprised recognition. Then they look away, brace themselves emotionally and check again, this time for anywhere from 0.8 to 2.6 seconds. Not wanting to be too blatant, they proceed staring straight ahead until they are dead even with us. Then they shoot us a final peek with a flash of their eyes.
Of course, beneath our jocular coquetry, Denise and I are doing the exact same thing.
The looks are not easy to decode. They are looks of suspicion but also of pointed disengagement. So Denise and I push it up a notch and hold hands. We get the same looks.
I put my arm around her. Same looks.
I play with her hair. She grabs my side. I touch her thigh. She puts her knee over mine. She whispers sweet nothings in my ear. I lean in, behind her, touching the back of her neck.
The same looks: hesitant, distrustful, but only marginally interested. Where’s the indignant rage? Perhaps the only thing that will arouse them sufficiently is a full-on, scratches-down-the-back, candle-wax-on-the-nipples, NC-17 make-out session.
In desperation, we turn to a nearby student for advice about being a mixed-race couple at BJU.
“The only thing I’d worry about,” says a pretty blond named Radha, leaning in and smiling, “is that some students may think you’re with the press.”
It turns out, in recent weeks many well-dressed journalists have lurked outside the snack bar with concealed microphones and palmed tape recorders. Looking at us, students probably can’t even decide what issue to worry about first — that we’re an interracial couple, that we’re making a public display of affection or that we might be from “60 Minutes,” shooting low-resolution videos from our secret eyeglass cameras. While some students may be embarrassed by the school’s policies, the full-court press they’ve been subjected to may explain their response of resounding silence.
“The media is irresponsible and ruthless,” a speaker reads from a letter penned by the absent Dr. Bob. We’re at the daily 11 a.m. chapel service, and the speaker is addressing a group in FMA Hall, a huge, red-carpeted facility that seats 7,000 and was the site of the infamous address by Bush. Denise and I act like salmon and merge into the stream of BJU students. The subterfuge doesn’t completely work — at least four young men in coats and ties demand, “Are you a student?” I give them a reassuring but complexly noncommittal gesture before ducking into the throng.
Today’s chapel message addresses the sins of the fool, which include “slander, perverse lips, contention and rage.” It is a thinly veiled reference to the media, and I wonder if before I even got here the media had already overplayed its hand; it has certainly overstayed its welcome.
BJU is no longer granting any interviews, and members of the press are forbidden on school grounds. But before I go, I want to get some student quotes. So I sneak gingerly on the outskirts of the campus, approaching only friendly-looking students in small packs. When I reveal myself as media, however, their eyes cloud over and their voices adopt an icy, formal politeness with just a slight edge of “get out of my sight” disgust. “You need to talk to [university spokesman] Jonathan Pait,” one student says in a monotone.
“You need to get off campus,” says another.
This is no longer much fun, for I am suddenly the unwelcome minority. I can feel eyes on my back and hear mutterings about my insincerity. My cover is blown, I’m sure of it. I start watching for campus security. Scary-looking men are coming at me from all sides, but I can’t distinguish the adults from the students. They’re all wearing power ties. They’re all wearing dress slacks. My only hope is to assume I am in the cross hairs, so I put my head down and set off in an elusive zigzag pattern for the getaway car, where Denise — I hope — is waiting with the engine running.
On the way out, I run into Jenny, a Hispanic sophomore who assumes I am a prospective student. I have nothing to fear, she insists. “I’d compare the [interracial] rule to if you were dating a rebel or troublemaker,” she says. “Your parents would want to know about it, and if it’s OK with them, it’s OK with the university.”
Although it shows signs of striving to reach some brand of acceptance, the troubled analogy between black and troublemaker is not far from Dr. Bob’s own “Letter to the Nation” — according to which BJU’s “racial harmony” is demonstrated through student volunteer work, which is described as “working with children from broken or abusive homes, teaching literacy, cleaning up litter, repairing homes of the downtrodden, ministering to prisoners …” Although Dr. Bob continues, “The volunteer efforts cross all racial lines and go into all segments of the community,” his implication is clear: black = destitute.
“It’s not like we’re racist or segregationist or make people sit at a different table,” says Darren, an auto-diesel major who is sitting with his girlfriend, Sarah. “I think it was the right time to change the rule and that the people were behind it.”
But from the moment she sees me, Sarah suspects that I’m with the media and demands to know, “Where are you from?” I don’t want to face those disgusted looks again. I don’t want to be mistrusted. Sometimes, just like the BJU students, despite my good intentions, I am judged not by who I am but by who I appear to be.
So I answer honestly, for the first time, about where I am really from.
“Iowa,” I say.
Daniel Kraus is the director of the award-winning film "Jefftowne."More Daniel Kraus.
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)