"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 don’t really know. I was wasn’t there and someone of my age, 39, grew up precisely at that time 5 when we began to actually question the motives, the actions, the deeds and the (in sum) point of the oh-so-sacred activities — the songs, the protests, the sit-ins, the riots, man — of the 1960s; and I even went to Berkeley where you were indoctrinated into the utter righteousness of the guys who were on the very real front lines of a battle with cops and sometimes worse (National Guard troops!) with shields and bayonets and tear gas and actual guns 6; but I seem to remember that amid all the protest over, the clamor about, the hatred for the war one thing that a lot of people felt strongly about (beyond the dislike of Nixon, or Johnson, the debate of whether or not there were dominos dropping in Southeast Asia, whether the protests at home might be the catalyst for something bigger, something new, politically, that might change everything and really, for the first time, put power into the hand of the people) was the feeling, again I would think felt by just about everyone against the war, that amid their comforts, their stability, the opportunities open to them to do whatever they wanted, be what they wanted, in the most luxurious place in the most luxurious country in the most luxurious time in the history of the world, that there was something somehow off in the fact there was concurrently going on the expenditure of extraordinary sums, vast sums, lots of money, on steel, on rubber, on circuitry, on computers, on radar, fuel dials, switches, rotors, cams, pistons, stabilizers, all sorts of complicated stuff like that, all in the service of “delivery” — as the word of the time went, as some Pentagon apparatchik might have put it — of bombs up the asses of Vietnamese civilians.
You could oppose the Vietnam War for a lot of reasons, in other words, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone didn’t feel a little bit sorry for the sons of bitches on the ground up whose asses this grand old American armament was going — the city folk and the villagers, the farmers and shop workers, the old and the young, the married and the unmarried, it didn’t matter — those who, think of the worst, those most fucked-over by American society and then multiply it one-hundred-fold in this backward place, maybe, at the worse, were living in filth, raising their kids in filth, a subsistence existence in a Third World country, caught (from our perspective at least) by the grip of social and geopolitical forces they probably had no inkling of, much less considered with any thoroughness. And if like me you basically believe that people everywhere always are and have been the same, that the human psyche, crafted and evolved over millions of years, just isn’t going to change much over a few millennia — that you can get an insight into the behavior in Rome, into the Han Dynasty, the Golden Horde, the Jews, the Muslims, the Germans — if you basically think of them as Americans: dumb Southerners, arrogant Northeasterners, vacuous Angelenos, whatever, most of them selfish, greedy, solipsistic by nature despite occasional internal urges and less frequent external and acted-upon ones toward fairness or equality or unselfishness; if, in other words, you figure that your typical Vietnamese crowd could be just as ugly in its xenophobia, nationalistic urges and its ability to be led into less than honorable behavior by demagogues as any American — you can turn it around and put yourself in their shoes and you really, in the end, can’t really blame the individual participants in a crowd in that country and at that time for feeling, against whatever best instincts they might have been possessed of, nothing really magnanimous toward (you wouldn’t, that is, have expected them to roll out the red carpet or have a testimonial dinner for, invite into their house or introduce to their daughters, say) the guy who’d just been trying to stick a bomb up the asses of them and their kids, even if the guy in question had a devil-may-care grin, was known for being something of a hellion and quite a ladies man to boot, indeed, to the point of being not really straight arrow enough to have followed in the footsteps of his dad and grandpop and made anything close to admiral but kinda likeable just the same, not to mention the fact that he’d taken the effort and the time and the consideration of sailing and flying the 12,000 miles or so necessary across the Pacific Ocean to do so, even if, in the event, he’d been hit by anti-aircraft fire, been ejected from his plane, breaking a few limbs in the process, and fallen into a lake and been captured.
So when the writer talks up how the candidate was, how he followed a “Code” and didn’t accept an early release from his five years as a POW because of adherence to this “Code,” and thereby should be supported by “Young People” for president, you don’t think, Wow, what a great and principled writer, standing up for heroism and “The Code,” you don’t think that at all, you think, instead, it seems weird, this many years on, to sort of morally erase the situation of the Vietnamese from the theory, and to sort of forget what remains one of the few generally conceded ideas of the war, that just about everyone got a bit fucked in the pursuit of it, as befitting something with such suspicious origins; twisted, surreal operations; leavings that still catch one or another of us in moral flypaper to this day; and the ability still to put into sharp relief the odd concept, like, if I may cite just one example, “The Code” the writer talks about, which seems something puny in this context; aren’t those odd little fillips of military procedure designed mostly to occupy the mind of the poor saps out there doing the shooting, giving them odd, quirky abstract concepts to bite into in their unholy position? Because, for instance, given the future candidate’s injuries — three broken limbs and a knife wound in the groin, all untreated medically — it’s hard to believe that “The Code” actually applied to him; I mean, is that how it worked, really, that if there are five POWs together, then the earliest captured has to be released first, even if one is injured, with three medically untreated broken limbs and a knife wound in the groin? And also, how do you refuse to let someone release you from POW camp? What if they just toss you out the door? Do you come back in?
It’s not so much that the writer has to agree with any of this — he’s a famous writer and he can write anything he wants, whatever he believes whatever he feels as an artist he needs to say — but what he actually does say raises all these questions and he never seems to notice or care or ponder them himself. I don’t know why he doesn’t. It could be that he hasn’t thought about it. It could be that it was inconvenient for his argument and he wanted to avoid it. It could be that he’d thought about it but had a ready rhetorical response, something that would simply demolish everything a cynic might say, but just didn’t want to muddy the issue, didn’t want to go through a long and ornate and possibly cruel refutation of the feelings of anyone who would think that, so why bother? It could have been any of those things but I think it was something else. 7
But first a step back. The writer isn’t alone — everyone thinks the candidate’s a hero, no one talks about the Vietnamese up whose asses the candidate was trying to shove a bomb that night — but the writer was writing in a special place, The Magazine, which has an interesting history, having been at one point a striking repository for interesting journalism, a lot of interesting political journalism. With a couple of other outlets, notably the New York Herald Tribune Sunday Magazine, which became New York, which is kind of a shell now but used to be a central repository for what came to be called “The New Journalism,” the magazine did a lot of writing like this, nothing more radical and controversial, at that time, than publishing the work of Hunter S. Thompson, the political reporter. Hunter S. Thomson — fuck-up, hellion, honest-to-god agent provocateur, imp and menace (he was also a liar and really not liked by many people) — did two things: Dogged Nixon through the 1972 elections and Watergate, and then latched on to Jimmy Carter four years later. His sympathetic coverage in 1976 of someone who to the then-still-potent grail of the youth vote (this was still just the third presidential election after 18-year-olds got the vote) might otherwise had seem a genteel Southern cracker at best may have played a role both in Carter’s capturing the Democratic nomination and then, a few months later, by a very narrow margin 8, the presidency.
In an issue dated June 3, 1976, the magazine published a cover story: “Jimmy Carter & the Great Leap of Faith: An Endorsement, with Fear and Loathing, by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.” The riotous, 25,000-plus-word-long piece, amusing to this day, amid page after page of Thompson’s fencing with Secret Servicemen, with political aides, with Ted Kennedy, amid casual libels still potent today 9, presents a powerful portrait of Carter, based, as the author says in a rare burst both of self-disclosure and seeming honesty 10 on some two years of personal and professional experience watching the candidate. Thompson knew delegate counts, electoral history and campaign strategies; he was a reporter, doing the actual behind-the-scenes work of the beat man, talking to players, hearing what was up. As a by-product of all of this, in early 1974, he got wind of the campaign of a Southern Democratic governor not very well known to the rest of the country, and followed him for the next two years, culminating in the classic of political journalism that was called “Jimmy Carter & the Great Leap of Faith” and had a drawing of Carter with a Confederate flag wrapped over his shoulder on the cover and was called inside “Third-Rate Romance, Low-Rent Rendezvous” and was illustrated with a line drawing of Carter as a Cheshire cat, by all of which I mean to indicate — this would go without saying to those who grew up reading Thompson, but would not to those who didn’t — that Thompson in typical fashion spent a great deal more of the article detailing Carter’s faults than he does, at the end of a very long article, offering up, grudgingly, the almost careless opinion that he thought Carter might not be a bad president.
Compared to this, the writer’s article is two-day-old beer. (C’mon, you think, we’ve read this all before, the haggard, sleep-deprived journos, the monotony of life on the campaign trail, the hierarchy of the big-name reporters above the little-known ones, the jovial camaraderie that nonetheless develops …) And sometimes the writer comes off as a bit incredulous, as in one priceless, very long section in which the writer tells us that the networks news technicians — the sound and audio guys — know more about the campaign, and have a more sophisticated analysis of the campaign, than the news people 11, this variation on the old dependable of the common-sense-dispensing cabbie or barber having gone out with the fedora but in the writer’s hands and in the writer’s breathless, long-sentenced style continuing on here for a couple of columns, all in the service of detailing a purportedly sophisticated analysis of what the candidate should have done in South Carolina once his opponent 12 went negative on him, which “extraordinarily nuanced and sophisticated” assessment on the part of the tech guys’ being: If the candidate goes negative on his opponent in return, he’ll look bad. I’m not a famous author like the magazine writer but I think a lot of what the news tech guys were saying they’d heard from the political reporters they follow around all day.
But basically the writer was writing for dumb people — yeah, the tech guys really know what’s up, not like those TV people, stupid journalists! — and trying to get them to agree with him about how honest and sincere the candidate is, and how, perhaps, America’s Young People, understandably detached from the current political scene, might want to give him a chance, and how things have gotten so bad — yeah, Christ, time was when heroes could just be heroes! — that you can’t even tell whether to accept the seeming heroism of the candidate at face value, because he’s running for president and in varying degrees has to use sleazy techniques to forcefully represent himself as a non-sleazy politician, all to the end of trying to get the Young People he writes about to vote for the candidate, even speculating darkly that there are evil forces at work mitigating against just this eventuality and at one point he even asks a very important, very portentously phrased question 13, the real answer to which being something entirely different from the one he envisioned, to wit, that it’s possible that Young People don’t vote, don’t care about the process, feel apathetic (if indeed they do, because among many other journalistic failings of the article there’s actually no hard evidence in it that this is the case), not because evil people don’t want them to vote for the candidate but because they can sense in the mad homogenization of the media; in the pompousness of famous writers; in the contempt for their intelligence virtually palpable in an article that barely mentions the candidate’s positions on things like abortion and gun control among about 5,000 questionable Republican positions on things affecting the magazine’s readers; and in the intellectual vapidity that deems these issues (which are the things that matter, right, what the candidate stands for) less important that the image on which he based his campaign; that they can, in sum, sense in all of these issues what role in an arguably important event — a presidential election — has been taken by both the magazine and the writer 14. And one other thing as well 15.
1) David Foster Wallace, author of “The Broom of the System,” “Infinite Jest” and, more recently, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” a collection of journalism, acclaimed (“one of the big talents of his generation, a writer of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything,” as Michiko Kakutani put it in the NYT) and impossibly scruffy and hip, now the class author of choice for upscale general-interest magazines, known, perhaps most superficially, for his involuted, amusing style, with lots of long, breathless sentences, twisting and turning up hill and down dale where his whirling mind (as we’re supposed to understand) takes him; oddities like funny grammatical constructions, which constructions are illustrated here in this phrase; and the turning of conventional reporting on its head by the use of many devices, most famous among them many lengthy and discursive footnotes. This article is a parody of that technique, just as this sentence, with its deflating, post-modernist self-referentiality, is.
2) Rolling Stone, founded 1967, owned then as now by Jann Wenner, talent, impresario, genius but now, increasingly, vulgarian, star-fucking, too-rich pratt, circulation 1.2 million and change, a signal magazine, perhaps the signal American magazine of the mid part of the second half of the 20th century, having hitched its cart to pop culture’s wild ride during this time, and producing, along the way, arguably the era’s most riotous, honest, scintillating and irreverent melange of journalism in its widest sense — profiles, reporting, criticism, nonsense, most notoriously and justifiably, perhaps, for the writings of one Hunter S. Thompson, on whom more in a bit.
3) John McCain, born Aug. 29, 1936, Panama Canal Zone, son and grandson of admirals, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, 1958, member of U.S. Navy 1958-81, a prisoner of war from 1967-1973, recipient of Silver Star and Bronze Star among other things, a beer distributor from 1981 to 1982, married to Cindy McCain, no less than seven kids, now a senator from Arizona, and recently a candidate, as noted above, for the Republican presidential nomination and as such the subject of the magazine article at hand.
4) As the article notes, the then Navy pilot was shot down over Hanoi, ejected himself from his plane, breaking three limbs in the process, fell into a lake in a park in the middle of the city, was dragged out by bystanders and beaten up on top of the injuries he already had, including being bayoneted in the groin; was imprisoned without medical care, then offered release (because he was an admiral’s son), which was refused, Wallace writes, because of “The Code” — something about prisoners having to be released in the order they were captured. Because he did this voluntarily, Wallace writes, McCain has “the moral authority to utter lines about causes beyond self-interest and to expect us … to believe he means them. It feels like we know, for a proven fact, that he’s capable of devotion to something other, more, than his own self interest.”
5) The punk era, 1976, say, to 1979 or 80, call it the disco age if you want but historically punk’s attitudinal dyspepsia really did mark the moment, such that Rolling Stone at the time had a great deal of trouble, didn’t really know how to deal — were the Ramones a joke? Nazis? Racists? — and didn’t they — didn’t someone say — that Rod Stewart, Peter Townsend, heck even Mick, were just old and in the way and hey, that’s just a little out of line, man, Mick was king of the world when you were a twinkle in your momma’s eye.
6) “James Rector was shot right up there, on the roof on the corner of Telegraph and Dwight, the helicopters came from that direction, dropping the gas low over Sproul, it even hit the student hospital!”
7) I will explain what that something else is in a minute. But first, a step back.
8) 40,828,929 for Carter to 39,148,940 for Ford. The Electoral College vote was close, too — 297-240. A switch of a few thousand votes in just a couple of states would have given the election to Ford.
9) Humphrey — “Here was this monster, this shameful electrified corpse — giggling and raving and flapping his hands at the camera like he’s just been elected president. He looked like three iguanas in a feeding frenzy.” Nixon: “Criminally insane and also president of the United States for five years.”
10) “I have known Carter for more than two years and I have probably spent more private, human time with him than any other journalist on the ’76 campaign trail.”
11) “Leaving aside their coolness and esprit de corps, be advised that Rolling Stone’s [as Wallace calls himself in the article] single-luckiest journalistic accident this week was his bumbling into hanging around with these camera and sound guys. This is because network news techs [I elide here one of those Wallaceian interpolations, parodied often in this very article] turn out to be way more acute and sensible political analysts than anybody you’ll read or see on TV.”
12) George W. Bush.
13) “These for the most part are not lines of thinking that the culture we’ve grown up in has encouraged Young Voters to pursue. Why do you think that is?”
14) That of a tool.
15) That maybe postmodern writing has come to this, an obsession with surfaces and a disregard for history to an extent that the past with its uncomfortable complexities and harrying nature doesn’t matter; that political positions don’t matter; and that the historical context for one’s actions doesn’t matter either, and since contrarily what does resonate in a culture so defined is the surface the image the appearance, perhaps the role of the writer is merely to reflect, even encourage, even take advantage of, this state of affairs.
Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.More Bill Wyman.
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)