"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)
The sound you hear on your MP3Lit audio clip is the flushing of “social capital” down the drain, the glub-glub of expiring citizenship, the death gurgle of American fraternity, sorority, reciprocity, solidarity and volunteer-fire-brigade togetherness.
In “Bowling Alone,” Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam crunches numbers to indicate that by just about every conceivable measure — from voter turnout and Sunday school attendance to the habits we report, the opinions we express and the fears we confide to pollsters, social scientists, people meters, time diaries and the “DDB Needham Life Style” archive — we are less inclined than we used to be to leave the house for any reason except work. Nor do we invite folks over as often for games of bridge, hands of poker, kinky sex or plotting coups. Since 1968, “civic engagements” of every sort have plunged by 20 to 40 percent across the American board, irrespective of race, creed, class, income, marital status and erogenous zones. Fewer of us trust our neighbors or our institutions, volunteer our time or energy, pitch in or help out. Whether for meetings of the school board, the union local, the Odd Fellows, the Boy Scouts or Hadassah, we are failing to show up. We even write fewer letters to editors and members of Congress.
Everywhere that Putnam looks, he sees a rising tide of apathy and a downward trajectory to “malaise.” In this unbrave new Malaisia, it’s not just that we are a third less likely to attend town meetings and donate blood than Americans were in the ’60s, or that we give a smaller percentage of our income to charity — that we are less Masonic, less Jaycee and less in league with women voters. If formal religious worship has fallen only 10 percent, participation in the social life of the church or the synagogue, from Bible studies to potluck picnics, has dropped by a third since the ’60s and a half since the ’50s. The figures are likewise down, by 10 to 20 percent in the past two decades, for fishing, hunting, camping, skiing, jogging, swimming, tennis, softball, football and volleyball. All the women playing sports (after Title IX) and all the children playing soccer (now that there are college scholarships), all the 12-steppers and all the New Age encounter groupies, don’t make up for huge defections elsewhere in the culture. More than twice as many adults have dropped out of league bowling in the past 20 years than have ever been in all of the self-help programs combined, including Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous.
While the gross numbers may be up for memberships in professional societies, the proportions are down, considering how many more professionals there are now. (For instance, the ratio of lawyers to the rest of us has doubled since 1970, maybe because the rest of us no longer trust anybody unless we have a legal contract plus our personal pit bull. But the American Bar Association’s “market share” of this excess fell a third in the same three decades.) The picture’s even bleaker if we look for members who do more than merely pay their dues. And don’t tell me that you’re a card-carrying member of the ACLU, the Children’s Defense Fund, Greenpeace and Amnesty International. So am I. And neither of us has gone to a single meeting of any of these organizations. Instead, we’ve written a check for a lobbying group with a professional staff in Washington or New York. We could be living right next door to each other and not know that we are “members” of the same interest group. We are, instead, “consumers” of a direct-mail cause.
In other words, like a bunch of hippies, we are dropping out. Unless, that is, we happen to have been born between 1910 and 1940 — in which case we belong to Putnam’s “long civic generation” and can be counted on to do a lot more good than those narcissistic baby boomers, who, when they aren’t pushing money through their modems, are probably watching soft porn on cable television. When handing out blame for our antisocial funk, Putnam assigns the biggest chunk to self-involved boomers, the next biggest to time-stealing television and smaller percentiles to mobility and urban sprawl (relocation, the lonely commute), financial anxiety (fear of falling, downsized syndrome), workplace blues (what we used to call the alienation of labor), working mothers (there goes the PTA) and a general agnosticism or paranoia about reality itself. He sees little evidence that the behavior of government, the decline of the traditional family or the advent of rap music and the Internet has much to do with it. He should at least have mentioned the designated hitter in American League baseball.
Of course, Putnam is guessing. And so will I.
It’s always fun to beat up on boomers with a stick. And they will certainly be sorry. They’ll be sorry, first of all, because joining a group is good for everybody. “Civic virtues,” Putnam notes, tend to “cluster.” If you belong to a service club, you’re more likely to volunteer in a meals-on-wheels or reading program, contribute to a library building fund and vote for a school or sewer bond. Thus, as if by shrewd investment, a single act of wandering into a “domain of sociability” multiplies to help create the social capital that trickles down to benefit education, health, seniors, children and the lonely, needy and strange. (My favorite odd datum in this fact-filled book is that people who listen to lots of classical music are more likely to attend Cubs games than people who don’t.)
The boomers will be even sorrier, second of all, because joining is better for body and soul. Medical studies suggest it’s healthier to get out of the house: “As a rough rule of thumb,” Putnam tells us, “if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half. If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a tossup statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining.”
Otherwise, move to North Dakota (for reasons I won’t go into, although Putnam does at length, North Dakota is a social-capital exception to the sullen rule of Malaisia) and wait for a revival of something like the Progressive movement that saved us from the social Darwinism of the Gilded Age almost exactly a century ago. (E-mail and Web bulletin boards could help if they encouraged us to meet face to face with like-minded strangers and raise some political hell.)
Rather touchingly, Putnam suggests that the goals of such a revival would be campaign finance reform and citizens who voted as if they were fans; reduction of the criminal discrepancy between rich and poor; a more family-friendly and community-congenial workplace; fewer cars and more pedestrians in our neighborhoods and public spaces; less television in our wired caves and more singalongs, theater festivals and break dancing in our streets. While he’s at it, I would like my Volkswagen bug back, the one with the daisies on it.
Thus ends the synopsis. Now begins the rant.
Let me say this about crybaby boomers. The reason they weep is that all that they wanted in the idealistic ’60s was social justice, racial harmony, peaceable kingdoms, multiple orgasms and Joan Baez. What they got, besides assassinations and the tantrums of the cadres, was Richard Nixon and AIDS.
Let me say this about television. Yes, the same people who own it also own everything else. And they commune with their mystical parts by the medium of ad agencies whose hypnotherapeutic practice is, as Barbara Ehrenreich once explained, to sell us cars by promising adventure and to sell us beer by promising friendship. And it is obviously not in the best commercial interests of such ownership to devote a lot of time to bad-news programs about declining cities, the race war, foreign-policy adventurism, indeterminate sexuality, corporate predation or anything else that readers of Putnam or Salon can be counted on to care about.
But the surprise is, if you actually watch television, it’s not as bad as it ought to be, and certainly not as bad as people like Putnam say it is. I’m not just talking about the remedial seriousness of public-television series like “Frontline” and “P.O.V.,” Bill Moyers on Iran-contra, Frederick Wiseman on public housing, Ofra Bickel on the satanic ritual abuse hysteria, “Tongues Untied” and “Eyes on the Prize.” Nor do I speak of C-Span’s pair of citizen bands, its basilisk eye on Congress and its book-chat programs. Nor Discovery’s remarkable miniseries on the CIA, David Halberstam’s History Channel account of the 1950s, Neal Gabler’s A&E meditation on Jews, movies and the American Dream, John Frankenheimer’s films for HBO and TNT on Attica and George Wallace, the development on premium cable of documentary units like HBO’s “America Uncovered” (capital punishment and homophobia) and Cinemax’s “Reel Life” (war crimes against Muslim women in Bosnia and the rape of Ecuador’s rain forest by American oil companies) and not even our very good fortune that distributorless movies like Anjelica Huston’s “Bastard Out of Carolina” and Adrian Lyne’s “Lolita” show up on Showtime.
Never mind any of this, and the Lifetime Women’s Film Festival, and Bravo’s exposis of journalists on junkets, and cable movies that take the risky sort of chances from which networks and public TV flinch. The fact remains that, in spite of Jerry Springer, commercial television, in its movies, its dramatic series and even its sitcoms, has more to tell us about common decency, civil discourse and social justice than big-screen Hollywood, big-time magazine journalism and most book publishers.
Seeking to please or distract as many people as possible, to assemble and divert multitudes, TV is famously inclusive, with a huge stake in consensus. Of course, brokering social and political gridlock, it softens lines and edges to make a prettier picture. But it is also weirdly democratic, multicultural, Utopian, quixotic and rather more welcoming of difference and diversity than the audience watching it. It has been overwhelmingly pro-gun control and anti-death penalty; sympathetic to the homeless and the ecosystem; alert to alcoholism, child abuse, spouse battering, sexual discrimination and harassment, date rape and medical malpractice. It was worried about AIDS as early as 1983 in an episode of “St. Elsewhere,” 10 years before Tom Hanks appeared in “Philadelphia.” And television — where the ad cult meets the melting pot to stipulate a colorblind consumer — may be the only American institution outside of the public schools to still believe in and celebrate integration of the races.
Until Harvard can explain why the nation got so mean while TV was telling us to be nicer to women, children, minorities, immigrants, poor people, sick people, old people, odd people and strangers, one of its professors shouldn’t say that “prevailing television coverage of problems such as poverty leads viewers to attribute those problems to individual rather than societal failings and thus to shirk our own responsibility for helping to solve them” — because it isn’t true.
And let me say this about bowling. In fact, even now, hardly anybody bowls alone. Bowling as we know it derives from an ancient Polynesian ritual called ula maika, in which stones were hurled at standing objects from a distance of 60 feet. Nobody knows why, but 60 feet it remains today. And since bowling got gentrified, with boys replaced by automatic pinsetters, alleys renamed “lanes” and the availability of slim-line plastic contour chairs in multiple pastel hues and compressed-air blowers to cool the warriors’ sweaty palms, it has become, as Putnam tells us, “the most popular competitive sport in America.”
Bowlers outnumber joggers and golfers by two to one, soccer players by three to one and tennis players by four to one. Ninety-one million of us bowled in 1996, 25 percent more of us than voted in the 1998 congressional elections. What pains Putnam is that fewer of us bowl as members of a team, in a league, in a domain of sociability where “cohorts” develop cooperative habits and skills. While the total number of bowlers in America increased 10 percent between 1980 and 1993, league bowling fell by more than 40 percent.
What he neglects to mention is that many of us who used to go bowling with our families, or on dates, were driven out of the game in the 1970s by the very leagues he celebrates (who monopolized most of the lanes) and the very teams whose dismemberment he mourns (who sneered at civilians). About these teams you should know that their principal business, in green Shantung jackets with Aztec serpent totems and bulging purple stretch pants, was to topple themselves with as many beers as soon as possible. As composer Frank Zappa once observed:
Consumption of beer leads to military behavior. One day you’re going to read about some scientist discovering that hops, in conjunction with certain strains of “yeast creatures,” has a mysterious effect on some newly discovered region of the brain, making people want to kill — but only in groups. With whisky, you might want to murder your girlfriend — but beer makes you want to do it with your buddies watching.
I am inclined to think that such groups have about as much civic virtue as, say, gangbangers, the Ku Klux Klan and the Michigan and Montana militias — all equally blotto on bottled bile. Putnam himself has observed that religious fundamentalists in general, and Operation Rescue activists in particular, are exceptions to the general trend toward Malaisian noninvolvement. Some of us are actually relieved that the annual membership renewal rate of the National Rifle Association is only 25 percent, that the Promise Keepers can no longer fill a football stadium and that the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority are as much mail-order consumer causes as the National Audubon Society and the L.L. Bean catalog. Some of us moved to big cities in the first place to escape small-town book burners.
Anyway, with the ebbing of the leagues, those of us who have tried once more to bowl find to our astonishment that we are required to relinquish one of our own street shoes before we will be allowed to borrow, for a price, a pair of ratty rentals. They don’t trust us. Imagine that.
And so I come to my last big qualm about this fascinating and meticulous scorecard on “bonding” and “bridging,” machers and schmoozers, the rise of rap and the decline of newspapers, these 24 chapters, three appendixes, a hundred charts, a thousand footnotes, this encyclopedia of industrial averages of a market for meaning so bearish that the suicide rate for our youngsters has almost tripled. I wonder if some of our suspicion — of institutions, of groups and of strangers — hasn’t been thrust upon us like a lousy credit rating.
There is the insurance agency finding a reason to refuse our claim, the HMO deciding we have the wrong disease, the bank-owned credit card company compounding its own interest and the employer who listens in on our phone calls and voice mail, reads our e-mail and computer files, videotapes our workstation and sucks our blood to test for drugs. There is the corporate branding of our commons, the spin-doctor scripting of our public life and the malign neglect of our public schools. There is soft money, hate radio, the gated communities that instruct us what flowers to plant and which colors to paint our gingerbread houses, the malls that abolish our First Amendment right to free speech and assembly and, wherever we look, urban spaces increasingly militarized — what Mike Davis in “City of Quartz” called “the architectural policing of social boundaries” and “the totalitarian semiotics of ramparts and battlements.”
So determined was Los Angeles, you’ll remember, to make sure that its upscale downtown merchants would be forever safe from another Watts riot that, starting in the ’70s, it became a fortress, with corporate citadels and surveillance towers, elevated “pedways” and subterranean concourses, “tourist bubble” parks and panopticonic shopping strips, residential enclaves like hardened missile silos and libraries like dry-docked dreadnoughts. Add to this a pacification of the human-landfill poor in strategic-hamlet housing projects, urban Bantustans and Bedouin encampments on barricaded streets in inner-city neighborhoods bereft of public toilets (“crime scenes”) and zoned against cellphones and whistling, with barrel-shaped bus benches to make sure you can’t sleep on them, caged cash registers in convenience stores, bulletproof acrylic turnstiles in fast-food joints, metal detectors in hospitals, lockdowns in elementary schools and curfews that outlaw groups of more than two juveniles from “associating in public view” in their own front yards.
And, as Davis reported in his sequel to “City of Quartz,” “Ecology of Fear,” it worked. No sooner had Simi Valley acquitted the cops who rioted all over Rodney King than “sentient” buildings with mainframe brains went into prevent mode. Steel gates rolled down over entrances to the great bank towers, escalators froze, electronic locks sealed off pedestrian passages and a financial district prophylacticked against sans-culottes went on happily recycling Japan’s trade surplus into Southland turf and surf. Too bad about the Koreans. Too late for the rest of us.
Community for whom? It smells like team spirit. I look at what they have done to us and I am reminded of an old English proverb: “They agree like bells; they want nothing but hanging.”
John Leonard is the Culture Watch columnist for the Nation, media critic for "CBS Sunday Morning" and television critic for New York magazine.More John Leonard.
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)