"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)
Topics: Entertainment News
Cynthia Plaster Caster became famous in the 1960s for making plaster casts of rock stars’ penises, and she’s honest about what inspired her. Her work is not a commentary on the sexual revolution, she says, nor a statement about the nature of celebrity. She doesn’t glorify what she — and her artwork — is all about. She’s just a woman with a sly sense of humor and a passion for rock ‘n’ roll — and men.
Back in 1966, when she was a 19-year-old art college student (and frustrated virgin) in Chicago, her professor gave Cynthia a weekend assignment to make a plaster cast of “something solid.” She and one of her aspiring groupie friends knew what they had to do next. Cynthia didn’t succeed in casting anyone that weekend, but her plaster casting supplies got her introduced to Paul Revere and the Raiders. (She succeeded on another level, however, when she lost her virginity that weekend to lead singer Mark Lindsay.) She was hooked: Handing out her “Plaster Caster” calling cards was enough to set her ahead of the groupie pack.
After experimenting with different casting materials including wax, clay and aluminum foil, she perfected her technique with dental alginates. Soon, she was meeting rock legends from Keith Moon to Jimi Hendrix (the largest cast in her collection). Later, she was the subject of the 1977 Kiss song “Plaster Caster” and Frank Zappa became her patron.
While being a groupie and plaster casting are still heavily identified with the rock excesses of the ’60s, Cynthia is, in fact, still relatively active in her hobby. Her recent subjects include Momus, Jello Biafra, Jon Langford of the Mekons and Ronnie Barnett of the Muffs; and she has her eye on Jarvis Cocker of Pulp. She recently dusted off her phallic castings for an exhibit, which runs through July 29 at New York’s Thread Waxing Space, and a new documentary titled “Plaster Caster” will be released in 2001.
Now 53, with auburn-and-blond streaked hair, Cynthia doesn’t look a day over 35. She doesn’t have a boyfriend, but “there are some cutie-pies out there that I’m acquainted with,” she says. Above all, she doesn’t shy away from discussing her encounters with favorite rockers and their not-so-private parts.
You’ve been described as a groupie and as an artist. Which label is more appropriate?
Both equally. What is a groupie and what isn’t a groupie? That is a long, involved answer. Even though I may not be actively a groupie at all times, I feel like I’ve got groupie in my blood. Not that I’m about to join Groupies Anonymous anytime soon. But I’m also an artist and a collector. And a fan.
You don’t have a problem with the word “groupie”?
Hell no! Well, It does have a stigma attached to it, but it really shouldn’t. There are different definitions in different dictionaries. I read one that said a groupie is a young girl who pursues musicians in order to have sex with them. I’m not young, and I know male groupies. I don’t think you even always have sex to be called a groupie. You can want to have it. There’s a lot of legitimate groupies; they want to have sex with musicians but they have jobs related to music. And they’re in total denial about being groupies, and I think that’s pathetic. What’s wrong with being attracted to sexy men who make fabulous music and are really smart? And occasionally are fabulous in bed!
Why are sex and rock ‘n’ roll so intertwined?
It could have something to do with the beat, which resembles a good fuck sometimes [laughs]. I’ve actually been sexually stimulated by the sound of a really sexy tune; it would draw me to men, more than their looks sometimes. And then it was always helpful if they were good-looking too!
Your work is so heavily identified with the ’60s. Why is it still relevant today?
I’m really happy that people want to get cast. I don’t know if it’s a backlash to the AIDS scare, or just that a lot of guys may want to be on the same mantelpiece as Jimi Hendrix. They seem to be more interested than they ever were.
Are you more well-known today?
Yeah, I seem to be. It’s cool, but it’s strange. My partner and I never did it to become famous.
Why did you keep doing it if it wasn’t for fame?
Initially it was to get laid because we were shy. And then when we finally got around to learning how to do it, it kind of backfired for me in the sex department, because I wound up being the mold mixer, and I hardly got laid as a result! First it was a shtick to get laid, and then as it progressed, I got this collector’s impulse to collect more and more. And then people told me it was art, and it is art in the school of Andy Warhol, art repetition.
What’s the criteria for people you decide to cast now?
In my mind, they have to be superheroic and talented. Not just musical. I have a soft spot for artists in general. I’m interested in maybe a cool politician — Rev. Jesse Jackson, whoa, man! Top of my hit list, honey!
Have you tried to get into the political arena?
No, it’s tough. And I don’t really pursue it anymore. If I get introduced to someone, I like for these guys to get to know me and for me to get to know them so we can get comfortable with each other. ‘Cause it’s also done for fun! And everyone should have a good time. Especially the stimulator.
Do you do any of your own stimulating?
Ironically, I have been doubling roles lately at my advanced age! Which is fun. I’ve done it a few times.
Is it hard for you to do both?
It is. It’s hard to coordinate. For the subject’s sake, it’s really not recommended. It was originally called the Plaster Casters, two girls in Chicago.
Do you have a partner now?
I used to, I have a couple of them. Lately, I prefer to work with the wife or girlfriend or boyfriend. I have yet to cast a gay man, but I look forward to it someday. It’s just better to do it with their partner: Everybody’s happy, they’re good to each other. It’s not really the most sexy of processes. Especially my role, trying to mix that perfect batch of alginate.
I was wondering if it ever felt sexy for you. It seems like it would be too clinical.
It is, and it should be. I really need to stay focused on getting that alginate mold just right, so the negative impression is perfect, all the veins are captured. So I have to leave all the sexiness up to the partner.
What was it like casting Jimi Hendrix?
Casting Jimi was too unreal — I just couldn’t believe it was me and my girlfriends who made it up to his hotel room, against all the other groupie competition. He was a casting dream. When his pubes got stuck in the mold because I didn’t lube them enough, he didn’t freak out at all. Just very patiently fucked the mold while he waited for me to pull out one pube at a time.
How did you end up with Keith Moon’s pant leg, but no plaster cast of him?
I met Keith Moon in the early formative days of the Plaster Casters when we were just trotting around our kit from hotel room to room without knowing exactly how to cast dick. Keith Moon, always up for something new and different, was willing to let us experiment on him. When I needed an apron, he very obligingly ripped off one of his pant legs and handed it over! I use it to this very day, and have never washed off all the alginates crusted over it, and never will.
What about Wayne Kramer of the MC5, why did you only get his tip?
Wayne Kramer and [band mate] Dennis Thompson wanted to be cast simultaneously. I’d brought along only one proper container for one dick at a time, so I thought I’d use the actual alginates can for Wayne to dip his dick in. Much to Wayne’s disadvantage, I’m afraid. Most of the alginates set prematurely before all of his dick could penetrate and all I captured was the head. I want the world to know that Wayne had more inches to offer and it just got fucked up. Sorry, Wayne!
Did you ever cast Zappa?
I never cast Frank Zappa because in real life he was a normal family man with the reputations of his wife and children to consider. Casting was never his thing, but he sure was qualified to be in my collection!
Are there any rock legends you regret not casting in their heyday? The Beatles, the Stones, Iggy Pop, Led Zep, Ray Davies?
Too many dicks that got away to mention! Sure, the Beatles, Stones, Iggy and Ray Davies. Especially Brian Jones. And Serge Gainsbourg.
Who is the last person that you’ve cast?
Well, my youngest baby — I call them my sweet babies — his name is Bill Dolan of 5ive Style. He’s the guitarist.
How did that casting go?
We got there, I’ll put it that way. It was a little rough at first. I’m finding that I like to have enough alginates to cast them once and have them see what it feels like to try and stay hard in a cold mold. A lot of times they might lose their hard-ons, so I’m perfectly willing to do them again.
Is there any secret for staying hard while you’re in this cold substance?
If I knew that, I’d know the secret to life! I sometimes just tell them to “think hard” — it’s easier said than done. It’s really tricky because the dick is submerged in the mold and direct stimulation cannot be applied. So it’s really up to the talents of the partner, the bond that those people have with each other.
You stopped doing this for a while in the ’70s. Why?
It was a combination of things. The sexual revolution had died down and it wasn’t trendy to have casual sex with strangers and people were getting married, and I was working a straight job — it was hard to do this during the middle of the night. The music wasn’t really thrilling me that much at the time. I wasn’t really into the hard rock, I was busy collecting Glenn Miller and Fats Waller and Bing Crosby music. But I didn’t intentionally retire. I wasn’t avoiding it, but all the right circumstances just weren’t there for several years.
When did you start up again?
In the late ’70s, I think I successfully made a cast of Ivan of the Flying Karamazov Brothers; he was in town for a few days, and everything was right. But, again, I never intentionally retired, it was more of a timing thing.
Now that you don’t have a day job, do you think you will do more casts?
Yeah, I have more time, I can stay up as late as I want to. I have made a couple lately. I’m trying to be really picky, too, so it’s not like every month. Sometimes a year goes by, sometimes it’s a few months, sometimes a few weeks.
Does today’s rock ‘n’ roll still excite you the way it did when you were a teenager in the ’60s?
I’ve been a little bit let down by the music coming out of Britain lately. I don’t know, I have to research that a little more. I’ve been a little broke so I can’t afford to buy imports. There are a few. I heard this band called Brassy; I just heard a single of theirs. There are others I’m sure I haven’t been subjected to. It’s really weird, but I think that Chicago is now the mecca for cool music.
Do you get recognized in Chicago?
Sometimes, it’s weird. People say, “Are you, are you [whispers] Cynthia Plaster Caster” or “I know who you are. You do that thing, that thing with you-know-what.” It’s not a problem yet, and it won’t be. For one thing, my mother doesn’t know I do this.
Wow. And how old is she now?
She’s about 84. I can’t afford a bodyguard.
Why don’t you tell her? Is she close-minded?
That ain’t the word! She is in her own weird world. She just doesn’t understand the pleasure of sex. She thinks it’s evil. It’s hard to explain things to her just in general. She maybe subconsciously would rather not know. She’s happy in her own weird fantasy world.
Do you ever get tired of looking at a bunch of dicks on your mantelpiece?
Never. Never. They’re like my pets. I have them in this room on pedestals, and there’s a warm yellowish tint in the room, it’s like sitting in your living room with your pet kitties.
Do you have a personal favorite among your collection — maybe someone who wasn’t the most famous or the biggest, but one you like for some other reason?
No, I love them all! They’re my babies.
A lot of women think penises are ugly.
I guess you’re not one of them.
No! I think they’re funny and cute and cuddly, they look kind of goofy. And that reminds me to tell you that I’m casting tits now.
Yeah, I read that you did Suzi Gardner from L7. Why did you decide to start doing breasts?
It was the right time. I had been thinking about it for a while. Tits as opposed to vaginas. I know girls who have done their vaginas and gotten really nasty infections. The boobs are a more cuddly object to me.
How do you broach the subject with someone for the first time?
When I’m friends with someone, it just crops up. I really have to like their music. I don’t pop the question the first time I meet somebody. It might just be too heavy-handed for them. That’s not me at all.
But you had to do that back when you were first getting started?
Yeah, but neither me nor my partner were very good at that. We would pass out calling cards. Again, in the ’60s it was just not that unusual of a thing to ask someone to do. Strip down and try something new and different sexually.
Do you miss the open sexuality of the ’60s?
No, I lived it and it helped teach me what I was and what I wasn’t. Like being involved in orgies taught me that I wasn’t interested in being involved in orgies! I’m really, really glad it happened, but I don’t need it anymore.
You started this art form as a way to meet men back in the days when you were a virgin. But did it ever become more of a feminist thing for you, turning the tables and objectifying men?
No, it didn’t. I discovered my feminism in different ways. I was never doing it to turn the tables or be on top or anything. In a way, I felt like I was in the exalted presence of a supreme being, and this could bring them down to the same level, the same page [as me]. But it wasn’t an empowerment thing.
So what are you ultimately trying to say with this?
I’m saying, “Look at this chorus line of gorgeous penises, left and right and swirling around. Aren’t they pretty?” That’s all.
There’s no message behind your work?
No. There could be, but I don’t think there really has to be. I just want everybody to have a good laugh.
Wendy Mitchell is a writer in New York.More Wendy Mitchell.
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)