"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)
Joe Eszterhas, the screenwriter who brought us “Showgirls” and “Basic Instinct,” is back in the headlines again, this time with a book, “American Rhapsody.” It’s part memoir, part confession, part fiction, part cultural critique — a “fantasia” in the words of its author — but it’s definitely all Eszterhas. Salon reached him by phone at his home in Los Angeles.
There are a lot of misconceptions about this book, so why don’t you tell me how you characterize it.
I think the book works on different levels. On one level, one of the things the book does is trace a kind of shadow war that has gone on for the heart and soul of the country for 50 years or so. And it hits its battles and its flashpoints beginning with the Cold War, with communism, moving on to Joe McCarthy, civil rights, Lenny Bruce, Vietnam, the assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the protest melee, Kent State, Hustler magazine, Nixon’s removal from office, women’s rights, Murphy Brown, abortion, Robert Mapplethorpe, gay rights, gays in the military, gay marriage, hate crimes, gun control, even down to Elian Gonzalez.
On lighter levels, I think it’s entertaining, and it takes a kind of no-holds-barred and up-close look at our politicians and public figures.
Could you define the “shadow war.”
In my mind there are two countering forces in this country. On the one side you have a force that wants to make this a really inclusive society with broad horizons and a great deal of tolerance. And on the other hand I’m convinced that there are forces that believe that Norman Rockwell’s America is what America should be like. And of course I’m simplifying, but within the simplification there’s truth. Bill Clinton’s figurative assassination was a part of this shadow war, as incidentally were the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and Bobby and then Richard Nixon’s removal from office. This war will go on and it really is a war for the heart and soul of America.
Who were you writing this book for?
I was writing it for myself primarily. I felt that I saw certain things and wanted to say certain things about the ’60s, about my generation and about Bill Clinton. I went over to Maui and started thinking about my own values and about this whole notion that I had become a public figure and wasn’t really writing. All of those thoughts led me to Bill Clinton, and the more I thought about him, the more I thought I understood him — in terms of his ambition, his lubricity, his kind of Hollywood charm and certainly his absolute obsession with his own sexuality.
I began to understand that he is the first rock ‘n’ roll president of the United States.
The more I read about him, the more I studied about him — and I became a genuine scholar in reading literally anything that had ever been written about him — I felt that he is the prototypical rock ‘n’ roller of our generation. And all of that led me back to the ’60s and an examination of our values, ’60s values, and especially what had happened to those values as those of us of the ’60s approached the age of 60.
Does that assessment of Clinton — as the first rock ‘n’ roll president — relate to his obsession with his own sexuality?
I think there is this absolute link. With me and also with many men of my generation, as we grew up, no matter what we became successful at, what we really wanted to be were rock ‘n’ roll stars. That was the intent. Bill Clinton in his attitude, and in the way he has carried out his presidency within the context of his personal life, is certainly a rock ‘n’ roll star. His attitude toward women and the way he treats women are those of the rock ‘n’ roll star dealing with groupies backstage, with the all the humiliation and insensitivity that entails. You know, the ultimate groupie rock ‘n’ roll act backstage is to kneel down and do the guy’s Willard. With Monica Lewinsky, the first time she did kneel down in a groupie way, he never knew her name even, as most rock stars don’t know the names of the women who do that.
How did you get away with some of the stuff you write in “American Rhapsody,” about Bill Clinton using drugs and that sort of thing?
There is an awful lot of corroboration. Yes, denials have been issued through the years, but there have been so many witnesses and so many people. I think in some ways it’s as foolhardy to think that he didn’t go through that druggie period as to think that he didn’t really inhale when he had the joint. And the book went through a very vigorous legal process from the Random House lawyers, from the Talk magazine lawyers and from fact checkers. At the end of the process one of the Random House lawyers said she had never worked on a book that was as backed up as this was.
What do you back it up with?
With reading, with reportage, with some of the things that have been written through the years. I leaned very heavily on the Starr Report and the evidence of the Starr Report. A lot of things went into the evidence part of the Starr Report that perhaps weren’t exposed to the public.
Did you interview the parties involved?
I interviewed some people.
No. I relied on her book, and on all the information about her in the Starr Report. I think it is foremost a book of analysis and observation, combined with a kind of personal memoir coming out of my own experience, especially in terms of the linkage that I see between politics and Hollywood.
It’s a reminder of the “Hollywoodization” of everything.
Yes, exactly. I think that’s one of the main threads of the book, because I’m convinced, after having worked for 25 years in Hollywood, that politics and show business have utterly become one. I don’t see any difference between the P.R. people who spin and lie to pump up Tom Cruise’s box-office numbers and the P.R. people who spin and lie to pump up the president’s approval ratings. It’s the same process, different people.
We’re certainly not living in the age of JFK anymore, when he had a weekly press conference. The access is doled out very, very carefully. Understand that Bill Clinton has not directly answered the questions about Juanita Broderick, even now. That same sort of limitation of access that’s the key to getting a Hollywood star good press is being used in politics as well.
It leads to broader questions about our culture. If we watch actors all the time in our culture, whether they are political or cinematic ones, how much does that influence our own actions? Do we act all the time as well? Do we strike poses and cop attitudes instead of having real feelings?
You’re not known for being bashful about taking on Hollywood titans, but you really expose the excesses of Hollywood in this book. Are you concerned at all about the fallout?
Well, two nights ago I went to a party at the Mondrian [in L.A.], where 300 of Hollywood’s top people turned out, many of whom had read the Talk excerpt. Some people had read advances of the book, and what unanimously they said to me is that they hadn’t read anything this funny in a long time. I think that people outside the industry sometimes might think that people within the industry have thinner skins than they really do.
Sharon Stone said it was hilarious.
She issued a statement about two weeks ago that was three sentences: “I thought it was hilarious. I knew he was very funny, but I didn’t know he could write comedy.” That was exactly the reaction from almost everyone I’ve spoken to in town. I haven’t had one reaction yet where someone said, “Jesus, how can you write this?” I thought it was interesting that Sharon never denied the accuracy of what I’d written. And frankly, some of us around Knopf were so happy about her statement that there was some talk about putting it as a blurb on the paperback. The only thing I can add is that there is a great big bouquet of flowers downstairs in my living room from Sherry Lansing (who is the head of Paramount), saying, “Congratulations, the best luck, love Sherry.”
Of the questions many people want answered is how did Bill Clinton get away with this? You come with the explanation that it’s men covering for other men.
I think that is some of it, and I think the book really deals with that. You know, Bob Woodward didn’t break the Gary Hart story even though Gary Hart was his roommate. So in a sense, journalistically, it is men taking care of men. I think it is also important to raise the flip question: Should he have been impeached for what he did? I think one of the things the book does is make a very strong case pointing to a concerted campaign by some people to bring him down. If you look at the fact that Lucianne Goldberg was involved in the Linda Tripp revelation, in the Monica Lewinsky revelation, and then was involved with and had spoken to Juanita Broderick even before she became public — I think that is a striking coincidence, if you will.
Your book does go into a lot of coincidences.
I was struck by the fact that the two men who both saved Bill Clinton from removal from office, in my mind — Vernon Jordan and Larry Flynt — were shot by the same neo-Nazi right-wing Klansman in the ’70s, Joseph Paul Franklin, who actually named himself after Joseph Goebbels. It is ironic to me that the two men who really saved Bill Clinton were shot by the same man for basically the same reasons. And it leads me right back to what I define as the shadow war that has been going on, in which Richard Nixon was the principal player on the dark side.
Since you asked about my reaction to it, and it is a very strong one, I think I’m very much like the editor at Knopf, who did not relish the idea of reading your book. I’m not of your generation. I’m 36, so I’m just immediately behind you guys and, of course, am sick of the ’60s in a way. The first chapter especially is all about blame it on the ’60s; blame it on men’s attitudes about sex and the fact that they are not very enlightened.
Listen, it wasn’t a very enlightened time. But I think one of the points I try to make is that, clearly, the ’60s values in terms of women, um, were simply to use women. In the author’s note, I talk about how on Maui what I had thought about was my attitude about women, how I used women and how very much I adored my wife. It took a long time for a lot of men from the ’60s to mature in the way that they treat women and in their own attitudes toward women. In a self-defining psychosexual sense, for men in their relationship with women, the ’60s were really a destructive time. And it’s taken a long time for a lot of men to mature; it took me a long time to mature. And I think one of the things with Bill Clinton is that he never has matured. And maybe it’s my great fortune that I met a woman who was somehow able to cause my own maturation — and maybe Bill Clinton hasn’t. And for that I feel hugely sorry for him, because at bottom I think he is a profoundly sad man, unable to really share and identify with a woman as another human being.
That may be the greatest challenge for men from the ’60s because the actions we took and the things that we did were so deeply ingrained, and so much a part of us and so sexist on the simplest levels, that to change from that and not be consumed by your own Willard as a piece of meat looking for other pieces of meat may be the greatest challenge that we have.
Let’s talk about the monologues. Why do the monologues? Why not do the whole book as a work of reportage? Because the monologues make the book appear as if it is not totally nonfiction.
No it’s not nonfiction. In my mind the book is clearly nonfiction and fiction together. I think that having written fiction for 25 years, I felt that sometimes the best way to capture truth and to capture attitude and psychology is with fictional devices. And I think even though those chapters — the Starr chapter, the Bush chapter, the Gore and McCain chapters — are fictional, they do go to the essence of a greater, more human truth involving the people that I am writing about fictionally.
In your author’s note, you explain that you have, what do you call it?
The Twisted Little Man.
Yes, you say that the Twisted Little Man is responsible for “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls.” So, you have the Twisted Little Man in your head and Bill Clinton has his Willard — the same kind of thing?
I think that’s probably a fair analogy. I’m thankful, though, that at this stage in my life that it is a Twisted Little Man and not a Twisted Little Willard. I really am. At least I’ve learned that. If life is growth and learning, and I think it is, at least I’ve learned that. I have the little fuck limited to staying in my head.
Which chapter was the most fun to write?
The chapter that was the most challenging to write was the Hillary Clinton monologue. Women especially have seemed to have been really moved by that and touched by it. It is the chapter called “Hillary Bares All,” and a lot of people, especially women, seem to think I have somehow captured her voice and got inside her. It was clearly an act of hubris — the book is filled with acts of hubris — but it is the greatest act of hubris to try to step into Hillary’s shoes. On a pure fun level, I thought it very important that the world be informed of Kenneth W. Starr’s lust for Gennifer Flowers.
Bridget Kinsella is the Book News editor of Publishers Weekly.More Bridget Kinsella.
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)