"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)
Congratulations, dear readers. With the authority vested in me by the little voice in my head, I’m pleased to give you permission to add another job title to your risumi: prophet.
Am I being ironic? Only partially. In my estimation, every one of you generates countless predictions every day. Your imagination is the source, tirelessly churning out mental pictures of what you’ll be doing in the future. The featured oracle of the moment may be as simple as a psychic impression of yourself devouring a fudge brownie at lunch or as monumental as a daydream of some year building your dream home on a mountainside in Maui.
Your imagination is a treasure when it spins out scenarios that are aligned with your deepest desires. Indeed, it’s the single most indispensable tool in creating the life you want.
But for most of us, our ability to form mental images of things that don’t exist yet is as much a curse as a blessing. That’s because we’re just as likely to conjure up premonitions that are totally at odds with our conscious values — the result of having absorbed toxic programming from the millions of experts who radiate the barely subliminal message, “Be like me! Think the way I do!” Every time you entertain a vision of being rejected or hurt or frustrated, you’re blasting yourself with a hex imported from someone who has no idea who you really are.
This is the unsavory aspect of the imagination that the Zen Buddhists deride as the “monkey mind.” In the 1960s, Baba Ram Dass begged us, against all odds, to eschew its plague of slapdash prophecy so that we might Be Here Now.
But whether your imagination is in service to your most noble yearnings or in the thrall of self-sabotaging habits, there’s one constant: Its prophecies are pretty freaking accurate. Many of your visions of the future do come to pass. The situations you expect will happen — what you chronically predict and rehearse and obsess on — are often reflected back to you in the form of events that confirm your expectations.
So you’re not just a prophet. You’re a masterfully prolific creator of self-fulfilling prophecies.
And that’s the reason I’m so reverent in composing my weekly horoscopes for you. If I’m to be one of the know-it-alls you invite into the intimate sanctuary where you nurse your self-fulfilling prophecies, I sure as hell want to be gentle with you. It’s why I avoid invoking worry and doubt, and instead nudge you toward joy, passion, integrity and generosity.
Not that many other writers out there share my goals. As I suggested in this space last week, a single theme dominates the commanding plotlines disseminated by our chief storytellers, the journalists. “If something is not ugly,” they imply with all their might, “it is probably not true.”
But journalists aren’t alone in flooding you with doom-and-gloom prophecies. They’re assisted by other mythmakers like actors, screenwriters, directors, novelists, musicians and critics.
Recently I read an interview with one of their unofficial spokesmen, German film actor Udo Kier, who specializes in playing villains. “Evil has no limit,” he blustered like a naughty genius. “Good has a limit. It’s not as interesting.” How many millions of times before have I sniffed that hackneyed propaganda? The majority of smart, well-educated people everywhere seem to agree with Kier. I found it inspiring, though, because it crystallized my minority opinion, which is that evil is a fucking bore.
In his book “Omens of Millennium,” Harold Bloom hints at the “reductive fallacy” that I believe serves as a shibboleth for intellectuals. Picture yourself in conversation with a bright, literate acquaintance who asks you about someone you know well: “Tell me what he or she is really like.” You reflect a moment and give a brief description, but your acquaintance presses: “No, I mean really like,” and now you grasp the real question: “What is the very worst thing you can say about him or her that is true?”
Even the caste assigned the role of mapping the human psyche has become infected with the pandemic of pop-nihilism. Exhibit A: the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” also known as “DSM-IV.” The bible of the mental health community, it’s a 900-page textbook that catalogs the psychological states therapists use to evaluate and treat their patients. Surprise! Among its almost 250 classifications, there’s not a single entry referring to good mental health. Thou shalt worship no other God but Pathology! You’d think shrinks would be interested not only in fixing what’s wrong with their patients but also helping them to cultivate what feels good. But how can that happen if the feel-good states aren’t even named?
Exhibit B is a book by David Meyers and Ed Dieners called “The Science of Happiness.” “What causes happiness?” they wonder. “This question not only went largely unanswered during psychology’s first century, it went largely unasked.” They note that essays on negative emotions outnumber those on positive emotions in the psychological literature by a ratio of 21:1. Even the New York Times has a more balanced record than that, averaging only 14 stories about turbulence, loss, decay and corruption to every one that could be construed as not sickening to the human spirit.
Maybe you were raised by the rarest of parents: smart optimists whose enthusiasm for teaching you the art of enjoying life was matched by their ability to instill critical thinking skills. But even they would have had trouble brainwashing you with their sweet brand of self-fulfilling prophecies in the face of a culture whose screaming meme is life is a bitch and then you die.
Against all odds, against all hope, I’ve chosen to imagine that I am becoming one of those mythical parents. It’s the self-fulfilling prophecy that motivates me to create horoscopes infused with pronoia. Ever heard the word? The opposite of paranoia, it means a sneaking suspicion that the whole world is conspiring to shower you with blessings.
YOUR HOROSCOPE FOR THIS WEEK
ARIES (March 21-April 19): I get my financial guidance from an ex-Charles Schwab broker who is now a loincloth-wearing witch doctor. He often ends his consultations with a dirty yet spiritual joke. For my political education I go to a Jesuit-trained comedy writer who has had intimate relations with three members of Congress and two federal judges. An anarchist singer for an all-woman thrash band regularly provides me with advice about etiquette and ethics. What about you, Aries? This is prime time, astrologically speaking, for you to take inventory of your stable of helpers, teachers and counselors. If your team is too staid or uninspiring, reconfigure it so that it provides you with maximum fertility.
TAURUS (April 20-May 20): A Tibetan Buddhist sand painting can take weeks to construct. Artists work as a team, painstakingly laying out colored grains in precise designs on a large platform. Once finished, the masterpiece survives only a short time before its makers destroy it. I believe you Bulls will derive deliciously poignant rewards from pursuing this approach as you toil on your labor of love in the coming weeks. That’s what the astrological oracles tell me, at least. I’m not saying you’ll have to give up your beautiful creation when you’re done, but I do believe the creation will be most beautiful if you nurture an appreciation for impermanence that is comparable to the sand painters’.
GEMINI (May 21-June 20): “Dear Dr. Brezsny: I dreamed you sent me an 88-page letter, pink sidewalk chalk, a glossy photo of Marat-Sade, a postcard of Machu Picchu, and a sandwich made of bologna and yellow marigolds. The sandwich was yummy. But what does it all mean? That your gifts are like flowery bologna that tastes delicious? Also, what did the letter say and what was I supposed to do with the other stuff? –Christian Crackwhore in Los Angeles.”
Dear Christian Crackwhore:
I suspect that you aren’t really a Christian crackwhore and that you didn’t really dream this dream. You made it all up, right? Hoping to mystify and delight me? Which you did. Thank you. I suggest you try similar tricks with everyone you care about, especially those who think they have you all figured out.
CANCER (June 21-July 22): It would be a good week to wear a diamond-studded baseball hat backwards to a formal party, play Twister in a museum, make condoms into water balloons and throw them at each other in a park after midnight, try to channel the spirit of Lucille Ball, dress vegetables up in doll clothes, and start your collection of Pokémon cards. In other words, Cancerian, LIGHTEN UP! (P.S. I also suggest you make liberal use of the following words: frothy, quiver, undulate, murmur, lather, effervesce, scintillate.)
LEO (July 23-Aug. 22): Planet Earth would be an icy desert if it weren’t for the sun. Our day star’s radiance is essential for the nourishment of every living thing. On the other hand, an excess of solar heat can be damaging — scorching crops, drying up rivers, causing skin cancer. As the only sign ruled by the sun, Leo, you possess small-scale versions of that dual power to vivify and wither — both of which are now at their peak. In the coming weeks, I suggest you carefully monitor tendencies to shine way too brightly. But don’t you dare go too far and eclipse your own resplendence.
VIRGO (Aug. 23-Sept. 22): I trust you’re in the thick of finishing up old business, tying up loose ends, and politely screaming “Get the hell out of my life forever” at every influence that’s unworthy of you. May I suggest that you bring it all to a roaring climax with a full-blown ritual? First thing you do is create an altar with objects that symbolize the new world you want to explore. Next, gather 10 scraps of paper and write on each piece the name of someone or something you want to say goodbye or good riddance to. Finally, burn the scraps in the flame of a red candle as you intone the following words with sincere gratitude: “Thank you for what you’ve taught me, but I’ve learned all the lessons I can from you. Now scram.”
LIBRA (Sept. 23-Oct. 22): “Is it bad to live without a hell?” poet Pablo Neruda asks in “The Book of Questions.” There are thousands of correct answers; I’ll offer those that are most true for you in this place and time. It would be very smart and healthy for you to live without a hell if you conceive of it as fundamentalist Christians do: a fiery abyss where souls are tortured for eternity. But let’s visualize a “hell” cast in a different mythic image — as a sacred cave of rebirth presided over by the ancient Norse goddess Hel. In my opinion, it’s insane to live without that kind of “hell” — especially in the coming days, when your soul will yearn to rekindle lost dreams and refresh itself with sweet, shadowy, sublime riddles.
SCORPIO (Oct. 23-Nov. 21): Your clout has swelled in recent weeks. Your chutzpah has ripened nicely and your cajones have, uh, grown more impressive. Now you stand at a crossroads. Will you use your new authority to cultivate a rich consensus? Will you diplomatically curry favor so as to build your popularity, thereby making your power more useful and enduring? Or (Goddess forbid) will you throw your weight around with reckless insensitivity, like an ancient Greek hero in the thrall of raw hubris?
SAGITTARIUS (Nov. 22-Dec. 21): At the beginning of the 20th century, two African-American leaders pushed for radically different responses to the intransigent cruelty of white culture. Booker T. Washington argued for a policy of accommodation, encouraging blacks to improve their lot gradually through education and hard work. W.E.B. Dubois, on the other hand, advocated agitation, protest and a demand for immediate equal rights. I don’t feel qualified to judge which was the wiser approach, but I do sense that you Sagittarians have come to a fork in your own life that’ll require you to emulate either Washington or DuBois. What’ll it be, my dear? Slow and simmering or headlong and hard-line?
CAPRICORN (Dec. 22-Jan. 19): Composers of classical music weren’t shy about ripping off riffs. Mozart lifted parts of Boccherini’s String Quartet in C. Brahms’ Cello Sonata in E Minor has echoes of a piece by Bernhard Romberg. In his Sinfonia, Luciano Berio pilfered from Mahler’s Second Symphony. Ah, but here’s the rub. Music critics have on occasion declared the parasitic work to surpass the original. Hans Keller asserted, for instance, that Mozart showed more brilliance in stealing Boccherini’s theme than Boccherini did in inventing it. What does this have to do with you, Capricorn? From an astrological view, it’s prime time to imitate Mozart. I advise you to appropriate every good idea you come across and make it your own, only better.
AQUARIUS (Jan. 20-Feb. 18): Federal law allows food manufacturers to leave up to seven rodent hairs and 210 insect fragments in a jar of peanut butter. Any more than that and the stuff is considered unsanitary. While this appallingly low standard may cut it for peanut butter, it won’t work for you in your own chosen sphere, Aquarius. More than any other time this year, your dedication to purity and excellence must be impeccable. Sloppy mediocrity should be your sworn enemy.
PISCES (Feb. 19-March 20): My Piscean friend Artemis was always afraid that having enough money would wreck her career as a poet. Being a starving artist, she believed, was a crucial stimulus for her creativity. Last spring, chaos struck: She unexpectedly received a sizable inheritance, plunging her into deep depression. Seeking a cure, she began traveling in Europe, which had previously been impossible for a person of her limited means. A few weeks into her journey, she erupted in a creative frenzy. Today she called from Amsterdam to tell me she has churned out a book-length manuscript of the best stuff she’s ever written. I predict that an analogous blast of unruly abundance will soon come your way, Pisces, leading to the erosion of one of your long-cherished theories of scarcity.
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HOMEWORK: Let’s all meet in the same dream while we’re asleep on the night of Aug. 19. I propose that our all-night dreamtime rave take place on a beach on the northwest shore of Maui. See you there! www.freewillastrology.com
Copyright 2000 Rob Brezsny
Rob Brezsny's weekly astrology column appears on Salon as well as on his own Web site and in print publications worldwide. Brezsny's novel, "The Televisionary Oracle," was released earlier this year. He lives near San Francisco.More Rob Brezsny.
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)