"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)
Unless we take it all with the appropriate pillar of salt, as we turn to gaze at the Sodom some have come to call America, the most important revelation of the last two weeks is that the men who presume to lead us measure our national morality in the currency of blow jobs. The opening of the coming fall campaign has been about not guns or abortion or education or Social Security or the environment but eight years of lost righteousness. After a 20th century of New Deals, New Frontiers, New Covenants, the politics of the 21st century is the New Sanctimony, most remarkable for how it’s been so entirely embraced by both political parties and their candidates that you can barely tell one strategically timed cri de coeur from another.
Everyone understands that at the moment the true subject of this election is not the next president but the current one. As the Republicans would have it explicitly, and as the Democrats have agreed implicitly, from the open wound known as the Clinton Conscience there oozes across the body politic an unstaunched flow of moral infection. This past week, when they weren’t squabbling with a Southern California congresswoman over a prospective fundraising bash at the Playboy Mansion — not because the Playboy Mansion is a silly place to be doing anything except silly things, but because it might offend the angels of rectitude passing over the Staples Center — those who run the Al Gore campaign were literally issuing press releases on who was praying with whom how often. At the same time, the party was nominating for vice president a man whose most noteworthy distinction besides his religious faith is his role as President Clinton’s Great Repudiator, except for a moment last week when, before an audience of clergy, Clinton became his own great repudiator.
When all the various candidates from Gore to George W. Bush to Richard Cheney to Joseph Lieberman allude to the president’s immorality, to be precise they mean his sexual misbehavior, since they can mean nothing else. After eight years in which the most investigated chief executive of all time was hounded to little avail by special prosecutors, independent counsels, inquisitorial congressional committees and every major newspaper in the country about an array of alleged transgressions from crooked real-estate deals to the strange violent deaths of close advisors, blow jobs and the lies told about them are what remain. Let it be acknowledged these are not minor. The president did a shitty thing to his wife, and what he did to his country wasn’t so hot either. Dispatching Cabinet members across the country to defend what he knew to be indefensible was craven to say the least; and if one might advance some moral justification for lying in response to profoundly unjust questions that violate basic freedoms of association, to most people perjury even in a civil deposition still sounds suspiciously like a breach of the oath of office. But the implication of the president’s political opponents, now not so subliminally conveyed by his supposed allies as well, is that the other nonsexual infractions must be true too even if they can’t be proved, though more objective minds might ask why not, given the effort and resources that went into trying to prove them.
Gore’s selection of Lieberman was the deftest political move of the summer. But whether it trumps the Republican right in the New Sanctimony or capitulates to it is another question. As unseemly as the GOP may have found Pat Buchanan’s Bavarian reveries of 1940 a couple of years ago, the present Republican campaign’s thematic template is no less the speech he delivered at the 1992 GOP convention, which itself was only a high-spirited version of more respectable, long-standing arguments by George Will and William Bennett that the ’60s were American history’s great abyss. In his remarkable new book, “Double Trouble: Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley in a Land of No Alternatives,” Greil Marcus makes a passionate and persuasive case for Clinton as the Elvis Presley of American politics; and even Mary Matalin at the Democratic Convention sighed ruefully on CNN, “These delegates are crazy for Clinton — they think he’s Elvis.” But if Uma Thurman was right in “Pulp Fiction” that deep in your id you’re either an Elvis Person or a Beatles Person, for all his white-trash heritage and hound-dog impersonations on Air Force One, in fact Clinton is a Beatles Person: the ’60s Walking Like a Man, to paraphrase a Robert Johnson song about the devil. This is why his presidency has always been fundamentally illegitimate to people who value propriety over democracy. Because it gave full expression to the pleasure principle once coined the “pursuit of happiness” by an early American subversive rewriting John Locke’s three basic natural rights of life, liberty and property, the ’60s was the most American of decades, thus engendering loathing and disgust among those who adore the name of America but despise the idea of it.
To be sure, Clinton is a rather pallid embodiment of the ’60s, not even really much of a Beatles Person — more “Up, Up and Away” than “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Still, only out of the ’60s could such a sensibility have emerged. At almost the very moment he was a teenager shaking John Kennedy’s hand on the White House lawn, 6,000 miles away four young, fairly clueless Brits were unleashing what would become the cultural equivalent of thermonuclear holocaust, atomizing all the geopolitical structures and philosophical verities that civilization believed it had resolved barely a generation before. Losers from a scuzzy English seaport that produced pop bands by the hundreds — almost any of them, according to accounts of the time, better than the lamely monikered Silver Beatles — they migrated to an even scuzzier German seaport to play epic amphetamine shows before Deutsche kids reading Camus. The children of England, in other words, were learning French existentialism as mediated by the dispossessed children of a Germany that just 20 years before bombed English cities to rubble, while Hitler’s children were absorbing an updated black American slave music as mediated by the dispossessed children of an England that just 15 years before bombed the Reich to rubble.
Toss into that mix both presidential assassination and the mass media of television, and in the decade’s resultant American anarchy Tom Paine pinned Cotton Mather to the mat and held him down to the count of nine. A political right in the process of degenerating from Goldwater libertarianism to Reagan authoritarianism was appalled, all the more so when history almost immediately proved the counterculture correct on the two great issues of the day, civil rights and the Vietnam War. So in the ’70s the right began efficiently directing its rage at the pursuit of happiness and private behavior in particular, slowly but surely divorcing questions of morality from matters of public policy altogether, except whenever, as in the case of abortion or gay rights, public policy was a consequence of people getting it on and liking it too much. A quarter century later the biggest triumph of the right is that public morality and social justice are barely vital subjects of discussion at all, among either Republican or Democratic candidates. To an extent this is a victory of ideology itself, of the argument advanced by people like Peggy Noonan that by definition a nonideological man like Clinton has no true principles and thus whatever social justice he speaks for can be dismissed. To an ideologue like Noonan, who shapes the truth to suit her biases, the man who shapes his biases to suit the truth is a nihilist.
In the last year or so, a widely reported survey of historians ranking all the presidents placed Clinton last in terms of moral character. Last behind the 15th president so beguiled by an abominable slave economy that he blithely allowed his country to lurch into its most terrible war. Last behind the 29th president so beset by public scandal and private mistresses alike that he literally didn’t survive office. Last behind the 35th president who, if you really want to talk blow jobs, juggled women about as carefully as plutonium, including a Mafia mistress and the world’s fragile blond who drugged herself into the cinemascope of modern mythology, assuming it was suicide at all. Last behind the 37th president so contemptuous of the Constitution that he was compelled to resign for trying to destroy it. Last behind the 40th president, for whom Noonan wrote elegant speeches, the paragon of family values incapable of having an emotionally meaningful conversation with his own children, who exalted as virtue a greed he barely bothered to euphemize.
In contrast Clinton, the depraved lout, levied higher taxes on the very wealthy in his 1993 budget so that, among other things, an expanded earned-income tax credit might raise millions of people, maybe tens of millions, above the poverty line. Clinton is the man who always takes a poll to decide what he wants to do — except the poll he ignored when he invested the first year of his presidency in passing NAFTA, opposed by the public. Except the poll he ignored when he advocated a military open to homosexuals, opposed by the public. Except the poll he ignored when he sent troops into Haiti, opposed by the public. Except the poll he ignored when he sent warplanes and troops into the Balkans, opposed by the public. Debauched by the ’60s, he lacks the integrity of the governor of Texas, whose moral fortitude allows not a shred of doubt about the guilt of more people executed in his state than all the other states put together. Debauched by the ’60s, Clinton lacks the Christian spirit with which the Republican redeemer mimics the pleas of the condemned in the pages of Tina Brown’s magazine.
Last in morality, last in integrity, last in the hearts of his historians — that doesn’t seem too unreasonable, does it, as long as we’re not too distracted by the fact that these historians are the same well-credentialed liars who routinely discounted two centuries of oral history, circumstantial evidence and eyewitness testimony as to whether the author of the Pursuit of Happiness was the sort who would sleep with a slave. That the third president of the United States shouldn’t have been the sort to have slaves at all was regarded as a moral inconsistency so trivial and tedious that for 200 years good manners compelled the country to ignore it until the bad manners of science made it as impossible to ignore as Stendhal’s gunshot at the opera — or maybe it’s a fart in church, I’ve never really gotten the quote straight. Just as the Noonans and the Bennetts and the Lynne Cheneys would have us be an America where making money is more righteous than having sex, so we would be an America more offended by the idea of Thomas Jefferson fucking a black woman than owning one. Bad luck or just plain poor political sense on William Jefferson Clinton’s part not to have owned Monica as he diddled her, in which case we might be able to rank him on a more Jeffersonian level.
In its fixation on sexual behavior to the exclusion of any other moral consideration, the New Sanctimony is a kind of ethical autism. It’s a tacit surrender to the Tom DeLays of American politics who complain bitterly about what they call “moral relativism.” Obviously not all morality is relative. Obviously there are people and events and values that are absolutely good and absolutely evil. But that isn’t really what DeLay and others mean; what they really mean is that all morality is absolutely good and evil. If moral wisdom lies in the capacity and willingness to make distinctions between the good and evil that are absolute and the myriad gradations in between that are relative, these are distinctions the DeLays and Noonans and Bennetts find psychologically threatening or politically inconvenient or beyond their moral imaginations; only they can say which. DeLay and Noonan and Bennett don’t represent a renewal of values, they represent a totalitarianism of values; and more and more they dominate the political debate in this country on both the right and the left, on issues like abortion that by their very nature are ethically ambiguous and morally uncertain, unless you’ve got that direct pipeline to God that’s off-limits to the less cosmically evolved among us, who can only try to work such things through as best we can in good faith.
This raises the great imponderable of the New Sanctimony, of course: How do the people feel about it? Remember the people? Naturally they tell pollsters they don’t personally approve of Clinton, even as they give him the highest job-performance rating of any president ever at this point in his term; what else are they going to say? “Getting sucked off in the Oval Office? Yeah, I can get behind that.” There’s a whole clandestine America out there that at one time or another has done what Bill and Monica did, and we know who we are; you don’t have to raise your hand if you’re doing something better with it at the moment. Except on the issue of the environment, for all his recent rhetoric about integrity and independence and boldness, the number of times in his 24-year political career Gore has incontestably demonstrated these qualities is exactly one: a week ago when he chose a Jew as his running mate. This is why some who will vote for him in November would have voted for the flawed John McCain against him, conservative as many of McCain’s positions are, because in his primary campaign McCain dared to accuse the nation’s politics of an immorality deeper than sensuality, of having become a system of the powerful, by the powerful and for the powerful — and if you don’t think his indignation was authentic, look at how feared and hated he was by all the right people, especially in his own party. This is why in November some would happily trade a Gore White House for a Gephardt House that relegates DeLay, his dark heart and constricted spirit betraying on an hourly basis every Christian value he professes, to the catacombs of the American soul.
The political problem for Gore in the election of ’00 is that he’s not quite as good at his hypocrisy as the instinctively more nimble Bush. The single most brilliant line of Bush’s generally brilliant convention speech two weeks ago was, “I believe in forgiveness, because I have needed it,” by which he meant: I’m no better than Bill Clinton. By which he really meant: Actually, I am better than Bill Clinton. At this moment, the only really good news for Gore is that Bush has since gotten more strident, caught up in a frenzied moral brinkmanship triggered by Lieberman’s selection. This is a trap for Bush because ultimately the loser of this election will be the one who makes it too much about Clinton, whether it’s in the form of Bush trying to avenge his father or Gore, with all the aplomb of George Costanza flinging women and children from his path to escape a burning building, fleeing the man without whom he wouldn’t be the nominee at all.
It’s not that the American people will rally to vindicate Clinton. It’s not that our dirty little not-so-secret secret is that we like Clinton rather more than we know we’re supposed to, or that he embodies our own life experience more than we’re willing to confess to our sons and daughters of the ’90s. It’s that we’re done with him, we’ve already moved on, even if we haven’t yet decided where to move on to, which is something those both driving and reporting the current political drama haven’t yet registered. The public has disposed of the matter of Bill Clinton, the relative goods and relative bads, calibrating the private immorality of his infidelity and his lies against the public morality of his empathy and larger intentions, which are the only things about him we’ve ever really believed. At least I think so; but then I’m a little naive that way. I’m a son of the ’60s.
Steve Erickson's new novel, "The Sea Came in at Midnight," will be published next spring by Bard/Avon.More Steve Erickson.
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)