"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)
As of now, dear audience, you are being entertained by a kidnap.
As of now, we, the Warriors of Make Believe (WOMB), have kidnapped ourselves and are holding ourselves hostage until you meet our demands. And we do mean you, not some friendly tyrant or criminally innocent celebrity. We are holding ourselves hostage until you see to it that all 888 of our demands are satisfied.
Here are WOMB’s first demands:
DEMAND #1: We demand that Amnesty International launch a crusade against a grievously unacknowledged form of terrorism: the genocide of the imagination.
DEMAND #2: We demand that all anchormen cry or puke every time they report a tragedy on their nightly TV news shows. No more poker faces!
DEMAND #3: We demand that you learn the difference between your own thoughts and those of the celebrities who have demonically possessed you.
DEMAND #4: We demand a three-day global boycott of all media. Return to the primordial silence or else!
We have 884 more demands, but there’s plenty of time for them later. Right now we at WOMB want to make sure you realize that your imagination and the imaginations of everyone you know are on the brink of extinction! Who are the killers? We call them entertainment criminals. You may know them as journalists, talking heads, actors, screenwriters, directors, novelists and musicians. Whatever their disguise, they ceaselessly assault us with their lethal blend of cynicism, materialism and sentimentality. From Eminem to Barney, from Dan Rather to Tom Hanks, they compose a cult that relentlessly programs us with a breathtakingly narrow range of story lines.
It’s not just the reductive ugliness and mawkishness of their message that wounds our organs of fantasy; it’s not just the stunted spectrum of their mythic repertoire; it’s not just the sheer tidal wave of toxic memes they barrage us with; it’s also the dazzling technology and psychological savvy they have at their disposal, allowing them to sneak past our psychic immune systems and burrow into our most intimate thoughts.
Swelling up with the infectious spew of the most potent propaganda machine in the history of the world, our imaginations are dying en masse.
DEMAND #5: We demand that you become very disciplined about what images you allow to penetrate you.
DEMAND #6: We demand new video games with socially redeeming value. We demand that an established company steal our idea for “NirvanaStorm,” in which kids must negotiate all eight levels of Buddhist enlightenment with a graceful, red-robed character who resembles the Dalai Lama.
DEMAND #7: We demand that live childbirth be shown in prime time on one of the major TV networks every single day.
DEMAND #8: We demand an affirmative action program that will make a majority of all Americans celebrities within five years.
DEMAND #9: We demand term limits on media pundits, ensuring that entrenched hacks who relentlessly hype pop-nihilism will be compelled into retirement once their self-importance exceeds their expertise.
In the newspapers of the entertainment criminals, crude storytellers called “journalists” terrorize you with myths that seem to prove the lie, “If it is not about turbulence, loss, decay and corruption, it cannot be true.”
But in the publications of the Warriors of Make Believe, in the benevolent propaganda machines we control, beauty and truth experts help you learn the difference between wise suffering and dumb suffering.
In the subliminal messages hidden in their movies and Web sites and TV shows, multinational narcissism-dealers make the world safe for America’s most insipidly dangerous images.
Spurred by the subliminal signals packed in our movies and Web sites and TV shows, you recover long-suppressed memories of joy and peace.
Long live your imagination! It is the most important asset you possess — the power to form mental pictures of things that don’t exist yet. Sacred organ! Magical tool! The creative source you use to shape your future!
DEMAND #11: We demand TV sitcoms that depict talking hummingbirds, green eggs and ham, senior citizens playing water polo, homeless oil company presidents digging for food scraps in garbage cans, gay children, computers that can talk to the Goddess, digitally remastered CDs of the Big Bang and an aphrodisiac that stimulates compassion even more than sexual passion.
DEMAND #12: Recognizing that epidemic sleep-deprivation plays a key role in abetting the genocide of the imagination, we demand that everyone must get at least nine hours of sleep every night.
DEMAND #13: We demand that you have at least one imaginary playmate.
DEMAND #14: We demand that you brainwash yourself before the entertainment criminals beat you to it!
DEMAND #15: When you’re too well entertained to move, screaming is good exercise! Which is why we demand that you scream right now!
All blockages to your divine charisma are dissolving. An abundant flow of brilliant ideas is now moving through your imagination. Your unique genius will soon be unleashed, allowing you to express your true potential.
YOUR HOROSCOPE FOR THIS WEEK
ARIES (March 21-April 19): Harper’s Index reports that it would require 60,133 ants to carry away a 10-pound picnic basket and 14,286,000,000 fireflies to create a ball of light equal in brilliance to the sun. These images should embolden you as you contemplate the intricate work ahead of you. While you probably won’t accomplish any stunning breakthroughs overnight, you just might be able to complete a quantum leap comprising a thousand baby steps about two weeks from now.
TAURUS (April 20-May 20): In most circumstances I wholeheartedly endorse the motto of Harry Potter’s school, Hogwarts: Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus, or “Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon.” Given the odd strains of luck that are weaving their way into your fate, however, combined with a fresh surge in your power to command animal energy in all its forms, I’m moved to make an exception. You’re not just a great dragon-tamer these days; you could actually coax dragons into going to work for you. So let the tickling begin, Taurus! One caveat: If I were you I wouldn’t try to get them to do trivial tasks like toasting marshmallows.
GEMINI (May 21-June 20): I never thought I’d see the day when I would quote the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Stuffy, scholarly, reserved and abstract, the dude was in many ways the opposite of me. And yet I now find myself driven to draw on his teaching for your seed o’ the week. Whatever action you take, he said, you should regard it as illustrative of a maxim worthy of being a universal law. This is tough but useful advice for you, Gemini, as you enter into a phase when you’ll be tempted to believe you can get away with living by a special set of rules.
CANCER (June 21-July 22): Are you a typical Crab? Do you unleash so much nurturing that at times you don’t know when to stop? If so, I have good news. The gods are now willing to help you develop a better sense of when you’re about to cross the line into compulsive, toxic generosity. As you work on this task, keep the following scene in mind as a guide: When flight attendants give the safety spiel as an airplane is readying for takeoff, they note that in the event of a loss of pressure in the cabin, oxygen masks will drop down from the ceiling for the use of passengers. If you’re in charge of a small child, they say, you should put your mask on first, then the child’s. The moral of the story: You’re no good to those you want to help unless you take expert care of yourself first.
LEO (July 23-Aug. 22): This week’s assignment came directly from my inside sources at the kingdom of heaven. They suggest that you make a voodoo doll of yourself, then do the opposite of what’s usually done with such an effigy. A simple sock puppet will work fine, though the magic will be enhanced if you devote your most loving artistry to the project. Once you’ve constructed your Mini-Me, shove 13 pins in it to represent the wounds you’ve collected over the years. Then, on a night when you can be alone, dine on your favorite food, take a long bath and light a purple candle. One by one, remove the pins and pass them through the flame. As you do, visualize a fountain of joy and vitality welling up inside you, and say, “Begone forever, old prick! You no longer have any power to hurt me.”
VIRGO (Aug. 23-Sept. 22): Whether you’re male or female, straight or gay or bisexual, you are now as luxuriantly fecund as your fellow Virgo, blues musician B.B. King, who by most accounts has fathered 16 children with 16 different moms. While I would argue against you modeling your next moves precisely after King’s approach, I nevertheless hope you will express your fertility with an equal exuberance and prolificness.
LIBRA (Sept. 23-Oct. 22): My favorite Welsh myth has themes akin to the adventures looming for you. Here ’tis. The witch Cerridwen prepares a cauldron for a brew that will confer great wisdom. Because it’ll take a year to cook, she hires a boy named Gwion to stir it. Near the end of the job, three drops splash onto Gwion’s finger. When he tastes it, he’s filled with power and knowledge, much to Cerridwen’s dismay: He’s not the intended recipient. Gwion flees, turning himself into a hare using his new magic. Cerridwen change into a greyhound and pursues him. He then becomes a fish in a river, and she an otter; he a bird and she a hawk; he a grain of wheat and she a hen that swallows him. Nine months later, he’s born from her belly and begins a new life in which he becomes a great wizard.
SCORPIO (Oct. 23-Nov. 21): For weeks you’ve dreamed of pawing through a pigpen on your hands and knees, hunting for the pearl that may or may not be there. For months you’ve been poring over your lost chances and frustrated dreams, searching for that one unambiguous clue to the Great Liberation. And now, finally, Scorpio, you’re seriously thinking of giving God an ultimatum: “Either put up or shut up!” But before you actually lift your gaze skyward and scream that dubious prayer, let me beg you to wait another two weeks. In the meantime, as both a tease and a promise, I offer you these two lines of a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “Earth’s crammed with heaven/And every common bush afire with God.”
SAGITTARIUS (Nov. 22-Dec. 21): “Let it be known, once and for all, I do not wish to be civilized,” proclaimed Oscar Wilde’s nephew, the boxer-poet Arthur Cravan. This was 80 years ago. At the time he made his proclamation, he was steering a wheelbarrow through the streets of Paris distributing his hot-off-the-presses, rabble-rousing magazine Maintenant. I believe this scene could be of great inspiration for you, Sagittarius. Think about it. Cravan was making a tangible impact on people with his passionate ideas while at the same time declaring his intention to stay wild. Isn’t that what you should be doing in the weeks to come?
CAPRICORN (Dec. 22-Jan. 19): “The miracle of the psyche’s ways,” says Clarissa Pinkola Estes in “Women Who Run With the Wolves,” “is that even if you are halfhearted, irreverent, didn’t mean to, didn’t really hope to, don’t want to, feel unworthy to, aren’t ready for it, you will accidentally stumble upon treasure anyway.” I believe this describes what has recently happened to you, Capricorn. And your next move? What is the half-thrilling, half-oppressive challenge you now face? Estes: “Then it is your soul’s work to not overlook what has been brought up, to recognize treasure as treasure no matter how unusual its form.”
AQUARIUS (Jan. 20-Feb. 18): Before heading off to the Democratic National Convention, some friends of mine were trained in nonviolent protest by the Ruckus Society. They learned how to scale high places to unfurl banners and how to remain polite toward cops whose provocations might make their bodies flood with adrenaline. They also found out that if they expected to block an intersection or doorway by binding themselves together with other activists for a good long time, they had to be willing to wear diapers. Are you ready to rise to this intense level of commitment this week, Aquarius? I hope so. My advice is this: If you’re not willing to be more than half-assed, don’t get your ass involved at all.
PISCES (Feb. 19-March 20): “Dear Dr. Brezsny: Please answer the question all of us Pisces beg to know. How do we find that sexual partner who is both relaxed yet dominating, polite yet dirty, intelligent yet grunting, sensitive enough to be humble, but happy enough not to care what I think about his every little move — and of course, totally devoted yet not a psychotic stalker? –Earth Chick.”
Dear Earth Chick: Your answer is similar to the reply I give everyone who’s on a quest: To get what you want, become what you want. For you, that would mean being relaxed yet dominating, polite yet dirty, intelligent yet grunting, etc.
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HOMEWORK: Would you rather be globally famous or secretly immortal? Why? www.freewillastrology.com
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)