"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
1) Pere Ubu 25th Anniversary Tour (Knitting Factory, New York, Oct. 14)
Too cool: not the homemade theremins, or the feedback apron singer David Thomas wore, or the dedications (“A song written for men going through their midlife crises, who have punk roots. If there’s ever a time for punk, it’s when men have their midlife crises” — a dedication followed, a few minutes into the song, with “the pogo section,” with the enormous Thomas moving to the beat less like Sid Vicious than Sidney Greenstreet), but the fanfare music the band used to set itself up for a night of confusion: Max Frost and the Troopers’ “The Shape of Things to Come.” From the 1968 AIP trash classic “Wild in the Streets” — produced by Mike Curb, with a never-known Billy Elder impersonating youth Führer Max Frost (in the movie, would-be James Dean Christopher Jones) — it was a song that 32 years ago somehow sounded as stirring as it did embarrassing, just as it did three weeks before the nation was to go into its booth to decide the shape of things to come. Which, the song reminded everyone, “nothing can stop.” More next column.
2) Richard Pryor, “… And It’s Deep Too! The Complete Warner Bros. Recordings (1968-1992)” (Rhino)
A big box of CDs of a black man onstage turning everyday life upside down. You listen and think, “How, why, was this voice silenced? What, how much, was lost?” Among other things, the voice of the white square, squared: our next president.
3) Telluride Film Festival Diary: “Turbulent,” Shirin Neshat, director (Telluride, Colo., Labor Day Weekend)
Should you have the chance, do not pass up even the most inconvenient fringe-festival, museum or cable opportunity to see this shocking short film. No sex, no violence, just, in present-day Iran, a man — co-producer Shoja Azari — singing to an all-male audience. He turns his back; his tone is full, rich, but infinitely supple. There are no affectations; sound is everything. And as he shows he can go anywhere he seems to be holding something back. And then the film cuts to Sussan Deyhim, a woman singing, but this time facing the seats — of an empty auditorium. She could be singing in five voices at once; the untrained ear hears overdubs, but in fact it’s what Yoko Ono always thought she sounded like, doubled, tripled, with a musicality you can’t translate not because Deyhim is singing in Farsi but because she is singing over your head, hitting some notes only certain human beings can hear, which is to say whoever might be excluded from her illegal concert: in Iran, everyone.
4) Randy Newman, “A Fool in Love,” “Poor Me,” “Got My Mojo Working,” from the soundtrack to “Meet the Parents” (DreamWorks)
The one-time “King of the Suburban Blues” offers a typically craven movie song, a dead cover of a Fats Domino tune and the sort of paint-by-numbers white-boy blues bash that in other hands was already a national skin crawler in 1967, the year before Newman issued his first album, “… Creates Something New Under the Sun,” which he did. The nadir of his career.
5) Caitlin Macy, “The Fundamentals of Play” (Random House)
A frighteningly expert first novel — set a decade back, a rewrite of “The Great Gatsby” as filtered through a Whit Stillman lens. Here irony is the essence of all human life, only the gross, vulgar Gatsby character doesn’t know it, which makes him less than human. But then how do you decipher the Daisy character, who except for this exchange is so insulated she barely lives on the page? “At some point,” says the male narrator, “I made another brilliant contribution to the conversation by asking what she had majored in. Still, I was curious to know.”
“How’d you pick that?” I said.
“Same as anyone.” But of the other couple hundred students who had graduated with that degree, I doubt a single one would have given the same reason Kate did. “I love this country,” she said. I thought at first she was being disingenuous, but she got a look in her eye then which I have never forgotten. It was a look of highly intensified complacency — if that’s possible — which I was sure no feast or threat of famine would ever shake.
6) Larry Clark, “Tulsa” (Grove)
From the director of “Kids” and “Another Day in Paradise,” his first work: a 1971 book of photos from the junk world of his long-extended youth. Deservedly legendary: If Robert Frank’s “The Americans” was a picture of the roads that ’50s teen mass murderer Charley Starkweather, the voice of Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” might have taken if he’d gotten away, this is much worse — what if Starkweather had just stayed home?
7) From liner notes to “Nothing Seems Better to Me: The Music of Frank Proffitt and North Carolina — The Warner Collection, Vol. II” (Appleseed)
In 1940 folklorists Frank and Anne Warner taped hill singer Frank Proffitt’s offering of a local ballad called “Tom Dooley,” about a l9th century murder of a young woman by her former lover. The song traveled, and in 1958 a collegiate trio from Menlo Park, Calif., made it No. 1 in the nation. (For the whole, rich story, see Robert Cantwell’s “When We Were Good: The Folk Revival.”) Proffitt, in a letter from 1959:
I got a television set for the kids. One night I was a-setting looking at some foolishness when three fellers stepped out with guitar and banjer and went to singing Tom Dooly and they clowned and hipswinged. I began to feel sorty sick, like I’d lost a loved one. Tears came to my eyes, yes, I went out and balled on the Ridge, looking toward old Wilkes, land of Tom Dooly … I looked up across the mountains and said Lord, couldn’t they leave me the good memories …
Then Frank Warner wrote, he tells me that some way our song got picked up. The shock was over. I went back to my work. I began to see the world was bigger than our mountains of Wilkes and Watauga. Folks was brothers, they all liked the plain ways. I begin to pity them that hadn’t dozed on the hearthstone … Life was sharing different thinking, the different ways. I looked in the mirror of my heart — You haint a boy no longer. Give folks like Frank Warner all you got. Quit thinking Ridge to Ridge, think of oceans to oceans.
Isn’t this a little too good to be true?
8) Wallflowers on “Saturday Night Live” (NBC, Oct. 21)
I wrote about it weeks ago, but I still don’t know how Jakob Dylan gets away with “Sam Cooke didn’t know what I know,” let alone four times in one song. He does, though, and it’s one of the weirdest accomplishments in pop-music history, and it’s not his looks. I don’t think.
9) “Crossroads of American Values,” Toyota commercial (NBC, CBS, ABC, beginning October)
Presumably thanks to Robert Johnson estate controller Steve LaVere, one can now enjoy the work of one of America’s greatest artists merely by turning on the TV. It’s the worst cover ever of a Johnson song, in this case the 1936 “Cross Road Blues,” featuring a horridly hyped-up white blues voice — compared with this, Randy “Mojo” Newman is Johnson. “Down to the crossroads/Tryin’ to flag a ride,” the piece begins; cars are streaming, people are engaging in transactions, it’s just full of busyness. “Goin’ down to the crossroads,” the voice finishes up: “I believe I’m goin’ down,” which means, down to the Toyota dealer’s. Never mind the line from the song itself, about a black man about to be caught alone on a public road after dark, where he’s as good as dead: “I believe I’m sinking down,” on his knees, in terror and surrender to his fate. The surrender part still works; only the fate has changed.
10) Waco Brothers at Brownie’s (New York, Oct. 21)
“This is a much more likable Waco Brothers than last year,” singer and guitarist Jon Langford announced from the stage at the end of an all-day Bloodshot Records showcase at the CMJ Music Marathon. “That’s what we’re all about,” added guitarist and singer Dean Schlabowske, “likability.” “We don’t play no alt country,” Langford continued. “That’s a Washington word! We play real music for normal people!” True to their adopted George W. Bush “all things to all people” posture, they started off with “Fox River,” a celebration of a river that flows where it wants to flow, and ended with guest Sally Timms swaying to the irresistible melody of “Seminole Wind,” an ode to flood control. Otherwise the politics were up to the music, and vice versa, with Langford proposing “W.” as an all-purpose obscenity for the next four years (“‘W. off,’ W. you,’ ‘That last song was pure W.,’ ‘They really W.’d us over that time’”) and introducing mandolinist Tracey Dear — like the rest of the Wacos, save token American Schlabowske, from the U.K. — as “a man who pays his taxes and can’t vote! That’s what your country was founded on: Taxation without representation! Underpaid foreign workers like the Waco Brothers!” The sound fell apart heroically for Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues,” put itself back together for Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues,” came home for the anti-Clinton “Coo Coo” rewrite “See Willy Fly By” (“Clinton’s looking pretty good right now,” Langford said after the show) and rose as high as Waco Brothers music goes with Schlabowske’s indelible “If You Won’t Change Your Mind,” broken in half by a guitar solo that turned the word “bereft” into a physical sensation — a gorgeous sensation.
The Rude Mechs' theatrical adaptation of Greil Marcus' book "Lipstick Traces" will play Jan. 30-Feb. 1 at DiverseWorks in Houston. For more columns by Greil Marcus, visit his column archive.More Greil Marcus.
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)