"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)
The excruciating protraction of last week’s presidential election, with its attendant rancor and legal wrangling, is certainly one of the most discouraging political events of my lifetime. The first American president of the new millennium deserved a more auspicious entrance to power.
The 2000 campaign, which really began with the impeachment crisis of 1998, dragged on far too long and at terrible financial and psychological cost. Nov. 7 should have been our day of liberation, an exhilarating fresh start no matter who had won. Instead the election has splintered the nation, setting citizen against citizen and county against county. Petty partisanship of the most noxious kind may ensure that for four more frustrating years, the next president will govern under a cloud.
The U.S. in this time of uncertainty and confusion is not a banana republic, as overseas foes have gloated, but it is distressingly reminiscent of the most bilious days of overexpanded imperial Rome, when talentless emperors ruled at the courtesy of the army, when the bureaucracy was bloated and weak and when ruthless, third-rate politicians and new-money men knew how to inflame a fickle, urban populace to thwart the will of a divided and paralyzed Senate.
As a registered Democrat who voted for the vigorously principled Ralph Nader as a protest against the corrupt, cynical superstructure of my party, I was mortified by the atrocious behavior of Democratic operatives in the first days after last week’s abortive election. What callous, deceitful inflaming of popular passions, what reckless disregard of the public good!
Given the sensitivity of the situation as well as the closeness of the election nationwide, the strident and premature claims of racial bias by Jesse Jackson (for whom I voted in the 1988 primary) on his intrusive visits to Florida did serious damage to race relations in this country. Furthermore, the high-level Democratic decision to make Gore campaign manager William Daley a principal point man in the dispute was — given his Chicago family’s notorious political history — foolish and needlessly divisive. A hoarse, exhausted Karen Hughes, the normally articulate, high-intensity spokeswoman for the Bush campaign, was also excessively harsh in the first 48 hours of the crisis.
The Northeastern major media betrayed their liberal bias by the malicious selectivity of their initial reportage, which did not stabilize until the weekend. Two days after the election, the once superb but now sadly degenerated CBS national radio news was still pumping out Democratic party-line propaganda about the legality of the balloting in Palm Beach County and elsewhere in Florida. It is grossly unethical for the media to sow seeds of baseless resentment among minority citizens across the country.
But there were more critical failures, like President Clinton’s lackadaisical half-day’s delay in making a public appearance after the election stalemate of the prior night. Clinton was apparently too busy with his wife’s business in New York to bother with the potentially destabilizing effect of the news emanating from elsewhere in the U.S. Because of the difference in global time zones, events taking place in the middle of the night here rippled across Europe and points east in the midst of a business day. Few foreign observers knew of our protective 75-day delay between the election and inauguration of a new president. The U.S. looked rudderless. Hence Clinton should have gone before the cameras to make a calm, reassuring statement by breakfast time at the latest in Washington.
As for the Electoral College, I’ve always viewed it as an inexplicable, elephantine antique — but never has its importance in American politics been better demonstrated. The instant success with which the national Democratic Party, using banks of commercial telemarketers, was able to whip up mob hysteria in Florida shows how vulnerable democracy is to demagoguery. The Electoral College respects the regional complexity and diversity of the United States. By giving weight (as the U.S. Senate also does) to less populated areas, it acts as a block against conspiratorial machinations and peer pressure in overpopulated metropolises.
The chaotic lack of standardization in balloting and vote-counting procedures in the U.S. has shocked virtually everyone. My district uses the grand old style of lever-operated voting machines — one of which broke down within hours and had to be serviced by a roving emergency technician. Waits of two hours were not uncommon at polling places in regional Philadelphia. There are also too many disturbing reports of abuse of absentee ballots around the country. Local talk shows, for example, were seething in the week before the election about absentee ballots being distributed and compulsorily collected during services at African-American churches in Philadelphia.
Neither of the presidential candidates has been impressive over the past week. Gov. George W. Bush, with his patched boil and befuddled manner, has looked like a nervous student reporting for his orals examination. Vice President Al Gore, posing in a clunky game of touch football, exploited his family once more for a photo op, then muffed two public statements, one by pomposity and the other by grinning vacuity. The negligibly talented Bush is in over his head, while the schizoid Gore is a conceited mannequin choked with his own sawdust.
Alas, I suppose I must comment on the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton to the U.S. Senate — a post that belonged to six-term Democratic Rep. Nita Lowey, the former assistant secretary of state of New York who was forced to roll over at Hillary’s invasion, enforced by the upper echelons of the national Democratic Party. The nation is now condemned to an eternity of Clintonism — which means, among other things, the parasitic interconnection of Democratic politicians and activists with witless, deep-pockets, showbiz celebrities. Socialite liberalism, as I have argued in prior columns, is a narcissistic dead end for the American arts.
Hillary’s campaign would never have succeeded without the open collusion of the liberal major media, which studiously ignored her misuse of the Secret Service and her profligate waste of taxpayer dollars for private ambition and which let her stage a campaign from soft, hospitable entertainment shows rather than from issues-oriented talk shows where she would have been systematically questioned and tested.
But Rep. Rick Lazio, her vanquished opponent, must also be faulted for his poor choice of a campaign manager: the liberal media’s hokey (because intentionally anti-Bush) infatuation with Republican Sen. John McCain misled Lazio into borrowing political hired gun Mike Murphy from McCain’s staff. Not only is the Virginia-based Murphy not a native New Yorker (unlike Hillary’s cadre of advisors), but on the evidence of his battle plan for Lazio, he’s a blithering mediocrity who gave the candidate bad advice and never helped him close the “stature gap,” which required major policy speeches as well as more consistent, dignified deportment.
Lazio should have beaten like a drum his vastly superior, practical experience with collegiality and the art of congressional deal-making and compromise — of which there is a total absence in Hillary’s career, which has been marked by temperamental behavior and a cyclical pattern of authoritarian coercion and sulky withdrawal. As shown by my articles and interviews from 1992 on, I was an early Hillary fan who became disillusioned by her arrogant mishandling of healthcare reform, her anti-feminist toleration of her husband’s history of sexual harassment, her stonewalling and legal maneuvers and her refusal to acknowledge the role she played in this administration’s disasters, which degraded the presidency and subjected the nation to pointless suffering.
Nevertheless, Hillary Clinton has now been duly elected by the people of New York. She must be allowed the freedom to achieve. Her own behavior will determine either her rehabilitation or the perpetuation of her ignominy. (See Richard Poe’s “A Dispatch from Occupied New York” in Front Page magazine for its worrisome survey of the Hillary cult among foggy females.) If she treats the Senate as a platform for divalike demands and fiats, then Hillary deserves what she gets. But if she subordinates herself to public service, she will eventually convert many present opponents.
A reprehensible feature of the late weeks of the campaign was the vicious assault on Ralph Nader by liberal activists and even by the liberal press itself, via editorials in the New York Times and Washington Post. The nagging, hectoring and whining were not to be believed. How dare anyone rebuke so accomplished an exponent of free thought and ask him to fall servilely in line behind the mercenary Democratic establishment?
The notion was preposterous that Naderites “owed” their vote to Al Gore — who in and of himself managed to alienate Bill Bradley-supporting Democrats like me (in just over the past eight months). Nader’s superb speech at his final Nov. 5 “superrally” in Washington, as broadcast by C-Span, reconfirmed my enthusiastic endorsement of his views. He was the only presidential candidate addressing the decline of public transit or making a connection between entrenched budgetary excesses and underfunded public education. He was the only candidate speaking for exploited, non-unionized workers in chain stores and fast-food franchises and the only one who denounced the hypocrisy, injustice and futility of the war on drugs.
The political news has been so exhausting and nationally embarrassing this past week that popular culture seems overwhelmed. But my pop contribution for this column would be Turner Classic Movies’ recent broadcast of a superbly restored print of “Let Us Be Gay,” an obscure 1930 film starring Norma Shearer as a nice gal feigning madcap socialite. Marie Dressler, a longtime favorite of mine, is wonderful as a grumpy dowager with a bracingly snappish style.
Shearer, the saccharine heroine of the 1939 camp classic “The Women,” has never interested me in the least, so the piquantly named “Let Us Be Gay” was a revelation. In her free body language, sharp intelligence and facial mobility, she seems as absolutely contemporary as Ashley Judd or Gillian Anderson. Born in Montreal, Shearer was the sister of pioneering sound technician Douglas Shearer and the wife of MGM’s brilliant producer, Irving Thalberg. After Thalberg’s tragically early death in 1936, her career languished, and she left Hollywood in the early 1940s — a truncation that was a great loss to film.
There were two amazing football finales since my last column. First was Notre Dame’s first-ever overtime victory in its Oct. 28 game against Air Force. Freshman quarterback sensation Matt LoVecchio made a fake option right on the 9-yard line and then whirled to pitch the ball back to split end Joey Getherall, who raced around the left end and did a flying dive across the line for the winning score. The telepathic precision and graceful, forceful execution of that surprise play put me into one of my blissed-out “Men are wonderful!” moods.
The second magic moment ended the Minnesota Vikings-Green Bay Packers game broadcast on Election Eve by ABC’s “Monday Night Football.” The Packers’ legendary quarterback Brett Favre made a long pass down the right sideline from the 43-yard line in Viking territory. Viking cornerback Chris Dishman thought he had broken up the play and kept running hard past Packer wide receiver Antonio Freeman, whom he had knocked flat on his back.
But the ball, after hitting Dishman’s hand and bouncing up to his shoulder, rolled off and was perversely lifted by the wind — so that it ended up landing on the prone receiver’s chest. It then bounced again and arced up to land in the palm of Freeman’s conveniently outflung right hand, inches above the ground. He automatically hunched and cradled the ball to his stomach, and there was a pause on the field as everyone assumed the play was over.
With great presence of mind, Freeman suddenly realized he hadn’t been touched by a defender after he caught the ball. Before the Vikings could react, he leapt up and, veering on a diagonal toward the middle to escape Dishman, dashed 15 yards into the end zone for the winning touchdown. Replay after replay proved to the stadium and the TV audience that this was truly one of the mesmerizing, miracle catches in football history.
At the book signing after my lecture on “The Internet Revolution” last weekend at the Chicago Humanities Festival, I was very moved by the personal testimony of so many artists and writers who thanked me for my militant defense of the arts against p.c. ideology. Their words of support mean a great deal to me, since I am still fighting on several fronts of the culture wars.
My quick visit to Chicago impressed me anew with this pressing national question: Why can’t the U.S. guarantee a first-rate, fast-food hot dog to every citizen? Even the McDonald’s outlets at Chicago O’Hare International Airport were selling fat, delicious, juicy bratwursts. The taxi rides in and out of the city were tantalizing torture as an endless series of beckoning, neon-lit, hot dog emporiums flew by.
The classic American hot dog fell in prestige after the health-food movement of the late 1960s and ’70s and can still be savored in its original glory only in scattered regions of the U.S. I lamented this cultural disaster in a feature I did with host Bill Boggs for “Talking Food” on the TV Food Network in 1995, where we sampled sizzling hot dogs at the upper Broadway branch of Papaya King in New York.
A well-run Nathan’s Famous — like that at the Molly Pitcher Service Area on the New Jersey Turnpike — hawks a credible dog, and clearly Chicago, with its history of stockyards and meatpacking, remains a dazzling citadel of the frankfurter triumphant. But the decline of this once-ubiquitous populist symbol is an American tragedy that needs remedying. Why can’t McDonald’s or Burger King market veggie or turkey dogs to the masses? Where is the shrewd entrepreneur who will ride to the rescue?
Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems." You can write her at this address.More Camille Paglia.
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)