"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
As I file this, Al Gore has not yet conceded, but there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon that the rancorous stalemate in the 2000 presidential election might soon be over. While the frame of constitutional government remains unshaken, it has been distressing in the extreme to see what was already a confused, tedious, amateurish and claptrap-filled campaign degenerate into nitpicking legal wrangling, ruthless backbiting, brazen race-baiting and bitter recriminations among American citizens.
Any fair-minded person watching TV in the first two days after the abortive election should have frankly acknowledged that it was the Democrats who first took the low road of mob hysteria and backstage manipulation in Florida. The Republicans countered with an arrogant, presumptuous war mode of their own, but the initial destruction of civility and dignity was not of their making. As a registered Democrat and disillusioned former supporter of Bill Clinton, I voted for Ralph Nader as a protest against the corruption of my party — which was abundantly on display among amoral Democratic operatives this past month.
A national election this close, with the presidency hanging in the balance, certainly demanded extraordinary postmortem measures. But Gore compromised his credibility from the start by demanding recounts only in heavily Democratic counties that he had already won in a landslide. Many citizens (like myself) would have strongly supported statewide manual recounts, however cumbersome, so that all Florida voters were treated equitably. Gore’s divide-and-conquer strategy looked like vintage, ward-heeling dirty tricks.
Republicans correctly warned that manual recounts are not entirely reliable because they are subjective (is a “dimpled chad” really a vote?), introduce human error and open the door to “mischief” (i.e., tampering and fraud). Punch-card ballots were never designed for repeated handling or twisting (witness the snowfall of chad to the floor). Hence it’s unlikely we can confidently trust future vote totals accumulated by sleuths of either party operating under the Freedom of Information Act.
The sanctimony and distortions of fact in Gore’s Nov. 27 address to the nation were so flagrant that they seriously undercut any claim he might make to the next presidential nomination in 2004. On the other hand, the embarrassing, monthlong spectacle of George W. Bush dodging public view and choking on the simplest English sentences exposes yet again the astonishingly poor judgment of the Republican Party establishment that settled on him as the anointed nominee in the first place.
There are over a dozen competent, articulate, knowledgeable Republican governors and senators whose political talents leave Bush in the dust and who would probably have beaten Gore in a walk. But party elders, belatedly realizing that laconic, mummiform Bob Dole had been far too worn and jaded to send up against the loquacious, bouncily philandering Clinton in 1996, went for superficial glamour with Bush. Michigan’s Gov. John Engler admitted as much on a talk show a year ago when he genially joked about why Bush was chosen rather than him: “I’m not as purty as he is.”
So it looks likely that the U.S. will be stuck with a chief executive who will be scrambling to keep up with the job from Day 1. It’s both dreary and unsettling that the nation’s backup quarterback (the smart but shambling Dick Cheney) is so clearly past his prime and is playing Russian roulette with a heart condition to boot. But Bush is an unpretentious fellow with centrist instincts who may surprise people — particularly if he gets his administration off to a terrific start by naming Colin Powell for secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice as national security advisor, who would be the most high-ranking African-Americans in history.
The behavior of the Northeastern major media during the Florida fiasco was shockingly biased. From my perspective as a professor of humanities and media studies, the covert power presently wielded by partisan liberal journalists has become positively alarming, partly because of other changes in communications. Over the past 30 years, daily newspapers have waned in number and variety; the weekly newsmagazines have declined in quality; primary education has weakened in history and geography; and higher education has been suffused with social-welfare ideology.
The Internet, via its numerous political news-link sites, is enormously liberating in providing points of view outside the received opinion of the Northeastern corridor. A good example is Georgie Anne Geyer’s superb piece in the Nov. 17 Chicago Tribune, “Direct Democracy a Dangerously Primitive System,” which demonstrates the risk in abolishing the electoral college.
But not everyone has access to the Internet. For economic as well as cultural reasons, working-class and lower-middle-class African-Americans, for example, are less likely to be equipped with a computer or to be obsessively focused on surfing national and international news sites. Is it relevant that African-Americans (by a voting pattern of 93 percent and up) remain so receptive to Jim Crow-era Democratic Party rhetoric? A near-monolithic voting bloc of that size (at a time when the majority of rank-and-file Republicans are hardly racist ogres) suggests insufficient internal debate, limited sources of outside information and peer pressure in families, neighborhoods and churches.
Though in the week following the election the major media publicized and magnified every inflammatory claim about voting problems in Southern Florida, not everyone was credulous. Salon reader T. Spanne sends this amusing satire about the storm of complaints and the demand for a revote whipped up by the national Democratic Party via telemarketers among elderly Jewish residents of Palm Beach County (where the long-used, Democrat-designed ballot form was published in advance and was accompanied at polling places with instructions for checking it afterward):
Due to the recent situation with our presidential elections, we feel that there are other things that should be “re”-done:
1. We need to contact the state lottery commission. To my horror while watching the lotto results, I realized that I had picked the wrong numbers and that the lottery’s outcome was not to my advantage. Thus I am demanding a replay of the last lotto. I and eight others are exploring a possible lawsuit because the numbers were confusing! There are too many numbers to pick and they are too close together. There needs to be a local replay of the lotto!
2. We are contacting the local college board for a recall of last week’s midterms. To my horror I chose the wrong answers to the test! We found that the multiple choice questions were too confusing, thus leading various students to receive unacceptable grades. We demand a local retest of this exam until we get satisfactory results.
3. I demand to be re-interviewed! After my interview with my prospective employer, I realized I answered some questions wrongly. The answers I meant to give were not given, and I need another opportunity to answer the questions properly as I had wished to. I am contacting the local labor board to challenge the decision of not hiring me. They need to re-interview!
4. I demand that my ticket be revoked! To my horror, I realized that I was looking at my tachometer instead of the speedometer! It’s the manufacturers’ fault since they placed the gauges too close together. I thought I was only going 5 mph! I am contacting the DMV to revoke my ticket and will be filing a lawsuit against all auto manufacturers who are responsible for putting the gauges too close together.
This whole West Palm Beach thing is a joke! How can 19,000 people (all in West Palm Beach) be that incompetent? What about the rest of Florida? Did all the morons migrate to West Palm Beach? They seem to be able to work 15 Bingo cards all at once!
A C-Span broadcast the day after the election gave me burgeoning hope for the revival of the Democratic Party: Sen. John Kerry was shown being interviewed by host Mike Barnicle on WSJZ-FM talk radio in Boston. In my few prior glimpses of Kerry on national TV, he’s come across as a pompous diva, yet another insular Massachusetts liberal with a superiority complex.
But on that morning, bleary and spent from staying up half the night to watch the teetering election returns, Kerry was subdued and sober. All the vaunting ego was drained out of him. I was immensely impressed with his intelligence and range of detailed knowledge, his calm, lucid analysis of national and international problems. If only America could be governed like this, I thought — in a relaxed, unpretentious, helpful manner by someone with natural authority. What an improvement over that shrill rooster (Gore) and peevish porcupine (Bush)! I’ll be keeping an interested eye on Vietnam-veteran Kerry as Democrats maneuver for the 2004 nomination.
Throughout the chaotic news operatics of the past month, there are two moments I would name as Peak of the Sublime and Pit of the Absurd. The best first: At a moment of maximum tension in the election standoff, the Drudge Report posted a newswire alert about a massive outbreak of solar flares and the possible disruption of world telecommunications and power grids.
I view Matt Drudge’s pioneering Web site as performance art, a surrealist collage and Warholian series of hour-by-hour Polaroids of modern culture. His startling solar-flares posting was literally hair-raising, reminding me of Ulysses’ speech about “degree” in Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida”:
But when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues, and what portents, what mutiny,
What raging of the sea, shaking of earth,
Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixture? (I.iii.94-101).
In a prior scene, the oily Pandarus seems to be describing too many of our current political leaders: “Asses, fools, dolts; chaff and bran; chaff and bran; porridge after meat … The eagles are gone; crows and daws, crows and daws” (I.ii.250-55).
For the month’s Pit of the Absurd: a dunning form letter I got from the National Organization for Women with “FLUSH RUSH!” blaring in big blue capitals from the envelope. Yes, a group that should be impartially devoted to the advancement of women is shamelessly whoring for the Democratic Party by trying to shut down alternative political points of view. Apparently emboldened by the hysterical crusade by gay activists to cancel Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s debut TV show (which was doomed from the start by her untelegenic persona), NOW has perverted its mission and joined the totalitarian forces of censorship.
“NOW believes that Rush Limbaugh is truly a dangerous man,” the letter says. “We need the help of every progressive person to expose the hateful, divisive fanaticism of Rush Limbaugh.” Feminists are exhorted to pressure radio stations and advertisers to cut off support for Limbaugh, who is called a “dangerous bigot” spewing forth “reactionary rhetoric” and “venom,” linked to the “messages of intolerance and violence that dominate television.”
“It’s astonishing that Rush Limbaugh gets so much air time” with his “hate-filled show,” the letter fumes — without acknowledging that it’s Limbaugh’s massive populist appeal that sustains his show in the cutthroat world of commercial media. This letter, signed by Patricia Ireland, the president of NOW, eloquently demonstrates how feminist leaders in the U.S. have damaged and marginalized the women’s movement, one of the great, progressive products of the Enlightenment.
Rush Limbaugh is a principled conservative, master broadcaster and stinging social critic who has won his mammoth following through his own energy, individualism and wit. His daily radio show is the one reliable place ordinary citizens can turn to for a different perspective in the blizzard of propaganda and disinformation from the Northeastern media establishment. History will show that Limbaugh was a major force over the past decade in waking this country up from its p.c. coma.
Corrections department: Dozens of readers complained that I wrongly called Ralph Nader the only presidential candidate who opposed the wasteful war on drugs. They point out that Harry Browne of the Libertarian Party also took that position. I apologize for carelessness of phrasing: I was simply trying to show why I was voting for Nader rather than Gore.
Two readers requested clarification of my account of a spectacular play in the Minnesota Vikings-Green Bay Packers game. Coni Bourin notes that Antonio Freeman’s miracle catch was even more miraculous than I had described it:
The ball didn’t land on his chest because he was lying on his tummy. It landed on his back, which made the actual catch all the more unbelievable. He had to have felt it there and rolled over to grab it before it rolled off him. Then he bobbled it a little before securing it in his hands. He realized he was never touched, stood up and ran into the end zone.
Writing from Lawrenceville, Ga., Richard A. Sutton spotlights the behavior of the defending cornerback:
Dishman didn’t just run past the play. As soon as he touched the ball and knocked Freeman down, he started his celebration and turned toward the side lines so his dance could be better appreciated by the crowd and the television audience. He joins in glory another Viking from the 1960s who, headed for the end zone all alone, started his celebration too early and exuberantly spiked the ball on the five yard line. A player from the other team recovered the ball.
Rechavia Berman, a spokesman for the Green Leaf Party of Israel, sent a most interesting message from Tel Aviv protesting that my criticism of rocket strikes by Israeli helicopter gunships (as shown on American TV) erred in calling Ramallah a “village”:
Ramallah is not a “village” by any definition or stretch of the imagination. It is a large city of over 100,000 people and is the West Bank seat of the Palestinian Authority.
We in Israel can’t really help it if the balance of power in our region seems a bit unsportsmanlike to detached spectators such as yourself. This ain’t no football game, and we sleep a hell of a lot better at night with our superior firepower than we would have without it. Tell me, are they showing the nightly shooting practice that the Tanzim militia has been conducting on the Jewish Jerusalem neighborhood of Giloh from the Palestinian Jerusalem village of Beit Jallah? I’m talking about live ammunition being fired night in and night out at residential homes.
Let’s imagine, for a second, that some border town in the southern U.S. was getting shot at each and every night for two weeks from a Mexican border town, and you tell me how long that border town would still be in one piece. And when Israeli forces are deployed — usually with remarkable restraint, I may add — it reminds you of “The War of the Worlds.” Well, I have just one thing to say: If a man runs into a brick wall on purpose and at full speed and breaks his head, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the brick wall is at fault.
I happen to be a left winger who does not believe Israel to be faultless at all in this latest crisis, just so you don’t make things easy for yourself by casting me as some racist settler.
I’m grateful to friends in Provincetown, Mass., the writers Roger Skillings and Heidi Jon Schmidt, for sending along an excerpt from Academic Questions as reprinted in the autumn issue of the Wilson Quarterly. It’s by John M. Ellis, professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz:
At long last there is widespread talk of a crisis in literary studies, and yet in a kind of displacement the hand-wringing is directed not to the real problem but to one of its side effects — that there are almost no college teaching jobs available for new Ph.D.s. When supply dwarfs demand, the question arises, is the problem mainly one of demand, or of supply?
Everyone talks only about supply — that is, too many people in graduate school — and nobody ever faces the dreaded possibility that the crisis is really one of reduced demand. Yet it should be obvious that demand is the problem. If undergraduates were majoring in English at the rate of 30 years ago, their numbers would be about 60 percent greater than they actually are today. The supply of Ph.D.s would then be hopelessly inadequate to meet the demand for new professors of English.
The real source of the crisis must therefore lie in the fact that undergraduates are not attracted to what college literature programs now offer them. The college literature establishment professes sympathy for its hapless graduate students but is not prepared to do the one thing that might help them — and that is to think again about the mix of identity politics and postmodern dogma that has made English and related departments intellectually uncompetitive.
That says it all. The academic establishment has ignored and been complicitous with the steady decline in prestige of literary studies in the U.S. over the past quarter century. When the distinguished generation typified by my mentor, Harold Bloom, reaches retirement, it will be all too clear that the humanities departments of the elite schools are run by mediocrities and magpies, plodding trimmers and narcissistic chameleons neither deeply erudite nor genuinely accomplished.
Indulged and protected by the Northeastern print and electronic media (staffed by Ivy League graduates intent on preserving the face value of their and their children’s degrees), the most ostentatiously power-mongering, fast-track humanities professors have hit their 40s and 50s without having produced a single, major scholarly work that will outlive them. Their empire is built on sand.
And now for something completely different. Here’s a revealing pop snippet from the Nov. 15 Philadelphia Inquirer about Gwyneth Paltrow, the leading exponent of the Karenna Gore simpering-princess school of acting: “Paltrow is a natural actress who resisted formal training. ‘It seems like it’s easy for me,’ she says.”
Oh, really? Paltrow is in my view an insufferable lightweight who has yet to produce a single consistently good performance. It’s a sign of our artistically debased times that she has an Oscar while the coruscatingly talented Kate Winslet, with her rich emotional depth, does not.
Paltrow is fast becoming the ersatz Meryl Streep, another brittle blond who (after some fine early work) became ritually, nauseatingly venerated for a distinction she no longer had. Check out “Postcards From the Edge,” for example, the 1990 film directed by Mike Nichols where the awesome Shirley MacLaine acts up a storm while Streep (playing the real-life Carrie Fisher) sentimentally mugs, misreads line rhythms and ruins every scene except the one where she fakes shooting up Dennis Quaid’s driveway with a pistol.
I enjoyed the two-hour debut last weekend of Showtime’s gay soap opera, “Queer as Folk,” principally because of the glamorous performance by Gale Harold of cruel-as-ice Brian, who looks like Donatello’s David all grown up. He reminded me of Harry Hamlin’s smolderingly on-the-prowl gay stud in Arthur Hiller’s groundbreaking “Making Love” (1982), starring Kate Jackson and Michael Ontkean.
Brian’s gaudily explicit anal defloration of that 17-year-old blond twig, Justin, certainly broke barriers for television, but one wonders whether the program’s portrait of the go-go gay-male world as a decadent wonderland does not play into the hands of puritan fundamentalists. The token lesbian couple, introduced via a kitchen-sink pregnancy theme, is an unconvincing bore. And I was outraged by the condescending portrait of working-class heterosexuals as fat oafs. What snobby provincialism — par for the course for too many pseudoleftist gay activists in the U.S.
I was tickled by a passing reference to me in last week’s review in the Times of London of a BBC2 movie about Dorothy Parker. The wisecracking Parker, wrote Barbara Ellen, was “at the very vanguard of flapper culture” in the 1920s: “She was its Camille Paglia crossed with Courtney Love.” Parker, whom I knew only through her scathing one-liners, was an early inspiration of mine when I was growing up in Syracuse. I had somehow stumbled on a secondhand collection of anecdotes by Bennett Cerf that showed a cartoon Parker flinging a giant, dripping, steel-tipped pen like a spear — still my philosophy of writing!
To wind up this week’s pop chronicles: Salon readers responded en masse to my lament over the dying American hot dog. Ellis Simberloff writes:
One problem with franks for the masses is that edible casings are expensive, and really good so-called natural casings are very expensive. For me, no hot dog without the crunch of a casing is really worth salivating over. Because dawgs are often considered easy to prepare food for kids, the short-sighted wiener industry overwhelmingly produces bland, skinless, inexpensive products and shortchanges real hot dog enthusiasts like us. Even most Nathan’s now serve the cheaper skinless variety but still get the premium price.
Kate Coe sends this absorbing excursus:
For years, hot dogs were enjoyed at commercial venues, most notably Major League Baseball games, more than they were eaten in private homes. Hamburgers are made at home. But as attendance at baseball declined and fast-food burger places advanced, hot dogs lost favor with the American public.
Hot dogs are sold by the pound, just as in butcher shops, but the buns are sold by number. Commercial bakers re-tooled ovens and baking sheets to produce more hamburger buns when hot dogs declined in popularity. Since you can get sushi and nachos at the ballpark, it seems unlikely that franks will ever reclaim their former glory.
I once worked on a TV special for ABC called “Secrets Revealed,” and the mystery of buns by number, dogs by pound was to be revealed. But network bigwigs scrapped the idea, no doubt so as not to offend fast food advertisers.
Nominations by Salon readers for hot dog supremacy poured in. In Los Angeles: Pink’s on La Brea and the corn dogs at Astroburger. In Silverdale, Wash.: Polish hot dogs at the Price/Costco store. In Houston: the James Coney Island chain for its hot dog with “the works” (chili, melted cheese and onions). In Columbia, S.C.: local chains Rush’s and Zesto’s. Eric C. Sanders recommends the 7-Eleven chain for its Quarter Pound Big Bites with “the table wine of the South (Lipton Iced Tea).”
In Detroit: Lafayette Coney Island for its coney dog. In Canton, Ohio: Hegg’s Nut Shop. In Peoria, Ill.: cart vendors with their very hot mustard. In Chicago: the Superdawg on the Northside and Demon Dogs in the DePaul neighborhood. The “char-cheddar dog” at Wieners Circle. The “Chicago style” dog (cucumber slices, jalapeño peppers, onions, sliced pickles, mustard) at the Navy Pier.
Most nominated hot-dog emporium on the East Coast was resoundingly Rutt’s Hut, founded in 1942 in what was variously pegged as Nutley, Secaucus and Clifton, N.J.: king of the menu there is the “Ripper,” a “deep-fried” hot dog. Also recommended was Callahan’s in nearby Fort Lee.
In Pennsylvania: Smith’s Provision meats in Erie (Dan Dubowski says, “Best natural casing hot dogs in the world!”). In the Lehigh Valley: Willy Joe’s and Yocco’s (the Iacocca family). In Greenville: the Majestic Bar & Grill.
In New York state: Ted’s in Buffalo. Zweigle’s White Hots in Rochester. Heid’s in Liverpool, north of Syracuse on Onondaga Lake. In New York City: Katz’s Deli, Grey’s Papaya and kosher dogs from the pushcart at 96th Street and Central Park West.
In New England: Chick’s (open year around) on the beach in West Haven, Conn. Swanky Frank off the I-95 exit in Norwalk, Conn. Spike’s Junkyard Dogs (notably the Ruben Dog) in Providence, R.I., Wass’s in Rockland and Belfast, Maine. Flo’s Hot Dogs in Cape Neddick, Maine. In Massachusetts: Hot Dog Express & Grille in Worcester, Frank’s in Brockton and Simco’s on the Bridge in Mattapan.
Lauding the “excellent hot dog stands” in Toronto, Sara Gann of Arlington, Va., speaks, I’m sure, for thousands of aggrieved Americans when she declares, “I shouldn’t have to go to Canada for a good hot dog!” Robert Chappell, among others, rightly twits me, “I should remind you it was Ralph Nader who, in the late ’60s, led the crusade against the American hot dog.”
For reasons of space I must defer to the future the tantalizing remarks sent by readers about the glories of smoked sausages in Louisiana, of barbecue in Lubbock, Texas, and of Italian spiedie (actually one of my family’s specialties) in upstate New York — and also about the abysmal lack of good fried chicken in Boston.
Postscript: My conversation with Ingrid Sischy about the social tyranny of blonds appears in the December issue of Interview magazine. The BBC World Service is still posting piquant excerpts from its in-depth interview with me on “About Face,” which aired globally on Oct. 12.
Because of the vacation schedule, this is my final column of the year. My next column will appear on Jan. 17. Happy holidays to Salon readers everywhere!
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)