"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)
Leave it to Molly Ivins to cut through the crap. Commentators in the Florida election morass have almost without exception lined up in strict formation based on their party affiliations, conservatives calling for a Bush anointment, liberals saying Gore was robbed. And the dialogue is getting ruder and ruder.
So which side does Ivins — probably more proudly partisan than any other pundit in the business — line up on in the biggest ballot-counting brouhaha in modern history? Well, of course she doesn’t cotton to the idea of George W. Bush as president. Let’s get that out of the way right from the start. Ivins, who writes a widely syndicated column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a native Texan who, as a lefty, has a unique perspective on W. and all the Bushes. She recently authored the bestselling “Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush” (a title she may come to regret, temporally speaking), and she commented extensively on the unique follies of W.’s dad, George Herbert Walker Bush, during the president’s glorious post-Reagan reign.
Wading into the current breach, this is what Ivins wrote in her column of Nov. 19:
Here’s the challenge: Let’s everybody with a dog in this fight — meaning either pro-Gore or pro-Bush — be obliged to make the case for the other side for at least 15 minutes.
Because I think we’re watching something important, quite aside from the fate of the nation and the future of The World’s Greatest Democracy (except for Florida).
In a mild and in some ways not terribly important case (I may have to eat those words), we’re watching why wars start. What we see is the constant presentation — because the media love to polarize — of people who are apparently incapable of imagining what the situation looks like from somebody else’s point of view.
Imagine that. A call for empathy. Because when you think about it, there really is no solution to this mess. Between the confusing ballots, the never-counted ones, the varying chad-evaluation standards, the citizens who were intimidated into not voting, the canceled recounts, the violent mobs, the tampered-with absentee ballot requests and all the rest of the chaos, there is no way of coming to a result that is free of taint. So what else is there to do but submit to the absurdity of it all, shake hands with your enemy and go have a beer?
This is a case of Ivins being a uniter, not a divider, but she would no doubt chafe at that role. She sees bringing down the powerful as her task, not “bringing people together.” But Ivins’ gift is that even while deflating the pompous she ends up being a uniter. She just can’t help it.
Other columnists might claim to bring us all together, to find the common threads that bind us in the knot of humanity, but how many make us laugh in the bargain? Ask yourself when the last time was you laughed out loud at something a political columnist wrote. Not snickered — as you might do reading Maureen Dowd or P.J. O’Rourke — but practically fell off your chair laughing. Chances are it was when you last read Ivins.
Readers seeking examples of Ivins’ wit can find them in ample quantity in her four books, the first three being collections of her columns and articles: “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?” (1991), “Nothin’ but Good Times Ahead” (1993) and “You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You: Politics in the Clinton Years” (1998). Her latest book, “Shrub,” co-written by Lou Dubose, is a straightforward account of Bush’s record as a Texas businessman and governor. Ivins reins in much of her lacerating wit here, but she doesn’t hold back in her revelations of Bush mendacity. Here’s “Shrub” in a nutshell:
If Bush does make it to the White House, he and Laura should have Ken Starr over for dinner. If Starr hadn’t so abused the power of his office, Congress might have reauthorized the independent-counsel statute, leaving the door open for a court-appointed prosecutor to investigate a president’s son who flipped his oil companies faster than a Texas S&L can daisy-chain a Dallas condo; as a corporate board insider, unloaded his company stock shortly before its price plummeted; and walked away from the whole mess with more money than Bill Clinton ever dreamed of making on a little real estate deal now known as Whitewater.
Even though the book was on the New York Times bestseller list for several weeks — as were all Ivins’ books — it gained little “traction” in the establishment media.
“Don’t get me started about the media double standard,” Ivins says about this conundrum. “Part of it from the beginning has been that the expectations were so low. I mean every time W. pulled himself together and jumped over a matchbox, people applauded that he could jump over a matchbox.” W. said as much himself on the ‘David Letterman’ show, didn’t he?
But the media’s laxity goes deeper than amorphous standards, Ivins believes. She has repeatedly stated that the press’ sins of omission are far worse than their sins of commission. “It is the stories we don’t get, the ones we miss, pass over, fail to recognize, don’t pick up on, that will send us to hell,” she wrote in 1990, so you can’t accuse her of being self-serving.
Ivins is a political columnist, but somehow that term doesn’t do her justice. We’ve come to associate political columnists (or commentators) with the self-important talking heads who clutter the airwaves and the predictable bores who take up space on the Op-Ed pages. What she has in mind is more ambitious than that. Basically, she’s a storyteller who uses satire to drive home her points, and thus is in the rarefied line of such legendary observers as Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Will Rogers, H.L. Mencken and Red Smith, all of whom considered pomp deflation and conventional-wisdom dispersal among their primary missions.
As a personality profiler, Ivins is peerless. Her essays on Barbara Jordan, Ann Richards, an anonymous visitor to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and her own parents swing from the hilarious to the heartbreaking. As a chronicler of that perverse body known as the Texas Legislature, where humanity seems to exist in its most primitive state, she is like a griot or a James Boswell — or perhaps a proctologist.
Here’s Ivins writing in the Atlantic in 1975:
Take the last all-House duke-out. It was, distressingly enough, over ten years ago. Although there have been a fair number of fistfights in the Capitol since, none has qualified as total Fist City. On the last such occasion (the cause long forgotten), over half of the 150 House members were actively engaged in slugging their colleagues, insulting the wives and mothers of same, knocking over desks, and throwing chairs. Now, any legislature can have a mass duke-out, but where else would there be musical accompaniment? In mid-melee, four members mounted the speaker’s dais and held forth, in barbershop-quartet harmony, with “I Had a Dream, Dear.”
In a tribute to Jordan after the great congresswoman from Texas died in 1996, Ivins wrote: “But the real secret of her rhetoric, the reason she jolted everyone who ever heard her into respectful attention, was that her choice of words was just as precise as her diction. She used words to construct thoughts with the exactitude of a skilled craftsman building a limestone wall.”
Ivins could just as well have been writing about herself.
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She was born Mary Tyler Ivins in 1944 in Monterey, Calif., while her father, Jim Ivins, was serving as an officer in the Pacific at the end of World War II. Upon his discharge, the family moved back to Houston. Her mother, Margot Milne Ivins, was a Smith-educated product of East Coast gentry. Her father, raised in Chicago, struggled through college during the Depression. He was a successful corporate attorney who attained a high position with the Tenneco Corp. Ivins wrote that her mother “never mastered the more practical aspects of life — I believe the correct clinical term is ‘seriously ditzy’ — but she was nobody’s fool. She was shrewd about people and fond of fun, and at her best she could charm the birds from the trees.”
Both of her parents, upstanding Texans, were Republicans, so young Molly was a bit of a rebel. She wrote that her turn into activism sprang from the same realization that creates all Southern liberals. “Once you figure out they are lying to you about race, you start to question everything.”
Like many progressives on the front end of the boomer generation, Ivins got involved in civil rights and the early anti-Vietnam War movement. But she notes a difference between her compatriots and those who came later: “By the time of the antiwar movement we were sort of political veterans, and so I don’t think we got quite as disenchanted as some of the younger antiwar people did. I mean, as far as we were concerned you organized and changed things — because we’d seen it done and we knew it could be done. So it didn’t seem to us like the country was evil or bizarre or anything like that.”
As her mother and grandmother did, Ivins graduated from Smith College, and decided to become a journalist because it combined two of her passions — writing and politics.
She enrolled at the Columbia School of Journalism, she says, because “in those days if you were a female, unless you had an extra credential, your chances of getting hired, and then getting a good assignment, were really quite slim. In those days, if newspapers hired women at all they would send you to what they called the snake pit, which is what they called the women’s department, the women’s pages, which is where you’d spend the rest of your life writing about food, fluff and fashion. There was really quite a remarkable level of sexism on newspapers when I started.”
Ivins is fond of relating that she worked in the complaints department and was “sewer editor” at the Houston Chronicle during summer breaks from Columbia, but her first postgraduate newspaper job was at the Minneapolis Tribune, where, she says, “they let me write about the uproar of the late ’60s — the antiwar movement, black riots, angry women. It was a wonderful time.”
But you apparently can’t keep the gal out of Texas for too long, so when a job at the feisty fortnight publication the Texas Observer beckoned, Ivins bit. “I left the Trib in 1970 with the feeling that I would never have a career in establishment media of any kind,” Ivins says. “I was going off to this small one-horse progressive newspaper in Texas to sort of become a political journalist, like dedicating your life to being a nun or some damn thing.”
She refers to this six-year period as “the happy golden period of sunshine, laughter and beer and living considerably below the poverty line.” The job afforded her her first encounters with the wacky Texas Legislature, whose high jinks she advertised to the rest of the country in numerous freelance articles. And then, she says, “I quite accidentally acquired something of a national reputation.” Ivins became the go-to gal for scribes who needed to be enlightened on matters in the Lone Star State.
Then in 1976 the New York Times hired her away from the Observer, commencing a six-year period that is rife with Ivins legend. The wisecracking reporter and the Great Gray Lady did not saunter together hand in glove. First she covered New York politics, then was named Rocky Mountain bureau chief — which was great, Ivins says, because “as long as you’re a thousand miles away from them, working for the Times is wonderful.”
Problem was, the Times doesn’t do folksy. In one story, Ivins described someone as “having a beer gut that belongs in the Smithsonian.” That ended up in the paper as “a man with a protuberant abdomen.” Ivins also recalls tromping around the Times office in her stocking feet, which did not endear her to Abe Rosenthal, the paper’s executive editor at the time.
Times reporter Adam Clymer, whom Ivins had befriended, recalls her tenure. “The Times in those days was concerned that their writing was dull,” he says. “They had a theory that they could hire some great writer from some place or other, and then just polish them, just sand them down a little, and they’d be fine at the Times. Molly was one of the most spectacular failures of that theory. I mean, Molly doesn’t sand down.
“She once had a marvelous proposal,” Clymer continues. “The metropolitan desk in those days was not a very happy place. And she once suggested that what they ought to do was publish the official shit list each week — because probably more people thought they were on it than actually were, and this would be reassuring.”
What finally did Ivins in at the Times was her story about a community chicken-killing festival, which she described as a “gang pluck.” “I was sort of abruptly recalled like a defective automobile and replaced,” she says. “I had transgressed once too often.”
There are no bad feelings, though. “I must say, it was an instructive experience … to see daily journalism practiced at that level of excellence,” she says. “But they called from Dallas and said, ‘Come on down, we’re having a newspaper war.’ And that sounded to me like a hell of a lot more fun than the New York Times, so off I loped to Dallas.” In 1982 she became a columnist at the Dallas Times Herald, with license to write whatever she wanted. “I spent three years in Dallas and laughed hysterically the entire time,” she says.
But, sadly, the Times Herald lost the newspaper war; the competing Dallas Morning News bought the Herald in ’92 and shut it down. Ivins wrote of the experience in Mother Jones magazine: “My newspaper died the other day. I’d worked for the Dallas Times Herald for ten years, and its death was a kick in the gut the like of which I cannot recall ever having experienced.”
At the same time her newspaper folded, her first book, “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?” was flying off the shelves. “It was a ridiculous point in my life where I was broke, unemployed and on the New York Times bestseller list. It was a really confusing period,” she says.
Ivins bounced back quickly, though, when another Texas newspaper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, offered her a column on the same terms. She toils there to this day and is syndicated in close to 300 newspapers. She is single and lives in her own home in Austin, proudly earning “less than $100,000 a year — if that’s of any interest to anyone — which is a lot less than the football writer at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram makes,” she says. She supplements her paltry income by lecturing and participating in special events such as the recent Nation cruise, in which the political weekly set sail in the western Caribbean with Studs Terkel, Jim Hightower, Barbara Kingsolver, Calvin Trillin and others, in addition to Ivins.
She has written articles for several major magazines, including Esquire and Harper’s, but has a special fondness for contributing to scrappy left-wing rags like the Progressive and the Nation, not to mention the Texas Observer, for which she raises funds and writes.
“I think it’s going to become more and more important to keep those little independent voices alive,” she says. “I really do think we’re going through a period of concentration of ownership of media, and we’re starting to see the effects at the editorial level, and it’s all bad. This increased pressure for profits every quarter, smaller news hole, less coverage of important stuff — the extent that it’s become one giant infotainment industry.”
Typically, when Ivins gets on a solemn jag like this, she checks it with a wisecrack: “I mean, what is the point of being 56 years old if you cannot sit around and bitch about the collapse of standards? That and the trouble with young people today. I love, I love, middle age. Sitting around bitching about the collapse of standards and the trouble with young people today is just fabulous.”
And this, really, is the secret of Ivins’ genius — the balance of humor and passion. There are columnists out there who have one or the other, but without the two together, there’s half a loaf. Columnist Dave Barry, for example — he beat Ivins to a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 — is funny, but you don’t get the sense that he cares particularly deeply about anything. On the other hand, a columnist like Ellen Goodman is passionate, but goes down something like medicine.
Ivins’ approach can be summed up in a comment Twain made in his autobiography, “Mark Twain in Eruption”: “I have always preached. If the humor came of its own accord and uninvited, I have allowed it a place in my sermon, but I was not writing the sermon for the sake of the humor.”
Hundreds of Ivins’ pieces illustrate this process, but here’s an example from one column, written in ’91 for the Times Herald and reprinted in “Nothin’ but Good Times Ahead.” She starts out by saying, “Phil Gramm is about to appoint fourteen new federal judges in the state of Texas. As they say in the comics, ‘AIEEEEEEE!’” Funny, but then she goes on to tell the story of a Dallas judge named Joe Fish.
Fish sentenced “socialite Carol Peeler to one thousand hours of community service because of her splendid record with the Junior League. Ms. Peeler, you may recall, was accused of tax fraud that cost the U.S. Treasury $750 million.”
Then further down: “But, my friends, there is always another side to the story, and lest you think Judge Fish is unduly lenient on white-collar crime, let me point out what happens in his court to those who are not rich, white, and socially prominent. Regard, if you will, the fate of Shirley Harris … not in the Junior League, and an Okie on top of it.
“Harris … was indicted for conspiracy, wire fraud, and mail fraud in connection with … a Dallas-based franchising business. Raphael Cosmetics accepted franchise fees averaging $8,400 from at least forty folks around the country and then didn’t make good on its promise to turn the franchises into lucrative small businesses. Shirley Harris, a Piedmont, Oklahoma, housewife, opened the Dallas office and answered the phones there during the short life of Raphael Cosmetics.
“She told the judge she had not known what her husband and her brother was doing was criminal and that she was afraid of her abusive husband. Judge Fish, proving to us all how tough he is on crime, gave Shirley Harris a sixty-year prison sentence.”
Then Ivins finishes the column: Harris “should have tried harder to get into the Junior League. And probably would have, if she hadn’t been raped when she was fourteen, forced to bear an illegitimate child at a home for unwed mothers, and then married an abusive man.
“Hey, luck that bad, no wonder she got Joe Fish for a judge.
“Fourteen new Joe Fishes on the bench.”
Sometimes, though, Ivins gets so incensed she just can’t muster a yuk. Commenting on the so-called partial-birth law that the House of Representatives passed in 1996 — and President Clinton ultimately vetoed — outlawing late-term abortions, Ivins wrote: “No one has an abortion at six months unless it means her life, or that she will never recover her health, or that the child will be hopelessly deformed and then die.
“How dare the politicians in the House intrude into a decision like that? What do they know about the complications of pregnancy for those with severe diabetes or any number of other conditions that make such decisions necessary?”
Ivins’ career has taken a couple of nasty turns, but she seems to have survived them. In a 1995 article for Mother Jones on Southern manners and mores, she extensively quoted, with affectionate attribution, statements from Florence King’s book “Southern Ladies and Gentlemen.” But for some careless reason Ivins still fails to comprehend, she left the attribution off a few King statements. In other words, she plagiarized. This, needless to say, is the ultimate no-no for a writer, and has cost many scribes their jobs. But considering the fact that Ivins’ guilty passages were mixed in with many other cases that were attributed, her crime did not seem too horrible; she apologized to King and that was the end of it.
More seriously, Ivins was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. She wrote a couple of highly unsentimental columns about it, and now seems to be recovering nicely. She says she has a 75 percent chance of being cancer-free for five years, after which the odds get even better. Of course, she jokes about it:
“One of the things I said was that I had been in great hopes that I would become a better person as a result of confronting my own mortality, but it actually never happened. I didn’t become a better person.” Then she laughs heartily.
The prospect of losing Molly Ivins to cancer is too much to bear. Leaving the punditry to the likes of George Will and Charles Krauthammer and David Broder would be hard cheese indeed for the news junkie. Because she finds the humanity in what she writes about, and makes us laugh in the process, she elevates a profession that is dominated by mediocrity and received ideas. She is, ultimately, about love — though she would undoubtedly cringe at the sentiment.
Let’s give Ivins’ buddy and former Texas Gov. Richards the last word:
“I travel all over the country, and it never fails that whatever group of people I find myself in, the No. 1 question is, ‘How is our friend Molly Ivins?’ And I mean coast to coast, border to border. She is so revered and beloved, and justifiably so.”
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)