"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)
If Arnold Schwarzenegger were America’s camp counselor, our kids would do 200 knee bends before breakfast. The 53-year-old former Mr. Universe would also blow the whistle on the growing trend of single parenthood — a “tremendous danger,” he says. Schwarzenegger is now bringing his tough love to the inner city, where he hopes to boost kids’ self-esteem through the Inner City Games Foundation, a national network of after-school programs. While he remains the odd man out in liberal Hollywood, the rest of the nation may prove more receptive to the Last Action Hero’s message, which sounds, well, compassionately conservative. The welcome mat is out for him at the Bush White House, and he admits to flirting with a run for governor of California.
If the star is considering a leap into politics, he’ll need to prepare. Reporters will surely ask, for instance, what exactly happened in the U.K. during his recent publicity tour for “The Sixth Day.” Schwarzenegger allegedly groped three female journalists (his publicist denies this), earning him the nicknames “Scharwzenookie” and “Kindergarten Cop-a-Feel” from the Fleet Street press and a “Groper of the Year” award from the London Sun. Rumors are also circulating about the actor’s health. In 1997, he underwent elective heart surgery to replace a faulty valve, and the studios reacted as if he had the plague. “I really could feel people kind of pulling back,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “You know, they don’t return your phone calls the same way they used to.”
In our recent conversation, the movie star was sharp and animated as he discussed Hollywood violence, the crisis of the family, Bush-era politics and life with a Kennedy liberal, his wife Maria Shriver, with whom he has four children.
What do you see as the most pressing problem in the inner city today?
The parenting problem. A lot of minorities have such a problem with the single-parent situation. The parents are the single most important influence on a child, followed by education and the peer group. The number of single parents in the U.S. has quadrupled since the ’60s, and there has also been an increase in violence and school shootings. All that stuff has increased largely because of a lack of parenting, and many households only have one biological parent — so many of them are fatherless. It really creates a big problem.
You see single parents all the time in Hollywood, like Jodie Foster, Camryn Manheim and now Calista Flockhart. Do you think it’s sending a bad message?
I would say you have a better chance if your mother happens to be Jodie Foster or any of those women who can afford a swim teacher or a basketball coach, because there is a mentor right there. But in the inner city, parents do not have the money to hire a coach or join the soccer club. They have no one to drive the kids, no chauffeur or nanny. I think single parenting absolutely has an effect on kids down the line.
I see it firsthand in my family. If I am away on a film for three weeks, even though I come home every weekend, you can see the kids getting out of control. One person cannot create the discipline and the guidance and helping with homework. When I am at home, Maria and I drive the kids to school together; we pick them up together; we take them to dancing, soccer, horseback riding lessons. It takes a lot of effort. If you are not on top of the situation, the kids lose confidence in you.
I think the situation with single parenting [in minority groups] is disastrous. The statistic is that 64 percent of blacks are with one parent, while with whites, it’s like 26 percent. With Hispanics, it’s maybe 35 percent. It’s gone up so much since the ’60s. In the ’60s, among minorities, only about 20 percent had single parents.
Why do you think that is?
There are two things at work here. Since the ’60s, many more women have gone to work outside of the home. The husband is at work, the mother is at work. Now the kids are always alone. As a country, we have to supplement where there is a vacuum. Youth today just don’t have guidance. If they have after-school programs and mentors, they will be fine.
Do you think a European sense of family is missing from American culture?
To me, family has always been the basic foundation of everything. When I was growing up, both of my parents were home every night and played with us, and we ate together every night. It was normal to have breakfast, lunch and dinner together. Of course, I couldn’t wait to grow up and get away from my parents. [Laughs] But looking back, it enabled me to do the things I did, because my parents gave me this security and confidence, and they drilled into me the importance of education: You have to train your mind and your body. When I got up in the morning, I had to do 200 knee bends!
Do you make your kids do that?
Some of that, but of course we can’t do it in the same way. In youth, I was smacked around. It was totally normal, but today it’s considered child abuse. I think today the biggest child abuse is to neglect kids.
Any woman who thinks, “My biological clock is ticking and I want a baby, and it doesn’t matter if I have a husband or not” — well, without running anyone down, that is a mistake.
The divorce rate is now about 50 percent. Do you think couples should stay together for the sake of their children?
Let’s say that out of this 50 percent who are getting divorced, half of them shouldn’t be together. But the other half, maybe their marriage falls apart because they can’t agree on something. There are many reasons to break up, but is there really enough cause to have your children be alone with just one parent?
What do you think about gay couples raising children?
To me that is not a huge problem like single parenting. Two people are sharing responsibility, not one. Am I an expert in that subject? No. To me this is not a danger. Single parenting is a danger and that’s what we have to avoid.
Why did you get involved with the Inner City Games Foundation?
I wanted to come up with an alternative to what was going on in the street — the violence, the gangs, the teenage pregnancy, the guns, the drug abuse. When Danny Fernandez [head of Inner City Games] called me to be an honorary chairman, I really fell in love with it. It gave us a chance to go out and start programs to get kids away from those negative things and get them to do sports — and things like after-school programs, educational programs, computer programs and entrepreneurial programs.
In the beginning I was naive about the problems those kids were having. As an outsider you can say, “Oh, these minorities, look at the trouble they’re creating.” When I got into it, I found out how many of the kids really want to be better and be good students. But they don’t have the inspiration, or the opportunity. In school, the teachers don’t show up, there are no flushing toilets, books are not updated. They don’t have all the things that other schools have. They always get cut short. They don’t have anyone saying, “You’re great. You’re doing well. You’re a winner.”
I heard that you made a decision to make less violent films. What prompted that?
I never really shifted my focus to do less violent movies. Since I’ve had children I’ve become much more aware that we need entertainment that the whole family can see. That’s when I started doing movies like “Twins” and “Kindergarten Cop.” My most recent film, “The Sixth Day,” is about the dangers of cloning. I don’t need to show heads a-rollin’. But when I do “True Lies 2″ or “Terminator 3,” it will be R-rated and I will be very clear that this is not a movie for youngsters. I will do everything in my power not to have the studios market the film to underage kids.
Do you think the responsibility lies more with Hollywood or with parents?
It goes back to the parents. They have to make sure their kids are watching the right programs. This is where people go wrong when they say Hollywood is making too many violent films. That’s not the case. The problem is that the parents aren’t there to make sure kids aren’t seeing the wrong movies. You can’t start censoring movies or books; you have to be able to show anything or say anything on-screen.
Is it true you’re thinking of running for governor of California?
I have thought about it many times, but I have no specific plans. I’ve been invited to run for Congress, Senate and the governorship. The more I’ve been involved in issues — like schools, vouchers and the Special Olympics — the more I realize there are so many things out there. I’ve found this to be more rewarding than having a successful movie come out. Maybe in the past 20 years I’ve grown into a different person — not as “me, me, me” as you are when you’re building a career. Maybe my concerns are going in another direction, one in which I can do more for other people.
Do you think you can have a greater impact as a politician or as a citizen activist?
Both. You don’t have to run for office to make a difference. Look at my mother-in-law [Eunice Shriver]. She’s done the most extraordinary job of anybody I can think of on a worldwide level. I was in China last year for the Special Olympics, and it’s extraordinary to think that in 1988 the Chinese government was saying these [mentally handicapped] people should be eliminated and, 12 years later, they’re being included in society and treated equally. This is due to just one person pounding away since 1968 on the treatment of retarded children. Here is one person who never ran for office but has had this kind of impact on 104 countries around the world. She has used her status as a Kennedy to carve out a niche and become an unbelievable, relentless force.
Which politicians do you admire?
Gov. [George] Pataki [of New York], Sen. [Orrin] Hatch [of Utah]. George W. Bush is extraordinary. He was a different type of human being once — a rowdy guy who had his problems and stuff — and he got his act together. I don’t know how much he thought about running the country originally. He was kind of thrown into it because there were no young people from the Republican Party. Bush was the new guy, the new face, and I think he was kind of surprised to see himself the top guy in the polls. To me, it’s extraordinary and admirable that he got his act together, studied the issues, came up with a philosophy of compassionate conservatism and really went with it full speed ahead.
I think it would have been better if he had really won, instead of through the courts. But I admire him, and his father as well. I admire the other political side too. I have learned so much from Maria’s father [Sargent Shriver, a Democrat], who’s the most selfless person you can imagine. I have great discussions with him all the time about the extraordinary social programs that he’s started, like the Peace Corps and Head Start. So you can have great leaders in both parties.
How do you handle politics at home, since you’re a Republican and your wife is a Democrat — and not just any Democrat, but a Kennedy Democrat?
It’s very easy. Maria and I have no arguments whatsoever. I totally understand and love her opinions and the way she feels about things. The key thing is that we all have to think, as Bush said, that it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican — you both want to improve the country. Maria and Bonnie [the couple's assistant] used to plaster my car with Democratic Party stickers. Those girls! But I always want to hear what the other side has to say, so that’s why I surround myself with women and minorities and Democrats.
How would you describe your own politics?
I am socially liberal and fiscally conservative. I believe that every good idea that was ever done in the world came from a grass-roots organization, or from one person. They did something and it mushroomed and grew, and eventually the government heard about it and it was enacted. It has to start on a level where the cities take care of themselves; it can’t start at the federal government and trickle down.
I’m like Jesse Ventura, but I can identify with both major parties. I think both have interesting ideas, so why not work with both?
What kind of politician would you be if you ran?
I would be the kind of person I am with everything else. I would go all-out, 100 percent, total conviction. I would be very focused and I would keep my promises. Other than that, I can’t go into details because I’m not in that position. But that’s how I approach everything, whether it’s showbiz or sports. I always go all-out and take it all the way. I’m always willing to take risks. This has been my philosophy from the beginning: No guts, no glory.
What is it like to be a conservative in overwhelmingly liberal Hollywood?
I have never had a problem in Hollywood with anybody because there is something to be said for the liberal mind, the open mind. I am good friends with Rob Reiner, who is as liberal as they come. In Hollywood, people are very socially conscious and celebs get involved with projects, whether it’s AIDS or the environment or animals. There are more causes than you can think of, and to me that is very inspirational. I also have a great sense of humor about this stuff, so I don’t take it that seriously if we have differences of opinion.
What do you teach your children, politically?
They get a lot of their politics in school. In elementary school they had a vote, and they all voted for Gore because they go by what the teachers tell them. My son, who is 7, comes home and says, “I think I will vote for Gore.” I say, “Why? Why not Bush?” He says, “Because he likes to have guns.” And I say, “Is that what you learned in school, that Bush runs around with guns?” He says, “Yeah.” I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to get into a discussion about hype or anything. (The teacher is probably a liberal.) I said, “Oh, that’s interesting because Daddy knows Bush and he’s a good man.” Then my daughter comes home and says, “I think I’m an independent and I will swing my vote.” And I think, “This is incredible.” I can’t remember being that smart and sophisticated. It’s wild.
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)