"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)
Cynthia Beal, a natural-foods grocer in Eugene, Ore., assures me that she was never one of those “Y2K doomers” — the Chicken Littles predicting the end of the world as we know it. Instead she counted herself among the “alarmists” — people who were “working to fix the problem, and admitted they had no idea how bad it would be but were erring on the side of caution.”
And as concern about the year 2000 computer bug grew throughout the buildup to New Year’s Eve, “it became increasingly clear that the problem was larger than anyone was admitting readily. It was a formula for grounded paranoia, and put me in mind of the old saying ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you,’” Beal says.
Grounded or not, paranoia was our collective reaction to the year 2000 problem. You didn’t have to cower in a bunker with your kerosene and gun stockpile to feel a jittery unease at that weird moment when the government, the media, all the experts and even geeks admitted that they just didn’t know what was going to happen. But after the rollover passed without planes falling out of the sky, mass power outages or nuclear meltdown, Y2K fears just faded into a fond memory of laughable “millennial hysteria.”
But not for everyone. Beal’s of the opinion that we still don’t really know what happened and we may never: “With Y2K, we still don’t know if we fell out of a plane and walked away from a haystack, or simply tripped over a crack in the sidewalk. Heck, we don’t even know if we’re still in free fall or not,” she says.
More than a year after the rollover, it’s not over for some of the community activists, organizers and technologists who dedicated themselves to confronting the Y2K bug for months or years of their life. For the Y2K faithful, it wasn’t over on Jan. 1, 2000, and it wasn’t over on Jan. 1, 2001. Many think that, today, the Y2K bug still walks among us, and as a society we haven’t even begun to realize the damage it has caused. The absence of utter chaos on Jan. 1, 2000, didn’t assuage their fears — it just confirmed their convictions that the truth about Y2K is still being kept from us.
The Y2K faithful are a great example of just how deep paranoia runs in our culture. They want to believe that there’s a coverup, that the real truth is being hidden from us by a corrupt media, government and business elite. Even when confronted with hard evidence that the world is intact — and not just evidence reported by the media, which scoured the globe in search of Y2K meltdowns — they refuse to give up the fears.
Today, if you’re a little bit paranoid, you’re normal. If you’re very paranoid, you’re a prophet or a philosopher, a seer standing in a cloud of burning sulfur, speaking the dark truth that no one wants to hear. Paranoia has such cachet that it often ceases to be paranoia.
On message boards at TimebombY2000, a conversation rages about how much damage Y2K really did, and what lengths companies and the government have gone to keep the real costs of this calamity from the masses. On Jan. 31, “Mountain Mike” invited fellow visitors to the site to rank on a scale of zero to 10 what they think the ultimate impact of Y2K will be, with zero being “no real impact” and 10 being “collapse of the U.S. government; possible famine.”
Many of the respondents, some 38 percent, answered in the five-to-seven range, indicating that they think Y2K will ultimately be responsible for recession, political crisis and supply and infrastructure problems. But others put the fallout from the Y2K bug at Armageddon levels — giving it a full 10 or, as they put it, “Total Doomer!”
Mountain Mike wrote: I “cannot understand those who pontificate that there has been zero impact. I ask myself if they really believe that, or if they are just trying for a reaction. Sure, impacts have accumulated slowly, and in ways some of us didn’t expect, but they are real. Frankly, I think the worst is yet to come.”
NASDAQ meltdown? Impending recession? Power crisis in California? They’re all a part of the Y2K fallout. And those of us who don’t see it are just Pollyannas, too ignorant or happy-go-lucky to consider the mounting evidence.
Jan Nickerson of Wayland, Mass., would give us a four on the Y2K damage scale, meaning she thinks that it will ultimately be responsible for “economic slowdown; rise in unemployment; isolated social incidents.” She’s no wild-eyed survivalist who spent New Year’s Eve making her own lye soap in preparation for the meltdown. Nickerson’s a technology businesswoman who runs her own consulting firm, Prosperity Collaborative. But before the year 2000 rollover she became so concerned about the Y2K bug that she stopped all her consulting activities to create a card game called Y2K Connections, in an effort educate people about the issue. “I wanted to create a game that would do for sustainability of humanity on the planet what Monopoly did for capitalism,” she says. Her goal was for the game to help people shift their thinking about Y2K from “‘That’s not a problem’ to ‘That’s not my problem’ to ‘It really could impact me.’”
The fact that this problem didn’t quite impact us doesn’t diminish Nickerson’s enthusiasm for the project. “I took a beating financially, but in terms of the impact that the game had with those who played it, it was extremely rewarding,” she says. For Nickerson, the game’s messages about the fragility of the infrastructure still hold up.
Our Y2K fears were fueled by a conviction that there are fundamental flaws in the world around us — in our political structure, government, media, infrastructure or general sanity. So it’s not that big a leap to think that the problems will ultimately manifest themselves in catastrophe. Y2K was the perfect receptacle for this generalized fear. That it never actually brought us to our knees didn’t shake people’s faith that some kind of crisis remains imminent.
Beal told me, “We’re facing Y2Ks every day: climate change, disease, technological innovation, social organization, meteors, resource transfer — any number of things could tip the balance and shock our complex system into a sequence of adjustments that we might find unpleasant, if not downright hostile.” What could be more rational than fear, except mounting a reasoned response in preparation?
Although Nickerson stresses that she never advised anyone on what would happen as a result of Y2K — only what might happen — she says that she herself was “stunned, absolutely stunned” when the rollover occurred without major and obvious problems. But since the night of Jan. 1, 2000 (she watched the celebrations on TV from a cabin a few hours from her home), she has come to think of the Y2K bug differently: not like an “ice storm, but like a flood.”
“An ice storm comes and goes,” she explains. “The current thinking is that Y2K is more like a flood, but the waters are still seeping out. It’s not over; we’re still seeing some ripple effects.”
For the true Y2K faithful, this is the cornerstone of their logic. Y2K didn’t turn out to be what many people thought it would be, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t have serious effects. The threat has simply changed forms, becoming a seeping, creeping threat that’s causing problems all around us right now. Nickerson cites the increase in pipeline explosions in 2000 and electricity supply issues as possible forms of Y2K fallout. “If people thought that there might be an ice storm, and a flood happened instead, they’re apt to say that there was no ice storm, and to miss that water is trickling out and getting deeper.”
So why don’t we notice that we’re standing in ankle-deep water? It has been covered up.
The hardcore Y2K doomers — the ones who fled to caves — were like biblical prophets predicting a calamitous future. But the Y2K faithful, the people still paranoid about Y2K, are seers from a different paradigm. Like the philosopher of Plato’s Cave, who realizes that we’re all living among shadows that the rest of us can’t recognize, they see the truth. It’s an insight that sets them apart from the corruption, decline and ignorance of the society around them. They are a knowing elite, an enlightened few.
“People are fearful of talking about the number of [post-Y2K] breakdowns,” Nickerson says, “[when] it could cost them their job security or their stock market’s value or litigation.”
If you had a genuine Y2K problem at your company, for example, and you were in charge of resolving it, wouldn’t it be in your interest to try to hush it up and cover your ass? It’s conspiracy-theory logic that makes sense. After all, paranoia is not about raving lunacy but raving rationality. Yet in the circular logic of Y2K paranoia, the logical corollary to the notion of a coverup is deemed irrelevant: Didn’t a lot of people — from Y2K pundits to well-intentioned communitarian activists — have much to gain by sounding the warning alarms about Y2K?
Nickerson doesn’t see it that way. “For me, Y2K was strictly a wake-up call,” she says. “‘Hey, guys, wake up! Look around! See what’s happening.’ Most people chose to put their hand on the snooze button. People find evidence to support what they already believe,” she adds, in a moment of true self-consciousness and also radical relativism. “Y2K is a fascinating example of ‘whatever you believe, you can find your truth in it.’”
And this is the ultimate defense of the Y2K faithful. To them, I seem smug and willfully ignorant in my acceptance of what reality serves up to me. To me, their convictions about Y2K are just the legacy of a fear-everything, trust-no-one culture that runs from the JFK assassination right on up to “The X-Files.” Y2K — you can find your truth in it.
It’s a terrible thing to ask someone if they realize that they sound paranoid. It’s like banging on the walls of their self-contained version of reality. The question admits that you’re not one of them — you’re just another person who refuses to believe the truths that they have so naively imparted to you. Worse, you seem out to get them.
Many of the people whom I talked to about Y2K did not speak to me again after the subject of paranoia came up. But each person was quick to assure me that he or she wasn’t one of those alarmist Y2K wack-jobs who’d intoxicated a sensationalistic media around the turn of the century. In fact, the other enemy of truth in the Y2K-faithful universe is the media, which in the absence of planes falling from the sky on New Year’s Day is now conspiring to make them look ridiculous.
“I certainly never expected that the legitimate concerns of thousands of people would be so resoundingly scoffed at in public, but solicited so desperately in private by top CEOs and government officials,” Beal wrote to me. “I witnessed a very crazy-making treatment of some of the best citizens I’ve ever had the honor of talking with, as they were dissed by the average Joe (who was taught to dis them by the media machinery) when they had only the best of intentions at heart.”
Among Y2K-ers, ridicule from the press confirmed the conviction that they knew a truth that the masses refused to recognize, or that their untrusting government thought the masses couldn’t handle. They still feel this way. My conversations with them assumed the dimensions of a confidence game: I wasn’t one of those exploitative reporters trying to sensationalize this misunderstood issue, was I?
But after I spent an hour on the phone with Michael Brownlee of Tucson, Ariz., I couldn’t help confronting him with a sense of how he might seem to someone outside the Y2K orbit: paranoid.
Brownlee dedicated “the better part of two years” to Y2K. He and his partner, Marie Hanthorn, ran seminars, called “Y2K: The Opportunity of Our Lifetime” in Tucson, Phoenix and Santa Fe, N.M. The classes, which cost $65 and ran for three hours on a Friday night and all day Saturday, aimed to help people cope with the year 2000 rollover. Brownlee sought to move them “from a place of fear to a place of creativity, so they could positively respond instead of being stuck in fear or denial.” The couple even published a book, “Just in Case: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Y2K Crisis.”
While Brownlee’s glad that Y2K didn’t cause more problems, he’s disappointed that the vast uncertainty of it didn’t serve to enlighten more people. “Y2K could have been a wake-up call. Our technologically based society still plunges headlong forward without really carefully considering the consequences of what we’re doing to our environment, for instance, what we’re doing to our psychospiritual environment, not appreciating the fragility of our life systems, our infrastructure, our technological infrastructure.”
Overall, Brownlee comes across like a sincere, if somewhat opportunistic, seeker — the kind of guy interested in confronting those “big picture” issues, and evangelical about helping others to do the same. That is, until he started talking about aliens. His new cause is coping with the “incursion of an extraterrestrial presence on the planet.”
“We have huge evidence that the American government has a great deal of information about this incursion that it has been withholding ostensibly because they don’t want people to panic, much like Y2K, but their ability to withhold that information is diminishing,” Brownlee says. “There are numerous people who are directly involved in the coverup who are now willing to come forward with their testimony — the testimony of hundreds of people is now being videotaped and will soon be made available to the public.”
He went on to tell me about his own family’s encounter with an alien when he was a child, and the encounter of a neighbor in his childhood hometown of Yuma, Colo., who’d received an implant. It was this neighbor’s story that galvanized Brownlee’s interest in aliens. Now, he and his partner are working on an e-book about “alien incursion” and developing a related seminar.
When I broached the paranoia question over e-mail, Brownlee had a reasoned response: “Since I was clearly drawn to both the Y2K and E.T. issues out of an interest in their transformation potentials rather than out of fear of what might happen, it seems a bit of a stretch to say that I am paranoid. Attentive and alert, yes, but hardly fearful.”
But paranoia isn’t just about fear; it’s the feeling that you have special knowledge that others don’t share. Not infrequently, this feeling is accompanied by delusions of grandeur about your role in bringing this essential information to the elite few who can comprehend it.
“When we were involved in Y2K,” Brownlee tells me, “we would say to each other, ‘This is just training. This is a training exercise to get us ready for something.’ And we didn’t know what that was. We had that intuitive feeling all along, and now we have a better sense of what that was for.” Paranoia is as much about the belief that you are chosen to bring a misunderstood reality to light as a fear of what that reality might mean.
When our conversation ended, Brownlee offered a disclaimer about alien incursion. “It’s so easy to make light of this subject and call it fringe and say it’s nothing but crazy people,” he said. “And God knows there’s been a lot of crazy people who have been involved in this field … but serious investigators are beginning to be involved in this field and look at what’s been going on.”
Paranoia finds its own support, and renders its critics close-minded skeptics who refuse to see the truth. Even in a case like Y2K, where the threat theoretically evaporated with New Year’s Day, the reason to sound the alarm lives on.
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)