"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)
Last year, when the National Endowment for the Arts was up for a modest $7 million budget increase, the American Family Association launched yet another salvo in the nation’s culture wars. This time, the Mississippi organization of the Christian right didn’t target allegedly blasphemous art like Andres Serrano’s, but a book — Robert Clark Young’s novel “One of the Guys.”
In 1996, Young was awarded a $5,000 individual artist fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council, a small organization that received 7.7 percent of its funding from the NEA that year. The resulting book, “One of the Guys,” tells the story of a down-and-out San Diego sex arcade janitor, Miles Derry, who discovers the dead body of a homosexual Navy chaplain in a porn video stall. In an attempt to find some sort of new life, Derry impersonates the man and sets out to sea on the USS Warren Harding. As one of the ship’s chaplains, he is privy to the tormented moral confessions of the men aboard, as well as the often scandalous norms of Navy life — most significantly, the rollicking “liberty weekends” in the Far East, where sailors engage in sex acts with underage prostitutes.
Deeming the book “horror art” in a press release, the AFA complained about Young’s titillating material, particularly a description of a young woman extracting razor blades from her vagina during a performance in a sex club. The AFA’s national office, whose Web site points to “Temptation Island” and Disney’s “homosexual agenda” as other major threats to “traditional family values,” is most famous for its powerful campaigns against the public funding of artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Serrano in the late ’80s. The AFA’s Web site boasts, “Since the AFA began asking Congress to eliminate funding for the NEA, the agency’s funds have been reduced to $100 million per year.”
The AFA’s national office declined to talk about “One of the Guys.” But Barry Sheets, director of the Ohio branch of the AFA, explained that a number of Ohio citizens had contacted his office and questioned why their tax dollars should fund such a book.
“The material that the author was putting forward doesn’t seem to have a very legitimate artistic purpose that tax dollars should be used to subsidize,” said Sheets, who has not read the book and is in the process of lobbying local legislators to rally against funding such works. “It seemed more scatological than anything else. I don’t have much background on Mr. Young, but I would doubt that he has much experience with the military. I don’t gather that he has ever served his country in the military, but I don’t know that he hasn’t.”
As Young would later explain in a December 2000 Washington Post editorial, however, his book wasn’t intended simply to purvey sensationalized sex acts. “One of the Guys” depicts the sort of behavior Young witnessed firsthand as a civilian college instructor on a Navy ship during the summers of 1987 and 1988.
“I tried to explore the interplay between cultures,” Young told Salon from Sacramento, Calif. “You have one dominant culture whose people are walking down the street with $20 in their pockets — more than the people of the less dominant culture make in a year. That’s the impact of the United States through its military.”
During the 177 days he was at sea, Young held a rank equivalent to a Navy lieutenant commander and taught remedial English courses to the Navy men on board who were providing support for Marines training in the Thai jungle. Young witnessed his shipmates take part in sex acts with young women in such exotic destinations as Pattaya Beach, Thailand, and Manila, Philippines. Pattaya Beach — which the Toronto Star once called a “cross between Acapulco and Coney Island” — is well known for its ample sexual entertainment. Anywhere from 80,000 to 200,000 child prostitutes work throughout Thailand, according to UNICEF, and 1 million children in Asia are involved in commercial sexual exploitation.
In the book, Young’s protagonist, Derry, reads a sermon in which he lectures against “the whorehouses in the Philippines, the 12-year-old girls sold into sexual slavery by starving families, the ‘uncles’ offering ‘nephews,’ the Lord’s judgment in the mark of syphilis or gonorrhea or AIDS, the lake of fire that God, our loving but Angry and Disappointed Father, has reserved for sexual sinners.”
The passage is exaggerated for satirical purposes, but Young’s message is obvious. At one point, another sailor says, “These girls play music all fucking day, Jim, and then they fuck officers all fucking night. We flew them in from fucking Los Angeles, man, paid for them out of the fucking entertainment fund. It’s all fucking paid for, Jimmy, charged to the fucking taxpayers.” Although Young describes this particular passage as another satirical exaggeration, he maintains that his fiction contains a kernel of truth regarding military attitudes toward purchased sex.
The AFA does not take note of Young’s underlying admonitory message, most likely because its members didn’t read the entire book and even more likely because it wouldn’t help the organization’s agenda to acknowledge Young’s criticism of military morals. Instead, the AFA disparages passages such as this one: “She was young, not possibly eighteen, endlessly reflected by the mirrors, sitting naked with her knees up and spread … and slowly and with great concentration, pulled a string of razor blades from between her legs.” Another describes a young girl hanging from a basket — “they’re part of the common knowledge of the Mysterious East” — while she has sex with paying customers.
In his editorial, Young stated: “I find it strange that an organization that claims to uphold family values and to oppose the federal funding of obscenity is not protesting the part of the military budget that goes to support pederasty in the Far East.”
How true are Young’s claims about the sexual misbehavior of military men overseas, the same alleged misbehavior that is lampooned in “One of the Guys”? Neither the U.S. military nor the Department of Defense responded to Young’s editorial. “There’s a tremendous amount of defensiveness regarding the issue,” Young told Salon. “I posted the story on a Navy journalists’ message board and was completely flamed by them. They said I should be beaten and shot.
“It’s a huge part of naval culture,” he says. “I had heard all about it by the time we arrived at Pattaya Beach. The men were just rife with stories. Everything that was challenged in the book I have seen with my own eyes.”
The U.S. government ostensibly frowns upon what’s called “sexual tourism,” regardless of whether the customers are military personnel or ordinary citizens. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 makes it illegal for U.S. citizens to have sex with minors while traveling abroad if such acts would also be illegal in the United States. A nonprofit group, End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Sexual Purposes USA, or ECPAT-USA, an affiliate of Thailand’s Ecpat International, charges that up to 25 percent of tourists seeking sex with underage persons are American.
According to Young, the captain of a Navy ship does set regulations before sailors leave the ship. “Some of them include the prohibition of wearing suggestive T-shirts or visiting gay clubs. The executive officer of the ship also posts a list of places where personnel cannot go because there was a fight there or because a gang was working out of the club. But clubs are never on the restricted list because they feature underage sexual entertainment or prostitutes.”
Furthermore, Young contends, some ports the Navy visits seem to exist primarily to cater to the sex trade. He cites Pattaya Beach as a prime example. The Navy can, and often does, stop at other ports — in Hong Kong and Australia — where sailors can find entertainment options other than sex bars and prostitution. But, as Young points out, “there really is no reason for the U.S. Navy to show the flag at Pattaya Beach. The only reason they go to Pattaya Beach is for R&R.”
Lt. Jane Alexander, a spokeswoman for the Navy who was aware of Young’s book, disagrees. “We make port visits to Thailand for most of our West Coast ships transiting from San Diego to the Persian Gulf,” she says. “We’re limited to where we can make port calls because of the route we have to take and the depth of water required. There are very few options. You can’t take two days off your track.”
Young counters that Pattaya Beach itself doesn’t meet this depth requirement, that Navy ships must drop anchor a mile or two from land and then ferry the men ashore. Furthermore, Young claims that “the Marines training in Thailand can be supported by the naval ships without the men from the Navy ever going to land. There’s no reason for them to have a liberty weekend there simply because Marine exercises are going on in Thailand. Pattaya Beach is the vacation place and everyone knows that.”
How strongly does the military instill sexual responsibility in its troops? Alexander insists that wherever Navy personnel go — international sex resort or not — they are well advised of the rules against seeing prostitutes. “We take an opportunity to seriously tell our sailors what their moral responsibilities are as ambassadors [of] the U.S. and also what the legal ramifications are under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”
Alexander also points to an anti-child-prostitution education program for sailors, established in 1996 by the Department of the Navy. “We do realize that child prostitution is a worldwide issue, and since we visit some of these countries where it is a problem, we realize it is an issue we need to support.”
Carol Smolenski, a coordinator for ECPAT-USA who consulted with the Navy in the creation of the program, says her organization believes that it provides little more than a cursory briefing or slide show. “What’s important is for the middle-level commanders to frown on [the patronage of overseas prostitutes],” she says. “We’d like to get the military to start to think of the women who sell these services as human beings who have no choice.”
Some experts have suggested that U.S. servicemen’s predilection for bought sex is not just a problem of foreign relations. A forthcoming study, “The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico,” headed by Richard Estes, a professor of social work at the University of Pennsylvania, reveals a disturbing connection between the military and the sexual exploitation of children in the United States. The study, which is being conducted with the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, preliminarily suggests that child prostitution is, not surprisingly, more common in areas prone to poverty, family breakup, migrant workers and adult prostitution. However, the presence of military bases is also correlated with a higher rate of child prostitution. The two-year study will be the first baseline study of its kind, incorporating data from 15 cities across the United States, including Las Vegas, San Diego, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York and Dallas.
“The communities have complained about the military seeking prostitution with people under the age of 18,” Estes said from Philadelphia. “Most of them are girls between the ages of 14 and 17 years old. For 75 percent of these kids, it’s called ‘survival sex’ — they do whatever is necessary to make money. The rest are involved in formal prostitution.” (Estes makes the distinction between children who independently sell their bodies for sex and the children who prostitute themselves for pimps as part of a larger system of prostitution.)
“I’m not finger-pointing the military,” Estes said. “But if you put the military in with the other factors, it really does suggest that in those communities where there are military personnel, the military will be disproportionately represented” in the pools of men exploiting child prostitutes.
Perhaps most disturbing, Estes has uncovered reports that young people are living with servicemen at military bases to provide sexual services. These reports, however, have proved difficult to confirm because the military refused to cooperate in the study. The AFA will also no doubt be interested in Estes’ allegation that some military personnel are downloading illegal child pornography from the Internet (Internet filters are one of the AFA’s initiatives) — all on taxpayer-bought computers.
Despite the AFA’s attempts to paint Young’s novel as obscene, the organization failed to prevent the NEA from getting the $7 million increase to its $98 million budget this year. Nevertheless, Michael Brenson, author of “Visionaries and Outcasts: The NEA, Congress and the Place of the Visual Artist in America” and a former New York Times art critic, says that the power of organizations like the AFA should not be underestimated.
“These anti-NEA and Christian right organizations won’t be totally happy until they get rid of the NEA, though having it exist in a watered-down phase allows artists to become a symbol of the collapse of culture,” Brenson told Salon. “I do think there is a chance that the NEA would be eliminated.”
For fiscal year 2002, President Bush has indicated that the NEA’s funding will hold at $105 million. Brenson views with apprehension the appointment of Attorney General John Ashcroft. And Vice President Dick Cheney’s wife, Lynne Cheney, he says, “is probably going to have the strongest voice” on issues of federally funded art. The two will be the Bush administration’s major players in the fight against the NEA.
“I don’t even consider the possibility that anything positive or substantial could happen with the NEA in this administration.”
Had it not been used in the Christian right’s decade-long fight to bring down the NEA, Young’s book might not have gained much national attention. As it is, the book has sold a modest number of copies and received tepid reviews, though it has gotten enthusiastic responses on Amazon.com. In the wake of the AFA’s campaign, however, Young has succeeded in exposing an unseemly side of the U.S. military as well as the Navy’s longtime abuse of citizens of its foreign ports.
Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.More Suzy Hansen.
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)