"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)
It’s New Year’s Eve, and dusk is gathering in Astor Place, the commercial heart of Manhattan’s East Village. Scores of New Yorkers — mostly the young, raffish, multiculti set long associated with this über-trendy neighborhood — are spending the early hours of this final, cold evening of 2000 in the Starbucks that fronts the square on the west. (This directional orientation is necessary, since another Starbucks is clearly visible across the square and there’s a third about a block away, inside a Barnes & Noble store.)
Housed in the glass-fronted building that formerly held the Astor Riviera Diner, this Starbucks is the Seattle latte chain’s largest New York outpost, and, at least on this evening, it’s giving a pretty fair impression of a happening scene, alive with human buzz and diversity. Next to me a young Caucasian couple is locked in an intense exchange, their faces micrometers apart. On the other side, two handsome black men with dreadlocks are examining each other’s design portfolios. Behind me, a middle-aged Asian man bounces a baby on his knee.
Then, out of the crowd, a few individuals begin to coalesce in the center of the store, at the natural still point midway between the front door and the espresso bar. Several stand and form a line, swaying and clapping. A black man with Clark Kent glasses starts to play a portable synthesizer, adopting a church-organ idiom. It’s a gospel choir! “Free the mermaid!” they sing in joyous praise-the-Lord syncopated rhythm. “Hallelujah!”
Finally, into the store — late as usual — rushes a middle-aged white man wearing a priest’s collar, a white dinner jacket and a disheveled appearance. He is a mixture of the familiar and the strange: He has the frosted hair and excellent dental work of a no-longer-famous TV personality, but his intense, undisciplined manner belongs more to the territory of Messianic cult leader or deranged street person. The Starbucks staff, recognizing him, has turned up the semihip background music, but this interloper wants to be heard. “Caffeinated children!” he shouts, sprinting from table to table, stretching out his arms in an oddly Nixonian pose. “Starbucks is evil! Their coffee is mind control! They’re destroying your neighborhood! Save your souls! Leave now while you still have a chance!”
“Oh,” one man near me says to his date. “This is a Rev. Billy thing.”
It is indeed. Rev. Billy, the long-simmering alter ego of writer and actor Bill Talen, has done a lot of things in recent years. He has become a peculiar Manhattan fixture, a hero of the city’s activist left and a leading figure in its alternative performance scene. Beginning seven or eight years ago as a parodic televangelist character, Rev. Billy is now something more sincere and more complicated, a political clown in the vein of Abbie Hoffman and Dario Fo who ultimately isn’t kidding. His quixotic campaigns against behemoth chain-retail corporations — principally Starbucks and the Disney Store — have won him profiles in the New York Times and on National Public Radio. Around the time of the Astor Place invasion, he was being trailed around Manhattan by both a documentary filmmaker and a French television crew.
Rev. Billy’s stunts have an element of individual bravado that seems slightly at odds with the crunchy, collective ethos of contemporary anti-corporate activism. (In that sense, he reminds me of Ralph Nader, with his alt-celebrity-fueled presidential campaign.) He once vowed to preach the anti-consumerist gospel of his “Church of Stop Shopping” at each of the city’s 110 or so Starbucks franchises within one 24-hour period. (By his own count he made it to 14 or 15.) “I’m trying to reach people,” Talen says, “without myself becoming a product. Perhaps an impossible task.”
Currently, Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping choir are performing on Sunday nights at the Salon Theater (no relation to Salon.com, thank you), which is literally next door to Talen’s Bleecker Street loft. Parishioners may hear original hymns such as the rousing “Ain’t Gonna Shop No More” or the plaintive “I’ve Got Nike Swooshes in My Underwear.” They may have their credit cards ritually exorcised or receive software, designed by the “hacktivists” at Electronic Disturbance Theater, that’s intended to disrupt the Starbucks Web site. (No illegal activity is involved.) But the Billy gospel, although relentlessly local in its application, is apparently beginning to spread beyond New York. Talen recently did a tour of West Coast college campuses, and he says neighborhood activists in other cities have begun downloading sermons from his Web site and using them to stage their own anti-Starbucks actions.
In the tradition of other activist preachers, Rev. Billy has been arrested several times. Once it was for staging a sit-down demonstration in the Times Square Disney Store that brought business to a halt for more than an hour, after which police handcuffed him to the giant stuffed Mickey Mouse he uses as a prop. (Among the demonstrators’ demands: Disney must redistribute CEO Michael Eisner’s salary to the Asian sweatshop employees manufacturing its licensed products, and must admit that the character Hercules is actually gay.) More recently, Talen was busted for leading a group of artist-activists in reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” out loud outside the writer’s one-time home, to protest New York University’s attempt to demolish it in order to build a new law school. (NYU partly relented and will keep the Poe house façade on its new building.)
At this point I need to tell you that I claim no objectivity when it comes to Bill Talen. We’ve been friends for 12 years, ever since he was running a theater in San Francisco and I was working at a weekly newspaper there. Bill directed a play that I wrote in 1994, and I directed two early versions of Rev. Billy performances in New York. (One particular night, when Talen performed bravely before six dozing seniors in a Hell’s Kitchen church basement, has scarred me forever.)
Talen was a prominent figure in the San Francisco theater community long before Rev. Billy, and even ran a mock-presidential campaign as another alter ego, a philandering, middle-of-the-road Midwestern congressman named George Cudahay, who was somewhere between Bill Clinton and Gary Hart. In about 1993, he began developing a preacher character after another friend of ours, a former Episcopal priest, observed that Talen’s work contained an element of “prophetic social commentary.” But his early Rev. Billy shows were a mess, to put it mildly — part Jimmy Swaggart-Oral Roberts burlesque, part touchy-feely California Jesus.
“I had several different contradictory beginnings,” says Talen. “There were various Rev. Billys, influenced by Andy Kaufman, by research into the historical Jesus and by T. Lawrence Shannon,” the alcoholic, soul-searching priest played by Richard Burton in Tennessee Williams’ “Night of the Iguana.”
Moving himself and the character to New York didn’t necessarily improve matters. I’ve mentioned the infamous church basement, which was part of an effort to establish Rev. Billy as an interactive theater phenomenon in the “Tony and Tina’s Wedding” mode. Rev. Billy’s early Manhattan career also included preaching through a bullhorn at Times Square tourists and hosting a free-form Internet radio show (in the prehistoric era of that medium, circa 1996). None of these endeavors suggested that by the end of 2000 Rev. Billy would be turning away dozens of would-be worshipers from his packed Christmas “revival” at 700-seat Tishman Hall in Greenwich Village.
If Rev. Billy began as an uneasy blend of snarky satire and New Age spirituality — Talen himself says that his work tends to devolve into “an investigation of WASP healing through my own psychodramatic landscape” — there was always something legitimate and moving, if more than a little absurd, at his core. Billy proclaimed his faith in “the God that people who don’t believe in God believe in.” Armed with nothing more than this nonspecific deity, his own flawed persona and the decaying good looks of “Kurt Russell without a face-lift” (Talen’s phrase), he tried to take on the enormous, vibrant narratives of Nike, Polo, Disney and Starbucks.
Preaching to his adopted flock of Times Square “tourist children,” most of whom studiously ignored him, Talen would turn his attention to the 40-foot images of supermodels towering above the midtown canyons. “Cindy Crawford!” he would stage-whisper into his bullhorn. “Why are you looking at me like that? Do you and I share profound secret knowledge? Did we have 36 hours of sex and champagne in the Hamptons? I can’t remember! I can’t remember anything! I’m swimming in a sea of identical details!”
Rev. Billy’s regular preaching spot in 1997, at the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue, put him directly opposite the newly opened Disney Store, the linchpin of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s ambitious plan to convert Times Square into a tourist-oriented retail mall. Gradually, this positioning turned the character from a cartoon evangelist, devoured by his own overtherapized demons, into a burgeoning neighborhood activist. The beaming visage of Mickey Mouse above that intersection began to seem to Talen, and many other New Yorkers, like a Mephistophelean figure presiding over the theme-park embalming of the city’s most storied public space.
“None of the other stages where I’ve ever performed was nearly as charged as Times Square,” Talen says. “As a street preacher, you’re always on the verge of being arrested. Hundreds and hundreds of people ignore you every single minute, and you’re standing opposite this incredibly powerful corporate symbol, Mickey Mouse’s face. You learn that it is a religious opponent.”
In that setting, surrounded by other street preachers from a myriad of sects and denominations, Rev. Billy suddenly stopped being a parody of something else and started becoming himself. “You’re out there with these Baptist preachers from south Georgia, Quaker choral groups, Islamic militants, the Black Hebrews, the Lubavitchers with their mitzvah tank,” Talen says. “All these people showing up in that canyon to shout about their version of God. And at the same time as I found my character, I witnessed the so-called cleanup of that neighborhood, which basically meant the police harassing pretty much anybody who didn’t look like they had a credit card. You really had to be European-American, or maybe Asian, and look like you had money in order to avoid it.
“You know, I was attached to the Jimmy Breslin, Damon Runyon version of Times Square,” he goes on, “which essentially became the Times Square that Giuliani demonized. What is it now? It’s Las Vegas; it’s not a place any New Yorkers go to. I was watching all that happen while I was having the charged theater experience of my life as a performer. And I saw Mickey Mouse as the devil.”
In fairness, it could be argued that the Times Square successfully demonized by Giuliani was the Travis Bickle Times Square of the ’70s and ’80s, where you could watch three kung fu movies for 99 cents while the raincoat-clad gentleman next to you tried to work his fingers into your lap. And Talen’s objections to the new Times Square could be understood as the class-based objections of an urban aesthete who refuses to eat at McDonald’s or visit Disney World. Still, from the moment Rev. Billy decided to take his message inside the Disney Store itself — to interrupt business in what he calls “the high church of retail” — he had a constituency.
Things were changing rapidly in activist circles, in New York and across the country. Even as the late-’90s economic boom was cresting, a new wave of anti-capitalist, anti-globalization activism, inspired by the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, would reach critical mass with the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle at the end of 1999. In New York, the gentrification that had already purged the poor from Manhattan began to drive out artists and the middle class as well, along with the idiosyncratic small businesses they supported, in favor of newly minted business-school graduates and chain stores. Furthermore, the Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo cases had many minority residents, and others, convinced that the Giuliani-era crime crackdown was based on a culture of overzealous and often racist policing.
In this context, invading the Disney Store to preach to shoppers lost in “retail narcosis” (Talen’s phrase, of course) about Disney’s alleged third world sweatshop practices and the happy-face tyranny of its images and stories was bound to attract attention. Wielding his gigantic Mickey overhead, Rev. Billy typically had three or four minutes before he was surrounded by security. “Tourist children! Go back to Tucson!” he would bellow. “Mickey Mouse is the Antichrist! Disney is trying to replace your memories! With 833 prefabricated stories! You didn’t really learn to walk! Bambi did it for you! You never had an imagination! Peter Pan learned to fly! You didn’t lose your cherry! The Little Mermaid walked on land!”
Needless to say, some of the shopper children from Tucson, Ariz., failed to appreciate this approach. After numerous Disney Store actions and several arrests, Talen says, he learned to modulate his message. “I’ve pulled myself out of the big, sweeping macrogeneralizations,” he says. “I like to talk about the fact that people used to live right here and got kicked out. And that that product in their hands was made by a 15-year-old in rural China who works maybe 80 hours a week and has no choice but to work that job. And that the head of this company took a billion dollars out of it in the last decade. I ask them: ‘Where are the dollars going that are in your hand?’ I just try to make it a conversation between real people in a room. And then I suggest we get out of there.”
Something else Talen discovered in the Disney Store was that the police didn’t see him as a threat. He was a goofy artist with an outrageous shtick who vaguely resembled a celebrity. Cops would crack wise with him, laugh along with the joke and arrest him only when the store manager insisted. “I can use the way that I’m perceived, as a white person with dental work, a Jeff Bridges suburban type,” says Talen. “That’s a character that makes it possible for me to preach longer than a lot of African-Americans could, for example. I’ll get arrested last because it’s a racist system. I won’t get lost in jail because it’s a racist system. I use it as an instrument.”
As Rev. Billy began to attract a following of youthful artists and activists — some of whom didn’t know Talen’s name or realize that Billy was a character being played by an actor — he was drawn inexorably from Times Square into the alt-performance world of the Lower East Side. Disney has no overt presence in the hipster districts south of 14th Street, but Starbucks is in a sense the Disney of lower Manhattan. No coffee addict can help feeling ambivalent about Starbucks; in much of Middle America it often marks the first appearance of serious joe. But the carpet-bombing approach the chain takes in cities like New York, San Francisco, Boston and, of course, Seattle has a troubling “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” quality.
“Starbucks comes into a neighborhood with their stock market funny money,” says Talen. “They can pay five times what anybody else can pay, and they kick out local merchants like the Astor Riviera Diner, which was a great old place with abusive waiters in old tuxedos.”
When I suggest that the diverse crowd in the diner turned Starbucks seemed to be having a perfectly acceptable urban coffeehouse experience, Talen sighs. “You know, they’re pretty smart,” he says. “They know what our criticism of them is likely to be. So they know they can’t hassle us. They know they have to play certain kinds of music. There’s a Starbucks in SoHo that has no Starbucks sign. But here’s the question: Do we need them to be intermediaries in order to be New Yorkers? You know, to do that teasing, joking, exaggerating thing that we think is so wonderful about New York?
“Eventually, I believe there’s a tremendous cost, an eradication or depletion of creativity, when you’re surrounded by identical details all day long. Transnational chain stores — and that’s what Starbucks is — are very damaging to culture, to the arts. The more that public space is eroded by chain stores, the further away we get from real theater, street theater, people making stories and dramas together.
“Starbucks and Barnes & Noble are trying to convince us that they’re not having that effect, that no change has taken place. You know, in most chain stores, like Kmart or Wal-Mart, it’s more obvious. You have that fluorescent hush, the people who work there walking around in their minimum-wage paramilitary uniforms. In Starbucks you have Bob Marley on the soundtrack. You have a cartoon on the wall that isn’t quite Jean-Michel Basquiat. You have a photo montage that isn’t quite Robert Rauschenberg. You’re given high levels of caffeine and sugar and you believe you’re about to have an avant-garde moment. But the only avant-garde moment you can have is when somebody comes into the chain store and says the wrong thing — in their own bodies, their own clothes, their own voices — somebody who comes in and tells you to stop shopping.”
It’s difficult to say what Rev. Billy’s various windmill-tilting campaigns can actually accomplish, beyond furthering his own brand of low-rent celebrity and creating a minor public relations problem for the chains involved. Starbucks, for example, has issued memos to its New York stores instructing employees to ignore Billy’s incursions and call the police. After several calls to Starbucks’ P.R. department to confirm, I received the following statement: “We understand, but disagree with Bill Talen (otherwise known as ‘Reverend’ Billy) and his opinions about Starbucks. The customers and partners (employees) at each location give the store its own personality and atmosphere. Giving back to our communities is the way we do business.”
But for Talen, as for so many of the current wave of anti-corporate activists, the goals are long term and somewhat amorphous. He hopes to organize East Village merchants, for example, in an attempt to stem the chain-store tide. But he realizes that his attempt to declare an “East Village Franchise-Free Zone” (the theme of his April 15 sermon) is as likely to succeed as his previous campaign to drive Starbucks off Manhattan Island altogether, or his demand that the chain restore the missing nipples of the New Age mermaid in its logo.
The subtitle for Billy’s April 15 show is “Starbucks Wants Williamsburg,” a reference to the trendy, and still Starbucks-free, Brooklyn neighborhood where many refugees gentrified out of the East Village have settled. When he published his calendar, that was a joke. Since then, Starbucks has announced plans to open a Williamsburg store. “Scientists figured out that there were black holes in space,” Talen grimly observes, “before they could find one.”
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)