"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)
Topics: Entertainment News
The announcement today that Automatic Media — proprietors of the venerable sites Feed and Suck as well as the new weblog, Plastic — is shutting down its operations doesn’t weigh very heavily on the financial scales of Web closures. During the current industry implosion, you have to be a telecommunications giant that sunk billions into now-glutted optic fiber capacity, or a would-be portal that bloated itself on acquisitions before expiring with a gasp, to make it into the business headlines.
But if your Web scales are tuned instead to measure intellectual quality or pop-culture creativity, then this news registers with sorry intensity. The Internet downturn has already left many investors impoverished; now the downturn is starting to hit the rest of us where it hurts — in our daily bookmarks.
I started reading Feed when it first went online, in May 1995, a time when writers and editors everywhere were getting bitten by the Web publishing bug but few had actually taken the plunge. The Netscape IPO hadn’t yet happened, and dot-com fever was a phantom of the future; the people who began building Web sites then were, for the most part, idealistic and charged up with the do-it-yourself promise of a new, wide-open medium.
For those of us on the West Coast, where Hotwired had established an early prominence, Feed came seemingly out of nowhere — from Manhattan, where the vast majority of the populace still had little idea why they needed an Internet connection, and a shocking proportion of media executives couldn’t even tell you what one was. While Hotwired was pumped up with messianic fervor for some ill-defined vision of the digital revolution, Feed’s articles were consistently smart and carefully edited — grounded in intellectual tradition but open to the winds of politics and pop culture. To the handful of San Francisco Examiner refugees who were at the very time of Feed’s debut beginning to plan our own Web magazine named Salon, Feed was a valuable inspiration and proof-of-concept: The Web could present writing beyond the 200-word info-nugget.
Through the years, as Web publishing began to heave through its monstrous boom-and-bust cycle, Feed held its course. While it played around with redesigns, novel approaches to linking and the occasional interface experiment — one of co-founder Steven Johnson’s passions — for the most part it simply kept posting intelligent articles on books and the arts, politics, digital culture, science and whatever other subjects caught its editors’ fancy.
When Suck joined Feed last year in the Automatic Media partnership — after a sojourn as a Lycos subsidiary, where it had wound up as part of the breakup of the Wired empire — it seemed an appropriate match: Suck had always felt like Feed’s bratty but brainy West Coast cousin. From its beginnings as a midnight-oil project by a pair of junior Hotwired employees in August 1995, the site had fired elaborately crafted spitballs in all directions — at those clueless enough to be ignorant of the Web as well as those clueless enough to be infatuated with it. While the combination of self-referential irony and smart-adolescent attitude that filled Suck’s columns could sometimes give readers rhetorical indigestion, there’s no question that the site taught the rest of the Web some invaluable lessons — like “update your site every day,” or “use links as editorial commentary, not just functional references.”
While the business press today is prone to scold dot-coms for having grown too quickly, the current plight of Suck, Feed and Automatic Media provides a sobering counterargument: These sites chose, with sensible enough reasons, to remain in their niches rather than try to conquer the world. Oops — now that strategy doesn’t seem to have worked for original-content Web sites struggling to survive, either.
Automatic Media still hopes to find buyers for these sites, and if the rest of us are lucky, they will. In the meantime, the folks at Plastic — the company’s most recent endeavor — say they will continue to function on a volunteer basis.
With Plastic, Johnson and Suck co-founder Joey Anuff borrowed both concept and software code from Slashdot, the popular community weblog of the open-source world. On Plastic, as on Slashdot, readers comb the Web for interesting articles to link to and discuss, only Plastic is serving up stories about politics, culture high and low, sex, technology and media — pretty much the same areas Feed and Suck always covered.
The Slashdot/Plastic model makes eminent sense as a use of the Web, though not necessarily as a business (advertisers have always been reluctant to hand over their dollars to community sites). But in the present climate of epidemic site-shutterings, it does lead skeptics to ask: What will they do when there’s no one left to link to? Though we’re still a ways away from such a bleak outcome, the apparent demise of Feed and Suck certainly brings us one big, unhappy step closer.
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)