"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)
The press kit for the Angry White Male Tour includes “Dana Plato’s Last Breath,” an exposé of the death of a child star from “Diff’rent Strokes” written by Angry White Male Tour founder Shane Bugbee. (“The National Enquirer says this book is the reason the police might open the investigation in to the mysterious death of Dana Plato!!!”)
Also included in the package is cheesy porn by VelVeeda, an illustrator for Screw and Horny Biker Slut; a video of Brawlin’ Broads; and the catalog for Mike Hunt Publishing (run by Bugbee), which includes “Manson Speaks!” “Jim Jones LIVE From Guyana,” “Aleister Crowley LIVE Rituals and Chants CD,” the Pam Anderson/Bret Michaels home video (“SEE Pam SUCK & FUCK”), Lucky Candles (available in the Manson, La Vey, Crowley and Bettie Page DOMINATION versions), crime scene photos and the Greeting Cards of Carnage (“featuring surgery stills a la torn out guts, a bullet wound, torn open stomach stapled shut and see a man with the flesh-eating virus laying dead on the operating table”).
Oh, and a Confederate flag.
“We could have called it Banned Artists 2001,” says Bugbee, “but that would be boring.”
Plus, nothing pisses people off like the words “Angry White Male” emblazoned across a Confederate flag, which happens to be the poster design Bugbee selected for his tour.
“The rebel flag is anti-American,” says Bugbee. “If someone wants to say it’s racist, that’s really silly. Why did I choose to use it? To get attention. I watched the ‘Dukes of Hazzard.’”
The Angry White Male Tour, designed largely as a vehicle for Mike Hunt Publishing, seems to aspire to testing the limits of free speech, as well as one’s threshold for violence, poor taste and (literal) bile. If the Confederate flag doesn’t infuriate you, perhaps the pornography will. If the pornography doesn’t do it, perhaps Answer Me! #4, “the Rape Issue with the Limited Edition Rape Board Game,” will do it. If the rape issue doesn’t incite you, perhaps the presence of special guest Jim Goad, convicted woman beater, will.
And if none of this is sufficient to send one into a frenzy, Skizo, a performance artist who specializes in producing green vomit on demand, just might puke on you.
Bugbee, the perennially miffed publisher of challenging texts and self-described ringleader of the AWMs, promises that the tour is not composed solely of Budweiser and bile. The theory is that attendees will learn something. The Angry White Male Tour draws a crowd with spectacle, but it really is meant to inspire its audience to think deep thoughts about the usual concerns of graduate students, artists and journalists: race, class and gender in America.
If the tour’s males have something in common, besides a lot of tattoos, some petty crime and a few obscenity charges, it’s a belief that working-class white men have become the most despised group in America. These aren’t the kind of angry white men played by Michael Douglas. They aren’t white male professionals. They don’t believe patriarchy ever helped them out much. They believe that people have confused the “good old boys” with the “old boys network.”
They believe good old boys, white trash, rednecks, crackers and hillbillies have always been oppressed by the moneyed elite. They point out that, in America, “white trash” is the last racial epithet that is considered acceptable to say in polite company, and that this indicates that racism against poor whites is just as pernicious, if not more so, as racism against blacks. They sometimes use the word “nigger” to describe themselves, and also to be inflammatory. It tends to work.
Much of this philosophy is articulated by Jim Goad in “The Redneck Manifesto,” which was, more or less, Goad’s big mainstream success. (It was published by Simon and Schuster in 1997, as part of a two-book deal, and received good reviews.) But things went pretty much downhill for Goad in 1999 when he was sent to prison for beating his girlfriend, Anne Ryan, while his ex-wife (and the former co-publisher of his zine, Answer Me!) was sick with cancer.
Goad insists that Ryan had waged a campaign of physical and emotional terror against him. He insists that he was only fighting back, that his willingness to beat Ryan was a sign of respect for her physical power. But now that Goad has switched the focus of his rants from class tyranny to issues of gender, his popularity has waned. In December 1999, Spin magazine dubbed him “American Psycho.” Simon and Schuster canceled his next book, “Shit Magnet,” written in prison during his 18-month sentence, and it was rejected by all the other major New York publishing houses.
Cynthia Cotts wrote in a 1999 Village Voice column that one editor who passed on the manuscript called it “part autobiography, part self-justification, part screed” and said that “Goad is something of a local pariah.” (It will be published next spring by Feral.)
Jim Goad plays with dangerous ideas. Whatever one thinks of his answers, he is raising interesting questions. But my question is how he plans to engage in intelligent debate about racial and gender taboos in the Angry White Male Tour forum of choice — a bar full of of drunk people. As it turns out, the tour tends to be a weak and pathetic affair that inspires more pity than ire. I went with a group of friends and, just for fun, I decided to wear my Team Pussy T-shirt.
“Maybe,” said one of my friends, who volunteers at a local juvenile hall, “we will hear something to pierce the sanctimony of our leftist rhetoric!”
When we showed up, the bartender and the promoter were smoking cigarettes and already lining up the beer, mostly Budweiser. The place was empty. “I sure hope there are no fights tonight,” said the bartender. “I don’t have any security.”
The bar was still mostly empty when the Angry White Male Tour showed up. Bugbee, who is small and round and wears cutoff khaki shorts and a white T-shirt, offers to take me out to the Van of Doom, a large white van used to transport the AWMs on their cross-country tour.
Mike Diana is the reason that Bugbee started Mike Hunt Publishing 17 years ago. Diana, a cartoonist who is also on the tour, was jailed for obscenity in 1994. “I just wanted to give him a forum,” says Bugbee, “like 2 Live Crew. I just wanted to get his art out there, so people could decide for themselves: Is this right?”
At one point, Bugbee approached MTV about using Diana’s art. According to him, MTV turned him down, saying, “Maybe he should be censored.” Since then, Bugbee has been publishing banned artists of all kinds. (His one caveat: “I don’t print child porn and I don’t print money.”) Eventually, when it became difficult to find distributors, Bugbee started selling his wares directly from his Web site, Evilnow.com (though he says he hates having a Web site because computers are “elitist”).
For an angry white man, Bugbee manages to spin a good victim narrative. “When I saw Mike Diana going to jail,” Bugbee says, “I got tears in my eyes. On this tour, we stayed with this couple, and they had small children. Mike drew for them. He drew elephants, and nice little piglets. He’s the sweetest, most thoughtful guy in the world. The guy wouldn’t hurt a butterfly on the ground.”
Indeed, when Diana takes the stage a few hours later, he is small, frail and dressed in black pants and a black T-shirt that is too small for him and occasionally rides up to reveal his navel. He seems disconcerted by the crowd when they implore him to “Paint naked” and “Paint with your dick!”
When I ask Bugbee to tell me about the impetus for the tour, he glares at me, “What is ‘impetus’? Is that French? I’m a high-school dropout.”
When he was growing up, Bugbee says, his family never had enough money for food or clothes. “I had one pair of jeans,” he says. “It isn’t easy to have girls making fun of you because you have the same mustard stain on your shirt.
“I see my people as being working class. Blue collar. My teeth rot at the same rate as the black man living next store. We both don’t have any insurance. We’re all niggers. We’re all slaves in this world. We all have to trade five days for two. Most people get the joke. Maybe if they hear us say things that are taboo, it will inspire them to say, ‘No man, I’m not working for $5 an hour.’
“These are my people. That’s where the misery comes from, the wife beating, the rape issue, the Redneck Manifesto, Jim Goad being a wife beater — all of that, in my opinion, comes from a lack of cash.”
I scan the bar, trying to decide which AWM Jim Goad is. I narrow the possibilities to one of two men, both in black pants and black T-shirts. On his Web site, Goad has a picture of himself as a retro cowboy, with his hand on a pistol. It turns out that Goad is the muscular white guy in black pants, the one with an Iron Cross pendant. (The small frail one is Diana.)
The first thing Jim Goad tells me is that he doesn’t get hate mail anymore. This surprises me. Is it, I wonder, because his audience is self-selecting?
“No,” he says, “I think it’s because people think I will stalk and kill them.”
He shows me a small scar on his elbow, which he claims he received when Ryan bit him on a public bus the day before he beat her.
“It’s like the old movies — when a guy hits you and then puts on a pair of glasses and says, ‘You can’t hit me, I’m wearing glasses.’ She hit me first, and then she was morally outraged that I hit her back. And I don’t think she was putting on a show. She was sanctimonious about the fact I hit her back.”
I say that his site, which includes transcripts of all of Ryan’s voice mail messages over a several-month period, reminds me of Psychoexgirlfriend.com, a site that contains audio files of desperate voice mails left by the webmaster’s ex-girlfriend during their breakup.
This makes him angry. “I am not Psychoexgirlfriend.com. Psychoexgirlfriend.com seems like a bunch of beer-drinking guys. I’m trying to bring up serious issues about gender illusions.
“It’s just like the crackers who had nothing to do with the slave trade being blamed for racism. I was honestly trying to extricate myself. If they had a malice-o-meter, I think she would score much higher than I did.”
Goad’s current girlfriend is a boxer.
By 10 o’ clock, the bar is filled with about 20 people, mostly men, many sitting alone. I join my friends. We ask a boy with a shaved head, tattoos and the requisite amount of piercings why he is here.
He says he is here because he loves Answer Me!
Because it’s offensive, he says.
What’s offensive about it?
The letters section.
Does he remember any of the content?
Well, no. But he does remember a big piece of shit that he photocopied and brought into his office. It grossed people out.
When we return to our table, the friend we left there (who would later be christened “the bitchy Israeli chick” by Goad) said, “You missed the fight.”
Apparently, it started when an angry white man spilled beer on my notes. At first, my friend thought that he had spilled the beer on purpose, but then, after she handed the beer back to him, she realized he was simply out of it. He widened his eyes, and looked away. Then he reached into his bag.
“Here comes the hunting knife,” she thought.
He pulled out a portable chess set and put on it the table.
“Sorry,” she said. “I don’t play chess.”
He was still looking away, chess set on his lap, when we sat down.
“I think,” she said, “that angry white guy is crying.”
We looked. We thought it looked that way, too.
We were finally motivated to leave when Goad got angrier than the average angry white guy. He was singing country and western tunes — a cappella — when someone at my table took off his shirt. (It was extremely hot in there.) Meanwhile, the guy walking around with the camcorder had decided to film the pile of red vomit that Skizo had deposited on our table.
“It’s OK,” said my shirtless friend, “but it’s red. I wish it were green. I was promised green vomit.”
This is about the time when Goad stopped singing and started screaming. “Get the spotlight off the emaciated hipster! This is my show! All spotlights on me!”
When the spotlight goes back to Goad, the red vomit seems even more interesting. He paints himself in blackface, and says he now feels the pain of the black man. He says that the reason he went to prison for beating his girlfriend, and O.J. went free after killing his wife, is because O.J. has money. He asks members of the audience to raise their hands if they’ve ever been to prison.
“Just jail,” says a boy up front, in a baseball cap, almost apologetically.
“And why did you go to jail?” Goad prompts him.
“Because of LSD,” the boy says.
“No,” insists Goad. “You went to jail because you are poor. What can we do to fight for the poor white man in America?”
“Stop paying insurance,” shouts someone. “Keep drinking!” yells somebody else.
About this time, a white male in a flannel shirt and a baseball cap turns to his friend and says, “Will there be any intellectual stimulation tonight?”
That would all depend, it seems, on how you define intellectual stimulation. During the obscenity trial of James Joyce’s “Ulyssees” in 1933, Judge John Woolsey declared that Molly Bloom’s monologue could not be considered obscene because the overall effect was “undoubtedly somewhat … emetic, nowhere does it tend to be aphrodisiac.”
Looking through the photographs of mutilated bodies in Answer Me! #4 is an emetic experience. But if you can get past the corpses, the rape issue is probably one of the only publications you will find that has a first-person essay on rape by a serial rapist-murderer, meditations on the erotic appeal of children and satires about having sex with anti-porn crusader Andrea Dworkin.
None of these are pleasant to read, but it is possible that they serve some sort of social purpose: They are daring to describe a human experience that no one else will; in that way they act as cultural ipecac syrup.
But Goad’s performance tonight has none of the uncomfortable surprise of his writing. He doesn’t even seem particularly evil; he just seems like he’s doing a bad job on his own P.R. Maybe there is a place in our culture for obscene ideas, ideas that are both emetic and aphrodisiac; but on the Angry White Male Tour, Skizo’s act is the closest one will get to a therapeutic purge.
Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.More Amy Benfer.
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)