"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)
Joe Queenan is a well-paid bastard. For the better part of 20 years, he has made a living being mean in the pages of GQ, Movieline, Spy, the New York Times and countless other publications. He’s a self-proclaimed “full time son of a bitch” who has “never deviated from [his] chosen career as a sneering churl,” and his specialty has been ripping on movie stars and the banalities of American culture. As a cultural critic, Queenan has taken potshots at nearly every trend that has come down the pike. What his criticism sometimes lacks in substance, he makes up for with smartass bile. And when it comes to tearing apart celebrities, he is merciless.
In a 1994 review of an Oscar Levant biography, Queenan noted that Candice Bergen (who had been pursuing a career in photojournalism at the time) was the last person to see the brilliant pianist and composer alive. Queenan suggested that Levant might have died sooner had he seen Bergen act.
An article about blind characters in film looked on the bright side of losing one’s vision, because, “the blind get to go through life without ever seeing Shelley Winters.”
One Op-Ed piece found Queenan wishing that the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus” had ended the same way as “Braveheart,” with Richard Dreyfuss getting his entrails ripped out while a cast of thousands cheered.
The film “Blame It on Rio,” Queenan wrote, “contains rabies jokes and Valerie Harper.”
A hallmark of Queenan’s work has been his willingness to become personally immersed in the subjects he writes about. He once sat in a limousine and asked a hooker to accompany him to important business dinners, like Richard Gere in “Pretty Woman,” and has jumped into the Atlantic Ocean during winter to see how long Leonardo DiCaprio could have survived in “Titanic.” Most memorably, he has twice spent the day living the life of a famous actor in his “Hugh Grant for a Day” and “Mickey Rourke for a Day,” articles. In the latter, an unshaven, unshowered Queenan hangs out in bars during the morning, lights matches off of strangers’ clothing and rolls sleeping vagrants for cigarette money.
Queenan extended this technique further in his book “Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon,” where he consumed the collected works of Billy Joel and Neil Diamond and took in matinees of “Cats” and “Starlight Express,” all the while watching Patrick Swayze movies and eating at restaurants like the Olive Garden. It was an all-encompassing effort to experience the worst of American culture. After several months of this journey, Queenan discovered “Scheissenbedaurn” (German, literally translated to “shit regret”), a concept expressing the disappointment one feels when exposed to things that are not as bad as originally suspected.
Most recently, Queenan decided to take a look at something close to home: his own generation, the baby boomers. In “Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Self-Important History of the Baby Boom Generation,” Queenan examines the people who went to Woodstock, protested the Vietnam war and claim to have run Nixon out of office. The results are not pretty.
In spite of the boomers’ early promise, Queenan believes they simply quit. He says they’re taking early retirements and selling out their values to become a venal, self-obsessed group whose legacies will be “quality time,” the male ponytail and a belief that Iron Butterfly was indeed a great rock band. The beginning of this downfall, Queenan contends, can be pinpointed to April 21, 1971, the date Carole King’s “Tapestry” album was released. On that cataclysmic day, he writes, boomers succumbed to three themes that would define their mind-set: genteel lameness (“You’ve Got a Friend”), communal nostalgia for the extremely recent past (“So Far Away”) and incessant and incorrigible self-repackaging (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”).
At a coffee shop in Chicago, Queenan recently took on his critics, his generation and the best and worst that American culture has to offer. For Queenan, it was just another day at the office.
What can we blame baby boomers for? What did they do to our culture?
They created Andrew Lloyd Webber. Andrew Lloyd Webber destroyed Broadway. Just destroyed it. It used to be that a show was 14 or 15 great songs. His idea was these operettas where you repeated one bad song endlessly and everything went into the staging and presentation and it was horrible.
Baby boomers have horrible taste in theater and they have appalling taste when they delve into classical music. They always get suckered into buying the crap. Like they buy Andrea Bocelli records.
They just fall for packaging all the time. When I was a kid, paperback books were cheap and they looked really bad. All books looked bad then. Now all books look great. Every book, you want to buy it. It’s the packaging.
That’s what baby boomers are good at. They are extremely good at furnishing. They know how to redecorate. They know how to package things. It’s all they want to talk about. But life is different from lifestyle.
How about you? You’re a boomer. Do you find yourself out there looking for the best balsamic vinegar?
I’m not interested in food or cars. But, I am interested in things like records. I’ve got 2,000 records. Why would anyone need 2,000 records? It’s self-indulgent and obsessive.
I think like a baby boomer. I definitely have that thing where I always want to learn new things, but I half-learn them. I half-learned Italian. Half-learned how to fly a plane. Half-learn how to do everything. That’s what baby boomers like to do. They just can’t stick to anything. They flit from one thing to the next.
Contrast Clinton and Bush as baby boomers and how they reflect the generation.
Bill Clinton’s a poor kid from a state with three electoral votes and he became president of the United States. I don’t care what else he does, my hat’s off to him because he did it. That’s the American dream. He’s the poor kid, like Ronald Reagan, who grew up to be president of the United States.
But, Bill Clinton has all of the hypocrisy of baby boomers and all of the false sense that if you simply say the right thing, it’s like you did something. But, with that said, he still became president of the United States, so he didn’t sell out as completely as other baby boomers. He made some kind of difference.
Bush is the frat boy version [of a baby boomer]. He’s less like baby boomers than most of us, because I don’t get the impression that George Bush works very hard and I think baby boomers really, really do work hard. However, he has one classic baby boomer characteristic — he networks like hell. The whole thing with the Texas Rangers where you just meet the right guys and hang around for a while and before you know it you’ve got a lot of money. That’s a classic baby boomer thing.
I don’t dislike George Bush at all, though. Bush isn’t Quayle. Quayle was the real deal. The guy was just not smart enough to do the job. Bush isn’t like that. Do you think Gore is that much smarter than Bush? If he’s so damn smart, how did he manage to lose Tennessee?
Your writing makes a lot of people angry. Do you wind up hearing from the people you make fun of or piss off?
There is this woman in the Boston Globe, Katherine Powers, who just absolutely hates my stuff and always does the same kind of review. She doesn’t review the book. She says, “I hate it so much that I can’t review it.” Which to me is a form of intellectual dishonesty, because your job is to read it and specifically talk about how much you hated it.
But, she really, really hated ["Balsamic Dreams"]. And when I saw her review I thought, “Bingo. This is great. This is really cool. I hit the target. Some old lefty, movement person in Boston hates the book because I made fun of Jimmy Carter or the old hippies.” It’s better than people liking it. That’s an exhilarating feeling.
Do you ever feel bad about the fact that you’re basically mean to people for a living?
I decided a couple of years ago that I wanted to be a nice person. Like all satirists, I basically hate nice people. I hate do-gooders. I loathe Ben and Jerry. I loathe all of those people. So did Molière.
But, I thought, I’ve been doing this for all of these years, maybe I should try being nice for a change. Who wants to be evil and hated? So, I tried to be a good person for six months. One of the things I did was set up a Web site where I apologized to all of the people that I’ve been really mean to. Though I must say that I went out of my way to reaffirm my dislike of certain people. You would never apologize to Geraldo for anything.
So, I set up that Web site and shortly after that, I decided that I didn’t want to be a nice person anymore.
When did you start doing this type of writing, where you are part of the story, like you did in “Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon,” or the Mickey Rourke or Hugh Grant for a day stories?
At Spy in the ’80s. I would pretend to be the president of Bunny Burgers and we would tell people that we had a restaurant where you could pick out a bunny and we’d skin it and kill it and make a hamburger. So we went around to nine P.R. firms and said we wanted them to take the account. Six of them responded. We have this great tape of them coming in and wanting to do the Bunny Burgers account and I could always keep a straight face.
Two things that really help are that I can always keep a straight face and I really like people. I don’t like journalists, but I really like ordinary people. My experience has always been that when you’re doing a story, the public will always write it for you. They just unite as one. They’ll say, “Joe’s here in Philadelphia dressing as Hugh Grant, and he wants us to provide him with humorous material and by God, we will.”
The only exception to that is working with WASPs. They’re deadly. If you have to write a funny story, stay out of Connecticut, because you won’t get any material from those people — they are serious, humorless. Not stupid, but without a sense of humor. Let me stick to Jews, Italians, blacks, Dominicans, the Irish — just stay away from WASPs, they cannot rise to the occasion.
If you were going to do “Mickey Rourke for a Day” now, how would you do it, given how weird he has become?
It wouldn’t be the same. When I did “Mickey Rourke for a Day,” which was maybe 1992, he’d had it as a star, but he was still in the tabloids. Now he’s just a complete has-been. If you saw him in “The Rainmaker” or “Buffalo 66″ you could see he’s still a talented guy and very, very convincing as a real sleazeball. But it’s almost unbelievable that there was ever a time that anybody thought he could have been a leading man, because of that cruel and unpleasant side that he has.
It’s funny how actor after actor falls into that same trap. That is, if you want to be successful in Hollywood, you can play the antihero a few times. Usually you do it when your career has plateaued and you need to turn things around.
Richard Gere jump-started his career by playing a bad guy in “Internal Affairs.” He was great in that, but Richard Gere is a talented actor. He has a couple of extremely annoying habits. He’s got that squint. So when he made “Autumn in New York” with Wynona Ryder, you had two of the great squinters in the history of movies. All we needed were Helen Hunt, Renée Zellweger and Christian Slater and you’ve got a squinter’s “murderer’s row.”
If you give people a steady diet of that kind of movie, you become typecast. Look at Vince Vaughn. He comes out in “Swingers” and he’s very charismatic, very funny. Then he starts making other movies. So what does he make? He makes “Clay Pigeons” where he plays a very cruel serial killer. I mean most serial killers are cruel, but he’s particularly unpleasant. Then he does the remake of “Psycho” and he’s in “The Cell” where he’s not the villain, but it’s such a creepy movie nobody wants to see it. Well, you keep making these creepy movies and the next thing you know, you’re Harry Dean Stanton.
So, I couldn’t do Mickey Rourke today, because he’s had it. It’s like if you did Patrick Swayze. You couldn’t do him now — although in his time he was as good a one-liner as you could ask for. If you needed a joke, just put Patrick Swayze in the story. Just the name Patrick Swayze is great.
What do you consider to have been the lowest point of our culture?
Whatever you thought about how things were going to turn out in the ’60s, nothing could have prepared us for Stallone. I really hated it when Stallone was a big star. I thought those movies were evil. I thought the Rocky movies were racist. I don’t think he has any talent. A stupid man, making one stupid violent movie after another.
I feel that movies don’t have to reflect reality, but they have to connect to reality in some way. So, if you make five movies about some short white guy from Philly who beats up a lot of black guys, what does that tell you about reality? I haven’t seen any white guys winning any heavyweight championships in a long, long time.
So, I thought that those movies got into a real racist fantasy. And every time you say that, people go, “Oh, you’re reading too much into it.” No, I’m not.
And, then it’s so interesting how the public turns on these people and all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, they don’t make good movies anymore.”
Oh, like when they were making “Cobra” and “F.I.S.T”?
What do you like about American culture? What do you think is good now?
I like the economy. I like money. I think money is great. I think the more that we all have, the better things are. I feel like we’re sort of on a summer vacation right now. You watch these shows at night like “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Hardball” and they always want to create the impression that there are big issues that we’re wrestling with. But there aren’t. It’s kind of mellow and I think that’s good.
John Podhoretz wrote this column for the New York Post a couple of months ago which kind of said, “I don’t like it that the country isn’t as right wing as I am, but I can’t do anything about it.” He basically said, “We can’t help the fact that the Reagan revolution is probably petering out and the country is becoming more and more wishy-washy, slightly left of center.”
It’s Ben and Jerry politics: Have the right sentiments. Express the right thing. Make sure all your economic bases are covered. Probably send your kids to private school. Basically be sort of soft and fuzzy on the environment and Internet privacy and everything like that. I think that’s a pretty faithful description of America the way it is.
When I’m writing these books ridiculing people, it’s not like I’m attacking the commissars in Stalingrad. It’s just basically like, “These people are annoying.” This is a generation that is just unbelievably annoying. But, you don’t want to see them executed. I’m conscious of the fact that I’m ridiculing people, but I don’t think they’re villains. I just think they’re silly and that’s what satire is supposed to be about. The bourgeoisie constantly swings from one stupid idea to the next. It’s not going to change in my lifetime. You get a new stupid food, or a stupid hat, or a stupid furnishing, or a stupid philosophy, so you make fun of it because it’s incredibly annoying. But it’s not the pivotal issues of our time.
I think that’s basically the situation the country’s in right now. People aren’t going to stop wearing ponytails. Baby boomers won’t stop being ridiculous. Baby boomers aren’t going to grow up. They’ll be 80 years old and people will still be listening to Hendrix and talking about the night we levitated the Pentagon. They’re not going to let go of it. There’s not going to be that moment when everybody sort of says, “We suck so much. We were so savvy and we sold out.” There’s never going to be that moment for baby boomers.
Baby boomers are going to go to their graves believing that they ended racism. They really believe that. But I think there are certain neighborhoods in Chicago where if you asked people they would say, “No, I think there’s still a little bit of work that needs to go on.”
It’s not like when 11 percent of the “greatest generation” voted for George Wallace. That’s not so great. That wasn’t so nice. That wasn’t such a fond moment. The greatest generation was nasty to minorities.
The baby boomers aren’t nasty to minorities. They just ignore them. I suppose that’s progress. It’s better than lynching people, but it’s not like you ended racism. It’s just the whole [baby boomer] idea: “Well, we drove LBJ from office and we drove Nixon from office and we ended the war in Vietnam. That’s enough. We’re done. Can we see the dessert menu?”
Josh Karp is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Chicago Magazine, The Chicago Sun-Times and Crain's Chicago Business.More Josh Karp.
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)