"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
Last week, a British tabloid, the Mail on Sunday, published a story in which former Beatles producer Sir George Martin was quoted as saying in reference to George Harrison, “He knows that he is going to die soon.” The story used the unequivocal statement twice. And it was quickly picked up by news agencies, Web sites, radio and television around the world.
It wasn’t until the following Monday afternoon that an angry Harrison was able to issue a statement denying the story. Sir George’s representative also condemned it as untrue and said that Sir George never made the remark.
The tale of how the specious story came to be is considerably more interesting than the story itself. As it turns out, the quote was fabricated, apparently by an editor at a news agency, and inserted into a story sold to the Mail on Sunday, one of England’s nine national Sunday newspapers. A reporter at the Mail duplicated the fabricated quote as though it had been uttered twice and added other misleading language, as well as numerous dubious quotes from anonymous “sources.” This morning, the editor, who had worked at the news agency for nearly two years, abruptly resigned, but the management at the Mail on Sunday continues to stand by its story — despite the fact that it is incontestably false and violates the most rudimentary rules of journalism.
The Mail on Sunday, like its sister paper the Daily Mail, occupies the middlebrow middle ground in the British press. In American terms, imagine a newspaper pitched in tone and style somewhere between the New York Times and the New York Post, with a measure of the Weekly World News mixed in. Politically it has always hewed to a far-right agenda, from its mid-1930s sympathetic portrayal of Adolf Hitler to its mid-1980s fawning over Margaret Thatcher. Culturally, the paper has in recent years slipped into more of a tabloid vein from its comparatively respected glory days of the 1950s and 1960s.
Ironically, the Daily Mail has its place in Beatle folklore and song history. The line about “4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” in John Lennon’s “A Day in the Life” was inspired by a story in the Daily Mail — regular reading in the Lennon household in 1967. And in 1966 the subject of one of Paul McCartney’s songs had a son “working for the Daily Mail — it’s a steady job but he wants to be a Paperback Writer.”
Since Harrison first revealed that he had successfully treated throat cancer in 1997, the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday have been in the forefront of the tabloid pack chasing the story to see if new ill health would arise. The savage murder attempt on Harrison in late December 1999 by a deranged individual only heightened the sharklike appetite for stories about Harrison’s imminent demise.
Tabloid spirits may have risen in May of this year when Harrison revealed that he had been treated for lung cancer at the Mayo Clinic in the United States — though the fact that the operation was a success would have thwarted plans for death coverage. Early this July rumors started to circulate in Europe that Harrison had a brain tumor and was undergoing treatment in an exclusive Swiss clinic.
Harrison was distressed by the myriad press reports about his treatment in Switzerland and on July 11 sanctioned the release of the following statement through his lawyers: “I am feeling fine and I am really sorry for the unnecessary worry which has been caused by the reports appearing in today’s press. Please do not worry.”
This immediately followed an official statement from Dr. Franco Cavalli, the top cancer specialist at the Oncology Institute of Southern Switzerland in Bellinzona. The statement was read aloud to the media on July 9 by hospital director Luca Borner and distributed in print form. The exact wording as reported by the AP, Reuters and other press agencies, and reprinted in hundreds of newspapers and Web sites worldwide on July 10, was: “Mr. Harrison was referred to the hospital to undergo a course of radiotherapy. He successfully completed this course more than a month ago and we foresee no need for further treatment here.”
This wording was reproduced in all the major British newspapers on July 10 with one exception: the Daily Mail, which instead ran an article that included this quote, purportedly from Cavalli: “He has not recovered, but he is not a patient any more.” Curiously, no other media outlet has ever reprinted this remark. Nor has Cavalli been quoted as saying anything remotely like it to anyone else. The Oncology Institute states that the positive quote of July 10 was his sole comment.
Then, on July 22, the Mail on Sunday published this news story. Under the banner headline “George Harrison Is Close to Death Says ’5th Beatle’ Martin,” writer Katie Nicholl wrote the following:
Former Beatle George Harrison has admitted that he expects to die soon from cancer.
The 58-year-old has been treated for a brain tumour at a clinic in Switzerland, having already undergone an operation for lung cancer earlier this year.
Harrison made the emotional confession that he does not have long to live to close friend and former Beatles producer Sir George Martin.
Sir George told The Mail on Sunday: “He is taking it easy and hoping that the thing will go away. He has an indomitable spirit but he knows that he is going to die soon and he is accepting that.”
The story went on to describe how Harrison had received treatment at the Swiss hospital. It claimed that Harrison had “put on a brave face” in his July statement “but Sir George, dubbed the Fifth Beatle, revealed Harrison is now facing up to the prospect of death.”
The paper then quoted Martin as saying, “George is very philosophical. He does realise that everybody has got to die sometime. He has been near death many times and he’s been rescued many times as well. But he knows that he is going to die soon and he’s accepting it perfectly happily.”
Supporting the paper’s account was the fact that the venerable Sir George Martin, the Beatles producer who had known Harrison since June 1962 (“Tell me if you don’t like anything,” invited Martin when they met; “Well, for a start I don’t like your tie,” quipped 19-year-old Harrison), his close confidant, had apparently personally informed the Mail’s writer: “Sir George told The Mail on Sunday.”
And in referring to Harrison’s closeness to death he used the phrase “he knows that he is going to die soon” not once but twice. The truth was that the story was a compounded mélange of lies, exaggeration and distortion.
Here’s how it was put together: On July 18, Sir George sat down with a journalist from WENN — World Entertainment News Network — a respected London news agency specializing in entertainment news and features. EMI Records in the U.K. had just issued a six-CD box set retrospective of Sir George’s 50-year career as a record producer. A publicist had set up a series of interviews with writers to assist in providing media coverage of the release. The writer who interviewed Sir George for WENN is named Christian Koch. Sir George was relaxed and comfortable being interviewed by him because Koch had recently given good coverage about a charitable project close to Sir George’s heart — an auction of his musical score for the song “Yesterday” to raise funds for victims of the Montserrat volcano. The interview had been requested on behalf of ABC Radio in America, one of WENN’s regular clients. Sitting in on the interview was Adam Sharp, Sir George’s manager, who has overseen business for the producer for the past few years.
The interview took about 40 minutes; Koch asked 27 questions. The full transcript of the interview reveals an easygoing conversation that included discussion about the Beatles, Oasis, Jimmy Webb, Princess Diana and a proposed stage musical of “Yellow Submarine.”
No. 24 of the 27 questions was a query about George Harrison’s health. Sir George responded in honest yet diplomatically abstract terms. He referred to the facts that had already been exposed by Harrison himself. And he stated what any halfway literate Beatles fan has known for some 35 years: Harrison has a philosophical view of the world and mortality, enhanced by his study of Eastern spirituality. This is a transcript of Sir George’s comments to Koch about Harrison:
Koch: Have you heard from George Harrison at all?
Sir George: Have I …?
… heard from George Harrison? Because he has …
I was last with George about a couple of months ago and I was at his home with him. And he was … I mean, he’s … George has had a rough time. Apart from having had cancer in a couple of places, he’s also been attacked by a lunatic and nearly killed. And if it weren’t for his wife, he would have been dead. And now he’s had a recurrence of cancer. So … But he’s got an indomitable spirit. And he’s just hanging in there. He’s abroad at the moment. He’s … he’s been having treatment and he’s just taking it easy and hoping that the … the thing will go away. And I pray and hope that it will too.
How’s his general health, though? I mean …
His general health. You said he’s got this indomitable spirit but is his health …?
He’s … he’s very philosophical, you know … I mean everybody’s got to die sometime. And I’m nearer that than most people because I’m so old! And George has been near it many times and so … And he’s been rescued many times. So … I guess he’s hoping that he’s going to be rescued again. And I think he will. But he knows perfectly well there’s a chance he may not be. And he’s accepting it quite … quite happily.
Neither Sir George nor Adam Sharp, his manager, saw anything unusual in the question — and certainly not in the answer he gave. Paul McCartney had given a similarly elliptical answer, though less detailed, when he had been interviewed on CNN’s “Larry King Live” program a few weeks earlier.
After the interview, Koch returned to the offices of WENN and the tape of his interview was transcribed in preparation for editing. It was then that Harrison’s health took a decided turn for the worse.
The agency’s news editor, James Desborough, took a look at the interview. Apparently without consulting his bosses or any other senior executives at the agency, he seems to have decided that the benign response offered by Sir George to the question about Harrison’s health might be the basis for a headline-grabbing story. After Desborough worked on it, a fabricated quote appeared in the story. Martin’s original quote read “he has an indomitable spirit”; the new quote contained the words “but he knows that he is going to die soon.” The rest of the story was filled out with suitably adjusted quotes from Sir George and repetition of speculation from unnamed sources about Harrison’s health.
Out of the 27 answers to the 27 questions asked by Koch during the interview, Desborough had selected just one. Out of the 2,169 words spoken by Sir George in the 40-minute interview, Desborough had extracted 105.
Now it was time to go to market. Desborough soon sold the piece to the Mail on Sunday, which received the story on Friday, July 20. At that point it consisted of just 365 words. The WENN story ended with the internal code (CK/WN/ES), CK being the initials of original interviewer Christian Koch. Desborough apparently did not add his initials.
When I spoke to Desborough about the story last week, all he had to say was: “George Martin is on tape. We got him.” USA Today reporter Ann Oldenburg contacted WENN the day after the Mail story broke and reported in the Tuesday, July 24, issue of USA Today: “A spokesman for chief executive Jonathan Ashby said that the Martin interview, which took place for 40-minutes on Wednesday, was on tape and ’100 percent nailed.’” WENN has thus far been unable to find any individual in its office who has confessed to giving that quote.
At the Mail on Sunday the story was assigned to writer Katie Nicholl. The “George Harrison is close to death” headline was followed up with a plethora of detail, some of it factual, much of it conjecture, spin and innuendo. Scattered through the piece were quotations from Desborough’s story.
Nicholl reengineered Sir George’s already much-cantilevered words to have the knight of the realm say the never-uttered words twice in her article, though the story she had received from WENN had only used the fabrication once: “He has an indomitable spirit but he knows that he is going to die soon.” Nicholl quoted Sir George more or less accurately as saying, “He has been near death many times and he’s been rescued many times as well,” then added the fabricated quote “but he knows that he is going to die soon and he’s accepting it perfectly happily.”
In what Nicholl claimed to me is “standard practice” in journalism, her story stated that the interview had been given to the paper directly. The paragraph with the first of the erroneous comments starts with the words “Sir George told the Mail on Sunday.”
When I asked why this was done when it was clearly wording that could mislead readers into having greater faith in the credibility of the story, Nicholl told me, “If we have an exclusive interview, we reserve the right to say that the person spoke to us.”
The article was larded with emotionally loaded phrases that were not based on any quote, just the writer’s ungrounded speculation. Phrases such as “Harrison has admitted”; “Harrison made the emotional confession that he does not have long to live”; “the star put on a brave face”; “Harrison is now facing up to the prospect of death.”
And then there were the anonymous “sources” claiming that he “lost half a lung in the operation.” And that unnamed “doctors at the clinic admitted.” And that “according to experts the long-term prognosis for Harrison is not good” — these experts being unnamed people who had not seen Harrison or his medical records.
And what of the opportunity for a reaction from Harrison’s representatives prior to printing this story? After all, the paper was announcing his imminent death to the world. A senior representative of the Mail on Sunday told me that he could not be quoted, so I cannot use the exact words. But the essence of the paper’s position is that it is not always possible to contact a celebrity on a weekend, and that’s the celebrity’s tough luck.
It might have been prudent to wait until the following Monday, July 23, and get a response from Harrison. The story, complete with reaction and any denial, could then have been placed in Tuesday’s Daily Mail without the fabric of the universe rupturing over the 48-hour delay. In any event, the decision to publish was made without reaching any representative of Harrison to seek his reaction. Nor did the paper seek a representative of Sir George to check the quote.
Within hours the damage was done. Beatles fans worldwide were stunned, Beatles Web sites and Internet newsgroups overflowed with postings and American TV stations flashed the news in bulletins throughout the day.
In England, Sir George awoke to discover the story and was mortified. According to Adam Sharp, Sir George immediately telephoned Harrison, who was very upset. At that point Sir George was baffled. The paper claimed that he had “told the Mail on Sunday” and yet he knew that he had had no contact with the newspaper. He told Harrison that he had not spoken with the paper and that he certainly had not told anyone that Harrison “knows that he is going to die soon.”
With neither Harrison nor Sir George being well equipped in the political game of war-room-style rapid response, the story festered without an official rebuttal all through Sunday. Sharp was away for the weekend in the north of England, but on Monday morning he returned calls to the media, including responding to ABC’s “Good Morning America,” which became the first program or network in the U.S. to broadcast a rebuttal.
Throughout the day Sharp contacted other media outlets and — at first unaware of the source of the manipulated quotes — continued to say that there was no basis at all for the story. Finally, he surmised the source of the fabrication and immediately called Koch at WENN. “I spoke to him and he broke down in tears,” said Sharp. “He told me that his boss had taken the tapes off him and manipulated the story without his consent.” Koch’s boss was WENN news editor James Desborough.
Meanwhile Harrison’s principal lawyer in London, Nick Valner of the legal firm Eversheds, issued a statement to Britain’s premier wire service, the Press Association, late on Monday afternoon. The statement said that Harrison and his wife, Olivia, were “disappointed and disgusted” by reports that referred to his “imminent demise.”
The reports were unsubstantiated, untrue, insensitive and uncalled for, especially as Mr. Harrison is active and feeling very well in spite of the health challenges he has had this year.
George Martin was quoted and has emphatically denied speaking to any newspaper.
The Mail on Sunday has continued to stand by its story. When I spoke with WENN at the end of the week, the agency was swift to cooperate, and immediately released the key evidence — the transcript of the full interview and the text of the story it subsequently sold to the Mail on Sunday. I was subsequently allowed to hear and make a copy of the Harrison sequence of the interview tape. I noticed the relaxed, conversational style of Sir George’s response. This was not a medical bulletin or indiscreet revelation. Just a carefully worded reply to a query, which emphasized Harrison’s general philosophy.
At this stage WENN had not noticed the insertion of the nine-word phrase into the story, but the agency was already displeased with the unauthorized actions of Desborough in manipulating a feature piece into an unpleasant tabloid story. After my brief exchange with Desborough in midweek, in which the editor curtly told me that the story was accurate, he left London on a previously booked vacation to the island of Ibiza off the Spanish coast. His employers have not yet been able to challenge him about his misdeeds.
I telephoned Nicholl at the Mail on Sunday. She reiterated that the paper stood by its story. She was absolutely confident of it. “We’ve got it on tape” she explained. I asked her about the use of the negative quote from Dr. Cavalli that no other newspaper had used. She didn’t claim to have secured that herself. She assumed that since it had been in the Daily Mail previously that “it must be correct.” I asked her why no one else had got that quote. “Probably because we got it exclusively” she said, though she made it clear that she had no personal knowledge of this. When I asked what efforts she had made to corroborate the story with representatives of Harrison or Sir George she suddenly clammed up. “I don’t want to be quoted in a newspaper piece, so this conversation is all off the record,” she said.
I told her that if she wished to go off the record from that point on that I would naturally accept that, but that it was not possible, or accepted journalistic practice, to go off the record retroactively. She informed me that she felt she must pass the matter to her news editor, Paul Field, who would phone me back in an hour or two. Thirty seconds later Field telephoned and identified himself and then went immediately off the record.
After talking to Field, I called back the paper and asked for its most senior executive. I was put through to Russell Forgham, the Mail on Sunday’s managing editor. He was polite but cautious. I asked him outright about the key matter and he was unequivocal. “The quotes from Sir George were on tape. We have heard the tapes and we stand by our story.” And so the story lies …
Friday, WENN confirmed that Desborough had resigned from his job in the morning. In a phone call, an executive at the news agency said, “James Desborough no longer works for the company. He has resigned is all I can say.”
Harrison is continuing to recover from his medical travails of the past few months, Sir George is a more wary man and a series of interviews that had been lined up with American media to promote his CD box set have been canceled by Adam Sharp.
Martin Lewis is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.More Martin Lewis.
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)