"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)
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Born in Africa over a decade ago, a renaissance in short fiction writing is spreading across the globe via the Internet, breathing new life into the always troubled romance between art and crime. Like the incessant e-mail come-ons for breast and penis enlargement, “advance fee” or “419″ fraud scheme messages, which have been coming out of West Africa in one form or another since the 1980s, show up daily in in boxes around the world. There have been TV news features and magazine and newspaper articles about the scam, and even a novel based on 419 fraud. Law enforcement agencies from Canada to Australia and Europe have special details assigned to the 419 problem and there’s a 419 Coalition Web site that serves as an online Grand Central Station for 419 information, along with numerous other sites on the Web devoted to the subject. In 1999, Howard Jeter, the U.S. State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for African affairs, claimed that “Americans lose $2 billion annually to white collar crime syndicates based in Nigeria.” Yet the literary merit of the letters themselves is rarely discussed.
I’ve received a half-dozen or more of the missives some weeks, offering to give me as much as a third (but never less than 15 to 20 percent) of, say, $60 million if I’ll just allow the use of my bank account for storage of the fortune, or let the funds be invested in my company or in some other way assist in liberating the humongous amount of cash from the shaky, unstable situation in which it’s being held. One writer assured me that “for your assistance, sir, the family [of former Nigerian head of state General Sani Abacha] has decided to bless you with one third of the above stated sum,” which in that case would have been nearly $8 million. It’s an absurd amount, but when dropped into a narrative right at the outset it does focus one’s attention; it’s seductive, especially to those of us who are greedy. I, the letters usually inform me, am the very last hope for bringing the money to the land of the free.
Some poor souls do fall for the scam, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The truth is I’ve fallen for them, too — not for the scam part, but for the writing, the plots (fragmented as they are), the characters, the earnest, alluring evocations of dark deeds and urgent needs, Lebanese mistresses, governments spun out of control, people abruptly “sacked” for “official misdemeanors” and all manner of other imaginative details all delivered in a prose style that is as awkward and archaic as it is enchanting. It’s some of the most entertaining short fiction around these days. Even the U.S. Secret Service, which would very much like to put the kibosh on the 419 writers workshop, concedes that the letters “are often very creative and innovative.”
Most of the messages seem to come from Nigeria (419 refers to the section of the Nigerian penal code that covers fraud), though one came in the other day from Sierra Leone and another from Côte d’Ivoire. The return addresses are effectively untraceable Web-based e-mail accounts with extensions like yahoo.com or hotmail.com or, in at least one case, the strangely familiar-sounding salon.com. The senders have names such as “Barrister Momoh Sanni Momoh” or “Colonel Timi Phillips” or “Dr. Bisi Odum, Notary Public” or — the first one I’ve received from a female — the jazzy-sounding “Susan Lateef,” who claims to be doing business from within the peaceful walls of La Paix Hotel in Abidjan.
There is an almost poetic sweetness (swaddled in lavishly stilted prose excavated from an 18th century protocol handbook) in how the letters begin. “It is with a heart full of hope …” reads one. “Compliments of the season. Grace and peace and love from this part of the Atlantic to you” is how another starts. “Goodday to you, I would here crave your distinguished indulgence” begins a third.” And still another opens, “It is with my profound dignity that I write you.”
My favorite is perhaps this one (the phrasing is less lyrical than the others, but its deep sense of purpose and utmost sincerity can’t be matched):
It is with deep sense of purpose and utmost sincerity that I write this letter to you knowing full well how you will feel as regards to receiving a mail from somebody you have not met or seen before. There is no need to fear, I got your address from a business directory which lends credence to my humble belief. I also assure you of my honesty and trustworthiness.
You’ve no sooner started to read one of these slyly poignant pleas before you’re bathing in the warmth of the author’s lofty intentions, a soothing hot tub bubbling over with reassurance, honesty and trustworthiness.
The writers’ plans for you and your money, however, are bad, maybe even terminal, and according to the U.S. Secret Service (which devotes a special page on its Web site to 419 scams), “The letter, while appearing transparent and even ridiculous to most, unfortunately is growing in its effectiveness.”
The 419 perpetrators employ a “con within a con” strategy, as the Secret Service explains it, and getting your bank account number in order to plunder your checking or savings is not the goal of the West African grifters. It’s just the beginning of the relationship. As for the plundering, if things work out the way they hope, you’ll do that for them. “The goal,” the Secret Service says, “is to delude the target into thinking that he is being drawn into a very lucrative, albeit questionable, arrangement. [The victim] will become the primary supporter of the scheme and willingly contribute a large amount of money when the deal is threatened.”
In most cases, once the sucker’s on the hook, the scamsters inform him that there have been complications, a special upfront fee or tax is needed urgently or a government official must be bribed. The amounts of these advance fees can be extremely large (though they may seem a pittance next to the $8 million or so you’ll be collecting for helping your new business partner), and it’s by paying them that victims of the fraud bid farewell to their savings.
Anyway, that’s all very illegal, not nice and boring, but the letters themselves are a hoot and worth spending a little time with. I’ve yet to receive two that duplicate each another. Each seems to be handcrafted and the writers pour in plenty of ostensibly personal details. Consider the syntactically challenged one I received just the other night from “Maurice Elodie Davidson”:
As a result of my father’s death, and with the news of my uncle’s involvement in an air crash in January, dashed our hope of survival. The untimely deaths caused my mother’s heart failure and other related complications of which she later died in the hospital after we must have spent a lot of money on her.
One’s heart goes out to poor Maurice, who, if he should ever give up creative writing and international fraud, might consider a career in accounting — or grief counseling. But there is hope, he confided in me, because his late father, “Sir Etienn Davidson, the [former] General Manager of Sierra Leone Mining Cooperation,” left behind a wee nest egg — “$US32,800,000″ to be exact. “This money,” Maurice explained, “was the income accrued from overpayments and personal diamond business at the mining cooperation.”
In all the letters there is some kind of explanation as to where the glorious sum came from. The source is variously described as part of “$620 million which the late head of state placed in Luxembourg branch of German Bank warburg … Luckily for us sir, the sum of 23.4 million has eluded the eyes of the Nigerian authority or their agents,” or:
When I was a director in the Ministry Of Mines and Natural Resources, I was the link between the foreign buyers of DIAMOND and the SIERRA-LOENIAN Government. Just before the out broke of the Civil War in SIERRA-LEONE, there was some payment made to the Government of SIERRA-LEONE by our foreign Diamond buyers for the Diamond they purchased. I had to divert the sum Totaling up to Thirty-Two Million Dollars (US$32,000,000.00) into a security and finance company in Holland for safe keeping because of the Civil War.
or (note the use in the following passage of the ever popular “mistress in Lebanon” ploy to add a piquant dash of authenticity):
The former chief security officer to the late head of state major Hamza al Mustapha had private accounts that are worth 100 million United States dollars around the world. Presently he has been arrested by the government of the day and is presently in prison waiting to be taken to court on charges of gross human right abuses on the citizens of Nigeria. Shortly before the present government arrested my client, he entrusted to me the sum of twenty-six million, four hundred thousand united states dollars (us$26,400,000.00) for safekeeping. This amount was to be sent to his mistress in Lebanon to launder for him.
Just how, one wonders after reading the above, would the Lebanese mistress of Major Hamza al Mustapha have laundered $26,400,000? That’s a considerable pile of laundry, and any misstep could cause great friction between her and her imprisoned lover, a relationship that sounds as if it is already a little complicated. Fortunately — for reasons not altogether clear — she was relieved of this onerous chore before it could begin.
The Secret Service claims that “in June of 1995, an American was murdered in Lagos, Nigeria, while pursuing a 419 scam, and numerous other foreign nationals have been reported as missing.” And yet, because the letters have a certain rough-hewn charm and indicate a vivid imagination at work, one likes to think these bad rascals are not all murderers but, instead, simply hardworking con artists who’ve missed their true calling as novelists and have had to take up fiction writing’s more lucrative sister vocation: fraud.
The 419 writers have a gift for cooking up characters that William Boyd would envy and a penchant for wonderful names that must have Charles Dickens, wherever he is, standing up and applauding. After a typical letter’s splendid greeting, the author introduces himself or herself:
“I am Sir Sambujang Jammeh, the personal Assistant to Mohammed Abacha (the eldest son of the late Nigerian Head of State, General Sani Abacha).
“I am Timi Phillips, a soldier by profession and a colonel by rank. I was the immediate director in Ministry Of Mines and Natural Resources (M.M.N.R) in my country Sierra Leone before the out break of the war.”
“I am Ahmed Grema Esq.(san) senior partner of Ahmed & Associates law chambers, a lawyer/attorney to Hamza al Mustapha who was the former chief security officer to the military dictator of Nigeria, General Sani Abacha.”
“I am barrister Momoh Sanni Momoh. I represent Mohammed Abacha, son of the late Gen. Sani Abacha, who was the former military head of state in Nigeria.”
“I ['Mallam Sadiq Abacha'] am one of the sons of the late Nigerian head of state, General Sani Abacha.”
“I am Susan Lateef the first daughter of the late chief Joseph Lateef. My father until his death was the director of DIAMOND mining field of Kalangba district in Sierra Leone.”
The story’s out of the gate at a gallop and we’ve only just met our new friends. And what a colorful cast they are. It seems likely that Sir Sambujang, Mallam, son of the general, Ahmed and his fellow “lawyer/attorney,” Momoh, have some history together, some of it not pretty and all of it the makings for a succulent subplot. As for Colonel Timi and Susan, first daughter of the diamonds’ best friend, we can only speculate what sort of relationship might exist between the handsome professional soldier and the comely offspring of Chief Lateef, but they say that in Côte d’ Ivoire in the city of Abidjan on Avenue 32, Rue 44 at La Paix Hotel, even with the sea breeze blowing, the nights can get very, very warm.
As in all good fiction, it’s the little touches that give the 419 stories their sparkle and verisimilitude. No effort is spared in keeping the letter’s recipient informed and reassured. For example, this, from Mallam Sadiq Abacha himself,
Be rest assured that this transaction is 100% risk free as all modalities have been put in place for a smooth and successful conclusion. However, should you be intrested in assisting us, I will not hesistate to furnish you with the access code of the secret account, code which you will present at the Central Bank of Nigeria.
“All modalities.” Could anything be more comforting than that? I think not, but I had to look up “modalities” just to be certain I knew what the late general’s son was referring to. Perhaps Mallam and I have the same dictionary (Webster’s New World) as the definition that seemed most applicable bore an uncanny resemblance to the 419 prose style: “Logic the qualification in a proposition that indicates that what is affirmed or denied is possible, impossible, necessary, contingent, etc.” Yes, quite. That, coupled with the furnishing of the access code of the secret account, conveys an unquestionable degree of solidity to the deal.
When unpleasant personnel issues have disrupted the otherwise smooth functioning of my correspondent’s operation, I’ve been thoughtfully apprised. Last May, for instance, I received a 419 message from “Dr. Bisi Odum,” representative “of a very wealthy group in the West African sub region.” After the usual revelation of a mountain of cash desperately looking for a new home, Odum implored, “We pray God touches your heart to see the urgency and importance of this pending mutually beneficial transaction.” The good doctor then closed his letter — rather winningly, I thought — with “I would go to await your swift response.”
Unfortunately, I’d only just begun to consider his generous offer when, little more than an hour later, a second letter arrived, this one signed by the hapless Dr. Odum’s superior, “Dr. Akmed Haruna.” The postcript explained the duplicate messages:
PS. I instructed my personal assistant (Dr.Bisi Odum) to send this mail earlier, but unfortunately, he just got sacked, reason being official misdemeanor. Hence I am sending directly this time, please bear with the inconvenience associated with same.
The letters’ authors are sensitive souls and while they are clearly concerned with my feelings, they also ask for delicacy in the off chance I don’t wish to become a multimillionaire. Jacob Maisha, “a Sierra Leone investor,” ended the letter he wrote this way: “Please, note that if you cannot help I will not wish to be insulted, just save your time and do not reply.”
The plot turns employed by the 419 writers can be a little hard to follow, but what the accounts lack in narrative drive, they make up for with picaresque shading. “I cannot send the money to my client’s mistress any more,” Ahmed Grema Esq. confided in me. “Since the death of my father, the government of my country has subjected our family to solitary confinement, which I believe is the most traumatic punisment that can be inflicted on anyone,” General Abacha’s son, Mallam told me. (Fortunately, he still had a computer and e-mail in his cell.) And in his second letter to me, Sir Sambujang Jammeh, an openly emotional man despite his high station, really let his hair down:
Everybody I know will face God’s judgment one day and we shall all account for our sins and if we are guided by the fact that there is life, then we will eschew violence and stop lying. The bibles says, after death, then judgment what matters is how we use that which was given to us to affect people like or to dupe, cheat and maltreat them, we shall all account for these. The judgment of God will be terrible, yes terrible. I can go on and on to lament.
Then, as if to prove he was a man of his word, he did go on. “Okay, supposing millions of dollars were found in [General Abacha's] house, but the question is all these money holed from the state treasury? Some may have been gifts from friends.”
If I have a favorite among the 419 writers group, I suppose it’s Sir Sambujang Jammeh — indefatigable, effusive and a deep believer in the terrible, terrible judgment of God. I favor him because while I responded to all the letters to express interest in the writers’ stories, only the noble knight wrote back to me, signing his reply simply Jammeh. “Dear Sir,” began his 465-word response, “Thank you so much for your most thoughtful letter. The more I go through your letter each passing day, the more encouraged I give to the traumatized Abacha family; at lease they are begging to feel that there might be light at the end of the tunnel.”
I believe I see the glow from here. My response to Jammeh apparently opened a floodgate of emotion; his feelings for the Abacha family are equaled only by the overflowing cornucopia of cash — about $8 million — he wishes to bestow upon me.
What does one expect from a family that has seen it All — the best things of late and suddenly had crashed into poverty-penury … since the former head of state died, he has been personified by everything evil. One man who suffered to put things right in the country — a man of vision and an Iron in his own stead. Today illation has taken over the reins of the government, terror has been the order of the day and thank God that people are having a rethink.
An Iron in his own stead! The reins of government grabbed by illation! (“To infer …”) But, like the guy at the end of the bar who won’t stop bellowing at the TV news, Jammeh’s just warming up. He is so furious at the present Nigerian government headed by President Olusegun Obasanjo (the country’s first democratically elected chief executive in over 15 years), so incensed by the way the Abacha family has been mistreated that, well, I’ll let him tell you:
One wonders really the present administration cannot allow the former first family to rest. Everyday, it is Abacha this and Abacha that, one thing that marvels the reasoning mind is that some of these crones are still serving in Obasanjo’s govt … People are realizing that Abacha is not really the evil genius but these men were. Abacha was able to rid this country of crime-people had to work to eat.
OK, OK, calm down, Jammeh. Get to the point, will you?
To my point sir, all we need is your name, company name to start the process of changing the certificate of the deed of deposit in your favour to enable you come over to claim the money. That’s all. Let me know what you think about this.
I could certainly use $8 million — that on top of my tax rebate would enable me to return from my lucrative trip to Nigeria and move right up to one of the nicer lots on the Big Rock Candy Mountain — but I haven’t quite found the time to sort out my thoughts and reply to Jammeh’s plea. Until I do, I get some comfort from thinking of him going through my letter each passing day and the light that it brings him from the end of the tunnel. I don’t know much about the late General Abacha, but I think that Jammeh is a man of vision and an Iron in his own stead, and, if he keeps at it, a writer with a future.
By the way, this — in its entirety — is the letter that I sent Sambujang Jammeh that ignited his exuberant response: “Dear Sambujang Jammeh, Your story is an interesting one. What more can you tell me about your situation?”
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)