"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
Serious cricket spitters always make sure to mark two important dates on their events calendars. The first, the largest and oldest get-together in competitive cricket spitting, is in April at Purdue University, in Lafayette, Ind., as part of the annual Bug Bowl festival, which celebrates everything entomological.
There, thousands of cricket spitters join together to see who can spit a dead cricket the farthest. After two days of competition, including qualifying rounds and a final spit-off, a winner finally emerges and is crowned the cricket spitting champion. Dejected, the losers limp home to work on their technique. Later in the year, some of them will travel to rural Pennsylvania where, each September, the cricket spitters gather again at Pennsylvania State University, which has held its own spit-off annually since 1998. The winner in Indiana reigns for a year, until the next spring, when hordes of hopeful challengers return to spit crickets more than 30 feet in a desperate bid for the title. But who are the cricket spitters? And why do they come here each year, migrating across the country to compete?
Dan Capps is a cricket spitter from Madison, Wis. Capps may be the most famous cricket spitter of them all. According to the “Guinness Book of Records,” he can spit a cricket farther than anyone else on the planet. It’s right there in the book, sharing the page with records for “Greatest distance pumpkin shot” (1,496 yards) and “Most hamburgers stuffed in mouth” (three). Capps has held the world cricket spitting record since June 1998.
“The actual record is 32 feet and one-half inch,” Capps says. “That’s often misquoted.”
Along with thousands of other contestants, Capps comes here each year simply to enjoy the drama of the spit-off, to mingle with fellow spitters and trade new techniques and styles. Cricket spitting is a mysterious new sport; sanctioned by the “Guinness Book of Records,” covered by CNN and ESPN, and treated seriously by a growing number of participants nationwide.
Cricket spitters do not compete in sweaty basements, dingy back rooms or secret dens. Cricket spitting is not controlled by hoods, thugs or dark operatives, and cricket spitters do not gamble on the outcome of a contest, or purposefully “throw a spit” for personal gain. Most open contests are held outdoors, with contestants competing in one of four brackets: senior male, senior female, junior male and junior female.
The sport’s aim is simple: to spit a whole dead cricket as far as possible; to beat the opposition with a superlative spit; to claim the cricket spitting championship and return home victorious. In competition, contestants must observe a set of arcane rules, the first and most rudimentary of which reads as follows: “The crickets are to be Brown House crickets, weighing between 45 and 55 milligrams.” Another rule reads: “Crickets should be previously frozen, then thawed for the record attempt.”
Capps, tall and bearded, his gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, says he was at the 1998 Bug Bowl showing his collection of exotic insect species when he was asked if he’d like to take part in the cricket spitting competition. “I said, ‘Well, shoot, I’m not squeamish about these things, I’ll give that a try,’” he recalls, “and as it turned out, I was pretty good at it.” Consequently, Capps made it through the preliminary rounds, and beat out his opposition in the spit-off, winning the contest. Two months later, he secured the official Guinness cricket-spitting world record, which he still holds today. Being the cricket-spitting world record-holder has its own problems. “I work as a mechanic in a meat packing factory,” Capps says. “I’ve been there for 31 years and it’s kind of a redneck environment. I took a lot of ribbing.”
The worst insult a spectator can pay a cricket spitter is to say “it was a good spit, but it was wind-aided.” Such a term is loaded with insinuation and subtext, and can tarnish an otherwise respectable spit.
In fact, representatives from Guinness refused to ratify the spit that won Capps the Bug Bowl in 1998, ruling that, because the contest was held outside, the spit might have been wind-aided. “It wasn’t a controlled environment,” Capps says. “Their concern was that the event was held outdoors.” To satisfy Guinness officials, Capps traveled to Los Angeles and broke the record before a studio audience, on the FOX TV show, “Guinness World Records: Primetime.”
The spit: Capps reverently places a dead cricket in his mouth, looks at the floor, and begins his wind up, rocking back and forth rhythmically from one foot to another like a long-jumper preparing to jump. The crowd is quiet. Stretched before the cricket spitters is a vinyl mat, bordered by out-of-bounds lines, with each foot clearly marked off along its length.
Suddenly, Capps throws the top half of his body forward, scissoring at the waist, and spits. The cricket is airborne. Like trying to locate a golf ball in midair after it has been struck, it is almost impossible to follow the cricket’s arc after it leaves Capps’ mouth. There is a pause. The crowd presses forward expectantly, those in the front rows craning their necks. Seconds become minutes; minutes become hours, years, eons. People die. Stars are born.
Where is the cricket?
Suddenly, all eyes settle on a dark, little nut resting on the mat.
Wait, it’s the cricket.
Rule 4: “The distance will be measured from the center of the edge of the spitting circle, to where the cricket comes to rest, using a measuring tape.”
The measurement: 32 feet and one-half inch.
The crowd erupts; flashbulbs explode; another title belongs to Capps.
Tom Turpin is the father of competitive cricket spitting. A professor of entomology at Purdue University, Turpin held the inaugural cricket spitting competition there, in 1997, at the Bug Bowl. He is also responsible for the cryptic and arcane rules that govern the cricket-spitting contests. He says he sat down and drafted them after deciding in 1996 to add cricket spitting to the events already on the Bug Bowl roster.
“I’m not aware of any cricket spitting event before our Bug Bowl event,” says Turpin proudly. “Crickets just seemed like a logical thing. We freeze them until they’re dead and then we thaw them until they have the consistency of a live cricket. So it’s not like spitting an ice cube.”
Specially trained officials watch over the contests closely, says Turpin, and a rigorously run competition requires at least four officials to make sure the rules are observed, the cheating attempts stymied, and all the spits accurately measured. Each of the officials wears a hat that bears his or her official title, and a thigh-length white coat with a cricket decal and the words “Cricket Spitting Official” clearly visible on the back. “There is what is called the Circle Judge, who is the head official,” Turpin says. “That’s the one who is really in charge of the whole thing.”
As the contest gets underway, and the officials solemnly take their stations, the spitters try to concentrate, gather their thoughts, and prepare to spit. Although still a young sport, Purdue’s annual contest already displays all the tradition, custom and ceremony of a much older sport. “Officially, in our contest, the cricket to be spit is presented to the spitter on a silver platter,” Turpin says. The platter is held by a second official, who is in charge of distributing the crickets and making sure competitors cannot tamper with them. “The second person is what we call the Cricket Keeper,” Turpin explains. “At the command of the Circle Judge, he or she will say ‘Choose your cricket.’”
At which point, says Turpin, the spitter will make a selection, step into the Spitting Circle and prepare to spit. “They have to have the cricket in their mouth before they are invited into the Spitting Circle,” he says. If so much as a leg or antenna is visible, the spitter will not be allowed to spit. And here’s another important rule: “The cricket has to be intact,” Turpin says. “It has to have two antennae, four wings and six legs.”
If the officials are satisfied, the cricket is intact, and the spitter is prepared, the signal is given, and the spitter finally can spit. Everyone prepares differently, says Turpin, but contestants must complete their attempt within 20 seconds to avoid disqualification. Most contestants tend to spit quickly, he says, but others — like Dan Capps — take a while to coat the cricket with saliva, hoping this will help them spit further. Some people try to make a cricket more aerodynamic by chewing off its legs, wings or antennae, he says, reducing air resistance and hopefully adding valuable inches to their spit. This is not allowed. This is a dirty trick. Each year, at the Bug Bowl, Turpin tells contestants that they can’t do that because “its not cricket.” In fact, a third official — the Cricket Spotter — is on hand to locate the cricket after it has been spat, and carefully count its legs and other extremities to make sure it is intact.
“The rules state that a person cannot get out of the Spitting Circle until it has been found,” Turpin says. If a spitter leaves the circle prematurely, or gets caught off-balance by inertia in the seconds following a spit and falls out of the circle, the Circle Judge will hold aloft a red flag, denoting an invalid spit; but if the spit is good, the cricket is located, and it has the expected number of legs, wings and antennae, the Circle Judge will announce “Fair spit” and raise a white flag. At that signal, the fourth official — the Tape Master — is dispatched across the Spitting Circle to measure the length of the spit. Measurement complete, the Circle Judge reads off the distance, the spit is duly logged, and the competition can continue.
Cricket spitting might sound like an unusual leisure activity to most of us, but to members of the close-knit community of cricket spitters that gathers each spring in Indiana, and again each fall in Pennsylvania, there is no better way to spend a weekend. It’s a community that continues to grow too, with the numbers of participants increasing steadily each year. Tom Turpin says spitters numbering in the thousands travel to Indiana from as far afield as California solely to compete in the annual spit-off.
At Turpin’s first cricket spitting competition, he ran out of crickets, surprised by the large number of participants. “I suddenly realized I didn’t have enough crickets,” says the Bug Bowl cofounder. That first year, the overall competition winner was Matt Ledington with a respectable spit of 25 feet and 11 inches; Dan Capps won the following year with a spit measuring 32 feet and one-and-one-half inches, a spit that really set the standard in competitive cricket spitting.
“After the first two years, Guinness called,” Turpin says. “They called us and wanted to know if we’d be interested in getting a couple of guys out on the show and, in the process, set the record.”
“The next thing you know, I’m flying out to Hollywood,” says Capps, the 51-year-old record-holder, “that’s where the record was established. They weighed the crickets, they had no wind there, and all the measurements were accurate.” Ledington went too and, under the harsh studio lights, the two men competed head-to-head in a tense spit-off. With the world record at stake, Capps spat second and won, and the rest is history.
Three years after claiming the record, Capps still works at the meat packing plant, and he still collects and exhibits his collection of exotic insects at festivals across the country. Cricket spitting, says Capps, is not a very lucrative sport. It hasn’t made him rich, he doesn’t have any endorsement deals or corporate agreements. Now, though, when he visits the Bug Bowl and walks past the nervous contestants — as they limber up and prepare to spit — he does so as a guest spitter. People try to emulate his technique, the way his tongue curls pinkly, and folds wetly around the cricket, coating it with saliva before each spit. He has been elevated to the position of instructor. He is the cricket spitting guru. “I tell them you have to expectorate the cricket headfirst, in a spiral,” says Capps, quickly admitting that the truth is far less dramatic. “It’s just a matter of blowing hard,” he says. “We’re talking about a limp, dead thing that doesn’t give you any assistance. It isn’t very aerodynamic.”
Even so, with spits regularly exceeding 32 feet, Capps is still the man on the circuit to beat. “You know, you can’t get a record every time,” he says. “I’m pretty consistent up to about 30 feet and anything that goes 25 feet is a good effort. I’ve exceeded the record many times. In practice I once went 47 feet and in public competition I guess my best has been 38 feet, a little over 38 feet, at Penn State University.”
But it was wind-aided.
These days, Capps is philosophical about his cricket spitting career. He doesn’t train or practice; he doesn’t spit crickets at home; and he never finds himself in spitting ruts that bring red flag after red flag from the Circle Judge. He’s cricket spitting’s answer to Wayne Gretzky. Nevertheless, he’s resigned to the fact that his record will be broken one day. “It wouldn’t be the end of my life,” he says. “Even a guy like Michael Jordan — you don’t maintain your peak for a long time. Some day, some young fella will come along and be talented enough.”
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)