"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)
It’s hard to imagine that two slim books, both designed for the smallest room of the house (the one with the most plumbing), could explain all there is to know about the ever-fraught and complex subject of dating. Nevertheless, these two, “A Very Lonely Planet” by Ryan Bigge and “My 1,000 Americans” by Rochelle Morton, do. Nothing more should be written on the topic, and all the umpty-hundreds of volumes that’ve already appeared should be tumbled from the shelves and set on fire. Bigge’s book and Morton’s — a boy book and a girl book — together constitute a virtual alpha and omega of American courtship, circa 2001. And once you’ve read them, you’ll never go out with a member of the opposite sex again, for fear of looking into their eyes and seeing a Bigge or a Morton reflected back at you.
Bigge, 28, is an established freelance writer on the Canadian circuit (Chatelaine, Toronto Life, the National Post), and a former managing editor at the anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters. But most signally, he’s a nerdy, post-collegiate indie-rocker; and of all the thousands of guys like that, both in the habitable world and Canada, he’s the most exemplary you’re ever likely to run across. Bigge seems nice, and rather smart, and a lot of his short freelance pieces are pretty good. His book, though, presents him as something of a cultural bonsai specimen, stunted as a writer by his ironic tics and defensive jokiness, unable to engage the world and its history save through hackneyed pop-culture references, ad-copy locutions and baseless put-ons.
“OK,” “A Very Lonely Planet” begins, “I know what you’re asking. Who is this guy? What does he know about being a Single Guy? If Eminem and Pikachu got in a death match with staplers and other fine, attractively priced office-supply items, who would …”
Actually, that’s a baseless put-on. Bigge did not write that. I am just aping his style. And maybe this is just my opinion. (And that plus $1.50 will buy a tasty cup of tres clichéd coffee at a fine upscale-esque caffeinated-beverage retail chain.) But well-known dead author Tennessee Williams said it best — “Love is just another four-letter word.” Or maybe it was Tennessee Tuxedo. But I’m just trying to get at one thing here. Three words:
This is how “A Very Lonely Planet” reads. For 200-esque pages. And I said before that I would explain in three words. But “Heather Locklear” is two words. Two words is less than three words. Now Gavin is Sad. See Gavin assume a facial expression appropriate to unhappy-esque feelings. Like the expressions a Single Guy facially assumes when perusing the fine, family-values-oriented consumer goods at Crate & Barrel, sans a female-esque lifestyle attachment (otherwise known as girlfriend — or boyfriend if you’re a girl). OK, I know what you’re asking. “Coke or Pepsi, dammit! Coke or Pepsi!?”
Ow! Ow! Not in the face! Help! Hello!? Come back! Anyone? Hey, you!
OK, wait: Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I’m not saying you can’t have a girlfriend if you’re a girl. Or a boyfriend if you’re a guy, or a rubber snorkel or a beloved Tickle Me Elmo™ doll if you have Special Lifestyle Needs … Coke! Pepsi! No, Coke! Coke. Definitely Coke.
[The following 100 pages removed and sent to Penthouse Letters.]
And how exhausting is that? The conceit of Bigge’s title, the “very lonely planet,” is an imaginary island (or a planet, but chiefly an island) where single guys end up when they can’t get a date. Its “mascots,” Bigge writes, “include Charlie Brown, Holden Caulfield, and Nintendo’s Mario. Visitors travel by unicycle or monorail. Everyone eats at the Nighthawks Cafi, home of the Woody Allen Burger, which features extra malaise and a semi-secret sauce.” This is the place from which Bigge hails.
It’s also like the imaginary place imagined by noted dead author Daniel Defoe. Yes, I’m talking about Gilligan’s Island. Except with no girls on it — not even Mrs. Howell. And despite the pretentious nature of my verbose explication, three words will be sufficient to explicate what I’m (OK, OK!) ranting about here:
Radioactive Weasels from…
OK, sorry. Ryan Bigge is a man of his times, although as a post-collegiate indie-rocker, he doesn’t self-identify as a “man.” Rather, he’s a “guy,” which in his context carries something of an apology for masculinity and a promise against assertiveness. Everyone knows a bunch of these guys. They’re girl worshipping and cultivate a bit of a dorky aspect. They’re always getting strung along by their female friends and bullied by campus feminists. They’re part of the demographic for that subgenre of action movie in which latex-clad chicks blow people away with firearms. (As Bigge notes, “I believe [Lara] Croft is a sophisticated feminist icon. By which I mean she carries a gun.”) They read comics like Daniel Clowes’ “Ghost World.” They smoke cigarettes, masturbate and cry — and they publish zines.
Bigge’s zine was called “Single Guy,” and he published it for six years, during college and after, to impress girls. He even started an indie-rock band to impress girls. All to no avail. Bigge couldn’t get a girlfriend. To overuse one of his own locutions:
Ryan was sad.
Bigge is the kind of writer for whom the term “poetry” is always the same as the term “bad poetry” — for whom “pseudo-intellectual” means the same thing as “intellectual,” and everything that’s not self-deprecatingly cynical is “pretentious.” He falls into irreverence the way people fall off skateboards: headlong and flailingly, and without much control over where he’s going to land. George Orwell is introduced as “respected dead English author George Orwell.” Martin Heidegger is “dead German philosopher Martin Heidegger.” He calls Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” (now, mind you, this is from a former managing editor at Adbusters) an “anti-marketing screed,” and summarizes the whole book thusly: “Brands are Bad.”
Which pokes one in the eye a bit. Moreover, Bigge is prone to the collegiate-hipster device of preemptive self-sarcasm, subverting his own arguments before anyone else might have the chance. And as indie as he professes to be, he’s much given to the vernacular of Dave Barry epigrams, “Simpsons” tropes and Letterman-style top-10 lists (“Three words: Saturday Morning Cartoons”).
The reason Bigge can’t find a girlfriend, he says, is postmodernism. Because once, during the decade popularly known as the 1950s, when everything was like ’50s retro, except more so, and people listened to lounge music and said things like “keen” and wore hats and stuff, there were rules. And rules are bad. But maybe having some rules is better than, you know, like it is now, with no rules. Maybe dating would be less awful and humiliating for the Single Guy if things were simpler and you knew what to expect from women — and from yourself. Bigge writes:
Postmodernism has stripped away any semblance of an understandable or sane world. The lack of rules has created a lot of romantic casualties, not to mention a new, imprecise language.
… In the 1950s, everything was black and white. If you wanted to sculpt your hair, you used Brylcreem. There was no gel, mousse, molder, spritz, defrizzer, shaper, styler, or hair cement. And if you had something to say, you said it. You took no guff. There was a rich vernacular: insouciance, peccadilloes, addlepated, moral turpitude, chaperone, licentious, vodka-sodden rake.
Addlepated? Vodka-sodden rake? Yaah, you dirty rat! We all chewed the fat suchlike, thiswise — spoutin’ a mélange of straight-shootin’ rooty-toot and anachronistic book-English. Pass thou the hair pomade, my good man, and dontcha gimme no guff.
But, as Bigge would say, I don’t want to go off on a tirade here. And anyway, that was nearly half a century ago, those mysterious 1950s. It’s not like there’s anybody still alive from back then. Plus, the book’s central point is well taken: Postmodernism — at least as Bigge defines it — has, for many of us, stripped away much of what used to be understandable and sane about dating, and sex, and the world. Perhaps nice, girl-worshipping Single Guys like Bigge have been hit the hardest.
But once you have that notion in hand, it’s not so clear what else he’s trying to say. There’s a long section on dating advice manuals from the ’50s, where he mostly makes fun of them. Another long section describes “the Astute Brute,” which means a sensitive guy who’s not afraid to assert himself, or a category that every single guy falls into, or the Guy who Always Gets The Girl, or the one who never does — or who knows what. His examples include Arno, the character from Nicholson Baker’s novel “The Fermata” (who, unlike you, me and … Bigge, has the power to stop time, and can thus undress women with impunity), and Tintin, the kid from the Belgian comic series — who qualifies because, as Bigge notes in passing, the fact that he “has never, ever had a love interest despite starring in twenty-two books.” There’s an incongruous chapter on the history of indie rock, and … well, lots more too.
What the book is about, mostly, is pathos: the real, heart-scratching pathos of a grown man like Bigge thinking and writing as though he were trapped, swinging, in a gibbet of eternally gawky adolescence. It’s practically impossible to read it without hurling the book down and banging your head against a wall in sympathetic misery. Wham! What, you wonder, between impacts (wham!) … What kind of scourging must a young man’s spirit have sustained to make him sit down and write a book as scattered, as harmless, as gelded and thwarted as this one — a book so weighted with wryness and guilt, so deeply convinced that there’s something shameful and wrong with being smart, male and single? Who did this to you (wham!), Ryan Bigge? The schools? Society? That awful one with the red hair who called you a “dweeb”? The one who heckled you that one time, during class discussion, in sociology of women? Mom? Dad? Television?
The kicker (wham!) is that Ryan Bigge still accepts the terms of his oppression: Someday, he hopes, he’ll find the girl who will make everything all right — who will, by her presence, make him a whole person. She’ll set down the rules and end all the in betweenness and uncertainty. She’ll bring order to his life. “For Sascha, whenever I may find her,” his dedication reads. Ah, well. (Wham!) Maybe “Sascha” is a book editor. And there are thousands of guys like Ryan. Nice guys. Good-looking guys (Ryan’s actually kinda hot). What tha hell?
“At the Very Lonely Planet Imax theatre,” Bigge writes at one point, “you can see ‘Happiness’ (a creepy film with a single guy whose mood is the exact opposite of the title) and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (a movie in which the ugly guy successfully woos the woman). Finally, there are daily continuous showings of ‘Rochelle, Rochelle,’ a young woman’s strange erotic journey from Milan to Minsk.” But here’s the wacky part: “Rochelle, Rochelle” isn’t a real movie at all. It’s a quote from that obscure and cult-esque television program sometimes known as “Seinfeld”™.
But avowed Seinfeld fan and “My 1,000 Americans” author Rochelle Morton (these two would, it appears, have something to talk about on a date) traced her strange erotic journey from Chicago to Georgia and back again — with stops in New York and points in between — placing personal ads in newspapers. Along the way, she had sex with nearly 1,000 men.
Actually, that’s not true. Morton says she never had any intention of having sex with a single one of her dates, nor did she lead any on in that direction. But despite her claims in that regard, the ad she placed (“English female 30s, slim and attractive, seeks professional male for fun times”) says something about “fun times,” which makes it seem like she’s looking for a fun time. Did she expect invitations to canasta games? Who knows. She’s English; perhaps fun means something different over there.
Although apparently not. Morton’s first and previous book was about her experiences dating 700 British men, the great mass of whom turned out to be losers, creeps and perverts who all wanted to fun her. And so much for that! American men, on the other hand, as we discover in her new book, are a bunch of losers, creeps and perverts who … oh, it’s shocking. Really.
“My 1,000 Americans” is made up of short chapters, each of which describes a single date. And these chapters go something like this:
Ryan, Age 28, Freelance Writer, Single. When Ryan answered my ad, he was very polite but shy, as if he thought my answering machine would find him wanting, and hang up on him. “Hi, this is … Uh, I’m Ryan, and it’s very nice to meet you. Well OK, I haven’t met you yet. And I guess I’m not even talking to you now, really. But maybe we can go out sometime, if you don’t, uh, mind.” And so on, for almost two whole minutes! He seemed surprised and even shyer when I called him back. And I soon found out why!
I met Ryan in an upscale-esque coffee-beverage chain, where he said he spent a lot of his time. He was blond and young-looking and dressed in a gas-station attendant’s jacket with the name “Tony” stitched on the breast. He was already seated when I arrived, and didn’t stand up to greet me. Ryan was already nursing a cup of half-cold coffee, but hastened to say that I should order anything I wanted. And when he stood up to accompany me to the counter, I noticed he was, well, big. As in, 6-foot-5, and not exactly slender. Now, I like tall men, but 6-5 and not slender is truly inconsiderate! But the nastiest shock was still to come. As my coffee was being poured, and with absolutely no prompting from me, Ryan grabbed my buttocks and shouted, “Hey, girlie! I like to poo my pants and bounce around on a hoppity-hop — that’s my bag. Screw the chitchat, bimbo. Party with the Bigge Man like it’s 1999! Woo-hoo! Give it up, sweet cheeks! I wanna do you so badly!”
“I needn’t ‘do’ so badly as you,” I retorted tartly, leaving my readers with a nagging suspicion that I had misrepresented the whole last part of the encounter. And without a hint that I was only researching a book and had never intended to date Ryan at all, I hoppity-hopped straight out the door. Another total loser! Are there no decent men at all?
Morton describes about 300 dates, almost all of which begin with an unattractive suitor and end with either gross rudeness or an untoward proposition — often of the “hey baby, wanna get busy” variety, but not infrequently involving some kind of odd (shocking!) fetish or sex practice. There are so many of these, one after the next, that it appears Morton must have been sneakily doing her job as a journalist and author, helping the conversations along in order to draw her subjects out of their shells. She makes a fair bit of hay over the fact that many of her suitors are married, which adds the stain of dishonesty to their crimes. (“Appalling,” she calls it.)
But, as she points out repeatedly, Morton herself was only pretending to be interested in these men and was practicing a sort of date fraud. There’s a small section at the end of the book devoted to good dates, with good men, and Morton claims that only one of these was upset when she unmasked herself as an undercover book author. The rest thought it was all a great laugh. And then most of them paid for the date.
And fair enough. But an obvious, yet somewhat difficult conclusion that you have to make from all this is that in order to do what Morton did, running around with 1,000 men over the course of a year, rejecting nearly all of them as not up to standards and casually humiliating a fair number — whether or not they deserved it, which doubtless many did — you have to have a lot of something that Ryan Bigge doesn’t have any of. You have to have a lot of power, and the confidence with which to use it.
And you have to be able to use that power arbitrarily, and even unfairly, if you feel like it. Which brings us back to Bigge’s rudimentary but impassioned attack on “postmodernism” and his tentative espousal of the ’50s. What Bigge is struggling, under his prejudices, to say, and what Morton is saying without trying to, is that the power balance is askew, datingwise. Females have laxer restrictions upon them now and have gained a lot in the way of traditional male perquisites. Males haven’t gained much slack, or many feminine perquisites, in return. Men — well, “guys,” rather — haven’t gained the feminine perk of commanding sympathy and protection: Bigge, nice and sweet, not bad-looking, can’t get a date because he’s sad and harmless. Chicks squish him. Ha!
Morton, on the other hand, is protected from the traditional masculine sanction of looking like an arrogant, self-aggrandizing jerk. He rumbles across the landscape like a Panzer division, crushing “losers” under his treads. What an asshole, that Richard Morton — swaggering like a tin-pot potentate. One thousand dates, and he tars almost every woman he met as a creep, a pervert or a loser. One must admit, it all looks less charming with the gender reversed. Misogynist that way; misandrist this way. Leaves a bad taste either way.
OK toilet reading, though, both tomes. And they really do make you want to stay home and play canasta, rather than mixing it up with the Bigges and the Mortons of the world. Or to make that “choice” the Republicans are so wackily insistent about and adopt the gay lifestyle — if only the recruiting center were ever open. Either way, though, what I really want to get at here is just three words:
Rodney Allen Rippey.
Ow! Ow! Not in the face! Aah! Ow! Oh, my ribs. Hey — wait! Come back!
Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.More Gavin McNett.
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)