"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
In late August, 83-year-old broadcasting legend Paul Harvey returned full-time to radio land. For three months, he’d been out of commission thanks to a lingering virus that zapped his once invincible voice box. For a man whose physical health had been largely unwitherable, it was a frustrating ordeal. “When the engine’s running, don’t check the carburetor,” he’d often say, putting a typical Harveyesque spin on his leave-well-enough-alone philosophy.
Following some rest and a fairly simple vocal cord procedure, Harvey began working mornings only, and eventually continued his midday and evening shifts as well. He knew the comeback was a bit premature, but he couldn’t help himself. “Americans,” he rasped, “can we visit for just minute? In my eagerness to return to work, you can tell … you can tell by the cloudy, fuzzy voice that I may have returned too soon … ABC and our wonderfully loyal sponsors have been so very patient that I am reluctant to take any more time off from these visits.”
His wonderfully loyal sponsors were no doubt reluctant as well. For more than a quarter of a year, they’d lost their genius of a pitchman, whose show was left in the capable hands of fill-in hosts like Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, who, bless his smug, bestselling soul, is no Paul Harvey.
To be fair, though, there are few if any media figures left who loom as large as Harvey, and it’s unlikely there will be again. As the radio icon once remarked of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “Now this is not a man with whom I necessarily would have agreed with philosophically. But he was still a giant. Oh, my goodness, what a giant. And there are so few. We’re up to our ankles in pygmies.”
A few years ago, in the pages of Chicago magazine, radio storyteller Garrison Keillor fondly recalled his run-in with Harvey at a “stuffed-shirt” dinner in Chicago. “When the salad plates were whisked away and the entree brought in, he leaned over toward me and said, ‘Page … 2,’ just like he does on the radio,” Keillor wrote. “In fact, Mr. Harvey was exactly as he is on the radio. He read me a number of stories from a script in his pocket, most of them about ordinary Americans and their struggle to deregulate industry and give large corporations the freedom to do good in the world, and during all of this, he sold me a tin of liver pills and a utensil that dices, slices, chops, minces and prunes.”
It may be cynical to say so, but therein lies the key to Harvey’s longevity and success. Sure, he’s an astute dissector of current events, cultural phenomena and middle-American minutiae. But more than that, he is perhaps the finest huckster ever to roam the airwaves. He is so good that sponsors are said to be stacked high and deep, waiting to wow him with their products. Because if he is wowed, and only if he decides something is worthy of his own personal use, he will sell the hell out of it. And even while it is sometimes hard to believe that the multimillionaire workaholic finds time to strap on leaf blowers and operate load handlers, one willingly suspends disbelief if only out of respect and admiration for the magical way he woos us to spend money.
This, it’s fairly safe to say, is the main reason ABC Radio Networks, Harvey’s employer for 51 years, recently laid a 10-year, $100 million contract at his well-shod feet. Not because he commands a large and loyal enough audience to sway presidential elections (he leans unabashedly to the right, though less so now than in years past), and not because his “The Rest of the Story” segments, long written by his son and announcer, Paul Aurandt, are so brilliant (occasionally intriguing is more like it), but because he can move merchandise.
For the sake of example, say you’re an avid Harvey listener. Perhaps you realize this already, but the suits at ABC Radio truly care if you care about what Harvey says during his twice-daily news and commentary segments and his evening “The Rest of the Story” yarns. Why? Because if you care, it means you’re listening. Not just hearing, listening. There is, as many frustrated wives and preachers will tell you, a difference. See, if you care about Harvey’s stance on some foreign war, or about the German marathoner whose toes were fondled in the night or the Nebraska woman whose driveway sprouted watermelons, you’ll keep on caring when he proclaims, “Now, Page 2,” and seamlessly segues from current events to an impassioned pitch for Chevy’s Impala or the dietary supplement Citracal (the “cit” is for “citrus,” the “cal” is for “calcium” … did you know that osteoporosis is pre-ven-ta-ble?), or the Bose Wave Radio. Lord, how he loves that radio.
His uncanny ability to mesmerize en masse, and thus to sell en masse, is the lifeblood of “Paul Harvey News and Comment,” a truth in which even Harvey himself seems to revel.
“The ratings, I love to read. But the things that mean the most to me are when a sponsor calls and says, ‘You increased our share 2 percent last month,’” he has admitted. “Because this says to me, not only are people listening, but they’re paying attention, and that’s infinitely more significant.”
“I can’t look down on the commercial sponsors of these broadcasts,” he explained to CBS interviewer and fellow Chicago broadcaster Bob Sirott in 1988. “Too often they have very, very important messages to put across. Without advertising in this country, my goodness, we’d still be in this country what Russia mostly still is: a nation of bearded bicyclists with b.o.”
During another 1988 television appearance, CNN’s Larry King asked him if being such an unabashed shill (though not in those words) had affected his reputation as a broadcaster. Defending himself adamantly, Harvey proclaimed in that impossibly cool and confident manner of his, “These people are putting their money where my mouth is. And if I were to turn my back on them and say someone else has to do that commercial, I wouldn’t do it. This is a dreadful affront. Some days,” he continued, expounding on his oft-stated belief, “the best news in the broadcast is the commercial. You can keep your natural teeth all your natural life! There is a glove that doesn’t wear out! There is a car battery that keeps its promises! That’s good news! And I would use those things on the air if they were not in the body of the commercial.”
For the record — and Harvey himself has stressed this many times — he is not, nor has he ever been, a serious newsman, one to whom listeners turn for an unbiased, cut-and-dried view of the world. Rather, like his offspring Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus, he is beloved largely because of his biases, his willingness to take a stand on something, whether a political issue or a brand of motor oil. His views haven’t always been popular — as when he supported Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s witch hunt, or when he did a sudden flip-flop on Vietnam, declaring, “Mr. President, I love you, but you’re wrong,” or when he referred to welfare recipients as “pusillanimous parasites” — but they’ve always been his.
“I don’t think of myself as a profound journalist,” he told Larry King. “I think of myself as a professional parade watcher who can’t wait to get out of bed every morning and rush down to the teletypes and pan for gold.” Introspecting further, he declared, seasoned pro to seasoned pro, “I think all of us, if we’re worth our salt, we’re for certain things and we’re against certain things. And it seems more honest to me to call it ‘Paul Harvey News and Comment’ and just let it all hang out. Because each of us expresses comment if only by what we read and what we toss in the wastebasket.”
Nowadays, even if he isn’t quite what he used to be, and even if far more insolent men like Stern and Limbaugh make buckets of dough and boast millions of equally fervent fans, Harvey still rules the airwaves if for no other reason than he was there first; he showed them how it’s done. Following in the footsteps of such talk-radio revolutionaries as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Winchell, he damn near single-handedly, and without porn stars, strippers or drunken dwarves, supercharged a medium that had been underutilized and underappreciated for years.
Beginnings were humble, but it was an impressive climb to the top. From the early days at KVOO in his hometown of Tulsa, Okla., to his stints in St. Louis and Kalamazoo, Mich., Harvey’s onward and upward trajectory has rarely, if ever, veered far off course. Even when he branched into television and print, people watched, people read. This across-the-board success, as insiders know and Harvey frequently admits, has as much to do with his wife, Lynne Harvey, a former schoolteacher whom Harvey dubbed “Angel” shortly after he proposed to her during the first minutes of their first conversation more than 50 years ago, as it does with Harvey himself. It took Angel a year to say yes, but when she did the duo made history. “She is still one of the daintiest, most feminine creatures I’ve ever known,” Harvey often says, frequently following up the sentiment with talk of her Phi Beta Kappa key.
At St. Louis station KXOK, Angel began writing and producing for her husband, and together they began sculpting the Paul Harvey persona. When, during World War II, Harvey, who’d accepted a post in Kalamazoo, briefly enlisted in the Air Force Air Cadets, Angel assumed the helm. Shortly after his return, they moved to Chicago, where in 1945 he began hosting the postwar employment program “Jobs for G.I. Joe” on ABC affiliate WENR-AM. “Paul Harvey News” went national the next year. In 1951, Harvey moved on to a gig with ABC Radio Networks, and there he remains to this day.
“I was willing to settle for a much smaller responsibility elsewhere,” he confessed to “Tomorrow” host Tom Snyder in 1977. “I was rather terrified by the big city.”
And although he is rarely seen on city streets or at after-hours events (largely due to a grueling, self-imposed daily schedule that begins at 3:30 a.m. and goes until early evening), Harvey continues to base himself in Chicago, flying to corporate speaking engagements in his Lear jet, commuting via limo from his 27-room manse in River Forest, Ill., broadcasting from his 16th floor downtown studios, near a street sign that reads Paul Harvey Drive.
But why Chicago? Why not New York? Shouldn’t a powerhouse like Harvey disseminate the good word from our country’s media epicenter? Apparently not.
“I can’t keep my perspective in New York City,” Harvey explains to those who wonder why he stays rooted in the Midwest. “I’m very impressionable, and after a few weeks in New York I come to think that the sun rises behind the U.N. building and sets in the Appalachians and that’s all there is to this country. I want to be out there where the votes come from. I want to see our country with a wide-angle perspective.”
Fiery as ever, Harvey continues to bask in his regular-guyness, because those are the kind of guys Chicago breeds: regular ones, middle Americans with broad shoulders (if only figuratively), a taste for meat and a deep-seated disdain for East Coast haughtiness. In short, he continues to convince legions of listeners that he is one of them. Which is mostly true, except for the money, the power and the pipes, those exquisitely burnished golden pipes that recently picked up right where they left off — “Hello, Americans!” — for which more than 18 million devotees and countless sponsors were no doubt grateful.
And if Harvey has his way, he’ll keep going until he can go no more, or at least until his current contract expires in 2010, whichever comes first. “Retiring,” he believes, “is just practicing up to be dead. That doesn’t take any practice.” As the Voice of America would surely remind you, “Every pessimist who ever lived has been buried in an unmarked grave. Tomorrow has always been better than today, and it always will be.”
Mike Thomas is a features writer for the Chicago Sun-Times.More Mike Thomas.
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)