"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)
When he appeared in Atlanta on Friday to advise Americans on the ways in which their lives could be different in the wake of the terrorist attacks, President Bush might as well have pulled up a tiny chair and read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” His simplistic plan for a civic war effort suggested a response so remedial that it was hard not to be insulted, as well as disappointed.
The president’s exhortations, which added up to a kindly prescription worthy of Mister Rogers, overlooked the complexity of our trauma, ignored the need of many Americans to actively express their patriotism and failed to acknowledge the rare opportunity Bush now has to propose a national war effort that could tap our fear and anger in ways that cripple our enemies, unite hawks and doves and preserve the foundation — freedom, independence, ingenuity, resolve — of America’s power.
The great abyss between the gravity of the nation’s crisis and the banality of Bush’s address brought to mind the 1863 dispatch of American diplomat Charles Francis Adams to blue-blood Earl Russell: “It would be superfluous in me to point out to your Lordship that this is war.”
It would be sad, but not surprising, to find that President Bush is unaware of his blunder. But it is frustrating to consider the truth: The national war effort with the greatest potential impact and the most lasting effect demands the kind of change and commitment that Americans are ready for, but it is precisely the one that the president and many of his closest advisors are most loath to suggest. And their silence does not reflect a wish to protect us; it belies a need to protect themselves. Because the civilian war effort that makes the most sense threatens the economic serenity of oil companies and their supporters in public office: It is a campaign to reduce energy consumption, a war on just one drug — fossil fuel — that could have a geopolitical impact that even bombing cannot achieve.
We are familiar, of course, with this administration’s ties to the energy industry: George W. Bush, like his father before him, was an oil man before he was a politician; Vice President Dick Cheney headed Halliburton, the world’s largest oil services company, between stints as secretary of defense for George H.W. Bush and his work for George W. Bush; National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was on the board of directors for Chevron and even has an oil tanker named after her.
These ties also provide an explanation for this administration’s attitude about energy conservation. We remember Vice President Cheney’s rationale for an energy program, proposed in the spring, that called for more drilling and mining to combat an “energy crisis” that experts weren’t sure existed. “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue,” said Cheney at that time, “but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.” Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer backed him up with the suggestion that energy conservation threatened the “American way of life.”
But now that the American way of life has been threatened and, in some ways, changed forever, it is appropriate to ask: Should the personal financial interests and ideological biases of our leaders continue to override the best interests of the nation? Energy conservation may not be the basis of an energy policy that continues to benefit the energy industry and automobile makers, but it would allow us to be independent from the leading suppliers of crude oil, whose relationship to us is at least partly responsible for the events of Sept. 11 and the war we are now engaged in.
In public debate about the C-word, it is inevitably argued that Americans, God bless them, will never be able to cure themselves of what is usually described as an “addiction” to oil. This pessimism isn’t just expressed by those who deal the drug of choice. We often choose to describe (and demean) ourselves as a nation of energy junkies, unable to resist the gas stations on every corner, the appliances in every store, the just-because-we-can tendency to keep the lights on or the heat high.
Of course, the perpetuation of this cynicism makes it very easy to propose the construction of hundreds of new power plants, to expand nuclear energy, to drop out of the Kyoto Protocol to combat global warming, to reject plans to raise fuel efficiency standards on new cars and trucks, to propose oil drilling in an Alaska wildlife refuge. What is true for crack is true for energy: Someone always benefits from the addicts’ weaknesses, chief among them their willingness to believe that there is no way out. Perhaps the only difference in this case is that the self-interested doomsayers are beyond the law.
But we are different now. Sadder, wiser, mad as hell. Not only have we had a crash course in geography, religion and bioterrorism, we have had numerous opportunities to crunch the scary numbers: America has less than 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves, but Americans consume more than 25 percent of the world’s oil. According to the American Petroleum Institute, our primary suppliers have most recently been Canada, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Mexico. OPEC countries sell us about 28 percent of our oil; Persian Gulf countries supply nearly 15 percent.
The implications of this arithmetic, above and beyond the fluctuation of gas prices, are painfully relevant: Oil revenues provide Gulf states with funding for the tools of war — weapons, education and political influence. Moreover, the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, where they essentially function as security officers for the OPEC cartel, incites Muslim rage: Osama bin Laden specifically cited the presence of infidel troops near Islam’s holiest shrines in his declaration of jihad against America.
The imbalance in the supply and demand equation produces a litany of geopolitical hard truths. We have become beggars, not choosers, and our vulnerability will only increase with our consumption of foreign oil, which the Department of Energy estimates will increase to about 66 percent by 2030.
Americans have long been aware of, and chosen to ignore, the environmental consequences of our excessive consumption of oil. But the situation has changed. Those who rejected the call for conservation because it frequently came from whining tree-huggers now understand that this isn’t about saving trees, it’s about America’s security. To cut back on domestic energy consumption is not to lie down in front of the bulldozers — it is an aggressive tactic with a precise goal.
In the past, certainly, we have been very vehement about security — and independence, autonomy, democracy and the aforementioned American way of life. In fact, when these hard-won luxuries were threatened during World War II, Americans were asked to make extraordinary sacrifices — and they did, responding to what President Franklin D. Roosevelt referred to as “the privilege of making whatever self-denial is necessary.” Gasoline, shoes, meat were rationed. Americans raised their own vegetables, bought war bonds. Women took jobs in factories.
In America’s recent wars, civilians have not been asked to practice much self-denial. Demands on the home front have been few, and they have lacked specificity. Ribbons on our trees, the names of MIAs and POWs on our wrists — there have been gestures and requests for “support,” but nothing with the galvanizing effect of cutting back on butter, gas and silk stockings to provide working parts for the machine of war.
Had Bush’s speech been delivered in peacetime, there would have been much to admire in it. Of course it is a good thing to volunteer in a hospital, to become active in the USO, to comfort the afflicted. And it never hurts to be reminded about the value of community and the Golden Rule. But, as Dick Cheney might say, these are signs of personal virtue. Americans are prepared to do more right now. We are prepared to make sacrifices — particularly if the effects of our personal choices are felt by our enemies, and enjoyed by our children.
As it happens, the sacrifices essential to the current war effort are few. They have nothing to do with butter, and everything to do with gas.
In a recent Newsweek article, veteran science writer Sharon Begley pointed out that 68 percent of the oil that America consumes goes to a single use — transportation. And so, she reasoned, to be independent of Saudi crude, Americans need not spread themselves thin, finding new ways to heat and cool their homes, power their myraid gadgets or fuel essential factories. All we need to do is to find a way to conserve oil, make cars go further on less gas and build engines that run on alternative fuels.
The impact of an effective war effort on individual Americans would be marginal. Other than to show some restraint in driving and some increased interest in carpooling, Americans could extend oil supplies significantly if they bought fuel-efficient cars and kept them tuned. (Both efforts combined, according to the Alliance to Save Energy, could save 31 million barrels of gasoline a year, and 1 million barrels of oil a day.) Beyond these moves, the burden shifts to American automakers to make the sacrifices necessary to move faster in increasing the fuel efficiency of vehicles (increasing fuel economy by a single mile per gallon saves 300,000 barrels of oil daily, reports Begley); produce a wider fleet of hybrid cars (which run on gas and electricity); and speed up the production of fuel-cell cars, which run on hydrogen derived from water.
A Newsweek poll that accompanied Begley’s article indicated that 73 percent of Americans would pay more for a fuel-efficient car; 42 percent said it was “very important” for oil independence that SUV owners switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles. While this doesn’t prove that a war effort organized around energy conservation would be a hit across the country, there is certainly evidence in the numbers that kicking the gasoline habit might be something that Americans, regardless of what energy industry folk might think of their abilities, are capable of.
Look at the recent conservation coup in California, where motivated citizens defied naysayers, chief among them Dick Cheney, and conserved energy so effectively in the face of rolling energy blackouts that they now have a surplus. They were responding, in large part, to the threat of higher bills, an ambitious advertising campaign and incentives that brought 20 percent discounts to those who used 20 percent less power. (More than a third of eligible ratepayers qualified for the break.) Imagine what the response would be nationwide if the motivation for conservation was not the threat of blackouts, but the country’s future independence from foreign oil and the geopolitical nightmare, replete with threats of terrorism, that comes with it.
At its heart, the campaign to conserve is, like all war efforts, about patriotism. Even in a country where the prospect of war, uniquely justified by an attack on American soil, is not easily or universally accepted, this response to terror has the potential to unify. It is a proposal that works without a threat to basic rights, except perhaps for the right to consume a finite natural resource because it’s there. By conserving energy, we preserve freedom, a commodity that is not opposed in this country, no matter how diverse the beliefs of its citizens. In fact, the only opposition to the plan is likely to come from those who profit from our dependence on oil — foreign or Alaskan — and who count on our mistaken belief that there is nothing to be done about it.
If George W. Bush were to launch a decisive homeland conservation plan over the objections of his friends in the energy industry, it would be a defining moment in his presidency — one that would boost his credibility at home and abroad, and ensure a distinctive legacy. His difficult decisions so far in this crisis — to bomb Afghanistan, to order troops into war — did not take much political courage given the public’s mood for revenge. By initiating an immediate domestic attack on foreign oil dependence — specifically one that did not seek to enrich the energy industry, or coddle automakers or deplete natural resources — Bush would demonstrate a capacity for bravery that would command respect, now, and perhaps more importantly, later, as the U.S. moves beyond its dangerous dependence on Middle Eastern oil into an era of safety and self-reliance.
Jennifer Foote Sweeney, CMT, formerly a Salon editor, is a massage therapist in northern California, practicing on staff at the Institutes for Health and Healing in San Francisco and Larkspur, and on the campuses of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley.More Jennifer Foote Sweeney.
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)