"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)
Brothers, listen up. I’m convinced Serge Normant knows more about women than you or I do. I say this and I’m Philip Marlowe’s age and I have known a dame or two in my time. Serge Normant, on the other hand, is a 35-year-old gay Frenchman who is one of the most prominent hairdressers in America. He began styling hair at the Bruno Pitini hair salon and then followed his mentor, Bruno, to America and Madison Avenue. Normant soon went solo, and now he is Julia Roberts’ hairdresser. He does Elizabeth Hurley’s locks. You and I will never run our hands through Susan Sarandon’s sweet do, but Serge’s fingers will always be welcome.
“I know there are women who have their husband, their lover and their hairdresser,” Normant says as we sit in a Chelsea cafe.
His French accent is thick. He is both trim and balding. The hairdresser sips coffee and tries to explain the mystic power of his profession. “They get close to women. And vice versa. I hope I understand women. I like what women represent. This doesn’t have anything to do with sexual orientations or whatever. I’m not stuck on one type of woman. I like women of different ages. My way of expressing myself is women. In my apartment there are pictures of women, barely any pictures of men. I think men are beautiful, don’t get me wrong.”
He pauses. “The body of a woman nude is art. You know Renoir’s voluptuous women? I think they’re beautiful. Do I want to see a naked body of a man big like that? No!” He waves his hands and says, “Sexy sexy sexy! What happened to elegance and classiness?”
This was his frame of mind as he watched a late-’90s television show that proclaimed the death of glamour. “Merde!” he shouted at the screen. There is as much glamour now as there ever was. “Glamour just isn’t the same. It used to be nobody would come out with their hair not in a do, without makeup. Now you see a lot of famous actresses coming out of the gym. It’s more normal looking.” He thought of his friends, Julia, Elizabeth and Susan. “Those women are gorgeous. I wanted to show that glamour was even stronger than it was. I don’t think you get stuck in the past, you evolve from it.”
So three years ago, Normant got together with photographer Michael Thompson and set out to create a coffee table book documenting the history of 20th-century hairstyles. Fellas, the result — “Femme Fatale” — is the book to get your girl for Christmas. (You could wait until Feb. 14, but why delay? There’s a war on.) This is no girlie book. Sure, there are photographs of Julianne Moore and Elizabeth Hurley wearing only their hairdos, but Moore models a 19th-century French twist while Hurley demonstrates those 1970 “au naturel” days when girls ironed their long hair straight. In other words, this book is an examination of ponytails and pageboys, not T&A.
I flip through the book with its auteur. It’s divided into decades, each section beginning with a collection of photos of everyday women of the times sporting their now-retro coiffures.
“Hairstyles in the 1920s seem so modern to me,” I say. “But the curls of 1940s look dumb.”
“You’re talking to a hairdresser,” Serge says. “I love every type of hair. The 1940s was right after the war. Women tried to do whatever they could with what they had.” He pauses. “I feel there is something very fetching about every decade.”
“This is beyond aesthetics,” I say. “Bangs. I have an irritation with bangs.”
“Really?” he says, raising an eyebrow. “I love bangs. What you’re reacting to is a lot of women try to hide behind bangs maybe. You want to see more of their faces. There’s something about the expression of the eyes, and with bangs you can’t really see them.” Then he adds, “Our generation had a lot of little girls with bangs. It’s rare that you see very flattering bangs.”
We look at Ellen Barkin wearing only a sheet and a Bardot-esque cascade of blond curls.
“I love everything that’s happened to hair,” Serge says. “We have a tendency to want what we don’t have. If you have straight hair, you want wavy hair. If you’re blond, to be a brunet. If you’re redhead, you want to be brunet. If you’re small, you want to be tall. If you’re fat, skinny. If you’re skinny, you want to be bigger. Unless you get to the point where you accept what you are and have fun with it.”
I turn to a picture of Cate Blanchett with a shaved head. “I absolutely love her but hate the hair,” I say. “It’s like Joan of Arc.”
“Joan of Arc was not that,” he says. “Joan of Arc was the bangs that you hate.” (I don’t know what he means, but both Joan and Serge are French, so go figure.) “Cate had to shave it for a movie that was going out.”
“In your experience, how liberating or traumatic is it for a woman with long hair to cut it?”
“It’s always sort of a shock with long blond hair,” he answers. “For black hair it’s not as traumatic. I don’t know why in America we have the tendency to love the blonds over and over. For the woman getting it cut, it’s something freeing. When you’re feminine, you’re feminine. There are some women who don’t feel good with short hair and should never have short hair.”
“Do most women feel wonderful after you cut it all off?”
“Most of the time, yeah,” he answers. “It’s almost like rebellion.”
“Has anyone ever freaked out on you?”
He smiles. “Believe it or not, I’ve never had any drama on that side for the simple reason that I never transform someone against their will. I would never cut long to short unless the woman is completely ready. Never. Because it may be the nicest haircut and she might look the best, but if she’s not ready to look this way she will never see it.” He points to the photo of Blanchett. “The liberating feeling of cutting your hair short without trying to be sexy — that’s part of the 1960s. When Jean Seberg was huge in France and she had a very short haircut which was not the feminine look of the time or the bouffant thing. Jean Seberg was adorable. It was very boyish. That was the first time that someone dared cut their hair off and thought, ‘I don’t care if people think I am a girl or a boy.’”
I return to my original point about Joan of Arc, pointing out that Jean Seberg played Joan for Otto Preminger. Then I page to model Caroline Murph, her auburn hair combed up in a “Blade Runner” pompadour. “Big hair,” I remark. “Oh my God.”
“Yes. The opulence of the 1980s.”
“How does it defy gravity like that?” I’m imagining her hair must be 90 percent Dippity Doo. “If for some reason this woman invited me up to her apartment and I ran my hand through her hair, what would it feel like?”
The Frenchman gives me a pitying smile. “Well, first of all, if you went up to her apartment, she would not let you touch her hair. You would have to put your hand somewhere else.” Then he adds, “But if you did want to be there just for that night, she would be nice, and take the pins out, and shake it.”
“Oh, it’s just pins, not spray?”
“It’s a different way of treating a French twist. A little more trendy looking.” Then he says, “A lot of women don’t like their hair touched much.”
I think for a moment. “Look, reveal more secrets about women to me.”
He thinks a moment and says, “I can’t say what men should do. Men are so different.” Then in a non sequitur, his accent almost indecipherable, “The more I go through time, it’s so amazing that people can be married for so long.”
“You have straight men friends?” I ask.
“Do you see them making mistakes?”
“Do you say anything?”
He gives a sad smile. “Yeah. But the thing is — coming from me.” He pauses. “Let’s put it this way, you take a straight woman and a straight guy. And they both have trouble and come to me. The advice that I’m going to be able to give, the woman might relate to me more than the guy. He’s going to end up telling me, ‘What do you know about it?’” Normant shoots me a quick shrug. “Maybe they have a point. The only thing that I know is what the girl tells me that they would never tell him.”
Like what? “Certain sensitivity. Men only hear what they want to hear. Say a couple is married. The guy is having an affair. The woman learns about it. They really want to separate. And the man says, ‘You know what? I love you. I don’t love her. I just have sex with her.’ That’s very easy for a man to understand. It’s really hard for a woman to accept that. An affair to a man really doesn’t mean much. I believe that. But when a woman has an affair it’s a big deal. There are exceptions, of course; there are women who are more like guys.”
Then the Frenchman slaps his knee like a Texan. “Ha. What do I know? Men don’t care what they look like, but if your wife lets herself go — would you go to buy her clothes and buy her shoes? Would you say, ‘I’ve made an appointment for a hairdresser; you’ve got to cover those white hairs’? Would you do that? No. But would you be bothered by her letting herself go? For sure. That’s always been the thing: A guy can have a belly if he’s over 40. If a woman has a belly, guys have a problem with that. For me, I think that in all aesthetic things, society is harder on women than guys.”
We page some more through the book. Isabella Rossellini flashes her gams in a ’40s swimsuit. Ellen Barkin lies on a tiger rug like Jean Harlow. “Every women I used in the book are friends of mine,” Serge says. ” I adore Ellen Barkin. She is sexy. Smart. Confident. She’s got the punch I love.”
“She and her husband, Ron Perelman, are examples of what you were just talking about,” I say. Normant gives me a quizzical look. “There is a guy who has gone to pot, but he has a lot of money so he has a beautiful wife … ”
“I know Ellen quite well,” Serge says. “I know you marry someone for a number of things.” He pauses and starts several sentences, finally saying, “I don’t think she could stand a weekend if she didn’t think he was an intelligent man. If she didn’t admire him. I really believe that. I wouldn’t say that otherwise. I really believe they are very much in love. You know what, if you spent an evening with them you would know right away. You meet them, you don’t even ask the question twice.”
We again look at Julia Roberts lounging on a couch ` la Louise Brooks. “If you heard that someone else was doing Julia Roberts for the Oscars, would you be hurt?” I ask.
He frowns. “I’m not going to say, ‘Oh yeah. I’d be happy.’ If I had a relationship with her that was only business and I do her hair once in a while, I couldn’t be upset. Knowing her the way I know her — I’ve known her for more than 10 years — I would be hurt.” He pauses. “With friends like her, my initial feeling would be to be hurt and wondering, ‘Why?’ The thing is, I would probably figure out why, and when I figured out why, I would understand. Because I trust her judgment.”
He talks about being dumped by some fashion designers earlier in his career. “Sometimes you work with a designer when he’s not known, and you evolve with them. At some point they have to change because when you do something creative, you need to be inspired by something else.”
I shut the book. “I suppose the last frontier for feminine coiffure is bald women.”
“I love women with shaved heads,” he says. “The first time I saw a woman who was very famous for having long hair, beautiful lips. Round face. Very long dark hair. She had a movie where she had to shave her head. Afterwards she looked very beautiful. To be able to carry off a bald head like that you have to be extraordinarily beautiful.” He adds, “We still associate baldness with cancer. If one day we cure cancer, we might be open to baldness in women.”
“Well, the big difference between the sexes is borne out by you and me,” I say, pointing to my own bald brow. “There will always be more balding men than women.”
“Hair loss is a big, dramatic thing for men,” he says, then surprisingly adds, “but men are stronger.” Then he says, “I’m sorry” — as if there is someone else listening.
“When did you know your lawn was receding?”
“Very young,” he says. “This was bad and good at the same time. It was bad that I never got to enjoy playing with my hair. And getting sexy with it. I was so young, and looked at myself one day, and vowed, ‘I am never going to look ridiculous like that guy I just saw in the street with the toupee. Or wear a hat for the rest of my life.’ You must look at yourself and accept yourself. Get the best of what you have.”
“I have this fantasy that I’d love to just wear a white Mozart wig,” I say.
“I love wigs,” Serge says, adding, “There are wigs and wigs. There can be good wigs and bad wigs. The wigs of Versailles. Everybody knew they were fake, so it was theater. But you don’t think they’d do natural hair with the castles that they built?” He gives a shrug and says, “The wigs just reflected the style of the times.”
Just like hair (or its absence) always does.
David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."More David Bowman.
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)