"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 Jan. 2, and Times Square is probably being swept clean of New Year’s confetti as you read this.
Back in December 2001, Marc Eliot and I were in the Square prowling for pussy. Just as Dante is the best guy to show you around hell, who better to sightsee Times Square with than Eliot? His definitive history of the Disneyfication of this neighborhood, “Down 42nd Street: Sex, Money, Culture, and Politics at the Crossroads of the World” has just been published. Eliot — a neatly bearded man in his 50s — has the street-smart vibe of Tony Curtis in “Sweet Smell of Success.”
Before I describe our sojourn seeking lost seediness, should we really mourn the homogenization of Times Square? Eliot believes so.
“Every great city needs to have a fringe,” he spits emphatically. “A cultural fringe, a moral fringe, for a specific reason: So you can define the mainstream and the cutting edge of the avant-garde. If you haven’t got that, there is nowhere for someone to come to rebel against the strictures that are laid down by the mainstream. Whether it’s politics or drinking or New Age theater, there’s gotta be a place that people can go that they feel they are out of the mainstream. Otherwise everybody drowns in a cultural swamp.”
Eliot and I begin our trip in a Runyanesque watering hole on Eighth Avenue — no cultural swamp here. Eliot slouches at the end of the bar nursing a Tom Waits scotch. An old guy next to him eats a steak as big as a catcher’s mitt. Black-and-white photos of long-dead Broadway stars hang on the walls. All the waitresses are middle-aged with exceedingly large breasts and each appears to know Eliot by name. I order a beer, and before we hit the street Eliot rattles off a prehistory of Times Square:
“In the 19th century, when showbiz began to develop as a profession, sex was always on the periphery. Sex was the only business a woman could do. Everything else about acting was like it was in Shakespeare’s day — men doing recitations. They would cut female roles out of the plays or just recite the woman’s lines.”
He drinks and talks. He tells how, by the time the theaters moved up to 43rd Street, they had to compete with all the brothels. “The theaters hired hookers to be in chorus lines. At the same time the brothels took on the elements of the theater with the whores playing roles. Eventually they both bled into each other. To this day, this is how it is in New York.”
He jumps to the 1970s and complains about Celeste Holm hypocritically protesting the nudity in an off-Broadway production of “Hair” while at the same time the completely nude “O Calcutta” was running on Broadway. Celeste Holm still pisses him off. He used to be in the business. He was an actor. He began as a kid. “I played Carnegie Hall when I was 12 years old.”
“Doing Shakespeare?” I venture.
“Chinese drama,” he answers.
Chinese drama? I don’t ask.
Eliot tells me he went to the High School of Performing Arts while appearing on live television and series drama. “I hated it,” he says. “I always wanted to get the girl, but I invariably played the tough kid who got killed or arrested in the second act. Somewhere around 1970, I was in a production of ‘Macbeth’ where three witches were all topless. On the one hand I thought, ‘This is the greatest thing I have ever seen.’ I went after and got one of the witches. But I also realized bare breasts had no business in ‘Macbeth.’”
He decided to dump acting and become a writer like Shakespeare. Rather than plays, Eliot wrote showbiz biographies on people like Bruce Springsteen and Walt Disney; the latter subject is no doubt smiling down from heaven on his company’s pasteurization of Times Square.
Eliot and I leave the bar and find ourselves on Main Street, USA. The sidewalk is crowded with Martha Stewart wannabes and Romper Room kids. We head to the corner of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue. Ten years ago Black Muslim speakers would be camped here, railing through bullhorns against the White Satan. Now a gaggle of nuns in blue headdresses wait for the light to change. They appear to be speaking Dutch.
We cross the street to the Alamo of sex arcades, Show World. It’s surprising to see that it is still standing. In the old days, you could come here and watch videos in private booths or sit in a room and chat with a naked woman — a hygienic chat, as a sheet of Plexiglas stood between you. Eliot and I walk inside the 2001 Show World. The video booths are still there. Customers are milling around. No girls. An Arabic-looking man stands holding a towel, looking like a lavatory attendant in a fancy restaurant.
“What killed Show World was video,” Eliot says. “It took the need to humiliate yourself out of reality. And need for humiliation plays right in the need to pay for sex — where you’re buying an exotic service to pay a girl to dress up exactly like your mother and call you by your baby name.”
I’m not quite sure what he is talking about.
“That’s bypassing the struggle of getting a normal girl to do that,” he continues.
Oh. I think I get it now.
Eliot and I exit to the street, and enter a more modest storefront advertising sex. We’re immediately confronted by a roomful of potato chips. Beyond the Lays is a bigger room where a few tourists mingle among the dildos and bondage videos, and half-naked Latino women slouch in phone booths. The women have pert nipples poking through their nighties, but hard faces. Fake smiles. We walk out.
“Just like the old days,” I say, adding, “potato chips aside. Are they a front for drugs?”
“It’s part of Giuliani’s crazy law,” he explains. “In addition to your zoning where you can’t be near a school or church or any of that stuff, you have to have a certain amount of nonpornographic things.”
“So you sell pretzels with your dildos?”
“That’s right,” he says. “It’s the insanity of the attempt to please Disney. It has nothing to do with social mores. What I try to establish in my book is that the last thing any New York mayor cared about was morality. Morality was just a good way to get themselves reelected. When Abe Beame was in charge, he screamed about 42nd Street the way Lindsay did. The way Wagner did. The way Fiorello did. What harm did you see in there?”
We cross Eighth Avenue again and head downtown. Eliot begins railing that the New York Times is going to raze everything to our left to erect a temple to itself. It can accomplish this through eminent domain, if the property is designated as “blight.” If a store sells dildos (even if they also sell potato chips), this is blight. We pass four small dildo shops. We also pass Knox Hats, perhaps the most eminent haberdashery in America. Although not a single dildo sits among the fedoras in the window, this store will soon be kaput as well.
We circle the block and head back uptown to 42nd Street proper. This crazy block reminds me of Michael Jackson’s cosmetically altered face — there’s something very wrong with all these glitzy urban façades. “Is this the street where you could watch dirty movies in the 1950s?” I ask Eliot.
“In the 1950s they showed nudist colony movies,” he answers. “Which was pornography disguised as having social redeeming value. People played volleyball naked. There was a theater called the World that showed foreign films, which were notorious for having nudity in them.” He stops and points. “This was where the cigar store was that was a front for the numbers racket. That was the Victory Theater. They showed pornography. Those were two of the biggest porno theaters in the 1960s. They shot the movies up in the abandoned lofts and they sold them downstairs in bookstore windows that were painted yellow. They also sold drugs here.”
We’re now standing in front of a glitzed-up theater where “The Lion King” stage show runs. Eliot explains that it cost $27 million to renovate the theater. “Taxpayers paid for it. Disney paid nothing. And Disney has it for at least 30 years and is making a fortune on this ‘Lion King.’”
We walk back to the corner of 42nd and Eighth, kitty-corner from Show World. “In the 1980s taxable income on this street amounted to $3 million,” Eliot announces, pointing up Eighth Avenue. “Now the taxable income is $90 million.” He waits for that to sink in. “That is why all of this exists. Nine of the 10 people you see are not from New York. This is a street that has been surrendered by New Yorkers for the sake of making a viable income.”
We head uptown. “Did you ever come here in the old days?” I ask.
“All the time,” he answers. “But the thing about pornography is that it’s the least sexual of material. The people who make it have no idea what eroticism is all about. Take a look at some Chinese eroticism from the 15th century. That stuff is amazing. Or some of Henry Miller’s stuff. The people who make pornography believe that what turns a guy on are tits and pussy and women who will submit to anything. And that’s not all that erotic.”
He stops and takes a stone out of his shoe. “They don’t understand the psychological structure of fantasy lesbianism to men,” Eliot continues. “They don’t understand the aspect of conquest. Allure. Forbiddenness. Pornography is all mechanical and instructional and made by people who have no idea what women are all about. That’s usually why gay pornography is more erotic because they are at least in their own realm. When some 50-year-old fat Mafiosi are trying to sell pornography to teenagers, they’re out of touch. They just don’t have it. It’s not dissimilar to all the war movies where you can see cities blown to bits. But one plane going into the World Trade Center buries them all because that’s the real thing.”
We stop for a light. “Maybe something like ‘Deep Throat’ in its day was mind-boggling because it looked like Linda Lovelace liked what she was doing, whether or not she actually did.”
We walk down a side street. A chic blue neon sign hangs above a solitary sex shop wedged between a row of “after theater” restaurants. We walk into the shop. There are videos for sale. And as always, dildos, dildos, dildos. (Who uses these things?) There is an inner chamber in the store. Its door is guarded by another Arab-looking bouncer. Eliot swaggers up and says in insider New Yorkese:
“Can we look inside for the story we’re doing for Salon magazine?”
The bouncer shakes his head. “Ten dollars to go inside,” he barks. “And you must check your coats out here.”
I would spring 20 bucks for both of us to “go inside,” but I’m wearing my best winter coat. No way I’m going leave it unguarded among all these boxes of dildos.
“So what’s going on in there?” Eliot asks.
“Fully nude,” the bouncer quickly answers.
“No. Men,” he answers, deadpan.
There is no gay pornography in sight. “Men and women?” Eliot asks.
“Sure there is women!” the bouncer says. Apparently he is annoyed. He was being sarcastic earlier.
“Down here anything goes, so who knows?” Eliot says to me as we leave.
“Is that an example of the humiliation you were talking about?” I say.
“No,” he answers. “The problem with Times Square sex has always been that most of the women who do it are hard junkies. Poverty-stricken. Hardcore lesbians. And felons. There is nothing sexual about them. That’s where the humiliation comes in, paying something to someone who hates you for paying it but needs you to do it.”
I think about this. “You’re probably right,” I say. “What’s there to get nostalgic about? I once went to a strip club in Las Vegas where the women danced with such enthusiasm it was as if dancing naked for you was the most wonderful thing they could be doing with their lives.”
“Vegas is different,” Eliot says. “For girls who do it in Vegas, dancing naked is probably the most wonderful thing in the world. That’s because the mainstream in Vegas is the fringe in every other city. Vegas is much more erotic than New York City because Vegas understands the nature of eroticism and they’re not hypocritical about the money factor. New York is about money disguised as progress and social reform. Vegas is about money as money.”
We go into another strip joint. Another Arab guard. It costs 20 bucks apiece. He won’t let us stick our heads in and see what $40 will buy. We split. In the old days, you never had to pay a blind cover charge.
“It’s all about money,” Eliot says. “If you want to come down to 42nd Street and score some pussy you have to have some money in your pocket. Like everywhere else. These guys are just trying to make a living. It was always like that. People were always in business to make money.”
I suddenly think of a personal story and try to tell it to Eliot. It’s about a day maybe 20 years ago. A day in late April. A New York day when the spring temperature suddenly kicks in for good, and every woman on the street is walking without a coat. And those that can unbutton their blouses, unbutton their blouses. And every woman is absolutely gorgeous. Everywhere a young man looks, it’s women, women, women. On such a day, on my lunch hour, I was intoxicated by this spectacle of women and the promises of what was surely hidden under their flimsy clothes. And more than anything else I wanted to cup a woman’s breast. Any woman’s breast — yours, hers, theirs. This is not an uncommon desire for a young man in winter, let alone spring.
Since I lived in Manhattan, I was vaguely aware of a couple of places — places that resembled Walmarts of sex — where I could touch a stranger’s bare breast for under $10. I headed to 42nd Street. I went to an establishment that stood near the theater where “The Lion King” is playing today. Once inside, I would have been content to touch the breast of some hardcore woman like the ones Eliot described, but to my surprise I was presented with a young, slender girl who almost seemed innocent. She even had a sweet smile. She shyly let me touch her small breasts, and then waited for me to do more. But that was enough. I tipped her $20 and continued on to lunch.
I tell Eliot an abbreviated version of the story. What I don’t say is that I still think of that girl. Now a politically correct man would get in touch with his inner Andrea Dworkin and know that he had just exploited someone. But I remembered this girl out of curiosity about what brought her to such a low place. Certainly a girl that pretty deserved to be felt up by Donald Trump and at least make some real money.
These are the kind of thoughts that cause men to write novels about the whore with the heart of gold. I don’t tell any of this to Eliot. He seems too hardboiled. He glances at his watch and abruptly says goodbye as if he has a woman waiting. I walk downtown through the “Blade Runner”-like Times Square thinking about spring. When it comes this year, young men will have to trudge somewhere other than 42nd Street to cup the breast of a smiling young woman.
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)