"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)
A certain writer for a certain online magazine who often yammers on about teams’ outfits in his sportswriting had an idea for a column about uniforms. He thought he’d follow trends and changes, critique the fashion. He figured it’d be interesting.
And he was right. It’s fascinating. Problem for this poor hack was that someone was already writing such a column for the Village Voice, and doing a far better job of it than our hero had been planning to do.
Paul Lukas, 37, has been writing Uni Watch monthly for the Voice since 1999. He also writes about product and brand design, mostly for business magazines, pens a travel column for Money magazine and writes about food and music.
On his Web site, Inconspicuous Consumption, Lukas examines the details of product design that most of us ignore. The site currently features a consideration of Heinz EZ Squirt Blastin’ Green Ketchup. “One thing you might not realize, because it doesn’t appear to have gotten much attention,” he writes, “is that the new ketchup’s official color, as listed on the package, is not green — it’s Blastin’ Green.” His musings were collected in a book, “Inconspicuous Consumption: An Obsessive Look at the Stuff We Take for Granted, From the Everyday to the Obscure,” in 1997.
Lukas, a Long Island native who graduated from SUNY-Binghampton with a political science degree that he says has had “approximately zero impact on my life,” calls himself “an all-purpose minutiae fetishist,” concerned with “the details that other people overlook.” Recent Uni Watch columns have dealt with the history of stirrup socks and facial hair in baseball, changes in boxing glove color and the use of American flags on uniforms.
The day he talked to Salon by telephone from Brooklyn, where he lives, he was working on an article about a vintage Scotch tape dispenser.
Where did you get the idea for the column?
I’ve written a lot in the nonsports realm about brands and brand histories and product design. Writing about uniform design is a lot like writing about brand design, except the brand is a team.
Team loyalty is a very special and specific kind of brand loyalty. In fact, in a lot of ways, it’s the most passionate kind you can find. If you’re loyal to a particular brand of cereal or adhesive tape, you have a loyalty to the brand image and maybe the logo, but you also believe that the product has a certain level of quality. If the quality went downhill, you’d say, “OK, well, I had an affection for this brand but they’ve blown it.”
With teams, the quality changes all the time — players retire, players change teams, they get traded, whatever — so the quality of the brand, the content of the brand, is always changing, but we stay loyal to it anyway. We are totally loyal to that logo, that design, and that uniform, regardless of who’s wearing it. I’m sort of fascinated by that kind of relationship and that kind of bond that sports fans have.
Also, what kid doesn’t grow up dreaming of wearing a major league baseball uniform or a hockey uniform or the uniform of whatever sport you dream of being a part of? When I was in Little League, I would make sure that my baseball stirrups were just so and all that kind of stuff. It appeals to the detail-oriented nature that I have. I do a lot of detail-oriented writing, and applying that to sports meant coming up with the concept for a uniform column. I could have done it for a design magazine and treated it as a design column that just happens to be about sports, but I felt really strongly that I wanted it to be taken seriously as a legitimate sports beat, legitimate sports journalism.
A lot of people were surprised that I could sustain it, that I could do a monthly column about uniform design. Frankly, I could do a weekly if they’d give me the space.
Yeah, I was going to say, there’s plenty to write about.
Like just a few days ago, the Indians announced a new alternate uniform and cap for the upcoming season, and their new cap is not going to have Chief Wahoo on it. And it happens that next football season the Redskins are using a new helmet that isn’t going to have the Indian on the helmet. So there’s a trend right there: Finally, after all the people saying you shouldn’t use Native American symbolism and blah, blah, blah, it’s interesting that these are both happening in the same year. There’s no shortage of developments to write about.
Who are you picturing in your head when you’re writing? Who’s your reader?
Just another sports geek like myself. But, more to the point, I guess I’m writing for somebody who sees these things without really noticing them, which I guess is somebody not like myself. A lot of my work, not just in sports but in the other areas I write about, is about the inconspicuous details that people see without actually noticing they’re seeing. The idea is to make a light bulb go on over people’s heads, for them to say, “Oh, yeah. I sort of noticed that but I didn’t really think about it.”
I bring up uniforms a lot, just talking to friends or whatever, and it’s one of those things that everybody has an opinion on. When the home team changes its uniforms, everybody either loves it or hates it.
Sure, that’s your brand. I’m a big Mets fan, and in the last few years, as the Mets have gone away from blue and gone more toward black, they’re not just messing with merchandising. I feel like I’ve had a fairly intimate relationship with the Mets’ brand and the Mets’ identity system, for most of my life. And when they change, when they tinker with the brand, it feels like they’re tinkering with part of me.
It speaks to that intense brand loyalty that sports affiliations comprise. The content is really irrelevant. I’ve been a Mets fan when they won the World Series, I’ve been a Mets fan when they’ve been a last-place team, and my passion hasn’t wavered one little bit. I prefer it when they win the World Series, obviously, but they’re still my team no matter how crappy they are. No matter how low the quality of the brand goes, it’s still my brand, and when they mess with it, I don’t like it.
There’s also a cynical side to it. You know they’re just messing with it because everybody has the blue gear, so if they throw a bunch of black gear out there, people will go buy it.
And also because they know that people like me, I may piss and moan about it, but I’m such an intense fan, I’m not just going to storm away and say the hell with it, I’m not a Mets fan anymore. I’m going to grit my teeth and stick with it, but they can go trolling for the more casual fan with the “hipper” color scheme. So yeah, it’s a little cynical, but that’s just the reality of how brands are marketed these days.
I do sort of wonder, though, about teams that change more often. You look at a team like the Texas Rangers, who have changed a lot over the years — their logo, their colors. The Brewers also. I don’t understand how you build up a heritage or a sense of history when you change so frequently.
I grew up in Los Angeles, rooting for the Dodgers, who had the same uniforms since God was a boy, and then the Rams and the Lakers were both pretty constant, too. I notice that the teams that changed uniforms a lot — the San Diego Padres, or like you said, the Rangers — tend to be crappy teams. There seems to be a correlation between crappiness and new uniforms, or constant change. It’s almost a measure of a good, solid organization that they don’t change their uniforms.
Yeah, that’s certainly the instinctive feel. I think that’s changed a little bit. The Rams changed their uniforms after they won their first Super Bowl, and that’s not how it used to work.
Didn’t the Denver Broncos do that too? Didn’t they get those weird new uniforms after they finally won a Super Bowl?
No, actually, the weird new uniforms finally broke their Super Bowl jinx. But yeah, it used to be that only a franchise that was really in trouble would change. They’d be thinking, “If we can just put some bells and whistles on the uniform, nobody’ll pay attention to how lousy our record is.”
You bring your opinions into the column and critique the uniforms.
Like any cultural criticism or design critique, you need to have a point of view. I try not to get too persnickety about it. What I try to avoid, and probably don’t avoid, is coming off like a grumpy old man who hates any change.
You’re definitely a traditionalist.
I’m a traditionalist. I’m a classicist. But it’s not like every change is a bad change.
What are some good innovations?
For just nice designs? The Astros a couple of years ago went to that sort of terra cotta color pallette that I really like, when they moved into Enron Field — if it’s still going to be called Enron Field. Coming up this year, the Angels, after wearing those ridiculous pinstripes with the wing coming off the A and the fake vest look, and color sleeve, they’ve gone back to a much more traditional style this year, so good for them. They’ve got a really nice look.
What else? In baseball, I’m totally down on the pants coming down to the ankles thing, but I do think that the reaction to it — the players bringing the pants [hem] all the way up to the knee — while it’s not my favorite look, it’s a nice look. All sock is better than no sock. And if more [players] do it, I think it may actually lead to more teams coming up with something designy for their stockings. Instead of just a solid color, put some stripes in there or something like that.
I was watching a game from the ’87 Series on ESPN Classics the other day, and they still had the stirrup socks.
Right, everybody had the white showing through.
And I was saying to my wife, “Don’t they look much more like ballplayers than the guys with the pajamas coming down to the shoes?”
Right. That’s the thing, they look like footy pajamas. Whatever style you favor for that kind of thing, what’s interesting to me, and should be interesting to anybody involved in these sports, is that the whole notion of a uniform is that it’s uniform. And here’s an element that is completely nonuniform. It’s an element where players are allowed to impose their own style on it.
You know, it’s interesting that the National Football League has its uniform police making sure that players have their pant legs pulled down and their socks pulled up, but baseball doesn’t seem to mind. As I noted in one piece, the Yankees infield last year had four players with four different pant and socks styles. If you looked at them from the knees down, you would never guess they were on the same team. It’s interesting to me that there’s this one little area of self-expression that’s allowed.
What about some other sports? Something I’ve noticed about hockey lately is the logos on the front of the sweater, the newer ones, like the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild and the Los Angeles Kings’ redesign, are really busy, so that if you get 10 feet away it just looks like a smudge.
Yeah, they’re not just simple graphic symbols. I think that just speaks to the possibilities of logos that are all designed on computers nowadays instead of on the drafting table or something like that. Also, it’s all part of that information overload thing. People like busy, I think. Certainly, throughout the design realm, not just in sports, you see a lot more examples of overdesign than underdesign.
A lot of times when I cover these sports, there’s a lot of stuff that I hadn’t noticed because I hadn’t thought about it before. In hockey, one thing I’ve been noticing a lot lately is the jersey neckline. Way, way back, most teams had the lace-up collar, which a few teams have now gone back to. Most teams now have a V-neck collar. A few have introduced this sort of extreme V-neck — it almost looks more like a Y than a V. A couple of teams, I think the Nashville Predators were one of the first to do it this year with one of their alternate jerseys, have got a square collar.
You can see that the design of the collar has affected the actual physical construction of the entire jersey. The yoke had to be done differently, and that affects how the sleeves had to be sewn in. They made a big fuss over the fact that they have the first square-collar jersey in the National Hockey League. And it’s like, all right, good for you guys.
I think what the NHL is doing is actually pretty interesting because usually, change has to do with logo design, but in this case, with the Predators, it’s also about construction and physical design of the shirt. They’re using the alternate jerseys, or the third jerseys, as they call them, as a sort of testing ground for new logos, which they then sort of subsume more fully a year or two down the road, into their identity system.
In the case of the Ottawa Senators, their alternate jersey became their road jersey. A few other teams have done that, too. It gives teams a chance to sort of test-drive a new look for a team, so instead of abruptly changing their graphics they can sort of ease into it. I think that’s pretty smart. I’m interested to see if other sports try that. What baseball has done with their alternate jerseys is use the existing design, but in a different color.
What do you think of the basketball trend with the big wide sleeves, instead of the old tank-top style sleeves?
I don’t personally like that look. I think that basketball uniforms are not as interesting as any of the other sports’ uniforms. There’s only two pieces, shorts and the jersey. I guess there’s the sock issue to consider, the black sock or the white sock, high sock or the low sock — but to me, the basketball uniform isn’t as interesting.
Also, the whole baggy pants thing — everything looking very baggy. I’m not too fond of where basketball has gone in the last decade or so. But I’ve got to give the NBA and, I guess, [commissioner] David Stern, some credit because they’re the only league of the four major sports to have successfully resisted manufacturers’ logos on the uniforms. You can have the team logo on your butt, or all these other crazy things, but there’s no Nike swoosh or Russell Athletic R or Champion C or any of that on the uniforms that the players wear. They’re on the merchandise, but they’re not on the uniforms, and I have to give a kind of tip of the cap for that.
I think what’s going on right now that’s interesting is the Olympics.
I was just going to bring that up.
The Olympics are essentially individual, not team, sports. If you look at the individual professional sports, like auto racing or tennis or boxing, you have a whole different set of aesthetics going on. You don’t have the team as brand, and often because of sponsorship, you have all sorts of commercial brands cluttering up your uniform. In auto racing it’s right on the car; tennis players wear sportswear of their affiliated sponsor or sportswear manufacturer; boxers sell space on their trunks and stuff like that …
Or the bottom of their shoes.
The bottom of their shoes, yeah, or their backs, on their skin, in Bernard Hopkins’ case! What interests me most about the Winter Olympics is the figure skaters. You hear a lot about their outfits. You don’t really hear much about the outfits of the skiers or the lugers or anything like that except to say, “Oh, he looks sleek in that get-up” or “Picabo Street’s got that spider-web getup,” but there’s not a whole lot of chatter about it because basically they’re just wearing some kind of skin-tight outfit and a number.
And that’s the thing about the Olympics: Everybody has a number — except the figure skaters. And I never understand that. Why can’t they just wear a unitard and a number like all the other athletes? And you always hear the debate about whether figure skating is a true sport.
And whether they get judged on their outfits.
In fact, they clearly do. There was an article in today’s Newsday — hang on, I’m going to go grab it because I tore it out. Newsday’s headquartered on Long Island, and one of the U.S. figure skaters, Sarah Hughes, is from Long Island, so it’s like a big local story, and this headline says, “Dressing for Success: Hughes’ Moves on Ice Are Tailor-made and So Are Her Costumes.” And it’s all about how some of her previous outfits got a less than warm reception by the skating establishment, whatever that means.
You know, the notion that you can be judged on what you wear, that it can affect whether or not you get a medal, is why people don’t take figure skating seriously, or why some people don’t. As someone who covers sports aesthetics professionally, I get into the notion that they’re taking their aesthetics very seriously, but I think in a way that detracts from the sport’s legitimacy.
Are there any other trends going on that have caught your eye lately?
In baseball, aside from the stirrups thing, there’s been something of a return to basics. We talked about the Angels going back to a basic look this year. The Royals, I believe, have added a vest this year. The Indians are adding an alternate vest this year. The vest trend is slowly gathering steam. I’m kinda digging that.
I hate the vest look.
You don’t like the vests?
I’m kind of a traditionalist too, but I don’t like the vests. I like that whole sort of early ’60s aesthetic in other areas — for a couch, say — but I just don’t like the vest look.
Oh, well, sorry, man. It’s slowly becoming the thing.
It seems like the back-to-basics thing kind of hit about 10 years ago.
In ’93 or so, everyone went back to the belted pants instead of the elastic waistband. Everyone went to the button-front jersey instead of the pullover, so the last decade or so has been a slow return to basics …
Well, there’s been some slippage.
… except everyone has the colored jerseys.
There was that gray hat period.
The gray — ohhhhh, the dreaded gray hats, the Pirates and the Royals with the gray hats. [Moans.] Well, those didn’t last.
People need to understand that, once upon a time, teams were coming up with their logos and their uniform designs, and different factors were influencing them. A century ago, what a team wore largely had to do with what kind of textiles and fabrics were available from the sporting goods manufacturer in their city, because that’s who supplied the uniforms. So if they had pinstripe fabrics available at a decent price, well, maybe the team would wear pinstripes. And if they had this kind of felt available at a decent price, or maybe if the owner wanted to splurge a little, well, this is how they’re going to look. But it was totally an individual thing.
Eventually the suppliers went national, so Spalding would be supplying the team, or Wilson or whatever, but the decisions on how my team was going to look, if I owned the team, were made by me and the people in my office. Nowadays, teams make these decisions, not in isolation, but with consultation from brand advisors and brand design consultants and the league office, and especially the merchandising arm of the various league offices.
When the Indians announced this new uniform that they’re going to this year, which is a vest uniform that they’re going to wear at home on Sundays and holidays, one of the things they talked about at the press conference was that they had actually been looking to go to a vest as early as 1993, but the league office said, “Well, a bunch of other teams are doing that too, and you don’t want to look like all the other teams. Why don’t you wait a few years before you go to the vest.” So a lot of this is coordinated with a sort of grand plan in mind.
Back in the ’50s, ’60s, even into the ’70s, merchandising was nothing like it is today. It wasn’t as coordinated and it wasn’t as large-scale. Now it’s such a big revenue stream in sports that it’s really the tail wagging the dog. It used to be what you wore on the field would determine how you merchandise. Now, how you want to merchandise determines what you wear on the field.
And it even starts farther back in the process because now new teams are named by the marketing department, as opposed to a century ago when maybe a local sprortswriter would slap a nickname on a team and it would stick.
Right. Exactly. So all this goes into these brands that we end up having this incredibly emotional attachment to. And whether you think one way is better or another way is better, it’s certainly different now than it was a long time ago. I think it’s safe to say that the “Mets” would not have been developed if it was an expansion team today. It’s the New York Metropolitans Baseball Club, that’s what that stands for, and it’s really, it’s a nonsense word.
Not to mention the Knickerbockers.
Exactly, exactly. But that’s what makes the history and the heritage of these teams interesting.
Last question. I almost never ask this to people on the phone, but what are you wearing right now?
What I almost always wear every day, which is jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt.
So you’re not a fashion plate yourself?
Well, it’s a good pair of jeans and a good T-shirt. I do have a lot of old uniforms that I sometimes wear. I’ll take them from any sport but I especially like old baseball, old flannel jerseys, and pants if I can get them. I’ve got a few beautiful uniforms from the ’30s. I’m not a big guy, I’m like 5-8, 150, and most athletes are bigger than that, so it’s hard for me to find stuff that’s small enough to fit me, but if I find anything that fits, I buy it.
I did a reading recently in New York of Uni Watch material, and I wore this beautiful 1930s, pinstriped, flannel baseball uniform, complete with the stockings and everything, for a company team, like a factory team, and it said on the jersey “Aluminum Products,” because it was from an aluminum manufacturing plant, and it was their company team. I’m always looking for stuff like that. I don’t, like, walk around the neighborhood in baseball pants, but I might walk around in the jersey. So yes, in some ways the sports uniform obsession has infested my closet.
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)