"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)
There have been beautiful spring days in the Twin Cities before, but it’s safe to say none has ever been more beautiful than this one. The sun is soft but warming. The sky is postcard blue. Eyes are bright and birds are singing and women are pretty. Spring is in full bloom after a winter that was a mild one, but still a Minnesota one.
And on this Friday night, the Minnesota Twins are playing their home opener, a game that wouldn’t have happened if baseball commissioner Bud Selig had gotten his way over the offseason and the Twins had ceased to exist. A court order in February forced the Twins to honor their lease and play out the 2002 season, foiling Selig’s plans to eliminate two teams, which everyone knew, without his spelling it out, were the Twins and the Montreal Expos.
“What a great day for outdoor baseball!” booms sportscaster Dick Bremer to about 200 fans and lunchtimers who have gathered at a downtown plaza for a noontime rally to celebrate the opening of the season that wasn’t supposed to be. The fans roar. They’re roaring for their Twins, celebrating the very survival of the plucky club — a surprise second-place finisher last year.
But it’s more complicated than that. The Twins don’t play outdoor baseball. They play inside, in the Metrodome, the usual description of which is that it has all the charm of an airplane hangar, a vicious slander on the atmosphere of airplane hangars. By talking about outdoor baseball, Bremer is making the point that wouldn’t it be swell if the Twins had a brand-new stadium, which would ensure the team’s future. That new stadium would be a “roof-ready” park, because there isn’t enough money, anywhere, to build a park with a retractable roof.
So, whatever the weather: outdoor baseball — even though the outdoors aren’t always so friendly here in April. Twins legend Harmon Killebrew, the Bunyanesque slugger who was the franchise’s star when it moved here from Washington in 1961 and who must be the nicest famous person ever to be nicknamed “The Killer,” recalls that first Opening Day at Metropolitan Stadium: “They actually had to shovel snow off the field to play the game.”
The roof-ready stadium hasn’t been built yet because, as is usually the case with these things, nobody’s figured out who’s going to pay for it. The Twins’ owner, an 86-year-old billionaire banker named Carl Pohlad, wanted the state to pay for it, something the governor, Jesse Ventura, said the state is not in the business of doing. Ventura’s idea is that the Twins should build their own stadium. The state, after all, is facing a $440 million budget deficit.
Funny thing, though. Since Selig made the announcement about contraction, the term for eliminating teams, there’s been a lot of progress on the ballpark front. There’s still no deal, but people are talking. Ventura’s softened a bit. Legislators have come up with a proposal that would have Pohlad putting $165 million, half of the park’s price tag, into a fund, the interest from which would pay off the park debt over the years. Pohlad, who says he wants to sell the team, wants a lower up-front figure, so as not to discourage potential buyers with crippling debt. It’s one of those things that will probably work itself out. As Paul Molitor, a St. Paul native and likely Hall of Famer who ended his career with the Twins and is now a part-time coach, puts it: “Maybe it just needs to come down to the 11th hour, like a lot of things in negotiations do, before we get a solution.”
And if that happens Twins fans will cheer for outdoor baseball, in their new stadium, which probably wouldn’t have been built without Bud Selig calling for the team’s elimination. Maybe they’ll wear, just for nostalgic fun, some of the homemade T-shirts they wore at the Metrodome for Friday’s opener, shirts that said things like “Selig beats his wife” and “Contract THIS.” And those were among the more delicate ones.
Bud Selig is this town’s Simon Legree. He came to the commissioner’s job from his position as owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, a team he turned over to his daughter upon taking his current job. Twins fans note that the Brewers, the closest team to the Twin Cities geographically, would benefit from the Twins’ elimination, as they’ve benefited more than any other team from Selig’s revenue sharing plan. They also note that Selig and Pohlad are pals. Pohlad made Selig a loan, in violation of baseball’s conflict of interest rules, several years ago, and Selig’s contraction proposal called for the other owners to pay Pohlad a cool $120 million to liquidate the team.
“I wonder if you invited Bud Selig to throw out the first pitch tonight,” a fan asks Ron Gardenhire, the Twins’ rookie manager, at the noontime rally.
“I’ll throw it,” the manager says with a sort of evil grin, “if he’ll catch it.”
Whether you believe Selig is a villain or a commissioner honestly doing what he feels is in the best interests of baseball, the Twins, a 1901 charter member of the American League, seem an odd choice for contraction. After 60 years as the Washington Senators, famously “first in war, first in peace, last in the American League,” though they did manage to win a World Series in 1924 and the A.L. pennant in ’25 and ’33, they moved to the Twin Cities in 1961 and became the Twins, playing in Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, where the Mall of America now stands. They won the pennant in 1965 and Western Division titles in ’69 and ’70, and drew well, leading the league in attendance twice in the first 10 years in Minnesota, and never finishing lower than fourth out of 10 or, starting in ’69, 12 A.L. teams in attendance.
The gate dipped in the ’70s along with the team’s on-field fortunes, but started to rise again in 1984, the Metrodome’s third year, as the Twins jumped from sixth place in the seven-team Western Division to third with a team that was beginning to look like the ’87 club that would win the Series. In 1988, the year after Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek led them to their first championship, the Twins became the first American League team to draw 3 million fans in a season. Attendance stayed strong, consistently over 2 million, through the strike year of ’94. By that time, the Twins were lousy, and the fans didn’t really come back after the strike — until last year, when Minnesota went from fifth place to second, and attendance went from 1.06 million to 1.78 million.
“This market has always shown over the years that if we have a good club, we’ll draw,” says general manager Terry Ryan. “Last year was a good indication that if we have a decent product, people will show up.” The Twins outdrew six of the other 29 major league teams last year, and fans, conditioned by years of losing, didn’t even begin showing up in numbers until mid-season, when they began to believe that the Twins were for real.
“If they’re serious about it, and you start checking attendance — they should check attendance,” says Felipe Alou, manager of the Expos from 1992 to mid-season 2001, who knows a thing or two about operating under the cloud of franchise elimination. The Twins’ home opener, by coincidence, is the 66-year-old Alou’s first in uniform as a coach for the hapless Detroit Tigers, the Twins’ opponents, who have lost their first eight games of the season, costing manager Phil Garner his job after six of them. “This club should stay here,” he says.
“People have to also remember that this arena was built for football,” says Twins coach Al Newman, a popular infielder for Minnesota from 1987 to ’91. “The previous stadium was a Triple-A ballpark that they renovated, so the Twins have never actually had their own facility. So when you look at it that way, I know it’s a lot of dollars, but we’ve never had our own facility.”
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who is leading an effort to have a new Twins park built just north of downtown. greets his constituents as they arrive at the rally. He’s wearing a Twins jersey and, beneath his khakis, mismatched blue and red stirrup socks, something of a trademark of his 3-month-old administration. “I was always a little nervous about today happening,” he says between flesh-pressings. “But now that it’s here I think we can put all the politics and deals and contraction behind us at least for a day and think about playing ball.”
Alou says that will be less difficult than you might think for the players.
“I believe this year is going to be easier for [the Expos and Twins], because if they get contracted, ‘Well, we knew we were getting contracted,’” he says. “If they don’t get contracted, ‘Well, we’ve succeeded, we’ve won the battle.’ The problem was last year and the year before, when there was all kinds of rumors out there and there was nobody to deny those rumors. It was very difficult to manage like that because you want to keep your guys from saying, ‘When are they going to trade me from here? Who’s the next guy who’s going to be gone?’ And all that stuff are worse enemies than the other team.”
“The offseason was a struggle,” Gardenhire says as the Twins take batting practice before the home opener. He refers to the sudden retirement of Tom Kelly, his predecessor and former boss who led the Twins to their two titles and was the dean of major league managers, and to his own hiring process, which was interrupted by contraction talk. “After the winter, we got to spring training, it kind of felt like I had a job then, but up until then it was ugly.”
The Twins survived the initial contraction scare, but they aren’t out of the woods yet. Selig is still pushing for contraction, as is, officially, the Twins organization. The thinking among the players and coaches seems to be that if the Twins have a good season and fill the Metrodome with fans, it will be difficult for Major League Baseball to do away with the franchise.
“I didn’t think that they could get it done just by saying, OK, we’re going to get rid of two teams right now,” says Newman. “I thought it would at least take a year, which we’re going through right now in 2002, and then hopefully we can solve a lot of our own problems by winning, and then that’ll create the interest to build a stadium.”
The talk of contraction has certainly created interest. The Twins haven’t sold out a home opener since 1993, but tickets to Friday’s game have been gone for weeks.
“From what I understand this place is gonna be sold out, place is gonna be nuts, and hopefully we can come out and bring a win home tonight,” says utility infielder Denny Hocking, the Twins’ player representative, who has become an unofficial spokesman for the players on the contraction issue.
Hocking understands correctly. The Metrodome, for all its faults, can be an insanely loud ballpark when full. In their two championship seasons, 1987 and 1991, the Twins failed to win a single World Series game on the road, but went 8-0 in front of their rabid fans at the dome. Many of those fans have been strangers since the mid-’90s, when the Twins fell into disrepair on the field. At Friday’s opener, though, they’re back in force, 48,244 strong, screaming their heads off. When ace Brad Radke fires a strike to Andres Torres of the Tigers to start the game, the Twins, by an accident of scheduling, are the last of the 30 teams to start their home schedule, but their fans are surely the loudest.
The Twins score four times in the second inning against former teammate Mike Redman and hand the Tigers their ninth straight loss, 4-2. In the ninth inning, as reliever Eddie Guardado strikes out the side, the fans chant, “Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!” Several Twins players report getting chills. The Saturday St. Paul Pioneer Press, in an inspired bit of headline writing, calls it “Scream therapy.”
Therapy because, with the contraction mess, the stadium mess, the downright unlikability of the owner, it’s difficult to be a Twins fan these days. The team on the field is young and exciting and pretty good, expected to contend for the American League Central Division title this year. But if only the team on the field were the only thing a fan had to pay attention to.
“I’m not particularly crazy about the economic structure,” says Tim Klinkner, a 44-year-old commercial banker who’s driven up for the home opener from Winona with his youngest son, Brandon, who’s 7. “And the bad part of it is, you build the stadium and you just restart the cycle again. This [the Metrodome] cost $55 million and we were, ‘Oh, my God, how are we ever going to pay for that?’ Now they’re talking about $355 million. So it never stops. You’re either in the game or out of the game. I mean, do you wanna be in the game or don’t you? I guess I’d like to keep the game here, so whatever we can do.”
One thing the fans can do is refrain from indulging in “the wave” in the top of the first inning, which they fail to do on Opening Night. That bush-league offense to baseball aesthetics is the best argument so far for contraction. “Yeah, a little premature,” Hocking chuckles the next day, “but whatever works.”
On the morning of the opener, the Twin Cities papers are filled with stories about the University of Minnesota having to cut its men’s and women’s golf and men’s gymnastics programs because of budget cuts, which makes it a little difficult for right-thinking sports fans to enthusiastically support a public solution to the Twins’ stadium woes.
“It’s a sad thing when we’re talking about cutting sports at the collegiate level and then turning around to support professional sports in the state,” says Sara Scheu, 25, a trainer at Target in downtown Minneapolis. “I don’t know how you remedy that. I guess we’ve kind of dug ourselves into a hole. I think it’s a hard issue to take a look at because I love the Twins and I’ve been going since I was a kid.”
One thing that’s surprising is that Twins fans are saving their vitriol for Selig and sparing Pohlad, who, it can be argued, is willing to sell them out for a $120 million payment from Major League Baseball because the state refused to build him a ballpark he can afford to build himself.
“I think Carl gets really a bad rap,” says Paul Peterson, 49, who works for the facilities department at the Pillsbury Center in Minneapolis and says he’s not really a fan, but would like to see a new ballpark built. “He was the one who kept the team here all these years, and I get a little upset at the fans — just because the man has got good business talent and he’s accumulated a lot of wealth, he still has to be a businessman, and needs to make a good return on his investment. So I get a little upset with the fans sort of expecting that Carl is supposed to somehow give Minnesota a baseball team. It’s still is a business.”
A very profitable business, according to Forbes magazine, which says the Twins made $5.5 million last year. (Selig, who says that baseball teams are hemorrhaging money, disputes Forbes’ figures. The Selig-Forbes argument prompted a comment from Hocking that will surely end up in collections of baseball quotes someday: “Gee, should I believe a magazine that spends 365 days a year researching finances, or someone who has zero credibility?”)
Still, Klinkner, the fan from Winona, says, profitable business or no, it doesn’t make sense for the Twins to pay for their own stadium when they know that when push comes to shove, some public money is likely to be available.
“I think anybody that knows anything about it knows that whether it’s Carl or it’s ‘Joe’ or whoever owns the team, you know, it’s one thing for us to say [Pohlad should build a stadium], but if we were in his shoes, it would take an unusual person that would say, ‘Hey, I don’t have to do this, but I’m gonna,’” he says.
And not only that, but the Twins are also something more than a business in the estimation of some, even Marc Mueller, 28, a clerk at Let It Be Records on the downtown Nicollet Mall, who says the Twins need a new stadium even though he calls himself “not really a big fan.”
“A stadium I think isn’t any different from having a large arts center or a decent library or aquarium,” he says. “There’s going to be intellectual types who argue that a stadium isn’t the same as an art museum. There’s going to be sports fans that argue that we need a stadium more than an art museum. But all of this is just leisure, whether it’s art or books or music or sports. You want to be a big city, you’ve got to have things like this. And the Metrodome, I’ve been there a few times, and it is a pretty crappy stadium. They should have done better in the first place, and this is our chance to do one better.”
And if financing a stadium with tax dollars sounds like corporate welfare, Mueller sounds fatalistic about it. “That’s just the way sporting is,” he says. “It’s really too bad that it’s gotten to that. But you can say that about pretty much any sport.”
“I was thinking about that on the way up here,” says Klinkner. “G.M. did that a few years ago when they built the Saturn plant. They said, ‘Hey, we’re going to put this Saturn plant somewhere in the United States, so if you want it, get in line. Shoot us a deal.’ There’s a demand for baseball teams right now.”
“It’s gotta happen,” Gardenhire says of a new stadium. “There’s a lot of people working too hard, putting a lot of time and effort into getting this thing done, and there’s a lot of people here that are going to figure out how it can happen and not take it out of the taxpayers’ pockets.”
One of those people trying to figure it out is Rybak, the mayor. He says he won’t let his city make a bad deal with the Twins.
“We’re stepping to the table with a great, unique opportunity, and if the Twins are ready to do it, we’re ready to play ball. If not, we can’t control that. I think the public has grown quite weary of citizens having to subsidize sports when sports won’t come to the table. So if the Twins come to the table with a good deal, we want ‘em here and we’ll make it all work.”
Opening Day always draws a big crowd and lots of excitement. It’s the second home game that’s the first test of a team’s ability to draw. The Twins and their fans acquit themselves nicely on Saturday night: 25,268 people turn out to watch the Twins beat the Tigers again, 7-3, improving the Twins’ record to 7-5.
But while that’s a solid attendance figure, it’s not enough people to prevent the Metrodome from reverting back to its old self. Without a butt in every seat and 50,000 voices creating cascades of noise, the Hefty-bag right field fence is somehow more noticeable, the vast upper deck seems darker, colder, farther away from the action. The essential airplane hangerness of the dome reasserts itself.
But it’s more complicated than that. It always is when you talk about baseball stadiums. The dome does have one advantage over that proposed roof-ready but open-air ballpark: At game time, it’s pouring outside.
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)