"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)
Before I get down to discussing Gary Null, Ph.D., and his massive, irresponsible and nearly unreadable book, “AIDS: A Second Opinion,” I need to confess my bias. I’ve been infected with HIV for a long time — since 1983, by my own calculation. For 13 years, since I first discovered my sero status, I’ve been taking anti-retroviral medications, the so-called AIDS cocktail, in various strengths and combinations. I haven’t been off the pills in all that time. Apart from neuropathy in my hands and feet, I’m in good health, with no detectable virus and T-cells in the normal range — in other words, my immune system is functioning as it should.
By contrast, a friend, infected for as long as I’ve been, died a few days ago of “AIDS-related complications.” This was someone who worked out, lifted weights and once walked the length and breadth of the state of Vermont to raise money for AIDS and prove he could do it. In recent years, two sero-positive friends have dropped dead of heart attacks after embarking on healthful, “life-enhancing” diet and exercise regimes. I can’t be impartial about Gary Null’s book. I am also not an idiot, which I think Null takes me for.
Null — a nutritionist, lecturer, broadcaster, “educator” and “one of America’s leading health and fitness writers and alternative practitioners,” according to his publicity — is the author of more than 100 books, treatises and tracts on stress-free living, anti-aging, proper eating, “springtime cleansing,” “lifetime dieting,” “healing with magnets,” “juicing,” weight management and “life changes.” Gary Null, Ph.D., isn’t just a man but an industry, whose Web site offers for sale not just “Gary Null’s Friendly Fiber” — “easy come, easy go” — but a whole Sears catalog of pricey Gary Null products (“Gary’s Incredible Green Stuff!” “Great New Videos Every Week!”), along with live chats, sermons, Web links and Null’s philosophical musings on “world issues.”
In addition to his role as a fitness guru, Null is the kind of pop-psych P.T. Barnum, never absent in a crisis, who will “help you find answers” to those really tough questions: “What rules don’t I want to obey anymore?” “Who in my life is toxic?” “What can I do without a lot of money?” (Answer: “Pay attention to the oft-ignored simpler, non-materialistic side.”)
He’s also a longtime AIDS denialist, or “dissident,” as they’re called, part of a loose fraternity of scientists, patients and (mainly) quacks who insist that AIDS is a false epidemic; that HIV either doesn’t cause it or doesn’t really exist; that the medications normally taken to fight the virus are pure poison, foisted on a frightened population by the pharmaceutical industry — and other claims, not all of them wacky, along this basic line. Generally, an AIDS dissident is one who rejects the accepted formula “HIV=AIDS” and proposes an alternative model — and thus alternative treatments — for a condition many doctors and their infected patients are now routinely calling “HIV disease.”
Null himself has been beating the anti-AIDS drum since at least 1994, when he wrote a column for Penthouse magazine titled “AIDS Is Not a Death Sentence,” and introduced four “survivors” with stories of natural healing — one through “hypothermia,” another with “bitter melon,” a third “holistically” or with dinitrochlorobenzene (DNCB), a briefly faddish “immunity booster,” long ago proved, like the others, to be useless in defeating the virus. None of these therapies can be demonstrated to have worked for anyone.
Then as now, Null subscribed to a discredited “cofactor” theory of AIDS, which held that HIV couldn’t and wouldn’t spread far beyond the high-risk groups in which it was first observed — intravenous drug users, homosexual men pursuing “a promiscuous, fast-track gay lifestyle,” hemophiliacs and others unlucky enough to have needed “blood transfusions and blood-factor products,” people whose immunity, Null baldly asserts, is likely to be compromised in the first place.
“Unfortunately,” Null reported in Penthouse, “both blood transfusions and such products as Factor 8, taken by hemophiliacs, can cause immune suppression and make one more susceptible to any infection, including HIV.” There was no knowing at the time he wrote the column how the burden of infection worldwide would shift increasingly to women, or how many healthcare workers, with one hapless prick of the needle, would experience the same course of illness as any promiscuous, fast-track lowlife. But now we do know, and Null still hasn’t changed his tune.
In last year’s primer, “Seven Steps to Perfect Health,” Null recommended what he does to everyone, all the time, whether or not they’re infected with a killer virus: a strict vegetarian diet; no processed foods; no dairy products, sugar, preservatives, coffee, tea or cola, etc.; multiple glasses every day of fresh fruit or vegetable juice — preferably squeezed from a $249.95 “Gary Null Juicer”; whole grains; nuts; seeds; seaweed; enemas; exercise; stress reduction and “pure water,” without fluoride or any other chemicals in it. You might want to look at your “environment,” too, Null suggests, for dust, mold and the residue of poisonous household cleansers. But above all, “embrace change,” get rid of those cynical, “toxic” attitudes and move forward to your goal!
Now, in “AIDS: A Second Opinion,” Null promises “to bring both establishment and dissenting views of the AIDS crisis into one volume,” to expose “half-truths” and provide “an unbiased, unflinching discussion of all sides” of the AIDS issue, “in clear, jargon-free prose.” Don’t you believe it.
From his windy introduction — “The first half of the book will run through many of the championed ideas of the establishment … and show that, brought to the bar of objective science, they are found wanting” — to his final remarks about “African ontology” and the prominent role of his fellow AIDS dissidents at the last International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, you know exactly which side Null will come down on, if you didn’t know it already. His book concludes with a slew of appendices, each offering an “AIDS Protocol” for natural healing, and each involving supplemental chemical, nutritional, herbal and vitamin therapies that would break the bank of most people with HIV in half an hour. You can take my word for that.
For years, at least until the Durban conference, it was largely the policy of AIDS researchers — medical and service bodies alike — not to engage the so-called dissidents in point-by-point debate. This has changed. The National Institutes of Health maintains an “Evidence that HIV Causes AIDS” fact sheet on its NIAID Web page along with up-to-date statistics about the worldwide spread of HIV that ought to curl Null’s hair. But they won’t.
When even Sen. Jesse Helms, long an opponent of foreign aid in any form, recommends an American appropriation of $500 million to fight AIDS in developing countries, Null’s blithe disregard of the evidence seems less blinkered than criminal. “It is a life-changing experience to go [to South Africa] and confront physically what it means to have 22 million people HIV positive without any drugs, without any real infrastructure to deliver drugs,” says Helms’ unlikely ally in the global AIDS fight, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt. “We went to a hospital in Johannesburg and we went through pediatrics wards, and we learned that about half the babies born in the hospital are HIV positive. I asked, ‘How long will these children live?’ Some were in preemie incubators. And they said, ‘Less than a year.’”
The strangest thing about “AIDS: A Second Opinion” is that it takes no account of real time, never mind real research, real statistics and real results. Some of the same “survivors” from Null’s Penthouse days are quoted again here, but we’re given no clue as to their current fate. At least, I couldn’t find any, despite 73 pages of notes in the back of the book. And when the late Michael Callen is quoted as if he were still alive, I nearly jumped out of my skin. (Callen, once famous as a long-term survivor of AIDS and adamantly opposed to the use of AZT, has been dead since 1993.)
Every effort has been made to trick out Null’s book as a scientific volume, which it’s not; no scientist will read it, I predict, except to mock it or dismiss it wholesale. With the help of his co-writer, James Feast, Null does manage to lurch through the 20-year history of the AIDS epidemic in a more or less straight line. Here’s perfidious Dr. Robert Gallo, snatching prizes and glory — and money — from his French rival, Dr. Luc Montagnier. There’s Margaret Heckler, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of health and human services, declaring that a vaccine for HIV would be ready in two years. The AZT controversy is rehashed to the point of madness, as if AZT monotherapy were still prescribed for anyone except expectant mothers, where its efficacy in preventing transmission of HIV from mother to child has been amply proved. As for the promised “jargon-free prose”:
“By now I imagine that you may be thinking something that can be put like this: ‘Gary, you claim to be even-handed, willing to seek positive approaches to health wherever they may be found, even, you have said, in the camp of the most rigid orthodoxy … But when it comes right down to it, you are nothing but a sourpuss naysayer, who seems to condemn every bright idea the establishment comes up with, from vaccines to AZT. Now I suppose you will have something bad to say about drug cocktails.’”
Yes. I was thinking exactly something that could be put like that.
It isn’t my place to tell anyone with HIV how and from whom they should get their treatment. Not that it matters much: The same people who can’t afford milk thistle extract, L-Carnitine, olive leaf and human growth hormone can’t afford $35, either, for a book that effectively directs them to spend more money.
Null’s book is also so thick with misinformation and specious reasoning, so badly written and so very long, it squashes even the few sound points he has to make — namely, that a complete overhaul of the American healthcare system is needed, that the pharmaceutical giants are, indeed, rapacious pigs, responsible for the deaths of millions, and that all patients need to be empowered for their own self-care: “Until AIDS patients are offered hope and nontoxic therapies, they must continue to follow their own intuition, do their own homework, and seek out help from like-minded individuals.” To that alone — and no more — I say amen.
Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.More Peter Kurth.
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)