"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)
Topics: Entertainment News
Few moments in music history were as earth-shattering, as galvanizing and exhilarating, as the summer of 1989 when a black man in a baseball cap and a goofball sporting a giant clock necklace commanded America to Fight the Powers that Be.
Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” will hold a place in pop music’s canon long after its authors have left our collective memory, even after hip-hop morphs into whatever new form it will inevitably take. Like “Do the Right Thing,” the Spike Lee film to which it was tied, the song broke at a crucial period in America’s struggle with race, capturing both the psychological and social conflicts of the time. Unabashedly political, “Fight the Power” was confrontational in the way great rock has always been. It had the kind of irreverence that puts bands on FBI lists. “Fight” demanded action and, as the band’s most accessible hit, acted as the perfect summation of its ideology and sound. Every kid in America, white, black or brown, could connect to the song’s uncompromising cultural critique, its invigoratingly danceable sound and its rallying call.
And who could blame them? Ultimately, parachute pants and Flock of Seagulls haircuts couldn’t quell the frustrations of the Me Decade. The presidential tag team of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. had dismantled a battery of social programs, squashing urban communities already struggling with poverty, guns and violence. Crack ravaged the inner city. AIDS rocked the nation. Black leaders, including Jesse Jackson, tried to bathe America’s race problem in as bright a spotlight as possible. The artistic community, already defiant in the face of Reagan-era conservatism, became even more provocative. The ’80s gave us Robert Mapplethorpe, the U2 of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” Darling Nikki.
Rap had already seeped into the mainstream, heightening the senses of a culture steeped in early ’80s frivolity. By the middle of the decade, rappers turned into megastars as rivals from the East and West Coasts splintered into bands of hardcore social critics like Boogie Down Productions, menacing gangstas like NWA and Ice-T, or artsy hip-hop MCs like De La Soul.
On this explosive cultural landscape rap had created, Public Enemy was a bomb attack. Producer Hank Shocklee, with his riotous Bomb Squad, created a sound unlike any other in rap music. Pulsing with noisy air sirens, thrashing guitar licks, sonorous bass lines and chaotic samples, P.E. could be louder than metal, funkier than soul. Enfolding those sounds around the booming, preacherlike rhythm of rapper Chuck D’s rich baritone was, as Shocklee once said, like putting “the voice of God in a storm.” The music brought urgency to the band’s message, while their concerts, videos and record covers spelled out the vision. P.E. stage shows, complete with beret-wearing, Uzi-toting militiamen led by “Minister of Information” Professor Griff, often seemed more like a paramilitary dry run or a Black Panther revival meeting than a pop concert.
But while many hip-hop artists of the time created lyrical snapshots of the ways racism devastated their personal lives, P.E. always explained the bigger picture. Songs on their first albums, “Yo, Bum Rush the Show” and “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” read like the black community’s 95 Theses: class anger, corporate exploitation, appropriation of black culture. Chuck D’s lyrics were loaded with cultural and religious references — most controversially, to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan — that challenged both American government and its docile citizenry. By 1989, Public Enemy was more than a rap act, it was a social movement.
“Fight the Power” ripped open a space for the band to take its proper place in the cultural mainstream. With “Fight,” P.E. stood alongside not only their hip-hop peers, but also legendary musical innovators and activists. Though it harked back to ’60s and ’70s protest music with its call for political engagement, the song surpassed its predecessors with its unbridled fury.
Not only did “Fight” epitomize an alienated nation frustrated by class conflict and lack of social progress, it told us what to do. It told us to revolt.
Erupting in a crescendo of drums and blistering samples, “Fight” begins with a pow, crashing like a fist against the senses. P.E.’s combustible Bomb Squad once again fused an anarchic mix of sounds into one synchronous and invigorating composition; alarms sound and basses thump as a groovy yet caustic guitar riff moves over staccato rhythms. Deep within the musical blizzard, a woman’s salty voice sings, “Come on, get down.” The Squad’s disruptive blend of street noise and old-school funk is the sonic counterpart to the rage and discipline of Chuck’s rhymes. You don’t know whether to dance or stand at attention.
From inside the storm, Chuck D comes out swinging, verbally hacking into scraps a roster of American icons: “Elvis was a hero to most/ But he never meant shit to me, you see/ Straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain/ Motherfuck him and John Wayne.” Arguably the most fearless lyric in all of popular music, this anti-ode to Elvis and John Wayne is a virtual flag-burning. Who better embodies the American ideal than Duke and the King, bumbling patriots who personified the nation’s illiberal character and defended its order, an order from which blacks had been routinely barred? Chuck D cutting them up so brazenly was like a spiritual emancipation for anyone who felt excluded from American culture. In making a mockery of two of the country’s greatest heroes, P.E. assailed white America’s fairy-tale world and boldly accepted their place at its margins.
Chuck goes on, “I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped/ Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps/ Sample a look back you look and find/ Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check.” History looks very different when seen through the eyes of the oppressed. In ’89, Americans were only beginning to grasp the profound sense of disaffection minorities felt in a culture that had made heroes out of those who historically abused them or to whom they had little cultural connection. Chuck told us that those heroes did nothing for him or his people and that the advantages they created for Americans were never enjoyed by blacks. So what meaning could they have? His confrontational tone and the near-blasphemy of the words could make a lump rise in your throat. You couldn’t believe he said it, but you were glad he did.
For Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” was the ultimate declaration of intent. Chuck D called out to the “brothers and sisters” in the street who were “swingin’ while I’m singin’/ Givin’ whatcha gettin’.” Chuck wanted to let us know that he was black, he was proud and he was ready to force the establishment to “give us what we want/ Gotta give us what we need.” The power structure had to be subverted, he believed, and only the people could make change. At a time when most rap songs spelled out the violence their authors would wreak within the confines of the black community, “Fight” sought to redirect the rage by declaring battle on the power structure.
Chuck’s unapologetic lyrics called up a new kind of activism, born of knowledge and organization, not only passionate protest. “What we need is awareness/ We can’t get careless,” he commanded. “Let’s get down to business/ Mental self-defensive fitness.” Intelligence is both weapon and armor. But it would be a mistake to think that “Fight the Power” only affected the black community. Whether intentionally or not, the song also had a penetrating effect on listeners from all ethnic backgrounds, including white kids.
Through their music, Public Enemy suggested to Americans that oppression operates on many levels. Kids raised on MTV and rap would soon wear the label of sluggard Generation X-ers, known for their apathy, a cynicism brought on by a lack of connection to their broken communities and families, withdrawal from a government they no longer trusted and disillusionment with a corporate world that exploited them. Thus, a white kid who would never know the frustration of watching paramedics mishandle a dying friend or white artists make millions off the work of blacks would still know what it was like to feel thoroughly alienated.
These ideas were a threat to an American status quo already beginning to comfort itself with notions of multiculturalism and political correctness. “Fight the Power” brusquely dismissed the liberal hope that racial injustices will be remedied once everyone realizes we’re all the same beneath the skin: “People, people we are the same/ No, we’re not the same/ ‘Cause we don’t know the game.” Meanwhile, conservatives, with their decreasing attention to social programs, seemed content to let America’s race problems stay within the borders of the inner city.
Public Enemy wouldn’t let that happen and their message was clearly heard. “Fight the Power” sold nearly half a million copies and made “Fear of a Black Planet,” the album from which it was cut, a bestseller that’s been called rap’s answer to “Sgt. Pepper.”
Public Enemy faced a host of troubles after the release of “Fight the Power.” Professor Griff’s anti-Semitic remarks put the group in hot water and led to Griff’s dismissal. Rapper Flavor Flav’s drug problems made national news. And though the band found critical and commercial success with their next album, “Apocalypse ’91: The Enemy Strikes Black,” they eventually seemed to hit a creative wall. Listeners eventually moved on and rap went on to produce its next generation of hip-hop prodigies.
A decade after “Fight the Power,” the recording industry offered up Eminem as the new king of rap. Like many of his peers, for whom shock value has become the modus operandi, Eminem tries to build a career around button-pushing rhymes. His “Stan” is a good tune with a nice hook and clever lyrics, but like most of his work, it ultimately offers little more than a glimpse of a young punk’s psychosis. Jay Z, with his delightfully sleazy cache of pimp music, joins Slim Shady in the industry’s catalog of rap geniuses. But are the lyrics to “Big Pimpin’,” an admittedly danceable megahit, really profound? “You know I thug ‘em, fuck ‘em, love ‘em, leave ‘em/ ‘Cause I don’t fuckin need ‘em/ Take ‘em out the hood, keep ‘em lookin’ good/ But I don’t fuckin’ feed ‘em.”
Today’s artists don’t seem to know what real provocateurs like Public Enemy know: Shock is a short-lived effect that wears off quickly and has no real consequences. Art can be relevant without being overtly political, but if there are no real motives or ideas behind shock, its images too often fall flat.
Maybe the culture is softer than it was when “Fight the Power” hit the scene. We’re even more inundated with commercialism and the market’s skewed view of what’s controversial. “Urban” culture has become a trend factory, and hip-hop’s dependence on faux shock has reduced the complexity of the art form. Rebellion has been commodified, a fact that is perfectly illustrated by the proliferation of rap stars’ clothing labels. Dissent itself has become unthreatening.
So, sadly, there will probably never be another “Fight the Power.” A song so rich with meaning, so smart and defiant, couldn’t reach today’s listeners, their senses numbed by too many years of schlock. Arguably, hip-hop itself is dead. Perhaps there have been worse deaths in popular culture: the death of jazz, the novel, God. But hip-hop’s demise will mark the greater death of rock music and everything it allowed: snarling rebellion, sensual abandon, flipping the bird to the establishment.
“Fight the Power” pushed audiences to question authority, and said what we were too afraid to say about American society. The song came at a time when young people, who were being cast aside as gangstas or slackers, were hungry for meaning and connection. Not since the idealized ’60s had there been such a force in music toward action. Music fans were reminded of their political strength and their right to defy the establishment. When Public Enemy called us to battle, it revived the notion that it just might be possible to fight the system. At the very least, we knew it was necessary.
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)