"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
1) Jennifer Love Hewitt, “BareNaked” (Jive)
Not that the actress who once noted that the real message of the posters for “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer” was “I Know What Your Breasts Did Last Summer” is playing off her body or anything. To start off this co-written single, the Queen of Televised Adorableness moves into a melody seriously picked out on acoustic guitar, then twists a line just like Sheryl Crow: “Didja ever have that dream where you’re walking naked down the street?” Another terrific moment: “Didja ever feel so deep that you speak your mind, you put others right to sleep?” sung matter of factly, like someone shaking hair out of her face, and then a chord change hands the number over to the Britney factory. The song fights back, but it never gets out of that hole. Or that cloud. Or whatever that prison of vagueness is.
2) Nicolas Guagnini, “30,000″ (1997-2000), in “Ultimas Tendencias” (Latest Directions), Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires (June 16)
As you approach the piece in its gallery, bits of black paint on 25 wooden rods, 1 centimeter wide, 45 centimeters high, give the impression of many fragmented faces. Close up, as you circle the work, moving from right to left, the splotches resolve themselves into a single male face: dark hair, dark circles under the eyes, a neatly knotted tie. As you continue to circle, the face begins to dissolve until, when you arrive at the left side of the construction, it’s a complete blank. What it was was a model for a proposed monument in a proposed Garden of Memory: a memorial to those executed, tortured to death or disappeared during Argentina’s barbaric 1976-83 military dictatorship, a regime that announced itself as El Proceso Reorganizacisn Nacional; Guagnini, born in Buenos Aires, was 10 when it began.
The feeling the thing gave off was this: You’re walking down the street, now, 20 years after the fall of the generals, who today live among you, perhaps under house arrest, perhaps free. You think you see someone, someone you’ve assumed is dead. Like Dr. Zhivago glimpsing Lara from the bus, you rush toward the person — no, it’s not who you thought it was. But then you see another one. And another. And another.
3) Nazareth Pacheco, “Untitled 1997-98,” in “El Hilo de la Trama” (The Thread Unraveled), Museo de Arte Latinoamericano (Buenos Aires, June 12)
For an exhibition subtitled “Contemporary Brazilian Art,” Pacheco, born in 1961, was working on the world as it was when she was a little girl, fashioning a severe cocktail dress out of black and white beads and safety razors. There was nothing punk about it. Hanging in the air, it was very nervous, very thin, very Warhol Party at the Factory, very neurasthenic, very future lung cancer.
4) Alvin Youngblood Hart, “Down in the Alley” (Memphis International)
Hart’s previous re-creations of old American music — country blues, especially, but also his own songs, draped in the must of the past — seemed both felt and forced. You could imagine him in a time machine, dropping in quarter after quarter, the thing buzzing and smoking, giving off mood but never actually going anywhere. But here, as part of the first offering from a modestly ambitious new label — other releases include “The Missing Link,” previously unknown 1979 recordings by the cranky and very dirty hobo singer Harmonica Frank (1908-84), and a live album by Memphis soul singer Carla Thomas — Hart wears the old blues like clothes, kicking up a storm of banjo notes on “Deep Blue Sea” for the pleasure of the sound, clattering around “Broke and Hungry” as if it’s his own apartment.
5) Robert Plant, “Dreamland” (Universal)
It happened in 1971 in “Rock and Roll,” “Stairway to Heaven” and “The Battle of Evermore” on “ZoSo.” With visionary versions of ’60s chestnuts (“Morning Dew”), scattered country blues themes (“Win My Train Fare Home”) and originals (“Last Time I Saw Her”), it happens now. It’s a leap through time — back in time, it seems, until the aura of the unlikely takes over. The freedom in the music is the freedom of rehearing old songs as if they had been imagined by other people, but never written, never recorded. If the songs are to be put into the world someone else will have to do it, so the singer volunteers. In this suspension, everything is in harmony and no possibilities of rhythmic force, of momentum generating more of itself (“Skip’s Song,” from the late Skip Spence), are foreclosed. Since Led Zeppelin broke up Robert Plant has been much more a fan than a performer, but here the distinction is meaningless. He’ll be 54 on Aug. 20, his skin is creased like tinfoil, but inside it he sounds completely at home.
6) Percival Everett, “Grand Canyon, Inc.” (Versus Press, 1999)
The birth of an American con man, or, President Truman attends a flood in Iowa by way of President Coolidge’s attendance at a flood in Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927″: “Daddy Tanner drove his son to southern Iowa one spring to see the devastation caused by a major flood. There was a huge crowd of people standing near the edge of the sandbag dike and they joined in and it turned out that President Truman had come down to see the devastation too. The great man kept saying things to a little fat man beside him and the little fat man would write those things down on his notepad.
“The sight of pigs, cows, barns and a sleigh bed floating away did not impress young Tanner, but he was impressed by the idea of having a little fat man with a notepad by his side.”
7) Syd Straw, Village Underground (New York, June 28)
The Magic Rat writes: “At a show from the unclassifiable downtown singer, you’re apt to get funny, rambling stories punctuated by dialogue with the audience and interspersed with drink requests (‘I’m the thinking man’s drinking woman’). Straw’s voice is wry, then yearning — and the struggle to reconcile the two lends cohesion to sets that can run from the jazz standard ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ to Straw’s blasted, desperate ‘CBGB’s.’ This time, accompanied only by pianist Joe Ruddick and bewildered last-minute addition Dave Schramm on guitar, she ran through her ‘Madrid,’ the Magnetic Fields’ ‘The Book of Love,’ Shania Twain’s ‘You’re Still the One’ (with novelist Rick Moody on vocals and guitar), culminating in a beautiful performance of Peter Blegvad’s ‘Gold,’ which, like all great interpretive singing, left you unable to separate the singer from the song.”
8) Handsome Family, “Live at Schuba’s Tavern” (DCN)
On this December night in Chicago last year, Brett and Rennie Sparks’ Gothic songs — which owe as much to Emily Dickinson as to “The Wagoner’s Lad,” as much to “Apache” as to Edgar Allen Poe — take on a new drama. The sense of an alcoholic Shakespearean actor reciting “King Lear” for an underattended tent show audience in a Colorado mining town somewhere around 1880, always present in Handsome Family music, is heightened. With unexpected deep breaths, with a deepened voice, the singer is suddenly 10 feet tall. Lyric writer Rennie makes jokes between numbers (“If we’re over $5,000 in debt that means you’re off your medication, right?”); they seem to push her husband out of the nightclub, into the streets, until within minutes he’s wandering the prairie like Brigham Young with no one behind him.
9) Versnica Longoni, displays at Salsipuedes Condimentos, Calle Honduras 4874, Salispuedes, Calle Honduras 4814 and O’D. A (Objetos de Artistas), Calle Costa Rica 4670 (Palermo Viejo, Buenos Aires, June)
The 31-year-old Longoni makes dolls of various sizes, from life-size to 8-inch amulets (a woman holding an aspirin between her legs to ensure virginity on her wedding day). But her best new work, recently in the window of Salispuedes Condimentos (an accessories shop down the street from the parent clothes store), is a whole population of 4-inch figures. They look like dada dolls: like variations on the “magical bishop” cardboard costume Hugo Ball assumed in Zurich in 1916 to pronounce his sound-poems, with wings for arms, claws for hands, a striped tube almost replacing his head.
None of Longoni’s dolls look precisely like Ball’s costume, but all carry the same suggestion of an absolute transformation, which isn’t necessarily willed. Beginning six years ago, Longoni’s project came out of her journeys through Argentina and elsewhere in South America, researching the way images of local saints migrated into local popular culture. It was a process of desacralization, where explicit or literal religious connotations were lost and the imagery was freed, even though in new objects vestiges of ritual power remained. Thus in the Condimentos window you could see a froglike creature with three red roses sprouting from its featureless head; a white body with faint black circuits traced on its trunk and a head of two wired light bulbs; women giving birth; a person made of typescript clutching a blank black book; a torture victim in a straitjacket; someone with horns or knives protruding from the chest like the spikes of a stegosaurus’ tail, many more.
With Argentina’s economic collapse, Longoni explained, there is little gallery or institutional space for young artists. But with no formal art world to work in, a show in a shop window is as much of a show as one in a gallery. More people see the work, with the spell of art’s own sanctimony absent and the notion of buying something ordinary. In that sense Longoni’s work is itself part of the process of desacralization it fools with. Just as Hugo Ball migrated from dada blasphemy to his own kind of sainthood, dying a devout Catholic, here art migrated out of arthood. The size of the dolls demanded that the passerby lean forward and peer into each figure, its details too small for anything to be obvious, each one seemingly silenced and speaking, damned and telling the same joke.
10) Julio Cortazar, “Hopscotch,” trans. from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa (Pantheon, 1963, 1966)
In Paris in the late ’50s, the Serpent Club — various not-young expatriate bohemians — lay around an apartment, listening to old 78s. “Two corpses,” the narrator says of Bix Beiderbecke and Eddie Lang “clinching and breaking” on cornet and guitar “one night in 1928 or 29,” and over the next 25 pages more corpses clinch and break with the living. Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues” goes on, on a disc made of Bakelite: “The needle made a terrible scratch, something began to move down deeper as if there were layers of cotton between voice and ears, Bessie singing with a bandaged face, stuck in a hamper of soiled clothes.” “The intercessors,” the narrator thinks, “one unreality showing us another, like painted saints pointing towards Heaven. This cannot exist, we cannot really be here, I cannot be someone whose name is Horacio. That ghost here, the voice of a Negro woman killed in an automobile accident twenty years ago: links in a nonexistent chain.” After Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington the narrator calls for “Stack O’Lee Blues” by Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians — he doesn’t say if it’s the 1924 or 1928 version.
In the late ’50s Fred Waring wasn’t a corpse; he had his own TV show, peddling white-out jazz and standards, the safest music imaginable. But in Paris the narrator doesn’t know that. He or Cortazar himself is trying to figure out why “Every so often the dead fit the thought of the living.” Like no one else I’ve read, the great Argentine novelist (1914-84) gets to the oddity of the fraternity that comes together when one is listening to and feeling at one with the dead, who on records are more physically present than in any other medium: on the page, on the screen, even in a personal memory of a night when you were there to see the singer, alive.
The Rude Mechs' theatrical adaptation of Greil Marcus' book "Lipstick Traces" will play Jan. 30-Feb. 1 at DiverseWorks in Houston. For more columns by Greil Marcus, visit his column archive.More Greil Marcus.
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)