"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)
They not so patiently await the revelation.
In sports bars, on athletic fields, next to radios, in front of televisions blocking all channels except Fox News, they are ready for the day they know will come: confirmation of The Conspiracy.
Fortunately The Conspiracy is like one of those fill-in-the-blank short-story books. The content can change, the origin can change, the malefactors can change. But always remaining the same, especially in the worlds of sports and politics, is the understanding that whenever you’ve been defeated, whatever hasn’t gone your way — it’s The Conspiracy’s fault.
I must confess that I’m such a non-conspiracy theorist that I had a dream once in which President Kennedy came to see me to explain that, yes, he had been shot both from the front and the back, but, no, it wasn’t a conspiracy. As my imaginary JFK perfectly analogized, it was like those occasions when two sets of bank robbers show up at the same branch at the same hour. The more inviting, and more poorly protected, the target, the more likely it is that more than one person or group will try to attack it. It’s been four years since that dream, and I still can’t shake the idea that coincidence is the only theory that is not fatally contradicted by at least one of the known facts of Nov. 22, 1963.
Of course, I’m either the only person in the world smart enough to feel that way — or the only one dumb enough (unless The Conspiracy can now inject dreams into people’s brains) — and I was only the first test subject.
In either case, The Conspiracy has showed itself twice this month. It dressed up a bunch of 13-year-olds from all across New York City as 12-year-olds from Harlem — so that, in the words of a New Jersey coach, “everybody from Washington to Maryland to Pennsylvania to Delaware was screwed.” The Conspiracy had barely taken a pause to breathe after its previous sports exertions when it co-opted me, CNN, ABC Radio and Salon to defile the chances of the 2002 Florida State University football team.
First, to the Little League drama and the explosion of media coverage that followed the revelation that three of the players from New York’s Harlem All-Stars might have lived, part time or full time, in areas outside the league’s assigned boundaries.
Geography is no little issue when it comes to Little League baseball. The 1992 winners from Zamboanga, the Philippines, were disqualified after the discovery that their players constituted a virtual national all-star team. Some of the youngsters had been recruited from literally hundreds of miles away, and there are still anecdotes told of how some of them not only did not speak the primary language of their teammates, but in fact did not even recognize it.
Lost in the perfidy of the 2001 Bronx, N.Y., team in using a star pitcher, Danny Almonte, who was not only not 12 years old but in fact 14, was the equally crass truth that Almonte and his catcher both had spent the regular season of Little League play on teams in the Dominican Republic.
As usual with The Conspiracy and those who adhere to it, there is a germ of appropriate doubt. The adults who stride through Little League like Gulliver among the Lilliputians include a vainglorious element — like the backers of the Bronx’s Rolando Paulino League — who will happily use the kids for their own personal benefit. These manipulators had gotten away with it for week after week, and round after round, just last year. And they did play their baseball just a few subway stops up from where this year’s Harlem team was based.
These are all valid, if mildly paranoid, reasons for suspicion. But what engulfed the Harlem kids wasn’t suspicion; it was a virtual presumption of guilt. Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Penn., received anonymous faxes and letters claiming some of the Harlem players were overage and might’ve violated residency requirements. Overnight packages were sent to rival coaches and leagues. The New Jersey coach quoted above, Tom Raynor of Hamilton, was one of at least two to file official protests. Little League, having already buttressed its rules by requiring eligibility documentation running to eight pages per player, investigated promptly and dismissed the charges.
And that action simply served to enhance The Conspiracy’s credibility. The New York newspaper Newsday promptly assigned one of its better reporters, Stephanie Saul, to do some old-fashioned gumshoe work. Using telephone directories and knocking on a lot of doors, she determined that two star Harlem players, Alibay Barkley and Jeremy Lopez, were believed by their neighbors to live in a building in the west Bronx. A third, Andrew Diaz, appeared to have a home address not in Harlem, but in northern Manhattan.
The next day, even the New York Times put the news of Little League’s second Harlem investigation on its front page. Now The Conspiracy was in sight and could be chased. Raynor rhetorically asked a CNN producer: “They said to me the kids are eligible to play. Then why is Little League still investigating? That means that they didn’t investigate or didn’t investigate thoroughly enough, so they just blew me off.”
What Raynor evidently did not know was that the allegations upon which he’d based his protest had involved players other than Barkley, Lopez, and Diaz. Those other players had been cleared, and despite a laughably small investigative team, within 36 hours of Newsday’s story, Little League was then also able to clear Barkley, Lopez, and Diaz.
The truth turned out to be that a few years ago, when they became old enough to participate in Little League programs, the three kids had lived exclusively within the boundary of the Harlem circuit. Over the years, their homes became destabilized, and they spent significant periods of time in the homes of relatives outside the official boundary. Such players — whether from inner-city New York or rural Wyoming — are routinely “grandfathered” into their original leagues, in hopes of preserving some of the constancy of childhood at which the other circumstances of life have eaten away. The Harlem League organizers had not filed the proper waiver paperwork with the national office.
The Conspiracy turned out to be a horrible, creeping, insidious, unsportsmanlike, clerical error.
The true evil here, perhaps, was the lack of context. Even the New York papers drew an immediate association between the nefarious Bronx team of last year and the paperwork-challenged Harlem team of 2002. Moreover, though Newsday was precise enough to print the supposed external addresses of the three kids, not until the final day of the investigation was it even noted that, at worst, Barkley and Lopez were living, part time, about two-and-a-half miles west of the Harlem League boundary. And Diaz’s second address was West 170th Street. The Harlem League’s uptown boundary is West 160th Street. Because of a broken family, the kid might have been living, part of the time, 10 city blocks away — a ten-minute walk.
The Conspiracy’s grip is so tight that even when confronted with the geography and asked if he’d really feel cheated if it turned out the opposing third baseman was living 10 blocks too far north, Coach Raynor told our CNN producer: “You bet I would.”
On the opposite end of the investigation, before it cleared them, Harlem organizers and protesters cried racism. While it is naive at best to assume that racism, and big-city/small-town tensions, have played no part, that interpretation ignores the generalized, institutionalized suspicion that transcends all. Here, both the accusers and the accused saw The Conspiracy.
Is it any wonder, then, that the same assumption that the other guy is ripping you off should flow upward into college sports? Two weeks ago in this space, I railed against the selection of United Airlines Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer’s words “Let’s Roll” as the motto for Florida State’s 2002 football team. In short, it still seems to me that insomuch as we are yet grasping for words to describe last Sept. 11, those two should be — to whatever degree possible — reserved for remembrances of that awful date. I worried particularly about the prospect of “Let’s Roll” appearing on Florida State football memorabilia (whether university sanctioned or unauthorized), or of its drifting into the lexicon of what drunken football fans, at whatever the venue, might chant to exhort their team. My concern was, at heart, the issue of respect.
Oh no, it wasn’t.
Now I was The Conspiracy. Only 30 or so Florida State fans e-mailed me at ABC, although each took between two and 10 swings. The blindness of their anger exceeded anything I’d previously experienced in 23 years of covering sports professionally. According to them, I was
The last reference requires some elaboration. Spurrier was the coach of Florida State’s far more successful rival, the University of Florida (and you should’ve read what one reader who signed herself “Concerned Parent” said about him). Though he left that job in January to become head coach of the NFL Washington Redskins, The Conspiracy requires Spurrier to continue to run his former school’s team by proxy and to run me by processes unknown.
For concentrated irrationality, the Florida State e-mailers had already won the national championship. With the exception of a few rational correspondents (two of whom reminded me to keep their support a secret from the others), there was no substantive defense of Coach Bowden’s decision to use Beamer’s words. Within days, my fears about unauthorized merchandising came true. A Florida State fans’ weekly — The Osceola — appeared with a cover picture of Bowden and, in big yellow letters, “Let’s Roll.” I pointed this out to some of the e-mailers who’d continued the joust. One replied that of course the Osceola had used the phrase, because “they have real reporters.”
But the furthest distance strayed from reality was yet to be measured. I got a well-written missive from a fan who employed one of the few strains of defensible logic to his position: namely, that Florida State had intended, whether anybody else approved or not, to honor Todd Beamer and all those aboard Flight 93. He almost had me until he reverted to the world of those who know The Conspiracy when they see it.
He concluded: “If Todd Beamer and the brave souls who stood up to the terrorists had a plane load of FSU players and fans backing them up, the terrorists get their asses pitched out the emergency exits and the plane lands safely. That I know.”
I wrote him back urgently, asking if he could really mean that. His reply was just as urgent and nearly as surprised. This, he confessed, was his “fantasy” for how Sept. 11 might have turned out different. For that admission, I can cut him a little slack. Doubtless each of us has some similarly unrealistic desire to go back in time and alter events.
In fact, we had quite a pleasant dialogue about how the pain of that day seeps into all the parts of our lives, and he suggested I send the operative paragraph, and my answer, to many of those who had been as irate as he had. I even sent it to Ms. Concerned Parent. She shot back that obviously I’d made up the e-mail, and the writer.
Of course I had. The Conspiracy wouldn’t have it any other way.
Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."More Keith Olbermann.
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)