"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)
1) Jaime O’Neill, “It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s enough, already” (San Francisco Chronicle, Aug. 4)
After dismissing the notion of the teenager as “a marketing construct” and seemingly regretting that, at 58, he ever was one, rejecting all forms of youth culture as manipulations, frauds and posing, O’Neill hits the clincher: “The anthems of the ’60s anti-war movement have killed more of us than the war itself.” Inarguable, of course, but we need details: How many people did Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” kill as opposed to Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home”? Country Joe and the Fish’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” vs. Edwin Starr’s “War”? Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” vs. Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets”? Oh, right, wrong question, that was a pro-war song — how many lives did it save?
2) Bruce Springsteen, “The Rising” (Columbia) It’s too long — at 72 minutes, longer than the Rolling Stones’ storied “Exile on Main Street.” The poorer songs — “Into the Fire,” “Let’s Be Friends (Skin to Skin)” — seem to go on forever. The set may well be what the film critic Manny Farber defined as “white elephant art”: as an indirect but inescapable picture of the world in which Americans have lived since a New York headline proclaimed “U.S ATTACKED,” it is certainly “an expensive hunk of well-regulated area.”
It is also less like any sort of pop music album than a speech — maybe a speech given without an audience, like Lincoln out in the woods declaiming to the trees. The speaker tries on many voices, rhetorical devices, exercises in repetition or metaphor. As with Martin Luther King’s 1963 address to the March on Washington, neither the classical passages (“Further On [Up the Road]“) or gratuitous grace notes (“Empty Sky”) make it obvious that what the speaker is doing is building a platform to support the weight of what, in fact, he has to say — and for the grandeur with which he means to say it.
That is the title song. As “The Rising” begins you can hear the speaker stand with his feet planted on the platform, which may be no more than a tree stump; the music his voice summons tips him off the stage and out of the forest, off to search for his audience, to see his face in others’ faces. The song is at once enormous and simple, an act of will and a ready-made. It has room in it — room for the dead and for those who mourn them, for those who care and those who don’t, for those who believe they can’t be touched and those who already have been.
It may be that the song actually has room for the enormity of the event it means to enclose. It may be that the song speaks the language of the event: not the language of those who perpetrated it, but the language of people trying to make sense of it, to translate it, to at once accept and resist its reality. The song seems much too short, so when it’s over you play it again.
3/4, Elvis Presley, “Elvis Talks About His Career,” on “Live in Las Vegas” (RCA) and “Hound Dog” on “Roots Revolution” (Tomato) or “Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Evolution of Elvis Presley — The Complete Louisiana Hayride Archives” (Music Mill)
If you want to know who he was and where he came from (“From my side of the story. There’s a lot that’s come out about what happened, but never from my side”), listen to the astonishing onstage monologue that ends the first disc of this four-CD set. It’s August 24, 1969, three weeks into the engagement at the International Hotel in Las Vegas that brought Presley back to life as a performer, and he feels happily naked, sly, sardonic, coolly nailing his enemies, one by one: “So they arranged to put me on television. At that particular time there was a lot of controversy — you didn’t see people moving — out in public. They were gettin’ it on in the back rooms, but you didn’t see it out in public too much. So there was a lot of controversy … and I went to the Ed Sullivan Show. They photographed me from the waist up. And Sullivan’s standing over there saying, ‘Sumbitch.’ I said, ‘Thank you, Ed, thank you.’ I didn’t know what he was calling me, at the time.”
To hear the controversy as a thing in itself — the event from which half the country was fleeing while the other half was running right for it — listen to the version of “Hound Dog” Presley offers on the December 15, 1956, broadcast from the No. 2 country radio show (“They’ve been looking for something new in the folk music field for a long time, and I think you’ve got it,” the host says hopefully to Elvis at his first Hayride appearance, in 1954). On “Roots Revolution,” new musicians have done note-for-note re-recordings of the original, very distant backing parts from guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black and drummer D.J. Fontana (not Jimmy Day’s steel guitar), but the difference is marginal — the sound is still bad, the performance is still shockingly fast, hard and mean, and the screams from the crowd comprise the most excited sound you’ll ever hear in your life.
5) Emry Arthur, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” on “Man of Constant Sorrow and Other Timeless Mountain Ballads” (Yazoo)
Arthur backed the Virginia mountain singer Dock Boggs on guitar in 1929; “he couldn’t reach the chords,” Boggs remembered. “He’d been shot through the hands. Bullets went through his hands.” From that same year, you can hear those shots on the first recording of a song that during the folk revival of the 1960s would be sung by Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and countless others, and that in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Dan Tyminski (vocals) and Soggy Bottom Boy George Clooney (lead lip-synch) turned into a rave-up you had no trouble believing could sweep the South. Arthur maps the same territory, but as an exile. Singing haltingly, in a high voice, testifying shamefully that he has no lover, no friends, no home and deserves no better than an unmarked grave (“You’re dreaming while you’re slumbering/ While I am sleeping in the clay”), he might as well be hitting the strings with blunt instruments.
6) Sean Wilentz reports on Bob Dylan’s return to the Newport Folk Festival after 35 years (Aug. 5)
“The thing that was most apparent to me was how ghostly it was — because they’re all dead. All the people the young folk artists were drawn to in 1965 or before; they’re all dead. Mississippi John Hurt is dead. Son House is dead. Geoff Muldaur was funny: He asked who had been to Newport before; he asked who had been born in 1965. Maybe half had. He told a story about Mississippi John Hurt: ‘He’d just do a little finger-picking — and we’d all collapse.’ There were a lot of ghosts around. At the same time it was a very conscious passing on of that tradition to something new — on the part of the older folks. Dylan did that very intentionally. Songs that he was singing in 1965, and songs that recalled that tradition.
“There was a roots stage — [but] given the explosion of interest in [old-time] music, there was too little. Most of the music was personal song-stories. In a funny way, what with ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?,’ Allison Krauss, the festival seemed to be out of step with where folk music now is. It was largely virtuoso self-indulgent adolescent angst. It was Shawn Colvin.
“Dylan walked out on stage with [Orthodox Jewish] earlocks — and a ponytail, and a fake beard. He looked like a guy who was on the bus to Crown Heights and got lost. From another angle, not really seeing the beard, he could have been in a girl group — he could have been in the Shangri-Las. Then he looked like Jesus Christ. He was putting on a show, and he was donning a mask — because he’s a minstrel. A Jewish minstrel. And an American minstrel.
“There came a point when he could have said something — when he was introducing the band. I looked at him very closely then — but he just sort of smiled. He twitched. And then he went into the last song, ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.’ Then he goes away, and comes back, and does a sizzling Buddy Holly, ‘Not Fade Away,’ the Grateful Dead arrangement. Again it was ghosts. That was Bob Dylan. He was the whole fucking tradition. He was a one-man festival.”
7) Kelly Willis, “Easy” (Ryko)
The devastatingly clear-voiced country singer can walk on melodies as if they’re water. The first number, Willis’ “If I Left You,” has that kind of melody, but the words are inescapable, and they make no sense: If the singer left the guy who left her, she’d worry about him all the time and love him forever. The best number here is Paul Kelly’s “You Can’t Take It With You,” a brilliantly slick putdown (“You might own a great big factory, oil wells on sacred land” — “sacred land” is a priceless touch) Willis sings with barely a hint of malice.
8) “Me Without You,” directed by Sandra Goldbacher (Fireworks/Goldwyn)
As we follow best friends Marina (Anna Friel) and Holly (Michelle Williams) from 1973 (jumping rope) to 2001 (watching their children play), pop eras come and go. In 1978, when the girls can’t be more than 15, they crash at a punk non-party where Holly lets Marina’s brother make love to her and Marina lets a guy shoot her up with heroin; a few years later their apartment wall features dead Ian Curtis of Joy Division, clutching his mike stand like a cross. You hear all the right period music, from the Clash to the Stranglers to Echo and the Bunnymen — and nothing sounds half so right as, in a scene shot in a club where half the men seem to to be wearing Adam Ant pirate hats and skirts, a DJ pumps out Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.”
9) John Paxson, “Elvis Live at Five” (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s)
On a Dallas TV station looking for a new angle on the 25th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, a producer and a computer genius create a virtual Elvis and, making no pretense that it is anything but the image of a dead man, turn him into a talk show host. Then the station owner takes over and turns Elvis into a demagogue, taking on homosexuals, immigrants, Hare Krishnas, his denunciations backed by footage created by means of the same technology that keeps Elvis talking. Soon homicidal mobs roam the land, their victims driven before them: “Thousands of men, women and children in a long snaking line of misery and fear stumbling through the winter snows of Nebraska.”
Very convincing. No happy ending.
10) Bruce Springsteen, “The Rising,” on “Late Night With David Letterman” (CBS, Aug. 2)
With Steve Van Zandt singing into Springsteen’s mike along with Patti Scialfa as the song hit its last choruses, it was impossible not to see his dimwitted “Sopranos” thug Silvio Dante there too. And that made it feel as if the song meant, among other things, to kill somebody.
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)