"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) Press release, D.Baron media relations (Sept. 12)
“Los Angeles, CA — Celebrated recording artist composer Warren Zevon, one of rock music’s wittiest and most original songwriters, has been diagnosed with lung cancer which has advanced to an untreatable stage.” Playing: “Mohammed’s Radio,” the churchy live version from the 1982 “Stand in the Fire” (“Even Jimmy Carter’s got the highway blues”); the delirious rising in the 1978 “Johnny Strikes Up the Band”; the regret in the melody of “Looking for the Next Best Thing” in 1982; the shared dread of “Run Straight Down” in 1989; the delicacy of “Suzie Lightning” in 1991 and “Mutineer” in 1995. From 1976, when he went public with “Desperadoes Under the Eaves” on the album “Warren Zevon,” it has been more than a quarter century of gunplay and bravado, not for a moment concealing Zevon’s loathing for his own betrayals and those of the world around him. “I was in the house when the house burned down,” he sang in 2000. From afar he has been a good friend.
2) Music in Balthazar (New York, Sept. 5)
For a still-hot restaurant with a reputation for cool to uphold, either a new concept of cool or real problems with the concept. Playing indistinctly in the background as we come in after 11 — Can it be, no, it can’t be, why is it? It’s Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” from 1967, one of the sappiest songs of all time. Then a lot of terrible “Saturday Night Live”-style fake jazz. Then finally, loud, every note standing out: “Gimmie Shelter” by the Rolling Stones, probably the greatest pop recording of the last 50 years, and not dinner music. Not even walking-out music. Not even cool. Far beyond cool, in a realm where the concept is an embarrassment.
3 & 4) Slobberbone, “Slippage” (New West) and Plastic Mastery, “In the Fall of Unearthly Angels” (Magic Marker)
On “Springfield, IL.,” the first track of Slobberbone’s “Slippage,” the hard, loose, fast band from Denton, Texas, combines a desperate country vocal that’s all over the room with a guitar playing off its own promises, never quite paying off, replacing each moment where the music falls just short with a greater promise. You get the feel of a terrible place the musicians want only to escape — why is it so full of life? In a much more punk manner, with floating chords and vocals lifting away from their songs, Plastic Mastery of Tallahassee catches the same fear, the same hurry. It’s a queer sound: the sound of people almost but not sure there is no place for them.
5) Siniad O’Connor, “Lord Franklin,” from “Sean-Nss Nua” (Vanguard)
The traditional ballad Bob Dylan recast in 1963 to look back at his youth as if he were already dead — and, in O’Connor’s hands, never more gorgeous, never more accursed. O’Connor’s disdain for sustaining a career makes it possible to forget her; this is a reminder of why it is impossible to write her off. She will be around, harrying everyone into their graves.
6) Bernie Woodall, “Book Says Grateful Dead Has Grand Place in History” (Reuters, Sept. 4)
An interview with Dennis McNally, on his bestselling “A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead” and his plans for a follow-up, on the Mississippi: “I want to write a book about the river and Highway 61 and Bob Dylan, Mark Twain, Robert Johnson and a jazz player to be named later.” To be titled “Whatever.”
7) Vito Acconci at the Aspen Institute (Aspen, Colo., July 19)
Speaking in conjunction with the recently closed Aspen Art Museum exhibition “Vito Acconci/Acconci Studio,” Acconci, now in his 60s, combined a brief run-through of his career from the 1960s to about 1980 (his life as a gestural/performance artist and sculptor) with a thrilling account of his work with his own architectural studio: a nearly two-hour talk that was at once galvanizingly visionary and completely down to earth.
He said many things, even most things, twice. Returning to a phrase or an idea almost as soon as its first version left his mouth, it seemed less that he was unsure you understood than that, nearing the end of a thought, he had already reconsidered it, and so put it into words again to see if they still worked. There was a great physical presence in his speech, especially when he moved away from his lectern and turned his back on the slides he was working with, leaning forward, rocking back on his heels.
He was mapping the work of his New York-based Acconci Studio — a crew of architects and others who since 1988 have been working on the redesign of extant buildings and the part-closed, part-open spaces that adjoin them, from an entryway in the Philadelphia International Airport to corporate complexes all over Europe, from a roundabout in London to small household objects. Most of the projects have never been built — and despite Acconci’s accounts of commissions or competitions for commissions, it was hard to believe, looking at drawings and models as they appeared on the screen behind him as he speaks, that they were ever meant to be built. They are so blatant in their refusal to accept the claim of form on content — and thus when Acconci showed slides of actually completed projects, some in the audience gasped. They had already grasped the careful, patient but anarchic utopianism inherent in whatever the studio does, its absolute reach for another city in another life — for elsewhere, wherever that might be.
While the fundamental premise of almost every project had to do with bringing the outside of a building in or the inside of a building out, to break boundaries between space and people, to unregiment work and confuse the borders between work, respite and leisure, that doesn’t speak to the driving force of play in the projects: the desire to bring the outside in or the inside out just to see what happens when you do. The realization of the simplest project — the roundabout that expands into a ziggurat and folds up like a flower according to the flow of traffic around it — carried the ambitions of the most grandiose. No space, no building, was for anything; as the Acconci Studio ethic became clear, you began to see as the studio does, to see that no building is fated, none is fixed, none, no matter how old or insured, was ever more than a whim, a bribe, an idea, good or bad, whose time had come.
As Acconci spoke, every slide he projected dovetailed with fragments of a personal manifesto, flying through descriptions and anecdotes like a memory interrupting a sales talk: “I see art as an exchange, a meeting, where the person in the role of the artist comes face to face with a person in the role of the viewer.” “Actually building projects is a problem, because it screws up the theory.” “My work began in an art context as a kind of resentment toward the do-not-touch of museums and galleries: ‘The art is more expensive than you are.’” The equation doesn’t hold with the Acconci Studio projects: Even when built, you can’t believe anyone ever funded them. But there are more of them, out there in the world, all the time.
8) Steve Earle, “Jerusalem” (Artemis)
The supposedly heretical “John Walker’s Blues” — on the page, a puerile self-justification from inside the heart or mind of “the American Taliban” — has brought Earle the biggest boost of his career, press coverage everywhere, right up to a respectful interview in the New York Times Magazine. The album carries not just a lyric sheet, but a statement: “Lately I feel like the loneliest man in America,” Earle begins, trumpeting his courage. He goes on to discuss hysterical patriotism, the Vietnam War, domestic repression, race riots: “Well, we survived all that — and I believe that we’ll survive this, as well.” By “this” he means the Bush administration’s drive toward autocracy and secret government — not the actual physical jeopardy of the USA. There is no acknowledgment that the country faces a real enemy, that the country itself, not a few buildings, has already been attacked, that it has been shown to be more vulnerable than its enemies every imagined it was. “God bless America, indeed,” he says finally, in that sarcastic, self-congratulatory trope of bad critics everywhere.
The music is not bad. It’s missing Earle’s usual smarm; his singing is less mannered than it is on all the records by other people he’s been popping up on lately. “John Walker’s Blues” is a real song.
9) Sarah Vowell, “The Partly Cloudy Patriot” (Simon & Schuster)
On why Al Gore should have had the producer of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” running his show instead of the people who blew it: “High school is the most appropriate metaphor for the 2000 presidential campaign, since high school is the most appropriate metaphor for life in a democratic republic. Because democracy is an idealistic attempt to make life fair. And while high school is the place where you read about the democratic ideal of fairness, it is also the place where most of us learn how unfair life really is.” The best book I’ve read about patriotism since Charles L. Mee Jr.’s “A Visit to Haldeman and Other States of Mind” — and that came out in 1975, just after Watergate.
10) Wire, “The Afgers of Kodack,” from “Read & Burn” (Pink Flag)
They were on stage at the Roxy in London in 1977 when punk gave birth to itself; they were always ridiculously smart, always interested in espionage, and no less so here — with a furious negation ending an EP of otherwise indistinct and pointless tunes. “Read and burn?” The band burns up its own footprints.
Thanks to Chris Walters
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)