"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)
I hadn’t flown 3,000 miles to see Spike naked. But let’s just say it didn’t hurt.
It wasn’t the actual Spike, of course — but we’ll get to that later. What I’d flown 3,000 miles for was the first-ever academic conference organized around a show with a ridiculous name that a respectable number of sensible grown-ups — myself included — take pretty seriously. Blood, Text and Fears: Reading Around “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” held at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, on Oct. 19 and 20, brought together some 160 of the faithful, who came not only from the United Kingdom but also from the United States, Italy, Canada and Australia.
After submitting an abstract, I’d been invited to present a paper on “Buffy,” but I was even more interested to hear what other people — most of them, unlike me, somehow affiliated with the academic community — had to say about the show.
No, wait — I’ll come clean. Sifting through the titles of the papers to be presented (“From ‘Metropolis’ to ‘Melrose Place’: Morphic Resonance in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’”; “Extending Your Mind: The Role of Non-Standard Perlocutionary Acts in ‘Buffy’”; and even the forthright and alluring “Drusilla: Disruptive Monster, Dark Goddess, Daddy’s Girl”), I wondered if I had the chops for this enterprise: Would the kind folks at UEA Norwich have let me in if I’d admitted that I hadn’t the faintest idea what a perlocutionary act might be? Because I wasn’t sure I could actually handle two full days of academics’ “reading around” a show I adore — or reading around anything, actually — I’d taken the precaution of signing up for only one day of the conference.
Damned if by the end of the first day I wasn’t wishing I’d signed up for the second.
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Norwich is a smallish city 115 miles northeast of London, a train ride just shy of two hours. It’s a reasonably handsome place, with an imposing cathedral and a bustling city center with plenty of chain stores as well as a marvelous-looking turn-of-the-century beaux-arts shopping arcade, the likes of which you’d never see in the United States. Norwich also has a number of quaintly appointed B&Bs. The one my husband and I chose before we left New York actually had heat, which, as the giant spiral-bound rule book placed in our room told us, was officially turned on between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., and again between 4 p.m. and 11 p.m.
The tradition of Americans’ making jokes about being cold in England is a long and tired one, and I won’t go down that path here, although I’m not sure that even the ugliest American deserves to wake up to a toilet seat that has been artfully chilled by one’s hosts to the temperature of 18 degrees Fahrenheit.
After being beaten into submission by B&B regulations (“Do not smoke, even out the window. WE WILL KNOW. Guests who smoke in the room will be promptly ejected and charged for any damages”) I became more and more certain that spending a day with academics would be nothing short of lovely. My first view of the UEA campus seemed to bear that out: It’s a pretty and efficient-looking sprawl, home to a very well regarded curriculum in film and television studies.
The conference schedule was packed tight, starting with a welcome from the dean of the School of English & American Studies — who admitted that he didn’t watch the show but who seemed to be fairly good-natured about playing host to so many earnest fans — and a smart and straightforward opening paper, on the subject of light imagery in “Buffy,” by Rhonda Wilcox, a professor of English at Gordon College in Barnesville, Ga.
In the relatively small intersection of the Venn diagram showing all “Buffy” fans who are also serious academics, Wilcox and her colleague, David Lavery, a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University, are something like rock stars. She and Lavery (who also presented a paper at the conference, “A Religion in Narrative: Joss Whedon and Television Creativity”) run Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies, devoted to collecting thoughtful discourse about the show. The two have also co-edited a book of essays called “Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’” which was for sale at a bookstore table at the conference; some “Buffy” fans who bought them even asked Wilcox and Lavery to sign their copies.
Maybe it sounds patronizing to refer to the conference attendees as “fans.” But the truth is that nearly every person who presented a paper (and not just the people who had come to listen) behaved like lovers of the show first and foremost — and academics, scholars and writers, second. It wasn’t that people didn’t take their papers seriously; in fact, most managed to pack an extraordinary amount of care and research into papers that had to adhere to a strict 20-minute limit.
This was an extraordinarily good-natured group: There was no academic puffery, no surly competitiveness. (As it turned out, not all of them were “professional” academics; quite a few of those presenting papers, for example, were independent scholars.) I never quite forgot I was in the presence of academics — I kept a running list of words and names (diegesis? Homi Bhabha?) to look up later, although of course I never did. But nearly all the papers were refreshingly non-theoretical.
And the most amazing thing was that virtually no one — at least among the presenters I heard — approached “Buffy” from a stance of detached coolness. How many times have you seen professional critics (members of that group who, you could argue, are supposedly paid to be publicly passionate about the things they care about) on TV or on a panel, qualifying their opinions about a movie or TV show they clearly like, as if they were embarrassed to admit to liking anything too much? The people who showed up in Norwich had no compunction about admitting how much they loved “Buffy,” and everything they said — in their papers, in the question-and-answer sessions, and in casual conversation — proved how much the show energized or inspired them.
Some papers would start out droning and ponderous, and you’d find yourself looking anxiously for the exit (even as you knew that, out of politeness, you really shouldn’t leave a room with only 30 or so people in it to begin with). But if you listened for five or 10 minutes, eventually a dazzling insight of some sort would emerge — somehow, something would catch fire.
Many people used brief clips from the show in their presentations, and you could feel ripples of pleasure and recognition pulse through the audience as they watched those clips — we hadn’t come to sit around and watch TV all day, but no one wanted those clips to end. The experience of TV watching, which is usually a fairly private one, suddenly became a communal one, more like being at the movies.
“Buffy” watchers fancy themselves something of a secret society, and in some ways they are: The show hasn’t had particularly good ratings for its past several seasons, which means it isn’t finding a wide audience. But its relatively small audience is fiercely loyal, and fiercely interested, not just in the plot developments of the show but in its sheer artfulness.
Maybe you could say the same about Trekkers or “Star Wars” fanatics — but if you stacked up the intelligent articles, papers and water-cooler conversations that “Buffy” has generated in just a little more than six full seasons, I’d venture to guess they’d leave the equivalent “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” discourse in the dust. “Star Trek” fans are interested in cataloguing the minutiae of individual episodes; for “Buffy” fans, it’s all about working through the show’s emotional complexities. And — in Norwich, at least — it has nothing to do with getting into costume.
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That said, just how much is there to say about “Buffy”? And more significantly, how many people are interested in saying it? According to Claire Thomson and Carol O’Sullivan, co-organizers of the conference, 60 speakers were chosen from the 120 abstracts submitted when the call for papers went out — the response was more than double what they had expected.
“Blood, Text and Fears” attracted some 160 participants altogether, and looking around the room during the various sessions, I found it hard to group them into easily identifiable categories: The majority may have been in their 20s and 30s, but you wouldn’t have noticed any strict demarcations between young and old. The attendees seemed to be mostly of indeterminate age and unmitigated enthusiasm, from spiky-haired bohemians to tweed-jacket types. (Although there were so few of the latter that John Briggs, a charming librarian and independent scholar who presented a paper called “Unaired Plot or Bad Quarto: Textual Problems in ‘Buffy’ and Shakespeare in an Internet Age,” looked down woefully at his own very Giles-like herringbone garb and remarked, “People are going to think I’m in costume.”)
The first day’s papers were grouped into four sections, each consisting of three sessions running concurrently, with anywhere from one to three papers being presented per session. Sixty papers, even when each is under 20 minutes long, are a lot to schedule over two days. With short breaks in between for coffee and lunch, you might find yourself dashing from “Cultural Identities” in Session 1 to “Language I: Tropes of Translation” in Session 2 to “Death Duties: Theology and Destiny” in Session 3.
If you have to ask what cultural identities, not to mention theology or destiny, have to do with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” then you’ve probably never seen the show. “Buffy” began, in 1997, as a midseason replacement; it was a spinoff of an allegedly not very good movie of the same name (which I confess I have never even seen). But series creator, director and chief writer Joss Whedon seemed to have something different in mind for the show.
Its lead character, Buffy Summers (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar), was a trouble-prone teenager who, after burning down her old high school, had just relocated with her mother to the virginally named town of Sunnydale. As it turns out, Sunnydale happens to be located smack-dab on the Hellmouth, a convenient gateway for all sorts of supernatural troublemakers. But Buffy learns she has a mission: She’s a vampire slayer, which means she’s just one in a long line of fit and feisty warriors — they all happen to be women — who are specially called to kill vampires and destroy demons.
Like any other teenager, Buffy has a group of friends she leans on: The core group consists of her best friend Willow (Alyson Hannigan), a nerdy computer whiz who later becomes a powerful witch; the sensitive, vaguely awkward Xander (Nicholas Brendon), who’s nevertheless possessed of uncommon good sense; and Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), the school librarian and Buffy’s “watcher” — in other words, a guardian appointed by the mysterious organization known only as “the council” to offer training and guidance to the slayer.
But those are just the human characters: The other significant figures in the show’s labyrinthine mythology (it’s now in its seventh season, and numerous minor characters have come and gone), are Angel (David Boreanaz), an evil-turned-good vampire with a soul, who was Buffy’s boyfriend until she turned 17, and Spike (James Marsters), a wisecracking Anglo bleached-blond poster boy of a vampire who used to be Buffy’s nemesis — until she actually started sleeping with him sometime during Season 6, when all hell (of a different sort that threatened to spew from the Hellmouth) broke loose.
The more you know about “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the easier it is to understand why academics find it so fascinating. For one thing, over the course of six and a quarter seasons, Whedon has rarely allowed the plot to take conventional routes, which makes the show consistently refreshing. He’s not afraid to face up to heartache and tragedy — his characters are modern kids who speak in the pop vernacular and shop at the Gap, but the challenges that befall them (not to mention the ways in which they face up to them) are often operatic in their intensity.
Whedon has a feel for the classical forms of drama, from Greek tragedy to Shakespeare and beyond, and a firm grasp of (not to mention a love of) the more modern forms, like movie musicals. If you’re used to thinking critically about art or literature, it’s not such a stretch to apply those same modes of thinking to “Buffy.”
And people found plenty of ways to apply them at Norwich. Kate Lambert, an independent scholar, delivered a paper called “The Fool (for Love): Spike as Trickster,” comparing the roguish vampire with other characters who run manic circles around our cultural consciousness, like Wile E. Coyote, Bugs Bunny and Easy Rider. (“What’s a nice archetype like you doing in a program like this?” read one of her paper’s subheadings.) Ann Davis, of the University of Newcastle, gave us “Passing for American: British and Vampire Identities in ‘Buffy.’”
If she never did quite address the question of why it would be desirable for the show’s English characters to pass for American (their Englishness only heightens their glamour quotient, at least from this American’s point of view), she did note that most of the vampire characters in the show don’t come from America (it’s too young and unformed a country) and that the vampires look “almost human but not quite.” (Which isn’t so far off from the way some Americans seem to think that because they don’t need a phrasebook when they visit Britain, they’re not really in a foreign country.) Davis’ paper, in addressing the way the vampire characters try to pass as humans, also made great use of one of Spike’s greatest lines, spoken to Buffy in one of the show’s most wrenching moments: “I know I’m a monster, but you treat me like a man.”
Too many papers, too little time: I had to miss “Balderdash and Chicanery: Science and Beyond in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’” “Leaves of Dark Willow: Beyond the Metaphor of Magical Addiction,” and “‘It’ll Go Straight to Your Thighs’: Food and Drink Issues in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’” My own paper, for the record, was called “Modern and Mythical Sexuality in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’” and it was part of the “Sex and Violence” session, which was supremely well attended (arguably for the name alone).
This is where Spike, the naked version, came in: Before beginning her paper, “White Trash(ing): Spike as Site of Resistance,” Tamzin Cook promised the audience that she was going to show clips of “Naked Spike.” And sure enough, there he was, bigger than life on the screen in front of us, completely raw except for a blanket draped around his privates. Cook used this as an example of how Whedon’s camera presents Spike in an inversion of what old-time feminist academic Laura Mulvey called “the male gaze.” (Buffy appears in the same scene completely clothed and comparatively invulnerable.) If Mulvey’s theory is tired and outmoded, Cook’s fresh application of it wasn’t.
Which is precisely the point: Most of us who live in the “real” working world have some pretty firm ideas about academics, some of them valid and some of them false. But maybe the whole point of what academics call “study” is to apply what you know to the world around you — instead of trying to shape the world around what you already know. I still run into people who look at me quizzically when I tell them about the conference, as if the idea of a bunch of academics getting together to talk seriously about a TV show is nothing short of loony.
And maybe it is, a little. But so what? I can think of worse ways to spend a Saturday than in the company of a group of people who are so alive to the culture around them. They weren’t even embarrassed to succumb to the lure of merchandising. Kulture Shock, a Norwich comic-book and sci-fi store, had set up a table with an assortment of Buffy figurines, books and cell-phone cases, and just about everyone had to at least have a look, even if they didn’t buy anything.
At the end of the day, as everyone chatted and compared notes at a crowded wine reception, the news spread that Lavery and Wilcox had brought tapes of the first few episodes of Season 7 — episodes that no one in the U.K. has yet seen, as the new season hasn’t started there. On such short notice, the conference organizers couldn’t find a room at the university in which to show the tapes, so the management at Kulture Shock offered to show them to conference attendees after the store had closed for the day.
The problem was, Kulture Shock couldn’t accommodate all the people who wanted to see the tapes — at least not at first. So its managers set up three separate screenings, running late into the night, so that everyone who wanted to could see the new episodes. And though I didn’t go — Americans who had already seen the episodes were asked to opt out, in order to make room for others — I was immeasurably pleased by the idea of dozens of academics getting together to watch TV in a comic-book store.
Sure, there are plenty of “serious” academics who would accuse the “Buffy” fans of being too pop. But it’s got to be sour grapes. In the world of academic research, Jacques Lacan or Jacques Derrida may have more clout than “Buffy.” But no one wants to go to their pajama parties.
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)