"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 am speaking on a land line from the worst phone in the world,” says George Dawes Green, whose cellphone was cutting out earlier. Green is talking to me from his mother’s house in Georgia, and the phone is playing his own voice back into his ear. Meanwhile, I’m sitting in an empty room in Los Angeles, where my voice is bouncing off the walls and sounding thrillingly oracular. It’s not the ideal setup for talking about the Moth, the New York literary phenomenon in which storytellers weave 12-minute tales for an intimate audience with whom they’ve been having cocktails moments earlier, but it’s something.
Not to damn with faint praise, but the same could be said for the new Moth TV show. After having sold out live shows in New York in under three hours for the past five years, “The Moth” will premiere as a one-hour original series on the cable network Trio on Monday, Nov. 18, at 9 p.m. Eastern (6 p.m. PST), and air every weeknight through Nov. 27.
Trio has handled the televised version of the series with a light touch and stayed away from imposing its own vision on an already successful formula. The series is staged at a small club where the audience is lighted as well as the stage, and the storytellers sit at tables until it’s their turn to go on. Then it’s just them and their five-minute yarns (shortened from the 12 minutes of the live show). There is no reading, no memorization and no rehearsal before the show. As artistic director Lea Thau, who spoke to me earlier from her office in New York, put it, “We want the storytellers to be focused on the audience, not on the piece of paper they left in their desk drawer.”
Stories at the Moth are neither readings nor performances, but carefully constructed tales told as though they were being shared at an informal social gathering. “We don’t allow people to read,” Thau says, “but we’re not really looking for memorization, either. It has to be a story with a clear story structure: not five loosely connected anecdotes, not 10 jokes. It’s not stand-up and it’s not a reading. Stories are told in the style of a story you would tell at a dinner party — very relaxed, doesn’t seem rehearsed. But at the same time, there will be 300 people at this dinner party and not three.”
Each show is organized around a single theme, proposed by a curator. The first two episodes on Trio are called “Relationship Wars” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Saved My Life.” The Moth method is to find five to seven storytellers from different walks of life to tell a story based on each theme. A few are high-profile people who have published a book or made a movie on that topic, but the others are nonwriters and nonactors who provide a different perspective. For instance, the “Relationship Wars” show features great stories from Doug Liman, the director of “Swingers” and “The Bourne Identity,” and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnick, but one of the best is told by a thrice-married divorce lawyer who represented her mother against her father in their divorce. Trio has stayed as true to the Moth spirit as possible, but they can’t host the cocktail hour, and you won’t be able to go out eating and drinking after the show, as the Moth community — audience and all — always does. For that you’ll have to wait until the Moth comes to your town, which it may, thanks in part to the TV show. Plans are afoot for something called the Moth migration next spring, probably targeting London, Berlin and Los Angeles in the first wave.
Unlike habitués of open-mike nights, Moth storytellers work extensively with Thau for weeks before hitting the stage, meeting with her anywhere from two to seven times to shape their stories into something with a clear narrative arc and a beginning, middle and end. She works to transform written pieces into oral ones, and helps nonwriters to structure their stories. Ultimately, she says she looks for things that “take their starting point in something anecdotal, but transcend the anecdotal by telling us something about who [the storyteller] is, or about love, life, the world in general. Something that transcends that individual experience or incident.”
Part of what makes the Moth such a riveting series is that one never knows when a storyteller will kill or bomb. Some of the Moth’s most successful stories have been told by people who have never been onstage before, and some of the least successful have been told by celebrities. To some extent, Thau says, she and Green have a general idea of who will do well and who will not do so well.
“But that’s part of the magic that the audience feels, because every time a person gets up there, the audience holds their breath and asks, ‘How is this person going to do?’ It’s a bold thing to do, to get up there. You’re very naked, in a way. You’re not hiding behind a persona or a façade. But the audience is incredibly supportive. We are very lucky to have the best audience in New York. There is always the sense that they want the storyteller to do well. They sort of carry them.”
Green, the author of the novel “The Juror,” which was made into a movie starring Demi Moore and Alec Baldwin, founded the Moth five years ago to try to breathe life into a Southern oral storytelling tradition that seemed to be moribund if not dead altogether. When Green was growing up in the South, he heard and told stories all the time. After moving to New York, he says, he missed “sitting around in Wanda’s garden — Wanda is my crazy, wonderful, delightful friend, who weaves incredible stories.”
Green remembers sitting on Wanda’s front porch, “drinking pretty heavily” and telling stories all night. “There was a big tear in the screen, and the moths would get in. So, somehow or another we started calling ourselves the moths. And the moths were all wheeling around the porch light at night, and we were hanging out by the porch light, too, drinking a lot of Jack Daniel’s.
“Then, when I was in New York,” Green says, “it was always sad to me that you couldn’t really tell a story, because at a New York cocktail party, people’s patience lasts for about 18 seconds, and they get uncomfortable with anything that lasts longer than that.” Still, Green suspected that people really wanted to listen to stories and decided to organize a storytelling evening for about a hundred friends. It was a smash, and soon Green and his friend Joey Xanders, who became the Moth’s first executive director, were organizing shows at venues all over town, finally ending up at the Player’s Club.
Why do you think people have no patience for stories in a social setting, and yet the Moth has been a huge success?
I think it’s habit. I mean, who knows where the zeitgeist ever takes us, or what it’s doing, or what it thinks it’s doing. But right now, it thinks — or for a while, it thought — that everybody had a short attention span, and that everybody needed quick little blasts or they would get bored. And I don’t think that’s true, but the zeitgeist can easily persuade itself that what it’s doing is the appropriate thing. And, at any rate, everybody did seem to have a short attention span. It seemed as though the entire nation had an attention deficit disorder. So, when we started the Moth, we didn’t know if people would want to listen for so long, but actually, they do. It’s just the same as when movies like “Magnolia” or “Topsy-Turvy” — extremely long movies — turned out to be hits. People have the same attention span that they ever did, it was all a fraud and a ruse. People were very hungry for things that they could sit down and really listen to. So this art form of storytelling that we believed to be dead, or nearly dead, was actually very much alive and vital and is actually sought after by people all over the country.
Do you think something like the Moth can change the way people interact socially?
Oh, yes. I really do. I really think that storytelling helps build communities. The hardest thing about being in New York is that there are communities there, but they are rather strange communities. It’s always very strange to me when there are communities where there are very few children and very few older people. It’s all people of a certain age. And that sense of a whole community with its successes and failures and people who are just hanging on and children and grandfathers — that whole community — is rare to find in Manhattan. The Moth does something to bring those communities together.
Are your audiences diverse?
Yes, they are. That’s one of the great joys of the Moth. All sorts of people come. And they feel like they are part of a group. It’s almost like a secret society. People come again and again and again, although we don’t have anyone who has come to every Moth. But after the show we all go out and eat and drink all night long. Everyone comes. Which is really what we intended all along. In America, we don’t have pubs. We don’t have that pub culture, that’s what we were really trying to revivify.
How do you come up with the different themes for the evenings?
Different curators will say, “This is what I’d like to do.” And if they strike a chord with other folks, then we go ahead and do it. The curator is just a person who takes it upon himself or herself to organize a particular theme of stories. And if a curator becomes passionate about a theme, then we go ahead and let them do it. I was just talking to a curator this morning who is a psychiatrist, and he wants to do an evening of shrink stories. We’ll surely let him because he is really passionate about it. Meg Bowles decided to do an evening about “homecoming.” We had Frank McCourt telling a story about going back to Ireland, an astronaut talking about piloting the shuttle back home, and we had someone who had escaped a prison camp in Germany and somehow found his way back home.
Somebody was putting together an evening of stories about “hitting bottom.” It started with stories about rock ‘n’ rollers hitting bottom, etc., etc., but I had read a book about a submarine rescue in 1939, off New Hampshire, and we went and scoured the nation until we found some survivors of that rescue, and we brought one of them to tell his own particular story of hitting rock bottom. So someone has an idea for a theme and the whole Moth community starts to think about that theme.
Do any evenings stand out as favorites?
My personal favorite was when I brought some of the storytellers who used to weave stories on Wanda’s porch from Georgia. And so we brought Wanda up to New York and my old friend Larry Guinn who lives in a treehouse that he built for himself down here. And sort of a wide assortment of rednecks and crackers from the South. And we had an evening of Southern stories and it was blissfully pleasurable. And Wanda got a standing ovation. Everyone was in love with her. She told a story about growing up with her daddy. And we brought her back for another story. She fell in love with New York and everyone in New York fell in love with Wanda.
Will Wanda’s appearance make it onto the TV show? And how did the TV show come about?
We shot it before TV days, but we’re going to bring Wanda back. My friend Gabby, who has helped me from the very beginning, is also a producer and her friend Joanna was an executive at Trio. And Joanna has always loved the Moth. So it was very simple. They talked to us and it seemed like a great match. The thing that we loved about Trio was their determination from the very beginning not to change the Moth in any way. What they wanted to do was shoot these extraordinarily exciting evenings in New York City and try to capture the spirit of these evenings and the sort of wild and footloose spirit that prevails.
We wanted to work with Trio because we knew that they were new and they weren’t going to try to impose some kind of vision upon us. They’ve been incredibly accepting of the Moth and all its vagaries. Because one of the things about the Moth is that while the stories can be incredibly exciting, they can also bomb. That’s what makes the performances so riveting. Everyone up there is an amateur, and many of the people who come up, well, some of them have the impression that they are going to be great, and they become overconfident.
We’ve had some celebrities who automatically assumed that they were going to be smash hits. But, you know, people who do this realize there is nothing else like this in terms of the pure fear, pure terror. There’s no script. There’s no one to help you. If you start to falter, there’s no host who’s going to ask you a few questions and make you look good. It really is just you and 10 minutes. If you’re not connecting with the audience, then it can become a very scary experience.
Have you ever seen someone unravel because they’re not connecting with the audience?
Yes, and I wish I could say who it was. I can say that there was a big television celebrity who had sort of an interesting attitude coming in. You know, “I’m going to be a smash star here.” And he started in on his story, and the audience felt that he was shallow, and they sensed his overconfidence, and they sensed his disdain for them, and they wouldn’t laugh at his jokes, and there was a coldness that he picked up on. And finally toward the end of the story, he mumbled, “I don’t know how to do this.” It was a really interesting moment. But that is not so uncommon. It’s happened several times.
What’s more interesting is the people who are terrified, petrified, who have never, ever been up before a large group of people. But the story is some elemental story that they have to tell about who they are, and the Moth audience is the most generous audience in the world. So someone like Wanda, who teaches troubled kids in a school down here in Brunswick, Ga., who has never spoken in front of a large group of people before, she came up here and the audience embraced her and fell in love with her. We’ve had that happen many, many times. That’s what makes the evenings electric and exciting.
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)