"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) Mendoza Line, “Sleep of the Just,” from “Almost You: The Songs of Elvis Costello” (Glurp)
Aren’t tribute albums terrible? This one is really terrible — and the Atlanta band’s view all the way into one of Costello’s greatest recordings ranks with Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and DJ Shadow’s “The Private Press” as the most undeniable sound of the year.
Maybe it was always obvious that the song is about the gang-rape of a local girl at an army base, with the woman looking back: “The soldier asked my name and did I come here very often/ Well, I thought that he was asking me to dance.” Maybe the song was always about the woman cherishing his death when his company’s transport vehicle is blown up: He’s getting the sleep of the just, all right, the big sleep. In Costello’s performance, though, the beauty of the composition makes the story into a fable, and the people in it float like ghosts.
Shannon McArdle is all flesh, still trying to wash off the stains after all these years. She makes her voice small and flat for the difficult shifts in timbre, removing any hint of professionalism. She’s as off-the-street as the woman in the middle of the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” and the naturalism of the performance — carried from the beginning by a solemn church organ that is even more damning when it plays pop changes — is almost unbearable. The woman has her satisfaction over the soldier’s death, but that’s all she has. He and the rest took everything else.
That a woman is singing makes all the difference. Costello himself could go all the way into the song, but McArdle goes out the other side.
2) Boomtown Rats, “I Don’t Like Mondays” (Columbia, 1980)
Southern Tip reports from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina: “‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ was playing in a cab in Ushuaia. It sounded better than ever. I asked the driver to turn it up and told the person I was with he couldn’t talk. It made me think that radio is the farthest reaching, most democratic medium for art there is. How bad can it be to live in the southernmost city in the world, which is on an island — a city that to reach by car you have to cross the Straits of Magellan and twice cross the Chilean border — how bad can it be when the DJ plays ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’?”
3) Dennis Haysbert as President David Palmer, “24″ (Fox, Tuesdays)
If Bill Clinton was not, as Toni Morrison famously claimed, the first black president, then Dennis Haysbert — who has, for reasons not unrelated to the racism that is the deep subtext of the Palmer character, received far more praise for his Sidney Poitier turn in the lifeless “Far From Heaven” than for his work here — is playing the first black Bill Clinton. It’s in his apparent naiveté, the way he carries his size, and most of all in the angry self-control in his face as he realizes once again that he’s been betrayed by one of his own, whatever “his own” means. As his estranged wife Sherry has been arguing since halfway through the show’s first season, there’s no such thing.
4) New Order, “Retro” (Warner Bros., 1980-2002)
Across four CDs of hits, remixes and live recordings, it doesn’t matter that the Manchester dance band’s 1983 “Blue Monday” remains the biggest selling 12-inch single ever. Compared to the Shep Pettibone mix of the 1986 “Bizarre Love Triangle” (where again and again, in moments memory can’t hold, the sound shifts faster than a fast cut in a film), “Blue Monday” remains a soap jingle. And compared to the full, 8 minute 41 second version of the 1982 “Temptation,” probably the best 12-inch single ever made (a journey comparable to the Boz Scaggs/Duane Allman version of “Loan Me a Dime,” moving from delirium to contemplation and, so violently, back again), the Shep Pettibone remix of “Bizarre Love Triangle” is very nice.
5) Touré, “The Portable Promised Land” (Little, Brown)
The author bio promises the Brooklyn writer’s first novel, “Soul City,” “soon enough,” but the best of the stories in this first collection are pieces of a novel reaching for each other, then backing away. There’s a lot of padding — credibility lists of negritude on the order of “The African-American Aesthetics Hall of Fame,” or “101 Elements of Blackness (Things That’ll Make You Say: ‘Yes! That There’s Some Really Black Shit!’)” that were done better in Darius James’ “That’s Blaxploitation!” There are stories that don’t take off. But the book drops all pose for the mystery of what happens when the borders between black and white begin to dissolve. In “Attack of the Love Dogma,” “The Playground of the Ecstatically Blasé,” the three-part “Black Widow Story,” “The Commercial Channel” and “They’re Playing My Song” Touré stops moving characters like toy soldiers and lets them move him. “The Black Widow Story” is a superhero comic book, a trash race novel, Chester Himes influenced by Lester Bangs — you have no idea what will come next. Is Charisma Donovan, high-school queen turned femme fatale turned porn star, a version of the Black Widow, a white woman who becomes the female Tupac “on a dare after drama class,” or are they the same person — and could either tell if either were? “You remember,” Touré says as he sets the scene, “how things were last summer when Jamais was brand-new and like, the only thing the city was talking about. The French Bistro décor. The barefoot girl in the glass case behind the bar sitting on a pillow reading Paradise Lost, all night every night …” — and somehow you do remember. You’re right there. And you don’t like it when the author lets you go, too soon.
6) Joshua Clover, “Modest $100 Million Proposals, for Better or Verse” (Village Voice, Nov. 27-Dec. 3)
On the $100 million-plus gift by rejected amateur poet Ruth Lily to Poetry Magazine: After three sensible notions on what to do with the money (“lobby for pro-education candidates,” “buy a million poetry books every year and give them away,” “free medical coverage to every poet accepted for publication”), Clover pulls out the stops. Such ideas, he says, “would burn a tiny fraction of the bequest: Instead of investing the remainder, Poetry could secede from the Union, purchase the Republic of the Marshall Islands (GDP: $99 million), and appoint their very own poet laureate, who would then meet the U.S. laureate in a battle to the death, wreaking unfathomable destruction across the landscape.”
7) “The Jimmy Show,” written and directed by Frank Whaley (First Look Pictures)
Whaley as a New Jersey man with a dead-end job who lives for open-mike nights at local comedy clubs, where the heartfelt cry “YOU SUCK!” is the most response he ever gets. Or, Bruce Springsteen, the Bizarro Years.
8) Johnny Cash, “American IV: The Man Comes Around” (American/Lost Highway)
The fourth time around for the Old Man Sings New Guy Songs concept is not too many, especially when so many old songs are part of the show: Could anyone else let the line “Sometimes in the saddle, I used to go gay” from “Streets of Laredo” slip by without a hint of self-consciousness? There are stunning duds, most notably a version of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever (I Saw Your Face)” that reveals how horrible the song actually is (though there’s no footnote about how it inspired “Killing Me Softly,” which is even worse). Cash does best with a strong melody and a light, insistent beat — and here, with Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” he goes deeper into the composition than Trent Reznor ever did. As with U2′s “One” on his “III,” Cash understands the piece as a weight; he assumes it, and then, as you listen, lets it crush him. When “V,” “VI” or “VII” comes out posthumously, it won’t sound any more posthumous than this.
9) Duke Mitchell, “The Lion,” from “‘Gimme Dat Harp Boy!’ — The Roots of the Captain” (Ozit Records)
On a label named for the leading lights of London’s 1960s underground press, a heroically diverse collection of strange records that prophesied Captain Beefheart — a word like “influenced” is just too paltry — a very hot late ’50s-early ’60s fuzztone stomp. With the fuzztone played by saxophones.
10) Homer Quincy Smith, “I Want Jesus to Talk With Me” (“Tangled Roots,” Princeton University, Nov. 23)
At a conference on old-time music, Dean Blackwood of the “raw musics” reissue label Revenant talked about the idea of “phantom artists”: people whose names can be found on the labels of old 78s, but about whom nothing is known, including whether the names on the labels are real. He played a 1930 recording by Elvie Thomas, and the 50 or so people in attendance (including Brett and Rennie Sparks of the contemporary country Gothic duo the Handsome Family, whose performance would close the conference, and Tony Glover and John Koerner of the 40-year veteran Twin Cities roots band Koerner Ray & Glover, who had opened the event with their last concert — guitarist Dave Ray would die six days later) shook their heads in wonder.
Blackwood played a 1926 Paramount release by Homer Quincy Smith and mouths dropped open in shock. “I want Jesus to walk with me” — a man sings in a slow, measured cadence, making it plain he understands how much he’s asking for. The performance begins with the tinny sound of a calliope, which as Smith’s voice goes down to the bottom of a mine turns into a huge pipe organ. At the end, Smith lets his voice rise, until it seems a thing in itself, on its way to Jesus, leaving the singer behind. Another participant had prepared a response to Blackwood’s presentation, but as an instance of the great game of “Follow that, motherfucker!” I never saw anything like it.
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)