"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)
Serena Williams was named the winner of the prestigious Salon Sports Person of the Year award Jan. 3. That selection sparked a firestorm of letters, not so much because of Williams’ selection but because readers felt that I had insulted Lance Armstrong, bicycle racing, Europe, cancer survivors and perhaps a few other things when I called it outrageous that others, especially Sports Illustrated, had named Armstrong Sportsman of the Year.
There was also that part where I wrote that cycle racing was an obscure sport with a skill set that could be described thusly: “pedaling fast and not falling over.” That chapped a few heinies.
I love the interplay with my readers, but I couldn’t respond personally to each of the dozens of people who wrote, so I compiled a sort of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about the piece in question. It might also be called a Frequently Launched Attacks, although that doesn’t have quite the same ring, and anyway the abbreviation FLA is already taken.
There’s more to bike racing, you idiot, than “pedaling fast and not falling over.” You idiot!
Yes, of course. I exaggerated a bit for humorous effect. Obviously, any sport, or any activity, can be comically reduced like that: All Michael Jordan does is throw a ball through a hoop, and all Louis Armstrong ever did was blow through a metal tube.
My point here is that the athletic skill set in bicycle racing is extremely limited. Just to take Serena Williams and tennis as an example, since that’s the comparison at hand: Williams must move with speed and quickness in every direction. She must judge the speed and spin of her opponent’s shot and chase it down accurately. She must hit the ball with power, accuracy and touch, in various combinations. And on those rare occasions when her opponent keeps the match close, she must have endurance, though obviously not the same kind of endurance necessary to win the Tour de France.
So, that’s reflexes, quickness, speed in a 360-degree field, power, hand-eye coordination, endurance and shot-making skill vs. Armstrong’s speed — in one direction — power and endurance. And I think that tennis is a fairly limited sport in terms of the athletic skills needed. The skill set needed for basketball, for example, is much greater.
OK, even if we leave that aside, you’re missing the point about cycle racing. It’s a complicated tactical sport. You just don’t appreciate it because you’re so ignorant. There’s an incredible amount of teamwork and strategy going on.
Every sport has strategy and tactics. There’s lots of strategy in baseball too, but that doesn’t get Barry Bonds any closer to this year’s award. If strategy were a factor, chess players would be in the running. And there’s plenty of teamwork in bridge.
Lance doesn’t deserve to be Sports Person of the Year, eh? Why don’t you try riding 100 miles a day, up and down mountains, every day for three weeks. Why don’t you come riding with my cycling club someday, huh, fat boy? Get a bike. Get off your couch for once, put down that brew. Then maybe you’ll understand something about sports.
This is a really, really frequent comment. Do cycling people really divide the world into two groups, cycling people and fat, lazy, beer-swilling slobs who never get off their couch? And what difference would getting on a bike make? I don’t play tennis, but I didn’t notice a lot of tennis fans impeaching my tennis knowledge or demanding that I learn to play before I write about their sport.
I can’t compete with any well-known athlete, male or female, in any sport. There, I said it. But that means nothing in determining who’s the Sports Person of the Year, any more than my being a better writer than Lance Armstrong or Serena Williams, if true, would qualify me for the Nobel Prize in literature.
I just don’t get what your criteria for Sports Person of the Year are. Reading your article, it seems like they are: 1) Winner should come from a popular sport that reflects the interest of the majority of Americans; 2) Winner should, obviously, have a great year; 3) Winner should be flashy and exciting enough to elicit a lot of discussion (i.e. Serena’s knee-high socks and Oprah appearances); or 1) Bike racing is not popular in the U.S. 2) Armstrong isn’t a recognizable figure; 3) Bike racing consists of simply pedaling and more pedaling.
Actually, for a fat, lazy, beer-swilling slob of a writer, I think I did a nice job clearly spelling out the criteria. To wit: “Around here we look for someone who dominates his or her sport, and sports that Americans watch carry more weight than those we ignore. Table tennis juggernaut Timo Boll has little chance of ever winning. If that dominant performer also separates from the pack, becomes a hot topic around the water cooler, so much the better.”
So the winner doesn’t have to be flashy and exciting enough to elicit a lot of discussion, but it helps. Though probably not a lot — if Williams were as boring as Steffi Graf, she’d probably still win because of her dominant year. If I’m unique in considering charisma and flash, which I don’t think I am, I’m only unique for being honest about it.
So you would remove from consideration other sports that are similarly one-dimensional or unpopular in America, among them track and field, swimming and ski racing (alpine and cross country)?
I wouldn’t say I’d eliminate them from consideration, but I would say it would take a lot for someone from one of those sports to win. I can see Jesse Owens, Jackie Joyner-Kersee or Mark Spitz winning in their big years.
Serena Williams has no competition. Sure, she blows everyone away, but who’s she playing? Aside from her sister and maybe Jennifer Capriati, what other great players are there?
Well, what’s she supposed to do? The only people she can beat are the ones who line up across from her. And how many great players does she have to beat? Venus Williams and Jennifer Capriati are pretty damn good, not to mention Martina Hingis, who was hurt most of the last year. Muhammad Ali never had more than two or three really good opponents at the same time, and people seem to think highly of his athletic achievements.
Why did you bring up the race thing and then dismiss it? That’s irresponsible journalism.
I brought it up because I thought it was an issue. I didn’t quite dismiss it. I said I didn’t think the editors of Sports Illustrated chose Armstrong over Williams because Armstrong’s white and Williams is black. Let me be more clear: I’m certain of that. But I think it’s naive to think that race is not a factor in how any of us thinks about a white athlete and a black athlete in relation to each other. It’s in there somewhere. It’s in there in my piece. It’s in this paragraph. I’m not sure how, but it’s in there. I’m no expert on race in America, but I know this much: It’s always there.
I enjoyed reading your article about as much as I enjoy watching obese French men reeking of week-old body odor with a glass of red wine in one hand, a skinny cigarette in the other, screaming absurdities (dopa!) at Lance.
This isn’t a frequently made comment, but one person actually wrote it. Here’s the funny part, though: From the rest of his letter, it’s clear that this fellow actually doesn’t enjoy watching obese French men reeking of week-old body odor with a glass of red wine in one hand, a skinny cigarette in the other, screaming absurdities (dopa!) at Lance. Well, to each his own.
Americans don’t get cycling, much in the same way that they don’t get soccer, because their attention-deficient brains can’t grasp the subtlety and nuances of bicycle races any more than the beauties of a 0-0 tie in a soccer.
This is probably true. And I’m perfectly OK with that. I’m an American. I write for an American publication. Something like 90 percent of my readers are American. We Americans like certain sports better than we like certain other sports. I don’t agree that the preference for one sport over another is something on which we can base moral judgments. I love baseball, for example, and yet I have many friends who can’t stand it, and they’re fine people. I even married one of them.
On the other hand, I can’t stand soccer, and yes, part of that is because I don’t think there’s enough scoring. So maybe I have that national attention-deficit problem. But I can be fascinated by a 1-0 baseball game or a 0-0 hockey game, not to mention a ponderous, arty French film, which I wouldn’t dream of calling a movie. So what gives? Maybe some people just like some sports and dislike others, independent of their native intelligence. You think?
As I said, sports popular in America carry more weight for the prestigious Salon Sports Person of the Year award than sports that aren’t popular in America do. That doesn’t mean I don’t like all sports that aren’t popular in America, or that those sports, cycle racing included, are somehow bad. Americans are almost completely ignorant of hurling, the Irish national sport, which I find endlessly entertaining. I wish it were more popular here, but it’s not. I’ve just never felt the need to whine about that, or to take it as indicative of something lacking in the American character.
Your discounting Armstrong because his sport isn’t popular in America is a typical example of American arrogance and ignorance of all things outside its borders.
I wonder how many Sportsman of the Year honors Barry Bonds has won from publications in India. Is that indicative of Indian arrogance? Like I said, I’m an American writing for Americans in an American publication. The Sports Person of the Year is probably going to be someone who’s excelled in a sport that’s popular in America. Cricket players need not apply. Sorry, but there’s always the Hindustan Times.
Lance Armstrong races in lots of events. He didn’t win Sportsman of the Year just for winning the Tour de France.
Yeah, he did. He could win every bike race in the world except the Tour de France, and he wouldn’t sniff a year-end award, except in his own sport. Any other races he enters serve as training runs for his Tour de France bid.
Armstrong deserves the award not because he is a good bike racer, but because he does things outside the sport, like his cancer foundation.
No, he deserves some other award for that stuff. Lots of athletes do lots of admirable charity work. The Salon Sports Person of the Year award rewards athletic excellence.
Not only did Lance win the Tour de France, he’s a cancer survivor. How can you run down his achievements?
I didn’t run down his achievements. I just said he’s not the Sports Person of the Year, and I don’t really think he’s close — hence the admittedly inflammatory word “outrageous.” That he’s a world-class champion, a great athlete and an inspiration to millions goes without saying. I didn’t run down Shaquille O’Neal’s achievements by saying he doesn’t deserve the award either. The world is not divided into Serena Williams and a bunch of chumps.
And anyway, you can’t have it both ways. If you’re saying Armstrong deserves to win the award because he’s a cancer survivor, you’re admitting that he doesn’t deserve it on his athletic merits, which is my argument. If you believe he deserves it on his athletic merits, how is his cancer survival relevant? Saku Koivu of the Montreal Canadiens survived cancer too.
You’re an idiot.
Thanks for writing.
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)