"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)
For much of the ’70s, John Lennon liked to take afternoon tea in the Palm Court of New York’s Plaza Hotel. But there was one part of the experience that rankled him a bit. Inevitably, the violin players at the Palm Court would recognize Lennon and attempt to serenade him with one of his most famous compositions. Unfortunately, the tune they always picked, “Yesterday,” had been written and performed solely by Lennon’s ex-collaborator, Paul McCartney.
Lennon had grown accustomed to this type of botched tribute. He realized that when the masses thought about the so-called Lennon-McCartney songbook, the first songs that sprang to mind — “Yesterday,” “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” “Michelle,” “The Long and Winding Road” — were usually McCartney creations. During his 1972 guest-hosting stint on the “Mike Douglas Show,” Lennon explained to Douglas that McCartney’s songs were often mistakenly attributed to him. Douglas, who’d just sung “Michelle” on the show, apologized for his own faux pas. A sheepish Lennon responded: “At least I wrote the middle eight on that one.”
If Lennon was occasionally annoyed about getting credit for songs he didn’t write, such mistakes have irritated McCartney for the opposite reason. Since Lennon’s death in 1980, McCartney has fought an uphill battle to assert his place in history, often finding himself dismissed as a shallow hack, a Salieri to Lennon’s Mozart, as Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono cruelly put it. So even as McCartney’s tunes continue to carry the load for the Beatles’ back catalog (14 of the 27 chart-topping songs featured on the group’s wildly successful “1″ compilation were predominantly Paul’s, and another four were at least half-written by him), little of the prestige reflects back on him.
At least that’s the way McCartney seems to view things. That helps to explain why, for his recently released double-live CD, “Back in the U.S.,” he flipped the songwriting billing on 19 Lennon-McCartney songs to read “McCartney-Lennon.” McCartney’s cheeky gambit has been met with a torrent of public venom from Yoko Ono’s camp, including vague threats of legal action from Ono’s attorney Peter Shukat, and a bewildering charge from her spokesman — and longtime friend — Elliott Mintz that McCartney has “kidnapped ‘Eleanor Rigby,’” simply by placing his name ahead of Lennon’s in the credits.
If McCartney’s latest maneuver indicates a compulsive need to prove his importance to the Beatles, Ono’s reaction is harder to fathom, and — considering her own dubious history of handling songwriting credits — loaded with hypocrisy.
For one thing, Ono and Shukat’s avowed concern — that Lennon is no longer here to speak for himself on who wrote which song — looks like an attempt to play the martyr card for all it’s worth. Ono has conveniently forgotten that McCartney made a similar credit switch in 1976, when he included five Beatles songs on his live record, “Wings Over America.” Lennon was very much alive at the time, and neither he nor Yoko voiced a word of disapproval about it. If Lennon didn’t object to the reversed billing at that time, why does Shukat find the same action “absolutely inappropriate” now?
Despite Shukat’s early suggestion that he was “looking into” a possible lawsuit against McCartney, Ono would appear to have a flimsy case. While Beatles releases are required to carry the Lennon-McCartney designation, McCartney’s Capitol contract allows him to reverse the credit for his solo releases. When contacted for this story, Shukat tersely responded: “I have nothing to say about it, sir.”
But Gregory Victoroff, a Los Angeles entertainment attorney who represented Ono in the early ’80s, contends that the legal issues are complex, and hinge on the precise language of the Beatles’ publishing contract. “When you think about it, [McCartney's action] is a little disturbing to the extent that it creates an impression in consumers’ minds that it’s a different composition,” Victoroff says. “It may be deceptive and actionable if it creates a false impression in the minds of consumers that the goods are different than they were before.”
The famous Lennon-McCartney appellation grew out of an agreement that John and Paul made as Liverpool teenagers in the late ’50s. At that point, they decided to establish a partnership in which both would share credit for every song they wrote, together or alone. But even within the Beatles’ catalog, there has never been an absolute uniformity to the order of those credits. On the band’s 1963 British debut album, “Please Please Me,” all eight original songs — including the McCartney concert staple “I Saw Her Standing There” — were credited to “McCartney-Lennon.”
Only a month after the album’s release, however, Lennon went on a vacation to Spain with Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Though many have speculated over the years that a sexual liaison happened on the trip, McCartney theorized that Lennon’s real purpose for traveling with Epstein was to consolidate his political power in the band. Coincidentally or not, it was around this time that the group decided “Lennon-McCartney” had a better ring to it than the other way around.
“I wanted it to be ‘McCartney-Lennon,’ but John had the stronger personality, and I think he fixed things with Brian before I got there,” McCartney recalled in “The Beatles Anthology” book. “I remember going to a meeting and being told: ‘We think you should credit the songs to “Lennon-McCartney.”‘ … I had to say, ‘Oh, all right, sod it!’ — although we agreed that if we ever wanted it could be changed around to make me equal.”
McCartney’s 1976 credit reversal felt like an afterthought, the final punctuation mark on what had been his most successful year since the Fab Four’s breakup. At that time, McCartney had little cause to worry that his contributions to the Beatles would be overlooked by historians. After all, it was during this period that a British journalist took an old photo of the Beatles around to British teenagers and got the mind-boggling response: “Who are those three guys with Paul McCartney?”
It’s easy to forget now, but while McCartney was dominating the pop charts in the mid- to late 1970s, Lennon was funked out and plagued by writer’s block. After releasing two of the most acclaimed rock albums of the early ’70s — “Plastic Ono Band” and “Imagine” — Lennon had limped through a series of halfhearted projects, finally retreating from the music business in 1975. When a May 1979 open letter from John and Yoko stirred anticipation that Lennon might be ending his self-imposed creative exile, Rolling Stone critic Dave Marsh urged him to avoid embarrassment by staying retired. The following year, when Lennon and Ono reemerged with the musical dialogue, “Double Fantasy,” immediate reaction was largely scathing. The Real Paper, a now-defunct Boston weekly, was only slightly more extreme than the consensus view when it deemed the record a self-obsessed disaster and recommended that the Lennons return to dairy farming.
But on Dec. 8, 1980, only three weeks after the album’s release, the public perception of Lennon changed overnight, thanks to the intervention of a disturbed young man named Mark David Chapman. A conflicted, moody man in life, Lennon became the messiah of peace in death. And although McCartney was the lone ex-Beatle who’d made overtures to rock’s emerging new wave — even organizing the 1979 “Concerts for Kampuchea,” which included the Clash, Elvis Costello and the Pretenders — Lennon was now routinely lauded as the only Beatle with any relevance to punk. Even his five-year recording sabbatical, born out of creative lethargy, now looked like an act of defiance: a middle-finger salute to the industry sharks who wanted to control him.
As Lennon’s myth grew, McCartney’s stature shrunk in the public eye. It didn’t help that his most prominent releases of the early ’80s were all sappy duets: with Stevie Wonder on “Ebony & Ivory,” and with Michael Jackson on “The Girl Is Mine” and “Say Say Say.” As MTV reconfigured the pop landscape in the ’80s, McCartney officially became a wimpy old fart.
By 1986, he was fed up. Beginning with a Rolling Stone interview with Kurt Loder that year, he launched a P.R. counteroffensive. The message: I was the avant-garde Beatle, I was the guy who dreamed up “Sgt. Pepper”; I was the swinging London bachelor when John was a bored suburban family man.
McCartney’s campaign has been unrelenting, finding its way into his concert programs, his interviews for the “Beatles Anthology” and — most forcefully — into Barry Miles’ McCartney bio, “Many Years From Now.” This comment about the groundbreaking Beatles track “Tomorrow Never Knows” is typical: “People tend to credit John with the backwards recordings, the loops and the weird sound effects, but the tape loops were my thing.”
Such obsessive hair-splitting never really factored into songwriting teams like Leiber-Stoller or Jagger-Richards, but Lennon and McCartney were different. They were competitors — albeit friendly competitors — more than they were partners, tending to write apart and use each other for editing help. More important, their collaboration ended bitterly — with very public recriminations.
Seeing the mid-’90s “Beatles Anthology” releases as an attempt to rectify the historical record, McCartney asked Ono if his name could be placed ahead of Lennon’s, if only for the song “Yesterday.” He had good reason to think she would acquiesce. In 1994, she had provided the three surviving Beatles with Lennon’s demos for the unreleased songs “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love.” That same year, McCartney inducted Lennon into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and greeted Yoko onstage with a hug so effusive it could rival Al and Tipper Gore at the 2000 Democratic Convention. In 1995, he even produced a track for Ono at his home recording studio.
But Ono was adamant that the Lennon-McCartney billing should not be altered, arguing that it would be “opening a can of worms.” McCartney did not forget: Two years later, when Linda McCartney died of cancer, Ono was not invited to the New York wake.
So McCartney took matters into his own hands with “Back in the U.S.,” and if the act seems a bit petty, no musicologist could make a convincing argument that Lennon is being shortchanged. Several of these songs, like “Hey Jude,” “Yesterday” and “Mother Nature’s Son,” were written with no input at all from Lennon. The rest of them are McCartney songs that Lennon merely helped complete.
When Mintz told Rolling Stone that McCartney had kidnapped “Eleanor Rigby,” it may have set a new standard of absurdity for Beatle-related propaganda. By even the most conservative accounts, McCartney wrote the song’s melody and first verse, automatically making him the song’s primary songwriter. And while Lennon claimed to have written the majority of the lyrics, Lennon’s own friend Pete Shotton recalled that “‘Eleanor Rigby’ was one Lennon-McCartney classic in which John’s contribution was virtually nil.” It’s hard to determine whom McCartney is kidnapping the song from, considering that none of the other Beatles even performed on the original track.
While McCartney is unlikely to attempt a similar credit switch on future Beatles releases, another source of contention could be looming for Paul and Yoko. The 1970 Beatles film “Let It Be” has long been out of print, reportedly because both Lennon and George Harrison hated it. But since Harrison’s death in 2001, McCartney has talked not only about rereleasing the movie, but also issuing a stripped-down, revisionist version of the “Let It Be” album, without Phil Spector’s 11th-hour orchestral overdubs. McCartney has always hated the syrupy treatment Spector gave to “The Long and Winding Road,” while Lennon thought Spector did an admirable job of salvaging bad material. With relations between McCartney and Ono at a new low, “Let It Be” might emerge as the next battleground.
Ultimately, Ono’s concern for songwriting propriety might have some credibility, if not for her own history of taking credit for others’ work. In 1972, as part of their “Sometime in New York City” album, Ono and Lennon released four live tracks recorded at the Fillmore East with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. One track, the Mothers’ standard “King Kong,” was retitled “Jamrag” by John and Yoko, who inexplicably took full songwriting credit. Zappa remained miffed for years, telling Rolling Stone in 1988: “I can’t imagine that album really sold a lot; anyway, it’s the principle of the thing, you know?”
Three years earlier, Ono had taken full songwriting credit — undoubtedly with Lennon’s approval — for the song “Don’t Worry Kyoko,” which amounted to the bluesy riff for Lennon’s unreleased song “Watching Rainbows,” over which Yoko simply shouted “Don’t worry, don’t worry.”
In 1980, Ono lifted the melody and musical structure from the Gus Kahn-Walter Donaldson classic “Makin’ Whoopee,” and put new lyrics on it. Retitling the song “Yes I’m Your Angel,” she took full songwriting credit, which provoked a $1 million lawsuit from the publishers of “Makin’ Whoopee.”
Ono also went to court with “Double Fantasy” co-producer Jack Douglas over royalty payments that Douglas claimed he had been wrongfully denied. In 1999, he told Beatlefan magazine: “I waited like three years, then I finally said to Yoko, ‘It’s really a lot of royalties probably accruing here … You don’t have to deal with it, let’s just sort it out, let our people sort it out.’ And I got like a nasty letter, almost like, ‘Fuck you, you’re not getting anything.’” Douglas added that Ono’s camp offered his associates money to say bad things about him in court.
In spite of such controversies, Ono has settled into a kind of avant-garde elder stateswoman role in recent years, winning critical acclaim for her 1995 album “Rising,” generating dance-club enthusiasm for a house remix of her salacious 1971 track “Open Your Box,” and sending retrospective exhibits of her artwork on tour.
Among longtime Beatle fans, she’s still tolerated more than loved. But Ono has developed considerable P.R. savvy over the years. She knows she can’t win a one-on-one media skirmish with McCartney, so she’s framing it as a contest between McCartney and the sainted memory of John Lennon. That’s a battle McCartney’s been losing for more than 20 years.
Gilbert Garcia is the former music editor of Phoenix New Times and the Dallas Observer. He lives in San Antonio.More Gilbert Garcia.
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)