"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)
Jaybird was a hippie nudist magazine that published in the 1960s, back when the bunnies in Playboy couldn’t show their pubic hair, let alone their vulvas. But the law allowed so-called “nudist” magazines to show a chick’s whole enchilada.
So Jaybird claimed it was a hippie nudist magazine. And it was, since in a Republican nudist magazine, you’d probably see photos of naked men and women playing volleyball or digging up crabgrass. In Jaybird, a hippie dude would blow his girl’s pussy like a kazoo while another flower child flashed her pudendum — and anus too — giggling madly below a poster of John Wayne.
Taschen has just reprinted the best of Jaybird in one trilingual edition (English/German/French), compiled by the legendary dirty magazine editor — of Outlaw Biker, Juggs and Leg Show — Dian Hanson. Salon spoke with her by phone.
How did you get involved with this project?
I work for Taschen now. I’m the sexy book editor. I had been the editor of Leg Show and my publisher died a year and a half ago. And some very unpleasant, disreputable people took over the company. Benedikt Taschen had been a friend for about nine years, so he was the first one I called. He was kind enough to take me on. He said, “Come up with ideas.” I had someone who had bought a lot of material — photographs, proof sheets — from a magazine company in California that had gone out of business. He said, “I have a whole lot of stuff and then there is Jaybird.” I said, “What is Jaybird?” He said, “Ah, it’s a disgusting hippie nudist magazine.” I went, “Ding ding ding. Let’s see this.” Of course, they were wonderful. When I started digging in to it, it immediately made me curious. “How did something like this come to be? How were they ever allowed to publish it? How were they given the freedom to make something this peculiar?” Benedict went for it right away. It’s just what he likes. He loved to see happy, earthy nudism and sexuality where men and women are quite equal.
Jaybird wasn’t a legitimate nudist magazine, was it?
The people who started it were nudist. In fact since the publication, one of the Jaybirds who worked on it contacted me. He is still a nudist today — a nudist in the Jaybird fashion, that is a day-to-day nudist walking around naked in his living room in the San Fernando Valley. As funny as the magazine seemed to be, there were people who took it seriously from beginning to end, even when it went completely crotch-centric. But you have to go back to 1958 when the nudists won the right to show pubic hair in their magazines when it couldn’t be shown anywhere else in America. It only took a couple of years before sex magazine publishers began making nudist magazines so they could take advantage of this. But the people who started Jaybird in 1965 were really nudist. They were just into “swinging nudism.” And that still goes on. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a nudist park, but —
Yes I have. [Laughs.]
You just disrobed and did it?
Was it cool?
Mildly, but as the day went on it warmed up. [Laughs.] I don’t get the feeling that some people do — and certainly we had this Jaybird party in New York, and I hired a young man and young woman to walk about naked as jaybirds, and immediately this inspired other men — I won’t say it inspired any women — to take their clothes off. These guys were walking around saying, “I feel so free. I’ve never done this.” I’m not that much of an exhibitionist. For me, I kept worrying about my posture — flexing my buttocks as I walked.
When you were at the nudist camp?
Yes. When I was at the nudist camp. The problem with nudity — it was more fun in the old days to go to Plato’s Retreat — which had a more libidinous atmosphere — and take my clothes off, and walk around knowing that it was openly sexual. In the nudist camps there was this sense that people were all covertly eyeing each other and pretending that they weren’t. One of the guys who worked on Jaybird who wasn’t a nudist said, “They’re just intellectual exhibitionists. They can’t openly admit that they want to show off so they have to come up with a philosophy for their exhibitionism.”
Is Jaybird legitimately a hippie esthetic? I’m looking at a picture where there is a woman’s crotch with a bongo drum between her legs and a woman is beating one bongo, and a man with a bad overbite wearing a clown head is beating the other.
His teeth are terrible. We have other pictures of this man. He was a real reject.
This is like no other dirty magazine that’s ever been printed. Was this true hippie stuff?
They tried to make it a real nudist magazine, but in late 1965 publisher Milton Luros won this case in Iowa — it was a real Comstock sting. They got Milton to send Jaybird through the mail. He had to go out there for trial, and he got away with it. He said, “If they let me get away with that in Iowa, I’m just going to push the envelope on pubic hair. If America wants more pubic hair, then I’m going to show it.” He told all the photographers to get the models, men and women alike, to assume positions that would show more pubic hair. The old nudist ploy is that the models weren’t just posing naked, they were doing useful activities like playing volleyball, barbecuing. So, when Milton started spotlighting the pubic hair, the real nudists pulled out. He replaced them with people who were available in North Hollywood at the time — hippies. His company was so wealthy at this time, and he was starting to go into retirement, so he wasn’t around to supervise the shoots. The photographers were hippies too, and they just started running wild.
Let’s get genitalia-specific — pubic hair is one thing, but with Jaybird we’re talking about dual orifice openings.
Yeah, big spread shots.
Once pubic hair was allowed, did the government say, “You can show pubic hair, but you can’t show a vaginal opening?”
There was nothing about this. There were no laws whatsoever. The law said, “We recognize that nudist magazines are not sexual.” Jaybird was just breaking ground with every issue. They didn’t know what was going to happen. They had the very best First Amendment lawyer in America, a man who was horribly crippled. To see him in person — he had to walk with two arm braces, and swing his limp crippled legs along. And so when he would come in to the courtroom, they didn’t want to be hard on him. Yet, he was a master of defense. And he was an enormous fan of pornography himself, so he chose to defend this. And he started pushing Jaybird, saying, “Do this. Go further. Go further.” Because he was winning his cases. He wanted challenge. Consider that Penthouse didn’t show pubic hair on the newsstand until 1970, and even then it was a long shot — a tiny smudge of pubic hair — at the time when Jaybird was having these wild spread shots.
What about the erect penis? None of these Jaybird dicks are standing at attention.
They felt it was too dangerous. They called them “soft dicks.” Jaybird would hire two men and two women for each photo shoot. They would each get $25 if they worked all day. They shot the couples together. Then they’d shoot boy/girl together. Then they would do all four together. Then they would do the women together. And then — they did the men together. For your $25, you had to have sex with a guy, too. It wasn’t real sex. It was the same soft-dick stuff. They did gay-interest Jaybirds too, which, by the way, are really hard to find and bring a lot of money. [Pause.]
It was an absolutely different time. When I spoke to the Jaybird who contacted me, he said, “We really thought we were going to change the world. We thought five years from now we were going to be able to walk down Hollywood Boulevard naked if we chose to because we saw things changing so rapidly.”
It’s impolite to ask this, but how old are you?
So you were a teenager during the 1960s.
I was a hippie. I remember us at the University of Washington, and taking our shirts off and sitting defiantly in the sun because “We’re free and no one should tell us to cover up our bodies. Don’t be so uptight, man.” Nudity was a form of freedom and protest, as was sex. I can remember a guy coming up to me in the park and saying, “Hey, wanna ball?” And going, “Yeah. OK.” Because that’s the cool thing to do. You don’t want to be uptight. It was a wonderful, wonderful opportunity for men, and why it ended abruptly was because women were being exploited. Women were doing things they didn’t want to do to be “cool.” It couldn’t work because men and women are different.
Was your first magazine, Puritan, sold on the newsstand?
Puritan was sold on a very few newsstands. And adult bookstores. It was hardcore. And again, we thought hardcore was going to be on the newsstands at any minute. We didn’t realize that we were 25 years too early.
So you’ve had a career producing dirty magazines.
Oh, yeah. And I thought I was going to do it forever. If the Sopranos hadn’t come in, I would still be at Leg Show. I never thirsted for anything else. It wasn’t like I was saying, “I’m going to put my time in making pornography and hopefully I’ll get a job in books.” Pornography was what I really wanted to do. I started as a hippie pornographer and it seemed the most wonderful career imaginable.
So did you have lots of sex?
Now the Internet has destroyed magazines, hasn’t it?
That’s it. You guys are flushing them down the toilet. Even a magazine like Leg Show that had a really, really strong fan base — fans would scan everything onto the news groups before the issues even appeared. Sometimes we’d contact these people and say, “What are you doing?” And they’d say, “Oh no. It is a form of appreciation.” “Yes, but you’re driving us out of business.” The big photo shoots that we did in Leg Show, we were spending $5,000. By the time I left you couldn’t spend any more than $2,500. And it was going down. The Internet is lowering the quality of everything. That pulls the magazines down, and that lowers the quality of what’s on the Internet because the Internet counts on magazines spending a lot of money so they can steal high-quality material.
How dangerous are dirty magazines?
They can make hair grow on your palms. [Pause.] Are you saying, “Is it a world fraught with crime”?
Yeah. Specifically, the Mafia.
Almost none anymore. My first publisher at Puritan was shot and killed in a parking lot in Florida. It was more dangerous back then. Wilder, woollier.
I remember my youth back in the late 1970s. Every blue moon I’d go up to Times Square and check out the porno magazines, but they were so disappointing. They had this Mafia aesthetic — girls with big hair that you would never date.
That’s the difference between the hardcore coming out of Europe in the 1970s, and that coming out of the U.S. It is a mob aesthetic. The mob is Catholic. It’s not so much about them being the mob, but it’s about them being Italian Catholic. The girls always looked degraded. They looked hard. They looked rough. There was no attempt to make them look pretty. They looked like girls who were going to hell.
Can Taschen pave the way, the way magazines did?
It’s a different market. When you make sex magazines you’re making fodder for masturbation. I never had any problem with that. I understood it. I played to it. I had nothing against people masturbating, I think it’s a perfectly fine outlet. It’s safe. The book market is different. A guy doesn’t go in and spend $40 on a book to masturbate to. It doesn’t mean that he won’t masturbate to the book, but there are other factors at play. You give people something they want to go back to over and over again. In the beginning, I kept thinking, “It’s gotta be art. I gotta make it art.” It’s not like you want to make “erotica” — which means it’s naked, but boring. You just have to make something that is more … inspired. Taschen … has no problem with people masturbating to his books. As he said to Richard Kern, “We don’t make masterpieces. We make masturbation pieces.”
Something that I’ve noticed over the years, no matter how amateur or how ordinary a photo set is that comes in, there is almost always one photo in there that is real art — most of it accidental. They get the camera angle. They get the way the subject is relating to the camera. I like to be able to show it to the world. These guys shooting for Jaybird, they weren’t making art. And yet some of them did stumble onto it. You know the photos would all be shot in Southern California. They would go to whoever’s place was available, and look around and find props. When you see them with toys, that was because they were in a location where the person had children. Although the children were not there. Jaybird didn’t use kids. A lot of nudist magazines did have children in them. Jaybird did not take that route because they were showing so much genitalia.
So this is a subtext that we don’t want to explore too much, but did nudist magazines feature naked kids?
Nudist magazines always had kids in them because that’s part of the lifestyle — “It’s not sex, it’s family.” Then in about 1972, the nudist magazines stopped selling well because regular magazines had pubic hair in them. Jaybird had gotten really over the top at that point. And then the “soft-dick” magazines went to marriage manuals, which is when the guys did have hard dicks, and there was actual sex, but it was all couched as instruction for people having marital difficulties. They actually had psychologists on staff to make sure the stuff was unassailable! They all only lasted about six months. And then they just went straight-out hardcore, adult bookstore stuff.
The adult bookstore was invented around 1968 or 1969. So all these magazines had a place to go. Suddenly the sales of the nudist magazines plummeted, and then the only thing the nudist magazines had was kids. There was a gentleman I talked to and was a nudist and worked on these magazines, but I knew that he had taken a fall for doing a nudist magazine called Nudist Moppets. He just took all the pictures of the kids and just made a magazine of them.
Was he finally busted?
Oh, yes. They busted him finally. I don’t think he did jail time, but after we talked for an hour and a half he just openly started talking about this and kinda wanted to get it off his chest. And saying, “There was nothing else to do. I made nudist magazines for 20 years and suddenly we couldn’t sell them anymore, but everyone knew that nudists liked kids because it’s such a family thing, so I made a magazine for just the kids.” Well, we know it was child pornography.
What are your limits?
What do you mean, “What are my limits”?
In terms of graphic limits.
What I will show and not show? Whatever is legal.
You must have been tested at times.
The things that are illegal, I don’t have any particular desire to show. The things that are illegal are children and animals and necrophilia and people being genuinely hurt. The smaller issue — with Leg Show we couldn’t get into Canada because they said we were humiliating people. But the only people who were being humiliated were men who were aroused by humiliation. And so we were very carefully staging humiliation for these men, who were in fact not humiliated by it, but overjoyed by it. But I would not, say, want to do a magazine like Taboo — it’s a magazine done by Larry Flynt of male dominance of women. They have things like men urinating on women. There is no point to that. Because the person in the inferior position is not the person getting off on it. Do you see what I’m saying? In Leg Show, we were humiliating the men for the benefit of the men. The men wanted it. If I was going to do a magazine where women were humiliated by men, I would want to know that there is a specific audience of women who were turned on by this. In the same way, I wouldn’t want to make a magazine of men being humiliated against their will for the joy of women.
Because I’m an old hippie and I believe things should be consensual. That’s always been the double standard.
The women in Jaybird truly seem beyond any submissive-women thing.
No. They’re having fun.
And just being crazy.
And there is tremendous equality in Jaybird. The men are doing spread shots too.
There is even a guy with his dick in a mousetrap. And a frog on a penis.
I’ll tell you what, that’s why the original Jaybirds are so collectible now. Go into the adult section at eBay and punch in Jaybird. If there are any there they go impossibly high. The people who really collect them all have the automatic bidding software. They’re ravenous.
What do you think about nude war protesters attempting to form peace signs?
The strange tradition of naked war protest goes back to the Doukhobors in the late 1800s who came over from Russia to America seeking religious freedom like every other bunch of kooks. Whenever they were threatened, the Doukhobors would all take their clothes off. The sight of their nude Russian bodies would pretty much horrify everyone into submission. So, I’m suspecting that maybe this is the thread that runs through nude war protesters. Do they really think that people will be so horrified by their nude bodies that they say, “We’ll stop the war right now — make these people put their cloths back on!” Or is it that people will see the allure of their nude bodies and be lulled into making love, not war? I have no idea. I can’t see it as a useful weapon unless you are a Doukhobor.
David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."More David Bowman.
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)