"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)
Danny Goldberg might be the demon who haunts Bill O’Reilly’s and Rupert Murdoch’s nightmares, even after the visage of Hillary Rodham Clinton has faded. In his new book, “Dispatches From the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit,” the veteran music executive proudly confesses to being a quintessential Hollywood liberal (even if he moved back to New York, his birthplace, several years ago).
He did drugs in the ’60s (and most definitely inhaled). He counts Barbra Streisand, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton among his personal friends. He opposed the war on drugs, the war in Iraq and the Bush administration’s tax cuts. He is not merely a “card-carrying member” of the American Civil Liberties Union, but for many years played a key role in its activist, publicity-savvy Southern California chapter. Goldberg has met and consulted with every significant Democratic presidential candidate of the last two decades — and, at least at times, has helped leverage significant amounts of Hollywood money, probably the most important source of left-wing campaign dollars. In what must be one of the odder couplings in cultural history, he introduced Ralph Nader to Patti Smith, thus helping make possible the packed Madison Square Garden rally that was probably the high-water mark of Nader’s controversial 2000 presidential campaign.
Goldberg’s impact on the music industry has been far-reaching. In a career as manager and recording executive that has encompassed working with such titans as Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen and Kurt Cobain — and such ephemera as Hanson, Shania Twain and the Baha Men (“Who Let the Dogs Out?”) — he has been among the most important behind-the-scenes figures in pop music for almost 30 years. As becomes clear when you read his book, in Goldberg’s avocation as a political activist with access to both money and the publicity machine, he may have been every bit as influential.
Yet “Dispatches From the Culture Wars,” as its subtitle suggests, is largely a saga of the battles Goldberg has waged against those who, at least officially, are on his side of the political fence. Of course we expect right-wing moralists like George Will, Jerry Falwell and William Bennett to excoriate the degenerate culture of pop music, he writes; that’s been a defining theme of the cultural right since Elvis first gyrated his hips on “Ed Sullivan.” (Goldberg was too young and obscure to make Richard Nixon’s notorious enemies list, he jokes, so being attacked by the likes of Bennett and Robert Bork will have to do.)
But beginning in the mid-1980s, with the emergence of Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center, some of the most sustained and high-impact attacks on pop culture — mainly meaning rap and heavy metal lyrics, video games and violent movies and TV programming — have come from Democrats. As the music industry’s self-appointed point man on the issue, Goldberg went toe-to-toe with Tipper on numerous TV panel shows, and “Dispatches From the Culture Wars” has lots of juicy detail on his private efforts to find some common ground with Tipper and her husband. (The private discussion between Goldberg and Al Gore on the interpretation of “With a Little Help From My Friends” is especially good.)
Goldberg’s book is a fascinating memoir of the nexus where pop culture and left-wing politics collided throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and a cautionary tale directed at his own generation, the middle-class liberals of the baby boom who he fears are in danger of becoming their own intolerant parents. Perhaps in an effort to cleanse themselves of the cultural taint of the ’60s, Goldberg speculates, Democratic middle-roaders like the Gores and, more recently and forcefully, Al’s 2000 running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, have gone to considerable trouble to alienate themselves from contemporary youth and popular culture, sometimes by endorsing patently ludicrous attacks on constitutionally protected speech. These center-left moralists, themselves products of the tremendous cultural upheavals of the ’60s and ’70s, seem to believe, as Goldberg puts it, that pop culture was brought here by evil aliens and isn’t actually, well, popular.
As Goldberg points out — and no other political pundit, to my knowledge, has noticed this — in 1996, Bill Clinton beat Bob Dole by 19 points among voters under 24. In 2000, George W. Bush and Gore were dead even in that age group, a total of about 9 million votes. Restore even half of Clinton’s ’96 edge with youth, and the result of the election is clearly different, with or without the much-debated Nader factor.
Neither Goldberg nor anyone else believes that Lieberman’s fabulously misguided criticism of “Friends” (then the most popular show on the air) or Gore’s attacks on hip-hop lyrics in his stump speeches were the main reason younger voters stayed away from their camp. But they certainly contributed to the general tone of a “sanctimonious yet wishy-washy” campaign that was bereft of ideals, focused on the arcane details of Social Security and fiscal policy and deaf to the real-life tastes and sensibilities of the American public. Goldberg quotes former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal, a friend and ally, on this same point: “Most people in Washington, including those on the left, love the idea of America. but they don’t like actual Americans very much. Americans are those gross people who go to shopping malls and watch television.”
There is a larger syndrome at work here, in Goldberg’s view. It’s almost incredible to learn that a senior Democratic strategist, in the fall of 2002, had never heard of Eminem, but even Goldberg believes that’s a symptom of the Democrats’ dysfunction, not a cause. What he sees today is a party cast adrift, clueless on contemporary culture and desperately bereft of vision and inspiration. Goldberg believes the party is now dominated by a narrowly focused, puritanical and supposedly pragmatic elite group whose political legacy — with the lone, anomalous exception of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns — has been almost entirely one of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. This leadership has fled in terror from the areas where Democrats have actually had the greatest success, such as feminism, civil rights, environmentalism and lesbian and gay rights, and sought shelter in an ideology-free policy-wonk zone.
Meanwhile, Republicans have seized the ideological high ground, unapologetically spreading the gospel of capitalism and individual freedom and firing up a new generation of idealistic young conservatives. Despite its base on the Christian right, the congressional GOP has largely avoided joining in the Democrats’ gratuitous attacks on entertainment. In 2001, Lieberman, along with Hillary Clinton, proposed the Media Marketing Accountability Act, a bill that edged closer to government censorship of the arts than anything proposed since the 1930s. Meanwhile, President Bush was posing with Bono for magazine covers and joking around with Ozzy Osbourne at the White House, and Attorney General John Ashcroft — not exactly the type whose every pore oozes rock ‘n’ roll — appeared on David Letterman’s show to play “Can’t Buy Me Love” on the piano. (Despite Lieberman’s best efforts, not one Senate Republican agreed to co-sponsor his bill.)
Nobody wants to see Bob Graham onstage trying to flow with DMX or John Kerry trading choruses with Lauryn Hill. (Goldberg points out that roughly 80 percent of the music attacked by the new Puritans has been music made by and for black youth — and that the critics seem utterly unable to tell the difference between the theatrical posturing of hardcore gangsta rap and the stylized political allegories of Mos Def.) But would it really be so daring for Democratic candidates to make it clear that they support free speech, and that what Americans want to watch and listen to is entirely their own business?
Wouldn’t it be OK for candidates to the left of Bush to admit that fact, and to point out that they represent a party that, at least historically, has stood alongside the civil rights movement, the abortion rights movement, the environmental movement and the lesbian and gay liberation struggle? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to quit quoting song lyrics entirely out of the lived, metaphorical and ambiguous context in which listeners experience them, and thereby coming off like the ludicrous school principal in a ’50s teen movie? In other words, wouldn’t it be great if the Democrats weren’t such incredible dorks?
I met with Goldberg last week in the lower Fifth Avenue offices of Artemis Records, the independent label he has run since 1999. (His marquee artist is of course Steve Earle, whose song “John Walker’s Blues” was so rampantly misinterpreted last year.) A rumpled, bearlike presence in an untucked shirt, Goldberg has a quick wit and rapid-fire delivery that belies his sleepy appearance. As we discussed left-wing elitism, the examples set by George McGovern and Barry Goldwater and the complicated case of Bill Clinton, he occasionally asked me to turn off the tape recorder so he could bark at callers. (“There’s no deal. It’s not cool to go around me and go to the lawyers. Call her back and tell her there’s no deal.”)
One of the arguments you make in “Dispatches From the Culture Wars” is that most of the conventional wisdom about politics has it backward. For example, the idea that the right has won the hearts and minds of ordinary Americans. You think that’s completely wrong.
Well, it’s wrong as far as culture goes — on cultural issues, the so-called left clearly won. For all the people who complain about rap music, or about what time “Friends” should be on, it’s clear what the results are. Rap is the biggest musical culture of the last two decades, and “Friends” is on at 8 o’clock and it’s extremely popular. As far as the big issues of feminism go, look at the shopping list of what the founders of Ms. Magazine wanted when they started the magazine and it was considered this radical assault on traditional values. I think they got everything they wanted: equal pay for equal work, at least as a legal concept; women being accepted in different roles; abortion rights. There are arguments on the margins of the abortion issue, but there’s no question that it went from being completely illegal to something that’s legal and widely available. Look at the progress of gays and lesbians.
It’s on cultural issues where the left has been most successful with the public, and on economic issues where they’ve had the biggest struggle, where they’ve lost. Yet a lot of people in the political world think the exact opposite. They delude themselves into thinking that their economic ideas and policy ideas are really popular and these social issues are dragging them down. But the facts are the opposite. Instead of running away from the culture, if I were on the left in the political world, I would embrace the culture. The culture reaches people they can’t otherwise reach. Certainly Martin Luther King embraced the culture — that was a major part of his strategy. Harry Belafonte was a key advisor of his. He used entertainers in many, many aspects of what he did, including the  March on Washington [which featured performances by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Mahalia Jackson].
You argue that the Democratic Party as it exists today is dominated by an elite group, by these policy wonks who are out of touch with real American values and opinions.
I don’t have anything against elites. In every walk of life there are some people who are better than other people. There are better baseball players and people who speak French better. I also don’t look at “policy wonk” as a pejorative. But if you’re going to be successful in actualizing policy, you have to know how to talk to the public. Progressives can only succeed with democratic public support. In terms of the leftist attitude toward culture, which is my area of greatest concern, it is elitist. Partially, in my opinion, this is a reaction to the ’60s, in ways I don’t exactly understand. But it keeps coming up. People talk about the McGovern election [of 1972]. You keep hearing this phrase: “Don’t get stuck in the ’60s.” Clearly there’s some misconception of what the lessons of the ’60s are. Second, there’s been a professionalization of the public-interest political world that has removed a lot of the leaders from popular culture in a way that was not true previously. When you had the civil rights movement coming out of the churches and the union movement coming out of people who work with their hands, they were inherently populist.
A combination of factors resulted in a left on campus who actually thought speech codes were a good idea and would actually advance a left-wing agenda, when they’ve had only the opposite effect — empowering a right-wing agenda. You have a political consultant culture that produces candidates like Al Gore, who thinks that on a nationally televised debate at the peak of the election season he should talk about the “lockbox” or “Dingell-Norwood,” incomprehensible insider jargon. I didn’t know what he was talking about, and I read the New York Times every day. And then there are people like Joe Lieberman, who feel the way to win swing voters is to attack popular culture. As if popular culture had been created by Martians, instead of by the actual people in the country.
Now, the Gore-Lieberman faction of the Democrats might argue that they have to sound this note of concern about pop culture as a way of reaching out to those swing voters, the suburban soccer moms or whoever.
There’s definitely a philosophy there. There’s a terrific guy named Stan Greenberg, who’s a real progressive and who’s advised many Democratic candidates, and who I’ve met and like personally. But he wrote an article in the American Prospect, just before the 2000 election, that articulated, as a political philosophy, getting away from the ’60s and cleansing the party from the image of Monica Lewinsky. It was almost a prescription for a Joe Lieberman figure on the ticket.
To me, it’s amazing that no one has looked back on that election in the political world: There was this drop in young support for the Democrats, it was dramatic. Clinton beat Bush Sr. by 12 points among the 18 to 24′s in 1992. He beat Dole by 19 points among 18-to-24′s in ’96. In 2000, Gore was only able to tie Bush in that group. A 19-point drop! There were 9 million people in the 18-to-24-year-old group, so that’s a couple million votes, at least. That obviously would have swung New Hampshire, it would have swung Missouri. I think it would have swung Florida, although I acknowledge that Lieberman picked up some Jewish votes in Florida. But he cost them much more than he got them. I mean, it wasn’t only Lieberman. But he orchestrated Senate hearings in September, six weeks before the election, to bash culture. Then they wonder why Ralph Nader did so well among young people. I mean, that’s not the only reason why, but it certainly didn’t help.
When Rock the Vote did voter registration events throughout the year, up until the month before the election the Gore campaign didn’t even send surrogates, when Bush and Nader did. Ignoring the youth vote was a strange blind spot, and it clearly cost them something. It’s not only the youth as a quantity of people, it’s the ripple effect of youth culture, which always extends beyond their generation, and it’s the future — it extends beyond, into the future. What kind of political theory ignores young people? It’s insane.
To be fair, you’re making a leap here. You’re arguing that the Gore-Lieberman attacks on pop culture have driven away younger voters. It’s plausible, but you can’t prove it.
I think it’s part of a pattern that pushes young people away. It’s like, “Gee, young people don’t participate,” as if all these mean young people parachuted onto earth and for no reason at all have chosen not to participate. You know, I’m a parent, and I’ve always thought I was responsible to reach out to my kids, not the other way around. Older people are responsible for inspiring younger people. We’re more experienced, we have more power and it’s our job to make them interested. If they’re not interested, we should look at our own failings, not assume that suddenly there’s this mean, apathetic generation that came into existence for no reason. Part of it has been the anti-culture stuff, I definitely hear that from people. Part of it is rarely, if ever, mentioning issues that matter to young people.
I don’t know why they can’t talk about a moral conception of politics. I do think younger people want an idealistic framework for their politics, and the conservatives have been really good at creating an idealistic concept behind everything they do. I don’t agree with any of it, but they have a philosophy you can understand. Even people who don’t benefit from a tax cut feel that there’s a moral concept behind the idea of what taxes should be, and that’s why they support it. It’s not that they’re stupid. They buy into a moral philosophy that the conservatives express. Our guys don’t express a moral philosophy.
You focus on issues that ignore young people, you have attacks on the culture that young people like and you have language and cultural references that don’t connect with them. There were no Republican senators who signed on to the Lieberman bill that would have had the Federal Trade Commission regulate entertainment. Why? I mean, they thought about this and they said, “You know what? Let the Democrats have this one.” They’re pretty smart. They’ve done a pretty good job of controlling the whole federal government. Maybe they noticed that this isn’t such a good idea.
The accumulation of these things adds up. I don’t think the attacks on entertainment are the most important part. It happens to be the part I’m the most familiar with, because I’m in the entertainment business. The most important part of it is a lack of moral superstructure behind progressive ideas. The fragmentation of the issues has led to the whole becoming less than the sum of its parts for the left, and more than the sum of its parts for the right.
After I finished the book, I read a biography of Tip O’Neill, somebody who I think could be a positive role model for these guys. He was overweight, white-haired and had spent his life as a backroom politician. Yet his commitment to winning, and to his ideas, was sufficient that he reinvented himself during the Reagan administration. He did things like go on “Cheers,” and whenever he talked publicly it was in emotional terms. He would say that Reagan had ice water in his veins, or say that Reagan only hung around with rich people, so he only cared about rich people.
You know, Reagan was far more popular than Bush is now. Bush’s popularity is rooted in a post-9/11 set of circumstances; it’s idiosyncratic. Reagan was popular across the board. He was really loved for all sorts of reasons. Yet O’Neill was able to win on avoiding a war in Central America, at the peak of Reagan’s power. He was able to win on cuts in Social Security, and was able to fight Reagan to a draw in a way that today’s Democrats have been absolutely unable to do. He was really the last Democrat nationally to figure out how to talk to ordinary people and sell these ideas.
OK, every single one of Salon’s readers is now shouting, “Bill Clinton! Bill Clinton! Bill Clinton!”
Bill Clinton sold himself, but he didn’t sell his ideas. That’s why Clintonism without Clinton doesn’t work. Clinton was so charismatic that in the moment — in a State of the Union address, or in a room — he would make a majority of people think that he agreed with them. He played the cultural issues both ways; he would groove to Ray Charles and then moralize about rap lyrics. But he’s one of a kind. He didn’t leave behind ideological footprints because he was selling himself and not his ideas. I give him a lot of credit for what he did right and for his savvy. But Clintonism without Clinton is essentially what the Lieberman types think can work. It can’t.
Even though Clinton in many ways solved the cultural quandary that you identify in the Democratic Party, you’re fairly critical of him in the book.
There are good things about Clinton. I just finished Sid Blumenthal’s book. He makes some good points about the positive accomplishments of Clinton, and someone needs to make those points, given the media environment. But there’s a section of the book where Blumenthal talks about the concept of a new social contract and a post-welfare, post-New Deal theory that he and Tony Blair had in common. Then he’s like, “We’ve got to explain this to the public.” And, you know, he didn’t. All these things that were accomplished weren’t tied together in a philosophy that people can internalize as what they believe. Conservatives have done that.
I think he was better than Bush, I think he accomplished a lot, I think he had horrible enemies who were not easy to defeat. I give him credit for that. And he got elected twice. But I wish that part of that agenda had been to convey his philosophy to people such that they could carry it around with them after he left office. And he didn’t.
Essentially, you’re arguing that the Democrats have spent 30 years running away from ideology and philosophy, and you think that’s a mistake.
Yes, I think that’s right. I think they’ve been scared of ideology and philosophy. There’s this fetish — it was part of Clinton’s theory, and some of it worked for him — that it’s not about ideology, it’s about problem solving. You get the smartest people in the room and they’ll solve the problems. That’s what we need, smarter people. But there are different ideologies. There are people who really believe that everybody for themselves is the best of all possible worlds, and the less government the better. And there are people who think that we have some collective responsibility to each other, and that government, flawed though it can be and corrupted though it can be, is a positive virtue. We have police forces and firefighters and emergency workers. Sept. 11 — what a missed opportunity for Democrats and progressives! Suddenly there was this love affair with people who work for the government! It’s the same country that was anti-government — government is not the solution, government is the problem. Suddenly government really was the solution. You really can’t have firemen who are all privately funded, and hospital emergency rooms need to be available to anyone.
There really are different ideologies that divide conservatives and progressives, and conservatives are not at all shy about expressing their ideology. There needs to be a moral context for progressives. Democrats have run away from that. I think everybody who is progressive has a secret, idealistic set of assumptions, and I don’t think they accomplish a great deal by hiding it. I think it would be more attractive, certainly to younger people, who, in addition to self-interest, want some inspiration in their politics.
So here we are on the cusp of the 2004 election, and we’ve got a crop of Democratic candidates who all seem to have the same problem you’re talking about. Even Howard Dean, the outsider populist, presents himself as a pragmatist, a fixer-upper. Only the marginal ones, like Dennis Kucinich or Carol Moseley-Braun, are willing to admit to an ideology.
Well, I think it’s too early to judge. I think any of them except Lieberman could be a good candidate. Me, I wouldn’t vote for Lieberman. Even against Bush. I think he actually would be worse for a lot of things I believe in. Not only culture but also foreign policy. I think he’s probably to the right of Bush. I don’t think you’d have a Colin Powell in a Lieberman administration. But I think Dick Gephardt or John Kerry or Bob Graham or some of the others could grow into this. At this stage of the game in the 2000 election, I don’t think anyone had an idea that George W. Bush was going to become the iconic figure that he is today. He was on a podium next to Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer and Orrin Hatch and all these people, you know?
I’ve met some of the candidates. I think highly of Kerry, I think highly of Gephardt. I happen personally to be very fond of Al Sharpton. I don’t think he’s going to be president, but I think he adds something good to the conversation right now. So does Howard Dean and so does Dennis Kucinich.
Presidential campaigns are in such Day-Glo colors, so lacking in nuance, that any of these characters might end up running the right campaign. And the right campaign for me isn’t defined by whether they win this time around, because re-elections are really a referendum on the incumbent. If they lose, if they can leave behind an identity and some footprints that others can walk in, it would be a lot better than the kinds of campaigns that Gore and Mondale and Dukakis ran. Barry Goldwater in 1964 is obviously the classic example of a losing candidate who gave rise to a tremendously successful political philosophy.
I was just going to bring that up. What do you think of the idea that this should be the Democrats’ version of 1964 — the beginning of something new?
Well, it would be better if the Democrats had a message and an identity, instead of just being against Bush. These people really are for something, in their heart of hearts. They really do have philosophies that are different from the philosophies of the Bush administration. I don’t know why they can’t explain that to people. Their habits are all wrong. The culture around the Democrats and the left is not effective. They need to rethink the way they go about connecting with the public. If they do rethink it, they can do what Tip O’Neill did. If they don’t, they might do what Walter Mondale did.
You said earlier that the Democrats have drawn the wrong lessons from the ’60s. What are the right lessons?
Somehow the political story of the ’60s has been told as a negative thing. Exhibit A is the McGovern campaign — that’s what happens if you’re too involved with the ’60s. As I quote in the book, Sen. Zell Miller [D-Ga.] wrote an article just last year lecturing Democrats on how they should support Bush on the Iraqi war. Saying exactly that: “I went to the McGovern convention, people were smoking pot, McGovern lost, therefore you should be in favor of the Iraqi war.”
To me, one of the main lessons of the ’60s was that the Vietnam War was a mistake. That doesn’t mean Iraq is Vietnam, but if you’re gonna look at the ’60s, that war was a mistake. It didn’t have anything to do with the ending of communism, an incredible number of people died, it was very divisive for the country and it didn’t accomplish anything positive either for the Vietnamese or the United States. The brilliant people who conceived of it made a terrible mistake.
Now, were there a lot of idiots who were against the war? Were there people who took too many drugs? Was there a terrible flaw in many of the left-wing movements of the ’60s? Definitely. There were plenty of negative things. For me the ’60s were a mixed bag. I don’t see why you can’t say that drug abuse and left-wing violence was wrong, but civil rights, feminism and rock ‘n’ roll were good. That’s the way the public processes things. The Beatles are very popular, and the public embraces the values of the civil rights movement and feminism and the environmental movement. I don’t think the McGovern campaign has any relevance to a campaign today. That was a unique set of circumstances.
This whole thing has a lot to do with the emotions of people who went through that period. A lot of us who grew up in the ’60s thought we were gonna be young forever, and we’re not really young anymore. We have a hard time differentiating that there are actual young people who have their own culture now. It almost offends us. I don’t know what goes on in people’s minds, but I know it’s irrational. It’s irrational to reject popular culture just because McGovern only got 40 percent of the vote. One thing has nothing to do with the other.
Does this dismissive, elitist attitude on pop culture come from underestimating the intelligence of the American people?
My experience of Washington is that it has people who are incredibly knowledgeable about federal policy, laws and political culture. They’re experts in the business of a company town, which is business that affects everybody in the United States and everybody in the world. Culturally, it’s a very unsophisticated place. It’s not a place where you can see cutting-edge theater, eat in the greatest restaurants. It doesn’t produce great poets. Yet people in Washington, because they have political power, believe that everything about them is the height of sophistication. They are incredibly sophisticated about tax policy and healthcare policy and Middle East policy. But they are not sophisticated about culture. So there’s an arrogance there. I think they misread the country when it comes to culture. Not all of them do, but certainly the Lieberman types, and the people who think what Lieberman’s doing is so pragmatic. I just think, if they’re so pragmatic, how come they lost? They lost the Congress, they lost the Senate, they lost the presidency. So I don’t see that as a pragmatic group of people. I see that as an unpragmatic group of people.
Who exactly are they trying to reach with this stuff? Every time I see Joe Lieberman on TV, I think of that running character on “The Simpsons,” that woman who always says, “Think of the children! Why doesn’t anyone think of the children?” Is that their target demographic?
I think there are definitely parents of teenagers who are susceptible to the idea that culture is to blame for their problems. I mean, it is a little shocking when your 10- or 11-year-old starts quoting rap lyrics. I have a 12-year-old at home. It’s just that I don’t think the government can do anything to solve that problem. That’s between us and our kids.
I don’t think they can appeal to the Pat Robertson followers, but I do think there are people who might like the economic issues the Democrats champion but who are uncomfortable with hip-hop or something. Maybe they feel Al Gore and Bill Clinton are more empathetic if they mention the dilemma of raising a kid in the era of violent video games and hip-hop. But I think that’s a relatively small number of people compared to the price they pay for sending out a message that they actually have no respect for the tastes of young people who actually make these things popular in the first place. It’s like they’re saying, “They’re not human beings, they’re not Americans, they don’t vote.” That’s irrational.
Look, Ronald Reagan quoted from movies. George Bush kibitzed with Ozzy Osbourne and Bono. Politicians normally try to associate with culture, at least as part of the packaging, so they can show some sort of connectedness. I don’t think it’s the biggest thing; it might be a disproportionate part of my book because it’s a disproportionate part of my personal story. But it’s a symptom of a mind-set that is dysfunctional and could be fixed.
You’re calling your own generation on the carpet a little bit here, for its relationship with younger people.
I’m a little disappointed in people from my generation, the baby boomers, at least when it comes to electoral politics and public interest groups. We were so anxious to get into the game and get power and get our voices heard. The Gores, the Liebermans, these are people of my generation, the people running the public interest groups. So many times I’ll run into political people my age and they’ll say, “Oh, isn’t music terrible?” And I say, “I don’t think so.” Is music not as good as it was when we were young? Well, we’re not the same people we were when we were young. Nothing is going to touch me the way Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” touched me then. But today, to my daughter, Pink is somebody she’s going to remember 30 years from now. Kids who like the White Stripes, or like Jay-Z or Eminem, these are artists who are touching them in a similar way. They’re 16 and we’re not.
In the book you discuss the issue of the 2000 election, which is still a sore topic for many on the left. You went back and forth between Gore and Ralph Nader and weren’t necessarily all that happy with either of them.
I think that Nader gave many of us a sales pitch. He faxed many of us an article that Molly Ivins wrote, saying to vote with your heart if you lived in a non-swing state, like New York, Texas or California, and to vote with your head if you live in a swing state. He himself faxed me that article and told me that was his strategy, to try to get a national total, to show politicians that there were a lot of people who didn’t like the narrowness of the differences between the two candidates.
I bought into that. I feel that he got seduced by the glamour of speaking in front of thousands of people and the type of response that he got on campuses, and he went back on his word. He did campaign in swing states and a lot of people who supported Nader prior to the last few weeks were disappointed in that. We [Goldberg and his wife, the attorney Rosemary Carroll] raised 15 or 20 grand for him in one event at our house; I don’t think that made any difference in the ultimate outcome.
Ralph Nader is not somebody who I would support again, because I thought he was not honest with me. I feel that he did not have a helpful role, and I wish Gore had won. But the reason Gore didn’t win was because of Gore. If Gore had said anything to the people who were voting for Ralph Nader, a lot of them would have come to him. But what was their strategy? Their strategy was to send Jesse Jackson and Gloria Steinem and Karenna Gore to campuses and tell people, “How dare you think of voting for Ralph Nader? What’s wrong with you? We’re older and wiser.”
I think if Gore had said, “I understand why people like Ralph Nader. He speaks about the environment. I care about the environment. When somebody is in a minority position, maybe they can take more extreme positions. But if you look at my track record, believe me, I’m going to be better than Bush is.” It wasn’t Ralph Nader who was the problem, it was the millions of people who voted for Ralph Nader. They don’t disappear from the planet just because there’s 50 articles demonizing and bad-mouthing Ralph Nader. Those millions of people are still hungry and unsatisfied and need to be addressed.
There’s even more millions of people who opposed what Bush did in Iraq. I don’t think you have to have a Democratic candidate who opposed the war in order to get those people to vote for him. But you have to have a Democratic candidate who respects those people and who doesn’t ignore those people and who doesn’t think they’re unpatriotic. You’ve got these pundits from the Democratic Leadership Council saying that no one can be president if they disagreed with Bush on the war. Well, I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I know that no one can be president, as a Democrat, if they alienate people who are against the war. The challenge for a Democrat is to say, look, this was a very close call, there were reasons on both sides. You have to show some respect for both sides, not just pretend that those people don’t exist, which seems to be the theory of the DLC. Let’s just pretend that the 50 or 60 percent of Democrats who were against the war don’t exist, because they have nowhere else to go.
But they do have other places to go. Ralph Nader proved that they can go other places. The theory that the left has nowhere else to go is another one of those things that supposedly pragmatic people say who have proved to be extremely unpragmatic. The results of that kind of thinking have been disastrous. Let’s face it: Pat Buchanan is a far more telegenic, articulate spokesman for his views than Ralph Nader is. He has infinitely more experience on the national stage. Yet he only got a tiny fraction of the votes that Nader got. Because Bush was able to reassure his base and Gore did not reassure his base.
I think it’s a challenge to put 51 percent together. You can’t be too far to the left, you can’t be too far to the right. I don’t think it’s so easy, believe me. But I think the key lesson for the Democrats is not what Ralph Nader did but what Al Gore did. You need somebody who doesn’t make the mistakes he made. There might be a Ralph Nader again. There might be somebody more popular than Ralph Nader. You can’t control that, if you’re the Democratic Party. What you can control is the kind of campaign you run, and whether or not you reach out to people enough to get them to vote for you. If he hadn’t talked about the lockbox, if he hadn’t had Lieberman on the ticket, if he had been able to embrace the successes of the Clinton administration instead of obsessing about Monica Lewinsky, I think he would have done better, regardless of Ralph Nader.
Right now it almost seems like the left within the Democratic Party has no voice — or rather its voice is people like you or Paul Newman or Sean Penn or Janeane Garofalo, people from the world of entertainment.
Yeah, which is a role that’s not appropriate. Entertainers really had a disproportionate voice leading up to the war in Iraq. You had the national Democratic leaders and the front-runners for the presidential nomination all supporting Bush. There was a vacuum that Sean Penn and Janeane Garofalo, and to a certain extent Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, filled. That’s a very bad thing for the Democrats.
There are people in office who are progressive and need to be helped. There are a lot of people in the House, like Jan Schakowsky [D-Ill.] and Jesse Jackson Jr. [D-Ill.] and Maxine Waters [D-Calif.] and Jerry Nadler [D-N.Y.], who all know much more about why they were against the war than some of the entertainment people do. But they didn’t have the type of position that got media attention. The Democrats need to create a leadership structure that accommodates a diverse group within their own party. Again, the Republicans do it — they have Tom DeLay and they have John McCain. You hear a diversity of Republican voices, whereas the Democrats have chosen to repress diversity. I’m interested to see how Nancy Pelosi grows into her role. She’s certainly a progressive. It’s not so easy being the minority leader at a time like this. She’s got to figure out a way to have an identity, the way Newt Gingrich did when he was in the minority. She’s an interesting figure, and I think that was an attempt to include another voice. It’s going to take work.
You bring up an interesting idea in the book that the people in Washington, at least on the Democratic side, have problems with culture because they’re “metaphorically challenged.” They don’t deal well with ambiguity or irony or shades of gray or individual interpretation, which are the tools of art and culture.
That connects with what I was saying earlier about the Democratic Party walking away from ideology. Ideology has both poetry and prose in it, whereas policy is all prose. You need a combination of poetry and prose to be politically successful. You know, it’s just a different kind of person: You have the English majors or the music majors, then you have the law students. You have so many law students in the political world that there’s a literalism that has too much power over the way messages are created. If you have a politics that’s designed to benefit ordinary people, that’s not in the service of economic elites, the only way you can win is if you connect with those very people. You can’t do that with literalistic Washington jargon. There needs to be some poetry in there. That’s part of what great political leaders do. We’ve had too much of the Dukakis and Gore types, the epitome of prose politicians. Both terrific people, I think, in their hearts, who wanted to do things that I wish they had been able to do. But they didn’t know how to communicate with the people who would have benefited from them, so they never got the chance.
You tell a great story about Kurt Cobain, whom you managed. He was onstage, lecturing an audience about homophobia and how awful Axl Rose was. And then a fan comes onstage and says: “Kurt, I love you and I love Axl! I just want to rock! Why do I have to choose?” That seemed to sum up for me the collision of politics and culture, which is almost always uncomfortable in some way.
Kurt Cobain was the greatest artist I ever worked with. I mean, the only comparable genius I ever came close to was Allen Ginsberg, who was of another generation. So I kind of imbue anything Kurt ever did or said with a magical glow. At the same time, I really sympathized with the fan. I loved that Kurt was trying to use his platform to try to educate his audience about sexism and homophobia. He happened to be picking Axl Rose as the vehicle to do it, and I think maybe that was forcing people to make a choice they didn’t need to make. You could focus on sexism and homophobia and still allow people to enjoy the fact that Axl was a great rock singer even though he acted like an asshole.
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)