"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)
Just as presidential Svengali Karl Rove, dressed in a light-gray suit and mint-green striped tie, began to speak Friday at a gala dinner for college Republicans in Washington, piercing whistles sounded. A half-dozen protesters had made their way into the auditorium, and they began to chant something inaudible about George Bush and death. Security staffers ejected them within seconds, but even before they were out the door, hundreds of clean-cut collegians were on their feet, shouting “KARL! KARL! KARL!”
Then the chant changed, and they were screaming “USA! USA! USA! USA! USA!” their faces hard and triumphant atop blue suits and evening gowns as they belted out the letters. They screamed and screamed and then erupted in wild cheers.
It was the first night of the 55th biennial college Republican convention at the Capitol Hilton in Washington, and around 1,000 young people had gathered for three days to hear speakers like Rove, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, former U.S. Sen. Bob Barr and right-wing polemicist David Horowitz. On the Hilton’s second floor they organized, plotted strategy for the 2004 election, and generally paid homage to President George W. Bush, whose grinning visage appeared on everything from T-shirts to handbags. Even more, they gloried in Americanness, a state that many seem to regard as both quasi-religious and the exclusive provenance of their party.
College Republicans are the party’s farm team. Stalwarts who got their start as College Republican leaders include Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition; Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and right-wing strategist par excellence; and Rove himself. Rove’s speech was largely a reminiscence about driving around the country campaigning for the College Republican chairmanship with his campaign manager Lee Atwater, later famed as a right-wing attack dog and head of the Republican National Committee.
Again and again throughout the weekend convention, speakers emphasized that the eager young people before them were the future of the party of Hoover, Nixon and Reagan.
If that’s true, the Republican Party of the future will be one firmly indoctrinated in the belief that the opposition is illegitimate. “As conservatives, we share a zeitgeist that is not shared by liberals,” said speaker Paul Erickson, an operative who runs the “Daschle Accountability Project,” an effort dedicated to undermining the reputation of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., in the 2004 campaign. Erickson has also worked for John Wayne Bobbitt, he of the severed penis, whom Erickson booked on a “Love Hurts” tour in 1994.
“As conservatives, we don’t hate America,” Erickson told his young audience. “The life of a liberal is hell. It is not possible to have a debate, a discussion, with someone who at their root, at their core, hates everything this country stands for but doesn’t hate it enough to leave.”
Erickson was followed by Jack Abramoff, a powerful right-wing lobbyist and former College Republican chairman, who exhorted the next generation to fight hard, lest “the ascension of evil, the bad guys, the Bolsheviks, the Democrats return.”
That equation — evil = communist = Democrats — was nearly axiomatic at the convention. Ann Coulter’s latest book, “Treason,” which tarred virtually all Democrats as traitors, may have been denounced by conservative intellectuals, but its message has pervaded the party. Gene McDonald, who sold “No Muslims = No Terrorists” bumper stickers at the Conservative Political Action Conference in January, was doing a brisk trade in “Bring Back the Blacklist” T-shirts, mugs and mouse pads. Coulter herself remains wildly popular — Parker Stephenson, chairman of Ohio College Republicans, calls her “one of my favorite conservative thinkers.”
Politicians speaking at the convention may not have accused their opponents of treason, but they came close. Following Abramoff, DeLay began his speech: “Good afternoon, or as John Kerry might say it, bonjour.”
“The National Democrat [sic] party seems to have lost its marbles,” said DeLay. “It’s no longer a serious force in national debate. Its sole organizing principle is an irrational, all-encompassing roiling hatred of George W. Bush, because on every significant political issue since he came into office, he has beaten them like rented mules.”
To gauge how “out of touch” the Democrats are, DeLay instructed, “close your eyes and try to imagine Ted Kennedy landing that Navy jet.” The crowd chuckled obligingly.
Still, DeLay was actually more magnanimous than some other speakers, suggesting that the opposition is more stupid than traitorous. “The Democrats’ problem is not a lack of patriotism, it’s a lack of seriousness,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a global conflict over good and evil and they’re in the middle of a Michael Dukakis lookalike contest.”
Half of the crowd filed out when Barr took the stage to celebrate Clinton’s impeachment and warn against the administration’s encroachment on privacy rights. The room filled up again, though, when Warrior, an ex-WWF wrestler who has built a second career as a mascot for the right, took the stage that afternoon. Warrior — that’s his full legal name — spoke at the Conservative Political Action conference in January, and has been one of the most requested speakers among conservative organizations ever since.
Dressed in a blue pinstriped suit, his long, dirty-blond hair pulled into a ponytail, Warrior explained why he’d left the world of wrestling. “When it became degenerate and perverted,” he said, “I dismissed myself from pursuing it as a career anymore.”
The speech that followed contained references to thinkers from Socrates to Tom Paine, and perhaps it would require a scholar of the classics to discern its meaning. “America was founded on that primary premise, that America would survive only as long as its people live up to their means,” Warrior thundered.
“Knowledge of good and evil is the best fruit on the tree of knowledge.”
The conservative movement, he declared solemnly, “needs people ready to actualize the entirety of their human potential.”
One message that was clear was a hatred of nuance or ambivalence. To defeat the “pervasive degeneracy, ignorance and destruction of soul” that prevails today, he said, “you must live to judge and be ready to be judged … extremism in defense of moral behavior is no vice.” The saying “there are two sides to every story,” he told his audience, “brings your loved ones closer and closer to tyranny and outright annihilation.”
“Mankind survives by our leaders,” he concluded. “All leaders are warriors. Mankind survives by its warriors. Our Republic will truly survive by them as well.”
The notion of a nation under siege by enemies both within and without was nearly universal at the College Republican convention, and gave vehemence to its nationalism. Beneath the patriotic bombast lay two distinct currents: There was religion, that old Reaganite sense of America as the city on the hill, poised to lead the world from darkness. And there was resentment — toward the whining of minorities, the carping of lesser countries, the life chances the students say are circumscribed by an economy made stagnant by welfare freeloaders, swarming immigration and affirmative action.
Some attendees were driven by spiritual conviction that seamlessly encompassed faith in two messiahs, Jesus and Bush. For the true believers, Bush is a man of wonder-working powers. Jason Cole, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Iowa, grew enamored of Bush when he heard his earnest, simple talk of God during the 1999 presidential campaign. Cole says he has little interest in working in politics beyond the 2004 election. “I do it,” he explained simply, “because I love President Bush.”
If Bush and his successors remain in power for the next decade, Cole believes, we’ll have a world “where leaders say what they mean and follow it up … millions and millions will enjoy the freedoms that our forefathers fought for. Democracy will spread across the world. Iraq was a phenomenal start. In Africa, the United States is helping Liberia and giving AIDS relief. Soon, they’ll be back on the economic track. People now living in squalor will experience a home-owning boom like that following World War II. Look at how Staten Island was developed …”
The College Republican leadership echoed this pious optimism. Paul Gourley, the party’s treasurer, is a chiseled, broad-shouldered 21-year-old from South Dakota. “I am religious, and my religious beliefs steer me towards this party,” he says. Bush is somebody “students can identify with, somebody students can follow. His energy, his passion for America and freedom and his religious beliefs … I think he’s going to be one of history’s great presidents. We’re all honored to live during this presidency.”
But the cult of personality surrounding Bush bewildered a group of French student conservatives who’d come on a trip funded by right-wing think tanks. Jean Martinez, a dashing 24-year-old who’d organized an 87,000-strong counter-demonstration against the strikes that crippled Paris in June, admires American free-market dynamism and social mobility. Yet he looked askance at the great piles of Bush paraphernalia being hawked at the conference, saying: “This whole iconography … we don’t have this in France.”
Alexandre Pesey, a 28-year-old French conservative writing a Ph.D. thesis on the conservative movement in America, England and Germany, admires Bush’s honesty and was pleased with the reception his American comrades had given him. But “some are a bit simple,” he mused. “You can find strange people with American-flag ties.” The bellicose religiosity of the event, with group prayers before every meal, also puzzled him. “That we cannot understand,” he says. “Religion is private.”
The Frenchmen weren’t the only conservatives put off by right-wing religious piety. “The thing ruining the Republican Party is the religious right,” says Rosanne Ferruggia, a 19-year-old junior at George Washington University and the publisher of the GW Patriot, a conservative student newspaper. “I don’t want Jerry Falwell out there speaking for me. The religious right people in College Republicans are not taken seriously.
“My family members are religious fanatics,” says Ferruggia. “Two out of three of their pastors have been convicted of embezzlement.” An agnostic, she doesn’t oppose gay marriage and thinks Phyllis Schlafly is a “nut job.” For Ferruggia and her friends, rancor rather than religion seems to fuel politics. They’re ardent but not idealistic.
Ferruggia was sitting in the Capitol Hilton’s lobby bar shortly after Rove’s speech. There were three others with her — another blond 19-year-old Georgetown student, Chris Sibeni, chairman of Hofstra College Republicans, and Jeffrey Chen, a recent Johns Hopkins graduate. Sibeni and Chen puffed on Fuente cigars.
“I’m a Republican because liberals make me sick,” said Sibeni, spitting out the words. “I don’t like whiny people and tree-huggers.”
“You’re a tree-hugger, but the tree you’re hugging is the money tree,” joked Chen, a jocular 22-year-old who plans to attend law school next year at either Boston University or Tulane.
After a cocktail, the foursome retired to Sibeni and Chen’s disheveled room, where the hosts made the girls fuzzy navels with orange juice and peach schnapps. At which point all let loose their political ids.
Sibeni, who had spiky hair, glasses and a long face, is high-strung and given to rash pronouncements. He denounced assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. for “dividing the country” and trying to help African-Americans “advance over the white society,” and defended American support of the brutal Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile. Chen, who went to high school with Sibeni in Great Neck, Long Island, is easy-going and quick to concede Republican mistakes, mocking his friend’s more outré arguments.
While Sibeni declared that Bill Clinton had been more dangerous to America than Osama bin Laden, Chen defended the ex-president’s economic program. “Without him,” Chen argued, “we would not have had globalization. He took a Republican idea, used it as a Democratic idea, and used it to become the most popular president of all time.”
Chen seemed so mild and centrist that at one point I called him a closet Democrat. Taken aback, he replied: “How am I a closet Democrat? I’m racist, I love guns and I hate welfare.”
He wasn’t kidding. “I’m racist against anybody who doesn’t work for a living,” said Chen, whose family comes from Taiwan. “We’re in Washington D.C. You can guess who that is.” He’s no fan of religion, but says he’s less bothered about paying tax dollars to faith-based programs than to “crack whores who have eight kids because it’s easier than working.”
“I wish there could be racial equality,” said Sibeni, who, while in high school, refused to attend Martin Luther King Day celebrations. “The number one reason there’s racial inequality is because of hip-hop.”
“For young black men, it glorifies something they try to live up to, and they end up dead or in jail,” says Ferruggia, sipping her drink.
Before the Supreme Court’s decision upholding affirmative action last month, “I couldn’t admit I’m a racist,” Chen said. “They admitted they’re racist, so now I can too.”
All four of them believe they have lost opportunities to affirmative action. “I applied to NYU and I didn’t get in,” says Sibeni. “My SAT scores weren’t the greatest …”
“You were just another white guy from Long Island,” says Ferruggia. “The only person you can really discriminate against anymore is white men.”
Ferruggia, the daughter of a pharmaceutical salesman, was valedictorian of her Southwest Florida high school. “I had the highest SAT scores in between five and 10 years” at her school, she says, and feels affirmative action cheated her out of scholarships. “I watched minority after minority after minority accept these awards … I’m tired of people whining that I’m taking away from them.”
“A lot of poor white people in the trenches of Appalachia, they don’t complain, they go out and work,” said Ferruggia’s blond friend, who sat quietly next to her for most of the evening. “Black people have been given a lot of chances …”
“And they always screw it up,” said Sibeni.
Despite his high school rebellion against Martin Luther King, Chen said Sibeni used to be a “docile, pacifist kid” who others picked on. Sometimes, Chen said, he even joined in.
Then something happened to Sibeni in 2000.
He was walking on campus one night and “two African-American males came up to me,” he recalled. “They said, ‘Yo, nigga, can I get a dollar?’ Being the affable person I am, I took out my wallet. They grabbed the wallet, but I took it back. I saw one of them reaching in his pants. He had two circular bandsaw blades. I took off.”
Sibeni had the remote-control keys to his Pathfinder, and he said he used them to set the car alarm off. Then he ran to a friend’s room and started drinking.
Later that night, he continued, two Estonian exchange students were robbed and “almost beaten to death.” Sibeni’s attempted muggers confessed to the crime and were given two years in juvenile detention.
After that, Sibeni got into guns. He now owns an assault rifle, a shotgun and a hunting rifle that he always keeps loaded.
Looking at Sibeni sitting cross-legged on his bed, Chen said: “You used to get beat up. Now you’re the one beating people up.”
Sibeni has brief charitable impulses — he considered donating his ticket to the Rove dinner to a homeless person, so he could enjoy a free steak. But the idea of being forced to contribute to a broader civic good makes him livid. Taxes, he insisted, should be abolished. Who, then, will build things like roads? “Coca Cola should be building roads just to get exposure,” Sibeni said.
“Who’s going to build a road in inner-city Baltimore?” asked Chen.
“It’s not my problem,” said Sibeni.
Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).More Michelle Goldberg.
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)