"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)
“Lemme bootleg yo’ shit.”
That request, from a radio call-in skit on the new Lil’ Kim album “La Bella Mafia,” might be the ultimate expression of our current state of media overload. Everything gets bootlegged, though it hardly needs to be since, sooner or later, everything gets released. DVDs contain deleted scenes and director’s cuts. Most new CDs glide past the hour mark, and older ones are rereleased with unheard bonus tracks, B-sides, demos, alternate takes.
You can buy pricey imported box sets of jazz or blues or R&B artists that contain entire recording sessions, including false starts and studio dialogue. Buy a reissue of a jazz CD and you’re likely to find yourself listening to 10 different takes of “Bye Bye Blackbird” or some other standard. The inclusionary model for current media might be Greil Marcus’ description of the ’70s album “Having Fun on Stage with Elvis”: “The King saying ‘Well … wellll … wellllll‘ for 37 minutes.” If it ever existed, some collector somewhere has to have it.
But at some point, after reading about the umpteenth hot new band/singer/novelist/artist/actor/gastroenterologist, after being induced to buy the latest remastered “complete” version of a classic, it’s easy to start craving the mental equivalent of a high colonic. I’m quite happy, thank you, with the five tracks that originally comprised Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” and with Steven Spielberg’s original cut of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” (Blessings, though, on those wonderful souls who brought out the restored texts of “Huckleberry Finn” and “Sons and Lovers.”)
Feeling that way may signify a retreat from pop culture, where the thrill often comes from having so much vying for your attention, from believing that some great new thing is just awaiting discovery. It’s especially easy to feel overwhelmed when it comes to popular music — even if you’ve managed to keep paying at least some attention after you hit 30, the age when most people begin to give up on keeping track of what’s new.
There are a lot of reasons people stop listening to current pop music: The feeling that it’s not for them anymore; the drain on the energy and attention they want to devote to family and work; even just plain creeping old-fartism. Lately, though, there’s another reason: There’s just too much out there, too many artists, too many niches, to feel like you can get a handle on what’s going on. Radio as a place to hear new music has pretty much ceased to exist; you can hear more new music shopping for clothes or watching TV commercials than you can on most radio stations. Those stations that do play new music have all settled into ever more narrowly defined categories, and that’s tough luck if you happen to like both Aaliyah and the Strokes.
The rock press hasn’t been much help either. With the exception of sharp writers like the New York Times’ Kalefa Sanneh (who is embarrassingly good week in and week out), rock journalism seems written in language that’s impossible for the general reader to decipher (Spin and the Village Voice are mostly incomprehensible). If you want to discover new music on MTV, that pretty much means staying up all night or setting your VCR from 2 to 8 A.M., when the network still bothers to show music videos. And with CDs routinely nearly double the length of what LPs used to be, getting to know any individual album well becomes harder. How many times have any us been captivated by some new song, bought the CD and found the hit surrounded by crap?
The most satisfying listening experiences I’ve had in the last few years have been with electronica and dance music compilations, not just because it feels as if there’s something ecstatic and utopian in that music (even if I can’t tell garage from trance from house) but because the variety of artists who appear on each CD mitigate against boredom. You can enjoy Dirty Vegas’ “Days Go By” on a compilation by DJ Peter Rauhoffer without the lame cuts that surround it on the band’s own album. In this overloaded culture, it’s inevitable that something approaching mass attention deficit disorder starts to set in — and compilations can function as something like a spam filter. But then, sometimes the sheer number of compilations released every week, often with competing mixes of the same songs, can make me leave the record store empty-handed, sure that any choice I might have made would have been the wrong one.
I think the feeling of being behind before you start, slotted into target audiences in a way that rock audiences were not in the ’60s (when it wasn’t especially unusual to like both Bob Dylan and the Supremes), overinformed and clueless at the same time, has a lot to do with the emergence of mash-ups.
Mash-ups are mix tapes that segue sometimes almost imperceptibly from a snatch of one song to a snatch of a different song or, in their most delightful and imaginative versions, put bits of two songs together on the same track. Christina Aguilera may find herself being backed by the Strokes; Salt ‘n’ Pepa square off against the Stooges; the Beach Boys’ sublime harmonies on “God Only Knows” waft out of the heavens over the endlessly repeated opening riff of “Billie Jean”; Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5″ gets support from the electronica duo Royksopp; and Kurt Cobain fires up the pep rally with special guest vocalists Destiny’s Child.
Peer pressure doesn’t really end with adulthood — it just becomes cultural pressure. In school we may be embarrassed to admit we like a certain group or song. When we get to be adults, we find we’re supposed to admit to liking only what has been deemed worthy (or hip — the urban equivalent of worthiness). It’s OK to be in your 30s and express admiration for the tuneless droning of Radiohead, but watch out if the new Justin Timberlake single tickles you. The most honest response to current rock culture I’ve read came from Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy in a recent issue of Bookforum when he said that the interaction that goes on between a teenage girl and an N’ Sync album is more profound than what some 50-year-old rock critic thinks about the new Interpol record. Tweedy was restating the importance of immediacy in listening to rock ‘n’ roll, the feeling of instant understanding and connection between artist and listener, the belief that what you’re hearing is yours. That’s also why rock fandom can be as much a solitary as a communal experience.
Mash-ups may simply be seen as a logical extension of sampling, the next step in a culture where everything gets combined to less and less effect. Except that the irony I hear in mash-ups is not the irony of hip detachment. Mash-ups are not only the logical evolution of the mix tape, those intensely personal collages put together as love letters or journals or mementos of a time and place. They represent some of the best things pop music has to offer us right now. They’re the place where real rock criticism is being done, the glorious return of format-free radio, the vindication of fandom and an affirmation of the egalitarian spirit of rock.
That’s the spirit that I hear in the work of the Belgian brothers known as 2 Many DJs collected over the five volumes of “As Heard on Radio Soulwax” (“Pt. 2,” the most popular, is also the best); of New York producer Steve Stein, who records as Steinski and whose “Nothing to Fear: A Rough Mix,” is the closest to a masterpiece the genre has produced; and of the various mixers and producers collected on “The Best Bootlegs in the World Ever.”
The democratizing impulse of these records is the same one that animated Pet Shop Boys’ version of U2′s “Where the Streets Have No Name.” By putting a dance beat behind the insufferable inspirational grandiosity of U2′s song, and then seguing into Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes off You,” Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were returning the number to pop, saying there was something more moving, more fun, in their version’s trashy club beat, and something more fun in that trashy Frankie Valli song, than in all of U2′s “vision.”
Mash-ups are also related to the spirit that moved Puff Daddy to let Dave Grohl, Rob Zombie and others loose on the rock remix of “It’s All About the Benjamins” (echoing the critic Dave Marsh’s words that Jimi Hendrix’s legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival was “fair equivalents of what your parents were afraid would happen if you hung out with blacks”), or to rap over Jimmy Page’s guitar solo from “Kashmir” on the pompous and undeniable “Come With Me.” (Recorded for the remake of “Godzilla,” it was music made to stand up to a 5,000-ton, fire-breathing reptile monster and kick his scaly ass back into the ocean.)
Mash-ups are a party that takes place both in your head and in your speakers, a fantasy gathering where all sorts of artists kept segregated by radio formats, corporate blandness, snobbishness, the racial and social divides that keep some artists from reaching certain segments of the population — and even death — are brought together to fight it out and, eventually, find harmony. It’s the rock ‘n’ roll heaven that wimpy Righteous Brothers song could not have dared dream of. The thrill of listening to Salt ‘n’ Pepa’s lubricious rap “Push It” while the Stooges slam into “No Fun” and Iggy squeals “Uh cuhhhm-mmonn!” is knowing that there are fans of each group who’d want nothing to do with one another. (There was a great moment a few years ago on an MTV awards show where host Chris Rock introduced a performance by Marilyn Manson, and you could see him thinking, “White people are into some weird shit.”)
Mash-ups don’t so much trash the barriers of high and low that exist in the pop world as simply refuse their existence. What hip young Strokes’ fan, steeped in Big Star and the Kinks and the Replacements, would be caught dead grooving to Christina Aguilera? But when you hear the fleet, chugging guitars of the Strokes’ “Hard to Explain” backing Aguilera’s vocal for “Genie in a Bottle,” they’re a match made in heaven. If you think of the refrain that Julian Casablancas sings in the Strokes’ original — “I don’t see it that way” — it begins to seem like a denial of the possibilities this new version opens up.
Somebody saw it a different way (the version, credited to Freelance Hellraiser, is fittingly called “A Stroke of Genius”), saw that indie hipness and teen pop could be entirely comfortable bedfellows. And you notice something else — just how good Aguilera’s vocal is. The lyric and the song’s original backing may be just another piece of pop-factory product. Taken out of its original context, Aguilera’s vocal reveals a commitment to emotion beyond anything the song deserves, along with a dramatic pull between erotic surrender and refusal.
The Strokes might be a bunch of guys mooching around the sidelines at a dance eyeing Aguilera, the hot girl who’s just sashayed in. The guitar riff of “Hard to Explain” promises pleasure lurking just around the corner, if only this girl would venture out on the dance floor with one of them. She, on the other hand, is determined to keep herself in reserve, though the slight moan in her voice tells you she longs to give into what the music promises. The number could be the long-awaited marriage of the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” with its heartbreakingly naive question, and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s “I Wonder If You Take Me Home,” where the singer knows exactly what will happen if she gives herself to the boy who’s working overtime to melt her defenses.
The implied criticism in “Stroke of Genius” is in the refusal to deny what gives us pleasure in the name of hipness. Sometimes, what’s being criticized in mash-ups are the pretensions of the performers themselves. Evolution Control Committee matches the retro-assaultive Black Power sermons of Public Enemy with the peppy horns of Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass — and the result is hilarious. Every time Chuck D. lights into some new target of his righteous rage you hear those horns saying, “Lighten the fuck up!” (The fact that the track segues into Tito Puente’s cover of “It’s Not Unusual” only compounds the joke).
For the most part, though, the elements of mash-ups work to complement each other, and never more so than in Freelance Hellraiser’s “Smells Like Booty,” a pairing of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with “Bootylicious” by Destiny’s Child. On the Destiny’s Child album “Survivor,” “Bootylicious” kicks off to the opening riff from Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen.” That stuttering guitar is meant to impart tension, but the track never delivers the mounting excitement of denied release. Worse, the vocals sound rushed, nervous, competing with the beat instead of being buoyed by it. The twists and turns of the vocal get swallowed in the mix.
It’s stating the obvious to say “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hits faster and harder than “Edge of Seventeen.” The oddity is that the pace of the song actually seems to relax the vocal, allowing every ounce of its lubriciousness to drop over the record like honey. It opens with the spider-vine crawl of Nirvana’s opening riff and the vocal asking, “Kelly, can you handle this? Michelle, can you handle this? Beyoncé, can you handle this? I don’t think they can handle this!” That has no sooner ended when Kurt Cobain’s guitar, Krist Novoselic’s bass, and especially Dave Grohl’s drums explode and the release has already come.
But instead of being a premature ejaculation, the tension keeps building, band and vocalists striving to outdo each other’s mounting excitement. “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly,” Beyoncé teases as the guitar and bass and drums work to an ever more crushing crescendo to prove otherwise. As she reaches the vocal’s ultimate tease — “I don’t think you’re ready for this” repeated again and again, the track reaches the moment in “Teen Spirit” where the rhythm is interrupted by the sound of the guitar, like a rubber band being yanked back. When the track reaches those interruptions, it’s as if Beyoncé has succeeded in rocking her pursuer back on his heels, and as if she’s smacking her bottom to punctuate her triumph.
This has to be one of the sexiest recordings ever. If “Stroke of Genius” is a dance of seduction, surrender, and retreat, this is a full-fledged sexual face-off, predatory and retaliatory between two sides determined not to give an inch. And lest it sound as if it’s Destiny’s Child alone who benefits from this pairing, Nirvana gains something, too, and what they gain is precisely the thing that grunge never had: sex. “Smells Like Booty” adds the one thing to their résumé that was missing: a great rock ‘n’ roll fuck song.
If mash-ups hit you in the wrong mood, they can be as annoying as the quick cutting that’s become common in movies, leaving you feeling as if you can’t focus on anything. They can also make you feel your senses are being sharpened, making all sorts of unforeseen connections, reshaping the very way you hear. There can be a problem with repetition, especially on the 2 Many DJs releases, which tend to repeat some tracks from volume to volume. But there’s also a fan’s obsessiveness for riffs and choruses, favorite moments, for savoring the initial rush that a song gives you when it first comes out of the speakers.
Steinski’s “Nothing to Fear: A Rough Mix” might seem to share more with the found-music collages of DJ Shadow. But it’s on this flabbergasting record that the inclusiveness of mash-up culture, its willingness to bring anything and everything together, comes right up against its insularity. After all, to love all these records and bits of records, famous and obscure, you have to have a voluminous knowledge of them; to make records like this, you have to own thousands. You have to be willing to indulge in scavenging the most minute flecks of sound, of finding ways to match them, to integrate them. Obsessiveness would seem to be a prerequisite.
“Nothing to Fear” is both funny — Lenny Bruce, Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers, Bill Cosby and Robin Williams as Lawrence Welk (“Le’s all get down, get fohn-kee!“) all make appearances — and frightening, as laid back as someone casually slipping one record after another onto a turntable over the course of a rainy afternoon, yet crazily intense.
It starts out like a big variety show from the ’60s. First a drum roll, and then an announcer breathlessly hyping what’s to come: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! Tonight from New York!” You can practically see those black-dot reflections that the sequins on the performer’s gowns cast into TV cameras in those years. Almost immediately, unease sets in. The drum roll is reduced to the muted sound of approaching thunder, a disembodied voice creeps in: “It is ironic to see how quickly he has faded from memory considering what an astounding record he made. It certainly is a very bizarre story.”
At once, the dazzling array of performers we’ve been promised seem to have become ghosts before they’ve appeared, slated for some future limbo where they exist only on forgotten kinescopes and scratchy records. “Listen please, I want everybody’s attention” says a female voice, sounding like an elementary school teacher ordering her class into silence, and then another voice, older, English comes in, “I am a traveler, a wanderer.” From where? To where? And then it’s the opening doo-wop riff from Dion & the Belmonts “I Wonder Why”: “Dun-dun-dun-dun-de-da-dun-dun-de-de-da-dun-dun-dun-dun-da-doo-doo-de-da-da-aaa” — but repeated endlessly, the syllables, so effortless in the original, stumbling over each other like a skipping 45.
It’s the sound of being stuck in a song, of wanting to extend the rush of the opening and then not being able to get past it. And it finds its apotheosis, next, in the moment that has struck pained recognition in the heart of every record geek, the scene in “Diner” when Daniel Stern tells his wife Ellen Barkin not to touch his records. “It’s just music,” she says, and he, scarcely able to believe what he’s hearing, explodes like a petulant boy, “Every one of my records means something! … When I listen to my records, they take me back to certain points in my life. Just don’t touch my records — ever,” and that last word hits with the finality of the piano chord that closes “A Day in the Life.”
Meanwhile, a smooth-sounding DJ tells us, “That’s the way it was, that’s the way it is, and it’s always changing and it’s always the same” and a blandly, somnambulant voice soothes, “There’s nothing to worry about, there’s nothing to fear.” And underneath it, mocking this relationship gone wrong, are the opening chords of the greatest of all seduction songs, “Let’s Get It On,” which subconsciously hooks up with another record geek, Jack Black at the end of Stephen Frears’ film of “High Fidelity,” taking the stage to sing the song as if there were no reason why a pudgy white boy couldn’t be Marvin Gaye, at least in his own mind.
From there, private obsessions share space with public disgraces. James Mason’s voice as Humbert Humbert in “Lolita” purrs with impossible delicacy and insidiousness about “little girls” while Bill Cosby, his voice sounding as if it’s coming out of the innermost circle of hell, asks, “Do you wanna burn?” Malcolm X warns, “If anyone puts a hand on you, send him to the cemetery,” and that call to self-reliance is mocked a few tracks later by a rapper, whom we’ve previously heard saying he’s a role model for young people by setting an example not to follow, talking about the police rape of Abner Louima, a nightmare Malcolm X didn’t live to see.
Through it all, the groove never falters, whether Steinski is playing Foxy Brown’s “Hot Spot” or Nelly’s “Country Grammar” or Blackalicious’ “Swan Lake.” The hits just keep on coming and as that pod person promised us, there’s nothing to worry about, nothing to fear. You can free your soul and drift away, just like Dobie Gray said you could.
Fall into “Nothing to Fear” and you begin to feel like Jimmy Stewart in “Vertigo,” experiencing not the terror of being trapped in a fantasy but the soothing Valium-calmness of losing yourself in one. “Nothing to Fear,” which is one of the smoothest, most listenable records I know — a concoction where the grooves feel as effortless and necessary as breathing — is the apotheosis of mash-ups, an open road and a dead end. It leaves you suspended between freedom and servitude, between the belief that a pop song can change the world and the glorious delusion that a pop song can be the world.
Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.More Charles Taylor.
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)