"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)
Nothing says “Christmas” like a good old-fashioned circle jerk by the fire.
For all you squares who don’t know what a circle jerk is, turn to Page 88 of the Abercrombie & Fitch Quarterly, under the picture of wet, naked college kids and the heading “Group Sex.” (It’s difficult to figure out where you are in the book since most pages aren’t numbered.) It reads: “Sex, as we know, can involve one or two, but what about even more? … A pleasant and supersafe alternative to this is group masturbation.”
The challenge for me, when masturbating with my friends to the nubile nudies in the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, is trying not to think about serious things like racial diversity; it tends to kill the mood. But because most of the models in the catalog are white and because a lawsuit has been filed against the clothing retailer for allegedly discriminating against a black woman who applied for a job at the store, it’s hard for the issue not to rear its nonsexy head.
Part “Barely Legal,” part vapid teen magazine, the Christmas issue of the A&F Quarterly is unparalleled in the amount of naked frolicking it uses to sell clothing. And considering the demographic it is trying to reach, it’s downright risqué. Besides the couples seemingly in the throes of sexual intercourse, there are subtler seductions. If you look very, very closely, somewhere around Page 100, you can find not-quite airbrushed male pubes on a well-cut frat guy, as he slides in the buff down a wet rock into crashing waves. It’s beyond anything our parents saw in Playboy.
“It’s very healthy to be free and be honest about it,” says Sam Shahid, an A&F board member, and head of Shahid & Co. in New York, the firm that designs the racy ad campaigns. The cover of the Christmas issue promises “280 pages of moose, ice hockey, chivalry, group sex & more.” There wasn’t a whole lot of ice hockey or chivalry, unless, by “ice hockey” they mean bare asses, and by “chivalry” they mean nipples.
One layout is of four giggling topless coeds, tanned and blond, sprawled across a plaid blanket in the woods, pulling down the boxer shorts of a freshly scrubbed muscular guy, with a Cheshire cat grin revealing Tom Cruise-like pearly whites. And his ass.
Then there’s a completely naked couple, making out, or having sex, on wet rocks. There’s Tom Cruise-guy again, naked by the fireplace, but for a strategically placed gift with a bow. And look! Two naked men (can 18-year-olds be called men?) in the river, standing barely far enough away from each other not to be construed as gay — though that’s how I construed it.
“There’s no such thing as being too sexy,” Shahid says. “You’re speaking to the kids. Everybody talks about sex all the time.” He says none of the sexual content in the catalog is meant to shock — though this comes from the same man who gave us the borderline kiddie porn ads for Calvin Klein years ago.
The A&F catalog regularly evokes plenty of outrage and numerous boycotts from Christian, conservative and parent groups all over the country. “Everyone has their own hang-up,” he says. “We think it’s beautiful and gorgeous and we’re not offending [anyone].” And he adds that most of the ideas come from the models themselves. “They have a great time and we don’t do anything that they don’t want to.” The “kids,” as he refers to them — almost parentally — pair up, form friendships, and sometimes have tears in their eyes at the end of the shoot.
But maybe that’s because they can’t find their clothes. In the catalog, the first sweater doesn’t show up until Page 122 and by then, you’re too tired from masturbating to shop. But I’m missing the point. The catalog isn’t about the clothes. Huh?
“How many plaid shirts can one have?” Shahid asks. He explains that they are selling the “aspiration and the idea.” He says Abercrombie & Fitch is “cool and sexy and very Eastern seaboard,” and when you buy the clothes, “your image in your head is: I’m one of those kids. I put one of those shirts on and, Oh! — I’m one of those kids. It denotes a particular feeling. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
There is something wrong with it, according to Brandy Hawk, the 19-year-old college student who filed the recent lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Camden, N.J. Hawk went to prep school and describes the A&F style as virtually her uniform; it was always a place she wanted to work. “It never really occurred to me that I’d be the only black person working there,” she says. She had an interview this past May, where the assistant manager explained that they were looking for their employees to represent “casual lifestyle, American youth, athletes, sorority girls,” says Hawk. When Hawk — an athlete with previous retail experience and a wide-open schedule — never heard from them again, she was mystified. She says a security guard at the store found out from the manager that she wasn’t hired because she wouldn’t represent the company well.
Hawk couldn’t believe that being black had anything to do with it, but when she found out about a similar lawsuit filed in California by a young Mexican-American man, she was heartbroken. This free and casually fabulous lifestyle that she and her friends had so loyally bought into suddenly didn’t want her. “I really took it as a slap in the face,” she says. “It’s knocking the wind out of me. It’s like your best friend doing something …” she pauses, looking for the right word, but can’t find one to convey the severity, “like your best friend doing something really bad to you.”
Hawk filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in June, and then, just last Wednesday, filed suit in U.S. District Court. When we spoke on Saturday, she said there had been no response yet from the company.
The cult of Abercrombie & Fitch clearly has some power over the youth of America. The store started in 1892 selling sporting goods. Ernest Hemingway bought hunting gear there in the 1950s. The brand had lost its way until Shahid and current CEO Mike Jeffries entered the picture in the 1990s. It emerged as the elite, young WASP, country club brand it continues to be today. The same kind of country club that perhaps doesn’t admit people of color. Today, it has more than 650 stores, which include Abercrombie & Fitch, Abercrombie for kids, and another store for teenagers, Hollisters. It’s less of a genuinely elite brand like Ralph Lauren, and more of a Middle American-mall version of what prep school is like.
The A&F models look like the rich kids at boarding school who drink too much and crash their parents’ expensive cars and, worst crime of all, wear those obnoxious “Co-ed, Naked Lacrosse”-type T-shirts. Or “Abercrombie & Fitch Ski Patrol,” or some vague “Athletic Department.” When I visit the store in downtown Manhattan, the salespeople look identical to the kids in the catalog — the same contrived cool, almost Stepford-hipness to them. I feel incredibly out of place. I suspect it’s because I’m over 30. I notice another suspiciously old person — a bald guy, alone. Maybe an abandoned dad. (“You’re embarrassing me! Stand by the sweaters!”) Or perhaps another reporter.
The A&F drones remind me of the group in high school of which I was never a part. While I was rehearsing “The Crucible,” they were at lacrosse practice. They threw wild, crazy parties while their neglectful, wealthy parents were out of town skiing. Maybe with the Abercrombie Ski Patrol. Years later, I developed an enormous prejudice and decided these kids were lame and often lazy and their successes were usually owed to their parents’ connections and legacies. For some reason that made me think of George Bush.
I look around the store. I notice two girls and a guy giggling in a corner. A surfer-type guy — or “dude,” as I believe they’re called — stands awkwardly by a display, holding a pair of pants. No one’s folding anything. They’re bad folders. Their dads totally got them in here.
I see an enormous poster of the Tom Cruise look-alike from the catalog. I place my hand on his waxed chest and say hello to his giant teeth like he is an old friend, or a guy I hooked up with during New Student Week. I have seen him naked, after all.
For all the suggestive images on the walls (PG-13 versions of the catalog’s R- and X-rated photographs), the store doesn’t feel sexy or erotically charged in any way. It feels like the gift shop for the sexy world you visited in the catalog. I felt as if I was in some guy’s messy dorm room.
I feel conspicuous so I decide to go into the dressing room to take some notes — not before picking out a pair of meticulously rumpled camouflage pants, red flannel pajama pants (if the catalog is any indication, no matching top exists; it must look better topless) and a tank top. I ask Surfer Dude where the dressing rooms are and he looks confused. He begins to point me in one direction, but then changes his mind and gives me overly elaborate directions simply to the other side of the store. Still not folding, I might add. I find the dressing room. The three gigglers, it turns out, are in charge, but they don’t notice me with my armful of clothes, so I walk past them and into the room where I write down my observations: useless popular kids … no folding … George Bush … no one really seems to work here, everyone is just posing.
I try on the clothes. The fatigues are way too big on me, as are the pajamas. But then again I suppose the pants are intended to be worn around the ankles. I think of the old pickup line: “I like your pants — they’d look great on my floor.” The shirt doesn’t fit well either, and I realize that these are poorly made clothes. They’re cheap.
When I call the Abercrombie & Fitch corporate office I run into more incompetence. I’m transferred incorrectly three times and finally put on hold. The song “Another Brick in the Wall” plays as the hold music. I hum along, enjoying the irony: “We don’t need no education …” I get through the entire first verse by the time the company spokesperson, Hampton Carney, picks up the phone. The name is so perfect that I wonder if it’s real or if it’s a character the company’s developed to talk to the press. Carney’s not so chatty and won’t answer any of my questions. He won’t comment on any of the current litigation. Nor will he comment on the company’s hiring practices, or a recent suit it settled for $2.2 million brought by employees who said they were forced to buy and wear A&F clothes.
I find my conversation with Hampton Carney as unsatisfying as the thin, faux-faded and rough-to-the-touch sweatshirt I pass on my way out of the store. The only thing Hampton Carney does say is that, though there have been complaints from various groups, customers have “responded overwhelmingly positively” to what he calls “adult material” in the catalog.
The catalog is popular. Circulation of this year’s Christmas catalog is 400,000. I see young women lined up at the cash register waiting to purchase it. It’s $7 and you have to be over 18 to buy it. Carney told me a photo I.D. with proof of age is required, but no one was asking for it at the store I went to.
Perhaps more shocking and offensive than the teen orgies in the catalog is the bad writing. At the beginning of the catalog is a letter with a somewhat facetious apology list to all of the groups who’ve complained in the past. Among them, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who, in 1998, protested a Back-to-School issue that featured a “Drinking 101″ section complete with cocktail recipes. Also, to Asian American organizations that protested a 2002 line of T-shirts with slant-eyed faces and slogans like “Two Wongs Can Make it White” — referring to a laundry business. Abercrombie & Fitch received so many complaints that the company eventually pulled the T-shirts from the shelves.
The apology reads like the courtroom remorse of a frat guy-date rapist who gets off scot free and is then seen that night at the campus bonfire, drunk on his ass, high-fiving his friends and seducing some freshman girl. I think it’s supposed to seem clever and intelligent and spontaneous, but the rest of the catalog seems to me like it was written by a slightly drunk 17-year-old — or perhaps a 55-year-old who is trying to sound like a drunk 17-year-old.
A&F’s Hampton Carney says the writers are all in their 20s. There are interviews with Paris Hilton and cast members of the Fox teen soap opera “The O.C.” — a program whose substance, or lack thereof, merits a story credit at the top of the show, “Inspired by the board shorts of Abercrombie & Fitch.” There are film and music reviews. Words like “sex,” “pussy” and “masturbate” get pulled out and bolded in the middle of the page.
I leaf through the J. Crew catalog I just got in the mail to see what words it pull outs and bolds: “shearling,” and “bright stripes.” Which one would you rather masturbate to?
“I don’t think we’re used to seeing it [sex] commercially in a catalog,” says ad creator Shahid. He talks about his past work for Calvin Klein. “Calvin was a genius — in a fragrance ad, you couldn’t smell it, [but] he gave you a sense of what it is — sexy.”
Could it work for any brand? “L.L. Bean shouldn’t show a guy shirtless,” says Shahid. Then he changes his mind. “No, maybe it could. Maybe it would help! It would have to be the right L.L. Bean guy, with his wife, on the phone. Ed Burns. It’s got to look real and fabulous and everyone wants to be that.”
Brandy Hawk works at Old Navy now. She notices diversity among the employees there, where she didn’t really think about it before. She talks about other stores in the mall selling clothes like Rocawear, Ecko and other hip-hop-inspired lines. “I notice even though the models may be black, they still have white people working in the store.”
Lawyers for the nine plaintiffs in the California suit did not return calls, but according to a June press release, the plaintiffs, all people of color, were denied jobs, fired or allocated to the stockroom rather than the sales floor. Before this happened, Hawk thought that if she didn’t get a job, it was the company’s prerogative not to hire her. “Now I see how much of an injury it is,” she says. When you look at the catalog, or when you go into an Abercrombie & Fitch store, “it’s almost like an army — everyone looks the same, everyone dresses the same.”
Though she liked the clothes, she never understood the A&F catalog. “I wondered what they were trying to advertise,” she says. “It was like soft-core porn. I didn’t see the point.” She would rather have looked at the clothes, which don’t appear until much later in the catalog, and they are pictured on the page without anyone wearing them. Models without clothes followed by clothes without models. “I guess it’s supposed to be artistic,” she says. “Maybe it’s over my head.”
I look at the pictures in the catalog again, searching for a deeper, artistic meaning. Tom Cruise-guy just smiles back at me, his big, toothy, charming smile. He looks like he’s having too good a time to care.
Cole Kazdin is a writer in New York.More Cole Kazdin.
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)