"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)
Man, it must be summer, because it’s getting freakin’ hot in here. Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11″ colossus has turned up the heat on the Iraq oil grab, as well as the Bush administration’s shady deals with the bin Laden family, James Bath and the Saudi royals. It’s old news to most earnest lefties and the world at large, but still — cue Claude Rains from “Casablanca” — shocking news to the rest of America.
Meanwhile, the Republicans have responded by trotting out a policy Old Faithful — the criminalization of homosexuals — and trying to pass off criticism of their botched reign as, no lie, “pessimism.” Talk about a loser’s strategy; I haven’t seen anything as hilarious as that since Lakers coach Phil Jackson inserted Slava Medvedenko into the NBA Finals in hopes of stopping the Pistons juggernaut.
But does the left (and middle) need to tear down Ralph Nader, a guy who has spent his entire life championing the disadvantaged and dispossessed, to compensate for its own self-made shortcomings? Look, the guy might be getting money from right-wingers and/or suspicious donors, but that would put him entirely in line with the rest of America’s political machine. To argue that he must hold himself to a higher standard just to get his name on a ballot with the Republicrats is hypocrisy. Let’s not be Pollyanna about this — politics is a dirty game, as Nader has proven over the decades. Let’s just suck it up and move on.
At least Nader is still trumpeting (albeit self-importantly) for truth, fairness and justice. In contrast, John Kerry voted for the Iraqmire on feeble proof — along with the rest of the Democrats not named Kucinich — and still can’t summon up enough courage to publicly state that gays have the right to marry whoever the hell they want, wherever the hell they want. C’mon man! Democrats are supposed to believe in something else other than the notion that a populist wonk named Ralph, who’ll barely be able to command 1 percent, will ruin their election chances against the worst president this country has ever seen. If Bush wins this election, the Demos will have only themselves to blame, just like in 2000. Was anyone even watching the beginning of “Fahrenehit 9/11,” where a neutered Al Gore buried himself with his own gavel?
I don’t know what the lines in Vegas are at this late stage, but my money’s on a new president in the White House, Nader or no. Speaking of, let’s get political:
“The Joker’s Wild: Dubya’s Trick Deck”
By Greg Palast
Illustrations by Robert Grossman
Seven Stories Press
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Speaking of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” most of the evidence that African-Americans were vote-jacked in Florida in 2000 — a tragedy ignored by Gore until it was too late, as Moore’s film illustrates — came from the tireless efforts of individuals like Greg Palast, an investigative reporter who’s also responsible for bringing some of America’s most egregious scams to light. Early reporting on the Exxon Valdez drive-by on Prince William Sound? The greed-is-good Enron shell game in Texas and Cali? Bush’s buddy-up with Bath, the bin Ladens and the Saudis? That would be Palast stirring the shit, long before anyone else cared.
Now he’s taken some of the not-so-beautiful losers found at length in his bestselling “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” — reissued in April with new information on Florida’s plans to screw the same people again in 2004 — and assembled them for a deck of cards not unlike the one Rumsfeld concocted for his Project for the New American Century pipe dream in Iraq. The usual suspects are here, resplendent in caricature courtesy of Robert Grossman, the mightier-than-the-sword pen for the Nation, the New York Times and others. Grossman-Palast make a formidable tag-team against Bush-Cheney; I’d like to watch them square off against each other with chairs in the WWE someday. Until then, this hilarious stack should do the trick.
Why a card deck? Because it’s a fitting metaphor for our current political environment, for one. “These are the landlords of your planet,” Palast told me recently. “I thought you should be properly introduced to them. Some of them are, of course, fictional — like Tom Brokaw. It’s a stacked deck; you’ve lost the game before you open the pack. We’ve made these twice as big as other card decks, but not so big you can’t hide them in your cell in Guantánamo.”
According to Palast, humor has always been activism’s hidden butcher knife — check “The Daily Show” for more on that score — and he’s adamant about keeping that tradition alive. “That’s the thing,” he says. “We have to be very careful — progressives should not become grim. The success of the antiwar movement was not built on the gloomy speeches of Tom Hayden but more on the antics and fun of Abbie Hoffman.”
Of course, one man’s antics are often another man’s lawsuit, but the jokes in the Dubya deck are worth a little jail time, especially since some of them include ridiculous quotes from Palast’s respective targets. Pat Robertson’s slam on the Presbyterians — “I don’t have to be kind to the spirit of the Antichrist” — and Tom Friedman’s bias toward military-enforced globalization — “The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist of the U.S. Marines” — land both in the diamonds, along with other notables like Botox zombie Katharine Harris and, my favorite, Pervez Musharraf, whom Palast describes as a “Berserker Muslim fanatic dictator with weapons of mass destruction; in other words, a close friend of George W. Bush.” Al Gore also gets the skewers (“Wife Tipper thinks Marvin Gaye songs are obscene”), as does the aforementioned ExxonMobil, Bush’s top donor — after Enron — which according to Palast netted “record profits of $14.9 billion in [the] nine war months of 2003.”
But it’s not all gloom and doom; righteous cats like Russell Simmons, Amy Goodman, John O’Neill, Jim Hightower, Tundu Lissu and many more own the heart cards, because theirs evidently still work. “The hearts are the non-asshole suit,” Palast explains. “Ass-kickers like federal Judge Rosemary Pooler, who told Ashcroft, ‘No matter how terrible 9/11 was, it didn’t repeal the U.S. Constitution.’ I knew Charles Bukowski when he was a postman, and he’s worth playing just for the line, ‘Americans do things in the worst possible way, like voting for the candidate for president most like themselves.’”
You can be sure that Palast is carrying on the hearts’ sometimes Sisyphean tasks, whether he’s being called to testify before a government commission investigating the cleansing of African-American voters from the 2000 and 2004 Florida rolls or taking Chicago Eight-like swipes at the power elite who’ve been handed America on a silver platter by Bush and his various cronies.
None of this might save Palast from being painted into the paranoid corner by the mainstream (read: multinational-funded) American news media, but he’s used to that by now. “The fact is,” Palast asserts, “that I report for the BBC television’s prestigious Newsnight’ and I write for prestigious newspapers like the Guardian and the Observer. I have George Orwell’s old post, and yet somehow I’m treated like the Unabomber.”
The sad thing? That situation might not change, no matter who wins the 2004 election. And the first reader to e-mail me and change my mind on that score wins a free deck of cards in an anthrax-free envelope.
“Autograf: New York City’s Graffiti Writers”
By Peter Sutherland
Text by REVS
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Talk about phreaked paradigms. Graffiti has come of age, which is a literary way of saying that spray-can virtuosos are no longer civic pariahs with nothing better to do than tag liquor stores, pay phones and subway tunnels. They’ve quickly become full-fledged writers (as they are wont to call themselves) with a fair share of propers from connoisseurs like the powerHouse Gallery, whose publishing division has produced art books on everything from Leroy Neiman and the war in Iraq to David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Sleater-Kinney.
But as New York graffiti king REVS explains in “Autograf,” on lined yellow legal paper of all things (ironic, considering that the dude writes on walls with rollers), that doesn’t mean these street artistes are getting a free pass from the cops. “True,” REVS writes, “who wants to see writers’ faces except the cops … and believe me they don’t need any more help than what you jackasses are givin’ them.”
Which is why Sutherland photographs the majority of the graffiti lifers, legends and come-ups with their faces covered in some fashion, often with tags commissioned for the book. As the photographer explains in an interview, “I think people write to fight back against the gentrification that has happened and is still happening in Manhattan, Brooklyn and parts of Queens. There are yuppies everywhere, wearing polo button-downs, talking on cellphones and walking wiener dogs; it gets boring. I think today’s writers glamorize an older, grimier New York. Writing is a way for them to identify with it, to play some part in it.”
The gritty pleasure of transgression is on regal display in “Autograf.” Sutherland hounded Gotham’s graffiti pantheon until it agreed to sit down long enough to be photographed in the time and place of its choosing. The result is a hard-boiled portfolio that evokes the docudrama of both Marc Singer’s “Dark Days” and Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” rounded out by a parade of middle fingers. It might feel harsh, but as graffiti settles into the mainstream, it’s harder every year to maintain that much-needed edge. As REVS writes, “We need to be paintin’ 5, 10, 20 story buildings top to bottom … where none of these people in power (the art critics, historians or politicians) can discount [our] existence!”
Like countless outsider artists that were eventually legitimized, old-schoolers like FUTURA and DOZE, new jacks like KAWS and COPE 2 — as well as the many more that appear in “Autograf” — will probably be sainted, not imprisoned, for their “antisocial expressionism,” as powerHouse calls it. Books like this will push that steamroller further down the hill, and there’s nothing that Mike Bloomberg, George Pataki, Rudy Giuliani or anyone else can do about it. If they’re pissed off at graffiti artists, wait until they get a load of the Bush-Cheney orgy in Larry Fink’s “Forbidden Pictures.” You’ve gotta give it up to powerHouse, man — when they swing, they swing for the rafters.
“Peace Signs: The Anti-War Movement Illustrated”
Edited by James Mann
Foreword by Howard Zinn
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While we’re on the outsider-art tip, let’s consider this visual tome of sorts from Edition Olms, a not-so-indie publisher of photography collections on subjects as diverse as the Beatles and chess champion Gary Kasparov. My buddies at the late, great indie bookstore Midnight Special — Da Lord rest its noncomformist soul — first turned me on to “Peace Signs,” a sobering but hilarious collection of recent antiwar posters, after finding one particularly uproarious collage showing Bush and Saddam holding each other’s johnsons above the word “Peace” in all caps. Who knows why they thought of me when they saw that, but I’m glad they did, because “Peace Signs” is a one of the most potent documents on our recent Misadventure in Mesopotamia that I’ve come across.
The anthology is roughly divided into seven sections that dictate the poster content by theme; “Collateral Damage” focuses on the invisible casualties of war, “No Blood for Oil” features different works with the same slogan, and so on. There is also the requisite Howard Zinn reality check — “No image of war, however shocking, can match the reality” — and a short history of antiwar art’s history, courtesy of Nicholas Lampert, that situates the work of “Peace Signs” within the same matrix populated by Picasso’s “Guernica” and Goya’s “Disasters of War” etchings. The posters themselves are something to behold, a pop-culture train-wreck of Robbie Conal, Soviet propaganda, “Yellow Submarine,” Mathew Brady, Fox News cheerleading and more, mashed and distilled into some eye-opening numbers.
Like Art Spiegelman’s “Roll Up Your Sleeves, America,” featuring a dashing Uncle Sam injecting a gas pump into his forearm. Or Michael Dickinson’s hilarious collages, including a Bush-bin Laden-Blair revision of the classic “American Gothic.” Or “The Estrogen Bomb,” an anti-testosterone salvo from feminist badasses the Guerilla Girls, the sharp wits behind take-back-the-arts releases like “The Guerilla Girls’ Bedside Companion to the History of Western Art” and “Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: The Guerilla Girls’ Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes.” Although there are some openly sentimental works involved, “Peace Signs” never gets bogged down in the type of “pessimism” that right-wingers love to tar liberals with. As an exercise in sheer creativity and political will, it’s an unparalleled good time about a FUBAR excursion.
And now for a short selection from the bastardized Whatcha Missed section of this column:
“Spiels of a Minuteman”
By Mike Watt
L’Oie de Cravan
Order from the publisher
Although this short but sweet anthology of punk lifer Mike Watt’s work from his time with the influential — but still overlooked — Minutemen came out in 2003, there weren’t many who noticed. Sure, there were a couple of zine reviews, but doesn’t a guy who helped redefined political punk (along the way inspiring bass wizards like Flea, Les Claypool and others) deserve a bit more? Hell yes, he does; maybe Iggy and the Stooges’ decision to tab Watt as the bass player for their first reunion and album in decades will bring him the respect he’s always earned.
In Iggy, Watt has found a companion of sorts; both were raging against — and with — machines before Zack de la Rocha was born. “There are bands that spend more on their videos than they do on their records,” Watt told me recently. “Two or three years later, they’re defunct; all you know about them is what you saw that one day on television. The art of humans performing for humans is getting lost in the shuffle.”
It is the same point that Watt, George Hurley and the late, great D. Boon — the Minutemen vocalist/guitarist who died in a 1985 car accident — were trying to hammer home as well. “Spiels of a Minuteman” contains all the lyrics that Watt wrote for the Minutemen, who churned out 11 albums in six years, as well as his diary from a 1983 tour with Black Flag. Although his buddies — artist Raymond Pettibon, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Richard Meltzer and more — contribute text and art to the collection, it is Watt’s “Tour Spiel” (the title of one of the band’s more famous tracks) that is the star here. Whether he’s witnessing Henry Rollins being assaulted in the parking lot or helping Boon defend the stage from a neo-Nazi bum rush, Watt’s blue-collar reportage is a blast to read.
If you want a taste of the man’s penmanship — the always low-key, self-deprecating Watt calls it “spiel” — check out his popular Hoot Page. While you’re there, order the book, out from Canadian press L’Oie de Cravan. Mike’s Hoot Page seems to be the only place I can find the damn thing online (if anyone finds a better virtual sale point for it, e-mail me ASAP so I can add it here). Which just goes to show you that he’s still got that indie spirit.
Watt’s been a busy man of letters in 2004. His newest album, “The Secondman’s Middle Stand,” marries Dante’s “Divine Comedy” with Watt’s own harrowing brush with death in 2000. On top of that, he’s recently returned from Ireland for the Bloomsday centennial that celebrated James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” the sometimes impenetrable classic that hit Watt, along with Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” like a freight train when he first stumbled upon both as a teenager.
“Both were about journeys,” Watt says, “which have always attracted me. Maybe because my father was a sailor. He would come home from his tours, take me driving around for hours, and just spiel about his journeys. As in music, tours aren’t just about the job. They’re about the towns, getting into the spaces between. Same with books.”
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)