"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)
This is the part of the review where I pretend to have to tell you, the reader, who Jenna Jameson is. If we agree to dispense with that charade and admit that we both know who Jenna Jameson is (which still leaves us the out of “but I’ve never seen any of her movies”), then we can — tee-hee — make naughty little jokes about what must be included in a porn star’s autobiography. Or we can feign a lack of interest, make knowing remarks at what crap the book must be, even look down at the poor suckers shelling out 28 bucks for it. We all know they’re just buying it to jerk off to the pictures, right?
When you get down to it, there’s not much difference between those strategies of disdain and Bill O’Reilly’s calling Jameson a “quasi-prostitute.” They’re both ways of saying that what used to be called “that type of woman” has no standing in real society. She’s not a real person. And, by extension, neither are the millions of us who watch Jenna Jameson and who have made her the most successful star in the history of adult movies.
As the representative face of a segment of pop culture that’s both more popular than it’s ever been (porn’s yearly income rivals that of Hollywood and pro sports) and still unacknowledged by most of its consumers, Jenna Jameson has become an unintentional provocateur. She’s managed to become a big star with only minimal appearances in the mainstream media (some hosting for the E! Channel; a recurring role on NBC’s canceled “Mr. Sterling” series; a bit role in “Howard Stern’s Private Parts” and guest shots on his show). I can walk into one of the big media megastores and buy one of her movies or a “Got Jenna?” T-shirt or a Jenna Jameson action figure. But I’m not likely to see her turning up on Letterman or Leno — and if she did, the conversation would likely be about the novelty of her being there at all.
It’s doubtful that Jay or Dave would oblige her with a plug by holding up a copy of “Briana Loves Jenna,” the second-best-selling adult movie of all time, or her latest, “The Masseuse” — a remake of the ’80s porn classic — or let her mention her Web site, Club Jenna.) She towers over Times Square on a billboard. But when she appeared on the cover of New York magazine last fall, it was to illustrate a pair of hand-wringing features by David Amsden and the hapless Naomi Wolf on the alleged insidiousness of Internet porn. Because of how she’s become famous, Jameson has made it harder than ever for people to maintain the hypocrisy that they recognize the names of porn stars but don’t watch porn.
Jenna Jameson has done more than any other performer to increase the acceptability of a part of our culture that, like it or not, isn’t going away. For her, porn has not been and is not a stepping stone to “legitimate” show biz. “The most important thing to me right now is to become the biggest star the industry has ever seen,” she told Wicked Pictures founder Steve Ornstein when she asked him to put her under contract. In no part of her new autobiography, “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star,” does she pretend that porn was a detour on a career that was meant to be spent acting or modeling or singing. Jameson is the prototype of a new sort of star, one who doesn’t treat her particular brand of notoriety as notoriousness. Look at her book with that phrase — porn star — right there in the title, no coyness about it.
In this book, Jameson gets you rooting for her. Written with New York Times contributor Neil Strauss, the book is a captivating mess — with autobiography; celebrity dish; tips on making it in porn; transcribed conversations between Jenna, her brother and her father; pages from her teen diary, photo albums with everything from childhood snaps to skin shots to wedding pictures; comics; a “Ten Commandments of dating” (along with a list of the ones her husband has broken), all tossed together. A celebrity bio has to be judged on whether it’s entertaining and whether, despite the ghostwriter, a real person comes through in its pages. Here, one does, and that’s as much a tribute to Strauss’ ability to merge with his subject as it is to the strength of Jameson’s personality. “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star” is lively, hellaciously entertaining, sharp, feisty and touching enough to earn Jameson the right to wear that “Heart Breaker” tattoo on her right butt cheek.
Not that she ever asks for anyone’s pity. Not once. The voice of this book belongs to what’s usually called “a troubled kid.” The difference is that in “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star” that voice reaches us directly and not in the way in which we usually receive such voices, as part of a sociological study or as supporting evidence in an editorial.
The outline of Jenna Jameson’s life so far (she’s only 30) sounds like the typical run-up to a too-fast, too-soon outcome: Mother dead of cancer when she was 3. Loving but devastated father ill-equipped to raise her and her older brother. A series of negligent and abusive stepmothers. A generally unsupervised upbringing, leaving her and her brother free to get into drugs and other serious mischief. Moving from town to town. Gang-raped during her family’s stay in Montana, in an attack she very plausibly claims she was not meant to survive. Live-in girlfriend of a biker tattoo artist. Raped by his uncle. Work as a stripper, leading to appearances in men’s magazines leading to adult movies. A growing fondness for smoking crystal meth and bad relationships. Thousands of dollars made and blown. Eventual fame in adult movies and accompanying ‘tude. Unhappy first marriage to a controlling fellow porn star. Periodic lapses into drugs and booze.
That Jameson is alive to tell this story would, in best “E! True Hollywood Story” fashion, dictate an end replete with tears, redemption and “If I knew then what I know now” contrition. In fact, there is a happy ending: Reconciliation with her father and brother. A position as CEO of her own company. A happy second marriage to porn director Justin Sterling, now her only male partner, on-screen and off. A contented domestic life in Scottsdale, Ariz. Eager anticipation of motherhood. But the strength of “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star” is in the way it shows that sheer, lived experience makes a hash of assumptions and ideologies.
The reason Jenna Jameson has become the friendly face of porn is that she is so reassuringly familiar. She has always looked like the prettiest girl you saw hanging out at the mall (in a recent interview she talked about how excited she was that her image was appearing on a ski board, like a girl whose boyfriend has painted her name across the back of his Trans Am). Hers is an accessible, American middle-class prettiness, blond and sunny, not exotic. She doesn’t possess the forbidding fashion-model beauty of a porn star like Tera Patrick (a former Ford agency model). Nor does she have the up-for-anything trashiness of the countless girls who pass through the industry.
Ten years into her career, Jameson doesn’t look used up or hard-bitten. Possibly that’s because she limits what she does on-screen. The same avenues that made porn more available, home video and the Internet, have also made it more private, able to cater to any fetish from the most benign to the most repulsive. In an industry that increasingly relies on pushing the envelope, she has always refused double penetration and gang-bangs, and has kept anal sex for her private life.
Reading “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star” makes her seem even more familiar. Most of us have known someone, a friend or sibling or cousin, who made lousy choices and somehow come through it all OK. Often those people wind up living traditional middle-class lives — they get married, have kids, buy a home. But the route they take to get there is one that — often recklessly — shuns all the traditional middle-class safety nets of college or vocational training or settling down in one place.
What could seem a better way to flout middle-class values than going into stripping or nude modeling or adult movies (even though, for some of the people who go into them, they are the quickest route to middle-class stability)? But though sex workers have often been looked down on in the name of middle-class propriety, it’s interesting to think about what they share with the middle class.
Back when strippers were occasional guests on daytime talk shows (instead of the staple they’ve become), there were always a few well-appointed middle-class women in the studio audience who rose to chide the guest on her lack of self-respect and ask how she would ever manage to justify her job to her children. Whenever I’d hear a question like that, I always thought, fairly or not, that the person asking it must never have worked a day in her life.
The assumption behind that question is that work is ennobling instead of, for most people, a drudgery they endure to feed and clothe and house themselves and their families. The now-standard glib riposte to people who call porn degrading and exploitive is that you can be degraded working at Wal-Mart or Denny’s. There’s an obvious problem with the analogy — people who work retail or wait on tables aren’t required to fuck on camera. But the comparison isn’t entirely off the mark. You can just as easily lose your self-respect doing something that society doesn’t consider scandalous. And while there’s a good chance that getting literally screwed will be pleasurable at least some of the time, getting figuratively screwed is never any fun.
What I’m trying to get at here is the class cluelessness that has always seemed part of the knee-jerk reaction against any type of sex work. Sexism is a part of that, too, a belief that any young woman who ventures into the sex trade will wind up either a victim or a whore.
Jameson doesn’t settle these arguments; she complicates them. She upsets the easy assumptions of both sides in the debate about whether porn is degrading (damn straight it can be, she says) or empowering (ditto). One of the best and toughest chapters in the book is Jameson’s advice to would-be porn stars. She lays out what happens to too many of the girls who arrive at the industry’s regular cattle-call auditions:
“In a worst-case scenario, a gonzo director will take a girl to a hotel room and have their friends shoot a cheap scene in which she is humiliated in every orifice possible. She walks home with three thousand dollars, bowed legs, and a terrible impression of the industry. It’ll be her first and last movie, and she’ll regret it — to her dying day.”
Jameson says porn has more pitfalls “than nearly any other occupation.” Drugs is one. Maintaining a boundary between your job and private life is another. The inability to recognize the distinction is shared by many who love porn and many who loathe it — in other words, they both tend to assume that porn stars are whores who will sleep with anyone.
Even the girls who are lucky enough to land a contract with one of the big adult film companies like Vivid or VCA or Wicked find their battles aren’t over. A contract girl gets between $75,000 to $100,000 to appear in 10 movies a year (at probably two to three scenes a movie). They don’t own any rights to their screen work, so scenes can be reused in compilations. And because the adult industry isn’t unionized and the movies are so cheap to make, the stars make a piddling slice of the overall profits. (The professional in Jameson seems ashamed by the diva behavior she indulged in following her success, though it’s tough to read her account of that time and not feel that, for the money they make off her, the producers deserved a little bitchiness in their lives.)
The same is true with photo shoots, where photographers often retain the right to resell the photos for which they’ve paid models a basic fee. (Jameson calls the most famous adult photographer, Suze Randall, whom she insists she likes, “a shark.”) To make more money, many porn stars tour strip clubs as “featured dancers,” which can present its own problems, like obnoxious fans and chiseling club owners — one told Jameson she couldn’t keep the tips that patrons tossed her onstage because tips weren’t in her contract. (Jameson stays mum on the growing number of adult stars who hire themselves out to escort services.) And none of this touches the difficulty of having sex in front of other people, sometimes with male co-stars too nervous to perform, which isn’t exactly balm for a girl’s ego.
But Jameson doesn’t talk about porn as if it were the white-slave trade, either. She knows how easy it is for the gullible to be taken advantage of but insists that aspiring pornettes have to learn to protect themselves. (That may be a tad easy for her to say. She’s right that porn stars have to be firm about what they will not do, though the ones who refuse to perform a certain act, and who don’t have her charisma or star power, may find themselves with a lot fewer career options.)
For a long time, Jameson would lie when asked if she had been abused because she didn’t want to be seen as a victim. (She also rightly finds the question insulting. When was the last time you heard it asked of a comic or an actor or a musician to explain what they do?) For her, playing the victim is offensively easy. Jameson rejects the idea of using her rapes as an explanation for her career. “Was I in this business because I was victimized or because I wanted to succeed at something?” she asks. “I examined it from every angle I could, and every time came to the same conclusion: that it didn’t make a bit of difference. It occurred too late in my development to be formative. Whether it happened to me or not, I still would have become a porn star.”
Jenna Jameson’s story has a happy ending, but not one that moralists will be able to stomach. She got her happy ending because of porn, not in spite of it. Without it, she might still be Jenna Massoli, a Vegas biker’s girlfriend content to get high on crank, perhaps still stripping at a local dive and not going anywhere. The penultimate page of “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star” shows a laughing, resplendent Jenna Jameson on her wedding day surrounded by her father, brother, sister-in-law and young nephew. Everyone is wearing white. Even the bride.
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)