"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)
Do you see these Vote for Change concerts reaching undecided voters, or are they more to rally the energy of people who have made up their minds?
I always felt that the musician’s job, as I experienced it growing up, was to provide an alternative source of information, a spiritual and social rallying place, somewhere you went to have a communal experience.
I don’t know if someone is going to run to the front of the stage and shout, “I’m saved” or “I’m switching,” but I’m going to try. I will be calling anyone in a bow tie to come to the front of the stage, and I’ll see what I can do.
In a practical sense, what are you accomplishing?
First of all, we have a large group of musicians — Dave Matthews, the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., John Fogerty, James Taylor and many others — who are coming together as a rallying point for change. I think the concerts are going to be an energizing experience for all who come. Of course, I’ve met a few people who, in a very friendly way, said they are not coming.
Basically, the concerts are raising money specifically for America Coming Together to do very practical things: voter education, to go out and mobilize voters, to go door-to-door, to assist voters getting to the polls. They’re the real foot soldiers who are going to get out the progressive vote. That’s probably the concerts’ most important result.
Why did you stay away from being actively involved in partisan politics for so long?
I didn’t grow up in a very political household. The only politics I heard was from my mother. I came home from grade school, where someone asked me if I was Republican or Democrat, and I asked my mom, “Well, what are we?” She said, “We’re Democrats, ’cause Democrats are for the working people.” I was politicized by the ’60s, like most of the other people of that generation at that time. I can remember doing a concert when I was probably in my very late teens, helping to bus people down to Washington for an antiwar demonstration.
But still, basically, I wanted to remain an independent voice for the audience that came to my shows. We’ve tried to build up a lot of credibility over the years, so that if we took a stand on something, people would receive it with an open mind. Part of not being particularly partisan was just an effort to remain a very thoughtful voice in my fans’ lives.
I always liked being involved actively more at a grass-roots level, to act as a partisan for a set of ideals: civil rights, economic justice, a sane foreign policy, democracy. That was the position I felt comfortable coming from.
Did it make you more credible if you avoided endorsing an individual?
It makes people less likely to marginalize you or pigeonhole you. Taking a definite stand on this election has probably provided some extra definition to the work I’ve been doing over the years. Our band is in pretty much what I think of as the center. So if I wrote, say, “American Skin,” which was controversial, it couldn’t easily be dismissed, because people had faith that I was a measured voice. That’s been worth something, and it’s something I don’t want to lose. But we have drifted far from that center, and this is a time to be very specific about where I stand.
Because you scrupulously avoided commercial use of your music, you built a reputation for integrity and conscience. You must be aware of the potency of that.
I tried to build a reputation for thoughtfulness — that was the main thing I was aiming for. I took the songs, the issues and the people I was writing about seriously. I wanted it to be an entertaining but thoughtful presentation. If there was a goal, it was as simple as that.
Now you’re asking your audience to think even more about and explore what else you’re saying in your songs.
There are a portion of your fans who do quite a bit of selective listening. That’s the way that people use pop music, and that’s part of the way it rolls. The upside is that there has been an increased definition about the things I’ve written about and where I stand on certain issues. That’s been a good thing.
I think that a more complicated picture of who you are as an artist and who they are as an audience emerges. The example I’ve been giving is that I’ve been an enormous fan of John Wayne all my life, although not a fan of his politics. I’ve made a place for all those different parts of who he was. I find deep inspiration and soulfulness in his work.
Your audience invests a lot in you, a very personal investment. There is nothing more personal, in some ways, than the music people listen to. I know from my own experience how you identify and relate to the person singing. You have put your fingerprints on their imagination. That is very, very intimate. When something cracks the mirror, it can be hard for the fan who you have asked to identify with you.
Pop musicians live in the world of symbology. You live and die by the symbol in many ways. You serve at the behest of your audience’s imagination. It’s a complicated relationship. So you’re asking people to welcome the complexity in the interest of fuller and more honest communication.
The audience and the artist are valuable to one another as long as you can look out there and see yourself, and they look back and see themselves. That’s asking quite a bit, but that is what happens. When that bond is broken, by your own individual beliefs, personal thoughts or personal actions, it can make people angry. As simple as that. You’re asking for a broader, more complicated relationship with the members of your audience than possibly you’ve had in the past.
What do you stand to lose or gain from this as an artist?
As an artist and a citizen, you’re gaining a chance to take part in moving the country in the direction of its deepest ideals. Artists are always speaking to people’s freedoms. The shout for freedom and its implications was implicit in rock ‘n’ roll from its inception. Freedom can only find its deepest meaning within a community of purpose. So as an individual I’m getting to take a small part in that process.
As an artist, I’d like to have a broader understanding with all the different segments of my audience and have a deeper experience when we come out and play for people. I think that’s something that could be gained, and that’s something worth doing. I tend to think a relatively small amount of people might get turned off by it, ’cause I’ve tried to do this as thoughtfully as possible, and because any relationship worth something can take some rough-and-tumble. We’ll see.
This has obviously been on your mind for a while. How did you come to this decision?
I knew after we invaded Iraq that I was going to be involved in the election. It made me angry. We started to talk about it onstage. I take my three minutes a night for what I call my public-service announcement. We talked about it almost every night on our summer tour.
I felt we had been misled. I felt they had been fundamentally dishonest and had frightened and manipulated the American people into war. And as the saying goes, “The first casualty of war is truth.” I felt that the Bush doctrine of preemption was dangerous foreign policy. I don’t think it has made America safer.
Look at what is going on now: We are quickly closing in on what looks an awful lot like the Vietnamization of the Iraq war. John McCain is saying we could be there for 10 or 20 years, and John Kerry says four years. How many of our best young people are going to die between now and that time, and what exactly for? Initially I thought I was going to take my acoustic guitar and play in some theaters, find some organizations to work for and do what I could. I was going to lend my voice for a change in the administration and a change in the direction of the country.
Sitting on the sidelines would be a betrayal of the ideas I’d written about for a long time. Not getting involved, just sort of maintaining my silence or being coy about it in some way, just wasn’t going to work this time out. I felt that it was a very clear historical moment.
So there wasn’t a moment of doubt in your mind about what the right thing to do was?
It was something that gestated over a period of time, and as events unfolded and the election got closer, it became clearer. I don’t want to watch the country devolve into an oligarchy, watch the division of wealth increase and see another million people beneath the poverty line this year. These are all things that have been the subtext of so much of my music, and to see the country move so quickly to the right, so much further to the right than what the president campaigned on — these are the things that removed whatever doubt I may have had about getting involved.
Are you expecting to have your motives severely criticized?
That’s just a part of what happens. You understand you’re going to be attacked in different ways. That just comes with it. That wasn’t any concern.
Do you think there is a climate of trying to intimidate artists and creative people?
People are always trying to shut up the people they don’t agree with — through any means necessary, usually. There certainly was an attempt to intimidate the Dixie Chicks. What happened to them was a result of war fever — simple as that, war fever. They’ve handled it incredibly. They are very smart, tough women, and they did not back down. But it’s one of those sad paradoxes that in theory we’re fighting for freedom, and the first thing people are willing to throw out is freedom of speech at home and castigate anybody who is coming from a different point of view.
A lot of people think that you have no right as an artist to comment on this or play a role in politics.
I don’t know if a lot of people think that. It is something that is said. It’s sort of part of the “Punch and Judy” show that goes on when people disagree with what you’re saying.
How much do you follow this election?
I think that Senator Kerry has long played it close to the vest, and that’s his style. However, the presidency is like the heavyweight championship: They don’t give it to you, you have to take it. He has a slow, deliberate style that may not make for an electrifying campaigner, but it may make for a very good president. But, of course, you have to get there.
One of the most disturbing aspects of this election is that the machinery for taking something that is a lie and making it feel true, or taking something that is true and making it feel like a lie — the selling machinery has become very powerful. Senator Kerry has to make people pay attention to the man behind the curtain. He has to take the risk and rip the veil off the administration’s deceptions. They are a hall of mirrors and a house of cards.
For Senator Kerry, the good news is he has the facts on his side. The bad news is that often in the current climate it can feel like that doesn’t matter, and he has to make it matter.
What do you think of how the election is being covered and conducted through the press?
The press has let the country down. It’s taken a very amoral stand, in that essential issues are often portrayed as simply one side says this and the other side says that. I think that Fox News and the Republican right have intimidated the press into an incredible self-consciousness about appearing objective and backed them into a corner of sorts where they have ceded some of their responsibility and righteous power.
The Washington Post and New York Times apologies about their initial reporting about Iraq not being critical enough were very revealing. I am a dedicated Times reader, and I’ve found enormous sustenance from Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd on the Op-Ed page. There has been great reporting, but there has also been some self-consciousness in some of the reporting about the policy differences in this election.
This is going to be an issue after the election. I don’t know if it began with the Iraq war, but shortly thereafter there was an enormous amount of Fox impersonators among what you previously thought were relatively sane media outlets across the cable channels. It was very disheartening. The job of the press is to tell the truth without fear or favor. We have to get back to that standard.
The free press is supposed to be the lifeline and the blood of democracy. That is the position of responsibility that those institutions have. Those things are distorted by ratings and by money to where you’re getting one hour of the political conventions. No matter how staged they are, I think they’re a little more important than people eating bugs. I think that for those few nights, the political life of the nation should take priority, and the fact that it so casually does not means something is wrong. If you want to watch people eating bugs, that’s fine, I can understand that, too, but let’s do it on another night.
Real news is the news we need to protect our freedoms. You get tabloid news, you get blood-and-guts news, you get news shot through with a self-glorifying facade of patriotism, but people have to sift too much for the news that we need to protect our freedoms. It should be gloriously presented to the people on a nightly basis. The loss of some of the soberness and seriousness of those institutions has had a devastating effect upon people’s ability to respond to the events of the day.
Do you think the press is leading us away from a fair and objective reading of this election?
It’s gotten very complicated, and I think it’s blurred the truth. Whether you like the Michael Moore film or not, a big part of its value was that it showed how sanitized the war that we received on television at night is. The fact that the administration refused to allow photographs of the flag-draped coffins of returning dead, that the president hasn’t shown up at a single military funeral for the young people who gave their lives for his policies, is disgraceful. You have the Swift-boat guys who have been pretty much discredited, but there is an atmosphere that is created by so much willing media exposure that it imparts them credibility.
What do you think the responsibility of the artist is in society?
There is a long tradition of the artist being involved in the life of the nation. For me, it goes back to Woody Guthrie, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Bob Dylan. These were all people who were alternative sources of information. When Dylan hit in the mid-’60s, he brought with him as true a reading of what was going on as was out there.
People have the choice to not listen, but you have these business lobbyists who affect the direction of public policy. For example, what is going on with the assault-rifle ban is disgusting. The labor unions try to affect policy in their fashion. Artists do it by talking and singing and addressing the life of the mind.
I don’t think the audience are lemmings. They get their various points of view from a lot of places. I try to come in and be that alternative source of information. I try to speak my case as directly as I can. If that makes you angry, that’s fine. The artist is there to open up discourse, to get people thinking about American identity: Who are we? What do we fight for? What do we stand for? I view these things as a fundamental part of my job, and they have been for the past thirty years.
You’ve tried to think long and hard about what it means to be an American and about our distinctive identity and position in the world. What is that great thing about America that appeals to you that you are fighting for?
I felt I lived the prototypical American life — the way I grew up, the town I grew up in, my family life. Things that I cared about, things that I aspired to, they were just something that naturally came to me when I wrote. I think that this particular election is, at the core, a debate about the soul of the nation. I think we can move toward greater economic justice for all of our citizens, or we cannot. I think we can move toward a sane, responsible foreign policy, or we cannot. For me, these are issues that go right to the heart of the spiritual life of the nation. That is something I have written about. It cannot be abandoned and is worth fighting and fighting and fighting for.
When you embark on a creative life, it has a dynamic of its own. You are partially directing it, and you are partially riding the wave. If your work is threaded into people’s lives and into the life of your town, your family, your country, then you’re like everybody else — you’re at the mercy of events, you’re borne along on the currents of time and history.
It’s sort of “Gee, I came from this place, I wrote songs about these things that mattered to me.” I was serious about them. I was serious about taking what I had written and having some practical impact, which we started to do in the early Eighties. Nothing fancy. I can play my guitar, I can make a few bucks, I can bring some attention to some folks doing the real work and have some small impact in the towns we visit. You move down the road and it just sort of … happens.
Did you feel the call of your nation or the call of your community?
I don’t know. Personally, I wouldn’t view myself as that kind of valuable.
So you feel the call from your heart?
Yeah, I can hear the bells chiming. I’ve had a long life with my audience. I always tell the story about the guy with “The Rising”: “Hey, Bruce, we need you!” he yelled at me through the car window. That’s about the size of it: You get a few letters that say, “Hey, man, we need you.” You bump into some people at a club and you say, “Hey, man, what’s going on?” And they go, “Hey, we need you.” Yeah, they don’t really need me, but I’m proud if they need what I do. That’s what my band is. That’s what we were built for.
Reprinted by permission of Rolling Stone magazine.
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)