"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)
In his report to Congress last week, Charles Duelfer of the CIA stated, “My task was not to find weapons of mass destruction, my task was to find the truth. We’ve had a couple of people die. I think it was a worthwhile endeavor.”
I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been on my own search for truth lately.
My brother, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, was deployed to Iraq. His mission was to provide convoy security for the Iraq Survey Group as they searched for the never-to-be-found WMD.
On April 26 of this year, I was teaching history to 11th graders in South Los Angeles. We were discussing the Vietnam War.
Meanwhile, my brother and his Army National Guard unit were poised to inspect a building in Baghdad. Sherwood was on site security. He manned a 50-caliber machine gun atop a Humvee. His back was to the building; he was just 5 feet away.
At 6-foot-4, Sherwood was too big for that kind of work. Better to put a little guy, a smaller target, up there. But Sherwood had proved himself in training to be a good shot. And he had proved himself in life to be a reliable man. He was fearless and aware and it’s where he belonged in that situation.
As the men went in, the building exploded. Sherwood was struck from behind. He died of blunt head trauma.
I got the call during 5th period.
I flew back East to be with my family. I left that night on the red-eye with my wife, Selma. My father picked us up. It was ungodly early. I’ve never shared a moment of such helplessness with my dad. I couldn’t look at him because when I did, I had to shed my disbelief about what I was doing in Philadelphia on a cold Tuesday morning.
We all grew up in Philly. My little brother, Raphael, and my parents still live there.
Sherwood had gone to college in Wilkes-Barre, a close-knit, blue-collar town in upstate Pennsylvania. The intimacy and the bareness of character in the Wyoming Valley played to his sensibilities. He had made it a home for life. He started a family with his wife, Debra. They have a son, James-Dante. Sherwood had recently begun a job with the county as a caseworker for the mentally handicapped — damn good work in a defunct steel town.
We went to see Sherwood. I mean, it wasn’t him, it was his body. Dead people never seem to look like the person they were.
But I found him somewhere behind the medals and the uniform. My disbelief melted away. I knew what lay in that casket.
I was forced to accept that life has a way of being cruel and unfair, of being imperfect and unpredictable. But I knew there was more, much more to answer for. I figured I’d better start using the brain God gave me because it’s the best way to honor human nature, something my brother represented with distinction.
Like Mr. Duelfer, I made it my task to find truth. Not the truth about weapons. Like most Americans, I had long ago figured out that Iraq didn’t have them.
The truth for which I am searching is much more profound. I’ve been picking up the pieces around Sherwood’s life and death, pieces that were scattered by that explosion. I’ve been sifting for a clue, a hint of insight into how this came to pass; not just with Sherwood, but the whole thing.
I watched with sadness as this war unfolded. I watched the justification for it magically appear. I saw the ignorance and the Orwellian fear-mongering. I watched shock and awe but I never thought I’d be reduced to those two nouns.
I realized that if I was going to make sense of this thing, I had to start with what I know. I’m staring at the life of one man, one soldier, and how that life would end in Iraq. Maybe within Sherwood’s story, I thought, lies a broader moral.
There’s a simple answer out there as to what Sherwood’s death meant. It’s an answer that rejects introspection and typifies American dogma: “Sherwood died for our country.” I have heard it a lot.
I don’t think I’ll ever know what Sherwood died for. Maybe Sherwood knew in that moment. I only pray that, at the very least, he died with peace, because the circumstances were incredibly violent.
What I do know is what my brother lived for. His devotion was shaped by his experience. And it was his devotion that eventually led him off into the desert.
Sherwood was a hell of a patriot. He flew a flag in front of his house, he embraced the ideology of our Constitution, he joined the Army. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of who he was.
Sherwood’s time on earth seemed to orbit in the circles of fate. He was abused and abandoned by his birth parents at 13 months. Our folks took him in as a foster child on Veteran’s Day, 1974, a year before I was born. They raised him as their own.
Sherwood’s fortunes conflicted with his conscience. Being a foster child who knew his biological family, he had to live with a parallel life. It broke his heart to know that his parents were lunatics. But it was worse to know that his brothers and sister were stuck with them.
From the beginning of his life, Sherwood developed a desire to forge responsibility in an irresponsible world. He was blessed to be big and it helped him in his self-appointed role as an enlivened guardian of the weak.
I was his skinny little brother and, Lord, did I need his protection. My mother was terribly steadfast in her belief in endorsing public education. She sent us to a tough school, to say the least.
Sherwood got me through, but he didn’t do it by hurting people. Well, sometimes he did. But most times he used his size to just plain scare the shit out of my antagonists.
In reliving these moments, I see the precursors of a good soldier.
Sherwood was 21 and still in college when he had James-Dante. He saw a chance to be a better father than the one he hardly knew and would rather not know. Never would his son’s future rest on fate.
He enlisted in the National Guard to help ends meet, sure, but also to give back to the community that embraced him.
As kids, our parents wouldn’t let us play with water guns and here he was, a soldier. But the concept of service was forged by example in our household. Our mother works in city government helping the elderly. Our father was a reservist himself who worked for the Department of Defense for 32 years. Sherwood and I spoke about the politics of the Iraq war shortly after it started. He was by no means naive about the suspicious evidence that justified the invasion of Iraq. But if called to serve, he said, his job would be wholly apolitical. For him, it was better left at that. He had enough on his mind. Certainly, the guys in his unit had become his family over the past seven years. I think few people in their right mind want to head into a war zone. But if Sherwood had to go, he would, without question, stand up and go.
In the Army, Sherwood’s MOS was as a forward observer. An F.O. is the guy who goes ahead of tank lines to redirect missile and shell strikes. It requires a reckless personality, someone who understands danger but regards it as the inevitable consequence of getting the job done.
I had to laugh when he explained that to me because it was strangely perfect for him. He always had enough of a screw loose to choose that kind of a job. But he also had quiet dignity when it came to accepting more responsibility than others.
And that was, really, the only thing quiet about him.
He lived a loud life. He screamed in high pitches. He played the trumpet (he was no Miles Davis). He loved music and thought everyone should as well. His favorite activity was to raise the volume.
I have focused on listening during this time. I keep hoping to hear in the echoes of Sherwood’s shouts a note of reason.
But so far I haven’t heard why we as a country put our collective consciousness into invading that country. I haven’t heard why we accepted being cajoled, coerced and outright lied to. But that never mattered to Sherwood. His role in all of this was to be resolute and brave. He always played his role well.
If I can’t hear Sherwood, I can hear the voices of others. Without patience or understanding, the masses are begging to know, “Who will protect me and my own? Who is going to change the whole world because I am afraid?”
I’m saddened by these emotions and not just because they provided fodder for the war that cost my brother his life. I’m sad for America; sad that we’ve lost our perspective. It’s the people we sacrificed, people like Sherwood, who could set us straight. Sherwood lived a complicated life. But he knew the world wouldn’t stop spinning because of his hardships.
Sherwood and I were freelance disc jockeys as teenagers. He labeled every L.P. we bought with “B-Z” productions, a heartfelt reference to our partnership as brothers, despite our different last names.
He parlayed that into a gig as a DJ on his college radio station. He was a true rap aficionado. He brought hip-hop to upstate Pennsylvania — a coup in 1994. After college, he picked up where we left off, working himself in as a regular DJ at weddings, parties and local bars. He always knew the right song to play.
It’s no surprise that I’ve been hearing in my head a line from a Slick Rick song he often recited. It summed up the unchecked pride he had in fatalism, born as it was from his circumstance and reality: “This type of shit happens every day.”
Sherwood, without question, had an instinct to be a keeper and a promoter of life. And still, he kept the wisdom that try as we do to prevent bad things from happening, sometimes bad things just happen. His life had taught him this much.
Sherwood’s convictions have begun to release me from the fear spread by innuendo and fiction. What I understand now is that we always live with the inherent risk of death, even if it comes in a way that’s less dramatic than war or terrorist attacks.
Sherwood would chuckle at the sheltered, overprivileged, retrogressive Americans who believe that their hyperactive sense of danger is a cause worth others fighting for. The security moms, six-figure executives, stock dividend trust-funders — they aren’t in Iraq, they certainly don’t send their kids there. Sherwood didn’t have to go there to figure that out.
What he wouldn’t find funny is that we the majority, down on the food chain, devour a doctrine of dread with our appetite for sensationalism. And when the populace gets hungrier, it turns to wrath and revenge to fill it up.
When people say, “Sherwood died to avenge 9/11,” I have to bow my head and leave. Sherwood was not a vengeful person. For his sake, I have pledged to relinquish anger, which seems to be as equally revered in our culture as fear is.
We had a memorial service for Sherwood in Philadelphia a few days after the funeral in Wilkes-Barre. There was an open microphone. The mayor of Philadelphia gave an inspired recitation and interpretation of “The Lord Is My Shepherd.” He was followed by our old baby sitter who recounted some goofy story about us banging pots together on New Year’s Eve. The range of voices, I’m sure, suited Sherwood’s taste.
A politically active friend got up and delivered an impassioned speech about her hatred for the Bush administration and how Sherwood’s human rights had been violated. I heard the anger, the one that said, “He died in vain.”
Sherwood made me the executor of his will. We sat down together to go over it. Even as he explained to me that he wanted a burial ceremony with full military honors, I was in denial about what could happen over there. He, of course, wasn’t. And if that did happen, he wanted to be damn sure that his kid knew he died a hero. The way his son would remember him was all he could control.
And then he went to Iraq, with pride and courage, because he made an oath before God and he took such commitments seriously. He went to Iraq to do his job. In the end, that’s the choice of a soldier. It is not in vain.
For most of America today, the “War in Iraq” has been dumbed down to nothing more than a political football. We’ve got two teams trying to pick up a fumble and run with it. We’ve wrangled now for two years over the existence of WMD. But in our obsession with that process, we neglect soldiers like Sherwood — and Iraqi civilians — whose lives were sacrificed to find those weapons. As it turns out, to not find those weapons.
For me, it took the tragedy of Sherwood’s death to remove the security blanket of righteousness. I don’t wish tragedy on others, so I pray others will take an initiative toward being rational, truthful and unafraid on their own.
Those are the simple keys toward making the tough decisions we are now faced with. We have a president to choose. We have a war that we can continue or end. We have soldiers who every day wake up to face the same potential consequences my brother faced. Yet they still go out into the desert and do their job. We can all agree that they are good Americans.
And good Americans, above all, value truth. Sherwood didn’t die in vain. But the war in Iraq is still being fought in vain. We have acquiesced to an agenda that has killed our brothers and sisters, raided our Treasury and fractured our moral standing in the world. The legacy of Sherwood’s service will only be honored when we all demand truth in our politicians, demand that they too serve with honor and integrity.
Demanding that, I believe, is the best way that we can honor a dead soldier.
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)