"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)
Splinters in the attic
When it’s your job to write about television, you try to trick yourself into believing that your mind, your soul and your psyche will remain unscathed by the hours of shallow, deeply pointless entertainment you watch every day. You imagine yourself as split into two halves: One half ponders existential questions, digs ravenously into inquiries regarding the human condition, and employs complex heuristics to better understand the sociopolitical landscape of an ever-changing and increasingly tumultuous modern world, while the other half is worried that the curly fries will get cold before the start of “America’s Next Top Model.”
Sadly, it doesn’t take long before the bickering models and warthog-hunting hotties seep past the steel retaining wall around your precious psyche, and the illusion of satisfactorily sequestering soul-sucking and skin-deep influences is shattered.
Here’s proof: A few nights ago, I had a dream that I was a contestant on “The Apprentice.” A sad day indeed, fair chickens. Apparently, I had been doing a good job of “flying under the radar” (Dreaming in reality clichés! How pathetic) but Carolyn and George announced a truly baffling challenge: Purchase the best possible gift for Donald Trump from a cheesy souvenir shop. Instead of encouraging us to select the perfect charm bracelet or delightful real-estate-themed snow globe, though, they advised us that what Trump really wanted was a fake Rolex watch.
I couldn’t see how that was possible, since Trump likely had a whole drawer full of real Rolexes. So I set about looking for something much better, but found nothing but a huge stack of suede gloves just as Carolyn was announcing that our time was almost up. I started rifling frantically through the gloves, but every time I tried on a pair, it had these really long fingers that would only fit the Grinch.
I guess it’s not hard to understand how my subconscious mind might associate Trump with the Grinch, or with fake luxury, for that matter, but the mere fact that I dreamed about Trump at all is downright depressing. Mercifully, I woke up before I found out whether he fired me, since, if you know anything about Freudian dream analysis, you know that the boardroom would clearly represent the womb, and being fired would have to signify some kind of a rebirthing process. Yes, reborn as the sort of person who dreams about reality TV! Sweet Jesus, help me!
If there be porn
Offering more proof that there are no remaining portions of my brain, psyche or soul unpolluted by the toxic influence of television is my recent amusement — nay, even delight — at the foibles of those zany kids on “Las Vegas” (Mondays at 9 p.m. on NBC). It’s true. Last fall, I watched this show and cringed at the fluffy, flashy, silly tangle of pointless stories, most of which were excuses for parading close-ups of showgirls’ asses across the screen. Last week, I watched “Las Vegas” again, and I actually enjoyed it.
What was it? Was it the stunt biker who paused in the middle of signing autographs to hop on his bike and apprehend the guy with the blond dreads dashing across the casino to avoid incarceration for selling pirated DVDs? Was it the way the hip security guard threatened the blond dreadlocked boy by cutting off his dreads? Was it the silly rivalry between the two hot young security guards? Was it the pretty girl with the long-lost, mean daddy who seemed to be manipulating her in order to rip off the casino? Was it the big-breasted casino exec with the heart of gold who gave the mourning widow surveillance footage of the widow and her husband spending their last few anniversaries together at the casino, along with a ring her husband put in a safety deposit box, which he’d planned to give her at their next anniversary?
No, I think it was the scene where the super-hot model who’s also some sort of boss-lady inspected a lineup of Chippendale’s-style boys to serve drinks at a Ladies’ Night-themed event. “These guys aren’t going to cut it!” she bellowed. “I should be able to bounce a quarter off these abs!”
There’s just so much shiny stuff to keep you salivating around here, and there’s something about that light, soapy, cheerful tone that feels almost nostalgic for the fluffball late-’70s and early ’80s, like a cross between “The Love Boat,” “The A-Team” and “Dynasty.” Deelicious!
Tropical garden of shadows
Of course, the slightly updated version of this dopey, soapy drama thing mixes a little “24″-style suspense and mystery into the picture, and what do you get? “Lost,” one of two big swinging hits (along with “Desperate Housewives”) to propel ABC out of the boneyard, straight to the top of the ratings this season. (Well, we knew sitcoms weren’t going to get them there. “8 Simple Rules,” “Less Than Perfect” or “Hope & Faith,” anyone?)
After the first two episodes, “Lost” seemed destined to sink into a tar pit of prehistoric creatures and creepy French voices crying for help, with lots of pretty people in torn clothes standing around on the beach doing their best “Home Alone” uh-oh faces.
Instead, the drama’s writers have done an exceptional job of bringing an unexpectedly rich layer to the story by delving into the wildly dysfunctional, surprisingly dark backgrounds of the pretty faces on the beach. My favorite so far has to be Locke, the mysterious older guy whose pensive, solitary shots on the beach told us from the start he would play some pivotal role in the story. Still, it was easy to assume he’d turn out to be a flatly evil character, destined to start a twisted, cannibalistic subculture among the survivors like some second-rate Kurtz.
We still can’t rule that out, in fact, but Locke (Terry O’Quinn) turns out to be a far more interesting character than we could have imagined. In the episode that focused on him, he went from a stranger with a compelling face and a suitcase filled with knives to a complex, sympathetic character, enduring the belittling of his boss at his crappy job and stoking an imaginary relationship with a phone sex operator. His one dream was to go on a “Walkabout” in the Australian outback. At the end of his flashback, he’s quit his job to fly to Australia, only to have the tour operator turn him away because (big reveal) he’s in a wheelchair! Since the plane crash, though, he’s been walking around. Hokey, sure, but this is prime-time, baby. Name one thing on prime-time network television that isn’t hokey. Hokey is the spoonful of sugar that makes the dysfunctional darkness go down.
Meanwhile, Jack (Matthew Fox) has a mean daddy in his past, that strange variety of unrealistically mean daddy you only encounter in TV biopics, melodramas and books by Pat Conroy. They’re the sorts of mean daddies who bludgeon their children with staplers, who sneer over their scotch on the rocks and express total indifference toward Junior’s feelings, who say things like “Don’t you see, Jack? You don’t have what it takes!” I’m not saying there aren’t mean, mean daddies out there, but the more common form of abuse is mixed with some confused mélange of love and self-hatred. More along the lines of “Don’t you see, Jack? I only whack you with my golf club because I love you. Plus, I know you won’t amount to shit otherwise.”
But poor Jack’s daddy just smirked and threw back the last of the scotch in his glass and prattled on about how he could never be a good surgeon if he weren’t utterly heartless. We had a notorious drunk who was a big-deal surgeon in my hometown. Are lots of surgeons also complete drunks? Tell me, omniscient chickens.
Anyway, Jack’s mean mommy left him with the unsavory task of flying to Australia to find Mean Daddy. Sadly, Mean Daddy got wasted and had a heart attack, so Jack had to pack him onto the plane, only to crash onto the island. Now Jack’s having hallucinations of his father, but Locke is convinced that the island is magic — you know, the way “Paradise Hotel” was? — and that Jack should face his demons somehow. So Jack goes trudging off into the jungle with a torch, a march reminiscent not only of the March of Freedom (which continues as we speak), but also of the march of Luke Skywalker, into that dank cave on Dagobah, to confront the evils of the dark side and the truth about his mean daddy.
Man, the world is just chock full o’ mean daddies, isn’t it? But the real surprise is that “Lost” has developed into such a good show. I’m not going to call it great or anything — not until I start dreaming about “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” anyway — but it’s getting closer every day.
In other mean daddy news, if Donald Trump is the mean, egotistical, chaotic-evil-style daddy of “The Apprentice” and Mark Cuban is the slightly juvenile, frivolous, self-indulgent, me-me-me daddy of the recently compacted “The Benefactor,” then Sir Richard Branson intends to be the adventurous but sensitive, bold but intelligent and ultimately benevolent daddy of “The Rebel Billionaire: Branson’s Quest for the Best.” After a power lunch with my agent and a quick 10-mile jog through Griffith Park, I phoned Branson to discuss his upcoming show. Naturally the conversation went well, since I have so very much in common with wildly charismatic billionaires and renegade, maverick types like Branson, who founded Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic Airlines, Virgin soda and probably has a whole gaggle of other Virgins on deck, waiting to be ravaged by the insatiable public.
In truth, there were other sniveling journalists like myself on the phone, all of them anxious to kiss up to a real, live knight. But unlike bossy narcissist Trump and goofy narcissist Cuban, Branson sounded like a regular, sensitive guy, so much so that I’m almost a tiny bit intrigued by his show, which airs on Fox in a few weeks (Tuesday Nov. 9 at 8 p.m.). Branson said that, for the show, he was looking for people who had “great imagination,” people who were “great team players” but who didn’t “talk behind people’s backs.” Um, he does know that his show is on Fox, right?
The show seems to center on crazy, daredevil feats, and Branson reported that he grew very attached to his contestants. “It felt like we’d had a real adventure together for eight weeks. We went on the trip of a lifetime together.”
Branson also said that he hates the word “billionaire” because it focuses too much on money, but that he had to yield to the wisdom of his producers (who include “The Real World’s” Jonathan Murray). Oops. He sounded pretty down-to-earth, so I asked what trick he used to stay humble, and he said he married a working-class girl from Glasgow who doesn’t care a lick about his latest business victories and is prone to interrupt his egocentric rapture by telling him to fold the clothes already. It made me wish I had a billionaire of my own to boss around.
Next, I just had to ask him about the upcoming election. He didn’t hesitate for a second, quickly offering his opinion that we should never have invaded Iraq and hinting gently that Bush is a bad man. Could you get such off-the-cuff remarks from either Trump or Cuban? I don’t think so. From his taste for bossy women to his raw panache, Branson’s got my vote for Best All-Around Billionaire. Getting fired by him in my dreams would be a true honor.
Seeds of yesterday
Sadly, my dreams of a smart women-centered drama have not materialized in “Desperate Housewives” (Sundays at 9 p.m. on ABC). Despite high ratings, this dark exploration of the lives of women has not only slid quickly into clichés, but the acting feels forced and overplayed, the stories are wildly unrealistic, the direction is stuck in some awkward nowhereland between campy and leaden, and the voice-over is so grating and so peskily imitative of “Sex and the City” that the whole package is almost unwatchable.
What the hell? I’d rather watch inanimate objects sit on their shelves than see Teri Hatcher do another absurdly overacted scene, from the “Oh dear, I’ve lost my towel and now I’m on the street naked!” to the “Oh dear! My new imaginary boyfriend’s dog just ate my earring!” Plus, who buys that Bree switches from mannequin to soul-searching human being and back, or that the nosey neighbor found a measuring cup in the ruins of one woman’s house, and knew that it was a clue to how the house burned down? And what could possibly be interesting about that trunk the dead narrator’s husband tried to dump in the lake? That shot of the trunk floating to the surface was like a scene out of “Little House on the Prairie,” you know, after Laura had been married off and they were resigned to rehash supernatural plots until Michael Landon turned irretrievably gray.
Personally, I would rather watch “Desperate Housewares.” Can’t you see it? China plates sit idly in the credenza, aching to be graced by roasted meats and fine sauces. Silver teacups giggle manically, an attempt to laugh away the pain of obsolescence. Porcelain gravy boats long to be fondled in preparation for a candlelit dinner, but that dinner never comes. In today’s age of convenience, few housewares feel truly loved. And without that sense of purpose, without feeling appreciated, there’s no telling what those nutty housewares might do!
Next week: Learn more of the painful back story of the plaid scarf in “Lost & Found”! Dig deeper into the loneliness of hardware in “8 Simple Tools”! And delve into the chaos of a dresser drawer filled with expensive timepieces, longing for The Donald’s touch, in “Seventeenth Watch”!
You like to watch, too?
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.More Heather Havrilesky.
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)