"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)
Hey, come on progressives, buck up! There’s been too much doom and gloom — especially among inside-the-Beltway progressives — about Kerry’s chances on Nov. 2. Maybe they inherited an extra dour gene, or maybe they’re spending too much time listening to pollsters and pundits. Of course there’s the occasional discouraging campaign news, but don’t wallow in it, for there’s also greatly encouraging news.
Yes, I know that some polls have shown Bush running even with Kerry or ahead — but the pollsters are vastly undercounting anti-Bush votes.
Yes, I know that Kerry’s charisma quotient ranks somewhere between that of Al Gore and Michael Dukakis — but John’s been perking up lately, showing a bit of populist passion and striking some solid blows.
Yes, I know that the Bushites are creepy-scary thugs who’ve shown that they’ll lie, cheat and steal to win, but they’ve been doing such things so often that their color-coded bag of tricks has lost credibility with the general public — the curtain has been pulled back and the wizard has been revealed to be just a spoiled, insecure, petulant little son of a Bush.
Prediction: I believe George W. is a one-term president, just like his daddy was.
I don’t say this glibly, nor is it wishful thinking. My prediction is based on what I’ve seen at the grass-roots level all across the country. As many of you know, I’ve been travelling practically nonstop since mid-July, going to 50-something cities and towns as part of my “Show Bush the Door in ’04 Tour.” Using my new book (“Let’s Stop Beating Around the Bush”) as a focal point, I’ve been crisscrossing America, speaking with folks in salons and saloons, labor halls and cow barns, bookstores and art museums, churches and theaters, on country fairgrounds, in civic centers, on campuses, in parks, and even inside neon-lit dance halls.
I find that people are onto the Bushites — and why wouldn’t they be? Bush Inc. has spent nearly four years downsizing the middle class, offshoring our best jobs, ignoring the growing cries for healthcare, gutting worker rights, unleashing corporate polluters and plunderers, defunding public education programs, bashing gays and lesbians, sending hundreds of thousands of our loved ones into a deadly war of lies, empowering federal agents to stomp on our liberties, making wholesale arrests of peaceful dissenters … (gosh, so much to list, so little space).
Bush’s policies are all big fat ugly hogs, and while the White House has tried to pretty them up with a coat of bright glossy lipstick, who wants to kiss a hog? Even many of the people who voted for the “compassionate conservative” in 2000, have since found themselves up close and personal with the raw ugliness of the Bushite agenda, and they want no part of “four more years” — a partisan chant that most Americans now view as a direct threat.
This is a BIG TIME for America. It’s not just another election — and I find in my travels that people not only are aware of this, but they’re preparing to spring an election surprise on George W.
Take the polls.
OK, I’m out on a limb here, but I dare say that this will not be that close of an election: Kerry will win going away. This has little to do with our boy John — and everything to do with an electorate that is fired up and on the move.
Lest you think I’m juiced up on jimson weed, let me make three points about the conventional wisdom of the pollsters, who assert that it’s a nip-and-tuck race. First, pollsters are like cats watching the wrong mouse hole, for they’re only telephoning “likely voters” — those who’ve been voting consistently in past presidential elections. This leaves out half of America’s eligible voters. This time — Surprise, George! — a substantial number of the other half, the “unlikely voters,” are going to show up at the polls, eager to punch out the Bushites who’re running roughshod over them.
A big indicator of this is the massive surge in voter registration. Election boards are swamped with new registrants, particularly in the so-called battleground states, where they’re having to add staff and work around the clock to absorb the influx. For example, Philadelphia has had the highest number of new registrations in 21 years, Cleveland has more than doubled the number of new voters it had in 2000, St. Louis says it’ll have the largest number of registered voters its history, etc., etc. Even in supposedly Bush-safe “red states,” the surge is phenomenal — in my Democratic town of Austin, Texas, new voters are up 64 percent over 2000.
What’s going on? People are realizing that it matters. Bush’s loss of the popular vote and his enthronement by the Supreme Court last time — combined with the extremist agenda he’s pushed since then — has motivated folks to believe that they can make a difference this time … and must. “I’ve been too lazy,” says Kurt Saukatis, a 43-year-old Pennsylvanian who did not go to the polls in 2000. He has two 16-year-old sons. “The thought of a draft is scary,” he says. Plus, he’s worried about his job and the middle-class possibilities for his family: “All that money spent on Iraq, then old people can’t buy medicine. Figure that out!”
Second, there’s not only a tsunami of new voters, but also an intensity of opposition to Bush/Cheney/Ashcroft/Rumsfeld & Gang that the pollsters can’t measure. This intensity translates into real political action — people willing to volunteer, give money, argue with their dittohead brothers-in-law, talk to their family and friends, and otherwise reach out personally to others.
Third — and this is a giant one — the pollsters are almost completely missing the coming youth vote. Since 1972, there’s been a precipitous decline in turnout by the under-26 voter. Only about a third of these young folks have been voting, with the result that presidential campaigns have been ignoring them on the grounds that kids “don’t do politics” anymore. Yoo-hoo … the kids are back, registering in record numbers! A March poll of college students found that 62 percent definitely plan to vote in November. “I am determined that my vote be counted this year,” says 25-year-old Rachelle Reposa of Oakland, Calif., who did not vote in 2000. “I do not want to go into war with other countries and waste billions of dollars when we need it over here.”
There are 24 million of these 18-25 youngsters — yet few ever get a call from a pollster. This is because most of them don’t use regular phones, instead relying on their cellphones. It’s estimated that 21 million of them own cellphones. Pollsters can’t reach them, so their voting preferences simply are not being counted. “The people who are using telephone surveys are in denial,” says noted pollster John Zogby, who has predicted Kerry will win on Tuesday. “They try not to mention cellphones. They go ahead with a method that is old and wrong.”
We’ve entered a new era of DIY politics.
Harrell’s hardware store, near my home in Austin, is a terrific place that’ll not only sell you the one hinge you need rather than making you buy a whole box, but it also offers free how-to advice and will even lend you a tool to do a particular job. Harrell’s slogan is “Together, we can do-it-yourself.”
This could well be the motto of the scores of scrappy and savvy political organizations that have popped up like beautiful weeds in this political season. In a burst of spontaneous grass-roots election activity, the likes of which I’ve never before seen, these progressive groups are providing the do-it-yourself skills, know-how, and tools to help people to get registered and organize themselves as a political force.
Some of these groups are national in reach, some local; some have a hundred members, some hundreds of thousands; some are brand new upstart outfits, some are older organizations that’ve been reinvigorated and refocused; some are well-known to the media, most are unknown, operating well below the radar of a clueless media establishment that has, once again, embedded itself inside the darkness of the presidential campaigns. All of these groups are creative, aggressive — and determined to oust Bush. They’re having fun, and definitely having an impact.
Their impact will reach way beyond this election, for nearly all of them are committed to creating an independent, progressive, Web-connected, democratic base that will change American politics over the long haul, changing it from the ground up. Toward that end, the groups are determinedly independent, purposely organized outside the Kerry campaign and the Democratic Party — indeed, most understand clearly that once the inaugural cheering is over next January, they will have to be in the face of a Kerry-Edwards administration.
Take the League of Pissed Off Voters. What a great group this is! Organized in 70 cities in 26 states, these are young folks committed to educating, organizing and mobilizing 18-to-35-year-olds into a unified, progressive political bloc. Conceived, founded and implemented by and for young people, LoPOV comes with an anti-establishment attitude and a strong sense of sass and fun — but also a very serious purpose: “Our local organizers are building a long-term power base, endorsing candidates on a progressive platform, and generating political power that could swing many close elections,” declares the group’s Web site.
They’ve registered thousands of young voters, but they’re going much deeper by training organizers, rallying young people to dig into the issues and the candidates, teaching people how to hold the candidates they elect accountable, putting up their own members as candidates for local offices, and generally teaching the young how to take charge of their own democracy. National League leader Adrienne Maree Brown, 25, says, “Folks get cast as apathetic when they just don’t know the process for getting power in this country. We are the demystification league.” A local league member in Philadelphia says that their goal is to harness the “energy of young people who’re really pissed off and frustrated, whether it’s with issues at the national level or the local level, and to take that ‘pissed-offness’ and transform it into organizing skills or voting or different ways of political engagement.”
The league is big on the concept of do-it-yourself democracy, offering all sorts of how-to guidance for local chapters on such matters as holding your own strategy session, writing your own voters’ guide (“You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know who sucks,” they point out), throwing your own Politics ‘n’ Pizza fest (or ‘n’ Pina Coladas, ‘n’ Pirogies,’n’ Punk,’n’ whatever), hosting your own Slam Bush poetry glam, and organizing your own Party Squad.
Declaring that their goal is nothing less than “to build a progressive governing majority in our lifetime,” LoPOV has already set Nov. 13-14 for local “Debrief and next steps” meetings nationwide, and it’s planning to organize itself as a bottom-up national council controlled by representatives from each local chapter.
Then there’s ACORN. This excellent organization of low-income folks has long been known for its grass-roots ingenuity in mobilizing previously powerless people into potent players in local politics — and this year it has become the National Champion of new-voter registration. In a phenomenal organizing feat, ACORN has enlisted more than a million low-income working people onto America’s voter rolls.
Going door to door — as well as to working-class shopping centers, street festivals, hip-hop concerts, naturalization ceremonies and other high-traffic areas — ACORN members took their clipboards into communities that have traditionally been left out of the process and ignored by both major parties. Its effort is particularly significant in the battleground states — for example, it has signed up more than 187,000 new registrants in Florida, 158,000 in Ohio, and 120,000 in Pennsylvania.
Not only are they registering new voters, but ACORN’s members live in these communities, and they’ll mount a massive get-out-the-vote program on Election Day, based not on cold, automated phone calls, but on personal follow-up.
And how about Leave No Voter Behind. This is a dramatic electoral project by the MoveOn Pac. They have trained a skilled democratic army of 500 organizers to go into the key battleground states, working with 10,000 MoveOn precinct leaders to recruit tens of thousands of local volunteers. All of this is designed to reach out — neighbor-to-neighbor, the most effective voter contact there is — to people in their communities who otherwise are not likely to vote.
Their goal is not merely registration and GOTV (get out the vote) — but specifically to produce 440,000 new voters for Kerry, votes he otherwise would not get!
MoveOn also is using its pioneering Internet techniques to empower ordinary people in do-it-yourself democracy. An example is its revolution in phone banking — instead of having to gather callers into a room with banks of phones, anyone can play at any time. MoveOn is organizing a Get Out the Vote Phone Party, urging people to gather in living rooms with their cellphones to call swing-state voters on Election Day. If you’ve got a free moment, you can call an 800 number, enter an I.D., hear the message of the day, and be connected to a potential, undecided voter in a given state within seconds. “There is a feeling you have to tie people’s shoes for them,” says MoveOn’s 24-year-old director Eli Pariser. “But politics does not require any special skill aside from those required in any social engagement.”
And, of course, there’s the organizational muscle of organized labor. This year, we’ve seen a sea change in the union approach to presidential campaigns. Rather than simply sending money to the parties and accepting marching orders from the candidates, the most active unions are running their own, independent campaigns … and getting results. For months, unions like AFSCME, SEIU, the Steelworkers and the AFL-CIO have been training their members and dispersing them into battleground states.
They go with many specific goals and are held accountable for them. SEIU alone has 50,000 members volunteering a million hours to knock on 10 million doors and make 7 million phone calls. It has tapped more than 2,000 of its members from California and other “safe states” to work full-time in the swing states.
More than a fourth of all voters in 2000 came from union households. Not only are unions working to increase their own turnout this time, but they’re also walking their neighborhoods in an effective labor-to-neighbor program to spread the word about working-class issues. It’s a spirited and successful effort. An AP story in August featured John Fretter, a construction worker in Erie, Penn. He led a walk in a neighborhood that used to be a Polish enclave, but now is multiethnic. “This is the American dream we’re walking through,” Fretter said. “I love meeting people.”
There are so many more efforts, nearly all unnoticed by the media powers. There’s the League of Rural Voters (especially active in Iowa and Minnesota, where they’re going farm-to-farm), Voter Virgin (targeting first-time young voters with the slogan “Everybody’s Doing It in ’04″ and advising them to practice safe voting), Wellstone Action (conducting a terrific series of trainings for grass-roots organizers and candidates), Punkvoter, MustVote, Next Wave of Women in Power, and on and on.
The grass roots are aflame with organizing, and the organizing is not merely about Kerry and ’04.
Various groups are recruiting, training and backing strong progressives running for local, state and national offices. Howard Dean’s new Democracy for America organization is supporting more than 200 former Deaniacs running for office this year, including House and Senate candidates. Many are expected to win this time, while many of the others are part of a long-term effort to develop grass-roots political talent (both candidates and campaign organizers) and to build a progressive base.
Two other groups are focused on creating a “farm team” of “movement progressives.” Progressive Majority is currently working with about 100 candidates it has recruited and trained to run for local and state offices in ’04 and ’06. One of its primary goals is to build progressive majorities in 15 state legislatures by 2011, when those states will redraw the lines for congressional districts. “We’re investing in people as opposed to specific races for offices,” says one of P.M.’s state directors. “We take the time to work with candidates so that, even if they don’t win, they’re building the skills and name recognition to groom them for future races. We’re interested in building a long-term movement.”
Likewise, 21st Century Democrats is out there building the political infrastructure to elect true progressives. It has trained 2,200 campaign organizers this year. In Oregon, for example, nine of its organizers have recruited 15 community organizers, who then coordinate the work of 10 neighborhood volunteers, each of whom is in contact with 80 voters. The director of 21st Century Dems says, “We are focused on what really wins elections — direct personal contact with voters, front-porch politicking.”
Not only is there good reason to be optimistic about Nov. 2, but in the long haul it’s only going to get better, for people are on the move at America’s grass roots.
Jim Hightower's most recent book is "Let's Stop Beating Around the Bush." He produces a monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown, and a syndicated daily radio commentary.More Jim Hightower.
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)