"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)
First, the bad news, which you might have heard.
America recently decided — and on this point, let’s be crystal clear — that it indeed wanted another four years of George Bush. And even if my man Greg Palast is utterly convinced that the 2004 election, as in 2000, was decided ahead of time by pervasive voter fraud and election commission corruption in more than one state, this election shouldn’t have been close at all to begin with.
Bush is, without a doubt, the worst president America has ever had, something it should have been able to figure out if it weren’t so deeply involved in the alternate reality fed to it by the scandal-ridden New York Times, bankrupt network television, MTV, and so-called news outlets like CNN, MSNBC and Fox. He should have had his ass handed to him in a gold-encrusted box with a forwarding address in Crawford, Texas, plastered across it.
But he didn’t, and the reason is very simple. The Democrats thought they could run with the same lame-ass, lesser-evil strategy they employed in 2000. Problem was, they weren’t the lesser evil. John Kerry voted for this baseless war in Iraq, and Democratic knuckleheads like Jamie Rubin, as Arianna Huffington recently pointed out, were even crowing about how the patrician patsy probably would have invaded Iraq anyway, even though the WMD that Colin Powell staked — and lost — his reputation on never materialized. Hey, can you pass that peace pipe?
Bush, true to character, didn’t waste a moment in making his agenda for the next four years obvious to anyone paying attention (not that too many were, or are). Immediately after Kerry conceded, Bush talked — in exquisitely blatant language, for those few linguists left alive — of “capital” he wanted to “spend” before proceeding to bomb the living crap out of Fallujah, something he didn’t dare do when the election was afoot. Then Arafat kicked the bucket (nice timing!), erasing another roadblock in the neocon foreign policy. Then Bush made Powell’s emasculation official by dumping him for Condi Rice, an unusually close confidant who once accidentally called Bush her husband. Then partisan hack Porter Goss became the CIA’s top dog, and made his first order of business a memo that demanded unconditional participation with the administration. Then Bush’s party circled the wagons around Tom DeLay, deciding to ignore whatever the Texas courts decided on the corrupt politician’s future. Spot a pattern?
But never fear, there is some good news. The remarkably awful “Cop Rock” is finally making the rounds on Trio TV, a boon to late-night potheads everywhere. And, finally, the archive of Don DeLillo, the brilliant author behind the canonical “White Noise,” “End Zone” and many more, has finally found a home.
The bad news? It’s in Texas.
In a coup reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s outbidding of Paul McCartney — a freakin’ Beatle! — for part of the Fab Four’s catalog, an author who was born, raised, employed and housed in New York for decades now has had his personal papers shipped thousands of miles away to a state that could stand to learn more than a few lessons from his work. I’m taking bets on how long it’ll be until Bush reads “Libra,” DeLillo’s novel about Lee Harvey Oswald. The odds heavily favor “never.”
Forget it. There is no good news. Let’s have a diversion into the world of pop-cult photography before we hazard a journey into more politically troubled waters, as well as the re-legitimization of Ralph Nader. Without further ado:
By Ben Watts
Princeton Architectural Press
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Now that hip-hop is everywhere, it’s often easy to forget what it looked like when it came of age as a sneering urban punk sick of Reagan and Bush back in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Since that’s when I also came of age, I have a particularly pathetic nostalgic pull for that period, one when De La Soul, Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim, and more laid the foundation for the explosion currently splattered all over MTV, BET and VH1′s face.
That nostalgia kicked into overdrive when I peeped Ben Watts’ “Big Up,” especially the gritty photos of breakers, boxers and bullet-scarred G’s lining its well-prepared pages. Sure, Watts has photographed celebrities — including his sis, Naomi — of some stripe for top-echelon pubs for years now, and those are included in “Big Up” as well. It is, after all, his personal scrapbook.
But Watts impresses more when he’s away from cats like Chris Rock and Kelly Slater — although his Lennox Lewis shots are worth the price of the book alone. It’s when he’s shooting those who don’t live in the glow of the spotlights that he delivers, whether they’re injured wrestlers, wannabe pugilists, poor kids hijacking fire hydrants, or heavily pierced femmes with “Connecticunts” tattoos.
“A lot of those pictures come from just carrying my camera around and taking pictures of people in the streets,” Watts told me in an interview. “And I still love to do that, but there’s so much corporate signage and everyone’s so kind of aware of the camera now. Since the Internet took off, everyone is a little suspicious. It all has kind of wrecked things some. I look back at those pictures and go, Wow, that’s cool because there isn’t a fucking Starbucks in the background.”
One of the coolest things about Watts’ work is that it is often interactive. The photographer loves using Polaroids, probably the easiest to use, because his subjects can see the immediate result and autograph it with their own personal trash talk. “I love Polaroid, because it offers instant gratification,” he explained. “I keep the negatives and print from that. And I love the idea of people writing comments on them. I also like the look of foreign languages, how everyone’s handwriting is different, stuff like that. I loved having Chinese characters written on them, because it looks great. I know it sounds kind of shallow to say art looks great, but it does.”
Looks aren’t everything, of course, which is fine because Watts’ photography works on enough different levels to avoid falling into the celebrity photographer trap. It strips the artistic pretension away enough to not feel like an extended exercise in hero worship, while his subjects’ various scribbles add enough meta to make “Big Up” one sloppy, gorgeous mess. Which is exactly what scrapbooks are supposed to be.
“The W Effect: Bush’s War on Women”
Edited by Laura Flanders
The Feminist Press at CUNY
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Laura Flanders’ last interrogation of the state of women who’ve been absorbed, Borg-like, by the Bush administration, “Bushwomen,” already captured the attention of Salon’s Suzy Hansen. But this companion book of sorts, from the City University of New York’s Feminist Press, flew right past my radar until one reader e-mailed me about it. I’m glad she did, because if you’re looking for a comprehensive introduction to how Bush and his friendly female cohort have gone to war on equal pay, family leave, sex education, abortion, Title IX and more, look no further.
This weighty anthology brings together essays from Cynthia Enloe, Farai Chideya, Katha Pollitt, Gail Sheehy, Gloria Steinem and others, adding up to a comprehensive analysis of the actual programs that the president and his “Bushwomen” leading ladies have implemented, withheld or exploited. With the president having won a higher-than-expected percentage of women’s votes, the book makes sobering reading as we face the impending battles of the second Bush term.
“‘Bushwomen’ is about the people, and this book is about policy,” Flanders told me recently. “I think the Bush administration has overhauled the strategy and tactics of its movement. They have the same goals as the early backlashers of the ’70s and early ’80s, but back then people who opposed women’s liberation said as much. These people accomplish their ends by different means. People have talked about this being government by decree and regulation rather than legislation, and I think that’s what we’ve seen, particularly in the area of women’s rights.
“I mean, the Department of Health and Human Services was handed over to religious radicals who overhauled the Web pages containing information about condoms, breast cancer and abortion. Now the CDC has to inform all their clients that condoms don’t work. Worse, administration-backed policies would give pharmacists the right to deny legal birth control to women at will. All this stuff is beneath the level of the media radar. They’re doing it behind closed doors.”
How American women became suckered by the Bush administration to such a significant extent is anybody’s guess. Flanders thinks women have been playing defense so long that they forgot they had an offense.
“For one thing, the women’s movement has spent the last 20 years defending the gains of the preceding tenures,” she says. “They’ve been on defense for an awful long time; it’s been very hard to get beyond the immediate priority of Roe vs. Wade. Part of the purpose of ‘The W Effect’ is to say that there are gender aspects to every kind of policy, that understanding whether gender politics works in this country is critical to understanding whether politics works. Women are not some kind of minority special-interest group; they are the canaries in our coal mine. We will not have our whole understanding of gender politics shrunken down to one Supreme Court decision.”
Whether a Kerry administration could have turned this ship around is a question that many, including Flanders, would have loved to have answered. But it was exceedingly hard to root for the Kerry camp when its most visible female, Teresa Heinz Kerry, was more or less invisible.
“I’m very sorry she had as low a profile in the campaign as she had,” Flanders says. “When she did have her head above the parapet, she was hacked for weeks on end by the media. I think Teresa Heinz Kerry is a powerful female role model, somebody who sees the U.S. as part of the world. She doesn’t believe this guff about freed women in Afghanistan and Iraq; she knows that’s a load of bull.”
“The People’s Business: Controlling Corporations and Restoring Democracy”
By Lee Drutman and Charlie Cray
Foreword by Ralph Nader
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Finally, we come to the guy you love to hate, Ralph Nader, and his merry band of bullshit-callers at CitizenWorks. I’m having a little fun — well, a very little fun — tossing Nader back into the faces of all those Democrats who begged him like peasants to forgo running for president in 2004. As I argued in a previous column, anybody who wants to run for president, for whatever reason, should be able to do so without having to shoulder the short-sighted strategies of his opponents as if they were his own. No one has yet explained to me why Nader should stop championing corporate reform and attacking the sellouts in the Democratic Party, just so those same hacks can mismanage their way out of another election win. Now that the donkeys have lost to the weakest incumbent in American history, Ralph is back to looking like the progressive visionary we always liked having around before we decided to criminalize him for sticking up for his beliefs. All of them.
“The Democrats aren’t truly looking at themselves in the mirror,” Nader told me recently in an interview. “They’re basically saying that we have to talk more about religion and moral values. They didn’t make corporate reform an issue in this election, even though the mass media has given it massive coverage in the cases of Enron, Eliot Spitzer and others. They’re simply not learning any lessons.”
Too bad the Kerry campaign didn’t read this book before they crafted their message — maybe someone can send Hillary Clinton a copy before 2008. It might give Democrats some ideas about how to lessen the phenomenally unfair advantage multinational corporations have over everything remotely connected to power and influence. Drutman and Cray’s manifesto is a product of both Berrett-Koehler Publishers and CitizenWorks, the nonprofit Nader founded in 2001 to generate further public participation in the decisions that affect their everyday existence, ones that are all too often made behind their backs.
“Most people already think that corporations have too much control over their lives,” Nader says, “so you have to appeal to them on that level, where they can see how concentrated corporate power affects them daily. After all, some of them are barely make a living wage in the same company where their CEO makes 700 percent more than they do.”
The way to create change, Nader believes, is to have an agenda and stick to it. “The People’s Business” fleshes out a winning program on that count, from enhanced prosecution budgets for the Justice Department and the SEC to closing tax loopholes to an FBI corporate crime database and much more. “The book is also focused on helping workers exert more power over their retirement and compensation,” Nader adds. “But ultimately, the more fundamental issue is the challenge of corporations’ constitutional rights. They’re not human beings, so they shouldn’t have the same rights as the rest of us.”
Although the book seems achingly idealistic — as Nader has so often been described — the longtime champion of citizen rights isn’t fazed. He knows the Bush administration, more than any other in American history, is defined by its corporate contributors — for instance, a third of Bush’s “Pioneer” fundraisers were awarded positions in the administration or equivalent perks — and it’s not about to change its tune in another term.
But whatever else you might want to say about him, Nader knows that fighting for political change doesn’t end after Election Day. In some ways, he says, the real fight lies ahead. “You always be ready, in case there are scandals involving the administration or other acts of corruption,” he says. “This corporate challenge will be a good test. Who knows? It might resonate with someone on Capitol Hill.” Let’s hope — no, pray — that something does.
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)