"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)
Topics: Entertainment News
Last night, I began my annual forced viewing of the Grammy telecast with a thesis: that the past year was one of those rare blips in musical time where what’s popular and what’s good actually intersect. Just before the telecast, I looked at the nominee list to see if this would actually bear out. Kanye West, check. Green Day, check. Franz Ferdinand, check. Modest Mouse, Loretta Lynn and Jack White, Alicia Keys, check, check, check.
As always, the Grammy selection committee tortured us with some duds. Hoobastank? Melissa Etheridge, no, Tim McGraw, no as always, y pienso que Los Lonely Boys son overrated. And then there were the usual safe nominations for dead guys. It doesn’t exactly take a lot of guts to toss a Grammy to Ray Charles or Johnny Cash now. Plus, shouldn’t a song be exempted from Grammy consideration after it’s been used as a theme for the NBA Playoffs? I’m looking at you, Black Eyed Peas.
But a closer examination of the list dampened my raging cynicism. Tom Waits, Jill Scott, the Scissor Sisters? Got a Grammy nomination? But I saw the Scissor Sisters live two years ago! I’d never seen a live band before they received a Grammy nomination. Who cares whether I liked them or not? My thesis was holding water! I had no idea, though, that I was about to watch one of the most entertaining musical events in television history.
What you’re about to read was written in real time, edited slightly for coherence, and partially drained of hipster pretension. No TiVo was deployed in compiling this report. All times are Central Standard. It’s 6:55 p.m. Let’s get it started in here!
Queen Latifah appears and informs us that there are four stages and five bands, and this is just the opening number. Why look! It’s the Black Eyed Peas, singing the LeBron James highlight-film theme song. Is this our new national anthem? Before I can get a chance to write down another basketball joke, there’s Gwen Stefani, wearing what remains of Kevin Kline’s outfit from “The Pirates Of Penzance.” Goddamn, that woman’s got gams! She’s accompanied by Eve, who looks like Whitney Houston version 2.0. Hot Asian girls, also kind of dressed like pirates, surround them. Why am I not TiVoing this? Oh, that’s right. I don’t have TiVo. But if I did, this segment would scream late-night freeze-frame!
Band No. 4 is the mysterious Maroon 5 with that song I hear all the time at the gym. Catchy! The lead singer looks like Keanu Reeves and the keyboardist looks like a PIRG canvasser. They won’t be around next year. Uh-oh. The Black Eyed Peas are singing and Maroon 5 is playing, followed by Franz Ferdinand, a better band. Suddenly everyone is singing and playing at the same. Despite what the New York Times said this morning, it’s not a mash-up. It’s more like the finale of “Les Miz,” with guitars and break dancing.
Ellen DeGeneres seems to like it, because she dances to her own tune. Still, if this is the sound of today, then my thesis is holding. Also, the lead singer of Black Eyed Peas will be making a special appearance this Friday on “Joan of Arcadia,” playing a substitute gym coach who teaches Joan the importance of running a decent song into the ground.
Queen Latifah informs us that tonight is the 50th birthday of rock ‘n’ roll, but then proceeds to not elaborate. I think she was trying to toss props to Little Richard, an act of amateur ethnomusicography that probably raised Greil Marcus’ hackles. She also makes a saucy joke about how she went to Bono’s dressing room and says that Bono is looking “adorable.” The thought of Queen Latifah in Bono’s dressing room makes me feel empty inside.
Steven Tyler pays lip service to the great piano player Pinetop Perkins, who’s in the audience looking leathery and wearing a cowboy hat, no doubt thinking, Boy, I was living in a garage in Mississippi while you were doinking Bebe Buell upstairs at the Mudd Club. Where the hell were you then? Then Los Lonely Boys win an award, and Perkins rolls over in his future grave.
Another lip service, this one for jazz great Art Blakey. But at least they follow him with Alicia Keys, a person so far out of my league that I don’t even deserve to be in the same room as her discarded wisdom teeth. She sings to great effect. Then Jamie Foxx shows up to lay down the yellow brick for his Oscar. He does a remarkably hip “Georgia on My Mind” duet with the new woman of my dreams. I briefly want to consider this annoying, but then again, try to imagine Adrien Brody or Roberto Benigni pulling it off.
Jerry Lee Lewis gets a Grammy lifetime achievement award. Jerry Lee is sitting in the audience, looking like he could still bite the head off a rat. “Rock ‘n’ roll has its fathers, and here are its sons,” says Queen Latifah. That means U2. Bono says that his father was a postman with a beautiful tenor voice, and he would like to think he passed that voice on to Bono. Jerry Lee Lewis thinks, I busted my ass for this?
7:46 p.m. There’s lot of lifetime achievement tonight, probably too much, as Led Zeppelin gets a lifetime achievement award. In a case of reverse irony, Green Day wins best rock album immediately after. They’re a band far better than Zeppelin, though the sex to their music goes at a much less seductive pace. Those Green Day guys worked damn hard; they deserve it. In the audience, Cyndi Lauper appears pleased.
Queen Latifah informs us that tomorrow morning, “everyone will be talking about the next 15 minutes.” Everyone who didn’t watch “Desperate Housewives” or the Pro Bowl, that is. It looks like the unstoppable conversation express is being led by the world performance debut of the world’s most passionate husband and wife, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony!
He stands at a purple-lit window that fronts a set on loan from Home Depot. The set parts to reveal J.Lo, wearing a lime-green curtain held together by long strips of silver and gold glitter. She’s in what appears to be the honeymoon suite at the world’s cheesiest boutique hotel. There’s a reason these two haven’t sung together in public before. It’s because Marc Anthony is humiliatingly better than Jennifer Lopez. At least with Ben Affleck, it was an even match of talentlessness; the equivalent to J.Lo performing with Marc Anthony would be Affleck hitching his wagon to Frances McDormand. I think J.Lo’s handlers assume that we’ll take the spiciness of their love for granted because they’re Latin, but those of us who have truly felt passion cannot be deceived! They walk around the hotel room in what is supposed to be a dance of seduction, but they don’t even really acknowledge each other’s presence. Mike Wallace and Morley Safer have more sexual chemistry onstage than J.Lo and Marc Anthony.
Following that atrocity of God, Matthew McConaughey, a man once arrested in my home city of Austin, Texas, for streaking, shows up and makes a convincing case for how Southern rock is still alive and well and also rockin’. As an avatar of this truth, Gretchen Wilson and Lynrd Skynrd appear and sing “Freebird.” In their hands, rock’s biggest clichi sounds like “I Will Always Love You.” Now, I’m not a Southerner by birth, nor was I born to be a rocker. But I know quite a few Southern rockers down here who would take exception at such a flimsy portrayal of down-home virtues. What a goddamn embarrassment.
Keith Urban and Elvin Bishop follow with an acceptable version of “I Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” but the mood has already been ruined. Dickie Betts, whose name was, I shamefully admit, new to me, performs “Ramblin’ Man.” Tim McGraw shows up for duet purposes, and, as always, ruins the song. He was no more born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus than I was born in a rice paddy.
Then Skynrd — Skynrd, Whoooooooo! –returns for a version of “Sweet Home Alabama” that legitimately rocks but is marred by McGraw and by Gretchen Wilson, who sounds like Britney Spears singing with Aerosmith at the Super Bowl.
Queen Latifah gets to sing, an honor usually reserved among award-show hosts for Billy Crystal. But instead of going, Rwanda! How I love ya, how I love ya, my dear Rwanda! as Crystal would do but Chris Rock probably won’t, the Queen fills out a black dress, wears a string of pearls just right, and sings a pretty damn convincing medley of ’40s jazz diva tunes. You know, just when you think someone totally sucks, she goes ahead and does something like this. She deserves a Grammy merely for making people think of Dinah Washington at all.
Tyra Banks and Hoobastank follow, offering a lifetime Grammy to the late conductor Morton Gould, an act so deeply ironic that it defies further comment. Maroon 5 then beat Kanye West for best new artist, who hugs the band very sincerely, and Maroon 5 practically offer the award to him. Kanye West is smooth. The lead singer of Maroon 5 says, “These guys are my best friends, and this is the trippiest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life.”
Quentin Tarantino says that Green Day has released a concept album with a unique concept: “All the songs are good.” Call me naive, but I can’t even begin to say how much I admire these guys. Not every band that works hard gets successful for the right reasons, but it’s nice to see it happen at least once.
I notice that Crucial, from Alicia Keys’ band, is wearing a really stylish brown fedora-like hat. Oh, please, make it acceptable for white people to dress like that again! If there are a million universes, perhaps in one of them, I am Alicia Keys’ kept potentate. A boy can dream.
The Staples Singers win a lifetime Grammy, and then Mavis Staples actually gets to come out and sing. Meanwhile, Pinetop Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis are shooting heroin in the bathroom of the nominees’ lounge, wondering where it all went wrong. Suddenly, things take a turn for the iconographic.
A preacher rails against sin in front of a sizable congregation of middle-aged black people, who are backed by a church set with authentically beautiful mocked-up stained-glass windows. Kanye West runs down the aisle, doing “Jesus Walks.” He dances himself into a passion play with Mavis Staples. A curtain drops. Kanye dances in silhouette with increasing drama, until we see a video image of a dove flying away into an exploding sunset. The curtain rises, and the Blind Boys Of Alabama are in the church, singing over a coffin. Kanye returns, wearing an all-white suit. He then rises above the crowd wearing angel’s wings. I guess it’s too much to ask that one of these things totally transcend ego. West’s acceptance speech follows form, ending with him holding up his award and saying, “Everybody wanted to know what I’d do if I didn’t win. I guess we’ll never know.”
The Grammys are really entertaining this year.
Kris Kristofferson, who got a lifetime achievement nod himself at the Country Music Association Awards, presents a lifetime achievement award to Janis Joplin. Are you meaning to tell me that Janis Joplin doesn’t have a lifetime Grammy yet? Austin is insulted, sirs! And we’re further insulted that Joss Stone gets to perform the tribute. Nice dress, 6-foot Joss, but Janis never wore that much makeup on every day of her life combined! Actually, I have no idea how much makeup Janis Joplin wore. But the tribute was still a little off.
Eddy Arnold gets his lifetime achievement recognition from Billy Bob Thornton, who then introduces Tim McGraw to sing a song. Hmm. Bad Santa considers Tim McGraw “a good friend.” Perhaps I should reexamine my opinion of Tim McGraw. Nope. I’m sorry, call me an indie snob if you want, but Tim McGraw is just a country version of “Tuesdays With Morrie.” The song, “Live Like You Were Dying,” is about a man who gets bad news from his doctor, but doesn’t let that stop him from going out and doing adventure sports.
Tim McGraw, how many of your fans can afford to go sky-diving or Rocky Mountain climbing? How many of them even have health insurance? If I found out I were dying, I’d fall into a sobbing heap for about two days, which is what most people would do, and then I’d start figuring out a way to use my sympathetic status so I could sit on the Phoenix Suns bench during the playoffs. Skiing wouldn’t be high on my priority list.
Hallelujah! The Good Lord rains justice down from the heavens as Loretta Lynn defeats Tim McGraw for best country vocal. Ms. Lynn takes the stage with power, grace and class, sucking any lingering stupidity out of the room. Jack White, growing nicely into his Johnny Depp phase, plays the polite young man role to the hilt. He says, “We recorded this record on Loretta’s front porch, and one day she told me, ‘Jack, 14 times my record got banned from country radio, and every one of those records went to No. 1. Well, this record got ignored by country radio as well. And look who’s No. 1!’”
Rarely has an award winner satisfied me more.
Rob Thomas, who doesn’t owe his career to Ahmet Ertegun, announces that the founder of Atlantic Records has won First President’s History of Greatness Award or something, Too little, too late. Still, it’s nice to know that a native Turk can receive a major award on American television.
U2 wins an award. Bono says this is “the best Grammys I’ve ever seen.” And he’s right! It feels like the moment when the music business has finally matured; culture has met commerce at the crossroads, and they’ve shaken hands in friendship. Everyone seems to respect everyone else, they’re feeding off one another’s energy, and we’re all enriched. We’d better enjoy it. Next year it could easily be Christina Aguilera paying tribute to Billie Holliday, Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey singing the songs of Kenny and Dolly, and J.Lo doing a forbidden, fully synthesized dance with her new husband, Colin Farrell.
But for this brief moment, the mainstream rules, and this is before the James Brown dance duet with Usher! As Steven Tyler, Billie Joe Armstrong, Norah Jones, Alison Krauss, Bono, Alicia Keys and others perform an absolutely magnificent cover of “Across the Universe,” with all proceeds going to tsunami victim relief and a harmonica solo from Stevie Wonder, for god’s sake, I have a rare flash of optimism, thinking that music really is going to change the world this time. As soon as they stop giving solos to Tim McGraw.
Neal Pollack is the author of the literary satire "The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature," among other works of fiction and nonfiction. His latest book, "Open Your Heart: A Matt Bolster Yoga Mystery," will be released in paperback on November 14.More Neal Pollack.
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)