"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)
A time for naps, a time for cheese
There’s a time in life for everything, savory onion tartlets. A time to laugh, a time to mourn, a time to make an elaborate seafood lasagna for the girl you love, a time to threaten that girl’s life for leaking word of your affair to the authorities.
I hope there are some young people out there reading this today, because I want to say: Kids, you’ve got time! There’s a time for dating guys your age, and there’s a time for dating creepily self-obsessed 40-somethings whom you dreamt about marrying back when you weren’t old enough to know what a Scientologist was. There’s a time for getting “Billy Bob” emblazoned on your body, and a time for stealing Jennifer Aniston’s husband by dangling your adorable, saucer-eyed, third-world toddler under his guilty-liberal-movie-star nose. There’s a time for marrying Charlie Sheen, and a time for suing Charlie Sheen for every penny he’s worth.
Sure, we all have slow years, years we waste daydreaming about having an elaborate seafood lasagna to call our very own. Just remember, even in the slow years, we all deserve love. Never forget that, rosemary-infused lamb shanks. Because once you can picture exactly what you want — whether it’s a mega-star, grinning and prattling on disingenuously to Oprah, or just some skanky dude with smelly feet and a bad credit rating — you’ll get it! Mark my words. You just have to believe!
Just look at Britney Spears. Britney believed. Hey, she knew the odds were stacked against her. Of all the guys in the world, how many are really all that interested in a voluptuous, athletic blond millionaire with a wide array of sexually suggestive, sequin-studded costumes to her name?
But Britney held on to her dream. Every night she would go to bed and pray that somehow, some way, somewhere out there, there was a skanky dude with smelly feet and a bad credit rating, one who might generously agree to drop his busy and important life as an unemployed floater to follow her around the world, staying in five-star hotels, shopping for incredible clothes, eating at the best restaurants and appearing on the covers of magazines. “Maybe it’s just a crazy fantasy,” Britney said to herself, “but it’s my crazy fantasy, and I refuse to give up hope!”
Then, one day, Britney was in London, preparing to play to a packed crowd at Wembley Stadium, and she remembered this sort of skanky guy she met in a club in LA. Sure, he had a pregnant girlfriend, but did that really make him skeazy enough?
Wait! The story is much more romantic when Britney and Kevin tell it themselves:
Kevin: I was living with my best friend from back home. We usually always hit this place, Joseph’s. It was just a regular night.
Britney: I saw Kevin there. I just knew!
Kevin: A couple of her dancers introduced us. That was it.
Britney: He was very mysterious. He just seemed not fazed by anything. Just his whole vibe was really sexy. I like that.
But even with such a heady start, their fairy-tale romance was only just beginning! Weeks later, relying on the fact that Kevin wasn’t fazed by anything, Britney called and asked him if he wouldn’t mind hopping on a plane to come and have sex with her in one of the finest hotel suites in London! Kevin bravely followed his nards, and the rest is history!
Luckily, we can all learn more about this magical couple on UPN’s “Britney and Kevin: Chaotic” (Tuesdays at 9 p.m.), an absolutely unique show that’s a complete departure from almost everything else on television today.
What makes it so different? You’re going to have to use your powers of imagination to get a good answer to that one. So, close your eyes, and imagine for a moment that you have a teenage daughter. Imagine that your daughter isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and hasn’t had anything of interest to say since she turned 10. OK. Now imagine that your daughter is incredibly rich but so self-centered that she makes faces when a hotel maintenance guy dares to speak to her. Imagine that your daughter spends most of her time giggling, chain-smoking and talking about herself. Now, imagine that your daughter is something of a slut, but seems to have no criteria in choosing men, outside of the fact that they should be vaguely surly and illiterate.
Now imagine giving your daughter a camcorder! Imagine that your filthy slut daughter spends a year traveling the world, and gets married to a trashy young fellow along the way. Now imagine that she returns home and, in typical self-involved fashion, forces you to watch several hours of her self-recorded aimless banter, bad jokes and sexually suggestive idiocy.
“I’ve had sex three times today! Hee hee hee hee!” your daughter squeals at the camera. “Our sex is so good!”
Now, open your eyes. How do you feel? Pretty damn good, huh? You want to watch more, don’t you? You can’t believe how many universal themes of suffering and redemption were revealed therein, can you? You want to program your slut daughter’s new show, “Britney and Kevin: Chaotic,” into your TiVo right now, don’t you?
Indeed, it’s easily the Worst Show on Television, one that’s, sadly, nowhere near the ballpark of So Bad It’s Good but rather, lodged firmly in the realm of painfully, indescribably, irredeemably Bad. Only by using your powers of imagination can you conjure up the smallest taste of just how noxiously, horrendously Bad it is.
It’s not just Britney, with her smokes and her manic idiocy, and Kevin, with his patchy facial hair and big diamond earrings, who grate on our nerves. (Doesn’t Kevin remind you of that guy who played Claire’s dirtbag boyfriend on “Six Feet Under,” and then went on to play Theresa’s dirtbag husband on “The O.C.”?) When Britney grabs the camera and points it to her charmless entourage and asks, “What’s yer favorite sexual position?” everyone, without fail, laughs hysterically like she’s the most zanily irreverent human on earth — instead of, say, flashing back to a really lame game of Truth or Dare they played in high school. And speaking of “Truth or Dare,” the show clearly references Madonna’s movie of the same name, only Madonna and her posse look like a bunch of astrophysicists compared to Britney and her crew.
And look, when you invest just 10 minutes in this hideous time-suck, you’re so desperate for a moment of levity or wit that you’re willing to mistake even the dorkiest aside for an unguarded moment of genius. Sadly, though, the most insightful comment on the entire show occurs when Britney films Kevin in the shower, and he threatens her, saying, “Payback is a bitch.” That’s right. “Payback is a bitch” represents the most profound insight offered by Britney’s new show.
Finally, a show that’s so unspeakably bad, I won’t feel the least bit guilty for ignoring it completely from now on. Smell ya later, Britney!
Right back where you started from
Speaking of smelling ya later, what the hell is wrong with Kirsten of “The O.C.”? Are we supposed to believe that a beautiful, loaded, pampered woman with Peter Gallagher for a husband and Adam Brody for a son, a woman who can sit by the pool snarfing down prosciutto and melon all day, or fly away to a sexy vacation in Belize whenever the mood strikes, would instead choose to moon over Billy Campbell, then drink herself into a drooling, drunken stupor? Are we supposed to believe that Kirsten would rather sneak around, swilling vodka and making secret phone calls to Billy, than roll around in the sack with Peter Gallagher? Is it the eyebrows? Have the eyebrows started to turn her off?
And isn’t it amazing how, even when Kirsten is being wheeled off to rehab, her life still looks pretty good? Where the hell did they find that luxurious rehab facility, anyway? Are you telling me that rich drunks get to dry out in a palace with an ocean view?
That’s right, kiddies. Even the crabgrass is greener on the other side of the fence. Just look at sad little Marissa, who comes close to getting raped by that jerkwad Trey, and then is basically forced to shoot him in the chest to save that poor troublemaker Ryan from getting his head crushed in, and the whole thing is — let’s face it — deeply romantic, instead of just seedy and depressing.
She had to shoot him, though, right? I mean, Trey was about to bludgeon Ryan’s head in with one of those really heavy old-fashioned phones! You know how heavy those old-fashioned phones are, right? But how did Marissa the Millionaire know that? Isn’t everything lightweight in the lives of super-rich humans? And how did the little gal know how to fire a gun? Did she consider knocking him over the head with something, or maybe grabbing his arm?
Again, kids: There’s time. Time to grab the bad guy’s arm. Shooting him in the heart? Not necessary — although, it does really sell the bittersweet alterna-pop that plays over the last few minutes of the show.
Overall, I approve. The stakes on “The O.C.” have been too low for months now. How are we supposed to care about the show when all that ever happens is the extras at the party gasp in horror, and someone gets socked in the jaw? I mean, anything that can make Seth Cohen as quietly disillusioned and depressed as he was throughout the entire finale has to be a good thing.
I also thought Frou Frou was a good choice. Sweetly melancholy melodrama — that’s the flavor we who watch “The O.C.” are after. Go ahead, shoot more ne’er-do-wells, if it means more sweetly melancholy melodramatic music will play.
In fact, “The O.C.” is really the modern equivalent of a music video. Since MTV not only doesn’t play music videos but basically has nothing to do with music anymore, someone’s gotta pick up the slack.
Speaking of slack, in a new UPN sitcom called “The Bad Girl’s Guide” (Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m.), Jenny McCarthy plays a pot-smoking slut who’s also a successful creative at an ad agency. Sounds convincing, right? I mean, you know lots of tall, beautiful, big-breasted blondes with great jobs who smoke lots of pot and sleep around, don’t you?
I sure do! And just like Jenny and her friends, my friends and I love to bust a tunic at a local bar, get some ass, smoke a few joints, high-five, rush off to work, dream up the perfect ad campaign for a clothing detergent, come home, dole out sage advice, eat some pizza and jeer at the latest episode of “America’s Next Top Model,” spewing out witty rejoinders all the while!
OK, maybe I do the last two things on the list. And look, there are nice things about this show. If you squint your eyes and stick your fingers in your ears, you can sort of tell that the show is well-written. By “well-written” I mean “about as witty as your average Bridget-Jones-alike bit of wedding porn” — but still. That’s sort of new, in a world of stale sitcom families with wisecracking teenagers and crazy uncles. To recognize the jokes, though, you have to really concentrate on what the actors are saying, and not on how they’re saying it.
What I mean is, the girls are pretty grating, and the directing sucks. But again, it’s a show about sluts who smoke pot. No matter how busy you are, kids, you’ll find that there’s always time for pot-smoking sluts.
Laughter and forgetting
Hopefully John Gulager of “Project Greenlight” will have more time for pot-smoking and sluts now that his film, “Feast,” is almost finished. Remember when everyone hated Gulager and thought he was super creepy? Well, now he’s everybody’s favorite-est, most talented-est director! See how it works, kids? There’s a time to be threatened with violence and termination, and there’s a time to fly to New York to have lunch with Matt Damon! (I don’t know about you, but I can’t so much as glance at the name “Matt Damon” anymore without hearing the Matt Damon marionette from “Team America” saying his name over and over again. Hurray!)
In the “Project Greenlight” finale, Gulager is finally speaking up, making thank-you speeches that are not quite rousing but do have enough of a promising tinge of insincerity that the Hollywood glad-handers around him are starting to see their tainted, blustery reflections in his face. They therefore deem him ready to “make it” out there among similarly ghoulish Hollywood types.
“Feast” didn’t test well or anything, but there was enough screaming and shouting and hearty laughter at the test screening that the executives present thought it might do well, while the rest of us simply concluded that they screened the film in L.A., where, no matter how idiotic the film, audiences laugh long and loud like they’re high on crack.
Also, keep in mind, there were cameras pointed at aforementioned test audience the entire time. You see, people like to emote when cameras are pointed at them. Just look at Paris Hilton. Does she really love washing that car in her bathing suit, then shoving a massive burger in her face like she seems to on that Carl’s Jr. commercial? Does she even eat meat? Has she ever washed a car in her life? Or would she lick mayonnaise off a totem pole with as much passion if someone told her it looked hot?
Honestly, does she need the money? Why is she in a commercial at all? Do they even have to pay her to do this stuff?
OK, I’m really preoccupied by sluts this week — I apologize. The point is, “Feast” didn’t test well, but the powers that be don’t care. They like the cut of Gulager’s jib. Just as Ben Affleck knows there’s a time to date Jenny from the block, and a time to get Jenny not from the block pregnant, he also knows that there’s a time for “Project Greenlight” to produce a film that isn’t universally loathed by critics and morons off the street alike. Based on the blood flying and the screams and the artsy close-ups, I think it’s safe to say that at least a handful of morons off the street might be drawn in by “Feast,” and that, in “Project Greenlight” terms, is a massive, sweeping victory.
Empire Falls, then strikes back
Hey, kids! If you like small towns, star-studded casts, and stilted dialogue, you’ll love “Empire Falls,” an HBO “two-part mini-series event” (see also: a six-hour-long made-for-TV movie spread out over two nights) airing this Saturday and Sunday at 9 p.m. Paul Newman plays a w-w-wacky old dude. Ed Harris is a passive dad with a lovable teenage daughter and a haunted past … Welcome to Snore City, USA. If you can get through the first two hours, please write to me and tell me all about how great it was.
There’s a time for reading about bad shows you’ll never watch, and a time for getting some work done, and a time for pickling your prick in the cunt-brine of another. Sadly, right now, it’s time to get back to work. Until next week, my pretties! May the pot-smoking sluts be with you!
Next week: Too much red-hot finale action even to allude to in passing! Plus: More TV ads that bug me! And: New insights into Tyra’s psyche! Also: Stuff I found in my sock drawer that I don’t know where to put!
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)