"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
When I got divorced and moved into an apartment, I started keeping the TV on, just for company. I wanted to occupy my mind until I could pick myself up off the couch and get back into the game. But the television only made things worse: Almost every show I watched was about a guy who was “on the bench” — who had sat down in front of a microscope or a butterfly collection and never gotten back up. This was not the kind of company I was hoping for — I already owned a mirror.
Why don’t men on television these days have lives? Is even one leading, male character on a nighttime drama married, or dating? As far as I can tell they’re all widowed or divorced. William Petersen on “CSI,” Anthony LaPaglia on “Without a Trace,” David Caruso on “CSI: Miami,” Neal McDonough on “Medical Investigation,” Vincent D’Onofrio on “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” Hugh Laurie on “House,” Mark Harmon on “Navy NCIS,” Gary Sinise on “CSI: NY” — the characters they play form one big and inexplicable Lonely Hearts Club.
And these guys aren’t just single, they are alone. They go home (when they go home at all) to dark, empty apartments furnished with stuff from the “I Don’t Need Anybody” collection at Ikea, where they plink out solitary jazz piano like Hugh Laurie on “House.” Or, like Neal McDonough on “Medical Investigation,” simply stare into the distance over a frozen dinner, trying to remember what it feels like to give a shit.
They’re not even pining. They’re not thinking, “Maybe someday the sister of a dead guy will notice how good I am with a cotton swab and take me away from all this.” They’re way beyond that. When one of the good-looking young “Navy NCIS” pups under his command suggests to Mark Harmon that he get out more, he barely has the energy to work up a world-weary smirk. These guys, these heroes, have waved the white flag and put their hands up. When they’re not examining blood spatter trajectory or maggot migration patterns, they’re building dioramas or sticking pins into dead things. I was still holding out hope for something a little more interactive in my own social life. But I was starting to get the feeling that there was some kind of unconscious consensus out there in the culture that hope was something for another demographic.
All these stoic loners left me longing for good old Andy Sipowicz, the often unpleasantly human heart at the center of “NYPD Blue.” For all his lack of sophistication, restraint and hair, Sipowicz had the one thing these new TV guys never will: a life. Dennis Franz cycled through a bunch of girlfriends on “NYPD Blue,” which meant that we got to see a bunch of different ways an angry drunk can ruin a relationship; eventually, he showed us how a less angry, reformed alcoholic does his best not to ruin one. We rooted for the relationships to work because Sipowicz was trying to be a better guy. Those interrogation scenes were always as much about him facing down his demons as they were about confronting a perp. He had a story apart from his job, and the way he did the job changed as his personal life evolved. By the last season, Sipowicz was making it work, however tenuously, with a new wife and kid. I miss him.
Of course, as I tuned in each night in my newfound bachelor state, I was dimly aware of the irony that I was spending all my free time watching television and complaining about the way the guys on television spend theirs. But I reminded myself that I wasn’t planning to stay on the couch the way they did — I was just taking a breather. Like most guys, I knew the seductive dangers of solitude all too well — how hard and important it is to resist the siren call of the unalphabetized collection of rare Steve Miller Band bootlegs. At some point in adolescence we all realize that building radio transmitters and memorizing Monty Python routines will not, despite the infuriating unfairness of it all, be rewarded with the love of a good woman. And so we learn to moderate our den-ish tendencies, to poke our heads out of our caves and into the soft and scary light of restaurants. And then, when good love goes bad, we know that we have to be on guard against the urge to devote our lives to Civil War-era stamps or First Edition D.C. Comics. We don’t want to end up like Superman, finding icy solace in the Fortress of Solitude, resigning ourselves to a life without Lois, and telling ourselves that it’s heroic to live that way, that isolation is the price of being so super.
But the new leading men on television have lost that battle, or never even bothered to fight it. They’re all solitary supermen. Lonesome savants who seem to know everything there is to know — except how, or even why, to talk to women. Why have these still young, handsome guys given up, when the less young, less handsome and more drunk Sipowicz didn’t? Is it a question of timing? Did Sipowicz just reflect the Clinton-era fascination with moral fallibility and self-improvement? Maybe the new TV hero is perfect for Bush America: He’s always right, and certain of his rightness, and sees his isolation as proof of that rightness. But then again, George Bush is hardly the staunch defender of rationality and science that the bug collectors are. And these guys have great fun at the expense of “believers” of all stripes. In fact, that’s their problem: their middle-aged skepticism knows no bounds, and extends to the defiantly irrational realm of human relationships.
So they don’t have any. They prefer being smarter than other people to being with other people. In place of the sexually charged and morally complicated (in other words, entertaining) stories we used to get on shows like “ER” (in its heyday) and “The Practice,” we get raised-eyebrow lectures on epidemiology. No more stories about fighting the good fight and trying to conquer (or at least live with) your demons. Now we’re watching stories that amount to the ultimate revenge of the nerds: vindication dramas that are brought to resolution by soft-spoken heroes with the kind of semi-autistic attention to detail that can only be developed through thousands of hours of model-airplane building. These shows aren’t interested in the mere triumph of the shut-in, they want vindication of a sensibility, to ratify the worldview of the 12-year-old basement hermit: The universe can be comprehended, and even restored to order, if only you know enough.
Of course, these particular nerds are also television heroes, so they’re not exactly horn-rimmed, pocket-protector types; they’re as good at staring down perps as they are at peering through spectrometers. But that’s just another aspect of the arrested egghead fantasy — that the scientist Bruce Banner can turn into the Incredible Hulk and that mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent is really Superman. That a life spent cataloging knowledge will make you more of a man, not less. These are the kind of guys who don’t suffer gladly anyone who dares to underestimate the capabilities of a brain that has been playing with itself for years, undistracted by the social and emotional demands of other people.
In fact, they’re not just incapable of normal human interaction, they’re disdainful of it. David Caruso, who’s made a fitful career out of disdain, doesn’t even make eye contact on “CSI Miami.” He delivers his lines like it causes him actual physical pain to relate to a mere human. Vincent D’Onofrio acts as if talking to people is literally killing him — he takes a deep breath after every three words so he can gather enough strength for the next three, like someone who’s dying of lung cancer. He sometimes seems to actually be on the verge of croaking right in the middle of a line, just from the sheer boredom of having to explain things to someone who hasn’t taken the time to memorize the periodic table.
I gotta tell you, it was a little depressing watching these shows. The message from the culture was: Will Everyone Over 40 Please Clear the Field and Get a Hobby.
But I started to feel better as I realized how little I, or anyone I have known, know or will know, have in common with the new heroes. Invariably there’s a scene when a beautiful woman colleague will drop a piano-size hint on the head of our hero about what his life might be like with a little more fun and a little less entomology. And invariably our hero will muster just enough indulgence to dismiss her in a slightly nicer way than he would the bozos from Internal Affairs. On one episode of “CSI,” Jorja Fox, who plays one of the agents, tries to get William Petersen to look up from his maggot puree long enough to notice that there is an actual living, breathing, drop-dead gorgeous girl standing right in front of him, starving for a little attention from her myopic boss. William Petersen looks up cluelessly and says “Um, well … the lab needs you.”
Now here’s what I would say if Jorja Fox hinted to me that she’d enjoy it if I stopped working on my case for just a second and paid some attention to her: “Case? What’s a case? I don’t know what a case is. Does it have anything to do with you, or that incredibly sexy space between your teeth? ‘Cause if it doesn’t, I don’t even want to know.”
But William Petersen doesn’t say that. He has to follow the rule for guys over 40 on television, the one that says: You get the job or the girl, but you can’t have it all. It’s like these men are the new “career women.” Back in the ’70s and ’80s, women on television were allowed to have a job or a life — but not both. Candice Bergen’s Murphy Brown had to have a baby alone, and Mary Tyler Moore’s character had to cry on Mr. Grant’s shoulder ’cause she couldn’t find a boyfriend who respected her commitment to the viewers of WJM-TV. And now the worm has turned. Maybe we’re just getting our karmic payback for not letting Mary and Murphy have it all. Or maybe the women who watch the new procedurals (and women make up the majority of their audience) just enjoy seeing work-obsessed men pay a price for their neglect.
Or overworked middle-aged TV writers are issuing a collective cry for help. Or formaldehyde causes impotence. Whatever.
I don’t care about the new guys anymore. Because after a few weeks I finally had an actual human visitor.
No, not a girl. But the next best thing: the cable guy.
Andy Sipowicz may be gone, but I still have Tony Soprano.
Peter Birkenhead is a writer living in Los AngelesMore Peter Birkenhead.
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)