"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)
Narm! Welcome back to another week in television, sweet corn fritters.
What’s that? You say you haven’t watched any television all week? Well, good for you, fritters. Good for you! And what did you do?
Um, you can’t remember? What do you mean you can’t remember? You checked your e-mail, you say? Well, that’s something. You watered your plants? You showered? You ate some cereal? You called your friend on the way to work and complained about how hot your apartment gets in late July? You went to a doctor’s appointment, and in the lobby you read an old copy of People magazine that had Jennifer Aniston cuddling with Vince Vaughn on the cover, and you were excited that Jen was getting a little revenge, but when you read the article, you saw that Jen and Vince weren’t even dating, they were just starring in a movie together?
Ahem. You listen to me, and listen good. If you’re going to forsake all of the quality programming that the network and the cable channels bust their asses to bring us, day after day, the least you can do is spend your time on something else that’s arguably worthwhile. I mean, there are thousands of honest, hard-working folks out there, breaking their backs to bring you fine televised entertainments of every stripe, and you have the gall to turn your back on their quality wares, to ignore the fruits of their labor? And for what? For what, exactly? Huh? Answer me!
Don’t fritter away your lives, fritters. Don’t be like Nate of “Six Feet Under,” that bellyaching pussy, pushing his weak, wishy-washy, self-doubting moments off on everyone like it makes him special and sensitive when really all it does is make him less equipped to walk out the door, breathe the air, and seize the motherlumping day.
Do me a favor, OK? If you’re not even going to deign to turn on your television set this week, at least do something worthwhile and let me know what it was. That’s it, it’s official. This week is going to be I Turned Off The TV And Did Something Great Week!
Narm, damn it!
Wee Willy Weedeman
Remember when they called a quarter bag of pot a quarter bag not just because it was a quarter of an ounce, but because it only cost $25? Sure, it was the shwaggy, crappy weed that put you to sleep, but hot damn! Who cares? For 25 bucks you could buy enough weed to get the whole football team high!
Not that I ever did that. OK, maybe I did, but only in an official capacity as a cheerleader when it was a sponsored part of Spirit Week at my high school. (“Here’s your Spirit ribbon, Rex, and your chocolate chip cookies, and here are the two joints we rolled for you, with red and blue rolling papers. Catch the spirit! Get psyched up!”)
These days, pot is much more frowned upon. It’s seen as a gateway drug, which I think means it leads to other, more serious drugs, like PlayStation 2 and Hawaiian pizza. That’s why you just have to love “Weeds” (Sunday, Aug. 7, at 11 p.m. EDT on Showtime), the new half-hour dramedy about a widow who starts selling pot in order to maintain her lifestyle. Thanks to her darling husband, who didn’t bother to get some quality life insurance before he muttered “Narm!” and hit the dirt on his morning jog, our girl has to go to the cheatin’ side of town to score some good shit from those soulful, salt-of-the-earth black folks who serve up wisdom with their weed.
I know what you’re thinking! I can read your mind! You’re thinking that this sounds like exactly the kind of cable-channel dark comedy with a clever premise that you figure might be kind of cute for a few episodes, but it turns out that the characters aren’t believable and the white people are too pathetic and the black people are too clever and lovable and the stories suck and you lose interest fast, just like you did with “Entourage” and “Fat Actress” and “The Comeback,” right?
Wrong, dummy. The pilot episode of “Weeds” is pretty good, kinda cute, maybe a little shallow, but the opening credits are really cool, and that gives you hope. The second episode is a little less cliché, a little less pat, but the wit and wisdom of the family-style drug dealers is a little too idyllic to stomach. The third episode is funny, and it’s clear that realism isn’t exactly the goal. Laughs are the goal. The fourth episode is very strange. By the fifth episode, something crystallizes and you’re hooked.
Now see, that’s rare. Odd little dark cable comedies tend to fall apart after a few episodes, in my experience, which is probably why Showtime sent out five episodes in the first place.
Mary-Louise Parker’s mesmerizing and totally natural turn as an overwhelmed widow in the ‘burbs makes those “Desperate Housewives” look truly desperate by comparison. Her gaggle of drug dealer friends refuse to hold her hand, and soon it’s clear that they’re not dropping her some wisdom so much as talking to each other while trying to ignore that she even exists. And as the story unfolds, shallow characters develop unexpected complexity, and odd, fun new characters join the bizarre, uniformly flawed group.
Smart as the show is, it isn’t “Six Feet Under.” Keep that in mind, those of you with your bloated expectations. The emphasis here is on comedy, and on showing lots of suburban people getting high. But even so, the housewives in the fictional suburb of Agrestic aren’t slim and cute and full of adorable quips. They make bad decisions that they regret. The teenage boys mostly want to get laid. The oddball children say unpopular things and play with nunchucks. There’s zaniness, sure, but not the kind that makes your stomach turn. It’s not all that deep or that realistic, but it is funny and strange and truly dark. And there’s lots of pot in it.
What’s not to like? Narm!
And speaking of lots of pot in it, remember that time you got really high and watched “Sesame Street”? Remember how you found yourself wishing that Grover would stop moping around and would beat the crap out of Big Bird, or would maybe prepare Mr. Hooper a nice knuckle sandwich? Remember how you wished that the letter N and the letter S would stop chirping out happy songs and would get down and dirty once and for all?
You don’t remember? Well, I’m not surprised. You were really high, dude. Luckily for you it seems there are some people out there who are just as sick, reckless and confused as you are, and they have their very own show on MTV2, called “Wonder Showzen” (Fridays at 9:30 p.m. EDT). Just imagine what would happen if a bunch of stoned suburbanites took over “Sesame Street” and turned it into something sick and sad and wrong that’s not fit for children or even unstable adults.
Sounds great, right? You don’t know the half of it. My favorite segment involves a little blue puppet named Clarence who walks around the streets of New York asking people really important questions. In one episode, he goes to Central Park and asks passing joggers, in his cute little high voice, “What are you running from? What are you running away from, huh? Are you running from your failures?”
In another segment, Clarence asks strangers to give the kids a message about freedom of speech, then interrupts them every time they try. “Yeah, like that. Only louder.” “Softer.” “Yeah, like that. Right now.” “OK, start right now.” “1, 2, 3, OK, start… now.”
Maybe it’s just the Narm! in me, but it turns out I really love watching extremely obnoxious puppets with very high voices harass people. I love it almost as much as I love it when the letter N gets wasted and breaks a bottle for no reason. Why? Because, she explains, as the words flash across the screen, “Nobody needs me!”
In short, I love the sickos who created “Wonder Showzen” with all my heart, and all you sickos out there will, too.
Rock on, rockers!
As far as the rest of you are concerned, well… there’s always “Rock Star: INXS.” The best part of this show, by far, is when host Brooke Burke (is she animated?) refers to the competitors on the show as “The Rockers,” as in “That night, The Rockers were really nervous about who would be the next to go. Every Rocker wanted to stay!”
I know what you’re thinking again! You’re thinking that a show like “Rock Star,” with its incessant foolish commodification of The Rocker and of Rocking Out and of Rocking On demonstrates, very clearly, that rock ‘n’ roll is dead, once and for all.
But you’re wrong! “Rock Star” doesn’t mean that rock ‘n’ roll is dead. It just means that God is dead.
That’s cool! It’s all good! Narm!
Red-headed stepchildren of the corn
Just to be clear, Narm! really doesn’t translate as “It’s all good!” OK? “It’s all good!” is, to me at least, an active stance of denying that anything is bad. “All the things, even the things that seem bad, add up to one big, good thing!”
Um, yeah. Bullshit. Narm isn’t about denial. Narm is about recognizing that which is unspeakably bad along with that which is incredibly good, and accepting all of it as best you can while trying very hard not to develop an addiction to prescription drugs.
And speaking of bad and good, Kathy Griffin has a new reality show, “Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List” (premieres Wednesday, Aug. 3, at 10 p.m. EDT on Bravo). Now, I’ve never liked Kathy Griffin, mostly for shallow reasons and because I’m an intolerant jerk. I don’t like her scratchy Muppet voice, and I don’t like the obnoxious “I tell it like it is” slot she fills in the celebre-media mire. And yet, I can’t really quibble with her product. Remember when she hosted the Golden Globes, and said to Clive Owen, “Your ears are beautiful. Are they real?”
See, Kathy Griffin is one of those comedians who are about as funny offstage as they are onstage. Onstage? Not hysterically funny, but fairly amusing and enjoyable. Offstage? About the same. Plus, you know, this isn’t another star who’s dead-set on trying to make herself look like a saint. She calls her husband fat, she refers to one of her D-list engagements as a “bullshit kabbalah event,” and she tells us, immediately after meeting with a prospective stylist, that she hated him. That’s good television, at least for us sickos it is. I’m not saying the whole show is fascinating — it’s not. But it’s not terrible, which is much more than you can say for pretty much every other celebreality show out there. If they let Kathy suck on her bong while the cameras rolled, she would. (Yeah, don’t let those bright green Capri pants fool you; she’s gotta be a big stoner.)
That doesn’t mean her show’s worth your time (although we’ve already established that your time isn’t worth much). I wouldn’t watch it if I were you. But I would check out her stand-up routine, “Kathy Griffin Is… Not Nicole Kidman,” which premieres Wednesday, Aug. 3, at 9 p.m. EDT on Bravo, right before the premiere of her reality show. Most of it is, as I said, just mildly amusing, but the part where she describes Barbra Streisand’s appearance on “Oprah”? It’s priceless, and if you miss it, I’ll be very angry at you.
Actually, I think Kathy Griffin should have her own version of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” She could watch “Oprah” every day, along with some kind of Muppet, maybe a rodent, and provide running commentary. See, why can’t the executive dimwits at the cable channels start smoking the good stuff and think outside the box a little?
Hell narmed over
In summary: Good weed. Puppets. Bossy red-heads. Life is full of richness and wonder, isn’t it, chickens?
Oh yeah, and I should mention that lots of you also hate Nate on “Six Feet Under,” but many others of you, primarily men, think that the women on the show, namely Ruth and Brenda, are to blame for all of Nate’s woes. We may have to unpack the gender-specific puzzle this presents at a later date, but I just want to acknowledge all you guys for sharing your feelings with me, and to let you know that such feelings are totally natural, and I still accept you as people even though you disagree with me, but I don’t really like you quite as much.
Remember, next week is I Turned Off The TV And Did Something Great Week. So stop watching TV and go do something, then write to me and tell me about it. (Yes, you’re still allowed to watch “Six Feet Under” — there are only a few episodes left, for chrissakes!)
And those of you who don’t plan to turn your TVs off? I have an assignment for you guys, too. I want you to remember the single most touching, poignant, disturbing or emotionally memorable thing you see on TV this week, and I also want you to remember the single most touching, poignant, disturbing or emotionally memorable thing that occurs in your real life (that’s the time when you’re not watching TV), and I want you to compare and contrast the richness and depth of your emotional response to each event.
Yeah! Come on! It’ll be fun!
Next week: All of your charming anecdotes from I Turned Off The TV And Did Something Great / I Engaged In A Pretentious Media Experiment Week, compiled! Plus: Why wasn’t Toni from “Paradise Hotel” cast as a hideous, blood-thirsty monster in “Kill Reality”?
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)