"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)
Freedom goes on holiday
These are the dog days of summer, fried chickens. The hottest, laziest time of year when no one with any self-respect would be working at all, if not for The Man and his incessant, unrealistic demands. The more cultured among you know that this is when most Europeans take their 15- to 20-week vacations and move to the countryside, eating apricot-filled beignets all morning, napping all afternoon and then waking up at sunset to feast on cured meats and fine aged cheeses and big bottles of port. Damn those Europeans! It’s no wonder they don’t do their part for freedom, all doped up on good cheese and fine wines!
You see, in America, The Man is a neurotic, overworked hosebag who’s always breathing down our necks, hoping to boost productivity with his steamy halitosis and his incessant high-fives and monthly awkward bad-birthday-cake breaks. In Europe, of course, The Man spends his summers smoking Gauloises and chuckling over the latest strikes in France. He hops from cafe to cafe all day, sipping espresso with his little poodle, Henri, until it’s time to get drunk. And little Henri is allowed into the nightclubs with him! How can the march of freedom possibly matter to anyone who can bring his dog with him into a nightclub?
To care about freedom, you have to have a big, grassy lawn. If you don’t have a few hundred square feet of grass to protect from the terrorists, you just can’t get it up for war. War, to those without lawns, is like squabbling over a good table at a bistro. Why not just relax and sit somewhere else?
I don’t like to watch Good policy decisions rely on a firm grasp of such cultural differences. When one faction is surrounded by topless women on some pebble-covered beach on the Mediterranean and the other is eating dry white cake off a flimsy paper plate in an air-conditioned conference room, you’re going to have more than a few misunderstandings.
Similarly, when half of you chickens don’t watch TV at all, and the other half of you don’t want to admit how much TV you do watch, and all of you don’t want to be at work right now, in the middle of the summer, let alone wasting your time outlining your personal life for some TV hack, then all the little group activities around here are going to fall a little flat.
As you may or may not recall, last week was I Turned Off the TV and Did Something Great Week, and also Nothing in My Daily Life Is as Poignant or as Compelling as What I See on TV Week. Sadly, though, not one of you is willing to admit how impoverished your daily life is (Come on! We’ll all get a good laugh out of it, I promise!) and only those of you with some product, service or blog to promote told me what Great Thing you did instead of watching TV.
What you did want to discuss was Nate of “Six Feet Under.” In fact, I could probably change the name of this column to “I Like to Watch ‘Six Feet Under’” without much protest, but then I wouldn’t get to write about terrible shows like “So You Think You Can Dance,” plus I’d be out of a job in a few weeks. Nonetheless, in honor of the fact that these are the last days of Alan Ball’s macabre disco, we will definitely focus a lot of our attention on Nate and company. Those of you who plan to rent the DVD of the last season of “Six Feet Under” sometime next year should adjust your reading habits accordingly, because spoilers will be flying left and right until the final episode on Aug. 21. [In this column, you can just avoid the very last section, titled "No narm done."]
Dancing queen But first let’s talk about “So You Think You Can Dance” (Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on Fox). Created by the same sophisticated geniuses who brought you “American Idol,” “SYTYCD” easily takes the crown as the current Worst Show on Television, since no one but the most extreme rubberneckers are watching “Being Bobby Brown” anymore, and watching “Big Brother 6″ really requires being diagnosed with a personality disorder or two.
“SYTYCD,” despite the promising title, is totally devoid of humor or irony or kitsch. You know how “Dancing With the Stars” was purposely cheesy, with the dorky hosts and the Lawrence Welk-style intonation of the title and the sparkly outfits and the outdated everything? All of that stuff actually made “Dancing With the Stars” digestible. Like a big glob of melted Velveeta on a terribly stale corn chip, the tackiness of “Dancing With the Stars” formed a protective kitschy coating to help you stomach the emptiness of watching D-listers learn to do the foxtrot.
Like “American Idol,” “SYTYCD” is self-important, flashy and deeply stupid. Think of the bad theme song and the odd, faceless pop singers and microphones you see during the opening credits of “American Idol,” but replace them with faceless break dancers. Oof. Then there’s the terrible voice-over — just think of how you feel when the host from “Rock Star” says the words “supergroup INXS,” and multiply it by 10. Throw in a vaguely pitiable gaggle of wannabe dancers and five dance instructors who’ve each been told that they’re being groomed to be the next Simon Cowell, and you’ve got a serious train wreck on your hands.
It turns out that, although making fun of some kid’s terrible voice can be amusing at times, cackling to the camera about how uncoordinated and pathetic a young dancer is just makes you look like a serious asshole. By the end of the grueling 90-minute premiere, three out of the five dance instructors were competing to be the biggest jerk of the show, with dorky Dan Karraty, who’s apparently to blame for half of the cheesy boy band moves in circulation, taking a slim lead over the rest. While it’s amusing to see Karraty enviously insulting the most talented competitor, Blake, for having too much “attitude,” the rest of this show ranges from tedious to chafing.
Brave new world So why did I waste your time discussing it? Well, someone has to warn you away from the shoals of summer TV. This week, though, there’s some more substantive fare to look forward to: “Home of the Brave,” a documentary about Viola Liuzzo, the wife of a Detroit teamster who was murdered by Klansmen after a march for voting rights in Selma, Ala. I saw this film at Sundance last year and it had me weeping openly in a room full of critics, which I don’t need to tell you is as unlikely as it is unsavory.
I thought I’d seen enough films about the civil rights movement and that this would be more of the same old story, but Liuzzo’s tale is uncovered by the filmmakers with such patience and care that her fate feels extremely personal by the end of the film. “Home of the Brave” (Monday, Aug. 8, at 10 p.m. on Court TV) will make you want to stand up for what you believe in — or at least skip work and get drunk on cooking sherry.
Hall pass See how European that makes you feel? Now all you need is some cured meats and topless girls. Since you don’t have the money for either, though, I’d suggest tuning in for the next “Kept” marathon on VH1. As demented as it sounds, this competition to become Jerry Hall’s kept man ended up being one of my guiltiest pleasures of the summer, what with all the man titties on display and all the petty fights over who would get to be Hall’s little bitch boy.
Best of all (don’t read this if you really plan to catch up on the show), Hall’s final choice was completely unexpected. While pretty ass-kissers Austen, Anwar and Maurizio seemed like the right candidates for the job, Hall went the courageous route and picked outspoken, dirty, wisecracking Seth instead. She later told the camera that if she were younger, she would’ve gone for big blond boy Austen (whom she called the “Birkin bag” of arm accessories), but now that she’s older, she wants to be around a guy who can make her laugh. I hear you, lady! Best of all, when Seth was led into the room with Hall’s friends, they all gasped in horror/delight and Seth quipped, “I know. I’m as stunned as you are.”
Of course, the show carefully sidestepped any implication that Hall’s man would be called upon to service her engine, and also coached the guys to do the same. So, sadly, we’re going to have to use our powers of imagination to fill in the rest. The cooking sherry should help.
Real grief In contrast, “The Real World: Austin” has left very little to the imagination this season. Between making out naked in the shower and getting his face bashed in on the street, Danny has been at the center of this very explicit drama every step of the way, but last week’s episode took the (bad birthday) cake. While the cameras rolled, we witnessed Danny finding out from his dad that his mom had died.
The rest is eerily familiar to those of us who’ve lived through a similar phone call. First, there’s the disbelief: “No! Stop lying, Dad!” Then there’s the abject horror and the non-stop tears and the awkward attempts to comfort the bereaved. For a little comic relief, we get the roommates standing around saying really insightful stuff like “When one of your parents die, that’s, like, totally different from when your grandparents die.” Too true! What we’d really love to see, though, is all the roommates hiding in their rooms (like you know they did) so they don’t have to talk to Danny, since his grief makes them uncomfortable and they “don’t know what to say.” (News flash: “That really, really, really sucks” will always suffice.)
But Danny’s roller-coaster ride isn’t over! Next, we see the guilt. (Zoom in! Cue sad music!) Just in case you’re not sure why Danny’s feeling guilty, we flash back to Danny’s last conversation with his mom over the phone, just a few days earlier, during which she tells him she’s sooo glad he called and that she loves him sooo much, and he grunts incoherently in response, then gets off the phone quickly. “Wow! He really should feel guilty!” the preteens at home agree, not remembering that Danny’s estranged mom, who struggled with alcohol, quite possibly let him down countless times until he felt nothing but anger toward her. Let’s not explain any of that now, though; let’s maximize the drama by cutting back to Danny, who’s saying he’ll never forgive himself.
Next week’s preview shows Danny’s girlfriend, crying. He’s really sad and he might not come back to live in Austin at all! Is he kidding? What is wrong with that kid?
So, has the world’s most popular traumedy, “The Real World,” gone too far, once and for all, or is anything that’s fascinating to watch totally OK to broadcast? Obviously it’s a tough call, since they have all this footage of the kid falling apart, exactly the kind of scenario they’re trained to hunger for. But to me, the flashback was what sent this episode over the edge. Bad enough that Danny has to suffer such a major loss while the cameras roll, bad enough that he feels terrible for having nothing but unkind words for his mom on the show thus far, but then they go out of their way to remind everyone what a jerk he was in that final phone call, without making the slightest effort to protect him? If this were a true documentary, they could argue that raw footage was what the show was all about. But anybody who believes that “The Real World” sets out to capture reality — instead of choreographing cheesy soft-core action — is too busy practicing the moves on “SYTYCD” to care about Danny, anyway.
If the producers want to traffic in such heartless fare, they should really consider “The Real World: Rikers Island,” so we can watch pretty teenagers get knifed in the gut, right before our eyes.
No narm done
Personally, I prefer my televised tragedies to be fictional. What I love the most about “Six Feet Under” (Spoilers ahead! Skip this if you haven’t seen last week’s episode. The episode that airs Sunday Aug. 7 won’t be discussed here) is that it’s the only show I can think of that makes tragedy positively delicious and delectable.
The demise of Nate feels cathartic, not only because his behavior ranges from needlessly self-sacrificing to recklessly selfish and because he’s been unyieldingly lost for so many seasons now, but also because he affords us the chance to see big reactions by his family members, characters whose behavior has always been the perfect balance of organic yet impossible to predict.
And having Nate appear to recover from his “Narm!” episode and then die unexpectedly was brilliant. We got to see the family get scared, then assume that everything would be OK like it always is, only to have the rug pulled out from under them. Not only was this dramatically useful, but it’s often exactly what a big health crisis looks like — just when you think the person’s going to cheat death, they’re gone. As the kids on “The Real World” might say, it really, really sucks.
But at the same time, it’s beautiful. After someone dies, you become aware of exactly how much you cared about them, a process that’s at once unbearable and oddly exhilarating. And in the face of mind-bending grief, lots of friends disappoint you, but others show their true colors as loyal, dependable, generous people. This is what I love about Claire’s lawyer boyfriend — he comes through under pressure and exemplifies the kind of person she’s never had by her side, but so desperately needs.
More than anything, the little mundane details of death and grief and funerals are at once horrible and sad and hilarious and breathtaking. TV shows so often stick with the tragic and forsake all of the other emotions that death brings with it. “Six Feet Under” can be counted on not only not to pull any punches, but to paint all of the subtle shades of emotion that go along with death. Watching these last episodes of the show sometimes feels like confronting the inevitability of death itself. It’s frightening and horrible, but it also makes you aware of where you are, how you feel, and what you have right here and now.
Of course we’ll miss Nate. It’s impossible to feel so much resentment for someone whom you don’t relate to or care about. For all of his bad decisions, he was always so naive and innocent, because he never knew exactly what he was doing. Even when he breaks up with his pregnant wife, a pretty atrocious move no matter how you slice it, he has this blank, blameless look on his face like he has no notion of what a huge injury he’s inflicting. He just doesn’t want to fight anymore! It’s that simple to him. He doesn’t see that he can’t take the emotional risk of having a sick child or being committed to his true match, Brenda, so he chooses a woman, Maggie, who seems lovable because she has a tragic past and her complexities and needs aren’t as obvious as Brenda’s. In blowing off Brenda, Nate is demonstrating that he doesn’t want life’s unexpected twists and turns and complications, he wants peace and quiet. In that light, Nate definitely gets exactly what he wants.
Next week: Will “Kill Reality” succeed at killing reality? If not, “The Battle of the Network Reality Stars” will pick up where Jonny Fairplay left off. Plus: “Greg the Bunny” is back!
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)