"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)
The house I grew up in hasn’t changed appreciably during the holidays since I last lived there 15 years ago. The nutcrackers still stand guard in front of the fireplace, where stockings hang for my brother, my sister and me. While my mother’s Christmas village has moved from the table behind the couch to a new location above the television, my brother still moves the figurines around so the goose guy is getting run over by the fire truck, the taxi is flipped over on its back in the skating pond, and the guy who lights the street lamps is perched up on the top of the theater, where he’s threatened to jump since about 1993. The Beach Boys sing “Little Saint Nick,” Jimmy Buffett sings “Christmas Island,” and the Phil Spector Christmas album fills the air with music.
Every year, I take my family and join my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my brother and his wife, and my sister and her boyfriend at my parents’ house for the Wheaton family Christmas. It is an afternoon I look forward to all year. We watch football, play Wiffle ball, listen to holiday music, eat and drink together, and celebrate the familial love we share.
This year we had our dinner a few weeks early, and it looked as though it would be a typical family gathering. But that all changed when I walked through the living room on my way to get some eggnog. I asked my younger sister, who was flipping through the channels on the television, what she was looking for.
“I’m trying to find Court TV,” she said.
“Why?” I said.
“Because the governor is supposed to announce whether he is granting clemency for Tookie Williams at 3 p.m.,” she said.
I was surprised to hear she cared, because my sister has always been pretty nonpolitical. “I don’t think he will grant clemency …,” I began to say. But before I could add, “because he’s going to try to win back his hardcore base with this,” she spat at me, “He’d better not!”
My sister was a death-penalty proponent? That was news to me. I didn’t want to upset the family gathering, so I decided to just let this one go.
“OK,” I said, “I guess we’d better not talk about this.”
But just then, my father walked into the room.
“Wil thinks Tookie Williams shouldn’t be executed,” she said.
“What?” My dad said. Not to my sister, to me.
Here we go.
“Well,” I said, “I don’t believe in the death penalty, so …”
You know those optical illusion drawings, where you’re looking at a smiling man, then suddenly he’s become a werewolf? Faster than you could say “Fox News,” my dad was screaming at me, Bill O’Reilly-style.
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth! He killed four …” — he stabbed at the air with four fingers on his left hand — “four people in cold blood and deserves! to! die!”
I briefly made eye contact with my stepson, Nolan, who sat just behind my father on my parents’ couch. His face flushed and he quickly looked away. My sister had stopped her channel surfing on a shopping network, and he looked awfully interested in putting a sapphire ring on easy-pay. While my dad continued to scream about biblical vengeance, I went into shock. Just minutes earlier, we’d stood together outside on the deck and laughed with each other as he congratulated me for a great finish I’d had the previous day at a poker tournament in Las Vegas. In fact, I’d cut my trip short, specifically so I wouldn’t miss the family Christmas.
What a difference five minutes makes. While he screamed at me, I wanted to ask, “Who are you, and what have you done with the man who raised me to be tolerant, patient, peaceful and charitable?” Instead, I said, as calmly as I could, “Dad, I just don’t believe in the death penalty. It is unevenly applied to poor people, and clearly doesn’t work as a deterrent.”
“It doesn’t work as a deterrent because they allow these scum to stay alive for 25 years before they give them what they deserve!” I hadn’t seen my dad this angry since I was a sophomore in high school and my friends and I woke up my mom after midnight one night because we got a little worked up in a Nintendo game of “Blades of Steel.”
“Dad,” I said, “living in prison for 25 years isn’t anything to be happy about …”
“Like hell it isn’t!” he bellowed. “They get satellite television, and weights, and free meals, and jobs, and a library …”
“And raped, and beaten by guards, and sold as slaves by prison gangs,” I said. “That really sounds good to you? Because it sounds like a pretty lousy life for violent criminals, which is exactly what they deserve.”
He violently shook his head at me and drew a deep breath. “The victims’ families get to watch that animal die! If they don’t get to watch him die, how can they get the closure they deserve?” Before I could reply, and he could launch into another round of talking points, I was unintentionally saved by my brother, who called our dad to come outside and help him with the turkey on the barbecue.
He turned quickly, and stormed out of the room, followed by my sister.
I felt stunned, somewhere between dizzy and numb. I looked to my wife, who has always known exactly the right thing to say to me during our 10 years together.
“What in the world was that all about?” she asked.
Well, always until now. But 10 years was a great run.
“I … I don’t know.” I said. “What just happened?”
“I’ve never heard your dad freak out so much,” she said.
The thing is, though, I know better than to bring up politics with my dad. Ever since he started listening to talk radio for hours out of the day, he’s slowly lost his ability to objectively look at the facts and draw his own conclusions. If Rush, Hannity, Dennis Prager or O’Reilly say it, my dad believes it as surely as he believes anything. Thanks to this abdication of rational thinking, both of my parents completely bought into the Swift Boat liars, still believe that Saddam Hussein was connected to 9/11, and recently decided to move to Montana, which my mother described as “the real America” to me and my siblings. When Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor, my mom’s impression of him, having worked with him as a model in the 1960s, mysteriously transformed from “a steroid-shooting lech” to “a total gentleman, who was always taking his supplements, which were injected in those days.”
They both ended up voting for Tom McClintock, not because Arnold was so clearly incompetent, but because he wasn’t a “real” enough Republican for them. These are the same people who took me to nuclear-freeze rallies almost every weekend when I was in elementary school. These are the same people who introduced me to the teachings of the Buddha and Gandhi. The same people who smoked pot in front of me, introduced me to Pink Floyd and the Beatles, and taught me to throw a Frisbee when all my peers were learning how to throw a football. Thanks to my parents, I had Birkenstocks when all the other kids had slip-on Vans, and I thought it was cool.
I think the change began in 1980, when my parents both became Reagan Democrats. My mother took me with her into the booth when she voted for Walter Mondale in 1984 (she was still an antinuke activist then, after all), but when talk radio exploded in the late ’80s, it caught my parents and took them away. The people who drove me all over the American Southwest in their 1971 VW bus to visit our national parks were replaced with RNC talking-points pod people. As a result, I don’t just tune out O’Reilly and the rest of the Republican screaming heads. No, I don’t just tune them out: I hate them. I hate them with the same passion and the same fury with which my dad exploded at me, because before those people got rich exploiting Karl Rove’s (er, excuse me, I mean George Bush’s) black-and-white, with-us-or-against-us fantasy world, my parents and I could discuss issues and amicably agree to disagree with each other.
But not anymore. I thought Tookie Williams was probably guilty and deserved to spend the rest of his life in prison. I wasn’t defending him; I was just voicing my opposition to the death penalty. My dad acted as if I loaded the gun for Tookie and helped him aim it at my sister. We weren’t able to have a respectful discussion about the death penalty, because my dad wouldn’t allow it. Bill O’Reilly must be so proud of the world he’s helped to create.
Now here is the terrifying thing: My dad is a really smart guy. He’s so smart, in fact, he should see right through it when these right-wing noise-machine guys throw out facts in favor of emotional arguments to manipulate their audience. He should know when Rush is full of shit the same way I know when Michael Moore is full of shit. He is a perfusionist who holds people’s lives in his hands every single day when they have open-heart surgery. He helped develop a process called ECMO for newborns, which reduced the infant mortality rate by something like 90 percent. He is a brilliant accountant, too, handling all the finances for everyone in the family, while running his own very successful business. And he is a great dad. He loves all of us (and my brother, sister and I all love him), and there is nothing in the world I like more than getting a call from my dad to blow off work and go to a Dodgers game together, so we can holler at the bums from right behind their dugout, where my family has had seats since the stadium opened. He’s also a surfer, a fly fisherman and a hell of a blackjack player. If I haven’t made it clear, I love and admire my dad — but when it comes to politics, whatever critical-thinking ability he has just vanishes, and he becomes an editorial cartoon caricature.
Thankfully, most of the family was outside and didn’t witness my father’s explosion firsthand, so we could pretend that nothing happened when they came in for dinner. (Hey, I didn’t say we were a perfect family without at least some dysfunction; I just said we loved each other.)
While the rest of them gathered in the dining room, my dad stopped me in the kitchen. He hadn’t spoken to me since he stormed away almost 45 minutes earlier. He put his arm around me, and quietly said, “Even though we disagree about this, I still love you, and I’m still proud of everything you’ve done.”
Didn’t my dad understand that I didn’t care about disagreeing with him? Didn’t he understand that I was hurt and upset that he had screamed at me, right in front of my wife and children, as though I were a teenager who had crashed the family car? Didn’t he understand that we disagree because he raised me to believe in and support the very things he now proclaims are destroying America?
I wanted to say something brilliant and insightful, something irrefutable that would — maybe — find its way into the man who used to wear a ridiculous perm and Hawaiian shirts and embarrass me in front of my friends with big bear hugs and “pull my finger” jokes when he dropped me off at school. But I just said, “Thank you, Dad. I love you, too.”
We sat down to dinner, and in spite of my dad’s brief reenactment of the Jeremy Glick episode on “The O’Reilly Factor,” we all had a wonderful time, just as we do every year. My brother made everyone laugh, my cousin and I playfully fought over who got the first serving of my aunt’s macaroni and cheese, and when my mother asked me to give the toast, I spoke from my heart: “I know that it’s not easy for all of us to make it here every year, but I’m so glad we all do it. We are incredibly lucky to be part of a family that loves each other as much as we all do, and that we get to have family get-togethers which we all attend out of anticipation, rather than obligation.” I lifted my glass and looked at my dad. “I love you all. Merry Christmas.”
My mom began to cry, and my dad nearly joined her as he said a few words about my grandmother (his mother) who had died earlier this year. We toasted her, and the feast began. When it was over, I helped my sister wash the dishes, then fell asleep on the couch, with a belly full of my brother’s famous brined and barbecued turkey, just as I do every year. In fact, other than my dad’s “No Spin Zone” moment, it was a Wheaton family Christmas like any other.
I want to make something clear, here: I know I’m not the only 33-year-old liberal who has watched his parents grow older and more conservative, and I know that I’m not the first guy to have political disagreements with his father. In fact, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with people who don’t see the world the same way I do. My best friend, a libertarian who thinks he’s a Republican, is living proof. But I also think it’s worth identifying who is really waging the war on Christmas — and it’s not Target, for having the temerity to wish its shoppers “Happy Holidays.” And it’s not people like me, who use “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” interchangeably, hoping that the recipient of my good wishes will understand that I’m really saying, “I’m not religious, but I hope you have joy and love in your life, good health and happiness.” The one waging the war is right-wing talk radio and its relentless drive to polarize and divide our country, and our holiday dinners, and make a nice profit while it does. Come to think of it, maybe I’ll get my dad an iPod and a stack of Surf CDs for Christmas. It’ll be a gift for both of us.
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)