"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)
This isn’t standard Broadsheet fare, but since this blog is about news that affects women, and since Oprah has an unprecedented amount of cultural power over American women, I felt compelled to bring to your attention the storm brewing over Oprah’s last book pick, James Frey’s bestselling memoir “A Million Little Pieces.” Oh, you just finished reading it too? Then please, please read on.
I wrote a piece a few months ago about Frey’s memoir; in short, I was disappointed that Oprah had chosen what I felt was a pretty crappy book after promoting so many excellent works of fiction over the years. I also suggested that perhaps debating a memoir — in this case, an addiction memoir — took away from the very idea of what a book club should inspire: a discussion of literature. I conjectured that Oprah and her followers would dissect Frey’s life, the causes and effects of his problems, rather than look at his book as a piece of work. Sure enough, Oprah has been urging her readers to send in stories of how Frey’s book “saved their lives.”
I received loads of mail from Frey defenders, male and female, shaming me for speaking badly of his book. So I wonder what kind of mail the Smoking Gun is getting today, since it has basically exposed Frey as a liar and wild fabricator. Published under the headline “The Man Who Conned Oprah,” the site has published a six-page article detailing how Frey made up details in his book dealing with arrest records and jail time. These might sound like minor infractions, but Frey has built his career on his outsider — and outlaw — status. To find out that he was once a lame, pot-smoking frat boy like so many other kids not only undermines his credibility, but makes one wonder whether James Frey’s “real” life story would have been interesting enough to secure a book contract.
More important — and way more crass, as the Smoking Gun also notes — is that Frey “also invented a role for himself in a deadly train accident that cost the lives of two female high school students … [he] appropriates and manipulates details of the incident so he can falsely portray himself as the tragedy’s third victim.”
In October, I wrote that “A Million Little Pieces” — which has sold more than 3.5 million copies and is being made into a film — is nothing more than “the story of a spoiled boy from the suburbs who nearly lost his life, and then cashed in on his mistakes and the misery he caused to so many people around him.” I stand by that, although now I’m not even sure that Frey made the mistakes that he’s made millions of dollars from.
Broadsheet wants to know: What will Oprah do?
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)