"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 has been the Best Week of TV Ever. A strong statement, to be sure, but a true one. Throughout my professional, semiprofessional and amateur TV-watching career, I can’t remember a better week of TV.
It all began with a two-hour episode of “24″ in which CTU headquarters was filled with nerve gas! Good times! Then, on Wednesday night, there was the much awaited finale of Bravo’s “Project Runway,” followed by the premiere of “America’s Next Top Model.” You’d think that lineup would satisfy most TV viewers for the rest of the month, but instead of basking in the afterglow of such fine televised entertainments, I whipped out my advance screener of the 90-minute second-season finale of “Battlestar Galactica” (Jealous? I know you are!) and followed it up with not one, not two, but three episodes of “The Sopranos.” The only way this week could’ve been any better is if “Six Feet Under” announced a bonus season in which all the major characters come back from the dead to haunt their equally dysfunctional offspring, “Chappelle’s Show” returned with 13 brand-new one-hour episodes, and HBO announced that it was picking up “Arrested Development” to air on Sunday nights right after “Big Love.”
There I go again! I’m looking back over the finest week of television that the good Lord has to offer, and all I can do is wish for even more. I’m like the fisherman’s wife who lives in a hut by the sea and, when the magic fish gives my (rather meek and pathetic, you have to admit it) husband a brand-new house, I complain about the lack of closet space and the poor choice of wallpaper in the third bathroom.
Instead of escaping into fantasy about Nate chiding a teenage Maya’s choice in men, I need to live in the moment, appreciating this glorious and unforgettable week in television while the delicious images of Starbuck pounding back shots with her long-lost frat boyfriend and Tony Soprano grumbling through Uncle Junior’s house linger in my memory like a sweet, sweet song. Mmm, delicious nectar of the TV gods, you make me happy to be alive!
What a gas!
You also make me sluggish and dizzy from too much TV watching, but who’s complaining? With programming this good, I’m high on complicated characters and compelling narratives.
Or in the case of “24” (9 p.m. EST Mondays on Fox), high on suffering and death. O joyous day, that CTU should disappear in a cloud of dreaded nerve gas! O merciful Lord, who doth smite all those blandly attractive CTU extras, whose jobs heretofore consisted of walking purposefully back and forth with important-looking folders in their hands, while Lynn McGill and Audrey Raines exchanged angry words. How bittersweet it must’ve been, that day they found out from the show’s producers that they would soon have the most dramatic role of their acting careers. “I’ll be pressing my palms up against the glass in desperation? Really? Begging to be let into the isolation chamber with Jack and Chloe, but they won’t let me in? That sounds awesome!” Despite the disappointment of being cut from the show, those extras must’ve thrilled to think of finally shedding tears, speaking above a whisper, showing off their best panicked, searching eyes.
Even Chloe (Mary Lynn Rajskub) must’ve been a little excited at the thought of watching her buddy/nemesis Edgar trapped out there with the nerve gas while she stood by and watched, helplessly. I can still remember that strained look on her face, all crumpled and pained. I felt so sorry for poor Chloe (not Edgar, that whiny bastard — he’s been asking for it for years now), watching her poor squeaky-toy sidekick die a horrible death!
And how great was it to see Lynn aka Samwise Gangee go down, after all his arrogant, ignorant bossing around? Every season of “24″ features the out-of-touch, bossy boss meant to absorb all the ire aimed at all of the bosses in the known universe, and Samwise filled those shoes with arrogant, runty accuracy. I suspect Samwise was so tired of his hearts-and-rainbows Hobbit reputation, with its none-too-subtle homosexual undercurrents, that he was champing at the bit to play a loathsome cur. Ah, it must’ve felt good for Samwise to finally scrub the taint of smiley-faced simpletons from his hairy toes! (OK, I’ll admit that it’s possible that Sean Astin doesn’t have hairy toes. Possible, but not very likely.)
This whole fill-CTU-to-the-brim-with-deadly-gas thing really feels fresh and exciting, doesn’t it? Aside from the fun we had when Jean Smart stupidly got into the Russian president’s limo, this releasing of nerve gas at CTU feels like the first uncharted territory of the season. It’s tough for the writers, because each season packs in so many high-stakes twists and turns that after several seasons it sort of feels like you’ve just eaten a big box of chocolates but you can’t help but bite into another one, even though you know it’s probably one of those nut creams that tastes like spackle.
One thing I’d like to know is … OK, look, I rarely point out the little unbelievable twists and gaps in logic of “24.” My attitude is, if you can’t suspend your disbelief when you watch this show, you don’t deserve the kinds of thrills these fine writers strain to bring you each week. But still, I have to know: How did the terrorist and the drug addict who stole Lynn’s key card hook up with each other? You really have to wonder how an angry, scum-of-the-earth coke fiend goes about getting in touch with a highly sophisticated and professional international terrorist, or vice versa. Did the druggie place an ad in the criminal yellow pages that said, “Want access to CTU? Who doesn’t? Now it can be yours, for just $20,0000!” or maybe it was an entry on eBay that said, “Moving sale: Drug paraphernalia, assorted handguns, CTU key card, fully reprogrammable. No point-blank executions, please.”
Enough speculation. All that matters is that Audrey and Chloe and Jack and Kim (Hallelujah!) are stuck in the isolation chamber with Kim’s new, creepy boyfriend who we’re obviously supposed to hate, since he has terrible facial hair that screams “I’m way too old for her! Plus I used to be her therapist! I’m a total dick!” I’m just hoping he’s a dick in that special way that only creepy therapists can be — you know, whenever he’s really being an asshole, he shifts it around and makes it sound like you’re projecting your damage onto him or you’re in denial of some kind? And anytime you want to rip him from limb to limb, that’s just you butting up against your deepest jealousies and fears? That’s exactly the kind of asshole that Jack Bauer needs in his life. The overly analytical, faux touchy-feely asshole is basically Jack’s worst nightmare. And — bonus! — he’s sleeping with Jack’s daughter! I swear, these writers really know how to turn the screw. I applaud them wholeheartedly!
When you wish upon a Battlestar
Speaking of turning the screw, I hope you didn’t miss the breathtaking second-season finale of “Battlestar Galactica,” because my God, it truly did not disappoint. (If you did miss it or if you haven’t watched it yet, for frack’s sake, please don’t read the next few paragraphs.)
Let’s face it, chickens. There’s only one thing better than CTU filling up with nerve gas, and that’s the 49,550 survivors settling on a shitty-ass planet thanks to that jerk Baltar, only to be invaded by the Cylons! And it’s not the pretty-looking human Cylons, either — this invasion came replete with marching rows of evil, red-eyed toasters, clanking their way through the center of the chilly tent camp that for some reason passes for a city on New Caprica.
Are the similarities to the 13 colonies lost on you, free-range chickens? Because the New of “New Caprica” is most certainly meant to call those bad old days to mind. And from the looks of it, New Caprica isn’t exactly teeming with resources like Old Caprica was — in fact, if the Cylons really did abandon Caprica, why didn’t the survivors just go there and hunker down among those majestic redwood trees? Were they afraid of Ewok invasions? Was it clear the Cylons weren’t to be trusted, that they would come back eventually?
And why did the Cylons pretend they were retreating from Caprica, exactly, only to track the humans down after Six’s nuclear suicide? Did I miss something, or is this yet another mystery that needs to be unraveled during season 3?
I’m just hoping that Starbuck finally drops the frat boy and admits her true love for Apollo once and for all. I have to say, I’m not digging Apollo’s girlfriend ever since she dumped Roslin’s assistant on his sweet, swooning ass, rejecting his proposal of marriage so heartlessly that the only way for him to save face was to die a hero’s death, which he did a few seconds later.
I do like Cally and Chief together, though, and I hope the real, original Sharon, who now apparently leads the Cylon armies, doesn’t lure poor Chief from his temporary peace as a union leader and future daddy. It was also good to see Baltar and the real, original, somewhat vulnerable Number Six finally reunited, however unfortunate the circumstances. Six’s other incarnations have been so calculating and demonic — almost like a machine! — that it’s about time poor, haunted Baltar finally gazes upon his long-lost love. Not only that, but he’s at her mercy. I guess he always is. Like the evil bosses of “24,” Baltar seems to represent the talented and charismatic but wildly selfish jackass we all date once and hate forever. Conveniently enough, Baltar spends most of his time being tortured by the heartless, domineering object of his affections, providing us with a perfect, cathartic object for our projections. Analyze that, creepy bearded therapist guy!
The only rough thing about the “Battlestar Galactica” finale was facing the “Galactica”-less months to come. Will the survivors on New Caprica be forced into slave labor, working for arrogant toaster bosses? Will Baltar be hung up by his toes and tortured by his lady love? Will Sharon drive a wedge between Chief and Cally? Will Apollo and Starbuck ever admit their crazy, mixed-up feelings for each other? Is there anything in the entire world better than a star soap?
Born under a bad sign
Well, maybe one thing: The long-awaited return of “The Sopranos” (premieres 9 p.m. EST Sunday, March 12 on HBO). Can you believe that the last time this show was on was June 2004? If you’re somewhat fickle and suffer from long-term memory lapses, you may have forgotten what you loved so much about “The Sopranos” by now. Worry not, it’ll all come flooding back during those first few, familiar strains of “You woke up this morning, got yourself a gun…”
Here’s the big problem with writing anything at all about tonight’s premiere: It feels like a disservice to you, my darling readers. In my opinion, it’s much better to go into the first episode of “The Sopranos” knowing absolutely nothing about what’s in store.
Let me demonstrate: This morning I read an interview with Lorraine Bracco that said that this season of “The Sopranos” is “sadder” than other seasons. “Sadder,” I thought. “Sadder? As in very sad? How sad, exactly? What does she mean by ‘sad’? Depressing, or devastating? Will everyone be sad?” I got anxious. I started to think, “Why would I want to watch all these episodes if it’s just going to be sad and awful in the end?”
Now, granted, I’m a little neurotic and perhaps a bit too emotionally wrapped up in these characters’ lives. But imagine if you’d heard that the last season of “Six Feet Under” was going to be very, very sad. The last season was heartbreakingly sad, as it turns out, but who wanted to know that at the start of the season? Certainly not me. And besides, “sad” sounds like an unpleasant experience when it’s taken out of context. I don’t think most of us would trade the sadness of that last episode of “Six Feet Under” for anything, because it somehow managed to match the big, complicated sadness that comes with death or with any huge, life-changing, sad event, and that’s a sadness that encompasses exhilaration, fear, humor, devastation and hope. Simply saying that the next dozen episodes of “The Sopranos” that air this year are going to be sad not only hollows out what will probably be a rich and complex experience (thanks to the fact that each episode of “The Sopranos” is so artfully crafted), but also makes you dread them a little instead of embracing whatever they have to offer. That is, if you’re slightly crazy like me.
So, go read a plot summary of the first few episodes somewhere else if you need to. I don’t think you should, though. I think you should wait and watch tonight, and we’ll discuss what we’ve seen next week. After all, I’ve already had the Best Week of TV Ever, but yours isn’t over yet, and you need to savor the waning minutes of this historically groundbreaking week in TV with every cell of your being.
In fact, in order to savor tonight’s “Sopranos” finale the way you should, I think you’re going to need to make my favorite clam dip. That probably sounds terrible, but you have to trust me, it’s the Food of the Gods. Take a package of cream cheese, soften it in the microwave, and add 4 cloves of minced garlic (yes, that much), 1 bunch of chopped fresh parsley, one can of minced clams (I like Snow’s), a little clam juice from the can (not too much, should be thick), and salt and ground pepper to taste (lots of pepper). Let it sit in the fridge for about two hours so the flavors can soak into each other, then, at 8:50 p.m., break it out with a big bag of Ruffles potato chips. (Not the fancy potato chips, and no veggies for chrissakes! Ruffles are the only way to go with this one.) You’ll also need some cold beer or a very icy ginger ale to wash it down, so get that while you’re at the store today, buying canned clams!
The Best Week of TV Ever only comes around once, my little canned clams, so don’t waste it with inferior snacks and a bad attitude! You owe it to yourself to taste the Food of the Gods and linger in the glory of this moment. Because before you know it, the Best Week of TV Ever will be over, and all you’ll have to look forward to is “Three and a Half Men” reruns and the long, slow march to death.
Next week: Why does Tyra carelessly cut you and laugh while you’re bleeding?
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)