"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)
Deez nuts of wisdom
With winter firming its grip on the land, the fragility of our existence comes into clear focus: The evenings are crisp and cold and quiet, the stars burn holes in the dark sky, and our hearts ache to think of how, like tiny flames, we flicker briefly and fizzle out without warning. On nights like these, I find myself turning to the classics, more often than not seeking solace in the immortal words of Jay-Z:
“Can I hit it in the morning,
without giving you half of my dough,
and even worse if I was broke,
would you want me?”
I treasure the frankness with which Mr. Z tackles the question of existence, wondering aloud whether the joys of life — more specifically, “hitting it in the morning” — will always be within reach. Yet, by the next line, he becomes almost accusatory:
“If I couldn’t get you finer things
like all of those diamond rings bitches kill for,
would you still roll?”
Strange, this slightly condescending reference to the things “bitches kill for,” since Mr. Z clearly identifies with those he addresses since he, too, finds himself possessed by voracious desires that feel fleeting and untrustworthy. Next, he becomes pensive, yet almost hopeful in spite of himself:
“If we couldn’t see the sun risin’ off the shore of Thailand
would you ride then, if I wasn’t drivin’?”
Here, Mr. Z poses a haunting question: Are all of the pleasures of life contingent on forces beyond our control? After a brief digression, he continues:
“If I couldn’t flow futuristic
would you put your two lips
on my wood and kiss it, could you?”
Each time I return to this passage, I’m struck by the honesty with which Mr. Z reveals his deepest fears: Is he more to those around him than the sum of his talents? By equating the ritualistic demonstration of love with the promise of eternal life, he marginalizes the object of his affections and thereby marginalizes his own importance relative to the vast, unknowable expanse of human existence.
Despite the hopelessness evoked by this lofty inquiry, I find it soothing, somehow, to recognize that I am not alone: Human beings have struggled with these very same questions for thousands of years! Or at least since 1998.
I found myself wrestling with the futility of life again this week, in the wake of an existential crisis brought on by — what else? — the finale of “The Amazing Race.”
Now, in the olden days, truth-seekers might be afforded a taste of the evanescent nature of human existence by trudging off into the woods, building tiny cabins with their own bare hands and forming meaningful friendships with the little woodland creatures they encountered. Today, though, we get a glimpse of the insignificance of human life whenever the final episode of a reality show airs. At these junctures, we invariably find ourselves looking back over the adventurous and unpredictable times we spent in the company of a ragtag assortment of human beings, whether traveling with them all over the globe in pursuit of a million-dollar prize or merely spending time drinking and cavorting with them in a nearby city to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start being real, but in either case sharing with them countless triumphs and disappointments along the way. At the end of this time together, we’re so often forced to ask ourselves, “Why?”
As in, “Why did I watch this crap for so many weeks?” Because inevitably, after so much shared struggle and heartbreak, we find that we can hardly remember a single detail from our time with these strangers. Also, in the case of “The Amazing Race,” the entire competition boils down to one missed flight or one wrong turn or one less-than-efficient dash across a few city blocks. On Sunday night, within a matter of minutes, Lyn and Karlyn, the first two-woman team to make it to the final three of the race, went from being contenders to being out of the running completely. They failed to secure tickets for the first flight to New York City. One wrong move, and that’s the last we see of Lyn and Karlyn until the finish line.
Vanquished from the race so anticlimactically, after all they’d been through! Putting up with those nasty beauty queens who referred to them as “the sistas” behind their backs, enduring one physical challenge after another against far more physically fit teams, tolerating the recklessly charitable Cho Brothers with their maladaptive strategy of moving as a big, friendly herd from one challenge to the next and “helping each other,” see also: slowing each other down. After all of that, after managing to snap at each other just once, Lyn and Karlyn lost because of a single bad decision: In Paris, they drove to the airport in Orly, when the earliest flight to the states was available at the much-larger Charles de Gaulle. Just as Jay-Z pondered whether his luck in winning love was contingent on his ability to “flow futuristic,” so, too, must Lyn and Karlyn have wondered if their chance at a million dollars was blown by their lack of knowledge of Parisian airports.
Not only that, but the winners were more arbitrary than usual: Former drug-addicted boy-toys James and Tyler arrived at Charles de Gaulle first, and were told they’d never get on the first flight to New York, so they got tickets on a flight that left more than an hour later. Then bickering breeders Rob and Kimberly showed up and begged their way onto the first flight. Next thing you know, even though there was a huge waiting list, James and Tyler also squeezed onto the first flight. How did that happen?
And the ending wasn’t all that great: The two teams arrived in New York on the same flight, then all we saw were both teams, freaking out, as they dashed across the streets of Manhattan and then hopped a cab to Garrison, N.Y. Next thing we know, there are James and Tyler crossing the finish line first.
Nothing makes a person question the meaning of life more than a televised reality competition that ends — like so many lives do — unremarkably. If only we could take all of those hours back, and read a good book and have a nice glass of wine instead! To think of all the racing we might have fast-forwarded through, watching only those moments when Kimberly cursed Rob for driving badly, or Tyler waxed poetic on the evils of addiction.
But then, in the immortal words of Dr. Dre and his longtime colleague Snoop Dogg, “If it’s good enough to get broke off a proper chunk, I’ll take a small piece of some of that funky stuff.” Disappointing endings aside, “The Amazing Race” certainly is good enough to get broke off a proper chunk, and it goes without saying that I’ll be watching the All-Stars version next season, which will include “Survivor” couple Rob and Amber and lovable pair Uchenna and Joyce. There are also rumors that cousins Mirna and Charla, chirpy, matching gay couple “Team Guido” Bill and Joe will be competing as well. But I was disappointed to learn that one of my favorite past teams, Chip and Kim, weren’t asked to participate. Only one Lovable Black Couple per competition, please!
Creeps with the fishes
At least “Survivor” surpassed its usual two token black players this season with its Very Special Race Theme, but all of the talk of racial identity and stereotypes basically dried up like a raisin in the sun after the first three episodes or so. Then it was back to business as usual, with the same old slouching on the beach, nibbling on overcooked fishes, and squabbling about who built a fire and boiled water and who sat around on his fat can and didn’t do shit.
There were a few memorable moments this season, nonetheless. At the top of the list has to be Billy’s sudden announcement, right before he got voted off, that he had found “love at first sight” and that this discovery was worth more than a million dollars. Everyone was shocked, even more so when they found out he was talking about Candice — you know, the cute girl who’d been making out with studly Adam all week? Isn’t it just a little creepy that someone as delusional as Billy made it through the casting process? I’m sure Candice thinks so.
Yul’s awkwardness in forming alliances and making friendships has also provided a steady source of comedy. “I’ve been thinking that it might possibly be beneficial if we consider potentially sticking together under the circumstances…” The fact that Yul found the immunity idol, which gives him one free pass from being voted off, has set up an absurd situation: The least smooth, least manipulative, least crafty guy in the game is also the most powerful. Yes, he did effectively wield the idol to his advantage by convincing Jonathan to defect from the other alliance, but since then his moves haven’t inspired much confidence.
My personal favorite right now is Ozzy, simply because his swimming and fishing skills are the best we’ve seen since Dolphin Boy (Ian from the show’s 10th season). Since it’s obvious Ozzy could run away with the game at any moment, there’s a huge target on his back. Realistically, there should be a big target on Yul’s back as well, but, since they’ll have to vote him off twice in a row, no one really wants to step up and make that happen.
Victory in Sunday night’s finale will depend largely on who can smoothly and shamelessly lie, over and over and over again. Yul is a terrible liar so far, but that doesn’t mean his honesty is impressing anyone: He says disingenuous things, then backpedals, then digs himself a huge hole while everyone around him rolls their eyes. If Ozzy can keep winning, he could win it all, but the second he loses, he’s history. Sundra or Becky are both pretty weak at the challenges, but they could lay low and steal it from Yul if they can get him to take them to the final two. Despite his beefcake exterior, Adam turns out to be self-deprecating and likable, but he may not have the competitive drive to win, and if he doesn’t win, who’s going to take that guy to the last tribal council?
Up until last night, my money was on Parvati, since the only thing better than swimming fast or possessing the immunity idol is being able to manipulate the person who does. Getting naked in the hot tub with Yul and Ozzy was a nice move, and she was definitely gaining traction with Ozzy, but she fell just short of winning him over. After she was voted off, she expressed regrets that she didn’t seal the deal. Hey, anyone can talk the talk, but despite Dr. Dre’s allegations to the contrary, not every woman has the blood of a whoring sea donkey flowing through her veins. [See also "Bitches Ain't Shit But Hos and Tricks," Chapters 3-13, Dr. Dre et al.]
Disaster strikes out
But speaking of disappointment, frustrated hopes and untimely deaths, did anyone else catch HBO’s “Tsunami: The Aftermath” last Sunday, and if so, are you also wondering how you can get those two hours of your life back? Or do you simply need to know whether or not that nice couple ever finds their daughter, so much so that you’re doomed to waste another two hours of your life watching tonight? (The concluding half of the movie airs at 8 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 17.)
If you’re a sucker like me, you were hooked by the haunting opening scene, during which tourists diving off the coast of Thailand discover dead bodies in the water, then return to the shore to find their resort annihilated by the tsunami. But as intense as that first scene was, the rest of the stories are remarkably sketchy and unimaginative and slow-moving: A journalist rides around taking pictures of the destruction; a young man returns to his village and finds that his family is dead or missing, then he’s arrested for “looting” his grandmother’s jewelry and thrown in jail despite the fact that there are villagers trapped under the wreckage that need his help; a boy and his mother, both British tourists, search for the rest of their family.
The basic outrages of the situation are clear: Bodies are burned without being identified, rescue efforts are pathetic and poorly organized, the British government doesn’t do nearly enough for dozens of its citizens who are stranded without money or resources or adequate medical care, and of course the entire disaster could’ve been prevented if a warning system had been in place to get people off the beaches when a seismic event was detected.
Still, the controversies surrounding the disaster aren’t illustrated well, and by focusing primarily on British tourists and the British government’s responsibilities, the filmmakers push the big story here — hundreds of thousands of Indonesians, Indians and Thais dead and entire villages wiped out — to the background. Isn’t the destruction of an entire village at least as important as the tragic end to a family’s luxury resort vacation?
Not only that, but the personal stories in “Tsunami: The Aftermath” are poorly written and are only loosely based on survivor stories. If you’re going to make a movie about a disaster and you’re not going to tell true stories of actual survivors (which would make things much more interesting), then you’d better at least invent fictional stories that are interesting. Instead, we focus on three families that we know next to nothing about. I can’t tell you if the couple looking for their daughter have a good marriage or not, I don’t know what they do for a living, I’m not sure what their daughter is like, and I don’t know where they live. As cheesy as disaster movies can be — the quick, dramatic snapshot we get of a bunch of lives, right before the earthquake strikes or the plane goes down — there’s a reason that such an old, familiar, dorky formula exists. Without those little snippets and clues about the characters’ lives, there’s not a lot to hold our interest or get us invested in the outcome.
Dr. Dre spoke to the inescapable nature of death when he wrote, in his classic text “N—- Witta Gun,” “Once again, in the end, they D.E.A.D.” Still, we strive to evade death’s grasp, whether by seeking out the vicarious thrills of televised reality competitions or by watching HBO’s latest ill-fated collaboration with the BBC. When we find ourselves disappointed in such escapist indulgences, soured by countless unjust victories and sorrowfully anticlimactic endings, we must remember that endings in general often share the same flavor: Unexpected yet inevitable, overpowering yet empty, they’re almost always an inadequate resolution to all that came before.
This story has been corrected since it was originally published.
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)