"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)
Nerves, nerves, nerves: The contenders in both parties for the 2008 presidential nomination have been acting like skittish race-track thoroughbreds rearing and shying as their handlers try to shove them into the gates. Each campaign is super-concerned about its candidate getting distracted, winded or making a crippling misstep.
What in tarnation was the Hillary Clinton camp thinking when it threw a tantrum about Hollywood producer David Geffen making a few critical remarks about her to a fagged-out media scold? Most people in this country have never heard of David Geffen and don’t give a damn about whether or not he defects to Barack Obama.
I loved the way Obama’s campaign handled the dust-up — some nice sharp barbs from an underling followed by the candidate’s lofty assertion of statesmanlike unconcern. It made me take Obama seriously as a candidate for 2008 (rather than 2012) for the first time. Despite the garish pop-ups of gossip about his botched investments and unpaid parking tickets, Obama has been gaining traction as a contender.
Hillary didn’t help herself with her over-the-top sermon at the First Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama, two weeks ago. Her aping of a black Southern accent from the pulpit was so inept and patronizing that it should get a Razzie Award for Worst Performance of the Year. At times, it approached the Southern Gothic burlesque of Bette Davis chewing up the scenery in “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” Does Hillary Clinton have a stable or coherent sense of self? Or is everything factitious, mimed and scripted (like her flipping butch and femme masks) for expediency?
Of course, any Salon readers who still follow the mainstream media out of numbed habit will never have heard Hillary’s most extreme flights of faux gemutlichkeit. All that Sunday, network radio news, for example, betrayed its liberal bias by running clips of only her noblest phrases. Heaven help any Republican who had made so lurid a gaffe! Fortunately, alternative media now exist: On his radio show that night, Matt Drudge ran huge, hilarious swatches of prophesyin’ Hillary camping it up.
The blatant manipulations of the mainstream media are betrayed by the way that mercurial polling data has been relentlessly promoted about the candidates of both parties for more than a year. That material simply assesses name recognition in an ephemeral beauty contest. Thus we’ve had endless reports about Hillary and John McCain as front-runners, despite rampant dissatisfactions with them among members of their own parties. Now we’re onto the challenger-with-momentum drama starring Obama and Rudy Giuliani, which may be equally short-lived.
Figures showing John Edwards trailing in the polls merely reflect his lack of publicity in the period leading up to the first big nationally televised debates, when most voters start to pay attention. Many Democrats like me who are leaning toward Edwards have to be dissatisfied with his marginalization by the mainstream media as well as with his recessiveness during the mastodon-on-mastodon tango between Hillary and Obama. At first I thought Edwards was shrewd to hold fire and pace himself to come on strong later, but this delay is starting to look like uncertainty.
Hence my unhappy surprise when Edwards, who has an attractively comprehensive social policy and strong oratorical skills, was the first to pull out of the scheduled August debate moderated by Fox News. What is this morbid obsession that liberals have with Fox? It’s as if Democrats, pampered and spoiled by so many decades of the mainstream media trumpeting the liberal agenda, are so shaky in their convictions that they cannot risk an encounter with opposing views. Democrats have ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, the New York Times, Newsweek, Time and 98 percent of American humanities professors to do their bidding. But no, that’s not enough — every spark of dissent has to be extinguished with buckets of bile.
But Fox is certainly disingenuous with its absurd “fair and balanced” motto. Oh, come on, give it up! Why can’t Fox honestly admit its conservative agenda, as do major radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and simply argue that it represents a culturally necessary antidote to the omnipresent liberal line? Yet for Democratic presidential candidates, who will be assessed by voters for their ability to stand up to China, North Korea or al-Qaida, to run squealing from a Fox moderator as if he or she were a boogeyman with blood-dripping fangs makes the whole pack of them look like simpering wusses. Dennis Kucinich was quite right to express his scorn and offer to debate anyone anywhere and under any sponsorship. Nice job of skewering the sacred cow!
Fox TV in my experience tends anyhow more toward the tabloid, a traditionally populist style, which is why Fox was so reliable a destination in the days following Anna Nicole Smith’s shocking death. And when any scandal breaks, I head straight for Greta Van Susteren — how comforted one is that the agile, articulate Greta, with her keen legal mind and rugged, strong-jawed persistence, will be on the scene to unearth every lie!
Fox News has its share of solid political features. For example, a week ago, I saw Sen. Dianne Feinstein being interviewed at length on Fox about foreign policy. Though I’ve never resided in California, I’m a longtime admirer of Feinstein and have sent small sums to her campaigns. Watching her field tough questions about North Korea, I was impressed anew with her analytic mind and her steadiness of character. She has that rarity among women politicians — true gravitas.
Dianne Feinstein is far more presidential than Hillary Clinton, who alternates between smugness and defensiveness before pulling out that tiresome middle-aged mom card. Feinstein, even when maneuvering strategically, always seems genuinely focused on the idea at hand, while Hillary isn’t really there — she’s just riffling mentally through her team’s cue cards. All politicians are actors, but Hillary’s a bad one. No audience wants to see with such crystal clarity how it’s being massaged.
John Edwards got publicity for the wrong reason two weeks ago when Ann Coulter bizarrely called him a “faggot” at the Conservative Political Action Conference. What could have been a good joke at the expense of p.c. Hollywood misfired badly first because that old chestnut of a schoolyard insult makes no sense whatever when applied to Edwards, whose only peccadillo is a dandy’s overinvolvement with his hair (see John Travolta’s romancing his hair on the way out to the disco in “Saturday Night Fever”), and second because Coulter had no business turning an event highlighting Republican presidential candidates into a forum for her one-liners. Doesn’t she have enough personal gigs for that? It was especially embarrassing for Mitt Romney, who cordially introduced her. Third, satirists who play on gender themes need some whiff of self-knowledge, or they look ridiculous. Is Coulter truly oblivious to her gender weirdness? It’s no coincidence that words like “tranny” and “transvestite” clog the anti-Coulter blogs.
Coulter is a smart woman with formidable energy, and whether liberals like it or not, she is a high-profile feminist role model in her appetite for aggressive debate. But Coulter seems to be regressing rather than growing intellectually and sharpening her analytic skills. She evidently leaves no room in her life for study and reflection. I take books seriously (which is why I left the scene for five years to write “Break, Blow, Burn”) and thus hold against Coulter the part she has played in the debasement of that medium. Her books may rake in millions but won’t last because they are shoddily constructed. Coulter should be using her syndicated column for her topical opinions but her books for more considered contributions. “Godless,” for example, which intriguingly postulates the quasi-religiosity of contemporary liberalism, should have stimulated wide discussion but was so thrown together and full of holes that it was easy to dismiss and went unread outside her core audience.
In other political news, when Newt Gingrich announced last week that he had had an adulterous affair during the 1998 investigations of Bill Clinton, I burst out laughing — not simply at Gingrich’s hypocrisy, about which I was never in doubt, but at the comic mental picture of Gingrich in erotic extremis. I have never understood conservatives’ enduring affection for Gingrich, which is constantly expressed by callers to radio shows.
Aside from his command of the Republican recapture of the House of Representatives in 1994, it is difficult to identify Gingrich’s substantive achievements. While he poses as a futurist, he has an unfocused mind that mistakes erratic connections for insight. I literally cannot stand the pattering of that thin, raspy, uninflected, adolescent voice. Why anyone would imagine Gingrich has presidential possibilities is beyond me.
Time’s current cover story, “The Verdict on Dick Cheney,” tries to make hay from top Cheney aide Scooter Libby’s conviction in the wildly overblown Valerie Plame case (which I suspect most people in this country were as uninterested in as I was). It’s always baffled me why the mainstream media can’t seem to get a handle on Cheney and treats him as a stone-faced enigma. Time, for example, oddly avoids psychoanalysis when it quotes Cheney’s daughters as saying that when his mind leaves the room, he becomes the unreachable “Bull Walrus.”
I detest Cheney for having led the country into this disastrous, wasteful war, whose repercussions will be felt for generations here and in the Mideast. I know absolutely nothing about Cheney’s family background, but I would bet on some ambivalent dynamic in his past with masculine authority figures, whom he internalized and carries around as a visibly heavy burden but whose oppression produced his sarcastic sneer, his one facial mannerism. Cheney seems as static, convoluted and self-entombed as Orson Welles’ haunted, aging Citizen Kane.
The relationship between Cheney and George W. Bush is also perplexing. Despite the nearness in their ages, Cheney acts like Bush’s father (no coincidence since Cheney served in George H.W. Bush’s administration). There’s something creepy about how Cheney, after heading the candidate search, insinuated himself into the vice presidency. He locked onto Bush like a limpet, using the more extroverted and physically dynamic president as his proxy. Bush’s independent judgment was paralyzed, as if by snakebite. It’s an unsavory, toxic relationship, a vampiric pseudo-marriage like that of the shadowy, Machiavellian Roger Chillingworth and the impressionable, waffling Arthur Dimmesdale in Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.”
Hence I’ve always felt that liberals’ hatred of Bush is misplaced. I feel pity for him — he is a genuinely tragic figure who made the wrong choices and destroyed the promise of his presidency. His sense of divine election and destiny, a defense mechanism that allows him to survive that crushing job, is of course positively dangerous for the country. At this point, it seems Bush’s persona will never mature in office. As he blustered with dangling arms and stiff cowboy legs to the podium during last week’s South American junket, I felt embarrassed at his lack of diplomatic courtesy and simple savoir faire. Confident manhood does not need to constantly strike poses.
Onto other subjects: I had a diverting experience last Saturday on the Camden waterfront of the Delaware River across from Philadelphia. While my family was at the Camden Aquarium for a special appearance by a SpongeBob impersonator, I walked around the once ravaged and still patchy and economically struggling neighborhoods, where Hispanic immigrants have settled.
Suddenly, there was a stream of African-American men cutting across the streets and heading toward the Beckett Street Terminal for what was clearly the start of a work shift. I followed from a distance and gawked at the great warehouses of the South Jersey Port Corporation, which were stacked from floor to ceiling with tens of thousands of burlap bags containing a mystery product.
As I approached the main security booth, beyond which only authorized workers could enter the dockyard, flatbed trucks with bright yellow cabs were emerging, one after the other, all laden with fat burlap bags. It was a phenomenally precise and synchronized procession, as each truck swept to a warehouse, was offloaded, and then circled back through the gate to the ship.
I was full of admiration at this demonstration of the beauty and efficiency of the modern distribution system, which I extolled in the first chapter of “Sexual Personae” as a male-created artifact of civilization. It is one of the many gifts of capitalism that are invisible to academic leftists, who nevertheless expect the light switch to work, their cars to start, and the grocery store to be constantly stocked with fresh milk, orange juice and produce.
As I stood there, a truck swept out of the gate with several bags tumbled down, dragging and tearing and leaving a 500-foot streak of mottled brown berries. I asked a guard what they were: “Cocoa beans” — a major import at the Beckett Terminal and possibly a source for the famous chocolate factories in Hershey, Pennsylvania. With great delight, I spent the next 15 minutes dodging the trucks and filling my pockets with the best beans (to send with our son to preschool science class). They have a delicate smell of vinegar, from the acetic acid produced by natural fermentation.
I called the South Jersey Port Corporation this week to learn the freighter’s point of origin: It was West Africa. In a superb article four years ago in Salon, “Bittersweet Chocolate,” Caroline Tiger described the international campaign to stop the practice of child slavery on the cocoa bean farms of the Ivory Coast, which produce the beans for half of the chocolate consumed in the U.S. In addition to labor abuses, there is the issue of the vulnerability of small, scattered farmers, without vehicles even to transport their crop, to exploitation by middlemen and price-fixing companies. Last year, Global Exchange, a San Francisco human rights group, pressured Hershey to disclose the sources of its cocoa beans and to take further steps to ensure proper working conditions.
This kind of outreach to expose and remedy injustice represents the finest spirit of leftism, a practical, compassionate activism — not the pretentious postmodernist jargon and sanctimonious attitudinizing that still pass for leftism among too many college faculty. Capitalism, which spawned modern individualism as well as the emancipated woman who can support herself, is essentially Darwinian. It expands any society’s sum total of wealth and radically raises the standard of living, but it leaves the poor and weak without a safety net. Capitalism needs the ethical counter-voice of leftism to keep it honest. But leftists must be honest in turn about what we owe to capitalism — without which Western women would have no professional jobs to go to but would be stuck doing laundry by hand and stooping over pots on the hearth fire all day long.
On the pop front, I was bemused by Britney Spears’ barging into a San Fernando Valley salon and shaving her head two days after I quipped in my return column, apropos of John Edwards, that he needs a new haircut “at a time when military buzz-cuts and Caesarian close crops are in.” Now, really! I know Salon is influential, but this is pushing it.
I’ve commented on Britney’s travails and tacky exhibitionism for Us magazine and for the March issue of Allure (“A Case of Exposure”). The final question (from a lively young woman) after my lecture [video link] on religion and the arts at Colorado College last month was about Britney. My circuits began visibly to sputter and fry, like the overloaded mega-computer at the end of “Desk Set,” because as a public speaker I, unlike Ann Coulter, believe in tempering one’s witticisms out of respect for one’s hosts. Despite her current descent into squalor, I still see Britney as animated by a flame of original energy. Great stars make comebacks. Let’s see what Britney’s got!
Finally, I read a fabulous book last week — John Lauritsen’s “The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein,” which will be published in May by the gay-themed Pagan Press, based in Dorchester, Mass. Lauritsen, who is known for his work in gay history and for his heterodox views of the AIDS epidemic, sent me an advance copy, which arrived as I was on my way to midterm exams. Its thesis is that the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and not his wife, the feminist idol, Mary Shelley, wrote “Frankenstein” and that the hidden theme of that book is male love.
As I sat there reading while proctoring exams, I tried unsuccessfully to stifle my chortles and guffaws of admiring laughter — which were definitely distracting the students in the first rows. Lauritsen’s book is important not only for its audacious theme but for the devastating portrait it draws of the insularity and turgidity of the current academy. As an independent scholar, Lauritsen is beholden to no one. As a consequence, he can fight openly with myopic professors and, without fear of retribution, condemn them for their inability to read and reason.
This book, which is a hybrid of mystery story, polemic and paean to poetic beauty, shows just how boring literary criticism has become over the past 40 years. I haven’t been this exhilarated by a book about literature since I devoured Leslie Fiedler’s iconoclastic essays in college back in the 1960s. All that crappy poststructuralism that poured out of universities for so long pretended to challenge power but was itself just the time-serving piety of a status-conscious new establishment. Lauritsen’s book shows what true sedition and transgression are all about.
Lauritsen assembles an overwhelming case that Mary Shelley, as a badly educated teenager, could not possibly have written the soaring prose of “Frankenstein” (which has her husband’s intensity of tone and headlong cadences all over it) and that the so-called manuscript in her hand is simply one example of the clerical work she did for many writers as a copyist. I was stunned to learn about the destruction of records undertaken by Mary for years after Percy’s death in 1822 in a boating accident in Italy. Crucial pages covering the weeks when “Frankenstein” was composed were ripped out of a journal. And Percy Shelley’s identity as the author seems to have been known in British literary circles, as illustrated by a Knights Quarterly review published in 1824 that Lauritsen reprints in the appendix.
The stupidity and invested self-interest of prominent literary scholars are lavishly on display here in exchanges reproduced from a Romanticism listserv or in dueling letters to the editor, which Lauritsen forcefully contradicts in acerbic footnotes. This is a funny, wonderful, revelatory book that I hope will inspire ambitious graduate students and young faculty to strike blows for truth in our mired profession, paralyzed by convention and fear.
My column appears on the second Wednesday of every month. Each third column will consist of my replies to reader questions. Please send letters for my April column to this mailbox. Letters may be shortened for space. I will state your name and town, unless you specifically request that a pseudonym be used.
Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems." You can write her at this address.More Camille Paglia.
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)