"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 front page of last Friday’s Philadelphia Inquirer was dominated by a stunning color photo of a row of mourners at a military funeral at nearby Willow Grove Naval Air Station. The ceremony honored a resident of Doylston, Penn., Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion, age 26, who was killed the prior weekend near Fallujah on his second tour of duty in Iraq.
Manion’s sister and mother, holding small American flags, openly weep, while his father, Thomas Manion, a Marine Reserve colonel in full dress uniform sits stoically with his eyes closed and hands folded. Another photo shows Manion’s silver casket being carried by a six-man honor guard from the military helicopter.
The Inquirer notes that this was “a scene the Pentagon has often taken pains to shield from public view during the Iraq war. It was displayed at the request of Manion’s family, who cast the day as a celebration of his return.”
The eulogy, before a crowd of 200, was given by Brig. Gen. R. David Papak, commanding general of the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, who declared, “Welcome home, warrior. It’s absolutely an honor to be a part of your homecoming.”
As I grappled with this impressive phrase (does “homecoming” truly apply to the dead?), I contemplated the striking photo of Manion, handsome and debonair in his battle gear. All of that energy, intelligence, discipline and training extinguished in a moment.
The melody from a classic 1960s song, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair,” floated piercingly into my mind. The traditional English folk ballad that is its core consists of a message sent by a dying young man to his “true love” back home whom he will never see again. The festivity of Scarborough Fair represents the joys of life that are fading for him, just as the symbolic herbs of the haunting refrain (“parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme”) represent memory as well as nature’s fertility, here truncated by early death.
Into this beautiful, elegiac song, Simon and Garfunkel brilliantly inserted a “canticle,” interwoven as a countermelody. Out of the pastoral imagery of “deep forest green,” gently, almost subliminally rise these powerful lines: “War bellows blazing in scarlet battalions/ Generals order their soldiers to kill/ And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten.”
This was an indictment of the contemporary Vietnam War, in which more than 58,000 American soldiers would die. And what did that war actually achieve? It is hard to believe that the generation of the 1960s that now holds power in Washington seems to have learned next to nothing from the disaster of Vietnam, which tore the U.S. apart.
Once again, colossally inept political decisions, based on abstract principles of noble-sounding but naive idealism, have turned dutiful American soldiers into cannon fodder. There is no battlefield in Iraq, no rational strategic alignment — just a warren of snipers and booby traps where death is random. Conventional warfare failed in Vietnam, whose culture and history the Pentagon never understood or respected, just as conventional warfare cannot succeed in an ethnically divided desert country like Iraq, roiling with competing insurgencies.
The sickening, pointless slaughter in Iraq — massacres of untold tens of thousands of civilians and a rising toll of American and coalition soldiers — will obviously continue through George W. Bush’s second term and probably well beyond that, no matter which party wins the White House in 2008. Yet the humiliating Western occupation of a Muslim country can only further incite and inflame world terrorism.
Bush seems increasingly passive and hemmed in. We get sporadic declarations of stirring resolution, followed by long, vague periods of desultory indifference, as the dead and severely wounded are shipped undercover stateside. Bush’s utter inability to project steady, consistent day-to-day leadership on Iraq certainly betrays his lack of control of this mission from the start.
I find baffling and off-putting the obsession of so many of my fellow Democrats with political strategist Karl Rove (a peripheral blob and dirty trickster), insofar as it takes focus off the real center of gravity in this administration — Dick Cheney, who has cynically used the vice presidency to govern by proxy. For all its dislike of Cheney, the liberal press seems unable to lay a glove on him. He’s like an enigma imploding into a black hole. But history will surely show that moral responsibility for the Iraq debacle belongs principally to Cheney.
Impeachment talk, however, is a counterproductive distraction to the real business of getting the Democratic candidates for president up to speed and in fighting shape. When the Republican candidates gathered for their first debate last week at the Reagan Library in California, I had a shiver of foreboding. Despite their sometimes absurdly overemphatic fist-waving and podium-thumping, the Republicans were light-years ahead of their Democratic counterparts in terms of vigorous assertion and command of the rhetoric of national security and proactive geopolitics.
At their own first debate two weeks ago in South Carolina, the Democratic candidates, in contrast, seemed wary and lackluster. I whooped and literally applauded Dennis Kucinich’s bursts of spirited antiwar protest, but Kucinich was most effective when embarrassing his colleagues rather than in demonstrating the ability to cross party lines in the general election.
John Edwards, toward whom I’ve been leaning, seemed pursed, wan and disappointingly flat, while Barack Obama was skittish and vacuous. However, when Obama nimbly replied to a question on foreign policy, he took off like a rocket. For a brief moment, he exuded the relaxed authority and personal magnetism of a major player on the world stage. If Edwards tanks, I’m jumping to Obama.
I thought Hillary Clinton did surprisingly well for most of the debate. Until the last question, when she veered into her trademark splenetic stridency, she was calm, centered and practical. It was a no-crap side of her that we have virtually never seen, so addicted has she been to her glammed-up, diva-sanctified-by-suffering persona, whisked from gig to gig by limousine and private jet.
Whether this change of tactics will allay the widespread doubts about Hillary’s credibility remains to be seen. It unfortunately followed a series of gross missteps where Hillary kept doggedly doing a cringingly bad Southern drawl for African-American audiences and then had the audacity to suggest it was evidence of how gloriously “multilingual” she is after living in Arkansas. Pass the mint juleps, Auntie Mame! We sho’ never heard that lip-smacking down-home gumbo when little ole Hillary was first lady of Arkansas and then of the United States.
With his quick humor and easy grace, Mitt Romney emerged in my view as the clear winner of the first Republican debate. Will his Mormonism be the sticking point? A recent caller to Sean Hannity’s radio show, hosted that day by WABC’s always lively Mark Simone, shockingly denied that Mormons are Christians. The implication was that evangelical Protestantism is absolute truth — which would also put Roman Catholicism beyond the pale. This is a bad sign of tunnel-vision sectarianism, which if it increases would blight American culture and be fatal to the arts.
Rudy Giuliani was awkward and abashed in a supporting role at the debate as just another cipher in the pack. While I’d love to see an Italian-American in the White House, I’m ambivalent about Giuliani. He’d surely kick ass to upgrade and standardize sluggish government agencies after the cronyistic pig rut of the Bush era, but he has his own problems with cronyism as well as a history of blurring the line between public responsibility and private ax-grinding, as in his unilateral attack on the not entirely innocent Brooklyn Museum in 1999. (I chronicled that sorry episode in my lecture on religion and the arts at Colorado College in February; the text is forthcoming in Arion.)
For voters looking for a “strong man” in the nebulous war on terrorism, Giuliani would have deep cross-party appeal in a general election. But he is a Machiavellian in the mercurial mold of Cesare Borgia, whose rubric was that the ends justify the means. I got queasy watching Barbara Walters’ interview in March with Giuliani and his third wife, Judith Nathan (who would be a brassy hard sell as first lady). All that ostentatious, lovey-dovey, hand-holding stuff — is it a simmering hormonal stew produced by Giuliani’s post-prostate-crisis meds?
Rudy and Hillary seem weirdly analogous in their glibness and artificiality. Of course, they’ve been symbiotically locked for years: Hillary owes her senatorial rank to the New York Democrats who drafted her (a non-resident of that state) to counter Rudy’s anticipated run, which never materialized because of his illness. If she’s Sister Frigidaire (her youthful nickname) and the Queen of Denial (Bill’s enabler), Rudy is a casuistical crypto-priest of ramrod rigidity. Billing and spooning with Judy on Walters’ show, he seemed like a puritanical poker coming up through the runny butter-cream frosting like a 5 o’ clock shadow.
In other news, my reading of last month’s horrific Virginia Tech massacre (which I discussed with the Sunday Times of London’s perspicacious Sarah Baxter) is that it is yet another warning, after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, that our present educational system is an insane pressure cooker, dangerous above all for boys, with their restless physical energy.
High school (which has become just a frantic, callow rat race for brand-name college admission) is not an eternal principle of the universe. It was invented relatively recently — a point solidly made by Jon Savage in his interesting new book, “Teenage” (which I reviewed last weekend in the New York Times Book Review). Age segregation by grade, in my opinion, is a mechanistic atrocity that spawns ruthless social cliques, who oppress and enrage the losers in the provincial pecking order.
As I have argued for years, we desperately need a return to vocational training. The virtually universal conversion of American high schools to a pre-college track over the past half-century has watered down the curriculum to its present deadening uselessness. Lower-middle-class and working-class families who pay taxes have a right to expect that primary schools will prepare their children for a productive life.
My platform calls for a revalorization of the trades (which are related by craftsmanship to the art schools where I have taught for most of my career). Upper-middle-class families should be ready to support their children’s unorthodox choice for a career in carpentry, masonry or landscaping. We need to strip the elite aura from the claustrophobic “prestige” jobs in sterile corporate offices, where high salaries drug the worker clones from recognition of their own imprisonment and castration.
On the pop front, I greeted with relief the news that Rosie O’Donnell will be leaving ABC’s “The View.” Joy Behar will get some oxygen at last. What a crass solipsist, clod and yahoo O’Donnell is — and what a bad advertisement for both liberalism and lesbianism. I thoroughly enjoyed Donald Trump putting the shiv to her with his eye-opening insults of withering accuracy. The list of O’Donnell’s faults overfloweth — beginning with her stentorian humorlessness and her infantile rudeness to her cohosts and ending with her crackpot conspiracy theories and her constant flaunting of her banal regimen of antidepressants.
Speaking of flawed gay role models, here’s a blast from the past. Roving round the Web, I stumbled by chance on this article of mine from 10 long years ago in Salon: “Is Anne Heche another vampirish Yoko Ono?” Tempests of pique blew up from chi-chi gay circles in California for my daring to question the way Anne Heche had gotten her claws into Ellen DeGeneres. But I was right as rain, wasn’t I? Ellen seems much better matched these days with Portia de Rossi, who commendably hasn’t tried to upstage her.
My partner Alison and I have been recording and watching ABC’s “All My Children” for several months now. Daytime soap operas, which I used to adore, have been declining in quality and importance for over a decade, and I gradually stopped monitoring them. But “All My Children” (on its best days) is currently being written with a speed and intensity that are remarkable.
We were lured back by publicity over a pioneering transgender theme, which was unfortunately treated with sometimes cartoonish hamminess and excessively ideological sermonizing. (And he/she seriously needed a stylist — is dowdy the new hip?) But “All My Children” has recovered the old-time emotional resonance of soaps. I’ve been particularly impressed with Alexa Havins, who gives warmth and depth to her role as Babe. When it looked like Babe had been killed and Havins written out of the show, I went ballistic and vowed to counterattack (via Salon, of course). But it was just a plot trick: when Babe suddenly returned from the dead, I shouted for joy!
Campy lines were once central to the soap aesthetic. But when soap actors aspired to prime-time credibility in the late 1980s and ’90s, flamboyance faded. Hence I’m happy to report that “All My Children” is dishing the camp like fried scrapple and waffles. Some recent samples I scribbled down:
“A dead slut can cause just as much trouble as a live slut!”
“Your mother is a cheating tramp, and she taught you everything you know!”
“A man has to learn how to take care of himself — especially if he’s wearing lipstick!”
“You just had to bring your gender-bending game into Pine Valley!”
“An escaped mental patient has my baby!”
One huge problem, however, is that “All My Children,” like most of the other major daytime soaps, has a deplorable record of integrating African-Americans into the cast. What the hell is the matter? Black actors are made to play to cliché (lily white or sassy street), and they’re whizzed in and out of the plot without making a dent in it.
Considering the popularity of soaps with the African-American audience, it’s grotesque that the entertainment industry, for all its vaunted liberalism, is lagging so far behind social changes in the United States. And why has there never been an all-black daytime network soap? It would probably blow the white soaps off the map. I see far stronger and more charismatic personalities strolling around Philadelphia’s neighborhoods than are being featured in most of today’s bland daytime soaps. As in Italian neorealism (the low-budget, on-location films shot amid postwar rubble), sensational acting can come from non-professionals.
A lesser complaint: hair extensions. There are moments on “All My Children” when half the women actors, young and old, seem to be afflicted by android Barbie creep. All those thick swatches of lifeless strands clustering lankly round ladies’ necks! Like orange tanning spray, this is a fashion fad that should be put out of its misery.
Is there a return to visionary Romanticism these days on classical music stations? In the last few months, I’ve heard an unusual number of works that heavily influenced me in my youth. Each of them has a passionate, rhythmic force or hypnotic lyricism: Leopold Stokowski’s dynamic orchestral transcription of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor” (written for organ); Alexander Borodin’s “Polovetzian Dances”; Ernest Chausson’s “Poème” for violin and orchestra; and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “English Folk Song Suite.”
The Stokowski transcription of Bach had an explosive impact on me when I first heard it on my parents’ 45 RPM record before I had even entered kindergarten. This week Philadelphia’s WRTI played a spectacular recording of it by the Philadelphia Orchestra (for whom the transcription was originally done), conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. The sonorities of those massed strings could make the earth shake.
The “Toccata and Fugue” is so thunderous, propulsive and over-the-top that it seems to prefigure the Led Zeppelin phase of early heavy metal. It’s a clash of the titans: We’re overhearing two quarreling aspects of Bach himself. The heroic, questioning, yet tragic individual voice looks forward to Romanticism, while the orderly affirmation of transfiguring collective faith looks back toward medievalism.
The Vaughan Williams “English Folk Song Suite” has special meaning to me because it was a splendid set piece of my concert band in the early 1960s at Nottingham High School in Syracuse, N.Y. The clarinets do a lot of heavy lifting in that piece. Alas, I played clarinet very badly (I was always last seat, third section), partly because I longed to play the drums — considered unsuitable for a girl in that era.
To my surprise, I recently discovered that the “English Folk Song Suite” was originally written for military band and was not, as I had always thought, transcribed from an orchestral version. The date was 1923 — a year after the publication of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which registered the devastating disillusion of the generation that had lived through World War I, with its obscene carnage (over 8 million killed to redraw a few borderlines).
Thus Vaughan Williams’ juxtaposition of folk song motifs with military riffs was a poetic relinking of British culture to its pre-modern agrarian past. That’s exactly what Led Zeppelin did in their signature song, “Stairway to Heaven,” which begins with the pipes of the medieval English countryside (whose fragrant herbs appear in “Scarborough Fair”). The savagery of war, with its wanton waste of young lives, would be purged and spiritually transcended through art.
But before purgation and transcendence, the bloodshed must stop. Bring the troops home from Iraq now.
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Camille Paglia’s column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her July letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.
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)