"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)
Once we were young and fearless, but now we’re afraid. Talk of world travel calls to mind rickety, overcrowded buses speeding across some muddy road in Thailand. The word “adventurous” triggers images of bungee-jumping accidents and hepatitis B. The sight of old people informs us of how alone we’ll be in the end, no matter how many friends we have on speed-dial now. The Internets remind us daily of how elevators plummet and brides get left at the altar and teenagers stockpile weapons and killer bacteria lurk on every surface.
This is why we love “House,” a weekly snuff film for neurotics and hypochondriacs, and cling to “The Sopranos,” a dark morality tale for guilt-plagued competitive consumers, wandering like ghosts through their crappy jobs just to keep their high-end appliances and service-economy lifestyles intact. “The Bachelor” is just an extended exercise in heart-splitting rejection for insecure wannabe Cinderellas who fear that the champagne-rose-fantasy-suite fairy tale will always evaporate into a few beers, a rented movie and a suspiciously stained futon. And “CSI” offers an endless loop of random, unfair victimization of ladies with bad habits for women who feel powerless in their marriages, and the men who love them that way.
TV distracts us from our pathologies by — perversely enough — allowing us to live them out, over and over again, on the small screen.
Hair that’s a fright
Naturally, then, Bravo’s “Shear Genius” (10 p.m. Wednesdays) isn’t about the hairdressers themselves. A cursory glance confirms what we knew all along: Hairstylists, particularly those who aspire to be celebrity hairstylists, are almost roundly insufferable. From the vainglorious, borderline-delusional Tyson to his seething enemy Tabatha to that hideous himbo host, Rene Fris (“Go shake eet!” he cries at the stylists, hoping against hope for a catchphrase to call his own), the humans who populate “Shear Genius” may belong on television, but only in the VH1-freak-show sense.
The real genius of “Shear Genius” is the way it plays on one of our deepest, most abiding fears: the fear of a terrible haircut. With a sadistic glint in their beady eyes, the producers drag out lovely girls with long, flowing locks, clutching photographs of their favorite celebrities (of course!), the ones who look nothing like them and have hairstyles that would offer them all of the sophistication of a carnival whore. Other wide-eyed “models” have a wedding around the corner, or they have long hair but they miiiight be convinced to take a little off the bottom if the hairdresser is talented and persuasive enough. We can see it in their eyes, the deep longing for a miracle, the foolish hope of a complete transformation. There are cameras rolling, after all — what could go wrong? Surely if it’s for a TV show even the riskiest style will look chic and extra-special! Where else would I be magically retailored from a mousy frump to a glowing replica of Jessica Biel, if not on a Bravo reality show?
But this is the point. Why else would Tyson and Tabatha, the two most irritating and (not coincidentally) most inspired stylists of the lot, be sent home last week for expressing strong opinions and bitching at each other — you know, the way people with vision and talent (aka sociopaths) so often do? Why else would one of the final four stylists, Dr. Boogie, be utterly unfamiliar with scissors, limited to creating every single style with a pair of electric clippers? Why else would the stylists be challenged to cut hair using child’s scissors and razor blades and gardening shears — which Evangelin absurdly embraced, claiming she’d found a valuable new tool? (Her enthusiasm reminded me of a hairdresser I had who swore he was going to bring back the Flowbee and make it all the rage among the bedheaded bohemian set dying to pay too much for the latest moronic trend.)
Of course, the money shot is that moment when the pretty young girl realizes that her brand-new transformative style is an unmitigated disaster, a one-way ticket on the Ugly Train, a yearlong tour of duty in Heinyland. The camera lingers on her look of recognition, followed by quiet desperation, followed by a deep, dark rage from the pit of her soul, thinly masked by a strained grimace of politesse. The judges rub it in: “What do you think of your style?” The subject cringes, a chagrined chuckle, darting eyes. “It’s … Well, I was worried about it being too short…” (And maybe you also should’ve worried about it being too pointy and too red and too similar to a style worn by a certain memorably coiffed keyboardist.) “But … it’s … I … I like it!”
Jaclyn Smith, who may be the most appealing host and head judge to rise from the mediocre detritus of the Bravo reality factory, does her best to treat these words at face value and play along with this pained expression of approval. Her voice is husky and matter-of-fact, but her eyes say it all. Her eyes say, “You poor, poor dear, what have they done to you? Here, let me give you the number of my stylist, he can fade that awful bright orange color right out and fix those nasty trimmed-hedge lines in the back, I promise…”
Who knew Jaclyn Smith’s eyes could express so much empathy and warmth? Oh, Jaclyn! Take us away from all of this! Save us from the unpredictable twists and turns of modern life, the bad haircuts, the dry-cleaner-shredded blouses, the jagged bikini lines, the brutal manicures! Make us hot tea and pat our backs and tell us nasty little stories about Farrah Fawcett from ye olden days!
We don’t mesh
But TV can’t sweep us up out of the trivial horrors of our lives, because TV is never as big and as meaningful as we so desperately need it to be. Unless, of course, you’re talking about the black mesh water-bottle-holder that Elliot Kupferberg, Dr. Melfi’s therapist, was clinging to in the most recent episode of “The Sopranos.”
That grotesque thing! It opened up a great vacuum around itself, a gaping maw of soft-pawed convenience! Its fussy, distracting lines spoke of the detail-oriented irrelevance of aging professionals, as its formidable mediocrity quietly rendered every man within a square-mile radius impotent!
The second we saw that massive bottle of water, clothed in wimpy black mesh, we felt a slow, sinking feeling, a sense that inevitably, everything fresh and original and odd about us will slide into a pathetic, Vicks VapoRub-scented mire of Easy Stride Footware and chip clips and fanny packs and decorative boot-scrapers shaped like jaunty porcupines! If our water bottles must be adorned in black mesh, lest they slip in our hands and slide, willy-nilly, about our pristine offices, then what else will we eventually require to get through the day? A hideous sea of eye drops and lint brushes and beeswax balms dances before us, replete with a matching army of bags with special pockets, custom-made to fit each solemnly necessary item, each terrible crutch, without which we would feel anxious, tormented, unmoored!
Obviously, we were meant to hate Elliot. What a smug little prick he is! He’s supposed to be helping Dr. Melfi, but all he does is judge her badly, then ask about Tony, in that bemused, condescending tone of his. And Melfi keeps coming back for more, maybe because she can only respect the opinions of those who are emotionally distant and don’t really care all that much about how she thinks or feels.
I wasn’t sure I was alone in the downward spiral of emotions that black-mesh-covered bottle incited, until I read last week’s “Sopranos” recap letters, in which one reader referred to it as “a baby bottle” and said that Elliot was supposed to represent the audience, since he’s endlessly fascinated by Tony in a detached, amused way, without having any investment in the man or any well-considered moral judgment about what he does. All that matters is the juvenile romance of the mob: Who’s gonna get whacked next, man?
Clearly Elliot also serves as a geeky, intellectual contrast to Tony. Although he might have better taste and might be living a more examined life than Tony, he can’t claim any moral high ground. Maybe he isn’t committing the same acts of brutality as Tony and his crew, but he’s not exactly throwing himself in harm’s way for the greater good. Lest we get too comfortable in our condemnation of these thugs, Elliot is there in all of his fussy, lip-balmed glory, to remind us of our own bemused ineffectualness and abject cowardice.
Punk’d by an officer and a gentleman
But nothing stirred the coward within quite like the brutal finale of ABC’s “The Bachelor: Officer and a Gentleman,” in which three regular people were tormented for our viewing pleasure.
As it turns out, “The Bachelor” series only works with intolerable pageant-circuit sea donkerellas and cheesy square-jawed mutants like Andrew Firestone in play. This season, producers made a crucial error by casting Andy Baldwin, a perfectly nice, earnest guy. Week by week, Andy picked the nice, smart girls until he was left with two utterly reasonable choices: Bevin and Tessa. Even his family told him that they’d both make good wives and mothers.
Now, casting aside that this is a contest in which the “winner” is awarded the privilege of dropping her entire life and all of her friends and moving to Hawaii to be the adoring wife of a doctor/officer, these two women honestly wanted to end up with Andy.
And Andy was good-guy marriage material, albeit a little indecisive: He genuinely seemed unable to choose between Bevin and Tessa. So Bevin showed up in her gown, assuming that Andy would propose (he told both women he loved them), and instead he told her he picked Tessa. Bevin’s face crumpled into a sad little frown as Andy, through tears, apologized for three or four minutes, and then she got into the limo and told us, “This is the story of my life.”
Oof. And if that weren’t excruciating enough, she showed up at the “After the Final Rose” shamefest with a cast still on her broken ankle (injured during a boot-camp segment in one of the first episodes of the season), still unable to talk about Andy without crying, but unwilling to ask him difficult questions or make him feel guilty for choosing Tessa.
In other words, she refused to follow the Jilted, Angry Woman script the producers coached her on, and she made the host look like a clown for wanting her to try. Funny how the whole circus falls apart the second one elephant decides she’s above wearing that jewel-encrusted headdress.
Fear and present danger
But then, if they’re going to flesh out our darkest fears on television, they should find chirpy, soulless types to do it, not real people. Because, whether we live in fear of bone-crushing rejection, flaccid accessories or dangerously ugly hairstyles, we can only relish the spine-tingling thrills those fears afford within the safe boundaries of a fictional construct. We are cowards, after all. Hear us whimper!
Next week: David Milch trades in the rough townspeople of “Deadwood” for seaside miscreants, miracle workers and the like on “John From Cincinnati”!
* * * * For more coverage of the season finales of your favorite TV shows, click here.
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)