"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)
“Run, Al, run!”
This chant, according to media reports, is being heard from the crowd wherever former Vice President Al Gore speaks.
Shudders of déjà vu. Do Democrats really want to stampede down that soggy path again?
Despite numerous polls claiming that registered Democrats like myself are happy with their current field of presidential contenders, the Gore boomlet betrays subterranean tremors of doubt. After two major televised debates by both parties, only a Pollyanna on helium would believe that any of the top-tier Democrats will definitely be able to defeat a leading Republican like Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani.
As the Bush presidency dissolves under the rain of tragic bulletins from the Iraq debacle, too many Democrats seem to believe that their party will simply sail into the White House in 2008. But the conservative grass roots are in open rebellion against the waffling Washington Republican establishment, most recently because of its bungling of the incendiary immigration issue. Campaigning against the rapidly deflating Bush zeppelin is a dead end.
Right now, the Democrats’ best hope may be for the Republicans to veer right and nominate an erratic aging boy like the seedy Newt Gingrich or a Hollywood caricature of vintage 1910 American small-town life like the phlegmatically pithy Fred Thompson, whose homespun act feels tired and looks tired.
At their second debate, held in New Hampshire two weeks ago, the Democratic contenders were still skittish and uncertain. The top men, confronted with a woman competitor, seemed paralyzed by liberal p.c. and unable to attack her as they must. Even when John Edwards went on offense, he cautiously bracketed Hillary Clinton with Barack Obama, as if it would be unchivalrous to zing a lady. That both Edwards and Obama are hamstrung by effete professional-class gender etiquette was suggested by the way that Dennis Kucinich, with his rowdier and more robust populist style, has been able to shatter the debate decorum with exhilarating bursts of derisive rhetoric.
But the TV pundits who rushed to proclaim Hillary the winner of the second debate were off by a mile. Hillary excelled in the first half by the greater specificity of her responses, but her gains were nearly wiped out at one point by her bone-chilling mirthless chuckling (like a sound effect for the Blood Countess in a horror film).
In the second half, when everyone was seated, she overplayed her hand and began to intrude and domineer. The men sank into passive torpor. What was surfacing in Hillary was the old family psychodrama of the bright, brittle, high-achieving daughter contemptuously outflanking her befuddled, resentful, mediocre brothers at the dinner table. It wasn’t a pleasant sight — and all too reminiscent of the bullying Rosie O’Donnell compulsively hogging the spotlight on “The View.”
When Joe Biden tried to break out of captivity by boldly addressing the live audience with a foot-stomping crescendo (nearly a Howard Dean moment in the crazily strident way it played on TV), Hillary unwisely tried to match him by instantly raising her voice and keeping it at that abrasive level for the rest of the debate — thus losing the capital she’d gained in the first half. Irritated, I thought, “Where is Dianne Feinstein?” — with her cool, collected and authentically presidential persona. But Feinstein obviously lacks the fire in the belly for a presidential run.
The second Republican debate, in contrast, overflowed with spontaneous energy. Yes, the contenders are all middle-aged white men, but they sure know how to give and take a punch! There was drama, humor and electricity (literally, when a bolt of lightning cut out Giuliani’s mike). I continue to be alarmed at what I perceive as Republican momentum toward next year’s national election. The confident Republican foregrounding of military and security issues is going to present a very high hurdle to the Democratic nominee. Democrats are already acquiring a dismaying reputation for underestimating the threat of global terrorism.
The received opinion that Hillary had won the second debate was immediately undercut by an online poll on the Drudge Report. Obama jumped to a huge lead, surprisingly followed by Bill Richardson, with Hillary in third place and Edwards far back. The final results, based on 51,299 votes over 12 hours: Obama, 35 percent; Richardson, 16 percent; Clinton, 12 percent; Kucinich, 9 percent; Biden, 8 percent; Gravel, 8 percent; Edwards, 7 percent; Dodd, 5 percent. Hillary’s dismal lag, despite the presumed push by her online supporters, is astonishing. (Drudge polls are keyed to cookies, permitting only one vote per computer.)
Despite her problems with projecting a consistent or even human character, Hillary has certainly proved thus far that a woman can play in the big league in American electoral politics. She’s resoundingly surpassed the first serious woman candidate for president, Elizabeth Dole, who took to wandering like an officious inspirational speaker through the audience, a bold tactic that quickly became cloying. In the two major debates thus far, Hillary has projected mental alertness and speed, as well as a wide-ranging knowledge of public policy.
For many Democrats like me, however, Hillary’s history of prevarication, rigidity and quasi-divine sense of election is profoundly unsettling. And who exactly would be running the government — that indefatigable buttinski, Bill Clinton? Spare us! But Hillary’s intricate experience with the Washington bureaucracy makes Edwards (toward whom I’ve been leaning) and Obama (whom I may shift to) look like shaky tyros. After eight years of managerial ineptitude under Bush, will the general electorate realistically choose a work-in-progress like Edwards or Obama who needs so steep a learning curve?
Nevertheless, Hillary’s abundant negatives don’t make a Gore candidacy any more attractive. Sure, all the über-journalists who’ve mixed with Gore are dazzled by him. Big deal! Personal charm and a silver tongue in private don’t make a president, who must be a public performer on the world stage. Whatever his high ideals, Gore is a mass of frustrated yearnings and self-defeating vacillation. Raised in a bubble of wealth and privilege, he has never fully emerged from his senator father’s judgmental shadow. Women (wife, daughters, wifty hired hands) have to buck him up and prod him in this direction or that.
What exactly were Gore’s achievements in his eight years as vice president? What steps did he take at the time to shape public policy on global warming? What did the Clinton administration do to win U.S. adoption of the Kyoto accords? (Answer: next to nothing.) What political role did Gore play in the world after leaving office? There are some mighty big blanks in Gore’s record.
As a global warming agnostic, I dislike the way that Gore’s preachy, apocalyptic fundamentalism has fomented an atmosphere of hysteria around this issue and potentially compromised the long-term credibility of environmentalism. Democrats who long for his return as the anti-Hillary may not realize how Gore has become a risible cartoon character for much of the country at large. Anyone who listens to talk radio has been repeatedly regaled by clips of Gore bizarrely going off the deep end at one speech or another. And Gore, far worse than Hillary, is the Phantom of a Thousand Accents — telegraphing his supercilious condescension to whatever audience he’s trying to manipulate.
Toronto’s National Post has been running a fascinating series by Lawrence Solomon on global warming dissidents, who don’t get much press in the U.S. My own philosophy about earth’s titanic, humanity-dwarfing operations is contained in a curious video I recently found on YouTube.com. Clips of volcanic eruptions and magma flows are set to the abstract “psychedelic” music of a California rock group, the Danbury Shakes. This eerie fusion of lurid natural images with a distorted, clashing soundscape is richly evocative of a 1960s vision that has been lost. The ’60s revolution, as I’ve argued elsewhere, was about much more than politics. Fanaticism about global warming reduces the eternal terrors of nature to a banal political melodrama.
Back to the White House: I winced when President Bush at a press conference last month said, in reference to terrorists wanting to harm us, “These are the words of al-Qaida themselves.” Nearly six years after 9/11, is it possible that the commander in chief of the American military still doesn’t understand the meaning of that Arabic phrase? “Al-Qaida” isn’t plural, like “Boy Scouts” or “Rotarians”; it literally means “the foundation,” a loose consortium of scattered cells (against which conventional warfare is helpless).
The embarrassingly limited knowledge of the Middle East possessed by this administration when it recklessly launched the Iraq invasion will be the subject of endless future histories. The president naively relied on arrogant advisors with their own covert agendas, above all Vice President Dick Cheney, who despite his impaired health and recurrent medical emergencies, remains the obstinate mastermind of our continued, costly presence in Iraq. This administration has morphed into Salvador Dali’s horrifying 1936 painting, “Soft Construction With Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War” — a barbaric spectacle of rage, self-destruction and decay.
On the pop front, it’s been a tabloid jamboree for several delicious weeks. I’ve never been interested in Lindsay Lohan (in “The Parent Trap,” she sure was no Hayley Mills), but I sat up and took notice at her sensational appearance last month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute Gala. Since the dawn of Hollywood, a star has known how to make an entrance and depart in glory (a skill shrewdly mastered by Sharon Stone).
At the Met, Lohan arrived fashionably late, looking fabulous in a swirling black gown with an exquisitely tantalizing see-through bodice. And mirabile dictu, that gal knows what to do with her hands and how to hold a handbag! Inert, over-enlarged, weight-trained hands and limp, dangling arms are my beef against our current crew of starlets — like Kirsten Dunst, who’s appealing enough as an Angie Dickinson without the sizzle but whose klunky man-paws we’ve been forced to contemplate from “Marie Antoinette” through “Spider-Man 3.” In the studio era, young actors (from Lana Turner and Ava Gardner through Rock Hudson) were taught basic skills of charm and grace.
After her Met epiphany, Lohan managed to stay in the news by crashing her cocaine-laden Mercedes convertible into a curb and shrub on Sunset Boulevard, fleeing the scene, and then passing out at dawn, open-mouthed like a groggy sailor on a bender, in full view of a passing paparazzo. This efflorescence of her ho-hum fleece-hoodie-and-sneakers mode was followed by the prankish surfacing of eye-opening photos of a visibly hazy but magnetically glowing Lohan horsing around with kitchen knives in kinky lesbo sex-play. Whether Lohan’s acting career is permanently off the rails isn’t clear, but as a childhood fan of Confidential magazine (the ur-tabloid of the 1950s), I’m enjoying every minute of this decadent spectacle. Scandal is the oxygen of showbiz.
Lohan’s travails were swept away, however, by Paris Hilton’s histrionics. Oh my, what a wailing and a rending of garments! Poor Paris, dragged sobbing off to jail while shrieking for Mumsey — it would break your heart if Paris hadn’t shown such disdain for the law and if her obnoxiously self-righteous parents weren’t always planning posh parties for her. Drunk driving, Paris’ worst offense, is a public menace.
At first, Paris seemed to be adopting Martha Stewart’s admirable stoicism about the slammer, but things rapidly fell apart. Paris’ early release after three days (reversed by the judge) caused an explosion of international indignation. The issue was the equity of American justice, which should properly be blind to wealth and rank. I burst out laughing when I heard the BBC World Service radio announcer report in hushed, plummy tones about “the American socialite Paris Hilton,” immediately following a segment on troubles brewing in the Saudi royal family.
However, I was disturbed by the litany of too many commentators claiming that Paris had done absolutely nothing to earn her celebrity. It’s true Paris had become overexposed, but only because she lacks Madonna’s brilliant facility for changing styles and personae to keep it all fresh. Paris was stuck in the rut of one look and was getting too long in the tooth to play the daffy ingénue.
While Paris became known to a wide audience through her self-parodying role in “The Simple Life,” that TV show is a relatively minor phenomenon. The fact is that Paris has been a reasonably successful professional model since she was 19, seven years ago. Her collective body of work belongs to the chronicle of our time. Paris’ distinctive, riveting and often choreographic visual images were produced improvisationally on the nightclub scene as well as in formal shoots for commercial clients like Guess. She has given pleasure and diversion to cultural voyeurs around the globe and should be respected for it.
What links the Lohan and Hilton cases is the weird behavior of the parents — either flaky and dysfunctional or overbearing and coddling. The Lohan and Hilton mothers seem to reject aging by trying to keep their daughters in developmental limbo. Paris in particular seems to have become a psychic prisoner, turned into a flash-frozen marzipan doll by her belligerently benevolent mom. Neither family is typical, of course, but are the Hiltons exposing an unhealthy symbiosis in recent American family life? Adulthood keeps getting postponed for white middle-class girls, who even after they arrive at college are obsessively linked by umbilical cellphones to their hovering parents, who want to shield their progeny from all of life’s nicks and scrapes.
On the other hand, eroticized childlikeness has been a basic component of the sex-bomb archetype ever since Jean Harlow, whose feisty bimbo played dumb in “Dinner at Eight” (1933). In the silent film era, a frail, spiritual, Victorian girliness was a hit with Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters (Pickford was playing 12-year-old girls well into her 20s). Harlow’s flirtatious mannerisms were reworked by Marilyn Monroe and transmitted in turn to a long line of Monroe imitators down to Anna Nicole Smith (whom home videos show babbling and playing in clown makeup). Brigitte Bardot, a barefoot wild child, turned the iconic blonde in a tigress direction, but the perverse childlikeness rapidly returned when Bardot’s image merged with that of Nabokov’s Lolita, pouting through her nubile puberty. And Lolita just won’t go away: She keeps popping up in Britney Spears, Shakira and virtually any precocious newbie who wants to seduce the camera.
The power of the Monroe archetype was forcefully renewed for me by a sensational French documentary, directed by Patrick Jeudy and released in 2002, that I saw on TV last month in Germany, where I was giving a lecture. The Franco-German Arte network was running the uncut two-hour version of Jeudy’s “Marilyn malgré elle” (“Marilyn in spite of herself”). Organized around unpublished photos by Monroe’s friend, Milton Greene, this program stunningly interweaves posed shots with rare archival news footage. The moody, elegiac music and pensive French narration give the documentary a strangely philosophical distance. I didn’t think sophisticated art films like this could be made anymore — with a sensual atmosphere, riveting composition, and elegant editing, crisp yet hypnotic. It was absolute magic — like a dream where one encountered and rediscovered Marilyn, who has become all too familiar. Her natural charisma is on abundant display — especially her joy and ease with ordinary people. Then things get grimmer, as the public delirium that she incited everywhere began to torment her.
Alas, stars no longer have the old Hollywood stature. Marilyn Monroe was manufactured by the studio, which could no longer protect her as it declined under pressure from television. One of the creators of the 1950s star look was photographer Wallace Seawell, who died at 90 two weeks ago. My sensibility as a fan of Hollywood glitz was formed by Seawell’s generation of practitioners. The pioneers of Hollywood high glamour, such as the virtuoso photographers George Hurrell and Edward Steichen, had already done their great work: Their high-contrast, black-and-white images had a gorgeous metallic quality that matched the silver screen (when dangerously flammable silver nitrate was used for film stock).
But Wallace Seawell’s signature photos were in flamboyant, florid, hyper-real color — like the Technicolor spectaculars of the 1950s, whose saturated hues anticipated and may have influenced 1960s psychedelia. Here’s a sampling of intriguing Seawell portraits.
First of all, Elizabeth Taylor in 1956, looking like a luscious ripe fruit beckoning from the Garden of Eden. (Images like this launched my manic collection project of Taylor pix, which numbered 599 by the time I graduated from high school.)
Next are two portraits of Johnny Mathis: The first, from 1959, shows him affable but still rough around the edges; five years later, he’s found his attitude and has become (as Sebastian Venable would say) very, very appetizin’.
Joan Collins in her Alexis Carrington heyday! The dragon lady of ABC’s blockbuster prime-time soap, “Dynasty,” who showed how to fuse female ambition with brazen sexuality and knock-’em-dead style.
Finally, a black-and-white surprise: a very young and sparkly Candice Bergen with her glamorous mother, Frances; then Candice lolling like an aspiring Sandra Dee — that fetchingly WASP nymphet who was oppressively forced on my generation of girls as the ultimate ego ideal (what misery).
Movies may be fizzling out and celebrities getting tattier by the day, but Hollywood will live forever as a mythic state of mind!
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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)