"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)
As winter drapes its gray blanket over the land and sends a bitter chill through the McDonald’s playgrounds and Home Depot gardening centers and Toys “R” Us parking lots of this great nation, we must all pause for a moment and say a quiet prayer for freedom.
Yes, freedom. Because, as we spread freedom, making the non-Western world safe for Jamba Juices and Restoration Hardwares, as we establish Banana Republics and Cheesecake Factories on every corner of every street on the globe, as we transform every last inch of public space into an outdoor mall and put Sunnis and Shiites alike to work, whipping up Honey Chipotle Chicken Crispers and half-decaf Pecan Praline Macchiatos for the masses, unappreciative foreign peoples remain determined to paint our freedom fighters as arrogant imperialists, so anxious are they to bite the lily-white hand that feeds them their daily Happy Meal. These unkempt skeptics resist the generosity of our corporate overlords in harnessing resources to build our necessary infrastructures, instead brattily insisting that they do it all by themselves, like those foolhardy Chinese! Sure, they long to pave paradise and put up a parking lot, as expansionist visionary Joni Mitchell once urged, but they stubbornly refuse to let Halliburton do it for them, the ingrates!
And so, the U.S. dollar falls on its face. This makes us Americans — freedom lovers, inventors of Sizzlin’ Steak and Shrimp Fajitas and Mango Citrus Rug and Room Deodorizers — feel bad about ourselves. It makes us feel like the star quarterback who graduated and got old and fat, but still keeps going back to high school football games to gorge on hot dogs and bellow menacingly at the referees from the sidelines.
Is the golden age behind us? Have we grown spoiled and lazy after a 50-year winning streak? Are we, the citizens of what was once the Greatest Nation on the Planet, destined to shout at the world’s referees from the sidelines? It’s enough to make you shiver in your boots — just like the Pilgrims once did when they stumbled on this great land of ours! — as you cross several acres of parked cars on a cold and chilly winter’s evening, in search of curly fries.
OK, fine. We’ll go ahead and admit it: We thought we were destined to rule the universe forever and ever, Amen. Wasn’t Jesus on our side, way back when? Didn’t we have the right stuff — the independent, devil-may-care spirit, the sunny disposition and the natural urge to kick the little guys when they were down? We were once the handsome stars of the world’s stage. How did we become a bunch of washed-up, ignorant, financially and emotionally unstable bullies overnight?
This rapid descent is not lost on the creators of CW’s “Aliens in America” (8:30 p.m. Mondays), a show that champions the outsider and the underdog while pointing and jeering at the countless flaws of mainstream Americans. When Raja (Adhir Kalyan), a foreign exchange student from Pakistan, comes to live with an average family in a small town in Wisconsin, he upsets the balance of ignorance and conformity that keeps the community’s delicate ecosystem from imploding from within. The family and the town’s shocked residents prove to be well-meaning but pathetic and easily foiled. They’re current-day Americans, in other words, thoroughly modern Millies who mill about, accustomed to winning without fail — to the extent that they don’t even notice when they’re losing. As nerdy Justin (Dan Byrd) chases popularity and girls like any typical high school boy might, Raja is perplexed by the immorality and shallowness of Justin’s pursuits at every turn. Now, we’ve seen this unfrozen Caveman act before, which only makes Adhir Kalyan’s performance as Raja all the more impressive. Kalyan not only makes us believe that Raja is truly, deeply confused at the sorts of ethical lapses that most American kids take for granted as the dog-eat-dog flavor of high school life, he actually has us empathizing with him. How can he navigate this strange and confusing world that he’s landed in?
Kalyan is fantastic as Raja and makes me laugh out loud at least once per episode. In my favorite episode yet, “Rocket Club,” Justin admits that he’s been lying about the existence of a rocket club in order to sneak off to R-rated movies with his friends. Raja, who’s terrible at lying, attempts to brief Justin’s parents on that night’s rocket club meeting, and ends up rambling on about the joys of building enormous rockets. (Go ahead, watch the scene and see if Kalyan doesn’t make you chuckle; the episode is available online here.)
Unlike NBC’s “Chuck” or CW’s “Reaper,” two shows about conflicted young slackers caught up in situations that are beyond their control, “Aliens in America” doesn’t just thrust a few charming smartasses front and center, expecting audiences to roll on the floor because they have dorky jobs and/or their friends are losers. “Aliens in America” is packed with actual jokes and the story lines are tight and funny. When Justin’s parents start asking tough questions about their rocket club, for example, Justin and Raja are forced to start an actual rocket club, which sends Raja to the local hardware store looking for what appears to the owner to be bomb-making materials.
Meanwhile, the school’s popular kids are over-the-top jerks, bullies pulled straight from a John Hughes film, but with a modern twist. At one cool-kid gathering, the brutish guys wrestle and the popular girls compare notes.
Popular Girl No. 1: And Kelly Grashow? She’s ano, too. All she had for lunch was a packet of sweetener!
Popular Girl No. 2: I know, she looks great.
Justin’s younger sister, Claire (Lindsey Shaw), is very popular and refuses to be seen with either Justin or Raja, but she’ll occasionally admit that her friends are pretty sad and “may be retarded.”
Unfortunately, after a strong start, the last two episodes of “Aliens in America” haven’t quite matched the cleverness of the first few. Hopefully the writers will get back on track … Well, once they’re back at work, that is.
Uh-oh. Don’t start me down that path. Let’s worry about the writers’ strike once it’s been dragging on and on for weeks — not now, when I have three or four more shows I want to discuss before they all devolve into reruns. As much as it breaks my heart to think of those poor, starving Hollywood millionaires out there on the street right now, I must push them from my mind, lest my ability to write this column be compromised and my overlords cast me out onto the street with them.
Yes, of course I support the strike and believe that writers should share in Internet and DVD profits. Since America is slipping and those well-nigh-hilarious Norwegians are poised and ready to take over the global comedy market, American comedy writers deserve to make a reasonable slice of their corporate overlords’ profits while there are still profits to enjoy.
In particular, I think the writers of “30 Rock” deserve to make some extra cash … You know, to put with the rest of their cash.
You have been watching “30 Rock” lately, haven’t you? I hope you didn’t miss the episode with Carrie Fisher, which featured my favorite single punch line of the fall ’07 TV season, delivered by Jack (Alec Baldwin) when he learns that Liz (Tina Fey) went to a washed-up former comedy writer’s (played by Fisher) creepy apartment: “Never go with a hippie to a second location.”
And did you catch Baldwin’s spot-on imitation of Tracy Morgan two weeks ago? Yes, you do need to catch up. Go watch those episodes online, and for the love of the sweet Lord Jesus, please start tuning in for this show before I’m forced to knock your teeth in.
I shudder to think that I might have to watch “30 Rock” reruns through the blistery depths of winter. See what happens when greedy, mega-billion-dollar corporations don’t give their highly paid creatives a fair share of the action? Regular people like you and me have to watch reruns! The outrage!
Americans are disenfranchised, and that doesn’t mean that they don’t own any franchises. It means that they’re powerless, technically because they can’t vote, but more loosely because the American dream never came true for them. Or it came true, but then they owed it back to the bank at 9 percent interest.
“Everything is gone. Everything that was once noble and good in this world is just gone, and it’s replaced with just … Wal-Mart.”
“Everybody has rage, whether it’s in your car, whether it’s at work, at your boss, at your spouse. I think that a lot of people use Darkon to get rid of those darker impulses.”
Thus spake the denizens of “Darkon” (premieres at 9 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 12, on IFC), a documentary that explores the odd undertakings of a war-gaming club in Baltimore. Like a live-action version of Dungeons and Dragons, club members dress up like knights and ladies and peasants and elves and ogres, and they talk and flirt and fight mock battles over hexagons of land on a map. It’s not always clear how they determine who wins their mock battles or what the overall goal of the game is, but it’s pretty obvious that speaking like characters in a J.R.R. Tolkien novel makes them feel more alive.
Just thinking about it makes me want to listen to old Genesis albums, the ones with the talk of monsters and dark woods and magical powers, the kind of stuff that Tenacious D used to parody before Jack Black transformed from outsider/underdog to bland romantic comedy lead. If they ever made a comedy based on this documentary, though, Jack Black should be in it. Can’t you see him delivering lines about “the realm” and “destiny” with total conviction?
“Yes, we’re an imperialistic power! Yes, we conquer other nations, we expand our landholdings … and we’re fucking honest about it!” That’s the leader of Mordom, justifying his hunger for new territories. When the leader of Laconia confronted him about his relentless warring ways, he bristled, and his arrogance was apparent. Even so, Laconia’s leader was realistic about the chances for victory. “It will be a great challenge if we choose to oppose the Mordomian alliance.”
If club members seem to have trouble separating their real lives from their role-playing lives in Darkon, it’s because, for many of them, Darkon makes them feel far more powerful and effectual than they do when they’re at work or at home with their families.
While gawking and rolling your eyes is certainly a natural response to this tale, “Darkon” challenges viewers to look past their prejudices and see the value of these games and the relationships they involve, not all of which are entirely imaginary.
“These experiences that I share with the people around me are very real,” says one club member. “When we dedicate this much time in our lives to a game, it becomes our reality.”
Dumb, da dumb dumb
That’s not the sort of comment someone who watches way too much bad TV wants to hear. So I try to soothe myself by keeping in mind that we’re living in an interesting era in history, one that’s reflected on our TV screens. Losers are the new winners. As the rest of the globe thumbs its nose at us, the same thing is happening domestically: Freaks and geeks are celebrated while the popular kids take a serious beating.
Just look at “America’s Most Smartest Model” (9 p.m. Sundays on VH1). Following in the footsteps of “America’s Next Top Model,” which made a name for itself primarily by torturing pretty people, “America’s Most Smartest Model” skips the self-important, self-righteous noise from Tyra Banks, and goes straight to the good parts: Making dumb, hot people look dumb … and hot.
Instead of having the hot dummies and the dumb hotties pose for legitimate photo shoots, the producers give them torturous modeling challenges (calling to mind the big fish tanks and hanging trapezes of early “ANTM” fame) as well as humiliating academic challenges.
And who doesn’t enjoy seeing hot people being humiliated, whether they’re dissecting fetal pigs or trying to film a commercial while they’re standing in an icy cold shower? As a bonus, Ben Stein is on hand (with co-host Mary Alice Stephenson, who has also mastered the deadpan delivery) to ask such idiot-baiting questions as, “Which weighs more, Oprah on the moon, or Oprah on Jupiter?”
This show isn’t rocket science, but you do have to give the producers some credit for digging up a combination of reasonably smart and entertainingly clueless hotties, many of whom are even dumb enough to throw out really bad guesses when they don’t know the answers to the questions they’re asked. Blond Rachel (there’s also an Aussie Rachel) should get some extra points for delivering her bad guesses with a straight face and a tone of total conviction.
Ben Stein: Who shot John F. Kennedy?
Rachel: Um … Brad.
Stein: Yes! It was Brad!
Better yet, in a “Smart-Off” last week, models Lisa and Blond Rachel demonstrated that they didn’t know who ran against Bush in the 2004 election, and they didn’t know what Darfur was. Blond Rachel at least knew bad stuff was happening there, somewhere in “Arabia,” while Lisa thought Darfur was a cologne for men. But Lisa insisted that, while she had no use for random bits of trivial information, she had tons of “street smarts.” “Oh really?” replied Stein without skipping a beat. “What’s Mary Alice’s last name?” “Alice!” replied Lisa. Um, wrong. Back to the streets, genius!
In another episode, the models were grouped in teams of two and asked to create a self-tanning lotion out of random items (cocoa, Tang, etc.). Then they had to use it to make a very pale, very nerdy man or woman look tan. (Is it just me, or does every single reality show on TV have an episode that involves giving nerds makeovers? Nerds are the live-action pet rocks of the new millennium.)
The nerds had to participate with the model contestants in a photo shoot in bathing suits, with their newly “tanned” skin. In most cases, early confidence was replaced by panic when half of the nerds look like burn victims. “She looks like she has some kind of disease that’s not good,” said one of the models.
But the best moment came when Aussie Rachel — who, to be fair, seems very nice — referred to her team’s nerd as if he was an inanimate object. After the photo shoot, she said, “I didn’t expect to be as close to the nerd’s crotch as I ended up being.”
Well, we’ve all felt that way at one point or another.
Digging their graves
The cool kids also took a dive on “Survivor: China” (8 p.m. Thursdays on CBS) last week, when Jaime’s move to throw the challenge for the sake of her original tribe came back to haunt her. In one of the most satisfying “Survivor” episodes ever, Jaime found what she thought was an immunity idol, bragged about it, and then tried to save herself with it, only to discover that it wasn’t the idol.
Meanwhile, the show’s hero has emerged: James the Gravedigger, a hunky black man with a wicked sense of humor and a body that belongs in an Abercrombie and Fitch ad. James is that rare find: a regular, down-to-earth guy trapped in the body of a Polo model. He hasn’t shown much interest in the little hotties on the show, preferring to spend his time with Denise, the burly lunch lady, with her galumphing gait and her extraordinary mullet. Not only that, but James said he likes women like Denise who work really hard. Come again? Does he mean he’s attracted to her? Well, James explained, if he were a little older and Denise were a little younger, then maybe…
Now, granted, this shouldn’t come as any shock: Some people love each other for what’s on the inside, not what’s on the outside. But most of them aren’t hot.
So James is our new hero, and pretty blond Jaime became our enemy when she turned against him, throwing a challenge to get him on the chopping block. It didn’t work: A few weeks later, James not only secured both immunity idols, but he had the last laugh when Jaime was voted out of glorious China.
Naturally, James’ obvious superiority at challenges is going to make him a target, but he’s my current favorite, and “Survivor: China” has a lively enough mix of personalities and uncertain alliances that it’s a pretty fun ride right now.
Kicked to the curb
But losers always have their day. Just look at perennial loser Larry David. The finale of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” airs tonight (10 p.m. on HBO), and even though Mr. Grumpy and his wife will probably find some way to stay together on the show, we know how this story really turns out: Larry and Laurie David get a divorce.
But what’s with this notion that viewers might be uncomfortable with David mining his personal troubles on his show? The man has made a living out of turning his personality defects into comedic gold, so why stop now? I’ve found Larry’s exploits alternately enjoyable and grating for a few seasons now, but I loved the scene where Cheryl called from a plane in the middle of the storm, and Larry was busy with the TiVo guy and told her to call back later. If all of the scenes on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” were like that one, absurd but not remotely outside the realm of possibility, I’d be hooked on the show. Instead, we get the usual assortment of easily offended but outspoken Hollywood types, deaf women and minorities with annoying little dogs and bad children and rules about making phone calls during dinner. How many times can characters scream to Larry “That was rude!” while Larry stares at them and mumbles defensively?
The show’s puzzle pieces of broken toasters and unwanted gifts and missed phone calls are more than a little repetitive: It’s all imaginary and unrealistic, yet we can still predict exactly how it’s all going to come together. Cheryl’s sudden departure provided a rare rush of unpredictability: I say mine those emotional nuggets for all they’re worth!
Like a prayer
Spoken like a true American, commodifying even the most sacred of human connections! Oh, how we Americans miss the days when we didn’t see our own flaws quite so clearly. Once we were unself-conscious warriors, but now we’re the world’s sheepish has-beens, huddling together in the winter cold, saying a silent prayer for freedom! We thought we’d always be in the driver’s seat. We thought we’d always be hopelessly rich and popular. We didn’t expect to be as close to the world’s crotch as we ended up being. But here we are, so we might as well make the best of it.
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)