"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)
Let’s all write our New Year’s resolutions together this year, shall we? “This year, I won’t be the weak, flawed, ungrateful, disorganized, fault-finding, lazy, self-serving, incompetent, scattered, resentful, inconsiderate, neurotic, negative, recalcitrant, sluggish, disturbed, thoughtless, pushy, intrusive, hair-trigger, gossiping, selfish, shallow, distracted, inexpressive, restless, confrontational, overdramatic, narrow-minded, unsympathetic, disheveled, slouchy, grumpy, disgusted, superior, self-righteous, impatient, sloppy, obnoxious, nitpicking, eye-rolling, unhelpful, smug, drunk, smelly, flabby, unhygienic, rambling, repetitive, tedious, unoriginal, self-involved, self-pitying, self-destructive, self-congratulatory bore that I’ve been for my entire life.
“This year I will be different. I’ll try harder, work longer, eat healthier, exercise more, read more, sleep better at night, be nicer, hold my tongue, help others, spend more time with my kids, vacuum more often, keep my desk straight, answer the phone more often, act like I’m happy to hear from the bloviating mouth-breather on the other end of the line, improve my attitude, breathe more deeply, learn to cook better, lavish praise on my spouse, sod my lawn, spend less money on pointless things, write thousands of brilliant words a day, exceed expectations, stay focused, live in the present, be open and vulnerable, work hard to effect change in the world, embrace the universe and all its creatures, and shower more often.
“In 2008, I will be a joy to be around. People will no longer say, ‘There goes that weak, flawed, ungrateful, self-congratulatory bore.’ They’ll smile and feel inspired by my open, helpful attitude and my stylish, fit appearance. I’ll ride on a wave of easy laughter, I’ll listen with true focus and deep understanding. My hair will shine in the sun and my ass will have the shape and density of a basketball, but I’ll be too busy finishing my latest literary masterpiece to notice.”
You see, by writing down all of our divergent, overreaching goals for the new year, we arrive at the true aim of our resolutions: rededicating ourselves to maintaining the status quo for another year. We begin the process with hope and inspiration, and end it with the self-loathing and malaise that leads us right back to being the weak, flawed, ungrateful, self-congratulatory bores we’ve been for our entire lives.
An apt exercise to ring in an election year, don’t you think?
Down in the hole
Yes, just as it’s not possible to be a good, smart, uncompromising, idealistic human being and become president of this nation of thieving whores, so, too, is it impossible to spend more time with your kids and hold your tongue. There is no one on the face of the Earth who writes works of literary genius and has an ass like a basketball. Intensely creative geniuses do not answer the phone with a happy voice, listen with focus or even shower regularly. If you’ve read about people like this, people who are friendly and smell good and also write brooding masterpieces and have rock-hard glutes, you are reading works of propaganda, created by corporate publicity machines that want you to believe that you were born dumb, lazy and ugly and you can only buy your way out of it. Yes, it’s true, you were born stupid, slow and stinky, but so were the rest of us.
And even if it were possible to be good and brilliant and healthy and full of high-minded principles, you still wouldn’t get very far in this world, populated as it is by self-serving thugs and charismatic charlatans and oily tricksters and uninspired, beaten-down drones who experience talent and originality and bold, new ideas as, at best, an inconvenience and at worst a direct threat.
Just ask David Simon, creator of “The Wire”, which returns to HBO on Sunday night (9 p.m. EST) for its fifth and final season. In the dystopian vision of Baltimore that Simon depicts, personal responsibility and ethical standards are consistently crushed by the greed and thoughtlessness of high capitalism. If those with principles and talent ever manage to wriggle their way into the circles of influence, they’ll inevitably be exposed to countless indignities and insults until their most cherished beliefs and their strong commitment to public service are abandoned for the cynic’s weary sigh. In Simon’s Baltimore, self-serving politicians and careerist law-enforcement officials and scheming drug dealers are cut from the same short-sighted cloth.
And maybe that’s a vision that’s a little too dark for most Americans, who prefer the manic cheer of morning shows and upbeat radio hosts, who chow down Happy Meals and forsake updates on the Iraq war for “Dance War: Bruno and Carrie Ann.” But for those who find almost every single aspect of American culture at this particular moment deeply disturbing, for those who’ve cringed as self-interested blowhards ran our once-at-least-somewhat-honorable nation into the ground in the name of “freedom,” Simon’s vision looks right on the money.
Now typically, self-righteous anger at the state of the world is more likely to yield a rambling, unreadable blog entry than it is to produce a work of art this nuanced and wise and brave and lovely. But in the show’s final season, Simon and his writers don’t just trot out a few new plot twists and wind up for a big ending. No. Every single scene of “The Wire” is meticulously scripted and dramatically riveting. In each scene, we witness a character experiencing a dilemma, infused with passionate impulses, conflicting emotions and inner turmoil. Whether we see a young drug dealer who’s rising in Marlo’s ranks become party to a crime that makes him disgusted with his life or watch a once-idealistic mayor struggle to solve budget problems without selling his principles up the river, Simon and his writers make big, uneasy problems feel intimate and personal. In our day-to-day lives, it’s not hard for most of us to skip the news item about the neglect of our public schools or the endless corporate takeovers threatening to all but eviscerate the richness of American culture. But Simon and his writers force us to look directly at the human face of what it all means, the price we pay in American lives for our sloppy, neglectful policy choices.
[Minor spoilers ahead! Don't read any more if you don't want to know any details or minor spoilers from the first few episodes of the fifth season of "The Wire."]
While in past seasons, “The Wire” has explored the police department, the ports, City Hall and the public schools of Baltimore, this season, “The Wire” invades the offices of the Baltimore Sun, where the editors and city reporters try to cover important stories despite increasing cutbacks and buyouts by the paper’s parent company, the Tribune. Immediately it becomes clear that to Simon, who was once a reporter at the Sun, newspapers play a vital role in keeping a city honest, holding its officials and leaders accountable to its citizens, and informing the populace of the crimes and injustices unfolding among them. His is an idealistic vision of what a newspaper should be, one that young people who’ve always received their news from the Internet or from “The Daily Show” can’t begin to understand. This disconnect makes Simon’s portrait all the more devastating. Easy as it is to take newspaper writers waxing nostalgic about the glory days of newspapers with a grain of salt, “The Wire” presents characters that make you feel this loss in a palpable way. It’s a testament to the corporate pillaging of the news that’s occurred over the last two decades that it doesn’t even occur to most of us to expect more from our local newspapers than a handful of wire stories and a few relevant but buried pieces about local crime or politics, languishing in the entrails of the Metro section.
The journalists portrayed on “The Wire” might seem a little bit exaggerated at first: The dedicated editor, Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson), demands full names for sources (More reporting! More details! More fact-checking!) while a frustrated reporter uses his powers of imagination to invent a “react quote,” Stephen Glass-style. A hard-nosed, seasoned crime reporter with an encyclopedic knowledge of the inner workings of the city is laid off, while the higher-ups act out their best “Times are tough!” head-shaking laments, repeating team-building clichés to sell the troops the agenda of their corporate bosses. All of which would feel more than a little stark and over the top if it weren’t so hauntingly familiar to anyone who’s worked in a corporate office.
“The Wire” can be difficult to watch, without a doubt. During the earlier seasons, when drug lords Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell ruled the West Side, there were plenty of heartless, disturbing acts all around: Barksdale could be ruthless in defending his honor; Bell could be ruthless in protecting the supply and demand of his entrepreneurial empire. But both characters had regrets and souls and were charismatic enough that we sometimes cheered them on in spite of ourselves, Tony Soprano-style. But the current kingpin of the West Side, Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector), is another case altogether: He’s evil, plain and simple. He seems to have no feelings, which gives him the freedom to rule without regard for anyone. We never see him enjoy anything — he doesn’t seem to take much satisfaction when he wields more power, when he one-ups his foes, and he’s not guided by any principles at all. He takes revenge for minor slights or makes strategic kills without the vaguest hint of regret. And watching his two careless, soulless assassins Chris and Snoop in action is like watching an infant play with a nuclear triggering device.
What is Marlo up against? A wildly dysfunctional police department that has no budget and is staffed by angry, disheartened officers who haven’t been paid for overtime in weeks as the fifth season opens. The continuing investigations by detectives Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) and Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) are threatened, driving them to take desperate measures to make sure they’re not shut down just when they’re getting close to nailing Marlo. Even as Daniels rises in the ranks of the police department, there’s an uneasy feeling in the air, reflected in the self-interested caution of his ex-wife, who’s always been looking out for her own career on the City Council, and the possibly slightly self-serving elation of his current girlfriend, assistant state attorney Rhonda Pearlman (Deirdre Lovejoy).
Marlo’s biggest threat may come from Omar (Michael Kenneth Williams), a vigilante who seems to represent the reckless but still principled justice of those unconstrained by a poisoned bureaucratic system. Omar may be one of the most moving characters ever created for the small screen: He’s a killer who follows a strict code, has undying loyalty to his closest allies, and ruthlessly hunts down his foes. He’s smart, scary and unabashedly open about his homosexuality. Omar embodies the rage and frustration of this broken city, and only Omar has the freedom to kick ass and take names with impunity — at least until he’s taken down by one of his countless enemies. Even though that seems inevitable in the show’s final season, loyal viewers may have the biggest investment in seeing Omar survive. As the city falls to pieces over and over, only a criminal like Omar can remain uncorrupted and heroic in his own twisted way.
If you’ve been putting off renting the first four seasons of “The Wire,” now’s the time to do it. If you’ve been looking forward to the return of this breathtaking show for a long time, you won’t be disappointed. Once again, Simon does the impossible. He takes themes we’ve heard a million times — our politicians are corrupt, our schools are failing our kids, our newspapers are being raped by corporate overlords — and he gracefully, subtly realizes them onscreen. We don’t see big explosions of emotion or melodrama, we watch as individual lives unravel, slowly but surely. “The Wire” is, at its heart, a TV show for disillusioned romantics and world-weary intellectuals with soft, chewy centers: The ideals and emotional groundwater of each scene may be passionate and melodramatic, but it all plays out in restrained, nuanced exchanges. If characters wept openly or delivered big, flashy monologues, as they do on pretty much every other drama on the air, their pain would feel predictable to us. Instead, they grimace a little or frown, but we know that their whole lives are hanging in the balance. They leave room for us in the scene, and our hearts break on cue.
Clash of the War Gladiators
But enough about idealistic heroes and fallen cities and the best show on TV. It’s time to get to the really important stuff: Stunt Television.
This is the game-show, TV-event, splashy reality rabbit hole that we’ve all been falling down since the new episodes of scripted shows ran out and the WGA strike laid waste to the TV schedule. Instead of giving off the slightest whiff of defeat, the networks have cheerfully soldiered forward with steely-jawed fortitude, shrugging off their hemorrhaging schedules as a mere flesh wound. Who needs “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Heroes” when you’ve got “Clash of the Choirs” and “American Gladiators” and “1 vs. 100′” and “Make Me a Supermodel” and a hasty, premature retreat to the “Big Brother” house?
Of course, no real talent is required to make Stunt Television happen. All you need is a perky host, a well-prepped fraudience, some humans who aspire to do something or other, and a constant, nagging reminder that the audience will decide who wins! Hurray! The audience just loves to decide stuff!
Take “Clash of the Choirs.” For four consecutive nights on NBC, we watched (OK, fine — I watched) as Nick Lachey, Michael Bolton, Kelly Rowland (of Destiny’s Child) and Patti LaBelle, among others, recruited choir members from their home cities, then directed them as they performed onstage. The resulting entertainment was pretty mediocre, really, except for Patti LaBelle’s choir. Patti LaBelle’s choir was spectacular. Aided, in true diva style, by a phalanx of creative associates, LaBelle chose exceptional singers, she picked out strong, bold songs for them to sing, and they were truly incredible. While Lachey’s amateurish choir rehashed chorus-geek classics with ultra-dorky choreography, and Bolton’s choir cheesed it up, LaBelle’s choir owned the stage. At one point, LaBelle herself performed “Somewhere over the Rainbow” with them, and it brought the house down. The other choir leaders shook their heads and all but conceded defeat.
In the end, it was down to LaBelle and Lachey. Who would win? The startlingly talented, inspiring Patti LaBelle, who brought tears to the eyes of her choir members every time they were asked to comment on their experiences working with her? Or washed-up teenybopper and reality star Nick Lachey?
You guessed it! Thanks, no doubt, to his steady appearances in crappy celebrity magazines, Nick Lachey beat Patti LaBelle. Which was sort of like holding a slam-dunk contest, inviting Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter and Grant Hill to compete, and then letting a bunch of teenage girls from across America vote for Jamie Lynn Spears to be the winner.
The moral to our story? Bad things happen when America votes. Happy election year, chickens!
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)