"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)
Last summer, a dastardly YouTube-fueled prank spread through teen boy circles in the Northeast. The trick worked like this: A clutch of kids would pull up to a fast-food drive-through window and order drinks. When the cashier handed over the cold beverages, the kids would throw the big-gulps back through the window, yell “Fire in the hole!” and speed off. Then they’d post video of the attack on YouTube, prompting others to do the same.
But the videos weren’t especially popular, and they didn’t spread very far. A Google search for “fire in the hole” yields, at the top, this video at Break.com (posted below) compiling several such attacks. It was posted a year ago, and has racked up almost 700,000 views, which is respectable but certainly not in the league of a full-blown Internet meme.
YouTube tries to take down videos that show assaults — that’s how police labeled the attacks — and you’ll find only a handful of “fire in the hole” prank videos posted there during the last few months. Given these stats, you could say the meme is pretty much over.
At least, it was over, until a judge intervened. Last July, two teens pulled the prank at a Taco Ball near Orlando. Jessica Ceponis, the Taco Bell employee who’d been attacked, tracked down the perps through MySpace, and then contacted police.
The boys — whose identities aren’t being released — were charged with battery and criminal mischief, and a judge ordered them to perform 100 hours of community service, pay Taco Bell a $30 cleaning fee, and to write letters of apology to the worker. Plus, this: The boys were made to post a filmed apology on YouTube.
I’ve posted that video above. In it, the boys act as if they’re considering the prank, and then, at the last minute, they decide not to do it. In a slacker voiceover, one of them says, “We thought it would be funny to victimize restaurant employees by drenching them with ice-cold soda. We take this opportunity to apologize to the victims and take full responsibility for our irresponsible behavior.”
In the final shot, you see the boys handcuffed and face-down on the hood of a car. “Think before you act. Don’t be stupid. Your future depends on it,” one of them says.
What a ridiculous punishment. For one thing, the YouTube video doesn’t satisfy the victim. She appeared on the “Today” show today to say that she’d like an in-person, rather than an on-tape, apology. But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is she was on the “Today” show!
That’s right, the judge’s YouTubey punishment alerted the media — including yours truly — to the meme long after it had died out. Before interviewing the victim, Matt Lauer ran dozens of FITH prank clips — videos that, I’m sure, caught the attention of more than a couple kids who’d never heard of the prank before, and are staking out their local automobile-friendly eateries as we speak.
The judge argued that the apology video would deter future attacks. But that ignores how people consume videos online; you don’t watch a clip in isolation, you watch one video and then click on or search for stuff that’s related.
It’s pretty much impossible to watch the apology video, hear the words “victimize restaurant employees by drenching them with ice-cold soda,” and not wonder, What does that look like? And so you search for it, and you find the FITH videos, and maybe you pass them on to your friends…. and voila, the viral prank is reborn!
The judge should have kept it quiet. A face-to-face apology would have been enough.
Here’s the “Today” show clip:
And the compilation at Break.com:
Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.More Farhad Manjoo.
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)