"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)
Beers, rock ‘n’ roll, poker, cigarettes, pot, porn, cocaine, hotel rooms, whores, heroin, adultery, rehab. As we grapple with post-9/11 global chaos and a ballooning financial apocalypse, somehow the typical trajectory of the party animal seems almost quaint in its pointlessness. With the world falling to pieces, who has the energy to indulge their most decadent urges? What sad little human still hungers for that quick surge of jet fuel for the ego that comes from cheap sex, driving music and mind-altering drugs? As the sun sets on a gilded age, these look like the extracurricular activities of the spiritually and emotionally flaccid.
“But it feels good!” you protest, like a slow child with his fist stubbornly planted in the middle of his mom’s fresh-baked blueberry pie. Even so, when seen in the rearview mirror a few years down the road, ashtrays and smelly dive bars and glasses of hard liquor and whoring sea donkeys just look like a splitting headache and an unnervingly itchy crotch. Our collapsing nation demonstrates the net results of doing what feels good with reckless abandon: You wake up one morning feeling very, very bad. Uncle Sam, that poor old hedonist, plumped up his ego with cheap thrills until he was a shattered, stinky shadow of his former self.
On TV, though, fickle men and their trashy urges are still supposed to be funny and not tragic. Soulless and smug, they follow their desires into one lewd and humiliating situation after another, yet we’re meant to love them in spite of great faults. The assumption that these characters will appeal to mainstream Americans should probably be blamed on a handful of middle-aged creative executives in Hollywood, surrounded by hot aspiring actresses and trophy wives but still painfully aware of their fading sex appeal. Little do they know that most American men aren’t half as depraved as they are.
Badly drawn boy
If you figure out exactly who is supposed to enjoy HBO’s “The Life & Times of Tim” (premieres 11 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28) — beyond the easily amused humans who created it — please let me know. An animated comedy that’s horribly illustrated and poorly written, the show focuses on the loserly conduct of Tim, a so-called average guy who’s not remotely interesting, appealing or even mildly amusing.
Created by comedian Steve Dildarian, who’s described on the HBO Web site as “the Clio-winning ad man behind Budweiser’s famous ‘Lizards’ campaign,” “The Life & Times of Tim” begins with a scene that feels like a nonsensical, toothless parody of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Tim’s live-in girlfriend comes home with her parents to find Tim with a hooker. Apparently Tim called the hooker at 9 a.m. and asked for the “backdoor special” but when the act was done he didn’t have the money to pay for it. Tim’s girlfriend expresses her outrage, her parents make meatloaf, the hooker sits down to dinner with them, all the while requesting that she get paid, and soon Maurice the pimp enters, threatening to dismember Tim. If that doesn’t make any sense, then you’re on the right track: It’s almost impossible to do justice to how weak and groan-inducing the whole thing is or how few jokes there are in the mix. The fact that no one at a development meeting for this show spoke up and said, “Um, shouldn’t we at least hire an animator who draws really well, so no one notices that there aren’t any jokes here?” hints at a disturbingly brainless, “Emperor’s New Clothes” group dynamic over at HBO.
But it gets worse. In the second episode, Tim goes to a crappy bachelor party where only two other guys show up: the groom and another guy from work. The trio decides to tell everyone at work stories about how great the party was, so that the bachelor doesn’t have to feel quite as pathetic.
The next day, Tim discovers that the other guys told everyone at work that he was raped by a homeless guy the night before. His boss sends him to Human Resources to talk to a counselor about his traumatic experience, then he ends up at the police station trying to I.D. the homeless guy who raped him. Yes, things go from crazy to even crazier, all in the absence of even the smallest chuckle.
This summer at the television critics press tour, HBO executives justified their ever-weakening flow of quality shows by explaining that, with so many cable networks in the mix, the market for good shows is more competitive than it’s ever been. But let’s get real: HBO was the dream destination for the best writers in Hollywood a few years ago. They went to HBO first, and hoped that HBO would love them with reckless abandon. They knew that HBO carried with it a lot of prestige, plus there were things you could do on premium cable that you couldn’t do anywhere else.
The obvious fact is that HBO squandered that opportunity in the wake of Chris Albrecht’s (speaking of men behaving badly) departure. I suppose it’s unfair not to applaud the renewal of “In Treatment” and “Flight of the Conchords.” I’m just amazed to discover that HBO would even dream of picking up a horrible animated version of the supremely awful “Mind of the Married Man” years later. Sadly, “The Life & Times of Tim” isn’t even as well written as that show, and it’s far more amateurish and deeply, alarmingly stupid to boot. Fair viewer, I would encourage you to TiVo this crappy show just so we can marvel at its awfulness together. Yes, it’s that bad.
But then, you have to question the assumption that an entire show can revolve around the ill-considered dalliances of one reckless, self-destructive character. Showtime’s “Weeds” pulls it off — just barely this season — with the help of a strong central premise: the thrills and spills of dealing pot in the suburbs. That show may have tricked Showtime executives into believing that “Californication” (premieres 10 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28), a show without a strong premise and with no redeeming qualities at all, really, outside of David Duchovny’s “Who me?” face, was a good choice for the cable network.
But even David Duchovny and his real-life sex addiction can’t save the go-nowhere story of sad sack Hank Moody, a writer who can’t help giving in to his basest urges. Hank grumbles about how hopelessly full of shit everyone around him is, but seems to have little interest in anything beyond alcohol and screwing random women. How you build a narrative around a charmless, irredeemably smug fuck like Hank is anyone’s guess. It certainly didn’t work all that well in the show’s uneven, only occasionally amusing first season.
And now that Hank has won his beautiful girlfriend Karen (Natascha McElhone) back from the rich, stable, ultra-boring Bill (Damian Young), what next? Most men would be reasonably happy to have landed such a babe, to restore a full-time relationship with their daughter (however irritatingly adorable and hip that daughter might be) and to work on rebuilding a high-paid writing career for themselves. But not Hank. He’s tortured by hot hippie chicks in bikinis, sucking provocatively on popsicles at the corner store. He’s hobbled by envy when a new music producer friend waxes romantic about Led Zeppelin while getting head under the table from a pretty stranger at a Hollywood bar. Moody wants more. He lives among sleazy middle-aged miscreants and he can’t stand not to be a part of the sleazy middle-aged fun.
Sure, Karen draws lines in the sand and pouts, but mostly she puts up with Hank’s self-destruction and stupidity. Aside from a few cursory allusions to her passionate love of her work as an architect, it’s not entirely clear that Karen is an actual person. Instead, she haunts Hank’s life like a benevolent, sweetly smiling ghost with very high cheekbones.
Meanwhile, Hank’s closest friends, married couple Charlie (Evan Handler) and Marcy (Pamela Adlon), are still trying desperately to party like rock stars, but they make the pursuit look about as appealing as making out with a heroin addict in a trash-strewn back alley. In one particularly disturbing scene, the couple screams at each other while snorting lines of coke and shoving forkfuls of lobster down their throats.
Charlie: Marce, I gotta tell you something, Marce! (Pause) I love you.
Marcy: Oh, I fucking love you, babe. Wanna fuck? You can choke me if you want … Just a little.
Yuck. Now at least it’s clear why God hates us all. (“God Hates Us All” is the title of Hank’s critically acclaimed book.) Sure, with all of the drug-induced yelling and sweating and affectionate nastiness, this may be one of the more realistic scenes on the whole fantastical show, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re tolerating the company of frighteningly desperate, self-involved losers who are aging badly.
I know, it sounds like a great show when I put it that way. Desperate, self-involved losers who are aging badly? I can’t think of anything I’d rather see on TV. But sweaty, half-dressed couples snorting drugs and mumbling “Wanna fuck?” at each other? There’s just something so vulgar and sad about the way these people talk. Foul language is my friend, and even I find them crude and unsavory.
“I wax hairy tacos!”
“Dude, you ate the wrong pussy.”
“Any tit suckers?”
That last question is the smarmy music producer again, asking Hank in his charming way if he has kids or not. Meanwhile, it’s very important that we understand just how talented Hank is, via the constant flow of half-wits hellbent on gushing over his supreme brilliance — in slightly rusty boomer terms, of course. “Your writing always had this in-your-face, rock ‘n’ roll energy to it, Hunter S. Thompson meets the last Stooges album,” the producer tells Hank, his references as quaint and irrelevant as a dusty embroidered throw pillow. Didn’t we all tire of sweaty, wild-eyed men raving about Hunter S. Thompson way back in college?
“Jimmy fucking Page used to get under-the-table oral from Miss Pamela right here!” the producer barks like a tiresome adolescent (while he himself gets a blow job under the table). “I bet you could still scrape some of his DNA off the floor!” Has anyone ever made sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll look quite so unsexy before? It’s like being thrown back into your hard-partying 20s, only this time you’re old, queasy and grouchy, and the people around you are even more boring and insipid than they were the first time around.
No wonder Hank is always in such a crappy mood.
The leisure class
You might think that HBO’s “Entourage” (10 p.m. Sundays) represents the only free ticket to good times among the Men Behaving Badly comedies. After all, these guys are young, they’re rich, they’re famous, they live in L.A. and they’re surrounded by beautiful young whoring sea donkeys. They’re on top of the world! Why not take a ride through the insanity of Hollywood with a bunch of frisky whippersnappers at the helm?
When the fifth season of “Entourage” opened, it was easy enough to catch the spirit (as it often is at the start of each season of this show). When the cameras zoomed across the crystal-blue waves onto the island paradise where Vince (Adrian Grenier) was enjoying a threesome with some hot naked ladies — hell, even Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) was scoring — it was tough not to applaud this one small step for hedonism in a dark universe of recessionary gloom.
But just a few episodes later, we were back to the same old manic succession of meetings with agents and producers and studio executives, fielding the same onslaught of circuitous phone calls, navigating the same deal-making stops and starts and big opportunities and bigger disappointments and conflicts of interest and double-crossing Hollywood nastiness. One of the boys has a big crush, one of the boys is heartbroken and wants to “drown his sorrows in some pussy,” and one of the boys (guess who?) just wants some pussy, period. Yes, Vince’s stock is down, but he still wants to hold out for a film that’s truly great — not that we trust that he and Eric (Kevin Connolly) even have the brains in their heads to know a good film when they see it on the page.
Ultimately, it’s tough to care whether Vince has another hit and revives his career, whether Eric gets the girl again, whether Turtle gets laid, whether Drama (Kevin Dillon) humiliates himself right now or waits until later. “Entourage” is officially treading water, and the truth is it was never a great show to begin with, save for the always-entertaining scenes with agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven), so these rewarmed leftovers aren’t all that appetizing. Frantic phone calls, devious executives and the endless search for more pussy can only seem fun and lively for about as long as it takes to play the first few bars of that new tune by Kanye West.
But then, the same old story of restless players on the make, replete with the same old crude jokes and predictable sexy scenarios, doesn’t do it for us anymore. Like aging whores, these TV writers seem to think that doing the bare minimum will still get us off, but they’re sadly mistaken. The dark truth is, as the world falls apart, most of us would really love to indulge in a little escapist fun via ashtrays and dark bars and glasses of hard liquor — just look at how much we love “Mad Men” — but badly drawn losers, badly aging boomers and empty-headed celebrity whippersnappers leave us cold. Everybody wants to drink before the war — we’d just like to share a drink with someone who’s not demonstrably stupid and shallow, that’s all.
Next week: Women on the verge of something or other, from USA’s “The Starter Wife” to Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Atlanta” to NBC’s “Kath & Kim.”
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)