"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)
It takes about a week to adjust to being on vacation. At first, the mind can’t relax. It makes lists. It gets fussy over dinner, or obsesses over college savings plans. By the middle of the second week, the mind finally loosens up. That’s when you find yourself flipping through catalogs for hours, or picking lint off your sweater in a semi-hypnotic state, until you forget who you are, where you are and what you were doing.
In this cruel modern world, just as the stress of your work life finally subsides, just as you start to feel happy and numb like an overfed donkey, it’s time to get back to work. I need four weeks of vacation time, minimum! I want to wander aimlessly, nibbling on clover, in a daze. Instead, just as I get the laundry done and sit down to read a book, my holiday break is over.
And it takes about two weeks to adjust to being back at work. I tried to explain this to my husband yesterday: The mind doesn’t want to do a job. The mind wants to go to the mall and gaze at the intricate, almost balletic movements of the hot-dog-rolling machine at Orange Julius. The mind wants to take a nap. The mind wants a doughnut.
My husband had to run. He had stuff to do. The mind felt jilted. But the mind thought that some stale gingerbread cookies might take the mind’s mind off how jilted it felt.
Brand new menu!
But don’t feel too bad, my fellow struggling, slow donkey friends, because the winter season of television is upon us, and it’s about 50 trillion times more exciting than the fall television season was.
Why do they hold out on us like this? Network executives should make it official and shift all the best shows to January, and then I can spend September and October writing rambling essays about napping and fat donkeys and really good cheese instead of making elaborate charts detailing all of the shitty shows none of us want to watch anyway, because they suck ass. (After a long-but-not-long-enough vacation, the mind is drawn to vulgarity — and things that are filled with custard.)
A bunch of new shows are about to flicker onto your TV screens in the coming weeks, shows that are so fresh and delectable, they might as well be filled with custard. My top three favorites so far? I’m so glad you asked.
1) Fox’s “Lie to Me” (Premieres 9 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 21) Starring Tim Roth as a “deception detection” specialist, this show is like a mix between CBS’s “The Mentalist” and Fox’s “House”: There are lots of creepy, “How did he know that?” expert moments, just as cheesy and delicious as they are in Simon Baker’s hands, but with an edge. Unlike blue-eyed Baker, who’s soft and pretty and truly belongs among the filtered lenses and ample-breasted ghost-soothers of CBS, Roth is sort of beady-eyed and unlikable — you know, how you’d imagine a Fox executive might look, if you were barreling toward him in your car at night. Something tells us that Roth’s character, Cal Lightman, has seen more than his fair share of big, fat lies and the lying liars who tell them. But Lightman doesn’t wallow like Hugh Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House does. No way, he’s more chipper than that. Plus, he has a sexy sidekick (Kelli Williams from “The Practice”) and some sexy underlings who flirt with him and each other — you know, anything to keep the whole picture funny but edgy, upbeat but heavy. Think “Bones.” Think “Fringe.” This is the signature flavor of Fox: salty, greasy goodness in every bite, and no one can eat just one. This network knows how to get us hooked. Which leads us to my second favorite new, exciting show of the winter season …
2) Fox’s “Dollhouse” (Premieres 9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 13) Yes, we’ve all been waiting for Joss Whedon’s new sci-fi drama, about a bunch of hot people who have their memories erased so that they can act as anonymous agents for a high-end firm that provides fantasy dates, secret missions of various kinds, hostage negotiations … It’s not entirely clear what goes down at the Dollhouse or who runs it or how they got started or whether they’re good or evil, and that, my dear, is the custard filling in this big, sugary doughnut of a drama. If you take off the rose-colored, Joss Whedon-loving glasses, of course, you’ll notice that the first episode of “Dollhouse” is a little bit dorky and uneven at times. But Eliza Dushku fills that “Buffy”-esque dazed-but-sharp babe quotient nicely, and I guarantee that after the first episode, you’ll want to see more, more, more, more, as soon as you can. Personally, I can’t wait for this show to kick into high gear. Weird, witty, smart, suspenseful, intense? This is what we spent the fall TV season hungering for. That, and something that might actually make us laugh, which brings us to my favorite of them all …
3) Showtime’s “The United States of Tara” (10 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18) Yes, it’s a good old-fashioned multiple-personality dramedy starring Toni Collette and John Corbett, written by indie wunderkind/stripper scribe, Diablo Cody, she of the whimsically made-up name and the funky hairdos and the gloriously quirky personal style, the likes of which Hollywood shuns (at first), then clings to like a big, milky, life-giving breast. As bored as we all are with Cody’s plucky rise to greatness, this woman does have a fiercely original voice and is far from a flash in the Sundance-welded pan. “The United States of Tara” takes a nearly ridiculous premise (Mom with debilitating personality disorder tries to live a normal life off her mind-numbing meds, forcing her family to interact with three incredibly demanding “alternate” personalities) and spins it into comedic gold. Of course, the whole thing might be cringe-inducingly awful without Toni Collette, who is just outrageously, breathtakingly good at playing four different characters wrapped into one. On top of that, the teenage daughter has great comic timing (how rare is that?), the teenage son is also wickedly funny, Rosemarie DeWitt is — well, she’s Rosemarie DeWitt, she’s the greatest (Go see “Rachel Getting Married” if you haven’t yet). John Corbett (as Tara’s husband) is low-key and bland as always, only in this setting, he’s the perfect foil for Tara’s three-ring circus. I’ll write more about this one next week, but in the meantime, program your DVR. You can’t miss it.
Ah, three promising new shows. Can you believe it? It’s enough to wake you from that post-holiday stupor once and for all.
Welcome back-tica, Galactica!
But those three are just the tip of the iceberg, what with so many returning favorites flying at us in a matter of days: “24″ (8 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 11, on Fox), “Damages” (10 p.m. Wednesdays on FX), “Friday Night Lights” (9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 16, on NBC),”Battlestar Galactica” (10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 16, on Sci Fi), “Big Love” (9 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18, on HBO) and “Flight of the Conchords” (10 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 18, on HBO). How will we juggle them all?
After waiting a year and a half, the new season of “24″ would excite me even if Jack Bauer sat down and ate a ham sandwich for the first hour, then called a few old friends on his cellphone while window shopping for pocket-size explosives and torture devices during the second. Instead, Jack is pulled into the usual web of terrorist manipulations and high-level conspiracies. The first four hours of the “24″ premiere offer the usual Mister Toad’s Wild Ride of absurd, spectacular and goofy twists and turns, of course. Just suspend your disbelief from the start (a prerequisite when watching this show) because this season’s big conceit — from the players involved to the nature of Jack’s involvement – is more fantastical than ever. But that’s what we want from “24″ – pure, unfettered, neocon fantasy, softened by the addition of a female president who, unlike most presidents to date outside of “The West Wing’s” Jed Bartlet, actually seems a little unnerved by reports of genocide in small African nations.
Onward: I can already strongly recommend “Friday Night Lights,” of course, having watched most of the season on DirecTV this past fall. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s definitely worthwhile, a far cry from the melodramatic and repetitive second season.
Meanwhile, the second season of FX’s “Damages” looks even better than the first. (Wrote about it here last week.) And the final 10 episodes of SciFi’s “Battlestar Galactica” are almost guaranteed to range from intense to mind-blowing – the Galacticans have landed on Earth and it’s a crusty, blackened mess with not a single water park or Australian-themed steakhouse left standing. What fresh hell awaits our intrepid, booze-swilling colonists?
Finally, “Big Love,” which bored me to tears in its second season, really gains momentum during its third season, with a bunch of unfamiliar new challenges facing Bill and his three wives. It’s always a little tough to get back into this show. “Who are these bad people with their dozens of children and their bad hair, and why should I care?” I find myself wondering. But by the third episode, the new season reaches critical mass, plotwise and emotionally.
Oh, the places we’ll go! At long last, after a dreary, draining fall, there are so many good shows to write about, I can barely tackle them all. But for now, it’s back to bed with a box of custard-filled doughnuts and the first two episodes of A&E’s “The Beast.” Who says the holiday spirit can’t live on inside every one of us?
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)