"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 long as President Obama aims to reimagineer this country from top to bottom, rebuilding our infrastructure, reinventing our healthcare system and refocusing us on renewable energy sources, maybe he can give Americans an extreme makeover while he’s at it.
Because, let’s face it, we’re not nearly as cool as we were 40 years ago. Our hairstyles are ugly, our taste in food and music sucks, we don’t read, we take ourselves way too seriously but have nothing original to say, we drive like assholes and these pants make our ass look fat.
Wouldn’t we all have better taste if there were less crappy products around for us to choose from? Of course we should stimulate the economy and bail out companies teetering on the brink of collapse, but let’s make sure we prop up the right companies while letting the lame ones die quickly. Do we really need to offer assistance to Applebee’s or TGIFriday’s, ensuring the survival of BBQ Pork Ravioli Bites and Fried Mac and Cheese indefinitely? Let’s find a way to bring on the demise of an always-thriving Wal-Mart, while pumping tax dollars into great indie record companies, independent booksellers, excellent mom and pop delis, and, of course, Dunkin’ Donuts, home of the widely celebrated Bavarian Kreme Doughnut!
And while we’re handing out incentives to purchase cars and homes, maybe we should also provide Americans with incentives to get in shape, read better books, talk less, listen more and stop feeding their kids Kool-Aid and reconstituted chicken fingers. Maybe we could allow consumers to file certain culturally worthy purchases as itemized deductions. Nationwide, Americans could save their receipts on classical music and literary fiction purchases, while paying a steep fast food, cigarette and water park tax.
Don’t get me wrong, I like McDonald’s hamburgers and gigantic theme parks and flashy superhero movies and the Fox network just as much as the next slow-moving, self-important American out there. But if some of these things just went away one day, would I cry big, salty tears over it? No. I’d probably lose five pounds, sign up for cello lessons and read “Crime and Punishment” from start to finish.
So, Mr. President, don’t spend all that hard-won Recovery and Reinvestment cash willy-nilly, like some doped-up teenager taking a stolen credit card for a spin at the local mega-mall. Make careful choices, and soon we’ll be a nation of culturally elite, fine-cheese-and-wine-appreciating snobs. You know, like France or Italy, but with more land and better personal hygiene.
Whine and dine
You just know that Tom Colicchio of “Top Chef” (10 p.m. Wednesdays on Bravo) would be 100 percent behind re-creating America in his image, even if it meant making us all bald and superior and slightly irritable whenever we had to deign to explain the difference between medium and medium rare. Look at how the man winces and grits his teeth every time one of the young cheftestants pretends to know how much salt is too much or how long a chunk of halibut should be cooked. Colicchio would probably move to Europe right now, if those haughty, self-righteous snobs didn’t enrage him even more than most Americans do.
In fact, this season of “Top Chef” has been a real merry-go-round of emotions for most self-hating Americans, what with cheftestant Hosea demonstrating the whiny, defensive American archetype with stunning accuracy. Meanwhile, his brand-new cuddle-buddy, cheftestant Leah, embodies the past 10 years of American domestic and foreign policy: She’s sloppy, scattered, disloyal, inconsistent and, above all, a big quitter. It’s no wonder these two find each other well-nigh irresistible.
But the highlight of last week’s episode came in the Quickfire Challenge, when Hosea, who’s a chef at Jax Fish House in Boulder, Colo., bungles his attempt to fillet a few sardines as widely acclaimed chef Eric Ripert looks on. Meanwhile, Finnish cheftestant Stefan and Italian Fabio show off their fish-handling skills with their oddly appealing European arrogance. Why are those two a million times easier to root for than Hosea and Leah? Maybe it’s because they seem to have a sense of humor about themselves, even when they’re feeling feisty – a far cry from Hosea’s repetitive laments. Maybe it’s because they don’t snivel about how much they love their girlfriend/boyfriend while they make out with a fellow cheftestant on the couch. Maybe it’s because they take the piss out of each other without taking either the show or themselves too seriously.
Whatever the reasons, when Stefan gave Hosea an enormous culinary wedgie by skinning and filleting an eel with stunning dexterity, Hosea reacted with typical American style, grace and wit: “He’s, like, been doing eel since he was 3 years old, apparently. Great. You know, just another reason Europe’s so great.” Have some dignity, man. Have we really fallen so far as a people?
But before we get too superior about the insecure chumps in our midst, let’s not forget another American, Jamie, who can’t open her mouth without delivering a big, superior nanny-nanny-boo-boo to the universe. After weeks of watching Jamie grimace and blink and sigh deeply at the awful mediocrity of everyone and everything she’d been forced to encounter since agreeing to appear on this damnable show, last week she took the cake by muttering that chef Eric Ripert’s dishes at Le Bernadin were underwhelming. “To be honest, I’m bored with this kind of food. It’s not something I’m inspired by.”
Sweet mother of the Lord, what is wrong with this sorry lot? If it weren’t for the fact that perky weirdo Carla is starting to find her stride and hit a few out of the park, I’d be ready to call this one for the Europeans right now.
But even given her terrible attitude, can you believe they sent Jamie home? Jamie, instead of Leah, who’s been stumbling along for weeks now? Or why not Hosea, who never totally fails but never, ever blows the judges’ socks off completely? Sometimes I think Colicchio is so focused on exactly how the meat or fish is prepared, he can’t see past it. Have you noticed how all he talks about is whether something is overdone or underdone, whether a particular cheftestant “respected” his or her protein? I do understand that once you overcook or undercook a piece of meat, the rest of the dish is a non-starter. Still, this is television. Let’s hear a little more about the flavors. Obviously every last one of these chefs is quite capable of screwing up a chunk of meat under these particularly trying circumstances.
While we’re talking judges, I have to ask: Is Toby Young really a positive addition to this team? I was never overly fond of Gail Simmons’ somewhat bland, nasal, finger-licking commentary, but all Young demonstrates, over and over and over again, is that he knows exactly how to lose friends and alienate people. On “Top Chef,” he does this with witty one-liners that feel about as fresh and spontaneous as reheated leftovers. Yes, yes, I know he’s been a restaurant critic for a few years, but does this crabby naysayer really know that much about food, or is he just good at being caustic for the cameras? In this age of blowhards, chatty pundits and celebrity ass hats, it’s chafing when any show or network passes up an actual expert for the sake of yet another Ornery-on-Command TV Personality.
If they wanted an asshole for this spot, I’m sure they could’ve lured Anthony Bourdain with a big wad of cash. He’s far more authentic, clever and nasty. Who wouldn’t want to be berated by Bourdain?
Effing emmer effer!
But while we’re on the subject of TV’s favorite hotheads, let’s not overlook Gordon Ramsay’s latest successful publicity stunt: The world’s most renowned celebrity chef/jackass of all trades/European kitchen tough apparently uttered the word “fuck” 187 times in just under two hours of the show “Gordon’s Great British Nightmare” a week ago.
Sounds like a brilliant way to get a little press — that is, if you’ve never tuned in for “Gordon Ramsey’s The F Word,” (3 p.m. Wednesdays on BBC America), a lively, macho cooking show in which every other word Ramsay mutters is a curse. Can it really be considered swearing when it’s used less as an expression of anger and more as a means of illustrating a particular cooking technique? For example, in Ramsay’s cooking-with-regular-Joes segment, he says to one amateur chef, “Susan, yes? When you lift the fish, make love to it. Don’t fuck it.” See? Purely instructional.
Or later, Ramsay is watching “Top Gear” host James May cover a fish pie with mashed potatoes and says, “It’s like a fucking plasterer. Holy shit. Would you like a trowel?” and “Can we get in the fucking oven now?” and, when their plates of fish pie are next to each other, “I’ve had that there, next to yours, for the last 10 minutes, I hope to fuck it don’t infect it, yes, with shitness.”
Ahh, it’s so nice how these screeners don’t bleep out all of the really informative culinary terms. As you can probably tell, “Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word” is really nothing like either “Hell’s Kitchen” or “Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares” (although it does have a lot of language in common with this “Great British Nightmare” show). “The F Word” is so scattered and free-spirited and strange, in fact, that it calls to mind my favorite cooking show ever, “Two Fat Ladies,” in which two large women traveled around the U.K. in a motorcycle and sidecar combo, cooking and cracking jokes and sampling fatty foods that you’d never, ever want to eat.
Certainly the spirit of “Two Fat Ladies” is hanging in the air as Ramsay goes out to the English countryside to hunt for bunny rabbits with the aid of an enormous golden eagle. Yes, apparently people actually use a trained eagle to hunt for wild hare. As Ramsay looks on, squealing delightedly, the enormous bird snatches up the big rabbit and eats about half of its head off before anyone is able to stop it. Ramsay is thrilled. “We’d never use the head anyway. That’s one perfect hare!”
Then we see Ramsay speeding off in his sports car, while he tells us in a voice-over, “I’m going to take the hare back home and hang it for a couple of days to improve the flavor.” Holy Christ. Hang it where? In some meat shed? In his utility closet? “Then, I’m going to cook it for the kids’ tea.” Wow. Is he going to tell them it’s bunny rabbit?
But apparently this is part of the routine on “The F Word”: enlist the children to help raise animals, then slaughter the animals and feed them to the children. Far kinder than walking into McDonald’s and getting your serving of tortured, terrorized cow, I suppose, but you still have to admire Ramsay’s boldness. It’s obvious he’s taking some pleasure in frying up the rabbit, then calling the kids, and asking them, after they’ve already started eating, if they know what it is. They’re not sure. He tells them it’s hare. “I’d never guess that!” one of his girls chirps, without skipping a beat. I guess the Ramsays chow on bunny rabbit regularly. Don’t you wish Ramsay were your daddy now? Sort of? Just a little?
Plenty of Ramsay’s fans certainly seem to, and it’s not all that difficult to see why: His freakishly aggressive demeanor just draws people in, in spite of themselves. Now, can you imagine an egotistical, obnoxious, foul-mouthed American pulling that off? Not in a million years. Ramsay makes it very clear, on his 50 or 60 TV shows, that Europeans are a lot cooler than Americans these days.
Of course, if the American Recovery, Reinvestment and Extreme Makeover Act passes, that could change. But these pants will still make our ass look fat.
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)