"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)
Any serious scribe will tell you that writing is, at its heart, the maddening struggle to find exactly the right words. Should the overcast sky be called “gray,” or “beige”? Is Rush Limbaugh best described as “an enraged Jabba the Hut,” or “a deranged Stay Puft Marshmallow Man”? Are we living through a “recession” or a “depression”?
Recently, I’ve been groping for the precise word to characterize the zeitgeist of this (unfortunately) historic moment. I know it’s not merely “demoralized.” It’s something far more dread-laden — a word I finally found during a visit last week to central Mexico.
Sitting atop the famed Pyramid of the Sun, I took in Teotihuacan — the ancient metropolis outside Mexico City. Its weathered bricks and mortar look like many great archaeological wonders, except its annals include a harrowing asterisk: When the Aztecs discovered the site, it was abandoned, and nobody knows what happened to its inhabitants. The ruins thus feel like monuments to an apocalypse.
That’s the term that popped into my mind as I baked in the Mexican sun — “apocalypse”: a phenomenon whose signs are everywhere these days.
Iraq bleeds from unending strife, while Israelis and Palestinians appear intent on annihilating each other. Pakistan just released A.Q. Khan, the scientist who delivered nuclear secrets to North Korea — the country that’s again threatening long-range missile tests. Colombia’s civil war rages, and the “great news” in Mexico is President Felipe Calderon’s announcement that drug cartels haven’t totally taken over the country.
In America, our apocalyptic symbols are usually subtler — the birth of octuplets or a restaurant chain’s Chicago Seven pizza, which consumerizes a renowned court case into a fast-food dish. But Wall Street and Washington exhibit a more overt Sodom and Gomorrah quality of late, to the point where even business magazines like Portfolio are invoking the A-word.
It’s not just the economic turbulence or the corruption that evokes this new darkness — both have been around for a while. It’s the “I feel fine” obliviousness of R.E.M.’s cataclysmic ballad — the aggressively defiant, adamantly proud ignorance that marks history’s end times.
As wages stagnate in a nation whose median household income is $50,000 a year, one financial executive tells reporters that bankers “can’t live on $150,000 to $180,000.” Another bemoans efforts to restrict CEO pay by saying that “$500,000 is not a lot of money” — and the New York Times chimes in by insisting that it’s true: “Half a million a year can go very fast.”
Similarly, as lawmakers hand banks trillions of taxpayer dollars, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., complains that Congress has gotten “very little done to help the financial sector,” and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., says America should be most worried that “we’re running out of rich people.” Meanwhile, reporter Rick Santelli is billed as a populist hero for standing amid wealthy commodities traders and telling CNBC’s viewers that the people being thrown out of their homes are “losers.”
Hollywood, our cultural mirror, reflects this back as a simultaneous mix of hedonism and fatalism, an MTV beach party at the end of the world. During this economic crisis, we’re given “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” a comedy film that glorifies overborrowing and overspending. We’ll soon be fed the final season of “Lost,” a television show whose Benetton models stumble onto a mystery that might destroy the planet. And then it’s on to a film version of “The Road,” Cormac McCarthy’s fable about cannibalism at the end of humanity.
Apocalypse … it seems so biblical, but suddenly feels so now. And if we don’t quickly wake up and turn things around, we will be left to mutter Col. Kurtz’s despondent whisper: “The horror … the horror.”
© 2009 Creators Syndicate Inc.
David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.More David Sirota.
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)