"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)
Just wondering. Do you still think Sarah Palin is ready for the big stage?
James L. Somers
Good question! And very timely after Palin’s shock resignation as governor of Alaska this past Fourth of July weekend. I assume that family priorities — personal as well as financial — had become all-consuming. Given her success with finalizing the massive Alaska pipeline project, I think Palin should have stuck it out, but of course she is master of her own fate. What certainly was blameworthy was the chaotic and rushed statement itself. Something so politically consequential needed more careful composition and rehearsal. Why provide more fodder for the vultures and harpies of the Northeastern media?
Unfortunately, it’s pretty obvious that Palin still lacks that cadre of trusted pros who are the invisible elves behind every successful national politician — the assistants who gather and vet material and who filter proposals and plan logistics. In a way, this is part of her virtues — her complete freedom from routine micromanagement and business as usual. She does her own thing with seat-of-the-pants gusto. It’s why she remains hugely popular with the Republican grass-roots base — as I know from listening to talk radio. Callers coming fresh from her rallies are always heady with infectious enthusiasm.
Of course you’d never know that from reading hit jobs like Todd Purdum’s sepulchral piece on Palin in the current Vanity Fair. Scurrying around Alaska with his notepad, Purdum still managed to find comically little to indict her with. Anyone with a gripe is given the floor; fans are shut out. This exercise in faux objectivity is exposed at key points such as Purdum’s failure to identify the actual instigator of Palin’s extravagant clothing bills (a crazed, credit-card-abusing stylist appointed by the McCain campaign) and his prissy characterization of Palin’s performance at the vice-presidential debate as merely “adequate.” Hey, wake up — Palin cleaned Biden’s clock! By the end, Biden was sighing and itching to split.
Whether Palin has a national future or not will depend on her willingness to hit the books at some point and absorb more information about international history and politics than she has needed to know in her role as governor. She also needs a shrewder, cooler take on the mainstream media, with its preening bullies, cackling witches, twisted cynics and pompous windbags. The Northeastern media establishment is in decline, and everyone knows it. Palin should not have gotten into a slanging match with David Letterman or anyone else who has been obsessively defaming her or her family. Let surrogates do that stuff.
The vicious double standard is pretty obvious. Only the tabloids, for example, ran the photos of a piss-drunk Chelsea Clinton, panties exposed, falling into her car outside London clubs a few years ago. If Chelsea had been the scion of Republican bigwigs, those tacky scenes would have been trumpeted from pillar to post in the U.S. as signals of parental failures or turmoil in clan Clinton. As a Democrat, I detest the partisan machinations that have become standard in Northeastern news management and that are detectable in editorial decisions at major metropolitan newspapers nationwide. It’s why I, like a host of others, have shifted my news gathering to the Web.
As to your question “How have we come to this pass in America where the assassination of top government officials is fodder for snide jokes on national radio?” let me outline the path off the top of my head.
My first memory of such a case was watching Alec Baldwin in 1998 demand that Henry Hyde, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, be stoned to death. Baldwin went on to demand that after that execution, the killing extravaganza should continue to the chairman’s house, where his wife and children would be killed as well, along with the families of other Republican politicians whom Baldwin did not agree with. Baldwin later claimed it was just a joke, but I remember watching this on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” and I can assure you there was nothing funny about it in tone or substance. Baldwin’s rage was chilling, his assassination endorsement grotesque.
Second, Randi Rhodes on her Air America show in 2004 compared George W. Bush to Fredo Corleone and said he should be taken out fishing — and imitated the sound of a gunshot. The third thing was the 2006 film “Death of a President,” featuring the assassination of George W. Bush while he was still a sitting president. I understand the purpose of the film was to explore the fallout of a modern assassination in the new media environment, but that could have been accomplished with a fictitious current president — as is done in countless films, TV shows and books. In an environment that treats assassination so casually, it was inevitable that it would become joke fodder.
Michael James Barton
Sugar Land, Texas
Thank you very much for this chilling survey. Assassination scenarios are outrageous no matter which party indulges in them. This kind of ethical obtuseness has to stop. Our zero tolerance should also extend to jokes threatening rape of public figures — something that was amazingly directed at Sarah Palin from liberal quarters shortly after she arrived on the national scene last year. Dehumanization is a stealthy process that ultimately destroys everyone.
Glad to see you notice Obama’s halo slipping.
I was surprised that in your discussion of Obama’s Cairo speech you did not discuss the section on women’s rights more, which had one of the most egregious moral equivalences ever:
The sixth issue that I want to address is women’s rights. I know there is debate about this issue. I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality.
This gives the idea that “the debate” about the issue of women’s rights is centered on a Western fault — that of denying women the right to cover her hair, which is at best a minor news item. Why does it need to be mentioned at all? Because it soothes the Islamic listener and handily deflects from the real issue that Islam opposes the education of women.
Now let me be clear: issues of women’s equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, we have seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead. Meanwhile, the struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.
This basically says that all women’s equality in America is not as good as in Islam because some Islamic women have held positions of power. This gives the impression that women’s rights in the U.S. are still a “struggle,” if not worse than those in Islamic countries. No mention of stoning for adultery, zero property rights, female genital mutilation (85 percent of Egyptian girls are cut) and many other abuses that are widespread in the Muslim world.
As you said, first-draft material.
Yes, the excerpts you cite are pretty sloppy — unsubstantiated rhetoric that should have been caught by Obama’s speechwriting team. At some point I trust there will be a general shakedown and reorganization of the Obama staff. But any new administration is just feeling its way. Despite some flubs and lapses, Obama seems to me to have eased into the post of president with dignity and authority. I am hopeful that he will rid himself soon of these simplistic anti-American clichés.
In regard to Islam and women’s education, there is great debate over an evident discrepancy between what the Quran advocates and how it has been interpreted by conservative Arab societies. It cannot be flatly said that Islam opposes women’s education. There are distinct local and regional differences intricately tied to history. Nations like Algeria, Egypt and Lebanon, for example, are far more supportive of educational opportunities for women than the Sudan, Yemen or Saudi Arabia. Cosmopolitan cultures are always more tolerant than those still under the heavy sway of ancient tribalism.
Thank you for so succinctly expressing your views concerning Jesus, etc. I totally agree with everything you mentioned. But I do question how we can intellectualize something that is not language-bound. The universe is a human concept. Am I wrong?
We can only look at the world through our language — Lord only knows that trees and storms do not conceptualize in human constructs. The “force,” so to speak, can only be thought of in human terms.
Actually, I disagree that language is or should be our primary medium for understanding the world. This was, in fact, the central point in my crusade in the 1990s against post-structuralism, whose monotonous foundation was the tunnel-vision linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure. What a dungeon post-structuralists locked themselves and their hapless students into.
There are different parts of the brain, which science is still charting and exploring. Words are very important in human development, but they can never adequately explain the awesome mysteries of the universe. Dante dramatized this when Virgil, the Roman poet who is his guide through hell and purgatory, cannot accompany him to paradise. Virgil stands for reason and language, but sacred vision requires a leap into another dimension.
As someone who has spent an entire career teaching at arts colleges, I can testify to the quite different conceptual models with which musicians, dancers and visual artists process the world. The senses have their own logic and primacy — a point I have tried to dramatize in my own readings of poetry and art. Expanded perception is closer to how animals are instinctively attuned to their environment. Words can record our observations, but they are merely a tool, subordinate to nature’s stubborn physicality.
I am conservative politically, yet I see the profound weaknesses in the movement. One thing from the liberal side of thinking that I struggle with is the concept of a “hate crime.” If I am murdered, is that less heinous than a member of a protected class being murdered?
Matthew Shepard’s case is often singled out as the reason we need hate crime legislation. The question is: What more would those who propose hate crime legislation like to be done to the perpetrators? They are serving consecutive life sentences. I believe they should be executed for their crime, but it seems that most liberals oppose the death penalty. So what would be different in his case if this legislation were enacted?
Conejo Valley, Calif.
I have been on the record since the 1990s as strongly opposing hate crimes legislation. I think it is a totalitarian intrusion into citizens’ thought processes. Government functionaries should not be ceded the dangerous authority to make decisions about motivation. They aren’t novelists, psychologists or sibyls! Furthermore, there should be no special privileged class of protected groups in a democracy. A crime is a crime — period.
The barbaric acts that led to the death of Matthew Shepard in 1998 deserved a very severe penalty, which has been applied. Although I am a supporter of the death penalty in extreme cases, I think there were ambiguities here: The aimless hooligans who beat Shepard and tied him to a fence perhaps didn’t necessarily mean to kill him. Despite my abhorrence of the crime, I was a dissenter about the sanctification of Shepard, a charming young man with a troubled family background who had faced many difficulties in life because of his frailty and lack of conventional masculinity.
Only a week before, Shepard had expressed fears about being killed. Given that apprehension, it is still inexplicable — if the case is examined only through a political lens — why Shepard would leave a public place in the company of such blatant thugs. A hate crimes law that claims to be able to penetrate the mind of the perpetrator should be equally open to questions about the victim. If, out of fairness or pity, one avenue of inquiry is shut down, then the other must be too.
The recent discovery of the Venus of Hohle Fels reminded me of the Venus of Willendorf, which you introduced to me at the beginning of “Sexual Personae.” Commentators see the newly found statue as porn and view it with a totally modern eye, a perfect example of how a lack of art history reduces one’s comprehension of the world. Please set them straight!
Right you are! I was absolutely incredulous at the vulgar media coverage of the Venus of Hohle Fels, which was tagged with the “pornography” label and joked about as an example of how sex-obsessed early man was. Furthermore, the statuette’s enlarged genitals were interpreted as a misogynous distortion because they seem ugly to the modern eye.
What ignorance! These objects date from 35,000-18,000 B.C., the nomadic Stone Age, when human survival was under constant threat. Female fertility was a great mystery: Women seemed to be conduits of the primal powers of nature. The connection of sexual intercourse to pregnancy wasn’t established yet — because intercourse sometimes preceded puberty and also because it takes so long for any woman to “show.” No one knew why one woman got pregnant and another didn’t, or why a formerly fertile woman suddenly ceased to be so. But it certainly had little to do with men!
These statuettes were probably used in rituals to invoke the energy of mother earth. They belonged to a primitive religious universe where fear was the dominant emotion. The idea that they were porn props for randy cavemen is simply ridiculous!
I take some umbrage with your comments about Ginger Rogers. I must give notice that she is my favorite actress and I have had a crush on her for most of my life. A footnote to Fred Astaire? Maybe, but where is Laurel without Hardy, Ali without Frazier, Astaire without Rogers? Someone said he gave her class and she gave him sex appeal. A footnote to a great American icon maybe isn’t all that bad.
Oh, dear, I’m sorry if I dissed Ginger in my haste to defend Fred. My favorite Ginger Rogers performance is in “Stage Door,” where she and Katharine Hepburn are like prickly lionesses sparring over territory. Some weird energy was happening between those two alpha gals! I meant that Ginger was a footnote in Hollywood history rather than to Fred himself. She was a classic, wisecracking American dame in that post-flapper period — a new kind of woman like Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard, sexy and flirtatious, brash and irreverent. But Ginger was not a major, indelible artist like Astaire, who did pioneering work even in dance cinematography. She seems largely confined to her period, perhaps because her career was oddly truncated. Ginger physically changed into another persona, much more matronly — as if she had absorbed or devoured that omnipresent, symbiotic mother of hers!
It’s a nitpick, but I don’t think your phrase “co-written by Paul McCartney” is quite accurate with regard to the Daniela Mercury track you linked, “Essa Ternura.” The lyrics have been translated in this version, but the song is all Sir Paul’s; its original title is “A Certain Softness,” and it was (one of the few tracks I didn’t like that much) on his otherwise mostly very strong, fairly acclaimed 2005 album, “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.”
East Northport, N.Y.
No nitpick! The question of artist attribution is of utmost importance. Many, many apologies for my error. I misunderstood what Daniela said when I was discussing the song with her in New York (where she was finalizing the production of a song with Wyclef Jean for her new album, “Canibalia”). My Portuguese is deplorably rudimentary, but I hope to progress! Yes, you are right: Cesar Lemos simply did the translation of McCartney’s lyrics — making the gender of the beloved more ambiguous. Daniela slows the song down even further but paradoxically pushes it along with a more emphatic, swaying rhythm, producing an artfully Brazilian interlude of bewitchingly languid sensuality.
Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again”: “Never want to come down, never want to put my feet back down on the ground”; “We’re flying high, we’re watching the world pass us by.” Having never done drugs before, I still thought from Day One that this song was about drug use, but I’ll have to take another look at it from your perspective.
Many thanks to you and all the Salon readers who immediately wrote in to inform me about Dave Gahan’s heroin addiction and suicide attempts. That crucial information does indeed change the meaning of his lyrics. But if I could salvage some of my original reading: The needle became a proxy penis and sadomasochistic lover, a homoerotic angel of both ecstasy and death. (Jean Cocteau’s “Orphée,” anyone?)
What startled me about this episode is how, yet again, I am always drawn to songs inspired by drugs — even though I don’t take drugs. (As the product of Mediterranean wine culture, I follow the well-worn path of Dionysian liquor — and let’s not forget Near Eastern beer.) Whether it was the electrified Bob Dylan (methedrine), early Pink Floyd (LSD), the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” (heroin), or David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust (cocaine), I seem to love artists in their most altered, hallucinatory states. Yet another chapter for some future manifesto on psychedelic criticism.
I wanted to make you aware of one misapprehension I discovered in your column regarding a song from U2′s most recent album. You interpreted the song to be a paean to mutual understanding and a “manifesto of artistic mission.” This is an interesting take but one that unfortunately isn’t borne out by the lyrics. The true meaning of the song is simpler but also more sublime — more “magnificent,” if you will.
“The Magnificent” (as the subject of the song is referred to near the end) is in my view none other than God. As Bono sings, “I was born to be with you/ In this space and time”: He acknowledges a relationship with his Creator, the one who made both time and space. “After that and ever after/ I haven’t had a clue” refers to his ignorance of what the afterlife (the “ever after” outside of “this space and time”) will be like. In the chorus, he refers to love having left a mark on him, and yet that same love having healed his hurts, his “scars.” Famously, the book of John declares, “God IS love” [emphasis mine].
The second verse of the song is where the evidence that the subject of this powerful hymn is God is nearly undeniable. Bono points to the sovereignty of God as he declares that he was “born to sing for you/ I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up/ And sing whatever song you wanted me to.” However, he also recognizes his free will as a man, adding, “I give you back my voice.” The last line in this verse is particularly clear in pointing to the Creator as the focus, saying, “From the womb my first cry, it was a joyful noise…” Throughout the book of Psalms, worshippers of God are encouraged to “Make a joyful noise” to the Lord. It is a unique expression, characteristically used in this book of the Bible (see Psalms 66:1, 81:1, 95:1, 98:4, et al.). Also, Jesus himself famously remarked in the book of Matthew, “Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise [to God]?”
Lastly, Bono uses a phrase during the ending stanzas of the song that is unique to a Judeo-Christian worldview — “Justified ’til we die.” As Paul writes in his epistle to the Galatians, “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” As you likely know, for the Christian, trusting in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and his resurrection from the dead makes one righteous in the sight of God, as the believer is given (or, more theologically, imputed) the perfection of Christ, who became the sacrificial offering to God for the sins of mankind.
About 10 years ago, I came to know personally the God whom I believe Bono is clearly singing to. That you were so affected by this song is meaningful to me, as it is my hope that you, too, will come to know the peace and joy that come from giving one’s heart back to the One who created it in the first place. I will be praying for you today, and specifically “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” I believe that you have some suspicions that this may be true but may have as yet been unwilling to give your life to the magnificent One enshrined in this song that you responded to so strongly. He loves you, and made you, too, to be with Him. It will be my prayer that you make that decision today. May God richly bless you.
Lake Forest, Calif.
Thank you very much for your good wishes. And my thanks also to Joseph Hartman of Arlington, Va., who wrote in to argue as eloquently as you have that the U2 song is “a psalm to God.”
However, I must respectfully disagree. “Magnificent” is definitely a magnificat, a hymnlike song of praise, and it is permeated with religious references — much as love songs often were in African-American soul music. But as I interpret Bono’s lyrics (from my classroom experience as a teacher of poetry), there are several key details suggesting that it is not God but the audience who is being addressed. “I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up”: Surely Bono is not telling God that He needs lifting! It’s the audience who need intervention and exaltation. “You and I will magnify”: Devout humans do the magnifying, not God, the subject of that magnification.
Yes, Bono is saying he was destined to sing — like the Celtic bards before him. He was one of the chosen few even as a squalling infant. “I was born to be with you in this space and time”: the “you” here is not God, who exists outside of space and time, but other mortals subject to limitation. The soul had to leave God to come to earth. In professing uncertainty about what is beyond the grave, Bono is rejecting Christian orthodoxy. The “Magnificent” to whom he sings might well be God, but it could also be the universe or life itself.
I have found the Holy Grail of lesbian dirty movies. I have read that you (like me) are more attracted to straight and bisexual women than to lesbians. My taste in porn dates back to the ’70s and my dad’s collection of Penthouse magazines that my brother and I would find under the bed. I have often wondered why there is no lesbian porn like that — really erotic, beautiful women who look like they are into it.
“Girl on Girl” material for straight men is usually disappointing, with lots of giggling and glancing at the cameraman. I feel like I should watch so-called dyke porn, but starting with “On Our Backs” and now its heirs like “The Crash Pad,” those lesbian-targeted products adhere to a different aesthetic than what I can relate to. Lots of piercing, tattoos, boi models, etc.
I just discovered a couple of studios that use hot women who genuinely love women, with an emphasis on psychological connection, drama, passion but with the focus on hardcore action. Check out “Sweetheart Video,” anything by Viv Thomas, and also Girlfriends Films and a few others. A good Web site to check out is lezlove.com. They cater to straight men, lesbians, couples — a peaceable kingdom of pervs. This video is a YouTube appropriate PG-13 mash-up I made with clips featuring the gorgeous, passionate Samantha Ryan. She also does mainstream adult films that are unsexy and inane, but in these indie films she is an amazing artist and apparently a black belt in lesbian sex. I hope it cheers you up!
What a fun way to end this month’s column! Thanks a million for your spicy contribution. Let’s hope other Salon readers will weigh in on the vexed question of lesbo porn, most of which I find hopelessly banal. Your beloved Samantha Ryan reminds me of the Swedish-French actress Marika Green, who played Bee, the swashbuckling blonde in a safari jacket who conquers Sylvia Kristel’s heart in the first, best “Emmanuelle” movie (1974). Oh, those were the days of sophisticated eroticism!
The sad truth is that the hottest lesbo scenes ever committed to film were enacted by straight women — Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon in “The Hunger,” Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau in “Desert Hearts,” Stephane Audran and Jacqueline Sassard in “Les Biches.” Even in Showtime’s “The L Word,” which degenerated into psychopathological bathos, the straight Jennifer Beals was stratospherically hotter than the sole, sad-sack lesbian actress on that series. All this propaganda about the era of the lipstick lesbian! Under the surface, it seems to be the same old dreary soap opera, tarted up in fancy new rags.
After a lifetime of observation, I must regretfully conclude that men make everything hotter — whether in gay or straight porn. I don’t mean men have to be concretely present, only implied as the ultimate audience for primo sexual display. Let’s turn from Nordic Samantha Ryan to two Brazilian peacocks on parade — Daniela Mercury and another singer, Aline Rosa, in their now notorious kiss on a TV show last year, clearly a homage to the Madonna-Britney Spears caper of 2005.
The entire erotic charge of this flamenco-like pas de deux comes from the confident heterosexuality of both women, who project a natural bisexual responsiveness that I think is terrific. If this is some new Brazilian synthesis, I’m all for it. Let the exports begin! By the way, the classic hit song that Daniela and Aline are singing, “A Night and a Half,” was written by the famous Marina Lima, a lesbian with a bisexual history. It’s a seduction fantasy, full of imagery of beaches and nakedness. But for me the half-clothed is always more piquant than the nude — as in the swaggering Daniela’s man-tailored vest. Elegant and dapper!
Camille Paglia’s column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her next letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.
Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems." You can write her at this address.More Camille Paglia.
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)