"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)
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi scored a giant gain for feminism last weekend. In shoving her controversy-plagued healthcare reform bill to victory by a paper-thin margin, she conclusively demonstrated that a woman can be just as gritty, ruthless and arm-twisting in pursuing her agenda as anyone in the long line of fabled male speakers before her. Even a basic feminist shibboleth like abortion rights became just another card for Pelosi to deal and swap.
It was a stunningly impressive recovery for someone who seemed to be coming apart at the seams last summer, when a sputtering, rattled Pelosi struggled to deal with the nationwide insurgency of town hall protesters — reputable, concerned citizens whom she outrageously tried to tar as Nazis. Whether or not her bill survives in the Senate is immaterial: Pelosi’s hard-won, trench-warfare win sets a new standard for U.S. women politicians and is certainly well beyond anything the posturing but ineffectual Hillary Clinton has ever achieved.
As for the actual content of the House healthcare bill, horrors! Where to begin? That there are serious deficiencies and injustices in the U.S. healthcare system has been obvious for decades. To bring the poor and vulnerable into the fold has been a high ideal and an urgent goal for most Democrats. But this rigid, intrusive and grotesquely expensive bill is a nightmare. Holy Hygeia, why can’t my fellow Democrats see that the creation of another huge, inefficient federal bureaucracy would slow and disrupt the delivery of basic healthcare and subject us all to a labyrinthine mass of incompetent, unaccountable petty dictators? Massively expanding the number of healthcare consumers without making due provision for the production of more healthcare providers means that we’re hurtling toward a staggering logjam of de facto rationing. Steel yourself for the deafening screams from the careerist professional class of limousine liberals when they get stranded for hours in the jammed, jostling anterooms of doctors’ offices. They’ll probably try to hire Caribbean nannies as ringers to do the waiting for them.
A second issue souring me on this bill is its failure to include the most common-sense clause to increase competition and drive down prices: portability of health insurance across state lines. What covert business interests is the Democratic leadership protecting by stopping consumers from shopping for policies nationwide? Finally, no healthcare bill is worth the paper it’s printed on when the authors ostentatiously exempt themselves from its rules. The solipsistic members of Congress want us peons to be ground up in the communal machine, while they themselves gambol on in the flowering meadow of their own lavish federal health plan. Hypocrites!
And why are we even considering so gargantuan a social experiment when the nation is struggling to emerge from a severe recession? It’s as if liberals are starry-eyed dreamers lacking the elementary ability to project or predict the chaotic and destabilizing practical consequences of their utopian fantasies. Republicans, on the other hand, have basically sat on their asses about healthcare reform for the past 20 years and have shown little interest in crafting legislative solutions to social inequities. The usual GOP floater about private medical savings accounts is a crock — something that, given the astronomical costs of major medical crises, would be utterly unworkable for families of even average household income.
International models of socialized medicine have been developed for nations and populations that are usually vastly smaller than our own. There are positives and negatives in their system as in ours. So what’s the point of this trade? The plight of the uninsured (whose number is far less than claimed) should be directly addressed without co-opting and destroying the entire U.S. medical infrastructure. Limited, targeted reforms can ban gouging and unfair practices and can streamline communications now wastefully encumbered by red tape. But insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry are not the sole cause of mounting healthcare costs, and constantly demonizing them is a demagogic evasion.
How dare anyone claim humane aims for this bill anyhow when its funding is based on a slashing of Medicare by over $400 billion? The brutal abandonment of the elderly here is unconscionable. One would have expected a Democratic proposal to include an expansion of Medicare, certainly not its gutting. The passive acquiescence of liberal commentators to this vandalism simply demonstrates how partisan ideology ultimately desensitizes the mind.
Last week’s startling gubernatorial victories by Republicans in Virginia and New Jersey were routinely dismissed as local aberrations by the liberal media or inflated as referendums on President Obama by the conservative media. But voters were clearly revolting against the deranged excess spending of government at both state and federal levels. So it was as much a protest against Congress as against the White House.
Obama sure needed a lift and got it from Pelosi. The administration has seemed to be drifting lately. Obama has dithered for months about a strategy for Afghanistan — another rats’ nest we should pull our troops out of overnight. Then there was the bizarre disproportion in Obama’s flying to Denmark to flog a Chicago Olympics yet not having time to make it to Germany to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall — which suggests a frivolous provincialism as well as ignorance of history among the president’s principal advisors. And Obama’s muted response to last week’s massacre at Fort Hood has exposed ambiguities and uncertainties in the U.S. government and military about how to respond to homegrown militant Islam. The presidency is a heavy burden — a prize that can become a curse.
On other matters, I was recently flicking my car radio dial and heard an affected British voice tinkling out on NPR. I assumed it was some fussy, gossipy opera expert fresh from London. To my astonishment, it was Richard Dawkins, the thrice-married emperor of contemporary atheists. I had never heard him speak, so it was a revelation. On science, Dawkins was spot on — lively and nimble. But on religion, his voice went “Psycho” weird (yes, Alfred Hitchcock) — as if he was channeling some old woman with whom he was in love-hate combat. I have no idea what ancient private dramas bubble beneath the surface there. As an atheist who respects and studies religion, I believe it is fair to ask what drives obsessive denigrators of religion. Neither extreme rationalism nor elite cynicism are adequate substitutes for faith, which fulfills a basic human need — which is why religion will continue to thrive in our war-torn world.
Continuing on the theme of overrated male writers, I was appalled at the sentimental rubbish filling the air about Claude Lévi-Strauss after his death was announced last week. The New York Times, for example, first posted an alert calling him “the father of modern anthropology” (a claim demonstrating breathtaking obliviousness to the roots of anthropology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) and then published a lengthy, laudatory obituary that was a string of misleading, inaccurate or incomplete statements. It is ludicrous to claim that Lévi-Strauss single-handedly transformed our ideas about the “primitive” or that before him there had been no concern with universals or abstract ideas in anthropology.
Beyond that, Lévi-Strauss’ binary formulations (like “the raw and the cooked”) were a simplistic cookie-cutter device borrowed from the dated linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, the granddaddy of now mercifully moribund post-structuralism, which destroyed American humanities departments in the 1980s. Lévi-Strauss’ work was as much a fanciful, showy mishmash as that of Joseph Campbell, who at least had the erudite and intuitive Carl Jung behind him. When as a Yale graduate student I ransacked that great temple, Sterling Library, in search of paradigms for reintegrating literary criticism with history, I found literally nothing in Lévi-Strauss that I felt had scholarly solidity.
In contrast, the 12 volumes of Sir James George Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” (1890-1915), interweaving European antiquity with tribal societies, was a model of intriguing specificity wed to speculative imagination. Though many details in Frazer have been contradicted or superseded, the work of his Cambridge school of classical anthropology (another of whose ornaments was the great Jane Harrison) will remain inspirational for enterprising students seeking escape from today’s sterile academic climate.
What mal-education goes on at killer prices at the elite schools! Skyrocketing tuition costs are legalized piracy. It’s a national scandal, which the mainstream media has shamefully neglected. A few weeks ago, I was bemused to discover the bill from my first semester (fall 1964) at Harpur College of the State University of New York at Binghamton. The tuition was $200, which was offset by my state scholarship for that amount. My shared room was $150; linen was $6.50. Board at the cafeteria was $225. The physical education fee was $2, and there was an activity fee of $17.50 and a general college fee of $12.50. The grand total my parents owed for the semester was $413.50 — for which I received the superb education that is still the basis of my professional life as a teacher and writer. If only the billions upon billions that this country has thrown down the drain in Iraq and Afghanistan had been redirected to education and healthcare!
Now on, with relief, to pop! I’ve been enjoying “Gainsbourg Forever,” a two-disc set made in France of the best songs of Serge Gainsbourg (1928-91). It came as a surprise that he wrote big-beat techno songs at the end of his career. I adore “Mon Légionnaire” (1989), which ends the collection and which I’ve been playing over and over in my car. This video doesn’t quite capture the delicious crispness of the synthesizer and twangy guitar licks, but you get the idea. I nearly drove off the road when I heard “Bonnie and Clyde,” Gainsbourg’s 1968 duet with Brigitte Bardot, a homage to the epochal Arthur Penn film starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty of the prior year. In the video, Bardot (as amusingly deadpan as Nico fronting the Velvet Underground) shows a lot of leg and can be heard oddly whooping in the background. Check out Gainsbourg’s mug in this vid, and don’t tell me that he, Bob Dylan and Canada’s Leonard Cohen weren’t close cousins a few generations back in the old country (Eastern Europe and Russia). There’s some shared genius DNA going on there.
A quick segue from grizzled, decadent experience to lyrical, springtime innocence: Here’s Emily and Fiona, two young English sisters living in Germany who do amazingly deft versions of classic 1960s songs (presumably based on their parents’ collection). When I recently stumbled on Emily and Fiona gravely performing “House of the Rising Sun,” I literally got goose bumps. I felt that I was seeing apparitions from the 17th century — the small-town singers of British and Scots-Irish folk ballads that would bewitch the Romantic poets and eventually produce American country music, centered in Appalachia. Emily and Fiona do a creditable job with the Mamas and Papas’ “California Dreamin,” as well as their less well-known “Creeque Alley,” an autobiographical summary of the group’s knockabout early years. (Creeque Alley is a tiny old town street in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I was ecstatic when I discovered it by accident six years ago.) Cheers to Emily and Fiona for their harmonizing gifts and musical mission!
Bouncing back to hard-bitten experience: This week, the U.K.’s Daily Mail published several photos of Lady Gaga on a German TV show. Now, come on, people, do you really believe that Lady Gaga is 23 years old? I’ve been in advanced doubt about it for a while, particularly after seeing this video of early photos of her hanging with some mighty tough critters. (A friend of mine said of Gaga in this vid: “Too many miles of bad road there.”) I think Gaga was a hell of a lot sexier as a fun Italian-American brunette. This artificial, masklike, over-the-top Club Kids thing that she’s now into seems compulsive and wearily passé. Give it a rest, and focus on the music!
And now Madonna is trying to resuscitate herself, body and mind, by taking transfusions from Brazil! The poverty-ridden favelas of Rio de Janeiro are her latest charity — presumably because dusty, distant Malawi is too bare of the hordes of paparazzi required to record the latest feats of Our Lady Bountiful. How convenient that the best hotels of Ipanema are only minutes away from the Rio slums! Oh, that girl — always thinking, ain’t she?
Is it true, according to press rumors, that Madonna is vacationing with her boy toy Jesus Luz in a house in Bahia in the far northeast of Brazil? And that she is contemplating buying a house there? Is she planning to take tutorials from the queen of axe, Salvador da Bahia’s very own superstar, Daniela Mercury? Well, it’s kind of what I had in mind in my epic Salon column last year negatively comparing Madonna to Daniela. As a teacher, I will certainly take credit for this leap forward, if it occurs, in Madonna’s much-delayed self-education.
Daniela herself has had a hectic few months, touring Brazil, Portugal and Argentina for her new album, “Canibalia.” Last week she was the finale of the Latin Grammys in Las Vegas, which were broadcast by Univision and pulled the largest TV audience in the history of that event. Here are some sexy visuals: Daniela in a fabulous, textured, bronze suit with see-through netting before an industry dinner; in her black lace and black leather gauntlets stage costume in the press room; and (in a truncated video) energetically performing with her red-clad troupe of Bahian dancers onstage. Vive Brazil!
NOTE: Two weeks ago, my essay collection “Vamps & Tramps: New Essays” was released in translation in France by Denoël Editions. The new subtitle (drawn from my manifesto, “No Law in the Arena”) is “A Pagan Theory of Sexuality.”
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)
On March 21, 2010, the House voted to approve a healthcare bill intended to overhaul the system and guarantee Americans access to health insurance. The vote was 219 to 213. Problem solved? Hardly.