"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)
Time to state the obvious: Never before in the history of our country have there been more outlets for really stupid people with a lot to say. Blogs, Twitter, radio shows, talk shows, news shows — a million and one blowhards pile on to the same story du jour, and our confederacy of dunces is dumber and louder than ever. We’re a cacophony of phonies, rushing to judgment, vomiting witty and caustic bons mots while the cameras roll and the clocks tick, gumming up the internets with our thoughtless reaction pieces. (Ahem.)
So how could a self-congratulatory dim bulb like Sarah Palin resist joining the idiot party? With a face the cameras love, with a head uncluttered by facts, with a mouth that moves fast and makes comfortingly colloquial sounds, how could she fail to recognize her one true calling in life was to become a TV pundit?
Because, unlike the internets, which are positively filthy with overcaffeinated shut-ins who hardly see the light of day, it’s the rare human being who can get all powdered and rouged up and sit under the hot lights and then smile slightly and spit out the same empty catchphrases, over and over again, without once second-guessing him or herself. Television rewards the sort of overconfidence and bluster and lack of self-consciousness that exists primarily among the braindead, the deluded and the sociopathic. The TV camera reads narcissism as genius; those who have original thoughts in their heads are advised to expunge such liabilities post-haste. The neurotic and the detail-oriented need not apply.
And so here we are on Tuesday evening, watching Bill O’Reilly (who’s wearing more rouge than a corpse but looking calm and confident and thoughtless) welcome Sarah Palin to her new gig at Fox News. O’Reilly is thrilled to have Palin here. Palin, in turn, is thrilled to call Fox News “fair and balanced” without the slightest hint of irony in her voice.
But why do people dislike Sarah Palin so much, O’Reilly wonders. Why? “You’re a politician, you’re a mom, you’re an American. What’s the threat?”
“They don’t like the common sense conservative solutions,” says Palin without blinking. Palin just tells it like it is: President Obama is “messing up the economy” and “not allowing Americans to feel as safe as they had felt.”
One common-sense solution? “Government needs to get out of the way of the private sector,” Palin explains. Too true! By deregulating Wall Street, just think of what a glorious future might await us all!
Hmmm, but why does that sound so familiar? No time to wonder, O’Reilly is pressing onward, forward, upward! He’s full of really smart, provocative questions. On Nancy Pelosi: “She’s a San Francisco liberal, but do you think she’s actually crazy?” On Iran: “If the Iranians don’t stop their nuclear program, should we attack?” This is really good stuff. But why did someone mute the laugh track?
Finally, we get to the heart of the matter. “The perception of you is that you’re not that smart … that’s why I want to clear this up,” O’Reilly says. But Sarah, O’Reilly coaxes her, you understood the difference between North and South Korea, didn’t you? You knew who your son was going to fight when he shipped off to Iraq, right?
Yes, Palin knew, ha ha. Of course she did. But “the rest of America doesn’t care about that kind of crap,” she adds. And it’s true, much of America doesn’t care what she did and didn’t know, or what O’Reilly does or doesn’t know. They’re on TV, aren’t they? Isn’t that enough? Aren’t their cheeks pink and rosy?
“The American people are immediately neutralizing outlets like ’60 Minutes’,” offers Palin, which presumably means that most people have no interest in thoughtful, in-depth reporting these days. Can’t argue with that. “More and more Americans are looking at some of these networks, that biased journalism, and they’re saying, ‘Nah, that gig is up. We’re not believin’ that stuff anymore.’ And that’s why they’re tuning in to Fox News!”
This is a woman who knows how to sell. Thus do we conclude our first tantalizing course of Fox News talking head Sarah Palin.
But then, immediately after her debut (lest someone else beat them to the punch), Fox offers a post-interview analysis of O’Reilly’s Palin interview. Starring? O’Reilly, Alan Colmes and Monica Crowley.
“There is questions… there are questions about her intellect,” O’Reilly says, but adds quickly: “I don’t have that many questions about her intellect, I don’t!”
“Well, you don’t need any intellect to be a pundit on television, we all know that!” snaps Colmes.
Did you hear that? That was the sound of the whole world, sighing resignedly in unison. Welcome to hell, Sarah Palin. You truly belong here.
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.
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)