"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)
Eli, the 12-year-old son of Andrew, faced a perilous moment of truth on the morning of the first day of BlizzCon. “Which T-shirt do you think I should wear?” he asked. “Gir, from ‘Invader Zim,’ or my Ray Williams Johnson ‘You Be Trollin’ shirt?”
A father has much to teach his son in the ways of geekitude, but this was one decision I knew I had to let him make on his own. Still, I was proud. Eli had never been to a convention of any kind before, much less an assembly of 30,000 avid gamers, worshipers at the altar of Blizzard gaming company’s unholy trinity: “World of Warcraft,” “Starcraft” and “Diablo.” But he knew without being told that his choice of T-shirt for such an august occasion was no trifling matter.
When the tribes gather for an event like BlizzCon, only the most precious of garments will suffice — no matter how faded and worn from countless washings. Standing in line a few hours later in front of the Anaheim Convention Center — just around the corner from Disneyland — I thrilled to a living gallery of ironic, geeky, black humor-inflected T-shirt art. And I suspected that countless attendees had been wrestling that morning with the exact same quandary as my son.
Should I wear my “I’m Not Dead Yet!” Monty Python tribute or my “Happiness is a mushroom cloud”? Should I go with the simple, “No pain, no game” credo, or display all my peacock feathers at once with a copy of a poster for the original “Stars Wars” movie written entirely in Japanese?
How about an endearingly honest plea — “Just Shy, Not Anti-Social, You Can Talk To Me”? Or an all-out visual assault — one horny unicorn mounting another against a rainbow backdrop?
Sex, rainbows and unicorns — that’s how fun the gamers wanted BlizzCon 2010 to be, and that’s just about how fun it was. Or to borrow the two most commonly uttered words during the two-day convention: BlizzCon was epic, and awesome. Epically awesome, even.
How does one measure the epic-ness of a BlizzCon? By the quality of the costumes worn by hundreds of attendees — the Blood Elf princesses, Goblin Mages, Witch-doctors and Terran Ghosts? Or by the sheer grandeur of literally thousands upon thousands of flat-screen monitors assembled in serried ranks, inviting gamers to play kooky modifications of “Starcraft” or as-yet unreleased to the general public versions of “Diablo” and “World of Warcraft”? By the crazed pandemonium of 30,000 people devoting fantastically obsessive attention to panel discussions and dance contests and game art? The larger-than-life statues of Sarah Kerrigan, Queen of Blades, and Jim Raynor, Terran Marine? By the endless queues of people snaking across the convention floor — a maze of twisty lines, all alike! — for everything: bathrooms, food, merchandise, opportunities to enter contests?
On a scale of spectacle, BlizzCon delivered — or as my son observed moments after the doors opened, his eyes widening at the sight of thousands of gamers running like land rush homesteaders in a desperate race to claim a good seat for the opening ceremonies: “This is way more awesome than I even imagined.” Giant video screens hanging throughout the convention center blasted cut-scenes and gameplay from Blizzard games at every angle and to the accompaniment of clashing avalanches of sound. For a generation raised on constant digital stimulation, it was mother’s milk.
But as I sat through the highlight of the opening ceremonies, an audience participation chant/slide show led by Blizzard vice president of creative development Chris Metzen, I quickly realized that the spectacle was just icing on the “World of Warcraft” cake. The real value of an event like BlizzCon was the opportunity it provided for mass, collective enthusiasm.
Metzen declared that BlizzCon was about celebrating “our collective geekiness.” He then orchestrated attendees in a repetitive chant of “Geek is …” followed by a succession of images flashed on the display screens erected in the convention center’s cavernous main hall. The One Ring to Rule Them All. A set of Transformer robots. Tobey Maguire’s “Spider-Man” and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Conan.” “Star Wars” (of course). The Mighty Thor!
And a single, 20-sided die, face up on 20.
The picture of that die, the only special equipment needed to play the original Dungeons & Dragons, engendered a particularly mighty roar of approval. Nothing is better, shouted Metzen, than getting together with your best friends, some graph paper, a pencil and your imagination. (Except maybe getting together with 30,000 like-minded compadres to hoot and holler about primeval memories.) A direct line connects the dots between Dungeons & Dragons and the amazing Blizzard success story (“World of Warcraft” alone currently boasts 12 million users worldwide. “Starcraft II,” released this summer, almost immediately became the best-selling PC game of 2010.) No other game company has so magnificently captured the fun of collectively inhabiting the fantasy worlds that 1970s-era gamers conjured up for themselves, without any help from amazing computer graphics or legions of creative talent — writers, artists and programmers.
But that same roar, I came to see over the course of the weekend, came easy to this crowd. Whenever a panelist delivered a good zinger in response to an audience question, the collective hilarity felt like a natural exhalation — nothing forced, nothing faked. We cheered for nifty dance moves, for Jack Black histrionics (his band Tenacious D played the closing ceremonies) and for the unveiling of a new character class for the upcoming “Diablo III,” a dual crossbow-wielding femme fatale — the Demon Hunter. We cheered because it was fun to cheer — because what is life for if not to flaunt your exuberance? We positively erupted in the middle of the costume contest, when the boyfriend of a woman dressed as a goblin sorceress ran onto the stage (“Could something epic be afoot?” wondered the announcer), got down on his knees and proposed. When the camera caught the glint of a beaming smile from beneath her shrouding hood — the only part of her face at all visible — the audience convulsed in a mass cackle of delight.
We’re all familiar with negative stereotypes of the geek — obsessive behavior, crazed attention to detail, a seeming inability to socialize easily — but if there was one thing I took away from BlizzCon, it was that an essential thing defining geekdom is the capacity to be enthusiastic. Geeks want to be enthralled, and more than most people, they open themselves wide to that kind of ensorcellment. The bond that Blizzard has with its fans is built from the company’s routine delivery on its promise to be ever more epic, to be ever more awesome, ever more enthralling, without sacrificing an iota of its total devotion to quality, to story, and to the art and craft of fantasy and science fiction.
Sitting next to my son, for whom Dungeons & Dragons carries about the same archaic resonance as a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby on-the-road flick does for me, I was transfixed by Metzen’s invocation of the Mighty Thor. One glance at that giant hammer, and a rift in space and time opened up wide.
In 1974, when I was 12 years old, my father took me to a downtown Manhattan book party to celebrate the publication of Stan Lee’s “Origins of Marvel Comics.” My memories are hazy now, but I recall that there were people dressed up as Marvel superheroes — the Hulk, the Silver Surfer, the Fantastic Four, Thor — and I ended up with the most extraordinary goody bag. It included a copy of the book, which featured reproductions of the original comics introducing the Marvel characters, an action figure or two, and a selection of current issue comic books. There may also have been a poster.
I was over the moon. Although my tastes at that time ran more toward the voracious consumption of science fiction than comic books (95 cents for a paperback novel seemed a much better deal than a quarter for a comic book), I was no different from any other geeky, chess-playing, bespectacled nerd — I loved Marvel comics. To shake the hand of Stan Lee himself? What could be more epic?
I loved all kinds of adventure and fantasy and sf, and looking back, I see now how my father fed my enthusiasms. As editor of the New York Times Book Review he was showered with free books, some of which he would bring home for me. One day it would be a complete 26-volume set of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Tarzan” series, on another a complete edition of “The Lord of the Rings” bound into one ornate volume. He introduced me to Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series and I will never forget the day, over a burger and fries at a Jackson Hole diner, when he gently explained to me that there were some fascist tendencies in the work of Robert Heinlein. He whisked my sister and me to a premiere showing of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” (The theater gave out free coconuts. We galloped all the way home.)
Right around that time, my father even brought home a Magnavox Odyssey, the very first home video game console ever made! It was clumsy and cumbersome and fairly quickly gathered dust. It didn’t really hold a candle to Atari’s Pong, which arrived a few years later, and it is a complete joke compared to what you can do with an iPod Touch today, but it all fed the same hunger for play and fantastic escape, for a glimpse at the mysterious sci-fi future. More than three decades later, I see how my father, who could play the high culture game with anyone, who was the smartest, most well-read man I ever knew, paved the way for my passage into geekdom. He threw kindling at the fires of my imagination, and that conflagration has never sputtered.
It was a foregone conclusion that my son would follow that same well-worn path. While he was a baby, I was reviewing Blizzard games for Salon. The bookcases in my bedroom groan under the weight of four decades’ worth of science fiction and fantasy novels. We all but declared a national holiday in my family for each debut of a new “Lord of the Rings” film. I still read fantasy novels to him before he goes to bed each night. I am delighted to renew his subscription to the Japanese manga monthly Shonen Jump every year. But BlizzCon, as the gamers like to say, took it to the next level.
It’s easier to be a geek in 2010 than it was in 1972, a fact that even the most cursory comparison of BlizzCon 2010 with a Stan Lee book party would tell you. To my 12-year-old self the technology on display in Anaheim would have seemed the purest science fiction. The emergence of computers and the Internet has transformed the geek into a person of great cultural and financial power. Money can be made by geeks and by catering to geeks. Gaming is as big a business as Hollywood. The worldwide appetite for fantasy seems unquenchable. Blizzard has capitalized on this fact as well as anyone this side of Peter Jackson or J.K. Rowling. There is an extent to which my son — all of our sons and daughters! — never had a chance for another path, even if one sets aside the influence of my family lore. The seductive power of the entertainment machine has never been more powerful, more immersive or more addictive.
And that’s something to watch, because it is by no means an unadulterated boon. A rather hefty subset of BlizzCon attendees could definitely benefit from an improved diet and some exercise. As I noted not so long ago, after years of gaming, I traded in my own Blizzard-induced obsessions for my bicycle, motivated by a desire to get away from the computer for at least a few hours a day. There were some attendees at BlizzCon who blinked under the bright lights of Anaheim as if they had just emerged from caves in which they had burrowed away for months or years. I recognize a kindred spirit in them, but worry that they have gone a little too far over to the dark side. And somehow, while I still can, I know that even as I feed my son’s appetite for geeky thrills in virtual wonderlands, I must balance it with shared experience of the real.
Which brings us back to a theme of recurring interest at BlizzCon — the relative popularity of “World of Warcraft’s” Horde as opposed to the Alliance.
In “World of Warcraft,” in addition to choosing what race you would like to play — Night Elf, Dwarf, Human, Troll, Undead, etc. — and what character class — Mage, Warrior, Paladin, Rogue, etc. — one must also pick an alignment between good and evil. The Horde are the bad guys; the Alliance are the good. (Both sides spend most of their time engaged in constant slaughter, but distinctions still must be made). At the opening and closing ceremonies and during panel discussions (at BlizzCon, a panel discussion on a new character class for “Diablo” was attended by upward of 10,000 people!) every mention of “Horde” or “Alliance” elicited predictable tribal cheers.
But the cheers for the Horde always sounded louder. And over the course of the weekend they seemed to steadily grow in volume, suggesting that the Alliance was getting intimidated by its poor showing. By the closing ceremonies, hosted by smartass, wisecracking actor Jay Mohr, a rough guess divided the audience into about 65 percent Horde to 35 percent Alliance.
But why? Why were the geeks orienting to the dark? In “The Lord of the Rings,” who wants to be on Sauron’s side? Was there some natural attraction to the notion of transgression? Was it explained by the relative paucity (maybe 1 in 10) of women at the convention? Was declaring allegiance to the Alliance just too goody-two-shoes?
Or could it all be explained by the mere potency of the rallying cry? When Horde warriors rush into battle, they roar, “For the Horde!” And let me tell you, when 10,000 people yell those three words, it sounds very impressive. But the Alliance has no similar call to arms.
During a “World of Warcraft” Q-and-A panel in which “Warcraft” developers took open mic questions from the audience, I had to leave Eli alone for a little while as I visited the bathroom. This entailed a half-hour wait in line. When I returned, Eli was eager to recount something that he thought I’d missed. A questioner had brought up the Horde-Alliance disparity and blamed the problem on the “For the Horde” battle cry. He suggested that the Alliance needed its own cheer. He asked the panel members if they had any suggestions as to what Alliance members could say when confronted with a howling mass of “for the Horde”-shrieking berserkers.
Eli grinned as he told me how one “Warcraft” developer grabbed the mic and quipped: “Have mercy!”
Which did not solve the problem, but resulted in the kind of huge belly chortle that only 10,000 or so fantasy role-playing addicted gamers can generate. The Horde carried the day.
I had actually heard the whole exchange while waiting in line. But I was delighted to hear Eli tell it again, because it underlined something that had become more and more clear to me throughout the weekend: the exquisite delight of the shared experience. This is not particularly profound, I know. It’s why we hang out with friends, why it’s more fun to go to movies in a group than alone, why a World Series game in a bar full of strangers is more satisfying than when watched by yourself alone on a couch. That’s one big reason why multiplayer online gaming is so popular: A solitary activity — gaming alone in front of a computer at home — is transformed into a social act. BlizzCon — which is only in its fifth year of existence — is a huge success because it feeds that sense of community and sharing. But what was working for the 30,000 attendees in toto was also working just for Eli and me. We had been joking about the “for the Horde” conundrum all weekend. I was touched and delighted by his urge to make sure I didn’t miss the latest development in the saga. We stood in lines together, we ate together, we gamed together. We compared the profiles of Disneyland tourists with BlizzCon attendees and pondered the history and future of geekiness. I wish my father was still around so I could tell him all about it.
And I wish he’d been with us for the events of the next day. On Sunday, we drove from Anaheim to Long Beach, to visit my my father’s mother in her new nursing home. “What kind of a place is this?” Eli asked as we parked. “It’s a place where people go to die,” I told him. It was tough. My grandmother has declined tremendously since Eli had seen her last, at her 90th birthday party a year before. She recognized us, she seemed pleased to see us, but she had a hard time carrying on a conversation. “I’m too old for this!” she exclaimed at one point, rolling her eyes to encompass, well, everything.
A nursing home is a scary place at the best of times, and Eli, who had never been in one before, got quieter and quieter.
We stayed for half an hour and then traveled to the suburban town of Lakewood where my grandmother had lived for more than 50 years, to pack up her personal effects — photographs, letters, artwork — for transport back to my home in Berkeley. The house was completely empty of furniture. A “For Sale” sign stood on the lawn. I’ve been visiting that house since I was 7 years old, and it was, as Eli noted, “creepy” to see it suddenly empty.
We die a thousand deaths in a computer game and it doesn’t mean anything. But when I held in my hands a box of letters written to my grandmother from her father, who died when she was 12, it was difficult to keep from trembling. When I considered that I would probably never again drive down the street where my grandmother lived, it was hard not to feel a little overcome by it all.
Then Eli reached into a box and pulled out an object, exclaiming, “Is this a brand? In the shape of Texas!”
Yes, it was. With the name of the company, Fluor, at whose Anaheim headquarters my grandmother had worked for decades, first as secretary, then as speechwriter, and finally as director of media relations. I have no idea whether the brand was connected to the fact that she was born and raised in Texas, but for Eli, the unexpectedness of finding a cattle brand in the shape of Texas hidden away in a box in a Lakewood, Calif., garage was a delightful incongruity that swiftly wiped away all the heaviness of the last few hours. Who would make such a thing, he wondered? Why? What would you use it on?
We packed up the minivan, readied ourselves for the the long road home. He pulled out his Nintendo DS-Lite and started tapping away. I didn’t mind — I felt no need to articulate in detail how challenging our shared experiences of the morning had been. I was just glad beyond measure that he was there with me, that I hadn’t had to face this quest alone.
And who knows? I might even have to break my pledge to stop gaming, at least a little bit, because I’m thinking that when “Diablo III” finally comes out, it’s going to be an awful lot of fun to go dungeon-crawling with my favorite geeky boy.
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)
Real Families is a personal-essay series that celebrates the surprising and ever-shifting nature of domestic life in the 21st century. If you have a fascinating, original story you'd like to share, email email@example.com. You can also post your essay on Open Salon and tag it "real families."