"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)
Look, Michele Bachmann was never going to be the Republican presidential nominee anyway. Surely even she knew that. Her political celebrity begins and ends with her wide-eyed beauty and penchant for making absurd, faith-based pronouncements on cable TV.
OK, so Bachmann won a meaningless straw poll in Ames, Iowa — where old duffers get a free lunch and a bus ride to the state fair in exchange for their votes. Fellow no-hope candidate Ron Paul finished a close second. Even so, the unanimity with which GOP savants turned against the fair Michele after she got in Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s face demonstrated how consent gets manufactured on the pseudo-populist Republican right.
She ought to have known better than to have heeded this column. “If Michele Bachmann can’t make an issue of [Rick Perry's] ill-fated executive order requiring sixth-grade Texas girls to be vaccinated against sexually transmitted diseases,” I had written, “she’s got no business running.”
The Texas governor’s political misstep was made-to-order for any self-styled Christian conservative. Ordinarily, it’d be easy to agree with former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, writing in the Washington Post: “If Republican presidential candidates want to debate sexual health and hygiene, it would be nice if they displayed more collective knowledge and judgment than your average eighth-grade family-life class.”
Or with Gov. Perry himself, explaining that his motive was to protect women against a potentially fatal form of cervical cancer.
“We instigated, with HPV, a national debate, and I think appropriately,” Perry told Texas Monthly in 2007. “As a matter of fact, the more I know about this disease, the more I know that we are absolutely, unequivocally correct.” He added that Texas Medicaid spends $175 million per year on cancer treatments and hysterectomies.
Ah, but nothing’s ordinary where sexuality is concerned. Never mind that sexual intercourse comes close to being a human universal — ponder that next time you’re meandering through Walmart — nobody’s eager to popularize the practice among 12-year-old girls. Social conservatives resent the government taking over a solemn parental responsibility.
Or, as Bachmann said during the recent CNN/Tea Party debate, “To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong.”
Public health experts say waiting any longer risks being too late. Even so, Perry acknowledges he should have asked the Legislature.
Things got tricky for the Texas governor when Bachmann brought up payola. “The drug company gave thousands of dollars in political donations to the governor,” Bachmann said. “And this is just flat-out wrong.”
She flat likes that phrase.
“The company was Merck, and it was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them,” Perry said with bemused condescension. “I raise about $30 million. And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”
“Exactly what is your price?” Bachmann might have asked. Merck had actually given Perry $30,000. Not to mention that his former chief of staff and other aides had remunerative ties to the pharmaceutical company lobbying to have its Gardasil vaccine adopted nationally.
But that barely scratches the surface. Even in Texas’s pay-to-play political culture, Perry’s brazenness is a wonder to behold. His campaign donations from contributors seeking everything from nuclear waste dump permits to seats on the Texas A&M board reach into the tens of millions.
“When you are trying to figure out Rick Perry, you need to do two things,” Denton (Texas) Record-Chronicle‘s Mike Trimble advised out-of-state reporters. “Find the lowest common denominator and follow the money.”
Unfortunately, Bachmann got distracted by the innocent little girl issue, turning it into a characteristic blunder. On the “Today” show, she told about a crying mother who approached her after the debate.
“She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. It can have very dangerous side effects … This is the very real concern.”
Needless to say, there’s no medical evidence whatsoever for this madly irresponsible statement. For religious zealots like Bachmann, the world is made of words. She’s made a career of crackpot pronouncements for which her sole authority is the last person she talked to. On the medical front, to cite one example among many, Bachmann once blamed a 1976 swine flu epidemic on Jimmy Carter. (Gerald Ford was president, not that it was his fault.)
But this time, conservative commentators turned against Bachmann as one. Not only Gerson, but the Wall Street Journal, Rush Limbaugh and her former campaign director Ed Rollins suddenly discovered that Bachmann’s a wackjob. “This is the nail in the coffin in her campaign,” a former Republican National Committee official told the New York Times.
In the New Republic, Walter Shapiro reported that on Fox News “Bachmann was almost entirely absent, like a Red Army general excised from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia after being purged by Joseph Stalin.”
I wonder if she’s gotten the message.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.More Gene Lyons.
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)