"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)
Ariel Sharon was ashamed of his weight. I couldn’t tell you exactly how heavy he was; the jacket of the light-gray business suit he usually wore disguised the extent of his belly and the dangling mass of his upper arms. Only when he walked could you make out the way he lifted his thighs around each other instead of moving them directly forward.
For the most part, he kept his eating out of the public eye. The first time I saw him in the full of his copious flesh, he occupied a minor ministry in Benjamin Netanyahu’s first government. His aides scheduled a photo op on a train, as his ministry happened to be responsible for Israel’s piffling rail system. The flacks exchanged a helpless glance as the welcoming railroad officials guided the minister toward the buffet car. “Just for a coffee,” he called out to them. And a muffin. And another muffin, too.
It could hardly have mattered less at that time, it seemed. In 1998, Sharon was already seventy years old, and he was generally acknowledged to be finished. He had been the outcast of Israeli politics since the Lebanon War of 1982, when a commission of inquiry found that, as defense minister, he had maneuvered Israel into a disastrous war and, to compound the error, had failed to restrain Israel’s Christian allies when they entered the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabra and Shatila to carry out a massacre. When Netanyahu won election in 1996, he overlooked Sharon, though the old man had been a founder of his Likud Party. Only a protest by a leading party hack persuaded Netanyahu to cobble together a ministry with little apparent power for Sharon. Everyone knew it was just a sop to a man almost no one wanted anymore.
Let him eat cake. Or muffins. Whatever he likes. In fact, let him stuff his face so much he’ll keep quiet. That was Netanyahu’s formula.
Yet the lack of self-control that overcame Sharon during his Lebanon war and in the face of oily baked goods was never again in evidence when it came to politics. From then until a stroke left him comatose, his was the most predatory and highly focused mind in the Israeli Knesset. He surprised Netanyahu by making his Infrastructure Ministry a focal point for the building of settlements on occupied land and the grabbing, as he put it, of West Bank hilltops in defiance of the peace agreement Israel had signed on the White House lawn in 1993.
Sharon, it turned out, had a political appetite that, for a time, could only be sated by his hunger for Israel to consume the land of the West Bank. Although his body was obese, his mind was more nimble than ever before. He wasn’t going to let the United States and Europe hand his precious land on a plate to Yasser Arafat. (Arafat never developed more than a little pot belly, by the way. He mostly ate vegetables and, disturbingly, used to like to shovel wedges of bread and hummus directly into his guests’ mouths, while leering at them from a distance most of us would describe as very much inside our personal space.)
As Sharon moved closer to the pinnacle of power, against all the odds, he became more circumspect about food. On several occasions, he even attempted to hide his eating from me.
When I went to see him on his farm in southern-central Israel a few months before he became Israel’s prime minister in February 2001, he wasn’t wearing the business suit. His gargantuan form was revealed. In his casual shirt and jeans, he looked like Homer Simpson. His bulk was such that he seemed to lack all physical features. I could’ve drawn him as a single, smooth ellipse from forehead to toe.
Yet he had timed my visit very carefully. As I arrived at Sycamore Farm, the name he gave to the home he’d had since the early 1970s and one of the few private ranches in Israel, he greeted me by saying that I had just missed the breakfast he had shared with his family—one of his sons lived with his wife and kids on the farm, and the other was visiting.
After we had bumped through his cattle herd in a Jeep, stroked a bull that made even Sharon look lightweight, and strolled among his goats, we sat at his kitchen table for an interview. Sharon changed from a plaid shirt into a blue denim shirt that he thought would look better in a portrait photograph with his light-colored eyes. He had even made me hire a makeup artist to cover the patches of liver spotting on his cheeks and scalp. The table remained empty throughout our talk, even when he told me how convivial it was to sit there during the delicious lunches he shared with his family. As noon rolled around, the man they called the Bulldozer came to his feet and said, “Well, it’s time for me to have lunch with my family. I’m sorry you can’t stay.” He reached out for a handshake, which left makeup on my fingers. There’d been liver spots on the back of his hand, too.
I assume he knew that, if I were to be invited to eat with the family, I’d be certain to open my story with that scene. Journalists, after all, like to demonstrate how far they’ve been allowed into a politician’s circle, to show that they’re privy to the confidences of the powerful. Compared to a stiff, formal interview, the breaking of bread is the closest one can get to the movers and shakers without breaking ethical rules. Sharon wasn’t a third-rate has-been anymore, plucking muffins from the tray of the dining car on the Haifa to Tel Aviv commuter line. He was the leader of the opposition, the man who told me he believed he’d be the next prime minister. The intifada was a few weeks old, and Sharon was one of the first Israelis to identify this conflict not as some kind of Palestinian uprising, but as an existential struggle for the nation’s survival. He didn’t want people to read articles in which he shoveled down potato salad and devoured chickens whole; didn’t want people saying, “Look, it’s the same old Sharon, the same old monster with no self-control. He can’t stop eating, and he can’t stop himself sending tanks here and there. He has no borders, no limits.”
So he sent me home before he sat down with his family.
It was okay by me. I never liked to eat with the people I was writing about. It always felt forced. The food, particularly in the Middle East, precludes too much serious talk. I always felt as though I were somehow expected to behave at such meals as if it were a social occasion. But I don’t like to socialize with politicians and, after all, they’re not my friends. Both sides of the table would be putting on an act. The shared meal strips bare what it’s actually supposed to disguise: the fact that the journalist is using the subject for material in an article, and the subject is using the journalist for publicity and the dissemination of a political message. Besides, I don’t eat so much, and when I do I like to be relaxed and focused on my food.
I’d have wanted to know what was on the table in Sharon’s kitchen; I just wouldn’t have wanted to spend all that time grinning stupidly and making small talk with his daughter-in-law.
As I left his home, I thought back to the photos I’d seen of the dashing young commando and general of the 1950s and 1960s. Sharon had been famous then for his relatively long blond hair. A bit of a sex symbol, though he was hardly spare in his build even then. All the stories he told as he looked out of the picture window in the kitchen were romantic tales of early Zionists defying violent Arabs to build a proto-state and along the way finding love. The self-abnegating pioneers presumably had little opportunity to gorge themselves as Sharon did.
I developed a theory, based on the kind of intuition that journalists are supposed to eschew, that the abuse endured by a politician—particularly a controversial politician vilified around the world, who was the main target of a demonstration by four hundred thousand Israelis in 1982—could lead to the kind of self-hatred that lies behind many people’s overeating.
Friends of Sharon also told me that, while the old man used to let things slip on outings like the railroad photo op, his wife, Lily, would keep his eating somewhat in check at home. When she died in 2000, he ate to keep his grief down in his stomach. Perhaps food became a more problematic issue for him then because, just when he needed her emotional support for the big push to the country’s top job, he also needed her wifely nagging to keep him from overdoing it at the table.
I continued to write about Sharon during the intifada, when he sent Israeli forces into every Palestinian town and village to snuff out the suicide bombers. On the way, I happened across still more food lore about him. He had a penchant for barbecued turkey testicles, which I have since discovered to be a little gummy, much like spine or brain, and to have a slight savor of scallops. His most favored companions would always report their conversations to me as having taken place over a meal at the farm. One told me that, as he called the intifada “a struggle over our existence,” Sharon filled his face with chicken salad.
A former aide noted that Arik, as Israelis call him, believed in coexistence with the Palestinians. As evidence he pointed out that Sharon used to send his driver to a particularly good roast-chicken restaurant in Beit Jala, a village on the edge of Bethlehem, to bring back pots of the special garlic puree made by the owner, a Palestinian Christian.
There were those who thought that Sharon’s transformation during his time as prime minister—from a man condemned as a war criminal to a rationalist who became the first head of an Israeli government to refer to the country’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza as an “occupation”—was intended to make the world love him, to replace the images of wailing Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila with the more welcome lamentations—in the eyes of the world’s media, at least—of Israeli settlers booted out of their colonies in the Gaza Strip in 2005.
It could be that he wanted to be loved, though more likely he saw that holding on to the settlements would lead to inevitable disaster. Israel would soon have found itself ruling over a growing Palestinian population, which is already equal to the number of Jews and will soon represent the majority of the people living in historic Palestine. In other words, Sharon decided to lose the weight represented by the West Bank and Gaza, even though he had done so much to add those extra pounds, so that the skinny little state of Israel—seven miles across at its narrowest point—could live on in good health.
The health of Sharon himself, however, couldn’t be salvaged. He suffered a stroke in December 2005 and another in early 2006. The second left him in a permanent vegetative state. Because his health failed him just before he was expected to win a new election with a promise of clearing Israel out of most of the West Bank, Sharon left Israel to linger just as his comatose body would, unable to change course and seemingly drifting toward a doom that could come anytime.
At an interview in his Jerusalem residence shortly before his final stroke, Sharon showed himself once more to be conscious of his physique. It took me an hour to get through the security check at the Balfour Street residence in Rehavia, a neighborhood that passes for “leafy” in most journalistic descriptions, though the trees sporting those leaves are parched if you pause to examine the roots. It wasn’t my fault it took so long to get in; Time magazine had flown in a photographer, Gillian Laub, who takes portraits with deep chiaroscuro effects and who travels with almost as much lighting equipment as U2 on tour. Each bulb had to be checked, it seemed, so that it couldn’t be used to threaten the prime minister.
Once inside the modest official residence of the Israeli prime minister, we sat at a long dark-wood dining table. Gillian attempted to coax Sharon into a portrait shot sitting in front of the table.
“No, I want to stay behind the table,” he muttered, hiding his bulky frame—as an aide later confirmed—beneath the tabletop.
While Gillian’s shutter clicked, I spoke at length with Sharon, making a considerable effort to focus on his right eye, the one that didn’t zip out of control up toward the top of its socket at random moments.
Only when Gillian had finished with her shoot did we move through the small sitting room and into the prime minister’s inner sanctum. Alone, except for me and his chief press aide, Sharon relaxed behind his small desk and let his tall black leather office chair rock backward. In the center of the desk, the house staff had placed a plate of small round halva cookies. Israelis offer these with coffee.
When the coffee arrived, Sharon slid the as-yet-untouched plate across the surface of the desk so that it sat in front of him. As we talked, he munched his way through the entire plate of sesame-flavored cookies, which have the texture of a very soft shortbread. The crumbs gathered on his navy blue tie, collecting in a butter-yellow strip on the ledge formed by the protrusion of his belly. He brushed at the crumbs around his mouth, which landed on his lapels.
By this time it was past nine o’clock at night. Apparently Sharon’s self-control diminished when he wasn’t watched by photographers with the power to record an unflattering image and, like many of us, his tiredness at the end of a demanding day urged an injection of sugar. Quite a lot of sugar. There had been more than a dozen cookies on the plate Sharon emptied.
After I left him that night, I thought about Sharon’s gorging. It couldn’t truly be called Rabelaisian, because in person—regardless of his bullish political persona—he was the last man one would accuse of impoliteness or gross behavior. In fact, he was rather outlandishly gentlemanly for an Israeli, compared to the uncouth bluntness cultivated by many of his compatriots as an antidote to the manners of the European society that had persecuted them.
I understood the isolation and self-hatred of his overeating, the need to keep the consumption at least from public view, even though his bulk shoved it in their faces after the fact. Politicians all have their secrets. Sharon’s successor as prime minister, Ehud Olmert, combed a foot of hair across his obviously bald head. After Olmert came a second term for Netanyahu, who smokes cigars as long as a porno penis, but refuses to be photographed doing so because it’s hardly the way a man of the people relaxes. (Netanyahu also turned up frequently at my gym in Jerusalem, marching listlessly on the treadmill as he read digests from aides and making no apparent reduction in his own paunch, which shows signs of one day reaching Sharonian proportions.)
So this was Sharon’s secret. He wanted people to think he wasn’t fat, when he patently was. Perhaps delusion is part of political success. The nature of elections is that the public chooses to be deluded by politicians. Why shouldn’t the politicians deceive themselves, too? A politician must have the kind of ego that refuses to allow him to see himself for who he is. In a conflict zone like Israel, that self-deception might need to be still deeper, because the purported stakes are higher. American politicians ask voters to trust them with their mortgages, their savings, their schools. Israeli politicians tell electors they’d better vote for them or else Israel’s enemies may triumph and their state will cease to exist.
I sensed that I couldn’t report what I’d learned about Sharon through his eating—not in the kind of magazine for which I used to write. It was too much about feel. It wasn’t attributable to some expert in a quote. It wouldn’t be balanced, in the way of Middle Eastern reporting, with another expert saying, “To be sure, there are Arab leaders who eat too much, as well.”
Since the spring of 2006, when his doctors concluded that he wouldn’t recover from his coma, Sharon has lain in a private room in Tel Hashomer, a Tel Aviv hospital with a long-term care facility. The macabre joke among Israeli political correspondents is that no one would recognize him because the doctors aren’t overfeeding him through the tube with which he takes his nourishment. So he’s down to a normal weight. He’s reported to be about 110 pounds.
Excerpted from “Eating Mud Crabs in Kandahar” (University of California Press).
Matt Rees is an award-winning crime novelist and foreign correspondent who lives in Jerusalem. Rees covered the Middle East for a decade and a half for Time magazine and Newsweek. His series of Palestinian mysteries won the Crime Writers Association New Blood Dagger and has been published in 23 countries. His latest book is “Mozart’s Last Aria,” a historical novel about the death of the great composer.
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)