"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)
The easy way to start this story would be it’s the end of R.E.M. as we know it, and Michael Stipe feels fine.
Except that’s not exactly true. Read between the lines of our half-hour conversation with Stipe on Friday — the first interviews he’s given in America since R.E.M. announced its disbanding in September — and it appears that the decision was as much his as anyone else’s. That he’d perhaps wearied of the touring grind, or no longer felt he could give it the same passion, and didn’t think it was fair to keep bandmates Peter Buck and Mike Mills waiting. That if it’s not the end of the world as we know it, as the song continues, it’s time Stipe had some time alone.
But Stipe looks pained, too. R.E.M. was a creative project of 31 years, a life’s work, and walking away, even by choice, is clearly terrifically bittersweet. When he talks about never playing these songs with his friends again, Stipe goes quiet and almost chokes up. The band’s final single, “We All Go Back to Where We Belong,” included on a 40-song retrospective out Tuesday, ends with the plaintive line “is this really what you want,” as an orchestra swells. Stipe’s answer seems to be “yes, but…”
It’s a response as emotional as the one many fans felt upon hearing the news. For those of us who came of age in the 1980s, the arty kids, the misfits, someone in an R.E.M. shirt was usually an immediate fast friend. Through allusive lyrics and cool album covers, they turned fans on to writers and artists and bands they might not have otherwise discovered. Over 31 years, they did the impossible — without compromising, and at the height of Reagan’s plastic, backwards ’80s, R.E.M. bent the mainstream to the margins and moved the entire culture toward them. The number of bands who can claim that is small, indeed. They brought the Replacements and 10,000 Maniacs and Wilco and Radiohead on the road; Stipe mentored Kurt Cobain and Thom Yorke and Chris Martin as the next generation dealt with the challenges of unexpected, massive fame.
Oh, and they released at least a dozen start-to-finish classics. (Today I’ve got “Fables of the Reconstruction” first, followed closely by “New Adventures in Hi-Fi,” “Murmur,” “Life’s Rich Pageant” and “Automatic for the People.” And “Reckoning,” where to put “Reckoning”…) If R.E.M. isn’t the greatest American rock band of all time, they’re undeniably near the very top, depending how you rank Springsteen and the E Street Band, the Beach Boys and the Byrds. (We can argue all this in the comments.)
Stipe is a fascinating conversationalist. He creates a charming and disarming intimacy, makes direct contact with those steely blue eyes when interested in a question, but drifts to looking at a spot behind you when bored. He speaks rapidly, but edits himself as he goes — sometimes striking an answer that he has worded inartfully, then doubling back over the response word for word until he fixes the clumsy or unfortunate phrase. But he also knows exactly what he’s offering to the public and what he’s keeping for himself — if he ever decides to write a memoir, it will be every bit as good as “Just Kids,” the early autobiography of his idol and mentor, Patti Smith.
We met last week in a corner office at Warner Bros. in midtown Manhattan, a room Stipe had a feeling once belonged to a big executive since departed — an empty office symbolizing all the change and tumult in the music industry. “I don’t understand why this happened the way it happened,” Stipe said. “The world we live in could have been a very different world had a number of people at the top of several industries figured out this tidal wave was coming and said let’s ride it — let’s not bury our heads in the sand. Music, film, newspapers, all publishing, now television. It didn’t have to happen this way.”
As we entered the room, Stipe rolled his eyes and said, “Everyone’s asking about 1982.” That seemed to signal better answers would come to unusual questions, so we started with the breakup news and worked chronologically backward, getting almost all the way to 1982, before circling back to the present.
R.E.M.’s split came as a surprise to fans in September, but it sounds like the band came to this decision as much as three years ago. How did you keep it a secret, through the 2008 tour and through promoting “Collapse Into Now” this spring?
To be completely frank, we were talking about it during the 2008 tour, but we didn’t know for sure. It was one of our options. It was an option that was made available to us … by ourselves. (laughs) The decision came about quite organically, like most things in R.E.M. There were always times when we had to really push something to make it work – “Monster” would be an example, and of course after Bill left.
By the end of the 2008 tour, we all kind of knew that these were most likely going to be our last shows. It was already, for us, bittersweet and weird and hard. The idea of doing some kind of victory lap or final farewell tour just felt — and still feels — like it would have been completely mercenary and exploitative and impossible.
Do you think? I imagine a lot of fans would have genuinely appreciated the opportunity to see the band play live again. That seemed to be one of the regrets after the announcement was made.
I could not perform “Everybody Hurts” for the last time in London with 30,000 people in the room or 80,000 people on the field knowing full well it was the last time we were going to do it. I just couldn’t. I would collapse. It would be impossible – I wouldn’t be able to hit the notes. We all knew that would be a really hard thing to do. It’s just not very R.E.M. I hate to quote “The Simpsons” quoting us (laughs), but it would not be a very R.E.M. way to do that kind of thing. So we decided to do it our way. I’m really proud of the way that we did it.
Nobody has ever asked how did you keep it a secret, so that’s a bit of an exclusive. It wasn’t easy. We had different ideas of how and when to make the announcement. The horror was if somebody Twittered or leaked it.
I’ll draw a parallel and then I’ll excuse myself for it, because it’s conflating the end of a band and a creative force with someone’s death, but I got a text message “RIP Amy Winehouse” from a friend that was sad that she had died. He didn’t know that I had met her, that I knew her producer… That’s my tiny connection to this woman, but I didn’t need to find out through a text message that she had died. I’m really very OK with this world, with parts of it, and then parts of it I’m really not.
If you seemed fairly certain that the 2008 tour would be the last one, then you also knew while making “Collapse Into Now” that it would be the last record.
Well, we can all Monday morning quarterback the theme on that record and what’s running through it. There was one reviewer who said “there’s something missing in this record that I can’t put my finger on,” and it was about themes. I think he was saying that consciously or unconsciously, R.E.M. records always have a theme – fire and water, sex for “Monster,” they’re obvious – but this time the theme wasn’t immediately identifiable to him. I always think I’m incredibly obvious and I’m not. (laughs) For me, it was the biggest, the most obvious farewell album thematically.
Looking at it now, you’re waving goodbye on the cover.
I’m waving goodbye, yes. But we’re on the cover! R.E.M.’s never been on the cover of an album. On “Around the Sun,” that’s a single image that’s repeated three times. That’s not the band. The song “All the Best.”
The coda on “Blue,” which takes it back to “Discoverer,” full circle with the first song on the album…
Yes, which is referencing “Fables of the Reconstruction.” It’s that cyclical thing that the end is the beginning, the beginning is the end. “Discoverer” is also the song that is somewhat autobiographic about me and New York as a 19-year-old. And it closes with Patti Smith, which is where it all fucking began. Now that we can Monday morning quarterback it, yes, hopefully it’s a very beautiful farewell, that record.
R.E.M. has always been very deliberate about what you do and what you don’t do.
Mostly about what we don’t do.
Well, this is a band that stood up to record labels about producers before you even had an album, a band that had a distinct visual identity from the beginning, a band with the instinct to split all the songwriting credits equally.
You could call it the Peter Buck school of how not to fuck up and fuck over your closest friends.
And lots of bands learned from that model over the last three decades. But most bands, like most athletes, stick around too long. Was that R.E.M.’s final lesson: Let us show you how to bow out gracefully?
No one’s ever done it before, as far as we know. It’s not a lesson, necessarily. I do have my professorial side, and I think you know that. I shy away from it because I hear myself talking and I’m just like, “You’re a fucking blowhard, shut up.” And I hope you print that because someone needs to hear that coming from me. As much as I’m crazily sentimental – and I pull away from that as much as I can, but my part in what we did is that inherent contradiction that is such a part of humanity. I think consciously or unconsciously, people hear and feel that in my voice and in the lyric. I think I know what this is about, but it doesn’t matter what he’s thinking because I can make it my own. That’s all there and that works. And then there’s the inherent contradiction within the band and within each of us and what we want. It all made for a pretty amazing package, I think, for a long fucking time. And we did go out on our own terms. That means the world to us.
What will you miss about it? Performing those songs live?
The tours were always amazing. When we were on stage, whatever problems we were having behind the scenes disappeared. We never took them on stage, and so as a live act, we forever gave it everything we had.
The second I was 40, which was 11 years ago, I thought to myself, “Look, I can’t.” I’m really tired, but I will do a tour because the guys want to do it and we need it – it’s good camaraderie. I can’t let myself give just a portion – I have to give everything I have for every song or I’m just that sad guy that’s in his 40s and holding onto some teenage dream. We didn’t move through the last decade with that feeling at all. I gave everything I had.
The idea of not ever being able to do that again is really sad for me. It’s actually painful to think about. And when I see things like Coldplay at the Natural History Museum last night – they played five songs at an amazing institution in New York, people paid a lot of money for those tickets, it’s a great thing they did. But there’s a tinge in my heart. I’m singing along kind of quietly to my favorite songs, and oh, it hurts.
So why put a period and exclamation point on it? Why not reserve the right to do another album or tour if you change your minds?
For closure. I think we needed it. I don’t like that term. Closure is always about something bad, like death or divorce, and this isn’t a bad thing. But I felt like it wasn’t fair to each of us to let what had been side projects remain side projects while everyone’s saying, “So, when’s the next R.E.M. tour?” That wouldn’t be fair to Peter right now, out with John Wesley Harding. People need to know this is it. Enjoy it. Be in the moment, be there for that. For each of us moving forward from this, letting it whimper away didn’t feel right. We needed it to be a finite thing.
You’ve spent the last few months working on a career retrospective, “Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage.” It’s not the band’s first collection, following “Eponymous, “In Time” and “And I Feel Fine,” but those tended to separate the IRS and the Warner Brothers years, while this covers everything from 1982 to 2011.
These songs are such a part of my DNA now. To try and talk about them is hard. Journalists keep asking about certain songs. I have the same story I told in 1987 if you want to hear that one. That’s my story about that song and that’s my memory of it. I have 25 years of touring and writing other songs and records between that memory, and I’m sorry that I can’t pull up anything different.
How did you go about selecting 40 songs from 31 years? Did you leave off some you would like to have included?
We picked the singles and then we picked a number of songs that I wouldn’t have put on there. We were trying to make it sound like a well-rounded introduction to what we were for someone who maybe only knew us from the elevator, dare I say it, or the supermarket. We were background. We were wallpaper to 14-year-olds if their parents weren’t big music fans or if they liked us when they were in college. To a 14-, 16-, 18-, 21-year-old, I’m the bald guy and we’re the guys who do “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts.”
I wanted kind of the same experience I had when I bought “Changes One” by David Bowie. I had already discovered CBGBs and the whole punk rock scene. I was in. I was fucking in at 15. Bowie releases “Changes One” and I only knew him as this guy who had influenced other people. I knew “All the Young Dudes,” but that was Mott the Hoople. Looking back, “Changes One” was this monumental record. It provided me with a snapshot of who he was and why he was so significant to all these other people – why Talking Heads or Television would care about this British guy who dressed funny.
You mentioned people who maybe liked the band in school – was it difficult, over the years, as fans drop out? As albums sell fewer copies?
No. I recognize and understand. I’m going to get myself really in trouble here, but parenting is one of the most selfish acts on earth. You’re a different person. It’s incredibly selfish. Anyway, all these other things come in and the thing that music means to you as a young person changes dramatically and that’s that. And that’s before Wii and before Xbox and before DVDs and before home theater and before texting and SMS and all the other distractions that we now have literally in the palm of our hand.
So it doesn’t surprise me that music has taken that wallpaper position. There are people who I think have – I’m going to get myself in trouble again – the thing that I think is hardest for me as a public figure is people not realizing the degree to which music and art is a reflection of yourself, not me. And when you turn the light on and people see that reflection, sometimes it’s actually shocking to them.
After the band’s announcement, there were a lot of people online who ranked the band’s catalog from top to bottom, and the three albums after Bill Berry left – “Up,” “Reveal” and “Around the Sun” – were derided near the bottom. Is that fair? Do you think those albums will be, or should be, reconsidered?
I don’t think it’s mine to say. I will say that we got a free pass from a lot of people who really believed in us and really wanted us to pull through. I’m honored that people were that believing in our abilities. It was a very difficult time for each of us — (clears throat) — and the result of that is a body of songs that I think are quite beautiful, and then some not-great choices in terms of production and in terms of our abilities or inabilities as human beings and as great friends to communicate. So the key ingredient that was missing was the kind of communication that you need to say Actually, that’s too long, or that’s too slow or that’s a bad lyric or you’re too mopey here or this needs more backbone, or whatever it was.
A lot of those songs really worked live, though. Are there earlier versions of those albums which might emerge, maybe less fussy, in the six-CD box set version?
Probably. I think the live version of “The Great Beyond” is far superior to the recorded version. But the recorded version was as big a hit outside the United States as “Losing My Religion,” which I don’t think people know. It was a massive hit for us, as was “Imitation of Life.” But I thought the live versions of those songs were better simply because they were faster. I don’t know why we always pulled back like that.
When I’ve interviewed Peter and Mike over the years, they’ve talked about how when Bill left, it shifted the working dynamic – that Peter and Bill tended to be the guys who wanted to show up and get it done.
Bill’s nickname was I Go Now. He always wanted to be somewhere else. He couldn’t wait for the end of a song, both in the studio and live. He’s the guy who was always speeding to the finish line. That was a great tool for us and we lost that – so our first thing out of the box as a three-piece, “Up,” is a record that’s two songs too long with songs that are over five minutes long. We needed a great editor and we weren’t in the head space – we weren’t able to even look each other in the eye to be able to make that happen. “Up” is kind of a mess, but it’s a glorious mess.
And the glorious messes are often my favorite albums in a band’s catalog.
Exactly. What you get is this beautiful, fucked-up mess. I find that interesting as a fan of the band, and I am a fan. I find that interesting as a music lover. “Around the Sun” took a real beating, and this meme went out that that was our worst record ever and it was misery. It grew and grew and grew until that was basically what people said — and that’s how it’s gone down in history. And it’s actually not that bad of a record.
At the very beginning, you mentioned that “Monster” was a difficult album to make. Over the years, people have talked about “Fables” being hard, and of course the records after Bill, but not about “Monster.” What did you mean by that? That was also around the time you first started talking publicly about your sexuality.
I tried to give people what they wanted, and of course the blowback from the gay community was pretty intense because I don’t identify as gay and I never have. So finally the 21st century provides me and the 14-year-olds with this idea of queerness – which actually, if Anita Bryant and Jesse Helms in 1976 had not brought us screeching into the Reagan/Bush years and then AIDS, we might be a little more advanced in our thinking about the fluidity of sexuality. So I started talking about my sexuality in terms people were none too happy with, and that’s fine.
But “Monster” was difficult because people were dying around us. I’m talking about really close friends dying unexpectedly, terribly. There’s River (Phoenix) and Kurt (Cobain), but I can think of another four people off the bat who died in that year. It was hard for us on a personal level.
What I was referring to earlier was us trying to make a rock record when it wasn’t really what we wanted to do. We just wanted to tour, and we couldn’t tour behind “Out of Time” or “Automatic for the People.” It was all beautifully orchestrated slow songs and that doesn’t really fly at a festival in Belgium in front of 45,000 people who have been there for three days and are drunk and tired and muddy. You can’t do that.
So we were trying to write these rock songs, What we wound up with was… with the influence of Peter’s moving to Seattle and Kurt and Courtney being his next-door neighbor, and grunge happened – what a sad, weird term that is because it is so diminishing to the music that actually came out of it, I think, there’s a lot of great stuff. But in classic R.E.M. style, we were yet again out of time. We were doing something that was either a little too before or a little too behind what was actually happening. We created this weird record that’s so oddball. The real rock record, of course, was the next one. “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” is in my top-two records we’ve made.
And the other one?
“Collapse Into Now.”
“Supernatural Superserious.” I took my abilities as a fiction writer and pushed them as far as I could with that song and I’m really proud of it. It does that beautiful thing at the end where the vocals go faster and the drums come in and accentuate that.
What else is in the vaults? In the liner notes, Peter talks about pulling “Bad Day” from a file of 40 or 50 songs that weren’t quite finished or done. Is there a chance more songs see the light?
I don’t know. I was never that guy. So those guys were releasing 25th anniversary packages and there’s stuff on there … I would rather throw myself off a cliff or be boiled in lead than listen to “Life’s Rich Pageant” demos – [and here Stipe groan sings unintelligible syllables as if he is in pain] — my doing this horrible moaning over a song that then became a beautiful song. Peter and Mike love that stuff. Who am I? If I’m still embarrassed by something that I did in 1986 that turned into a beautiful song, I need to go back to therapy. Which actually I’ve never been to. I might need to start now that the band’s over!
So all of us who spent hours with “Murmur” or “Chronic Town,” rewinding the tape and pushing the needle back on the record, trying to figure out the words – were we just wasting our time?
No, it’s not a waste of time. You figured out your own words, and it was more about you than me. I was figuring out how to be a lyric writer and it took me about an album and a half to figure it out.
Fear – and not being afraid – have been a staple of your lyrics from the beginning.
Fear is a big thing. It goes all the way back to “9-9.”
“Conversation fear.” But also all the way through “Imitation of Life” and “The Outsiders” and “Discoverer.” That theme has stayed constant, while you’ve seemingly become so much more comfortable as a public figure.
Did you watch “Colbert” last night? They had to stop and say “Michael, sing louder.” I’m like, Sorry, trying to the background guy. I’m still that guy. My boyfriend has to hail taxis or argue with people over tiny day-to-day things. I’m still that guy, but as a public figure I had to really step it up. And as an evolving person — I think evolving, I hope – I had to get over my teenage insecurities and fucking face it. So I’m still that guy, but I’m not as much of a coward as I thought I was, as it turns out. My father would be the first person to say “I don’t know how you do that. I don’t know how you ever could stand in front of those people and sing. The courage it takes to do that.” You’re a fucking helicopter pilot! I can’t even look at a helicopter without breaking into a cold sweat, much less fly one in combat. So I guess I do have courage. I guess I’m not as afraid as I thought I was.
I have no idea.
David Daley is the editor-in-chief of SalonMore David Daley.
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)