"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)
They’re pampered, privileged, indulged – part of the “cultural elite.” They spend all their time smoking pot and sipping absinthe. To use a term that’s acquired currency lately, they’re entitled. And they’re not – after all – real Americans.
This what we hear about artists, architects, musicians, writers and others like them. And it’s part of the reason the struggles of the creative class in the 21st century – a period in which an economic crash, social shifts and technological change have put everyone from graphic artists to jazz musicians to book publishers out of work – has gone largely untold. Or been shrugged off.
Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen write anthems about the travails of the working man; we line up for the revival of “Death of a Salesman.” John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson hold festivals and fundraisers when farmers suffer. Taxpayers bail out the auto industry and Wall Street and the banks. There’s a sense that manufacturing, or the agrarian economy, is what this country is really about. But culture was, for a while, what America did best: We produce and export creativity around the world. So why aren’t we lamenting the plight of its practitioners? Bureau of Labor Statistics confirm that creative industries have been some of the hardest hit during the Bush years and the Great Recession. But when someone employed in the world of culture loses a job, he or she feels easier to sneer at than a steel worker or auto worker. (Check out, for example, the unsympathetic comments to a Salon story about job losses among architects, or the backlash to HBO’s “Girls,” for daring to focus on young New Yorkers with artistic dreams and good educations.)
The musicians, actors and other artists we hear about tend to be fabulously successful. But the daily reality for the vast majority of the working artists in this country has little to do with Angelina Jolie or her perfectly toned right leg. “Artists in the Workforce,” a National Endowment for the Arts report released in 2008, before the Great Recession sliced and diced this class, showed the reality of the creative life. While most of the artists surveyed had college degrees, they earned — with a median income, in 2003-’05, of $34,800 — less than the average professional. Dancers made, on average, a mere $15,000. (More than a quarter of the artists in the 11 fields surveyed live in New York and California, two of the nation’s most expensive states, where that money runs out fast. The report has not been updated since 2008.)
“What does it mean in America to be a successful artist?” asks Dana Gioia, the poet who oversaw the study while NEA chairman. “Essentially, these are working-class people – a lot of them have second jobs. They’re highly trained – dancers, singers, actors – and they don’t make a lot of money. They make tremendous sacrifices for their work. They’re people who should have our respect, the same as a farmer. We don’t want a society without them.”
Many of them, in fact, are effectively entrepreneurs, but have little of the regard of the lavishly paid, mythically potent CEO. A working artist is seen neither as the salt of the earth by the left, nor as a “job creator” by the right — but as a kind of self-indulgent parasite by both sides. Why the disconnect?
“There’s always this sense that art is just play,” says Peter Plagens, a New York painter and art critic. “Art is what children do and what retired people do. Your mom puts your work up on the refrigerator. Or the way Dwight Eisenhower said, ‘Now that I’ve fought my battles, I can put my easel up outside.’”
The reality is different. An ecology of churches, chamber series, libraries, on-call studio work and small and mid-size orchestras that neither pay a salary nor offer medical coverage keep musicians like Adriana Zoppo going: A hardworking freelance violinist who performs across Southern California, she’s played, over the last year or so, at a church chamber series, on “American Idol,” a Glenn Frey standards record and a scene of background music for “Mad Men,” and with her own Baroque chamber group. She’s also a regular player in the Santa Barbara Symphony, for which she drives 100 miles each way for four rehearsals and two concerts a month. “I just do a lot of driving, like every freelancer I know,” she says; every week, students come to her apartment for lessons. The economy — and the loss of audience and donors — mean her work is down by about a third. “There’s more and more time between jobs.”
It’s even tougher, she says, for people who rely on the movie studios. “Even before the economy went down, studios started doing more outside California; a lot of it is in Eastern Europe.” For those who made their living playing on records and movie soundtracks, “All of a sudden, they’re making about 60 percent of what they did. What I see is a lot of people looking for things outside music — a lot of people have gotten real estate licenses. I know people who’ve added massage therapist.” Some have dropped medical coverage they can’t afford, taking their chances.
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Of course, those who continue to work in the creative class are the lucky ones. Employment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show just how badly the press and media have missed the story. For some fields, the damage tracks, in an extreme way, along with the Great Recession. Jobs in graphic design, photographic services, architectural services – the bureau’s phrasing indicates that it is looking at all of the jobs within a field, including the people who, say, answer the phone at a design studio – all peaked before the market crash and and fell, 19.8 percent over four years for graphic design, 25.6 percent over seven years for photography and a brutal 29.8 percent, for architecture, over just three years. “Theater, dance and other performing arts companies” – this includes everything from Celine Dion’s Vegas shows to groups that put on Pinter plays – down 21.9 percent over five years.
Other fields show how the recession aggravated existing trends, but reveal that an implosion arrived before the market crash and has continued through our supposed recovery. “Musical groups and artists” plummeted by 45.3 percent between August 2002 and August of 2011. “Newspaper, book and directory publishers” are down 35.9 percent between January 2002 and a decade later; jobs among “periodical publishers” fell by 31.6 percent during the same period.
So why aren’t we talking about it?
Creative types, we suspect, are supposed to struggle. Artists themselves often romanticize their fraught early years: Patti Smith’s memoir “Just Kids” and the various versions of the busker’s tale “Once” show how powerful this can be. But these stories often stop before the reality that follows artistic inspiration begins: Smith was ultimately able to commit her life to music because of a network of clubs, music labels and publishers. And however romantic life on the edge seems when viewed from a distance, “Once’s” Guy can’t keep busking forever.
Yes, the Internet makes it possible to connect artists directly to fans and patrons. There are stories of fans funding the next album by a favorite musician — but those musicians, as well, acquired that audience in part through the now-melted creative-class infrastructure that boosted Smith. And yes, there have been success stories on Kickstarter, as well — but even Kickstarter accepts just 60 percent of all proposals, and only about 43 percent of those end up being crowd-funded.
Our image of the creative class comes from a strange mix of sources, among them faux-populist politics, changing values, technological rewiring, and the media’s relationship to culture – as well as good old-fashioned American anti-intellectualism.
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It was only relatively late in the evolution of the species – after we settled down into cities and began to accumulate private property – that food surpluses, and with them, specialization, developed and allowed the existence of a creative class for the first time. The resentment may have started there, in the Bronze Age.
We’ll probably never know its deepest origins, but we can clearly document the roots of anti-aestheticism in the very founding of this country: The Puritans who settled the Atlantic shores were austerity-loving religious fanatics who saw art not just as frivolous or womanly, but as idolatry: Before sailing here they’d become notorious across England for smashing stained glass windows and ripping the benches from church choirs. Much of this aggression was directed against the Catholic Church, but the Puritans were no more fond of the church’s support for painting and music than they were of other instances of papery.
And while much of the landed gentry who founded the nation were intellectuals and aesthetes, the frontier myth resonates much more loudly. “Noble savage”-loving Rousseau, critic Leslie Fiedler wrote, is our real founding father, and our early literature is about men fleeing civilization and book learnin’ for an unmediated experience with nature at its most raw. When – decades later — vaudeville, circuses and early motion pictures began to spread, they were denounced for their corrupting influence on the young and working classes. “They were considered a threat to the American way of life,” says popular culture historian Robert J. Thompson.
Europeans, says Plagens, have a very different relationship to the arts because of a high culture going back to the Renaissance and before. “Over here, America is more tied to pragmatism – clearing the land, putting the railroad through … And artists don’t really help with that, so we’re suspect.”
Novelist Jonathan Lethem, whose father was what the writer describes as “a non-famous artist,” sees the American artist as living in internal exile. American history is stamped with “a distrust of the urban, the historical, the bookish in favor of a fantasy of frontier libertarian purity. And the Protestant work ethic has a distrust of what’s perceived as decadence.”
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We don’t wear buckles on our hats anymore; even coonskin caps have fallen out of style. But these latent notions in human nature and the American mind have taken a great step forward – or backward – recently. Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were demonizing long-haired bohemians, know-it-all professors, journalists and other seditious types since around the time of Woodstock. But these seeds of paranoia really blossomed with the invention of the term the “cultural elite.” During the “Murphy Brown” wars of 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle spoke at the Commonwealth Club of California, connecting the Los Angeles riots to a group sitting “in newsrooms, sitcom studios, and faculty lounges all over America,” jeering at regular people. “We have two cultures,” he said, “the cultural elite and the rest of us.”
This term redefined “elite” from its previous associations (many of them positive) with skill and accomplishment, or wealth and explicit power. (And Quayle was, after all, not only a vice president but a wealthy man from several generations of money.) It also oriented the resented group around education, culinary tastes (they always seemed to be described drinking white wine or lattes) and attraction to culture. Presumably this cultural elite was driving to the opera in its Volvos – somehow managing to both sip a cappuccino and laugh at regular people at the same time — while dreaming up ways to undermine the American way. While the cultural left has led assaults on the literary canon, or the race and gender of artists whose work hangs in museums, and so on, it’s rarely duplicated the anti-intellectual populism of the far right quite so well.
“Cultural elite,” says Lethem, is “a code word for people who are getting away with something for far too long. It’s a term of distrust – you can almost hear a plan for vengeance in it. Republican politics hardened these impulses and made them more virulent and paranoid.”
If someone who takes in culture – or who writes about it or teaches it, as in Quayle’s original formulation – is somehow “not like us,” the only person more discredited is someone who spends his life producing this stuff.
“There is a pampered class of artists in the United States,” concedes Gioia, who got to know a wide range of creative types during his years as NEA chair. “But it’s tiny. And they make insignificant money compared to sports people. We have this Puritan, practical tradition in the United States. Puritans would give to the poor, but not to the idle. Artists are seen as these idle dreamers.”
More typical than a celebrity artist feasting on enormous grants, he says, is someone like Morton Lauridsen, who is now one of the most performed living composers – after decades of scraping by, teaching and writing choral works. Or a writer like Kay Ryan, who, until becoming U.S. poet laureate in 2008 was known to only a small few. “She never applied for a grant, never taught writing,” Gioia says. “She taught remedial reading at a community college.”
It was the Coast Guard Academy band, in New London, Conn., that allowed Kelli O’Connor, a conservatory-trained clarinet and saxophone player, to make a living. These days she’s a principal in a nearby orchestra, plays with a chamber group at a Boston church, coaches at area high schools and teaches at the University of Rhode Island: None of these pay a full salary or significant benefits. “Freelancing is a hustle all the time,” she says. “You master the art of scheduling. Squeezing in as much as possible. There are some days when I’m not done until 11 or 12 at night, and then I have to get up at 7 in the morning.”
Like most musicians, she teaches private lessons, but her students have fallen by more than half. “Because of the economy, it’s really gone downhill. People are afraid to spend their money. You’re constantly sending your C.V. to local schools to stir up interest.”
“More than any other group of artists, musicians are getting a raw deal,” said a rare story on the crisis, in Crain’s New York Business.
The story of the struggling musician is nothing new, but with smaller orchestras like the Long Island Philharmonic and the Queens Symphony scaling back, and musicals and dance productions using fewer players or none at all, professional musicians — many who studied for years at prestigious schools like Juilliard — are facing an increasingly tough time. They are being forced to piece together bits of freelance work, take on heavy teaching schedules or leave the business altogether. Over the past decade, the number of members of the Associated Musicians of Greater New York Local 802 has shrunk to 8,500 from about 15,000.
Tino Gagliardi, president of Local 802, told Crain’s, “There are fewer opportunities for musicians, and as the work diminishes, people move on.”
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Most people get their ideas about artists and entertainers from the media – TV, the newspapers, radio and so on. When we see actors, musicians, and architects on the covers of magazines or on television, we think we’re getting a look at the creative class. But most often, we don’t see them at all.
Newspapers, especially, have long felt a romanticism, and sense of duty, toward a “man in the street,” a kind of salt-of-the-earth figure who could – depending on the location or era – come out of Springsteen or Steinbeck. “There’s the old saw about afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted,” says James Rainey, who reports on the press for the Los Angeles Times and is one of few journos who has written well on the damage to his own industry.
Coverage of the most vulnerable is among the noble things the press still does. But it means that some strata get overlooked. When papers have written about the recession, for instance, they’ve leaned very heavily on coverage of the poor and working class; professionals, say, losing their homes because of the unemployment or falling housing values hardly show up. One mainstay in recession-era stories about the creative class has been pieces about artists who have “reinvented” themselves – an architect brewing a perfect cup of coffee — in difficult times. Or artsy types who have pursued their “Plan B” – making vegan cupcakes or running a groovy ice cream truck. Fun to read, counterintuitive, more colorful than dreary unemployment statistics – and deeply unrepresentative of what’s really going on.
More honest – and harder to find — is the kind of thing veteran food writer Amanda Hesser just conceded on the blog Food52: That she can no longer advise even talented and diligent young journalists to follow her path. “Except for a very small group of people (some of whom are clinging to jobs at magazines that pay more than the magazines’ business models can actually afford), it’s nearly impossible to make a living as a food writer,” she writes, “and I think it’s only going to get worse.”
One side of the equation, though, is well represented. The celebrity-industrial complex has all but exploded since the 1980s: Rainey recently spoke to a magazine editor who complained about being held hostage by a marketplace that demanded more and more coverage of people famous for being famous.
“Part of this is because there are so many more news outlets than 30 years ago,” he says. “When I started out, you didn’t have Us, OK, so many supermarket tabloids that are big sellers and all about celebrity. On the TV side, there are hundreds of channels about celebrities, and you’ve got TMZ on the Web, Perez Hilton … That’s pulled some of the mainstream outlets in that direction.”
But newspapers, who by some estimates laid off as many as 50 percent of their arts writers in the years after the 2008 crash, may not be in the best position to document the crumbling of non-corporate culture outside Hollywood and television (both of which consume the lion’s share of media coverage). In their urge not to seem elitist, they may shy away from the struggles of folks in the fine and performing arts especially.
It’s nothing as craven or cynical as “media bias,” but the full picture of culture in this country doesn’t get told. Says Rainey: “There’s more attention to celebrities than to everyday people who put together productions, or who struggle to make a living in the arts.”
To most Americans, this middle class of the creative class might as well be invisible.
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Technology has reshaped this issue in another way. “The stereotype of the creative genius has not let go when we look at people out of the past,” says Thompson, the Syracuse University historian. He lists a number of costume-drama images – crazy-brilliant figures like Mozart and Van Gogh – whose prestige is undiminished and whose work is still widely revered.
“But we are much less willing to apply this to people who are still alive. Because distribution has been democratized by the Internet, we tend to think that talent has been democratized as well.” If everyone can post their videos on YouTube, why are some filmmakers richer and more famous than others?
“I think it’s changed the way we look at the contemporary creative class. A lot of it is resentment: Why are you up there when I can do this too?”
This backlash against the creative class – when is the last time we’ve seen an artist or an intellectual in a mainstream film, set in the present rather than a romanticized past, who was not evil or pretentious? – is part of a larger revolt against experts and expertise. We’ve come a long way since the days of Sputnik, when education and intelligence were valorized in a burst of Cold War chauvinism.
Steve Jobs and technological heroes are still worshiped, says Thompson, but it doesn’t translate to creative people who do things that are intangible or hard to understand. “I’ve seen people walk into a museum and say, ‘I can do that,’” he says. “They can’t, of course. But when their computer breaks down, they know they can’t fix it. Creativity is a form of expertise,” something a nation that keeps insisting on its status as a democracy has never been entirely comfortable with.
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There are other changes in sensibility besides rabid faux-populism that spell hostility to the arts and those who work in them. One of them is a kind of market fundamentalism – the idea that everything, whether education, culture or the state of our souls can be bought, sold and measured. “What Isn’t for Sale?” asks an article in the April Atlantic. (You can now buy “access to the car pool lane while driving solo,” rent a woman’s womb, “shoot an endangered black rhino,” and get your doctor’s cellphone number if you’re willing to pay for it, Michael J. Sandel points out. The growth of for-profit hospitals, warfare, community security and schools – which have recently gotten a sweet tax break – show how far we’ve gone in the last few decades.)
We see this same point of view in economic impact studies of the arts and the push for what’s called “cultural tourism” – museums and philharmonics arguing their worth based on the capital they generate. You see it, from the opposite side, when a cultural entity goes bankrupt. When a Kentucky paper reported the Chapter 11 filings of the Louisville Orchestra, the accompanying comments gave a sense of the way we think about culture and the market.
“Get rid of them, the Ballet and any other useless tax funded ‘entertainment’ that isnt self supporting,” one said. “Pack up your fiddles and go home boys and girls. Maybe find real jobs. Go to Nashville and vie for some sessions work.” A third: “Sale all of assets to pay these people off, fire them all and get rid of the Orchestra. It isnt popular with the residents or they would have packed crowds and not have to worry about $$$.” And unambiguous in its market fundamentalism: “The orchestra creates a product. That product has lost public appeal. Just like any business, this one needs to shut down. If your product isn’t selling there is no reason to continue in business.” Needless to say, classical music and other art forms originated and evolved in the age of patronage, well before the market economy.
It brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s line: “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
“Everything now has to be fully accountable,” says Plagens. “An English department has to show it brings in enough money, that it holds its own with the business side. Public schools are held accountable in various bean-counting ways. The senator can point to the ‘pointy-headed professor’ teaching poetry and ask, ‘Is this doing any good? Can we measure this?’ It’s a culture now measured by quantities rather than qualities. We don’t have any faith any more in the experts when they say, ‘Trust us.’”
Says Lethem: “These days everything has to have a clear market value, a proven use for mercantile culture. Well, art doesn’t pass that test very naturally. You can make the art gesture into something the marketplace values. But it’s always distorting and grotesque.” (The awkward fit reminds him of the Philip K. Dick story “The Preserving Machine,” about a scientist who tries to convert treasured musical scores into animals that can survive an apocalypse – with unpleasant results.)
In some ways, the obsession with economics – both inside and outside the arts – is driven by economics itself. “Forty years ago,” says Plagens, who chronicled the West Coast art scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s in a gem of a book, “Sunshine Muse,” “you rented an art gallery for not much money, and bought a few gallons of white paint. Now you need investors and backers and all sorts of digital technology. So there’s a bigger emphasis on having a business plan than the old bohemian model.”
The final irony is that these are times when we most need the arts but seem the most resistant to culture and the people who produce it.
Despite the crisis in the creative fields in general, mass-distributed entertainment is in a boom cycle. (Movies, because they cost consumers less than most live entertainment, is typically counter-cyclical.) “Popular art and commercial art is a form of escape,” says Plagens. “It’s what people want, especially in hard times; it’s what you got in the ‘30s, with movies about the heiress who disguises herself as a poor working girl, and so on,” which he sees as the precursor to the tidal wave of sequels, remakes and lame romantic comedies.
“Serious art – novels, what you have in the galleries – brings you back to reality and makes you look at your life. Serious art makes people uncomfortable – and during these times, we don’t need more discomfort.”
Scott Timberg, a longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, runs the blog Culture Crash. His book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class" comes out in January. Follow him on Twitter at @TheMisreadCityMore Scott Timberg.
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)