"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)
Dennis McDougal, the writer dubbed “L.A.’s number one muckraker,” peels away the phoney baloney to tell us about power, pollution and pulp fiction in the City of Angels.
The New York Times called you “L.A.’s number one muckraker.” You grew up largely in L.A., attended UCLA, worked for the Los Angeles Times and wrote nine books about the region. What inspired you to make a career out of covering your hometown?
Los Angeles has always fascinated me. It’s a destination for people who are looking for their big chance or their last chance. It’s the last stop on the way west; you can’t go any further, unless you’ve got a boat. As far back as the Gold Rush people have come to Southern California to reinvent themselves. They can have all kinds of troubles back East or in the Midwest but if they could make it as far as Southern California they could become someone other than who they were before. They could distance themselves from their back story. Even though I was born in Southern California, the sociology and the mythology of the place has always drawn me in. I took the opportunity to explore it as broadly and as fully as I could as a working journalist.
“Seventy-two suburbs in search of a city,” is what Dorothy Parker called L.A. Fran Lebowitz called it “a large city-like area surrounding the Beverly Hills Hotel.” And she told me in a FiveBooks interview that “it’s not a city if people spend half their day in a car.” What is your reply? Is Los Angeles a real city?
What constitutes a real city in the 21st century? Los Angeles has always been, as Carey McWilliams called it, “an island on the land.” It’s a string of communities connected by the freeway system, and before that rail lines connected it. I grew up in one of these communities, a little town called Lynwood that’s no longer so little and it’s sandwiched by six other communities – they’re all part of the larger megalopolis of Los Angeles. I think Los Angeles has the characteristics of an authentic city. You could make the argument that New York is five boroughs surrounding the Empire State Building.
You and many others call Los Angeles a megalopolis. What does that mean?
Sociologists and urban planners use the term to describe the difference between a metropolis, which is a city with finite borders like San Francisco because there’s water, and a city like Los Angeles, which has the room to sprawl. The first time I heard the term used was in the early 1980s but now megalopolis is probably applicable to dozens of U.S. and international cities. Certainly, Los Angeles is the largest. It’s a huge swath of urban territory, extending approximately from Ventura County to the north all the way through Orange County to the south. The way the city is sprawling it might soon stretch all the way to San Diego and the Mexican border. Los Angeles is not just a city – it’s a megalopolis beyond the imagination of a 19th century citizen.
“An Island on the Land” is what Carey McWilliams called L.A. Your first choice ["Southern California"] is a book with that subtitle by McWilliams, the former editor of the Nation, in 1946. It chronicles the evolution of Southern California in the early 20th century. What will we learn by reading it and why have you recommended it?
An Island on the Land” is narrative journalist Carey McWilliams’ attempt to trace Southern California’s cultural inheritance back to its roots. The book looks at what the city sprung from – for instance, the missions and missionaries that were established in the area as far back as the 18th century. He looks at the early activists, like Helen Hunt Jackson who worked to improve the treatment of Southern California natives. And he highlights the charismatic characters that preceded the movie stars, like Aimee Semple McPherson, a California evangelist show-woman who combined revival with Hollywood fireworks. She laid the groundwork for Southern California being characterized as “the land of fruits and nuts.”
It’s a fun book to read and reread. “An Island on the Land,” for me, is a fundamental text for getting a grasp on what makes Southern California tick.
Please explain the title.
The first thing you have to understand about Southern California is that it’s a desert. The Los Angeles Basin is a small crescent of land ringed by a minor mountain range that has a climate comparable to the Mediterranean. But beyond that everything is arid. That’s why Carey McWilliams called LA “an island on the land.”
Water powers everything. If you don’t have water you don’t have a city. There is no [fresh] water in the Los Angeles Basin so the people who wanted to take advantage of the fabulous year-round weather for which Southern California is quite justifiably famous had to bring water to the land. Los Angeles boosters in the late 1800s – the chamber of commerce, the newspaper, the engineers, all those people who wanted to see the city increase in size – had to bring water to the city. The way they did it was by robbing farmers in the Owens River Valley, which is southeast of the Sierra Nevada mountains and bringing the water by aqueduct across the desert to Los Angeles, a distance of a couple of hundred miles.
People called it water theft. But the aqueduct, which was built in the early 20th century, enabled L.A. to become what it is today. Now, in the opening couple of decades of the 21st century, Los Angeles has more people than ever before, they are thirsty and the water supply is running short.
McWilliams wrote about the so-called water wars first and best. This book engendered the plot of the movie “Chinatown.”
“Thinking Big” by Robert Gottlieb and Irene Wolt, and first published in 1977, is your second choice. What’s it about and why have you chosen it?
“Thinking Big” was the first serious look at the Los Angeles Times and the Chandler family, who published the most powerful newspaper in California for close to a century. It was an excellent book.
The publishing history of this book is almost a lesson in itself, regarding just how powerful the Chandler family really was. “Thinking Big” had a big publisher but there was a virtual blackout on it in the Los Angeles Times, and no one else around gave it any kind of promotion at all. It went through a single printing and disappeared just a few years after it was published. Trying to track down and buy a copy became a job in itself. The Chandler family married the power of a major metropolitan newspaper with avid real estate acquisition. They controlled vast expanses of the city and much of what was written about in the city.
This book is one of the reasons I worked at the LA Times. And “Thinking Big” inspired me to try to carry forward the thesis of Robert Gottlieb and Irene Wolt in my own book.
Why should we hunt down this out-of-print book rather than read your bestselling and award-winning biography of the Los Angeles Times dynasty, “Privileged Son”?
I took what they did – as well as what David Halberstam did with the Chandlers’ story in “The Last Mogul.”
So I guess I would recommend “Privileged Son” over “Thinking Big” or even “The Powers That Be,” which focuses less on narrative. I like a good yarn as well as detailed history that explains the land and the culture and the people in power. That’s what “Privileged Son” does.
You worked for the L.A. Times for a decade. What did you learn about the city by working for its broadsheet?
Los Angeles peaked in about 1973 and it’s been downhill ever since. I was born in L.A. in the late 1940s. I’ve seen it grow from the disparate suburbs that Dorothy Parker described to a metropolis that was manageable. Then during the ’80s, when I was at the Los Angeles Times, I saw L.A. eat up everything around it and become a megalopolis. The quality of life isn’t as good, the traffic is unspeakable, the air quality sucks and, once again, there are water problems. And all of that is getting worse.
Next, you chose a classic Raymond Chandler novel from 1940, “Farewell, My Lovely.” Please give us a précis of the plot and explain why you picked this book.
It’s a hard-boiled Raymond Chandler murder mystery that’s been made and remade into movies. It’s not only a great read filled with crackerjack characters but it really captures the essence of Southern California, even though it was published well over a half century ago, back when there was no freeway system at all.
I picked “Farewell, My Lovely” over “The Big Sleep,” which is another of my favorites, because it covers so much territory in terms of terrain and mythology. It opens at a bar in what is now known as South Central Los Angeles. A rough and tough guy is looking for his ladylove and hires private eye Philip Marlowe to track her down. Ultimately, of course, Marlowe finds the woman, but there’s any number of knocked heads and corrupt cops in between. The messiness of the plot, along with Marlowe’s patented patois, is what makes this novel so LA. Chandler captures the racism, class stratification and general Los Angeles phony baloney in a pulp fiction way. He captures what life in high society and what life for working-class stiffs was like in this disparate area where all these people come – from all over the country and all over the world – to remake themselves.
You’ve written several books about the dark side of the region. It seems like you have more than your share of psychotics. Are there really more serial killers out there? Is there something unique about the underbelly of sunny SoCal?
I’ve always felt that there has been. The quintessential Southern California crime was the Black Dahlia murder – a beautiful young woman was found cut in half in a Los Angeles park. It happened the year I was born so you can’t pin it on me. It was a precursor for dozens of mystifying murders and attendant media uproars that happened thereafter.
Why are such crimes one of the city’s hallmarks? I go back to the notion that people come to California to reinvent themselves. They may come and reinvent themselves as starlets or engineers or computer programmers but they never fully leave behind who they were. If they were disturbed, damaged or simply sociopaths who enjoyed inflicting harm on others, they bring that with them. Los Angeles is a great place to hide. The city is known as a fame factory but it’s easy to be anonymous.
My first book was about three serial killers – Patrick Kearney, William Bonin and Randy Kraft, who in total killed close to 150 people. They were able to kill with impunity for years in the late seventies because a) they hid in plain sight and b) they used the freeway system to get rid of their victims and distance themselves from the crime. These guys baffled the cops for years.
During my last visit to Los Angles, I felt fortunate to see the work of the serial arsonist whose career culminated with four New Year’s Eve fires. Witnessing one of a bizarre rash of crimes seems like as authentic an L.A. experience as hiking to the Hollywood sign.
So true. That was a classic Southern Californian-form crime. A guy who came to L.A. from abroad got a little attention for his first fires so he committed some more, concentrated in Hollywood. Then the media jumped on it and he started playing a hide-and-seek game with the police and getting international headlines.
Time to talk about the true headliners in Los Angeles – the stars. “The Real and the Unreal” by Bill Davidson is your next choice. The book jacket of the original edition called it a look at “the lights and shadows of Hollywood.” Please introduce us to this out-of-print book.
First of all I should introduce you to its author. I knew Bill quite well. He was a magazine writer who specialized in long narrative pieces. I met him after I went to work at the Los Angeles Times when I was covering the business of Hollywood.
One of the things you learn when you cover Hollywood is that better than half of what you are told and probably three-quarters of what you read about the industry are lies. Dating way back to the teens, as soon as movies became big business, an industry grew up around Hollywood – the public relations industry. One of my former editors at the Times liked to refer to them as the Silent Killers.
A big star – somebody of Clark Gable’s proportions or, translating it into today’s terms, Tom Cruise – is a big investment. You can’t have them behaving like a real human being and getting into trouble. Especially not the kind of trouble that movie stars get into because they have unlimited access, unlimited resources and so many sycophants around them telling them that they can do no wrong. So publicists created myths that were swallowed by newspapers, more often than not, hook, line and sinker. Nobody really knew who the stars were, at least not until long after they faded from the silver screen.
What Bill Davidson did in “The Real and the Unreal” was pull back the curtain on who these people really were. It was a daunting task because everywhere you go, everyone you talk to will try to prevent you from getting to the truth. Clark Gable gets drunk, races his car down Sunset Boulevard and hits somebody who later dies. The idea that the general public would find out that Rhett Butler was a functioning alcoholic and guilty of manslaughter would be terrible for the studios. A phalanx of publicists will prevent you from reporting it. Back then buying off cops was relatively easy to do.
That’s a true story? Clark Gable killed someone?
Davidson said so in print and was never sued. The stories in “The Real and the Unreal” have stood the test of time. If you wanted to wade through public records and track down the same people that he did you would come to the same conclusions.
How central is the entertainment industry to the economy and identity of Los Angeles? And has that changed since Davidson wrote “The Real and the Unreal” in 1957?
The entertainment industry is still quite important to the economy of L.A. Southern California, with its year-round sunshine, was always a big draw, given the limitations of old-style cameras and the controlled conditions preferred for shoots. But over the past quarter-century technology has leveled the playing field between L.A. and other cities. Many cities have entertainment industry outcroppings that have taken away from L.A. All of the big studios are still there, as well as the recording industry and to some degree television, although New York rivals LA in that regard. But I don’t think that L.A. has maintained the monopoly it had when Davidson was writing or even in the eighties when I was reporting. That’s one of the reasons why, to my mind, L.A. has lost an awful lot of cachet.
Finally, “City of Quartz” focuses on the conflicts under the Klieg lights. What does MacArthur fellow Mike Davis accomplish in this book?
Davis built on the history and arguments that Carey McWilliams proffered in “An Island on the Land” half a century earlier. “City of Quartz,” which was actually a Ph.D. dissertation that he turned into book form, looks at all of Southern California’s issues, including water, and weaves them together into a road map for the 21st century, with lots of warning signs along the way. He was wary of air pollution and what would happen with the ever-increasing number of automobiles clogging the freeway system. Sadly, a lot of his predictions have come to pass.
Davis also dove into an area that McWilliams only touched on – the overdevelopment and non-stop redevelopment of Southern California. L.A. is one constant rehab project, from one end of the city to the other. It makes for great conflict, great political crises and for terrific stories.
“Excavating the Future in Los Angeles” is the subtitle of this book. Do you agree with Davis’s projection of the city’s future? And is that part of the reason you’ve decamped from Southern California?
His dystopian view did have an influence on me, yes. So does his follow-up book about Southern California’s changing weather patterns, “Ecology of Fear.” I saw it happening: The sunny skies and predictably short rainy season, the Santa Ana winds that came in November and occasionally in the late spring – all of those things began to change in the late ’70s. The weather is increasingly erratic with harsh results. There were frequent sightings of tornadoes in Orange County, which was astonishing. The Santa Ana winds that Raymond Chandler wrote so eloquently about seem to be kind of a year-round phenomenon. They show up for no reason, dry everything out and the city will be in flames. But the worst thing about Southern California remains the traffic. You cannot get from here to there during rush hour. And, with each passing year, it only gets worse.
Los Angeles has a reputation for being more superficial than other cities. Christopher Hitchens said the city is “full of nonsense and delusion and egomania.” Neil Simon once noted that although the city is a pleasant 72 degrees year round, only 72 interesting people live there. Is this reputation unfair?
Every so often somebody from New York or Toronto or even D.C. will make a trek to L.A. as if they are pioneers. They’ll rent a room at the Beverly Hill Hotel or at the Peninsula down in Santa Monica; they’ll spend a week, maybe two, talking to all the usual suspects, mainly on the West Side of L.A. And then they’ll take their gleanings back to their computers and come up with searing revelations about the residents of La-La Land, as they like to call it.
My answer to those critics is that they should take a look at UCLA, the Getty Museum, the Frank Gehry Concert Hall, the Claremont Colleges. Los Angeles may be a latecomer when it comes to sophistication but it is far less superficial than most of its critics.
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)
Salon is proud to feature content from The Browser, a website dedicated to helping readers discover the best writing available on the web. It features articles, interviews and books that are of interest to the intellectually curious reader.