"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)
“I don’t like going in with two ideas – it’s weak.”
A strange statement coming from a man with a dual identity and often hidden motives, but then “Dark Shadows,” the latest “Mad Men” episode, is rife with competitive doubles, if not actual evil twins. (Just like in a soap opera, wink wink.) Don and Ginsberg have dueling SnoBall campaigns, Peggy reminds Roger she’s supposed to be his secret sharer rather than that schlemiel Ginsberg, Megan struggles to be friends with both Sally and Don, Henry’s torn between two candidates he’s worked for, and everyone seems to have at least two wives – even if Pete’s second one belongs to another man. Unlike the SnoBall fight with Ginsberg that he rigs, Don wins the wife competition fair and square by having three, even if one was in name only. As Betty tells Sally when she works on her family tree, “They only care about the names anyway.”
So does a prospective new client, Max Rosenberg, who’s impressed that WASPy Roger Sterling has a wife named Siegel. He wonders if she’s related to someone he knows, leading his wife to gently remind him that they’re not related to every other Rosenberg, without adding the electrifying reason that’s a good thing. As Roger puts it to the client, they wants SCDP to sell Manischewitz to “a different kind of people” – after all, groups of people are different from each other, aren’t they? (North Carolina sure thinks so.) Even Jews are further subdivided by Roger into “Fiddler on the Roof” cast or audience members, a coded way of describing how assimilated they are.
“Different” is the polite code that Roger uses with the client, but with his man Ginsberg, he straight-talks about selling the product to “normal people – like me.” (Isn’t it great that we’re long past white males defining “normal” as being just like them?) Cultural ventriloquist Roger secretly uses a Jewish copywriter to produce an ad campaign to sell a traditionally Jewish wine to gentiles, before adding what Bert calls his “finesse” to it. That’s code for privileged WASP sheen, as when Roger talks boats with Max’s thoroughly assimilated son, who’s moved up from his father’s steerage class to Roger’s yacht class.
Roger’s double-talk extends to that “Semitic wife” of his who Bert’s unaware has already been circumcised from Roger’s marital staff, telling her that while on LSD she promised to help him any way she could. Jane one-ups Roger’s lie by double-talking her way into a second apartment, complaining that the old one has too many memories (and mothers-in-law) attached to it. “I feel like I can’t start a new life until I start a new life,” she argues, giving Betty some competition for self-actualizing platitudes – or bad soap opera dialogue. (It’s hard to tell the difference at times – unlike how easy it is to tell the difference between people — at least if you’re Roger.)
Jane shares with Betty an inability to take responsibility for her own acts, blaming Roger for ruining her new digs by digging her a bit too much after the client dinner, even though she starts to stop him before going ahead with their little housewarming. “Now this is no different than the last place,” Jane pouts about the apartment she’d considered “perfect” up to that moment, cluelessly conflating her emotional state with the situation she finds herself in.
If only she’d join Betty at that fount of philosophical wisdom, Weight Watchers, she’d have all the answers. Gleaning not only diet plans but life lessons from the weekly meetings, Betty uses them to complain about how very hard her life is and how proud she is of not overeating in response. Turning inside out the facilitator’s pre-Thanksgiving advice to not overeat but instead “fill ourselves with our children, our homes, our husbands, our health, our happiness,” Betty stuffs that old bird Henry with her newfound wisdom. “It’s so easy to blame our problems on others, but really we’re in charge of ourselves,” she advises primly after he complains that he “bet on the wrong horse and jumped ship for nothing” in leaving Nelson Rockefeller for John Lindsay, since Lindsay (unlike everyone else in this episode) is choosing not to compete.
In marrying, both Henry and Betty have bet on the wrong horse, and each is coping with it in their own way – Henry by secretly feeding himself what he misses in the dark shadows of the night, and Betty by embracing a strict diet while helping herself to a heaping plate of revenge. Her transparent attempt to turn Sally against Don and Megan fails only because women know what games their gender plays. Having seen Megan partly undressed through a window, Megan in turn sees through Betty, physically holding Don back from the angry call that would have made Betty smile as much as that loving spoonful of stuffing she savors. Having chided Megan with “Who’s the child here?” when she says she was trying to respect Sally’s wishes, Don quickly realizes that he’s the one who’s reacted childishly and apologizes – showing once again how he’s changing, in large part because he has a wife who’s leading him in a new direction.
Unfortunately, this maturity isn’t duplicated at the office, where he competes with the far younger Ginsberg to prove whose SnoBalls are bigger. But there’s never really any contest between the juvenile Ginsberg, who channels the child’s desire to throw a snowball in authority’s face (including the “pig,” which will soon be code for the cop in his ad), versus the manly Don, who channels the devil himself to chuckle, “This could change everything.”
Like Jane, Don wants a new life, and after trying to change everything at home, he now senses that he needs to do so at work, especially after having looked at the portfolio of the year’s ads that Joan presents and realizing he has nothing to contribute to it except his anti-tobacco letter from a year before. “We’re still suffering for it, might as well get something out of it,” he decides, an approach that Ginsberg would probably joke is his people’s motto and that could double as self-help advice for Betty and Jane.
Goaded by this lack of product and the sight of Ginsberg’s name on so many ads, Don feels inspired to create for the first time since he married Megan, and riffs his way into a devilishly good campaign that he sells “the hell out of” to the client. “Even me,” are the words Don puts into the thirsty devil’s mouth as he devours a SnoBall – a sentiment echoed by Ginsberg, who’s amazed that even Don can come up with something that good after not writing an ad for so long.
But Ginsberg’s grudging admiration turns to mere grudge when he finds out that Don ruthlessly edited him out of the friendly and fair competition he believed they were having. Apparently he needs the same disillusioning speech that Roger gives Peggy after she says he only cares about himself and he retorts that she’s just the same because, “That’s the way it is, it’s every man for himself.” Roger’s masculine phrasing was the norm at the time but nevertheless underlines Peggy’s objection to the idea that choosing Ginsberg for Manischewitz was a no-brainer. “I’m sick of hearing people think that way. I’m not an airplane either. I can write for anything.”
While Ginsberg makes a joke about Roger assuming he’s Jewish, Peggy’s genuinely angry at being categorized, having felt the impact of that thinking in negative ways (being denied accounts or having to work hidden in the background) while so far Ginsberg has benefited from being Jewish while also getting “non-denominational” work due to being male. Having earlier declared that he needed a penis working on Mohawk, Roger apparently doesn’t care if it’s circumcised — just as Jane points out that he’s suddenly OK with letting people know he married a Jewish woman. Here the show accurately portrays the fact that religious and even racial barriers often dropped before ones that kept women from competing equally with men in business and other pursuits.
The result is that the women are left to compete with each other, as both Betty and Sally do with Megan (and Megan does with her acting friend, Julia). Betty’s visibly jealous of Megan’s relationship with her children, as well as envious of Megan’s youthful beauty and Don’s love for her, which is underscored by a romantic note he’s scrawled on the back of Bobby’s drawing. In revealing Don’s first platonic marriage, Betty hopes to poison several wells – making Sally angry at both Don and Megan for hiding the truth, and casting Megan as merely the latest in a string of wives and therefore unimportant. (We can only assume Betty sees herself as different since she alone gave Don children, as when she explains to Sally that on the family tree Henry and Megan “get a branch off of us because we’re your parents,” showing the primacy of blood relationships to her, with everyone else mere appendages.)
Competing with Don for Megan’s love, Sally argues that she was friends with her first, and scowlingly demanding that Megan not betray her secrets to Don. Both Megan and Don tell Sally she’s just a little girl, but she only objects to Don categorizing her this way, leading him to disclose the hard truth that “you should realize your mother doesn’t care about hurting you, she just wants to hurt us.” Earlier Megan had taught Sally the actor’s trick of creating tears by keeping your “eyes wide open and think(ing) about something that makes you sad.” But Sally chooses to keep her eyes open to the truth while not getting sad but even. Proving she deserved the A+ she got for working on her family tree, Sally goes right to the root of the problem, axing Betty’s attempt at revenge by telling her that everyone had a love fest sharing the merry wives of Whitman.
Not so merry is Pete, who’d love to share the wife of his train buddy, and who sucks up to a New York Times reporter only to find the flattering profile he’d expected about “hip” agencies has omitted SCDP and turned into a “bullshit piece on the usual assholes” in which the writer “compares them to philosophers.” One man’s philosopher is another man’s asshole, of course, as the shelves of self-help books can attest — and those two identities also tend to shift as the times and fashions change. (As the out-of touch Bert shows when he tries to correct Pete’s use of “hip” to “hep.”)
Pete himself is the designated asshole of SCDP, and both Bert and Roger compete with him by secretly wooing Manischewitz, for reasons that Roger explains to Ginsberg in dark shadowy terms indeed: “When a man hates another man very, very much sometimes he wants to know something is his even if in the end he has to give it up.”
Where things end up is precisely the question in any story, of course. As Ginsberg says when he sees the Pop Art painting in Roger’s office, “I like the connect the dots. What does it end up being?” What each character on “Mad Men” will end up being – enlightened or disillusioned, successful or defeated, happy or bitter – remains undefined, the dots waiting to be connected once they realize they have the power to do so. Each seems to be stumbling along unaware, from Ginsberg not realizing what the poem he’s quoting from means, to Don believing that competing with Ginsberg doesn’t matter to him, to Roger not understanding why he feels the need to take everything for himself, to Betty who’s grateful for what she has only to the extent that she can feel superior to others.
Like Don, they each need to find a light bulb to dispel the dark shadows and see both themselves and other people better – how we each are different, and how we are all the same.
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)