"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)
Hard as it was to switch channels during the uplifting Republican National Convention, we found our way to Turner Classic Movies. The 1943 classic “Casablanca” was airing. Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine, twice says, “I never was much of a businessman,” making the point that the greater good takes precedence over personal happiness or the success of any one man Then he says to Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa: “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” As we all know, they sacrifice their love to the freeing of a continent from Nazi domination.
For Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship, to be sure. But today’s GOP has demonstrated pretty clearly that it doesn’t understand Rick’s empathetic message to the world in a time of tremendous uncertainty.
Republicans hype the “Greatest Generation” when doing so fits their narrative that anyone who tries hard enough can make it in America. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose blowhard manner has made him the idol of the party, bellowed before the Tampa crowd that his father was part of the World War II generation, and that he is the beneficiary of his old man’s positive values. “He grew up in poverty,” Christie intoned. Paul Ryan and Rick Santorum similarly tout their humble connections in assuring voters that they come by their conservative values honestly.
This is the new Republican playbook. They are running away, as fast as they can, from the upper-class ideology to which they really subscribe. Romney “loves” his Costco shirts; and, his wife says, they began married life in a basement apartment with a “fold-down ironing board for a dining room table.” We are now supposed to believe that theirs is not the party of wealthy businessmen on one end of the scale, and on the other, angry, spellcheck-resistant Tea Party sign wavers who hate the deadbeats that are bilking the government out of hard-earned tax dollars. No, the new Republican Party is the party of self-made men with loving wives and mothers, “real Americans” who embrace educational opportunity and the American dream for all.
The “new” Republicans owe more than they will acknowledge to a federal government that dispensed a long list of subsidies from World War II forward. The GI Bill made higher education possible for millions, just as New Deal legislation before that helped secure federally backed loans for businesses and homeownership for the first time in our history. The growth of suburbia was financed by big government. Businessmen did not accomplish this change in class structure on their own. Not nearly. The federal government created the middle class of the 1950s. Surely, the Republicans can admit this much. But doing so is risky; it might lead them down the slippery slope from “Greed is good” to “Government is good.”
It seemed that every speaker who went onstage in Tampa had a story to tell about his or her family’s hardscrabble origins. Ann Romney’s grandfather was a poor Welsh miner. She said of Mitt’s father, Michigan Gov. George Romney, who never graduated from college, that he began life as a carpenter. The story goes that, like Christie’s dad, the senior Romney bequeathed his true American values to his son. That’s what we’re meant to focus on. She who would be our next first lady doesn’t mention the sum of money or amount of property George Romney bequeathed to his family.
Name someone whose genealogy doesn’t reach back to a comforting tale of modest connections. Out West, one of Dick Cheney’s pioneer grandfathers worked his way up from bank clerk; the other was a butcher. Are we to believe that their commonness made the CEO of Halliburton a better man, sensitive to the plight of the impoverished worker?
While they blame government for throwing good money after bad ideas and unworthy bums, the new Republicans say they’ll “take back their country” by shrinking or privatizing the kinds of government programs that helped the middle class. Rather than credit government for anything, Christie and other big talkers do a bait-and-switch when they praise their hardworking, self-sacrificing parents and grandparents for whatever success they themselves have had. In Christie’s words, “We are taking our country back because we are the great-grandchildren of the men and women who broke their backs in the name of American ingenuity, the grandchildren of the greatest generation, the sons and daughters of immigrants.”
The rhetoric of Republicans suggests – no, promises – that everyday people, firefighters and factory workers, Main Street shop owners, and teachers unencumbered by the overweening power of teachers unions, will work hard, and one of their kids may grow up to be the governor of New Jersey. Correct. The lucky few will get ahead. The rest continue to work long hours, worrying about losing their jobs in the next economic downturn and not having healthcare. Ann Romney is a real person whose health crises are real and her spirit commendable; but she did not have to worry about paying for the best care money could buy. Her father was the only one of her coal-mining grandfather’s 14 children to go to college. What about the other 13? What was their fate? Who financed their healthcare?
But that’s not part of the Republican narrative, which dictates against posing practical questions if they demand concrete answers. Thus the packaging of Mitt Romney is (not surprisingly, given his off-script awkwardness) a wobbly mix of artificial qualities. After all the primary-period bashing he was forced to endure, the GOP has come together to praise Mitt as a skilled leader, a thinking-man’s fixer, the brilliant businessman who wasn’t handed his success. As his wife declared, “He built it!” But she never says precisely what Mitt actually created. In the olden days, candidates for president had to, in some fashion, trace their way back to life as a “son of the soil,” physically connected to the good earth; it was Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that cultivators were God’s chosen people. They got their hands dirty, but they had clean minds. Even Harry Truman had to do that when he ran for president.
Nowadays, a candidate has to be a “job creator.” At the same time, he can’t be tone-deaf to Middle America. The working men and women of America are still (and justly) celebrated for having produced things that benefited humankind. And Mitt? Well, he’ll create solutions. That’s the only way to sell him. It’s vague, but seems somehow plausible.
The Republicans are trying to remake the $250 million man, but Romney cannot escape the narrative tension that centers on his class identity. All you really have to do is register TV viewers’ uneasy reactions to the now-ubiquitous photo of a young executive Romney clutching a fistful of dollars. Mitt in Middle America, Mitt with a hoe in his hand, is about as genuine as the uncomfortable-looking mom jeans he wears on the campaign trail. Remember the late-1960s show “Green Acres”? Eddie Arnold as the successful New York attorney transplanted to a farm in Hooterville? The Romney version is a corporate mogul (with uncommonly attractive hair) who gives up city life and heads out to the lush fields of Iowa to begin his run for the presidency.
It seems absurd that anyone should try to conceal Romney’s class background. But that’s what occurred at the Republican National Convention. Ann Romney may claim that we are all one big American family. But we aren’t. Not everyone knows what it feels like trying to come up with college tuition. Privilege is as privilege feels. Or doesn’t feel.
Convention-going Republicans took a conflicted stand on work. First, there’s Christie’s evocation: We live out the dreams of hardworking parents who desire to pass on opportunity – and whatever they’ve earned – to their children. (This is the trickle-down theory of Republican deservedness.) And yet, these same Republicans somehow fail to observe the difference between the hard work of a Mitt Romney, who made his way through law school and business school at the same time and later put in long hours at Bain, and the mother who cleans houses to put her children through college.
Labor Day should make us think more about class distinctions. Romney is a good husband, but it doesn’t diminish his life of privilege. Ann Romney is not a typical housewife either; her hobby is dressage, not knitting. Contrary to the Republicans’ wished-for America, it is not just the hardworking, honest American who gets ahead: so do mobsters and Hollywood blondes without talent, Enron executives, corporate raiders and members of the patrician class who never worked a day in their lives.
Let’s talk about labor in honest terms. Thomas Jefferson may have designed Monticello, but his slaves mixed the lime and baked the brick and erected the mansion. Slaves built much of early America, long-despised Irishmen dug the Erie Canal, and Chinese peasants were conscripted to lay railroad tracks all the livelong day. Businessmen need a vast array of workers to build any corporate enterprise; employers need employees. White-collar workers, manual laborers, electricians and carpenters make businesses run. Why must Republicans these days take such joy and displaced pride in suggesting that business leaders do it all, building the country brick by brick, by themselves, our precious job creators? A football team needs blockers as well as a quarterback.
Casablanca’s Rick is saying that the pursuit of wealth often gets in the way of virtue as well as justice. If you listen to Chris Christie, public school teachers aren’t accountable enough, and unions are a selfish perk for a coddled generation. Why does the same accountability not extend to big businessmen? No prosecutions on Wall Street? This is where the Republicans’ moralizing platform sinks in quicksand. One standard for ordinary folks, and another for the rich and powerful?
Mitt Romney doesn’t think he should be subject to the same accountability as others. He won’t provide tax returns so that citizens can judge the man and be certain that he puts his country before personal gain. Before the unpropertied were allowed to vote, Jefferson held that those who served in the militia and paid their taxes should be granted that right. It was the Dream Act prequel. The tough stand on undocumented workers taken by Romney and the Republicans reflects the “American value” that Spanish-speaking people can’t be trusted to … love America? Work hard? Pay their taxes? Whose American dream are we focused on?
Republicans talk about equal opportunity, but they do not acknowledge that the exploitation of tax loopholes and their bank accounts in the Cayman Islands constitute government perks for the coddled superrich. That’s the truth. Did Christie’s father put his money in an offshore bank account? Doubtful. The “everyday heroes” whom Christie praised in Tampa, firefighters and teachers, do they evade their tax responsibilities?
In her speech at the convention, Ann Romney did not intend to reveal how she and Mitt really felt when she grandly observed that her husband had “helped lift others up.” This is not jeans and a Costco button-down speaking. It is something else: noblesse oblige, the condescension traditionally required of a person of high rank or noble lineage.
The big Romney donors have very different expectations from a Romney presidency than the mass of Republican voters can begin to understand – because the latter are blind, evidently, to the gulf that exists between the Romneys and their major donors and everyone else. Just because Ann Romney’s grandfather sacrificed for his family, just because Chris Christie’s father struggled, does not mean that their well-to-do offspring should be protected by special dispensations and allowed to hoard their wealth by a government that will not ask them to make a meaningful sacrifice.
On this Labor Day weekend, let us consider that the millions of hardworking Americans who deserve a real shot at success will never be well served by today’s Republican Party. As Bogie’s character wanted us to know, the greater good requires a decent sacrifice from those most fortunate. Let billionaires pay their fair share of taxes. Pretending to be on “Green Acres” does not make a farmer. Having an ancestor who struggled to feed his family does not help you feel for those who to go to bed hungry.
And when it comes to Republicans’ pretense that they will enact programs that expand opportunity, don’t buy it. A kiss-off is not a kiss. Play that, Sam.
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)