"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)
‘Tis the week before Christmas, and all through my house and 250 million others, people are blubbering helplessly as George Bailey overcomes despair and discovers that he really did have a Wonderful Life. I have no desire to rain on Frank Capra’s heartwarming, seasonally-sanctioned parade. Let cynics deny that a brief sojourn in a counterfactual limbo conjured up by a bumbling, liver-spotted angel can really produce a life-changing epiphany. Let jaded roués deride George as an infantile weenie whose courtship of Mary comes to fruition only because she prudently massaged her scalp with Spanish Fly before he arrived. Such criticisms are mean-spirited, if not downright un-American. But even a master sometimes flubs a brushstroke, and there is a glaring flaw in Capra’s great canvas.
I refer, of course, to Pottersville.
In Capra’s Tale of Two Cities, Pottersville is the Bad Place. It’s the demonic foil to Bedford Falls, the sweet, Norman Rockwell-like town in which George grows up. Named after the evil Mr. Potter, Pottersville is the setting for George’s brief, nightmarish trip through a world in which he never existed. In that alternative universe, Potter has triumphed, and we are intended to shudder in horror at the sinful city he has spawned — a kind of combo pack of Sodom, Gomorrah, Times Square in 1972, Tokyo’s hostess district, San Francisco’s Barbary Coast ca. 1884 and one of those demon-infested burgs dimly visible in the background of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
There’s just one problem: Pottersville rocks!
Pottersville makes its brief but memorable appearance during that tumultuous scene when George, who has just been bounced from Nick’s Bar and is beginning to seriously freak out, rushes down the main street. A large neon sign — the first of many — announces “Pottersville.” As sirens sound in the distance and a big band wails jazz, George staggers on, into an unfamiliar nightlife district that has replaced the town he knew. In a rapid montage, we see a neon bar sign saying “Blue Moon.” Another announces “Fights.” Yet another blares “Midnight Club — Dancing.” There’s a pool and billiards joint and a pawnbroker shop. A large marquee announces “Girls Girls Girls — 20 gorgeous girls — 3 acts.” The “Indian Club” gaudily sports a kitschy neon sign depicting the face of a brave. The “Bamboo Room” promises a more Oriental setting. As the disbelieving George stares at the teeming entrance of the “Dime a Dance” joint (“Welcome jitterbuggers”), a scuffle breaks out — some floozy is resisting being thrown into the paddy wagon. “I know every big shot in this town!” she shrieks as the gendarmes manhandle her. In horror, George recognizes the floozy — it’s Violet, the town flirt from his previous existence, now apparently turned full-fledged professional. After his protests almost land him in the pokey too, he stumbles off in shock and grabs a taxi.
George’s confusion, even dismay, is understandable — it’s always a shock when the laws of space and time cease to apply. But if he’d hung out for a while, had a few drinks in the Indian Club, dropped a couple dimes in the dance hall, maybe checked out the action at the burlesque, he would have gotten a whole new take on the situation. Pottersville has its problems — its bartenders can be undeniably ill-humored, for example — but compared to the snooze-inducing Bedford Falls, it jumps. In the immortal words of Jeffrey “Janet Malcolm” Masson, it’s a place of “sex, women, fun.”
The gauzy Currier-and-Ives veil Capra drapes over Bedford Falls has prevented viewers from grasping what a tiresome and, frankly, toxic environment it is. When Marx penned his immortal words about “the idiocy of rural life,” he probably had Bedford Falls in mind. B.F. is the kind of claustrophobic, undersized burg where everybody knows where you’re going and what you’re doing at all times. If you’re a Norman Rockwell collector, this might not bother you, but it should — and it certainly bothered George Bailey. It is all too easily forgotten that George himself wanted nothing more than to shake the dust of that two-bit town off his feet — and he would have, too, if he hadn’t gotten waylaid by a massive load of family-business guilt and a happy ending engineered by God himself.
There is no such thing as privacy in Bedford Falls. The place is like Bentham’s Panopticon with picket fences. Take the scene in which George and Mary have just gotten married and are taking a taxi to their bridal suite in the abandoned house. The two newlyweds are simply trying to get in some heavy necking before they arrive at the freezing, waterlogged, no doubt lead-paint-riddled dump in which they’re supposed to consummate their marriage — is that too much to ask? Yes, it is too much to ask in Bedford Falls, because in Bedford Falls there is only one taxi driver: Bert. Not content with his sole claim to fame, having an obnoxious, potato-nosed puppet on “Sesame Street” named after him (which is actually far more than he deserves), the intrusive Bert insists on breaking into the hot and heavy moment with the inane statement, “If either of you two see a stranger around here, it’s me.” This gross violation of the see-no-evil taxi driver code sends the discomfited George off into a ludicrous speech which he concludes by making embarrassing “randy” animal noises.
Nightlife? Geneva in the days of Calvin had more action. In Bedford Falls, the big diversion of an evening is to walk down to the library (while being constantly greeted by nosy “friends”) and see if it will close at 9:00 or 9:01. The sole bar in town appears to be Martini’s, a rest home which has a policy against admitting anyone under the age of 60. The strict family values of its devoutly Catholic Neapolitan owner, heavily watered drinks, the constant attention of a kindly bartender who knows your mother and a particularly anodyne menu of Christmas music are the attractions of this morgue, where your chances of getting lucky range between nil and zero.
When it comes to entertainment, the situation is similarly bleak. After George Bailey is tricked by Clarence into returning to Bedford Falls (a fate to which an icy death in the “charming” local river is preferable), he runs ecstatically down the main street, now restored to its full moribundity, and passes the local movie house. “The Bells of St. Mary’s and 2nd great feature,” the marquee reads. There is no other choice — it’s “Bells of St. Mary’s” or nothing.
A film guide sums up “The Bells of St. Mary’s” thusly: “Rambling, embarrassingly winsome sequel to ‘Going My Way,’ with Crosby’s crooning priest transferred to a rundown parish where Barry Fitzgerald’s roguish twinkle is replaced by [Ingrid] Bergman’s wholesome (but roguish) nun.”
Being forced to watch this movie for all eternity would be like finding yourself in one of those “Twilight Zone” episodes in which the same torture keeps happening again and again. (Yes, there is “2nd great feature,” but who would dare risk all on that terrifying dice-roll? Since this is Bedford Falls, it is almost certainly “Here Come the Waves,” an unspeakable 1944 Sinatra spoof in which Bing Crosby plays the heart-throb of the bobby-sox set.)
By contrast, Pottersville offers a rich variety of nightlife and entertainment. There is something for every taste and every budget. Pool and billiards sharpen hand-eye coordination. Dime-a-dance joints promote bonhomie. Prize fights and strip clubs provide weary citizens with much-needed catharsis. And a pawnshop makes it possible for those temporarily short on funds to participate in the full range of the community’s activities.
And, of course, there are the town’s many fine taverns. Alas, we will never know what delights are hidden behind the door of the Indian Club or the Bamboo Room, the Midnight Club or the Blue Moon. But we do have firsthand knowledge of one hostelry — Nick’s, formerly Martini’s, the first place into which George and Clarence stumble and from which they are rapidly ejected. And if Nick’s is any indication, a night out in Pottersville is not one to forget.
The first thing we see in Nick’s is a black piano player, stomping out some righteous honky tonk. A Lauren Bacall-type babe at a crowded table catches the eye. Tough-looking men in fedoras and worldly-wise broads in low-cut dresses are bellied up to the bar. In a word, it’s a happening place — until George and the egregious Clarence come in.
It is not my brief to defend the subsequent actions of Nick, the owner and bartender. No one can deny that his behavior is choleric and menacing, or that it contains disturbing elements of homophobia and disrespect for Christianity. Yet a fair-minded look at the scene reveals that Clarence’s provocations were, in fact, intolerable.
Let us review the scene. Nick, who is clearly very busy, asks the two men what they want. George orders a double bourbon. Clarence dreamily says, as if to himself, “I was just thinking … it’s been so long …”
Nick is understandably impatient. “Look, mister, I’m standing here waiting for you to make up your mind,” he says.
But this only spurs Clarence on to an even more prolonged and irritating fit of thinking to himself out loud. “That’s a good man,” he says. “I was just thinking of a flaming rum punch — no, it’s not cold enough, not nearly cold enough …I’ve got it — mulled wine! Heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves. Off with you, my lad, and be lively.”
Many bartenders, after being subjected to this insufferably patronizing sermon — “Off with you, my lad, and be lively”? “That’s a good man”? — on top of being ordered to make an insultingly impractical drink, would simply reach behind the bar and bring down a baseball bat upon the head of the offending customer. To his credit, Nick does not. Instead, he delivers a speech that, while perhaps not as gracious as it could have been, is a model of frankness and concision. “We serve hard drinks for men who want to get drunk fast,” he tells Clarence, “and we don’t need any ‘characters’ hanging around to give the joint ‘atmosphere.’”
Any bartender can attest that the prominent posting of these words in every bar in America would immeasurably improve the drinking experience of millions.
The denouement, which ends with Clarence and George being physically thrown out of the bar into the snow, is regrettable, but at this point almost inevitable. The die is cast when Nick hears George furtively ask Clarence if he has any money and any place to spend the night — questions that would give rise to suspicions in the minds of men who have seen less of the world than our host. By the time Clarence begins claiming that “every time you hear a bell ring an angel gets his wings” and asserting that he is hundreds of years old, Nick’s actions are virtually preordained. Firmly, yet politely, he asks the two men to leave — even offering them a choice of the door or the window. Yes, calling them “pixies” is uncalled for — but we must remember that this was an earlier, less enlightened era.
There is one last objection that can be leveled against Pottersville — its name. Yes, “Pottersville” does reek of Donald Trump-like vulgarity — but is that such a bad thing? Being named after a ruthless captain of industry casts a long, Ayn Randian shadow over a city, giving tacit permission to its inhabitants to pursue their pleasures in the enveloping moral darkness. If there was a town named Caligula City in the late Roman Empire, it probably slammed.
I have made, I believe, a definitive case that Pottersville has gotten a bad rap and that Bedford Falls is grossly overrated. But if there are any who are still unconvinced, I would just like to remind them of one little detail: in the real world, Potter won.
We all live in Pottersville now. Bedford Falls is gone. The plucky little Savings and Loan closed down years ago, just like in George’s nightmare. Cleaned up, his evil eyebrows removed, armed with a good PR firm, Mr. Potter goes merrily about his business, “consolidating” the George Baileys of the world. To cling to dreams of a bucolic America where the little guy defeats the forces of Big Business and the policeman and the taxi driver and the druggist and the banker all sing Auld Lang Syne together is just to ask for heartbreak and confusion when you turn off the TV and open your front door.
So don’t fight it. It’s a Pottersville world! Welcome jitterbuggers! Get me — (ka-ching!) — I’m giving out wings!
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
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)