"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 could be wrong, but – adding together a decade of Trouser Press magazine, five Trouser Press Record Guides and a whole lot of freelance writing — I may have reviewed as many albums as any American rock critic this side of Bob Christgau. From adroit to inept, I’ve offered my full faith and credit to a small percentage of them, attacked some (with the fierce indignation generally reserved for orphan-robbers, World Series goats and career criminals) and juggled the rest. I suppose I’ve shared a few valuable insights, but no doubt just as often I’ve come up empty, papering over ambivalence with utilitarian description.
How often was I right? Even if we can stipulate that there is a “right,” it’s hard to say, since the inconstancy of life synchs unreliably with value judgments that have been frozen in time. What was on the money in 1978 may seem horribly naïve in 1988 and condescending by 2008. Plus, a critic continues to hear and learn long after committing an appraisal to print, and that both alters the context and expands culture’s possibilities. When it comes to records that no longer live clearly in my memory, even going back for a refresher listen promises only a slim chance of summoning up enough sense of who I was and what I knew at the time to extrapolate what I was feeling when I wrote what I did.
I have never heard “Hats off to Larry,” the single that first introduced me to the existence of popular music 51 years ago, without truly feeling the pain and bitterness of Del Shannon’s words. I had not yet loved and lost at the time (well, maybe a guinea pig or two), so the song’s sentiments were practically worthless to me, but I was still moved in some way that I can’t possibly remember. By the time I began thinking about music seriously, with the instinctive self-awareness that would oblige me to become a critic, I could better understand why it was a heartwrenchingly great record, and I have never changed that estimation of it.
On the other hand, I was such a fan of “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” in sixth grade that I drew the dastardly Fokker pilot sieg-heiling on a piece of cardboard with Magic Markers and mailed it off to – I have no idea where, or how I even knew where – but it came back autographed by Charles Schulz, and it hangs proudly on my wall to this day. But for all that, I have no need, or even much desire, to ever hear the Royal Guardsmen again. It was a novelty record, and I was susceptible to its short-lifespan charms. But time has clarified its merits. While I surely would have felt differently in my ignorance circa 1967, I would now leave the song, which, other than the “10 – 20 – 30 – 40 – 50 or more” chorus, has faded from my consciousness, off any list of the rock era’s 1,000 greatest singles.
But if my critical sensibilities were undiscerning as an adolescent, emotional responses were already driving my musical tastes. Growing up when I did, loving the Beatles was a given (it didn’t hurt that my white skin and brown bangs led a classmate in my predominantly black elementary school to dub me “Ringo” in my last-day-of-school autograph book), but their songs of loss, longing and alienation – “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “Nowhere Man,” “We Can Work It Out,” “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl,” “The Night Before” – were the ones that hit home to me; they provided helpful commentary on my sebaceous spin-the-bottle romantic life at the time. (As much as I would like to claim professional certainty about the particular merits of those songs compared to the more assured and optimistic songs they accompanied on the American editions of “Rubber Soul,” “Help!” and “Yesterday and Today,” I lack the means to identify and quarantine the role a girl I liked at the time played in my adolescent musical appreciation.)
While some of the music I’ve lived with for decades has risen or fallen in my estimation, my aesthetic values haven’t changed much, and I am only occasionally horrified by rubbish I once wrote. (I still can’t decide if my Rolling Stone review of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” — “scrappy garageland warriors setting their sights on a land of giants” — was prescient, innocent or dumb.) Blame it on stubbornness if you will, or subconscious ass-covering, but I honestly can’t manage any kinder words now than I did at the time for Sting’s early solo work (“a tedious, bankrupt and vacuous cavern of a record … his pedantic instincts and bulging ego inform the lyrics at every turn with political dilettantism, literary namedropping and prolix pseudo-profundities”), Jane’s Addiction (“most of the record sounds like the work of an incompetent Aerosmith cover band. And Farrell’s effete habit of interjecting the word ‘motherfucker’ merely frosts the album’s maggotry”), Barenaked Ladies (“As cute as a baby and as appealing as a loaded diaper”) or any barrel-bound fish I have shot at. I do a mental check of my animosity for Bruce Springsteen now and again (he’s not an artist I’ve written much about, but my friends have all heard the spiel, and I was once included in a newspaper article about rock crit apostasy because of it; my other digressions from the gospel include the Flying Burrito Brothers, Tom Waits, Lucinda Williams and Wilco), and I’m still not a fan.
But it’s hard to keep reactions to individual albums from hardening into overly general views of the artists who make them: like her, hate them. The very nature of rock fandom, amplified by the professional responsibilities of a critic who is asked for consistency — Top 10 lists, all-time favorites, star ratings, two-sentence recaps and all that — leads listeners to divide the vast world of music-creators with whom they come into auditory contact into two camps: rock and rot. (Well, maybe three: rock, rot and rule.) And that brings with it the risk of prejudgment. It would take the most disciplined of critics to approach each album as a white label mystery before forming a response to it.
On 12/12/12, as the world braced breathlessly for the fantasy league pairing one survivor of the Beatles with three survivors of Nirvana at that night’s Sandy charity concert, I was moved to spit out this Facebook hack at Foo Fighters:
One of the most well-intentioned worthless bands ever to have a career. There is not a single song in their repertoire that could not have been written by a 15 year old. Grohl’s singing begins and ends with a shriek, and no one else in the band seems able to slow him down or build him up. His heart is in the right place, he’s a most honorable rock star, and he was a tremendous asset to Nirvana. But I wish he would just go the fuck away.
A resourceful respondent quickly posted this paragraph from TrouserPress.com and questioned my critical consistency:
With an immediate return to form in “The Pretender,” “Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace” is the Foos at their hardest-rocking. The album balances loud and soft, from “Long Road to Ruin,” “Erase/Replace” and “Let It Die” (with a Smear solo) to “Stranger Things Have Happened,” “Come Alive” and “Summer’s End.” The instrumental “Ballad of the Beaconsfield Miners” showcases Grohl’s acoustic guitar chops, while the piano-driven “Home” provides a lovely ending to an excellent album. [Ira Robbins/Pete Crigler]
Reads like a case of flip-floppery, doesn’t it?
Actually, I didn’t write that paragraph, but I did write this segment of the same review, a little more than 15 years ago:
“I don’t owe you anything” screams Dave Grohl over and over in “I’ll Stick Around,” and it sounds at once like a desperate chant against evil thoughts, a bitter testimonial to history and the needed disposal of some traumatic baggage. “I want out / I’m alone and I’m an easy target,” he worries two songs later.
The spotlight is hardly an ideal hiding place, but maybe the former Nirvana drummer (whose career began in Washington D.C., in Dischord punk band Scream and such lesser luminaries as Dain Bramage) is just facing his fears. Stepping out from behind the relative safety of his monstrously battered kit, Grohl writes, plays guitar and sings in the Foo Fighters, an ambitious return to active duty following Nirvana’s sudden death in 1994.
Recorded before the band’s actual formation, “Foo Fighters” is entirely Grohl’s doing save for a bit of guitar playing by Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli. (The quartet’s final lineup, pictured but not named on the record, includes guitarist Pat Smear, originally of Los Angeles’ legendary Germs, a solo artist and, most recently, a touring member of Nirvana, plus the former rhythm section of Seattle’s Sunny Day Real Estate: bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith.) On record and in concert, Grohl emerges as a potent frontpunk with a limited vocal range, good songs, ample enthusiasm and too much imagination to simply replicate the signature sound of the band that made him famous.
Roaring with guitar distortion like a fission furnace threatening imminent disaster and underpinned by a seismically massive bottom, “Foo Fighters” clearly takes some of its stylistic cues from Nirvana. The lunging bass, oblong chord progression, abrupt time shift and vocal style of “Alone+Easy Target” are unmistakable; “This Is a Call” and “I’ll Stick Around,” both written in the wake of Cobain’s suicide, manifest his influence on Grohl’s music. But other songs — the quiet, harmony-tinged “Big Me,” the lightly sung verses of “Good Grief,” the distorto-pop reverie of “Floaty,” the overload frenzy of “Weenie Beenie,” the swinging bop of “For All the Cows,” the metallic riff rip of “Wattershed” — push the album beyond Grohl’s past, outlining a more diverse approach Foo Fighters have yet to fully realize. The rock-solid delivery of the simple tunes, which have sketchily significant lyrics and catchy hooks, makes them seem like more than they are, and that won’t wash twice. Having made a successful lift-off, Foo Fighters still has to find and reach an ultimate target.
So, yes, in 1996, listening to the first Foo Fighters album in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, I found some qualities in it to praise. But I also raised a red flag as to the band’s challenging future. And therein lies the rub. An auspicious beginning looks an awful lot like beginner’s luck in the rear-view mirror as the long-range trajectory of a career stretches out. (Out of curiosity, I listened to the album again, and, while it has some strong, ambitious tracks that make it worth hearing, it runs out of gas halfway and succumbs to functional filler. In this case, I can stand by what I wrote.)
Grohl is a great drummer and a cool guy with good taste in bands and a healthy skepticism about the meaning of rock stardom. But his band’s records are more often overwrought and pedestrian than original or engaging: hard rock as a concept, not a creative format. I’ve seen them live on TV a few times and watched a horrendously bad festival show once, all of which hardened my suspicions into disdain. That said, the 88 words I spouted in an informal setting hardly depicts the band in full, and is certainly not what I would submit for publication, but I will, in the future, resist the temptation of citizen screaming.
Regrets, I’ve had a few. I don’t care that I have pissed off fans of numerous bands by not praising their idols; the inevitable “argument” that worship or popularity proves quality (call it the McDonald’s defense) remains specious and irrelevant. But I hate to realize that something intangible affected me that wasn’t there in the music, and that I succumbed to the temptation of being an asshole rather than a responsible commentator. I was needlessly scornful of Patti Smith’s “Horses” in 1976, and I still can’t explain exactly why. I’m still not a fan of hers, but that album is not what I made it out to be. I warmed up to Hole’s “Live Through This” a year after the fact, and found Television’s first two albums far more wonderful in the 1990s than I did in the 1970s. And, yes, I thought the Ramones were a travesty the first two times I saw them.
Maybe some of it owes to lack of engagement: Music can be consumed at many levels, from background noise to meaning of life, but I suspect that cultural wisdom can also be compromised by letting a public persona intrude. That’s never fair, and rarely illuminating. An album is a mysterious product of numerous forces; lots of people you wouldn’t want to hang out with have made great albums, and lots of terrible albums have been made by wonderful people. It’s an elusive goal for critics to factor characters out of the art they produce.
* * *
Trouser Press was seven years old when “Video Killed the Radio Star” introduced MTV. Radio and its stars didn’t die, but the magazine did. (In part, there were plenty of other factors as well, and I certainly don’t blame anyone.) In offering America a colorful look at the new romantics and other heirs to New Wave’s post-punk flowering, Music Television made an end run around commercial radio at a time when college radio had yet to provide a viable alternative. Our franchise was bands that were, by their very nature, never going to get a tumble at Top 40. We introduced them to discerning gourmandisers who wanted to know about what they couldn’t tune in to hear.
MTV put that music – not all of it, but enough – on free display for anyone with cable television. The most pungent evaluations we could print about the music of Devo, New Order, R.E.M. or Ultravox, say, were no match for the easy and free experience of hearing – and seeing – them on TV. MTV came, we went, album reviewing continued. The form actually grew in stature for a while, as daily papers and general interest magazines reconsidered their longstanding indifference toward pop music. But the undermining of the form was not through. Perhaps you’ve heard about the Interwebs? With the explosion of digital musical distribution, virtually any music that you become aware of can be heard in a matter of moments. We have moved from do-it-yourself to find-out-yourself. For those who still seek some external guidance, there are if-you-like-then-you’ll-like crowdsourced programs to do the necessary hand-holding.
The other, more amorphous toxin to Trouser Press’s ideals arrived the following year from USA Today, which traded the values of journalistic leadership for reader-pleasing servility. It made perfect commercial sense, of course – give the people what they want rather than challenging them in any off-putting way, like with stuff they don’t want to know about – but the mainstreaming of that idea converted a once proud media industry into the slaves of public ignorance rather than a weapon against it. Television, from sitcoms to CNN, has often been guilty of that, and the same mercantile ruthlessness reined in radio, degraded the understanding and employment of language, turned Hollywood into an explosive-rigged pimple factory and ultimately led us down to the schoolyard syllogisms of the 2012 election.
As the estimable British music journalist Charles Shaar Murray put it, reflecting back on his days working at the New Musical Express in the 1970s, “I’d rather lose a slow reader than talk down to a bright one.” In Pat Long’s excellent “The History of the NME,” Murray goes on to say, “A lot of the other papers were talking down to their readership …We were always trying to stimulate or intrigue.”
As a freelance writer, I once had an editor at a general interest magazine who saw his role as protecting readers from the terrifying possibility of unfamiliar word or reference. So record reviews had to be immediately comprehensible to all, even those with zero interest in the subject. (I won’t deny that most of the jargon and genre designations habitually employed by music writers don’t illuminate anything for anybody. “Jangling,” “plangent” and “gutbucket” leap to mind, but eliminating crutches is different from removing intelligence.) It was a terrible test, to stop every few words and add a subordinate clause to ensure that no adult would be left behind. “It’s not as if I’m asking you to write ‘God, the deity…’” he once told me. But that’s what it felt like. The writing came out sounding like the condescension of a remedial-ed teacher. “Like black leather jackets and motorcycles, the Southern offspring of R&B and country known as rockabilly is inextricably identified with wild youth of the 1950s. The slap bass, flashy guitar runs, canyonlike echo, and frantic (or tremulous) singing – -punctuated by whoops and hiccups — of great rockabilly records can deliver as many delinquent thrills as a lurid biker movie.” I wrote that, and would have gladly omitted all of it to be able to say more about the particular rockabilly in question rather than explaining what it was. Like they told us in school, look it up!
I grew up with a newspaper in one hand and a dictionary in the other, and I owe whatever vocabulary I possess to the simple process of finding out what I didn’t know and fixing it. I do that to this day. (I realized the other day that I was unsure how “heterodoxy” rejected “orthodoxy” and turned to Random House for clarification.) Sure, there are writers too dense to bother with – who wants to stop every sentence to translate English into English? – but I was raised to understand that other people knew more than me, and it was my job to try and catch up. To wit, my reading of British music papers as a teenager was a weekly education in bands, in styles, in slang. I loved being schooled, and still do.
So when I came to publish a music magazine, my principled but naïve stewardship proceeded from the same ethos of leading, not following, our imagined audience. (Let me not overblow this: We were never so self-serving as to willfully ignore what our audience cared about; we just declined to be limited by it.) Our founding goal was to share our enthusiasms and interests, and if we found a rotten apple in the basket, we never saw the harm in announcing that. We had moxie. Putting a band on the cover of Trouser Press did not ensure favorable coverage inside: If the artist merited a cover due to significance (or, to be candid, the occasional lack of a viable alternative), what our writer had to say about them, pro or con, wasn’t an issue.
As we got closer to the end in the early 1980s, I was genuinely shocked to have readers complain that we were doing a “bait and switch” by criticizing an act we enticed readers into buying the magazine for. If they expected that front cover placement was an assurance of puffery inside, that was never the contract in my mind. I suppose hatchet jobs have been given featured placement since then, but I don’t disagree that it sounds like wildly warped editorial judgment for the post-critical age.
We were too small and bloody-minded to play the collusion games with labels or artists, and certainly not afraid of our readers. In 1998, Marilyn Manson allegedly roughed up Spin editor Craig Marks for breaking a deal to put him on the cover. The story was that his record sales tanked, and the magazine changed its bet. That’s not giving your audience a lot of credit. You only plan by SoundScan if you have no faith in your magazine, your readers or your editor. Spin no longer exists as a print publication. (Our worst dust-up was an angry letter from a publicist for a photo spread we did of the KISS action figures she provided in a lewd dollhouse tryst with a bunch of Barbies.)
So the question that faces us as 2013 arrives is what value do record reviews now serve? In one sense, they have taken on the role of Amazon customer reviews. Music that is exotic, obscure, unfamiliar or unknown can certainly benefit from exposure, even of the most minimal sort. (I’ve heard that the digit-minded Pitchfork wields a lot of clout in that regard.) But that’s not the same as serious music criticism, a valiant pursuit which is in such awful decline.
Record reviews are now brief, upbeat and simple: download these songs, they’re good. Beyond that service, writers don’t provide much real value. They are unlikely to establish a strong connection with their readers, as no sense of prejudices and predilections can emerge from four sentences (at least one of which is going to be strictly informational). Here is the critical half of a current Rolling Stone T.I. review, which I grabbed at random: “Incorporating everything from sex-rap with R. Kelly to power balladry with Pink to raging trap-rap with Meek Mill, his eighth album fuses lordly self-mythologizing with epic self-searching; a version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah,’ puts the T.I. saga in proper perspective.” (The extraneous comma is not mine, son.) Jon Dolan goes on to quote two lines of the song and concludes, “Even in torment, he only rolls VIP.” It’s hard to accept that as a descendant of the thought-provoking insights a writer like Ellen Willis or Paul Williams routinely delivered in their work. And you can’t even blame space. They are simply kowtowing to the preferences of those readers who care the least.
First published on Rock’sbackpages.com
Ira Robbins is the editor of "The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock" and a 40-year veteran of rock journalism. He lives in New York with his wife, cat and records.More Ira Robbins.
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)