"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)
McDonald’s had better sign me up for an advertising campaign, because I am loving it. Newsweek, having mysteriously overlooked my previous work, has just reviewed Unhitched. Newsweek is massive; therefore I am massive. Fuck Bono. Fuck Bob Geldoff. The next Live 8 is hosted by me. And what a review. It is the most deliciously splenetic fanboy tribute to unreasoning hysteria that it has ever been my pleasure to gloat about. I wasn’t prepared for an opportunity like this, but I won’t pass it up all the same.
This reviewer, like every reviewer of Unhitched in the liberal media thus far, outs himself as a votary of the Hitchens personality cult. “Hitchens was a friend, mentor and neighbor of mine,” he writes, as if to reassure the reader of his objectivity in this matter. He is also, in the interests of fuller disclosure, a neoconservative writer for the Weekly Standard — just the sort of bargain basement intellectual company that Hitchens kept in his last decade. If Unhitched is written in the style of a “prosecution,” this review is an indictment.
What am I charged with? In a series of increasingly shrill non-sequiturs, I am condemned for every seditious affront to empire ever confected: anti-Americanism, apologia for the bad guys, sympathy for the devil, etc. For example, I have placed myself “on the side of the late and unlamented Argentine military junta,” because I deemed the British war an imperialist one. Oh, well. Sorry about that. For no obvious reason, I am also deemed to believe that “a noble anti-imperialism inevitably arises out of anti-Americanism,” whatever the latter term means. Again, duly chastened.
But there’s much, much worse. “Seymour routinely defends, excuses, and minimizes the depredations of the two classes of people whom Hitchens loathed most: dictators and Islamists.” He does not! Does he? “Muammar Gaddafi’s ruthless crushing of any dissent was nothing more than an “inability to allow any form of organized opposition,” as if his jailing dissidents was tantamount to dyslexia.” Well, I don’t need any more proof than that. The reviewer even quotes this Seymour to damn him out of his own mouth. What more could one need? With regard to the Rushdie affair, I am belaboured for describing “a rather straightforward argument between the right to publish and religious totalitarianism” as “a far more nuanced “saga” that “was saturated with these meanings and could not be limited to the issue of free speech that Hitchens preferred to fight.”
I’m not sure how I should respond to the charge of being nuanced, but — how tantalizing this review is: “these meanings” just left hanging like that! What are they? Oh, just stuff. Proceeding: “Seymour is either ignorant or lying when he writes that ‘the editorials and clerical bluster in Iran had yielded little.’” This may or may not be a fair criticism, but it isn’t a criticism of me. In this quoted statement I am merely and explicitly summarizing Hitchens’ own rebuke to the neoconservative Daniel Pipes, written in 1999, in which he assailed the hysterical ‘clash of civilizations’ mythology that treated every threatening editorial or sermon as proof of a coming cataclysm.
Nevertheless, let it pass. The outrages continue to mount. “Seymour elsewhere mocks Hitchens, along with anyone else who viewed with alarm the murder of 3,000 Americans.” At this point, levity has to stop. There are some things one simply doesn’t joke about. I am certainly not rolling my eyes and hugging myself with laughter at this point. Seriously, what did this tasteless mockery consist of? Well, I criticized Hitchens for “conjur[ing] a civilizational challenge out of a handful of combatants with box cutters.” In my defense, if you think that needs a defense Hitchens’ claim to have been exhilarated by the events of that day really don’t suggest that alarm was his dominant response. Further, as the reviewer must have noticed, Hitchens was himself the first to belittle such alarm. It’s “not that terrifying,” he claimed. “That kind of thing happens in a war, it has to be expected in a war, if you’re in a war you’re gonna lose a building or a plane, and maybe a small town or a school or – you should reckon about once a week. Get ready for it.”
Suddenly sounding so much more like Daniel Pipes, and so much less like his urbane critic from only a few a years before.
What else? The reviewer is aggrieved that I repeat “the paranoid claim of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez … that an attempted 2002 coup d’état was “US-supported,” in spite of the fact that there exists no evidence to support such a claim.” He has a habit, this pundit, of using the words ‘no evidence’ in the most eccentric way. The most generous translation of it is: “no evidence that I would be remotely interested in looking at.” Still, it has the dignity of being a point of view, or rather a point of non-view. Other eccentric misuses of language: “Hitchens believed that ‘Halliburton has as much right as anyone else to take over Iraq’s oil (since Iraqis plainly could not be trusted with it themselves),’ Seymour alleges.” I suppose I do “allege” this inasmuch as I cite Hitchens’ words to this effect, with an accompanying footnote. Mark the sequel: “Such wording suggests that, under the reign of Saddam Hussein, regular Iraqis had any say over their country’s munificent oil resources.” Is. That. Right?
Predictably enough — which is not to say with tiresome inevitability — some of Hitchens’ fans take greatest umbrage at the point, made in the prologue, that their immortal paladin was a habitual plagiarist. I don’t make a big deal of it, but this reviewer considers it the most serious claim in the whole book. “Seymour provides no evidence to substantiate his scandalous claims,” he expostulates. There’s that phrase again: “no evidence.” “For instance, Seymour writes that “a great deal of his work on Bill Clinton’s betrayal on health care was lifted” from another journalist, yet in the footnotes concedes, “In fairness, Hitchens credited [said journalist’s] work in the chapter in the paperback edition of No One Left to Lie To,” Hitchens’ salvo against the 42nd president.”
Now, as the reviewer would know, having scrupulously read Unhitched from first recto to final verso, the point is that the credit was not given until after Sam Husseini had cried foul about the original plagiarism. Further, other plagiarisms in the same book remained intact — as could be gleaned from the same footnote from which the reviewer cited. And, as far as I’m aware, there was no such rectification of, for example, the plagiarism of Chomsky and Herman in The Trial of Henry Kissinger, a case that the reviewer simply ignores.
“Seymour also alleges” — that word “alleges” again — “that ‘one reviewer has already detected plagiarism in the case of large tranches of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man,’ yet the review in question, while certainly negative, actually states that ‘there is of course no question of plagiarism’ by Hitchens.” Since I’ve seen this elsewhere, can I at least make the obvious point that Barrell was taking the piss? The quoted statement should be given in full: “Although Hitchens’ debt to Keane is palpable in passages like this – the same selection of facts in the same order – there is of course no question of plagiarism, for Hitchens everywhere introduces little touches of fine writing that allow him to claim ownership of what he has borrowed: the inspired choice of “heavy-footed,” for example, to describe the visits of the police, or the tellingly patronising phrase ‘the good bishop.’” Need I underline the point? Or do I have to explain what plagiarism is? The reviewer concludes: “As for other examples of what he claims to be Hitchens’ “many plagiarisms,” Seymour offers nothing.” Here, “nothing” is synonymous with the author’s previous use of the term “no evidence.”
Now this reviewer must ask himself: would mummy and daddy be proud? I don’t think so. Being so silly and telling little porkie-pies? That’s an open invitation for mister hand to take a short, sharp trip to botty-land.
You know, a cliche in many of these affronted reviews, as they labor to be condescending, is that Unhitched is the product of some desperately earnest polemicist, unleavened by irony or humor someone who treats political difference as an unpardonable sin. I beg to differ. It is the fans who, in their undignified idolatrous zeal, manifestly can’t take a joke, or brook serious criticism. But then, isn’t that the condition of fandom, almost by definition?
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)