"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)
One of the best things about the Jimmy Fallon show — maybe the best thing — is that it’s a test of ingenuity every single day. It sent me back to the days of working with Dave Chappelle. But that show was brilliant guerrilla comedy; it happened on the fly and then some. The Fallon show is a day job in the best sense. We’re in by noon and gone by seven, and in between we make a show. It’s highly structured, and as a result, the opportunities we have for creativity are really distilled: not reduced at all, but disciplined, forced into existing forms and packages. “Freestylin’ with the Roots” is one of the highlights for us. One of the others is the walkover.
The walkover, or walk-on, for those who don’t speak backstage, is the song that the band plays as a guest comes out from behind the curtain and walks over to the host’s desk. Once upon a time, maybe, it was straightforward, a little musical cue or song associated with the artist. But then came Paul Shaffer’s work on “Letterman,” and the walkover became its own little art form — an obscure musical reference that the audience (and sometimes even the guest) had to decode.
From the beginning, I wanted the Fallon walk-ons to be classics of the genre, the talk-show equivalent of video game Easter eggs. When we had Salma Hayek on the show, rather than play “Mexican Radio” or even “Salmon Falls,” we did some Internet research and unearthed the theme song from the first Mexican soap opera she ever starred on, “Theresa.” She knew it faintly at first, or at least knew it was something she should know, and her eyes went wide when she figured out what it was. When Edward Norton was on, promoting “The Bourne Legacy,” we played Patrick Hernandez’s 1979 disco hit “Born to be Alive.” And we thought we had a great left-field pick when we played the Dave Matthews Band’s “The Space Between” for football player Michael Strahan, but somehow he knew it immediately. Howard Stern once came up to me during a bathroom break, confused, to ask me why we played this disco song by Bell and James for his wife, Beth Ostrovsky. “She’s from Pittsburgh, right?” I asked. He nodded. I explained that everyone from Pittsburgh gets that treatment — it’s a band in-joke that refers back to the late-’70s basketball comedy “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.” I’m not sure he was satisfied by the answer. The Fallon walkovers, as trivial as they may seem, have been the culmination of everything I’ve cared about my whole life: making strange musical connections, reveling in the way that something obscure can illuminate something obvious.
Because the songs we select are a kind of code, some of the guys in the band use them to slyly flirt with female guests. I let Kirk talk me into playing The Lonely Island’s “Lazy Sunday” for Christina Ricci because he had heard she has a “Chronicle of Narnia” tattoo on her back. I did it but got no reaction at all. I put him on six-month probation for that suggestion; he was forbidden to send any more secret messages to anyone. And I can remember one case where I totally fumbled the ball. We had a famous actress on — I won’t say who, to protect both myself and her — and I thought she had been in a particular movie, and I built the walk-on around that title. After the show, her publicist came up to me. “Hey,” she said, “what was the walkover song? I’m not sure I understood the reference.” I had confused her with someone else. I was so embarrassed.
But even in the walk-on world, there are limits. Chuck Berry may be the inventor of rock and roll, but he still thinks he needs a pay-out of $2.5 million anytime anyone plays “Johnny B. Goode” on TV. That seemed to scotch our plan to play it when Michael J. Fox came on the show; we wanted to recreate the prom scene from “Back to the Future” — you know, where Marty McFly plays the “Johnny B. Goode” solo and one of the guys in the band, Marvin Berry , calls his cousin Chuck? Rather than give up, though, we found a workaround. We played “The Clock,” by my father, which is basically a B-flat blues ripoff of the Berry Classic, and that gave us the solo we needed. I played the role of Marvin Berry in the skit.
Most of the time, the walk-on is harmless and fun, a way to flex our musical and pop-culture muscles. But there are times when it gives us a chance to practice a bit of commentary. When Ashlee Simpson was on, we played a Milli Vanilli song to tweak her a little bit for her lip-synching scandal on “Saturday Night Live.” (Viewers with sharp ears may have noticed that we didn’t even do the original song, but the version from VH1′s “Behind the Music,” where Fab and Rob were stuck singing the title phrase because of a computer glitch.)
And then, in late 2011 — November 21, to be exact, at the height of the Republican primary season — we found out that Michele Bachmann, representative from Minnesota, was coming on the show. Bachmann had been offending people left and right with her comments about gay rights and Muslims in America, and she also seemed to have a casual relationship with the truth. I learned that at one point fact-checkers had set a time limit for themselves on how many of her evasions and misrepresentations they were going to catch. That was my starting point, and I set out on a mission to find the best song about politics and evasion and untruth. I considered “Lies,” either the En Vogue one or the McFly one, but we don’t generally sing any lyrics, so I ended up picking Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass Bitch,” a ska number from their 1985 debut. It had a good little melody and lots of energy. It seemed funny to me. I figured it would be another exhibit in Ahmir’s Hall of Snark, and not much more than that.
So that’s what happened. Michele Bachmann came out on to the show and spoke to Jimmy. She didn’t know what song we were playing. I’m sure almost no one knew what song we were playing. That was part of the fun of it. I felt smug to the point of smugness. We had pulled one over on the Man.
Then, the next day, satisfaction and smugness turned to ego. I was sitting around at home thinking that I had done something historical, something political. I had struck a blow for truth. I wanted credit. When you want credit for something and you don’t want to operate via traditional channels, where do you go? In this day and age, you go to Twitter. That’s where I went. Someone tweeted me a question: “Was that ‘Lyin’ Ass Bitch’?” I answered like someone in the grip of ego, which is exactly what it was: “Sho’ nuf.” That was it. The fuse was lit. The news began to spread. Then a conservative blogger got hold of it and it spread some more. I went to sleep, and woke to a reverse tooth fairy situation. Instead of finding money under my pillow, I found my phone flashing with six missed calls, all from my manager Rich. I had a sense, maybe, what it was about, so I looked on Twitter and saw that I had more than seven hundred mentions. Then I called Rich back.
“You know this is a problem,” he said.
“How much of a problem?”
“Looks like this could be a big problem.”
Rich paused. I didn’t like the pause or what was in it. “I don’t know,” he said. “This could be a wrap for you. This could be a wrap for us.” My heart sank. Had I taken the band down with me?
By the time I got to work, the fire of outrage was blazing. Fans online were cursing Jimmy. People were calling the NBC switchboard. The conservative blogger Michelle Malkin re-tweeted something that included my name in it, and all of a sudden I had three thousand more responses. I had benefited from things going viral, but now I was suffering from the same thing. At one point I passed Jimmy in the hallway and tried to play it off as a joke, and he nodded, trying to keep a good face on it, but I could see how exhausted he was.
By two o’clock, it wasn’t just a conservative firestorm, but a feminist one. Women were posting letters of support for Michele Bachmann, lining up against me for saying “bitch.” Even Sara Gilbert, on “The Talk,” came out to say that even though she found Bachmann’s politics reprehensible, she was left with no choice but to be an ally in this particular case. That’s when things shifted into a whole new dimension of horrible. I had picked the song so that I didn’t have to sing it, but the fact it could be seen as misogynistic just escaped me. The word is commonly used in certain music, and means something slightly different: it has as much to do with cowardice and slipperiness and unreliability as with gender. It wasn’t that I wasn’t thinking clearly. It was that I wasn’t thinking at all. At least, not about that. I just wanted to hit a home run in the game.
We had a meeting in Jimmy’s office, Team Fallon and I, and they told me that things were looking bleak, but that we would try to ride it out. Jimmy made a formal apology to Bachmann on Twitter, which put me squarely in the crosshairs (which, to be fair, was exactly where I belonged). In the end, we got lucky. That Tuesday night there was a Republican debate, and Bachmann went out and made a blunder. She was a member of the House Intelligence Committee, and she said that six of Pakistan’s fifteen nuclear sites had come under jihadist attack. Almost immediately people were up in arms. (Is that a pun? If so, it’s not a good one.) They claimed that she had disclosed classified information. Her staff had to get busy putting out that fire, fast. Plus, it was the week of Thanksgiving, which disrupted the normal news cycle. We were saved by the skin of our teeth.
Things could have gone differently. They almost did. I had some friends at Fox News, and on that Tuesday, I asked them for the damage report. As it turned out, people over there had combed through every last lyric of every single Roots album looking for a smoking gun — something violent, something misogynistic — and found nothing. There was no story there. Finally, the politically correct, mindful hip-hop that we had been practicing from the beginning — the same thing that had maybe kept us off the chart or kept our posters off the walls of teenagers’ bedrooms — had worked to our advantage.
I have replayed that episode in my head hundreds of times, like Kennedy obsessives do with the Zapruder film. My drum set is up on a grassy knoll. Jimmy’s desk is the book depository. The whole thing happens in terrible slow motion, though there’s clearly only one shooter: me. In retrospect, I would have chosen Sam Cooke’s “What a Wonderful World,” with its “Don’t know much about history” line.
A few days later, I heard from Fishbone. Their management loved me for it; they were wondering why all of a sudden people were cheering so loudly for the song in concert. Unfortunately, Angelo Moore was scheduled to be on the show to promote “Everyday Sunshine,” a documentary about the band, but we had to disinvite him: Jimmy figured that a year should pass before anyone associated with the band came on as a guest. But we still used other Fishbone songs. For instance, we did “Bonin’ in the Boneyard,” from “Truth and Soul,” when Jennifer Lawrence came on to talk about “Winter’s Bone.” The best thing to come of it happened a year later, on David Letterman’s show; after a Top Ten about Bachmann, Paul Shaffer played a few seconds of “Lyin’ Ass Bitch.” It was almost like I was dreaming, but I’m sure I heard it. Thank you, Paul.
And then there was Steve Martin’s reaction. When he appeared on the show as a guest in December of 2011, he found a way to turn the controversy into a bit. He wanted us to do a number of different songs, each of which annoyed him in a different way: he wanted the first one to be offensive, the second one to be too boring, the third one to be too generic, the fourth one to be our revenge for him objecting to every previous selection, and so on. Eventually, we’d try Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better,” and that would satisfy him. We did Steve’s bit, and that was the moment where I finally felt that the heat was officially off.
You’d think that the Bachmann debacle would have taught me all I needed to know about tact, but you’d be wrong. Some time after that, I was on Andy Cohen’s Bravo show, “Watch What Happens Live,” and he asked me which guest I most dreaded coming on Fallon. I said Tina Fey, and then tried to explain why. Since early in my career, I always felt a kinship with Philadelphia artists, every actor and singer and author. We had met Tina Fey on “Letterman” when we were both guests, and we tried to make small talk with her and failed. It was painfully awkward. Then we were at another function and it was painfully awkward again. Even though she was from the Philly area, even though she was from the same NBC family, she felt distant to me. I’m not saying it was her any more that it was me. She just felt distant.
There was also an issue with her appearances on Fallon. In the history of the show, there were only a handful of guests who came out to talk to Jimmy without waving to the band. We had a little ritual where we marked that kind of thing down. Tiger Woods did it, twice, and Tina Fey, at various points had done it five times. Maybe it was shyness or reserve. I understood that; I often felt the same way. But after a while it wore on me. All those things were on my mind when I was asked the question on Andy Cohen’s show, and I said something that I thought was a tongue-in-cheek, faux-wounded remark: “Tina Fey, you are never nice to the Roots. We’re from Philadelphia. Be nice to the Roots!” But of course, because the media is a game that people play, they took that one sentence out of context and found a free-frame of my face, looking angry, and all of a sudden there I was on the front page of the Huffington Post, having trouble yet again with a powerful woman.
This time, Lorne had a fit. “I want him out of here,” he said. “He’s gone.” I thought he was a little angrier than the incident deserved, but it was only seven months after Bachmann, and things had been building. In fact, I think that I was fired for about an hour, until Jimmy begged for my job back.
Excerpted from the book “Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove” by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman. Copyright 2013 by Ahmir Thompson. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker and the author of several acclaimed books of fiction, including "Superbad," "What He's Poised To Do" and "Celebrity Chekhov." His fiction, essays and journalism have appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Paris Review, Zoetrope: All Story, McSweeney's and Opium.More Ben Greenman.
More Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson.
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)