"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)
Chris Kluwe isn’t worried about the consequences for speaking frankly about his politics.
Even as he acknowledges to Salon that speaking out might get him fired from his job as a punter for the Oakland Raiders (his new team, after his dismissal last year from the Minnesota Vikings), he’s still gleefully promoting his book, “Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies.” The book is a multifarious combination of free-association poetry, descriptions of life as a football player, and calls for equal rights for gay men and women. There’s room both for a disavowal of Ayn Rand and for many expressions of sympathy with core libertarian beliefs.
And, of course, early in the book is reprinted the document that brought Kluwe to fame — the letter he sent to Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr., who’d criticized the then-Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo for speaking out in favor of an initiative supporting same-sex marriage in that state (one that passed in the 2012 election cycle). “I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life,” wrote Kluwe in the letter, which found its way online in September 2012. “They won’t come into your house and steal your children. They won’t magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster.” In order to prove that his humor — and his point — doesn’t rely on imaginative profanity, Kluwe revises the essay in “Sparkleponies,” writing that gay people “won’t magically turn you into a lustful FROLICKING OSTRICH [emphasis original].”
Profanity or no, the letter immediately raised Kluwe’s profile — he was featured, shirtless, on the cover of the gay magazine Out, and only made further waves when he walked away from his blog for the St. Paul Pioneer Press after that newspaper endorsed an anti-same-sex-marriage amendment in Minnesota (which failed at the ballot box). It was around this time that things began to fray with the Vikings — a coach of the team told the press he’d begged Kluwe to focus on football, but “he don’t listen.” No matter — Kluwe was approached to produce the quick-turnaround book that fans (including some 170,000-plus Twitter followers) will likely buy in droves. At this writing, the book is rated No. 2 in both Political Humor and Sports Humor categories on Amazon — a statistic that reflects just how many of Kluwe’s interests the book touches on in 272 pages.
As he prepares for his next season, Kluwe spoke to Salon in a no-holds-barred interview about his politics: how a self-styled libertarian can deplore libertarian patron saint Ayn Rand, why his prison rape joke in “Sparkleponies” stops short of homophobia, and why he might quit football in order to preserve the republic.
Having filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court, do you take any credit for the outcome of yesterday’s DOMA ruling?
I would hope that it helped in whatever way, but the goal is to change some minds and realize it’s about human rights. I credit everyone else who wrote letters and protested and made the justices aware that society is moving toward more tolerance, not less.
How did this book come together? Even despite your public profile, a book of political musings by a professional athlete isn’t exactly typical.
After I wrote the letter to delegate Burns, three or four publishers said, “You should write a book.” I said, “Maybe when I’m done playing football,” but then another three or four publishers mentioned it to me. If these are the people in charge of books, it’s the same as six or seven NFL teams saying you should play football. So I asked myself, What do I want to write a book on? It’s on a wide variety of things that interest me, not just about my life as a football player as some other football books are.
Yeah, it’s hardly a memoir of, like, life in the training camps.
Mine is all over the place! Essentially, I wanted to write a snapshot of my mind, which I think I came pretty close to doing. As human beings, you can’t just put a label on someone. Just as I’m a football player, I’m a gay activist, family member, video-game player, avid reader.
Your book’s difference from the standard-issue athlete memoir brings to mind your persona as “the intellectual athlete” or “the politically engaged athlete,” as though your teammates aren’t.
It’s not fair. I’ve had lots of great conversations. There are very smart football players, and you don’t hear about them, because they take care of business and they go home. Football coaches hammer home the idea, “Don’t be a distraction.” But I believe there’s a place for you to live life away from football. We’re citizens of this country. When I’m on the football field, it’s 100 percent; when I’m away, it’s the rest of my life.
It has been suggested that your various pursuits might have led to your dismissal from the Vikings; do you worry a similar thing might happen with the Raiders?
I don’t know, I’m not in those meetings. I don’t know what’s said between the coaches and GMs. I have to just keep proving I can play at NFL level.
You’ve expressed an interest in libertarianism — and yet in a section of your book excerpted previously by Salon, you expressed disdain for Ayn Rand, who’s sort of a libertarian patron saint. How do you make those two opinions jibe?
She was very close to greatness. She was 90 percent of the way there. You have to be able to have empathy to have a functioning society. Rand says that if everybody is totally selfish things will work out. You can’t form a functioning society off that. There are things the common good has to provide for.
But there aren’t very many American politicians who are at once libertarians and who want to provide a social safety net. It doesn’t seem like there’s anyone you’d want to vote for.
I would rather not have our current political system. The Founding Fathers relied on a moderately educated populace to ensure no creeping corruption entered the system. We need sweeping changes in our system, but the system is set up to prevent that. Right now, you’re seeing Ayn Rand libertarianism. Everyone’s more concerned with themselves. They don’t understand why having a system where officials can be bribed by private interests is a bad thing. It’s a system where it all hinges on can you raise enough money on your campaign. It’s going to end in some sort of sweeping change, or revolution.
What sort of role do you see yourself playing in political change going forward? It sounds like you’re pretty troubled by all this.
In order to change our system sufficiently enough, you need people running to limit their own power. The only way you’re going to make enough people aware of that is by writing a book like I have, or waiting for the system to get so bad we have no other choice. I prefer to go with the writing option. But if we don’t fight for campaign finance reform and tax reform — we’ll have no option but the other way.
You mean –
Revolution. With pitchforks. Societies that concentrate more and more power in the hands of fewer and fewer people all end the same way. You see it in the Arab Spring, French Revolution, Rome, it’s there in the historical record. It’s not going to happen right away, it’ll be the increasing accumulation of small steps. Stuff like Governor Rick Perry saying women don’t have the right to control their own body and denigrating one of his state senators, saying she should have known better because she was a teenage mother. He’s in charge of one of our largest states, elected by a majority of the people. The tradition that suggests is people who don’t care about the long-term consequences of what their elected officials do, just short-term gains. That is a recipe for disaster.
You seem to have kind of back-burnered football in this book — it comes up now and then, but at times you call it “sportsball” facetiously and mock the perks athletes like you get. Is it a priority?
When I’m playing football, as I’ve said, football is my absolute priority. And when I’m not playing football, that’s the rest of my life to live. I enjoy playing football — it gave me a platform, it pays well — but we’re valuing entertainment more and more and devaluing science. Looking at history, that’s not the sign of a stable civilization. I like competing in athletics, but I don’t like where society is going.
In your book, you criticize how much athletes get paid compared to teachers and firefighters, and say you’d “gladly do those jobs instead” — if those jobs were paid as much as you are paid now. Given that later on in the book, you lampoon your relatively cushy-seeming lifestyle, why not just walk away and do something different? Why would you need six figures in order to become a teacher?
The society I want to live in is one where everyone has the same option to succeed but whether or not to succeed is up to you. We like to think we have that society — we’re not close. I enjoy being able to have a lot of free time and doing what I want to do because of how football pays me. But I worked hard and it was a lot of sacrifice to get there. I’m not doing other things I could be doing — reading, playing video games — when I’m working out. In order to be good at football, I need to focus on what makes me good at football. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. Entertainment is good, we need entertainment, but we can’t value it so highly that we lose sight of what makes us great. I’m fully aware doing this book could make me lose my job. Coaches hate distraction.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but — if you would rather do a job with more utility to society, and you have means, why not just do it? Would you quit the NFL before the natural end of your career?
I could see that. It really depends on the direction we keep going as a society. If that’s what it takes to make a statement, further down the line I could say, “I don’t want to compete in football anymore.” I could say “Society’s more important.” Because if entertainment overtakes society, you don’t have society or entertainment anymore. Everyone’s searching for food and water and hitting each other with sticks.
What do your teammates make of your public profile and pronouncements? I can imagine a situation where they’d be envious of your platform.
I’ve never had any problems with teammates. When I’m at the football stadium, I’m there solely for football. I’m not going to put that in people’s faces. Other people can talk to me about it, but they’re going to have to initiate it. I’m not going to disrupt a team’s harmony for something that isn’t my job.
I want to ask about your sense of humor. You’re clearly passionate about the language and at times profane, but are there lines you won’t cross? For instance, I was fairly surprised that in a chapter written as a letter to your children, you urged them not to “drop the soap” if they ended up in prison. As you’re someone who’s such an outspoken advocate for gay rights, a joke about prison rape surprised me a lot.
It really depends on context. If you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at? You should be able to take an issue seriously, but you should be able to find the humor in situations. That’s part of our culture we need to change, that prisons are violent, nasty places, but that’s where we are right now, that if you are in prison and if you drop the soap, it could happen. And it’s written to my children, and it’s how people talk to each other.
Whether you quit football to save society or stick with it, there’s going to be a post-football Chris Kluwe. What are your plans for the rest of your life?
I’ll find something to do. Writing more — I’d like to think I found a voice I’m good with. Other than that, as opportunities come up, I’ll pursue them as I want to pursue them, and if I don’t want to, I won’t.
Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_More Daniel D'Addario.
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)