"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)
In 1969, Linda Ronstadt — then still the frontwoman for the Stone Poneys — flew from Los Angeles to Nashville for an appearance on “The Johnny Cash Show,” where she was booked to duet with the Man in Black himself. Arriving a few days early, she checked into her hotel and spent most of the evening singing and jamming with some like-minded musicians, including Kris Kristofferson and Mickey Newbury. After returning to her hotel room, she received a call from one of the show’s producers, who said he needed to come to her room to go over some notes with her. Initially suspicious, Ronstadt reluctantly allowed him into her room.
“I should have followed my first instinct,” she writes in her new memoir, “Simple Dreams,” “because as soon as he entered my room and closed the door, he removed every stitch of clothing he was wearing.” The producer assumed that since she was from Los Angeles she was a hippie, and that since she was a hippie she believed in free love. When she threatened to call security, “he said no one would believe me because of the way I looked and dressed (jeans, long, straight hair, and no bra in the panty-girdle, big-hair South).”
Fortunately, Ronstadt managed to escape to the lobby unharmed and unmolested, albeit incredibly shaken. But that is only one of several harrowing reminiscences in “Simple Dreams,” in which she paints the rock ‘n’ roll world of the 1960s and 1970s as a nightmare for young women serious about their music, yet subject to the come-ons and hangups of some of their male counterparts. When the Stone Poneys toured with the Doors, Ronstadt was harassed by a drunken, belligerent Jim Morrison. Later, when she opened for Neil Young, she writes that his keyboard player spent weeks emotionally abusing her with persistent brutality.
As a result, “Simple Dreams” reads like a story of escape. Ronstadt may have been one of the most successful female artists of the post-hippie era, thanks to hits like “You’re No Good” and “Blue Bayou,” but the form offered more artistic restrictions than opportunities. “I never felt that rock and roll defined me,” she writes. “Being considered, for a period in the ’70s, as the Queen of Rock made me uneasy, as my musical devotions often lay elsewhere.”
Ronstadt’s first step toward independence was playing Mabel in a 1980 production of “Pirates of Penzance,” and she spent the remainder of that decade expanding her musical range dramatically: first with a pair of albums of American standards with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, then two country albums with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. She made a record with Aaron Neville and several albums of Mexican-American tunes passed down to her from her parents and grandparents.
Ronstadt writes only briefly about her early career in order to focus much of the book on her later accomplishments. The formation of the Eagles, who were briefly her backing band, is allotted only three pages. “Pirates,” by contrast, takes up several chapters. This may prove unsatisfying for fans more interested in “Heart Like a Wheel” than in “La Boheme,” but it shows where Ronstadt’s musical devotions lie. Her career was driven by her personal obsessions with the music she heard growing up, and by chasing those obsessions rather than bending to the will of the music industry, she grew into an ambitious artist with great range and interpretive ability.
The sad postscript to Ronstadt’s career — one so recent it’s not even mentioned in “Simple Dreams” — is her diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, which has robbed her of her voice, not to mention her mobility. Even so, she remains fiercely outspoken about her music and her politics. While she and longtime manager John Boylan were driving from New York to Boston, she spoke to Salon about immigration, the new Dust Bowl, stem cell research and YouTube discoveries.
The descriptions of your childhood in Tucson are very poignant, but also very melancholy in the way the desert has changed culturally, geographically and especially politically.
When you’re desert born, you love the desert. It’s a harsh environment. People ask me why I don’t go where there are trees and streams and mountains. But when there are too many trees around me, I can’t see and I think somebody is going to sneak up on me. It makes me nervous. And I love the desert. I love those big, wide, sweeping vistas. During the time I was gone, developers came in and scraped it all away with bulldozers. They put up the ugliest tract houses you’ve ever seen, which aren’t built to last. They’ll be tomorrow’s slums because people won’t be able to live in those houses very long. They’re starting another Dust Bowl era by scraping away the topsoil. People don’t realize how serious that is. The Dust Bowl was the biggest natural cataclysm of the 20th century, and it’s starting again and no one’s taking an interest in it. They just continue to scrape off the topsoil and turn the desert into a wasteland.
Is there anything that can be done?
They have to stop scraping up topsoil. We lose in topsoil the equivalent of the size of Texas every single year. Without topsoil you can’t even grow any food. But people are making money and they’re greedy. There’s no regulation because the Republicans who control those areas don’t want any regulation on anything. They want developers to be allowed to operate in a completely unbridled manner and make as much money as they can — even if that means taking it from other people. That’s wrong. If we’re going to have capitalism, we have to carefully regulate it.
That sounds very similar to the fracking controversy in Appalachia, where they continue to use this technique despite its horrible consequences.
They’re going to do fracking in the Central Valley in California, and there won’t be any regulation. The pollution will get into the water and destroy the farmland. It’s a terrible thing to do, but people are only thinking in the short term and the Republicans are full of climate change deniers and science deniers. They don’t want to deal with inconvenient facts.
Early in “Simple Dreams,” you write very briefly about the immigration controversy in Arizona, comparing the border to the Berlin Wall.
What’s going on on the border is a disgrace. It’s just pure racism. They put the fence up as an affront to a country of incredibly rich cultural tradition. They didn’t put one up on the northern border. There’s no fence between the United States and Canada. So it’s just based on skin color. It’s racism.
One thing that comes through in the book is how both of those cultures — American and Mexican — inform not only your identity but your craft. In that context, an album like “Canciones de mi Padre” plays like both a musical exercise and a very political act.
It wasn’t the reason that I made that album. I did it because that’s who I was as a child and that was who I was as an adult. But I wasn’t getting to express that in my art. I feel very passionately about the politics of being a bicultural person. Real people are getting caught up in these issues and suffering terribly. Families are being destroyed. Nursing mothers are being taken away from their babies. Nothing good happens from treating people like that. I held a woman who was picked up in a raid. She was working a fast-food restaurant in Seattle, and she had two children — a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old. They put her in jail, kept her there for three months, and then deported her. She didn’t have any way to get back and make arrangements for her children. She was taken across the border, but she kept trying to get back to her children, like any good mother would. I know another man who was arrested on the street simply because he looked Mexican. It turned out he was undocumented, so they deported him. His wife had a nervous breakdown. His children were given up for adoption. Little children! He was never able to get back to them. I wound up arranging for his son to go down and visit him. The man was living on the streets in Nogales. His life was destroyed. Can you imagine having someone take your children away from you? It’s a terrible thing. This country is moralistic, but not moral.
You worked on “Simple Dreams” without a ghostwriter. What was it like recounting some of these memories?
The hardest thing to write about was the music. It takes 10 years to learn how to do anything well, so for that first 10 years of my career it was really a painful struggle trying to figure out what I was trying to do and how to do it. I just knew I wasn’t doing it well enough. But I just kept trying and trying, and after about 10 years I got to where when I wanted to go into the studio, I could pretty much direct things in the way that I wanted to do it. When I was writing about those early years, I was just depressed. It was very depressing. But then I thought: Well, everybody starts somewhere. So I gave myself a little slack. The truth is that I wasn’t very good when I started. The good thing is that I got better. I didn’t turn into the best singer that ever lived and I wasn’t the most important pop singer that ever was, but I was diverse. And so that was what made me different. That’s why I decided to base my story in the book on my diverse musical journey.
One of the major turning points was your decision to star in “Pirates of Penzance.” Was that a freeing experience?
That was so liberating. I didn’t have to keep screaming the same old song in those sporting arenas for the rest of my life. And I didn’t have to ever be tired of those songs. When I went back and sang those rock songs, I was glad to see them; I wasn’t sick of them.
Did you consider that an escape? “Simple Dreams” depicts rock in the 1970s as a pretty treacherous world for a woman. I’m thinking of those exchanges with Jack Nietzsche, which were a little harrowing to read.
There wasn’t a lot of that, but it did exist. That was one of the more brutal experiences. Jack Nietzsche was a musician who I admired. He was a really good arranger and composer, and he put his spin into making a lot of wonderful records, particularly with Phil Spector. He seemed so powerful at the time, and I was sort of cowed by him. But I didn’t want to be cowed by anybody. I didn’t need to have Jack Nietzsche’s approval to have a good opinion of myself. I knew what I was trying to do, and I knew I wasn’t there yet. I was working on it, and I didn’t need him to get in my way. That was an experience that made me stronger. I learned from it. I developed a sense of compassion for him and for the struggles he was going through. He just looked so sad, and I thought he was suffering. I ultimately felt sorry for him. He missed out on an opportunity to have a good friend. We had a lot of similar musical interests, and we could have shared some good listening together.
A lot of that changes once you got out of rock ‘n’ roll and started working in other styles.
There are always predators around, and you have to keep an eye out for them. But again, the guys I traveled with were pretty refined and intelligent. Guys like John Boylan — who traveled with me for years and is in fact traveling with me right now — really helped me put my bands together and really helped me with my records. It’s not like there were a bunch of oafs out there having orgies all the time. That just wasn’t my world. The other thing about musicians is that really good musicians don’t care whether you’re male or female, whether you’re a goat or a donkey or a camel. They care if you can get into the groove and get into the spirit and play really well. If you can’t play well, they don’t want you around. If you can, you’re always welcome. That’s the nice thing about music. That’s why music has always broken racial barriers and gender stereotypes. Music has always been one of the great things that conquers all.
As a musician, you’d have to have a lot of confidence in yourself to operate on a level where you can accept anybody based on their musicality. Yet, there are passages in the book where you talk about not having that confidence in your instrument.
I saw everything as an opportunity to learn. Nothing makes me happier than being in a room where everybody’s smarter than I am. If they’re better than I am, then I can learn from them. But for years I compensated for my fears by just singing loud and singing harder. Sometimes I can hear that in my early singing. I can hear that fear and realize that I didn’t have enough air underneath my voice. Later on, I learned to put air under my voice and I could sing with true confidence. After I went to Broadway — I’d say from 1979 on — I was singing very strong. I knew what I was doing. I think I did my best singing on Broadway, on “What’s New” and the Mexican records. I don’t know if they were the biggest successes, but they were certainly the best singing that I did. And I made a record when I was desperately struggling with my voice, before I even knew I had Parkinson’s. It was with Ann Savoy and was called “Adieu False Heart.” I’m really proud of that record because I was able to paint with the limited palette that I had. I just thought, I’m a painter with sepia and charcoal. I had to paint with just that, but I still managed to find a way to tell the story. I never listen to my own records, but when that one comes up, I can listen and be proud of it.
Your diagnosis with Parkinson’s was so recent it didn’t even make it into the book. You’ve said that it has taken your voice. How else has it affected your day-to-day life?
I’m now experiencing life as a disabled person. It’s quite a shock. The hardest thing is that I just can’t get things done without depending on other people to help me. It’s hard to ask, and I feel like I’m always imposing. But I really am limited. Falling and choking are big danger for people with Parkinson’s. I’ve already had a couple of spills, and I don’t want to have any more. It’s not easy moving. You try to turn around, and you’ll fall down. So going through airports and just living in hotel rooms is difficult. When I came out on this press junket, I didn’t know how I was going to survive it, but it turns out I can do a little more than I thought I could. I won’t be doing it very much in the future. There is no cure. I don’t expect them to find a cure either, unless we get the Republicans the hell out of Congress so they stop holding up stem cell research. That’s what’s most promising in terms of finding a cure for diabetes, for Parkinson’s, for MS, for all kinds of things. It’s a shame to have to suffer from something that we don’t have to suffer from.
In “Simple Dreams,” listening to music is such a major activity between you and your colleagues, almost as much as playing. What is your listening life like now?
I gave my vinyl collection away in the ‘80s. It was a stupid thing to do. I could get it back, I guess, if I wanted, but I don’t have anything to play music on. I rarely listen to recorded music. I hate the way MP3s sound, and I don’t like listening on a computer. I do make an exception for YouTube, where I find a lot of stuff that I just love. I was looking for Pastora Pavón, the flamenco singer I first head when I was 12, and I discovered Estrella Morente, who is incredible. She’s a huge star in Spain and sings most traditional flamenco music, although she pushes herself to sing other things. So YouTube is fun. But if I want to hear music, I tend to have somebody come to my house and play in my living room. I still have a lot of musician friends, and they play for me. Occasionally I go to the symphony orchestra. I hate whenever Michael Tilson Thomas raises his baton and I’m not there to hear it. It’s a shame I can’t be there every night, but it’s hard to sit in those seats now that I’m a Parkinson’s person. It’s harder to get there, but I have to make more of an effort.
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)