"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)
It was February of this year. The radio was tuned to NPR, the subject was austerity, and the great observers of our political moment were speaking with their customary authority. The conversation wandered to and fro, and then I heard David Leonhardt, the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, declare that when it came to cutbacks in federal spending, “history just argues incredibly strongly against it.”
I knew what Leonhardt meant: Austerity is a bad idea. And I agreed with him. Still, somehow his statement annoyed me. What grated, I soon realized, was his image of history “arguing” for or against something. There are, of course, lots of illustrious metaphors for the sweep of events: History is like a train, bearing us relentlessly down its tracks; history is like a nightmare from which we cannot awaken. Or you could make up your own: History is like a comfortable warm bath in received wisdom, or like a thousand-plane bombing raid on idealism.
One thing that history isn’t, however, is a pundit, arguing for this course of action or that. History doesn’t come chirping about its bright ideas; history doesn’t put on a solid mid-tone tie and appear on CNN; history doesn’t really give a damn what becomes of us.
But why should this bother me? Can it really matter which particular turns of phrase a journalist chooses, especially when he’s making off-the-cuff statements into a microphone at a radio station? I have myself said plenty of stupid things under those conditions. But as Leonhardt continued to work this vein, my irritation mounted. “It is possible to say,” he said, “that the argument for austerity now is one that is very weak when you look at the economic and historical evidence.”
What pundits say does matter. The words they use may seem deliberately chosen to express nothing, or to convey a simple thought in a roundabout way, but those words matter nonetheless. These observers have worked hard learning to talk this way, and their relentless use of exhausted, empty metaphors has a precise meaning all its own.
In a famous essay published 67 years ago, George Orwell declared that the clichés of the day were a product of contemporary politics. The only way people could absorb the awful events of World War II, he wrote, was to hear them camouflaged with nonsense. And so the English language was being ruined with passive constructions, threadbare similes, ways of saying things that burned up the syllables yet signified nothing.
The ruination goes on today, although for slightly different reasons. Take this business, now a sort of epidemic, of presenting everything as an “argument.” People in the land of professional commentary no longer believe things or propose things or even assert things; they argue them.
I’m familiar with this particular cliché-formation because in the early 1980s, when my friends and I were high school debaters, we talked this way all the time. Arguments were what allowed us to keep score back in those days: one team argued for something, the other team argued against it, and the argument was won or lost. But high school debate was a game — a game for teenagers. The point wasn’t for an individual debater actually to believe any particular argument and win the room over with the radiance of his faith; it was for him to be able to argue anything. Insincerity was essential.
For the commentator class, the usage has a similar distancing effect. It’s a sort of shortcut to objectivity, which suggests that the pundit in question doesn’t actually believe something — oh heavens no! — but is merely reporting that the belief might be held by someone, somewhere. So when Nina Easton appears on Fox News and says (in a sentence I have chosen for its utter averageness) that “one could argue that Barack Obama’s smartest political move was putting Hillary Clinton in his cabinet so that she wasn’t outside with Bill Clinton causing mischief,” she isn’t actually asserting this as the truth. She’s only reporting that one might assert this, were one so inclined.
Modifying “argue” with “could” or “would,” as Easton does here, distances the wise person even further from the forbidden stuff of opinion. For example, after relating certain facts about Ronald Reagan’s presidency and his many, many vacations, MSNBC host Chris Matthews in 2011 reasoned that critics of President Obama’s vacations were being unfair — and then deftly used conditional voodoo to nix everything he had just said. “Presidents have always been taking vacations,” he reminded listeners, “and complaining about it amounts to a little more than partisan carping, one could argue.”
Could one, now? In this instance, it is easy to see the pundit’s cherished distance as a simple verbal trick, a disappearing act. But now let us observe the cliché at work in a different setting, where politics is not the subject and the effect is genuinely confusing. Taking to the NPR airwaves in September 2012, the author Junot Díaz described a character in one of his own books like this: “What we’re left with is a character who, for the first time in his life, I would argue, is capable of being in a normal relationship.”
Here we seem to be witnessing a deliberate and extraordinary divorce of speaker from subject. After all, who knows the development and the mental state of Díaz’s character better than Díaz himself? He labored over this short-story collection for 16 years. Surely he can indulge in a little straight talk about his own creation without carefully leaving himself a rhetorical escape hatch.
Why, aside from its magical distancing properties, do people cling to this off-putting construction? Because it cues the audience to the presence of a professional; and professionals are complicated, painstaking people — they don’t simply assert things straight up but instead argue for them in high-minded settings like legal briefs and scholarly journals. Arguing for things, or (better) announcing that you would argue for them given certain unspecified conditions, is how enlightened people are supposed to speak.
That seems like the only plausible explanation for the following, an assessment of the band Yo La Tengo by the critic Milo Miles. Speaking to “Fresh Air” listeners, he notes: “But if they lack rock dramatics, I would argue that the group knows as much about the modes and manners of rock ’n’ roll as anyone who has ever played the music.”
The point here is not really Yo La Tengo’s unexcelled expertise in rock genre conventions (though that is no doubt a fascinating matter) but rather the expertise of the critic himself, who can both make such a claim about a band and also avoid any hint of judgmental finality. His opinion is not to be stated, it is to be argued. That is how professionals talk when they talk about rock. Maybe.
If contingency and professional delicacy are one pole of the pundit argot, the other is streetwise toughness — or, rather, streetwise toughness as it is imagined by the uppermost social order of the richest city in America. And so the commentariat speak of “running the table” when they mean a definitive victory, thereby letting the world know they are intimate with the ways of pool sharks. Or they describe a politician’s performance in a debate with the phrase “rope-a-dope,” establishing in passing their knowledge of everyone’s favorite boxing match of all time, the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle.”
But for badass bluster, nothing comes close to “lay down a marker,” a phrase that pundits use to indicate leadership of the most resolute, thrilling variety. When that archetypal Washington tough guy Dick Cheney addressed the subject of nuclear proliferation in a 2011 Fox News interview, he imparted a quiet, Dirty Harry menace to the words. “There have to be meaningful consequences,” intoned the former vice president. “If you are going to lay down a marker and say don’t proliferate nuclear weapons technology to the terror-sponsoring state, you have to mean it.” (Appearing on Fox News the previous year, Cheney’s daughter Liz issued an identical warning to WikiLeaks enthusiasts: “I think that you’ve got to lay down a marker here so that people understand it’s not freedom of the press.”)
For some, however, tossing markers around is a more personal thing, an act you perform to show that you’ve got the mettle for the big job. When someone is running for president, declared Mark McKinnon on “Hardball” in 2009, “the important thing is to get in and lay down a marker early and be a player.” And sometimes it even means taking a stand against rampant stand-takers. “Lay down a marker, then,” said George Stephanopolous on ABC News in 2004, daring John McCain to step up after the Arizona senator expressed concern about partisan polarization. “How do you think both President Bush and Senator Kerry should conduct this campaign to avoid what you worry about?”
What kind of marker? A lime-green Sharpie? And why lay it down if they want the world to see it? As far as I can tell, the precise origin of the metaphor is never acknowledged by the confident men who throw it around so promiscuously. The Oxford English Dictionary has little to say on the subject. In his New York Times “On Language” column in 1990, William Safire speculated that the “marker” in question derived from gambling slang as set down in the books and stories of Damon Runyon; it means a debt or an IOU.
I will go Safire one better. The specific Runyon-based work in which a “marker” is a fetish object representing a man’s honor is, of course, “Guys and Dolls.” In that celebrated movie musical, the gambler Nathan Detroit utters this famous line: “A marker is the one pledge which a guy cannot welsh on, never.” To doubt a man’s marker, he continues, is unthinkable — “it’s like not saluting the flag.” In the movie’s climactic scene, after the characters dance in their colorful costumes and Marlon Brando sings, the gamblers actually lay down markers for their eternal souls — a move that eventually obliges them to attend church services at a nearby storefront mission.
“Worn-out metaphors” was one of George Orwell’s main categories of cliché: collections of words “which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” To “lay down a marker” is obviously one of these, a burned-out husk of a phrase that must once have seemed exciting and even raffish, and which today rolls off the tongue almost unconsciously.
But it’s worse than this. What does it tell us about our political class that its favorite source for lexical toughness is a wholesome musical that is often performed in high schools? Or that our leaders believe they are connecting with average Americans when they mimic the elaborately contrived patois of made-up New York gangsters?
In certain high-stakes situations, even laying down a marker is insufficiently flinty. When the opinion managers need to describe politicians in the act of criticizing one another, for example, they look not to loud-suited palookas but to bayonet practice, and instead of the passive voice we get green-room gore.
The term in question is “eviscerate.” When the Fox News host Sean Hannity wanted to show his enthusiasm for Paul Ryan as a vice presidential pick, he burbled about how Ryan “eviscerate[d] Obama at the health-care summit.” On CNN, meanwhile, Piers Morgan asked whether Ryan would live up to his reputation as a deadly debater: “Crystal, you really think Paul Ryan is going to eviscerate Joe Biden?”
But in an NPR report on a 2011 speech by President Obama, it was Ryan himself who served as the practice dummy. Three times in the course of the report, Mara Liasson and her colleagues noted that the Wisconsin representative (or, alternately, his ideas) had been been eviscerated by the clever president. Up until now, she explained, Obama “was basically playing rope-a-dope, but this was their strategy, and you can see it working…. He was able to eviscerate Ryan.”
The term applies to intramural debates as well, as Steve Schmidt reminded MSNBC viewers last year, speculating about the tactics of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the impending G.O.P. debates. “Is he going to be the tip of the spear for the anti-Romney?” asked Schmidt. “Is he going to go into these debates and try to eviscerate Mitt Romney? It’s the plot of an old Western.”
I don’t know of any cowboy movies in which disembowelment is used to settle a quarrel. (Had Schmidt said “an old Samurai film,” he might have had a point.) Seriously, this is a grisly act. Eviscerating a moose or even a squirrel is a messy business; eviscerating a human is an act of torture, war, bloody murder. And yet our thought leaders — people who shush their neighbors in the Quiet Car and fill their air-conditioned homes with fake Chippendale fripperies — never seem to consider the literal meaning of their favorite worn-out metaphor. In fact, in my research, the only person who has ever shown the slightest discomfort with it is Gingrich, the former college professor, who claimed during the 2012 primaries that his enemies:
held a meeting on Sunday morning after a Saturday night primary, and they said, “We have to destroy Gingrich.” One of them was even quoted in the New York Times as saying, “We have to eviscerate him,” which I felt was a fairly strong word in a Republican primary. I would expect Obama’s people to do that, but I thought it was a tad much, having spent my entire career building the Republican Party.
Well, reader, we’ve exhausted our allotted space without even going into “optics,” a term knowledgeable Washingtonians use for what you and I would call “appearance.” We haven’t talked about the way politicians are said to “throw red meat” tp their supporters, or “leverage off of” something. We haven’t mentioned “non-starters,” meaning suggestions not fit for consideration, or “the extremes,” the places such suggestions originate. We haven’t considered the great sport of baseball, whose mystic rhythms connect every political commentator in America to the honest folk of the countryside. Nor have we explored the tired phrases that rise to my own lips whenever a microphone draws near: “narrative,” “red state,” “double down.”
But we have seen enough to understand that the goal of the pundit cliché is to define and defend the class position of the pundit, to distinguish between the exalted them and the vast, sweating world of not-them. One part of this specialized vocabulary points in the direction of elitism, the other toward blaring pseudo-populism, but if examined closely, both parts give away the game. This lingo is the jittery patter of a would-be democratic aristocracy, utterly incapable of introspection and yet better than the rest of us in every way.
An edited version of this essay originally appeared in Harper’s magazine.
Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.More Thomas Frank.
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)