"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)
Topics: Books, Douglas Coupland, Doug Coupland, Generation X, millennials, Editor's Picks, nirvana, Lady Gaga, Chuck Palahniuk, Marshall McLuhan, Law and Order, Mad Men, house of cards, Morrissey, Innovation News, Entertainment News
There are few authors who could be called the voice of a generation, but the tag fits Douglas Coupland — not only because he literally wrote the book “Generation X,” but for the way his prose oozes the irony and dark humor that define his peer group.
His latest book, “Worst.Person.Ever.,” focuses on Raymond Gunt, a British B-crew cameraman whose ex-wife lands him a dream job on a “Survivor”-esque TV show. Dream until it becomes a living nightmare on the scale no less than worldwide nuclear war, that is. Coupland uses his characters to explore American prudishness about swearing and sex, the worst nightmares of the hetero man and how a series of increasingly bad decisions can still land a man a happy ending.
Like much of Coupland’s work, it’s the sort of book that will cause you to gasp out loud at the audacious situations and subversive characters.
Coupland and I met at the Bar Room at the Modern, MOMA’s little foodie getaway, a few hours before he would speak at a sold-out event at the New York Public Library. In person he is so soft-spoken that he worries on multiple occasions that my app won’t record him properly — and so Canadian that he doesn’t mention the green ink marring my cheek, which I don’t discover until after our interview.
He is more willing to discuss incest than “Generation X,” which is so very Generation X of him. And he is funny as hell.
You’re spending the night in conversation with Chuck Palahniuk. How do the two of you compare?
Chuck creates a carnival everywhere he goes with his events. I like to be a witness to it. I think he’s up the street this afternoon giving out body parts to people in line. He’s one of those people I made friends with over the years; last night we got together for drinks. I haven’t seen him in awhile, 10 years maybe?
Are you put in the same canon quite a bit? You both write incredible characters and sometimes sensational material, although his is a bit more extreme.
He’s more on the extreme side. [laughs] When I began writing, it was 1991, people would say, “Doug, your writing is so visual.” I wasn’t sure if that was a put-up or a put-down. Then I realized around 2000 that what they were really saying was, “Doug, you’re a visual thinker and I am not.” I do think that neurologically, generically only a percentage of the population thinks visually. If you’re not a visual thinker, it’s very hard to read visual writers. I think that, content aside, Chuck is also a visual writer. At a root level, I think that’s something we have very much in common.
You adapt elements of pop culture a lot in your writing, so I was interested when you decided to write a book about Marshall McLuhan. What interested you in him and what keeps propelling you back to the pop culture well in your fiction works?
That came about because Penguin Canada was doing a series of living Canadians writing about dead Canadians, which is very sexy. The series editor, named John Saul, kept saying, “You’ve got to do Marshall McLuhan.” I didn’t even know who he was, barely. I had to read “Guttenberg Galaxy” and it’s incredibly opaque writing. He didn’t like writing very much, actually. He was a crusty old fuddy-duddy who had all sorts of deep character flaws.
Ultimately I came to the conclusion that I was very lucky to be doing the biography of him because I had the advantage of seeing what he was actually talking about and how it played out. He was essentially describing the Internet, but he was doing it using “The Odyssey” and a lot of weird, crazy academic stuff. He knew what it was going to be, he just didn’t know the interface.
Now you can look at something he’s describing and say, “Oh that’s PayPal. That’s Grindr, that’s eBay, that’s Facebook.” And he was, in his own poetic way, describing pretty much all the things that we use in our day-to-day lives. And I think because he was genuinely prescient, there is no reason why we have to stop applying his ideas to life in 2014. I’m guessing he saw probably far beyond what we’re doing right now. So he became shockingly relevant and is going through a bit of an academic vogue at the moment because now we actually can see what he was talking about.
I was working at Wired in 1993 and he’s on the masthead as the patron saint of Wired. I thought, “Ha ha, whatever.” I think Wired were probably the first people to pick up on his new relevance. I think it was with Google when finally, not just this but so many other things changed. Now he’s certainly being revisited in media theory. Reading Marshall opened doors, inside my head and elsewhere and I’m very grateful. You do all these books and they go out and have a life and of all the books you do, that’s the one that gets the cover of the New York Times Book Review. There’s no justice in this world. [Laughs]
Certainly some of McLulan’s work applies to television, although I don’t know how much he foresaw reality TV, which is where Raymond Gunt of “Worst.Person.Ever” works?
I think the most interesting application of his theories on TV is that once one media obsolesces the previous media, it allows the previous media to become an art form. Suddenly we have the 100-hour movie and we have “Breaking Bad” and we have actors who are liberated, who can look the way they look. It really has turned into art. I notice that people talk about “Mad Men” or “House of Cards” the way they used to talk about novels, asking, “What chapter are you on? I’m going to do a whole series over the weekend.”
I used to be addicted to “Law & Order.” I was watching so much that I felt guilty for wasting my time, so I started to figure out something I could do while I watched. One of the projects was, I would take copies of books I’d written, dip them in water and then chew the pages up into these tiny little pellets. I’d let them dry out then unfurl them and glue them together to make these hornets nets, taking human cultural time and reinserting it into Darwinian or geological time. They were really quite beautiful. It’s not like I try and industrialize every aspect of my life; it did seem like I could be doing something else. Ironically, years later, the people I watched “Law & Order” with, we all had an imaginary relationship with Dick Wolf. Then two years ago the phone rang and Dick Wolf wanted to do a TV show of [my book] “Girlfriend in a Coma.” It was the strangest thing.
Your main character in “Worst. Person. Ever.,” Raymond Gunt, is employed in one of the worst possible positions on a reality TV crew.
No, hang on, he did win a BAFTA for best camera work in a home cooking show category in 1990-something.
I imagine that was a Nigella Lawson-type show. Why are you tormenting him?
You meet people in life and you file them away. We were shooting this thing for MTV in 1993 on location in Lancaster, California. There’s an Army base nearby and the terrain and rocks are otherworldly looking. Every TV show that takes place on another planet was filmed there. As you drive up to it, there’s this prop yard that’s got UFOs and zapper guns and stuff like that. There’s absolutely nothing to do, it’s in the middle of the desert. On the shoot there was this one English camera guy who was like living, breathing Tourette’s. I don’t know what it was. He didn’t realize that he was the main act. He just wouldn’t stop. Eventually he had to have noticed at some point because we were like a flock of baby ducklings following him everywhere. I thought, “He’s an interesting character. I’m going to revisit him someday.”
I go to England a lot and the English love swearing. They can get so caustic. So I was there, at Heathrow or somewhere there watching CNN. There was an American reporter who said, “I’m so fricking mad.” Everyone was like [makes a hissing noise], wondering what’s going through this woman’s head. I realized there’s this big disjuncture in culture, the things you can talk about openly. I pick up a copy of an American newspaper and read the headline: An Interfaith Symposium on Oral Sex. I’m like, “What? Is this a joke newspaper?” But apparently oral sex is a huge topic in certain circles, debating if it constitutes sex or not. So you have this going on, but you can’t say “shit”? It just made no sense so I thought, “OK, let’s see how many buttons we can push.” Raymond is a button pusher and then it becomes about how we can make it worse for him. It’s an endless downward spiral of self-induced failures.
You put him into these fantastic situations that really push the boundaries. You have him toying with the ideas of bestiality and incest. These are serious taboos. Is it another way of making him bad while making it bad for him?
Since you brought it up, let’s talk about it. Did you ever read F. Scott Fitzgerald?
Before he died he did a series called the Pat Hobby Stories. There was this guy who was a part-time studio writer in Los Angeles and he always did something to screw up everything that happened somehow through his bad attitude. There’s some of that coming through. Also, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook had a show “Derek and Clive.” When we were doing the TV show for “JPod,” one of the writers in the room, Dennis Heaton, brought in “Derek and Clive” and played it. That’s about as high as you can raise that bar.
Dudley Moore is lovable, though. He can do terrible things and still be delightful. Do you imagine Raymond Gunt being lovable in person?
He’d be horrible. He would somehow say or do the wrong thing. Would he be likable? He might walk away leaving you thinking he’s nice, but he took your valet ticket. He would do something to subvert himself.
I really missed the book once I finished it. I think when you’re part of the way through, the characters take over and they write it for you. With Raymond it was kind of like, “Oh my god I can’t believe what he just said! Well, wait, technically I just said that. [Gasps]” It just makes you wonder what’s going on when you write a character. Agatha Christie wasn’t a serial murderer.
That we know of.
Thank you for that! That old bat was always getting away with stuff. It turns out, when they dig up her estate to put in a pool and there will be bodies everywhere.
The thing with characters is they’re all up here [gestures to his head] and it feels like when you go to a European hotel and they’ve got those slots where they put the keys. It’s like having one of those in your brain but it’s asymmetrical. They’re all there. They’re very real and they’re individuals but once a book’s over they’re kind of … I miss them, actually.
Well, you get to do the publicity now and bring them back. I always wondered why Chuck Klosterman wrote an entire book about the interview process. But it can be an interesting and odd dynamic, don’t you think?
I’ve only done one interview in my life and it was a disaster. I never really understood the process from the subject’s end, I still actually don’t. But in 2005 the Guardian asked me if I’d like to interview Morrissey. I’m a huge Smiths fan, and Morrissey solo. I thought it would be in London, but they said no. He’s in Rome and they bought business class tickets for me to go there and put me up at this great hotel. Before I went there, I went to my doctor and said, “It’s this crazy schedule, I need something to help me through this thing.” He prescribed something, not Ambien but something new and like that. I took them on the plane. There was a delay on the flight and by the time I got to my hotel it was 7 p.m., so I took three more.
His record label were so paranoid about bootlegging that they sent me the CD in advance but it was so heavily watermarked that it wouldn’t play in any device I tried. Thank you for trusting your reporter! Finally they gave me a non-watermarked CD, but I’m still convinced there was someone outside the door of my hotel making sure I was listening because about five minutes after I was done listening to it I got a call that Morrissey was bored and would like to talk right now. I walked down to the bar and was like, “Oh, it’s Morrissey sitting at the end of the bar. Is his head growing?” All this Ambien or whatever it was kicked in. After a few minutes of conversation, I woke up six hours later talking to my agent on the phone. I have no memory of it. None.
Did you record it?
It didn’t work. Now it’s somewhere on the Internet and I decided I’m not cut out to do interviews. They’re a lot of work. Why are you not doing this interview online? Online everyone looks smart and the article writes itself, literally.
Because I wanted this to be as inconvenient as possible for you.
Sorry, the bar at MoMa on a lovely Friday afternoon? This is great. I’m loving it.
You only follow 25 people on Twitter. I assume you have no desire to be Internet famous?
Not really, no. There’s only so much time in a day. I still have to do what I do, so …
If you wanted to become a performance artist you could exploit that medium.
I wonder about kids in art school these days, what they have to … I’ve actually never talked about this with anyone so if it’s boring just push the stop button. Art school is all about, or it was when I went there from 1980-84, you having something in here [points to his head] that’s an idea you want to put out there. But you’re also this freaky thing called an artist, which most people aren’t. And in 2014 everyone’s trying to create content, but the art school student is so theory driven you can do anything except put yourself out there. When you go to the grad shows now it’s really schizophrenic. The work is cramped and scribbly and strange. It’s because at the one point in history when everyone is expressing themselves, so artists are completely clipped in all directions. I think if there’s a new art form to emerge, it’s probably not going to come out of the art schools.
The students are probably the way they are because the teachers are the way they are and it takes 15 years for a generation of teachers to burn out and new ones to come in. So we have these teachers who are confidently and loudly, and probably willfully, saying, “I don’t need that Internet. I’ve got my studio.” The art kids, they need someone who is interested in the real world.
Have you followed the progress of Lady Gaga much at all, with her “Artpop” album?
I like the fact that Lady Gaga is doing massive performance art. That’s what the kids in art school should be looking at as raw material. What teacher is going to do that?
What are you reading?
I forgot the book I was going to be reading on this book tour and had to buy something real quick at the Vancouver airport, so I picked up Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short.” It should be required reading for everyone. I’m about three-quarters of the way through and it makes incredible sense. Well, it doesn’t make sense, the decisions they make are stupid. But it explains how half a billion people’s lives were completely fucked over by these idiots doing these default swaps or whatever.
Do you think that the catastrophic failure of free market economics is going to be the lingering legacy of Generation X?
Everything they’ve been saying about X they’re now saying about millennials. Like, everything.
The only difference seems to be that X were ironic and downtrodden and millennials are hopeful and “more spiritual.” Other than that, exactly the same.
They’re scared little hipsters. Oh, the rise of the hipsters.
Are hipsters Gen X or millennials?
Wait, you’re trying to trick me into establishing a baseline for defining hipsters. When I lived in the middle of nowhere, it was about the same time I started reading about Brooklyn being hip. I went through my Gmail and searched for “Brooklyn” to trace the start of hipsters and pinpoint when they were breaking.
It seems the difference is self-identifying as a hipster. Gen X would never and some millennials do.
As young people it’s always comforting to have a style tribe. It was for me.
Time magazine just had a cover asking, “Who are millennials? What do they want?” They’ll be doing the same thing in 20 years. If Time is still around in 20 years.
We were talking about reality shows earlier. I watch “Project Runway,” do you watch that?
Yes, I love Tim Gunn and want to be best friends with him.
He’s everyone’s favorite, Uncle Tim. So I don’t know anything about fashion. I have body dysphoria so I don’t know what to put on my body. I’m just like, “Doug, wear this with that because it will work.” With other people, out in the street, I can tell when they’re wearing designer labels. I can’t sew a button, but I’m fascinated with the show. Like the alternative materials challenge.
Nirvana were recently inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame. Were you a fan?
I was at MTV and Judy McGrath asked me, “Do you want to go see Nirvana tonight?” I was like, “Yes, yes I think I will.” It was the Nirvana “Unplugged” night. We get there and we were in row three, right in front of where Kurt was playing. It was a fantastic show, obviously.
Before it started, they had the MTV people come around with these men’s XXXL black T-shirts. If you had a suit and tie on, a shirt with a logo or you just weren’t dressed hip you had to wear the XXXL black shirt. We could see them coming our way and were like, “Oh please don’t make us have to wear that.” We didn’t and it was like [exhales loudly]. Then the show began and it was like, happiness plus relief chemicals at not having to wear the shirt.
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)