"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)
The Rev. Al Sharpton apparently thought Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Chris Paul and even Doc Rivers needed his coaching in this week’s battle with Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Given that Sterling’s troubles emanated from a leaked tape recording, maybe the Rev. thought they’d benefit from his own taping experiences, honed years ago under the tutelage of the FBI.
Though the NBA’s players union asked Sacramento mayor and ex-Phoenix Suns star Kevin Johnson to act as its adviser in the Sterling controversy, Sharpton repeatedly tried to put himself center stage, threatening protests at the league’s Manhattan headquarters and the Clippers’ playoff game. Right up to NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s press conference banning Sterling for life, Sharpton kept using his NBC platform —ranging from his “Meet the Press” demands on Sunday to appearances on several MSNBC shows, including his own — to seek credit for Sterling’s eventual ouster, which everyone expected would be the dunk of the year, or maybe the epoch.
Even after Silver’s unprecedented actions, Sharpton issued a statement seeking a meeting with Silver to find ways “to make sure this never happens again,” announcing that he wanted NAACP interim president Lorraine Miller to join the session. Of course, the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP had already honored Sterling in 2008 (President’s Award) and 2009 (Lifetime Achievement), even though George Bush’s Justice Department was then suing him for housing discrimination. When he was caught on tape making outrageous racial comments, Sterling was getting his tuxedo ready for the upcoming NAACP dinner on May 15 to collect a second Lifetime Achievement award. Instead, he got Silver’s lifetime ban.
Sharpton’s name appeared at the top of the Los Angeles NAACP dinner invitation, right above Sterling’s (before it was deleted), and Sharpton is still scheduled to receive his “Person of the Year” honors, amid awards to such civil rights giants as top Wal-Mart executives. Leon Jenkins, the head of the NAACP chapter in Los Angeles that picked Sterling, recently co-authored an Op-Ed on state budget cuts with the president of Sharpton’s local National Action Network. Maybe the Rev and the NAACP need to have a meeting of their own “to make sure” that the sale of civil rights honors “never happens again.”
The Sharpton camera-grab on Sterling didn’t attract much support, an unfortunate surprise for the TV host, as insinuating himself into an overnight win-win situation could have counterbalanced one of his worst stretches in the media since his latest reinvention.
Sharpton recently got four New York tabloid covers in the New York Post and New York Daily News in two days, followed by dozens of other stories — all revolving around hard documentary evidence revealed by the Smoking Gun that he was so cozy with the mob in the ’80s that he taped 10 meetings with one gangster that lasted hours (ultimately becoming the basis for FBI wiretaps on the most powerful Mafia leaders in America). On Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, where Sharpton was once welcomed as a friend of the program, an ex-cop said he was known on the street as The Fat Rat. As hot as the fire around Sharpton was, he motored on, both a captive and champion of his personal history of scandal, a rogue for all seasons.
The Rev’s difficulty driving the Sterling story exposes key questions about his influence. Why all the noise about the host of a modestly watched MSNBC show who won less than 1 percent of the delegates when he ran in 36 presidential caucuses and primaries in 2004, earning scant support overall and losing two-thirds of the black vote in his home state? Why, when the new revelations about him were consuming mainstream and right media, did liberal news remain virtually silent? Why is he still a headline magnet when his prime as a civil rights protest leader was way back in the heyday of Rudy Giuliani? How can someone who says so many of the right things do so many of the wrong things over a lifetime and get away with it?
Sharpton isn’t important because of who he is. He’s big because of who the powerful think he is and what that fact-defiant coziness says about the Democratic elites who now cater to him. President Obama entertained him twice in four days — at the convention of Sharpton’s corporate contribution-drenched National Action Network in New York and the Easter Prayer Breakfast in the White House last Monday. Attorney General Eric Holder, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Mayor Bill de Blasio appeared at NAN as well, with de Blasio announcing that the “blessing” that is Sharpton learned his values from Martin Luther King “and made it a way of life.”
In fact, there are some similarities between the two: King was taped by the FBI, Sharpton taped for the FBI; King was surveilled because he “conspired” with leftists, Sharpton walked into a videotaped mob sting to talk a cocaine deal; King prophesied his own assassination, Sharpton conjured up a death threat justification for cooperating against black leaders.
De Blasio drew the MLK parallel while branding New York’s stop-and-frisk practice “separate and unequal policing” in the same NAN time slot in which NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly had defended it the year before, just the kind of awkward juxtaposition that seemingly clouds many Sharpton relationships.
The new mayor started his NAN speech with a salute to a cop who’d just died in a public housing fire, unconsciously setting up another odd contrast. While Sharpton’s finest moments often involved spotlighting police excess, he has no history of supporting cops when they are wronged. Indeed, law enforcement antipathy to him crystalized in the late ‘80s when he tried to pin Tawana Brawley’s supposed rape on a cop who killed himself and an assistant district attorney who successfully sued him for defamation. Though a grand jury eventually found the rape was a hoax, Sharpton still refuses to apologize. (Brawley’s family has maintained she was telling the truth.) As recently as 2008, NAN cited his “standing up” for Brawley, “who many didn’t believe,” as proof that he defended black women, countering blog criticisms of his rush to condemn Florida prosecutors for not granting bond to four Florida teenagers who’d brutally raped a 35-year-old Haitian woman and forced her to have sex with her 12-year-old son.
De Blasio has named Sharpton’s criminal lawyer to the city’s top legal post, stirred up a firestorm when he intervened with the NYPD on behalf of an arrested pastor who was featured at the 2013 NAN convention, and installed Sharpton’s closest aide at first lady Chirlane McCray’s side. The mayor has gone further in his praise of Sharpton than other high-ranking champions because he apparently believes that Sharpton’s neutrality helped him avoid a runoff against black Democratic opponent Bill Thompson, an imaginary debt leading to this imaginary portrait of the preacher power broker.
Obama delivered his finest speech on voter suppression at the NAN convention as well, declaring “the real voter fraud is people who try to deny our rights by making bogus arguments about voter fraud.” But, like de Blasio, the president was bedeviled by the right message/wrong location paradox that haunts Sharpton, who’s turned his MSNBC show into an almost nightly crusade against allegations of GOP voter fraud, even though he’s done it himself on both a small and grand scale.
When Sharpton registered to vote at three different addresses in 1976 and was questioned about it in court, he testified that Brooklyn’s Democratic bosses couldn’t make up their minds which of three independent black leaders they wanted him to run against, so he registered in all of their districts. Then, in 1982, he allegedly joined his political mentor, State Sen. Vander Beatty, in the forging of thousands of voter registration cards in an effort to overturn a congressional election Beatty lost. Sharpton’s attitude about vote fraud hardly appears to have changed — he hugged an Ohio election official convicted on four counts of vote fraud at a rally two weeks before the NAN convention.
The president suggested in his convention appearance that NAN run a national voter registration effort, apparently unaware that the organization falsely claimed to have run one in 2004, when Sharpton ran for president. The NAN consultants hired to manage the registration operation wound up scheduling Sharpton’s appearances and trips, one of many examples of the illegal commingling of NAN and campaign funds that led to nearly a half million in fines and penalties by the Federal Elections Commission. The NYC Board of Elections said NAN didn’t run a registration drive and NAN’s executive director, Sharpton’s girlfriend at the time, wasn’t even registered herself throughout her first two years at the organization. She was rewarded with $4,000-a-night hotel stays with Sharpton, a Mercedes, a Caddy, a $7,000 Rolex, mink coats, Yurman jewels and a Trump apartment. Sharpton, who’d testified in the Brawley defamation case a couple years earlier that he didn’t even own the suit he was wearing in court and was so destitute he hadn’t filed taxes for years, lived in a suite at the Helmsley Carlton during his presidential campaign.
Why are the president and attorney general repeatedly attending the convention of an organization that broke federal laws? Why are they and the governor paying homage to a group that owes over $800,000 in federal and state taxes right now and has stiffed the government for millions over the years? Is there any other former mob associate who hangs out with the president, mayor, governor and attorney general? Didn’t Sharpton turn his own response to the Smoking Gun revelations about his closeness to the mob upside down in 24 hours, reinventing himself for a morning press conference of rat and cat sound bites?
The truth is that the Sharpton effect doesn’t elect Democrats; it helps defeat them. Ask Al. He wrote in “Al on America,” his 2002 book, that he beat Mark Green in the mayoral race against Mike Bloomberg because the city Democratic Party “needed to be taught a lesson.” He said the national Democrats needed “to be taught one” too and, with that goal in mind, he let the ultimate GOP dirty trickster of Watergate and Miami/Brooks Brothers riot fame, Roger Stone, finance and manage his presidential campaign. The covert plan — with Sharpton even using Stone’s credit card on the trail and collecting hundreds of thousands from Stone for the campaign through NAN — blew up when it hit headlines. (My late colleague Jack Newfield called it “a Marx Brothers parody of the Hitler/Stalin pact.”)
But Sharpton hung on, insisting on a prime-time convention speech and a giant travel budget that put him in swing states, providing fodder for GOP attacks on nominee John Kerry. Sharpton’s ties to Kerry were featured in GOP ads, just as Al Gore’s were in 2000, when Sharpton actually appeared with Ralph Nader right before Election Day. Perhaps conscious of this history of serial sabotage, Obama (back then) wanted nothing to do with Sharpton in 2008, and never sought his endorsement. But the president subsequently discovered how useful Sharpton was as a counterweight to Obama critics like Jesse Jackson, Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, ex-Sharpton allies that he now scorns, and bars from his show. Sharpton established his Jackson jihad bona fides when sidekicks planted the 2001 stories about his illegitimate child.
Sharpton has also claimed credit for beating Mario Cuomo in 1994, boasting in his book that “a lot of analysts say that my not supporting Cuomo was a large factor in him not getting the black voted he needed.” Sharpton added that the new GOP governor, George Pataki, invited him to a mansion breakfast on King’s birthday, shortly after he took office. NAN’s chair, the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, pastor of a 4,000-member Westchester church, won millions in state housing subsidies in the Pataki years, even endorsing him when the state’s black comptroller, Carl McCall, was the 2002 Democratic nominee.
In 2010, Sharpton refused to back Andrew Cuomo for governor as well, supporting third-party candidate Charles Barron and accusing Cuomo of taking black voters “for granted.” Sharpton benefactor and buddy Roger Stone was running Carl Paladino’s doomed 2010 GOP campaign. Prior to securing his MSNBC show in 2011 — after he’d pushed for FCC approval for the NBC/Comcast merger — Sharpton was a frequent Fox guest, appearing 16 times on the shows of the duo he now routinely condemns, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.
Sharpton’s Republican roots date back to the desk he reportedly had in Strom Thurmond’s office. At the behest of U.S. Sen. Al D’Amato, he persuaded Coretta Scott King to appear at the GOP convention in 1988, where she sat in the Bush family box. He openly endorsed D’Amato in 1986, actively undermined Democrat Bob Abrams in D’Amato’s 1992 race, and sought federal funding through D’Amato for a drug program that Sharpton’s top aide, a convicted drug dealer, was slated to run. D’Amato appointed and was close to the Brooklyn federal prosecutor, Andy Maloney, who oversaw Confidential Informant No. 7’s handling in this period. The Manhattan U.S. attorney in the ’80s, Rudy Giuliani, refused to answer questions recently about his own role in the wiring of informant Sharpton, saying that he’d “checked with the Justice Department” and was “constrained” by the “instructions” he received.
In this same period that he was cementing his GOP and D’Amato arrangement, Sharpton was offering the feds information on an array of black elected officials from Rep. Major Owens to Assemblyman Roger Green, even wiring up on Councilman Wendell Foster, as well as black radicals that might help him entrap Assata Shakur.
De Blasio is a rare Democrat who’s convinced himself that he actually benefited from a Sharpton alliance. The mayor’s progressive profile, abetted by Sharpton’s MSNBC and Obama imprimatur, has helped insulate Sharpton during the current controversy from left criticism, though some liberals have long been reluctant to fairly assess him. De Blasio is close enough to him that Sharpton and press adviser Ken Sunshine shared the mayor’s table at the recent Inner Circle press dinner (and Sharpton appeared in de Blasio’s skit).
David Dinkins was at the table too and seeing Sharpton, who secretly supplied information about him to the Giuliani campaign and publicly excoriated him as “the n****r whore turning tricks at City Hall,” must have been bittersweet. In fact, Sharpton’s “diamond merchants” reference at the time to Crown Heights Jews, and his dare at a funeral that “if Jews want to get it on, they should pin their yarmulkes back and come on over to my house,” contributed to the defeat of the mayor who first brought de Blasio to City Hall as an aide in 1990.
Not only did Sharpton undermine Dinkins, he demanded hundreds of thousands in tribute from Giuliani’s 1997 Democratic opponent, Ruth Messinger, who had to withstand repeated Sharpton sniping, both when he ran against her in the primary and during the general election campaign.
The assumption at the heart of Democratic pandering to Sharpton has long been that his attacks can deflate black support at the polls, using Mark Green in 2001 as an object lesson of his ability to hurt, even if he can’t help, a candidate. It is the explanation for a myriad of sins that’s made a pilgrimage to NAN’s Harlem headquarters as familiar a New York campaign sight as a candidate with a check from a developer.
A minister who’s never had a church, president of an organization specializing in self-promotion, host of a show that unabashedly attacks the racial rhetoric of others, Sharpton is poised now to again play a key role in a monster merger, the Comcast conquest of Time Warner. As ineffectual as he was in the Sterling/NBA ruckus, Sharpton’s White House and FCC connections will help with the pending deal, as they did in arranging the affirmative action agreement that paved the way for the Comcast/NBC merger. He’s gone from cutting a 1980s deal with the feds that kept him out of jail to spearheading an affirmative action agreement critical to the multibillion-dollar merger that preceded his getting a national show. He didn’t quite get the spotlight he sought in the Sterling mess — but a window into the compromised judgment of New York and national leaders, the Rev at 60 is still an every-day-is-a-new day operator and timeless adapter, an archive of hypocrisy.
Wayne Barrett, an investigative reporter with the Village Voice and the Daily Beast for four decades, has known Al Sharpton longer than that.More Wayne Barrett.
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)