"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)
If you assumed the police commissioner who called President Obama the N-word lived in the South, you were in for a surprise. Robert Copeland lives in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, a state with its share of right-wingers and gun-toting freedom-lovers but one that also voted, twice, for Obama, even though Mitt Romney claimed it as one of his five or so home states. Rather unbelievably, Wolfeboro happens to be the very town where Romney’s vacation estate is located.
For anyone who hasn’t followed the story, Copeland complained loudly in a local restaurant that he’s sick of television, because every time he watches he sees “that fucking n***r,” better known as the president of the United States. When a patron wrote a letter of complaint to the town manager and to all three members of Wolfeboro’s police commission, including Copeland, she got a letter back from Copeland himself:
“While I believe the problems associated with minorities in this country are momentous, I am not phobic. My use of derogatory slang in reference to those among them undeserving of respect is no secret. It is the exercise of my 1st Amendment rights,” Copeland wrote. “I believe I did use the ‘N’ word in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse [sic]. For this I do not apologize – he meets and exceeds my criteria for such.”
So for the record, the 82-year-old Copeland is not “phobic” about minorities, and in fact he has “criteria” for who deserves to be called the N-word. He’s not just throwing the word around.
We seem to have an epidemic of elderly white racists trying to explain their racism, to give what they believe are considered explanations for their abhorrent beliefs. They have criteria. They’ve thought this whole thing through. They’re not expressing loathsome and ignorant and hateful prejudice; they’ve got fact and reason on their side.
“Let me tell you something about the Negro,” Nevada rancher/crackpot Cliven Bundy told us, before educating us that “the Negro” was better off under slavery. Donald Sterling explained he can’t be a racist because his basketball team is black, and “I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses.” Also: African-Americans don’t do as much for other African-Americans as Sterling does! What’s wrong with those people?
One of Copeland’s fellow commissioners used a similar defense, telling the Concord Monitor, “Bob is a very nice person, and he’s been very generous to the town of Wolfeboro. He’s worked with a lot of blacks in his life … He said some harsh words about Mr. Obama, and here we are. This woman, she’s blowing it all out of proportion.”
But at a town meeting Thursday night, 100 Wolfeboro residents showed up to demand Copeland’s resignation. So far, he’s refused. One former Wolfeboro police officer promised to begin a recall.
“Who knows what his thinking is on minorities in general?” asked Brian Murphy. “I don’t know if he dislikes Italians? Or Irishmen? Or if he just feels this way about blacks? It doesn’t seem that he’s a fair-minded person, but he’s on a commission making judgments, and I would think his thinking like this could influence those judgments.”
Indeed, police commissioners are in charge of hiring and firing and disciplining police personnel, as well as setting their salaries. Wolfeboro is a small town of 6,300 people, of whom 20 are black. It has zero black police officers, and it’s unlikely to hire any with someone like Copeland as commissioner.
It sounds like the citizens of Wolfeboro aren’t buying his supposed First Amendment right to freely express his racism without political consequence. Here’s hoping Copeland is gone soon. But with Donald Sterling refusing to pay the fine levied by the NBA, and Cliven Bundy still grazing his cattle for free on public land, elderly white racists are showing us their staying power.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.
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)