"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)
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Not long ago, a writer friend and I were talking software (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write) — specifically whether we were Luddites for resisting a Windows 98 upgrade. Well, she said, she hardly felt out-of-date, since most of her publishing-world friends were still using XyWrite. I was stunned. I hadn’t even heard the name in years, and suddenly I’d learned that, in a world in which six months is a generation, there lingered a dedicated cadre of loyalists to a program that hasn’t been upgraded since 1993, that still runs best in DOS, that isn’t compatible with most printers, and that has all but vanished as a commercial product. It was like finding out that a cargo cult was operating down the hall from my apartment.
For those of you unfamiliar with XyWrite — the “GOD of word processors,” as one poster to alt.folklore.computers recently put it — the program was an offshoot of ATEX, which in the ’80s was the standard in newspaper and magazine editorial hardware and software. It was created in 1982 by an ATEX programmer named David Erickson, who’d bought a PC and was unhappy with the word processor that came with it. So Erickson decided to write his own, and not long after he and another employee left ATEX to set up shop as XyQuest.
XyWrite was fast, it could do things no other word processor at the time could (like open two windows simultaneously), and because of the nature of the underlying programming language, XPL, it could be endlessly customized. The screen was a blank page with a command line at the top (hitting F5 would take you there), and when you wanted XyWrite to do something, you simply typed in an English-language command (such as “print” to print a file) or used one of your own custom keystrokes to carry out the task. It was defiantly not a “what you see is what you get” program, but it was extremely transparent, with all the formatting information easily viewable. And it was an instant hit among professional writers and editors, many of whom, um, borrowed their copies from their employers on a single 5 1/4-inch floppy — mine, I confess, came from New York magazine, circa 1984.
Nancy Friedman was editorial director at Banana Republic when the clothing retailer started using XyWrite (version 2). “I loved it,” says Friedman. “All of a sudden I was using this program that thought the way a writer thinks. All other word processing programs were created for secretaries — they’re all about creating standard one page documents. This one really expected that I was doing sophisticated editing and writing.”
High-profile devotees included television’s Brit Hume, John Judis of the New Republic and high-tech guru Esther Dyson. Critics called it the “Porsche 911 Carrera” or the “velociraptor” of word processors. And as much as they admired the software, users also loved the scrappy, down-home nature of the company: Erickson would sometimes answer tech support calls himself, and XyQuest was headquarted in decidedly unglamorous Billerica, Mass. “I was always so happy driving through Billerica knowing they were working to update XyWrite,” remembers one writer who had occasion to pass through town in XyWrite’s heyday. “It sounds so dopey, but that’s how it was.”
But XyQuest’s marketing was never as good as its software, and it lacked the resources to compete with the big boys — like WordPerfect, which the XyWrite faithful held in contempt. Then, in early 1990, IBM stepped in. The computer giant announced it was hooking up with XyQuest to create a new product, called Signature, based on the XyWrite model, and it looked like XyWrite was about to join the commercial mainstream. Instead, IBM delayed the product for a year and a half — then, with boxes printed and diskettes ready to go, decided it was getting out of the software business altogether. A reconstituted XyQuest tried to sell the program on its own (renamed XyWrite 4), simply slapping stickers over the IBM logos on the boxes, says Tim Baehr, then a XyQuest programmer. But “sales just got lower and lower. We were bleeding money.”
By 1992, the company — which at that point consisted of fewer than 10 people — was sold to a Baltimore outfit called the Technology Group, which needed a word processor for the “intelligent systems” software it was developing. The Technology Group did come out with one more major upgrade of the product — a Windows version that many of the faithful still eschew because it has, God forbid, menus. Word achieved market dominance. And that’s where the story should end: The world moved on.
Well, most of the world. But out there, hidden though they were, the XyWriters, like early Christians, have held on. Technology Group president Kenneth Frank won’t give out sales figures, but he says there’s still a steady stream of purchases each month (the software now lists for $495, but most people go for the $129 “competitive upgrade”). And though there are users like Pete Wilkinson, a writer for Rolling Stone and other magazines, who still runs his (circa 1986) software on a Leading Edge that may or may not have a hard drive (Wilkinson isn’t sure), the majority are, in fact, tech-savvy types running it on Pentiums or even, like devotee Wendell Cochran, a home-built Linux box.
About 200 of them have banded together electronically on a listserv maintained by Nathan Sivin, a history of science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. And then there are the power users like Carl Distefano, a New York lawyer who uses XyWrite (insiders shorthand it to Xy for the DOS version, XyW for Windows) as the interface to his operating system (OS/2), to dial his phone and to keep his personal calendar, among other things. Distefano maintains XyWWWeb, a cornucopia of Xy extensions written by him and other power users. “It becomes yours in a way that no other program does,” he says, explaining his devotion. “The various commands and gestures become part of your way of thinking.”
Though the XyWriters mostly deny they’re a cult (“we’re too cranky and individualistic for that” is the standard line), they in fact bear all the hallmarks of sectdom. They have a gospel: Herb Tyson’s “XyWrite Revealed,” a programming guide to Version 3. They are plagued by numerous devils: From the Beast in Redmond, whose Word program the XyWriters dismiss as “a typewriter pool program,” to the Technology Group, the false messiah that, as one typical XyWriter put it, “care[s] nothing about the hyperloyal users, & [is] narrow-minded, unhelpful, surly, evasive, inconsistent, & untrustworthy.” (Kenneth Frank says he’s used to the list’s vituperation.) And they certainly suffer for their faith: Installing the program requires doing things like first disabling your CD-ROM drive.
Nancy Friedman of Banana Republic had so much trouble getting hers to run on her new Pentium that she finally had to downgrade her chip from a 166 to a 133. “It won’t install on a fast chip,” she says (an assertion others deny). Loading it “took days of hand holding from the Technology Group and consultations with the list,” says Friedman. “But you feel like you’ve climbed Mount Everest when it all pops up.” New York writer Elizabeth Royte was struggling to print the second chapter of her book on her husband’s printer (printing and faxing can be especially difficult using Xy) when I called to talk. Still, she said, she was steadfast: “I’m a person who believes that the old ways are the best ways. There’s no need for anything else.”
Indeed, if the XyWriters resemble any other sect, it’s the Shakers (except, of course, for that celibacy thing) in that they prize utilitarian simplicity above all else. Wilkinson, who is on the verge of conceding defeat and switching to Word because the local Kinko’s will no longer convert his 5-inch floppies to the 3.5-inch disks the rest of the world has been using for half a decade, sums up his devotion thusly: “It works. It moves sentences around.” With their customized keyboards and fierce anti-mouse bias, the XyWriters see themselves as stalwart holdouts against the increasing corporate grayness of the computerized world. Royte’s husband, Peter Kreutzer, was a user for almost eight years. “I loved the fact that it was customizable,” he says, though he concedes there were periods when he spent “as much time configuring my keyboard as writing. It was a sad day giving it up. I realized I was homogenizing myself. It made all the practical sense in the world, but I didn’t want to do it,” he says.
I, too, gave XyWrite up. In my case, it was sometime during a computer upgrade, when I just couldn’t be bothered to load it once again (more importantly for the XyWriters, Dyson and her colleagues at EDventures recently abandoned the program as well). And yet, when I began talking to the faithful, I started to feel the pull of what New York writer Ray Tennenbaum calls “the Aristotelian elegance” of the program — that moment when “you’re running it as a full-screen DOS session and it’s nothing but you, the keyboard and a black screen with a little command line at the top — like Courier on 8 1/2 -by-11 paper, plain and all’s you need.”
“Come back, come back,” Tennenbaum called softly over the phone, like a shepherd coaxing a lost member of the flock. I confess I was sorely tempted. After I hung up, I even dug through my boxes of old disks, looking for my master copy of XyWrite. Soon, I held the 5-inch floppy in my hand like the Holy Grail. And I longed to throw off the ornate trappings of Word — menus, mouse, toolbar, feh! — and get back to the essentials.
Then I remembered that my computer doesn’t have a 5-inch drive. The piece of plastic I was holding was like some holy relic from a lost sect, useless, its meaning unrecoverable. Paradise lost, indeed.
Amy Virshup is a senior editor at SmartMoney.More Amy Virshup.
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)