"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)
You keep seeing his face during rainy days in San Francisco. It pops up in your dreams and hovers between you and your computer screen while you’re working: There are his thick dark curls and Egyptian nose, his skin warmly brown from the Mediterranean sun. The Ischia sun. You pause to savor the memory of his rough cheek pressed against your smooth one, his quick kiss goodbye, his face fading into a crowd in the train station in Naples.
He is gone, but he sustains you with a sense of possibility, of pleasure. You may be freshly divorced, you may live in a city where the women are strong and the men are pretty and you may think your chance of finding a wonderful straight single man to date are about the same as San Francisco’s chance of having another big earthquake (it could happen, but you don’t really believe it). But somewhere in the back of your mind is that face, that desire and that island. It lifts you back to buoyancy, even if you don’t expect to see or hear from the French professor you met on Ischia ever again.
Then one day a postcard from Paris arrives, a colorful Matisse print of a woman dancing. “It was great!” he writes. “I can’t forget … Love, M.”
It is a little treasure you look at too often in the next few days. You wonder about writing him back and hope that his wife doesn’t open his mail. You think maybe it’s better not to write, though, better to leave that perfect fantasy, those four splendid days together, alone. And so you don’t.
But then a month later you are packing a bag for a business trip and find a roll of film. You develop it, and there’s the postcard sunset, there’s the view from your terrace of whitewashed houses with pots of geraniums trailing down to the beach, and there’s the French aesthetics professor himself, leaning back in sunglasses against the white railing of the ship, flawless blue sky and sea behind him, collar open, cigarette clasped in his smirking mouth. You can’t resist.
So you enclose the photos in a plain brown envelope with no return address and mail it off. You write in Italian that before you went to Ischia, you had a fantasy about encountering a lovely man for a little fling. The reality was so much better than the fantasy, you say, that now you have a much richer imagination. You remember his astrological sign and tell him happy birthday, too.
Not long after, you are feeling depressed and exhausted. You’ve spent most of the day in divorce mediation, using all your wits against an adversary who knows your vulnerabilities better than anyone else. You go home alone while the ex goes back to his new girlfriend. But there is a little package waiting for you from France: a tin of Gitanes cigarettes, the type you used to steal from M. after dinner. You go outside to smoke, which you never do, and the terrible day dissipates in the pleasurable haze of memory.
You realize that it is dangerous to rely on the French professor to cheer you up. So you hold on to the image of M. only to remind yourself that there are lovely, intellectual men out there who are relaxed and romantic, who have a delicious sensibility about life. There are men who make you feel like a woman. You wonder if there are any American men like that.
You’re thinking about this one evening and have another one of his cigarettes and a tiny folded paper flutters out of the tin. Your letter arrived exactly on my birthday, M. writes. Better that these photos exist, because otherwise I couldn’t believe it was all real. Today under cold, gray Parisian skies, “Penso con piacere al piacere,” I’m thinking with pleasure about pleasure.
By spring he is suggesting a little rendezvous somewhere between Paris and San Francisco. You tell him that the aesthetic choice would be to never see him again, to keep the memory of your romantic chance meeting intact. He says that as an art professor, he likes your argument very much, but as a man he wants to know: What are you doing in September? You say that the only place between Paris and San Francisco is Newfoundland, and that would be a bit brisk for sunbathing, no?
In May, a friend announces at a dinner party that she’s rented a place in Florence for a month and everyone is invited. You think it would be nice to go to Italy for a few days just to flirt. Italian men, unlike American men, like to flirt even when there’s no chance of any tangible outcome. They just like to let you know, in restaurants and on the street, that they appreciate women, all kinds of women, that in fact they like women better than anything else in the world, and thank God he made creatures like you.
American men, you think, have more of a museum gift shop mentality about women: What’s the point of spending time in the actual museum appreciating the art if you can’t take it home with you?
So you hope the dinner-party friend was serious, and you book a ticket to Italy for a few days. It seems rash, but traveling where people flirt will help you stop feeling so invisible. As an afterthought you scrawl a postcard to M. telling him when you’ll be in Italy. You know he teaches and has a family and won’t be able to get away.
Your phone rings one evening and someone sounding like Gerard Depardieu in “Green Card” asks, “Is Laura?” It is so surprising you can barely speak. He asks if he’s disturbing you, and you say of course not, you’re quite content to hear his voice. He is abrupt: When does your plane arrive in Milano? You tell him the details. “I’ll meet you on the steps of the Duomo at 10,” he says. “Ti aspettero.” I’ll wait for you.
On the endless flight to Milano you read a fat book, “The Decameron,” to calm your nerves. Written in the shadow of the 1348 plague, Giovanni Boccaccio’s comic masterpiece is about a group of 10 noble young women and men who gather in villas outside Florence to wait out the Black Death by dancing, eating, playing music and telling tales. For 10 days they each tell a story on such themes as love, deception, adultery and getting out of tricky situations with a witty remark. In the midst of death, fear and sorrow, they live in the moment with as much pleasure as possible. The stories celebrate luscious sensuality above all else. There is the tale of a judge’s wife, for instance, who quickly tires of her husband’s feeble sexual appetites (pre-Viagra, he downs vernaccia wine for its uplifting properties, to little effect). Kidnapped by a handsome young rogue, she pretends not to recognize her husband when he comes to rescue her. “I would never go back to you,” she says when she finally lets on that she knows him, “because if you were to be squeezed from head to toe, there wouldn’t be a thimbleful of sauce to show for it.”
The tales describe the endless varieties of love — adulterous passion, courtly love, enduring marriages, homosexual love, forbidden love, infatuation. The moral — if you can call it that, and why not — is that fulfilling sexual desire is more important than any of the constraints society might put on people’s inclinations to “forgather” together. As one storyteller comments after a tale of adultery, “And by proceeding with the greatest of discretion, they enjoyed their love together on many a later occasion. May God grant that we enjoy ours likewise.” This, you think, is what Italians read in school instead of “The Scarlet Letter.” No wonder they’re better at flirting.
You wonder about the varieties of love, you who have been so hurt by adultery and divorce, you who are about to spend a weekend with a married man. Is it possible, you wonder, for couples to have affections on the side that don’t erode their marriage? Is it possible to have a second fling with a French professor (who is full of sauce) without ruining the first brief romance? Without some part of you falling in love?
When you can’t read anymore, you chat with the Milanese in the seat next to you, who, once you land, offers to take you to the center of town with his friend. You reach a bar a block from the Duomo and it is 10:15 and they ask you to have a coffee. It is impossible to refuse, so you drink your cappuccino and watch the clock move closer to 11. Finally, they show you to the Duomo and wave ciao-ciao.
You roll your suitcase along the cobblestones and scan the faces of the
young people sitting on the steps of the enormous cathedral. You don’t
see him. You panic: You’re late, and you have no back-up plan. There is
no way to reach him. You sit on the steps and wait, bleary from the
sleepless flight, anxiously glancing in all directions. You have no idea
what you’ll do. Here you are in Milano, the ugliest city in Italy, under
thick threatening skies, and you are worried that even if he shows up,
it will rain and you’re tired and there’s nothing romantic about Milano
and no nice place to stay. You consider leaving.
You get up and wander toward the doors of the cathedral, then turn
around and spot his denim jacket and the curls at the nape of his neck.
There is an empty space beside him on the steps. You quietly sit down
next to him and he doesn’t see you. You press your skin ever so slightly
against him and there is a little frisson before he turns. “Ciao,” you
say, and he smiles in an excited way the French rarely allow themselves
to smile, and then he takes you in his arms.
“I never dreamed I’d see you again so soon,” he says. He tells you,
appreciatively, that you look the same, and you tell him he does, too,
but in truth he looks much more skinny and haggard than you remember. He
asks if he looks thinner, and you say maybe a little, and he says he
hasn’t been eating, it has been a long story these past few months. But
he likes himself this way. I don’t know, you tease him. You used to have
a rule that you never sleep with anyone who weighs less than you. He
looks at you doubtfully and then draws himself up to seem bigger and
taller. “Va bene?” he asks. You say well, probably, and he says the only
rule you should have is never to sleep with a man who likes his body
better than yours. He takes your hand. “Andiamo.”
You walk across the wide piazza, glancing at each other with shy
surprise and frank expectation. He says he has found a charming little
hotel nearby. In Milano, filled with big, anonymous modern business
hotels, this is a miracle. You climb the stone stairs in an ancient
building to land at a cheerful, airy hotel, with hand-painted furniture,
fresh flowers and views of the historic center. Inside the room,
everything suddenly seems so small, so intimate. He puts down your
suitcase and you don’t know what to do.
“A shower?” he asks, and you nod, good idea, and disappear into the
bathroom. You return, refreshed, with some courage, and flop down on the
bed next to him, tossing away your towel. Ah, he says, and he runs his
finger down your spine. He caresses you and your weariness from a long
flight turns into dreaminess as you make love. After, he strokes your
hair and whispers that he’s going out for a couple of hours, that you
should nap after that long flight, but not too much.
In what seems like a moment he is back again, and he draws the curtains
so you can watch the fading light outside. He climbs back under the
fluffy comforter and you think, we have only two days and nights
together, maybe we will never get out of bed.
But eventually you dress and wander outside to the nearby castle
grounds. He asks you about your divorce and you say you feel better,
it’s been a year, and now you just want to cut the ties completely, get
on with your life. Also, you say San Francisco is a desert for dates.
Don’t worry, he says. It’s early. Maybe, you say, but the shock of being
suddenly single after many years is the feeling that women over 35 are
no longer considered attractive, not even by men over 35.
It’s a pity, he says. The problem with American men is that they are so
superficial. They want youth and beauty right up front in their faces.
That isn’t interesting. European men like to discover what’s beautiful
about a woman. Your beauty, he tells you, sneaks up on you. He didn’t
see it right at first, meeting you over breakfast in a pensione on an
island, reading your guidebook, asking practical questions, so serious.
He had to figure out how to make you smile that soft smile. That’s the
He squeezes your hand and you ask about his long winter. It was
terrible, he says. His wife fell in love with another man and almost
left him. He couldn’t imagine his life away from her, from their house,
from their children, their routine. They’d both had little stories with
other lovers before, but this threatened everything. He was scared and
lonely, but exceptional circumstances, he says, make you become more
exceptional. That, of course, made it a more difficult choice for her,
he says, with empathy and no bitterness. His wife stayed, but it’s
different now. It does give him more freedom to travel, though.
Your wife, you tell him, would have to be completely crazy to leave
you, and you mean it. He’s grateful for that remark, and you realize
that the tables are oddly turned from Ischia. He is heartbroken and you
are stronger, comforting someone who seemed so invulnerable. He feels
sad, he says, but something positive came from it. For the first time he
had to really talk to his friends about his personal life. Before, he
says, there was no one I could even tell about meeting you on Ischia.
You walk quietly for a while, crossing a busy street back to the center
of town. Did you tell anyone about meeting me on Ischia? he asks. Well,
yes, you say, a few people. Actually, quite a few people — you wrote a
tiny little story about it and published it online. He seems amused.
When can I read it? he asks. You spread your hands in an Italian gesture
of helplessness. Sorry, you say, it’s in English. “I learn fast,
sweetheart,” he says. In English.
In the evening, outdoors over pizza, you talk about his new book idea,
your work, his students’ art, your families, and you realize that the
conversation is much deeper than it was on Ischia, that something else
You have a grappa in the Piazza del Duomo when it starts to pour. You
abandon your drinks, splash through the streets and take refuge in the
covered open-air market square, which is empty. You watch him leaning
against a stone pillar and you tell him he looks good from a distance.
He tells you that you have to drink grappa more often, and he walks
toward you and wipes your face dry with his foulard. Alone in the market
square, with lettuce leaves scattered at your feet, you make out like
teenagers, rain splattering all around.
The next morning you wonder what you’ll do in gray Milano. You have
pots of cafi au lait in bed and then he says that since we’re island
specialists, we’ll have to go to an island. You have no idea where the
train you board will take you, but an hour later you arrive in Stresa, a
lovely little town on the edge of Lago Maggiore. You descend to the
boardwalk and follow a path lined with Liberty-style villas and flowers
everywhere — azaleas, rhododendrons, roses. You go to the edge of the
enormous lake, surrounded by high granite mountains and green valleys,
and take a water taxi to Isola Bella — “beautiful island.”
The island at first appears covered with bad restaurants and tourist
kiosks selling the same Boticelli ashtrays they sell everywhere in
Italy. But then you enter the Palazzo Borromeo, Conte Vitaliano
Borromeo’s 1670 hideaway, and you’re in another world. The huge palace
rests on the edge of the island cliffs, and you walk through room after
room of overdone gilded splendor. Here is a grand ballroom, here is the
canopied bed where Napoleon slept (twice, behind Josephine’s back: once
with an Italian princess, another with an opera star), here is a little
stage with fierce marionettes that must have terrorized the children. M.
explains that the way you can tell this is a baroque, not
Renaissance, room is that you have the feeling that you can’t escape;
you don’t see the other rooms or have a sense of the building. It’s
handy, you think, to have an affair with an art professor.
You pass by rooms filled with armor and go downstairs into the
grottoes. “Incredible,” says M., and you have never seen anything like
it, either. The cool cellars are lined, floor to ceiling, in mosaics
made of pebbles, in sea themes, with swirling shells, starfish and
mermaids, room after room of fantastic designs. There is a smooth white
marble sculpture of a woman sleeping on her stomach, with a pretty curve
in her back. “That,” says M., “is obscenely beautiful.”
The grottoes open out into classic Italian gardens, with infinite
varieties of exotic trees, plants and flowers. Huge terra cotta pots of
lemon trees and geraniums perch atop the cliffs against the blue water.
White peacocks traipse around the lawns, displaying their spectacular
tails whenever a drab little peahen shows the slightest interest.
Delicate, pastel-colored water lilies float on a reflecting pool. Statues
of gods and mythical beasts face the lake, standing on ever-higher
terraces of roses. You explore together, taking paths, and are
comfortable not saying anything at all.
The sun breaks out and M. sits down in an ornate iron chair on a lawn.
“Imagine it in the evening, at a party, lit everywhere with candles,
with a banquet there and a string orchestra over there,” he says,
gesturing. “You and I were born three centuries too late.” You picture
him telling tales in “The Decameron,” sneaking off between times into the
grottoes or a secluded corner of the gardens — with you.
Reluctantly, you leave the palace grounds and stand in line for a boat
to another island and you hear someone call your name. You turn and see
a woman who seems familiar but whom you don’t recognize. She introduces
herself and you realize it’s a foreign student who lived with you six
years ago; you’ve bumped into the only person you know in Switzerland
here near the border. You are so surprised you introduce her to M. but
completely forget his name. You chat for a while but then it comes back
to you that you didn’t like her so well and even if it is a phenomenal
coincidence to see her, you hope she sits somewhere else on the boat,
which she does. M. watches all of this and you tell him it was
remarkable to run into her, but in fact you weren’t really friends. “I
noticed that right away,” he says. “Now I know something new about you:
You can be cold.” You say you hope you weren’t rude, and he says no,
it’s just nice to know you’re so warm to him when you can be so chilly
You stroll around another island — Isola Madre — taking trails that snake
through lush woods to wide flowery meadows that are thick with exotic
birds. “We’ve seen so many beautiful things today,” he says, content,
smoking a cigar on a bench overlooking the lake. Amazing, you say. This
was every bit as enchanting as Ischia.
Snuggling on the train ride home, he touches your arm tenderly, easily.
You think about the habit of American men who jump right into sexual
intimacy, but then are afraid that if they touch you affectionately
outside of sex you’ll want to marry them or something. They confuse a
woman’s desire for ambient affection with demands on their freedom.
It’s late and you’re hungry when you return to the hotel, but you’re
hungrier for each other. You play and play and he keeps offering you
more until you tell him, loosely translating a French phrase he’s used,
that he has killed you so many times you’re dead. Famished, you walk out
and wander in the old Jewish section of town until you find a trattoria
tucked in a side street. You both order risotto milanese, with its rich
aroma and saffron-gold flavor, and you suspect that the reason it tastes
so good has to do with veal broth, and even though you’re a vegetarian,
you don’t care. You order porcini mushrooms and place one in your mouth
and while it melts you realize you have never tasted anything so good in
your life. You will never have another porcini mushroom like that
porcini mushroom. And looking across the table you wonder whether you’ll
ever have a chance to have another meal with him again.
It makes you a little sad, you have to leave so soon. This visit will
become another snapshot of paradise that you tuck away in your desk. He
seems to sense what you’re thinking and he asks you: What are you doing
in September? You forgot about September and a nervous thrill shoots
through you, but you calmly say you have no real plans.
I’ve never been to California, he says. I think I would like San
You try to digest this while you walk back to the hotel, and you’re
excited and scared. He says he is making plane reservations for
mid-September, and he will leave everything about this romantic trip up
to you. He says nothing more about it.
In the morning, you have early trains. This time when he kisses you
goodbye in the station, it isn’t so hard. You’ll see him again. But you
wonder if the next time you say goodbye to each other, it will be much
Laura Fraser is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. Her most recent book is An Italian Affair (Vintage).More Laura Fraser.
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)