"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)
Pangs of conscience come cheap in Antigua Guatemala, almost as cheap as the beer and the food and the chance to move in with a family and turn Guatemalans’ lives into colorful fodder for padding out a traveler’s risumi. I’ve been visiting this former colonial capital since 1986, when I rotted there for months like so many other self-involved young gringos. Yet it wasn’t until I returned again recently for a week-long dose of Spanish instruction that I gained any real sense of how the locals see the visitors who have overrun their beautiful, stone-paved city.
Tourism has turned Antigua into a never-never land, but even before the tourist onslaught, it had a transcendent power rooted in its setting, high in a mountain valley and surrounded by volcanoes whose presence is so strong you can feel them lurking even on dark, moonless nights. Antigua was the capital of colonial Central America for more than two centuries, and when a 1773 earthquake leveled the place, the Antiguans who stayed behind inspired countless generations of loafers by doing pretty much nothing. They left chunks of rock and dismembered walls in place, like something out of “The Flintstones.”
A lot of that displaced rock is still there, making for excellent visuals for the latest batch of adventure-craving 22-year-olds. Antigua has more than 50 Spanish schools, and each week hundreds of students are in town, most staying with families and sprinkling currency into the local economy one $20 bill at a time. As in Amsterdam’s red-light district, the commercial underpinnings of the arrangement are obvious, but life with a family has a real intimacy to it. You don’t wake up each morning to the gentle shout of “desayuno,” or sit through meal after meal, making whatever small talk is possible with your level of Spanish, without having some sense of connection with your host.
That’s why I made arrangements this time to stay in the same house as I had the year before. Gilda, the woman of the house, always took pleasure in being an agreeable presence, and she had even listened to my mangled-Spanish tales of various adventures in the capital with two (beautiful, crazy) Guatemalan women. It takes real patience to listen to even one such story without cracking, and Gilda sat through several, smiling sphinxlike.
The morning I returned to Antigua, Gilda greeted me with a smile and announced she was putting me back in the same room as before. I was pleased that she remembered, and even more pleased when I threw open the door and recalled this was the same room where I had kept an overnight guest hostage one morning. (Gilda’s 10-year-old niece had unexpectedly shown up for breakfast that day, and I hadn’t wanted to scandalize her. Gilda wouldn’t have cared, I felt sure, but still, I wanted to err on the side of caution. These are real people living real lives, I had reminded myself.)
Within a day of my arrival this time, something went wrong. Gilda was suddenly not around, and I knew without being told that it wasn’t to make the half-hour drive into Guatemala City to pick up laundry detergent or Technicolor plastic children’s toys for the little store she was now operating out of her front door. One of the other students staying at the house, a young Englishwoman with an infectious smile, said she thought there had been some kind of accident involving Gilda’s family. A bad one.
Death, I should mention, had never been far out of mind during my previous visits to Guatemala. Tens of thousands of Guatemalans had been killed in the violent years that culminated with the December 1996 peace accords. Truckloads of baby-faced soldiers had been a constant presence in Antigua in the past, and not too many people could forget the cloud-passing-before-the-sun chill you felt deep in your bones when you made eye contact with a 17-year-old with a rifle in his hands and the dead-eyed gaze of one who had killed before and would kill again. I once interviewed a Guatemalan journalist in the capital who laughed off the bullet holes in his office window and casually confessed that his predecessor at that desk had been killed. The man reminded me so much of hard-edged, seen-it-all editors I’d loved and hated as a young news reporter in New York City, I did not doubt he was telling the truth.
Still, I wasn’t prepared for what Gilda said when she sat down for a meal with me and the other students, the Englishwoman and a young Australian. Yes, there had been an accident, Gilda said as I stared down at the milkshake-thick black-bean paste on my plate.
I asked for more details, and Gilda continued, though she knew I wouldn’t understand everything: There had been a serious accident. Gilda’s nephew and niece were driving to Antigua from the capital with their parents when another car veered onto their side of the road. The nephew and niece were killed. Their mother ended up in a neck brace, and broke both her legs; doctors thought it would be six months before she would walk again.
“Seis meses?” I asked lamely, so Gilda knew I had some idea.
She nodded, and looked down sadly. I was silent, too. Gilda was a woman who
had not asked a lot out of life. She was bright and curious about the world,
but had never had a career beyond raising three sons and three daughters.
Family mattered. To her, I knew, the accident was a cruel blow, especially
coming two years after the peace accords had announced to everyone that life would be more calm now.
I wasn’t going to explain all this to the Englishwoman and the Australian,
but I did tell them the basics in English: that Gilda’s nephew and niece had
been killed in a car accident. They nodded their heads in a show of
sensitivity, but within a few minutes they were chatting in English. As
newcomers to Antigua, they might not have understood how rude this was to chatter in a language Gilda and her family did not understand,
but even so, their tone grated on me: They were smiling and joking and
carrying on exactly like two unconcerned foreigners who could not be bothered
to show something like true empathy, or even good manners.
I excused myself and retreated to the room where I’d read Russian poetry to that overnight guest the previous year. I felt horrible and ashamed. Days went by and still I could not come to terms with what felt like proof that for visitors to Antigua the place really is a veritable Disneyland, a glorified backdrop for postcards home. You don’t ask Mickey Mouse how his family is doing, do you?
Late in the week, Gilda announced she was leaving for the weekend. She and some family members were heading for the coast. I pulled her aside, uneasily, and told her I wanted to discuss something, but it could wait until she returned Sunday evening. Her interest was piqued. She insisted I speak my mind. So I sat down and told her that I felt bad, that I felt as if we as visitors had failed her. This was all in my rudimentary Spanish, of course, but I asked her if it had seemed as if the others had not seen her family’s terrible accident as something important.
Gilda thanked me with her eyes for my concern, and tucked the corners of her mouth into a sad smile. Then she gave a gesture for the ages, waving her hand through the air like someone tossing a wrapper out of a moving car: “They’re young,” she pronounced. “They’re full of so many new things. They’re distracted.”
I nodded a couple of times, fighting back a pained look, and over that long
weekend I tried to take satisfaction in having at least raised the matter with
Gilda. The water for the shower disappeared sometime Thursday and never
returned, giving me and the Australian something to complain about. He and I
went for a beer and he told me a story about being in the Guatemalan
countryside a month earlier when he and another traveler had been trailed by
the lovable dog belonging to the family where they were staying.
Their host adored this dog. A car approached and offered to take the
Australian and his traveling mate into town, an offer they accepted, bringing
the dog along. But when they finished up their errands in town and went to
find this car, which was supposed to meet them, it was nowhere to be seen.
Neither was the dog. Weeks of frantic searching followed. Still no dog. Their
previous host was crushed.
“I felt quite badly about it,” the Australian told me, his lean features
taking their best shot at a grimace.
“And the American woman you were traveling with?” I asked.
“She didn’t seem terribly concerned.”
We walked in silence through the stone-paved street, trying not to trip on
the undulating concrete sidewalk. A pregnant silence dragged out.
“But the funny thing is, I received an e-mail today,” he continued. “They
found the dog. The people we’d met in the car were taking care of him.
Everything is fine.”
We walked a while farther and it dawned on me: I was the one who had stayed
with Gilda before. I was the one who was upset over the deaths in her family.
And yet I did nothing. I did not attend any funeral services. I did not put
flowers down on the fresh graves. I did not stop at a corner shop and buy the
local version of a Hallmark sympathy card. All I did was look sideways at the
Australian and the Englishwoman, and then sound out Gilda before she took her
trip, an exchange not unlike thinking about doing something nice for someone,
and not doing it, but telling the person anyway, just so you get some points
Monday morning and my shuttle to the airport rolled around. Gilda gave
me her card and told me her family would pick me up at the airport whenever I
returned for more study, in a few weeks or a few months. I thanked her, and
slumped into the back seat, knowing full well that I did not deserve so kind a
Steve Kettmann, a regular contributor to Salon, is the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America."More Steve Kettmann.
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)