"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)
I have had many memorable nights in my life, but few are so clearly etched
in my mind as that February night in 1992 when I ran naked through a
snowstorm to the snap and flash of a thousand cameras. It was my first and
only flirt with exhibitionism, and it led to a criminal record.
I was 19 years old, a sophomore at Princeton, and the occasion was a now-infamous campus ritual called the Nude Olympics. It takes place every year,
at midnight on the day of the winter’s first snowfall. Hundreds of naked
sophomores run in circles around one of Princeton’s most hallowed
courtyards. They whoop and scream, leap and cartwheel through snowdrifts,
then take off in a streak across campus. Some rush the library. The boldest
head for town, blazing nude through restaurants.
The first Nude Olympics took place sometime in the early ’70s, though
its initiators seem to have been too wasted to remember exactly why; certainly
the tradition was in full swing by 1976, when brazen Olympians ended their run with a
splash in Dillon pool, interrupting a championship swim meet. In their infant
years, the Olympics used to feature organized events — naked wheelbarrow
races, three-legged relays — but gradually things simplified. These days,
when the games begin, the nude mostly just run like hell.
When Nude Olympians began their laps my freshman year, I was sound asleep in
my dorm, cuddled under the weight of a “French in Action” textbook. When I
awoke, it was with a jolt: a big-gutted sophomore named Ciro had decided to
run bare-assed sprints down my hallway, and his footfalls created a near
earthquake. Drawn to the window by the sounds of rabid howling, I squinted
out in time to see a few figures bounding through the shadows, naked but for
hats and boots and headed who knows where. I drifted back to sleep wondering
what brand of madness had gripped these people, and whether, when
next year’s first snow fell, I might be gripped by it too.
I doubted it. As exhibitionists go, I was an unlikely candidate. I was the
prototypical good girl, the sort friends always want their parents to
meet but do not call when planning recklessness. While my peers raged at
parties, drinking and flirting and dancing in two inches of beer, I might
be burrowed in the library, learning the rules of supply and demand or
pondering a Micronesian ethnography. And if I had ever been naked in front
of another human being in my adult life, it was completely by accident. My
curves and planes were still my secrets, closely guarded.
And yet I was growing tired of listening to friends swap stories of wild
nights and fearsome self-dares. Somewhere deep within my controlled self,
curiosity bloomed: I wondered how it felt to revel in the act of being
The notion that I might run in the Nude Olympics, that I might be able to
override all instincts and romp naked before hundreds of friends and
strangers, seemed more than a lapse in propriety — it seemed a perfect
inversion of my character.
And so I found myself, just minutes before the witching hour on a snowy
night in February, packed in a roomful of humid bodies and battling panic
even as I tugged off my own clothes. I folded them, as if neatness somehow
matters when you’re standing naked on the verge of the unimaginable, and
double-knotted my shoelaces. The roar of my blood matched the roar of the
frenzied crowd awaiting us. Softly, I began my mantra — ohmigod ohmigod
ohmigod — and willed myself to go numb.
From somewhere remote the Olympic theme blared — a nice touch, was my last
hysterical thought — and we all pressed for the doorway. The first blast of
cold air hit me with a rush. All I could do was run.
My plan had been to dash around the courtyard once, then dive back inside
for my clothes. It would be dark. I would run fast. Like fame, I gave it 15
minutes. But within seconds of launching outside I realized my plan was
futile. I had not run 10 steps before I was trapped within a herd of
flesh — 400 runners, crushed together in clumps, a heaving sea of naked
Runners hollered maniacally. Many tipped over with drunkenness. We were like
some horrific sports team rushing the field, made all the more horrific for
our uniforms. Hats and breasts bobbed in sync. Scarves whipped like flags.
Butts and chests were billboards, bearing snow-smudged messages: phone
numbers, “class of ’94,” “Italians do it best.” Drawn in by the Ivy League
spectacle, an army of onlookers jockeyed for a view.
The pack began moving, slowly at first and then rapidly. Through miserable
slush, we skated and stumbled. The snow blinded me, but so did the shock: I
was naked, outside, as if in some ghastly dream. I tried to run faster,
hoping maybe to whip myself into a blur, but the bodies were too thick.
Shouldering for room and gasping for air, I pretended that the icy wind
enveloping my body was actually cotton.
The weather had been fickle in the months leading up to the games. Sleet and
rain triggered several false starts (wayward nudes would see precipitation
and take off knee-jerk across campus) and I’d felt constantly on alert, like
a fireman tensed for the bell. December passed. January faded. For each day
it did not snow, I envisioned another appalling scenario: trampled flat by
the hooves of the women’s crew team or passed naked above the heads of
spectators, like a tray of drinks. When snow finally fluttered down, my
determination surprised me. I ate a light dinner. I selected my wardrobe –
hiking boots, socks and a watch. I shaved my legs. I tried hard not to
think about what it might feel like to run break-neck with breasts
Now hurtling through the slanting snow, elbows thrown wide for balance, I
had little time to ponder anything. Our course was impossibly narrow; my
right hip brushed spectators, while my left side collided with all sorts of
body parts. Cameras clicked so brightly and often that we ran by the light
of their flashes. I had no sensation at all, except in my breasts, which I
thought might rip loose at any moment, and my butt, which danced
enthusiastically behind me, as if to the beat of a Walkman. Hands pressed
into my back, driving me forward.
Having chosen to run sober — a final thread of control I could not give up –
I possessed a mortifying clarity. I recognized people. Worse, I noticed being
noticed. Once, I looked into the crowd and met the shocked gaze of a Greek
freshman who had once told me, allegedly by way of compliment, that I had
“childbearing hips.” Skidding around a corner, I let out a deranged giggle,
and felt it give way to laughter.
We lapped around again and again, a swirl of skin and snow. The pattern
seemed interminable: I pictured myself running naked in circles through
spring, through finals, through the fall. I felt as if I were watching from
a distance. When a fringe group of runners just ahead of me broke off from
the pack, I blindly followed. We had not gone 10 feet when they dropped
into the well-churned slush and started doing pushups.
Standing there, a nude among spectators, I gaped at the rise and fall of
their butts. The last of my inhibitions stripped away, like a final
layer of clothing. I shoved through the crowd and flung myself among the
jocks. Palms and boot tips planted, I lowered myself until my breasts hit
wet ground, and started counting.
Sometime later, I stood on a sidewalk in town, outside a busy restaurant,
still naked. I remembered running across the street only vaguely. Slowly, I
became aware of my surroundings. Cars were honking. Snow fluttered. Turning
toward the restaurant’s bar window, I saw patrons staring.
Self-consciousness hit me like a fist. Thinking back on that night, it is
only the ending that unnerves me: running upstream through a phalanx of
onlookers, arms across my breasts, longing for my neatly folded clothes.
The Nude Olympics were big news on campus for maybe a week and then life
resumed its pace. Spring arrived. Grass sprouted in the courtyard where we
had run our laps. Classes were entering their last stretch. By April I had
already placed it on a hanger in my mind — an article of narrative to be
trotted out when needed as proof of my boldness. My thoughts turned toward
Then one afternoon I returned from class to a message on my answering
machine: a tersely worded request for my presence at the police station. An
hour later I sat in a cramped interrogation room, alone, scanning its
details like a kid taking in her first circus. Then a detective swept
in with a few Princeton yearbooks and a stack of black and white
photographs about 200 deep.
He smiled weakly, and my stomach fluttered. Then he placed his hands on the
stack and slowly, slowly pushed it toward me. My eyes fixed on the first
picture: In it, I am standing in town, in front of the restaurant — the
curves of my back and butt, my hips and my thighs rendered startling white
against blackness. As I flipped through more photos — there’s my face, there’s
a breast — I flipped through emotions, beginning with shock and ending with
disbelief. I had landed in another dream, this one more bizarre than the
first: My naked body was now police evidence.
Drawing cues from TV cop shows, I crossed my arms and leaned back in my
chair, hoping to look menacing, or at least uncooperative. Then the
detective asked me if I recognized myself, and before I thought to hold my
tongue I said, “That’s fairly evident.” He smiled again, a bit more
genuinely, which I rightly took to be a bad sign. Days later, I received a
summons, as did 30 others who had streaked off campus. The charges were
lewdness and disorderly conduct, both criminal offenses that carry jail
Outwardly I showed signs of outrage, but inside I felt curiously
invigorated. The last time I had been in any real trouble was in sixth
grade, when I forged my father’s signature on a spelling test, broke down
and confessed before turning it in. Now I was the subject of a full-scale
police investigation. My one moment of madness had split itself open and
sprouted an even greater folly. I was going to be a magna cum laude with a
record, all for running naked through a snowstorm.
Lured in by irony, the press swarmed — reporters harassed my answering
machine, “Hard Copy” offered big bucks for Nude Olympics videos. I hired a lawyer
who laughed even as he urged me to be serious; the lawyer of some other
runners wrote a poem to the judge, titled “Ode to the Princeton 31.” When it
came out that, unable to find someone to file a complaint against us,
the detective had filed it himself, his campaign quickly devolved into
farce. The judge reduced my charges and slapped on a $200 fine. A dean’s
letter reprimanded me for “offending the sensibilities of townspeople” and
ended with “best wishes for a restful summer break.”
Unfortunately, the notion of being an Ivy League outlaw proved an
irresistible draw for those who followed, with subsequent games ending even
more ignominiously. The following winter, runners were arrested for raiding
a store’s frozen foods section; nearly every year at least one naked
reveler dives out a window; and increasing numbers wind up on gurneys, too
drunk to stand. Panicked by the thought of what next year’s games might
university now plans to ban the Nude Olympics entirely. Last month, in a
haughtily worded eight-page document, the university pronounced that if anyone
tries to run next year, offending nudes will be ambushed by “specially
trained” public safety officers and suspended for a year.
But I am glad that I ran. I am glad that I dared myself to taste
debauchery, and glad that I somehow was served the whole pie. It proved a
brief departure from caution and responsibility and level-headedness — buzzwords that had circled my head all my life. To these I could now add,
“exuberantly nude in the snow.” I had been vilified, but at the same time, set
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)