"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 come into my hotel room with my small bag. I put it down by the bed and look around. The room is dowdy and old, with a nondescript view through the dingy lace of the curtains. The carpet is threadbare; it has an ominous concave area in the middle of it. Very carefully I crouch and lift back the carpet by an edge. I stiffen, involuntarily making a noise. I drop to my knees and peer down.
A hole gapes in the floorboards, giving on to a naked abyss, a chasm that dives away into an unfathomable yawning space in the earth. A dank breeze plays at my hair. With a thudding heart I stare at what I’ve disclosed. Then I reach over and spread the carpet again as it was, and sink back on my haunches, my fists clenched at my thighs as I collect myself. This carpet appears to be the false cover to a trap. One naive step, one careless turn — a person would plunge away into nothingness. I grunt to myself and shake my head with an intimate shiver. I run my hands through my disordered hair, and get to my feet and open the suitcase, to start putting some things in the chipped, flimsy bureau.
Then I go downstairs, to the hotel bar. I order dinner by myself at a small table by the wall. The place is shadowy, dull. There is only one other diner, a woman. I strike up a conversation with her. After dinner I buy her a drink at the dark little bar counter. She’s pleasant enough, if much travelled, and likes to laugh. Her dress and coat are a bit worn.
“Why don’t we go on up to my room,” I suggest, a thought coming to mind as I look her over. “There’s something I want to show you.” The phrasing of the sentence provokes her to blink at me. A smile works her mouth. She bursts into a laugh.
We come into my room and I steer her blandly over to the side of the bed, to sit. I pour a couple of drinks from the bottle I have on the bureau. We salute. “So what is it you want to show me?” she says, with a tart hitch of her lip that’s meant to be intimate and worldly. I look at her. In the lamplight, her features are coarsely etched. But there is an underlying vulnerability that stirs me, oddly, as it did downstairs. I sit beside her, and lean in and we kiss over our drinks. When we part, I take a deep breath. “Ready?” I ask. I can see the gravity of my tone confuses her. I climb down from the bed and edge along on my knees to the carpet. I’m a little drunk, and worked by a peculiar drift of emotion. She gazes down at me, baffled, trying to grin. I do the same. I throw back the carpet. She peers forward, then all at once she gasps.
Her drink splashes. She gives out a pathetic cry and scrambles wildly back along the bed against the wall, huddling away, crying out. Her reaction catches me unprepared. It shames me. I bring the carpet back and waddle over on my knees. I climb up beside her and put my arm around her, as she shudders and twists against the force of what she’s seen. Her lipstick smears on my shirtsleeve. I smell her nondescript perfume and am gnawed by pathos.
She whimpers beside me, deeply wounded, like a terrified child. “Come now, you’ve seen worse,” I murmur, stroking the brittle mass of her hair. “You’ve seen much worse in your time …”
The scout comes running back toward us shouting, his loincloth bobbing, his jostling spear flashing in the sunlight. My native guide hears his news in its breathless torrent of clucks and gibberish. He chews somberly on his bottom lip. “Well?” I demand. We’re about to emerge, I am informed, into a country where precautions have now to be taken. To assuage aroused spirits; to assure them we intend no aggression.
The guide steps past me and sharply issues orders to the bearers. They set down their loads, murmuring. Glancing at each other, they open their mouths gaping wide. They reach in and start removing their teeth. They stow the gleaming items into the pouches among the beads around their necks. I watch in suspicious distaste. The guide returns to my side. “You too, bwana,” he informs me, his mouth shrunken like an old man’s. I hold myself stiffly upright. “I absolutely shall not,” I reply, hearing the starchy ring of my voice. “It’s beneath my dignity, as a civilized man,” I declare. The guide starts to protest. I cut him off with a sharp motion of my hand. “Let’s get moving, shall we?” I tell him. He looks at me. He grunts. He tugs his pouch straight and turns on his bare heel and exhorts the bearers once more to their burdens.
Amid this strange company, I enter a dry flatland of high, sun-scorched grass. Every few hundred yards a twisted plane tree rises up, like a piece of abandoned sculpture. We make camp. The bearers eat mush and giggle away at each other’s countenances. But their eyes are hard and fearful. The guide intrudes on my tent, apologizing, while I’m still laboring over the boiled meat of my dinner. Again he makes his plea; again I dismiss it. “You ought to see yourself in the mirror, granddad,” I joke roughly. He retires, his earring disk waggling as he shakes his head at the consequences.
In the middle of the night, I wake up to a low growling outside my tent. I stab a hand about for my gun, and sit up holding it at my side, pointing uncertainly at the tent wall. A roar goes up that makes my hair stand on end. I tilt back in mesmerized fright, my finger slowly closing on the trigger. Another roar. The gun blast tears a hole into the tent, into the vast night itself. A voice screams. General clamor. The noise of running. The guide bursts into my tent. One of the bearers has been almost carried off by a beast! All because I still insist on my teeth, he cries, shrivel-mouthed against starlight at my tent flap. “Nonsense, nonsense,” I retort, shaken. I fumble with my canvas bag, for the whiskey flask. “Someone must have left food out, the animal smelled it,” I insist. “Get the medicine, fix the man’s wounds,” I go on. I gulp an agitated swallow that spills down my chin.
The next morning we set off with the injured man tottering along on a makeshift crutch, supported by someone’s shoulder. The extra work for the other bearers slows us down. I brood, feeling the sullenness of pursed mouths around me. The sidelong glances. I’m all too aware of the dire consequences of a mutiny, out here in such circumstances. At lunchtime, I decide I have no other choice. I call the guide over. His face lights up in relief. He leads me behind the privacy of a plane tree and shows me how it’s done. I stop him after my uppers are out. “That’s enough. Enough,” I tell him. My speech whistles thick and broad, like a six-year-old’s after a playground mishap. The guide counters in alarm that everything must be removed, for the proper observance of diplomacy. “No, no, this is fine, as a symbolic gesture of supplication,” I exclaim. “Believe me,” I assure him, “I understand about all this animistic hocus-pocus. Believe me.” I order him back to his charges.
But it’s vanity that’s playing my hand in this. And a stubborn pride of culture that’s feeling offended.
“You know, I do this for your sake,” I inform the guide, as I rejoin our party. I sniff pointedly. “I myself trust in this, and this,” I declare, tapping my head under my bush hat, and then my gun in its holster. “Now tell them all to stop grumbling like that,” I order. “And let’s get back on the trail.”
During the night there’s another attack. At light of day my tent is riddled with bullet holes, scorched with gunsmoke. I realize the intolerable: I will have to fully submit. My cheeks throb scarlet when the guide is done assisting me. I lift my trembling chin as high as it will go. “Kindly remove the shaving mirror from my tent,” I announce, my gums clanging strangely, “and have it hidden from my sight. And do not break it, thank you,” I add.
We resume. Through the long stunned hours of heat and plodding silence, I seem to make out one tiny sound: the high distinct clinking of our pouches. The night passes, tense but undisturbed. The following one too. The guide can’t restrain a small crumpled smile of triumph as he sees me at my plate of mush. I ignore him.
On the last of these days, to my mortification, we encounter a party headed the other way. My bush-jacketed equal greets me with firm-mouthed cheerful courtesy, with barely a hitch in his manner at my condition. But the briefest narrowing of his pale eyes gives away his private thoughts: that one of his kind has degraded himself, has soiled his cultural authority by submitting to the grotesqueries of savages. I stare off into the grass, mumbling commonplaces through the screen of my hand. I ask the loan of some medicines for our injured. These are supplied with patronizing generosity. We salute good-bye. “You’ll learn, sonny boy,” I mutter clacking, watching the upright proud pale back moving off. “I will be clear of here tomorrow morning, and reassembled,” I go on. “You, in your foolish, starched pride, have terrors and horrors awaiting you.”
I turn, and my guide falls in beside me. “He, in his foolish arrogant pride, has terrors and horrors awaiting him,” he declares. I glance at him sharply. I shrug. I stare ahead. “Whether or not that is so, that is no business of yours,” I inform him, to reclaim the order of things. And the next day, mercifully, we leave the angry grasslands; we open up our pouches, and after some fumbling, all goes back to proper order. Except for the guide’s lingering trace of a smile, which, of course, I ignore.
The day dawns cloudy, drizzly. I hire a sampan. We start off for the lesser of the two islands in the famous lake out beyond the waterways of the city. I wear a trench coat, with the collar turned up, and a fedora. The outfit suits my mission, I reflect, indulging in one more piece of romantic fancy, to go along with the rest. The sampan man works his oar in his dingy cloak. I think again of the girl, last night in the rattan shadows of the bar … her opal eyes, lacquered floral smile … the silk of her bare throat above the scarlet sheath of her silk dress … the blaze of a chrysanthemum in the jet gloss of her hair. A full week of such allure has brought me to this — a surreptitious mission of vague but apparently urgent local import. Of course I said yes, after the briefest twinge of alarm. I have a tourist’s naive arrogance, his heedless taste for intrigue and adventure. I’m a would-be lover who scents a display of bravado will clinch the deal.
We draw up under droopy willows, to a small stone landing. I make sign language for the sampan man to wait in the shadows. Beyond, at the top of worn-away stone stairs, rises the fog-shrouded old pagoda. I mount carefully. The stone is vertiginously slick with moss and damp. I pass florid growths of dripping chrysanthemums. I reach the pagoda terrace, breathing somewhat noisily. The old shrine is silent, famously deserted for years. Mold has invaded its lacquered shingles, rotted away chunks of the scalloped beam work and eaves rafters overhead. I walk to the corner on the right, and turn. More empty terrace, fog. I take a breath and cough twice, emphatically, which is the signal. There’s silence. I look around uncertainly behind me, lifting a quizzical eyebrow. When I turn back, I give a start.
A figure looks up at me: short and slight, shorn headed. He wears the lavender cloak of a monk. He regards me gravely through thick, primitive spectacles. He opens his mouth. He coughs, once. I respond softly but emphatically: “God bless you.” There’s a pause. He reaches into his cloak, spectacles fixed on me all the while. Suddenly it strikes me what a labor it must be for him to keep his glasses clear in this sort of weather, and I have to fight the urge to giggle. I take the paper packet from him, its closed flap graceful with colored traceries. God knows what’s inside. I push the object of my mission into the inside pocket of my trench coat. The monk blinks at me. He turns. He slips away into the fog around the corner.
I stand for a moment, gazing amused after him. Then I remember I’m to leave at once. Heart thumping a bit, I creep back along the terrace, making a little joke of it, rising on tiptoe. I start down the first precipitous steps.
An odd scream erupts somewhere behind me.
I freeze. I twist about. There’s no more sound, no more explanation but fog and silence. I look back past the collar of my trench coat down the stairs. The sampan is out of sight still, under the willows. Heart pounding, I take another step down toward it. I stop. I look around behind me. On a reckless impulse, I creep back up to the terrace. “Hello?” I call hesitantly. I edge along hearing the damp dripping from the beams, the pulse in my ears. I reach the corner, and peer around. Only fog. I take a step and then a voice jolts me from behind.
I turn, arms in the air. The sampan man stares up at me. He has a small black gun in his grip. He thrusts his free hand toward me, palm up. There is glossy blood on the sleeve above it. I swallow. I purse my lips, but I have no choice. I reach into my trench coat and haughtily bring out the ornamented packet. He snatches it from me and glances at it, hard eyed. He steps back. He waves the gun to signal me inside.
The interior of the pagoda still smells of sandalwood, but only faintly. The tang of mildew and mold fills my nostrils. After ten minutes I sit on the floor, against the scrollwork of a ceremonial teak cabinet. My hands are tied behind me, partly by myself in fact, at the dumb-show coaching of the sampan man. The thought ludicrously occurs to me that my trench coat, fresh from the usury of the hotel dry cleaners, will have to go right back there again thanks to the state of the planked floor. Amused, I feel my tourist’s sangfroid getting back into the swing of things. I snort to myself, wryly deriding where intertwining enthusiasms have led me.
There’s a coded tap on the door. The sampan man stiffens. He raises his gun, and after an exchange of whispers with the outside, he opens up. The girl steps in. She is clad in a day version of her silk sheath, with a scarf stamped with chrysanthemums in place of the blossom itself. She glances over. She walks slowly across the hollow-ringing planks, and stands gazing down at me. She smiles, floral mouthed. “You don’t seem very surprised,” she says.
I smile back under the brim of my fedora. A pang of desire and admiration glamorizes the whole scene, inspires me. “Well, I’ve had time to think a few things over,” I reply suavely. “Sitting here nice and easy like this.” The girl lifts back her scarfed head and laughs. She nods, in salute to my coolness. “You’ve been most gallant … and useful,” she says. She considers me. She looks over her slender shoulder and snaps a remark at the sampan man. He answers. She seems satisfied. I cross my outstretched legs. “I just don’t quite understand …” I drawl, an amateur with a feel for the big game. “Why the need for me? Why a go-between for that package from that poor monk? Who’s dead now, I take it?” “We didn’t need you,” the girl replies evenly, ignoring my last question. Scorn plays lightly in her opal eyes. “We needed your room,” she says.
I blink. She laughs. “To plant a little bomb,” she says. “Oh, just big enough to blow out a few windows, just enough of a disturbance for the fools in charge of the city to rush over, thinking the target of our sabotage is there.” I swallow. “Whereas the real bomb goes off somewhere else,” I murmur, reverberating. She nods, with a sardonic hitch of red lips. “You see, all that fanciful reading you like to go on about in bars hasn’t been for naught,” she declares. “No doubt,” I mutter, a trace of bitterness intruding on my manner, “you’ve planted just enough evidence to implicate me, as a provocateur. Which means the guillotine, according to the newspapers.” She smiles, and dips her scarfed head and its array of blossoms.
She glances back at the sampan man. “Now we really must be going,” she says. “Of course we have to make sure you don’t run off and raise an alarm. “Of course,” I echo. I grin, wanly. I take a breath, which turns deeper and more tremulous than I intended. She brings a small red paper purse from behind her waist. The sight of it unnerves me. “Is this — necessary?” I hear myself blurt, as a needle glints in her hand, with a spool of silk. She titters, sounding just a moment like the cocktail dream in the bar last night. She leans in, fragrantly, so I draw away. “Now, now,” she says. “Too bad you’ve never had your ears pierced. Please don’t struggle, you’ll just make things more painful and difficult.” The sampan man has come up and stands behind her, stonily watching. I gnash a curse as the needle goes in. My heels gouge at the floor planks.
Fifteen minutes pass. My fedora lies upended by my leg. Fine lines of silk run from my earlobes to books in either side of the cabinet behind me. Drops of blood ruin the shoulders of my trench coat. I grit my teeth against the stinging pain, the humiliation of being trussed like a dog in cobwebs. I force a stiff-necked, feeble but defiant wink, as the girl appraises her silken handiwork, back upright. “Delicate, but insidiously effective,” she announces, her head angled in the pose of a connoisseur. “Like so much of our culture, don’t you think? Now truly we must go,” she says. “But how can I leave, without a parting gift … to the promise of our intimacy?” She lifts her plucked brows, mocking. She extends a lacquer-tipped finger. She traces it along my cheek. I growl. She stoops.
The fingertip wanders down my trench coat, until it reaches my trousers. My eyes widen. I feel my fly being unbuttoned. I gasp. The girl kneels in her glossy sheath, and starts to lower her floral mouth, smiling opal eyes pinned on me. I gulp back at her. The sampan man clatters up. He cries out, scandalized. His sweeping arm indicates our context. The girl flaps him away. She snarls at him over her shoulder. I see him retreat, and then step outside, noisily flinging the door shut. The girl turns back to me. Her opal eyes are narrowed, smirking, flagrant. “Jesus — what are you –” I sputter. The silk stings my ears as I contort and I squirm, all vestige of the debonair fled. My heels scrape at the floor planks.
It’s the wounds I can show in my earlobes, sullenly, that save my tourist neck some time afterward.
I come back to my room at the hotel after supper. Someone has broken in. My suitcase has been forced open. All my maps have been switched with other, useless ones.
I go downstairs at once and ring for the night manager. “I shall go and notify the authorities immediately,” he says. He turns briskly from the counter and walks straight into a wall. “Damn it,” he exclaims, rubbing his nose. “They must have broken in here too when I was in back. They’ve moved the wall. But don’t you worry,” he declares. He waves a reassuring, admonitory finger. “They won’t get away with it!” “I’m over here,” I mutter. “What’s that?” he asks, looking about. “There you are,” he says. He feels his way along the counter toward the alcove which contains the phone.
I thrust my hands in my pockets and wander back upstairs, hearing the laborious conversation behind me. “Police? No, no, I’m not the police, you’re the police! PO-LICE, I say. What? Speak up, I can’t hear you! I say I can’t –” I reach my room finally and close the door on all this uselessness. I sit, mulling over the futile bounty of deliberately wrong charts and topographical renderings pitched around me on the floor. I take one up and try to distract my anxiety with speculations:
Suppose I was indeed bound for this city so elaborately recorded in my hand. Which road would I take? This one, by a river? Or this, along the rim of a mountainside? Where would I stay: here, in this wayside? Or there, in that curiously named village. How would the names of these places pair with the actual look, the experience, the memory of them? What would spring to mind, years on, when such and such a name repeated itself to me? I idle, imagining … Luckily, I try to reassure myself, I marked things on the real maps in haphazard code. But then one can’t be certain — doesn’t know whom one’s dealing with in break-ins like this. My ease is now once more spoiled, and I toss the replacement map away and stretch out on the bed, brooding somberly.
Someone comes tapping along the corridor outside. Finally there’s a knock on my door. It’s the idiot of a night manager. The police will be here shortly, he thinks. He laughs awkwardly. “I’m sorry,” he exclaims, “but I can’t recall exactly why it was they should be called. Would you mind refreshing my memory!” I look at him. I start to answer, but then I think the better of it. “I have to say I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I tell him. “And if I did, it’s slipped my mind. Now I’m very sorry myself, but I’m turning in now,” I announce. “I must be off early to resume my journey.” I shut the door on his perplexity, and my lies. I’ll be off at dawn, that much is true. But it will now be an odd, sham journey, as I have only patently false versions of where I go.
Barry Yourgrau is the author of "A Man Jumps Out of an Airplane," "Wearing Dad's Head," "The Sadness of Sex" and most recently "Haunted Traveller," released in May.More Barry Yourgrau.
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)