"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)
Jennifer Wistock has made the trip to Skywalker Ranch — the Mecca of everything “Star Wars” — more times than she can count. She recalled the first pilgrimage to the site in Marin County, Calif., with her then-husband, Michael, and the kids: “Michael got teary-eyed just trying to get there.”
Upon their arrival, Michael, in a state of euphoria, took a photo of the ranch’s front gate. Then, like an astronaut collecting precious moon rocks, he picked up a few stones from the driveway. “He even placed his business card in George Lucas’ mailbox,” Jennifer said. “Maybe he hoped that George would call and say, ‘Hey, Michael, we saw you on the security camera and you look like a cool guy. Why don’t you come up for some ribs and brewskies?’”
In the afterglow of an amorous evening, Heidi Kobara, 27, first noticed that her then-boyfriend, Drew Campbell, might be taking his love of “Star Wars” just a bit too seriously. “I was naked, and he began to chase me around the apartment with a Tie Fighter replica I had given him for his birthday,” she said. “It was funny, but at the same time, I was thinking, What the hell am I doing?”
Jennifer and Heidi aren’t the only women to suffer the indignities of a mate’s “Star Wars” obsession. From big cities to farm towns, loving relationships have exploded like the Death Star due to one partner’s fanatical devotion to the “Star Wars” trilogy. Since the release of the first “Star Wars” movie more than 20 years ago, Han Solo’s cocky bravery and Luke Skywalker’s quest against evil have inspired boys to raid toy stores for the latest figurines, swap “Star Wars” trivia and camp out in ticket lines. Sixteen years after the release of the third “Star Wars” film, “Return of the Jedi,” men who grew up on the films find themselves engulfed in the same fanatic passion. Their girlfriends and wives have had a mild reprieve, but that ends Wednesday as “The Phantom Menace” opens in movie theaters across America.
Meet the “Star Wars” Widows — women whose marriages and relationships have crumbled under the weight of the Force. As the extent of their obsession emerges, the men these women have adored become as lovable as Darth Vader. Women find themselves cast aside like rusted droids. When a man goes completely over to the dark side, these couples end up in a galaxy far, far away: divorce court.
In varying degrees, everyone loves “Star Wars,” including the SWW. It’s a definitive part of our cultural landscape. But it’s the degree of devotion that separates the person who has seen the films a few times from the guy who’s a prime candidate for “Star Wars” Anonymous. Take, for instance, the guys who traveled to Tunisia just to see props from old sets, or camped outside theaters for the past month or work at Toys R Us just for the discount on “Star Wars” toys.
Every man I interviewed for this piece insisted, “I’m not weird.” That said, most have seen the films so many times that they’re beyond memorizing the plot and dialogue. These men even know the background noises.
“Star Wars” fanatics usually seem like the guys next door. Despite their unusual attachment to Luke and Princess Leia, they consider themselves more socially acceptable than, say, “Star Trek” fans. “We shower. We have good careers. Many of us are in shape and attractive to the opposite sex,” says Campbell, 26. “Most of us do not snort when we laugh or tape our broken glasses together.”
Yet Campbell, a computer technician and author of a book about “Star Wars” droids, admits being appalled that one of his ex-girlfriends has never seen the “Star Wars” films. In Campbell’s eyes, this was an abomination before George Lucas. After he guilt-tripped her into watching them with him, she said they were just “OK.” His current girlfriend is more bemused. Upon hearing how much money he recently spent on toys, she replied, “Cool.”
“I think I’ll marry this one,” Campbell says in jest. Would Campbell ever date a woman who had no interest whatsoever in “Star Wars”? After a lengthy, measured pause, he said, “It would depend on if she could deal with my addiction.” This is a man whose love runs deep. His first vivid memory is of seeing “Star Wars” at age 4. By the time he was 16, Campbell calculated that he had spent the equivalent of three months of his life in theaters watching “Star Wars.”
The madness leading up to the premiere has already put a strain on Michelle McBride’s relationship with her boyfriend of 10 years, Matt Jones, a 27-year-old pharmaceutical sales representative.
Back in November, she accompanied her boyfriend on a 70-mile trip from
their hometown in Michigan City, Ind., to a Chicago suburb to view a
two-minute trailer for the “The Phantom Menace.”
At a recent midnight outing to Toys R Us, Jones prepped her on the fine art of the “Star Wars” toy run. “He told me to just grab one of everything, but to be sure to look for the different markings on the droids. It was crazy. I’m only 5 feet tall and there were all these grown men pushing and shoving. I almost got crushed.”
After he returned from the official “Star Wars” convention in Denver, McBride issued an edict: “We have to have one hour a day where we don’t talk about “Star Wars.”
The insanity of the past few weeks aside, McBride explains why she puts up with it all. “We’ve been together so long and know each other so well, our relationship definitely goes a lot deeper than this ‘Star Wars’ craze.”
Every SWW interviewed said their exes are great guys. It’s just that their love of “Star Wars” is intense. Jones’ middle-of-the-night toy runs are indicative of “Star Wars” fanaticism. Others may spend reckless amounts of money on toys. Like closet drinkers, they buy figurines on the sly to hide their spending from their wives. “Michael used to sneak around purchasing toys,” says Jennifer Wistock, 27. “I’d ask him if he had been to Toys R Us and he’d deny it.”
Whether a man paints his chest green and wears a cheese-head hat at a Green Bay Packers game or plays with a light sabre, the underlying issue is passion, says Rick Brown, executive director of the Institute for Imago Relationship Therapy. “If passion is not happening between the couple, it’s going to happen somewhere else, whether that be work, golf, another person or ‘Star Wars,’” Brown says. “The question one must ask is, Am I watching ‘Star Wars’ or playing golf because I really enjoy that? But if I weren’t, would I enjoy being with my partner just as much?”
While the female fan base continues to grow, “Star Wars” is still pretty much a guy thing. So why does “Star Wars” continue to have such a strong hold over males into their adulthood? There are as many theories as there are interpretations of the films.
One such theory has it that “Star Wars” made its debut in the late ’70s when the American divorce rate was skyrocketing. Many of the films’ hardcore fans are children of divorce. A character such as Obi-Wan Kenobi filled the father-figure void, while Luke Skywalker is presented as a child of a broken home.
Alex Newborn, 29, was 7 when he first saw “Star Wars.” His parents were divorcing around the same time. Newborn recalls how the breakup of their marriage left him confused and troubled. “You question everything.” He didn’t know which parent was right or wrong. “In ‘Star Wars,’ good and bad were clearly defined”; it was “a sort of escape,” he said.
Newborn, who lives in Alabama, said he warned his now ex-wife about his interest in “Star Wars,” but she just didn’t get it. “She thought ‘Star Wars’ was something I might outgrow once she put a ring on my finger,” he said. “She didn’t accept me as I truly was.”
Michael Wistock, 30, was less than 1 year old when his parents divorced. “Watching those movies filled a great void,” he said. “The lessons were basic and simple. About doing what’s right and wrong. It gave me a very positive self-image.”
As a “chunky” kid, Chad Finke, 27, found the films empowering. “They were PC before there was PC,” said the San Francisco attorney. Here was this cool guy, Han Solo, and his best friend was Chewbacca. It made you think that no matter what kind of misfit you were, you could fit in.”
For some guys, the biggest draw is Harrison Ford’s character, Han Solo. “There’s not a ‘Star Wars’ fan who does not want to be Han Solo,” explains Campbell. “He’s the dashing rogue. He gets to fly the cool ship and kiss the princess. He’s not bound by any rules but his own.”
In short, Han Solo is 100 percent man, one who embodies qualities that Campbell says many men feel they have lost as women have made gains toward equality. Campbell says most men fully support these gains, but they’re left feeling anxious. “Guys are so worried today that if they compliment a girl at work on her dress that they’re going to be sued for sexual harassment.”
Finke had the Rebel Alliance insignia tattooed on his stomach and played the “Victory March” after he and his now ex-wife (not a “Star Wars”-related divorce, he insists) exchanged vows. Even he is savvy enough to ease women into his “hobby.” “It’s not something I just bust out on the first date,” he says.
As for Jennifer Wistock, she knew going into the marriage that her husband, Michael, was crazy about “Star Wars.” But she was overwhelmed by the true extent of his fascination after they were married. Michael’s mother was apparently all too happy to unload her son’s vast “Star Wars” collection. When the boxes began to arrive, it seemed they would never stop.
“There was too much to comprehend. You couldn’t even count it. He had cereal boxes, toothbrushes, erasers and thousands of figurines,” she said. While she supported her husband’s passion for “Star Wars” — she agreed to let him name their son Harrison and their dog Indiana — there was a dark side to their 10-year marriage.
The excessive spending on the toys, the road trips to conventions and screenings and coming home to a houseful of men glued to the VCR was too much for Wistock. “I grew to hate it,” she said. “We never did anything together anymore. He always had a ‘Star Wars’ excuse for everything.”
When his fandom consumed them financially, Jennifer hit the breaking point. She estimates her husband spent close to $100,000 during their marriage on trips to conventions, merchandise, videos, T-shirts and materials for his “Star Wars” business, Collector’s Empire.
At the time, Michael says he couldn’t see the impact his “Star Wars” obsession was having on his marriage. He concedes that 1992 to 1995 “were my bad years.” If his wife confronted him, he would get defensive. “It was like an assault on my beliefs … She was convinced that I loved George Lucas more than her, which was not the case. I still love her very much.”
These days Wistock says he’s a changed man. “When I reflected on the reason why our relationship fell apart, it really put things into perspective … All she really wanted was more of my time.”
The Wistocks’ amicable divorce became final a few months ago and Jennifer has relocated to Virginia. While none of the other women interviewed blame their breakups solely on “Star Wars,” Jennifer attributes 75 percent of the divorce to her husband’s obsession with “Star Wars.” The settlement even states that Michael will keep his “Star Wars” collection. But the pain of divorce has put a new sense of perspective on his life. “I have found a balance in my life,” Wistock says. “Yes, I’m planning on seeing the film five times on Wednesday, but I’ll probably be a little tired after the second time.”
Cynthia Durcanin is the former editor of Elle.com in Paris. She now lives in San Francisco.More Cynthia Durcanin.
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)