"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)
Topics: Life News
I sing a song of teenage boys! I defend them (no one else will) — these giant, awkward creatures with their smelly feet, faint beards and inconvenient erections. Teenage boys, mostly too big or too small and sometimes so damned perfect they bring tears to the eyes of watching, wistful adults, who are afraid to say out loud how beautiful, how desirable, how strange these creatures are. Teenage boys: graceful, gauche, wafting musk through the room, vigorous, lit from inside by a barely restrained power, an untouched and misunderstood virility — most of them so scared of their own shadows and what the world holds in store that they can’t leave the house unless they’re wearing clothes big enough to hide in.
Teenage boys come to my door, knock, politely call me “Ma’am.” They try to sell me magazine subscriptions so they can win valuable prizes and college scholarships, shucking and looking at their feet. They want work, lawn-mowing and weed-pulling. They want friends — not me. I visit my own friends and talk to their teenage sons, who must be courteous to me, and I grill them about new movies and changing mores and how they feel about the president’s personal life. Young men unfold their long limbs and climb out of their roughly idling old cars patched with rust and lift the seat forward
so my just-grown sons can say their hearty hail-fellows and leap up the steps, two at a time.
Teenage boys with pimples and careful haircuts sell me slices of pizza, reams of paper, cups of tea, light bulbs, a line of goods. The whole world, and certainly the coffee bar counter, feels too big and looks too small for them. They crowd doorways and sidewalks and school desks. Even football fields shrink when a half-dozen teenage boys are running across them, shouting.
I have a girl just entering her own teenage years. “Cute” has always
been a word she reserved for puppies and newborns. Suddenly, it’s popping out all over — alternating with complaints. She was supposed to write a story last week about a “pest” in her life.
“How about the boys at school?” I asked. “They pester you.”
“Boys aren’t pests,” she said. “They’re enemies.”
A few days ago, I was at the mall with said teenage girl, who needed
an invisible haircut right away. She never used to need these things. I left her in the $10 walk-in salon to wait her turn and ran up to the ATM on the third floor, the one near the food court and the fly-by-night jewelry booths. This is something like the watering hole for the herds of teenagers who prowl these stores; they mill around in groups, alert, dipping their heads now and then while they watch for predators, and prey.
There was a big crowd around the Piercing Pagoda, which was selling a lot of gold chains on discount — even then, at $119, $139 each, far more than I can afford for jewelry. A dozen young men lined the glass cases in hunger. All wore low-slung fat pants and roomy shirts, all had their left ears pierced with gold hoops. Several wore red or black scarves tightly wound around their heads, and when they moved, they moved with a sullen, bouncy step, arms flung wide. They were a mob designed to clear a path through any mall, to throw the other shoppers into a faint. Steer clear, these big clothes and bobbing heads cried. Pay attention, shouted the giant athletic shoes and gold rings. (“Wish fulfillment,” one teenage friend of mine called those clothes — wishes of getting bigger someday, filling out.)
And people steered clear, making wide arcs around the Piercing
Pagoda. An armed security guard leaned on the rail nearby. The boys were perfectly well-behaved, waiting their turn, not even raising their voices to get the salesclerk’s attention. But that wasn’t the point. They had that look, expensive and carefully cultivated, that prowling, dangerous look.
We treat this kind of teenage boy with kid gloves and confused anger, reacting without thought — crossing streets, ducking nervously into our cars. We can’t decide if teenage boys are our children, our peers, our hope or just a menace. They are, of course, all these things: strong but often stupid, naive and powerful, evolved for hard labor and reproduction and defense of the cave in times of siege. Here they live in a world of boring jobs and shopping malls. Something has to give — them or us. They are victims, and killers, but teenage boys are victims and killers mainly of each other.
Even in fat pants and black scarves, they look like babies to me still. I gave birth to one more than 20 years ago, when I was only 20 myself and didn’t like men much and hoped desperately I was giving birth to a girl. “It’s a boy!” someone said in that dim, dreamy, everlasting moment when he came free of me for the first time, and I thought: I knew it. A day later, he and I dozed together on the same bed where I’d given birth and he became Baby. It was an immense discovery for me to find I didn’t care that he was also Boy. Later I discovered that Boy was something wonderful, too.
For years he had to wear studded black leather and Doc Martens to compensate for virginity and confusion. His brother chose the fat pants, a bad dye job, the slouching, insouciant walk to compensate for being short and bewildered. I lived so long with Gothic and Gangland that it’s hard for me to remember that a lot of teenage boys are babies — but big scary ones, with teeth. We keep some of our babies in jail, some for the rest of their lives. We have babies with guns, worried about pimples — babies wondering how to buy the next gold chain.
I wondered vaguely where their money comes from.
I went back to the walk-in salon. It was late afternoon, and one, two, three teenage boys wandered in, signed up on the waiting list and tried to cool their heels. Teenage boys do a fair amount of hanging around, but they aren’t very good at cooling their heels. The tallest of the trio wandered around for a few minutes, picking up big black cylinders full of magically expensive shampoo, and then slumped down in one of the revolving salon chairs. A few minutes later he was unceremoniously chased out by a hairdresser and went back to his shelf wandering — picking up, putting down, glancing around, picking up again. The other two crouched, overly large, on
two of the small, fragile-looking chairs near the magazines.
I sat on the floor behind them, reading Newsweek. They picked up Mademoiselle and Vogue, chortling to each other.
“There’s no Cosmo,” said one. “Cosmo has breasts.”
“No, it doesn’t,” said the other, quite firm.
“Yes, it does,” said the first one. “I’ve seen them.”
He looked over his shoulder at me, below him — 41 years old, in a sweater and faded jeans. “I bet you read Cosmo,” he said. I demurred. I don’t.
“But you’ve seen it, right? It’s got breasts, doesn’t it?”
And I told him yes, it does, wondering whether he was just showing off for his friend or wanted to see if he could startle me. I am often surprised to discover that teenage boys consider me old. Old enough to be their mother, old enough to be worth shocking, old enough to ignore without a thought. I am also occasionally surprised at the intense heat of my own sexual desire: Without warning my entire middle-aged body seems to recognize the mandate of the human race. Something in me still thinks it should couple with the most powerful, healthy, young and fertile animal around. Conversation isn’t on the agenda. Only pheromones, hormones, genetics and now. Younger than my sons, I remind myself, but the body knows that’s exactly the point.
The boy in the salon accepted my information, a bit smug, and went back to Vogue.
I have been shocked by boys — shocked each time by the suddenness with which childhood ended and teenage began in their young childish bodies. Shocked twice again at how persistent childhood proved to be in their minds. The outward turning of childhood became the dishevelment and annoyance of puberty overnight; their bedrooms filled with a miasmic funk, odor streaming from every pore, from feet, skin, hair, like swamps in spring. They sweated continuously into T-shirts and socks and sheets and the bath towels they conveniently left crumpled on the sopping bathroom floor. Shoes were too small, bicycles too small, dinner portions too small, backpacks too small, dreams too small — and the world too big. Scary.
Cuteness disappears; the big drawback of cuteness is that kittens turn into cats and puppies into dogs — and babies into boys, into teenagers, into men. The one, short and cocky, still dresses in fat pants, giant shirts and the big athletic shoes he somehow believes make him look fast and tough as he stumbles down the steps. The other is tall and lean, with sculpted biceps he likes to show me. He’s a Teamster, a conspiracy theorist, still afraid to take his driving test, truly in love — timid one moment, then suddenly on fire. They are works in progress, old enough to vote, to drink,
to buy guns. I make a joke out of it, because it’s so hard to believe. Just so they don’t do all three at the same time, I say, crossing my fingers that they do one and not the rest — because my opinions are no longer relevant. I am a small, steady, dependable and clearly ordinary spot in their vast world.
I am the mother of men and still getting used to it.
Teenage boys, their lives, are different here in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Here, they sell lattes and deliver newspapers and save up for invisible haircuts before the weekend. Here they play soccer and football, dodge drugs and crime with more and less success, blow off their history homework and loiter in the park, smoking. Here, they usually grow up.
Elsewhere, that peculiar combination of power and naiveti is their undoing, their raison d’être. They have a traditional role in the human tribe — genetic material and sacrificial lamb. In other countries and throughout time, teenage boys are acolytes and castrati, slaves and soldiers. They carry automatic weapons instead of backpacks; dig all day in the fields and underground for diamonds and coal; they kill large animals and get killed in turn; they are sent out alone into the forest and the desert to survive and find a name and learn their purpose in life. They get married and have
children. They don’t go to school. Many don’t grow up. A lot of them spend their youth making soccer balls and athletic shoes and giant pants for luckier teenage boys in other places. They make trinkets, computer chips, sunglasses, wastebaskets, dolls, rugs and plastic dishes.
The boys I watch in the mall, the ones who ask me with seeming innocence about breasts and magazines, the ones who sell me a slice of pizza, dreaming about Saturday night, these boys are the world’s soldiers, its rapists, its raw meat, its Brown Shirts and cannon fodder. Elsewhere (and sometimes here, when no one offers anything else) they learn that pain builds character, war is manly, armies are family, glory is more important than love.
I am the mother of men, venturing forth, blossoming, doomed as are we all. So I sing for teenage boys; I think we all should sing. Sing for Huck Finn, for Pinocchio, for Peter Pan and the Lost Boys; sing along: “I won’t grow up.” Sing about the Greek athletes running endlessly on the broken urns, made beautiful by capricious gods. Sing about the eternity of youth, which doesn’t last forever.
Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is "Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom" (Harper San Francisco, 2006). She contributes to magazines such as Harper's, Tricycle, and Antioch Review.More Sallie Tisdale.
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)