"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)
While Alcoholics Anonymous and its 12-step offspring still dominate the addiction field,
there is a growing clamor for more alternatives. We may well be seeing an
addictive-treatment Reformation, and if you’ll join me inside that metaphor
for a moment, ask yourself how long it’s been since you could say, “I’d
like to worship Christ, please. What’s the routine?” Sit yourself down,
Jack. It ain’t that simple anymore.
It was simple for me, to my everlasting relief. I quit drinking almost 15
years ago. No 12 steps; I took one, right off a cliff, and found I could fly.
It was the final chapter in a drinking history that began in Grade 8
when my friend Bodo and I sat in my parents’ basement during Christmas
break, chugging from a $1.05 bottle of Calona Double Jack. (It went equally
well with meat or fish.) One moment I was sitting on the floor guzzling,
the next I had somehow ended up flat on my back, knocking over a set of
chess pieces, laughing like a hyena. A pivotal moment, like a future pope
trying on his first toque, or Curly getting his first finger-in-the-eye
What followed over the next 11 years was, at times, a lot of fun — for me, if
not for my parents. (We’re only young and thoughtless once.) I traced that
familiar curve from party animal admired for his tremendous capacity, to
party animal inspiring a growing level of concern among friends, to guy
drinking himself out of a job or two, to guy living alone in a strange city
and hauling home 42 beers in a backpack, enough for two solitary trips to
That lonely drinking phase is not what you could call fun, but it is oddly
comforting, in a way that probably only a lush can recognize. Other people
may be confused about their lives and their goals, but not you. You, the
addict, have a clear plan, and the very straightforward means to put it
Every drunk has stories. Actor John Larroquette tells of emerging from a
blackout to find he was on an airplane, and trying to figure out through
casual small talk just where it was he was going. I’m not really the best
source for some of my own ugly tales; you’d have to ask a participant whose
personal think tank was not flooded at the time.
One little story, while not the worst by any means, stands out for its neat
combination of so many of dipsomania’s drawbacks: danger to self and
others, pain and anxiety for loved ones, loss of dignity, amazing lack of judgment and elementary common sense. It involved a bicycle ride home from an all-night party. I remember only little snapshots from it, but they are enough to confirm that I made the entire cross-town trip while looking straight down at the ground. Stop signs ambled by the corner of my eye as I trundled on blindly, spared from death or injury by dumb luck and the fact that I lived in a city small enough for the streets to be deserted very early on a Sunday morning.
A witness supplied the end of the story; I wasn’t really there. The sun was
already up and kids were playing on the street when my mother saw me pedal into the driveway and stop. Not stop and dismount, but simply stop
pedaling, pausing upright for a wondrous moment before toppling over, bike
and all, like a tipped cow. With a crowd of kids pointing and laughing, Mom
had to walk out to the driveway and drag me into the house. She noted that,
in fitting punctuation to a perfect experience of pain for her and
humiliation for me, I had pissed myself.
I still had many miles to ride before I would decide to look up and start
watching the road. But when I did quit, at the age of 24, it was on my own.
It’s been a lovely decade and a half, minus a few dentist appointments and
a Vanilla Ice weekend on MTV. There’s just one problem. AA’s philosophy
suggests that I am living a lie.
I went to my first and, until recently, last AA meeting a week after taking
my final inebriated swallow. It was a thoroughly depressing experience.
Speaker after speaker pounded home the idea that I, the hopeless drunkard,
was weak. I needed to take step one: Admit I was powerless over alcohol.
Then steps two and three: Believe that a Higher Power could help me, and
decide to turn my will and my life over to God, as I understood Him. I
don’t, of course. Never have.
My own experience notwithstanding, Alcoholics Anonymous is still the best-established, most often copied and arguably most successful alcohol-addiction treatment program ever created. Founded in the 1930s by William
Wilson, a.k.a. Bill W., AA is a nonprofit, nonprofessional group that
seeks to unite problem drinkers in support groups based on mutual
acceptance of the 12 steps that, AA believes, can lead to recovery from
addiction. In addition to inspiring the creation of many other unrelated 12-step organizations such as Gamblers, Smokers, Overeaters, Sexaholics and
Twizzlers Anonymous (I’m starting that last one myself), AA has become an
integral part of government- and industry-sponsored recovery programs.
For some, the biggest stumbling block to AA membership is the spiritual
aspect, the insistence that recovery depends upon surrender to a Higher
Power. AA members recognize this, and usually soft-pedal the spiritual
side. But as anyone who reads the Alcoholics Anonymous text (referred to as
the “Big Book”) can see, there’s no getting around it. In fact, in a 1996
case, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that a prison inmate was not
required to participate in mandatory 12-step meetings, as this violated his
right to religious freedom.
On a clear, cold January night, I visited an AA meeting for the first time
in 15 years. Attendance at the central Vancouver Lutheran church basement
was about 30. Some speakers were shaky, afraid — others witty, well-spoken, calm. Strikingly pretty, Germaine stood at the podium and shook her head. “Fuck! Some of the things I go through,” she laughed. One of those things is a separation. “I know one person in the relationship. He knows two.”
One woman said that she was grateful that week simply for the feeling of
being sick; that is, sick in an ordinary way, instead of the sickness she
used to feel after drinking, with all the attendant guilt and self-hatred.
It struck a chord. There’s no telling what you’ll end up feeling grateful
for after you sober up.
My luckiest break may have been losing control of my bladder. After
drinking myself senseless, I would often wake up soaked in my own urine. It wasn’t pleasant. My penchant was to view myself as a complex,
self-destructive philosopher/romantic. The romantic part was hard to
maintain when I was busy wetting myself like an untrained mongrel.
My method of dealing with it may provide a perverse glimpse into the
problem-solving techniques of an addict. Consider my options: A) Quit
drinking, or B) Prepare for each solitary drinking bout by stripping to my
undies and then covering the entire apartment floor with newspapers, since
there was no telling where I might eventually fall senseless and stain the
hardwood. I could have sold tickets and made it into a lottery, like
cow-patty bingo. Ah, missed opportunities. (And no, I had never heard of
Depends. Kids have it easier these days.) I’m not sure that I ever would
have gotten sober had it not been for that repeated humiliation. Certainly,
it hastened the day. So, in retrospect, a lucky break.
But was my do-it-yourself experience so unusual? Jack Trimpey thinks not.
In 1982, Trimpey and his wife, Lois, founded an organization called Rational
Recovery. Trimpey had been a heavy drinker who wanted to quit but found AA totally unsatisfying. Reading AA’s “Big Book,” Trimpey says he was “insulted by its sophomoric fundamentalism.” They rejected the so-called disease model of addiction, which says that dependency is an illness, and addicts are sick and powerless. This, they believe, sets the stage for failure, as does the “one day at a time” approach, which allows the addict to hang onto the possibility of a future drink or fix. Rational Recovery suggests that the addict must learn to recognize the “addictive voice,” which originates from the primitive part of the brain called the limbic system. Recognize that voice and you can first isolate, and then defeat it.
While AA is based on a profoundly pessimistic view of human nature — or at least human drinking nature — Rational Recovery takes an optimistic position. So optimistic, in fact, that RR is not a support group. You come to a few meetings, read the literature, learn the method and you’re on your own. So long, have a great sober life.
Much of the RR model fits my own quitting experience perfectly. Trimpey’s
ideas, laid out in the book “Rational Recovery: The New Cure for Substance
Addiction,” also include vehement opposition to any kind of forced
treatment. Aside from pointing out that it doesn’t work, he also believes
that addicts have the absolute right to drink themselves spongy if they
Constructive though the program is, Rational Recovery literature has a
disturbing tendency to spit venom at Alcoholics Anonymous. A parody of the
12 steps is sometimes handed out at RR meetings: We “admitted that we
were complete failures and decided to blame it all on alcohol … Made a
list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to annoy them with our guilt and remorse … Visited each of those people and proved to them that
we had now become spiritually superior to them.”
Like Trimpey says, Rational Recovery is not a support group.
As in almost any sectarian clash, the hostilities are really about control.
Opponents of the AA model resent the perceived 12-step stranglehold on
mandatory treatment programs — what Trimpey calls the “addiction treatment gulag.”
I met George at the Rational Recovery meeting. An inmate in a rehab clinic,
George was there on the sly. He claims his innkeepers wouldn’t approve,
since in their eyes, “AA is the way. Any upstarts are viewed as negative.
I’m reading Rational Recovery to get better, but I have to go through the
motions at AA just to keep them happy. I don’t show anybody my Rational
Stanton Peele, author of “The Diseasing of America: Addiction Treatment Out
of Control” (Lexington Books), agrees that AA has helped many problem
drinkers beat the habit. But Peele believes that AA’s refusal to accept the
validity of other treatment methods means “their role in alcoholism
treatment is repressive and totalitarian.” Peele also decries American
courts that force people into 12-stepping.
Trimpey sometimes portrays AA as a cult full of brainwashed 12-step
zombies. But on my return visit I found many people who simply want what I had wanted 15 years ago — to join a sober community of former drinkers.
Germaine came to AA out of a detox program, a young woman who had
completely alienated her family, despite the usual attempts to keep things
under wraps. “I used to drink vodka and mouthwash. It took away the smell. Problem solving!” she says brightly. “That’s a transferable skill!”
She landed in the hospital with a dangerously enlarged liver after coming to
one night, slouched over the wheel of her idling car. A passerby informed
her where she was. “Vancouver?” she asked incredulously. She had started the day in the town of Quesnel, B.C., hundreds of miles away. Now she’s in AA. But Germaine does not much care about the 12 steps. “The Big Book,” she believes, is outdated and written from a resolutely male point of view. For her, AA is people: “I need that support.”
I had to find it on my own. At midnight on Apr. 3, 1983, I was parked in
my favorite armchair in a basement suite, drinking tequila. Although an
incorrigible heathen, as a minister’s son I can’t help but appreciate the
fact that in 1983, Apr. 3 happened to be Easter Sunday: resurrection day.
My mind wandered around to a familiar theme: the possibility of quitting. I
had never made a serious attempt, afraid that in failure I might come to
resemble those buffoons who sit in the bar every afternoon, loudly
proclaiming that they are currently consuming their final beer.
Sobriety looked to me like a green pasture on the far side of an
electrified prison fence. Still, I had long imagined that, one day, a
magical state of readiness would arrive, and I would free myself. That
morning, I held that belief up to scrutiny and saw it for the piece of
horseshit it was. The day of readiness was in fact like the horizon, which
recedes as you approach. I had become one of those donkeys with a stick
protruding from its halter, from which a carrot dangles — the donkey goes
forward, but that clever carrot always escapes.
So I asked myself: Are you ready to quit? The answer: No. And will you ever
be ready? Again: No. But that realization had a flip side. It told me I
would never be more ready than I was on that day. I decided to quit drinking.
Drunks have a reflex, developed after countless embarrassments, that causes
a wave of revulsion to strike immediately at the point of regaining
consciousness. “Oh my God,” says the sodden brain, “what did I do last
night?” It’s as regular as the chimes of Big Ben, even on those occasions
when it turns out you actually stayed home and watched Godzilla flicks
until you keeled over.
That Easter day, I woke up and reflexively repudiated the nonsense of the
night before. But, standing in the shower, I wondered: Suppose I really
meant it? The idea began to take hold. A sense of joy grew along with it. I
experienced a few shaky days, but the momentum was irresistible. It was
over. I was free.
My story is similar to those told by Rational Recovery. But having been to
a few meetings in that Lutheran church basement, I believe Trimpey’s
anti-AA venom is misplaced. I didn’t see people possessed by a smug sense
of moral superiority, or people wallowing in their troubled past. I saw
people standing up and helping others stand with them; people who’ve had a
lot of the piss and arrogance knocked out of them. That hard-won modesty,
some say, is what the “Higher Power” aspect of AA is all about — acquiring
not religion, but humility.
Hey — whatever works.
Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.More Steve Burgess.
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)