"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‘ve been packed and waiting for close to an hour when I hear
the tap on the door. I open it. “Where’ve you been?” I ask the
taller of the two irritably. “I thought you said you’d be here
right after sunset.” “The tide’s running a little strange,” he
says, with a shrug. “It is?” I exclaim, on a note of concern. The
guy holds up his hand with a slightly exasperated look, not to
countenance any alarm. He indicates their vehicle. I step out
between them toward it.
As we walk down the big guy peers askance at my backpack.
“What’s in there?” he asks. “Why, what’s wrong?” I reply. “You
said I could take a backpack.” He mulls, frowning. “It’s pretty
big,” he says. I halt, anxiously, to settle the issue. “It’s
just a camera, and some rope and specialized equipment. I really
need it,” I protest. “How big can it be?” The guy pulls a face.
He says the name of his partner. The smaller guy droops his
eyelids and shrugs. He actually chews a toothpick. “Well, OK,”
says the big guy unenthusiastically.
On this note we get in the car. The interior has a strong
odor, of shabbiness and outdoor work. We drive out to the main
road and go along for a while, then turn down a dirt road, toward
the water. We pull over, bumping and crunching, into some trees.
We cut our lights. Beyond us the surf rolls in, its froth gleaming
and lazily spilling and surging lumbering in — like a monstrous
presence, it strikes me now as I watch, stirring half-alive over
and over under the dark sky. My heart thuds in my chest. My legs
feel weak as I trail the two figures down carrying tanks and masks
with them. “It’s over here,” says the big guy. The pair of them
begin clearing brush cover off a rowboat. I come over to give them
a hand. The big guy waves me away. “Part of the fee,” he says,
without charm. I follow behind them as they haul the boat to the
surf line. The surf thumps and rumbles and seethes around us. The
smaller guy climbs in and stows the gear. The big guy signals me
to go next. “Sit, sit,” he insists gruffly, as I hesitate once
aboard, swaying upright off balance with the backpack. I drop
He shoulders the boat scraping along into the water, and the
smaller guy grapples with the oars, still with his toothpick, and
then the boat rocks violently as the big guy clambers in, and takes
over. He works powerfully, craning back over his shoulder. I
hunch in the stern, gripping the lurching gunwale, the waves
appearing huge as we get among them. The spray smacks and lashes
at us. My heart roars inside me. In the din of it I try to
concentrate on the instructions a final time, but my mind is
stunned, inaccessible. The big guy works and works, the smaller
guy stares back past him toward me without expression. Finally
we’re well clear of the sheaves of the breakers. We ride the
swell. A buoy grows close.
“Okay,” says the big guy. He ships the oars. He and his
partner start to fit on tanks and masks. I laugh nervously at the
sight of them, as they turn themselves into strange creatures in
front of me for their work. My limbs are trembling nonstop. They
look at me. “Stand up,” says the big guy, testing his mouthpiece.
I swallow, and start to do as he says, feeling faint and now
poignantly absurd with the backpack on. Suddenly the whole
shifting surrounding ocean seems to menace at me. “No — just a
minute –” I protest, and I sink back, overwhelmed. “Jesus
Christ,” the big guy rasps. The smaller one somehow all at once
comes springing through and grips me to haul me to my feet. The
notorious last-minute panic flares in me. “No — wait — wait –” I
gasp, as the big guy joins in. We go grappling over the side.
I struggle in the shock of underwater. Panic seizes me
completely. The two of them wrestle with my arms to bring them
down behind me, to work around my frantic boots and the encumbrance
of my backpack. Their bubbles seethe and boil. It’s much worse
than I thought it would be, the final frenzy for air, the invasion
of the water internally.
Finally my body droops, twisted over off-plumb from the load
of the backpack.
The minutes pass. I start to get my bearings. The two
figures mill around me in the depths, trailing streamers of
bubbles. The big guy works in close and shows me a thumb,
querying. I blink at him in his mask, and nod, with a bleary
grimace. Around us the murky underseas slowly unveil into terrains
of rubble and declivities. The big guy puts his hand on my
shoulder and steers me about and points several emphatic times. I
make out the eerie, grandiose mouth of the cavern in the distance.
I nod, and stare momentously at him. I show a thumb and he replies
in kind. I watch his and his partner’s boots milling away into
obscurity as they start back for the surface. I heft my backpack,
feeling it once again as a stalwart closeness. I swing about, and
peer forward grimly, and then take the first wading, fearful step
toward the cavern, where my perilous journey will commence in
A few words
“Excuse me, friend.”
“Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but notice, you’ve been
sitting there in that same chair, at that little table, without
moving — for several years.”
“What? Years? What are you talking about?”
“Here. Look at the date on this newspaper I found discarded
at the door. Consider our beards.”
“My god … it’s true! But how could –”
“Time passes, friend. Time passes. You don’t pay attention,
you lose yourself in thought writing postcards there, and pffft!
it’s gone by.”
“But I don’t understand: you’ve been here all this time,
“True. More or less.”
“But why didn’t you say something? Speak up, sound the alarm?
“I confess I became so engrossed, and then lulled, I lost all
track of time and place myself. Until a fly flew right up my nose,
and I sneezed, and stirred. Look, here in my handkerchief, here
are the remains of the little dirty fellow to whom we owe our
“No, no — this defies comprehension. Where is the waiter?
Where is the proprietor? Why is it so dim in here?”
“All gone, my friend. The place is shuttered, out of
business. Regard the dust untouched all about us.”
“But how could they just leave us sitting here like this?”
“Doubtless out of hospitableness, at first; and then, under
the mistaken assumption we were part of the decor.”
“But this is a catastrophe! My hotel room, my luggage. My
passport — it must have expired by now!”
“All gone, friend, doubtless, I’m afraid. Reclaimed,
confiscated, sold off.”
“And my companions — my dear companions! They’ll think the
worst. This is an unfathomable disaster!”
“Come, my friend, come. Don’t give in to these bleak
hyperboles. Look at me: on my way to the bank in a bona fide
emergency; with a girl waiting, for the assignation of a lifetime.
You don’t hear me complain, do you? So let’s ‘accentuate the
positive,’ as they say. Here, you see? Your pen still works, the
ink hasn’t dried up after all! Just think what astonishing titbits
you can jot on your postcards now.”
“What sort of cattle are those over there?” says my companion.
I turn my head in the direction of his gaze. I shrug. “Why d’you
ask?” I mutter, dim from the thin air. The cattle are clumped in
a brown and white gathering in the distance, in a high green meadow
under an alpine hillside.
“They don’t seem to have moved in the slightest the whole time
we’ve been stopped here,” he says. He scowls left and right. He
scratches a cheek slowly.
I don’t say anything. Then I gesture with the canteen.
“Maybe … maybe they’re not animate,” I declare, still panting
slightly from the elevation. I take a hurried gulp of medicinal
broth and grimace again at the taste. My companion shows me a look
that flickers with trepidation. “What do you mean?” he wants to
know. I shrug again, considering. “I’ve heard that sometimes, at
these altitudes,” I reply, “whole parts of the country become just
ornamental.” He blinks. “What do you mean?” he repeats dumbly.
“I mean, you know — they’re porcelain,” I tell him. “Blown-up
miniatures.” I drink. He watches me. His face looks ashen with
dread. He swallows and gasps a phrase I don’t quite catch. He
reaches out a flapping hand for the canteen. Now it’s my turn to
blink at him. “Jesus, yes — quickly!” I cry. But his hand has
already gone white, and it clinks against the canteen’s metal. I
curse and scramble back from him. He rocks slightly in the breeze,
rigid and brittle. Around him now the shrubbery takes on an
I look about frantically. I guzzle from the bottle so the
liquid spills down my neck. I lunge over and rummage through his
stiff pockets for any pathetic mementos to pass along to his loved
Then I hurry away from the scene, picking my way on suddenly
clangorous boots through the glossy rocks and undergrowth. I
clutch onto the canteen, making for the safety of descent.
The stony masses of a village show fleetingly beyond hills.
I sit in my compartment with my suitcase at my knees, waiting arrival.
The village is old and bleak. I get directions at the depot hut and make my way along on foot through the dust to my hotel. Up at a corner, a horse has collapsed in front of its cart. A withered old man with a crutch leans over it, cursing and kicking. A group of boys go hurrying rudely past me, carrying a large stone toward the scene. I stare at the ground and heft my suitcase and squint ahead for the hotel sign.
“Pleasant journey?” the proprietor asks. “Yes, fine,” I reply, without expression. I swallow and ask if there are any letters waiting for me. The proprietor smiles and raises a finger of acknowledgement, and comes back from his office with a pale blue envelope. He presents it with wry ceremony.
Later, I come down to the hotel bar. It’s airless, unappeal- ing, dim. The proprietor serves me. I take out the opened letter once more. Pulling at a button of my jacket, I read the lines again, from the person I care for most desperately in the world. She writes a few brief sentences, about the weather; a superficial course of phrases, referring to how boring her days are … She writes nothing.
“A nice letter?” the proprietor inquires, professionally amiable. I nod slowly.
“Yes,” I exclaim, throbbing stolidly in my whole being. “It’s from my beloved, she says how much she loves me, how much she misses me. She describes the endless hours without me.” My voice trembles.
The proprietor nods, smiling in amused approval. “Well, this seems to be a very nice, if tortuous, arrival for you,” he commends.
I‘m in a faraway storybook land. I’m the guest of the sultan
in his magnificent palace by the snowy mountains.
I say guest, of course, but my actual state is a bit more
ambiguous. The sultan requests my passport for his keeping. “As
a favor to a visitor,” he explains. “For safety’s sake.” I put my
hand on my stomach and tip forward a small bow, as a show of
appreciation. I bow again, when he snaps his short, doughy fingers
at himself and apologizes, yet once more, and promises that
tomorrow — tomorrow absolutely! — he will make it the first order
of business of his First Secretary, to provide me with the schedule
for the boat that sails from the harbor. As I’ve been requesting,
politely, doggedly, since my arrival.
I bow, as I say, and in my mind I smile, though of course not
to the sultan’s face. He is young and fat, and obviously lonely in
a certain way: He finds the company of a citizen of the world a
precious diversion. And I, in turn, am flattered by the tiled
opulence to which I daily wake, and the silken splendor to which I
What the sultan wants from me is a raconteur’s wisdom.
Anecdotes drawn from distant lands and peoples — bits of local
color snipped from the gaudy fabric of the great world. That this
world is round continues to shock and puzzle him, and I almost
daily have to quietly establish the fact as indubitable, and
really, by this point in time, pretty moot.
More and more, though, we just fritter afternoons away
reclining side by side in our balloon pants and curly toed slippers
on our carpets (his a sandwich of magnificences, mine a humbler
double-ply) — puffing on the bubble pipe, while I ramble on through
an ever-expanding catalog of pseudo-philosophical and quasi-
In other words, I fill the role of the sultan’s moral tutor.
A capacity I have no qualifications for, other than a fondness for
the sound of my own voice, and a bewildered pleasure at such
admiring and somber attention.
“A man’s life is like … a wreathe of smoke …” I announce
(puff, puff). “Drifting from a small fire, lit in a dream …
(puff, puff, puff) … which he barely remembers …” (cough)
I relate some of the really sententious nuggets from these
sessions, mischievously, when I sneak in now and then to the
sultan’s harem. The girls gather around me, plump as partridges,
gauze over their noses and parts of their roly-poly dusky flesh, as
if trussed up for baking in the cook’s tile oven, or boiling in the
fountain splashing beside us. Their big brown eyes fix on me wide
when I whisper my scandalous, but affectionate, tidbits and swig
from my contraband pint of liquor. One of the company stands
guard, anklets jingling, by the draped archway, and my favorite
of the lot cuddles against me. I can only regret the lack of a
painter on hand, to record my contentment. To record how, in
delightful defiance of her sacred vows to bestow her favors solely
on my host’s august appetites, my favorite heaps my giggled
rehashes of my tutorials with the sweetmeat of her kisses.
Naturally of course she’s the one who eventually betrays me to
the First Secretary.
But my terrible comeuppance isn’t visited on me a good while
yet; and I still totter along back furtively to my quarters, late
in the evening, and pause to throw up my arms at the storybook
vista of minarets and stars and snowy peaks out beyond the
grillwork of the palace portico. With a dreamy happy-go-lucky
smile on my face, and a sigh and a shake of my unsuspecting head.
A dingy frontier port, who knows where, in winter. It’s a holiday of some kind, the windy streets are deserted. I sit in my shabby hotel room, in my undershirt and coarsely handcrafted shawl, and tamper away cheerily at my passport. I whistle, as I finish inking the rat tails of a burlesque moustache onto the earnest and mild-smiling countenance of my official visage. I hold out the wanly iridescent stiff pages at arms length, to admire my handiwork. I grin, and add a couple of flowers growing out of an ear, for good measure, and the suggestion of a halo. A halo — the notion makes me tilt back in my sway-legged chair and laugh, to imagine the expression at the border, tomorrow at dawn … the stolid, sleepy guard flipping open the document in his rough hands, and then slowly raising his head, to stare under the low hard bill of his hat at the chuckling lunatic facing him.
Passport done, I put it aside. I turn my attentions to my diary. The impressionistic jottings about various ruins — the notes on cheap meals in delightful out-of-the-way places — the memories of chartered day cruises to recommended vistas — all these I scratch out. In their place I invent cuddly frolics with loved ones of several prominent local military dignitaries, as gleaned from the smudged columns of newspapers scattered around the floor. Certain initials I glaringly let drop. Then I go even further, and tote up my income from drug smuggling minus bribes (more initials, more fictions). I annotate with showy X’s which entries will best serve my “plans for blackmail.”
Here I have to pause for a moment or two, overcome with glee at my fancies.
Then I start up my pen once more, to record intensive clandestine sessions, with a cadre of young revolutionaries, in their mountain stronghold nearby. I append a technical description of their arsenal, plus complete text of their crudely-worded manifesto.
Satisfied, I sigh, and close up my lethal diary. The wind rattles the window in its ill-fitted sash. I rise to my feet and give the fumy spirit heater in the wall a bang with my fist, and lean over to peer out at the empty streets. Night’s gloom is falling. Before daylight yawns and pokes the fire for coffee, I head for the border — the border and its waiting antics and uproar. I pull the shawl closer (a local sacramental vestment, worn flippantly) and rub my hands with gusto, and go lounge on the flimsy bunk with the pillows under my neck and my legs outstretched and crossed. I whistle again an idle, happy bit of nothing, and play with the cinch of my rucksack. My one regret is the lack any suspicious item of produce. A batch of blackened gummy leaves, for instance …
Outside my door, in the dank passage, a winged figure wanders up and down. It groans, hearing me chirp, and pulls at its flowing hair. Shadows have gouged away the delicate alabaster flesh under its large eyes. A cheap tourist-shop trinket bobs at its supple throat, token of appreciation in the midst of passage: “from Yours Truly, to His Guardian Angel.” Which is now well and truly beside itself, at the prospects of the morning, at the outlandish burdens its job more and more entails.
And the desperate idea begins darkly to bloom, of just slipping away without a word, for good, sometime very soon.
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)