"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)
Anne and Jessie were jogging along the corniche when the attacks began. It was around midnight, and the waves were breaking so hard on the jagged rocks a full story below them that water was spilling over onto the concrete under their feet. Usually brightly lit by streetlights, the sidewalk was dark and empty. As they splashed through the puddles, the women joked about how nice it was to jog freely for once, without having to wade through the usual crowd of small children learning to Rollerblade, families smoking the narghile pipe and young men and women strolling slowly along the seaside, trying to catch each other’s attention.
They jogged past an empty, brand-new McDonald’s, famous for its valet parking. The presence of military men with anti-aircraft guns pointing toward the sea should have tipped them off, but they seemed only a curiosity. After two weeks Jessie and Anne had grown used to the ubiquitous presence of men in camouflage. Welcome to Beirut, a city whose identity cannot be separated from its military occupation, as well as from the constant and quite friendly presence of soldiers guarding the city from some unwelcome visit.
That evening they were feeling good about themselves. After all, they were among the few Americans who were willing to spend some time in the infamous capital of Lebanon, a Beirut remembered by many as the evil place where some 300 Marines lost their lives in 1983.
“Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop!” It sounded like fireworks at first, but then Jessie looked over into Hamra, the heart of West Beirut, and saw red balls in the sky. She grabbed Anne’s hand and they ran into the one beachside restaurant that was still open. There was a small cluster of people down there, waiting for the shelling to stop. The two felt ridiculous and scared, ridiculous for jogging at midnight, scared because they had no real idea what the hell was going on.
“Nehafeesh!” Don’t be afraid, a woman was scolding her daughter, who was crying with each new round of shells. Anne and Jessie bought water. The waiter brought them glasses, but they didn’t drink much. During a lull, he took them upstairs and hailed one of the few taxis that was still on the streets. “They’ve all gone home to be with their families,” he explained as the battered Mercedes pulled to the curb.
The taxi driver, a man in his 50s, voiced his opinion about the evening’s activity. “Israel, airplanes, Lebanon, nothing.” Jessie’s limited Arabic couldn’t get much more from him other than that something had happened at the airport and Lebanon hadn’t started it. They passed a row of tanks winding their way slowly down a dark street. As the taxi headed into East Beirut, the presence of the troops was less noticeable and the streets were slightly more illuminated. Nonetheless, there was a power outage in their building, a boarding house for female students located in the upscale, primarily Christian neighborhood of Achrafieh in East Beirut.
Shanty, the Sri Lankan maid, gave them a candle, and they walked up the four flights of stairs to their apartment. Still sweaty from their jog, they plopped into bed because there was no water for showers. When they hadn’t heard any noise for an hour, they tried to sleep — only to be harshly awakened by the poppings a short while later. From their fourth-story windows they could see the red balls fired into the air, one after another. They seemed to be going directly over the apartment. “Get down!” yelled Jessie and they both rolled onto the floor. Now what? Anne and Jessie didn’t know what proper siege protocol was, having never lived through a war. Shaking, they lifted their heads to watch the red missiles overhead. “Why did we come?” Anne asked herself, and then Jessie.
They had come in the spirit of discovery, wanting to report on a country that had been largely ignored by the American press since the end of an endless civil war. When friends and family had counseled them not to go because “it was too dangerous,” they had shrugged and responded that that was precisely why they needed to go, because Americans still thought that Lebanon was a war zone. Now here they were, two weeks into their summer stay, being bombed. Or so they thought.
Just when they were getting used to the popping noise that accompanied the red flashes, their building was rocked by an astoundingly loud boom. The windows trembled. Jessie jumped over Anne’s bed and found Anne flat on her back with a pillow covering her face and stomach. Deciding that it couldn’t hurt, Jessie did the same. They lay in silence, then began to laugh hysterically. First one, then the other, went to the bathroom. Suddenly the cell phone chimed — “do do da da do do do da da” — the canned ringer sounding absurd in context.
“Allo, Benedicte,” said Anne. It was her sister. “Pop-pop-pop,” went the artillery. “Tu l’as vu sur LCI?” continued Anne. Her sister had been ironing when she saw the news on French TV. Israel was bombing a power plant on the edge of Beirut. Anne told her that they were indeed in the midst of what felt like a war, and she was scared. Benedicte was frantic on the other line. “You guys should get dressed and call somebody who can tell you who to call and where to go. Is there any shelter in your building?” she asked.
Afterwards, they lay silent on the floor, spent. “I wonder whether we’ll have to go home,” mused Jessie, legs still trembling. Following Benedicte’s advice, they decided that they should prepare themselves for an evacuation. They changed into clothes that they could run in. They put on the glasses they both needed to see, and waited, eyes on the sky.
Boom! It came again. “That’s the one I hate,” said Jessie from her position on the floor. She moved over once more to Anne’s side of the room because it was the farthest corner from both windows. For all they knew, the next boom could shatter them. That is, if the next bomb didn’t fall on their heads.
Jessie thought of the house that their landlord was building on the roof, a model of post-war optimism with four glass walls. She wondered how it was withstanding the bombardment. In need of direction, the women wondered whom to call. They couldn’t afford to call their families, and given the call with Benedicte, that probably wasn’t a good idea, anyway. They decided against the two female reporters they had met only twice and the Very Influential Man who was facilitating some of their interviews. They decided against Wael, their 21-year-old friend, because they didn’t want to disturb his family. That left Georges the neighbor, a 27-year-old son of a government official.
“Georges, what are you doing?” asked Jessie from her place on the floor, pillow on stomach.
“Sleeping,” said an astonished Georges.
“But Georges, how can you sleep?” asked Jessie.
“This is Beirut,” answered Georges.
“I know, but they’re bombing Beirut — where are you?” asked Jessie.
“I’m next door,” said Georges. “Don’t worry.”
Boom! “But Georges, I worry!” said Jessie.
“Don’t worry,” repeated Georges. “Go to sleep. If you need anything, call me.”
With that, Jessie hung up. She and Anne weren’t sure whether they should feel better or worse.
So they went back to bed, only to be awakened again in the wee hours of the morning by more shelling, and another boom. They could hear their neighbors talking, but there was no one in the streets, so they stayed where they were, dozing in their glasses and street clothes.
In the full morning light they walked down the stairs and found their neighbors discussing them. “Il faut jtre courageuses,” said their tiny 90-year-old neighbor. They should be brave; the bombing was no big deal, she said.
They walked across the street and bought a newspaper, which explained that in retaliation for a Hezbollah strike in the south, Netanyahu had ordered Israeli fighters to blast the power plants and other infrastructure throughout the country. The loud booms they had heard, their neighbors delighted in explaining, were the sounds of low-flying Israeli jets breaking the sound barrier. The smaller poppings were the sound of the Lebanese defenders firing anti-aircraft missiles at the planes. In any case, according to neighbors and both the French and American embassies, there was no cause for alarm. Wael called to check up on them and said that although he had been woken up, he hadn’t been afraid. No one but they and the little girl in the restaurant by the sea had been afraid. After a 17-year war, Beirutis weren’t daunted by a little crossfire.
Jessie and Anne felt stupid. Jessie had sent e-mails to friends and family, explaining that she was in no danger, but was chagrined to note that even her fianci hadn’t been too concerned. The attack wasn’t even news back home.
Nonetheless, word was that if the Hezbollah retaliated for this strike, then the Israelis might visit again that night. Not needing much more encouragement, the women packed their bags and laptops and headed to Tripoli for the weekend.
That night Anne and Jessie realized that the Beirut they were trying to promote among American world travelers was not ready yet to forget its past and present. But as their Lebanese friends kept saying, life had to go on.
Jessie Deeter is a freelance writer in Berkeley, Calif. She has covered everything from technology to horse events for local and national publications. Anne Senghs is the U.S. correspondent for the French weekly CB News (Communication and Business News) and a freelance writer for several mainstream publications in France and the United States.More Jessie Deeter.
More Anne Senghs.
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)