"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)
Somewhere between the lottery winner’s dream vacation and Marlowe’s journey up the Congo lies the lot of the first-time colonist. Last year I found out I’d been awarded time — a full two months — at the MacDowell Colony. Isn’t this every novelist’s fantasy? Time to write, time to read, time to lie on my back and stare at the ceiling! True, I can — and, alas, do — do all of these things in my apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., but the prospect of doing them on someone else’s dime at perhaps the most famous art farm in North America puts a glamorous stamp on what feels all too often like a dully menial pursuit.
“Congratulations,” my friends and family say, then quickly add, “Will Lindsay visit?” Beneath this seemingly innocuous question on my fiancie’s behalf I detect something else: the suspicion that artists colonies are boozy and adulterous hotbeds, spawning grounds for torrid affairs and illicit behavior. I’m familiar with this mythology — every writer’s heard the jokes about “Bed-Loaf.” But as my departure date nears, I’m hearing some convincing evidence. “You’ll have a great time,” a newly married friend, a colony veteran, assures me. “I did — I mean I used to,” he says, with a worried glance at his wife. “I can’t really talk about it right now,” he says, when I press him for details.
By the time Lindsay finally sees me off at the Port Authority bus terminal I’m oscillating wildly between exhilaration and the panicked feeling that I’ve already cheated. Simply to go to this place feels like a violation of relationship rules. I worry that my protestations of innocence won’t hold up after the fact, and this anticipation — along with the last-minute discovery that I’ve packed whiskey but forgotten shampoo — preoccupies me on the ride up.
I disembark in Keene, N.H., where Blake, a serene, bear-like man who is to guide me into the colony itself, awaits. He hands me a latte as I step off the bus and into his van. Instantly I feel a weight lifted from my shoulders.
Soon we pass a spectacular lake, a series of little villages — each more pristine than the last — and arrive at last at the colony itself: acre upon acre of grassy pastures and woodsy glades. I’m shown to my studio, a white pine cabin with a grand piano and a fireplace, a desk beneath a window looking out on a bright meadow. On the wall are wooden “tombstones” — plaques engraved with the names of the room’s previous occupants. Jonathan Franzen was here recently, as was Andrea Barrett. Longer ago Galway Kinnell, Louise Bogan: The names taper off into illegibility. Too excited to work, I spend the afternoon on the screened-in porch, reading Henry James. Heaven itself could be no better.
At dinner, I meet the other colonists. There are 14 total, most of whom will be shipping out in the next day or two. I’m told I’ve arrived at the beginning of a “cycle.” Four more newbies will be here tomorrow, and the colony will be near maximum capacity — 26 — by next week. I feel a stab of schoolyard anxiety as I plunk down next to the one other new colonist, a voluminous, bearded poet from Bowling Green, Ohio. The old-timers are laughing and chattering while the poet and I sit quietly with our meatloaf. “Don’t bother,” one of them says when I introduce myself. “I’m leaving in the morning.”
Otherwise, they’re friendly. Charles, a sculptor, is having an open studio that night and invites me over. There, I loosen myself up with liberal quantities of Stoli and Chee-tos before blundering into a discussion two women are having about a writer I know distantly, whose scabrously funny novel of family entanglement I recently enjoyed. “Good old Walter. What’s he up to nowadays?” I ask. The conversation stops. One of the women blushes and walks away. I stare stupidly at my bright orange fingertips. My worst suspicions are confirmed.
I sit bolt upright at 6 a.m. I dash over to Colony Hall and eat three eggs, two bowls of cereal, a large stack of pancakes, six cups of coffee. Where is everyone, I wonder? I race to my studio and write for five hours — effortlessly, beautifully: The best prose I’ve ever written, I decide. At exactly 12:30 a picnic basket materializes outside my door: a thermos of soup, a chicken salad sandwich, a bag of raw vegetables, two cookies. I feed again in a frenzy, then write for another four hours. My head feels like a helium balloon as I saunter back to Colony Hall.
Twelve pages in one day: At this rate I’ll finish a draft of my novel long before I leave. At dinner, the veteran colonists are quiet, staring into space as they eat like cows. “How did it go?” one asks me. “Great. Amazing,” I say, jabbering like a speed freak about the marvels of colony life. Everyone else appears suddenly in a hurry to finish their dessert. I wonder why I seem to be having difficulty making friends?
Several new colonists have arrived. Lewis Hyde, a distinguished and avuncular fellow who recently received a “Genius Award” from the MacArthur Foundation, is here writing a book on butterfly hunting. Collette Inez, a poet, seems impossibly wise and gracious. Christopher Davis, another poet, rolls up in his pickup truck, genial and level-headed. None of these people shows the least bit of interest in sleeping with each other, or with me. Hmmm.
Another fine day of work; the chicken salad, again, is excellent. I feel a slight disquiet, an unease as I wrap up for the day. I wonder if it’s possible to pull a brain muscle? After dinner, four of us drive all the way to Keene to see “The Phantom Menace.” It’s my first exposure to pop culture since I arrived, and it feels truly illicit, more forbidden than drugs. We haggle for a minute over who gets the aisle seat, then decide to sit separately so we all do. I eat Sour Patch Kids until I’m queasy, and get hopped up on Diet Coke. The movie itself is terrible, but I don’t mind.
In what feels like a radical act of true subversion, I lead a group of 11 colonists into Peterborough to see “The Matrix.” Everyone scrambles for an aisle seat. I enjoy it thoroughly, despite Lewis Thomas’ ceaseless sniggering. Afterwards, we head to Harlow’s Pub and stay until they chase us out — at 11:30. Before bed I have a tiny (OK, a midsized) glass of whiskey.
Ouch. Did somebody hit me in the head with a wrecking ball? I drag my unwashed, overslept body over to the studio, where I see that it is indeed possible to pull a brain muscle — that the brain in fact is very much like another organ one pulls in solitude, which explains the, uh, lackluster quality of the pages I’ve just reread. “Dear Lord,” I moan. “Who wrote this donkey vomit?” “You did, sahib,” remarks my faithful retainer. Yes, I’ve found myself acting out both halves of this dialogue in the solitude of my little studio, which for the first time feels like real isolation. Uh oh.
I play computer solitaire all morning, waiting for the reassuring clomp of Blake’s boots on my porch to signal the arrival of my lunch basket. It’s on time — no, two minutes early — at 12:28. In it, two pieces of wheat bread hide a terrible secret — a sickening, glutinous sweet pickle, lurking between two greasy pieces of cheese. Ugh. I crawl back into bed and take a long nap.
Having sworn off Maker’s Mark and pop culture, I feel much better, and am working steadily again. All is well, until I make an alarming discovery while browsing the tombstones in my studio: In 1971, Yoko Ono was here. Yoko Ono? I recall a cruel babysitter who once terrorized me by playing “Don’t Worry Kyoko, Mummy’s Only Looking for Her Hand in the Snow.” All afternoon I’m distracted, hearing imaginary banshee shrieks and a frantic banging on the out-of-tune piano. What on earth was she doing here, I wonder? At dinner I bring this up. “Yoko Ono?” Christopher Davis says enthusiastically. “That’s so cool! I really love her music.”
Another Sunday, which I have come to recognize as the Day of the Dread Cheese Sandwich — “DDCS.” In a moment of weakness, I break out a copy of Entertainment Weekly and gorge myself on reviews of “Austin Powers” and “Hannibal.” I try to drum up some enthusiasm for a repeat outing to see “The Matrix,” still playing at Peterborough’s only movie theater. No takers.
At dinner, I observe that Rebecca, a painter, and Giles, a composer, are sitting together again. Clearly they’re having an affair. Later, someone mentions that Rebecca is a lesbian, and I overhear Giles on the phone with his boyfriend. I wonder again how it is that none of these people seem to be sleeping together.
I listen in on another conversation at the dinner table about Walter, the bed-hopping colonist. This time, I have the sense to stay out of it. Later, I relate my first faux pas to another novelist who has just arrived from London, and whom I presume has never met Walter. She blushes, then leaves the room. A third colonist, overhearing, chimes in that she too has had an affair with Walter. “He’s quite a colony man,” she adds wryly.
The lunch basket is late! It’s 12:45 — 12:50 — and I realize everyone is having sex and leaving me out of it. God! I’m so obtuse sometimes. I work myself into a state of high excitement, almost a panic over this before at 1:00 my sandwich finally arrives — chicken salad, comforting and familiar. What was I thinking about again?
Lindsay comes up for a visit. After two days shacked up in a nearby bed-and-breakfast, I slink back onto the colony grounds with a mixture of shame and relief over how glad I am to be back. Maybe I’m no longer fit for life anywhere else. This place, in many ways, feels like an asylum. I glance up from my computer and catch a glimpse of Lewis Hyde, flailing past my window with his butterfly net. It is a familiar and comforting sight.
In which I decide colony life is exhausting, perhaps overwhelmingly so. I write for five hours, then quit when I misspell “underwear” and cannot remember how to correct it. (“W-a-r-e?” No, that can’t be right. “W-a-i-r?”) The days, in their sameness, have a slightly numbing edge. Lunch arrives. I eat, nap, write, walk, eat again, shoot pool and pass out from exhaustion at 9.
In which I decide colony life is exhausting, perhaps overwhelmingly so. I write for five hours, then quit when I can’t remember how many hours there are in a day, or how many days in a week. The days, in their sameness, have a crushingly oppressive edge. Lunch arrives. It’s another DDCS. I toss the hateful sandwich out the window in a fit of pique, then weep, scratch my mosquito bites, reread my dog-eared Entertainment Weekly, stuff myself at dinner, play badminton, have three martinis and pass out from drunkenness at 9.
Stir, add water and repeat.
With just over a week to go, I kick suddenly into high gear. The black cloud of my incipient psychosis lifts, and suddenly, I don’t want my time here ever to end. I feel renewed, refreshed. I write for nine hours and then swim in the clear blue depths of Sergeant Pond. I feel, at last, like a proper colony man, though I haven’t slept with anyone, and remarkably, it seems, neither has anyone else. In fact, many of the last wave of colonists have gone, and new ones are pouring in. “Don’t bother,” I say to one who introduces himself. “I’m leaving in a few days.” I’m not so much disinterested in making friends as exhausted in the way an elderly person might be: I’ve seen too much, lost too many comrades already.
On the way home, in the Springfield, Mass., bus terminal, I buy a copy of a national magazine that has anointed Walter “The Best Literary Novelist You’ve Never Heard Of.” I try to wrap my mind around this triple-redundancy-cum-double-oxymoron as I read his scorchingly hilarious story, which concerns the misadventures of a philandering novelist at a writer’s colony in upstate New York. I enjoy the story — though it seems a little less extravagantly imagined than it might have previously. Seems, indeed, like I might have met a few of the ancillary characters it depicts. “A writer of visionary gifts and prodigious imagination,” the accompanying article states. Hmmm.
It seems unlikely that I will be able to transmute my own experience into similar literary gold. (“The riveting tale of an unhappily celibate pianist’s triumph over mild depression at the American Academy in Rome.”) I decide, instead, to play it cool. “How was MacDowell?” my friends all ask. “Oh, it was great,” I say, raising my eyebrows and glancing at Lindsay. “I mean — it would have been great,” I confide. “But I can’t really talk about it right now.”
Matthew Specktor is the author of three books, including the novel "American Dream Machine," forthcoming in the spring of 2013. He lives in Los Angeles.More Matthew Specktor.
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)