"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)
By the time Valentina and I have finished off our carafe of white wine in the little back-alley taverna, I can only conclude that our night in Corfu has been perfect.
Tourist brochure perfect.
Fortunately, I have just the plan to keep things from getting overly quaint and predictable. “Let’s stay at the Pink Palace tomorrow,” I say.
Valentina raises her eyebrows. “Sounds romantic.”
“It isn’t,” I tell her.
I first met Valentina in Innsbruck (where she goes to university) and we’ve been traveling together ever since. Though our love affair is just over one week old, it has already consisted of several canonical romantic experiences: hiking together through the mist in the Italian Alps, walking the canals of Venice at sunset, taking the night train down the Adriatic coast to Brindisi. This morning we sat together on the lifeboat deck of a ship that took us down the Albanian coastline to Corfu — a Greek Ionian resort island that features historical Venetian fortresses, Byzantine churches, British palaces and a French-styled esplanade in its colonial Old Town district. We strolled the narrow streets this evening until we found a tiny family run restaurant that gave us a sumptuous introduction to moussaka and yemista and choriatiki.
Unfortunately, I’m beginning to fear that our experiences have been too easy — that our moments of romance have been pleasant without being distinctive. Since I don’t want all these blissful moments to mix together into generic memories, I’ve decided to throw a wild card into the equation.
“What’s special about staying at the Pink Palace?” Valentina asks me.
“Well, that’s just it. All I know about the Pink Palace is rumor and reputation. I’ve heard that it’s kind of an ultimate party hostel for college-age travelers, but it has a mixed reputation. Depending on who you talk to, the place is either party paradise or Sodom and Gomorrah revisited.”
“And why does that make you want to stay there? You’re not in college and I don’t much care for partying. Plus we’re traveling together, and this sounds like the kind of place where single people go to meet other single people.”
“And that’s exactly why I think it’d be an adventure.”
Valentina, who (as an Italian) was raised with much less an appreciation for irony than I, is not convinced. “Adventure? Inside a youth hostel?”
“Not an adventure adventure; kind of an un-adventure. Going to a place where we don’t really fit in and seeing what happens. It’s called ‘slumming.’ It’s a very American pastime.”
“This is how Americans entertain themselves?”
Since I don’t have the time to explain the ironic middle-class appeal of, say, square dancing or gangsta rap or monster truck rallies, I decide to keep things simple. “Yes,” I say. “This is how Americans entertain themselves.”
Curious by nature, Valentina relents. The next morning, we take a local bus across the island to Agios Gordios and check into a room at the legendary Pink Palace.
Of all the hundreds of youth hostels on the European backpacker circuit, only a handful — Balmer’s Interlaken, for example, or Bob’s Youth Hostel in Amsterdam — have legendary reputations. Corfu’s Pink Palace has found its way into this elite rank through a combination of leisure-resort amenities (three-course dinners, a Jacuzzi, jet-ski rentals) and an ouzo-soaked party atmosphere. The resulting ambience garners mixed opinions: The “Let’s Go” guidebook compares it to a “laid-back frat party”; independent student-travel Web sites call it the “number one party hostel in Europe”; travel writer Jeff Greenwald once called it “a knock-off Club Med for horny 20-year-olds.”
Valentina and I arrive at the quaint beach town of Agios Gordios at midday and head down to the trademark pink-hued buildings. From a distance, the Pink Palace complex has a kind of neoclassical elegance — but up close, the place is all function: cement-and-asphalt simplicity, party-resistant by design. Supposedly, the complex can handle 1,000 budget revelers at a time.
I get my first and most vivid lesson in the social dynamics of the Pink Palace when I leave Valentina at poolside and go to fetch a spare key from the reception building.
When I enter the lobby, there is only one soul working the desk — and he is currently initiating a batch of new guests by distributing shots of pink-tinted ouzo. All of the new travelers clutch their cardboard Pink Palace “passports,” and one of them has already donned a T-shirt advertising the “10 Biggest Lies at the Pink Palace” (“I just want to kiss you … you can keep your clothes on,” reads No. 8).
There’s one other traveler waiting at the desk — a tall, sunburned British girl — so I ask her if any other receptionists are on duty.
“Calm down, big guy!” she says. “You’re on vacation now.” She looks me over and shoots me a jesting grin. “Let me guess, you’re from America.”
“That’s right,” I say.
“I could tell because you talk like a cowboy. You can always tell Americans from their accents. That and they always talk so loud. And they never know anything about the country they’re in.”
“I’ve heard of that reputation,” I say. “But I’m actually learning to read Greek while I’m here.”
The British girl gives me a playfully skeptical look and holds up a wrinkled drachma note. “What does this say right here?” she demands, pointing at one of the Greek-lettered slogans.
“It’s easier than it looks to read Greek,” I say, taking the money from her. “Look. The T, A, Z, E and O in this phrase are all just like in English, but for example the triangle is a ‘D’ sound, and the lambda here is like an ‘L.’ So this reads ‘Trapeza tees Ellados.’”
“Wow! You could be my Greek teacher then, right? What does ‘Trapeze … so and so’ mean?”
“I’m not sure.”
She shoots me an exaggerated look of suspicion. “How can you not be sure what it means if you can read Greek?”
“I just know the Greek letters. Once you learn the letters, then you can read things phonetically; it doesn’t mean you can understand them.”
The girl giggles and socks me in the shoulder. “You dummy! You don’t really read Greek, just the letters.”
For some reason, I can’t understand why she’s getting so worked up about this. “Knowing the letters can help you figure things out,” I tell her. “For example, ‘Trapeza tees Ellados’ probably means ‘Bank of Greece.’ You know, Ellados, Hellenic. Greece.”
“Well, perhaps I’ll believe you then. I thought you were just, you know, taking the piss out of me. You don’t meet many intelligent Yanks in Europe, you know.”
“Well, I wouldn’t credit my ‘Yank’ initiative as much as my Italian girlfriend. It was her idea to practice our basic Greek on the ferry in from Brindisi yesterday.”
At my mention of the word “girlfriend,” the girl’s face goes red and she puts her hand to her mouth. There is a beat before I realize what this means. The British girl was never really interested in my intelligence or my Greek skills. This whole time she thought I’d been flirting with her.
Fortunately, our awkward moment is broken by the reception clerk, and soon I’m headed back down to the pool area with a new key. I arrive to discover Valentina sitting by the Jacuzzi with a couple of English guys.
“‘Valentina,’” one of them says to her. “That’s a great name. That’s a beautiful name. You don’t find girls named Valentina in England.”
As he’s saying this, Valentina notices me walking up and gestures to me. “This is the traveling friend I was telling you guys about.”
The English fellows stare at me blankly. Obviously, they’d assumed that Valentina’s ‘traveling friend’ was female.
“Howdy,” I say to them. “Where are you all from?”
Neither of the English guys takes another look at Valentina. After 30 seconds of pleasantries, they both excuse themselves.
Within four hours of our initial arrival at Agios Gordios — after a full midday session of sunbathing and body surfing and hanging out at the Jacuzzi — Valentina and I finally conclude that we have ceased to exist in this corner of Greece.
There is almost an element of farce to this whole scenario. Whenever Valentina or I individually walk down to the beach or out to sit on the dining patio, each of us is able to strike up perfectly charming conversations with our fellow travelers. Whenever we go anywhere together, however, we’re treated like chaperons.
Admittedly, our fellow travelers are not being rude. Rather, they are simply abiding by the laws of romantic expediency, and — as an obvious couple — we don’t register much of a blip on the Pink Palace radar. Perched like ghosts on the balcony outside our room, Valentina and I watch our single peers frolic in the Jacuzzi and on the volleyball court below.
As the day nears its end, the poolside activity begins to pick up. The sun-reddened Brits and Canadians and South Africans who spent the afternoon nursing their hangovers are now whooping it up over beers in the Jacuzzi, and an energetic gaggle of Americans have just returned from cliff diving to start up a volleyball game that integrates ouzo shots and kissing.
“This is a rather strange place,” Valentina tells me.
“Do you wish we hadn’t come?”
“No, it’s nice here. Everything is quite pleasant. I just feel older than I am.”
In a sense, we are indeed older than our peers, but this has nothing to do with calendar years. At the Pink Palace, youth consists of possibility: the possibility for loud camaraderie and drunken epiphany; the possibility of sex, and the dance of ego and entendre that comes with it. Though we’ve enjoyed the beach and the setting here, Valentina and I can relate to our single neighbors only as objective outsiders, as scientists. To run down and join the ouzo-volleyball game or frolic in the Jacuzzi wouldn’t change our status in the least.
From my perch on the balcony — listening to the Jacuzzi folks quote lines from “Reservoir Dogs” and talk about how drunk they were last night — I resist the dull instinct to pass them off as a bunch of half-witted meatheads. John Steinbeck once wrote that the nature of parties has yet to be perfectly studied — but I’ll posit that it’s impossible to truly study party culture. As with love or the Kingdom of Heaven, parties were never meant to be analyzed. By definition, the moment one begins to analyze a party is the moment one ceases to become a part of it.
Beyond this, whenever I assess a party I’m not a part of, I invariably gravitate toward a single (and, I suspect, true) conclusion: that, as with lawn darts or pinochle, partying is just one of many creative ways to pass the time on planet Earth.
“What do you want to do tonight?” Valentina asks me.
“Well,” I reply, “I think they put on a Greek cultural show in the Pink Palace nightclub after dinner.”
“Oh, my God,” says Valentina.
The weekly Pink Palace Greek cultural show takes place in the Pink Palace Palladium nightclub, a cavernous indoor space that features mirrored columns, semi-disposable plastic tables and a 100-foot bar. Some 200 Pink Palace guests mill around the bar in the moments before the Greek dancing starts, and there is a hint of excitement in the air. Most everyone (including Valentina and I) clutches a beer, and the pink ouzo is flowing faster than ever. Tables full of sunburned boys swill beers and peer over at tables full of sunburned girls. Solo travelers line the bar like sock-hop wallflowers. Sitting with Valentina at the end of the bar, I entertain myself by eavesdropping on my neighbors.
“How about that guy?” says the girl on my right.
“What guy?” her friend replies.
“That guy. The Greek-looking guy.” She nods over at a muscular, dark-eyed local fellow who’s been skulking and pouting his way past the wallflowers since dinner ended.
“Oh Jesus. That guy is a scumbag, honey — with a capital S.”
“Yeah, but I’m on vacation!”
As the two girls giggle over this, a deeply suntanned blond guy in a floral-print shirt walks up to me with an exaggerated air of nonchalance. “You gonna hit dat tonight, dog?” he says, barely making eye contact.
“Am I gonna what?” I say.
The blond guy makes a casual nod at Valentina. “I’m just askin’ if you gonna hit dat, ’cause if you ain’t, then I’m all over it.”
For a moment, I’m not sure if I should flash a gang sign or laugh out loud. Instead, I decide to clarify. “Yes,” I say, trying to strike a balance between cordiality and sarcasm. “I’m gonna hit dat.”
Mr. Hit-Dat gives me a knowing grin. “It’s cool, yo,” he says before sifting off into the crowd.
Before long, the cultural show begins: 200 Pink Palace revelers are suddenly caught up in a swirl of dancing and clapping, of mildly humiliating audience participation and gleefully-smashed performance crockery. Plate shards fly, ouzo bottles empty and — every so often — sunburned strangers lock lips.
Standing at the fringes with Valentina, I can’t help but marvel at the marketing genius behind this booze-soaked corner of Corfu. Some people travel the world for spiritual reasons; others travel to shop exotic markets or take interesting photos. But a great many people, most of them young, want nothing more than to drink and flirt and make noise on a warm beach far away from home. The Pink Palace caters to this need with brilliant efficiency.
For a moment, I imagine an international Pink Palace Party-Travel Empire: a pink-hued fleet of planes and buses and boats and camel caravans connecting youth resorts styled on the party theme of any given culture. Pink rattan huts on the Andaman Sea featuring rice whiskey, Thai dance and kick boxing; pink desert pueblos in Baja featuring tequila, hat dances and bullfighting; pink onion-dome towers in St. Petersburg featuring vodka, Cossack dancing and ice hockey.
Valentina nudges me out of my reverie before the Greek dancing reaches its climax. “Let’s go down to the beach,” she says to me.
We make our way downhill to the sand, past the now-quiet poolside buildings. By the time we make it to the beach, we can barely hear the shouts of partyers from the Palladium nightclub. We walk to a smooth stretch of sand and huddle together against the breeze.
The black Adriatic bubbles and foams in the darkness beyond our feet; above, the hazy belt-strap of the Milky Way arches its way across the sky, nearly touching the horizon. A stray dog pads past, stopping momentarily to growl at the surf. Devoid of partyers, the beach is empty, peaceful. Valentina and I have the entire Pink Palace beachfront to ourselves. We move a little closer together and stare up at the sky.
After 20 or so minutes, Valentina breaks the silence. “You were wrong,” she says.
“About the Pink Palace.”
“How was I wrong about the Pink Palace?”
Valentina looks over at me with just the hint of a smile. “You said it wasn’t romantic.”
I grin back at Valentina, and we move still closer together in the sand — the pre-marketed, pink-tinged roar of Greek bacchanalia just barely audible from up the hill.
Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.More Rolf Potts.
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)