"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)
Jan. 27, 2000
Tuesday, November 9
“So how do you like being in debt bondage?” Milt asked in a cheerful voice. I was lying back on my bed while he dressed — something I never used to do. Usually, I bounce up, pull on a robe and fluff up the pillows, to signal the end of our session.
“It’s almost bearable,” I said with a petulant smirk.
During Milt’s prolonged blow job, my mind and body were so far away from the problems I now face: My date tonight with Matt, which I’m dreading; the looming spectre of Tom Winters; April’s spooky disappearance. And my raging hunger for Randy’s phone call. Why hasn’t he called? Something about the way he fucked me the other night has left me uncertain, shaken, and a day without hearing from him feels like a week. Why is it that the least dangerous of my problems — a sweet guy who happens not to call — is beginning to feel like the biggest one I’ve ever had? I’m losing my grip on reality.
At times like this, the hardest clients make life easier. Putting your body to work makes you forget ambivalence, grief, terror, even jealousy, in a way that “real” sex never does. Milt makes my craving for Randy’s call more bearable and my fear of losing Matt seem transitory.
Now that my body’s unemployed for the next few hours, I’m wondering if April is in New York, planning to make trouble for Milton. I feel guilty about hiding from him what I know about her. But yesterday, when he requested a three-way, I had no problem lying to him: I told him I couldn’t find another girl for the job — the first time I’ve turned down extra money from Milt for bringing in an extra girl.
I’d like to think this means I’m outgrowing petty avarice but — my real reason for keeping Milt to myself? I enjoy our forbidden kisses, though I tell him they’re delivered under duress. I have to protect my reputation in front of the other girls — Nancy doesn’t kiss — yet I look for an excuse to make an exception for him. Why?
After Milton left, I called my lawyer: “My boyfriend’s still pissed off and suspicious,” I said, “and Tom Winters has been bothering him at his office! He wants Matt to come in and answer some questions. If Matt’s boss finds out about any of this, if anyone in Matt’s office hears that his girlfriend’s a — that I’m in this business — it will ruin Matt’s life! Barry, I’m dreading my date with him tonight. He asked me twice what Winters is talking about and he –”
“Calm down,” Barry told me. “Now that Winters knows I represent you, he’s barred from talking to you directly. So he’s starting in on your friends and maybe your family. That’s a problem. But if your boyfriend’s also represented, the same rules apply. You can tell him not to meet Winters without a lawyer but please don’t tell him to lie –”
“I’ve gotta break up with this guy!” I exploded. “He’ll never understand! And what about my trip to San Francisco? He’ll never understand that either! All my lies are catching up with me,” I moaned.
“This is totally beyond the call of duty,” he added. “And I will not bill you for this, but I have some valuable advice. Don’t be afraid of your boyfriend’s suspicions. This guy’s in love with you. No girl is perfect. The good-looking ones are, by definition, problematic. Every guy knows that. The biggest problem you working girls have is not the laws — any smart hooker can work her way around those. And it’s not society’s censure. Do you know what it is?”
“What?” I said crossly.
“You girls are so busy covering your tracks that your boyfriends never have a chance to experience jealousy! Let this guy have a reason to be jealous.”
“But — but –”
“You just don’t get it, do you? Every time he thinks he has a reason, you disappoint him. Give him the works. You’ll make his day.”
Or give him an excuse to break up with me. Which, the more I think about it, is the best outcome — I can’t do it myself without explaining everything.
Tuesday night, later and sleepless
Our date at Verbena began badly enough, with Matt inhaling a martini while I, to steady my nerves, sipped on the house cocktail — Verbena syrup in champagne. “I wish you wouldn’t interrogate me,” I told him. “It’s upsetting me.”
“Upsetting?” he demanded. “How do you think I felt when I called your cousin and she told me you don’t have an aunt in San Francisco?”
“And how do you think I like being spied on by my own boyfriend?” I snapped. “How dare you snoop on me? Why did you call Miranda, anyway? You knew how to reach me.”
He narrowed his eyes slightly and said, “If that’s how you see it, fine.” He didn’t know Miranda had called me. I looked away, realizing that Matt didn’t want to tell me about the flowers he had tried to send. I had to find a way to break up but just then, catching the hurt pride in his eyes, I flinched from my task.
I bit my lip and said, “I didn’t know how to tell you the truth. I went to S.F. because there was something I had to do. I didn’t think you would understand. I still don’t.” He ordered another round of drinks, though I was still on my first. “You asked me once if I’ve ever slept with a married guy and I didn’t want to answer. Well,” I said contritely, “that’s what this was about.”
Matt leaned forward in his chair. “You mean that all this time –”
“I wasn’t really over him,” I said, pretending not to know what he was thinking. “You can’t just stop caring about someone when –”
“Who is it? Where does he live?” Matt asked.
“He used to live here,” I explained.
“How long have you been seeing this guy?”
“What do you mean?” I retorted. “We broke up long before I met you, when he moved to the West Coast. I flew out to see him because –”
“Oh, I get the picture,” he interrupted in a testy voice. “Whenever he’s in town you sneak around with this dirtbag for old time’s sake. Great!” Staring back numbly, I let him continue in this vein, trying to figure out whether he would feel better about breaking up with me or vice versa. Some guys need to hold onto their pride; others, holding onto their chivalry, push the girl to end it.
“So what happened?” Matt was saying in a needling tone. “He called and said he was leaving his wife one more time? I guess you couldn’t resist a free trip to the west coast … When does he fuck you, anyway? While his wife’s out shopping?”
A waiter, walking toward us with menus, turned around tactfully, biding his time. That did it. I was so genuinely infuriated, I almost knocked Matt’s martini glass onto its side.
“I cannot believe you would use that kind of insulting language with me!” I hissed back. “Just because I had feelings for a man does not mean I continue sleeping with him right under your nose! I am not just a fuck, you sadistic uncivilized bastard! Unlike you, I have self-control!” My allusion to his fling with Larissa made him sit up. “I have not seen … Adam,” I decided to call this phantom, “in over three years, okay? Until he called and told me — he — he begged me to fly out there — he just wanted to see me before … he’s very ill,” I riffed sadly. “How could I just turn my back on a guy I once loved who’s dying? Who sends me a ticket and tells me I was the love of his life? And you,” I added bitterly. “You talk about this like I’m some kind of vapid slut. Do you really think I flew out there to have sex with him? Is that how your mind works?”
The look of remorse in Matt’s eyes made me break off. “I’m sorry,” he said, reaching for my hand. “I shouldn’t have said –”
I withdrew my hand. “If that’s what you think of me, I don’t think there’s much more to say.” He looked doleful and crushed as we parted. I had outdone myself. I hated myself all the way home in the cab. This is like a — like a human sacrifice. And Matt’s being punished for simply trying to send his girlfriend flowers!
I took a long shower, washing all the spray out of my hair and the perfume off my body, like some kind of assassin washing the blood off her hands. I swallowed a few melatonins but they didn’t work. Sleepless — wanting badly to pick up the phone and make up with Matt — I wonder: Am I kidding myself? Does breaking up really protect Matt from the embarrassing consequences of the Tom Winters investigation? Or does it just protect me from having to talk about my job with Matt? Why did I do that? Was I just playing god?
When the phone rang at 9 a.m., I answered, hoping to hear Randy’s voice. It was Allison, fresh off the plane, inadvertently torturing me.
“Isn’t that amazing!” she chirped. “To think that it took an international conference to reunite you with Anabel! And her son was just around the corner from us all this time. Don’t you think Randy’s wonderful? I was talking to him about starting the sex workers equivalent of PFLAG — for prostitutes and their family members.”
I felt a twinge of irritation, at the thought of Allie chattering with Randy in S.F., presuming to have a greater intimacy with him than I do. “He’s going to help me design the Web site.”
“He is?” I was sick with jealousy. Allie doesn’t know I’ve been having an affair with Randy. If I told her, it would get right back to Anabel. God. That idea makes me recoil. But she’s flirting with him! I know it.
“He’s coming back next week and I told him I’d like us all to meet at my place. I’m hosting a NYCOT meeting next Sunday in my apartment! Are you coming? Roxana will be chairing but I thought you might like to chair the next one.”
“Allie, I think my career as an activist was meant to be short-lived. Very short-lived.” The thought of a NYCOT event involving Randy makes me feel like screaming. I much prefer to be alone with him, in a romantic bubble. “Besides, I have other problems to deal with right now. And so do we all — what’s going on with April? Where is she?”
Allie sighed. “You know, April is a very disempowering presence in our lives but we have the ability to move forward and grow an organization. Do you think I should invite Liane to the NYCOT meeting? She could be a guest speaker –”
“No!” I yelled. “And don’t tell Liane you’re involved in this — you’ll give her a heart attack.” Liane is definitely a madam of the old school — she only approves of organizing when it’s done by her.
“Listen, Tom Winters has started bothering my boyfriend, Allie. I — I’ve decided to break up with him. I just don’t see how I can continue seeing Matt and I don’t want you pestering me about becoming an activist! That won’t solve anything!”
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)