"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)
MONTREAL — It’s an unusually balmy Canadian evening, and the lateral light of a late sunset is pinkening the glowing faces of a group of French speakers gathered outside the Salle du Gesy, a venerable pile of cut stone in downtown Montreal.
It’s an unusually convivial and touchy-feely crowd, even for Quebec, a province renowned for its bonhomie: There are lots of shouts of recognition, lingering hugs and an affectionate rubbing of shoulders and biceps. Most of them are beautiful, too — buff, tanned men in ribbed white T-shirts who’d look at home in Chippendale’s bow ties and striking women, apparently from every continent, staring newcomers like me directly in the eye.
This is a gathering of the Raklians, an organization whose members believe that the fact that the human race was created by extraterrestrials shouldn’t interfere with our hedonistic enjoyment of sex. The skinny guy in front of me in the ticket line, who looks like a bit of a “Star Trek” fan, does magic tricks for the ticket seller, pulling coins from her ears. She smiles sweetly: “Peux-tu me sortir un bisou aussi?” — how ’bout pulling out a kiss for me, too? — and he obligingly pecks her on the cheeks.
In the lobby, women dressed in white are passing out pamphlets for UFOland, a kind of alien amusement park in the countryside outside Montreal (“Exact replica of a UFO! World’s biggest building made of bales of straw! World’s tallest replica of DNA!”). The Raklian movement isn’t, I’ve been assured, a millennial death cult. Which is a good thing because, judging from all the beatific smiles and unconditional love around me, I get the feeling I’m one of the few non-Raklians in the building tonight.
I enter the auditorium and sit down next to a tall blond woman, who is outfitted with a white halter top, a furry white purse and tight white pants. She turns to me, fixes me with baby blue eyes as round as saucers and asks, in heavily accented French, where I first heard the message. “Boulevard Saint-Laurent,” I deadpan, the Montreal street where I was handed a pamphlet for tonight’s conference on human cloning by a Raklian on roller blades a few weeks ago. Ivana, as she’s called, tells me she heard the message from her brother, and that she left her native Warsaw, Poland, to be near other Raklians in northern France. I ask her if she lives in a community, but she shakes her head: “We’re free to come and go as we please, you know.”
Ivana tells me she moved to Quebec about five months ago to be near Rakl himself and is making her living as a dancer. This being Montreal, one of the world’s leading dance capitals, I reflexively ask her what troupe she’s with. “No,” she says, looking at me as though I was a bit of a dunce. “I dance in the clubs.” Riiight: I’d heard that a disproportionate number of Raklians come from the exotic-dance community. Every few minutes, Ivana interrupts our conversation to hiss ineffectually at a toddler in a print dress running rampant in the aisles: “Isis!”
The Raklians claim about 35,000 members worldwide, and though only 4,000 are French Canadian, the fact that Rakl himself now lives here has made Quebec the organization’s de facto headquarters. He has found fertile material for recruiting in this predominantly French-speaking province. Though 85 percent of Quebecois still identify themselves as Roman Catholic, church attendance here is the lowest on the continent, with only 15 percent of the provincial population actually showing up for services with any kind of frequency (vs. 21 percent of Canadians overall and 40 percent of Americans). That doesn’t mean spirituality has vanished from Quebec, however. It has just veered toward the flaky and esoteric, so that there are now 800 sects and religions to choose from in the Montreal area alone.
Quebec’s more notorious New Age religions include the cult of Roch “Moses” Thiriault, a Seventh-Day Adventist who one day saw the light, declared himself “Oint the Eternal” and took his brood to the remote Gaspi Peninsula, where he oversaw amputations, castrations, disinterments of rotting corpses and brawls among the survivors. (Thiriault comes up for parole this year.) Then there’s the infamous Order of the Solar Temple, a cult founded by a Belgian homeopath whose local branch boasted the former mayor of the town of Richelieu, several journalists and a vice president of the local hydropower utility — before they committed mass suicide, embarking on that long voyage to Sirius.
The Raklian movement, thankfully, has a reputation for being a little less demanding of its followers. Rakl is actually Frenchman Claude Vorilhon, a former automobile journalist, who explains in his book, “The True Face of God,” that he was taken to the planet of the Elohim in a flying saucer in 1975, where he was introduced to noted earthlings such as Jesus, Buddha, Joseph Smith and Confucius. The Elohim, small human-shaped beings with pale green skin and almond eyes, were apparently the original inspiration for the Judeo-Christian God. They informed Vorilhon that he was the final prophet — sent to relay a message of peace and sensual meditation to humankind under his new name of Rakl — before the Elohim would return to Jerusalem in 2025.
They didn’t oblige him to give up race-car driving, however, and Rakl spent much of the ’80s and ’90s whipping around the world’s racetracks in his beloved Mazda Rx-7 Turbo. (Now in his early 50s, he’s in semiretirement from the stock-car tracks, though he has been known to enliven his speeches to the converted with videos of past racing exploits.) The theme of tonight’s lecture, cloning, seems to be linked to Rakl’s conviction that the human race was created in the laboratory 25,000 years ago from the DNA of aliens.
A friend of mine who spent a week at a Raklian sensual meditation camp in the Quebec countryside came back with a mixed report of the experience, which sounded like a cross between a nudist camp and a New Age retreat on the California coast. The rules were simple: Everybody was free to say no to a sexual invitation, nobody had the right to feel jealous or possessive if his or her lover desired another and the wearing of condoms was mandatory. The place was filled with gay men, girls fresh off the plane from Japan, Swiss women walking around naked and far too many Quebecois studs for my friend’s taste.
He’d been expecting some kind of smorgasbord of free love, and was disappointed to find that the disproportion of men to women meant that couples paired up early on and stayed together for the whole week. Suffice it to say that he came back to Montreal a frustrated lad. But not a bitter one: “It would have been paradise,” he told me, “if I hadn’t had to listen to Rakl natter for six hours every day.” In fact, some of the Raklian men confided to him that they accepted the religion’s basic message — namely, that there is no God or soul and our creators’ greatest gifts to us are the beauty and sensuality of the human body. They just stopped listening when Rakl started talking about UFOs.
As extraterrestrial religions go, the Raklian Movement International, as it’s sometimes called, seems to be a fairly benign one. The organization stirred up controversy in 1992 when it responded to Quebec’s Catholic school board ruling on birth-control dispensers by handing out condoms outside schools. And litigants in Switzerland have accused some Raklians of being pedophiles, citing Vorilhon’s entreaties to “awaken the spirit of your child, but also his body.” But Rakl subsequently distanced himself from such practices. Most of the criticism has come from the families of new acolytes, some of whom dislike the fact that they are required to kick back a 10th of their income to Rakl as a tithe.
In the 1995 book “The Gods Have Landed,” Susan Jean Palmer, an expert at Montreal’s Dawson College on what sociologists call “new religious movements,” has found little evidence of nefarious activity among the Raklians. Recounting one of the monthly Sunday meetings at Quebec’s Holiday Inns, Palmer described the style of feminine dress as ranging “from elegant Paris Match, to punk, to (apparently unconscious) parodies of Brigitte Bardot in her St. Tropez heyday.” Certainly enough to keep the stray bodybuilders of the Me generation coming back for more. Like the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh before them, the Raklians are essentially members of a lifestyle cult. In increasingly irreligious Catholic societies, Rakl’s success seems to derive from providing a structured environment for decadent behavior: He offers a no-guilt playground for hedonism and sexual experimentation.
As the auditorium continues to fill, I notice that Ivana’s interest in me has waned since she learned that I don’t really have the fundamentals of the “message” down, and her gaze wanders to the elaborately muscled men milling in the aisles. But then the lights dim and the evening begins: Brigitte Boisselier, dressed in a wide-brimmed hat and elegant high heels, strides onto the stage and explains that she is a biochemist who was fired from the French firm Air Liquide, as well as declared a “dangerous mother” by the French state because of her advocacy of human cloning. But now, she says happily, she is a bishop in the Raklian movement, and cryptically warns us “not to expect a politically correct evening!” Next onstage is Richard Seed, a Boston-based lecturer famous for declaring that he wants to be the first human to be cloned (“after, of course, my wife, Gloria”). He welcomes cloning as the first step toward rejuvenation — a balding fellow with bad posture, he repeatedly mentions how nice it would be to be 22 again — but besides that, he says, “clones will be fun.” Seed is at pains to inform us that he’s a Christian and a Methodist. (That’s a relief, because if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a Muslim Methodist.) I can’t help wondering what this guy with a suit and tie and a doctorate in physics from Harvard is doing in this roomful of French-speaking UFO enthusiasts.
Finally, after being introduced as “the prophet of the third millennium,” Rakl himself strides onto the stage. Short, with an utterly receded forehead and the remains of curly black hair drawn up into a topknot, he looks a bit like a samurai warrior crossed with the Man From Glad. He’s wearing an all-white shirt with huge shoulders, baggy white pants and white slippers, and he sports the heavy silver medallion I’ve seen around many necks here: a Star of David filled with swirls. (The swirls used to form a swastika, but apparently a fair number of Jews were offended by this attempt at reconciling such a terminally opposed yin and yang.) Somehow, I have trouble convincing myself I’m in the presence of a divine messenger. Rakl has an accent that makes it sound as if he’s trying to dislodge a wad of phlegm, or perhaps a mussel, caught in the back of his throat. Which makes me suspect that I’m actually in the presence of a Belgian.
Rakl paces around like a seasoned stand-up comedian, working the crowd. He announces that he has just gained his Quebecois citizenship, and half the audience is on its feet to clap in congratulation. “Unfortunately, I have to be Canadian too!” News flash: Rakl is a separatist! “I’ve written a book called ‘Vive le Quibec Libre,’” he adds darkly. After taking a couple of shots at the pope (“The difference between me and Jean Paul II is that, every year, everything that he says is proved to be false, and everything I say proves to be true!”), he turns to the main theme of the evening. He doesn’t want to encourage human cloning in order to create lots of little replicas of himself. He wants to clone himself so he can live forever. “Do you want to die at the age of 35?” he asks. “No!” is the resounding reply from the audience. Actually, judging from the youthful beauty of most of the people in this room, I’m beginning to suspect that I’ve stumbled onto a sect inspired by the ’70s science fiction film “Logan’s Run,” in which those over age 30 are not only distrusted but also vaporized. And as an English-speaking writer in a roomful of French-Canadian hedonists, I feel like I’m 32 going on 50.
What’s more, I’m blatantly scribbling on a notepad just as Rakl is having a go at the journalists in the room. Distancing his religion from the Solar Temple and the Branch Davidians, he confesses his disgust with lazy reporters. “I used to be one myself, you know,” Rakl continues. “But why do the journalists always call me for comment when there’s a collective suicide? I don’t want to die! I want to be around to piss them off for a long time!” The crowd responds with roars of delight.
Ivana, I’ve noticed, is eyeing my dancing pencil with a look of resentment. Against my will, an image straight out of the remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” springs to mind: Ivana leaps to her feet, points to me in a rage and shouts the word “journalist” from her inhumanly twisted mouth. A circle of toned and tanned bodies inexorably closes in on me, and the scene fades to black as I disappear beneath a pile of writhing lap dancers.
The Raklians have a very nice little religion, I say to myself, gathering up my journalistic impedimenta and making a quick exit. They might even be fun to hang out with for a summer, practicing a little sensual meditation with a United Nations panel of strippers — if only it weren’t for all that UFO stuff. The problem is, I can tell my pleasure would be ruined by the knee-jerk curiosity inculcated by my own sect, the Newsman cult. Too many questions are already springing to mind: What happens if you neglect to pay Rakl his 10 percent tithe? If the Elohim created humans from their own DNA, who created the Elohim? Most important, what happens to Raklians when they get old?
Since I ask questions as obsessively as most true believers avoid them, it’s a foregone conclusion: I don’t have the requisite faith to make it as a Raklian. In fact, I say to myself, emerging dazed into the comforting Montreal twilight, I probably need a little deprogramming myself.
Taras Grescoe has written for numerous publications, including Wired, Islands, Saveur, the Independent and the Times of London. He lives in Montreal.More Taras Grescoe.
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)