"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)
We went out to Playa Lorenzo last Sunday. There was Raul and his wife, Maruga, and Josi and Felipe and Mario and Mario’s wife, Linda, and the four kids and me. This beach is made up — as beaches often are — of sea, sand and sun, all in great quantities. In this part of the world, the temperature of the water stays near 80 degrees year-round.
This beach, named, for some reason, Playa Lorenzo, has the added advantage that practically no one, outside the locals, can find it; the road in is pitted with holes and it winds about forever before finally delivering one to the sand and sea. Thus no hotels, tourists, surfers, signs, litter, hawkers and noisy radios.
There are gulls, petrels and pelicans moving about above and, somewhere below, snapper, lobsters, sailfish, squid and, possibly, killer whales. On the beach, there’s a fine collection of pale driftwood left lying about from last fall’s hurricane. A motley collection of hermit crabs called “soldados” — soldiers — go in and out of the shadows cast by the driftwood and the rocks at the edge of the sea.
There is no one here except for us and the occasional family from the nearby village, using the beach as a road to and from home.
Mario and Felipe haul me and my wheelchair down to one of the tidal pools where they dump me into the water and then go off to kick the soccer ball around on the beach. Maruga and Linda set up the tables nearby, under the palm, heating the tortillas and filling them with goat cheese and avocado. The kids chase gulls up and down the beach and make noise.
I’m lying here, in my natural hot tub, watching the waves bash their heads against the rocks, watching my reflection in the water, watching the nearby soldados, wondering where they picked up their ugly little shells to live in for the duration.
The men are shouting and kicking and making soccer cheers and there is the aroma of tortillas being heated on the open fire. A dozen or so pelicans dip through the waves near me and the sea — “the everfolding neverending sea” (Joyce) — rises and falls with a rhythm that’s been around since long before you and I came along, and which will, undoubtedly, continue long after we ship out.
A man on a palomino passes by, riding bareback. He looks like Ricky Martin. Beautiful, beautiful, I think. Here we are miles from civilization, and Ricky Martin has elected to come visit us.
Minnows nibble my toes, fingers and unmentionables. Raul kicks the ball past Josi and Felipe, a dozen or so terns veer off to the south, Linda brings me a cheese taco and a bit of melon and sits to talk as the wind ruffles her long, flowing, jet-black hair.
The kids join us, start to work on a sand castle, building sand castles as people have, over the ages, always built sand castles — dip the hand into the wet mud, and then let it drip out between fingers until the sand drops build up so high that they topple over so you can start all over again.
The sun warms me; makes me forget all the cold nights of my cold past.
Mario kicks another goal, and the palomino comes trotting back by us. This time Ricky Martin has been joined by Selena, sitting behind him, arms around him, back, presumably, from the dead. Perhaps they will serenade us together.
The kids start to fight, cry, make up and go to sleep under the palm tree. Linda and Maruga put the food away, Raul falls asleep next to the kids and the sun begins to arc slowly down, down toward its nesting place over to the west, somewhere near China.
This, I think, sleepily, rocking back and forth, is it.
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THE WITCH’S MAGIC
My friends and workers, the families I have come to know in Puerto Perdido — outside of education, background, upbringing, culture, language, interests, family life and religion — are not that much different than the rest of us.
There are, however, on occasion, slight differences that pop up. For instance, recently I bought some fruit trees — grapefruit, tangerines and lemon. I wanted to plant them at once, but worker Juan tells me we have to wait until the full moon. Otherwise, they will not grow and bear fruit.
The full moon has many powers. Juan also said that the army ants that invade house and home only do so when there has been a fight, when someone in the house is angry. But, he says, to compensate, they will not sting during the full moon.
When one indulges the beast with two backs — one must never allow conception during the full moon. The child that results will be hairy, and will, possibly, even turn out to be a wolf.
Pancho tells me that one must never climb a palm looking for coconuts when one has a hangover. If you do so, it will “se seca” — go dry, die. By the same token one must never piss on a palm tree immediately after intercourse; that too will kill the tree.
He also told me that if it is night, and if there is a wind, and you hear voices — it is the children from this area who have died before they could be baptized. Their tiny souls toss about forever in the winds, never coming to rest, whispering feverishly in your ear.
Several years ago, after two devastating hurricanes hit the Puerto Perdido area, word was that a child was born in a nearby community. The babe had blue eyes, a full beard, teeth — could even speak. He proclaimed that earthquakes, a deluge and three more hurricanes were on their way.
Witches are everywhere, and can be dangerous. Friend Jorge, a sensible type, explained to me that his stepfather died because some of the neighbors were jealous of his land holdings. They hired a witch to put a curse on him and the old man died soon after the curse was laid.
I suggested to Jorge that perhaps the fact that his stepfather was 75, and smoked Faro cigarettes (two packs a day, black, no filter) might have had something to do with it. No — it was the curse pure and simple.
But the profoundest truth of the difference in culture — mine, theirs — came to me with Marma Gonzalez.
Marma’s cousin had worked for me for several years, and I had gotten to know the family well — spent time with them, ate with them on occasion. They were relatively prosperous, owned a hectare or two, several goats and cows. They’re good solid people.
Like many Mexicans, it’s a matriarchal family. The father and two of Marma’s brothers have moved to the United States. They send money back from time to time — but since they have no documents, it’s hard for them to come visit. If they did, they might not be able to get back north across the border to their gardening jobs in Modesto, Calif. So it’s mostly by means of money orders and occasional telephone calls that they keep in touch.
Marma’s mother, Sra. Gonzales, is plump, has a mouthful of bad teeth, talks a blue streak — most of which I can’t understand — and is as kind as they come. She’s also a dynamite mother. All 10 of the kids, both in the house and out in the world, as far as I can see, are well-mannered, polite, hard-working.
Marma was born with a cleft palate, and by the time I got to know them, she was 16. She was painfully shy, and in her own way — with her long, black hair that fell naturally halfway down her back, with her startling deer eyes — she’s as lovely as one could wish.
I made an inquiry and found that the Shriners have a hospital in Mexico City where poor people can come for medical help. Volunteer doctors from the United States staff it. They also have an outreach program. For Marma, that meant that she could go to a clinic in Oaxaca to have the relatively simple procedure done so that she could speak normally.
I knew that given the chance, her natural beauty would bloom, and instead of being shunned by her peers, staying home most of the time, helping her mother, baby-sitting the three younger brothers and sisters, she’d begin to go to the local fiestas, those noisy weekend block parties where the town courtship routines come to pass. Soon enough she would have a novio, would get married, start her own family.
I made the necessary contact with the Shriners’ organization, and then went to Sra. Gonzalez. I told her what I knew about the operation, that she — the mother — would be expected to accompany Marma to Oaxaca, and to stay for the few days of convalescence. I told her that I could make an appointment immediately.
She said she would let me know when, but the days turned into weeks, the weeks into months and still she dithered. Finally, I told her that I was going to be leaving soon and I wanted the operation to happen before I left.
“No queremos hacerlo.” We don’t want to do it, she said.
“Disczlpame. No entiendo.” Excuse me. I don’t understand.
We can’t to do it, she said.
We’ve heard that after the operation, Marma won’t be able to talk anymore.
No, I tell her. That’s not true. I swear to you. Ask anyone. It’s not true.
No, she replied. We’ve asked. They tell me that Marma won’t be able to speak after the operation.
And no matter how I tried to change her mind (I even offered to bring in a doctor to convince her) there was no budging her. She had heard it, it was true and there was nothing to be done about it.
Now, two years later, lovely Marma is still at home, doesn’t go out at all, is still painfully shy, still speaks with that characteristic blur of the cleft palate.
Sra. Gonzalez had watched Marma’s brothers and sisters grow up and — one by one — leave the nest for marriage and work. When the youngest children grow up, they, too, will leave.
But there’ll always be one to stay home — sweet Maria.
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Land of the free, Home of the BRAVE GEEZERS
There are many perks that come with being north of the 60-year mark. Getting up five times a night to take a leak is one of them. Another is looking in the morning mirror to see a haggard old beast scowling back at you. Then, too, there are those midnight moments when your heart launches into a samba and you think, This is it. All your friends and family are off somewhere having the time of their lives, no one around to circle the bed, tears in eyes, to hear your last will and testament.
There are many American and Canadian geezers here in Puerto Perdido. You can spot us easily — with our prune-like skin, our concave spines, our walkers, our wheelchairs, our dewlaps. We come in November when the snows start to the north, and we usually stay until the rainy season begins in April or May. Some have moved here permanently.
We are a heroic bunch, because here we are taking our lives in our hands. People in their 60s, 70s and 80s are what the medical profession calls “at risk.” It’s the time when one is subject to those out-of-the-blue surprises: sudden heart attacks, embolism, liver disease, strokes and renal failures.
We are living in a Mexican village of 25,000, which has, on a good day, seven doctors. There are a few clinics — but they are the most basic. There are no CAT scans, respirators, aspirators, defibrillators. If any of us were to come up with an embolism — that would be it.
We are hours from the nearest sophisticated medical help.
I think we have made a choice to be so far from the up-to-date medical practice and machinery of our time. We’ve seen too many of our peers hooked up to machines that blink, bleep, transcribe and keep one (barely) alive. We’ve seen too many of our friends with tubes up their noses, down their windpipes and shoved into other unmentionable places.
We’ve watched parents and grandparents tended to in a desultory fashion in a nursing home operated by some mega-corporation that sees the bodies of the old in terms of net return on invested dollar. We know that what they call “heroic” measures may leave us not as heroes but ghosts of what we were before.
Whatever we say are our reasons for being here — cheap booze, dislike of cold, bargain prices — there is another, unspoken one. We are living dangerously and we know it. In the cities we come from — Houston; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Sacramento, Calif.; Charlotte, N.C. — if you wake up one morning with apoplexy, someone calls 911 and in minutes you are in the emergency room of a fancy hospital.
Here, if you wake up with apoplexy, it’ll do little good to call 911. First, you’d be lucky to have a telephone. Second, if you manage to reach one of the doctors in town, the best he will have in his bag of tricks is a few pills, a blood pressure kit and a couple of shots that may or may not save you.
Twenty-five hundred miles from the border of the United States and eight hours from the nearest hospital, we geezers have made a decision. When the big one comes, we know in advance that there is a good chance our case will be hopeless.
The bravest of the brave. No heroic measures. And we mean it. We’ve found a place where all that life-support stuff is far far far away. RIP.
Carlos Amantea is the author of "The Lourdes of Arizona." His writing also appears in RALPH.More Carlos Amantea.
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)