"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)
Long before Dr. Ruth began televangelizing about the wholesomeness of doing it in the shower, playing doctor and “being sensitive to our partners’ needs,” Alfred Kinsey was observing, recording and, last but not least, having sex — a lot of sex. In 1948 he shocked the world with his international bestseller “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” the so-called Kinsey Report, in which he questioned the basic distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality, proposing instead his “scale,” a continuum of erotic responses that defied easy categorization.
Five years later, he published the companion volume “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female,” an equally outrageous exposi of American Womanhood in which he moved the typical happy homemaker of the 1950s out of her kitchen and into the barn and the monkey house, side by side with her counterparts in the wild kingdom. His pioneering work on the nature of female orgasm, the masturbatory habits of adolescents and the prevalence of extramarital intercourse is so basic to the modern understanding of sex that at times it is difficult to appreciate his originality, so thoroughly have his trailblazing observations become the stock and trade of well-meaning sex columnists the world over.
The dance card of the greatest American sexologist of all time was empty for his high school prom, even though he was devilishly handsome, smart as a whip and, as Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy’s excellent new biography, “Sex the Measure of All Things,” so shamelessly discloses, hung like a horse. The son of a religious fanatic, he wore his Boy Scout uniform at all times well into college and even prayed to God with the younger cubs he counseled to help them avoid the errors of “self-pollution” — an unanswered prayer, it would seem, given that he continued to masturbate all his life and even engaged in more esoteric perversions, including “tea-room trade” in public johns, genital mutilation, self-circumcision and his favorite sexual pastime, urethral insertion, a practice that involved sticking into his penis pens, pencils and even, as he honed his craft, toothbrushes — bristles first.
As a budding herpetologist, he housed dozens of snakes in his dorm room and, after he graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine, quickly became one of the greatest collectors of all time. He began first as an entomologist, gathering millions of specimens of wasps (many species still bear his name), and then as a sexologist, amassing thousands of sexual histories of pedophiles, prostitutes, businessmen and housewives. He also collected the measurements of more than 5,200 penises and 400 African-American clitorises, to say nothing of 2,000 films of male orgasms and hundreds of documentaries recording the mating habits of rats, pigeons, horses and even porcupines.
He was a born scientist and a compulsive statistician, as monomaniacal about bugs in killing jars as he was about dicks in vaginas. He stunned America by stripping sex of the trappings of romantic love, liberating it from the moral judgments of Judeo-Christian prudery and reducing it to a pure biological act in which men and women behaved like any other rutting animals. (An unflattering vision is still enshrined on the bathroom doors of the Kinsey Institute, which bear not the dainty expressions Ladies and Gentlemen but the starkly taxonomical terms Male and Female.)
He also practiced what he preached and hence, in the eyes of his ostensibly more detached colleagues, unscrupulously violated the high standards of objectivity that are the prerequisite of effective science. He encouraged wife-swapping among the staff of his institute, pimped off his own beloved spouse, a comely den mother, to other horny men and insisted that acquaintances keep detailed sex calendars describing the origin and intensity of their orgasms. He even, in the case of a mildly homophobic interviewer he employed, summoned the man to his hotel room in order to provide him with a firsthand demonstration of gay sex with another colleague.
Far from undercutting Kinsey’s credibility as a researcher, his willingness to have and not just observe all kinds of prohibited sex, from sodomy to sadomasochism, enhanced his qualifications as a pioneering sociologist and helped him cut through the prim euphemisms and barriers of prejudice that afflicted his more censorious predecessors.
What’s more, he was a crusading humanitarian, and a kind of proto-Ann Landers, who demolished the myth of the vaginal orgasm, exposed — indeed condoned — the epidemic levels of extramarital intercourse among seemingly wholesome, happily wedded couples and personally answered a constant flurry of anxious queries from around the globe: “Does sex while pregnant lead to polio?” “Are tampons stimulants?” “Does suppressing sex cause stuttering?” “Can one avoid insemination by keeping on one’s socks or high heels during intercourse?”
But perhaps his most enduring legacy as a sexologist was his campaign on behalf of homosexuals. He almost single-handedly laid the foundations for gay liberation, decrying anti-sodomy laws as early as the 1940s and advocating tolerance at a time when most people saw little distinction between pederasts and psycho killers.
And he blew the lid off American hypocrisy by revealing that 40 percent of all adult males had engaged in homosexual sex to the point of orgasm, 10 percent had been sexually involved with another male for periods as long as three years and 4 percent were exclusively homosexual.
Throughout his life, he slowly advanced up his own infamous scale from 0 to 6, beginning as a 1 — an undeviating heterosexual — and ending as a full-blown homosexual, a fact that the institute kept closely under wraps, worried that the practices of its relatively fearless leader would jeopardize the funding of an organization that, under the circumstances, was somewhat disingenuously promoting sexual freedom.
In another recent biography, James Jones launched a much-publicized revisionist attack of Kinsey in which he questioned the value of his work on the grounds that he was a sexually manipulative administrator and that his bisexuality and monstrous libido led him to doctor his results, skewing his statistics and placing too sensational an emphasis on the incidence in the public at large of homosexuality.
Gathorne-Hardy’s entertaining and engagingly written biography revises this revisionism and presents Kinsey in an altogether more favorable light — admittedly, as a compulsive workaholic and an exacting boss who pushed his employees to the brink of collapse and drove himself to an early grave from exhaustion at the age of 62 in 1956 — but also as a humane and indefatigable sex educator, as well as an unfairly maligned martyr of American priggishness and the promiscuous grandfather of the sexual revolution who inspired movements such as feminism and gay rights.
Jones would seem to have preferred Kinsey to be exclusively heterosexual, but how would this fact in itself have contributed to his objectivity, if it would not indeed have undercut it? Would Kinsey’s sex surveys have been less skewed if they had been orchestrated by a straight man rather than by a bisexual? Would a heterosexual not have been revolted by and, therefore, have ignored, if not swept under the carpet, much of the data that Kinsey courageously brought to light and that remain to this day unchallenged?
Would a practicing heterosexual have been able to face the fact that women do not have vaginal orgasms from what their lovers vaingloriously assume are the unmitigated delights of penetration? Would they have been able to admit that the missionary position is an almost complete aberration among existing species? Or that infidelity seems in the long run to be far healthier than monogamy, if not crucial to our evolutionary development, in that it ensures contact with the best sperm and the widest gene pool?
Far from hampering his objectivity, Kinsey’s bisexuality, his ability to slide up and down his own scale like a musical keyboard, was a distinct advantage to his work. Also helpful was his intimate, personal experience with behavior he studied, not as a curious sightseer and somewhat meddling tourist, but as a participant and fellow traveler.
It is only the lingering prejudices of a homophobic society that can say that Kinsey’s rather fluid sexuality compromised his research, whereas a conservative straight man in a monogamous relationship with a wife and 2.5 kids is uniquely qualified to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Did Newton’s homosexuality mean that he lied when he said that the stars behave according to the principles of gravity? Did mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing’s homosexuality interfere with his invention of the computer or his successful efforts to break the Nazis’ code, a heroic feat that won him not a bronze star or an Order of the Purple Heart but a vicious campaign of persecution that led to his suicide, a death that the radical changes that Kinsey effected in Western culture would undoubtedly have prevented?
Gathorne-Hardy’s superb biography demolishes the skeptical new myths of Kinsey as a date-raping autocrat whose libraries of statistics functioned as his own self-flattering mirror.
Daniel Harris is the author of "The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture" and "Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism (May 2000).More Daniel Harris.
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)