"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 were going to abandon it, just leave it on the side of the road to rust. And looking back, I wish we had. But then we met Stipe. “I fix it, no problem,” he had said, and, like that, we decided to give the Skoda one last chance.
It had been a good car, but we should have realized we were pushing our luck. We had certainly received our money’s worth after buying it from a guy we met at a disco in Prague for $300. Split four ways between me and my three American travelling buddies — Jason, Bill and Sam — we thought it was a steal.
We probably could have even gotten it for cheaper, but Jason’s silly madras golf hat gave us away as Americans, significantly eroding our bargaining power. Anyway, it meant no more trains, no more buses; it would mean freedom to go where we wanted whenever we felt like it. After making the cash transaction in the back parking lot, we received a moldy sheaf of crumpled papers — presumably making it legal — and drove away the proud new owners of our very own 1978 Soviet-era Czechoslovak Skoda.
Since then the little red hatchback had spirited us through the posh brick streets of Vienna, Austria, along the winding grass banks of the Danube River, up the hills of Budapest, Hungary, to the base of Vlad Dracul’s castle in Romania, over a winding pass in the Carpathian Alps and, finally, many weeks and border checks later, into the pre-dawn streets of Sofia, Bulgaria.
Then it broke down, or I guess it would be fairer to say it finally succumbed to one of a long list of nagging ailments. A quick peripheral rundown of the noncosmetic problems would go as follows: a failing clutch, a broken starter, smoking brakes, a back door that was somehow frozen shut and a sweeping, dangerous drift that hinted at some sort of serious problem with the axle.
In any event, it was the starter that gave out first. The setting of the breakdown — a police checkpoint on the outskirts of the city — could not have been worse. After being flagged over to the shoulder by a hulking man with a rifle, we had been forced to spend the next half-hour trying to push-start the car under the hot jeers of a heavily armed detachment of the Sofia police force. “You should have bought American car!” they had yelled as we sweated and pushed. They laughed and slapped each other on the back.
Later in the morning at breakfast, while arguing over whether to ditch the Skoda and proceed by train or attempt to fix it, we met Stipe. He was our waiter.
“If we ditch the car, we’ll have to spend more on train and bus tickets,” Jason said, adjusting his madras golf cap. “I can’t afford to make Istanbul without the car,” he continued. “Bullshit,” Sam protested. “You just like having a place to store your bags all the time.”
“You are Americans?” Stipe interrupted, eyeing Jason’s cap as he delivered a bowl of Cheerios. His cheery tone indicated that he hadn’t picked up on the heated nature of our conversation — that, or he’d just ignored it. “You want fix what?” Stipe continued, undeterred by our silence.
After a moment, Jason spoke up. “Our car,” he said.
“Really!” Stipe exclaimed. It was as if Jason had just told him we would be paying the breakfast bill with cut diamonds. We all looked at Stipe, Bill with a dripping spoonful of Cheerios halfway to his mouth. Stipe was short, compact and heavily muscled. He was pale and his dingy hair was thinning, but there was an undeniable youthful exuberance in his eyes.
“I fix it, no problem,” Stipe continued eagerly. “I do mechanic. You bring my home, I fix it for you today, no problem.”
“It’s a Skoda,” I said, thinking the make might not be familiar in Bulgaria, trying to slow his runaway enthusiasm.
“Skoda!” Stipe exploded. “Oh, I know Skoda. Fix many!” he said beaming.
We all looked at one another, sensing a con.
“Sure! You come my home, I fix it, no problem.”
“OK,” Jason spoke up. “What time?”
“Today, afternoon, 2 o’clock, I get off work. We go my home.”
We set up a meeting place in front of the hotel, and it was settled — Stipe would fix our car. If he couldn’t, we’d go back to taking the train and lugging our packs. If he tried to rob us, kidnap us or cause us harm in any way, well, then we’d devise an alternative plan, later. Right now, we wanted to get some sleep.
We met Stipe in front of the hotel at 2:30 sharp. He ran out holding a Chicago Bulls hat that he put on after cramming himself into the steaming back seat. We had just jump-started the car, so the windows were rolled down to disperse the smell of body odor and burning brake fluid. “Turn right here,” Stipe said, leaning forward into the front of the Skoda.
After about 10 minutes we left the city behind, and moved into a suburban area full of small homes and neatly kept yards. Stipe, his eyes wide and fixed on the road, kept up an urgent barrage of directions. “Turn left, go straight, there — yes-yes-yes.”
When we pulled into his driveway, it was not at all what we had expected: a low-slung one-story home with a white stucco exterior and a roof of red tile. The well-manicured lawn was vibrant green, thriving in the late spring weather. A small stone walkway ran from his driveway, past a small sapling and a lamppost, up to the wooden, oval-topped front door. Stipe directed us toward a small garage at the back of the drive. “You wait,” he said as he jumped out and headed down the path, disappearing through the front door.
We got out and started milling about the car. The neighborhood was quiet, save for some singing birds and the far-off sound of a barking dog. A peaceful place, the type of place where lawn mowers might drone in the late summer afternoon stillness or kids might gather to play in the street, yelling “Car!” at the sight of slowly passing vehicles. Stipe appeared suddenly behind us. “I show you something, come.” He started off down the drive, headed back out toward the street. “Come,” he said, motioning for us to follow.
“My baby,” Stipe said, running his hand down the well-polished hood of a perfectly restored, late-1960s-model Chevy Corvair. “I build it,” Stipe said. He opened the door to allow us a better view of the car’s spotless interior. It had whitewalled tires, gleaming chrome bumpers, a spotless white ragtop and a pearl-gray paint job that reflected our five faces as we inspected his pride and joy. “It take me three years find all the parts. I build it in garage.” We oohed and ahhed partly out of respect, but mostly because it was truly impressive to think of the effort that must have gone into the Corvair. It looked like it had never been driven. “Come,” Stipe said, suddenly all business. “We get to work.”
Stipe’s wife, a tall woman with long black hair, was waiting for us in the garage. She was pouring coffee out of a porcelain pot into four delicate, matching cups embossed with floral designs. It was strong espresso and insisted that we sit down to drink it. We drank and watched as Stipe got to work positioning the Skoda over a pit in the middle of his spotless garage. He put on a pair of grease-stained overalls and began hammering at the front left tire with a large steel maul. The noise was terrible as the Skoda grudgingly gave up its rust-sodden parts, one by one.
A soccer game on Stipe’s lawn with some neighborhood kids, countless cups of coffee, slices of cake and dried sweets and a large lump of hashish later, Stipe emerged from under the car. “I fix it,” he huffed. He was coated up to his elbows in large gobs of translucent grease. His face and bald head were streaked with sweat and grime. His pant legs were smeared with an alarming amount of what appeared to be blood. We stood there looking at him, amazed at the amount of effort that he had just expended on our Skoda. “You take test ride, yes?” Stipe said.
“How much?” I asked, suddenly feeling guilty and now willing to pay a great deal in light of Stipe’s Herculean attempts in the garage. Stipe cited a figure, but seemed preoccupied. “Before money, first you test-ride,” he insisted. All of us being a bit addled by the hashish, caffeine and sun, we were slow to realize that the figure Stipe had just asked for his five hours of labor was around $12.
“You drive for test,” Stipe kept demanding. “OK,” Jason answered slowly, adjusting his stupid hat. Before any of us could object, he had hopped up into the driver’s seat and turned the ignition. The Skoda roared to life in a cloud of white smoke. We all applauded and chased after the car like joyous people in a Disney film as Jason piloted it in reverse down the drive. Stipe followed along, keeping a critical eye peeled on the Skoda. At the end of the drive, Jason continued in reverse up a steep embankment on the opposite side of the road.
The main thing I remember about what happened next is that it happened fast, as if someone suddenly hit the fast-forward button on a videotape in a hurry to get to a movie’s tragic climax. Jason stopped and then started rolling back down the hill out toward the road. Quickly deciding that he hadn’t gone far enough up the embankment to execute a right turn, he attempted to put the car in reverse again. But he was unable to get the car in gear. It continued rolling down the embankment out into the road and, now, directly toward Stipe’s Corvair. He must have been flooring the gas because the engine was howling.
We watched horrified, hoping that Jason would succeed in jamming the car, which was now moving at a good clip, into reverse. The engine howled. We screamed the banal commands of those not in control of a vehicle about to commit a terrible act. “Stop!” we said. “Hit the brakes!” The engine howled. Jason wore a silly hat. I cringed.
Just then, at the very last second, Stipe himself let out a scream. But his scream was not like ours. It was more glottal and came from somewhere much deeper. His was a scream that none of could understand and it immediately put the fear on me. I saw him lunge from behind and at the last second hurl himself between the shitty, dusty, scuffed-up, rubber bumper of the oncoming Skoda and the glossy side of his pearl-gray Corvair. It was there, at the moment of impact, that Stipe’s shins acted as a flesh buffer and it was there that he became ensnared. His body pinwheeled crazily, his arms beating on the hood of the Skoda like an ancient minesweeper. He screamed in Bulgarian, he flailed, he appeared in serious pain.
Jason wore a look befitting his hat. We all began running toward the car at the same time. “Put it in reverse,” we screamed. “Reverse, you idiot!” It took an eternity before the car finally made a screeching hop backward and Stipe was released from the Skoda’s grasp. He crumpled half on the grass, moaning and thrashing about. His shins looked odd, flat and a little too white. Stipe began gibbering now, high-pitched and wild. A long strand of drool hung from his mouth. He seemed to want to say something, but it was impossible to understand. “What do you need?” Sam asked, leaning down near him, careful to keep out of the way of his flailing arms. “My car,” Stipe sobbed.
We all turned around. His car was unscathed. Not a scratch or dent. It sat there gleaming in the twilight. “It’s OK, Stipe, your car’s OK,” Sam said, “no problem.” Stipe’s thrashing grew less crazed. He rolled onto his back and the faint twitch of a smile crossed his lips.
“Stipe, I’m sorry. It got away from me,” Jason said finally, out from behind the wheel.
“You go now,” Stipe cut him off. “You go away,” he repeated. His wife, who had just arrived at his side, helped him to sit up.
“But the money,” I asked.
“You go,” was all Stipe could say. Sam collected around $20 from all of us and slipped them to Stipe’s wife as we prepared to leave. None of us said a word as we piled back into the Skoda and fired it up.
The sun was setting, and somewhere a lawn mower droned as Sam pulled away from the curb. I looked back to see Stipe’s wife helping him across the lawn towards the front door, and then they were gone. We rode on in silence toward Sofia, where we would split up and go our separate ways — some on trains, some on planes and one behind the wheel of our Skoda, which would glide onward for 1,000 more miles and then be parked in a back alley in Turkey and left to rust, a silly hat abandoned on its sun-cracked and faded dash.
Jay Speiden is a staff features writer for the Taipei Times.More Jay Speiden.
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)