"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)
According to recent press reports, Americans are having oral sex at alarmingly younger ages — and with increasing nonchalance. (Note: Oral sex here refers exclusively to fellatio.) Oral sex precedes and often replaces sexual intercourse because it’s perceived to be noncommittal, quick and safe. For some kids it’s a cool thing to do; for others it’s a cheap thrill. Raised in a culture in which speed is valued, kids, not surprisingly, seek instant gratification through oral sex (the girl by instantly pleasing the boy, the boy by sitting back and enjoying the ride). A seemingly facile command over the sexual landscape of one’s partner is achieved without the encumbrances of clothes, coitus and the rest of the messy business. The blow job is, in essence, the new joystick of teen sexuality.
In short, if we are to believe today’s sociologists and culture mavens, oral sex has become ordinary. But the increased banality of the blow job is perplexing. When I was a teenager, in the bad-taste, disco-fangled ’70s, fellatio was something you graduated into. Rooted in the great American sport of baseball, the sexual metaphors of my generation put fellatio somewhere after home base, way off in the distant plains of the outfield. In fact, skipping all the bases and going directly to fellatio was the sort of home run reserved only for racy, borderline delinquents, who enjoyed a host of licentious and forbidden activities that made them stars in the firmament of teen recklessness.
The first blow job I ever gave (after methodically groping my way past all the bases) was an act of faith. After finally figuring out how to manually manage my boyfriend’s strange vestigial organ — how to brandish, manipulate and handle his distended, tumescent pink love shaft — I now had the daunting task of having to figure out how to manage it orally. Lick? Suck? Use your hands? If only the how-to books that exist today existed back then.
“Put both hands into the L position around the base of the shaft,” says “Sex Tips for Straight Women From a Gay Man.” “Lick the whole tip and then use your tongue to lick up and down the sides. Covering your teeth with your lips, and keeping your mouth taut, glide the head inside and lick the sensitive spot underneath with both the tip and flat part of your tongue … proceed down the shaft as far as you can go in one fell swoop.” And on it goes. It includes tips on curiosities like dick whipping, hummers and tinglers, plus advice on how to breathe. (Men may fear the cavernous tunnel that leads to the primordial soup of the womb, but women risk death by gagging.)
Clearly even the most rigorous bout of coitus pales in comparison with the intimacy of fellatio, at least for the one giving it: nesting one’s face in the musty, doughy pelt of your partner’s loins; bringing the full force of your tongue, lips, teeth (indeed, your entire face) to bear on the swollen, supplicant shaft; coaxing the salty swell of seed-bearing spermatozoa burgeoning from deep within the vulnerable, fuzz-laced scrotum; and, finally, partaking in the ultimate exchange of bodily fluids. (For what could be more carnal and, well, in your face than swallowing sperm?) All this is far more complex than the simple act of coitus, where the key fits in the ignition and things more or less just happen. Fellatio is hard labor, in every sense of the word.
Perhaps it’s true that attitudes toward fellatio have changed. The infamous stain left on Monica Lewinsky’s dress — as coveted and totemic as it has become in the context of America’s most famous blow job — suggests a sterile, trite expediency that may reflect a general trend in America. In a recent article in the New York Times about teen sex, a source reported that kids “‘had oral sex 50 or 60 times … It’s like a goodnight kiss to them.’ Dr. Levy-Warren refers to the recent shift in teen fellatio as ‘body-part sex.’”
But generational blips — like empires and economic upheavals — come and go. As French writer/professor Thierry Leguay notes in his (not yet translated into English) “History of Fellatio,” as long as the penis has the power to please, fellatio is not likely to be bumped off the bestseller list of all-time favorite male joys anytime in the next millennium or two.
What are the earliest traces of fellatio?
A well-known French paleontologist by the name of Yves Coppens suggested that the famous Lucy (the first prehistoric woman) practiced a sort of “paleo-fellatio.” But the first clear real traces of fellatio are from ancient Egypt. Many of the more stellar examples are in the British Museum, where we find the famous myth of Osiris and Iris: Osiris was killed by his brother and cut into pieces. His sister Iris put the pieces together but, by chance, the penis was missing. An artificial penis was made out of clay, and Iris “blew” life back into Osiris by sucking it. There are explicit images of this myth.
As an aside, Egyptian women were particularly well known for their sexual prowess. Egyptian women are also purported to be the first women to use makeup.
What about other ancient cultures like China, or India, where you have the Kama Sutra?
Indeed, these are two other ancient cultures that ritualized fellatio. Ancient China was similar to India insofar as there were practically no sexual censures or taboos whatsoever. But it was in India where we find the Kama Sutra. Today the Kama Sutra has been reduced to a sort of caricature of a sex manual, but in fact it’s a tome dedicated to the art of loving. An entire chapter in the Kama Sutra is devoted to an act called “auparishtaka,” otherwise known as “oral congress.” Oral congress involved eight highly descriptive and semicodified ways of performing fellatio. There are also detailed chapters on bites, scratches and other aspects of the aesthetic of the body.
You also cover a lot of Roman ground in your book.
Ancient Rome was a society of soldiers, of machos and rapists, and their perception of fellatio was interesting. The practice of fellatio in ancient Rome was perceived in terms of active and passive: The active one was in fact the person getting fellatio. In this case we’re talking about the soldier, the virile male. The passive one — usually a woman or a slave — was the one giving fellatio or, to understand it more clearly, the one receiving the penis.
Today, of course, it’s the other way around. We perceive the one who’s giving fellatio as the active one and the one receiving it as the passive one. But in Rome to give fellatio was a passive act, a submissive act. For example — and this is very clear in Roman texts — to punish a person who stole potatoes from his field, a Roman might oblige the person to give him fellatio. He might stand up, drop his pants and say, “Now you’re going to kneel down and take it in your mouth.” The one who was required to give fellatio was the passive one, the one who went against the valor of virility. The Roman perception is interesting.
We [again] find some aspects of the Roman idea in certain cultures that are slowing disappearing, for example, in New Guinea. There are initiation rituals for young people that involve practicing fellatio on adults and ingesting the sperm — sperm considered, of course, a vital, precious resource. These are not homosexual communities. On the contrary, the fellatio ritual is performed to make men acquire strong, active, macho values in a society where women are totally submissive and dominated.
The Incas were the same. There are traces on their pottery that suggest that, like New Guinea, fellatio was a practice modeled on domination and power.
Western European culture didn’t necessarily ritualize fellatio, but there was a time when it was much more openly libertine than today.
Yes, even in Western culture going back to the 18th century. In 18th century France the upper clergy lived according to principles that were similar to Roman times. You had your chapel, your chateau, your wife and then all your mistresses. The bishops lived this way as well. The population of 18th century Paris was 600,000, with 30,000 recorded prostitutes. That’s enormous. Enormous. In the Palais Royal 50,000 little booklets from the 18th century were found; they were mini-directories of prostitutes and their specialties. One can assume that fellatio was a basic staple here.
Obviously the church has played a significant role in condemning fellatio.
As recently as the 19th century, sexual pleasure and any relation that didn’t lead directly to procreation — even within the structure of a traditional marriage — were mortal sins. So fellatio was, and remains to some extent, a taboo. The only sexual activity sanctioned by the Catholic Church is coitus for the strict purpose of procreation. In the 19th century there was also a relationship between religion and medicine that came together under the general aegis of onanism. In fact everything fell under the aegis of onanism: fellatio, petting, lesbianism, masturbation. There were priests who were also doctors, and many of them wrote lengthy descriptions of apocalyptic things that could happen to anyone who practiced any form of onanism.
That’s similar to notions about circumcision back in the Victorian era in America. Doctors and religious officials associated the foreskin with masturbation, which was in turn associated with horrific physical and mental aberrations. That’s where we find the roots of systematic circumcision in America. There’s not much difference here between the two cultures.
What about countries where women have few — or less — social liberties than contemporary Western women do? Islamic countries, for example.
Islam shares a common ground with Judeo-Christian societies in that fellatio is condemned in part because it is not directly linked to the act of procreation. In traditional Islamic cultures — as in black African cultures — there’s a taboo associated with the mouth. The mouth is a “pure organ”; it’s an organ of the spoken word, of the truth. Fellatio, in this light, sullies the mouth.
You suggest in your book that this is why the Islamic veil covers the mouth.
Of course. There’s an immediate analogy right there in the word “lips” between the vagina and the mouth. That analogy has obviously been overexploited today. Fellatio sexualizes the mouth, makes the mouth a sexual organ in and of itself. There are, after all, few things more suggestive than a highly made-up mouth. The Islamic veil can be criticized, but there’s a logic behind it. What’s being hidden is, in part, all that which is intimate.
There are also cultures that don’t practice fellatio at all.
Yes, the Inuit culture, for example. Fellatio is something that takes away their strength, that can potentially weaken them. They have more important things to do, like hunting seal. In a culture where the mouth is not a sexual object — we shouldn’t forget that Eskimos kiss with their noses — fellatio is a taboo. Interestingly, according to French anthropologist Jean Malaurie, Eskimos have extremely quiet sex. An Eskimo orgasm is barely audible. In a communal igloo lovemaking is rarely perceived [by others].
When did fellatio become an act unto itself?
It’s hard to say, but it’s safe to assume that as a contemporary phenomenon fellatio took center stage as an act unto itself when it began to figure prominently in X-rated films. “Deep Throat” and Linda Lovelace had a lot to do with making fellatio almost a cultural cliché.
You touch only lightly on Freud and his views about fellatio.
There’s such an enormous amount of literature written by and about Freud — and it is so easy to fall prey to certain platitudes — that I’ve been careful here. Freud obviously spent a great deal of energy describing our oral, anal and genital stages, but it would be a gross simplification to say that people who smoke a lot or are heavily into oral sex are stuck in the oral stage. Freud doesn’t speak directly much about it. He evokes it, but he passes quickly over the subject. Of course he heard about fellatio in the course of treating patients, but he never drew a specific theory as it relates to the oral stage in our development. It’s somewhat of a paradox. I’m not a psychoanalyst, so I don’t want to make any sweeping commentary here.
There has been some talk about teens in America having oral sex at increasingly younger ages and with increasing casualness. This seems very much the opposite of how it’s perceived in France, where fellatio is considered more intimate than lovemaking. To what do you attribute these particular cultural differences?
We have to be careful not to generalize and stereotype here. But on some level Monica Lewinsky has become a symbol for us. She performed fellatio, talked about it, made money off of it. In her milieu, people engage in superficial sex; they don’t commit or engage themselves. It’s not about lovemaking. In France we’re more Mediterranean; we don’t take these things lightly. You’ll never find a French Monica Lewinsky. She performed the most lucrative blow job in the history of humanity.
It’s unlikely that Lewinsky was thinking about the historical or financial ramifications of fellating the president when she was doing it.
Maybe not, but she clearly profited from it later. If Lewinsky is a symbol of anything, she’s a symbol of America’s relationship to money and sex.
You cite a few polls in your book. One of them suggests that only 32 percent of women give fellatio out of pleasure; the remaining roughly two-thirds do it as an obligation.
What’s clear is that a certain number of women find fellatio violent. Some refuse completely to do it. They find it degrading, particularly the posture involved in performing oral sex. Certain women, on the other hand, consider it as an intimate exchange, a gift.
This reminds me of another study you cite in your book. A 1993 French report called the “Rapport Spira-Bajos” indicated that the majority of women who perform fellatio are educated women with a certain level of social status. It seemed to reveal a sort of social hierarchy around fellatio.
Yes, I think that’s uncontestable. Women who have participated in certain social movements — women’s liberation, the right to abortion, the pill, etc. — are the most inclined to explore their sexuality and hence have an impact on sexual practices on some level. And these women are usually more educated, are more aware, have a certain level of accomplishment in their lives. The idea of the lustful, country farm-girl-type bumpkin is really more a fantasy than a reality.
There’s also a big perception/reality difference between what figures in a poll tell us and what images tell us. Images in, for example, pornography. There are around 15 states in America that have criminalized fellatio, and yet America is by far the biggest producer of pornography on earth. Curious for a so-called Puritan country.
Indeed. Pornographic cinema is an American business. There’s very little of it going on in Europe. America produces an astronomical quantity of pornographic material, and almost all of it invariably features fellatio.
Are human beings the only mammals who practice fellatio?
There are certain male chimpanzees who lick their female mates, but that of course is called cunnilingus, and it seems as much an act of hygiene and play as it does an expression of innate sexual pleasure. It’s certainly not an act in and of itself. While animals have an incredibly rich and complex sexual life, we humans are unique. As far as fellatio is concerned, at least as a sexual act unto itself, we human beings are all alone in the animal kingdom.
Annie Auguste is a pseudonym for a writer living in Los Angeles.More Annie Auguste.
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)