"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)
Abby Ehmann, a redhead who stands nearly 6 feet tall, surveys the basement area of Club Mother in Manhattan’s meatpacking district. Pushed against the wall is a balding man with glasses having clothespins clipped to his bare chest by a sneering woman in a black latex bodysuit. He cries out in pain, and she slaps him into submission.
Across the small room dimly lighted with red light bulbs, a crowd gathers in silence around two dominatrixes as they bind the hands and feet of a willing clubgoer and hang him by his wrists to a wooden post. Everything is in order, says Ehmann, who pledges to meet the tastes of fetishists and spectators who come to her regular Saturday night party, Click + Drag, at Club Mother. (The club closes Thursday, so Click + Drag is seeking another venue in Manhattan.)
“I’m the kink controller here at Click + Drag, which means I have to keep people in line,” says the 40-year-old Ehmann. “I make sure that nothing gets out of control — just kinky.”
She soon flexes her kink-control muscle. Making her way through the main dance floor upstairs in her thigh-high latex platform boots, she spots a young man jumping about with his penis dangling from an open zipper. She grabs him and says, “For the last time, put it away or I will cut it off.” The man complies.
“I had to tell that guy three times to put it back in his pants,” Ehmann says. “No one wants to get hit with a stranger’s penis while they’re dancing! We have rules here — no bare genitals. You can show your ass and your breasts, so people think they can expose it all. But we don’t intend to get closed down by [Mayor Rudy] Giuliani.”
Ehmann has many titles in addition to kink controller. She is the “editrix” of Extreme Fetish magazine — dubbed “The best alternative sex publication in New York” by TimeOut magazine. She is on the board of directors of Feminists for Free Expression, an organization that fights restrictions on free speech, and she is a writer and a performer. But for all her roles, Ehmann has only one mission: to satisfy the appetites of New Yorkers who are not sated by polite and sterile living.
Her goal is not an easy one. This night has been particularly arduous for Ehmann. Earlier, while watching the door, she wrangled with two drunken tourists with thick Southern accents who insisted on entering the club and hurled obscenities at her when she refused them entry. Towering over them, with her hands on her hips, Ehmann told the boys, “We have a strict dress code here. Absolutely no denim, khakis or mundane clothing. You cannot come in.”
The theme at Click + Drag tonight is “Circus Sideshow.” All are encouraged to come dressed in circus couture and freak fashion. Ehmann, as “mistress of ceremonies,” wears a black top hat, red coattails and a thinly penciled-in mustache that curls at her cheeks.
“We have to turn away people all the time because of the dress code,” says Ehmann. “If they are not dressed to theme then they must follow the fashion guidelines. Otherwise access denied.” She explains that the code adds to the atmosphere of Club Mother and keeps away the “bridge and tunnel crowd.”
The dress code, posted on Club Mother’s Web site and clearly stated on its voice mail is: “Cyberslut, fetish, rubber, latex, Sexy Robot, Vampyre, Anime, Trekkie, Cyberpunk, Genderhacker and at a very minimum, creative black.”
Ehmann has been presiding over Click + Drag since 1996 with Club Mother owner Chi Chi Valenti, media artist Rob Roth and designer Kitty Boots. The idea behind the party was to meld sex, fetish and technology. The monthly themes and performances add spice.
The music fades, which is Ehmann’s cue to get onstage. She moves quickly, heading behind the red velvet curtain. The room is nearly silent. The curtain parts to a techno beat, and Ehmann steps forward. She tips her top hat, and the throng of fetishists, club kids and clowns applauds. Someone screams, “Abby, we love you!” She smiles and opens her arms as if to hug the entire crowd.
Ehmann introduces “the Reverend” Deacon Frost, a performer who eats glass and sticks pins through his body. She glides off the stage, then watches the crowd grimace and moan at the site of a chewed light bulb. Frost sticks a large needle through his cheek, taunts the audience a bit by wiggling it out his mouth, then pushes it through the other cheek. Ehmann smiles. She has offered an alternative to the “sanitized night life” of Giuliani’s New York.
When the crowd finally dissipates around 3:30 a.m., she goes to her East Village apartment, peels off the latex boots, scrubs off the mustache and climbs into a pair of old pajamas.
Her husband of five years, Eric Danville, is waiting with their dog, Zoe. Ehmann crawls into their four-poster bed draped with feather boas and wigs and gets some much-needed rest. She has a lot of work ahead of her. She must finalize the next issue of Extreme Fetish, review porn films, answer letters from readers and requests for her used panties, go to the gym, call her parents, walk the dog and clean the apartment.
“I’m just really normal,” says Ehmann. She enjoys sitting in front of the TV in sweat pants with her husband, a pornographer, and spending time on the phone talking to her sister and her young niece. Ehmann says she has a great relationship with her parents as well, who are “cool” about her lifestyle.
In her cluttered one-bedroom apartment off Avenue A, one wall of the living room is filled with family photos. She was born in New Jersey and raised in upstate New York. She lived in California for a while, then moved back to New York, where she has been living for the past 16 years. On the opposite wall, photos of friends, including well-known porn stars, line the shelves of the bookcase, along with Halloween knickknacks that remain year-round. It is her favorite holiday, as well as the date of her wedding anniversary.
Piles of porn videos clutter the floor of the apartment. She and her husband receive packages every day with videos to review — he for Penthouse and she for Extreme Fetish. Ehmann says this is one of the toughest parts of the job because the videos seem to all blend together. Nevertheless, she has to say something different about each one for her magazine. “The worst are those videos that are part of a series like ‘Anal Gangbang No. 12,’ or videos that are just shots of blow jobs and that’s it,” says Ehmann. “As much of a fan of blow jobs as I am, it couldn’t be more boring.” Danville also writes video reviews for Extreme Fetish, and fetish-related articles, but he does not get paid for his contributions. “I just have to give him blow jobs,” Ehmann laughs.
The couple first met in 1993 when she answered a New York Times ad listing a job opening at Screw magazine, where Danville worked. “I thought he was an obnoxious rock hipster,” says Ehmann. “A couple of months later we met at a party and had a fabulous one-night stand that has lasted six years. We are two pornographers in love,” Ehmann adds.
It was around 1996 that Ehmann began her crusade to make New York more “sex friendly.” Giuliani was in City Hall, and the showdown began between the strip club and sex shop owners and the Times Square Business Improvement District. She started a fanzine called Porn Free with the idea of giving away pornography. “I thought, hey, there’s a niche that no one is filling. Of course, it wasn’t very profitable.” Ehmann gave up Porn Free after being approached in 1997 by D&L Enterprises, a publishing company, to be the editor of a fetish magazine.
It was Ehmann’s goal to create a sex publication that would provide fetishists with content suited to their needs. Each monthly issue of Extreme Fetish has a particular theme, such as latex, shoe fetishes or musclebound divas. The magazine is distributed to more than 30,000 readers nationally and is also available online.
Ehmann’s entire editorial budget totals $5,000. “I do it all, so it keeps the costs low,” she says. The magazine’s headquarters is a section of her apartment that includes a Macintosh computer and piles of letters and photos she receives from readers. The letters take up three pages of the magazine and include stories of people’s fetish fantasies and requests for what they would like to see in the magazine.
One reader, Dave, writes to tell of his dream of having “unisex bathrooms where toilets surround a table … it would be neat to sit down next to a strange woman.” Ehmann published Dave’s letter and her reply, which states, “I am perpetually engaged in assisting people with the realization of their fantasies … I have tossed around the idea and may put together a photo shoot. So be patient, Dave. Dreams do come true.”
Another reader offers insight on “how culture compartmentalizes us — so that even our sexuality is divided into procreative and sinful. Viewing fetish may lead to new understandings and tolerance in the human condition.” He ends his letter by stating, “If you ever need pictures of a male using suction cups on his nipples … or pretending to be an amputee, let me know.”
Ehmann did not respond to this letter. She says she gets plenty of photos from her readers displaying their fetishes. She has just published one reader’s photos showing his sweater fetish. In one of the pictures, a man is wrapped in Angora sweaters from head to toe and bound with rope. In another, the man is swaddled under 20 thick sweaters. The accompanying letter thanks Ehmann for giving readers an outlet to share their desires and not feel like “freaks.”
Ehmann pulls all the letters that she will publish in the next issue and jumps to her Macintosh computer. She is frantic, with less than an hour to get the photos and artwork to the color separators. Extreme Fetish is already a month behind on this issue, devoted to medical fetishes, because of setbacks with the previous “Tits & Abs” issue featuring bodybuilders and physical domination.
“We’re running behind because for the last issue we had to individually glue in 30,000 scratch-and-sniff stickers of stinky feet,” says Ehmann. “When boxes of these stickers showed up at my door, my whole apartment smelled like stinky feet — not that it didn’t already.” Pungency aside, the issue also had to be retouched a great deal to remove the athletic logos from the model’s gym clothes to avoid potential lawsuits from companies that don’t wish to be featured in porn magazines.
Gathering everything she needs for the separator and printer, she checks herself in the mirror before heading out. Her red hair is piled on top of her head in a knot. She is not wearing any makeup, exposing her freckles. Wearing a pair of old blue sweats, she rushes out the door, looking like the alter ego of the fetish diva pictured on her editorial page.
Ehmann herself has a tattoo fetish. “I have star tattoos running from my ankle to my thigh. By the end of the year, I will have 2,000 stars, for the year 2000.” She also has a tattoo of a crown below her bellybutton, which she calls her “royal muff” tattoo. She admits her fetish is not as extreme as those of her readers.
“I am not a lifestyle dominatrix, contrary to what many people think,” says Ehmann, although she has played the role at La Nouvelle Justine, a sadomasochism-themed restaurant. She left the S/M supper club scene disagreeing with its premise. “Who wants to eat with a bare, hairy ass next to them?” she explains. She also feels that such places could perpetuate the myth that being a dominatrix is simply about “paddling someone’s ass.”
“It is a responsibility,” Ehmann says. “Being a dominatrix means meeting the slave’s needs psychologically as well as through physical punishment. It is just like being married.”
Ehmann says that one of the goals of Extreme Fetish is to dispel the myths people may have about S&M and other fetish lifestyles. It is the misconceptions, she says, that lead to fear and censorship.
As a fervent First Amendment defender, Ehmann has waged war against restrictions on free speech on her own and with Feminists for Free Expression. In 1998, when Giuliani used a zoning law to close down more than 90 percent of New York’s sex shops and strip clubs, Ehmann, along with others in the close-knit sex industry, protested in Times Square. She has also fought City Hall over its attacks on the Brooklyn Museum’s “Sensation” exhibit.
On a national level, Ehmann and the Feminists for Free Expression also fought the Communications and Decency Act and its restrictions on “indecent” and “offensive” speech on the Internet. The Supreme Court ultimately declared the act unconstitutional.
Ehmann says that censorship is often coupled with the excuse that it is for the protection of women. She believes that suppression of pornography doesn’t reduce harm to women and has often been used to stifle expression of women’s sexuality.
“Sexism, not sex, degrades women,” says Ehmann. And the answer to bad pornography, she believes, is good pornography, not no pornography.
Marisa Kakoulas is a New York writer and attorney. She recently completed her tour of duty at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.More Marisa Kakoulas.
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)