"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)
There was a pounding on my hotel bungalow door, followed by a sharp but powerful woman’s voice in Russian.
“A towel is missing in Room 17! Who stole the towel in room 17?”
I jumped out of bed and swung open the door. A fat, middle-aged woman in a sweaty smock stood there wheezing, waving a frayed hand towel that had gone gray with grime. Her feet were swollen red and jammed into cheap sandals, her straw-colored hair like a Brillo pad and wrapped under an old scarf. “It looks just like this one,” she said. “You Americans had better give it back!”
She stomped from bungalow to bungalow, shouting about towels. I was one of two Russian speakers in our group. I dressed and went outside, sensing that soon I would be called into service as a translator.
It was a warm, cloudy morning in Moscow in June 1985, and I was 24. Twenty days earlier my American tour group, riding Volkswagen minibuses, had crossed the Soviet frontier near the town of Vyborg, just east of Finland. Starting with the five-hour entry ceremony, little had gone smoothly. Soviet border guards had examined every orifice of the minibuses, peering into tailpipes and checking under the hoods, dismantling seats and pulling apart floors and doors and finally running the vehicles over mechanics pits to check underneath. They snatched every cassette in our possession and played snippets of them on their rusty old recorders; they perused every book and notepad in our luggage; they counted and recorded every dollar, franc and mark in our wallets. During their search they uncovered a stash of literature in Russian on God and alcoholism (forbidden); its carrier, a pleasant young woman with missionary inclinations and doe eyes, was taken away and strip-searched. After she returned, a volley of rude exchanges passed between the border guards and us (we were, after all, tourists — was this how they treated tourists?), but they allowed us to enter. We headed south, stopping in Novgorodka, Leningrad and, finally, Moscow.
Our hotel was out on the edge of the city, in a suburb of six-lane avenues, gray bunker institutes and patches of poplar forest. It could have been a peaceful place.
Following the shouts about towels and Americans, I walked down to the office marked “dezhurnaya” (floor manager) at the end of the row of bungalows. The fat woman grabbed my elbow. Her eyes were small and mean, and I smelled sweat. “Tell your friends to cough up a towel just like this one, and fast!”
“This sounds serious,” I said.
“It is serious,” she answered, her voice somehow turning vulnerable. “Nadezhda Ivanovna will explain everything.”
We walked into the floor manager’s office. Seated behind her desk, Nadezhda looked to be in her mid-30s. Her face bore the narrow lineaments that aristocratic blood imparts to Russians, and her amber hair was rolled into a bun, loops of it dangling over her petite ears. Between her delicate fingers she held a cigarette, and a pack of Marlboros sat upright on her desk. Behind her on the wall hung a poster of St. Basil’s Cathedral captioned with the bold words “THE SOVIET UNION — LAND OF TOURISM.”
Nadezhda got up from behind her desk and pressed flat the wrinkled folds of her strawberry-and-cream sundress. She looked at me and took a slow drag on her cigarette. The maid raved and waved the towel. Nadezhda puffed her Marlboro, smiled and asked if I knew who might have taken the towel. She was concerned, she said, for the maid: Everything in the hotel was registered as state property, and if anything, even a ratty old towel, went missing, the maid would have to pay for it out of her 90-ruble-a-month salary (the equivalent of $15 on the black market).
I had no idea who could have taken the towel, but Nadezhda’s poise commanded attention. Moreover, she exuded a knowing sensuality that, as Guy de Maupassant would have said, “troubled” me. She straightened her dress again, pressing it down around her firm curves. “So,” she said again, “have any idea who might have taken it?”
It suddenly seemed to me that locating towel thieves was a serious matter.
“I don’t know. But I can ask around.”
She took another drag on her cigarette. At this point I became aware of a third presence in the office. At the back of the room, leaning on one elbow on a sofa, was a young woman my age or a bit older. I examined her from the feet up. Her sandal-shod arched feet ended in scarlet toenails; her calves were silky bronze. Over a blue skirt and blouse she wore a maid’s white smock, beneath which two heavy orbs distended her bra. Her neck was slender, her cheeks broad and Slavic — rubicund with a bit too much sun — and her eyes a wan blue. She yawned, brushing aside a shock of brown hair, and, taking a drag on her cigarette, regarded me with what appeared to be languorous amusement, as if she understood the ridiculousness of the scene but knew it would all work out in the end.
The angry maid resumed her bellowing. “Nadezhda Ivanovna, I’ve got to get my towel back, now!”
Nadezhda raised her eyebrows. “I think this young man will do all he can to find it. Why don’t we give him till the next shift?”
The maid relented. Stealing a look at the young woman on the couch, troubled, I returned to my room.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
The next morning I lay in bed as if drugged by the heat. A shuffling in the room indicated that, once again, Soviet maids had invaded without knocking. I opened my eyes, focusing on scarlet toenails and bronzed calves.
“Sleep! Sleep!” said the languorous maid from the previous day. “I just want to do my cleaning on time.”
I lay on the bed, feigning a return to sleep, but with my eyes slit open. As she swept, her breasts swung, her hair batted the side of her face, her toes curled in her sandals. I rose in my bed and faked a yawn. “Actually, I think I’ll get up. I …”
She smiled. “My name is Svetlana. Come to the dezhurnaya’s office. I have my break in a few minutes.” She walked out and shut the door behind her.
I flung myself from the bed and into the shower. Within 20 minutes I was at the dezhurnaya’s door. Nadezhda invited me in. Svetlana was reclining on the couch again.
Nadezhda asked, “May I help you?”
Svetlana smiled and looked away. I didn’t know what to say.
“I … I just wanted to see if you found the towel.”
She moved her eyebrows. “You’re very concerned with state property, aren’t you? Americans are so law-abiding.”
“Oh, well, I … I didn’t want the maid to have to pay.”
Svetlana giggled from the couch.
Nadezhda stole a look at Svetlana, then suppressed a smile and said, “Look, young man, how would you like to come over to my apartment — for an informal meeting.” More giggles from Svetlana. “In a more informal setting, that is.”
Svetlana ran her fingers through her hair. I mumbled a grateful and affirmative response.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
The next afternoon, in a high-rise somewhere out among the last stops on the metro line, I stood knocking on Nadezhda’s door. With me I had brought L’eggs stockings, Bic pens, postcards of the U.S. — what I had heard Russians liked to receive as gifts from Westerners.
Nadezhda opened the door. She looked to see if anyone had followed me, pulled me inside and shut the door softly.
She wore a white dress that showed her curves. Her hair hung free, falling around her shoulders; her nose, I noticed, was aquiline, more prominent than that of most Slavs, and pointed. Her demeanor exuded poise and elegance. I felt myself suddenly in the presence of a woman of sophistication.
On her walls were paintings and gilded icons and shelves displaying silver tea services, boxes inlaid with gems, gold cigarette cases and crystal champagne glasses.
“I … I brought you stockings … and pens.” I proffered my gifts.
She took them and set them aside.
Svetlana appeared in the kitchen doorway. She was wearing a tight blue and white sailor’s blouse and a knee-length blue skirt. “Privyet! You’ve come for lunch, too?” she asked, addressing me with the informal “ty” that bespoke a breaking of the ice. In this situation, it promised some sort of intimacy.
Then Nadezhda, also using “ty,” asked me to have a seat for lunch at a table beneath the icons. After serving us borscht and cutlets, she told me flat out that she dealt in contraband art, and that her husband was in prison for the same.
I nodded as if I had understood all along, but I couldn’t resist asking, “Aren’t you afraid to be telling me all this?”
“I can trust you, I know it. I just wanted you to know what’s on my walls. Those aren’t counterfeits.”
Svetlana smoked and said nothing. Nadezhda then produced a tall bottle of vodka, and to switch the subject I mentioned Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign — it was tough to find anything to drink, except in hard-currency shops. She smiled again: She was clearly above such matters, and I felt silly for saying anything.
We resumed our meal. She handled her silverware with decorum — I couldn’t escape the thought that she was descended from noble stock, and that I was in the presence of a countess, if a felonious one.
After the meal, while Nadezhda was clearing the table, Svetlana and I began chatting, and I asked her out on a date. She smiled in a noncommittal way, then said, “Meet me at the Molodyozhnoye metro station tomorrow evening at 7.”
Thoroughly troubled, I returned to the hotel to await our date.
The next evening I rode the metro out to Molodyozhnoye. It was an open-air station. Poplar seed puffs blew around and eddied in the slanting light of evening. The air was hot and smelled of apple trees and lilacs. Svetlana was waiting by the exit, in the same blue skirt and sailor’s top she had been wearing before. She smiled and said hello.
There were suddenly hands over my eyes from someone standing behind me.
It was Nadezhda. Beaming, she bounced around and strutted before me. I forced a smile, feeling a twinge of anxiety, lamenting the loss of intimacy with Svetlana to which I had been looking forward.
They each grabbed an elbow and led me down the stairs to the street. “My driver will take us to the restaurant,” Nadezhda said.
A bored-looking Armenian with a low brow and big ears was sitting in a beat-up old Lada, reading Pravda. We got in. We trundled down long thoroughfares, rumbling this way and that across wide intersections, and I quickly lost all sense of where we were headed. Finally, we arrived at a Georgian restaurant somewhere on the southern edge of Moscow, a concrete box with high windows, identifiable as something other than a bunker only by its Georgian-alphabet sign. It was dark and crowded and hot; the place had been heated all day by the sun. There were beautiful, swan-necked women at every table; with them sat swarthy thugs with mustaches and gold rings. Onstage a band was warming up. The mantre d’ led us to a reserved table.
I turned my attention to Svetlana, who maintained her languor even here in the heat. This languor seemed to be impenetrable, beatific in a way — but what lay behind it? Unbridled passion? Gasping sensuality? I wondered.
Nadezhda opened her menu. “Well, what shall we drink, vodka or cognac?”
“Is there beer?” I asked.
“Beer? They don’t have beer in places like this. So, will it be vodka or cognac?” She turned to the waiter and addressed him by name. “Slava, that will be vodka and cognac.”
He brought the bottles and zakuski, or hors d’oeuvres — slices of sausage, tongue and salami, much of it quite spicy and thirst-provoking. Nadezhda poured three shot glasses full of cognac. We toasted to our new friendship and knocked back our shots, then bit into the zakuski. I drank to the dregs and so did Nadezhda, but Svetlana lagged behind just a little. After the third shot my head began to spin, but I felt deliciously relaxed and suddenly empowered, happy to be in Moscow in a Georgian restaurant with two beautiful women; I was ready to risk anything. That Nadezhda, too, had turned up at the station bothered me no more.
The band played Alla Pugachova songs, smarmy and danceable Russian pop with heavy beats and clarion vocals; ballads followed, tear-jerking and ponderous, and the more cognac I drank, the more I loved every song, the more I savored my good luck. Our meal came — a medley of fiery dishes with long Georgian names — and we dug in. Savoring the spices of the Caucasus mountain republic a thousand miles to the south, feeling the cognac course through my veins, I saw entire worlds opening up before me: There was so much in this country to explore!
The cognac finished, Nadezhda uncapped the vodka. When songs came on that the two of them liked, they signaled their delight by squirming in their seats until I asked them to dance. I switched between the two, now taking Nadezhda, now Svetlana. Many of the other women shimmying on the floor with us were equally beautiful, with the sort of bobbed, flouncy haircuts I associated with American women in the mod, pre-hippie era of the mid-’60s. They had made up for a lack of Western couture by sewing their own dresses, creating classy and elegant outfits using patterns cut out of magazines — or at least this was what Nadezhda told me. She also said that many of them, including Svetlana, had only one nice outfit, which they washed and ironed every time they went out.
For years I had been studying Russian history in graduate school in the States, watching Soviet television on satellite TV, socializing with Russian imigris. I had thought that I understood a lot about these people, but I suddenly realized that I knew nothing important: I did not know how they lived, danced, caroused or loved. Even now, listening to Nadezhda, I could hardly fathom the poverty that the small salaries and tiny wardrobes indicated. My own life had been too protected for me to sense the limits in the lives of others.
We downed more shots — or at least Nadezhda and I did; Svetlana began abstaining. When the lights dimmed and a slow song came on, I pulled Svetlana onto the floor and put my arms around her. Up close I smelled not perfume, not sweat, but soap; I also smelled the sweet-sour reek of vodka on her breath. Her front abutted and bobbled against my chest. She was not shy: With the same beatific languor, plus a dash of tipsiness, somewhere during the second slow song she raised her head to mine and we kissed. We started bumping into other couples who were similarly engaged on the dance floor. I reached up to stroke the wet, lank hair out of her eyes, and my hand brushed her cleavage; it was sweaty — and less firm than I had expected.
My heart pounded at the thought of what was going to happen at the end of the evening, and back at the table I resisted Nadezhda’s offer of more vodka. Then it occurred to me — what was going to happen with Nadezhda? She had horned in on my date, and I now felt leery of what was to come; I suspected her charm, and Svetlana’s as well, were being used against me in some clever way.
The band stopped playing and the lights flickered on. The waiter presented us — or rather me — with the bill. It was for 100 rubles (now equivalent to about $3.50), but I, having planned on dining only with Svetlana, had only two-thirds of that amount with me. My traveler’s checks were back in the hotel; there was no way to get to them now, and I told them this.
Svetlana sat back and passively observed Nadezhda’s reaction. In the harsh light, Nadezhda looked older and more severe and a bit matronly; her earlier knowing demeanor now hinted at disdain. “You really don’t have enough money?”
“A real man doesn’t come out on a date without enough money. A real man doesn’t even talk about money in front of girls. And he enjoys paying for his date.”
“I’m just telling you the situation. After all, I thought I was going to pay for two, not three.”
The resentment I felt about Nadezhda’s presence returned like a wave of foul air from a reeking lavatory. Who was she to lecture me about money and dates? She took a drag on her cigarette, her face betraying no sympathy: This was my problem, not hers. But then she leaned over and touched my forearm. “Do you want us to have to stay and wash dishes?”
She batted her eyes. The waiter stared at me. Svetlana yawned.
“I’m really sorry. This is all I have.” I placed the contents of my wallet on the table, keeping a few kopecks for the metro.
Stamping out her cigarette, Nadezhda got up and disappeared into a room marked “Staff Only.” There she made arrangements with the manager; they would bring the rest of the money another day.
We drove to a metro station. Nadezhda bid us a polite goodbye, and Svetlana and I got out. On the train back into town the other passengers were few and quiet; there was too much silence to for us to talk. While dancing I had entertained all sorts of thoughts about how to finagle my way into an invitation to her apartment, but I was now overcome with the workaday reality of the scene around me: Some of the people on the train were coming off late shifts, and Svetlana would have to be on the job at 8:30 in the morning.
Reaching her station, we walked out into the damp night and set off down a dark lane overhung with poplars. I felt terrible, confused about how the evening had ended, and I told Svetlana this. She heard me out, shrugged, then began telling me about her life. She was divorced; she had a daughter away at camp by the Black Sea; she had a few girlfriends, but no one to whom she was really close. Her voice expressed a sadness, a resignation that I could not touch, so I just listened. Her life, she said, was “odna obydennost,” just a bland succession of days with nothing to look forward to, but no tragedy to fear, either. The state would take care of her, as it had taken care of her parents and grandparents.
We stopped by an old stone building — her building. She looked down at her feet, then back up at me. She had not intended to beguile me; her voluptuousness was genuine and she was comfortable with it. The commercialized culture of celebrity and beauty and manic dieting that I had known in the United States (and that would have surely put her among the ranks of unattainable belles had she lived there) did not exist here. I felt at first as though this made her naive in a way — her world looked simpler than mine — but then I realized our lives and cultures were so different that comparisons were pointless. She had allowed Nadezhda to come along, but then I would leave and Nadezhda was her boss, and Nadezhda, it appeared, always got what she wanted. Even if I had been used, what did I understand of what it took to get ahead in this country?
There were two worlds then, a socialist one and a capitalist one, and the wall between them kept us apart. The separation created mystery, but in some things in the Soviet Union, especially in relations between men and women, the mystery hid a hardscrabble and banal reality far more complex and difficult to deal with than anything in the States. Western feminism and the sexual revolution had barely affected the Soviet Union, but the differences between the sexes in our two worlds went far deeper than that: Here, feelings and desire and sexual charm were put in the service of goals determined by self-interest, by power and poverty, by a history of upheaval and famine and tyranny that made simple friendship and love rare and all the more cherishable. I did not deserve her trust; I deserved how she had treated me.
My head began to ache from the booze. She promised to come early the next morning and spend time with me before her shift. We kissed. She turned and walked to her doorway, and I walked back toward the metro station to catch the last train. The muggy June night was still fragrant with apple trees and lilacs; in two or three short hours it would pale into phosphorescent green, then tint rose and orange and finally open into limpid blue, only very gradually giving way to the sun. By 4:30 in the morning, when I would already be asleep in my hotel room, the sun would be flooding the high-rises and gray bunker institutes, gilding the windows, and the firmament would radiate a richer azure than I had ever seen before.
She did not come early the next morning to see me.
A few days later, our group reassembled by the Volkswagens and took the road south out of Moscow.
Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.More Jeffrey Tayler.
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)