"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)
Readers of my horoscope column are often shocked when I say that I only believe in astrology about 80 percent. “You admit you’re a quack?!” they blurt out in dismay. No, I explain. I’ve been a passionate student of the ancient art for more than a quarter of a century. About the time my overeducated young brain was on the verge of desertification, crazy wisdom showed up in the guise of astrology, moistening my soul just in time to save it.
“But what about the other 20 percent?” my forlorn inquisitors press on, praying that I’m not betraying their trust. “Are you saying that your horoscopes are only partially true?”
I assure them that my doubt proves my love. By cultivating a tender, cheerful skepticism, I inoculate myself against the virus of fanaticism.
This ensures that astrology will remain a supple tool in my hands, an adaptable art form, and not a rigid, explain-it-all dogma that distorts and overliteralizes the very mysteries it seeks to illuminate.
I am, I confess, absolutely certain that I loathe absolute certainty. Rabid belief is a mental illness for which I aspire to be an antidote. But wouldn’t it be fraudulent for me to sabotage — I mean heal — only the manias that repel me and are easiest for me to ridicule? Of course, which is why the tricksters I most respect are those who mess with their own totems and taboos — like my anarchist acquaintance from Eugene, Ore., who shocked his compadres by torching their prized black flag in front of them.
During one of my recent lectures, an audience member wearing a T-shirt covered with mathematical equations hurled a hostile query at me during the question and answer segment. “Why do you diss science so relentlessly?” he complained.
My accuser obviously wasn’t a thorough reader of my column. Otherwise he would have come across horoscopes that belied his theory, like the ones in which I reverently quoted astronomical research from Sky & Telescope magazine, conjured metaphors from my study of bird migration patterns and invoked the work of seminal physicists Max Planck and Erwin Schrvdinger.
“Some of my best friends are scientists,” I teased him, then quickly moved on to the next question. The dude hadn’t done his homework, for Sagan’s sake. I wasn’t about to indulge him in his ignorance. Had he demonstrated more scientific objectivity, I would have gladly said the following: While I certainly do sneak in critiques of scientism now and then, they’re no more frequent than my skewerings of New Age fluff-and-crap-mongers. I am an equal-opportunity skeptic. I believe in science about 80 percent — I give it the same degree of credence as I give all the systems of thought I love and use.
Of course that means I get no respect from serious scientists and hard-ass astrologers alike. “He has no standing in the profession,” declared Henry Weingarten, New York Astrology Center’s director, quoted in a story about me in the New York Times. But I like it that way. Thanks, Henry, my man! The more completely I’m dismissed by credentialed experts, the fewer limits there are on my aspiration to be a perfect nobody.
Do the planets control our fates? Are we merely puppets of cosmic forces? “Hell, no!” I exult in my best imitation of a Southern cracker’s drawl. My utter lack of stature among professional stargazers means I’m free to create horoscopes that pump up my readers’ free will. The absence of peer pressure coming to bear on me from esteemed colleagues allows me to reinvent the astrology column as a poetic tool for nourishing the imagination.
Your horoscope for this week
ARIES (March 21-April 19): Aries painter Vincent van Gogh sliced off the lobe of his ear in the name of love. Aflame with romantic madness, the unappreciated genius hoped to impress his favorite whore at a nearby brothel with a unique gift. Unfortunately, the bloody snip of flesh did not serve its intended purpose. The woman fainted at the sight of it. Let this be a cautionary tale for you, Aries. I can assure you that love is capable of inspiring explosive creativity in you these days. Just make sure that the way you express it is not only a testament to your passionate brilliance but also something that’s actually desired by the object of your affections.
TAURUS (April 20-May 20): The monsters under your bed have been quite docile lately. The goblins in your closet also seem to have mellowed. Let’s see if we can trick them — I mean coax them — into continuing to be on their best behavior. What do you want to bet we might even train them to lick rather than bite, to croon rather than growl? Here’s an idea. Speak to them as if you were a hypnotist on a New Age self-help cassette, gently repeating affirmations like “You are a talented singer of lullabies and love to make people feel at home in the world.” Another suggestion: Leave cookies and milk under the bed and in the closet on every new moon and full moon.
GEMINI (May 21-June 20): I’ve always wanted to read “Canterbury Tales,” the masterpiece of 14th century poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Widely acknowledged to be a seminal text in the development of English poetry, it would no doubt make me a better and more interesting person. Alas, the damn thing is more than 600 pages long and written in indecipherable Middle English. With my all-consuming duties to my readers, I simply don’t have time to wrestle with it. My solution: read the 78-page Cliffs Notes version in Modern English. I highly recommend you seek analogous shortcuts this week, Gemini. In fact, let this epigram be your guide: If it’s quite impossible to do the totally right thing, find a way to do the half-right thing.
CANCER (June 21-July 22): The hydrangea bush outside my door is flourishing. Most of its exuberant purple-pink blooms jut jauntily sunward. But one flower — the biggest one — is weighed down by its prodigious vitality. So heavy is its gorgeous paroxysm of petals that it has become too ponderous for its stem to hold it up. It’s now slumped on the concrete next to the soil from which it grows. I hate to say it, my fellow Cancerian, but this sad spectacle reminds me of one of our tribe’s typical flaws. We are sometimes prone to clinging overprotectively to the extravagant beauty we feel building up inside us. It’s like we’re 12 months pregnant but still not ready to deliver. As a result, our gifts remain hidden within us, weighing us down and causing emotional congestion. Please avoid this fate in the coming weeks. Give liberally of your bounty.
LEO (July 23-Aug. 22): Welcome to your vocabulary lesson, class. We’ll be studying two related terms. The first is “epiphany.” Webster’s defines it thusly: “a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something; an intuitive grasp of reality through a simple and striking event.” What the dictionary doesn’t say is that this aha! experience typically inspires a sweet, dreamy state of oneness with the universe. Our second term today is “smart-ass epiphany.” In addition to the benefits of a mere epiphany, a smart-ass epiphany packs a fiery, aggressive punch. It often moves you to cackle or unleash a wicked joke. In the wake of it, you feel a spectacular decisiveness about what concrete actions must be taken to infuse righteous order into the sloppy places of your life. (P.S. You’re scheduled for a smart-ass epiphany this week.)
VIRGO (Aug. 23-Sept. 22): What explains your freaky forays into altered states of logic, Virgo? A brand new allergy? Possession by spirits that can’t decide if they’re demonic or angelic? An overload of guilt leading to a collapse of your defense mechanisms, allowing a flood of repressed emotions to wash your brain clean of all certainties? Whatever the cause, I advise you to go with the overflow. As disorienting as it may seem now, it’ll lead to a sweet, rich lucidity if you don’t resist it.
LIBRA (Sept. 23-Oct. 22): Traditionally, the Seven Deadly Sins — actions most likely to wound the soul — are pride, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, sloth and covetousness. But I’d like to propose a different set of soul-harmers for you, Libra. The Five Foolish Flaws are as follows: being analytical to such extremes that you repress your intuition; observing the action from a safe remove rather than leaping into the messy but fun fray; sacrificing your pleasure through a compulsive attachment to duty; tolerating excessive stress because you assume it’s normal; and denying yourself your well-deserved rewards out of fear of appearing selfish.
SCORPIO (Oct. 23-Nov. 21): Half a millennium ago, the French and Spanish flocked to the New World driven by a greed for financial gain. The first English settlers came, on the other hand, fueled by idealism. They sought the freedom to practice their strict religious principles unhampered by the decadence of Old World cultures. What does this have to do with you, Scorpio? I urge you to imitate both approaches. Your next incursions into the frontier will thrive best if you’re motivated by both selfish and noble intentions.
SAGITTARIUS (Nov. 22-Dec. 21): I’m detecting hairline fractures in some of your oldest pet theories. From the standpoint of your priest or rabbi or guru, this might be a dangerous sign — a mandate to shore up your attachments to tradition and conventional wisdom. But if you ask me, it’s a very exciting development. I take it to mean you’re becoming increasingly receptive to hot, fresh data that contradict your most rigid dogmas. While the authority figures in your life might counsel you to drop everything and patch up those cracks, I hope you pick up a sledgehammer and swing it with uninhibited glee.
CAPRICORN (Dec. 22-Jan. 19): Let’s just acknowledge that none of us is likely to find happiness with a soul mate until we master the art of loving ourselves with great ingenuity. That’s why I’m a passionate advocate of a new sacrament: getting married to yourself. I believe it should be the initial step in creating a successful relationship with a significant other. Are you game, Capricorn? It’s prime time, astrologically speaking, to create your own rite of matrimony. Here’s a suggestion for the conclusion: Gaze into a mirror and vow, “I will never forsake you; I will always cherish you; I will do with you what the spring does to the cherry trees.”
AQUARIUS (Jan. 20-Feb. 18): Mozart believed that most musicians display their skills more readily when they can play quickly; it’s harder to be a slow-moving maestro. As a rock singer for 20 years, I’ve always found it tempting to rely on my most booming, raucous tones at the expense of my more sensitive proclivities. I hope these two factoids inspire you in reverse this week, Aquarius. All the astrological oracles I’ve consulted have assured me that you will meet most success in the week ahead if you’re gradual and subtle and voluptuously crafty.
PISCES (Feb. 19-March 20): Rick Fields, former editor of the magazine Yoga Journal, had impeccable credentials as an intelligent seeker of enlightenment. His book “Chop Wood, Carry Water” contains practical strategies for adopting spiritual principles to daily life, while his “How the Swans Came to the Lake” is a well-respected narrative of the history of Buddhism in America. In light of the tranquil grace for which he was renowned, some people were shocked at the chapbook he penned after contracting lung cancer a few years ago. “Fuck You, Cancer” was the title. The adversary you now face, Pisces, is nowhere near as dire as Fields’, but I urge you to draw inspiration from both his Buddhist calm and his fierce warrior’s spirit as you carry on your fight.
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Copyright 2000 Rob Brezsny
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)