"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)
The place: the restroom of a Roy Rogers restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C. The time: February 1977. The main character: me, a tall, skinny, young white guy with an explosion of shoulder-length hair. Using my fingers like a comb, I was doing my best to marshal my hair into a more beautiful mess than its current bedraggled state. My girlfriend, Babushka, was supposed to meet me in a few minutes, and I wanted to resemble a sexy wild man, not a scruffy one.
Nearing completion in my primitive attempts at cosmetic improvement, I happened to glance at the wall below the towel dispenser. There I spied a tantalizing mess of graffiti. “I got Santa Cruzified and Californicated,” it read, “and it felt like heaven.”
I was used to surfing waves of synchronicity; collecting meaningful coincidences was my hobby. But this scrawl on the wall was a freaking tidal wave of synchronicity. Babushka was coming to Roy Rogers today in order to discuss with me the prospect of jumping on a Greyhound bus together sometime in the next couple of weeks and heading out to the place we’d heard was a bohemian paradise: Santa Cruz, Calif.
I strained to see some smaller print beneath the message on the wall. “You know you’ll never become the artist you were meant to be,” it warned, “until you come live in Santa Cruz.”
Whatever strange angel had scrawled those words seemed to have lifted them directly from the back of my subconscious mind. The idea expressed there matched my hope and fear precisely. It had become increasingly clear to me in recent months that my aspirations to be a culture hero — a poet and musician with a healing and inspirational effect on my community — were doomed to chronic frustration as long as I resided in the Deep South, even in a college town like Chapel Hill, where I would never be any more than a weirdo, a cross between a village idiot and a marginally entertaining monstrosity. In that moment, my fate gelled.
By the first day of spring, Babushka and I had arrived in Santa Cruz with $90 in our pockets. We were gleefully homeless, sleeping in the park by day and spending large parts of each night hanging out in all-night restaurants. Within a few months I had a tiny studio apartment in a basement beneath a garage. And barely three weeks after I stumbled off the cross-country Greyhound bus, I performed at an open mike at the Good Fruit Company cafe.
With a burst of pent-up energy, I did a rash of poetry readings and performance art spectacles in a variety of cafes, as well as countless guerrilla street shows. I xeroxed and sold 200 copies of my first homemade chapbook, “Crazy Science,” and practiced the art of compassionate demagoguery in a semi-regular late-night show, “Babbling Ambiance,” on a local radio station.
There was only one factor darkening my growing exhilaration: grubby poverty. None of the music or spectacles I was creating earned me more than the cash I plowed into making them happen. And I resented life’s apparent insistence that I was supposed to take time out from my ingenious projects to draw a steady wage.
Given my hardship, I was extremely receptive when I chanced across an opportunity to make money through creative writing. My barely serviceable one-speed bike had recently been stolen. In my search for a used replacement, I turned to the classified ads of the Good Times, Santa Cruz’s largest weekly newspaper. As I scanned the “Misc. For Sale” section, my eye tripped across an intriguing invitation one column over: “Good Times is looking for an astrology columnist. Submit sample column.”
I was confused. I thought the paper already had an astrology column. I leafed through it, but it was gone. Had the author quit? Not that I’d be sorry to see him go. My impression of his writing, from the few times I had read it, was that it covered the whole range between mawkish New Age clichis and unfunny silliness.
Of course I had always despised all astrology columns; his was actually more entertaining than most. Though I was an advanced student of astrology, not a teacher, I had high standards about how the ancient art should be used. And I considered newspaper horoscopes to be an abomination. Without exception, they were poorly written and unforgivably dull. They encouraged people to be superstitious and made the dead-wrong implication that astrology preaches predetermination and annuls free will.
It was bad enough that their blather fed gullible readers inane advice that pandered to the least interesting forms of egotism and narcissism. Worst of all, they were based in only the most tenuous way on any real astrological understanding. Any reputable practitioner would have told you, for instance, that in order to assess the cosmic energies with any authenticity, you’d have to meditate on the movements and relationships of all the heavenly bodies, not just the sun. But newspaper horoscopes based their ersatz “predictions” solely on the sun’s position. They made the absurd proposition that the lives of millions of people who share any particular “sun sign” are all headed in the same direction.
In full awareness of all these truths, I struggled to drum up a rationalization for pursuing the gig — I wanted to write the column in ways that would not feel fraudulent. That’s when I hatched my plan to become a poet in disguise.
Both in and out of academia, I had long been composing stuff that loosely qualified as poetry. True, I couldn’t help but notice that the culture at large regarded poetry as a stuffy irrelevancy; people I considered huge talents, like John Berryman, W.S. Merwin and Galway Kinnell, were not getting rich selling their lyrical creations.
To a degree, I sympathized with the hoi polloi’s underwhelming appreciation of the art form I loved so much. The majority of poets were humorless academics who seemed to have studied at the feet of a single constipated celibate. It was shocking how little entertainment burst from the caste I thought should be in charge of mining the frontiers of the imagination. I was perfectly willing for poetry to be demanding, complex and subtle, and even maddeningly mysterious. Yet the whole point of poetry in my opinion was to dynamite the ruts cut by ordinary waking consciousness, to sabotage clichi and common sense, to reinvent the language. But why did so much of this noble effort have to be uniformly listless, pretentious and inaccessible?
And then there was my secret agenda. I was peeved that so few of “the antennae of the race” had enough courage and integrity to blow their own minds with psychedelic drugs. How could you explode the consensual trance unless you poked your head over onto the other side of the veil now and then? Allen Ginsberg, at least, had the balls to go where shamans go. Berryman seemed to have accomplished the same feat with the help of alcohol.
As for myself, I had been drawn to and in contact with the other side of the veil long before resorting to psychedelic technology. I regularly remembered and treasured my dreams throughout childhood, and when I was 13 years old I also began to record them. This fervent ongoing immersion in the realm of the dreamtime imbued me early on with the understanding that there were other realities besides the narrow little niche that most everyone worshipped.
As I gained confidence in the suspicion that my formal education had tried to conceal from me nine-tenths of reality, I tuned in to the paper trail documenting the existence of the missing part. It had been mapped by shamans, alchemists and magicians for millennia — so my readings of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Robert Graves and Mircea Eliade revealed. Their work in turn magnetized me to the literature of Western occultism, whose rich material was written not by academics but by experimenters who actually traveled to the place in question.
The myriad reports were not in complete agreement, but many of their descriptions overlapped. The consensus was that the other side of the veil is not a single territory, but teems with variety, some relatively hellish and some heavenly. And there was another issue on which all the explorers agreed: Events in those “invisible” realms are the root cause of everything that happens down here. Shamans visit the spirit world to cure their sick patients because the origins of illness lie there. For cabalists, the visible Earth is a tiny outcropping at the end of a long chain of creation that originates at a point both inconceivably far away and yet right here right now. Even modern psychotherapists believe in a materialistic version of the ancient idea: that how we behave today is irrevocably shaped by events that happened in a distant time and place.
As I researched the testimonials about the treasure land (which almost everyone I’d ever known had conspired to hide from me), I registered the fact that dreams and drugs were not the only points of entry. Meditation could give access, as could specialized forms of drumming, chanting, singing and dancing. The tantric tradition taught that certain kinds of sexual communion can lead there. As does, of course, physical death. I wanted to try all those other doors except the last one.
In my work with dreams I had seen a steady growth of both my unconscious mind’s ability to produce meaningful stories and my conscious mind’s skill at interpreting them. But my progress was sketchy in the work of retrieving booty from the holy places where drugs took me. The big problem was that unlike the other techniques on the list, the psychedelic substances bypassed my willpower. Their chemical battering ram simply smashed through the doors of perception. No adroitness was involved on my part, no craft. One of my meditation teachers referred to drug use, no matter how responsible, as “storming the kingdom of heaven through violence.” Gradually, then, I ended my relationship with the illegal magic that had given me so much pleasure.
Instead I affirmed my desire to build mastery through hard work. Dream work, meditation and tantric exploration became the cornerstones of my practice. I must confess, however, that my plans did not immediately bear the fruit I hoped they would. Even my most ecstatic lucid dreams and illuminated meditations, I’m afraid, did not bring me to dwell on the other side of the veil with the same heart-melting vividness once provided by my psychedelic allies. Even my deepest tantric lovemaking and music-induced trances failed to provide the same boost.
But then, after a while, into my life came a consolation: the 19th-century artist and visionary William Blake. My encounter with his work alerted me to the fact that there is yet another name for the fourth dimension — a name that also describes a common, everyday human faculty that most of us take for granted. Here’s the special message Blake seemed to have written just for me in “A Vision of the Last Judgment”:
This world of Imagination is the world of Eternity; it is the divine bosom into which we shall go after the death of the Vegetated body. This World of Imagination is Infinite and Eternal, whereas the world of Generation, or Vegetation, is Finite and Temporal. There exists in that Eternal World the Permanent Realities of Every Thing which we see reflected in this Vegetable Glass of Nature. All Things are comprehended in their Eternal Forms in the divine body of the Saviour, the True Vine of Eternity, the Human Imagination.
I exulted in this discovery. Blake became a secret weapon I could use in my covert war against all the poets who refused to be antennae of the race, against all the poets who regarded the visible world as the only one that deserved to have poetry written about it.
It’s true, however, that some of these poets, whom I called “materialists,” were great inspirations to me. William Carlos Williams, for instance, taught me much about the art of capturing the concrete beauty of each earthly moment. I loved this Williams’ poem:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Williams was, for me, the best of the materialist poets. His work exhorted me to hone my perceptions and employ vigorous language. But my old pal William Blake gave me the doctrinal foundation with which I could rebel against Williams and rise to an even higher calling. Blake suggested that the worlds you dream up in your imagination might be more real than the red wheelbarrow.
(Might be was the key qualifier. Even then, at an unripe age, I was cautious about the indiscriminate use of this liberating proposition. I had read the Russian occultists Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, and they had made me aware that the out-of-control imagination is the function by which most people lie to themselves constantly, thereby creating hell on Earth. Obviously, this was not the kind of imagination Blake meant, and I vowed to keep that clear.)
More real than a red wheelbarrow. Blake showed me there was another way to access the fourth dimension: working as a creative artist, striving to discipline and supercharge the engine of the imagination. That was an extremely pleasurable realization. Furthermore, if it were true, as Blake and the shamans said, that every event on Earth originates in the spirit world, then the skilled imaginer was potentially God’s co-creator — not just describing conditions here below but creating them. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to fly away into the fourth dimension, reconnoiter the source of the messed-up conditions on the material plane and give them a healer’s tweak.
All those thoughts became fodder as I tried to imagine a way I could write a weekly astrology column without violating my integrity. I wanted the gig badly. One way or another I was going to get it. But I would feel so much better about myself if I could refute the accusations of “Fraud! Panderer!” with highfalutin bullshit about William Blake and the shamanic tradition.
“More Real Than a Red Wheelbarrow.” Why not call my “horoscope” column that? There was certainly no International Committee on Standards for Horoscope Columns that I would have to answer to. For that matter, as long as I shaped my horoscopes like love letters to my readers, it was unlikely they’d complain about all the Blake-ian, shamanic stuff I’d wrap it in.
Before spying the help wanted ad in the Good Times, I’d hated astrology columns because I knew they had no basis in astrological data and could not possibly be an accurate rendering of so many readers’ lives at the same time. I now argued from a different angle. What happens to people, I told myself, tends to be what they believe will happen to them; the world runs on the fuel of self-fulfilling prophecies. Therefore, couldn’t it be said that my oracles would be accurate by definition, since anyone who regarded them seriously would subconsciously head in the directions I named? As long as I diligently maintained an optimistic and uplifting tone, no one could fault me for manipulating people in such a way.
My very first column took me an agonizing 40 hours to compose. It had some good moments:
What you have at your command, Scorpio, is a magic we will discreetly not call black. Let’s say, instead, that it’s a vivid, flagrant gray. At your best you’ll be a charming enfant terrible playing with boring equilibriums, a necessary troublemaker bringing a fresh breath of messy vigor to all the overly-cautious game plans. If you can manage to inject just a little bit of mercy into your bad-ass attitude, no one will get stung and everyone will be thoroughly entertained.
Still, the first offering and many after it fell short of my lofty formulations. My work was sufficiently yeasty, though, to capture the favor of the Good Times’ boss. Or maybe he saw that I was supremely adept in the arts of spelling and grammar, and looked forward to an easy editing job. For all I know, of course, I was the only applicant for the job. It’s not as if the financial rewards alone would have drawn a crowd. As I found out during my new editor’s congratulatory handshake, the pay was $15 a week. I regarded it as a fortune, though, considering that I was getting paid to be a poet in disguise.
My secret long-term agenda, after all, was to build an imagination strong enough to gain regular access to the fourth dimension without the aid of psychedelics. What could be better training for that than a weekly assignment to spew out 12 oracular riffs and shape them into terse word-bombs?
Rob Brezsny's weekly astrology column appears on Salon as well as on his own Web site and in print publications worldwide. Brezsny's novel, "The Televisionary Oracle," was released earlier this year. He lives near San Francisco.More 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)