"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)
I’m having lunch with two women who have written a book about marriage. Linda Waite is in her 50s. Lanky and pretty, with short hair, she is sitting across the table from me. Maggie Gallagher, a short and plump woman with a pageboy haircut, sits between us. She and I are in our early 40s. We’re at a table in the Algonquin Hotel, but these two women have written a book that’s a million miles from Dorothy Parker or the Round Table. It’s called “The Case for Marriage.”
As the conversation continues, however, I realize that the denizens of the Round Table might have enjoyed this little lunch after all, because soon some of us get a little bitchy.
To begin, I’m married, Waite is married, Gallagher is married. But while we’re all married, according to these two women marriage is under attack. Something compelled them to set the marriage record straight. Being married makes you healthier and wealthier, and you have better sex than single people, they say.
“After I finished your chapter on sex,” I tell the women, “my first thought was I wanted to run out and have an affair.”
Both writers laugh. “Why is that?” Waite asks, smiling.
I pause. I don’t want to start on an antagonistic note. The chapter on sex is puritanical and, worse, unrealistic. These two women insist that the only good sex in your life will be had in matrimony. Forget that two-week affair you had right after college when you hitchhiked to Paris. That was just youthful folly, counting for nothing. As for your present married life, say it’s midnight, the baby is howling and your 3-year-old has the mumps. According to something called the “National Sex Survey” — the only source for the two women’s arguments — the thing that’s foremost on your mind at that moment is fornicating with your spouse.
“The National Sex Survey,” I say. “What is this?”
“You remember the Time magazine cover story from about two or three years ago?” Gallagher asks.
“Also called the ‘Chicago Sex Survey,’” Waite adds.
“Also called officially the ‘National Health and Social Life Survey,’” Gallagher says. “It was done on about 3,000 adults ages 18 to 59 in 1994.”
“It is the gold standard,” Waite adds.
No one asked me any questions in 1994. I think surveys are science fiction. But all I say is, “So we can believe it?” Both women insist that we can. “So according to the survey, what do kids do for one’s sex life?” I ask.
Gallagher looks at her coauthor. “Did we look at that?”
“Well, you can tell …,” Waite starts to say, but stops when the waitress comes up. She says, “I’ll have the fruit plate with the mango sorbet, and can I have some more iced tea, please?”
“I’ll have the poached salmon,” Gallagher says.
I just order coffee.
The waitress splits, and Waite continues talking: “What basically happens to frequency of sex is, it tends to fall with duration of the relationship. It’s also true that the frequency of sex falls if you have kids, especially if they’re young, because they’re up in the night and you’re exhausted — those sorts of things.”
“Your book doesn’t go into that,” I say.
“It has nothing to do with marriage,” Gallagher pipes up. “I was a single mother for 10 years. You’re pretty conscious about trying to make a decent living and take care of your kids. This is not time for gabbing about.”
Waite catches my eye. I realize she is trying to be charming. “Basically the argument is: If you know you’re committed to your partner, you pledge to be sexually faithful. The survey asked, ‘Do you expect this relationship to be sexually exclusive?’ Something like 97 percent of married people say, ‘Yes.’ Then you know that your sex life with this other person is for a long time, so you know that if you’re going to get sexual satisfaction, your best bet is to give sexual satisfaction, to figure out what your partner wants and likes and learn how to do it. People have an incentive — this is economist talk — to develop relationship-specific skills because they know this is the only game in town.”
I smile, and joke, “Do you two have a secret agenda? You’re not members of some right-wing conspiracy?”
“Here’s the thing,” Gallagher says, folding her hands in her lap. “Linda is a liberal and I’m a conservative. We both believe that marriage has been polarized. It has become an ideological construct. And that doesn’t make any sense.”
“My agenda is a little bit different than hers,” Waite says. “I’m an academic researcher, and it seems to me that we have to pay attention to the evidence; I’m very focused on evidence and data. I think the evidence shows that marriage is good for people. And I think that a lot of the political argument around marriage is ignoring the evidence. It’s just wrong. I think we shouldn’t do that; I think we should pay attention to what the facts are.”
I smile. This woman lights up when she is talking about statistics. This is a sexy thing. “But just who are the ones who are against marriage?” I ask.
Both women talk for a long time, but they do not identify the ideological enemies of marriage. The best they can do is say that Americans all want to be married, but they don’t want to say, “Marriage is good.” Their book does this.
“Not to put a wedge between you both,” I say, smiling at Waite, “but your book states that you are pro-gay marriage and Gallagher is anti.”
Waite holds my gaze. “That’s putting it too strongly,” she says. “I don’t have a political agenda. But we have no evidence on gay marriage and there’s no research on long-term gay couples. Given that we don’t know anything, my guess is theoretical. If you have a gay marriage that’s socially supported, it could provide the same benefits as heterosexual marriage.”
“I don’t mix the two issues,” Gallagher says, giving me a pug-dog scowl. Then she starts speaking in incomplete sentences. “If you want to interview me about gay marriage, sometimes I do …” she says. Then she says, “The reason is marriage is about us.”
She says the word “us” and suddenly I realize that I’ve seen her little mug shot in the New York Post. She writes right-wing rants.
“Once we’re on gay marriage,” she says, “it’s easy to say those people are causing the problems.”
“My own view is this crisis in marriage involves primarily the behavior of men and woman who are married together,” Gallagher says. “I want to focus on that rather than giving attention to the great problem of gays wanting to get married. I don’t support gay marriage. I think [the issues] are separate.”
Waite realizes her partner is frothing at the mouth. “If marriage is so bad for sex, or bad for people’s lives, then why do gay people want to get married?” she says. “Why?”
The waitress sets the food on the table.
“The question about gay marriage is not a separate issue,” I insist to Gallagher. “Even though men are supposedly promiscuous, doesn’t the increase in gay marriage suggest that men — straight or gay — in their heart of hearts desire monogamy?”
“Your take on monogamy is really far off,” Gallagher says. (Now she looks like Winston Churchill.) “This book is based on what we know. I don’t think anyone has evidence about gay marriage. Our opinion would be no better than anyone else’s.” She adds, “In terms of sex differences, they’re often subtler than they’re presented [to be], and ultimately the fact that we all inhabit bodies doesn’t change. We can’t become another species, but we’re totally responsible for the way we behave.”
Rambling forward, I change the subject: “If you don’t have kids, why would you be monogamous?”
Waite looks confused by this jump, but Gallagher — bless her angry little heart — makes the leap with me. She begins talking about the biological imperative behind monogamy: It’s the only way a man can tell his kid is really his kid. “Men seem to prefer one union with a little meaningless sex on the side,” she says. “But mostly, if you have to choose — and women will make you choose these days — it’s more important to have meaningful sex than meaningless sex.”
As the two begin eating their food, the talk turns to testosterone. Waite says, “I have a student who says men don’t make good husbands until after 25 because that’s when the testosterone falls.” She says this with a wink.
“On the other hand, marriage produces testosterone,” Gallagher adds. “Having more testosterone doesn’t give you more sex, but it gives you more aggression. It’s like the single lion prowling around and he’s never sure when he’s going to get any. If you actually have a woman and settle down …”
“Supposedly testosterone is carcinogenic,” I quip.
“Maybe that’s why married men live so much longer,” Gallagher says with a smirk. She apparently forgot that she said marriage produces the stuff.
“Essentially, if you gelded yourself, you’d live an extra 15 years,” I say dryly.
“I think getting married is probably a much better deal,” Gallagher laughs.
“Testosterone rises around the time of divorce,” Waite adds.
I’m starting to worry that I am understanding this exchange, so I change the subject. I still want to know who these mythical enemies of marriage are, so I ask, “Is anyone making the argument ‘I’m not going to get married because I won’t ever get laid’?”
“I think it really works in reverse,” Waite says, dodging the question. “People overestimate the sex joys of the single life. Particularly, there is a brief window when people are at college and the theory of marriage puts a damper on your sex life.”
“What I remember fondly about being single,” I say, “was the great joy in the frivolity of pursuit. When I was 22, I spent my nights chasing women around Manhattan and sleeping with more than a few of them. I wouldn’t want to have spent those days doing anything different.”
“Many men would in theory like sexual variety,” Waite says thoughtfully. “But having one woman whom you know you’re going to be able to have sex with and who’s not going to leave you for another man is a real boost to sexual satisfaction.”
Huh? I recall worrying about many things when I was 22, but worrying about a woman leaving me for another “hungry lion” wasn’t one of them. Was I just naive?
“I think a lot of people cherish their little adventures like you do,” Gallagher says, looking at me with mild disgust. “But it –”
I interrupt: “Big adventures, please! Big adventures …”
Waite guffaws at this.
“In the longer sphere of life they were little,” Gallagher insists. “They don’t change the course of your life. But if you look at the people who were virgins when they were married, you don’t find that you’re more sexually satisfied if you have a lot of experience … and your marriage is more likely to last.”
“People who got married as virgins have lower divorce rates,” Waite adds, trying to clarify what Gallagher has just said.
“If you ask about their sex life, traditional women who are religious and married have the highest sexual satisfaction,” Gallagher says with smug satisfaction.
“Yeah,” I remark. “They have nothing to compare sex in marriage to.”
“You have to say whatever you want to say about having a little adventure,” Gallagher says. “It’s not a necessary thing to do in order to have a happy marriage.”
I look over at Waite. “When was the last time you were dated and seduced?”
“That was a long time ago.” She almost blushes.
“Can a husband seduce a wife?” Gallagher asks.
I think a moment. “It takes some work,” I answer. “But in theory, yes.”
“I don’t think being seduced is nearly as much fun as seducing if the ultimate outcome is the guy’s not interested in you and is gone the next morning,” Gallagher says. And then she hunches up and looks me dead in the eye. “I’m not sure if you went and looked up all the women you bagged that they would look back as fondly on the experience as you did.”
Ouch. I squint at this little bulldog of a woman. Then I picture the Algonquin crowded with the women I have — bagged? “I’ll have you know,” I say to Gallagher, “dozens of them went out and got my name tattooed on their arms.”
Linda Waite laughs. Maggie Gallagher doesn’t.
David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."More David Bowman.
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)