"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)
Topics: Life News
In my house, we don’t watch TV. We do own a television, the same one that my mother bought for us five years ago, when I was still in college, because she had the good sense to figure out that children’s videos would be a good diversion for my daughter while I was studying. I was happy to have a TV and VCR so I could keep up with the art flicks that I missed in first run because of the lack of a baby sitter. (Harbor no delusions that single motherhood cannot coexist with pretension.) Still, I did not want us to watch TV, so I broke the antennae in such a way that even local channels come in laced with static, populated by four-dimensional characters that are usually either orange or blue.
Despite my attempts to render our TV viewing a deliberately unpleasant experience, my daughter has been known to try it anyway. One night recently, she dragged me to the television, arguing that the show we were about to watch “is about us.”
Why would she think that anything on the WB depicted her own life?
Because the show in question, “Gilmore Girls,” was advertised as being about a mother and a daughter who were “just like sisters.”
Big fucking deal, I thought as I watched. A show about a young mother and her teenage daughter, called “Gilmore Girls,” as if they were the permanent junior auxiliary, the adjunct understudies to the just plain Gilmores. And I was not thrilled to see the “girls” swapping sweaters, dancing around the living room to XTC and, when they fought, retreating to their respective rooms with the same Macy Gray CD. What were the scriptwriters thinking? That parenting a teenager as a young mother is just like living with your favorite college roommate?
But I must admit that I did find parallels to our own lives that were downright eerie — so eerie, in fact, that I fear if I ever decide to write my memoirs, I will find that the television rights already belong to Amy Sherman-Palladino of Dorothy Parker Productions. To begin with, Lorelai Gilmore and her daughter, Lorelai Gilmore, called Rory, are, like my daughter and I, 16 years apart in age. Like me, Lorelai has never been, nor as far as we know, ever attempted to be, married. They live in a small town in Connecticut, 30 minutes out of Hartford, where Rory attends an exclusive private school called Chilton. We spent four years in a small town 30 minutes out of Hartford where I attended a private university. Lorelai goes reluctantly into debt to her parents to finance Rory’s education, and they in turn demand that she involve them in her life; I was financially dependent on my parents for my education, and they in turn demanded that they have a say in how I was raising my daughter.
Christ, Lorelai, played by the exquisite Lauren Graham, even looks like an actress I would choose to play me in the movie of my life — she’s even got my coloring: shoulder-length brown hair, blue eyes and perpetual red lipstick. Thank God, unlike me, she’s tall.
Of course, there are some differences. Lorelai never went to college; I did. Lorelai is from an upper-middle-class family in Connecticut; I am from a middle-class family in Idaho. Rory and Lorelai are 16 and 32, respectively; Sydney and I are 11 and 27. Lorelai works as the director of a quaint New England inn; I work as an editor at a San Francisco Internet magazine. But the basic premise of the story is the same, and it is one that is almost never told: How does one assert one’s independence as a parent when one is, in some ways, still in need of financial and emotional parenting oneself, in a culture that sees teenage mothers as nothing short of monstrous? And later, how does one deal with tensions of being a grown-up former teenage mother who has somehow, in most ways, become part of the middle class?
On the very same night that we watched the first episode of “Gilmore Girls,” Sydney and I had gone to one of those fake Mexican restaurants for tourists around the corner from our apartment, each making the other swear that we wouldn’t tell other people that we had a sudden craving for blended drinks and seafood fusion enchiladas.
“Excuse me,” said the waiter. “Miss, did you know that she just put a napkin on your head?”
I knew that she had put a napkin on my head because, when she wasn’t looking, I had balled up mine and thrown it at her.
“How old are you?” the waiter asked my daughter. “12? 14?”
“Eleven,” she said.
“And you are her sister?” he asked me.
“Mother,” we said, together.
“I thought you were her sister,” he said. “Sister? Or friend?”
“Mother,” we said again, together.
“Mother.” He giggled and brought her a free lemonade refill. “Mother,” he said again, stepping back to survey each of us, as if he could deduce our story if he simply stared long enough.
In the opening scene in the first episode of “Gilmore Girls,” Lorelai is sitting in a cafe. A Lothario in his 20s attempts to pick her up. She shuts him down, only to see him trying to pick up her daughter, Rory, several minutes later.
“Hey,” Lorelai says. “That’s my daughter.”
“Your daughter?” he asks.
“Hey, that’s cool,” he says, “I’m traveling with a friend …”
You can see why the executives at the WB saw “Gilmore Girls” as an idea with legs. Two really great pairs, in fact.
The network had been asked by its advertisers (in this case the Family Friendly Forum, a consortium that includes Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson) to create a “family-friendly” show as an alternative to the network’s usual sexy teen fare. And if you are a WB producer looking to fit a family show into a lineup that includes Sarah Michelle Gellar and Katie Homes, what better way to do it than to define “family” as a unit composed of two young, beautiful, sexually available women? (Or “girls,” as they would have it.)
Next to the idea that one will be picked up by two gorgeous, identical-twin nymphomaniacs, I am told (I have been told, complete with leering glances), the idea of meeting a gorgeous mother-daughter duo ranks high on the list of male masturbation fantasies. (I really don’t know how any of the men who have said to me, “Hey, when you are 34 and she’s 18, you’ll be hot,” expected me to respond, but they have said it all the same.) And while certain single and divorced parents of all ages see PTA meetings as a dating opportunity, the presence of an especially young woman is viewed as a very special coup indeed for certain kinds of men — like for instance, the distinguished-looking 40-something divorced father who hits on Lorelai in Episode 2. Or the cool 30-something high school English teacher who does the same thing in Episode 3.
So far, Lorelai has demonstrated the good sense to refuse to hook up with anyone affiliated with her daughter’s school, but we do know she is certainly available. We learn she is a little bit slutty, too, when Rory asks her mother, upon learning that she has been accepted at Chilton, “What did you do, sleep with the headmaster?” We learn that Rory is not when Lorelai teases Rory about her plus-size eggshell fishermen’s sweater by saying, “What is that, a mumu? Could you not find any armor to deflect those with X-ray eyes?”
The whole thing is a little grating, not to mention insulting, and you sometimes wish that someone in the scriptwriting department had had the imagination not to portray the chick who got knocked up in high school as a slut, forever promising to teach her daughter dirty cheers, with her daughter forced to play reluctant parent. But given the dearth of popular portrayals of mothers as spunky, attractive and sexually active, it’s also somewhat refreshing. (And for the record, I stopped watching “Jesse,” the Christina Applegate vehicle about a slightly younger, working-class former teenage mother, around the time she starting insisting that she couldn’t date her hunky neighbor because Mothers Don’t Date.)
But putting up with Lorelai’s rather frisky dating life is more than worth it when it comes to her ideas on marriage. Cornered by her mother, who is berating her for having never married Rory’s father, who is now a successful Internet mogul in California (of course), Lorelai replies, “By not getting married, we kept our bright futures.”
I would like to see this motto emblazoned in 20-point font and underscored in red in every last textbook and advice manual for pregnant and parenting teenagers. Not that I am a proponent of absolute, one-size-fits-all advice, mind you, and I am sure there are some very good marriages out there that have their origin in a broken condom at 16 — just as there are interesting, intelligent mothers who happen to be very young. But Lorelai’s mother espouses the idea that the sanctity of the nuclear family, the irreducible need of a child for two parents, is so great that it is worth compounding the very real difficulties of an untimed pregnancy with the extraordinarily bad gamble that the cute boy with the motorcycle whom you like — or even love — in high school is in any way suited to be your life partner. That’s ill-informed at best and dangerous at worst. Teenagers have enough romantic delusions as it is. They certainly don’t need adults to pretend that a shotgun marriage makes economic sense.
“I had to figure out how to live,” Lorelai tells her mother. “I had to do it myself.”
In Lorelai’s case, she worked her way up from chambermaid to executive director of the Independence Inn. (In my case, I worked my way through two years of high school, four years of college and two years of freelancing at night while holding down some very bad day jobs, like working customer service in a bank and editing the phone book.) It’s a seductive formula for creating a character — an upper-class girl whose breeding makes her elegant and attractive to viewers, and whose prodigal pregnancy makes her interesting. In this, she conflates two of the most pervasive American myths: She has the taste and pedigree of someone who was born knowing what to do with the silver spoon in her mouth and the independence of someone who has pulled herself up by her bootstraps.
It’s not as if Lorelai’s parents had nothing to do with her eventual success — all of the skills that facilitated her rise from maid to manager are the skills that one acquires from undergoing 16 years of parental training in how to become an lady. And what kind of quaint inn would hide in housekeeping a gorgeous woman with an eye for the right crystal, one who knows a good mushroom risotto when she tastes it and has perfect pitch for how one talks to valets, businessmen with scratched cars and little old ladies looking for the best antiques in the city? (If she had been a mechanic or a plumber or a waitress at Denny’s, it’s unlikely that she would have been able to trade in her good breeding for upward mobility.)
The most visible “difference” between Lorelai and her parents seems to be that she is upper middle class and they are landed gentry. She has a sprawling white house stuffed with antiques and Laura Ashley prints, drives a new Jeep and eats out every night in a funky cafe around the corner. They have an even bigger white house with a gate and oak paneling, kitchen help whose names they can’t remember and a country club membership.
Nevertheless, the scriptwriters insist, week after week, on framing the conflicts between Lorelai and her parents, and Lorelai and Rory and the Chilton set, in terms of class. In every episode, Lorelai breaks some social code and is ritually humiliated for her haplessness.
On Rory’s first day at Chilton, for example, Lorelai oversleeps because her fuzzy clock doesn’t purr on time, forgets to pick up her cute blue suit with the flippy skirt from the dry cleaner and ends up meeting with the dean of Chilton while dressed like a rodeo queen, in a pink tie-dyed T-shirt, Daisy Dukes and cowgirl boots. Of course, she has a respectable gray flannel coat to cover herself with, but her mother is waiting for her in the dean’s office and insists that she remove her coat. In a later episode, she is late for a PTA meeting and is chastised for being one of the women who — horrors! — voted to amend the dress code to include scrunchies in Chilton plaid. (“They must be one of the scholarship families,” murmurs one Chilton grande dame to another, prompting Lorelai to a spunky display that threatens to escalate to fisticuffs.)
These slapstick moments provide grist for the plot mill, but they ultimately fall flat. A true outsider is one who does not know that one should wear the blue suit with the flippy skirt to the first day of school, or if she does know it, she doesn’t own it, or is proudly defiant that she isn’t one of those rich bitches who follow the WASP dress code. A woman who can afford both the suit and the dry cleaning, but forgets to pick it up, is an insider with a time-management problem and maybe a few issues with handling responsibility.
It’s not entirely unrealistic. We don’t get the benefit of seeing the years between 16 and 32, after Lorelai had rejected her parents’ money and before she came into her own. Presumably, a good many of these years provided the kind of material that makes for hardcore social documentary, not prime-time lifestyle drama. There are already more than enough of those stories in circulation, so many, in fact, that telling an airbrushed, sanitized version about teenage pregnancy is nearly revolutionary.
The truth is that there are teenage mothers — not a lot, but some — who do find themselves in a different, better place 10 years later. Including myself, I know three of them.
We are not all so telegenic. If they were filming my life, it would be set in two rooms, with no Laura Ashley in sight and, most days, laundry and books and old essays and journals strewn about in such a way that navigation, even in daylight, is something of a challenge. If they were filming my friend Tonya, you would see a three-bedroom apartment in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., where she works as a corporate recruiter by day and writes her fiction on weekends. My friend Deb, a physicist turned computer geek, lives with her new boyfriend in Connecticut and drives a new VW bug. I don’t expect we’ll be inviting in any camera crews, but that’s OK, because two of the three of us are writers, and fiction is better suited to capturing the nuance and ambiguity of daily life anyway.
After all, “Gilmore Girls” is not about nuance, it’s not about art, it’s television. I don’t fault “Gilmore Girls” for presenting the pop version of affluent former teenage motherhood any more than I would critique “Married … With Children” for its version of shoe salesmen, or berate the “The Cosby Show” for not accurately portraying affluent African-American life. After all, don’t all Americans have the inalienable right to find themselves caricatured beyond recognition on television?
And in the meantime, anyone want to buy the rights to a book about a 27-year-old former teenage mother from Idaho?
Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.More Amy Benfer.
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)