"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)
Late one night in 1995, I dialed directory assistance for Maputo, Mozambique, and asked for the fax number for the Office of the President. I sent His Excellency a letter on a piece of Health magazine stationery, requesting an interview on the topic of meditation. I had read that President Chissano was a devotee of Transcendental Meditation, so much so that he required his cabinet members and his military recruits to be trained in TM. He even attributed the signing of the peace treaty with the guerrilla group RENAMO in part to the practice of TM in his country. A week later, the president’s secretary faxed me back. To my great and giddy disbelief, Chissano had agreed to see me.
If anyone needed help relaxing, it was Joaquim Chissano. For years, guerrilla warfare had consumed his country, flattening tourism and every other industry that had managed to take root in the preceding decades. It was a country of guns and politics, and seemingly little else. Though the civil strife was technically over, the nation was still in shock. It lay like a downed prizefighter, dazed and bleeding. The infrastructure in the capital had long ago been given up on. Power outages happened nightly, leaving cars and pedestrians to navigate the shelled-out streets by moonlight.
Maputo hadn’t been as hard hit as the countryside, but mortar shells had fallen frequently enough to turn the occasional cement sidewalk blocks into sandboxes. Garbage hadn’t been collected in weeks; it lined the streets like snowbanks in Wisconsin. Cabs were scarce and dilapidated, their trunks and doors held shut with coat hangers and packing twine. Soldiers were threatening revolt, demanding pay for services no longer needed. The atmosphere was spiked with resentment and discontent. If you ruled Mozambique, you’d meditate too.
This was my first visit to a place that had no tourism, a country that didn’t know what to do with me. I had traveled to far-flung places before, but I’d been on eco-travel junkets, where they’d take you to the kind of remote mountain hamlet that “just got electricity last year,” yet the pension owner’s little boy had a Stimpy sticker on his door. More and more, “untouristed” doesn’t mean remote. It means hostile and smelly. Travelers can get to pretty much anywhere they want to. It’s the places they don’t want to go that are left alone. As far as I could tell, I was pretty much the only foreigner on earth who wanted to be visiting Mozambique.
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In return for holding the passenger-side door in place on the rutted drive from the airport, the cab driver helped me find a room. Pensao Martins was airy and clean, so much so that I was lulled into thinking it was a-OK to drink the tap water. (Back home, weeks later, lab personnel would be trumpeting with glee at the bacteriological rarities found cavorting in my sample. “Endolimax nana! It’s a first for us!”) Because I wasn’t meeting the president until the following day, I thought I’d do my usual Third World-interloper thing: a little wandering, a little lunch, a little shopping.
I stopped first at Banco de Mocambique to change money. The lobby was chaos, a human pasta of curling, overlapping lines. I was handed a plastic token and directed to a line. This was apparently the line you waited in to find out the proper line to wait in, which turned out to be longer again by half. I could ascertain no common theme to the plastic tokens being held by the people in my line. Mine was green and said P; the woman behind me had a red one with an impala on it. Perhaps they were gifts, a little something to thank us for our patience. I was the only one in my line changing foreign money. Apparently I was the only one changing foreign money in quite some time, for the teller seemed perplexed. Finally he disappeared and returned with a newspaper, which he opened and began reading, as though I had so overtaxed him that he felt the need for a break right then and there. As it turned out, he was looking up the exchange rate. So that was pretty much my morning.
As I walked around the city, it began to seem odd that there had been so many people in the bank. It was hard to see how anyone was making enough money to bother with a savings account — though this wasn’t for lack of trying. Tiny business transactions were taking place everywhere, homespun economies springing up from the war’s aftermath like weeds from the cracks in a cement sidewalk (a sidewalk someplace other than Maputo).
At the city’s natural history museum, a pair of guards motioned me aside to show me some hand-made pencil cups covered with strips of zebra and leopard hide — floor scraps from the museum’s taxidermy room. (I bought three.) Out in the streets, teenage boys and women manned the intersections, selling whatever they could. A boy was selling individual garlic cloves, the way people sometimes do with cigarettes. When I later chanced upon a youth holding out a box of toothpicks, I wondered if the price he quoted would buy me the box, or just a solitary pick. One group of boys was selling potted tropical plants, as though, unable to come up with anything else, they’d turned to the earth itself to make a sale. Vendors would walk alongside me for as much as a block, trying to convince me that I really did need a jar of Cobra Wax Car Polish, a pair of shoulder pads, a Richard Marx cassette. It didn’t seem to faze them that I spoke no Portuguese.
The one kind of thing I might have bought, they simply didn’t have: Souvenirs, other than the gastrointestinal variety, were nonexistent in Mozambique. Though the islands off the coast had once enjoyed popularity among European sun-seekers, there had been no tourism since the conflict with RENAMO broke out. As the souvenirs had disappeared, so too had the smiles that had once been used to sell them. People didn’t smile at foreigners here, or look them in the eye.
Not that they didn’t look. They looked at my shoulder bag. I had a small leather pouch in which I carried some cash and my passport. People were staring at it so openly and so hungrily that I transferred the contents a nondescript plastic bag. The menace was palpable, and I’m the sort who’s generally oblivious to menace. I used to look with disdain upon the travelers I’d see in Peruvian markets who’d put their backpacks on their fronts, defensively hugging them to their bellies. Peru didn’t unnerve me, nor did Moscow or India. Mozambique did. People were desperate, and their desperation had made them hard.
I took a streetcar to the outskirts of the city, to a large open-air market someone had suggested I visit. Here my discomfort edged toward fear. Here people stared not only at my plastic bag, but at me, as though calculating what they might get for my shoes, or how long their dogs could gnaw on my bones. I transferred my cash from plastic bag to shirt pocket. I stepped off the streetcar into a press of impassive faces. Within minutes, a hand reached for the bills in my shirt. There was no attempt at guile, none of the true pickpocket’s finesse. The man had simply seen the money and moved to take it. I turned sharply to block the theft, then took my cash from my pocket and wadded it in my fist. My sunglasses were left in my shirt pocket, however, and they were next to go. This thief, at least, made a stab at technique; he tried to conceal his hand behind a folded newspaper. The result of this was that he could no longer see his target. The hand flailed blindly at my shirt for a moment before locating its quarry. “Hey,” I said, and looked at the glasses in his hand. He shrugged and handed them back to me. Good people; bad times.
If only to rid myself of the sweat-logged cash stuck to my palm, I bought some impressive black-and-white porcupine quills from a medicine woman. It was hard for me to imagine the jungles of Mozambique as being home to a gentle woodland creature like the porcupine; however, my image of the Mozambican wilds had undoubtedly been tainted by my earlier visit to the natural history museum. The displays there seemed to have been influenced by the country’s enduring climate of violence. Lions and leopards were posed snarling and fang-faced on the backs of their prey, claws tearing pink gashes in taxidermied flesh, rivulets of dried stage blood running down and puddling on the diorama floor. It was the most horrifying museum I’ve ever seen — and I’ve been to the South African Police Museum and a Tokyo parasite museum with a 30-foot tapeworm recovered intact from a man’s intestine.
My quills and I rode the streetcar back, trying to look like we made sense. I retreated to my hotel, feeling defeated and out of place. In the lobby I found a South African Cosmopolitan magazine. A cover line read, “How to Be Shamelessly Shallow.” This I did not need to read. War-blighted, impoverished countries are highly effective at making the casual visitor feel shallow and spoiled. I was here on a lark. I felt self-centered and resented. I fell asleep in the afternoon heat.
At 4 p.m. the phone rang. It was Carlos, the president’s personal secretary. “Judy?” He had forgotten my name. He informed me that my interview had been rescheduled, and that a car was coming in five minutes to take me to the presidential palace. Five minutes! Ay carumba! Endolimax nana! I spackled the pillow creases on my face and went down to the lobby.
I was met by Carlos himself, a smug miasma of cologne and wealth. The price of his suit could have fed a family of pencil cup-makers for months. His rings could have put a fleet of dilapidated cabs on the streets. It’s dangerous to go from one end of the economic spectrum to the other so suddenly. One gets the mental bends. Carlos pressed his cheek to mine, European style. Soon a red spot would appear where he’d touched me. I was allergic to his cologne, or maybe just to him.
I was whisked through a series of armed gates and security checkpoints. This was a country in which it was easier to meet the president than it was to cash a traveler’s cheque. Carlos deposited me in an ornately furnished anteroom and disappeared. I could see the president, waiting in the next room behind a lace curtain, like a shy bride awaiting her betrothed.
“Judy.” Carlos and his pet musk cloud had returned. “His Excellency the President of Mozambique will see you now.”
Joaquim Chissano is small for his title, perhaps five foot five, and unassuming. When I picture African leaders, I picture rotund men in loud fabrics and showy eyewear. Chissano was dressed in a dark blue suit and unremarkable black dress shoes. He wore no jewelry aside from a wedding ring and a tie tack. He radiated calm and modesty. I liked him immediately.
The president spoke with me for over an hour. He explained how meditation had helped him handle the deaths of his brother and father and the stresses of his post. He said that meditation recharges his batteries and has helped him with tension headaches. He said he meditates on the way to work (someone else drives) and during delegation meetings. “If people talk and I don’t care what they are saying,” he said, “I meditate.” Carlos pursed his lips.
Then the president began talking about some yoga postures he had just learned, which he did each day as preparation for meditating. “Six postures, which you can do in one minute.” Abruptly, he stood up and took off his suit jacket. “If you like, I can show you.”
And so the president and I got down on the beautiful blue Persian carpet. We arched our backs and rolled our heads and released our toxins. The president lay down on his back and stuck his legs straight out above his head. Carlos looked up to see the president’s dress shoes waving in the air before him. I lay down and did what the president was doing. My dress flopped onto my face. Carlos examined his cuticles.
The president got up and returned to his seat. His tie was hanging over his shoulder. “There is one more very essential exercise,” he said to me. He put his index fingers beside his nostrils. “You blow the air out from one side and close the other like this, then take the air like this. Very fast. Now switch the sides. Out and in and out and in.” His eyes rolled up into his head, and he made a sound like workmen sanding walls.
The president was practicing alternate nostril breathing, a sort of rhythmic, snorting hyperventilation that calms the nervous system and alarms guests. When I had regained my bearings sufficiently, I joined in. We sat there making funny nose sounds until Carlos could stand it no more. “I think,” he stood up, “that it is soon time for the president to have his dinner.”
I hoped that Chissano, my one friend in Mozambique, would invite me to join him, but he did not. Carlos drove me back. I ate dinner in a restaurant that appealed to me because it did not have jarring fluorescent lights, and then I realized that the jarring fluorescent lights were simply out, along with all the others in the city except the president’s. In a blackout, I ate pummeled-looking chicken and thought to myself that I had never had a stranger day in my life. The strangest thing about it was that it wasn’t a strange day for anyone in it but me. Travel is like that.
Former Salon columnist Mary Roach is the author most recently of "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." Her previous books include "Stiff," "Spook" and "Packing for Mars."More Mary Roach.
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)