"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)
On the first Friday in February, George Zimmer, unabashed CEO of the Men’s Wearhouse — the king of perfectly tailored suits, I guarantee it — is standing under the crisp winter sky outside the Golden Gate Club in San Francisco’s wooded Presidio. He’s smoking a cigar and squinting through purple-tinted sunglasses as a magenta-and-platinum-haired boy anxiously tries to explain raves. Zimmer, wearing a perfectly fitted black suit and black mock turtleneck, stares quizzically at a small audience of earnest rave veterans and asks, incredulously: “So, do people actually talk at raves?”
Zimmer has taken ecstasy before, he hesitantly tells me when I corner him for an interview, but only for “therapeutic purposes” with his wife. He is here today, at the State of Ecstasy conference, because he is interested in “dialogue” about the drug; and because the conference’s organizer, Marsha Rosenbaum, is a good friend of his. Although one would not, perhaps, expect a kitschy purveyor of affordable tailored suits to be an ecstasy spokesperson, Zimmer isn’t out of place.
The State of Ecstasy conference is being touted as the “first of its kind,” a place where researchers, academics, therapists, drug advocates and anti-drug crusaders — along with a healthy dose of blissful drug users — can sit down and talk about the love drug and its rise in American culture. Sponsored by the Lindesmith Center/Drug Policy Foundation and the San Francisco Medical Society, the conference has the smack of medical legitimacy but the vibe of a love-in. About 300 people from all walks of life have assembled here today for eight hours to listen to experts discuss everything from how MDMA is addling our brains to the ways rave culture is demonized to how we all need to join forces against the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Across the lawn from Zimmer, for example, is Ann Shulgin, kind of the Mother Goddess of e-therapy and wife of research chemist Alexander Shulgin, the “Godfather of MDMA,” who is generally given credit for rediscovering the drug in 1965. In those days, before ecstasy was made illegal, the Shulgins guided hundreds of people through therapy sessions with the drug. Shulgin was given leave to fiddle with over 200 psychedelics that he synthesized himself; he and his wife were their own guinea pigs.
Ann Shulgin sits on the grass with her white witchy locks splayed about her, smoking a cigarette and courting an audience of adoring young fans. She autographs her book “Tikhal” — which, she tells me, she wrote entirely under the influence of MDMA, in once-a-week sessions — for two shy, clean-cut students from San Diego who flew up here to meet her. The maze of wrinkles on her face deepen as she lectures us sternly about kids these days who just go overboard with drugs without learning moderation from their wizened elders.
“Most of the drug experimentation community is young people, college age or younger unfortunately,” she sighs in exasperation. “For the most part, they are completely unaware of the professional people who are involved in this. One of the things about the young community is they don’t read. They don’t do homework. They take these drugs and depend on their peer group to tell them to mix this with that. They should be reading to find out what exactly it is that they’re doing. But they don’t. So they really don’t know about this level — the scientists, the professors. They are always completely ignorant about it.”
But today the kids are listening for once. This conference has brought a bizarre mix of people to the Presidio — from new agey types like Shulgin straight from the Carlos Castaneda school of drug enlightenment, to hardened researchers who speak not in words but in compounds, to pink-haired ravers who swap tips on tonight’s best parties. But this is fitting of this strange drug, which has more kinship with Leary’s LSD than with club drugs like cocaine or GHB, and which (according to some scientists) is turning an entire generation of youth into babbling hug-bunnies who may collapse into brain-damaged depression when the long-term effects of ecstasy are finally revealed.
(But hey, we’re young and that’s not for a while to come, right? In the meantime, Peace, Love, Unity and Respect!)
The day is split into three main sections, roughly fitting each of the three core demographics battling it out here. The morning is dedicated to the therapeutic uses of ecstasy, where the Shulgins reign supreme and ecstasy is extolled as a wonder drug that can bring couples together, heal parent-child rifts, solve depression and — hell, why not? — bring about world peace. The early afternoon is for the academic doomsayers, the Ph.Ds and researchers and assorted professionals, who will throw indecipherable charts on the wall and explain why ecstasy users’ brains are rotting. The ravers get to finish off the day with an explanation of dance culture and why pill-popping teenagers deserve a break.
Inside the conference room, where everyone — pink- or gray-haired — is munching on the unifying force of chocolate croissants, I am seated between two academic types. On my left is a doctor from San Diego who snorts disapprovingly every time a researcher talks about the negative results of his or her studies. On my right is Russell Stabler, a medicinal chemist in a rumpled houndstooth jacket and shaggy hair who works for Roche (the pharmaceutical company that gave the world Valium, which we used to take before we discovered ecstasy).
I ask Stabler whether Roche is considering medical uses of MDMA and he says, “Too much liability,” and besides, since you can’t take ecstasy every day or it will simply stop working, corporate pill-pushers don’t see much of a market (they prefer drugs you have to take 12 times a day). He is here for purely personal interest, he says, before launching into an indecipherable diatribe about the wonders of twiddling with compounds. I try to catch what he’s saying but give up when I realize that this mysterious “Ethyl” he keeps referring to is not actually Lucille Ball’s sidekick.
The morning’s highlight — and the first standing ovation of the day — is a young redhead named Sue Stevens, who launches into a painful tale about her own ecstasy usage. Stevens’ marriage fell apart when her husband was diagnosed with cancer at age 22; using ecstasy together, she says, enabled them to rediscover their profound love. Stevens credits those ecstasy sessions with her husband’s surprisingly prolonged life — “he just decided to live again!”; he lasted three years longer than the doctors predicted. Stevens also credits ecstasy with saving her from suicide after he died. She cries on the podium; so does half the audience, including me.
She is followed by Ann Shulgin, who speaks briefly about her observations from her MDMA-therapy years back in the 1980s. Although these researchers contend that MDMA has “accepted medical use” — mostly for couples therapy and depression — the DEA declared MDMA a Schedule 1 drug in 1985, which means that it is seen as having no redeeming qualities whatsoever and prohibits any further non-government-approved research with the drug (and the government has not approved much). After Shulgin finishes, I wander outside, where I discover the raver contingency smoking and swapping tips.
Most of them seem to be volunteers from DanceSafe, a pioneering organization that sagely advocates harm reduction rather than anti-drug proselytizing, and uses its raver army to educate drug-using kids about the safest way to use the drug. The ravers are vaguely — perhaps rightfully? — distrustful of the older generations around them. (“Let’s play spot the fed!” one says, as I sit down.) One such volunteer is Vanessa, a sweet-faced, ponytailed 17-year-old wearing a “Less Is More” DanceSafe T-shirt, a variety of fluorescent necklaces and oversize jeans that billow around her like enormous denim sails.
Vanessa was recently kicked out of high school after getting caught with ecstasy; she’s done drugs exactly 17 times, she tells me. She is currently taking a break from ecstasy until April. “I was always fearful: Is it going to make me stupid in 20 years? Am I going to feel all the, like, bad things I did to my body?” Vanessa asks. “Today it’s, like, I’m looking at everything kind of in a career aspect. This is something I’m interested in and I don’t think that’s going to go away. Seeing professionals out there and seeing how many careers exist around this topic, the culture that I’m so interested in — it’s been nice.”
After lunch (the vegetarian sandwiches disappear first), I head back indoors. Lining the hallways are tables full of pamphlets from the organizations that have shown up here. There is an advertisement for Andrea van de Loo, who offers “intuitive touch process, acupressure, hypnotherapy and shamanic journeys” for $90 a pop; a flier for an upcoming conference on “further perspectives on altered consciousness”; copies of the Entheogen Review (“The Journal of Unauthorized Research on Visionary Plants and Drugs”); assorted harm-reduction pamphlets; and a variety of papers about MAPS, the famed Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which does nonprofit research into drugs.
There I corner Joseph DeNagy, a freckle-faced medical student. He is, he tells me, inspired by the wide variety of people who have assembled here today. “It’s very exciting,” he gushes. “It’s like we’re entering a new American society, an era of cognitive liberty!” I glance down at the table we’re standing by and notice that he has just used the exact same phrase that is on the cover of a pamphlet. The Borg exists, and we are he.
Compared to the sunny morning of pro-ecstasy cheerleading, the afternoon is decidedly grim. For three grueling hours, researcher after researcher stands up to give dense academic presentations about MDMA’s effects on the brain, as the screen fills up with neat multicolored charts full of chemical symbols and bar graphs depicting rat brains and jargon about isotopes and stereochemistry and neurotoxicity. It is as mind-numbing as some of the researchers say MDMA is. The upshot: Ecstasy is bad for your brain. Among the nasty stuff it does: It kills all your serotonin and “prunes” the axons that release the chemical so that your brain will never function the same way again. It also gives you hypothermia, prevents your body from regulating its core temperature and inhibits long-term memory function. Or maybe not.
Dr. George Ricuarte, the Grim Reaper of the MDMA world in his dark suit, neatly trimmed black hair and scornful, dismissive stare, is the controversial researcher behind much of the most negative findings. Apparently he has his detractors, some of whom are on the same panel. Many of them claim he’s inflammatory and biased; it is his research, after all, that the DEA is using to justify increasing the penalties for MDMA-related crimes and harm-reduction education.
During the question and answer period, a number of pro-ecstasy attendees come to the microphone to dispute Ricuarte’s findings, including one 80-year-old bald man in a purple turtleneck and blue cardigan. “I’ve been taking MDMA for 24 years, and have probably taken it 100 or 150 times,” he brags, as the audience looks at him incredulously. “Last time I took it I was 77 years old and at the time I had a doctor scan my brain, and he told me it was the brain of a man much younger. I’m at the top of my cognitive function. So where’s the brain damage?” Ricuarte blurts out a vague nonanswer referring to future research and data that still needs to be parsed.
After about 20 pro-drug researchers have stood up to debunk and challenge the academics, we’re an hour behind schedule. The ravers are getting shafted out of the time promised them, but that doesn’t stop Dustianne North from encouraging the audience to sit through a few minutes of electronic music so that they can understand where ravers are coming from. North, with her pink hair and faux-Chanel suit, is a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA and a proud advocate of dance culture. She shows slides of blissed-out ravers and argues lucidly that the dance culture is not about teens zonked out of their heads at raves but about tribalism, community and collective love. “We share the goal of safety and health among youth,” she insists. “If you want to help youth, understand that the world they face today is more complex perhaps than any other time of history. So please don’t beat the ‘Just Say No’ drum and please don’t pretend to advise us on issues that youth may be understanding better than you do. Respect people’s right to determine their own choices.”
North gets the second standing ovation of the day.
The conference ends with Emanuel Sferios, the animated founder of DanceSafe, who was supposed to give a speech about harm reduction but who has decided to piss off the conference organizers by using his 15 minutes to personally challenge Ricuarte and assorted other researchers in the audience who refuse to return his e-mails. The audience shifts uncomfortably in its seats as Sferios alternates between his indecipherable grudge match and rational observations. His main point: “Americans are starting to wake up to the fact that the drug war is not working and are looking for alternatives.”
It is clear, at the end of the day, that ecstasy is in a precarious position. It has become a cultural touchstone, much like crack in the 1980s and LSD in the 1960s and ’70s, a deus ex machina thrown onstage to take the blame for reckless behavior. It is appearing on the covers of magazines and being demonized by the government. Rave promoters in New Orleans are facing felony charges under ancient crack house laws; the DEA wants to increase punishments for MDMA users and dealers to levels comparable with heroin; and any legitimate research into ecstasy’s positive effects is being swiftly squelched.
The general consensus at the conference is that yes, ecstasy may damage your brain in some undetermined way, but it’s also a powerful drug that can lead to useful kinds of enlightenment. Members of this crowd have taken many different paths, each one radical in its own way, but they seem united in their concerns about the DEA and their support of harm reduction. After all, “Just Say No” has failed at least two generations of teenagers, and when 7.2 percent of young adults 19 to 28 have tried MDMA (as one researcher points out), it’s clear that ever-stricter laws and anti-drug propaganda aren’t deterring a disaffected youth distrustful of authority and out to have a good time.
As he’s wrapping up, Sferios asks the audience whether any of them did not take drugs in their youth. All sit quietly, hands in their laps, and look around. Not a single hand is raised, a tacit confession that suddenly draws the ravers, academics and therapists together in an admission of collective guilt. “You would be concerned if you thought that those drugs would make you into a zombie 25 years down the road,” says Sferios. “And that is the [message] that is being put out there for [ecstasy users]. We’re in danger of using scare tactics. They will be exposed for the propaganda that they are, and that undermines the trust that adults and harm-reduction activists and public health and scientists need to have among youth if they are going to listen to the real risks and dangers.”
The room is uncomfortably silent for a moment. Sferios continues: “I’ve learned to treat my potential adversaries as if they’re allies and meet people halfway. That’s the only way that we’re going to make progress.” At that, the audience bursts into applause and the conference ends.
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)