"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)
In a world arguably obsessed with the penis, Iceland’s Sigurdur Hjartarson could quite possibly be the most obsessed. A self-proclaimed “phallologist,” he has been chasing after penises in his home country for over 25 years. He owns more than 100 penises, and he likely knows more about penile parts and penile behavior than any other living human. He is, in “phallological” circles, the Man.
If you visit him in Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, and ask him to explain the differences between the penile parts of, say, a polar bear and a bearded seal, he will almost certainly respond helpfully, and in great detail. If you show proper respect for the science of phallology and ask him about his favorite penis, he will almost certainly demur and say something polite like “I like them all” or “I always like the last one the best.” But if you dare to ask the world’s only curator of a phallological museum about “that American reporter, the one who tried to write a feature story about you,” he will almost certainly cringe.
That American reporter is, of course, me.
Though I am persona non grata with Hjartarson today, our relationship started on a friendly enough note nearly three years ago.
Near the end of my monthlong trip through Iceland, after seemingly visiting every major tourist attraction in the 110,000-population capital city, good fortune struck. On a street just off Laugevegur, the main drag of the old section of town, I spotted the Icelandic Phallological Museum. More good fortune: The curiously named museum, open just three hours a day, was open. The place was tiny (convenience store size) and the price was high (300 Icelandic krónur, or $4), but hell, I knew I’d never find a cheaper penis museum.
Inside, I was surrounded by more penises than at any point since high school gym classes. They were hanging on the walls, stuffed in jars, displayed with curatorial love — dried penises, penises embalmed in formaldehyde, massive penises displayed like hunting trophies. A tanned bull’s penis, a smoked horse’s penis. There were runty, shriveled penises of reindeer, foxes, minks and rats. There were seal and walrus penises with stiff penis bones — ensuring a perpetually erect state. There was the Big Penis — a 3-foot-long blue whale penis (which could have been an oar for a canoe). There was even a picture of an eagerly anticipated addition to the collection, the Homo sapiens penis. (Icelander Pall Arason, born in 1915, signed an official document willing his penis to the museum.)
Overseeing this vast collection of penises was an unassuming white guy, probably in his 50s, who told me he believed it to be the only collection of its kind in the world. I revealed my fascination and my reporter identity, and said that I would, perhaps, like to contact him in the future about a story. He smiled, and gave me a business card: “Sigurdur Hjartarson, Director.” He was happy to help.
I then purchased a few postcards of whale penises from his museum shop, I sent one to a friend with a guyish remark and that was it.
Until last spring. I had developed a terrible desire to return to Iceland for another summer trek. I started trolling around the Internet one day, just sentimentally keyword-searching for Icelandic things, when I remembered the penis collector.
A Web search soon revealed that the Icelandic Phallological Museum was not some kitschy, wax museum thing. Hjartarson, a schoolteacher and published author who wrote an Icelandic-to-Spanish textbook, was very serious about the science of phallology. He was expanding his collection. Two more humans had agreed to will their family jewels to Hjartarson. Foreign specimens, such as the phallic bone of an Ohio skunk and the testicles of a Danish red fox, were being added. Most significantly, though, after 25 years, Hjartarson was inching closer to his goal of collecting the penis of every mammalian species native to Iceland. (He had 40 of 42 penises.)
I started wondering: What possibly could have triggered his quest to collect every penis native to Iceland? And what would Hjartarson do once the 42nd Icelandic penis was obtained?
None of the pieces I read about the Phallological Museum sufficiently answered my questions. They were jokey news items, like a blurb from Philadelphia radio station Y100′s “bizarro” file. And there was a short, double-entendre-laced wire piece: “Members Only at Iceland Phallological Museum.” And Chuck Shepherd, of “News of the Weird,” supposed connoisseur of the eccentric, devoted a mere paragraph to Hjartarson, with the dismissive headline “Too Much Time on Their Hands.” None of the reporting on the penis museum answered my burning question: What did neighbors think when they saw the guy across the street lugging whale penises into his garage?
A void existed. A great story was still untold.
Last fall I e-mailed Hjartarson, proposing my story. I made it clear from the outset that this would be unlike earlier stories about him. This was not just about the museum — this was about him, how he developed his phallological interest, how others perceived his phallological interest. As a feature, this process would take some time, I explained. I would begin the interview with sets of e-mailed questions and then, if questions lingered, I would call him. I warned, in no uncertain terms, that “the number of questions, and the detail of the questions, may be greater than you’re accustomed to.”
When Hjartarson got back to me, he seemed enthused. He apologized for his tardy response, saying he had been very busy recently. He asked me to resend my questions, and he promised to answer promptly.
And he did. On Sunday, Oct. 29, I got Part 1 of his story:
The first penis. It was 1946 or 1947. Just after the end of the Great War, Hjartarson is working in the countryside in northern Iceland when a friend gives him four bull’s penises. Hjartarson dries the penises, and gives three of them to friends as Christmas gifts.
The idea. In 1974, nearly 30 years after that Christmas, he’s working as a headmaster at a secondary school. Some of his teachers worked at a whaling station during summer vacation. (This was, of course, before the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling.) These teachers started bringing him penises from the station. Then the idea for the museum was born. The museum would profile penises from all the mammal species in and around Iceland. And so the quest began.
Hjartarson also shed light on other aspects of the penis-collecting process. Domestic animals, such as sheep and horses, come from slaughterhouses. Seals and small whales are mostly caught in fishermen’s nets. As for the whale penises in his collection, many originally came from commercial whaling stations. But even after the 1986 ban, whale penis collecting continues. Each year, Hjartarson estimated, 12 to 16 whales get stranded in Iceland. And in Iceland, he wrote, when a whale gets stranded, it’s immediately on the television news. So when Hjartarson learns of a beached whale, he will travel to the spot to see if he can get the penis.
Wow. Hjartarson was a model source, giving me detailed answers to my questions. I was envisioning great things — a gripping narrative about the life of a penis chaser, like some Indiana Jones of penises. I wanted to re-create that moment when Hjartarson sits down to dinner, only to spot an Icelandic news reporter on the evening news, standing in front of a beached sperm whale. What happens? Does he jump into a battered Volvo and race through a blinding snowstorm to an isolated beach, where he emasculates the monster with an ax?
I was also dying to know what happened on Christmas Day 1946 or 1947 in northern Iceland. What were the expressions on the faces of Hjartarson’s friends as he unwrapped their gift … it could be cologne … it could be a tie … no — it’s a tanned bull’s penis.
Writing just days after he had obtained the well-preserved penis of a white-beaked dolphin (“the limb was whole, pelvic bones, and both testicles”), Hjartarson sounded like he was ready for more questions. He concluded his e-mail with an encouraging invite. A teachers strike was possible in Iceland and, after Nov. 7, “being a full-time teacher I may have plenty of time after that date.”
Great: I was in for unprecedented access. I seized the opportunity, firing off Round 2 of the interview with 10 more questions. Some were follow-ups — asking for more details (such as “tell me about Christmas Day 1946″). Others were of a more personal nature. (Remember, this was to be a profile.) I prefaced my personal questions with the assumption that some folks think penis collecting is unusual. I had, in fact, read that the government of Iceland rejected Hjartarson’s request for arts funding. I asked him about this. I asked him about what friends, neighbors and family members thought of his hobby. I wanted to hear about both “positive and negative” perceptions of penis collecting. I also revealed that whenever I told friends that I was writing a story about a penis collector, their instinctive reaction was “Is he gay?” I continued: “I’ve read, to the contrary, that you’re a heterosexual man, married with children. Is this true???”
That second message was not well received.
“Judging from your questions, you must be an American,” he wrote. Hjartarson was evidently suspicious of me. I had introduced myself (name, publication, background) in my initial e-mail. But now, strangely, he was asking for this same information again. He didn’t like some of my questions, and wouldn’t proceed until he “knew how the information would be used.”
OK. I wrote back immediately, hoping to allay any fears that I was some chump reporter looking for penis jokes. I listed publications (New York Times, Washington Post) that I had written for in the past. I told him about my Icelandic experience and referenced a friend in Iceland. I reiterated that this was a feature story, so the reporting was inherently more detailed than that for a regular news piece. And I even attempted to justify what I feared was my most controversial question, writing, “If I was writing a story about a woman who collected sex organs, I would ask about her sexual orientation, too.” Readers, I explained, will want to know.
There was no response from Iceland.
A few days later, I tried again, with a simple “just checking to see if you received my e-mail” message. A week passed with no response.
My third e-mail injected some urgency into the plea: “This is going to be a great story. I’d really love to wrap this up. So please …”
Of course, by this point, I feared the worst. But I also considered other factors. Maybe he’s not receiving my messages. Maybe he’s mired in some teacher-strike negotiations. Maybe another white-beaked dolphin got caught in a net.
Enough speculation. It was time for us to talk.
On the morning of Dec 6, at 9:02 a.m. Central, 3:02 p.m., Reykjavík time, I called the world’s foremost penis collector.
After hearing my name and my attempted chumminess — “I’m the American reporter, just followin’ up” — Hjartarson stopped me. “I’m not answering your questions. I do not want to have anything to do with this anymore.”
Sensing the intense anger in his voice, sensing that there was little hope for persuading him to proceed, I said, “OK. Just answer this: Why? Why don’t you want to participate anymore?”
He responded, without pause: “You insulted me.”
Before I had a chance to say anything more, he hung up.
In my short journalism career, this was a first. There were people who wouldn’t — or couldn’t — answer my questions. There was once a woman in Queens who barked out answers to my questions, then told me to “get the hell out.” But never before had a source accused me of insulting him or her.
I contacted a friend in Iceland for counsel. Was the sexual-orientation question that big of a deal? Absolutely, he advised. Iceland, a country whose most famous citizen is avant-garde songstress Björk, is not the Bible Belt. In fact, on the global scale, it’s a sexually progressive place — Reykjavík has a lively gay scene. But Hjartarson is an oldster, in his late 50s, from rural northern Iceland, who worked as a cowboy in his youth. He may, my friend noted, have taken unkindly to a question about his sexual preference.
I felt bad. I remembered our first encounter and his friendly smile. I remembered those lighthearted cheery answers to my questions. (About his 85-year-old human penis donor, he joked: “He’s said to be active ‘both vertically and horizontally.’”)
I meditated briefly on Hjartarson’s perspective. There he was, a married father, a grandfather, working away, teaching classes by day, curing and drying the penises of Iceland in his free time. Enter my e-mail. He’s thinking, “No big deal. A few questions, a few answers, a few more visitors to my museum.” But this time, the reporter is a nosy, sex-obsessed American who has the gall to wonder if his pursuit of Icelandic penises means he’s a fag.
I sent off one final e-mail, an attempt at peace, a quest for closure. “What did I ask that you felt was insulting?”
- – - – - – - – - – - -
It’s late January, nearly two months after my last contact. There is still no word from Reykjavík.
I have accepted that I will not know what happened that Christmas in 1946 or 1947. I know that when I visit Iceland next, and when I inevitably visit the museum, I will not declare, “Hey, I’m that American reporter who e-mailed you.” (Instead, I will browse the penises incognito.)
But I do maintain my journalistic innocence. I was pleading my case to a friend last week, a former reporter and newspaper editor, who I think is fairly representative of conservative American attitudes. The friend, an obsessively ethical, righteous guy, initially scoffed and said, “You just don’t ask people about their sex life.”
I persisted. C’mon. Is it wildly inappropriate to ask a man who has spent much of the past 25 years chasing after — and collecting — penises about “perceptions of his sexual orientation”?
My friend softened. “Yeah, a guy who collects penises shouldn’t be homophobic.”
Josh Schonwald is a writer in New York.More Josh Schonwald.
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)