"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)
A few months ago, lonely and not meeting anyone in my current social circles, I posted a personal ad on a San Francisco community Web site. The ad, of course, made no mention of the invisible scarlet B I wear on my vested breast.
The next morning, I awoke to a single response. Things moved quickly and before long I had a tiny but definite mental picture of the respondent: an intelligent, funny young woman with a local background — precisely what I was looking for. I was excited and things felt vaguely promising.
Two days later, I had forever lost any chance of meeting her. Haunted by my past, I had inadvertently committed a gaffe that she described as “the height of egotism.” It was yet another example, as I frantically tried to explain to her in e-mail, of the scarlet B in action.
Most people don’t know me and likely never will. However, if you ran an Internet search on my name, you’d find dozens of links to Web pages with my name mentioned on them. There used to be a lot more; many such links have withered and died in the past three years. Some of the links are to comments I made on Web sites, to sites involving computers, computer games or contract work I’ve done in the past, but such links are in the minority. The overwhelming majority of links are on the subject of Sasquatch. You know, Bigfoot.
From 1995 to 1998, I was active in what is known as the “Bigfoot community,” a loose association of people with a shared interest in one of the most intriguing mysteries of the modern age: persistent accounts of a manlike animal living in the wild places of North America. These people include longtime Bigfoot researchers and investigators, Bigfoot enthusiasts and those who operate Bigfoot Web sites. It’s an eclectic, often eccentric, typically disappointing, but occasionally brilliant crowd that sometimes agrees seemingly on only one thing: the reality of a heretofore-unknown hominid.
In 1998, I left the Bigfoot field. I announced I was leaving the Internet Virtual Bigfoot Conference, a now-defunct e-mail list devoted to the subject. I wrote a goodbye letter, took down my Bigfoot Web site and informed other researchers that I would no longer be pursuing Bigfoot research. I had a variety of reasons for doing so, some of which had more to do with my inability to tolerate other Bigfoot researchers and enthusiasts than with the phenomenon I purported to study. However, while I took down my Web site and all of the data on it, I did leave up sighting reports, Native American legends about Bigfoot-like creatures and research that I provided to other paranormal Web site operators.
At the time I left, I really didn’t think about how my name would remain floating on the Web, connected to Bigfoot. I was just happy to be away from it all. At the time I was cleaning out the /www/ folder on my ISP’s server, a lot of other Bigfoot Web sites were moving on to the Great Server in the Sky. Bigfoot sites have always suffered a high turnover rate, so it never occurred to me that some links would still be hot three years later. I figured that my association with Bigfoot would slowly fade from the Internet and that my legacy, as I wrote to the members of the IVBC, would be to become the “George Lazenby of the Bigfoot field, a vaguely remembered character who made a brief, tiny contribution the nature of which cannot exactly be recalled at the moment.”
Alas, it hasn’t turned out that way. There are many Bigfoot- and paranormal-related sites out there that still mention my name, usually in a dead link to my site, but often in giving credit for a reproduced article or piece of data borrowed from my site. Anyone running a Web search on my name would come upon the same references and links, so my association with Bigfoot is preserved.
When you think of Bigfoot, a panoply of images and impressions might race through your mind. You might think of the fuzzy 16 mm color film taken at Bluff Creek, Calif., more than 30 years ago. You might think of rangy, hard-bitten men holding enormous, foot-shaped plaster casts. You might think of the Abominable Snowman, UFOs, ghosts and the strange silent statues on Easter Island (which, incidentally, are no longer a mystery). You might think of a dozen late-night films endured in fits of insomnia and the occasional documentary on the Discovery Channel. You might think of eyewitness reports you have seen on television, and of how the eyewitness was wearing a mullet or a beehive hairdo, weathered denim overalls or a flower-patterned muumuu. You might remember how the news anchor snickered when the segment was done and how, very briefly, you toyed with the idea that maybe, just maybe, science and conventional wisdom were both wrong and Bigfoot was real, but how the idea then creeped you out a bit and you became deeply engrossed in the pizza commercial that followed.
Despite all the complaints about America not giving its scientists their due, Americans obviously listen to them on the subject of Bigfoot. Most Americans do not believe in Bigfoot, preferring to run with the scientists. This puts people like me, who believe in Bigfoot, in a somewhat difficult position. Someone is right on this issue, and someone is wrong. On one side you have the scientific establishment, the same one that has given us the richest body of scientific knowledge in history and that has helped create the safest and most prosperous society of all time. On the other side, you have a small band of laypeople (and an even smaller band of renegade scientists). Who is the public most likely to believe?
When you believe in Bigfoot, you are by definition an iconoclast. You are smashing the revered idols of mainstream science and replacing them with giant, dirt-flecked, plaster tracks of enormous bare feet. You are going against the scientific heterodoxy that states that there are no primates in North America other than man, there are no large primate species left to be discovered and there is absolutely no evidence for Bigfoot in the fossil record. Science, conventional wisdom and common knowledge all agree that the possible existence of a heretofore-uncataloged primate living in the forests and swamps of North America is nil. Very nil.
So when you tell people that you not only believe in Bigfoot but have actively conducted research in an attempt to prove Bigfoot’s existence, you are on shaky ground. Despite the American tradition of individualism, it’s still considered weird to believe in things like UFOs and even weirder to pursue an animal that resembles a large, hairy linebacker. When the invisible Scarlet B pinned to your chest makes itself visible, people can make quick (and often unfavorable) judgment calls about you.
To top it off, a certain stereotype exists about Bigfooters. There is a perception among members of the public that Bigfooters are nutty, gullible, uneducated, ignorant, rural people who are in some way delusional or downright foolish. To an extent, the stereotypes are true: I could recount many amusing (and, in such a way, sad) stories.
Everyone who knows me personally also knows of my formerly public obsession with Bigfoot. It’s a part of what people know and accept about me. I rise in the morning. I drink a lot of tea. I don’t like to work. I believe in Bigfoot. Most people accept my belief and move on. There are, however, some people who will calmly and completely accept anything I say until it comes to Bigfoot — at which point they’ll decide that I am completely out of my mind. Six years after we met, my friend Sara still laughs nervously and wonders out loud if I’m serious about all that Bigfoot stuff. I assure her that I am. She laughs nervously again. I change the subject.
Belief in Bigfoot can also adversely affect a person’s relations with the opposite sex. Too many reasonable people think that Bigfoot is a sign that a person is too odd for dating purposes. Almost all Bigfoot researchers are separated from their spouses, divorced or single. Those who are attached have typically found love in the understanding arms of other Bigfooters. Numerous times, after being introduced to an attractive, intelligent, promising young woman, it has come out later that I’m “really into Bigfoot.” Needless to say, I have never gotten anywhere with any of those attractive, intelligent, promising young women.
As a result of this, I’m a tad self-conscious about how people meeting me will react upon getting wind of my Bigfoot past. As far as I’m concerned, people have every right in the world to believe that Bigfoot doesn’t exist, and I don’t hold it against them. It’s how my belief colors their opinion of me that concerns me.
I fear this is what happened with my personals ad respondent. When I revealed to her my last name and Web site address, I realized that, sooner or later, she might do a search on my name. And I thought this was a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
On the other hand, I knew early impressions were everything, and that if my opinion regarding Bigfoot were part of them, it could create problems for me. I have become self-conscious about all those links floating out there, and in an attempt to preempt the possibility, I half-jokingly told her to do a Web search on my name and find out for herself all the weird stuff with which I had once been affiliated.
That turned out to be a bad move. My respondent (I never learned her name) commented, with a whiff of bewilderment, that asking someone to do a Web search on your name is “the height of egotism.” She had misread my intentions completely: My attempt to neutralize the effects of the scarlet B blew up in my face. I tried to explain what I had really meant, what the scarlet B was and what I had been thinking. (I have made a mental note to myself never, ever, again to include the subject of Bigfoot in a desperate conversation that I’m on the losing end of.)
I explained to her my Bigfoot career in a nutshell — the stigma of it and my self-consciousness about it all. But the damage was done. It was a lot for her to take in, and I believe she never really did. After a few more listless e-mails back and forth that conspicuously lacked the spark that first excited me, our exchange tapered off to nothingness.
There must be some way to make myself anonymous again, to erase the scarlet B. Naturally, I could write the operators of the many Web sites that mention my name in conjunction with Bigfoot and ask them to take my name off their sites. In time, the search engines would lose track of the sites and I’d be free.
The problem is that some of these sites appear to be on autopilot, cruising along without the benefit of a doting webmaster. I am also uncomfortable with the idea of e-mailing webmasters to say, in effect: “Hey, could you take my stuff down? It’s making me look weird.” Finally, if even one Bigfoot link remains, they might as well all stay up; if I have to explain one link, there might as well be 50 of them.
I will continue to pay for my belief in Bigfoot for some time to come. I don’t detect any sudden change in public attitudes toward Bigfoot, one that might eventually transform me from pariah to visionary. It’s going to be a much more gradual process: Bigfooters are an army of Egyptian stonemasons building the pyramid at Gîza. They’ll get the job done, though it might take them several hundred years. Too late for me to care, really, what the eventual outcome is.
In my time investigating the hairy linebacker, I expended most of my efforts researching Native American legends about the creature. Many tribes believed in a Bigfoot-type being, and many agreed that to see Bigfoot was a bad sign. Often, someone who actually witnessed Bigfoot would have a run of bad luck, go insane, grow sick or even die.
I have always believed that these legends, no matter how fantastic they sounded, had some grains of truth to them. However, the belief of bad luck associated with Bigfoot, while consistent across multiple tribes, was a little too out there, a little too metaphysical for my liking. I wanted facts, not superstition. I didn’t know what to do with the bad luck aspect of the legend, so I ignored and eventually forgot about it.
Bad idea. Ironically, by ignoring the bad luck theme I had ignored perhaps the most personally relevant “fact” about Bigfoot of all. All that talk of “seeing” Bigfoot (figuratively or otherwise) as being a bad luck sign turned out to be true. It’s the scarlet B in action, viewed through the lenses of another culture. It’s dozens of ancient cultures collectively sending the warning: “Hey, don’t get involved with Bigfoot. You will so regret it.” The warnings were in plain view — and I completely missed them.
In the weeks since I met and lost my promising personals ad respondent, I’ve sworn off using the ads to find someone. The scarlet B makes things too difficult. (There have been other minor disasters along similar lines.) My interest in Bigfoot is now largely a memory, and I no longer research the old legends for tantalizing clues. I periodically despair in my loneliness under the burden of my scarlet B, but in another sign of my love/hate relationship with Bigfoot, I often find myself wondering what else in the legends I may have missed.
Kyle Mizokami is a writer and researcher in San Francisco.More Kyle Mizokami.
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)