"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)
Mr. Blue spent a few days in Seattle last week, sampling the mussels and hanging out with Vietnamese friends and enjoying Midsummer Day and all. The mussels are good with butter and garlic, less good in coriander sauce. The friends, Kim and Long, say that Vietnamese in America tell a lot of jokes, about the Communist regime, about Vietnamese parents and their American kids, about everything, and to demonstrate, Long told a joke in Vietnamese to his son Michael, which the boy then translated for me. It was the one about the boy and girl parked in a car, necking, and the sheriff pulls up and shines his light in the window, and the boy bursts into tears, and the sheriff asks why, and the boy says, “Because in five minutes I’ll turn 18.”
A joke slightly bowdlerized by the father, I believe. Anyway, it was funny when Michael told it. At least he thought so.
The Swedes in America realized a hundred years ago that they’d lose Swedish and that the loss would not necessarily be fatal to their Swedishness, and now the Swedes of Seattle, many of them hopelessly intermarried with Norwegians and Danes, gather for Midsommar Dag on the 24th, and celebrate with a Maypole and garlands of fresh flowers and a gang of 15 fiddlers from the Skandia Folk Music Society, men and women from 16 to 60, in Swedish costumes from the 19th century, sawing away at the old walking-tunes and dances.
Between the old Swedish emigrants and this hardworking Vietnamese family, there is a common story. They came with nothing, worked hard, put themselves through college and shower the blessings on their American children. But at Midsummer Day, one is reminded of how much is beyond our ken and our control. The sun shines and that makes all the difference, work as hard as we will.
Seattle isn’t known for sunshine. The pioneers, driving their wagons over Homestake Pass and Lookout Pass and Snoqualmie Pass and seeing the ocean and the gray sky and the persistent mists of Seattle, certainly realized that life was now changed for them and they’d never be dry again. People who live in Seattle love it to the point of wearing you out listening to them. It’s like your parents telling you how wonderful the Swendson girl is and why you ought to date her. You meet former Minnesotans who tell you how much they don’t miss the snow back home and the summer heat and mosquitoes and how it’s so flat back there and so fabulous here: How could you not want to be here? Believe me, a person can find a way.
Perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s lovely, in a way, but in the end, it makes me sleepy, and I have to leave. Really good seafood is not compensation enough for feeling drowsy.
A woman writes emphatically, regarding Wanting More, the 27-year-old in New York who wants to adopt a baby: “No one should ever intentionally take on single parenting no matter what resources they have access to. Being a big city (accidental) single parent of two children myself I could list thousands of reasons why this is a horrible idea but the only one that matters is that the children grow up without two parents and that’s just not fair to them. It is entirely selfish of anyone to force a child into an unhealthy situation, such as single parenting, right from day one. Adoption may be a valid way to go if you are willing to take on some special needs. If you really are interested in being a mother, you should seriously consider adopting the kid that has been a ward of the state for several years that “no one wants” — then sit down and think about if you really are ready to do this on your own. You need to think of what is best for the child(ren) not just your own wants and needs. What’s really best for him/her/them?”
A gentleman responds, in re Roommate, the young lady miffed because she is not invited to her boyfriend’s family holidays: “In some families, it is not appropriate for girlfriends to travel and stay with the family, and some young men respect their parents enough not to flaunt their unmarried sexual relationships by dragging along the latest girlfriend and expecting Mom and Dad to say nothing when you take her to bed in their house. In some families, that is still looked upon as trailer park behavior.”
I am in my early 30s, divorced from an oaf, have two wonderful children, a ho-hum job, a cancer history, a mountain of debt and passable looks. I have always subscribed to the theory that men and women can be friends. Just friends. I am beginning to wonder if I may be mistaken.
I’ve had this problem since high school. I meet a guy, establish a perfectly nice platonic friendship and then wham! Out of nowhere comes the unsolicited kiss or declaration of devotion. To which I react badly and pfft! there goes the friendship.
This time is the worst. I have been friends with this man for seven years. He is a very, very dear friend to me; both the kiss and the declaration came as a complete surprise. I reacted badly, by not responding. But something is (obviously) expected and I’ve spent days walking around with a pit of dread in my stomach that we’ll never get this friendship back to where it was.
Have you any advice for this particular situation and the quandary in general? I really truly am not a flirt.
Nothing stays exactly what it was, and friendships evolve and shift, whether one friend lunges at the other or not. Men and woman can be friends and are, and some lunge and others never do; but in either case, don’t make a big deal of it. Your avoiding your friend makes this a Big Deal and he starts to imagine that he’s done the Unmentionable and Unforgivable Thing. Good Lord, it’s only a kiss and an awkward overture. It’s easily deflected. You smile, you say, “You are so sweet, so generous, that’s the thing I love about you, but I don’t have romantic feelings about you. I just don’t.” And you smile and squeeze his hand and you go on. We’re not bone-china teacups that crack if anyone looks at us cross-eyed. You say you’re not a flirt, and I’ll bet you are, but it doesn’t matter: This is not a dire or desperate situation. Play it for laughs.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am currently in a passionate relationship with a young woman I care about very much who lives with her old hippie parents, due to bad financial decisions on her part. Her parents are very open-minded and accepting, but the smell of their house (a lot of pets, cigarette and cigar smoke, plain old dirtiness) is so bad it’s nauseating. As you might imagine, this is a difficult subject to broach with my girlfriend. I try to avoid going over there if at all possible. How do I possibly tell her this, without insulting her and her entire family?
Focus on the passion, forget about doing the social work. When people get funky, it’s up to their mothers, or perhaps an older sister, to say, “You smell bad, Moonflower and Earth Spirit. Here’s some Lysol. Use it liberally.” It’s not up to their daughter’s boyfriend. He is only a guest and a suspect one at that, a potential thief of the daughter’s innocence and happiness, a home wrecker, a rounder, one who must be watched carefully. If you put in your two cents’ worth about the Rainbow Family’s hygiene, you will find yourself out the door and flat on your keister. Avoid going there.
I’m married, mid-40s, with one daughter and what looks like a good life, except it’s not. In 15 years of marriage my wife has changed a lot. She used to weigh 150, she’s now topped 220 and has been battling depression for more than 10 years. We used to do things together, but now her life is largely online. She has diabetes and all sorts of other maladies. Sex is nonexistent. She has little self-esteem, although she is a wonderful writer. I love her very much and want to stay with her and keep our family together. But all the stress is starting to weird me out. Recently I’ve had to pop the antidepressants too, the first time ever. I long for just a year without all this medical madness and personality problems. It doesn’t look like it’s ever going to happen. Is there a happy ending to this mess or should I accept my fate?
No Way Out
Dear No Way,
A happy ending is a relative thing. Somewhere there is a man your age who has everything he thought he wanted, including buckets of money and a slender and passionate wife, and he is looking for a gun so he can kill himself, and here you are, beset with problems he never dreamed of, and you feel love and loyalty and despite the dark tone there is some sense of hope. Of course there is. But one dare not pin one’s hopes on a transforming miracle; one looks for small incremental improvements. First, I trust that your wife is receiving good medical care: That’s crucial, of course. And the care should extend to her whole family situation. Second, I recommend that you focus on making a few small changes: e.g., instituting a daily walk, the two of you together. Depressed people easily get stuck in sedentary routines that are only bad news and they need to be pried loose. The daily walk is an occasion for conversation and could lead to moviegoing or theater or concerts, some outside stimulation to balance the lure of the computer screen. Sex may not be possible in the near term, and for that, you might consider the simple expedient of erotic videos. You don’t mention the daughter’s situation, but the two of you surely have the power to keep up a certain tone in the home, some humor and light and music and affection. The little things that, in the end, are what make us happy.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I’m an artist, educated, fairly articulate, somewhat attractive (so I’ve been told) and have met a younger man (34) who is wonderful. He’s a very cultured, intelligent, wealthy trust-fund child. Unfortunately quite conceited. I am falling in love with him. I doubt that the feeling is mutual. I’m trying to be cool about it. I don’t call him, I don’t tell him how I feel. I’m just so bloody tired of all the useless, abusive stupid men I have known in the past. I dread another failed relationship. I mean, I know that I’m worthwhile and talented and so on, but how does one convey such things without sounding like a pompous ass? How do I show him that I’m good enough for him? I think we would be great together in the long run, but I just don’t know how to win his heart. Do you follow me?
An artist is worth two trust-fund babies any day of the week, and a really good artist is worth eight or 10. If he’s intelligent, he knows it, too. Arrogance is a difficult trait to deal with, though many women have managed to simply by tuning it out, like you’d filter out radio interference. His sort of arrogance is likely a habit of mind he isn’t even aware of, maybe just a set of habitual tics and inflections. His falling in love with you might be a long leap for him. You can encourage it by being wonderful company, funny and alluring and loving, and by keeping your company in short supply, not available anytime he beckons. And don’t let your romance interfere with your work. Really. If solitude is the key to your work, take all of it that you need, don’t relinquish a minute.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I am 27, finally coming out of three years of depression, and I’ve met this wonderful man, 44, retired and financially secure, who plans to write a book and buy a house on the beach and marry someday. He is sweet, tender, passionate, and makes me feel like the most beautiful and desired woman on this planet. I think I am falling in love with him; he is already in love with me and said, “I want to take care of you and make you feel safe with me.” What’s the problem? He is divorced, with four daughters ranging from 15 to 25, and he is diabetic. I don’t have much experience with men and I am hesitant about starting a relationship with him. I’ve had to take care of other people all my life, and now that I am finally coming out on my own, I don’t want to be thrown into a dependent relationship ever again. What do you think I should do?
Dazed and Confused
Only you know. But as we say in the Midwest, you could do worse. A guy who can make you feel beautiful and desired is not all bad. The girls will not want you for a mother. And diabetes is a highly manageable disease. And at 44, the gentleman is hardly on the verge of physical collapse. So this sounds like an offer to consider. Of course it all depends on the beach. Stinson Beach? Daytona Beach? Omaha Beach? And what sort of book? I’d be wary of anyone writing a book about How to Retire Before You’re 45 or some other self-help book. A humorist, of course, would be your best bet — a book like Laffs Galore or Funny Fotos of Katz in Hatz is a good indicator of a guy’s stability and independence — and certain kinds of novelists could be good (stay away from the lit’ry ones, but mystery writers and sci-fi are OK). With poets, you’re taking a big chance, especially with lousy poets. I could go on, but won’t.
Dear Mr. Blue,
Today is my 27th birthday, and I am getting tired of being single. I’m decent-looking (according to friends), kind, a good cook, I own my own company and am a generally very well-rounded, highly intelligent man. That said, in the past 10 years, I have been in only one relationship and for less than one year.
The pattern is that I form very close friendships with smart, attractive woman and fall madly in love with them, but they see me as a “friend” and only in a platonic light. They laugh and say something like, “But you’re like my brother,” and in many cases we then grow distant. Or they ask my advice about men they are interested in — what can be more depressing than that? Especially when they tell me they like me better than they like him.
So what am I to do? I want to learn what I was supposed to have learned in high school — let alone the sexual experimentation that I should have done in college.
I dress in style, am clean shaven, hold doors open for women, bring flowers when I meet them at the airport, so what more do I do? And how to get women to be both friends and lovers?
All the easy questions you could have asked me and you had to come up with this. Well, what can I say? Romance is an imaginative art, like acting, and a man with an impressive résumé like yours (Has Own Business, Cooks, Opens Doors, Shaves) nonetheless has to audition for the job, the same as any nobody. You have to demonstrate stability (women don’t go for men who argue with lampposts), and you have to show that certain élan, that je ne sais quoi, that sense of mystery and playfulness and wit that thrills a woman. Many a woman has overlooked a guy’s instability because he had that power to thrill her. You, up to this point, have focused too hard on stability and brotherhood and palship and become Dear Old Bob who Megan and Lindsay and Deirdre and Caitlin all love to talk to and complain to about their boyfriends. You need to work on the mystery part. This is no big secret. You let a woman know that you are a romantic guy by touching her back and the back of her neck. Here’s how. You and Caitlin are standing outside the Café des Romance, waiting for Deirdre, and you put your arm around her, like a pal might do, and as you talk to her about this and that, your finger lightly traces around her wings and down her spine from her neck to her lower back in a light and graceful and suggestive way, paying particular attention to her neck, and she gets the message subliminally: You’re not just Old Bob, you are also Roberto the Magnificent. Kissing comes after that, which is an expressive art all by itself, and then comes what you would’ve learned in high school but which will be even more fun now.
Dear Mr. Blue,
Three years ago, I fell in love with a passionate, caring, brilliant man and we laughed together until our faces hurt. I was showered with love and affection, and he told me that I was his “once in a lifetime.”
However, I had never been in a “real” relationship before him (I was 22, he was 24), and I was plagued with insecurity. I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time, but I tested his love for me over and over again in little ways. He was stubborn but eventually got tired of being tested and decided to move on. I was devastated.
It’s been three years, Mr. Blue. Three years! I’ve gotten over most of my childish insecurities, but I’m still heartbroken and I still think about him and long for his conversation, his humor, his touch. I know this is all so unhealthy. How do I move on? How do I let go of my memories of how he made me feel? How do I forgive myself for destroying something so special? I’m approaching my 25th birthday, and I want to move forward with my life, but I don’t know how.
Three years! Indeed. Time to get a new hobby, one that makes you happy, and drop this one, which doesn’t. You move on by moving on and letting other parts of your life grow, and that will choke off your forlorn feelings. Take up comedy, do good works, devote yourself to friendship, ride your bicycle, get a cat, do what you need to do. And think about what you want to happen to you before you’re 30. A Five-Year Plan is called for. Who do you want to be in five years, and where, and how do you get there? You don’t need to forgive yourself because you’re not to blame: Every love affair is beautifully complicated and involves two people and I don’t buy your explanation of how you and the p.c.b. man broke up. You are better off as who you are, without him, than you would be as who you were, with him. As for the memories, they will let go of you as large events and interesting new developments take their place. That’s why women resent men who leave them and find someone else and father a child, because a child is a Large Event and the ex knows that Mr. Man no longer pines for her. He doesn’t have time.
Dear Mr. Blue,
After a year of nondating, a smart, discerning, attractive, single woman, 34, meets an eccentric, intelligent, kind, divorced (father of three) gentleman, 45, through a mutual friend and is immediately smitten. A date that lasts till morning confirms the attraction. That was over a month ago, a busy time for both parties, phone messages were left, future meetings hinted at. They bump into each other last week, have spontaneous drinks and dinner, cuddle in the park. No word from him since. She is becoming obsessed. What to do? Phone? Send the silly poem she has written about her lust? What could be causing the delay? She remembers his face lighting up when he saw her, the race of her pulse in the park. She wants to avoid courting missteps.
Young and Impatient
By all means drop him a line and tell him how wonderful that date was and the meeting in the park. Call him and invite him to supper. Send him a small gift. Three unacknowledged messages is the limit, though, so use them wisely.
Dear Mr. Blue,
I have a good friend who was a very good friend of my wife’s before my wife and I met. She has let my wife know that she thinks highly of me. And now that she’s pregnant, she wants to name her future son after me. I’m flattered, but I’m not sure how to respond. I know that it’s quite a compliment, but I’ve never been comfortable accepting compliments. I want to be polite and to show that I appreciate how much it means. But at what point does acknowledgement of a compliment turn into too much?
It’s an honor and as with any honor, you accept it. (Unless it’s completely bogus, e.g., if you were notified that you’re the winner of the Nobel Prize in physics this year and you happen to be only a physical therapist, you’d notify the Swedes right away so as to avoid later embarrassment.) This honor, however, doesn’t require your acceptance or anything. You simply return the honor in the form of friendship and become a sort of godfather to the child and you give him a nice present on his birthday every year and as he grows up, you adopt the role of uncle and enjoy being kindly and wise and avuncular. A lovely prospect.
Dear Mr. Blue,
My husband and I are old Deadheads, married 19 years, with two daughters. A couple of years ago my best friend from college suggested that we buy a piece of land out West in partnership. She is an artist, her husband is a welder and tinkerer, my husband is a gardener and forester, and I write. It seemed like a beautiful dream, and then suddenly a beautiful piece of property with two homesites came on the market, and we bought it. Our friends moved into a primitive cabin on the site and a couple of years later my husband and I built our house, but I started to get a bad feeling about the whole thing. Our friends kept their distance and did not socialize with us. Since finishing our house, my husband has put in a garden, an irrigation system, planted 2,000 trees (he is meant for this life!), and our partners can’t even get their own house finished; and their garbage and dead cars continue to pile up. They have a good thing going — we do all the work, they reap the benefit. I would like to sell our beautiful home, but their half-finished hovel and little slice of Appalachia is right next to our home; who would want to buy into a partnership with these two jokers anyway? Any advice you have on this situation would be greatly appreciated.
At the End of My Rope
Oh dear. The dreams of the ’60s — communal harmony and joy in a state of nature and innocence — have come down to this? Living next door to dopes? OK, it’s a big mistake and a rough deal, but look on the bright side. Your husband loves his life there and it’s tolerable for you. Confess it. Go ahead. Say, “It’s tolerable.” You’re a writer, you can sit in a room and write, it’s what you do, and if the neighbors are wacko trash-heads, then write about them. Nothing bad ever happens to a writer; everything is material. Any township that has zoning regulations will also have some common-sense limits on dead cars and garbage, and don’t hesitate to contact your local officials. If you need to, put up a privacy fence between your house and the hovel. It can be 8 feet high and covered with psychedelic ornamentation. Think of what you’d like the outcome of this story to be and then write it that way. In my version, the two jokers would give their hearts to Jesus and repent and buy you out and turn the place into a Bible camp. In your version, perhaps they’d be driven away by coyotes, or turn out to be space aliens, or simply disappear and go looking for Jerry.
Dear Mr. Blue,
My husband and I have casual friends who insist on injecting their political views in every social situation and feel the need to ruin a perfectly nice evening with snide comments about people whom we support. They don’t want a stimulating discussion — the amused glances and “nudges” that pass between them make that obvious. They once invited us to dine with them and another couple of their acquaintance, and spent almost the entire evening in partisan political talk, totally excluding us from the conversation.
My husband and I feel that it is rude to do this to people who have obviously differing views and can’t imagine why they would deliberately make us uncomfortable in this way. Should I talk frankly with them about it or just terminate this relationship?
Uncomfortable Being Skewered
Everyone knows just the sort of folks you’re describing and unfortunately many of us have on occasion been those dreadful folks, eye-rolling, nudges, smirks and all. Wait for them to invite you again and tell them gently that you don’t feel comfortable being patronized and belittled by them and give them a chance to apologize and make amends. Don’t drop them without letting them know what’s wrong and tell them as politely as you possibly can. Always confront rudeness with good manners.
For my 30th birthday, my normally ept fiancé bought me a cookbook, a nice one (and a lovely bunch of flowers), but mainly a cookbook. I was quite depressed at receiving such an unromantic gift, which to me screams, “Happy birthday, housewife.” I thought I was being hideous and shallow, but my girlfriends said that I should raise it with him. I did, and he was very distressed. Money is not an issue for him, and in the past he has given me thoughtful gifts. However, he spent more time/thought/money purchasing a gift for his business partner’s wife’s 50th birthday do. Should I have raised it with him at all? It really made me very upset. In my family, birthdays are Big Deals, and he is aware of this.
Might Be Spending My 31st Alone
You felt bad and you told him and that’s all fair, and now it’s up to him to make you feel better. Any man knows about this, I hope. It’s his choice, whether to argue about the triviality of the whole thing and make you feel worse, or do what he needs to do to make you feel better.
Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.More Garrison Keillor.
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)