"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)
It’s 1 a.m. Saturday, Labor Day weekend. Slightly intoxicated, some friends and I wobble into the basement of the Atlanta Hyatt and find a roomful of big, soft chairs facing a small stage. About 10 people are in the room, some of them dressed like medieval peasants, most of them with guitars in their laps.
A man in the back of the room starts strumming his guitar. He’s the quintessential nerd: coke-bottle glasses, unstyled hair, a large belly. He sings a song about the days when giants walked the earth, when everyone was peculiar and it didn’t matter.
We are somewhere in the bowels of the science fiction convention DragonCon. We are attending the Open Filk — an open mike gathering at which people perform science fiction-themed songs, often set to familiar tunes.
It’s so cheesy that at first my friends and I giggle uncontrollably, covering our mouths and wheezing to hide our too-obvious rudeness. But then the deeper meaning of the song starts to sink in: It’s mournful and sincere, a tale sung by an outcast aching for acceptance. The land where the giants walk is a place where geeks can hold their heads high, a place where difference is respected rather than punished. This filker is singing the deep geek blues.
After listening to several more filkers, I get up to leave, thanking the guy who sang about giants on my way out. His irony-free self-expression might be alien to my more cynical universe, where sentimentality has become a form of mockery. But I’m beginning to wonder if he’s what I’m seeking — the core of truth beneath DragonCon’s veneer of commercial science fiction hype.
Often called the biggest science fiction convention in the United States, DragonCon attracts more than 20,000 people to the Hyatt Regency and Marriott in downtown Atlanta every year for a three-day orgy of SF fandom. Giant exhibition halls are packed with people selling everything from rare 1960s Lois Lane comic books and pirated Japanese anime, to the latest role-playing games (RPGs) from White Wolf. Attendees spend their days at hundreds of panels learning about the finer points of fandom: how to speak Elvish, dress like a Klingon, rediscover old comic book favorites or identify the specialness of each Doctor in Doctor Who.
The main competition for DragonCon on Labor Day weekend is WorldCon, a literary SF convention featuring appearances by “respected editors” and postmodern writer-brainiacs like Samuel Delany and Cecilia Tan. DragonCon, on the other hand, is lowbrow by comparison. The keynote speaker is bad boy Harlan Ellison. The scene? A bunch of “tracks” devoted to “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Xena” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” A special midnight session is dedicated to Internet porn. Gore special effects wizard Tom Savini promises to sign pictures of himself wearing his signature “cock and balls” pistol, featured in the splatterfest movie “From Dusk ‘Til Dawn.”
Of course, I had to go to DragonCon.
Only there, hidden under the slag heap of pop cultural debris, could I find the savage, romantic heart of fannish geekdom: the people who wail out the blues, not the ones who hawk trinkets for cash.
In the oh so science-fictiony year 2001, it’s almost a clichi to point out that SF, despite its progressive, utopian impulses, has for the most part sold out. Heroes are action figures; the quest for social justice is a high-concept Hollywood pitch; loving the alien is a pop song from the 1980s. Looked at from this perspective, DragonCon represents the commodification of every fan’s dreams. Here, speculative worlds are equivalent to the dollars you pay for your fannish T-shirts, comics, swords, buttons, videos, DVDs, CDs, whatever.
All weekend long, I hear people griping about where their money is going. If, like many, you register for the con on-site, the cost is $75 per person for the whole weekend (pre-registration and one-day passes are cheaper). Rumors swirl that some of that money is lining the wrong pockets. “All that money should go to staff!” a con-goer points out to me stridently as we wait in an interminable line to register. Looking at the tired, overworked staff, I have to agree. Are there no unions in Middle Earth?
Each “track” at the conference seems organized around some kind of franchise, complete with a new sales pitch for its latest trinkets. The “Star Trek” track whets con-goer appetites for the new “Enterprise” series; a “Lord of the Rings” track features a panel with scenes from Peter Jackson’s upcoming big-budget flick; the “Star Wars” track has a LucasFilms spokesperson explaining why everything in the series has led up to the inauspiciously titled summer 2002 offering “Attack of the Clones”; a local Atlanta UPN affiliate has a big sign advertising “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s” resurrection in October; even the gentle Pernies from the Weyrfest are selling books and T-shirts from Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” series.
People aren’t here just to swap tales of great RPG campaigns and talk in hushed voices about why they adore Willow from “Buffy.” The hungriest among them are trying to “make connections” and get that elusive book deal with top-level SF publishing house Tor, or write a fantastic new world for White Wolf. Sure, they love SF. But more than that, they love money and fame. They’re here to buy and sell.
But why would SF fans rejoice in the corporate control of fantasies they’ve nursed from childhood? The answer, like so many things at DragonCon, comes to me in the form of a story that unfolds right before my eyes.
When my companion Charles and I arrive Thursday night before the con is in full swing, we settle into the Hyatt bar and spend a few bored minutes watching TV.
Just then, our extremely drunk friend Kelly arrives. She’s wearing a giant Nascar T-shirt on her diminutive frame, and has brought a “Mundane” — a nongeek, nonfan — along with her. He looks shaken.
“Hey, guys,” Mundane says to us in a sweet Georgia twang, “I just met her in a bar and we’ve been having a really weird conversation.” Kelly ignores him and looks me over. Hands on hips, she declares, “I want to kiss you. I want to stick my tongue all the way down your throat.” Mundane starts to get pale, then he manages to stammer out, “I’d pay to see that!”
Some goths behind us grin and light a clove cigarette. When Kelly and I start making out, Mundane hands us each a $20 bill and speeds out of the bar. Settling into some new seats along with a handful of Trek junkies, we exchange perplexed glances. We thought he was just kidding about the money. It’s so hard to understand the strange ways of Mundanes.
“Maybe he thought we were about to do a strip show or something?” Kelly wonders. The Trekkers have seen the whole exchange, and join our conversation.
“People used to say I had the best ass in fandom. I could wear a standard Star Fleet uniform when I was younger,” says Joe, one of the Trekkers. “But now I have to wear the Riker uniform — you know, big shoulder pads to hide my belly.” Joe has been attending SF cons for 30 years.
I stare up at the vaulted ceiling of the Hyatt and wonder how much money Joe has spent on Star Fleet uniforms in his 30 years on the USS Enterprise of the imagination. What’s more tragic? Paying two women to kiss (a recognized Mundane ritual in strip clubs), or paying to live in a fantasy world where spaceships can take you far, far away and women kiss because they want to? Both are equally tragic, I think, but a fan’s willingness to exchange money for fantasies is an understandable method of self-defense against a culture that doesn’t understand her. Money, after all, is power. Science-fiction and fantasy commodification allows (middle-class) fans to escape from the horrors of Mundane life on a regular basis.
Selling out becomes a form of protection. If people will pay to live in your fantasy, that fantasy will survive a little longer.
Behind me at the Hyatt bar, a group of gamers are meeting for the first time.
“This is Jim, who invented the Krathgar universe,” one of them says.
“And this is Kathy, who invented the Swiftriver universe,” replies another. There is general murmuring, and several handshakes.
I decide to devote the next two days to getting the equivalent of a graduate education in fandom. Then, I’ll work on getting laid. I start by looking over my program in the Hyatt bar, where I also have a good vantage point from which to study my DragonConian cohorts.
Klingons abound, and a veritable fleet of storm troopers are following Darth Vader. I spot a Cylon (gearing up, no doubt, for the new “Battlestar Galactica” series), a vampire, various fairies and goths, and a knight in full chain mail sharing a table with Daphne from Scooby Doo and Trinity from “The Matrix.” Strangely, there is even a Hunter Thompson look-alike smoking from a cigarette holder and chatting with somebody wearing an Atlanta Comicon T-shirt. I always knew Thompson was a geek.
There are also massive numbers of my fellow female nerds. Unlike at DefCon,, another geekfest I attended recently, these women are not arm candy. People of all genders, races, sizes and ages are mingling on the Hyatt main floor, wandering from panel to panel, stopping occasionally to hug or talk to old friends. Everyone at DragonCon hugs. It’s one of the few environments where I’ve met strangers who ask me for a hug without a trace of sleaziness or New Age hippie smarm. Already, it’s clear to me that DragonCon is more than a marketplace. It’s a social testing ground, a place where people experiment with new kinds of relationships.
I inaugurate my course of study by attending an afternoon panel about how to bring horror into your favorite RPG. Run by three representatives from Hex Games, the company known for inventing the “quick ass game system” (QAGS), the panel quickly turns into a spirited debate about group gaming psychology.
“Personally, my ideal player is naked and on fire in a strange world!” enthuses Hex president Kevin Butler. He urges us to be imaginative, to become “partners” with our players and to remember that they need small triumphs even if they’re eventually going to be eaten by aliens. A guy with a Cthulhu doll strapped to his chest in a baby carrier raises his hand and intones ponderously, “What players fear more than death is not knowing the rules.”
The discussion turns to live action role playing, or LARPing, where people don’t just sit around and narrate what their character is doing, but act it out. We wonder if sometimes people take their gaming too seriously when they LARP. “I keep hearing about this Scandinavian Web site about sex during LARPing,” laughs Butler, “and there’s this big problem with staying in character while having an orgasm. Worrying about shit like that is going TOO FAR!”
It turns out that dozens of LARPs are going on at DragonCon, and I didn’t even realize it. After the Hex panel is over, I chat with a player in the “Lord of the Rings” LARP, who is trying to entice new players to join in. She has a box full of envelopes with character names on them — you pick one, and can play the character for as long as you want. “There are more popular LARPs here, though,” admits the “Lord of the Rings” rep, “and we have a lot of competition, especially at night.” Now, when I walk around, I stare more carefully at people who are in costume or who look like they’re acting. Are they LARPing? I decide that if anyone creepy approaches me, I have the perfect excuse not to talk to them. I’ll just flash a talk-to-the-hand sign and say disdainfully, “Excuse me, but I’m LARPing right now.”
Later, I attend a Xena panel that features Katherine Fugate, the writer who penned the episode “When Fates Collide,” a fannish favorite in which Xena and Gabrielle learn that no matter how their lives could have turned out, their fates would still have been tied together. It also includes some steamy girl-on-girl kissing. The large room is packed with women, many of them openly snuggling with their girlfriends. I’m smitten by them, moved by all these heartfelt displays of queerness in a Southern state hardly known for tolerance.
Finally, a gray-haired woman stands up and asks the first question. She has a clear Southern twang in her voice, and asks in the politest possible way, “What do you think of scenes between women in Xena?” We all know what she’s really asking: She wants Fugate’s opinion on the infamous “Xena subtext,” the possible sexual relationship between Xena and her friend Gabrielle.
Fugate says simply, “I always thought they were lovers.”
The entire room bursts into cheers and applause. Some women even stand up and stamp their feet.
Filled with elation, I exit the room and cross the hall to watch a roomful of “Buffy” fans putting on vampire makeup. In an environment where vampires, hobbits and dragonriders can roam free, there is tolerance — even enthusiasm — for other kinds of difference as well. If Xena is queer, then why not hundreds of DragonConians? And if two strangers can get it on while LARPing, then surely casual sex is just another form of play.
At DragonCon, all eroticism seems to emanate from the Fantasm group. Fantasm is another Atlanta convention, much smaller, whose organizers are more interested in “speculative sex” than they are in “Star Wars” action figures. I find the Fantasm booth in the expo room with the help of Fred, a longtime con-goer who is an emeritus member of the Secret Masters of Fandom (SMOF), an Illuminati-style group whose covert e-mail list controls the con universe.
The Fantasm folks are selling T-shirts that say things like “Klingons don’t need ribbed condoms,” and pirated videos of Japanese live-action tentacle porn. Charles and I finagle a ticket to Fantasm’s Saturday night party, which will feature Fred auctioning off naked slaves to partiers. “I also hear they’re building a rack,” Fred says conspiratorially.
Saturday night arrives, and Charles is dressed as Wonder Woman. I’m wearing my nicest “Men in Black” suit and tie. After having some drinks with members of Atlanta’s queer SF group, Outworlders, I tangle briefly with some horny teenage boys who want to show me their swords (“They’re really sharp! Can I have a hug?”) and make my way to the Fantasm suite. The naked slaves are lovely; the cute young boy on the rack is turning a nice shade of red under a nerdy goth’s flogger; and a foxy young game designer (why are they all game designers?) named Tony is ready to do whatever I want on the balcony. Some hottie who tells me he owns several comic book stores grabs me and we start kissing. Apparently, he helped organize Atlanta Comicon. So many luscious choices in my quest for sex!
But Charles and our friend Mehitabel decide that they absolutely must fuck a storm trooper in uniform. All weekend, we’ve been drawn by the fetishist outfits of the storm troopers: Swathed in shiny white plastic, their faces hidden behind imperturbable death masks, they make pleasingly mechanical sounds when they walk. They’re like cars, or computers, or giant fascist sex toys. Rumor has it that they make their armor by hand, carefully cutting each piece of plastic out of a certain type of truck shell whose contours are well-suited for storm trooper conversion. The storm troopers’ dedication to their appearance just makes them sexier. Not even Cindy Crawford works this hard to look good.
And so we leave the safe confines of the Fantasm party and run into the midnight hallways of the Hyatt, searching for storm troopers. Somebody at the Fantasm party has stolen one of the storm trooper walkie-talkies (yes, they’re all in radio contact) and vows to help us out. As we begin our pilgrimage, we hear him sounding very official, intoning, “Calling all storm troopers. Report to the Fantasm party in Room 931 at once.”
On the main floor, we see two people in partial storm trooper outfits.
“Could you put your full uniform on for us?” Charles asks. Mehitabel giggles.
“I guess so,” one of the troopers says uncertainly. “Why?”
“Well, we need you for sexual activities,” I explain. “But just oral sex. See, we’re at this party, and everyone really wants to have sex with a storm trooper. But you need to be in full uniform.”
Both storm troopers are looking a little disturbed. “Why don’t you try some of the other guys? They’re downstairs.”
Downstairs, we find more partially outfitted storm troopers. They look far less enticing with only the top half of their armor on. Each time we request sex, they send us to another part of the hotel. All the troopers seem to like the idea of putting on their full uniform for us, but when we bring up sex, they send us on to someone else. Don’t they see the connection between their fetishistic uniforms and kinky sex?
“Storm troopers are all bark and no bite,” a nontrooper tells us helpfully, adjusting her breasts inside a latex dress.
“They can’t have sex in their uniforms because they’re in command,” Mehitabel replies mournfully.
But wonder of wonders, when we return to the Fantasm party for more groping, the walkie-talkie plan has worked. There are three storm troopers waiting for us, looking extremely confused. Unfortunately, they aren’t in full uniform. After a long discussion about storm trooper design, we discover that the uniforms are like overalls — they’re mostly one piece, and once you have them on, it’s hard to lie down or bend over or, um, anything else. Sadly, the one trooper who is interested in debauchery doesn’t have a hinge on his plastic storm trooper crotch guard, so we can’t get access.
“What were you thinking?” I berate him. “How could you make a uniform like this without hinges on the crotch?” I tap the thick white plastic over his underwear and frown.
“I’m sorry,” he says, looking genuinely contrite. “I didn’t have time.” Another trooper proudly shows off his crotch hinge, but declines the oral sex.
“Hasn’t anyone ever wanted to fuck you in uniform?” I ask the third trooper, who doesn’t look very Imperial in his Gap khakis. Apparently not. We have reached the limits of our shared fantasies with these troopers. They’re not going to play by our rules, and we’re not going to play by theirs. I’ve learned another rule of tolerance at DragonCon: All LARPing is consensual, and if you find yourself in a LARP you don’t like you can just go find another one.
Our storm troopers wander off in search of the Empire. Luckily, there are sexy goths, game designers and comic book geeks aplenty at the Fantasm shindig. A slave feeds me some melon and then demands, “Do you think I’m only worth $5? That’s all my master paid for me. And I even showed him my cock!”
And so it comes back to money, finally, the only social fantasy that DragonCon shares with the Mundane world. And yet somehow the science fiction fans who flock to Atlanta every year have managed to change the meaning of money to the point where it is practically unrecognizable. In Mundane life, there are no happy slaves. At DragonCon, every role is alluring because the whole social scene is treated like a game. Somehow, playing at life allows us to break the rules.
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)