"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)
If Lily Burana stripped as well as she writes, I can imagine sitting at the tipping bar, watching her happily for hours. But like a stunning exotic dancer that leaves you wanting more, “Strip City” is over much too soon. Neither bloodless sociology nor a kitsch celebration, “Strip City” marks the debut of a roadside lyricist. Burana, who spent a year stripping her way across America as a way of saying farewell to her old line of work, brings to life both the world of stripping, the dancers and customers, as well as the essence of the places she visits.
For the space of the book, Burana, a San Franciscan who had settled in Wyoming after becoming engaged, makes the road her home, whether it’s the Vegas strip or the miles of straight Western highways she traverses, perfecting her method of eating fast food while driving (burger in the left hand, fries in your lap, soda in the cup holder). Along the way she stops into boxy little strip joints and upscale gentlemen’s clubs. Sometimes she starts working before she’s even left her car, slipping into her wig and applying her make-up when she’s delayed in traffic.
Reaching the destination doesn’t matter as much as the generosity that Burana extends to readers, sharing the freedom of open roads, the beauty of landscapes zipping by to the accompaniment of good loud rock, the camaraderie of good stories to while away the hours. The perfect traveling companion, Burana possesses what is simply one of the most engaging voices to emerge from any writer in recent years. She is an acute observer, a considered sensualist and a connoisseur of delight, open-hearted in what she allows herself to feel and capable of conveying those emotions in effortlessly calibrated prose.
The subtitle of “Strip City” is “A Stripper’s Farewell Journey Across America” and if the first part of that journey — disaffected punk-goth kid drops out, leaves home for New York City but doesn’t make it as an actress, winds up working in the peep shows of the now-vanished Times Square, moves on to San Francisco’s woman-run Lusty Lady and the Mitchell Brothers’ O’Farrell Theater, where she helps unionize the dancers — sounds like a story we’ve all heard before, nothing in the way Burana tells it feels familiar.
Nor is the second part of that journey in which Burana, now working as a writer (for Salon, among other places) is stranded in a Wyoming snow storm while on assignment, meets and falls in love with a genuine cowboy, gets engaged and decides to say her goodbyes to her former profession. She embarks on what might be called a solo bachelorette party, a year-long cross-country tour during which (billing herself, with just the right touch of po-mo smartassedness, as Barbie Faust) she will, with her fiancé Randy’s support, work in clubs.
To understand the singularity of what Burana has done here you first have to understand that in some ways this is a lousy time to write about anything to do with sex. There’s a surface openness about sex in the culture right now, a voyeuristic fascination with “hot” topics and a trendy exhibitionism epitomized by the infusion of porno style in rock style. (Does Britney Spears look like anything as much as a Vivid girl-in-waiting?)
But that surface is often a substitute for any real willingness to acknowledge and plumb the truths of our sexual lives. (To pick the most common example, the names of porn stars are now as familiar as the names of many other celebrities, yet how many people admit that they look at porn?) I’d rather this atmosphere than the prudishness of the ’80s and early ’90s in which women who worked in the sex industry, or even women who dared admit they didn’t think lust was a bad thing, and women who didn’t affirm the anti-sex rhetoric that dominated feminism, were regarded — with implicitly sexist condescension — as fools or victims. (Call it the “Madonna=whore” syndrome.)
But that doctrinaire repressiveness had its uses, offering the freedom of a secret — and shared — language. Today, the rhetoric of pro-sex empowerment, refreshing as it can be, is too blithe, dismissing any doubts or dissatisfactions women have about their sex lives as leftover traces of Puritan guilt. In this atmosphere, it’s easy for writers to play to voyeurism without really giving anything of themselves away. The tease is easy but where’s the strip?
It’s the highest praise you can give Lily Burana that “Strip City” is an honest account of experience, one that goes beyond both fashion and conventional wisdom. Nothing is settled here. Burana allows our seen-it-all complacency to trip us up, to allow us to think we know where she’s headed. You expect the typical long-way-down, dirty-truth-about-the-big-city descent into squalor when Burana, as a self-proclaimed “bitter little shit” (and wouldn’t it have been great if Alanis had called her album that?), is working the Times Square peep shows at 18. But Burana doesn’t allow herself the narcissistic luxury of writing of her younger self as an innocent. And it was just her assumed pose of late adolescent nihilism that was her armor. “I don’t want access to their interior life in any way,” she writes of the men she performed for, “and I certainly don’t want them in mine.”
Going back to stripping after an absence of more than five years (and being in love to boot), the older Burana finds that her armor is no longer in place. After one particularly bad night, she writes, “Stripping takes out of me things that I didn’t even realize I had. The near-nudity isn’t the problem, or the physical vulnerability, or working well outside the margins of acceptable female behavior. It’s the damn neediness. Angry men scowling at me like they can buy me for a dollar, lonely men professing love after a ten-minute chat with the specter of femininity that wafts before them, and confused and desperate men convinced that if only they could get a girl to do what they ask, however outlandish, things will be better tomorrow … And no amount of professional distance on my part can keep that leeching feeling at bay.”
Part of the problem there is the change that has come over the strip clubs. Strippers, of course, are expected to do more than just strip today. No longer just hustling the customers for watered-down champagne between their sets, they are offering lap dances of varying degrees of contact, more “intimate” private dances, and, in some clubs, depending on their attitude and the management, hand jobs or tricks. It varies widely from club to club. (Burana had decided that, except for a brief stint in Alaska where the clubs are all-nude, she would only work topless and give limited-contact dances.)
One dancer whose stage name is Pillow, nearly blind and, before her retirement, working in the spirit and style of the old burlesque stars, says that the changes in clubs have been insidious. Conversation between girls and customers, she explains, was killed when the girls had to start pestering the guys for dances. “There was a type of guy who would come in, kind of mousy, real shy, but generally okay … They didn’t want to spend the money [for dances], but they didn’t have the ability to say no. Once they started getting worked, they stopped coming in. They were replaced by the guys who like to throw their money around. The atmosphere became more competitive, it became downright mean.”
I recently heard the story of a stripper, a friend of a friend, and a customer who attempted to haggle with her over the house rate for a lap dance. His behavior prompted an unbelieving outburst from another customer, a cowboy in his hat and boots, who looked at this cheapskate and asked, “What is your problem? I’m here to watch pretty girls dance. They know their job, I know mine,” and held up his wallet.
In his way, the cowboy sounds as if he has discovered exactly the secret of being a good customer: being a gentleman. That includes the obvious things like not groping the girls and not arguing about prices. But Burana gives you a good idea of what else it entails: the ability to acknowledge that you’re there to look at naked girls and to openly show them appreciation without being either gross or needy; the politeness of paying attention to a girl’s routine if you’re sitting at the bar; the ability to turn a girl down for a dance (for whatever reason) without making her feel like she’s unwanted or unattractive.
Burana runs into more than her share of jerks. The groom-to-be at a bachelor party says, “Show me your tits” when Burana asks if he wants a dance. She gives him a few choice words about how “lucky” his fiancée is and throws his 20 back in his face. Visiting one club with her fiancé Randy, Burana is called up on stage by a dancer she knows (the way musicians often call on musician friends in the audience). After the routine she overhears a guy at the bar say to his buddy, “She must have no self-respect.”
The interesting thing about that sentence is that when it’s said about strippers it’s usually said by other women. I have female friends who are fine with the idea of stripping (even as they’re amused by men’s fascination with naked women) and some who, though they would never admit it, clearly think that strippers are tramps. There’s a possessive sexual fear behind their snippiness, a belief that, for their boyfriends or husbands to go to a strip club would be tantamount to infidelity. And depending on what they do there, it might be.
At one point, Burana and Randy get into a terrible fight when he goes to see her perform and another stripper, who doesn’t know Randy is her fella, flirts with him. And she’s honest enough to wonder what she might feel if she saw him getting tended to by one of the girls working with her. What I’ve never been able to understand about that reaction to strippers (and the women I know who feel that way would feel nearly the same about their men looking at any type of porn) is that it seems to deny that people are interested in sex and, all questions of fidelity aside, presupposes that people in relationships should never have sexual fantasies about anyone else. And that sounds less like fidelity — emotional or physical — to me than a sort of sexual prison.
Burana gets at what the nature of the interchange between stripper and customer can be at its best. It’s certainly not intimacy but an interlude between performer and audience in which each rewards the other with attention, where the stripper is rewarded with appreciation (and money) and the customer with the privilege of watching a pretty girl dance just for him. It’s the well-performed illusion of appreciation. If you’re fool enough to think that the girls are falling for you, well, that’s your problem, but reading about some of Burana’s encounters, it seems a fair bet that strippers return a good customer’s appreciation.
And that’s the key to what Burana gets from stripping, the exhilaration of feeling something close to worshipped, the thrill of power that, in the relationship between stripper and customer, tilts in the stripper’s balance. Some of that power comes in the obvious ways — offers of gifts, trips, and — in my favorite story — an offer from an orthopedic surgeon to observe foot surgery.
But the real thrill for Burana is conquering a room, making her presence big enough to fill it, to command all eyes, to suck up the pent-up energy and lust and then, like Amy Irving at the end of “The Fury,” to send it back out in a burst that blows off the heads of everybody in the room. Burana circles around the appeal of stripping, but her descriptions answer the question of why she strips (though the question may never be answered for anyone, man or woman, who cannot fathom why a woman would do it): Who wouldn’t want to feel that power, that sexualized?
And that’s why music plays a crucial part in the book. Some upscale clubs won’t allow their dancers to use heavy metal and so deprive Burana of her beloved Metallica, a decision that to her is “a gross misread of the male libido — their songs are the most righteous manifestation of testosterone-fueled virtuosity and aggression … guys go nuts when they see a pretty little girl take on a song as big and brutal as ‘Enter Sandman.’” (What a phalanx of strippers might accomplish accompanied by “S&M,” the awe-inspiring collaboration between Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, boggles the mind.)
The honesty of “Strip City” is in the fact that Burana doesn’t deceive either herself or us with false answers. As attuned as she is to the way strippers are looked down on as trashy or worse, she will not offer a panacea and tell us that no one gets hurt by her trade. We have, she says, entered a period where people hide the damage of the sex trade so as not to give fuel to the people who seize on one story to condemn the whole industry. (It’s always amazing to me that people shun porn because the performers are exploited but have no trouble watching a Judy Garland or Marilyn Monroe movie.)
The truth is that the sex trade often attracts damaged people and that, like every other profession, it has abuses and indignities. At one point Burana even considers extending her trip indefinitely, but feels herself getting sucked into an endless pursuit of the profession’s glamour; she’s old enough to know not to repeat mistakes but still at the age where she can get away with some. And so “Strip City” ends with the firm tenderness of a kiss that means goodbye. Lily Burana got out while she could still participate in the illusion of stripping, to give away only what she felt comfortable giving away. We’re fortunate that when she left to sit at her computer, that’s when she chose to get truly naked.
Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.More Charles Taylor.
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)