"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)
This is the sixth week of this column, and so far one thing is clear: There’s no better way to find out how limited your viewpoint is than to give out advice to thousands of people over the Internet. There’s also no better way to get that deeply satisfying sense that you have connected profoundly with people around the world, which is the central wish of most people who write.
That anybody with a computer and a phone line can “publish” their thoughts has not caused the revolution in discourse that some predicted, but it has profoundly changed the speed and volume of feedback that writers get. Journalism remains largely a one-to-many form of communication, but the many can talk back to the one with an ease and speed never before possible. And talk back they do.
Some of the most interesting mail I’ve gotten recently concerned the woman who couldn’t stop lying. Apparently there are many folks out there who’ve attacked the problem successfully with a practical approach to behavior modification. There was also volumes of mail about the woman who was concerned about her future husband leaving her because of her weight, and the husband who refused to talk to his best man after the wedding.
Next week I’ll print some of those responses, and try to keep this fascinating dialogue going.
Oh, I almost forgot: Audio! Wednesday I’ll answer one letter — from a woman who doesn’t want kids but thinks maybe she should have some anyway — in my own voice on Salon Audio.
Now, from this week’s mail:
I am now living with a man whom I dated for 10 years. I kept hoping we would move in together and finally just this year, he asked me to move in.
Things are OK but there are three things bothering me. The first big thing is that he doesn’t have a job. He hasn’t worked for two years now; he keeps saying he will get a job, but keeps not working or looking. The second big thing is when I moved in, I got rid of a lot of stuff so as not to crowd us. He has gotten rid of very little. I’m not talking fine furniture, I’m talking tools and what I consider junk. I’ve carved out little alcoves to put my stuff in, but I hate having just about everything I own in a box somewhere. The third thing is that since he stays home all day while I work and has no outside interests, I am getting very bored with him. I am contented in some ways and life is certainly predictable, but it just doesn’t feel right.
When I come home at night I feel like I’m his entertainment. He calls me at work and just assumes I will have time to chat.
I hate to leave if this relationship is salvageable, but hate to stay if it means living a cavelike existence. I’m in my 50s so there is an element of “good grief, what will I do with my life if I leave him” going on as well. I need an unbiased, honest opinion of whether I am an idiot for staying or a fool for leaving.
Dear Cave Dweller,
He’s probably used to having the motorcycle carburetor in the kitchen sink and the airplane propeller sitting on the dining room table; he just eats around it, right? Well, you did move into his house; good luck transforming his museum of useless Jeep parts into a Martha Stewart showcase. It’ll take time; you’re only in the first stages of establishing a homeland for yourself in his long-occupied territory.
Since you say you feel contented in some ways but it just doesn’t feel right, it’s probably salvageable but you have to work on those things that are bothering you: the job thing, the stuff thing and the lazy slob thing. These are manageable, practical problems. If you really like the guy, if being with him makes you feel safe and comfortable and if he’s even occasionally amusing or exciting, I’d say try to make gradual improvements. How do you do that? Attack each problem with steady resolve: One want ad at a time, one screwdriver at a time, one night out at a time.
Keep job prospects in his face. Even if you have to dial yourself, get him to make the necessary job-finding phone calls.
Slowly create organization in chaos. And consciously work to create variety in your week, so that you don’t always come home to the same drowsy slob on the couch. Prod him occasionally to meet you after work somewhere out of the home.
It’s almost always best to get rid of junk instead of storing it, but you’ll have to win a diplomatic war first if you expect him to part with it. If he won’t get rid of it, consider the absurd and costly step of simply storing it somewhere. After storing it a long time he’ll discover he doesn’t need it and he’s wasted lots of money, and he’ll get rid of it. At least in the meantime it won’t be in the house.
I think I’m falling in love with a man who’s a good bit older than me. He is smart and gentle and funny and wise and generally one of the most amazingly interesting people I’ve ever met; plus when we’re around each other we can’t seem to stop kissing. Still I am, in my secret heart of hearts, a shallow person. My lovely man is losing his hair. The problem is that he is wearing what little remains longish and sort of swept back over his skull. In a word: combover.
Sometimes that combover is the first thing I see, and the sight fills me with a small, shameful horror. I don’t want him to be younger, I don’t have an issue with his going bald (although it’s clear that he does). I just think he would look so, so much better if he cut his hair and didn’t try to hide anything. How can I tell him this without making him feel bad? The male ego can be a strangely fragile thing, as I’ve learned over the years, and there is nothing I want to do less than hurt this wonderful man’s feelings.
Make an appointment for him at an expensive but not too arty hair salon. Pay for it in advance. Give it to him as a gift. Tell the stylist to render the combover an impossibility, and to do the ultimate with what’s there. Ask the stylist to write down or dictate to you a concrete hair-maintenance program for him, and do your best to encourage him to pursue it with diligence.
Somehow, after reading the letters from Untouched and Despondent in D.C., I am compelled to write to you. I am a 24-year-old film student and the other night I actually thought about ending my life and cried myself to sleep. Last October, I was unceremoniously dumped by a woman I loved very much. It took a long time to get over her, but what hasn’t gone away is the void in my life that the relationship occupied. My only other experiences with women were limited to the misgivings of youth. I’m not 18 anymore, and Don Juan I ain’t, either.
As far as everything not pertaining to romance in my life is concerned, I have never been more happy. I gave up a six-figure income to work for $8 an hour part-time. I am pursuing something I have true passion for, and that is priceless. What eats at me is the fear that I will never make the connection I had with my former belle, which basically stems from my crippling fear.
At 24, I have never asked a girl out. Every relationship or sexual encounter I’ve had somehow just “happened.” I honestly believe I have exceeded my pre-set standard deviation for number of chance sexual encounters and relationships for a fella like me. I’m 6-foot-3, 275 (not the muscular kind of 275), not particularly good looking, painfully shy and I have zero patience for people I deem less intelligent than myself, which is damn near everyone. Every woman I see seems to be a vapid, heartless creature who considers parking an SUV while applying lipstick and talking on a cellphone worthy of a Nobel Prize. I would like to add that I have an incredibly close-knit group of friends who are worth more than gold.
Here’s what happened the other night: I went to bed and thought, I am going to be alone for the rest of my life. I am young, but wise enough to know that all of the material possessions in the world don’t mean shit if you can’t share them with someone. I also know that people grow, and my friends aren’t going to stay single and carefree forever, meaning that I will become less a part of their lives as time passes. And considering that I have absolutely zero to offer a member of the opposite sex, how is my life worth continuing? Despite my gruff exterior (most women I meet seem afraid of me) I am a hopeless romantic, yet I know that the love of a good woman won’t fix everything that is wrong with my life. But it would fill the Texas-size crater I’ve been lugging around for the last 11 months. Whaddya think? I’m scared that I already know your answer and apologize in advance for not giving you enough credit to surprise me.
Hey, Big Lonely,
Hold on there, big fella. Wait just one cotton-picking minute! How can an intelligent guy make statements like “considering that I have absolutely zero to offer a member of the opposite sex,” and “Every woman I see seems to be a vapid, heartless creature who considers parking an SUV while applying lipstick and talking on a cellphone worthy of a Nobel Prize.” That’s just crazy thinking, man! It’s not reality. It’s just that awful voice in your head that’s making you feel hopeless and depressed. Counter it with some sound, demonstrably true statements: You’re still sad about your breakup. You’re a little shy. The prospect of rejection by women is scary. Rich, good-looking women sometimes seem haughty and thoughtless. You haven’t ever had to ask women on dates. You’re going to have to learn. Those are the simple facts. Don’t let them blow up into these all-encompassing proclamations of doom.
So here’s what you do. First: Don’t kill yourself. If you have any more thoughts about killing yourself, call a suicide hotline and tell them that you’ve been thinking about suicide.
Second: Spend more time with your friends, but don’t drink too much. Tell your closest friend that you’ve been having a hard time. Don’t ask for advice, just say it. Get used to admitting what you’re going through, and maybe even try to unburden yourself to the point that you can chuckle over it.
Third: However you can do it, whether you have to put a bag over your head and buy a self-help book or disguise your voice and call a therapist, get yourself a practical survival program that involves learning new social and emotional coping skills. Social and emotional skills are just that: skills, like camerawork or scriptwriting. They don’t just happen out of the blue. You aren’t born with them. The thing is, a lot of the people you see who seem to have been born with these skills were just lucky: They learned it from their parents and families. The rest of us have to work hard at it.
If you’re really smart, you’ll use your intelligence for self-analysis; you’ll allow your intelligence to discipline and humble your temperament, so you can do good work in the world without harming others or yourself.
Here’s my situation. I’m 28 years old and still single. I’ve had some success in love in the past but have only one serious relationship to look back on. Now I’m in a precarious situation. I am dear friends with a beautiful, funny, intelligent girl. During the course of our friendship we’ve gone from being simply friends, to lovers, to roommates, back to being lovers and now we’re just friends again. She once told me she loved me but I was young and stupid and I rejected her out of fear that she would one day reject me. We’ve both had relationships since then but neither has worked out.
Now the tables have turned. I am crazy about this girl and am desperately trying to figure out what made her love me in the past so that I can get her feelings about me to change once again. It’s clear she doesn’t feel the same way judging by the way she constantly tries to set me up with other girls. (It drives me crazy!)
Another problem is that she also happens to be extremely insecure about herself. She never believes me when I tell her she’s beautiful. She dismisses every compliment I give her. Her job stresses her out and she keeps making bad relationship decisions and getting hurt. I just know that I can make her happy if she would only give me another chance and let me in her heart.
My friends tell me I should move on but considering that they are all either married, pregnant or about to be, I don’t think they can really understand or appreciate my situation. I’m convinced that she’s “the one.” I just wish I could convince her too.
I know life isn’t a romantic comedy where you show up at the door, proclaim your undying love and live happily ever after, but I refuse to give up. Should I move on or forge ahead?
Too Many Questions
Dear Too Many Questions,
You’re flogging a dead horse here. A person can’t change another person’s feelings. You should move on.
I’ll make it short and simple. I’m 34, and have had a string of one-year relationships that for the most part have broken up because I realized that this was not the person I wanted to spend my life or have children with. Now, there’s not the same rush on biologically, because I’m a man, but I want to establish a home and family, and share my life with someone I love.
I’m starting to think that I’ve wasted time and should be more selective before I begin anything again. Is it better to give it a shot, and see what happens, or pass by a few potential relationships until I meet someone that I think from the outset has the qualities that will work with me?
How do people find other people to share their life with? I’m starting to think that I don’t have a clue how to do this.
Dear No Clue,
I think you’re right, you should carefully assess what kind of woman will make a compatible child-bearing mate who knows how to live indoors and won’t smother the children, and then date only people who fit the profile. You sound like the kind of person who could do that. Some people are crazy romantic and have no clue how they feel until they wake up and see the color of each other’s tequila. But others are able to weigh the pros and cons. You sound like that sort. So do the math. Do the research. And put your money on the likely horse.
But then, once your money’s down, you’ve got to look for the magic. You’re not filling out an order for parts from the factory, after all. If there’s no spark there, don’t draw out the relationship even if you agree about the number of children you want and the neighborhood you want to grow old in. Once you’ve narrowed the field by eliminating the deal-breakers, look for the voice that makes your head spin, or the funny thing she does with her nose when she’s thinking, or something ineffable that makes you want to gallop on the beach.
I’m 27 years old and hung up on an old boyfriend. I dated him several months ago, and although there was much I liked about him, and he was the first guy in years I met that I liked enough to date for as long as I did (a whopping two months), I had some doubts. Even though I still liked him and enjoyed his company, I thought the only fair thing to do was to end it.
So I did, painful as it was for me to do so, and we stayed in touch infrequently. I dated a lot of guys, and realized over the course of a few months that I not only missed him, but that our relationship had more potential than I originally thought. In the year prior to meeting this guy, I had gotten hurt a lot, and I realized that a lot of my impatience with his faults was my own insecurity, and fear that anyone who wanted me must have something wrong with him. To make the situation far more complicated, I told him how I felt. He told me he was dating someone else, and it sounded like it was getting serious. He also told me how much he cared about me and that he wanted to try with me again if he became single.
Since then our friendship has cooled. Obviously, he’s still with this woman. And I’d like to move on. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you see it) I’ve started seeing someone else in the meantime.
I find myself itching to look for new dating opportunities, to help me forget my ex, but for some reason my current beau is not only not helping me forget, he’s reminding me of my ex. It’s been about two months that we’ve been dating, and my memories of the other guy haven’t faded much during our relationship.
Trying to Forget
May I ask what universe you are living in? I’d like to visit there sometime. It sounds like a universe where whole lives can be led in mere minutes, where the sun rises and sets six times a day and the earth circles the sun every week. This is something for nuclear physicists to contemplate, and I’m only an advice columnist.
But it’s possible you’re living in the same universe as the rest of us, only you’re going three times as fast. That isn’t necessarily a good thing, or the way you’re going to find the boyfriend you want. Consider the nature of love: It grows over time, and it lingers over time. What makes it great is also what makes it hard to get rid of. Unless you’re amnesiac, you’re not going to forget the other guy in two months, no matter who you’re with. And it’s not helpful to try to use one guy as an aid to forgetting another. Simplify, simplify, simplify. If you like the guy you’re with, stick with him. If you don’t, move on. But judge your feelings for him as they actually exist, not as they might be if it were six months ago, or if … whatever. Guys are people too, you know; it’s not right to use them as interchangeable spare parts in some complicated personal machinery of self-distraction.
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)