"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)
I got married young and repented at leisure, committing a handful of infidelities before we finally (and wisely) divorced. It took a couple of rebound relationships and a few years of (mostly) voluntary celibacy, but I came to the point where I really believed that I understood and had grown beyond the issues that ended my marriage and was ready to make a relationship work.
Enter the woman of my dreams. She’s smart and beautiful and great in bed, and for the first time in my life I really feel like I get what this whole love thing is about. Happy ending, right?
Until I found myself swearing to my new girlfriend that my divorce was “just one of those things” and that I’ve never cheated on my wife or been unfaithful to anyone. Now this lie is eating me up. My girlfriend has told me about some deeply personal and painful experiences in her life, and I feel like I’ve repaid her honesty pretty shabbily.
My friends say it’s no big deal (there’s no STD issue, as I’ve always used condoms, and the affairs happened five years and several blood tests ago), she’ll never find out, and she probably didn’t believe it anyway. Well, first of all, I’m sure that she does believe it, and has formed an undeservedly high opinion of me. And, from a purely practical point of view, my wild years were not exactly a secret at the time. I’m sure one of these same old friends of mine who thinks it’s no big deal will let it slip to my girlfriend, and then it really will be curtains.
So that’s my Catch-22 — do I keep my mouth shut, live with being a liar and hope she doesn’t find out? Or do I tell her, knowing there’s a good chance that she’ll judge me — which would hurt — or leave me, which would be devastating? The irony is that I am crazy about this woman, and I would never think of cheating on her. But how can I expect her to have faith in me after I’ve lied about something like this? And how the hell should I have handled her questions about my past in the first place?
Gutless in Virginia
Don’t let your guilt about lying drive you to make a reckless confession that warps her view of who you are. Expiate your guilt on your own, in confession or through ritual. She’s not your confessor or your therapist.
Then, when you’re no longer sweating it out like Raskolnikov, ask yourself: What is the ideal? How do you want to portray your past to your girlfriend?
True, you did lie to her. But we construct and manage our personal past; it is not some permanent monument in the jungle that any intrepid explorer could discover independently. It’s dynamic; it’s a creation of memory; and it’s yours. And the degree to which you spill the contents recklessly, or tend them carefully, with regard for their effect, is largely up to you.
Certain words will hang in the air like a bad fart on a hot train. They cannot be taken back. Call it spin if you will, but we all do it every day because we care about how people perceive us. So construct a narrative that doesn’t portray you as an unfeeling, sadistic monster, but as a human being learning how to love.
You don’t have to call yourself a vile cheater, a base liar, a defiler of women. When the time comes, admit that when she asked you about your marriage, you didn’t tell her the whole truth — but put it in general terms that don’t set off alarms. It wasn’t a good marriage. You weren’t the ideal husband. You married young. You both had a lot to learn. You fooled around. It’s not the kind of thing you’d repeat. You’re glad it’s over. You’ve grown up since then. She — your new girlfriend — matters to you a lot, and you don’t want your past actions to destroy what you’ve got. That kind of thing.
If she asks for specifics, be careful; there are always going to be some things from the past you keep to yourself. Don’t divulge, for instance, the number of times you screwed women other than your wife while you were married, and the number of women involved, much less their names. Don’t give her ugly details that keep her up at night, that undermine the picture she has of you, that force her to struggle to reconcile the irreconcilable. She might even press you for details. Don’t give in. It’s your job to reconcile your past with your present, not hers. All she should have to deal with is who you are now. Keep the focus on the present. Screw up with her, and she’ll be gone. Be a good man now, and you and she can have a happy life.
I go to a dog park near my apartment every morning. Everyone there is very friendly and I’ve made friends there, as many people do. I’ve never seen anyone get dates in the dog run, though, and it hadn’t crossed my mind as a way to meet men. Recently I met a single man I think is great. I can’t tell from our conversations (which have run the gamut from flirty to discussions of dogs’ bodily functions) if he’s interested, too, or is simply happy to make a friend (he’s new to the dog run).
I rarely meet men I’m interested in, so when I do I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself to make something happen. But in nonsocial situations like this, I am very afraid to appear interested in more than friendship, which would be embarrassing if it isn’t reciprocated (I have a huge fear of rejection, particularly from someone I see every day). But if he is interested I don’t want him to think I’m not because I’m putting forward my “friends only” persona. I know I should probably just relax and see what happens, and since I do see him every day there’s no sense in rushing things and I should just let them happen as they occur. But that means I probably won’t get to kiss him anytime soon, which is a sad thought. So what do you suggest?
A 31-year-old Acting Like a John Hughes Teen Movie Character
I suggest asking in a friendly and grown-up way if he would like to have some coffee or something. After all, I believe you mentioned that you see him in the morning, which puts you at a social disadvantage that a little coffee might cure. Oh, that’s right, you have your dogs with you. Logistics. Well, ask him if he wants to get together and do something. Just relax and be friendly and flirt with him and see what happens. Be careful and don’t act stupid and you won’t have anything to be embarrassed about.
You know, people have been falling in love at the dog run for thousands of years. Adam and Eve met in a dog run, I believe. As did Antony and Cleopatra, and Nick and Nora, too. It’s in our genes.
Some 22 years ago, my roommate and her fiancé introduced me to the fiancé’s close friend, whom I married six months after our obliging friends’ wedding. These friends moved to another city about a 12 hours’ drive away a year or two later. They seem happy to see us when we are in their city, but their families live here, and when they come here they spend only a minimal amount of time with us. (Their families are impressively dysfunctional and guilt-tripping and discourage them from seeing us.)
Last month, they contacted us and said that they would be in town within a few days and wanted to see us. They were coming here to take care of selling his mom’s house and packing up the stuff in it. (She is terminally ill and has moved in with them.) We were happy to know they were coming, offered to help in any way we could and cleared our schedules so that we could see them. Their last words to us were, “We’ll call you when we get in.”
The weekend came and went and no call came. We knew they were here because his mother called looking for them, and we saw a moving truck outside her old house. I sent a card a week or so later, telling them that we were concerned and asking them to get in touch when they could. This past weekend I got an e-mail from my friend, telling me that they were just too upset when they were here to even call us, and didn’t want to “burden us with their cares.” (Of course, it was a burden to wait around all weekend for a call that never came.)
This tendency to make appointments with us and then cancel them has always been part of their behavior, but this was the most difficult episode yet. I know they’re stressed and grieving about his mom, but we’re going through a similar situation, and I don’t find myself unable to contact supportive friends or inclined to stand them up after making plans to meet. I am still hurt and angry, even more so after getting the e-mail. Can this friendship be saved? What should I say to my friend? I don’t want to scold her at a difficult time, but I don’t feel that saying, “Oh, that’s OK” is either true or helpful to either of us.
Hope you can help. Thanks.
Families are a known cause of temporary insanity under the best of circumstances. How stupefying, then, it must have been for your friends to arrive at his dying mother’s house and carry out her belongings one by one: a life coming to an end, told in pieces removed from a house. And it is the capricious cruelty of the world that on just such occasions when we really need an adult along, it’s the adult who can’t help us because she’s the one who’s dying. And as you pack another box with figurines and photo albums, you remember you were going to call your friend, and you imagine yourself telling her that you just don’t feel up to seeing her because of the crushing weight of sadness, surrounded by the objects of a lifetime that is passing away as you sit there in her house, and then you think of how hard it is to explain such things to your friend, who always wants the explanation, and wants it to be right, and compares what you’re doing to what she would do, and finds you always come up just a little short. And maybe you’re just not prepared to come up short at that moment, because you’re doing your damnedest and you’ve got nothing extra to give.
I put myself in your friend’s shoes because in your letter you compare yourself to her and you seem to come out on top, and you refer to “scolding” her. You say you’re going through the same thing but you would never do a thing like this. But perhaps your friend, with all her faults, would never judge you as harshly as you judge her, and maybe that’s a quality that she has that you lack, and maybe that’s why she’s your friend, in spite of her flakiness. Honestly, we all have to have ways of moving beyond these little hurts and keeping the big important things in mind. Do you love your friend? Do you value her company? Are you hurt when she is careless and changeable, when she doesn’t do what she says? You can tell her that, can’t you? Can’t the two of you live through that? I hope you can, because friends are not to be cast off just because they aren’t perfect. I hope you find a way to tell her how you feel.
I’m a 26-year-old professional, and I’ve recently made the very hard decision to move back in with my parents for a year to get things in financial order. (That year will begin in February.) I’ve also recently met a wonderful woman who’s funny, unpretentious, has a great smile and, as an added bonus, looks great in low-slung jeans. We’re supposed to go on our first date this coming weekend.
I am under no illusions — that first date may not work out and I may not want another. But there’s just something about this person, and I’m afraid that my new living arrangement will be a deal breaker; I am also afraid that by not telling her I’m moving back in with my folks until we’ve gotten to know one another better, she’ll think I’m a liar and call it off on the spot.
Then again, she may not even want a second date if I lived in the kind of trendy warehouse you only see on “The Real World.” How and when should I handle telling this exciting new girl that I’ll be spending the next year or so with my parents for roommates, without turning her off?
Don’t Want to Screw Up This New Thing
Dear Don’t Want to,
I think your living with your parents is completely charming. I also think you are under no obligation to disclose all the details of your living arrangement on your first date. Of course, if she insists you fill out a form declaring that you do not now nor will you in the future ever again live in the same house as your parents, you’re in trouble — but then, if she’s got forms for you to fill out, she’s in trouble, too.
Sheesh, what’s wrong with living as a family? Isn’t the family the basic unit of human social organization? What has happened to America, anyway, that it’s shameful to live as a family? Is that what being “a professional male” means? To isolate yourself in a fashionable duplex with sparkly walls and a tiny balcony where you can store a bike and a hibachi?
I just don’t see what’s wrong with living with your folks. It’s better than living with dudes who steal your pot. And you’re only doing it while you get on your feet. Why, any smart girl will recognize that you’re a decent guy who might even make a good husband. Though I do get the impression that you’re a little impressed with yourself, and that you view relationships with women as deals for which there can be clear-cut “breakers.”
And while I’m at it giving you a hard time, let me say this: Would you please not call yourself a “26-year-old professional male”? That sounds like some faux social class dreamed up by condominium developers. If you’re a recent law school graduate, or you just passed the bar, or got your M.D., or whatever it is, just say that. Vaguely inflated labels are the refuge of the insecure. Work hard, save up a down payment and be the nice, decent guy that your parents still believe you to be. The girl, your employers, your future in-laws and I will all thank you for it.
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)