"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 am a guy who people would call a serial monogamist. I go from one relationship right into another. For the last year and a half I have been single. Then I finally met the right person. We started the right way, as friends. As we began doing things together, we spent more time together and became even closer. Finally I told her that I love her. At first she balked, but eventually she came around and told me that she loves me too. Only to end things a week later.
The problem is twofold. First, she comes from a culture that very much frowns upon relationships and marriage to people outside that culture. I’m not from that culture. Second, she’s been in America for five years and has not really dated someone in that entire time. Before that she had only one boyfriend. In the country she came from, women are very subservient to men. The thing she likes the most about the U.S. is that women have the ability to define their own lives here.
I think she has not had a relationship since she’s been here because she thinks it means giving up the independence that she moved here to attain. Also I think she has some deep-seated problems with intimacy. It is always after our most intimate moments that she goes running for the hills. I have no idea where her fear of intimacy originates. I don’t know what to do. I love her very much and I know she loves me. She’s told me we can’t see each other anymore because she can’t date someone who’s not from her culture, but I think that reason is really just a smoke screen. I think her real reason is that she’s afraid of making the commitment. What can I do?
What can you do? You can take her at her word and move on. She says that what she likes most about America is that a woman can define her own life. Maybe she’s trying to define her own life by telling you she doesn’t want to see you anymore. You call it “fear of intimacy.” Maybe she calls it “making a choice.”
I don’t mean to be harsh. But it’s not your role to decide that what she says isn’t what she means. You may have made a grand gesture of cultural superiority by assuming that since she made a choice that displeased you, she has a problem. But even if it had nothing to do with cultural superiority, it would not be a strong basis on which to build a relationship.
Get yourself a cute American girl. It’s going to be a long, long century.
What exactly is a friend? The more I ask myself this question the more confused I get. A friend, by the textbook definition, is someone you can trust, feel comfortable with, share your feelings with, chide honestly without fear of hurting feelings and ask occasionally for a hand-me-down or a couch to sleep on or a car to use. Yet most of my friends don’t come close to fitting this definition. Do I change the definition or the friends?
Dear Textbook Friend,
Your definition of a friend sounds pretty good to me. What I would do, to answer your question, is stick with the definition and change the friends. I’d find some people whose definition of friendship was the same as mine, and hang out with them. And then I would try to make sure that I fit their definition of a friend, too — that I’ve got a couch for them to sleep on and a car to borrow.
I have a friend who fell hard for a guy she met over a year ago. Ordinarily, I’d be extremely happy for her and would encourage her to pursue this so-called man of her dreams.
But here’s the dilemma: He (we’ll call him George) lives four hours away and has not once come to visit my friend (Jill). And she has only visited him three times in the past 15 months. They talk on the phone every once in a while, sometimes for hours, sometimes for minutes — lately for seconds. Sometimes she calls, other times he calls. This becomes painful when he doesn’t call when she thinks he should.
When Jill has visited George she comes home dragging with a sad despondent air about her. And she tells me that she’s not normal around him. She’s quiet rather than her sunny chatty self. She loses her voracious appetite and drinks herself silly drunk. Yet despite this she still swoons at the sight, thought or hallucination of him.
Personally, I think she spends more time dreaming about George and how wonderful life could be with him than she spends with him. In fact, I know she does.
Jill doesn’t think she’s stating her case to him strongly enough and that she should be more assertive. Then she asks what I think. I tell her I don’t understand this fucked-up, long-distance crap relationship she thinks she’s in and can’t really give any advice that she wants to hear but I will say that it takes two to make a relationship and I don’t see George pursuing her very hard and when the fuck is he going to drive his lazy ass down to visit her?
For the record, Jill really isn’t psychotic; she’s actually a very normal, level-headed, fun to hang out with 26-year-old woman who’s just a bit hung up on a stupid guy she can’t have.
No Sex in the City
Dear No Sex,
Wow, I like you way more than I like Jill. Why don’t you ditch her? She sounds dull. Why are you even hanging around her? She likes this guy, OK? I don’t know why and neither do you. You sound like you could be doing lots better things than worrying about your friend’s obsession.
Why don’t you stop thinking about what she’s doing and pay attention to your own world? Why not think up some very big ideas, like writing a play, or forming a band, or making a record, or opening a little art gallery, or trying to help little drug addict children, or improving race relations, or getting a degree, or something like that?
Hey, I’ve got a problem. I grew up moving around a lot with my family, and I eventually learned to withdraw and not make friends rather than to enter new situations easily. It’s clear that I now have trouble getting close to people and making friends with them. Also, I enjoy being by myself. But it gets to be too much eventually. Embarrassing, even. From some reactions to me, I gather that I put out ambivalent, off-putting, or boring signals. Probably arrogant ones as well. I’m a relatively intelligent, caring, good-looking guy, but this habit of isolation feels like it’s out of my control. I’d welcome your comments.
I would prescribe a general course of self-discovery. Here are a few suggestions: Take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. You may be strongly introverted. Introversion is a powerful personality trait that is quite undervalued in American culture. To understand the results of the test, I’d suggest reading “Gifts Differing,” by Isabel Briggs Myers and Peter B. Myers. The difficulties you describe may be just the flip side of strong personal integrity and high standards.
Find out what type of person you are and where you fit in the spectrum. Are you creative, emotional, a thinker, do you prefer abstract ideas or action in the world? What things in the world move you? What do you hold sacred? What are your ideals?
You need to know how other people have adapted to life. If you were a military child, or a child of a business executive or diplomat, or if your parents were simply restless, unusual souls who could not settle down, do some reading on the lives of other people in similar situations and consider what they did. Seek out people who’ve led lives like yours and see if you don’t feel more comfortable sharing your experiences with them.
It’s hard to tell from your letter what part of the world you’re in, or how old you are, or what line of work you do, but if you stay in one place and thrive, a circle of acquaintances will grow up around you naturally. After a while, you won’t have to think about how to relate to them. You’ll go over to their houses, or they’ll come over to yours, or you’ll meet in the street and talk, and that will be the world you live in.
I’ve been married for just over a year to the kindest, most thoughtful man I’ve ever known. We’ve been together for five years. It took him a long time, and a lot of couples therapy, to ask me to marry him. Our sexual drives have always been widely divergent; even when we were “living in sin,” once a week seemed to be more than enough for him, while I’d be willing to do it once or more a day, given the proper encouragement. I’d come on to him, he’d either acquiesce or refuse; either way, with a self-conscious, lust-killing giggle. I decided, after enough of these events to constitute a definite complex, to wait until he made a pass at me.
We haven’t had sex since our honeymoon. I gained and lost 40 pounds over the last 18 months, trying to see if it would make any difference in his attraction to me, with no noticeable result. These days, I hear a lot about how sexy I am, but no definite and unmistakable overtures. Any attempt either of us makes at (ahem) marital closeness is met with giggles and refrains of, “Oh, I would, but I’m so tired. Maybe tomorrow.”
I love him. He is the first person I’ve ever met who not only accepts my somewhat irritating self, but seems to find my less noxious behavior endearing, while still calling me on my more horrible traits. He is a talented, yet annoyingly modest, artist who may work at a desk job for the rest of his life, but whether he’s an artist or an admin, I will stay with him.
My problem is this. His best friend is incredibly sexy, though (thank God) he lives on the other side of the country. Whenever we meet, he finds excuses to touch me and looks into my eyes a little too long. Would it be really, terribly wrong of me to take advantage of his obvious interest? I can’t go the rest of my life having sex only once a year, and I think this friend would be really good at it. Help!
Call me … Emma
No, you can’t have sex with your husband’s best friend. Not even if he is really good at it. Your husband wouldn’t understand. He would be upset. Trust me. If I were you, I would concentrate on having sex with your husband. It doesn’t have to be the best sex in the world. Just take your clothes off and get into bed together, and don’t sleep. Something will probably happen.
That would probably help things between you. But it sounds like there’s other stuff going on, too, like the harsh way you describe yourself, and this weight thing. On principle, I try not to answer questions people didn’t ask; but I’d like to suggest that things might get better in your relationship if you did look into your general emotional well-being. That couples therapy you had, were there any clues in those sessions about what’s behind the weight gain and loss, and your belief that you’re so irritating? I mean, not everybody thinks of themselves in such unkind terms, and you might feel better if you got to like yourself a little more. Who knows, your husband might end up liking you more, too.
In March of this year my marriage was falling apart, and in the desire to find someone to talk with I put my e-mail address on a Web site where people ask for e-mail pen pals. I received a couple of responses but connected instantly with one of them, a woman I’ll call Elaine. Over the next weeks and months we continued our e-mail conversation. We talked about everything, from books we were reading, movies we saw to deeper more personal things, the decline of my marriage, her career and balancing it and her children and the ups and downs of her marriage. We became true friends; our conversations were no different than the ones I had with my other friends. The only difference was that they were conducted via e-mail.
The problem is that Elaine is married and her husband didn’t know about our exchanges. She said it was because if he knew he would make her stop. According to Elaine, it didn’t matter what we were doing, we could be exchanging recipes and he would feel jealous and threatened.
He found out last week. All of a sudden our daily e-mails stopped, so I sent a message saying I hoped everything was OK. I then received an e-mail from Elaine’s husband saying she had left the computer on one day and he read the last message I sent her. He told me he did not want me e-mailing her anymore (though it wasn’t quite so civil sounding).
Should I respond to his e-mail or would that only make things worse? There was never, at any time, a sexual component to our e-mails. In fact I made it clear from the beginning that I was not interested in an online romance, just a friend. And if someone went through all of the e-mails and read them they would find they are just that — e-mails between friends.
Part of me wants to e-mail him and say “We were just friends” — more for her sake than mine because I have a feeling he’s very, very upset and while he’s never hit her (that I know of), they have had arguments where he has seemed to be on the verge of violence (according to her). On the other hand, part of me says, just let sleeping dogs lie. The only thing I would do would be to fan the flames.
Just a Friend
Dear Just a Friend,
Husbands who beat their wives are often described as jealous, possessive, easily threatened and controlling. I think you should try to find another way to stay in contact with this woman, because if her husband is cutting her off from contact with others, he may be dangerous to her.
As for your concern that you might be fanning the flames: If her husband is violent, something will set him off no matter what you do. It’s not practical to tiptoe around violent people in the vain hope that they will not become aroused.
As to the innocence of your friendship, since you initiated it when your marriage was in trouble, there might be more in it than you realize, or care to admit, but that’s not the central question now. Whether you like it or not, your relationship with this woman has acquired an added dimension of moral responsibility. I would urge you to do what you can to stay in contact with her. (For your safety and hers, that might mean finding a woman to act as intermediary.) But I would be ready to help her leave her husband and find shelter if he so much as raises a finger against her.
Two friends of mine who were married last year have hit some hard times and are headed for divorce. I am friends with both the husband and wife, though I went to college with the wife and am part of her same tight-knit group of friends. When the two were dating in college, Wifey went out of her way to ask me to be friends with Hubby, as most of the people in our group were not huge fans of his. I made an effort and encouraged others to do the same. Now seven years later, they’re breaking up and I’m getting the distinct feeling that Wifey is trying to claim custody of me as her friend when they split.
The problem is that I am one of the few people Hubby talks to, and over the years I’ve become a good friend of his, not to mention that I’m a little disgusted by Wifey’s antics, carrying on with other men in front of Hubby or doing it behind his back and demanding that we (I and other members of our little group) lie for her. So, what’s a girl to do? Do I stay loyal to my college friend, despite the way she’s acting (which I detest) and the fact that she’s basically giving me an ultimatum — you’re my friend or you’re his friend (which is just so juvenile), or do I stay friends with Hubby (who, let’s all remember, I originally didn’t like — and only became friends with as a favor to Wifey).
Stuck in the Middle
When people divorce, they divide up their books, their music and their friends. This is a reversal of the wedding ritual itself, in which adherents of bride and groom are separated across the aisle until the reception, where they slosh drinks on each other and fight over a dwindling food supply, a process that symbolizes the bringing together of two disparate social worlds.
When the dust clears, a few may have switched sides, but, for better or worse, the odds are that you will end up as Wifey’s friend. That’s what they’re saying in Vegas, anyway. Meanwhile, if I were you, I would try to back off from the fascinating and dramatic action until the play has concluded. You might get elbowed in the eye.
Look on the bright side: At least you get to keep Wifey. She’s acting like a jerk, but she’s your jerk, so cut her some slack. If her former husband calls you, it’s not like you can’t talk to him. But when people get divorced, they can be a little touchy about whose side their friends are on.
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)