"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 very worried about my state of mind the last couple of years. I am married with a young son and have a decent job. I am also in school part-time, attempting to get my graduate degree. This past year, I got involved with another man. I am not exactly sure why; I have been to therapy the last few months and believe that being with this man made me feel excitement, and that’s something I don’t feel very often.
I feel horrible about risking so much because the man turned out to be a real jerk. He instigated and pursued the relationship knowing that I was in a vulnerable state. We saw each other for about six or seven months before he met another woman and dumped me in a very humiliating and cruel way.
I honestly believed we had this deep connection and really cared about each other. Above all, I believed we were friends, and I knew that eventually he would want a normal relationship, but I thought he would handle things differently and we would remain friends. He told me over and over again, up until a week before he started dating this other woman, that he was not ready for a relationship. I realize now I was being very naive and that he was just trying to keep me sleeping with him until he found someone else. I was free, easy sex for him, nothing more.
After he ended our relationship he stopped talking to me. He never apologized or checked to see if I was OK, knowing full well I was going through this alone. I couldn’t talk to anyone. Who would understand?
I have been living in torment the last three or four months trying to forgive myself for risking my family for so much pain and humiliation and trying to figure out what is wrong with me.(I get to hear about his life because we have mutual friends who are not aware of our relationship.)
I probably deserve the hell I am living in and have been trying so hard to move on and focus on my family. I love my husband and son. But I find myself hoping something bad happens to this man I was involved with, that he loses his girlfriend and his life falls apart, because I feel it is so unfair that he was just as responsible for our relationship and yet hasn’t had to suffer or hurt for all the pain he caused me.
I am worried that I am suffering from depression. Any advice besides “You totally deserve every bit of pain you’ve experienced”?
Very Sad in Ohio
Dear Very Sad,
If you could forgive yourself, would that help? Would it help if you could hit him in the head with a shovel? Or even forgive him, which would be much harder because it sounds like he acted like a royal dirtbag. I don’t blame you for wanting to hurt this guy. What he did was really mean and awful. But when you can stop dreaming of committing mayhem on his person as well as stop torturing yourself with guilt long enough to understand that you are not the terrible person in all this — that you were just trying, albeit somewhat recklessly — to get something you needed, the hurt will begin to pass. And years from now, when you’re driving down the road with a good friend, you’ll tell her all about it and she’ll whoop in surprise and knit her brow in consternation and shake her head in disbelief and you’ll both laugh so hard you almost run off the road.
And then she’ll tell you a secret of her own.
But right now, I sense that you are terribly alone there in Ohio of Academe, hurrying to class, to your child, to your husband, to whom you snuggle up guiltily. How would he react if he knew? Would he crumple in a heap like old pajamas? Would he place you under surveillance? Is it his coldness that drove you to find some excitement? Or is your own spirit too slow to ignite, requiring ever-greater stimulation, and if so, how are you going to keep warm the rest of your days? Perhaps you’d better start collecting things you can count on in the days ahead to warm you up: painting that makes you catch your breath, poetry that rings in your head like a bell, music that sorts out the universe, dance that blooms in your body, buildings that seem to fly, long walks, crispy autumn leaves, chocolate, good beer.
You say you don’t know why you had this affair. Maybe you were just hungry. What you ate was bad for you, but how were you to know?
There’s so much more to say: A man who has an affair with you is not like a friendly neighbor helping you start your car. He might pretend to help you with your problems, but he has problems of his own from which he is trying to disappear into a few blissful moments where there is no mortgage in default, no high-interest short-term notes coming due, no faculty review approaching, no rejection slips in the mail, no divorce proceedings, no process servers, no leaking head gasket, no foundation crumbling, no braces for children scarcely his own, no gambling debts, just you in your simple peignoir stepping out of a hotel bathroom, fixing your hair, looking down at him hungrily as if there had never been another man in the world.
If your therapist isn’t leading you out of this, find somebody in whose presence you can howl, weep and rend your garments, someone at whose feet you can throw your burden. Maybe not a therapist even but a clergyman or a Buddha or a rock star, a strong, wise and powerful fixer of things painful and corrupt. Because to be walking around Ohio, balancing carefully your battered virtue while vengeance roils up inside you and this gross deceiver drives by merrily with the top down … that’s gotta hurt.
Some people who cannot live happily with their murderous wishes actually pray for those they resent, asking God to give those wretched souls everything they desire. It’s a preposterous thing to do, of course, but it contains a kernel of wisdom: Vengeance is not yours.
Know that it will pass. It will not pass like a trifle. It will pass like a cancer: slowly, painfully, with work and difficulty. But it will pass.
I am a 31-year-old woman. I have been in only one long-term relationship in my whole life. All my relationships start out wonderful, then all of sudden, pow!! They fizzle out. The guy I am dating now is also 31 and he is so nice. He lives four hours away. I was thinking that maybe since he is far away the relationship might work out. He has spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with me, then with his family.
He is not married — I had him checked out. I hope this is not deceitful, but I was trying to protect myself. He has asked me questions about how many times I have been in love and why didn’t it work out. Then he told me he had been in love three times but only described two. Next, he gave me the criteria of someone he could fall in love with and it totally described me. He next told me he had a lot of love to give. I do not know if he is playing games or if he is sincere. Should I just end this whole thing before I get hurt again or see what happens?
P.S. He just took a new job at his company. However, it is only a temporary position and he is thinking about moving back to my area.
I would stick around and see what happens. You never know. Maybe you two are just right for each other. It’s hard to tell what people are really thinking sometimes. But unless he actually shows you that he’s playing games, why not keep dating him and see what happens? Who knows, he might have been hurt before, too, and might be trying to make sure that you’re sincere.
My girlfriend and I have just hit a gargantuan wall in our relationship. After a few days of soul searching I told her that things were too serious and that we needed to slow down and not be together every moment, which didn’t go over so well. She accused me of acting those feelings out by treating her badly. She refused, however, to give me more than one example of this behavior (I hesitated for a moment to take her home when she felt sick), simply telling me that she knew I was not committed to our relationship.
This girl is very attractive and (until now) extremely nice, and, not to be ignored, we have great sex. Sometimes I have doubts that we are intellectually compatible, but they are not overwhelmingly strong. I am willing to continue with the relationship, because I have strong feelings for her and care about her. But I don’t know how we can possibly start again, and I don’t know if we will again be able to trust each other. Furthermore, I don’t know if I should demand a reason why she thinks I’m acting so insensitive. Frankly, I’m
So you told her that things were getting too serious, that you should slow down and not spend all your time together, but she didn’t take it so well? ? And she refused to give you more than one example of your pigheaded behavior? Hmmm. I can’t imagine what’s bothering her.
But let me ask you this: When you have sex together, have you noticed that where you’ve got this sort of protruding thing, she doesn’t have one? I think that this person you are dealing with is probably a woman.
Perhaps you thought she was a debate contestant. Women do use words to form sentences. But they are not doing with words what a debater does. When women are forming sentences, they are not only constructing arguments or conveying information about the world around us, but also conveying subjective information about what it’s like to be them. And so when women hear you use words, they assume that you also are using words to tell them about yourself, what it’s like to be you, that there is some link, however tenuous, between who you are, what you feel and the words that are coming out of your mouth.
In particular, women frequently believe that the words you use indicate to them how you feel about them, and in what regard you hold them. So when you say you don’t think you should spend all your time together, what it sounds like to her is that you don’t like her all that much. Trust me, that’s what it sounds like. It also sounds like you consider your time really important. And that, as some would say, is a turnoff.
Don’t try to hammer out the U.N. charter with her. If you don’t want to spend so much time with her, just do those other things you want to do. Tell her, in specific instances, that you’re doing something else and that you won’t be able to see her because you’re doing something else, but you’ll see her at a certain specific time, so it doesn’t seem like you’re just blowing her off. Come on, put some effort into this! You’re getting laid, fer chrissakes. Wake up! You have to do some work here!
You are already in big trouble. She may have written you off completely by now. But if she hasn’t, and you really love her, here’s what you do: Crawl back on your hands and knees, confess to her what a royal shit you’ve been and ask her if she’ll just be your girlfriend for a few minutes more while you can retrieve your toothbrush. And then, when you come back from her bathroom, having retrieved your toothbrush, prolong your visit by feeding her chocolates one by one, and sprinkling her naked belly with rose petals.
No guarantee it’ll work, but if the sex is that good, it’s worth a try.
A few months after my boyfriend of two years left the country, I started a relationship with another man. It was supposed to be a casual “just for sex because we’re lonely and horny” fling, but then we went and fell in love.
I am very fond of my boyfriend (he’s a lovely guy, really), but everything between us had gone lukewarm long before he left — at least on my end. I had tried to break up with him a few times but always lost my nerve when I saw how miserable it made him. I know that’s weak and pathetic, and I’m finally ready to break things off. Before he left, we planned that I would travel to spend Christmas with him, and the ticket is already bought and paid for (by me).
He’s also planning to visit in February (business reasons) and then to move back here permanently in March. At what point should I tell him that I want to break up? What should I say? Should I tell him I’ve found someone else, or just deliver the standard speech about how my feelings have changed? I don’t mind lying or losing money on airline refunds. I feel appropriately awful, and all I want to do is make this as painless for him as possible.
Dear Ticket Holder,
I understand your reluctance to break up with him, but it really is the right thing to do, and the sooner the better. He deserves to know before he comes back here to live; your presence in his life may have figured in his thinking. He may even have a girlfriend with whom he’s breaking up right now so he can come and be with you. Imagine what a pickle that would be.
Christmas has come and gone since you wrote this letter, so I’m curious if you went to see him or not. Regardless, really, you have to get up the nerve to break up with him.
Breaking up is hard to do, but using a “standard speech” is a little tacky. Tell him the truth, as fully as you can, with as much compassion as you can muster. Don’t tell him needless details, but … tell him the truth.
I’m 21 years old and married my husband (who is 25) three years ago. We have two children who are happy and healthy, and we’re both college students who work on the side and somehow manage to juggle all of it. Both children were planned, but taking care of them has been chaotic, and somewhere in there our marriage headed south.
Our problem is that we married very young and are now trying to figure out how to grow up together. We’re getting increasingly frustrated and upset with each other; our sex life has deteriorated, our emotional life has deteriorated, and we can easily spend hours at night after the kids are in bed not talking to each other. When we do talk, we argue.
In moments of lucidity, we’ve agreed on several things — that we want to stay married to each other, that we do love each other very much, and that working things out is worthwhile.
He’s cold and withdrawing and was a victim of severe child abuse for his entire life until he moved out. He conquered a long-standing alcohol-and-marijuana habit last year and is now sober. He just can’t feel things.
I myself am very insecure, a bit emotionally volatile, and very clingy. Our symptoms just touch off reactions in each other — I look to him for emotional support, he backs off, I cling, he backs off further.
We’ve gone to counselors who basically prescribe divorce, on the assumption that people can’t be successfully married before 30. We’ve both gone to individual counseling, and our counselors have prescribed separations for us to grow and develop individually. That’s great, but we want to develop together, and we don’t want to split our kids, our debts, our house, and our lives up so that we can “grow as individuals.” We both know we have a lot of growing to do, but can’t we do it living in the same house?
I’m unsure of how to handle things from here. I don’t want to split up, he doesn’t want to split up, he wants to learn how to relax and let down his barriers, I want to learn how to be independent enough to have my own emotional force field, so to speak.
Do you have any advice? Whenever we spend time without our children, the additional tension is off and within a few hours we’re laughing and relaxing and hugging and touching and acting like a pair of lovestruck kids all over again. But the return to reality is as abrupt as the difference between night and day, and we need to find a way to develop that in the house.
Where do these counselors get off telling you to get divorced? I am amazed. You’re very young, yes, but what’s the sense in getting divorced? Marriage is hard, really hard, but you have to just keep working at it. You both will grow up and mellow out and as long as you still love each other I think you’ll be very lucky, because when people your age are just starting to have kids, you’ll already be looking forward to getting some time to yourselves because yours will be up and out of the house.
It does sound like you really need to spend more time without the pressure of the kids, though. Babysitters, relatives, friends: Who can take care of the kids? You don’t have to do it alone, just the two of you. You need “outside support”: mutual friends, family, organizations.
You know, I’m sober, too, and I know about not being able to feel things. It does take a while. I got into a relationship right after getting sober, which of course the counselors warn you not to do, and yes, I was a bit of a psychotic freak for a while, going from catatonic to babbling brook to some dull affectless shade of gray that would last for days. Why did my wife stick around? Well, we love each other. Plus I guess she thought I had potential. And after a while I learned to go to the grocery store on my own, and how to earn money, and I learned to be kind when I felt murderous, and I learned to pretend I was human even when my psyche was packed in dark cotton. “Fake it till you make it,” they told me down at the recovery station. I’m still faking it from time to time. But I’m glad I didn’t give up and walk out.
You’re building something. If you walk away, you leave this half-built thing out there in the yard, and it haunts you, and people see it and they wonder what it is and why it was abandoned prior to completion. And if you had to explain, could you? Wouldn’t it be much better to explain why you stayed together: Because you loved each other, because you were building something, because you knew it was about more than just you and your husband and your feelings, that it was about community, and children, and a long life together?
I swear, those counselors must be crazy.
I’m single and 31. I like being single. I like my life. There’s a boy. He’s 38. He’s very smart and very fun and very complex. We met under auspicious circumstances 10 years ago. I was a college intern at his company. When I finished the internship and got a job elsewhere, we became friends. Two years later, I started sleeping with him. Big mistake. I was involved with a live-in sweetie. So was he.
We stopped seeing each other. I confessed to my partner that I had strayed (with more than one man), for all sorts of reasons, and terminated our relationship. A year later, he broke up his relationship.
The Boy and I stayed friends. We flirted. Moved to separate cities. Saw each other occasionally. Six years after we first met, we both lived in the same city and were both single. We had a normal romance — meaning we dated and had fun and were together. Yet he was always insecure about how our romance had first bloomed. I had gone to therapy, grew up, and learned what I wanted in a relationship. I’m not sure he had, and his problems with emotional intimacy continually cropped up. He’s a professional communicator, and we can talk for hours about all sorts of things — except our relationship. Every time I would bring up intimate issues, he’d freak out and disappear. I gave him space. I let him do things in his own time. But things were not going well. Then he said he loved me.
Right after, my job moved me across the country. I invited him to come with; he declined. Six months later, I quit that job. Went to visit The Boy. I told him I thought we should be together. He agreed, and seemed happy. Then he disappeared for weeks. Not returning calls, ignoring visits and e-mails. Finally we spoke. He said he was confused; I told him I couldn’t deal with his confusion, and that it was his responsibility to contact me if he had something to say about our relationship.
I went to Europe to convalesce. Started a whole new life. Was very happy. Two years went by, and nothing from him. Suddenly one day, he started writing e-mails. Nothing serious, just asking how I was. After 18 months of correspondence, we started speaking, casually, on the phone. Then he came to visit me while I was on assignment. Still no word on why he freaked out. Now we live again in the same city. He’s after me aggressively. I love being with him, I love sleeping with him, and I love talking to him. But he still hasn’t done what I asked, he hasn’t clarified our relationship, or what happened to make him disappear for two years.
My friends, who are perceptive and generous, are confounded. They think he’s insane and tell me to stay away. My question is, do I again take the initiative and ask what his intentions are? I want him to talk to me about his feelings for me, but I know he’ll run away whenever the subject comes up. There’s amazing energy between us still, even after all these years, and I don’t want to lose out on a good thing because I’m proud. Yet, also, I don’t ever want to go through the pain, hurt, and rejection I felt after he disappeared.
V. Confounded in New York
Every so often, I find myself clawing the air like a man falling from a mountain. When I pause (in midair!) to consider why I am suddenly weightless and why a cold wind is rushing by, a voice says, “There’s no information,” or “The information contradicts itself.”
You say you love being single, but you don’t want to lose out on a good thing, and you want to see this man but you know he won’t do what you want, and he is pursuing you aggressively but will probably disappear again. Each of your wishes implies a different universe; each one is a ticket to a different destination. So if you are serious you must choose. Do you want to see this man casually, off and on, for the thrill? Do you want to extract a confession out of him to clear up a mystery? Do you want to forget him? Do you want to marry him? Do you want a lifelong friendship? If you do not choose, your confusion will persist. But then, perhaps you are a little in love with the morphine of your confusion. I sense that you enjoy the strangeness and complexity of your situation. But then why are you writing to me?
It is also possible that you want someone else to decide for you. Or that you would like to decide by not deciding. And look what you have done, you clever girl: You’ve got me trying to guess what you want. My, you are clever indeed. Perhaps you are cleverer than everyone you know, except for this man, who is even cleverer than you, so clever that he is 38 and yet has remained a boy. Is that a part of his appeal? You recently turned 30, and then 31. Does it make you sad to be an adult? Is it easier to feel young if you stay single? Do you feel torn because men are boring and preoccupied and boys are fun but … unreliable?
Perhaps you are looking not for a solution but for something subtler, a glance of recognition, a song title you recognize from boarding school, an allusion to an obscure poem by an obscure Frenchman. But somewhere in the interstices of your arch and chilly narrative lies what you truly want. I cannot decide that. You must decide what you want, and then you must choose, and then you must grieve, for choosing one means turning away from many others.
I am dating a wonderful, wonderful man who loves me, supports me in ways I’ve never been supported, you know — makes me feel good all over and with whom I’ve never been more sure that I want to spend the rest of my life.
But … he’s never been in a threesome, and it is something he definitely wants to do in his life — at least thinks or is Pretty Sure he will make happen somehow in his life. There are issues beneath this — for him, it’s the ultimate not-yet-done turn-on, something he’s felt not-good-enough looking/not enough of a “player” to pull off on his own yet.
OK, so I would do anything for him … I mean, this is the guy I want to be the father of my kids. So I promised him that this is something I would do for him: as a fun, naughty gift. Maybe at a beach resort, where we are planning to travel later this spring. Maybe by picking up a woman at a dance club. Maybe through a personal ad.
I won’t back off my word — I think that’s why I actually said the sentence “I promise you this is something we will do” when we were talking deeply about it. Now, I’ve never done anything like this (not even in college). I have to say I am slightly turned on by the idea of being with another woman, but the idea of watching him with another woman — well, it kind of makes me sad.
At its deepest, it makes me feel like I’m not good enough for him on my own. Why do I (and women in general) tie so much of the love we feel and build with someone to sexual exclusivity? I know it’s just sex — that it’s just another body — and I will reconcile with that. And I know he loves me, that this already feels like the best relationship of my life. I don’t equate this with cheating (or do I?). I know one of the most important things to him is to be happy with me, to have me be happy. And that more than anything is why I want to participate in this with him, because he thinks he will like it — and maybe I will too. And maybe it is a way to keep sex and our love life fresh and exciting. If I can just psych myself into the realm that it’s simply a sexual craving being satisfied, that it is just fun, I may actually be really turned on by the idea.
So — I am hoping you can help me figure out a way to get mentally on top of this. Any experiences or wisdom you have from being sexually experimental when there are emotions at stake would be really appreciated!
Torn in New York
I am sorry, Miss Torn, but you are not the only one pulled in two directions by this question. It presents me with a most delicate and vexing conflict of interest, for on the one hand I am a guy, loyal and true. Every time a guy gets a threesome, somewhere in heaven an angel gets his wings. As a guy, I can do nothing but cheer you on, worries be damned, full speed ahead, pick a girl, any girl, how hard could it be, get down tonight.
On the other hand, you asked my advice in order to stave off shame, humiliation and treachery; you are right to ask; such endeavors can be explosive. Can I offer you any words of wisdom that will enable you to fulfill your promise and yet prepare you for emotional pitfalls? Yes, but I must first be sure you will go through with it. OK? OK:
I might as well kill myself right now, because I know that armies of libertines with far more experience than I will descend upon me cruelly, telling me how hopelessly naive, retrograde and primitive I am, but I am speaking to you as a friend and as one with limited but vivid experience in such matters. Since you asked.
Oh, and I guess this goes without saying, but use a condom.
By the way, if your boyfriend — his name is Lucky, right? — wins this grandest of all prizes, he must feel that he won fairly. If he knew that I had aided him in his quest, his achievement would be sullied. So don’t mention that you wrote to me, OK? Lucky will soon become to men everywhere a hero and a shining light of hope. And when he is older, perhaps then you can tell him the story of how you appealed to me, another man, for advice, and how I offered only the most general and offhand observations on the matter, and how that had no bearing on his ultimate triumph, and he will be glad. He will thank you.
You are a princess, a heroine, a goddess. The men of the world will not forget you.
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)