"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)
To many young people, at least in San Francisco, the term “body-fluid monogamous” — with its mellifluous, lilting scansion — is a highly romantic catchphrase. It implies not the more traditional, sexual monogamy, but rather an almost heartbreaking trust in a cruel and dangerous world of sexually transmitted diseases. It means that you trust your partner enough to believe he’ll always use a condom when sleeping with someone else (and vice versa).
The term “polyamorous,” while also indicative of a relationship that permits multiple sexual partners, is fraught with threats both physical and emotional, and for me it’s a much more difficult word to negotiate.
But I try. My current relationship is both body-fluid-monogamous and polyamorous, and I lose a lot of sleep over it (and not for any good reasons). I don’t always know if I want an open relationship, or if I just want to want one. Ideologically an open relationship is in tune with my belief in personal freedom (which I chalk up to way too much Ayn Rand at a delicate age), but my emotions, often irrational and illogical, have been known to trump my ideological idealism.
My “partner” (more on that term later) and I have been together, in one permutation or another, for more than a year now. I’m a 27-year-old graduate student; he’s a 36-year-old, out-of-work computer programmer. We have a true connection intellectually and emotionally; a shared sense of humor, aesthetics and love of words — and fabulous, adventurous sex.
Sexual freedom is very important to both of us, in different ways. As I said, for me it’s more abstract. For him, it’s an inalienable right, whose theoretical allowances are far more important than any one girl — or all of his potential other lovers — could be. I’ve heard him cite “Out of Africa,” and its credo of personal freedom for lovers, so often that once I finally lost my patience and snapped at him, “You’re no Robert Redford.”
“I don’t care,” he answered.
“Haven’t you ever seen ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s'?” Two can play this classic movies game. “A fear of constraints is sometimes a constraint in itself. Freedom isn’t always the most important thing.”
“But this is what I want.”
“This” is the freedom to have casual sexual partners. Unlike some polyamory addicts, he’s not looking to actually have a serious emotional involvement with other women. He just wants sex, plain and simple: a one-night stand following a fortuitous bar encounter, a booty-call arrangement that lasts longer but doesn’t go emotionally deeper.
“You have nothing to worry about,” he assures me. “None of this could ever threaten what we have.”
I do believe him, actually. With his swaggering sexuality, Ryan is the type of man who loves sex but can distinctly separate it from love. In fact, he’s only been in love twice in his life, and I’m the second honoree. With odds like that, do I worry that he’ll develop a serious emotional attachment to these other women? Not really.
Do I worry that he’ll think one of them is prettier or more sexually gifted than I am? Definitely. I’m only human, and rather insecure at that.
I go back and forth. While flirting with someone else at a party, having an occasional sexual encounter with a woman (and if I can, why can’t he?) or in the moments following an orgasm with Ryan, I feel invincible, like we’re partners-in-crime avenging a sexually repressed Gotham. Then it’s suddenly gone, and I feel all Sylvia Plath again, in need of constant reassurance of his love.
It wasn’t always this tenuous. Our relationship started out with us both dating other people. During our first few dates Ryan comforted me about my other lover, with whom I had a fast-failing S/M relationship. One time I ran into Ryan in a supermarket parking lot: He was buying wine for his date for the evening, and I was purchasing candles for mine.
We were incredibly open and honest in the beginning: I would cry on his shoulder, and he would complain about complications with the other girls he was dating, who expected more from him than he was willing to give.
Gradually, after about three months, and probably because we were so open with each other, our mutual trust deepened into love — mad, passionate love that tempted him, for the second time in his life, to tentatively offer up monogamy.
Knowing his true nature as I did, I countered with my own offer, which I considered to be more realistic and sustainable, at least for him: an open sexual relationship, at some point in the future, once our own relationship had been firmly established. And that’s when our problems began.
One of the difficulties was that I’m not as drawn to this kind of arrangement as he is. In theory I am, because I love sex and my own freedom, but in actual practice I waver. I know that I could have other sexual partners quite easily; as Ryan says, he fears getting into any number-of-lovers kind of competition with me, because he’s certain I would win. I’m not so sure, but I guess it is usually easier for an attractive woman to round up casual sexual partners than for an attractive man.
The problem is that I’m in love with Ryan, and when I’m in love, I get a bit of the I-only-have-eyes-for-you syndrome. It’s inconvenient and old-fashioned, but true.
But it’s also true that I’m often drawn to men like him. There seem to be certain personality traits likely to be coupled with a desire for an open sexual relationship: a voracious appetite for life, a sense of mischief and adventure, a realistic view of the world. I hate men who kiss my feet (outside the bedroom, that is), and so I find men like Ryan — wild, intense and slightly controlling — almost ridiculously alluring.
And I do get something out of the arrangement. While I’m less likely than he is to take advantage of the actual sexual freedom, I enjoy being able to flirt without guilt. I like hanging out with my male friends without having to worry that Ryan will fly into a jealous rage (as have some of my past lovers have), or to be able to kiss a beautiful stranger at a party. These things have no impact on my real relationship, and I am relieved to be in a situation where the other party understands that.
On the other side, Ryan had, with one exception, participated in open relationships exclusively up until he met me. A lot of his friends have unconventional relationships, including a successfully polyamorous married couple with whom Ryan once had a four-way. Thus he knows, from first- and second-hand experience, that sex and love are completely different things, or at least can be, so these kinds of arrangements come naturally to him.
I do wish I could be as open and practical as he is, and with him. At parties, clubs and raves — due, I suppose, to our outrageous fashion sense and audacious displays of affection — Ryan and I are regularly propositioned by other couples to swing or to have three- or foursomes. For the first several months of our monogamous relationship, Ryan’s response to them was always the same: “I’m sorry — she and I are really just into each other right now.”
But I was haunted by the question: When would that change? When would I no longer be enough for him, and who or what would mark that terrible shift?
I know what these shifts are like. I was in a similar situation about two years ago with another longtime, on-again, off-again lover — a much older man with whom I lived in Asia. I finally walked out on him when, following a period of dwindling sexual activity between the two of us, he brought home a woman his own age whose looks he had much denigrated to me, and proceeded to have sex with her in the next room. (“I just feel more comfortable with ugly women,” he justified his actions, so hurtful to my at-the-time fragile sexual ego, when I came back to pick up my things.)
Though we’re no longer lovers, this man and I are now close friends, and Ryan and I even spent part of this past summer with him, first in Tokyo and later on a remote island in Thailand. The two of them got along very well, partly due to the concordances in their personalities: a love of freedom, a need for control, a wicked sense of humor and an even fiercer sense of pride.
I was a little jealous of their easy camaraderie, fearing that it was a harbinger of doom for my relationship with Ryan: If my romance with this other man had ended so badly, and Ryan was so much like him, when would my new relationship blow up in my face?
So my worries escalated throughout the summer Ryan and I spent together (half of it in a one-room apartment in Tokyo, an experience I do not recommend for those seeking sanity in intimacy.) My worry translated into hysteria, and he countered by accusing me of letting my insecurities get in the way of the polyamorous arrangement I’d once promised.
When we returned to America, we broke up briefly. Then, after two horrible weeks, we had the predicted bout of astounding make-up sex, fueled by drugs, alcohol and despair, and got back together, albeit this time with the inflexible condition of a sexually open relationship.
I actually found that once we’d changed the rules, I no longer worried as much about his needs or conduct. I knew that this change in our relationship wasn’t dictated by any one woman — and that was, after all, part of what I’d dreaded. I was able to relax a little, in part because I wasn’t desperately trying to mold Ryan into a role that I knew, deep down, he didn’t fit.
But my own emotional vacillations are still difficult for me to reconcile. I often feel that I can control my jealousy and insecurities by exhaustive rules and regulations. For instance:
“Promise me that you won’t ever think one of your other lovers is prettier than me,” I’ll insist.
“I promise,” he’ll assure me.
And I’ll feel better for a while, until I have a bad hair day or a particularly nasty episode of PMS.
Nevertheless, our relationship is going well again. We spend about every other night together, so I’m devoting more time to my friends — and to flirting with other people — and I appreciate Ryan more when I do see him. And our sex life has definitely improved since last summer’s emotional train wreck, which also marked a low in our physical relationship.
I’ve even seen him get jealous, at least a little bit. Ryan’s always claimed that he isn’t “the jealous type” and has repeatedly sworn that he would never fret over any fling I might have, since he knows that I love him. He’s told me that I can share with him any and all tales from any other bedrooms I visit, when I feel ready to explore my own freedom further.
But one morning not too long ago, after he’d given me an orgasm from oral sex for the first time ever (I’ve always been much more of a coitus-loving girl), Ryan asked me if I ever planned to have sex with someone else.
“Probably,” I answered.
“Then make sure you can describe how you like oral sex.” He offered me a demonstration of our newly patented technique, complete with verbal commands. “It took us a while to get this down, and I don’t want you to have to start from scratch with anyone else.”
“How considerate of you.”
“Besides, I want to have that bit of meta-control over the encounter. That will make your sleeping with someone else at least somewhat OK.” He laughed self-consciously and looked away quickly.
I’ve rarely felt more aroused by Ryan than I was by this now-you-see-it-now you-don’t flicker of jealousy, which ultimately proved even more intoxicating than his lingual talents. We spent a long time in bed that day.
Irrational jealousy aside, I believe that nothing casual he has with someone else could threaten what we have together. Most of the time, that is. But for the time being, I don’t want to know what he’s doing on his nights away from me. But this saddens me greatly — it destroys some of our precious intimacy and rapport. I don’t know which I’ll eventually choose to preserve: my peace of mind, or my ability to talk with him about anything and everything.
My hope is that I eventually won’t have to choose, that I will be OK with his sexual dalliances so we can again have our inimitable honesty and closeness.
Sometimes I do suspect when he’s been out carousing. One night, after being apart for 36 hours, we met at his apartment, where I immediately noticed the box of condoms spilling out of his backpack. With our body-fluid-monogamous arrangement, I knew those had nothing to do with me. Whether they’d been used on the previous night’s adventures, or just brought along hopefully, I didn’t know.
And at that moment it didn’t matter, for he pulled me close to him and whispered into my hair, “I missed you,” sounding like he was about to cry. I realized that like he once said, his being with someone else — or even just the possibility of his being with someone else — has the power to eroticize me, the one constant lover in his life.
Some of my friends think we’ve suffered a setback in our relationship since our trial run of monogamy. I know that they can’t fully understand the situation without knowing him or me. But it’s true that we don’t know what to call each other anymore. “Girlfriend/boyfriend” seems inappropriate, too suggestive of the monogamy we’ve rejected. “Lovers” doesn’t indicate the full breadth of our relationship or our commitment to each other. We were both drawn toward “principal consort” but feared it wouldn’t be taken seriously. We finally settled on “partners” but worry about the implications, because we’re not home free yet, and we don’t know if we can be in this relationship for the true long haul.
But whatever we call it, I’ll try it. Polyamorous, right. Maybe I’ll take more lovers — both male and female — myself. And maybe I’ll be really well adjusted about the whole thing. Whether Ryan and I succeed or fail, we’ll have great stories to share someday — maybe even with each other.
Veronica Hayes is a writer in California.More Veronica Hayes.
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)