"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)
The average American sports fan, watching the Olympic men’s figure skating competition, probably figured that most of the contestants were gay. Former gold medalist Brian Boitano, addressing this phenomenon, explains it with three words: “Sequins and glitter.”
None of the skaters in this year’s Olympics — for all the sequins, all the glitter, all the stereotypically gay mannerisms and speech patterns — is publicly gay. In fact, only one international-level figure skater has ever openly declared himself a gay man — Rudy Galindo, the 1996 U.S. champion, who came out in USA Today reporter Christine Brennan’s book “Inside Edge” weeks before winning his title.
And Galindo says that almost every figure skater he’s ever met is straight.
Galindo, 31, who now skates professionally with the “Champions on Ice” tour, has asserted in interviews and his autobiography, “Icebreaker,” that coming out hurt his standing with skating judges, as did the fact that he is Mexican-American and that he grew up in a trailer park in San Jose. Galindo now lives in Reno, Nev., to be near his sister, Laura Galindo Black, who is also his skating coach. He spoke with Salon by telephone from her home about gays in skating, the Salt Lake Olympics and the strange world of figure skating judges.
You were the first actively competing figure skater who was out as being gay. Are you surprised there still haven’t been others?
Yeah, because I thought maybe I would, like, pave the way, and with my success and everything, have more people be more upfront with everything and look at when I came out, how accepted I was. I thought maybe they’ll just feel comfortable and say they were gay, too, or whatever. But they haven’t. [Laughs.]
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. I wonder if it’s because of family, they’re afraid their family won’t accept it, or the judges, because, you know, I had to skate, like, twice as good as the other skaters just to win. And maybe they didn’t want the judges to think they’re gay, so they won’t give them the marks. Or if it’s endorsements, but male figure skaters don’t get endorsements very much. So I don’t understand.
And the reason they don’t get endorsements is because everybody thinks they’re gay, right?
‘Cause of all the women skaters! Or the giant slalom.
But I think the average guy with a Bud in his hand on a couch in the Midwest somewhere, he thinks: male figure skater? That’s a gay person.
Probably, but it’s so funny because I’ve only come across, like, two skaters that are gay, and a lot of them that I know that are touring with me on “Champions on Ice” are all basically straight. I mean, they’re married, they have wives, they have children. So maybe it’s on the national level or something, but the ones I tour with now are basically 98 percent straight.
I think that would surprise most people.
That would surprise most people, but you could take a poll and ask.
I believe you.
I would tell you the truth. I mean, why would I want them to hide their sexuality?
In last week’s Olympics men’s competition, the bronze medal winner, Timothy Goebel, and the silver medalist, Evgeni Plushenko: I don’t know or care if they’re gay or not, but they both have stereotypically gay mannerisms. They’re effeminate, you know, they go over to the “kiss and cry” area and hug teddy bears …
Isn’t it funny? The two Russian boys [Plushenko and gold medal winner Alexei Yagudin] are straight, I know that for sure. But you wouldn’t think that with the costuming and the emotions that come out after the performance.
Right. Clearly that’s the perception. And you say you’ve had trouble with judging. I would think, just as a layman, if there’s one place in the world where it’s safe to be a gay or a gay-seeming person, it would be the world of figure skating.
Oh, well, you’d think it would be! [Laughs]
Why isn’t it?
I think it’s that the judges are a little old-fashioned, old school. They’re a lot older, and they’ve grown up in the Midwest and the East Coast, and they just want that all-American boy. They don’t want the label “the gay skater.” That’s why we need this young, hip crowd to start judging now.
So you think it’s just a matter of time.
I think it is a matter of time. A lot of the older judges are on their way out and the new, more liberal ones are coming in.
What do you think the conservative, older judges think when they see a guy like Goebel? You look at him and think, well, that seems like a gay fellow (although I don’t know if he is or not). How do you think they’re reacting to that?
Well, if he was gay, don’t you think he’d be a little bit more artistic? [Laughs.]
I don’t think I know the answer to that question.
I think so. I don’t know. He’s pretty athletic in his jumping, and he’s not very artistic.
But do you think the powers that be are watching him clutching the teddy bear and cringing at that point?
Probably not the international judges. Sometimes it might hurt, I think, at the national level, at the United States championships. If they have a suspicion or something, you’re going to have to be on top of your game — even better than your game — just to get some marks. That’s what I had to do.
Do you think you were actually cheated of some championships that you might have won if you hadn’t been out?
Not won, but there’s a lot of times when I should have placed. A couple times. And I just know it had to do with, you know …
The fact that you’re gay.
This may have been totally my imagination, but it seemed to me that with Michael Weiss, the American skater, NBC really makes a point of talking about his wife and kids. I heard more about Michael Weiss’ wife and kids in seven minutes last week than I’ve heard about Mario Lemieux’s wife and kids in 15 years.
It’s almost like they’re saying, “Listen, folks: Straight guy. Look, he’s got a wife and kids!” Am I making that up?
Sometimes I feel that way, that he parades the kids around a lot, and the commentators seem to be saying, “Look, there’s a straight man in this sport.” But there’s a lot of straight men in this sport. Yeah, I think they overdo it a little bit.
Is figure skating a big deal in the gay community, as a spectator sport?
It is, but all my fans have been just everybody, basically. I think it’s been pretty even. We do all these cities on different tours, and when I go to the bus and everyone signs autographs, it’s just been an equal amount of different varieties of people.
And then there’s a whole other side of all this for you. You’re the only Mexican-American skater I’ve ever heard of.
Yeah. Hey, there’s a speedskater now! [Derek] Parra.
Right. But he’s not at the whim of judges. Did you ever feel that you were facing discrimination in that way, too?
Oh, all the time. I think I was discriminated against my whole life in skating, practically. I had to work twice as hard and just make sure those judges had no excuse not to give me first or place me, at nationals or internationals.
If there’s a skater you know who’s gay, would you say to them, “Look, I came out, and look what it did for me”? Sort of advise them one way or the other?
No, not at all. If that’s what they choose, I’m not going to promote this on them, you know, “You should come out to your family and your friends and the whole public.” I have too many problems myself. I just deal with what I have to do, and if that’s the decision they make, that’s fine.
You don’t have any regrets about coming out?
Not at all.
I can’t think of a gay male athlete who’s more famous than you.
Maybe, I don’t know, Greg Louganis?
Maybe. But you’re right up there. Is there any kind of responsibility that you feel goes with that?
It’s good for me just to be truthful. I don’t like hiding things, and me being HIV-positive and me being openly gay, I think I’ve helped a lot of people deal with issues in life and their illness or their disease. Just to tell them that I’m always in the spotlight, I’m always touring. I’m not giving up on my life just because I have this disease or I’m openly gay.
How’s your health?
So far, so good.
Does it affect your skating at all?
You know, I have my good days and bad days, but I think that’s true with everybody. Some days you wake up tired and you don’t want to do this, right?
Right. You’re a professional skater now. How is that different from Olympic-track skating in terms of how much you enjoy it? Is it less political? You’re basically a performer now, right?
Right, basically I am. We have pro competitions, and that can get political sometimes, but it’s the kind that you don’t care because you’re not going for Olympic gold or whatever. It’s just fun. Basically now, I’m just there to entertain the audience because we wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for the audience and the fans. So now I could just care less about those pro judges.
But do they have the same kind of controversies that we’re seeing with the Olympics?
Oh, not at all, no. They’re there to have fun and judge and wear tuxedos. [Laughs.]
As long as I’m talking to a world-famous figure skater, it seems silly not to ask you what you think of the judging controversy in the pair’s skating last week.
Well, I just think it’s time for us to look into the judging and start changing things. We do have to start paying the judges and get professional judges, trained judges with a trained eye. And maybe even, as Scott Hamilton said, pull them out of the environment and make them independent. No judges from certain countries that are going to favor this and that and this and that, political like that. But I think they need to be trained and professional and they need to be paid. That’ll help the sport a lot.
What about the subjectivity?
Some people have different preferences of styles. And Jamie [Sale] and David [Pelletier] are good friends of mine, we hang out and tour all over together. They did win the technical mark by every single judge. So the style mark is supposed to be more subjective, and, you know, some people liked the Russians more than them.
Would you like it better if it were more like other sports, and the technical stuff counted more? More athletics, as opposed to the artistic side of it.
Well, personally I like the artistic side to it. I like to watch that, the combination with the athletics. But no, if it was all technical like that, I probably wouldn’t even tune in anymore to watch the amateurs skate. I don’t like to see a skater go from one end doing a quad, then going back to the other end and doing a quad, then going back for another triple, and, you know, it’s just … That’s basically the reason why I got into skating, because of the artistic side. I just think I’m very artsy and flamboyant, so that’s why I went into it.
I’m going to put you on the spot because we’re talking on the morning of the women’s final and this isn’t going to run until tomorrow. Who’s going to win?
Who’s gonna win? Ohhhh. You know, three years ago I used to be really good with this, but for some reason, I don’t know. But I’m just going to go with Michelle [Kwan]. I’ll say that. Just because she might have the spirit of being in North America, in Utah, and I think it’s time for her to win. I think the ISU [International Skating Union], too, they understand that we need an American woman to win the Olympic gold, to help out with the ticket sales and the popularity of skating.
So are you saying that would lead to some monkey business?
I don’t know. I think there’s already been some monkey business! [Laughs.] They’re under that watchful eye, so I don’t know.
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)