"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)
In the 1971 cult classic “Harold and Maude,” Ruth Gordon plays a wacky 79-year-old who teaches a depressed man of 20 or so, played by Bud Cort, to value life. In the process he falls in love with her.
Betty Dodson, 72, and Eric Wilkinson, 25, are not Harold and Maude, but their age difference invites comparisons. When they became an item three years ago, friends teased them about the movie — which appeared several years before Wilkinson was born.
“I never even heard of it till I got involved with Betty,” Wilkinson explains. “But there’s no comparison. Harold and Maude were just friends. We’re lovers. We’ve spent entire days in bed together.”
“Oh sure, we got Harold-and-Maude teasing,” Betty recalls. “So, I’m so much older. But so what? When men have girlfriends or marry much younger women, no one bats an eye. But the other way around is a big deal. What we have here is a sexual double standard. The teasing stopped pretty quickly when our friends and families accepted our relationship. In our social circle, things feel comfortable now.”
Dodson and Wilkinson live together in her apartment on Manhattan’s East Side. They also work together: Dodson has produced several sex education videos and sex toys. Wilkinson handles the business end, tracking their sales and working with the webmaster to keep Dodson’s Web site current. Their relationship is not like most, but some of the lessons they’ve learned together would intrigue any couple.
When Dodson first announced that she’d spent a weekend having fabulous sex with the man she affectionately calls her “young pup,” her friends were less incredulous about their age difference than they were about the fact that Wilkinson was male. Dodson hadn’t had sex with a man for 10 years.
Dodson is not your ordinary senior citizen. She has a Ph.D. in sexology, has been one of America’s leading sex educators for more than 30 years and is the author of the minor classic “Sex for One.” She has also been the nation’s most outspoken advocate of masturbation and critic of what she has dismissed as “codependent partner sex.” That’s why her friends were so amazed by her tryst. For the first time in many years, the godmother of masturbation was doing it consistently with a man. Next fall, the author of “Sex for One” releases “Orgasms for Two,” which, she says, she “would not have written without Eric. I’d never write a sex book about something I wasn’t currently doing.”
Some matches are made in heaven. Dodson and Wilkinson’s was made in bed. “When we first got together,” Wilkinson explains, “we didn’t have many work projects going, so for a good year and a half, we had plenty of time for lots and lots of sex. Then the work side got busier — ‘Orgasms for Two’ was a big job, and running Betty’s business took time and energy. Like any couple, more work has meant less time for sex. But we still have great sex regularly, and still enjoy each other a great deal.”
Dodson says that other factors have contributed to their recent sexual moderation: “Hey, I’m feeling my years. I still love sex, but I can’t fuck around the clock like I used to. Sexual frequency isn’t the issue. It’s sexual quality, and after three years, that’s still great. Sometimes we have quickies. Sometimes we spend all morning in bed sharing orgasms. Sometimes we don’t fuck for a while. It depends on what’s happening. Of course, we also masturbate. I walked into the living room the other day, and Eric was beating off to some porn. And I keep a vibrator within easy reach.
Dodson wasn’t born a sex goddess. She is from Kansas, and in the 1940s she worked as a commercial artist, drawing fashion ads for Wichita department stores. In 1950 she moved to New York to attend art school, where she continued working as a commercial artist and painted on weekends. In 1959, she married an advertising executive but was not orgasmic with him. They divorced in 1965 but remained friends.
After her divorce, Dodson discovered orgasmic partner sex, bisexuality and nonmonogamous relationships with Grant Taylor, who is currently her webmaster. She soon began producing erotic art and had several exhibitions, which led her into New York’s cultural underground and something she never expected to experience or enjoy — group sex parties.
“I must have had sex with a thousand men and women,” she recalls. “It was a wild time. But in hindsight, I was also exploring sexuality, preparing for my life’s work as a sex educator.”
Dodson made her first splash as a sex educator in 1973 at the National Organization for Women’s first conference devoted to sex. Before an audience of more than 1,000 women Dodson, then 43, presented a slide show entitled “Creating an Esthetic for the Female Genitals.” People were not sure what to expect. She clicked the first slide, a close-up of the well-groomed vulva of one of the 15 friends who’d posed naked, legs spread, genitals wide open for her. The audience gasped. “All our lives,” Dodson proclaimed, “we’ve been led to believe that our cunts are nasty, ugly, smelly, and shameful. But I’m here to show the world how beautiful they are.”
The audience was shocked. Some booed when Dodson used the word “cunt.” But she pressed on, promoting her view that women’s genitals are a joy to behold. As the slide show progressed, the heckling died down. At the end of Dodson’s performance, the audience gave her a standing ovation.
That presentation certified Dodson as a sex educator to be reckoned with. She made more heads turn the next day with a workshop called “Electric Vibrators for Masturbation.” Those appearances launched Dodson on a 25-year-long career producing weekend workshops around the world, bringing her message of assertive self-loving to thousands of women. Her motto is: How we make love to ourselves determines what we bring to partner sex.
Dodson also continued to have an extraordinary sex life. After the group sex parties of the ’60s and ’70s, she spent the ’80s bisexual but mostly lesbian. In the ’90s, she returned briefly to heterosexuality but eventually decided to go solo. “One reason I opted for masturbation was my discovery that most of my male contemporaries — I was in my 60s at the time — were not that much fun. They had relationship baggage and health problems. They were not into — and usually not capable of — extended sex. And they wanted to dominate the relationship, always wanted to have things their way.”
Enter Eric. Wilkinson grew up in Virginia, the only child of a businessman father and homemaker mother. At 14, he became interested in sex. He read self-help books and masturbated over the few girlie magazines that came his way. “I was raised Protestant and thought masturbation was a sinful expression of lust. I struggled over that for a few years, but by 17 I was sick of feeling guilty. I decided: If I burn for beating off, so be it.” He lost his virginity at 18.
In college, Wilkinson wanted to study sexuality. “But they didn’t have any courses in what I wanted to learn. I wanted better sexual skills. I wanted coaching in how to eat pussy and how to have anal sex without hurting the woman.”
Then Wilkinson read Dodson’s “Sex for One.” “I’d read dozens of sex books. I’d reached the point where I didn’t think I could learn any more from books. Betty’s was the best book I’d read by far. It had such great information.” He wrote her in care of her publisher.
By the time Wilkinson’s letter arrived in 1999, Dodson had received tons of mail from people who’d read her book or seen her videos. She usually sent form-letter replies. “Eric’s letter was different. He asked questions I’d never heard from a young man. He was well-informed about sex, more reflective than most, and curious about sex in the same way I’ve always been. He was this odd combination of the eager student and a remarkably self-assured man. I was intrigued. I remember thinking: This kid is something else.”
They e-mailed for several months. “We’re so cool,” Dodson laughs. “We met in cyberspace.” She loved his e-mails. Eric was an English major, a gifted writer, and he related his sexual experiences with the young women he was seeing. His e-mails became Dodson’s favorite porn: “I’d get turned on and masturbate fantasizing sex with a handsome young man.”
Wilkinson asked if he could visit. Dodson declined. She wasn’t into complications, especially heterosexual complications with a man young enough to be her grandson. But Wilkinson persisted. Eventually she relented but insisted on keeping him at arm’s length. The deal was that he would stay with a friend, and they would just have lunch.
Wilkinson had other ideas. He wanted to have sex: “Women lovers my own age were not sexually experienced. They were inhibited, not very creative. What I wanted was a sexual mentor, and Betty seemed like the perfect woman.”
Dodson’s resolve to keep her distance quickly evaporated when Wilkinson walked into her apartment. “The kid was so desirable, a gorgeous 6-foot hunk. He wanted me to be his sex teacher. It was very flattering. We went out to lunch, returned to my apartment and had four hours of very hot sex. Eric went to his friend’s place, got his suitcase and spent the weekend with me. We had all kinds of sex he’d never had before: I did deep-throat on him. I played with his balls, and slid a dildo up his butt while he played with his peter. It was not only great fun, it was first-rate sex.”
In addition to his sexual curiosity and enthusiasm, Wilkinson endeared himself to Dodson by saying he’d always wanted to use a vibrator during sex. “Many men feel threatened if a woman pulls out a vibrator during partner sex,” Dodson says. “They feel like she’s saying: You’re not good enough. But Eric welcomed the vibrator. His cock was inside my pussy, and I had my Magic Wand on my clit. It had been a long time since I’d had a penis-vagina orgasm with a man.”
Dodson also enjoyed Wilkinson’s sexual sophistication. “Eric was more advanced sexually than lots of men who were my contemporaries. He’s a dedicated student of sexuality. And he’s fantastic in bed: sweet, sensual, playful, experimental, and he has great ejaculatory control.”
Wilkinson wondered what it would be like having sex with a woman so much older than himself: “When we got naked that first time, I was very pleasantly surprised. Betty looked nothing like my vision of what a 69-year-old woman ought to look like. She’s taken very good care of herself. She’s definitely not an old lady. She looks like she’s in her mid-50s.”
In Dodson’s mind, her weekend with Wilkinson was a lark. She had no interest in a long-term relationship, and even less in having him move into her apartment, the private sanctuary that had been shared with hundreds of workshop women for decades.
After Wilkinson returned to Virginia, they stayed in touch. “We e-mailed and talked on the phone,” Dodson recalls. “He pressed me for another visit. He wanted to stay a week. I told him he could stay a weekend. He came up and wound up staying a week.”
Their sex was fabulous, but even committed sensualists like Dodson and Wilkinson spend more time together out of bed than in it. Dodson was equally astonished how comfortable it felt having him around. “Beyond the sex, we’re remarkably compatible,” she explains. “We have similar personal habits. Neither of us is a morning person. We’re both night owls. We’re both hard workers, but we like lots of time off to play. I grew up with three brothers, so having Eric around struck a familiar, familial chord for me. I’m not only his lover, I’m his big sister, mother, granny and auntie. In any of those roles, we’re both very playful.”
A few months later, Wilkinson graduated from college and wanted to spend more time with Dodson. She agreed to let him stay one month: “I said, OK. I need an editor to go over my memoir [still unpublished]. I gave him the job. It worked out well.”
At the end of the month, Wilkinson asked to be Dodson’s apprentice, to carry on her sex education work. “It was very flattering,” she recalls. “Of course, I hadn’t lived with a man since 1970. No one bad-mouthed heterosexual relationships — which I called ‘pair bondage’ — more than I did. But Eric is very sweet and helpful and smart. When he saw how conflicted I felt about his request to stay, he suggested that we could stay in the moment and take things one day at a time. He swore that the minute I wanted him to leave, he’d go.” That reassured Dodson.
So did the fact that Wilkinson took his position as her business assistant seriously. “I’m not a boy toy on the dole. I have the self-respect that comes from working productively and earning a salary.”
The months passed. Wilkinson told his parents about his relationship: “They were shocked. At first, my mom was afraid Betty was taking advantage of me. She’s from the South and saw our relationship as evidence of the evils of New York City. My dad didn’t say much beyond, Come on home. Drop this fantasy. Get a life. For a while, Betty’s friends thought I was taking advantage of her, that I was sponging off her. That stopped when they saw how much help I was and how happy we both were.”
“Age is just a number,” Dodson insists. “I feel more comfortable, more compatible with Eric than I do with most men my age. He’s more alive, more interesting, more energetic and absolutely beautiful to look at. People ask me: What do you see in this kid? He doesn’t have the big job, the big salary. I don’t care. I don’t need a man to pay my rent or take care of me. I want a young man who’s interested in what interests me and who wants to learn. Our society forgets that the mentor/student friendships of the ancient Greek philosophers are a time-honored tradition. The way the world sees it today, Eric is my boy toy, so I’m taking advantage of him. Or I’m his sugar mama so he’s taking advantage of me. Guess what? We are both taking advantage of each other and enjoying every minute.
“I’ve never met Eric’s father,” Dodson explains, “but once his mother realized I had her son’s best interest at heart, we became good friends. When she visits, she stays with us. We talk on the phone. One of the many things I like about her is that for a fairly conventional Southern gal, she’s quietly sexually progressive. She never had a problem with Eric masturbating as a child, which is a major issue for many parents.”
Dodson continued to view the relationship as a transitional arrangement until he got his own apartment. A year after Wilkinson moved in, a few close friends sat her down. “They said ‘Why do you keep saying Eric is a temporary fling? He’s devoted to you. You’ve never been happier.’ It was true. There was no reason to push him out of my life. So he stayed.”
Then Dodson had an epiphany: “I realized that Eric was my reward for 30 years of service, being a sex educator, teaching women about orgasm and masturbation. He found me because of my work. Finally, I accepted his delightful presence.”
Her publisher approached her about writing another book, and she agreed to write “Orgasms for Two.” “In the new book, I revisit heterosexuality from the perspective of a wise woman, an elder of the tribe, and Honey, by now I’ve got grandmotherly wisdom up the wazoo.”
“Orgasms for Two” is more than just a love letter to Wilkinson. The book touts masturbation as key to enjoyable partner sex. “Couples have to liberate masturbation,” Dodson says, “accept self-pleasuring in each other, show one another how they do it. And if a man can’t handle seeing his lover use a vibrator, my advice to the woman is: Keep the vibrator and recycle the man.”
The book also promotes women as men’s guides in heterosexuality: “For partner sex to be good, the woman must know what she wants and be able to show her lover,” says Dodson. “Women have to teach men about female sexuality, not pattern our sexual desires on what men want. That’s the opposite of what typically happens — young men who know little or nothing about sex end up taking the lead, and young women blame themselves when they can’t have orgasms. So after years of saying that women need to be the leaders in partner sex, this gorgeous, sexy young man enters my life and says he wants to learn everything I can teach him. Is that great or what?”
“Orgasms for Two” also deals with the power struggles that mark all long-term relationships. “I could never figure out why I ended up hating every man I fell in love with.”
“In my marriage and most of my other previous relationships,” Dodson says, “there was this ongoing struggle over who makes the rules — and women usually end up on the short end of the stick. Power struggles kill the joy in sex. This time around, both Eric and I talk about our power issues. Now that he’s so good at sex, he’s usually the top [leader] in bed, and I’m the boss in the business. But because I spent so much time feeling powerless in most of my relationships, I’m very conscious of not abusing my power.”
Both Dodson and Wilkinson agree that the hardest part of their relationship involves issues of who’s in control, in part because on the business side, she’s his boss. “It’s hard,” Dodson says, “to be a good lover in bed and also be an effective CEO. But I can’t be a wimp either. Sometimes a task has to be done a certain way, and I have to make sure Eric understands why he has to do it that way.”
Wilkinson agrees: “We both work at not taking conflicts on the job personally. If I make a mistake, Betty is good about telling me how to correct it, and I know she still loves me. And if I call her on being overly critical, I always let her know I love her. We give each other lots of affection, and that helps.”
“People enter couplehood with this idea that they’ll share power equally,” Dodson says. “But that rarely happens. It never happened to me. The question for couples is: How to balance the power?”
They work at conflict resolution. “We get irritated with each other. That’s natural for two headstrong people. But we try not to let irritation boil over into anger. There are no wars between us. We don’t hold grudges. There’s no suffering in silence. We talk things out. We don’t let hurts fester. We’re good at resolving our conflicts without hurting each other’s feelings.”
They work at staying in the moment. “I don’t treat this relationship the way I treated my marriage and other heterosexual relationships,” Dodson says. “There’s no expectation of living together happily ever after till death do us part. No pressure to buy into that fantasy, which is a lie anyway. We’re committed to staying together as long as it feels good to both of us. Things stay lighthearted and pleasurable.”
They give each other space. “We’re together so much that we needed to create some time apart. We have some separate friends and often socialize without the other. We also have our own beds in separate bedrooms. But the first one to go to bed gets tucked in by the other, and we cuddle every night for 15 minutes or so going over our day.”
The final element in the Dodson-Wilkinson balance of relationship power is nonmonogamy. Since her divorce in 1965, Dodson has been militantly and very happily nonmonogamous. When Wilkinson entered her life, she considered herself beyond jealousy.
She was wrong. “A girlfriend of mine was attracted to Eric, so with his permission, I gave him to her for her birthday. Afterward, she wanted to see more of him, and it pissed me off. I got angry — and then felt embarrassed about it. I had to relearn what I’d learned in the ’60s — that we have a choice between being monogamous or enjoying the big wide world of sex. Since I’ve already had a fabulous sex life, it seemed unfair to Eric to demand monogamy. Especially since part of the foundation of our relationship is the mentor-student thing. He wants to carry on my sex-education work. But nonmonogamy made me uncomfortable at first. I was afraid he’d find some sweet young thing and run off. Finally, I took a long look in the mirror and said: Dodson, get it together. I knew that holding Eric back would ruin things between us. I made a decision to get over being jealous.”
“Neither of us was into monogamy,” Wilkinson says. “In our view, monogamy cheats each member of a couple out of being fully sexual by shrinking the world down to two people. By saying you’ll limit your screwing to one person, you’re screwing yourself. But believing something intellectually doesn’t mean that it’s easy to accept emotionally. So we spent a good deal of time discussing how we could make a nonmonogamous relationship work.”
They came up with one simple rule: No one brings anyone else home or stays out all night without first checking in with the other to make sure it feels OK.
Since agreeing on this rule, they’ve had a few threesomes and foursomes, and Eric has had sex with a few women he’s met through friends. “That’s been fine with me,” Dodson says. So far she’s gone out with a few of her old girlfriends and has had sex with only one other man. Currently, neither one has any other regular lovers.
Both Dodson and Wilkinson view their nonmonogamy as one advantage of their big age difference: “I don’t think I could ever have this kind of relationship with a woman my own age,” Wilkinson says. “They’re fixated on marriage and children. They’re very threatened by nonmonogamy. It takes an older woman, a woman with Betty’s experience, to let go of sexual possessiveness.”
“I have a former lover,” Dodson says, “a man I almost married, who is now 80. His wife is 40. She loved him at first, but she’s in a different place now. She’s chomping at the bit to have a life of her own, including sex with other men. But her husband insists on monogamy. In a relationship where one is much older than the other, I don’t think it’s fair for the older one to own the younger one’s sexuality like that. If age brings wisdom, the older person should be wise enough to allow the young one to experience sex in all of its fullness. By insisting on monogamy, my old friend is no different than an overly possessive parent. Kids rebel against that — and rightly so. I predict his young wife is going to bail out on him.”
Dodson and Wilkinson also credit their nonmonogamy with keeping them devoted to one another. “We never take each other for granted,” Wilkinson explains. “We make the decision to stay together every day.”
Another thing that keeps them together and happy is affection. “We’re always hugging, and cuddling, and smooching,” Dodson says, “not just before bed, but throughout the day. In most couples that falls by the wayside pretty quickly. But not with us. Physical contact, sexual or not, helps keep us connected.”
Some people — usually women — say that a good relationship makes for good sex. Others — usually men — counter that good sex makes for a good relationship. Dodson and Wilkinson are both solidly in the latter camp: “When I have a great orgasm with Eric,” she explains, “I feel this welling up of love that deepens my appreciation for him. Sure, I can have great orgasms by myself, but Eric is so dedicated to my pleasure that being with him increases the intensity of my orgasms. At my age, I think relationships should be fun or why bother? Many women expect love to be profound, deep, meaningful — and last forever. My adult relationships are based on sex, and sex is play. Remember, in our puritanical society, play and pleasure are very suspect.”
Wilkinson agrees: “Many people believe that good sex is this magical thing that somehow falls into your lap when you’re with the right person. I’ve never believed that. Good sex is like any other skill: It takes knowledge and practice. I was frustrated with lovers around my own age. I’d say: ‘Let’s try this, or talk about that,’ but they weren’t into it. They weren’t as experimental as I wanted to be, and that caused conflict. Betty not only wants to experiment as much as I do, but afterward, we both tell each other what we liked, what didn’t work, and what we can do better next time. She’s a great person. She’s had an amazing sex life, and now she’s passing her wisdom along to me.”
Michael Castleman is the author of "Sexual Solutions: For Men and the Women Who Love Them."More Michael Castleman.
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)