"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)
For all the ink that’s been spilled on the alleged pernicious effect of fashion magazines on female self-esteem, no one has as yet taken on one of the most damaging blows to female confidence. I’m talking, of course, of Dorothy Parker and her famous couplet “Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses.”
I speak from some experience, as a man who has made passes at several girls who wore glasses and even wound up marrying one. Glasses, like small breasts, seem to be one of those things that women automatically assume men find unattractive. An old girlfriend of mine suffered terribly when she wore her contact lenses. Her eyes were almost constantly irritated, which, I argued with her, couldn’t have been doing her vision any good. When I asked her why she didn’t just abandon the nasty things for her specs she said, echoing Parker, that glasses made her unattractive. This was a tall, slim blond with a lovely face and nice figure who didn’t give those attributes any chance against two smallish ovals of glass.
I’ve had something approaching the same argument with my wife, who makes do with her glasses (stylish, as is everything else about her) but who, for an evening out to dinner or some other social engagement, sighs that she has to put in her disposable lenses. She, at least, can wear the things comfortably for a while. But try to tell her that her Alain Mikli frames — wide (but not big) ovals framed by green plastic that accentuates her red hair, or smallish, outward-slanting rectangles whose idiosyncratic geometry nicely complement the planes of her face — are of a piece with her vintage Ossie Clark dress, her Clergerie shoes, her ’30s Bakelite bracelets, and I feel myself losing the argument even before I’ve made my case.
Recently a friend of ours, the most va-va-voom woman I know, a voluptuous dirty blond with a great dimpled smile and a personality and brains to match, announced to us that she was saving up for laser surgery. Both my wife and I protested that there was no need, that she was a stunner with her glasses. “But you’re my role model!” my wife wailed; she suggested that our friend should take the money she’d saved for the procedure and, once a year for the next 10 years or so, indulge herself in a killer pair of new glasses. We both knew she wanted the surgery, and we didn’t want to be pushy or impolite. But we also really wanted to dissuade her. What I longed to say to my friend was that (though she looks great even without her glasses) she was proposing an erotic desecration, something akin to putting Ingres’ Odalisque in a chemise.
How did glasses get such a bad reputation? Pop culture, for one thing. How many movies have we seen where the snooty girl, or the ugly girl, wears glasses? Didn’t Dennis the Menace’s nemesis, stuck-up Margaret, get her sandbox hauteur from those big goggles stuck over her turned-up nose?
Haven’t even good movies fed the image of glasses as unsexy? Think of the bookstore sequence in “The Big Sleep,” one of the sexiest scenes on film. Bogart’s Philip Marlowe takes refuge from an afternoon rainstorm in a Los Angeles bookstore and offers a bottle of “pretty good Rye” to the comely young thing manning the shop. “Well,” she says, pulling down the shade on the front door, “looks like we’re closed for the day.” This isn’t just any young thing. It’s the young Dorothy Malone, a brunet at the time and a decade before she was to distinguish herself as the platinum man-bait in such Douglas Sirk doozies as “Written on the Wind.” She’s a doozy herself. Bogart tentatively asks her if she has to … and hesitates, indicating her glasses. Turning away, she removes them, lets down her hair and, when she turns back to him, is greeted with a friendly, lascivious “Hell-lo.” Letting down the hair (one of the simplest and most devastating of erotic acts) is a good idea. For me, though, the glasses could have happily stayed put.
Checking through that invaluable reference work “The Playmate Book” ($50 from fine booksellers everywhere), I find that from the magazine’s inception in 1953 to the end of 1996, exactly two playmates wore glasses: Miss June 1981, Cathy Larmouth, and Miss March 1967, Fran Gerard. (Apparently, one optometrist wrote in and offered to fit Ms. Gerard for a pair of free contacts. Ingrate.)
A few months ago in a Manhattan strip club I was having a conversation with one of the dancers when I noticed that her eyes were moving almost imperceptibly back and forth, and that she seemed to be focusing just slightly to the right of my head. Out of the blue she volunteered that she usually wears glasses but had taken them off for fear that customers would be turned off by them (as act of daring considering that she was walking around on six-inch Lucite heels). Maybe some guys would, and the girl does have to make money by catering to the customers. But I wish she had been able to say, “If you find glasses a turn-off, it’s your loss.” It would have been, too. She was an utter delight — funny, interesting (she worked as an artist), engaged, easy on the eyes, and had made a very interesting choice of music. (I’d never seen a stripper dance to the Psychedelic Furs and New Order before.) She didn’t have to do much to stand out. But think of how she might have stood out if she had added glasses to her gown and heels.
We are all tied to the belief that glasses denote intelligence, while not being a guarantee of it. And maybe, where women are concerned, the belief that glasses are unsexy is a subtle way of saying that brains aren’t sexy, or at least that they are indicative of prim reticence. Too often the sight of a woman taking off her glasses in a love scene denotes that the pretense of brains has to be put aside before she can become sexy. But doesn’t it depend on the brain? Sexiness is a state of mind. I want to be surprised, and you can’t surprise anyone if your brain is put on idle.
The most sexually forward thing any woman has ever said to me came from a girl wearing a big pair of glasses and with the type of demure, sweetheart face that wouldn’t be out of place in some turn-of-the-century illustration of radiant maidenhood. The turn-on was a direct result of the seeming contradiction between that demureness and the forwardness of her words. And those glasses magnified the directness, allowed the sexy look in her eyes to zero in on their target and zing! went the strings of my heart.
I’m not much interested in why it is that I find glasses on women sexy, any more than I’m interested in why I prefer vodka to whiskey, or why roast chicken is so delicious. Sensual pleasure — any kind of pleasure — calls out to be savored more than explained. But if I had to guess, I’d say that the cliché of what glasses mean — intelligence — works in tandem with a woman’s attractiveness to promise a fuller package. Wit and brains make any woman sexier. Attraction, even just unconsummated flirtation, is a game, an agile — and hopefully friendly — mental foreplay that can be its own delight regardless of whether it leads to anything else.
Glasses also promise the sexiness of the veiled. They make the eyes, just about the first thing you see when you look at someone, even more the center of someone’s face. They have a way of emphasizing the wearer’s persona, making it more alluring, promising the known while holding back. And in an encounter that’s going to lead to sex, glasses hold the promise of the ultimate unveiling, the moment when lovers stand (or lie) revealed to each other. And in terms of everyday encounters with women who are friends and who are going to remain that way, glasses can work to define the wearer’s personality, to make you feel as if her essence were being distilled.
Though I wouldn’t want to speak for women, I’ve heard from some female friends that glasses on men is a turn-on for them. (As a man who wears glasses, and was thrilled when I found out I had to get them, I find that heartening.) There’s certainly something sexy about Cary Grant in “Charade” donning a pair of heavy black horn rims. Even those potential clunkers, the bane of many an adolescent boy, are as elegant as everything else about him. (A lesbian friend tells me that girls often make passes at girls who wear glasses.)
Thankfully, some women seem to be going against the anti-glasses tide. Commentary on awards-season fashions has become a cottage industry, but all the pundits missed the sexiest moment of the season just past: Nicole Kidman walking to the podium at the Screen Actors Guild awards in her black Galliano and glasses. The dress itself was something: Cut to the tailbone in the back (O, that I were a seam upon that dress that I might touch that tailbone!), with a teasing little low-set bow that caused a break in the plunging back. The lower back was framed in a little cutout that made you feel as if you were peering through a keyhole or getting an unintended glimpse of flesh. But it was the tiny-framed glasses that added the real dash to Kidman’s ensemble. They sharpened the naughty promise you sometimes get from her raised eyebrow or curled smile, but they also made it seem as if she were being seen for the first time, as if there were secrets she had yet to reveal.
And in my day-to-day life I encounter at least some women who don’t seem to have any trouble with glasses. I can’t imagine one good friend, a young redheaded editor with the sort of lithe dancer’s physique and husky voice that, as with Lauren Bacall in “To Have and Have Not,” fairly demands you address her as “Slim,” without her glasses. Maybe it’s because she’s got such a sharp mind that her specs make me feel, when I’m talking to her, that I can see her thinking, can feel her attentiveness ready to seize on a point. Whatever it is, they’re a part of what makes her a joy to know.
And maybe, for younger women, the notion of glasses as unattractive is no longer as prevalent. I hope so. To men for whom women are a constant source of wonder, surprise and delight, glasses continue to hold out a promise of something to be discovered, and an emblem of what’s already there to take pleasure in. That ought to make women feel good. After all, how many times have they been requested to put something on rather than take something off?
Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.More Charles Taylor.
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)