"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)
People complain about violence in the movies, but it’s nothing compared to brutality in history. In 1824 an unhinged young whaleman named Samuel Comstock organized a small group of mutineers and took over the Globe, the whaleship he had set sail on two years earlier. He murdered the captain, First Mate Beetle and several other officers. Comstock and his similarly crazed men struck the captain with an axe, which killed him instantly. Not yet content with the results, they picked up a special double-edged knife used for cutting whale blubber and proceeded apace: “They ran the boarding knife through his body and drove it home with a blow from an axe; it entered below the stomach and came out the neck. They struck his head again with the axe. Mate Beetle, in spite of stab wounds and a fractured skull, was still alive. Both, however, were thrown overboard through the cabin windows. Mate Beetle died in the ocean in the dark of night.”
That’s how Thomas Farel Heffernan describes just a few of Comstock’s horrific deeds in his magnificent “Mutiny on the Globe: The Fatal Voyage of Samuel Comstock,” an account of the grisly mutiny and its aftermath that reads like a novel — and I’m talking about the kind you race through, not the kind you read dutifully. Heffernan is an expert on whaling history and formerly the president of the Melville Society; Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the 2000 bestseller “In the Heart of the Sea,” about the wrecking of the whaleship Essex, has cited Heffernan’s previous book, “Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex,” as his inspiration. “Mutiny on the Globe” is firmly woven from facts, and clearly supported by a historian’s meticulousness and care.
But Heffernan is that rare historian who is more interested in telling a ripping good tale than in backloading his book with 200 pages of appendices. (“Mutiny on the Globe” does, of course, include several appendices, among them a glossary of words used by the natives of the Marshall Islands in the early 19th century. And if you think that sounds boring, all I can say is: just wait.) The lore, if not the truth, of historians as a group is that they tend to be quiet, gentle, well-meaning folk who love nothing more than to go fishing for their history in their favorite place, the library. It’s a gentleman’s pursuit, one that may or may not flower into terrific writing, depending on the particular gentleman’s skill and temperament.
So often, though, even the most well-meaning historians (no, especially the most well-meaning) write as if they need to preserve the delicacy of the ladies in the room. Heffernan, blessedly, seems to be of another stripe: He digs in past the elbows (suede patches be damned!) to get to the guts of the story, and refuses to soften the unsavory details. He seems to recognize that history is blood: Bloodshed is part of what makes us who we are, whether we like it or not.
And even beyond that, Heffernan is more interested in keeping his readers engaged than he is in impressing his colleagues. You can put “Mutiny on the Globe” in the same league with other highly readable historical books like “The Unredeemed Captive,” John Demos’ terrific 1994 account of a young white colonist who was captured by Native Americans in 1704 and who, evidence strongly suggests, chose to live among them rather than return to her family. Like Demos, Heffernan culls the details that are important to the story — as well as those that are illuminating, funny, fascinating or just plain entertaining — and throws the dross, like the useless innards of a whale, over the side. (“Mutiny” weighs in at a trim 280 pages, including notes.)
And it’s some story. Heffernan supplies a brief family background for Samuel Comstock, “the terrible whaleman,” as he was called in an account of his deeds written by his brother, William, in 1840. But Heffernan doesn’t waste much time in getting to the nub of Comstock’s psychosis. Comstock, Heffernan tells us, had been a scrappy kid who loved to play war games. The problem was that he simply never outgrew them, indulging his boyishly violent fantasies well into adulthood: “He was an adult as a child and a child as an adult,” Heffernan notes succinctly. Comstock was well-raised by decent, God-fearing Quakers, but none of that helped much: “At the age of twelve he carried pistols and daggers and kept them under his pillow at night — very un-Quakerish sport.”
Eternally restless, Comstock tried to run away to sea at age 14. After he was caught, his father reluctantly granted him permission to sign onto a ship (Comstock’s first voyage was on a trader, the Edward), and Comstock’s career as a sailor began. Comstock’s adventures include the usual fights and brawls as well as various sexual and romantic encounters (Comstock was, apparently, popular with the ladies). But one thing that Comstock learned at sea, although he never clearly explained the reasons to anyone, was that he despised the experience of sailing on a whaleship.
Whaleship journeys, as anyone who has read “Moby-Dick” knows, can be long and arduous; Comstock spent almost three years on the whaleship he’d signed on to before the Globe, and the experience, his family noted, changed him drastically. Upon his return, brother William observed “there was nothing left in his eyes of the frank and open expression that characterized them.” His sister said “that he had ‘a bad look.’”
Worse yet, Samuel confessed a bizarre fantasy to William: He wanted to become monarch of his own desert island. “He would sail for the Pacific, kill the captain and officers of his ship, take it over, land at an island inhabited by savages, murder the rest of the crew, become the king of the natives, and turn them into his army.”
To that end, Samuel Comstock, aged 20, signed on to the whaleship Globe, which sailed from Martha’s Vineyard in December 1822. Its route would take it south through the Atlantic, around Cape Horn, and then north toward Hawaii. Comstock, along with the handful of conspirators he was able to win over to his “cause,” took control of the ship just below the equator, south of Fanning Island.
If you want to find out exactly how that happened and, more significantly, what happened afterward, Heffernan will have to be the one to tell you. I will say that it’s a story of grand psychosis, played out with, as Heffernan notes, the overcooked theatricality of boyhood games: As the mutiny commenced Comstock, armed with a sword and other assorted weapons, rushed about the ship, waving his arms and crying repeatedly, “I am the bloody man; I have the bloody hand, and I will be revenged.”
Kooks make for great history, and Heffernan knows it. But “Mutiny on the Globe” is remarkable less for its riveting (and bloody) details than for the fact that the mutiny occurs less than halfway through the book. A series of axe murders, accented with some additional goring with whatever whaling tools were handy, are a tough act to follow. By the midsection of “Mutiny on the Globe,” the first mystery in every reader’s mind — What happened to the mutineers and survivors of the Globe next? — has a close second: How the hell is Heffernan going to fill another 100-plus pages?
Explaining the story behind “Mutiny on the Globe” has to be handled as delicately as if you were telling a friend about a mystery novel. But it’s crucial to say that even though the texture of Heffernan’s story changes drastically after the mutiny, it’s no less gripping, albeit in a completely different way. The last half of the book recounts the experience of two members of the Globe crew (both of them, incidentally, innocent of any wrongdoing in the crime), William Lay and Cyrus M. Hussey, who lived for almost two years among the capricious and sometimes dangerous natives of the Mili Atoll, a “belt buckle” shaped formation of islands that are part of the Marshall Islands in the West Pacific.
Heffernan tells Lay and Hussey’s strange and miraculous story with a gently unfolding sense of wonder. In fact, Heffernan’s greatest skill lies not in being able to tell a great story (a talent that, in an ideal world, would be required in a historian anyway), but in his sensitivity to the details of these people’s lives. There are portions of the second half of “Mutiny on the Globe” that moved me to tears, not because Heffernan milks the emotion of the story, but because he lays everything out so plainly: The feelings of these men are self-evident, and Heffernan trusts us to sense that as clearly as he does.
Around the age of 18 at the time their island experience began, Lay and Hussey were certainly grown-ups by early-19th century standards. Heffernan treats them as men, of course, but in describing their fear and terror, or their delight, he allows them remnants of boyishness. Even in something as simple as quoting a bit of written correspondence between Lay and Hussey (the two were best friends even before the Globe tragedy), Heffernan shows great awareness of the depth and nuances of their feelings, and as the writer of their tale, he betrays more than a bit of tenderness for them.
As the cruel puppeteer who, for a time at least, controlled the fate of the Globe, the terrible whaleman Samuel Comstock is of course the most fascinating character in its story. But the life of a ship begins and ends with the people who man it, and Heffernan seems to sense that the experience of Lay and Hussey is really the heart of the Globe‘s story, if only because their tale tells us something of how life goes on — sometimes clutched at with tooth and claw — after even the most incomprehensible events.
There’s a marvelous sense of continuity not just throughout “Mutiny on the Globe,” but stretching far beyond it. Why does so much history seem to be written for the dead and not the living? “Mutiny on the Globe” is a bright and vivid book that luxuriates in the pleasure of tales of brave derring-do (and there’s plenty of bravery in this story), even as it gently acknowledges the suffering of the people who lived through these events. If you were to travel today to the Mili Atoll, where Lay and Hussey served so many months as both guests and captives, would you see the ghosts of the island leaders, or remnants of their warrior canoes? Sailing through that spot just south of Fanning Island, where the Globe was seized by a psychopath, would you still be able to see the blood in the water? Heffernan makes you wonder.
But as attuned as Heffernan is to the stories of the Globe’s poor captain and his men, and to those of Lay and Hussey, “Mutiny on the Globe” is written for us, the people who are alive to turn the pages. It could be read in a library or on a beach: Both settings are appropriate. And unlike so many well-intentioned historical accounts, it sharpens our faculties instead of wearing them down. When you turn the last page, you feel more alive than dead — which, crazy as it sounds, is the purpose of history in the first place.
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)