"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 most of the past week, St. Louis was in a kind of dewy reverie over the death of Jack Buck, the Hall of Fame Cardinals’ announcer who died after a long illness Tuesday night. The city was sad, but it was a nice, wistful kind of sadness. People consoled themselves and each other with stories of Buck’s legendary humility and generosity, with memories of his great calls, especially on Ozzie Smith’s famous playoff home run in 1985, with the comforting thought that Buck, the old friend, the father figure, had been so sick for so long that his death had come as a relief.
Saturday came a body blow, a shot that still has this baseball town staggering. Darryl Kile, a 33-year-old starting pitcher, was found dead in his hotel room before the Cardinals’ game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. This was not a death that brought to mind warm memories of weekend afternoons in the backyard with Dad. This was a death that brought to mind thoughts of death. Horrible thoughts of a wife happily visiting family in California one day, thrown into a world of pain the next. Aching thoughts of an infant son who won’t remember his father, 5-year-old twins who’ll never really get to know him.
Thirty-three. That’s six years younger than me, two years older than that guy on the next barstool, same age as you over there. Thirty-three years old and healthy as a horse, a star athlete. Can you believe it? We spent the weekend asking each other that when we weren’t telling each other this: I can’t believe it. An autopsy Sunday determined that Kile had severely blocked arteries.
Saturday’s game was postponed. There was some talk of postponing Sunday’s as well, but the Cards voted unanimously to play the nationally televised contest, which Kile had been scheduled to start. Now the stage was set for a dramatic, tear-filled victory reminiscent of the New York Yankees’ rousing comeback win in front of a national TV audience on the night of star catcher Thurman Munson’s funeral in 1979.
But that’s not how it went down. Jason Simontacchi, St. Louis’ surprising rookie right-hander, had his first bad outing in the big leagues, Kerry Wood handcuffed the Cardinals for eight innings and the Cubs won easily, 8-3. The Cardinals, many of whom fought back tears during a pre-game moment of silence, had every right to mail in the game, especially after they fell behind 8-0 in the middle innings. That they didn’t — all three of their runs came in the eighth and ninth, and they nearly brought the tying run to the plate — is a credit to them.
Baseball isn’t like the movies. Baseball is like life. Sometimes the music doesn’t swell. Sometimes, you just have a really bad weekend. Sometimes one of the guys on your team dies, and you set your jaw and pull your cap down tight and dedicate the game to him, and then you go out there and get raked. Baseball wouldn’t be any good if it weren’t like that sometimes, because then it wouldn’t be like life.
I was with a couple of baseball nuts when I heard about Kile’s death. They are cousins of mine, 4 and 5 years old. They, their dads and I were at the empty Busch Stadium, buying them little Albert Pujols and J.D. Drew T-shirts in the gift shop. The cashier told us the news when we wondered why the game, scheduled to start in Chicago a few minutes earlier, wasn’t on yet.
We walked outside and spent a few minutes looking at the statues on the stadium grounds. I tried to explain to the kids who each player was — Red Schoendienst, Bob Gibson, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Brock. They clambered onto the statues for photos. “Did he die?” they asked about each, before it was explained that you don’t have to die to get a statue. Not in St. Louis anyway. Not if you were a great baseball player.
Darryl Kile wasn’t on the level of the players who have statues outside Busch Stadium, but he was a good pitcher, a very good one at his best. A curveball artist, he won 20 games in 2000, his first in St. Louis after two rough years in breaking-ball-abusing Colorado that followed seven years in Houston, some effective, some not. He was a three-time All-Star, the author of a no-hitter in 1993. He was 16-11 last year with a 3.09 earned-run average, underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason, and, aside from two shaky outings on the last road trip, had pitched well of late after a rocky start this year. He was 5-4 with a 3.72 ERA.
He wasn’t as well-known as some more colorful contemporaries who may not have been his equal, but his teammates adored him as a leader, a fierce competitor and, away from the media to whom he always showed a bland front, a clubhouse prankster. In his last game, Tuesday night, the night Jack Buck died, Kile pitched into the eighth inning, allowing just one run and beating the Anaheim Angels, a win that moved the Cardinals into first place.
My cousins are straddling the age I was the first time I was confronted with death, when my grandfather passed away. I didn’t really get it at the time, didn’t know quite what to do with the information. I suppose I still don’t. I don’t think they quite got what the adults were talking about Saturday, nor should they. There’s plenty of time for them to learn what we grownups know about death and loss, plenty of time for them to experience the different kinds of sadness that St. Louisans have felt this week, the bittersweet kind that’s almost a strange kind of pleasure to indulge in from time to time and the punch-in-the-gut kind that, this time, has replaced it.
And there’s plenty of time for them to come to appreciate baseball on more levels than they do now. Because baseball isn’t just strikeouts and home runs and great throws and the heroes whose names are on the backs of your new shirts, though it’s certainly those things. It’s also a little bit like life. And one thing about life is that it goes on, so you’d better be ready to go on with it. On Monday, the Cardinals will likely call up a pitcher from their Memphis farm team. On Tuesday, they’ll play the Milwaukee Brewers at Busch Stadium.
They are, after all, still in first place, where Darryl Kile put them the last time we saw him.
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)