"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)
A stated willingness to tolerate a prospective lover’s propensity for dining on saltines while in bed is the generally accepted test of one’s depth of attraction, the indicator of just how much you would be willing to put up with in order to indulge with said object of desire in a bit of horizontal hijinks.
I first learned of the cracker test when I was 13. A sophisticated, and platonic, friend of mine — a worldly woman of 16 — had carnal cravings for a skinny, scraggly-haired drummer with bad teeth. I questioned her taste in men. She admitted that to some he might not be the most appealing of characters, but he did have that certain something, she insisted, that had nothing to do with looks. “I sure wouldn’t push him out of bed for eating crackers” she said from the bottom of her heart, or maybe lower.
Implicit in the cracker test concept is that there are other people who, while you may find them fetching, you don’t find so intoxicatingly fetching that you would let them remain in your bed if they chose to consume Wheat Thins while between your sheets, or wherever. In such a case, cracker consumption would be what’s called a deal breaker.
Now, in truth, over the decades I’ve found that the cracker issue doesn’t come up that frequently during the ins and outs of love, but plenty of other deal breakers do, and they are often just as petty and absurd as the eating of crackers. Still, these little things can move our hearts and change the course of our lives and loves, so I felt an inquiry was justified. I made some calls, sent some e-mails and harvested several bushels of strange and impassioned responses. In return I promised to protect the guilty by changing names, though I’ve left age and gender unaltered. Women tended to be more responsive than men, but then we knew that.
Anyway, as for the deal breakers most likely to get you eighty-sixed from the Garden of Earthly Delights, in the case of women assessing men, I found that footwear plays a frighteningly important role (not surprisingly, most men I talked to didn’t give a damn about women’s shoes). Sandals specifically and two brands especially — Birkenstocks and Tevas — really put the freeze on the female libido.
Sally, 29, said, “Tevas or Birkenstocks? No fuckin’ way. But if they’re wearing those, I’m not going to get anywhere near them to begin with.” Jamie, 39, while expressing her desire in graphic terms, also dissed Tevas: “I like this guy so much,” she said referring to the new apple of her eye, “that I’d let him fuck me in the butt while he was wearing Tevas.” A touching sentiment, charmingly expressed.
Liz, 26, said her father, a gynecologist, wears Birkenstocks and “I just don’t want to go there.” I didn’t either so I didn’t query her further on the subject. But I did ask Sally to elaborate.
“What is it about those two kinds of sandals,” I wondered. “Are they just sexless or what?”
“I guess so,” she said. “They’re so cheesy. And the absolute worst is Tevas with socks. Or sandals of any kind with socks. Or white socks, in most cases. It’s very hard to think of a time when white socks are appropriate. Maybe if you’re doing some sort of ’50s thing with black loafers and Levis, but white socks in general are pretty bad.”
Still another respondent, Callie, 44, sent a long list of deal breakers and right at the top was, “Flip-flops except by the pool or in the gym. They only exist to protect your feet against water and mildew. They are not shoes. Birkenstocks and Tevas,” she continued, “have no reason to exist, they’re just plain ugly. And with socks, they’re even uglier!”
“The near deal breaker for me,” a friend who wishes to remain pseudonymless and ageless, said, “is men who skate. I’ll never forget seeing my boyfriend, later husband, in those giant roller skating shoes with his skinny white legs zooming around the Venice Beach boardwalk. That was a really dark moment.”
OK, gentlemen, if you now choose to wear sandals on your first date and you are not in Tahiti, at Gold’s or at poolside, don’t say you haven’t been warned. And, uh, if you’re over 14, lose the Rollerblades.
Meanwhile, up north, the mouth — how it’s maintained and what you do or don’t do with it — can be a big, big deal breaker. Kissing, the great prelude, is all-important — to women, anyway. Again, not altogether surprisingly, men don’t seem to place the same importance on kiss quality that women do. As one 24-year-old male respondent put it somewhat too bluntly, “That’s just a means to an end.” Yes, my friend, but with that attitude, you’re not going to be getting to that end.
“It’s a preview of what’s to come,” one woman told me. And Julie, 35, said, “For me, kissing is a big deal. If I can’t kiss them, that’s a deal breaker. I tried to go out with this guy last year, and I really liked him so much, but he just couldn’t kiss. Every time he tried to kiss me it would turn me off. I would be all attracted and ready to go, then he’d kiss me and I’d immediately get turned off.”
Several women said that bad kissing would probably be a deal breaker, but bad breath or teeth (Austin Powers is a movie, guys) would definitely put the kibosh on any chance of things moving to the horizontal stage. “Really bad breath is not acceptable,” said Lisa, 55. “I’m not kidding, bad breath or scuzzy teeth totally turn me off.” Liz of the Birkenstock-wearing father concurred, “If a guy’s got dragon breath, he’s history. Given their superior upper-body strength, they should be able to brush and floss.” And Callie instructed, “Floss (and not in front of me), and take Breath Assure.”
“So, what’s a good kiss?” I asked Lisa. “Describe a deal maker.”
“Soft lips, leisurely, a certain amount of tongue penetration, but not when you first meet them. A bad kisser kisses too hard, doesn’t ease into it. Or they’re just a pecker, they peck you. But no technique will overcome bad breath or bad teeth.”
Two words, men: Oral hygiene. And six more: Women are not poultry, don’t peck.
Oddly enough, counter to stereotype, some men I spoke with had more ethereal concerns, assuming you consider mushiness ethereal. “I met a woman once,” Jack, 52, told me. “I went to her house for dinner. And her taste was really sentimental. She had little bunny pillows, that kind of thing. And she played guitar, sang namby-pamby folksongs — hankie rock, like ‘Candles in the Rain.’ That was definitely a deal breaker. What I was thinking was, what happens if things get serious? When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, when it gets really real, will I have to deal with the bunnies?”
Kyle, 27, can’t abide poesy. “If someone’s a poet,” romance is out of the question. “Or if they’re allergic to animals, or wearing running shoes with business clothes.” Fair enough, a man who knows what he doesn’t want.
Like Kyle, the aforementioned Sally, a woman of cultivated tastes, makes no bones about precisely defining deal breakers. “Any sort of hyper, over-masculinity really drives me crazy. I’m the kind of girl who hates muscles. If someone’s muscular at all it really pisses me off, I can’t deal with it. I also can’t deal with blonds. I’m anti whatever the all-American boy look is: blond hair, blue eyes, muscles. If there’s any of that it completely turns me off.”
And if you non-blonds are after a woman like Sally, being aggressive is not going to get you there. “I tend to pursue people myself,” she says. “My big thing is I initiate everything. So, if someone’s picking up on me, it’s a deal breaker. Because if I haven’t already started flirting with them, I’m not interested.”
Then there’s the perplexing sphere of personal tastes. Much as we might not want to admit it, one’s tastes in art, music, books and even cars can make or break a romance. James, 34, can’t tolerate women with cute cars. “If they’ve got a pink or lavender car, or they name their car, I’d have to pass,” he said. “That indicates a whole package of personality traits I’m not willing to deal with.”
Callie’s list of deal breakers also mentioned cars: “Guys that think their cars are an extension of their penis. No, your penis is smaller!” Ouch.
But leave it to the ever-exacting Sally to move the discussion indoors. “They couldn’t have Thomas Kinkade paintings on the walls. I even get weirded out if there’s mainstream art. If they can’t get past, say, Picasso, Matisse and Monet prints. If you see those, you feel that it’s just received aesthetics. I can’t stand that. Or if you find their books are all the right books and all their CDs are exactly the right CDs — if it seems just a little too cultivated, and you begin to suspect that they have no original taste whatsoever. You’re OK with the Martin Amis, but you need them to have, you know, a telephone from 1920, or something about space aliens or strange botanical books; something that says they have fixations or interests outside the mainstream. You want them to be bent.”
But not bent in the wrong direction, according to Tara, 42, who won’t cut a deal with men who “phone too much” or express the opinion that “breast implants don’t seem like that big a deal — if the man in a woman’s life really likes the idea.” Speaking of physical attributes, “interior nose hair is acceptable, if trimmed,” she sniffs, “but hair that grows out of the top of the nose” is a deal breaker. However, having hair that grows out of the top of the head is an absolute requirement, one woman told me, and toupees are “never, never alright, unless he’s Sean Connery.” Which naturally leads one to wonder if 007 would wear Birkenstocks. (No, I suppose not.)
And of course Callie, the ferocious and indefatigable list maker, weighed in on unacceptable hair: “Mullets. Must I explain?” And “Bozo hair — you know, bald on top, long on the sides. Thin-haired ponytails are wrong too; bald on top with a Bozo ponytail is the worst.”
And while James may not like cute cars, he sure likes cute hair. “I like it real short, like Jean Seberg in ‘Breathless’ or page-boyish like Audrey Tautou in ‘Amélie’ [James is a painter/filmmaker] or otherwise real long, but definitely no hairspray. Hairspray or any kind of done-up concocted hairdo is not OK.”
Few respondents, male or female, volunteered opinions as to their intended’s political or ideological leanings, but when I pushed them on the subject, it was clear they’d given it deep and careful thought. “Republicans, Dodgers fans — I don’t care,” said Sara, 43. “I’m not elitist at all. I’m a tramp.” Callie wouldn’t go for “racists, rednecks or conservatism” which she deemed “wrong, wrong, wrong.” Jack, who harshly drew the line at bunny lovers, said, to his credit, that “bigotry” was a deal breaker. And Pamela, 36, said that “men who aren’t pro-choice or who are pro-death penalty” would definitely not be spending the night. But even Salon writers have conservative friends, and one of mine said he wouldn’t consider sleeping with a liberal because “they’re smug and intolerant and poor losers. Plus, the whole p.c. thing is just insufferable. Laura Bush is way hotter than Hillary Clinton,” he said.
But leave it to Callie, the trenchant listomaniac, to sum up deal breakers in the most concise, non-negotiable terms. “I know a lot of people will say the deal breakers are petty,” she writes. “They believe you can take ‘a diamond in the rough’ and polish it to brilliance. But I’ve done it before, and they leave at about the quartz stage.”
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)