"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)
My sex-kitten friend Ruby has made some big changes since Sept. 11. No more long-distance relationships. No casual sex. No more trite “So, where do you work?” conversations at hipster pickup spots. It’s time for something meaningful and real.
“It’s hard for me to say if it’s Sept. 11 or just getting older,” she says. She’s only a year older, though. Before, she was considering leaving New York to be closer to a faraway boyfriend. Now he’s out of the picture, and she’s still here. She wants to be in New York and date a local boy. She’s still feeling vulnerable and needy: “Even the toughest sex-and-the-city little girl may need somebody to tickle her back and help her go to sleep. You can’t necessarily be tough and make it on your own anymore.”
What happened to “terror sex”?
It’s probably impossible to have end-of-the-world, earth-shattering terror sex for an entire year without serious chafing. And so, at some point between mid-October and January, we stopped. Even the Gold Crown Escort Service — “for the most discerning of gentlemen” — says that it’s been a bit slow lately.
Many New Yorkers recall the feelings of vulnerability, the need to connect with someone physically, the hot, sweaty sex that followed the attack on the World Trade Center last fall. It wasn’t sacrilegious; we just didn’t know what else to do. We clung to each other — just sometimes without clothes. Throughout the city were echoes of screams and cries of pain, panic, despair and passion all rolled into one giant force of uncontrollable emotion like none of us have ever experienced before.
For those of us who did not experience the personal loss of a loved one, it has faded a bit. I ride the subway every day without hesitation. Phone conversations start with “Hey!” instead of a loaded, “Are you OK?” and end with “Talk to you later,” instead of, “Remember, I love you.” The planes flying over my house now are because I live 10 minutes from LaGuardia Airport, and not because fighter jets are patrolling the airspace around my city.
Until every news outlet forces me to relive the event Wednesday, I’m doing OK.
Until something else happens, it appears we’ve come out on the other side. Passions may have cooled, but we exchanged “terror sex” for something new.
“One thing I did notice is, around November I couldn’t trick like I used to,” says Stephen. He corrects himself wryly. “Well, I did, but it wasn’t with the same gusto. My heart wasn’t in it.” He admits to being “loose,” and before Sept. 11, found sex in the gay social scene readily available. He would go out at night with the intention of finding someone to have sex with. After the attacks, he says, he found more comfort in having conversations with lovers, emotional connections that he hadn’t experienced in that way before. He didn’t go back.
“In December, after going through this deep depression, I decided to grab life in this really clichéd, Sondheim-y way,” he says. Eat better, exercise more, take more chances emotionally. He met a man who felt the same and they became monogamous right away, which is rare for him.
“We both came together with a similar attitude, which was: I’m kind of sick of the nightlife, sexual rat race. Let’s be honest and let’s be really sexual and let’s get to know each other.” He says it’s the best sex of his life and the relationship itself is more rewarding than he could ever have imagined.
A result of 9/11?
“I think 9/11 got me there quicker. I know this is not an across-the-board thing that all gay men did,” he says. “I think I was headed there anyway.”
In a sense, the events of Sept. 11 and the weeks after felt like “dog years” for people like Ruby and Stephen — in one year, they aged seven.
“One of the questions is: Do [the events] accelerate what would have happened otherwise? Or do they create things that wouldn’t have happened otherwise?” asks Steve W. Cole, assistant professor of medicine at UCLA. It’s most likely the former. Cole studies responses to threat, and he coauthored a study published this year in the Journal of Family Psychology about the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Following Hugo, birth, marriage and divorce rates all went up. The closer people were to the disaster, the more it affected their lives. “The energy behind these kind of events seems to come from a person’s sense of being impacted or feeling threatened,” he says.
Similar predictions followed the attacks of Sept. 11: more marriages and a baby boom. It’s too early to say if they’ve come to fruition. The only baby boom we can be statistically sure of happened at Parrot Jungle in Miami, where 13 Caribbean flamingo chicks were born this year. According to the Miami Herald, that was more than had been born there in the last 10 years. And while there do seem to be a lot of new human babies this summer, July and August are statistically big months for births anyway, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Most experts agree that the baby-boom theory is probably a bust.
“It’s also possible that we’re going to be seeing less dramatic impact in New York just because of the kind of people New Yorkers are,” Cole says. He doesn’t mean that in a pejorative way, only that New Yorkers are different. They’re not the classic, suburban resident; not as many are married; there aren’t as many kids. “It might not be clear to us right now how it’s going to be different.”
“People try very hard to normalize life,” says Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington and author of many relationship books. “An animal just can’t stay in a state of fright all the time — it starts to unravel us.” While she guesses that there may be some warming up around the anniversary, from what she’s seen, people are back to normal.
Many relationships that started around or because of Sept. 11 have since dissolved.
“Everyone needed a hug, and I never got my hug,” says Gene, not really referring to a hug at all. “And a few weeks after that, I met someone else who had never gotten her hug and we slept together on the first date.” By January, they acknowledged that under normal circumstances they’d probably be friends, not lovers, and the relationship ended.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Even so-called meaningless sex isn’t meaningless, because it’s meaningful to you,” says Schwartz.
Susan got into bed with her estranged husband. They had been trying to work things out and Sept. 11 sealed the deal — sexually. It was beautiful, passionate sex, and it made her feel so incredibly good, and so close to him. Now they’re divorced. “He’s a cock-sucking asshole idiot who’s really cute and the father of my children,” she says. She’s had it with terror sex. “I want more than sex now. I either want to be alone and have a relationship with myself or have a full-blown relationship.” She worries more about the sex lives of her two daughters, 17 and 20. “I’m 55 years old, and I know I’m going to die,” she says. “But I look at my children and think: [if I were them] What is the incentive to do my best and be my best? Whereas they might have been careful before, now: What the fuck?” both emotionally, and with regard to safe sex.
“As the city started getting back to normal, a lot of people realized the connections weren’t based on fate, but fear,” says Ruby.
For many couples who were already together, the fear surrounding the attacks got them over the fear they were experiencing in the relationship.
“For people who [had been broken up and] got back together around that time, it strengthened them,” says Ruby. “It was a very telling time.”
“It’s strange, but it took away the fear I had,” says Jane, who had begun to date a man three months before the attacks. “I was just afraid to be in a relationship.” She needed more time, he was younger than she was, but all of that fell away quickly.
“There’s not much left to hide when you’re that vulnerable with somebody,” she says. “It’s completely different when you’re having sex in the context of a tragedy like that. Something shifted and it never went back.” It was a defining moment in their relationship. They started talking about future plans: Do you want kids? He had asked her in August if she would spend Thanksgiving with his family and she put him off, thinking, “Maybe next year, if we’re still together.” When he asked again after Sept. 11, she said yes without hesitation.
“I think it was me realizing how steady he is and how much I could lean on him,” she says. “That was always true, but I realized it because of the circumstances. If we can get through this, we can get through anything.”
“You have to face your fears when you plunge into a relationship,” says Stephen. “And you also have to face your fears in reckoning with Sept. 11.”
The political response, Cole noticed, was to get back to normal right away, to go to the mall and buy, which “adds a wrinkle to people’s normal healing processes.” It takes longer than most of us are accustomed to, “months for the system to absorb and deal with everything, and it doesn’t always happen in a conscious way,” he adds.
Sexual healing made more sense. “Hopping in bed is a lot more compelling than going to the mall. There’s no ash falling on the mall,” Cole says. “I can’t think of a more compelling or safer alternative. It’s nature’s antidote for absorbing a sense of threat.”
One year later and we still don’t know what the real threat is or if we’re going to be bombed again. “At the moment,” says Cole, “nobody has this enduring sense of security and happiness that most of us had before.”
Sara’s feelings of appreciation and gratitude for her husband were always there, but were highlighted after Sept. 11. Reflecting on the past year, she doesn’t think the attacks have influenced her relationship. “I do think I’m more conscious that things get taken away,” she says. She always got nervous when he traveled, but now she notices it a little more when he gets on a plane. And she now feels more strongly about having kids. “I have this weird, freak-out fear that he’s going to die. God forbid anything happen to him, I want to have something left over.” She pauses to regroup. “You’ve got to keep going. You’ve got to keep strong.”
There must be a fire near my house, because a smell just wafted through the window — indescribable but totally recognizable. It reminds me of that World Trade Center smell that we lived with for weeks. Burning rubber, metal, flesh, paper, electrical wires.
Ruby gets annoyed with her friends in California — they don’t get it. “I could smell it. I had to show I.D. to National Guardsmen to get to my house.” She stops for a moment. “There were two weeks where you’d look at people on the subway and make eye contact. People were helping mothers with strollers down the stairs.” No longer. “We’ve gone back to the way things were and that’s fine cause that’s what New York is.”
Cole Kazdin is a writer in New York.More Cole Kazdin.
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)