"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)
So what if my midriff never sees the light of day, this belly chain was mine, all mine. Let the woman from Pequannock sulk. I won it fair and square. I know my “Sex and the City” trivia. Besides, any devoted fan would remember what Charlotte and Trey named their private parts in the third season. Ever heard of Rebecca and Schooner? That’s like so obvious.
It was the third and final hour of On Location Tours’ Sex and the City Tour of Manhattan and I was in no mood for prissy Natasha types. As we reached our final destination, the Plaza Hotel, where Carrie finally left Mr. Big, the only thing I was interested in was telling myself that $63 for two tickets really wasn’t that much and that Allison, the good friend I had dragged along, would surely talk to me again sometime before the end of the year. I could see it in her face. This self-proclaimed “hot chick tour,” with its hooting at random men, its power shopping, its “diva prayers,” had just been too much. I felt it too — belly chain or no.
This wasn’t supposed to happen this way, at least not on my end. Guilty pleasures are my forte. I have swooned over “Survivor,” rattled on about Ross and Rachel, gone down on G-string Divas. I have “Pretty in Pink” memorized and have held grudges against people who spell Britney wrong. I mean, she’s not all “t” and “a.”
But “Sex and the City” (“SATC”) is another matter altogether. I love this show. Moreover, I believe that the show is an important step for women’s television and women in general. I have even written articles on it, not to mention a 75-page master’s thesis in which I close-read Carrie and Aidan’s romance, traced Miranda’s character historically, and defended the show against those who say it’s consumerist fluff devoid of any feminist messages. Of course, it’s not “Backlash” on the medium-size screen, I argued, but it’s still the only mainstream show that defends a woman’s right not to marry, relishes female friendships, and portrays women enjoying sex on their own terms.
I’m not sure of the exact moment my confidence waned, but it definitely had something to do with our tour guide — let’s be nice and call her Nikki — propositioning every man under 40 who walked by our distinctly unsexy tour bus. “Hey, guys, for 30 bucks you can hang out with 56 beautiful women. No sex included,” she added unconvincingly.
With her white peasant shirt, denim miniskirt and hot-pink feather boa, Nikki was the embodiment of every teen magazine editor who had ever messed with my head. You know her. She is at once your spunky best friend — gabbing on about a guy or a zit — and also that friend’s older sister, who with her perfectly painted toenails, her glitter eye shadow and her ability to extend the word “fuh-uck” with two whiny syllables, is way cooler than you’ll ever be.
What surprised me most was how effective — even before the tour began — Nikki was at bringing out the wild side in what seemed like suburban women who venture to the city once a year. Despite the few with tiaras, cowboy hats and lots of cleavage, most of the women were older than the 20- or 30-something urban sophisticates I imagined would be on the tour. These women clearly liked the show, but they didn’t look like the types who pick up guys or spend $400 on a pair of shoes without saying at least 10 Hail Marys.
But there they were gabbing on about “Zeta-Jones’” ring and banging on the window at hot “passer-guys,” making me feel like a teenage daughter whose mother flirts with the plumber. Horrified at being implicated in this, I sank into my seat and told myself this is not what Carrie or even Sam would do. They like sex, but they have limits. They are classy. They do not beg men to let them be their sugar mamas.
My anxiety accelerated as it became clear that the tour was less about the actual series than about living the lifestyle the show supposedly inspires. In short, it was a shopping tour of rich, decadent New York — with about a quarter of the talk surrounding “SATC,” another quarter on celebrity gossip, and the other half on Nikki’s glamorous life after her parents shelled out “120 grand” on NYU. To the left, she explained, was Tiffany’s, where Trey bought Charlotte’s engagement ring and Nikki’s dad, a “brilliant attorney,” bought her mother a “big-ass rock.” To which she quickly added, “At least I’ll get it when she dies.”
“Totally!” shrieked her chorus of cronies, before I could explain again that, actually, that’s not what Carrie would have done, as evidenced in the classic “My Motherboard, Myself” episode, when she feels very ambivalent about Aidan buying her things. “She’s been taking care of herself a long time,” I wanted to scream. But they were too far gone. We were pulling into Jimmy Choo’s Shoes, a favorite of the four “SATC” girls, and suddenly everyone was awash in “fetish!”
Because we weren’t allowed in as a group, those not bold enough to enter alone — myself included — were left buying “SATC” memorabilia from some “Sopranos” extra, who was selling them out of his trunk. But even he wouldn’t allow full access to this “other world.”
“No autographs, unless you buy something,” he warned.
“Oh please,” I snipped. Wasn’t being shown up by some snooty shoe dealer enough for one day?
None of the women seemed similarly offended. “We saw a star,” one exclaimed, flashing a xeroxed portrait of the faux mobster. Another actually got on the bus with a new pair of Jimmy Choo’s. “I’ve purchased Jimmy’s at three different locations,” she bragged as she modeled the most expensive piece of purple leather I’d ever seen. “Let’s all live vicariously,” one yelled as everyone crowded around to look.
I couldn’t have put it better myself. More than anything, the tour seemed to give these women a chance to be someone else — someone brasher, bolder and richer than themselves. Buoyed by their number, or by the sheer tackiness of the thing, they swore, pranced and took pictures with some guy who wasn’t even “Celebrity Boxing” material.
When they expended their store of raw obnoxiousness, they projected their desires onto others, be it Mrs. Jimmy Choo or Nikki, who at this point had abandoned our big-ass vehicle to go flirt with a dozen men in tuxes hanging outside St. Patrick’s for a wedding.
Watching her through the window was like watching her on TV. “She’s so pretty.” “She likes that one.” “What’s she doing?” “Getting his number.” After about 10 minutes, the sex goddess bounded aboard in a cloud of pink fluorescent feathers saying we were all invited to the reception — which everyone took entirely too seriously, particularly cat-woman in front of me (in all her tiger-inspired stretch pants glory). “Agh, they only want you,” she scoffed.
Visiting the church where Samantha wooed Friar Fuck restored the peace. The “diva prayer” Nikki recited — which began with “Armani who art in Neimans, hollowed be thy shoes,” included the plea, “Deliver us from Sears,” and ended appropriately with “Amex” — reminded us what was really important in life: shopping. In fact, besides the church and Magnolia’s bakery, three out of the five stops were dedicated to fashion. In addition to Jimmy Choo’s, we “power shopped” somewhere near Charlotte’s SoHo gallery, and visited the show’s designer Patricia Field’s boutique, where us girls could buy Samantha’s prosthetic nipples, Carrie’s horseshoe necklace and a piece of lace some might call a dress but I’d call a piece of lace.
The rest of our time was spent listening to Nikki quiz us on the show, or passing by the spot where Carrie caught a cab (“which is like total bullshit, because you can’t catch a cab around here”), and being teased into believing we were going to run into “Chris” (that is, Chris Noth, aka Mr. Big).
“I used to see him like every day at noon just chillin’ at the Starbucks by NYU,” confided Nikki. Before I could say “Yeah right,” she was talking about other tangential “SATC” news or celebrity gossip, like the time she ran into Michael Jackson or how fat Anna Nicole has gotten.
Throughout the trip, I tried my hardest to convince myself that somewhere in between harassing men and the “Bitch, I saw the frosty lip gloss first” quibbles, these women understood that “SATC” was a significant and progressive show. It wasn’t just about silliness, shopping and bribing men. But as I looked at Allison plotting escape routes, I began to wonder. Had I made it all up? Had all those who said it was ridiculous to take “SATC” seriously been right? If Carrie and her friends create “urban relationship myths” to make their love lives seem less hopeless, had I succumbed to a pop culture feminist fantasy, designed to make me feel less guilty for loving the show?
“No, no,” I told myself. “Stop being so moralistic.” Besides, who’s to say this little performance isn’t healthy? Maybe it’s empowering for these women to make a spectacle of themselves. To hoot at men. To joke about vibrators. To spend money on themselves, not just the kids.
Despite these efforts (and my tendencies), I couldn’t believe it. These women were rude, pushy, flighty and arrogant all in the name of Sam, Miranda, Charlotte and Carrie. And it hurt, particularly because I never said the show was “real life.” We don’t all stay out until 4 a.m. on a Tuesday. I even know people watch it for different reasons, and some only for fashion tips. But if I really believe this, why did I contemplate slashing the bus’s tires? How can I look past the silliness on the show, but none of it on the tour?
After all, while I still think the show is one of the smartest, these people were in some sense responding to it. But in what way? Because (and I’m not just saying this), in the end, the tour didn’t have a whole lot to do with “SATC.” All the purple leather, pink boas and power shopping were, of course, inspired by it — and that’s something therapy will help me through. But obsess over the show, the locations or the characters, the women did not. If anything, they relished bad-mouthing the characters, or the real women who played them. It turns out Sarah Jessica has big feet. Kim Cattrall, while definitely hot for her age, has this dork for a husband. And there ain’t no way Cynthia Nixon’s the youngest cast member. Even poor Nikki, the sexy surrogate, couldn’t escape criticism. “They only want her,” remember.
This bitterness toward the characters may have been the most interesting and disturbing aspect of the tour. These women clearly had a problem relating to the characters as real people, although that didn’t stop them from acting out the fantasy. They took to Jimmy Choo and his band of brothers in no time flat, even as they seemed to resent Carrie and her swinging sisters for it.
This disconnect, this need to bring the characters down to size, isn’t good. As a serious show, “SATC” may do well to think about how to reach these women when they return from La-La land. It won’t be easy, as I learned making my way home after departing that magical mystery tour. Walking down Fifth Avenue, past the horses and the tourists, belly chain in hand, it was all too easy to convince myself that these women simply didn’t get it. And way too heartbreaking to think Carrie, my Carrie, may have had something to do with it.
Ashley Nelson has written on women, politics and popular culture for The Nation, Dissent, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.More Ashley Nelson.
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)