"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)
One of the great misfortunes of female sexuality is that nature’s gifts come too soon and then they don’t stick around long enough. Not only do women who want children have to settle on mates and start families earlier than men must, but the prime of a girl’s allure usually arrives before she has the faintest idea how to handle it. By the time she’s swept the gobbledygook of conventional romance out of her head and realized that the terrible bodily “flaws” she once obsessed over are actually pretty trivial, she’s over the hill. The very rare young woman who understands her nubile sexual power and knows how to use it is a force to be reckoned with, indeed.
Kathy Dobie was not such a girl. The centerpiece of her new memoir, “The Only Girl in the Car,” describes a brief period — about a year — during her teens when she stumbled into an archetypal role among a group of adolescents in her suburban Connecticut town: She was the slut. Her precocious exploits culminated in an awful night during which, as the titular only girl in a carful of boys, she was bullied (by the guy she considered her boyfriend) into having sex with all four of them. She’d just turned 15. Anyone who’s ever been a teenager can imagine how quickly the news of that night spread among her cohort, and how brutally she was treated by them afterward.
Dobie isn’t stupid — she isn’t now, and she wasn’t then. But “The Only Girl in the Car” offers a perfect refresher course in how the naiveté and heedlessness of teenagers combines to make something very much like stupidity. Some girls get slapped with the “slut” label unfairly — because of their class background, say, or because their breasts develop before anyone else’s. Dobie earned her epithet fair and square. At 14 she became intoxicated with her sudden power to attract men and boys with provocative words or a look. After a few nervous false starts, she set about losing her virginity by arranging herself artfully in her family’s front yard, dressed in a candy-striped halter top and platform shoes. (Well, it was the ’70s.)
With this strategy, she landed a pockmarked, ponytailed 33-year-old who lived with his mother — a “loser,” she realized even at the time, but he served her purpose all the same. Dobie was thereby launched on a campaign of sexual adventure, proceeding through a couple of trysts with a man in his 40s and finally arriving at her nirvana, the local teen center, where she found an abundance of what she really wanted: boys, “the confident, aggressive, dirty-minded ones … No cathedral could have filled a true believer with as much awe” as the Hamden Teen Center inspired in the 14-year-old Dobie.
The first half of “The Only Girl in the Car” makes an oblique attempt to explain how Dobie wound up in that teen center, nearly swooning in the miasma of fresh testosterone. Hers is not the background you might expect: no divorce, no neglect, no abuse. She was the third child of six, the oldest girl in a cheerful, wholesome clan that inhabited a big house with a swing set in the backyard, a basketball hoop over the garage door and a friendly sheepdog on the lawn, right next to the 14-year-old girl fishing for a deflowerer. The Dobie family was well organized, but not to the point of rigidity, and it was infused with her father’s philosophy of self-reliance and personal responsibility. Except for being Catholic, the Dobies resembled the pop culture icon that one of Kathy’s friends compared them to, the Brady Bunch.
Forget the obligatory dirty jokes about Catholic girls, the notion that when they go astray they do so with a vengeance, their passions fueled by the guilt they’re defying. Dobie maintains that it took the ordeal of her night with those four boys and her subsequent ostracism by her former friends to instill her with any significant measure of sexual shame. You could even say that the lack of such shame — the lack of any sexual education at all, of whatever moral orientation — may have led in part to her mistakes.
Perhaps the adults around her, raising kids at a confusing time when the sexual revolution was assailing the conservative mores they were raised with, simply gave up. They tried, she writes, “to act like nothing was going on … We understood. When it came to sex, we were on our own. The adults had left the scene, tiptoeing away, hoping, no doubt, that we would follow. Not a chance.”
If it wasn’t some obvious dysfunction that provoked Dobie to seek out the furtive, inexpert caresses of the “boy-men” of the Hamden Teen Center at a painfully early age, then what did? Her answer to this question is intimated rather than baldly stated, and it’s complicated. Partly, she wanted to feel, as she did during her brief teen center heyday, “as alive, as bold, as free” as the bad boys around her.
When she began her career of seduction, her own exhilaration reminded her of a boy she once saw at a fair, a volunteer who stepped onstage when a man displaying a python asked if anyone wanted to come up and hold it. The boy, she writes, seemed “motherless, fatherless, a boy out of Mark Twain, a boy who joins circuses or travels west with a pistol and a dog … That’s how I felt at 14.”
Notice that the boy she envies is onstage, and there you’ll find another answer to the question above. Growing up among six siblings only sounds like a loving romp to those who haven’t done it; surely whoever dreamed up “The Brady Bunch” was, like Dobie’s mother, an only child. Dobie doesn’t regret her upbringing, but she remembers how kids in big families can feel undifferentiated, like part of “a pack of wild animals,” close physically but “without really knowing each other.” While Dobie’s solidly middle-class family never went hungry, she remembers never getting quite enough of her mother’s love. “To me,” she writes, “The Family was an entity, a being with needs and desires, an appetite all its own. Often those needs and desires were quite different from mine.”
It’s not surprising, then, that Dobie found it so easy to be swept up in the desires of the “tribe,” the “brotherhood” that she believed she had found among the boys of the teen center. As the only girl in the car, though, she was no longer a mere face in the crowd, but special, the one girl with the daring to act like a boy. The desire of the men and boys she had sex with must have felt like sweet compensation for the undivided attention she’d never had before.
The teenage Dobie was a breathtaking blend of tarty attitude and sheer ignorance. Riding in the back of her family’s RV during a long road trip, she traded innuendo with male drivers. Any woman who’s ever wondered why a trucker would hold up a sign reading “I Want to Eat Your Pussy” to a complete stranger in another vehicle should know that every so often there’s a girl clueless enough to read this as a gesture of loneliness and flash back a sign reading “Meow!” When two men in a car teased her with a piece of paper reading “Jailbait,” her response was “Want to Go Fishing?”
Yet even after Dobie’s 14th year dissolved into a “storm of boys, fingers, tongues, dirty words whispered hotly in my ear,” she didn’t know that women could have orgasms, and she’d never had one herself. She didn’t know what 69 was, though that didn’t stop her from agreeing to try it. And she was impervious to many warnings about the social consequences of her recklessness. Boys she thought she was “going with” told her they had “real” girlfriends who wouldn’t even kiss them.
And the girls who hung out at the teen center sent the usual harsh adolescent signals of disapproval, at first indirectly, but finally with a hostility as “thick as brambles”: “They hated me for getting away with it, even though I was only ‘getting away with it’ in my own head. But that’s what must have been so infuriating. To them I was trash — it was obvious. Everyone knew it but me.”
Not every boy she encountered was predatory. A friend’s older brother deflected her advance when he found out her age. And, most touchingly, the four black boys who sometimes frequented the teen center invited her out for a drive in order to warn her that she had “to start being careful … You’re getting a rep … You can’t trust any of them.”
“To this day, I marvel at it,” Dobie writes. “Four boys in a car with me? They could’ve imagined a very different scenario — but all they tried to do was protect me … What did I have to offer them? A girl so foolish she didn’t even know she was alone … They saw danger approaching and took sides — not with the pretty girls or the rowdy boys, but with the weakest link in the chain. A bravery wasted on me.”
Bravery winds up being the shred of treasure Dobie takes away from her nightmarish experience with four much less decent boys a few months later. Even after her imagined “tribe” turned on her, it took several more cruelties before she realized how utterly she’d been forsaken and how grievously she’d miscalculated her “beautiful adventure.” For nearly two years afterward she barely left the house for fear of running into her tormentors, and at the Catholic girls’ school she attended, she stuck close to a funny and fearless black friend who shielded her from the mean girls who knew about her “rep.” She’s also lucky she didn’t get pregnant.
Yet Dobie doesn’t disown the impulse behind her brief foray into promiscuity, that headlong dash to freedom and exploration. The hankering to model yourself after “a boy who joins circuses or travels west with a pistol and a dog” is nothing to scoff at, even if the first time you take a stab at it you screw up badly. “The Only Girl in the Car” is a grownup’s memoir, not a fetish of past miseries thinly wrapped in the pretense of having reached “closure.” Dobie is not nursing grievances, but explaining that she continues to take chances (albeit different kinds of chances) even though she once paid a horrible price for doing so.
In fact, not all Dobie’s memories from that time are muddled or scary or poisoned by later betrayals. She recalls one lover, a nameless “wanderer” from someplace else, “the most beautiful boy in the world,” who by some miracle “didn’t think that sex was his to experience alone.” She let him in by the basement door late one night and never saw him again after he left, but he had, she writes, “stamped himself on my brain, and so he would resurface again and again through the years, in other boys and men. Once the mind knows something exists, there’s no stopping it from finding that thing again, especially when that thing is a slow, practiced, shamelessly hot and tender boy. Occasionally he appears in my dreams — he’s always on a high wire, performing for a crowd. He wears a dusty bowler cap and will take no money for his show. He does it for the love of it; he’s as light as air.”
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)