"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 assignment: Report on Web site Third Age for singles 40 to 60. My status: Single. Age: 41. I’m not thrilled to join this demographic army, but since I have, I’m more than an observer tagging along. I hope to get in bed with a source.
We’re all the same when we’re filling out our online dating profile; it’s a democracy of self-display in the little boxes for favorite books and movies, hobbies, pets, political affiliation. For “Body,” I check “Slender,” “Athletic,” “Muscular,” “Average” and “Could Lose a Few Pounds” to communicate the static of womanhood in America and still seem hot. My mature dream guy will get the joke. He’ll also get my screen name: “barely legal.”
I end “What I’m Looking For” with “Divorced, kids OK,” which is actually an understatement. I love children, and I’m not driven or wealthy or brave or selfish or selfless enough to have one by myself. So I’ve pretty much bid adieu to my nubility (which spell-check wants to change to “nobility.” Fuck you, Microsoft).
Sometimes I fantasize that the window’s not really shut. I could conceivably meet Mr. One tomorrow and instantly establish our trust and life commitment and mutual desire for children. I could get the painful shots in my ass and have fertility-drug twins cesareaned out of me by, say, age 44, then spend the next 18 years in the terrified vigilance of parenthood. Then I could decline and die just at the point my kids, assuming they don’t have Down syndrome, have had enough therapy to forgive my selfish, set-in-her ways.
Or I could shop for retreads. Divorced or widowed dads offer advantages beyond off-the-shelf kids. I know they’re not all Eddie’s Father, but the minimally decent ones have loved and empathized and comforted; they’ve transcended the cool selfishness of the long-term dater. (They may retain tiresome bargaining and arguing habits learned in deteriorating marriages, but at least they engage.)
These dads have usually hung in with a romantic partner longer than I have and are often ready for something more independent and low-key than their marriages. A long-term bond with a man and child(ren) that’s less pressured than wifehood and motherhood seems ideal. A cry of low self-esteem or hipster alienation perhaps, but to be second or third or fourth in a man’s affections seems ideal for a longtime singleton. Intimacy without suffocation, some relational slack, kids I can enjoy and nurture without full responsibility.
But it’s distressingly clear after a few clicks that my funny, smart, evolving, same-wavelength guy with the cute spawn is not on Third Age. I thought I knew the terrain, but all I know is Nerve.com (artsy, intellectual, semi-naked pictures) and Match.com (unpretentious, sincere, pictures with dogs). Both sites have reliably yielded pretty good dates with way-above-average men, because of the enormous numbers. On Nerve.com, for example, a search of taller-than-me 37- to 48-year-old nonsmokers who live within 50 miles conjures 350 bachelors who’ve posted or updated their ads in the last four days. Most single people I know have tried Match or Nerve, and several smart, fussy, overachieving 40-ish girlfriends found life partners in these online catalogs of love.
Third Age is more like a cable shopping channel. The clichés that the Nerve.com-ers tweak for their ads (“Tall dork, handsome”; “plays well with Other”; “unrequited self-love”) are the lingua franca of Third Age. The lack of quote marks is disturbing around such self-portraiture as “professional into fine dining … looking to get the most out of life with a special someone … easy on the eyes and seeking same.” These men “want to share a zest for life.” They are “a gentleman seeking a lady,” “an average-looking male,” and an “owner of co. Extreme romantic.”
I try to parse this: “I consider myself a great guy seeking same in female”: He wants a female who also considers him a great guy? He wants to be a great guy inside a female? Equally confusing is, “At 29 years old I am over 6 feet tall.” And still growing? And what are you doing on the geezer site anyway, sonny? I was so desperate to engage that I briefly wished for enough fur to answer this individual: “HAIRY WOMEN are BEAUTIFUL; Very INTELLIGENT, INTERESTING, White Male, Seeks Female LifePartner/lover/friend, 20′s to 50′s; with at least HAIRY FOREARMS.”
And these are the wordsmiths. The vast majority leave all the blanks blank and don’t post pictures either. One guy’s screen name was Brooklyn; the only information about him was “within 10 miles of Brooklyn.” How borough-driven can a woman be, dude?
Why would someone, no, not someone, pretty much everyone on this site, take the trouble to join and not even try? I had paid my $20 (for a month; Nerve charges for each contact like a subway fare card). Frustration was making me mean, so I started flaming. To a businessman “seeking a well rounded, sensitive, intelligent, spiritual, educated female who will complement my unique profile,” I kvetched, “What unique profile? You didn’t even fill in any blanks.” Another one had checked “Other” for “Body,” so I wrote him, “What are you, a spirit?” After a few hours wading through prose worthy of a pharmaceutical ad, I went back and reinstated on Nerve, where I overreacted to basic literacy and humor by answering eight ads in a row; five in their 30s, three in their 40s.
I have dated a bit younger the last few years because of supply, not ageism. Evidence from Third Age notwithstanding, not everyone starts talking like a Stepford husband when he hits 40. I like my fellow end-of-the-baby-boom hipsters. My guys are less cynical than the younger ones (I don’t trust a man for whom Pavement or Elliott Smith might have spoken) and less sexist than the older ones. I’m happy to be part of the generation shocked that A) Ramones keep dropping dead at 50 and B) we now consider that “young.”
I also like seeing how people handle 40, when many are hit with what Philip Roth called “a desire to deepen one’s life.” That deepening, unfairly belittled as a “crisis,” manifests as career changes, spiritual searches, divorces, and other, smaller struggles, all preferable to not feeling or acknowledging the push to grow. I recently saw the boyfriend I turned 30 with; he’d stayed shallow into his 40s. He seemed sad and sleazy, like a tired salesman running on the fumes of bravado. He kept looking for my angle.
Nerve.com has a space for “most humbling moment,” and while the over-40s don’t detail their thickening waists and slackening jaw lines, they generally answer less flippantly than the youngsters and use words like “frequent” or “constantly.” The humbled men appeal. To date confidently into middle age, a woman has to believe that one’s male cohort is at least trying to laugh at the sags and slowdowns of all our bodies and is excited enough about the rest of experience to want to share it. Men who have discovered the limits of arrogance make better company: You notice more when you’re not running around imposing your will on everything.
To foster this belief in unshallow maturing men, it helps to avoid magazines that identify by gender. The women’s mags generally ignore single ladies over 40, while the men’s magazines ignore and loathe us. The once great Esquire in particular is now a glossy primer of middle-age terror, packaging Viagra and Rogaine ads with drool pieces on daughter-age starlets, offhand revulsion for menopausal women, and confused longing for some Hefneresque never-never land where the right cuff link wins the girl in the rumpled pajamas. (Esquire-ish age rage also stunk up Steve Martin’s hosting of the Oscars: With every envious dig at a young cute actor or sneering leer at a cute young actress, he seemed more like a sober Dean Martin.)
Obviously the Esquire man self-selects out of dates with left-wing spinsters like yours truly. Still, I was pleased that my five mystery dates — one 52-year-old from Third Age, and men 45, 40, 39 and 38 from Nerve — all seemed unvain, curious, engaged, kind and dismayed by the war in Iraq. None spoke of women as aesthetic objects or an exotic species — and men let this kind of thing slip more than they realize. All surprised me in some way, from the gentle engineer who advocated the military overthrow of the government to the public interest lawyer who graciously suggested we switch our status to “comrades” to the writer who almost argued me out of my diagnosis of narcissism (“I was married to an actress, for chrissake! It couldn’t possibly always be about me!”).
Judging by the way other women characterize dating as a circle of hell between job interviewing and that dream where you’re not prepared for the test that’s in Swedish and you’re naked, I think I have an unusual nonaversion to single life. Loneliness can curl me fetal on a bad day, but I also like the ritual of the date, the possibility, the permission to ask a total stranger personal questions, to learn about someone’s apartment deal or weird freelance gig or romantic history. I’ve gotten good enough at reading the personals to sidestep nightmarish encounters: The worst is “no chemistry.”
My five engagements ranged in length from one lukewarm date to two passionate weeks, the latter my first experience of the blitzkrieg woo. This cuter-than-his-picture, unpretentious intellectual dreamboat — let’s call him Benedict — declared “Eureka!” at the end of our first date, then called every day, introduced me to his friends, and generally acted like my boyfriend. The sex was sweet as well as hot, and he said the four little words women want to hear: “We need bigger condoms.”
Then Ben declared his panic over “the sudden intimacy” and dropped me as fast as he’d swept me up. I realized later my job was to slow it down and keep him grounded, but I was enjoying it too much. My friends, many of them veterans of such carpet-bombings, had warned me, but I was deafened by self-esteem issues: “Yeah, it’s fast, but why wouldn’t he be excited? He found me.”
Benedict was the two of a one-two body blow that first dented my single equanimity, then eventually buoyed it up. The first, harder hit came from a single dad I was set up with last year — by friends, not my computer — much too soon after his wife left him. This relationship lasted longer and cut deeper than any e-courtship has, which may not be a coincidence. I know I just said it’s fun to meet new people, but high-volume dating can also feel like a frantic marketplace. The overwhelming choice and snap decision-making exacerbate insecurities about age and looks and success levels, and those worries lead you to cast a correspondingly cold eye on your dates. You dismiss them faster because you hate them a little for making you loathe changes you know you should be accepting healthily instead of researching chemical peels and the kiwi diet to stay in fighting shape.
“Ozzie” was a veteran of a 16-year marriage, not the marketplace. He didn’t know he was supposed to make me wonder if he liked me; he just told me so and asked if we could be exclusive after two dates. My swinger’s hackles rose instinctively, but I had to admit it would be a relief not to wonder if he (or I) would sleep with someone else while we got to know each other. Ozzie’s even-keeled affection made the stormier dramas I’d been in seem noisy and self-indulgent. I started to relax, to trust him.
We interviewed each other like anthropologists. He couldn’t imagine being alone at a restaurant or movie, or any number of things I consider the luxuries of single life. I grilled him about how — and why, beyond children — one sticks with a marriage that’s not fun or affectionate anymore. He answered, often, “Love doesn’t make commitment, commitment makes love,” which twisted my bachelorette brain like a Zen koan. Then how do you know to whom to commit? How long do you tolerate nonenjoyment of a relationship? Where does happiness fit in? There was something grim in his dogged determination to mate for life, but I also wondered if that’s as close as adults get to unconditional love.
Alas, we were not to explore these paradoxes as a couple. I was sad but not (too) angry or hurt or surprised when Ozzie jettisoned me to “learn how to be alone.” (At least he got out under shrink’s orders. When Benedict broke up with me, I asked what his therapist said, and he told me she was on vacation. I whined incredulously, “You’re dumping me unilaterally?!?”) Ozzie’s and my breakup was the friendliest of my life. We stayed in daily touch for weeks and co-counseled each other through our separation, my e-dating, and his crash course in solitude.
I wish I could give Ozzie alone lessons. I wish I could understand his suffering, but I can only try to imagine an emotional life so Siamese-entwined with another’s that his rejection could rupture my whole self. The wounds Ozzie inflicted on me, on the other hand, were shallow enough to leave me hopeful (and probably more vulnerable to Benedict). I glimpsed something I’d forgotten in the last few years: that love can be a refuge, not always a tempest.
And once love is revived, it spreads and mutates unpredictably. At the end of an affair, it often shrivels into bitterness, but things never turned mean with Ozzie. In his absence, what I felt for him expanded into something more peaceful and hopeful and independent of any One.
I still wish I had a boyfriend, and it wasn’t great getting dumped twice in a long, cold, war-poisoned winter. But it’s finally spring, and the energy of those affairs — and even of the dates with my fellow lonelyhearts seeking love on the computer — has been transformed. They’re all there in this newest burst of dumb hope, lust, curiosity, vague spiritual hoo-ha, and random affection for humanity. Wherever that sap flows from and whether or not you call it a form of love, I’m grateful for it in my constantly humbling life.
Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York.More Virginia Vitzthum.
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)