"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)
Those yellow ribbons, gestures tied to mailboxes, splotches of color along dull streets like the body of a bruised boxer — this is not what Eric is looking for. He’s risking his life out there, he says, and spending years on a military base in the heart of nowhere. This is all very real and dangerous, so symbolism, genuine or not, doesn’t quite cut it for him. He needs something sacrificial, some concrete sign of appreciation from those he serves, from those he protects. A free beer would do, he says. So would free sex.
“I think the country needs to realize that these people are out here, they’re working their asses off and they’re risking their lives,” says Eric, a Navy officer who recently returned from Iraq and asked that his real name not be used. He keeps track of who’s naughty and who’s nice, because he believes military discounts are a litmus test for troop support. The Holiday Inn and the fast-food restaurant near his base both serve him well, he says, but he’s upset that his military I.D. means nothing in the surrounding bars and clubs.
When possible, Eric will gladly take a discount. So, when he heard that a legendary Nevada brothel was offering free sex to military personnel who had fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, he and a buddy hopped in a car and drove straight there. Eric had never visited a prostitute, an impressive display of restraint for a man who has been stationed overseas. There, far from the yellow ribbons and hand-held polyester flags, lies a world of cheap gratification, just begging to be tapped. Bolstered by “too much pride,” Eric says he outright refuses to pay for sex, even if it’s wildly cheap. But a freebie, he says, is totally different.
“Why not? It’s free sex,” he says. “Hey, free sex with a porn star. You can’t pass that up. That’s like every boy’s dream.”
The Moonlite Bunny Ranch, best known as the subject of the HBO documentary “Cathouse,” has won international attention for its coital offer. Starting June 5, the first 50 military people back from Afghanistan or Iraq who showed up got free sex. (And active military personnel who weren’t overseas get 50 percent off). It costs owner Dennis Hof between $200 and $1,000 per military customer, depending on the service and the woman requested, but that doesn’t faze him. The radio stations are calling, the television cameras are showing up at his door, and military personnel are writing by the thousands. When he talks with his new military customers, he says, they tell him how relieved they are to be rewarded for fighting abroad. For Hof, this has given meaning to what could easily be just a public-relations stunt. “Is it a promotion? Absolutely. I’m the Colonel Sanders of pussy,” he said. “But is it the right thing to do? You’re fucking right it is.”
But underneath the glitz and glamour of a brothel that employs porn stars and boasts a four-page menu, Hof’s offer has created a strange homecoming of one well-ignored military tradition. From the Vietnamese girls who robotically stammered “Me love you long time” in the movie “Full Metal Jacket” to the seedy night life of Thailand’s Pattaya Beach, prostitution has been the military man’s escape from chaos, the cheap imitation of a pleasure he left behind. It has been a presence in American fighting and peacekeeping since the days of muskets and cannons, and its linguistic influence from the Civil War may still be felt today. Legend has it that Union Gen. Joe Hooker often brought a group of ladies along to raise the spirits of his men, and they soon became known as “Hooker’s women” — and that, of course, was soon shortened. The story is popular in some historical circles, although its legitimacy is doubtful and hard to verify, according to Clemson University military history professor Ed Moise.
Prostitution is such an unwavering staple of the overseas military experience that the armed forces have been bipolar in their response to it, Moise says. In past wars, officers have tried discouraging brothel visits with grade-school tactics, such as screening ghastly films of the horrors of venereal disease or simply prohibiting their men from going at all. (However, he says there is no truth to the widely known tale of potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, being slipped into the mess-hall food to diminish men’s libidos.)
Sometimes, though, the military will embrace prostitution in the interests of regulating it, employing an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” philosophy. Officers would gather a group of prostitutes, approve them for use, and then have medics check them weekly. Moise says he knows of this happening during the Vietnam War and World War II, although he says he wouldn’t be surprised if the practice were more widespread than that. “Where you have a bunch of young men who are mostly away from their families and away from the moral pressures of home and family life,” he explains, “you will often get a lot of prostitution, sometimes organized by the higher command, which wants to make it available in a controlled fashion to keep it from happening in an uncontrolled fashion.”
These days, though, a soldier just needs to know where to look. Steve Csicsatka, a former Marine currently in the Air Force Reserves, spent years overseas in Thailand and Japan. The hot spots there were sometimes ramshackle — makeshift strip clubs and brothels with women lined up and numbered — but cheap and easily accessible, he says. And while the men were not supposed to visit these places, the rules were rarely followed, and everyone knew it. “They literally handed you condoms before you went out on leave,” Csicsatka said.
One time, he walked into a brothel and found eight other Marines inside. Other times, he ran across some of his officers. “Thailand was kind of scandalous, a lot of married people doing crazy stuff,” he says. But he would not elaborate, nor would he even hazard a guess at the percentage of married men who stray to the dim lights of a cheap brothel. “They say what happens in the field stays in the field.”
In the Philippines, the field is even hairier. Eric, who was once stationed there, says the place is a veritable bargain bin of sex. A special forces friend of his rented a bungalow for a month and hired two women to service him in bed and in the kitchen, and the final bill came to $50. Another friend told him of a night at a Philippines strip club, where a woman went onstage, put a beer bottle in her vagina, flipped upside down until the beer had been poured inside her, then went back on her feet and waited until the beer refilled the bottle. Then, she gave the bottle to a Marine in the crowd, who drank it down. “It’s quite fucked up,” Eric says. “There’s a lot of weird stuff going on.”
And so, when the Bunny Ranch opens its doors to the armed forces, it is only doing what so many brothels have done before it. The main difference is that this is happening in America, and it comes with America’s safety checks. There are no horrible diseases or fatherless babies coming out of the ranch as so often happened in Vietnam. In May, a 10-person delegation of East Asian academics, government officials and private relief workers researching ways to end global sex trafficking showed up, unannounced, at the ranch. The visit was quickly condemned by the U.S. State Department, but the symbolism was clear: Americans have visited brothels overseas, and now the overseas representatives were visiting the American counterpart.
For servicemen with no overseas brothel to visit, the Bunny Ranch was also the destination of choice. Soldiers waiting in Kuwait only a few months ago — cooped up under an unforgiving layer of sand, surrounded by only anxiety and the bare necessities — found their lifeline to sex was through the postal service. They began writing letters to the ranch, some addressed to specific women they might have seen on the HBO special (which ran in December 2002) and others just to the ranch itself. They wrote of sitting by their tanks, hoping to make it out of Iraq alive, pledging to come to the ranch to enjoy their own bodies in one piece. “Imagine how much testosterone these guys got in them, sitting around all wound up,” ranch owner Hof says. “They’re wound up, these guys, and sex is all these guys care about. It’s all young guys care about.”
Sunset Thomas, a Bunny Ranch girl and the star of more than 200 adult films, was a frequent recipient of the letters. Of all the people in the world to write to — mothers, old friends, ex-girlfriends — some nervous men on the brink of war chose to write Sunset. “I don’t know if I’m going to be around tomorrow. I’m going to kick some ass and come back and see you, Sunset,” she recalls one of the letters saying. For Thomas, the letters were flattering. In the face of adversity, men often think of freedom. In the face of death, they were thinking of Sunset. “They’re over there fighting for my freedom, so I have the freedom to be in porno movies or work in brothels,” she says. “I think it’s so wonderful. It makes me feel good sometimes. I’ve been in the business for 11 years, and, hey, it’s nice to know there are a lot of guys out there who really appreciate my work.”
Hof had his girls write back to the guys, and shipped them a bag of goodies, including vibrating rubber vaginas. When even more guys started writing, the ranch designed the free-sex-for-military promotion, and it quickly snowballed in the media. As of Tuesday, 41 military men and women had come for their prize, including two women who had never been intimate with another woman before. They both took turns with Thomas and then joined in a three-way. Thomas says she never asked the girls why the offer of free sex drove them to such a radical experiment, but she assumes the bombs and bullets had shaken them loose. “Sometimes when you’re over there fighting, a lot of crazy shit goes through your head,” she says. “I don’t know. Maybe they just said, ‘I always wanted to be with a chick.’”
No stranger to brothels, Csicsatka also jumped at the chance to visit the ranch. He didn’t fight in Iraq or Afghanistan, but he took advantage of the ranch’s secondary military offer: 50 percent off for any active military personnel. In all, he dropped nearly $6,000 at the ranch. “I’ll just have to save up a little bit more for college,” he says with a laugh, but considers it money well spent. He got to experience a brothel in his home country, and was overwhelmed by the amount of options available, like “a kid in a candy store,” he says. Plus, he fulfilled a longtime fantasy of his: sex with three girls at once, each of a different ethnicity. That’s a “Neapolitan” on the Bunny Ranch menu, and the vanilla in his trio actually goes by the name Vanilla. “I always say to myself, and I believe it, too: ‘You only live once,’” he says. “Someday I’ll be 80 years old, and I’ll be able to tell my grandkids, ‘When I was your age, I went to the Bunny Ranch and I had myself a Neapolitan, just like you will, you little kid.’”
Csicsatka has no regrets about his international escapades, and casually tells his friends back home about them all. He’s out there for life experience, he says, and there’s far more to see than what’s on the base. But still, after paying for anonymous women in exotic lands, he says the beauty of American women hasn’t faded. When he visited the Bunny Ranch, he spent his downtime just sitting and talking with some of them, asking what their parents think or know of their chosen profession. He says he’ll never tell his mother about the day at the ranch.
The military was far from his mind during his visit, but he’s delighted by the collusion of the armed services and sultry services. Overseas, it’s always about the sex. But here, he says, it’s about something more. Something different.
“They’re kind of like supporting our military and we support them overseas,” he says. “It’s good to see that Americans do love us.”
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)