"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)
Topics: Life News
When author Augusten Burroughs first came to New York at 23 to take a copywriting job at Ogilvy & Mather, he owned only a yellow inflatable raft for a bed, a cheap phone, a Braun travel alarm clock and a copy of “The Andy Warhol Diaries.” It appeared he traveled light, but actually Burroughs carried a lot of emotional baggage. In last year’s mordantly funny memoir “Running With Scissors,” Burroughs wrote that when he was 12, his newly divorced, bipolar poet mother pawned him off on her crazy shrink, Dr. Finch, an onanist who got aroused by pictures of Golda Meir and sought prophecies in his own fecal matter. (His license was eventually revoked in 1986.) Finch taught Burroughs how to fake a suicide attempt to get out of going to school, and hosted a steady stream of patients in his roach-infested, anarchic Northampton, Mass., household.
By far, the most menacing resident was Neil Bookman, a 33-year-old who preyed on Burroughs; the two embarked on a disturbing relationship that was encouraged by the doctor. By the time Burroughs left Dr. Finch’s house at age 17, he had no formal education, yet he’d had countless sexual escapades, witnessed primal scenes between his mother and her lesbian lover, and watched enough psychotic breakdowns — his mother’s, and those of Dr. Finch’s various patients — to shock even the most seasoned psychoanalyst.
Now Burroughs returns with a new memoir, “Dry,” which begins where “Scissors” left off and is already hitting bestseller lists and garnering strong reviews. The book begins when Burroughs is 24, a flourishing, self-made advertising executive whose support network is made up of best friend Pighead, a kindly investment banker dying of AIDS; his drinking buddy Jim, an affable coffin salesman; Greer, his tightly wound colleague; and his constant companion, Dewar’s Scotch whisky. For a person whose youth was one endless stream of unpleasant surprises, drinking provided an escape hatch for Burroughs, even though his allergy to alcohol required him to choke down Benadryl before getting loaded. Similarly, advertising proved an ideal career choice for him, despite his lack of schooling, because, as Burroughs explains, it “makes everything seem better than it actually is. It’s an industry based on giving people false expectations. Few people know how to do that as well as I do, because I’ve been applying those basic advertising principles to my life for years.”
As the “Leaving-Las-Vegas-esque” drinking binge that opens “Dry” is a testament, however, the bottom of that hatch would inevitably start to fall away. Greer stages an intervention and the advertising agency sends him to the rehab of his choosing. Burroughs opts for the Proud Institute, a gay-and-lesbian facility in Minnesota, where he expects to find “a discreet, Frank Lloyd Wright-ish compound shrouded mysteriously from public view by a tasteful wall of trimmed boxwood trees. Spare rooms, sun-drenched, with firm mattresses and white 300-count Egyptian cotton sheets.” In this respect, his awakening proves as rude as the stark fluorescent lighting and the tasteless mush they serve up in the cafeteria.
After 30 days at Proud, Burroughs returns to New York a sober man, his job and friends awaiting him, delighted at the newly lean and clean man they see. Burroughs takes his recovery seriously, throwing himself into his work with renewed vigor, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and outpatient therapy, even as he commits the ultimate no-no: getting involved with an active crackhead, a dashing Southern trust-funder named Foster.
But it’s a sobering reality that puts Burroughs’ sobriety to the ultimate test. When Pighead’s health takes a deathly turn, Burroughs no longer sees a reason to stay dry. He relapses, and though he stays gainfully employed in the advertising business, it takes him two years to return to A.A., where he will recover once more. Burroughs has been “dry” ever since.
I met the author on a sultry June afternoon in New York at the Corner Bistro, a West Village joint as renowned for its juicy hamburgers as its hard-drinking denizens. Burroughs was just wrapping up his book tour, and was thrilled to return home to his partner of four years, Dennis Pilsits, and their two French bulldog puppies, Bentley and Cow-Cow. After six years of sobriety, he assured me that being in the Bistro threatened him not at all, though he recalled having gone there many times, and regularly buying bottles of Scotch at the liquor store just around the corner. As we feasted on cheeseburgers and guzzled Diet Cokes, Burroughs talked about sitting for hours in basements and bars — the underworld for alcoholics both active and recovering — and the perils and pleasures of drinking and drying out.
Your childhood was so chaotic, and you arrived in New York at 23 with practically nothing. What coping mechanisms, besides drinking, did you use to get by?
I didn’t have really any survival skills except my instincts. I don’t talk about it in “Dry,” but I declared bankruptcy when I was 23. I got myself so heavily into debt with my credit cards because I did not have a sense of any fiscal responsibility. I had racked up in one year $63,000 on cocktails at the Odeon (a restaurant in TriBeCa) on AmEx. That’s a lot of cocktails, and that was just one place.
Do you believe people can be predisposed to alcoholism? Your dad was an alcoholic.
I think that a lot of alcoholics tend to be very obsessive. I’ve always had certain tics. Alcohol for me was all about pouring my drink in my favorite Santa mug, taking a sip, looking at it. It itched my brain that the level of the glass had gone down from the sip. I’d have to fill it up again. Same thing with smoking: I would smoke. I’d hate it, so I’d put it out and light another one. Four packs a day. I couldn’t stand to smoke them down. I think obsessive behavior is definitely genetic. And I think alcohol, like anything, can be learned through your parents. I don’t know if alcohol-ism is genetic because it’s a man-made substance. It would be like having a genetic predisposition to CD players.
One of the first things you talk about when you’re getting sober is your feelings rushing back. Were you conscious that you were drinking to obliterate your feelings when you were in your early 20s?
Yeah, I was fleeing. I was really ashamed of my past, the way I was raised. It felt like it was the same rush you would get driving a sports car through a tunnel at a really high speed. It was just go. I never knew what was going to happen next. I never knew who I’d meet or where I’d end up. I had absolutely no sense of responsibility or reality. To me, when I was drinking, it was all about the now. It was a complete escape.
You describe a bender in the opening of “Dry,” when you and Jim start out at the Cedar Tavern the night before a big meeting with Fabergé, a major client of your firm. You could’ve so easily gotten home by 11, and all of a sudden it’s 4:30 a.m. and you’re at the karaoke bar — what happened there? Why couldn’t you extricate yourself?
I really had no control over it. That’s how it was every night for me, although I’m proud to say I never did return to a karaoke bar. But it was always something. I would plan to drink only until 11 or 12, but it would never actually happen. The few times that I didn’t drink for a night, or alcohol wouldn’t have the desired effect of numbing, I’d be overwhelmed with emotions, usually grief, and it was just really upsetting. It freaked me out because I felt like a wreck inside, like my structure was rotting and alcohol was sort of the glue holding me together. In a lot of ways, I felt like it was the only thing allowing me to function. In fact, it was the opposite. I was able to function despite it.
But what happens to that grief when you get sober? Don’t recovering alcoholics find sobriety dredges up a lot of pain and anxieties, perhaps more than they were aware of having before they started drinking?
I think a lot of recovering alcoholics can act so adolescent because that’s pretty much when they stopped growing. Whatever age you pick up the alcohol or drugs, you stop all the introspection. Maybe you get maudlin sometimes, or dwell on your childhood, but it’s not a lifestyle about furthering your spiritual or intellectual growth. It’s really about running and hiding and avoiding and playing. You definitely feel like you’re an adolescent when you get sober. You have so many feelings all at once, and you don’t know how to deal with them.
That’s the only reason “Dry” exists. It was never a memoir. I wrote it totally for me because I just didn’t know how to even live. When I got out of rehab, I thought, what the fuck do I do with all these hours in the day? When you get out of rehab, they tell you to go to a meeting. Well, a meeting is only 60 minutes or 90 minutes at most. What about the other 22 hours of the day? It was just horrible to all of a sudden feel different emotions at once: manic with excitement and then crushed with sadness and then horrified and then ashamed. I definitely found out some things about myself that were horrible. But I also found out some good things: I am very optimistic, which I was when I was a little kid. Being raised in a chaotic environment where something incredibly unexpected would happen — all of a sudden, a new patient would move into the house, or my mother would have a huge psychotic episode, and my whole world would turn upside down — I learned that everything can change. If everything can change, it can change for the better. I lost that when I was drinking. I became really bitter and dark. When I stopped drinking, that was back, full force.
How did your social life change after you got sober?
My relationships were more real. Obviously if you’re not drinking, if you’re just wired on caffeine, you know what you’re saying, and you’re going to remember it. One of the big surprises when I got sober was how hard it was for me to have sex, to be intimate. I didn’t know that I’d find that a problem. When I was drunk I was uninhibited. Sober, I was paralyzed, terrified of any intimacy. Any joining of sex with love was impossible. I had to figure out, what is this about? I realized it was a major thing left over from my Bookman days, when sex was a currency. I didn’t understand it. It was awful.
You had to reinvent sex, in a way.
I still to this day have to work on it. That’s one area of my life that’s not all shiny and together. It’s still hard for me.
What happened to the people you met in rehab, like Foster, the crackhead with whom you were infatuated? And your English roommate, Hayden?
Foster and I didn’t stay in touch after he moved, but he sent me a couple of e-mails over the years. Last I heard, he was enrolled in some kind of trade school, allegedly sober. Hayden is in the U.K. He started painting and showing in galleries in London. I have one of his paintings. He got it together. Everyone else I went to rehab with, over the years, I just heard horror stories about. You have to really want sobriety. You have to be very ambitious. You have to want it as much as you want a new career. It’s a career change in every way.
How old were you when you first checked into rehab?
Thirty. I’d been drinking for 11 years. I’d been sober about two years before I relapsed.
You relapsed as your best friend Pighead was dying. Did it feel like a temporary fix?
I didn’t really have the foresight. I was just thinking about immediate gratification. I did not want to be present for what was going on at all. I used to live in fear of relapsing when I got out of rehab because I’d been brainwashed as if it were a thing that could happen, an external force. Relapse, relapse could be just around the corner, be careful. What are your relapse triggers? A whole sort of gun-and-violence feeling, like a holdup. It’s not a holdup at all. It’s an absolute decision.
When you first went into rehab, were you ready to be dry?
The first time, I didn’t have really any other relationships beyond Pighead. He was everything to me, so all of a sudden that’s gone. I did not have skills and the network of support that I would have needed to be sober and I kind of slipped away from A.A. I didn’t have any reason to stay sober, I felt.
What did you do when you started drinking again and ran into people from your A.A. meetings?
I used to buy liquor from two different liquor stores in the neighborhood because I would buy a bottle of Dewar’s every night. I didn’t want to buy it at the same place because I felt like an alcoholic, but I figured every other day is a little easier. Sometimes I was already drunk when I’d go out to get my liquor. I can remember going to the store on Second Avenue between Ninth and 10th streets and seeing someone from A.A. as I was walking back. The person was crossing the street and looking at me, and I recognized in their eyes that they knew exactly what was in my bag. I’d obviously gained weight. I bloat up; my face gets really big and round.
How long was your relapse?
Probably two years. I got sober in 1997. I was obsessed with alcohol when I got out of rehab at the Proud Institute, obsessed with how many days I had sober, and how many days it would be until I had a year sober, and how many days left until I had two years. It was on my mind all the time.
Writing helps tremendously. The only time in my life I haven’t written is when I was drinking. Writing is what keeps me tethered. It keeps me aware. I can’t hide from myself when I’m writing. It fills the time, and because of what I write now, which is all nonfiction, I’ve got to have things to write about and that’s gonna have to be what I’m thinking about.
But what really got me the second time was alcohol poisoning. It really felt like life or death. I could not sleep because my heart would startle. That absolutely terrified me. I felt the full force of it like I had never felt before so I have a very healthy fear of and respect for alcohol. There are times where I think, oh it would be nice to have a glass of wine, because Dennis enjoys drinking like a normal person and really appreciates certain wines, but it’s never actually like craving.
You can have bottles of wine in the house and not feel tempted?
Totally. I never feel worried that I’m going to drink it. I don’t feel unsafe with it in the house.
Do you miss anything about drinking?
I don’t regret any of it. It was a wonderful experience, as terrible and as life-threatening as it was. To be in your early 20s in New York City making too much money and having a career that demanded play to a large degree and to be a drunk was fun. Alcohol is not like crack or cocaine or heroin in that it is a lot slower. I also figured it was OK to be an alcoholic, because I was high-functioning, so I could get away with it. Some people can be an alcoholic and get away with it. But alcohol will take you down in the end — your liver shrinks, and your liver cells die and you’re not able to metabolize the volume of alcohol you once were, and you require more alcohol to get that same feeling. And once you reach that point, the buzz is gone, and you suddenly have to drink in order to function. Sometimes I miss the obliteration, the mindless, absolute spontaneity of it. But there’s so much more that I don’t miss. And the things that I have now that I enjoy, I enjoy more than I enjoyed in those moments.
Over the weekend, after the book tour, Dennis and I were in our house in Northampton, Mass., with our new 10-week-old puppy and our 1-year-old puppy. Dennis is in the kitchen cooking, the TV is on but it’s muted, NPR is playing on the stereo, all the windows are open, it’s breezy, and there are candles lit, and I was ready to weep with absolute bliss, for the mind-numbing happiness and simplicity of it. And I never could have appreciated that, never. It’s absolutely wonderful.
When you get rid of one addiction, do you take on another one? Do people get addicted to meetings?
Yes, they get addicted to meetings. Some people go once, twice, three times a day. It’s not healthy. Get the fuck out of the basement, get your ass out of the folding chair and get a life. That’s the kind of recovering alcoholic I never wanted to be. You’ve just got to push yourself to do things you wouldn’t normally do. I was lucky in that I had writing. I could totally channel everything into writing and if I wasn’t writing, I could read. I have a lot to catch up on because I have no education. I never had a chance to relax in my life because I’d been working, panicked about not having money, because I’ve lived in squalor when I was growing up so I’ve always been very panicky about being homeless. I never had a chance to relax and read a book. I don’t think I read a book until I was 24. I read a lot now that I’m sober.
Did you read other drinking memoirs before?
No. Not since, either. I don’t know why. It’s not a genre I’m interested in. I don’t read memoirs. There are too many of them. (Laughs.) I like to read my women’s novels: Midwestern women having coffee, talking about their husbands and their kids: That is what I love to read about. Elizabeth Berg. Or A.L. Kennedy, on love and obsession.
Do you think it is possible to carry on a sober life?
I’m having one now, and I am hoping it continues. I never say never, but I don’t see myself drinking, even if I were having a crisis. I have a network of people. Even when bad things happen now, I am a lot happier than I was. The thing is, if it weren’t easier and better, I wouldn’t be sober. It’s that simple. If I had to really work at it that hard, I wouldn’t be able to do it, because I am lazy and pleasure-seeking.
Do you have any indulgences now that you’re not drinking?
I chomp nicotine gum. I’m going to end up with half a jaw.
What do you make of those three old guys sitting at the bar over there, hunched over their highball glasses? They’ve been here since I got here at noon.
I know the comfort of a highball at 1:30 in the afternoon on a Wednesday. It happens in the dark. It is blindingly bright outside, and yet in here, it is like pupil dilation-land, and the music is slow jazz and the walls are brick and it’s been unchanged. Nine-11 did not happen in this room. People don’t die in this room. They are in another world. The fact that it is Wednesday in New York City in the summer is irrelevant in here.
The funny thing about bars is that they are a lot like little A.A. rooms. You walk through a door, and you enter a place that’s just outside of society. One place serves cocktails, and one is full of people who are bitter that they don’t get to have them anymore. But they’re very similar. There are a lot of regulars here. I came here a few times when I was drinking, before I’d go out to the Odeon. It feels profoundly familiar. Those guys over there are probably here for the night. They’ll have a burger at 8, go home and have a few more drinks and then pass out and do it again.
Kera Bolonik is a contributing writer at Salon. Follow her on Twitter @KeraBolonikMore Kera Bolonik.
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)