"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)
The book party mob rushes the small woman and begins smacking her with light. Press photographers — freelance, wire service, Weegee wannabes — corner her in the back of a railroad car-narrow bar in New York. Men and women are shouting, “Traci, look at me! Traci, smile! This way, Traci, this way!” Their prey is Traci Lords, former porn star and now author.
She was born Norma Louise Kuzma and took her last name from Jack Lord, star of “Hawaii Five-O.” Lords was never a choir girl, but she now holds herself like a woman from a more innocent time. Maybe a young silent movie star — Mary Pickford crossed with Lillian Gish. Traci teases the shutterbugs by holding her new memoir, “Underneath It All,” over her mouth and peering at her attackers with impish eyes. She knows the camera loves her. In publicity photos Traci Lords always appears as a radiant woman. She’s too beautiful to care about her notorious past.
Back in the Reagan era she would sprawl naked, legs akimbo, before some unshaved schlub clutching a Nikon. She’d let herself be filmed performing every form of sexual act except — as she assures us — anal sex. Those were pre-video days. You couldn’t watch Traci in your living room with a Bud and a bag of chips. Guys had to slink into creepy movie houses, sit on sperm-stained seats with their raincoats bunched in their laps. Some of her fans turned out to be FBI agents. One night the feds busted into Lords’ Hollywood pad and carried the screaming girl off to redemption. You see, the Traci Lords oeuvre — which climaxes with the nymph being dressed in a red devil suit going down on some dude’s firepole — had been filmed when she was just 15, 16, 17 years old. “I have to thank Ed Meese [Reagan's anti-porn crusading attorney general] for saving my life,” she says, speaking with both sincerity and irony.
Since her Meese redemption, Traci Lords has become a combination June Lockhart, Mother Teresa and Joan Didion. With dozens of B-movies under her belt, Lords has her own series, “First Wave,” on the Sci-Fi network. She also counsels young teenagers recently escaped from porn and prostitution, now seeking refuge at Children of the Night, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization. Finally, she has written “Underneath It All,” a hard-boiled memoir of Los Angeles that does for the porno industry what Joan Didion did for migraines. In one crazy passage, Lords writes:
“I stood gaping at these ‘pony women’ trotting around in circle. It was a bizarre spectacle. They wore tall black leather boots, black studded leather G-strings, and black bras with the nipple area cut out. One had a horse gag in her mouth. A hooded man, well over six feet tall, stood in the center of the ring, whipping their muscular asses and ordering them to ‘mush, mush’ as they trotted by … A crazy laugh escaped my mouth as I glanced toward the galloping pony people nearby and wondered exactly what they had in store for me …”
Lords spoke with Salon on the phone from her hotel room in Austin, Texas, and in person at her book party in New York.
You made your last blue movie years ago, yet you still have to account for your past in interviews, don’t you?
One of the reasons I wrote “Underneath It All” is to put my past out there and clear the slate. I get so tired of reading things about myself that are just not true. Here’s the Bible, if you will. After this book tour, I have no intention of reliving my past on a continual basis. [She shouts in exaggerated comic tone] “I’m kinda sick of it!” If anyone has anything left to ask, they can go read the book and get the answers.
You grew up in Hollywood. While I was reading your book I played “Hollywood Elegies” by composers Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht. One of the songs reminds me of your experience: “Hollywood has taught me/ Paradise and Hell can be one city./ To those without resources/ Paradise is Hell.”
Yeah. That sounds like the world to me.
Do you love California now?
I love California now. I really do. Absolutely. There are things that are kinda icky, like the smog and the traffic and the prices …
Getting swept up in the porn industry really was a Los Angeles experience, wasn’t it? They weren’t making skin flicks in Dallas or Nashville, Tenn.
Beats me. I never really heard of porno before I became involved in it.
You’ve done several nude scenes post-porno –
That’s not true, I’ve done one. In 1986, 1987, “Not of This Earth.” It was the last time I was topless. I just felt that I really wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, and if I went down the road of B movies they’d have nothing but those kind of exploitation scenes. I just didn’t want to be a topless B-movie girl. I didn’t have an issue with nudity, but I wanted to do quality work. My only rule was to make each project better than the last. Fortunately I got a lot of work on television where nudity was not a requirement.
Can you draw a line between being a piece of meat in a porno movie and being an actress?
For me, when I was involved in pornography I was a child. I was 15, 16, 17, and barely 18 years old. There were a lot of things going on at the time with the drugs and the acting out, all of the anger and retaliation and that kind of aggression, there was a big difference between that time of my life and afterwards, absolutely. The line was drawn.
What kind of scripts do you get today?
Just a broad spectrum. It’s really interesting. I have the same manager, Juliet Green, that I had for 10 years. She knows me really well and she’s really good — between her and my agent they know I have a passion for sci-fi, and they know that I love comedy. There has never been one genre. I love them all.
You wrote that television acting made you discover you had an intuitive knack for comedy.
I think I’m pretty funny! I have gotten good work as a comedic actress. I was in [John Waters'] “Cry-Baby.” And “Married With Children.” And “Roseanne.” I’ve traded lines with Roseanne and Laurie Metcalf; those two women to me are two of the funniest women around. I recently won a best actress in a comedy role at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in 2001. The film is coming out next January from Miramax, and it’s called “Chump Change.” I think it’s going to be out in January on DVD. I’m hoping with all the publicity from “Underneath It All,” the Weinstein brothers will be tempted to put it in the theaters.
Are you the star?
Yes. Tim Burroughs is the male star. He wrote it, directed it, and he’s starring in it. I think that it’s a lovely little movie.
In general, is there a difference between being interviewed by a woman or a man?
Absolutely. Not just with reporters, but with normal life. There are huge differences between men and women. Excuse me, there’s someone at the door. [She leaves and comes back.] Hello, sorry about that. It’s Juliet Green; I was just talking about her. [A woman's voice in the background.] She’s howling. We do that every once in a while.
Do you travel by yourself or do you have an entourage?
Juliet follows me wherever I go. I never travel by myself. And we create new names in every city, as you found out.
Do you need bodyguards?
Do I need bodyguards? They usually have security at the book signing. No. I don’t travel with bodyguards like P. Diddy or something.
Did you bond with Patty Hearst?
Patty Hearst played my mother in “Cry-Baby.” I had a lot of respect for her. I have a lot of respect for her. She is a survivor. She’s been through a lot of intense stuff in her life. She still has a sense of humor. [Pause.] But I didn’t ask her about robbing banks, and she didn’t ask me about porn.
What’s your next movie?
I don’t know. Hopefully it will be a fabulous one. I miss filming. I miss being on-screen. I spent most of last year writing this book.
Your book is very good. And you wrote it in two months?
No. I wrote the first draft in two months. I started last July. It was about 500 pages long, and it was like throwing up — that’s the only way to put it. It was all over the place. I turned it in. I then had all these notes from my editor. So I had to learn what the editing process was because I had no idea. You get this stack. “You can’t use that kind of a pencil and you have to use that kind of a pencil, and don’t write over what the editor wrote.” I was like, “What are all these notes? And what the hell does this mean?” It was really crazy. But I wrote the whole thing on my Mac. My second draft took me a lot longer. I really followed John Waters’ advice — my friend who also directed me in “Cry-Baby” and “Serial Mom.” At the very beginning I called him and said, “I’m thinking of writing this book myself. Am I crazy?” He said, “Well, Traci, you know you’re crazy, but that’s beside the point.”
“What should I do?” I asked. He said, “Honey, you know this story better than anybody else. You should go for it. You can do this.”
I didn’t look forward to reading your book at first. I expected self-pity and blame. Then I started reading it and I couldn’t put it down. It has a real hard-boiled narration. You’re like some James M. Cain nonfiction character who I kept rooting for to get out of the porn business.
The first draft was 500 pages and the last one was 281. I don’t think there is anything in my galleys that are not in my book, which I hear is unusual. It was pretty much word for word.
I had imagined that your book was going to have explicit “behind-the-scenes” porno stuff –
It’s not a porn book.
The one explicit incident you describe is such a scream — dressing up like a horse for a Japanese spanking club.
That was so vivid to me. It was so bizarre.
Who even imagines that stuff goes on?
Is that the tip of the iceberg?
That was the strangest thing that happened to me. I just had no idea that people had those forms of fetishes. When that whole “Japanese Pony Girl” thing happened to me, it was just bizarre. You know I have to say that was the least dangerous thing that I did during that time.
Did you ever encounter anything like Dominick Dunne’s alleged Saudi Arabian sheiks that kidnap young American girls?
No. But I would say the porn world is a weird place. I wouldn’t say it was a normal place.
The most devastating scene was the one when you came back and found your cat killed by your boyfriend’s dog.
I’m such a cat lover, and Mister Steve was such a good buddy.
And then the guy who called serious “acting” your “hobby.”
My first husband, Brook. It took me a while to forgive him for that one. Years later, we’re friends. I did bring that up to him once and said, “You used to call acting my ‘little hobby.’” He said, “I never said that.” I said, “Yes, you did.” He goes, “That’s so horrible!” I went, “Yes, it was.” We actually had a laugh about it. He said, “I must have just been on something. I was just out there.” I said, “You were ‘out there.’ You were mean.” He’s much nicer now that I’ve divorced him.
I should have asked you this sooner. When the FBI started hounding you — there was the time when you woke up on the floor and a porno producer was threatening you by standing on your hair. The whole porno industry was worried that you’d squeal them out?
There were a lot of threats in the grapevine. There were a lot of rumblings. I would hear all of these horrible things, but I was basically just hiding. And praying that I was going to live through it.
Did people get arrested?
Absolutely. The biggest cases that I remember in ’86/’87 had to do with one distributor who had sold out his entire collection to a federal agent weeks after it was all over the news that I was a minor, which was pretty stupid. People were pretty greedy.
You’re not in danger anymore, are you?
I’m not sure exactly what kind of reaction the book is going to get from the porn world. I can imagine they won’t be happy. I was really appalled to see that “Dateline” actually interviewed the agent I call “Tim North” in the book. I made a point of changing his name, not to protect him, but to protect other people from him because I think he is a foul human being. “Dateline,” in their discretion (or lack thereof) decided to go ahead and publicize him and his agency. I just thought that was irresponsible. It pissed me off, I can tell you. Because some girl out there who is confused will be able to find this idiot, and he is a menace. The point of the interview was for him to say, “Traci was this wild, sex-craving girl and she did blah blah blah.” And then some other girl came on and said, “I don’t really know, but it always looked like Traci was having a good time.” And basically the reporter tried to discredit me and make me look like a fool. Meanwhile, it’s never been in question that I did these movies. I have never said that anybody held a gun to my head. I told the truth. This is what happened. And I did these movies. And yeah, I did drugs. And yeah, I was aggressive. And yeah, I was wild. And yeah, I was tormented.
And “Yeah, you were 16 years old.”
Bingo. I was 16. I was 15. And not only that, do you know what I found so outrageous? They never asked him was he sorry. Whether or not, as he claims, he didn’t know. OK, you didn’t know. Let’s just say he didn’t know. But now he knows. Is he sorry? Does he regret that he had this role in exploiting the life of a 15-year-old child, does he regret that? You know, I would say that was really lousy journalism.
Is there a blame factor against you?
You’re right on, there. I really felt, I really feel like I was put on trial. It goes back to “Let’s burn the witch.” “Let’s hang the whore.” I mean, how horrible is that. You hear it all the time with rape victims. They’re put on trial. Their sexual history — you’re this, you’re that. The bottom line, as you just said, I was a 15-year-old kid. What was really interesting about the “Dateline” piece was that Maria Shriver was the one who introduced it. I could tell by what she said that she got it. She understood my book. I wish the piece had stopped then. The other reporter was out to trash me. I didn’t fit a certain bill. I think I deserve better than that.
Have you helped underage girls get out of the industry?
God, I hope so. I dedicated my book to Children of the Night. It is an L.A.-based nonprofit organization that I’ve been working with for about 12 years. It’s for children who have been victims of the sex industry. Most of them, let’s see, right now there are six girls at the house between 12 and 16. Most of them have been molested. All of them have been prostitutes. Now they’re back in school. They are fed. They’re clothed. It’s a safe haven. It’s a wonderful organization that survives completely on donations. These girls have all read my book. I go in and talk to them and hang out there. It hits you like a ton of bricks that there are so many girls out there with this story, just feeling hopeless at such a young age. So the comment that I got from them is, “Wow! You’re OK now.” At a time when you think a 12-year-old would be thinking, Someday I’m going to grow up and be a nurse or doctor or I’m going to step out at graduation. They’re thinking, Wow. Someday I’ll grow up and be OK. Pretty intense.
If you were president, would you ban pornography?
I don’t believe in government censorship. Where does it end then? I believe what adults do with other adults is their business. Where the responsibility lies is that we, as adults, must protect our children from this kind of exploitation.
Can you imagine selling the film rights to this book? Have you already done that?
No, I have not. That’s very scary. A lot of people have called about the rights. You know where I’m at with that? If I meet somebody who is absolutely incredible that I think can make this a real honest movie without zoning in on any particular part, and make this a real film about this journey, then I would be persuaded to do it. But I have to tell you, it would really have to feel 100 percent right for me.
As an actress, are you ready to play Lady Macbeth?
I haven’t really thought about it. I still have some time, don’t I?
David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."More David Bowman.
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)