"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 God, didn’t that book terrify you?” a woman gasps to me over the phone. We’re both writers. Both married — although not to each other. She had just reviewed the book “Against Love.” I was about to interview its author, Laura Kipnis. My friend talks in a hushed voice — she doesn’t want her husband to hear. I tend to be soft-spoken on the phone anyway, but I chirp out, “‘Against Love’ was a hoot!”
My wife looks up from her knitting. On the phone, I hear a male voice in the background. Hubby is coming. We hang up.
I wish I had a chance to tell her why I feel this book is such a hoot. Sure, Kipnis proclaims that love is a “sacred cow” and she is the “butcher.” And what’s really on her chopping block is marriage, or any relationship that demands sexual and emotional fidelity. Of course, the roads that lead from monogamy are all named Libido Street. The libido is endlessly hungry for variety — its cravings no secret to Kim Cattrall’s character Samantha in “Sex and the City,” or any American boy two years into puberty. Guys spend their lives dealing with it. Most women are surprised, then deal with it, too.
I think my married friend was taking Kipnis’ metaphors of how icky fidelity is (it’s a “tobacco patch,” “toxic waste,” “anesthesia”) too literally. Those metaphors tend to showboat the real point of the book — that marriage is the capitalist state’s way of making its citizens into obedient workers. Adultery is the escape valve that lets us rebel against our husbands and wives, instead of clubbing our bosses to death with our lunchboxes.
Be that as it may, Kipnis — who is a professor of media studies and author of “Ecstasy Unlimited: On Sex, Capital, Gender, and Aesthetics” — really does butcher the sacred cow of marriage better than Wendy’s, McDonald’s or Burger King. But she does it in a way some critics have called delightful. Still, this is not a book that you’ll want read in bed — unless you are sleeping alone. Salon spoke to Kipnis by phone.
Let’s make this interview as exciting as adultery.
I’m game. Let’s get naked.
OK. You first.
I am! A phone-sex interview, this is so fun.
Are you married?
Well, here’s the thing, David, you’re talking to this person who has written this entire book about love without using the first person once. That should give you some clue it’s not that kind of book.
You did reveal you’re a “late bloomer.”
I said that?
Yeah. Here. Let me read it back to you: “Bliss: often synonymous with intense sexual reawakening — or for a few of us late bloomers, an erotic initiation …
I thought of myself conducting an experiment to write about social issues in a different way, having invented a literary persona, which is not necessarily synonymous with me — the actual naked authoress talking to you. I think the book was written from a lot of different stances. It’s the adulterer. It’s the cuckolded person. It’s society. A lot of voices woven through it. So “us late bloomers” is one of those personas.
Let’s talk about the mammal side of love. Don’t you believe that because males want to fuck multiple females to spread their seed around, so women invented monogamy to choose whose offspring they would carry?
I think all that social-biological stuff is such a façade. I don’t want to go down that road. What about the importance of culture? I have a great joke that nobody else understands: When sociobiologists start shitting in their backyards when they have dinner guests over, we’ll all start believing their arguments.
Culture intervenes and takes precedent over how we conduct ourselves. We’re not shitting in backyards — are you?
No! Let me explain. Dr. Spock suggested kids be toilet-trained at 2 years old. Modern kids don’t learn how to use the john until they’re 4 or 5. Their parents even show off their kid’s bathroom skill to guests.
That’s very interesting. It seems to me that a lot of shame attached to things in culture is part of the shame of toilet training. If kids are raised where there is no shame attached to toilet training that will have a lot of consequences, don’t you think?
If you took the shame and secrecy out of adultery, would it still be exciting?
If you take the repression out of sex will it still be exciting — that’s the question.
Who’s your favorite adulterer?
That’s a good question. I’ve never thought about that.
She doesn’t come to such a good end. It would be interesting to think of an adulterer who isn’t afflicted with desperation.
You have a chapter that lists all the things that you can’t do when you’re married. All those things are just about living with a roommate.
That’s partly true. But a lot of them are about changing each other, and preventing your own anxiety about the other person stopping loving you. If they don’t come on time, they’re out having an affair — which you wouldn’t be worried about with a roommate. Or how their behavior reflects on you — if they tell a bad joke in public or have bad table manners. I think there are a lot of ways mates try to reform each other just for control — controlling people comes natural to us.
Long-term relationships require mutual sacrifices.
Certain things get mooshed together. Marriage as a kind of economic relationship. That’s what it initially was — property sharing, child raising. So the family as an economic unit. That traditional form of social organization got amalgamated with the romantic love that assimilated with the sexual fidelity issue into this idea that something that starts out with romance and desire should sustain itself throughout 30 or 40 years. All those things get collapsed together until they’re talked about as the same thing, but they’re not. One of the problems people have sustaining these relationships is that so much is expected out of this poor little economic/social unit. [A bird begins cawing in the background.]
I hear a bird.
I’m out on the porch. I’m out on this island off Virginia. One of the things that I’m interested in is having a discussion that is not limited to a single experience, expanding the kind of discussions we have in society about these questions. Not just keep on telling first-person stories, but try to give a larger social picture. I’m not really interested in talking about my personal life in the media. That seems like a weird thing to do, doesn’t it?
That’s how books are sold.
Maybe you and I should forge a whole new way of selling books. Let’s be experimental. Let’s be radical.
We could be like Jayson Blair and make things up. I was going to tell you about the first time I committed adultery with Ann Coulter —
I had thought about lying myself, I must confess. I thought every time I was asked a personal question, I would make up a different story. I thought that would be fun.
I suspect but don’t assume that you are heterosexual.
Many gay marriage couplings are not monogamous, and the couple maintains the emotional security to deal with peripheral sex.
I think it’s hard to generalize.
Once you start adultery, if it’s not a one-night stand, it becomes a secondary relationship –
I think that’s what I’m interested in. The question of dissatisfaction. I think of it as a social question, not just an individual one. There is an awful lot of dissatisfaction in this country. What happens to political dissent? One of the things is that all forms of dissatisfaction get translated into personal life. Also questions. What can you expect from life? What kind of gratifications are allowed? Adultery is clearly about people acting out a dissatisfaction with some higher arrangement. I was trying to reformulate the question of adultery to be beyond just a moral issue or a personal issue. Does that make sense?
Was that boring?
No. You were naked while you were saying it.
Yes. And I have really big breasts — double-D cups.
Can you make them a little smaller?
[Laughs] Sure. D?
Yeah, good. Women are really sympathetic to the book.
You’re the first male who has been assigned to the book!
I feel like I’m missing something unspoken that the women are getting. I’m under the impression that men are more susceptible to mindless adultery — such as getting blow jobs from Monica Lewinsky — than woman are. Women want complicated adultery like Madam Bovary — some drama, a little narration. Do you think that’s true?
I think we’re entering uncharted gender territory these days. I guess the line that I’m taking in the book is that anyone can play any gender role. The guy can play the girl role — he can be the one who wants a relationship and the girl can be the one who wants a quickie. One of the things that happens if you start making generalizations, “men want this, women want that …” you’re in the area of a pop sociology that doesn’t interest me. Life has many exceptions as the predicable things. Who knows what will be typical for the feminine after awhile?
Sometimes it can take couples several years to click sexually. Is that a social condition or a physical one? If a woman or man needs that much time to click with someone, how are they going to find an adulterer with that much patience?
I’m not sure that’s the book I’ve written. I don’t think it’s a “how to have good adultery.” You don’t ask the demolition guy how to build the house. You’re on your own.
In all fictional depictions of adultery the sex is great instantly.
That’s a fantasy. You’re not fumbling around. The phone’s not ringing. Sex is complicated and it involves much more than just getting off physically. And that’s probably true in adultery — I’m speculating — what you’re getting isn’t only physical. It’s something else. Excitement that isn’t part of normal life.
What about cases of adultery within adultery? The mistress finds Bill is cheating on her as well as his wife?
If someone is cheating on the person they’re suppose to be cheating with, they’re looking for something. What? What would you call it? Sex is a kind of idiom. A form of rebellion. It is a way of expressing what there isn’t another way to express. The second book under my belt is “On Pornography.” I was arguing that in regard to pornography, people think it’s only about sex and you get reductive approaches to pornography.
With adultery, I think there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the reins of normal life. People get slotted into these uniform, cookie-cutter lives and need to break out in some way. Adultery becomes a way to use sex to break out of that. You and I were raised on rock ‘n’ roll; sex has all sorts of connotations of freedom and social rebellion. The premise of this book isn’t to promote adultery or convince people to have it — this book is not a handbook for adultery. [It's about] why people stay in situations that they are unsatisfied with. What keeps people from changing their lives?
I get the sense that there is no perfect marriage. Where does our urge to couple come from? Before I met my wife I never thought about marriage, but then even Philip Marlowe got hitched.
I take for granted that coupledom is the way people organize themselves in adult lives. I don’t have an answer to the question. I say in the beginning of the book, “People who are in a good relationship: You can stop reading.”
Did you research this book by interviewing friends?
I actually got most of my information from people ahead or behind me in airport departure lounges. You just hear the most amazing conversations and complaints!
To each other? Or do unhappy spouses stand around talking to themselves?
You can hear people on cellphones. The only good thing about cellphones is the intimate conversations that people have walking down the street talking on the cellphones. You get so much social data that way.
So will the right wing go after you about this book?
I think so. Some P.R. guy told me some right-wing writer had called me a “Do me feminist.”
I keep falling back on gender cliché — I think the energy for both right-wing and lefty coupling comes more from women than from men.
I’m not in the “nobody matters but me” line of thinking, but these weird abstractions act well to preserve the social fabric. Those are bogus arguments. Listen, most people end up working most of their lives making someone else rich. [Pause.] You’re getting me as a socialist here.
Is that your background? You sound like a red.
Yeah, I’m pretty influenced by democratic socialist tradition. Who wouldn’t be? That gets back to the origins of the book. Everyone should be more interested in economic equality and justice than they are. It’s surprising to me that we live in a society that people just lie down for the most incredible forms of inequality. I think if you take a look at the economic distribution, there should be an entire strike of the workforce tomorrow. So how is it that we live in a culture that is so acquiescent that we believe all the lies told by politicians and these economic programs that benefit the rich? Part of what I’m interested in doing in this book is to show how domesticity is a training ground for complacence — all the endless rules and edicts of love are training to larger forms of passivity.
In the same economic bent — adultery takes time. Our pops worked eight-hour days because Mom wouldn’t tolerate anything longer. We moderns work 10-, 11-hour days. Where is the extra time for adultery going to come from?
There’s that funny — not funny actually — statistic about people working more hours because they’re avoiding going home.
Work as a form of adultery?
That’s a kind of cliché isn’t it? The husband married to his job. Or these days, the corporate wife. You can’t run a household on one wage anymore.
Did you see the movie “Unfaithful” with Diane Lane? It was perfect emotional pornography for married people. Adultery may be fun, but in the end somebody’s got to die.
That’s pretty classic. Somebody has to pay for pleasure, like sin.
That’s why you stay married; it’s either divorce or death.
That would be my argument. Or the unknown, which would be more of a threat.
You writing a book called “Against Love “must have been strange for your partner (if you have one).
That’s why I’m not so eager to talk about my personal life. It involves someone other than myself.
I could write a book “Against Childbirth” — yeah, yeah, yeah, humanity would end, but I’m still against childbirth. It would be legitimate for a reporter to ask me, “So we can assume you don’t have kids?”
Remember the word “against” has two meanings. It means “up against” something. Nobody can be against love. I’m a huge romantic actually. That’s the irony of writing a book called “Against Love.” (There’s a confession for you.) I’ve been coupled. I’ve been uncoupled. I’ve had to say in print recently that I’ve spent most of my life in long-term relationships. So I’ve been there. Just like all of us “late bloomers.” The reason I wrote the book is that I’m so fucking sick about all the public sanctimony around marriage. You just want to kill these people. And the most sanctimonious ones all turned out to be adulterers. That was the great social lesson of the ’90s. Thank you, Newt Gingrich, for that.
Do you know what your husband is doing right now?
He’s naked beside me.
Oh, a threesome. Do you have just one book deal with your publisher?
That’s a relationship like marriage. Are you going to stay married to Pantheon?
Am I going to be faithful to them?
Are they going to be faithful to you and publish your next sex book?
I want to stress my book is not a book about sex, it’s a book about love. I have a reputation as someone who writes about sex, but I think of myself as writing about sexual politics. “Against Love” is an experiment that I’m still trying to see how it comes out. Is the book going to get falsely characterized as a pro-adultery book? So far the longer reviews have dealt seriously with all the political aspects of the book. I have greater ambitions than being a sex writer, no offense to you, Salon’s “Sex Guy.” There are other things that interest me. I don’t want to go down in history as the Adultery Queen.
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.
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)