"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)
Cleopatra is a classic siren. To seduce Julius Caesar, she rolled herself up in a rug and had it delivered to his compound. According to Betsy Prioleau, author of “Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love,” “Hollywood got [Cleopatra] all wrong. Short and zaftig, she resembled Elizabeth Taylor only in cup size. She looked more like a ‘before’ plastic surgery profile: a low beetling brow, a large hooked nose and a wide, thin-lipped mouth.”
So how did Cleopatra, more dog than woman, seduce the most powerful man in the world?
“She used her brains to seduce,” Prioleau says, sitting in my New York kitchen. Prioleau is an attractive woman — probably around Cybill Shepherd’s age. She’s dressed in an elegant black skirt and dark hose, and has nice gams. She talks with a slight Southern accent. Most important, Prioleau likes dogs. My English pointer, Snoot, lies at her feet.
“The way Cleopatra got Julius Caesar is totally amazing,” she continues. “Here is a guy — you can imagine Mick Jagger — he was surrounded by groupies. All the women wanted this guy. Men went into battle singing this little ditty about all the women he’d had. Not only that, he was bisexual — he had all the beautiful boys too. He had everybody. He was a jaded ladies’ man. Here’s a guy maybe 56 when Cleopatra saw him. When she rolled out of that rug, she was about 18 and not beautiful at all. Plutarch is clear about that. She rolled out and barraged Caesar with such a stream of charming conversation — a ‘charm offensive’ through language. She addressed him in perfect Latin. Then perfect Greek. She told him jokes. Stories. Displayed her magnificent erudition. She was a brilliant women. She wrote a tract on weights and measurements, of all things. She was happiest in a library. It was said she had a ‘voluptuous’ love of learning. Caesar had never encountered a woman like this. He was so charmed he made her his mistress that night.”
Prioleau proves that it is brains, not just boobs, that powerful men crave. “Seductress” is Priouleau’s second book. Her first was a scholarly text titled “Circle of Eros: Sexuality in the Works of William Dean Howells.” Her publisher, Viking, calls “Seductress” “an authoritative, empowering guide to erotic sovereignty that will electrify you.” I take this to mean that Prioleau’s charged-up history will spark smart unattached women to grab Turkish rugs and hunt down their own Caesars to conquer.
Why did you write this book?
It all started in Manhattan College in 1994. I was teaching a course, The Seductress in Literature. The class was mobbed with both guys and girls. I asked on the first day, “Why are you here?” The girls kept raising their hands, saying, “We are clueless right now. We want to know what these women did.” This is just literature, mind you. We deconstructed Aphrodite and her myths. Then we did Becky Sharp [the anti-heroine in Thackeray's "Vanity Fair"]. “Justine,” by Lawrence Durrell. “Les liaisons dangereuses,” by Choderlos de Laclos. Nadine Gordimer — I had them read “Sport of Nature.” (Marvelous book! The ultimate liberated woman!) It turned out that the seductress defied all the stereotypes even in the fiction.
The most interesting thing is, students flooded my office after class and told me all these horrible stories about what was happening to women on campus. Here was a small Catholic conservative college and the guys had a “Hunters’ Club,” where they had to screw 100 girls to belong. One girl said that two or three people at the tiny end of her hall had been date-raped. They were road kill for these fraternity guys. I realized that women today were in a real romantic crisis. I thought maybe if I studied the women throughout history who had conquered and kept the men that they wanted, then maybe I could figure out a way of solving this issue. My own daughter was 15 and I thought, I don’t want her out in the world just successful in school. I wanted her to have the whole package. Why not?
What year did you come of age?
Ah, those “free love” days. Are we now in some retro-date-rape culture?
That was maybe the culture of the 1990s. Now I think we’re in a hookup-breakup culture.
In a date-rape culture, how does a seductress go after who she wants and not get jumped?
They don’t drink. About 90 percent of the time, women are drunk when they get date-raped. They think they have to intrigue college boys with slut-wear and giggles. Girls have been lulled into some sort of Victoria’s Secret idea of seduction — the more cleavage, the more “booty delicious” they look, the hotter the guys are going to be. Today’s girls are shy. They don’t know how to go about enchanting a guy. This is a lost art. They then drink too much. The next thing they know they’re making out with a stranger. Now, this is all right. I’m not being judgmental about that. The difficulty is that 64 percent of college girls think they’re going to meet their husband in college, and they want commitment.
How is that different from the wants of the brides in ancient Greece?
In ancient Greece, proper women were absolutely powerless. They were married off at 14 to much older guys, and then they were put into domestic isolation. They weren’t even allowed to go out in the agora. These women were just shut up. Then you have the second kind of woman — professionals. There were six tiers of prostitutes. Those at the bottom of the heap sold themselves for just a drachma, something like that. They just stood naked outside of their houses and took what they could get. But the hetaerae [top whores] got the highest figures and the best men. Aspasia [a famous whore] was actually married to Pericles. But the reason prostitutes were so successful is that they subscribed to this ancient art of love. In Aspasia’s case, she taught it. It was called “the Aspasian Path.” In ancient Greece they just assumed ordinary woman knew all the physical stuff — they had to know dozens of sexual positions, putting on oils and dress. But that was elementary.
For “bachelorettes,” right? Not for wives.
Right. The wife didn’t have to know anything about sex. They were just breeders. Women who were in the trade learned the physical part of sex. You learned it when you were young, and it was pretty simple. But the other part, the intellectual part, the psychological part, was complex. It involved a great deal of learning — the art of empathy, the arts of conversation. You had to be able to recite poetry and compose your own. So the whole idea is that love is a head trip, and in ancient Greece this was realized. You can’t catch a guy by just possessing a perfect 10 [body], because in ancient Greece these women were all terribly gorgeous. They wore these transparent dresses with long dangly earrings. Everyone dyed their hair blond. Heavy, heavy cosmetics.
So the Greeks invented “blondes”?
Right! Right! Except the most successful hetaerae of all, even more successful than Aspasia, was a woman named Phyrne. She was not very pretty. She had completely black hair. She came to Athens when the place was flooded with prostitutes. Phyrne marketed herself with brilliance. She refused to dye her hair. She wrapped herself in this long winding sheet that covered her up completely and put a huge price on her head. She marketed herself like Cartier or something. Men thought, What’s she got? So she started reeling in all the top people. Then once a year for the Feast of Aphrodite, she took off all these robes — she had a perfect body — and walked from the Temple of Aphrodite into the river and went through the ritual of submersion into the waves. Then she got up and walked naked through the streets. People would come weeks and weeks in advance, as you would for the World Series, to line up to watch her do that. It was brilliant marketing. I think part of seduction is to jump from the pack.
Our modern prejudice is that all the men in Athens were gay.
Oh, no. Not in the least.
But it was a bisexual culture?
Yes, because there was no stigma. [Pause.] But there actually was a stigma. If you engaged in “tergo,” you were lower than the low.
What was “tergo”?
Rear entry. You didn’t really do that.
For either gender?
I don’t know. Well, maybe. But certainly the person on the receiving end was toilet paper. The really distinguished homosexuals did it with their thighs.
How did Greek heterosexual seduction translate to the Romans?
Through the cult of Aphrodite. But the Romans were a masculine culture. The art of love became slightly degraded in Rome. If you start reading Ovid, for example, you can see a debased form of the principles. Although he did say, “Be excellent. Turn people on with your brain. It’s the most wonderful thing. You must learn poetry. You must read. You must cast a spell over a man with your mind. Venus favors the bold.”
Just to jump to the 20th century — how would you seduce Einstein, then?
His love life is not very edifying. Some brilliant men need dumb groupies. And he was promiscuous and that kind of thing. Let’s think of a different modern man. The editor of Vanity Fair, for example, Graydon Carter. Let’s say a woman wanted to seduce him. Lots of brilliant and beautiful women surround him. Most women don’t know how to entice a man with witty and charming conversation. It’s one thing to be a brilliant woman and it’s another thing to be alluring intellectually. That’s a very neglected art right now. Carter would probably be attracted to a woman who could be spontaneously witty, could tell a fabulous anecdote, would have an area of specialty — because again this is what Ovid said. “Anything you do well, perfect it. There is no stronger aphrodisiac than excellence.”
She needs a specialty. Say, fashion of 18th century Paris. She could tell an anecdote about fashion in those days. Tease him with some underwear stories. Make it into a joke. Most of the books on women’s humor say it’s desexualizing, that guys hate a funny women. Not true! Not true! Aphrodite was called the “Laughter-Loving Goddess.” If a woman can make a guy laugh, she’s halfway there. She has to then pique his curiosity. Remember the old porn movie back in the ’70s, “I Am Curious Yellow”? I think Casanova said, “Sexual attraction is 90 percent curiosity.”
Were your rules of seduction universal through time?
Different eras had different preferences. The Victorian era is a perfect example of an overly repressive culture. So one of the psychological aspects in the art of love is disinhibition. This is one of the things that make people fall in love with other people. The ability to relax. Love really does jump the turnstiles. In the Victorian period this was notched up so a woman who could be really unrepressed, and could allow men to relax and unwind, was even more desirable.
Your mannerisms remind me of my wife — you’re both Southern. There is this rich sense of feminine charm in Southern culture. Northerners are gauche by comparison. I know many, many smart New York women who are utterly without charm. I wonder if in a masochistic way this lack of charm is seductive to modern man. Like embracing the Catherine Deneuve ice-bitch goddess.
You think so? Are men really attracted to these charmless women? I doubt it. If you took a seductress today, I doubt an alpha guy could resist one of her massive charm offensives.
Are you yourself a full-fledged seductress?
I’m 100 percent average. One hundred percent.
But I meet you in the lobby and the first thing you say is, “I’ve read your book and it’s good.” How can that not be seductive?
That’s authentic on my part. I grew up in this artistic family and every evening my father would bring out his paintings. My mother was a Southern belle — a devastating manslayer. She wasn’t a June Cleaver mom at all. This is a woman who liked to dress up. And sing the “Tattooed Lady.”
She was the first seductress I knew, so I learned all that stuff. I had to walk around the house in 4-inch heels. I had to lie on the sofa and breathe right so I didn’t have a high, squeaky voice, but one low and sexy. I was told, “When you dance with a guy, you have to make small talk.” All that complex stuff was taught to me. My mother was a tigress in her love life. She had men at her beck and call. She had the hottest honey in Richmond for a husband, but she couldn’t [have any kind of] career. Her father said, “No. You can’t do that. You have to join the Junior League.”
I rebelled against all that Southern junk. I became a feminist. Did the commune thing. Went to graduate school. But what bothered me there, they had kicked those glamorous women out of the club. I saw women who had no decent jobs at all, but in their romantic lives they were powerhouses. My friends up North were glamorous. Beautiful. They’d come down to visit me in Richmond, and my Southern friends were plain Janes with flat chests, yet they are the ones who walked off with all the cute guys. They understood the art. On the other hand, the love lives of my Northern friends were a mess, but they were walking off with law degrees. What I wanted to do my whole life was reconcile these two things — love and work.
What are the morals of seduction?
It’s a stereotype that the seductress is a sly, devious, vampy, low-rent Cosmo girl who uses all these disingenuous tricks to get her way. It’s not like that. There isn’t anything immoral about charm. I know feminists say, “Charm is a four-letter word.” But if you go back to the Greeks, charm is really as sophisticated as haute cuisine.
But what about Monica Lewinsky? How charming could she be, snapping her thong?
A seductress is a person who is the complete opposite of Monica Lewinsky. A person who is in complete control of her love life, who is able to captivate, and keep captivated, the top guys. Bill Clinton was not in love with Monica Lewinsky. We’re talking about love. We’re talking inspiring and sustaining passion. That’s what the seductress does. A seductress doesn’t just get a guy to drop his trousers. That is so simple, you know. [Pause.] When a guy seduces a woman, what does it mean? It means he takes her off to bed. A woman who seduces a man makes this guy fall desperately in love with her — for life if she wants.
Let’s talk about power. Men have the power and the seductress gets some of that power.
So say you were Margaret Thatcher back in the ’80s. Who was she going to seduce? She had the power. She only wants romance, right?
I have a whole chapter on the “Machtweiber.” That’s a word that has no translation in English. It’s German for a female political leader who is incredibly sexy. This kind of woman wants to have it all. Catherine the Great was a premier example. Curious thing about Catherine the Great is, she used what I call an eroticized M.O. to rule the country. There’s a lot of bad press about Catherine the Great. All that stuff about the horse. And none of that is true. That was all cooked up by a French gossip columnist who hung around the court, and she rejected his advances, and he took revenge by making up all those stories about the horses and the heart-shaped hoofs. His male pride was wounded, but he really did love this woman. You can understand why when you read about her. She was adorable. She was multifaceted in so many ways. She wrote dozens of plays and comedies. Her big boast was, “No one has ever been in my company for longer than 15 minutes without feeling completely at ease.” She ego-massaged the country into doing things her way.
The irony is that she didn’t bother to seduce the gossip columnist…
He was small potatoes. She was interested in more interesting men. The big, powerful guys.
But in terms of her legacy, to this day when you think about Catherine the Great, you imagine her being fucked by a horse.
People don’t want to see a woman with excessive power. It dismantles the male hierarchy. It makes it difficult to see a woman with that kind of power, especially if it is sexual and erotic. It’s one thing to have a woman in power if she’s desexed —
Margaret Thatcher. Golda Meir.
We really have that problem in this country. Jackie Kennedy said there are two kinds of women: women with power in bed, and women with power in the world.
What about Joan of Arc? Doesn’t she transcend all categories?
As a seductress?
Joan got all these men to follow her without putting out.
She’s really overrated. You want me to get going about Joan of Arc?
Wow! You got me on a hobbyhorse here, because Agnes Sorel is one of the great heroines in my book. Agnes Sorel is the real heroine who saved France. It was not Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc was used for the church as a perfect icon of the salvation of France. She won very few symbolic victories. Three? They were tiny little villages. If you look at the map she didn’t do much at all.
But she got men to follow her.
But after she died, they stopped. And Charles the Second — Seventh, I’m sorry — retreated to his little tower of bliss that was connected by a tunnel to his chateau. He started toying with prostitutes and cronies — he was called the Pauper King. He was so poor he had paper on the windows to keep out the wind. Meanwhile the English started taking over all of France.
Enter Agnes Sorel — this amazing woman. Charles the Seventh saw her at some function and fell madly in love. She said, “Sire, the price of my favors is France. If you don’t save France, then I will defect to the English king.” She said, “You can’t put your hand lower than the top of my dress until you get France back.” Then the guy snapped into action. [Snaps her fingers with a loud click.] It was like one of those courtly love poems. She encouraged him to get rid of all his cronies. She handpicked this stellar group of people to work with him. People who saved France financially and culturally and militarily. So she was really the person who turned the country around. But she was denounced from every pulpit because she was amazingly gorgeous and sexy. She started a style — she was one of these over-the-top dress divas. She wore these shoes that were 14 feet long with these long pointed toes.
No, no, 14 inches. [Laughs.] I’m sorry! Oh my god, they were called “poulaines.” Anyway she wore these over-the-top costumes. And one of the styles that she invented that stuck in everybody’s craw, especially the church, is she would arrive at state feasts with her left breast exposed. And you’d see her painted that way.
Like John Ashcroft’s statue of Justice.
The story of Joan of Arc is like the story of Amelia Earhart. Everyone heralds Amelia for this diddling thing that she did, but the woman who did the water jump was Beryl Markham. No one talks abut Beryl Markham because she was way too sexy, and her love life doesn’t bear inspection. [Gives low belly laugh.] She just seduced everybody.
Now is a good time to ask my prime question. Is there a woman who seduced God?
[Answers instantly.] Yes! Lilith seduced God. She was Adam’s first wife, but she refused to accept the missionary position. She said, “We’re equal, why should I lie beneath you in the dust?” So she flew off and she found all these daemons — hunky studs, hundreds of them. She copulated all day and had lots of children, and then just went around the world looking for comely youths to seduce. In one legend, she hunted Adam down and gave him wet dreams until he died. [Laughs]. In another story she seduced God Himself.
That’s when the Temple of Jerusalem fell. She’s the classic femme fatale. Also, don’t forget Aphrodite was stronger than Zeus. She’s the only goddess in the Greek pantheon who was never raped.
So we’ve come full circle! We began this discussion talking about date rape. On a mythic level isn’t date rape — when it’s having sex with an unconscious drugged, drunken girl — a coward’s complete negation of female sexuality?
It’s necrophilia. It’s like a watermelon. This is the problem that concerns me — female sexual dysfunction. Why should 43 percent of the women in America have problems sexually? It doesn’t make any sense to me because I grew up in the 1960s, and all of that Masters and Johnson stuff — they’d pick women off the sidewalk, these vague creatures, and they were able to have 50 orgasms right like that. That’s just the way women happen to be wired. It’s pretty simple. Why can’t women cash in on that now? I don’t understand it. There’s some head trip on women. There’s just some propaganda going on that I can’t understand. It’s really toxic.
And take the biggest sexual scandal in the country right now — the Kobe Bryant rape trial. Even if he didn’t rape her, he didn’t even bother to go through the motions of seducing a bimbo. She herself didn’t have a clue how to seduce him, yet keep him at a distance. It’s the death of seduction.
It sure is. Tell me. It’s the cheapest thing I ever heard of. She’s just a Handi Wipe. He could do it with a … goat!
Civilization is based on seduction. As soon as seduction becomes “rape at the Holiday Inn” we’re all lost.
I don’t think men or women want that. I don’t think men are happy with faceless, soulless copulation. I think men are wired deep down for some really marvelous woman, some dream woman who has it all, who will keep him satisfied and interested, and go gangbusters in bed, and all of that. I think that this is what a man truly, truly wants. I don’t think he just wants an orifice.
In all this mythology, a wife is never a seductress, is she?
One of the reasons I wrote this book is to answer the question, “Why should marriages get so dull?” Why should there be this “bliss dip,” they call it, after two years now? They used to call it the seven-year itch. It’s called the ramp effect. It’s like a drug. You need stronger and stronger doses. This is what the art of love is all about. Inspiring — but mostly sustaining — passion. Or keeping love. Not so much attracting love — that’s easy to do. But the art of keeping things interesting. The art of keeping someone on high flame. That was the test. The marriages in my book are interesting. If a woman got her dream guy it’s interesting to watch how she kept him at her feet — maybe that’s not the right word — how she kept him totally fascinated and mesmerized in love.
Minette Helvetius is a perfect example of that. She marries the hottest honey in France. This man had three women a day. He had his wake-up girl. His lunchtime girl. And then in the evening he had the most famous actress of the day. He was this gorgeous guy who spoke many languages, and he dueled, and he was some sort of superhero. Minette captured him for life, and he never looked to the left or to the right. She kept him totally enchanted.
Was she totally enchanted with him?
Yes. It was a perfect love match. It’s equally true that some of the women in my book, like Martha Gellhorn, were easily bored with the alpha man that they would pick. I had to set the bar high so I didn’t pick any women who were dumped. Or if they were, it was very seldom. You can’t have a perfect track record. I chose women who were almost always successful.
Is monogamy biological or psychological?
No one has ever bothered to study the real successful women. There’s a lot of speculation about this, that and the other thing in the same way that Bernie Siegel was the first person to study healthy patients who survived cancer. Before, they’d only studied the sick ones, never the survivors. The same with these women. No one has bothered to actually sit down and study the women who were consistently successful in their love lives. What you read about them is, if you find the right guy, the perfect person, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t be monogamous. If you’re both growing and are crazy about each other, and use these arts of seduction on a daily basis, why would you go to anyone else?
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)