"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)
This is my last column for Salon for awhile. I am going on sabbatical, during which time I hope to help George Bush find employment for which his unique interests and training are better suited. I also need to get my joy back, however the presidential election shakes down. My pastor Veronica said yesterday that in Advent, God tells us to rejoice, but to do that, we need to have had joy before, and it’s been a while for some of us. Veronica cried out, “Get your ‘joice back.” So I was trying to do that, though it’s hard when you’re living under a Bush. But before I go, there is one more story I want to tell you, because joy is medicine.
My friend Neshama and I went to San Quentin last week to teach inmates how to tell their stories through writing, and through the oral tradition in which Neshama has found her voice — she studies with the finest local storytellers, and belongs to a guild where people learn to tell crafted stories from the stage. I was glad to be there for a number of reasons. First of all, because Jesus said that whatever you did to the least of his people, you did to him, and the lifers in penitentiaries are the leastest people in this country. Just look to see whose budgets are being cut these days — the old, the crazies, the children in Head Start — and that’s where Jesus will be. He also promised that God forgives the unlovable and the unforgivable, which means most of us — the lifers, me, Cheney.
Secondly, my father had taught English and writing at San Quentin during the 1950s and ’60s. He published stories about getting to know his students in the New Yorker, and then wove them into a book called “San Quentin: Biography of a Prison.” I grew up hearing and reading about his students. He did not bog down in complex moral and ethical issues — victims’ rights, recidivism. He just taught the prisoners to read good books, to speak English, and to write. He treated them with respect and kindness, his main philosophical and spiritual position being, Don’t be an asshole. My brothers and I stood outside the gates of San Quentin with him over the years, in protest and silent witness whenever someone was going to be gassed.
And lastly, one of the inmates, named Wolf, the head of the Vietnam Vets group at San Quentin, had asked me to come help some of his friends with their writing.
I had been inside the grounds for worship services at night, but had never visited in broad daylight. Last week when we went it was pouring rain. Waiting outside the walls with Neshama, two San Quentin English teachers, and a friend from my church, I felt the entirety of the violence and fear of the world. I hardly know what to feel most days, except for grief and bug-eyed paranoia. But my faith tells me that God has larger cojones than Bush or Condi or Saddam or bin Laden, and that he has skills, ploys and grace adequate to bring light into the present darkness.
San Quentin is on a beautiful piece of land in Marin County, on the east shore of San Francisco Bay, with lots of sun, views of the bridges, hills, windsurfers. I tried not to worry so much as we waited. Veronica kept repeating on Sunday what Paul and Jesus always said: “Don’t worry! Don’t be so anxious. In these dark times, give off light. Care for the least of God’s people.” Jesus had such an affinity for prisoners. He had been one, after all. He must have felt anxiety and isolation, but he identified with the prisoners anyway. He made a point of befriending the worst and most hated, because his message was that no one was beyond the reach of divine love, despite society’s way of stating the opposite. God: what a nut.
Finally, we stood outside the innermost gate, showing our I.D.s to the guards, getting our hands stamped with fluorescent ink: “You don’t glow, you don’t go,” said one cheerful, pockmarked guard, which is the best spiritual advice I’ve had in a long time.
We stepped into a holding pen between gates, while my mind spun with worries about being taken hostage, and having a shotgun strapped to my head with duct tape. I don’t think Jesus would have been thinking these same thoughts. Everything in him reached out for love and mercy and redemption. He taught that God is able to bring life from even the most death-dealing of circumstances, no matter what the terror alert level stands at. I have a slight problem living by this: Some days all that keeps me going is the image of Kissinger on trial at The Hague.
Neshama and I and our colleagues were finally allowed to step through the gates, and view the outer walls of the prison, which was built in 1852. San Quentin possesses great European beauty — ancient walls, elegant gun towers. It’s like a set from Edgar Allan Poe. Someone could do something nice with this place, something more festive. It could be a cute bed and breakfast, say. Or a brewery. I did not know who would be inside, except that most of the convicts are murderers serving life sentences. I imagined that some would be sullen and shifty-eyed, and others would be charming cons, trying to win me over so I would marry them and get them better lawyers, and consort with them on alternate Tuesdays. I knew there’d be camaraderie, violence and redemption inside, because I’d read my father’s and other accounts. But those were written years ago, when you could believe in caring for prisoners without being accused of being soft on crime.
Jesus was so soft on crime. He’d never have been elected anything.
In the courtyard, we were met by several staff people, and finally by Wolf, and two of his friends, all sweet and polite and clean-shaven, with Vietnam Vet caps on. We stood within the circle of prison buildings, in the center of concrete cell blocks, dining halls, classrooms, a hospital, a chapel. The grounds are brightly landscaped by the inmates, but the buildings look like a child’s play structure that had been left outside for 100 years; a plastic and castley hodgepodge of stone and cement, crumbly, ornate, deteriorated.
There’s razor wire everywhere, and a constant clanging and banging of gates and cells and doors. Guards carry arms, and keys that could be from the middle ages. Prisoners walk all over the grounds, as slowly as monks, with nowhere much to go. Of course, we saw your better inmates, the really polite ones, not the hardest cases, not the men on death row. The prisoners we saw and spent time with seem to be sliding by, relatively seamless and calm. They’re mostly older; you sense their testosterone levels are down. I like that in a prisoner.
Wolf and his friends showed us the classrooms, the chapel and the hobby shop where they work making wooden cable-car jewelry boxes and stained-glass hummingbirds and crosses. “Should you guys be trusted with knives and saws and extremely sharp implements?” I asked nicely.
They laughed. “We earned the privilege by good behavior,” Wolf told me. They showed us the old dining hall with the long walls covered in murals painted by inmates with black and brown shoe polish. The murals depicted California’s history and their own — the Native Americans, Sir Francis Drake, the missions, the mountain, heroes of labor, farm workers, artists, prisoners, saints — and hidden inside these pictures were secrets that only they could see.
We walked to the main cellblock. The prison is overcrowded, by half. The prisoners are double-celled, double-bunked. The cells are grotesque, like a Croatian zoo. I understand how the families of victims think they deserve this, but seeing the prisoners stuffed in these cages affected me like the displayed corpses of Saddam’s sons, where you had to wonder: Who are we? And what next? Bloody heads on stakes, outside the White House?
“What are you reading?” I asked the man in the first cell.
He held out his book: true crime by Ann Rule.
Finally Wolf lead us to the dining room where 60 prisoners had gathered in bolted-down chairs near a stage. Behind them, a kitchen crew of prisoners and guards were making the next meal.
What you might call the aesthetics left something to be desired — it was an echoey, cavernous space, like a hangar, metallic with the racket of inmates and guards making and packaging food. It smelled like cheap meat and old oil and white bread.
I got onstage, took a long deep breath, and wondered, as usual, where to start. You start where you are, is the secret of life. You do the next right thing you can see. Then the next. I told them the same stuff I tell everyone: short assignments, shitty first drafts, that you own what happened to you. They listened dutifully.
Then I introduced Neshama, with a certain concern that the prisoners wouldn’t quite get her — this intense granny, with furry gray hair and a loud red plaid flannel dress, who uses her whole body to tell stories. I had invited her because I love her stories and I knew it would be more fun for me, and because some people, like Neshama, hate to write but love to read and tell stories.
I had extremely low expectations — I hoped maybe a few prisoners would form a guild, like the one to which Neshama belongs, hoped they wouldn’t hurt her, or overcome her, or make her marry them. Then Neshama walked to the mike, and told her first story, her version of a folk tale. It was about a man in the olden days with no luck, who comes upon safety, wealth and a beautiful woman, but is too busy looking for fancier luck, somewhere else, to even notice her. Neshama painted the story with her hands, leaning into the crowd, and drawing back, hopeful or aghast at the unlucky man’s journey, smiling gleefully at the story’s close. And the place went nuts. She absolutely stole the show right out from under me like a rock star, while I looked as prim and mainstream as Laura Bush. Here they thought she was going to teach them a lesson, and she had basically sung them a song. Their faces lit up with surprise. She was shining on them, they felt her shining on them, and so they shone back on her.
They asked her questions — where do we find these stories? And Neshama told them: “They’re in you, like jewels in your hearts.” Why do they matter? “Because they’re treasures, these memories, these images, ground of the same wisdom we all know, but that you alone can tell.”
They stared up at her, mesmerized. They looked like family, and neighbors, black and white and Asian and Spanish, all in their blue denim clothes. Some looked pissed off, some looked bored, some attentive, and the older ones all looked like God.
When I finally got her off the stage, I gave them a second round of my best writing tips, and there was warm, respectful applause. Then Neshama got up and told a second story. It was about her late husband, and a pool he used to hike to where there was one old whiskery fish swimming around. She stripped her story down to its essence, because only essence speaks to desperate people. And they rose to give her a standing ovation. It was a stunning moment. I was only a little bitter — medium bitter — but mostly I was blown away. All she had done was to tell them, “I’m human, you’re human, let me greet your humanness. Let’s be people together for awhile.”
She told them more about her storytelling guild, and some of the guards sat down to listen. We did a duet for a while, the two of us answering questions, telling them useful stories of our own work, and the writers we love who’ve filled our communal well of wisdom with life’s truth, worn and honed from many years and different cultures.
We had evoked the listening child in these men, with the only real story anyone has ever told — that the teller had been alive for awhile, and learned a little in surprising ways, the way the universe delivers truth. And while I saw these men through the haze of our desire that things go well, I also saw rough beautiful glass, tumbled in the turbulent and unrelenting streams of prison life. I saw that these men looked out for each other. I saw that they had nothing but the present, the insides of their minds, glimpses of natural beauty, library books, guilt, rage, growth, and each other. I saw that these lives were of value. I had a sudden desire to send them all my books, all of my father’s and friends’ books, too. Also, to donate all my organs. Why did these men make me feel like being so generous? Maybe it was all the fresh air we’d brought in, the wind and the rain and ourselves. It was like we’d brought in an accordion; we talked, and listened, and shared, and it filled the bellows. We squeezed, and some meanness came out, both theirs and ours, and we pulled the accordion open again, and breath went in, ours, theirs, the storm’s. We opened and closed the pleats, letting air in and out past the metal reeds. And who but God knows what will come out?
In any case, that’s all from me for awhile. Take care of each other. Rest. And try to get your ‘joice back. The days will be longer again soon.
Anne Lamott's most recent memoir, "Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son," is out in paperback Tuesday, April 2.More Anne Lamott.
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)