"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)
I must have been a third or fourth grader when I vowed never to turn into someone like Mrs. K., a friend’s mom, who was still sporting her very frosted beehive hairdo decades after the style became outdated. She resembled Frenchie from “Grease,” after Frenchie’s extreme DIY blond dye job cum upsweep came out looking like (according to her boyfriend, Sonny) “a beautiful blond pineapple.” And Mrs. K.’s crowning glory was further dramatized by her startling height: Though well over 6 feet tall, she never wore anything but the biggest heels in town. Mrs. K. was so out of touch, so absurdly anachronistic, that I thought of her as slightly mentally deranged — or maybe lightheaded from the altitude? — though there was no real evidence she was. Every time I saw her, I tried to figure out what kind of crucial brain material she could be missing to be so strangely unaware of how odd she looked.
People might have been wondering the same thing about me just a few months ago, when I was an otherwise young-looking 29-year-old woman with a head full of prematurely gray hair.
How had I ended up with such a unstylish, unflattering look? The journey to bad hair started for me when I was only 10 and my first two or three silver hairs showed up, sticking out like desperadoes against the rest of the law-abiding jet-black citizens of my scalp.
The rogue follicles were exotic enough at that age that I was a schoolyard celebrity for a few days after discovering them. A more significant settlement of unpigmented tough guys put down roots during my freshmen year of high school, around the same time that I spent four months in the hospital getting over a bad case of anorexia. When I finally got out of the kiddie psych ward — with 40 extra much-needed pounds and a thin but distinct line of white growing out from the right-front corner of my hairline — I didn’t want to ever go back again. But the only way I could stay free (and, I realized, not be totally miserable for the rest of my life) was by maintaining a healthy weight. To do that, I forced myself to make peace with the body and looks I had been born with. So I wasn’t going to try and look like anyone else: not Alyssa Milano, the teen star of “Who’s the Boss?” whom all the boys I knew had a crush on, nor the twiggy models in the New York Times “Fashions of the Times” magazine, who I thought were so perfect. From then on, I was going to be perfectly honest with myself and the world about my appearance. After all, wasn’t truth beauty, beauty truth?
As a consequence of my willful reprogramming, I decided early on I would never dye my prematurely aging hair, even though by the time I was in college I had a full-blown white stripe in the right-front corner of my head. Though that was long before the hair-streaking craze hit, I thought my look was super cool: rock star, badass. Sometimes I even thought it marked me as a survivor, or someone destined for greatness, like being able to pull the sword from the stone did for Arthur. And my skin was in such great peaches-and-cream shape then that my hair actually accentuated my youthfulness. Another unexpected thing: All the guys I knew told me how hot they thought my do was — calling into question the conventional wisdom that men hate gray. Just more proof, as far as I was concerned, that Keats was right and that the accepted rules of behavior were worth challenging.
By the time I was halfway through my 20s, the gray took up more real estate on my head. Like a black-and-white Mrs. Robinson, I had three or four streaks by then, but they were still attractive enough that people regularly asked me if I had them professionally done. Around the same time, I accepted a job in the news department of Glamour magazine. There, I was happy to be working on stories about inspiring women who fought back against their rapists, helped impoverished kids get out of the ghetto, and battled Congress to get stricter gun-control laws. But I was also very careful not to drink any Kool-Aid: I told myself when I started (somewhat ridiculously and self-importantly, I’ll admit) that if anyone at Glamour ever even hinted I should change my hair, I would quit! (No one ever did.) Along the same lines, I doubted that the makeover candidates that appear just about every month in the pages of Glamour experienced any deep or lasting benefits; I pooh-poohed the idea that any superficial adjustment would make anyone truly happier with herself. Meaningful change needs to come from within, right?
Sure. But by the time I turned 29, I was much less enamored of my hair than I had been during my days as a college student. I was predominantly gray then — less punk chic like the Bride of Frankenstein and more Church Lady dumpy, like Barbara Bush. Though men were still regularly complimenting my hair, they had started saying they admired me for daring not to dye, rather than telling me it looked sexy. (Yes, I want to be respected, but I also want to be lusted after!) Worse, they started saying I reminded them of their mothers, who were graying naturally, too — as if that was the biggest compliment in the world. Clearly Oedipal! I’d tell myself. But it wasn’t much consolation.
A far bigger downer, though, was simply looking in the mirror every morning. It had become too much like flossing my teeth: an unavoidable chore. My skin had lost the rosy luminescence of youth, and all the white hair surrounding my face nullified any speck of color left; my reflection was washed-out, tired, haggard. I was like a reverse Dorian Gray: The image I saw appeared years older than I was.
This is the way you look now, like it or not, and you need to accept it, I would tell myself, like some puritanical and slightly cruel matriarch, relying on my old philosophy. Under its terms, dyeing was not an option; I had too deeply inculcated myself with the idea that coloring my hair would qualify as a lie and worse, an act of self-hatred — that covering my gray would be on a par with blanketing my “true” self. If I did it, wouldn’t I once again be trying to look like someone else, as I had when I was anorexic, rather than myself?
Then, last fall — after three people overestimated my age, horrifically, by 10 years, and a well-intentioned Indian man told me I looked like a movie star (Richard Gere!) — Glamour’s fabulous and gorgeous style editor, Suze Yalof, sent around an e-mail asking if anyone knew a great hair makeover candidate. Rather than deleting her message right away as I had similar ones in the past, I kept it in my inbox. Living with my ugly hair was making me totally miserable, and if I could see what it looked like with color for free, why not try it out?
After a week passed, I decided I had nothing to lose and offered myself up to the makeover gods. The minute I called Suze to tell her I’d do it if she’d have me, she said, “Oh, good! I love your style, but I’ve been dying to get my hands on your hair for a long time.” (I think it’s fair to say there was no pun intended.)
The day before the big transformation was going to take place, I freaked. I don’t think I want to do this, I thought. What if I hate it? My hair had been my identifying characteristic for so long, like Harry Potter and his glasses. What would I be without it? Would I ever stand out in a crowd? Would I lose the power of my personality as Samson had lost his strength? And even if I liked it, would I ever be able to make it to the beauty salon once a month to maintain it? I could barely make it there twice a year to get my layers cut.
I called Suze in a panic, begging her to let me out of my commitment, but she laughed: If the makeover and photo shoot scheduled for the next day didn’t happen, Glamour would be out of a story it was depending on for its next issue, and a ton of money — easily thousands of dollars, by my estimate — would go down the drain. I asked if we could use a rinse instead of the permanent stuff — thinking myself incredibly helpful, I even offered to pick it up at Duane Reade — but Suze said washout color wouldn’t be dramatic enough for the camera.
So the next day, I, er, let the dye be cast. In a huge West Village brownstone that doubled as a photo studio, Suze, her makeover team and I decided on my “new look” while the photo crew took my “before” shots. The cameras kept clicking as I was dyed and highlighted by Emilie, a top colorist for John Frieda Salon in New York; shorn and blown out by Frieda creative consultant Richard Marin; and had my face painted by makeup artist to the stars Mally Roncal. When they were finished, I had been transformed: Where once I had salt-and-pepper shoulder-length hair parted down the middle, I now had a chestnut base with golden highlights, long bangs, and “texturized” layers. Everyone around me was oohing and aaahing, and — silently — so was I. I was genuinely amazed and absolutely thrilled: I was still me — just younger looking and prettier than I’d been in a long time. And, frankly, I finally felt as though the babe I looked like on the outside matched the babe I felt like on the inside. I felt a bit like Dorothy newly landed in Oz — except it wasn’t the world that suddenly had color, but me!
And I’m continuing to enjoy the hell out of my new mop. I get a lot more second (and even third) looks now; the number of men who ask for my number has quadrupled; and this jaw-droppingly hot 21-year-old from my gym suddenly asked me out for drinks. (When I told him I had been working out there for at least a year, he said, “Why didn’t I ever notice you before?” Hmmm. I wonder…) Once they recognized me, my family and friends all said they loved the look, too — even the ones, and there were plenty of them, who had voted against the change.
The only person who said he liked me better before — a security guard who works in my office building — told me he had always found it refreshing that I had been bold enough to look so unusual amid the mass of perfectly coiffed, stick-thin, stiletto-heeled fashionistas who work in my building. (Condé Nast, the company that owns Glamour, also owns Vogue, Allure, Lucky, Self, GQ, Vanity Fair and a number of other top glossy magazines.) When I mentioned this to Suze, maybe with a bit of wistfulness, she said: “But was being the poster girl for coolness worth the sacrifice of not looking as great as you do now?”
And it wasn’t, I realized; I didn’t want to be a Rebel Without a Hair Color anymore. I was sick of being miserable just to prove some point.
And what had the point been, anyway? Oh, right: that I needed to be content with the body and looks that were my birthright — a smart move back when I’d been treating myself like a concentration camp prisoner. But dyeing my hair isn’t in the same league as starving myself. It doesn’t threaten my life or health. It doesn’t cause me an ounce of unhappiness. In fact, it does the opposite — and the thing that had been paining me was not dyeing my hair.
I realized that depriving myself of color was pretty similar to withholding food from myself: a practice that I had taken too far, that had turned into a punishment, that had warped my self-perception. When I was anorexic, nothing was ever enough: no matter how much weight I lost, I never felt satisfied with my appearance. Now the only thing I can’t get enough of is checking myself out in the looking glass.
Maura Kelly is co-author (with Jack Murnighan) of "Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not So-Great Gatsbys, and Love in the Time of Internet Personals."More Maura Kelly.
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)