"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)
Topics: Life News
If I could only write one more story in my whole life, it would be this one:
Sam’s wrestling practice got canceled one recent afternoon, and he was driving me crazy with his pent-up energy. I was puttering and picking up the house, which is my main spiritual practice, and he kept ambushing me with demands for food, or attention, and demonstrations of wrestling menace — grabbing at me as if to put me in a hammer hold, or coming at me as if to pile-drive me into the kitchen floor like Hulk Hogan: “I’m not going to hurt you,” he kept reassuring me, like a serial killer, flinging his leg around the backs of my knees so that I was afraid they would buckle. I’m 50, but already I’m turning into an old dog, with poor vision, dysplasia, achy knees, a weak back and flatulence, while he’s raw, robust animal health. Something in him wants to flip me, pile-drive me into the ground, Samoan-drop me into the carpet. I put up puny Rose Kennedy dukes, and asked him if he wanted to go for a hike on the mountain. He said yes.
He’s 2 inches taller than me now. The other day he gave me a goodnight hug, and noticed that he was looking down into my eyes.
“Wow,” he said, stepping back to look down at me. “When did this happen? You’re like a little gnome to me now.”
I am shrinking and he is shooting up, but we both feel no different than children, and we both get a lot of exercise. I am positive of only a few things in life, but one is that if you want to have a decent middle and old age, you have to get exercise almost every day. All the older people who are thriving have stayed physically active — there are exceptions, and everyone knows someone who smoked two packs a day and had a few social beers with breakfast every morning, who lived to be 85, but you have to assume this won’t be you. You have to assume that without exercise, you’ll be the dead one, or if you’re lucky, the one in diapers, with a cannula up your nose.
We headed out for a hike to Deer Park, which is the northern face of Mt. Tamalpais, in Marin County, Calif., about half a mile from our house. I hiked on the southern side of the mountain with my father my whole life until he died. As young children, my brothers and I straggled along just behind him, but when I got older, he and I would stride up steep hills together, sometimes in silence, other times talking about books, politics, culture, family. I’d mention books or poems that I knew would please him — Kazantzakis, Prufrock — and sometimes before a hike, I would read criticisms or introductions so I could keep up in conversation. I lived for his admiration. I didn’t want to instill this pressure to impress me in Sam, and, luckily, “impress” might be a bit strong to describe how Sam acts around me. He loves me, most of the time, and thinks I’m hilarious, but he doesn’t perform in the way I used to: He doesn’t study up for our conversations, he doesn’t chat up my friends, he doesn’t read books so that we can discuss them. In fact, he reads very few books. He reads what he wants, magazines about things I have no opinions of or particular interest in: motherboards for his computer, bike frames. I’d always imagined Sam and me strolling along together, talking like my dad and I used to talk, about intellectual things. We don’t, but if you get what you hope and pray for, you’re shortchanging yourself: I get something better. I get this: “Darling,” I asked at the trailhead, kicking off a bookish discussion, “did you finish ‘Romeo and Juliet’? And did you like it?”
“Yep. I loved it.”
“Tell me what you loved.”
“Great writing. Clever story.” That was it.
I wrote this down as we set out along the fire road that leads to a steep trail, with Lily, our 1-year-old Rottweiler-Shar-Pei mix, racing ahead. “Did you ever notice how much Lily looks like Benicio Del Toro?” Sam asked. I wrote this down, too. It is true.
He and Lily dropped behind me, and I walked along lost in my thoughts and the beauty of the woods. After a while, I reached the meandering high trail that weaves through bay and laurel groves. You get all the climates here on the mountain; first the English dappled shade, where it’s cool and smells like spring and mulch, and then a few minutes later you come out from under the trees and you’re in Sicily, in bright blue heat.
Hearing commotion, I turned to find Sam. He was smashing and bashing the ground with a branch, whacking at the low-hanging branches as if they were piñatas. Rather than a short talk on honoring the ecosystem that he and his fellow students have studied extensively, I continued along. I rest in silence and music and long strides, while he rests in noise and motion.
After a moment, he stopped, and the silence was broken only by birdsong, our footsteps, and invisible animals moving around in the fallen leaves and twigs. Then Sam started whistling. His grandfather taught him to whistle when he was 4 — his adopted grandfather Rex, my father’s best friend of 30 years. My father died 10 years before Sam was born, and I was still struggling with an achy emptiness, a feeling that my life had been diminished by half at his death. How would my books and Sam even matter if my father wasn’t around to be proud? Now he’s been dead for 25 years, as long as I knew him alive, and sometimes when I’ve done something fabulous, I feel like a gymnast who has performed a flawless routine in an empty auditorium.
Sam looks a lot like my father did as a boy. Sam also looks like his own father, whom we found when Sam was 7, three years after Rex taught Sam to whistle. The first time Sam and I took a walk with Sam’s father, John led the way through the woods behind his own father’s house, where he grew up, 10 miles in one direction from my childhood home, 10 miles in the other from the house where I live now. Sam walked shyly 10 or 15 feet behind his dad, and I took up the rear, feeling terror and grief that I was finally having to share Sam. But it cheered me to hear Sam whistling away. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel shy and nervous; it was just that Rex had taught him how to whistle.
Rex was one of the three men who helped raise him during his first five years, the others being my brother Steve, who taught Sam how to wrestle and goof off, and his unofficial big brother Brian, who was bathing and diapering him at 2 weeks old, and taking him on adventures ever since — canoeing, train rides, farmer’s markets. Rex’s specialties were camping and workshop. They spent hours together in Rex’s workstation when Sam was young, hammering, nailing, talking, silent. He discovered that Sam connects with his own spirit most when he is working with his hands. He would study a nail, or a washer, as if he was holding a butterfly in his hand.
Sam dropped back from me on the trail, then caught up, an edgy psycho-scamper. He stabbed the air with his sword; so joyous, so masculine. He’s always picked up anything that can be used to smash other things with, or to make bombs with, or to destroy piles of leaves or sand or stones. He’s a closed current of energy, like those flashlights you squeeze to make the wires connect inside, and they pour forth their light. He catches up to me for a few minutes and we walk along in silence. He’s so transparent at these times, like a baby, without any of the barriers or labyrinths we set up later because we get so afraid.
People told me how utterly transparent with beauty babies can be, but I don’t think anyone mentioned what beasts they are. So it was dicey going for a while. I have a photo on my wall of a baby in Sudan, breast-feeding, and she looks like chocolate, wrapped in a blue and lavender napkin, pressed into what little we can see of her mother’s brown-black breast. This is a very universal baby, a safe baby. I had thought Sam would be more like this one, more of the time. I saw the same flatness in Sam’s nose when he nursed, like the Sudanese baby trying to get as close as possible to what nourished her, and the same deliciousness of baby arms. But the clutch of her fingers should have tipped me off — that grasping and clutching might come with the territory, grasping and clutching at you, and then pushing you away; and the openness of the baby’s ear — these babies are listening, can hear, and will use what they hear against you one day.
Smash, bash, whack. He swung at branches above him like forehand volleys. Sometimes I get so worried that he takes such joy in wrecking things. When he was 2, being awful and destructive on every level of his pitiful loathsome poopy existence, I said to my friend Pammy, calmly, “He’s a bad person. He’s already ruined.”
Pammy said something that I have clung to like the last heel of bread, “Sam has a deep core of sweetness within him.” She was right. He’s deeply compassionate, and fair, but he also loves knives, and air-soft guns, and paintball guns, and Ninja blades, and violence. Maybe it was inconsistent for us to watch “Touched by an Angel” together, right before we watched “South Park.” Maybe it confused him that we go to church on Sundays, and then we watch “The Sopranos.”
He has always said the funniest things, but until he was 5, he couldn’t say “L’s.” He pronounced them “Y.” “Yeaf,” “yunch,” “yove,” the “Yord,” and “Sam Yamott.” One day he came home from school and said slowly that he had llloved his lllunch. His teacher had finally taught him “L’s.” He ran to the house next door to show off for the teenagers he adored. It was such a bittersweet moment: Your kid can’t get a job on CNN if he can’t say his “L’s,” but it meant he was growing up; he would be dating soon, and mouthing off and sneering at me when he’s furious. And that has all come true, though now he’s the teenager all the little kids love.
He still says things that I scribble down on index cards. Just this morning on the way to school, we were talking about politics, and he said, “Mom, you know — you have a very rich vocabulary.” And he can make words all his own. “Random” is the latest favorite. I’ll blurt out something I’ve been meaning to tell him all day, and he’ll look at me askance, and say, “Wow, that’s a little random.” Or, driving along with his close friend the other day, I suddenly said to Nick, “You know, I’ll always be one of the adults who is on your side, if you need me.” Nick said, “Oh, thanks, Annie,” and then there was silence in the car until Sam said, “God, that was random.”
He walked along pushing the tip of his branch into the pebbly ground like a divining rod, splitting the road in two, making a great noise unto the Yord. He exerts a tremendous energy, and it builds up and he sends it forth with his tools, his swords. It’s art, it’s an installation; it’s the American way: “We’re big and strong and male, and this thing is about to get seriously small, and be in shreds, because I am about to heavily fuck with it.” He finds where something has a weak spot, picks up a branch, and jabs it. It’s like a physical yell.
He can say such terrible, mean things to me, and then, later that day, be so kind and sensitive that it brings tears to my eyes. He was always this way, accepting and fair, but capable of casual meanness; but he’s mostly quite accepting of people. When he was 7 and we first started looking for his father, I asked him what he would do if it turned out that his father was strange, or standoffish, and Sam said genuinely, “Oh, I wouldn’t care. I wouldn’t care if he was a crook. I wouldn’t care if he had a gun. I wouldn’t care if he cut down trees and didn’t replant.” You can see that we live in an ecologically correct area.
I pulled over by the side of the road to write this down, pretending I was making a shopping list. I always write down his exact quotes. He is an exact person, like we all are, even though I mostly sense that there is only one of us; that we are mosaic chips of that One. He’s very stylish, oddly enough, as I’m not stylish at all. His hair always looks good. And I was always a great student, whereas he isn’t, in the classic sense, if by “a great student” you mean someone who studies hard, likes to read, and hands in his homework. He’s a great student in the reform sense: He’s fascinated by life, he’s funny and he participates eagerly in discussions. I’ve never yelled at anyone in my whole life, except for him, and he yells at me, too. We fight about homework and his mouthiness and the laundry. I no longer wash his dirty clothes for him, because he will not put them away, so he does his own, and keeps it unfolded in a basket, with an empty basket beside it so he can transfer the clothes rapidly from one to another while finding something to wear, like a fabric Slinky. There’s a third basket, for dirty clothes, which is usually empty, as the clothes are strewn all over his bedroom floor.
He began chucking rocks into the creek and Lily barked at them loyally, as if shaking her fist — “and stay away!” I listened to the splashes of the rocks he was pitching, aiming at other rocks, or at unseen enemies, creation and destruction in the same breath. I heard the knock of one stone hitting another, and fingered the diamond heart he gave me that I wear on a thin gold chain around my neck. He bought it for me last Christmas, at the Mervyn’s Holiday Sale. A few days before Christmas, he thrust the box at me. I turned away from it, because I wanted to wait till Christmas, but he ripped the wrapping paper off, and then opened the box for me. There was a small gold heart studded with diamonds, the exact piece of jewelry I had always wanted. He watched me with enormous pride and pleasure. “One hundred fifty-nine dollars at Mervyn’s, Mom,” he said, proudly, and added, “Retail.”
I asked a friend of mine who practices a spiritual path called Diamond Heart to explain the name recently, because I instinctively know that Sam and I both have, or are, diamond hearts. My friend said our hearts are like diamonds because they have the capacity to express divine light, which is love; we are not only portals for this love, but are actually made of it. She says we are made of light, our hearts faceted and shining, and I absolutely believe this, to a point: Where I disagree is when she says we are beings of light wrapped in bodies that only seem dense and ponderous, but are actually made of atoms and molecules, with infinite space and light in between them. It must be easy for her to believe this, as she is thin, and does not have children. But I can meet her halfway: I think we are diamond hearts, wrapped in meatballs.
I would call my path Diamond Meatball: We would comfort and uplift one another by saying, “There’s a diamond in there somewhere.”
Still, on better days, I see us as light in containers, like those pierced tin lanterns that always rust, that let the candlelight shine out in beautiful snowflake patterns.
Sam raced ahead of me, and then slowed down, looking back to gloat at the distance he’d put behind me. He’s very competitive, like me. Then he waved nicely, and went on. Oh, Sam: I worry that I was either too strict, or not strict enough. I’m not quite sure which. I’ve given him a lot of freedom — he can take public transportation all over the county — but I was also strict about manners, and church. You have to contain children, or you ruin them, and no one will ever want you to come visit again. But they go ballistic when their unfettered spirit feels constricted and picked on by horrible you. They like you less, but if you don’t do it, it wounds them. “You shouldn’t have even had children,” they’ll say with contempt. They’ll comment on your clothes or butt, in public, and your hair, or your grooming. One day while standing in line at the movies, when Sam was 12 or so, I found him staring at me, judgmentally.
“What?” I asked.
He said, “When you got dreadlocks, you made a commitment to keep them groomed. But you’ve let them get all fuzzy.”
It’s such a mixed grill of sweet and nourishing and intolerable, sort of like life. You and your bright bonnie child walk hand in hand to the park, and then while sitting on a bench, you see his delight in hurting another kid. They go right for the vulnerability in other kids, ganging up on the weakest one, ditching or snatching things away. The very thing that makes them spontaneous and immediate also makes them monstrous. Life is not what one had in mind; it’s not the TV sitcoms or the commercials, or the photo of the Sudan baby. It’s punishing. It make you want to punish back.
There are times when Sam is so mouthy that all I can do is pray for a sense of humor and absurdity, even the size of a mustard seed. Otherwise, I look at C’s on progress reports, and see him at 30 taking orders at Taco Bell. If, with his handwriting, he could even get that job. Or he gets sent home from school for participating in a mud fight, and I think, Tim McVeigh. Or I realize, I don’t like this child, I shouldn’t have had kids, and it’s all hopeless. All I can do is pray: HELP!
The three of us walked together under the trees for a while in the shade. I looked over a few times and smiled at him. Left to my own devices, I find myself hurrying along with my head down, shoulders hunched, my hands grasped behind my back like Groucho Marx. But Sam beside me and the songs of unseen birds make me look up and around, make me notice the patches of blue sky between the dense branches. Maybe this is what grace is, the unseen sounds that make you look up. I think it’s why we are here, to see as many tile chips of blue sky as we can bear. To find the diamond hearts within each other’s meatballs. To notice flickers of the divine, like dust motes glimmering on sunbeams in your dusty kitchen. Without all the shade and shadows, you’d miss the beauty of the shadings, the interplay, the veil. Because the shadow is always there, and if you don’t remember it, when it falls on you and your life again, you’re plunged into darkness. Shadows make the light show. Without shadows, we’d only see what a friend of mine refers to as, “all that goddamn light.”
He ran ahead of me again, picking up rocks as he went. Lily chased after him. It’s like he creates a force field around him that nothing can breach, that comes out of the very center of him. Everything is concentrated on that torque. I watched him go. I’ve been watching him go since he learned how to crawl. Sometimes I didn’t watch closely enough, and he got hurt — he burned his hand badly once, and he split his eyebrow open on a coffee table, and he and his friends got drunk a few times last summer. I’m always afraid he’ll end up like I did, stoned and drunk for many years, sick in the mornings. “Don’t worry, Mom,” he says, but that’s what I used to say to my parents. I tell him what Chef in South Park said. “Children? There’s a time and a place for doing drugs, and it’s called college.” He smiles, and like a hawk I watch him go, and I watch him go, watch him go.
Heartbreaking things have befallen some of the children we know, even when their parents kept their eyes open: cystic fibrosis, truancy, homelessness, alcohol and drugs. But mostly they have come through, scarred and still shaking their heads. Sometimes things were so awful for friends that I thought it was all over for them. And rocks came tumbling down on them, on their lives, but with a lot of help, they endured. In some cases, the rocks continue to fall, but even so, when it looked to the outside world like they were doomed, it turned out that something inside was slowly being fused back together. They found an underground, wiggly strength.
He stomped ahead of me to the top of the hill like a mountain goat, and waited for me. When I caught up with him, he stuck his branch out and I thought he was going to pull me up, but he pantomimed a sword fight, and poked me. “God,” I said involuntarily, knowing it was an accident. “Can you cut me a little slack?”
“I’m sorry. My bad,” he always says, like a baby Rastafarian. “My bad.” He reached out and pulled me the last few steps to the top of the mountain. I walked until I came upon the view of a million fleecy trees, the foothills of Mt. Tam. I sat down.
“What if there is another 9/11?” he said.
“What made you think about that?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Is there any situation where you would kill Lily?”
“Of course not, unless she was very ill.”
“What if there was another 9/11,” he asked, “and we didn’t have any food. You wouldn’t kill Lily to feed me?”
“Sam,” I said, laughing, but he was serious.
“OK, honey,” I said, “I’ll kill Lily.”
“If there was nothing left, would you let me kill you and eat you?”
“I wouldn’t want you to die, necessarily. I might just cut off your arm to survive.”
“Well. Help yourself.”
“What if there is another attack, here?”
“Then we’ll all band together and share what we have.”
“Will we have to share with Uncle Steve and Jamie?” He gave me his trademark look, a long, slow sideways glance. He was suppressing a smile.
“Of course, he’s my brother!”
“Yeah, but Steve and Jamie eat so much. And now with the baby? Too many mouths to feed!” He can always make me laugh. I know where he got his gallows humor. I can see myself so clearly in him, many of my worst traits, some of my goodness. I can also still see many of Sam’s ages in him: New parents always grieve as their babies get bigger, because they cannot imagine the child will ever be so heartbreakingly cute and needy again. But Sam is a swirl of every age he’s ever been, and all the new ones, like cotton candy, like the Milky Way. I can still see the stoned wonder of the toddler, the watchfulness of the young child, sopping stuff up, the busy purpose and workmanship of the 9-year-old. I see him and his oldest friend Jack outside working on an electric fence, taping 6-volt batteries to our fence, using endless duct tape and wires and switches. I see him making robots at the kitchen table with bits of junk, a glue gun, and a 9-volt battery. I see him at my desk, making a small electric fan that works. He can get most of his inventions to light up, or walk: He invents the same way I write — Virginia Woolf said, “Arrange what pieces come your way.” He creates things out of stuff that grabs his attention, bits of plastic, toys, cloth, balloon, fool’s gold, mirrors, batteries.
Finally he came and stood beside me, silent. “What do you think about when you come here?”
“This is where I most feel the presence of God. Except for church.”
He looked out at the mountainside, at a hawk, at turkey vultures circling, birds singing in the brush. “Can I sit in your yap?” he asked.
I was sitting cross-legged in the dirt, and he plopped down into my lap. He weighed a ton. I couldn’t have gotten up if I’d wanted to. I held him loosely and smelled his neck. Sometimes when I dream about him, he’s in danger, he’s doing things that are too risky, but mostly he’s either stomping around, or we’re just hanging out together. Sometimes I dream about him when he was still young and I remember it with such sweetness that it wakes me.
This excerpt from “Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith,” to be published March 3, is reprinted by permission of Riverhead Books.
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)