"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)
The afternoon passed quickly and enchantingly. Perry was working on a knee-high, articulated Frankenstein monster built out of hand-painted seashells from a beach-side kitsch market. They said GOD BLESS AMERICA and SOUVENIR OF FLORIDA and CONCH REPUBLIC, and each had to be fitted out for a motor custom-built to conform to its contours.
“When it’s done, it will make toast.”
“Yeah, separate a single slice off a loaf, load it into a top-loading slice-toaster, depress the lever, time the toast-cycle, retrieve the toast and butter it. I got the idea from old-time backup-tape loaders. This plus a toaster will function as a loosely coupled single system.”
“OK, that’s really cool, but I have to ask the boring question, Perry. Why? Why build a toast robot?”
Perry stopped working and dusted his hands off. He was really built, and his shaggy hair made him look younger than his crow’s-feet suggested. He turned a seashell with a half-built motor in it over and spun it like a top on the hand-painted WEATHER IS HERE/WISH YOU WERE BEAUTIFUL legend.
“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? The simple answer: people buy them. Collectors. So it’s a good hobby business, but that’s not really it.
“It’s like this: engineering is all about constraint. Given a span of foo feet and materials of tensile strength of bar, build a bridge that doesn’t go all fubared. Write a fun video-game for an eight-bit console that’ll fit in 32K. Build the fastest airplane, or the one with the largest carrying capacity… But these days, there’s not much traditional constraint. I’ve got the engineer’s most dangerous luxury: plenty. All the computational cycles I’ll ever need. Easy and rapid prototyping. Precision tools.
“Now, it may be that there are is a suite of tasks lurking in potentia that demand all this resource and more — maybe I’m like some locomotive engineer declaring that 60 miles per hour is the pinnacle of machine velocity, that speed is cracked. But I don’t see many of those problems — none that interest me.
“What I’ve got here is my own constraints. I’m challenging myself, using found objects and making stuff that throws all this computational capacity at you know, these trivial problems, like car-driving Elmo clusters and seashell toaster-robots. We have so much capacity that the trivia expands to fill it. And all that capacity is junk-capacity, it’s leftovers. There’s enough computational capacity in a junkyard to launch a space-program, and that’s by design. Remember the iPod? Why do you think it was so prone to scratching and going all gunky after a year in your pocket? Why would Apple build a handheld technology out of materials that turned to shit if you looked at them cross-eyed? It’s because the iPod was only meant to last a year!
“It’s like tailfins — they were cool in the Tailfin Cretaceous, but wouldn’t it have been better if they could have disappeared from view when they became aesthetically obsolete, when the space age withered up and blew away? Oh, not really, obviously, because it’s nice to see a well-maintained land-yacht on the highway every now and again, if only for variety’s sake, but if you’re going to design something that is meant to be au fait then presumably you should have some planned obsolescence in there, some end-of-lifing strategy for the aesthetic crash that follows any couture movement. Here, check this out.”
He handed her a white brick, the size of a deck of cards. It took her a moment to recognize it as an iPod. “Christ, it’s huge,” she said.
“Yeah, isn’t it just. Remember how small and shiny this thing was when it shipped? ‘A thousand songs in your pocket!’”
That made her actually laugh out loud. She fished in her pocket for her earbuds and dropped them on the table where they clattered like M&Ms. “I think I’ve got about 40,000 songs on those. Haven’t run out of space yet, either.”
He rolled the buds around in his palm like a pair of dice. “You won’t — I stopped keeping track of mine after I added my hundred-thousandth audiobook. I’ve got a bunch of the Library of Congress in mine as high-rez scans, too. A copy of the Internet Archive, every post ever made on Usenet… Basically, these things are infinitely capacious, given the size of the media we work with today.” He rolled the buds out on the workbench and laughed. “And that’s just the point! Tomorrow, we’ll have some new extra fat kind of media and some new task to perform with it and some new storage medium that will make these things look like an old iPod. Before that happens, you want this to wear out and scuff up or get lost–”
“I lose those things all the time, like a set a month.”
“There you go then! The iPods were too big to lose like that, but just look at them.” He passed back the iPod. The chrome was scratched to the point of being fogged, like the mirror in a gas-station toilet. The screen was almost unreadable for all the scratches. “They had scratch-proof materials and hard plastics back then. They chose to build these things out of Saran Wrap and tin-foil so that by the time they doubled in capacity next year, you’d have already worn yours out and wouldn’t feel bad about junking them.
“So I’m building a tape-loading seashell robot toaster out of discarded obsolete technology because the world is full of capacious, capable, disposable junk and it cries out to be used again. It’s a potlatch: I have so much material and computational wealth that I can afford to waste it on frivolous junk. I think that’s why the collectors buy it, anyway.”
“That brings us back to the question of your relationship with Kodacell. They want to do what, exactly, with you?”
“Well, we’ve been playing with some mass-production techniques, the three-dee printer and so on. When Kettlebelly called me, he said that he wanted to see about using the scanner and so on to make a lot of these things, at a low price-point. It’s pretty perverse when you think about it: using modern technology to build replicas of obsolete technology rescued from the dump, when these replicas are bound to end up back here at the dump!” He laughed. He had nice laugh-lines around his eyes. “Anyway, it’s something that Lester and I had talked about for a long time, but never really got around to. Too much like retail. It’s bad enough dealing with a couple dozen collectors who’ll pay ten grand for a sculpture: who wants to deal with ten thousand customers who’ll go a dollar each for the same thing?”
“But you figure that this Tjan character will handle all the customer stuff?”
“That’s the idea: he’ll run the business side, we’ll get more time to hack, everyone gets paid. Kodacell’s got some micro-sized marketing agencies, specialized PR firms, creative shippers, all kinds of little three-person outfits that they’ve promised to hook us up with. Tjan interfaces with them, we do our thing, enrich the shareholders, get stock ourselves. It’s supposed to be all upside. Hell, if it doesn’t work we can just walk away and find another dump and go back into the collectors’ market.”
He picked up his half-finished shell and swung a lamp with a magnifying lens built into it over his workspace. “Hey, just a sec, OK? I’ve just figured out what I was doing wrong before.” He took up a little tweezers and a plastic rod and probed for a moment, then daubed some solder down inside the shell’s guts. He tweezed a wire to a contact and the shell made a motorized sound, a peg sticking out of it began to move rhythmically.
“Got it,” he said. He set it down. “I don’t expect I’m going to be doing many more of these projects after next week. This kind of design, we could never mass-produce it.” He looked a little wistful, and Andrea suppressed a smile. What a tortured artiste this Florida junkyard engineer was!
As the long day drew to a close, they went out for a walk in the twilight’s cool in the yard. The sopping humidity of the day settled around them as the sun set in a long summer blaze that turned the dry fountain full of Christmas ornaments into a luminescent bowl of jewels.
“I got some real progress today,” Lester said. He had a cane with him and he was limping heavily. “Got the printer to output complete mechanical logical gates, all in one piece. Almost no assembly, just daisy-chain them on a board. And I’ve been working on a standard snap-on system for Lego-bricking each gate to the next. It’s going to make it a lot easier to ramp up production.”
“Yeah?” Perry said. He asked a technical question about the printer, something about the goop’s tensile strength that Andrea couldn’t follow. They went at it, hammer and tongs, talking through the abstruse details faster than she could follow, walking more and more quickly past the vast heaps of dead technology and half-built mall stores.
She let them get ahead of her and stopped to gather her thoughts. She turned around to take it all in and that’s when she caught sight of the kids sneaking into Perry and Lester’s lab.
“Hey!” she shouted, in her loudest Detroit voice. “What are you doing there?” There were three of them, in Miami Dolphins jerseys and shiny bald-shaved heads and little shorts, the latest inexplicable rapper style that made them look more like drag queens in mufti than tough-guys.
They rounded on her. They were heavyset and their eyebrows were bleached blond. They had been sneaking into the lab’s side-door, looking about as inconspicuous as a trio of nuns.
“Get lost!” she shouted. “Get out of here! Perry, Lester!”
They were coming closer now. They didn’t move so well, puffing in the heat, but they clearly had mayhem on their minds. She reached into her purse for her pepper spray and held it before her dramatically, but they didn’t stop coming.
Suddenly, the air was rent by the loudest sound she’d ever heard, like she’d put her head inside a foghorn. She flinched and misted a cloud of aerosol capsicum ahead of her. She had the presence of mind to step back quickly, before catching a blowback, but she wasn’t quick enough, for her eyes and nose started to burn and water. The sound wouldn’t stop, it just kept going on, a sound like her head was too small to contain her brain, a sound that made her teeth ache. The three kids had stopped and staggered off.
“You OK?” The voice sounded like it was coming from far, far away, though Lester was right in front of her. She found that she’d dropped to her knees in the teeth of that astonishing noise.
She let him help her to her feet. “Jesus,” she said, putting a hand to her ears. They rang like she’d been at a rave all night. “What the hell?”
“Anti-personnel sonic device,” Lester said. She realized that he was shouting, but she could barely hear it. “It doesn’t do any permanent damage, but it’ll scare off most anyone. Those kids probably live in the shanty-town we passed this morning. More and more of them are joining gangs. They’re our neighbors, so we don’t want to shoot them or anything.”
She nodded. The ringing in her ears was subsiding a little. Lester steadied her more. She leaned on him. He was big and solid. He wore the same cologne as her father had, she realized.
She moved away from him and smoothed out her shorts, dusting off her knees. “Did you invent that?”
“Made it using a HOWTO I found online,” he said. “Lot of kids around here up to no good. It’s pretty much a homebrew civil defense siren — rugged and cheap.”
She put a finger in each ear and scratched at the itchy buzzing. When she removed them, her hearing was almost back to normal. “I once had an upstairs neighbor in Cambridge who had a stereo system that loud — never thought I’d hear it again.”
Perry came and joined them. “I followed them a bit, they’re way gone now. I think I recognized one of them from the campsite. I’ll talk to Francis about it and see if he can set them right.”
“Have you been broken into before?”
“A few times. Mostly what we worry about is someone trashing the printers. Everything else is easy to replace, but when Lester’s old employer went bust we bought up about fifty of these things at the auction and I don’t know where we’d lay hands on them again. Computers are cheap and it’s not like anyone could really steal all this junk.” He flashed her his good-looking, confident smile again.
“What time do the movies start?”
Lester checked his watch. “About an hour after sunset. If we leave now we can get a real dinner at a Haitian place I know and then head over to the Thunderbird. I’ll hide under a blanket in the back seat so that we can save on admission!”
She’d done that many times as a kid, her father shushing her and her brother as they giggled beneath the blankets. The thought of giant Lester doing it made her giggle. “I think we can afford to pay for you,” she said.
The dinner was good — fiery spicy fish and good music in an old tiki bar with peeling grass wallpaper that managed to look vaguely Haitian. The waiters spoke Spanish, not French, though. She let herself be talked into two bottles of beer — about one and a half more than she would normally take — but she didn’t get light-headed. The heat and humidity seemed to rinse the alcohol right out of her bloodstream.
They got to the movies just at dusk. It was just like she remembered from being a little girl and coming with her parents. Children in pajamas climbed over a jungle-gym to one side of the lot. Ranked rows of cars faced the huge, grubby white projection walls. They even showed one of those scratchy old “Let’s go out to the lobby and get ourselves some treats” cartoon shorts with the dancing hot-dogs before the movie.
The nostalgia filled her up like a balloon expanding in her chest. She hadn’t ever seen a computer until she was ten years old, and that had been the size of a chest-freezer, with less capability than one of the active printed-computer cards that came in glossy fashion magazines with come-ons for perfume and weight-loss.
The world had been stood on its head so many times in the intervening thirty-plus years that it was literally dizzying — or was that the beer having a delayed effect? Suddenly all the certainties she rested on — her 401k, her house, her ability to navigate the professional world in a competent manner — all seemed to be built on shifting sands.
They’d come in Lester’s car, a homemade auto built around two electric Smart cars joined together to form a kind of mini-sedan with room enough for Lester to slide into the driver’s perch. Once they arrived, they unpacked clever folding chairs and sat them beside the car, rolled down the windows and turned up the speakers. It was a warm night, but not sticky the way it had been that day, and the kiss of the wind that rustled the leaves of the tall palms ringing the theater was like balm.
The movie was something forgettable about bumbling detectives on the moon, one of those trendy new things acted entirely by animated dead actors who combined the virtues of box-office draw and cheap labor. There might have been a couple of fictional actors in there too, it was hard to say, she’d never really followed the movies except as a place to escape to. There was real magic and escape in a drive-in, though, with the palpable evidence of all those other breathing humans in the darkened night watching the magic story flicker past on the screen, something that went right into her hindbrain. Before she knew it, her eyelids were drooping and she then she found herself jerking awake. This happened a couple times before Lester slipped a pillow under her head and she sank into it and fell into sleep.
She woke at the closing credits and realized that she’d managed to prop the pillow on Lester’s barrel-chest. She snapped her head up and then smiled embarrassedly at him. “Hey, sleepyhead,” he said. “You snore like a bandsaw, you know it?”
She blushed. “I don’t!”
“You do,” he said.
Perry, on her other side nodded. “You do.”
“God,” she said.
“Don’t worry, you haven’t got anything on Lester,” Perry said. “I’ve gone into his motel room some mornings and found all the pictures lying on the floor, vibrated off their hooks.”
It seemed to her that Lester was blushing now.
“I’m sorry if I spoiled the movie,” she said.
“Don’t sweat it,” Lester said, clearly grateful for the change of subject. “It was a lousy movie anyway. You drowned out some truly foul dialog.”
“Well, there’s that.”
“C’mon, let’s go back to the office and get you your car. It’s an hour to Miami from here.”
She was wide awake by the time she parked the rent-a-car in the coffin-hotel’s parking lot and crawled into her room, slapping the air-con buttons up to full to clear out the stifling air that had baked into the interior during the day.
She lay on her back in the dark coffin for a long time, eyes open and slowly adjusting to the idiot lights on the control panel, until it seemed that she was lying in a space capsule hurtling through the universe at relativistic speeds, leaving behind history, the world, everything she knew. She suddenly sat up, wide awake, on West Coast time, and there was no way she would fall asleep now, but she lay back down and then she did, finally.
The alarm woke her seemingly five minutes later. She did a couple laps around the parking lot, padding around, stretching her legs, trying to clear her head — her internal clock thought that it was 4 a.m. but at 7 a.m. on the East Coast, the sun was up and the heat had begun to sizzle all the available moisture into the air. She left the hotel and drove around Miami for a while. She needed to find some toiletries and then a cafe where she could sit down and file some copy. She’d posted a few things to her blog the day before, but her editor expected something more coherent for those who preferred their news a little more digested.
By the time she arrived at Perry’s junkyard, the day had tipped for afternoon, the sun no longer straight overhead, the heat a little softer than it had been the day before. She settled in for another day of watching the guys work, asking the occasional question. The column she’d ended up filing had been a kind of wait-and-see piece, describing the cool culture these two had going between them, and asking if it could survive scaling up to mass production. Now she experimented with their works-in-progress, sculptures and machines that almost worked, or didn’t work at all, but that showed the scope of their creativity. Kettlewell thought that there were a thousand, ten thousand people as creative as these two out there, waiting to be discovered. Could it be true?
“Sure,” Perry said, “why not? We’re just here because someone dropped the barrier to entry, made it possible for a couple of tinkerers to get a lot of materials and to assemble them without knowing a whole lot about advanced materials science. Wasn’t it like this when the Internet was starting out?”
“Whoa,” Andrea said. “I just realized that you wouldn’t really remember those days, back in the early nineties.”
“Sure I remember them. I was a kid, but I remember them fine!”
She felt very old. “The thing was that no one really suspected that there were so many liberal arts majors lurking in the nation’s universities, dying to drop out and learn Perl and HTML.”
Perry cocked his head. “Yeah, I guess that’s analogous. The legacy of the dot-com years for me is all this free infrastructure, very cheap network connections and hosting companies and so on. That, I guess, combined with people willing to use it. I never really thought of it, but there must have been a lot of people hanging around in the old days who thought e-mail and the Net were pretty sketchy, right?”
She waved her hands at him. “Perry, lad, you don’t know the half of it. There are still executives in the rustbelt who have their secretaries print out their e-mail and then dictate replies into tape recorders to be typed and sent.”
He furrowed his thick eyebrows. “You’re joking,” he said.
She put her hand on her heart. “I kid you not. I know people in the newsroom at the Detroit Free Press. There are whole industries in this country that are living in the last century.’
“Well, for me, all that dotcommie stuff was like putting down a good base, making it easy for people like me to get parts and build-logs and to find hardware hackers to jam with.”
Perry got engrossed in a tricky bit of engine-in-seashell then and she wandered over to Lester, who was printing out more Barbie heads for a much larger version of his mechanical computer. “It’ll be able to add, subtract and multiply any two numbers up to 99,” he said. “It took decades to build a vacuum-tube machine that could do that much — I’m doing it with switches in just three revs. In your face, UNIVAC!”
She laughed. He had a huge bag of laser-cut soda-can switches that he was soldering onto a variety of substrates from polished car-doors to a bamboo tiki-bar. She looked closely at the solder. “Is this what sweatshop solder looks like?”
He looked confused, then said, “Oh! Right, Perry’s thing. Yeah, anything not done by a robot has this artisanal quality of blobbiness, which I quite like, it’s aesthetic, like a painting with visible brushstrokes. But Perry’s right: if you see solder like this on anything that there are a million of, then you know that it was laid down by kids and women working for slave wages. There’s no way it’s cheaper to make a million solders by hand than by robot unless your labor force is locked in, force-fed amphetamine, and destroyed for anything except prostitution inside of five years. But here, in something like this, so handmade and one of a kind, I think it gives it a nice cargo-cult neoprimitive feel. Like a field of hand-tilled furrows.”
She nodded. Today she was keeping her PowerBook out, writing down quotes and thoughts. They worked side by side in companionable silence for a while as she killed a couple thousand spams and he laid down a couple dozen blobs of solder.
“How do you like Florida?” he said, after straightening up and cracking his back.
She barely stopped typing, deep into some e-mail: “It’s all right, I suppose.”
“There’s great stuff here if you know where to look. Want me to show you around a little tonight? It’s Friday, after all.”
“Sounds good. Is Perry free?”
It took her a second to register that he hadn’t answered. She looked up and saw he was blushing to the tips of his ears. “I thought we could go out just the two of us. Dinner and a walk around the deco stuff on Miami Beach?”
“Oh,” she said. And the weird thing was, she took it seriously for a second. She hadn’t been on a date in something like a year, and he was a really nice guy and so forth. But professional ethics made that impossible, and besides.
And besides. He was huge. He’d told her he weighed nearly 400 pounds. So fat, he was, essentially, sexless. Round and unshaped, doughy.
All of these thoughts in an instant and then she said, “Oh, well. Listen, Lester, it’s about professional ethics. I’m here on a story and you guys are really swell, but I’m here to be objective. That means no dating. Sorry.” She said it in the same firm tones as she’d used to turn down their offer to treat her at the IHOP: a fact of life, something she just didn’t do. Like turning down a glass of beer by saying, “No thanks, I don’t drink.” No value judgment.
But she could see that she had let her thinking show on her face, if only for the briefest moment. Lester stiffened and his nostril flared. He wiped his hands on his thighs, then said, in a light tone, “Sure, no problem. I understand completely. Should have thought of that. Sorry!”
“No problem,” she said. She pretended to work on her e-mail a while longer, then said, “Well, I think I’ll call it a day. See you Monday for Tjan’s arrival, right?”
“Right!” he said, too brightly, and she slunk away to her car.
Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is the author of "Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town" and other novels, including "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom." His latest short story collection is "Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present." He is the co-editor of Boing Boing (boingboing.net).More Cory Doctorow.
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)