"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)
If you have ever flown down to Mardi Gras, you know the drill. Beads in 10B, purple and yellow polo shirts in 16F, silly hats across Row 25, and then a whole herd of wildebeests in the back, shouting, “Yee-ha, Mardi Gras!” as they order vodkas three at a time. But the crowd waiting at the gate in Atlanta on Saturday for the flight to New Orleans was subdued, as if they were going to Cleveland, to a business meeting, or a funeral.
I guess it’s up to me, I thought, and put on the beaded, feathered Mardi Gras mask I’d bought the day before at a costume shop in York, Penn. Maybe three people smiled at me. One of them was my 5-year-old daughter, Jane. Then I spotted a woman in gold eye shadow, purple tights and several ropes of beads, and she simultaneously spotted me. “Happy Mardi Gras!” she called.
Twenty-three years ago, I went to my first Mardi Gras, dragged by friends who had to overcome my resistance to what I was sure would be a giant, awful frat party. Once there, I fell in love — in love with the city, in love with carnival, and in love with a gay bartender whom I later married and with whom I had a couple of kids before his death from AIDS in 1994. During our years together and in the decade-plus since, I returned to Mardi Gras many times. In fact, it’s my New Orleans friends Jack and Sue who connected me to Crispin, my second husband. We had Jack and Sue up to our house for New Year’s, and halfway through the second day of sad stories, I knew I had to go to carnival this year. Whatever the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras would be like, I wanted to be part of it.
As we were landing in New Orleans, I discovered that some of our quiet fellow travelers were headed to the festival after all. From rows ahead of us, I began to overhear plans to meet for the Bacchus parade, the names of streets drifting back to me like magic words: Tchoupitoulas, Magazine, Dumaine. Then a girl received a call on her cellphone saying Endymion, the traditional Saturday night parade known for being one of the biggest, most expensive, most Disneyfied displays, was canceled due to the threat of rain. It would roll instead after Bacchus on Sunday night.
This seemed impossible, and another passenger and I both said so. The girl said her friend was kind of a ditz and we should all check to make sure.
“The friend was probably already drunk,” we muttered.
We got off the plane and met Jack, who greeted us with beads from the Muses parade; he agreed that it was impossible that Endymion would be postponed. Having gotten this far, how could they balk at a little weather report? Anyway, he told us, there’s a local saying that it never rains on Endymion.
Then as we stood at the baggage carousel, Jack got a call on his cellphone. In fact, his wife, Sue, reported, what we’d heard was correct. Endymion would not rely on its legendary luck. Perhaps even thinking of rolling down the street soaking wet was wetter than anyone could stand to be.
On the way to Sue and Jack’s, we drove down Canal Boulevard, past the endless line of hollowed houses, their windows black and empty, their ruined walls spray-painted with the Xes and dates and initials of various inspectors and would-be rescuers. As we neared Lakeview, the neighborhood closest to the 17th Street canal, the devastation had been doubled by a tornado that roared through a couple of weeks ago. (They never had tornadoes here before — the local joke is that it’s because of all the trailers.) Here, trees and houses were collapsed into piles of sodden wood; a radio tower lay on its side, looking like a dinosaur skeleton. Then we arrived at Jack and Sue’s, where, miraculously, the floodwaters had stopped in the front yard. Their giddy, disbelieving joy when they saw their intact home for the first time on Sept. 9 has since been tempered by a kind of survivor’s guilt — as well as the invisible but highly allergenic mold that proliferates beneath the carpets and behind the walls.
With no parade to attend, we went out to find some dinner. Beneath a dripping, murky twilight sky, we cruised through more devastation — a house where we’d celebrated a bar mitzvah with brunch under the oaks, now completely gutted, its once-lovely yard a trash-strewn mudflat. Across house after house, for mile after mile, ran the waterline, a wide brown stripe hitting the upper part of the front door. By the canal breach itself, we found a parade after all: a line of cars filled with people snapping photos of hills of black mud, twisted boats, rusted cars, splintered wood. It’s 5 o’clock, said Sue. We better find someplace to eat before everything closes.
“Can we get a po’boy at Weavers, maybe?” I suggested, mentioning a favorite deli in the neighborhood.
They looked at me pityingly. I hadn’t quite gotten it yet. There are no concession stands in the Dead Zone.
To find food, we drove past the ghost of Sid-Mar’s restaurant and its lakefront brethren on the Orleans side of the canal and joined the huge crowd waiting to eat at the R&O, just over the Metairie line.
And that’s when the party began. Even the waiting area was filled with smiles and cocktails, a spirit of overflowing warmth and celebration. “Let her sit down with the baby,” a mom called to her kids, and room opened up on the bench for me and the little girl sleeping in my arms. Inside the vast, simple establishment, tables of 12 and 15 ordered trays of beer and piles of pizza, stacks of seafood and fries.
A tired but beaming waitress sashayed up and said, “What can I getcha, baby?” and I remembered what goddesses the women are down here, the care they give you with every small purchase. Somebody at a neighboring table asked his server to check on a long-awaited meal. “Oh, I can check, darlin,” she called gaily over her shoulder, “but I can tell ya it ain’t comin!” The man just laughed.
And after spending about two and a half hours getting sandwiches and not minding a single minute of it, we drove home through the pitch-black streets. “Look!” cried Sue as we rolled up to the corner of West End Boulevard and Veterans Highway. “That traffic light just went on today.”
When we got home at 8, we watched the televised performance of Endymion’s ball, which was going on despite the postponement of the parade, in the convention center of all places. Seeing the masked riders (who always look just a little Ku Klux Klannish) winging beads to dressed-up partygoers with drinks in their hands made me feel uncomfortable. I couldn’t help picturing the misery and chaos that went on in that place just six months ago, and for a moment the anti-Mardi Gras sentiments I’d read and heard seemed to make sense.
But Mardi Gras, like a jazz funeral, is one of New Orleans’ ways of turning reality, even the harshest reality, into a celebration. It is the revelers’ way of taking back their city, and the satirical hurricane and FEMA floats we would see all weekend were a part of it. In the morning, we would stand on St. Charles and catch necklaces from krewe members living in trailers who somehow found the money for cases of sparkly booty, and we’d be a part of it too. This rueful, life-affirming, wisecracking approach to death and misfortune is one I can’t get enough of.
I tried to fill Jane in on terms and traditions before our trip. “What’s a float?” she asked. “How do they move?” “How do you know where to find the parade?” “Do you walk with it or just watch it?” “What if you get tired?”
I answered every question as best I could. “When you get tired,” I said, “you sit on the curb.”
“What’s a curb?” she asked.
Ah, my little country girl. Glen Rock, Penn., is never going to look the same.
Our first two parades on this 74 degree Sunday morning under sparkling skies were as fine a Mardi Gras initiation as a 5-year-old ever had — perhaps as fine a morning as I’ve seen in all my years of Mardi Gras attendance. We stood out in front of the magically untouched mansions of St. Charles Avenue, as if the hurricane and flood had never happened.
The Okeanos parade was rolling as we approached and my husband laughed at me as I ran toward it, pushing the grocery cart I had just found on a street corner, now loaded with our folding chairs and coolers.
If there was any mark of Katrina here, it seemed a positive one, for the crowds of locals and tourists and kids and grandparents and huge fat guys in towering purple mullet wigs were nicer than ever, smiling radiantly, passing beads, cups, stuffed animals, beer and food from hand to hand like family. Guys from Lake Charles plied me with chicken barbecued on a hibachi and beer from their keg. Three people raced to light a stranger’s cigarette. A couple of blocks down, a propane-powered crawfish pot the size of a kitchen table steamed. The warm welcome is not only for out-of-towners but for displaced locals in for the party. Our friend Lowell moved home this weekend from Houston, though his house, a few feet from the breach, is no more.
The morning parades Uptown have always been a deeply family scene, a liberated Disney world, a giant block party. Out of towners, yes, beer at 10 a.m., yes, but the vibe is far from decadent. And did someone say there are no black people left in New Orleans? Untrue. Among the many was a beautifully dressed grandfather from East New Orleans. He and my friend Sue talked about the things people talk about here: damage, gutting, rebuilding, frustration. You hear the word “FEMA” so often it starts to sound like just another New Orleans expression.
Meanwhile, the krewes of Okeanos and Thoth rolled by, throwing masses and masses of beads and toys and see-through bras. I taught Jane how to stand at the front of the crowd waving your arms and screaming and smiling at the riders, to march and clap with the bands and twirlers, then rush to the back, dump your loot in the shopping cart and hit the curb (look! a curb, Jane!) again.
On the way home, we stopped at a grocery store called Dorignac to buy vodka and Mardi Gras bread, a delicious, buttery sliced loaf swirled yellow and purple and green. Jane’s delight was complete.
Ordinarily I would leave New Orleans before Fat Tuesday. Years ago, I decided I just didn’t have the endurance for four days of this sort of thing. But this year it seemed crucial to stay on through the low-level maintenance partying of Monday, aka “Lundi Gras,” and rise up on Tuesday morning to see with my own eyes the costumed crowd on Bourbon Street, to dip my toe in Voo Carray beads, beer ‘n’ boobs ambience. But staying until Tuesday also meant I had to get a costume. I’d been keeping my eyes peeled for the 25-year-old kid I sat with last week in the parking lot of the costume shop back in Pennsylvania. It would be his first Mardi Gras, he told me. I smiled. I was 25 at my first Mardi Gras, too.
In the hour we’d had to kill before the shop opened — both a little overeager with carnival spirit — he’d told me about the felony convictions he racked up before he turned 18, what with conspiracies to steal golf carts, high school presentations on explosives design, and a brief tour in the Navy that ended with a bottle of vodka and a 14-year-old girl. For the last seven years, he’d more or less trod the straight and narrow, he told me, but this year for the first time he’ll join his parents on their annual Mardi Gras pilgrimage. (I could see why they didn’t want to take him before.) “I’ve heard the people of the United States sort of relax their rules and regulations down there,” he said hopefully, as he headed in to buy a wig and platform shoes. “Is that right?”
Yeah, baby, that’s right.
Marion Winik has written the saga of her life in eight previous books, including "First Comes Love," "The Lunch-Box Chronicles" and "The Glen Rock Book of the Dead." She is a professor at the University of Baltimore. For lots more information and things to read, go to marionwinik.com.More Marion Winik.
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)