"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 festival of historically sanctioned gluttony is upon us again, and soon families across America will be sprawled in their living rooms, idly watching the Detroit Turkeys lose for the 72nd straight year and contentedly sniffing the aroma wafting up from the basketball-size fowl roasting in the kitchen. I spend Thanksgiving every year at my mother’s house in Berkeley, Calif., with my extended family. Our clan is relentlessly unreligious, but we say a kind of secular grace every Turkey Day, bowing our heads and holding hands, a sweet, unfamiliar ritual that always makes me feel a little shy. My mother usually speaks. She gives thanks for the fact that we’re all here, and then often says a few words about the state of the world. Because our family is also relentlessly Democratic — we are a veritable blue-state cliché — her remarks on the latter subject are usually quite pointed. In fact, in recent years they can claim only a tenuous link to the theme of Thanksgiving, coming closer to Old Testament jeremiads or other sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God outbursts. This year, though, I’m expecting Mom to give heartfelt thanks for the return to sanity of the American people. And then, having given our thanks, we will begin to gorge.
The fact that America has a holiday dedicated to giving thanks is lovely, and unexpected. Ours is not a particularly grateful culture. The Pilgrims may have seen fit to give thanks after bringing their first harvest in, but that was a different country. Now that our survival is not at issue and we’re the big dog in the world, hogging all the ears of corn and kicking in the doors of neighbors we don’t like, our national expressions of gratitude tend to run along the chest-beating lines of “Thank God I’m an American.” Things may be a little better in the private sphere: Religion provides a ritual framework in which people can give thanks, which from my atheist’s perspective is one of its more admirable qualities. But the deepest currents in American life run away from giving thanks.
To thank is not simply to express obligation or gratitude, although it is both those things. An act of thanking that goes beyond the merely formal starts with an act of appreciation. But appreciation isn’t easy. It requires perspective. You have to get outside yourself, turn off the endless mental scribbling that covers everything with cheap verbal graffiti. To do this, however, you have to stop, and we Americans are going too damn fast all the time — going where? — even to slow down. In an aphorism called “Tourists,” Nietzsche nailed our frenzied, goal-obsessed culture: “They climb mountains like animals, stupid and sweating — one has forgotten to tell them that there are beautiful views on the way up.”
I don’t believe in a white-bearded God, and take very few of my spiritual precepts from Bush administration schemes, but I do cling to one faith-based initiative. I believe that to truly see the world is to celebrate the world. And for all of our obsession with pleasure, money, success, power and self-fulfillment — or maybe because of it — we Americans don’t do celebration very well. We’re good at partying and gloating, but they’re not quite the same thing. The French have joie de vivre, the Italians la dolce vita; “he who dies with the most toys wins” doesn’t quite measure up.
In fact, our toys, especially our high-tech toys, are part of the problem. By insidiously leading us to value process more than experience, technology runs the risk of hollowing out our lives. The more we become obsessed with the clarity and speed of the signal, the less time we have to appreciate the message. Pure process is a powerful drug; it swallows up experience. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger anticipated this problem 57 years ago in a bleak essay titled “The Question Concerning Technology.” I’m far from certain that I understand him correctly — reading the cryptic old Nazi is like taking a Germanic, footnoted acid trip — but Heidegger seems to argue that technology is not merely a neutral tool, but is a kind of coercion over and shrinking of the world, a process he called “enframing.” By framing the world through technology, man is losing touch with it.
We can illustrate Heidegger’s point with a humble example: the iPod. As Farhad Manjoo pointed out in these pages, the blessing of the iPod, the fact that it allows you to draw on a vast musical library, is also its curse. The more choices you have to create the perfect soundtrack for your life, the jumpier and more uncertain you can become that you’ve made the right choice. As Manjoo writes, “Am I the only one who worries that for all its wonders, the iPod has also tremendously complicated our relationship to music — has made us more mindlessly consumptive of songs, less attentive to the context and the quality of music, and concerned, constantly, with just always getting more, more, more?” Heidegger would have scoffed at the idea of writing a sentence this succinct, but it’s the same idea.
Whatever the reasons, the fact is that the art of living — for that’s what we’re really talking about when we speak of gratitude — doesn’t come naturally to most people. Numb repetition seems to be hard-wired into the human condition. Being madly in love helps, if you’re lucky enough to hit that jackpot. Or almost dying, as long as you don’t. But for most of us, those big numbers on the wheel of fortune don’t come up, or we’ve already hit them, blown the spiritual winnings and proceeded to fall back into our old, heedless ways.
The central myths of our culture, religious and secular, are about redemption. When Scrooge wakes up after his dark night of the soul, he rushes to the window and is overjoyed to realize that he is still alive and that it’s Christmas. And Dickens tells us that he celebrated life for the rest of his days. We want to believe him, but the truth is most of us, even after getting the horrific guided tour from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, remain clanking Jacob Marleys, bearing the chains we forged in life.
I learned this the hard way. Seventeen years ago, at the age of 36, I was diagnosed with cancer, with uncertain prospects of survival. After surgery I had a year of radiation and chemotherapy. And during and after my year of living dangerously I walked away not just alive, but with a Scrooge-like gift: an illuminated world.
I don’t know why or how it happened, this sunlit year or two. There was some luck involved — my illness coincided with getting a real job, a happy relationship and expelling a bunch of emotional toxins. But mostly, I think the gift was given by death. The experience of facing the end broke me down and cracked me open. I got little, and the world, for a time, got big. It was like being born again into a serious world, one that had a sharp, clear existence outside of me. I felt compassion for others. I cried tears of joy walking down Nob Hill. I tasted the sadness of leaving the world early. And every day was Thanksgiving.
But it didn’t last. The threat disappeared, the euphoria faded, and it was too hard to stay little and clean. I grew up again and life went on. The wheel of fortune stopped hitting all winners. (I forgot that it had stopped on the biggest winner of all.) My memories faded. And I stopped giving thanks. What for?
Were those blazoned days a one-shot blessing conferred by the sword of Damocles? And is it an illusion for me to believe that I can get them back? That seems to be what Philip Larkin says in his 1955 poem “Reference Back”:
“Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.”
I think Larkin is only half right. The things that we’ve done in life can’t be changed. But we can still change our minds; we can begin again. It is, alas, a process more like work than like revelation. (Indeed, the obsession with re-experiencing lost revelations, a particular vice of my epiphany-addled generation, stands in the way of living.) If we can learn to see the world as it is, even with its lost illusions, pain and decay, Larkin’s “blindingly undiminished” past, with its inevitable losses, can inspire not just regret, but also its companion: acceptance. You must remember this… To clearly see what once was, in all its eternal illumination, is an act of homage to ourselves, and to life, that does not deny what we have lost.
The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland, and saw much of Europe destroyed. In a long poem titled “From the Rising of the Sun,” he recalls himself as a boy in his native Lithuania, looking at the fields that he, a poet in his 60s, is remembering. It is a meditation on how memory both preserves and creates a perfect world — a preservation that does not alter the finality of its loss.
“That boy, does he already suspect
that beauty is always elsewhere and always delusive? …
He sees what I see even now. Oh but he was clever,
Attentive, as if things were instantly changed by memory.
Riding in a cart, he looked back to retain as much as possible.
Which means he knew what was needed for some ultimate moment
When he would compose from fragments a world perfect at last.”
There is no perfection without fragments. “There is a crack, a crack in everything,” Leonard Cohen sings. “That’s how the light gets in.”
And so this Thanksgiving, when my mother gives thanks that we are all together, and perhaps invokes the memory of two dearly beloved family members who were taken from us too soon, I will try to remember Uncle Bob’s laugh, and Aunt Wendy’s songs, and the good times that we have all had together. And maybe not there at the table, but sometime, I will try to keep an old, broken promise to be good to myself. And I will try to remember how everything — the trees in the park, a child’s face, the clouds drifting over a mountain — was once brilliantly illuminated. And let my dark lost years be sad, and my green and hopeful ones be happy, and know that from some perspective far above them, they are the same. And not look away. And give thanks for it all.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
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)
This is a collection of Salon's most compelling Thanksgiving stories. These are tales about family and food, about discoveries and secrets, about new adventures, old traditions and the wonderful, terrible things that happen when we gather in one place to give thanks.