"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)
After having smoked cigarettes every day for 13 years, I took my last drag on Oct. 10, 2006.
Like most smokers, I’d considered quitting many times, set arbitrary dates for cessation, pondered patch-gum-Wellbutrin methodology, and never brought any plan to fruition. My choice to stop this fall took me by surprise; I hadn’t planned it, and while the process was excruciating, the moment of decision was as simple as going to bed one night and realizing that “it” — my life as a smoker, which I had really, really loved — was over. Also unexpected is that so far, I have not backslid, though I’m not hubristic enough to pretend that this won’t get harder with the return of warm weather and outdoor dining to Brooklyn, N.Y.
But what has truly floored me is what has happened to my body since I shocked it by taking away its daily feed of nicotine and tar.
This is not going to be a piece about how as soon as I put down the cancer sticks, my heart began pounding stronger, bringing rosy color to my suddenly smooth cheeks, or how my hair grew lustrous and I began tasting food better and my lungs expanded to gulp in billows of fresh air, like a princess awakened from her carcinogenic coffin after the evil Camel’s spell was lifted. That’s the tale I’d been told by many smug people who urged me to quit over the years. This is about what actually happened.
Unsurprisingly, I gained some weight. There are many explanations for why quitters pack on pounds: Cigarettes speed up metabolism; they are appetite suppressants; the oral fixation they satisfy can be sated only by French fries. Here’s what was true for me: During those first weeks without smokes, I rewarded my daily virtue on a pasta-and-pork-product-based system. I also treated myself by trading in my loathed morning cardio workout for yoga. I’d previously prided myself on being the only woman in her 30s in New York never to have taken a yoga class, but I’d gathered that the practice might aid the post-smoking cleansing process. Or something. As it turns out, beginning yoga, while fun, does not torch calories.
I made my peace with the extra baggage. Except for the smoking, I am in relatively good shape: strong and muscular, I eat vegetables and lean proteins and I don’t drink soda. As I shoveled in delicious dinners, I decided that 10 pounds was a reasonable price for kicking my wickedest habit.
I was less prepared for what happened to my skin. At 31, I have not yet become transfixed by the thin lines wending their way from my eyes, and I’d heard that quitting would brighten and smooth whatever imperfections might vex me. But a week after my last cigarette, things began to go very badly on my face. I broke out in angry blemishes, I got a canker sore inside my bottom lip, and my complexion ran the gamut from pallid to waxen. Perhaps, I reasoned, employing the kind of New-Agey logic that leads people to believe they need colonics, it was decades’ worth of toxins being expelled through my skin.
They were certainly being expelled from my lungs! One of the knee-slapping ironies about smoking is that many people who quit promptly develop a scratchy throat and hacking cough, producing globs of repulsive substances as their scilia come lurchingly back to life after decades of nicotine-induced slumber. And as soon as they get back to their job, shooing bad stuff away from the pulmonary system and showing the stuff that’s already there the door, it’s a multi-Kleenex rainbow tour of phlegm.
The hacking quieted, the breakouts slowed. I was confident that the worst was over, until I felt a stinging in my throat. This was not the twice-yearly cold or handful of viruses that have afflicted me in adulthood. This was sharp yet lumpy; it involved swollen glands and white patches on my throat; it hurt when I drank orange juice, a sensation I remembered fondly from sick days … in the third grade. I had strep throat.
At Thanksgiving, I was prescribed my first antibiotic in probably 20 years. It worked for 24 hours. I was prescribed stronger antibiotics. The sore throat came back again. In all, it took three weeks to rid my body of a bug that hadn’t been able to take me since I was 8.
When I whined about the injustice of contracting strep after finally quitting smoking, my doctor laughingly suggested that the events might be linked. After all, the stuff I’d been inhaling for 13 years had been killing me slowly; apparently it had been chivalrous enough to dispense with other germy invaders as well. Now I was smoke-free, but my nicotine sentinels had abandoned their posts, leaving me vulnerable to attack.
The strep packed its bags by mid-month, and I went on a Christmas shopping spree with a young friend. We wrapped ourselves tightly in scarves, battled the throngs, and tried on hats all along Canal Street. Over dinner the next week, the night before I left for Christmas at my parents’ house, my friend’s mother recounted the serio-comic saga of discovering that the family had head lice. After a fascistic turn in a scalding shower later that night, I discovered I had them too.
Here I should be emphatically clear: I am not an insect person. I should also be clear that I was lucky to discover my tiny guests so early, when there were very few of them. I nonetheless staged a shock-and-awe campaign (using all chemical and biological weapons at my disposal) that ensured that the stray evildoers were eradicated. So unrelenting was my attack that in retrospect, I feel a little sorry for the lice. I think my mother — nonplused, after 31 years of lice-free motherhood, at being asked to pick through her daughter’s hair with a fine-toothed comb long after the beasties had been vanquished — also felt sorry for them.
Over Christmas, it became apparent that the yoga was not doing wonders for my coordination. Physically, I was off my game: clumsy, distracted, jittery. One night, I descended barefoot into my parents’ basement, my head swathed in whatever tea-tree-and-napalm cocktail I had concocted that day, and accidentally stepped on a garbage bag containing lamb-chop bones. A spiky protrusion punctured my tough sole and worked itself deeply into my foot; I limped upstairs, spurting blood. The next day, gingerly getting gifts out of my parents’ car, I closed the trunk on my head, causing my already-raw scalp to bleed, and raising an egg-shaped lump that took a week to recede. Saddest was that I was unable to recover from these malfunctions of female grace with a contemplative cigarette.
I got the stomach flu, and not the standard 72-hour belly-turner. This was all intestinal pain, shimmering fevers and muscle aches that ran from the crown of my head into my knees. The symptoms lasted for a couple of days, then eased up for a couple of days, then came back. The cycle lasted two weeks. I ignored the pleas of friends and family that I see a doctor, since by now I was scared of what he might tell me about my suddenly unreliable body. I’d tried to take control of my own well-being by giving up smoking, but instead had been buffeted by all this bleeding, tripping, barfing, sore, beat-up bad luck. What if he saw iller winds on my horizon?
And so I sat my flu out. There was a string of sharp, bright days. I looked up at the cold sun as I walked to work, silently begging it to make the dark circles fade from under my eyes, to give my face some elasticity again, to smooth my twisted sleep into much-needed rest.
I got pinkeye: bright red weeping eye, mild stinging. At least that’s what I was told as I was prescribed drops to make it better. It was later decided that what I had was a lacerated eyeball, though that could have happened while I was futzing with the pinkeye. Whatever it was, it healed up in about six days. As a result of being unable to wear contacts, I developed a series of migraines.
The weekend of the pinkeye, I got depressed. I am not prone to the blues. But it was late February. I was 10 pounds heavier, pale, cold, tired, with a weeping eye, headaches and a scalp that was now flaking copiously after weekly preventive doses of tea tree oil shampoo. I cried for a whole weekend. I missed smoking.
It’s not that I regretted quitting, or believed that the coincidental string of maladies I had suffered were legitimately tied to the departure of Camel Lights from my nights. But without cigarettes, I felt like a different person. I was a different person. That’s probably what I was going for when I began smoking in high school, though in truth I barely remember what first tempted me. Whatever led me to tobacco, it had become a part of who I was as an adult. I had assumed that when I banished the habit, I would get back a version of my younger self: a refurbished body and freshened face, pockets full of cigarette money I’d never spent. Instead, I felt diminished, dried up without the illusory substance that apparently had been keeping me outwardly robust while it was rotting my insides. I felt like the silly girl who’d partaken and then been deprived of forbidden fruit in Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”; I was growing thin and gray, dwindling as my fire burnt away. Except for the thin part.
Depressed but not incapacitated by it, I increased my yoga sessions to five times a week, to help fight off whatever assailant might be poised to strike next, and because of the mood-enhancing benefits of exercise. This plan actually worked; I felt my body strengthen, and I was cheered, in a giddy way, by learning to stand on my head, my hands, my shoulders, and sometimes my forearms, for the first time in my life.
Occam’s razor would suggest that these gymnastic feats probably contributed to the pinched nerve that woke me from slumber the first weekend of March, though I told my mother, who faintly disapproves of the yoga, that I got it from picking up a heavy case of cat food. It runs painfully from my neck down my arm, and may be caused by a couple of compressed vertebrae in my neck. It kills.
I realize that this screed chronicles a set of minor ailments that add up to nothing serious. I am lucky in my good health and strong body, even when it is compromised by inconvenient contusions, parasites and pain. I am much luckier than I might be if my 13 years of smoking ever come back to haunt me, which is a possibility. And I am lucky in having been able to so far stay away from cigarettes. There are many whose addictions have left them unable to make the break.
I would also be remiss in failing to acknowledge the physical benefits I have noticed. Since I quit, I no longer get hangovers. My clothes smell better; I assume that I smell better too. I suspect my lungs really are cleaner; after attending a recent party at which people were smoking, I felt a pulmonary ache that lasted till morning. And I was surprised, during a February swim, that after months of forgoing cardio, I could manage 20 minutes of laps without stopping to catch my breath. But in truth, the realest benefit of five months without smoking is the feeling of virtue, or, less smugly, the relief at having rid myself of a problem that had loomed for too long.
I understand the incentive value of a myth of perfect pink health around the quitting corner; but in its own way, it’s as dishonest as the tobacco lobby’s now-retired claims that cigarettes weren’t hurting anybody. Maybe some quitters pop from their nicotine carapaces all shiny and smooth, but I have learned that it’s also possible to emerge haggard and green around the gills, with a body ravaged by years of cigarette smoke and exhausted by its sudden absence.
I don’t mean to suggest that smokers shouldn’t quit; on the contrary, my post-nicotine odyssey of malaise and maladroitness has confirmed that it was long past time for me to put down the smokes, as much as I loved them — and I really, really did love them. Had I been able to rebound to marathon form with the alacrity of a celebrity mom bouncing from delivery room into Catwoman suit, I’d probably just have lit up again and put the process off another couple of years. As it is, all I can say is that I hope to never have to relive these months, and more fervently than that, as delicious as the nectar was, I wish I’d never tasted the fruit of goblin men.
Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.More Rebecca Traister.
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)