"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)
One Sunday in Lent I wake with a taste of pennies in my mouth, my chest sore, a broken record of worries running through my head. I worry about money and wonder whether my daughter, Abbie, who’s been struggling with her math homework, will be able to pass the third grade test. I worry about my mother, who is alone and without financial security. Panic blooms out of my chest, until I am finally so sick, I pound down the stairs and grab hold of the cold porcelain toilet.
Depression is a wilderness; the landmarks of ordinary life are torn loose from their meaning. I am in a desert like the one Jesus inhabits during Lent. In the day, I can talk myself down: I have a little money in the bank. My daughter will not fall out of the window of the apartment. But at night I can’t control my thoughts. My neck is tight and my sinuses ache. Lent is nearly over and I’m annoyed with Jesus. I’m frustrated he’s getting so much attention.
The truth is, ever since I was a girl in my father’s country church, I’ve felt competitive with Jesus. Now I resent all the Holy Week services, particularly because I’d like to attend. But I have my classes to teach, papers to grade. A friend suggests I need to realign my priorities. This enrages me. I’m not out snorting coke and picking up sailors, I’m trying to pay my bills and make sure my daughter learns her multiplication tables. Besides, if God is equally inside me, as inside Jesus, if God is equally inside a church as in my kitchen sink, then why should I feel compelled to go to church? “Jesus is a drama queen,” I say. “Every time I see a crucifix I feel like shouting ‘Get down off that cross you big faker!’”
When I go to visit Sister Leslie, she sees my agitation and seems amused by it. Her face is serene, though the eyes behind her glasses sparkle. I know she won’t yell at me, but I’m pretty sure she won’t agree with my assessment of Jesus.
“This is a very good thing,” she says, leaning forward. “You’re finally feeling it. You’re uncomfortable because you’re up there pinned with Christ to the cross.”
“Do you think God loves the rest of us as much as he loves Jesus?” I ask. It’s idiotic, I know, but my soul is tightly fisted around this concern.
She leaves her chair and comes to me with a box of Kleenex, her voice low and confident.
“Absolutely,” she says.
In the years that I’ve known Sister Leslie, the cross, which for years I’d regarded as a kitsch object used to slay vampires, has begun to resonate. I’ve internalized the wood slats pressed against one another and see them as a symbol of my own existential conflicts. Sister Leslie, like all of us, has had her own conflicts. She is the oldest of four children, eight years older than her three younger brothers and sister. She remembers the house’s chaos when all three were in diapers. “I was always longing for silence,” she says. In Tonawanda, the Buffalo suburb where she grew up, she attended an American Baptist Church, where she was baptized in the big tub behind the altar. After a restless decade of college, graduate school and travel, she settled with her partner — a woman who years before had been a Catholic nun — in Manhattan, working on Wall Street as a librarian for a corporate law firm that represented Ivan Boesky, one of the biggest names ensnared in the stock market scandals of the 1980s. During Sister Leslie’s lunch hour she sometimes sat in the back of Trinity Church and was pulled in by the beauty of the language of the Book of Common Prayer. She joined the church, got a spiritual director and began to participate as a sub-deacon and reader. Two years after her relationship broke up she began attending day retreats at Holy Spirit. One day one of the sisters asked her a question that changed her life. “She asked me if I’d ever thought of becoming a nun. I said no and ran out of the place.” She laughs thinking about her alarm. “But inside me, that no resonated. Inside me there was a giant yes.”
After 9/11 I needed desperately to talk to someone. I wanted to know if I had to pray for the terrorists, and what to say to friends who were condemning God. When I met Sister Leslie, she looked exhausted, but at peace. Her composure made me angry. I told her I kept thinking of flames engulfing people and the abject terror of those who had jumped.
Sister Leslie was silent, her hands folded in her lap. “When one thinks of horror one must also think of ecstasy.” She leaned up, her thin frame balanced on the edge of the chair. “No one knows what was on the other side for those people.”
I resisted the idea. I wanted to provoke her. I ran through my list of spiritual roadblocks. There was what happened to my ex-husband Michael’s uncle, Ron. I last saw Ron at a minor league baseball game in Illinois. I remember his red face and veiny nose, ratty cashmere coat and worn loafers. That winter he’d come out of a bar late at night and passed out in a snow bank. By the time a passerby found him he’d gotten frostbite in his hands and legs. Both legs had to be removed as well as all of his fingers. He was in a wheelchair, living in his mother’s house, when he died of complications from the amputations.
As I lay out the grim details — the blackout, the snow, the amputations, the wheelchair — I hear my voice, stopping and starting. I sound hysterical. I can tell by the way Sister Leslie is sitting that she knows I’m not just telling a story, I’m asking a question. What is the meaning in Uncle Ron’s death? I can’t make horror into anything else. I can’t flow through it. I hit my head on Uncle Ron in his ratty cashmere coat lying in the snow bank, his fingers and legs turning pale purple.
Sister Leslie leans forward and speaks, her voice clear and strong.
“You’ll never know the meaning of an incident like Ron’s death until a much later date,” she says.
This answer does not please me. It’s like time heals all wounds. I look at her, she is thin under her habit, bones covered in a black shroud.
“At some later time the meaning, which will never be explicit, may reverberate.”
“I don’t get it.”
I keep thinking she hasn’t heard me. Ron had his legs sawed off. Ron had all his fingers cut off. Ron has children, sisters, brothers, a mother. The horror to me is complete. There’s no room for even the smallest ray of light.
“We’re here now in this room,” she says. “We’re talking about Ron, his story has moved you, made you aware of human frailty. Think of the horror of the crucifixion, the degradation. The shame of it.” Sister Leslie leans forward. “And how that event reverberates out through history into so many hearts.”
Sister Leslie is insisting I have a choice. I can clench the bloody bone or I can widen my focus, look around me and see that while my hands may be blood-stained, I am standing in a garden under a tree surrounded by light.
- – - – - – - – - – - -
A week later, Abbie has lined up her Hello Kitty dolls along the tub’s edge and her Barbie jet ski is zipping around in the water. She’s gotten two tiny glow sticks from a gum ball machine and is using them like starting batons. Ever since I picked her up at school she’s been preoccupied. I ask her what is wrong. She looks up at me from the tub.
“Quintana told me something that’s really going to hurt your feelings.”
Quintana, a girl in Abbie’s class, is a sophisticate with a Danish mother and an older Spanish father. Maybe she said something disparaging about my ratty wool sweater and baggy jeans, but who knows? Once, when she was in preschool, Abbie asked me where poop came from. I began to tell her about the digestive tract and how vitamins and nutrients were taken out of food and absorbed by the body. Abbie’s eyes glazed over. “Zachary says the wolves come and put poop in you at night.” She said her answer was definitive.
After I read to her she snuggles down into her bed, her two dolls Pussy Cat and Kit beside her, the glow sticks each balancing against their chests. I ask her again if she wants to tell me.
“It’s going to really hurt your feelings,” she says. “I hate to say it to you.”
“Go ahead,” I say.
“Quintana says there is only Mother Nature, there is no God.”
“That doesn’t hurt my feelings,” I say. “That’s fine with me.”
“Really?” she is incredulous.
“Everybody has their own theology.”
She looks at me blankly.
“You know how your friend Ginger believes in werewolves and she prays to her dog Dudley?”
“Everybody has their own idea of God. I mean maybe Quintana is right, maybe Mother Nature is God. Sister Leslie thinks God is a girl.”
Abbie’s mouth drops open.
“God is a girl? she says.
“Sister Leslie thinks so,” I say.
Her brows fold down and she looks, in her eight-year-old way, extremely serious.
“I need to know if God is a boy or a girl.”
“You can decide,” I say. “You decide what you want to believe.”
“God is a girl?” Abbie says again as I turn off the bedside lamp. “I’ll have to think about that.”
In the dark, the glow sticks lay on her dolls as bright as bits of neon.
“Look, Mommy,” she says, “the dolls have souls.”
- – - – - – - – - – - -
On Easter, Abbie dyes eggs with my mom. When I press her to come to service she reminds me that she, like her friend Quintana, has decided there is only Mother Nature. I decide not to argue. How can you argue with a girl wearing a Supergirl nightgown and writing “YO!” with a wax crayon all over several dozen hard-boiled eggs?
It’s been a cold winter and a rain-soaked March. Inside the church, the altar is covered with potted lilies, pink tulips and daffodils. The place is humid and sweet as a greenhouse. Ushers wear white skirts with yellow blouses. As the choir processes, the congregation sings “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” We hold hands across the rows for the Peace Song. Reverend Banks begins his sermon by explaining how Easter originated as a pagan holiday named after the Goddess Oestar and that Persians dyed eggs long before Christ. Banks goes on to describe the crucifixion, the thorns puncturing the skin of Jesus’ forehead, blood streaming down his chin, how he passed the dark night in the tomb and then how Christ’s resurrected body filled with nothing but light.
I am lucky if I can believe in the resurrection ten minutes a month. I have doubt. But I have faith as well. My doubt fuels my faith. To me doubt connects to the mystery of God much more than certainty. The finite cannot contain the infinite. Once, a New York cab driver told me he was a former Muslim who now subscribes to no organized religion. “Religions are not directly from God,” he said animatedly from the front seat. “Religion is finite. God is not finite, but infinite.”
Banks comes down out of the pulpit. You need to be sure Dearly Beloved, absolutely sure, Christ died for you. Hello somebody! Are you positive, absolutely positive?
I slip from my pew and walk out of the church. On the sidewalk I think: Jesus himself was a doubter. He questioned the validity of the established religious order. He doubted his ability to do what he was asked to do and, on the cross, he doubted the loyalty of God.
My conflict, I see now, has not been with any individual church, but with church life in general, a life that began at my baptism in my father’s shabby cottage in Sylvan Beach. The idea of church still has a grip on my imagination, but I realize that what I thought was held only inside those walls — grace and divinity — are actually located directly and authentically inside myself. Church is not a set of rules or a specific building but a way of life.
But I am not able to break with Christianity, no matter how uncomfortable I am with many of its current manifestations. Biblical imagery and Christ’s message of forgiveness continue to haunt me, and I know my own redemption lies in Christian tenets, not in others’ religious beliefs. Still, I can interpret the Bible in my own way. I can choose from the creeds that have been passed down, I can make my relationship to God my own, not one that is defined by church doctrine. And I can pray. Of all the gifts Sister Leslie has given me, her Aunt Birdie’s Book of Common Prayer has been the most valuable. Thin colored ribbons stick out the bottom. I read Morning Prayer and sometimes Compline. The Compline antiphon is my favorite: Guide us waking, oh Lord and guard us sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ and asleep we may rest in peace.
Since I was a teenager I’ve lived in a world mostly devoid of divinity. But now I see the sacred includes not just churches but hospitals, highways, costume jewelry, garbage dumps, libraries, the cruising area of public parks. Also pet stores, subway platforms, Ferris wheels and rain storms.
Rather than certainty, I try to cultivate a sense of sacredness. Life is brutal, full of horror and violence. Life is beautiful, full of passion and joy. Both things are true at the same time. The paradox extends to my own being. I think of the words of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who calls Christianity the religion of Love and Comedy, à la Charlie Chaplin: “The point is not that, due to the limitations of his mortal sinful nature, man cannot ever become fully divine, but that due to the divine spark in him, man cannot become fully man.” Abbie, as young as she is, has already felt this dichotomy. On a page of her journal I found this epigram: I feel like I am someone like God I do not know why.
Darcey Steinke is the author of four novels, two of which were New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Her non-fiction has been featured in Vogue, the Washinton Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Village Voice, Spin, and the New York Times Magazine. She lives with her daughter in Brooklyn.More Darcey Steinke.
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)