"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 night, not long ago, I awoke at 2 a.m., breathless, with the sensation of long icy fingers around my throat.
One of my sons had landed in jail the night before, after a joy ride gone horribly awry. Now, stranded in the darkest part of night and powerless to do anything till morning, I was envisioning him in an orange jumpsuit, eating lumpen food off a metal tray. Hearing the clang of tin cups against metal bars. Seeing angry guards carrying billy clubs and criminals with shaved heads and “I Love Mama” tattoos forcing my boy into unnatural positions over a cot.
After a few minutes of lying so taut I could practically levitate, I resigned myself to the fact that I was never going to be able to go back to sleep. So I got out of bed and made a cup of tea, went downstairs, slipped a tape into our ancient VCR and rewound to some random point. Then I pressed play and there, on the screen — like an answer — was Erica Kane, wearing an orange jumpsuit, sitting in a solitary cell and talking to a ladybug.
For the past 20 years, I’ve watched “All My Children.” Not every day; not even every week. And usually not in real time, because I find there’s something depressing about sitting in front of a television in the middle of the day. Instead, I record the show — often accumulating a week’s worth at a time — then sit down to watch stretches of it when I’m lonely or anxious or going through a bout of insomnia. “AMC” is my Valium. It’s familiar, dependable; the actors never seem to change. Even better: I can tune in to the middle of an episode after a month’s hiatus and within three scenes know exactly what’s going on. It’s like slipping into a warm bath.
My addiction started in college. I was 350 miles from home at a Big 10 school where I didn’t know a soul. So I went to the student union every day at noon, between introductory physics and world lit, to buy a bag of popcorn and a Diet Coke and ended up on the edge of a group of kids gathered around a wide-screen TV. Many pretended they weren’t watching — especially the big, hairy football players — but if someone tried to change the channel there was a dangerous, collective hum, like the sound before a tornado strikes, and the person handling the remote would quickly back off.
Those were the years of Greg and Jenny, Jessie and Angie, Nina and Cliff. The men were sculpted yet brainy; the women had such dewy skin, it was as if their cheeks had been grafted from infants’. Everyone on the show was in love, dying, divorcing or some combination of the three. And they moved like the players in a Shakespearean tragedy. Just as Romeo killed himself in error after the friar’s assistant came late with Juliet’s crucial message, the young lovers on “AMC” suffered one tragedy after another because of the fickle winds of fate.
Within days, I was able follow the braided story lines and I’d actually made a couple of friends. (Fellow students, I mean.) They filled me in on the characters’ backgrounds: Myrtle was an ex-carnival worker, Palmer the town’s codgery millionaire. Tad, Jenny’s brother, was sleeping with both Liza and her mother, Marion. And minuscule Erica Kane — the indefatigable Susan Lucci, who has been the show’s centerpiece since its inception in January 1970 — was a fashion model with a presence that was strangely huge.
I stopped for a while after college, forgetting all about the soap during the first months of my marriage and entry-level job. But two years later, my oldest child was born. A persistently sleepless little creature, he awoke as if he had an alarm clock hidden under his Big Bird blankets; every night around 1:30 a.m. I would feed and rock and pat him for hours. That’s when I started setting my VCR.
For years, it was a clandestine habit, something I shared in the middle of the night with each of my three infants. They got older and, eventually, the last one quit nursing. When she entered kindergarten, I went to graduate school and became an English professor. You know: the kind who gives lectures on narrative theory and literal emblems and “the inevitability of retrospect,” telling students to fill their minds with a variety of great literature and art. My definition was purposely broad: from “Animal House” to “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” Yet even I would not have included “AMC.” Still, I kept up with the soap, sneaking episodes like cigarettes.
We moved to the East Coast. During the day, I taught literature and writing at Brown. Each evening, I’d climb down from my ivory tower and — after tucking my children into bed — I’d follow Erica to Budapest (where she stabbed her eighth husband, Dimitri) and lust after bad-boy cop Trevor, who was tricked into sleeping with his wife’s sister, and watch Edmund marry Maria even though he was still in love with Brooke.
Yes, I recognized the overacting and saccharine music and implausible plot points. I had to look past the vulgar displays of wealth: None of these people seemed to work, but they all lived in castles or penthouse apartments. I even forgave the ridiculous standard of beauty for “AMC” women, its female characters ranging in size from 0 to 4 and each sporting enough hair extensions to cover the heads of every co-host on “The View.” Because, on some elemental level — the same one, I think, that has always drawn me to epics and fairy tales — I was (and still am) riveted and comforted, borne up in some way, by the recurring themes of the show.
The people in Pine Valley, Pa. — the imaginary hamlet where “AMC” is set — are, for instance, constantly tumbling into mine shafts or stuck in cellars or trapped in bomb shelters. Their descent can happen in any number of ways: They might be thrown down an abandoned well by a deranged sister or slip into an underground grotto on their own, only to be trapped when some runaway criminal covers the opening with a rock. The point is that over and over, they plunge, literally, into pits of despair. And then they claw their way back out, breaking French-manicured fingernails and ripping Italian silk shirts, but making it back up and into the light.
There is a redemptive quality to all of this. It has the timeless, allegorical cycle of fall and ascent. No matter how wrong things go, this show seems to say, you can always shake off the ashes — like the proverbial phoenix — and rise again. And no one on “AMC” except the genuinely evil (child killers, for example) ever has to stay in the hell down below.
In Pine Valley, as in the New Testament, the main character never stays dead for long. Characters on “AMC” keep rising miraculously from their graves. They come back to the fold as angels or — more often — cases of mistaken death. Tad (middle-aged now, and a good man) was lost once in a river current and presumed dead; his wife Dixie’s car went off a Swiss cliff. Yet each of them returned, years later, unharmed with some outrageous yet perfectly satisfying explanation: Tad, who’d had amnesia, was “adopted” by a California family and became a winemaker. Dixie gave birth to a baby girl and was tricked into giving her away, then stayed hidden out of shame. (Recently, Dixie died again — this time supposedly for real — but she returned, backlit with a heavenly haze and wearing long, flowing robes, to comfort Tad and help him retrieve their lost child.)
Back when we lived in Providence, R.I., one of the hottest story lines on “AMC” had to do with Bianca Montgomery, Erica’s daughter by Travis (her fifth and sixth husband), who had come out as a lesbian. Bianca happened to be born on the same day as my oldest child — I recall watching the episode from my hospital bed — yet while my son was only 14, Bianca had already grown into a young adult who had sex with other women and traveled the world. Bianca and Erica were reconciled after years of being estranged, following a custody suit that Erica lost because it was disclosed that she’d committed adultery with Travis’ brother, Jack.
A then single parent of three, working odd hours in a strange, new city and providing far less for my own three than I would have liked, I found it soothing that no matter how badly you bungled at child rearing, the bonds between a mother and her offspring held strong. If Erica could lose her daughter for a decade, then win her back after a few enlightened encounters, I could certainly make up for too many nights grading freshman comp exams.
A couple of years passed. My kids started staying up later and eventually discovered my long-kept secret, holding it over my head like some accidental murder I’d committed while tweaked out on meth. “If you don’t let me go to the movie with Helen,” my daughter would say, “I’m going to tell everyone about you and ‘All My Children.’”
I’m ashamed to admit, sometimes this worked.
But then a funny thing happened: Writers I admired began to admit they were also rabid soap opera fans. The most well known probably is David Sedaris, who did a series of commentaries for National Public Radio on his love for “One Life to Live” that earned him an honorary dressing room on the set of the show. Today, soap fandom is viewed as trendy and eccentric among many authors, the equivalent of a famous chef’s admitting to a love for Cheese Nips or Spam. Cultural critics even talk about the “Dickensian” quality of daytime television and how this appeals to literary types.
Does this make me feel better? Of course it does. I’ll admit, I’d far rather have something in common with David Sedaris than a soap junkie who has nothing better to do in the middle of the day.
I suspect, however, that secret soap watching is a fetish shared by many professionals. According to the Nielsen stats, “All My Children” has 2.6 million regular viewers, yet only 817,000 of those are the targeted females between the ages of 18 and 49. Add to this a 68 percent increase in viewership as a result of TiVo, and it looks less and less like nursing home residents account for the other 1.7-plus mil.
In the July issue of Elle, writer Laurie Abraham confessed her addiction to “All My Children” — which she watches each weekday when it airs, after a morning of work — calling it her “amulet against failure” and “a cleansing sorbet for the brain.” She also wrote that rugged male characters such as Zach, a just-this-side-of-the-law casino owner; Ryan, a clean-cut motorcycle-riding sportsman; and Aidan, an Irish-born detective who recently engineered a rescue mission in Sudan, were added to help cultivate a growing male audience. Most straight men don’t talk about the soaps, but the evidence says they’re watching.
A case in point: I published an essay last year that referred, in passing, to Erica Kane and received an “anonymous” e-mail from a middle-aged patent attorney identifying himself only as Jackson — Erica’s former brother-in-law and 10th husband, the one who resulted in her losing her custody suit — and confessing that he locks his office door each day at noon so he can spend his lunch hour alone, sitting on his leather couch, watching. He was terrified someday his secretary would find out.
Life has been better, I wrote back, since I stopped hiding my habit.
I no longer fight the fact that this simple and totally free form of entertainment provides a hopeful, mystical counterpoint to everyday life. Take, for instance, that night I slipped down to the basement — my son in jail — to find Erica in her own prison, carrying on a conversation with a ladybug.
Now this may not sound like something a hardheaded sex goddess, former fashion mogul and modern-day talk show host would do. But it’s a leap you have to make because it demonstrates another theme of “All My Children”: the inherent value of every creature, large or small. It’s rumored that Agnes Nixon created the show nearly 40 years ago as a spiritual alternative to other soaps, and that the title is a biblical reference, the children in question being God’s. (Note: When I called Mike Cohen, the ABC/”AMC” media rep, to ask if the soap opera is based on Christian principles, I got the brushoff. “I wouldn’t know anything about that,” he said.)
I took a sloshy sort of solace from the conversation between Erica — who’d been thrown in solitary for reasons I never learned — and that insect she held in her hand. I don’t remember much of it. But there was something about how everything happens for a reason and her jail stay had taught her something valuable about life.
Here’s a woman who has been married and divorced nearly a dozen times, who has been abandoned by her father, raped by a family friend, bankrupted repeatedly and addicted to drugs. She found out her beloved daughter was a lesbian — which, in one of “AMC’s” putatively groundbreaking moments, she initially rejected then embraced — and discovered the fetus she’d meant to abort actually was “salvaged” and carried to term in the body of another woman. (You doubt the show is Christian, Mr. Cohen?) The point seems to be that whatever happens, Erica Kane carries on.
This, to me, is the narrative’s basic wisdom. I’m not usually fond of the issue-oriented story lines focusing on domestic violence, transgender issues, cochlear implants or autism. But occasionally “AMC” does manage to cut through the wealth and excess and drama, getting to something meaningful and universal that I believe adds to our world.
Take Stuart Chandler. An undiagnosed artistic cipher with little sense of the world, Stuart is his twin brother Adam’s touchstone, conscience and heart. Both roles are played by David Canary. (Canary is, in my opinion, an actor of London stage quality. Just watch him in a scene where he is actually Adam pretending to be Stuart, juggling the features of both men and magically giving viewers complex, subtle character cues.) Adam and Stuart embody, in their entwined, mirror-image way, man’s darkness and light. It’s a worn device, granted, but in this case well used. And for years, I have watched their drama unfold: the intelligent yet ruthless Adam being held in check by his softer, slower brother, and Stuart’s needs — for money and life-skills counseling — clearly overshadowed by his creativity and goodness and art.
This, I like to think, is what many “AMC” viewers are hanging onto: the value of a rumpled, white-haired man who stutters and paints, his Boo Radley brand of decency and the fact that there is a mythical town tucked in the mountains of Pennsylvania where he has carved out a place. Even the mighty Erica seeks out Stuart when she needs guidance. When she isn’t consulting a ladybug, that is.
During the early morning following my son’s arrest, I watched two and a half backlogged episodes, and this took me through almost until dawn. Then I fell asleep on the couch and rested peacefully until 7 a.m., when it was time to get up, call an attorney and resume the business of my own life, where I don’t live in a castle or run a multimillion-dollar cosmetics company. But all my children are beautifully, painfully real.
Ann Bauer is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of a new novel, "The Forever Marriage."More Ann Bauer.
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)