"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)
Almost forgot to tell you: I’m taking a few days off. Column should be back next week. No biggee. Just got some things to do around the house. See you next week!–ct
I am so glad you are a guy. I need to ask you something I’m too ashamed to ask my friends.
I’m getting married in a month and a half to a sweet man who’s the love of my life, but last night he revealed something so hurtful I don’t know what to do. He says I’m overreacting and reading too much into this, but I can’t see any other interpretation. You are a guy and a sensitive person; I would appreciate your perspective.
We were walking the dog and talking about his brother’s unkind, manipulative girlfriend who seems willing to do anything to get married. He mentioned that he’d heard some radio show host advise his listeners to add hot sauce to the contents of their used condoms, or to rinse them out entirely before disposal so sneaky women could not use them to get knocked up. I laughed and said the host sounded like an egomaniac who didn’t know a lot about reproduction, but then I noticed he wasn’t laughing with me.
I said, Did you believe that guy? And he said, Yes. So I asked, Did you do that when we were together and using condoms? (I’m on different birth control now.) And he said, Well, yes.
Cary, I am so hurt. What the hell? So after we made love all those times he’s off to the bathroom to wash out the condom so I can’t trick him into marrying me? What?
He said lots of men do this and I’m making too big of a deal about it. He also said part of it was for sanitary reasons, that he didn’t want the trash to smell. He has OCD (that he doesn’t deal with), and a lot of the way it expresses itself is through cleanliness issues. I’m inclined to believe that was part of it, but still.
This really hits a nerve for me. I grew up with an icky, manipulative alcoholic mom and have done a lot of work to be a woman I’m proud of. Am I making too big of a deal about this? Do lots of men do this and I’ve been in the dark? Regardless, should I marry a man who sees women this way? Or could it be more about his OCD, but he’s too ashamed or unaware to admit it?
We moved in together a month and a half ago and it’s been pretty stressful, but overall he treats me (and the other women in his life) with respect and affection. I don’t know what to think.
Scared to Get Married
Dear Scared to Get Married,
First, let’s be kind. If your fiancé has OCD, he may be obsessed with contamination. According to this chart, fear of contamination is the principle obsession in 32.9 percent of OCD cases. The obsession takes many forms. It’s possible that he, like some others, has an obsession about semen itself.
So that’s the charitable interpretation — that, in your fiancé’s case at least, this is an OCD-related behavior.
What about the physical effects of hot-sauce-laced sperm in a woman’s vagina? I called the Kinsey Institute and talked with Jennifer Bass, director of communications.
“It would certainly inflict pain,” Ms. Bass told me, “because these are soft tissues in the vagina. It could be quite painful, and may lead to burns or infection.” Also, she said — and this has the quality of wry understatement — there is a strong possibility of “permanent damage to the relationship.”
Permanent damage to the relationship may be done with a few drops of Tabasco sauce in the condom. Yes. This seems plausible. And that’s mainly what you’re concerned about, right? The relationship? It does sound like a trust issue. But the OCD complicates matters. Does his compulsion really mean that he mistrusts you in the same way that a person without OCD would mistrust you? I mean, is it you, as a person, that he mistrusts? When a person with OCD keeps switching the lights off, is it because he mistrusts the light? It’s more like he mistrusts the evidence of his senses. His brain is refusing to tell him that the light is off, even though his eyes indicate that. In this case, he may indeed trust you, but his brain is malfunctioning. How do you sort that out?
Well, for starters, I would make it a non-negotiable condition that he begin treatment for his OCD before you get married. Otherwise, this marriage could be a pretty crazy ride for you.
But that’s just your personal situation. There’s a bigger question here: Where did this crazy notion come from? He says he heard it from a radio talk show host?
I’ll bet it came from this guy: Talk-radio host Tom Leykis (pronounced “like-iss”) counsels young people on the air about how to handle issues of sex, marriage and money. I did some listening on the Internet. Most of his callers are men, though women also call. His main thesis seems to be that self-interest is the dominant force in relationships, and that men must therefore adopt aggressive tactics in dating and marriage lest they be taken advantage of by women. Since our society and our courts are biased in favor of women and against men, the thesis goes, men must constantly guard against the possibility of paternity suits, child-support judgments and custody battles; they must do everything in their power to defend themselves and avoid being taken advantage of by women.
Or, as one caller put it, “It’s the courts that allow the women to be bitches, really.”
Which leads a listener like me to ask, among other things, what the hell kind of a country are we living in? And where is the data? I would love to hear, anonymously, from any woman who has impregnated herself with sperm from a used condom, or who has attempted such a thing and gotten the hot sauce treatment.
There’s also this: You wrote to me partly because I am a guy. You thought that being a guy I might have some special insight.
I do, in a way: I know what it’s like to be totally clueless.
Seriously. I know what it’s like to be dating women and falling in love with women and to have no idea what I’m supposed to do or how I’m supposed to feel. I know what it’s like to be overly trusting and mistrustful at the same time. When you are a young guy you don’t know whom to believe. You might believe your friends. You might believe a guy on the radio.
Some young men will listen to radio show hosts like Tom Leykis. Some will listen to Internet advice columnists like myself. If I told guys to put hot sauce in their used condoms, you think they’d do it? My readers are pretty highly educated. But people are looking for answers. And they look toward people they have something in common with culturally. A young guy might listen to Tom Leykis because Tom Leykis seems to get where he’s coming from. He wants to get laid and Tom Leykis wants to help him get laid. He wants to avoid becoming a daddy and Tom Leykis wants to help him avoid becoming a daddy.
So if thousands or millions of totally uninformed young men go around putting hot sauce in condoms, who is to blame? If young American men are dating women and contemplating their future without any clear, credible guidance from a church or a family or a powerful political or social ideology or anything, whose fault is that? Aren’t we supposed to be educating young people?
If all women are spies and con artists and every man is, essentially, a lone resistance fighter in a cesspool of lying bitches and cheating whores, well, then, the Tabasco Sauce Resistance League is a natural place for him to be, and of course, after sex, he’ll go into the bathroom, open a bottle and shake a few drops into his used condom. Sure. Who wouldn’t do that?
So listen. Aside from making it a condition of your marriage that you fiancé get some treatment for his OCD, you need some people in your life who are not your friends but who are older women who can teach you about the larger social forces that affect intimate relationships. If you are in school, then talk to some older professors or teachers. Over 30 years ago there began a whole movement in this country of women who were as baffled as you are by the actions of the men in their lives and who, like you, felt ashamed to talk to their own friends about their doubts and suspicions, and who discovered, as you did, by some gaff or admission such as you describe, that the sexual playing field that they thought was level was not level at all, that the I-and-thou relationship they thought they were having was not an I-and-Thou relationship at all but a kind of con game. They realized sometimes that the man they were going out with had no idea who they really were, that they were both proceeding along a path neither of them understood. They got together and compared notes and a great movement was born — a movement of which you are the innocent beneficiary. So I would definitely ask some older women to mentor you in the larger questions of relationships and society.
Because here’s what bothers me about this thing: The assumption is that neither party is in good faith and that each is trying to screw over the other. That’s a model of the capitalist marketplace at its worst; it is not a model of a loving relationship. The assumption is a cynical one, and it sets up an exploitative condition: If one person is acting in total self-interest while the other assumes that they are acting collaboratively, an asymmetry arises that can be deeply exploitative. In fact, that’s the basic setup for any con or deceptive enterprise. Thus Tom Leykis not only suggests putting hot sauce in used condoms but suggests men routinely lie to the women they date, that they claim to be doctors or lawyers, that they create whole fictitious identities in order to get laid. For instance, he suggests that a man scribble his phone number on a found ATM receipt that reflects a large bank balance, so that a woman will conclude that he is rich. Such tactics assume that the woman must be tricked.
Leykis and his followers may claim that they are simply being realistic. I find the whole approach quite deeply insane.
Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.
What? You want more advice?
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)