"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)
There was a march for marriage equality last night around the corner from where I live in the West Village of Manhattan. I didn’t attend because I was spending time with the 5-year-old daughter of my legal husband. So while people were yelling into microphones and waving their fists, I sat with this little girl and fed her dinner.
She didn’t have any idea, as she ate her corn on the cob, that earlier that day a California Supreme Court had decided to uphold a proposition voted in last fall to reverse the legal right to marry in the state. Nor did she know that because her biological father, Ira, and I had actually gotten married in Los Angeles last June, we were among the 18,000 couples whose marriage, the court declared, would remain retroactively legal.
All she knew is that if she ate her dinner then she would get dessert.
Life, it seems to me, is often about waiting for dessert. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a shame that a basic civil right has been taken away from same-sex couples in a state where so many people support it. It’s also a shame that the battle over what you could view as essentially a semantic issue (civil unions, giving gay couples the same rights as straight married ones, are still legal for gays in California, but not “marriage”) has cost opposing sides $80 million at a time when public schools and social services are strapped. And, of course, you could say that it’s easy for me to remain unfazed (although who wouldn’t be disappointed?) by yesterday’s decision. After all, my marriage license, issued by a Los Angeles County court last summer, still holds.
But I’m sorry. I still think it’s a good moment for gays in this country, who can now get legally married in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont and Iowa, with New York state heading in the same direction. And if I had to choose between California being able to maintain its same-sex marriage laws last November or the election of our current president, I’d pick the latter. I don’t just want a better world for gays. I want a better world for everyone, and I like to believe that we now have a president who wants to steer us in that direction. Yes, we may be in an economic depression, but if a troubled economy helped to get us a nuanced thinker in the White House, a man who symbolizes such hope for America’s minorities, well then, I’m willing to take the good with the bad for now.
Several years ago, Ira and I marched down to City Hall in Lower Manhattan, and we were issued a domestic partnership license that allowed us to buy an apartment together and granted us almost all the rights of a legally married couple. OK, it would have been nice if the chapel that all the heterosexual couples were using down the hall could have been available to us, too. But after the clerk took our IDs and issued us our certificate of domestic partnership, she wished us well from behind her wall of Plexiglas, and we marched out into the world delighted that the commitment we had made to each other could put me on Ira’s insurance plan, and him on my apartment’s proprietary lease.
“And so now we’re as married as gays can be in New York,” he said.
Much to our surprise, a few years later, we were able to make our legal wedding vows in Los Angeles while other friends were soon making theirs in other states. Now the sweetness of that California victory has soured. But only for now. Many believe that things will change there again. Even Gov. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, declared after yesterday’s defeat of gay marriage rights in his state that “one day either the people or courts will recognize gay marriage.” I don’t think he’s talking about sometime in the distant future and over the rainbow either. I think he’s talking about very soon.
Meanwhile, same-sex couples will have to do what they’ve done for years, live a bit between the lines, maybe even relishing some of their alternative status, as they thrive in a country that elects gay officials, roots for them on TV, and mourns gay political defeats.
Just like children, we will have to eat our vegetables. And maybe also a little more crow before it’s time for our dessert of wedding cake.
Bob Morris is a frequent contributor to the New York Times. His memoir, "Assisted Loving, a Lambda Literary finalist and American Library Association Stonewall Honor Book, will be out in paperback next week. More Bob Morris.
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)