"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)
My younger brother graduated from college earlier this year. Needless to say, the post-college period, which is rough even in good times, hasn’t been easy for him. He hasn’t been able to find a steady paying job. He has an internship in what was until recently the industry of his dreams, but, now that he sees it from the inside, the field is no longer so appealing. He is living at home with our parents, but has the freedom to come and go as he pleases. The main thing they ask of him is to have dinner together if he comes home in time. This has always been very important to our parents, and it isn’t so bad, considering that my brother doesn’t do very much else to “earn his keep.” Recently, however, he has been coming home later and later without explanation. It turns out that he has been attending mass at a local church for the past month and, as he announced earlier this week, is going to convert.
This has been a great shock to our family, and not just because it came about so suddenly. Our parents are immigrants from a non-Christian country and practice a very liberal form of our faith. Religion is wrapped up in our cultural identity, which makes my brother’s decision to separate himself that much more difficult for my parents to comprehend. To them, his decision to convert is like a renunciation of the family. Perhaps our parents are taking it too far, but I can at least understand where they’re coming from. They are worried that they will lose him if our religious differences become an irreconcilably divisive issue.
His attempts to explain have not made the situation easier. In the few conversations we’ve had about his choice, my brother has blown up and has accused the rest of us of being close-minded. He has always had a temper, but his anger during these conversations has made it very difficult for him to explain his thoughts clearly and has confused the rest of us even more. We are trying to understand him, but when we ask questions that are reasonable in such situations, he accuses us of being judgmental. Meanwhile, he freely criticizes our parents for not believing enough or for believing in the “wrong” things. I know that faith is a personal matter that may not be easily explained, but I feel like he should at least be able to respond to us without yelling. We, the rest of the family, are not our religion alone. We are trying to be patient and calm in order to have a conversation about differences of opinion and beliefs that, while heated, can also be respectful. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to do so with my brother.
His temper aside, what also bothers me is the swiftness of such a serious decision. It almost feels like a quick fix, a way to apply meaning to a life that is currently very unsettled. I know what he’s going through. I was there just a few years ago, but I didn’t choose this path. I have learned that making sense of your circumstances, of the unfairness and difficulties of life, takes time. It’s not about flicking a switch. At least it hasn’t been that way for me. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I feel like my brother is taking an easy way out. He has a tendency to go through phases of devotion followed shortly by a lasting indifference. He went through many similar crazes during his teenage years, which may have just been typical stuff for that age, but his phases have been so strong and so short-lived that I question whether he has given enough thought to his conversion.
I am a non-religious person, and I freely admit that I am biased, but my criticism isn’t just against him. I say similar things to friends who are looking to graduate school or money or jobs to give their lives meaning. Hell, I say the same things to myself all the time. Still, while I don’t understand my brother’s search for meaning in organized religion, I want to support him if this is indeed where his life is going. I know that he is in many ways a regular post-college kid, lost and frustrated. At the same time, he is an adult and can make these sorts of choices for himself. It’s unfortunate that he hasn’t reached a point where he can express these choices with his family in a calm, clear way. My parents are very distressed and are blaming themselves for not raising us in a stricter household. In a fit, my mother asked me if she should kick my brother out of the house. I don’t think that’s the right way to deal with this, but unless he starts expressing himself better and stops yelling at us, our house is going to be a miserable place. How can we be supportive without being harsh? How can he be more rational or at least coolheaded without judging us in turn? How do families make it through this in one piece?
It would probably be best for everyone if he left home. He has to carve out his own space in the world, or he has to find the space that has already been carved out for him and occupy it. But do you have to throw him out? I hope not. Let’s hope he will move on soon, when he is ready.
He has to work this out in his own way, as you yourself did.
Imagine that personal progress is a foot journey. Imagine a wanderer crossing a field. He comes to a barbed-wire fence. When he is climbing the fence, all his attention is on the fence. It cannot be climbed haphazardly or carelessly; all his attention must be on the fence and its perils. It appears to those of us who stand by and watch that he has become transfixed by this fence, fallen in love with this fence, renounced everything in life but this fence; he recites the mantra of this fence; he studies the fence, how it came into being, what it protects, what it separates, how it is maintained.
Why does he need to know all this if he is simply trying to climb over this fence to get somewhere else?
For one thing, he doesn’t know that he’s on his way somewhere else. He doesn’t know where he is going. That is OK. That’s how it is right now. He is wandering. He is at a crossing; he is crossing over a chasm. Perhaps he is afraid of what lies ahead, so that even as he moves, as he must, through one field to the next, even as change happens, he has to believe that every road he crosses, every ditch he jumps, every hill he walks over and down the other side of is what he believes in. He may be unable to comprehend, or admit to consciousness, that he is in motion, that all these ideas and belief systems are stations along the journey. So he yells: This is the one true way! And the next crossing he comes to will be the one true way. And the one after that, and the one after that.
And those of us around him say, Sheesh, he has no perspective! He thrashes about like a wild animal in captivity!
Why would that be? Well, our motion toward wholeness and maturity brings us constantly up against the unknown; it brings us to grieve the things we leave behind; it brings us to face things we do not know how to do; it humbles us; it shows us that we are not in control of every doorway and every automobile and every fence. At times we freak out, and at times we try to put a good face on our terror. We say at every difficulty, Ah, yes, I saw this coming! This is the answer! I know how to handle this. I’m going to convert!
He is wandering and looking for something. He does not know what it is. He won’t know what it is until he finds it. But he cannot say this in so many words. And apparently he cannot be blessed by the family for doing this. Apparently he cannot come to you, his big brother, and say, Big Brother, I am lost but it’s OK; I’m going to find what I need to find; meanwhile I may appear lost to you; have faith; I’m here; I’m on my way somewhere. I’ll be OK.
Perhaps you could at least say to him, Little Brother, I know that you are on your way somewhere, and I know you’ll find it, and right now you seem lost to me but I can live with that. I know you’ll be OK. Do what you have to do.
He is spiritually hungry. He is looking for a system bigger than he is. He is looking for communion, a sense of belonging to the world. Most likely he will find this communion or belonging well outside the confines of the family. Where he finds it will not be clear for some time. But he is going to find it outside the family system. And, in a sense, it might be said that, for a time, during this wandering, his family is going to have to cease to exist for him.
So what can you and your parents do? You can provide a container for what appears to be his craziness but what is actually his necessary wandering, and when the time is right you can send him on his way. It may be that he has to wander for a long time.
How can you come to understand what he is going through? Start with what is analogous in your own experience. You changed. You cast off things that no longer served you or made sense. In casting them off, you probably felt some kind of grief or separation. It cannot have been completely trouble-free. So think about how you did it, and imagine what he is going through now, having perhaps less balance than you had. To your credit, you did this with apparent completeness, and you did it with skill. You adopted a set of beliefs and behaviors that serve you. You did it without creating loud, emotional ruptures. You did it without converting to a new religion.
His interest in religion has galvanized the family but what is at stake is something larger. There is something larger than religion. There is something larger than culture. That larger thing is self, or destiny, or soul. A soul may take from many religions as needed. A soul may attach himself to Catholicism, a religion or doctrine, because that is the step he is on, in the staircase he is ascending. That is the fence he has to climb to get to the field beyond. But there are many fields and many fences. He’s on his way somewhere.
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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)