"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)
We’ve heard endless explanations for the “Twilight” series’ supreme popularity — from its romanticizing of retro gender roles to the creation of a new genre of “abstinence porn” — but it’s much simpler than all that, argues Stephen Marche in Esquire. The real reason for vampire mania? “Young straight women want to have sex with gay men,” says Marche. “Not all young straight women, of course, but many, if not most, of them.” Nice of him to assuredly explain women’s unconscious sexual desires, isn’t it?
In fairness, though, he’s right that Bella, “Twilight’s” protagonist, is attracted to Edward Cullen “because he is strange, beautiful, and seemingly repulsed by her.” He writes: “This exact scenario happened several times in my high school between straight girls and gay guys who either hadn’t figured out they were gay or were still in the closet.” Sure, a similar scenario can be found among the pinups of effeminate teen idols gracing young girls’ walls — but the fantasy isn’t about gay men so much as it’s about boys and men who represent true romance, as defined by fairytales.
After all, Edward does desire Bella — more so than he has ever desired anyone else, we’re told — but his everlasting love for her overrides his lust, at least temporarily, because he doesn’t want to get lost in the heat of the moment and hurt or kill her. He fights to keep his passion (for blood, for sex) at bay; he is, essentially, a guy who’s willing to wait for it. Now that’s a way to make teenage girls’ hearts flutter — just look at the Jonas Brothers and their, swoon, promise rings.
All that said, one need only look at the abundance of “Twilight” slash fiction, in which fans imagine Edward getting it on with dudes, for proof that gay sex can titillate women. On a similar note, some ladies love gay male porn because it provides sexual entertainment without requiring a woman to picture herself in a scene that might otherwise be rife with unsavory sexual dynamics (as is often the case with straight porn). These sorts of fantasies allow for intense erotic passion without a real sexual threat. Undoubtedly, though, Bella does face a sexual and mortal threat, because she desires Edward, a vampire who could bite into her neck mid-coital.
With so much ink already spilled on this cultural phenomenon, it’s tempting to lean on hyperbole as a way to say something new, or seemingly so, on the topic. The truth, though, is that sexual desire — oftentimes polysexual, sometimes homosexual — has always loomed large in vampiric legend. Lusting after men’s and women’s blood, penetrating victims’ flesh and sucking the life from their bodies? It has all the sexual subtlety of a triple-X flick. Vampires are far from newcomers in the world of queer theory and gender studies. But it’s a complicated metaphor, one that isn’t easily reduced to “women want sex with gay guys.”
Beyond the sensationalistic declarations, Marche makes a great point about how vampire tales can be especially appealing in “moments of carnal crisis.” He describes HBO’s True Blood as “a perfect encapsulation of the American bedroom at this moment: Everyone is a freak, even the people who claim to rail against freakiness.” Maybe some of the current blood lust in pop culture satiates underlying anxiety about changing social and sexual mores. Now that’s an intriguing idea — too bad he pushes it to the point of intellectual dishonesty.
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)