"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)
Dig if you will the picture: A middle-aged man stands in an elevator on the 26th floor of the Palazzo, one of the most luxurious (well, expensive) casino/resorts on the Las Vegas strip. At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, he’s a pretty big guy, though he “carries it well.” His red hair is cut in a flattop, and he has a closely cropped beard, but he doesn’t look particularly imposing. He’s dressed in a faded sea foam green Banana Republic polo shirt, khaki shorts from Target, and Birkenstock sandals. Over one shoulder is a small messenger bag. He stands in the corner and tries to look like everyone else; he may or may not be checking messages on his PDA, but he’s pushing buttons on it and appears busy.
The doors open and three women step on: a blonde, a brunette and one whose hair has been bleached and blown dry so many times it’s not a discernible color. All of the women could stand to have a good 3 inches cut off their hair. They wear slight variations on the Little Black Slut Dress. They wear too much makeup, a pair of shoes that doesn’t quite match the dress, towering heels.
The man in the corner rolls his eyes and thinks to himself, “And I’m the hooker.”
That’s right: I’m 47 years old, I’m a good 30 pounds overweight, and I make my living by taking care of men who come to Las Vegas hoping for some skin time with other men — for a fee. And in case you’re ready to dismiss me as someone clinging onto the last shreds of his faded beauty, you should know that I was well into my 40s before I started hooking.
If you find it hard to believe that anyone would pay the likes of me for sex, you’re not alone. I get lots of hate e-mail telling me how pathetic it is for a “fat old queen” like me to be charging for his company. About half of it comes from skinny smooth-skinned rent boys who were never going to be my competition, and the rest is from 40-something men with bodies similar to mine, probably mad because they don’t have the balls to hang out a shingle for themselves. And almost all of them include a variation of same question: “There are actually guys who pay you?!”
Allow me to let you in on one of the dirty little secrets of human sexuality: Hardly anyone (except for the very stupid and very lazy) has ever accepted the ideals of beauty and/or desirability as set forth by their respective cultures’ Fashionable Intelligence. And for every type of attraction, there is a market to be tapped.
In gay culture I am what is known as a “bear”: bigger, hairier men who favor some kind of facial hair and tend to embody a jeans-and-shirt version of masculinity. Of course there are also metrosexual bears who groom their eyebrows and wear black tie to the opera. Some of us are stocky but in generally good shape; others are what the American Medical Association considers morbidly obese. There are leather bears, muscle bears and polar bears (men whose beards or body hair are white). I myself have been called a “ginger bear” (a British expression, from their term for redheads) and, when I had shoulder-length hair, a “lion.”
Because there are other woodland creatures to be found among the “bear community.” (I strongly resist the ideas “of “community” among gays in general and bears specifically, but for the sake of expediency let’s just roll with it.) Probably the most interesting sub-category of bear is that of “cub,” because it has so many variations. For some, the term cub designates someone younger, who may or may not want to be mentored in the way of the bear; for others, it’s more about relative stature or lack thereof, regardless of the guy’s age; and for still others, it simply indicates a strong identification with the bear “culture” without such physical trappings as a furry chest.
Tall skinny guys with lots of body hair are “otters”; average-size men who are relatively hairy and, often, exceptionally horny consider themselves “wolves.” In the old days, before we got all politically correct about everything, guys who were attracted to bigger men were called “chubby chasers,” but no more. Nowadays, men who don’t fit into any of the above categories who enjoy ursine company are called, simply, “admirers.”
And that’s just the Anglos. Many Asian bears like to be called “pandas,” regardless of where their ancestors were born, though just as many find the term offensive. Smooth-skinned Latinos with short, compact physiques are often referred to as “toros” (or bulls), which also suggests a testicular prowess. The bear scenes in Spain and Italy are so popular that I’m sure they have their own lists of sub-categories. It’s like how the Inuits have a million words for snow.
So, yes: I’m a Las Vegas call bear. But don’t be fooled into assuming that all my clients come from the world of the bears. Far from it. The men who hire me run the gamut from 18-year-olds who want their first male-male experience to be with a man who knows what he’s doing to men in their 80s who just want to be held by a lumberjack type for an hour. They might be fat, they might be average, or they might have bodies so perfectly sculpted they should be underwear models.
Among my regular clients are Jaime and Luis, 28-year-old Mexican boyfriends who barely speak enough English to make the appointment and spend the whole session crying “Ay! Papi rico!” Two or three times a year I spend a night with Nicholas, a charming Canadian businessman who discovered his homosexuality later in life and wants to get “caught up” on the basics of sex with men before he puts himself out there. And when I go to San Diego I love getting together with Bobby, a black mechanic with a beautifully muscled body and a smile that could put Tom Cruise to shame. He likes me to put on construction boots and stomp on his chest. Lucky for Bobby I earned a first aid merit badge in the Boy Scouts, so I know exactly where not to step to keep from breaking off his sternum and killing him.
This is the part where people ask me for the sordid details of my life on the edge of society, and the strange requests I must constantly get in my seedy little demimonde. But the boring truth is that those dark dabblings are few and far between. There was this one time in Phoenix when I was called to the far edges of the suburbs very late at night. When I pulled in the driveway the entire house was dark, including the doorbell. After a few knocks, someone looking like Gollum came to the door and brought me to the only room in the house with furniture or light. He poured Welch’s grape soda into the chamber of a clear glass water pipe and started smoking either crack or crystal meth.
All I remember of that session is how he kept telling me to pull on his nipples as hard as I could and then barking, “Don’t leave marks! My kids don’t know I’m gay!” After as much time as I thought I could reasonably call an hour, I told him I needed to get going. I let myself out while he smoked another bowl and returned to the porn that he’d been watching when I came in.
Creepy? Yes, but not once was I afraid for my own safety. More than anything I felt sorry for the guy. I spent most of my time debating whether or not to suggest he get some help.
But these wacko incidents make up a small percentage of what I deal with on a regular basis. A good deal of that, I think, has to do with how and where I operate: Guys see my ad and get a chance to think about it before giving me a call, a process that seems to do a fair amount of screening for me. Now if I were walking up and down the Strip offering unsolicited $50 blow jobs to drunken fraternity types, I would expect to be beaten up on a regular basis. Instead, I’m amazed at how “normal” most of these guys are.
Some are boyishly cute, some are movie star handsome, and many are the kinds of guys you probably wouldn’t notice in line at the supermarket. What over 90 percent of the men who hire me have in common, though, is that I’d probably have sex with them in other circumstances. If my experience is any indication of the world at large, the idea that men who hire escorts can’t get dates in other ways is a myth. Men have hired me for all kinds of reasons, but never — not even once — has anyone hired me out of desperation. Maybe I wasn’t his first choice of escort, but he certainly could have picked up a guy at a bar, or a bathhouse, or from any of the dozens of hookup Web sites out there.
So why do they hire? There are as many different answers to that question as there are men with sex drives, but among those who hire me, the fetish of red pubic hair figures prominently in the decision. Take your time and read that sentence again, because it says exactly what you thought it did: The fascination with red pubic hair is as much of a fetish as bondage or voyeurism. For some the fascination stops with the hair on the top of my head, and for others the beard really does it for them (as I started getting more white hair in my beard, a friend started calling it cinnamon-sugar). But most men who want to know “if the carpet matches the drapes” get very excited at the possibility of getting all up-close and personal with my “fire crotch.” Apparently we redheads smell and taste different, too.
Actually, the red hair fascination was what got me started hooking in the first place. I had posted pictures of myself on a gay dating site, and they caught the attention of a wealthy doctor in Beverly Hills. No matter how many e-mails he sent me about his medical accomplishments and his acquisitions of blue-chip art, I just wasn’t attracted to him. Then, out of nowhere, he asked me, “Do you ever do massage?” I’d already told him what I did for a living, so there was pretty much only one thing he could have meant.
At the time I was working as a caterer, so I did the same thing with him that I would have done with a neurotic party planner or a meddlesome mother of the bride: I gave him a price that was so high he’d almost certainly say no — but it would be well worth my time if he bit. As fate had it, he bought my services as a birthday present for his driver, a handsome, stocky Latino who was just my type. It was the easiest $200 I ever made. A few days later I called a photographer friend who was trying to break into the porn market and did some modeling in exchange for some high-quality erotic photos. Not long after that I started buying ad space on certain play-for-pay Web sites.
Beyond the fascination with redheads, most of the men who hire me have come to Las Vegas for either business or vacation and are looking for something they can’t get in their “real lives.” Some of these guys are married to women, some are in relationships with men that have gone south. (Of course, I live in a country where two men or two women are denied the basic human right to be trapped in a loveless marriage, but that’s a different matter entirely.) Some are openly gay men who live in such small communities that any time they have sex it might as well be on the front page of the local paper. So why on earth would anyone waste one of his very few nights of sexual freedom prowling the bars or deciphering personal ads on the off-chance that he’ll find a suitable playmate? At least by hiring an escort he can spend time with a man he knows a little something about and with whom he can work out the sexual menu in advance. Add to that the opportunity to live out a fantasy, and, as I like to say, “what happens in Vegas … is dick.”
And, oh yeah: There are actually men who hire me because they enjoy my company enough to take me to the opera, a formal dinner at the Plaza, or on a cruise to Mexico.
If there’s one thing that continually shocks me about my work, it’s how completely banal the transaction is. Long before that HBO show was on the air, I started calling myself an “intimacy consultant.” It began as a joke, but I soon realized there was some truth in it. I cater to a niche market that is grossly underserved, and I usually provide something more than a quick boink. Las Vegas is home to some stunningly beautiful and sophisticated call girls, as well as some buff, perfectly waxed gay male porn stars — but not everybody dreams of being with one of them. Some guys fantasize about being with a guy who looks and acts like me. And my clients are all too happy to engage in a perfectly civilized transaction to make that happen.
Rusty McMann is the professional name of a working call bear.More Rusty McMann.
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)