"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)
ON MONDAY BRIAN SULLIVAN did not sleep well, so he sent his Pontiac Sunfire to take his plane-geometry exam for him and never returned to Brookhaven High School. After lunch, Brian’s math teacher, Ms. Florida, had to find a new desk for the Sunfire and sharpen its pencil. She opened a window to air out the exhaust, but the kids warmed to the smell of gasoline and oil and overall enjoyed the steady hum of its 2.2-liter Ecotec I4 engine. When Principal Dillard stopped by the classroom at two-fifteen for his daily check — he and Ms. Florida had been caught canoodling during the Sadie Hawkins dance earlier in the semester — the car was in the back row, with one headlight shining on the purple ink of the dittoed exam.
“Could I have a word, Ms. Florida?” he said.
Ms. Florida stepped out to the hall. The students started to shout the way they would if they were riding a roller coaster. Brian Sullivan’s Sunfire honked and flashed its lights so as not to be left out of the hullabaloo.
“How long has there been a car parked in your classroom?” Mr. Dillard asked.
“Just this period,” Ms. Florida replied. “But I heard from Mademoiselle Jeanne that it sat in during French class as well.”
“Her Intro to French?” he asked.
“No,” Ms. Florida replied. “Advanced French.”
“Funny,” Mr. Dillard said. “That car doesn’t seem older than a ’98.”
“No,” Mrs. Florida said. “It’s a ’95. My brother had one just like it, in pearl blue.”
Mr. Dillard walked back to his office and rechecked the attendance sheets for the day. Sure enough, in each of Brian Sullivan’s classes, the teacher had crossed out his name and written in ’95 Pontiac Sunfire, white with red trim.
Mr. Dillard thought about calling the Sullivan home, but there had been a surprise locker check that afternoon, and three students had been arrested for felony narcotics. A fourth had been caught with a firearm on school grounds. One of the drug-sniffing dogs had left a trail of runny shit down the halls. The Pontiac Sunfire, Mr. Dillard thought, was a stable vehicle. He recalled a commercial featuring a cherry-red two-door convertible with a buxom brunette behind the wheel, a woman not unlike Ms. Florida. The commercial’s slogan had been We build excitement. Ms. Florida’s face glowed in his mind. Some things, he thought, were better left as they were.
That first semester, Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire struggled in the academic arena. Its French accent was a bit throaty, and without the ability to grip a pen properly it had a hard time finishing most of its composition assignments. On the sports field, though, Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire dominated. In November the football team fitted it with a blue and gold bra, the colors of the Brookhaven Bearcats, and spray-painted a number on each door. Coach Tibbets found himself singling out the car during two-a-day practices for its effort in tackling drills. The greatest insult he could lob at his players became “You run like a goddamned Corolla.”
Against their rival, East High, Coach Tibbets strapped chains onto the Sunfire’s tires and gave the team a ferocious pep talk that had to be cut short due to the fumes from the car’s exhaust. That night, under the klieg lights of Welcome Stadium and the Steadicam of the local NBC affiliate, Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire set a new record for touchdowns in a half (seventeen). It seemed to know exactly where to be to make a play. The senior girls painted its number on their lithe bellies in black shoe polish. A few college scouts were there as well, watching as the Pontiac literally drove circles around East High’s elite Tiger defense.
“Do you think it can learn the option?” a scout from Bowling Green State asked.
“Forget it,” the man from Ohio State said. He pointed to a smoldering puddle of darkness in the end zone. “We want three yards and a cloud of dust, not ten miles and an oil leak.”
But their critical gaze did not inhibit Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire’s good time. At the homecoming dance in the gym later that night, it deejayed a blistering set of trance music, opening its doors and blasting its radio until its battery wore down. Coach Tibbets popped the Sunfire’s hood to jump it alive again with his Ford Bronco, and all the girls gathered around to watch. Even Ms. Florida stopped making eyes at Mr. Dillard to sneak a glimpse at its greasy block. After two jolts, Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire sent an arc of light sparking from its battery and set a wall of crepe-paper flowers aflame. The girls swooned.
At the after-party, Marty Greyerson, the captain of the team and leading receiver, shotgunned beers with the Sunfire in the garage while the rest of the team cheered. They had set the head of the Bearcat mascot on the Sunfire’s hood like a grotesque ornament. A few girls rested on the bumper as it revved its engine. The good times rolled.
As the night wore on, though, the crowd thinned. The other kids roamed the upstairs bedrooms of Marty’s house, raiding the liquor cabinet and stealing CDs. They pawed and sucked face. Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire tried to drive inside the house, too, but Marty’s mother had white carpet, and the Sunfire was still dripping green and black blots from the game. Plus someone had jammed a Doors cassette into its deck, and Marty could hear Jim Morrison’s mad voice grow louder when the Sunfire rolled closer.
By three, the garage had grown colder. The somber timbre of Jim Morrison echoed off the walls. The Sunfire was deciding whether it felt safe to drive when Betty Heller walked in.
Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire waited as she walked a slow circle around the edge of the garage. Betty Heller was a nice girl, but with the guys on the team she had a reputation. When she came to the headlights she laid a hand across its hood.
“I feel like…” she said, and paused. “If I could just drive you a bit, maybe. Your paint is so soft.” She pressed her left breast against the windshield.
Eventually Betty stroked the wiper until Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire turned on its emergency flashers and squirted a bit of blue washer fluid on Betty’s hand.
“It’s okay,” Betty said, caressing a dent on its hood. “Leave it there.”
There were few corners of Brookhaven High where Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire did not leave an impression. In Mr. Janney’s Physics class, the Sunfire often volunteered for demonstrations, and once let Mr. Janney shoot a potato out of its tailpipe. It tutored Freshman Math in the courtyard before football practice, though most of its pupils struggled to decipher the elaborate system of honks and dings Mr. Ritzenfelter, the enrichment teacher, had laboriously cataloged into a kind of car alphabet. After gym, weaklings without pubic hair took refuge in the Sunfire’s trunk when it came time to shower. During Mr. Cappello’s Civics course, Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire led a moment of silence for the victims of an earthquake in Malaysia.
But the sporting arena was its true stage. In the spring, it ran track and threw the shot put. At the district meet, over the protests of the other teams, it took first prize in the hundred-yard dash and ran the mile in just over three minutes. The hurdles proved a bigger challenge, but it placed a respectable fifth, and the Columbus Dispatch named it to the All-District team.
So it was no surprise that when votes were counted for the class valedictory speech, Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire was the overwhelming favorite. Even Betty Heller, who had held a grudge when the Sunfire had stopped returning her calls, could see the logic.
“He’s touched so many lives,” she told her best friend Carol.
Still, it faced its fair share of detractors. One day, driving to Woodshop, the Pontiac overheard Brookhaven High’s guidance counselor, Jerry Whalen, speaking in his office with Principal Dillard. They had just received the results from the Pontiac’s employment-aptitude test.
“It says here it should look for a job in the engineering sector,” Principal Dillard said. “What’s so wrong with that?”
“It leaked a few dots on a Scantron,” Mr. Whalen said. “Now we’re supposed to believe it’s college material? Maybe a Grand Am — but a Sunfire? Its Kelley Blue Book isn’t even $2,400, and that’s not going anywhere but south. I mean, look, Harry — I’m not in the dream-dashing business, but come on. We’d be better off selling it to East High and buying that new couch for the guidance room.”
“It did show promise in Mr. Schneider’s art class,” Mr. Dillard offered, pointing to the mural of tire tracks on the wall outside. But Mr. Whalen rolled his eyes.
“You’ll be the fool of the Principals’ Ball, letting it speak at graduation,” Mr. Whalen said. “And then who will you come crying to, stinking drunk? You’re the one who let this car into everyone’s life. Face it, Harry: some cars have it and some don’t. Don’t build up its hopes that it could be something other than a Pontiac Sunfire.”
In the end Mr. Dillard brushed this talk off. During commencement, Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire walked with the other kids, its tassel secured tightly to its rearview, next to its pine-cone-shaped air freshener. It gave a rousing valedictory, according to Mr. Ritzenfelter, who translated it afterward and emailed it to the entire district under the subject heading THE GLORY OF KEYS. Principal Dillard taped a Certificate of Attendance onto the Pontiac’s back window, and all the teachers signed their names in soap.
Two weeks later, at the Principals’ Ball, Mr. Dillard danced with his wife while Ms. Florida blinked in his mind like an electric sequin swirling on the disco ball. The other principals called him “VTec” and made childish vrooms behind him when he walked to get punch. That night he sat hunched over the telephone in his dark kitchen, speaking in hushed tones to Ms. Florida about how it was her soft shoulders he’d wanted to rest his cheek against. But she had other worries on her mind. She had gotten a flat coming out of the teachers’ lot that afternoon and had sat there crying for hours. Instead of changing the tire she had written a note to Principal Dillard’s wife. Whenever she felt guilty she did this, he knew; she used it as a way to level them both. The notes were never mailed. With the confession written, she always said, there was no reason to lie anymore.
“I just sat there with grease on me and felt like I would never come clean, Harold,” she said.
“About the affair?”
“No,” she said. “That car. What kind of world have we sent him out into?”
“The car?” Principal Dillard said. “I don’t know. You’re just upset. You always get depressed after graduation. But come August it’ll be just the same. The excitement will build again. We’ll build the excitement together, Jan.”
“Stop with the fucking commercials,” Ms. Florida said.
In the fall, Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire enrolled at Ohio State and tried to walk onto the football team, but the campus was enormous and not at all impressed with the fantastic abilities of cars. It wasn’t strange to see a microwave cart doing shuttle runs on the lacrosse fields by Lincoln Tower, or to catch the tail end of a juggling performance by the Manda, a double-jointed half-man, half-panda who entertained all comers on the corner of High and 15th. Before the Saturday-morning tailgate at Triangle House, Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire watched its roommate Charlie and his pledge brothers construct a metallic Holstein that shit stadium mustard and suckled actives with Coors Light from its teats. The Sunfire did a few doughnuts on the front lawn, but the brothers tired of those antics quickly. When it came time to go to the game, Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire couldn’t fit through the turnstiles at the Horseshoe and ended up giving its ticket away to a scalper.
The Sunfire never really felt comfortable among the Buckeyes. It was hard to move around most of the hallways on campus, which had been remodeled in the late sixties based on a narrow, labyrinthine floor plan designed purposely to discourage sit-ins. After a month of frustration, the Pontiac stopped getting its oil changed. One morning it awoke in a pool of its own transmission fluid and Charlie reported it to the RA.
“That leak ruined my DVD player,” Charlie testified at the dorm hearing. “And I think it’s wearing my best polo shirt without asking.” He held a tartan plaid shirt up for the jury to see. “That’s oil on the collar. I can smell it.”
Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire didn’t wait to hear the verdict. After the fall break, it parked in front of the Sullivans’ house back in suburban Columbus and didn’t return to campus. But Brian Sullivan, who had spent the past year studying to be a peripatetic, had long ago stopped thinking of it as his car. He left its keys on a hook in the kitchen cupboard near the oatmeal and went east to study under a Sufi mystic in Vermont.
Sometimes the Sunfire took rides past the high school. Once, when it tried to enter the front door, two security guards it didn’t recognize demanded to see a visitor’s pass. The Sunfire honked for Principal Dillard, but Principal Dillard was no longer there to greet it. It was only Mr. Ritzenfelter, who was passing by on his way to lunch, who averted a greater misunderstanding by explaining that Mr. Dillard had shamed himself and the school by cheating on his wife, and had resigned. Since then there had been several bomb threats, and now no one could enter the building without a guest pass. The Sunfire backed down the stairs and sat humming in neutral until the security men finally threatened to tow it off school property.
In the spring, a reckless cousin of Brian’s borrowed the Sunfire one night and drove it to HempFest ’02, somewhere near the Buckeye Lake amphitheater, where a huckster convinced him to trade the battery for a bag of low-grade marijuana. The huckster spent the rest of the day selling electrical shocks from the battery to stoners, who jerked and moaned against a background of seamless guitar arpeggios echoing off the smoky hillside. Powerless and distraught, Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire managed to roll down into the woods near a meth shack. A drifter or two used it as a bathroom, or a place to get high for while. One night a mutt with pups burrowed under the driver’s seat and shook through the cold dark hours. Sparrow shit painted the Sunfire’s windshield white. The junkies sold the springs from its seats and used the foam to start fires in the rain.
A year passed, and the police raided the meth shack. The city towed the Pontiac back to Columbus and left it in the impound lot under the 315 overpass. The car sat parked next to an old Dodge Dart for two months, until it was auctioned to a retired nun who drove it a hundred miles a year, all in the same circuit: from her home to the Kroger to Saint Agatha’s and back home again. After one trip she left a carton of milk in the trunk for several weeks and the kids in the neighborhood started calling Brian Sullivan’s Pontiac Sunfire the “Vomit Comet” because of the musty smell. When they notice it now, it’s only to toss rocks at its side or grind their skateboards on its bumper, unaware of that year at Brookhaven when it was king. Such is the fate of cars.
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)