"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)
Bubba wakes up every morning at 5:39. Meow. He pads around the bed while I snore, puts one paw to my face. Meoooow. He slinks over to the nightstand, starts shoving stuff off the side — a magazine I’ve been reading, a rubber band woolly with hair, the doorstop of a novel that falls to the ground with a bah-thunk-thunk.
Lately, Bubba has been a real dick.
He wasn’t always this way. Ours has been a breezy courtship forged by a mutual love of long naps and inertia; there was no mewling misery in him that wet food or cardboard couldn’t fix. But a few months ago, I moved to a Manhattan studio perfect in every way except for one: its size. Everyone knows New York apartments are tiny, but you never quite realize how tiny until your closet looks like a game of Jenga and you start eyeing your stove for storage. Downsized to a yuppie shoebox, my good-natured 13-year-old tabby has turned insatiable at dawn. I stumble out of bed at 5:50 to scoop out his breakfast, but he will not be satisfied. He pouts by the front door, crying his despair to the heavens. He hops up on the windowsill and stares longingly out into the courtyard below. Meow, he despairs. Meoooooow.
“Maybe he’s lonely,” a friend said.
“Maybe he’s sick,” said another.
I had a better idea: Maybe he needed a cat leash.
I know, I know, a cat leash is a ridiculous idea. Cats are too prickly, too willful to endure such pampered indignity. I might as well suggest my cat learn to make a delicious veal parmigiana, or play Bob Dylan songs on the harmonica. In five years of living in New York — a city that prides itself on its vast parade of human experience — I’ve only seen one cat on a leash. (Putting the ratio of strangers’ penises to leashed cats at 2:1.) The New York Times wrote about a real estate broker on the Upper West Side who leash trained his cat, which suggests just how remarkable the feat is. Even the phrase “cat on a leash” has a campy spark of the impossible, like something you’d see in a Farrelly brothers movie, or hear about in a novelty song: “Cat on a leash! He don’t eat quiche!” But if you start digging a bit into the world of cats on leashes, what you will discover is just how many people have already tried it.
“It was a disaster,” my friend Matt told me. He couldn’t even squeeze his 20-pound heavyweight into the harness.
My friend Roberta said her cat just hunkered to the ground and wouldn’t budge. “She went catatonic.”
My friend Ben did get his cat outside, but then watched helpless as the cat Houdini’d himself out of the harness and darted immediately toward oncoming traffic.
One colleague wrote a simple e-mail warning: “I fear for you.”
But it’s not as if I was going to walk Bubba on the rough-and-tumble Manhattan streets. I’d be as likely to drag him out amid a gaggle of yappy poodles and galumphing sheepdogs as I would go for a romantic evening stroll in an Afghan war zone. No, I planned to confine the adventure to our calm, quiet courtyard blanketed with ivy and dotted with cracked ceramic flowerpots, a mini-empire of earthy smells cocooned from the dangers of the outside world. (It also had rotted wooden fences he could easily scale if set loose.) I’d often walk through the courtyard and think how much Bubba would love it. Pet owners are guilty of projecting their desires and anthropomorphizing their animals in all sorts of dopey, twisted ways. (I have actually seen a movie and thought, “Oh, Bubba would love that.”) But I don’t need the Cat Whisperer to look around my courtyard and declare it a little kitty heaven.
“No, no, no, I don’t think you want to do that,” said a Kitty Kind volunteer at PetCo when I asked for her advice. Her forehead contorted with worry. I felt like I had asked her how to flush my cat down a toilet. “Your cat could escape,” she explained. “You’ll have to treat him for rabies and ticks. He won’t be able to run around like you think he can. It’s just not a good idea.”
“You’ve made a very convincing case,” I said. And then I ducked around the corner to the cat leashes.
Because at the bottom of blind love — be it for your daughter, or a swoopy-haired adolescent pop star or a grumpy marmalade tabby — is the foolish notion that the object of your devotion is somehow extraordinary. Yes, I understand most cats won’t take to leashes. Understand my cat is not “most cats.” (PetCo, as it turns out, does not sell a cat harness in large. Way to be sizeist, PetCo.)
To understand why the leash is such a brilliant idea, you should know that, once upon a time in Texas, Bubba was an outdoor cat. To see him pierce a tiny mouse and slurp it like a kabob is to see a beast in harmony with the universe. Inside the house I shared with my then-boyfriend, Bubba played the innocent cuddle bug, all velvety purrs and snuggles, but on the streets he was a stone-cold thug. He threw down with the neighborhood toms, and he had the bloody teeth marks — and, eventually, the $3,000 vet bill — to prove it. When cats run away from confrontations, the bites are on the tail. Not my bruiser; two pointy incisors had sunk deep into his right cheek.
So Bubba became an indoor cat, and he meowed in protest at the front door for days. For nine lives. I haven’t seen that kind of self-pity parade since — well, since we moved into this studio.
Which is why the leash was such a no-brainer. He could explore the outdoors without falling prey to the perils that lay beyond that rotted wooden fence. It was what everyone wants from life, ideally: adventure, minus the danger.
Those looking for guidance in leash training their cat will encounter a universe of mixed messages. The ASPCA website features breezy instructions on the practice. (The American Association of Feline Practitioners has no official stance on the practice, but the incoming president Elizabeth J. Colleran told me in an e-mail she supports it for some cats, depending on their personalities.) Still, some instructional videos could pass for parodies: Poor Dr. Adrienne Mulligan of Expert Village seems to be narrating her own personal blooper reel in “How to Walk a Cat on a Leash.” Most YouTube clips — not surprisingly, there are plenty — play like cautionary tales, and comments sections regularly devolve into shouting matches over whether an owner is abusive or not. (To see a compilation of YouTube clips, watch “Cats on a leash: The video evidence.”)
My cat’s own vet, who also happens to be a childhood friend, was unambiguous in her disapproval. “It’s never gonna happen,” said Jennifer, who owns her own successful clinic in Dallas. “I know it seems like a genius idea — believe me, I tried it, too. But cats were not meant to be on leashes.” She suggested dropping melatonin in Bubba’s food to help him sleep better. She offered to get his blood work done. “But there’s absolutely no way this leash thing is going to work out for a 13-year-old grown male cat. None. Zero. Forget it.”
And so, that week, I ordered a cat leash. (I mean, seriously: Did you really think I wasn’t going to try?)
Because the last thing the woman with the impossible gleam in her eye wants to hear is logic. I didn’t want to read the fine print to discover the miracle drug is a sugar pill. I didn’t want to hear that marriages are hard work, that diets only make you fatter. I wanted my plan, and my plan was to buy an awesome freaking cat leash.
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The “Come Here Kitty” leash and harness from Premier Pet is a simple nylon strap that fastens around the cat’s shoulder and belly and comes with a stretchy “bungee cord” leash. It costs $14.68. “Kitty’s world just got bigger!” reads the package, which features strapping adult cats strutting onto a grassy field, leaping on top of a concrete slab in the garden, modeling the blue fabric against their furry sternums like fine silver jewelry. I had settled on the Come Here Kitty harness after several pet store ventures; in addition to PetCo, I’d visited a handful of small, independent pet stores in the city, who either tried to sell me a small dog collar or carried some chintzy rope-and-vinyl combination that looked engineered for strangulation. Online options were much better. For pet owners anxious about escape, there was a harness that corseted a cat’s belly, though one online reviewer compared it to placing an anvil on her cat’s back. In the end, the Come Here Kitty leash struck the right balance. It was safe, but it wasn’t a straitjacket.
When the package arrived, I leapt with excitement. But for days afterward, it sat unopened on my desk at home, like a sex toy I ordered while drunk and was now too nervous to use. Truthfully, I was nervous: What if it didn’t work? What if he broke free and never returned? Did this only work for kittens? What if this was just some doomed ploy designed for the overanxious pet owner who loves too much? Well, there was only one way to find out.
And so, one lazy Sunday morning, while Bubba lay on the bed licking at his furry paws, I went in for the kill.
“Reassure kitty with a calm voice and gentle petting,” the instructions read. I cozied up to him, scratching behind his ears and placing a tuna-flavored Pounce in front of him, like it was a sliver of Valium and a glass of champagne. “It’s OK, baby,” I said, slipping the nylon strap over his head before he even knew what was happening. I felt guilty. I felt sneaky. I felt proud.
The instructions were very firm that you should never force your cat into the harness, but let’s face it, he was going to need more than an Evite. So I wrapped my legs around him from behind to hold him still while I guided his paws through the nylon girding, mussing his fur uncomfortably as I fumbled to fasten the harness, like he was getting ready to jump out of a plane.
He allowed himself one noise of protest, a small and rather undramatic, “Meh!”
But then, miraculously, we were done. He shook himself off, ducked under the bed for a spell, and then padded into my bathroom — a wet room he usually avoids at all costs — where he sat on my mat for 10 minutes.
“You’re the best,” I told him, resting my head on the doorjamb.
When he finally met my gaze his eyes were cold and steely: “Screw you.”
My apartment is on the fourth floor, and some evenings, I let him run up and down the hallway, where he dashes from door to door, digging his claws into the deliciously stiff welcome mats outside. This time, however, he seemed disoriented not to be able to bolt off on his own. He moved cautiously down the steps. When a stair would creak behind him, he would turn around and shoot me a look of utter disdain. You again? Seriously?
At the end of each stairwell, he would lie down for minutes at a stretch. I’d read the New York Times on my iPhone until he finally embarked on the next staircase. It was like exercising with an octogenarian. As he lumbered along each flight, awkward and bitter, it was hard to shake the idea that this might actually be the worst of both worlds: All the anxiety of the outdoors, and none of the fun.
When we finally hit the courtyard, though, it was as though he had been electrified. This was the moment I had been longing for, the ecstatic payoff in our painful slog: He darted toward the back fence so fast I had to run to keep up with him. He poked his snout in a flower pot, tore up a few scattered magnolias with his claws, and leapt up on a short stack of bricks lining the perimeter of the grass. “Suck it, Kitty Kind volunteer!” I thought, snapping pictures with my iPhone, eager to capture the evidence of my success.
But after less than a minute in the courtyard, he did something I did not anticipate, something that, in my 1 million nightmare and fantasy scenarios, I had somehow never imagined.
He walked up to the front door, and he meowed to get back inside.
“No way,” I said, tugging him toward the dirt again. “That’s where you escaped from. That’s where you used to be when you complained to go outside. No way are you going back in there.”
Bubba stared up at me, blinking. He does not actually speak English.
I thought for sure he was just spooked, that his fear would melt away when he caught sight of a butterfly, or sniffed some long-dead animal fertilizing the soil. Instead, as I sat there waiting for him to change his mind, he padded around the front door meowing like he does every morning at 5:50. He hopped up on the windowsill of my neighbor’s first-story apartment and stared longingly into her studio. Meow, he said to me. Meooooooow.
Part of me wanted to cry when he did it — after all I’ve done for you, and this is how you thank me? — but I must admit I felt relief, too. He didn’t long for the outdoors after all. He longed for that vague destination on the other side of the door. He longed for the Place Not Here. And like so many of us, when he finally got to the Place Not Here, it was a little glum and strange and boring, and he missed the dark, cozy spot underneath the bed, the cool tile floor to rest his belly in the kitchen.
The cat leash is in the closet now, yet another good intention best kept on a high shelf. Bubba still whines every morning at dawn, but I have started putting him inside the bathroom, where — removed from any potential audience — he stays quiet till I wake again at 7 to feed him. He seems a bit calmer now, or maybe I’m a bit calmer now, or maybe there’s not much difference between these two things. Each night, while I’ve been writing this story, he has curled up beside me on the bed like a croissant, quiet and undemanding, both of us satisfied, at least at that moment, not to be longing for anything else.
Sarah Hepola is an editor at Salon.More Sarah Hepola.
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)