"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)
When I came back to Haiti in early April, after having been injured during the earthquake and evacuated a few days after, I was prepared to be shocked by the transformation of a city I once knew. Instead, what struck me was how quickly I adjusted to empty lots and mounds of broken-down rubble where landmarks used to be. Well-pressed and coiffed schoolgirls still gossip and giggle in the scant shade while waiting for tap-taps to drive them to class. People sleep under tarps and in tents in sweltering, unseasonable heat but still manage, somehow, to look professional and neat. A teenage amputee lies in her hospital bed, drumming her fingers to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A” and wondering when she’ll go back to school, and when the American missionaries will deliver on their promise to take her lòt bò, to the “other side,” the United States. On the street and on crumbled porches, people slap mosquitoes and make jokes, even jokes about the earthquake. And these things are lovely retentions, a heartening sign that the everyday humanity did not die even when so many people did.
But “normal” is not good. Normal means the things that didn’t work in Haiti before the earthquake have endured. That which seemed reassuring when I got back now seems depressing, tedious and ominous: Even the earthquake couldn’t change this place?
I am told that the American reading public has “Haiti fatigue,” that they don’t want to read stories about the disaster and its aftermath anymore. Part of me wants to retort, “You know who else has Haiti fatigue? Haiti.” But in truth, I don’t want to read about the earthquake, either. I don’t want to read about the conditions in the camps, or the increase in violence against women, or hurricane season, or what Sean Penn is saying today. When news stories about Haiti cross my in box, I skim them and then move them to a folder that I imagine, maybe wrongly, that I’ll be able to process someday. Most of the time, it’s too much. Knowing about something doesn’t mean you know what to do to fix it. Sometimes it feels as though words don’t matter as much as they used to, that we no longer live in a time when a persuasive essay or a provocative novel could change the world. Images and words flicker across our screens and minds, alighting only momentarily, and little surprises us. News stories and images of suffering rarely compel us to action but resign us to apathy and feelings of powerlessness. Why search the news for the stories that weigh on us and break our hearts when these only lay bare our futility and the inevitable gulf between our best intentions and our capabilities?
I’m sick, too, of stories about the Haitian people’s “resilience,” their indestructible spirit, their hardiness (which is eerily reminiscent of the justifications for the enslavement of Africans) — as if their minds and bodies are different from those of the rest of us, as if their endurance of the unrelenting sun, hurricanes, homelessness is anything more than what it really is: survival amid suffering when one doesn’t have a choice.
So I am back in Port-au-Prince, trying to find a perspective on things that isn’t coming out elsewhere, hearing stories. People are eager to talk, especially when they find out that I was anba dekomb (under rubble). Sometimes it feels as though the whole city has turned into a casual support group, meeting every day and everywhere.
On Haiti’s Jou Drapo, Flag Day, which in any other year would mean uniformed schoolchildren parading through town with paper flags, a woman named Nicole sits on a low wooden chair in the tent community in Pétion-ville’s Place Saint-Pierre, giving manicures and pedicures to other residents of the camp. She is in her 40s, compact and strong-looking with her hair in six puffy braids and a pair of glasses low on her nose. She wears a black tank top and a pair of jeans covered with the residue of her work — splashes of spilled polish, dustings of filed-away keratin. Like manicurists everywhere, her own fingernails are a mess. She is applying false nails to a young woman’s hands — super gluing long, clear extensions onto each nail and trimming them to the requisite length. They still look long and cumbersome, and I ask the young woman, “Can you do anything with those? Can you wash clothes?”
“I can do everything with these,” says the young woman. “Even braid hair.”
Nicole, whose home was damaged in the earthquake, lives in the tent community with her four children, who are 9, 12, 14 and 15 years old. She wonders aloud where all the supposed aid money is going. Haiti is in a fog of humanitarianism. That was the case even before the earthquake, with countless NGOs of different size and provenance and mission bumping up against each other, stepping on each other’s toes, obscuring each other’s projects. But it is a continual surprise how uncoordinated and piecemeal the aid effort is. No one seems to know where the aid is. They are aware that billions of dollars have been donated for Haitian recovery and reconstruction, but in everyday experience no one sees much of anything. They say, “Préval’s got it,” or, “It’s still in Clinton’s and Bellerive’s hands.” The aid is invisible — despite the “We Are the World” broadcast, despite the huge outpouring of international cash and international sentiment. Change, in the end, is not what we imagine it would be.
“They should build houses out of wood, or plywood,” Nicole says. “It wasn’t the earthquake that killed people. It was the cement blocks. We can’t afford to rent houses — houses are expensive! All this that I’m doing now,” she says, gesturing to the tray of different colored polishes in the plastic tray beside her, “is just so I can feed my children. We don’t know how long we can survive under these prela [tarps]. The state has to give us a little help.” She begins to buff the young woman’s nails, trying to even out the surface between the glued-on acrylic and the natural. I ask if her kids are in school.
“Not now,” she says. While her children’s school did not fall in the earthquake, it is still, like most schools, a multistory cement building — the sort of structure that gives Port-au-Prince residents chills. “The earth is still moving. I’m afraid. I want my children near me. If they are far away, I can’t control what happens to them.”
A pair of evangelical Haitian women arrive, two “servants of God” with lace kerchiefs over their hair, who have come to preach in the camp. The leader is a robust woman with a commanding presence; her tone is accusatory, angry, and she speaks of the earthquake as God’s revenge on sinners. Some camp residents watch with mild interest, and others ignore her.
One of Nicole’s neighbors in the camp shows me how the tents have electricity, wires running illegally from nearby electrical poles and crisscrossing the camp, cellphones charging in outlets dangling in midair above the canopy of tarps and sheets, light bulbs fixed in the entrances of crowded tents. I can’t imagine what will happen if an electrical fire breaks out in the camps. They don’t have electricity all the time, only when the state turns on the grid. “You should see the camp when they give electricity,” he tells me, smiling. “Everyone turns on their music, and you can’t sleep for all the noise.”
Nearly seven months after the earthquake, strangely, I find myself missing the emergency. Amid the tragedy, the sickening uncertainty, there was hope for change. The hours and days after the earthquake were hell, but an urgent and emergent hell: Because everything was thrown into tumult, no one knew where the pieces would land. Now it is clear how much institutional brokenness has endured. The crisis that, just half a year ago, felt like the end of the world is now chronic and stretching into an infinite horizon. Disaster, it turns out, is not an event but a process; the real crisis in Haiti comes not from the movement of the earth but from those structural, social and political factors that remain, seemingly intractably, intact amid so many broken things.
This is my selfish wish: to have been involved in relief at a time when things seemed morally unambiguous and every action was useful, even limping around the U.N. logistical base trying to find food for the injured, even scraping hardened sugar off the counters to mix with the oatmeal powder I found in the pantry, even sitting on a pee-scented cot holding someone’s hand and talking about anything. There was no question of what to do; the only choice was to do.
Now things are at once normal and completely strange, but the strangeness has a way of being absorbed into the landscape.
It is late May. Monica, Claudine, John and I drive out of Port-au-Prince. Monica and Claudine are both 22, the daughter and niece of Melise, the woman who lived, worked and died in the house I stayed in before the earthquake. Claudine was raised by Melise after her own mother died in childbirth years ago, and considered Melise her mother. John was my former landlady’s driver, who ran for hours to find the hammer and the flashlight that Frenel used to break me out of the cement on Jan. 12. Bathing suits under our clothes, plastic sandals on our feet: We are going to the beach in an overheating borrowed car, the radio on and a man singing, “Bondye renmen m, li ba m kouraj…” (God loves me, he gives me courage).
We drive past the uncleared rubble and the collapsed buildings hanging open with their plastic Venetian blinds drooping from crushed windows like the gills of a dead animal, and then we turn and drive more, until at last the roads become less congested with aid vehicles, up the coast through a treeless landscape that, viewed at a distance, is a patchwork of tents as far as the eye can see, white and a color I’ve begun to think of as “tarp blue.” As we drive far down Route 9 and draw near the tarp-dotted, shimmering hillsides at Bon Repos, Claudine exclaims, “Mezanmi! How can they do this?” Suspended in the foreground of this camp as you approach it from the north, there is a billboard for cigarettes featuring an attractive young light-skinned couple lounging with a yacht in the background. The woman reclines in the man’s lap, and her long, wavy hair cascades. “Mete w alez!” it commands, in Creole. “Make yourself comfortable!”
The water is clear and blue; the shore is rocky, not sandy, and burns our feet. We buy little plastic cups of freshly cooked conch doused in vinegar and hot pepper, and fried plantains, and eat them in the shade of a palm tree. To our right, we watch a group of Brazilian peacekeepers. They have their own section of the beach carved out, with palm trees painted U.N. blue and white and yellow tape demarcating the borders. One soldier stands in military fatigues with a machine gun while the others man their barbecue wearing board shorts and shiny blue Speedos.
The water is warm and salty and stings our eyes and we take the sorts of ridiculous, unflattering photos one takes when seawater keeps washing into your eyes and the tide keeps pulling you around and menacing your bikini top. Claudine wears a pink shower cap. Around us, several couples engage in protracted submerged make-out sessions and, as we lounge in the shallows, I glance about in mock-seriousness and say, “We’re all going to get pregnant.”
I remove myself for a moment and try to view this scene through a God’s-eye lens, rising up and over the beach like the camera setting up the establishing shot at the beginning of a film: In the blue water, I see Monica and Claudine, recently motherless. On the shore, watching our clothes, leaning against a palm tree with one leg bent behind him and chewing on banann pese, I see John, who found and retrieved Melise’s body in the rubble four days later and buried her in a temporary grave, and who says, “She was like my sister.” But today we don’t look like victims or players in an international humanitarian event that, for a while, at least, captured the attention and the imagination of the world. For this moment, we are a group of friends, sticky with seawater, looking for our sandals and squinting into the sun. Our feet on the ground, toes digging into the rough sand as we look out over the ocean into uncertainty. Haiti is not hell, or even limbo, however biblical it may appear at times. Amid the suffering and the absurdity, it is still a place, as all places are, on this sometimes-shifting earth.
Laura Wagner is a PhD candidate in anthropology at UNC Chapel Hill who was living and conducting research in Port-au-PrinceMore Laura Wagner.
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)