"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)
I became a vegetarian when I was 15. It was health-related at first; I had begun to notice an unpleasant, heavy feeling in my stomach after eating meat, and when I didn’t eat it, I felt better. But while researching vegetarian nutrition in order prove to my worried mother that I could get enough protein without meat, I encountered the ethical arguments for not eating animals, and the first seeds of bleeding-heart liberalism took root. In the space of one short year, I went from making meatloaf whimsically sculpted into the shape of a pig, to pestering my high school classmates at lunchtime with such charming questions as “How can you make your stomach a graveyard for innocent animals?”
My parents were surprised and dismayed; I came from a typical American meat-and-potatoes family — we were Lutheran, after all. Some of my favorite foods growing up included Spam, sliced ham slathered in barbecue sauce, and hamburgers without the bun. As for vegetables? I mostly hated them, except for raw carrots, celery (preferably as a vessel for peanut butter), canned corn or canned green beans. My definition of salad was iceberg lettuce sprinkled with sugar. I especially hated onions and mushrooms, largely due to my father’s insistence that I would like them if I tried them.
I ate a lot of pasta, potatoes and cheese during that first year.
Eventually, I went to college at the University of California at Berkeley, where I discovered that garlic is a root vegetable, not a powder, and was persuaded by my growing stack of vegetarian cookbooks that sautéed onions and mushrooms are indeed the keys to the culinary kingdom. Dad was right about that, which was good, because Berkeley taught me that he was wrong about everything else!
I aspired to veganism, which, in hindsight, is very amusing, because as anyone who knows me well can tell you, I love cheese like Jesus loves sinners. I even attempted to follow the McDougall Plan, which not only eliminates all animal products, but also forbids refined sugar and only grudgingly allows tiny amounts of fat — in other words, it dooms you to failure before you’ve even begun. I remember desperately drizzling honey on my vegan cornbread before furtively dashing to the grocery store for a big bag of carob-coated almonds — hey, at least they came from the health food aisle!
I moved to New York City after college, and on one particularly lonely, homesick evening early on, I ended my longest vegan phase ever with a pint of Häagen-Dazs Triple Brownie Overload ice cream. I think the phrase “all things in moderation” might have floated through my brain as I was throwing up at 2 in the morning, but the memory is somewhat hazy.
Eventually, I settled into a comfortable lacto-ovo vegetarianism. I continued eating fish occasionally into my mid-20s, but then decided that if I was going to say I was a vegetarian, I should really be a vegetarian, so I made “no bodies of dead animals” my simple guideline.
Being vegetarian was always very easy for me. I don’t crave meat; I don’t particularly care for it (though I do like fish). I feel for ethical vegetarians who do miss meat; as my failed attempts at veganism demonstrate, “willpower” is not my middle name. Living meatless has never felt like sacrifice or deprivation to me. And when I want the nostalgic social bonding experience of eating something protein-rich that goes on a bun, there’s an abundance of faux meat products to choose from. I’m quite a connoisseur of faux meats, actually, having followed their evolution from the bizarre and largely unappealing canned substances of yesteryear (I grew up not far from the Seventh-day Adventist enclave of Angwin, Calif., where the grocery store stocked a wide variety of these items), to the delectable frozen and shrink-wrapped technological wonders of today.
I’ve successfully remained a non-meat-eater during several trips to Europe, thanks to a combination of cunning, a flair for language acquisition, and a willingness to eat seemingly limitless amounts of fried potatoes, bread, cheese and ice cream. While studying music at a summer program in Prague, I even got the smug satisfaction of watching my fellow American students, confirmed meat-eaters all, cringe and balk at the animal substances presented to them, particularly the traditional Czech dish of ground pork mixed with cheese, shaped into patties, then breaded and fried. It resembled the Underwood Deviled Ham that I remembered from childhood — the canned stuff my mom used to disguise pills for the dog.
I did eat a McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish in Vienna, because it was all I could afford there, and I had finally hit the wall where fried potatoes were concerned. And when I visited London with my parents, I figured I should eat fish and chips wrapped in newspaper from a stall on the street, because that’s what you do in London, right? Well, my reward for that particular when-in-Rome gesture was an epic case of food poisoning that my parents, with their strong carnivore stomachs, escaped, and I stayed in our hotel room dry-heaving every hour on the hour while they froze their butts off at Stonehenge.
I’ve gotten flak from people occasionally, especially during the first few years. My older brother mocked me mercilessly, until he got engaged to a part-time vegetarian. I’ll never forget sitting next to him at the luncheon celebrating their engagement, when he turned to me and said, “Are you finding enough vegetarian things on the menu, sweetheart?” “Who are you, and what have you done with my brother?” I answered.
I’ve had well-meaning but clueless people tell me that some vegetarians eat chicken, so I should, too. I’ve gone back and forth on the fish issue, and argued with people about it from both sides. Some aspiring vegetarians will say, “I don’t eat anything with a face,” meaning things like scallops are OK. I find that to be just about the most self-serving bucket of sentimental hogwash I’ve ever heard; to extend compassion only to creatures who are cute, or who have features you recognize because they resemble yours, is not compassion — it’s narcissism. On the other hand, when someone self-satisfiedly remarks about their comfortable place at the top of the food chain, I fantasize about seeing them learn some humility through being laid out naked on a platter with an apple in their mouth. I’ve been cranky, rigid and preachy at times, but I have gradually adopted a slightly uneasy equanimity — call it a live-and-let-kill-and-eat philosophy.
The low-carb craze made my life difficult. Overnight, it seemed, the refrigerated case at Trader Joe’s that had once brimmed with such delicious conveniences as falafel plates and veggie burritos was taken over by package after hulking package of “Just Chicken!” I went to a dinner party where the menu consisted of: 1) steak and 2) asparagus. Dessert was a giant bowl of mixed berries. Now, I adore asparagus, but it alone does not a meal make. And berries are awesome, too, but come on, a little pound cake, chocolate sauce and whipped cream never killed anybody! Even if I weren’t a vegetarian, I would still think the hardcore low-carb thing was another masochistic recipe for failure — one that I hope has finally taken its rightful place alongside the McDougall Plan in the Museum of Extremist Diet Fads.
My own dietary Puritanism has been shaken up by a series of paradigm-shifting experiences in recent years. I make part of my living as a church organist, and at one point, the Lutheran church where I worked got a new a pastor, fresh from a couple of years as a missionary in Peru. The pastor and his family were vegetarians, which, I know from experience, is a most unusual thing for a Lutheran to be, so I was very interested to get to know him. In one of his sermons, he discussed his work in Peru, and mentioned that his family decided to suspend their vegetarianism during their time there. In the remote mountain village where they lived, the staples of the local diet were guinea pig and purple potatoes, but food of any kind was pretty scarce. The pastor realized that graciously accepting the hospitality of the people he was there to serve, by eating what they ate and generously shared, was more important than hewing stubbornly to an ethical principle that was, after all, a luxury only available to people who never had to worry about getting enough to eat. As much as the thought of roast guinea pig on a tiny spit made my stomach clench, I had to respect this point of view.
One holiday season I became aware of Heifer International, an organization that helps people in very poor areas of the world improve their standard of living with donations of livestock. By raising ducks and goats and selling eggs, milk and, yes, meat, families are able to buy medicine and other necessities, and send their children to school — in other words, they escape a centuries-long cycle of crushing poverty. Images of slaughter that my mind conjured up at first were dismissed by photos of smiling, appropriately chubby children, and proud parents who had progressed from the brink of starvation to small business ownership. Who the hell was I to tell them to eat tofu? My world was officially rocked.
The most recent challenge to my dietary idealism came courtesy of my husband. He had dabbled in vegetarianism before we met, and after we started dating, he took it up again, not because I asked him to, but because he valued the ethical principle behind it. He would occasionally have meat when we dined out, but we agreed to keep a vegetarian kitchen at home. After we had been married about a year, he told me that he felt the absence of meat in his diet was contributing to depression. He had started medical residency right after we got married, and as any doctor can attest, depression is a fairly normal and reasonable response to that situation. But his experience was particularly bad, and it took realizing he was in the wrong specialty and changing programs to bring some relief. Regardless of the circumstances, though, if he believed that eating meat more often made him feel better and abstaining from it entirely made him feel worse, I wasn’t about to argue with him. After all, living with a miserable spouse is, well, miserable.
My husband’s experience spurred me to take a look at my own history. I had been depressed, at times severely, since I was 15 — the same length of time that I had been a vegetarian. I have wondered on and off over the years if the two are linked in any way. Of course, there are other, likely more relevant, factors: family dynamics, genetics and my particular personality type certainly played a role, as well as triggering events in my life. I believe that I was poised to become a professional depressive, and no amount of barbecued ham or bunless burgers would have prevented it.
I decided, however, to accept my husband’s love offering of fish oil capsules, which he promised would bring me multiple benefits, from clearer skin to a healthier brain. Lately I’ve found myself craving protein more often, that craving taking a specific form. I decided to see if tuna melts truly do contain something I’m deficient in and really need. The results are inconclusive so far — honestly, I think I just like them a lot. Enough to compromise my values.
Am I a hypocrite? Of course. Just like everyone else, each one of us in our own special way. You know who you are, people who gleefully eat cow and pig but would blanch at the notion of eating dog or cat. Everyone has to figure out where they draw the line for themselves, and accept that they will occasionally dance around it. As Homer Simpson once said, “Mmm, sacrelicious!”
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)