"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. To preserve my sanity between sophomore and junior year of high school (defining “sanity” loosely here), I moved out. Out of the small back bedroom where I shared a bunk bed with my brother, to a futon in the sun room of our house — a converted porch, actually. Privacy was my main concern, but an added bonus was the old family computer gathering dust in the corner of my new room. Unbearably slow as it was, late at night after I closed the French doors (ooh la la!) to the living room and drew the curtains to the backyard, I could go online, muffling the sound of the 56K modem with a pillow, and surf the Web unmolested and unafraid.
The thing is, I never really got to the Web, proper. I never left AOL, heading right for the chat rooms night after night. Men4men was my go-to room. Guys would send their stats or whatever they were looking for into the public window in sporadic blasts, and the real exchanges would follow in one-on-one sessions. “17yo closeted student in Texas here,” I’d post, and the replies would trickle in. “Where in TX?” and “What are you wearing?” popped up a lot. I’d settle in with the most enticing, least pompous screen name, and my messages went like, “I just want so badly to feel another guy’s skin,” or “I wonder what it’s like to kiss and hold someone I like.” Just articulating what was in my teenage head. I had to get up for school the next morning, so it never went much further than that.
II. Once I got to college in New York, I didn’t fear (as much) a wrathful backlash if someone from real life found me out online. Planet Out seemed the most trustworthy mainstream portal, so I posted a profile. No picture yet, just “College guy new to the city, looking for chat, friends, maybe more.” I was nervous about that last bit, an enticement to I didn’t know what. I soon found that no one, or only the crazies and desperates, respond to pictureless profiles, so I posted one with my face cropped out. That got me only crotch shots in return, so after a week I added a grainy obscure portrait.
This led to my first date — really just a hookup without sex or even much kissing (does that still count?). One lonely Friday night a guy who lived not far (my ZIP code was in my profile) posted a “like” to my page. We chatted maybe 20 minutes before exchanging more photos via e-mail. “Yr cute,” he wrote. “I’m Bored.” “Me too,” I typed. “Wanna come over and hang out?” I walked the seven blocks to his walk-up apartment. A photographer in a tiny studio crash pad. We sat on the edge of his bed (no couch), he offered a beer, and I talked, knees shaking, about not really being out yet.
The groping and kissing was awkward, me wanting both everything and nothing to happen. Not a button or zipper was undone. I started backing away when his hand ventured too far, and his tongue pushing in deeper made me feel weird about what I was doing. Giving some awkward excuse, I walked quickly back to the dorm.
III. Later in college, gay.com released a revamped messaging service, which made it easier to “preview” guys and weed out bad matches ahead of time. I should also say at this point: This was it for me in the dating department. There was no meeting guys around campus, no striking up a conversation with someone in the cafeteria, no clicking with a friend of a friend at a party. School was all work, all study, all the time, and my budding (stunted?) sexuality only came out at night, back home in the dark, in front of the glowing computer screen.
With gay.com messenger, I could swiftly click on guys who popped up to see their photos, profile and stats, and decide off the bat whether I was aroused. Meeting guys in real life if the chat went well now felt more possible, so sometimes these messenger exchanges turned into hours-long sagas as I figured out whether I really wanted to meet up, and how in the world I would ask.
One guy — another college student — I met at a coffee shop where we nursed cappuccinos and smiled, blushing, into our mugs. We walked back to his place and sat awkwardly with five inches between us, looking up the walls, until he made the first move. I ended up sleeping over. We never got out of our underwear, and our hands never reached past our belly buttons.
IV. After college I dated more — nothing too serious, but a couple of months at a stretch here and there. In between times — being a young, broke, entry-level employee — I started doing the math: Going out to a club and paying the cover charge in order to meet guys in the crowded darkness, or buying enough drinks at a bar to where my inhibitions would be sufficiently lowered to actually uncross my arms and speak up, versus logging onto the Internet for free, with the same goal in mind.
The dating profiles and message boards felt stale by now — hard to get excited about anyone after so many misfires — so I cut to the chase and logged onto Manhunt. No pretense here about just wanting to chat, or find a nice date, maybe an LTR (long-term relationship), or not being hell-bent on getting laid by the end of the night. At sign-up you filled out fields for interests (1-on-1, group sex, PNP [party and play, meaning get high and fool around]), availability (right now, later tonight), and preferred ambience (your place or mine).
Turns out, the efficiency of this setup killed it for me. Even when guys were remotely attractive, with everything spelled out ahead of time, hookups felt mechanical, like shooting fish in a barrel. Everything prearranged. Seeing all the goods upfront meant that there were no surprises later. Nothing was more of a turnoff. Wait — I take that back. More of a turnoff was seeing a college professor on Manhunt, and being propositioned by said professor. (Please, God, tell me he didn’t recognize me, and reach out for that very reason.) Whether scoring or just jerking off by the end of the Manhunt sessions, I inevitably felt dirty afterward.
V. A couple of years after college I moved to Helsinki for work for six months and was back to square one, dating-wise. Not a gay friend to speak of, three lame gay bars in the entire country, and none of my go-to Web sites were of any use there. Oh, and I didn’t speak the language. After an exhaustive search, a profile site called Qruiser seemed the most popular in the Scandinavian/Baltic region, and I listed myself as “American Dude in Finland.” What impression did this give a local? Sexy foreigner? Lame outsider? I have no idea. Though a handful of message exchanges lasted a few days (rarely getting past “Hello, what are you doing here?”), the best match was a pilot out of the Netherlands who regularly flew to Helsinki, and wouldn’t mind getting together at the hotel near the airport on his next stopover. It never happened. I fared better (barely) in Helsinki’s gay bars.
VI. Back stateside, the online scene had evolved while I was away. I happened upon a sort of Facebook for homos: D-List. So much about the site seemed asexual, trying to keep up the pretense that this was a “social network,” not a hookup site. I never came across a real-life friend on D-List — no one was searchable by their actual name — but the site had a surprising number of good-looking guys not listing their size in inches, and far fewer erect cocks ramming into the camera in photo galleries (as seen constantly on Manhunt).
One D-List meet-up went better than I had expected. We agreed to meet at a local gay bar/dance spot on a Saturday night. He was with a group of friends, I was alone. We passed each other a couple of times among the crowd and on trips to and from the bar, but didn’t stop to speak. I’d recognized him at first glance. I figured he either didn’t recognize me from my photos, or recognized me and wasn’t interested in person, so was ignoring me and getting on with his night. At last we came up against each other on the edge of the dance floor and started up a conversation. He thought I was giving him the same treatment — the not-recognizing/not interested thing. At last call, we walked back to my place.
When that relationship went south a couple months later, I didn’t go back online. I felt over it. Better, I thought, to try more seriously meeting guys for real — in real life — for a change.
Erich Nagler is a designer and writer based in New York City. He can be found at www.designmeans.com.
Erich Nagler is a designer and writer based in New York City. He can be found at www.designmeans.com.More Erich Nagler.
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)