"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)
After a painful breakup, there’s always “that song” or “that band” that you can’t listen to anymore, because they are painful reminders of your former relationship. But I’ve always wondered about the good pieces of pop culture that survives past a relationship or other tragedy. You know, like the show you never would have watched unless your boyfriend made you, and which ultimately lasted longer than your dating history? Or that bluegrass band you only started to appreciate after your dad passed?
While we associate grief with a sense of loss — with throwing things away or storing them someplace and never looking at them again — we never talk about how these same artifacts can actually help us get through tough times. That’s what the new regular feature “Saved by Pop Culture” is about: those songs, movies, and shows that might be watched by millions but are important to you in a way that’s totally your own.
I never saw “Six Feet Under” when it was on TV. I’m terrible like that with TV, because while I am a total movie snob, I have never scraped up enough cash post-college to buy a set and pay for cable. Especially for things like HBO and Showtime, which, let’s face it, is where the good shit is at.
So no “Sopranos” for me, no “The Wire,” and no “True Blood,” a show that everyone told me I would love because it was about vampires and sex. I thought it sounded hokey in a total Anne Rice way, until I started dating a boy from New Orleans who swore by Sookie Stackhouse. I fell hard for the boy, and he had fallen hard for Bon Temps, so eventually he wore me down enough to watch the opening sequence of Alan Ball’s overwrought Southern gothic. Of course, I was hooked instantly. It was funny, it didn’t take itself too seriously, and — at least for the first season — it was scary as hell.
Then around Friday the 13th (I know), I lost my job and that boy on the same day. I was broke, and the guy who had introduced me to the vampire porn show had gone back to New Orleans himself (maybe to meet his own version of Sookie?). It was one of those breakups that hit you incredibly hard, almost more so for the relationship having been so short. I was still infatuated when he left, and I was devastated about his departure with an intensity that freaked me out. Didn’t I have other stuff to think about?
Apparently not. After watching the second season of “True Blood” for the third time, I realized it was time to move on. Of course, “moving on” in my case didn’t mean that I stopped obsessively making late-night calls to this guy, it meant taking a lot of pain medication that I had stockpiled from a previous surgery and tooth removal, lying in bed all day, and starting up another show. I decided on “Six Feet Under,” because I figured that since it was also written by Ball and was about death and dying, it would be like watching a longer, more boring version of “True Blood” while I slowly faded away.
Here’s a piece of advice: When you’re teetering on the brink of a major depression, watching five seasons of an intensely personal study in grief and death is not going to make you feel better. The fact that every episode began with an illustration of how death can take you at any time, any place (while diving in a pool, getting cut in half in an elevator door, or getting hit by frozen human waste falling from airplanes) didn’t make me appreciate the value of life, it scared the hell out of me. It also reinforced my belief that never getting out of bed was probably the safest way to exist, for the time being.
I guess I shouldn’t have expected a show about a funeral parlor to be really uplifting. But I cried during that first episode (Oh god, the phrase “buddy boy” still gets me to this day) and didn’t stop bawling until Claire drove away in the car that wasn’t a green hearse, heading toward New York and imagining, in the best montage in the history of television, how everyone she knows will die.
(Warning: Spoilers? Kind of? Although at this point you can’t blame me for ruining a show that’s been over for six years.)
I went through the entire show in about a month and a half, which is actually a pretty solid feat, considering that the show had 63 episodes, each an hour long. I told my concerned friends calling to check up that I was fine, I was hanging out with my friend Brenda, or Claire. (Ha.) I ordered in Chinese at night, slept all day, told my parents I was sick, and continued to buy meds I wasn’t prescribed from shady guys on Craigslist. I don’t think I knew it at the time, but I was watching “Six Feet Under” in the hopes that I’d get depressed enough to kill myself.
Fortunately, that’s not the effect the Fisher family had on me. This dark little family who dealt with mortality every day, whose business was literally trading in death (including their own) slowly, over the course of those painful six weeks, taught me more about appreciating life than the past four years of my own had.
I know, that sounds terrible. That I can’t cry in real life over the death of a pet or family member, but a show about imaginary people leading imaginary lives with their imaginary brain tumors can make me sob until I reach catharsis. And at first, I was really just crying for myself, for my own selfish reasons about everything just sucking and look, we all die in the end so what does it matter anyway? I was Claire in season four, where she’s a real asshole. I was Billy when he was off his meds. I was Brenda’s entire narcissistic personality disorder. Then two things happened.
The first was this one really, really odd night when in addition of my usual cocktail of antidepressants and Percocets I found an old pill of Ecstasy that I had been saving to do with the guy from New Orleans. In a moment of sheer, stupid rage I took it. (“That will show him!” I said to my completely empty apartment.) I knew I was courting a hospital trip, and I didn’t care. I turned on “Six Feet Under,” and it was the episode where Nate takes two aspirin before a family dinner. At first Nate (and the audience) can’t figure out why he’s acting so punch-drunk: spilling over the wine, touching his girlfriend Brenda’s arm in tactile wonder, laughing too loudly. Meanwhile, it slowly dawns on his brother David that Nate may have accidentally taken the Ecstasy tabs he had hidden in the aspirin. Odd coincidence, but all I remember at the time was wishing I could feel as happy as Nate did while inadvertently rolling. All I felt was more of that self-indulgent sadness welling up. Also, my sheets were really, really smooth.
When Nate tries to sleep off his trip, he dreams about his dad, Nathaniel Sr., which isn’t that odd considering that despite dying in the first act, the actor Richard Jenkins made an appearance in almost every “Six Feet Under.” It was all very “Twin Peaks,” with Nate meeting both Death and Life playing poker with his father:
Say what you will about that speech at the end — “All that lives will live forever, only the shell passes away” — but what really got me was Nate’s head on the chair, his dad stroking his head.
“Dad, I’m high. I know I’m high.”
Then Nate wakes up. I didn’t. (Not because I died or anything, just because I had never fallen asleep.) But I was really freaked out. How did the show know I was on drugs??? And then, like, speak to me through the screen?
I can accurately pinpoint that moment as the turning point when I stopped caring about my own stupid problems so I could focus more intently on the Fishers’. But that’s good escapism, right? People immerse themselves in the lives of characters crafted by brilliant writers, so their lives both reflect and outshine our own.
So skip ahead a couple seasons (blah blah Lisa disappears, who cares, Claire finally hooks up with Jeremy Sisto’s Billy, which I had been waiting for since forever, Ruth keeps sleeping her way around town while acting like an anorexic Piper Laurie in “Carrie,” David and Keith have a completely realistic and three-dimensional relationship which is the first of its kind for a gay couple on TV and I kind of don’t notice, Brenda continues to be the worst, etc., etc.,) and Nate has that seizure at his sister-in-law’s place. Or heart attack. Or brain aneurysm. Whatever. And everyone thinks, “Okay, we’ve seen this before, the ‘Nate is going to die’ thing,” because it was the cliffhanger in season two. And then he wakes up at the hospital, and he and David talk, and he has one of his dreams again. Except it’s a little weirder than the other dream sequences we’ve seen on “Six Feet.” Like instead of Nate walking around and talking to his dad, it’s him and David smoking weed in a van, going to the beach. And David is trying to tell Nate not to go in the water, but he does, and then David is left alone.
And then David wakes up because it’s been his dream all along, and he’s really alone. Nate has died.
Now, on “Six Feet Under,” people died for no reason all the time. Wasn’t that the point? Death is random, life is random, and even if you know all of this you’ll still take everyone in your world for granted because that’s how human beings work?
Still. Even knowing that. Even with every episode about death, and seeing people react to a loved one’s passing, I was not ready for the death of Nate Fisher. I actually just stopped watching the show, despite the continuation of episodes (apparently TV, like life, doesn’t just stop when someone dies). I was furious, because you can’t just kill off a show’s main character for no reason! No reason! There was no reason Nate should have died, it was so pointless and stupid.
I hated that show for killing off Nate, because Nate was us, he was our window into the world of “Six Feet Under.” The fact that the story could continue without him would be to admit that life could go on without us. Without me. And then, after I begrudgingly watched the last couple of episodes, some of the saddest ever on TV (besides maybe the last episode of “MASH”), it was devastating in a way that the passing of Nathaniel Sr. on the show’s premiere wasn’t. Watching a family suffer that much wasn’t even television (it was HBO?). I had never had anyone close to me die, but suddenly I felt like I was intruding on my best friend’s house as his family just completely lost it.
“This can’t happen,” I thought to myself, “My parents can’t ever go through this. What the fuck was I thinking?”
Wanting to die is inherently selfish, though there are always degrees of personal pain involved that might make the decision understandable. But what the hell had I been doing to myself? And more importantly, why? Because some guy who liked “True Blood” moved out of town? Because after three weeks, I thought I was “in love” and now life wasn’t worth it? I’ll cut myself some slack, because I had never seen death up close and personal, and hey, I’m not saying that a fictional person’s pretend death counts (Peter Krause is currently on “Parenthood,” alive and well), but it’s the closest I had ever come to seeing the profound and personal way a death affects a family, especially a death so random and senseless as Nate’s.
After that episode, I stopped buying painkillers from shady drug dealers. I got out of bed and got another job. (Well, I worked from home, so technically I still stayed in bed, but at least I was earning a paycheck.) I also took trips home to my mom’s house for weeks at a time, just happy that she wasn’t the frigid and uptight Ruth but also wanting so badly to never, ever put her through what Ruth had to go through.
I won’t say that “Six Feet Under” saved my life, because who knows, maybe an intervention would have just as easily done the trick, or I would have just gotten bored and would have eventually left my bed anyway. Oddly enough, it turned out I was more Claire than Brenda after all: A couple years later, and I’m back in New York, doing my form of art for a living. I’m even dating a goofy lawyer who wears a suit to work every day, like Ted, the Republican Claire ends up with. Luckily, mine isn’t a Republican.
Have you ever been moved to change by a movie, TV show, or album? Let us know. Leave your stories in the comments section or blog about it on Open Salon and tag your post “saved by pop culture.”
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)