"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)
Some say that all narratives ultimately tell only two stories. One: Someone goes on a journey. Two: A stranger comes to town. The summer before my eighth-grade year, when I was 12, I experienced the intersection of both. In other words, I learned how to escape.
This was 1979. My mother had been home from the hospital for a few months, and my sister, brother and I were just coming to understand her. Our “new” Mom.
The new version of my mother was a changeling. At 38 years old, she had suffered, and barely survived, a ruptured brain aneurysm. The head injury caused her to be mostly paralyzed on her left side. Her brain became scrambled. She limped around the house, couldn’t tell time and didn’t know the day of the week. Often, she’d make inappropriate remarks, swearing at the slightest provocation or making some lewd joke in front of friends. At times, she scared me.
“Ethan!” she’d yell from her lair. “Help me get up!” She might be half-dressed in her bed, or on the toilet, or on the floor, or in the bathtub.
Years before my mother’s “accident,” as we called it, my dad had moved several hours away. We saw him regularly, but he and my stepmom were largely out of the picture. A family friend had moved in to help take care of my Mom, my siblings and me. The theory was, Sara Gilsdorf might make a miraculous recovery, and the friend would move out. We eventually discovered this would never come to pass.
It didn’t take long to figure out I couldn’t tame my mother, not this beast. I knew I couldn’t save her, either. I fought with her for a while, usually battling over her inability — what I mistakenly read as her refusal — to regain her old life, be it making a cup of coffee or making a family decision. After a while, I gave up. And kept my distance. I was stuck with a mother I was afraid to love.
We began calling her the Momster.
Coincidentally enough, the film “Super 8″ also takes place in the summer of 1979. Like the boys in that film, I armed myself with a movie camera and was determined to be the next Spielbergian blockbuster kid. I studied Disney animation books. I built sets in my sister’s bedroom where stop-motion Plasticine creatures ran amok through an HO-scale train town. I ripped apart Revell model airplane kits to make my own “Star Wars”-like space ships that I’d film, frame by frame, as they dangled from fishing line in front of a hand-painted star-scape.
As I built and destroyed these worlds, my journey through the realm of adolescence to the kingdom of adulthood began to reveal itself as a tricky maze filled with traps, monsters and dead ends, not to mention broken mothers. I longed for some safe way through that labyrinth of conflicting, constricting emotions. The Super 8 movies I shot provided one avenue of escape.
Then, later that same summer of 1979 when my mom came home from the hospital, a stranger came to town — a new kid moved into the neighborhood. And a new path appeared to me.
JP and his family bought the house across the street from me. Not a ramshackle, creaky, 19th century New England colonial like mine, but a more modern one, with linoleum in the kitchen, wall-to-wall carpeting everywhere else, and a fully present, fully functioning father and mother.
I hung out a lot at JP’s house that summer. After a few weeks of watching “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” listening to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Discovery,” and programming primitive video games in BASIC on his TRS-80 Radio Shack computer, JP told me about Dungeons & Dragons.
“Elves?” I said one particularly hot afternoon as he cracked open the Basic D&D boxed set’s lid. “Like the Keebler kind?”
“No. Not little ones, doofus.” JP seemed a little miffed. “Have you read ‘Lord of the Rings’?”
“I saw the movie,” I countered. Ralph Bakshi’s half-baked, but still haunting, adaptation of Tolkien’s fantasy novel had come out the year before. I saw the cartoon on a trip to Boston to visit my mother in the hospital and it blew my mind.
“Well, D&D is kinda like ‘Lord of the Rings.’ Only you’re in the book. You’re in the movie. You choose what happens. You can be an elf, or a dwarf, or a human. You can be a wizard, or a fighter, or a thief. Even a cleric.”
I wanted to ask what a cleric was, but I kept my mouth shut. “A fighter. You mean like Conan? Or Strider?”
“Strider is more of a ranger. But yeah, you kill stuff. You’re the tank.”
I didn’t know what a ranger was either. All I could picture was the Lone Ranger, and the Texas Rangers. Mentally, I thumbed through my baseball card collection that my pet cat had recently peed on, ruining it. Neither of the Wild West or Major League Baseball universes seemed to be of use here.
“OK, I’ll be a fighter.”
JP handed me a pile of polyhedral dice — not just 6-sided dice, but 4-, 8-, 12- and 20-sided. I rolled as he instructed and before I knew it I had written six numbers on a sheet of loose-leaf paper, next to six categories that JP called attributes.
“Is 14 Strength good?” I asked. “Wait. He’s only got 5 for Intelligence.”
“He’s pretty strong,” JP said. “But he’s pretty dumb. You’ll have fun.”
Strong and dumb. This sounded like exactly the opposite of me, Ethan: about 5-foot-6, 130 pounds, a predictably good, B-plus/A-minus student, and never once tested in a real fight. Fun. “So now what happens?”
“Go to the store and get your equipment.” JP said my character had a few gold pieces to outfit himself.
This whole role-playing thing was new to me, but not to JP. Using words only — and in my mind, but also in the combined words and minds of JP and me — my fighter went shopping. Once in the “store,” in the “town,” my fighter (me) asked JP (who was the gamer referee, or the Dungeon Master) if he could buy himself a sword, a suit of chain mail, some torches, 50 feet of rope, a grappling hook, food (what JP called “rations”), a throwing dagger, a shield and a helmet. JP said he could. By the time he got out of there, my fighter had about six copper pieces left. JP told me to write down all these items on my character sheet. I dutifully complied.
“So now, you need to find the other adventurers,” JP said. “I’d suggest you go to the tavern.”
Go to the tavern. This was strange. D&D felt too much like little kid’s play, too much like make-believe. But I liked where this story was headed. “OK. I go to the tavern.”
“Good idea.” He smiled. “You push open the door. Inside, it’s gloomy. A fire crackles in the corner. You hear that a ship just docked in town, and a big battle against some nasty goblins just ended, so the place is full of tough-looking guys. There’s a dude in the corner with a funny hat. You might, you know, go over and talk to him.”
“I go over to the corner and talk to him.”
“Hello there, traveler,” JP intoned, with a kind of mysterious, Mr. Roarke from “Fantasy Island” voice. “I have heard of your exploits. You are a brave warrior.”
“I am? I mean, I am.” Maybe I could be a brave warrior. Even if I felt far from brave in the real world. “Yes, good sir, very brave.”
“Well, I have been assembling a group of worthy adventurers for a task.” JP looked up from his books and dice spread out around him on his bedroom’s pale green carpet. “Oh, how rude of me. I forgot to introduce myself,” Mr. Roarke continued. “My name is Malicus. Malicus the Wise, they call me. And your name?” JP raised one eyebrow, wizard-like.
I was sitting on the floor across from him, propped up against his bed. My fingers sunk into the soft fibers of the carpet. “My name is … My name is E … Ethor.” Ethan + Thor = Ethor. It was the best I could do.
“Well, Ethor,” Malicus said, “I know an Elvish archer named Quikpuck, a Halfling thief by the name of Slyfoot, and a cleric named Fabian the Just. The four of us have been hired by Lord Rathbane to investigate some mysterious happenings in the Krog Mountains above this port town. We have been told of treasure in a dungeon there. But also many men have died trying to get it. And these parts are overrun with goblins. We need a fighting man.”
“Uh huh. Well, Sir Mal … what is his name?” I whispered.
“Sir Malicus, I am not afraid of goblins. I have slayed many a … uh … Fell beast.” I had no idea where the phrase “fell beast” came from, but I was pretty proud of myself. I raised my arm in the air. “I will join you!” I was getting the hang of it.
“Very good. A stout warrior like yourself will come in handy. We leave at daybreak. You’d best get some rest, Ethor.”
It was way past dark. I could see, across the street, a square of light from my kitchen. The TV flickered like a blue flame. Mom would be wondering where I was. “I should probably go. Can we play again tomorrow?”
“Can I take this?” I held up Ethor’s character sheet.
“Sure,” JP said, his nose in a rule book, already onto the next thing. “I gotta plan the adventure anyway. Come over after dinner.”
I gathered my stuff and booked it across the street, hoping to get though the front door and sneak past my mom without her seeing me. Maybe like Slyfoot.
That summer, I kept making Super 8 movies, but D&D soon took over. It quickly became more than a game: It became a vital experience that let a geeky, introverted, non-athletic kid — a kid who felt about as powerful as a 3-foot hobbit on the basketball team — take action, be the hero, go on quests, and kill monsters. Not that all guys (and they were mostly guys in those days) who played D&D were geeky, introverted, non-athletic kids, but enough were, and at least this one felt invisible. With everything going on at home, perhaps I was the perfect candidate for escape. But I was also drawn to the idea of this game. I had always sensed that something was missing from the real world. My no-budget movies were one Band-Aid. But shooting my “Star Wars” remakes and clay monster battles took weeks and resulted in three-minute movies. Entering the D&D fantasy was effortless, instantaneous and endless. Epic.
I now see it was no accident that the year I found D&D, or it found me, coincided with my mother’s return from the hospital. It took courage for a teenage boy to deal with the Momster — more courage than I could muster at the time. I couldn’t face down the creature that plagued my own house. But playing D&D let me act out imaginary, possibly symbolic battles instead, and distracted me from the prospect of facing the real ones waged within my family’s four walls. In the D&D playscape, I learned to be confident and decisive, and feel powerful. Even cocky. Some of the guts and nerve and derring-do I role-played began to leak into my real world. By the time I graduated high school, I had transformed. I had used fantasy to escape but also to gather strength for later, when I could face and embrace my mother again. Which, as an adult years later, I finally did.
But in the summer of ’79, I was but a newbie. I needed to gain experience. I had only tasted the power Dungeons & Dragons. I didn’t know that game was about to save my life.
Back to those two archetypal narrative plots: someone goes on a journey; a stranger comes to town. That summer, two strangers came to town: JP, and my mother. Three, if you count me. I would become a stranger, myself, again and again. I would play many new roles. I would go on incredible journeys to imaginary lands. And I would defeat many monsters.
When I got home that night after my virgin D&D session, after slipping past my mother, I headed straight for Webster’s. “Cleric |ˈklerik|, noun. A member of the clergy; a priest or religious leader in any religion.” The next day, back at JP’s for another adventure, I would learn that in the D&D game world, clerics weren’t just priests. They were characters who had dedicated themselves to a god or perhaps several gods. They could cast spells such as “cure light wounds” and “protection from evil.” They could dispel the undead.
Surely those powers would come in handy, at home, or in my head, or in whatever life I would choose to live that summer, or in some realm far away in the future.
Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, critic, poet, teacher and 17th level geek. He wrote the award-winning travel memoir investigation “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. More info at ethangilsdorf.com or follow him on Twitter.More Ethan Gilsdorf.
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)