"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)
“Forgive me for being nosy, but are you back around here and working at _____?”
I closed the message without replying.
“Here” was the town where I grew up. Population 9,800. The message was from a high school friend, and while I felt guilty for the radio silence, I wasn’t ready to acknowledge that, yes, I was back around here.
The road back was a familiar, albeit rocky one. The nonprofit where I worked fell on hard recessionary times; those of us who had been employed as contract workers didn’t have our deals renewed after our projects ended — in my case, one that had taken me to far-flung corners of the globe. Undaunted by this, I took it as a sign that I should move to an even bigger city and try my luck there. Months passed; the dream job (or any full-time job at all) didn’t materialize, and the freelance lifestyle began to feel less like an experiment in entrepreneurialism and more of an exercise in underpaid exhaustion. The final straw came when my apartment building was felled by the continent-wide bedbug epidemic. It was only after I divested myself of most of my worldly possessions and traded my mattress for the bathtub — the tap dripped all night and my hips killed me each morning — that I knew something had to give. When my parents suggested for the 62nd time that I consider staying with them for a while, I bought a one-way ticket and showed up on their doorstep with two suitcases to my name.
That night, I climbed into the same childhood bed my sister and I used when we were toddlers. “This isn’t as small as I expected” was my final thought before falling asleep.
My mother was the reason I found a job back home. In between freelance assignments, I’d been sending out a flurry of résumés for positions in all corners of the country. She showed me a job ad in the daily paper (the Valentine’s Day issue of which featured the story of man who had found a potato in the shape of an anatomically correct heart) indicating that a local plant was back in business under new management and looking for an addition to its strategy team. Not wanting to hurt her feelings, I sent in my résumé and didn’t give it much more thought. Until I got called for an interview. Until I aced that interview. Until the head of H.R. emailed to offer me the position.
I told myself it was a temporary fix, a way to get out of the house and get my career confidence back, pad my résumé and bank account a bit while I waited for bigger and better opportunities. I told myself that as I drove to work every morning, listening to Gillian Welch and Ryan Adams as I dodged potholes. I told myself that as I ducked former high school teachers and the parents of old friends in the hardware store because I didn’t want to face their questions about why I was back around here. I told myself that as I stood in the supermarket’s single aisle of alternative food products and contemplated whether the cashier would judge me for spending $8 on a bottle of organic, sulfate-free shampoo.
But then, something funny happened. My job took off. I wasn’t killing time and collecting a paycheck. I was negotiating contracts, doing market research, attending conferences and closing deals. Life in what amounted to a start-up atmosphere, but with a lot more heavy machinery, was a natural fit for my work style. I looked forward to going into the office on Monday, because I knew this week would be completely different than the last. I felt valued and appreciated by my colleagues. My boss would often message me with the single word “HELP” and know that I would materialize in his doorway momentarily to sort things out, often by soothing an irate supplier or strategizing with our legal counsel. He told me he’d be lost if I ever left. In a struggling economy and in an area that was no stranger to persistent unemployment, I had the best job of my (admittedly short) career.
So, why wasn’t I happy? Why wasn’t this enough? Why did I refuse to consider my current circumstances as anything other than a pit stop on the way to something else? These questions became my new obsession. At first, I thought I was just being a snob, refusing to let go of my longing for city living and romanticizing about grocery store sushi and public transit. I worried I was suffering from an advanced case of ungrateful wretch syndrome, wherein if every aspect of my life wasn’t picture-perfect, the things that were working well didn’t even matter. It’s a common affliction within my generation and one that had been the subject of countless discussions, both virtual and over drinks with peers. We alternately embraced and dismissed the idea that happiness resembled a jigsaw puzzle and that we could only lay claim to it once we’d carefully laid all of the pieces — careers, relationships, sense of self — into their rightful place. But it was more than that this time. What I really missed was the space to be undecided and still seeking — and to be surrounded by people who felt the same way.
One afternoon, I was having a beer with a co-worker when the topic turned to our future. “Realistically, how much longer is Joe going to hang in there?” he asked me. “Two or three years max. He retires, I take his job, get a pay bump. I could live with that.”
He was also a recent returnee, having spent the last few years working abroad. It was a fact, along with being roughly the same age, that bonded us, at least at a superficial level.
“What about long-term plans?” I asked.
I was hoping he’d confess to being unmoored, to feeling as if the idea of personal potential is so vast and spreads in so many directions that he too worried about ever being able to nail it down and to meet it in a way that felt as we were justifying every carpe diem wish that had been made for us as we were growing up. Were these the thoughts that he turned over in his head before falling asleep at night? I’d been hoping to get an answer like that ever since coming home, but the conversation always ended the same way. I always came away disappointed at failing to scratch the surface and find a kindred spirit in the sort of emotional and intellectual dilettantism that was most familiar and comforting to me. If you had questions, you should have gotten your answers before you came back. No one comes home to find themselves seemed to be the unspoken message in each response.
“Pay off my mortgage in 15 years,” he said. “Honestly, that’s it. I don’t want that hanging over me forever. Everything else will just fall into place.”
When he asked me the same question in return, I mumbled something about more school, maybe. Eventually getting married, having kids. He advised me that the prospects in that regard were limited here. I should probably get out now. And wouldn’t more school mean competing with 20-year-olds?
“Nah, you couldn’t pay me to do that again,” he declared as he drained his glass.
We returned to discussing the stray cats that hang around our office building.
I realized that I had never seen him demonstrate even a moment of existential angst in our time working together. Frustration or exasperation, but never any doubt that this is where he should be and what he should be doing. Small-town life doesn’t attract searchers and seekers, I’ve figured out. It attracts people who know what they want already. They come or stay here with purpose. The time for thinking about living is over. Now is the time to get on with it. My colleague had his fun out in the world. Now, he was trying to cut back on his drinking and buying land to build a house. He’d even adopted a dog. I’d hear him talking about fluctuations in his Apple stock through the wall between our offices. By contrast, I hadn’t replaced any of the furniture I parted with, hadn’t bought a car or looked at houses or even changed my cellphone number. I was living in self-imposed limbo because I was afraid that committing to this job and this place would be a signal that I had accepted this iteration of me as the final draft — and I was pretty sure that it wasn’t.
As difficult and draining as the last year had been, I’d also spent it rushing headlong into adventures — enrolling in circus school, training to be a life coach, attending and writing about political protests, traveling solo, having silly photo shoots in the park with friends. The potential for these things was what I missed more than a whole city full of vegan coffee shops and live music shows. Moving back home put an end to that sense of spontaneity and my belief that things were always on the verge of getting dramatically better or dramatically worse. I’d grown accustomed to that uncertainty, an uncertainty that didn’t exist in the town in which I spent my formative years. Things here were settled. It took coming back and sliding into a grounded, fully formed life to make me realize how much a grounded, fully formed life — even one that included a 401K — wasn’t really what I wanted and that I still wasn’t quite ready to define my potential once and for all.
A few months later, I ran into a local reporter at an industry workshop. After hearing a little bit about my background since college, he suggested writing a profile on me: prodigal daughter works all over the world only to end up happily ensconced back where she started. I wanted to tell him that I doubted his readers would settle for a narrative without a neatly defined ending, that the prospect of To Be Continued in some other fashion and some other place was what I was pinning all my hopes on these days.
Instead, I declined politely and suggested he talk to my colleague.
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)