"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)
It’s winter 2009. I’m in a liquor store. My 6-month-old son scans the rows of bottles with his big eyes. He says, Tat-tat-tha-tha under his breath. It feels like I’m holding mine, but I let myself relax since I haven’t been in this particular location before, a wonderland of color and crystal. Usually, I make this errand run a quick in-and-out. Maybe I’m being paranoid, but I think people tend to notice the stroller.
Five months ago, I started drinking again after being sober for three years. Since then, I’ve developed so much paranoia. I feel watched all the time, even in the dark. Walking home, I stay behind buildings, in alleyways, like a criminal, pushing the stroller as I take my discreet sips from a bottle of wine I’ve stored on the bottom of the diaper bag. I know I’m the worst of all villains: a mother who drinks. A mother who endangers her child. Part of me drinks to forget this.
We don’t like to think about drunken moms. But the subject came up recently with the tabloid story of 10-month-old baby Lisa, who disappeared in Kansas, Mo. Earlier this month, it came out that her mother, Deborah Bradley, was in a drunken blackout on the night of the baby’s disappearance. Bradley defended her drinking as “having grown-up time” and went on to say, “There’s nothing wrong with me doing what I want to do after dark.” I have no idea if Bradley’s consumption had anything to do with what happened to her daughter — but I know that story gave me chills.
I relapsed a month after giving birth to my son. We were having a party to celebrate his arrival in the world and people brought over alcohol. That night, I picked up a glass of bubbly and gulped it like it was ginger ale. “It’s a special occasion,” I said to my partner, who knew of my past as an alcoholic. One of our friends told him to chill, that all parents drank because babies were hard to deal with. The friend even brought up that joke about unpublishable books for children: Mommy drinks because you cry.
“Exactly. Baby cries, I drink,” I said. “Besides, I’m just going to have one glass.”
I had five or six, in secret. At one point, I tiptoed tipsily up to my son’s nursery to show him off, sleeping, to a happy guest, but I felt embarrassed to touch the baby with my drunken fingers. “Let’s just watch him,” I said, and as we stared and oohed, I marveled at how easily I just annihilated these years of sobriety. Then again, I was just celebrating. It was just that one time.
Except it wasn’t. As a new mother I was thrust into the daily routine of thankless tasks: changing, feeding, bathing, napping, burping, bouncing, dressing, undressing, changing, napping, feeding … It was so repetitive, and though I was so busy, it felt like I had too much time. Time with the baby kept stretching, and it dawned on me that this was for life, that I always had to be there for this tiny person. I became obsessed with the thought that I couldn’t just get up and go, slam the door behind me and come back when I felt like it. So I left the best way I knew how: I started drinking again.
I had to develop a routine. During the day, I would take my son for walks and I would go to different liquor stores close to where I lived and buy a bottle of wine and a mickey of vodka. Outside, I’d look at other moms and we would smile at each other passing with our strollers. I had a bottle of wine in my diaper bag and a mickey of vodka behind the lining of my purse. A plastic bag on the bottom of the stroller with a couple of empties that needed to be thrown out. Did other moms have the same cargo? I mean, how did they deal with the tiresome nature of motherhood? But their smiles looked genuine, and they often walked in pairs. I didn’t. I was lonely, afraid to make mommy friends because I worried that my secret would come out.
I had an inkling I wasn’t the only one. For example, I was aware of the alcohol-friendly parties a distant friend, Tamara, threw where mommies brought their babies for a play date while they shared a bottle of wine or two. “Everybody needs a break from diapers, don’t they?” Tamara wrote in her evites. Mommies and drinking — it was almost a trend. I justified my drinking when I saw media coverage of cool blogs like Vodka Mom, Mommy Needs A Cocktail, where mommies would defiantly share charming stories of boozing up after a day with a baby. I’m just part of a movement, I’d think, and stop to get my baby’s bottle and take a discreet sip out of the mickey as I hid behind the stroller canopy. I chose to ignore the fact that some of these famous drunken mommies got sober too, and the fact that I actually never went over to Tamara’s because I couldn’t possibly share a bottle of wine. Share? What’s that?
I was much more serious about my drinking. After a whole day with my son, after he and my partner would go to sleep, I’d dive deep into my closet, where I’d fish out my liquid treasures and I would begin the best part of my daily routine. My partner was an early sleeper, but if he wasn’t in bed yet, I’d keep my bottle on the deck in the potted plants with wild meaty leaves and clusters of thin trunks in which you could easily hide a 750ml or even 1 L. I’d drink on the deck when (officially) going out for a cigarette. I picked up smoking, too, mostly because the smell masked what was really on my breath.
Usually, I had a two-hour window, from 9 till 11 p.m., when I would feel invincible and interesting and very drunk. I’d watch TV shows on my computer, chat with people online, call old friends to drunkenly give them reports on the wonders of motherhood. I would listen to sad songs on YouTube and feel as if everything related to me. Then I would pass out on the couch. I’d usually come to around 1 or 2 a.m., still half in the bag but well enough to crawl back into bed. When my son would wake up, I’d give him a bottle I’d prepared earlier. I’d change him around 4 or so when I was just arriving at the first throes of hangover. But some nights I wouldn’t wake up. My son would wail and my partner would try to wake me, but I’d stay unconscious. Thankfully, being a crafty drunk mom, I would’ve had stocked up on infant formula and pumped enough ahead of time so he’d be able to feed while mommy slept off the effects of booze.
As a drunk mom, I became knowledgeable about how alcohol could interfere with nursing. My nine-to-11 time slot was very deliberate. I wouldn’t breastfeed my son after drinking, and I became an expert in milking myself and bought three different breast pumps. I regularly checked charts online to figure out how much time I needed off before breastfeeding. I didn’t drink every night either, because I tried to maintain the illusion that I wasn’t that bad. Sober, I’d breastfeed morning till night, exhilarated that I could sustain my son’s life with my own body. I felt pure. Godly. Why do I even drink? I’d think and swear it all. Except that the next day it would be gloomy outside and I’d find myself going for a walk to the liquor store again.
I started going out of my way, because I believed people were onto me. I worried the cops would stop me and ask to see the diaper bag. A panhandler in front of my regular liquor store started greeting me with “How’s it going today?” I avoided that place and, in my head, developed a map that plotted out all the liquor stores within a 10-kilometer distance. As I walked, I imagined the points on the map lighting up in red. I walked so much I developed cramps in my calves. When I’d get to a store, I’d get two bottles, telling the cashiers I was having a party, telling myself that it was for later so that I wouldn’t have to make this humiliating trip again. I’d never save the bottle for later. Which is why sometimes I wouldn’t breastfeed for two days in a row. My partner and my sister filled in when I was too incapacitated to do my job as a mother, using formula and breast-pumped milk. My sister wrote me a letter begging me to stop, just like in one of those “Intervention” shows, and my partner threatened to kick me out of the house more than once, but nothing was stopping me. I was so angry at them for being mad at me; the only thing I could do was drink more.
What began to stop me were the stairs. Especially the tall, narrow stairs that led to my son’s nursery and down from the nursery. I imagined myself on my way up to the nursery, drunkenly tripping, falling with the baby my arms. Or on the way down, letting him slip out of my arms, tumbling, crashing … splat. Coming out of blackouts in the middle of the night, I’d fall into nightmares about those stairs. I kept telling myself that it was just the question of time before I missed a step. I did my best to never carry my son after I was drinking, but I worried that I’d lose my inhibitions. I’d get some drunken inspiration to parade with him up and down the stairs like a maniac. I drank over those fears too, but as my son started getting older and more mobile, more squirmy, I could no longer ignore the fact that by drinking I was condemning us both for certain injury or death. The nightmares would become reality.
I got sober four days after my son turned 1, after months of secrets, tears, paranoia and a stint in rehab. After my partner temporarily but definitely kicked me out of the house, and after I went back to the 12-step program. The shame has never left me, but I’m slowly getting over it. The only thing that remains from that period is that I still I look at other moms on my walks now. Healthy-looking yoga ones and the ones like rock stars with tattoos and lipstick, and the sporty ones that wear no makeup, and I wonder how many of them are carrying empties on the bottom of their strollers. Do they think it’s normal to unwind with a glass of wine after a difficult day with a baby and if yes, how many out of those unwind to the point of blacking out? Maybe none. Maybe I was truly alone.
A few nights ago my son was up half of the night. He was chattering and crying and giggling and at one point literally stood on his head in the crib with little, chubby feet above the edge, against the wall. He was shouting about heffalumps, asking if they lived in the closet and demanding to have them put in a heffalumps-destroying machine. I put the heffalumps in the heffalumps-destroying machine while trying to stifle laughter. I felt drunk but from exhaustion. I finally calmed him down by patting him on the back, for what seemed like hours. He fell asleep holding onto my other hand and smiling. And I kept thinking what it would be like if I had been passed out somewhere.
When people ask me why I relapsed after giving birth, I have a hard time pinpointing exactly, but I know I had this illusion that I had a way out from being a mother, that this was my well-deserved grown-up time. In the end, I was lucky my maternal instincts were stronger than the desire to check out and that I don’t need to drink over the fact that it’s so hard sometimes — because I will miss out on all the parts that make it beautiful, too, if I do.
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)