"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’ve read stories from people who say they always knew they were attracted to the same sex, or that they figured it out at a young age. I’m not one of them. I had practically no idea until one night in my sophomore year of high school. I was at a basketball game, and the guys around me started pointing out cheerleaders from the other team they thought were hot. I began to wonder: Why wasn’t I looking at the cheerleaders that way? And why was I sometimes noticing the other team’s players instead? My heart rate quickened and my mind spun until a thought surfaced: This is what it means to be gay.
Only it couldn’t be. I was the All-American kid, or so I told myself – good grades, never in trouble, bright future, well-respected by my peers. My favorite comedian was Bob Newhart. After a trip to Cape Cod with a friend and his family, the kid’s mother said her favorite moment was watching “straitlaced Steve” struggling to make sense of all the hedonism around him when we drove out to Provincetown. I remember seeing drag queens and men dressed in skimpy attire and thinking to myself: Get me out of here so I can watch a baseball game.
I just didn’t fit the stereotypes of gay men. I was an ESPN addict as far back as elementary school. I’d also had early crushes on girls. So my epiphany at that basketball game was as sudden as it was incompatible with my self-image. I fought it relentlessly.
My confidence would swell each time I convinced myself a girl was attractive – and it would crater whenever a guy provoked a much stronger, more instinctive response. I searched for loopholes. What if I’d rather sleep with an attractive member of the opposite sex than an ugly member of my own? Would that make me straight, or at least straight enough? Maybe I could find a butch straight girl — someone with short hair, androgynous features and a fondness for guys’ clothing. Was that the trick?
Eventually, I learned how to compartmentalize. I didn’t have to spend all day fighting my urges; I could just ignore them in public and acknowledge them in private, fleeting moments. I went to the prom with a girl my mother hoped I’d end up with. (The next year, she told me she was gay. I thanked her for telling me, and never gave a hint that we shared something in common.) Back then, at 17, a year still felt like forever, and the idea of being 35 or 40 seemed ridiculously far off – distant enough for me to tell myself that everything would take care of itself and I’d end up married to a woman.
By the time I got to Boston University, I’d buried my secret so deep that I barely thought about it when I was with my new friends. It was contained. Well, mostly. My outlet was online chat rooms, and I kept strict rules: Never give my real name, never give out a phone number, never show a picture, always use a fake email address. There could be no paper trail. This worked until my junior year, but my curiosity grew: Maybe I could arrange to meet someone. Just once. Someone I was sure I’d never, ever see again.
I found my mark on a Friday night in late October 2000. I was in the chat room and about to log-off when a private message flashed on my screen. He was in his early 30s (or so he claimed) and lived in an older neighborhood far from campus. I didn’t see a picture, but his description sounded good enough. I told him I wanted discretion, that I didn’t want to do anything risky, and that it would be a one-time thing. He told me to come over.
The news radio station was playing a report on the Bush-Gore race as I squeezed into an on-street parking space near the Oak Square section of Boston. I fought the impulse to drive away. But I took a breath and stepped out of the car. When I saw him for the first time, I had one immediate thought: Run. Instead, I stuck out my hand and lied: “I’m Chris.” I think he mumbled that his name was Brian. Was it possible I somehow had more confidence than him? “Wheel of Fortune” was on the television, and the living room smelled like my Great Aunt Nitzie’s. I lied again: “Nice place.” He motioned toward the back, where his bedroom was. I’m still too Catholic to add much more here, but suffice it to say: It was quick, I didn’t do much, and I felt dirty, degraded and embarrassed the whole time.
When I got home, I took off my clothes and threw them in the trash. I never slept that night, not even for a minute.
It was three years before I did anything more. I worried that I’d contracted a disease. I worried that I’d run into the guy and be exposed. Boston never felt like a smaller town. So when my friend Dave suggested we drive out to L.A. after graduation, I jumped at the chance to put 3,000 miles between me and what I’d done. The trip was short, but by the time I got back I had calmed down. Around that time, I caught a break I’m still grateful for – the chance to write about politics and do a cable TV show in New Jersey. It was the perfect way to break into political journalism: My career was now on track. I didn’t date girls, but my work life – weird hours, driving all over a state that was brand-new to me — provided a good cover. If anyone in New Jersey asked me about my love life, I told them about a girl back in Boston; if anyone in Boston asked, I told them I was having fun but that there was nothing serious. I almost came to pride myself on my deception. When a female politician told me she wished she had a daughter to set me up with, I patted myself on the back: I was the guy I’d always wanted to be.
But my curiosity overtook me again. Several times, I arranged to meet up with guys online, but I would lose my nerve and flee, never returning their confused emails. At the end of 2003, after what amounted to a months-long negotiation, I gave in with a grad student at Princeton. The bad news was that he wasn’t what I’d expected. The good news was that I didn’t freak out afterward. I just put the memory in the ever-expanding gay compartment, and went back to living my “straight” life.
I became comfortable emailing out my picture, talking on the phone. So much for not leaving a paper trail. Misleading my friends came to feel natural. I even met up to grab coffee with some guys, which is how I met Brian. He seemed amazingly normal. We talked about football the whole time. I found myself hoping we could get dinner or go to a movie. Dating, I think it’s called. He wasn’t interested in anything serious, but I’d glimpsed a new possibility. There had to be others like him. And it was then that I made a promise to myself: If I ever got into a real relationship, that’s when I would tell everyone the truth.
My work life took me to New York, where I continued my Internet habits. But I discovered that I’m picky — at least 95 percent of my online conversations would end without any meeting. If someone exhibited stereotypically gay behavior, it would spark my own fear of exposure. One of the early meet-ups was particularly awful. He greeted me with an exaggerated hug and a big, flamboyant personality. I escaped quickly, and cursed myself all the way home. What are you doing?
By my 30th birthday in August 2009, my limited online world was becoming predictable, the same stale email addresses and profiles over and over again. I told friends my new plan was to stay single until I was 65, at which point I’d need a wife to call the ambulance when I’d inevitably slip in the shower. It was a joke, I guess.
And then I met someone who was in a similar situation. Or actually, I re-met him. Dan and I hung out a couple of times several years earlier, and I’d liked him. But the timing hadn’t been right. This time, we met for a drink on a Friday night, and for three hours we sat in a booth at an Irish pub near Union Square. I couldn’t wait to see him again. (Dan is not his real name, by the way.)
For the first few weeks, we met at bars halfway between our apartments. I’d walk him back to his neighborhood across town just to have 20 more minutes around him, then walk a full 40 minutes back to my place. Our first non-bar date was at a movie theater. My hand brushed against his after the lights went out, and I held it until the film was over. It was the simplest thing – who doesn’t do that at 16? – but it was brand-new to me. There was no better feeling in the world.
He was attractive, smart and funny, with a manner that was cool and relaxed. He could be quick with a playful verbal jab. I shared my dreams, my failures, and my many irrational fears. He listened and cared. When I’d feel sorry for myself, he’d give me a kick instead of pouting along with me. If I needed a boost, he’d pick me up. And when I’d start taking myself too seriously, he’d find a way to make me laugh at myself. His instincts were perfect. I trusted him completely and drew tremendous comfort from him. He wasn’t outwardly sentimental, but sometimes he’d let his guard down and let me see his vulnerabilities. I felt close to him.
We talked daily. I spent more and more time at his apartment. I felt great about myself and hopeful about the future. I wanted to go back and tell the 15-year-old version of me to just be patient – that it would all make sense when I met Dan.
I began thinking about my old promise to tell my family and friends if I ever made it into a real relationship. I also knew something important about myself: The longer I stayed on the diving board, the less likely I was to jump off. So I made a gentle suggestion to Dan: I’m not just OK with people knowing, I want people to know. But Dan wasn’t out yet either, and I was caught off-guard when he told me to slow down.
We remained close, but Dan’s work schedule changed. Even though we spent most nights together, he came home late, tired and preoccupied. It was the nature of his job, but I also grew frustrated, and I began regressing. The fear crept back: What if this doesn’t last? What if I end up alone? As I questioned the security of my relationship, I reestablished my old comfort zone with ease. I was straight during the day while spending my nights with Dan.
You can probably guess what happened next: Dan’s work life calmed down, and he became more serious about his personal life. Meanwhile, I was trying to have it both ways, keeping things going with him but paranoid of anyone finding out. Sometime in late 2010, he began telling people he was gay. His parents visited, and he invited me to meet them. I wouldn’t. He’d text me while hanging out with friends he’d told and ask me to tag along. I’d decline. I honestly didn’t want things to end with him. But I’d been on the diving board too long.
The permanence of saying yes to Dan paralyzed me. The minute I told someone, anyone, there’d be no taking it back. His persistence also provided a perverse subconscious incentive that I only now recognize: As long as he was interested in me, I didn’t feel any pressure to face my fears – not when he’d just keep calling me anyway.
You may be wondering why I was so afraid. It’s 2011, after all, and I live in Manhattan, surrounded in social and professional settings by gay people. It’s not like I come from a morally judgmental family; I never feared my parents or other relatives turning their backs on me. But 17 years of fear and hang-ups can be hard for a person to shake.
My friends were confused about me, but I’d throw them off my trail by embracing the persona of a cynical, slightly neurotic fatalist. My buddies would urge me to approach an attractive girl at a bar, and I’d tell them it wouldn’t be worth it – not when I was liable to wake up with a sexually transmitted disease. Friends would try to set me up with girls and I’d remind them that most marriages quickly devolve into loveless, soul-crushing arrangements. They didn’t think I was interested in any kind of relationship – straight or gay.
In a way, I can’t even explain why I kept this part of myself private for so long. But whenever I would contemplate a change, I would think back to my youth, and the fathers, teachers and coaches who had been my adult role models, all of them old-fashioned family men. How could I possibly be so different?
It hurts now to think how long Dan kept trying – how long he kept believing in me even when I disappointed him repeatedly. He’d hint at his dissatisfaction, and I’d play dumb. One night in March of this year, he called my bluff in the middle of the night. “I think we need to take a break,” he said. A break. That’s just what I needed, I figured – a chance to work through my issues on my own, then come back to him when I was finally ready. It was tough leaving his apartment the next morning, but it didn’t feel final. In the back of my mind, I knew we’d get back together.
And that was my fatal error. Believing on some level our relationship would be there when I was ready led me to rationalize and procrastinate. I missed him immediately and was constantly tempted to tell him. Instead, I’d wait another week, and then one more. In October, I reached out to him with a vague invitation for a drink or dinner, which I’d been doing occasionally since March. I was starting to realize just how much time had passed. He took his time responding this time, suggesting we could catch up the next week. He seemed less eager to hear from me than before. Gee, I wonder why.
At dinner, I made polite, boring talk at the table – no mention of our past, of my feelings, of what was really on my mind. I was in Straight Steve mode. Afterward, I stalled all the way to the subway, when I finally asked if we could talk back at his place. I don’t think he was thrilled with the request, but he obliged. Somehow, I felt I could save this all by telling him I missed him. Instead, he told me he appreciated that, but nothing had changed. I’d been the same way in public before our break. By now, he was dating people and enjoying a more open romantic life. He hoped one day we’d be able to hang out as friends.
I stammered, mumbled something, and generally made a fool of myself, then told him I’d leave. He didn’t stop me. And it finally dawned on me: It was over. I walked home flooded with an urgency I should have felt back in March. I was crazy about him and the choice was easy. But I’d figured it out too late.
When I got home that night, I composed a long, heartfelt email. No reply. I left him a voice mail a few days later. By that point, I just seemed desperate.
I hate what I put Dan through, and I hate that I deprived myself of a chance to be with the person who made me feel proud of who I am. As the sadness and finality set in, my instinct was to play back the tapes in my mind — all the little ways I let him down. Regret is one thing I’ve always done well.
But this time I stopped myself. There weren’t a thousand little reasons why things had ended up like this. There was one big one. If I couldn’t stand up to the fear that had gripped me since high school, regret would become my permanent condition.
So I junked the old cop-out about waiting until I was in a relationship to come clean, and one by one I sat down with friends, family and co-workers and let them know the real story about me. Some conversations were quick, others were more involved, but all of them felt good. One buddy listened to me, cracked a few jokes, and then started talking about football. “You’re still going to be the Steve who’s obsessed with random teams, right?” he asked. Of course.
And that’s the point. This isn’t the start of some brand-new life. I actually like a lot about the one I already have. But now the fear and paranoia are gone. And my life can finally make sense to the people who matter to me.
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornackiMore Steve Kornacki.
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)