"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 demand a lot from my life. I was one of those straight-A students in high school and most of my college years. I don’t know when it hit me — one of those slow realizations that came over the course of several afternoons. When I felt that both intellectually and emotionally I was suffocating inside those classrooms and dreading that a desk career was already materializing before me. I decided my senior year that I couldn’t handle it, and started looking at doing something more … alternative.
It’s not surprising for a 21-year-old who had been in school her entire life to want to be a little spontaneous. Ideas, plans, funds were starting to come into place; then when I least expect it, a month before graduation I meet someone. One of those someones that you can’t bear to part with at graduation. And young in our 20s — we had similar ideas about how to spend our post-graduate time. And we thought, Hey, this could work.
Five years later it seems to have worked. We’re still dating. There’s a hefty amount of long distance under our belts, but we’ve taken turns living in both India and New Zealand together while the other was on a great fellowship. We bounced across the U.S. as ski bums — working odd jobs, traveling and living. Yes, we were spoiled, and almost carefree.
But when he decided to go to law school that life ended.
I chose to spend his first year of law school away, working on a research project in Southeast Asia and finishing up a graduate degree. And now for his second year, we agreed I’d come back and look for a job in Boston where his law school is. And six months later, that’s what I’m still doing. While I’ve done a fair bit of temping during that time, I’m networked enough that I have my own calendar devoted to just that, and have even had some offers — nothing that’s worthwhile in my eyes has materialized.
Unfortunately, people I talk to who are in my field tell me that the place to be for my work is in D.C. (or back overseas — where I would love to be), and now that I’ve set my eyes on other locations the interviews are starting to float in — for jobs I’m excited about — of course none in Boston. Now this fellow of mine has been supportive, helpful and reassuring through this process. However, when I bring up the possibility of my leaving, it’s hard to talk about. We’ve done it before — months apart, emails, phone calls — we’re just as good at long-distance as we are living together. But he had thought my coming to Boston would be the end — no more distance (at least for a few years).
And me? It’s hard to say if the right job in Boston would end my frustrations. Sometimes I think it would, and sometimes I think I might be coming to terms with a new reality, that we are people who want two different lives and what worked when we were 21 won’t work now.
I am ready to jump on a plane again, but now I’m afraid he won’t be there when I get back.
I have made sacrifices for him besides coming to Boston. I delayed my fellowship. I’ve turned down some great opportunities to be with him already. Maybe I’m selfish to refuse to settle for work that I find unsatisfactory in order to live here with him. Is it something I should be prepared to do? This is the guy I thought would be the one I’d spend the rest of my life with.
Should I be happy with being in a loving relationship? Because the truth is, I don’t think that’s enough for me. I guess this is part of the balance that adults in love with separate careers have to figure out. But I feel that I’ve borne more of the weight already, and now law school is tying him down to one place and a set career for more and more years (he’s got a summer offer for a Boston firm, which will likely be his job when he graduates).
I don’t know what I’m afraid of the most, missing out on the great opportunities of my life in order to be with him, missing out on the great love of my life, or a third option. Which I think I really do fear: that after five years we’ve grown out of each other. That my alternative lifestyle isn’t enough for him, and living here in Boston with his career aspirations makes me feel like I’m missing out on mine.
I’m a spontaneous person; I act on what feels intuitively right. But with this, I don’t know how to act or what to do. It’s taken a toll on our relationship. Am I supposed to just settle? Or is it too much to ask him to accept that I might not be able to keep my Boston promise, and take off where there is good work to be found?
Unsettled New England Transplant
You don’t think being in a loving relationship is enough for you.
You said that, not me. So you know the truth about yourself. The question is, How do you live out that truth? What are you willing to sacrifice to be true to yourself? What risks are you willing to take to be true to yourself?
The older I get and the more I painfully survey the places I have turned away from my authentic self, the places I have been frightened or drunk or proud or lazy or confused and have made cynical or shallow choices, the more I look at it, the more I see both the hand of powerful yet invisible social forces and also the hand of my own unconscious, my own victim archetype, my own death instinct, my own drive to hover in darkness, to be less conscious, to avoid conflict, to pretend. So as I look at others and the profound choices before them, I sympathize with the horror of being wrong, and the fear of ending up in a chaotic mess. Still, I see now, one must choose what is right and real in the moment. You must choose based on who you are now, not on who you think you may become.
So far it has been easy for you to be true to yourself. As you get older it gets harder. It’s no less important, psychologically; you are not somehow less alive; it doesn’t get harder because you change. It gets harder because society’s tradewinds relentlessly push you back toward the herd. No one says it in so many words, but basically you are now expected to begin the long, sad process of giving up yourself.
And you don’t want to! And I don’t blame you! Why should you?
Social forces are hard at work hatching that baffling conformity that grinds up the outliers in all the social groups we pass through growing up. If you are lucky to be one of those who glide with frictionless grace through school and work and family, in perfect accord with those around you, then lucky for you. But if you are like you, or like me, then you are always battling these invisible social forces that work to strip you of your difference. If you are aware of these social forces and have analyzed why they exist — to maintain a certain economic and social order, to control resources, to ease the minds and consciences of the ruling class — you have a chance of defying these forces and staying true to yourself.
But no matter what, it isn’t easy.
This social force, this tireless, relentless, ever-increasing ratcheting-up of pressure for you to give up your ideals and enter the machine, this thing will work hard on you night and day. That’s what’s happening now. It’s time, say these invisible social forces, for you to settle down, for him to become a lawyer and get a house in Boston and for you two to become nice, respectable, well-educated, upper-middle-class contributors to society.
Lately I have had some time to think. At age 58, I can see that there were times I was running away from myself. There were times I was making choices that allowed me to shrink from the truth. I now see that there is a path, a true path, for each of us. We don’t have to take it, but it’s there. We may not recognize it, or we may see it but not believe it is correct, or not like what it says about us; we may see ourselves differently. But I believe we do know what is our correct path, what feels right in our bodies, what feels right deep within us.
We know. So it is a choice whether we follow our true path or not. We can choose to ignore what we know; we can refuse to pursue the truth about ourselves; we can follow a path that looks more conventional, that will please others, that will round out some proud narrative we have imagined for ourselves. We may find we are living our lives as a symbolic correction to family expectations or perceived curses; we may think we are going to show others the error of their ways or undo a historic wrong … whatever our inauthentic paths are, and there can be thousands, I do believe that even in a postmodern age each of us has the capacity to discern something genuine within.
I think you know what I am talking about. It’s plain as day to me.
In making big decisions we often give more weight to the risks than the benefits. I have read about this in economic decisions, where we so fear losing money that we miss the opportunities to make it. Our bias toward doing the less risky thing may at times lead us into lives of unexpected conformity and debilitating compromise.
So allow me to act as a countervailing force: I think you are going to be fine. You are resourceful, hardworking, adventurous, young and strong. If it’s not time to settle down yet, then don’t settle down. If you lose him, I am sorry. If he will not wait for you then that is how he has to live his life. There is nothing you can do about that. You have to live your life.
Greater riches await you if you steer your course precisely. Visualize these social forces as constant distorting trade winds, bending us always away from our true direction, so that we are always sailing past the island we think we’re sailing toward. If we do not constantly correct for these trade winds, instead of beaching on that tiny island we have dreamed of, we land at the big island where everybody else is, and we have to pay all those dock charges at the marina, and nothing seems quite right for us.
In short, for now, I counsel delaying. That might be the best course for now. Delay. Delay, and keep moving.
At some point you will reach a crisis and risk losing this man. If you are to live your own life you must be willing to let him go. That doesn’t mean you have to break up or that you have to lose him. Things might work out. Maybe he will come to you. But you must be willing to risk losing him; you must be willing to pay the price to preserve your own soul.
Losing him is better than losing yourself.
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)