"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’d been sober a little over a year when I got the job. That was the minimum requirement: You had to at least have a year clean if they were going to hire you. I had achieved a year clean off IV crystal meth and heroin, and I saw the job at the posh rehab in Malibu as basically the best opportunity I was gonna get. After all I was just 21 at the time — a college dropout who’d already been in and out of four different rehab programs. My last job had been working at the juice bar of a funky, not-too-clean health food store in one of the sketchiest neighborhoods in L.A. They’d paid me whatever minimum wage was back in the early 2000s and, believe me, it wasn’t enough.
But the chichi treatment center in the Malibu hills promised to pay more than twice that salary, and, besides, it would afford me a certain kind of cachet — one lacking in the kitchen of the health food store I had recently abandoned. I mean, I was gonna be working at this rehab full of celebrities. That was something I could tell people with pride when they ask the first question everyone always asks in L.A., “So, what do you do?”
“I’m a Residential Technician at **** in Malibu,” I could say.
Well, at least it sounded cool.
In terms of what a “Residential Technician” actually did, if anything it was more like being a glorified baby sitter. You had to keep tabs on all the clients at all times, search their rooms and their persons, get ‘em to pee in cups for you, pass out medication, drive ‘em around to the gym or 12-step meetings, and, because these are the rich and famous we’re talking about, basically do whatever it is they ask.
I’d been to different county and hospital and low-end private places that seemed to operate on the philosophy that you had to be broken down before you could be built back up: There were always countless chores to be done, rules to follow, and punishments to be doled out.
But not so at ****, a tony facility nestled in Malibu that charged upward of $50,000 for a 28-day stay. For that kind of money, patients were understandably reluctant to do chores — or anything else they didn’t want to do. We did the chores for them. And as far as the rules went — well, they were really more like suggestions. There were no punishments. No one had to make their own bed or respect time limits on the phone or even cancel any appointments they had in the outside world. If some strung-out actor had a meeting with their agent — well, it was our job to drive ‘em there. If they wanted to barge into the office and use one of the counselor’s computers to check the security cameras at their house ‘cause they were convinced someone was breaking in, we had to let them do that, too. Basically, we weren’t allowed to ever say no to them. And, honestly, after a few months of working there, I was beginning to wonder if the whole thing wasn’t just some sort of scam — more like a resort with bonus clemency than a place where people actually learn how to change and face their feelings of self-hatred and inadequacy.
Because, in my mind, that’s what addiction really is — people trying to blot out the pain of being human with chemicals that inevitably just make the pain even worse. And what group of people as a whole could possibly be more insecure and hate themselves more than a bunch of actors and trust-fund kids? Both my parents were celebrity journalists, so believe me when I tell you that most actors live for attention and external ego stroking. And most trust-fund sons or daughters are constantly in need of validation that they are good enough and that people like them — really like them! — for who they are. Because how could they ever know? If you’re the child of a celebrity, how could you ever have confidence that the girl or guy you’re dating is with you for who you are or for who your parent is — and the access they get by proxy to fame and privilege? Believe me, these are some seriously fucked-up people. And that’s coming from the perspective of a seriously fucked-up person.
Addiction is like an epidemic among those people, so a lifestyles of the rich and famous rehab would inevitably be a goldmine. That’s especially true in this day and age when a stint in rehab is touted as the answer to everyone’s problems — as if a 30-day treatment center could erase a lifetime of bad decisions. From cheating on your wife to erupting in a racist tirade, rehab seems to be the quick fix every disgraced celebrity is looking for. And if you’ve got to go to rehab, a place like this up on the hill in Malibu is definitely the way to go. With five-star chefs, tennis courts, equine therapy, a swimming pool, and a staff of friendly Residential Technicians just like me on hand to do your every bidding — well, rehab doesn’t have to be much different from a month at the Beverly Hills Hotel. And while working there, I couldn’t help wondering if I was actually doing more harm than good.
As I said, at every rehab I ever went to, there was a strict set of rules and guidelines you had to follow, all in the name of trying to foster some sort of humility in a bunch of selfish, self-centered drug addicts and alcoholics. And for me, honestly, it really did work. Having to do chores, being told no, and being stripped of my freedom definitely made an impression. But the rich and famous clients at this place didn’t get any of that. One time, this actor guy from an HBO series stuck a piece of pizza crust from that night’s dinner into the lock of the med room door and when the tech on duty went back up there 10 minutes later, the actor had broken in and was riffling greedily through the many bottles of painkillers and anti-anxiety medications.
Now, at any rehab I went to, an act like that would’ve had me out on the street in a second, but not so here. The philosophy was, I suppose, that rich and famous people are used to a certain kind of treatment and, if they don’t get it, they will simply leave. That’s why the goal, above all else, was to just get them to stay. They could be detoxing so bad off alcohol that their whole body was going through seizures, but if they wanted their dry cleaning taken care of, one of us had to run right out and make sure it got done — and that the cleaners didn’t use too much starch. One ex-”Saturday Night Live” comedian made me drive him to a meeting with a director at the Grill in Beverly Hills, but because all the nice cars were taken, I had to take him in my tiny red-tin-can, oil-leaking Mazda 323, and he made me drop him off three blocks away so no one would see him arriving in such a déclassé little vehicle. And, of course, when some actor guy from a TV show way before my time overflowed the toilet, guess who had to wade into the bathroom to clean his mess up?
At any rehab I went to, special requests were automatically denied and any chance for humiliation was considered character building and good for recovery. And it was true. As an addict, I was a self-entitled bastard. Being in rehab and having to scrub the toilets and follow the rules really did help bring me down to size. But the clients here weren’t getting that. I actually felt sorry for them — like they were being taken advantage of and throwing away their $50,000.
But, on the other hand, I have to admit, I found myself getting kind of jealous, too. I mean, there I was, over a year sober, supposedly doing everything right, and yet I was the one having to take out some adult trust fund kid’s dry cleaning, eating the clients’ leftovers only after they were at least one day old. I was the one making their beds and driving them out to go see Lakers games. Once, one of the clients offered me $10,000 to give him one Klonopin. I refused but — I mean, I’d never had more than $2,000 in my bank account in my entire life. Honestly, being humble and sober didn’t seem anywhere near as much fun as being rich and in rehab. And I wasn’t the only staff member who seemed to be getting a little star-struck and envious. Other techs and even counselors would gossip about the clients in hush-hush terms every chance they got. We all knew who was worth what and where their money came from, and we spread rumors about impending intakes.
“Did you hear Britney Spears is checking in tomorrow?” I was told about 10 times over the course of working there (though, in truth, she never came at all).
Even the head of the entire program got into the action, saying to a woman just coming in with a collection of Louis Vuitton luggage, “Oh, perfect, wait here. I’ll get my LV bags and bring them in to keep your LV bags company.”
And then she actually did.
Of course, we all tried to play it down, going on and on to each other about how hard it must be for the clients, never knowing whether people actually liked them for who they were or because of their famous names and money. We pitied the trust fund kids because they’d never be able to emerge in their own light from the shadows left behind by their more successful parents. We told ourselves they’d never get sober, being pampered the way we were instructed to pamper them. We laughed when they complained about the food the five-star chef had prepared for them. We were more than happy to eat the leftovers as we shared stories about the awful steamed hospital mush we’d had to eat in our county detoxes and sober livings.
And we, the techs, did try to band together. We used to secretly trade the expensive coffee we were supposed to serve the clients with the cheap Folgers in a can coffee we were supposed to brew in the staff room. So we’d be drinking high-end coffee from some small batch roaster in Venice while they drank bulk supermarket coffee; more often than not, they’d compliment us on how good it tasted.
At night, when we were alone in the office, we’d read the clients’ different case files — especially the six-page questionnaire they had to fill out when they arrived. We’d laugh at how out of touch their answers were. Like when the trust fund kids would write that they identified their “main problem” as being that the executers of their family’s estate were too uptight and wouldn’t give them enough money. I remember one woman (who wasn’t a kid anymore, by any means, but was, nonetheless, still a trust fund kid), who insisted that her lawyers and executers came to the family group on Sunday so we could convince them to give her more money.
Oh, man, and those Sunday family groups really were something else. It was like a “Who’s Who” of Hollywood elite all sitting around in plastic folding chairs trying to figure out why their son or daughter or brother or sister or husband or wife had been throwing away their lives on drugs and alcohol. And we all laughed at that, too. Because it seemed so obvious. They were these huge celebrities who’d all had their fucked-up personal lives splashed across the pages of glossy grocery-store gossip magazines. We knew that the couple there with the teenage daughter in rehab were both on their third marriage and probably so preoccupied with their own careers that the poor girl never had a chance. We told ourselves that we pitied her.
We told ourselves that we pitied them all.
But secretly, I mean, deep down, I’m pretty sure we all would have given just about anything to trade places with them. That HBO actor guy who stole all the meds was so sick during his opiate detox, we had to hold him sitting up just so he could go to the bathroom. In a delirium, he broke into one of the “druggie buggies” (a fleet of Yukon XLs) and attempted to drive it through the locked gates. He was sick and rambling incoherently. But, still, it’s not like he ever had any consequences for his behavior. If anything, we just had to coddle him more after a scene like that — afterward, a bunch of us had to stay with him literally 24 hours a day. And when his girlfriend (another famous actor) came to visit, the staff was more concerned with asking her to reenact a scene from her famous movie than in telling her what her boyfriend (and the father of her child) had been up to.
So, yeah, not only did I watch them let him get away with absolutely anything, but I also knew damn well that at the end of the 30 days, that guy had his hot celebrity girlfriend to go back to and a house in Malibu and an action movie to promote that spring. And me? Well, I had my Mazda 323, a $400-a-month room in an apartment with an old man permanently fixed to a caving-in chair in front of a boxy old TV set that only got around 30-something channels. I was living paycheck to paycheck, working over 40 hours a week, and having to pick out cigarette butts from the planters around the rehab’s main house.
Honestly, however bad these rich folk had it, I gotta say, they didn’t really seem to have it that bad. And, besides, there was something glamorous about their self-destructiveness — something far more glamorous than what I’d thought would be my glamorous job working there. And, anyway, I hadn’t signed on to be the personal assistant to 20 or more spoiled rich people in the throes of chemical dependency. I’d thought I’d be working to help them, but after a few months, I was beginning to feel like we were just making things worse — both for ourselves and for the clients. What they needed from us was to tell them no. But, as it turned out, our jobs were just to add to their entourage of servile, sycophantic flatterers. We were like those plastic surgeons that continued to operate on Michael Jackson when it was obvious he’d already gone way too far. And, honestly, it came to wear on me pretty damn thin. I don’t have the figures or expertise to say how successful a treatment center like that one is at rehabbing its clients. All I know is that, for me, the environment grew to be about as toxic as they come. Living in LA is already a slippery slope to be negotiating for anyone trying to retain some form of sanity. But working there definitely pushed me right over the edge. Our collective idol worship brought me to dating an actress — the closest thing to a celebrity I could find — and the two us spent about six months shooting dope in her one-bedroom apartment in the Hollywood Hills. I lost my job, of course — or more like just stopped showing up — and found myself back in rehab again, but this time as a patient. And though the place I checked into wasn’t anything fancy, they definitely told me no a whole lot. They broke me down to build me up. And, honestly, I was grateful. Because I’d seen the other side. And for me, what can I say? It just didn’t work.
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)
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