"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)
Well first of all, man, I’ve never done something like this, ever, so it’s kinda scary. But here’s the deal. I’m a guy and when I was in the fourth grade, age 10 I suppose, I was raped. I was raped by my dad. It wasn’t good, to say the least. I suffered some damage to my anal sphincter muscle then which is with me to this day. Of course, not as bad; it’s healed but there is a leftover consequence. After that happened things went from bad to worse in my family. All the gory details aren’t necessary for the purpose of this letter.
Anyway I think that I have suffered something like maybe post-traumatic stress from that time. I am now gay, and yeah maybe that’s an attempt at workin’ this whole sorry shit out. I’ve thought about that. In fact I fought being gay for most of my life because I really truly saw it as just fuckin’ evil madness. That’s true. In my earlier years I sorta made a pact with myself that I’d off myself if I ever acted on my impulses.
But it wore me down I guess and I gave in. Now I’ve talked to some counselors about this, really just hints and not the full story. For years and years I couldn’t even talk about it at all. But then I tried and no sooner than I’d start I’d break down and just sit there and bawl like a baby, totally unable to go on. And I was all grown up then. So I’ve never ever told anyone the full fuckin’ story from beginning to end. The thing about counselors is that in my opinion they are just doin’ their job, that they really don’t give a shit about me, at least in the way that I want. And I’d die before I’d ever tell a woman because they would just get all motherly on me and treat me like a child, a fuckin’ baby. No, I always figured that if I told someone, really told someone and not just throw out hints, that it would have to be a guy. I think that a guy would get it more and that I’d get the response that I want, which is basically, “Man! that fuckin’ sucks! I’m sorry you had to go through that shit!” End of story.
Now I want to know just why I have this overwhelming urge to tell somebody, to come clean? This fuckin’ urge drives me nuts. I always thought that when I found the right guy, Mr. Right, that he would be the guy I told. But I haven’t found that guy yet. I’ve thought about seeing another counselor and being completely open and honest when I do, but truthfully I have no stomach for that. I’ve had both good and bad counselors in my life. They’re not all good. Plus I’d be just another interesting, at best, case in their career. So like I fought being gay, now I’m fighting this maddening urge to really open up. I don’t know why? Talkin’ about the past can’t change it! It’s fuckin’ done with! I don’t want anybody to “do” something about it because nothing can be done! But it seems to haunt me all the time.
I now have this friend, a straight guy, whom, I guess, that I can say that I love. Not in a gay way. I’m not into him that way, but more like a brother. When I started coming out, especially at work, I had some good experiences and, of course, some bad. I found that my women friends could roll with it much better, but my guy friends had a real difficult time. Even though I told them straight out they would deny it and act like I was totally wrong. You see, I’m, as they say, “straight acting, straight appearing.” The trouble is that I figure that I’ve been gay since junior high. Some of my friends are now, at best, my former friends, but this guy whom I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph stuck by me. Later when I tried to end our friendship because I figured that no straight guy could ever really get a gay guy, he told me to “fuck off, he was gonna be my friend no matter what the fuck!” Man, you can’t help but love a guy like that. But anyway, I’ve been thinkin’ about tellin’ this guy, this friend, my story, but I’m really really afraid of loading him down. I love the guy. I don’t want to do anything wrong here. So some days I feel close to tellin’ him but other days an alarm goes off in my head and says, “Don’t! don’t fuckin’ do it!”
If I really love the guy then I’ll do what’s best for him, not what may give me some relief. So my question or questions: Why am I plagued with this urge to open up, to spill my guts, to bleed in public? And: What should I do about it? Ignore it? Wait and see if our friendship can take it? You’ll probably say see another counselor. That truly is last on my list. I’d rather ignore and fight it than go through that shit again.
Well man, I appreciate your ear. And I’ll appreciate any thoughts on this fucked up story. You know, it’s pitiful but I think I may know the answer, man. I’ll see if you agree with me. But probably the right answer is: Just hang in there, keep your mouth shut, and find Mr. Right! Because it’s just not about tellin’ your story, it’s about finding love. Oh Jesus! What a fucked up world!
Love ya, man. Keep doin’ good!
Sign me “Steve,” there are a lot of fuckin’ Steves in this world!
Oh P.S.: Now don’t think of tellin’ me to go straight! I had this counselor once who told me, “You’re NOT gay, you’re just hurt!” I thought, “Tell that to my dick!” No man, I’m gay, no doubt about it! And after all this time I’m just startin’ to be happy with it. It’s startin’ to feel really good.
We’re not just mechanical beings. We live in a moral and spiritual universe and you had a moral and spiritual crime done to you and so you’re in a moral and spiritual hell. And that’s the truth. And you’ve glimpsed what it might be like to start climbing out of that hell, and you want to climb out of that hell, but you’re scared, and I don’t blame you. There are a lot of cruel, ignorant, unfeeling people in this world who cannot deal with the truth of others’ suffering.
Some people could not deal with this. But then there’s this friend of yours. He is genuinely a good person. You can tell him. He’s not going to walk away from you. He probably already senses your pain. For all we know, he may have a story of his own to tell. So I say find a quiet, private place and tell your story. If it helps to write it out first, then write it all out and then read it to him.
He is not going to think less of you for telling him what was done to you, nor for feeling the pain in front of him and crying it out.
I’m walking a thin line here between sounding like I even pretend to know what you’re going through and just stating the facts. I think the fact is, once you tell your story you will be on a journey. Your life will change. You will see that as a part of humanity, you do have a moral and spiritual core, and it operates in powerful ways. That’s about all I want to say. The point is that we are not just mechanical. You share your story because life is not just about the mechanical, much as we’d like to stick to it being all mechanical. There is a moral and spiritual universe. We are living in it. When evil is done to us, it affects us, and we then are put on a course of correcting that effect. That’s where you are now. You’ve begun the process of correcting that evil, by writing to me. Now, I’m just a bystander, cheering you on. I’m shouting, Go, tell it, brother! Tell what happened! Tell it and get it out of you!
We use all these metaphors for the changes that happen as we tell our stories, and a lot of the metaphors don’t sound right. Of course they don’t sound right, because they’re only metaphors for what actually happens. But basically, there are reasons for us wanting to tell our stories; there is something that happens when we do that, and we do change, and life does get better, and I hesitate to try to put it in words because it will sound like more metaphors for things that don’t really seem real to you now.
I can say that I have walked through life with similar locked-up feelings and locked-up stories, afraid to even mention them. I had them locked up and I had some hazy notions of terrible things that would happen if I ever said them. But eventually life just got intolerable and I started saying some of them. And I felt weak and overwhelmed when I said them but I was in a safe environment so it was OK to crumple up in a ball for a little while; it was OK to whimper and sob. It is almost funny now, saying “whimper” and “sob” but that’s what it sounded like, just like a stupid little kid bawling. And it still happens. I’ll be talking and something will come up and all of a sudden I’m that stupid little kid bawling again, and I want to be strong, or stop bawling before someone starts laughing at me, but it’s a safe place and nobody’s there but my protector so I just bawl and then I learn another new thing, another layer, another vulnerability, another thing I’d pretended I didn’t feel or that hadn’t really happened.
If you trust this friend of yours then go ahead and tell him. I don’t think he’ll refuse to be your friend. But you may want to structure it somehow. Or you may want to go to a group like Sex Addicts Anonymous, not because you’re a sex addict, but because these 12-step groups have a structured approach to telling your story. You do an inventory and you share it with someone and it’s completely private. And you share your whole story. You don’t leave anything out. You go at it in a kind of thorough, almost mechanical way, just listing all the things. I haven’t actually participated in this group but I have a friend who has described the process to me. It might work for you.
But I say definitely share it either with your friend or in a structured 12-step setting. Once you do, you will feel better. You may find the world looks a little differently to you.
Whether you’re gay or straight is not an issue for me. The issue for me is that you’re walking around with this awful pain and fear and this awful memory and you don’t have to do that. You can choose to take a courageous step and just tell it and experience what it’s like to tell it instead of always keeping it hidden. You can get some relief.
You will probably feel some things; perhaps for a few moments it might feel like you are back there having it happen again, but that will pass.
On the positive side, you might also experience the emergence of another part of you, the strong part that could reach back into time and protect that poor kid; you might feel in your body the strong part of you that would have fought this off if you could, or would fight it off today. You might also connect with who you were before this happened, and you might find that part of yourself is still there with you, the part of you that you love, that innocent kid.
It might be scary how strong the feelings are. And you might for a few moments, as I said, feel like you’re literally re-experiencing it. But that will only be memory. You will be safe. Just make sure you find a private place where you can talk with your friend and won’t be interrupted for an hour or so, where you can experience whatever you have to experience, and be accepted.
I say do it. Don’t hold it in. Just do it with someone you trust. And then, having said it, you can begin living your life with this event in mind, knowing how it has affected you, and how similar events have affected other young men. It may lead you in many different ways. You may want to make a private peace with it and move on, or you may find it gives you a purpose in life, that you want to work to help others, to give strength to others, to ensure that this doesn’t happen to them. You might find your best way to be useful in the world is to be a role model, and walk with your head held high, and do some good in the world, and redeem this experience, and help to ensure that other people have a place to go to tell their stories. That’s up to you.
The important thing is, you don’t have to live with this. You did nothing wrong. This is something that was done to you. You are innocent. You don’t have to keep it a secret.
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)