"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)
The best cautionary story I ever heard came from a distinguished man in a snug, hillside coffee shop on a thundery Seattle afternoon.
I was new to the area, trailing a high-tech spouse who worked 14-hour days. The gloom had settled in. It was good weather for writing but after several hours, scenes from “The Shining” would be running through my head. I was slogging away at a second novel (my first was a tiny seller, now remaindered). I’d been a visiting professor in Providence and Minneapolis, but for the first time I couldn’t even find an adjunct job.
So this man offered to show me the city, grab a cup of coffee and talk for a while. He listened and gave me good advice. Then as dusk overtook the storm, he told me his tale.
At 30, he’d been a promising history scholar, on faculty at a major university and traveling the world. But after five years, he was denied tenure. And suddenly, everything in his life — teaching, research, sabbaticals — simply disappeared.
He fell apart briefly, then rallied and decided to write a book. It would be successful and he’d reclaim his rightful place. A few years into the project, he won a prestigious grant. And with that, he became obsessed. His marriage fell apart; he lived on next to nothing. When he finished the novel and his agent couldn’t sell it, the man hired a series of editors to help him revise.
One day, he woke up and realized that two decades had passed. His credentials were out-of-date, his novel a 10-pound weight on the shelf. He started a small business, writing corporate copy and people’s histories, and it took off. He was fine now, but sad.
By the time he finished, our cups were long empty. I touched his hand but hardly knew what to say.
A year later, my husband and I moved back to Minneapolis and I took a job in advertising. Was it simple cause and effect? Probably not. But I still credit that man with the smartest career decision I ever made.
- – - – - -
I was nearly 43 when I started in advertising, which is roughly equivalent to being drafted into the NFL at age 39.
For years, I’d supplemented teaching and fiction and freelance journalism — my real work — with small, lucrative commercial jobs. Over time, I put together a decent portfolio of posters, ads and annual reports. But this wasn’t something I talked about.
Advertising was, after all, a frat boy’s business ruled by wanton consumerism and outright lies. I didn’t belong. I’d earned an MFA at Iowa and established a credible byline. Copywriting was, for me, like the hooking that some women do to pay their way through law school. A necessary evil, but definitely not something you put on your CV.
Which is how I ended up on contract with a hot Twin Cities agency to do some medical writing in early 2010. It was like high school … and by that I mean my kids’ high school. I attended meetings with children who looked too young to drink (though two of them held beers) and we brainstormed strategy. Despite their Justin Bieber haircuts, these kids were smart. The ideas flew. People laughed. No one asked why someone’s mom was at the table. I was relieved.
One day I ducked into a conference room and overheard two women talking; one of them had recently turned 32 and she was panicked. She figured she had three years left in advertising, eight years max. I silently agreed.
So I was stunned when the agency offered me a job. The salary they threw out was double the last teaching job I’d applied for. The benefits were excellent. My hiring manager was a gentle hipster, a few years younger than I, who ran his neighborhood farmers’ market. A talented guy who’d come to Minnesota from a major television studio in New York so his kids could attend better schools.
Still, I accepted reluctantly, thinking of this as a year-long experiment. I was a novelist. To take this job long-term would be selling out.
In my world, advertising was something a serious writer did before doing something important. Augusten Burroughs. Don DeLillo. Salman Rushdie, for God’s sake. These guys didn’t keep up their copywriting after they got famous. If anything, they lampooned it. It was like the laughably bad marriage they’d had when they were young.
And yet, my conversation with that man in Seattle echoed through my head. What if you never become Burroughs or DeLillo or Rushdie? What if — horrifying as this was to contemplate — being Ann Bauer of 2005 was the peak? I shivered and vowed to treat this job as if it were real. I’d play the part. Act as if.
A lot of people asked me, once I enlisted, if modern advertising really was like “Mad Men.” Were there fevered all-night creative sessions? Client meetings where we hid our work behind curtains and dramatically revealed it? Wild, drunken parties where we dressed up and danced and people had sex under desks?
Yes, yes, and, uh, yes. (Except for the sex part. I’ve heard rumors, but I can’t say for sure.)
The truth is that advertising — at least in the agency where I practice — is just as fun as it looks on TV. But here’s the part I wasn’t prepared for: I also found it very good-natured. Stimulating. Strangely sweet.
I came to this field jaded, not only by nature but due to the experiences I’d had in the previous couple of years. My older son, who has autism, had gone through a hellish psychosis at age 20. My younger son was struggling to cope and floundering. Our year in Seattle had been mostly dark and grim.
But after six months I realized that despite my angsty temperament, I felt lighter. Who could stay melancholy when surrounded by interesting, funny kids who make paper hats out of their creative briefs, then spend 10 serious hours designing a bank logo that’s a perfect work of art?
If a baby was sick or a parent had a milestone birthday, people didn’t say, “What about your work?” they said, “Go home. Be with your family. Don’t worry. It’ll all get done.”
And slowly, I saw that some of my assumptions were wrong. Yes, most of the directors were male — and young. But a lot of this was circumstance. There were more men taking the training and applying for the jobs. The young, single ones were free to work nights and evenings. They had the voice and aesthetic for advertising’s bulwarks: national sports accounts, casual dining, retail, spirits and beer.
But when our agency acquired financial and medical clients, they tapped me. A middle-aged woman, but the best person for the job. No one was filling out those minority/ethnicity forms that universities make you sign. But taking age out of the equation, I walked into a pretty diverse work environment: Jews, Arabs, blacks and Hispanics. People with disabilities. The foreign-born, Republican, communist, Catholic and gay.
I watched as our agency hired a young Web developer who was in the middle of gender-reassignment surgery. She transitioned from male to female among computer nerds and tough, biker-y looking IT guys. They often go out for drinks as a group. She ran for, and won, the title of “queen” at our annual holiday party. Everyone cheered.
There were even a few more hires like me: women past the Peggy Olson ingénue phase. People who never went to ad school. Former lawyers and clerics who came in with wonderfully weird new slants.
Just as my experiment was due to end, management said it wanted to promote me. I was given the title associate creative director and put in charge of some of the brightest writers in the place.
And oddly, I was happy. My anniversary date came and went and I felt something unexpected: a reluctance to leave.
- – - – - -
I’ll admit, I waver sometimes.
I struggle with some of the messages we send out and I’ve drawn a few personal lines: I won’t work on pharma ads or have anything to do with gambling. I won’t market alcohol to young people. Twice, I’ve stood up in a meeting and said, “No, we will not say that. It would be wrong.”
I like to think it’s one of the reasons they keep me: I’ll speak up divisively when groupthink takes hold. And so far I’ve won every battle, pulling our copy to what I see as the ethical side.
But I also struggled with the ethics of teaching, my other career. It’s forbidden to say this in the ivory tower, but students pay tens of thousands of dollars for creative writing degrees then graduate into a world where there are no jobs. The only thing they can do is teach, breeding more creative writing majors. It’s an endless, self-serving cycle.
Most days, I take pride in being part of a company that stimulates the economy and employs more than 400 souls.
Even so, when every academic and writer I know converged at a conference in Chicago, while I was back home writing ad copy, I had another crisis of faith. For days, my Facebook was full of photos of people with their arms around each other’s shoulders. Posts like: “Met Pam Houston at AWP and she was really nice!” I felt, irrationally, left out.
Then I remembered: I hate conferences. Crowds, bad food, high entrance fees. People constantly whispering things like, “Did you hear about that fiction opening in South Bend? Some guy with like nine books and a screenplay in production got that job. Asshole.”
I avoided conferences even when I was in the academic world — one reason I wasn’t terribly successful. But teaching … that’s another story. Teaching, I miss.
In a way, I get to do this at the agency, too. I give random lectures on grammar and lead rhetoric seminars (we call them “presentation training”). Kids — sorry, junior designers — come to me with any number of issues: pregnant girlfriends, divorcing parents, money problems. On good days, it feels a little like office hours to me.
One winter afternoon while I was at work, my agent called to tell me he had an offer for my novel from a small but very well-respected press. He quoted the advance amount, then said cheerfully, “I’d tell you to buy champagne and celebrate, but you’d blow the whole thing.”
For the first time in my career, I didn’t have to care about the money. And make no mistake, it is about the money. All my conference-going friends were busily filling out 50-page grant applications, spending days on personal statements, making multiple copies, saving their receipts from FedEx. They support fiction in their way; I support it in mine.
Yet I knew, eventually, my way must end. Even a mid-list book requires attention: readings, bookstore signings, interviews and radio shows. When I received a letter asking me to teach a summer workshop at Iowa, I sent my acceptance but chose the last possible dates. I wanted to put off quitting as long as I could.
But eventually, I prepared a formal resignation letter requesting that the agency convert me back to contract so I could continue working with them when I come back from my tiny summer tour.
I took it to the chief creative officer (our Don Draper). He said no.
He said don’t be silly, we’ll work it out, take the time you need, we want your book to do well, we think it would be great if you teach at Iowa. Keep your job. Other writers stepped in without my asking to cover the time I’m gone. It felt kind of like a barn raising: Someone rang a bell and the forces converged.
Are there still things I don’t like about advertising? Sure.
The Nerf gun wars get to me. When the song about “itty-bitty titties,” played at ear-splitting volume for the fifth time, I leaned over and said, “Some women may not appreciate that, you know,” and got exactly the same eye roll my 17-year-old gives me. Occasionally, there’s an all-day client meeting in a hermetically sealed room that makes me feel like time has actually stopped.
But even then, I’m glad to be out of the frantic, impoverished, pure academic writer’s life.
I stay in touch with the man from Seattle. I’m happy to say his business is soaring, and he’s working on his novel again. Not for a job. Not because he has to “publish or perish.” But because he likes his book — a Gothic story about music and driving ambition and real human tragedy. Exactly the sort of novel I would love to read in a firelit coffee shop, safe from the falling rain.
Ann Bauer is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of a new novel, "The Forever Marriage."More Ann Bauer.
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)