"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)
It was the evening he canceled our first date that I began to suspect Todd was not a real person. I was drifting off to sleep when the idea dive-bombed into my brain: That guy is a fake. I thought about his dating profile photo — the Hollywood good looks, the grin of a man accustomed to winning. I thought about the vague fog of his profile, which mentioned exactly none of the accomplishments he told me about in our marathon phone conversations.
“Isn’t it strange that his profile doesn’t say that he played professional soccer in Germany?” I asked my friend Mary the following day. I was sitting in her kitchen chair, where I often park myself as the two of us try to untangle some romantic mystery.
“He told you he played soccer in Germany?” She stifled a laugh. “And you believed him?”
I believed him. Over the next two weeks, as the bizarre story of Todd unfolded, this was the humbling phrase I would be forced to repeat. Yes, I believed him. I believed that he was a wealthy entrepreneur who had started his first company at the age of 20. I believed that he got a soccer scholarship to a liberal arts college in upstate New York and later traveled all over Europe. I believed that he had a daughter, and that she had sparkling blue eyes, and that she liked cats and pirates. I believed these things because — well, because he told them to me. (Todd is not his real name, by the way.)
But staring at the ceiling that night, doubt took root. It blossomed and grew vines. Once you begin to suspect someone is lying, it is hard to stop suspecting them. I felt like I was caught in my own version of “Catfish,” the 2010 documentary about a New York photographer who falls for a woman he met through Facebook only to unravel an epic deception. I loved that movie (I saw it twice), but the film came under fire for its own narrative sleights of hand. “That guy would never fall for that girl,” a friend complained to me, and maybe he had a point, but I think we will all fall for anything if we want to believe it badly enough.
Still, we are in a complicated house-of-mirrors moment with the truth. Just ask Mike Daisey, whose tale of Apple hiring underage workers was debunked last weekend on “This American Life.” It’s a breathtaking hour of radio, not only because Daisey is lying, but also because he is lying to himself. The nature of truth has always been slippery, but technology has given us so many tools for deception, and such a powerful megaphone, that we are constantly forced to defend against it. What can we believe? Who can we trust? It’s like we’re all suffering a giant crisis of authenticity.
This is the herky-jerky place in which I found myself with Todd. Although to be precise, I never “met” him. Ours was a thoroughly 21st relationship that unfolded through the Web, email and iPhone, a drama in which the two main characters never actually shook hands. It was one of the strangest romances I’ve ever had, not simply because I did not know him in person but because I truly came to believe he did not exist.
It was the evening that he canceled our second date when I decided to confront him on this. “So I have to tell you something,” I said to him on the phone. Mine was the low, shaky whisper you reserve for difficult conversations, like how you cheated on someone or want to break up. “I kind of don’t think you’re a real person.”
Todd’s charming Texas drawl grew strained. “What the hell does that even mean?”
It’s a good question. Honestly, I don’t even know where to start.
- – - – - -
I dragged my feet to online dating. I spent most of my 20s and early 30s in bars, where my entire dating strategy could be boiled down to this: Get drunk, and see what happens. It worked pretty well.
But at the age of 36, I quit drinking and moved back to Dallas from New York. My life was lovely, for the most part — quiet, low-key evenings spent with family, or a handful of amazing female friends, or a marmalade tabby loved beyond all reason. But I was aware that some key part of existence was missing. I longed for the kind of companionship I once found in Stella Artois.
“You need to start online dating,” my friend Jennifer told me. It wasn’t a suggestion; it was a command. I didn’t know if it was my age, or our age in general, but the whole discussion about online dating had shifted from, “Why don’t you try this?” to, “This is what people do now.” I hated it. Why couldn’t I meet my future husband in a coffee shop, or in the produce section of a grocery store? (“You like kiwis? I like kiwis!”) When I told Jennifer my usual complaints — that online dating made me feel hopelessly awkward, that it depressed me in some existential way — she gave me a little pat on the knee.
“Well, maybe your mom can set you up with someone nice,” she said.
Two weeks later, I had a personal profile.
By now, most of us have tried online dating, or at least know its narrative arc: The agony of creating a personal profile (what picture should I use? What should my profile name be?), followed by the rush of adrenaline that arrives when emails begin to pile up in your inbox. It’s such a funny mix of insecurity and power to be a woman on those sites. Some days I felt like a little lost puppy scratching on anyone’s door: Please love me, somebody love me. Some days I felt like a queen who could cast aside suitors with one click of the mouse. Yes, yes, you think I’m pretty. I’ve heard that before. Next! I have the requisite number of anecdotes about men who were comically unsuited for me. The guy whose profile picture featured him shirtless and flabby, shooting a rifle. The guy who answered the question “What I’m doing with my life” by saying: “I’m just working at Staples, living life to the fullest.”
I was contemplating pulling down my profile entirely when Todd emailed. He wasn’t exactly my perfect match, either — a sports fanatic and a business type who peppered his emails with unnecessary ellipses. But he was funny (my weakness) and fluent in HBO programming and Monty Python and the kind of pop culture that allows me to speak freely without ever revealing too much (my crutch). I also felt uncommonly drawn to his pictures. Two included his 18-month-old girl, and I liked that he frontloaded this fact, much like I had my own sobriety. This is me, and it’s the non-negotiable part.
One afternoon when I should have been working, we engaged in one of those zippy back-and-forths that can turn a drab afternoon into a Billy Wilder comedy. Looking back, I can see that he was way too quick to lavish me with compliments. He would say things like, “You are so amazing,” and “If you are half as funny in person, I am going to fall in love with you.” That makes me cringe a million times now, but in the moment, it was fuel for my ego. It’s not like I thought we were going to get married; I wasn’t even sure we should date. But I did believe that I was being hilarious and clever in those exchanges, and it was about time some random good-looking dude on the Internet appreciated it.
Todd and I spoke on the phone the following day. I expected to chat with him for 20 minutes; I hung up three hours later and was so wired I couldn’t fall asleep till 2.
“He played soccer in Europe,” I told a friend over IM the next day.
“That’s hot,” he said. (He’s gay.)
“It’s a little too hot,” I said. In fact, a crucial shift had taken place during that phone call. I had gone from thinking Todd was not good enough for me — too Texas alpha male, too conservative — to worrying I would not be good enough for him. I am nothing like the generously embellished, long-legged trophy wives that populate the Dallas society scene. Beside them I can feel so dowdy. There is still an insecure 12-year-old inside me, and in the days leading up to my Sunday coffee date with Todd, she held center stage. I tried out three different outfits for my mother. I wore the outfits with heels and without.
“What if I he doesn’t like me?” I asked her.
She smiled. “What if you don’t like him?”
But all the anxiety was for naught. Two hours before we were supposed to meet, he sent me an email. “I am bearing bad news. I have ended up taking my little girl to the fall carnival today, as her mother is sick. If we can reschedule this week soon it would be wonderful. Can I call you later?”
He did not call that night. And in the space where that conversation might have gone, a conspiracy theory grew. I should mention, at this point, a few suspicious details about Todd: For one, I could not find him on Facebook. Now, I have dear friends who have decided against the slavering jaws of social networking, so on its own this didn’t raise red flags. More troubling was that I could not find his “successful marketing company” online. Or rather, the site existed, but it had a banner that read “under construction” in a chintzy font that no successful marketing company would ever, in a million years, actually post. I figured he was exaggerating his accomplishments, which would make him no different from any guy I’ve met in a bar, ever.
But there were other weird things, too. Todd told me he had sold a reality television show to Mark Cuban’s HDNet, which is based in Dallas. His reality show was inspired by “Top Chef” (he was obsessed with cooking shows), but it was set in the Dallas strip clubs, which are ubiquitous around here. The concept was rather head-exploding: Strippers face off in a competition to open their own restaurant and thus leave behind their cash-strapped, pole-dancing days. The working title for the show: “Topless Chef.’”
This is the part of the story where my friends can’t stop laughing. They bang on the table they are laughing so hard. They say things like, “I can’t believe you fell for this!” And, “God, I always thought you were smart!”
First of all, I never claimed to be smart, particularly not in romance. Second of all, I know diddly about Mark Cuban’s HDNet, but “Topless Chef” sounds exactly like the kind of programming that would be purchased by an eccentric billionaire who owns the Dallas Mavericks and made a city of silicone and steakhouses his adopted home. Was it bonkers that I thought the show was kind of genius? Like, in a really evil way? When Todd told me that anecdote, I was not thinking, “This is completely made up,” I was thinking, “Can I really date the guy who invented ‘Topless Chef’?”
But then he canceled the date, and it all seemed so obvious. He was a complete phony. The pictures were fake. The little girl was fake. (What a convenient smoke screen, what brilliant chick-bait.) How could I be so stupid?
As the embarrassment subsided, though, I began to sense the flutter of a different kind of romance. After all, I am a journalist and a personal essay writer always on the lookout for new material, accustomed to shaping the hurt and disappointment of my own life in an attempt to tell some greater truth. As an online dating prospect, Todd was a flameout. But he had given me something just as thrilling, something I’ve chased for many years: I had a good story.
The next day Todd asked me on a sushi date for that Friday. I agreed, and we talked on the phone for the next three hours.
- – - – - -
I’ve never been an online stalker. I have friends who will cannonball into the deep end of Google for any prospective date, but I am far more interested in the crackle of our conversation, the speed of my heart when we are sitting across the table from one another. Maybe it’s because there is so much dirt online about me — my drinking problem, my credit issues, the time I accidentally sent a promotional email to 900 people — I tend to be uninterested in what’s available on anyone else. Still, I had to make an exception for Todd.
I didn’t find much. He was, indeed, a leading soccer scorer at that college in New York. But all other roads went cold. I was excited to come across an actual picture of him from the society pages of a local magazine — finally, confirmation of his real appearance — but the link was broken, so that the photo only displayed a tiny blue question mark. How poetic.
I popped his phone number into one of those “people finder” search engines advertised all over the Internet. (“Find everyone and anyone!”) When it came up registered to his mom, I fell down the rabbit hole. I spent $50 and two hours on that site, excavating any shred of evidence on him I could find. A personal bankruptcy, a DWI. Then there was the part that chilled me. It listed “known aliases.”
My friends, of course, were hooked on this saga. They all had their own theories. He was a troll living in his mother’s basement. He was married. He was an alcoholic who spent his evenings in fantasy land with women he met online. I did not usually tell my friends about the “known aliases” because I knew it showed an extraordinary lack of caution on my part to find out that information and go on a sushi date with this guy anyway. Any person in her proper frame of mind would have called it off. Indeed, she would have pushed the ejector button long ago. On this count, I can only say that I believed this story would be incomplete if I failed to meet Todd in person. But also, since giving up drinking, I have been drawn to risk in surprising ways. I have come to crave the flood of adrenaline, the lump in the throat. (As one friend recently told me, “You really need to start jumping out of airplanes.”) But there has long been a part of me chasing a bad romance, wondering how close my hand can get to the flame.
It didn’t matter, though, because Todd canceled our sushi date that day. His text message came at 3:30, right after I’d blown out my hair: “May day may day u may kill me. I have a 102 degree fever.”
So that’s when I called and told him I didn’t believe he was a real person. My heart was a kick drum, but my voice did not waver. It was fantastic. Todd was all over the map in that conversation. He sounded angry, and then wounded. He backpedaled from all of that and became apologetic. “If I weren’t so sick you know I’d be excited about seeing you tonight,” he said. “But I want the first time I meet you to be special.”
Oof, the nerve of this guy.
I spent that Saturday sifting through public records with the help of lawyer and cop and journalist friends. I also discovered — to my relief but also to my disappointment — that the “known aliases” were benign, probably nothing more than clerical errors, a name misspelled in a courtroom late at night and mistaken by a computer system as a nom de guerre.
As my attorney pal put it, “What you have on your hands is less of a criminal mastermind, and more of a garden-variety asshole.”
I figured I’d never hear from Todd again. Accusing a person of being an Internet fabrication has a way of dooming your friendship. But once again, I misjudged Todd. He emailed me on Sunday night, which I discovered following a date that had been fine, but a little boring: “I’ve been thinking about you,” it read.
I stared at my email for a long time, trying to figure out how to respond. “That’s funny,” I typed back. “I’ve been thinking about you too.”
- – - – - -
I made another date with him. A third date. This imbroglio was acquiring a disturbing meta-quality, like the moment in the reality TV show where the characters have stopped being themselves and are now existing purely for the camera. Everything I said had quotation marks. It’s good to “talk to you.” I’m glad your “daughter” is well.
But there was a twist, too: He actually did have a Facebook profile, and he friended me as we spoke on the phone one night. I paged through picture after picture of him with his little girl, and his short-haired, petite mother. I did not realize at the time that Facebook allows you to hide your profile so that it doesn’t come up on searches, and for the briefest second my certainty about him unraveled. How could I miss this? What else did I get wrong? I wondered if it was possible — if there was the teensy, tiniest possibility — that I was the one being duplicitous.
On the Wednesday morning we were supposed to meet for coffee, he texted me that a planning session for “Topless Chefs” was running late. Apparently it ran really, really late because he didn’t get out of that meeting until 6, when he told me the day had been a nightmare, but did I want to meet now?
Oh, what the hell, right? I told him I’d meet him in 30 minutes. He responded that, actually, it had been a helluva day. Rain check, maybe?
There is always a part of these real-life stories where the reader goes: This is ridiculous. This never happened. But I don’t know what to tell you. I wouldn’t make this up, because it sounds too preposterous: Who would believe that, after all this, he would still be trying to fool me? Who would believe that, after all this, I would still be responding?
I was spelunking deep in his Facebook account when my mother called that night. By then, I knew his friends. I knew his friends’ friends. One of his many pictures was from a local magazine’s society pages — the broken link that had eluded me online. And get this: It was the same picture he’d used in his dating profile. The ultimate reveal: He looked exactly like he said he did.
My mother sighed. “How much more time are you going to give this guy?”
I didn’t know the answer to that. I understood there was more to life than this man’s pathetic deceptions, but I needed to find something. I needed to get something. Some piece of information that would bring the whole sorry mess screaming into focus, like the last scene of “The Usual Suspects.” I had invested so much time and energy into this. Could I really leave so unsatisfied?
“He has a perversion,” my mother said. My mother is a therapist. “He likes to meet women online and see how long he can string them along. It gives him a thrill. What more do you need?”
Didn’t she get it? “I need to know why.”
“Sometimes ‘why’ is not a valuable question to ask,” she said. I hate it when my mom whips out heady little aphorisms like this. “People’s motivations point back into the past in so many ways — there’s usually not one reason why. And if there is one reason, chances are Todd doesn’t even know it.”
I knew she was right — about Todd, and about every other busted relationship I have tried to solve like the end of an Agatha Christie novel. I was always searching for some moment when it would all make sense. Why he did this, and not that. Why he liked her, and not me. I was always in search of the smoking gun. But real detectives rarely find a smoking gun. Real life rarely comes with neat and tidy explanations. It is a hopeless tangle of confusion and desire and mysteries left unsolved.
“So what do I do?” I asked my mother.
“You get on with your own life,” she said. “And you never speak to him again.”
It was a relief to discover how quickly Todd collapsed into an anecdote. For a while, I told everyone about the huckster I met online. And then I told no one, because with time and perspective came a certain humiliation. What had I been doing?
One Saturday morning, I dashed into the grocery store a few miles from my house for cat food and coffee when my eyes were snagged by a handsome guy in the checkout line. He was holding his little girl in his arms, an adorable blond toddler I recognized from dozens of photos, and she was playfully batting his head with a stuffed animal.
There was no doubt about it. It was Todd.
He was as handsome as his photos, although his eyes had tired gray circles around them. I watched him call over to his mother in the line beside him. I recognized her from photos, too.
I stood there, slack-jawed, unable to move. I could not shake my disbelief. What were the chances that I would run into him like this? In a city of a million people? In a checkout line on Saturday? I wondered if I should say something. I wondered what on earth that would be.
He was playing with his little girl on the coin-operated rocking horse near the exit doors when I finally left with my grocery bags. I saw him look up, but I don’t know if he saw me, or recognized me. I could not stand to look at him. I passed him as if he were just another stranger. And I guess, in a way, he was.
Sarah Hepola is an editor at Salon.More Sarah Hepola.
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)