"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)
On the morning of my wedding, in the tiny alpine village in Slovenia in which my fiancée grew up, I walked with my best men and a trail of 100 guests up the curling road to the tiny Baroque church on the hilltop. As I turned the bend, I was stopped by a rope strung across the path. A cluster of stern and angry people I’d never met stood blocking my way. They carried Medieval-looking implements: A long rusty saw, an ax, an old scythe and a wooden pitchfork. If I was planning to marry my Slovenian fiancée, I first had to pass the “tests of manliness.”
Slovenia is a gorgeous country, lying just east of Venice and south of Vienna. Full of cliff-top castles, mysterious caves, waterfalls and alpine fields, it looks like the backdrop for Grimm’s fairy tales. The most culturally and economically advanced of the former Yugoslav Balkan states, it weathered the Balkan Wars unscathed, and thrived within the Habsburg and Napoleonic empires, under which it was known as Illyria. Slovenia’s prosperity earned it the EU presidency in 2008, and its adherence to tradition and government-protected industry makes it, both economically and socially, the sort of unprepossessing country that Western powers may come to envy.
But centuries-old traditions still lurk in the idyllic mountains, some more ominous than others. It’s not unheard of during prenuptial celebrations for one’s “friends” to tie the groom naked to a wooden cross and smear Tabasco sauce on his balls. Needless to say, I didn’t invite any Slovenes to my bachelor party. But on the morning of my wedding I was faced with an ordeal of my own, known by the menacing title of the šranga.
Šranga (pronounced “shranga”). The name conjures up some Polynesian tribal tattooing ritual or a horror movie involving saws. Neither image is far off.
Three hundred years ago, a stranger coming to a village, intent on marrying the local beauty, would have had to prove his mettle and competence as a provider. In the remote alpine settlements of the 18thcentury Habsburg Empire, that meant being a woodsman. I should say that I’m not particularly good with my hands, aside from typing, which definitely doesn’t count. As a soft-palmed American city boy, my idea of a big adventure is to order an extra shot of espresso in my mocha frappuccino. So I was pretty darn nervous, as I approached the scythe-wielding villagers blocking my path to the Baroque church, framed behind them by precipitous white-capped mountains.
My experience of Slovenian wedding customs began the week before our big day, when the next-door neighbor and a band of followers came over by tractor, dragging two enormous pine trees. They proceeded to shave the bark off the pines, with my help (my first tree-shaving experience, though not the last), then drilled holes in the earth and erected the shorn trees on either side of the driveway. The “Erection of the Pines” at the home of the bride is a long-standing, and almost certainly Freudian, tradition. As with most Slovene customs, it was followed by a long night of homemade schnapps-fueled revels, and the consumption of much illegally produced smoked pork, prepared by the next-door neighbor who, disconcertingly, always seems to be laughing maniacally.
On the wedding day, flanked by 100 wedding guests who watched from the roadside, and aided by my four groomsmen (none of them particularly handy with a hatchet) I stopped before the roadblock. Six burly villagers, all dressed in dark green hunting uniforms, their hats incongruously decked with flowers, stood with their arms crossed. They looked like a rugby team whose bender had been rudely interrupted. Behind them I saw the instruments of my impending tests, the ax and scythe and saw: the Slovenian equivalent of hot coals across which I would walk.
It’s easy to see the šranga as a sort of preparatory exam for the rigors of married life. Instead of ax wielding, maybe in this digital age we might swap in a test of word-processing, programming a Web page, and cheating on your taxes. But whatever I had to do, no matter how difficult, was a rite I was eager to endure, if it meant that I could marry the love of my life. The goal would be not to lop off any useful body parts in the process.
Bring it on.
I was led first to perform the žaga, “the sawing,” in which I would have to team up with my best man, a skinny Spanish lawyer, in splitting a thick log with a rusty saw. Testing our powers of observation, the villagers presented us with the saw upside-down. I may not be the sharpest tack in the box, but I could tell we weren’t going to get too far with the saw-teeth facing upward. We flipped the saw over and sunk it into the log, beginning the surprisingly difficult rhythmic sawing that was required. Those saws want to bend when we wanted to thrust (there’s an analogy to married life in there somewhere). The villagers lubricated our efforts with white wine, first poured over the saw and then into our mouths. I remembered wondering if wine stains and wood shavings can be dry-cleaned out of a $2,000 Ralph Lauren Black Label suit.
Whatever. I was in the zone. The first test was passed.
Now came the sekira, or “the chopping,” in which my ax-work was put to the test. As I am only slightly more coordinated than a drunken orangutan, this had both the villagers and the guests worrying. An ax was lodged in a tree stump in the middle of the road. I would have to whack the stump in half, preferably without losing any of my own limbs in the process. After five or six mighty hacks, the villagers decided to take it easy on me, and allowed me to move. Had I been obliged to cleave the stump in two, the wedding would have had to be rescheduled for the following Tuesday.
A pine tree had been felled across the road and suspended on two wooden horses, and I was next obliged to shave off its bark — good thing I had practiced during the “Erection of the Pines” a week before. A good 10 minutes of tree shaving, and I’d developed quite a sweat, which was almost certainly staining my Ralph Lauren suit. But it must be said that Ralph designed a surprisingly comfortable suit, with good freedom of movement, ideally suited for shaving pines. My confidence was rising. Three down, two more to go.
Bales of hay had been scattered across the road, beside a rickety horse-drawn cart. I was handed a wooden pitchfork, one of those diabolical two-pronged numbers that looks like it might’ve fallen out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. One of the villagers hopped into the cart and began to push out the hay as I scooped it in. Feeling brash, I dumped my next load of hay onto his head. Then I froze for a moment, wondering if I had just made a faux pas that would result in him practicing the sekira on my clavicle. The villager turned beet purple and burst out laughing.
The hay back in the cart, I was faced with the last test: I had to sharpen a dulled scythe with a hammer and anvil. This might have proved a real challenge, but I had been given some covert training. A group of family friends pulled me aside at a barbecue some weeks before the wedding to give me the lowdown on scythe sharpening. Now I was totally in the groove, and even clanged the hammer down in rhythm to the live accordion polka music that provided a memorable, if not pleasurable, soundtrack to the morning’s events. Maybe I could make it as a Slovenian woodsman after all?
The final step before I could enter the church and wed my beloved was the barantanje, “the haggling.” I had to buy my bride from the villagers — easier said than done, when I had to negotiate in Slovenian.
I didn’t like the sound of this “wife buying” business from the start. Having to buy your wife brings to mind mail order catalogs and, of course, prompts the sticky question: Exactly how much is she worth? $12.99 per pound? That was the cost of the outstanding illegal smoked pork provided by the neighbor, who had been laughing maniacally throughout my šranga. It’s an awkward idea to fit a price to the love of your life, but it’s even weirder when you’re also expected to argue the price down.
At least my future wife didn’t seem to mind being considered a tradable commodity. So if the tradition called for me to buy my wife, then, darn it, buy her I would. But not before driving down the price. The trick was to convince the villagers to cut me a deal without belittling the bride in the process, and risking that she might shave my pine tree when we got home.
My best men and I developed a strategy. I brought a Lonely Planet guide to Slovenia with me that morning, and I began the negotiations by stating that, according to my guidebook, the villagers were obliged to pay the groom in order for him to take the bride off their hands. In my opening gambit, I said firmly that I would not marry her for less than 300 euros.
The best defense is a good offense, and this had the desired effect. Normally the groom is meant to squirm and argue about the sorry state of the village pavement or the odd odors from the fertilized corn fields or the fact that farmers are always laughing maniacally at nothing in particular, and thereby lower the price. But grooms regularly pay around 1,000 euros, despite their protestations. I insisted that my guidebook explained the tradition very clearly: The villagers were expected to pay me. When they tried to convince me that it was the other way around, I had two Slovene wedding guests step forward and say that everywhere else in Slovenia the villagers pay the groom — this local village must have had it backward for the past few centuries.
My ploy wasn’t going to work forever, but it did sow confusion among my opponents. In the end I relented and gave them the sum I’d intended to pay all along — exactly 300 euros, plus another 12 that I found in my trousers. Not a bad price, considering that I was acquiring the love of my life (and only $2.36 per pound, if you’re keeping score).
The barantanje completed, and a not insignificant portion of my wife’s grandmother’s homemade schnapps (first prize in this year’s village tasting competition!), I was carried in victory up to the church, in the cart I had so recently filled with hay. Having survived the šranga, a little tipsy, a little sweaty, and covered in a lot of sawdust, the wedding could proceed.
While finding true love and maintaining a happy marriage are certainly tricky, getting married in this modern era can be all too easy. We just pop down to city hall, or drive to Vegas on the spur of the moment to be married by someone dressed as Elvis. Gone are the days of earning a girl’s hand through valiance, chivalry and attrition: of the future King Charles I of England galloping incognito across bandit-strewn 17thcentury Europe to woo the Infanta of Spain, of slaying minotaurs and climbing through fields of poisoned thorns. While I’m not sure how well I would do if it came to minotaur-slaying, I am grateful that I could prove my love through sweat and feats of manliness, both to the villagers, who would finally accept me as one of their own, and to my beautiful wife.
Lots of people say that they would “do anything for love.” But there, on that alpine hillside, with a sharpened scythe in my hand and a freshly shorn pine tree at my feet, I can truly say that I did.
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)