"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)
When I first brought home our sleek, silver, double-deck, Panasonic stereo cassette player during the summer of 1993, my then-wife, Gitty, frowned.
“It has a radio,” she said with an accusing glare.
The device, fresh out of the box, lay on the chintzy oilcloth on our kitchen table, and she stuck her index finger at a spot on the top, near the volume control. Tape, AM, FM, printed in tiny white letters along the ridge of the circular switch. There was no denying it. And in our all-Hasidic village in Rockland County, N.Y., radio — along with TV, movies, newspapers and other sources of secular influence — was verboten.
“We’ll do what everyone does,” I said, slightly annoyed at the suggestion of impiety. Many of my friends had cassette players, and when the device came with a built-in radio tuner, there was a standard procedure for it: Krazy Glue the switch into the tape-playing position, paste a strip of masking tape over the channel indicators, and put the antenna out with the next day’s trash. As Talmud students, we were nothing if not resourceful; loopholes and work-arounds were our forte.
It was several weeks after our marriage, and Gitty and I, both 18 at the time, were still nearly strangers (Gitty is not her real name). Our match, like all the others in our community, had been an arranged one, the whim of a local matchmaker. We’d had a 10-minute meeting during which little was said, followed by a brief celebration with cake and wine at the home of the rebbe, the grand rabbi of our sect. When the rebbe said, “Mazel tov!” the match was official. Six months later, without seeing or speaking to each other during that entire period, Gitty and I were married. And now, several weeks later, we tiptoed around each other, still concealing personal quirks and character flaws, such as forgetting to put out the trash Tuesday nights or secretly picking a bone from the carp during the Sabbath afternoon lunch — a violation of the Sabbath laws.
Upon my assurance that the radio would be disabled, Gitty only shook her head and went back to her housework. The cassette player soon went up on top of our refrigerator, where it would remain, through four different apartments and across the births of our five children, for the next decade or so. In point of fact, however, I never disabled the radio. I don’t recall if it was simple forgetfulness, procrastination or a secret concern that in the event of an emergency — an incoming nuclear missile, say, from a rogue Soviet submarine, or an overflowing Hudson River — we would be the only ones without access to evacuation plans. But we never switched the radio on, allowing it to serve only as a phantom decadent presence in our otherwise pure and pious home. Eventually, the tape players would serve mostly to entertain our children, who would haul their Legos, Tonka trucks, and American Girl dolls out onto the kitchen floor, and the decks would spin an endless spool of musical tales featuring Yanky, Chaneleh and Rivky, good Jewish children who spoke no lies, loved the Sabbath and always, without fail, honored their parents.
There were few radios to be found when I was growing up, but I do remember one incident when I was around 10. It was a late Saturday night, and my father, a Hasidic teacher and scholar, was being interviewed by a Jewish radio station about his work, which involved reaching out to secular and unaffiliated Jews to teach them about our brand of Orthodoxy. My mother borrowed a radio from one of our neighbors for the evening, and our family gathered around the table in our small kitchen as my father, from his study down the hall, gave his interview over the phone. I remember little of the interview itself, as I spent most of the 30-minute segment marveling at the mystery of my father’s voice being transported from the other end of our apartment to a studio in some unknown place and back to us in the kitchen. I remember also that it felt oddly aberrant. Secular influences were so anathema to our insular world that the presence of the radio on the kitchen table, right next to the silver Sabbath candlesticks my mother had just cleared off the dining room table, was jarring.
During my teenage years and early 20s, until well after I was married, I spent my days at all-male yeshivas, schools for full-time Talmud study, where there were no radios to be found anywhere near the premises. News of Boris Yeltsin’s failed coup in Moscow and Saddam Hussein’s recalcitrance over Kuwait were passed along with plates of farfel and slippery noodle kugel. When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin shook the hand of Yasser Arafat on Bill Clinton’s White House lawn, we looked up briefly from our Talmuds to listen to the student who brought the news, who claimed he had it on good authority — probably from the school’s non-Jewish janitor — and promptly returned to our studies. Later we repeated the news to our wives at home who carried it further to their mothers, sisters and neighbors.
Over time, however, I came to look up to the radio on top of our refrigerator with longing. I had, by that time, come to learn two rules of radio. The FM dial, I knew, carried music — secular, vulgar, abhorrent. The sin of listening to secular music, especially female voices, was so great that I couldn’t even be tempted. It was the AM dial, however, that intrigued me. I learned that it carried news and opinion, and as I matured into my mid-20s, I grew curious about the world, and, on occasion, wondered about the things available to me with only the flick of a switch. The more I thought about it, the more the temptation grew. It wouldn’t violate Jewish law, it would violate the restrictions of our fervently devout community, and I wondered if that wasn’t a violation I could live with. Many evenings, after a full day of Talmud study, I would sit at our kitchen table eating the dinner Gitty had prepared and my eyes would wander to the radio on the fridge. The dial seemed to hiss and beckon in a seductive whisper. I’ve got news for you. But I worried about Gitty. If she caught me, she would scold and sulk at the impurities I was allowing into my heart, and, by extension, into hers and those of our children. I was ashamed of my urges, like an alcoholic who keeps hidden a stash of booze.
Until one evening, arriving home to find Gitty and the children sound asleep, I sat in the stillness of our two-bedroom apartment — and I found I could no longer resist.
I found an old pair of earphones in one of our kitchen drawers, alongside utility bills and an assortment of multicolored rubber bands. Careful not to make a sound, I moved one of the chairs near the refrigerator, stepped onto it with a mixture of anxiety and excitement, and plugged the earphones into the tiny jack. I leaned my elbows on the dust-covered surface above the fridge and began twisting the dial slowly, listening with one ear to the cackle of static as the white indicator floated across the red band, while keeping my other ear tuned in for noises from the bedrooms down the hallway.
The dial switched from one station to another, commercials for medical malpractice attorneys, car dealerships and department store blowout sales filling me with forbidden pleasure. The strange jingles, the smooth transitions from traffic to news to commercials, captivated me; the fact that the sale ended in one week only, or that I was not currently on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, which, I was now being told, was backed up to the Brooklyn Bridge due to an accident in the right lane, mattered little. I was like a visitor from a different era encountering our modern one, captivated by its very mundaneness.
Eventually I came upon a talk show program. The host was angry, particularly miffed about the antics of someone he called “Alan Dirty-shirts.” After a few minutes of listening, I gathered that “Alan Dirty-shirts” was a liberal, and liberals were bad. They were in favor of sinful things, like abortions, and wacky ones, like homosexuals getting married. I listened as caller after caller berated “Alan Dirty-Shirts” for intending to uproot conservative values from the American heartland. The American heartland, whatever and wherever that was, had my sympathy. “Alan Dirty-Shirts” was against people of faith, who, I was happy to learn, existed even outside of my own Hasidic world. This radio thing suddenly didn’t feel all that wrong.
“Were you listening to the radio last night?” Gitty asked the next morning while flipping over a slice of French toast in the frying pan. I stood there, dumbfounded at her intuition and resentful of her demand for accountability. I tried to deny it, but she wasn’t fooled. “You promised years ago you’d disable it,” she said with chilly nonchalance. Then she added, “It starts with radio, and the next thing you know, you’re eating pig and driving on the Sabbath.” I thought she was being dramatic, but still, I gave her my halfhearted assurance that now, finally, I would disable it.
But I had no intention of doing so. It was no longer a mere temptation. An irrepressible desire had now taken hold, a yearning for exposure to ideas and views that I’d never heard before, ideas both strange and captivating. Several nights later, lowering the volume to near mute so that no sound escaped from the earphones, I spent another hour standing on the chair near the fridge, listening again to various programs along the AM dial. Once again, Gitty confronted me the next morning. She wouldn’t tell me how she knew, but it would do me no good to deny it. Gitty looked at me like she was deciding between pleading for piety and throwing the device off our second-story balcony. But I would not cave. I would be a dutiful Hasid in all respects except this one, and Gitty, realizing eventually that it was no use arguing, reluctantly let the issue rest.
I found it difficult to be a dutiful Hasid, and over the years there would be more flare-ups of conflict, battles over the many restrictions and boundaries imposed by our cloistered world. When I began to bring home library books on biblical archaeology or comparative religion, or I would absentmindedly leave a copy of the New York Times where the children might encounter it, Gitty would again confront me over my slippery descent toward the decadence of the modern world and the poisonous influences I was allowing into our home.
Four years after my foray into listening to the radio, a brand-new laptop computer arrived at our home, which I’d ordered from a mail order catalog. The unopened box lay on the kitchen table, and Gitty, ever so observant, pointed her index finger to the listed features.
“DVD drive?” she said. “Isn’t that for movies?”
I thought about lying to her, but I was no longer willing to suppress urges for which I no longer felt ashamed, no longer willing to abide restrictions that I now found meaningless. My silence confirmed her suspicion, and I could almost see the frenzy of thoughts churning in her mind.
“Maybe — it can be disabled?” she said.
My heart ached at the sincerity in her voice, for her pain at having to give up on the purity she sought for our home, for being forced to deal with a recalcitrant husband who had come to disdain the strictures by which we were supposed to live. I remembered the conversation about the radio, and how pleased she’d been with me when I agreed to her plan. But I knew that I couldn’t help her this time, and she saw it in my eyes. I wouldn’t promise to do something I wouldn’t do. And she knew, without me having to say it, that I would not put Krazy Glue to the DVD drive.
Years later, I would come to find other aspects of our lifestyle stifling, my curiosity about the world too powerful to repress. Our dogmas and worldviews, I would eventually find, were inconsistent with my developing views about the world. Soon after purchasing my first computer, I would sign up for a subscription to America Online, and, with a world of information at my fingertips, my faith would be further eroded until, after many years, I would lose it entirely.
Toward the very end of our marriage, after nearly 15 years together, Gitty and I sat in my small study in our converted garage, and looked back on the previous years. We were no longer arguing. Our views on religion were clearly unbridgeable, and we were resigned to our separation. I would be moving out within days.
“You know,” Gitty said, gesturing toward the desktop computer, the TV in the corner, the sagging shelves of the bookcase by the far wall, “without the Internet, the DVDs, your newspapers and your library books, none of this would’ve happened.”
She had forgotten — it all started with the radio. Gitty knew it all along. It’s what I’d heard from my rabbis and teachers all my life. Small violations led to bigger ones, until all would be lost. And I guess, in a way, they were right.
Shulem Deen is the founding editor of Unpious.com, a journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.More Shulem Deen.
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)