"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)
Midnight in Berkeley, Calif. I am standing barefoot in the middle of the street watching firefighters rush in and out of my home. My phone rings. It is my daughter, calling from a small town in Normandy, France.
“Dad,” she says. “What’s going on? I got an email from a neighbor saying our house is on fire?!”
Yes, I tell her. Our house is on fire. As I speak into the phone, I watch a chainsaw-wielding firefighter cut a hole in my roof. Two others are getting their oxygen tanks replaced.
I try to shake off the shock and humiliation. I thought I had reached that point in my life when a late-night call from my children would mean they had their own disasters to report. But this catastrophe is all mine. My best guess, I tell my daughter, is that after her brother and I had grilled burgers earlier that evening, a charcoal ember had slipped through the decrepit ash-catcher underneath the grill and smoldered for hours in the wooden deck before exploding into flame.
No one was hurt, I tell her. After dinner, her brother had biked over to a friend’s house to play video games. I had gone to bed early, preparing myself for what I expected to be a very busy morning of Supreme-Court-striking-down-
The sight of 8-foot-high flames through the window of your back door has a strange way of seeming at once utterly surreal while at the same time forcing a burst of adrenalizing total concentration. Which is not to say that I exploded into competence. A neighbor started banging on the door, yelling: Your house is on fire! We both dialed 911 but I couldn’t seem to hit the buttons on my phone in the right order. I stumbled out of the house.
The first fire engine arrived within minutes. Six more followed in short order. A crowd gathered on the street as hoses were unfurled and axes hoisted. My next door neighbor, evacuated from her home, watched in dismay as firefighters chopped down burning sections of the fence that separated our two homes. I kept mumbling “I’m sorry” to the people standing around me. A year that hadn’t been particularly good to begin with had just taken a dishearteningly sharp swerve for the worse.
I’m a politically minded person who writes about economics, and in the days that have followed the fire I have been unable to resist the impulse to put every tendril of flame into larger context. Consider today’s crappy Weber grills, where every new model seems to degrade into obsolescence faster than the previous one, a victim of the cost pressures midwifed by Wal-Mart-style globalization. Or how about the lifesaving value of insurance, a point brought home to me as never before on the very same day that John Roberts astoundingly upheld the constitutionality of healthcare reform. (Note to mandate-haters: If my mortgage lender hadn’t required that I have home insurance, would I have plunked down that check to Farmers every one of the last 16 years?) Also of interest: prior to the fire, I had no conception of how big an economic event a disaster like mine is for other people. The hubbub of job-creating activity related to my home in the past few weeks has injected instant cash into the local economy — from Santa Rosa down to Watsonville. I am my own Keynesian-stimulus. Want to get the U.S. economy really moving? Burn everything down.
But most of all, I am emerging from this drama with a renewed appreciation for the value of my taxpayer-supported public services. The Berkeley Fire Department did right by me — not only by saving most of my house from burning to the ground, but also by demonstrating real human kindness and connection in the middle of fire and chaos. In the rubble, I found magic. And in a strange way, I feel like I deserved it. In Berkeley, we are addicted to high taxes — in the 25 years I’ve lived here, I can’t even count how many times I and my fellow citizens have said a resounding yes to yet another tax hike or bond measure. Two weeks ago, I got my money’s worth.
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I couldn’t sleep after the fire was finally squelched, tossing and turning on a neighbor’s couch. As soon as dawn broke, I had to survey the aftermath.
After destroying the backyard deck, the fire had gotten into the back wall of my house and made inroads into both the basement and the attic. The upstairs and downstairs bathrooms were destroyed. Firefighters had ripped large holes through the ceilings of the upstairs bedrooms. My son’s boxes of Lego were covered in a shroud of plaster dust. Torn strips of insulation littered the floor of my daughter’s room.
I’m an expert at turning my kitchen into a phenomenal mess, but this time I’d taken disarray to an entirely new level. As if reproaching me for my carelessness with the BBQ grill, the fire targeted with smart-bomb karmic precision nearly everything that had to do with my most cherished pastime: cooking. All my cookbooks, burned. All my kitchen appliances, from the waffle-maker to the coffeemaker to the Cuisinart, destroyed. All my BBQ tools (and I had a lot of BBQ tools): gone.
No power, water or gas. A sharp, acrid smell of smoke permeating everything. The house is unlivable, and, as I came to learn later in the day, I won’t be moving back in for six months to a year.
Of course, it all could have been much, much worse. Even as I moved from room to room in my sleep-deprived haze, hundreds of homes were burning to the ground in Colorado. Lives had been lost. Meanwhile, my possessions were mostly intact, my loved ones were safe and I had insurance.
Even before I filed my claim, the ambulance chasers started gathering. During the fire, two different men representing companies that specialized in boarding up burned homes and providing initial cleanup services handed me their business cards. The first vaguely represented himself as semi-affiliated with the fire department (“We work very closely with them”) but quickly backed down after a couple of sharp questions. (A reporter’s instincts come in handy, on occasion.) The morning after the fire, as I sat on my stoop making phone calls, a steady stream of building contractors, cleanup and restoration service reps, and no less than three different “public insurance adjusters” walked up to me and started pitching their services. I hadn’t called anyone except my insurance company, but I guess bad news travels fast.
The public insurance adjusters were the most alarming of the bunch. These were guys angling to be hired to act as a go-between who would negotiate the terms of my insurance settlement with my insurance company. For a chunk of the final settlement, they would get me a better deal, they promised. On one level, it made sense: Of course my insurance company would try to keep its costs downs. But in my underslept, emotionally vulnerable state I really didn’t need this parade of smooth-talkers telling me how badly my insurance company was going to treat me. That same morning, when I talked for the first time with the claims adjuster assigned to me by my insurance company, I was warned to watch out for the “people” who would be coming out of the woodwork to get a piece of the action. It’s as if the sharks swarming around a sinking yacht were critiquing each other’s killing techniques before settling down to their meal.
As I listened to one public insurance adjuster talk about the necessity of getting my insurance company to pay for “forensic hygienists” who would ferret out hidden smoke damage, a van arrived with three young guys sent by the insurance company to board up the house. Another truck pulled up from a fabric-restoration company, come to take away every piece of clothing and linen I owned for dry-cleaning and smoke treatment. An environmental testing company arrived to check for asbestos.
Asbestos?! I’d been rummaging through the rubble with my bare hands, looking for some family photos that had disappeared from a shelf on my upstairs landing. If there were traces of asbestos in the debris, the claims adjuster told me, nearly everything in the house would have to be declared unsalvageable. My house, more than 100 years old, was a prime suspect.
I sought solace via my iPhone and Facebook. Amost 20 years after the Internet exploded into our lives, it is still fashionable to decry social media for the emotional shallowness of virtual community, but I found my smartphone-enabled connectivity to be a desperately welcome psychological lifesaver. Overwhelmed by my immediate reality, I would post a picture of my burnt lemon tree or molten spice-grinder and friends and family scattered across the world would weigh in with support, jokes and helpful suggestions. A fight broke out over how my kitchen should be remodeled. Regular readers of mine know I have loved my iPhone ever since I purchased it, but in the wake of a disaster, it became almost inconceivably useful. It was my virtual office, my camera, my notebook, my library. Keeping its battery charged has become my prime daily logistical challenge.
During one Facebook conversation that day, my daughter chimed in again from France, asking if her scrapbook had made it through the fire unscathed. She had spent her junior year of high school in France, and upon her return, devoted many, many hours to creating an illustrated record of her year abroad that was as intricate and elaborate as a medieval bible. She said she had left it on the floor of her room, but when I eyeballed the bedroom I couldn’t find it. I didn’t search too hard. After learning about the possibility of asbestos contamination, I wasn’t too eager to sift through the piles of broken plaster heaped on the floor of her room.
Two days later, my house got a clean bill of health from the testing company. I revisited her room. As I looked through the debris I became increasingly alarmed and frustrated. Not only couldn’t I find the scrapbook, but the precious family pictures were also nowhere to be found.
It’s one thing to lose your blender and copy of “The Joy of Cooking” and giant philodendron because of a disaster caused by a grill fire gone awry. A bummer, but hey, my bad. That’s what Amazon and insurance money is for. But to lose my daughter’s scrapbook was unconscionable. True dereliction of duty. Bad, bad parenting.
I felt increasingly flustered, on the edge of tears. Desperate, I started opening the drawers of my daughter’s dresser, though there was no reason why she would have put her scrapbook there.
Drawer after drawer was empty, scoured clean by the fabric restoration company. Until I reached the last drawer, at the bottom left-hand side of the dresser. And there, carefully protected from the fire and the smoke and the water and the dust, I saw, to my amazed delight, not just the scrapbook, but also all the family photos that had gone missing.
The more I think about this the more amazed I become. The firefighters told me that the fire had been an especially tricky one; they’d had to play whack-a-mole as it darted through the back wall from the basement to the attic. They were operating in the dark, in an old wooden house — just a few days earlier, a similar house had caught fire and the owner had died before the firefighters could get to her. Yet somehow, in the midst of all that madness, one of the firefighters had had the presence of mind and sensitivity to gather together some items that obviously held emotional significance for my family.
Was it the same guy who came out of the house with my Macbook and told me that he had put the charger underneath a tarp over the coffee table “because I know what a bitch it is to get those replaced”? I don’t know. Was it the investigator who later attempted to console me by telling me that what I had done was not “a criminal act”?
“You made a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes. Hell, I once burned down my own barn, when a trash fire got out of control.”
I don’t know.
What I do know is that as I stared down at my daughter’s scrapbook, nestled next to a picture of my mother and grandfather, the tears started to flow for real. I was sandbagged by a sense of real human connection. For what seems like a lifetime I’ve been immersed in political warfare in which public sector workers — our teachers, our police officers, our firefighters — have become little more than proxies for partisan bickering. When we read about the bankruptcy of San Bernardino, Calif., someone is sure to point out the firefighter who is pulling down $150,000 grand, or complain about the cost of pension obligations. When we look at public sector layoffs, someone else immediately launches into a lecture about how government austerity is crimping economic growth. Mitt Romney tells us that the “lesson” of Wisconsin is that Americans don’t want to pay for any more teachers or firefighters or police officers and Democrats pounce. Obama’s last budget would cut federal support for firefighting services, but not by as much as the most recent House appropriations bill. The International Association of Firefighters claims that government cutbacks will result in thousands more layoffs nationwide. Republicans shrug — the IAFF is another Obama-supporting union.
And so the bullshit battle rages! Far too often, we’re forgetting what our public servants do. All I can think about, right now, is that even while risking his or her life to beat back the flames, a Berkeley firefighter took time out to make my daughter smile.
That firefighter deserves a raise. Put it on my next ballot, please.
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)