"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)
WE WERE DRIVING away from Central London, past the British Museum and eastwards to High Holborn (a funny-peculiar section of town, these days mostly engaged in resisting attempts to rename it, for no apparent reason, “Midtown”) when it happened. It only lasted a minute and afterwards neither of us was sure exactly what had taken place. Or even if anything had taken place at all.
“Do you think we went into it?” I asked, in panic.
“But if we didn’t where were we supposed to go?”
“I couldn’t see any instructions. Did you see any instructions?”
This is what I don’t want to happen: unwittingly, and with no advantage gained, we drift into an Olympic Lane, and then we get a fine, which we decide to contest because we are absolutely convinced of our moral rectitude, and then we become embroiled in a Jarndyce v Jarndyce-style legal wrangle that lasts until we are sitting on upturned crates in our kitchen while bailiffs remove our belongings one by one in order to sell them on the street to people who have more sense and more natural ability to understand regulations than we do.
OK? So that is what I don’t want to happen.
You might think, on that basis, I would be quite motivated to follow the instructions of one Vernon Everitt, who writes to me more frequently these days than my kith and kin or even people to whom I owe money. Vernon, according to his emails, is the Managing Director, Marketing and Communications, of (I presume because this is whence his messages originate) Transport for London. Only this morning, he was in touch to give me the lowdown on the Olympic Route Network (ORN), the whys and wherefores of the Games Lanes and the dos and don’ts of going to see the Torch Relay as it processes around the capital this week. Should I require further info, he added, I could watch a short video.
On the basis of my fear of accidental law-breaking, did I do this? Did I press play and watch a short video? I did not. Why did I not? Because one day, and who knows when that day will come, I will breathe my last. And, despite all the minutes of my life that I have doubtless spent filling in forms, playing solitaire one-handed while on hold, waiting for the page to load, etc, etc, this was just a bridge too far. Fuck it. I’ll take my chances.
Not that I’m going to go looking for trouble. No way. I won’t for example, fall foul of the strict regulations governing the use of Olympic trademarks, particularly by attempting to bend them to my commercial advantage. I may even limit my reading of newspaper articles dedicated to examples of those who have been caught doing exactly this; bakers who have arranged doughnuts in the shape of the Olympic rings, butchers who have done similar with sausages, two guys in specs standing too close to another guy in a monocle and so forth. I will not attempt, as the official website helpfully explains, to do anything that suggests an association with London 2012 through use of images or text. (No mention, I note, of the natural world, which means that my red, white and blue window-boxes, planted thus quite by chance, are probably safe. Phew.)
Nor would I be stupid enough to turn up to the events for which I managed to get tickets making any use of the products of non-sponsors: munching away on non-McDonald’s burgers, for example, slurping my non-Coca-Cola, driving my non-BMW in my non-Adidas shoes. NO WAY.
On the contrary, what I am determined to do is to somehow wrestle into harmony two diametrically opposed sub-personalities: the quakily obedient citizen and the irritable anarchist. For once, I’d like neither to have the upper hand. I would prefer, for example, not to creep around London during the Olympic Games, worried lest I block the path of a passing dignitary or too put off by stories of crowds and queues to take to the bus or underground. I would prefer not to become the kind of person who calculates journey time according to the worst case scenario and then adds 50 per cent extra for good measure.
But neither do I want to become a complainer for whom the Games is at best a gigantic irritation and at worst an illustration of every manner of corporate and political ill. The endless reminders of the iron-clad tie-up between sport and sponsorship are maddening, to be sure; the ludicrous shambles surrounding the security arrangements a properly sobering example of the weaknesses of politicians to monitor the behaviour of private companies in their employ. On a micro-scale, one feels it is highly unlikely that the Olympics will pass without some severe personal inconvenience.
So be it. The world is coming to London because we invited them, and whatever you felt when we decided to throw the party, it’s too late to worry about it now. As the great British expression Family Hold Back – used to convey to hosts that there aren’t quite enough cakes to go around – has it, it’s time to put on a smile and go without.
Instead of being pushed around by either of these two gnarly sub-personalities, I shall attempt instead to channel my inner Tour de France supporter; easier done since a British cyclist – and a Mod at that – has just won it for the first time ever. Let’s face it, France, we practically own it now. For three weeks, I’ve been glued to the screen every afternoon and apart from becoming progressively awed by velocipedic achievements (“Cycle up a vertical slope in a million degrees and then launch myself down a rock-face? Yeah, sure! Though only if I can do it again tomorrow”) what I’ve most enjoyed is the derring-do of the crowds. French people/cycle nuts clearly don’t give a shit. They’ll stand on the edge of a precipice with no safety rail for nine hours in order to watch a side-burned blur in yellow go past. I don’t think they spend an awful lot of time worrying in case they’re in the wrong lane.
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)
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