"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)
I don’t know what to do. I am happily married and pregnant with our first child. It’s been an easy pregnancy, and my husband is overjoyed, involved, and supportive. But there’s something between us that I just can’t shake and that time doesn’t seem to be healing.
Two days after I found out I was pregnant, he left for a long “bachelor’s weekend” (whatever happened to a simple party?) in Mexico. I wasn’t happy about it at all, as the groom and his friends are all douchey fratboy types, and I knew that their idea of “fun” might include activities that I was uncomfortable with.
But I also knew that it would have been unreasonable for him not to go – he had already paid for everything and one of our dear mutual friends, who is both gay and decidedly not a douche, would be there with him. I also trusted him because I knew how thrilled he was about becoming a father, and so I just quietly hoped that the weekend would consist largely of sitting around on the beach and drinking.
Well, I wouldn’t be writing you if that’s what had happened.
Though he called me every day to check in and reassured me that “nothing too crazy” was going on, I later found out that instead of sitting on the beach drinking, they had been going to parties so that the single members of the group could meet women, and on one occasion they went to a strip club. I get that in some cultures that’s a normal thing to do, but in my book, it’s stupid and offensive. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a prude. I’m fine with porn and I get that female bodies are nice to look at.
But if you’re in a committed relationship (married, say, or about to become so), then paying for real live women to take their clothes off and pretend to be sexually interested in you is tantamount to cheating. I just can’t imagine a reverse situation in which a man would feel fine with his woman being touched and sexually titillated by a bunch of nude men.
Not to mention the fact that a strip club in Mexico, a nation recently overrun with criminal organizations that do a healthy trade in human trafficking, is more than likely exploiting some or all of its female employees. Though my husband insists all he did was sit at the bar with a gay [male] friend and drink his minimum, I’m disgusted that he even supported the place with his cover fee.
My personal politics aside, though, it just hurts me to know that hours after we spoke on the phone, me leaving my second doctor’s visit feeling kind of sad and overwhelmed, him on the beach with a beer, he went to this place knowing full well how I would feel about it.
Maybe he was drunk at the time and didn’t really stop to consider how I would feel about it if I knew. But he certainly learned when he returned home and I coaxed the details out of him. I screamed, I cried. I may have even hit him when he tried to touch me. My rage was no doubt buoyed somewhat by new pregnancy hormones, but the pain was very real. After a while we spoke calmly, and he explained how awkward it would have been for him to sit in the parking lot while the rest of the group went inside, and how harmless sitting at the bar was, and how he doesn’t even like strip clubs to begin with.
It was perfectly rational. I might have done the same thing in his position, and I should have let it go there. But I couldn’t. Though outwardly I forgave him, I couldn’t look at him the same way for weeks. Every time I remembered hanging up with him that day, not knowing what he was about to go do (though he knew exactly what his plans for the evening were), I literally winced in pain. I was injured and I didn’t know how to heal.
Over time, I willed myself to not think about it. Unfortunately, there are reminders everywhere: specifically, his friends. They maintain a group text from their trip in which they exchange bawdy jokes and the occasional reference to the stripper who performed a lap dance for the groom. I have to see them socially from time to time and pretend not to hate and disrespect them.
God or Cary help me, I just can’t stop feeling horrible. It’s been six months, and while I’m not dwelling on it constantly anymore, I become ill for hours (if not days) every time it comes up.
About two hours ago, out of the blue, the scene popped into my head again. I tried to think of something else, but instead I felt anger and sadness overwhelm me physically and my mind began to race. (Incidentally, if you ever want to feel really bad about feeling bad, try doing it when you have a child growing inside of you.) I’m still trapped by this feeling and these thoughts, and I’m so sick of it.
I love my husband dearly — that’s probably why I felt so betrayed. And I can’t stand that, at random, I will lose a few hours of my life to hating him over this one mistake. In the scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter, right? He didn’t cheat on me, he wasn’t the ringleader of this band of morons, and he called me twice every day to check in on me while he was away.
I’ve Googled “letting go of anger” and tried to apply what I’ve read. Nothing seems to be working. Please don’t tell me it’s just hormonal. I’ve had a few silly emotional moments, but for the most part I’m sane.
At least, I think I am. Why can’t I truly forgive him and move past this? Please help. It feels so horrible to have this Jekyll-and-Hyde dynamic governing my love.
Carrying More Than a Baby
Dear Carrying More Than a Baby,
Eventually all wives will come to see that masturbating to porn and getting lap dances from strippers are vital, healthy activities for their husbands, and they will encourage their husbands to do it more often, not less — and in public! No need to hide! Men who have felt ashamed by their sexual enjoyment of the degrading objectification of women can now come out and start masturbating to porn on the front lawn. Soon all the men of the neighborhood will be outside on the front lawn watching porn and masturbating.
Instead of being hidden away in dark strip clubs, strippers will come to the front door and perform while the children eat breakfast, and everything will be healthy and above-board the way it should be. Children will learn in a healthy way that masturbating to porn and going to strip clubs are healthy, invigorating activities, and the children themselves can then begin masturbating to porn at a much earlier age, and strip clubs can begin admitting younger and younger patrons, which will help ensure that this important American institution maintains economic vibrancy.
Oh, but you say you find the idea of your husband going to strip clubs offensive. Why might that be? Aren’t strippers admirable entrepreneurs, willing participants in the free market?
Why would you find your husband’s enjoyment of strip clubs offensive? Might it be that you find it offensive because it represents something that is truly offensive? And what might that be? Might the selling of women’s bodies be in some way offensive, as the selling of slaves’ bodies is offensive?
I think it’s pretty clear that something in the human spirit rejects the notion that a human body can be sold.
Of course there is an occupational difference between a stripper and a prostitute. The difference is real and important for the woman doing the work, but for the customer, it is only a matter of degree. Psychologically, it is the same thing: He is paying for a woman’s body — not for her personality or her interests or her longings and cravings and wit and all those human things that make her who she is, but for her body, which he then symbolically owns and does with whatever he wishes.
Something about this deeply offends you, and it’s not about the sex. It’s about women’s position in society.
So let’s stop saying that women are upset about porn because there is something wrong with the women. Strip clubs may treat their employees well and the employees may claim they are doing it voluntarily, but a strip club symbolizes a dark political truth of women’s lives. For you, it symbolizes what it feels like to be a woman in our society.
That your husband does not recognize this disturbs you.
So you need to make the argument — the painful, upsetting, destabilizing argument — that relations between you and your husband are not outside of society and history and that your relations are part and parcel of relations between slaves and masters worldwide. They are part and parcel of relations between the weak and the powerful; they are part and parcel of relations between first-worlders and third-worlders, between developed nations and developing nations, between Caucasians and Hispanics and Asians and blacks, between children and adults, between working class and professional class, between urban and rural. You have to have the painful conversation that recognizes that romantic love does not exempt you from your other social roles, from the effect on society of what you accept and what you do not accept.
You have to state the case that, as a woman, you believe strip clubs portray, or enact, the real power imbalance between women and men, and this power imbalance is so politically wrong and so personally painful that for him to enjoy its representation makes it feel like he is the enemy.
It is quite upsetting for a man to wake up and realize that the woman he loves has discovered him to be the enemy. But when we men honestly confront our own upbringing and assumptions, we conclude that in certain cases we are indeed the enemies of women’s freedom. We do indeed enjoy our privileges and do not necessarily want to give them up. Then we must do the hard work of taking ourselves apart and putting ourselves back together again.
Depending on the social milieu we grew up in or are enmeshed in, it might be impossible for us to leave our sexist milieu. We might have to abandon our friends; we might have to live by a code that puts us in the minority of men. We might have to forgo certain experiences others take for granted, much as the alcoholic forgoes the casual drink, or the believer forgoes certain pleasures in following his faith.
I suggest if you find yourself alone with your feelings that you align yourself with feminist women and find a rhetorical, intellectual and ideological home for your intuitive and emotional grasp of the situation.
It’s not just in your pretty little head, darling. Or, as one concerned citizen of the world puts it, “Just because you get an erection when you see a woman being objectified onscreen doesn’t mean women deserve to be objectified.”
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)