"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)
Stealing was my first addiction. It took hold in my early childhood and outlasted my later drug use, like a cockroach in a nuclear holocaust.
One of my earliest memories—I was five or six—is of stealing chocolate from a cafe in London. It was a Trio bar, divided into a “trio” of chocolate, caramel and biscuit squares. They don’t make them any more. I saw it in the fridge and my imagination worked at tearing off the foil packaging, shoving the first square into my mouth, feeling the chocolate melt over my tongue… But I didn’t have it, and that was intolerable, so I took it.
My father, the local evangelical pastor, put me to bed that night. The Trio was carefully hidden under my pillow, and Dad put his hand there and found it. I felt a shame that’s been with me ever since. The next day, I was forced to return the chocolate to the cafe owner. As I mumbled my apology, I noticed the adults grinning at each other and sharing looks I didn’t understand. I was humiliated.
I carried on stealing. I stole Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle trading cards from my friend’s big sister. I stole a Garfield book from a classmate’s bag. I even went round the neighborhood in southern England, where I grew up, charging people a pound to enter a fake competition. Stealing is always seen as bad, but when you’re the son of a pastor, it’s somehow worse. I always felt proud to see my father command the congregation’s attention every Sunday, but I knew I could never meet the high moral expectations of my parents’ faith. Maybe, as I look back on it, stealing was a way to take the power back, maybe it was a subversion of everything my parents stood for. That rush of power, followed by heightened senses and sickly-sweet paranoia, that feeling of “will I be caught?” intoxicated me.
I’ve often wondered how many other people start stealing compulsively at such a young age, so I asked a couple of experts in the field. Terrence Shulman is the founder and director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding, and the author of Something for Nothing, a book on compulsive shoplifting. He says that it’s common for compulsive thieves to begin as young as age five. “Most people start off stealing a little bit in their earlier lives in reaction to emotional distress,” he says. “Losses, trauma, betrayal, financial issues—and it becomes worse over time. But some also develop stealing behaviors later in life.” He continues, “It is quite common that young children are over-disciplined or abused or shamed for various things…and it can leave a scar and cause them to rebel, often secretively, into law-breaking behaviors such as stealing.”
Dr. Jeff Gardere is a psychologist and the author of two books on parenting. “We do see very young children who begin to steal and it is a sign of some emotional disturbance, a lack of permanence in their lives or a psycho-symbolic way to fill the void in their lives,” he tells me. “That void may come from a lack of love from parental figures, or from emotionally unhealthy environments.” He also agrees with me that stealing “may be a way of taking back power from a strictly disciplined childhood…breaking out of the very strict upbringing and rigid rules by engaging in rule-breaking and sometimes chaotic behavior.”
My shame and guilt grew. I found myself barely able to look at the things I stole, but I couldn’t stop. In the end, I just hid that side of me away—the side that stole and lied—until it felt like my personality had split: I was both my parents’ shiny-shoed boy and a hidden, Gollum-like creature. But the years 11-15 became a relatively stable and happy time for me. My family moved to a small town and my father left the church to pursue a business career. I got a paper round and a brand new bike, and the strict discipline relaxed. I had more freedom to be myself, and I stopped stealing—until, that is, I started on the drugs.
Of course, substance use causes stealing for practical reasons: “I’ve estimated that about 15-20% of people who chronically shoplift or steal are doing so primarily to support an underlying drug and/or alcohol habit,” says Shulman. But does the relationship go deeper? The fact that I started stealing long before I took drugs suggests to me that it does. “Compulsive stealing may be associated with substance addictions in that they both are a self-medication for deeper emotional issues,” says Gardere. “Scientifically, the unconditioned stimulus which is drugs brings an unconditioned response, which is being high. Eventually the conditioned stimulus becomes stealing, and the conditioned response becomes getting high. In essence, stealing has been paired with drugs for so long that stealing alone becomes the high.” And Shulman confirms that “I have worked with many recovering alcoholics and drug addicts who’ve reported to me that even after they’ve gotten clean and sober, they still have struggled with compulsive stealing.”
By the age of 16, I was smoking half an ounce of high-grade cannabis every week. I sold it, rolled it and smoked it all day. In the mornings I’d open my eyes, confused and cotton-headed, roll off my bed, slide a Marilyn Manson CD into the player and open my draw to check I still had weed. One day, the draw was empty. Panic. My first thought was to steal the £20 I needed for an eighth. Weed was my cloaking device and going to school without it was unthinkable, so I slunk into my dad’s office. I opened his top drawer and felt rotten. I opened his wallet: Shit! Only £15. I remember thinking, “He’s bound to notice if I take it all,” and taking it all, anyway. Then I crept into my brother’s room to make up the other £5 from his carefully hoarded coins. My guts felt like they’d turned to stone.
The more I stole, the worse I felt; the worse I felt, the more I wanted drugs, and the more I needed to steal. It wasn’t long before I went for the big score. My dad’s change of career was proving lucrative. My parents started to build a three-story extension onto our suburban home. Builders were smashing down walls, working on scaffolding and laying bricks, and they needed to be paid. One typically desperate morning, I found an envelope with about £400 in it in the top draw of my parents’ dresser: a quarter of it went into my pocket. I couldn’t let myself think about what I was doing, and focused instead on the drugs it would buy.
I arrived back home late and found both parents waiting for me. “How could you?” yelled my dad. “Your brothers and sister would never do this. Why?” shouted my mum. “I don’t know,” I whispered to the ground. Then my father punched me on the jaw and I fell down. Later he apologized, and I replied, “It’s OK. I would have hit me too.”
I wish I could say I stopped. But my drug habit only grew. I managed to control my stealing temporarily, by taking a part-time job at the local supermarket and dealing on the side. At university, things got worse still.
I became a total booze and coke fiend as a student. I worked two part-time jobs, where I was noted for my extreme unreliability. I was fired from one job as a kitchen porter four times, but always begged my way back in. I took every student loan and credit card going, and gleefully ran up huge debts. I lied to the university hardship fund—a lot. I told them my parents were getting divorced and I had no money for food. Then I lied to my parents and told them I had no money for rent and my books were too expensive.
After university heroin largely took over from booze and cocaine, and my house of cards tumbled. My parents could no longer deny to themselves how much trouble I was in: I mean, I was homeless and just could not stop taking smack. So they packed me off to rehab. I came out and stayed clean for a few months, refrained from stealing and lived within my tiny means in a small town in northern England. But there were no jobs up there, so I decided to move in with my grandmother in London, in the hope of finding work and a new life.
I certainly found a dealer pretty quick. And as using gripped me again, I found it harder and harder not notice my grandmother’s PIN, which she entered with trembling hands at the ATM whenever I took her shopping. Tiredness can make it much harder to make the right choices, I tell myself. I was certainly tired the day I “let myself” learn her PIN—late-night crack binges will do that to you. From then on, my grandmother’s money might as well have been in my dealer’s hands already.
She kept asking me, “Why are you always tired?” and “Why are you not doing anything?” I gave in to the temptation of her bank account on the day of the Royal Wedding. I watched on TV as Kate walked up the aisle 10 miles away, gritting my teeth and telling myself I wasn’t going to steal, wasn’t going to use. William kissed Kate. I got up, took my grandmother’s bank card, called out, “I’m just going to meet a friend,” and shut the door behind me.
A few days later I rang my mother and told her what I’d done. I felt full of poison. She arrived the next day to take me back to my parents’ new home in Wales. The courage it took me to call up my mum and confess gave me a little piece of much-needed evidence that I wasn’t a bad person. Even so, I found, as I left my grandmother in tears, that I couldn’t feel ashamed any more. Some things are too horrible for guilt. I retreated inside myself and wondered if I’d finally broken everything.
But that little piece of honesty was the start of a healing process. In those months living back at home, I was honest with my mum about my problems for the first time. And the more honest I was, the less ashamed I felt. I stayed clean from drugs and stealing during this time, through a combination of 12-step meetings and the much-maligned “geographic” cure.
So is kleptomania a “real” addiction? No, says the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which classifies it only as an “impulse control disorder.” Experts answer the question in different ways. “Kleptomania is classified as an impulse control disorder and is a relatively rare condition,” notes Shulman. “But I do believe stealing can become addictive for many people, as it mimics addiction to other negative behaviors such as gambling. I think it can be labeled as an addiction in certain but not all cases.” Gardere says, “Stealing can be an addiction in that it can be very compulsive and is a self-medication for either reducing anxiety or combating depression. But he cautions, “Stealing by itself should not be seen as an addiction; rather the feelings that cause one to act out and steal are usually diagnosable, such as the anxiety, depression, or even compulsions/OCD.”
The last time I stole was only just over a year ago. I was drunk after a gallery opening in the town center. I wouldn’t call it a relapse—you have to have a program in order to relapse, and my relationship with the 12 Steps was a bit like one you’d have with a dirty diaper: arm’s length with my nose in the air. I was walking up one of the many hills in Wales and passed an all-night bar where I sometimes performed poetry. I was broke but I popped in, hoping the owner would give me a free drink, which he did. Then he told me he was short-staffed for the night shift. Was I interested?
I took complete advantage. I drank lashings of tequila, short-changed the customers and stole money from the register. Not that I really needed the cash—I was to be paid at the end of the shift—but it was that old power-rush, combined with being too drunk to stop myself. I never got another shift, and I still don’t know if it was because of the drinking, or the stealing, or whether the owner never noticed anything.
Today, I’m 27 and have a recovery based on meditation and Buddhist principles. It’s not exactly what everyone recommends—”It’s important that any drug addict receive specialized counseling for drug addiction and stealing addiction,” says Shulman, “and that he or she ideally read books on both topics and attend support groups on both topics”—but it’s what I do.
Every day I try to cultivate a calm and quiet mind and a peaceful, harmonious existence. Instead of focusing on “giving up” or “stopping” taking drugs and drink, I just practice my meditation and observe the principles. A former addict who was a meditation teacher of mine told me that if do this, my addiction will weaken and eventually fall away—and it feels that it has.
I find that if I break a universal law—what Buddhists would call Dhamma—I disturb the balance of my mind, and if that happens, I’ll eventually seek a cure with a bag of dope. So I try not to lie, or take advantage of people, or steal. Hell, I even quit smoking, and turned vegetarian so I wouldn’t be responsible for killing animals. Occasionally, I have an outbreak of old behaviors, but these instances are becoming less frequent the more I practice. The shame and guilt have less of a grip.
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)