"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)
On November 2, 2004, at the moment John Kerry lost Florida, I was on a dark highway in northern Wisconsin, happy to be with Zach, and happy that he was driving. I was aware of the nearness of his arm to mine on the center console and the neat way he trimmed his fingernails. I was also aware of the blackness of the forest that surrounded us and the threat of deer crossing our path. As we drove, Zach entertained me by spotting them. He had seen six by the time I saw one: just a pair of silver eyes staring out from the dark woods. Years later, driving through a different forest in a different state, he showed me how to spot them, but there on that night in the north woods of Wisconsin, I was content for him to guide.
I was a city girl, after all. I’d moved to Wisconsin seven weeks before, though by election night it felt like it had been longer. I’d chosen Wisconsin strategically: It had 10 electoral votes and was the swingiest of swing states. I was idealistic, a new college graduate, a life-long Democrat. I began work — calling voters, knocking doors, distributing yard signs — the day I arrived in Green Bay.
A week later, back in Massachusetts, my 52-year-old dad suffered a heart attack. I hurried to buy a flight home, but he phoned from the ICU and told me to stay put and to keep on working. A week after that, my grandmother died, but not before she told me, from her deathbed, to “Give ‘em hell.” She meant Republicans.
I flew home on a grief ticket for the funeral. At the wake, between bouts of weeping, my dad and I talked political strategy with my uncles. Grieving, we consoled ourselves with assurances of Democratic victory. Surely, my grandmother could not have died in vain. More than once I imagined her meting out cosmic justice, working through me to ensure Kerry’s election. I was convinced my suffering would be balanced by joy come November.
I returned to Wisconsin on the first of October. The sign in our office announced, “Thirty-three days left to change the world!” With my grandmother gone, my father infirm, the work felt more difficult, more urgent. Away from my family, I found solace in 16-hour workdays. Plus, while I’d been away, Zach had arrived. He was the campaign’s Rural Organizer, and he looked the part: bearded and milk-fed. For 33 days we eyed each other while making voter ID calls. Late on election night, when pairs were dispatched to remote precincts, his eyes caught mine. I nodded.
We entered the woods before any results had been reported. Soon both our cell phones went silent. Radio stations flickered in and out. Zach tuned and re-tuned. The sleeve of his wool coat brushed my hand each time he sought a new signal. When the voice of a newscaster cut through the static, we fell silent, waiting, it seemed, for news from another land entirely. Outside our car, away from these dense woods, in elementary schools and senior centers across the nation, machines and volunteers tallied votes, the numbers accumulating toward an irrefutable verdict. Inside our warm car, crowded with yard signs and campaign fliers, we tallied deer. We knew only hope. I removed my mittens, laying my fingers just millimeters from Zach’s arm.
Florida’s loss — announced amid the static and darkness — breached the purple Nissan’s defenses. We shouted and recoiled from the radio. Our hands flew up in momentary protest before coming to rest between us, intertwined, electric. I gripped Zach’s palm as we desperately reviewed electoral arithmetic. Could Kerry win with Michigan’s 17 plus Nevada’s 5 plus maybe one more from Maine? Silently, I did my own macabre accounting. Hadn’t I given enough: my father’s heart, my grandmother’s life? I studied Zach’s hand — blue veins, blonde hairs, neat fingernails — to keep myself from weeping.
It was my first Relationship, and I was suitably Reckless. Within days we’d planned a life together. In Wisconsin, I said. In Massachusetts, he said. In a swing state, we decided. We’d have a boatload of children named for Democratic icons. Jack, Teddy, Billy and Eleanor would be old enough to go door-to-door by 2012, wouldn’t they? The passion that had driven us to jump into campaigning with both feet, to give ourselves away to a cause, now bound us together. My grief was reborn into a love that felt destined to be. I’d lost so much so quickly, but loving Zach made me feel as if I’d won. In ’08, we vowed, he would lead us as we avenged the wrong we’d felt on that night in the North Woods.
Politics had brought us together, but I loved Zach for more. He never reclined his seat on buses or planes, lest he encroach on the person seated behind him. He possessed a bag of equipment for trimming his beard, a vanity he tended daily. When we moved to Virginia — a congressional race — he promised to make me furniture, puttering and cursing in the basement for hours before emerging with a table like a newborn fawn, leggy and unstable. He called me “babe,” an endearment no one before or after him ever attempted, much less pulled off.
When he moved to Iowa in 2006 — working first for a congressional race, then for Tom Vilsack’s short-lived presidential campaign and finally for Hillary Clinton’s more drawn-out affair — we agreed that it didn’t make sense for me to follow. He was never sure to what region he’d be assigned or for how long. He would carry on living our dreams while I worked and applied to medical school in Massachusetts. I visited as often as possible.
At first, long layovers and weather cancellations were merely small obstacles in our march to ’08. But the campaign trail began to wear on me, even as it grew on Zach. I could plan weeks in advance, arranging airline tickets and vacation days, but political events — Vilsack dropping out, Terry McCauliffe stumping for Hillary — trumped romance every day of the week. That first summer, the peppers and tomatoes we’d potted on Zach’s porch withered for lack of care. The following summer, we never considered potting plants.
One winter Sunday, driving between Des Moines and Davenport, we were caught in an ice storm. Parts of I-80 were closed, and a three-hour ride stretched to nine. We worried we would run out of gas. Power outages made it impossible to fill up. In Iowa, adversity never brought us together. Inside the purple Nissan, we fought bitterly about what would come next.
“Can’t we just take some time for us?” I begged.
“Here we are! Together! That’s all I need. I’m happy just being near you.”
But he didn’t look happy, and I needed something else. I felt disloyal for wanting something more than the noble life we had imagined for ourselves.
We counted stranded cars along the side of the interstate, state police-issued neon flags glistening from the snow-covered roofs.
On January 3, 2008, when Hillary Clinton lost the Iowa caucus, I was in Muscatine, Iowa, a small town in the state’s southeast corner. Zach was nearly an hour northeast in Davenport. I’d told him to send me wherever I was needed, but I didn’t expect to be dispatched to another city.
At the caucus, they counted bodies rather than ballots, but I chauffeured just one elderly body on that frigid January night. For an hour, I sat with my charge in the school gymnasium, sipping sugar-free lemonade while she regaled me with stories of playing piano for Teddy Kennedy during JFK’s 1960 campaign. A few more Clinton supporters trickled in, taking their own cups of lemonade and sitting heavily in scattered folding chairs. Moments later, the Obama caucus-goers marched into the gymnasium as a unit and formed themselves into vaguely martial lines. I marveled at their number and agility.
That night I returned to Davenport on Highway 22, winding along the western banks of the Mississippi. Temperatures had been hovering below zero, and I was alone in a rental car. I was wearing gloves beneath mittens, tights under jeans. For a long stretch, Zach didn’t answer his phone. I learned that Hillary had lost statewide when my dad called. He joked that spending election nights on Midwestern highways was becoming a bad habit. I laughed, but I, too, had been remembering that other election night, warm with Zach in the North Woods.
Later, in Davenport, Zach got drunk, and I put him to bed. The next morning he drove to Des Moines for an important campaign meeting, and I packed up the wreckage of his apartment before flying home. This, of course, was the beginning of the end — for our relationship and for Hillary’s candidacy — but equal parts denial and optimism made that hard to recognize. I was not yet ready to give up on destiny.
After Iowa, Zach darted to South Carolina and then to Wisconsin, racking up loss after crushing loss. He took enough time off the campaign trail to call it quits in person. Afterward, he packed the Nissan and drove from Massachusetts to Ohio, arriving just days before Clinton won the primary.
In the months of mourning that followed, I was often incredulous, unable to accept that our relationship, and our dreams, had dissolved. I spent most of that season confused, personally and politically. All the Democrats I knew were picking sides. I kept the Hillary sticker on my car and told anyone who asked about her superior healthcare plan — with its utterly pragmatic individual mandate — and her workhorse Senate record. But my passion was gone. Come June, Clinton’s surrender didn’t provide any closure. In August, my therapist told me it was perfectly normal to cry throughout the Democratic National Convention. While every other Democrat I knew was swept up by Obama’s idealism, I cynically resisted. Hope didn’t impress me. Zach and I had had hope.
Still, in October, I dutifully volunteered for the Democratic ticket. I spent weekends knocking on New Hampshire doors. The foliage was magnificent, but the field offices bustling with idealistic 22 year olds left me cold. Waiting to receive my walk list from a particularly energetic young staff person, I felt as old as the Iowan pianist. I thought, sadly, of the failed Kerry-Edwards campaign. For years, I had told myself that meeting Zach had made up for that loss. I’d taken his hand — blue veins, blond hairs, neat fingernails — and forestalled sorrow.
But there in New Hampshire, while tallying the yard signs that decorated antique farmhouses, I realized how wrong I had been. In 2004, my father had been ill, my grandmother had died, and John Kerry had lost the election. Loving Zach had not changed any of it. For too long I’d counted our love as compensation for heartache, my due after a season of sacrifice. How important it had felt, then, to come out ahead, to win! But life doesn’t have a balance sheet. Love and loss cannot be counted like ballots, or yard signs, or deer.
On November 4, 2008, when Obama won the presidency, I was in Quincy, Mass., in my parents’ den, watching Wolf Blitzer on TV. By November, the imminence of Democratic victory had rekindled my old enthusiasm.
I don’t know where Zach was working that night, and I thought of him, sadly, as the polls came to a close. But I was glad to share the triumph with my family. We shed tears, all five of us, when Wolf called the race, and again when Obama appeared in Grant Park. Outside our house, away from our warm den, in campaign offices and in labor halls and in yard-sign-filled sedans across the nation, 22-year-old Democrats were celebrating their success. They knew hope and fatigue and the righteousness of victory. They did not yet know disappointment or sorrow. Inside our house, in the blue light of the television, Obama’s victory could not redeem my losses. But it felt spectacular anyway.
Liz Quinn is a writer and a family physician living north of Boston.More Liz Quinn.
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)