"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 am writing to ask your advice on how to proceed with my father. Five years ago this month my mother got her diagnosis of liver cancer, the day of her 60th birthday. Her initial diagnosis was six to 12 months, and she passed after four years of treatment, so technically she “beat the odds.” She and my father saved scrupulously during their 40-year marriage — he working sometimes seven days a week, 12 hours a day as a union boilermaker (pressure-vessel welder) and she handling every other aspect of our lives. All he had to do was work, and she took care of the rest. We lived comfortably, and they were able to take four big vacations a year once retired.
He led a rough life before meeting my mother. His childhood ended at 14 when his father left his mother with four kids, and he had to work after school to feed the family, eventually going to vocational school instead of following his dream of being a doctor. He was in the Air Force in Vietnam as an engine mechanic and generally led a wild and carousing-oriented life until Mom came along and “tamed” him. Mom was one of those people who saw the best person you could be when she looked at you, and behaved accordingly, expecting you to do the same.
He’s always been a curmudgeon, virulent racist, and an alcoholic of the “happy drunk” variety. It’s out of fear of becoming the same kind of alcoholic that I did not imbibe until age 28. But when he is with small children, he is the most gentle and kind of men. He never once raised a hand against me, my sister or mother when he was angry, although cruel words went between him and my sister on many an occasion. He is pro-choice, pro-legalization, pro-union, anti-nuke, yet has been a staunch Republican for five decades. A man of contradictions — in other words, a human being.
As he was with children, so he was with Mom when things got bad. Her last six months were typical for those whose cancer has finally spread to the entire body. Dementia, kidney and liver failure and a host of maladies combined meant that he did not sleep or leave the house in that time. My sister bailed. I live 3,500 miles away and could not come out as often as I would have liked. He was her live-in nurse, Cary, until the last week of her life when she could no longer bear to see him so strained and she finally went into hospice. And all of this while fighting his own lung cancer! I thought this is a good man, this is the best man I have ever known. I wept for how he cared for her. I’m crying now remembering it, a year later.
When she died, everything changed. That week we cleaned out all of her clothes, filed away all the pictures. The family put together a poster of pictures from key moments in her life and he sent those pictures to me. We shipped her dog out to our house in California because he didn’t want to go to the expense of boarding her while on vacation. My sister, who finally showed up two days before Mom passed, flipped out that he was “erasing her.” I was sure at the time that it was just the pain of seeing the evidence of her life all around him. I’m not so sure now. He went to Atlantic City with two barflies and got blackout drunk, not recalling three hours of time where his knuckles got bloodied and his wallet got emptied. He recalls this with a flippant laugh. He took a five-week solo vacation to Aruba, their destination as a couple for over a dozen trips, and there were no feelings of memory from what they did together. He just experienced it as though he had never been before, context-free. Visiting home last week, I was astonished at the volume of liquor bottles in the recycling bin and in the kitchen. He’s diabetic and the house is full of cookies. He’s dating one of the barflies now. He will not speak to me or anyone about the issues. He just watches endless, endless sports on their widescreen TV. He’s coming out West for Christmas week at a lodge with the family, and “all he needs is a gallon of gin.” And so on, and so on.
How can I bring into focus the two pictures of this man — can this be the same person? The man that cleaned the filth from my mother when she continually mistook the staircase for a toilet is the man who now appears to be pressing the remaining time he has against a grindstone of vices? We might as well be strangers passing time on an airplane ride, not father and son. I’m reminded of a comment Werner Herzog makes in the movie “Grizzly Man”: “What haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a savior.”
Am I Timothy Treadwell? Am I my mother, seeing the best, behaving accordingly, expecting him to do the same, and finding he’s playing by a different set of rules entirely now that the referee is gone? Is this man I have idolized just a blank stare and a bottle? Is it possible for a human being to go through all that he has and learn absolutely nothing of value from it? How can I get through to him?
Thanks at least for reading this far,
Adrift Without A Map
You ask, Which is the real person? This question arises naturally from the alcoholic condition: Is the real person the one who is gentle with children and complex in his outlook? The one who cared for his wife to her dying day? Or the one whose kitchen is full of liquor bottles, who only wishes for a gallon of gin?
To many of us, the alcoholic appears to be two people. He is in fact one person with an affliction that radically changes his personality. He is one man. He is one man who, if he is sober will behave one way, and if he is drunk will behave another. And the hard truth of it, born out countless times, seems to be that until he stops drinking he will continue to be divided, but more and more he will be the drunk; the drunk side will grow and the former self will diminish until finally you cannot even see that former man, that loving, caring, responsible man, and all you see is a tragic failure.
This can be reversed if he stops drinking. But everything we know about alcoholism indicates that your father will continue to behave like a divided soul until he stops drinking.
His drinking is probably compounded by his grief. He may have held it together while his wife was alive. He had a mission and he completed it. Now he may feel that he can drink as much as he wants. It may feel like a kind of reward to him. But it is also his way of dealing with the pain of grief. He probably masks this; his idea of a man requires him to mask this grief.
Meanwhile you are the one who can take action. You can’t fix your dad but you can take steps to make his behavior more understandable. You can find support for your own grief and your own feelings about what he’s doing. The place for that is Al-Anon. I suggest you begin attending Al-Anon meetings in your area.
It may also be helpful to just look at the fact of loss. He has lost someone. You have lost someone. You have lost her and you have lost him. He has lost her and he has lost himself. So there is a lot of loss. Loss brings pain and we have the temptation to dull the pain. But loss also brings a new beginning, however painful it may be. So you might gauge the healthiness of how loss is dealt with by asking how the new beginning is going. Have you made a new beginning? What does it look like? What is this new beginning? And maybe you are not ready to make a new beginning. Maybe he is not ready to make a new beginning yet.
I was talking to someone the other day who had had a stupendous loss and was down at the bottom of a big pit of loss and could not climb out and was feeling terrible about not being able to climb out. I suggested that perhaps it was not necessary — not to mention not possible — to climb out. I suggested that she think about just staying down there in the pit for the time being. This seemed to be a new perspective that had not yet been offered to her. Her grief counselor had been encouraging her to get up and make a plan and get busy with her new beginning. That is of course necessary but it is also necessary at times to simply accept our condition. If we have had a great loss, we may need to stay down in the pit for a while. It is hard to sit with feelings. It takes discipline and sometimes it takes some kind of technique. I may say, Well, just sit with the feeling and you may say, But how? Literally sit. Literally sit with it. Let it fill you, but do not do anything with it; you do not need to act it out by drinking, nor do you need to fight it by pretending. It is OK to just sit with it. Meditation is a good way to sit with it. Just sit and watch your breath come in and out. Buddhism has a lot to say about how to sit with things. You might seek out a teacher of Buddhism to help you sit with things. Maybe your father could seek out a teacher of Buddhism too. You could sit together with this.
Eventually he will have to stop drinking. Little good will come of sitting with things until he can stop drinking. But perhaps sitting with his feelings will lead to a moment of clarity in which he sees that his wonderful life is slipping away and he needs to ask for help.
In Al-Anon, people can give you advice about how to deal with the fact that your father will not stop drinking. There are things you can try. You can try an intervention. But you first must accept the difference between what is in your control and what is not. It is within your power to stage an intervention but it is not within your power to stop your father from drinking. I trust you can see the difference.
This is a very sad thing and I feel a welling up of compassion and sadness. This is a good man who needs help. He doesn’t know what has happened to him. There is help available but I suggest you be the first one to seek help. Like they say, put your own oxygen mask on first.
Good luck, my friend.
p.s. Here is an interesting essay by John J. McDermott, Ph.D., on the philosopher William James and the notion of the divided soul as it relates to alcoholism.
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)