"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 you for advice because I need it and from reading your column over time I have found you to be compassionate and perceptive and wise.
I would like advice on how to conduct myself. And I don’t want advice on how to conduct myself.
I am almost 24 years old. A year ago I moved to a new city to be with a young man I’d been dating for four years. We were long-distance all through college and loved each other a lot. We lived together all last year and broke up three months ago.
It was pleasant and comfortable but not the life I wanted. He and I grew up a lot during our relationship but our lifestyles remained quite different. I ended it because I felt the differences lay in personalities rather than habit, unlikely to change. It ceased to be what I wanted.
Newly single, I have made many new friends and am finally starting to feel like a part of a community in a city that still feels new.
Only now, it’s begun to feel small. I plunged into dating gleefully, enjoying the attention and novelty.
Because this city is small, my appearance on the scene has not gone unnoticed. I have been warned by well-meaning, and slightly older, friends that I should be discreet in my affairs. Open and honest but discreet. This advice angered me. I get huffy thinking about it. (How dare they tell me how to behave!?)
More background: I grew up in a small, strictly religious community. I went to a tiny religious school until high school. Briefly enjoyed a year and a half of public high school before my parents sent me to a religious boarding school at the other end of the state. Here I developed a highly irreverent sense of humor. I went to a small religious college and didn’t enjoy the culture. Worked through some angst with the god of my childhood, though.
Where I stand now is entirely new ground.
There are very few outside structures dictating my behavior. For the first time in my life, no school, no parents, no church, no old cold god, no committed relationship … I am free to find out how to live, what suits me. I am giddy.
And I’m finding romantic attention distracting. I don’t want another relationship; but I want to date. I want to work on myself. But I swear it’s raining men. I couldn’t be happier. Or I could. I don’t know.
And now that I’ve been advised to be discreet in whom I see and where I’m seen with them I realize people are talking about me. And part of me thinks, fuck ‘em. Doesn’t matter what they think. But part of me worries there will be unpleasant repercussions in the not-too-distant future. I’ve never been a character in a small town drama. Unless you count high school.
I was the new girl twice and each time felt overwhelmed by attention from boys. I enjoyed it but was also uncomfortable. I know much of it has to do with novelty on both sides. I don’t want to look foolish, to take it too seriously. But I also want to be a grown-up woman who can casually date and sleep with men.
So I guess, more than asking what to do, I’m asking how … How do I enjoy this new freedom (if that’s really what it is) while acknowledging I am part of a society — no woman is an island. And how do I continue to figure out new friendships and sexual relationships while allowing myself room to grow, face my demons, and evolve?
Since you do not want advice on how to conduct yourself — which I completely understand! — I suggest taking a different route. Observe what is going on around you — who is feeling what and why, and what role, if any, you play in other people’s feelings. Try to understand what others are feeling. Imagine yourself as them. Ask yourself in what ways your behavior might harm others, and how you might minimize that harm by making the many choices you are free to make.
Just pay close attention to others and think of their feelings. This may lead to changes in your conduct or it may not. If it does, that change won’t be imposed from without; it will be freely taken because you are compassionate and intelligent and sensitive. If it does not lead to changes, it may be that you truly cannot sense any harm to them. When we truly seek to understand, with compassion, what is happening to others, we naturally behave in a way that minimizes harm to them.
By the way, there are instances in which people just won’t like what you are doing and will call you names and try to draw you into disputes. The best you can do with that is just to be polite and kind and accepting of their disapproval.
Your decisions about your own conduct must be yours. Just know that unless you are a meek automaton you will encounter disapproval.
What we are talking about, really, is understanding emotional harm to others, how we can do it and how we bear responsibility for it. People are fragile and can be hurt and we do not want to hurt them if we can help it, even if their vulnerabilities seem ludicrous to us. For instance, some people are hurt when we denigrate their gods. This may seem foolish to us but when it is within our power not to hurt the feelings of others by denigrating their gods, I think we ought to choose the path of least harm. Even if their beliefs seem ludicrous to us. Even if their beliefs have been associated with great historical crimes. These are simply people. They are not responsible for historical crimes.
In order to rationally comply with community standards while maintaining autonomy, we try to understand what other people truly want; this may not be the same as what they say they want. It’s possible that the people who have warned you have other concerns. They may be seeking power over you. They may be seeking justification for their town’s customs. They may fear for you, as well. They may want to protect you from harm.
What might the true status of a certain young man be? Might he not really be completely broken-up with his girlfriend? Might he be cheating and might his visible affection for you come to her attention, might she feel hurt and jealous? Is there anything you can do to prevent that? That’s an instance where out of compassion for others you might make sure that you do not display great affection for him in public. So there’s that kind of thing. The jealousy of other women if you are dating men that they’re not quite done with yet. Also there are the hopes and aspirations of the young men you date. You mention that you do not want romance. So another way you can minimize harm to the young men you date is by being clear about this upfront. That doesn’t mean you have to restrict yourself. It just means trying to be sure they understand that you plan to date a lot of men and that you will resist any attempts to restrict your movements or enforce codes of exclusion.
These are the kinds of things that are probably going on. Since you were in a relationship with the same person for four years, you may not have developed the needed phrases and precautions.
I’m for maximum freedom and minimal pain. I suggest you try to show “due care” for community standards while exercising your god-given right to party and date as many men as you can fit into your schedule.
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)