"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)
If you go by the law of averages, a baseball player who gets a hit in seven consecutive at-bats is really pushing his luck when he steps to the plate for the eighth time. This is the logic that kept me from flying for more than 16 years.
My first four flights were all involuntary, products of the dictatorship that state and federal law grants parents over their offspring. So I had no recourse when Mom and Dad planned a family trip to Georgia in the summer of 1989. I was 9 years old and already suffering from a raging case of aerophobia. The proximate source of this affliction was the horrific tragedy of Pan Am Flight 103, which had exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, a few months earlier. The news reports had gripped me. I couldn’t stop thinking about what it must have been like for the passengers – sitting there comfortably, maybe talking, maybe sleeping, maybe watching a movie, and then in a micro-second a quick crack of noise followed instantly by … an eternity of nothingness. None of them ever saw it coming, or had any chance to do anything about it. The only way they could have saved themselves that day would have been by staying off that flight.
And now my parents wanted to force me onto one of these death traps?
Resistance was futile. They laughed off my concerns, told me how safe flying was, and made fun of me for my sudden obsession with 1970s disaster movies. Not that this did anything to reassure me. My fear had nothing to do with the statistical safety of flying. I was, even at age 9, well aware that the likelihood of dying in a plane crash was about the same as the odds of John Candy passing on dessert. It was the mere possibility of a catastrophe, one over which I would have absolutely no control, that terrified me. As a passenger in a car, I knew I’d have a fighting chance to save myself in a crash. But at 30,000 feet? My life would end instantly if anything went wrong: engine failure, a bomb, a wing falling off, the fatal poisoning of every crew member.
Measured against these possibilities, however remote, the idea of air travel felt preposterous. Sure, it would be nice to visit our family friends in Georgia, to stay in their gigantic house, to swim in their pool and go to a Braves game with them. But I imagined the plane trip down there. We’d be cruising along above the clouds, Mom reading her book, Dad reminiscing about his Naval aviator days, and my sister and I arguing with each other. Then some loud, awful noise would puncture the calm, and we’d be pointed nose-down, hurtling at 1,000 miles an hour toward a fiery end. Passengers would be screaming, my parents would be clinging to each other, my sister would be crying, and I’d be thinking: We could have just stayed home.
In the sitcom version of this story, my death-free flight to Georgia would have calmed me down and prompted me to tell my parents that they’d been right all along – flying was a piece of cake. In my real life, though, I chalked it up to dumb luck. On the days between flights, when we were supposed to be having fun, I was wracked by a sense of impending doom. The night before our return trip, I sat in a near-empty Fulton County Stadium watching the hapless Braves lose to the Padres. The clock read 9:58 p.m., and I instinctively did the math – 14 hours till takeoff; 14 hours till the end of my conscious existence. (Well, maybe 15 or 16 hours – we’d probably be well into the flight before the deadly event.)
Three summers later, my parents placed my life in peril again – this time in the name of visiting England. They announced their decision at dinner one night about six months before the trip. My fear of flying was even more pronounced now. I was older and smarter and capable of conjuring more disaster scenarios. This time I resolved to outwit my parents and win a reprieve.
I called Grandma. She was constantly pleading with my parents to send my sister and me down for a visit, and my sister and I were constantly pleading with my parents to ignore her. But now a week with Grandma in her retirement community sounded like a splendid idea. I outlined my objections to air travel in a reasonable manner and asked if I could stay with her. I assured her we’d have a great time playing Uno. This was fine with Grandma, and my relief was palpable. Yes, I was sad that my parents and sister were facing likely death, but at least I would survive to carry on the family name.
But when Grandma told Mom and Dad about this plan, they saw right through it. So I moved on to Plan B: a summer astronomy program at a nearby observatory run by MIT. I had virtually zero interest in anything to do with outer space, but it was scheduled to run at the same time as our trip to England. Spots were limited, and the competition for them was intense; to win admission was a mark of distinction. Surely, if I could make the cut, my parents would be obligated by their immense pride to let me participate – and to skip England. Instead, the rejection letter felt like a death warrant.
That left me with one final, desperate option: illness. If I could make myself sick enough, my parents would have no choice but to leave me home. I mean, real sickness. An upset stomach or feverish feeling wouldn’t cut it. I needed undeniable evidence of a serious malady. So a week before the trip, I took off into the woods in search of poison ivy, plucking any plant even vaguely resembling it and rubbing it all over my face and body. Somehow, the itchy splotches failed to materialize, and the trip was on.
My next three flights were voluntary. The final of these was a school trip to England in my junior year of high school, which I immediately regretted. We were supposed to fly direct from Boston to Heathrow, but a freak snowstorm forced us to take a tiny puddle-jumper to New York first. Those remain the 40 most horrifying minutes of my life.
When we finally returned home, I vowed that I’d never fly again. I’d pushed my luck enough, and soon I’d be 18 – no one would be able to force me onto a plane again. This decision came with some trade-offs, but they didn’t bother me. So what if I didn’t study abroad? So what if I missed my cousin’s wedding in Europe? If I felt any regret, I’d just remind myself: The regret I’d feel when the plane’s engine exploded would be much, much worse.
9/11 didn’t help. I’d graduated college earlier that year and agreed to move out to L.A. with two friends on one condition: We would travel out there by car. Which meant we had to rent, so we booked a vehicle at Logan Airport and began our trip – at around the same time that terrorists boarded two L.A.-bound flights from Logan. There’s no guarantee we would have had tickets on one of those planes if I hadn’t been so nervous – there were many Boston-to-L.A. flights to choose from on 9/11 – but as we absorbed the tragedy on the car radio, I was chilled by the thought of how easily it could have been us.
As I grew into adulthood, though, saying no to flying became harder to manage. There were bachelor parties in far-off locales, opportunities to visit friends who’d moved overseas, and chances to cover political events in distant cities and states. I refused all of them. The risk/reward ratio still felt alarmingly imbalanced. I hated the nagging feeling that I wasn’t living, but were any of these trips worth dying for?
As my job writing about politics started to take off, I was forced to take elaborate measures to avoid air travel: painfully long bus rides with dozens of stops, absurdly roundabout multi-zone excursions on Amtrak, thousands of dollars in car rental costs. I had to cover both political conventions in 2008 – the Democrats in Denver and the Republicans in St. Paul a few days later. Everyone from my paper was flying out. I borrowed my grandmother’s car and hit the road, logging 4,200 miles in two weeks and narrowly avoiding disaster several times. In one careless moment, I was too busy fiddling with the CD player to take note of the stopped car ahead of me on the interstate; I looked up just in time to jerk the wheel and speed past it. There was also a blown fan belt outside Chicago and a coolant leak and overheated engine in Nebraska. I also may have grazed an elk in Colorado. For all of this, I returned home convinced I’d made the smart, safe decision.
“Why don’t you just take a drug to relax you?” people would always ask me. I would try to explain: The plane ride itself wasn’t really what bothered me. It was the days, weeks and months leading up to it. Tell me today that I have to fly somewhere next week, and I’ll barely be able to function between now and then. By refusing to fly, I removed all of that awful, needless stress from my life. At least that’s what I told myself.
Friends were also baffled at how easily I could handle other stressful-seeming situations. I’d appear on national cable TV shows with hundreds of thousands of people watching. Doesn’t that scare you more than sitting on an airplane for a few hours, they’d ask? All I could say was that if something went wrong on television, I’d be embarrassed. But if something went wrong in the air, I’d be dead.
I knew this was irrational, and I’d try to make light of it. People would remind me how safe flying is, and I’d respond with absurdly fabricated statistics. “Actually, plane crash is the second leading cause of death in the United States – right behind heart disease. We lost 575,000 people in airline fatalities just last year!” I also recognized the limitations it was imposing on my life. As the years went by, I found myself cataloguing the missed opportunities. I wanted to get over it, and I knew I could, but I needed a push.
For a while, I thought the key might lie in a relationship. The guy I was dating couldn’t understand my fear and continually prodded me to buy a ticket and fly somewhere. That was out of the question, but I did feel safe around him – enough that I could imagine getting on a plane if he was with me. I looked for excuses to take a trip together, but the relationship ended before we ever could. In the end, maybe it was the breakup that actually helped me. Suddenly single again, I wanted to prove to myself that I didn’t need the crutch of a relationship for strength – that I could find it on my own. Flying solo was an obvious way to do it.
And then, earlier this year, came an opportunity: A work trip without much lead time. It was the kind of thing I’d been saying no to all my life, but this time I said yes – and I meant it. Well, mostly.
I was still incredibly nervous. I prefaced any discussion of my trip with “If I make it” – lest the fates deem me presumptuous and strike me down with the plane. Before leaving for the airport, I penned notes to friends and family members in case I didn’t make it. I told them what they meant to me, shared my favorite memories, and left instructions for what to do with my possessions and my meager bank account. And I encouraged them to laugh at the irony of my life ending in a plane crash, and all that paranoia turning out to be justified. Apprehension brought out my latent Catholicism. I alternated Our Fathers and Hail Marys while waiting in airport lines, and blessed myself repeatedly (always making sure first that no one was looking). When the plane door sealed shut, my heart rate shot up. What was I doing? But before I knew it, we were barreling down the runway.
Our ascent was steeper than I expected, and the Wi-Fi didn’t work. I tried reading for a while, but couldn’t concentrate. Once in a while, I’d realize a passenger had been in the bathroom for more than two minutes, and I’d think: shoe bomber? But then I’d cool down – not enough to sleep, but enough to breathe slowly and tell myself, “I think we’re going to be OK.”
Since then, I’ve made two more trips by plane. I can’t say I’m over my fear, or that I ever will be. At 33, I’ve reached a point where I finally recognize that to really live and enjoy life, you need to let go of your grip on it sometimes. And so I have, and now my lifetime air travel record is 13-for-13. It’s enough to make me wonder if my old baseball analogy might be flawed.
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornackiMore Steve Kornacki.
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)