"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)
The only gun I’ve seen up close was the one that shot me. It was 1968, and I was a Berkeley senior walking home from the campus library. Three strangers approached. One slugged me in the mouth. Another pointed a shiny revolver at my neck and fired. Together they kicked my paralyzed body under a hedge. All three escaped forever.
I did not. Over decades my paralysis advanced, and I shifted from crutch to wheelchair. I was mostly out of work until my early 30s. Marriage came late. Today, my neurology remains fragile. Life seems tinged with loss, poignancy – and anger.
Anger is what takes over in the wake of mass shootings. After the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, I quit my high-tech job and went to work for a gun control nonprofit. For a while, there seemed to be hope for reining in the nation’s amateur arsenal. When the nonprofit went broke, I drove my wheelchair to a quiet corner of a parking lot and cried.
Since then, I have watched the noisy aftermath of other mass shootings with a sinking heart. Virginia Tech. Aurora, Colo. The pattern is predictable and depressing. For days or weeks, outrage over gun violence dominates the media. But eventually every element of American’s gun madness falls back into place. In the U.S., tracing a stolen car is relatively easy but tracing a stolen handgun is virtually impossible, thanks to the NRA. Now, in the wake of Sandy Hook, I despairingly ask: Is there any way out?
I think there might be. As Joshua Holland recently pointed out in AlterNet and Salon, not all members of the National Rifle Association are extremists. The group’s paramilitary self-defense fantasies have drifted far from the original mission. Back in the 1970s, the NRA was a true rifle association, promoting gun safety and sound hunting practices. Some of the organization’s members may be ready for a change in leadership and direction.
And while our gun policies approach lunacy, liberals like me need to remember it’s not necessarily lunatics who own guns. I got my own reminder of this recently in an unlikely inheritance from my nice old neighbor Tom.
Tom was a lonely 81-year-old. Though I had never been inside his upstairs apartment, for years we had chatted on the street. Then Tom died of a sudden heart attack and left me his worldly possessions. I needed to check out my bounty. My brother got me out of the wheelchair, up the stairs and into Tom’s apartment. The place was desolate and derelict. It did not take long to notice the guns. A .45 sat loaded on a sofa. A .38 appeared in a bedside table. The .357 magnum waited on a closet shelf.
The image haunted me: Tom alone in his apartment with three guns. He had armed himself, but against what? Our affluent suburb is one of the safest in the nation. The U.S. crime rate has fallen dramatically over the last decades. What did Tom fear?
Clearly, he feared not being able to get to his guns. An old man can still pull a trigger, after all. So, stash one gun in each room. Someone thinks they can break in, take advantage of an old guy, they’ve got a big surprise in store. As for big surprises (cardiac arrest being the worst), it’s good to feel in control. Keep that gun handy.
I suspect Tom was not atypical. The nation is full of people who fear America’s changing place in the world. Who dread being powerless. Who know they are on their own in a nation of individuals who compete for survival. When human beings are isolated and afraid, their focus narrows. They don’t care that gun-related deaths in the U.S. are eight times higher than in similar industrial nations. Statistics on gun accidents pale in comparison to a personal need for one.
So Tom grew old and afraid in his apartment, self-medicating with weapons. No doubt about it, handguns are intoxicating. Combining push-button convenience with lethal force – what could be more empowering?
And though guns are not a natural part of my world, I must accept this is not true in much of America. I understand that for many young men, guns represent a rite of passage. And modern culture knows little of rites or passage. Young men long to test their mettle, hunger for initiation into adulthood. The power of guns and the life-and-death responsibility that goes with them present both dangers and opportunities.
Young men can learn to use firearms in ways that help them grow. But this demands adult mentors with a long-range commitment. It means training that takes years. It means helping young men resist the popular fantasies of violence.
It’s going to be tough to disrupt the delusions that have settled around firearms in the U.S. Unfortunately, my friend Tom bought the fantasy, arming himself against whatever evil seem to be out there. As a culture, we are easily drawn to the lure of self-defense and amateur weaponry. Our country has never had bombs fall from its skies or tanks rumble through its streets. But the reality is that most gun violence involves people who know each other. Couples with quarrels, neighbors with arguments, kids with grudges.
Shootings like mine are rare. It’s the small disputes and accidents that dominate our gun death statistics. Current laws fail to reflect this reality. Much of our media fails to reflect this reality.
No wonder Tom was holed up in an apartment full of weapons. I wish I had know this and talked to him. In the end, Tom’s guns did nothing to protect him, everything to isolate him.
My lawyer advised me to get Tom’s handguns appraised. I dutifully took them to a local gun shop. A young woman coolly eyed each, thumbed through a reference and pronounced her verdict. The guns were worth about $3,500.
The value astonished me. The gun shop could sell them within a matter of days, perhaps hours. Why not get rid of these awful things and pocket the money? I decided to sleep on the matter. I did not sleep well.
The cop who came to my apartment gave the revolvers a spin, checked the cartridge. In that moment, they seemed frighteningly real, guns and police. The cop reminded me of my right to sell the weapons. I thanked the officer and said I had made up my mind.
Melting the guns down might be a small gesture, even a futile one. But selling them? No, I had decided the price – in terms of national anxiety, death, injury – it was simply too high.
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)