"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)
My mom manages a Section 8 housing complex in our hometown. It was the only job she could find after being laid off a few years ago. While she’s never been threatened by a resident, the things she tells me about her work make me fear for her safety. Many of her residents have restraining orders against exes or family members or have otherwise abusive/unhealthy relationships with people in their lives. Because of this, my mom is on a first-name basis with all the police officers in town and lives in fear of an “incident” happening on her watch. Known drug dealers and other unsavory locals frequent the complex as well. Case in point: Recently, a former resident whose mother still lives in the complex was shot in a drug deal gone bad.
I am terrified that my mom may someday find herself in the literal crossfire of one of these domestic violence situations or might be assaulted by an irate resident. Oddly, she seems to have no worries about her own safety. I’ve asked my mom to quit her job multiple times, but she insists that there are no other local jobs to be had. This concern is somewhat legitimate because my family lives in an economically depressed region. She’s also close to retirement age but told me that if she were to quit tomorrow, she and my dad would lose their house. So she seems somewhat content (or shall I say resigned) to staying at her job for a few more years until she can retire, but she also complains about her work incessantly, says she’s always tired, etc. I don’t think she’s been happy for a very long time and a number of recent family deaths and other unexpected life changes have thrown both my parents for the proverbial loop. I hate to see them entering their “golden years” in such misery and consternation and, yes, possible danger. I feel like I can’t get through to either of them on these issues. I’m at the end of my rope and I’ve even started having minor anxiety attacks whenever I think about my mom’s on-the-job safety. Please help.
Dear Worried Daughter,
Your mom is working a hard job and having a tough time. You care for her so you fear for her safety. You would hate to see her harmed. So would I. You love your mother. We all love your mother. None of us wants to see her harmed. But what can we do? Mothers are hard to control. They don’t listen to us. What can you do today to help her have a better day?
What about doughnuts?
Doughnuts are high in fat and sugar and white flour but they are delicious to eat in the morning before work. Can you bring your mother doughnuts? It is hard not to smile when eating an old-fashioned glazed doughnut.
In the end, we will cherish our parents for the moments we were eating doughnuts together. We will remember pointing fingers at them and telling them to look in the paper for a safer job but we won’t cherish those memories. We will cherish the memories of eating crullers together. So bring her doughnuts and tell her you are not worried even though you are. Tell her you think she will be safe. Take pictures of you two eating doughnuts together.
What else could you do? You could work for gun control legislation. You could work for better social policies. You could volunteer at this Section 8 housing complex and get to know some of the residents and tell them to take good care of your mama because she’s a good woman and sometimes you’re afraid she’s going to get shot.
Maybe if you were rich it would be different. Your mom could come live in your house and dust. She could wear an apron and dust and clean the birdcage. She could make lasagna for you and your husband when you come home from work. But you aren’t rich and neither is she and neither am I. We can make up stories and we can pretend that people will do what we say but that isn’t this story. This story is about your mom with her job in Section 8 housing in a bad part of town.
What will help? Yes, less gun violence will help. Better social policies will help. But meanwhile … if you were to drop by for a visit and bring her something that you know she likes, that might help. It might also make you feel better.
Please, do something for me right now. Pay attention to this feeling of frustration and fear. Settle with this feeling. You love your mom and worry about her. Of course you do. Accept that she is out of your control. She won’t do what you say. Of course she won’t. Think about what you can do to make her life better today.
What is important today is your relationship with your mother.
Maybe she won’t listen to you. But you can listen to her. Maybe she won’t change her plans. But you can change your plans.
Maybe you can’t get through to her. But you can get next to her.
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)