"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)
“You should stop writing these stupid movie scripts and write about your life, it’s so much more interesting.” Janine, my hypnotherapist, was not being unkind. She just had no filter. And she was right. That was the most infuriating thing about Janine my hypnotherapist. She was always right.
I had just gotten a three-picture deal with Disney. Well, it wasn’t really a three-picture deal. They hired me to write a script for one of their moronic ideas (Sinbad in the Army with dogs), and in the contract they locked me up for another two movies for slightly more money each time. But at the bottom of every page was writ in small letters: “We can terminate this contract for any reason at any time for perpetuity and eternity in this and every other conceivable universe and pay you NOTHING.” I asked my agent and she said I could tell everybody I had a three-picture deal with Disney. Even though I didn’t really. And that, in a nutshell, is Hollywood, baby.
But the thought of telling the truth about myself made me hot and clammy, sticky and jittery, teeth tearing into cuticles till they bled. I was much more comfortable working on my buddy script about two 12-year-olds who go to Vegas and beat the mob. Or my mobster-becomes-a-vampire script. Or my “Some Like It Hot” cross-dressing baseball script.
But I’d always wanted to write a book. So that night I started writing one. It was liberating. Gave my obsessive mind something to focus on besides my own sex-addicted self-loathing.
Turns out I wasn’t quite ready to tell that story yet. I hadn’t hit bottom. I was still living in my beautiful Craftsman home in the hills of Echo Park with my beautiful red sports car and my beautiful sex-denying fiancée. I hadn’t yet been fired by Disney, my Sinbad/Army/dog script unmade, my fictitious three-picture deal evaporated in a puff of smoke. I hadn’t yet been dumped by an entirely different beautiful damaged narcissistic sex-denying fiancée whom I DIDN’T EVEN LIKE. I hadn’t yet been whacked over the head with a metal pipe at 4 a.m. in Harlem by an angry disenfranchised crackhead while pursuing a transsexual thief masquerading as a female sex worker. That was when I hit bottom. The bottom of the bottom.
So the book wasn’t about me. Still, I worked very hard on it. Then I gave it to my Hollywood agent. To my shock and amazement she loved it. And this is a woman who doesn’t love anything. She showed it to some of her New York publishing people. They told her it was too weird. So she was done with my book. Soon thereafter, she was done with me. I just couldn’t put my heart into writing those stupid movie scripts anymore. Soon thereafter I realized I was tired of acting in the stupid movies and sitcoms and commercials that made me my filthy lucre. Sick of being a tiny well-paid cog in a giant soul-sucking multinational corporate machine making its billions by convincing citizens that the spiritual hole in their soul can be filled with a bigger TV and a better car and nicer smelling vagina.
I decided I would try to get my book published. By this time I was living in the nasty skanky hovel in Venice Beach where you could satisfy all your crack needs by sticking your head out the window and yelling, “Yo!” I’d hang out at Muscle Beach with the steroid-bloated weightlifters and tourists and wannabe actresses, actors, screenwriters, producers, directors and other local whack jobs, begging people to read my book. Eventually I sent it to a woman who used to be my commercial acting agent in New York City. She said she loved my book, and asked me if I’d mind if she gave it to her goddaughter, who was a literary agent. “Do I mind?” I scoffed. “Are you kidding me? I will name my first child after you if you do me this kindness.”
I sent the Goddaughter Agent my manuscript. By that time it was called “Mort Morte.” A week after I sent the script I called to make sure she had received my manuscript. Contained herein is a valuable lesson for anyone doing business. Disregard the Follow Up at your own peril. Goddaughter Agent confessed sheepishly that she had lost it. I rolled my eyes, thinking to myself: What a bunch of buffoons these New York literary agents are. If I had done the typical writer thing, and assumed that the universe hates me, that I am a no-talent hack, and that the agent was rejecting me, I would not be writing this story now. But I did the Follow Up. My motto, which I adopted in Hollywood: I will not stop until the person I’m pursuing says yes or takes out a Restraining Order.
I sent her another “Mort Morte.” A month later, having heard not a peep from her, I called Goddaughter Agent. I didn’t snarl in a snarky voice, “Why haven’t you read my manuscript yet?” I was as nice as pie. I give good phone. I asked her how she was doing, cracked a joke that made her laugh. I never mentioned my manuscript. She promised me she’d read it as soon as she could. Later I found out she was Jewish. Well, she still is. And I was so nice that she felt guilty, and my manuscript moved up about 3 inches in the 12-foot pile by her desk. This was before the Internet, when people actually sent manuscripts through the mail! Can you imagine?!
One month later to the day I made the same phone call to Goddaughter Agent. Nice as pie. Unbeknownst to me, my manuscript rose a whole foot in the 12-foot pile. Nine months, once a month, I called her. One human gestation period. We could’ve had a baby in the time it took her to read my manuscript. Finally, guilt drove my manuscript to the top of the pile. By this time, we had a nice banter going. An idea popped out of my mouth, as if the Muse had pushed it out. I told her I was coming to New York for Christmas. She told me that if I did, she’d read my book and take me out to lunch. Of course I had no plans at all to go to New York for Christmas. I quickly accepted her lunch invitation 3,000 miles away. As soon as I hung up, I frantically bought a ticket to New York.
She took me to a swank restaurant, one of those places agents take writers when they want to impress them. She had seemed in my mind on the phone from 3,000 miles away like a very amiable dowager. Not at all. Turned out she was 20-something, totally cute, great smile, fabulous laugh, smoking hot body, kind eyes and spectacularly stylish, like she just stepped out of a magazine featuring wildly intelligent cutting-edge fashionista intelligentsia 20-something Manhattan babes. I was one smitten kitten. She told me she loved “Mort Morte.” And she had smart things to say about changes she wanted me to make. I was so used to getting the dumbest dumbass notes from Hollywood studio hacks that it was like a fragrant breeze on the first day of spring. She said if I made the changes, she’d represent me and my baby/manuscript. I was ecstatic. But there was something more. I liked this woman. A lot.
That night I couldn’t stop thinking about her. So the next day I called her and asked her if she wanted to hang out. She said she’d like to hang out. I later found out she had plans she broke for me. Nothing sexier than someone breaking their plans for you. We went to see one of Billy Bob Thornton’s most forgettable movies. I can literally remember nothing about it. Except that I was with her. Then she asked me if I wanted to go to a French restaurant near her apartment in Brooklyn. I was pretty sure that was dating code for: I want to hook up with you. Turns out I was right. The French restaurant was spectacular. But not as spectacular as she was.
Suddenly we were in her ridiculously stylish Brooklyn brownstone. She was so much fun to talk to. Religion, politics, books, America, the world, the universe. Einstein was proven right again, time really is relative. An hour passed in a minute. At a certain point she asked me in a funny, teasing and altogether endearing way, “Every first novel is about the author. But this book isn’t about you, is it? You didn’t kill your father and three of your stepdads, did you?”
I laughed. It was funny. The way she said it. What she was saying. Normally, I would’ve given her some lame retort that masked who I really was. I was like an anti-superhero. Instead of having a secret identity that was amazing and saved people, I had a secret identity that was a twisted grotesque monster bent on destroying me and all those who cared about me. But I decided to take off the mask. I was not going to lie about who I was or what I’d done. If she didn’t like it, that was her problem. I was so exhausted living a lie. I was ready to be set free by the truth. I’d hit the bottom. The bottom of the bottom.
So I told her everything. About the man who abused me when I was 17. About being sucked into the filthy underbelly of the Hollywood sex business. Becoming a drug addict and a sex addict and doing my time with Janine my hypnotherapist. I thought it would feel terrible to say all that to someone I was interested in. Just the opposite. It was such a load lifted. The black cloud that had been thunderstorming all over my life parted and the sun shone and the birds chirped and the angels sang. It was a transcendent moment. I thought if I told someone I was interested in about my sordid shameful dirty secrets that she’d be horrified and run screaming away from me. Just the opposite. Goddaughter Agent was fascinated. Spellbound. “That’s the book you should write.” Exactly what Janine my hypnotherapist said. Only now, I was ready. I didn’t care anymore. It was so good to be Out.
I moved in with Goddaughter Agent that night. I didn’t know I was moving in with her, but it turned out I was. Her name was Arielle. Well, it still is. She came out to visit me in Venice Beach. She was even better than I’d imagined. She helped me put together a proposal for my real story. That became a book called “Chicken.”
But much more important, I found the love of my life. Arielle AKA Goddaughter Agent. Two years after the Billy Bob Thornton movie and the French restaurant we were married high on a hill overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. A couple of years later we made a baby together. I know it happens all the time, babies being made, but it still strikes me every day as being spectacularly magical that two human beings, without any help at all, could make something as complicated as a human being. Olive. That’s what we called her. Well, we still do. She’s 5 years old now. Einstein proven right once again. That five years has gone by in about 10 minutes.
“Mort Morte” never got sent out by my agent/wife. As soon as we got married, she fired me as a client. But I still wanted to get that book published. I kept showing it to people over the years. Everyone seemed to love it, but they all thought it was just too weird. So I decided, at the suggestion of the lovely and talented Arielle, to go after a world-class artist to make some illustrations for my book. This led me to a French Canadian named Alain Pilon. I contacted him, and sent him my manuscript. He loved it and agreed to make a bunch of illustrations. All the while I kept tweaking and polishing, buffing and shining, making it better and sending it out there.
Finally, one day, to my shock and amazement, there it was in my inbox. An email from an editor who said how much she loved “Mort Morte.” I was used to this by now, and I knew the next sentence would be about why they couldn’t publish my quirky, wacky, coming-of-age Alice in Wonderland meets Tin Drum novel about gun violence and kids in America, and a boy who really loves his mother. But wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, this editor said she wanted to publish my book. I was gobsmacked. I showed the email to Arielle. We danced and made happy happy sounds.
Twenty years after I started writing that book I finally got it published. I’m a different person now than I was then. But every time I look at the beautiful Alain Pilon cover of “Mort Morte” I am filled with joy.
And that’s how writing a book led me to the love of my life.
David Henry Sterry is the author of 14 books, including his memoir, “Chicken,” an international bestseller that has been translated into 10 languages. His anthology, “Hos, Hookers, Call Girls and Rent Boys,” was featured on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. His new illustrated novel is “Mort Morte,” a coming-of-age black comedy about gun violence and children, and a boy who really loves his mother.More David Henry Sterry.
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)