"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 fiancée and I sat next to each other on the set of “The New Ricki Lake Show,” about to come back from break. My heart slammed in my chest as hard as George Forman at the Rumble in the Jungle. I’d finally gotten myself on national television. Now I couldn’t wait to get myself off.
It all began nearly a year earlier when an essay of mine, adapted from my unpublished memoir, appeared on Salon. The essay starts off with me, my ex-wife and several gay men standing next to a Jacuzzi on Fire Island watching a straight couple we’d been having public sex with have public sex with each other. The story progresses, or degenerates, as my ex and I smoke crystal meth from a glass pipe in the company of two gay porn stars. It’s a story of the high life — fast living with a partner whose motto was “more is more.” Things end with me pulling myself out of an emotional death spiral by leaving everything about that life behind — including my wife.
I’d never intended the essay as a condemnation of any particular lifestyle. I considered it an example of both the seductive power and the destructive force of excess. Still, the title assigned to the piece by Salon, “Our Polyamory Disaster,” suggested otherwise. It sure got the attention of the polyamorous community. And not in a good way. According to dozens of comments posted in response to the story, my ex and I had been engaged in nothing more than a nasty, self-indulgent free-for-all, which had nothing in common with loving, stable polyamorous relationships.
It also got the attention of Dr. Phil. They were filming a show about open marriages in Los Angeles. Would I like to fly from Miami to appear? I’d never considered my life as fodder for daytime talk shows. I said yes — immediately.
Maybe that sounds crazy. But being an aspiring writer is like living smack in the middle of the Land of No — no money, no stability, no idea of when, or if, the stream of rejections will ever end. Dr. Phil was about to say yes. I experienced a rare moment of what economists call “irrational exuberance.” I was going to appear on national TV! Who knew where it could all lead. A book deal. A film adaptation. Hell, for all I knew Martin Scorsese watched Dr. Phil. I plastered the news of my imminent appearance on Dr. Phil on my Facebook wall. I spewed out effusive emails to everyone on my contact list.
The next morning, I tried not to stare at my phone. That afternoon, I made allowances for the time difference between Miami and LA. By late in the afternoon, I had run out of allowances. By evening, I was getting that sinking feeling.
When I finally spoke to the producer the next day, she had that things are so crazy around here tone to her voice. “The executive producer decided to go with someone local to save on travel.”
I tried my best to come off as casual and aloof, not so easy with my guts dangling from between my knees.
But life has a way of giving you second chances. For instance: Since my first marriage imploded, I’d met Denise, a successful, attractive woman who didn’t run screaming for the exits after hearing my tales of debauchery. We met after a reading of the very essay that eventually ran in Salon. She told me I reminded her of someone very sad. She reminded me of Ellen Barkin. We’re engaged now.
And months after the Dr. Phil appearance fell apart, Ricki Lake appeared. To be honest, I didn’t even know there was a “New Ricki Lake Show.” I barely remembered the old “Ricki Lake Show.” I went online. Sure enough, Ricki had jumped back into the game. She was less sensational than before, taking on women’s issues, trying to fill the void created by Oprah’s departure. So this was my second chance at daytime-talk-show fame, and I wanted to get it right this time. Everything was looking good, too. That is, until a producer named Haylie added a twist I didn’t see coming. “Just one thing,” she said over the phone. “We all think it would be fantastic if your ex-wife appeared on the show with you.”
There was a sound in my head like someone mashing the emergency brake on a car going 85 miles an hour. The last I’d heard, my ex had plunged harness first into the S&M/fetish scene. The prospect of calling her out of the blue with an invitation to appear on a daytime talk show was bad enough. The prospect that she would agree was worse. I imagined her striding onto the set, dressed to kill — me — for walking out on her. Ricki Lake had managed to draw the one line I wasn’t willing to cross.
I said, “No way.”
Haylie said, “Are you sure? It would make such good television.”
I said, “Yep. I’d watch that show. And it’s not going to happen.”
Haylie said she understood, but I could hear the disappointment in her voice. She’d talk it over with the other producers and get back to me.
I called Denise to tell her the bad news.
“So that’s that,” I said, dejected. I figured Denise would be relieved. She hadn’t been such a fan of the Dr. Phil idea. But maybe she saw how much it meant to me, or maybe she had a change of heart. Either way, what she said next surprised me.
“They asked for your past,” Denise said. “Give them your present.”
“What does that mean?”
“That means me. I can give them another perspective. You know — how it feels to be involved with a former degenerate.”
I called Haylie back and pitched the idea, which is showbiz lingo for begging. Three days later we were on a plane to L.A.
There was a driver and a limo waiting for us at the airport. A nice hotel. The next morning, Haylie walked us over to the studios, where we got hair and makeup and wardrobe and a tech to wire us up for sound. Good-looking actors I didn’t quite recognize filming shows I’d never watched passed us in the hallways and said hello. Our names were taped to the outside of the door of our very own spacious green room, stocked with snacks and drinks. The wardrobe girl told Denise she looked hot. A producer squeezed my forearm and told me I was handsome. We took pictures of ourselves next to a poster of Ricki Lake. The staff knocked politely to ask if there was anything we needed.
I’ve always prided myself on being modest. But this kind of attention was hacking away at my modesty like a machete. About three more days of this treatment and I’d plow through the jungle of the humble and stride right into the gleaming grounds of Camp Entitlement.
Finally, it was time. A tech, wired up like Madonna in her “Blond Ambition” phase, led us to the freezing and cavernous soundstage. Waiting our turn to go on the show, Denise and I stood just offstage watching a live feed.
Ricki interviewed an attractive black couple who, with the enthusiasm of the converted, told their story. They’d been married and monogamous for years. Then, 12 years in, he had admitted an attraction to another woman. One thing had led to many. Now, they counseled other couples seeking to enter into what they called “progressive” relationships. Apparently, a “progressive” relationship is one that progresses from a marriage to a network of romantic associations so complicated you’d need a flow chart to keep it all straight.
At the commercial break, we were led onto the set and positioned on a sofa. Two hundred sets of eyes gave us the once over.
Ricki’s voice, earnest and enthusiastic, boomed from the PA system. “Next up,” she announced, “we’ll meet Nick, whose open lifestyle destroyed a relationship he thought would last forever, and his fiancée, Denise, who is terrified that she can’t possibly compete with his past.”
Denise and I gave each other a sideways look. No one had told us how our story would be spun. And I hadn’t thought to ask. They’d taken our relationship, jacked it up on speed and handed it back to us. I felt a stab of dread, like that dream where the curtain rises to a full house and I don’t know my lines.
The break ended, and I launched into my story, recounting how I had become seduced by a life of excess and how that excess had eventually caught up to me. I’d lived out some fantasies and gotten them out of my system. I’d moved on. Denise explained that she’d had some misgiving about my past, but the fact that I had never tried to glorify it had helped her come to terms with it.
Things were going smoothly. Too smoothly.
We went to break. A producer came from backstage and knelt behind the sofa. She leaned in toward Denise conspiratorially. “I think you’re soft-pedaling your feelings,” she said. “I think you’re much angrier and more threatened than you are letting on.” She squeezed Denise’s shoulder. “It’s OK to express it.”
On her way backstage, the producer walked over to Ricki, said something and nodded. A moment later, the polyamorous couple who’d just been interviewed was seated on the sofa right next to us. The “New Ricki Lake Show” had just bared its Jerry Springer. It wasn’t a cautionary tale of the past they wanted from me and Denise. It was a present-day throw-down.
I should have seen it coming. If I’d learned anything from my history, it was the price of fantasy. Turns out that celebrity was expensive, too. And I’d just been presented the tab: Present myself as the insensitive guy, hopelessly addicted to his debauched past, whose naïve fiancée clung on in a hopeless struggle for his doomed soul.
Now that Denise and I understood what was expected of us, would we deliver?
We could. Denise grew up in the housing projects of the Bronx. She was more than capable of going toe-to-toe, among other body parts, with anyone. And I knew she had strong feelings about open marriages, which she considered a copout out for couples looking for an end run around their marriage vows. If things got ugly, I could suspend my laissez-faire attitude toward unconventional lifestyles long enough to mix it up with the mixed-up couple seated next to us.
The break ended and Ricki wasted no time tossing out the bait. What did the other couple have to say to the skeptics who condemned their lifestyle?
“Just one thing,” said the woman. “In over 60 percent of marriages, someone is unfaithful. We have got to progress past the lies and live with openness and honesty.”
I felt Denise tense.
The woman motioned over to me. “I don’t know what kind of life he was leading, but it’s not what we’re talking about. We don’t do drugs and we don’t lie.”
Ricki’s eyes shifted over to me. I could feel the audience lean forward in their seats.
The door was wide open. I was one snippy comeback from walking right through it. A fight would make for good TV, maybe even good publicity. But hadn’t things gone far enough? I played it over in my mind — an endless feedback loop of Denise and me in a screaming match with Peter and Poly Amorous.
I squeezed Denise’s hand. She squeezed back.
“Look,” I said, “I’m willing to admit that my ex and I may have gone about things all wrong.” The couple nodded emphatically. “All I’m saying is that relationships are hard enough without throwing a bunch of other people into the mix.”
The audience murmured in agreement. The woman shrugged, then smiled. “It’s true. This lifestyle isn’t for everyone, that’s for sure.”
I’d cut the legs out of the argument — and the show. Instead of providing a blaze of fireworks, Denise and I had run around the yard with a couple of sparklers.
Ricki thanked us all for a thoughtful and open-minded discussion and it was over. And I don’t just mean the episode. A few weeks later, the distributor of the “New Ricki Lake Show,” citing falling ratings, announced that they would not renew it for another season. It seems that Ricki just couldn’t find her footing trying to walk around in Oprah’s shoes.
But maybe the world doesn’t want a new Oprah. Maybe what it wants is someone who would have surprised me by trotting out my ex-wife, wearing a harness, a buggy whip and a ton of attitude. Now that’s good TV.
What came of my appearance on the show? Nothing. No calls from breathless literary agents, no screenwriters inquiring about options — no Martin Scorsese. It’s not even available online. I’m back to living in the Land of No. The experience taught me something, though. I wanted to tell my story about the perils of fantasy so much that I’d allowed myself to be seduced by the fantasy of fame. I used to scoff at blind ambition. Now I get it.
It would be easy to say that I’ve learned my lesson, that my appearance on the “New Ricki Lake Show” somehow inoculated me to the scourge of celebrity, that I would never risk my reputation, my relationship and my dignity again on some misguided notion of how fabulous it is to be famous.
But Jerry Springer, if you’re reading this — I’ve got this great idea for a show.
Nicholas Garnett is a teacher and freelance writer who lives in Miami. His memoir, "In the Pink," remains a project in search of a publisher.More Nicholas Garnett.
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)