"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)
As I begin writing this, it’s been a week since two men packed kitchen appliances with black powder and bits of metal and detonated them near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. One week, and already, given the speed with which the hive mind converges on and dissects such events, I’m wondering what, if anything, is left to be said. Certainly in the rush to report, to speculate, to reflect, to be however tangentially part of, we have come at this from every possible angle, weighed in with every possible opinion, used every possible combination of letters and symbols to describe and anatomize the bombings and the days that followed. All our ideas and all our language have been exhausted. It’s simple math.
So as is ultimately always the case, the only way for me, as a writer, to approach shared experience is through the prism of the personal.
There’s this, first: For the last few years, it’s been customary for my girlfriend and me to attend the Red Sox Patriots’ Day game. I am, by blood, a Red Sox fan, and she’s perhaps less of one (her heart belongs to the Patriots), so although the trip is ostensibly a birthday celebration for her, it’s just as much fun for me. This is something we acknowledge between ourselves, even joke about. We refer to it as her “Homer gift,” in reference to the episode of “The Simpsons” in which Homer, ever thoughtless, buys Marge a bowling ball inscribed with his own name for her birthday (Marge, it is revealed, has never bowled once in her life).
Our version of the Homer gift isn’t quite so bad, though, in part because my girlfriend actually enjoys Red Sox baseball, but moreover because Patriots’ Day in Boston is a vibrant celebration, the city’s spring coming-out party, and if the weather’s good you’d find it very difficult to not enjoy yourself. One of the things those of us who live in hoary climates earn by surviving winter is the right to be deliriously, ridiculously upbeat when it’s finally over, and by Patriots’ Day one can safely assume the grip has been broken once more. Attending the Red Sox game in the morning, then making our way through the throngs to cheer on the real warriors of the marathon in the afternoon, has been our way of sharing that delirium with thousands of others.
But this year we didn’t go. The reasons why are unimportant. I hemmed and hawed about it, then decided finally that we’d forgo Patriots’ Day and instead attend a Sox game the following weekend. There was disappointment — this was, after all, our little annual rite of spring — but practicality trumped tradition. Which is why my girlfriend was at work, and I was at home, around 3 o’clock on Monday afternoon when I received a text from a friend that read: Explosions at marathon finish line?
The baseball game had ended less than an hour earlier, when the Sox walked off in spectacular fashion with a game-winning double in the ninth inning. The regret of not having been there for such a win was just beginning to dissipate when my phone buzzed. What was left of that regret morphed immediately into a sick, chilled feeling, as though I’d suddenly come down with the flu. And then as details were confirmed, I realized that the second bomb had gone off very near the spot where my girlfriend and I would have been standing, where we always stand, a bit down from the marathon’s last turn onto Boylston Street.
Dumb fucking luck — of the absolute first order — that we hadn’t been there. It wasn’t as though either of us had had a premonition, or anything so daffy as that. We just made a decision. A boring, practical decision. And now, a week later, my girlfriend and I are walking around whole-bodied, still preoccupied with matters that would probably seem a lot less important to us had we been standing in our customary spot on Boylston that day.
* * *
I went to bed a few nights later just after the FBI published photos of the men they believed were responsible for the attack. The next morning I woke to my girlfriend telling me those men had been identified, that they’d killed one cop and gravely injured another, that they’d perpetrated a Helmand Province-style firefight in the streets of Watertown, and that they were — get this — two young Chechen brothers.
I thought about this a moment, my head still addled by sleep, and then I looked up at her and said, “So they’re Muslims, then?”
* * *
For three days prior I had, like everyone else, listened to and read the news, scrolled endlessly through Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, taken in the innumerable reiterations of what little was known, and the infinite speculations about what was not. I’d considered, more than once, deleting my own Facebook and Twitter accounts (which, for the record, I’m still considering). I marveled at good writers who really ought to know better cranking out slapdash copy and half-heated observations in the ever-burgeoning frenzy to be topical, to feed our appetite for content, this monster that can never be sated, especially in times of national crisis (I almost fell out of my seat one morning when I read, on the New York Times webpage, the use of the word “their” when “there” was clearly indicated). That monster will, of course, gnaw on whatever bones it’s given, and so at this point it had already grossly exaggerated casualties, condemned a Saudi kid (remember him?) who happened to be near the finish line when the bombs went off, and published a photo, complete with incendiary headline, of two men whom no one had any reason to suspect in the attack.
These particular “mistakes” were all the work of just one of the monster’s tentacles, known as the New York Post. But we’re all in on the joke at this point, right? I mean, it’s 2013 — if you don’t get the joke, it can only be because you’re not paying attention. In the case of the New York Post’s heinous BAG MEN cover, the joke is that they don’t care if you like it or not, and they care even less whether you consider it legitimate journalism. They care only that you and a shitload of other people are talking about it and, moreover, spreading it around. This is the same newspaper, after all, that just a few months ago published a photo of a man taken moments before he was flattened by a subway train. When you’re so outraged you nearly swallow your tongue the Post wins. And they’re among the best at a game that all our media is playing, a game that we demand they play, a game that, increasingly, we each and every one participate in ourselves.
This is not a particularly difficult observation to come up with or grasp, and I’m certainly not the first one to make it. But given everything that transpired in the last week, it seems worth repeating every time I see a well-intentioned friend get his hackles up at the latest grievous offense committed by our news outlets, or every time I get my hackles up myself.
I’ve come to realize, though, that what really bothers me, what really seems to indict us as largely a culture of voyeurs and emotional vampires, is the tone of excitement that infused much of the communication I saw during the days of fear and uncertainty in Boston. How many times did someone write “This is like watching a movie”? Every time I saw this, I wondered if the person writing it asked himself the logical follow-up questions: It sure did seem like a movie, but why? Was it because of the way we cover these events now, or is it the converse: that we ourselves have been changed by the manner and rapidity with which information comes to us?
* * *
The day after the attack, we were trying to focus on the good. The cops and volunteers and bystanders who scrambled over the barricade to help at the site of the first explosion. Platitudes aside, it was a tremendously brave thing, since everyone knows that often there is a second bomb designed to punish those possessed of such merciful instincts.
I did wonder, though, if those who rushed to aid the wounded would describe themselves as courageous. There’s an empathetic impulse that is, I think, common among novelists, and I tried to imagine how I would have behaved in their place.
“I like to think that I would do the same thing,” I told my girlfriend. “I mean, I really think I would. Not because I’m particularly brave, but because it’s hard to believe that anyone with a soul could turn away from that. Especially with so little time to think about what the consequences might be. You’d just act, right?”
She answered my question, in a manner. “This whole thing is just making me sad,” she said.
I suggested that perhaps we should stop reading about it for a while, especially since the majority of what we read was nearly baseless speculation, and it seemed it would be a while before anything more of substance was known.
“Yeah,” she said. “I don’t want to avoid it either, or pretend it’s not happening. It’s a fine line.”
I suggested that perhaps we should redouble our gratefulness that we hadn’t been there.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s been happening. I actually think that’s part of what’s making me sad.”
* * *
Of all the video I watched over those few days, the clip that was by far the most affecting — really the only clip anyone needed to watch to understand the scope of this whole awful thing, on both the macro- and micro-levels — was a streetside interview with Carlos Arredondo (aka the Cowboy Hat Hero) conducted shortly after the bombings. The most interesting and endearing and, frankly, heartening thing about it is his complete and utter guilelessness. Trauma has cleaved him from whatever vanity or self-consciousness he may possess; his only concern, his only aim, is to communicate something terrible and true to another human being. He is trembling pitiably but seems completely unaware of it, as though certain essential communications between his body and brain have shut down. Put a simpler way, he’s clearly in shock, by which I mean the actual medical condition: rapid pulse, confusion, lusterless, staring eyes. As he explains his efforts to help a young man who’d had his legs blown off below the knees, Arredondo gestures wildly, and you can see both sleeves of his sweat shirt are stained with drying blood. Also blood-soaked, in the sort of too-perfect symbolism normally reserved for bad movies: a small American flag, which he’d been handing out to marathoners at the finish line. One of Arredondo’s questioners asks him to unfurl the miniature Stars and Stripes, and he obeys, in the same way a well-behaved child might — no questions, no hesitation. Finally, he’s asked what he’s going to do now, and after a second, he answers: I got to go home. Which is probably, at that moment, the only response that makes even a lick of sense.
Of course at times like these, good people want someone to cheer, someone to graft the word “hero” onto, someone who does the things we would have done if only we’d been there. It’s not the worst impulse, but we tend, I think, to indulge it so thoroughly that it becomes a sin of sorts. In this instance, Arredondo was the most obvious, visible candidate for canonization: Though not a first responder, he leapt into the fray without hesitation; he was sort of endearingly odd to look at, with his curly mullet and cowboy hat; and finally, he had a tragic back story of his own, with one son killed in Iraq and the other, despondent over his brother’s death, having taken his own life. With this trifecta in place, the celebrity machine reached for Arredondo with a speed normally reserved for reality TV contestants and cocktail waitresses who sleep with famous married men. And immediately behind, of course, omnipresent in times like these, came the tinfoil-hatted chorus, claiming Arredondo was a paid FBI informant who spied on Occupy gatherings for the government, and now here he was playing the role of hero like the shameless New World Order spook that he was.
Through all this, I kept thinking about the answer Arredondo gave when asked what he was going to do next. The guy just wanted to go home. He had experienced something that the vast, lucky majority of us will never comprehend, and he wanted to go home and wash it off of himself. But some of us needed our hero, and others needed a foil, and so like it or not he became both, because no one can refuse the call when the monster has decided it wants a piece of you.
* * *
While we’re (sort of) on the subject, let’s dispense with a particularly heinous aspect of our collective Internet fantasy and say, without equivocation, that there were real people who did in fact die in Boston, including an 8-year-old boy. Also: Among those who didn’t die were real people who really lost limbs and otherwise got really fucked up and bled real blood and will likely spend the next 50 years trying not to hyperventilate every time they find themselves in a crowd larger than the average birthday party. Given the undeniable reality of the whole debacle, if you’re one of these opportunistic pricks who gets off on/benefits from promulgating the notion that the whole thing was a ruse, an elaborate government scam complete with Illuminati, evil ex-special forces bent on shredding the Constitution, and a cast of hundreds that can somehow, against all odds, keep its collective mouth shut, then you are an idiot, and I cordially request that you unregister to vote at your earliest convenience. Moreover, know that in denying the real suffering of the victims, and in running them down publicly as frauds, you are nearly indistinguishable, in a moral sense, from the people who actually perpetrated this act, in which real people were killed and lost real limbs and will never again be able to gather with their fellow humans without sprouting flop sweat and wondering whether anyone around them is intent on ending their lives.
* * *
On Friday, when the entire Boston metro area was shuttered while scads of cops hunted for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, my girlfriend and I decided to scrap our weekend trip and stay home. The consolation was that we had plans for a birthday celebration with friends that night. We met for dinner around 8:00 at a grungy oyster bar on the Portland waterfront, a local institution where booze flows freely all day and the regulars are as salty as the water lapping at lobster boat hulls just outside the windows. As always on a Friday night, the place was packed, and we sipped drinks and waited for a table within view of one of the bar’s televisions, which was set to Fox News. We overheard conversations — some about the events in Boston, surely, but at least as many about anything but — and then, as we were being shown to our table, word came that after a long day of futile searching, pretty much the entirety of Massachusetts law enforcement were rushing to one house in Watertown, where they believed they’d finally located Tsarnaev.
Curiously, among the bar’s patrons there didn’t seem to be any increased interest in the news broadcast. Maybe they hadn’t noticed the update, or maybe they didn’t care much. Conversations continued without a hitch, beers were quaffed, and hardly anyone even glanced toward the TV. Those in our party watched, though, and as it became clear that the only remaining question was whether Tsarnaev would be taken alive, we began to debate. It was a lively, spirited discussion, in which we questioned one another’s notions and positions in real time and to one another’s faces. It got, at moments, quite heated, fueled by booze and mild despair, but no one got too far out of line, and no one made it personal. On the other hand, no one offered false comfort in the form of platitudes, or suggested that we were all Boston, or otherwise tried to pretend that there was any easy way to minimize the weight and sadness of the whole thing. Only one “fuck you” was exchanged, and quickly thereafter a détente was reached, which held. The physical presence of other people is not, of course, a guarantee against bad behavior or indefensible stances, but it is an effective bulwark, and I was struck, finally, by the gulf between the online maeltstrom I’d been witnessing for days, and the quality of the talk we had there at the table. I found myself wondering, too, how many of the others in the bar had participated eagerly in the maelstrom, yet seemed unwilling or uninterested in having that same discussion here and now, in the presence of other primates who could readily disagree with or correct them.
And then word came through: Tsarnaev had been captured, wounded but alive. The bartender uttered something unintelligible and rang her tip bell, and most everyone in the place cheered and clapped briefly and then went back to their drinks. At the table next to ours, a young man expressed, loud enough for us to hear, a sentiment that could have easily fit into a tweet: “I hope they shoot him in the face.” We finished our dinner and moved on.
* * *
Later we found ourselves at one of our favorite dive bars, where Friday is karaoke night. We walked in on a friend in the midst of a lusty and profane version of “Rocket Man” and settled in next to an older gentleman who’d recently become an acquaintance of mine. Johnny was the daytime bartender, and as usual, by this time of night he was pretty well in his cups. Johnny had told me that years ago he’d gotten into a bad wreck while drunk, but instead of giving up alcohol, he’d given up driving. It’s that kind of place.
The first thing I saw on the television behind the bar was a photo of Tsarnaev, his neck wrapped in a trauma collar and his face smeared with blood, being worked on by emergency room personnel. As time went on, they kept coming back to this shot. I didn’t feel any righteous satisfaction viewing it, despite the fact that for days I’d been expressing, like many others, a desire for five minutes alone in a locked room with those responsible for the bombing. That had been, ultimately, tough-guy posturing, and this was real, or as real as any 2-D image can be. A person, no matter how despicable, could be dying. I talked with Johnny about Tsarnaev’s capture, and watched the TV, and felt a dark scrim settle over me a bit more every time they flashed the photo on-screen. This did not go unnoticed by my girlfriend. She leaned toward me and said, “You should stop watching.”
I tried. It was her birthday. But my eyes kept wandering back to the TV, where eventually a live feed from Boston Common began. Students were celebrating Tsarnaev’s capture, cavorting through the streets and waving the Stars and Bars. It was hard not to see this as just an excuse for a party, where any excuse would do, really. B.U. wins the Frozen Four, Bruce Springsteen plays Fenway, terrorist found half-dead in boat. These young people wanted a reason to take their shirts off, hoot and holler, and they’d found it. I didn’t necessarily have a problem with that. They’d been cooped up all week, and they were kids, which meant by definition they had more energy than brains. So, fine. The problem I had was with their little party being presented by the news media as symbolic of the way we all were feeling. Because my inner college kid was pretty far removed from wrapping his naked torso in an American flag, right at that moment.
Then, suddenly, two of our friends requested my presence on the karaoke stage, and I tore myself away from the TV and went. The song was a surprise, and not a pleasant one: “Call Me Maybe.” I recognized my own need for a cheering up, and was just drunk enough to give myself over to the whole silly thing. The new vantage offered me a better view of the crowd, and I could see that almost no one was paying attention to the televisions behind the bar. For many of us, the manhunt in Boston had taken up most of our brain space that day, but now that things had stopped exploding and the Boston P.D. had stood down, as far as we were concerned the show was over. And I wondered, was that OK? Was it better for us to not be paying attention, to be, instead, enjoying ourselves and our friends and the fact that it was a Friday night and our bodies were intact and no one we knew had died that week? Was that all right, karmically, cosmically, morally? How much concern was enough? How much fun was too much? Did we have to earn our opinions and emotions by seeking information and reflecting upon it, or was it sufficient simply to wish a murderer a bullet in the brain, then get on with our night?
It’s difficult to toss these thoughts around one’s head while screeching “Call Me Maybe” in front of a hundred drunk strangers, but being something of a wet blanket, I managed it.
* * *
With the show over and Boston declared safe once again, my girlfriend and I decided to head south after all. We got tickets for the Sox game on Sunday afternoon and found a hotel room in the Back Bay. On Saturday night we had dinner and walked through the Common, where the evening before all those college kids had been beating their chests. If I’d spent the previous week in the woods and come to the city without turning on a television or checking my phone, I would have had no idea anything at all had happened. Say whatever else you want about Boston, but at the end of the day it’s a town with a feldspar jaw, and there was nothing to indicate that this spring Saturday was any different from the many I’d spent there before.
Except, of course, for the stretch of Boylston street, three minutes by foot from our hotel, that was still sealed and guarded. I woke early on Sunday, stepped out into a clear, cold morning, and walked the length of the barricades. Inside was presumably much as it had been in the moments after the bombs went off — debris everywhere, trash cans and signs overturned, and an uncanny emptiness like a vigil everyone forgot to attend. I was reminded of a walk I’d taken, years before, through the green line in Nicosia, Cyprus, a U.N.-controlled buffer between the Turks in the northern part of the island and the Greeks to the south. Everything was much the same as it had been in 1974 when the zone was established. It was like strolling through a time capsule: dusty streets, sandbags, bullet-riddled derelict buildings. And as in Cyprus — as, I would imagine, in every place where parcels of land are cordoned off because people have killed each other — there were, on Boylston Street, flowers and photos and handmade expressions of grief. Police in heavy winter uniforms stood in groups of two and three. The occasional runner passed by, but otherwise a cold stillness prevailed.
* * *
By contrast, Yawkey Way was its reliably boisterous self when we arrived early that afternoon for the Red Sox game. The sun shone. Hawkers hawked. Meat hissed on flattop griddles, sending great plumes of greasy smoke into the air, and kids with red B’s painted on their cheeks stood rapt as a man fashioned balloon animals with a few dexterous twists of his hands. People were relaxed, hoisting cups of overpriced domestic beer and parting happily with their cash at the team store. A band played watery cover tunes. The whole scene was exactly as it always has been — loud, busy, blithe. Death, or even the thought of it, existed miles from there. Which was why the moment of fear I had as I approached the turnstiles, surrounded by hundreds of others waiting to hand over their tickets, caught me completely by surprise.
Maybe it’s more accurate to call it a moment of terrible empathy, rather than fear. Because what happened was this: I suddenly imagined a cooler on the ground near a hotdog stand exploding. I was about 7 or 8 feet away. Boom. I flinched, probably visibly. In that instant, I felt like it had happened. Of course, it hadn’t. But there was that instant. For a few minutes after, all I noticed were the innumerable smallish objects inside or under which a bomb could be hidden. Jesus Christ, they were everywhere. And they always had been, every time I’d come to the park. The miracle was not that I hadn’t been at the marathon that year, but rather that nothing had been blown up at all the marathons I had attended.
Eventually, inside the park and seated behind home plate, I shed my willies. It was impossible not to — the beer went to work on my synapses, and the great sprawling interior of Fenway offered too much stimulation to spend more than a few seconds preoccupied with any one thought, no matter how awful. As we sat and waited for the game to start, several mascots from Vermont sports teams — a Bobcat, a lizard of some kind with bouncing googly eyes, and oddly enough what appeared to be an auto mechanic — came out onto the field to greet two kids undergoing cancer treatment who were guests of the team. The mascots did their goofy mascot thing, and the kids laughed. Photos were taken. The children flashed several stories high on the Jumbotron, and the P.A. announcer introduced them to the crowd, and in turn the crowd offered them throaty, sincere applause. For all I knew — for all anyone knew — those kids were dying. But they were also smiling.
I turned to my girlfriend and said, “I can’t believe anyone could look around at something like this and turn it into a murder scene.”
She looked at me, a smile playing on her lips. After a moment’s thought, she offered what seems now like the only reasonable response: She shrugged, then turned her eyes back to the field.
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)