"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)
Yoga Girl has just woken up from a nap.
The smile on her face suggests it’s postcoital. Slender and pale with an upturned nose, she has long, curly hair swept over her shoulder. She wears a pair of tight yoga-style gray sweatpants and an indigo-colored top. Her boyfriend, who is shirtless with black slacks, is a handsome, tanned teenager with a slicked-back blond mane and an uncanny resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio.
Yoga Girl is a college freshman from Los Angeles who grew up in Newport Beach and has just moved back home for the summer, renting an apartment a few blocks from the beach. She’s counting out twenty dollar bills on a coffee table while her boyfriend stretches out on a futon.
“Here you go,” she says. “That’s my ID card. Do you have change for $200?”
Standing next to the coffee table is someone I’ve known for years who prefers, for the purposes of this book, to be identified only as “Racer X.”
He’s a short, wiry surfer with a crew cut, tattoos on his arms, and a briefcase full of manila envelopes, each of which contains from one to six airtight, plastic containers full of medical marijuana. The girl has just shown him her State of California Medical Marijuana Identification Card (she’d read her ID number to Racer X’s boss over the phone an hour or so earlier), and Racer X has just handed her an envelope containing a quarter-ounce of pot, half of which is Lavender Kush—at seventy-five dollars per eighth, one of the luxury strains available to medical marijuana smokers—and half of which is Northern Kush, which is also seventy-five dollars per eighth-ounce.
Racer X is a part-time driver for one of some two dozen cannabis clubs in Orange County that offer members door-to-door marijuana delivery services. His day job involves stocking groceries at a local supermarket chain. He’s been a recreational marijuana smoker for years, typically toking up early in the morning before hitting the waves on his days off or in the evenings after work. He bought his pot from a dealer and fellow surfer whom we’ll call “the Big Kahuna.”
For years, the Big Kahuna had made a decent living selling pot to customers such as Racer X. But as his client base aged, got married, had kids, and smoked less weed, he began to worry about finding a real job. It didn’t help that hundreds of marijuana dispensaries had since opened their doors in Los Angeles, offering high-quality marijuana to anyone with a doctor’s note. After the Orange County Board of Supervisors, following several similar votes by their colleagues elsewhere around the state, voted in July 2007 to allow county residents to apply for state medical-marijuana ID cards, the Big Kahuna formed a legally registered nonprofit cooperative that would supply medical marijuana to members of the “club.” He attended classes held by the California branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (better known by its acronym, NORML) and learned how to operate within the somewhat fuzzy boundaries established in state law for the operation of such collectives.
The Big Kahuna created a website for his club—the name of which he asked not to be revealed—and advertised on various marijuana websites, such as www.weedmaps.com and www.weedtracker.com; Yoga Girl found the club through one of the two sites.
“I think it was Weedmaps,” she says.
“We just looked for the closest one in our ZIP code,” her boyfriend chimes in.
“Yeah, that’s how we found you,” says Yoga Girl, who adds that she discovered Weedmaps through her sorority sisters in Los Angeles. There was a cannabis dispensary conveniently located down the street from her dormitory. “Now that I’m down here for the summer, I didn’t want to drive up to L.A.,” she says. “For safety reasons, too. If you have enough money for a card, having it delivered to you is definitely the way to go. You know, why not?”
I ask her what symptom she has that allows her to smoke marijuana. Yoga Girl pauses for a moment. “Uh, migraines?” she finally ventures. “I use it as a, um, sleep aid. Yeah.”
“Does it work?” I ask.
“Oh, yeah; yeah, it does,” she says, giggling.
Racer X laughs with delight as he zips up his briefcase and nods at the door. He’s in a rush to make it to his next delivery on schedule. “Oh, yeah,” Racer X exclaims, waving good-bye to Yoga Girl. “Weed works, baby!”
* * *
An hour earlier on this breezy summer day in 2009, I’m sitting with Racer X and the Big Kahuna in a small room inside a two-bedroom house in Newport Beach. It’s the Big Kahuna’s home office, headquarters of his six-year-old cannabis club, which he opened up to new members in November 2008. An American flag hangs on the wall, and stacks of large, airtight plastic bins fill one of the room’s corners, all of them stuffed with one of nineteen strains of marijuana with gloriously hyperbolic handles and descriptions such as Skywalker (a “tractor beam to Super Spacey!”) and Sour Diesel (“Good luck shutting up; Ramble alert!”). Two computers, one of which is cranking alternative rock via Pandora, a free online music station, take up a wraparound desk in another corner of the room. Several open containers of marijuana lay on the few available flat surfaces.
As usual, the Big Kahuna is sitting shirtless in his chair, flexing his large forearms around a giant glass bong. He takes a deep hit from the device and exhales powerfully into a one-inch-thick plastic tube that he has rigged to a spot in the wall near an air-conditioning unit. “That stuff can go outside,” he explains, nodding at the smoke. “I don’t care. It’s legal.”
Just then, his cell phone rings. The Big Kahuna spends the next twenty minutes explaining the various benefits of different strains of marijuana to a repeat customer who agrees to buy a quarter-ounce of a sativa strain. “There are two major groups of cannabis: indica and sativa,” he tells me after hanging up. “Most of the weed coming into California and being grown in California in the past twenty years was all indica because people wanted to get stoned and sit on the couch. But if you give that indica to patients who are in pain, in misery, already in a bad place, it takes them down and makes them depressed and suicidal. Sativa is an upper, like coffee. It kills the pain and leaves the patient awake and aware and motivated instead of mellow.”
The person who just called has ordered a few eighths of a sativa strain, the Big Kahuna explains. “This guy has a metal rod inserted in his back, and it’s fused to his spine. He’s been on painkillers for ten years and is trying to get off them. He’s a regular customer. This is his third or fourth time. He orders from us every couple of weeks.”
A former pot dealer who spent time in jail after being set up by a large-scale pot mover who turned out to be an informant for the local police department of this affluent coastal suburban town, the Big Kahuna is an expert in what is legal and what is not so legal when it comes to medical marijuana. He’s determined to stay on the legal side of things—unlike, he asserts, the hundreds of L.A. cannabis dispensaries that have opened in the past several years, many of which have been subjected to raids by both state and federal law-enforcement authorities.
“These dispensaries offer everything,” he explains. “Food, drink, tinctures, concentrates like hashish, and all that stuff isn’t outlined in the law.”
The law in question, State Bill 420, which was enacted in 2008 to regulate medical marijuana, only allows dispensaries and clubs to grow and provide to their members dried cannabis. For that reason, the Big Kahuna tells me, he can only obtain marijuana from members of his club, all of whom must live in Orange County. He can’t buy pot from growers, say, in Los Angeles or Northern California. He can deliver the locally grown pot to as many members of the club who live in Orange County as he wishes, so long as he has each member sign a form designating him as their primary caregiver. According to California NORML, there are nearly 150 delivery services throughout the state, most of them in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
The Big Kahuna tells me that the big L.A. dispensaries are also delivering marijuana to customers in Orange County, despite SB420 stating that designated caregivers can’t cross county lines. “It’s the Wild West up in L.A.,” he complains. “They are getting busted because they are bringing five pounds of weed in the back door and selling it out the front door, whereas we don’t do more than an ounce, which is what a [single] person could truly consume.” While the Big Kahuna acknowledges that half of his club’s members “just want to get high,” he says the other half is made up of legitimate patients.
* * *
Racer X is driving a beat-up truck with a satellite-powered global-positioning device mounted on his dashboard. The GPS beeps every few seconds and provides a constant stream of directions. “Turn right, then turn left,” it might say, or “Now arriving at destination.” When Racer X misses a turn, usually because he’s too busy talking, the machine alerts him to his error with the word “Recalculating.” “That’s the last word I want to hear,” he says. That word means he’s getting lost and losing time, and time is money.
He delivers weed for the Big Kahuna three days a week, in shifts that last from 3:00 to 8:00 pm. His busiest days are Fridays, when he can make as many as eight deliveries and earn up to $200. For each eighth of an ounce he delivers, Racer X earns a $10 commission. Sometimes, people tip him $20. Once, a pretty girl ran after him with a twenty dollar bill that he’d mistakenly given her when counting out her change. “This is yours,” she said. “I was going to keep it, but you’re the last person I want to piss off.”
Today, Racer X is eager to stay on schedule because a few days earlier, he missed an entire shift—seven deliveries, a lot for a Wednesday—because the springs in his garage door broke and he couldn’t move his truck. He’s grateful that we reach the day’s first customer—the man with the metal rod in his back—in just a few minutes.
Unlike Yoga Girl, this customer isn’t willing to be interviewed on tape. He happily takes off his Hawaiian shirt to reveal a back brace, which he also removes. A nasty scar stretches from the nape of his neck to his tailbone; another traces a curve along the left side of his ribcage. He broke his back on the job several years ago and is trying to kick an Oxycontin addiction. He smokes marijuana to relieve the constant pain in his back. It relaxes him enough that he can play his guitar. He’s clearly lonely; for someone who doesn’t want to be interviewed, he has a lot to say. He follows Racer X all the way to his truck in the parking lot of the condominium complex and reluctantly waves good-bye.
Next, Racer X delivers half an ounce of weed to a weathered, middle-aged Latino man who is cooking chicken in his Costa Mesa apartment and watching a Lakers game. “You guys want some food?” he asks, but Racer X is eager to move on. He’s got one more delivery to make back in Newport Beach. Then his cell phone rings. It’s the Big Kahuna, telling Racer X that the last customer of the night is about to leave for dinner. Racer X can’t make it to the house in time, so the Big Kahuna agrees to make this delivery, since he’s closer. “Next time, drop off at the houses that are close by first,” the Big Kahuna says. When Racer X tries to protest, the Big Kahuna cuts him short. “I’m the chief, and you’re the Indian,” he says. “Got it?”
* * *
A week later, on another Friday afternoon, I join Racer X again. After meeting at the Big Kahuna’s house to pick up several manila envelopes for the first few deliveries of the shift, we drive to an apartment complex just five minutes away in Newport Beach. The only problem: the apartment is on a street that Racer X’s talking GPS device doesn’t recognize. It keeps telling him how to reach a street with a similar name. Ten confusing minutes and a few dozen screamed epithets later, Racer X finally finds the complex. He calls the customer’s telephone number three times, but nobody answers. Finally, Racer X realizes he was calling the wrong number.
After being buzzed in, we walk into the dimly lit apartment of a fat man watching Fox News. A diploma on the wall identifies him as a doctor of philosophy. He buys a quarter-ounce of weed. The next delivery is to someone who lives in Huntington Beach. Because Interstate 405 is jammed with traffic, we take surface streets, which turn out to be just as congested. (Racer X will later realize that with me in the car, we could have taken the carpool lane.)
At just after 5:00 pm on a Friday night—the worst time for rush-hour traffic in coastal Orange County—Racer X starts to lose his patience. Despite having medicated himself with marijuana earlier in the day, he’s exhibiting clear symptoms of road rage.
“Come on, dude!” he yells at a driver who fails to notice the traffic light change from red to green. “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!”
Finally, the driver begins to roll forward, and Racer X breathes a deep sigh of relief. “Sometimes, I feel like a taxi driver,” he says. “I’ve learned how to dodge around in traffic and avoid the really bad intersections so I don’t lose too much time. But I’ve also learned how to calm myself down while driving. I need to be able to do that because I’m driving around in a car full of something that is still considered a banned substance under federal law, and I don’t want to draw any more attention to myself than I need to.”
It’s clear that despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that Racer X medicates himself with copious amounts of marijuana on a daily basis, he’s a pretty paranoid individual. Driving around stoned with packages of weed in a suitcase in his backseat all day long, after all, isn’t exactly a risk-free activity, even if there are literally dozens of delivery services and hundreds of drivers just like Racer X doing that exact thing—except for maybe the driving-while-stoned part.
There’s always the possibility of being pulled over by the cops, who will not look kindly on all those eighth-ounce containers of marijuana—clear evidence, they could argue, that Racer X is in possession of pot with the intent to sell, a serious felony that could lead to months if not years in jail. Racer X’s proximity sense seems to escalate as we approach the city of Huntington Beach, which has more police cruisers prowling the streets per capita than anyplace else in his delivery area. His eyes continuously flick upward to his rearview mirror.
As we reach the neighborhood where the next customer lives, a strange slice of suburbia where all the houses are built in a faux half-timber Tudor-era style, Racer X is busy explaining how he’s learned to identify prostitutes. “You can tell that’s what they are because they’re always sitting at the bus stop, but they never get on a bus,” he says.
“Sometimes, it really pisses me off,” he continues. “Once I saw this Mexican lady with a kid sitting on the bench waiting for the bus, and four hours later, she was still there. I just don’t get it.”
Suddenly, Racer X’s GPS device interrupts his rant. “Recalculating,” it says. “Recalculating . . . Recalculating.”
Racer X has missed his left turn. “You have got to be kidding me!” he shouts. “How the fuck do I make a U-turn?”
* * *
At first glance, the Serial Killer looks like any other young Southern California skate punk, except he’s wearing mirrored sunglasses inside his tiny, cramped apartment. The glasses, combined with his wool hat and leering smile, make him look like Richard Ramirez, the infamous Night Stalker. The only thing scarier than him is his dog, which is about twice his size. The animal looks like the kind of Belgian attack dog the South African police might have used to terrify anti-apartheid protesters at the height of the township rebellions; it’s trying to push down a sliding patio door and eat Racer X.
This is Racer X’s second delivery to the Serial Killer in just two weeks—that’s when the Serial Killer moved to this unit—and he’s already buying another five-eighths of an ounce of weed. Today’s transaction takes less than a minute. “Thanks,” the Serial Killer says. “I won’t be here next time, just so you know. I’m moving.” A few minutes later, Racer X gets a call from the Big Kahuna, who tells him that several more orders have just come in. “We’re going to head back and do a pick-up-and-fly-by,” Racer X tells me.
We drive back to the Big Kahuna’s house. He walks out to the truck and hands over several manila envelopes. Seconds later, we’re on our way to meet the next customer, a friendly but serious young man who lives in a surreal-looking neighborhood of Huntington Beach where all the houses resemble blown-up versions of structures you’d find at a miniature-golf course, minus the windmills. He says he works for a surgical-supply company and smokes medical marijuana to soothe his tension headaches, which he’d been diagnosed with as a teenager. He buys an eighth of an ounce of weed.
“I’ve had these headaches since high school,” he says. “I’ve taken Tylenol and other over-the-counter drugs, but I really don’t like them. I smoke this a couple of times a month,” he adds, pointing at the just-purchased marijuana. “I mean, this will last me quite a long time, quite frankly.”
The next customer is Racer X’s favorite client. As we drive to meet her, he regales me with tales of her physical attributes. “She’s, like, six-three, six-four, big-boned, and beautiful, like a Nordic Amazon warrior,” he enthuses. “She says she has a boyfriend, but she’s really friendly.”
We pull up to the luxury condominium complex where the girl lives. A few minutes later, she bounds down the street and marches up to the truck with a happy grin on her face and leans in the driver’s window.
“Hiya!” she says.
Racer X is in love.
The Nordic Amazon warrior, who is about a foot shorter and several dress sizes larger than Racer X had claimed, is really happy to see him. She freely acknowledges that her diagnosed medical condition—anxiety—is just a ruse to get high without breaking the law. She explains that she grew up on the East Coast and recounts horror stories about trying to find weed. “I remember the hunts we used to go on back home,” she says. “It would be hours and hours and twenty or thirty phone calls before you’d get lucky. Hmmm: yeah, anxiety,” she adds, laughing at the memories. “Not anymore!”
* * *
The final delivery of the day takes place in a parking lot near a Petco. For some reason, this customer always insists on meeting in that lot, something that troubles Racer X. “This guy kind of freaks me out,” Racer X explains. “When I meet him, he’s always bobbing his head around and making it look like a drug deal.” A few moments after we pull into the lot, Racer X calls the customer, a tall middle-aged man in a tank top and shorts who is actually waiting just a few yards away.
He walks up, putting his cell phone away.
“I can give you two hundred bucks if you don’t mind, or would you rather I give you what I owe you?” the man asks nervously.
“Your total is $140,” Racer X says. “I can give you a fiver. Here you go.”
The man laughs self-consciously as he puts the money in his wallet. He glances back and forth. “Ha, ha, ha,” he says. “I’m getting used to this now.”
We drive back to the Big Kahuna’s house with $520 in cash in Racer X’s briefcase. Today, he estimates that the Big Kahuna has made $1,000, and that, as a driver, he will receive $200. As we navigate the rush-hour traffic on Harbor Boulevard for the third or fourth time that evening, Racer X reflects on his volunteer work with the club. “This is a really cool job,” he says. “The first few times I went out, I was really nervous. You don’t know if you’re going to be meeting a cop or a cowboy who might decide he wants the weed for free and pulls a gat on you. But that’s never happened yet.”
Racer X’s closest call happened in a parking lot when he made the mistake of getting out of his car to hand an envelope to a customer in return for a wad of cash. An alert security guard saw the exchange and pulled up to ask what was going on. “I told him it was a medical-supply delivery,” Racer X says. “He couldn’t see what was in the envelopes and didn’t really know what was going on, so he didn’t call the cops.”
Even if the guard had done so, Racer X says he’s confident that he’d be protected. “Legally, we’re fine,” he says. “There is no problem with what we are doing. If a cop were to pull up in the middle of a delivery, I have a paper saying the patient has designated the club as his caregiver. I might run into a problem, but I would just keep my fucking mouth shut and not say a goddamn thing and see what happens in the courts.”
That anecdote reminds Racer X of a funny story he’d been meaning to tell me all day. “Remember that cute girl we delivered to last week?” he asks, referring to Yoga Girl. “Well, her mom got hold of her cell phone.” According to Racer X, Yoga Girl’s mom began dialing all the unfamiliar numbers on her daughter’s phone, which eventually put her on the line with the Big Kahuna, who always answers the phone by stating the name of his cannabis collective.
“What are you?” the anxious mother asked the Big Kahuna.
“We’re a club,” he offered.
“Is my daughter in your club?” the woman asked, the alarm in her voice rising.
The Big Kahuna was about to hang up the telephone, but then thought better of it. After all, it wasn’t like he was a drug dealer. Marijuana’s legal now, he suddenly remembered, and he was the proud director of a legitimate nonprofit organization that happened to deliver medicine.
“Please answer my question,” pleaded the woman on the other end of the line.
“Yeah, you know what?” the Big Kahuna responded, his voice still friendly and professional as he hung up on her. “I don’t think I’m going to answer any more of your questions. You’re not part of the club.”
Excerpted with permission from The Weed Runners: Travels with the Outlaw Capitalists of America’s Medical Marijuana Trade by Nicholas Schou, published by Chicago Review Press, September 1, 2013.
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)