"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)
When I was younger, I wanted to travel like Patrick Leigh Fermor, who famously spent 1934 walking from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul. I envisioned myself sporting leather satchels and lace-up boots, doffing Panama hats, spouting demotic Greek. I fantasized about riding horses through the Caucasus and letting falcons loose upon the Black Sea, about “living up in the mountains, dressed as a shepherd,” as Fermor had done. It was a fantasy cobbled together from all the books of all the travel writers I loved — the great writer-scholars of a certain generation, who saw the whole world as raw material: shifting, uncertain geography for them to shape and create anew in their words.
Then I turned 15, and traveled alone for the first time to Paris, a city I had once lived in, and which I knew well. I laid out maps. I made plans. I would bolt down every alleyway. I would say yes to every invitation. I would lay lilies at Oscar Wilde’s grave. I would sit at cafes in Montmartre until some itinerant, velvet-trousered poets came to scoop me up out of my innocence; they would take me with them to secret courtyards, up the stairs to hidden salons, and there we would drink absinthe and I would scribble down my experiences and then, at last, I would know what it meant to have an adventure.
I never had an adventure.
I was skittish, awkward, hardly capable of forming words to boys my own age, let alone 40-something men well-practiced in the art of knocking gawkish girls out of their comfort zone. I spent my week in Paris squirming out of conversations, stuttering out fake phone numbers, learning all too quickly to avoid those places where I might be considered a target. Cafe terraces, park benches, crosswalks of city streets. My desire for experience, for openness, for adventure, had been overpowered by a stronger imperative, one I had internalized without realizing it: Don’t get yourself raped.
* * *
Even today, my male friends look at me with confusion when I try to explain how powerful, how completely prevalent is don’t-get-yourself-raped in my everyday life. It’s the reason I get my keys out a good 10 minutes before I reach my apartment, keeping them between my fingers in case I need to use them as a weapon against an assailant. It’s the reason I take taxis instead of walking home alone late at night. It’s the reason I always walk in the middle of the road, steering well clear of alleyways or obscured corners.
But it’s the reason, too, for more subtle variations in behavior. I’m no longer 15, and I am far more capable of turning away aggressive strangers than I was that ill-fated summer, but as a travel writer, I am painfully conscious of how easy it is for a moment’s lapse to turn me from an observer – an all-seeing eye, freely taking in a Tbilisi hilltop or a Turkish terrace – into a target.
It’s the reason I turned down the recent invitation of a well-known Georgian writer to visit him at his winter home in the mountains. It’s the reason my heart starts pounding when the waiter in Tbilisi brings me a complimentary plate of baklava when I’ve only asked for a coffee. Not because I fear that this writer, or this waiter, will drag me into a darkened room and rape me. But rather because the social codes I have learned to fend off unwanted advances – abruptness, bordering on rudeness; the refusal of any special favors or gifts; the subtle avoidance of giving off the “wrong impression” – are diametrically opposed to the openness, the willingness to go anywhere and do anything, that form the genesis of every good travel story.
Of course, many of my decisions are instinctive, ritualistic rather than practical. I am statistically more likely to be raped on a night out with friends in England than by a stranger in Yerevan, after all, and I know that however tightly I hold my keys, however forcefully I refuse free baklava, the only thing that will determine whether or not I end up raped is whether or not I end up in the presence of someone who has decided that my consent is immaterial. Nevertheless I have internalized a series of rules – do not smile at a stranger, never follow a shopkeeper into a back room, never accept a ride, never tell a man where you’re staying – that prevent me from following in Fermor’s footsteps, from sleeping in haystacks or barns like, as he puts it, “a tramp, a pilgrim, a wandering scholar,” much as I might like to.
“Can’t you just get over it?” a male friend asked me once, accusing me of clinging to cowardice in the guise of common sense. Certainly, it is possible to attribute some of my reluctance to skittishness: I have swallowed concepts of self-preservation over and beyond what I need to keep myself from ending up at the bottom of the Bosphorus. And I wonder, sometimes, whether women are too often taught to prioritize a nebulous idea of “safety” over adventure. My male friends laugh about the scrapes they have gotten into – arguments, fist fights, muggings – dangers that have left no lasting damage.
Can I not adopt the brisk attitude to danger of the Irish travel writer Dervla Murphy, who once fended off a would-be rapist with a .25 pistol?
Yet behavior taken as mere geniality in men – accepting rides or invitations, staying for a cup or tea or dinner, even engaging in idle conversation – is often taken in women to be a sign of sexual willingness. My male friend can accept a newfound friend’s offer of a drink, of a meal, of a sofa bed, without being presumed to have given sexual consent; I have no such luxury. Once, after sustaining a bad fall in Tbilisi, I allowed a neighbor to give me a lift to the local pharmacy and help me buy bandages to stop the bleeding. Disoriented from my fall and the blood loss, and eager not to appear ungrateful, I gave him my phone number. Over the next few days, I fielded between five and seven phone calls a day, as my neighbor demanded a date with me in no uncertain terms. As far as he was concerned, my willingness to get in his car was not the result of a medical emergency, but rather a proclamation of sexual desire.
To be a Patrick Leigh Fermor, a Colin Thubron, a Norman Douglas or Paul Theroux, requires always saying yes. To not-get-raped, according to every lesson I – and so many other women – have been taught, so often requires saying no.
* * *
A few months ago, I was sitting over tea with a much older travel writer whose works I admire. I mentioned to him that I was having trouble reconciling the idealistic notion of myself as a fearless lady adventurer with the safety imperatives demanded of a woman alone. I told him how the avenues open to Patrick Leigh Fermor, to Norman Douglas, to Richard Francis Burton, never fully felt open to me.
He considered. “Of course, I went to boarding school,” he said dryly, name-checking a famously posh English institution. “It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t belong anywhere.”
Nor did it occur to Fermor. Such an approach to travel – the grandiose conviction that the world exists to be mapped, shaped, formed anew with reference to the author’s own preconceived convictions of how it ought to be (Fermor insisted upon calling Istanbul “Constantinople” long after the Turks themselves had decided otherwise) — is exclusively the provenance of the privileged, the powerful: those who never doubt that the world belongs to them. The riotous, Panama-hatted approach to adventure – tall tales and breathless misadventures, nights spent sleeping in boxcars and beer halls and the grand halls of impoverished counts – is often the world in which the storyteller, with his witty quotes and charming misfortunes, becomes a kind of literary colonizer: the true subjects of the story – these locals for whom “Constantinople” is only ever Istanbul – reduced to mere background objects, picturesque scenery. The world Fermor or Chatwin portray is mired in nostalgia for a mystical time when places conformed to the romantic ideals these writers held of them. Such a narrative of loss gives Fermor’s work — written in recollection of travels undertaken just before World War II — much of its haunting loveliness. Yet it is impossible to read Fermor without being all too aware that its world of unthinking privilege (after all, Fermor’s beer halls and boxcars soon gave way to spare bedrooms in family friends’ chateaux) is no longer sustainable.
As a “lady adventurer,” a female traveler, I have never had that particular privilege. I am an intruder; I am a stranger; I am a woman in public spaces – tea houses, street corners – often deemed the exclusive provenance of men. I do not have the luxury of sauntering into a basement chaikhana in Tbilisi or Istanbul, spreading my legs apart on the cushions, leaning back, loudly quoting Homer and demanding pots of tea, secure in the conviction that the world will shape itself to my will.
Yet I am not so sure that it should.
After all, such an approach is the grand narrative of colonization writ small, the literary equivalent of sticking a flag into strange soil and calling it one’s own. It is the approach of men – more, so, of white Western men – those who have been brought up to never doubt that the names they give places are one and the same as the places themselves.
This cannot be my approach. If being a woman traveler has taught me anything, it is that the freedom to have an adventure, to have the adventures one chooses, is illusory. It is a privilege denied me, but it is a privilege all the same: the assumption that I have the right to impose myself, my story, my thoughts upon a place. If I could magically change my gender, just while traveling — like the Gertrude Bell of old, who often traveled dressed as a man — it would certainly make things easier for me. But I know, deep down, that it would also mean unlearning the lessons that I, as a specifically female travel writer, have learned from my own experience.
My approach must be a different one. I must watch; I must listen; I must look. I must sometimes remain silent and observe; I must avoid calling undue attention to myself. I must sacrifice the desire, born of too many readings of “A Time of Gifts,” to become the hero of my own story, the folk adventurer with the lace-up boots.
Instead, I take in my surroundings. The tools I, as a woman, use to preserve my own safety – an ability to size up a strange man at 20 paces; a constant awareness of the events occurring in my peripheral vision – become the tools of my trade as a writer. My silence, my care, my hyper-awareness, allow me to recede into the background, to allow the people I observe to become the true subjects of the stories I tell.
These stories are not Fermor’s stories. Romantic intrigues with Byzantine princesses aside, the stories Fermor tells are largely the stories of men – his adventures are so often male adventures, their aesthetic taken wholesale from Boys’ Own Stories: spycraft, narrowly escaped beatings, quoting Horace to a captive German general. But if my gender bars me from downing raki or chacha with strange men, it nonetheless allows me access to other experiences: spheres deemed by so many male travel writers to be too domestic, too prosaic, to be of interest. I have spent late nights drinking tea with my landlady in Tbilisi, listening to accounts of her girlhood love affairs. One Georgian artist I particularly admire invited me up to her apartment and told me all about her strained relationship with her daughter. She changed clothing in front of me; she let me see her struggle not to cry.
These are not Fermor’s adventures – overflowing with bravado, punctuated by quotations from Horace. And I, in my most thoughtless moments, have been guilty of dismissing such experiences as afterthoughts, not real adventures: the travel-writing equivalent of that despicable term “women’s work.”
Yet such a dismissal is part of the problem. The experiences of women – the experiences women have access to – cannot be considered a mere footnote to the “real story”: the stories of men who travel, who meet and speak to and drink raki or chacha with other men. It may not be Fermor’s story, but it is no less valid for being mine.
When the final volume of Fermor’s travelogue appears (posthumously) on shelves in the near future, I will be among the first to read it. I’ll sit in my armchair and thrill to his adventures and, for a few hours, I will wish that I could be more like him: free to conquer the world with my feet.
But deep down, I’ll know that such freedom is born of a privilege I do not have and perhaps should not want. It is a privilege that blinds those who have it to the fact that the world is not raw material, shifting, uncertain geography for us to shape and create anew in our words. It is not a moveable stage set upon which we can create visions of ourselves, invent ourselves as the adventurers we would like to be.
As a woman, this is something I have always known. As a writer, it is something that I am constantly called upon to relearn. My limitations, as a female travel writer, are also my strengths.
I will never accept an invitation from boisterous strangers on a trans-Siberian night train, nor spend my nights stumbling through the poorly lit back alleys of Kiev or so-called Constantinople. I will never hitchhike with drunken pandauri players into the Caucasus, gulping down chacha and crowing toward the stars. I will never be Paddy Leigh Fermor.
Instead I will stay up late with other landladies in other apartment buildings in other cities, sharing stories of first loves. I will pour tea for grandmothers on Turkish terraces. I will eavesdrop on bridal parties in the Tbilisi bathhouse.
I will listen for stories. I will tell them, and they will be my own.
Tara Isabella Burton's travel writing and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Conde Nast Traveller, Guernica, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, The New Statesman and more. In 2012 she received The Spectator's Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. She is represented by the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency; her first novel is currently on submission.More Tara Isabella Burton.
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)