"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)
I am beyond the age of childbearing, so let’s assume that my authority on that subject is finally complete. I know what I know. My sons were born 18 and 15 years ago, so I stand on the outer edge of motherhood, quite sure of what all that delivery-room endurance was about. For reasons of simplicity, I think we should just refer to it as extreme adventure.
I have been reading adventure books since I was a little girl. Mountaineering, climbing, surfing and sailing accounts have inspired every hair-raising trip of my life. I am a student of men in their out-of-doors glory because so few of those profiled were women.
But I know a thing or two about all this that men do not. I know that the ordeal of labor and delivery rivals any adventure in the snow or ice, any facing-down of one’s demons on the open sea or at the end of a parachute. Most women – whether they give birth or not, whether they adopt or foster, whether they have children or careers or puppies – have adventures that go unremarked or unsung. But the Birth Adventure analogy strikes me as particularly apt. For gauging your emotional grit, they are practically the same thing.
I have sent this theory out like a test balloon over the canyons of male doubt. It does not take much effort to imagine the responses, the scoffing and eye-rolling. But bear with me for a moment. I haven’t summited Everest, chased down the South Pole, or sailed on the Vendée Globe, and neither have most of the readers of “Starlight and Storm,” by Gaston Rébuffat, or “Into Thin Air,” by Jon Krakauer, or any of the other world-famous accounts of burly men in the wild. But I have given birth. And that is a trip into the void, too. To willingly take on a challenge violent enough to shake your bones apart qualifies for some heavy commendation, or at least a level perch with the adventurers of the planet.
The most accomplished of them don’t invoke the concept of choice when they explain their missions, for example. They describe the jungle forays and arctic crossings as compulsions. Even as fine a modern seeker as Peter Matthiessen struggles to find words that answer his urge to explore. “What draws me eludes me to the same degree…. A longing it most certainly is, but a longing for what?” he wrote about his travels in his Antarctic book, “End of the Earth.” He is compelled and does not even know why. Well, that fits. I didn’t so much choose pregnancy as have it chosen for me. I certainly don’t know why I am compelled to procreate. Freud was dead wrong about that penis envy thing, but he did have a point when he said, “Anatomy is destiny.” The world must be peopled. Women give birth. So it was a biological imperative that set me on this slope.
Tales of adventure chronicle the lives lost among those who go looking for the continent’s heel, the river’s source, or the pole’s coordinates. Scott Fischer. Dan Osman. David Shaw. Mark Foo. We honor their lives with the labels we accord them: mountaineer, free climber, cave diver, wild soul. Yet I count among my friends women who have suffered losses echoing anything in the world of adventure. One friend miscarried far enough along in her pregnancy to deliver a son she named and buried. Another went into a disastrous early labor after a cross-country flight and then watched her newborn twins die. I even know a woman who, in her youth 50 years ago, carried in utero for three months a dead baby before delivering its body. She is an old woman now. The memory of her tragedy is still a living burden. Where is the song of praise for surviving that?
The enveloping safety of the delivery room is often invoked to counter my theory. “Please,” the gallery of doubters will say, “you have epidurals.” Yes, and you have drylock wetsuits. “You have doctors.” And you have sports physiologists, Global Positioning Satellite devices, and field apps that give you weather reports in the middle of the ocean. “You have hospitals.” You have oxygen canisters, 12-point crampons, military-grade climbing tethers, adrenalin shots, DTS Avalanche beacons, rebreathers, and single-hull sailboats that ride, climb and cartwheel over 50-foot waves and still manage to right themselves while you fumble about belowdecks. “If anything goes really wrong you have emergency C-sections.” If anything goes really wrong you have the Australian Coast Guard.
I don’t want to run down the achievements of explorers, in which the whole human planet finds joy. I just want to see labor considered among those ranks since it takes us to the same place that climbing the West Rib of Denali takes adventurers. Birth may be natural, but only in the way that Denali is natural. If you want to succeed you approach them both with the same mettle, or failure awaits. Mountaineering or labor, in the end it’s still just you pacing off the absolute limits of your body and will. And if you mess up badly enough, someone could die. Is there another definition of extreme adventure?
John Muir wrote an essay in 1880 about being trapped on a glacier’s moraine. I have kayaked in Alaska where I was cold and spent, driven mad by black flies, rained upon incessantly. I have hiked over the Bering Glacier roped to exhausted friends, been menaced by the glacier’s crevasses, paddled in the freezing rain up to its blue terminus. Still, it wasn’t until I had trekked through 20 hours of raw labor that Muir’s words sunk in. He wrote, “At such times, common skill and fortitude are replaced by power beyond our call or knowledge. … Never before had I been so long under deadly strain.” That sounds like a description of many labors I have known, including my own.
So how, as a laboring woman all those years ago, did I make use of this rough analogy? I began where any adventurer begins. I threw on my little quiver of strengths – fitness, fortitude, the love of my family — and off I went, head down into the wind. I entered the arena tired, because I hadn’t slept well since the seventh month. Hungry, because I couldn’t eat or I would have thrown up. Physically debilitated, because for nine months I hadn’t been in peak form. And a little demoralized, because all my preparation — like taping Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” or selecting for focus a photograph from our diving trip in Australia — amounted to just so much nonsense in the maelstrom of labor.
What you do, if you are smart – whether you are enduring “natural” labor or whether you use every labor drug in the arsenal — is retreat inward to concentrate. Some women scream or curse, but this is foolhardy, as any mountaineer knows. At this height energy is sacred and squandering it, reckless. The bolts of pain come on until they are like a summit storm so howling loud that everything else is wiped out. And all the while the pelvic bones are shifting. They are cranking open, you see, like a vise.
It is pain beyond. It is existential pain. For me, logic and advice wavered and went blank. My human identity shrank and then vanished. I was no longer wife, reporter, cyclist, bungee-jumper. I became an animal and I leaned into the long, atavistic trail to find my way. I functioned with supernatural efficiency. I couldn’t pull myself up to that height as a normal human, but as a laboring woman, caught up in the extreme, I could.
Every extreme adventure reaches a point of no return, as does labor, proceeding irrevocably through its own keening wilderness. Eighteen hours in, I started to shake. I felt hypothermic. I was run over with pain. I threw up after all – does any of this sound familiar? Hello, Ed Viesturs? Up to that point I had tried not to think about it, but eventually I did. I might die. My baby might die. I braced my foot on the bedrail and it twitched like a horse’s flank. The muscles were spastic and wrung out, which was too bad because I needed them. There I was and there I would stay unless I did something really effective immediately. I snapped to and, up to my knees in my own bile and blood, awash in the ecstasy of that extreme moment, I climbed. I slogged up a mountain of pain to bring back my children alive.
Is a summit ever beautiful on the way up? If it is described at all, it is because the athlete has already come down and is dreaming back to an epiphany he may never duplicate. So when each of my sons broke through and was handed wet and warm up to my arms, he was beautiful. Nothing would ever be so beautiful. Men cry on summits. They weep out their hearts. New mothers do too, and for the same reason. We are tested on the way up, and not found wanting.
I don’t have to tell you how this ends. It’s the same with any extreme adventure. You can spend the rest of your days chasing a crescendo that comes anywhere near this one. You may find it on another summit, in the middle of the southern ocean, in another baby. The triumph lingers. That is why combat veterans and mothers and extreme athletes talk about this stuff so much. We are trying to figure out how we can ever again be that wonderful.
There isn’t much of a literary history on childbirth. Most of the advice is such condescending treacle that you want to hunt down and choke the people who wrote it. But there is plenty of advice in extreme adventure. During my own pregnancies I read as much of it as I could, out of respect and awe, for its sake and for mine: “Wind, Sand and Stars,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; “Into the Heart of Borneo,” by Redmond O’Hanlon; “Annapurna,” by Maurice Herzog; “Sailing Alone Around the World,” by Joshua Slocum. And Apsley Cherry-Garrard. Especially Apsley Cherry-Garrard.
When I was in the ninth month of my second son’s gestation, I took down the best account of a polar expedition ever written, Cherry-Garrard’s “The Worst Journey in the World,” and read about Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed 1910 race to the South Pole. Cherry-Garrard wrote this about Scott’s life: “What pulled Scott through was character, sheer good grain, which ran over and under and through his weaker self and clamped it together.” And this about self-reliance: “At the poles a man must make up his mind that … no help can reach him from the outside world.” And this about all of us: “It is extraordinary how often angels and fools do the same thing in this life.”
I found comfort in Cherry-Garrard’s bewilderment that the natural world — of which I was more an expression during delivery than ever before — could be so brutal and so beautiful at the same time. I would look down at my near-term stomach and it was bewilderment that overcame me. How would I perform? How would I know what to do? Adventure narrative fired the path for me. It was honest and real and respectful. It was extreme and scary and unflinching. And it was all terribly appropriate to the occasion.
Looking back, this is what I would tell laboring women, and anyone else who throws doubts at the extreme task we are set. We have ample counsel on how to do this, and it comes from the world of adventure. That is how labor should be viewed — as a solo sail around the Horn, as a free climb, as a trip into the void. How do women do it? We do it the way Eric Newby did it. The way Josh Slocum did it. The way Edmund Hillary did it. Sometimes, when things go badly wrong, the way Robert Falcon Scott did it. Breath by breath. Tack by tack. Foot over foot, until we reach the summit. Just exactly in that way.
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)