"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)
Standing in the middle of the Newark airport, I felt long nails gripping my forearm, preventing me from taking another step.
“I’m okay, really,” I said. “I have to catch this flight.”
I looked into the horrified eyes of a slight woman with bleached ringlets and a Tweety Bird pin on her oversized TSA vest. “Girl,” she said. “You are not okay.”
That was it—a five-word sentence that broke a spell 25 years in the making. But first, I had another seizure: there was the familiar ringing in my ears that always preceded them so I nodded and then closed my eyes and waited.
Eighteen hours earlier, I’d had high hopes for the long weekend ahead of me. My plan had been to make a quick appearance on Friday night at a charity event in the city being thrown by my boss, a sociopathic M&A banker who went by the name of Jimbo. The next morning, I’d hop on a flight to Napa Valley for a vacation with a group of friends.
I’d planned the night’s events weeks in advance: I would enter the club in my perfect boho blouse and boot-cut jeans and down a glass of Pinot to loosen up before debuting my fierce hip-hop moves to the associates and partner under which I slaved. Then I would regale them with a few humorous yet tasteful anecdotes and as they laughed, their love for me would deepen. I would excuse myself at a sensible hour, return home, pack and be ready for my 7 am flight. I just had to remember to only have one glass of wine—two at the very most—and no hard liquor. I didn’t want to end up urinating outside of a bodega in front of coworkers again, seeing as they hadn’t found the stunt as hilarious as I’d anticipated they would when it happened after Katie’s going-away drinks.
But at the club, everyone was wearing cocktail dresses and suits and dancing to Billy Joel. Underdressed, unprepared, I felt bolts of disappointment and embarrassment shoot through me. But before I had the wherewithal to hightail it out of there, Jimbo grabbed my arm and shouted, “Zaree—tequila now!”
“Not tonight Jimbo—I’m on antibiotics,” I said weakly.
Jimbo rolled his eyes then licked my wrist and poured salt on it. “Not drinking on antibiotics is total bullshit,” he said. “My dad’s a doctor.”
In that moment, I felt powerless not to comply so I tossed the shot back along with any hope of making my 7 am flight. That’s all it took—a tinge of disappointment and a lick of a wrist. I was wasted within the hour.
Hell hath no fury on an active alcoholic with a Type-A personality. I’d always loved a good plan that squeezes out room for any uncertainty or imperfection. I’d started obsessively scheduling every second of my life when my drinking first began to feel out of control, as a freshman in college. Every night, while drunk or high, I would formulate the following day’s schedule with Navy Seal-like structure: I would work out, go to my classes, study for five or so hours, eat salads (no croutons!), attend my first Amnesty International meeting and then hit my pillow before midnight.
The thing is, I never managed to pull those plans off. Instead, I would shoot out of bed hung-over and grab a breakfast of a triple espresso and Adderall. I’d force myself to hit the gym but a total of about 15 seconds on the treadmill would elapse before I’d want to call the whole day off. By lunch, I would be chasing my third Adderall with a Gordita and Dr. Pepper. Then layers of guilt and shame would propel my further descent from perfection: I’d tell myself I couldn’t sit through class on a full stomach so I’d cut and proceed to cyber or real-life stalk a current or ex-boyfriend, watch Turner Classic movies (who doesn’t like a mid-day David Lean marathon?) or go to a coffee shop with hot baristas and pretend to read Infinite Jest. By the time night came, I’d find myself at a club, a bar or even worse, a rave. Yes, a rave. The shame one feels emerging from a blackout, gripping a glow stick, high on E on a Wednesday night is, I’ve learned, unparalleled. Before I had too much time to contemplate how I got there again, though, I’d reach for a drink or a drug. While I waited for them to take effect, I’d begin planning for the next day, when I would work out, study, go to class, eat a salad without croutons and hit an Amnesty International meeting. Yes, I’d tell myself, tomorrow would be different. I’d find the strength, the discipline and the control. All I had to do was try a little harder. (To this day, I have no clue what goes on at Amnesty International meeting.)
This self-perpetuating cycle spun me out through college and my early Wall Street career until that fateful day when I landed on my ass in Newark Airport. That morning, I’d woken up mid-morning with the sun stabbing me in the face. I’d hopped out of bed and then promptly fallen to the floor, my whole body shaking. These mini-seizures—though I didn’t dare call them that then—weren’t unfamiliar to me at the time. They’d been happening after nights of hard drinking for the previous year. That morning, as I stared at my arms and legs trembling, I was terrified but not because of my failing physical state. Instead I was worried about my friends’ judgment when they heard I’d missed the trip. I could easily imagine them speculating about how I’d gotten too drunk again. I had to get up. I vowed to be on a plane to San Francisco by the end of the day.
And I’d done it—I’d managed to secure a flight later that afternoon! Sure, as I walked through the terminal, my legs had given out a few times. So, each time I fell, I told myself that my shoes were giving me trouble. The scene reeked of insanity but I thought I was pulling it off and hardly drawing any attention at all to myself. It was then that I noticed the woman with the bleached ringlets and Tweety bird pin at the front of the security line staring at me.
After that final seizure, I was roused to consciousness by a team of paramedics mounting me onto a gurney. For a second, I clocked the eyes of the people passing by but for the first time, I didn’t care about what they thought. I couldn’t even rouse an iota of strength to ask what was happening to me or where they were taking me. One of the paramedics asked me what I took and I replied, “I’m still kind of drunk from last night.” It was the first time I’d admitted to another person or myself that my drinking had caused me any harm. Still, I promptly turned on the old charisma and hustled myself off the gurney, out of a trip to the hospital and back into the ticket line. I was in San Francisco by that night.
Amazingly, not a single one of my Newark adventures came to mind that weekend as I drank my way through San Francisco and Napa. But when I landed back in Newark that Sunday, the words “You are not okay” looped incessantly through my mind. In the cab, I saw my hand reach for my phone to call Gina, a friend who had quit drinking and had casually mentioned these meetings she went to in Soho every morning. I heard myself saying to her, “I’ll be there!” I had no real intention of showing up.
I miraculously woke up the next morning at 5 am. I watched myself get out of bed, get dressed, get on a train, get off the train and walk to the intersection of Sullivan and Houston. I saw Gina smiling and waving at me in front of the meeting. I thought, “Turn around now, change your number, and avoid this block for a year. She will forget.” Yet again, my legs moved before I told them to and I watched them walk towards Gina.
In recovery, I learned why the words “Girl, you are not okay” bit as hard as they did. My blouses, handbags and wine-tasting trips could no longer shroud my alcoholism from the rest of the world. I learned my years of over-planning and perfectionism were desperate, deluded attempts to will away my addiction. It was like trying to tame a lion by reading it the Magna Carta. I knew everything that I needed to know to be a good student and employee; what I lacked was the spiritual foundation, the faith and the help from others that would allow me to implement that knowledge and discipline.
As I raised my hand to introduce myself as a newcomer, I felt my organs contracting. I felt far from spiritual and was certain that this was the end of the line. I had no idea then that this moment was going to be the first of many surrenders in my life. But from that first meeting, I have been drink, drug and seizure-free. Most days, I still over-schedule and over plan the details. But I know that the key to peace isn’t crossing everything off the list; it’s acknowledging that freedom comes from surrendering control and knowing that at this very moment, I am okay.
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)