"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)
Though last night’s episode seemed a little scattered — even for this show — it was nothing if not eventful. Hannah celebrated her twenty-fifth birthday in appropriately grungy fashion, Marnie channeled Edie Brickell and Idina Menzel, and Ray sulked his way into a brawl. The episode also introduced Adam’s wildly unpredictable sister Caroline, played by Gaby Hoffmann. This week, I spoke to another twenty-something fan about internet gaffes, dancing to dubstep, mental illness, and relationships both romantic and familial. (Don’t worry, no tacos this time.)
This Week’s “Girl”: Janelle Clayton, 22
Hometown: Airmont, NY
Job: Freelance production assistant
Adam or Ray: Adam
Favorite “Girls” girl: Jessa
Episode watched: “She Said OK”
So let’s start talking about the episode. It starts with a phone call from Adam’s sister, Caroline, and his immediate response to her is very negative. Do you have any siblings?
I have an older brother–he’s 27–and my younger sister is 21.
So you’re in the middle. Before you actually see the sister, what did you think of Adam’s reaction?
His reaction was negative, but the first thing he did was tell her to come out so he could care for her or address the issue in person. Even though he’s extremely aggressive toward her, I think his instinct was to take care of her immediately. That’s what my first reaction would be: “Come over to my apartment and then we’ll figure out what we need to do.”
What is your relationship like with your siblings?
We’re fine, definitely not like Adam and Caroline. I don’t know, we’re siblings. It’s harder to describe relationships with family members because you don’t know the dynamics between anyone else and their siblings, so I don’t know. Loving. Fine whenever I see them on holidays and vacations and stuff.
Does she seem like his sister to you?
Caroline does seem like Adam’s sister to me because they’re both manic in different ways. I can’t believe how much chaos she brought into that little apartment within the first few moments that she was there. I understand her emergency, but throughout the episode it just gets worse and worse. I hate to admit that Adam was right but, as he said, she vomits on everything.
I guess it was Shoshanna, in the previous episode, who talked about how much of Hannah Adam is willing to put up with– all of her hijinks and antics. A normal person with a normal life wouldn’t have time to put up with that. But it might be that, with the high-maintenance kind of person that his sister is, he’s kind of used to dealing with that. Maybe [that's why] he’s a little long suffering with Hannah.
We don’t really know much of Adam’s backstory–we see Hannah’s parents, we see Marnie’s mother, and we know that she’s previously divorced–but I’m wondering how Adam’s family is. He was so excited to see Hannah’s parents at her birthday party. I didn’t think he’d meet them with such enthusiasm. He was so happy to see them. It makes me think that they’re a touch of normalcy that he never really gets to experience in his life.
He obviously has some–I don’t know if you’d call it envy–but he appreciates their level of closeness in a way that Hannah doesn’t appreciate her own parents.
He thinks it’s so awesome that they always kind of do a jig together, and when he goes around to dance with them it seems that he really actually wanted to spend time with them.
Then there’s the issue of Marnie’s music video. It is obviously a embarrassing moment for Marnie and a mistake that she wishes wasn’t on YouTube. That’s a very modern problem, people doing things that end up on the Internet and last forever. I didn’t grow up with that problem. There was no YouTube when I was that age. Without being too specific, do you have any regrets or things like that that you’ve done that are just sort of permanently somewhere in the ether?
Fortunately, no. I do understand that concern of doing something whether in public or private and wondering if someone is recording you as a joke. Even when you can be dating someone, you’re also cautious about whether or not people take pictures of the two of you because then they could post it. If something doesn’t work out, it does concern you if it’s going to be on someone’s Instagram or Facebook and you’re not really in a relationship and people start to talk–on the Internet, publicly, because you can see comments. It’s definitely a concern when people document anything and everything. But she was willing to do that music video, as Shoshanna or Hannah mentioned, but she’s just upset that Charlie posted it. She’s too embarrassed to speak to him.
I think it was Shoshanna who said she was complicit in the making of this, which is funny. It probably didn’t take much persuasion to get Marnie to do that video. There’s a great deal of narcissism on that show–it’s difficult to say who’s most narcissistic–but she certainly has a large dose of it. She’s clearly leaning into that song throughout that video. I wonder if she’s more embarrassed that Charlie posted it and now they’re not together, or more disappointed with the way it was received, with all the Internet comments? Despite the fact that she protests the thing, you find her desperately trying to sing in public again by the end of the episode.
I think she’s more upset, not about the comments or about how it’s received, but I think she’s more upset that she’s trying to overcome her relationship with Charlie, and he has the power to enter her life whenever he wants to, because there are so many platforms. They’re not connected to each other, but she searches for him. In the bar scene at Hannah’s party, she mentions that Charlie must check her Instagram, just as she is checking his YouTube channel. Nowadays the internet doesn’t let you forget someone. And if maybe you’re dating someone their pictures are going to show up somewhere months later. She’s just upset that the Internet isn’t letting her forget about this man who she claims ruined her life.
But you don’t have to check those. I don’t think she wants to forget him. I think, like you said, that she’s trying to keep tabs on him. It seems like she doesn’t want to sever that relationship. Maybe I’m an old fogey, but I’m a firm believer that you can stop associating with someone. It seems to me fairly easy–unless you run in the same circles, which it doesn’t seem that they do–it seems fairly easy to just stop checking somebody’s Instagram, stop following them. It seems like she just wants that relationship in some way. She’s very, very concerned about what he’s doing and what he’s up to–she’s clearly not over it.
Their relationship the previous seasons was so superficial. She tried to break up with Charlie multiple times. And each time she ended up figuring that she’d rather be with Charlie — even though she felt suffocated by him — than be alone. I’ve realized a lot of times, with girls my age, that having a boyfriend is a social success. Shoshanna ended up being with Ray. Hannah had Adam. Jessa’s kind of doing her own thing. And Marnie, probably subconsciously–or maybe she was thinking about it–didn’t want to be the girl friend without a boyfriend. I know how that feels and I know how other girls feel when that happens. They are kind of always sympathized with in a really odd way, as if the possibility of being married young is awesome. I think in the back of her head that’s what she’s thinking, even though no one mentions marriage in this show, that’s probably what the dynamic comes down to between girlfriends, nowadays — to mark a success that she wasn’t willing to sacrifice.
So you think that even at that age, even that young, the seeds of the notion of marriage or a permanent partner is in the back of their minds?
They’re only a few years older than me–and I most definitely do think it is.
So it’s that way for you?
It’s not that way for me, but I know it is with some of my friends who think about it–if they’re together for two years or they’re college sweethearts. I mean, I went to school in the south also, and they definitely think about it. These strong feminist New York women that this show seems to be depicting may not verbalize it. But if we were with these people in that small apartment in real life, the conversation definitely would’ve arisen.
Do you think of these as strong New York women?
I didn’t say they were strong, I said the show is trying to depict these strong women. But I don’t really think they are. I understand that Shoshanna is trying to grow. She kind of forces herself into new experiences because she feels that if she doesn’t actively pursue them, she will miss out on those college experiences that she thinks she deserves. We have to be more sensitive in how we speak about Hannah because in the last season she was diagnosed with mental illness. She’s on medication now, she goes to therapy, she’s being treated. I think it’s harder for people to call Hannah strong, but by calling her “not strong,” you have to tread in the water of, “Are you calling a woman crazy?” Before she was diagnosed she couldn’t stand Adam. Now that she needs help, it seems like Adam’s the love of her life. Are they together because she really loves him now — because she did break his heart before — or is it that she realizes she needs help and Adam is more than willing to take care of her?
I want to come back to Hannah’s mental illness at the end. Quickly: the whole birthday thing. I know 25 is a milestone. 21 was probably your last milestone, right? Is it mandatory to have a big celebration like that?
Most of your friends will want you to do something big to celebrate. So they’re probably planning it for you. It was great that her parents and Marnie planned a party.
When I was that age, having my parents around my friends would have been the farthest thing from my mind, but I guess her parents are closer to her. They’re also more a part of the show this season. It seems like they’re going to do a lot more with them.
I think it’s just that their daughter is an only child. They’ve been forcing her to grow up faster. They want to retire. They cut her off, and she ends up having this crisis and seems to be hurting herself every time they turn their backs. I think it was kind of “We love you, it’s your birthday, we’re going to treat you and your friends.”
I had a couple of problems with the party. There was a scene where Ray asks this guy at the bar, “What are you doing here?” And the other guy says, “Why else does a guy come to a place with dancing? My girlfriend brought me.” Do you find that guys your age don’t dance? That seems silly to me. There’s plenty of reasons to go dancing: No. 1, to dance, No. 2, to dance with girls. Am I just not in touch with guys in that age group?
That’s funny to take away from that moment. Definitely guys that have these grandiose notions of masculinity–they don’t dance. They just kind of go to those places to talk to their friends, but they don’t really participate unless invited by a female or, I don’t know. It’s just weird.
That’s a huge shame. My thing at that age was to go to reggae clubs. It’s very masculine to dance with a woman.
You can’t dance to Pink or dubstep.
You can’t dance to dubstep? I thought dupstep was dance music.
I’m so over dubstep. It’s not dance music because the beat drops for five seconds, it’s really slow, and everyone just stands there. You can’t dance to dupstep. You should just try it.
Speaking of playing music: that was another problem I had with that episode. (Notice the very ridiculous, superficial things I take from the episode.) There’s the point where Ray is arguing with the DJ about changing his song, and the DJ’s response is “That’s what DJs do, they switch from one song to the next.” To me that is the worst, most blasphemous statement I’ve ever heard. That is not what DJs do. It’s an art, it’s transitioning, it’s finding a trend. A lot of my friends are DJs and they don’t like taking requests. I think he’s wrong for even asking, but the notion that a DJ just jumps from one song to the next is incorrect. This is stuff that doesn’t matter, it just bothered me. I’ve noticed that, in watching “Girls,” I tend to be thinking a lot about Ray because he’s an old curmudgeon in comparison to the rest of the characters, which is how I feel watching the show.
I noticed the owner of Ray’s coffee shop was wearing a Smashing Pumpkins t-shirt earlier that morning, and then Ray requested a Smashing Pumpkins song and was extremely upset when it changed. I think that signifies the turbulence that’s about to happen in Ray’s life, about him maybe taking over and being a manager or part owner of this coffee shop.
Okay, I want to get to this mental illness thing real quick. I don’t think that in any way they would make light of Hannah’s mental illness, but I think that Adam’s sister has a very present and dangerous and precarious mental illness. It hasn’t been defined, but I feel like there is a stark contrast between what Hannah goes through — something that can be regulated — and whatever it is with this girl. It feels like Adam takes such pains to take care of Hannah because he wasn’t able to do anything for his sister. This is all just kind of stuff I’m speculating based on that single episode. But he is almost oddly nurturing to me.
Hannah did care for him previously when — did he break his leg? As I’ve seen it in other HBO shows, “He took care of me, I should be able to last for him.” I think it was “Sex and the City,” when Samantha’s young boyfriend helped her when she had breast cancer, and she wanted to help him when he was going through these huge movie promotions. It could be that kind of relationship, like, “Man, Hannah actually did so much for me when I broke my leg. Maybe I should stand up for the woman I really love.” But I don’t think they’re going to be picture perfect in this relationship.
Interesting. This is a discussion I had with my guest for the last column. She loved and idealized Hannah and Adam’s relationship. She thought they were such a great couple and it seemed to exemplify everything she wanted at that age. (She had just turned 25 that weekend.) I’m wondering, at your age, what do you think of that relationship?
I think it’s sick. I had one like that and it’s awful. It’s unhealthy and it’s not going to last. One of them, in their minds–because I know–is thinking, “I can’t take this anymore. We are together all the time, that person isn’t doing anything or really contributing or moving forward.” Hannah seems to have all these projects in her mind that she wants to work out, like her book. She’s trying to think of what she could be doing. Meanwhile, what does Adam do — he like, makes things? He made that tooth necklace. I just don’t think it’s going to last. It can’t and it shouldn’t. No couple should depend on each other that much. Why can’t she just take her pills herself? It’s sort of gross. Like, are you kidding me?
Did you find the tooth necklace romantic?
Um, romantic from Adam because what else is he going to do? But then he said, “Oh my mom kept all our teeth in one box, so I’m actually not sure which one it is.” I was like, “great, she might be wearing Caroline’s tooth.” But he’s like, “It definitely is my genetic material.” It was such an Adam thing to do.
Neil Drumming is a staff writer for Salon. Follow him on Twitter @Neil_Salon.More Neil Drumming.
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)