"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)
The first time I masturbated I was 12 years old. I was in the bathtub, helpless to a steady stream of warm water cascading down my lady parts, while the most intoxicating buildup brought me to my first orgasm. Nothing in my hush-hush Catholic upbringing and innocent friend circle had prepared me for this earthshaking experience, equal parts pleasure and shame. I didn’t know what I stumbled upon, only that it felt scary and wrong, but I tried not to care. No longer would I be crushed out on Eddie Vedder or Chris Cornell. H2O had stolen my heart.
After that, sex was always on my mind. Dredging through the book “Treasure Island” in seventh grade, I told myself I was allowed to masturbate to orgasm at the end of each chapter so I could finish by the due date. There are 34 chapters in that book and, having made that deal, I breezed through them over the course of a few blissed out days. Robert Louis Stevenson will forever be an erotic novelist in my mind.
My hormones were a freight train, and I tried to keep up. I wonder now if I would have lost the thrill of masturbation eventually, once the novelty wore off, but I found new thrills. I started staying up late, when Mom and Dad were snoring away in oblivion, to watch softcore porn on Cinemax. Shannon Tweed became my nighttime hero. I didn’t know whether to hate her or love her, but I knew I needed her. During the day, I made other arrangements. My brother was three years older, and I’d wait for him to leave the house and then raid his stash, hidden in his bedside drawer under men’s fitness magazines and school notebooks. Girlie mags. Unlabeled VHS tapes. I masturbated every day, multiple times a day, until I was exhausted and sore.
Later, when classmates at my all-girls Catholic high school were talking about MTV, YM magazine and PMS, I was educating myself on all sorts of other acronyms: DP, POV, ATM and more. With the advent of chat rooms on AOL, I supplemented porn with cybersex and sometimes managed to find clips and videos online, which took hours to download. I needed to have an empty house and no plans for the day for that kind of work. When friends invited me out, I often made excuses, preferring the ease and familiarity of my screens and self-soothing to the pressure of social connection. I feared that somehow they’d figure out my dark secret. If nobody was talking about porn and masturbation, then certainly I was doing something odd. And, consequently, I was odd. Odd and pathetic and bad. Shame consumed me.
When dial-up was replaced with broadband, porn was even more immediate. With sites like 89, RedTube, Pornhub, TubeGalore and so many others, I didn’t have to depend on anyone else for my fix. I’d come into my own.
Thoughts of the acrobatic arrangements of flesh and dirty talk filled my mind all day long. I daydreamed constantly. I started and ended my days with orgasms. There was always time and a clip I hadn’t yet seen.
Later, when I started having sex for real, I didn’t abandon the usual porn-and-masturbation combo. Quite the opposite. I surprised boyfriends with my enthusiasm when they’d forgotten to clear their history and insisted that we watch together. I knew porn stars by name, bookmarked all my favorite sites and switched up all the ways I got off — fingers, vibrators and, of course, the water faucet for old time’s sake.
I familiarized myself with all the various categories. Threesomes. Oil orgies. Girl-on-girl. I got into costumes for a while. Naughty schoolgirls. Naughtier cheerleaders. Sexy nurses. Horny cops. I became interested in S&M, casting call couches, bang buses. Some of the videos had horrible acting bits that made me giggle. Others were uncomfortably real, such as forlorn Thai hookers and mistake-making drunk party girls. I hoped the bachelor party videos were fake. I prayed the “teen” porn stars were 18 like the disclaimers promised.
I was proud when I talked to boyfriends about my kink. See how edgy I am! How open-minded! Whether I was in a relationship or not, my bond with porn never waned. Tuning in and rubbing one out always sounded like a good idea. It didn’t matter how late it was. It didn’t matter if I’d already had two or three orgasms that day. I could be in a great mood, a foul mood, angry, sad, bored — whatever was going on, I knew I could top it. Heaven was literally at my fingertips, just a click away, and mine for free whenever and however I wanted it.
This went on for years. A decade. Almost two.
Then one day, I found myself clicking through gang bangs, but bored by the number of men I saw. Six in this one, eight in that one, 10 in the other. Usually gang bangs were a sure bet to getting off, but not this time. I kept searching, clicking through endless galleries of flesh, waiting to be impressed. Finally I found it. One that gave me that body-tingling, heart-racing, sweat-inducing rush of excitement. It was an older clip, late ’90s, but it was perfect. More than 500 men.
The Houston 500 stars the buxom blonde Houston, born Kimberly Halsom, taking on a reportedly 620 men in an uninterrupted frenzy hosted by Ron Jeremy. The filming was done in a garage, showing men taking turns mounting and finishing while the ticker goes up and Houston makes history in what was considered the world’s biggest gang bang. She is shown laughing a lot of the time, feigning ecstasy other times, and understandably exhausted toward the end. I know this because I watched it until the end. I watched the fluffers on their knees getting star-struck men ready for their big shining moment. I watched condoms get pulled off just in time for these men to erupt all over Houston’s oversize silicon breasts. I watched Ron Jeremy finish her off as lucky number 620.
I got off once, then twice, then three times, and saved it for later use.
But after I’d put my computer away, I felt something different than the usual post-orgasm glow. I felt sick. Guilty. Too aware. It became clear to me, as if a light switch had been turned on, what had happened over the course of my porn addiction. What I had been too distracted to see.
The videos I had been watching recently shared common themes. Most were big on degradation. Many had violence. I needed more people in them each time. More close-ups. If the girl looked sad, even better. If the men berated her, I adored it. Girls with collars and leashes? Yes, please. Girls in cages? Sure. Drunk, semi-conscious girls? Of course.
I’d invent stories in my head. This girl probably wanted to be an actress, but couldn’t make it. This one is supporting her children. The more pitiful the story, the more I was turned on. But what did it all mean? What did it mean that my escape method was someone else’s supposed misfortune? It didn’t matter if the stories I invented in my head were true. I hadn’t a clue what compelled these actresses to pursue this line of work. What mattered is that I was getting off on their — real or imaginary — pain and subjugation.
I realized that in order for the videos to keep their charge, their intensity and their effectiveness, I needed them to induce shame in me. After all, that’s how I found pleasure — in that bathtub at 12, submerged in fear and confusion and the belief that I was bad — and that’s how it had to remain. I’d wired the neural networks in my brain so well that it had become impossible for me to feel sexually turned on without feeling horrible about it. No longer was there enough shame in simply watching porn. I needed darkness. To be disgusted. To be traumatized.
And, just as I’d blamed yet glorified my softcore hero Shannon Tweed as a child, the women in various porns were also subject to my ambivalence, and eventually my anger. I wanted them to be punished for their insatiable lust, their vacant eyes, and their tireless, mechanical movements with men, just as I emotionally punished myself for my similar relationship with porn. Their sad stories were my own.
Porn had also warped my sex life. The act was unsatisfying unless I felt some inkling of shame. I often fantasized about men cheating on me, hurting me, using me, just so I could get off. I rarely allowed myself to surrender to the sensations or our connection — that’s not the kind of pleasure I knew. In order to keep this going, I had to have more sex and more fantasies. I’m sure many of my past lovers can attest to my insatiability, my unrealistic demands and my frustration if I was denied. They would probably recall my emotional distance, my lack of eye contact and my inability to orgasm unless I used my hand or vibrator. I was too angry and sad to enjoy sex, but that’s not all. I was too angry and sad to enjoy life.
Non-sexual relationships became rare. Jealousy and paranoia about my lovers flourished. And my self-confidence dimmed. Something had to change. I needed to separate shame from pleasure, and the first step was to get rid of the source material I’d long used to enforce this bond. I started attending SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous) meetings and turned away from porn.
When I met my husband, I encountered another kind of sexual experience. Without the familiar crutch of porn and fantasy, I began to feel more relaxed, more connected, more present. Eye contact stopped being so awkward. I didn’t have to use my hand to get off. I now know that pleasure can be born out of emotional intimacy and love — two things I didn’t see in my kind of porn, and two things I certainly wasn’t getting during all those years I was so frantically self-pleasuring but haunted by self-loathing instead.
I don’t pass judgment on the porn industry. I don’t want to convert anyone, and I definitely don’t consider masturbation to be wrong. Many people can watch porn in moderate amounts, just like many people can enjoy a glass of wine without needing the whole bottle. I’m just not one of those people. And it’s certainly not my place to vilify porn stars or rescue them from a job they might actually enjoy. I was the one who needed rescuing — mostly from myself.
Erica Garza is a writer living in San Diego, California. She is currently working on a memoir about obsession called "Hairywoman" and writes for the feminist website Luna Luna. Read more at www.ericagarza.com.More Erica Garza.
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)