"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 young, I used to give myself walking lessons. I didn’t walk like everyone else; other people seemed to glide, like TV figure skaters, and I clomped everywhere like a blind camel, constantly tripping or falling. The problem is that I was born wrong. My mother wasn’t supposed to be able to have children, and of her many attempts, I was the only one who made it. I was the boy who lived, just one that was assembled incorrectly, like a monkey trying to put together a Mr. Potato Head. I burst forth from the womb with a double hernia that meant I threw up constantly. My family nicknamed me “Baby Pukey” and my resemblance to Regan from ”The Exorcist” became a running joke. I was a loaded weapon; all you had to do was shake me to see the devil inside.
As a kid, my mother used to remind me that I was God’s miracle, but that’s little consolation when you’re 4 and can’t fucking walk in a straight line. My feet don’t point forward toward the future; they angle to the side as if they were heading for destiny but got stoned and went to the fridge for a burrito instead. My mother referred to them as “duck-footed” to make the ailment sound adorable and cartoon-like, but I quickly found out she was trying to spin a bad situation. When I enrolled in kindergarten, I had already learned how to read and write, so my elementary school gave me the option of testing out of it. All I had to do was say my alphabet backward and forward and then walk in a straight line. That was it. This was the premium the state of Ohio placed on a kindergarten education.
I aced the alphabet portion of the exam, but walking the line — the minimum feat you need to accomplish to be considered sober – was next to impossible. I barely passed, which meant that I was legally almost drunk.
Although getting bumped up to first grade seemed like a swank deal for a kid who mostly hung out with middle-aged adults (they liked Steve Martin movies as much as I did), acceleration came with a trade-off. The kids were smarter, but so were their insults. All of my preschool friends were too busy getting high off the Elmer’s glue they ingested to come up with anything more than passive drool, but the lack of adhesive addiction made these kids mean and strangely perceptive. Some industrious student figured out that my name rhymes with “Dick Wang,” a moniker that lost steam until that Adam Sandler movie, “Little Nicky,” came out, where he was the son of Satan. I blamed Adam Sandler for ruining my life, and to this day, I still can’t look at him in the face. He knows what he did.
Born with buck teeth and poofy hair like a cloud, I was one of those kids that couldn’t catch a break, and my walk also earned me another moniker: “Wigglebutt.” When you’re 6, nicknames like that can be the biggest deal in the world to you, the prepubescent equivalent of Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter.
As a kid, you deal with social ostracism in two ways. You can be like Hester and live out your days shitting in the woods, or become so desperate for attention that you’ll do anything to get loved. If you choose the latter, you become like Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?,” doing your vaudeville act for anyone who bothers to remember who you are. When you’re in elementary school and having friends seems like the most important thing in the world, you always pick the latter option, and it drives you to a constant “Black Swan”-esque panic, where you start chewing your hair and counting things.
This is how I ended up walking around my house every day after school with books on my head. At the end of “The Jungle Book” when Mowgli is returned to the man-village, he sees a girl walking around with a giant water jug on her head with poise and elegance. Mowgli is so transfixed by this image of womanhood that it compels him to stick around and see what civilization is like. Not aware of Kipling or Orientalism, I too was hypnotized by the idea that I could be more human by learning to walk with grace. I didn’t have any water pitchers lying around, and I practiced with the medical dictionary my mother kept next to her bedside. A devoted hypochondriac, my mother liked to get creative with her illnesses, consulting the dictionary like she was blindly pointing to a spot on a spinning globe. When I played that game, I always landed in the water and drowned.
But in imitating a Disney cartoon, I didn’t just learn to walk. I learned to walk like a lady — with head held high, toes pointed forward and chest out, as if I were competing on a candid Miss America pageant. There were few examples of what a man’s walk should look like, and none of them proved replicable; even as a kid, I understood that John Wayne’s languid gait would be inappropriate in daily life. But women had the Princess Dianas of the world to look up to, and I wanted to look like her, arm extended in a silver glove so silky it looked made out of liquid metal. I didn’t know it yet, but I was practicing for what would prove my greatest role: homosexuality.
Walking around like a pageant queen attracts a certain amount of attention. While my male classmates hunched beside me, my teachers would often praise me for my posture, but the other students weren’t so forgiving. We didn’t have a word for it yet, because this was the ’90s and kids weren’t allowed to know what gay was then, so they tried out other words, like “pussy,” “wuss” and “sissy.” By the end of elementary school, I had discovered Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell and my stroll took on a model-like strut, as if the 5th grade cafeteria were my catwalk on New York fashion week, and the labels got more descriptive. With age and wisdom, my classmates graduated to words like “gaywad,” although I’ve never been sure why the “wad” was so important to the insult. Was a homosexual meant to be crumpled up and thrown at you like a piece of paper? Was I stuck to the bottom of a desk?
I never connected homosexuality with actually dating men, which I had liked the sound of since first grade when I fell in love with a blond boy named John whom I adored because he was mean to me and let me invite myself over to his house. (Ah, young love.) For me, being “gay” meant acting like a woman, but I didn’t know how to be anyone other than myself, naturally feminine with a high-pitched dog-whistle voice. I’d spent so long learning to be a princess that reprogramming sounded like too much work, and I committed to being a preteen heterosexual male haphazardly. If they didn’t practice Britney Spears moves in their living room, watch “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and internally debate about which Backstreet Boy they would marry, what did straight boys even do? I started wearing gold chains and let my peach fuzz grow into a sad caterpillar of a nascent mustache, but it only made me look more visible. Trying to be in only showed how out I was. I was a preteen Ryan Seacrest.
I could try to change the way that people saw me, but I couldn’t change who I really was, and my feet still pointed to 10 and 2. Rather than working to accept the person I was slowly becoming, I began to hate everything feminine about me — and the fact that I couldn’t run in gym class without looking like an ostrich with a stick up its butt. Even after you come out, that kind of self-hatred sticks. People finally got around to calling me homophobic slurs in middle school, but the words lost part of their power when I acknowledged that, yes, I liked men. The response was akin to: “Oh, wait, you actually are gay. That’s cool, I guess.” The fact of having same-sex relations or desires was strangely unimportant to suburban Ohioans, so long as you weren’t all girly about it.
The only thing I wanted was to be invisible. I wanted to find a way to be less loud, walk softer and talk in a deeper voice, but no matter what I did, my walk was a reminder that I wouldn’t get to play everyone else’s reindeer games. When I walked into pre-calculus my junior year, a group of guys would crowd around the classroom for the daily ritual of seeing me stroll in, half Cindy Crawford and half aquatic bird that eats the lice off its feathers. At first, I would look down and tuck my head into my chest, hoping that getting smaller meant that they wouldn’t see me. When that proved ineffective, I would wait in the bathroom and hope that they would leave by the time I hobbled into class, five minutes late. Sometimes I just wouldn’t show up at all.
I spent so much time thinking about them that I barely did my homework or paid attention in class, sure that everyone was watching me. After months of torture, I watched “The Jungle Book” again, hoping that the movie could give me the same guidance I found when I was a kid, and I found that I’d missed the water-carrying scene’s most important lesson. It’s not just her posture to which Mowgli is drawn, but the sense of dignity and self-respect that comes with looking life in the face. If you live with your head down, you make it hard to carry anything, let alone a jug of water. I started to face the men who looked down on me and at least let them mock me to my face. Sometimes I smiled back at them, but eventually they became as unimportant to me as I was to them. I didn’t look at them at all.
I wasn’t walking like a princess anymore. I was exactly the boy I wanted to be.
Nico Lang is a contributor at the L.A. Times, Huffington Post and Thought Catalog as well as the co-editor of BOYS, an anthology series featuring the stories of gay, queer and trans* men. Lang's debut novel, "The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions While Wearing Sunglasses," was released earlier this year.More Nico Lang.
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)