"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)
Unlike having fewer kids, birthing them in the Northern Hemisphere during October of a year when not many others are having kids, avoiding the mercury in fish (while still getting enough omega-3 and omega-9 fatty acids), and being rich, well-educated, and handsome to boot, there is one thing you can bequeath your kids that is entirely within your control. I’m talking about selecting their names. We may not control what race or gender we bequeath our offspring (unless, of course, we are utilizing a sperm bank in the Empire State Building for IVF), but we do have say over their names. If you play it safe with Bill or Lisa, it probably means your kids will be marginally more likely to avoid risk, too. If you’re like us and name them E or Yo, they are likely to grow up into weirdoes like their parents—or at least not work in middle management.
Early studies on names claimed that folks with strange ones were overrepresented in prisons and mental hospitals. But the more recent (and in my professional opinion, better) research actually comes to the opposite conclusion: Having a weird name makes you more likely to have impulse control since you get lots of practice biting your tongue when bigger, stronger, older kids make fun of you in the schoolyard. This study makes me happy, given the growing scientific literature around the extreme importance of impulse control and its close cousin, delayed gratification. These two, some argue, are even more important than raw IQ in predicting socioeconomic success, marital stability, and even staying out of prison.
It all started with the “marshmallow test,” Walter Mischel’s experiment where he presented four-year-old kids with a marshmallow and then told them that if they refrained from eating it until the researcher returned, they’d get an extra one.
The researchers found that when they instructed the children not to think about the marshmallow, they actually gave in faster. Evidently, it was kind of like telling someone not to think of a big pink elephant. (I’m guessing an image of a colorful pachyderm popped into your mind just then.) The kids who lasted the longest were the ones told to think about the physical characteristics of the marshmallow: its texture, its shape and color, its smell. When they confronted and isolated it as an object with separable qualities, they were able to master their desire for it, as it turned out. Such an approach has since been recommended for everything from dieting to battling premature ejaculation.
But there was a small minority of kids who ate the marshmallow right away no matter what strategies they were given to cope with the temptation. Evidently, these kids were doing life without parole when Mischel chased them down years later. What’s more, the longer the kid could wait, the higher his or her SAT score. Once the rest of the social science world got hold of these results, an intellectual feeding frenzy ensued around the issue of such “noncognitive skills.”
So the idea of endowing my children with names that would force them to bite their tongues and thereby raise their noncognitive IQs was appealing to me. What’s more, I can personally attest to this effect of weird names since everyone called me “Dolphin” growing up, and there was not a single thing I could do about it, given that I was a skinny little nerd.
And besides, what’s a fairly unique name in one decade could become commonplace later on; imagine my shock when I read a few years ago that “Dalton” had made it into the top twenty-five list of boys names; or my horror when I learned that not only are there now a bunch of five-year-old Daltons running around town, I am also no longer the only Dalton Conley in the world. This eighteen-year-old Michigan-punk Dalton Conley, email@example.com, added insult to injury by staking his Gmail claim before I could. This other Dalton Conley has so much attachment to his Google account that he refused to even entertain my crass offers to buy the address off him. Moreover, he hasn’t done me the courtesy of forwarding misdirected mail or letting the authors of such email know that they’ve reached the wrong person. Or perhaps he just registered the account and then forgot all about it. So, I suppose the worst case scenario is getting teased throughout childhood and then still ending up with a common name by the time you reach adulthood; though somehow I doubt that Yo will ever hit the top one hundred, let alone the top twenty-five.
Since naming is the subject of this chapter, I better go ahead and explain the origin of our kids’ names. When E was born, we had hardly given a thought to her name—not only because she was born eight weeks early but also because Natalie superstitiously believes that to name an unborn child is to give it the evil eye. With all the confusion of the conditions surrounding her birth and our sleepless nights thereafter in the NICU, we had only gotten down to a short list of various names that started with E—including “Early” and “Etchbrook,” the latter being the middle name my mother gave herself when she was a kid. (Normal names like Elizabeth were not on the list.) We also wanted a gender-neutral name. I had, in fact, suggested “Co,” which was a feminist pronoun in the 1970s that was meant to be a third, gender-neutral personal pronoun to allow us to avoid the clunky “she or he.” Needless to say, Co didn’t catch on during the bra-burning era, nor did it in our household in 1998. So we agreed to disagree on our list of E-names and just left it at that, deciding that she could choose what it stood for when she was old enough.
We figured that she’d go through a long phase of thinking her parents too weird and ask to be referred to as Ellen (my mother’s name), or Emily, or something else relatively common before reverting, in her twenties, to just plain E. So far, however, she’s stuck with the family circus freaks and calls herself E, correcting everyone when they think she’s saying, “Eve.” Little did we know that we were channeling the zeitgeist and that within a year or two, we’d all be living in the E-age of eBay, E*TRADE, e-zines, e-commerce, and so on. Oh well. And if you say that’s the weirdest name you’ve ever heard, you clearly don’t read the New York Times carefully, since if you did, you’d quite frequently see the byline Jennifer 8. Lee (who, I might add, chose the number herself when she was a teenager, and she turned out okay, despite the sinking ship of print journalism).
When we announced our selection to my family, my sister visibly blanched. “Well, she can choose what it stands for, right?” Clearly, she was counting on the fact that kids rebel against their parents and that E would therefore turn out to be a normal Elizabeth having two freaks for progenitors. All I can say is that E was the first kid to write her name in her preschool (but obviously that got quite boring after a while). And she never had another kid in her class with the same name, unlike my sister’s eldest son, who had to revert to Dante C. (Conley-Leonardi) so as not to be confused with the other Dante in kindergarten.
As for Yo—well, we had already let E choose her own name, so in the cause of creativity, we had to come up with some other schtick for her brother. The idea was to confound ethnic xpectations when it came to names. So we thought about Spanish names, but the problem with that would be that folks would just assume he was a white dude from Spain. We considered some African American names, but when tried on a white kid, they just sounded like he was a slave owner or a white Muslim. That left us with Asian names. Why not reverse assimilate—naming a white kid, something East Asian to counterbalance all the Howard Chungs across America?
I, personally, preferred Yo-Xing. I liked that his initials would be YX, the chromosomes for a male. I also liked the visual aspect of Xing in that it also meant “crossing” as written in traffic signs: SLOW, CHILDREN X-ING. And how cool is it to have X as a middle initial? It worked in a subtle nod to black power and deference to the Asian ethnic community all in one. And that’s not all: Yo was both “I” as in “myself ” in Spanish and “You” or “Hey” in New York street slang. But I made a mistake. I was so excited that I couldn’t stop myself from blabbing the name nomination before the kid had made his way out into the blinding light of the world. So it was no longer acceptable to the superstitious Natalie. She did, however, agree to Yo.
Since we (or at least I) were pretty sure that Yo would represent the end of our fertility train, we had to get all other tributes into his name. I had been really into Robert Graves’s I, Claudius that summer as we awaited Yo’s arrival to the world, and he was born in August, so his second name became Augustus after the Roman emperor. That pagan moniker was followed by a tribute to my mother’s mother, Eisner (her maiden name), and my mother’s father (his last name, Alexander). These family names were followed by Weiser, the last name of a recently deceased close colleague of Natalie’s who hired her to work at Xerox PARC—the think tank from which Steve Jobs stole the mouse and the idea of the computer desktop full of icons.
Perhaps it was thanks to the fact that Yo had survived the susceptible period of infancy, but three years later Natalie agreed that Xing would be pretty cool to add to his name. And as long as I was legally changing his name anyway, we thought it only fair that he could choose a name to add—thereby giving him some of the interactivity we had offered his older sister by providing her only a first initial. So, little Yo came with me to the courthouse and inserted “Heyno”—we think he probably thought it was his name already because so many folks were calling “Hey! No!” to this wild little man, who, for example, decided a couple times to run out of our ground-floor apartment buck naked. He also added “Knuckles,” another family name—but of my childhood canine. Why should dead humans be the only ones honored through the recycling of their names, anyway? We weren’t species-ists, after all. At the registry, the clerk informed us that when the judge officially approved our request, Yo would have the longest name on record in New York City.
The New York Times decided to run a story on Yo, replete with a photo of the little rascal, and since broadcast news often chases stories that the Times runs, suddenly we were inundated with requests for media appearances. Though I turned down most of them, I did agree to take the kids onto Anderson Cooper’s CNN show. I pitched E as well—asking why not have the kid with the shortest name, too?—and made both their participations a condition of agreeing to Yo’s appearance in my effort to be fair to my two offspring. It went relatively well, despite the fact that Yo bit me repeatedly during the five-minute interview and kicked his shoe off, almost hitting Cooper in the face. (He chomped down on me between the thumb and my index finger, and I was quite proud of myself for managing not to flinch on camera. The flying shoe was really my fault since, being a miser, I always bought them a size too big in order to reduce the number of new shoes I’d need to purchase over the course of their childhoods.) My rationale for subjecting the kids to this media invasion was, of course, that they needed to be prepared for any experience from homeless refugee on up to media superstar. Why not start young?
I guess I probably should have expected that certain folks would not appreciate our sense of playfulness when it came to names, but I certainly didn’t anticipate the onslaught of internet condemnation. Now, if Yo ever googles himself, he’s most likely to read about how his parents are child abusers for saddling him with such a burden in nomenclature and that his father was awarded the “Fucktard of the Decade” prize by one blogger (thank you very much). Yo, himself, must have felt self-conscious about his weird name (even in the progressive enclave of downtown Manhattan): he decided during kindergarten that his name was Dragon (misspelled as Dragin) and that we should all refer to him as such. Then during another period of elementary school, it morphed into “Sean.” Unlike his parent-pleasing firstborn sister, he was putting the interactivity into his name, hacking it back to normal whether we liked it or not. Even I had to admit that when I shouted his name across the playground or down the street, as in “Yo, come back here!” or “Hurry up, Yo!” I felt pretty self-conscious when everyone turned around thinking I was calling out to them. Ultimately, however, Yo reverted to Yo; for this we have to thank gangster rap. He was happy that he wouldn’t have to change his name when he went professional with the hip-hop lyrics he was starting to pen:
Yo, my name is Yo;
I come from New Haven, not Mexico.
I’ve got bad etiquette,
Because I was born in Connecticut . . .
Aside from launching Yo’s hip-hop career, their names do not seem to be having any discernible effect on their lives . . . yet. E has the willpower of a Jedi master, which she had even before she realized that her name was anything out of the ordinary. Yo, meanwhile, is as impulsive as a cocaine-addicted lab rat. The name has not appeared to have any effect whatsoever on his ability to suppress urges. What I can definitively say is that their names have been their destiny in one way at least: Everyone knows them. Kids from grades that for middle schoolers are as far away as the Pleistocene—like eighth grade to their sixth or fifth—know exactly who they are. It wasn’t Anderson Cooper. Nor was it Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner including Yo (and his freakish parents) in their bestseller “Freakonomics”; it was just the wind of gossip rustling the grapevine of downtown New York. Other kids, and more to the point, their parents, were fascinated to meet the actual people behind the strange names. In a public school where the kids of the rich and famous were a dime a dozen, E and Yo enjoyed a fame that rivaled that of Sarah Jessica Parker’s or Daniel Day-Lewis’s kids. The challenge for them, then, wasn’t to unball their fists or bite their tongues. It was to live up to a level of notoriety that preceded them and for which they had done nothing but be born.
From “Parentology” by Dalton Conley. Copyright © 2014 by Dalton Conley. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Dalton Conley is University Professor and Professor of Sociology and Medicine at New York University. He is currently chair of the Children and Youth Section of the American Sociological Association. A Guggenheim fellow, Conley is also the first sociologist to receive the National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award for best young research in any field. He lives in New York City.More Dalton Conley.
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)