"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)
Tacked to the wall of the Super 8 lobby, just above a Golden Malted waffle iron, is an age-faded poster with a collage of images that might have been lifted from my own photo feed in the past year: the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, a Royal Mounted Policeman, a rank of autumnal trees beside a lake. The headline superimposed over them reads: “Travel … The Perfect Freedom!”
It’s 6.32 a.m., and I’m waiting for the coffee to perk and for Interstate 80 to reopen. It was closed last night due to high winds, which overturned 10 semis and kept me from reaching my friends’ apartment in Boise. The overnight stay has reduced my bank account to $12 and change, made a scaly drought land out of my skin (thanks to the blasting thermostat), and left me irritable with hunger (which I’m admittedly choosing over the waffles).
In spite of all this — maybe because of it — the rhapsodic poster buys a smile from me. I’m stuck with a windstorm in Fort Laramie, busted flat, sleep deprived, but all by my own choice. If that isn’t perfect freedom, what is?
As a child, I aspired to be one of those campground hosts, living a perpetual getaway existence in an Airstream trailer surrounded by potted geraniums and an ever-changing array of seasonal neighbors. As an adult, I preferred friends’ couches and floors to my own bed, the chance farm stand or taco shop to buying groceries for the week. Shelter and food were sweeter, somehow, when I didn’t know where they’d be coming from.
It wasn’t quotidian life that I despised; it was the unthinking familiarity of it. I would sometimes park for hours in front of a strip mall and watch the people go in and out, fascinated by all that I didn’t know about them, imagining all the details of their normal life and how vastly they might differ from mine.
These were the thrills I could squeeze out of my 9 to 5 routine and, yes, they seemed strange, when I thought about it, which wasn’t often.
Like a lot of people, I spent most of college and the years after it moving every six months or so, seeking cheaper rents, better roommates, an easier commute, always with the intention of find the perfect place for permanence. Again, it wasn’t that I thought about it and decided that’s what I wanted — it’s just what people did.
So it was frustrating that every attempt to settle down put a settled feeling further out of reach. The more I tried to just be content where I was, the more easily I lost jobs, outgrew relationships and felt increasingly out of place.
Then came 2010, the year of signs pointing to yes. My housemates announced they were ready to live on their own; a promising relationship unceremoniously imploded; I found myself riding the growth spurt of a freelance business I’d never intended to start.
Dizzied by the impact of all these changes at once, memory kept taking me back to a park bench on Beach Street, two years earlier, where a friend was listening to me fret about the job offer I’d just received. The past three months of temping at this Tribeca firm had been the first time, since moving to New York, where I didn’t sweat the rent or my subway pass, and could afford to go to shows without sacrificing the prospect of groceries.
Having finally gained a foothold in this most expensive of all possible worlds, I was already regretting the other places I might go. Committing to this enviable job meant stability in New York; it also meant forgoing life in Kauai … Venice … Buenos Aires … Omaha …
What, I shrieked at my friend, was wrong with me? Why did I treat living situations like serial boyfriends?
She leaned back into the sunlight and answered easily: “Maybe that’s your thing.”
It dawned on me that I didn’t have to live anywhere. Suddenly, all the misfitting parts of me came into an orderly pattern, and there wasn’t anything to lose by following it. I could go everywhere, any time I wanted.
I shed or sold everything but a couple of suitcases and a ’93 Jeep Cherokee to put them in, and headed out in search of new parking lots.
As long as there have been landed societies, there have been people living between them. Some wandered collectively, as family units or migratory cities; others, such as medieval minstrels, or harvest crews of the middle 1800s, were simply content to live on the fringes of the society to which they belonged.
In typical fashion, those accorded the least respect were romanticized the most — sailors, cowboys, vagrants and wanted men. In the prosperous flush of the 1950s, that romanticism became an end in itself. Counterculture might not have been born with Jack Kerouac, but it certainly looks back to him as the point when being jobless, directionless and homeless became aspirational, at least ideologically.
But eventually, those countercultural kids got off the road and started buying houses where they could keep kids of their own. Perhaps that’s how the mid-century mind-set has persisted, in spite of centuries before it, that a wandering lifestyle is the province of college students, struggling bands and kids who won’t grow up.
It keeps us from recognizing that whatever the dubious merits of this 21st century might be, it has at least given us a plenitude of options. Options that allow people to live on the road, virtually indistinguishable from their fixed-address counterparts.
In fact, any coffee shop you visit could be 10-25 percent occupied by such people, but you’d never know it. They take showers, have decent manners and contribute valuably to society.
They are designers, journalists, entertainers, consultants, day-traders.
They drive Winnebagos, pickups with camper shells, and conversion vans with jacked-up wheels. (Volkswagen Vanagons are coveted real estate; old microbuses, while stylish, are generally considered not worth the trouble.)
They mark time in mountains climbed, waves surfed, meals eaten and, naturally, photos blogged.
Some of them travel in search of enlightenment, spiritual or material. Some do it as a branding ploy. Some do it simply to show others that it’s possible. And some do it because for them, nothing else is possible.
Explaining this to people is, in fact, the hardest thing about not having a fixed address. If you don’t have a band, a backpack or a business travel account to blame it on, people look at you uncomprehendingly before demanding, “But why? What’s the goal?”
The same (I long to retort) as your goal for getting married, or having kids, or buying this house or this lawnmower or this vacation package: because we want to.
I travel with two suitcases — one holds, socks, underwear, and electronic accessories for my camera and computer. The other holds all the clothes it can; if I want a new dress or pair of shoes, an old one has to go. Under the seat are coiled jumper cables, a gallon of transmission fluid, a stack of books I’m reading, and a toiletry bag that includes a jar of French green clay and bottles of argan and rosehip-seed oil. (Hours spent under the windshield’s glare have made me value quality skincare products as much as my mobility.)
I try to keep the passenger seat clear, as if I were expecting someone to hop in beside me. In fact, people are always saying they wish they could come along. But as soon as I invite them, they back off, saying “Oh, I couldn’t,” but never saying why.
The company I lose is made up for by finding new meaning in songs that used to provoke wanderlust that hurt like a stitch in my side. I love that it no longer feels like fraud, to sing along with Bob Dylan. I love the wistful high of rounding a mountain pass to find sunlight breaking through the clouds, on Interstate 5 or 68 or 91. I love the old men who ease up from their perch outside a service station to wash my windshield. I love the mesmeric rumble of grainy asphalt under my Goodyear Eagle LS tires. And maybe more than anything, I love it when people in any place, when they ask me where I live, and I can answer, “Here, at the moment.”
Old folks grin, and refer to me as a hobo; children giggle, and say, “You’re homeless?” People my parents’ age smile with persevering cheer and call me a vagabond or a free spirit.
The label I liked best came from friends in Québec, where they take things in typical Gallic stride:
“Vous êtes une nomade.”
Oui, I answered gratefully, exactement.
It didn’t take long to learn that my new lifestyle was hardly as original as I’d at first thought. This might have disappointed me, if I hadn’t got fed up with the reactions of landed folks, which are largely split between polite equivocation: “Do it while you can!” and caustic regret: “God, if only I’d been brave enough to do that when I was your age.”
I anticipated that long hours of isolated driving would make me feel lonely. But actually it’s lonelier when folks demand a point-by-point justification of my lifestyle — how I get my mail, where I keep my food, whether I expect to ever find a long-term relationship.
In my better moments, I try to persuade them that my life is neither as improbable nor as idyllic as they imagine. I still have bills, and have to work every day so I can pay them. I have poor months, and rich months. I still get bored, and procrastinate, and fall in love, and wonder what might have happened if I’d done things differently.
(In my worse moments, I point out their threadbare marriage, their double mortgage or their dead-end job, and cheerfully urge them to do that while they can.)
Being a nomad doesn’t mean freedom from worry. I just worry about different things, like the proximity of 18-wheelers, and how much tread is left in my tires. Probably the only thing that’s really different about my life is that it brings me into daily confrontation with the reality of impermanence — something we’re all much happier forgetting about.
Except, it seems, for other nomads whom I’ve met along the way. The very thing that keeps them on the road is that sense of transience, and their eagerness to make the most of it. I have to say, it’s an infectious attitude. I first encountered it in e.v. de cleyre, the first woman in a long family line of vagabonds, whom I met in a tea shop in Portsmouth, N.H.
“The apartment, the job” — she shrugs — “it’s not for me. I had those things, but I didn’t really want them. Making the choice that I don’t really want them … it’s uncharted territory. It’s really empowering.”
I’ve heard this same sentiment from many nomads. And I suppose it’s no coincidence that the majority of modern nomads emerge from a similar social stratum, where we were just handed the privileges and possessions that other classes struggle to obtain.
And while you can certainly find families, even the elderly, among the ranks of modern nomads, it’s no surprise that a great many are 20- and 30-somethings making their living by contract work. We are a generation that came into adulthood at the exact moment that its norms were disintegrating. We watched life sharpen its transitory nature on the backs of the generation before us. We’ve seen people fired, divorced, evicted — not only the irresponsible deadbeats, but good people who were doing their best, just like our parents did and taught us to do.
I suppose this is why, despite their individualism, many nomads exude a missionary-like zeal for their lifestyle, and are only too glad to connect with others. The ability to instantly connect is itself attributable to the nomadic life; Shantanu Shatrick, who travels the world trading photography for hospitality, told me that he finds his impermanence elicits an instant intimacy, everywhere he goes.
“Rather than having to know somebody over a long time to create a good friend, this creates relationship with people in an instant. You don’t even realize you’re doing it.”
When there isn’t any future to worry about, he adds, people don’t consider your history — they fully engage in the present time they have with you.
I’ve found this, too, yet it doesn’t stop me from thinking twice when I look at long-standing communities of friends, or at multigenerational families embedded in the same town. In my darker moments, I wonder if the barbed “Do it while you can” advice contains a truth: that a completely evolved human must achieve stasis.
Then again, statistics reveal that most types of “settledness” are a myth. The geographic mobility/migration census shows that the average American moves every five years in search of a better job, a better climate, a better place to raise kids, whatever they need to feel truly at home. We’ve never really been a settled culture; it’s in our national genome to always be looking for something new.
Still, suggesting that nomads are more enlightened for living in frank acknowledgment of this reality seems too easy, not to mention arrogant. It’s also poor comfort, when the mesmeric effect of turning wheels and drifting clouds wears thin, and I begin to wonder if I’m missing out on some essential human experience by refusing to commit to a place and the people in it.
Then I remember that the transitory nature of nomadic life is recursive; any time I want to stop traveling, I can. At this moment, I’m probably driving south on Interstate 5 toward Phoenix, where I plan to spend an undetermined number of months.
Once I’m there, when people ask where I live, I’ll answer, “Just off 7th Street.”
And yes, I admit to being a little nervous about it.
I’m comforted, however, by the sight of my Jeep, waiting outside my bedroom window. It’s never so easy to stay somewhere when you know you could leave, at any moment you choose.
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)