"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece

The complicatedly charming behind-the-scenes story of a heartbreaking album that launched a singular talent

Published July 13, 2014 5:00PM (EDT)

All photos courtesy of JJ Gonson Photography, except where noted.
(Click the photos to view them full-size)


Elliott Smith's archetypally indie "Roman Candle" album turns 20 years old on Monday. Looking back from a two-decade distance, it's a case of art rising above conditions, like a kid given a screwdriver and building a chapel. Cavity Search Records co-founder Denny Swofford, who brought the record out, called the sound quality "perfectly bad." The songs themselves were just plain perfect.

Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas
(photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)


The album's latent story is complicatedly charming. "Roman Candle" wasn't meant to be a record. If it's a masterpiece of its form -- literally homemade, recorded on zero budget, featuring four unnamed songs -- it's an accidental masterpiece. The very best kind, in other words. Maybe the only kind. No one ever plans a masterpiece.

Heatmiser publicity shot
(L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith)


Since middle school in Texas on a friend's dad's borrowed four-track Elliott had been learning and writing and recording songs, a mix of Rush covers (he adored Rush, as a lot of musically gifted kids do) and originals (songs like "Inspector Detector," "Ocean," "Outward Bound," "#37"). He moved to Portland, Oregon, at age 14, where he attended Lincoln High School downtown and formed the band Stranger Than Fiction with songwriting partner Garrick Duckler, a brilliantly precocious lyricist, fond of writers like Pinter and Kafka. They played live now and then — at Duckler’s girlfriend’s 16th birthday party, for club gatherings (where they once shouted out, “Live from the Russian Club!”). Several cassettes followed, also recorded on various four-tracks, some sold at a local record store called Djangos. The songs were dense, complex, multi-sectioned, a blend of political satire (inspired by Duckler) and introspective soul-scouring. The process, then, was this: Duckler wrote words, and he passed them along to Elliott, who, with astonishing effortlessness, put the words to music. Now and then Elliott wrote his own lyrics but he never really liked them. In fact, he thought they sucked.

Elliott and JJ Gonson


In college at Hampshire, Elliott did what he'd always done -- he started another band, Heatmiser, with gifted guitarist friend Neil Gust. What's clear, from seventh grade on, is the force of the need to create. No matter where he was, no matter who he was with, no matter how hospitable the conditions, Elliott wrote and recorded music. This was easily the surest thing in his life. It never stopped, and it almost never failed him. Heatmiser gigged in college, they wrote and composed (even joke songs like “The Dicks on D-3,” about dipshits living below them), they recorded in dorm stairwells where the sound was thickest, but they didn't take off until Elliott and Gust brought the band to Portland in the early '90s, adding drummer Tony Lash (who'd also played in Stranger Than Fiction) and Oberlin bassist Brandt Peterson.

7-inch, Cavity Search Records


Early '90s Portland warrants an essay all its own. Overripe, chaotic, heroin-infused venues like Satyricon hosted fresh, adventurous, intensely original bands -- Hazel, Crackerbash, Pond, Dharma Bums, and eventually, Elliott's Heatmiser. Virtually nightly Swofford scouted talent. His new label demanded no less. He lived in the clubs. Like everyone else, he adored Hazel immediately, and Cavity Search brought out their first vinyl seven-inch (CSR 1), "J Hell" (with two B-sides, "Day-Glo" and "Joe Louis Punchout"). By now Swofford also knew Heatmiser well, excited by their "raw, aggressive, crushing sound." Plus, just as important, "Heatmiser had manners. They understood a little about tact. They could be adult men. They were real people, not dumb kids. Properly reared. A smart band, smart individuals." A meeting was set in the basement of the house Heatmiser lived and practiced in, on SE 16th in Portland, just off Division (a street Elliott would later reference in more than one song). For CSR 2, Swofford and label co-founder Chris Cooper knew what they wanted: Elliott's song "Stray." After a bit of back and forth, everyone agreed. The pressing was white vinyl, and in keeping with Heatmiser's scrupulously 50/50 songwriting arrangement, the B-side went to Gust ("Can't Be Touched"). "Stray" is worth a serious listen. Not only is it vintage Heatmiser, it captures Elliott in barking, throaty Joe Strummer mode, universes away from the more Chet Baker vocal style he'd later unveil on "Roman Candle."

Two Heatmiser albums followed ("Dead Air," "Cop and Speeder"), both put out by Cavity Search. Boston transplant JJ Gonson signed on as band manager (and later became Elliott's girlfriend). There were publicity shots, van tours, interviews in small weeklies, and a growing sense of possibility - -this was something that could go big. Yet on the side, without fanfare, without clear intention, Elliott was busy with what Gonson called "note-taking" -- writing and, as usual, recording songs, tunes that didn't fit the chugga-chugga format. At Heatmiser shows it was difficult setting sound for Elliott's vocals, according to friend Sluggo. He sang too softly, got buried in the mix. The new, solo songs posed no such problem. Mostly they were Elliott and guitar, vocals up front, as if he were singing right in your face.

Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987


"Roman Candle" was homemade, but it was JJ Gonson's, not Elliott's, home (later owned, a little miraculously, by the Shins' James Mercer). The mics were Radio Shack, the monitor courtesy of JJ, who traded a vintage Schwinn bike for it. One guitar Elliott used was a toy model by the name of "Le Domino." Elliott set up to record in the basement, also in the stairwell. Bit by bit the songs came, scraped out, tape-hissy, intimate.

It's funny, well after the fact, to survey initial reactions. In a word, everyone was nonplussed. Gonson played the tape for mutual friend Sluggo. "I didn't really have a response," Sluggo says. "The songs didn't blow me away. I was used to Heatmiser, and this was nothing like that. So I didn't know what I thought." Swofford was a rabid Heatmiser champion. Initially, he too was bewildered, and the sound, he felt, "totally sucked." But he kept listening, he keep feeling more and more charmed, more astonished, and gradually the sound seemed less a minus than a plus. The songs themselves, in other words, made the sound irrelevant. They were something like a flawless photograph taken with a bad camera.

Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle"


There has always been some question as to whether Elliott knew the songs were being spread around and casually promoted. Gonson says, "He didn't know, but he also didn't not know." At any rate, he played them himself for Hazel's Pete Krebs as the two worked a shit job scraping paint off ceilings. And apparently he mentioned to Chris Cooper, Swofford's partner, that he might be down for bringing out a seven-inch single. It was a dicey situation. Heatmiser was building a following, searching out opportunities; Elliott's ambivalence was therefore rather intense.

In the end, the songs decided. They were too good to suppress. Swofford bought wine, and he and Elliott reached a handshake agreement. No paper, no actual contract. Elliott wanted it that way. It somehow, one imagines, made the whole thing seem less official. No one expected the record to do much anyway.

Full "Roman Candle" record cover


"Roman Candle" was a departure -- from Heatmiser -- but it was also a return, of sorts, to a sound and style almost no one, to this day, knows anything about. In between his freshman and sophomore years of college, Elliott formed and recorded with a band -- although assemblage of old friends seems more accurate -- called Murder of Crows, including Duckler again (who was still in Portland on summer break from Reed College). This was, essentially, a continuation of Stranger Than Fiction, yet with tighter, more compact songs and quite a bit less instrumentation. The tape they made (in 1988) is called "The Greenhouse," and only those who happened to be around at that time seem to have heard it. Most notably, it includes "Condor Avenue," which also appears on "Roman Candle." There are interspersed falsetto harmonies, the song's vibe and structure largely identical to the later version, with one spectacularly jarring exception -- Elliott's voice. The vocals sound exactly like a very lo-fi demo of a slightly congested Elvis Costello covering Elliott Smith. People who heard Elliott play in college have said it was almost painful to listen to him sing. He had a hard time staying in key. On "The Greenhouse," he's clearly in key, but he sounds nothing like himself (except, perhaps, on one tune called "Shotgun," where he seems to drop the Costello impersonation). Something people who hear and love Elliott Smith often refer to is the purity and tone of his voice. What they do not know is that it was a very inauthentic instrument early on. A mystery -- one I don't really know the answer to -- is how he gradually arrived at his signature style. Hearing the early recordings, it's astonishing that he did at all.

Then there's the matter of the lyrics. As with all songs on "The Greenhouse," "Condor Avenue" was written by Duckler. I don't have permission to reprint the first set of lyrics here, and some are hard to make out, but it's clear roughly every other line remains intact in the "Roman Candle" version, either verbatim ("rhythmic quietude," "I don't know what to do with your clothes or your letters") or fractionally. For instance, the first line is the same, except that the car is never named. The setting also does not change. Something is happening at a fairgrounds, and it's going to alter the girl main character.

What's unknown is how much of the final version was written by Elliott. Did he take Duckler's lyrics and revise slightly, or did Duckler? I don't know. And Duckler, for his part, does not care. He told me he kept contributing lyrics even up through Elliott's "Figure 8" record, but he never kept track of how many, and he never asked for credit. For Duckler, the invisible collaboration was a simple and clear continuation of an exceptionally close and private relationship. Was it peculiar that his contributions were never acknowledged? A little. Did it rankle or anger him? No. Anyway, it was nothing new. “Junk Bond Trader,” Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands,” King’s Crossing” — all had their origins in high school or college compositions that Elliott returned to and remade.

Elliott goofing off in Portland


The record features more collaborations, with friends pitching in here and there. Gonson wrote the music for "No Name #1," Tony Lash helped with mixing, and Hazel's Pete Krebs shows up on "Kiwi Maddog 20/20," a drawling country acid tune. Its subject is bad wine. It sounds like the dizzy, nauseous morning after, an aural approximation of bed spins. So, with “Roman Candle,” it’s not as if Elliott pulled some sort of proto-hipster version of Emily Dickinson, burrowing himself away into Gonson’s basement and secretly, entirely independently, crafting fragile, twee tunes. The record implies its Zeitgeist. It’s a product of a place and time, and it’s also a defining moment — a hybrid, in other words, of a past and a possible future, continuous and discontinuous.

(L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)
(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)


"Roman Candle" kicks off with an acoustic guitar sound of hornets swarming and attacking. It may be the one moment of active assertiveness, Elliott repeating “I want to hurt him, I want to give him pain.” This sort of mind-set quickly drops off, replaced by its opposite: a desire to disappear, either with booze, sleep, or by slipping out quietly and unseen into nullifying night. The theme is oblivion. It’s a desired state. People feel “spooky and withdrawn,” they “leave alone,” they “don’t belong,” they get turned into “whispers,” they arrive "too late," “ready to hide,” they “walk away, that’s all [they] do,” “home to oblivion.” It’s as if everyone’s “underwater” or “buried in sand at the beach.” At one point Elliott sings, “When I go, don’t you follow”; live alone “with your pain.” Even the record cover follows suit. Elliott’s not on it. It’s Neil Gust and a girl.

Everyone has his personal favorite. For me, it’s “Last Call,” the penultimate tune. It’s electrified, so it leaps out, great winding lead guitar loitering around the sung melody like a pissed off friend. In some ways the song returns to the title track, but here Elliott loses. He’s sick of it all, he’s “sick of your sound, sick of you coming around.” But he’s done, the unnamed “tongueless talker” nemesis having “won” — “you can switch me off safely.” He drinks himself into “yesteryear.” He waits for sleep to overtake him --  “I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me.”

When Cavity Search brought the record out hopes were not exactly high. Swofford had no idea what to expect. Odds were split — it could go nowhere or modestly somewhere. Elliott toured in support of the record. Something about his humility, combined with a sort of sincerely intense vulnerability, quieted the small crowds who came. The record itself is full of “whispers.” Fans listened hard, as if every line was a fraught, sotto voce secret. It’s funny, because lyrically Elliott is always declaring let’s just forget about it, let’s not talk about it. When people whisper, it tends to be “quiet terror news.”

The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release
1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue
(photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)


This would be Elliott’s leitmotif: elliptical, sideways truth telling. There’s a saying: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, speak loudly. What Elliott did was whisper, because he knew.

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By William Todd Schultz