Home to Oblivion - Elliott Smith's Roman Candle turns 20
In July of 1994, I turned 11 years old.
There’s a picture of me, taken that summer, where I’m standing next to my grandfather—who would later pass away, mere months later—and I’m wearing both an Orlando Magic baseball cap, as well as a Shaquille O’Neal t-shirt; later, on a birthday money spending spree, I would use some of that cash, burning a hole in my pre-teenage pocket, to purchase a Golden State Warriors basketball jersey, with Chris Webber’s name on the back.
The Webber jersey—I remember why I felt I had to have it. I had purchased one pack (just one pack) of basketball trading cards earlier that year, and among the cards inside the foil package, was a Chris Webber rookie card, for his 1993-4 season with the Golden State Warriors, a team he was traded to, even before the season began, after the Orlando Magic had originally drafted him.
The O’Neal t-shirt and the Magic cap? Shaq was already ubiquitous at this time—transcending beyond simply being a marquee name basketball player, he had already been in movie, Blue Chips, and recorded an album—Shaq Diesel. He was pop culture, whether you followed professional basketball, or not.
The thing about all of this is, at this point, I don’t think I had ever watched a basketball game with either of these players. Rarely, had I ever, watched a basketball game, or any kind of professional sport, really.
I was not a very athletically inclined child—one that grew up to be an unathletically inclined adult. But in the summer of 1994, this was clothing that I, apparently, needed to have; this was the clothing that I wore.
In the fall of 1994, shortly before my grandfather passed away, I started listening to Nine Inch Nails.
I had spent the summer, probably draped in a Chris Webber jersey, watching MTV, transfixed by the video for “Closer”—despite the shocking imagery (for the time) it received a fair amount of airplay.
Like a lot of people who grew up during the time when MTV still played music videos, my tastes were influenced by a lot of what I saw—at the beginning of the year, it was the Counting Crows, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains; by the summer, it was Nine Inch Nails, Stone Temple Pilots, and Soundgarden; then Green Day and The Offspring.
It was the video for “Cannonball” by The Breeders, or catching the “Bull in The Heather” video by Sonic Youth on an episode of “Beavis and Butt-head,” then buying the cassette of Experimental Trash, Jet Set, and No Star, and being completely unprepared for what happened when I pressed play.
But that same sentiment could be said for a lot of things that summer—that year as a whole, really—not just music that I was not quite ready for.
Elliott Smith would, apparently, be 50 years old this year, had he not died under what are still mysterious circumstances in 2003.
This means that he was all of 25 years old when he released his first solo effort, Roman Candle, originally issued by Cavity Search records, and subsequently reissued and remastered in 2010 by Kill Rock Stars.
Like there is with much of Smith’s music, as well as his life and death, there is some minor mythology surrounding the creation and release of Roman Candle.
Smith had been co-fronting the band Heatmiser for two years when he recorded what, at the time, he thought was a collection of demos. Committed to tape in the basement of J.J. Gonson’s home—she was Heatmiser’s manager, and at this point, Smith’s girlfriend, Smith presumed he’d be able to get a deal for a 7” single; Gonson played the entire demo tape for the Portland based independent label Cavity Search—a label who has put out some very early Heatmiser singles before the group began working with Frontier records.
Cavity Search—founded in 1992, and still active to this day, opted to release Smith’s demos, untouched by additional production, as a full-length.
Completely different from the brash, punky, guitar driven post-grunge rock that Heatmiser was making in the early days of its career, Roman Candle arrives, as so many of Smith’s early songs do, as a whisper. It’s also a far cry from the bombastic, rollicking, kaleidoscopic depth he began working with once he signed to Dreamworks, less than four years after Roman Candle was released.
Pensive and, at times, incredibly stark, it contains what are arguably two of his most visceral songs—and 25 years later, shows both a songwriter just beginning to come into his own as a solo artist, as well as a glimmer of the demons that follow him through until the abrupt end.
I want to hurt him—I want to give him pain.
I’m a roman candle—my head is full of flames.
The thing about Smith, as a songwriter and arranger, is that, by the time he was working with a major label budget, he was able to craft some very beautifully distracting instrumentation to hide lyrics about some very dark things.
In 1994, he obviously hadn’t reached that point yet—possibly wasn’t even striving for that as an endgame, so the darkness is right there, up front; or, in the case of the album’s titular (and opening) track, it’s masked by ambiguous, fragmented imagery, backed by the frenetic alternating strums of both acoustic and electric guitars.
It was something that he, to my knowledge, did not discuss at length during his career, but it has become part of his mythology in the years following his passing—Smith was, apparently, both physically and sexually abused by his stepfather, Charlie Welch. “Charlie,” as a name, and a shadowy, overbearing figure, is referenced in two non-album tracks of Smith’s—“Some Song,” a b-side on the “Needle in The Hay” single, and “No Confidence Man,” Smith’s contribution to a split 7” with Pete Krebs.
It’s also believed that Welch is referenced, not by name, in a number of other songs—one of them being “Roman Candle.”
It is both audacious, and not, to open up your debut solo effort with a song about your hatred for the person who abused you—in this case, the man who married into your family. It’s audacious, because it sets a tone—a dark one; it is not, because Smith, as a lyricist, is very, very vague with the way he chooses to dole out the information. There are only two verse to “Roman Candle”; the rest of the song is focused on the song’s refrain—specifically, one repeated line from the refrain: “I want to hurt him.”
“Roman Candle” swirls in a dizzying and surprisingly ominous way—like nothing else on the album for sure, and canonically speaking, there are few others songs of Smith’s that find this tone right out of the gate. It has to do with how quickly the acoustic guitar is strummed, and how the electric guitar’s portion comes in and out, weaving itself into the already thin fabric of the song.
The double-tracked, spidery, whispered vocals were always a trademark of Smith’s, but it’s here where there is something menacing about the way he delivers them—not even the song’s violent refrain, but within the stark imagery of the song’s second verse, the pain, anger, and confusion he’s felt rises to the surface. He’s remaining restrained, but you can feel all of this—“I’m hallucinating, hallucinating—I hear you cry,” he sings. “Your tears are cheap, red hot swollen cheeks; fall asleep.”
Allegedly, according to the song’s (unverified) annotation on Genius, Smith told friends of his, and his mother, of the abuse from Welch—neither his friends, nor his mother, believed these accusations.
The tonal balance of Roman Candle’s nine songs is a difficult one to wrap your head around. Following the opening track, full of tension with little, if any, resolve, before it comes to an end, Smith quickly changes direction with “Condor Ave,” a story song—not one of the strongest on the album, that relies heavily on the jaunty, traditionally folky, acoustic guitar melody, strummed in a bit of a bouncing, rolling way, in order to possibly distract, or at least divert, from the macabre lyrics.
The easiest way to describe it is a story of a woman who gets into a fight with her partner—she leaves in a fury, taking the car, driving off into the night. After falling asleep at the wheel, the car veers off the road, running over a hobo who had passed out, drunk, on the curb.
The car crashes; the woman dies, and Smith plays the role of both the narrator as well as the partner, reflecting on these events. And even though this isn’t exactly the most successful song on Roman Candle, he still has a knack for dressing up the grim imagery in a fragmented, poetic way so that it isn’t totally implicit what has occurred—“What a shitty thing to do—did you really mean it?,” he asks in the song’s coda. “You never said a word to me about what passed between us, so now I’m leaving you alone.”
Due to the nature of Roman Candle—intended to be only a demo recording—four of the album’s nine tracks are without name. There are actually six ‘No Name’ songs in Smith’s canon—one of which appears on 1997’s Either/Or, the other is a b-side on the “Division Day” single.
Smith sequences three ‘No Name’ tracks to finish out the first side of Roman Candle. The first of which involves slightly more instrumentation than the first two songs on the record—lightly brushed percussion can be heard underneath the acoustic guitar strumming. Thematically, “No Name #1” details feeling out of place in a social situation—it’s probably the most straightforward song on here, lacking any kind of heavy metaphors or shadowy imagery, with its simple lyrics set against a swaying rhythm.
There’s a repeated phrase in “No Name #2,” which, like in “No Name #3,” becomes a sort of refrain for a song without a proper title. “Killing time won’t stop this crime,” Smith sings over a delicately strummed progression—one that serves as a juxtaposition to the somewhat dissonant, borderline twangy chords that are played below the song’s verses. There aren’t a lot of ideas, or phrases, that Smith returns to with regularity—at least not so obviously—as he does to the idea of “killing time.” He uses it here, placed in yet another relatively dark song—vague and volatile lyrics that are not ready to play their hand, though it leaves one to speculate. The phrase, or iterations of the phrase “killing time” can also be found in one of the other songs that is believed to be about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather.
In “Some Song,” he signs, “Help me kill my time, ‘cuz I’ll never be fine.” Here, in “No Name #2,” he says in the song’s final verse—“You better start watching what message that you send out/No more situations—I only go in to be kicked out. He got knocked down leaving like he ran into a clothes line, and remembered a couple of words that hid a crime: ‘You were just fine. You’ll be just fine, but I’m on the other line.’”
I hesitate to say that Roman Candle loses its focus or momentum as it enters into the second side, but the quality of songwriting certainly shifts—“Drive All Over Town” is another grim domestic scene, somewhat similar to the one found in “Condor Ave.,” though there is no resolve this time around, and the quickly paced stomp of “No Name #4” isn’t out of place, but lyrically it leaves a lot to be desired.
The centerpiece of the album’s second half, the album’s finest, most devastating moment, and among one of Smith’s best penned songs, is “Last Call,” the penultimate piece on Roman Candle.
From 2008 until 2014, I worked at a small radio station in my relatively small town. For part of that time—spring of 2010 until the very end of 2012—I had, somehow, managed to be given my own daily show, where I was more or less given free reign to play whatever I wanted.
I won’t say that I’d like to think that I was ‘good’ at what I did at the radio station, but it was a job that took a lot of creative effort on my part; the show—my hour of radio, nearly every day, Monday through Friday—eventually became an extension of myself. It wasn’t just a reflection of the music that I listened to, and enjoyed, but it became a reflection of how I was doing personally outside of it.
If I wasn’t doing well, the music I picked for the day would take a dark turn, and there were long stretches of time where it seemed like the darkness wasn’t going to lift.
I had started playing Elliott Smith on the show a few months after it had launched, simply because I was looking to diversify what I was doing within the hour I had been granted. But the deeper I went into his canon and the more I read about him and his tragic life and passing, the more of his music turned up in my set, and the sadder songs began to slowly eclipse the ones that were a little more listener friendly.
“Last Call” was one of those songs—one of those songs that I played a little more often than I maybe should have once I discovered it, and once it took on meaning for me.
One of those song that, if someone was ever really listening to the show, and to the lyrics of the songs I was playing—lyrics of a song like this—they’d see that my hour on the radio could, and most certainly would, turn into a huge cry for help.
Snarling in a way that nothing else is on Roman Candle—though Smith would snarl throughout his body of work, it’s an angry, terribly bleak song, powered by two guitar tracks—one, a strummed acoustic, and the other, a distorted electric used to punctuate the disdain.
Lyrically, the song unfurls and spirals in an almost stream of consciousness way—there, again, isn’t a clear refrain, but a repeated phrase that Smith will return to, especially at the end, when it becomes a frantic mantra.
Accusatory in ways he would revisit, albeit in a more polished form, on “Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands,” on his major label debut, XO, the first half of “Last Call”’s lyrics are blunt, and cutting. Smith, in the role of a wounded, dejected protagonist, is unable to stop himself from hurling insults: “You’re a crisis—you’re an icicle. You’re a tongueless talker, you don’t care what you say; you’re a jaywalker and you just walk away.”
The angst crests around the time the first utterance of Smith waiting for sleep to overtake him arrives, and the tonality of the song, at least temporarily, becomes a little softer as it begins its final descent of dark imagery.
“You start to drink, you just want to continue,” he says. “It’ll all be yesteryear soon.”
“Last Call” ends in a cacophonic flurry—“Church bells, and now I’m awake, and I guess it must be some kind of holiday,” he sings with a sneer, working back up to the tumultuous repetition of the expression “I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me,” which he sings seven times in a row before the momentum of the song disappears, and in a near whisper, he adds, “I’m lying here waiting for sleep to overtake me.”
The thing about “Last Call” is that there’s no clear resolution, and no easy answers—again, a lyrical and songwriting device Smith would return to countless times until the end. Is this a song about suicide? Is this a song about an overdose? Either way, it’s grim, and with the backing of the distorted, clanging electric guitar, alongside Smith’s double-tracked vocals, he’s painted a terribly evocative, though abstruse portrait of an incredibly damaged, desperate individual that may, or may not, be him.
In July of 1994, I turned 11 years old.
That same month, in that same year, Elliott Smith, then 25 years old, released Roman Candle.
Later that summer, and into that fall, I started listening to Nine Inch Nails—The Downward Spiral was the first thing I ever bought that had an Advisory Lyrics sticker on it.
I listened to Counting Crows, to Pearl Jam, to Alice in Chains; to Green Day, and by year’s end, The Offspring; to Stone Temple Pilots and even The Spin Doctors, and I can distinctly remember, even at age 11, the feeling of being disappointed by an album from a band you really liked—The Spin Doctors’ sophomore studio album, Turn it Upside Down, failed to connect with me the way their debut did, just the year before.
I listened to a cassette copy of Last Splash by The Breeders, and tried to make sense of the dissonance and noise of Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star by Sonic Youth, but couldn’t. And even to this day, it’s a difficult, cumbersome record.
I listened to the Unplugged in New York record by Nirvana.
I was completely unprepared for what happened when I pressed play on my Walkman—the same thing happened the moment The Downward Spiral began playing through my headphones.
The same thing happened when I listened to albums by Warren G, or Snoop Doggy Dogg.
That sentiment though—not being prepared for what happened next—could be said for a lot of things that happened in 1994.
My grandfather passed away that fall—sometime in October. I can still remember the late night phone call from my Aunt—the ringing phone cutting through the darkened house as my father and I sat in anticipation by the television, waiting for the second season of “The X-Files” to begin.
At some point, maybe around the same time—maybe before, maybe after—my mother explained to me the strains in her marriage to my father, and that they were, more than likely, going to divorce.
Roman Candle ends with an instrumental.
It seems too difficult of a task to try and top a song like “Last Call,” so at first listen, “Kiwi Maddog 20/20,” a cumbersome title, seems maybe a little out of place, or a bit miscast as the album’s final piece. It’s twangy, a little meandering, and it took me until now—listening from a critical, reflective place—to realize that, perhaps, this is meant to be ‘come down’ moment after the visceral catharsis that came just prior.
It seems almost anticlimactic to end the album this way, given just how emotionally pulling it could be at times.
Roman Candle ends—not with a snarl, or a whisper through gritted teeth, but with a brushed snare drum, and some electric guitar noodling.
In 2004, for my birthday, somebody who I was, at the time, very close to, gave me a copy of Radio On by Sarah Vowell. The book is more or less a journal of Vowell’s year spent listening to the radio, switching between stations, and analyzing what she heard. Published in 1997, if I am recalling this correctly, a bulk of the book takes place in 1996.
I read it that summer—the year I turned 21—and as I read it, it was the first time I began to think about where I was during the time period something was taking place—i.e. what was I doing in 1996, when Sarah Vowell was listening to the radio.
In July of 1994, I turned 11 years old, and that year continued to show me that I was unprepared for what was going to happen next. Elliott Smith was 25 when he released Roman Candle, that same month, in that same year; and now, I have lived to be older than he got to be.
He would be 50 now. I am 36.
Roman Candle is, more than likely, an album that I would not have been ready for had I listened to it upon its release when I was all of 11 years old. I would have been totally unprepared for what happened once I pressed play on my Walkman, hearing the hushed, menacing tones of the titular track, or the depressive pleading of “Last Call”; nor would I have understood them.
Elliott Smith’s music, for me, came along at times when I needed it, or when I was in a position to be open to it—to really listening to it. The end of 2010, and beginning of 2011, was that time for me, and it was when a song like “Last Call” really resonated.
Roman Candle isn’t a ‘bad’ Elliott Smith album—he only made five studio albums total, during his lifetime, with the sixth infamously arriving a year after his death, completed posthumously. Roman Candle is a rough, uneven album, but it is a glimpse at the potential of Smith as a solo performer, as well as a slightly retroactive chance to hear his humble solo beginnings in order to grasp the growth and maturation that certainly occurred between this album, and the back to back releases of Either/Or in 1997 then XO the following year—but there is even a noticeable change and sharper focus between these songs and the material found on his 1995 self-titled effort.
It’s also, again, retroactively, a stark historical marker for Smith’s career—within two years, his band, Heatmiser, would dissolve during sessions for what became its final album, Mic City Sons, the first and only recorded for a major label—a bad deal that Smith instantly regretted committing to.
Within four years, Smith would find himself in a rumpled white suit, playing an abridged version of “Miss Misery” during the telecast of the Academy Awards; he lost, of course, to Celine Dion’s song from Titanic, but the opportunity to have contributed material to a film (Good Will Hunting) and be nominated for Best Original Song, catapulted him to things that he was, more than likely, not expecting.
And within nine years, after struggling with fame, and more importantly, his sobriety, he would be found dead of a stab wound—no conclusion was ever fully drawn on if it was suicide, or homicide.
Elliott Smith was 34 when he died; I am now 36, and I’ve been alive longer than he had the chance to be. Smith is gone, but of course, his body of work, and his alluring and tragic mythology lives.
Smith’s canon can be difficult at times, and I will admit that when I found myself immersed in it almost a decade ago, there were parts of it that I was not prepared for, and there were parts of myself that I saw reflected in it, a fact that I was also not prepared for, because I both knew, and did not know, what was going to happen next.