A Head Full of Flames: Elliott Smith’s Roman Candle

Roman Candle

Lately, I’ve been primarily writing essays for friends’ online magazines, including the culture magazine “Vannevar.” Below is an excerpt from my latest Vannevar contribution, “A Head Full of Flames: Elliott Smith’s Roman Candle,” for the site’s 1994 albums tribute issue. 

This essay frequently cites William Todd Schultz’s biography, Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith, an excellent portrait I encourage Smith fans to read.  

Although released in 1994, I wouldn’t discover Elliott Smith’s Roman Candle for more than a decade later. I was seventeen and harbored a crush on a boy who was a musical prodigy, mastering the guitar at a young age and possessing an ability to pick up most any instrument and best other musicians who’d been playing for years. Much like Elliott, who even in middle school put fellow musicians to shame, playing their primary instruments far better than they did.

My musical naiveté would have appalled my high school crush if he didn’t enjoy “educating” me so much. “You don’t know Elliott Smith? Damn! Give me your iPod,” he demanded one afternoon in my parents’ basement. I handed over my chunky, 60 GB iPod. He plugged it into the sleek Apple laptop he carried with him everywhere and transferred Smith’s entire discography to my device.

He clicked on one of the albums and said, “We’ll start from the beginning. Roman Candle.” Although not the true beginning; prior to recording Roman Candle, his first solo effort, Elliott belonged to the band Heatmiser. In fact, he was still with Heatmiser when Cavity Search released Roman Candle on July 14, 1994 and would continue to play with the band for some time, despite growing increasingly dissatisfied with the hardcore group’s direction and sound. Roman Candle was a way to unleash songs unraveling in his brain that didn’t fit Heatmiser’s aesthetic.

The album was and is unabashedly simple, recorded in then-girlfriend JJ Gonson’s basement. Most of the songs feature only Elliott accompanying his own soft vocals on acoustic guitar. Elliott’s biographer William Todd Schultz aptly portrays the album “as a guy jamming with himself (and the very occasional friend)” while Gonson described it as “totally low-key and casual, almost ridiculously low-fi.”

Back in my parents basement my crush and I laid on the floor, heads close but hands folded safely on our stomachs. Fevered, even anxious strumming reverberated against the concrete walls, soon followed by a voice more ethereal than any I’d ever heard.

“He played himself
Didn’t need me to give him hell
He could be cool and cruel to you and me
Knew we’d put up with anything

I want to hurt him
I want to give him pain
I’m a roman candle
My head is full of flames.”

I was struck by the pain Elliott’s voice betrayed. These were not just hollow lyrics, churned out by some slick producer to pawn off on any mediocre pop star in need of a new hit song; these were seemingly autobiographical, depicting real anger and frustration. Or if they weren’t, he did a damn good job convincing me otherwise, and that made the song (and album) resonate.

Read the full article at Vannevar. 


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