"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)
Topics: Entertainment News
In a tiny one-room backyard office here in the lower-rent flatlands of Beverly Hills, Calif., 54-year-old Geoffrey Davidian is pacing around his cluttered newsroom, sipping a glass of Jack Daniel’s and listening to Canned Heat on vinyl.
“Can you believe that a guy like me, in this little piece-of-shit room, is creating so much ruckus by doing what we’re supposed to do?” asks Davidian, wearing bright brown baggy cords, black Converse All-Stars and a green T-shirt.
“My God, you got the fucking New York Times, you got the L.A. Times, they’re all sitting around doing thumbsuckers about where the economy’s going to go.” He raises his voice suddenly. “May they ROT in HELL for every story they could have done that could have rectified some injustice!”
Davidian’s keen sense of outrage has led him down a circuitous path to publishing a muckraking newspaper and Web site called the Putnam Pit in the unlikely town of Cookeville, Tenn. From here, he has also launched a handful of lawsuits seeking access to the “cookie” files on the town’s computers — arguing that they are public records comparable to phone logs.
This week, Davidian and his lawyer plan to file an appeal in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to a summary judgment decision handed down Sept. 24 by U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Higgins. Higgins rejected Davidian’s claims — that Cookeville violated his civil rights by denying him access to the cookie files and by refusing to post a link to the Putnam Pit on the city’s official Web site.
Before the end of the month, Davidian also intends to file a breach-of-contract suit against Cookeville for allowing its employees to visit the Pit on taxpayer computers without paying for the privilege. In August 1997 the site had posted a warning that city employees must pay a $16 license to access the site at work, or face a $500 fine; its current front page says that city employees must pay a $20 subscription fee.
Journalism is Davidian’s second career. In the 1960s he was mostly a musician, a “blues freak” who rose to the rank of road manager for Canned Heat. In 1969 he was arrested in Lebanon for smuggling hashish and getting a false passport, and served the next three years in jail. It was there that an American University professor turned him on to philosophy, bringing a new book each week.
Davidian came back to America with a new sense of focus, earning a philosophy degree and a master’s in journalism and doing work toward a doctorate in history before newspapering called him away. His first job was with the Roswell (N.M.) Daily Record.
“The first story I did got an innocent man out of prison on a murder charge where he was sentenced on information contrived by the D.A. and the sheriff,” he recalls with pride.
For the next 20 years he worked for several major dailies, including the Milwaukee Journal, Arizona Republic and Houston Chronicle, where he covered the Gulf War.
Davidian’s entanglement with Putnam County, Tenn., began in January 1995 in Portland, Maine, when he met a woman named Claudia Eldridge on a Holiday Inn shuttle bus. Upon learning that Davidian was a reporter, Eldridge told him of her suspicions that law enforcement officials in her hometown were lying about her daughter’s 1992 death by fire, which the district attorney had said was an accident.
Davidian’s children lived in Knoxville at the time, so he decided to travel the 100 miles to Cookeville, population 26,000, to check things out.
“I went there, and it was true,” he says. “The D.A. was incompetent, the prosecutors had conflicts of interest, they knew who the killer was but they didn’t arrest him. The killer was linked to the D.A., they had a drug and sex relationship — allegedly. Some of this is in public records, and as I started to investigate it, they began to stop me.” (The officials named have all denied these charges.)
On a second visit, Davidian, Eldridge and her daughter Chantal were all stopped by the same Cookeville police officer within one week for speeding, having a dog without a leash and interfering with an arrest, respectively.
“I’m starting to think, this cop is the finger on somebody’s hand that’s trying to manipulate the system,” Davidian said. “I said this is a conspiracy to stop me, and I’m going to show that it’s related to the Eldridge murder.”
So Davidian used his speeding ticket appeal to subpoena the entire Cookeville City Council, as well as the judge presiding over the case. In addition to trying to uncover links with the Eldridge case, Davidian also sought to show that the court was not truly independent — because the judges were appointed by the City Council, who depended on court-enforced traffic tickets for city revenue.
Several hearings and quashed subpoenas later, Davidian lost the legal battle but vowed to win the long-term war: “I’m not the kind of guy who lets it go … So I started a paper.”
In May 1996, the first 200 issues of the photocopied 8-and-a-half-by-11 Putnam Pit were handed out around town. An anonymous Cookeville resident then kicked in $1,000 to bump circulation up to 2,000 the next month. Davidian went online that December after copies kept ending up in town dumpsters.
From its inception, the Pit began petitioning town bureaucrats with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Tennessee Public Records Act. Davidian wanted to see time cards for the city lawyer’s work in his speeding trial, pre-employment test results of police officers, names of people arrested after a town official’s party, exit interviews with town cops, parking violations records and personnel files from the city hospital. Most of the requests were completely or partially turned down, with a variety of arguments such as cost, lack of Tennessee citizenship and the existence of outstanding public information disputes.
City Manager Jim Shipley, the chief administrator of Cookeville and a co-defendant in some of the lawsuits, said that processing Davidian’s requests have wasted much city time.
“Any private citizen or anybody from the media would not take in most cases more than 15 minutes to see what they need to see,” Shipley said. “People were tied up with him for a whole day in some cases.”
Dyana Bagby, a reporter for the Cookeville Herald-Citizen, said Davidian’s personality frays some people’s nerves.
“I know he causes a lot of problems with city officials,” Bagby said. “I covered the recent county elections here in August, and me and several radio reporters were in the elections office all day and all night waiting for the results to come in. I think he came in at 11 p.m. and demanded to get the final results before they were actually ready … he was berating the employees, demanding to get something they did not have ready yet and saying it was his First Amendment right.”
Davidian says that he is merely shaking up a cozy good-old-boys network. “If the Hair-Oiled Citroen just did their job, I’d get out of town,” he said. “But they don’t ask for public records.”
In August 1997, the Putnam Pit broke new ground by asking to see Cookeville’s “cookie” files — files placed on a user’s computer by a Web site that can track usage and visits. Arguing that cookies are basically equivalent to phone logs — which are generally considered public records — Davidian asked City Hall to let him check whether municipal employees were accessing sites “not consistent with government employment.”
The city delayed for three months, then allowed Davidian to inspect the computers. He found no cookie files there — he says the city had deleted them. The Pit editor sued in Tennessee court, which removed the
case to federal court.
Outside of Putnam County, access to cookies and other computer records is likely to become a hot issue, said Robert Gellman, former chief counsel to the House Government Operations subcommittee on information, justice, transportation and agriculture and now a Washington-based privacy and information policy consultant.
“A couple of well-written FOIA requests could really cause a lot of commotion at some [government] agencies, and they could produce some really interesting news stories,” said Gellman, emphasizing that cached image files, bookmarks and browser history files all contain more potentially damning information than the more sexy-sounding cookies. “But there is no guarantee, and it could take a long time to bear fruit. On the other hand, it would take about 20 minutes to write the request.”
Lost in the flurry of lawsuits has been Davidian’s career as a paid journalist. The Pit editor estimates he’s spent roughly $50,000 on editorial costs and $2,000-$3,000 on legal fees over the past three years, while making $1,000 in revenue.
“I went from $60,000, $70,000 a year to living in a garage,” he said. “But I think I’ll get a book or a movie or something out of it, because it’s a great case. It’s a great story.”
The Cookeville officials Davidian so sharply ridicules on his site do not share his enthusiasm for the story.
“I don’t think a lot of people read it. I certainly don’t, and nobody I know does,” Shipley said. “If things were as bad as he says they are, I would think that some state or federal investigators would come down here to clean things up. So far they haven’t.”
Bagby said no one at the Herald-Citizen reads the Pit regularly, nor do they follow up on its stories of fixed parking tickets, improper overtime pay and missing municipal funds. “I would agree with Mr. Shipley, and I’m trying to speak as an objective journalist,” Bagby said.
Loyola University of New Orleans communication professor Larry Lorenz, who taught Davidian at Marquette 25 years ago and who writes occasional columns for the Pit, said his star pupil’s culture clash may be generational as well as geographical.
“I think he would have been at home with the muckrakers of the early 20th century,” Lorenz said. “He carries the same sense of moral outrage at injustice … He’s a genuine crusader. Most newspapers will no longer allow themselves to have a crusader.”
Lorenz said he was initially surprised to hear that Davidian had expended so much energy in a small town in Tennessee. “I wondered if it wasn’t some kind of small potatoes, if he wasn’t Don Quixote poking at windmills over there,” he said.
Davidian says he’s doing what any good journalist would do if confronted by corruption and fear.
“This is not funny. I’m not making this up. People are dead. People are DEAD,” he says. “People write to me, but they won’t sign their names. They want to subscribe, but they don’t want it mailed to their home. They want to advertise, but they don’t want their name on it. They’ll advertise, but then they’ll call and say, ‘Please take my name off it. I don’t want it there anymore.’”
Claudia Eldridge, mother of the woman whose death led to the Putnam Pit, said Davidian is not being paranoid when he registers in different hotels in different towns each time he visits.
“He’s the only one who’s able to say what he wants because he doesn’t live there,” said Eldridge, who is in California temporarily to receive treatment for colon cancer. “It sounds like I’m crazy, which is why I don’t talk about it. But people live in fear there.”
Davidian is hoping one of his lawsuits generates enough money to pay off his debts and fund his journalistic investigations.
“And if I get that money I’m gonna open up a paper, and you know what I’m going to do? I’m gonna see that all these fuckers go to jail,” he said. “They’re gonna have to firebomb me.”
Matt Welch, news editor at Tabloid.net, lives in Los Angeles.More Matt Welch.
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)