"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)
If the Net is a library of the collective consciousness — a vast collection of humans’ fantasies, fears and obsessions — then Rotten.com represents the darkest, deepest, most sordid side of human nature. There is absolutely nothing nice about Rotten.com; this site is simply foul.
Here you can see a photo of a man whose face was blown off when he bit on a blasting cap. A picture of a Chinese man apparently eating a fried human fetus. The messy expulsions from a Japanese orange juice enema. A bestial image involving a penis and a large fish. Chris Farley’s bloated, purple corpse. The charred cadaver of a burn victim. A Filipino man whose body is completely covered with pustulate tumors. Pornographic World War II propaganda.
Rotten.com’s sole purpose is to “present the viewer with a truly unpleasant experience,” and its proprietor is doing a dandy job of that. If it involves bizarre sex, gruesome death or the sordid side of celebrity, you will find it on this site. “End times are here!” crows Rotten.com, and after a gut-wrenching hour or two perusing the hundreds of images (masturbating monkeys, testicles infected with elephantiasis, bloody gunshot wounds) archived here, it’s hard not to agree: We are one screwed-up species.
It’s horrible. And yet, the Net is fascinated. About 200,000 visitors come to Rotten.com every day. We are voyeurs at heart, drawn to the macabre and horrific like rubberneckers at a car crash, and even though we can’t bear to look we are compelled to click on that headline: “A gallery of severed hands and whatnot.” Yuck.
But Rotten.com isn’t just a database of the disgusting; it’s also a venue for making a point about censorship, at least according to “Soylent,” the pseudonymous proprietor of Rotten.com, whose highly graphic content has earned him enemies around the world. The site is currently being investigated by Scotland Yard and the FBI for cannibalism. The German Family Ministry has threatened Soylent with legal action if he doesn’t find a way to shield minors from his site. And then there’s the endless cease-and-desist letters that flood in from a long list of major corporations that object to the site.
“Rotten dot-com serves as a beacon to demonstrate that censorship of the Internet is impractical, unethical and wrong,” Soylent writes in his manifesto, adding that nothing he posts there can’t be found elsewhere. “To censor this site, it is necessary to censor medical texts, history texts, evidence rooms, courtrooms, art museums, libraries, and other sources of information vital to functioning of free society.”
He’s right. Rotten.com isn’t the only place to dig up images of disease, sex and violence — but the site is sure making it easier. And whether the images are authentic or digitally manipulated, they’re undeniably provocative. As Internet service providers continue to merge, driving out unsavory sites like this one, as governments look for ways to wield power over overseas-based sites and as the debates over obscenity laws drag on, Rotten.com is a test case for freedom of speech on the Web.
For someone who spends his days looking at horrific images, Rotten.com’s founder is surprisingly mild-mannered. Soylent (who doesn’t want his real name published, since he regularly receives death threats) is a 34-year-old programmer with shaggy, graying hair and a cleft chin. He may be somewhat somber, but he’s friendly and good-humored. Once, he was a security specialist working on Navigator 4 for Netscape; these days he’s a full-time archivist at Rotten.com, taking only the occasional contracting job to pay the bills.
Soylent had always been fascinated with the weird and macabre; he’s been collecting books and images for a decade. But he never really intended to become a poster child for anti-censorship. In fact, Rotten.com evolved rather haphazardly: Soylent purchased the URL back in 1996 simply because he liked the name, and decided to throw up a few “joke pictures.” But people flocked to the images and remembered the site’s name, including Howard Stern, who brought the site to mainstream attention when he sang its praises on-air. In September 1997, when Soylent posted a controversial photo of Princess Diana’s supposed corpse, his reputation was sealed. Though the photo was called a fake, its sheer existence, along with Soylent’s decision to take it public, inspired horrified editorials in the global press.
Since then, it’s been a cat-and-mouse game between Soylent and the world’s moral arbiters. Rotten.com was a lightning rod during the 1999 controversy over the Child Online Protection Act, a law that would have required all controversial online material to be censored from the view of children. When Donna Rice Hughes testified before Congress in 1999, she used Rotten.com as an exemplar of the “violent and bloody” horrors from which children should be shielded. As a result of this and other complaints, Soylent has given in to the “child protection” lobby in one important way: Some of his photos, including his library of cadavers and nude celebrities, now require an adult-verification I.D. number.
Under current American laws, Rotten.com could potentially be shut down for obscenity, but Soylent makes the contention that his site isn’t obscene at all, since it has literary, political and historical value. Sure, he may display a photograph of Marilyn Monroe’s blotchy corpse, but he also has biographical information about her. He posts regular political commentaries, blunt and offensive as they may be, along with a daily “this day in history” feature that chronicles notorious episodes (bombs, mass murders, court cases) of the past. It’s a tenuous justification — an “I read Playboy for the articles” for online smut addicts — but so far no one has called him on it.
Soylent concedes that his site is “like a shining beacon of what children shouldn’t see on the Net,” but he argues that it’s up to parents to monitor what their children see online. After all, says Soylent, there’s absolutely nothing on his site that you can’t also find in your local library or on television; in fact, that’s where he gets much of his material. “If you watch the Discovery Channel or the Learning Channel, you see pictures of dead bodies, cadavers of famous people,” he says. “Horrors are sprinkled throughout life, and I see no problem with concentrating them. If you want, we could go down to the bookstores and find pictures of cadavers for you — it’s very easy. It’s not possible to write a law to make it impossible to display that stuff, even for minors. It’s too much of a slippery slope to take.”
As you might expect, this view is shared by Dr. Michael Wong Chang, the pseudonymous proprietor of BonsaiKitten, a Web site now featured on Soylent’s site. “The dichotomy between exploiting ‘distasteful’ subject matter in the guise of information and exploiting it as entertainment is artificial and hypocritical. Lurid details of human fault and misery are published in the ‘mainstream’ media for exactly the same reason that certain people exchange this material informally — to titillate the viewer,” says Wong Chang.
The guardians of free speech online tend to agree. However distasteful the images may be, we can’t limit the freedom to display them, says Cindy Cohn, legal counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “In general, people who have unpopular speech are the vanguards of protecting the rest of our speech,” she says. “Just because it’s in bad taste doesn’t mean you get to censor it. Almost by definition the people who carry the standard for the First Amendment are the ones who have unpopular speech; after all, we wouldn’t need a First Amendment for popular speech.”
For now, there’s little legal basis for shutting down Rotten.com. The Child Online Protection Act has been struck down by the federal courts. (It is currently under appeal at the U.S. Supreme Court.) But that doesn’t mean that Rotten.com is in the clear: Threats to its existence are coming from other places.
The new target for offended moral guardians is the Internet service provider: Send enough self-righteous, horrified letters to an ISP, and you’ll convince a Web site’s upstream provider to remove it from its servers. Where laws fail to govern — or censor — the Internet, the market might succeed.
Luckily for Soylent, there are still enough independent ISPs looking for business that he can find a home. After Rotten.com was ejected by one ISP, Soylent found a smaller, independent provider with anti-censorship principles. As a result, Rotten.com has been able to take other controversial sites under its wing, like BonsaiKitten, which came to Rotten.com for help after Humane Society activists forced two ISPs to drop the site from their servers.
Soylent insists that he isn’t worried about losing his Internet access. In fact, he says he’s regularly approached by ISPs that offer to host Rotten.com should he lose access again. Even if that fails, he says, “I could always take it overseas, where the laws are less severe.” France and Germany may disapprove of him, in other words, but perhaps Barbados wouldn’t.
But as Internet access continues to consolidate (AOL Time Warner now controls Internet access for millions, while rumors circulate that Microsoft may soon buy Earthlink) and as small ISPs are snatched up by bigger ones, it’s becoming clear that more and more Internet users are accessing the Net through service providers owned by conservative media giants — any of which could silence sites deemed offensive in an instant, if enough shocked parents spoke up.
As Cohn puts it, “You don’t have a right to an ISP, and though they can’t discriminate against you based on race, they can certainly say, ‘We only want clean or Christian Web sites, and we can kick you out.’” In that scenario, the First Amendment offers little protection to sites like Rotten.com; if the ISP decides to kick them off, they may have nowhere else to go.
Even if Rotten.com and its ilk do survive ISP consolidation, they’ll still have foreigners to worry about. A recent Yahoo France case — in which Yahoo was forced by French authorities to remove all hate paraphernalia from its auction pages — has free-speech activists alarmed that the Net is going to be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator of acceptability. Similarly, a German court recently ruled that German laws (again, focusing specifically on banning Nazi propaganda) could be applied to Web sites that are hosted by foreigners in other countries.
With these rulings in hand, foreign governments have been the first authorities to chase after Rotten.com. As British newspaper the Observer reports, Scotland Yard and the FBI are currently investigating Soylent’s culpability in a recent Rotten.com image depicting a man eating a baby (a charge that Soylent counters by arguing that the photo is a doctored image created by a Chinese artist). The image provoked one Scotland Yard detective to say that he wanted to shut down the Web site. (The FBI did not return phone calls requesting information about the case, and Soylent says he has yet to be contacted by authorities.)
Meanwhile, the German Family Ministry recently began sending threatening letters to Soylent, complete with color printouts of “offending” images from his site, insisting that he must shield his “youth-endangering writings” from German minors. Although he has yet to receive a legal summons, Soylent is not allowed to advertise in Germany, he says. “And minors cannot download the Web site from Germany or I could be prosecuted.”
It’s highly unlikely that the American government would allow Soylent’s extradition to face charges overseas, but it’s still something that free-speech lawyers are watching with consternation. “This is a logical extension of the Yahoo France case. Once Germany can say that no Germans can see this, everyone else will do the same thing, and it will end up with a race to the bottom. If you take this to the logical extension, we all end up with speech fit for Afghanistan or China — the most repressive governments you can think of,” Cohn says. “Essentially ISPs, in order to try to protect themselves from this, will begin screening people as to location. So if you’re American you can only see the sites that are American-friendly, and if you are Chinese you only see Chinese sites, and we lose something true that the Internet gave us all.”
It’s possible, of course, that if this worst-case scenario comes true, someone will step up and create a haven for the horrible: an ISP that is willing to take risks by hosting Rotten.com and other sites considered offensive, if not obscene. With BonsaiKitten under his protection, Soylent is already building a kind of mini-refuge for persecuted sites. As BonsaiKitten founder Wong Chang puts it, “The cross-publicity benefits both of us, and his generosity in protecting us from censorship raises his esteem in the eyes of those who understand what the first freedom is all about.”
In the meantime, Soylent is continuing his life’s work of assembling a database of bizarre images. He’s planning a book about freaks and anomalies, and plans to build a more historical database online. He regularly receives phone calls from the Discovery Channel and the Learning Channel requesting access to his photo library, and he’s even contributing exhibits to a new Los Angeles tourist museum — appropriately, the Museum of Death. He continues to revel in his role as the beloved and reviled poster boy for voyeuristic horror.
As he slyly asks me before he heads off to the bookstore to do some more research, “I’m not so scary, am I?”
This story has been corrected.
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)