"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
Dave Bridger answers his cellphone with a simple “Yo.” It comes across as feigned mafia-like toughness. But you can hardly blame him for being edgy whenever the phone rings.
In recent weeks, Bridger has published his cellphone number in thousands of junk e-mails sent all over the world. The spams invite other “real bulkers” to join him in peddling a penis-enlargement pill called Pinacle.
“Everybody wants a bigger penis, so this product pulls a massive amount of sales … All you do is MAIL, MAIL, MAIL. And collect your commission check,” claim Bridger’s invitations.
For more than three years, Bridger has deftly balanced the most difficult task of a spammer (or “bulk mailer,” to use the term he prefers): giving out enough contact information to make a sale without putting the whole operation at risk.
For Bridger, keeping a grip on his own identity may be another challenge. When he’s tired or distracted and the cellphone chirps to life, Bridger might even have to pause and ask himself: What is my name today?
Legally, the man who goes by the name Bridger appears to be Davis Wolfgang Hawke, a former white-power activist who renounced his birth name, Andrew Britt Greenbaum, in 1996 at the age of 18. But in the late ’90s Hawke also went by the moniker Bo Decker. At the time, he was head of the Knights of Freedom Nationalist Party, one of the fastest growing neo-Nazi groups in the United States, which he later renamed the American Nationalist Party while a student at Wofford College in South Carolina.
But he hasn’t really used the names Decker or Hawke online for years. Those identities imploded in 1999, shortly after word got out that his father was a Jew from the Boston suburbs, and people started calling him a “kosher Nazi.” The ANP and its leader crawled quietly under a rock.
Yet as his world was crumbling around him, Hawke vowed he’d make a comeback on the political scene. In an interview with Rolling Stone in late 1999, Hawke predicted he would run for “major public office” within a decade. But first, he would need “a lot of money to back me up.”
So what does a former American Nationalist Party member do to make some quick bucks? In Hawke’s case, he turned to penis-enlargement pills — and a host of other dodgy products, including human growth hormone, free government grants, inkjet-printer refills, extended car warranties, “eBay secrets” — marketed via spam e-mail campaigns. Today, Hawke’s spam operations — Quiksilver Enterprises and Amazing Internet Products — while nowhere near the biggest sources of junk e-mail on the Internet, may be among its more profitable spam-based enterprises.
The life of a spammer is not a dull one. Hawke must move quickly through the obscure back roads of the Net, abandoning the Internet domains that he uses to generate his spam in quick order after he is discovered by anti-spam vigilantes or other spam fighters. The trail he leaves behind him offers a bizarre look at the seedy world of spam entrepreneurship. White-power organizer turned penis-pill spammer, he sounds like a fictional character in a bad comic novel. But he’s quite real.
Spamming was apparently part of Hawke’s career strategy even before he was laughed out of the American white-power movement.
In May 1999, as Hawke was redesigning the ANP Web site and retooling the party’s platform, he also registered Knifed.com — the future home of his first spam-vertised site, the American Knife Depot. Instead of his own name, Hawke listed his significant other and chief party secretary, Patricia Lingenfelter, as registrant, according to Internet records.
In early July, just weeks before a failed white-power march on Washington he helped organize, someone using the name Jon was spamming Internet message boards with bogus testimonials about Knifed.com’s “totally reasonable” prices for knives and other weapons.
Ever since, to throw the feds and anti-spammers off his trail, Hawke has used fictitious names like Johnny Durango, James Kincaid, Winston Cross, Clell Miller, George Baldwan, or John Milton in the registration records for the dozens of Internet domains he has registered for his online storefronts over the years.
For his physical address, Hawke typically lists a Mail Boxes Etc. location in New Hampshire, New York, or Vermont. It’s a technique he has used since 1998, when the Knights of Freedom site listed a Mail Boxes Etc. store in Walpole, Mass., as its address.
Rhode Island has apparently been Hawke’s home for at least the past 18 months. Records kept by the American Registry for Internet Numbers show that in April 2002 someone using the name Dave Hawke registered a block of Internet protocol (IP) addresses on behalf of Quiksilver Enterprises, listing a Pawtucket, R.I., address. The IP addresses were later reported to have been used to send Quiksilver spam.
An online telephone directory maintained by AT&T shows a listing for “D Hawke” at the same address in Pawtucket. The cellphone number listed by “Dave Bridger” in numerous recent spams for Pinacle is on the Sprint PCS network in Providence, R.I., according to an online database.
When Hawke unleashes a load of spam touting Pinacle he forges the return address so no one can reply or easily track its source.
Using special spam software, he typically relays the e-mails through third-party mail servers to hide their true origin. Sometimes he uses an innocent bystander’s e-mail addresses in the From line, so they have to deal with all the complaints, delivery-error or “bounce” messages, and list-remove requests.
These evasive tactics, all standard among spammers, are currently illegal in a handful of states. But no federal law yet exists to rein in such fraud. And while big Internet service providers such as AOL and MSN occasionally tie up large spammers with lawsuits, operations like Hawke’s appear to be below the radar of the major ISPs.
This is not to say that business is easy for Hawke, who is now in his mid-twenties.
Opponents of junk e-mail have been playing a type of whack-a-mole game with Quiksilver and Amazing Internet since early 2000. Whenever Hawke sends a batch of spam touting a new Web site, the anti-spammers notify the Internet service provider that hosts the site. Often, those reports are in vain, since Hawke uses hosting companies in China, Russia, and South America for whom spamming is not a violation of acceptable use policies.
But anti-spammers have had some success in making Hawke’s sites unreachable through another tactic. Because he typically uses bogus information in his domain registrations, Hawke is violating a requirement set by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers that so-called domain “whois” data be valid.
DirecNIC, Hawke’s preferred domain registrar, has placed many of his domains on hold in response to reports that the registrations contain false information, according to Sigmund Solares, CEO of Intercosmos Media Group, the New Orleans firm that operates DirecNIC.
Hawke and his associates are also prone to mistakes, says Piers Forrest, a London-based salesman of high-end computers and a self-proclaimed anti-spammer. As they transfer files from one site to another in the process of staging a new storefront, the spammers often leave a log file behind on the source server. These file-transfer protocol (FTP) logs have enabled anti-spammers to learn about new Pinacle sites even before their operators announce them, thus providing a head start on the shutdown process.
Following a domain shutdown, Hawke quickly gathers himself and reappears at a new location on the Internet. But the technical interruptions can help tilt the economics of spamming, says Forrest.
“Spam is only profitable because the costs are so low. What a lot of us do is try to push up those costs by making sure that when a spammer is found that they lose their Internet connection and they are paying for a Web site that they lose, so that spamming is not worth it,” says Forrest.
In a telephone interview, Dave Bridger claimed not to recognize the term “spam” or to know what a Web site is and said he worked as a manager in a McDonald’s restaurant. In a subsequent online interview, Bridger said he would agree to an interview only if paid $20,000.
“I don’t have time, make too much money, my time is very expensive,” said Bridger.
How much money is he making? That question is essentially unanswerable, but earlier this year, Amazing Internet took new offices and warehouse space beside other high-tech companies in a refurbished mill complex in Manchester, N.H. — a space previously occupied by the U.S. Senate campaign of Jeanne Shaheen, the state’s former governor.
According to a former Hawke associate, the neo-Nazi turned spammer boasts of earning “six figures” and often carries around a wad of hundred-dollar bills in his pocket, totaling thousands of dollars. (The former associate, when shown a photograph of Hawke, also confirmed that “Bridger” was Hawke, although at the time of their association, Hawke/Bridger was using the name Johnny Durango.)
Hawke has signed up scores of Pinacle sales affiliates, although only a few dozen may be active. The bottles of pills are sold for $50 to the end user, but Hawke pays his own supplier only five bucks, and he pays his affiliates another 10 for each sale made via their own spam campaigns. In the low-overhead spam business, that could mean relatively high profit margins.
Customer satisfaction may not be ideal, however. These days, when Bridger’s cell rings it could as easily be an irate customer as another direct sale or affiliate wanting to sign up. After all, the Federal Trade Commission says the cocktail of herbs listed on the label isn’t proven to grow bigger penises. One of the ingredients, yohimbe, may stimulate the central nervous system and is approved by the Food and Drug Administration. But it can also cause kidney failure or kill people with heart problems, the FDA warns.
There are no such caveats in the red-and-blue-lettered e-mails touting Amazing Internet’s Pinacle pills. They usually arrive with a subject line such as “Grow your penis 2 inches in 2 days” and assure recipients that Pinacle is “completely safe.”
The closest thing to a health warning in the ads or the Web site for ordering Pinacle is this helpful advice: “Remember, a penis larger than 9 inches may be too large for most women. But IF for some reason you need even more, it is possible for you to safely continue taking Pinacle.”
So far, no one has publicly complained about Pinacle. According to FTC spokesman Richard Cleland, the agency doesn’t have the resources to track down people like Hawke and charge them with making deceptive efficacy claims.
While the wording of his e-mail solicitations for Pinacle affiliates suggests Hawke prefers the expression “bulk mailer” to the term “spammer,” the FTP logs left on Amazing Internet sites leave no doubt about the company’s business. One log from AIP’s site Myselinak.com in early July, for example, recorded a transfer from the operator’s PC with the following directory: C:\spam\campaigns\Pinacle.
Forrest is credited with being the first to connect Hawke with the various spam campaigns run by Quiksilver. Yet he admits he’s frustrated that, despite his efforts, Hawke has prevailed in the spam business for more than three years.
Hawke’s reemergence as a spammer doesn’t surprise Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group in Alabama that tracks hate groups.
“I think he is basically a petty criminal. He’s a gang leader, a cultist. He was always about forming groups in which he’s the Führer. And I think that’s probably the case again here,” says Potok.
Potok is not concerned, however, that Hawke will use his profits from spam to bankroll a new neo-Nazi movement.
“He wouldn’t last five minutes in the movement. His name is mud. That’s an insurmountable problem — your father is Jewish,” says Potok. “He got so much mockery at the time. He was just destroyed by the stuff.”
While Hawke’s career as a white-power leader may be finished, one of his former Web sites suggests that if he decides to return to political life, it may be as a Rhode Island Libertarian.
In early 2001, Quiksilver used a site named PrivacyBuff.com to sell books with titles such as “The Spambook,” as well as a collection of tips and programs called “The Banned CD.”
According to a message from “Dave Milton” on the “Who We Are” page at the site, “I am a libertarian and everyone who works for me is a libertarian … we also favor the legalization of all drugs, an end to all taxes, and the abolition of the criminal justice system.”
Then again, it’s always been impossible to know whether the opportunistic, chameleon-like Hawke ever truly embraced a political philosophy — or was simply posturing and spouting a credo to make a sale.
Brian McWilliams is a freelance business and technology reporter based in Durham, NH.More Brian McWilliams.
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)