"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)
I was 6 years old when I saw my first cockfight. It must have been a gray day, because even though I was very young, I remember clearly the bright color of the roosters’ feathers – white, black and blood red, even before any damage was done – and of the coat I wore back then, pink faux fur that made me feel like a Barbie doll.
It happened on a patch of dirt in front of a wooden stable where a man my brothers and I called “Uncle” Larry kept chickens and a few hogs, including a mated pair named Samson and Delilah. Larry wasn’t actually my uncle – just my dad’s best friend – and his place wasn’t a fully functioning farm, just a small ranch house on several acres of land on the outskirts of Fort Wayne, Ind., but it might as well have been another planet to my brother and me. Our parents allowed us to keep a dog and an occasional fish or turtle. Larry’s sons and stepsons, on the other hand, grew up wild, BB guns in their closets, mud on their boots. A trip to Uncle Larry’s always meant adventure, and sometimes, like the night my dad helped Larry ring and castrate the pigs, blood.
On this night, two roosters were released onto a patch of dirt, and they went at each other, feathers flying. At one point both were airborne, two beautiful roosters frozen, suspended, their clawed feet poised to strike. I held onto my father’s pant leg and tried not to watch. It was beautiful and terrifying the way thunderstorms are.
And all those colors and sounds flooded back a few months ago when I read that Uncle Larry’s stepson had been arrested for raising fighting cocks in his backyard. Authorities seized 42 chickens from Barry “Bo” Myers’ home, only about five miles from where I grew up.
When I first heard about Bo’s arrest, I was shocked. Bo lived in a small neighborhood down from my high school. It wasn’t the most well-heeled part of town, but it wasn’t the Philippines, or Bali, where the sport is a revered tradition passed down through generations. Despite what I had seen growing up, I still imagined that cockfighting, in the United States anyway, had gone the way of the dodo.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Raising and fighting game cocks might be illegal in all 50 states, but, thanks in part to inconsistent, state-by-state sentencing guidelines and the difficulties involved in prosecuting it on the federal level, cockfighting is alive and well in the U.S. In just the past year, there have been a handful of high-profile cockfighting busts, including one in Washington state where police found not only a pit filled with dead birds and $12,000 in cash, but boxes and boxes of pastries — as if the participants were planning the world’s bloodiest high tea.
Last May, Dayton, Texas, authorities broke up what appeared to be a children’s birthday party complete with a water slide and cupcakes, only to find a cockfight in the back. North Judson, Ind., police recently surprised a crowd of 76 cockers and spectators who fled a makeshift arena, scattering into the bitter winter cold to hide in ditches and tree trunks. The apprehended included a little boy who suffered frost bite. He wasn’t wearing shoes.
Outlawing the sport has only driven its denizens underground and, in many cases, into private chat rooms where they trade secrets, brag about their birds and occasionally get into spats about who is the most devoted cocker out there.
But as underground goes, cockfighting culture isn’t terribly buried. The fights themselves might be hard to find, but cocker websites like Gamerooster.com and Sabong.net are just a click away, as is Hilltop Feed, a store owned by a man who calls himself “Richard, just Richard,” and where an aspiring cocker can get his hands on everything from chicken cages or “Filipino drop pens” to amino acid injections to improve a cock’s performance. You can also avail yourself of a cockfighting T-shirt, gopher bait, blood stop powder, “Rooster Booster” black salve for wounds, a gold hat pin sporting two majestic cocks midfight, and tiny decorative scabbards for a cock’s sharp spurs done in a delightfully swashbuckling style. If Jack Sparrow had been a fighting cock, he’d get his claws on one of these sheaths in a Caribbean minute.
In Bo Myers’ backyard, police found birds ostensibly readied — or “dubbed” — for battle. Once you know what to look for in a gamecock, they’re pretty easy to spot. Their combs and wattles are pruned to sleekness and their spurs are shorn down to make way for the knives cockers strap to either or both legs. Authorities also confiscated a cache of cockfighting paraphernalia, including videos of fights, gauze pads, knives, cotton balls and sparring muffs, basically boxing gloves for birds.
Bo maintains his innocence. He says he groomed his roosters to armor them against the cold and that if the local authorities – alerted to the presence of chickens on his property during an FBI-led meth raid at a neighbor’s house – hadn’t found a few metal spurs during their search, they wouldn’t have a case.
He told police that he raised the roosters for breeding purposes, that he’d never entered them in illegal tournaments and had them spar once in a while as home entertainment. As is usually the case, all of the birds were euthanized. Bo pleaded guilty to one felony charge of promoting an animal fighting contest and a single misdemeanor charge of possession of animal fighting paraphernalia. His plea agreement came with 18 months probation and a $1,730 fee to be paid to the local humane shelter to cover the cost of caring for the cocks prior to their death.
“I only pleaded guilty because my lawyer said that if some animal lover got on the jury we’d be sunk,” Bo told me when I met with him at his home this past winter. We sat at his kitchen table, three Gamecock magazines fanned out in front of us while he ate his dinner. A long-haul logger, Bo made time for me between trips. His wife, daughter, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren were nearby in the living room, watching television. Through an open bedroom door I spied a porcelain rooster perched on a dresser, and a framed member’s certificate from the United Gamefowl Breeders Association.
“I was in my lawyer’s office with my wife and my preacher, and my lawyer said, ‘You make the call,’” Bo said. “I wanted to fight it, but I didn’t. If I could do it all over again, I tell you what. I’d fight it. I’d fight it and I’d win.”
Bo’s used to a good battle. He’s a stocky, powerful-looking man who attends church regularly and is gentle with his kids, but that long-ago cockfight at Uncle Larry’s? Those were his birds. He fought them when he was a teenager, back in the ’80s when there was an active scene, and before cockfighting became a felony in Indiana.
“It was a different time. A good time. But now … I don’t fight them now. The chickens I had here were for breeding and they were my pets. I loved them. People in the humane society, they’d have you think these are ferocious birds, but they were great pets. And now they’re all gone, even the hens. They killed my hens, too. It’s ridiculous. It makes me so mad.”
So what was that magazine Bo was thumbing through? Gamecock is the only surviving English language cockfighting glossy. It’s available on the Hilltop Feed site, along with a coffee table’s worth of guides to sexing fowl, and recognizing and purchasing strong fighting strains.
Flip through the Gamecock and it’s clear that cockers are a close fraternity who take a great deal of pride in their roosters and treat this as a primary livelihood. The majority of the magazine is devoted to ads boasting tried and true breeds like Hatches, Kelsos, Johnny Jumpers and Perfection Greys (all clearly stating that the birds are for breeding and show purposes only), and in the back are nostalgic articles about a rose-colored recent past when there was just one Hank Williams and cockfights took place on Sundays. Cockfighting and Christ – it might seem an odd combination, but one Gamecock piece, a column titled “Memory Lane” by Tom Tom, ends this way: “I hope the Lord has blessed all of you and keeps on blessing. He is truly the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Until next time, God bless you!”
The magazine also contains obituaries memorializing accomplished cockers and endless advice on how to care for your brood. Whatever you do, don’t let them get dehydrated, says Big Johnson. If your chickens won’t drink, it’s time to “become like an old Bumblefoot Grey in the drag and rise to the occasion.” There are also several sections detailing best breeding practices. Perhaps one reason the sport of cockfighting thrives is the fact that, or at least the perception that, breeding a line of successful gamecocks takes extensive study and great skill. The most successful breeders of gamecocks get to put their name to a lineage. Bo told me that his goal is someday to create the Myers brand.
The theories on how best to create a fantasy team of fighting cocks abound. Breed a brother with a sister, says Arch Ruport in his 1939 tome “The Art of Cockfighting: A Guide for Beginners and Old Timers.” If that fails, breed a father with his daughter. Or you could follow the lead of legendary breeder and cocker Walter Kelso, whose line of Oleander cocks practically owned the southern cockfighting circuit between the years of 1947 and 1953. Be a maverick. Cross the battle breeds. Bring in new blood, live on the edge. He started with pure stock but won with cocks that were half Yankee Clipper, a quarter Murphy, and one-eighth Typewriter and McClanahan.
Yankee Clipper. Murphy. McClanahan. Toolpusher Blues. Gleezen Whitehackle. Coal Miner Mug. These are just a few gamecock breeds currently in circulation in the U.S. and around the world. There are hundreds of breeds. After all, the sport came right after the chicken (or the egg). It was popular among the ancient Indians, Persians and Greeks and later adopted by the Romans who, in typical Roman fashion, did it bigger and badder than anyone else. There was even a permanent cockpit in the Palace of Westminster during the turkey leg-heavy Tudor times, and, legend has it, George Washington and Andrew Jackson regularly fought cocks on the White House lawn. Rarely do you find a sport so storied and so colorful.
“These are not flunkies, the people who breed gamecocks,” Bo said. “These are smart guys who love chickens. There’s a history. A tradition.”
But who cares about the stories, the tradition? Who cares about the men, the myths, the legends? This is morally wrong, right? Cockfighting – indeed any sport that involves animals killing each other for their owners’ monetary gain – is reprehensible. Right? The Humane Society of the United States obviously thinks so, and has people like Eric Sakach and John Goodwin working hard to eradicate such bloody contests. Sakach is the society’s senior law enforcement specialist for the animal rescue team and Goodwin serves the advocacy side as the director of animal cruelty policy.
Sakach has worked for the Humane Society of the United States since 1976. As a child growing up in Nevada he often got into fights with other kids, but not over the usual stuff – sports or girls. He punched people who hurt animals. Even a kid frying ants on the sidewalk with a magnifying glass wasn’t safe from Sakach’s wrath.
An art major in college, he soon lost interest in his job as a graphic designer and went into law enforcement. It was a bit of a fluke that he ended up on animal cruelty cases, but, given his passion for animals, it made sense, and in the ’80s he went undercover to bring down some of the West Coast’s most active and egregious cockfighting operations. He was on the scene at the cockfight/pastry party in Washington, and while he no longer takes part in stakeouts, he uses his expertise to help other animal enforcement agencies find animal fighters across the U.S., Canada and Brazil.
Sakach knows his stuff. In particular, he knows his knives. In a recent phone conversation he told me about gaffs (curved knives shaped a little like ice picks), Filipino slashers (3.5-inch razor-sharp knives), Mexican slashers (1.5-inch knives) and postizas (knives modeled after a cock’s natural spurs), and about how the style of knife often determines both the duration of a fight and how long it takes the losing cock (and even the winning one) to die.
“There’s no limit in a gaff fight,” he said. “It’s not unusual for you to see a main arena and next to it what’s called a drag pit for smaller fights. If the fight in the main arena is going on too long, they might move it to the drag pit so the next match can get going.”
Gaff-style fights can take up to 45 minutes, and the injuries are usually deep puncture wounds to the lungs and other internal organs. Cocks that fight with gaffs take much longer to die than those involved in slasher fights. Those battles typically take about 10-15 minutes.
“It’s not unusual for both birds to die in a knife-style fight,” said Sakach. “The one that makes the last attack is declared the winner, and as for the injuries, the bodies of the birds are opened up. These are slashing wounds as opposed to punctures. The cocks are literally cleaved and hacked to pieces.”
That’s why it’s so important to Goodwin that both state and national cockfighting laws work together effectively. Right now, cockfighting is a felony in 39 states and a misdemeanor in 11. That disparity draws cockers to states like Alabama, where the penalties are often as light as those given for routine traffic violations.
Goodwin and his staff are currently pushing for a felony law in Alabama and for HR 2492, a bill making its way through Congress that would close a legislative loophole that often lets spectators – those whose bets basically finance the fights – off the hook. If Goodwin had his druthers, active involvement in a cockfight would be a felony across the board and the federal cockfighting statute would apply to spectators as well those who obviously have a cock in the game.
Goodwin is confident that the hard work of the Humane Society of the United States and its allies will pay off. He’s already seen real change in the wake of the Michael Vick dog-fighting case. Such a high profile animal fighting scandal raised general awareness of the sport, and led to a slew of dog-fighting arrests and convictions. It also prompted the HSUS to double the reward it gives for tips that end in animal fighting arrests from $2,500 to $5,000.
During his 11-year tenure at the society, Goodwin even witnessed the apparent death of another animal fighting trend. Hog Dog fights, in which feral pigs are pitted against dogs, became popular in the southeastern U.S. a few years ago, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any such muddy and bloody battles now. Goodwin gives credit to the sport’s eradication to harsh laws that take all the temptation out of even thinking of putting Miss Piggy in a pen with Goofy.
“Luckily people were very proactive about the Hog Dog fights. There were laws passed and raids and prosecutions. The fight was swift and decisive. I suppose it could be happening somewhere in the backwoods, but I doubt it. We dealt with that before it took off.”
Back to the chickens. What about the fact that we simply don’t treat them very nicely, even when we’re not turning them into feathered gladiators? All it takes is one viewing of “Food, Inc.” or a similar documentary to see that most male chicks are chucked into a shredder before they can see the light of day, and that the majority of hens are bred to be so fat they can’t walk. Companies like Tyson and Perdue have a stranglehold on the chicken industry, mandating that farmers keep their poultry in smelly, dark houses so packed with animals that many are crushed to death by the weight of their own kind. Even the lucky 1 percent, free range chickens, are headed for our dinner tables. What’s so bad about raising a rooster to fight to the death, especially when the ones found still alive at busted cockfights are often euthanized anyway?
“I treated my chickens like kings,” Bo said. “I fed them well, I made sure they wanted for nothing. They were loved. These animal rights people, the Humane Society, what they want to do is get rid of the breeds. That’s what they want to do. This isn’t about the chickens or their rights. It’s about the government overstepping its power.”
Bo then referred me to the November 2011 newsletter from the American Game Fowl Society in which an unnamed writer makes the argument that the Humane Society of the United States bullies people into pleading guilty to charges of cockfighting when really all the HSUS has in its arsenal is circumstantial evidence. The newsletter mentions a raid in Greenville, S.C., where, the writer asserts, the real criminals were not the cockers but the Humane Society personnel who, having taken possession of the game fowl, stacked them 10-feet high in boxes with no ventilation and left them to die of heat exposure while they treated people on the scene to full-body searches. The article even mentions Goodwin by name, and claims that because he is not a law enforcement officer, he has no right to act as one. Also, that “these chicken people were never Mirandarised.”
Goodwin dismissed the article as pure falsehood and sent me a YouTube video that backs up his claims. He said that he and Sakach are the good guys, that the justifications cockers often offer for their activities – tradition, culture, pride – are empty platitudes used to mask blatant animal cruelty.
“First of all, if you’re going to kill an animal you need to consider why that animal’s life is being taken,” said Goodwin. “In cockfighting, animals are losing their lives by very cruel means just to people can have something to bet on. In this country we’ve reached a social consensus that that is not acceptable, which is demonstrable by the fact that it’s illegal in all 50 states … We do not condone industrial practices and we’re working to fight animal cruelty in all its forms, but it’s particularly galling when animals are killed for something as frivolous as gambling.”
And it’s not only gambling that takes place at a well-attended cockfight. Authorities in Church Point, La., discovered, through a sting called “Operation Fowl Play,” that when men like Pedro Mendez Ramos organize a cockfighting tournament, they don’t just count their chickens. They hedge their bets, traffic drugs and invite a few hookers along for the fun. And while the money riding on most cockfights is in the five-figure range, Ramos amassed a fortune of $1.8 million from his operation and even tried to buy an oil refinery through which to wash his cash.
Goodwin said he’s shocked there’s not more press about this widespread crime, and that states like West Virginia, Kentucky, Texas and Alabama haven’t acted quickly to pass stronger laws.
“Violence erupts at these events all the time. People disagree with the referees or they get in fights. There’s drinking and drug use and even murders, and children are in the audience. I don’t understand why some states are dragging their heels. They need to wake up and serve their law-abiding citizens.”
Of course, men like Bo say they are the law-abiding citizens. They work hard to support their families, love their God and say they simply raise a few chickens for fun on the weekends? Bo feels very strongly that he did nothing wrong. He isn’t a criminal, he contends, just a man who loves roosters, who basks in their beauty and majesty and is determined to defend his constitutional right to keep them on his property. And, because cockfighting is not only legal in many countries but a celebrated pastime, he wasn’t ashamed to tell his anger-management classmates that he’ll be ringside someday, watching these birds fulfill the destiny for which they were bred.
“I told them I was going to a cockfight as soon as I could. Not here in the U.S., but maybe in the Philippines or in Mexico or the D.R. My church has got missions all over the world. I’ll go on a trip and I’ll see a fight. What can they do to me then? Nothing.”
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)