Saturday, October 8, 2022

Light and darkness: Stax on Smith

Mike Stax's Swim Through the Darkness: My Search for Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali had been sitting in my to-read stack for a while, as books do. After watching Stax's recent talk at the Philosophical Research Society in Los Angeles, I was inspired to read this galvanizing and moving tale. A pity I waited so long.

Swim Through the Darkness recounts Stax's years-long efforts to gather the myriad pieces of Smith's life and to assemble them into coherent narrative. Smith's story is remarkable. He was born in Los Angeles in 1945 to show business-seeking parents, and by the time he was in high school displayed an unerring knack for succeeding at just about everything he attempted. His ascension through the southern California folk and pop music worlds was swift and impressive: for three years in the mid-1960s he played guitar and sang in the Good Time Singers and made regular appearances on The Andy Williams Show. In 1966 he auditioned for a lead role in The Happeners, a quasi-gritty television show about a fictional folk trio; the pilot wasn't picked up, but Smith and fellow cast member Chris Ducey formed a duo called Chris & Craig, which would later metamorphose into the Penny Arkade, enjoying a partnership of sorts with Mike Nesmith, who produced them and shopped them around to labels in L.A. (to no avail). Though none of Smith's bands were commercial successes, suffering the usual bad luck and hard knocks endemic to the music business, Smith was a gifted and productive commercial songwriter who landed several of his tunes with popular artists—notably "Christmas Holiday" and "Salesman," recorded by Andy Williams and the Monkees, respectively—and earned sizable royalties into the end of the decade.

Which is when things became strange. The genial and winningly handsome Smith, always an intellectual and spiritual seeker of sorts not without a brooding interior life, was introduced to LSD and was soon tripping regularly, supplementing the drug use with intense and lengthy sessions of meditation. Eventually bored by the shallowness and artifice of pop music, Smith grew intrigued with the travels of hippies in the Middle East and Asia, and in 1968 embarked on a trip with friends on the so-called Hippie Trail. In a series of murky events in Afghanistan, Smith, on his own, allegedly got into an altercation with a street vendor and was brutally beaten, and possibly raped. He may or may not have spent time in a mental institution. The undeniable fact was that when he returned to the United States he was a permanently changed man: spacey and unpredictable, prone to violence, now going by the name Maitreya Kali. He continued writing songs, and in 1972 issued two lo-fi self-produced albums, Inca and Apache, the folky, gently lovely melodies and love songs inside made complicated by the inscrutable, nearly impenetrable liner notes on the cover which mingled sexual-spiritual and political rants with deeply personal symbology. In 1973 Smith violently assaulted his mother, and spent two and a half years in jail. Drifting deeper into his Kali identity, at one point sporting an ominous spider tattoo on his "third eye," Smith lived on the streets of Los Angeles for the remainder of his life. He died on those streets, alone, in 2012.

Mike Stax speaking at the Philosophical Research Center in Los Angeles on September 16
Stax, founder and editor of the indispensable Ugly Things Magazine, has devoted his professional life to rescuing and exploring obscure or otherwise forgotten musicians and bands of the 1960s and '70s, those artists whose own talents, productions, and star power had been greatly outshined at the time by the era's supernovas. (Ugly Things occasionally covers the Big Names, but on a leveled playing field). When Stax first heard Smith's music years ago, he was instantly drawn to its beauty, and then to Smith's odd life, and he became obsessed with learning more—specifically about how a bright and conventional talent like Smith might end up in such mysterious obscurity—and the result is Swim Through the Darkness, a decades-in-the-making book that, as its subtitle suggests, is as much about the story Stax lived in assembling Smith's life as it is about Smith's life. As such, the book reads as a kind of biography-memoir hybrid, music journalism disguised as a personal narrative. Over the course of researching and writing the book, Stax benefited not only from his own dogged approach, but also from the kindness of friends and acquaintances who offered hints, shadowy details, and memories, and leads, sometimes threadbare, as to Smith's past or current whereabouts. A lot of luck was involved: someone might happen to see Smith at this corner or exiting that establishment, and for Stax the trail would warm again. Yet had that person not been in that location that day, or had been there and looked the other way, the leads would never have materialized. Such is the tantalizing if frustrating process of tracking down a ghost-like figure. 

To Stax's immense credit, he never gave in to the frustrations, and in the end talked with dozens of people for the book, most of whom were eager to talk about the Smith they knew and loved, even as they were dismayed at the sad downturn his life took. Swim Through the Darkness is a large-hearted and humane book, testament to Stax's generosity of spirit and his commitment to sharing a story that he intuited was worth all of the hard work. Stax's writing, while committed to facts and accuracy, is also moving, and at times lyrical, as Stax navigates not only Smith's journey but his own sometimes overwhelming reckoning with the sadness of a life that moved slowly, agonizingly, from light to dark, knowable to mysterious, buoyant to tragic. In places Stax and others attempt armchair diagnoses of Smith's troubles as the consequence of mental illness, physical injury, and/or drug abuse. Yet Stax is all too aware of the limitations of grasping for certainties. Reading, I was reminded of J. Hillis Miller's observation that “one powerful means society has for dealing with someone who does not fit any ordinary social category is to declare him insane,” yet Stax is careful throughout to leaven guesses at cause-and-effect with the grim reminder that we may never fathom an individual's choices in life. Even if you're not particularly interested in Craig Smith, Stax's earnest and deeply-felt book will convert you, if not necessarily to his music, than to a sympathetic understanding of Smith's place as yet another person astray in the myth journey of humankind. 

At the book's close, Stax shares his quest to retrieve Smith's ashes. His family had refused, or ignored, them, and, tattooed by his desire to render Smith whole, Stax felt nearly honor-bound to assume ownership of the remains. He does eventually claim them, narrated as an absurdly suspenseful journey through Los Angeles's bland civic hallways. "The past is a vast ocean that moves beneath all of our lives," he writes at the book's close. 
In my long journey to find Craig Smith and discover the secrets of Maitreya Kali, I had swum deep beneath its surface, retrieving fragments of his life piece by piece then attempting to place them into their true pattern. Completing the entire puzzle was impossible. Many of his secrets lay deeper than I could ever reach, darker than I dared to swim. But now, in rescuing that box of ashes, in many ways my journey had reached its end—or more like a kind of new beginning. Sitting in the stillness of that crematory garden I experienced the very real sensation of breaking that vast ocean’s surface and breathing in fresh air again. My search for Craig Smith, my swim through the darkness, had in some ways been a wasted journey. By the time I found him, it was too late for there to be any kind of happy resolution. But in telling his story, surely there was still some kind of redemption to be found for this poor, lost, tragic, lonely soul.

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