Craig Smith had the world at his feet. A talented singer-songwriter, Smith was handsome, charismatic, easy to get along with; his songs were unique and inventive, both in composition and production. And yet, for the last 35 plus years of his life, Smith wandered the streets of Studio City, homeless and apparently friendless. What happened?
Answering that question led Mike Stax on a fifteen-year odyssey of discovery. Stax conducted hundreds of interviews, combed through public records, and searched newspaper and magazine archives to piece together the details of Smith’s life. This odyssey culminated in Swim Through the Darkness, an exhaustively researched biography of Smith.
Some pieces of Smith’s story are irretrievably lost. There are so many Smiths, even Craig Smiths, that it made it difficult to find the needles in the haystack. Stax’s interview subjects, recalling memories from forty or fifty years ago, described vague recollections or second-hand rumors. A few people, including the Smith family, declined to comment. Some are now dead.
Despite these considerable hurdles, Stax found out a great deal about this once-promising musician. Craig Smith was his high school class president. At some point, he developed an interest in the burgeoning folk music movement, and learned to play guitar and sing. He declined scholarship offers from several colleges to sing backup vocals on the Andy Williams show. Smith’s good looks and charisma are evident in clips from the show, where he looks and sounds like an all-American kid.
In those early days, Smith was well-liked, even adored, by friends and colleagues. Stax’s book is full of effusive descriptions of the effect Smith had on people: he had a “beautiful dazzling smile,” whole families were “in love with him as a human being,” he was funny and popular and “the typical, wonderful All-American boy.” Not everyone felt the same way, though. Smith sometimes fell into dour moods that came and went without explanation. Doug Brookins, another backup singer, remembers Smith being closed-off and strange:
I knew there was something wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I would try to promote conversation and there was just some dark screen that came in front of him. He wouldn’t even respond to friendly conversation…So when that dark screen came up in front of him, I just walked away.
Smith found success writing songs for others, including Andy Williams, the Monkees, and Heather MacRae. One of his songs, “Christmas Holiday,” appeared on one of the biggest-selling Christmas records of the 1960s, presumably earning Smith a hefty sum in royalties. Despite these successes, stardom eluded him.
While reading, I was surprised by how many times Smith almost made it big. He was the lead in a pilot for a show called “The Happeners,” which was sure to get picked up. It wasn’t. Record deals with several duos and folk groups fell through. Smith’s band, Penny Arkade, was produced by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees. The group was well-liked and seemed destined for success, but they never got a record deal. Smith had many other friends and supporters in the music industry, including Mike Love of the Beach Boys. Nevertheless, Smith never became well-known outside of the Los Angeles music scene.
At the age of 23, Smith went down the “hippie trail,” a path that ran from Greece to India, in search of spiritual enlightenment. According to one fellow traveler, Smith regularly ingested both LSD and hashish on his journey. Instead of finding enlightenment, Smith lost a part of himself that he never recovered.
In Kandahar, Afghanistan, something bad happened to Craig Smith, no one’s quite sure what. Rumors swirled that Craig pulled a knife on a fruit vendor, that he ran through the street wielding a knife, that a mob chased him and beat him up. Smith told several people that he was kidnapped, beaten, and raped over the course of several days. Smith may have also spent time in an Afghan insane asylum. If he was high during the initial attack, which seems likely, the experience may have been that much more frightening and traumatizing.
While Stax heavily emphasizes Smith’s possible brain damage in the attack, I think the assault and possible rape may have also strongly affected him. At that time, there was no real cultural script for how men dealt with sexual trauma––there still isn’t. A friend of Smith’s said that, in his moments of relative clarity, Smith told him that “the major cause of him flipping out was this kidnapping and sexual abuse that he went through.”
Bruce Barbour, another associate, believed the attack may have deeply wounded the Smith’s self-concept:
[Craig Smith] was all about peace and love, and had never encountered anything like that before. That would have been such a betrayal to him that it might very well have been an awakening that he didn’t want to deal with…He was personable, attractive, talented—everybody loved him…if somebody beat him up he would’ve been just so astounded that it may well have turned his head around.
Whatever happened, Smith came back to the states a changed man. Gone was the carefree, charismatic, happy young man the world had known. Craig developed a massive Messiah complex, proclaiming himself to be “Maitreya Kali,” the living incarnation of the Buddha, Jesus Christ, Gandhi, and half a dozen other spiritual leaders all in one. Craig self-released two more albums, “Apache” and “Inca,” in the early 1970s, under the name Maitreya Kali. The albums combine Penny Arkade tracks with newer compositions.
Why self-released? Sadly, Craig Smith, once so effervescent and effusive, now alienated nearly everyone he came across. He was frightening where he’d been charming, disturbing where he’d been disarming. Right at the moment when he most desired a loyal band of followers, he found himself pushing away even his closest friends. He started to drift away from normal life; after a stint in prison, Smith lived an itinerant or semi-itinerant lifestyle, living in transient hotels and on the streets, for the rest of his life.
There were several issues with this book. Stax clearly worked hard on his material, and I appreciate the care and love that he put into the book. However, he has one “tic” that gets a little annoying. Stax describes some of his interview subjects as “successful” or “acclaimed” without elaborating. Here are several examples:
Barbour…went on to become a hugely successful Hollywood stuntman, appearing in countless films and TV shows.
Jackson, who was still based in Los Angeles, had gone on to enjoy a successful career as a songwriter and a session musician…
Baskin would later become a film composer and movie producer, Edie an acclaimed photographer and art director, and Shyer a successful screenwriter, director, and producer.
These descriptions are a little frustrating to read. Successful how? What movies, songs, albums, or other projects did these people work on? What are they doing now? Have they moved into other lines of work, or are they still in the entertainment business? It isn’t always clear. Mentioning a couple projects, e.g. “Bruce Barbour went on to work as a stuntman and stunt coordinator for numerous films and tv shows, such as Charmed, The O.C., and Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds,” would make these sections a lot more engaging.
There are also a fair number of typos. Maybe I shouldn’t say anything, since I’m pretty much the king and queen of typos put together, but it’s still a little off-putting. Despite these issues, I recommend this book to anyone interested in psychedelic music, American popular culture, or the Los Angeles music scene in the 1960s and 70s.
There are thousands, if not millions, of similar stories throughout the world. Most of them will never be told. Mike Stax has gone to impressive lengths to tell this one. I hope that Craig Smith’s story will feed into the broader cultural conversation on mental illness and drug use. I also hope this will also lead to a rediscovery of Smith’s music, which I’ve grown to love.