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Rainbows in your pocket

The unsung singer of some of the best songs ever written

By Jeff Mahoney, Hamilton Spectator, Hamilton, Ontario   June 1999

One summer, my rich uncle took me out on his sailboat. My friend Norm doesn't own a sailboat. He's not rich. But he has about a million records he's acquired over the years, all kinds of music, well-known and obscure. And he'll pick something out of all that music he thinks I'll like, make a tape of it, and give it to me.

When I listen to that music, I sometimes close my eyes and think of it as going out on Norm's sailboat. I prefer Norm's sailboat.

He gave me one tape in particular that I treasure above all the others. It is the music of a songwriter/singer/guitarist whose stubborn lack of celebrity should be inexplicable but, in our culture, it is entirely to be expected.

After all, where is the mass market for songs that tell a story with grace, wit and poignancy? It seems we would rather listen to the language of the glands, the more adolescent the better.

Michael Smith is his name and if you haven't heard of him, you are not alone. I had never heard of him until a couple of years ago and then only because Norm gave me the tape. Yet some call him the greatest living songwriter in the English language.

Smith is about 60 now and has been writing since he was 15. He lives quietly in Chicago.

Smith's music, like most of the best music, is hard to peg. There are elements in it of jazz, folk, rock, even pop; there are fleeting echoes of everyone from Duke Ellington to The Beatles to John Prine.

I could compare the narrative energy of his song-stories to Bruce Sprinstiin, the hauntedness of his voice to Gordon Lightfoot, the sophistication of his lyrics to Cole Porter or Joni Mitchell, and the depth of his feeling to Tom Waits.

But that wouldn't cover it. His is an entirely individual gift. Who else has ever written about childhood, Catholicism and the embeddedness of a teacher's influence the way Smith does in Sister Clarissa?

Sister Clarissa could have been on the stage,
But Jesus came over and told her He'd rather she taught the fifth grade.
Sister Clarissa is engaged to our Lord...
Sister Clarissa is 11 feet tall,
Her rosary hangs and it clatters and it clangs when she moves down the hall...
Sister Clarissa believes in free will,
The communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the quiet drill
And when she hugs you, she hugs you too tight,
And she gives you a star for spelling Connecticut right.

The song goes on in this vein, with a wonderful chorus that is a kind of a classroom catechism: "Who made me? God made me / To know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world / To be happy with Him / Forever."

I hope those words don't lie flat on the page, because when you hear them with their music, the effect is transcendent. And when the narrator of the song jumps ahead 20 years to a class reunion (Sister Clarissa, of course, remembers everyone's name), the words he sings have been so absolutely lived-in and lived-through that they make your heart shudder, mine anyway:

And the years disappear as though they'd never been
And you hear yourself say "Yes Sister", "No Sister" like you were ten
And you're so glad to see that she's still the same way
And to tell her you love her before she goes over to her fiance.

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Smith has song after song that good, that moving. Songs that are full of techniques that you don't see very often--alternating marrators, points of view, time shifts, internal rhymes, elliptical storytelling and hidden climaxes.

There is no 'typical' Michael Smith song, they are all so different in tone. But The Dutchman is perhaps his signature tune. It tells the tender story of a a crazy Dutch fellow and his loving companion Margaret.

"When Amsterdam is golden in the morning
Margaret brings him breakfast and she believes him
He thinks the tulips bloom beneath the snow
He's mad as he can be
But Margaret only sees that sometimes
Sometimes she sees her unborn children in his eyes."

And then the chorus, where the marration shifts to the Dutchman himself:

"Let us go to the banks of the ocean
Where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee
Long ago, I used to be a young man
Now dear Margaret remembers that for me."

Smith can go from that to the hilarious Dead Egyptian Blues, which gives us a jaded, somewhat trippy narrator taking in the King Tut exhibit and asking King Tut what good were all his riches now that he's dead:

"Your sarcophagus is glowing
But your esophagus is showing
Who cares how rich you are, love,
When you look like Boris Karlov."

But later, if we listen, we learn why he's in such a world-weary frame of mind and why this song is being sung in the first place. He bonds with Tut, speculating that in another thousand years, he (the narrator) may himself be dug up.

"I'll have all my little treasures close at hand
My CD of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
A little dried-up mowie-wowie crumbled in a bong
Letter from my honey saying, 'Love you, kid, so long.'
Peanut butter sandwiches, all turned into sand..."

And there you have it, in a line that Smith justs slips by you as if it were trivial -- the hidden climax. "Letter from my honey." The guy's just been jilted.

Michael Smith is always doing things like that to the listener. His songs don't always knock you right over on first hearing, but before long his sound and style suffuse the room, like the smell of baking bread, and suddenly you notice and think, "Wow." One reviewer said Smith's music "sneaks up behind you and slips a rainbow in your pocket."

Knowing nothing about him, I searched the Internet. Don't confuse him with Michael W. Smith, a Christian country singer whose work I don't know -- he has a couple dozen sites on the Internet.

"The" Michael Smith only has one--through Artists of Note which represents him.

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