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Making Interesting Songs: Michael Smith

By Tom Nelligan, Dirty Linen (www.dirtylinen.com), June/July 1998

He's one of those veteran songwriters whose music you've almost certainly heard over the years, but he's been elusive enough at times that you may not immediately recognize his name. Michael Smith has been singing and writing since the early 60s, and his rich and often challenging songs have been recorded by more than 30 other performers, including people as diverse as Jimmy Buffet, Liam Clancy, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Gordon Bok, not to mention the Four Freshmen and Spanky & Our Gang. His work ranges from heartfelt portraits of human relationships, like "The Dutchman" to picturesque bits of period Americana, like "Spoon River", from abstract torch songs like "Stranded in the Moonlight," to droll humor like "Dead Egyptian Blues." His career had proceeded from its early days in folk clubs to a spin with a psychedelic rock band. Semi-retirement followed, then work in musical theater. Now he's back actively touring the North American folk circuit. All the while he's been writing a formidable catalog of songs, most of them so densely packed with vivid imagery that they demand and hold nothing less than the listener's full attention.

Smith is a rugged-looking guy with a lot of strong opinions, someone you might mistake for a hard-bitten dock worker or truck driver if you ran into him on the street. On stage, his music draws a different picture, that of a man who constantly balances confidence and doubt. Walking a narrow line beween hope and cynicism, he notes in his music the meticulous details of everything that goes on around him, finding some of it tragic, some of it funny, and all of it worth remembering. He's a delicate, graceful guitarist, but not a classic singer, and that fits his songwriting perfectly. You know this is a man who's feeling some of life's inherent uncertainties whenever he reaches for a high note. And after you've heard his songs, you'll know a little more about your own world and value more highly your own experience.

Although usually associated with the Chicago folk scene, Smith was born in South Orange, New Jersey, in 1941. His childhood in an Irish Catholic family living in a rough-edged factory town colors much of his work. In 1993, he incorporated that story in an autobiographical musical play called Michael, Margaret, Pat & Kate, which describes his upbringing and the family relationships that surrounded his father's premature death. "My dad was preoccupied with money," he said quietly. "My dad committed suicide because he didn't have enough money. That's really what it comes down to. And so I've been raised in a universe where money was very, very important, and not having it meant something."

When asked what encouraged him to start playing music, he mentioned that his early musical inspiration came from two sources, one surprising, the other not: "It's a closely run race between Roy Rogers and Elvis Presley, both of whom were superbly talented people who could create an entire world with the way they played and sang. When I first saw Roy Rogers, I was living in kind of a slummy section of Orange, which was not a wonderfully prosperous city in the first place. So when you saw those folks out riding around with their fringes and leather holsters, saddles and beautiful horses, it was a whole different world. And guitars went along with it--that was for me part of what contributed to the glamor of the guitar. Then when I saw Elvis, I was really caught in Elvis' mystery. I thought Elvis was heaven on earth. We had television for about five years then, and I had never seen anything like Elvis Presley on the Milton Berle show. That was a fantastic, exciting moment, to see tht guy come out. I had no idea that anything like that had ever existed.

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"And so I started wanting to play rock'n'roll. I got a guitar when I was a sophomore in high school; it cost $5. I played hours every day through high school. It ruined my grades. I had been academically in the front of my class, and after that it was all over. I never did very well in school in anything I didn't care for. I loved English, I loved music, but... As soon as I got out of high school we moved to Florida. I had a lot of culture shock. I had a rough time in Florida because it was so different than New Jersey.

"I came back to New Jersey and started working in a factory. I worked in a factory for two years, a factory that my dad had worked in, making missile parts. Then I had enough of that and went down to Florida and went to college, and during that time I started being really interested in folk music. I had been interested in folk music during high school because of Harry Belafonte and the Kingston Trio, primarily. They were the big folk acts of the time. When I hear the Kingston Trio, I still get the chills--I think they were fantastic. Then when I got into college, other commercial folk groups started to spring up, like the Brothers Four and the Journeymen, and Peter, Paul & Mary." While attending college in St. Petersburg, Smith began performing in local coffeehouses.

He spent much of the 60s working in Florida, especially at a Miami venue called The Flick, which was part of a then-vibrant South Florida folk scene that included people like Fred Neil and a young David Crosby. For three years he played six nights a week at The Flick, writing a lot of songs that he categorizes as "what I thought was topcial humor" to hold audience interest week after week. One with the unlikely title of "Talking Green Beret New Super Teeny Bopper Blues" traveled north and then around the country with Boston singer Jamie Brockett. He worked as half of a duo with a singer named Sam Cancilla. Then he was part of what he describes as a Peter, Paul & Mary-style trio which included his wife, singer Barbara Barrow. After a couple of years, that trio in turn expanded into a rock band called Juarez, who recorded one album for Decca.

Smith recalls that period unsentimentally: "We lived in San Francisco, and we did a lot of acid and a lot of rock things. We traveled and played these outdoor gigs in the middle of nowhere. That was the early 70s, and there was a lot of tension in the country. We had a real hard time in the Midwest because of the way we looked--a lot of hair, fringed jackets. We were hippies and proud of it! Definitely doing a lot of drugs and having a wonderful time." He describes the long-out-of-print Juarez record as "trying to make another Sgt. Pepper," and adds, "We wanted to be Jefferson Airplane. We gradually found that it was so expensive on one hand, and so traumatic on the other, to stay on the road with a rock band, that Barbara and I started working acoustically again." Smith and Barrow then made a couple duo albums, also out of print, including one for the Bell label in 1974 that had the memorable, if toungue-in-cheek title Mickey and Babs Get Hot.

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"We worked acoustic for quite a while," he continues. "We lived in Detroit because we were getting a lot of work there, because there were folks doing my songs. I don't know how they had heard them. While we were in Detroit, Steve Goodman recorded "The Dutchman," and started doing a bunch of my tunes on a regular basis. And that meant that when we went to Chicago, a lot of people knew the tunes. It was a highly new experience for me to go into a room and start a song and have people singing along. It was like wow, what a kick."

For many people Goodman's 1973 recording of "The Dutchman" was an introduction to Smith's music. These days the much-covered song has probably passed into English-language oral tradition, its brilliant portrait of a frail but feisty and loving elderly couple likely to bring a tear to anyone who hears it for the first time. Goodman had learned the song secondhand from one of Smith's former bandmates, and aside from making it a regular part of his concert repertoire, he made a point of telling people who wrote it as he toured around the country. A number of other songs in Goodman's regular set list were Smith compositions, both serious ones, like the carefully-drawn post-Civil War romance "Spoon River," and comic ones, like the completely silly "Talk Backwards." As Goodman's audiences grew, Smith's songs were suddenly getting wide recognition.

"At the time," Smith continued, "I thought, this is just another guy doing my tunes. It wasn't a big deal to me. Then gradually I became aware that when people were hearing my tunes, it was almost invariably because of Stevie." Largely because of the Goodman connection, Smith moved to Chicago in 1976 and became a regular in the city's folk clubs. "Once I started playing in Chicago, I hardly traveled at all, and pretty soon I realized that I didn't want to be in a group. I just wanted to work by myself. At the same time, I had a pretty negative attitude towards most audiences--I wasn't really interested in whether they liked me or not. Or I let them know that I wasn't interested in whether they liked me or not. And probably the truth was that I was very anxious to be liked, but felt that was not a cool attitude. But anyway, pretty soon I didn't get any work at all. I was not wanting to importune people for work, but the bills were piling up, so I got a regular job as a clerk for Time magazine, and I did that for about six years. During that time, I played a few festivals and now and then a concert at the Old Town School but pretty much nothing else."

The turn back toward regular performing came in the mid-80s, when Claudia Schmidt, another midwestern singer who was spreading Smith's songs across the country, introduced him to Chicago theatrical director Frank Galati, who invited him to create music for a production of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Smith not only wrote the musical score, but he quit his job at Time to join the touring cast. After runs in Chicago, London, and San Diego the play went to Broadway, where in 1990, it won Tony awards for Best Play and Best Director. "The Grapes thing was a running start," he explains. "It would have been hard to resume my former job."

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Meanwhile Smith had also met Chicago singer/songwriter Anne Hills, who would become his record producer and frequent touring partner. "Right before Grapes," Smith explained, "Anne and I had been working together. I had been playing bass for her. She said,'I think you should be recorded.' I said, 'I went to Flying Fish, and they didn't jump up and down.' She said, 'I'll talk to them,' and got me the recording deal and produced the records."

Flying Fish released two albums in quick succession, Michael Smith in 1986 and Love Stories in 1987. Now reissued as a single CD, they offer a good cross-section of Smith's earlier work, with versions of familiar songs like "The Dutchman" and "Spoon River," but also unique and idiosyncratic songs like "Demon Lover," a contemporary suburban version of the old legend that suggests care in choosing whom you date, and humor like "Last Day of Pompeii," a lounge-jazz view of impending disaster. Both albums have a rich ensemble sound, featuring layered guitars and lots of vocal choruses.

Hills has recorded her own album of Smith's songs, October Child, and they have plans for a Smith/Hills duo album within the next year or so. When asked to comment on her frequent work with him, she said, "I couldn't have asked for a better person to work with in the studio or on the road. He's a gentleman, and he's highly well read and highly intelligent. The intelligence really comes through in his songs, and the imagination. And so when it comes to working in the studio, it's great to work with someone with that sort of musical intelligence. When it comes to traveling, long hours in the car, it's great to have someone with whom you can have long discussions of literature and music. On a personal level, I don't think I could have been luckier.

"As a writer, I think the thing I most admire is that intelligence that always shines through the songs, and the care and craftsmanship is finely tuned, the imagination is broad and beautiful and paints the world in a unique way, which is what you look for in a writer. You look for somebody who takes something ordinary and shows you the way a child sees it, seeing the beauty in an ordinary object through the songwriter's eyes. And that's the way Michael's writing is."

"He opens up the world to us, to the beauty that's right in front of us. And I like the storytelling in his songs. As an interpreter, to be able to do his songs is like being able to do theater. You get to become other characters, and he gets so beautifully inside the characters, much the way Tom Paxton and Randy Newman and other great writers do. You feel totally clothed in the personality of the person whose point of view you're singing to the audience. And in that way, you show the audience another human being in a many-faceted way. All those things are part of his writing."

When it comes to the subject of songwriting and the mainstream music business, Smith has strong opinions and is happy to share them. "Market-driven is not a healthy notion for me," he begins, with the emphasis of a confirmed iconoclast. "When you go to a record company, they want you to be like them. They reallly want you to do something that they can sell. It isn't just musical, it's their whole attitude. They're living in a world where sales are important. I'm not. I'm living in a world of what's interesting to me. When I play the guitar and write a song, I'm lost. I get away from everything--death, and taxes, and business, and other people's notions. It's my world, and that's why I do it. I think that's why great artists do it. And some great artists get famous, and some don't. You can have only so much anxiety about that, and then you toss it off.

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"When I start writing songs, pretty soon the thought of whether anyone else is going to like it goes right out the window. There was this quote from Oscar Wilde where he said that as soon as you start thinking about somebody else liking or disliking what it is you do, you stop being an artist and start being somebody who's doing things that are made to order. I think what's probably going to happen with me, the least I can hope for, is to live doing my art until I'm dead. And it's always possible that one of my songs will get really, really popular. But I'm not counting on it. I wrote "The Dutchman" when I was 26 or 27. It was an early success. And a lot of songs I wrote at the same time I can't stand. So if you just do it over your whole life, there will be moments when you kind of transcend the moment and get something that's really, really good. And if I get to do this for another 20 years, by the end of that time I'll have a whole bunch of things of which I am really proud. I mean, I'm proud of them now, but I don't expect people to like them."

Although he has been a prolific songwriter--about 250 published songs, he estimates, plus hundreds more that he felt weren't good enough to release--Smith's albums have been relatively infrequent, with just three in the past 12 years. "I think if someone was paying me to make an album every six months, I'd make an album every six months," he says. "But I think that one thing keeping people who aren't hugely famous from being prolific is that you really have to search for that encouragement. All my life I've been saying to myself in some fashion, 'Maybe I should get a job.' That's because, like everybody else, I buy the notion that if you don't have any money, you're not any good.

"Generally, I would say that I'm constantly writing, but a lot of it doesn't get out because I like a song for while then decide I don't like it. If I really like it, I can listen to it 20 times over, and that's the pleasure for me. That's what I used to do with hit records when I was a kid--I'd put on 'Blue Suede Shoes' by Carl Perkins and listen to it 50 times!"

Smith's most recent CD is Time, released in 1994. Unlike most of his earlier work, it's a solo acoustic recording, a quiet look into middle-aged darkness that ultimately affirms the value of experience. It includes songs like "The Ballad of Elizabeth Dark," a vivid reminiscence of a long-ago beatnik-era college lover whom Smith describes as a composite of several women he knew, and "I Brought My Father With Me," a sad, touching song that illuminates how sons are made in the emotional mold of their fathers. Last year, he was involved in another musical theater production, a show called Pasiones, which collected songs from the Spanish Civil War, and which Smith performed with Chicago singer Jamie O'Reilly.

These days, Smith has resumed the sort of extensive touring schedule he last followed in the early 70s. Many of the shows present him in a harmonious duo format with Hills that includes songs written by both of them. "I think people are nervous of me by myself," he says with what seems to be a smile. As we wrap up our conversation, he adds, more seriously, "I know I'm not like everybody else. I know I'm quirky and off the wall. I wouldn't be going through a lot of conflict about people's opinions if people's opinions didn't figure in some way. If you stick your neck out, and especially if you're an artist committed to your own vision, you're going to get a lot of people who will say 'I don't know about that.' And also, you're going to play a lot of gigs where there are five people in the audience.

"I've always been on the fringe. For me folk music is a fringe, and has been since about 1965. What I care about is: Am I interested in this song when I'm done making it? Do I believe in this song? They pay me to get up on stage and be nice to people. But what I'm really after is interesting songs."

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