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It's time Fame caught up with songwriter

by Tom McNamee, Chicago Sun-Times, August 7, 2006

So this goes back to when I'm just out of college, the late 1970s, and going around to the North Side bars and coffeehouses to hear live acoustic music. I'd tell you it was folk music, except that inevitably conjures up images of fake hobos with perfect teeth and humorless women playing zithers.

In truth, there really was a lot of bad stuff. That movie of a couple of years ago, "The Mighty Wind," was as much a documentary as a send-up.

On any given night in a folk club, some fraud might jump up on stage -- some guy who'd never been closer to an ocean than Blue Island -- and start singing sea shanties. Worse yet, he'd try to drag you into it -- "Everybody!"

That said, I heard a lot of great music. I could listen all night to Fred and Ed Holstein, John Prine and Steve Goodman. For the chance to hear singers like them, I was ready to risk the occasional guitar-strumming Wobbly who had never walked a picket line.

And then I discovered Michael Smith.

It might have been at a club called the Barbarossa, I'm not sure. He was this solidly built guy, like a bricklayer, and he was singing with his wife, Barbara Barrow.

She smiled easily, as I remember it, but he didn't -- not easily. He was too intense, too deeply into his music, too unsure whether the rest of us even got it.

But he sang these amazing songs, that's what I remember most. Songs of a sort I had never heard before. He told whole stories in his songs, like short fiction, with vivid characters and honest emotions.

The one tune I must have known already was "The Dutchman," because Steve Goodman had made it a local hit. It tells the story of an old Dutchman lost in a fog of dementia and of how his wife, Margaret, cares for him.

"Let us go to the banks of the ocean," we all sang that night, picking up on the chorus, "where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee. Long ago I used to be a young man, and dear Margaret remembers that for me."

Twenty years later, when my own father's mind had been erased by dementia, my mother sometimes would say, "You know, your father was always the best-looking man in any room."

And in my head I would sing "The Dutchman."

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Great Chicago songwriter

Chicago, as we all know, has been home to plenty of great songwriters, from Prine to Pop Staples to Willie Dixon, but for my money Smith is right up there.

Which is why I can't figure out why he's not superfamous.

He has a devoted following and has produced a remarkable body of work. He's written dozens of brilliant songs, from the heartbreaking to the hilarious, and created whole suites of songs for the theater. He composed the score and led the on-stage band, playing a great guitar, for Steppenwolf's Tony-winning production of "The Grapes of Wrath."

But when I recently mentioned Smith's name to a group of friends, all but one confessed they'd never heard of him.

Prine? Sure. Goodman? Of course. But who's Michael Smith?

A couple of days later, in an interview with Smith at the Red Lion pub on Lincoln Avenue, I told him just that -- "A lot of my friends have never heard of you."

He smiled -- an easier smile these days -- and put down his chicken sandwich.

"When people talk to you about being popular," he said, "it is so beside the point."

Now, if that line had come from, say, Madonna, you'd know it's a lie.

But coming from a man who writes songs that seem torn from his heart and plucked from his funny bone, you know it's only true.

Lured by Steve Goodman

Michael Smith is a child of 1950s New Jersey, the eldest sibling in an Irish Catholic family. He kicked around the coffeehouse circuit, especially down in Florida, then moved up to Chicago with Barbara in the mid 1970s. Goodman was singing his songs here, and the crowd loved them. You go where you're loved.

Unfortunately, Chicago's folk music scene fell apart almost immediately, and Smith has had to hustle to make a living at music ever since.

One of my favorite Michael Smith albums is "Michael Margaret Pat & Kate," a suite of songs about his family, which has always struck me as both inspired and odd. What made him do it?

"What I'm looking for is work," he said, "and I knew if I wrote this show I'd get to do it for a while."

But nothing so deeply felt could be so calculated. In "Michael Margaret Pat & Kate," Smith sings about his adored sisters, about an old girlfriend he still misses, about the death of his father.

"It was a bitch to do -- too personal," he admitted. "There were nights I thought I don't want to go out and tell this story. I just wanted to play guitar and sing songs."

That would be happy songs like "Zippy," a terrifically funny take on how Smith's world sped up when he quit smoking pot.

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A local treasure

So here's the thing: More than 25 years ago I walked into a North Side club and discovered an honest-to-God Chicago treasure in the making -- Michael Smith.

Now, all these years later, Smith is as vital as ever, and I thought I'd finally better write about him. But if my hope here is to introduce Smith to potential new fans, I'd better squeeze in a few basics:

You can get his CDs in many stores, but a sure bet is his Web site: michaelsmithmusic.com. If you're new to his music, I'd recommend a recent live recording, "Such Things Are Finely Done."

Smith has composed the score for "The Snow Queen," a new play at the Victory Gardens Theater that will premiere in December; and cabaret singer Lisa Asher in New York is doing a show that consists entirely of his songs -- "Stranded in the Moonlight: The Music of Michael Peter Smith."

Lasting and good

I've been embarrassingly effusive in this column, which is never good. By now you're thinking Michael Smith is a buddy of mine, which is not the case.

But I admit I owe the guy.

Two years ago I was racking my brain for an idea for my very first "The Chicago Way" column when I happened to hear Smith sing "Sister Clarissa." It's a funny yet poignant song about all the nuns who were his teachers.

Yeah, I thought, Michael's got it totally right: It was easy to make fun of those sisters, but they gave us something lasting and good.

Later on that same day, inspired by Smith's song, I found myself sitting in my own old fifth-grade classroom, watching a modern-day nun at work.

I was looking for those shared feelings and truths that Michael Smith always seems to see.

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