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BOOK REVIEW: "Swim Through the Darkness" by Mike Stax

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BOOK REVIEW: Swim Through the Darkness: My Search for Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali by Mike Stax (Process Media) 2016

As a longtime fan of The Monkees – both the band and the TV show – I’ve seen every episode multiple times over since being introduced to the Pre-Fab Four via MTV and, later, Nickelodeon, in 1986, when a major Monkees revival swept the nation.

And one of the episodes, 1968’s dark and psychedelic “The Devil & Peter Tork,” was edgy for its time and still very good (remember when they say “hell” it’s bleeped out – and the guys make a deal out of the word being censored) in that Peter buys a harp from a man named “Zero” (the excellent character actor and frequent Monkees guest Monte Landis) who promises Peter fame and fortune and an ability to play the harp. But there’s a catch – Peter must sign a contract with Zero, who in reality is the Devil and desires Peter’s soul.

Talking to Peter, who is interested in a harp Zero is selling (for a price), he notes that the harp was left behind by a musician who had "fallen on bad times," adding (eerily) "You know how musicians are, here today, gone tomorrow." 

What's that smell? Peter Tork ("Peter") and Monte Landis ("The Devil") in the 1968 episode of The Monkees "The Devil & Peter Tork" (NBC)

Indeed. And in the case of our subject, Craig Smith, so true. And tragic.

As a side note, the episode was written by Hollywood screenwriter Robert Kaufman, who also had a role in writing the screenplays for two oddball Vincent Price-led films: Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) and Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966), the latter which played a role in my Dust Devil Dreams post “Starlight Sun.”

But back to the point of this review …

In The Monkees episode, “the Devil,” being a salesman of sorts, looking for souls to consume, is conjured in a particularly spooky Monkees song, “Salesman,” recorded for the band’s best album, arguably, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd., released in November of 1967.

And more importantly, “Salesman,” written by the late (and largely obscure) songwriter Craig Vincent Smith, a friend of the Monkees at the time, opens up that very album, helping set a tone that would open the door to a new and darker chapter in Smith’s own life a mere year after it was publicly released. Yes, following the sunny summer of '67, 

“Salesman” is used in the episode to great effect (NBC was upset about the veiled drug references in the song), Peter confronted by the Devil and his sexy “demons” in a cartoonish hell, all the while Mike Nesmith (who defends Peter in court - and wins!) sings the following: “Short lifespan / Goodtime salesman …” and refernces to “sailing high,” selling “secret goods” and “always wear(ing) a smile” – it was as if Smith was talking about himself.

Friends and acquaintances (he never seemed to have a very steady love interest) said he was “secretive,” “was always smiling” to the point of it seeming weird or bizarre (think toothy Al Jardine of The Beach Boys - a group Smith darkly called the "Man Sons" - after Dennis Wilson pal Charles Manson) and he was a “goodtime” guy, having made a breakthrough in The Good Time Singers and gaining the trust of smooth-crooning Andy Williams.

But this swell section of his life (“short life span”) would end far too quickly, leading Smith into a new and destructive chapter in his life, shortly after he jumped into Eastern philosophy – which was big at the time – and jumping into a situation that would take him on the “hippie trail” from Istanbul to India. Only problem was, a stop in Kandahar, Afghanistan would forever change his life in late 1968.

Chip Douglas, the former bass player for The Turtles who would produce Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd., notes in the foreword to Stax’s book that he recalls Nesmith bringing Smith’s “Salesman” to him for the group to record in the steamy Summer of Love, just two weeks after The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released.

(In 1967) I was struck by Craig’s yong clean-cut good looks and that beautiful dazzling smile of his. He was so full of life and so full of music. What a great future this lad seemed to have before him,” Douglas tells Stax. But Douglas recalls running into Smith – now called “Maitreya Kali” – in approximately 1973, walking into a record store with a copy of his self-produced solo album under his arm, offering to sell it to the record-store clerk for five bucks.

When Douglas realized who it was – the guy who wrote “Salesman,” which was the lead track on one of the biggest selling albums of 1967-68, he was utterly shocked.

Recalled Douglas: “He had the look of someone who had definitely dropped out, all the way. His hair was long and scruffy, and there was a spider tattooed on his forehead, right between the eyebrows.”

So, between 1967 and 1973 – a mere six years – former Andy Williams Show regular (with the swell group The Good Time Singers), actor in a botched Monkees-esque, New York-set show called The Happeners, and partner in the creative musical duo Chris & Craig (check out “Isha” if you can!) and later in the Mike Nesmith-produced band The Penny Arkade, which also failed to get off the group, seemingly inexplicably.

But what happened to Craig Smith? What inside his head snapped? The copious amount of drugs? Opening his mind to who-knows-what? Was it the major highs and the valley-like lows over such a short period of time? Friends could never quite figure Smith out, even when he was performing with his moderately successful groups or writing very creative songs. 

Stax tells readers about Smith's seemingly normal upbringing in the L.A. area by parents who were seemingly nice and creative on the outside but hid darker aspects of their personalities from friends and family. And that may explain while Stax was unsuccessful in getting Smith's family members to talk about Craig Smith or speculate about what happened to the man after he totally dropped out, not long after Chip Douglas ran into him in '73 or so in that San Fernando Valley record store. 

For author Mike Stax (of the Ugly Things music magazine), his search for Craig Smith, who was living on the streets of Los Angeles as late as 2012, until his death on those very streets - homeless and alone - having spent time in prison for beating up his own (alcoholic) mother in the early 1970's and basically falling full-bore into his mental illness, another post-60's casualty - dead at age 66 and with no one to claim his remains.

"Writes Stax in the final chapter: "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 attmepting to place them into their true pattern. Completing the entire puzzle was impossible. Many of his secrets lay deeper than I could ever reacher, darker than I dared to swim."

Swim Through the Darkness is a cautionary tale of sorts. It's like the stories of brilliant musicians like Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape's Alexander "Skip" Spence and many others who burst onto the scene with sounds of brilliance, only to descend, unescorted and alone, into their own madness. In our society, sadly, not enough is done to help those who contribute so much to our culture, particularly if they end up broke and mentally ill, no one there to help them. To save them. Or to collect their remains once they pass away.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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