The great Michael Smith, songwriter of “The Dutchman” and “Spoon River,” died yesterday in Chicago at the age of 78. Singer-songwriter James Lee Stanley wrote this tribute to him last week. They were friends and collaborators since 1973, when Mike and Barbara Smith opened for him at the Earl of Old Town in Chicago. We asked James if he would share some thoughts about Michael, for those who knew him and those who didn’t. As always, he delivered.
From Songwriter to Songwriter
By JAMES LEE STANLEY
In 1973, I got signed to Wooden Nickel Records, a boutique label based in Los Angeles and Chicago. Soon after completing my first album, James Lee Stanley, they booked me into the Earl of Old Town in Chicago. The city’s preeminent folk venue, it was at North & Wells, a cool location. Across the street was Second City, the first home of many SNL stars, including Bill Murray, John Belushi, Tina Fey and Chris Farley.
Because I had a recording contract, I was booked as the headliner, and shared the bill with a couple from Detroit. Mike and Barbara Smith.
As I entered the “dressing room,” which was also the Earl’s office and the exit to the alley, the exit door was open and the sweet smell of marijuana permeated the air wafting in.
Just outside I found my openers, the married couple, and introduced myself to them. They offered me a hit, but as this was my first night in Chicago and my first show at the Earl, I wanted to be as present as I could be, so I declined.
Soon enough it was showtime and Mike and Barbara left for the stage. As is my ritual before a performance, I got out my guitar and, sitting in the dark played and sang. I like to do at least an hour, but I didn’t have enough time. I sat there focusing and warming up. After about an hour passed, I knew that something was wrong. Their forty minute set should have been long over and still I could hear them out there.
It was opening night, a Tuesday, and neither one of us was well-known in Chicago at the time, so the crowd was light, and getting lighter as the night wore on. I really wanted to play while someone was still there.
I went out, admittedly annoyed, and gave the Smiths the stink-eye, to which they were oblivious. Angry now, I sat down in front of them with the plan of vibing them off the stage, so that I could do my show.
As I sat there, certain that I did not like these two for their inconsideration, they started their next song:
“I used to be a roving cowboy
I used to be a rodeo cowhand…”
I was stunned at the power and beauty of their song. I had never heard it and at the same time it sounded like a song that had always been. It turned out that Michael not only wrote that song (“The Ballad of Dan Moody”) but all their songs. They played another ten minutes and I was among the people calling for an encore. Never had I heard such authority and unique musicality in an unknown writer before.
I did my set with the heart-aching knowledge that none of my songs were as wonderful as what I had just heard. Amazingly, Michael and Barbara watched my whole set and were as friendly and complimentary as they could be. I watched every one of their sets for the entire two week stint. That began a friendship that has only blossomed over the ensuing forty-seven years which have passed since that night.
Over the next three decades we did many shows together, with them as a duo, in a band and with Michael as a solo, which he did more and more. Several times Michael (who was now also playing bass for Bob Gibson) would play bass for me. It did seem strange that the songwriter that I admired most in the world was playing bass for me instead of being in the spotlight himself, but he said he loved doing it and that my chord changes provided him with a lot of fun surprises.
I was humbled. Plus, I got to hang out with him more. Always fun.
Whenever I was in Chicago, we got together to share a meal, a bottle, a joint and to write songs together. I must admit, I was thrilled to write with him. His process was open and nurturing and there was never any discouragement from either of us, regardless of the idea or the direction. We just soldiered on until we had a song that we both liked.
We tried writing for various stars and submitted our songs to them to no avail. Meanwhile we talked of actually recording something together, but we never seemed to get around to it.
Then a young friend of ours died in a car crash. When Michael called me with the news, I said to him that if we were ever going to do a recording together we should do it while we were still on the planet.
We put together a schedule that would accommodate our touring and commenced to record a duet CD to be called Two Man Band, just two voices and two guitars.
The plan was for him to choose five of my songs, I would choose five of his and we would write one together. We also decided that we would always sing together instead of him backing me up and vice versa, so we both sang all the time in every song. So now it wouldn’t be like our solo CDs at all. He came out to Los Angeles, stayed with us and we commenced to record his tunes There, Train and we co-wrote a song called Saving My Heart.
Then life intruded, as opportunities we couldn’t turn down distracted us. Michael was chosen to write songs for The Grapes of Wrath, Frank Galati’s 1988 adaption of Steinbeck’s novel at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. He was also musical bard for the production which toured nationwide. And I was busy producing the first Peter Tork solo CD for Beachwood Records and touring with him, just two voices and two guitars. Peter and I became the de facto Two Man Band.
When the Northridge quake hit, the first phone call I received afterwards was from Michael, checking in on me:
“I am relieved that you are all right man, I love ya a lot.”
That hit me right in the heart, as he usually held his feelings pretty close to the vest.
We immediately scheduled more time and committed to finishing our project, which we were now calling Two Man Band Two. He came out and stayed with us and we worked every day from ten in the morning until midnight. And the time flew by.
He really understood the communication required in a song. I remember in the tune, “Somewhere In Between,” I had written the line, “I reach for you” and he immediately said, we have to do that line twice. That simple choice gave the verse a power that it didn’t have. Laser focus on what was needed and let’s face it, pure genius. I was always thrilled when we were working together.
Because of touring, the plan was to create each of the arrangements and get Michael’s guitar and vocal parts down while he was there. I could always put my finished part on later.
It was around this time that I chanced to be at a Hollywood function that included Beatles-producer George Martin. Both Michael and I revered The Beatles above all others.
I stood in line just for the thrill of shaking his hand. The fellow in front of me asked Martin if it were true that there would be no Sgt Pepper without the Beach Boys Pet Sounds. George said, absolutely, the boys were inspired by that recording, or something to that effect.
Being the snob I am, I never really gave the Beach Boys much credence until “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows,” so I really didn’t know their work. But if George Martin was touting them then, I owed it to myself to check them out.
I bought the boxed set and listened to the tracks, the mono mix, the stereo mix and the isolated vocals and was, of course, blown away. I started to rethink the Two Man Band Two project.
I called Michael and told him I wanted to expand the harmonies on the CD and he gave me the most gracious encouragement and confidence.
We never did tour behind that CD, to my disappointment, but Michael was candid about why. He said, “I don’t know how long I have to be around, and I really want to concentrate on my writing. For us to tour behind this CD would require enormous amounts of rehearsing during which time, neither of us traveling musicians would be earning any money.”
How could I argue with that?
A couple of years later, he was coming through L.A. when I was on the road and it was the rare occasion that my wife accompanied me, so we left a key for Michael.
I was in a club in San Francisco when they told me I had a phone call. It was Michael. In a voice filled with chagrin and apology, he told me he had lost the house key. He tried to climb over the fence into the backyard, but he tore part of the fence down by accident and then had to tear the screen and break the window in the back door to get back in. “I owe you a screen, a window and a fence,” he said.
Because of the way he related it to me, we were both laughing by the end and I remember going on stage with my wife in the audience and telling her from the stage (I felt that was the safest place to let her know) that Michael had destroyed the fence, the screen and the back door window.
On the road, I would stay with my friends too frequently. I’d space out the visits so no one was burdened with a house guest too often. Of course I stayed with Michael and Barbara several times in Chicago. I always came away feeling I never spent as much time as I would have liked.
Our meals together became impassioned dialogues about songwriting, record production or lyrics that stunned us. I remember he loved Steely Dan’s “I crawl like a viper through these suburban streets” (“Deacon Blues”) and Dylan’s “When The Night Comes Falling from the Sky.” He would couch the phrase in a reverent, almost-whisper. Very theatrical dude. I loved being with him.
On stage, he had such an authority, it was as if he was the axis mundi. It seemed that as he planted his feet there on the stage, the roots went right down to the center of the earth. Watching him perform was a lesson in how it’s done.
And we not only had conversations that lasted hours, we sometimes could be together for hours without saying a word. I remember a gig we did at the Front Porch in Valparaiso, Indiana. I picked him up on the north side of Chicago and we drove all the way to Valparaiso, just over an hour, without saying a word beyond the greeting. No dialogue was needed. The connection was deep and resonant. For forty seven years, Michael has been my friend, my sometime musical partner and always an inspiration.
He is now in hospice in Chicago, in the home he shared with Barbara until her passing in February of this year. His sisters are there with him and he is at peace.
He facetimed me to say goodbye, which was the hardest thing I think I’ve ever done.
I tried to be upbeat and jocular for him, but by the end, when he said that he never spent as much time with me as he wanted, and that it was a privilege for him to have me in his life, I broke down and wept like a child.
His friendship has been an honor and I don’t know how I can go to Chicago without Michael there. The sense of impending loss is so profound it is almost paralyzing. He is such a remarkable man, a unique and original artist, and an inspiration. He now only has days left with us. And this world will be a poorer place without him in it, and without his contributions and insights to the human condition.
We have known and loved each other since we were shiny and new and I still see him in that light. I always will.
James Lee Stanley
July 29, 2020