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Michael Smith

Review: Michael Margaret Pat & Kate

Michael Smith
Interviewed by Michael Devlin 6/15/00

[This interview originally appeared in Issue 14 of The Music Matters Review and appears now for the first time online.]

Those who know his work call him a genius. True, he has accomplished things the world can measure him by. His songs have been covered by thoughtful artists throughout his career. He wrote and performed the music for the acclaimed Broadway play, “The Grapes Of Wrath,” and created his own award-winning autobiographical revue. But his genius, his Michael Smithness is that he is a seeker of beauty, finding it with words and music…and the gift is priceless!

M.D. I was glad to see “The Dutchman” on the album you did with Anne Hills. It was good to hear it in your voice after hearing it by so many others.

M.S. It’s been recorded maybe fifteen times that I know of. The ones I’ve most been taken with are the Liam Clancy version and Stevie Goodman’s.

M.D. I noticed that Steve changed some of the words.

M.S. That was kind of a whispering game thing. He worked a coffee house down in Miami in the late sixties that I had worked three years, six nights a week. There were people down there who sort of approximately knew my songs, who taught them to him when he got down there after I had left. So he learned a lot of “as told to” versions of my songs. He didn’t care very much whether it was accurate—he was very loose about stuff like that. Usually when he would record a song of mine I would find out about it six months later. He’d call me up and say that he had recorded a particular tune and that it would be coming out, or that it was already out.

M.D. There was something that always bothered me in the first verse—we went from Amsterdam being “golden in the summer” to tulips blooming beneath the snow.” It wasn’t until I heard your version on a tribute album to Steve that I realized that he might have changed the lyric.

M.S. When I first heard Stevie’s version I was so annoyed, because just when I got to the place where I thought my image was coming across, he would toss in another vaguer or not quite accurate phrase. Melodically he did it too, and chordally! [laughs] I used to think that was unique but I remember seeing Steve Allen on TV talking about Ella Fitzgerald doing “This Could Be The Start Of Something Big” that he wrote. Ella was singing it and she didn’t know the words and she didn’t have the melody right and the arrangement was kind of strange but it was still Ella. He was so thrilled even though it wasn’t very accurate.

M.D. You also collaborated directly with Steve.

M.S. There was a time in the early eighties when Steve was living in Evanston, not far from where I live. I’d go to his house and we would work on some things. There was one time I went out to California to work with him. We did six or seven tunes together—“Elvis Imitators,” “Talk Backwards,” “Vegematic,” “Whispering Man,” “Hit And Run Lover,” “Danger”—maybe one or two more.

M.D. Many of those songs had a very off-the-cuff quality to them, like you were standing up, making them up as you played.

M.S. That’s very interesting, because our general way of working was that he would ask me what I wanted to write a song about and I would give him a subject, and then he’d take off on it. The understanding was that if we made this up, it was going to be appropriate for him to do, it wasn’t some abstract song that we would do somewhere down the line. At that time I wasn’t working as much as Steve, in fact I’m still not working as much as he did in his heyday. In particular with “Talk Backwards,” we’d go along and get a verse and a chorus and then he would literally stand up and with the facial expressions and everything he would perform the tune and we would both imagine that he was performing it in front of his audience. That made a big difference. There might be a line that on paper was not wonderful, but he would do a facial thing or vocal inflection and we’d be falling down laughing, because it was so droll in some unforeseen way. Most of the songs that I did with him were pretty fast.

M.D. Anne Hills mentioned that some songwriters concentrate on exposing the dark or ugly side of life and some are drawn to showing the beauty. She puts you in the latter group.

M.S. It’s very easy to call something that is pretty, sentimental. For me, if there is beauty, it is a by-product of wanting to say something in an unusual way. When I was young and my tastes were being formed, I didn’t verbalize to myself about what I liked, I just liked things. It hadn’t occurred to me that you could judge somebody by what they liked and didn’t like, so then I was making unselfconscious choices. For me the unselfconscious choices were Elvis Presley, The Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte. When I was fourteen or fifteen, these were all people who did what I thought of as mysterious music. Elvis less so as time went by—I’m thinking of his first album, which was called Elvis Presley which had the writing in pink and blue I think, with real large letters and the cover was him playing his Martin guitar with a leather covering on it. It had most of his cuts from Sun records, “I’m Left Here But She’s Gone,” “You’re A Heartbreaker,” “I Got A Woman,” and “Mystery Train” which to me is the best record I’ve ever heard. The images that I was getting from him are what now I see as Robert Johnson—with all those living-in-a-blues-life phrases that I didn’t understand. I was fourteen and Elvis Presley was the first person that I had ever heard say those things. You know—“I got a woman way cross town, she’s good to me.” It turns out that is a gospel tune that Ray Charles rewrote, but I didn’t know about him nor was I interested in him at fourteen. I was interested in that world that Presley brought that culminated, as far as I was concerned with “Heartbreak Hotel.” That started to disappear when he brought in the Jordinaires and stopped doing rockabilly and started doing crap in my opinion from “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” on. Remember the John Lennon line, “Elvis died when he went into the army.” That was the case for me esthetically.

M.D. I didn’t think that I liked Elvis at all until I heard the Sun sessions material.

M.S. You could put that stuff on and the jukebox would jump around the room. It was so exciting and it was pretty much an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar and a bass. Now and again there would be someone playing drums or sticks on the bass. It was rocking and it was flowing and he had such a great voice. It really jumped out of the speakers. But I was done with Elvis once the movies started. He had plastic surgery you know.

M.D. I didn’t know that.

M.S. The reason I know is that he stopped looking cool to me. Then I read Peter Guralnick's double-book biography and they talked about the plastic surgery in there and I realized what happened. He had regularized his features by the time that he got to the movies. To me he had looked so cool when I first saw him, some denizen of a dark mysterious place. Then he became scared that he would lose his popularity and he didn’t want to rock the boat. It was a different story with The Beatles. I was talking with a guitar player I work with about The White Album and how if any other group had put out The White Album, it would have sat there. It was so adventurous, bold and multifaceted.

M.D. Commercial radio was so much different back then. You could hear the latest from The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Judy Collins in the same set of music and it all belonged together.

M.S. It was a wonderful time and particularly The Beatles were giving us quality in spite of ourselves. Like “Eleanor Rigby”—nobody came out with a song like that. They are my models. I think that The Beatles’ music is beautiful, but primarily what it is for me is mysterious. When things are mysterious enough they are beautiful.

M.D. There are a lot of elements in your guitar playing, the overtones, almost an Eastern sound that can’t be traced to the music that you grew up with.

M.S. I think when I’m playing the guitar, I’m trying to cope with the fact that I don’t have very much physical dexterity, so I’m trying to find the most primitive way that I can play that will still be effective.

M.D. That sounds overly modest to me!

M.S. Really—my hands are thick, my fingers don’t move well, I don’t play correctly so over the years my hands fall asleep. I’m actually very proud of what I do, I love the way I play, I think I’m really hot stuff in my limited sort of way. I’ve got really good rhythm and I can make the guitar speak without equivocation. At the same time, I listen to people whom I think of as really great players, and I notice a kind of light dexterity where there is never a stopped string, never something that isn’t perfect. I’m not like that…I’m coping all the time in a certain way.

M.D. You mention Earl Klugh in “Coffee House Days.”

M.S. I met him when he was about eighteen, and he was just getting noticed by George Benson who had taken him out on the road and I took lessons from him for a while. I was very into Jobim at the time and Earl was into playing those tunes.

M.D. I’ve read some of your lyrics before hearing them and they work very well as poetry. Do the lyrics come first?

M.S. On occasion they do. It is unusual for the music to come first although that has happened. Most of the time it is both coming at the same time because I can’t tell how a lyric is going to work until I play it. There have been times where I have read someone’s poem or prose. “We Become Birds,” was from a book called “The Spiritual Life Of Children,” by a psychologist named Robert Coles, who has put out many books where he has interviewed children. As soon as I saw those words, I knew that it would make a good song. It was just a question of how to go about it and not screw it up. It was like the words were saying, “Look! Look how clear we are”—beautiful words that you could just lay out and make a song. Sometimes it’s not so clear. I will write something and then when I put it to music I’ll realize that I need to drop many things to make it work. Mostly I just sit with a guitar in my hands and everything comes at once if it is going to come at all.

M.D. You have a special attraction to ancient poetry.

M.S. The translations are often awkward. I have a book of European poetry with translations from Greek, Russian, French—whatever, and it is so up to the vagaries of the translator. There are verbal traditions from every language that don’t translate. So it makes for odd combinations of words. For example the first line of “We Become Birds” is “Do you see birds on trees.” That one was originally in English, but it is an odd phrase to start a song with and because of that it jumps out at you. Similarly “Dew on a secret orchid” is quite a surprise. I love Chinese poetry, and there is such an oddness about what they decide to say at the beginning of a poem that I just don’t see in American Poetry. I assume that some of what we see comes about accidentally in English. I find with a great song, the first thing that is exciting about it is the first words. Often the first thing that you hear about a song will trip you into a fantasy place. I’m thinking of the first time I heard “Heartbreak Hotel,” that starts, “When my baby left me/ I found a new place to dwell!” “Hey Jude” was to me such a shock. I had never heard a song where the name was so…almost anti-poetic. Back in the fifties people tried to be pretty with the names, but The Beatles were willing to give you a very tense sounding name. There was a spell they cast because they jumped right into the middle of a song.

M.D. “Sister Clarissa” is a song that starts right off like that. “Sister Clarissa was engaged to Our Lord.”

M.S. That was a situation where somebody had to show me that. “Sister Clarissa” came about because I was doing a concert with Bob Gibson. I was his bass player. He was a big idol of mine—I’d been in the folk movement in the early sixties and he was considered semi-divine. We wrote some songs together but primarily we each brought in a bunch of songs that we had written for this particular occasion. The theme of the show was “The Women In My Life.” The first song I wrote for it was “Sister Clarissa.” You might recall the line, “Sister Clarissa was eleven feet tall.” That was the original opening line of the song. I was going by my philosophy that you really sock it to them with some outside line right at the beginning that will either put people off or take them in. Gibson suggested to me that I take the second verse and make it the first. That is one of the few times that I was second-guessed by someone and it really worked out. When it’s Gibson you listen! And the truth is, not many people suggest things like that to me. I would love to have people do that…Anne and I interact on that plane now.

M.D. Are you working on anything now?

M.S. I’ve been working on an album for three years. The woman who does my publishing advanced me some money and said that she would like me to make a record that I would like, as opposed to something to please a record company. So I hired a good bass player and a drummer and I did everything else myself. There’s not much in the way of interaction under those circumstances. You make the tracks and bring them home and experiment, then go back into the studio and put something else on top and repeat the process. To some degree I am discovering the limitations to that way of working, but there are lots of things that are wonderful about it. For instance I don’t have to tell the guitar player to play less notes because I’m the guitar player. The limitation is that it is only one mind and there isn’t the jamming spontaneous quality that you get with a band. My all-time favorite album is The White Album. There’s a constant aural shift in what is reaching your ears. So on this album I’m doing some tunes acoustically and some very electrically. In a way I am torn as to whether to put an acoustic guitar piece first to establish the mood, or to have the first thing people hear be with a band. If you do the acoustic guitar at the beginning of the record, then when you get to the band it sounds like an aberration—an extreme left turn. But if you have the band up front and then you do an acoustic tune, it sounds like you meant it to be that way!

M.D. Michael Margaret Pat & Kate was written specifically for the stage.

M.S. Yes, that was the point of it. I had done a long theater engagement with “The Grapes Of Wrath,” a Steppenwolf production in 1990. We did about two months in Chicago, about a month in La Hoya, California, two weeks in the national theater in England, and then we were on Broadway for about nine months. It got best play and best director in 1990. We did quite well considering that it is a socially conscious, depressing story with folk music in it.

M.D. You were performing on-stage?

M.S. Yes. The director had seen me work and asked if I could set some Steinbeck to music. I came back a couple of weeks later with about twelve songs. They were pleased with them and hired me to play and sing them during the course of the play. I was on-stage for two and three-quarters of the three hours.

M.D. So if this was a Greek play you would be the chorus.

M.S. Exactly. And I had a little band, an accordionist and a violinist, and a multi-instrumentalist who played the harmonica, banjo and jaw harp. It was really fun, but it was New York and it was eight performances a week so it was hard. Including rehearsals it was about a two-year commitment. When it was done Steppenwolf moved on and did other things. They don’t do that many plays that involve having a guitar player up there singing. Not only that but they are such a large organization that their tendency would be to move on to another guitar player. I realized that it was up to me to come up with something if I really wanted to be in the theater. So I thought that I would make something up that I could do by myself and that was “Michael Margaret Pat & Kate.”

M.D. It must have been quite an emotional experience for you.

M.S. I had an interesting experience with “Michael Margaret Pat & Kate.” It was characterized as a revue, because it was me talking to the audience with some players. It was essentially the story of growing up, with me and my sisters, and the fact that when I was seventeen and my sisters were sixteen, fifteen and fourteen, our dad committed suicide. Back in the fifties it was a big deal—not that it wasn’t a big deal, but there was sort of a Peyton Place mentality back then. There was a lot hidden and much in the way of unspoken tensions. Nowadays there would be eighteen therapists at the house, and we would be on Jerry Springer or Oprah or whatever. But in those days everything was as tight as a drum. We had a wonderful dad—he was nice and charming, sincere and intelligent, lovely to us and never abusive in any way. He was the greatest guy who out of the blue, got depressed and committed suicide. It changed our lives obviously in a big way and I used that as the fulcrum for the story. In Chicago we have Joseph Jefferson Awards, which are the equivalent of Tonys. We got four of them—Best Actor in a Revue, Best Original Music, Best New Production and Best Original Work. I thought that we were really on top of the world and that I would be doing this forever. What I discovered was that it was very difficult after a few months, to constantly tell my personal story to strangers. I had not foreseen this, because when you write, you are in the privacy of your room. I didn’t understand what the cumulative effect of saying this to people was going to be. The other thing was that it was not a very commercial enterprise. I thought that with all of these awards we would be going from town to town, and this was going to be my life from then on. We had that run in Chicago and they added weeks but then we just had one gig in San Francisco for about a month and a half.

M.D. Did you not play the right game to get you to Broadway?

M.S. Well, the game is different for everybody. In my particular case, people were either thrilled to be in my presence and thought that I was the hottest thing since sliced bread, or they were totally bored! We were raised Catholic so a majority of the story is told with that kind of imagery. We’re Irish Catholic from northern New Jersey. That is a very real ethnic situation. There were people who said to me, “It’s too Catholic,” which is like saying to The Beatles that they are too British. So it was criticized in terms of its basic elements. Theater people! For some of them their very reason to be is to get their hands on something and fool with it. I did versions of “The Grapes Of Wrath” around the country as a kind of guest artist at various repertory theaters. This was after it had won awards on Broadway and been done on American Playhouse on television. So the first thing this repertory director does is write a new opening scene! I couldn’t believe it. I was floored! So with “Michael Margaret Pat & Kate,” several people said, “I want to see three actresses up there,” and that kind of thing. That would have made it a completely different play. Even if I was willing to entertain the idea of somebody screwing around with it, there was nobody out there crazy enough about it to put it on Broadway, or off-Broadway for that matter.

M.D. I have some specific questions…why five angels?

M.S. Actually “Five Angels” was written about being Catholic. It was written much earlier than the show. I had this vision of how when you are Catholic, you find yourself surrounded by angels. And I didn’t mean it in a good way. They teach you that there are guardian angels, archangels and they are all out there kind of watching your ass. There was a great Thurber cartoon where there is a guy coming home from work and he’s going to go into his house and it is actually his wife. When I first wrote that tune, I wanted to describe what it was like psychologically to be Catholic. And you had angels all around, there were a couple on the roof, there were a couple looking in the windows…and when I counted how many that I had listed it was five.

M.D. It’s nice to have a detail that escapes you a little bit.

M.S. Absolutely! When I first encountered Beatle tunes in particular there would be many things that I would be puzzling about the meaning of. And I love that feeling. Things like why Jude, which was short for Julian, or that line “Penny Lane the barber’s showing photographs/ of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known.” What he is talking about is the poster that used to be on barber shop walls of all the different kinds of haircuts you could get.

M.D. What really does it for me in your music is when you express something very simply, but yet in a different way than I have thought about it before.

M.S. That’s cool. I think that anyone who is a songwriter, if they have any sense at all, is trying to make something that is unique and faultless, so that people can hold it up and look at it and see something that is crafted. We all see the posters on the wall at a barber shop, but one guy goes, “The heads he’s had the pleasure to have known.” Suddenly there’s this genteel quality to that experience. It’s the grace with which he’s done it, that gives you the power.

M.D. You have a line in “Coffee House Days” about everyone wanting to be an existentialist but nobody knowing what it meant. A teacher in high school once said I was an existentialist and I never figured out what it meant and how it might apply to me and I still am very vague on what it means.

M.S. I am too actually. I try to read Sartre and after the first page I say, “What the hell is this!” I remember Steve Martin, who was a philosophy major in college, used to say that after four years of studying philosophy in college you find out that none of it is applicable.

M.D. I remember taking philosophy courses and having high hopes of finding out the answers to the big questions in life. The more I learned the more I saw that somewhere along the line everyone has to make a leap of faith.

M.S. The only people I encountered who weren’t making guesses but were still advancing a way of looking at things were Ayn Rand and Zen Buddhists. Ayn Rand was the first person whom I ever read who wasn’t religious, who talked to me about how you should live. Similarly with Zen Buddhists, they say something like here’s how things are…you find out! In a way to have any web of notions to describe life is limiting it. It’s like trying to say how many stars there are in the universe. It doesn’t do us any good to number them. What I get from my little excursions into Zen is that you discover in a big way that you are not going to find out the answers to everything, and you make some kind of big acceptance. In that acceptance there is some kind of freedom.

M.D. You are currently doing Weavermania.

M.S. It’s a concept that my wife and I thought up about fifteen years ago, when we first encountered Beatlemania. We thought it would be great if we had people take the parts of the Weavers. It took a little while for me to get used to their sound on record because they weren’t as slick as The Kingston Trio. Then I went to see them and saw the power they had in the room which was quite separate from what you heard on the records. I realized that nobody would know what it was like to be in the room with these four people with banjo and guitar doing songs that will last forever. The arrangements were just chilling at times, they were primitive and slick at the same time. We wanted to recreate it note for note like the Beatlemania thing. It’s really exciting. I do Lee Hays, my wife does Ronnie Gilbert.

M.D. How do you get your voice down there?

M.S. Actually that is so effortless for me because my voice it naturally low. The nature of Lee Hays’ singing is very much from the belly. You don’t have to worry about being cool when you do Lee Hays, you can just bellow it out! People seem to love it. We have never done the show without getting a standing ovation. Our booking agent played a tape for Pete Seeger, which I would never have done, I mean it’s just out of the question, man! Maybe he’d say, “Why do you want to do this?” That would psychologically put the kibosh on the thing forever. But he was very generous. He said, “This sounds better than The Weavers.” It was so cool of him to say that because it loosened us psychologically. It was way past, “Does he approve?”

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