Craig Smith: Love Is Our Existence (Maitreya Apache Music)

 

There’s nothing sadder than listening to the haunting work of a talented artist whose mental instability and related demons kept them from realizing their potential, only to be discovered after they pass away, their talent revered in death that was never appreciated during their lifetime. Craig Smith was such an artist, a young man with great potential who in the mid 1960s was a promising young songwriter who scored his first notable hit when covered by Andy Williams; he then became a fixture on the Los Angeles music scene, most notably working with The Monkees,  as well as being a member of both local popular vocal duo Chris & Craig and the band Penny Arkade, yet by the end of the decade became a drug burnout and a victim to his own mental illness. Love Is Our Existence gathers nineteen previously unheard songs from his pre-illness era, from before he became the leader of a cult of one, practicing a religion only he understood, which he celebrated by recording and releasing two private press albums of holy music and changing his name to Maltreya Kali. Although the material is largely undated, these tracks were recorded in the late 60s and early 1970s, before the name change and mental health self-destruction. Smith gave his brother Gary a collection of acetates and reels of demos, from which Love Is Our Existence is drawn.

It’s tempting to examine the works of the mentally ill and look for signs and hints of the darkness underneath the surface, this collection included. Doing so, however, takes away from the beauty and simplicity of the songs found here.   Even as the music world grew wild, hard, and psychedelic around him, his music mainly explored universal themes such as love, nature, and life in a straightforward, simplistic, almost innocent way. Through the crackling hiss on songs such as “Seasons” and “Now My World is Changing,” his angelic voice shines through in such a beautiful, haunting manner that recalls Nick Drake, Gram Parsons, and David Gates. It’s not hard to imagine that songs such as ”Aspects of Love,” “It’s All Love,” and “I Know I Like You” could have sounded fantastic had he been given a proper recording contract and studio time.

Alas, it was not to be. Craig Smith was already down the road to destruction. Glen Campbell recorded the song “Country Girl”, but Smith became menacing about the possibility of working more with him, and quickly found the music industry doors slamming shut. When he wrote perhaps the most beautiful song found here, “A Father’s Christmas,” he had it in mind to give it to Andy Williams, but there was no interest and his calls were not returned. After assaulting his mother in 1973 and winding up in jail, Smith succumbed fully to his mental illness and spent the rest of his life going in and out of jail and mental hospitals as well as homelessness, eventually dying in 2012 alone in a park. Even as he was waylaid by the reality of this situation, he still wrote the occasional song, and the last song of the collection,”Waves,” was recorded in 1994 and still showed the spark of his talent. (Sadly, it also showed that the doors of the past were shut to him still; he sent a demo to his former friend Mike Love of the Beach Boys; Love never responded.)

It is occasionally hard to reconcile the beauty of Love Is Our Existence with the hard truth of the life of Craig Smith, expertly encapsulated in the liner notes by Mike Stax, author of the full-length biography, Swim Through the Darkness: My Search For Craig Smith And The Mystery Of Maltreya Kali. Even in brief, Smith’s story is harrowing enough; the full story is heartbreaking, upsetting, disturbing, and very hard to read; it’s been difficult for yours truly to finish, truth be told. Love Is Our Existence is a thought-provoking and heartbreaking look into what might’ve been, from what ultimately and realistically could never have been.

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