I’m known in my family as the one who doesn’t read books. Well more precisely, the one who doesn’t finish books. And it’s not the books fault, it’s mine. Which is a long away around to say that it isn’t author Mike Stax‘s fault that I have only finished his quite engrossing 2016 book: Swim Through The Darkness: My Search For Craig Smith And The Mystery Of Maitreya Kali.
As the title suggests, this isn’t a standard biography. It’s more of Mike Stax’s investigation into the mysterious life and times of Craig Smith, whose story is quite a fascinating one.
A rising star in the early ‘60s, Craig Smith first found success as a member of The Good Times Singers, who backed up Andy Williams on his popular TV variety show. Smith also had songs he had written covered by Williams, Glen Campbell, and The Monkees. In 1966, he co-starred a network TV pilot, The Happeners, a drama about a folk-rock trio, which seemed like a sure thing to be picked up but ABC rejected it. The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith acted as the manager/producer for Smith’s band, Penny Arkade, which appeared to be on the brink of stardom (or, at least, a record deal) around 1967-68.
Sadly, the group achieved neither. Their recordings only were released by Sundazed Records in 2004, with the noted rock historian Richie Unterberger describing the the group as “quite a good Southern Californian folk-rock-psychedelic band.” Moreover, Smith actually never had a properly released album.
Before going further, I just want to say that I didn’t read this book to review it, so I didn’t make copious notes like I would have. However, the book really captured my interest, which is why I decided to write about it and spread the word.
Stax, a respected music writer and historian who has published the music history magazine Ugly Things for several decades, spent over a dozen years researching this book and hunting for Craig Smith. Swim Through The Darkness is like one of those mystery novels that follows a detective’s search for a person, finding out a lot about the person without ever finding them. Even though he didn’t come up with all the answers about Smith’s life, Stax pieces together a story that proves to be very absorbing in its own right.
Stax nicely creates a portrait of Smith’s life through the end of the Sixties. He makes terrific use of his substantial interviews with many of people who were close to Smith, including his old bandmates such as Chris Ducey, who formed the duo with Smith that evolved into the Penny Arkade and arguably was Smith’s most significant musical collaborator. Reader get a real sense of band growing together; their time working with Nesmith (who Stax also interviewed); the promise that they had for success and how it was never fulfilled.
The book offers an interesting glimpse too into the free-wheeling, but still rather innocent scene of L.A. in the mid-to-late Sixties. Smith, even though just orbiting around the fringes of the big time, still was inside the Monkees circle; friendly with various Beach Boys, and crossed paths with Frank Zappa too. (by the way, don’t look for quotes from Beach Boys Mike Love and Brian Wilson because they declined to participate in this book as did Craig’s brothers).
If Craig Smith seemed on the brink of real success in the mid-60s, it is easy to say that he also fell off that brink by the decade’s end. A talented musician with all-American looks, Smith found his road to stardom taking a horribly wrong turn when he started dabbling in LSD and then headed off for a pilgrimage in Asia along the “Hippie Trail” to find the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (not an uncommon trip during that time)
Something bad, however, happened to Craig during this trip. No one has a definitive explanation as to what exactly, but he returned a changed, and rather damaged, man. He became a rather messianic figure, got deeply into meditation, and took the name Maitreya Kali. His behavior turned erratic and off-kilter.
The second half of the book is punctuated with recollections from old friends like Heather MacRae (daughter of actor Gordon MacRae), actress/singer Suzannah Jordan (who co-starred in an unsuccessful pilot with Smith and Ducey), and long-time friends The Clinger Sisters (four singing sisters who found some success in the music business). Nearly everyone talks about how the charismatic, clean-cut Smith seemed destined for success and share their sad encounters with a disheveled, crazy-looking Smith in his later years.
A real strength of this book is the really phenomenal job Stax did tracking down a wealth of people – the major and minors ones in Smith’s life. Many of these bit players, in fact, wind up with larger roles since the “headliner,” Craig Smith, starts fading into darkness during the book’s second half.
Case in point: Stax tracked down the detective and the deputy district attorney who were involved in the arrest and conviction of Craig for assaulting his mother in 1973. While neither specifically remembered Craig or the case, they offered insights into criminally justice system of the early 70s.
Providing a better picture of the Craig Smith during this time period are Lisa Udwin and Rafael Espericuata, who were teens when they met Craig around L.A. in the early 70s. Lisa, a 17-year-old UCLA freshman in 1972 when she met Craig (who was around 27 then), recalls him being sweet but also odd enough that she not only resisted his romantic advances but pushed him out of her life too.
Rafael hung out with Craig for a time in the early 70s, having exploits motorcycling around Southern California, doing meditation and making music; he too found Smith interesting but also a little strange. Stax even meets a woman who encountered Smith in 2009 while she managed an apartment building. She too described the then homeless Smith as being nice and kind, although smelling badly.
Two of the people I found most intriguing were Mary Hurley and Ann Dignan, a pair of seemingly typical 23-year-old women from North Dakota who were taking a cultural journey along the Hippie Trail. They travelled with Craig for a little in Asia before going their separate ways (and Craig’s way led him to whatever mysterious misadventure he experienced over there). Their recollections made me curious to read a full memoir of their trip (with and without Craig).
Offering glimpses into Craig’s dark side are his one-time girlfriend Cheryl Knickelbein (now Cheryl Starstrong) and her friend, Dyane Quinn. Cheryl speaks about the rather creepy intensity of his feelings for her as well as the weird things he’d talk about during their tumultuous on-again, off-again relationship. Her final breaking point was one night when Craig turned angry and violent for no reason.
Craig wrote a passionate love song to her, entitled “Cheryl” of course. The song later appeared on Inca, one of the two albums that he self-released under the name Maitreya in 1971-72; the other album was entitled Apache. Both covers look like they were designed by a crazy man.
While barely heard when Smith made them, his albums ironically have become collectors’ items over the years, and they were reissued together as a double LP in 2019. To accompany the book’s publication, an album entitled Love is Our Existence, was released, which contains previously unreleased Smith recordings circa 1966-71. The music actually holds up quite well. There is a little flower power trippiness to the typically spare acoustic music, with Craig’s vocals sometimes suggesting Phil Ochs as a love song-singing folkie.
The Sixties had more of its share of musicians who wound as casualties of the time: Skip Spence, Judee Sill, Karen Dalton, and Roky Erickson, and Craig Smith probably ranks as the most obscure of these cult figures. Stax makes a persuasive case, however, that he had the talent to make a make it – or at least make an official album.
Craig Smith drifts in and out of his own biography, Swim Through The Darkness provides some enlightening snapshots of the various worlds where he first strode, then stumbled, and finally shambled through – as well as what he had etched on his forehead.