Wednesday, February 25, 2009

On Fred "Sonic" Smith

Yeah, it's about time that I looked at Fred Smith. One of my first blog posts mentioned him:

When Patti Smith married Fred Smith, did she take her husband's last name, or keep her maiden name?

In another post, I quoted from an article about Fred's wife:

Life has given Smith a bit of a battering over the past 15 years. Life, or more accurately, death: her dear departed include husband Fred Smith, best friend (and Horses photographer) Robert Mapplethorpe, brother Todd Smith, and long-time piano player Richard Sohl (all of whom died much younger than they should have), along with both her parents and close friend William Burroughs.

At the time, I didn't quote from the end of the article:

Then, at the end of the Seventies, Smith went 'civilian', controversially dropping out of music and devoting herself to raising a family with former MC5 member Fred Smith.

So if you're like me and don't have any idea who MC5 was, let's look back. Here's some of what was said after Fred "Sonic" Smith's memorial service:

[Fred] was as great an inspiration to the first generation of punks as his wife was to the second. He served as guitarist with the MC5, the legendary Detroit band famous for their live LP, "Kick Out the Jams"....The MC5 and its "little brother band", The Stooges, were among the most influential US groups ever....

As far as Sonic Smith's musical accomplishments, friend and rock historian Lenny Kaye made the following comment to Whitall: "One of the things I liked about Fred is that he had a sense of music as pure sound. The MC5 helped broaden the borders of what we consider rock music then and now. I know of no other rock group that covered Pharoah Sanders and the influence of the MC5 is so pervasive today. That whole Nirvana/Pearl Jam axis, they certainly heard the MC5."

Chris Hodenfield looked back at MC5. However, he looked back in 1970:

It started in Detroit. The city had been pumping out hard rock, and the MC5 were acknowledged as one of the best. Surely, they were the loudest. Beginning of 1968, they were staying in a commune in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Impressionable kid Eris Ehrman comes up for an interview. The MC5 jack him full of dope, lecture him hard on the merits of teenage lusts, and send him home, wide-eyed and gaping. Kid Ehrman writes a story and sends it to Rolling Stone magazine. Sensational story of an unleashed rock band. Dope, Revolution and Thrills Very Cheap.

Sensational. It was mostly Kid Ehrman's fantasy....

Not too long after that story, the New York Fillmore was accosted by a gang of self-acclaimed revolutionaries, the East Village Motherfuckers. The MC5 played the subsequent free night given them at the Ballroom. Time Magazine covered it...and there was a picture of Rob Tyner in gold lame with that Revolutionary band...the MC5...and now all of Middle America knew.

Wikipedia goes back a little further than Hodenfield did:

The origins of the MC5 can be traced to the friendship between guitarists Wayne Kramer and Fred Smith. Friends since their teen years, they were both fans of R&B music, blues, Chuck Berry, Dick Dale, the Ventures, and what would later be called garage rock: they adored any music with speed, energy and a rebellious attitude. Each guitarist/singer formed and led a rock group (Smith's Vibratones and Kramer's Bounty Hunters). As members of both groups left for college or straight jobs, the most committed members eventually united (under Kramer's leadership and the Headhunters name) and were popular and successful enough in and around Detroit that the musicians were able to quit their day jobs and make a living from the group.

MC5 were notorious (the aforementioned appearance at the New York Fillmore, an appearance at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but eventually the music took over, when they...well, why don't you just listen to it?

"96 Tears" it ain't.

They ended up releasing three albums on two different labels, but the end was sad, as Wikipedia notes:

The group [was] eventually reduced to Kramer and Smith touring and playing with local pick-up groups, playing R&B covers as much as their original material.

The MC5 reunited for a farewell show on New Years' Eve, 1972-73 at the Grande Ballroom. The venue that had only a few years before hosted over a thousand eager fans now had a few dozen people, and, distraught, Kramer left the stage after a few songs.

The band broke up shortly afterwards.

Fred remained somewhat active in music. Here's Sonic's Rendezvous Band performing "City Slang":

In 1976, Fred met someone:

It was March 9, 1976, and we met in front of the radiator at that hot dog place, Lafayette Coney Island, in Detroit. The Sonic Rendezvous Band was opening for us, but I didn't know anything about him. Lenny introduced me to this guy. I heard that his name was Smith, and my name is Smith. We just looked at each other and I was completely taken by him. I had no idea who he was or anything about him until afterwards when Lenny told me. Lenny introduced him and said "He's one of the great guitar players." I said, "Perhaps you'll want to play with us tonight." And he said, "Maybe so." Then he left and I asked Lenny if he was really good, and Lenny said, "the best." So I was playing with him that night, and I had a lot of bravado in those days. I didn't have respect for anybody. But I totally submitted to his reign. He came on the stage and started playing, and after a while I just set my guitar down and let it feed back. I just let him take over because I felt I had met my match, that I had met the better man.

[Patti Smith, interview in Mojo, August 1996]

Smith and Smith had married by 1980, and their joint performances afterwards were few and far between.
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