Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Craig Smith's Love Is Our Existence on LP


Back in 2011, I reviewed the album UFO by Jim Sullivan. The album was interesting enough, a singer and songwriter from the '60s and '70s who had a penchant for writing songs about UFOs, alien abductions and interstellar travel. In 1975 he disappeared off the face of the earth, and stories began to emerge about Sullivan actually having his cosmic dreams come true. (In reality, he probably met his demise and the hands of New Mexico law enforcement who didn't like his long hair and his antagonistic attitude toward authority.)

Craig Smith's Love Is Our Existence has an equally intriguing back story. Smith's story isn't filled with mystery and crazy rumors like Sullivan's. His story is closer to the sad, cautionary stories of musicians such as Syd Barrett, Jim Gordon and Skip Spence, guys who conjured up the destructive forces of mental illness, usually fomented by the over-the-top use of mind-expanding drugs. Smith had everything going for him at one point in his life--he was one of the Good Time Singers on The Andy Williams Show back in the mid '60s and eventually landed a role in the short-lived TV series The Happeners, about a folk group in New York City. He was managed by Mike Nesmith and wrote songs for The Monkees, the Robbs and Glen Campbell.

One day, this clean-cut folkie snapped and turned into Maitreya Kali, a "dark, disturbed psychedelic Messiah figure with a black widow spider tattooed on his third eye." He released the double album Apache/Inca, which has since become a very valuable collectible. At one point he hiked through Asia and was beaten, raped and left for dead. From there the story doesn't get any happier--he spent the rest of his life in jails, mental hospitals and on the street. He died in 2012--his body was found in a sleeping bag in a North Hollywood park.


Love Is Our Existence is a collection of songs he recorded between 1966 and 1971. Much of it was recorded between stints in jail and the hospital. You might expect an album of dark, freaky acid rock with impenetrable lyrics. What you get instead is a folk singer with a lovely voice, singing hopeful songs full of love and beauty. It's just Smith/Kali and his acoustic guitar for most of these 19 tracks. You'd never think this guy was insane or demented or tortured by inner demons--he has that winsome and innocent quality of a young John Denver blended with a hipper Nick Drake delivery. His lyrics can be slightly enigmatic, which implies that he's offering clues to the darker facets of his personality. For all I know this album could turn into a cult item, something that may contain the keys to the universe. I prefer to think of it as proof that Craig Smith was supremely talented, and this is yet another sad song about a musician who lost his footing on this planet.

The LP pressing has received first-rate treatment. Sourced from the original master tapes, Love Is Our Existence was pressed at RTI. The basic LP comes with lots of info stuffed into its gatefold cover, while a deluxe version features an additional 16 tracks and is limited to just 500 copies. (It's also available in a Digipak CD edition with a 32-page booklet.)
The pressing is dead quiet and impressive. The sound quality is minimalist--his voice is drenched in a moderate amount reverb to reflect the underlying mysticism, and his guitar playing is basic and simple. The magic is in the treatment, just as with the Jim Sullivan album. It's a document of a musician's talent, and it has a fascinating back story. That makes it one of the most intriguing albums I've heard in a long time.

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