Please Kill Me profiles 5 “crazy diamonds” – brilliant musicians whose careers were derailed after becoming acid casualties

Rock & roll is littered with the bodies of drug casualties. The music even has a sort of “holy trinity”: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. And yet, rock & roll has had other types of drug casualties, too—musicians who didn’t actually die but “burned out” and still kept going.

These were the walking wounded and they included less-celebrated figures like Skip Spence (Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape), Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac), Roky Erickson (13th Floor Elevators), Richard Marsh, aka Sky Sunlight Saxon (The Seeds) and, of course, the legendary Syd “Crazy Diamond” Barrett (Pink Floyd). This, of course, does not include the thousands of rock & roll fans who, partly in emulation of their heroes, also went down one-way streets with the aid of copious amounts of lysergic acid diethylamide.

Ben Folds captured the essence of an “acid casualty” in his song “Not The Same,” which he performs live in this clip, after explaining how it was inspired by someone else’s acid trip gone wrong.

To the list of names above, you can now add Craig Smith. Wait! Who?

Craig Smith

Craig Smith

Craig Smith

Smith’s story is one of those “what could have been” cautionary tales. His story is told with compassion and meticulous detail by Mike Stax in Swim Through the Darkness: My Search for Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali.

Stax, the editor of the magazine Ugly Things, began his search for Smith while writing an article on the forgotten musician. Smith’s story opened door upon door of a mystery that could well be a signature tale of Los Angeles in the era of Charles Manson.

Smith had it all: movie star looks, beautiful singing voice, perfect Pepsodent smile, great songwriting, guitar and people skills. He began his career with the squeaky-clean Good Time Singers, the contingent that backed Andy Williams on his popular TV show and in concert. Smith was the squeaky cleanest of the bunch. (He also wrote songs for Williams, Glen Campbell and The Monkees, the residuals from those sustaining him for years). Talent scouts and smitten girls followed him everywhere, eventually opening the door to his own TV show, called The Happeners, a proto-reality show about three folk singers in Greenwich Village that was earmarked for prime time. A well-received pilot was filmed.

But then…nothing happened. A random decision by execs canceled the contract, and Smith drifted off with his guitar, joining fellow “Happener” Chris Ducey in a duo called Chris & Craig that released two excellent singles for Capitol Records. One of the singles was Smith’s “I Need You”.

The duo came to the attention of Michael Nesmith, one of The Monkees (whose show was not unlike what The Happeners might have been). Nesmith took them under his wing, provided rehearsal space in his home and added two more musicians to create an instant pop band, Penny Arkade. After Penny Arkade failed to land a record contract, Smith began to unravel. He turned to meditation and hallucinogenic drugs and then disappeared. Later, it was discovered he traveled to Afghanistan and perhaps India to seek a guru, or at least enlightenment in the early 1970s. Instead, he was beaten severely in Kandahar and may have been gang-raped by future Taliban members.

The tale from here goes completely off the rails and Stax hunts down every lead and dead end. He finally discovers that Smith was arrested and charged for assault of his mother, spent four years in prison and then 30+ years on the streets of L.A., homeless and mentally ill. And that’s where he was found dead, on March 16, 2012, inside a sleeping bag on the sidewalk outside the North Hollywood Community Center.

For a spell, Smith developed a messianic complex, assuming the name Maitreya Kali and releasing two albums, Apache (1971) and Inca (1972), which he had privately pressed. Like Barrett’s post Pink Floyd albums, each showed flashes of brilliance and shimmering beauty as well as fragility and fear and are now much sought after by collectors.

Stax is currently working with the Smith family to give these two great recordings a proper reissue. With Stax at the helm, this project will be worth the wait.

Skip Spence

The tale of Alexander “Skip” Spence was less circuitous than Craig Smith’s but it ultimately followed the same downward trajectory. Spence was at the right place at the right time to fall under the sway of LSD. After growing up in San Jose, he drifted to San Francisco in 1966 to start a band (The Other Side). Though a guitarist and singer, Spence was recruited to join Jefferson Airplane as the band’s drummer, a role he played on their debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off.

After leaving the Airplane, he co-founded the band Moby Grape, which quickly became a Bay Area favorite and landed a Columbia Records contract. The band’s debut album was hyped to the hilt, and features some of Spence’s best work as a songwriter and guitarist (“Omaha” and “Indifference”).

Here’s a recording of their set at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

The cracks in Spence’s psyche began to appear when the band was in New York recording their follow-up album, Wow. It was here that Spence fell in with some darker crowd, as well as some mutant strand of LSD. At one point, high as a kite, he took a fire axe to the hotel room door of drummer Don Stevenson (last seen flipping the bird on the cover of Moby Grape’s debut album). Apparently, by some accounts, Spence thought Stevenson was the “anti-Christ” and was hell bent (literally!) on killing him.

After leaving the hotel—why he wasn’t arrested is still a mystery—Spence paid a visit to Columbia Records’ main office where he was arrested for making threats on the staff. He was hauled off to The Tombs but then transferred to Bellevue when it was apparent his troubles were primarily psychiatric. During his six-month stay at Bellevue, he was heavily dosed with Thorazine but allegedly still managed to write all of the songs that would appear on his only solo album, Oar. Soon after being discharged from Bellevue, in fact, he made his way to Nashville, where he recorded all the songs, and instruments, for that record. Released in 1969, Oar, a haunting if somewhat rambling album, is now considered a cult classic among the neo-psychedelic folk set.

Skip-Spence-Oar-cover

For all intents and purposes, Spence’s career as a musician was over, though he would occasionally appear as a sideman on other people’s projects. He turned away from LSD and toward heroin and cocaine. For the next three decades, he was in and out of hospitals, living on the streets or in transient motels or flophouses. He died of lung cancer in 1999. His son, Omar, has played with surviving members of Moby Grape over the past quarter century.

Peter Green

The decline of Peter Green due to LSD, among other factors, is one of the great tragedies of rock music history, although it does have a somewhat happy ending (keep reading!).

One of the most gifted guitarists to play with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Green formed Fleetwood Mac in 1968, with fellow Mayall “graduates” John McVie and Mick Fleetwood and slide-guitar wizard Jeremy Spencer. The band was a traditional blues outfit, hero worshipping American black bluesmen, particularly those in Chicago (and would, in fact, record two albums’ worth of material with Otis Spann, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy that were released on Chess Records). Here’s an excerpt.

It was while performing in San Francisco with Fleetwood Mac in 1969 when the cracks began to appear for Green. The band was introduced to the most potent, LSD then available on the planet, straight from the personal stash of hip-chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III. For curiosity’s sake, here’s Peter Green jamming with the acid-fueled Grateful Dead at the Fillmore East in February 1970.

Prior to this period, Green was a straight-ahead blues-rock maestro, coloring the band’s traditional fare with his own distinctive guitar stylings and bluesy vocals. He also wrote their minor hit “Black Magic Woman” (later a monster hit for Santana). The LSD didn’t have an entirely deleterious effect on his music, at first seemingly opening him up to longer, more experimental work that can be heard on the band’s high-water mark album, Then Play On, and longer compositions that got airplay at this time, such as “Oh, Well” and “The Green Manalishi”. Here’s the latter song performed at a concert in Sweden.

These songs, along with the mournful “Man of the World,” offer glimpses into the darker state of Green’s mind. I saw the band perform at this juncture, with three guitarists—Green, Spencer and Danny Kirwan—and it ranks as among the most powerful rock shows I’ve seen. Fleetwood Mac was truly a peerless powerhouse before the Buckingham Nicks era.

On tour in Munich to promote Then Play On, Green fell in with a group of German hippies who had a Bavarian commune and a bottomless supply of drugs. Green ended up staying at their “High-Fish Commune” for some time after his Mac bandmates were unsuccessful at dragging him away. He began wearing robes and crucifixes and talking about giving away all his money. Soon after that, he officially left Fleetwood Mac and fell into a downward spin that found him without money or equipment (he’d given it all away) and working jobs as a hospital orderly and a gravedigger.

Just prior to this disappearance into the void, however, Green recorded an instrumental jam session with some top-flight British blues musicians (including keyboardist Zoot Money), which Reprise released as The End of the Game. Though the playing on this disc may wander a bit, the intensity of Green’s struggles are evident at every musical turn. The full End of the Game album is here:

By W.W.Thaler - H. Weber, Hildesheim (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By W.W.Thaler – H. Weber, Hildesheim (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By 1973, he had stopped playing altogether. Long hospital stays ensued to treat the catch-all diagnosis of schizophrenia. He underwent some sort of religious conversion (of a Christian hue) and released some solo albums filled with vaguely proselytizing tunes that lacked the fire of his Mac heyday. Still, his late-career resurgence has to be, in light of the depths to which he had previously fallen, something of a miracle. That is, by the late 1990s, he’d formed The Splinter Group, which released several albums and began touring. Here’s Green, playing live in Germany in 1998, doing a nice, if unspectacular, version of the old Mac cut “Albatross.”

In 2009, I saw Green and his band perform on a tour with an assemblage called Peter Green and Friends, sharing a bill with the ageless John Mayall. Mayall, who opened the show, went to great pains to tout Green’s greatness to the audience (as if they didn’t already know; John, hate to tell you this, but that’s why most of them came to the show!). Still, by the time Green came out for his set, it was obvious he was in fragile mental, if not physical, shape, having to be helped on and off the stage. Amazingly, Green is still performing occasionally today.

Roky Erickson

Roky Erickson was the driving force of the 13th Floor Elevators, the Austin-based rockers who collectively played their gigs on LSD—and proudly proclaimed this fact. This resulted in the comical vignette of the Elevators playing American Bandstand. After Roky Erickson and the boys lip-synched their best known song, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” squeaky clean Dick Clark asked them, “Who is the head of the group?” to which the band’s jug player, Tommy Hall, earnestly responded, “We’re all heads” and Clark quickly walked away. Check out this great moment in rock & roll history.

It wasn’t all fun and games and groovy acid trips, however. Erickson’s life and trajectory downward is told with compassion and harrowing honesty in a 2006 documentary, You’re Gonna Miss Me.

Syd Barrett

Speaking of missing in action, the name that seems to come up most often when the term “acid casualty” is bandied about is Syd Barrett. Syd Barrett’s decline and then salvation has been exhaustively covered elsewhere, and any fans of Pink Floyd’s later work is intimately familiar with it, because the band has written songs about Syd on subsequent albums, most pointedly “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”

Many other bands and musicians have written songs about Syd Barrett or dedicated to his memory, including Kevin Ayers, Robyn Hitchcock, Television Personalities, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Paul Weller and The Damned.

I would only like to add to this pile that I’ve found the most useful sources for material about Syd Barrett are the two books:

A Very Irregular Head: The Life of Syd Barrett by Rob Chapman (Da Capo)
A Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey by Nicholas Schaffner (Delta).

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