On the brink of stardom, with help from Michael Nesmith, Mike Love and Glen Campbell, Craig Smith took a different, far darker path, taking the name Maitreya Kali and ending up on the streets of LA. Now, with help from Mike Stax, editor and publisher of Ugly Things, his music will survive
When Mike Stax first heard about Craig Smith, he thought the talented, but forgotten musician’s story would make a good piece for Ugly Things, the acclaimed magazine dedicated to “wild sounds from past dimensions” that he founded 35 years ago. However, what began a magazine story in the fall of 2013 ended three years later with the publication of his book, Swim Through the Darkness: My Search for Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali, one of the more harrowing of rock ‘n’ roll cautionary tales.
Craig Smith had it all: movie star looks, beautiful singing voice, perfect Pepsodent smile, great songwriting, guitar and people skills. He began his career in 1963 with the squeaky-clean Good Time Singers, the contingent that backed Andy Williams on his popular TV show and toured separately as a folk group, ala the New Christy Minstrels. Smith was the squeaky cleanest of the bunch. (He also wrote songs for Williams, Glen Campbell and The Monkees, and the residuals from those sustained 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 in 1966.
This rare audio-only clip, posted by Bob Bowers—who composed, arranged and conducted the music for The Happeners—offers a sense of what lay in store
The Dave Clark Five make a cameo appearance in this Happeners’ clip
A well-received pilot for The Happeners was filmed. But then…nothing happened. A random decision by executives canceled the contract, and Smith drifted back to Los Angeles with his guitar, joining fellow “Happener” Chris Ducey in a duo called Chris and Craig that released one single on Capitol Records in 1966, “Isha” b/w “I Need You.”
Chris and Craig recorded another single around the same time, “I Can’t Go On,” that was not released until many years later:
The duo came to the attention of Michael Nesmith, one of The Monkees (whose popular show was not unlike what The Happeners might have been and, in fact, Craig Smith was considered for the role that eventually went to Peter Tork). 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.
“Country Girl,” written by Craig Smith, was recorded by Penny Arkade in 1968:
After Penny Arkade failed to land a record contract—even after recording an album’s worth of original music—Smith began to drift. Though he hung out on Sunset Strip and befriended a who’s who of LA’s music scene (Neil Young, Richie Furay, Mike Love, Frank Zappa, etc.), he also turned to hallucinogenic drugs, meditation and a smattering of Eastern religion, voraciously reading books on mysticism and diving headlong into TM, at Mike Love’s prodding. It was as though he was in a struggle to find equilibrium as his mind began to unravel. He began telling friends that God had appeared to him in the clouds above the Mojave Desert and he knew his “mission” was now one of self-discovery more than writing pop songs. All the while, though, he also continued to play with Penny Arkade.
He took off for Europe in May 1968. Filled with renewed spiritual confidence, he called the Beatles’ office in London. “The Beatles and I could not meet at this point in time,” he grandiosely wrote in his travelogue. “Mainly because they were searching for my Truth and the ultimate piece of the puzzle I hadn’t encountered yet.”
By October, he was in Turkey, taking LSD on a daily basis while heading toward India by way of Afghanistan. In Kandahar, later the breeding ground of the Taliban, he was beaten, raped and robbed by a gang of men who stole his passport, travelers’ checks and the cherished Martin guitar he’d bought from Hoyt Axton years earlier. He ended up in an Afghan mental asylum. Through the American embassy, he was able to get out and eventually get back home. As Stax has written, “the trauma of that experience appears to have triggered acute schizophrenia.”
He returned to Los Angeles a changed person, worse for wear. He told former friends that he was no longer Craig Smith, that he’d ascended to a higher consciousness and henceforth was to be known as “Maitreya”—the next Buddha, the new Messiah. He was able, somehow, to resurrect his music career, even as his intake of LSD and pot fueled his messianic delusions. After the Manson Family murders in August 1969, though, anyone affiliated with the entertainment industry who was walking around L.A. claiming to be a messiah was given wide berth. According to Stax, Smith had met Charles Manson the year before at Dennis Wilson’s house and noticed how the charismatic hanger-on—Manson was then in search of an album deal—used fear and intimidation to keep his followers in line.
Ultimately, Craig Smith had his name legally changed to Maitreya, shaved his head, and wore the robes of a Buddhist monk. The final sign of his leap into oblivion was that he had a spider tattoo drawn on his forehead, the spot of his “glowing Third Eye.” “Like Manson and his followers, who’d carved an X in the same spot,” noted Stax, “he appeared to be X-ing himself out of society completely.”
Somehow, through this gathering haze, Craig was able to self-finance and self-produce two albums under the name Satya Sai Maitreya Kali, Apache and Inca. On the cover of the albums, which he sold on the street, he included handwritten liner notes that read, among other things, “Craig Smith saved the planet, did you? He died for a righteous cause…Bow to Maitreya…Christ is me and no one else.”
Over the next few years, he spent time in prison, mental institutions but mostly homeless on the streets of Studio City and North Hollywood.
To research and unravel this mystery, Stax pursued every lead, most of which led to dead ends. Though he lives in San Diego, Stax made periodic trips up the coast to LA in hopes of tracking Smith down. He was never able to make face to face contact with Smith, though some of his friends did.
Here is an unofficial recording of Apache:
Both Apache and Inca became instant collectibles. Even while Craig Smith was alive and living on the streets of Los Angeles, copies of the Apache/Inca double album were fetching upwards of $10,000 on eBay—unbeknownst to the one person on the planet who desperately needed the cash.
This sort of news only made Smith’s fate seem that much more tragic to Stax. As he wrote in Swim Through the Darkness: “It was music that started me on this long, strange journey to find Craig Smith. That search plunged me into an ocean of darkness and mystery that at times seemed impenetrable. The music was my compass as I swam deeper into the past. It helped me keep my bearings. It gave Craig a voice. It gave him shape and substance. It made him real to me. It gave my search meaning.”
Finally, through a friend in Los Angeles, Stax learned that Craig Smith had been found dead in a North Hollywood park in March 2012—only a few blocks from where he grew up—and that his remains had lain unclaimed at the L.A. County coroner’s office for six months.
If this story can be said to have a happy ending, Stax’s wishes to bring more attention to Smith’s music have now come true. After his acclaimed book was published in 2016, Stax was contacted by Gary Smith, Craig’s older brother. He told Stax that his brother had entrusted him with his possessions before wandering off into oblivion. For more than four decades, Gary held on to these treasures, among which were some tapes of unreleased music. Most of the music was recorded between stays in the psychiatric ward. These songs were, Stax notes, “written, sung and played by a man who, by all accounts, had lost his mind.” Maybe so, but he retained enough grasp on some deep, immutable truths of human existence and, somehow—perhaps even miraculously—got them down on tape.
Stax, with Gary Smith’s help, put together a superb album’s worth of Craig Smith’s unreleased songs, Love Is Our Existence, which has just been released. It is the sort of album that makes one wonder where Smith could have taken his talents had he not been sidetracked by drugs and mental illness.
Most of the songs were recorded in the years 1969-71, after Craig Smith returned from his traumatic Asian sojourn. Some of the songs had been written years before, including “Country Girl,” which Glen Campbell covered on his Try A Little Kindness album after hearing the demo (included here).
The songs that he wrote at this time, though, are what stick out on Love Is Our Existence, particularly the psychedelicized “Rainbow Colors” and the harrowing “Jupiter’s Queen.” Most reveal, upon repeated listenings, the darkness into which he was slipping. The finger-picked guitar playing is superb, the singing is rich and the songs stand the test of time. Love Is Our Existence seems almost a miracle, given the circumstances under which they were created.
We talked to Mike Stax about Craig Smith.
PKM: How did Craig Smith’s music and story come to your attention? Had you heard of him, or the Penny Arkade, before you began investigating?
Mike Stax: My first exposure to Craig’s music was in 2001 via a 2-CD set titled Apache/Inca and credited to Maitreya Kali. I was aware of those albums prior to this, but had never actually heard them. I was immediately captivated by his voice and the quality of his songwriting. At that time no one knew who Craig Smith was or of his connection to a group called the Penny Arkade. All that was known was that he self-released these two albums in very small quantities in the early 1970s. The artwork of the albums was bizarre, to say the least, amateurishly laid out, and accompanied by cryptic, often incoherent, liner notes proclaiming that he, Maitreya, was a Christ-like prophet who would be crowned “King of the World” in 2000 A.D. All evidence suggested that this was the work of a deeply disturbed individual. Yet the music within was sharply focused and exceptionally well-crafted. That paradox fascinated me, and the more I listened to the music, the more I liked it. There were stark, haunting acoustic folk numbers, but also electric folk-rock in a similar vein to the Byrds or the Buffalo Springfield (later I discovered these were recorded when he was part of a band called the Penny Arkade). There were also snippets of dialogue between the tracks, field recordings of some sort—more clues from a story yet to be told. It wasn’t long before I became obsessed with unraveling the mystery of Maitreya Kali.
PKM: Did your search start out, like so many others, as a way to revive “wild sounds from past dimensions” and then, at some point, you realized this was more of a human tragedy than a musical story?
Mike Stax: From the outset I knew that this was going to be different to the usual rock band stories I was used to researching. As I began to track people down and tap into their memories, I realized I was heading into some dark and possibly even dangerous waters.
PKM: Craig Smith was still alive when you were working on this story. Was he aware that you were writing about him? How close did you come to actually tracking him down? Some of your friends were able to locate him, right?
Mike Stax: It became apparent fairly early on that Craig had had some serious mental problems and was most likely homeless. Finding someone called Smith with no fixed address was almost impossible. I employed the services of a private investigator and the material he gave me confirmed that Craig had been homeless for many years, occasionally staying at seedy, low-rent hotels. There was very little else to go—no credit record, no car registration, no marriages, no children, and—apparently—no criminal record. He turned out to be wrong on the last count, but it would be years before I uncovered that.
Eventually I learned that some of the people from Craig’s old North Hollywood neighborhood would sometimes see on him on the streets there. He was apparently in pretty rough shape, and was usually uncommunicative, but sometimes it was possible to engage him in a brief conversation about his music. One friend, Jim, told Craig I was looking for him and gave him my phone number. Jim would give me updates on various Craig sightings and occasionally I would drive up there and search for him at his regular haunts. But I was never able to find him. I also alerted some of my other friends in L.A. and eventually one of them, Chris, spotted him one night outside a fast food pizza place. When approached, Craig was polite but didn’t have much to say, but Chris was able to give him my phone number along with a copy of Ugly Things and a CD of the Penny Arkade. Needless to say, Craig never called.
PKM: Had you found Craig Smith before he died, what would you have asked him?
Mike Stax: I’ve run that scenario through my head countless times over the years. I suppose I would have asked him first about his music, his memories of writing and recording specific songs. I’ve no idea how responsive he might have been. I hoped somehow to be able to reconnect him with his royalties and help him get back on his feet. In retrospect that may have been an unrealistic goal.
“Craig Smith Saved the Planet. Did You?”
PKM: Had he not been sidetracked by chronic mental illness, what sort of career do you imagine Smith having in the music business?
Mike Stax: I’ve no doubt whatsoever that if Craig hadn’t been struck down by schizophrenia—triggered by that brutal attack in Afghanistan—he would’ve had a successful career in the music business. The fact that artists like Glen Campbell, Andy Williams and the Monkees selected his songs to record out of the hundreds they were offered tells you that he had something special. In the early ‘70s, Craig could easily have competed with commercially successful singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne, James Taylor and Cat Stevens. Or he could’ve put together a band to showcase his voice and material. There was no limit to what he could have accomplished. His talent was immense.
PKM: Craig Smith’s recorded output had an instantly engaging sound, part sunny Southern California pop, part catchy, melodious folk. But there was a darker edge, buried beneath that surface, that makes his songs more memorable. Why is it, I wonder, that we love the dark music of people like Nick Drake, Tim Hardin, Phil Ochs and Craig Smith more than sunny pop music that they would, under better conditions, be capable of creating?
Mike Stax: I think all of the most compelling art mixes both light and shadow. That blend resonates so strongly with us because it mirrors the human condition. That contrast was exceptionally strong in Craig’s work, and I feel it was there almost from the beginning, well before his problems with mental illness overtook him.
PKM: Is there any chance of giving Apache and Inca proper reissues?
Mike Stax: Craig’s brother Gary and I have formed a record label and publishing company called Maitreya Apache Music to preserve and release Craig’s work. Giving Apache and Inca a good quality, legitimate reissue is definitely part of our plan.
PKM: Does Gary Smith have any other artifacts from his brother’s musical legacy that might see the light of day?
Mike Stax: There are several tracks that we didn’t include on the Love is Our Existence release, as well as various photos, and an extraordinary 120-page manuscript written by Craig in 1970. Hopefully more material will turn up. The search continues.
Mike Stax is the editor and publisher of the respected rock & roll history magazine Ugly Things. As well as writing the liner notes for hundreds of reissues, he is the author or co-author of several books, including Swim Through the Darkness: My Search for Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali.