Craig Smith

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Craig Smith's journey from the mid-'60s to the early '70s was an almost prototypical one in the Los Angeles rock community, but perhaps exaggerated to extremes. Like many, he started his recording career…
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Craig Smith's journey from the mid-'60s to the early '70s was an almost prototypical one in the Los Angeles rock community, but perhaps exaggerated to extremes. Like many, he started his recording career in fairly normal pop folk-rock, and got into stranger psychedelia as time went on. He also got into stranger lifestyles, apparently, with shades of Eastern philosophy, drugs, and the occult. What also set him apart from others in the Southern California milieu was his utter obscurity, his recorded legacy largely captured on a couple of extremely small press-run LPs in the early '70s. For those who bother to find the music, Smith was actually a good folk-rocker whose projects deserved wider exposure, though his solo early-'70s recordings (in contrast to earlier ones as part of the group the Penny Arkade) were unsettlingly spooky in their tripped-out weirdness.

In 1966, Smith made an obscure Capitol single as part of the duo Chris & Craig, with fellow singer/songwriter Chris Ducey. Smith and Ducey continued to work together in the group the Penny Arkade, which also included bassist Don Glut and drummer Bobby Donaho. Despite their name, the Penny Arkade were not sunshine pop, but solid folk-rock, very much in the mold of Buffalo Springfield, though more inclined to lighter music that could echo the earthier efforts of the Monkees. The Penny Arkade did quite a bit of recording around 1967 for Monkee Mike Nesmith, who produced the band and tried to help get them a record deal. They never did, though, and nothing was released by the group at the time, though about an album's worth of tracks would show up on the LPs that Smith put out in the early '70s under the name of Maitreya Kali.

Smith only wrote and sang about half of the tracks with the Penny Arkade, with Chris Ducey assuming those duties on the others. Generally, Smith was the poppier and lighter of the two, and Ducey the rougher and harder rocking. Smith, however, was certainly responsible for writing and singing some good Penny Arkade recordings, such as "Country Girl." That song was covered by Glen Campbell, and the Monkees did another composition cut by the Penny Arkade, "Salesman." Andy Williams, oddly enough, did another Smith song, "Holly," which is not among the Penny Arkade songs that appear on the Maitreya Kali LPs.

With the royalties from the cover versions of his songs, Smith traveled around the world when the Penny Arkade broke up in the late '60s. Here is where the already mysterious story gets a lot stranger. When he returned to the United States, those who knew him agree that Smith had gotten a lot more far-out. In the early '70s, he slapped together old Penny Arkade recordings with newer solo acoustic ones that, while still pretty, are a bit creepy and odd in the manner of a somewhat less cutting-edge Dino Valente or Skip Spence. These were issued, on LPs pressed in small enough quantities to qualify as vanity jobs, on a couple of albums, Apache and Inca, credited to the name under which Smith was now going, Maitreya Kali. "Love and pain are one and the same," he sings on "Ole Man," a sentiment that, like some others heard in other Smith solo songs on the two LPs, gets a little too close to Charles Manson territory for comfort.

Smith/Maitreya Kali made himself more exotic and mysterious with the record covers, which are crudely patched together from photos of the apparent perpetuator taken on his travels around the world, hand-drawn inscrutable symbols for religious deities and planetary bodies, and rambling written dedications and musician credits. He wrote, inaccurately, in the liner notes to the first of those records, Apache (1971), that he did all instruments and vocals. Various famous people are mentioned as friends and cohorts on the liner notes, including Mike Nesmith, session musician Steve Douglas, producer Nick Venet, and Frank Zappa (a handwritten comment by Zappa about one Maitreya Kali song is reproduced on the cover of Apache). There are prominent dedications to Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, "Lord and Lady Lennon," and Paul Butterfield without any certain evidence that he knew any of those musicians. (The Neil Young reference makes sense given that a few of the songs mildly recall Young's work in his Buffalo Springfield days.)

There are also quotes, some (whether they were real or not) about Maitreya Kali from Batman star Adam West, Jerry Garcia, Charles Manson, Andy Williams, and Bobby Troup. The liner notes are in a scrambled syntax that only renders them inscrutable, but is of a style that one associates with the mentally ill. To make matters more confusing, the liner notes of Inca claim that the material was recorded over a period of ten years. Finally, the albums have also been credited to Satya Sai Maitreya Kali, although they are usually classified in the few discographies that list them as albums by Maitreya Kali, alphabetized under "M." Another edition of this material combined both records on a double LP.

These extremely rare records developed a reputation among very, very hardcore psychedelic collectors, the kind who have records that very few people have ever physically seen, let alone heard. Now the interesting, though not genius, work of Smith, whether with the Penny Arkade or using the alias Maitreya Kali, can be heard on a double-CD reissue on Normal/Shadoks that pairs Apache with Inca.