The Flowers Will Always Be There in My Heart - In Memory of Shawn Smith
The music playing overhead in a store can easily be taken for granted—and if the last three years have taught me anything, it’s that the music played overhead, day in and day out, can become a huge point of contention among the people who hear it regularly.
The day after I turned 16, I started working—my first job was at an Osco Drugstore in rural Illinois, and it was the job I held onto until shortly after I turned 18, with, if I’m not mistaken, my final day being the night before I left for college.
The music that played overhead was an eclectic mix—mostly pop music from the 1980s and 1990s. A lot of it was awful—“The Tide is High” by Blondie sticks out as being one of the most insufferable songs I was subjected to; most of it was forgettable, but on occasion, I would hear something subjectively ‘good,’ like “A Long December” by Counting Crows or “Barely Breathing” by Duncan Sheik.
Or, “The Day Brings.”
A piano-driven pop song with a soaring guitar solo, striking a melancholic, or at the very least, a bittersweet tone, in 1999, at age 16, I didn’t think to try and make out some of the lyrics, write them down, then use an early search engine to try and figure out who the song was by—and, surprisingly enough, something like Shazam was already in development, but was years away from even its earliest incarnation, so there was nothing that I could hold up to a speaker within the store to analyze the song’s spectrogram, in order to find out who it was.
I just knew it was a song I liked—but it was always a mystery to me, at that time, who was responsible for it, or even what it was called.
In the winter of 2001, after reading an article about the record in an electronic music magazine that I am unable to recall the name of, I blind bought a copy of Twilight as Played by The Twilight Singers, the debut full length from Greg Dulli’s post-Afghan Whigs band, The Twilight Singers.
It wasn’t until years later that I was able to learn a little bit more about the record’s long gestating history—originally a ‘side project’ between Dulli, Harold Chichester, and Shawn Smith, the record was recorded in 1997, and the material was allegedly leaked by the Whigs then-label Elektra—with whom Dulli had developed a contentious relationship with.
Following the resolution of his dispute with Elektra, The Afghan Whigs signed to Columbia to release their final album, 1998’s 1965; shortly after the tour in support of 1965, Dulli revisited Twilight as Played by, turning it over to the British electronic duo Fila Brazillia for remixing—crafting a record that was quite a surprising turn for those familiar with Dulli’s work prior to it.
It was during the second semester of my first year in college that I even thought to begin looking into the other names on the promotional sticker adhered to the jewel case of my copy of Twilight as Played by—combing post-Napster file sharing software like Audio Galaxy for things like A Touch of Cloth by Fila Brazillia, or Let it All Begin, as well as handful of songs from Live at The Point, both by Shawn Smith—the former being what you could say was his ‘solo debut,’ or at the very least, the first time he released a record under his own name, with the latter being a live recording from a 1999 performance in Philadelphia.
One of the songs I had downloaded off of Live at The Point was called “The Day Brings.”
That mystery, from years prior, was solved the moment I clicked ‘play.’
When something bad happens, more often than not, you hear about it through social media.
It was, strangely enough, through Shawn Smith’s personal Facebook page that I learned about Chris Cornell’s death in the spring of 2017.
And it was through an update to The Twilight Singers’ Facebook page—an outlet that is rarely updated at all now1—that learned about the passing of Shawn Smith on Saturday, April 6th.
Smith, 53, had died on April 5th—a day that is unfortunately synonymous2 with death in the Seattle music community. Initial reports stated Smith died due to complications from diabetes, but stories have now been updated to state that, per his mother, he died from a torn aorta and high blood pressure.
Originally from Spokane, Washington, Smith grew up in Bakersfield, California before returning to Washington—moving to Seattle at the end of the 1980s, and spent at least the early part of his career circling just outside of the growing grunge rock movement within the city.
The first band that Smith fronted was Brad—but throughout the earliest days of his time in Seattle, he was associated in some fashion with at least two other acts, and in looking at his recorded output over the course of his 25+ year career, the early to mid 1990s was the first of a handful of times of prolificacy for him as a singer and songwriter.
The band’s name was always a bit of a joke—they had, as the story goes, originally wanted to be called ‘Shame,’ but that name had already been taken by someone named Brad Wilson. Calling their 1993 debut Shame, the band inadvertently set itself up for difficulty—in both attempting to explain that it was a band named Brad, and not just one guy, as well as the eventual challenge that came from trying to search the internet for information about them.
Brad could be looked at as a bit of a collective, in a sense, thanks in part to the inclusion of Stone Gossard on guitar; his fame was rising quickly thanks to his role in Pearl Jam. Brad was rounded out with Regan Hagar on drums, who had previous played with Gossard in Mother Love Bone.
Things moved quickly during this time period—for both Smith, as well as the burgeoning musical movement in Seattle. It’s fascinating to look back now and try to figure out the overlap of specific performers spread over two or three groups, with some becoming more successful than others; it’s also difficult to fathom just how fast all of this was moving, and how busy some of these artists were during a three or four year period of time.
The year following Brad’s debut release, Smith fronted a group called Satchel, which was really the same band, but without Gossard, who had put the group on hiatus while he fulfilled duties with Pearl Jam. With the recruitment of a different guitarist, Satchel released its debut, EDC (Eternal Dark Covenant), in 1994.
The groups would respectively reform a few years later—Brad would issue Interiors in 1997, the album that included “The Day Brings,” and Satchel released The Family in 1998.
If fronting two bands weren’t enough, Smith also was a part of an electronic duo with Steve Fisk called Pigeonhed; they released two albums in this era of prolificacy—a self-titled effort in 1994, and The Full Sentence in 1997—the latter of which included a rather raunchy, self-described tribute to Prince entitled “Battle Flag,” which would later be interpolated the following year by an English production duo, the Lo-Fidelity All-Stars—their version would go on to find surprising success in America.
Brad reconvened in 2001, and the following year, released their third album, Welcome to Discovery Park. Near the end of 2003, Smith returned with Shield of Thorns, his second solo album—these two albums, recorded and released in a relatively short amount of time, are another one of Smith’s prolific bursts; the next would arrive in 2010, when new albums from both Brad and Satchel were released.
Prior to that, Smith issued his third proper solo effort, The Diamond Hand, in 2008.
It’s around this time, in 2010, that the last six or seven years of Smith’s discography becomes difficult to track, both as solo artist, and within a band—United We Stand, Brad’s fifth full length, was released in 2012, and at the time of his passing, Smith had allegedly been working with the band on new material. In 2011, Smith fronted what could be considered a ‘metal band,’ All Hail The Crown, reuniting him with Kevin Wood, one of the musicians he worked with during his earliest days in Seattle.
It was also during these later years, in 2011 and on, that Smith began self-releasing material via a Bandcamp page—including a number of old home and demo recordings from various parts throughout his career, along with a handful of live albums, EPs, full-length LPs, and one-off singles. There are a total of 42 releases on the page, the last being a sprawling, half-sung and half-spoken nine minute single entitled “Turn Out The Lights.”
There’s no release date attached to it, but it is at the top of the list, leading one to believe it was one of the last pieces he had written and recorded, sometime within 2018.
It would be difficult, maybe even impossible, to try to pin down Smith’s sound to one genre.
He always citied Prince as an influence and inspiration, so it’s not surprising then that Smith wasn’t so much ‘restless’ to find a sound throughout his career, but was more than willing to give exploration to just about anything.
Shame, Brad’s idiosyncratic debut release, is the kind of thing that a major label wouldn’t touch in 2019—an eccentric blend of grunge (primarily due to the pedigree of many members of the band) and funk, its best tracks—and this could be said for a lot of songs throughout Smith’s canon—are the ones that are the most pensive and burn the slowest. Shame contains two of the songs that remained staples of his live shows, even in latter years: “Buttercup” and “Screen.”
E.D.C. is even more of an esoteric listen—a little rougher around the edges, focusing more on the ‘rock’ in ‘alternative rock,’ it, too, contains one of Smith’s crowning achievements as a songwriter—the devastating closing track, “Suffering.”
Let it All Begin, the first album he issued under his own name, is even more of a challenge to describe sonically—there are times when it’s soulful, tender, and somber—sometimes all at once. It can also be surprisingly moody and atmospheric, opening with two of Smith’s most ethereal tracks, “My Very Best,” and the 4AD-inspired gauzy haze of “Someday.”
I hesitate to say that Smith’s latter day material is that of diminishing returns, but by the time you reach his self-released output from his Bandcamp site, it becomes clear that while still creative and incredibly prolific during what wound up being his final years, a lot of the music lacks the immediacy and focus of other, more successful songs he had written in his career.
I associate a bulk of Smith’s music with my years in college, simply because that was the time in my life when it first came to me—walking across campus, playing a CD-R of downloaded live mp3s in my headphones, or listening to Let it All Begin over and over while working in the scene shop in the campus theatre building so I could finish a final project for my first year Production Technique class.
About a month or so into my second year in college, I learned that Brad had released their third album—Welcome to Discovery Park, lucking out in finding a copy of it on CD at the record store in Dubuque, Moondog Music.
It was during my third year in college that I reached out to Smith through a Yahoo email address on his (now defunct) website. During one of our first exchanges, I had told him how much his music meant to me, and then, perhaps foolishly, asked if he knew when there was going to be a new Twilight Singers album.
Smith responded to me, which was such a surprise to me—thanking me for my kind words, but also telling me that he had not been asked by Greg Dulli to take part in another Twilight Singers LP.
It was also around this time that Smith was attempting to launch his own online store—The Establishment Store, but it was being met with a number of delays. In a time before I had a debit card to piss away the meager leavings in my bank account, I offered to write Smith a check, and mail it to him, in exchange for a copy of his sophomore solo album, Shield of Thorns—for a while, I was so star struck by this experience, I had saved the bubble mailer that the CD came my campus PO box in.
Even though it was recorded a number of years prior to that, Brad’s fourth full-length, Best Friends?, was issued via Pearl Jam’s vanity label Monkeywrench, in August of 2010. This was when I still worked in radio, and in an effort to promote the record, as well as Smith himself, I would play the single that had been released in advance of it—the guitar heavy “Rush Hour.”
This was early in my brief, wondrous foray into radio—given an hour-long time slot every weekday afternoon, which, eventually, turned into a pretty dramatic cry for help. During the darker period of the show, when Smith’s music found its way into my set, it was usually Satchel’s “Suffering,” or “Screen,” by Brad.
I’m not really sure just how I had become Facebook friends with Smith—apparently, it was a connection I made in May of 2010.
If I recall correctly, he rarely used the site3, and if he did, it was even more rare for him to talk about his own music on it—he did that, albeit sporadically, through a fan page—The Shawn Smith. His personal page was, mostly, the occasional update about his young son, Dove, or to joke about how difficult it was attempting to haul a keyboard on public transportation to a gig in Seattle.
The last time his personal page was updated4 was on March 31st—sharing a video of the rapper Nipsey Hustle, who had recently been murdered in Los Angeles.
I found a quote from Smith, from 2016, where he said that he never got into the music business to make money. “It was always about making the best songs that I could,” he said. “That was my goal—to be a songwriter.”
Despite spending roughly four or five years connected to Epic Records through both Brad and Satchel’s earliest output, as well as releasing two Pigeonhed records on Sub Pop, Smith was, sadly, never able to break out of his ‘cult following status.’
Even with the minor success that “The Day Brings” saw, even with his contributions to the Lo-Fidelity All-Star’s version of “Battle Flag,” which managed to land on the Billboard Alternative Rock charts within the top 10, even with his music used in films like the teen sex comedy The Girl Next Door, and the Ted Demme dramedy Beautiful Girls, or having his music included in episodes of “The Sopranos,” Smith still struggled, and it became a source of contention on social media in 2016.
A quick internet search will tell you that Xana La Fuente is a polarizing member of the Seattle music scene. Involved with Andrew Wood prior to his overdose in 1990, La Fuente is, to this day, a volatile part of the city’s music community, often being very vocal, and very critical, of other bands and artists from the early days of the grunge movement.
In 2016, La Fuente launched a Go Fund Me page to raise money for Smith—alleging that he was, more or less, homeless, as well as being in an all around bad mental state. I seem to remember that, at the time the page was set up, La Fuente was very critical of Stone Gossard, expressing her frustration that he was flourishing financially thanks to his time with Pearl Jam, yet he was letting his Brad bandmate flounder.
Smith addressed the Go Fund Me situation on Facebook5, stating that things were being grossly exaggerated, adding that he wanted to try and stop the campaign to raise funds, but it had gotten out of hand, and he wasn’t sure how to graciously approach it.
“I'm 50 years old. I don't even know where to begin to start a new job or career,” he said in the response. “It's been frightening not knowing how to proceed. I've never been good at regular jobs. My experience is convenience store clerk, Pizza Hut, flipping burgers in the mall food court and door guy. I want to do my real job, writing songs, performing them, placing them in movies and tv but it's been very difficult the last few years. Although due to this campaign I have new leads and insights. Yes, I need the help but I am not sick and the financial position I've been in was of my own making. The story in the Go Fund Me campaign painted me as a victim, which I am not.”
He concluded the post by stating that he’d offer refunds to anyone who donated and felt they had been duped by La Fuente’s exaggerations. A story on the Seattle based news website, The Stranger, said the campaign raised over $10,000.
I’m not really sure what became of the apparent $10,000 raised in Smith’s name—if he took the money, or if he gave any of it back to people who felt he didn’t deserve it, or it had been raised under false pretenses.
In 2015, and again in 2017, Smith went on short, moderately successful tours of small venues in the UK—capturing one of the 2015 shows for a live album he released on his Bandcamp page. I don’t know if he had a larger following abroad than he did outside of the Pacific Northwest, but it seemed that audiences were more interested, and therefore he was more willing to make the trek overseas.
A stark juxtaposition was the fact that, also in 2015, he and his one-time Twilight Singers bandmate Harold Chichester, attempted to book a tour of house shows in the United States, and were more or less, unable to do so.
As difficult as the Go Fund Me debacle certainly was, there is a part of me that wonders if it served as a small ‘wake up call,’ if you will, to Smith. As he rarely used social media with any regularity, he did spend time on Twitter at the beginning of this year responding to fan tweets and questions—some of them with a mix of ambiguity and bluntness, confessing he’d be surprised if he ever played a show outside of Seattle6 again.
When I was 18, during my first year in college, listening to Let it All Begin regularly, there was a song on it that is still, to this day, one of my favorites off of the record, as well as one of my favorite songs from Smith. It’s surprisingly upbeat, or at least not as downcast and somber as songs like “Screen” or “Suffering” are.
“Land of Gold” is the third track on the record—one of the most soulful of the collection of 10. There’s something about it—perhaps it’s the crisp sound of the hi-hat cymbals and snare hit, or the warmth of the electric piano, but it reminds me a lot of an old, 1970s Motown song; the kind of song that carefully treads a line between bittersweet and hopeful; the kind of song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place running over the ending credits of a movie.
The refrain of the song includes the lyric “I am not afraid to die.”
For the longest time, when I was young, I was afraid of dying—specifically dying in my sleep. In retrospect, it was a completely irrational fear for someone in their early 20s to have developed.
I have a memory of listening to “Land of Gold,” and the girl that I was involved with during this time (three of my four years in college) said something to the effect of “This song could never be about you,” because she knew of my irrational fear of death.
I think about that exchange whenever I hear this song, still, even today.
I don’t think I’m afraid of death. Not anymore.
Because it’s just a change—not an end.7
Shawn Smith played his final live show in January of this year, celebrating the 15th anniversary of Café Racer’s in Seattle. I don’t know if he knew then how compromised his health was, or if he knew how quickly he was deteriorating.
I wonder if he was still unafraid of death.
It’s just a change—not an end.
And you’re wrapped in my memory like chains
For I say that the flowers will always be there in my heart
Like an old fashioned movie
And I never forget your part
1- Difficult to explain this all within the context of the essay proper but here it goes as a footnote: The Twilight Singers as, more or less, a trio, was a one-off thing, and by the time Dulli resurrected the project in 2003 with Blackberry Belle, it shared a number of sonic similarities to his work with The Afghan Whigs—serving as an extension of the Whigs, in some regard. The Twilight Singers, as a name, or a group, has pretty much been retired since 2011, in favor of Dulli reuniting the Whigs in 2013.
2- Kurt Cobain died on April 5th, 1994, and Layne Stanley of Alice in Chains, died on April 5th, 2002. It is especially unfortunate that Smith died on the 25th anniversary of Cobain’s passing.
3- I tried interacting with Smith on Facebook a few times in 2013 and received no response; most of the time, it seemed like old fans of Brad and Satchel would post photos of ephemera with the hope to elicit a response from him.
4- His son Dove has since updated the personal page with a message regarding Smith’s death.
5- For as great as Facebook thinks it is, there is no easy way, that I am aware of, to go back to a specific year on somebody’s page. I had to scroll through nearly three years of posts on Smiths’ personal profile to find the information about the Go Fund Me situation.
6- This is too much of an aside to try to have shoehorned into the piece, but when my wife and I traveled to Seattle in 2017, I tried looking for his CDs in the record stores I went in, under the ‘local artists’ section, and came up empty handed. There was a small part of me that also hoped I would have just run into him while we walked around various neighborhoods in the city.
7- This is a quote that means a lot to me from an episode of “Twin Peaks: The Return.”