At Brett Smiley's wake on the evening of January 13, a week after he died in his Carroll Gardens apartment (thank God), his people had set up a small TV display, and were playing DVD-Rs of some of his performances in the early aughts, backed by a band that featured his childhood pal Errol Bulut on lead guitar. They were taped at places like Pianos, the Lower East Side back room, and some joint on Chrystie Street where there's a sliding glass door leading to the sidewalk behind the stage. As we watched, another friend, a musician himself, observed of Brett, "He's really on point here." He was/is; singing voice strong, his right hand steady and straight across the strings of his black Ovation Celebrity. He sang some songs from his much-hyped but abortive 1974 debut album Breathlessly Brett, which was finally released to what they call "cult acclaim" in 2003, and a bunch of newer tunes. solid if not world-shaking stuff. The exception being the anti-anthemic "I Ain't So Cool Anymore," in which a onetime cock-of-the-walk looks back on some ruins. "I went to the doctor and he looked at my blood/a Fifty-five Scotch and a forty-five slug/He said you ain't/so cool/anymore." Of course the fact that the character/singer/Brett could still stand up and sing the song suggested that there was some cool in reserve. And anyway, yeah, he and his band were delivering. We asked Errol when the performances dated from; he said 2005, 2006.
I first met Brett in 2010. Something had clearly gone wrong, or maybe I should say further wrong, in the interim.
Brett and I made our acquaintance a short while after I had taken my last drink. The correspondence was not coincidental. We had a shared interest in staying away from drink and drugs, and in short order, a mutual friend—a well-intentioned but somewhat brash and pushy fellow in certain respects—suggested it would be a capital idea were I to "work" with Brett on more actively promoting that interest. I did not consider myself competent to do so in any way, shape, or form, but Brett was actually rather eager for me to help him out, so there I was.
Even though he could be very chatty, I was not the recipient of the raconteur material Brett could lavish on wide-eyed interlocutors from various and sundry fanzines as they tracked him down over the years. The story of how at a performing arts high school in Los Angeles he was in a woodshop class with Michael Jackson, and how he and Jackson were partnered on making a chessboard and how they got a D on the project—I only heard about that the other night, at Brett’s wake. I had seen the Breathlessly Brett CD at Other Music when it had came out, and I knew of Nina Antonia’s book The Prettiest Star: Whatever Happened to Brett Smiley, but I never put together my Brett with Brett Smiley, not until about seven months after we’d really started to get to know each other, and someone said, “Oh you’ve never seen Brett’s infamous British talk show debut?” I had not. Eventually Brett had mentioned the book, and I looked at the clip from the Russell Harty Show in 1974 on YouTube. "Well, that was interesting," I said, discussing it a little later. He looked at me as if he was expecting me to follow up with "What the hell did you go and do to yourself," but I did not, so he said, "You know, I was never really into glam rock." And I said something like "Pshaw. You were into rock, and you were into dressing up. Of course you were into glam rock." As a Broadway baby, though, he was more enamored of traditional "quality" vocalizing than the contorted, strained post-Anthony-Newley-isms of David Bowie's Stardust period. Nor did he have much use for Varispeed Munchkinized backing vocals. A bit of a classicist, as his "Over The Rainbow" on Breathlessly Brett testifies.
By spring and early summer of 2012 we'd developed a bit of a routine: early morning at the place where we got coffee, then off with one or two other coffee-drinkers to Court Street Grocers, where we'd get a proper breakfast. When Brett was in an up mood, he could get awfully garrulous. "Eat your sandwich, Brett," I'd have to say to him periodically. I once timed him. Ninety minutes for one Breakfast Sandwich. It was unbelievable. I don't remember what he was talking about.
There had been one time when we were chatting, about stuff he was going to do—there was always stuff he was going to do—and he mentioned that he'd recently found some demos he'd made in the late '70s, that Del Shannon had produced. "Ooh, Del Shannon," I said, as one will. Yes, Brett replied, Del Shannon. This time in Del's life had not been good, he continued, laying out some observations on Shannon's drinking, and some struggles involving sexuality. "Hold on, hold on," I interjected. "Del Shannon was gay? Wow, all of a sudden so much makes sense..."
Couple months later and we're doing the Breakfast With Brett Club and somehow the subject comes up again, out of my mouth. And Brett looks at me like I'm nuts.
"Del Shannon wasn't gay." His somewhat nasal speaking voice crackled a bit when he was mildly agitated. "Who told you Del Shannon was gay?"
I sputtered, as one will. Okay, as I will. "Dude, you did."
He rolled his eyes. "Oh forget it. Del Shannon wasn't gay." He paused reflectively and looked at me again. "Everyone experiments."
He had me there.
If I were going to write a memorial of Proustian length I would make it about Brett's Roommate Situation, because I could, but I'll limit myself to one anecdote, which I file under "Brett Smiley's Iron Will." Sometime wintery time in 2011, I think, Brett had acquired a roommate, a sort-of musician who looked like an aged prototype for Father John Misty and/or one of the Deliverance rapists. I did not really warm to him, and kept my distance. One day Brett told me the fellow had found a turntable out on the street, brought it back to the apartment and worked on it a bit, and now, when they weren't sniping at each other over nothing, they were enjoying Classic Rock (Beatles, etc.) On Vinyl. Groovy. Eventually Brett decided this guy had got to go, and he asked that I come by the apartment on the day of the move and help the guy take his stuff down from the fourth-floor walkup, and make sure nothing untoward happened during this fellow's departure. "Sure," I said.
"There's one thing though."
"I'm keeping that turntable."
So I spent about ninety minutes reasoning with Brett as to why if this guy wanted to take the turntable out with him, he was entirely entitled, and that this kind of self-centered thinking went against several important principles and that insisting on keeping the turntable would hinder Brett's SPIRITUAL GROWTH. And Brett was very calm and very receptive and said, "Everything you are saying is absolutely one hundred percent right."
"But I want to keep the turntable."
How could you not love this guy? Really.
Anyway. The time came when the beardo was pretty much all packed, and he didn't even mention the turntable, so that was the end of that. "Don't gloat," I said to Brett. "Oh I won't," he said.
For all that steel, he could not get it together to do what he had done on those stages a relatively mere half-decade before. I will not go into the shambolic gigs I and his good roommates would escort him to and from. Suffice it to say that if you think the bottom of the barrel in New York rock-and-roll is sitting in the Continental at 2 a.m. enduring some seventh-billed band while trying to shake off the cocaine and Jagermeister sweats, you ought to consider yourself lucky. The poor guy. A couple of years ago I acquired a snazzy new Gibson guitar of storied model number and I showed it off to him one day. "It's heavy," he said as he lifted it. He played a verse and a chorus of "I Ain't So Cool Anymore." Without swagger. It was pretty heartbreaking. His body was dealing with a huge variety of ailments—various outlets have named hepatitis and HIV. I don't want to be indiscreet but honestly that was the tip of the iceberg. He was pretty funny about it sometimes. There was this outpatient facility he went to that he called "HIV Romper Room." Addicts in recovery like to say that drinking and drugs had made their lives unmanageable, but the thing about Brett that I often got was that he'd never had any schooling on managing his own life in the first place. And by the time I met him, he was in such crummy shape physically that I don't think there was a single day that he wasn't in some kind of pain. I took him to the hospital at least once for every year I knew him. After which I'd buy him a Vonnegut book (that was his favorite author) and encourage him to stay in the hospital for as long as he could. He needed full time care, I always thought, but the intersection of America's highly frayed social safety net and the aforementioned Iron Will meant this was not possible.
What stories he told me in these down times weren't of past rock and roll glories, but of lost loves and fuckups. He was gratified that I knew of Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith, with whom he costarred in a '70s softcore pastiche of Cinderella (which I have on DVD but have never had the heart, or lack of it, to watch), and who died of a heroin overdose in 2002. A tale of a particularly harrowing arrest in Broward County—he still had a warrant outstanding in Florida in recent years, and we were both rather flummoxed about what he could do about it—was how I learned that he had actually had a bit part in American Gigolo, because he associated his part in the picture with his time in jail.
That's Brett at far left, number 1. Richard Gere, far right, is number 5.
Once or twice in our travels, Brett and I ran into a female friend of mine, someone not in our shared circle. She told me recently that, his haggardness and slightly distracted mien notwithstanding, she could see a "flare" of his still-present charisma emanating from him. Indeed. But even that started to go out once he injured himself in a way that further damaged his appearance, and at that time, a few months before the August 2013 photo was taken, I began to worry even more about what life was going to bring to Brett. At his wake, Brett's brother-in-law, the writer Richard Pyle, observed that throughout his life, Brett had experienced "all the luck in the world." ALL OF IT, he emphasized—the good and the bad. In the past couple of years the luck had been a lot of bad. It was absolutely a mercy that when his terribly, terribly frail body went out on him for the very last time, he was at home, not out on the street, out on the subway, out in some bad company. It's a shame, though, that he was alone. I miss him terribly. He drove his poor sister Brenda completely crazy over so many years, and at his funeral, she quoted Hamlet—yes, Act Five, Scene Two. "Now cracks a noble heart/good night, sweet prince." And yes, exactly, I feel exactly the same goddamn way.
UPDATE: With respect to Cheryl Smith's cause of death, see Paulina Victoria's comment below. My citation derived from a recollection of a conversation with Brett. The Wikipedia entry cites complications from liver disease and hepatitis. I don't want to be the cause of more confusion so I've struck (as of January 20 2016) the information in this post.
Personal thanks to Gered Mankowitz for allowing me to use his beautiful images, and supplying me with the materials.