Sunday, February 28, 2010

Through The Looking Glass: Brett Smiley's Long, Strange Journey

This is a repost of phone interviews I conducted with Brett Smiley and Nina Antonia in  February 2005, shortly before the publication of Nina's book, The Prettiest Star. 

Through The Looking Glass:
Brett Smiley's Long, Strange Journey

Glam rocker Brett Smiley recorded his sole album Breathlessly Brett in 1973. Smiley was touted as a wunderkind by his producer, the legendary Andrew Loog Oldham. After the single "Va Va Va Voom" proved a minor success on the UK charts, Smiley and the unreleased album disappeared til author Nina Antonia and music historian Phil King unearthed the long forgotten gem in 2003. The album, now available from RPM Records has received somewhat of an underground buzz, being played on KXLU and Indie1031 in Los Angeles, London's Resonance FM and WFMU in New Jersey. I recently interviewed Antonia and Smiley about those heady glam days of the early '70s, and their collaboration on the book The Prettiest Star, Smiley's bio/glam memoir.

Interview with Nina Antonia 2/16/05

Author Nina Antonia is a child of glam. Raised in London, in a dysfunctional household, she grew up in the early '70s Glam boys like the New York Dolls and Brett Smiley left an indelible impression on her. Antonia eventually forged a career as a music journalist, penning biographies of Johnny Thunders, the New York Dolls and Peter Perret of the UK phenomenon the Only Ones. Her latest undertaking is The Prettiest Star, a bio of "junkglam" rocker Brett Smiley. I spoke with Nina about meeting Brett, the idea behind "The Prettiest Star" and glam rock in general.

For The Prettiest Star, Antonia wanted to employ a more personal, emotional approach to the subject than her previous biographies. "The last book I wrote, in 1998,"Antonia says, "was the New York Dolls biography. After I wrote that book I wanted to keep writing about the music experience and my heroes, but I wanted to write about it in a less biographical way and The Prettiest Star is actually like split screen, juxtaposing between my life and Brett's life. It's really about searching for a lost pop idol."

Antonia wanted to approach the book in a more emotional way than most music bios, which tend to detail only the most glamorous and debauched images of fame. "It doesn't explain why people become fans of things and ways that it might become a problem I had a very dysfunctional family so music gave me as it did for thousands of people another dimension. But I just wanted to explore that. I don't know what it's like in the States, but over here the pop or the rock experience is male dominated. You don't have as many women talking about why they got into music hundreds of books testifying why men got into the rock scene. We have books written about the rock experience by guys but we really don't have any by women, so I wanted to try and do that." The road to The Prettiest Star was not an easy one. "I ambled along trying to find things out about Brett from 1974 onwards and, eventually, I sort of gave up. It seemed too difficult, especially long distance. Then Antonia went to a gallery opening for a Marc Bolan photo exhibit. "I met a guy, Danny, who was well versed in glam. I hadn't asked anybody about Brett Smiley and he said a friend of mine got in touch with him through the Internet and I was really shocked." Danny's friend was Phil King, who helped compile the Glitterbest and Glitter From the Litterbin glam collections. (King also played bass in Lush and Jesus and Mary Chain.) "Between the two of us we worked on getting in touch with Brett and getting the CD Breathlessly Brett out. I called Brett one night and we just got to talking. I told him that I had his single as a teen-ager and his picture on the wall.

"It took me about 3 years to finish the book." Says Antonia. " I'm not interested in superstars. I'm interested different aspects of the popular music experience other than the typical mainstream. I wanted to explore the glam days and make them live again. So it was like a journey into the past for him and for me."

"The crux of the book deals with stardom, music and its effect not only on the performer, but on the fan. When I was 14 and saw him on the show you think people on TV are having this fantastic life and he looked particularly glamorous. So you daydream they sort of live on the stars and you live on earth, so I liked writing about that. Just the daydream about wanting to be a star. The thing the crux when I was Brett was on the Russell Harty Show (a talk show in England that featured an eclectic variety of guests) you think, "what a fantastic life." It looks glamorous. They live in the stars and you live on earth. It's about that and it's also about. the daydream about wanting to be a star. What happened to him was far from starry, but it was a nice fantasy."

I mention that I know many teenage kids today who seemed consumed by images of the 1960s and 1970s and eschew the current MTV culture crammed in their faces. "It's a search for free space," Antonia comments, "It's not sponsored by this or taken over by that. It's freer . You take an active part It's not homogenized, not something you can find in a shopping mall. It's important to young people to be unique in some way."

The first half of the book deals with childhood and Brett's life up to the making of Breathlessly Brett. "They were difficult years for both of us in completely different ways. What Brett and I both shared even though we were growing up millions of miles away was the desire for escape and transformation through music." The Prettiest Star, Antonia adds, is also about how you perceive stardom. It's looking through the looking glass and what do you find?"

Interview With Brett Smiley 2/17/05

Brett Smiley was involved in show biz practically from birth. A precocious child, he made his onstage debut as a tot. The youngest of four children, Brett insisted on singing in a local revue his sisters and brother were in, "I went up to the woman who was directing it and said 'I wanna sing" and stole the show from my sisters and brother." Some of his fondest memories are of his move to New York and debut on the Broadway stage as a child star in Oliver!

" I spent 4-5 years in Lionel Bart's "Oliver" on Broadway and in the touring company. "My sister (actress Brenda Smiley, who stared on Broadway with Jerry Orbach in "Scuba Duba.") was here in New York, studying acting and saw in the trades they needed boys who could sing. I was very young and they were concerned about my age, but I could sing and was really cute." Smiley was still new to the show and observing from the sidelines when the cast of Oliver was on the Ed Sullivan Show-- the same night as the Beatles "We were on the elevator about a dozen kids with long hair and scrappy clothes, except for me, I was still observing. We were all talking about who had long hair first." While on tour with "Oliver", Smiley and some of the other cast members put together a band called the Bedbugs. (One of Smiley's castmates, Davey Jones, left to join the Monkees.) "Growing up in the theatre, it's a different sensibility I didn't much like the idea of acting at that time. It was sex, drugs and rock n roll." He moved to California in the summer of love. The girls in California were much more open about sexuality than (the ones in) New York at that time. I was amazed at the difference between New York and California." While in California, Brett cut school to play guitar with his friends. While there, he encountered Russ Gibb, a. promoter looking for bands to produce. "He heard me play and really liked me."

Gibb represented the band Sky, Doug (The Knack) Fieger's first band. "Doug and I are friends now," says Smiley. "Doug kept announcing he was quitting," Smiley recalls, "He was a prima donna. We all were prima donnas, c'mon." Brett got his big break when Gibb finally let Fieger leave Sky. "Russ Gibb said, 'OK, quit the band.' They were going to England and he took me along. I said, 'How am I going to learn, I don't even play bass!' I went to England with Sky and Russ Gibb, who eventually took me back to Detroit." Smiley met Andrew Loog Oldham in Detroit when Oldham was producing records for Motown. "I sang my songs and played him my demo tapes. Andrew said, 'I want to record you.' In keeping with the spirit of the times, alcohol and drugs flowed freely "I was doing a lot of drinking and a lot of drugs. I could handle it then." It took three years to record the album. "It took a lot of perseverance on my part. I'd been to Seattle and L.A. I was always trying to get something going." The deal Oldham secured for Smiley was bigger than the recordbreaking deal Jerry Brandt had gotten for New York art rocker Jobriath. Today, Oldham and Smiley are on good terms; they even recorded some songs in New York in 1986. "I spoke to him last week," Smiley says, "He is a DJ on Sirius radio. He's not much into recording anymore and is writing books."

As if the delayed recording of  Breathlessly Brett wasn't enough, its release was soon in jeopardy. "I started not trusting Andrew, he started not trusting the label. Bands usually get to go out and do something first before that conflict comes up. Then I split to Los Angeles and I kept wanting to know what's the delay? There was a lot of disillusionment. I believe drugs had a lot to do with it, not just my use but Andrews' and everybody else's use." When Columbia Records decided to focus their attention on a band called Ace who had the nondescript hit song "How Long," Breathlessly Brett was shelved.

In the "lost" years that followed, Smiley went to hell and back. The whirlwind of drugs and drinking took their toll. Eventually, Smiley was admitted to UCLA Neuropsychiatry Center "Iggy Pop had gone there so it was ok," Smiley jokes. After years of drug use and jail time in Florida , Smiley found out he had HIV. Smiley's long-time girlfriend, B movie actress Cheryl Smith ("someone who I think about to this day," Smiley says), died of complications due to hepatitis in 2002. Smiley had survivor guilt. "I questioned it. I did as many drugs and drank as much as she did….. I'm very lucky to be alive." What was the rehab process like? "Rehab? I've been given 30 years of rehab," Smiley says. "When I got clean and stayed clean it was about living outside of rehab. Anybody can stay clean in rehab or jail."

Working on The Prettiest Star with Antonia forced Smiley to confront some painful memories. "I worked with Nina on the book for a couple years. She'd call me every few weekends and we'd talk over the phone. I went England three times last year and we met up. Actually, the best interview was when went out to a café. There was a lot of noise in the background, but it was where I was able to open up to her the most. I read what she got out of it, and in my opinion it was the best interview of all."

It's been a long, sometimes treacherous journey, but Brett Smiley is a survivor and is now doing quite well. He lives in Brooklyn, and is studying to be an acting teacher, and has recently played live shows on the East Coast and in London. A new song," Our Lady of the Barren Trees" will appear on a UK compilation CD later this year.

And he's grown his hair long again. "Everybody's got such groomed hair now. I've got to be different.," he laughs. And what are Smiley's future plans? "I'm crossing the bridges as I get to them," he says.