Many leagues below a murky, oil-filled pocket of subtropical waters off the southern coast of the United States, abyss creatures continue to communicate through light and vibration. In the “midnight zone,” a formidable black swallower feeds off of a hydrothermal vent, shrouded in a darkness thicker and blacker than deepest outer space. An opalescent dumbo octopus floats serenely by, her shiny coating picking up hints of a nearby jellyfish‘s flashing stroboscopic light, which illuminates a pulsating haze of red around them. On the very bottom of the ocean floor, a sea dandelion sits quietly, swaying back and forth to the rhythm of tectonic plates stirring below her…
Above: Special guest DJ Ron Like Hell, a resident purveyor of good taste and mind-expanding musical knowledge at northern Greenpoint’s favorite record-vending establishment, Permanent Records. If you are in the New York area on Friday, June 11th, go see him DJ at The Loft above Public Assembly.
Four hours north of San Francisco lies the road to Kendra Smith’s place.
Although usually not taken, it diverges at Confusion Hill, winding through aninterminable lane of redwoods known locally as the Avenue of the Giants. Some ofthe trees stick perpendicularly out of the rocks as if God had pulled them outin anger and shoved them back in any which way. The area looks abandoned exceptfor the occasional ramshackle house by the side of a road. One has a tinwoodsman on its porch. Another has a rickety sign out front that reads: “Carvingfor Christ”. Stephen King would probably love it.
During World War II, this part of the coast was used to train Air Force pilotsfor fogbound landings because the number of clear days around here isinfinitesimally small. When the fog rolls in, it coats the mountainside,fluffing up the horizon, insinuating itself into every nook and cranny, weavinga trail throughout the wood. It is an eerie, gray-green, oak-covered landscape,one which, according to legend, is haunted by Coastanoan ghosts.
There’s an abandoned mill nearby where the owner and his son were killed infreak accidents allegedly caused by spirits of angry Indians; there’s been morethan one Bigfoot sighting in the last five years. More mysterious still, thenovelist Thomas Pynchon is supposed to live in the area, but no one knows where.
Parts of his last novel, Vineland, bear more than a passing resemblance to theplace where Smith, the former Dream Syndicate bassist and founding vocalist forOpal, has chosen to make her abode.
Most people who abandon rock bands spend the rest of their lives pining fortheir glorious past. Not Ms. Smith. In the six years since she abdicated Opal inthe midst of a grueling tour, she has carved out a secretive life for herself, building an organic farm in a meadow in the mountains and, with the help of herfather, a small cabin. Since she grows most of her own food – supplemented byhuge bags of store-bought beans and rice – Kendra’s meals are determined byseason: leeks and greens in winter, tomatoes and zucchini in springtime, andpesto all summer long. She keeps several cats – including a lumbering 25 poundernamed Mr. Kitty, who resembles a small bear – plus a bunch of chickens and adonkey she’s training to pack wood. Smith lives “off the grid,” meaning she isn’t dependent on Pacific Gas &Electric or the state-run water system for her daily wants. What electricity shehas comes from a solar panel on the hillside, her water comes from a tank, andeverything else is powered by propane. Her cabin, a pretty, sunny, log-hewnspace decorated with delicate rugs and an enormous wall of bookshelves, alsocontains an authentic Irish stove from the 1920s. Chopping wood from fallenbranches is one of her most important summer tasks.
At night the temperature often dips into the twenties. “When I first got here,”Kendra recalls, “I’d huddle up by the stove wearing every sweater I had, withthe cats all piled on my lap.” Now that she’s grown hardened to the weather,Smith spends evenings at her pump organ or strumming her acoustic guitar. Theorgan needs no amplifier in the high-ceilinged, 12-by-13 cabin; the sound hereis amazing, a hollow shout. “Nighttime is a good time to play,” says Kendra,fingering her harmonium, a strangely utilitarian instrument painted army greenwhich sits unobtrusively in a corner. She pumps the bellows and the notes ringout, sustained and resonant, almost devotional.
It is easy to picture Smith here in the evenings, fending off the incipientgloom with music as fog down creeps from the mountain. It is a type of mystiqueto which the songs on her atmospheric new record, Five Ways of Disappearing (4AD), lend themselves without much effort. Up here in the country, she ispretty much hidden from sight. But because her cool presence, humane voice, andunusual folky sensibility colored much of California’s early-’80s Paisley Underground music scene, Smith has not exactly been out of mind.
Five Ways of Disappearing stems from an earlier album, The Guild of TemporalAdventurers, which she put together at the behest of a fan named Sunshine, whoruns the tiny Fiasco label. After the album’s release in 1992, various labels expressed interest in her new work, and eventually Smith signed with 4AD. Thenew record, recorded quickly and easily with the help of her constant companion,Alex Uberman, and a handful of musicians in the Garberville area, is a bit moreGothic sounding. Steeped in pump organ, the album is akin to the late VelvetUnderground singer Nico’s solo works The Marble Index and Desertshore, onlylighter in tone and meaning. It is very much in line with Kendra’s former workin Opal, complete with placid acoustic guitar, dark-tinged tunes, and hergentle, unforced vocals.
Besides being a musical soundtrack that’s pregnant with the timbre of itsenvironment, Five Ways of Disappearing is full of Smith’s whimsical literatesensibility. The song Drunken Boat, for example, is inspired by the Rimbaud poem of the same name (Le Bateau Ivre); Temporarily Lucy is a witchy tale of amysterious stranger; Valley of the Morning Sun is a list of the names of olddirigibles; Aurelia was taken from a short story by De Nerval. As always, Smith makes odd covers choices: the Guild record had a Can song, She Brings the Rain;Five Ways features a twisted version of Richard and Mimi Farina’s Bold Marauderwhich, stripped of the original version’s bluegrassy nasalness, is an eeriechant of lust and anomie.
Although she is pleased with the release of Five Ways, Smith has extremereservations about the music industry. “We’ve been thinking of ways you can getstuff out without it – cassettes, mail order, books, other media,” she says.
“Maybe it ought to be like in the old days, when artists had a patron to supportthem.”
Smith played one gig in L.A. in September as part of 4AD’s tenth anniversarycelebration, All Virgos Are Mad, and plans to make a video for the songTemporarily Lucy. She won’t be touring though; her garden needs too much tending for her to leave home for long periods of time.
It took Smith a while, after moving up to Northern California in 1989, to startthinking about music again. For one thing, at first she worked three days a weekat a nearby organic farm to earn some cash. It was a backbreaking job, picking and weeding and loading huge containers of tomatoes and vegetables in 100-degreeheat. And when she was finished, she had to go back to her homestead to do herown chores.
It was the diametric opposite of the life she had led for 10 years in Davis andLos Angeles – a life which began the night she drove with a couple ofgirlfriends to see the Clash at San Francisco’s Kezar Pavilion. Soon after, Smith started working at the UC-Davis college radio station, formed a band andlearned to play bass. After moving to L.A. and joining the Dream Syndicate,Smith got a student loan from UCLA which she used to buy equipment and go ontour. Later she took temporary jobs to support herself, and helped record theSyndicate’s classic first album, Days of Wine and Roses, as well as the PaisleyUnderground ’60s tribute compilation, Rainy Day. She later worked with the RainParade’s David Roback on various projects – Clay Allison and the Kendra Smith/Keith Mitchell Group – which turned into Opal and has since evolved intoMazzy Star.
But in 1988, after willing Hope Sandoval her slot in rock history, Smith all butdisappeared from the temporal world of indie music. To those who live deeplyinside that world – many of whom are addicted to its insidious charms – Smith’s abdication was seen as inexplicable. The possibility of some kind of drugfreak-out is often bandied about; her sanity is even questioned. But that typeof speculation ceases when you meet Kendra face-to-face. At 34, she is quitebeautiful in spite of her rugged lifestyle. And her life without a telephone orconventional electricity is as staunchly independent as the low-rent reality ofrock-band bohemia.
In fact, Kendra’s lifestyle has much in common with the DIY ideals which fuelledher initial call to punk rock. “I am really bugged by the whole aspect of musicfor money,” she says. “Before, art was just supposed to ornament your culture,or facilitate different social or magical events. But now music is done with thehopes that it can work out some logistical or financial things for you. It’ssupposed to fulfill expectations somehow.”
That is the aspect of music from which Smith has flown not once, but twice –first by leaving the Dream Syndicate, then by leaving Opal. Forming bands is herforte; cashing in on what she’s formed is less interesting. She laughs. “Someoneelse said that the other day, in a different way. They said, ‘You seem to havethe ability to leave right before a band gets successful!'”
“But I have to do that,” she goes on. “The whole point is that I have to dothings while it’s living and really vital – while it’s either doing somethingfor me or fulfilling my ideas about what music should really be and do. Whywaste time?”
Her move to the country was just another attempt to retain the integrity of herideals and her music. “My environment influences my music to a degree,” shesays, “but only because I choose it. Because what makes me do the kind of musicI do is the same thing that made me want to come here and enhance it in a way.This was just a place where I could tap more purely into the things I wanted totap into – the energies that feed music. The general orientation of my music hasalways been the same, no matter where I was. It would be the same if I lived ina cruddy apartment.”
“Obviously it’s easier for me to hear, uncluttered, the different musical thingscoming to me in this environment,” she continues. “In an urban environment it’sa little harder. But it’s all in your head, really; you can create a quiet spacefor yourself anywhere.”
Many people who return to the land originally grew up that way – in ruralplaces, or with hippie parents. Not Smith. An Army brat, she was born in theU.S. but spent her childhood living in various places, including Germany. When she was 14, her family relocated to San Diego, a town she now practicallydisowns. “I hated it immediately. My favorite things were horseback riding andskiing, and then I moved to Southern California where everyone was into tennisand surfing.”
Her German background is interesting, given the similarity between Smith’scurrent music and the solo records of Nico. Could that German childhood havecast some kind of neo-Teutonic-Gothic light over her future career? “That’s aneasy correspondence to make,” she says, “but no. The music in Germany was likethe worst of the dregs of what couldn’t make it in America anymore. There was anAmerican military station that played soul – I was really into soul for a while– and some rock, just a few shameful things. The only thing living in Europe didwas to completely free me from American commercialism; for five years I watchedno television.
“As far as Nico goes, I have a love for Gothic things in general, and Nico hadkind of that sound. The harmonium deal was accidental. I hadn’t thought abouther harmonium when I got this one, but I do like what she did with it. She explored some really interesting vocal ranges, lower scales and timbres that arereally unusual for a woman.” She smiles, reminiscing: “When I was in the DreamSyndicate, we opened for Nico at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco in about 1982.I was really excited about that at the time.”
I have an indelible memory of Kendra standing on stage at the Rat in Boston in1985, wearing a groovy miniskirt and knee-high suede boots, gazing coolly at theaudience as she sang Fell from the Sun. At one point while visiting her in themountains, I reminded her of that gig and those boots. She shrugged off theillusion: “Clay Allison – that was an awful tour; terrible tensions swirlingaround.”
A few weeks later, however, Smith shows up for a photo shoot down in SanFrancisco wearing the same boots, dug out of the closet for my benefit. She had,in fact, brought a bagful of what she calls “my Jimi Hendrix duds,” a wonderfularray of clothing gleaned from the “free” box at the Garberville Salvation Army,including velvet tunics, vests, pants and a pair of horns which she insisted onwearing in her hair all night long – presumably a kind of jokey allusion to Panand her pagan lifestyle.
Smith’s life is not as pagan or primitive as it would appear. It’s true that shebathes in an outdoor bathhouse, and that getting her water even remotely warm isquite a chore. But the solar panel provides enough energy to play her CD, there’s a six-pack of Coca-Cola tucked under the sink, and she drives intonearby Garberville once a week to take a Middle Eastern dance class, attendsseminars in donkey packing, visits neighbors, and occasionally DJs on a localpublic radio station.
Kendra got her first taste of radio at UC-Davis in the late-’70s. “One fellowthere who was [future Dream Syndicate member] Steve Wynn’s roommate was prettyinfluential on us all,” she recalls. “He had a show and he kept getting kickedoff ’cause he’d do things like play three jazz records at once. He was intothings like Albert Ayler and all those extreme jazz people – and into punk rock.He was kind of a pa figure. At that time, when I started working there, I met people and got exposed to more music and I kind of put myself on a crash courseto study music while I had the music library at my disposal. I listened toeverything I got my hands on.”
Another roommate taught her to play bass, which she practiced along with MilesDavis’ Kind of Blue. Presently she transferred to UCLA, where she formed theDream Syndicate with Steve Wynn and Dennis Duck. For a while, the DreamSyndicate epitomized a new kind of punk intensity, and Smith, standing coolly inthe background, added some indefinable aspect to the mix. But in 1983, justbefore the band signed to A&M, she quit. “I could foresee that it had to be aspace for Steve to do his trip, and I wanted to do more than play bass.”
Smith was also burnt out by touring. “Guys don’t mind the irresponsibility ofit, and the superficiality of the relationships, and being worshiped bystrangers. But I felt like I was never connecting with anyone. It was justmeaningless conversations with millions of people. Being in a band,” sheremarks, “is a geek scene. It’s fun as long as there’s an attitude ofus-against-the-world. But that’s always pretty short-lived.”
Kendra stayed plugged into the music scene, more or less, before she andthen-boyfriend David Roback did Opal’s first full album, 1987’s Happy NightmareBaby (SST). Then came the end. “I should have quit right after that record,because I could already see disjunction there,” she says, “happening in a prettyserious way.”
After a short tour, she finally escaped. “I cut myself off completely. I reallydidn’t want to know what was going on with anybody. Even though I was still inL.A. a little bit longer, I wasn’t really paying attention to anything anymore.”
In the pen behind Kendra Smith’s house, the donkey brays for dinner. It is a sadsound, as though the poor thing is being tortured or choked. Kendra rushes toit, leaving me to contemplate the ensuing darkness. To live like this, far fromcivilization, at the mercy of your own devices, takes a really strong innerlife. It also requires a certain amount of courage – a need to take risks.”I’ve had a lot of different changes in my life, so it almost seems like a lot of different lives,” she says. “But I was longing to be in this place. My lastyear in L.A., I remember, I’d wander around alleys and places that were openground, that weren’t all manicured, and see weird flowers or something strangeand I just wanted to be in the country, I guess.”
Kendra was de-tuning herself. “For me, this change has been pretty easy. Itravel pretty lightly. I’ve never had much more than a room in a house. And Ireally like having everything limited by the daylight hours, by the temperature,by what is growing, by how much electricity I can gather. When I first started Ijust had a trickle for a radio.”
She shrugs. “To the degree that my music is involved with pop, I’ve alreadyassimilated everything I needed to assimilate. Besides,” she adds with a glancearound her finite cabin, “limitations are good for art.”