Interview of Mike Stax, Author of Swim Through The Darkness by John Wisniewski

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CRAIG SMITH: CREATIVE GENIUS OR MADMAN?

Craig Smith was a 1960s golden boy – good looking, charismatic, outgoing; a preternaturally gifted musician and songwriter whose songs were recorded by some of the biggest names in entertainment – Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, the Monkees. Starting out his career on the Andy Williams Show as a member of the Good Time Singers, Smith next teamed up with Chris Ducey in the duo Chris & Craig, then the Penny Arkade, a talented group mentored and produced by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees. Smith’s future success seemed assured, until an unexpected turn of events plunged him into a terrifying darkness. Clean-cut Craig Smith became Maitreya Kali, the self-proclaimed psychedelic Messiah. He laid out his poignant, disturbing schizophrenic vision on a sprawling self-released double-album before disappearing completely. Author Mike Stax spent fifteen years piecing together the mystery of Maitreya Kali, uncovering one of the strangest and most tragic untold stories of the 1960s and ‘70s.

JW: What interested you about the story of Craig Smith?

Mike Stax: It was the music on the Apache and Inca albums that first snared me. There was a haunting quality to Craig’s voice, and the songs were all so well-crafted—they were obviously the work of someone very, very gifted yet somehow unbalanced. The music came wrapped up in a mystery. The album cover artwork was seriously strange, a DIY design full of cryptic symbols and sleeve notes that suggested schizophrenia – lists of names, references to LSD, meditation, yoga, violence and a girl called Cheryl, and a manifesto claiming that the artist was the future Messiah – Jesus, Buddha and all the other deities wrapped into one. The music got me hooked, and then I had to solve the mystery: who was Maitreya Kali?

JW: Was Craig a mentally disturbed genius?

Mike Stax: In short, yes. But the mentally disturbed part didn’t come until he was 23 years old. Finding that tipping point was part of my journey.

JW: What caused the transformation from pop songwriter to psychedelic-messiah?

Mike Stax: Well, I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but that transformation came in 1968 when Craig was travelling along the hippie trail in Afghanistan. There he was brutally attacked and robbed, and this experience appears to have triggered his schizophrenia. He was using LSD heavily at the time, and that only magnified the horror and its after-effects.

JW: Was Craig an occultist?

Mike Stax: I would define him as a seeker. Conventional, organized religion didn’t provide the answers to his questions so he began delving into mysticism – he read books about theosophy, Buddhism, Hinduism, and became intensely interested in Transcendental Meditation. He would sometimes meditate for days on end. I don’t think that quest for answers ever ended for him.

JW: How did you go about researching Craig’s Story, Mike?

Mike Stax: It was a fifteen year process, and I used many tools to dig up information. Most importantly, I tracked down everyone I possibly could who knew Craig and interviewed them at length—these firsthand accounts were invaluable. I also accessed newspaper archives, court records, prison records, musicians’ union contracts, birth records, death records, census information, city directories—any public records that might hold pieces of the puzzle. It was a painstaking process at times. For months on end I would hit nothing but dead ends, then suddenly get a lucky break and hit a new seam of information. The fact that his last name was Smith and that he’d spent most of his life homeless didn’t make the process easier.

JW: What will your next book be about?

Mike Stax: I don’t know yet. I’m waiting for the right subject to inspire me. Finding a story as mysterious and compelling as Craig’s is going to be difficult.

JW: You have also written about Greg Shaw of BOMP! records? What interested you about him?

Mike Stax: Greg Shaw has been a huge inspiration on my work with Ugly Things magazine. He published one of the very first rock music fanzines, Mojo Navigator in 1967, and went on to define rock fandom in the 1970s with Who Put the Bomp magazine and BOMP Records.  It was because of his encouragement that I moved from England to California when I was 18 years old, and he became something of a mentor to me. He really changed my life in a lot of ways.

JW: Why do you particularly like the period of the 1960’s and 70’s rock music scene, Mike?

Mike Stax: The 1960s was really when rock ‘n’ roll music, in its many forms, peaked. There was such an avalanche of talent and product that we’re only just beginning to assess and document it all. Digging through the rubble of ‘60s music culture became an obsession for me; I find it endlessly fascinating and rewarding. Some of that carries over into the ‘70s, I suppose, although by that time the social and cultural landscape had changed considerably. The businessmen and the bean counters took over the music business, and slowly smothered and neutered it. All the most interesting music was forced underground, where it still lives in various mutant strains.

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