Utter the name Fred “Sonic” Smith and 99 out of 100 true rock fans will drop to their knees and genuflect. Despite his premature death on Nov. 4, 1994, at the age of 45, from heart failure, Smith’s musical legacy — as firebrand guitarist for the MC5 and Sonic’s Rendezvous Band and playing a key role on wife Patti Smith’s 1988 album Dream Of Life — remains secure.
To celebrate that legacy and to mark the 10-year anniversary of Fred Smith’s death, son Jackson Smith, also a guitarist has organized a tribute concert featuring the Sirens, Carolyn Striho, the Cyril Lords, Skeemin’ NoGoods, the Grande Nationals, members of the Paybacks and, possibly, a very special guest. (Smith’s own band, Back In Spades, just split up and won’t be playing. Smith will be sitting in with a few bands.) In addition to selected MC5 and Rendezvous songs cropping up in the bands’ sets, an end-of-show group jam on “City Slang,” “Baby Won’t Ya” and “Sister Anne” is also in the works. Proceeds will go to VH1’s Save The Music Foundation.
Smith, 22, spoke candidly about his father, his father’s music and his own distinctively un-regal upbringing as a child of true rock ’n’ roll royalty.
METRO TIMES: What’s your earliest memory of Fred? What did you do together as father and son?
JACKSON SMITH: Good question. One time when I was real young there was a basketball game going on, and I got all upset that I was too little to play in the game. My dad got all bummed out, and, according to my mom, he actually got weepy about it because he felt so bad for me. I also remember how my dad used to stay up late watching TV, and one night I challenged him to see who could stay up the latest. We stayed up all night — Nick at Night, I think. I ended up beating him! The sun was just coming up, and he said, “Ohhh, I gotta go to bed …” [laughs]
We played catch pretty often, and he’d come out with me when I’d be fishing. It was always a big moment when I caught a fish. And he was a trip to be in the car with! He was a big Formula One fan and he drove very fast — once in a while he’d pull up next to someone and challenge ’em to a race off the line!
MT: Was he an “advice” type of parent? Some fathers have words of wisdom for all occasions.
SMITH: Yeah, he was kind of funny about it too. I just remember him becoming this kind of “mountain of a man,” like he was turning into John Wayne or something, and throw out these bits of advice: “You know … watch out …” Clichéd stuff, but just the way he would put it always struck me in the right place. I remember one time we were going out to eat and he meant it to be “the big talk,” you know? But I don’t think he really knew what to do and he was really kind of nervous about what to say. It was funny.
MT: How would you characterize Fred and Patti?
SMITH: My mom was very level-headed about things. She would definitely be the one who would give me the back of the hairbrush if I misbehaved. My dad would get on me too, but he was a little less strict than my mom. I wouldn’t say they were real strict, though. They were there to guide my way. They were always sure I did my schoolwork.
MT: Did they try to get you into music? “Here, strum Daddy’s guitar …”
SMITH: Well, there was music class in my school, but that would be more like singing in the school plays. I was really more into the arts, like painting and drawing, and they encouraged it. They never forced anything on me.
MT: And it wasn’t until after Fred died that you found out about his history?
SMITH: That is for real. I remember at his memorial service I met the MC5 guys and I’m like, who are these guys? It’s kind of an odd thing, I guess, but my dad and mom wanted me to have a normal as possible upbringing. I think it gave me a perspective on things, you know? When Dream Of Life came out I was only 5 years old, and I met Gary Rasmussen, who played bass, and Jay Dee Daugherty, who played drums, but they were just friends who also played music. Right after he died I see in the newspapers “Rock ’n’ roll legend passes …” And I go, wait a second, is there a little more to Mommy and Daddy playing music than I knew? [laughs] There most certainly was!
MT: Did you then go back and start to investigate his music?
SMITH: When we [Patti, Jackson and sister Jesse] moved to New York I worked at a record store for a few years. I heard “City Slang” for the first time there, all these songs. And I’d think, oh, that’s my dad, that’s pretty cool. But more recently I’ve really tried to sit down and listen to the music as a whole and really see what’s going on.
MT: What do you think of “The Jackson Song” from Dream Of Life?
SMITH: Oh, my parents put a lot of love into that song. When I was in high school and trying to be cool and just a regular teenage boy, my friends would be like [in mock-sarcastic voice] “Oh, I heard ‘The Jackson Song!’” And, you know, it’s all pretty and stuff …
MT: But not a tough, streetwalkin’ cheetah kind of teenage rock song.
SMITH: Not at all. Actually I have tapes of my mom playing and she’s about to do “The Jackson Song” and you can hear me in the audience yelling, “Don’t play it!” [laughs]
Now I definitely have more of an appreciation for that song.
MT: Dream Of Life is a really underrated album. A lot of people overlook Fred’s involvement too.
SMITH: My dad pretty much wrote every single bit of music on that album. It was the ’80s and with those production values — the huge snare drums — you gotta give it a little slack. But the music — a good song is “Going Under,” one of the slower ones, and it has this Wes Montgomery thing going on at the end. That was him. You want to hear what Fred Smith was about musically, that’s the record to listen to.
There’s also [an unreleased] Rendezvous song called “American Boy.” It starts out on a real jazzy progression, then he starts this guitar feedback, then he breaks out the saxophone, and by the end of the song it’s fully rocking. Stuff like that, he just liked pushing the envelope musically.
MT: It would be great if he were around to see Dream Of Life’s “People Have The Power” become such an anthem. It was the all-star grand finale at that massive concert in October …
SMITH: The “Vote For Change” concert. That’s a song he really believed in. He would be proud of that, I know.
Jackson Smith’s tribute and benefit show in memory of his father, Fred “Sonic” Smith, is Friday, Dec. 3, at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit: 313-833-9700). Fred Mills is a freelance writer about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]