Photo courtesy of Shawn Brown
This article was originally published in Stereo Embers Magazine
I’d been meaning to write about Shawn Smith. In fact, I had a whole piece in mind.
I was going to retrace his lineage through the early days of the Seattle punk rock scene–cast him in stark contrast against the alt-rock breeding ground that he was so entrenched in. Glowingly tout his long enduring dedication to all things Prince and Queen. This way, I could the point out the sheer velocity of these and other non-grungy influences that separated him so clearly from all others coming out of that era. I was going to reach out to Ragen Hagar (Seattle drumming icon), one of Shawn’s longest running musical accomplices and populate my article with firsthand stories about his humor and his warmth. I was going to systematically walk through his greatest tracks and bemoan the criminal nature of how overlooked he continues to be.
It was to be a love letter to the man who made some of my favorite music.
So, I never wrote that article.
I probably should have.
But I didn’t.
It strikes me that one of the outcomes of this self-quarantined reality in which we all currently sit, is a rapidly adjusting relationship to time. Just a few weeks ago, it appeared that we didn’t have enough of it. We were constantly chasing it, always running out of it, staring at Google calendars trying to find more of it. Suddenly…time. I won’t speak for all of you, but for me, music has bailed me out of just about every rut I’ve ever found myself in. It’s been my oldest friend and longest running love story. It’s where I go.
So it only make sense that sitting here looking out over the foggy, damp San Francisco hills, I go to Shawn Smith’s records.
First there are the Pigeonhead records he did with Steve Fisk. I’d recommend headphones for the best enjoyment of those, but that’s just me. He’s all over those first Twilight Singers albums with Greg Dulli, which still sound great. His seemingly endless self-released solo work is a varied expanse of experiments and fascinating explorations. The Satchel records are great. It’s all worthwhile.
But these difficult days call for something a wee bit…well, more.
We’ll likely need to build up some resolve from our music.
We need to feel better.
Shawn Smith’s Brad records are a great place to start. All five albums stand up. Thankfully, Brad’s Shame is now more often name-checked amongst the great albums of the 90’s. That was how I first met Shawn.
I remember it clear as day. In 1993, I was teenage create diggin’ at The Record Exchange in Boise, Idaho. The Shame cassette caught my eye because its purple sticker said something about Stone Gossard and that was all I needed. I bought it on the spot, and was then stunned by what I heard. I was pretty confused. It didn’t sound like Pearl Jam or Soundgarden–it sounded weird.
It still does.
But it’s also magic.
I met Shawn Smith just once. Brad was doing a quick west coast tour in support of their 1997’s Interiors record and I rallied a bunch of folks to catch their show at the Great American Music Hall here in San Francisco. I remember it as the one of best concerts I’ve ever seen. They were great that night. Afterwards, I noticed Shawn hanging around the tour bus parked right out front of the venue. I’d just pressed the first few copies of my own debut EP and had some in my backpack. My friend Drew urged me into approaching him and offering him one. Drew is fond of this story because I was entirely too star-struck to say much of anything to him, but a copy of my CD still made it into his hands. He was pretty cool about it–in fact, the picture of us was snapped at that exact moment.
I had another opportunity to meet him in 2018, when he was again in town for a show that was billed as “An Evening with Shawn Smith.”
I was baffled that he was doing a show, as he had no record to support or any other shows on the books. In a strange turn, the show turned out to be some sort of a college reunion, which the college band in question had arranged for him to fly down and join them.
It was like an odd episode of Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp. He played along, did his songs backed by the band as the crowd only marginally paid attention. I sat across the bar from him that night, trying to steady myself to not repeat the embarrassment of our first meeting 20 years previous. What would I say? Seemed like, “Thanks for all your music. You changed my life” wasn’t going to nearly cut it.
I didn’t approach him that night.
I should have.
But I didn’t.
Shawn Smith died suddenly in the first week of April of 2019. There was some significant grief that permeated out of the Pacific Northwest. Several music magazines wrote articles. There were tweets. That was about it, though. It’s worth noting that that both Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley died in the first week of April as well. Almost a year-to-the-day later, I find myself compelled to write this piece.
It would be great if he were still around.
He was this husky teddy-bear-of-a-man with a beautiful voice and a soft touch on the piano.
And I miss him.