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The Long, Strange Hunt for the Folk Singer Who Thought He Was the Next Messiah

It took author Mike Stax 15 years to make sense of the life and times of the musician Craig Smith, who was on the brink of fame before something inside him snapped.

by Seth Ferranti
Sep 3 2016, 1:30pm

​ Craig Smith during his days as a singer, and Smith years later, after being arrested for assaulting his mother in 1973. All photos courtesy of Feral House

You don't know his name now, but there was a time when Craig Smith was on the path to becoming a star. In the early 60s, the singer-songwriter was in the house band on a popular variety show, wrote music that ended up being recorded by Glen Campbell, and eventually started a band called Penny Arkade that members of the Monkees helped produce in their home studio. Then, as quickly as his career took off, he disappeared.

When Smith eventually returned to California, he was not the same clean-cut folk singer with a nice smile and combed hair. If you asked him, he wasn't even Craig Smith. The musician had left Hollywood to travel along the famed Hippie Trail with a head full of acid and a guitar slung over his shoulder. At some point on the trip, though, something changed in Smith, and he came to believe he was the reincarnate of both Christ and the Buddha. He began calling himself Maitreya Kali, had a black widow spider tattooed on his forehead, and was convinced he'd be king of the world by the year 2000.

Back in the States, the reinvented Smith scared his former colleagues, and both he and his music dipped into obscurity. He ended up homeless, likely suffering from mental illness, and died without any family in 2012.

It took writer and editor Mike Stax 15 years to make sense of the life and times of the artist formerly known as Craig Smith. Stax got interested in Smith after hearing a reissued compilation of music Smith recorded both with Penny Arkade and as the dark, unhinged Maitreya Kali, and the writer became obsessed with figuring out what happened to him. In his new book Swim Through the Darkness, out September 13 from Feral House, the author investigates the singer's surprising disappearance and self-reinvention, trying to prove that the potential star was more than just an "acid causality." VICE talked with Stax about his relentless pursuit for the almost-famous musician.

VICE: How did you get involved in researching and writing the story?

Mike Stax: It was the music that first hooked me. I acquired reissued copies of his solo records Apache and Inca. I didn't really know what to expect because the cover art was so mysterious, deranged, and disturbed. I expected some kind of spacey, incoherent psychedelic folk music, so I was surprised to find that the music was coherent, and the songwriting and playing accomplished. Musically it was all over the place. Some of it sounded like the Byrds or Buffalo Springfield, other tracks were desolate acoustic folk music—and then there were weird interludes with snippets of dialogue. I couldn't stop listening to it. I knew there had to be an interesting story behind it all, but there was no information out there, just some speculation among collectors. The only known fact was that this strange loner guy who called himself Maitreya Kali had originally been known as Craig Smith, born April 25, 1945. So I started to look for Craig Smith, and gradually began to piece the story together.

You spent 15 years working on the book. What about the project took so long to complete?
It took a long time because there are so many Smiths out there, and Craig appeared to have left few traces behind of his existence. [When I started researching] nobody knew anything about this guy. The story I got was basically that he was just some dude who was once a promising musician, but did too much acid and then went off the deep end. I wanted to know where he was now and what happened, but the trail was cold because he ended up homeless. That brought out the detective in me. As I started to learn more about this guy, I really felt some empathy for him. It was very easy for people to say he was just an acid casualty.

His change around from this very wholesome, talented, happy-go-lucky guy into this very dark, almost Manson-like figure was absolutely fascinating to me. How did he get from being this to being that? That's what it was all about for me. I wanted to find the human story behind that, and once I started talking to people who knew him at different points in his life, I realized that it was really interesting because he was originally a very straight, middle-of-the-road kind of guy.

Craig Smith's senior photo in high school

What was it like hunting and trying to find Craig Smith?
Years passed, and I continued to track down and interview people who knew Craig at different points of his life. The first person I found that really kind of opened the door into his life for me was Don Glut, who was in the group Penny Arkade with Craig. He filled in a whole bunch of the story right there. From there, I got a hold of Chris Ducey, who was also in Penny Arkade. Like some of the others, Ducey didn't really want to talk at first because he'd seen Craig go from his best friend and musical collaborator to this crazy person he couldn't have near his family. I had to work on him, and eventually he said he would do an interview if I met him in person. Eventually, I found a guy in Studio City who occasionally saw Craig on the streets there. I felt like Jim Rockford, staking out the parks for homeless people and digging through court archives and prison records.I felt that if I could find Craig Smith, I could help get him off the streets, reconnect him with his songwriting royalties, and get him the medical help he needed. I felt the mystery would never be completely solved unless I talked to him. It was an obsession.

His parents were dead, and I made every effort to reach out to the remaining family, but they were reluctant to talk. At the time, I didn't know that Craig had badly assaulted his mother in 1973. The family wanted nothing to do with him, and didn't even want to claim his remains when he died, which ended up being something that I took care of myself.

In the book, you explain that Craig's life dramatically changed once he went on a trip through the "Hippie Trail." What happened to him there?
I talked to tons of people who knew Craig before he left—right up until he had a going away party at [The Beach Boys member] Mike Love's house—and he was fine at that point. Prior to the trip, he had been happy, outgoing, gregarious—a good-looking kid with a constant smile and an engaging sense of humor. But when he came back from that trip he was completely different. Nobody knew what had happened. He said a few things to some of them that he'd been attacked or something. But I found out that Craig's lawyer, Hal Kant, had to help Craig get back from Afghanistan, where he'd allegedly been put in a lunatic asylum and couldn't even remember who he was. He had changed completely.

What about him changed exactly?
He no longer wanted to be called Craig. He was now Maitreya, and he believed he was Christ and the Buddha reincarnate, the next messiah. His hair was longer, he grew a beard, and at some point he had a black widow spider tattooed on his forehead, like a malevolent third eye. His friends were deeply concerned about the disturbing changes in him. They tried to help him, but eventually they had to push him away once he seemed dangerous. Glen Campbell recorded his song "Country Girl" in 1969, and performed it on TV. But Craig, as Maitreya, now saw his music as having a higher purpose. That trip was the tipping point.

The album art for 'Apache'

Can you tell me about Craig's records Apache and Inca that he released in 1972 under his new identity?
The Apache and Inca albums compiled tracks dating back to the Penny Arkade sessions, along with newer solo recordings made after his transformation into Maitreya. Craig's mental state was so unbalanced that he had alienated all of his old contacts. Nobody wanted to help him. Reportedly, he managed to arrange a meeting with Mike Curb, who had been his high school classmate and was, at the time, president of MGM Records. But when Curb saw what Craig had become, he had him forcibly removed from his office. With no record deal possible, Craig decided to have the records pressed himself. He sold them on the street or gave them to friends and they were quickly gone.

It's my firm belief that Craig knew that his mental state was declining rapidly. For that reason, he wanted to gather all of his music together onto these records as a kind of last will and testament to the world, while he still had the faculty to do so. The records, combined with the elaborate covers, have a journal-like quality with dialogue between some of the songs and field recordings from his travels. That's a huge part of what makes them so fascinating even today.

Craig Smith ended up homeless on the streets of LA before he died in 2012. Why do you think everything transpired the way it did, and what has writing the book left you with?
Craig was inordinately talented, personable, and charismatic, but buried deep inside his mind there was some kind of flaw, a darkness that took over and consumed him. Had he not taken that trip down the Hippie Trail in 1968, he might well have continued to have a successful career as a songwriter and musician. The book became as much about my search to find Craig Smith as about Craig himself. When I started out on my search to solve the mystery of Maitreya Kali, I had no idea that it would take me 15 years to complete. Nor did I expect it to take me to so many dark places. It reminded me that the world is often a cruel and cynical place. Ultimately, I wanted to give Craig Smith a voice, and to tell his story for posterity. I hope I have achieved that.

'Swim Through the Darkness' is out September 13 via Feral House. Pre-order it here.

Follow Seth on Twitter.

Craig Smith during his days as a singer, and Smith years later, after being arrested for assaulting his mother in 1973. 

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