Peter Smith Flows With His River of Songs
by Terry Roland
"The dutchman's not the kind of man who keeps his thumb jammed in the dam that holds his dreams in..." Michael Peter Smith from his song, "The Dutchman."
If singer-songwriters form a kind of river of song, there are streams which flow into that single, universal body of water. The streams they follow serve the songs they write. Some are cowboys, some would-be beat poets, others are philosophers, political commentators, or comic storytellers.
Michael Peter Smith has followed many different streams leading him to become one of the finest songwriters of the last 40 years. His songs reflects his admiration for the other art forms he's encountered in his life. He could be compared to a great writer of American literature, an abstract painter, a playwright or a sculptor.
Most recognizable as the writer of the classic "The Dutchman," originally covered by Steve Goodman and later by Suzy Boguss, Jerry Jeff-Walker, and Tom Russell, he has created a body of work that's as diverse as it is skillfully crafted.
He moved to Chicago in the 70's to become a part of the singer-songwriter scene which included John Prine and Steve Goodman. He became well known for his songs. But, his most notable success came in 1987 when he was asked to write the music for the Steppenwolf Theater's production of "The Grapes of Wrath" which went on to international success. He has also produced music for a children's theater production of "The Snow Queen," a play he continues to work on to his own satisfaction even though it's produced annually at Christmas in Chicago.
During an hour phone interview Smith demonstrated the kind of storytelling which makes his songs so rich and the love of not only his music, but the music he finds among his friends he's made along the way.
Roland: What's been happening with you today, Michael?
Smith: I've been recording. I'm working on two records right now. Lately, I've been doing theater also. It's really similar to concerts only you get to stay in the same place longer. There's been a couple of other musicals I've worked on. Right now its a musical version of The Snow Queen. It's been presented at a local theater for four or five years now at Christmas for five weeks at a time.
Roland: How did you come on that?
Smith: Well, writing it was what needed to happen. I've done other kinds of work, but I actually started on the "Snow Queen" 20 years ago. It was no problem for me. I love the story. I've loved Hans Christian Anderson since I was a kid.
Roland: So, it seems like your approach to your theater work is progressive? Is this the same for your songwriting?
Smith: Yes, it's similar to songwriting. It's what makes a song reasonable. This is just getting more and more narrow.
Roland: You've mentioned studio work.
Smith: I've been at it all of the time. I have a studio at home which allows me to do that. The problem is I can't reproduce what's going on with a recording.
Roland: The Sgt Pepper Syndrome?
Smith: Yeah. Take Les Paul.
He was a unique character in music history. He was always pursuing music.
His work in recording made it possible for millions of musicians to be
able to make their own recordings. Once start recording, I don't want to
do anything else. I can write a song, record it, re-record it, try something
new. It's like a painting. I listen and start thinking, 'what can I do
with this to add to it?'
Roland: Do you play all the instruments?
Smith: Yes. except drums. If I tried that I'd be there for years. I use a drum machine. I use it for the drive.
Roland: What about your process of writing songs. I've asked this of a lot of the songwriters I've interviewed and everyone has something unique to say.
Smith: Yes. I'd imagine. For me it's a phase kind of thing. It might start with a title. But, if I follow the title it gets limited. It's like going back and dating a girl from high school only to find out how shallow she's become. Going from the title can be surface. I also may look for a mood. Sometimes, it's the mood. I want to be true to myself in the song, not really writing it for anyone else. There was a period in the 80's where I played with a band and they wanted things to be 'hooky.' Hooky is okay for some people. But, it makes me not able to write as good. If I let go of the pursuit of the hook, then I'm free. You know, you shouldn't have your eyes on the prize even though that's what we're taught to do.
Roland: So the song is the prize, but the trip is of equal or more importance than the reward?
Smith: Yes. So many people say, 'you can play the music, but you gotta have something to fall back on.' I don't really like that because it makes the music subordinate to something that may seem larger. My dad used to say things like that. Sometimes I wished he'd have said, 'if you're going to play the music, go out and do it, damn it! Learn to play the guitar! Don't just pose like Elvis in front of the mirror!'
Roland: So you're anti-hook in terms of songwriting?
Smith: Yeah, we were poisoned with the emphasis on having hits. I had to to get to the point where I didn't care who liked what I wrote. I had to write it for me. Then, it turned out for the best because those were the songs which reached out to the audience. Those were the ones they liked. I never have a true understanding of it. But, it's just fantastic. And it comes from making a lot of mistakes along the way. But, at its best, we're giving something that helps the audience get rid of all of the crap they carry. For me, being a musician is just heaven
Roland: And it's like you're bringing your heaven to earth
Smith: Bless you! I hope so. I know what happened to me when I first heard Sgt. Pepper felt like heaven. It just didn't get any better than that. I can still listen to it for hours.
Roland: I noticed you've been writing songs for children.
Smith: Yes. I see such innocence from them. I was raised Catholic. Man, religion is a lot to lay on a kid. Original Sin. Man, fear. That's one of the big Catholic mistakes. It's so damaging for a kid. I've found, as I've played for the kids, they just come and sit at my feet. You know, they're not charmed by me, I'm just an old guy. The thing is, I haven't frightened them. They're not thinking about me at all. I get to watch them for a while. It's a thrill. It's a feeling just comes over you that can't be counterfeited. It's like my soul relaxes.
Roland: Have your songs changed over time?
Smith: You know, they grow. There's this growth where I can tell, as I've gotten older, my writing has improved.
Roland: Dylan talks about how his songs change as he plays them in concert and it becomes a kind of performance art. I know he's long past his prime, but he keeps on going
Smith: Yes. I think, by him
being past his prime, you mean he's not as popular. Today, some of the
songs you hear him do in concert are almost unrecognizable. Well, today
we're not nearly as shocked by him as we were when he sang, lines like
with 'your wine, your
Roland: Yes. And it seems you and many others of the singer-songwriter who emerged form the late '60's have become deeper and more profound.
Smith: Maybe I've become less foolish. Fewer foolish moves and foolish songs. We may write better today. We haven't indulged in as much foolishness or mistakes. A lot of writers tend to write a series of songs and they all sound the same. When I write songs now, I think, 'how can I do this?', it sounds nothing like the last song I wrote.
Roland: Have you been writing new songs these days?
Smith: Well, I write, but not as much as before. You know the "Love Letter On a Fish" record is one of two recordings at the same venue. But, it represents over thirty years of songwriting. The best songs I've written. I write many songs I wouldn't share with anyone.
Roland: Have you worked with John Prine?
Smith: Not really. I've opened for him. You know who he reminded me of? Charles Bronson.
Roland: (Laughs)...That's different! Have you told John that?
Smith: No. I never have. I mean, he's a tough guy.
Roland: It's hard for me to see Prine in a black wool cap in a New York Subway with a gun shooting bad guys!
Smith: (Laughs) Maybe I should explain that. It's not like the Bronson from __Death Wish__. It's John's confidence. He has this undoubted sense of himself. There's this strength about him. He has no crap about trying to be someone else. He's his real self without trying to be someone else. He doesn't question himself. He's more rooted than I am. I get around him and feel like I'm dancing or something(laughs). I did a show with him and he asked me to come out and play a song with him.
Smith: Yeah, Paradise. I learned as I stood beside him, he had this energy I've rarely felt from a performer. I've encountered it also with Arlo Gurthrie. I mean, he's a giant at the piano. I played with him at the Steve Goodman Memorial Concert. He's this strength on stage.
Roland: Tell me about your relationship with Steve.
Smith: He was a friend. He was a great performer. He was totally in the music. Even physically. He was a playing-singing machine. He was so bright. He could just write a song on the spot. I'd come in with eight lines and he'd finish up the song. You'd give him an idea and within a few minutes he'd have a song ready. He simply liked performing. We wrote a lot of songs together. I enjoyed everything we did together. He was lively, ingenious, full of joy and purpose. His personality came through his songs and the audience loved his personality. But, it didn't always translate in other mediums.
Roland: Like records?
Smith: I don't think the vitality he exhibited was ever caught in the studio.
Roland: Well, before we finish, we've got talk about "The Dutchman."
Smith: I love to talk about "The Dutchman." Around that time I was writing pretty crappy songs. It was the first song I wrote where I thought, 'this is a good song.' Writing a song is a journey...You know, as you travel, you may make big mistakes on the way to getting there..you might get lost. But, on "The Dutchman," I didn't get lost. Early, as I started writing it, I knew I was making something unique. It was totally mine. There's this calm which comes over you when you write like this. It's rare. It was so good, I kept trying to catch it again. I kept thinking there's all kinds of ways to get there. It was the first time I encountered that feeling. I found this rhythm pattern similar to "Gentle On My Mind," which reminded me of a French song.
Roland: What inspired you to write "The Dutchman"?
Smith: At first, I wanted to write something for my sister, Margaret. You know, she was dating a Dutch guy at the time. As I wrote the first line, I realized, this is not about young people; it's about old people. You know, an awful lot of writing a song like "The Dutchman" is about luck. It's like you're casting your bread upon the waters. And you know, I still like it. I wouldn't change it. But, a song like that comes around once in a lifetime.
Roland: It seems like, from what you've said about your music, plays, art, "The Dutchman" is a kind of capsule of all of that.
Smith: That's interesting. It is kind of spiritual. You know, not reaching for it. Letting it happen. I have a friend, Corky Seigal. He's really into meditation
He told me about this Guru Micwas seeing. He was some big swami or something. Corkey's really into it. He got me to recite this sentence. We were in between sets at a show. He led me through the phrase. I got as a high as a kite! It was an acidy experience. But, I tried again later to do the same phrase and experience the same thing, and it's never happened again. But, it's like one of life's little gifts. "The Dutchman" is like that. We may live the rest of our lives and it may never happen again. My dad used to say, "We are too soon old and too late schmardt (too soon old, too late smart)." As I've gotten older though, I"ve become more industrious. I mean, I'm 68, so I'd better get to it.
Roland: Yes, we're all running out of time.
Smith: You know, that song Dylan did back in the 90's. 'It's not dark yet..but, it's getting there.' It's like that. When I heard that, I thought, 'what the?' I was so impressed. These days though, I like to listen to Do-Wop. It's nice to get in the car and listen to something from 1958.
Roland: On that note, thanks for your time. I look forward to seeing you at Jimmy Duke's.
Smith: Thank you. It's been