FRED “SONIC” SMITH: MC5 MAN OF MYSTERY
This post is about a man and guitar player, who in my mind is so underrated it is difficult to understand. This man is Fred “Sonic” Smith, a Genuine Guitar Hero.
In 1994, three months before he died I got a call from Fred. I was recuperating from having my gall bladder removed and out of nowhere the phone rings and it is Fred. He wishes me well, and how did the operation go, etc, etc? But how did he know? I told no one. No one… So now I want to write something about Fred as I feel the need to get my thoughts down on this man. I believe he was totally misunderstood.
One day after his passing on November 5th, 1994, I was sitting on my couch listening to MC5 music and staring at a blank page in a spiral notebook laying on my coffee table. I just wanted to write something for/about him for myself. I did not know where to begin. I had that nasty old writer’s block.
I had just lost Fred Smith. He just passed on with a heart attack. What do I say? I had a bottle of Jack for courage and it only made me worse, and it brought out those tears. Believe me, it is ultra rough losing a close friend and bandmate, even though it was 35 years ago. Many of you have been there I’m sure.
The phone rings. It is none other than Patti Smith, his singer/songwriter wife. We exchange pleasantries, she asks if I knew of Fred’s passing and I told her “Yes, as a matter of fact I was just attempting to write about Fred this very minute! I found out last night.” Patti asked “Would you please give the eulogy for Fred at his funeral service at The Old Mariner’s Church in downtown Detroit?”
I was stunned…this was the same church Patti and Fred were married in. I felt I had to do it. But I was nervous about it. After all, everyone that plays music in Detroit would be there, and could I handle it? Then she tells me, “Fred asked me from his death bed would you represent him for the MC5? He wanted you, and only you.” That sealed the deal. Now I had to do it. I told her, “Sure Patti, I would be honored.”
We chatted for a bit and when we hung up I just burst into tears. What in God’s name could I say about this highly enigmatic and misunderstood man? What follows is the eulogy I wrote. And I still mean every word. When I walked up the steps to the podium, my knees were shaking so bad, I thought I would fall down. But I made it. This was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do...
THE EULOGY THE CELLOPHANE FLOWER AT THE FORK IN THE ROAD (FOR FRED “SONIC” SMITH) This is affectionately dedicated to my fallen brother Fred “Sonic” Smith, his wife Patti, daughter Jesse, and especially his son, Jackson. “Picture the world as a huge scientific laboratory with all people being tested in a fantastic self-experiment. If man can make it through the maze of problems he has set up for himself, then, and only then, will he be the man of the future.
The man of the future must be created!” Thank you Gray and Francois These are Fred’s words. Those of you familiar with the album “High Time”, have seen the photo of Fred in full super sonic hero costume boldly standing in front of a blown up map of our planet earth. Fred’s quote circumscribed that photo. The year was 1971…
The man was truly ahead of his time. I remember the first time he wore that “Man of the Future costume live at the Grande Ballroom. Boy, did he ever put our then manager John Sinclair in a state of shock! “He’s lost his mind”, Sinclair shouted. But that is another story… Fred, you were always a mystery to me. You gave real color to the meaning of the word “paradoxical”. At one in the same time, he could be angry, but controlled, rough, but ever so smooth. He could be both distant and moody, but oh, so close and crystal clear.
The penultimate rebel, aloof and arrogant, but also your best friend and quiet comrade, and always at the ready to back any of us up when the stuff hit the fan The calm in the center of the storm. The strength. The man of the future must be created… You see, he was my cellophane flower in the fork in my road… At this very moment, this life we all share in this flesh and blood experiment is a gift! There is only five seconds, two roads, and only one cellophane flower. At this very moment your heart beating is a miracle.
Whomever God you pray to, whatever beliefs you hold so dear, you are nonetheless a co-creator. Fred felt we are all co-creators if we do not block ourselves. There is so much work to be done. If all you see is the cellophane, and meekly take the plastic smooth road, your paradise is lost. If you do not exercise your imagination you are at the mercy of folly, deception, and confusion. Your responsibility is to control your own destiny, your own future. This is what Fred taught me. Fred saw that cellophane flower at the fork in the road.
He picked that flower out of the ground and decided to make it real. He chose the hard and bumpy road and gave life to that flower. He gave it color, texture, and a heavenly aroma and most impotantly realism. I proudly pledge to join him in this ascension, solve the riddle of the maze, and become as he, a co-creator and a man of the future.
After all, what rebel worth his salt should weaken and give into cellophanes oblivion? I was his drummer, his friend, and I will miss him deeply. Fred, you were my John Coltrane. You changed my life and my way of looking at the world. You taught me to reach deep in my soul and find the man of the future in MY own image. Bless you my dearly departed friend and thank you forever. KICK OUT THE JAMS EVERYONE! MGT
A lot of people did not warm up to Fred. They thought he was a cold, rude, and self centered person. Hell so did I. I did not like the guy’s personality in the beginning one bit. He could be a real pr**k. He was the loner of the band. But I also think he was naturally innately gifted. Fred’s style was so unique, if you heard him play and you were blindfolded, you knew it was him.
The MC5 had all kinds of personality conflicts. Nothing new there. I don’t think they ever really liked me either. Maybe for a while there. Maybe that’s why Fred and I became close friends in Ann Arbor and Hamburg (2 out of 4 of our band houses). We got to know each other, and though we did not speak that much, we became soul brothers and good friends. Solidarity.
He had a brutal childhood, and he survived and became a man who saw the world fairly clearly. As a songwriter he really came into his own on our third album “High Time.” He wrote 4 of the songs and one of my favorites “Skunk: Sonically Speaking”. I wrote “Gotta Keep Movin” partly as a platform to showcase Fred and Wayne’s skills as blistering lead guitar players.
These guys were not nonsense speed metal soloists, their solos had melody and structure, the signature of mature, well-rounded guitar players. And they were 32nd note masters. I kind of feel Fred wrote Skunk to return the favor. Maybe to showcase my skills as a drummer? Who knows? He never told me. He just told me to play a solo throughout the whole song.
So I did. Finally, back in the late 80’s I went to The Fox Theater in Detroit one night to receive a posthumous “Award for Excellence” statuette for Fred. I spoke a few words and proudly accepted this icon of recognition.
I still miss you Fred. You'll remain in my heart always. I am going to profile each member of the MC5 in time. I think they all really, really deserve it. I should know. I was there. MGT