Dan Smith, 1968-2009
Scarlet Martyrs guitarist Alan Brown called me today to convey the sad news that our bassist Dan Smith (aka the Cult of Dan) passed away suddenly on 25th February. This has come as a great shock to his family and to those of us who knew him. Although Dan had suffered some serious health complications in the past few years, he appeared to have put them behind him and had gradually rebuilt a normal life. I spoke to him on the phone for the first time in several years only a couple of weeks ago; he was as voluble as ever and already planning future musical projects. Ironically, another band he once played with and taught, Nightvision, recently signed a record deal. He was proud of that.
Musically, a drummer and a bass player are supposed to develop a fairly close and tight relationship. I was never consciously aware of one, apart from the few occasions when I played with other people. Then it was driven home to me how easy it was to play alongside Dan, and how much of what we played together came from a kind of intuition that only develops over a long time. Once gained, it could always be resumed quickly, even after long gaps without any rehearsing. It’s a strange aspect of playing music that you can develop this kind of connection with someone regardless of the level of your personal interactions. (It’s equally strange to think that one end of this connection is now lost.)
Bass players are also supposed to provide a solid foundation to a band, and Dan did this both musically and personally without ever actually appearing to “lead”. He usually conveyed a keen, nervous energy, but could also be laconically amusing when circumstances were more relaxed. He was always at home with a drink and a cigarette to hand in good company (he later discovered that to quit smoking, he’d have to quit drinking too). Failing that, he would be back in his uni room with a mug of tea and a guitar after closing time at Cwrt Mawr bar, when the musical entertainment would range from REM songs to guest-led traditional Irish or Yiddish tunes. While recording at Replica on one occasion, the owner brought his young sons along and Dan won them over by showing them how to play “Glory, glory Man United” on the guitar.
His musical abilities were broad; although bass was his instrument on stage, he also played guitar, piano and (a running joke this, particularly with respect to cleaning windows) trombone, in addition to singing. He probably played drums too; I didn’t want to find out, as he would undoubtedly have put me to shame. He had the technical knowledge to go with the performance; while teaching his latest song to Alan, he would stretch his long fingers over several frets while Alan boggled and then murmur, “Yes, it’s a sort of D suspended 9th augmented triangle with a diminuented semitone…”, or colloquially, another of his “jazz chords”. The Spanish-flavoured guitar on the end of “Airtight” was his work, as was the barroom piano on the coda to “Almost Died”. His own influences included the aforementioned firm favourites REM and even progressive acts like Yes. He always wanted to record a twenty minute prog epic, and I can fondly recall Alan’s sceptical reaction when Dan insisted I played “Close To The Edge” for him. I doubt my own was much more convinced.
Above (or perhaps despite) all that, his songwriting was Great. In retrospect, we may not have been the strongest musicians collectively (the weakest element most often being the guy at the back if I’m brutally honest), but I always felt that our songs were a hundred times better than most other groups of our level even when the execution was sometimes lacking. Before the band started, Dan and Alan had already written the core of a substantial songbook, including some of our earliest gig standards such as “She’s Blind” and “Wonderful Town”. He was kind enough to set the first sheet of lyrics I’d ever written (best now forgot) to music without betraying the debilitating laughter that anyone else would have surely suffered; encouraged, I passed a steady stream of them over to him, the majority of the results sadly now only extant on home demo tapes. Most of my lyrics didn’t stand up to scrutiny in isolation, as is often the way with these things, but with his careful editing and wonderful knack for a melody, he could turn out a song I felt proud to have a co-writing credit on. His edits could sometimes call your bluff; in my original lyrics for “Retain Your Loyalty”, the line “Why defend those bastards who say they really want to kill you?” only appeared once. Dan turned it into a key refrain, and thereafter the piece became informally known as “The Bastard Song”. Of course, he didn’t need my lyrics as his own were more than adequate; but he had such a stockpile of tunes that he could always find something to fit. Yet he was not proprietorial about his material, and was equally happy to contribute to someone else’s efforts. He was in large part responsible for the iconic one minute thrash “Tractor Killer”, which alone deserves some sort of recognition, though to single him out for blame would be unfair.
As a band, we played in pubs, in recording studios, in rehearsal rooms, in cellars and in bedrooms, not to mention the local railway station concourse and the top of the Geography Tower, and they were all great times that would have been much diminished, if not altogether impossible to imagine, without Dan’s presence. Although we had largely gone separate ways in the past eight years due to changes of circumstance and differing lives (and I am perhaps more guilty of this than anyone), it’s hard to conceive that Dan is no longer with us and, should we ever wish to reconvene and play once more for old times’ sake, it cannot now happen in the way we should wish. A huge loss to us but moreover, undoubtedly an even greater loss to his family and others who knew him well; my thoughts are with you.
It is a small consolation but also greatly to our good fortune that we can still enjoy his songs. (To hear Dan’s choirboy vocals, try “Is there a way” or, if you prefer something harder, “Four-Two” or “New Song”. His bass-playing is to the fore on “East West”. For one of his more epic compositions, listen to “Four Walls”.)
A vacant lot
Staring from the top
Waiting there to meet you
Always there to meet you
By the sea
You’re with me
Sand and wind in your hair
A vacant lot
Finally reached the top
Waiting for you to catch me
Always there to catch me
- Staring From The Top, Lyrics: Dan Smith