Sunday, March 9, 2014

Chris Smith (RIP): Battalion of Saints' original six-string shredder

Chris Smith of the Battalion of Saints in 1983. (Alison Braun photo)

By Andy

Chris Smith's right hand was bloodied as he reached out to shake mine. Before we connected, he wiped off on his jeans and the post-gig greeting was finalized.

Just a few minutes earlier, the lanky, spiky haired guitarist for San Diego's Battalion of Saints had finished absolutely shredding his instrument on stage at the Vex in Los Angeles. This was 1983, and I'd seen the band play several times over the last year --- each time, I'd find myself glued against the stage on Smith's side, just stoked with the way he manhandled his six-string.

He was the Jimi Hendrix of the punk scene. He even riffed some "Foxey Lady" prior to launching into the BATS' own raging tune, "No More Lies."

Whenever Smith strapped on his guitar, his left hand ferociously slid along the fretboard, hitting every note along the way -- emanating punk riffs but matched with a squealing metal style to puncture one's eardrums in just the right way. Bliss.

"I'll admit I have a h.m. (heavy metal) feel, but I don't think I dwell on it. I just use it as a little flavoring mixed in with the music. A lot of things get monotonous, it's nice to have some ear-piercing notes that make your ears bleed stuck in there," Smith said in a 1982 Flipside fanzine interview.

Smith used that style to its fullest on the BATS' arsenal of tunes and blazing cover of Motorhead's "Ace of Spades."

"His guitar playing was kinda crazy and different from what was going on at the time," said Shawn Stern of Youth Brigade/BYO last week. (The BATS contributed the killer "Beefmasters," "No More Lies" and "Cops Are Out" to the essential BYO compilation "Someone Got Their Head Kicked In.")

"Chris sure knew how to use that whammy bar. He was the only punk guitarist to use one in the old days!" added Social Spit, a modern-day You Tube commenter about a live BATS video from 1984.


Smith goes for it in 1983. (Alison Braun photo)

I'd become friends with Smith and the band along the way, so I got the lowdown on what they were up to, what songs were germinating -- and I was always anticipating what Smith was going to gouge me with next with his guitaristry.

If you listen to the BATS, there's tons of mind-bending musicianship in there, but for my money, Smith's no-holds-barred solo on "Right Or Wrong" can't be beat.

The last time I saw Smith was in 1985, when he and BATS vocalist George Anthony flagged me down at a Husker Du, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Saccharine Trust and SWA gig in San Diego. I hadn't seen them in a year or so, and it was nice to catch up with them.

Smith would soon head to New York, taking charge of Kraut's guitar department while Doug Holland went on to deliver the "crunch" for the Cro-Mags.

In April of 1987, I learned that Smith had died. In an online search, articles note that he cracked his head open on a bathtub and drowned. It's also been written that syringes were found on the scene and that he overdosed.

He was either 26 or 27, according to friends, way too early to put his body and guitar to rest. I played my BATS albums and demo, practice and live tapes the day I found out about his passing.

I knew that he would be one of the most talented and enthusiastic guitarists I would ever see in my lifetime.

Smith's influences stretched all across the musical landscape. According to Pallas Athena fanzine in 1982, he called Jeff Beck "God," said he stole everything from Jimmy Page and also fancied the New York Dolls, Hendrix and myriad jazz guitarists.

"One time, me and Chris spent the day driving around town listening to James Brown, and that night at the show he played some James Brown and dedicated it to me," said artist Lee Ellingson last week.

He was a humorous guy, as well, both in conversations and when rolling through the main part of the "Green Acres" theme song before live versions of the BATS' "Intercourse."

He was sharp-eyed in spotting the small Minor Threat sticker on the back of my flannel the first time I saw them and telling me of an upcoming gig the BATS were playing with Ian MacKaye and company in San Diego. (Husker Du was also on that epic bill, which I attended with my friend Mike Paul in the summer of 1982.)

And when my brother informed me that he spotted the BATS on the Loyola Marymount University campus in Los Angeles, Smith was the first one to offer me a handshake -- and a beer -- when I arrived with Paul to sit in on their KXLU radio-station interview.

He was a rough-and-tumble guy, as well, as some friends noted on a San Diego punk website.

Here's what people have to say about Smith today:

* Ellingson:

I think the main thing I wanted to say was Chris was a tormented genius. He had so much potential and it's been thrown away -- it's a real tragedy.

Chris, if you really dug deep, was also a very smart and a caring human being with a big heart, but he was also a master of hiding that fact. I wish he was still around sometimes. But I always say, it's not how long you live, it's what you do with whatever time you have. I know he left his mark in history. He will always be remembered with either hate or love, but his talent can't be denied.


Battalion of Saints comic. (Lee Ellingson)


* Alison Braun, photographer:

I do remember that we hung out when they were recording at Mystic Records. He was always very nice to me and we would have great conversations. Being I was like 17 years old, he was kind of like big brother/ protector. He would never let anyone mess with me when I was taking pictures.

Editor's note: I actually found out about Smith's death through Braun's "Memos from the Mouse Trap" column in an issue of Maximum RocknRoll.


* Don Cowan, Kraut:

He was a great addition to Kraut -- losing Chris was losing a good friend and great guitarist. Kraut was moving into another area of expertise with Chris. 

Chris' reputation preceded him as a bad boy ... causing chaos before he even got there ... All not true. The Chris Smith I knew was a great fun guy who loved his guitar and girlfriend Shannon more than anything.  

Kraut was about to record our third album just weeks before we lost him. I think that after the auditions we had gone through to find a replacement for Doug -- from a midget to refugee girls -- it was all a bit too much for the rest of Kraut (and we broke up).  

My fondest memory of playing with Chris was performing at a '70s night at Danceteria as a band called Motorbutt! We worked all the classic tunes from "Ziggy Stardust," sex Pistols, Motorhead to "Sweet Jane" ... and everyone went crazy at how good it was. Lots of fun -- fanks for the memories!


* Doug Holland, Kraut/Cro-Mags:

He was a great git player who, when I left the reins of Kraut, I thought he would help them. He was a Van Halen type of guy. That wasn't really my taste, but he did complement my writings that I left with them. It was a shame of his sudden death.


Watch Smith shred away in this video from 1984:



7 comments:

  1. Chris was a good man, and one hell of a great guitar player.

    Bill Sweeney

    ReplyDelete
  2. Agreed upon, Bill. Crank some BATS tunes in Chris' honor. Cheers, Andy and Cat

    ReplyDelete
  3. Too bad I wasn't born a few years earlier. I missed early 80s punk by a critical age margin.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for this really great little article on Chris Smith. You of course can't find much info on him or any quotes from friends thoughts about him. What a stellar tribute... bravo! Chris Smith, gone from his human form but not forgotten. R.I.P.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I was the drummer of Battalion of Saints from 1984 to 1985, and Chris Smith and I shared an apartment in The Lower East Side till 2 months before his death. I can tell you that Chris was always super nice, to me anyway(LOL), and that he was certainly one of the most talented guitarists in the world. To this day, I still miss him. I hope the person, or people, responsible for his death rot in hell.

    ReplyDelete