Monday, December 23, 2013

The Amazing Mr Smith

Most of The Diary Review articles are pegged to an anniversary or publication of a book. This one, though, very sadly, has come about because I happened to be in West Bay, Dorset, on the morning of Sunday 8 December with my family when a body was being recovered from the beach. Later that week, local newspapers reported that a man named Derek Smith had died after falling from the cliff, whether accidentally or deliberately has not yet been reported. Curiosity led me to find out more about Derek Smith - or, as he was better known publicly, The Amazing Mr Smith - and to a book of his diary extracts.

Derek Smith was born in Croydon, south of London, on 1 April 1948 (I think), and, according to his own testimony, lived within 10 miles of the place for 47 years. In the 1960s, he performed in a band called Wild Oats, whose lead singer, Viva, he married in Torquay in 1982. They had one daughter, Rosie. After Wild Oats disbanded, Derek went on to a carve a career as a solo performer, while Viva moved into acting and then sang with a folk trio, Dangerous Curves. Derek was considered a talented guitar player and played in many comedy and folk clubs. He also toured the US five times, and appeared in shows in Holland, Germany, Norway and Jordan.

Smith’s own website quotes this comment: ‘The cardboard tube double bass, the musical shoelaces, the Nutcracker played on the tu-tu xylophone, the Blue Danube on the condom harp and his 3-minute rendition of Riverdance had to be seen to be believed.’ One reviewer said that his combination of mad inventions and brilliant acoustic guitar playing made him one of the funniest and most original entertainers around. In another, he was dubbed Monty Python’s answer to John Williams. Viva died in 2009, and Derek died on 8 December 2013. A service was held at Weymouth Crematorium on 20 December. There is not much information about Smith online, though some can be found in John Fleming’s blog piece, and in a film at Vimeo
There are many tributes to Smith at The Mudcat Cafe; and a little more on Viva and Derek can be found among Joe Stead’s ramblings.

In 2005, Derek Smith self-published a book entitled 25 Year Diary of An Eccentric Musician 1980-2005. It is dedicated to ‘Viva, my long-suffering wife’. Among the acknowledgements is this one: ‘Thanks especially to my friend Steve Black for suggesting I should do something like this. The conversation ran roughly as follows: “I’ve got all these diaries of funny things that have happened to me since 1979, a lot of them at gigs.” - “Why don’t you publish some of them?” - “Because they wouldn’t be of general interest unless I was really famous.” - Maybe not, but people at your gigs might like to read about some of the things that happened at others.” - “Yes, maybe, I suppose I’d better give it a go then.’

Many of the stories, Smith says in his ‘Foreword (not funny)’ are much longer that the bits reproduced in the book, and that one day he might ‘release’ the unabridged versions. ‘Perhaps the funniest part of the whole business,’ he adds, ‘is that I bothered to write any of it down in the first place.’ He estimates that there are 300,000 words in his nine diary notebooks, and that 90% of these are ‘funny things that happened to me’, and half of this 90% is gig related. The books were not intended to be a comprehensive day by day journal, he explains, and whole days or even weeks have nothing written about them, ‘presumably because nothing notably funny happened.’ Here are a few short extracts.

12 March 1981, Shoreditch College
‘Noisy, don’t know whether it was good or bad. Several enjoyed it but ‘Keith’ (black eye, allegedly only one ball) was 21 that day and drinking G&Ts out of a pint glass. He was very pissed and rather upstaged me by stripping except for a saucepan which he and a few others were wearing . . .’

15 December 1981, Half Moon, Putney
‘Bob told me about his trumpet in the boot of his Alvis. He was wearing a fur coat and was pissed when he was stopped by the Bill. They looked at his trumpet and started sniffing it (looking for drugs). Going home, I too was stopped by the Bill, this time for jumping the lights. Sarky remark by copper: ’This is why insurance premiums are so high for musicians if they do things like jump red lights.’

7 August 1987, Colchester Folk Club
‘. . . in the interval I accidentally dropped [my plastic] dog-turd out of my tail’s pocket which resounded when it hit the top of a metallic beer barrel. I reflected how nice this was in the church. I went into the gents’ and put on my tutu behind a screen such that I was able to hear the only other occupant, who was pissing and unaware of my presence, sing in falsetto and in its entirety, ‘I wanna be Bobby’s girl’. My ‘That was nice’ made him jump out of his skin.’

23 June 1989, Jongleurs
‘. . . midnight ‘open spot’. Nasty evening before but not as nasty as the gig - drunken bastards but they enjoyed yelling ‘fuck off’ etc. I was called a brave man by Arthur Smith (compere) who bought me a drink.’

13 July 1990, Deal Folk Club
‘. . . A dog barked outside at the end of the 1st verse of ‘The Seeds of Love’, so I stopped, got out one of my toy (bouncing) dogs and tried some black magic on it by stamping on it, but the dog outside carried on barking . . .’

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