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Rat, who was accompanying Smith on bass, barely had time to adjust the last monitor level on the sound board and scamper up to the stage before Smith, without introduction, began. One second there was silence, the next there was chaos. Smith unleashed an anguished frontal assault on the senses that evoked all the horsemen of the Apocalypse simultaneously playing unearthly instruments with savage ferocity. It was loud, violent, aggressive, and disturbing, a turbulent musical uproar formed by layering Smith's electronically distorted voice and Rat's berserk paroxysms of bass atop a convulsing cacophony of cross-cutting samples on DAT. (Samples of what? Who knows? There were too many to sort out amid the clamor.) It was a buzz-saw glee club, a cordite choir, an aural onslaught.
How many days did it take U.S. troops to flush out Noriega by playing classic rock? Give Tom Smith the microphone and you've got fat Manny running out of the Vatican compound in his flaming red briefs, begging for a plane to the U.S. Adrenaline rush, fury, disorientation, confusion -- a Smith performance should be an integral part of basic training. It elicits the same emotional responses as combat.
For twenty minutes Smith howled and prowled. Occasionally he bellowed so loudly he doubled over at the waist from the effort. The audience didn't so much applaud as yelp back in kind. Between songs Smith crouched over a monitor, wheezing ominously into the mike. It was intense. It was harrowing. It was Woodstock and Nam and demolition derby all rolled into one brief musical experience.
When it ended both Smith and Falestra were wasted from exhaustion. They looked like escaped convicts who had just eluded a police manhunt on foot, not like musicians who had just completed a twenty-minute set. Smith packed his equipment into an Everlast athletic bag. As unobtrusively as he had arrived, he was gone.
Like Harry Pussy's Orcutt, Smith lists avant-garde jazzmen Cecil Taylor, Charles Gayle, and Sun Ra as influences. But that's where similarities cease. Orcutt is contemplative and deliberate. Smith is brash and in-your-face. Orcutt shrugs and says "whatever" a lot. Smith calls people "babe."
"Nobody locally can touch Bill and me," Smith insists. "We're thinking globally. The rest of these bands are a joke. [Ft. Lauderdale-based Nothing/ Interscope recording artists] Marilyn Manson may as well be H.R. Puff 'n' Stuff. All they can do is buy our shit and suck up to us."
Smith's background is incredible for the number of near-misses his musical career has endured. Now 38, he attended high school in Georgia and played in his first band as a teenager with Don Fleming, who would go on to become a hotshot record producer (Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque) and guitarist-songwriter (Velvet Monkeys, Gumball, the BackBeat soundtrack). "I had a short-wave radio. He had a guitar. We thought we were rock singers," Smith recalls.
Fleming moved to Virginia in 1980 and formed the Washington, D.C.-based Velvet Monkeys. Smith headed for Athens and started an alternative rock band, Boat Of, with a guitarist named Carol Levy and her sort-of boyfriend, Michael Stipe. "I think he was still experimenting with heterosexuality back then," Smith muses. Boat Of specialized, in Smith's words, in "search-and-destroy dance music. We sounded like the chain that drags on the highway behind a tractor-trailer to release static electricity."
Stipe's other project was gaining in popularity and the singer had less and less time to cruise with the Boat. "I think Boat Of was just a lark for him," says Smith of his former bandmate. "I saw R.E.M. for the first time in '81; I thought it was the worst shit. Vile music. Nowadays they're untouchable, so enshrined in the halls of political correctness that they could be photographed molesting kids or killing people and nothing would happen to them."
Levy and Smith carried on until Levy's death in an automobile accident in 1983. Grief-stricken and full of acid, Smith moved to Washington at Fleming's invitation and joined the Velvet Monkeys. He was quickly expelled, however, for sleeping with another Monkey's girlfriend. Smith didn't let the setback slow him down; he formed another band, Peach of Immortality, with a speed-freak named Jared Hendrickson. Peach released three LPs and an EP and were set to tour the U.S. with Pussy Galore in 1986 when their drummer was jailed for striking a cop. Hendrickson and Smith pressed on without him, touring for three weeks before throwing in the towel as a band and just folding into Pussy Galore for the balance of the tour. Smith moved to Atlanta in 1988; Hendrickson founded CHEMLAB, which is now recording for his own Fifth Column label, which is distributed by Metal Blade/Relativity.
Smith and Fleming teamed up again in 1991 for a CD and a seven-inch under the band name Gin Blossoms (no relation to the band that plays "Hey Jealousy"). Smith's fiancee moved from Atlanta to Miami in 1990; he followed in 1991 and has been working on a solo project ever since.
"I got to Miami and headed straight for the studio. That's where I met this nut case," Smith explains, nodding in Falestra's direction. While recording, Smith became impatient with the time allotted to him. He was occasionally being bumped by another local band, the Holy Terrors, who were recording their recently released Lolitaville CD at the studio that Rat built. At one point Smith's impatience bubbled over and he launched into a tirade against the Terrors, which he left on Rat's answering machine. A tape of the diatribe found its way into the Terrors's hands, and the band used Smith's caustic rant to close its CD.