by Freddie Brooks
I first heard of the MC5 while a teenager and living in Texas. Got the Kick Out The Jams record and flipped. There was an address inside for the White Panther Party began corresponding (not with Fred) and soon opened a WPP chapter in Fort Worth. This attracted a tremendous amount of very negative attention from police and after a violent exchange and much harassment, left for Ann Arbor in 1972.
The WPP people were very down on the 5 for the split with Sinclair and High Time came out, which I felt to be their best album. But they got NO support from what had been their strongest fan base of and soon broke up. The people who supposedly loved the band the most had grown to despise them which I found extremely bizarre. I never saw the 5, except for videotape.
The first time I met Fred was when he began working with Scott Morgan. Scott had a single out that he wanted me to help promote and Fred had played on it. I was working with Gary Rasmussen's band Uprising and writing music reviews in the A2 Sun. I wrote some stuff about them and got them a gig opening for Uprising in Kalamazoo. There was no one in the Detroit area music biz who would give Fred & Scott the time of day. I remember one park concert in A2 that a terrible thunderstorm blew through before they got to play, toppling the sound system & cancelling the show. As Fred passed John Sinclair, John remarked that "it must not be in the stars". I know it was hard on him as he rebuilt a shattered career but he never complained about it and was always a gentleman.
He also was adament about moving forward with his life and, unlike other members of the band, he refused to trade on the MC5 name to further his own music. After seeing him and Scott performing at a bar in Detroit, I got involved and put together their debut A2 gig at the Chances Are (later renamed the Second Chance) in May of 1975. From there, Fred re-established himself as one of Detroit's greatest guitarists and the Sonic's Rendezvous legend grew to rival the MC5's.
Sonic's Rendezvous grew out of the Scott Morgan Group. As I said before, Fred was adament about starting without the constraints of the MC5 and refused to play any MC5 material. In retrospect, the end of the 5 must have taken it's toll on him and as he grew stronger and regained his bearings and confidence, he began to assert himself more creatively. He had the strongest vision of where he wanted to go, so he became the leader by example.
The rest of the band was roughly in the same shape as Fred. They all had been part of the Detroit rock explosion and as the bands broke up, many of the people who had embraced them on the way up, suddenly could care less about them as they returned to "earth". So the band members treated each other as real people rather than legends. Fred seemed to see himself as a regular guy and embraced that, with no star tripping whatsoever.
"City Slang" was recorded in late '77 and came out a year later, in late October or early November. There was no real money behind it and only word of mouth helped it become so influential. It became the band's signature by the response and was extremely powerful in live performance. As I have been working on remixing the track, it has become more and more apparent that it easily rivals the best of the MC5 stuff and is a true testimonial to Fred's artistic vision.
Unfortunately, the single was hampered by poor mastering and the actual pressing was pretty poor, as well. I think it will also be obvious how important Fred was to the MC5, since he was the only one to create music with that energy level after the band broke up. Even in 1998, "City Slang" sounds ahead of it's time.
My take on why the band "fell apart" is that Fred wanted to pursue his musical vision without the encumbrance of a band. While he had the image, and indeed was a high energy rocker, he had always written songs and appreciated many different types of music. Actually, the first time I saw him sing live he was doing Brian Wilson's "Help Me Rhonda". We spent many a night talking in the bar where he always loved to hear singers like Carmen McRae.
After the in-your-face chaos of the Iggy Pop tour, he began to experiment more with rich, textured songs like the hidden "China Fields" track from Sweet Nothing, and later manifested in the Dream of Life album. Also, Scott Morgan always seemed to resent the growing emphasis on Fred's songs. The underlying tension that once provided a creative spark had became tedious and Fred decided he didn't want to deal with it anymore. I believe he was also ready to begin work with Patti, and see what their collaboration might bring. He was a master musician, also playing saxophone and keyboards, and was keen to explore beyond what he was doing with the Rendezvous band. The reason it took so long for Dream of Life to emerge was that he was also interested in having a life beyond rock & roll. That included starting a family. After Jackson was born, he seemed ready to get on with it . By then, he and Patti seemed to have their methods of working together sorted out, as well.
One legacy of Sonic's Rendezvous was that they re-energized the Detroit music scene and brought it back to life. I remember sitting and talking with Fred about the lack of a music scene in Detroit in 1975 when he predicted the soon to be realized local music explosion. When they first began performing at Ann Arbor's Second Chance, there were no other original bands around. We were forced to use cover bands as opening acts but the Rendezvous shows became a gathering point for most creative music fans within 100 miles. About a year or so later, bands like the Romantics and Destroy All Monsters had mustered enough confidence to show their stuff and asked if they could do opening slots on Sonic's gigs. From that point on, the Detroit scene blossomed and it has continued to flower ever since.
The music business still seemed to regard Fred as a renegade (he was forced to share production of Dream of Life 10 years later with Jimmy Iovine) and there was never enough money available to record an album, so the Rendezvous legacy was built on live performance.
"Sonic" Smith was a true visionary and an artist of the highest order. His work with the MC5, with Sonic's Rendezvous and with Patti was always years ahead of it's time, and I'm certain he had more to give, had his time not run out. He never got the financial rewards that he richly deserved, yet he wasn't driven by the mere pursuit of wealth. Fred was always down to earth, the same person regardless of the amount of money in his pocket. He had a quick wit, a dry sense of humor, and a knack for bringing out the best in the people he worked with. You could have a long conversation with Fred only to later realize that he had probed most of your thoughts, yet he had not truly revealed many of his. He was a private person and I respected his secretive, mysterious manner. Someone wrote me recently and remarked that Fred was a real bodhisattva, a Buddhist term for one who has attained enlightenment, but who postpones Nirvana to help enlighten others. There could be some truth to that.
There is transcendent quality to much of Fred's later work that almost defies description, an almost spiritual richness. One local writer said that Fred's guitar playing somehow defined what living in Detroit means. The hundreds who turned out for his memorial would attest to that, proving he had truly touched the hearts of many. Fred had his faults, we all do. He didn't kiss ass and that pissed a lot of people off. He was also sharp enough to get his pilot's license and fly a plane, something I doubt those who now gossip about him could ever do. I feel fortunate to have had the privilege of knowing Fred "Sonic" Smith and sharing his all too brief time in this realm. Most of those who had real contact with him feel the same. We miss you, Fred. Thanks for the memories.
Note: Mack Aborn Rhythmic Arts has released the great live CD Sweet Nothing as well as the collector's EP City Slang. For more information, see the Sonic Rendezvous site
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