Far too many times, Jeff Smith and I butted heads. It was just his way; he was most in his element when trying to get other people out of theirs. I always liked him and respected the hell out of his writing. I think he liked me, too, but I was never quite certain.
Someone suggested that perhaps he and I were too much alike. I don't know if that has any basis in fact, whatsoever. All I know is that there were times that he and I got along like Regina Romero and the English language.
After the legendary—and I mean truly legendary—columnist and journalist died a couple of weekends ago, he was remembered most eloquently herein by Jim Nintzel and quite passionately by Weekly co-founder and longtime owner Doug Biggers. Smith was a hell-raiser and, occasionally, even a scoundrel, and people genuinely loved him for it.
I started out our (for want of a better word) relationship in an ultra-lame-oid fashion by hand-writing him a fan letter. He had written a column about the DJs on Tucson's big rock 'n' roll station of the time, KTKT 990 AM. They called themselves the Pirtleville Warriors, and the group included the incredibly popular Frank Kalil and the spectacular Ed Alexander, who, to this day, retains that perfect baritone, pimp-daddy radio voice. In the column, Smith pointed out that Pirtleville is actually a suburb of the border town of Douglas, adding drolly, "if you can think in terms that small."
I'd had a similar experience when I was growing up in L.A. In a city full of stars, rock DJs more than held their own with movie and TV royalty. One of my favorites was the manic Real Don Steele, who, as it turns out, was apparently the first white man ever to try cocaine. And then, having done so, he tried his best to keep the entire world's supply all to himself. (The burnout character Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP In Cincinnati was based on the Real Don Steele.)
Having written the nice letter, I waited for a reply that never came. (It was probably quite naïve of me to even expect one.)
A while later, I was the sports editor of the campus paper, The Arizona Daily Wildcat. I was sitting at my desk, writing something, when Jeff walked into the newsroom. Everybody knew who he was; he was The Man. He talked to a couple of people and I kept writing. Finally, he walked up to my desk and asked, "Are you the guy that some people think is funny?"
I mean, really, how does one answer such a question? I said, "I guess."
He deadpanned, "Well, I don't think you're that funny."
I didn't know if he was joking or not, so I just shrugged and said, "Different strokes."
He said, "That's your comeback? An Earth, Wind and Fire line?"
I snapped, "It's Sly and the Family Stone."
He turned dismissively and walked away. That was the first time I actually met him.
I wrote to him after the motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down, but it would be years before I would see him again. It was at the first-ever meeting of the first-ever Best of Tucson®, the promotion that Biggers used to get his ailing publication off life support. I walked into the room and Smith said, "Your gut, like your reputation, precedes you." It was a funny line, and I laughed along with everybody else. There was no room to sit next to him that night. I was still pretty new at the paper and still trying to forge an identity. There was a woman sitting, very quietly, in the back of the room. I figured I'd go back and sit next to her, perchance to not be overshadowed. She turned out to be Barbara Kingsolver. I couldn't catch a break.
I devoured everything Jeff wrote. He was an absolute master. If anything, he was even better with the spoken word—insightful, wry, sometimes brutal.
It's sad to say, but one of the last times I ever saw him in person was when I went to Phoenix to cover the National Rifle Association's national convention. That same day, down the street in what was then called America West Arena, the Phoenix Suns were playing the Houston Rockets in an important NBA Western Conference playoff game. Jeff was thinking about going to the game, even though it was sold out. He explained that the wheelchair was a free ticket to just about everything—concerts, ballgames, whatever. He then went into this routine about how if you added tics and twitches, the people at the door couldn't get you in fast enough. It was hilarious and quite politically incorrect.
He later saw me chatting with NRA President Charlton Heston and asked, considering my stance on guns, how I could warm up to the Antichrist. I said, "All I know is that (Heston) marched with Dr. King back when it was dangerous to do so, both physically and career-wise. After that, unless he starts molesting children, he gets a lifetime pass from me." I paused, then added, "Plus, he did that really cool scene in Wayne's World 2."
Jeff shook his head, muttered "Wayne's World 2," then spun in his chair and rolled away. Dismissively.