Almost Famous

25 Years Later, frontman Brian Smith reflects on the misadventures of a bunch of coulda-shouldas called Gentlemen Afterdark

The band on a Hollywood balcony. Clockwise from top: Kevin Pate, Jon Norwood, Brian Smith, Robin Johnson, Stuart Smith.

Muhammad Ali towered resplendently in a custom suit and house-wide shoulders, and he had this strange, faraway dignity. You don't understand the charismatic power of a true international giant until you meet them face-to-face, empty gaze and expressionless features notwithstanding. I was introduced to Ali as "Brian Smith from Gentlemen Afterdark" and felt disoriented in front of him like a misplaced scarecrow. But I had some confidence because I'd just chugged a quart of Colt 45 malt liquor.

As I shook his baseball-glove-sized hand, his glorious lumpy fingers heavy with diamonds, it strained all belief that I was touching the greatest on Earth. Ali was "The Greatest" for many reasons, but we remembered him as the principled badass who had sucker-punched the world with his boxing gloves. Ali had a fearsome grip too, but oddly soft skin, and he smelled of custom $200-an-ounce cologne. Ali's pal Sly Stone was circulating the room. He had a demented expression and wore a lime-colored fedora with a long feather sticking up off the side, a trio of curvy women in hooker boots in tow.

Ali leaned down toward his young daughter, who stood beside him holding his other hand, and he nodded slowly toward me. (It was as if Ali's every movement was in slow motion.) He said to her, in deep monotone, "It's Boy George."

We were backstage at the 3,000-seat Santa Monica Civic, where Gentlemen Afterdark was booked to support, of all people, Billy Preston. I expected us to get booed the hell off that stage.

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click to enlarge Almost Famous
Brian Smith circa 1984.

I had kohl eyes and Ronnie Wood rooster hair, and likely resembled post-New York Dolls Johnny Thunders more than anyone. I took sartorial cues from my heroes back in 1984. It was irrelevant if Ali was punch-drunk because his comment was spot-on. Gentleman Afterdark were always misunderstood. In my eyes, we were beer, cigarettes and riffs; a loud, youthful and shambolic mess of pop romanticism and record collections littered with Roxy Music and David Bowie and The Dolls and Blondie and Alice Cooper and Bob Dylan and Simple Minds and early Ultravox and The Psychedelic Furs, and so on. But what did I know?

We were attempting to blend commerce and art, and we wanted our songs heard by as many people as humanly possible. We wanted to be famous, man, and that was our downfall. We were too insecure and vain to just be—we needed validation so we were constantly second-guessing our music and our existence at every step. I wore eyeliner everywhere I went because I couldn't just be; I was scared, feeling grossly inferior to others. Meeting Ali was the career metaphor in that we came this close to something bigger than the sum of all of us combined, something that might've fed and sustained our wildest all-American dreams of fame, of touching the hem of that mystery dream life that I'd banked on to transcend my inner-fears, like a perfect life atop a Benedict Canyon hillside next to Rudolf Valentino's glorious old place, earning my glittery keep in song (and self-destruction).

Just months before I'd met Ali, People Magazine had picked Gentleman Afterdark to be stars of the future in their ballyhooed 10th anniversary issue. In those pre-Internet days, celebrity worship was print-only, and there were few outlets. There was Rolling Stone and People and that was about it as far mainstream mass appeal. People had one of the largest circulations of any magazine on the planet. Alongside us, the magazine picked Glenn Close and Tom Cruise to be future stars too, and their photos (Cruise's was a movie still from Risky Business) were smaller than ours. Our full-page image showed us tying Alice Cooper to a massive saguaro cactus outside of his Paradise Valley home. Major record labels flooded our manager with calls after the magazine hit stands.

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At first we were able to measure our band in efficiency—new songs and studio recordings, a growing following, etc.—and everyday felt new. After a few years we could measure ourselves in inefficiency—ambition supplanted by depression, entropy, and, with some of us, addiction. But it can't be said that we didn't completely throw ourselves into every melody, every lyric and every song we wrote. We played music as if our lives depended on it, because our lives did depend on it, just as it should in a proper rock 'n' roll band. It was all we had, and for much of the time it was our living, if you could call it that; we drank mostly for free and lived off what we'd earn playing music.

I'd believed in the cliché that in rock 'n' roll, or in any art or writing, the very things that make you good at your work are the very things that make it difficult to exist, much less prosper, in the day-to-day. You're just not going to be right for the world. Worse, you'll be self-conscious about that, and that makes it nearly impossible to interact with others outside of whatever little isolated bubble you exist in. And I was convinced that there was nothing else in this life for me. Tip the bottle back. Let the inertia in.

But I did every gig as if I had a gun pointed straight at the back of my head because life had this way of informing such action. If we'd do successive nights of shows, by the third one I'd be injured with welts along my spine and down my shins from leaping around, and I was constantly reinjuring sprains, and after shows I'd find bruises, sores and bleeding cuts on strange places on my body. I remember one night we were supporting Midge Ure (from Ultravox) at the Ventura Theater in Ventura, California, and I leapt into the air off the drum riser and landed on a slight crack in the stage. My foot got caught and my body went one way and the lower half of my leg the other. I heard my knee pop as it was as loud as the thundering din rising behind me, and I saw fireworks. I finished the set in pure agony. I hobbled for weeks in a knee brace. The knee has never been the same.

Being in Gentlemen Afterdark showed me how easy it was to confuse insecurity with self-belief. And I was so shy that it was nearly impossible to interact with others—friends, strangers—on any kind of social or meaningful level. That's one reason why I was into being a rock 'n' roll frontman. You don't have to work to interact with anyone. Hell, you don't even have to interact. You shut off and show off and people show up to watch you and then you disappear, and when you reappear again and it's under that persona. That becomes who you are, and you learn to skate by on forced charm. The introversion was often misinterpreted as inflated self-opinion, and I got called an asshole many times by people I'd never met. Sometimes I deserved it. I was young and pompous enough to believe that I was tragic—god, I must've embarrassed my bandmates many times—and I drank like it. I was married twice in those years and I had no clue how to negotiate such a thing and so the unions were fraught with subterfuge, unhappiness and drinking on my part. I could hardly manage myself. I figured if the band made it then I would too, and also the marriage. Yessir.

But I sometimes had that truly hopeless, destined feeling, the panic-y depression that settles over you when you begin to fear that you're going to wind up in the streets, drunk and dying. That feeling would become seemingly irresolvable and it took years to learn self-awareness, and to appreciate the little wonders of actually living this life. In those days, the drinking and the rock 'n' roll did it all for me. Nothing was grounded. And that's a life, wasted.

But when the band was great, we were unstoppable, which is why it wasn't just the third-rate hustlers who'd glommed on to us saying we were going places. We had powerful managers, agents, major labels, indie labels, producers and rock stars telling us that we were going to shake the world. When you have enough people saying that you might begin to believe it. So we developed an arrogant camaraderie. It wasn't the mean-spirited, cynical kind of arrogance, more like that which rises from angry fear and insecurity. It kept us safe somehow, like family.

It was that arrogance that led us to believe that Muhammad Ali was everything that we thought our band could be. And lord knows we tried. Between 1982 and 1990 we had that belief in each other. And we were young. By 1984, drummer Winston Watson was, at 22, the oldest, my guitarist/keyboardist brother Stuart was youngest at 18.

And by the end of the band we were frighteningly good at being in a band — the songs, the performances and the weird ability to sonically articulate things like our own self-destruction, inner-group misunderstandings and identity confusion, as well as all the heartbreak, tension and attendant pretentiousness that comes with not trying hard enough or trying too hard. We should've been good; hell, we were together longer than The Beatles were together. There were marriages, divorces, drug overdoses, brushes with fame and brushes with death. Our hopes were dashed so often it became our normal to expect the worst, to believe in the worst in most others, in us too, and anyone having anything to do with music who didn't write it or play it.

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The Ramones, Generation X and some other punk bands had abducted my heart when I was young teen, as well as Creem Magazine. I became obsessed with the music to the point that I quit bike racing and my post on the U.S. junior national cycling team. I found Lee Joseph, Pen Pendleton and Cliff Green and formed The Suspects, a first-wave Tucson punk band that debuted at Pearl's Hurricane Lounge alongside the Pedestrians, Z-9 and others.

I'd shriek like Johnny Rotten until I my voice was toast, and that didn't last long. I quit the Suspects to join Z-9 with guitarist Robin Johnson, bassist Fred Cross and drummer Rex Estell. I was attracted to Johnson especially. At 15 years old, he was total rock 'n' roll, a spindly girl-magnet who loved Cheap Trick and Aerosmith, and I turned him onto the New York Dolls. So that was it. Except for Estell, who was a bit older, we were kids: 15, 16, and 17. We changed the name to The Pills, which we lifted off the Dolls cover version of the Bo Diddley tune. We worshipped the Dolls and Johnny Thunders' Heartbreakers, and our sets included songs by those two bands. We debuted as a quartet at some nowhere cowboy bar near 22nd Street under an overpass. Robin wore red lipstick and a fake red-leather coat. Cross was a big kid—pretty sure he was a wrestler in high school at that point—and he sweetly wore his sister's frilly white blouse. Estell had real dignity and wore a suit jacket. My brother Stuart (later in Gentlemen Afterdark) roadied; he had a Les Paul that Johnson used for back up. The show was as innocent and beautiful as it was bad, and the place was crowded.

Guitarist Mark Smythe (aka Tripp Trigger) showed up to watch, and later approached us. It blew our minds that he asked to join the group. Smythe was to us a rock 'n' roll star, a vet with boatloads of playing and songwriting skills and experience. He toured and played real clubs in bands such as Isaiah. He walked in that night wearing leather and shades, cigarette dangling, with a beautiful woman who was chewing bubblegum and blowing bubbles. He could've been Joe Perry. He had a singing voice that sounded like John Lennon, and he wrote great power pop. He was 22 and we called him grandpa. He hated that.

We drank heavily and played everywhere in Tucson, and then in Phoenix, did one of our first radio interviews in Tempe with venerable DJ Johnny D, who dug us and played our record a lot. That record was a four-song EP call The Pills, recorded at Westwood Studios and funded by our manager, Marty Giller, a guy who'd worked in TV and toured with the Rolling Stones. The EP featured the tune "DC-10, "which became somewhat of a minor local hit local rock radio station KWFM, thanks to mainly to Dave LaRussa (his show "Anything That's Rock 'n' Roll"), as well as Karen Stern and Bob Cook (R.I.P.), a trio of DJs who believed in the band.

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Robin Johnson

On stage, The Pills (and later, Gentlemen Afterdark) were a visceral and physical release for me, drug-like. Our intent was to be a greatest live rock 'n' roll band anywhere. And we were, sometimes. I could barely sing a lick ... a pitched rasp really, and it bummed me out. But I could leap and strut like Jagger and David Johansen on meth. Johnson and I should've been in high school, but we'd both quit. We were going for it, and we were out of control. If youthful rock arrogance had paid dividends, we would've killed ourselves with the profits. Smythe grew weary of our contemptuous and life-testing misdeeds, and I'm pretty sure we embarrassed him far too much. For example, we were doing a live interview once on KWFM and I was drunk, drinking beer in the studio, which was against any FCC regulation. I'm pretty sure I said that the reason I was in The Pills was because "I wanted to sleep with lots of women and do lots of drugs," or something absolutely stupid like that. It wasn't even true. I was posing, testing people. Smythe was furious. Robin and I just giggled. Smythe had already suffered enough childish shit in his previous band.

Smythe soon quit the group to form the band Johnny Seven, and we did our record-release show without him at a 400-seat club called Faces. The show sold out, and there was a line out the door, mostly because of all the KWFM airplay. But the group soon splintered and I moved to New York City by myself in search of a band that might have me, but wound up living amongst the ghosts of Max's Kansas City. I worked at a beat Manhattan record store on Bleecker Street called Village Oldies, the very one where, years before, Patti Smith had met Lenny Kaye. The legendary record man Broadway Al owned the store, and he didn't care if we drank while we worked, so we'd get hammered on Rolling Rock and play great records all night. Guys like Iggy Pop, Rick James and Walter Lure from the Heartbreakers would come in to shop and I'd never charge them for the albums they'd bring up to the register. The store was also the first place I ever did crystal meth, one of the few times I used needles. I'd shoot the speed up in the back room and walk around Manhattan jabbering with friends until the sun would appear and drop again.

This was in the early '80s, just before AIDs broke out, and Manhattan was frightening for a teen kid from Tucson. For one thing, subway chickenhawks from outer boroughs looked at me as easy prey. Creepy men with droopy jowls and beady eyes would forcefully offer to pay to have sex with me, or to suck me off. They'd follow me around and loom over me. It happened often, and it put me on the ugly end of the male gaze, which taught me a lot about sensitivity toward women. I remember thinking how horrible it must be to date men.

My older brother Barry was living down near Coney Island in Brooklyn, trying to get his music happening. We both returned to Tucson at different times and I reformed The Pills with Estell, Johnson and Cross. Barry joined the lineup on violin and keyboards, bringing a gnarly Nash the Slash meets Kraftwerk element to our weirdly melodic punkish din, and he made us rise up to be real musicians. There was a good band in there somewhere and it was only getting better. We signed on to an insurmountable debt at Chicago Store for equipment and went to work in a little house in central Tucson. Things screeched to a halt when Estell was involved in a horrible car accident, which nearly killed him. It was obvious he was going to be down for a long time so we recruited drummer Winston Watson from a Mesozoic-era cover band called Snowblind. They were an hirsute combo doing Rush and Ted Nugent tunes at smelly pickup joints like The Embers on Speedway, which I was too young to set foot in but no one ever checked IDs. (There were very few live-music options in Tucson in '82. The existing ones always seemed to smell like rotten tealeaves and filthy ashtrays, and the red-eyed and cocaine doormen would frighten me with their Styx-like power-shags and hippie flairs.)

Our first gig, which was a colossal catastrophe because the opening band sabotaged the P.A., sold out Tucson's Night Train rock club. We soon moved to Phoenix because we could make a living playing our songs. We'd do four-night stands at clubs like Merlin's and the Mason Jar and earn enough to live on and "support" a road crew. We developed a huge following in Phoenix. Brian Nelson, who was Alice Cooper's assistant, became our manager. He was young, smart and organized, and had learned a lot from Cooper's manager Shep Gordon. Sometimes Nelson would pick me up and we'd go to movies and bars in Cooper's aging Rolls Royce, which had missing hubcaps, dented fenders and would stall out at stoplights. The fading machine was metaphorical of Cooper himself—his 1983 album DaDa had just tanked and his career was in the toilet, and he had yet to sober up for good. His late-'80s comeback was Herculean.

Barry quit Gentlemen Afterdark after we recorded a self-titled, four-song EP, which was produced by Cooper and Detroit rock legend and ex-Lou Reed/Cooper guitarist Dick Wagner. We adored that Wagner penned the music to The Coop's "Only Women Bleed" and "You and Me," two of the most beautiful songs to emerge from the '70s in any genre. We loved Wagner and Cooper's production ideas too; it was very '70s rock, like the radio shit we grew up on, with all the tricks that they'd picked up from Cooper's producer Bob Ezrin. There were these quasi-classical overtures and finely wrought arrangements that allowed Barry's electric violin to magically ascend and the verses and guitar parts to air out. Then there was my singing voice. Wagner was getting me to sing in ways I didn't like, and I did so much of his cocaine when I was recording my vocals that I sounded expressionless, strangled and flat. The sound made me cringe and I couldn't listen to the record once it came out. Everyone else played brilliantly. Watson was already a groove monster, and Johnson a guitar hero. Bassist Fred Cross had developed an absolutely glacial sound, and Barry provided glorious violin and keyboard countermelody. The record was meant to be a "calling card," as Wagner called it, to major labels. But those labels hated the record and I'm sure it was because of the sound of my voice. I was the worst sounding guy in the band. More, the record was too major-label sounding for an indie label.

We soon recorded another EP, the last stuff Barry played on, which contained "I Go," "Only in You" and "Celebrate Youth," three songs we loved because they sounded like us. Some major labels loved the songs too.

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click to enlarge Almost Famous
Brian Smith
Winston Watson at rehearsal with Gentlemen Afterdark.