The sun rises on songsmith Sonny Smith and Sonny and the Sunsets
By Johnny Ray Huston
Sonny Smith knows how to write a song. He better, because he’s writing a lot of them. The Oakland resident is currently shoulders-deep in a mammoth project titled “100 Records” that combines music he’s composed and recorded with cover visuals by a not-small army of Bay Area artists. Anyone who has heard Smith’s 2006 album Fruitvale (Belle Sound) or read his column for the Examiner is aware that he has a direct, colorful way with words. Anyone who has found a copy of Tomorrow is Alright (Soft Abuse/Secret Seven), the new album by Smith’s group Sonny and the Sunsets, realizes he has a gift for classic melody: “Too Young to Burn” is worthy of Ronnie Spector; “Death Cream” is a balm; and “Planet of Women” is the kind of music that will give you that summer feeling on Christmas Day. In the immediate wake of Tomorrow, I asked Smith some questions.
SFBG Around the time of Fruitvale, you sent out a little black-and-white comic called Life and Times of a Mindless Ape as your musician’s bio. I liked reading about your Bolinas youth.
Sonny Smith My folks moved all around the Bay Area when I was young, so I wasn’t a Bolinas kid. That’s what you could do back then, even if you had no money — one year you could live in Bolinas, the next on a houseboat in Sausalito, then in the Mission, then in the Sunset, and back to Fairfax.
They met at an anti-Vietnam rally in Golden Gate Park in the Summer of Love. My dad was in the seminary in San Anselmo; my mother was a resident at Baker Street [halfway house]. One could be a bohemian back then. My dad was a fan of writers like Brautigan and Kerouac, and he was part of a circle of old-time string band musicians that included sculptors and painters and artists.
SFBG Can you tell me more about the gentleman with the tarot deck in Paris that you mention in Mindless Ape?
SS Laurent Despot was the man I met. At the time he was a freelance journalist working for magazines, smut or otherwise. I was transformed by the tarot reading and it might have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Basically he was a very nice man who helped a 17-year-old sleeping in the Paris Metro. He also lived exactly across the street from his wife, which I now see as wonderful.
SFBG I have to ask you about the Fruitvale song “Mario,” because it reminds me of a Mario.
SS I lived next to a big Latino family, and their driveway was by my living room window. The teenage son would hang out in the family minivan late at night and listen to tunes. One night I peeked through our blinds and I saw him in there putting on makeup and dressing up as a woman, partying a bit, making some phone calls, and then taking the makeup back off, going back to the Latino teen with slicked back hair. Fruitvale is a tough place to be anything but macho, so I was thinking how tough you gotta be to be a queen in the ghetto. We found the toughest beat ever created — “We Will Rock You” by Queen — and we started with that, then tried to make it a little desperate and sad but fighting to the end.
SFBG How did the idea behind your “100 Records” project come about? In terms of hypergraphia or forced hypergraphia, [the Magnetic Fields'] 69 Love Songs (Merge, 1999) comes to mind, but this is quite different.
SS I didn’t intend to write so many songs. I had written a novel last winter about all these fictional musicians, and I got a small residency at the Headlands to write songs for these fake singers and make sketches of what their albums would look like. I thought that might be cool to insert in the novel. But I farmed a few drawings out — one to artist Paul Wackers, one to Mingering Mike [godfather of fake 45s], some to a few artists at Creativity Explored, and a few others to people I met through Headlands. The pieces were so amazing that I couldn’t not do that for all of the songs, and I couldn’t slack on the song-production end. So my novel just kinda broke up into this epic art project. Now there are about 60 artists, and I’m trying to do 200 songs. Marc Dantona has been helping me produce some sessions. We have a little wrecking crew band, and we are knocking shit out left and right. The “100 Records” show will be in April at Gallery 16.
SFBG Tell me about some of the bands and musicians of “100 Records.” Who are they, what are their back stories?
SS There are about 50 so far — Beachticks, Cabezas Cordades, Little Antoine and the Sparrows, Earth Girl Helen Brown, Zig Speck & Specktones, Prince Nedick, Bobbie Hawkins, the Fuckaroos.
Prince Nedick for instance was born Washington Rice, and for a short period was a child preacher in his hometown of Turkey Creek, near Leicester, N.C. He started his showbiz career as a dancer, working at the 81 Theater in Atlanta as a young teenager. Rice was gay and flamboyant; he worked the tent shows in drag, a great Southern showbiz tradition in itself, and an important influence on rock ’n’ roll — hence the term “tent show queen.” He sang the repertoire of said tradition, many of the same tunes Little Richard would clean up and take to the bank, like “Tutti Frutti” (original lyrics: “Tutti Frutti/Good booty/If it don’t fit/Don’t force it/Just grease it/Make it easy”). He was known for his flashy style and violent temper. At the height of his fame, he went on the lam for assaulting his brother’s wife with an ax, and ultimately ended up in Minglewood, a lumber camp a few miles east of the Mississippi in Dyersburg, Tenn.
SFBG Are there box sets or large music projects (Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, for example) with an artistic element that you especially love?
SS Harry Smith’s is a huge influence definitely — probably the biggest. Mingering Mike, certainly. Woody Guthrie just swimming through all those songs over the years is influential. I wanted to step into a place where everything is available at all moments to be music, to be art, and it appears I had to come up with alteregos to allow that.
SFBG Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?
SS My girlfriend’s dad was named after Eugene V. Debs.