Tribute to Tim Smith (Cardiacs)

Photo by Phil Branch, 1989, Shepherds Bush.

This morning I woke up to the news that Tim Smith passed away. I wanted to reflect on Tim’s influence on me as a creative and as a person.

My first exposure to Tim’s brilliance was Sing to God. I was fascinated initially, but I truly fell in love after listening to “Fiery Gun Hand”. The music was intense, jarring, and completely and unashamedly in-your-face. The lyrics were surreal and scary, and Jon Poole’s guitar solo might be one of the most perfect instrumental solos ever recorded. And of course, the song ends with a circus-y freakout and screeching guitars. I had never heard anything like it, and I listen to a LOT of weird music. It was love at first listen.

There are some bands that frustrate me when I discover them, because I realize how long I’ve missed out on them. As I listened through their discography, though, I realized that I had heard echoes of their influence in many of the bands I loved. I heard it in “The Fluke” by Devin Townsend. I heard it I heard it in Porcupine Tree’s more jarring moments. The “Pond” (a term of affection for those who love Tim’s music) includes many high profile artists and bands such as Thom Yorke, Faith No More, and Blur. Their music was called “divisive” by the press- Cardiacs fans loved the band with an intensity and fervor that is rare, and critics of the band truly couldn’t stand them.

Pete Cashmore at The Guardian wrote a profile of Tim a few years ago, and described the music well for the uninitiated: “The extremity of feeling that Cardiacs inspire is probably down to the fact that there is, was and will never be anyone else quite like them: Cardiacs sound unhinged, the sound of a manic brain firing off jarring time changes and baffling words. Songs sometimes sound like the players involved are trying to catch each other out, only to suddenly blossom into rapturous, pristine melody. The band reject the most common tag attached to them, that of “prog punk”, but there’s a certain truth in it, as they deliver jarring, wonky arrangements with thrashy intensity. But then you have to throw in elements like nursery rhymes, sea shanties, sweet psychedelia, vast hymnal shout-alongs and the occasional, incongruously straightforward rock anthem.”

It’s not a surprise that the music of the Cardiacs appeals to boundary pushing musicians and artists, though. While I think they can be appreciated without an extensive music education, the more one knows about songwriting convention, the more one can appreciate how many rules Tim Smith broke. Take the song “Stoneage Dinosaurs” for example. The melodic progression through the verses- Cm, Db, Ab, Eb, F, Cm. This repeated progression is unusual enough on its own, but then after a few verses, it very calmly walks through another set of chords- C, G, A, E, B, F#, G, D, E, B, F#, and Ab- all in one line of a verse, in a matter of seconds, so quick that you miss it if you’re not paying attention. Yes, Cardiacs were famous for their abrasive and complex passages, but even if they slowed down, they were capable of intense, otherwordly beauty.

Steven Wilson said in a BBC interview about Tim Smith’s influence: “In a way it’s easy to love the music but it’s much harder to imitate and I think that’s why perhaps the legacy of Cardiacs isn’t as strong as it otherwise might be simply because it’s very, very hard to imitate music of such sophistication and complexity. It’s genius.” The word “genius” is egregiously overused, but I think that anyone who seriously studies the music of Dr. Smith comes to the same conclusion: he was a genius in his own right, completely and defiantly unique. You don’t have to love the music of the Cardiacs to see that.

As someone who discovered Tim’s brilliant music after the band stopped touring, I found peace in the words of Mary Wren (from the Cardiacs’ label Alphabet Business Concern): “Despite the struggles Tim faced over the last 12 years, we all somehow felt he would never leave us. This is, in part, because he looked at death square in the face, with his good and true eye, so many times and won … At this time, we are comforted by the fact that he left us quietly, albeit suddenly.” I was one of scores of fans, all desperately hoping for a miracle, a wonder cure, at least some sort of relief from the pain. Even if a triumphant return to the stage seemed unlikely, his loss has felt unexpectedly sad for me. While his death comes as a shock to many, it also means he is released from what seemed like an awful, debilitating illness. And though his death likely comes as a respite for him, it’s still hard not to feel a tremendous sense of loss.

Rest in Peace, Tim.

“I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.
And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.” -Heaven Heven, The Sea Nymphs

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