Sunday, September 18, 2022

Brett Smiley - Breathlessly Brett (1974 us, a fabulously fey, coyly campy, and smashingly swishy glam pop, 2003 release)

Brett Smiley was no David Bowie, in fact, the album the 18-year-old Mr. Smiley made with the Rolling Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham in 1974, “Breathlessly Brett,” didn’t even see the light of day until 40 years had passed.

But he was someone you should know. And in what seemed like some sort of cosmic coincidence, he died on Jan. 8, just two days before his immeasurably more successful contemporary.

The failure of Mr. Smiley — or Brett, as I came to know him — to take his own place in the pantheon of 1970s glam legends wasn’t because of a lack of effort. He was young, American, gorgeous and wrote compelling songs delivered in a breathy, achingly vulnerable voice. Some $100,000 had been invested in starting his career. Disco magazine declared him “the Most Beautiful Boy in the World.” He was poised, on the precipice, ready for his close-up.

But “Breathlessly Brett” was shelved. “I just refused to let them release the album,” Mr. Oldham said recently in an email. “I knew it would be a disaster, and we’d already had one — the 45 r.p.m. release of ‘Space Ace,’ ” a song from the record.

The astronaut-themed “Space Ace,” with its military-style snare drum rolls, “launchpad” sound effects and lush strings might have been titled “Not Quite Space Oddity.” The up-tempo, catchy B-side, “Va Va Va Voom,” would have made a much better debut. Either way, Brett’s glam career crash-landed, and Mr. Bowie — and the rest of the world — moved on.

In 1977, Brett landed a part in “Cinderella,” a low-budget soft-porn flick. Appearing in a movie wasn’t such a big stretch; he had understudied the lead role in “Oliver” on Broadway for a little over a month in 1965. But it was the last major gasp from Brett, who like so many in the hedonistic ’70s and ’80s was wooed by assorted mind-altering substances. And off he went.

By the time I met Brett in Central Park in 1988 while playing Frisbee, his time had passed. To me he was a skinny, friendly, vaguely beat-up-looking man who, like me, carried a guitar everywhere he went. We talked, we jammed, he played me one of his new songs — “From the Head to the Heart” — and he told me to throw out one line of a new song I had just written called “Quittin’ Time.” It was good advice.

We kept seeing each other in the park on weekends and then one last time, for a few hours, at a mutual friend’s house. Eventually, he told me the story of his 15 minutes of almost-stardom, but I didn’t really care. There was no Internet and I could not look up photos, hear recordings or see his and Mr. Oldham’s appearance on Russell Harty’s British TV show.

I just liked the guy; he wasn’t a dude or a bro, but neither was he overly touchy-feely. I was aching at the time for guidance, particularly with music, and Brett gave it to me without being asked. There was something lovable about him. Such is the nature of born stars, whether they become famous or not; you just want to be around them.

When Brett suddenly disappeared and I eventually made inquiries, I was told he’d succumbed again to drugs and had fled to California. I soon left New York to live in an Indian ashram. The past rapidly seemed a millennium away, and the ’80s were cemented in pop culture almost as soon as they were over.

I remembered Brett all through the next three decades, though — his face, his manner and especially the fact that he never complained about his faded career or his drug addiction; he didn’t seem to feel sorry for himself.

Shaken to the core in the wake of David Bowie’s death, I thought of glam and decided, after all these years, to Google Brett Smiley.

I wasn’t surprised, knowing his history, to see the headline “Brett Smiley Dies at 60,” but was gobsmacked to see he’d died in his Brooklyn apartment just 48 hours before Mr. Bowie. He’d been found, the obituaries said, by family members and a friend who had been unable to contact him by phone.

And thus I spent the better part of the day getting to know the Brett I had never known and falling in love with the tiny, beautiful creature on the cover of “Breathlessly Brett” as one might have in 1974 — in the den with friends gathered around a turntable or in one’s bedroom. There was also Andrew Loog Oldham and a nervous Brett Smiley debuting on British TV with “Space Ace,” which Brett had expected to mime but had to perform live. His songs have played nonstop on my iPod since I downloaded them two days ago. It’s all Brett, all the time.

David Bowie, by contrast, does not need me to mourn him. I saw the 1976 film “The Man Who Fell to Earth” when it came out (though I didn’t understand it). I pulled my car over to listen to “Ashes to Ashes” in 1980 the first time it came over the radio because the snapping bass guitar opening the song was so compelling; I didn’t even know it was Mr. Bowie’s song until he started singing. I watched him at Live Aid during a break from the restaurant I was working at near Washington Square Park in 1985, and I’ve sung the words “This is ground control to Major Tom” in public about 500 times since I was 15. I’ve given him more than 40 years of my life, and the world will no doubt see to his legacy without my help.

But maybe Brett Smiley does need me to mourn him. I asked Mr. Oldham for his thoughts, and they were kind. “He was an irresistible spirit, a warrior, superb writer and chronicler of his and our times,” Mr. Oldham said. “A good person to have as a friend, a lovable rogue. He will be missed.”

Brett wasn’t Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke or Major Tom, he didn’t end up getting to record and hang out with John Lennon and Mick Jagger and he didn’t make millions of dollars — not even close. But he was the Space Ace, as well as a talented, slightly mysterious guy who was nice to me when he had no reason to be. Brett Smiley didn’t change the world, but he’s left it now. He lived a life, and it mattered.
by Josh Max, Jan. 16, 2016
1. Brett's Lullaby - 0:31
2. Highty Tighty - 2:59
3. Space Ace - 3:50
4. April In Paris - 3:29
5. Solitaire (Neil Sedaka) - 4:03
6. Va Va Va Voom - 3:12
7. Run For The Sun (Brett Smiley, Tony Freed) - 2:44
8. I Want To Hold Your Hand (John Lennon, Paul McCartney) - 2:55
9. Pre-Columbian Love - 2:14
10.Queen Of Hearts - 3:49
11.I Can't Help Myself / Over The Rainbow (Brian Holland, Edward Holland, Jr., Lamont Dozier / Isidore Hochberg, Harold Arlen) - 2:49
12.Young At Heart (Carolyn Leigh, Johnny Richards) - 2:08
All songs by Brett Smiley except where indicated

*Brett Smiley - Vocals
*Jim Keltner - Drums
*Ken Ascher - Piano
*David Spinozza - Guitar
*Steve Marriott - Guitar
*Andrew Loog Oldham - Producer