Almost Famous: The Strange and Terrible Life of Craig Smith

Craig Smith was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley. He was class president at Grant High School and was on the gymnastics team. The all American boy. He graduated high school in 1963 and decided to pursue a career in Hollywood instead of going to college. Smith had talent and good looks. He could sing and was hired to perform on the Andy Williams Show. A year later Smith and his band, Good Time Singers, released their first album. Smith wrote a song that was recorded by Andy Williams for his Christmas album in 1965. His future looked bright. Next Smith auditioned for The Monkees pilot episode but the part went to Peter Tork.

By 1967 Smith was picked up for a new pilot as Alan Howard in The Happeners. He was perfect for the part. The show was about a fictional folk trio that combined singing and acting. Unfortunately, the Network didn’t pick up the show after the pilot was shot. Every failure seemed to open a new door for Smith.

Smith moved on and signed with Capitol records. He recorded a number of demos that were never released. He made contacts with The Beach Boys, The Monkees, and Glen Campbell, and formed his own band, Penny Arkade. The future looked bright for the clean-cut kid from the San Fernando Valley.

By 1968, Smith dove headfirst into the counterculture. The Beatniks were out and the Hippies were in. Folk music faded into Psychedelic rock. Smith was traveling the world dropping large amounts of acid. Smith traveled to Kandahar with his guitar and backpack. He was planning to travel the Hippie Trail which was a name given to a journey taken by many members of the hippie subculture. It was a right of passage. Smith wanted to meet the Maharishi and become enlightened. The Beatles were doing it and he planned to meet them.

It was in Kandahar where Smith’s life took a violent turn. He was looking for peace, love, and harmony but instead crashed into the darkness. Smith snapped, went crazy, running through an open market threatening people with a knife. He was beaten, robbed, kidnapped, and sexually assaulted. He suffered from amnesia and couldn’t remember who he was. He spent time in an insane asylum in Afghanistan. This was the breaking when he developed schizophrenia.

In 1969, Smith returned to the United States, moving back in with his parents. He changed his name to Maitreya Kali, shaved his head, and got a spider web tattoo on his forehead. He was known for hanging out with Charles Manson and the family. He had met them through Dennis Wilson from the Beach Boys. He fit the part. He told people he was the messiah and spent some time in California mental hospitals.

On Easter Sunday in 1973, he attacked his mother in his childhood home. He beat her so severely he was charged with attempted murder and sentenced to prison. The court ordered psychiatric treatment and Smith became California prison inmate number B1234.

Smith paroled in 1976 and was back out on the streets. He was in and out of mental hospitals struggling with his mental illness. He was arrested for petty crimes but never went back to prison.

This was about the time he appeared at my grandparents' home on Magnolia Blvd in Van Nuys. My grandfather answered the door and Smith asked to be fed. Smith had grown up with their son, Phillip, and they knew him very well. They remembered the cheerful kid that used to play catch football on their front lawn. However, Smith had changed and looked disheveled. My grandparents were frightened of him. He told them he could control the wind. They had heard stories of him threatening to kill his friends; like the time he challenged one of them to fight to the death with swords. My grandfather made Smith a sandwich, gave him five dollars, and asked him not to come back.

Craig Smith lived this way for the next thirty years. He was homeless and lived off of handouts. He was still writing songs but had no one to sing them to. He was broke. No one wanted to buy his songs. He had burned all his bridges and now was a forgotten face in the San Fernando Valley.

When he passed away in 2012 he had been living in a North Hollywood park. Smith died alone in his sleeping bag. He had never married and had no children. His family refused to collect his ashes. Mike Stax, a journalist, who had been researching Craig Smith for fifteen years took his ashes. He wrote an amazing book about Craig Smith, Swim Through The Darkness: My search for Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali.

Author of Vivien’s Rain and Straight Fish. Epilepsy Advocate. Comedian.