Brett Smiley 25th September 1955 - 8th January 2016.
The death of Brett Smiley has removed one of the most obscure, but fascinating facets from the chipped, black nail varnished footnotes of rock. Until the turn of the new century his most slender of reputations rested only in the minds of those fortunate enough to possess his lone single "Va Va Va Voom," a wonderfully effete confection which surfaced in Britain in the fading months of 1974. Over-hyped and over the top, this California pretty boy import pouted and pranced like a stick thin bleached and back combed Goldie Hawn in platform boots. He emoted huskily: "I've gone so crazy I'm a certified nervous wreck. A little bit eccentric Ha! Screaming like a discotheque," made the cover of Disc magazine as the prettiest boy in the world and managed to briefly render Marc Bolan butch and reveal Sweet as the dockers in drag that they truly were. Had he gained a more prolonged period of exposure his androgyny would have shocked the nation, as it was he crashed and burned, his single bombed undeservedly, despite having Steve Marriott of the Small Faces on guitar duties, and not yet nineteen, he became a teenage has been. A has-been then for the second time because Brett Smiley was no stranger to the fame game. At the age of eleven he'd already conquered Broadway in the lead role of Oliver. Precocious he might have appeared, but it was with an awareness of his own worth and capabilities.
He crossed paths with Rolling Stones Svengali Andrew Loog Oldham who immediately saw the perfect exponent in the sixteen-year-old for the burgeoning glam-rock phase in Britain. An album was recorded and the stage seemed set for the arrival of a glitteringly new talent. Their appearance on the Russell Harty TV show is pure Rock & Roll Babylon gold. Harty a kindly man is all mother hen concerned about the pink suited, apparently wasted boy lolling brattishly around and nervously smoking in his interview chair. Smiley seems fuelled and phased by some cocktail of chemicals which he's like shared with Loog Oldham who is attempting a routine of worldly weariness whilst extolling the virtues of his new discovery, but being as out to lunch as his errant charge.He seems like a slightly creepy uncle and the scenario holds echoes of Jerry Brandt's chronic mishandling of Jobriath's career, the creation of an appeased monkey that is all too quickly discarded like Michael Jackson's Bubbles when they tire of the sideshow they've facilitated. As Brett Smiley stumbles through a breathy mime of "Space Ace," the lavishly arranged B side of his debut release, you witness a performance that shouldn't have been permitted, but thankfully was. In later years Brett Smiley understandably winced at it's existence and refused to watch his sole British TV appearance,. The album was shelved, and the rest became a mystery because nobody cared.
But somebody was watching, and somebody did care. A barely teenage girl witnessed this debacle, something clicked and she was smitten. It was a moment of symbiotic narcissism, since she looked like the pretty boy who beamed out a her from the screen. She rushed out and bought the pouting performers single, but her anticipation of something in the future came to nothing, for the boy vanished leaving her with the emotional weeds of a fan in mourning. She was the future biographer of Johnny Thunders, one Nina Antonia, and over the years when the world didn't exist at the tap of a keyboard she'd ask: "Whatever happened to Brett Smiley?" That became the sub-title of her book, The Prettiest Star, a biography of the one single wonder, because eventually she found and befriended him, and was instrumental in locating and securing a release in 2004 for his long thought lost album.
What happened to Brett Smiley was simple. Back in America he'd auditioned unsuccessfully to be David Cassidy's replacement in The Partridge Family, had-a-blink-and-you-miss-him appearance in American Gigolo although audiences saw more of him in the tawdry soft focus, soft porn Cinderella in which he appears as Prince Charming. Smiley eventually turned to drink and drugs, became an addict, HIV positive and suffering from hepatitis, and at one time homeless, he'd seemed destined to disappear long before his time. The efforts of the girl who'd seen him but once on a tv screen altered much and interest in him grew.
The album Breathlessly Brett is a consummate, accomplished piece of glittering genius suspended in the amber of the early seventies. His Broadway experience shines through. This boy could carry as well as write a wonderful collection of showy tunes. He even delivers a suitably mincy stab at the Beatles classic "I Want To Hold You Hand." Quite rightly the album got wonderful reviews, and Smiley arrived in London for a sell out show at the Garage. He looked like the classic louche rock star because from being a pubescent sensation on Broadway, he'd felt that privilege and continued to perform new material up until his death.
Brett Smiley has now exited the Rock & Roll palace, his slipping quietly out the side door in shades lost in the crowds mourning the passing of a certain Mr. Bowie. He belongs to a cache of '70s outage merchants which includes Jobriath, Duffo and the recently re-discovered Smokey who shimmered and shone and were all too quickly gone in a shower of glittering dust. Their lack of success then doesn't mean that their efforts shouldn't now be celebrated and valued. Debauchery in a more innocent time now seems beguilingly quaint, yet strangely brave. Smiley's life from Broadway sensation to Glam curio has all the elements of old Hollywood so astutely dissected in Sunset Boulevard. He has left sufficient material for the release of another album, but what is all the more important is that he existed at all, and that his trials, talent and tribulations should be celebrated. His life has all the elements of a parable, but sometimes getting all so terribly wrong is a form of achievement in itself. - Rob Cochrane
Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published numerous collections of poems.