RIP, Dr. Tim Smith

I was saddened last month to hear that Tim Smith, the brain and heart of the band Cardiacs, had died.

Rhodri Marsden wrote a touching and succinct tribute for The Guardian. Cardiacs’ stage persona was built around a tyrannical Tim who himself was a slave of the shadowy Alphabet Business Concern, but as Marsden writes:

His bandmates speak of a generous hippy, a man who made everyone feel good about themselves. He was no extrovert, but was certainly a magnet. He ran an open house, welcomed you in, and offered limitless reserves of enthusiasm and support. He always said that his favourite music was his friends’ music. He’d go to your gigs, and he’d stand at the front.

I owe local musicians Amy X. Neuburg and Polly Moller for introducing me to Cardiacs, on separate occasions. I believe they also indoctrinated Moe Staiano, and his social media posts helped get me hooked, too.

I could link to any number of Cardiacs songs (R.E.S., Tarred and Feathered, Come Back Clammy Lammy, Flap Off You Beak, Is This the Life) or recount the cover band called ReCardiacs Fly.

But here’s something I didn’t know, and perhaps you didn’t either: Tim Smith received an honorary doctorate from The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in late 2018. He was honored in person, in Scotland, at a ceremony that included speeches and lots of music — and they captured it on film, thankfully:

Tim went through an inconceivable ordeal with dystonia — a condition involving, among other things, continual involuntary muscle contractions — for something like 12 years following a stroke. His mind was still sharp, by all accounts, leaving him a prisoner in his body that entire time. In a 2017 interview, he described it as: “Imagine if you were wearing a skintight bodysuit made of fishnet all around you, with electrical pulses going all the time.”

He could only communicate by pointing to letters on a board, and yet he was still thinking in sentences like that. Imagine.

In contrast to his stage persona, Tim was apparently a kindly soul, making it all the more sad that so many people outright loathed the band. Their catalog has been available online for some time, and it’s now on Bandcamp as well. It’s not too late to drop them a little love.

Surplus 1980 and ReCardiacs Fly: Raucous Musicks Coming Saturday

Cool avant-rock show happening Sat. Feb. 23 at The Starry Plough in Berkeley:

Moe! Staiano‘s Surplus 1980 is the headliner, and he’ll be preceded by ReCardiacs Fly, the Cardiacs tribute band make up of members of Reconnaissance Fly (plus others such as Moe!).

They’ve done a good job using Facebook as a promo hub for the show. Check it out here.

It’s a chance to experience new Surplus 1980 songs and rarely heard Cardiacs complexities, and to rock the Starry Plough (which happens with some regularity, admittedly, but is still a good cause).

Previous posts about the two bands, which have shared a bill before:

Moe!kestra and Surplus 1980

Moe! Staiano has back-to-back shows of note happening in just a couple of days.

Source: Moe on FacebookTuesday March 13: Moe!kestra comes to The Uptown in Oakland, performing “Piece No. 9: When Terrie Had Six.” The title refers to Terrie Ex of the Dutch band The Ex, whose songs served as inspiration for the piece. Expect a mass of 30 or so musicians following instructions written out by Moe. He’s a very physical conductor, so the piece will probably be visually as well as musically dynamic.

On Facebook, Moe is hinting that this will be the last Moe!kestra ever. That turned out to be untrue when he said it in 2009, but given the logistics of putting together a project like this and the difficulty of finding a venue that’s both capable and willing, you might want to assume (or at least pretend) he’s right this time.

Opening will be the free-jazz quartet of Mark Clifford (vibraphone), Anton Hatwich (bass), Aram Shelton (clarinets), and Jacob Wick (trumpet).

Wednesday March 14: I love it when the Hemlock Tavern (San Francisco) opens its backroom stage to jazz/improv acts. This is going to be a great show:

  • Surplus 1980, at the Starry Plough in BerkeleySurplus 1980 — Moe’s avant-rock band, pictured at right. Read about them here; listen to them here.
  • ReCardiacs Fly — The Cardiacs cover band that I keep writing about (with Moe on drums). More here.
  • PG13 — The (apparently rather loud) trio of Thomas Scandura (drums), John Shiurba (guitar), and Phillip Greenlief (sax). They’ve played together quite a bit, and while I’ve never heard them, I’ll point out that Scandura and Shiurba were in the last version of The Molecules. So, they’ve got loudness-and-craziness cred.

Cardiacs Fly Again

I forgot to bring my camera to the ReCardiacs Fly show at The Starry Plough last Friday. Dang.

Luckily, Michael Zelner has posted some photos. Hooray!  There was video filmed as well, so hopefully some of that will get posted eventually.

It was a great time, with the band tightly charging through some fast, complex Cardiacs songs. Highlights included “R.E.S.” — which tops a lot of Cardiacs fans’ lists, I think — and “Tarred and Feathered,” which I don’t think they played at their first concert.  (Links go, respectively, to videos of the previous concert and the original Cardiacs.)

Polly Moller hammed it up on stage, playing the role of quirky, aggressive Tim Smith. Moe! Staiano did a sharp job on drums; it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen him play on a drum kit before, not in a rock setting, anyway.

Lots of people were asking if they’d be doing more shows — which I think they’d like to do, but of course, they’ve got other musical projects to concentrate on as well. That includes Reconnaissance Fly, the band that’s the core of ReCardiacs Fly.

A couple of people said they’d be interested if the band were to make a CD. But I think the band would prefer that you go to iTunes and just buy the original Cardiacs albums. It’s a way to send a few extra dimes to Tim Smith, Cardiacs’ leader.

Apologies to Wiener Kids and Dominique Leone, who’d played earlier in the evening and probably did some Cardiacs covering of their own.

(What’s the big deal about Cardiacs? Read here.)

UPDATE 12/11: Videos from the show are up. Find them on ReCardiacs Fly’s YouTube channel. “A Wooden Fish on Wheels” came out really well, but I can’t help embedding “R.E.S.” yet again. They’ve gotten quite good at that one.

Cardiacs Revisited

Remember the Cardiacs tribute/benefit show I was distraught about missing, back in May? Here’s my chance for redemption (and possibly yours too) — it’s Dec. 2 at the Starry Plough in Berkeley.

That’s when the band Reconnaissance Fly will again bring out their alter-egos as ReCardiacs Fly, performing covers of the UK band Cardiacs.  The bill includes Dominique Leone and Wiener Kids, who had also performed at the tribute.

What’s the big deal? Cardiacs is a rock band with a quirky punk/prog energy and a talent for unusual, complex songwriting filled with “wrong” chords — and bandleader Tim Smith has landed out of action after a stroke and heart attack. This interview with Leone fills in some of the blanks.

This show has a little more. There’ll be Cardiacs stickers for sale — newly minted by Moe Staiano, I think — and Cardiacs T-shirts for silent auction, all to benefit Tim Smith.

Here’s a video of the band in action in May. And don’t miss this review of that concert, on the Fenderhardt blog, in case you didn’t pay attention the first time I linked to it.


The Read: June 25, 2011

1. Giving local musicians some love: This goes back a bit, but SFGate ran a nice profile of bassist Lisa Mezzacappa.

2. Quasi related, here’s a review of the band Cylinder in JazzWrap. Cylinder is a quartet that includes Aram Shelton (sax) and Mezzacappa; they’ve played around town for years, and it’s to my detriment that I’ve not seen them nor heard their album on Clean Feed. One more for the to-do list.

3. SOMArts in San Francisco is hosting a five-show dance/installation piece called The Book, by Avy K productions. Performances occur roughly weekly starting July 1. My main interest: experimental vocalist Ken Ueno and clarinetist (and sfSound founder) Matt Ingalls will be performing in Part 2, which takes place July 7.

4. Chris Speed’s Skirl label got a nice writeup in The Wall Street Journal. The story focuses on the general difficulties of selling CDs and getting music out to the public (or getting a fan base into the music).

5. Interesting discussion floating around the Web about whether younger jazz players are paying proper respect to their own sound and to their elders. Without a nightly bandstand to mature on, it would seem fewer musicians are interested in developing a bebop virtuosity. It’s an argument that has some credence and seems to have touched some nerves. Here’s a blog from writer Peter Hum about the issue; that’s a link that goes to other links, but it’s a good summary and a good starting place.

6. Remember that CD diptych from Steven Lugerner?  Here’s more about the former Berkeley native, from the L.A. Times and Berkeleyside.

7. From Louder Than War, a great long Cardiacs article.

8. From 2007, a piece on the coolness of Cryptogramophone.

Cardiacs Debrief

OK, you’re wondering. What happened at that Cardiacs tribute/benefit show I was so busily hyping up?

Short answer: Go ask Laura: “Too Many Irons (and Other Recipes).”

Longer answer: As some of you are aware, I’m a family man and I’ve got an actual job outside of music. Between a short-handed situation at home (think of a power play in hockey, where every goal allowed equals a kid evading bedtime), Mother’s Day, and the fact that I had a crack-of-dawn flight to New York the next morning … I had to make an executive decision.

Depending on your point of view, I either did something really noble or wussed out.

I miss a show for similar reasons just about every month, but this one really hurt. The musicians put so much work into learning these songs, and it might have been my only chance to see these songs live. It would have been thrilling to watch them pull off “R.E.S.” (Don’t know the song? Video here.)

Congratulations to all involved, and to Dominique Leone and Moe Staiano for pulling it off. Wish I coulda been there.

But Wait There’s More:  (Update 5/28) … Of course, I should have realized Polly Moller and Amar Chaudhary would blog about their experiences being part of this show.

Amar, about the preparation:  ReCardiacs Fly at Cafe Du Nord.

Polly, about the show: We Rocked Ourselves Silly for Tim Smith.

(To review: here are my previous blog entries in reverse chronological order. Or, click the “cardiacs” tag at bottom to see what other WordPressers have said.)

Interview: Cardiacs Benefit on May 8

I recently talked with Dominique Leone about the upcoming Cardiacs benefit being held at Cafe Du Nord (San Francisco) on Sunday, May 8, from 6:00 p.m. to about 10:00 p.m.  Talked to him on KZSU radio, in fact, right over the airwaves.

Wouldn’t you think I’d put some of that interview onto this blog?

Ha! You’d be wrong! Until now, that is, when a combination of having-enough-time and finally-thinking-about-it has brought you this transcript. I’ll add the edited-down audio later if I get the chance.

If you still don’t know this band — they’re crazed prog/punk, sometimes loopy, sometimes full of big evil guitars, always rocking and mind-numbingly complex. You can sample their output on YouTube and on iTunes, and you can skip straight to the Zappa part of the interview for Leone’s descriptions of the music.

And you should come check out the show, which includes Leone, Moe Staiano, and Amy X. Neuburg. It’s a good cause.

How would you describe Cardiacs? You’re walking up to a friend, and they’ve never heard of this band — who are these guys?

DL: Cardiacs are an English band. They’re originally kind of a post-punky band that started in the late ’70s, although even then they were kind of out there and [had], I don’t know, a little of a circus atmosphere to a lot of their songs. But the energy and the speed and just the visceral activity of a punk band — a good punk band, too. These guys are not holding anything back.

When I first heard them, I was kind of amazed. I actually first heard one of their later albums — that was the first thing I heard by them. They’re one of these bands that — they just kind of turned it up with each record, and by the end, they were really an extremely amazing over-the-top kind of band, in a lot of different respects.

Yeah, and they have videos on YouTube, especially when they do the older stuff — they had a whole stage act going, makeup and everything. Pretty amazing. How did you find out about this band? Because their stuff is hard to find in the U.S.

DL: It’s really hard to find. I actually had trouble finding it when I wanted it. I first heard them from a friend who happened to have some of the old LPs. He thought I might like it, he played it for me, and I was floored.

But when I went out in the world and tried to find it … no record stores had them — this was back in the days when there were record stores, five years ago — so I went online and tried to look for them. There’s not really any place online where you can get them. So, I eventually found my way to the actual distributor’s web site that has a whole catalog, thousands of records, 10 of which are Cardiacs records. I just bought it directly from them. And now, that’s not even available. I don’t think that any Cardiacs records are in print — not because there’s not demand for them, but because Tim Smith, unfortunately, has health problems and can’t run his own business. He can’t take the time and talk to the people that he needs to talk to to get your records out into the world. He’s just kind of bedridden. That’s definitely a big reason why we’re doing this concert.

[As noted above, all Cardiacs records are now available on iTunes.]

Why don’t we talk a little bit about Tim Smith’s condition.

DL: Well, first of all, we want to help him take care of himself. Tim Smith had a stroke [following a June 2008 heart attack] and ever since then, he can’t perform. He can’t sing, he can’t finish the record that — at least a part of the instrumental track is already done. He can’t put his vocals on top of that. So all we’re doing with this benefit is: Try to raise a little money, try to help him take care of himself, and hopefully help him get back to a position where he can finish a Cardiacs record or at least help make his catalog available, help live out the rest of his life in a manner that’s not bedridden — that’s healthy, [where he] can enjoy what he’s created.

Now, this is obviously not “normal” music. Which is good! — “not-normal” in a good way…

DL: Speak for yourself!

… But in putting together a benefit, finding people and bands to play this music — I’m imagining it was pretty difficult.

DL: It’s tough finding people who A) know the tunes at all or B) can play the tunes. We were just talking earlier today — I schedule more rehearsals for this concert than I would normally schedule for a regular show with my band. And we’re only playing, like, two songs. It’s gonna take that much focus and shedding to get them down.

I’m playing a song called “Dirty Boy,” which is kind of — I mean, I would say it’s the greatest Cardiacs song, or one of the greatest. It’s an epic tune, but unfortunately, with a chord change every measure. For about eight minutes.

We’re gonna try to pull that off. We’re gonna try to do it. The other one — I’m actually not decided [on] what other one we’re gonna do, so you’ll have to come and see.

How many bands are involved here?

DL: It’s changing every day, but at the moment, I believe there are seven bands involved…? I actually need to consult with Moe, because Moe is the one sending me the band updates. But I know, myself, of seven.

That’s pretty impressive, just finding that many people who already know the band and/or are dedicated enough to know the songs.

DL: Thank you.

A lot of comparisons come up when you read old reviews of this band. They talk a lot about Frank Zappa, a lot about Captain Beefheart. Do you find those valid? Do you find that an accurate way to describe the band?

DL: Eh, not so much. I mean, Frank Zappa — he’s one of these guys that, in some way, you can see his music applying to Cardiacs because, if nothing else, it’s hard to play. And the tunes themselves are certainly unorthodox chord changes, unorthodox melodies.

But there’s not a lot of soloing. It’s really more of a band thing. It’s all about the actual composition as opposed to — when I think of Frank Zappa, I think of composition, but I also think of 20-minute-long guitar solos, and that doesn’t really happen in Cardiacs. More apt would be something like Devo, early Devo-ish kind of stuff, where it’s definitely coming out of post-punk and new wave, but also deranged — it’s like a deranged art band. That’s more similar to what I’d say Cardiacs is coming from.

Now, their last stuff — it’s — I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s kind of like if Queen had been a punk band. [My chosen example, below, isn’t all that punky, but there’s some Queen-ness.]

Everything’s overdriven, everything’s these huge epic productions, and just — everything’s turned up into the red. It reminds me a little bit of a Zach Hill kind of energy, except that you have these four-part harmonies and these circusy melodies. It’s definitely music that’s hard to play, in some cases hard to listen to, but it’s awesome, and it’s just this huge high. That’s what Cardiacs is. This huge glowing high. That’s what’s hard to pull of, and that’s why we’re going to try to do it.

I guess we should point out, too — the band has two distinct phases. They had saxophone and xylophone early on, for a very circusy sound.

DL: Yeah, and they still have, on their later records, some saxophone stuff. But I think their earlier records were a little bit more loopy as far as the marimba playing and the jerkiness of things. A lot of that’s down to when it was happening. There were a lot of herky-jerky-sounding bands in 1978.

Yeah, I guess you could call it two phases, because by the ’90s, everything had certainly become a little bit more — I don’t even know how to describe it. Like this sun mushroom. Jagged-edge, post-punk, really wiry kind of music.

(For more info: and And click the photo below for a nice 2007 review by The Dreaded Press.)

Music and Things

Did I just go through my longest stretch yet without a blog post?  I hope so, because I’d hate to think there had ever been a longer one in there…

Various factors including work and, yes, the start of baseball season have curtailed my music listening lately. I should have kept being a good blogger, typing one or two sentences a day and hitting PUBLISH just for the sake of keeping up appearances. Instead, I’m gonna do all those missives at once, right here.

* It was great to see Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch play to a packed house at Yoshi’s on Monday, March 28. A packed lower section anyway — fullest I’ve ever seen it. For the first time, I had to be ushered to a seat, sharing a close-quarters table with strangers. Lots of great music, including a new song in the vein of the album Air Lore (by Air, the Threadgill/Hopkins/McCall trio) — meaning, an inside/outy jazz tune derived from old, old-timey jazz. They also played “Evil Bohemian” from Go-Go Fightmaster, a band that has exactly the same people but a different mission.

* Breaks my heart, but tonight, I’m missing an sfSound performance of part of Einstein on the Beach.  It’s at Amnesia, a friendly San Francisco bar that houses weekly jazz (hot club style, that is).  Would have loved to support the cause.

* My previous blog post mentions The Lost Trio playing at the Ivy Room weekly. Apparently, that’s ending as of right about now. Crud. Keep an eye out for other good (and probably free) creative music there, though.

* Cardiacs music continues to impress. I’m starting to understand how some people could be so viciously opposed to the band. One possibility: Tim Smith’s chord progressions often go intentionally out of tune (a C major to an A major seems to be a favorite leap), creating a sound like a warped record or a warbly circus act. It rocks, but if you’re not buying into the band’s premise, I can see how it might grate. I don’t care. These guys are awesome, and you should attend the May 8 Cardiacs tribute (and Tim Smith benefit) at Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco. It’s a good cause.

* More Cardiacs: There’s a Tim Smith tribute/benefit album, Leader of the Starry Skies, available at It’s very cool, if melancholy; most artists seemed to either pick the sadder songs or do sadder versions of the songs. Best-of-set, at first listen, goes to prog band Knifeworld, which includes former Cardiac co-guitarist Kavus Torabi.

* I mainly knew of guitarist Antoine Berthiaume through his times recording with Fred Frith. Then, one year, he surprised me by releasing a fairly straight jazz album. Now he’s doubly surprised me with a fairly straight country/folk instrumental album called Small Tease. Engaging and breezy stuff.

Thanks to those of you who actually keep tuning in here. I’m not gone, or done, just flaky. It’ll pass.

Cardiacs Attack

I’ve spent several evenings now obsessing over Cardiacs, the British band that’s going to be the subject of a tribute/benefit concert on Sunday, May 8, at Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco.

In the ‘States, their music seems to only be available on iTunes — a shame for those of us who don’t like tithing Apple and don’t like restrictions on our music. (Yes, iTunes went DRM-free, but that doesn’t equate to freedom.) Even so, if the band gets a couple of dimes from my iTunes purchase, then some good comes out of it all.

Cardiacs comes in two flavors: One is bouncy, evil-clown music with crazed chords going off the rails, virtuoso insane keyboard riffs, strangely metered songs (lines that go on for 5 or 7 or 9.5 measures rather than the usual 4 or 8), and some saxophone for artsy cred and even a jazzy uplift. The other is a more straight guitar band, with a burning post-punk sound… and strangely metered songs and occasional saxophone — you get the idea.

Cardiacs songs can be thick and complex — comparisons to Zappa and Beefheart abound — but Cardiacs can also turn a searing pop tune. “Is This the Life” was their one minor hit in the mainstream, dark and anthemic and big, simple enough for radio, too calloused for a John Hughes soundtrack. It rocks.

I’d not heard of Cardiacs* until Moe! Staiano started talking on Facebook about putting together that benefit show. Tim Smith, the guitarist and songwriter, suffered a heart attack and subsequent strokes about two-and-a-half years ago and is still in hospital. Efforts to aid in his care have included a benefit CD (my copy’s in the post, as they say) and things like Moe!’s upcoming benefit show. Need the details again? May 8, at Cafe Du Nord in San Francisco.

I’ve been delving into Cardiacs’ catalogue via YouTube, and now I’m going to start collecting the albums proper, in electronic form. This band is amazing.

You’ll hear me say more about them between now and May 8, and beyond, I’m sure. For now, here’s a video. Their most “grab ya” song is probably “Tarred and Feathered,” but this one, “R.E.S.,” seems to have been an important one in their history, and it’s the one that really got my attention. I can’t get its various pieces out of my head.

* It turns out Amy X. Neuburg and Herb Heinz played Cardiacs on my radio show way back in 2004. I’d invited them to bring some CDs and help enlighten the masses, and one of their choices was apparently Cardiacs’ Guns.  Going to have to dig up that tape from my closet!