A Tribute To Tim Smith of Cardiacs

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The Cardiacs

DR. TIMOTHY CHARLES SMITH

3 JULY 1961—22 JULY 2020

This is going to be an extremely personal obituary and it’s going to focus on Tim’s visual output. In all seriousness, the Cardiacs Wikipedia page will give you a proper run down of Tim’s work.

And my friend Rhodri Marsden wrote a fantastic piece in The Guardian (Cardiacs’ Tim Smith: a one-man subculture who inspired total devotion).

GOOD FRIDAY 1987

The day that my life changed. I was home from university for Easter. I pretty religiously watched The Tube on Channel 4 on Friday nights. I was standing up when it happened: Cardiacs’ Tarred and Feathered was broadcast to the nation.

Some Cardiacs fans talk about a slow conversion from initial irritation into adoration. For me, that one video contained everything I had been looking for in sound and vision. All the right notes in the right order.

I make music videos nowadays; all my favourite music videos showcase the band and reveal something of the band’s personality. Tarred and Feathered ticked all my boxes in 1987 and they remain ticked today.  This was punky, folky, proggy music all in one song.

No jazzy chords (not a fan) but surprise after surprise after surprise. And the band looked amazing—like some crazed armed forces review outfit who never found out that the war ended.

Over the next few decades, Cardiacs became the centre of my musical universe. I can draw a line directly from Tim and the band to every other band who have entered my life. 

More important have been the connections I have made with other people who feel the same way. When Tim was felled by a catastrophic stroke in 2008, our world was shaken to its core. 

Since that time, Tim had been severely disabled, wheelchair-bound and unable to speak. Communication was slow and deliberate using a board with letters to spell out his—still brilliant—thoughts.

As well as his songwriting, Tim was a gifted videographer and, as well as being intimately involved in all the Cardiacs visual output, directed music videos for several bands.

Even the Cardiacs’ videos directed by other people have Tim’s visual fingerprints all over them. Here are some of the standout moments.

SEASIDE TREATS

Filmed by Mark Francombe and Nick Elborough in the summer of 1985 and created on rudimentary 1980’s equipment.

We get our first chance to see the interstitials that would feature in all Cardiacs video output. 

The video is full of tropes that feature in Cardiacs’ fans’ language thirty-five years later.

Filmed under the stage and in a shopping trolley, anything and everything that was available was used. 

The technology of the time is in evidence, but by God it’s an amazing piece of work.

I shamelessly ripped off/paid humble homage to it in the video for Cardiacs’ keyboard player William D. Drake’s 2015 Distant Buzzing.


ALL THAT GLITTERS IS A MARE’S NEST

Anyone who knows this will tell you it’s the best thing. Out of all things.

Filmed by Stephen Payne and edited by Tim (as described in the Kavus interview). Filmed at the Salisbury Arts Centre (a deconsecrated church) on 30 June 1990.

I wasn’t there—I wasn’t to see Cardiacs live for another five months

I watched my VHS hundreds of times and was hugely excited when it was released on DVD at the Alphabet Business Convention in August 2013.

The Alphabet Business Convention takes place in the aforementioned Salisbury Arts Centre every few years.

It has become hallowed ground for Cardiacs fans. In one of the asides on Mares Nest, an ‘away with the fairies’ Tim tells us: 

I think if I was to die and all shoots came out of me like when they come out of a potato, I would make them mint flavoured. So that people could use me as a mint substitute. If they run out of mint.


SOME FAIRYTALES FROM THE ROTTEN SHED

At the Alphabet Business Convention in 2013, we were also treated to a big screen preview of Cardiacs Rehearsal Film. 

This included what seemed like twenty minutes of beleaguered bass player, and Tim’s elder brother, Jim Smith, in his pants trying to plug in his iconic Rickenbacker 4001. Minds were blown.

We had to wait for another Alphabet Business Convention, some four years later  for the eventual release of the whole film on DVD.

That film is the subject of the interview that I filmed with Cardiacs guitarist Kavus Torabi for the 2020 Barnes Film Festival.

Kavus came to my house to record the interview on 10 June—my birthday. He was the first person to come into my home since Lockdown began. 

We wanted to make a good job of the interview without giving too much away. Despite his long and difficult illness, Tim always strived to maintain the mystique and lore of Cardiacs and that sinister controlling agency that ruled their lives, The Alphabet Business Concern. So, some questions had to go unasked or unanswered. 

To me, this quality of mystique and “unknowableness” was incredibly attractive. Quite at odds with the social media-driven world of 2020.

Kavus is a friend and we have made several videos for his—now undeniably post-Cardiacs—band, Knifeworld. It was lovely to make a little film talking with someone who really knew and loved Tim and with whom I could share my own passion for the band. 

Kavus and I were among the attendees on a Zoom call with Tim on 3 July, celebrating Tim’s 59th birthday. One of the scant upsides to Lockdown is that many of us have enjoyed virtual meetings like this; for Tim it meant he could be surrounded by friends and music on his birthday. 

We all sang a chorus of Happy Birthday, wilfully ignoring the revolting lag and latency that is inevitable on a Zoom call. We took it in turns to play songs. Tim had said that he liked the compression that the Zoom audio lended to the performances. This is a somewhat niche gag.

Tim looked better than I had seen him looking in ages and plans were afoot for much positive change. It was a wonderful evening.

On the evening of 21 July, Tim quietly passed away in his sleep.

In the days since Tim’s passing, I have heard the same things from everyone. Many people, like me, who did not know Tim well personally, have felt conflicted by the scale of their grief for someone who wasn’t in their immediate family or close friends.

Beyond his genius, his playfulness and tireless creativity, people talked of his kindness and finally his bravery. 

That a soul so iridescent could survive twelve years under such physical duress is testimony to that bravery.

The Tube went off the air forever one week later. Makes you think.


Thanks to Ashley Jones for this tribute to the Cardiacs’ Dr. Timothy Charles Smith.

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