In Memoriam: Gerard Smith

04/27/2011 4:00 AM |

Gerard Smith, bassist for Brooklyn art-rock paragons TV on the Radio, died last week at home in Williamsburg—of lung cancer, a disease he’d been fighting since a diagnosis last fall. The 36-year-old joined the band full-time in 2005 after meeting singer Tunde Adebimpe while playing guitar in the subway, and would contribute a versatile range of instrumental parts (bass, guitar, piano, electric sitar) to the recording of their 2006 breakthrough Return to Cookie Mountain. In the early 2000s, TV on the Radio, along with friends and frequent show partners like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Liars, and Oneida, had been instrumental in establishing Brooklyn as a distinctly important hotbed for underground music and emerging artists, a description that in retrospect seems like it always must have applied. It was the addition of Smith to the touring ensemble, along with drummer Jaleel Bunton, that turned TV on the Radio into the forceful live act they’ve now become.

Those in attendance for the earliest shows in 2003, featuring only Adebimpe, guitarist Dave Sitek, and laptop accompaniment, would likely not recognize the full band blasting through “Wolf Like Me” on Late Show with
David Letterman just three years later (the performance lives on as a legendary YouTube clip that’s amassed over 1.5 million views since it originally aired). In the video, you can barely see Smith, nestled next to the amp, spurning TV-viewing eyeballs to imbue that runaway bassline with just the right amount of flaring distortion to match its crucial heft. It sums up how important Smith was to grounding a teeming, maximalist aesthetic, despite receiving only a fraction of the attention given to his bandmates.

Smith, who had a fine arts background, was a well-loved Williamsburg fixture even before joining one of the neighborhood’s best-loved bands. Devang Shah, a local musician who recorded with Smith and played on Return to Cookie Mountain track “Let the Devil In,” remembers Smith’s melodic steel guitar in the Bedford Avenue subway stop circa 2001. “I was just like, ‘Who is this guy that has such a soft touch?’ After meeting him years later, I [realized it was] his sensitivity in life that showed through in his playing. Gerard was maybe the most humble person I’ve ever met. I wouldn’t say that if it weren’t true. Never ever any flashy bullshit. He never changed.”

Musician Matana Roberts, an old friend of Smith’s from pre-TV on the Radio days, collaborated with him on dozens of occasions and described him as “a legendarily stubborn, passionately opinionated fucker at times, yet patient, understanding and deeply compassionate when it was most needed—incredibly humble about his own creative gifts. He really looked out for his friends…”

Domino Kirke, who visited Smith often over the last weeks of his life, describes an early moment in their friendship: “I invited Gerry to come for a dinner party a couple of weeks after we met… I didn’t think he’d make it, but then, when people were leaving, in walks Gerard with a tiny loaf of bread (just for me, not my other guests) and a cassette of all his new songs: home recordings, his classical guitar. He came in, kissed me on the lips, handed them to me… then I turned my back for five minutes and he was gone.

“He had the ability to make all feel like they were the only one. I can’t breathe when I think about him being gone. I miss my beautiful friend. I think I have to move.”

Smith is survived by his young son Julian Smith.

Though TV on the Radio will most likely continue on in the absence of Smith, they have cancelled the first five shows of a planned West Coast tour starting later this month. Further information on the band’s plans is currently forthcoming.