Not long ago, L.A. producer/promoter/sonic hellraiser Sean Carnage posted a video to his Facebook page of a rather curious street musician called “Mrs. Smith.” It wasn’t immediately clear whether the performer was an aging trans woman with uncommonly conservative fashion sense or a cross-dressing man affecting a matronly vibe for laughs, but either way, s/he was absolutely KILLING IT on guitar, and the frisson of image and sound was as jaw-dropping as the guitar playing. Though it seemed to me like a one-note joke, a trip down a YouTube rabbit hole reveals that this isn’t merely a busker with a great hook for getting spectators to post phone videos, but rather a fully fleshed-out character with history and a backstory, a twisted and hilarious collision of Little Edie Bouvier and Monty Python’s Pepperpots.
The actor/guitarist who created Mrs. Smith—he asked that his real name be left out of this story to preserve the character’s mystique, a request I will honor—started her life sans shred, as an aging socialite who did a series of cat advice videos, though her own beloved cat, Carlyle, has long been missing. Smith grew an audience performing at the Emerging America Festival, Upright Citizen’s Brigade, and even starred in the bonkers musical Mrs. Smith’s Broadway Cat-Tacular!, which eventually landed at NYC’s 47th St Theater—not at all far from actual Broadway—in 2015.
Smith did some guitar playing in that production, but not very much. It was when she submitted an entry to the Guitar Gods Festival that her shredder rep took off. That’s an annual metal guitar event in Miami Beach that features performances by ‘80s guitar magazine mainstays like Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen, plus performances by contest winners selected by those luminaries. Not only did Mrs. Smith make the cut, she wowed the crowd. (It’s worth noting that there is a contingent of Mrs. Smith fans who are unshakably convinced that she IS Vai in drag. Having actually had a conversation with her alter-ego, I can authoritatively say no. She is not Steve Vai in drag. She does use an old ‘80s model of Vai’s signature Ibanez guitar, which she refers to as her “flower guitar.”)
It’s weird that Smith found her biggest following in the metal guitar world—she made FUNNY CAT VIDEOS for fuck’s sake, that’s usually the key to the internet kingdom, no? But her guitar playing went viral after Vai started sharing her videos, which led to gear review videos (in character and hilarious), and then I shit you not an appearance in a Gucci commercial.
Having occupied the worlds of comedy and music, she became a chimera of less-than-reputable art forms, namely drag and shred. But make no mistake, this is no ordinary drag performance. Smith isn’t a drag queen affecting a campy persona and lip-synching Thelma Houston songs in a club (though that of course IS tremendously fun in its own right), she can really fucking play in a technically challenging idiom. In fact, the whole conceit would fall flat if she was a bad musician. And as to the question of how she learned to play so well, I tried, dear reader, to get an out-of-character interview. When Mrs. Smith’s creator does such an interview, you’ll be in for a treat. Off record he was a funny and engaging conversationalist, but to my delight the in character interview turned out to be totally around-the-bend. I asked one question and Mrs. Smith just started riffing. Maybe watch some of her cat advice videos before you read this to get a sense of her vocal cadences. Seriously.
MRS. SMITH: Oh, Ron, you’re catching me at a really bad time. I’m going to answer your questions, but you ARE catching me at a really tough time. I just want to put that out there. But I’m going to set that aside and try to answer with integrity, go ahead.
DANGEROUS MINDS: Sorry you’re having a rough patch, but thanks for making the time anyway.
MRS. SMITH: I HAD TO. I adore Dangerous Minds! I see what you’re doing, I love it.
DM: Kind of you to say so, I assure you that respect is mutual. So tell me about your background. You’re certainly a singular figure, there’s not a whole lot of—I hope the word “matronly” doesn’t offend—but matronly older women in the shred guitar world. So I’m curious as to how you acquired those skills.
MRS. SMITH: [sighs] Soooo funny, it’s actually good, I have a loooong, um, every year my psychoanalyst and I go on a long retreat. They’re not rituals; he’s a Jungian, so they are ritualistic, but they’re practices, to evaluate where we’ve been, where we’re going, where the relationship is, and I leave for this retreat in about two hours, and what I’m about to talk about will reeeeaaaally, if you think I’m in a bad spot now, it will really just send me, but I WILL talk about it. For Dangerous Minds. And for you. I will talk about troubling matters.
This is the topic of my show, that I do with my band, my band is called The Rage, Mrs. Smith and the Rage. [draws long breath] We have a show called “While My Guitar Gently Shrieks,” it sold out Joe’s Pub, it played La Poisson Rouge, and we’re going to return with the show, and whatnot, and this is why it’s happening, what am I seeing—people see this person on the sidewalk giving voice to grief and rage with a guitar, with such an unexpected…vocabulary. WHY is this happening? HOW did this happen? The show answers it all, but the short version is that in the ‘90s, I was kidnapped and held for ransom by a Norwegian death metal band. I suffered Stockholm Syndrome. And if that seems like a lot of Scandinavia for one anecdote, WELCOME TO MY LIFE.
Before the kidnapping, I was living, I was living kind of a living death. I was wrapped in a Chanel suit sitting at luncheons and galas and fundraisers thinking this was what I wanted. This is what I was taught to want, you do what you must and you become one of the ladies who lunch. I love that song! That song is real! I have lived that song! That song is, I mean, of course, Sondheim knows of this world. It is absolutely true, it is absolutely real, it is absolutely a nightmare! Imagine, you listen to that song and you think “wow, that’s dark,” well imagine LIVING IT. I did. And it is a living death. Yes, you have seemingly limitless resources, but at what cost?
So there I was, FOSSILIZED in this uppercrust, Upper East Side reality, and SMASH, through the door come these hooded figures dressed in black with those EYES! I thought that Beelzebub himself and his army had burst through the dimensional wall and had come to take me to literal Hell. I’d gone through social hell, and now I was going to literal Hell. I thought “Did I die?” You know, strike that, don’t use the word “Hell,” it’s a swear word to some people, I’m going to the Underworld. HADES itself has come to consume me. But NO, this was just a very desperate group of boys. They were musicians, they were Norwegian, and they had hit upon this as the way they’d strike their fortune, this was the way to strike notoriety. And you know, it was lightly covered in the press, in those sort of news-of-the-bizarre columns, and it was just so insulting! They dragged me to Norway and put me in this closet for three months.
And look, Patty Hearst completely stole my moment. It’s just not fair, this happened in the ‘90s, hers happened in the ’70s, and she got ALL the good press! For me to be covered in news of the bizarre—you know, my husband had a press conference at the time and TWO outlets showed up, it was just really sad! And the other thing about Patty Hearst that really irks me is that I was in that closet, and I spent a lot of time thinking about her, thinking this is just. Not. Fair. I aligned myself with my captors much earlier than her. Anyway, that, that’s my pet resentment. There I sat. There I was. And what was in that closet? A discarded guitar. The flower guitar that I play. It had been discarded by, I believe, one of the metalheads. It must have just fallen out of favor with him. And so I just played, I had nothing else to do, but through the door I could hear them rehearsing, and I could hear this massive sound. There was size, and depth, and rage to the sound. And I came to be inspired by it, and I reached down into myself. I found—unexpectedly, inside the bottom of this society matron shell—a seemingly limitless abyss of rage.
And so I emerged, and I took to the sidewalks and it hit a nerve. And I don’t want to know what that nerve is, I’ve hit it and I walked away from it and I don’t want to talk to that nerve, if I talk to it it could be dangerous. So I keep playing. But it hit a nerve with the people, and I began to do this sidewalk show in New York City, and to see the East Villagers come out, LIKE MOTHS TO THE LIGHT THEY CAME TOWARDS ME. And I loved them! All of the eccentricity, it’s still there, you have to find it but they came out and they looked at me and I looked at them and I thought “Yeah, let’s do this. Let’s give expression to grief and rage!” You know you’re full of it! You KNOW that you have it in you every day but no one will talk about it. Everything’s supposed to be OK. [laughs] I’M NOT OK! I’M NOT OK! [sighs] Never been OK.
So that’s the guitar story.
It seems fitting to end this with a bit of a video dump. The first one’s brand new—a gear demo of what may well be the single most preposterously gimmicky guitar effects pedal ever made—the Miku Stomp, which turns a guitar’s sound into the synthetic vocals of Hatsune Miku, the Vocaloid pop singer/digital humanoid persona of a vocal synthesizer software app (oh, Japan…). And I had to include a couple of busking videos, as well.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Virtuosity in Minutes: Half Japanese’s Only Guitar Lesson You’ll Ever Need
‘LET ME DIE IN DRAG!’: The sleazy pulp paperbacks of ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space’ director Ed Wood