Yesterday, one of art rock’s most humble players passed away. Gerard Smith, who contributed bass and keyboards to three TV On The Radio albums, and toured with them from 2004 to 2010, fought a hard battle with lung cancer, which he appeared to be winning, but in the end he was overcome.
Smith was the last member to join the TV On The Radio family, and was discovered by frontman Tunde Adebimpe on the subways of New York City, where he busked. Unlike the average troubadour, Smith excelled in the studio too, and once said he was happiest when seated, tapping away at electronics. Indeed, on stage, he lurked in the background, playing a bass guitar rested in his lap when he was not fiddling with the keyboards that always surrounded him.
On the three albums to which he contributed—2006’s Return To Cookie Mountain, 2008’s Dear Science, and this year’s Nine Types Of Light—Smith’s presence was always felt rather than seen. An occasional rumble of bass; a twinkling piano figure: the sounds that completed the band’s tapestry of noise.
His most vital appearance must surely be his playing of the electric sitar on “Wash The Day Away”, which closed the band’s magnum opus, Return To Cookie Mountain. The song features rising flutes, raging percussion, and a mass of harmonising vocals, but everything is built upon Smith’s droning sitar, the only instrument which lasts the distance. As the song collapses in on itself amidst white noise and a shower of electronic rainfall, the echoing sitar finally expires.
I wish there had been a similarly exultant end to the Gerard Smith story—but the world has a way of being cruellest to those who have done it the least harm.