BitDepth 756 - November 09

A letter of celebration for my friend and mentor Keith Smith.
This one’s for Keith

Keith Smith at a management meeting in 1995. Photography by Mark Lyndersay.

These are delicate words to write. My friend, mentor and inspiration Keith Smith is ill and his immediate future is circumscribed by strong and menacing medical terms.
Yet I do not wish to write of him when he can no longer read these words. I have no wish to cast them on freshly turned earth or numb ears. I want to celebrate this man and his work while he is aware and appreciative, to fling these characters to the skies like the hearty blast of confetti his career has earned.

But mostly, I want him to call me and tell me what he thinks of the piece.
I won’t tell you Keith Smith stories. Not that there is any shortage of them, but they simply don’t scale for a large audience. They are intimate slices of memoir, hilarious reminders of the grand humanity of an epic scale writer whose failings were as lavish as his triumphs and they are always shared by people who love and respect the man. But here’s a Mark and Keith story.

When I met Keith in the late 70’s, I was a young writer driven quite mad by the musty smell of newsprint and the sour tangy smell of fresh printer’s ink.
George John was the editor of the Express and Keith Smith had turned up again at the paper, walking off another job to return to the space he considered his home and a nurturing oasis for his talent.
I’d love to say that he took me under his wing, but that would be a narcissistic lie. Keith took everyone under his wing. All you had to have was an enthusiasm for the work, a willingness to be better and a certain toughness of spirit to face down his blunt but incisive dissections of your writing.
I’ll always remember writing a review of Michael Boothman’s concert for his album Heaven; a recording that I thought was the absolute pinnacle of local jazz efforts at the time.

The writing was, to use a single word, enthusiastic. To use several more words, it hovered on the edge of the purple, making wildly unsupportable claims. It was, to be frank, the work of a hopeless fan boy.
Keith, then the editor of the short-lived evening paper, The Sun, read it through.

“I’ll publish it,” he said as I beamed proudly.
“But...” he said, thoughtfully.
My eyes were wide at this point and my posture must have been screaming “but what?”
He paused for a longer moment. 
“Do you really want to know what’s wrong with it?”
I often look back on that moment as the precise point when my life changed as a writer. Everything in my heart demanded that I walk away, basking in my imagined magnificence. Instead I just said yes.

Keith Smith led me through the review line by line. He was not cruel, but he was honest. More crushingly, he was right. The piece ran as I wrote it, but my approach to words would never be the same again.
In one afternoon, Keith Smith had swung my perspective around from loving up the words I had written to wooing readers with this craft.
It was exactly then that I stopped writing for my ego and began talking to a reader.

There are others who have guided my career since then, but Keith was the editor who stopped me from banging on the dock and set me out to sea.
I don’t know if I ever told Keith thank you for that exquisitely painful moment, or for many others that followed, but I hope these words remind him that his words ran deep as well as wide and his influence and commitment to this craft is deeply appreciated.
When Keith padded down the backstairs of my mother’s house to chat with me in my little pad back then, it changed her whole attitude to my decision to work with newspapers.

Keith, in his lion years, was a journalist’s writer. His love of Mailer informed his perspective, along with a romance with the run-on sentence and his fevered determination to write a column almost every damn day.
When I returned to the Express in 1993, he championed my capabilities in the face of quite public doubts on the newsroom floor. His was the voice that asked in the Express newsroom one Friday afternoon, “What is this doing in the TV Guide?” That single statement launching BitDepth from that space into the commentary pages of the Express and onto fifteen years of continuous publication.

There are no words grand enough to express my appreciation for his steadfast and solid support of my potential and my admiration for his intimidating commitment to the craft of journalism, so I’ll just settle for these: Thank you, man. 
And call me nah. Give me the score. I big and strong. I feel I could take it.
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