The recent death of Fred “Freak” Smith was not an event of global proportions. There will be no impact like there was when Prince, Phife and Lemmy died, no mad rush by the Pitchforks or Consequence of Sounds of the world to be first to post their tributes. Instead, this is just a story about my friend, Freak — an obscure figure to most, perhaps, but a big influence on a local scene that echoed throughout the world.
“He was a sweet fucker,” said Ian MacKaye, Dischord Records owner and Fugazi and Minor Threat frontman, who knew Freak well from his days in the D.C. hardcore scene. When I asked MacKaye what he thought when he first heard the news, he said, “I think the biggest shock about getting the news that Fred was dead was the startling method in which he was killed, because he was an extremely sweet fellow underneath all the bluster.”
Freak died alone in a San Fernando Valley park on Tuesday, Aug. 8, after being stabbed by an unknown assailant. He was 55. There is a sense of injustice that so many vapid pop stars and those “famous for being famous” are worshipped in our society, while news of Freak’s murder first identified him as some anonymous homeless man.
Fred “Freak” Smith was the guitarist for goth band Strange Boutique, “ghetto metal” band Blaxmyth and his most well-known and revered band, Beefeater, among many others. “He was enthusiastic about music from the beginning, starting at age 6,” his mother, Deloris Smith, told local newspaper the San Fernando Valley Sun. Somewhere between 12 and 14 years old, Freak started “playing with friends in the area,” she said. He inherited his predisposition for music from his father, Fred Sr., a deputy U.S. marshal who sang in a doo-wop band, according to Deloris Smith; she worked as a diplomat for the U.S. Information Agency. This was common among the kids of the D.C. hardcore scene — their parents worked high-level government jobs, even as their kids came together to protest that government through music.
Even as Freak immersed himself in hardcore and punk rock, he attended Catholic school until the 12th grade, and even considered the priesthood for himself, according to his mother. That never happened, but he did become some type of park service ranger or security officer for a period of time in D.C., according to L.A. session drummer Grant Garretson, who knew Freak in those days. “Ironic and tragic that someone that was once a park policeman, or whatever, got murdered in a park,” he told me.
If you know MacKaye's Dischord Records and its legendary roster (Government Issue, Minor Threat, Fugazi, Dag Nasty), you probably know Beefeater, the band Freak co-founded with Tomas Squip in the depths of the Reagan era in 1984. Beefeater survived Dischord’s unlikely transformation from the home of violent straight-edge bros into a more diverse collective of nonviolent vegan activists, following the “Revolution Summer” of 1985.
At the time, Garretson was a starry-eyed D.C. punk kid. “I saw Fred play with Beefeater a lot when I was 15 years old,” he said. “They would open for Bad Brains and Fred stood out as a great guitarist. A couple years later I started playing in bands and I became friends with Fred. He would scream 'you freak!' and 'fucker!' from blocks away and make me smile every time.”
“Beefeater was a revolutionary band,” MacKaye said, after noting that it would be disingenuous to “sum up” their influence on the Dischord scene. “Their fusion of metal, funk and jazz at a time when hardcore ruled supreme was popular in D.C. mainly because Freak was an extremely gifted musician and a real kook, unlike anyone else. He was enthusiastic and bold.”
“Beefeater played constantly,” said Scott Crawford, founder of '80s D.C. music zine Metrozine and the filmmaker behind the documentary Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, D.C. “[There was] lots of head-scratching at first. Metallic guitar histrionics, funk/Jaco Pastorius bass playing, freeform-style jams. There was nobody else like them in town, which is why everyone from metalheads to peaceniks, punks and skaters loved them.” Crawford describes Freak's guitar-playing as “jaw-dropping. His stage presence was also unlike anyone else. They were truly ahead of their time.
“I was shocked to hear of his passing,” Crawford added. “He was loved by so many friends. I just wish we could’ve helped him in some kind of meaningful way. His life should never have ended the way it did.”
Fred Smith’s career in music post-Beefeater was filled with multiple bands: goth rockers Strange Boutique, metal bands Blaxmyth and American Corpse Flower. All with the attractive yet extremely underpaid status of “cult following.”
In his adopted home of Los Angeles, to which he moved in 1993, Freak made friends in the music scene in the same unique and unorthodox way — with a word that meant “hello,” “goodbye,” “good job,” “I like that song” and “I love you,” among many other things: “Fucckkkerrrrr.”
I met him in 2010. I was going to see my old friend and ex-bandmate, Stephen Hill, and his long-running project Atomik Kangaroo at the Universal Cafe in North Hollywood. After the show, we were all hanging in front smoking when I heard Stephen yell, “Freak from Beefeater!” I recognized this dude Freak, with his short dreads sprouting from the sides and back of his head, from when he had worked doors in Hollywood — but I now admit, with punk-rock shame, that I had never heard of Beefeater before that moment. And I had no idea he would turn out to be one of the kindest and most empathetic people I have ever known in my life.
I ended up briefly playing in Atomik Kangaroo with Fred in 2012, and it was the most confident I've ever been singing for a band. I can attribute that 100 percent to Fred.
Atomik Kangaroo featured a constantly shuffling lineup of extremely capable, odd and deeply disturbed musicians, including such luminaries as ex-Zappa guitarist Ike Willis. Both Freak and I started fucking around with the band at almost the same time, and he was the one who gave me the confidence to feel like I could hold my own with that crew. I needed more compliments than I was used to needing, as I transitioned from a songwriter with mediocre-ish improvisational skills vocally and on guitar, to whatever it is I am today. (Let’s just say I’m better than I was.) Freak saw my self-doubt and was perceptive enough to see through my ego, empathic enough to know what I needed to hear, and kind enough to say it when doubt creeped in as I was trying to hang with all these masters.
In the past few years, Fred “Freak” Smith had become a recluse, according to our mutual friend Stephen of Atomik Kangaroo. Many people I spoke to — though none would go into detail out of respect for their late friend — said Fred had been spiraling for several years down the darker side of human polarity. Ultimately, Fred fell through the cracks of the mental health care system in America — which might be the one thing about him that wasn’t unique.
Initial reports of the murder identified Freak as a homeless man, but it was just a month ago that I received a call from Stephen, excited that his old friend had surfaced to check in with him, reporting that was staying in a halfway house for people recovering from mental illness. It's hard to tell if Freak’s mental health is relevant to his murder since there are no suspects, but it’s also hard to imagine anyone having a motive to kill a man of whom I’ve never heard an ill word spoken. (I was happy to hear Ian Mackaye inform me that police had contacted him looking for information related to Freak and his death — so they are, at the very least, investigating the murder.)
To my friend Freak: The people on this planet that you knew will miss you. Your dormant Facebook wall lit up like a Christmas tree after your death, with friends and family comforting each other with stories of your kindness, sarcasm and talent. May your death bring you the irony of posthumous fame.
Danny Baraz is the founder and editor of the online magazine Janky Smooth.
Correction: The lead photo on this article was previously credited to the wrong photographer. The photo was taken by John Falls in Washington, D.C. We regret the error.