Dan Smiley doesn’t look like a rock-and-roller. A potato-faced middle-aged man in thick glasses and a button-down shirt, Smiley is a mainstay of the Cleveland club scene, performing under various aliases such as Supie-T and Superstar Dan the Man. He’s also a Vietnam vet, a manic-depressive and an obsessive stalker – in short, the perfect subject for an underground documentary.
Smiley’s act is difficult to describe and even harder to endure. Each member of his band appears to be playing a different tune as Smiley twitches spasmodically and yowls indecipherable lyrics to songs with titles like “Another Day in the Trenches” and “Gun with Feet.” Discovered singing along to a boom box in a shop called Custom Cards, Supie-T became a regular on an overnight college radio show. Before long he was landing gigs opening for local punk bands as well as touring acts.
Filmmaker Robert Banks has captured Smiley in his element. Alternating between raw performance footage and interviews with other denizens of the Cleveland scene (all of whom have had more than their share of encounters with this most unusual performer), Banks weaves a portrait of both the man and his community. Club bookers and musicians alike speak reverently about Smiley’s stage presence, but his offstage behavior is another matter. An incessant blabbermouth, Smiley is known to hound members of visiting bands – particular female members, who he tends to follow from van to stage to bar to bathroom without ever stopping to catch a breath. One Cleveland DJ known as Queen of the Airwaves refused to participate in the documentary, so shell-shocked is she from Smiley’s constant unwanted attentions. The man definitely has problems, as becomes clear when he spends his brief on-camera interview time discussing whether or not he plans to “pull the pin” – commit suicide, that is.
Appropriately enough, “Can’t Get a Piece of Mind” is the cinematic equivalent of a garage band with a few missing strings and a busted amp. The picture and sound quality ranges from poor to downright offensive. At times the footage looks like it’s been dragged through the jungles of Vietnam right along with Smiley, but the grungy look is appropriate to the Cleveland atmosphere it depicts. Banks could trim a few minutes here and there – watching band members tune up is annoying enough in real life – but he’s hit on a subculture worth documenting, and the result is a uniquely you-are-there experience. Just don’t forget the earplugs.