By Ladd Wendelin
This is the story of a local band named after a massive cloud of hydrogen in the constellation Aquila, its bassist, a blind kitten and the auto-harp that brought them together.
But first, before the sudden clap of thunderous Internet celebrity, forged in the primordial cyber-goop of social networking, a prologue. It starts the day after Thanksgiving of this year late one evening as my mother browsed that breeding ground of instant audio-visual stardom –YouTube.
“Come here! Look at this,” she shouted from the office. “This cat is blind. Isn’t that something?” And it was something. The brown and black striped-kitten, a tiny specimen of rambunctiousness and surprising agility, is shown playing with his first toy, a small, green ball. The ball rolls toward him, and his ears immediately perk up, honing in on the sound of the jingling bell within the ball. He paws at it, and the game is afoot! Soon, he’s pouncing and rolling on the floor in a state of feline ecstasy, the noise of the ball informing his every move as he follows it with uncanny swiftness. A perfect example of how even in the animal kingdom, when deprived of one sense, the others compensate in seamless anatomical harmony with one another.
This is Oskar, the Blind Cat, as he’s known to his 20,000 followers on his official Facebook fan page, and his older brother, the one-eared Klaus, who was adopted from the Cat House, the Lincoln-based no-kill cat shelter. But to his owners, Mick and Bethany Szydlowski of Omaha, Oskar was simply the runt of the litter on a family farm nestled in the Loess Hills of western Iowa, just across the Missouri River. Unlike his siblings, Oskar was born without fully-formed eyes, but this did little to dissuade the Szydlowski’s when they adopted him in July of 2011.
“Oskar won us over with his personality,” said Szydlowski, whose reason for visiting Oskar’s Iowa home that fateful day wasn’t to adopt a cat, but to buy an Oskar Schmidt brand auto-harp. “He clearly doesn't know he has a disability, and he probably thinks that everyone is just like him! When you see him playing you would never guess he is blind.” Away from the winged predators and scavenging carnivores who’d otherwise make late-night Lunchables out of disabled cats, a world of safety, comfort and the instant notoriety afforded by the World Wide Web awaited Oskar.
Enter Smith’s Cloud, the Lincoln folk-rock outfit headed by guitarist and singer-songwriter Evan Todd and multi-instrumentalist Travis Bossard. Long-time friends, Bossard suggested Szydlowski purchase the auto-harp from Oskar’s owners after seeing it advertised on Craigslist. In its unpredictable fashion, fate intervened, and not only did Oskar have a new home but a namesake as well. The day after his arrival at the Szydlowski residence, the video that in the last month has received over 2 million views was shot.
To accompany the video, Szydlowski, who also serves as the bassist for Smith’s Cloud’s live sets, picked the album’s title track, “A Change of Days”, for background music. A furry little star was born, and Smith’s Cloud found themselves hurled into the stratospheres where popular music and the Digital Age converge.
“It’s a celebration of living a good life, making personal sacrifices and the right choices,” explains Szydlowski, who along with Oskar has appeared on Good Morning America and MSNBC. “I don’t think the video would have been as popular without “Change of Days”. People have embraced it because the story is a positive one, and that's getting harder to find these days.”
The sweetly melodic and mellow acoustic number fits the video perfectly, with echoes of innocence and saving grace that elicits the most heartfelt outpourings from the most unlikely of viewers. “If you look at the demographic of the views, it’s all men,” said Bossard. Other comments on the video range from “I’m a 42-year-old ex-Marine and I’m bawling my eyes out right now.” to countless “Awwws”, leading one commenter to astutely note, “The Internet is held together by duct tape and cats.”
For Todd and Smith’s Cloud, the attention is nearly overwhelming, especially for a band just starting out. “Change of Days” has been downloaded over 500 times with over 50 downloads of the album itself, according to Todd. Smith’s Cloud has even appeared on the Top 100 artists in the singer/songwriter category in several countries.
“I definitely couldn't have paid for that kind of promotion,” said Todd. “I'm largely in the dark about what kind of personal reactions people are having to our music, but it's also really amazing to think how many people have heard this little song that I wrote in my bedroom.”
These days, Oskar and Klaus enjoy each other’s company as they romp around the Szydowski household. Days may change, but for but for Szydowski, Oskar, and Smith’s Cloud, the stars, even the cute and cuddly ones, are aligned.
Smith’s Cloud, Evan Todd and Travis Bossard along with Mick Syzdowski (sitting behind drumkit), perform “Change of Days” live, 12/2/2011.
For more info on Smith's Cloud, visit http://www.myspace.com/smithscloud