The Smith Tapes 1969-1972: Lost Interviews With Rock Stars & Icons
(Princeton Architectural Press)
US: Nov 2015
Where most explorations of the social, political and artistic upheaval of the end of the ‘60s tends to be done with the benefit of hindsight and broader historical contextualization, The Smith Tapes 1969-1972: Lost Interviews With Rock Stars & Icons allows the primary sources to discuss significant moments in contemporary history shortly before or immediately after they transpired. Capturing the conversation while still fresh in the minds of those who were there, often including himself, Village Voice journalist Howard Smith managed to capture the history of the underground and growing counter-cultural movement as it unfolded. Whether it’s Artie Kornfeld’s somewhat dejected recalling of the Woodstock festival or Janis Joplin’s optimistic outlook a mere three days before her death, The Smith Tapes brings the reader into the headspace of those experiencing the reality that was the late-‘60s/early-‘70s with a clarity often lost in the more rose-colored reminisces aided by decades of change and distortion of the facts.
That Smith was able to capture these conversations when he did and with whom he did places him right in the middle of the larger story. Frequently an active participant himself, Smith functioned as a sort of embedded reporter, reporting from the front lines on a time in our history that has subsequently been romanticized and, to a lesser degree, trivialized. To read the passion in the voices of the many political and social activists interviewed here (Amari Baraka, Abbie Hoffman, Dick Gregory, Jerry Rubin, and Kathleen Cleaver, among others) sheds a harsh light on the latent idealism of those forging the views and ideologies of the so-called underground movements.
While many of the points made with regard to the then contemporary social and political issues facing the country sadly still remain culturally relevant—his interview with black New York City police officer and chairman of the National Council of Police Societies’ Howard Sheffey, in particular—many of these individuals come off as misguided, overly excitable, or simply out of touch with reality.
Through his revolutionary “Scenes” column in the Village Voice, Smith gave voice to the underground and, in the process, helped usher in a new age in journalism through his pragmatic, largely objective approach to his subject matter. His willingness to participate in the events around him blurred the lines between the reporter and the story. Yet while this could easily have placed the focus squarely on Smith, he instead offered a truly insider report and perspective on numerous cultural events.
From the Woodstock Music & Arts Fair to the Stone Wall Riots, Smith found himself right in the middle of the action and, in a sense, an integral part of the story. The latter was perhaps his most significant contribution to contemporary journalism as he managed to make his way, with his Village Voice press credentials, into the titular bar to witness the mayhem from the inside. This experience would not only inform his social and political activism, but also serve as the starting point for his 2010 documentary, Stonewall Uprising.
Himself an active participant in both the underground and political scenes of New York at the time, Smith here proves a well-informed interviewer who knows how to ask the appropriate, albeit succinct, open-ended questions to get the best possible responses from his subjects. His conversational rapport with those interviewed is easily conveyed. Audio clips of many of these interviews, available on iTunes and online, further confirm this with the soft, vaguely New York-accented voice coming down through the decades.
Only when interviewing the bloated buffoon that was Jim Morrison does Smith seem to struggle with his subject and vice versa. While certainly an interesting sparring match, it helps deflate the cult of mystique that has sprung up around the self-proclaimed “Lizard King” in the wake of his early, suspicious demise. For all his claims of poetic profundity, Morrison here proves to have been little more than an egotistical loudmouth.
One of the most interesting and insightful interviews collected here is his talk with Carole King in the years before she began work on her career-defining and highly-influential, not to mention commercially successful, album Tapestry. Instead of a confident artist knowingly on her way to a successful career as a solo performer, here King views herself as little more than the songwriter she’d been for the majority of her career up to that point and core member of the newly formed the City. When asked if she’d ever be interested in touring or performing her new material live, she quickly shoots down the idea and again emphasizes her desire to remain a songwriter. Instead, the focus is placed on her upcoming release as a member of the City, a group who released only one album before disbanding.
Similarly, Smith’s talk with George Harrison several weeks after the Beatles’ demise and a week before he returned to England to begin work on his sprawling, three-disc solo debut All Things Must Pass, finds the quiet Beatle surprisingly reflective and optimistic for what the future would hold. In discussing his little brother status and somewhat stifled creative output within the band, Harrison casually mentions he has enough material for at least three or four albums. That All Things Must Pass wound up a triple album shows the sheer amount of material Harrison had on deck and the creative walls thrown up by his more overzealous former band members that prevented him from becoming the artist he knew himself to be. It’s here that he manages several digs at his former band mates, most notably Paul McCartney, all during a time when the scars of the Let It Be sessions and the intergroup animosity were still far too raw to go without comment.
In what proves to be the collection’s longest and often most engaging interview, Smith talks with the inimitable R. Buckminster Fuller. Their discussion surrounding “Bucky”s theory of the imminent demise of the city is a fascinating exploration of not only the mindset at the time—cities being burned and looted through racially motivated rioting—but presents a clear-headed, well-argued reasoning for a more agrarian approach to life. Where the hippies were idealistic in their embracement of communes and the lifestyle associated with free love and group sharing, Fuller provides substantial evidence for and well thought-out research behind his claims. While the basic idea is inline with the idealists of the age, his role as a leading futurist put him ahead of the younger generation and their ideologically misguided execution of his basic tenants.
Covering a broad cultural spectrum—the cover alone boasts everyone from Eric Clapton to Jane Fonda to Dennis Hopper to Vidal Sassoon—The Smith Tapes offers a fascinating glimpse into the creative minds behind some of that generation’s most culture defining moments. Speaking with a young Hopper and Peter Fonda in the wake of Easy Rider’s unprecedented success, you can feel the excitement and seemingly endless possibilities their filmic experiment opened up in the face of a stagnant Hollywood system. Similarly, his conversation with Jack Nicholson shows a young, vital artist making conscientious, thoughtful choices in both his acting and screenwriting. Those only familiar with his post-As Good As It Gets output would be well served to read this segment in particular to see what all the fuss has been about all these years.
Through it all, The Smith Tapes 1969-1972 is a fascinating, endlessly readable set of transcripts that read as a sort of proto-podcast. That it contains interviews with some of the most influential and culturally significant figures of the era discussing the work and events for which they would ultimately become best known makes The Smith Tapes an indispensable cultural artifact. Like his reporting at the time, these interviews offer first-person accounts direct from the front lines, delivered in real time and without the memory clouding ability of hindsight. To read these conversations is to be transported directly into the culture of the times. Essential.
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