The Smith Tapes 1969-1972: Lost Interviews with Rock Stars & Icons (2015): Books

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Best known for his Village Voice column “Scenes,” Howard Smith interviewed an impressive array of political, cultural and countercultural figures during a politically turbulent yet artistically bountiful period. Audio tapes of interviews from 1969-1972 were discovered after Smith’s 2014 death; these reels have been transcribed and reprinted in the collection The Smith Tapes 1969-1972: Lost Interviews with Rock Stars & Icons.

The conversations date from Smith’s years hosting a weekly WABC/WPJ program based on his “Scenes” column, and they include some of the era’s best-known figures: George Harrison, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Jim Morrison, Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffmann. Reading the 61 interview excerpts included here is like exploring a time capsule, the topics and language instantly transporting the reader back into a revolutionary time.

Howard Smith’s interviews resemble conversations between two friends or acquaintances, the reader or listener eavesdropping on their discussions. As editor Ezra Bookstein writes in the introduction, Smith covered “the cultural revolution — sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, art, fashion, changing mores and new ideas.” Indeed, his subjects dissect these topics and more.

Examples include Carole King revealing her songwriting methods and insecurities about launching a solo career (at the time of the interview, fall 1969, she had formed the short-lived band the City) Lou Reed’s 1969 interview took place as he became disenchanted with drugs, but in an astounding section seems to predict how music fans would later listen to their favorite songs or watch movies: “They’ve got tape recorders in this pocket; they’ve got a radio over here … And films, where you have to sit in one place for, like, two hours to watch this thing, that’s not the future. It’s not what it’s gonna be. People like mobility,” he says. Smith does not seem to buy this argument.

Other highlights include Mick Jagger criticizing the Beatles for “publicizing everything they do,” thus drawing attention to their money troubles, and a somewhat adversarial conversation between Howard Smith and Jim Morrison. At times Smith seems unsure whether Morrison is deliberately provoking him or if Morrison is serious in declaring “fat is beautiful.”

James Taylor speaks frankly about why he left Apple and how the Beatles split up. In addition, George Harrison reveals that he would not have been against a Beatles reunion, and how he believed the Beatles’ squabbles were exaggerated by the press. Amusingly, he gives faint praise to Paul McCartney’s recently released first solo effort: “I think ‘That Would be Something’ and ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’ are great and everything else I think is fair. It’s quite good but a little disappointing,” he says.

Strangely, Smith appeared obsessed with money: He asked virtually everyone included in the book about how money had changed them, and even revealed his own financial troubles.

Bookstein provides brief introductions before each interview, placing the conversation in context. However, his habit of using the present tense (his preface to the King interview states that “the band will soon break up … and King will finally take center stage”) makes for awkward prose. While this may be an attempt to envelop the reader in the interview environment, it also produces confusion. Writing “King would finally take center stage” would be clearer.

The Smith Tapes 1969-1972: Lost Interviews with Rock Stars & Icons serves as a snapshot of a time when social and cultural upheaval occurred, and how artists and politicians struggled with the balance between how old and new morays. The book stands as a valuable resource for fans and researchers, and lends new perspectives on historical figures we thought we knew well.

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole

Kit O'Toole is a lifelong music enthusiast who maintains a stand-alone music blog called Listen to the Band. In addition, she is the internet columnist and a contributing editor for Beatlefan magazine. She also holds an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology. Contact Something Else! at
Kit O'Toole
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