The Smith Tapes: Listen to John Lennon and Yoko Ono Discuss the Breakup of the Beatles
From VF.com by Brett Berk
During the 1960s and 1970s, mustachioed reporter Howard Smith worked at two New York media outlets then at their glorious prime. He hosted an overnight weekend show on album-oriented FM rock station WPLJ and wrote a regular column for alternative newsweekly The Village Voice. Smith was thus perhaps the preeminent reporter on the counterculture during the height of its hairy and somewhat hazy reign. As such he conducted extensive interviews for print and broadcast media with many of the most notable, entertaining, and outlandish political and musical figures of the era.
These interviews were heavily edited and then selectively aired or published. But Smith kept the raw reel-to-reel tape recordings—hundreds of hours of unexpurgated, candid, and intimate conversations—in boxes in his Greenwich Village loft, with the aim of one day using them in his memoirs. Forty years later, his son Cass Calder Smith came upon them when he was helping his dad clear the place out for a move. Sourced, dated, indexed, and digitally re-mastered by researcher and documentarian Ezra Bookstein, these have become The Smith Tapes, an incredible historical treasure trove, the first aural Doubloons of which will be available for download on Amazon MP3 on Tuesday, November 20 and iTunes a week later on November 27.
“When I first heard about these tapes, I thought this was the coolest thing,” Bookstein told us in an extensive interview. “And then once I got to hear them, I realized I had no idea how cool and special they are. I immediately felt privy—like, here I am in a room alone with the most famous people of that generation.” He explained, “There’s something about the immediacy of radio. If they were filmed, there would be a distance. But the magic of radio is that it’s so incredibly intimate—just you and their voice in your headphones.”
Smith had an odd prescience in his reportage: he broadcast, live and around the clock, from Woodstock; he was the only reporter to be inside the Stonewall Inn during the infamous riots that set off the Gay Liberation movement. And this intuition carried over to his interviews as well, allowing him to capture conversations at key moments in an artist’s career. He spoke with Pete Townsend during the two-night run of the Who’s rock opera Tommy at the Metropolitan Opera, with Mick Jagger on tour a few weeks before the tragic concert stabbings at Altamont, with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper at the Cannes Film Festival just before the release of Easy Rider, with Andy Warhol after he was shot, and—in her last ever interview—with Janis Joplin just days before she died.
With more than 100 recordings, ranging in length from 20 minutes to four hours, this incredible storehouse will be released piecemeal. Each month for about the next year, a Smith Tapes“album” will be available for iTunes download, containing themed sets of 7 to 10 interviews. The first set is called “Fillmore East,” after the legendary East Village theater run by impresario Bill Graham, and includes conversations with people who are on their way to perform or just performed at the venue, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Frank Zappa, Bill Graham, Eric Clapton, Lou Reed, and Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey. Future sets will include themes like “Things Aren’t Okay” or “Woodstock” and include interviews with additional countercultural luminaries like Jim Morrison, Jerry Garcia, James Taylor, Carole King, Abbie Hoffman, Arlo Guthrie, Jane Fonda, Joe Cocker, Sly Stone, Dick Gregory, Hair composers James Rado and Gerome Ragni, and many more.
“As someone who works in documentary,” Bookstein told us, “these interviews are something I revere and cherish. They’re time capsules, actual historical documents. This isn’t someone telling you about 1972. This is 1972.”
In advance of the release of The Smith Tapes, VF.com has acquired an exclusive and fascinating excerpt from Smith’s interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono from February 5, 1972, in which they discuss the breakup of the Beatles. Listen to it below, and then head over to The Smith Tapes’ Kickstarter page for more opportunities to hear, download, and purchase these captivating pieces of contemporary history—including a chance to own (or, Black Friday alert, gift) a limited-edition, hand-numbered, 12-CD box set containing 18 key interviews created by Grammy-winning designer Masaki Koike.