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- The Best Reviewed Books of the WeekMay 25, 2018
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A blowhard public figure running for political office without having any political experience; media culture obsessed with celebrities; talking about race relations without being able to improve race relations. Sound familiar?
In 1969, Norman Mailer ran for mayor of New York City. That same year, Dennis Hopper, just back from Cannes where Easy Rider was made an instant classic, compared all the photographers to “birds of prey screaming out at you.” On his way to becoming the first black mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Kenneth A. Gibson, sparring with Howard Smith over the intricacies of life in the ghetto, made one of the more important, and alarmingly still relevant, points found in this new book of collected interviews when he said, “I don’t think there’s any black person in the country that would say that they want to have equal treatment from the police department next year or next month or next week. They’d like to have it tomorrow. They would also like to have equal employment rights tomorrow. I don’t think there’s any black person in the country that is willing to wait for what he’s entitled to.” On the surface, The Smith Tapes: Lost Interviews with Rock Stars & Icons might seem like nothing more than a time capsule. What comes into cringe-worthy focus the more you read, however, is that in today’s culture of new, new, new, now, now, now these transcribed interviews highlight how little things have changed in forty years, revealing the acute political and cultural paralysis the United States has long suffered.
Smith, author of the popular Village Voice column “Scenes,” had leveraged his sober and objective detachment to become a trusted media figure among, and friend to, some of the era’s most prominent names. As the FM radio waves were emerging from their infancy, Smith landed a radio show that aired between 1969 and 1972 on WABC/WPLJ, recording hundreds of interviews. The variety of mostly counterculture guests makes for an impressionistic portrait of the tie-dye-tinted idealism of the 1960s giving way to the anxieties of the 1970s. So much was made of the transition between these two decades because by 1969 the kaleidoscopic day-glow counterculture myth, greatly instilled by the media, had lost its magical aura as the growing shadows of Vietnam, Richard Nixon, and Charles Manson blotted out idealism with the harsh truths of reality. The hippies had appropriated Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration of sticking with love because hate is too heavy a burden to bear and blissed themselves out with a lobotomized notion of peace and love that preferred to forget about hate all together. This blind spot left the nebulous notions of the counterculture vulnerable. Rightfully, resentment also boiled over among black activists still fighting to be accepted as free and equal by white America.
Only seven of the sixty-one guests featured in this book were black—from Sly Stone to Black Panther Communications and Press Secretary Kathleen Cleaver and Howard Sheffey, chairman elect of the National Council of Police Societies and president of the NYPD’s Guardian Association. Nonetheless the subject of race was a running theme in Smith’s questions. Then, like today, when considering other national issues, like war, political tension, and economic strife, it was inevitable that all such discussions circled back to race relations in the United States because, ultimately, they are all inextricably related even if not enough people see it like that. In 1953, in his essay “Stranger in the Village” James Baldwin wrote of being a black American: “He is not a visitor to the West, but a citizen there, an American; as American as the Americans who despise him, the Americans who fear him, the Americans who love him—the Americans who became less than themselves, or rose to be greater than themselves by virtue of the fact that the challenge he represented was inescapable.”
Running for mayor, Norman Mailer campaigned on the ridiculous notion of turning all the city’s neighborhoods into autonomous townships. When Smith asked about what would happen in Harlem, Mailer casually threw out the idea, “If there’s a black New York, as well as a white New York, then policing is their affair.” Felix Cavalier from the Rascals—known for such hits as “Groovin’” and “People Got to be Free”—boasted to Smith that his band’s crossover success with black audiences had resulted in this group of white boys from New Jersey refusing to play venues that did not include a black act on the same bill: “We enjoy it more when there’s Negroes on the bill and in the audience. Right there, it’s as simple as that. We enjoy it more. We feel we’re accomplishing something. . . . we’re trying to re-create that feeling of the harmony between the races, between the music and the audience.”
Talking to gay rights activist Jim Fouratt, Smith said, “In the gay movement, I’m at a loss almost to know what the proper word is: queen, fairy, fag, homo… Will there be a point where homosexual people say fag is good?” Fouratt responded to the undeniably insulting question by citing how America didn’t know how to refer to blacks, listing off various pejoratives before concluding that black people didn’t want white people deciding what to call them and gay people didn’t want straight people deciding what to call them. There are so many lines to read between in these interviews but race is inescapable because this book is a portrait of America anticipating promised change, then and now. Unfortunately, the scenario has become something akin to Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot.
During a 1971 interview with Yippie Jerry Rubin, member of the Chicago Seven, Smith pondered whether or not true revolution is possible in the United States, citing a New York Times article, “The return to apathy, beer, and wine.” Rubin insisted that the revolution was ongoing, pleading with Smith not to be cynical. Smith countered, “I am cynical, absolutely. From my view, it appears that there’s an awful lot of apathetic people . . . Look, America’s a great co-opting machine.” At a time when the various factions of the counterculture believed wrongs could be righted Smith attempted to orient them as a star in the astronomy of this much ballyhooed change by framing whatever the guest was trying to promote—a concert, a film, a political stance—within a larger topical context. He wasn’t sure if America was seeing events that would realign the universe or swamp gas. Smith was spot on. By the 1980s, Rubin had become a Wall Street financier. His New York Times obituary quoted him of having learned “that the individual who signs the check has the ultimate power.”
Money, and its ethical implications, was another hobby horse for Smith. The notoriety of a great number of his guests had resulted in them making large sums of it. Smith asked all of them how money had changed them. Eric Clapton confessed, “I’ve spent all the bread I’ve made. I’ve always lived outside my income, man.” Mick Jagger claimed, “It’s no different if you have money or if you don’t have money. There’s always problems with it.” Smith, prying about the interpersonal dynamics between the Beatles in May 1970 kept at George Harrison, needing to know what Harrison would do with all of his money. Harrison’s answer: “Money is to be used. I try and help different things that I believe in. But I don’t believe in just givin’ my money away. . . I’d rather keep my money and make it into more money until I’ve got so much money and then give it all away.”
On numerous occasions during these interviews Smith identified himself as a cynic but his questions about money expose him as a lapsed optimist with socialist leanings. Badgering his guests about their finances Smith seemed to be trying to suss out the dirty secret that had curdled American culture. But, as the guests reminded him time and again, America has always been about selling product and making money. Discussing his idea for “selling peace as a commodity” John Lennon matter-of-factly said, “Well, why not? Howard, don’t you see that they sell war all the time . . . that John Wayne has been sellin’ war since I was a kid.” Writer Amiri Baraka, dubbed a “kingmaker” for his role in Gibson’s mayoral campaign, put a finer point on it when he outlined the political choices made by large corporations against the backdrop of racial tension: “Let’s put it this way. If there are $2-3 billion made in retail each year in Newark, what they’re interested in is that $2-3 billion. They wouldn’t care if all their mothers died or if there was Martians running it or if there was chameleons running it—as long as they can get that $2-3 billion. Now we have to accept that premise.”
Everyone seems to have accepted that premise, except Smith, and his questions about money come off as rather quaint. But with so much of these interviews sounding like a chronic ringing of the ears, the nature of the public discourse around making money has changed, and is most likely the governing factor in why so little else has changed in the United States. Smith’s questions implied that money could only change you for the worse. Entrepreneurs John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, who partnered with Artie Kornfeld and Mike Lang to produce Woodstock, are emblematic of the overt cultural shift toward financially capitalizing on the spirit of something. “I think any organization that can speak to four hundred thousand people and assemble them in one spot and create an event to which another million more tried to get to has got to have some kind of inside line to the way these people are thinking,” said Rosenman as he and Roberts explained to Smith their plans to solidify Woodstock brand recognition. “We feel we have it and we feel that we can reach that generation probably better than anybody else.” Pete Townshend, who played at Woodstock with The Who, told Smith in June of 1970 that he had never understood all the fuss over the festival: “I mean, in a country which’s got such a huge population, it doesn’t seem so astounding to me that when you put together some of the best rock music that there is in the land, and the best publicity that I’ve ever seen for any show on earth, that you get half a million kids. I don’t think that that’s quite so astounding. It’s just that America does. I don’t know why.”
The American infatuation with Woodstock, and the entire counterculture for that matter, sprung from a media-perpetuated obsession that recognized an en masse desire for change on a seismic scale that could not be named in a unifying way. It couldn’t be branded and as more voices joined the chorus for change, confusion and lack of cohesion made it easy for certain factions to forget and ignore other factions; the material comfort of the middle class was also growing, making it easier to induce cultural conformity. It took Rosenman and Roberts about ten years to truly turn a profit on the Woodstock brand, but if they had succeeded right after speaking to Smith, I’m sure it would have looked an awful lot like Coca Cola’s iconic 1971 “Hilltop” ad that introduced the world to the jingle “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.” Madison Avenue understood the power of Woodstock as a symbol and exploited it to sell product. But in trying to bottle the spirit of a movement the Woodstock backers were trying to do much more than get people to buy soda. They paved the way for Facebook and other social media companies with business models that gauge success by bringing legions of people together voluntarily in the name of facilitating community in order to collect information that becomes the commodity.
In March of 1969, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground had yet to receive credit for being one of the most influential rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time. But they were far from anonymous, especially in New York where Reed, as he told Smith, had been playing “Heroin” on the streets with John Cale since 1964. Bemoaning the technology-addled attention span of youth culture, Reed said, “You go and do a show for them and they’re wired. 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’s gonna be. People like mobility.” During this interview, Reed made no indication that he had read Marshall McLuhan’s Medium is the Massage, published in 1967. It matters not because Reed’s anecdotal observation and McLuhan’s theories about the relationship between humans and our ever-accelerating technologies are the same: the technologies’ lasting powers are predicated on keeping users “wired.”
Speaking of McLuhan, he believed James Joyce never would have been able to write Finnegans Wake if radio hadn’t been invented because of how the book’s sentences capture the manic static of human experience as heard when trying to tune in a station while driving through a desert. Most of Smith’s interviews leaned serious but like some of the more out of the way stops on the radio dial, there were plenty of less than serious guests. They weren’t necessarily famous or infamous, but more emblematic of what Greil Marcus called “old, weird America,” from reformed child preacher Marjoe Gortner to Sammie Dunn, a female motorcycle racer. And then there were the segments, like the ones with Vidal Sassoon and Country Joe McDonald, that leave you wondering about their inclusion in this collection, so uninteresting are they.
But even these less than compelling interviews are pieces of the Smith Tapes puzzle. Talking about Bob Dylan in 1969, songwriter Carole King told Smith, “I understand him in retrospect. Or nobody can say, ‘I understand another person,’ but I’m moved by what he said then, now.” This is the key to understanding the relevance of The Smith Tapes. I knew right then and there that I’d fold this line into this article’s conclusion. So much of what we hear and see in the present makes no sense at all. Luckily, the distance of perspective can be powerful.
But I’m trying to finish this piece days after yet another mass shooting in the United States, the 294th this year. Americans are not great about learning from the past, and it feels like we’re getting worse at thinking about events as part of a whole and not just another isolated headline in a newsfeed. This book is full of insight and potential lessons that at some point in the last forty years should have been internalized. But that hasn’t happened. So when you finish assembling this puzzle, you’re left with an unnerving sense of why someone like Donald Trump can run for president and why we need people like Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates to keep illustrating what it means to be black in America in the 21st-century even though a glance at the news makes it painfully clear.
Smith’s guests were considered counterculture because the majority of them were recognized by the mainstream as opposing some element of the established status quo. Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter are examples of organizations trying to upend the status quo, and Edward Snowden certainly sits high atop the list of individuals who have taken actions with the hope of making a difference. They are never really called “the counterculture,” however. They are as much a part of America as gross financial and racial inequality and the erosion of Constitutional rights. Smith provided a platform for his guests to speak their minds. Today, there are even more methods for broadcasting messages from those railing against what we as a culture have accepted as the norm, or at least resigned to. Because of the complex relationship between voices calling for change, the media, and corporate entities like Twitter, however, technology subsumes so much of the actual substance of what we should be listening to and learning from. This is what McLuhan meant when he said, “The medium is the message.”
Howard Smith scrutinized the atmosphere of change that some thought would lead to tearing down the entire system and building it anew. He believed that the highly charged atmosphere was real, but doubted whether it would ever become something more. The Smith Tapes overflows with important thoughts and ideas, genuine wisdom, contradictions, and the absurd, which is what we always inherit from the past. We could read it and think, Well, that was then and this is now. That would only perpetuate the problem, however. So maybe today is the day we really start thinking about what we heard yesterday and how it might just help us save tomorrow.