The Smith Tapes: Relics of Time Past
By Amanda Norris, Staff Writer
It was the Summer of Love, or so they say.
But in 1969, not everything felt like love. For those cloaked in camo, stumbling through Eurasian jungle, it often felt like the summer of hate. For the Civil Rights movement, it meant another year without a leader. For the young kids sleeping on the corner of Haight and Ashbury, it meant another year without a home. And for one man, Howard Smith, it meant that things were just beginning--though he didn’t know it at the time.
The first monthly installment of what is being called “The Smith Tapes,” was released last week in MP3 format via Amazon and will be released on iTunes this week. The tapes, containing about 100 interviews total, were recorded by Smith, mostly for his Village Voicecolumn “Scenes,” in the years from 1969 to 1972. They offer a glimpse into the thought processes of nearly every major icon of the times. Before they were icons. Before they were times. When they were just people, exceptionally talented people, but people no less.
John Lennon. Yoko Ono. Jim Morrison. Andy Warhol. Lou Reed.Jerry Garcia. Pete Townshend. Peter Fonda. The list goes on.
Smith sat down with them all. He asked questions but, as the best journalists have a way of making happen, they mostly just talked. About the world and about their place in it.
In one interview, a post-break up George Harrison casts doubts on the end of the Beatles, expressing that, yes, they all desperately need to do their own thing for a while, but they’ll most likely be back. He’ll do his part to make that happen, in any case.
In another interview, Lennon rips that idea to pieces, explaining to an understanding Smith that things have changed completely and irrevocably. That solo work doesn’t just mean that they are working as individuals; it means that they are no longer working as a unit. A concept that should be easy to understand but, in reality, is much harder to comprehend.
To those who grew up knowing the history of the Beatles--their beginnings, their rise into fame and ultimately their end--the tapes play with all the irony of hindsight. We see their destinies, though the speakers do not.
These kinds of moments are seemingly endless when listening to them.
As when Morrison says of the Doors, “We’re the band you love to hate.” At the time, that statement was undeniable. And for those that remember that moment in musical history, it still resonates.
But for the collegiate generation who grew up buying Doors T-shirts on the sale rack at Kohls, it's hard to realize that such a time ever existed, never mind attempting to understand it. Back then, the controversy confronted the viewer. Now, that controversy has to be researched, learned from Wikipedia or the Jim Morrison biopic on Netflix.
So, it comes down to this: who are these tapes for?
Were they for Smith alone, who saved them in his personal archives with intent to use them as a way to jog his memory when he finally sat down to write his memoirs?
Are they for his son who uncovered them? The possessions of a sick parent--relics of a time before cancer, a time before sons.
Are they for the Baby Boomers who lived it and remember it (or at least some of it)?
Or are they for this generation who grew up worshiping at the feet of such icons to finally get to know its heroes?As is often the case with anything of any worth, the answer to these questions is complex and ultimately unimportant.
As Townshend remarks in one of the interviews, “Whatever you say has applied to it what people think you’re about anyway, so you might as well just talk.”
The tapes are out there, for whoever chooses to listen, and they will mean something different to each listener.
But, should one choose to listen, there are a few important things to keep in mind. Perhaps the most important is that these kinds of tapes are relics, not definitive truth. They do not chronicle a time as it was in its entirety.
Instead, they chronicle people at a specific time and place trying to figure things out. Some of the sound bites are timeless statements of truth, others offhand comments. Some are sober reflections, others drug-fueled rants. Some are well thought out, others are spontaneous and in the moment. Each must be taken with a grain of salt.
One example is a seemingly frustrated Morrison speaking on the subject of his public image: “It’s guys like you, man. It’s the reporters. It’s the press. People like that create this insanity--make up this stuff and then people start believing in it.”
An impartial observer might say it is a mix of both; a practicing journalist might say that the scale is decidedly tipped in favor of Morrison and, on Soundcloud, the username Byutiful merely comments “Awesome! tell ‘em Jim!”
Perhaps the soundest advice can be taken, again, from Townshend. “I don’t know who said this... somebody famous, but ‘trust the art, not the artist.’ What I say changes from day to day. So, how can you trust me to say the right thing at the right time?”
Lennon remarks, speaking on public upset after the dissolution of the Beatles, “People want us to live their dream for them.” The second part of the statement is not stated but implied: This is what people expect of them and it is too much to ask--in the end they are incapable of living up to such unrealistic expectations.
The tapes are glimpses into the lives of heroes at their heights and also at their most vulnerable points. Whether it's Eric Clapton explaining how the fate of Derek and the Dominoes rests on him, a dynamic he is far from used to and one that is bearing down upon him whether he is ready or not, or if it's Janis Joplin, responding to accusations of anti-feminism simultaneously like a fearless and opinionated woman and yet also with a hint of the wounded schoolgirl. And that, in a sense, is where the ultimate beauty of such tapes lies.
“You think of the public as one big sort of parent that you wanna make love you, you know?” says Lennon. “You go up on stage or you’re on the radio here and what you’re saying is ‘Please love me, please love me, please love me.’”
And we do. Now, perhaps, with these tapes, we can understand why.