By BEN SISARIO
John Lennon and Yoko Ono (Feb. 5, 1972)
A sortable calendar of noteworthy cultural events in the New York region, selected by Times critics.
Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, just back from Cannes in June 1969, rap about their new movie, “Easy Rider.”
Eric Clapton, between shows at the Fillmore East in 1970, struggles with a sense of responsibility for his new band, Derek and the Dominos.
Those are among more than 100 interviews with rock stars, artists and assorted radicals recorded from 1969 to 1972 by Howard Smith, a longtime writer for The Village Voice. They have now been cataloged and packaged for the digital era as “The Smith Tapes” and will be released in monthly batches over the next year. The first, with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Lou Reed, Frank Zappa, Mr. Clapton and others, comes out Tuesday through Amazon’s MP3 store and next week on iTunes.
At a time when rock ’n’ roll, the sexual revolution and the antiwar counterculture all intersected, Mr. Smith spoke to seemingly every boldface name for “Scenes,” his influential column in The Voice. He also had a knack for being in precisely the right place at the right time. In one of his most famous columns, from the summer of 1969, he described being trapped with the police inside the Stonewall Inn as the famous riot raged outside.
“The Smith Tapes,” drawn primarily from interviews for his Voice column and a radio program he had at the time on WABC-FM (which became WPLJ), feature many of these people at pivotal moments in pop culture and in their own lives, speaking candidly and often at unusual length. One of the five Lennon-Ono interviews in the collection lasts two hours.
“This is not someone talking about the time; this is the time,” said Ezra Bookstein, a documentarian who delayed his film projects for a year to prepare the interviews for release. If some subjects are familiar stars who by now have been interviewed ad nauseam, their appearances on “The Smith Tapes” often capture them before their current iconography had been set.
Mr. Reed, interviewed in March 1969, makes an unpersuasive case for his newfound sobriety. (“I think anybody that distracts themselves from reality is cheating themselves from what really exists,” he says. Mr. Smith sounds skeptical, noting that Mr. Reed’s band, the Velvet Underground, was known as a “big bad dope group.”)
Although little known now to younger New Yorkers, Mr. Smith was a prominent name at The Voice during what is often considered the paper’s golden age. His column ran from the late 1960s into the ’80s and was structured as free-form vignettes chronicling pop culture and groovy urban life. He even won an Oscar, for “Marjoe,” his 1972 documentary about the young evangelist Marjoe Gortner.
Mr. Smith, now 76 and by his own description laid low by cancer, said he kept the tapes at his downtown loft with a vague notion of someday using them for his memoirs. Over the years, though, they became buried under piles of detritus.
“I thought it would be a good memory jogger,” Mr. Smith said. “Things were happening every day that were just incredible.”
The tapes were uncovered in 2000 when one of his sons, the architect Cass Calder Smith, helped his father move to a new apartment. Cass Smith spent several years sorting and digitizing the tapes and sold a few before he met Mr. Bookstein, and they decided to collaborate on the project.
“This stuff was of no value to anybody boxed up and hidden,” Cass Smith said. “I want to get the story out there, and also for Howard, to get his story out there.”
Mr. Bookstein, 40, said he was struck by the quality and intimacy of the conversations, and instead of making a film decided to prepare them for full release.
“This is before P.R. became a machine,” Mr. Bookstein said in a cramped editing room in his Midtown Manhattan office, where he has sorted through hundreds of hours of the tapes. “They were just people hanging out. They didn’t know what kind of icons they’d be.”
There was a P.R. machine, of course, but Mr. Smith said that he did his best to banish it from his interview process. “I made sure they understood that I wasn’t a D.J. and that I was a journalist who was going to ask them real questions,” he said. “Most of them liked that.”
Each collection, with about half a dozen interviews, will sell on iTunes and Amazon for $13. Mr. Bookstein is also raising money on Kickstarter for a CD boxed set of some of the collection’s highlights, with deluxe packaging by Masaki Koike, a Grammy Award-winning designer.
Mr. Smith said that listening to the interviews today he was surprised by the flow of the conversations.
“They gain a certain other kind of value over time,” he said. “They were heard differently then than they will be heard now.”