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Review of 'The Smith Tapes: Lost Interviews with Rock Stars & Icons 1969 - 1972'

Howard Smith's classic interviews reveal how little America has changed: 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. 

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