This doesn’t mean Smith’s subjects don’t get to shine a bit and reveal the unexpected. Jim Morrison, for instance, is quite funny when he defends his recent weight gain: “It’s terrible to be thin and wispy, because you could get knocked over by a strong wind. Fat is beautiful.” The material on these tapes, unheard for years until being edited and transcribed by New York filmmaker and artist Ezra Brookstein for Princeton Architectural Press, veers from the interesting to the mundane to the frustrating. Frustrating because Smith has access to some fascinating characters but tends to ask a lot of meathead questions, like when he asks George Harrison why Ringo didn’t get to sing more on the Beatles’ albums. Then again, maybe this is what made Smith a kind of cult figure himself back in his heyday on WPLJ, this sense that he was just some mustachioed everyman haunting hippie heroes with a tape recorder. (In 2012, a selection of these digitized uncut interviews were released as digital downloads and as a limited edition CD box set.)
Smith, who died in 2014, won an Oscar for his 1973 documentary on evangelist Marjoe Gortner, and his style seemed to be one of letting the camera run until something of interest happened. Gortner was an intriguing character – he’d started as a four-year-old fire and brimstone preacher, memorizing gestures taught to him by his mother – but too much of the film is endless footage of tent show preachers doing their thing. Academy Award aside, it’s a bit of a lurch. Yet, it’s easy to connect the maker of Marjoe with the man conducting the series of interviews in The Smith Tapes. The lineup is startling: Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper, Joe Cocker, Dick Gregory, John Mayall, Sly Stone, Vidal Sassoon, Jane Fonda, Eric Clapton, Norman Mailer, and a couple dozen others, plus various Beatles.
And they don’t disappoint. From Pete Townshend describing an altercation with some Hell’s Angels, to Amiri Baraka telling white liberals to “not interfere in the affairs of black people,” to Buckminster Fuller discussing domed cities of the future, the conversations get better when Smith stops asking rock stars about their finances. The topics hurtle about like a kaleidoscope of the period: racism, sexism, politics, the aftermath of Woodstock, the rising youth culture, and the concept of celebrity. Most of the figures are more or less as you’d expect them to be. Arlo Guthrie, hot after Alice’s Restaurant, is a jovial stoner, offering a comical description of his adventures before the draft board. Frank Zappa is prickly and impatient. Clapton, discussing the guilt certain rock stars feel about their massive paydays, says “I think money corrupts, so I get rid of it as quickly as I can.” Regarding actors who take up social causes, Dustin Hoffman, fresh off Midnight Cowboy, mocks his colleagues for being “rather limited in what they know.”
Some moments are both chilling and poignant. Even as the Beatles were capsizing during 1969-70, both Harrison and Lennon suggest the band may still record together, though Lennon wishes the group could expand to include more members, perhaps even Elvis Presley. The soon to be dead Morrison is cryptic when he compares man’s sense of self-destruction to losing one’s virginity: “You hear everything about it – everyone’s talking about it all the time. So you kind of have this itch to try it and see what all the talk’s about.” But there may be no moment in this sprawling, epic, thought-provoking collection so rife with portent as Janis Joplin’s fear that her interview is unusable. She would die in a few days from a heroin overdose, but is concerned that her interview should be reviewed by her publicist, and fears she may have said something wrong.