HT Interview: Ezra Bookstein, Curator of the Smith Tapes

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the Village Voice ran a column by Howard Smith known as “Scenes,” which served as the pulse of both the Village in its cultural prime as well as the underground culture in general. The author, Howard Smith, went on to become a bit of a legend in the annals in rock journalism, conducting historically critical interviews with members of the Beatles (shortly after the breakup), Pete Townshend, Jerry Garcia, Bill Graham, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and countless others.

Recently, Howard Smith’s son, Cass Calder Smith, unearthed countless hours of audio interview footage from his nationally syndicated radio show. In conjunction with Cass Calder Smith, curator Ezra Bookstein has brought these interviews to life, releasing them as a monthly series known as The Smith Tapes. We chatted with Ezra Bookstein about getting involved in the project, his personal favorite interview segments and Howard Smith’s journalistic integrity as an interviewer.

Hidden Track: So, I listened to your conversation with David Gans and heard how Howard and his son Cass were originally looking to sell the reels after finding them in the attic and then a friend called you. What was your experience with Howard prior to this project? Was it more the rock and roll history and chronology of counterculture that attracted you, or was it a familiarity with the Village Voice segment and Howard’s other work?

Ezra Bookstein: I hadn’t known about Howard Smith before this project. When a friend of mine, the record dealer Josh Rattner (Salvage Sound), was approached about selling the original interview reels, he thought of me – that this was something right up my alley. When he told me about them I flipped and asked him to get me in the room with the Smiths. I’m a big fan of the music from that time. But who isn’t. The period that these tapes covers, 1969-72, is incredibly deep with heavy and influential albums. And to be able to hear the artists interviewed in that time, in the context of their lives and the culture of that time, without the fog of decades in the way- I knew these reels were too important to let them just get put on some collector’s shelf. There would be a lot of people excited to hear them.

HT: How many hours of listening to footage have you put into curating this series?

EB: Hmm. I’ve been deep into them for a year. I have no idea, but it’s more than once each. I keep having to go back, sometimes 3 or 4 times per interview. And there are a hundred and fifty some…

HT: I’m sure it’s hard to pinpoint, but of all these historic interviews, what one particular conversation would you say stands out as your favorite?

EB: The first stand out that comes to mind is Pete Townshend. His interview is incredible. It catches him the day after the Who played Tommy at the Metropolitan Opera House in NYC. Their career has hit its stride by now, but they’re still not far from their smashing all of their equipment days. (He still breaks a guitar or two when he feels it). He’s thoughtful, reflective, intelligent and hilarious. Quick to make fun of himself and the whole situation of being a rock star. He and Howard are so comfortable together, it feels like old friends catching up at times. After spending an hour listening to this interview, whether or not you like his band, you can’t help but really like Townshend.

HT: It’s pretty interesting to listen back to these, because certain things I’ve actually heard hear-say from friends like how much Jerry Garcia practiced with the Grateful Dead or the story of Delaney and Bonnie getting Clapton to sing, but I never knew that these interviews were the source for so much of this stuff. Are there any comments or quotes that you would point to as leaving a particularly landmark legacy?

EB: There are some really incredible moments with John Lennon- having 5 interviews that cover 3 years, you hear his transformation out of being a Beatle, and into the John Lennon who left such an indelible mark on the world. Howard consistently asks him if the Beatles will play together again, and you get to see a range of Lennon’s reactions and feelings on the subject.

There is also a touching interview with Janis Joplin (the last interview she gave before her death, by the way), where you get to see her in a very raw and honest light. Howard tells her that there are some in the Womens’ Lib movement who think she’s not helping their cause. Her reaction is quick and razor sharp. And then a few minutes later, she doubles back to that answer, concerned that she may have been too harsh with her answer and truly doesn’t want to offend anyone. Hearing the interview, you get to know her in a way a fan would never have been able to.

HT: Jim Morrison sounds like kind of an asshole on his interview, but Howard dished right back at him. And he even gets into it with Lennon a bit. How would you characterize his approach to the boundaries of being an “insider” of the scene with journalistic independence. Did he mind getting his subjects ticked off if that was the way things played out?

EB: Howard, as he put it to me, was not a DJ who asked musicians, “Hey, wow! How cool is it being you?!” He was a journalist, who wouldn’t drop a line of questioning if he felt it was being dodged. Even if the subject matter was taboo. I think he asked almost every musician how they were handling their money. I think that is something that just wouldn’t happen now. When you first hear him with interrupting Lennon, you think, “What?!” But they were just peers. It was before these people became who we know them to be today. A woman who worked with Howard told me a while ago when I asked her about this, “Ezra, you have to understand – Howard was as famous as the people he was interviewing.”

HT: Finally, since you’ve probably talked about nothing but classic rock for the past few months, what is some newer music that you are enjoying these days?

EB: I have to admit, most of my listening revolves around the Smith Tapes. I like to listen to the artist’s music from the time of their interview, to put things into context. Cumulatively, the whole project has become a kind of time machine. But recently, I’ve really been digging what Andrew Bird has been up to.

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