The chaos and creativity emerging from the ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture movement defined a generation. Howard Smith, the child of immigrants raised in Brooklyn and Newark, became one of the era’s preeminent reporters.
He was a journalist for the Village Voice. “Scenes,” his weekly column, ran for 20 years and introduced emerging talent to the masses. “The idea was to be there first. It was an age of experimentation. In the sexual area, in psychology, psychiatry. Almost anything you could name. Things were just changing. All the rules were off in the ’60s. It was tremendous freedom,” he once said of the time. Smith was the only one to broadcast a live radio report from Woodstock in 1969. He was the only journalist to report from the scene of the Stonewall Riots in New York City in 1969. And he objected to the way it was described in the media: “It really should have been called Stonewall uprising. They really were objecting to how they were being treated. That’s more an uprising than a riot.”
During this period, Smith recorded in-depth interviews with some of the most iconic and influential personalities of the decade, including Andy Warhol, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Frank Zappa, and Mick Jagger. The audio reels were unearthed and transcribed for The Smith Tapes, published by Princeton Architectural Press and edited by filmmaker and artist Ezra Bookstein. Sixty-one conversations, most of them never-before heard, span the politics, art, music, and counterculture of the seismic ‘60s and ‘70s.
In this excerpt from The Smith Tapes: Lost Interviews with Rock Stars & Icons 1969-1972 Smith speaks with Lou Reed in 1969, just after the release of the group’s third album.
From The Smith Tapes: Lost Interviews with Rock Stars & Icons 1969-1972, edited by Ezra Bookstein (Princeton Architectural Press, 2015)
The Velvet Underground’s third, self-titled album has just been released, and it marks some very significant changes for the band: John Cale, Nico, and Andy Warhol have left the group, Lou Reed is sober, and the album will be a critical success. The Underground spent the last month playing Boston and South Deerfield, Massachusetts, and are making a quick pit stop in New York City en route to play Cleveland this Friday. Although they live here, Reed and the Velvet Underground haven’t played their hometown in almost two years.
Smith: The Velvet Underground started with Andy Warhol? How?
Reed: Well, we had started doing these light show kind of things behind, like, a scrim at the old Cinematheque on Lafayette Street. Then that theater closed and they were gonna move uptown and we went to the Café Bizarre and we played there and we were fired. But before we were fired, Barbara Rubin had brought down people like Al Aronowitz and Nico and Gerard. And Gerard, who’s really kind of fantastic, brought Andy down, and Andy had an idea about putting lights with a rock ’n’ roll band. He was lookin’ for, like, a rock ’n’ roll band and we were oriented that way anyway before we met him. We were very excited by the idea so we did it. They built the new Cinematheque and it was Andy’s turn with Jonas; you know how they go — everybody gets a week to be an avant-garde filmmaker — and we put on a show. It was called Uptight with Andy Warhol.
Smith: Were you already called the Velvet Underground?
Reed: Oh, we’d always been called, ’cause I was in a bookstore and I saw this dirty book and it said The Velvet Underground. I said, “What a pretty name” and I read it. It had an introduction by a psychiatrist about the velvet underground depravity of Germany in the prewar years. Then he said, “Come inspect the velvet underground” and I couldn’t figure out what he meant, and then he explained what he meant and he made something that was really so magic sound so boring that the name stuck with us.
We played Philadelphia at a club that’s now closed. We for a long time seemed to close clubs, which, it was like, if you wanted to get your insurance money a certain way, you could book us and you could bank that the club would not last long…. But in Philadelphia the girl who was downstairs taking tickets, somebody told us her father wrote The Velvet Underground. So we said, “Oh, it’s a message, right?” Because I’m into receiving messages so I said, “Somebody’s trying to tell me something.” So we sent somebody downstairs and said, “Hey, can you get your father to autograph the book for us?” She said, “No, he’s dead of cancer.” Right, then the club closed. So that was how we got the name.
Smith: So how many years is that now?
Reed: Four or five. We were playin’ in ’64. Like, we were performing “Heroin.” We used to go out [on] 125th Street, Seventh Avenue, and John had a viola and I had a guitar and they threw money at us. It was really fantastic — it was a reverse of the blues revival now, you know, we’d go up to Harlem, and get money by playin’ in the streets…. This is about the time the Beatles were doing “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
See, we never became hip or aware; it had never been anything other than that. Whereas everybody else has kind of grown to it. See, that’s not where our situation was. We’re just like a prism that’s constantly revolving. But we didn’t suddenly get into it as I think a lotta people have suddenly gotten into it. What they’re gonna get into now is that nothing’s going on, that a lotta people are lying to them.
Smith: How come the group hasn’t made it bigger?
Reed: Well, we don’t get played on the radio — that has a lot to do with it.
Smith: Why not?
Reed: I’m not in radio; you are.
Smith: What do you think?
Reed: Because I think the first two albums weren’t as accessible as they could’ve been to a median awareness. Therefore, we approached them on a certain energy level that was incorrect at the time. It was correct for a certain buncha people, but it wasn’t correct for median level, see, because it wasn’t what was required — we did what was required of us then so that we could do what we’re doing now, which will be more accessible, which will make the first two more accessible. I think the new one will get played on the radio and that it deserves to be played on the radio more than the other two, precisely because even if the first two had been played on the radio, it wouldn’t have been liked that much. So there’d have been no point.
In other words, maybe the people who didn’t play it were correct not to play it, because the time and space didn’t perhaps match them. See what I mean? Whereas now perhaps it does and those who wanted to hear the first two can hear ’em anyway. They’ll be around forever; I mean, they’re not that kind of record that’s not gonna be here or that was topical. We’ve never been topical. Some people write songs that have to do with the moment. Like, we recorded for the moment, but what was written wasn’t for the moment. You understand the line I’m drawing? So that’s why we weren’t on the air, ’cause the moments we were dealing with and moments they were dealing with weren’t matching. Although it was matching for us to record it, the level was equal enough for us to be able to get it recorded, but it wasn’t equal enough for us to be able to get it played. Yet now things have moved up to where I think people are approaching where they are…
I feel the single most powerful art form right now is radio and rock records. Films mean nothing; absolutely they don’t mean anything. TV is —
Smith: Films mean nothing?
Reed: Absolutely. Not gonna have any effect on anybody. The real thing is radio. Radio is what they carry to the beaches, my man. Just go to Jones Beach; there they are — zap. All the little kids wired in, in Central Park. I mean, they take it for granted — they go to movies with radios. So the real form is radio sound. I’m sure you know the magic notes. You know mantras aren’t a joke. I mean, sound is what everything is based on and therefore you have records.
Smith: I think at this point, film is more powerful than radio.
Reed: Oh, that’s interesting… because I truly feel you’re wrong on that and maybe I could show you why. Not so that maybe you’d change your mind, but maybe you’d understand why I think it’s different. The ballrooms, the amplifiers, the transistor headsets — the kids are so amazing today. You go and do a show for them and they’re wired. They’ve got tape recorders in this pocket; they’ve got a radio over here…. And films, where you have to sit in one place for, like, two hours to watch this thing, that’s not the future. It’s not what’s gonna be. People like mobility.
Smith: Take those big ballrooms, though — people have stopped dancing a lot.
Reed: That’s true.
Smith: The same kids that you’re talking about, that like mobility, are now sitting down and listening to the groups…. The kids just stopped dancing.
Reed: This is just a thing that’s going on now, unfortunately, I would say, because of drugs. See, now the drug revolution has come and gone, and we’re stuck with the residue, which is mainly lying on the floor at light shows. But this too will pass. Because what the kids are gonna be interested in and what’s gonna be fabulous is not drugs, because drugs are very, very boring. I know the kids are hip to this, that the quickest way to bore yourself is take a drug and examine you…. The thing that’s most fun is working very, very hard on something that’s good. As hard as you can, to make things as best as you can in whichever way, because it doesn’t matter if it’s a big thing or little thing: they’re all equal. No one does more good than anybody else if everybody does good. There’s no measuring stick. You can’t put a ruler to it. And the kids are into this and they’re not gonna spend all their time on the floor smoking pot. Like, I’m one o’ the people that say pot should be illegal, you understand?
Smith: That’s funny; you’ve had a long involvement with drugs — a long, notorious involvement.
Reed: “A long, notorious involvement” isn’t what you’re apparently stating it to be. I’m telling you what I think of drugs, for what it’s worth, which may be nothing. I’m also tellin’ you what I think the kids think of drugs, for what’s it worth, which also may be nothing. I think the kids are arriving at a conclusion that I got to maybe a different way, only they may be smarter than I am and a lotta them really are. A lotta things I had to find out, they already know. I mean, they just know it right off the bat, automatically. You talk to these little fourteen-year-old kids — they’re beautiful. They’re like little elves. A lot of ’em — say, two years ago when we were touring around — were killing themselves with this dope. And their so-called idols who were sayin’ really hip things like, “Oh, everybody should do what they want,” like when they’re referring to dope. Well, that’s true up to a point, but somebody should also mention to them that, yeah, you should do whatever you want, but think about it before you go off and do your… I think they’re not gonna be lying on the floors of ballrooms. They’re gonna be out and having a lotta fun, because that’s what young people are supposed to do… which means no dope, because it’s a distraction.
Smith: You sound like a reformed alcoholic.
Reed: No, does it really? I just think I’m someone who likes reality a lot. I think anybody that distracts themselves from reality is cheating themselves from what really exists. Because there’s nothing more fantastic than what you’re seeing right in front of you. Anybody who distorts it for a minute is lowering the whole level of everybody else around ’em.
Smith: The Velvet Underground for so long was called “the drug group.”
Reed: Who cares what the Velvet Underground was called? I don’t care what it was called.
Smith: Are you saying that that was all untrue?
Reed: I’m not saying anything was true. You have to ask me a specific question to say that’s true. It was true we were called a “big bad dope group.” Yeah, that was true. So, what does that have to do—
Smith: Was it true that you were a big bad dope group?
Reed: I don’t think we were a big bad dope group. I don’t understand what a big bad dope group would be.
Smith: Your phrase. Was the Velvet Underground personally very involved with drugs?
Reed: No, I wouldn’t say very involved. I would say we were as high as you’d wanna go. But I would also say that it was part of the times that was goin’ on then. And we happened to be right up front with it — and so we’re reporting back.
Smith: You’re saying, “We’ve been there and we didn’t like it”?
Reed: I’m saying it’s a poor way to bore yourself. There are better ways of boring yourself than dope. The only reason I’m mentioning that, in particular, is ’cause it’s something we run up into with the kids. You understand? I don’t care what I’ve done, because I don’t particularly matter. I’m saying the kids that you meet at the shows wanna know about things like that. You understand? It’s something they bring up. In other words, I’m not rapping about the army and saying, “Well, I beat the draft; I did this, this way.” I don’t ’cause no one asked me, so I’m not saying anything. Okay. But I do know that the kids are listening. They wanna know about dope and they wanna know that it’s lousy, and I’m just saying I include pot and I include liquor. I say anything, anything that disorients you or distracts you — anybody tells you you’re gettin’ closer to reality is lying. They’re people who aren’t very strong, that’s all.
Smith: You don’t use anything anymore?
Reed: No. As a matter of fact, I use vitamins. I use homeopathic cell-tissue salts and things like that. I go to Kiehl’s and I get little roots and I brew things at home, right? I get high off honey. You know what I mean? What level do you think high is? How high do you really wanna go? I mean, do you really wanna be straight or do you wanna kid around and really get down to it? You really wanna get down to it, you’ll say that the kids should know that some people think that it’s bad stuff, up to and including pot. That means marijuana. Bad because anything that disorients you… Yet if anybody wanted to do something, they should be allowed to. That’s why it should be legal, just so people could not do it. Understand?