Though he has worn many professional hats throughout his career, Howard Smith was a broadcaster for WPLJ FM in New York City when he conducted extensive interviews with some of the biggest artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s. His five lengthy interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono have been collected together on CD for the first time and issued as Smith Tapes: I’m Not The Beatles: John & Yoko Interviews 1969-1972, an eight-disc box set. These are unedited, to the point where we hear microphones being checked and Smith announcing when he needs to change the tape. For Lennon fans, it’s a goldmine of intimate moments, a revelatory opportunity to be a “fly on the wall” as Lennon and Ono discuss life, music, food, politics, and more. Keep in mind they are presented as one track per reel of tape, meaning the average track is 20-30 minutes and not indexed by subject. Though a minor gripe, I do wish these long tapes had been divided into individual tracks with a corresponding cue sheet for easier access to specific topics.
The interviews are also a bittersweet reminder of how much we lost when Lennon was struck down by a crazed gunman on December 8, 1980. One can’t help but reflect upon the fact that Lennon, barely into his 30s, was already living what would sadly be his final decade when most of these were taped. Whether he’s contradicting himself (preaching a macrobiotic diet during one chat, admitting to keeping 32 flavors of ice cream in his fridge in another), offering naïve and sometimes downright silly activist stances (“Brush your teeth for peace!”), or proudly recalling details of specific Beatles recordings, Lennon was always interesting. And Smith turns out to be the ideal interviewer. Slightly older and not part of the “flower power” generation per se, he gently pokes and prods Lennon and Ono when he doesn’t quite buy into the peace campaigns they were so vigorously promoting (especially in the earliest interviews, conducted over the phone during the famous “Bed-In” in Montreal, May 28-29, 1969).
“We’re selling this peace thing like soap,” Lennon boasts, but Smith reacts with deep skepticism, questioning the true validity of sitting in a bed and talking to reporters as a means a spreading peace. According to the liner notes, Smith wasn’t too pleased about having to do a phoner, but his level of discomfort with some of Lennon and Ono’s concepts of activism is refreshingly honest. Gradually, over the course of the five interviews, we can easily hear Smith becoming trusted confidantes of Lennon and Ono’s. By the time Smith is sitting on their bed in a NYC apartment (a bed made out of church pews, “a holy bed” as Lennon cracks) in January 1972, it sounds like three friends chatting.
Ono sometimes jumps in at inappropriate moments, attempting to answer specifically Beatle-related questions that Smith clearly directed at Lennon. This may rub those with a particularly anti-Yoko bias the wrong way, but mostly she is a polite, thoughtful presence during the interviews. There’s a charming innocence in her suggestion that Beatle fans seem to have generally forgiven her already for any perceived role in breaking up the Beatles (something that Smith gingerly refutes, based on the responses he has received from listeners of his radio program). Hindsight also lends a touching sweetness to both Lennon and Ono’s insistence that they never do anything apart, given that we know they were soon to undergo a prolonged separation during Lennon’s so-called “lost weekend” (which included Lennon’s long-term affair with May Pang, arranged by Ono herself).
Casual listeners may tire during some of the repetition of ideas concerning peace activism, though again, Smith’s realism counters their unbridled optimism. It’s interesting to hear Smith asking about future Beatles projects in late ’69, when the band—unbeknownst to the public at the time—was all but finished. In fact the Get Back project, which finally emerged as the Let it Be album and film, is now well documented as being a period characterized by general unhappiness and in-fighting amongst the Beatles. In these interviews, however, that wasn’t generally known outside of the Beatles inner circle. It lends a real time-capsule feel to Smith’s astonishment at Lennon’s admission that the atmosphere during Beatles recording sessions wasn’t always rosy. Later, Lennon says that if fans insist on blaming Ono for breaking up the Beatles, they should also credit her with having freed them to pursue their own solo projects.
The 1972 interview is the one that is likely to be most cherished by casual and hardcore fans alike. This one is the most Beatle-heavy and the lightest in general tone. In fact, Smith, Lennon, and Ono happen to be listening to a Beatles marathon on the radio as the interview takes place, with certain songs provoking specific, real-time reactions from Lennon (“Happiness is a Warm Gun,” “Rain,” and “I’ll Cry Instead” among them). One of the most priceless moments of all occurs when Lennon briefly sings along with Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” which the DJ has snuck into the all-Beatles lineup. It lasts only a few seconds, but it speaks volumes about the respect Lennon still retained for his former partner, despite the frequently-expressed popular belief that Lennon dismissed McCartney’s post-Beatles output. There’s a fair bit said by Lennon about “How Do You Sleep?,” his famous attack on McCartney from his 1971 Imagine album. Lennon insists that McCartney should know he didn’t really mean it, explaining that it was a direct response to Paul’s “Too Many People” (which he correctly guessed was directed at him, despite being less direct than “How Do You Sleep?”).
If you’re a Beatle fan and, in particular, a John Lennon fan, Smith Tapes: I’m Not The Beatles: John & Yoko Interviews 1969-1972 is a treasure chest. These interviews are the closest we’re likely to come to hearing what it would be like if another notable Howard—Howard Stern, that is—had a chance to talk to Lennon. Regular listeners of Stern’s Sirius satellite radio show know that his lengthy interviews are the benchmark by which most celebrity/artist interviews should be measured. We can only fantasize what it would’ve been like had Lennon lived long enough to sit in Stern’s studio. Howard Smith’s style is similar and the resulting interviews, which total over six hours, are not to be missed.