A few years before he retired, record industry executive Joe Smith began recording interviews with the biggest pop, rock and jazz stars of his lifetime, many of whom he signed as the head of several labels, including Warner Bros., Elektra/Asylum and Capitol. He published a book in 1988 called Off the Record, featuring more than 200 interview excerpts with Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Little Richard, Elton John and many more. The unedited tapes themselves, however, sat in his garage for 25 years until earlier this year, when he donated them to the Library of Congress, which recently uploaded an initial round of 25 digitized interviews to its website. The library will make the next 25 tapes available in February.
Gene DeAnna, head of the library’s Recorded Sound Section, tells Rolling Stone that the interviews have driven far more traffic than he could have imagined. “In all honesty, I love the stuff, but I didn’t think it was going to resonate that much,” he says. “I think it shows how important these people are to so many people. It shows them off the stage, as they are as people, their human side.”
Smith, now in his eighties, says he was planning to leave the tapes to either the Yale School of Music or CalArts, both of which he has served as a trustee. But Mickey Hart, whose band the Grateful Dead was one of Smith’s more notable signings, suggested the Library of Congress. “He was very involved with the library, good friends with Mr. [James H.] Billington, the chief librarian,” Smith tells Rolling Stone. “They jumped on these tapes as soon as I made them available.”
Here are revealing excerpts from four of the interviews, all conducted in the mid-Eighties.
Graham Nash on David Crosby hitting rock bottom:
“I was well-grounded in knowing what the negative side of [stardom] was. I kind of like myself. I have my weaknesses and faults, the same as everyone else. But I think basically I’m a decent human being that wants the best out of life, that wants the best out of himself and his friends and his music. I think that keeps me in a really positive frame of mind so that I don’t seek gratification in other areas. And I think basically the opposite of that is the problem with David right now. He does not have a good self-image. He looks in the mirror and he doesn’t like himself.
Right now he’s in the Huntsville jail in Texas. He’s been in seven months. The first five were in the Dallas County jail, where he could phone out. He’d call me every three or four days – collect, of course. He traded prisons because, although he couldn’t use the phone in Hunstville, he could use his guitar, and I took that as a very encouraging sign that he’s about to turn his life around. I’ve been to see him, I write every week and he writes to me. He keeps sending poetry out, so I know his brain is working . . . I think it would be very hard to freebase cocaine in prison, because of all the paraphernalia that goes along with it. I think he’s finished with that part of his life, I really do. [He went] right to the bottom. He lost his music, his friends and his money. And what people thought of him. He always considered himself to be a leader, someone to look up to, and he’s lost that, and I think he’s kind of ashamed of that. He always thought he would die in jail, if he was ever imprisoned, but that’s not happened.”
Yoko Ono on the pressure of taking the Beatles’ place in John Lennon’s life:
“For John it was like a divorce. I think he was feeling very good about it, as if a big weight was off him. At the same time, he was very proud of the group. He had an extremely high opinion about each one, which might be surprising. He used to say, “Well, they’re very intelligent kids, you know. The fact that they came from Liverpool, you’d think they wouldn’t understand these things – they do.” That sort of attitude. He was always very protective of them in that sense. I don’t really think he voiced anything he missed about the Beatles, maybe because I was the other party, that he got the divorce for. Oh, that’s a very bad thing I said, that he got a divorce for marrying me. I fell into the trap right away – “Does that mean you broke up the Beatles?” I didn’t break up the Beatles. The Beatles were getting very independent. Each one of them [was] getting independent. John, in fact, was not the first who wanted to leave the Beatles. [We saw] Ringo one night with Maureen, and he came to John and me and said he wanted to leave. George was next, and then John. Paul was the only one trying to hold the Beatles together. But the other three thought Paul would hold the Beatles together as his band. They were getting to be like Paul’s band, which they didn’t like.
In a funny sort of way, I felt the weight of the breakup. Because he was communicating, having an extremely intense, stimulating exchange with three very intelligent, quick guys. And now he expected all that to be replaced by me. So our communication was very heavy. It went very well, but at the same time, initially when we got together, he would go to the studio and be playing with the other three, and I had a little time off, in a way. That was gone. It was a very heavy load, yes.”
Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler on the excesses of the Seventies:
“I was surprised – when we got into the thick of stardom in the Seventies, I found the most outrageous things I asked for, would’ve thought of asking for, had already taken place the week before with some other group. It was harder to do something that hadn’t happened . . . I can remember the height of my oblivion, I was into doing things just because I could. I would think nothing of tipping a whole long spread, and I’d be so livid – explicit – no turkey roll! Give us a turkey – no gravy, no stuffing, just real meat. No hockey pucks, no mystery meat, just a turkey. And I would come in after coming offstage, and I’d have 12 ounces of Jack in me, and half a gram, sweating profusely, and I would see that tray, and I would go “Yeeow!” and just turn the thing right over. And that would feel good to me. That felt real good . . . That movie [This Is Spinal Tap!] bummed me out, because I thought, ‘How dare they? That’s all real, and they’re mocking it.'”
Dave Brubeck on whether he “intellectualized” jazz:
“I always learned by osmosis, being around good people. Usually the creative people were interested in me, and the type of teachers that didn’t have much imagination were not interested in me [laughs] . . . Most of what’s been said about me are that person’s idea of what I’ve been thinking, and they haven’t a clue. I did what everybody else does – you reflect your background, and then you try to do other things within that background that make you an individual . . . My mother was a classical pianist. She had a great drive to be a concert pianist. She studied with two of the top teachers in the world. My father was a cattleman, a champion rodeo roper, which means you’re quick with your hands. He played harmonica and was always whistling. And he always was whistling classical piano themes, but he wouldn’t know what he was whistling. One of the first tunes I wrote for Milhaud’s class was called ‘Dad Plays Harmonica.'”