painting by Harry SMITH courtesy of
So, there were these creatures and there were other paintings including the
"Tree of Life," which I had
here—you've seen it.
Yeah, actually I would love to use it as the cover for the book.
Mine is on loan now to the Whitney Museum—they'll be showing some of the works of Harry.
Oh, that's wonderful—
That will be a big part of the Beat show.
Oh, when is it?
Oh, that's great. I didn't know about it. And did you ever see any of the paintings which I heard he did with the dots, of Dizzy Gillespie . . . Miles?
All sorts of things, yes, there were kind of punctuations and dots, and commas, and odd little animate miniature marking or musical notations or little figures running along the canvas or paper. I've got a very
fine memory of those. Then he showed me his films. He would get me very high on hash, or grass, in this little tiny room. Then put on the phonograph while we
smoked—"Round Midnight"—whatever music he was using. And then he showed me these beautiful films, which are now out on Mystic Fire Video. But he had a lot more. And then one day he showed me the entire
Heaven and Earth Magic and that was really amazing.
Was this in color then?
No, black and white. It took place underground and the first scene was the 19th century opening of the London subway; and a woman in dentist chair, high on laughing gas. This was the elevator going high up and coming back
down—ending in the London subway, at the inauguration of the London subway. But if you notice, there is a dentist chair and the lady in the dentist chair going higher and higher and
higher—pumped up high like a barber's chair—and it goes way, way up into an elevator shaft, ascending into the sky.
Is that the one where there is the scene with the two lovers going by in a brain-boat looking at the moon?
Well, it's an hour and a quarter film. Every time I went there he'd get me very high, sort of hypnotize me with the grass and film! And then he'd hit me up for money! . . . twenty dollars . . . thirty dollars, fifty dollars . . . and I had a little money so I gave it to him whenever I was there. But I was beginning to resent it. But one day when I was there he said he needed a hundred and ten dollars and he would give me a copy of
Heaven and Earth Magic—the entire movie—if I would give him that cash. Which I did. I bought it, I don't know what for. I didn't have a projector to use it. I'll put it away or I'll keep it safe. It wasn't a great copy, it was dark, but it was an extra one. I took it to Jonas Mekas—told him that I met this fellow who made the remarkable animated collage cartoon, frame by frame. And Mekas had never heard of him. So I left this film with Mekas and then Mekas got in touch with me and said this is an amazing colossal genius! So they got together and Mekas began showing his films. Harry was very reclusive and seemed to be very reluctant at first of going public. He preferred to go around cadging money off his friends, collecting here and there. It was a small amount of money, maybe a few thousand dollars a year, and many friends in different worlds.
Strange how he seemed to have a real openness to randomness and parallel
That's the key to his work.
But at the same time an almost maniacal precision for all the possible alternatives that could come out at that one random
His interest in randomness was sort of an interest in chance—in actual linkage and synchronicity. But it's pretty much in the ethos of people like Cage or Burroughs or modern MTV. In a way much of MTV music videos comes out of this randomness. There is a direct lineage, I think . . . graphics . . .jump-cutting randomly or juxtaposition . . . a funny way of putting it together.
Then, later on, he went to Florida, at some point, and began collecting Seminole patchwork. While he was
gone—I think it was during that period, I'm not
sure—the landlord, who hadn't been paid for some months, threw out all of his paintings, everything that was in the apartment, Harry said. But he was very mysterious about it, so I don't know what remained or what didn't remain, but apparently the great paintings that I was just describing don't exist any longer. I don't know what else was lost. He said that the landlord threw it all in the garbage.
Then he was in the Chelsea Hotel for a little while at a very interesting time: 1970-1972, when Barry Miles, my biographer, was living there, putting together my 20 years' tapes for
Assembled Poems Vocalized. And Jacques Stern was there, a friend of Burroughs and Harry's at the time. He had polio, was in a wheelchair, was a reputed member of the Rothschild family, he had some money. We'd known him from Paris; he thought Burroughs and Harry were the great geniuses of the age. He was making plans to have a magazine feature them, but was also very temperamental when he'd get drunk or high on coke or whatever. Throw temper tantrums, smash things in the room. So there was Harry, Miles, and Jacques Stern all living in the Chelsea. And I visited a lot. At that time Harry recorded my compete collected songs,
First Blues, which came out later, many years later, edited by Ann Charters, on Folkways Records, lately available on cassette. [Allen Ginsberg,
First Blues: Rags, Ballads and Harmonium Songs, The Smithsonian Institution, Folkways Cassette 37560] Harry had also issued the green three-box, six-record set of
American Folk Music that you also know about. That was one of the first things that I got
ahold of. He gave me a copy first, then I bought another set when it was still available. And then the boxes collapsed on the crowded bookshelf. I don't know if you know the effects of the
American Folk Music collection, an anthology of rare old records he'd rescued from oblivion. Have you heard that?
The effects? No.
The after effect. He put it out in 1952 and it was largely responsible for the 50s folk music revival wave in America, Peter, Paul, and Mary did much of it, the Almanac Singers, Pete Seeger, New Lost City Ramblers. But one of the people who studied it most closely was Bob Dylan. And Dylan took many of his
tunes—"Ain't Gonna Work On Maggie's Farm No
More"—from that. Dylan's early education in blues was supplemented very strongly by Harry Smith. Everybody in the later white blues, art blues, including Jerry Garcia, said they learned blues from Harry Smith's albums. And that was why many years later The Dead's Rex Foundation granted Harry ten thousand dollars a year. Because Garcia knew who he was, he was grateful mysterious Harry Smith was still on
earth. So, Harry had this exquisite impact on American music, and in the last year of his life
he was brought from Naropa to New York and presented with a Grammy for his contribution to the preservation and promotion of folk music.
Oh, I remember a beautiful line he said on that occasion: "I'm glad I lived long enough to see one of my dreams realized. I see America changed by
". . . and music changed by America."
Yeah . . . I remember you once telling a story about Dylan coming to the apartment when Harry was staying there and Harry getting pissed because the music was too loud and not wanting to come out and meet Dylan.
They didn't meet. Harry wouldn't come out of the bedroom; he was sleeping. Dylan was playing me a tape of
Empire Burlesque and he wanted me to suggest an alternate title—I complained I couldn't hear the words. It was about one o'clock in the morning.
How long did Harry stay here?
Ok . . . So, wait a minute. Then on the way—let's see . . . the Chelsea . . . then he went on this trip to Anadarko,
Oklahoma—and he always had some young kid as apprentice with him.
Is that the time when he spent a lot of time with the Kiowa?
Yeah . . . and he did the record of Kiowa peyote rituals, made while in jail for drinking, along with the Indians who knew the ritual songs! Also during that period, when he was at the Chelsea, he recorded all of Peter Orlovsky's songs, and Gregory Corso's early poetry. He was doing a series of recordings called
Materials for Study of the Religion and Culture of the Lower East Side. That's anything that happened out
there—like children's jump-rope rhymes, Gregory Corso, me, Peter, people talking, junkies talking, amphetamine babble, the noise of Tompkins Square Park, city songbirds, he recorded it all.
Did it ever come out anywhere?
No, the only thing that came out was my album, the one that Ann Charters
edited for him. A lot of it may have been delivered to Folkways—maybe not—I don't know where all his tapes are . . .
There was a story that he drilled a hole in your window to put the mike
No, no, he didn't do that. I wouldn't have allowed it. Then in mid-70s he
began drinking, so he got quite paranoid and he broke off with me and he
wouldn't talk to me and a few other people—maybe 'cause I didn't give him money, or
something, but anyway he got very paranoid—cut off complete with most of the people he
knew. Once I remember passing him in a taxi on 13th Street, seeing him and
yelling, "Hey Harry!" and he took a look at me and hurried away.
Then he moved—for lack of money, I think—he was moved out of the Chelsea and moved to
the Hotel Breslin on 28th Street and Broadway. There he slowly softened
up, quit amphetamines and got back in contact. Now at the Chelsea he was
doing a gigantic, final project, which was Mahagony, again to the
rhythm of the changes of the music. He was shooting in color with a
camera, maybe a 35mm, I'm not sure. So I'm in that a lot—he was shooting whatever was going on in the
Chelsea, around the city—carnivals—anything—a collection of images—an image bank. He had made some frames
through which the film would be shot and/or projected onscreen. So he had
these very beautiful Moorish or Greek outlines—comedic or tragic masks—Baroque theater proscenium. He built a
machine, which would coordinate four projectors at once shooting through
these various different frames—custom-made frames—proscenium-like theater squares. So there
could be four cameras projected simultaneously with the images coming at
random, and I think once, by hand. He broke glass plates of the frames in
anger—in a tantrum—after the first performance. They've been
reconstructed—some of them. There were some paper cutouts—cardboard cutouts of the frames that are
left. They are in the archives.
When was it shown?
Rani would know. The first showing was probably some time in the mid '70s.
It's kind of a step after Late Superimpositions [No. 14] [an
earlier Smith film] in which four or more films are printed on top of each
No, no—there was a lot of that too
(superimpositions), but basically it was four projectors, four squares,
four different images projected simultaneously and the combination would
never be the same, because if you used amphetamine, there is no particular
order. At that time, with drinking and amphetamine, he was very bad
tempered and would smash some of his own work too. So, finally he was moved
out of the Breslin—which was a hotel where a lot of the Africans
who sell their stuff on the street would stay—because they were refurbishing the whole
hotel and he had nowhere to go. He packed up his stuff and brought a lot
of his stuff to the Filmmakers' Cooperative. And a lot of his films and
paintings he had given to Jonas Mekas in exchange for money, or put down
like in hock on a loan. So when he paid the money back, he would get back
the paintings. He never paid the loan. Apparently there's a lot of it here
now. Somebody just reported opening up a box and finding a lot of his
paintings. But they're not yet included in the survey of materials. So he
had to move from the Breslin, but he had nowhere to go. So I said,
"While you're looking why don't you stay with me a couple of weeks
until you find another place?" He moved in and within a week a car
had run into him. A compound fracture—the bone was crushed—broken—like shattered inside. Did you ever see the
play The Man Who Came to Dinner? When this old curmudgeon comes to
dinner and ends up staying a year! (laughs.) He ended up staying
eight months. He was still drinking beer.
He made all sorts of drawings and constructions, particularly toilet-paper
tubes and the cardboard tubes that are inside a roll of towels. He would
set them up on a flat surface and glue them down, and cover them with a
kind of glue to make them permanent and they looked like futuristic cities—round buildings—and he would draw on them a little bit. One
day—angry at me for some reason or other, or
angry at something—he smashed them—four month's work. So I took a lot of
Oh, you have them?
Yeah, they're all in my office. I've shown them. One of them,
"Turning Milk into Milk"—him pouring milk—it's from his last days at Hotel Breslin. I
don't have any earlier pictures. At the Chelsea he'd met Mary Beach,
translator of Burroughs . . .niece of Sylvia Beach, a Parisian friend and
publisher of Joyce. . . of the Shakespeare & Company bookshop (not the
new one, the old one).
I think I might have heard from Lionel about that.
Oh, Lionel Ziprin. Apparently, Harry first came to New York to visit
Lionel, who was part of the hermetic group connected with Jordan Belson.
Not to forget "Hube the Cube" from San Francisco, a bearded guy
who had a newspaper stand, also hermetic, amphetamine head. There was
Harry and then there was Jerry Joffen, son of a rabbi, and Lionel Ziprin.
Do you know him?
Yes, I do. What other kinds of things was Harry taping while he was
Then he began taping the ambient sounds of New York City. I had this kind
of machine, Sony Pro-Walkman (points to a tape recorder on the desk), and
he exhausted two of them—or over-used them. If he'd see a machine
of mine he'd grab it for his studies, so I gave him one, but he got the
other off of me too. He put the microphone out the window, wrapped in a
towel, and just sucked in all the sounds of the city for miles around with
the microphone. Sort of like Cageian music. And it climaxed on July 4th
when you get all the fireworks. That's mostly what he was doing. He did it
hour after hour, day after day. Also he'd take the machine to Brooklyn and
tape Haitian street fairs, or Hispanic celebrations, concerts in open
parks. He was very good friend with Rosebud, who knows a lot about him—a spiritual wife—Rosebud Pettet. She knows a lot about
him; she has a lot of stories . . . she knew him from way back—before he moved to this apartment—from 1969. Rosebud's sister was going out
Oh, I didn't know that.
Yeah, Rosebud's sister, Denise Mercedes. She stayed with Peter Orlovsky on
the farm, late 60s, and lived here to the late 70s. I think Huncke was
living at the Chelsea as well then, in the mid 70s.
And Gregory too!
And Gregory was there. Gregory—yes, it was very explosive—I think that was the reason he left, because
things were getting kind of murderous there. Somebody got killed at the
Chelsea—related to Harry or drugs or something. So
that's why he left I think—it was getting dangerous. He was paranoid.
Forward to the mid-80s: so, because I couldn't keep him in this apartment
all the time—the Beaches had moved out of town to
Cooperstown, New York—and they offered to take Harry to the
country, and take care of him for the rest of his life. So, they took him
up there and things worked out well. He started a collection of old, rusty
farm keys, country implements of all kinds, 19th-century, antique, common,
farm equipment, locks, etc. But he drank as they drank. And so he was
living upstairs in their town farmhouse. They got really upset with him for
leaving shit—shitting in a bag or something—because it was hard for him to get up and
down the stairs. They finally insisted that he leave. He wound up in a
Franciscan flophouse down on the Bowery, a few blocks down—Third Street or Second—collecting books. All the money he gained
went to book collecting. I remember I once visited him there in this
narrow little cubicle and he was making recordings of people coughing and
praying on their deathbeds. His cubicle was so crowded with stacks of
books he had to move sideways and shift a stack to open his narrow door.
You could hear sounds from all the other cubicles; they were paper-thin
cardboard or wood walls. So he listened a lot, and it was always people at
the end of their lives groaning to God—including people dying—coughing all night. Sounds of death as well
had a synchronicity—he observed synchronicities there—like when the birds would begin singing—apparently at dawn they all sang or at sunset
they all sang. He began noticing the movement and cycles of natural
objects. But Brian Graham (who develops my film, a photographer) reported
that Harry was getting thinner and thinner from malnutrition and he was
getting too weak to go out. Brian went there with Peter, I think. And we
asked Harry to come back here to my apartment for an interim. By then he
quit drinking, because he was so sick. He was here three or four weeks
till summer, when I had to go to Naropa. So I brought him out to Naropa
and he was in residence there from '88 on—campus Philosopher-In-Residence.
And there he began making tapes of the ambient sounds of The Rocky
Mountain Front Range—same thing—including climaxing on July 4th, with all the
He had a little house there right on campus—a little clapboard house. It was all his own.
The custodians supposedly let him cheat on the rent and he kept buying
books—but Rani Singh became his guardian-secretary and got him food stamps and
SSI. He was loved by all the inspired poets and gardeners at Naropa, till
he was called to New York in 1991 to receive the Grammy, plucked from
obscurity . . . though famous everywhere underground.