Paola Igliori interviewed Allen to include in her book American Magus Harry Smith: A Modern Alchemist for her now defunct Inanout Press. American Magus is unfortunately long out of print, and the few copies out there are fetching upwards of $75. It’s definitely worth it for anyone seriously interested in Smith, as it includes interviews with & stories by Lionel Ziprin, Folkways Records’ Moe Asch, Rosebud Pettet (Harry’s spiritual wife), Robert Frank, Bill Breeze, and many others.
What’s the first memory you have of Harry?
I heard about him before I met him, from Jordan Belson, who lived on Montgomery Street up the block from me in San Francisco, a filmmaker who had learned a lot from Harry. Harry originally came from Seattle, then in Berkeley as part of what was called “The Berkeley Renaissance” in 1948—around Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and other poets studying medieval history. I don’t think Harry was matriculated, but I think he had worked with Kroeber, I’m not sure—the anthropologist. While we were sniffing ether, Jordan told me about Harry, this polymath brilliant fellow who’d invented the machinery for making light shows and had left that behind when he left San Francisco. The people working on rock concert light shows developed their multimedia Fillmore West wall-collage projections from Harry’s equipment, including the idea of mixing oils or colors on a mirror which was then projected on the wall: liquid psychedelic flowing moving images.
He told me enough about him so that when I was in New York later in 1959 I went to the Five Spot to listen to Thelonious Monk night after night. The Five Spot was then on the Bowery—a regular classic jazz club where once I saw Lester Young, and Monk was a regular for several months. And I noticed there was an old guy, with a familiar face, someone I dimly recognized from a description, slightly hunchback, short, magical-looking, in a funny way gnomish or dwarfish, same time dignified. He was sitting at a table by the piano towards the kitchen making little marks on a piece of paper. I said to myself, “Is that Harry Smith?—I’ll go over and ask him.” And it turned out to be Harry Smith. I asked him what he was doing, marking on the paper. He said he was calculating whether Thelonious Monk was hitting the piano before or after the beat—trying to notate the syncopation of Thelonious Monk’s piano. But I asked him why he was keeping this track record of the syncopation or retards that Monk was making, never coming quite on the beat but always aware of the beat. He said it was because he was calculating the variants. Then I asked him why he was interested in it, this is almost an Hermetic or magical study. I understood he was interested in Crowley, magic, in numbers, in esoteric systems, Theosophy, and he was also a member of the O.T.O. But he had practical use for it. He was making animated collages and he needed the exact tempo of Monk’s changes and punctuations of time in order to synchronize the collages and hand-drawn frame-by-frame abstractions with Monk’s music. He was working frame-by-frame so it was possible for him to do that, but he needed some kind of scheme.