When we think of American masters, we don’t think of David Bowie, who despite being a master was also the most English rock star ever to live. But an interview with Bowie, never before seen in full, nonetheless appears in the newly opened American Masters archive, having been shot for the long-running PBS series’ 1997 documentary on Lou Reed — if not the most American rock star ever to live, then surely the most New York one. “For me, New York was always James Dean walking out in the middle of the road, and it was always the Fugs, the Village Fugs. It was the Beats and it was SoHo. It was that kind of bohemian intellectual extravagance that made it so vibrant for someone like me, growing up in quite a gray, suburban, tenement-filled South London environment.”
As with any society or culture, it takes an outsider to see things most clearly, or at any rate most vividly. But then, certain American-born Americans also have pretty vivid impressions of their own. No less a New York icon than Patti Smith, for instance, also sat for an interview about Lou Reed — as well as Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, the Chelsea Hotel, poetry, labels, improvisation, John Coltrane, Jackson Pollock, CBGB, and much else besides.
Smith’s full interview runs 44 minutes, much longer than the brief clip above, but even it constitutes just a small fraction of the over 1,000 hours of similarly uncut interview footage now made available, complete with searchable transcripts, in the American Masters archive.
Since its debut in 1986 American Masters has profiled cultural figures from Maya Angelou to Aretha Franklin, Ernest Hemingway to Edgar Allan Poe, Mae West to Marilyn Monroe, Carol Burnett to Mel Brooks. Those last episodes include interviews with the late Carl Reiner, a towering American comedian in his own right. In addition to Reiner’s half-hour on Burnett and hour on Brooks, you’ll also find in the archive four different interviews of Brooks himself, as well as a solid three and a half hours with Burnett herself. Neil Young on David Geffen, William F. Buckley on Walter Cronkite, Cybill Shepherd on Jeff Bridges, and Quincy Jones on Sidney Poitier — as well as, in two interviews totaling nearly four hours, on Quincy Jones. Like all the best American lives, his contains many more stories than one can tell at a sitting. Enter the the American Masters archive here.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.