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From the Archives: Exploring "The Nation's Eyesore."

Writer Robert Sullivan. Now in paperback, his book "The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures At the Edge of a City" (Anchor books) is about his intrepid trek into the swamp land five miles outside of New York City, where decades of garbage, chemicals, and corpses have been dumped. Ian Frazier calls it "funny, interesting, surprising and bizarre." Sullivan also writes for The New Yorker, Conde Naste Travler, The New Republic and Rolling Stone. (REBROADCAST from 3/25/98)


Other segments from the episode on August 20, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 20, 1999: Interview with Robert Sullivan; Commentary on Excello Records; Interview with Eddie Izzard; Review of the television movie "Ricky Nelson: Original Teen…


Date: AUGUST 20, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 082001np.217
Head: "The Meadowlands"
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

BARBARA BOGAEV, GUEST HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

The New Jersey Meadowlands was in the news this week. The Meadowlands is a 32-square mile swamp just across the Hudson River from Manhattan skyline. It was once the largest garbage dump on the world. Recently a potter's field was discovered there and it's now believed that there are tens of thousands of bodies buried beneath the rubble.

Robert Sullivan is the author of the book, "The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City." Since 1968 the state has been trying to clean up and develop the Meadowlands. It's now the sight of a large sports and entertainment complex that includes Giant Stadium. But there was still plenty of swamp and plenty of garbage for Sullivan to explore. Sullivan is a travel writer and humorist. His book is now out in paperback.

When Terry spoke with him last year, she asked him why he wrote a travel book about the Meadowlands.


SULLIVAN: I'm one of those kind of people who always -- is always looking out the window of the train and looking at the garbage alongside the tracks and wondering about, you know, houses that are burned down or falling down, and wondering what was in there. And this is really what the Meadowlands is. It's the capital of that kind of stuff.


It's the land of "what-the-heck-could-that-be," you know. So anyway, so as I -- as I was living around there and I was a newspaper reporter -- sort of in the area, you know, I'd get sort of tantalizingly close to the center -- to the actual Meadowlands. But I'd never get into it, and I would sort of hear stories about it -- what it was. But it was, you know, I never really felt like I knew the Meadowlands. Then I moved away. I moved to the West Coast. My wife's from Portland, Oregon, so I moved to Portland, Oregon.

And you know, when you move to Portland, you -- well, what I did was I sort of immersed myself in the -- you know, Lewis and Clark literature and the Oregon Trail literature and all these travel journals about going out to Oregon.

And so when I started thinking about, you know, explorations and when I started hiking mountains in Oregon, I thought, well, you know, everybody's going up on the Olympic Peninsula. Everybody's going to look for someplace that nobody's been to. But what if you take all those, you know, your skills and your gear and you apply it someplace where, you know, nobody's ever gone. I thought: I'll go to the Meadowlands.

There won't be any competition with other travel exploration -- explorer...

GROSS: That's for sure.

SULLIVAN: And you know, I'll just be able to -- I'll go out there and I'll do a full reconnaissance. I'll do -- I'll really find out what's out there. And then I bought the maps, and that was it. Once I got the U.S., you know, Geological Survey maps, that was it, because they are -- have all these symbols that nobody -- I couldn't even figure out what they were until I went out to each symbol on the map to see what it was. So.

GROSS: Now, since you decided to do a kind of Lewis and Clark thing through the Meadowlands, you got a canoe and actually canoed your way around the wetter parts to, what, like a little island in the swamp?

SULLIVAN: Well, there was one -- we sort of had two goals for our two main expeditions. I hiked and canoed a lot with my friend Dave -- Dave Diehl (ph) for the record. And he is the great-great -- he's a relative of Meriweather Lewis, and as I say in the book, nobody's really sure what that relationship is, except for his mom. So, you'd have to talk to her.

But anyway, we had sort of two expeditions in mind, and one was to go across the Meadowlands, which as far as we know, nobody had ever done. And there were all these highways and water pipes, and we didn't know if we could do it.

The other one was -- the other goal was to go to this place on the map called "Walden Swamp," which looked to be an island or -- we didn't know what it was. So, just wanted to get there, to Walden Swamp.

GROSS: I'd like you to read an excerpt from your book that gives you a -- gives a sense of what it was like when you were in your canoe.


GROSS: Paddling around through the Meadowlands. This is Robert Sullivan reading from his new book Meadowlands.

SULLIVAN: "Using our compass and the powerlines to guide us, we canoed more, portaged again, came to a patch of land marked as "water" on our maps, and then crossed an abandoned railroad track, at which time it was close to noon. We were beginning to think that we had arrived on the eastern edge of the Carney (ph) Marsh, which meant that we had another mile to go on our trip.

"However, our maps were proving not terribly accurate with regard to navigable water routes. Around us, there were green hills of grass-covered garbage dumps. We saw more carp, more muskrats, mudflats covered with sandpipers, and the frozen-in-time remains of a snapping turtle that appeared to have been decapitated by a train just as it had crawled up out of the marsh.

"We also saw a thermos, three unopened cans of Pepsi, a beach chair sitting on another island, and a Seven Seas Red Wine Vinegar salad dressing spill. Passing over more underwater fences, we felt as if we were paddling just above Atlantis. At precisely one hour and 52 minutes into the trip, we saw our first abandoned appliance -- a refrigerator.

"The low point of the expedition came when we found ourselves in a shallow, sewer-like creek, the bottom of which was completely covered with garbage. It was disgusting to say the least. It was a hidden berm of trash; a refuse-strewn Sargasso Sea. And as we paddled, huge chunks of ripe debris rose up, as if from a field of underwater cabbage -- a foul borscht.

"The smell was unbearable and we paddled carefully."

GROSS: Boy does that sound unpleasant, but fun.


SULLIVAN: It was fun, and it was unpleasant. And shortly after -- and it was nauseous, too, I think is a word that I could use. And shortly after that berm, we came to this -- I don't know -- this little spit of land that we were able to cross over and get back into, you know, refreshingly murky water -- water that was just sort of normally polluted. And so, that was a real relief.

GROSS: You write that in the Meadowlands, there's many hills and some of them are natural hills, but most of them are garbage hills. What's in the garbage hills?

SULLIVAN: Well just about -- there's only really one or two hills that aren't garbage hills, but garbage is in the garbage hills. You know, garbage that's composting; that's packing in and you know, they have these natural streams -- I call it "garbage juice" -- that pours out of them. But the garbage industry's term is "leachate." And so there's a lot of water in the garbage hills, and the water turns into this garbage juice and so around them, you see these puddles of really gross, disgusting, warm, bluish carmel-colored, Coca-Cola-colored stuff.

GROSS: Now, is the garbage in these garbage hills legit garbage? Garbage that people are legally dumping there?

SULLIVAN: There's a lot of legitimate garbage in the Meadowlands. A lot of the hills are legitimate garbage hills, I guess you'd say. But a lot of the hills -- well, I don't know if the hills are all illegitimate garbage, but there are spots where, you know, people dumped stuff they weren't supposed to dump. In fact -- I mean, people would just toss -- just barrels of chemicals, you know, into the Meadowlands. I mean, anything and everything.

I would often interview people about -- they'd try to find out exactly what was in a particular site or in a particular dump -- and guys would say to me over and over: "anything you can think of, that's what's in there."

GROSS: Now you mention that garbage juice called leachate -- is this the -- what you mean when you say that sometimes, these areas have to be drained manually, almost like using a colostomy bag for the garbage hill?

SULLIVAN: Yeah, they -- yeah, because they -- I guess what they're trying to do to sort of solve the problem of giant garbage hills that leak garbage juice into the -- our water stream, is they build these sort of clay dikes around them and they either put it into a pipe that will go into a sewage system, that'll go into a sewage treatment plant; or they have to go up and manually take it out with a truck.

And in the book I talk about sort of a problem they had at one point where the truck came up and un -- you know, sucked out the garbage juice so it's a big like gas truck -- sized truck filled with garbage juice. And I guess the guy, as it was told to me, who was driving the truck -- the guy thought that he could pump the garbage juice into the city's sewage system faster, save a little time, if he just increased the pressure. And it sort of worked OK, except that a lot of the people in the area of the manhole cover that he was pumping into, their toilets all sort of swelled with this leachate.



These are wonderful stories that you've brought back...


SULLIVAN: So yeah, so -- you might want to put a PG-Grossness rating on...

GROSS: What kind of wildlife did you find in your trips through the Meadowlands?

SULLIVAN: Well we saw a lot of the -- the standard wildlife -- egrets and herons. And I'm sure it was just me, but they looked about as nervous as I was to be out there.


But we also saw -- we also saw life that was wild. There were a lot of balloons, like party balloons out there -- like mylar balloons. And at one point, I remember we thought that maybe it was like a wild balloon sanctuary -- you know, a refuge, and all the birthday party balloons from Manhattan flew over to the Meadowlands and made a new life over there.

But we also saw, and this would tend to be at the end of a canoe trip or an exploration, we saw sort of, you know, ducks that were modeled in a way that made me nervous that they had sort of genetically, you know, hybrided from normal ducks into Meadowlands ducks. This was on a particularly toxic creek that's known for mercury and a lot of pollutants.

But then on another trip, I saw a giant muskrat/dog/bear -- I want to say bear. And it was really scary, although my friend Dave said it wasn't such a big deal and he would have gone on if I hadn't made him yank the canoe out of the creek.

GROSS: Do you know what this animal was?

SULLIVAN: No, I don't know what that animal was. I found out that the duck was -- I want to -- I think it was a muscovy duck and it was from South America. And a family there -- a Muslim family -- was raising them, I think for food. And then, I never found out what the giant muskrat/bear/dog/anything else was, but it was probably a giant muskrat.

But the sign on the creek said "danger" -- it said "danger, caution" -- there were signs all along the creek. And when I saw that animal with those signs, I got a little panicked and -- Dave wants to go back and try to finish that part of the trip, but my wife says if I do, then we can't have any more children.


GROSS: Oh, 'cause she's afraid of...

SULLIVAN: Concerned for, you know, how it will affect my physiology.

GROSS: Genetics, yeah, yeah.

My guest is Robert Sullivan, author of the new book The Meadowlands. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Robert Sullivan, author of The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City.

There's a lot of mythology surrounding the Meadowlands, and perhaps the most famous part of the mythology is that Jimmy Hoffa is reputed to be buried there.

SULLIVAN: Yes, "reputed." It's one of the reasons you want to write anything at all about the mob because you get to say and type the word "reputed."


Yeah, and that was -- when I first started doing this, I would say: "oh, I'm gonna write a book about the Meadowlands, and do a project on the Meadowlands." And people would say either: "oh, you mean the Meadowlands where the Giants play? Oh, yeah -- oh what's the book..." -- you know, and I'd say: "no, no, no. I'm not going to the Giants. I'm going to do everything else about the Meadowlands, really."

But the other thing that they'd say: "oh, you mean where they buried Jimmy Hoffa?" And I'd say: "yeah, that's right." And at first, I was a little annoyed at that because there's a lot more to the Meadowlands than the myth of Jimmy Hoffa. But then it became clear that I would have to address the reputed burial of Jimmy Hoffa in the Meadowlands, and after a while, we started thinking we ought to see where he was buried, and then, well we thought we might as well give it a shot, try to dig there.

I didn't know what we would do if we found Jimmy Hoffa. That would sort of be a problem, I suppose.

GROSS: Where did you decide to dig for Jimmy Hoffa in the Meadowlands?

SULLIVAN: We -- I -- there were a couple of sites we looked at for digging for Jimmy Hoffa in the Meadowlands. And one of them was the Giants' endzone of course, because everybody says: "oh, he's buried in the Giants endzone."

Well, and I guess that's because some of the people associated with people who were associated with the building of the Meadowlands -- the word "reputed" was hanging around them. And so people thought, "oh, well, maybe the mob somehow got it into the construction site. But I tackled that. First of all, that was difficult. It would have been difficult to get permission to dig in the endzone.

But I felt that that was covered because I met a guy who videotaped -- he was like an early videotaper -- and he videotaped the construction of Giant Stadium, like frame by frame. So I always thought that I could just go to him and get the tape and review it, if need be.

But we settled on a site called the "PJP" landfill -- "Brother Muscato's" (ph) dump. And it's this dump -- that's sort of it's, you know, AKA, it's this dump that's underneath the Pulaski Skyway, which is this beautiful old bridge, black snake-like bridge that goes across the Meadowlands.

And that dump -- the FBI like watched that dump. The state police guarded that dump when they were looking for Jimmy Hoffa. And everybody seemed to think, was my reading of the papers, that he was in that dump, or at least some of his associates were. And -- but in the end, they never did dig in it and I guess one of the reasons was they feared for the safety of the state police. It was like the FBI said: "oh, you dig for it." And then the state police are like: "oh, no, you dig for it." Or at least that's how I read it.

So we decided on Brother Muscato's dump and, you know, we got some shovels and first we had to find it. It was so hard to get in, through fences and highways. But then when we got there, it was surrounded by a moat of garbage juice -- kind of leachate moat. And it looked really difficult, and so I went through the state and I signed permits and releases and they gave me a tour of the site, which I sort of just sat there and tried to -- tried to channel and see if he was there in fact. And it felt good -- it felt likely.


GROSS: There are a lot of myths about things that are buried in the Meadowlands, including Jimmy Hoffa. You found out from actually a newspaper article, that the columns from the old Penn Station in Manhattan were buried in the Meadowlands, and you figured you should go try to unearth them. How did you do?

SULLIVAN: Well, Penn Station was -- digging for Penn Station -- finding Penn Station was like a consolation prize for us. If you can't get Jimmy Hoffa, maybe you can get Penn Station. And so, I went with pictures from the '60s of the old Penn Station being dumped in the Meadowlands, and I went around to all the towns. And a lot of people didn't believe me at first, or they thought maybe I'd made up the photo.

But after a while, I found a couple of people -- the retired mayor of Secaucus and various dump owners who helped me. And we sort of pinpointed a site and triangulated with the old photos, and just dug.

GROSS: What did you find?

SULLIVAN: Well, we found tons of stuff. You dig in the Meadowlands, and you just pull up stuff. You pull up like huge wires and cables and glass, and I've got a creamer at home that we use -- must be from an old hotel in New York, because they would take all the hotel garbage in from the Plaza Hotel and -- into the Meadowlands and dump it in the Meadowlands.

But we found pieces of buildings that had dates that were sort of similar to the dates of Penn Station. But we didn't really know. And you know, when you're digging in the Meadowlands, if you ever are digging for Penn Station, you will find that everything starts to look like Penn Station. And that everything becomes -- you know, possibly Penn Station.

But after a while, I was just walking down a street or driving around and I ran into a guy who said "oh yeah, I remember where they buried Penn Station. It's over there in that lot." And so I just kind of went back into this lot in this trucking yard, and there were huge pieces of the columns -- you know, these Roman replicas just lying there and, you know, sort of partly buried, but I chipped off a piece of it and brought it home.

GROSS: Golly, that's like finding gold.

SULLIVAN: It was really like finding gold. And I just -- I stare at the rock all the time. I have it here with me today. I stare at the rock all the time and just -- and look at it and think about -- about Penn Station and about the moment in the future, many -- you know -- hundreds of years from now, when someone will be digging in the Meadowlands, hopefully an archaeologist, and they'll come upon this huge train station and they'll say: "this was the center of a great civilization. This was the great center of the city."

And then somebody will say: "oh no, it was a dump." And they'll say: "oh yeah, you're right."

GROSS: So, show me what you brought here.


SULLIVAN: I have a piece of Penn Station here. Just -- there it is. It's a piece of Penn Station.

GROSS: OK. What I'm looking at is -- it looks to me like a piece of rock?

SULLIVAN: It's -- oh, it's not just rock. It's Penn Station. It's the -- it takes a long time to chip off these, you know, marble columns.

GROSS: So this is a big chip from one of the marble columns.

SULLIVAN: It's a big chip. I had more, but I sent it out to friends.

GROSS: Well I'm glad for the chance to have seen it. It's mighty impressive.

The Meadowlands now is something between the marshland that it was naturally and the garbage dump that it became. And now, the state is trying to clean it up and to figure out a plan for it. So, what do we have now? It's like neither one nor the other?

SULLIVAN: Right. It's -- and that's what's most intriguing for me about the Meadowlands is that it's this -- it's this third party. It's like a dialectic that's happened and there's this synthesis, this new kind of land. And so you see like a fallen down factory with reeds all around it and in it. And you say: "what is that? Is that -- is that beautiful?" And I think it is beautiful. But, do you save a fallen down factory?

I don't know, but it's -- it's -- to me, it's really beautiful.

GROSS: So, it raises a lot of new interesting questions for you.

SULLIVAN: It raises the questions, and you know, and here's an area where -- where people definitely ruined it, and so one of the big controversies in the Meadowlands is how far do we go to fix it? How much work do we put into fixing it? Or do we just let it be?

GROSS: Is the ruin itself interesting enough...


GROSS: ... to save as a kind of relic of an era...

SULLIVAN: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ... the way we ruined a certain kind of land in a certain era.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, well there's one part of the Meadowlands that's -- that's -- there's very little reed and swamp left at all. And it's kind of a spit down in the bottom right near Newark Bay. And that's -- there's a lot of old factories that have fallen down there.

I'm sure they're -- remediation sites, you know, for hazardous waste. But it's not quite haunted when you drive around there. But it's like an old western mining town that'd be preserved, except that it's factories in New Jersey.

GROSS: Is there like a favorite image that you've taken away with you from the Meadowlands...


GROSS: ... like a mind picture that just kind of sums it up for you?

SULLIVAN: ... I guess crawling out of canoeing out or hiking out to one of these sites, like a fallen radio tower, or going out to the radio towers, and then realizing you're surrounded by reeds, and it seems so quiet and -- but then you look up and all of a sudden you're being attacked by a huge FedEx plane landing at Newark Airport.

So it's -- that's the kind of thing that I remember about the Meadowlands.

GROSS: Robert Sullivan, thank you very much.

SULLIVAN: Thank you for having me.


BOGAEV: Robert Sullivan speaking with Terry Gross. His book, "The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City," is out in paperback.

I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Robert Sullivan
High: Writer Robert Sullivan's new book, "The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures At the Edge of a City," is about his intrepid trek into the swampland five miles west of New York City, where decades of garbage, chemicals, and corpses have been dumped. (Rebroadcast from 03/25/98)
Spec: Cities; New York; Garbage; "The Meadowlands"

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "The Meadowlands"
Date: AUGUST 20, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 082002NP.217
Head: Excello Remembered
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

BARBARA BOGAEV, GUEST HOST: Excello Records spent the 1950s creating a body of blues and rhythm and blues records which established it as one of the South's greatest labels. But the 1960s brought with it new challenges, particularly with soul music.

Today, in the second part of a survey of the label's work, rock historian Ed Ward shows how Excello combined the best of the old with the best of the new to stay vital.


ED WARD, ROCK HISTORIAN: By 1957, Excello Records had hit on a winning formula, releasing inexpensively produced records recorded in Nashville and Crowley (ph), Louisiana. It promoted them aggressively through a radio show they sponsored on WLAC, which could be heard throughout the country, and distributed them via mail order while using its own distribution company to distribute other small labels.

They weren't selling millions, but they were keeping comfortable. Besides the record business, of course, they published the songs they released, and this was another source of income.


WARD: The Gladiolas' version of "Little Darlin'" was too rough for most stations, but Excello made plenty of money when the Diamonds, a white Canadian group, cleaned up its chaotic production and took their version to the top of the pop charts.

Excello's bread and butter, though, was the swamp blues being recorded deep in Cajun country by Jay Miller in Crowley, Louisiana.


WARD: Lazy Lester, so called for his casual approach to his career, was one of the artists who recorded for Miller, and songs like "I Hear You Knockin'" are a bridge between country blues and rock and roll.

Swamp rock, the defining musical trend in southern Louisiana in the early '60s, for instance, showed up on a lot of Excello records, including this one from Jay Miller's house band.


WARD: Again, the original record was picked up by a white band, Clint West and the Boogie Kings, and turned into a substantial regional hit. Regional music tends toward conservatism, but it catches up sooner or later.

As Sam Cook began to invent what would soon become soul music, he had his regional imitators, like Lattimore (ph) Brown.


WARD: But the real shock comes when a supposedly old-fashioned regional style sparks a major nationwide hit.


WARD: Slim Harpo's "Baby, Scratch My Back" from 1966 was Excello's only top 20 hit in the label's 23-year history. But it was an anachronism, and the new word was soul.


WARD: The Kelly Brothers never became household names, but records like their "You Put Your Touch on Me" were still marvels.

One of Excello's last records was due to another partnership, with L.A.-based soul producer Jerry Williams, Jr., also known as Swamp Dog. Williams had written a song he was sure was a hit and paired it with one of Excello's best soul voices, Freddy (ph) North.


WARD: It was a hit all right, but not a soul hit. Somehow the song got to country star Johnny Paycheck, who revived a fading career with it, racked up one of 1971's biggest country hits, and got Swamp Dog awarded the Country Music Association's song of the year award.

Disco killed Excello the way it killed so many regional labels in America, but its legacy is an astonishing collection of classics you've probably never heard.

Recently, four discs of the Excello story has hit the stores, packed with amazing music, and there's more where that came from too.

BOGAEV: Ed Ward writes about music from Berlin.

Coming up, British stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard.

This is FRESH AIR.


This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Ed Ward
High: Part Two of rock historian Ed Ward's look at Excello Records, a Nashville-based blues studio that, between 1952 and 1975, released hundreds of records that influenced performers from Elvis Presley to the Rolling Stones.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Excello Records

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Excello Remembered
Date: AUGUST 20, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 082003NP.217
Head: "Dress To Kill"
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:45

BOGAEV: British Comedian Eddie Izzard is currently starring in the play "Lenny," in London's West End. It's based on the life and words of Lenny Bruce.

Bruce wasn't much to look at on stage. He wore jeans, sometimes a suit. It was his material which was obscene, shocking and scandalous. In his stand-up act though, Eddie Izzard dresses on drag but talks about toast.


IZZARD: Toasters. Ahh, toasters are good. Like them. Like toast, mmm.

Um, you've got a toaster there, but it's got a turny dial knob thing on the side. And it lies to us.


It does not tell the truth, for it has numbers from one to six and they lie.


You set on four -- you put bread in on four and boom, comes up three. Three. This is three toast, no good at all. Hardly done.

You set and change to five, and it comes up six -- this is six, all burnt, all burnt.


Scrape, scrape, scrape, oh, (EXPLETIVE DELETED) forget it.


Because the toaster's in there going, "Stay down, lads, stay down. Stay down! Go for the burn! No pain no gain!


"No fish no foul! No sock no shoes! No hair no haircut!


And the other toast is going, "What the hell are you talking about?"


BOGAEV: Eddie Izzard is a cult figure in England where Channel 4 television once celebrated his birthday by proclaiming it Eddie Izzard Day, scheduling all his favorite movies and television series.

Izzard has also appeared in many films including "Velvet Goldmine" and the new movie "Mystery Men" with Ben Stiller.

I spoke with Eddie Izzard last year when he was in New York with his one-man show, "Dress to Kill." It's basically full-speed ahead stand-up comedy, a mixture of skits about everything from British imperialism and the Anglican Church, to the American space program and "Star Trek"


BOGAEV: You have a sketch in "Dress to Kill," about Engelbert Humperdinck and after -- after a bit you say very seriously, it was sad though that you just heard on the news that Humperdinck died in L.A. yesterday. And you get everyone going. Everyone believes this. Then you say: "no he didn't. You're all so gullible."

And you go back and forth. You have people "yes he did," "no, he didn't." You have tremendous control over the audience. How did you learn to command that kind of control over an audience?

IZZARD: That's through street performing. Yeah, that's -- you learn to manipulate the energy of the crowd, which sounds kind of floaty and it's sort of...

BOGAEV: New Age-y.

IZZARD: But yeah, but it is true. An audience has an energy and it can be -- it can all over the place or it can be quite -- and if you can -- if you're a good performer, you can knit it together as a type thing, so that they react as one.

And the street performing is so experimental, because you constantly have cats and dogs and cars driving through your show and drunk people walking through your show, and police telling you to move on. And it's just -- and the weather starts raining on your head or it snows or there's wind or -- so there's a lot of natural ad-libbing happening, or natural forces happening against your show.

So you just learn to be able to deal with anything. After street performing, you can deal with anything.

BOGAEV: How do you handling heckling? Do you try to take it as a challenge to work the heckling into your act?

IZZARD: No, actually -- it's just another -- I've analyzed heckling enough to know that it's not really a problem. I've done far too much performing for them to be able to do anything to me. And it's -- you basically -- the best position to adopt if you're being heckled as a performer is a hugely arrogant one.

And which is quite fun -- being able to play arrogance or just be incurably arrogant, 'cause it's normally not a very socially acceptable position to adopt. But if someone starts challenging your show, then you would just -- you can just tear them apart because they'll never -- they will never have had as much experience as you've had on stage.

So they challenge you, and they think it's you against them. But in fact, the whole audience, if they're with you at this point, is your gang. So, they're on your side. They want you to win. And in fact, most hecklers -- 90 percent of hecklers -- are actually just trying to help you or trying to feed the show, unless you're actually on stage and dying thunderously, and having a really bad time, and then hecklers come in and attack.

BOGAEV: You say right at the start of your new show that you are a male transvestite and you fancy women. You're a tomboy. You're a male lesbian.

IZZARD: Who said that?


God, that's all -- yes, that's absolutely true. And what did I say? Male tomboy? Yeah, male tomboy or male lesbian. Male lesbian explains and confuses at the same time, which I like 'cause it's kind of like washing powder -- washing or cleans, (Unintelligible) hangs, as it flips over.

Yeah, 'cause most male transvestites do fancy women, I believe -- I strongly believe that, 'cause there's distinct link ups -- a lot of sexuality traits we go together. And in the alternative sex world -- (unintelligible) gay lesbian of TV, a lot of people hate using the word "transvestite" 'cause there're very negative connotations on it. But I'm actually reclaiming on that word.

But "TV" is the shortened version of it, or cross-dresser or -- but in fact there are no cross-dressers because, I mean, transvestite just is Latin for cross-dressers, so, why we should go around using a Latin term, I do not know. But you know, there were no women transvestites either. And since the '20s, they've been -- women have successfully removed the term "transvestite" from our social dictionary. Don't you think?

BOGAEV: Absolutely. There's no meaning.

IZZARD: Yeah, it has been totally -- whereas back in the '20s, it would have been used if we'd went back in a time machine or looked in history books. It was used as reference, and they had women doing male impersonations on stage in vaudeville. They definitely did in London. And now, it's gone.

So, that's great. Women have total clothing rights and I think men have total clothing rights. If they want them, they're just sitting there to grab. So I grabbed them and I wear whatever I want, and it has nothing to do with my comedy.

BOGAEV: How do you choose what to wear?

IZZARD: Well, I go into a choice section. It's part of my brain. And it has little gates, "yes" or "no." And I go through all my clothing and I go "yes," "no." Well, how do you choose where you wear clothes? I just choose by the normal thought process. It's -- there's no big deal. And, how do you choose when you wear clothes? You just -- how you feel there, yeah?

BOGAEV: Right, right, right.

IZZARD: And it's that kind of thing.

BOGAEV: Well thank God, no one looks at me when I do my work. I mean, that's...


IZZARD: Oh yeah, when you're on stage, well then it's sort of -- does discover that, and this, and I end up in this sort of tomboy area where you kind of -- I don't know -- I keep trying moving it around. Clothes are just clothes. They're just bits of cloth. Just wear 'em. It doesn't matter.

BOGAEV: When you first came out -- some people when they first come out, they have a female persona. They (unintelligible) another name when they dress as a woman or whatever -- put these clothes on. Did you do that?

IZZARD: Well sort of, but there was an idea. 'Cause I would be, as I said, male lesbian, 'cause I'd be quite happy to be a woman, but I look very male-like 'cause when you hit your teenage period, the -- there's coding going in. So -- and everyone's -- but you know, up to puberty, girls and boys have a pretty similar facial shape. But then, I've got into this sort of male jawline area, so it's -- I just look like a guy who wears makeup.

So yeah, when I saw -- if I was -- initially when I came out, I was sort of trying to pass as a woman type thing, but everyone said "yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir" getting in and out of taxis or whatever, so I thought: "oh, well stuff this. This isn't gonna work."

I'm very practical -- very practical in my approach to being -- getting this thing working for me. So, I've come to a much more sort of tomboy area. And it's also -- it's much easier for me 'cause I'm in the entertainment world. You know, if you're a lawyer; if you're a forklift truck driver -- and there's a lot of -- 'cause if you are a transvestite, there's a lot male in you. There's a lot of -- you know, a lot of people in the army; a lot of people do very male jobs -- and are TV.

And it's a tricky area because, you know, you're surrounded by a lot of people who are deeply into macho and machismo. And so trying to express your feminine side is very difficult in that middle area; or trying to get to a middle area.

But in the entertainment world, it's our duty in the end to find the way out, because you know that Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn were the first women to really wear pants, and so, get that whole thing going. And they were big movie stars. So everyone said: "oh if they can do it, then we can do it," and then it became a fashion thing. And that's the way it's gotta start.

So you know, by the -- by the -- when we get in the 21st century, it's gonna chill out and everyone can wear whatever clothes they want. It'll take some time, but you know, it's -- it's much more positive these days.

BOGAEV: I don't want to beat this to death, but I do -- I do have one more question. I'm just curious...

IZZARD: Beat it to death.


BOGAEV: ... when you -- when you decide to come out, I imagine you have to experiment a little bit first.

IZZARD: Clothing wise?

BOGAEV: Do you -- yeah -- do you start very, very discreetly?

IZZARD: Frumpy.

BOGAEV: Or frump...

IZZARD: No, frumpy. You have to go through frumpy transvestite. Well, it's somewhere between frumpy and over the top. You have to go through your teenage girl phase.

You know when teenage girls first get access to clothing -- because there's a phase where -- I remember watching a sort of magazine daytime chat show type thing in London, in the United Kingdom, and there's a mother going on about her daughter, she was 11. She was wearing these high-heeled shoes. She'd caught her -- her own daughter, wearing high heels and makeup and "I told her to get this stuff off" she was saying.

And I thought: hey, this girl is just being me. This teenage girl -- that's what I would have gone through. Because it's just fun clothing. That's why I think women who do want to wear heels and makeup and whatever, it's just kind of fun.

And then when they -- you go through the teenage girl phase, where you go to your first disco and teenage girls just wear far too much and there's too much makeup; skirts too shorten and way over the top. And then in the 20s, when women get in their 20s, I feel they chill out and think: "oh, I'm not going to wear this all the time. This is a real pain." And just -- it's so laborious, but you know, makeup is quite a -- just fiddly to do, and so you'd just rather not wear makeup.

So women in their 20s and their 30s, they just chill out and say: "well if I want to dress up, I can; but if I want to dress down, I can as well." And that's the phase I've got to now. So, I started out and the heels were too high and it -- and the look was all wrong.

And you have to also get a look. You have to be able to wear clothes so that you can have friends saying: "oh, that doesn't work;" or "that looked good on you" "that doesn't work" -- and you know, I've got a kind of blokey male body, so I've got to say: what goes with this? And what doesn't go with this?

And OK, my legs are better. All right, that's good. But you know -- and just trying to get -- and my body's shaped slightly different. So -- but then a lot of women have -- there's women who go through -- and men who go through lots of different facial looks and body shapes. There's women who are very mannish looking; there's men that are very feminine looking. And there's -- the whole gamut of range of looks are there.

So, you can always get a look that will work for you.

BOGAEV: My guest is British comedian Eddie Izzard. His new one-man show is Dress to Kill. He's appearing at the Westbeth Theater off-Broadway in New York City.

We're going to take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

I'm talking with British comedian Eddie Izzard. And his new one-man show is Dress to Kill. It's appearing at the Westbeth Theater off-Broadway.

Your mother died when you were six.


BOGAEV: Did you develop ways of coping, as kids do, have imaginary playmates or magic conversations with them?

IZZARD: No, I started performing, I think, because of that. I mean, people do think: "oh, your mother died. Oh that means that's the -- the transvestite link-up thing." But I don't think so 'cause I just knew I was TV before she died.

But, I don't know. I'm still open-minded about that. I think the key thing that happened was that the performing happened. Because I wasn't really -- I remember doing a play, doing a sort of school play. I was six. I was a raven. My mother made me a raven suit. And I'm glad I -- I wasn't very good as a raven. And that's good 'cause, you know, there's not a lot of raven parts around.

And, I wasn't that bothered about doing the show. But then after she died, I remember seeing a play and thinking: "ooh -- ooh, I've gotta do this." And there was sort of applause going on. And I think it's a surrogate affection machine, 'cause my mum was there and she was very affectionate. Then she disappears and then the audience is there. And I have to perform, you know.

It's quite good because you don't just stand there, and they give you affection. You -- you've gotta go out and do your best. And then, you know, if you're interesting, they go: "hey, that's good." And then, it sort of takes off.

BOGAEV: You know, it's really the opposite of unconditional love.

IZZARD: Yes, it's conditional. It's very conditional, depending on the reviews.

BOGAEV: You've acted on stage in London in Mamet plays and other plays. You have a movie coming out with Sean Connery -- the -- a take-off on "The Avengers" -- the old Avengers series. What's your role like?

IZZARD: I have the biggest role in The Avengers. It's really my film and Sean...

BOGAEV: Cameos.

IZZARD: ... well no, it's -- no, I have a small role. I'm a small -- Sean Connery is a bad guy and I'm second bad guy. And I go around hitting people on the head, and I stare at them when I hit them. And I chew gum. And I have a huge fight with Uma Thurman, who's Emma Peel, and wears a lot of very tight rubbery-type clothing, which looks really good on her.

And so yeah -- so it's a -- my role is more supporting and helping them get their lines right and giving them cups of tea and stuff. But it's -- yeah, it's The Avengers, which not everyone knows them in America, but it's a -- was a great British cult kind of quirky, campy-type thing. Camp in a good way; not camp in a -- camp in a sort of sassy, surreal, and dry humor-type way.

BOGAEV: You have a really -- a physical presence, and your face is very expressive. Did you have to tone anything down to act on screen? I'm thinking that exaggerates, of course, every facial expression, especially in closeup.

IZZARD: Yeah, I don't do comedy roles on television, so it's a totally different beast, really. I approach it in a totally different way and I don't -- yeah, I don't pull big old faces. "Hey look, I can do wide-mouth frog impressions."

BOGAEV: You don't want to be cast as a funny -- in a funny role?

IZZARD: Yeah. I don't do comedy roles like that. And I'm not doing transvestite roles 'cause everyone's come to say: "hey, comedy transvestite; here, is a comedy transvestite role. And I'm just going no. I'm just going to play straight roles, that are straight dramatically and just ordinary, orthodox sexuality area.

Later on, I can play a transvestite role, when I find the right one or whatever. But -- and comedy, I don't play comedy 'cause my comedy is -- I was very impressed with Steve Martin. And if -- I just listened to his CD again -- early CDs of standup.

And if you hit in this area of kind of crazy surreal stuff, people just want to see you do that. They don't want to see you do anything, any straight role because the hits of comedy are just so buzzy that you don't want -- you can't wait around to get the slow feel, the slow burn of someone who's bringing a character to a screen over, you know, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes. You get drawn into believing in this person as being a real person.

BOGAEV: Eddie Izzard, I want to thank you so much. It was a pleasure to talk with you today.

IZZARD: Thanks very much.


BOGAEV: Eddie Izzard plays the title role in the new London play "Lenny," about the life of Lenny Bruce. He's also in the new film "Mystery Men."

Coming up, a review of a new VH1 movie. I'm Barbara bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.


This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Eddie Izzard
High: British cross-dressing standup comic Eddie Izzard is a household name in England, but little known in the U.S. He's currently starring in "Lenny" a stage play about the controversial standup comic, Lenny Bruce. Izzard plays Bruce. Last year Izzard performed his one-man show "Dress to Kill" at New York's Westbeth Theater, in the West Village. (Rebroadcast from 4/13/98)
Spec: Media; Theater; Eddie Izzard; Europe; Britain; "Dress to Kill"

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "Dress To Kill"
Date: AUGUST 20, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 082004NP.217
Head: "Ricky Nelson" Reviewed
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:56

BOGAEV: This Sunday, VH1 presents its second made-for-TV movie, a fact-based biography of teen TV and recording star Ricky Nelson. TV critic David Bianculli has this review.


DAVID BIANCULLI, TV CRITIC: A few years ago, VH1 stumbled upon the first programming form that set it apart from the cable TV music pack. That was "Pop-Up Videos," which took existing rock videos and superimposed funny factoids onto them.

More recently, VH1 came up with another hot new show, "Behind the Music," a biographical series that stressed the downs as well as the ups of former and current pop stars.

These documentaries continue to be big hits, profiling the triumphs and tragedies of everyone from Madonna and Billy Joel to Tony Orlando and Milli Vanilli.

This month, VH1 decided to expand that musical misery tour by getting into the made-for-TV-movie business. Its first effort was "Sweetwater: A True Rock Story," which told the story of a rock group, Sweetwater, that was the opening act at Woodstock but a trivia question almost immediately afterward.

The central story told by the movie was good. The way in which it was told, with a dumb and unnecessary fictional subplot about a TV reporter trying to find the surviving band members, was bad.

Now this Sunday comes VH1's second telemovie effort. It's called "Ricky Nelson: Original Teen Idol," and the title itself hints at what shaky ground we're about to explore.

Ricky Nelson, the little brother on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," as the original teen idol? Wasn't anyone at VH1 old enough or smart enough to mention that Elvis Presley already was making teenagers squeal by the time Rick Nelson did his cover of Fats Domino's "I'm Walking" in 1957?

Or for that matter, doesn't anybody at VH1 remember a guy with the last name of Sinatra?

This TV-movie isn't a total loss, though. Gregory Kalpakas (ph) actually is pretty good in the title role, and Jamie Sheridan as the quietly controlling patriarch Ozzie Nelson gives the best performance in the whole drama. Here he is pulling Ricky aside on the set of "Ozzie and Harriet" for a little father-son chat.


JAMIE SHERIDAN, ACTOR: Ricky, I thought we agreed you were going to get a haircut.

GREGORY KALPAKAS, ACTOR: I did, Pop, I got a crew cut.

SHERIDAN: That's the longest crew cut I've ever seen. Looks like a ducktail and sideburns to me. Come here. Take a look in the mirror. Take a good look.

KALPAKAS: I told you, Pop, I got a crew cut.

SHERIDAN: No, look deeper. Who's that on the boom?

KALPAKAS: Joe van Kay (ph)?

SHERIDAN: Joe van Kay. How many kids does Joe have?

KALPAKAS: Well, probably none. You never let him go home.

SHERIDAN: Three. Charlene, four. John Emerson, has three of the most beautiful little girls you'd ever want to meet. We have 45 people working on the set with us here, Ricky. Their livelihoods depend on us.

KALPAKAS: I know, Dad, I know. Anything else?

SHERIDAN: Yes, now that you mention it. You could wake up a little earlier, and you could -- you could pay a little better attention in school.

KALPAKAS: Can I go now?



WARD: The family dynamics in "Ricky Nelson: Original Teen Idol" are really intriguing, and a very good movie could have been made just by focusing on that. Unfortunately, this VH1 project presents another of those idiotic framing devices and has Rick visited at the airport by a young fan who presents him with a scrapbook of his life.

This is, of course, a fictional encounter, and one that takes place the night Nelson dies in a plane crash. Tacky? You bet.

But the worst thing of all is what happens at the end, or actually what doesn't happen. In the last years of Rick Nelson's real life, the biggest thing that happened to him was in 1972. During a concert at Madison Square Garden, he got booed by the crowd for his long hair and for mixing new songs with his old hits.

He wrote about the experience in a bitter song called "Garden Party," which gave him his first top 10 hit in almost 20 years. Obviously that's the defiant, dramatic climax to any Rick Nelson biography -- except for this one.

In this VH1 version, the fictional fan simply gets to that point in her scrapbook, closes the book, and says, "I know the rest, `Garden Party' and all," and that's it. No concert, no writing of the song, no song.

How do you make a Rick Nelson TV biography without including "Garden Party"? You don't. Or at least, you shouldn't have.

BOGAEV: David Bianculli is TV critic for "The New York Daily News."

Today's senior producer was Roberta Shorrock. Our engineers this week include Bob Purdick (ph), Al Banks, Fred Snyder (ph), and Scott Daracinski (ph).

For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.


This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev
Guest: David Bianculli
High: TV critic David Bianculli reviews VH-1's new movie "Ricky Nelson: Original Teen Idol" showing this weekend.
Spec: Television and Radio; Movie Industry; Ricky Nelson; VH-1

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: "Ricky Nelson" Reviewed
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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