DATE June 17, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Mark Haddon discusses his book "The Curious Incident
of the Dog in the Night-time"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News filling in for Terry Gross.
British writer Mark Haddon is the author of the new novel "The Curious
Incident of the Dog in the Night-time." The book has been on The New York
Times Best-Seller List for 48 weeks and is a favorite on summer reading lists.
The novel is told from the point of view of a 15-year-old boy named
Christopher who is a high-functioning autistic. Critic Michiko Kakutani
writes, `Mr. Haddon writes with such sympathy, such understanding of
Christopher's interior life that he makes all his obsessions and needs into a
mirror of our own cravings for safety and order.'
This is Mark Haddon's first novel. He's written and illustrated several
children's books. When his novel begins, Christopher finds his neighbor's dog
lying dead, speared by a pitchfork and Christopher wants to find out who did
it. The greater mysteries he is faced with have to do with comprehending his
parents and the confusing and threatening world around him. Here's a reading
from early in the story.
Mr. MARK HADDON (Author, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the
Night-time"): (Reading) `I pulled the fork out of the dog and lifted him into
my arms and hugged him. He was leaking blood from the fork holes. I like
dogs. You always know what a dog is thinking. It has four moods--happy, sad,
cross and concentrating. Also, dogs are faithful, and they do not tell lies,
because they cannot talk. I had been hugging the dog for four minutes when I
heard screaming. I looked up and saw Mrs. Shears running towards me from the
patio. She was wearing pajamas and a housecoat. Her toenails were painted
bright pink, and she had no shoes on. She was shouting, "What in God's name
have you done to my dog?" I do not like people shouting at me. It makes me
scared that they are going to hit me or touch me, and I do not know what is
going to happen. "Let go of the dog," she shouted. "Let go of the damn dog,
for Christ's sake." I put the dog down on the lawn and moved back two meters.
She bent down. I thought she was going to pick the dog up herself, but she
didn't. Perhaps she noticed how much blood there was and didn't want to get
dirty. Instead, she started screaming again. I put my hands over my ears and
closed my eyes and rolled forward till I was hunched up with my forehead
pressed onto the grass. The grass was wet and cold. It was nice.'
TERRY GROSS, host:
Mark, what is your main character's behavioral or cogitative problem?
Mr. HADDON: If he were diagnosed, he would be diagnosed as having Asperger's
syndrome, which is a form of autism. I suppose you'd call it high-function
autism in that he can function on, you know, a day-to-day basis, in a kind of
rudimentary way. But he has a serious difficulty with life in that he really
doesn't empathize with other human beings. He can't read their faces. He
can't put himself in their shoes. And he can't understand anything more than
the literal meaning of whatever's said to him, although I'm very careful in
the book not to actually use the word `Asperger's' or `autism.'
GROSS: Why not?
Mr. HADDON: Because I don't want him to be labeled, and because, as with most
people who have a disability, I don't think it's necessarily the most
important thing about him. He's obsessed with mathematics. That's one of the
little hobbies he has. It's one of the ways he manages to pattern and
organize his daily life and keep chaos at bay. And as a good friend of mine
said after reading the book, a friend who is himself a mathematician, it's not
a novel about a boy who has Asperger's syndrome; it's a novel about a young
mathematician who has some strange behavioral problems. And I think that's
GROSS: Because he sees the world in a very literal way and hears conversation
in a very literal way, he doesn't understand jokes. He doesn't get irony. He
doesn't understand human emotions. He has no real empathy for other people.
What are the things that really scare him because they're so incomprehensible?
Mr. HADDON: Because he can't put himself in other people's shoes, he doesn't
really understand what other people are going to do, and other people are
therefore extremely unpredictable. He likes his life to be safe and ordered.
He's never gone farther than the end of his own road without someone to keep
him company, so his life is very small and circumscribed. And it's things
that threaten to wreck that pattern, it's change and difference and chaos
which really terrify him.
GROSS: He hates being touched. He can become violent when he's touched.
Mr. HADDON: He does indeed. Yeah.
GROSS: Is that pretty typical of somebody with autism or with Asperger's
Mr. HADDON: I think it's fairly common, although a lot of people said to me,
`He seemed like a very real character. Did you do a lot of research?' And I
have to say honestly that I did more research about the London Underground and
the inside of Swinton Railway Station, where some of the novel takes place,
than I did about Asperger's syndrome. I gave him kind of nine or 10 rules
that he would live his life by, and then I didn't read any more about
Asperger's because I think there is no typical person who has Asperger's
syndrome, and they're as large and diverse a group of people as any other
group in society. And the important thing is that I did a lot of imagining,
that I did a lot of putting myself into his shoes in trying to make him come
alive as a human being rather than getting him right, whatever that might
GROSS: You know, that's an interesting exercise for you because what you were
doing is putting yourself through the exercise of having empathy for a boy
who, because of his problems, can't empathize with other people.
Mr. HADDON: That's true, and I realized very shortly after I started writing
the book that the whole thing was littered with, you know, paradoxes. On the
surface it's a very, very simple book, partly because his voice is a very,
very, very simple voice. And yet you're right. It needs a lot of empathy to
write a character who has no empathy. Another paradox is that he says he
can't tell lies; he needs to tell the truth all the time. And he always tries
to do this, and yet somehow he always gets things wrong. We read the novel
over his shoulder saying, `You've got this wrong. You've got that wrong.'
And we can see more than him. He's a very unreliable narrator.
And perhaps for me the biggest paradox of all is that you'd think someone like
Christopher, who can't empathize, who can't understand anything more than
literal meaning, who can't see the bigger picture, would be a really bad
narrator for a novel, and yet it's a wonderful, wonderful voice to write a
novel in because it helps you avoid the pitfalls that so many novels fall
into. He never explains anything. He never tries to make up the reader's
mind one way or the other about anything because he has no real idea of there
being a reader out there.
GROSS: Now your main character, who is autistic, doesn't read novels.
Although he's the narrator in your novel, he has a great deal of difficulty
comprehending fiction. And there's a short excerpt I'd like you to read about
Mr. HADDON: (Reading) `Mostly I read books about science and maths. I do not
like proper novels. In proper novels people say things like, "I am veined
with iron, with silver and with streaks of common mud. I cannot contract into
the firm fist which those clench who do not depend on stimulus." I found this
in a book in the library in town when Mother took me into town once. What
does this mean? I do not know.'
GROSS: Where does this quote come from? Is this something that you made up
to sound as obtuse as he finds metaphors as being?
Mr. HADDON: Funnily enough, it's actually a quote from Virginia Woolf. It's
Virginia Woolf on an off day, in the middle, I think, of "The Waves." An
author whom I love actually, but who sometimes got a little too carried away.
GROSS: Wow. That's really terrible. That's totally incomprehensible and
terrible, but that's your idea of how all fiction reads to him.
Mr. HADDON: Yes. Certainly.
GROSS: One of the things you had to imagine is what it would be like for
Christopher to, for the first time, get on a subway by himself and go to
London, where he's never been, to find his mother. So he's coming from, like,
a suburb of London to London, and it's like "The Odyssey" for him. So maybe
you could just describe how you imagined, for instance, the subway, you know,
the train looking from his point of view.
Mr. HADDON: As we all know when we visit a strange city, particularly in a
foreign country, you're bombarded with information and noise and sights and
sounds in these places. And for someone like Christopher, who sees everything
around him and attempts to understand it all, it's completely overwhelming.
Although I have to say that strange as Christopher is, this experience isn't so
alien. I think one of the reasons when we read about it that we understand it
is because it's an extreme version of something we've all experienced at some
time or other in our lives.
GROSS: What did you most empathize with about Christopher and his confusion?
Mr. HADDON: Of all the parts of Christopher that I empathized with, I have to
say it's not the confusion that I empathize with most; it's the mathematics.
I don't know whether we've said yet, but the book is peppered with little
maths questions and maths puzzles and diagrams because he is very good at
maths and obsessed with maths, and he uses it as a way of blocking out the
world sometimes in the way that many of us use crosswords or other kinds of
puzzles. And that's pretty much like myself. I very nearly did mathematics
at university. And even now, after I've had a month or two of novel writing,
I get a yearning for numbers again and go back to working on maths for a week
or so. So all the maths in the book came straight out of my head, and that is
the part of Christopher that is unadulteratedly me.
GROSS: That's funny 'cause I thought you were going to say that you often
felt so confused by the world and by people's emotions and their response to
you in the same way, or in a different way, than he does. But that's not it,
Mr. HADDON: No. I really love interacting with other people, and in that
sense I'm very, very different from Christopher. But this is one of the
ironies about Christopher. If we talk about Christopher as a whole--everyone
talks about Asperger's syndrome and autism and talks about him as a kid with a
disability, and yet every single little oddity of his behavior I have taken
from someone that I know who doesn't have that label, who is not called a
disabled person, who's not labeled with Asperger's or autism. You know, he
has a little habit for determining whether a day is going to be an unlucky day
or a lucky day. You know, I know someone who does that. He has a habit of
disliking foods that are yellow or brown. I know someone else who's like
that. And someone else who can't eat foods if different food types are
actually touching on their plate. And all of these people are, you know,
quote, "normal," unquotes, people. But it's only when we put these things
together that I find I've got a portrait of a person that we call disabled.
GROSS: Do you know somebody who can't comprehend jokes because they take
Mr. HADDON: I know a few.
Mr. HADDON: I know a few of those people, and I certainly know a few
people--and to be honest, most of these people tend to be either scientific or
academic people, people who can't really do conversation with others, people
who find it very hard to listen to what the other person is saying to them,
because they're so worried about what they're going to say next that they're
concentrating on that.
DAVIES: Christopher Haddon, speaking with Terry Gross. His novel, "The
Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" is out in paperback. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Christopher Haddon is the author of the new novel "The Curious
Incident of the Dog in the Night-time." It's told from the point of view of a
15-year-old boy who has a type of high-functioning autism.
GROSS: Now I've read that you worked with people who had autism. Is that
Mr. HADDON: That's true. After university, I spent a few years working with
both children and adults with a variety of physical and mental handicaps.
GROSS: What--yeah, go ahead.
Mr. HADDON: The irony is that even at the time, autism was a fairly kind of
loose and conjectural diagnosis, and it's only now looking back that I realize
that some of those people were autistic. Although I have to say all of them
were much more severely disabled than Christopher is.
GROSS: What was your job?
Mr. HADDON: I had a variety of jobs. My first job when I left university was
to work as a live-in volunteer with a young man who was crippled with multiple
sclerosis, and he needed constant, constant attention. And two of us lived in
his house and did 24 hours on, 24 hours off looking after him. And from
there, I moved down to London and did a series of part-time jobs helping with
kids and adults, both in training centers and at home in their families.
GROSS: What got you into that work?
Mr. HADDON: What got me into that work was spending three years at Oxford
University and feeling that I'd kind of eaten too much birthday cake and I
needed some kind of compensation to set myself right again. I'd had three
years of, you know, hard work, but in a fairly luxurious setting in which, you
know, if you're a student at a prestigious university, you're kind of the
center of attention there and you think you're pretty important. It was
really nice to go out there and do what I thought of at the time as a proper
job in which I was helping other people for a change. And I really felt it
restored some kind of inner balance to my life.
GROSS: I'm thinking that you might have learned a lot of things about
yourself by working with people with disabilities, because since some of those
disabilities were cognitive, you might have had to change things about
yourself in order to communicate to them in a non-threatening way.
Mr. HADDON: Funnily enough, I think I've learned more about myself by being a
writer. I mean, the nice thing about working with people with disabilities is
that you don't think about yourself. You know, you have to be patient, you
have to think about someone else all the time.
GROSS: No, no. But that requires thinking about yourself, and particularly
if you're not patient. You know, that would be like an immediate diagnosis
there: `I am not patient, therefore I have to learn how to be patient.'
Mr. HADDON: Well, I can be quite a patient person, so I quite enjoyed doing
that. But I think the time when I really started to learn about myself is the
hours on end you have to spend as a writer just thinking quietly in a room on
your own. And I think actually for many people, that would be a harder thing
than working with people with disabilities, being in your own company that
GROSS: You know, the story is written from Christopher's point of view, but
reading it, you can't help wonder about how difficult it must be for
Christopher's parents, because there's such a burden on them to make the world
manageable for him and to give so much of their time to creating a manageable
world for him. And the parents aren't getting along; they're having problems
themselves. Some of those problems are because of differences in opinion
about how to deal with Christopher. So even though Christopher has no
empathy, as a reader, you have to start to thinking about what it must be like
to be one of his parents.
Mr. HADDON: That's true. And although I said earlier that there would be no
right depiction of someone with Asperger's because people with Asperger's are
a huge and varied group, having met a lot of parents of kids with
disabilities, I think there is a kind of general picture of what happens in
many, many families who have a child like Christopher. And as I said to
someone recently, it's probably very similar to having a child who's special
in other ways as well, a child who's peculiarly gifted. Again and again I've
seen families where one parent--and it's usually the mother--devotes their
life to looking after this child. And that child becomes their life project,
and the other parent feels pushed to one side and as if they have no role.
And I've seen many, many families break up for precisely that reason.
It causes other problems as well in that, as the child grows older and wants
to become an adult, you find that the parent who's given their life to looking
after them has a vested interest in them staying as a child, and that causes
GROSS: Mark, do you have a dog?
Mr. HADDON: No, I don't. I have one cat, and that's all.
GROSS: Oh. Because I was thinking that the idea of a dead animal might be
particularly upsetting to you.
Mr. HADDON: It does. And, in fact, I am a vegetarian, and on the whole, I'm
very kind to animals. But I have a rather sort of dark English sense of
humor. And when I wrote that first page with the dog impaled on the fork, I
found it quite funny. But I found it quite funny only if I described it in
this flat, emotionless, toneless voice, which I really liked and which, over
the next few pages, became Christopher's voice.
GROSS: What did you like about that flat, toneless voice?
Mr. HADDON: What I like about it is perhaps best explained by saying if you
hear a really good comedian--a really good comedian is funny because they
don't laugh at their own jokes. And the converse is true, as well. If
someone's telling a very sad story, it's somehow sadder and more moving if
they're not moved by it. That stops it becoming sentimental, and that's what
I really liked about Christopher's voice. It's both funny, because he doesn't
seem to understand why it's funny, and it's more moving because he doesn't
really understand why things are sad that are happening around him, and that
stops the whole thing becoming sentimental.
GROSS: Why don't you read that opening paragraph that Christopher narrates
about the dog?
Mr. HADDON: (Reading) `It was seven minutes after midnight. The dog was
lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs. Shears' house.
Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side the way dogs
run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not
running or asleep; the dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of
the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog
and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the
dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds
in the dog. And I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after
it had died for some other reason, like cancer, for example, or a road
accident, but I could not be certain about this.'
GROSS: Yeah. Part of his mind seems to be, like, your forensics mind and the
other part seems to be just kind of loopy and not really very intuitive at
Mr. HADDON: True.
GROSS: I guess that leads me to think, like, how do you size up a mysterious
and shocking situation when you see it? Where do you look for clues, and what
do you make of it? And he's both approaching it in a very logical, forensics
kind of way and he's also thinking strange thoughts like, `I don't think you
would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason
like cancer or a road accident.' I mean, that's true. That's kind of
unarguable, but it's a kind of strange thing to be thinking.
Mr. HADDON: It's a very strange thing to be thinking, and I think that's why
I found the voice so funny. Although I have to say that there seems to be
another aspect of Christopher's voice, because he doesn't try to push the
reader one way or the other trying to make them feel this or that about what
he's said or what's he's seen. Some people have read the book and wept their
whole way through it and found the whole thing sad and the ending sad, and
other people I've talked to have found it very funny the whole way through,
so that people have completely different reactions to the same book.
GROSS: Mark Haddon, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. HADDON: Thank you.
DAVIES: Christopher Haddon is the author of the new novel "The Curious
Incident of the Dog in the Night-time." It's out in paper, and it's been on
The New York Times Best-Seller list for 48 weeks. It's also a favorite on
many summer reading lists.
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Coming up, "The Hills Have Jazz." That's the title of a new
recording from Eugene Chadbourne. Kevin Whitehead has a review. Also, a
conversation with the original Batman creator, Bob Kane, and classical music
critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new CD of Stephen Sondheim's private demos.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New CDs "Pork Chop Blue Around the Rind" by Fast 'n'
Bulbous and "The Hills Have Jazz" by Eugene Chadbourne
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
Two guitarists revisit their roots on two new records. On one, Gary Lucas
plays the music from his old boss, avant-rock guru Captain Beefheart. On the
other, Eugene Chadbourne digs into vintage jazz tunes. Jazz critic Kevin
Whitehead reviews each.
(Soundbite of "When Big Joan Sets Up")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD reporting:
"When Big Joan Sets Up," played by New York's Captain Beefheart revival band
Fast 'n' Bulbous. Few composers anywhere combine intricate textures and
offbeat dance rhythms as deftly as Beefheart, who left music long ago to
devote full-time to his other career as the semiabstract painter Don Van
Vliet. No one does Beefheart quite like Beefheart, but his pieces are so
roughly elegant, it's good someone's playing them, especially with his old
guitarist Gary Lucas on hand to ensure the tricky lines and counterlines and
cross-rhythms spring to light.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Gary Lucas' co-leader in Fast 'n' Bulbous is saxophonist Phillip
Johnston, who arranged the parts for four horns, including baritone
saxophonist Dave Sewelson from his old Microscopic Septet, the group that
recorded FRESH AIR's theme. With the horn section often playing Beefheart's
vocal lines in blurry unison, there are moments that suggest the Van Vliet
University marching band. But some soloists stamp the material, like
free-jazz and Latin trombonist Joe Fiedler on "When it Blows its Stacks."
More important, the rhythm section makes the tricky bits swing.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: The band Fast 'n' Bulbous played the first of its occasional hits
almost three years before they recorded the CD "Pork Chop Blue Around the
Rind" for Cuneiform. The players still sound like they're growing into the
concept. Fitting into eccentric material custom-tailored to its creator isn't
easy, but a CD leads to more gigs and more growth, so count on their Beefheart
treatments to get even better.
(Soundbite of music)
WHITEHEAD: Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the amazingly good North Carolina
guitarist Eugene Chadbourne, who likes to demolish rock and country music,
revisited some jazz tunes that helped inspire him. The composers include Tadd
Dameron, Eric Dolphy and Sun Ra. Chadbourne's diverse collaborators include a
guitarist he just played with for the first time, drummer Richie West,
formerly of the band Camper Van Beethoven, and jazz harmonica maverick Bill
(Soundbite of "Heavy Spirits")
WHITEHEAD: Oliver Lake's composition "Heavy Spirits" from Eugene Chadbourne's
CD "The Hills Have Jazz" on Boxholder. The Lake and Roscoe Mitchell pieces
here date from the 1970s, when the avant-garde knew how to be intense and
quiet, an aesthetic seldom espoused by guitarists who like to crank it up.
Chadbourne and company take a refreshingly low-key approach, finding their own
way into this stuff and creating their own musical space, as on a slow-motion
version of "Miles Mode" by John Coltrane. That's Chadbourne on banjo.
(Soundbite of "Miles Mode")
WHITEHEAD: Eugene Chadbourne has made a gazillion differently recorded or
produced CDs, LPs and cassettes through the years, but "The Hills Have Jazz,"
despite the pointedly ugly cover art, is one of his more refined efforts. For
a guy who once led a band called Shockabilly, it's almost delicate--almost.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American studies at the
University of Kansas and is a jazz columnist for EMusic.com.
Coming up, the origins of Batman. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Bob Kane discusses his inspirations for creating the
(Soundbite of 1949 "Batman" movie serial)
Unidentified Man #1: Batman! Robin!
Unidentified Man #2: (As Batman) That's right. We're after some jewel
thieves, but our car's been disabled. Can we use yours?
Unidentified Man #1: Sure, hop in.
Unidentified Man #2: No, I meant we'll take yours and you stay here with
ours. There might be trouble.
Unidentified Man #1: Well, trouble don't bother me none. But if that's the
way you feel about it, take her and welcome.
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Pretty wooden for superheroes, huh? Apparently one of Batman's special gifts
was the ability to survive even the clunkiest portrayal, like that 1949 movie
serial. Now Batman is back in theaters.
(Soundbite of "Batman Begins")
Mr. LIAM NEESON: (As Henri Ducard) A vigilante is just a man lost in the
scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed, locked up. But if
you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal,
and if they can't stop you, then you become something else entirely.
Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Bruce Wayne) Which is?
Mr. NEESON: (As Ducard) A legend, Mr. Wayne.
DAVIES: Liam Neeson and Christian Bale in "Batman Begins." Neeson plays
mentor to Bale's Batman.
Batman was created 66 years ago by Bob Kane. Over the years he's watched the
Caped Crusader's continuing adventures with alternate pride and horror. Kane
created Batman in 1939 and continued drawing him for DC Comics until 1966, the
year the "Batman" TV series debuted. When he gave up drawing Batman comics,
he started painting Batman on canvas. Kane died in 1998. In 1990, he told
Terry Gross that the idea of creating a new superhero was initiated by Kane's
editor at DC Comics.
(Soundbite of 1990 interview)
Mr. BOB KANE (Batman Creator): Well, I was having lunch with the editor at
that time, Vincent Sullivan, and he said he was looking for another superhero.
Actually, Superman was created in 1938, and the period when I spoke to Vincent
Sullivan was 1939; it was about a year later. And prior to that, I was doing
fill-in cartoons for DC Comics and making maybe 20, $25 a week, and I asked
Vincent Sullivan how much money the Superman artists were making, Siegel and
Schuster. He said they were making $800 a week apiece. Now in 1938, that was
comparable to about $5,000 a week today. And I was kind of a poor kid from
the Bronx looking to, you know, get wealthy and famous, so I said, `Hey, for
that kind of money, I could create a superhero.'
So I went home that weekend and I drew upon some of my early influences. And
as I recall, I was 18 at the time, but when I was 13 years old, I saw a book
by Leonardo da Vinci, the book of inventions, and he had one book with a
flying machine, an ornithopter, and it was a man on a sled with huge bat
wings. And even Leonardo had a quote on that particular invention; it was the
first man in flight, the first glider, actually. And the quote was "Your bird
shall have no other model but that of a bat." And it kind of initiated an
idea to me about a bat-man, and that was when I was 13 years old.
So that weekend, I drew upon that influence. And there were movies I used to
be influenced by as a kid, one called "The Mark of Zorro: The Dual Identity"
with Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and that gave me my second influence. During the
day he was a bored count and a Southern Californian in the 1880s, and at night
he became a crusader fighting against the injustices of the dictatorship at
TERRY GROSS, host:
Why did you make Batman someone without superpowers? I mean, he was a regular
mortal who was very fit and very clever, but he didn't really have superpowers
like Superman did.
Mr. KANE: Exactly. For one thing, I didn't want to emulate Superman and
imitate it because I thought maybe they wouldn't want that. And I wanted to
come up with something original, for one thing. And secondly, I felt that
every person that doesn't have superpowers could relate to Batman a lot easier
than they could to Superman. In other words, you didn't have to come from
another planet to be a superhero; all you had to do was be born rich and build
your body into perfection and have the urge to go out and fight crime. So
most people liked the idea that Batman never had superpowers; they can relate
to him a lot quicker than to a superhero with superpowers.
GROSS: Now you say that his look, Batman's look, was inspired in part by the
Zorro movie that you liked so much. Now you were, when you were young, in a
gang called the Crusading Zorros, and you used to wear hooded masks. What was
the connection between the Crusading Zorros that you were a member of as a kid
in the Bronx and...
Mr. KANE: Yeah.
GROSS: ...the Batman look?
Mr. KANE: Well, to begin with, we wore the--Zorro wore a mask at night to
hide his identity so that the desperados that he would apprehend wouldn't know
him during the day if they saw him; therefore, they couldn't retaliate. And
when I was a kid and living in the Bronx, we had these clubs, these--that we
would all band together to protect ourselves against rival gangs in other
neighborhoods. It was pretty tough in the Bronx at that time. And so we wore
Zorro masks to hide our identities when we would raid one of the rivals' clubs
and kind of beat up on them. And therefore, if they wanted to retaliate,
Terry, they wouldn't know who to apprehend because we wore the masks of Zorro.
It was a dual identity, so to speak.
GROSS: You tell a terrific story in your book "Batman & Me" about how, when
you were young and in this gang, the Crusading Zorros, that, you know, you
weren't wearing your costume this day and you were being pursued by a rival
gang called the Vultures.
Mr. KANE: Yeah.
GROSS: And at one point, before they really beat the heck out of you, at one
point you thought that you had overcome them. What was the feeling like then?
And I'm wondering if you felt like a superhero for that brief moment when you
thought you had outwitted them.
Mr. KANE: Yeah. Well, you see, I was heading toward my neighborhood and we
had a lumberyard that we used to play out in with a lot of nooks and crannies,
and I knew it very well. And somehow, that early evening, none of my gang
members were around to join me in the fight, and so I jumped over the fence
and kind of hid in some of the nooks and crannies until they caught up with
Well, then I remembered Zorro's derring-do deeds of jumping around when he
fought the desperadoes in the Spanish West, and so I started to climb shafts
of lumber, and when I arrived on the highest part of the lumberyard, the
highest shafts, I felt like I was King Kong atop the Empire State Building and
I started thrusting these shafts of lumber down on the Vultures who were below
in the lumberyard. And then I started swinging around on the pulleys, and I
really felt for a moment victorious because I had the advantage for quite a
while because I knew the lumberyard and they didn't.
But then I fell off, one of the shafts of lumber cascaded down around me when
I landed on it, and I fell to the ground, and that's when they all attacked
me. There were about six of them, and they really beat up on me pretty badly.
They broke my arm and a couple of my front teeth, and then they crushed my
knuckles on my right hand, the drawing hand. And actually this injury
inadvertently kept me out of the service in World War II, although I enlisted
in the Navy after Pearl Harbor. But I have kind of partial use of my drawing
hand, and I have two porcelain jackets that remind me of that ominous day in
the lumberyard when I was a young and reckless boy growing up in the Bronx.
GROSS: Now here you were, a Jewish kid growing up in the Bronx, right? And
your superhero is named Bruce Wayne. I mean, what a very not-Jewish name.
Mr. KANE: Well, it's an alliteration of Bob Kane.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
Mr. KANE: Bruce Wayne.
GROSS: Well, I mean...
Mr. KANE: Alliteration. I wanted it to sound--I wanted to be Bruce Wayne in
my reverie and in my daydreams. I felt, instead of a poor kid, I imagined I'd
like to be a rich playboy and fight crime at night because I hate all
injustices in the world. And...
GROSS: Would it have been possible to have made a Jewish superhero, or was
that out of the question at the time?
Mr. KANE: Well, only for the Jewish Forward, which is a newspaper in the
Mr. KANE: But that's the only paper that would take a Jewish hero.
GROSS: Tell me why you decided to draw Batman in tights and shorts. Now I
know Superman was drawn that way.
Mr. KANE: (Laughs) Well, actually it's called a union suit character. And
for whatever reason, Superman started it and it seemed to work, and mine was
second, except I used a Batcape and the bat symbols, the bat mystique, which
spread out into the Batcave, the Batmobile, the Baterang and so forth. I used
the entire bat mystique to create my bat-world. Superman only had a telephone
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KANE: So mine is really more merchandisable, so to speak...
Mr. KANE: ...and also more mysterioso, yeah. Somehow you enhance an idea.
You begin with it, it's just a germ of an idea, and as I studied the history
of comics in America, all the comics heroes were very crude at the beginning
and they developed along the way. Like Dick Tracy didn't have a two-way
wristwatch when he started; that came along later.
DAVIES: Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, recorded in 1990. He died in 1998.
Coming up, Sondheim sings Sondheim. This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: New CD of Stephen Sondheim's private demo recordings
DAVE DAVIES, host:
"Sondheim Sings: Volume 1" is a collection of demo recordings from Stephen
Sondheim's private archives. It spanned the years 1962 to 1972 and includes
Sondheim singing such songs as "Losing My Mind," "Send In The Clowns" and
"Broadway Baby." Music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review.
(Soundbite of "Broadway Baby")
Mr. STEPHEN SONDHEIM: (Singing) I'm just a Broadway baby walking on my tired
feet, pounding 42nd Street to be in a show. Broadway baby, learning how to
sing and dance, waiting for that one big chance to be in a show. Gee, I'd
LLOYD SCHWARTZ reporting:
With a few exceptions, most songwriters aren't particularly good singers. But
we want to hear composers singing their own songs because they convey
subtleties of meaning and feeling we don't always hear from better vocalists.
About his own singing, Stephen Sondheim said, `For those of you who have not
had the pleasure of hearing my voice before, I tend to sing very loud, usually
off-pitch, and always right in keys that are just out of my range.
(Soundbite of "Losing My Mind")
Mr. SONDHEIM: (Singing) The sun comes up; I think about you. The coffee
cup--I think about you. I love this song. It's like I'm losing my mind. The
morning ends; I think about you. I talk to friends; I think about you. And
do they know, it's like I'm losing my mind. All afternoon, doing every little
chore, the thought of you stays bright. Sometimes I stand in the middle of
the floor, not going left, not going right. I dim the lights and think about
you, spend sleepless nights to think about you. You said you loved me, or
were you just being kind? Or am I losing my mind?
SCHWARTZ: It's especially revealing to hear early versions of passages that
Sondheim later changed. For example, in "Losing My Mind," he sings, `I love
you so, it's like I'm losing my mind.' But by the time "Follies" opened,
Sondheim had changed `I love you so' to `I want you so.' It's a subtle
change. His character is being driven crazy less by frustrated affection than
by frustrated desire. The final version is more powerful because it's less
romantic, less sentimental.
There are also unusual songs that never made it into the shows for which they
were intended. Here's the almost melancholy "Invocation," which was replaced
by the more suitably upbeat, playful "Comedy Tonight" as the opening number of
the farcical "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."
(Soundbite of "Invocation")
Mr. SONDHEIM: (Singing) Gods of the theater, smile on us. You who sit up
there stern in judgment, smile on us. You who look down on actors--And who
doesn't?--bless our little company and smile on us. Think not about deep
concerns. Think not about dark dilemmas. We offer you rites and revels.
Smile on us for a while. Gods of the theater, smile on us.
SCHWARTZ: Many of the songs on this collection are dark, even bitter in tone.
So it's a treat to hear the relish, the breathless energy and speed with which
Sondheim tears into the hilarious "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid," also from
(Soundbite of "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid")
Mr. SONDHEIM: (Singing) Everybody ought to have a maid. Everybody ought to
have a working girl. Everybody ought to have a lurking girl to putter 'round
the house. Everybody ought to have a maid. Everybody ought to have a menial,
consistently congenial, quieter than a mouse. Oh, oh, wouldn't you be
delicious, tidying up the dishes, neat as a pin? Oh, oh, wouldn't you be
delightful sweeping out, sleeping in? Everybody ought to have a maid, someone
who, when fetching you your slipper, will be winsome as a whippoorwill and
graceful as a grouse, fluttering up the stairway, shuttering up the windows,
cluttering up the bedroom, buttering up the master, puttering all around the
SCHWARTZ: There was a TV documentary in which Sondheim was coaching young
British singers. His advice was extremely precise and pointed about
character, musical phrasing, attention to verbal nuance and invocation. His
demonstrations really made the young performers better, smarter, more
efficient. At one point, he introduced what he called `a medley of my
greatest hits,' "Send In The Clowns." He wanted the young singers to
underplay, which is just what he himself does.
(Soundbite of "Send In The Clowns")
Mr. SONDHEIM: (Singing) Isn't it rich? Are we a pair? Me here at last on
the ground, you in midair. Send in the clowns. Isn't it bliss? Don't you
approve? One who keeps tearing around, one who can't move. Where are the
clowns? Send in the clowns. Just when I'd stopped...
SCHWARTZ: Sondheim, of course, is famous for his wit, his intelligence, his
musical subtlety. But many of us who love his scores love them for their
cutting honesty and depth of feeling. I'm reminded a little of T.S. Eliot
and his most famously intimidating poem "The Wasteland." People are daunted
by its complex frames of reference. Yet when you listen to Eliot's recording
of "The Wasteland," it's not the literary labyrinths, but the poet's
underlying sadness and droll humor that hit you. Stephen Sondheim has been
the most serious poet of the American musical and among the funniest. It's
great to hear him illuminate this lost material in his own voice.
DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz teaches English and creative writing at the University
of Massachusetts-Boston and is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix.
He reviewed "Sondheim Sings: Volume 1" on the PS Classics label.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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