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A Girl And Her Dog: Reichardt On 'Wendy And Lucy'
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in this week for Terry Gross. The new film, "Wendy and Lucy," directed and co-written by my guest, Kelly Reichardt, won the Best Picture Award from the Toronto Film Critics Association and has been getting great reviews. The film centers on misfortunes that befall a woman traveling with her dog to find work in Alaska. Wendy is played by Michelle Williams, who earned an Oscar nomination for her role in "Brokeback Mountain." Wendy's dog, Lucy, is Reichardt's own endearing mutt. Kelly Reichardt teaches film and electronic arts at Bard College and has directed five previous films, including "River of Grass" and "Old Joy."
In this scene from "Wendy and Lucy," Wendy talks with a security guard played by Wally Dalton.
Ms. MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (As Wendy) How late are you here tonight?
Mr. WALLY DALTON: (As Security Guard) Eight o'clock, eight to eight.
Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Wendy) OK.
Mr. DALTON: (As Security Guard) Better than my last job, I'll tell you that. That was all night every night.
Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Wendy) Not a lot of jobs around here, huh?
Mr. DALTON: (As Security Guard) I'll say. I don't know what the people do all day. Used to be a mill, but it's been closed a long time now. Don't know what they do.
Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Wendy) Can't get a job without an address, anyway - or a phone.
Mr. DALTON: (As Security Guard) You can't get an address without an address. You can't get a job without a job. It's all fixed.
Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Wendy) That's why I'm going to Alaska. I hear they need people.
Mr. DALTON: (As Security Guard) I hear it's real pretty up there.
Ms. WILLIAMS: (As Wendy) Yeah.
DAVIES: Well, Kelly Reichardt, welcome to Fresh Air. In this film, "Wendy and Lucy," we follow this woman Wendy, played by Michelle Williams, who is traveling alone - well, with her dog, Lucy - and runs into a rough patch. She's headed to Alaska, and the car breaks down in a town in Oregon.
You know, the interesting thing about the film is that we don't learn very much about Wendy's life and history, how she came to be in this predicament. And I wondered, in order to direct Michelle Williams in the role, did there need to be a back story in your head? I mean, did you have a fuller biography of Wendy that you shared with Michelle Williams?
Ms. KELLY REICHARDT (Director and Co-Writer, "Wendy and Lucy"): She did want a fuller biography, and the screenplay came from a short story by Jon Raymond, and the short story was called "Train Choir." And the "Train Choir" had a bit more background in it also. And so we used that, and we sort of filled in the blanks ourselves, Michelle and I, so that she would have something to work with.
But the idea in the film, for me, was that I wanted the audience to experience her like a stranger, the way the people she comes across in the film experience her so that you, you know, you sort of have to make this judgment call without having a lot of facts about her. You know, is she worthy of your sympathy just based on what you know or what you don't know?
Ms. REICHARDT: I guess in the way that, you know, if you live in New York City, the way you maybe experience someone on a subway train asking for help or something like that, where, you know, you check them out and you make quick decisions based on really superficial things - what kind of sneakers are you wearing, are you really in need, are you in need enough? Whatever your thought process is in that moment.
DAVIES: She's also making judgments at every moment herself because she's on her own and has to decide how much she can trust people.
Ms. REICHARDT: Yes, and she makes some bad decisions, as people do. You know, that - I guess the whole story sort of came about in just post-Katrina, where there seemed to be more than ever this sentiment of, you know, people shouldn't let their lives get quite so precarious, and you know, they wouldn't find themselves in this situation.
And so, as the sort of gap between the rich and the poor was becoming wider, you know, during the Bush years, I think, you know, Jon Raymond and I were just asking ourselves when we were coming up with an idea for the story, just is it really possible to pull yourself up from your bootstraps in America if you don't have the benefit of health insurance, education, a financial net, a family net? Can you just - is all you need is the gumption and an idea to get out and do something differently to better your circumstances, is that really enough? And so that sort of was the nugget that we started with.
DAVIES: And what's intriguing about it is that as we watch the film, we get clues, but we don't really know whether she had advantages of family or education or whether she has a lot of gumption. We're not exactly sure how she's ended up where she is.
Ms. REICHARDT: Well, we know she at least has the wherewithal to - we know she's setting out to the canneries in Alaska, and so we know that she at least looked around wherever she was, didn't see opportunity, and you know, following great mythology, you know, went West to better her situation.
DAVIES: You know, there are a lot of scenes in this film without dialogue, and Michelle Williams does this wonderful job of conveying so much with gesture and expression. Was there something about her and her previous performances that just - that you thought might make her a good fit for this role?
Ms. REICHARDT: Well, certainly, seeing her in "Brokeback Mountain," you know, is what - like I think a lot of people that were just really taken back by that performance made me want to go see everything else she had done. And one thing I was really looking for was someone that could be really still and have something come through them that wasn't dead, that was alive. And I did see that she had that, and I just felt that I really believed her in everything I saw her in.
DAVIES: Talk a little bit about the look that - you know, the dress, the haircut.
Ms. REICHARDT: Oh, I love it if you don't ask me that question because I kind of...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHARDT: I just - I can't even talk about it. I just - it all felt like such a - really, a non-decision in a way. I really - I'm terrible. I always let the look of the lead actress get by me, and then, you know, the day before we shoot, I'm - every film I've made, the day before we shoot I'm at thrift stores with the actors or going through their luggage trying to find their outfits. I'm very neglectful in that way.
DAVIES: So you put the rest of it together, and then somehow that just...
Ms. REICHARDT: I hate thinking about clothes, and so it just keeps getting pushed off. And I don't know why it is exactly, but you know, the main thing I knew is that I didn't want her to be clean or kept, and she agreed, one of the first things I wanted her to agree to, aside from, you know, coming to do my movie for free, which she agreed to, not shower during the course of the film, which, you know, she was allowed to rinse off, but she wasn't allowed to wash her hair, or you know, clean her fingernails or - she was supposed to be living in a car. And surprisingly, she was completely game for that.
And then Will Oldham, who's in the first scene at the fire scene - he plays one of the gutter punk kids - he showed up on set having not showered for two weeks to get into his part, was something - I didn't even ask him to do that. But the two of them were a very ripe pair. We were shooting - you guys go stand over there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: Fortunately filmed outside in the main. It's interesting, though, because people have commented a lot on the look of Michelle Williams in this film. She wears sort of knee-length cutoffs and kind of a bob of a haircut. And you say she didn't shower for what, 18 days that you shot the film?
Ms. REICHARDT: Yeah - she - she could rinse off at night, but she wasn't allowed to shampoo or scrub up. That was the - or wear any makeup. And she seemed really liberated to not have to go to hair and makeup every day. And so, I was thinking that that would be a big hump to get over, but she said yes almost before I could complete the question.
DAVIES: There's also this interesting phenomena of, you know, Michelle Williams, who then was, you know, one of the - a pretty recognizable Hollywood star, I assume traveling around pretty anonymously with this small film shooting crew. And you know, this is - of course, this was made before Heath Ledger died, right? But she had - she had been in this relationship with him, and that had gotten her all kinds of publicity and attention, probably a lot of it unwelcome. I wonder what the experience was like for her to sort of play this anonymous character?
Ms. REICHARDT: She has always said that one thing that attracted her to the character is that she felt Wendy really feels invisible in the world, and she really wondered what that would be like. And so, you know, when she came to Portland because we don't have - you know, we're just so small. We're a group of cars on the side of the road, we're not - we don't have trailers and tents and all that sort of apparatus - she - I never saw Michelle get recognized while we were there. And I think it had to do with, you know, she would just be sitting on the curb not looking like a movie star. And I really do think that she got to have that experience.
DAVIES: There's a scene early in the film where Wendy meets up around a campfire with a group of people that are just traveling, living on the margin, gutter punks, I think was the phrase you used.
Ms. REICHARDT: That is the phrase. They're kids who - there's quite a huge network of young people living off the grid. And these kids, they're homeless, and they travel all over the country, and they travel by trains, and they - it's dangerous post-9/11 to be hopping trains, but they do it. And I think Portland, where we were, is a place where maybe you - there is a community there, and you maybe stop there for a while, and you know, lick your wounds before setting back out.
But we had a local casting man in Portland named Simon Max Hill, who really just made the scene with these kids and brought them in so I could meet them. And you know, it's forever evolving and changing because they're in motion and they don't stick around for long. So he actually had a few kids living at his house near the end just to keep them in town, but...
DAVIES: Just to be clear, these were not actors, in other words.
Ms. REICHARDT: No, they're not actors. They're just kids living in various places and traveling around on trains, but mostly outdoor places where they were living.
DAVIES: Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kelly Reichardt, who directed and co-wrote the new film, "Wendy and Lucy."
The film is shot in Oregon, which is where your - I guess your co-screen writer and the fellow who wrote the short story - Jon...
Ms. REICHARDT: Jon Raymond.
DAVIES: Jon Raymond lives, but you said he drove all over the place looking for the right setting for the film.
Ms. REICHARDT: I did. I don't know, I - looking back, I guess it must be part of my process. I mean, I drive country back and forth when I'm - I teach during the school year. When school's out, I usually drive out to Oregon or drive down to California. And I've always been doing that, but with "Old Joy" and with "Wendy and Lucy," I spent a lot of time checking out - with "Old Joy," which has a scene in hot springs, I drove all over the country looking at every swimming hole and every hot spring there was to be had and then ultimately shot in the exact place Jon Raymond had written for.
And then with "Wendy and Lucy," I just didn't think I wanted to shoot in Portland again. Even though it had been a great experience, I just wanted the film to have a very different feel to it. And so, I - you know, I scouted all over the place, this time not walking through forest or looking at beautiful hot springs, but this time, you know, the film takes place in parking lots and public bathrooms and supermarkets - really unromantic scouting. And after you do it for six months, it's pretty depressing.
And you know, it was winter, and I ended up in this parking lot in the Safeway in Montana. And it was - the driving was really dangerous out there because a lot of the roads don't get plowed. And I was just sitting in this parking lot thinking, you know, wow, I'm really knocking myself out to find a parking lot that looks exactly like the one that's a block and a half away from Jon's house that is the one that he, you know, wrote about in the story.
(Soundbite of laughter)
And I actually have a crew there, and it's where my producer lives and - and so you know, I gave into it, even though, you know, I had swore to Jon, I'm not going to - we're not shooting at this Walgreens just so you can walk down the block and watch - sip your tea and watch us, you know, struggling. But that's exact what happened.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: And - and yeah, so this is the parking lot where Wendy parks her car for the night, goes to sleep in it, and then it turns out the car won't start in the morning and she has to figure out what she's going to do in this strange place. It's a little uncanny that you looked for all these places, and you ended up in the parking lot around the corner from your screenwriter. Was that inevitable?
Ms. REICHARDT: Maybe. But the - you can see the Walgreens from his house, which is really annoying. But I think the process of scouting just really helps me figure out what the film is, and it's a lot of hours alone in the car. And I just - every place, even if it's not the right place, offers some bit of information. It's just a good way to think, and it's probably not the greenest way to think but it does help me to figure out what the film is and what the film's really getting at.
In the case of "Wendy and Lucy," there were a few experiences that really gave me a lot of character information, not even just location information...
DAVIES: Experiences that you had while you were scouting?
Ms. REICHARDT: While I was on the road, one experience that was really - particularly stands out is driving in Texas on route 10, I was driving behind a van that had a blowout and went into the ditch in front of me. And I pulled over to see - it was a woman, and she was in her mid-40s, and she was in her socks, no shoes. She was a Mexican woman, and I asked her if she had, you know Triple A, and she said no. And I asked her if she had a spare tire, and she said that tire was my spare tire, the one that just blew out. And she said, before I bought this Pepsi I had $20.
And so I ended up spending the day with this woman, driving her to try to find a mechanic, which - we were in the middle of nowhere. And then, you know, getting a jack from a trucker and driving all the back around to where our cars were. And really experiencing, I think, a lot of what the security guard in the movie experiences, just questioning, you know, how deep do I want to get into this? How can I get out of it if I want to? What's my obligation to her? What's the right amount to give? All these sort of questions.
And also, the woman herself just made such a huge impression on me. She was completely obviously used to things going wrong. She at no point got panicked over her situation. She really seemed to just look at it like, I'll take - I'll go as far with her as I can, and I'll, you know, almost like she was looking at a To Do list of exactly what was in front of her but not the big picture of her situation. And it was, you know, I was guessing that it was a management kind of thing that she was doing, and I really did apply that to Wendy.
DAVIES: You know, one of the interesting things about the film is - you've used musical scores. I know in your film, "Old Joy," from the group Yo La Tango. But here it seems like that I don't know if there's any music. We hear trains, right?
Ms. REICHARDT: Right. The train - that was - the concept is that for me, I would use trains wherever I would have used a musical score. And you know, it's already a story of a girl and her dog. I really did not want to further romanticize the situation. I really wanted to use just almost like "The Sounds of Commerce" as the score. And so, yeah, it's pretty music-free.
There's a little tune that she hums that Will Oldham wrote for her, and then - I gave a version of that tune while she's humming it to Smokey Hormel, who wrote some muzak for "The Grocery Store," and then gave that back to Will, and then he wrote some music for the closing credits. But mostly it is, it's the - it's the train choir that's happening in the film.
DAVIES: The other thing that struck me when I read about the film - I was surprised to see that it got an R rating, despite a lack of sex, nudity or violence.
Ms. REICHARDT: A.O. Scott wrote something really funny about the - in the New York Times, and he said he thought it got an R rating just because they didn't want kids to know that things don't always work out the way you want them to.
DAVIES: So, swearing and nudity we can show them, but we can't show them how tough life can be?
Ms. REICHARDT: Exactly.
DAVIES: Yeah. Kelly Reichardt directed and co-wrote the new film, "Wendy and Lucy." She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, who directed and co-wrote the new movie, "Wendy And Lucy." It stars Michelle Williams as a woman traveling with her dog to Alaska to find work. Kelly Reichardt has made five previous films.
We should talk a little about "Old Joy," your film you made in 2006. This is two guys in their 30s. Mark, who's played by Daniel London, is married and about to be a father, and he gets a call from his old friend Kurt, played by Will Oldham, the singer-songwriter who's sort of more - I guess more of a counter-culture free spirit - and he invites his old buddy to get together and go visit a hot springs. I thought maybe we'd listen to just a bit of dialogue from this film.
Ms. REICHART: Sure.
DAVIES: This is a scene where they're just heading out of town. They're not in the country yet. And let's just - let's give a listen.
(Soundbite of movie "Old Joy")
Mr. WILL OLDHAM: (As Kurt) Then, Mark you really hold on to (bleep). Not that I should talk. I've got - I've still got crates of records in the garage in (unintelligible) Street, stuff I haven't even listened to in 10 years. I'm gonna have to take the whole load down to Sid's(ph), I think, and see what I can get for it.
Mr. DANIEL LONDON: (As Mark) Sid's is gone, man.
Mr. OLDHAM: (As Kurt) No way.
Mr. LONDON: (As Mark) The rent got to be too heavy. Now it's a smoothie place, rejuicination.
Mr. OLDHAM: Oh, no.
Mr. LONDON: Sid sells on Ebay now.
Mr. OLDHAM: Oh, that makes sense. I should be doing that.
Mr. LONDON: Tanya went by on the last day, said the only records left in the bins were our friends.
Mr. OLDHAM: No more Sid's. End of an era.
DAVIES: And that's from the film "Old Joy," directed by my guest Kelly Reichardt. Couple of guys confronting change in their lives here, right?
Ms. REICHARDT: I know, Will's doing that whole scene without exhaling a bunch of pot smoke.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: He keeps lighting the little pot in his hands, yeah. Yeah. There are a lot of things going here, and it kind of reminded me of being in my 30s and getting together with people I had known in college and just after college and discovered that we kind of wanted to be the same bunch of guys with each other but couldn't quite.
Ms. REICHARDT: Right. And I think that film - that's really what the film's about. And I think it's also - for us, it was about, I think, the loss of liberalism in America on some level. Jon Raymond had written that story before we even thought about making a film. It had come out in a book of photographs by Justine Kurland. And then when we turning it into a script - in the original story Mark wasn't married. Their lives were a little bit closer together, and I ended up making Mark a married guy and on the brink of fatherhood.
But it was - we were making that film right before the re-election of Bush, and I guess had made the film by the time he did get re-elected. And there really was this overwhelming feeling of like, where do people like Kurt go? You know, are they allowed to - is there room for them in the country anymore?
DAVIES: Kurt's the guy who sort of has hung onto counter-culture lifestyle sort of, yeah.
Ms. REICHARDT: Right. He's a roamer, and he doesn't really fit easily into, you know, buying a house, raising a family, and you know, following that path. And so, I don't know. I guess with both films I think that they're really small stories about - you know, in the case of "Old Joy," about friendship and how time changes that. And how being a person that's sort of unhinged to anything in your 20s has a sort of romance to it, and what a fine line it is that, you know, you get to a certain age and that person is just, you know, a mess.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHARDT: Suddenly their lifestyle makes them, you know, that line of when you're a partier and then suddenly you're an alcoholic.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHARDT: You know. And that's sort of kind of what happens - seems to happen in your 30s, you know, where, you know, even your - you know, free-wheeling friends suddenly feel you should get with the program.
DAVIES: Right. Right.
Ms. REICHARDT: And you know, I had after making my first feature, "River of Grass," I had lived around New York for five years without an apartment, just crashing at other people's houses trying to get another film made, and you know, living out of a duffle bag. And you know, so I could relate to Kurt. And I could also say that Kurt - the Kurt character, you know, asked too much of his friends, and that his freedom becomes a big burden for everybody else.
Ms. REICHARDT: And it was a - that film was just a real joy of a project. It was a six-person crew, and we really just went into the woods to make an art project, and you know, six crew people, two actors, and a dog. It just felt like an experiment, and it was very - really gratifying and challenging.
DAVIES: Do you like to work that way, kind of - I mean, it's...
Ms. REICHARDT: That's the way.
DAVIES: On a bit of a high wire, right? I mean, you're not really sure what you're going to end up with. You trust your instincts and go - and just move forward.
Ms. REICHARDT: Well, one of my best filmmaking experiences was a 50-minute Super 8 film I made called "The Ode." And it was - I shot it, and my friend Susan Stober(ph), who's a producer, she recorded the sound. And we had two actors. And we just shot - it was all exteriors, two actors. And you're just shooting during daylight. And I really learned a lot from that experience. I really felt like, wow, this is - it was just so exciting and so intimate, and without any of the BS that comes with filmmaking.
Ms. REICHARDT: And I just thought, wow, this is how I want to make films. You know, and I started teaching around that time, and I just thought, well, I want to set up my life so I can make films like this where basically no one's looking over your shoulder and you're not getting input from a ton of strangers about what should be what. And it just felt so intimate.
So I carried that over to "Old Joy," and you know, went from a two-person crew to a six-person crew, and I just want a set that's not chaotic and is not super-macho with people running around with tons of tools on their belt and walkie talkies, and you know, just all that other excess action. I really want - I just - I want to work in an intimate way. And we're still making it up. And we're still trying to figure out if we can keep making films like this. And you know, I don't really know what the answer is.
DAVIES: I wanted to ask you one question about your background. I read you grew up in South Florida. And your dad was a crime scene investigator, is that right?
Ms. REICHARDT: Right. He was a crime scene detective, and my mother was a narcotics agent.
DAVIES: Do you think that you get - your films have - you have such an eye for visual detail. Do you think you picked anything up from your dad's sort of craft of looking for clues in a scene of the crime?
Ms. REICHARDT: I do think so. I mean, my - I became really interested in photography in the summer of fifth grade. And my mom used to take us camping. Every summer we'd go from like Miami to Montana. And I started taking my dad's camera with me. And all those crime scene photos were a big influence. Everything is, you know, it's super-wide photography, and then you have these - the detail shots which are, you know, the fingernail-in-the-carpet sort of shots that are the side photos, the detail photos. But by and large, it's a really low-to-the-ground, wide-angle approach. And my first photographs were all like that.
DAVIES: Did you see your dad's crime scene photographs in the house or in a dark room?
Ms. REICHARDT: Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. REICHARDT: In the house - and in his office. When my - actually, when my parents got divorced my father moved into a house with five detectives who had all gotten divorced at the same time. And you know, we used to go to his office, and there were lots of crime scene photos about - big and blown up, and they had notebooks of them.
DAVIES: That sounds like a movie to me, boy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: This little kid going to see this bunch of detectives.
Ms. REICHARDT: But you know, that's the movie that never got made, but it's all fine. Other people have made it much - probably better than I could have. But that - my first film, "River of Grass," my dad and his crime scene buddies actually - you know, we built a crime scene room to imitate their - the office they had when I was a kid. And they worked with a production designer, Dave Doernberg, who was on that film, and those guys all came down and brought all these photos and recreated their own office for the movie, which was kind of a kick.
DAVIES: Wow. Well, Kelly Reichardt, it's - congratulations on the film, and we wish more opportunities to do the kind of filmmaking you want to do. Thanks for speaking with us.
Ms. REICHARDT: Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Kelly Reichardt directed and co-wrote the new film, "Wendy And Lucy." Coming up, we remember jazz singer Blossom Dearie who died Saturday. This is Fresh Air.
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Blossom Dearie: Tiny Voice, Big Impact
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Blossom Dearie, the jazz singer and songwriter whose little-girl voice, playful style and unique phrasing made her popular in nightclubs for decades, died on Saturday in New York. She was 82. Stephen Holden of the New York Times called Dearie a genre unto herself, pursuing a singular career that blurred the line between jazz and cabaret.
She was born Marguerite Blossom Dearie in East Durham, New York. Her middle name came from a neighbor who delivered peach blossoms to her house the day she was born. She trained in classical piano but embraced jazz after high school. She sang in New York City clubs in the 1940s, and in the early '50s she moved to Paris where she made six solo albums on the Verve label, now regarded as classics.
She formed her own label, Daffodil Records, in the early 1970s, and continued performing well into her 70s. Her final album, "Blossoms Planet," was released in 2000. Terry spoke to Blossom Dearie in 1998. They began with one of the songs in her repertoire, "They Say It's Spring," recorded in 1957.
(Soundbite of song "They Say It's Spring")
Ms. BLOSSOM DEARIE: (Singing) They say it's spring
This feeling light as a feather
They say this thing
This magic we share together
Came with the weather too
They say it's May
That's made me daft as a daisy
It's May, they say
That gave the whole world this crazy
Heavenly, hazy hue
I'm a lark
On the wing
I'm the spark
Of a firefly's fling
Yet to me
This must be
Than a seasonal thing
Could it be spring
Those bells that I can hear ringing
It may be spring
But when the robins stop singing
You're what I'm clinging to
Though they say it's spring
(Soundbite of archived interview)
TERRY GROSS: Blossom Dearie, welcome to Fresh Air. Now, you have a very small voice when you sing.
Ms. BLOSSOM DEARIE (Jazz singer and Pianist): Yes, I do have a small voice, yes.
GROSS: Did you ever try to make that into a big voice?
Ms. DEARIE: Ah, into a big voice. I have taken voice lessons a couple of times from legitimate voice teachers. In fact, I'm going back to a teacher now. Once in a while, once every 10 years, I go to a voice teacher, and we work on my voice a little bit. But they all say the same thing, that they tell me I'm not breathing properly. Ha - and it's very funny to have worked and sung for so many years and then someone say to you, well, you're not breathing properly. Also, I do turn to the side - to the right when I sing, and they say that that constricts the vocal chords.
GROSS: Oh, because you're sitting at the piano and you're turning to face the audience.
Ms. DEARIE: I'm sitting down. That's right.
GROSS: Mmm hmm.
Ms. DEARIE: But it's mostly the breathing that they are concerned about. They say, you have to breathe right in this diaphragm and work on it. And I think that would probably make my voice more powerful, but at this age I don't think I'm going to worry about it. And I have never been a singer who could stand up and sing like a theater - theatrical singer. I just sit down, and I've always had - used a microphone. I have a kind of a microphone technique.
GROSS: Now, I think because you have a very unique voice that you often rethink songs, though maybe that's just your unique sensibility. But I mean, another - you know, I love you for the obscure songs that you find and sing. But also, when you do a standard, it often sounds very different than the ways I've heard it done before. And I think an excellent example of that is your "Surrey With a Fringe on Top."
Ms. DEARIE: I was just going to say that.
Ms. DEARIE: And I've had so many requests for "Surrey With A Fringe On Top" that I'm doing it again after many years.
GROSS: Oh, good. See, most singers, I think, do this at a kind of clip-clop type of pace, and you slow it down to a...
Ms. DEARIE: I slowed it down.
GROSS: And it's really lovely.
Ms. DEARIE: And well, when I first heard the song sung in the Broadway show, I didn't like the interpretation at all.
GROSS: Me neither.
Ms. DEARIE: But I liked the song, and I could sort of relate to that being from the country and the horse and buggy, which is something I always liked. So I just slowed it down to give the words more meaning. The same thing with "Tea For Two." I slowed that way down, and "Manhattan."
GROSS: Well, why don't I play "Surrey With A Fringe On Top" from one of those Verve reissues?
Ms. DEARIE: All right.
(Soundbite of song "Surrey With A Fringe On Top")
Ms. DEARIE: (Singing) Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry,
When I take you out in the surrey.
When I take you out in the surrey with the fringe on top.
Watch that fringe and see how it flutters,
When I drive them high-stepin' strutters.
Nosey polks will peek through the shutters,
And their eyes will pop.
The wheels are yellow,
The upholstery's brown,
The dashboard's genuine leather.
With isinglass curtains,
You can roll right down,
In case there's a change in the weather.
Two bright sidelights winkin' and blinkin',
Ain't no finer rig I'm a thinkin'
You can keep your rig if you're thinkin' that I care to swap
For that shiny little surrey with the fringe on the top.
GROSS: That's Blossom Dearie, recorded in 1958 from one of the records reissued on the Verve label. Now, I know when you moved to New York, you became friends with Gil Evans, the arranger who, among other things, arranged the Miles Davis records, "Birth Of The Cool" and "Porgy And Bess." You met Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
What was the impact of Bebop on you? So many musicians were absolutely taken by bebop, and you are much more involved with standards, and you know, much more melodic style than bebop. So I'm wondering about the impact of that on you.
Ms. DEARIE: The impact of bebop was a great impact on me, and I knew those musicians and loved them very much. I heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and then eventually, I worked at the Village Vanguard opposite Miles Davis, and that was one of the highlights of my career, I think. Working at the Vanguard opposite Miles Davis and that group, that was just tremendous.
GROSS: Now, Miles is a musician who I think always loved the songs. He recorded a lot of songs...
Ms. DEARIE: Yes, he did.
GROSS: On his records, and I know he liked a lot of singers. Did you trade song ideas with each other?
Ms. DEARIE: Yes, we did. We were very friendly. We belonged to a kind of a social circle, and we'd meet at parties and things like that. And he liked "Surrey With A Fringe On Top," as a matter of fact.
GROSS: Oh, no kidding.
Ms. DEARIE: And we were very friendly, and then he finally arranged for me to work opposite him at the Village Vanguard for five different - on five different occasions. That was in the early 60's, and that was very memorable.
GROSS: What do you do when you're learning a song? Do you feel like you need to know it by heart? Would you go up with sheet music for a performance?
Ms. DEARIE: No, not sheet music. I have to learn the music first. I have to learn to play the song, get it in the right key, and I learn the song at the piano. But I have lyrics on the piano which are hidden, you know. The piano part is just about all I can handle for the beginning of the song, then I sort of refer to the lyrics now and then.
And it depends on the lyrics. If there's a story involved, it's easier to memorize the lyrics than just impressions and things. Like, "Peel Me A Grape," well, I guess it took me a long time to learn that because there's no story, there's no continuity. I mean, it's just one thing after another. A love song is easier to memorize.
GROSS: Why is that?
Ms. DEARIE: Because of the continuity. I mean, if it just has images, then you just sort of have to memorize it.
GROSS: Well, Blossom Dearie, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. DEARIE: Thank you.
DAVIES: Blossom Dearie, speaking with Terry Gross in 1998. Dearie died Saturday in New York. She was 82. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan on a new satirical novel from China. This is Fresh Air.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
'Brothers' Offers A Sweeping Satire Of Modern China
DAVE DAVIES, host:
The novel "Brothers" by award-winning Chinese writer Yu Hua was a bestseller when it was first published in China despite the fact that it satirizes the Cultural Revolution and the get-rich-quick spirit of the new capitalism. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Read "Brothers," Yu Hua's sensational, sweeping and satirical 600-plus page novel about life in a Chinese village from the earliest days of the Cultural Revolution to the giddy capitalist present, and you'll realize what's missing from a lot of other contemporary social novels, in particular, Tom Wolfe's opus, "The Bonfire Of The Vanities."
Critics are already lauding "Brothers" by comparing it to "Bonfire," but one is authentic down and the other is serviceable fiberfill. And in this instance, it's not the Chinese product that's the knock-off.
Wolfe admirably aimed to be like Dickens, to write a huge social novel about New York City in the go-go 80s and to make his points, as Dickens did, through comic hyperbole, repetitions and cataloguing. All that was missing was the heart. Did anyone really care about Wolfe's protagonist, Sherman McCoy?
In Dickens' hands, artifice is a technique that's more profoundly effecting than realism, and Yu Hua also possesses this mysterious Dickensian gift. The world and characters of "Brothers" are ostentatiously exaggerated. At times, readers might feel as though they're reading a fairy tale or even a bawdy limerick. But the emotions that these self-conscious narrative techniques elicit are powerfully genuine.
Indeed, by the final pages of "Brothers," Hua's anti-hero, Baldy Li, has joined the ranks of those Dickensian characters like David Copperfield, Uriah Heep, Esther Summerson, to name a few, who seem to have an autonomous existence separate from the books that gave them life.
"Brothers" opens in the present with an anonymous third-person narrator describing Baldy Li, a middle-aged billionaire entrepreneur sitting atop his gold toilet seat and fantasizing about buying a ticket on a Russian space shuttle, since there is no longer anyone left on Earth whom he loves.
His step-brother, Song Gang,is dead, and Baldy wants to take his ashes along and place them in orbit so that Gang will be perpetually traveling between the moon and the stars. A beautiful sentiment, but relations between the two men weren't always so loving.
Yu Hua's novel zooms backwards to the marriage between Baldy's mother and Gang's father that united the two boys and to the earliest intimations that Baldy was going to be an id to be reckoned with. At 14, he was caught peeping on women at a public pit toilet, earning him the nickname, King of Butts. Already a budding businessman, Baldy proceeded to peddle lurid descriptions of the butt of the prettiest girl in town to the shopkeepers.
When the Cultural Revolution arrives, the boy's father, who's a teacher, is imprisoned and tortured, and the abandoned boys wander around the town so hungry that - as the narrator puts it - "they didn't have a fart left to eat." Years later, when Baldy, who's now a factory director, sets his cap for the town beauty and she falls instead for Song Gang, the brothers become estranged.
That's a sliver of the family story set against the larger political and social upheavals that have marked China over the past half-century. What you can't appreciate from the miniscule summary is how Yu Hua tells this epic story - slowly, ritually. For instance, besides the brothers themselves, there's a gaggle of secondary characters here, villagers reminiscent of characters out of the Yiddish stories of Sholem Aleichem, the dentist Yanker Yu, Blacksmith Tong, and so forth. Every time the story lurches forward, these characters step onstage to give their two cents of commentary.
So when Baldy decides to become an entrepreneur and manufacture Baldy Brand Clothing, he solicits capital from each one of these trades people, promising that they'll be allowed to name the labels that will be affixed to a specific article of clothing his factory will make. For instance, the dentist is offered, "Tooth Brand Underwear"; the cafe owner, "Meat Bun Bra."
But the ceremonial repetitions of character and dialogue aren't always played for laughs, such as the day when the young Baldy and Song Gang spot a fly-covered corpse lying in the street and slowly come to realize who they're looking at. "He's wearing Papa's sandals," says Song Gong. "He's wearing papa's shirt."
"Brothers" is a tremendous novel in tone and historical scope and narrative technique. It extends from hardscrabble images of overwork and suffering to surreal images of gaudy cultural self-promotion, ending with a National Virgin Beauty Contest - sponsored by Baldy, of course.
In recognition of this terrific literary achievement, I think that instead of The Year of the Ox, this should be the Year of Yu Hua.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Brothers" by Yu Hua.
And this final note.
(Soundbite of Grammy Awards)
Unknown Announcer: And the Grammy goes to - Francis Davis, for
"Kind Of Blue, 50th Anniversary Collector's Edition."
(Soundbite of audience applause)
DAVIES: Jazz critic Francis Davis won a Grammy yesterday for the liner notes he wrote for the 50th Anniversary Edition of the Miles Davis album, "Kind of Blue." Francis is a member of the Fresh Air extended family. He's married to Terry Gross and is a former jazz critic for Fresh Air. Some would say, so what? We say, way to go, Francis. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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