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'Dark Knight,' A Cheerless Blood-Drenched Allegory

Batman should be dark, reviewer David Edelstein says, but Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is a sadistic film with "no wit, visual or otherwise."

06:15

Other segments from the episode on July 17, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 17, 2008: Interview with Rhett Miller; Review of the film "The dark knight."

Transcript

DATE July 17, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Rhett Miller of the Old 97's discusses the band's new
CD, the inspiration for the songs, his past and his family
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Rhett Miller is the lead singer and songwriter of the band Old 97's.
And he records under his own name. He's here with his guitar to play some of
his new and old songs, and some of the songs that have influenced him. The
Old 97's have a new CD called "Blame It on Gravity." In The New Yorker
magazine, Ben Greenman described the band as "occupying a valuable sliver new
the border of alternative county and power pop." In The New York Times, Jon
Pareles described the Old 97's as "playing roots rock from a Texas
perspective, with honky tonk shuffles and galloping country rock, alongside
Merseybeat flavored songs that owe as much to The Replacements as The
Beatles."

Rhett Miller, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's really such a pleasure to have you
here.

Mr. RHETT MILLER: I'm honored to be here.

GROSS: I want you to start with a solo version of "Dance with Me," which is
on the new CD. If there's a story behind the song, please tell it to us.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah. I have kids now. I've got a four-and-a-half-year-old son
Max and a two-year-old daughter named Soleil, and it's hard once you have kids
to find, you know, to eke out those moments. And we were on our annual trip
to Cancun. I sat out at 5 in the morning, Soleil had woken up, and so I was
taking care of her, and we were out on the balcony. And I sat and watched the
sunset come up, and I imagined--there was a couple down on the beach in the
distance, and I imagined this story for them, which is how a lot of my songs
come about. And I hope that the stories of these real people and their real
stories are nothing like the stories I conjure up for them. But in this case,
it was a Latin lover and a girl who was straying from her true love back home,
and the song bounces back and forth between the guy back at home and I guess
the narrator, who's sort of admonishing her.

All right. I'll play a little bit of this, "Dance with Me."

(Soundbite of "Dance with Me")

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) Underneath the foreign stars
in a foreign place where they don't love you
I do care
In the pale moonlight
Your eyes are wide
And the band plays
Everybody wants you

He takes your hand tenderly
And he whispers
Sweet surrender nothing
How he feels about girls like you
With your flip flop smiles,
And your big blue eyes
On vacation

Dance with me into the ocean
Roll with me into the sea
Don't tell me the world is in trouble
Do you want to dance with me?

Love changes hands as the big waves
Crash and the dream don't die
But I do
Where were you when I needed you?
Right now
The telephone just rings,
I'm cannot find you

Dance with me into the ocean
Roll with me into the sea
Don't tell me the world is in trouble
Don't tell me the world is in trouble
Dance with me into the ocean
Roll with me into the sea
Don't tell me the world is in trouble

Do you want to dance with me?
Oh, do you want to dance with me?
Do you want to dance with me?

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's great. That's Rhett Miller singing a song that's also featured
on the new Old 97's CD, which is called "Blame It on Gravity."

How do you think the sound of the Old 97's has changed over the years? I
think initially you were thought of as alt-country. And, you know, you could
hear that on the early CDs, but I think you've really diversified.

Mr. MILLER: The intention of our band when we first started this band was to
be a full music band that would play in coffee houses and that would, by
definition, not have to worry about getting signed to a major label, or having
a, you know, any kind of huge success, because the bass player Murry and I
had tried for so long to make these rock bands, that I think this was because
I had put a record out in high school, and Billboard magazine had said that
A&R guys would be knocking down my door. And I took that to heart a little
bit, and at the time, remember, in the late '80s, early 90s, that was it. You
know, if you got a major label contract--which is so funny to think that
getting to sign a contract would be the home run, the end of the game, you
know.

But we got sick of it, and it was--I remember it was around the time Nirvana
broke. And I really thought that they were a great band, but I thought, this
is not what I want to be doing. I don't want to be chasing, you know, some
brass ring that I'll never get that doesn't really mean anything to me to
begin with. And so we quit for a few months, six months, and then started up
from scratch with the Old 97's, and even the name, I felt like even the name
was going to be difficult and contrary, in a way that I felt like was to our
benefit. It would keep us, you know, from having to worry about that.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned that when you started performing, you were
really listening to a lot of folk music and saw yourself as performing folk
music.

Mr. MILLER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: One of the tracks on the new CD, "Blame It on Gravity," is very folk
music influenced, and it's called "Here's To the Halcyon."

Mr. MILLER: Yeah.

GROSS: Maybe you could play an excerpt of that for us, and tell us first what
inspired the song.

Mr. MILLER: Well, The Halcyon has become sort of a motif in my songs. I had
a reference to it in a song on "The Instigator," `let's call her Halcyon and
hope that she holds the world inside the world,' was that song. And so
Halcyon reappears on this record, and it's just, you know, from the great line
of songs about wrecks. You know, the Old 97 was a train wreck song, and
there's a lot of great shipwreck songs, you know, but "Here's To the Halcyon,"
I just imagined a guy, you know, adrift and afloat and looking for anything.
It was a story my dad had told me when I was a kid about his motorcycle
accident. And he had come very close to death and had broken his back and was
laid up for a long time. And when he was in the hospital he, you know, sort
of made a deal with God. And his deal with God was, `look, I'll be a better
person if you just let me make it through this.'

GROSS: Well, this is definitely a deal with God song.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, right.

GROSS: Yeah. Would you play some of it for us?

Mr. MILLER: Sure.

(Soundbite of "Here's To the Halcyon")

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) Get me through this, Lord
And I'll do anything you say
After I read the good book, I'll settle down and pray
When Gabriel blows his horn, I know that things might not go my way
Get me through this, Lord, and I'll do anything you say

Pluck me from this driftwood, Lord, I'll be a better man
Raise me from the deep sea in the palm of your great hand
Let me see tomorrow, and I'll try to understand
How the sinking of my little vessel fits into your plan

Here's to the Halcyon,
Forever may she rest
At the bottom of the ocean
For the good Lord knows best
You raised her from lumber and you gave her to the sea
Now, good Lord, what do you propose to do with me?

Get me through this, Lord, and I'll devote my life to you
Things look pretty bleak right now, but I know you'll come through
I've squandered my good fortune and my other fortune, too
Get me through this, Lord, and I'll devote my life to you

I cannot change my past mistakes
I've led a life devoid of virtue
Either way, the man I am is dead and gone,
Although I know the past can come around to hurt you

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's great. I really like that song.

Mr. MILLER: Thanks.

GROSS: So, you know, you were saying that this song was inspired in part by
your father, who made a deal with God after his motorcycle accident, so he
obviously got through the accident.

Mr. MILLER: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: So did he make good on the deal with God?

Mr. MILLER: That's funny. That's a good question. I think for a little
while he did. And I think he had to ride out some tough years, too. He got
married, my mom and him got married really young. And I'm glad I didn't do
that, you know. I was in love with some truly exceptional people during my
20s, but I'm really glad I didn't wind up married to any of them. But...

GROSS: I hope they're not listening.

Mr. MILLER: I know. Well, no, they're good. I think they would probably
agree. They're all in good places, I think. There's not that many of them.
But my dad, he did pretty good, I think. He rode it out for a number of
years. Now he does a lot of pro bono work. He works on behalf of people who
are being pursued by debt collectors, you know, the less fortunate, the people
who need a really good attorney, which is what he is, my dad.

GROSS: Now, you went to a private high school that was, I think, an
Episcopalian school?

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, St. Mark's School of Texas.

GROSS: So did you grow up with a lot of religion in your life?

Mr. MILLER: I did. I was an altar boy, I sang in choirs, I--every Wednesday
morning, I was, you know, lighting the candle and wearing robes and singing in
the choir. I was around it. It wasn't hard core old time Southern Baptist,
although a lot of my friends were that, and I had a few close calls where I'd
go to church with them and get kicked out for asking the wrong question in
Bible school.

GROSS: So, you know, it's interesting that you went from, you know, altar boy
to, you know, with the...

Mr. MILLER: The robes.

GROSS: The robes.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MILLER: And the vestments.

GROSS: To like punk clubs and...

Mr. MILLER: I did.

GROSS: Yeah, that's a whole 360 there. Yeah.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, I did, but it's all part of the same thing. Like, you
were talking about folk music, and I was thinking back, my kids just got into
this record that I have by The Cramps, this New York-based punkabilly whatever
crazy band that I saw a number of times play, and I used to cover a song of
theirs called "TV Set." And I just would play it as if it were a folk song
when it's about decapitation and it's all horror movie kind of imagery. And
my kids now have been listening to The Cramps and we get in the car every day
and they yell, `"Goo Goo Muck." I want to hear "Goo Goo Muck."' And it's maybe
a little over their heads. There's a couple of songs I have to skip, like
"Drug Train." I don't want them to hear "Drug Train" yet.

GROSS: You want to do a few bars of that as a folk song?

Mr. MILLER: Sure. Sure. What is it? (strums guitar) God, I have not
played this in 20 years.

(Soundbite of "TV Set")

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) Oh baby, I see you in my TV set
Oh, baby, I see you in my TV set
I cut your head off and put it in my TV set
I used your eyeballs for dials on my TV set
I watch TV, I watch TV, since I play you in my TV set

Oh, baby, I hear you on my radio
I hear you on my radio
I go flip, flip, flip for you, lady, oh
You're going drip, drip, drip, drip inside my radio
AM radio, PM radio, since I play you in my radio

Like this!

(End of soundbite)

Mr. MILLER: And on and on and on.

GROSS: Oh, that's great. That's so much fun. I could see how your kid would
really love it, too.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah.

GROSS: It's really kind of catchy.

Mr. MILLER: It's cartoony.

GROSS: My guest is Rhett Miller, the lead singer and songwriter of the band
Old 97's. He'll play more songs after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is songwriter and singer Rhett Miller, and he is the lead
singer of the Old 97's. They have a new CD called "Blame It on Gravity." He
also has a couple of CDs under his own name. And he's here with his guitar.

Now, one of the songs that you do on the new CD "Blame It on Gravity" has--I
mean, as soon as I saw the name of it before I'd heard it, I thought, I have
to figure out what this title is about. It's called "No Baby I."

Mr. MILLER: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Letter I.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah.

GROSS: As in I am. Not as in E-Y-E. So "No Baby I." And I thought, what
does that mean? And, of course, when I heard the song, I got it. But it's a
strange construction to keep the I for the title.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah.

GROSS: So tell us a little bit about the song and deciding to keep the I on
the title, and then I'll ask you to do it.

Mr. MILLER: That's funny, Terry. Everything you ask seems like you must be
reading my notebook. I had a song called "No. Carol." That song was actually
called "No. Carol I" first, which was from the abbreviation of north. And I
kept thinking of this guy writing back to this girl in Carolina, and her
name's--I don't know. I mean, it was just, you know, this sort of fevered
dream of a song, "No. Carol I, No, Carol, I, no, Carol, I don't want to see
you hurt." And I was living with it, and it bothered me because I thought it
was a little too weird, you know, for one thing. And also I've got so many
songs with women's names in them. My mom keeps telling me I need to release
an album of all my songs put together that have, you know, Doreen and Victoria
and on and on and on, "Help Me, Suzanne." I just kind of decided I can't have
"No. Carol, I." And I didn't even know a Carol. It seems like sort of an old
timey clunky name. So, being the flexible, you know, writer that I am, I
turned it into "No Baby I," but I still liked the meter of that as a title, as
a phrase, "No Baby I."

GROSS: So play the song.

Mr. MILLER: OK.

GROSS: And then we'll hear where the I fits in.

Mr. MILLER: OK.

(Soundbite of "No Baby I")

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) The lights were low, but I was lower
And the radio was playing somewhere else
The room was full of surface tension
But I was only thinking 'bout myself

No, baby, I
No, baby, I
No, baby, I don't want to see you hurt
You got them tears, they fall like pearls
Blame it on gravity, yeah
Blame it on being a girl

And the room was full of undertakers
The movers and martini shakers gone
And the reaper left at 7:30
And he took off in a taxi with a blonde

The difference between us
Is way down on the inside
And it's very tricky business

No, baby, I
No, baby, I
No, baby, I don't want to see you hurt
You got them tears, they fall like pearls
Blame it on gravity, yeah
Blame it on being a girl
Oh, blame it on gravity, yeah
Blame it on being a girl

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Rhett Miller singing one of the songs he wrote that's included
on the new Old 97's CD, which is called "Blame It on Gravity." And obviously
that line comes from the song that he just did. But he should name the CD
"Blame It on Gravity," then "Blame It on Being a Girl."

Mr. MILLER: You know, I had a really tough time about that phrase. You
know, I briefly attended Sarah Lawrence College because it was purported to be
the best school for writing, and I ended up deciding that there's no school
for writing. I mean, for me there wasn't. And so I dropped out, but even
though I grew up in Texas, I know you're not allowed to call women girls.

GROSS: I've read that when you were in high school, you've said this, that
you were bullied a lot and a lot of people called you faggot.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah.

GROSS: What earned you the name?

Mr. MILLER: I had rosy cheeks, I had long eyelashes, I was, you know, in the
choir. I don't know. I mean, I think back to--there was a dean of students
who was gay, who was a soccer coach. And one day I was playing intramural
soccer, and I was getting that, you know, just--I was getting picked on that
day a lot for whatever reason. And he pulled me off to the side. He goes,
`You know why they call you that, right?' And I said, `Why?' He said, `Because
they can't think of anything else to call you.' And I thought, that's a good
point. These are kids that are, you know, just pubescent. They're dealing
with issues that are so tough. You know, I remember one of the
kids--obviously, I don't mention his name, but I found out years later he was,
you know, getting pretty badly abused at home. And he was one of the
ringleaders. And, you know, I think back on them, and I can't hold a grudge.
You know, they were doing their best.

GROSS: Let me know if this is too personal, but I read that when you were
14...

Mr. MILLER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...you tried to kill yourself.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah.

GROSS: And I guess I was--you know, reading that, I couldn't help but wonder
whether that was precipitated by like one turning point event that was so
upsetting you couldn't deal with it, or whether it was just like a whole
string of things and an ongoing mood that you could no longer live with.

Mr. MILLER: It was--well, it was my 14th year, and I've found since then
that that tends to be the hardest year, especially for kids that are kind of
sensitive and kind of outsiders. It was a bad day. I was supposed to--I
don't even remember the exact circumstances, but I was supposed to get a ride,
my girlfriend was mad at me, my mom was mad at me, but it really had a lot
more to do with this--there was one moment I was walking down the stairs in my
mom's house, and I looked up and there was a brass cat, like a, you know, a
quarter inch think brass sculpture of a cat, you know, just a little
tchotchke, and it was up on a window frame. And I looked at it and I thought,
that's it, you know, that's all there is. This is it. You know, there's just
accumulating tchotchkes, placing them throughout your house, walking past them
and then dying.

And it was sort of just--it was such a whammy. It was such an existential
whammy. And I thought there's more to this, but I imagine it probably comes
after you die, and then there's some other thing that's next. And I couldn't
really figure out why I would want to go on living at that point, and it was
just such an overwhelming, you know, impulse, and I think it had a lot to do
with--my parents were having a lot of trouble then. They eventually would
divorce after years of probably they should have divorced, you know, for
years. So that was it. I mean, just like a switch went off.

And it should have worked. I mean, it wasn't one of those sort of like, I
took like two Valium and told everyone in the world that I had, you know,
attempted suicide. I took everything that had a skull and crossbones in the
house, and took--and drank it or swallowed it. And then I, you know, ran as
far as I could away from the house down some railroad tracks until I
collapsed. And, you know, it should have worked, and now I'm glad that it
didn't, obviously. And now I've discovered that there is a lot of meaning to
be found in this life, and I've done since then everything I could to talk to
kids that I felt like were having trouble. And that's part of why I make
music, because when I came out of that, the thing that I felt like saved me
were my records, you know.

GROSS: Who found you on the railroad tracks after you collapsed there?

Mr. MILLER: A girl named Berry Krantz, who was a senior at Arts Magnet High
School. We ended up going out on a date months and months later.

GROSS: Oh, gosh.

Mr. MILLER: She reached into my pocket and found my--because I'd, you know,
I guess I was blue, and pulled out a wallet and found my girlfriend at the
time's phone number and her father, the girlfriend at the time, her father was
a doctor, and they drove there and picked me up and took me to the emergency
room. And they, you know, induced vomiting all night, and I made it. I made
it. I made it.

GROSS: Rhett Miller will be back in the second half of the show. The Old
97's' new CD is called "Blame It on Gravity." Here's one of their best-known
songs that's included on their best of collection. I'm Terry Gross, and this
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Jagged")

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) What remains of the day remains to be seen
By the TV that we never turn on
Each other's enough
I never had it so rough
Ever since I been gone

White noise swells in my head
Making me worry it's the summertime
But it's the dead of the fall
it's the dead of the night
Hell, yes, I mind

I would give anything not to feel so jagged
I'd give anything not to feel so jagged
I'd give anything not to feel so jagged

(Announcements)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross back with Rhett Miller, the lead singer and songwriter
of the band Old 97's. They have a new CD called "Blame It on Gravity." Miller
also records under his own name. He's brought his guitar with him and is
playing some songs for us. When we left off we were talking about his
serious, but thank goodness unsuccessful, suicide attempt when he was 14.

There's a song I want to ask you to sing. It's a song I really like that you
wrote that the Old 97's do. It's called "Lonely Holiday." And one of the
reasons I'm going to ask you to do it here is there's references to suicide in
the song.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah.

GROSS: And I figure when you've tried to take your life and come out the
other end you don't use that word lightly.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah.

GROSS: You don't refer to that lightly. Can you talk about writing this
song?

Mr. MILLER: It was a bit of a dark period for me. I had moved out to LA. I
was in a relationship wherein the dynamic wasn't totally healthy. I was
traveling a lot for the first time. The 97's had toured what seemed like a
lot before that, but it seemed like a lot because we were so broke and we were
driving ourselves in a van. Suddenly I was touring for 12 weeks, you know,
without coming home. And that's hard, and it's hard on a relationship. And,
you know, I wouldn't have wanted to be on the other end of it, you know, at
home alone for 12 weeks, you know, wondering, you know, where my loved one
was. And so I wrote this song sort of from the perspective of the loved one
waiting at home.

All right, "Lonely Holiday."

(Soundbite of "Lonely Holiday")

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) It was a lonely holiday
I was alone, you were away
In Fayetteville or in another state
And there's so many towns I hate

When you leave me, breaks me like a bone
But it's never as bad as when you come home
I've thought so much about suicide
Parts of me have already died

Lonely? Baby, I'm not lonely
Baby, I'm not
I've got my imaginary friends
Happy? Baby, I'm so happy
Baby, I'm so
I got my imaginary friends

And if you don't love me,
Would you please pretend?

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's a great song.

Mr. MILLER: Thanks.

GROSS: How did you feel about referring to suicide in it?

Mr. MILLER: I knew I had to be careful because, like you said it wasn't, you
know, it's not an empty word. It's a very, you know, powerful, loaded, scary
thing because the human condition is, it's agony in a lot of ways. And I
remember that that was a period when, for the first time since I'd been 14 I
was really feeling that again. And I'm sure it had a lot to do with, you
know, just really being in this position with my career where things were
really happening and taking off. And just the stakes all seemed so high, you
know, everything--it's tough. I mean, there's so many little balancing acts,
being in the public eye and creating art.

Lately I've realized that I had to--I had a Google alert for my name, which is
where they e-mail you--every day Google e-mails you if anybody blogs about
you, that verb that we all love. And I was getting, every day, you know, with
the new record out and everything else I was getting these alerts, and
anybody's opinion that they felt like posting was coming to me and it was just
too much. I would be on stage thinking about the girl that wrote `I saw Rhett
Miller in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and he has not aged well,' you know. And I'm
like--and it was just in my head. So there's just a lot of that. It's a
tough gig, this weird life.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer Rhett
Miller, and he's the lead singer of the Old 97's, also records under his own
name. The Old 97's have a new CD called "Blame It on Gravity." And Rhett
Miller is here with his guitar.

You know what I'd like you to do? I'd like to ask you to redeem a song, which
I sometimes do with musicians when they're on the show, to take a song that
you think most people think of as corny or square or overly sentimental, a
song that isn't exactly beloved among the people you know that you happen to
really love.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah.

GROSS: Tell us why you love it and play a bit of it for us.

Mr. MILLER: There is a song that I think needed a little redemption from a
band that needs redemption in general. The Kingston Trio were favorites of my
parents when I was growing up, and it was before I was rebelling against
anything, and I just ate it up. They were so funny. I actually stole a line
from a live record on "Live at the Hungry Eye." They come back from their
encore, and I say this all the time now, they come back from their encore and
they say `you can tell by the speed of our return that that exit was
fraudulent.' I just love it. I just love it.

But they were so smart, and they were so dorky, and the wore, you know,
matching sort of chinos and tucked in, you know, short sleeve button downs.
And, you know, they were so, they were so square. And I loved them. And I
went with my parents to see them play at a little dinner theater called Mama's
in Dallas. And I remember being six years old and thinking, as they busted
out their version of "Blowing in the Wind," which they had a pretty big hit
with that song, thinking, even at six years old, thinking `I wonder if they're
sick of singing this song?' I think about that all the time now, actually.

But there's a lot of songs--really any song of theirs would probably fit the
bill as far as in need of redemption. But there's one song that I still think
about all the time. There's logistical problems with this song that I could
never get past. It's a story of a guy who gets trapped in a subway, and
they've raised the fare while he's on the subway and his wife comes in every
day and brings him a sandwich and hands him a paper bag through the window.
And I kept thinking when I was a kid, like, why doesn't she put a nickel in
the bag with the sandwich? I mean, come on, people. But they were making a
point, so I understood. So I'll play a little bit. This is called "MTA."

(Soundbite of "MTA")

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) Well, let me tell you of a story of a man named
Charlie on a tragic and faithful day
Well, he put 10 cents in his pocket, kissed his wife and family, went to ride
out on the MTA

Well, did he ever return?
No, he never returned and his fate is still unlearned
He may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston
He's the man who never returned

Well, Charlie handed in his dime at the Kendall Square Station and he changed
for Jamaica Way.
But when he got there the conductor told him `one more nickel.'
Charlie couldn't get off of that train

Oh, did he ever return?
No, he never returned, and his fate is still unlearned
He may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston
He's the man who never returned

Charlie's wife goes down to the Kendall Square Station every day at a quarter
past 3--2
And through the open window she hands Charlie a sandwich as the train goes
rumbling through

Well, did he ever return?
No, he never returned and his fate is still unlearned
But he may ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston
He's the man who never returned
He's the man who never returned
He's the man who never returned

Whoo, whoo
Is that you Charlie?

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: I was holding myself back from doing the poor old Charlie part.

Mr. MILLER: So you remember it, yeah?

GROSS: I do. It's funny. You know, `going to tell you a story' part at the
beginning, it sounds like it's going to be "The Beverly Hillbillies" theme.

Mr. MILLER: It does.

GROSS: So you were into The Kingston Trio?

Mr. MILLER: I was. I still have all the LPs down in my basement at home.

GROSS: Do you really?

Mr. MILLER: Yeah.

GROSS: That's why you so vividly remember the dorky clothes they wore.

Mr. MILLER: I know, yeah. But they were sweet, though. They were just so
smart. Them and Tom Lehrer.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MILLER: There was like this whole contingent. You know, Pete Seger was
actually a big, you know, we were big fans of him in my house too. And
there's this one--one of my earliest memories is, like, was five or six years,
you know, this is from the files of things that you could get away with back
then in the old days. My dad put me in the back of a whatever, pickup truck,
suburban-type vehicle, holding onto a lawn mower that wasn't strapped in,
sitting on the tailgate, which would flap up and down every time we'd go over
a bump. And my job was to make sure that the lawn mower didn't fly out. And
we were singing `there'll be pie in the sky, by and by, oh, Lord, there'll be
pie in the sky, by and by.'

And as we were, you know, speeding down the road and we went over a bump and
the lawn mower and I flew out and landed on the--I remember a Cadillac stopped
within inches of my head. And I was still singing and I'm like, you know, I
will always think of that when I hear that song. My dad trying to kill me.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. MILLER: Now it's funny. Now every kid's in this, you know, like
spacesuit basically going out in the world, which is how it should be. We
want them to make it to old age, or at least to 18, then they're on their own.

GROSS: My guest is Rhett Miller, the lead singer and songwriter of the band
Old 97's. Let's listen to a track from their new CD "Blame It on Gravity."
This is "I Will Remain."

(Soundbite of "I Will Remain")

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) This is more than I can tolerate
The kind of pain you've got to medicate
I can't remember why I couldn't wait to get so close to you
I tried to call you on the telephone
You never answered but I know you're home
I wonder why I'm so all alone while I'm so close to you

I will remain
I will remain
Right here outside your door
I will remain
I will remain
Here forever

Oh, girl, you are a problem still
You know I love you and I always will
I throw a rock upon a windowsill
Baby, come down
Got a feeling like I want to be
I only want to make her notice me
Make her love me on a count of three
I'm counting it down

I will remain
I will remain
Right here outside your door
I will remain
I will remain

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's the Old 97's from their new CD. The band's lead singer and
songwriter, Rhett Miller, will be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Rhett Miller and he is
the lead singer of the Old 97's. And the Old 97's have a new CD which is
called "Blame It on Gravity." And Rhett Miller also records under his own
name.

You know, we were talking before about how you got a scholarship to study
creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and you dropped out kind of quickly
to do music full time. But the only writing I've read of yours, outside of
song lyrics...

Mr. MILLER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...is a piece that you wrote for Rolling Stone about September 11th.
It was a really fine piece. It's just about your own experience of that day,
living a couple of blocks away in an apartment a couple of blocks away from
the World Trade Center.

Mr. MILLER: Mm.

GROSS: Could you remember some of what that day was like for us? Like, how
did you realize what was going on? I remember the article said that you wrote
that you were sleeping at the time the World Trade Center was attacked and you
didn't know until a friend woke you by phone to say something.

Mr. MILLER: My mom.

GROSS: It was your mom?

Mr. MILLER: Actually I didn't write that. I just--I dictated it to a
Rolling Stone writer. My wife and I were asleep. It was 9:30. My mom
called. She said, `Something's going on.' We lived at Greenwich and Rector,
which is about a hundred yards from the base of the second tower that fell.
And she said `one of the towers is on fire or something.' So we went up to the
roof and that was the part that I think back to the most, before all hell
broke loose. Or I guess all hell had, you know, begun to break. There were
people falling. And I could see their faces, you know, or jumping or
whatever. And it's not an image that is shown anymore. And I remember at the
time, you know, it appeared on a few news programs, you know, the, you know,
the close-ups of that. But I was there and I was close up. I could see this
one guy, his tie was flapping. He had a gray suit and a red tie, and his face
just looked so peaceful. And I'm thinking, `I can't believe I'm witnessing
this,' you know, the disbelief that everyone felt.

But so that was when things obviously got very weird. We went down to our
apartment. I was eating a bowl of cereal thinking we had to pack a quick bag
and get out of the neighborhood because it's going to be a madhouse, and it's
probably best if we let, you know, the authorities deal with this. And then
the first tower fell. And our 15th floor apartment was facing the opposite
direction, facing south. So I didn't know what it was, but just was engulfed
by smoke. And so we ran down the, you know, 30 flights of stairs because it
was two per, ran down 30 flights of stairs, got to the lobby. There were, you
know, bloody people pouring into the lobby, which at that point you're
thinking, my God, you know, I was hoping to go out there and they're coming in
here.

So I grabbed Erica and we went through that emergency exit, which was the
corner closest to the second tower. I could see it. It was still standing.
We were knee deep in rubble and whatever. I remember seeing a lot of
people's--a lot of papers, you know, just desks, you know, pieces of desks, a
lot of work, you know. We ran towards Broadway, past the big bronze bull, and
that was when that tower fell. So we were about a minute ahead of it, and if
we had walked out that door one minute later, you know, I don't know what
would have happened, but we would not have been in a good spot.

So when that tower fell, you know, hit us in the back like a big wave of
debris, and we had to take our shirts off and breathe through them. I
remember picking burning pieces of glass or smoking pieces of glass out of
Erica's hair. And we just became part of a river of people, you know, flowing
up the east side. We walked underneath the highway so that nothing would land
on us, and went to the apartment of a friend, Caroline and Timmy. You know,
their apartment was up on Houston. So we walked up there and tried to figure
it all out. And the next day we took one of the only trains that left town,
the next day we got on it and went upstate to where we live now, the Hudson
Valley. We went and visited Erica's brother and he gave us a ride a couple of
days later to Ohio. And we stayed there for a couple of months till they let
us go back into our place to retrieve what belongings we could in the space of
five minutes while a National Guardsman stood at the door with a machine gun.

And I remember Erica standing at the door to the closet in this 700 square
foot loft in New York and she's holding like six or eight pairs of high heels
and just bawling, looking at them saying, `I don't know which ones to bring.'
I'm like, well--I think I said, `That guy has a machine gun,' you know, `I
think we got to go. I don't think he's going to shoot us, but I really think
we should probably wrap this us.' And so then we dragged those back down the
30 flights of stairs and went back another month or two later and moved our
stuff out and went to LA.

GROSS: When you got back to your apartment and you were given five minutes to
rescue things, what did you want to save?

Mr. MILLER: My guitar. Mostly my guitar. I had been without it when we
were in Ohio. Pictures, you know, but the guitar was the big thing. And it
was so...

GROSS: Was it playable? Was it in good condition?

Mr. MILLER: Yeah, yeah. Our apartment, 15 floors up facing south, was fine.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. MILLER: You know there was a lot of smoke damage because the building
had been, you know, inundated by smoke. But where we were, you know, the
windows held. And when we were in Ohio for the time leading up to when we
were allowed to go back, I was, you know, I was without guitar and I was dying
to write songs. And it was so weird, you know, I had no real outlet. I guess
I could have maybe gone and bought a guitar.

I did write one song during that time, though. I wrote a song called "She
Loves the Sunset" that didn't appear for years. But I wrote it on...

GROSS: That's on the new CD.

Mr. MILLER: It's on the new CD. I tried to get the 97's to put it on "Drag
It Up." I started to record it for "The Believer," but I just always felt like
it needed to be an Old 97's song.

GROSS: Would you do a little bit of it for us?

Mr. MILLER: Sure.

GROSS: And this is a song written by Rhett Miller that's on the new Old 97's
CD, and the CD is called "Blame It on Gravity," and the song is called "She
Loves the Sunset."

(Soundbite of "She Loves The Sunset")

Mr. MILLER: (Singing) She loves the sunset
She loves the cocktail bell
She loves the trembling that evening brings or might as well
There is no other love I have known
Who could ever take over her throne
I love a girl
And she loves the sunset

Oh, it's the simple things
Oh, but simple things are scarce
You've got to figure out
About what and for whom you care

Nighttime is falling, but I fell long ago
Let's say the trembling that evening brings
Is just the cold
I hope I'll always be by her side
Even if I'm just along for the ride

I love a girl; she loves the sunset
I love a girl; she loves the sunset
I love a girl; she loves the sunset

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That was wonderful.

Mr. MILLER: Thanks.

GROSS: Well, it's been really great to have you here, and I thank you so much
for playing for us. It's just been such a treat.

Mr. MILLER: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: Rhett Miller is the lead singer and songwriter of the band Old 97's.
They have a new CD called "Blame It on Gravity." Miller also records under his
own name.

Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new Batman film, "The Dark Knight."
This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: David Edelstein on "The Dark Knight"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Bob Kane's DC comic book "Batman" has had a long evolution since Kane created
the character in 1939. In the '60s it inspired the campy TV series. Then
Frank Miller embraced a more nihilistic vision of urban justice in his graphic
novel "The Dark Knight." In the late '80s Tim Burton reinvented the saga, but
it sputtered out after two sequels by director Joel Schumacher. The series
was reborn in "Batman Begins" under director Christopher Nolan, best known for
the film "Memento." His sequel "The Dark Knight" stars Christian Bale as
Batman, along with Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger
as The Joker. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: Before I talk about "The Dark Knight," I should say
I've been pilloried on the Internet for publishing a negative review, with
most of the pillorying from people who hadn't seen the movie. They'll
probably love it when they do. They've invested a lot of emotional energy in
it.

Other critics have called it a crime epic worthy of comparison to "The
Godfather: Part II" and Michael Mann's "Heat." And while it's not fair to
judge a film against hype its maker's didn't create, it's a measure of how
high the director and co-writer Christopher Nolan aims.

"The Dark Knight" is an impressive flight. Huge in scope, nothing less than a
blood-drenched allegory. In Nolan's predecessor "Batman Begins," Christian
Bale's Bruce Wayne grappled with the classic urban vigilante conundrum: how,
in a corrupt society, can you go outside the law to enforce the law and also
maintain social harmony? Here Bruce starts out regarding himself as beyond
rules, as he announces to Michael Caine's Alfred the butler. Talk about high
priced help.

(Soundbite of "The Dark Knight")

Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Bruce Wayne) More copycats last night, Alfred, with
guns.

Mr. MICHAEL CAINE: (As Alfred) Why don't you hide them and take a weekend
off?

Mr. BALE: (As Bruce Wayne) That wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I
said I wanted to inspire people.

Mr. CAINE: (As Alfred) I know. But things have been proofed. Look at the
new district attorney.

Mr. BALE: (As Bruce Wayne) I am, closely. I need to know if he can be
trusted.

Mr. CAINE: (As Alfred) I trust you don't have me followed on my day off?

Mr. BALE: (As Bruce Wayne) If you ever took one, I might.

Mr. CAINE: (As Alfred) Know your limits, Master Wayne.

Mr. BALE: (As Bruce Wayne) Batman has no limits.

Mr. CAINE: (As Alfred) Well, you do, sir.

Mr. BALE: (As Bruce Wayne) Well, can't afford to know them.

Mr. CAINE: (As Alfred) And what's going to happen on the day that you find
out?

Mr. BALE: (As Bruce Wayne) We all know how much you like to say `I told you
so.'

Mr. CAINE: (As Alfred) On that day, Master Wayne, even I won't want to.
Probably.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: Batman has a counter force, The Joker, played, as everyone
knows, by the late Heath Ledger. He functions as a terrorist, a one-man
insurgency with no motivation except bringing chaos.

(Soundbite of "The Dark Knight")

Mr. HEATH LEDGER: (As The Joker) This town deserves a better class of
criminal, and I'm going to give it to them. Tell your men they work for me
now. This is my city.

Unidentified Actor: (In character) It won't work...(unintelligible).

Mr. LEDGER: (As The Joker) Why don't we cut you up into little pieces and
feed you to your pooches? Hm? And then we'll see how loyal a hungry dog
really is.

(Soundbite of barking, yelping)

Mr. LEDGER: (As The Joker) It's not about money, it's about sending a
message.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: The Joker manipulates gangsters to keep crime alive and
assassinates or corrupts do-gooders like Aaron Eckhart's cleft-chinned
district attorney Harvey Dent.

Meanwhile, Batman's hands--or wings--or tied by pesky ethics. He can't
staunch the madness. On paper, this morality play is fascinating. But a lot
of the movie doesn't transcend its talking points. The psychological twists
are dubious and the plotting herky-jerky, with leaps in logic. "The Dark
Knight" plays as if it were written by Oxford philosophy majors trying to tone
up American pop. Maybe that wouldn't matter if the action weren't
spectacularly incoherent. I defy you to make spatial sense of a truck/Bat
tank/police car chase. Or the climax with Batman, The Joker, hostages, SWAT
teams, fake Batmen and Morgan Freeman on some kind of sonar monitoring gizmo.

The movie is really bleak, but that's not a criticism; Batman should be dark.
But it doesn't need to be so sadistic, to work you over so crudely from scene
to scene. "The Dark Knight" has no wit, visual or otherwise. It doesn't
achieve what Tim Burton's "Batman," for all its screw-ups, did, creating a
Gothic urban landscape that was a breathtaking correlative for Batman's inner
world. Nolan sets it in the real world. And while it's shocking and
effective to see the Joker's opening heist pitched like Michael Mann, the
novelty of the realism wears off. Even the most wondrous visions--Batman's
plunges from skyscrapers; Bat wings snapping open, unbelievably cool in
IMAX--can't keep the movie airborne.

Bale is entertaining. His Batman rasps his lines in a voice that's deeper and
hammier than ever. And the others are fine, but never mind them. Everyone
wants to know about Heath Ledger. His Joker is a psychopath, a clown demon
with smudged greasepaint who bugs his eyes and licks at the gashes extending
his mouth. First he sounds like Cagney in "White Heat" then throws in Brando
flourishes. He's scary, fast with sharp objects--but apart from a gruesome
bit with a pencil, not terribly prankish. This is rave and rage and purge
acting. Ledger works so very hard to fill the screen that he's both riveting
and exhausting to watch. He's the first Joker who doesn't look like he's
having fun. And it's contagious.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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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