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Filmmaker Alexander Payne

He directed and co-wrote the satirical films Citizen Ruth and Election. His newest film, About Schmidt, is also a social satire. It stars Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates who have both been nominated for Academy Awards for their roles. About Schmidt is loosely based on the novel of the same name by Louis Begley. Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor won the Golden Globe for best screenplay for About Schmidt.

20:28

Other segments from the episode on February 20, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 20, 2003: Interview with Alexander Payne; Interview with Alvin Youngblood Hart; Commentary on language.

Transcript

DATE February 20, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Director Alexander Payne discusses his newest
film, "About Schmidt"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates are nominated for Academy Awards for their
performances in "About Schmidt." My guest is the director of the film,
Alexander Payne. He also directed "Election" and "Citizen Ruth." "About
Schmidt" is set in Omaha, where Payne grew up. Nicholson plays an insurance
actuary who is forced out of the life he knows when he retires and his wife
dies suddenly. The movie is loosely based on the novel of the same name by
Louis Begley. The movie also draws on the screenplay that Payne and his
writing partner started about 10 years earlier called "The Coward" about a
retiree in crisis. "The Coward" had narrative problems Payne couldn't fix.
After he was sent a copy of "About Schmidt," he found similarities between it
and "The Coward." His movie drew from both with a generous amount of
rewriting. Here's a scene from "About Schmidt" shortly after the funeral of
Schmidt's wife. He's talking with his daughter, played by Hope Davis.

(Soundbite of "About Schmidt")

Ms. HOPE DAVIS: (As Jeannie Schmidt) Dad?

Mr. JACK NICHOLSON: (As Warren Schmidt) Hmm?

Ms. DAVIS: Why did you get such a cheap casket?

Mr. NICHOLSON: What?

Ms. DAVIS: I could tell you got the cheapest casket. Everybody could.

Mr. NICHOLSON: Oh, that is not true. That is not true. I specifically did
not choose, as you say, the cheapest casket. There was one less expensive
which they showed me and I refused it.

Ms. DAVIS: You mean a pine box?

Mr. NICHOLSON: Well, I don't remember what it was.

Ms. DAVIS: She waited on you hand and foot. Couldn't you have splurged on
her just once?

Mr. NICHOLSON: Hey, hey, hey!

Ms. DAVIS: Once?

Mr. NICHOLSON: What are you talking about? What about the Winnebago out
there? What do you call that? That's an expensive vehicle. I didn't want to
get it. But I did. That was completely your mother's idea.

Ms. DAVIS: She told me she had to pay for, like, half of it. She said she
had to sell some of her stock or something to pay for it.

Mr. NICHOLSON: Well, that was her decision. I was willing to go as far as
the Mini Winnie, but, no, she had to have the Adventurer. She wanted the
whole shebang. What was I supposed to do? Tell her she couldn't? It was her
money. No, no, no. You can't call me to task on that one. Hmm-mm.

GROSS: Alexander Payne, welcome to FRESH AIR. In "About Schmidt," Schmidt
faces two turning points right at the start of the film, his retirement and
the death of his wife. And there is this--like his life has become this big
empty hole. There's no work. There's no marriage. And there's very little
meaning that he can find. But he's the kind of person who doesn't have the
introspective tools or the language to either express or comprehend what he's
feeling. What kind of challenges does that give to you, as the screenwriter,
to write about a character who's facing this kind of crisis of meaning but has
no kind of tools to comprehend or speak it?

Mr. ALEXANDER PAYNE: Yeah, but that's the point of the film is the guy who's
suddenly aware, waking up to what's missing in his life, but he lacks the
tools to correct his life. And some people have said, `Oh, you know, the
character doesn't change. He doesn't grow. He is just miserable through the
whole film.' And I say, `Well, yeah, you know, he's made his bed and he has
to lie in it.' But that's precisely why we used the device of his letters to
the little boy in Africa to get some access to his interior life.

GROSS: Yeah, this is a boy in Africa he adopts through like a TV commercial
and the boy--he confides all of his thoughts to--in the letters to this boy
and, of course, the boy is too young and too culturally distant to comprehend
any of it. So did--had you been watching one of these commercials when you
came up with the idea?

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah, and I think I came up with the idea a long time ago, and
just--because I was watching one of those ads and `Oh, soon you'll be
corresponding with your foster son or daughter,' and I thought `Well, I don't
know. What would I say?' And you just take that thought into its most absurd
extension and you just--you know, you pour out your whole life and the
specifics of your life, and then later think when I was initially alone
writing "The Coward" about this old guy in Omaha, older fellow in Omaha, who
retires, I thought `Well, what if he sponsors a boy in Africa, and uses him as
his unseen, distant and absurd confessor?'

GROSS: Well, Jack Nicholson is nominated for an Oscar for his performance in
"About Schmidt." What do you have to do to get Nicholson to be in your movie?

Mr. PAYNE: Well, in this case, it was in a way alarmingly easy because
"About Schmidt"--the book had been submitted to me by two producers, one of
whom is a guy named Harry Gittes, like Gittes of "Chinatown," who is Jack
Nicholson's very good old friend. And so seeking to create a film for his
friend, Mr. Nicholson, Harry Gittes had found the book "About Schmidt" and
had shown it to Jack Nicholson and Jack Nicholson had read it and said, `Yeah,
potentially this is interesting, and if you get a decent script conjured up,
show it to me, and I'll consider it.'

So that's when Gittes and Michael Besman found me and then I expressed
interest and then lured Jim Taylor into working with me on it. And so we knew
while writing this script that Jack Nicholson would be the first actor to read
it when we finished with no assurances whether he would take it or not, of
course. So we finished the second draft and Nicholson read it the next week
and then I met him and he said he wanted to do it. So it was fairly easy. I
mean, it was hard getting--I mean, working on the screenplay was very hard, of
course, as it always is, but it just (technical difficulties) worked out very
nicely that way.

GROSS: Well, after Nicholson accepted the part...

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...were there questions he asked you about the character Schmidt, you
know, things he wanted you to explain to him or, you know, interpretations of
the character he asked about?

Mr. PAYNE: No, he didn't really--we spent many hours--our rehearsal process,
if you can call it that, was simply my going to his house and spending many
hours in conversation with him, mostly not about the work we were about to do,
but about other things, so that we--you know, he's a completely enjoyable guy,
and then also we were both interested in getting to know each other before
beginning the film. And I had basically just two directions to give him, one
of which was that I needed him to be a small man, a very mediocre unself-aware
fellow, and that also he be--that he act as someone who was older than he
is--older than he, Nicholson, is, because even though he's more or less the
same age as Warren Schmidt, he in real life is much more youthful and vital
than Warren Schmidt is. So I needed him really to be--because the older
Warren Schmidt is in the movie then the more the movie's about what it's
about, in terms of aging and death.

GROSS: Anything you found particularly interesting about Nicholson's approach
to getting into the role, and preparing for the role?

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah. How profoundly--I don't know if you want to call it method
or what, but just how profoundly he was living the part of Warren Schmidt. In
the months preceding shooting, he would tell me he would just pad around his
house and become and be thinking about Warren Schmidt and even while shooting
remaining in character, I mean, keeping that alive, keeping Warren Schmidt
alive inside of himself all the time. And he confessed to being very
depressed because he saw--he was getting into Warren Schmidt through Schmidt's
depression. And he was very happy when shooting ended because he could kind
of throw off that onus of a depressive man.

GROSS: Yeah, and the interesting thing about Schmidt's depression is that he
doesn't even know he's depressed. It's the kind of depression in someone who
doesn't understand depression, isn't aware of depression.

Mr. PAYNE: Wouldn't admit to it, would never--very Midwestern--would never
consider going to a psychiatrist or a therapist. And even in his letters to
Ndugu, when he's confessing how he really feels, he often just as much lies to
Indoogoo as well, and puts a happy face on what he's doing.

GROSS: Is that an approach to living in the world, to seeing the world that
you understand because you've seen that?

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah, I've see--you see it a lot. You hear it a lot among
Americans. I mean, it's hard for me to generalize, but I certainly have
experienced that a lot. `No, no, no, I'm fine. You know, I'm a little down
these days, but I'm getting by.' And that's pretty much a survival mechanism.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, our guest is Alexander Payne. He co-wrote
the screenplay and directed the movie "About Schmidt." Kathy Bates is
nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress. Can you describe her
character in "About Schmidt"?

Mr. PAYNE: A very overbearing, garrulous, sometimes awful woman who would
basically tell her life story to people at the bus stop.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. PAYNE: That's what I would say. What would you say?

GROSS: That's--I'd also say--and we'll get to this in a moment--that she's
incredibly inappropriate with her behavior...

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...and her sexuality.

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah. Everything that Schmidt is not.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, let me play a short clip with Kathy Bates. And the
Nicholson character, his daughter is marrying Kathy Bates' son. So Nicholson
is at Bates' house for a little pre-wedding dinner. And he realizes this
family is living on a different planet than the planet he lives on because
they're all--they're, like, ex-hippies; they're, in his mind, incredibly
inappropriate in their behavior. Anyways, she's talking with him about
raising her son, who she loves, but Schmidt really hates him, and Schmidt
thinks that this son is incredibly unworthy of his daughter.

(Soundbite of "About Schmidt")

Ms. KATHY BATES: (As Roberta Hertzel) Now, Randall, he knows how to treat a
woman. Honestly, don't you think he's something special?

Mr. NICHOLSON: Well, I know Jeannie seems to be very taken with him.

Ms. BATES: Well, that always helps, doesn't it? When I had my hysterectomy,
that boy did not leave my side for one minute. Not one minute. People used
to raise their eyebrows because I breast-fed him until he was almost five and I
say, `Well, you just look at the results.' I raised a sensitive, devoted boy
who has turned into a sensitive, devoted man. And he's also quite easy on the
eye, if I do say so myself. Don't you agree?

GROSS: That's Kathy Bates and Jack Nicholson in a scene from "About Schmidt."
My guest is the director, Alexander Payne.

Now the scene that's most talked about that Kathy Bates is in is the scene in
which, you know, a little later in the movie she's invited Schmidt to take a
dip in her hot tub. And then much to his shock and dismay, she strips and
climbs in with him. I've heard a lot of people talking about that scene. And
I know a lot of people have interpreted it as `Isn't it wonderful to see a
mature woman who has a full body being so comfortable with her sexuality?'
And my take on the scene is `God, she's behaving so inappropriately.' And
that scene is not about...

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...being comfortable with her sexuality.

Mr. PAYNE: For me, it's just what that woman would do. I mean, I don't
think--she has the hot tub in her own back yard. And she--why would she wear
anything when she goes into it if she doesn't think anything of it?

GROSS: Right. Right. Right. When did you break the news to Kathy Bates
that she'd be naked in a scene?

Mr. PAYNE: Well, it's in the screenplay so she read the script even before I
ever met her, so she knew it was there. And she wanted to play the part. She
had some concerns about that scene so there--it wouldn't be exploitative in
any way so that it would--so, you know, she wanted to be comfortable in the
moment of doing it and then comfortable also sitting in the cinema with other
people watching that scene. So we talked about exactly what would be shown
and how we would shoot it and then we did it.

GROSS: I guess if I were her I would want to make sure that if people
laughed, they were laughing at the moment, and at the conflict of the two
personalities, as opposed to laughing because she's not skinny like everybody
else who we see nude in the movies.

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah, but I don't think about how we see everybody else in the
movies. I--it's such a weird thing that `Oh, we're so not used to'--I
mean, I get so many questions about this film that are more about the context
in which this film--about other films, but `Oh, how did you get Nicholson to
do this?' And, `Oh, you've got a slightly older woman getting naked here and
she's not thin as a rail and'--I don't know. I never really know how to
answer those questions. And if I'm lured into a political discussion somehow
about, you know, image of woman, I really don't know what to say. All I know
is it's appropriate for that character and it's funny.

GROSS: Right. Right.

Mr. PAYNE: And it's funny. And maybe it's a problem not with my film but
with other films that it--something like this would just cause such a--not a
major fuss but I certainly get a lot of questions about it.

GROSS: My guest is Alexander Payne. He directed the film "About Schmidt" and
co-wrote the screenplay. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Alexander Payne. He directed the film "About Schmidt" and
co-wrote the screenplay. He also directed the films "Election" and "Citizen
Ruth."

How did you fall in love with movies?

Mr. PAYNE: Oh, I fell in love with movies very early in my life. My parents,
my mother, in particular, were big moviegoers and they would take me, and also
I became very interested very early on in life in old movies. I liked silent
comedy very much, and then movies from the '30s, particularly Warner Bros.
gangster pictures and Universal horror films. And I just became kind of
obsessed with older movies, particularly older comedies. And my father had a
restaurant. He was partners with his father, my grandfather, in a restaurant
in downtown Omaha, and we had a--not even a Super 8, but a regular 8 projector
at home, which had been a bonus from Kraft Cheese. And in those days you'd
get three- or 12-minute shortened versions of films at the camera store. So
we had some that--my brothers had bought some of those. And I was--I liked...

GROSS: Wait a minute, you had three-minute versions of films?

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Like what films did you see the three-minute version of?

Mr. PAYNE: Oh, "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" and Abbott and Costello
movies and mummy movies and it--there used to be a company called Castle Films
and then later there was Blackhawk Films in Davenport, Iowa. That was much
more serious because you could buy whole silent features from them as well as
two-reel shorts in regular 8 and Super 8 formats as well as 16. But I was a
kid. I started buying these films early on and into my teens and sending away
for--because, you know, this was before video. This is in the '70s, '60s and
'70s, and so there was no video, obviously, and to see old movies you had to
scour the TV Guide every week, or if you were lucky enough to have any kind of
revival house in town, or you had to send away for them and actually get
prints. And the cheapest way to do it was regular 8.

GROSS: Do you think watching so many silent films and early comedies affected
your sense of what--affected your sense of what you want from a movie as a
director, or what kind of performance you want from actors, what kind of look
you want?

Mr. PAYNE: Well, I think so 'cause even though my films are very written and
verbal aspect is very marked, I think, really what I'm more interested in is
characters and space, and finding dialogue-less solutions to getting
across--exposition--you know, in searching for cinema, somehow, and I'm a big
sucker for gags, and I always--I mean, people are--at the Golden Globes a
couple weeks ago, they were calling "About Schmidt" a drama, which is fine.
That's how they--Hollywood Foreign Press and New Line decided to submit it,
but I always start out making comedies. But comedy's rooted in maybe serious
subjects.

GROSS: Didn't Nicholson actually almost correct them when he accepted the
award?

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah, he said--yeah, he...

GROSS: Said, `Did anyone notice this is a comedy?'

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah, well, he--yeah, he said he was--I don't remember exactly
what he said, but befuddled and a little bit ashamed because he said, `I
thought we were making a comedy.'

GROSS: Yeah, that's right. Yeah, yeah. I guess you thought so, too, right?

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah, well, I mean, we're always--I mean, I'm surrounded by very
funny collaborators, because I work with the same team over and over again, my
co-writer and composer and cinematographer and production designer and editor
and casting people, and we're always looking for what's funny. I mean,
hopefully--and sometimes we turn away from what's funny and let something
serious be serious. You have to have that. But I think--I kind of lament
that comedies are underappreciated these days in terms of being able to treat
serious subjects.

GROSS: When you fell in love with movies, how did you know that what you
wanted to do was direct?

Mr. PAYNE: Well, I didn't know. I didn't know for the longest time. As a
kid I wanted to be a projectionist at first, and then--you know, as a little
kid, and then, well, in college--I mean, the idea of going to film school was
such a distant and far-off and seemingly unrealistic dream, but when I was a
senior in college and thinking about what professional school I would attend,
really all I could think of was journalism and film, and so I applied to
Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and five film schools. And then said,
`Well, me see what I get into and then I'll decide.' Because I didn't--I had
done no filmwork in college at all. And then when I got my acceptance letters
to film schools I thought `Oh, I have to go. I have to try this.'

GROSS: Did you ever get to sit in the projectionist booth with a
professional?

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah. Oh, yeah, I've done that a lot. It's fun.

GROSS: I mean, when you were young, did you do that?

Mr. PAYNE: No, I didn't. I never did. I have since then, but I didn't as a
kid.

GROSS: What's fun about it once you're a filmmaker and an adult?

Mr. PAYNE: I don't know. It's just--I like the chatter of the projector. I
mean, it's corny stuff. You're asking me to say corny things, but I like the
smell of film and the chatter of the projector, and I don't know; just all
that corny stuff.

GROSS: So what is your next project? Can you talk about it at all?

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah, sure. It's the adaptation of a so-far unpublished novel
called "Sideways." And it's about two fairly loser guys from San Diego who go
wine-tasting for a week, the week before one of them is to be married, and
it's about their rather pathetic misadventures in that week.

GROSS: Well, congratulations on the success of "About Schmidt." And I want
to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. PAYNE: Oh, it's been such a pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: Thank you so much.

Alexander Payne directed the film "About Schmidt" and co-wrote the screenplay.
Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates are nominated for Oscars for their performances
in the film. Here's Nicholson reading a letter to the Tanzanian orphan he
sponsors through the mail.

I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "About Schmidt")

Mr. NICHOLSON: (Reading letter) `When I was a kid, I used to think that
maybe I was special, that somehow destiny had tapped me to be a great man.
Not like Henry Ford or Walt Disney or somebody like that, but somebody, you
know, semi-important. I got a degree in business and statistics and was
planning to start my own business someday, build it up into a big corporation,
watch it go public, you know, maybe make the Fortune 500. I was going to be
one of those guys you read about. But somehow it just didn't work out that
way. You've got to remember I had a top-notch job at Woodman and a family to
support. I couldn't exactly put their security at risk. Helen, that's my
wife, she wouldn't have allowed it.'

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, we meet singer and musician Alvin Youngblood Hart. His CD,
"Down In The Alley," has been nominated for a Grammy in the category of best
traditional blues recording.

And our language commentator Geoff Nunberg considers the word `appeasement,'
which has been used in the debate about Iraq, and developed dishonorable
connotations in pre-World War II Europe.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Interview: Alvin Youngblood Hart on his music
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is blues singer and guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart. His latest CD,
"Down In The Alley," is nominated for a Grammy in the category of best
traditional blues recording. Robert Gordon, author of a recent biography of
Muddy Waters, writes, `At the list of the great living blues players, find
Alvin Hart up there at the top.' Songwriter, guitarist and singer Dave Alvin
writes, `Hart embodies the powerful paradox of the blues. He understands that
the blues has always been rooted in tradition, yet boldly progressive.'

Let's start with a track from Hart's CD "Down In The Alley."

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. ALVIN YOUNGBLOOD HART: (Singing) Whoo-hoo-hoo! Whoo-hoo-hoo-hoo!
Whoo-hoo-hoo! Whoo-hoo-hoo-hoo! I never ...(unintelligible) jail. Couldn't
get nobody to go my bail, singing how long before I can change my clothes?
Singing how long, how long before I can change my clothes?

GROSS: Alvin Youngblood Hart, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now I've got to ask you
about the record that we just heard. You know, that holler that you do on
that song? Is it hard to--I mean, did you just like start doing that or did
you have to practice the holler before you felt that you really got it?

Mr. HART: My mom's family down in central Mississippi, they raised cattle,
you know, cattle and horses and stuff. And there's a couple of relatives of
mine are still doing that. So when I was a teen-ager and in my early 20s and
stuff hanging out down there, and then I was living there for a little while
back in the '80s, you have to feed the cattle in the wintertime, you know,
with stored hay. So you have to get out there and call them to where the hay
is. And that particular holler, that's how we used to call the cows. So I
don't want to do it here in the studio, as there might be a stampede.

GROSS: That's very wise. So, gee, it was really like a cowboy holler.

Mr. HART: Yeah.

GROSS: Now I'm always interested in how people discover music that isn't of
their time. So how did you find the blues?

Mr. HART: Oh, well, it found me. You know, I guess in a way, you know, I
was kind of born into it and I've heard various family members singing and
playing it since day one, so--being that, you know, my whole family comes from
central Mississippi, you know, that's where John Lee Hooker said all the best
blues singers were at, 'cause it was the worst place, as he put it. I don't
really think it was the worst place, but I know what he was talking about, you
know.

GROSS: Now I know you're self-taught. You've brought your guitar with you,
so can I ask you to show us some of the first things that you figured out how
to play, rhythms or styles, you know, that you heard on record, that you
really wanted to learn yourself?

Mr. HART: I don't know, I mean, like, you know, I think the first thing
would have been like trying to play along with my mom's Jimmy Reed records,
you know.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. HART: (Singing) Going up, going down, going up, down, down, up, anyway
you want to let it roll.

You know, that kind of thing. So...

GROSS: Right. Yeah, and how'd you learn to play bottleneck guitar?

Mr. HART: Watching Roy Clark on "Hee-Haw."

GROSS: That's what all the blues musicians say, "Hee-Haw." So...

Mr. HART: You learn from the best, right?

GROSS: Yeah. So what could you see on TV of his fingers?

Mr. HART: Well, the main thing was, you know, that he pulled like a jelly jar
out and he says, `I'm gonna do a trick with this,' you know, and he started
playing slide with a jelly jar. So I said, `Hey, I can do that,' and got my
brother's guitar and started sliding up and down with--I was probably about
nine then, I guess.

GROSS: What did you use as your first slide?

Mr. HART: A jelly jar.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. What do you...

Mr. HART: Then I graduated to like a pill bottle, you know. They made glass
pill bottles back then, you know.

GROSS: What do you use now?

Mr. HART: A spark plug wrench.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. HART: Yeah.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. HART: That seems to...

GROSS: Yeah, I can see that.

Mr. HART: Well, I used to...

GROSS: It's like a little metal cannister. Yeah.

Mr. HART: Yeah. Well, I used to like to use a piece of glass, but when
you're traveling around and you have a little bag with that stuff in there,
the glass tends to get broken and, you know, you don't want to get ready for a
show and reach in there and grab a handful of broken glass. So I kind of
stuck with the spark plug wrench.

GROSS: Did you bring one of them with you?

Mr. HART: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Can you show us how it sounds?

Mr. HART: Sure. Let me dig it out here. Ah, here. We'll pretend. No.

(Soundbite of guitar music)

GROSS: The sound of slide guitar is one of the first things that really got
me interested in the blues. I'm wondering, was it hard to figure out how to
do it? I don't just mean technically, but once you figured out, you know, how
to move the slide up and down, what you wanted to hear and how to play it?

Mr. HART: I'm still doing that but--you know, still trying to figure out the
hows and whys. But I don't know, you know, I guess there was a combination of
things going on. You know, I was trying to play the rhythm and trying to play
the slide and trying to sing all at the same time, so, you know, I never
really thought about, you know, one or the other. And that was the biggie,
was just trying to get it all going at the same time.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you to put it together and play us a favorite blues
song.

Mr. HART: All right. This is one of my favorites; I think it's one of my
mom's favorites. This was a song I learned from a Bukka White record, and
it's called "Mama Don't Allow."

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HART: (Singing) Well, who that yonder comin' down that road? Look like
Daddy but she walk too slow, cryin', `Mama don't allow I been
out all night long.' Crying, `Mama don't allow I been out all night
long.'

GROSS: Well, thanks for doing that. Did you ever meet Bukka White or did you
learn that from a record?

Mr. HART: No, I never had a chance to meet Bukka, unfortunately. He died in
1977, and at that time I was living in a place called La Puente, California.
So...

GROSS: Now when you started playing the blues, was it hard to figure out how
to play it and find your own voice in your own style as opposed to imitating
records that you heard?

Mr. HART: No, I think that was just a thing that came along naturally with
time, hopefully anyway. I don't know if I'm there yet. But, you know, just
as you get more comfortable with playing and singing, I think it comes a
little bit more natural with time, you know?

GROSS: Did you ever feel like you needed to look or behave a certain way, you
know, to be an authentic bluesman?

Mr. HART: No, 'cause I don't really go for all that blues schmooze, blah,
blah, blah, genre segregation and all that whole thing. You know, I'm just in
it all for the music.

GROSS: What are the hazards of that genre segregation?

Mr. HART: I don't know. Well, you know, I guess the main one is, you know,
you look like some kind of buffoon. But, you know, you have all these people
dressing up like the '50s or like the '20s, you know?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HART: Things like that. I don't know that I'd really want to go and live
in the '20s, you know. Would you?

GROSS: Nah. I'll stick with the flush toilets and everything.

Mr. HART: Yeah. I have lived in the other century, and it wasn't all that
much of a blast. You know, I mean, when I first started going to visit my
grandma and stuff back in the '60s, you know, she was living, you know, like,
the same way she had lived since 1898, you know, when she was born. So...

GROSS: You're talking about in Mississippi?

Mr. HART: Yeah. Maybe she had electric lights back then, but that was about
it.

GROSS: Well, did you like that when you were visiting her and you were in
another century?

Mr. HART: Oh, yeah, it was great. You know, when you're a kid, you know, all
that stuff's all right. It's fun. It's like camping full-time, you know?

GROSS: Nice place to visit.

Mr. HART: Yeah. You know, go to the well, get the water, all that stuff.
But, you know, I don't know, day to day, you know, I don't know if I could
handle it.

GROSS: My guest is Alvin Youngblood Hart. His latest CD is called "Down in
the Alley." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is blues singer and guitarist Alvin Youngblood Hart. His
latest CD is called "Down in the Alley."

So we've established that when you were young, you listened to a lot of blues.
Did you listen to contemporary music also? And, you know, what were your
friends listening to when you were growing up?

Mr. HART: Well, yeah, obviously, I mean, like that's the other problem I have
with the whole genre segregation thing is, you know, assumptions. People
assume I never heard a record that was made after 1935 or something, you know,
but obviously I grew up in the '60s. The first 12 years of my life I spent in
the San Francisco Bay area while all that was happening, you know. So Sly and
the Family Stone were like more or less our local heroes. I went to grade
school with the bass player's kid, you know. So there was a lot of that.
Everybody who was coming out of the Bay area at that time, you know, Sly and
the Jefferson Airplane, you know.

I've, over the last few years, got to know Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casaday
from Jefferson Airplane pretty well through Jorma's guitar camp. Actually one
of the highlights, I guess, of my rock 'n' roll career was going to Wendy's
with Jorma and Jack to get Jack a hamburger. So, you know--and, you know,
there were a lot of other things I was listening to in the late '70s when all
the fusion things were going on, you know, Stanley Clarke and John McLaughlin,
things like that. Just all the things that, you know, kids in high school in
the '70s listened to.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HART: Hendrix and The Stones, The Stooges, MC5, stuff like that.

GROSS: I think you can hear a lot of influences outside of the early blues on
your previous CD, a CD which is called "Start with the Soul."

Mr. HART: Yeah.

GROSS: And there you're not unaccompanied; you're playing with a band. And I
thought I'd play a track from that and ask you to talk about this song. It's
called "Once Again." It's an original. Say something about the song and the
influences on this.

Mr. HART: Boy, I haven't heard it in so long I forgot the influences. But,
you know, that song I wrote way back in 1990, I think, or somewhere there.
Just, you know, I'd been hanging around in North Beach, you know, the City
Lights Bookstore, all that kind of stuff, and actually knew a guy who had a
bar in North Beach there for a while. And, you know, I suppose there was even
a little bit of like a beatnik flavor in that tune. I don't know. Somebody
might hear it, you know.

GROSS: OK. Well, this is Alvin Youngblood Hart from a CD called "Start with
the Soul." And this is his original song "Once Again."

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HART: (Singing) Once again my baby boy would skin his knee. And once
again somebody want a piece of me. And once again, baby, I can't see for
love, yeah, for love.

GROSS: That's Alvin Youngblood Hart from an earlier CD called "Start with the
Soul."

Sometimes it seems like there's more white people that listen to blues than
African-Americans. What have your experiences been in that regard?

Mr. HART: Well, I don't know, maybe they think the music should stand still,
you know, or something. I don't know. I mean, I've had a lot of Bob Dylan
1966 moments out there, you know, where, `What? You're not playing the blues?
You're not playing the old resonator guitar,' you know, all that kind of
thing.

GROSS: Yeah, right.

Mr. HART: So I don't know, romantic notions or something, you know. I don't
know.

GROSS: So what happens next? Do you know what's going to happen next with
you musically, either in terms of recording or just stylistically?

Mr. HART: Well, right now we're kind of in limbo. I think we're thinking
about trying to record our new band, you know, of old '70s rock, I guess, you
know, the stuff we grew up on, you know. I've been writing a lot of that
lately.

GROSS: Which is what?

Mr. HART: Oh, the band?

GROSS: The stuff you grew up on.

Mr. HART: Oh, you know, all the stuff from the early '70s when The Stones
were great and, you know, ZZ Top and stuff like that. There was something
really magic about, I guess, the year 1972. There was a lot of good rock
music came out back then.

GROSS: Well, Alvin Youngblood Hart, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. HART: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: Alvin Youngblood Hart will perform this weekend at B.B. King's Blues
Club in New York. Hart's latest CD, "Down in the Alley," is on Memphis
International Records. It's nominated for a Grammy in the category of best
traditional blues recording. Here's another track from it.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. HART: (Singing) My little children have a hard time some of these day.
My little children have a hard time some of these day. You get greedy like
you don't know till you cry from door to door. Nobody treat you like a mother
can. Mother is dead, Lord. Sister do all she can do now some of these day.
Sister do all she can do now some of these day. Sister do all she can do;
soon as she mad, turn her back on you. Nobody treat you like a mother can.
Mother is dead, Lord. Father do the best he can now some of these day, yeah.
Father do the best he can now some of these day. Father do the best he can;
so many things he can't understand. Nobody treat you like a mother can.
Mother is dead, Lord.

GROSS: Coming up, the word `appeasement.' It's been used in criticism of
those who would give Saddam Hussein more time. Linguist Geoff Nunberg tells
us how the word developed dishonorable connotations in pre-World War II
Europe.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Commentary: How `appeasement' got unfavorable connotations
TERRY GROSS, host:

`Appeasement'--it's a term we've been hearing more of as the debates on the
administration's Iraq policy continues. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has been
tracing the history of this term and has these thoughts.

GEOFF NUNBERG:

The English philosopher Peter Strawson used to talk about expressions that had
`grown capital letters,' as he put it. Those are phrases like `the Cold War,'
`the Flood' or `The Big Apple,' descriptions that have turned into proper
names that refer to a specific thing or event. But sometimes an expression
gets attached to a particular event without actually becoming a name for it;
more like picking up a piece of dirt that it can't scrape off its shoes.
`Stonewalling,' for example. It isn't a proper name, but it always evokes the
Nixon administration's response to Watergate. Ditto, `isolationism' or
`partition.' They're each linked to a particular historical moment.

Or take `appeasement.' Whenever it's pronounced, the word conjures up the
memory of the British policy of appeasement in prewar Europe. You think of
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain standing on the steps of 10 Downing Street
on his return from the Munich Conference in September of 1938 after he'd
handed over the Czech Sudetenland to Hitler. `It is peace for our time,' he
told the press. `Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.'

That moment had a number of far-reaching consequences, I mean, over and above
bringing the world a step closer to a catastrophic war. It sealed the
political downfall of Chamberlain, and it revived the faded fortunes of
Winston Churchill, who had opposed the Munich decision as `a complete
surrender to the Nazi threat of force.' And it permanently changed the
meaning of the word `appeasement' itself.

Before Munich, `appeasement' didn't have the dishonorable connotations that it
does for us. `Appease' still carried the echoes of the root sense of peace,
and its meaning was simply conciliate, bring peace to or pacify, I mean,
before pacify got its feet muddy, too. You recall the verse from the book of
Proverbs, `He that is slow to anger appeaseth strife.' In fact, Churchill
himself recommended a policy of prudence and appeasement toward the Turks when
they went to war with the Greeks in 1919. And Roosevelt described Mussolini's
conquest of Ethiopia in 1936 as `an integral measure for world appeasement.'
That's the sense that Chamberlain had in mind when he talked about a policy of
appeasement. The idea was not so much to capitulate to dictators as to ensure
the peace while Britain had time to rearm after the defense cuts that
Churchill presided over when he was the Defense minister in the 1920s.

But no politician since then has been able to talk about appeasement in an
approving way. After Munich, the word could only suggest a cowardly
capitulation to the demands of tyrants in the hope that they'll refrain from
further aggression. That's why the word is so inflammatory when it's used to
describe opponents of the administration's Iraq policy. I've been hearing
more and more of this. I counted over 80 uses of `appeasement' in the press
last month in stories about Iraq, three times as many as in the month before.
And the other day Condoleezza Rice gave official sanction to the label on
"Meet The Press" when she likened the Security Council's actions to the
appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s.

That comparison obviously isn't designed to bring any allies around. It's
strictly for the benefit of the administration's own troops. It's part of a
blitzkrieg aimed at seizing the moral high ground even if you have to roll
over history and etymology in the process. Whatever your view of the French
and German position on Saddam Hussein, after all, it isn't remotely comparable
to the attitude that Chamberlain is supposed to have taken towards Hitler:
`Let's give him what he wants and maybe he'll leave us alone.'

In fact, neither Churchill nor any other critic of Chamberlain's appeasement
policy ever argued for pre-emptive strikes on Germany. They simply supported
what people would now describe as deterrence and containment, the way the
French and British are doing now. With the wisdom of hindsight, of course,
you could argue that even that would have been an inadequate response to the
threat of Hitler. And if you are a mind to, you could say that the Security
Council is making the same mistake now that Churchill made in 1938; that is,
if you're willing to argue that Saddam Hussein represents the same threat to
world security that Hitler did back then.

But one way or another, that isn't a conversation that anybody's about to
launch, at least outside of history department common rooms. The
anthropologist Claude Levy-Strauss once said that `every important event lives
two lives. One is history, and one is myth.' Political language plays a big
part in that transformation. It turns the lessons of history into a set of
Cliff notes. All that complicated historical footage is reduced to a couple
of stills: Churchill as the resolute foe of bullies glaring over his cigar;
Chamberlain as the archetypal Euro-weenie with his striped pants, high collar,
umbrella and drooping moustache. And `Munich' itself has become one of those
words like `Waterloo' or `Pearl Harbor,' names that have seceded from the
flesh and blood past and taken up a life of their own as moral fables in the
popular imagination. If some words have grown capital letters and become
proper names, words like `Munich' are proper names that politics has turned
into common nouns.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is currently a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.
He's the author of the book "The Way We Talk Now."

(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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