Skip to main content

Photographer Joel Meyerowitz

Photographer Joel Meyerowitz has spent the past month taking photographs of Ground Zero for the Museum of City of the New York archives. He had also been shooting pictures of the Manhattan skyline and the World Trade Center Towers since 1981. The last photo he took of the skyline was shot four days before the September 11 attacks. Several of these photos were recently featured in the New Yorker magazine. They'll also be on exhibit at the Ariel Meyerowitz Gallery in Manhattan beginning November 1st.

42:39

Other segments from the episode on October 23, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 23, 2001: Interview with Joel Meyerowitz; George Jones' new CD "The Rock: Stone Cold Country 2001."

Transcript

DATE October 23, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Joel Meyerowitz describes what it was like to take
photographs of ground zero in Manhattan
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Photographer Joel Meyerowitz has been spending his days at ground zero,
documenting the hellish landscape where the World Trade Center used to be, and
the slow process with removing the remains. He will give the photos to the
Museum of the City of New York. The twin towers had a personal significance
for Meyerowitz. He has a series of photos of the towers and the Manhattan
skyline that he took from his studio window over the course of 15 years.
Several of those pictures were recently published in The New Yorker. They
will be on exhibit at the Ariel Meyerowitz Gallery in Manhattan beginning
November 1st.

Joel Meyerowitz is best known for his series of photographs "Cape Cod Light."
He was on the Cape September 11th. He got back to New York about five days
later. It took him several more days to get permission to enter ground zero.
I asked him what it was like to watch the TV images of the planes crashing
into the towers, the towers he had gazed at and photographed for so many
years.

Mr. JOEL MEYEROWITZ (Photographer): It was even more astonishing to me, I
think, because prior to the event, I had been printing these enormous
five-foot prints for the exhibition, so I had been living with World Trade
Center pictures in my studio on Cape Cod all summer. They were surrounding
me; every wall was covered with them. And some of the strips were five feet
high, and they were the World Trade Centers, you know, quite large, so I had
been invested in it for that whole summer. And then to have it happen, it
was, I mean, so deeply disturbing and, I mean, I was in shock, really. And I
felt this incredible loss, both for my city, for this structure that I had
gazed on, you know, repeatedly over all that time. I just wanted to come back
and help, or be involved in some way.

GROSS: When did you first get to ground zero?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: About, let's see, six days later, and of course, like
everybody else, I was trapped outside. They already had erected a fence, and
there was no getting in unless you had a pass and, you know, you feel helpless
at a moment like that. You want to give something or do something or record
something, and I couldn't. And in fact, that's what motivated me to action,
finally.

GROSS: Well, you managed to get a special permit to take pictures at ground
zero. What did you get? And how did you get it?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Well, I'll step back for a moment, because what happened was
one of those consciousness-awakening moments that happens periodically, you
know--one would wish for it every day, but in this case it's every few years.
I stood there as an innocent bystander, and I raised my camera--I was probably
five blocks away from the first building--and as I raised my camera, just to
look through it, a policewoman behind me said, `Hey, put that camera down.'
And I said, `Why? You can hardly see anything. I'm just a citizen standing
on a public street.' She said, `No photographs. This is a crime scene.' I
said, `Well, supposed I'm a member of the press?' And I reached inside for my
press pass, and she said, `Oh, press? Over there,' a half a block further
away, and behind a cordon. And I said, `Well, what happens to the press?'
And she said, `Well, they'll let you in if they think it's, you know, a photo
op.'

And I was so enraged, I thought, `If there are no photographs, then there's no
history.' And an event like this needs a history. Every major event in the
last 150 years has had some photographic record, and I thought the day of--I
mean, the whole world saw it. The cameras were everywhere. But in the
aftermath, that there would be no record seemed to me a crime. And I felt
that instant connection to my goal, in a way. I'm going to make the record.
And then I set about doing it.

GROSS: Now you are best known for your series of photos of Cape Cod, and of
Cape Cod light, of how beautiful the light is there and how it changes. Did
you have to, like, readjust yourself both psychologically and artistically to
now be taking photographs, basically in hell?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Mm-hmm. Not exactly. I mean, I am a New Yorker, born here,
and I was a street photographer first, so life on the streets, the gritty,
rough, unexpected quality of life is part of my earlier training. And the
quality of New York light, that splinteringly sharp, edgy, brilliant light is
something I thrive on. So in some sense, I had to adjust to places like Cape
Cod in order to understand the softness and subtlety of the light there. So
in a way, I've been educated on the streets, but I learned another asset of
observation from being on the Cape.

And I think coming to ground zero, when you're looking at 110 stories of
steel--because you know, what's astonishing about the location is that there
are no rocks. There's no concrete left. The concrete was vaporized into
those clouds. What fell was 210 stories of churning metal, spiraling and
rotating and grinding its way down. and when you come to the site the first
time and see what 110 stories of plumbing and cables and I-beams and, I mean,
only wiring and metal looks like, it eats your eyes. It's so breathtaking you
almost cannot comprehend it.

I think out of that kind of awe, the tragedy and the awe and the smell and the
darkness of it, and the vastness of it, even though it's in a 16-acre zone, it
seems both vast when you first see it, and then somewhat circumscribed, like a
little piazza in a city when you get to know it well. It has this funny
elastic way, or accordion-like way of opening and closing on you.

GROSS: Are there places that you got into that maybe weren't the safest
places to go, but you thought you needed to see what it looked like?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Yes. Right from the beginning I was fortunate enough to
bump into a squad, a police squad, of--bomb and rescue squad, and they sort of
adopted me. I don't know, we hit it off one of those ways that you have a
kind of comradeship in a war zone, in a way. And these guys immediately said,
`Hey, you want to come with us? We'll take you to the top of this building.
We'll take you into these offices. We'll take you down there.' And so I was
shepherded through the maze of these places, and was able to make some really
astonishing overview photographs right at the beginning. And now as I'm there
on a daily basis, it's shrunken considerably. I mean, they must have removed
at least 30 to 40 percent of it already, in one month.

GROSS: Can you describe one of the places that the bomb squad took you that
you wouldn't have gotten to on your own, and what the view was from there?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: They took me, the night of the 24th of September, up into
the World Financial Center. There's a low building underneath one of the
skyscrapers, and they took me through this lobby that was just encrusted in
dust--all the powder that the concrete turned into infiltrated every office
building in the vicinity, and it was inches deep of dust, everywhere. And we
went in this building, and we climbed nine flights of stairs, zigzagging in
between stairwells and crossing through office areas to get to other
stairwells, to get upstairs.

And in every place that we passed, you could see the record of flight, which
was--in some way what it reminded me of was Pompeii, when you go to Pompeii
and you see what happened, when the lava came down and stopped people in the
ordinariness of their lives, you know; now all is revealed in some way. And
this dust, encrusting everything, showed you, you know, books that were open,
and wallets left on desks, and people's possessions, their coats, whatever
they left behind when they fled, was all there, encrusted in this--entombed in
this dust.

They finally took me out onto the roof of the building, so that I could, in a
sense, have a panoramic sweep of the whole of the disaster. This building was
opposite the south tower, so you could look into that and then slightly north
into everything else. The roof itself was littered in about a foot deep of
papers and chairs and pieces of metal that had flown off of the World Trade
Center, the cladding, the aluminum cladding, went flying through the air and
wound up in these ribboned masses, Venetian blinds and curtains. And I came
across--there was a bottle of, you know, some mineral water, and it was
standing upright, you know. And where did it come from? It must have flown
out of some window and landed vertical in this mass. And wiring everywhere,
and keyboards to things, all on the roof of the building. And it was, I mean,
a record. It was just a record.

But when I got to the edge and I looked down, it was lit as if by stadium
lighting, so you could see the masses of metal. Just dripping over every
structure that was there was this spaghetti-like, bird's-nest-like, swamp-like
mess of wiring and metal. And I tell you, it takes your breath away. You
almost cannot comprehend the vastness of the destruction until you're standing
face to face with it and see this drapery everywhere.

GROSS: Have you stumbled on scenes that you almost wish you hadn't; things
that you maybe didn't even feel like you could photograph, for instance, of
remains of bodies?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: No, I haven't and, in fact, discretion is important there.
I think one of the reasons that the press was banned from this site was
several-fold. One was that I think the crime scene quality meant that they
didn't want the press messing it up in some way, if the press were to move
objects around or change things as they sometimes feel is their privilege.
They also were fearful that the press' aggressiveness might in some way injure
the sacred quality that the firemen and policemen felt about their fallen
comrades. They didn't want morgue photographs or body-part photographs. And
to that extent, I'm not interested in that. It's--when I see a cluster of
firemen move in an area and start raking with hand rakes, you know that
they've found some body part. And for me, I just stay away from that. You
know, maybe photograph from afar so that the story is, `Oh, that's what it
looked like from there,' but I don't need to go over and look at it.

I think, also, the incredible, dangerous--incredibly dangerous quality of the
site, itself, was one of the reasons the city held back. When I first went in
on--you know, 10 days afterwards, the ground was like walking in a field of
swords. Everywhere you stepped, metal was sticking up from the ground and you
had to pick your way so carefully. And things were--I mean, bits of I-beams,
rebar, shards of, you know, tables and desks and the--and aluminum everywhere.
And everything was from two inches high to two feet high. And you had to be
careful. There were first aid stations all over the place for people who
would get sideswiped. You know, you turn around carelessly and suddenly
you're bleeding because a big gash has been taken out of your leg. So they
didn't want hundreds of press photographers running around injuring
themselves.

GROSS: My guest is photographer Joel Meyerowitz. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is photographer Joel Meyerowitz. For the past month he's
been taking pictures at ground zero.

You've been very interested in light through your career as a photographer,
whether it's Cape Cod light or Manhattan light. What has the quality of light
been like at ground zero and how have you seen that change as the cleanup has
advanced?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Well, you know, New York at this time of year has that edgy,
brilliant light. And so the space where the event occurred has been cleared
out now into this huge plaza. And what is astonishing about the light, if we
can go that way, is that the pile is still burning. You know, more than a
month later it's still on fire deep in the bowels of the pile. So the air is
always filled with smoke. And the smoke rises like a scrim on a stage. And
it layers itself over the backdrop of New York, looking East, where you have
the Woolworth Building and a number of other more modern towers.

So towards the end of the day in the late afternoon, the sun comes around and
it paints all of those buildings pink. And the haze is pink. And many of the
buildings behind where the Center stood are covered in red drapery to prot--I
don't know why they chose red. They could have chosen black just as easily,
or green--but they're covered in these huge red, filmy drapes. So you have
these monumental structures in red now illuminated by red and gold light with
smoke billowing, and in the midst of it these machines--dozens of huge
grabbers and earth movers and cranes. It's a forest of machinery. It is a
set from the most, you know, hellish opera that you could possibly imagine and
yet it's beautiful. I mean, and you ask yourself, `How can that be? How can
it be both horrifying and beautiful at the same time? How can one accept that
or grasp it or embrace it in some way?' And for me, personally, it raises the
issue of what kind of aesthetic do you use to deal with this kind of
beauty-horror?

GROSS: Now tell us more about what you've been thinking on that?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Well, I think--I mean, for an artist it's important to find
a form that expresses the content in some way. So do I make, you know,
eloquent, tasty photographs about light, or do I try to make photographs that
remove any aesthetic expression from my point of view and just witness? And I
think, for the most part, I've been trying to get out of the ultimate viewer's
way and just make searingly etched records of the enormity of the devastation.
And should it be colored pink at any moment? Well, that's the color of the
light that was there, but try to stay focused and bear down on the complexity
and the agitated quality of the life in front of you and make an image that
uses that as energy, in a way. It is. It's difficult, I have to say.

GROSS: Why are you using a very old, large wooden camera instead of a more
high-tech, up-to-date, smaller, more portable one?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: I'm using the old, wooden, 8-by-10 inch Deodorf camera(ph)
because the acuity of its description matches the thing itself so that when
the people in the future look at these photographs, the power of every single
thing that was there will be rendered as it was. And it--in a sense, it will
allow the viewer to have the visceral reaction when they stand in front of it.
I envision some of these pictures 10 feet across so that someone in a museum
setting--you could see it that way and you could witness it in a way that you
can't see it on television when it's 17 inches or something like that, but to
be able to stand in front of the--you know, the veritable thing, in a way, is
what I'm trying to do to allow you to have it unfiltered by photographic
grain, unmodified by anything technical, but just to be there as if it was the
thing, itself.

GROSS: So it's easier to get a larger print with this camera than it would
be, say, with a digital camera?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Yes. Well, if you picture--when you hold a 35-millimeter
slide up, it's one inch by--and, you know, three-quarters lets say. My piece
of film is eight inches by 10 inches, so it's 80 times the size of a 35
millimeter. There is no grain. There is nothing between you and the subject.
I mean, it's as exquisite and sublime as it could possibly be. It's airless.
There's--it's pure description in photographic terms. I mean, after all, it
is three dimensions compressed into two, but it's probably--it's the most
objective...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: ...way of making a photograph.

GROSS: Photographer Joel Meyerowitz. He'll be back in the second half of
the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with photographer Joel
Meyerowitz. For the past month he's been spending every day at ground zero,
documenting the remains of the World Trade Center and the cleanup process.
Few photographers have had access to what he's seeing. He has a special
permit to take pictures at ground zero. He will give his photos to the Museum
of the City of New York. For 15 years Meyerowitz took pictures of the World
Trade Center and the skyline from his studio window. Several of those
pictures were published in The New Yorker. An exhibit of those photos opens
November 1st at the Ariel Meyerowitz Gallery in Manhattan.

When the World Trade Center was first being built, a lot of people thought,
well, it's really big, it's really tall, but it's not very interesting
looking. It's not an interesting piece of architecture. Did you ever feel
that way about it, and did your feelings change over time?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Yeah. I felt when they were first going up, you know, there
was a kind of, you know, monumental ordinariness to them.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: And, of course, over the years when I watched them glazed and
pickled and mottled and, you know, sun-spattered, they began to act the way
things in nature act, so they warmed my heart more. But one time I really
came to understand them, I think, in an architectural way, I was really on the
plaza there years ago and I was looking up and it suddenly occurred to me that
there were no setbacks. Usually in New York you have to build straight up and
at 40 stories you set back and then you build and you set back until you get
to a point. But they had built, I guess with enough plaza space to allow the
architects to build straight up. And it was at that moment that I realized
that by giving the city back plaza space and public space, the architects won
the right to go straight, that that's what made those buildings so remarkable
and that, in fact, their form was the form you need to rise 110 stories
straight up and that there was a linear quality to it. And those architects
weren't so dumb or vulgar or any of the things that we accused them of being
in the beginning, that they had actually solved the problem in an elegant way.

But, you know, it takes time because there's always the artistic community's
resentment of, you know, some intrusion into the skyline. And if you look to
the left or to the east, you have the elegance of the old Woolworth building
with its polished tiles and all of its Gothic refinery and decorativeness, you
know. And so part of you, as, you know, a city person, wishes for some
elegance. But I came to find that those buildings were elegant.

And even now, in the aftermath, when you stand at ground zero and just this
week, on Friday, they pulled down, which was a sight to see--they decided to
pull down one of the facades, which was about I would say 10 or 12 stories
high. And they took two of these monstrous earth-moving machines and they put
in each one's maw a steel beam and lashed to the beam was a cable, a steel
cable, probably two inches or more thick, and they ran it up to the top of
this structure. Then the two machines acted like horses, dray horses at a
county fair, you know, when the horses pull a sled of logs, or they're pulling
some heavy thing. And how long does it take the dray team to pull it across
the field? So these two machines would bend their heads the way horses would
have bobbed their heads, and they would pull in tandem at the top of this
building, and then they would back up on their treads an inch or two, and then
they'd raise their heads and they'd pull again.

They did this for an hour, and the top of the building would sway a few feet
here or there, and by the hour they had moved it maybe four feet off center.
They were pulling something that wasn't meant to be pulled down that way. And
finally one of the cables just snapped with a huge `boing,' you know? And
they had to quit for the day. But watching the struggle to pull this piece
down made you aware of what a shrieking, horrific scene it must have been to
have the building tumble. And, I mean, it just keeps bringing you back, you
know. Just looking at one piece of the building on the ground, and then you
multiply it by the 110 stories and you have to do the arithmetic, the visual
arithmetic, to really have the emotion of what's come down.

GROSS: Right. How have the workers who you've been photographing, like the
firefighters, the rescue workers--how have they been reacting to being
photographed as they work?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Well, I think my camera and its age is an asset for me
because everybody immediately sees that it's an old wooden thing and its
connotation is 19th century, so people are curious and fascinated by it. Why
would that thing be here? It's not some high-tech video--digital video
camera. And so I generally get sympathetic inquiries, you know. `Why are you
using that?' or, `What are you doing with it?' And once the conversation
begins and then I can begin to ask them about their experience, they're more
vulnerable and open to being my subject, if I choose to make them that.

GROSS: My guest is photographer Joel Meyerowitz. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is photographer Joel Meyerowitz. For the past month he's
been taking pictures at ground zero.

What kind of, you know, quote, "normal life" has begun to develop around
ground zero? I don't know, people selling food or other things that are just
part of this new normal life during the cleanup.

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: It's a great question, Terry. What's happened down there is
that this has become the Forbidden City. It's got chain-link fence around it
from Chambers Street down to several blocks below the south building of the
World Trade Center. Within the confines of this 16-acre space there were set
up, initially, makeshift tent cities so that you could go in there for first
aid. You could get a hot meal from the Salvation Army. You could get a
cafeterialike meal made by, you know, Bloomy Bakery(ph) or Nobu or the chefs
from TriBeCa Grill. All of these terrific restaurants which were basically
closed down were letting their staffs and their chefs make meals and
sandwiches for the workers.

There were tents where you could get goggles and gloves and boots and
underwear and sweatshirts, I mean, everything you needed because your clothes
were being torn up and your boots were being melted by the intense heat.
There were places for snacks and hot drinks and energy bars and Gatorade, I
mean, all of that stuff. So they were just distributed kind of helter-skelter
everywhere. And what's happened now is the season is changing, and winter's
going to come along. And so the makeshift tents which were made out of blue
tarps and, you know, canvases and things like that had been replaced by more
formal tents. And some of those tents are being replaced by trailers, you
know, the kind you see at construction sites. So bit by bit, it's solidifying
into a city within the city. And the workers who are there, crews of
ironworkers from Local One in Chicago or guys from Texas, I mean, Mohawk
Indians from New York state who have high iron guys. So there are enclaves of
people all over the place who have settled in. And you get a sense that
they're for the long haul.

GROSS: What effect do you think it's having on you to go to ground zero every
day, to go to what you describe as the Forbidden City every day?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Well, I'd like to answer that by backing off first and
describing what I think I'm doing and then talk about the effect. So what I
proposed to do for the Museum of the City of New York was build this archive.
And what I did was I modeled my idea of the archive on the Farm Security
Administration's program during the '30s. The Farm Security Administration
sent out more than a dozen photographers to photograph the effects of the
Depression, such photographers as Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White,
Dorothea Lang(ph), Russell Lee and many others. And they produced an archive
of 270,000 pictures which was now in the Library of Congress. The man who
headed this up was Roy Striker(ph) and he created a shooting script that was
vast, and it gave all of the photographers things to look at when they were
out in the American, you know, cities and landscape where the effects of the
Depression were.

As soon as I was in the World Trade Center, I thought, `I see. Here's the
contents of this place,' like, `What happened to street signs and fire
hydrants and lamp posts and light posts--I mean, sign posts, and what happened
to all the storefronts and the signage on the store fronts and what happened
to all the little vest-pocket parks and the trees and the malls and then the
interiors and the shop interiors. And I began to see the dimensions of the
archive that was necessary to record for history what it looked like in the
aftermath of this disaster, not just the buildings that collapsed themselves,
but the ripple effect that spread out from the center to the peripheral areas.

So I started to sort of describe all of these things, and hopefully, you know,
as a one-man team, while I'm trying to assemble and fund the rest of the team
to do this, I've been doing it on my own and basically funding it on my own
because the museum hasn't, you know, responded yet in terms of getting funding
in place. And one can't wait. In a moment like this, you must just go ahead
and use your own resources to save the evidence.

So I've been trying to be everywhere and, in a sense, multitasking. What it's
done for me is that every day when I've entered, I've had that same crushing,
somewhat sickening feeling of the disaster over again. And truly when you
stand at the foot of the pile and you look at it and you see the vastness of
the metal and you imagine coming down and you put yourself in place, it tears
you up. I mean...

GROSS: So do you go home every night and then develop the photos of the
scenes that have been tearing you up every day and then you stare at them?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Yeah. Well, I have them processed, you know. I'm working
with a lab that does that because they're all in color. I only shoot color
because from color you can get all the evidence in a sense. You can see it
all. To use black and white would be, it seems to me, inappropriate...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: ...because the color of destruction has its own meaning. You
know, to see how things have changed after a rain in a way and how metal rusts
is necessary. It's bloody in its own way. But I want to say it's--I got kind
of choked up there because that's the first response when you return on a
daily basis. You're reminded that that happened.

But something else is going on that's much more uplifting. And that is that
the spirit of ground zero is one of reclamation right now. And the workers
who are in there, the thousand men and women and soldiers and police and
firemen and riggers and welders and crane operators, they're making it over.
They're cleaning it up. And there's a kind of spirit, a camaraderie, that is
the kind of thing we only knew about in stories from World War II, you know,
when you get these great stories about people working together, pulling
together to do something that was a unified, heroic effort. I feel that when
I'm down there. There's a kind of optimism. There's a proliferation of flags
everywhere on every pile, there's a flag. On every basket that's hanging from
a 350-foot crane with a couple of welders in it there's a flag. You know, the
locals have put their signage up everywhere. They're, like, taking the
territory with all of its wounds in their arms and embracing it. And I tell
you, you could cry just as easily for the American can-do spirit. I mean,
it's big.

GROSS: You were photographing World Trade Center from your studio window for
many years before the attacks. When you look out your studio window now at
the view where you used to see the World Trade Center, what do you see?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Well, the question doesn't apply because I gave that view up
in 1994 or 1995.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: I moved. I gave up the studio. I have been going back to
that studio periodically over the years because a publishing company took over
my space and they've been, you know, happy to have me come back and photograph
from there. So the last photograph I made was on the 8th or 9th of September.
I was in New York printing this exhibition. And I went up there on a
beautiful fall evening to look at it to see if there was something worth
photographing. And I remembered it was a pristine evening, no clouds in the
sky. In a sense, it was dull because there was nothing happening that was
exciting, but it was so beautiful and spare and cloudless, and there was that
aura as dusk settled. It was kind of red at the horizon and it was blue-green
in the middle and it was indigo above. It was the perfect Roy G. Biv spectrum
and I made the picture and I thought, `Well, I'll come back in a couple of
days. It's always going to be here.' I remember thinking, `It's always going
to be here.' It was that permanent to me. And then the 11th happened, and
it's never going to be there again. And it just shows you you should never be
complacent about what seems eternal because it's all changing right in front
of us.

GROSS: Well, Joel Meyerowitz, thank you so much for talking with us and I
wish you the best of luck with your project of documenting the cleanup at the
World Trade Center. Thank you.

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: You're welcome, Terry. It's been a great privilege to be
here. Thanks.

GROSS: Joel Meyerowitz will give his photos of ground zero to the Museum of
the City of New York. His World Trade Center skyline photos from the '80s and
'90s will be on exhibit at the Ariel Meyerowitz Gallery in Manhattan beginning
November 1st.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new CD by country music star George Jones.
This is FRESH AIR.

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

Review: George Jones' new CD "The Rock: Stone Cold Country 2001"
TERRY GROSS, host:

George Jones has been making hit country records since the '50s. His new
collection called "The Rock: Stone Cold Country 2001" finds him working with
some younger artists. Rock critic Ken Tucker says it's resulted in one of
Jones' best albums in a while.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GEORGE JONES: (Singing) When you wake up in the morning and you wonder
why no one's beside you where I usually lay. And you think you hear the sound
of distant thunder. Well, that's just your old rock, just your old rock
a-rolling away. I was a rock standing...

KEN TUCKER reporting:

The notion of George Jones as a rock--that is, a dependable, stand-up
guy--would have been a joke 20 years ago. Then in the throes of a
well-publicized drinking problem and general career-long orneriness, he was
often referred to as `No Show Jones,' a star you couldn't even be sure would
show up for a booked concert performance, let alone a man who might provide a
loved one with comfort and strength. But times change and Jones, who's made
numeration declarations of his sobriety and who survived a serious 1998 car
accident, is now singing with a renewed vigor and crispness.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JONES: (Singing) I've seen rock bottom and I've sailed to the top. Now
I'm somewhere in between. I believe that it's over, but sometimes I'm still
blue. There's no place so lonely being half over you. Don't feel much like
climbing 'cause I don't want to fall. Here in the middle I don't feel much at
all. I've almost accepted the fact that we're through. There's no place so
lonely being half over you.

TUCKER: There's a prime slab of George. He takes a stately ballad with a
woeful pun as its chorus and sings it like he's just experiencing the pain of
heartbreak for the first time. Longtime fans will be impressed with the way
he's hitting the low notes these days. Known for his clenched-jaw nasal wail,
Jones at his 1960s best, used to dive deep for emotional low notes for
spine-tingling effects. He was the triumph of a limited pop voice achieving
maximum emotional expressiveness. Drinking and smoking for so many years blew
out Jones' voice for a while, but on this CD, he sounds well rested and for
such a notoriously insecure great singer, serenely confident.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JONES: (Singing) So many things are on your mind. You look troubled and
scared to death. And the chores you miss on your very long list, it won't let
you catch your breath. I know we've had some hard times, but I won't let that
get in the way. Before you cry tonight and get uptight, there's one thing
that I'd like to say: Honey, ho, turn the lights down. Don't think so hard.
Leave our cares and woes and won't you let me lead you across the floor?
Honey, hush...

TUCKER: As I suggested earlier, the George Jones on display on "The Rock" is
a chastened carouser. Until now, his greatest hits were almost entirely
unabashedly and I dare say unconsciously selfish. He'd apologized to his
lover or his spouse most famously in the duets he used to sing with his now
ex-wife Tammy Wynette for being unfaithful, drunk, mean or worse. But it was
always about him, his sins, his reactions to them, his need for absolution.

On "The Rock," choosing material from good, younger songwriters like Al
Anderson, Karen Staley and Jamie O'Hara, Jones has developed a conscience and
it's done him a world of good.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JONES: (Singing) I didn't cheat and I didn't lie, so her leaving took me
by surprise, just a note on the table saying, `We're through.' At first I
went crazy, so it took me some time, but I finally read between the lines.
It's not what I did, it's what I didn't do. I didn't tell...

TUCKER: The album title, "The Rock: Stone Cold Country 2001," carries a
whiff of desperation as if Jones was frantically waving to us from behind a
crowd of wiggly Dixie Chicks and macho cowboy hatted 20-somethings saying,
`Hey, I'm still here.' In a misguided bid for commercial air play, the CD
also contains a novelty tune duet with Garth Brooks called "Beer Run" that
you'll thank me for sparing you.

It's too bad that George Jones seems 50 years on to feel the need to come to
us begging for an audience, but if ever there was a living legend who benefits
from humility, it's George Jones, a fine specimen of newly formed solid rock.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JONES: (Singing) There's been bridges and there's been walls, there's
been times I've been walking tall. I have loved and I have lost. I have
lived and I've paid the cost. I guess the good Lord made me a man and I am.
I have reach and I have soul. I've been blessed like no one I know. I've
seen heaven...
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

42:54

John Brown And Abraham Lincoln: Divergent Paths In The Fight To End Slavery

In The Zealot and the Emancipator, historian H.W. Brands reflects on two 19th century leaders who fought the institution of slavery in different ways: one radical and the other reformist.

31:39

How Women Have Been 'Profoundly' Left Out Of The U.S. Constitution

As a teen, Heidi Schreck debated the Constitution in competitions. A film of her Broadway play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is now available on Amazon Prime. Originally broadcast March 2019.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue