Actress Ellen Burstyn
Shes up for an academy award for her portrayal of the mother of a drug addict who is also an addict herself in the film –Requiem for a Dream.— This is her 5th nomination and could be her second win. She won the Academy Award for the 1974 film –Alice Doesnt Live Here Anymore.— Burstyns other films include –The Last Picture Show,— –The Exorcist,— and –Same Time, Next Year— (she starred in the Broadway version too and won a Tony).
Other segments from the episode on March 20, 2007
DATE March 20, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Actress Ellen Burstyn talks about her career
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Ellen Burstyn is having one of her best years professionally at an
age when many actresses have difficulty even finding work. She's in her late
60s. Burstyn has been nominated for an Oscar in the best actress category for
her role in the independent film "Requiem for a Dream." In the past year, she
also co-starred with Mark Wahlberg and Joaquin Phoenix in the movie "The
Yards" and her 1973 film, "The Exorcist," was re-released. She's now
co-starring in the CBS series "That's Life."
Let's start with a clip from "Requiem for a Dream." She plays an aging mother
who hasn't figured out that her son is a drug addict. She stays home all day
watching TV and eating chocolates, habits that are responsible for a big
weight gain. But after she gets a call saying that she's been chosen to be a
contestant on her favorite game show, she goes on a diet, with the help of
amphetamines, which she becomes addicted to without realizing she has a
problem. But her son, who has plenty of drug experience, knows she has a
problem. In this scene, he tells her she's strung out and needs to quit.
(Soundbite from "Requiem for a Dream")
Ms. ELLEN BURSTYN: Oh, come on. I almost fit in my red dress, the one I
wore to your high school graduation, the one your father liked so much. I
remember how he looked at me in that red dress.
Unidentified Man: Mama, what's the big deal about the red dress?
Ms. BURSTYN: I'm going to wear that. You don't know. I'm going to be on
television. I got a call and an application and...
Unidentified Man: Come on, Ma. Who's pulling your leg?
Ms. BURSTYN: No, no, no, I'm telling you I'm going to be a contestant on
television. I don't know when yet. They haven't told me when yet. But
you'll see how proud you are when you see your mother in her red dress,
television in golden shoes.
Unidentified Actor: What is the big deal about being on television? Those
pills you're taking will kill you before you ever get on, for Christ's sake.
Ms. BURSTYN: Big deal? You drove up in a cab. Did you see who had the best
seat? I'm somebody now, Harry. Everybody likes me. Soon, millions of people
will see me and they'll all like me. I'll tell them about you, your father,
how good he was to us. Remember? It's a reason to get up in the morning.
GROSS: Ellen Burstyn, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Ms. BURSTYN: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
GROSS: What are some of the emotional and physical changes that were most
difficult for you during the making of "Requiem for a Dream"?
Ms. BURSTYN: Well, the physical changes--Sara loses 50 pounds during the
course of the film. And we accomplish that with a 40-pound fat suit and then
a 20-pound fat suit with accompanying necks, which were glued on and horrible
to get off. It took about an hour to peel off and my skin absorbed all of the
glue and then we had to use hot towels to bring the glue up to the surface and
my skin turned bright red and actually bled sometimes. It was just a
nightmare. And then once we got out of the fat suits, fortunately there was a
two-week break in the schedule so I was able to take off 10 of my own pounds.
So, you know, just accomplishing that was always difficult and uncomfortable.
The fat suits were hot and it was hot weather. And so I was in a state of
high discomfort for most of the shooting.
GROSS: Ellen Burstyn, this has really been your year. You have an Academy
Award nomination for "Requiem for a Dream," you're in a TV series on CBS;
within the past year, your movie "The Yards" came out; "The Exorcist" that you
starred in was re-released. Did you ever expect this kind of activity,
particularly in your late 60s?
Ms. BURSTYN: No, I never expected it at all. I'm having the busiest year of
my life. Right after the awards, I'm going to Montreal to make a film for
Lifetime that I sold to them and had written for me called "Their Last
Chance," which will be set in a prison. And then I go to North Carolina in
June to do the "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," which is a fabulous
book by Rebecca Wells. And the screenplay is just even more wonderful. I
don't know quite what change in the heavens occurred, but I'm receiving all of
these wonderful blessings and enjoying it and feel grateful.
GROSS: Let me take you back to one of your first big films. And this was
from, I think, 1973. And this is "The Exorcist," which was re-released with a
new print last year. I should mention you play the mother. You play, you
know, an actress who learns that her daughter seems to be going crazy and then
ends up, it turns out, being possessed by the devil.
Ms. BURSTYN: Mm-hmm. By a demon.
GROSS: Excuse me.
Ms. BURSTYN: Yeah.
GROSS: Let me play a short clip from the film. In this scene, you've walked
into your daughter's bedroom, she's stabbing her genitals with a crucifix
while saying obscenities about Jesus. You struggle to get the crucifix away
from her. She slaps you and knocks you across the room. As you lie on the
floor, a dresser on the other end of the room starts rolling towards you while
your daughter turns her head around 360 degrees. Let's hear the scene.
(Soundbite from "The Exorcist")
Ms. LINDA BLAIR (Actress): (Acting) Jesus, (censored) you! Jesus,
(censored) you! (Censored) you! Ahh!
Ms. BURSTYN: (Acting) Don't do it to me. Don't do it.
Ms. BLAIR: Lick me. Lick me.
Unidentified Woman: Open the door.
(Sound of dresser sliding across floor)
Unidentified Woman: Open the door.
Ms. BLAIR: (In male English accent) Do you know what she did, your
GROSS: Ellen Burstyn, did you practice screaming a lot for this? I'm trying
to figure out like, `Which kind of scream should I use?'
Ms. BURSTYN: Well, I was so in those scenes that whatever came out, came
out. You kind of can't chart your screams ahead of time. Those were
frightening and horrendous scenes to play, and it wasn't really difficult to
scream. That was some weird on radio without any images.
GROSS: Yeah, I know. So you said that these scenes were very emotionally
intense so screaming came easy. Tell me about shooting the scene that we just
Ms. BURSTYN: Well, that was a difficult scene for me. I was wearing a rig
around my midriff and I had a wire attached to it and the stunt man pulled me
to the floor when Linda hit me, and I really should have had padding on the
floor and I didn't, unfortunately, because it did injure my back, which I'm
still struggling with. That's become kind of part of my life, that scene you
played for me. But we got through it and I screamed for sure.
GROSS: Was the final take in the movie the take in which you injured your
Ms. BURSTYN: Yeah. Oh, I couldn't work after that. I was really badly
injured. As a matter of fact, the next two weeks or three weeks I was on
crutches and just put them down when I went in to do a scene. And then picked
them up again as soon as I finished with the take.
GROSS: What happened? Did you fracture a bone?
Ms. BURSTYN: I didn't break anything; I just badly bruised my coccyx, and
it--there's a lot of scar tissue formed which is the result now of that
injury. But I didn't break anything though.
GROSS: Did you sue or anything like that or consider it?
Ms. BURSTYN: No, no, I probably should have. If I had realized how, you
know, that it was going to be a problem for the rest of my life, I might have.
But I didn't realize that at the time. I thought it was, you know, a wound I
would get over and heal. Recently, when I was working with Charlize Theron on
"The Yards" and she was doing a scene where she was knocked down the stairs
and she was getting pretty banged up, I cautioned her not to be so generous
with her wounds, that they can linger and scar tissue can be formed and she
can have trouble later in life, a lesson I learned the hard way.
GROSS: My guest is Ellen Burstyn. She is nominated for an Academy Award for
her performance in the independent film "Requiem for a Dream." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Ellen Burstyn is my guest. She is nominated for an Academy Award for
best actress in her role in the movie "Requiem for a Dream."
Let me ask you about your 1974 film "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore." In
this you play a woman who has a troubled relationship with her husband, but
then her husband dies in a car crash. And the woman and her son are left
penniless. She decides to leave home, take off for the road and try to make
it as a singer, an ambition that she always had. You're the one who
discovered the script and got this produced. You got Martin Scorsese to
direct it. How did you find the script and why were you so enthusiastic about
Ms. BURSTYN: I was shooting "The Exorcist" at the time and John Cali(ph) was
running Warner Bros. then, and he sent me a message, because he was looking
at the dailies every day, that he would like to do another film with me. And
he started sending me all of the scripts that they owned, and this was right
at the beginning of the women's movement. And I was very aware of how women
were depicted on the screen. And all of these scripts were kind of a man's
eye view of a woman. And I wanted to tell a story from a woman's point of
view. So my agent found this script written by Bob Getchell, and I really
liked it. I thought it was a wonderful script, and I told Warner's I wanted
to do it and they agreed.
Then they asked me who I wanted to direct it, and I said, `Somebody new and
exciting and wonderful.' And so I called Francis Coppola and I asked him who's
new, exciting and wonderful. And he said, `Well, look at a film called "Mean
Streets,"' Marty's first film which hadn't been released yet. And so I looked
at that and I liked it, and Marty and I met. And then we did the film
together. And he was a wonderful director to work with and I would say he's a
wonderful collaborator. And, together, we did something that hadn't been done
for maybe ever, which is really tell the story from the woman's point of view.
GROSS: It's funny that you would ask Scorsese to direct a movie from a
woman's point of view since he's such a quintessential guy director.
Particularly "Mean Streets": It's about, you know, these two men who have
this inseparable relationship.
Ms. BURSTYN: Yeah, when I met with Marty I said, `It's hard to tell from
"Mean Streets" if you know anything about women. Do you?' And he said, 'No,
but I would like to learn.' And I thought that was as good a response as one
could ever hope for. And I think he probably did.
GROSS: We're there questions he asked you, you know, to get insight into what
a woman's point of view might be?
Ms. BURSTYN: The only one that I remember--we wanted to do a scene where
Alice falls in love with the Kris Kristofferson character, and I said, `You
know, let's show a woman falling in love.' So we talked about how that could
be visualized and I said, `Well, I always get turned on by watching men work,
so could we have a scene were he's hammering something?'--or, you know,
working--physically working. So Marty designed this scene where he's out
repairing a fence and I'm standing and watching him. And you can kind of see
when you see the film, you see her fall in love then. And that's what I mean
by telling the story from a woman's point of view. It's not something a man
would know or think of.
GROSS: You won an Oscar for your role in "Alice," but you didn't make it to
the Oscar night ceremonies. You were starring in a play in New York, "Same
Time Next Year," on Broadway. Do you have any regrets that you chose to do
your performance on Broadway instead of accepting your Oscar in person?
Ms. BURSTYN: Well, it's part of my training really to value the work itself
more than the rewards that come from the work. And I would have not really
have been true to myself if I had walked out on my work to go accept an award.
So, you know, I'm sorry I wasn't there to enjoy it. But I probably would do
the same thing again if I were working in a play. I wouldn't walk out on it
to go get an award.
GROSS: You were in your early-40s by the time you made "The Exorcist" and
"Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore." What impact did it have on you to start
becoming better known when you were pretty mature, as opposed to in your 20s,
when you were playing, you know, like the leading lady?
Ms. BURSTYN: Well, I had had time to kind of stabilize my emotional life. I
don't know of anybody who hasn't gone through fame can really appreciate what
a huge blast it is to your life. Everything changes, and you have so much to
handle that you never thought you would have to handle. I remember one time
talking to Alan Alda about this when we were doing the film "Same Time, Next
Year." And he said, `You know, there are no classes--you can take classes in
becoming an actor but you can't take a class in becoming a movie star.' And
we then mused on the idea of starting consciousness-raising classes for movie
stars. Because nothing prepares you for it, you know.
The amount of attention and demands and requests and energy that comes into
your life that eats up every moment of your life, so that you don't really
have time to just sit and be yourself and think about what's happening to you.
It's a lot. I know when it happened to me when I was in my 40s, I had a
little better ability to handle it just because I was older and I'd had more
experience. But even so, it was a surprising turn of events and one that took
more energy and more stability than I could ever have imagined.
GROSS: Ellen Burstyn is my guest, and she's nominated for an Academy Award
for best actress for her role in "Requiem for a Dream."
I'm so used to seeing you play a mother in movies, often, a long-suffering
mother, that I was surprised to read that you very early in your career were
in a chorus line in a Montreal club. Did you have to do high kicks and all
Ms. BURSTYN: I was a pretty good dancer, yeah. I don't remember how many
actual high kicks we had but, you know, we had very beautiful dance numbers--I
think three dance numbers I did. But I didn't do that for very long. I
started modeling right after that and became pretty successful as a model.
GROSS: What kind of clothes?
Ms. BURSTYN: I didn't model clothes so much as I posed for illustrators for
magazines, you know, that illustrated stories and pocket book covers, and I
was kind of the top illustrator's model in New York for a few years.
GROSS: Now you left home at the age of 17. Why did you leave home?
Ms. BURSTYN: I was actually 18. I set out to see the world. I wanted to
see as much of the world as I could possibly see. And I grew up in Detroit
and I'd never been outside of Detroit, and I wanted to see what the rest of
the world was like. And I thought that I should see the rest of my own
country first. So I set out for Texas and started my career there modeling.
GROSS: Did you do anything when you were a teen-ager after leaving home and
setting out to see the world that, in retrospect, seems to you to be
incredibly foolish or naive or dangerous?
Ms. BURSTYN: Well, when I left Detroit, I left on a Greyhound bus and I
headed for Dallas, and when I got there I just had enough--I mean, I didn't
even have enough money to eat. I got there, checked into a hotel and didn't
have enough money to pay the bill, but just felt sure that I would get a job
and be able to pay the bill by the end of the week--and ran out of food money
before I did get a job. So I went a few days without eating, three. And I
don't think I would do that today. I can't imagine it. When I think about it
now I think I was either very naive or very foolish or very brave or a little
bit of each, but to move to a new city with no money in your pocket and not
enough food to eat is, I would say, a pretty dangerous thing for a young girl
GROSS: And the job that bailed you out was?
Ms. BURSTYN: I got a job modeling in the wholesale market. The wholesale
market was coming to town and the sellers hired local models and I got a job.
But I was just about to be locked out of my hotel room. I just got an advance
on my salary in time to pay the bill.
GROSS: So you're nominated for an Academy Award. I imagine this time around,
you'll be at the ceremony. You weren't there when you won for "Alice Doesn't
Live Here Anymore." Will you be going with the idea that you've won or do you
think it's better off to think that you haven't won so you'll be pleased if
you do win but not disappointed if you don't?
Ms. BURSTYN: My task is just to be in the moment, to be glad that I'm there
and to be unattached to the results. I mean, you know, that's what the Buddha
tells us, that you do your work with full commitment and passion and you're
unattached to the results. Whatever happens is what is meant to happen and to
be OK with that. So that's what I'll be doing. I'll try and be there and be
OK with whatever happens.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. BURSTYN: Thank you.
GROSS: Ellen Burstyn is nominated for an Academy Award for her role in
"Requiem for a Dream." She's one of the stars of the CBS series "That's
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Tejano singer Ruben Ramos talks about his music career
(Soundbite of Tejano music being sung in Spanish)
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Ruben Ramos is one of the stars of Tejano music. He blends traditional
Mexican music with jazz and rhythm and blues. He comes from a family of
musicians. His uncles formed a band in 1919. Ruben's sister joined the band
as a singer in 1947. His older brother formed a band in the mid-'50s, which
is where Ruben got his start. As a child, he was a migrant farm worker with
his siblings and parents. Ruben Ramos formed his own band, the Mexican
Revolution, in the late '60s. He later changed the name of the band to The
Texas Revolution. He's in the Tejano Music Hall of Fame and has received
multiple Tejano music awards. He's also a member of the Grammy Award-winning
all-star group Los Super Seven, which also includes two members of Los Lobos,
Raul Malo of the Mavericks and Brazilian singer Kitano Viloso(ph). Los Super
Seven has a new CD. Here's a track with Ruben Ramos singing lead.
(Soundbite of Los Super Seven singing Tejano music in Spanish)
GROSS: That's Ruben Ramos from the new Los Super Seven CD.
Ruben Ramos, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. RUBEN RAMOS: Thank you, Terry. It's great to be here.
GROSS: Before you were born, you had 10 uncles who played in a band together.
Mr. RAMOS: Right.
GROSS: How did they all get to be musicians?
Mr. RAMOS: They got to be musicians by a tutor that my grandfather hired from
Austin. He wanted to teach his sons, you know, some kind of culture, you
know; teach them, you know, how to read and write. But it happens that the
tutor that he hired was also a music teacher, you know. So he got them to
play different instruments, you know. `You play this. You play that. You
play the trombone. You play the saxophone,' and so forth. By the time you
know it, everybody was--well, they formed a band, an orchestra out of the
things. But then they moved to the big city, and that's when they really took
off with their orchestra.
GROSS: And they first formed their band in, I think it was, 1919.
Mr. RAMOS: 1919, right, mm-hmm.
GROSS: Now when you were growing up, your family did migrant farm work.
Mr. RAMOS: Oh, yes, ma'am.
GROSS: And that's the work you had to do as a child. How come your father
had so many brothers who were in this band together, but your father wasn't in
the band? Did he learn to play music at the same time that they did?
Mr. RAMOS: Well, my father was in the family indirectly, you know. He's an
orphan from Mexico, stolen from Mexico into the United States, you know,
because his father and his mother were killed when he was four years old. So
he was stolen to--and the Pedis(ph) family, which is my uncles, they knew each
other, and they were from Mexico, too, you know, this other family. So they
brought my father from Mexico.
GROSS: You were nine years old when you first heard your uncles' band. Do
you remember what they were wearing, and do you remember how they sounded,
what the experience was like for you?
Mr. RAMOS: As far as I--everybody was, basically, you know, normal, except
for two uncles. They were always sharp and they were the band leaders. I
remember my uncle, Houstine Pedis(ph), would--a man from his shoes to his
hat--he, like, in the winter, with an old coat--decked out. Everything's
pressed. Everything is in its place and everything. Those two guys, I
think--and I guess it's true--that's where I get my taste of--I love clothes.
GROSS: Yeah. You wear some very fine clothes.
Mr. RAMOS: I love to wear good clothes, and I think that's where I got it
from, from those two uncles.
GROSS: Maybe you got tired of the clothes you had to wear as a migrant
worker, too, huh?
Mr. RAMOS: Well, that, too. That, too. You had to wear over there--you had
to wear a pair of pants for four days, you know.
GROSS: What kind of fruit and vegetables did you pick?
Mr. RAMOS: Well, sweet potatoes, potatoes, onions, green beans, cucumbers,
GROSS: What part of the country?
Mr. RAMOS: ...cotton. Mostly Texas, then we'd go to Sheboygan, Wisconsin,
and then go on up to outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Pick cucumbers and
pick apples--like, cherries and, you know--but mostly, the majority of times,
it was picking cotton or chopping cotton.
GROSS: Let's take a break here and listen to a recording from your band. And
this is called "Como Un Suspiro."(ph) Since this is going to be Spanish, tell
us something about what the lyric says.
Mr. RAMOS: "Como Un Suspiro" is--suspiro is a sigh. And what the story--what
this song says is that life is just like a sigh; it's here and it's gone. So
we need to enjoy life every day to the fullest, you know, because tomorrow it
might be gone, you know.
Mr. RAMOS: Basically, that's what it says.
GROSS: This is Ruben Ramos from his CD, "El Gato Negro Smooth."
(Soundbite of Tejano music from "El Gato Negro Smooth.")
GROSS: That's singer Ruben Ramos. And he's also featured on a new CD by the
group Los Super Seven.
Now how did you know that you could sing? I mean, when you were with your
family traveling around the country, picking fruit and vegetables and cotton,
did you sing in the field? Did you have any idea you had a voice?
Mr. RAMOS: No, never. Never even an inkling that I would be singing or
anything. But there was a lot of music, you know. The truckero--we traveled
in a truck, you know, and a big bobtail truck. And all the family would get
up in the back and stand up and go to wherever field we were going. The truck
would park, the doors open and the radio was, you know--you hear a lot of
Spanish music going on, you know, every day. But, no, I never imagined me
being a singer, you know.
GROSS: My guest is singer Ruben Ramos. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is singer Ruben Ramos. He leads his own band, The Texas
Revolution, and he's in the all-star band Los Super Seven, which has a new CD
You actually started off playing drums...
Mr. RAMOS: Yes.
GROSS: ...before you became a singer. You played drums in your brother's
Mr. RAMOS: Right.
GROSS: Did he just ask you to learn drums because he needed a drummer, or had
you already known how to play?
Mr. RAMOS: No, I didn't know how to play. You know, like I said, as soon as
I could get away and get away with, you know--like my mom, `No, you can't go.'
But I would sneak away anyway and wind up with my brothers and, you know, with
the orchestra. And I would get up on stage. And I couldn't get up on the
stage and just stand up there and be a totem pole, so I, you know--boleros and
grabbed the maracas, grabbed the claves, grabbed the guiro, grabbed something,
And as I went along with them, you know, he had another drummer, and the
drummer was--he loved to drink, you know--would love to drink and would
sometimes have to go to the restroom and whatever. `Hey, why don't you play
this waltz? Play this waltz. It's easy, like, dum-dah-dah, dum-dah-dah.' So
I could do that. So that's where I started, and then by the time you know it,
he had me playing the polka because he wanted to go dance with a beautiful
girl or whatever. So I would wind up playing the polka, and by the time you
know it, I knew two different rhythms; by the time you knew it, I was playing
a mambo; and by the time you know it, he missed a lot of--you know, I remember
one time that I started playing drums because he didn't get there till the
second set. And I just happened to--my brother happened to have his own set
of drums, also, and--you know, as part of the equipment. So I was playing
GROSS: So you learned how to drum on the job.
Mr. RAMOS: On the job.
GROSS: But how'd you learn to sing?
Mr. RAMOS: On the job. On the job just by ear. I don't know how to read or
write music. I just know how to--you know, if I hear something that I like,
GROSS: Well, how'd you start singing?
Mr. RAMOS: Just like I said. I was playing drums, and my buddies wanted to
come and see the orchestra--my buddies from high school, you know. I was
still in high school. They wanted to go see the band. They said, `Well, you
all don't play no English music. Y'all just playing Mexican music.' I said,
`Well, I'll tell my brothers.' I told my brothers, and my brothers said, `If
you want English music, you sing it.'
So I was reluctant for a while, but I got the nerve to get a song and rehearse
it and learn the words and took it to my brothers, and they, you know, backed
me up and that's how I started, you know; started singing one English song and
then two English songs and more. And by the time you know it, I got in front
of the bandstand and I was singing in the front instead of playing drums in
the back. And by the time you know it, I didn't want to go back to the drums.
I wanted to sing up front, you know.
GROSS: So you were singing English songs...
Mr. RAMOS: Yes, ma'am.
GROSS: ...in your brothers' Mexican band. What songs were you singing?
Mr. RAMOS: Oh, like, "Blueberry Hill," "Slippin' & Slidin'" and "Tutti
Frutti" and Little Richard and all those rock 'n' roll songs, you know.
GROSS: How did "Tutti Frutti" sound with trumpets and saxophones behind it?
Mr. RAMOS: I don't know. I think it sounded pretty good, you know, except
for the singer, and the band was a'-kicking, you know. (Singing) `Tutti
Frutti, oh, Rudy. Tutti Frutti,' you know. And we tried to--because a lot of
those songs are from, like, black singers, you know, so they incorporated a
lot of the horn section, too: the saxophone and the trumpet. So we had that,
so we could do it, you know. We couldn't sound like Little Richard, but, hey,
we could, more or less, play a song where the young people could relate to.
And we started getting real popular--or my brothers' band started getting real
popular, you know.
GROSS: So how did you end up singing Spanish songs?
Mr. RAMOS: Well, as I got older, I got into not the roots, but the love of
Mexican music, you know; how to interpret it, you know. And I found out what
a lot of the words meant. A lot of the songs that I did in the early
beginning '70s with my group, The Mexican Revolution, were--I didn't know what
I--half of the words that I was singing, you know. I was singing the words.
I was singing the words, but I didn't know, you know, like I said, a lot of
the words, what they meant. I was just singing what I heard, what I copied,
And as I went along, I started looking up words that I didn't realize what
they're saying, and then I find out what they really saying. And now, at my
age, a man--and it's very romantic language to be singing, you know. And I
started getting more and more into learning what words meant, what this
Mexican word or Spanish word meant, you know, instead of just singing it and
not knowing what you're singing.
GROSS: You said you needed to learn the meaning of the Spanish words in the
lyrics of the songs, but Spanish was your first language, wasn't it?
Mr. RAMOS: Well, on my father and my mother's side. I did know how to speak
Spanish, but, you know, you run across words like red, R-E-D, red. I mean,
I don't know what they really--red as the net, you know. When you fall down
from the sky--from--when somebody brakes for you--fall down from the sky, I
will catch you with my red. And the way I sing a song, I was singing R-E-S,
res. And res--do you know what res is? Res is beef. It's cow, you know.
It's quite a difference, right, from one--from a D to an S; res, red. And I
didn't know any better. I was saying res.
GROSS: And you were picking up the lyrics from other people, not from reading
Mr. RAMOS: Well, yeah, I was--`Well, I think that's what it says,' you know.
And we would not take the time or we didn't know any better to take or--I
mean, `What is it really saying?' or try to comprehend. `What did you say on
this? What is this relating to?' We didn't know.
GROSS: Are any of your uncles still alive or your father?
Mr. RAMOS: Just one uncle is still alive. Out of the whole family, one uncle
is still alive in Temple, Texas. He's 80-something.
GROSS: How do you think he feels about you and your brothers continuing the
family legacy of music?
Mr. RAMOS: He's very proud because he shows it. And, you know, up till
lately--he's getting in his age, so he couldn't go. Every time we'd play in
his town, Temple, he would go. He went just to sit down. He would go and
maybe he'd dance a slow song, but he'd say--he's told me, himself, that he's
very proud that, `You continue the music.'
GROSS: Well, one of the similarities I can see between your adult life as a
musician and your childhood life as a migrant worker is just being on the road
Mr. RAMOS: Yes. I think that's why I got the road in my body and my soul
because I love the road, I love to move. And I think--like, I have the dream
of the best of two worlds, like--it's not the way to describe it, but I had
the best because I can get off the road and relax at my mama's house and, you
know, just eat some soup and stuff, and by the time Thursday comes around, I'm
kind of like ready to get on the road again, you know. And it's a great--I
think I've acquired in my perspective, whatever, the American Dream: being my
own boss, doing what I love to do, and I know when I gotta do it and when I
don't have to do it.
GROSS: Well, I'd like to close with another track from a CD by your band, The
Texas Revolution. And this is a song you wrote. Forgive my pronunciation;
it's called "Mujeres Senegual"(ph)?
Mr. RAMOS: "Mujeres Senegual," mm-hmm. That sounded good.
GROSS: What's the lyric about?
Mr. RAMOS: `Mujeres senegual' is `there's no other woman like you,' there's
no one that compares to you, you know, and you're exceptional, you know. I'll
put you on a pedestal up here.
GROSS: You're talking about me? No.
Mr. RAMOS: You and...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. RAMOS: But that's basically what the song says.
GROSS: Well, Ruben Ramos, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. RAMOS: Yes, you're welcome.
GROSS: Ruben Ramos sings with the all-star band Los Super Seven, which has a
new CD called "Canto." He also leads his own band, The Texas Revolution.
(Soundbite of "Mujeres Senegual" with singing in Spanish)
GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new biography of the celebrated
racehorse Seabiscuit. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Laura Hillenbrand's biography "Seabiscuit: An American
TERRY GROSS, host:
At the height of his career in 1938, the great racehorse Seabiscuit was the
year's number-one newsmaker, ahead of Franklin Roosevelt by several lengths.
A new biography by Laura Hillenbrand called "Seabiscuit: An American Legend"
reminds us of why all of America in the 1930s seemed to be suffering from
horse fever. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
If anyone had told me a couple of weeks ago that I would be raving today about
a biography of a horse, I'd have snorted a resounding `neigh.' But that's yet
another wondrous thing about books: When they're good, they lift you out
beyond the well-worn grooves of your own tastes and curiosities. "Seabiscuit"
by Laura Hillenbrand does for the world of horse racing what "Into Thin Air"
did for mountain climbing and "The Perfect Storm" did for--What was it,
In daredevil prose that sprints along at a breakneck pace, Hillenbrand tells
the incredible tale of Seabiscuit, who many believe to be the greatest
racehorse of all time. Seabiscuit tore up the track for five years during the
late 1930s into 1940. His story and the story of the down-and-out men who
joined together to uncover his championship potential is an inspiring, extreme
adventure tale of physical courage and moral grit, a tale that unfolded during
a period when the whole country was living out an extreme adventure of its own
called the Great Depression.
Seabiscuit, as Hillenbrand describes him, and as even a city slicker like me
can tell from the many black-and-white photos in her book, was one sad sack of
a horse. Runty and square, he had what Hillenbrand calls `baseball glove
knees' that didn't quite straighten all the way. Sleeping and overeating were
his favorite pastimes. When galloping, he often whacked himself in the ankle
with his own hind foot. That was Seabiscuit as a three-year-old colt, before
the supernaturally gifted trainer Tom Smith began working with him.
Smith had learned his enigmatic way with ponies out on the vanishing Western
frontier, and he was famous for being a man of few words. `Tom Smith,' wrote
one reporter, `says almost nothing constantly.' Smith was 60 years old and
living in a horse stall in a crummy Mexican racetrack when a man named Charles
Howard hired him as a horse buyer. Howard had made a fluke fortune selling
cars in San Francisco, but after the death of one of his sons, the
grief-stricken Howard began frittering away his time at racetracks, where he
Smith, in turn, met Seabiscuit when the bargain-basement colt and the mute
trainer looked each other straight in the eye at a fairgrounds in Detroit and
both nodded. In an astounding roll of the dice, Seabiscuit's future jockey,
Red Pollard, showed up penniless at those same fairgrounds just when Smith was
ruminating on the choice of a jockey for the strange little horse he'd just
bought. Pollard, statistically speaking, was one of the losingest riders in
racehorse history, but Smith remembered some talent he'd once shown. The
chemistry among these three washed-up men and the ultimate dark horse would
become the stuff that dreams are made of.
Like a brilliant jockey, Hillenbrand suspensefully manages her champion of a
story. In the final stretch, the book hurtles towards its climax, the race of
the century between Seabiscuit and the far-and-away favorite War Admiral on
November 1st, 1938, at Pimlico. But before that race, there are fascinating
and teasing narrative digressions. We hear about how the notorious Tijuana
racetrack was destroyed by a moving mountain of horse manure, how the growth
of radio spurred Seabiscuit's career, and how jockeys in the 1920s and '30s
sweated, laxatived and tapewormed themselves into thinness, only to find
themselves broke and fired when, almost inevitably, they were crippled by
But back to the race of the century. Seabiscuit's jockey that fateful day was
George Woolf, subbing for a disabled Pollard. Tens of thousands of people
were at the track; everyone else in America was listening to the radio. Here,
to give you a faint sense of how thrillingly Hillenbrand writes, is the
pivotal moment at the end of that nose-to-nose race.
`Woolf glanced at War Admiral's beautiful head, sweeping through the air like
a sickle. He could see the depth of the colt's effort in his large amber eye,
rimmed in crimson and white. An instant later, Woolf felt a subtle hesitation
in his opponent, a wavering. He looked at War Admiral again. The colt's
tongue shot out the side of his mouth. Seabiscuit had broken him. Woolf
dropped low over the saddle and called into Seabiscuit's ear, asking him for
everything he had. Seabiscuit gave it to him. War Admiral tried to answer,
clinging to Seabiscuit for a few strides, but it was no use. He slid from
Seabiscuit's side as if gravity were pulling him backward.'
It's always a toss-up in reviewing books whether or not to get into an
author's life. A book should stand or fall on its own merits. "Seabiscuit"
certainly does. So I'm not trying to give the book a boost by telling you
that author Laura Hillenbrand was pretty much confined to her house by chronic
disease all the years she was researching and writing her book. For me,
knowing about her disease helps account for the dazzling energy of her race
descriptions. In the pages where Hillenbrand describes Seabiscuit rocketing
along at top speed, both she and her readers fly.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" by Laura Hillenbrand.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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