Skip to main content

An Alluring Lull.

Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the new recording by Ron Sexsmith "Other Songs" (Interscope). He made his debut two years ago.



Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on July 31, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 31, 1997: Interview with Charles W. Sweeney; Interview with Margot Adler; Review of Ron Sexsmith's album "Other Songs."


Date: JULY 31, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 073101NP.217
Head: War's End
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This August will mark the 22nd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My guest, Major General Charles Sweeney was the only pilot who flew on both missions.

Now in his late 70s, he offers this eyewitness account in his new book "War's End." General Sweeney commanded the Nagasaki mission, flying the plane that dropped the 10,000-pound plutonium bomb. Three days before that, he piloted the plane that flew alongside the Enola Gay, the plane that bombed Hiroshima.

At the moment the bomb was dropped, General Sweeney's plane released scientific instruments that measured the heat, blast, and radiation. His plane also carried a team of scientists to read and analyze the measurements.

In order to not be caught in the blast, Major General Sweeney had to make a sharp turn and fly eight miles from the blast in 43 seconds. He didn't know what to expect.

MAJOR GENERAL CHARLES W. SWEENEY, AUTHOR AND PARTICIPANT IN WORLD WAR II ATOMIC BOMBING MISSIONS OVER JAPAN: But just as we leveled out, I saw this tremendous flash -- a flash that, I guess, human beings who weren't there have never seen and I hope never see again.

It was just a bright, bright flash -- fraction of a second; just obliterated the whole sky. The sky was a beautiful blue, as you know it is when you fly an airliner -- it's up there without any contamination -- a beautiful blue sky.

And it turned into like a white, for a fraction of a second -- that was the flash. And we kept going and very shortly thereafter, the airplane was whacked by these concentric rings, we now know -- we didn't know what they were when they were coming up -- but they were concentric rings of clear, hot air -- a phenomenon that man had never seen before.

And they whacked the bottom of the airplane and my bombardier, who had been very -- who was a very experienced man from European campaigns and had been shot down, actually, in Europe by anti-aircraft fire -- turned to me with panic on his face and said "flak" -- well, that meant we'd been hit, he thought.

But the airplane was flying beautifully, so I, you know, it's as if you might think you had a flat tire and all of a sudden it's fine -- your car is driving well, so you know you don't have a flat tire.

GROSS: Now what were you doing -- what was your plan to get the plane away from the bomb as soon as the bomb was dropped so that you wouldn't be vaporized by the bomb?

SWEENEY: Oh, to turn -- to make a turn as quickly as we could, at the highest degree of bank that we could -- at the speed we were going, and to -- not that there's a restriction there, but to turn as quickly as we could to get out to a tangent to a semicircle, which mathematically puts you as far away from the point of explosion that you could get.

GROSS: When did you find out what the damage really was to Hiroshima?

SWEENEY: Oh, not for several days, but until a survey was made, we didn't know exactly what the damage was a half mile from point zero, or mile and a half or mile or two miles or whatever.

However, I would say that after we were out of danger, so to speak, we made a turn to the right, in this case, to get heading in a southeasterly direction to A, get off the mainland of Japan and get out to sea; and B head for our home base on the island of Tinian.

When we made that turn, we looked over the city, which would be off of our right wing. We had a camera plane with us also. And we saw the city covered with a pall of, oh, black/gray/brown smoke, but very quickly from that came the beginnings of the mushroom cloud. And as that got a few thousand feet up out of that morass, it changed into every color of the rainbow. I don't believe I ever saw so many colors.

GROSS: General, you describe yourself as a very religious man, and I'm wondering when you saw the impact of the atom bomb, if you felt that man should be capable of such force and such destruction.

SWEENEY: Oh, well you know, the atom bomb, while it had great impact, didn't damage Japan as much as the five months of firebombing that had been done there. The loss of life was much, much less than what had occurred during our regular firebombing which went on day in and day out and day in and day out.

And of course, the book is not a celebration of nuclear weapons. The book is an attempt to record accurate history. The loss of any life devastates me, and I was 25 years old and I was heartbroken to think of all the American bodies that had been broken and maimed and killed -- for what? You know, this was -- this, I believe, was the greatest test in our historic knowledge of the forces of good against the forces of evil.

Japan had never lost -- a unit of Japanese forces had never surrendered. Individuals had surrendered, but never a unit. They believed in their old beliefs of Bushido and "suicide is better than death." And, in fact, the commander of the Japanese Army said that if we conquered them, there would be -- this would be the greatest mass suicide of all time, because he expected everybody -- the millions of people on the home islands -- to commit suicide.

GROSS: It was shortly after you got back from Hiroshima that you were told, just a few days later, you'd be dropping a newer bomb, a plutonium bomb, over Nagasaki, and you'd be commanding this mission. What was your reaction?

SWEENEY: Well, I hoped that the Japanese would quit before that. I didn't relish flying another mission or for the killing that was continuing on both sides in the interim. By the way, President Truman had told them from Potsdam that there would be a rain of ruin from the skies, the like of which mankind has never seen. And yet, the warlords would not permit the nation to surrender.

I had a -- when I -- well, my reaction was: if it has to be done, it has to be done. And what -- everything has to be done to end a war which is an evil war, in which we had no part at all in its initiation.

GROSS: How were your feelings as a pilot and just as a man affected by having already seen a little bit about what happened in Hiroshima as you were planning for the Nagasaki mission? I mean, this time around, you had some sense of what the experience was going to be like for you and what the damage was going to be on the city.

SWEENEY: Well, my thoughts were about the execution of the mission. We had a lot of planning to do. We had a lot of work to do. Paul Tebbetts (ph) had told me when he assigned me to the mission that night -- the night of the 6th when we got back from Hiroshima. He told me, of course I knew it, but it was the only bomb we had left. We had the two bombs, and we didn't have any more coming.

And we hoped -- first of all, the Japanese warlords thought that they, having survived this, could survive any or whatever else we did in terms of invasion, and that we only had one and so forth. This was to prove that we had more, but we only had the one more. And we would have had more later.

Now, my hope was that we would not have to do this. In fact, I had a recall -- a secret recall code word for this mission which could have been given to me anytime prior to the release, if the Japanese had indicated anything at all about a willingness to surrender.

GROSS: This is a code word that could have even been sent to you as you were in the air with the bomb.

SWEENEY: As I was in the air up to the second that it released from my airplane, they could have given me that recall word and I would not have dropped.

GROSS: You had a fuel problem on the mission to Nagasaki. You had about 600 gallons of fuel that were trapped in such a way that you couldn't use it. This fuel was unusable and you weren't completely sure you'd have enough fuel to actually fly the mission, and you were less sure you'd have enough fuel to make it back to the base if you did succeed in flying the mission.

But you decided to go anyways. Why did you decide to go ahead with it?

SWEENEY: Because of what General Tebbetts, then Colonel Tebbetts, had told me that the rationale, militarily, was to show the Japanese and diplomatically, I suppose, that -- show the Japanese that we had more bombs coming, even though that was the only other bomb that we had.

And the weather was forecast to become quite bad after the ninth of August for our purposes, and that the ninth was a very important day and all in all, this seemed to be a very, very important mission to execute. And the recovery of the crew was a lot less important than that, but I did have -- I wasn't sacrificing my crew, but I knew that I'd figure something else out, either landing somewhere or perhaps even in the ocean.

And in those days, guys my age who were airplane commanders I don't think were worried -- well, they were worried -- but it's always ticklish to land in the ocean, but it could be done and, you know, be picked up by a ship, hopefully.

GROSS: On this mission, your secondary target was Nagasaki. The primary target was another city.

SWEENEY: Yes, Kokura.

GROSS: But Kokura was spared. How come the bomb was not dropped on Kokura?

SWEENEY: Well, we -- when we got to Kokura, our weather airplane had been there before and told us the proper observed weather, which was early morning haze over the city, and that wasn't too bad. We had orders to drop visually. We were at 30,000 feet.

And when we got there, the city -- well, the first I knew of it when the bombardier, who had great experience -- highly skilled person, Kermit Behan (ph), turned to me at close to the -- very close to the release point and he said: "I can't see it. I can't see it."

I looked over his shoulder, and I saw why he couldn't see it. This was a big arsenal in Kokura, and it was now covered by smoke which had blown over from Niawata (ph), a city that had been firebombed the night before. The wind had shifted and brought that smoke across our aiming point.

And I do -- I did what is bad practice in aerial combat. I went out and made another run. Now, we had flak breaking at our altitude -- that's anti-aircraft fire -- breaking at our altitude on the way in on the first run. So, I changed my altitude from 30,000 to 31,000 feet hoping it would have some effect on their fusing, but they chased us up to 31,000 feet and I made another run, and the same thing happened. After the third run, I calculated real fast that we were getting nowhere really, but that I could go to my secondary target which was Nagasaki. In fact, I was almost -- I was forced to.

GROSS: When you got to Nagasaki, did you have clear sight of the target there?

SWEENEY: No. No, well, we didn't know yet. We're on the radar run. Let's say that we're 50 miles away, when we started, probably, at 100 miles away. And we're approaching the target and we're on our radar run, and just as we got -- just short of Nagasaki -- very, very short of Nagasaki -- Behan said "I've got it. I've got it."

And I said, in parlance: "you own it." And just very few seconds after that, the bomb was released on the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works plants on both sides of the river that come into Nagasaki Harbor. And so, we made a radar approach, but we made a visual drop.

GROSS: What was that interim like between the time when the bomb left the plane and the time the bomb detonated which was, what, about 43 seconds?

SWEENEY: Yes, well again, we made the turns as quickly as we could; get going in the opposite direction. We saw the flash -- the flash was, I thought, subjectively, that the flash was brighter than that at Hiroshima. I can't be sure of that. But the concussion that struck the airplane was slightly more forceful, but we knew what it was this time.

And so we would -- extremely short of fuel, and I didn't have any chance to -- nor desire to circle back to see the city, although we did get a glimpse of it as we headed to the nearest American-held land, which was Okinawa. And we saw much the same thing -- the horizontal cloud over the city occasioned by the explosion and then the mushroom cloud starting up and, again, all the colors, and then the mushroom at the top.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Major General Charles Sweeney, and he flew in the mission over Hiroshima and commanded the mission that dropped the plutonium bomb over Nagasaki. He's written a memoir called War's End.

General, let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Major General Charles Sweeney. He's written a memoir called War's End, about flying the mission over Hiroshima and commanding the mission over Nagasaki during World War II.

When did you actually get to Nagasaki and see the damage the bomb created first-hand?

SWEENEY: Very, very shortly after the peace was signed on the Missouri, which I think was September 2nd of 1945. And now, then, we go down to Nagasaki, let's say a couple days later so this might have been September 4. And we were the first ones in there. We were the first Americans in there -- the group of us -- we were about 20 men.

And we just went into Nagasaki and we saw the devastation. And the thing that impressed me the most was what had been a fire station was now just a cellar, and in the cellar was a fire engine that looked as if a giant had stepped on it and crushed it into the cellar.

And I realized that the whole infrastructure was gone. That is to say, the fire engine couldn't respond, but moreover, if he had responded, there would have been no water pipes to provide water to put out the conflagration and that these are terrible weapons.

I had hoped they wouldn't be used in the first place. I had hoped the Japanese would do the honorable thing and surrender -- call it, describe it however you want it -- quit torturing their own people. But those thoughts were foolish for me to even think that, and we thought well, gee, the war is over. No more killing. This was our mission.

GROSS: Were you aware of radiation sickness before you got to Nagasaki?

SWEENEY: No, no. As a matter of fact, there were some American forces in Nagasaki harbor restricted to their ships until somebody gave them clearance to go ashore because of the danger of radiation sickness. We didn't think of that.

We just blithely went into Nagasaki and we found a kind of a resort hotel on the outskirts and we went in there and there was a lovely couple running it -- Japanese couple, of course.

And I was wondering about signing our proper names on the register, but Colonel Tebbetts stepped right up and did so and I followed him and did so. Radiation obviously wasn't there, but we didn't know that it wasn't there or was there.

However, some of my men in my organization now joke that we shouldn't have worried about it. One worry was sterility, but I was fortunate enough to have 10 beautiful children, so -- afterwards. So I guess that wasn't a factor.

GROSS: A lot of people, I think, who worked on the atom bomb were transformed by it in a very profound way.

SWEENEY: Nah, I don't think that's true.

GROSS: You don't think that's true?

SWEENEY: No, of course not.

GROSS: I think some of the scientists were.

SWEENEY: Well, that may be. I don't celebrate bombs. I am so much against them. I'm as much against them as anybody in the world. I'm against war, as a matter of fact. But this book is neither a history book nor is it a celebration of atomic weapons. It's somewhat to correct some errors that have been made by revisionists, and...

GROSS: And I will say here, it's a very interesting account of what happened; what it was like to be there. I think this is information we'd all like to have.

SWEENEY: Yes, that's why I wrote the book. And for posterity -- I'd like my children and grandchildren and all those, you know, who will come along in future generations, to have these -- have this knowledge. They can draw their own conclusions, but let them have this knowledge.

But a lot of these revisionists were brought up in -- were -- yeah, they went to school in the '60s and they were -- they were taught that -- by some professors of however you want to describe them -- that the United States is bad; Japanese were victims. The Japanese were victims of their own warlords.

GROSS: The anniversary dates of the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are coming up soon. Do you do anything on those days?

SWEENEY: Not particularly. We -- on the 50th, we had a reunion. And we have a reunion coming up this year in Dayton on the 1st to the 6th. We just renew acquaintances, as anybody does at any reunion.

GROSS: Have you ever, ever had a moment of doubt about the atom bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

SWEENEY: Well, now, Terry, having told you what I've told you so far, I don't see how you can possibly even think that I might have. I mean, I've told you that I don't celebrate any nuclear weapon -- these nuclear weapons or any others. And I've never had a doubt that we were fighting evil, evil, evil -- the Hitlers and the Tojos and the Mussolinis.

GROSS: So, to sum up, never ever a doubt.

SWEENEY: Never a doubt. I mean, why should I doubt? I am joyous about the 500,000 Americans that weren't killed or wounded or 400,000, 300,000, 200,000, 100,000 -- whatever it was. There was no need for those thousands of Americans who lie under white crosses out there to be dead.

GROSS: Major General Charles Sweeney has a new memoir called War's End. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Charles Sweeney
High: Maj. Gen. Charles W. Sweeney was the last officer to lead an atomic mission and was involved in both the Hiroshima and the Nagasaki bombing runs. He has written a memoir entitled "War's End" which provides a first hand account of the planning and the execution of one of the history's most destructive combat missions.
Spec: History; World War II; Asia; Japan; Nagasaki; Maj. Gen. Charles W. Sweeney; Military; Nuclear Weapons; Enola Gay; Hiroshima
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: War's End
Date: JULY 31, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 073102NP.217
Head: Heretic's Heart
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Margot Adler was part of several defining political events of the 1960s, including the civil rights movement, the Berkeley free speech movement, and the women's movement. She's been dissatisfied with most of what she's read about the period. She says most of the writings are by men of a certain fame, usually heavy on sex and drugs.

In the '60s, Adler was too self-conscious about her body to spend much time with sexual adventures; too scared to take LSD. Now, she's written a '60s memoir called "Heretic's Heart." Adler is NPR's New York bureau chief. Her previous book, "Drawing Down the Moon" was about women's spirituality and witchcraft.

Margot Adler's grandfather, Alfred Adler, was one of Freud's most famous collaborators. Her parents were both leftists. At college in Berkeley, Margot became part of the New Left. I asked if she thought she was carrying on her parents' politics or breaking with them.

MARGOT ADLER, NPR REPORTER AND AUTHOR, "HERETIC'S HEART": Well, I would say that in the beginning I felt I was very much in the same tradition as my parents; that I was -- I was not really rebelling. And in fact, when I was arrested in the Free Speech movement, while I was worried what my mother was going to think, on a personal level, it really was true that when I finally called her up from jail, she quoted that famous statement from Thoreau, which is, you know, Thoreau is in jail and Emerson comes to visit him, I think, and Emerson says, you know, to Thoreau: "what are you doing in there?" And Thoreau says: "what are you doing out there?"

And she actually quoted that, you know, that statement to me on the phone when I called from the middle of jail. So in the beginning, I would say that I really did see myself as desperately wanting to not only follow in their footsteps, but even do more -- to be a cadre.

GROSS: And by "cadre" you mean, what, like a radical foot soldier in a larger movement?

ADLER: Exactly. Exactly.

GROSS: In writing about the birth of Free Speech movement, you say unlike some of the men, for instance, in the Free Speech movement, for whom the movement was also connected to being adored by women and having sex with women who adored them because they were powerful in the movement -- that it wasn't about those things for you.

ADLER: Well, I think it was always about ideas and friendships. It was not -- I was a virgin. I mean, I have to say this very plainly. I was a virgin during the Free Speech movement, and at the end of the Free Speech movement, I was still a virgin.

And I was very much not at home with my body. I think I used my weight as armor -- as a way, I even made myself as ugly as possible so I would be taken seriously intellectually.

And so, I didn't do a lot of things that I think a lot of other women did in the movement. I didn't staff an office. I didn't -- a lot of the women who staffed those offices were making coffee. They were running the mimeo machines and all those kinds of things.

And I was very much on the outside. I went to demonstrations. I, you know, was a follower, but a very cautious one.

GROSS: You know, you write a lot about how self-conscious you were about your body and how you were really not a part of, or very little a part of, the sexual experimentation of the period. And I have a feeling a lot of readers will really identify with that. I think there were a lot of people who were a lot more self-conscious than they were willing to let on at the time.

ADLER: Yes, and I think that -- you know, it's a funny thing...

GROSS: Not -- conscious and uncomfortable, I should say.

ADLER: Yes. I mean I -- I mean I have to say that I, you know, I did do some sexual experimentation and it's in the book. And as a matter of fact, there have already been some pre-reviews who said that some people will be upset by my candor. But I think that sex was very scary to me and I'd actually like to read a paragraph...

GROSS: Please.

ADLER: ... that I think in some ways is the most -- this is an odd thing to say about a book that's very, very radical -- it's in some ways the most radically conservative statement in the book and in some ways the most radical statement in the book. And it's about sexuality. And I've come to really understand that most people were -- we were too young to do any of that stuff well. Most people get good at that stuff later on.

And I think that one of the lies that is still perpetrated generation to generation, and it's still something that college students all over the United States are essentially given this lie -- that they're supposed to be good at all this stuff immediately.

And so, I'm going to read this one paragraph, which is: "but accepting my body was one thing. Dealing with sex and sexuality was another. I didn't understand that most people are not naturally good at sex and that for many people, ease and joy in sexuality doesn't come until after they are 30. Most people get better at sex with time."

"Some people live perfectly fascinating lives and never get very good at it. And dare I say it? Some people find a great idea, a fascinating conversation, a deep comradeship, or even an extraordinary meal just as satisfying. Music can raise the soul and body to heights of energy and delight. Community action and protest can make the skin tingle and the juices rise."

"And what of religious ecstasy and the altered states produced by ritual? There is very little place in our culture to talk about forms of transcendence other than two bodies rubbing against each other."

GROSS: Is that something you were comfortable saying at the time?

ADLER: Oh, I think at the time I was very confused about a lot of that stuff. I think I thought that to say that would make me seem totally weird; totally abnormal. I think it took the '70s.

It took the women's movement. It took consciousness raising. It took Shere Hite's, you know, book. It took a lot of things to make me feel that it was OK to say that sex was not the be-all and end-all of a life.

GROSS: My guest is NPR's New York bureau chief Margot Adler. She's written a new memoir about the '60s called Heretic's Heart. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Margot Adler. Part of your new memoir Heretic's Heart is given over to a correspondence that you had with a soldier, an American soldier who was in Vietnam while you were active in the anti-war movement, and you reprint his letters to you and your letters to him.

Obviously, you've kept those letters over the years. Had you not read them for a long time before putting them together for the book?

ADLER: Well actually, I had not read them for a number of years. Then I had -- I mean, I had obsessively gotten involved in this correspondence through a fluke, and I should say that I met this American soldier through the mail.

I found a letter he had written to a Berkeley newspaper and was just so overwhelmed and moved by that letter that I wrote him and he wrote me, and we started this incredible correspondence which, in retrospect, seems sort of like the real "Way We Were" -- you know?

I mean, sort of dark -- dark ethnic Berkeley demonstrator meets, you know, Midwestern WASP soldier and, you know, the two of them reveal their lives to each other and try to make each side seem more human to the other.

And the more -- so I kept these letters, not sure -- actually, I forgot about them for a number of years, and then I saw the movie "Coming Home" and went and sort of dug them out and remembered that they were there.

GROSS: This soldier had written a letter that was published, and that's -- your response to that letter is what started the correspondence. You started writing him in response. What did that initial letter that was published in the magazine say?

ADLER: The initial letter, which was published in the Berkeley student newspaper on April 23, 1967, said:

"I've heard rumors that there are people back in the world who don't believe this war should be. I'm not positive of this, though, 'cause it seems to me that if enough of them told the right people in the right way, then something might be done about it or someone might consider doing something about it, or someone might consider thinking about doing something about it."

"At least they wouldn't continue living perfectly assured that everyone agrees with their little ways of ethnocentric thinking, right? I've been waiting for you to organize. I guess that will be a long wait. But in the meantime, would you please march faster?"

You see, while you're discussing it amongst each other, being beat, getting in bed with dark-haired artists, substituting Mao for LSD, which proves he's a dope; deciding who should really run the school and all the myriad other equally important stuff -- some people here are dying for lighting a cigarette at night because the NCO in charge was drunk. I haven't understood that other reason yet."

"You know, the one in the songs? Some of them are ugly, though, and some are fat. There have been fellows die who used to scrape barnacles off barges. So what can I say about a guy who's lying in the mud and stuff, with his cytoplasm and cellulose torn and running out of small circles in his head. He'd rather be eating hot buttered popcorn down on one of Chicago's beaches probably. You've got the right idea, anyway."

So that was the letter. And I read that letter, and I was overwhelmed. I just kept on reading it over and over and over and crying and reading it. And so I -- you know, I didn't even have a real address for him. You know, it just said "SP.M.B. Anderson (ph) -- SP.4 M.B. Anderson, you know, 25th Infantry Division, Vietnam.

And I wrote a letter. It took like a month to get there. And then he wrote me and I wrote him. And as is the way with letters, you start unfolding yourself; in a way, you start revealing stuff that you would probably never reveal in person. And he started talking about the war in ways that he probably would never have told another human being. And I started talking about my life and about demonstrations.

At one point, I actually went to jail because of the Free Speech movement, and so several of the letters I write to him are from jail, and so I'm writing from jail and he's writing from operations in the field. And it was -- you know, the more I looked at this 10 years later, I said I can't believe that we actually did this.

GROSS: What did it mean to you at the time to be having an ongoing correspondence with a soldier who was actually in Vietnam?

ADLER: Well, it made the war different. It made the war human. I mean, I think it would be fair to say that before I wrote to him; before he wrote to me; that if you had asked me what was my position about the war, I would have said that I was pro the National Liberation Front. I was pro the Viet Cong.

And I took a very hard line, a very militant position about the war. I mean that -- the idea that we should get out never changed, but I certainly didn't see the human aspect of the soldiers. I didn't understand that they were innocent victims.

That -- I didn't understand a whole bunch of stuff about Vietnam that became so clear the minute I started, you know, writing and reading letters from this poetic man -- this incredibly intelligent, beautiful man -- who, you know, was writing from the heart and telling me what was going on in his life.

And it changed everything. I think it changed everything for me. Maybe it was responsible for me never being able to be a dogmatist in anything.

GROSS: Right. Because you had to deal with real human beings, not just ideology.

ADLER: Absolutely.

GROSS: Now, what's really interesting to me is that after this long, really personal and philosophical correspondence in which you wrote a lot of personal things and wrote your deepest feelings about the war and politics, and felt free to contradict each other when you disagreed -- then he was coming back to the states and he was going to meet you.


And this kind of idealized long-distance relationship was going to have to contend with, you know, the frictions that people contend with there are two people in the room together.

What did you think was going to happen when you found out that he was, you know, he was going to come see you? What did you expect was going to happen to your relationship?

ADLER: Well, I was so scared because remember I'm still this overweight, you know, person who really hates her body. Who -- you know, I hated my body. I hated my looks. And I had -- he had, interestingly, he had sent me a snapshot and I had avoided sending him a snapshot. And I was scared out of my mind.

I also was barely not a virgin. I had had sort of two experimental sexual encounters, both of which had been deeply unsatisfying and in one case, more like a clinical experiment than anything else. And I knew that he had been around. I mean, I knew even from the letters that he had actually had some experiences with sex in Vietnam.

And so here I was, you know, madly in love with him, but scared out of my mind what that encounter was going to be like. And in fact, it was difficult. It was difficult because -- well, first of all, he was very affected by the war and he wanted to be inside cars.

He wanted to be with his back to the wall. He wanted to be -- he wanted to sit in front of the TV and flush the toilet and get pizzas, and I wanted to meander around Sausalito or the cafes of Berkeley in the kind of meandering cafe life that I knew and loved.

And so that was -- you know, we meet and it was difficult. It was, on one sense, beautiful. I mean, I was still -- still in love with him when I saw him. I thought he was incredible. He was six foot four. I was amazed. And I was very, very attracted to him, but it was very -- there was a lot of tension in our meeting.

GROSS: Did you look at his face when he looked at you for the first time, because you were so worried about how he'd react to you physically?

ADLER: I -- I mean, I was scared, but I was -- you know, I was like dieting like crazy before he came.


I was doing all kinds of really crazy things and we only really had one night -- we had two nights together, and then he just had to go and he went back to Chicago and mucked around and sold encyclopedias and dropped out of school and slowly pulled his life together.

But interestingly enough, just -- one thing was that when he left, for me the most amazing thing was that I had this dream. And this dream was that I was in Vietnam and I was standing up to my knees in a rice paddy. And it was incredibly green and hot.

And a helicopter suddenly passes overhead and drops a letter. And it's a letter from him, but I'm in Vietnam. And I reach out for the letter and it drops into the water in this rice paddy, and all the letters get blurred, and I wake up.

And the first thought out of my mouth as I wake up from that dream is: "oh, I get it. I still need his letters. He's out. He's back. He's going back with his life. But I -- I'm sort of in a Vietnam of the soul. I'm still here."

GROSS: Hmm. What do you mean by "Vietnam of the soul?"

ADLER: Well, I was still an anti-war activist. I was still involved in all the deep sort of questions about what was right; what was action; how do you save the world; is action meaningful; can you change the world; what's the moral, right thing to do -- all the questions that I write to him in the letters.

And he was really interested in picking up his life and going on with things and forgetting, I think, as rapidly as possible or trying to forget, so much so that 25 years later, he asked for all the letters back because he was going into therapy because he was suddenly, after 25 years, experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome.

GROSS: When you finally met the soldier -- those two days that you spent together -- did you have any talks that approximated the depth of feeling that you communicated about the war, about politics, philosophy, your lives -- in the letters?

ADLER: Absolutely not. I would say that all of our talks, even now, are much less emotionally revealing than the letters were.

GROSS: Now, I feel somehow that I really understand this phenomenon, but I'm going to ask you to see if you can make sense of it -- why you could be so intimate and forthcoming in this long-distance letter writing relationship, and why you'd be so comfortable when you actually met -- uncomfortable.

ADLER: Uncomfortable and why it's so easy to do this on the radio, but probably not on television.


GROSS: I think, you know Tony Schwartz (ph), the adman, once said that people were born without earlids and that's why radio is such an intimate medium. And I think letters work like that too -- that you -- the stuff of the imagination happens in your head, so you're constantly creating these realities both in radio and in reading books. You're creating the pictures yourself.

And so -- then suddenly, you come across the reality of these pictures and part of it is that we have images, visual images, about the world that come to us through our schooling, from our parents, from all kinds of stuff. And we suddenly see someone and they represent those images -- not what we experience.

So Mark, for example, walks in to my world and suddenly I see the military haircut, the way he carries himself, his sort of reticence, the fact that he doesn't really emote a lot, that he's sort of a Midwestern guy. And all that stuff was not true in the letters. In the letters, he suddenly was able to suddenly explore ways that he probably wasn't able to do in life.

I don't know if that makes sense.

GROSS: Yeah. It does. It does.

Your book is so much, in a way, about contradictions that you've faced during your life and living in different, often conflicting worlds at the same time. And in your book you say that skepticism and mysticism are sworn enemies.

And yet, you live simultaneously in the world of skeptics and mystics. You're a journalist and you have to bring a degree of skepticism to journalism. You can't believe everything at face value. You have to test things and really dig to find what the real truth is -- where the real facts are.

Yet you're also a mystic. You practice a form of -- well, pagan religion and all kinds of like, you know, mystic -- mystic kind of rituals. Do you find it hard to live in both those worlds at the same time?

ADLER: Well, I actually -- I don't find it that hard to live in those worlds. I mean, I -- very often I have this feeling that, you know, I'm supposed to find it hard and I actually don't find it hard at all. I actually think -- I think the society thinks that mysticism and skepticism are sworn enemies.

But I actually think that the two are absolutely united; that you can live in the world of mystery and also believe that a table is a table; you know, that the floor is the floor; that you can dance ecstatically around a bonfire at night and wake up the next morning and be a computer programmer.

I think there's a tendency in our culture to paint everything as either/or. You know, you're either black or white. You're a man or you're a woman. You're -- you know, there is the soul and there's the body. There's materialism or spiritualism. These are all supposed to -- these are -- all these dichotomies are, I think, probably nonsense.

And there are a whole bunch of philosophers who -- and theorists who've begun to talk about moving away from an either/or kind of culture to a both/and culture.

GROSS: Of course, a problem you sometimes run into is that the people in one of the worlds you live in don't buy the truth of the other world, and they don't want to allow you to live in both worlds at the same time.

ADLER: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And I think that's -- most people don't want to live in many worlds, and so they say: "this is the truth. This is the right. It's either/all this." You know?

There can't be -- you know, it's either the -- either there's no such thing as alien contact or everybody, you know, is constantly being visited by flying saucers. Or, you know, you're either an addict or you're an alcoholic -- you're an addict, an alcoholic or you have to, you know, abstain.

You know, there are all these things. There are all these dichotomies in our life where, in fact, I think the, what I might call the "shemonic" approach, is a life of balance in which you're trying to say "I'm not going to be controlled by any of this. I'm not going to be overcome by some of this, but I'm going to move, kind of meander through these different worlds and try to lead a reasonably balanced, healthy life while enjoying them all."

GROSS: Well, Margot Adler, thanks a lot for talking with us.

ADLER: Thank you.

GROSS: Margot Adler is NPR's New York bureau chief. Her new memoir about the '60s is called Heretic's Heart.

Dateline: Margot Adler, New York; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: NPR correspondent Margot Adler's commitment to political causes began in her childhood: she grew up in a household of communist sympathizers during the McCarthy era. As a student at Berkeley, she continued her activism. During this time, she exchanged letters with an American soldier in Vietnam. Her life in the '60s is the subject of her memoir, "Heretic's Heart: A Journey Through Spirit and Revolution." Adler is now an expert on witchcraft and paganism.
Spec: History; McCarthyism; Religion; Paganism; Heretic's Heart
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Heretic's Heart
Date: JULY 31, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 073103NP.217
Head: Other Songs
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: When Ron Sexsmith's debut album was released two years ago, Elvis Costello called it his favorite record of the year, and he invited Sexsmith to open for him on tour.

Now Sexsmith has put out a new collection called "Other Songs," and rock critic Ken Tucker says it may be one of his favorite records of this year.

KEN TUCKER, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Ron Sexsmith has basically two vocal modes. He either sings in a reedy moan or a throaty murmur. Either way, the results tend to be lulling, which is often another term for boring.

In Sexsmith's case, however, lullingness becomes alluring. After a few seconds, if you don't fall asleep, you fall under his spell.


RON SEXSMITH, SINGER, SINGING: She was not the girl next door
But the girl from 'round the corner
Start to tailing her before
When she came to school one morning
And all eyes were upon her
As she took her seat
Her name was Amanda
With pretty eyes of green
Hair, blond, strawberry blond

TUCKER: I saw Ron Sexsmith open for Elvis Costello when Costello was on his "All This Useless Beauty" tour. In an unusual move, Costello came out and introduced Sexsmith as if he wanted to make sure the audience understood that this guy no one had heard of really did have the star's personal endorsement.

Sexsmith played an acoustic guitar and a drummer brushed a small kit behind him. The result was quiet, quirky, and quite tedious. The audience began talking to themselves as the set proceeded. I tried to maintain my attention, but Sexsmith was losing me. I'd come alone and I wished I had someone to talk to over this hushed, fussy piffle.

I concluded that Sexsmith was much more of a studio artist than a live performer. His recordings give life and intimacy to his small observations and fragile melodies.


SEXSMITH SINGING: Under every sky of baby blue
Is an undercurrent of rain
Under every trial life puts you through
Is an undercurrent of change

Though the sun now is swaddled in gray
It's pulling the wool over my eyes
When it looks like hell, I tell myself
It's a thinly veiled disguise

TUCKER: On this new collection, Sexsmith writes songs about visiting a graveyard with his young son; about seeing hope in the bleakest of situations; about a flirtation with adultery. This guy's probably the most happily married husband and father pop music has right now. He also allows himself to acknowledge an influence on Average Joe -- a musical homage to the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson.


SEXSMITH SINGING: Two girls strolling down Broadway
Tis' nobody, you would know
And on a storefront windows I see my face
And the lame expression of
This Average Joe

Now the fool and his money parted ways
To come out and start the festival
Oh now, who would have thought such an honest face
Could make a monkey of
This Average Joe

TUCKER: Other Songs is produced by Mitchell Froom, who's done such wonderful work over the years with Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, and Crowded House. Froom is the ideal person for a hothouse flower like Ron Sexsmith, gently pushing his voice in front of the instrumentation and decorating the melodies with warm squiggly keyboards.

I certainly don't think Sexsmith has the chance or the goods to become a big star, but in his own quietly determined way, he's got the makings of an exceptionally satisfying cult career.

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

Dateline: Ken Tucker; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews "Other Songs," the new recording by Ron Sexsmith. Sexsmith made his debut two years ago.
Spec: Music Industry; Other Songs; Ron Sexsmith
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Other Songs
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?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

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

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue