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From the Archives: The Quintessential Jazz Man.

Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins is one of the jazz world's greatest improvisational artists. At the tender age of 23, he played with Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. After successfully battling a heroin addiction in the early 1950s, he joined the Clifford Brown-Max Roach quintet. He also began a critically-acclaimed solo career. Now in his sixties, he feels obligated to carry on the vision of his own mentors to today's rising stars. A new 5 CD box set of his Riverside recordings from the late 1950s has just been released: “Freelance Years – Complete Riverside” (Fantasy/Riverside). (REBROADCAST from 2/2/94)

20:59

Other segments from the episode on February 25, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 25, 2000: Interview with Sonny Rollins; Review of E.L. Doctorow's novel "City of God"; Interview with Donald Fagen; Review of the film "Wonder Boys."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 25, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 022501np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Interview With Sonny Rollins
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

On today's archive edition of FRESH AIR, one of the greatest improvisers in the history of jazz, Sonny Rollins. His recordings on the Riverside label from the late '50s are collected on a new boxed set that comes out next month.

Also, Steely Dan has its first recording of all-new material since 1979. We'll listen back to an interview with the band's co-founder, Donald Fagin (ph).

Maureen Corrigan reviews "City of God," the new novel by E.L. Doctorow, and John Powers reviews "Wonder Boys," the new film starring Michael Douglas, directed by Curtis Hanson (ph), based on the novel by Michael Chaban (ph).

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First, the news.

(NEWS BREAK)

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

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "I TOLD EVERY LITTLE STAR," SONNY ROLLINS)

GROSS: That's Sonny Rollins playing "I Told Every Little Star," one of the tracks featured on a five-CD boxed set to be released next month, collecting the recordings he made in the late '50s for the Riverside label. On this archive edition we have a 1994 interview with Rollins, a musician who may have no living equal.

Rollins started recording in the late '40s, and early in his career played with the musicians now in the pantheon of modern jazz -- Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Clifford Brown. Jazz critic Francis Davis describes Rollins as "the quintessential jazz man, heroic, inspired, mystical, obsessed." Davis says, "Rollins is the greatest living jazz improviser. He may be the greatest virtuoso that jazz has ever produced."

Our interview began with this Rollins tenor saxophone solo from his 1972 recording of "Skylark."

(BEGIN AUDIO TAPE)

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "SKYLARK," SONNY ROLLINS)

SONNY ROLLINS, JAZZ SAXOPHONIST: Monk said to me one time that if it wasn't for music, life wouldn't be worthwhile living. I mean, I'm not put -- I'm sort of paraphrasing what he said. You know, if I don't play for a little while, I get physically sick. You know, if I don't play my horn for a while, for a few days or whatever, I actually begin to get sick. And I wonder, Well, gee, what's the matter with me? Then I realize, I haven't played my horn for a few days.

GROSS: When you're performing and you're improvising, are you thinking? And...

ROLLINS: Ha. Well, no, not really, no, no, I don't think. That's why I really practice and I keep these exercises and so on. Because when I'm actually on the stage and performing, the optimum condition is not to think. I just want the music to play itself. I don't want to have to think about it. If I have to think about what I'm doing, then the moment is already gone, you know.

GROSS: Are you analyzing what you're playing as you're doing it, saying, Whoa, this is good, or, I don't like this, I've got to find something that's working better?

ROLLINS: When I'm really playing at my best, I can hear what I'm doing, but after it's done -- but I don't -- I can't hear it while I'm doing it. And there are some occasions when I really can stand back mentally and sort of listen to myself play. The music just plays itself. I'm just a person standing there with the -- you know, moving my fingers and so on. And so there's certain times when I actually -- it's a out-of-body experience, so to speak.

GROSS: What do you do when you practice now? I mean, you're a brilliant player, you're a veteran player. I think a lot of people of your stature would probably just perform and not exactly practice any more.

ROLLINS: Well, you know, when you play a reed instrument -- and this might be true with other instruments as well -- but when you play a reed instrument, you have to deal with your embouchure, which is the position of your lips around your cheek, and the instrument and the mouthpiece of the instrument. And this has to form sort of a cushion. And if you don't play for a while, what will happen is that your lips would bleed when you play, and even split, your lip might split. It's happened to me when I've had to lay off for a period of time.

For other things, I'm not certain. I practice a lot of things. But I read once where my friend Max Roach said that a lot of musicians shouldn't really practice. Practicing is cheating after a certain -- after you reach a certain point. So that may be right. But in the case of just keeping my embouchure from bleeding and my lip from splitting, I like to play a certain amount every day, you know.

GROSS: Sonny Rollins is my guest.

One of the things that I love about your playing is your repertoire, the songs that you choose to play. And you have a really diverse repertoire, and you play a lot of old pop songs that many people don't know or have forgotten, as well as some songs that are, like, novelty songs, like, you know, "Toot Toot Tootsie" and "I'm an Old Cowhand" and Noel Coward songs.

Are these -- a lot of these songs songs you grew up with?

ROLLINS: Yes, a lot of them are songs that I heard when I was a youngster. When I was growing up, the big thing to do every week was go to the movies on Saturday. And on Saturday, we used to see a lot of these movies that had this scores on it, you know, by some of the composers, and we'd see Louis Armstrong in pictures, and different musical personalities that I enjoyed a lot. Of course, I also heard music around the house and so on. But the movies did provide a certain large part, I think, of some of the things that I play today, you know.

GROSS: When you started performing, was it hard to find other musicians who liked the same songs you did and who wanted to play them? And even back in the days when you were playing with Miles Davis or with Clifford Brown, did they share your musical taste?

ROLLINS: I would say basically yes. People like Coltrane and Clifford Brown, we all had an appreciation of what they would call today the standard songs. In my case, I might have found some more obscure songs.

GROSS: Did you ever, like, propose playing something like "Toot Toot Tootsie" and have other musicians look at you like you were crazy?

ROLLINS: Well, they might have thought so, but they wouldn't dare to say it.

GROSS: (laughs) Why don't we pause here and...

ROLLINS: It was my gig, you know.

GROSS: Right, right. Why don't we pause here and play your recording of "There's No Business Like Show Business"? I love what you do with it. This is Sonny Rollins, "There's No Business Like Show Business."

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "THERE'S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS")

GROSS: Sonny Rollins, recorded in 1955. We'll talk more after this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(END AUDIO TAPE)

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "TOOT TOOT TOOTSIE," SONNY ROLLINS)

(BREAK)

GROSS: Sonny Rollins has a new five-CD boxed set of his Riverside recordings from the late '50s that will be released next month. Let's get back to our 1994 interview with Rollins.

(BEGIN AUDIO TAPE)

GROSS: You grew up in Harlem in New York, and your parents -- I believe both of your parents were from the Virgin Islands?

ROLLINS: That's right.

GROSS: What were your parents' ambitions for you? Did they push you to excel when you were young?

ROLLINS: Yes, well, I was the youngest child. I have an older brother who is a very fine classical violinist. He ended up being a physician. Then I had an older sister who was also -- sang a lot in church and everything. And so I was supposed to follow in their footsteps. Of course I didn't, because I was somewhat of a black sheep. They were much more studious than I, and I wanted to hang out and play ball, and as the years went on, I was really the guy that was out going to jazz clubs and all that.

These things were frowned on at that time.

GROSS: The jazz life, when you started to play, actually had a lot of heroin involved with it.

ROLLINS: Right.

GROSS: And you got involved with that for a while when you were young. Do you think you would have tried something like that if it weren't for it being such a part of the jazz world in the '50s?

ROLLINS: I don't think I would have, actually. There would really have been no reason, I don't think, to get involved with that. I got involved with it because a lot of my idols were doing it, and so on, so we thought that using drugs was sort of the thing to do. But that's just something like asking whether Billie Holiday would be the singer she is if she didn't use drugs. I've had this discussion often with people.

And my answer is that yes, I think Billie Holiday would be the singer she is regardless of what happened to her. I mean, even though she may sing about hard times and all that, she was a consummate musician and beautiful singer. So, yes, I think that she would sing the way she did. Charlie Parker would play the way he did. Everybody would do what they did.

GROSS: It must have been your parents' worst nightmare when you entered the jazz world and then started using.

ROLLINS: Oh, yes, oh, yes. Well, you know, my mother was pretty -- since I was a baby, my mother really -- she stuck by me regardless of what I did. She was really in my corner. But I had a lot of problems from the rest of my family, my father and my grandmother, they really were pretty down on me. And my siblings, they didn't really understand where I was coming from anyway.

So -- but I have to say that my mother really believed in me all the way, and I'm really happy that I was able to get myself together before she left the scene, so she kind of saw me make -- start to make records and so on like that. So I sort of made her feel that her trust wasn't exactly all in vain, you know.

GROSS: Were you ever arrested?

ROLLINS: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I was arrested, unfortunately. I had to get involved with the justice system and all of this stuff, you know. But I was always lucky, because I was able to get involved with music programs, and...

GROSS: In the prison?

ROLLINS: Right. And in those days, there were other musicians there, you know, so...

GROSS: Did it scare you when you were in prison? Did you say to yourself, like, What am I doing here?

ROLLINS: Yes, it scared me a lot. It scared me a lot. But again, I was lucky because I could play an instrument...

GROSS: Right.

ROLLINS: ... and a lot of the other prisoners knew of me, so I immediately had respect from them. But, of course, being locked up is no joyride.

GROSS: How did you straighten out?

ROLLINS: Well, it took a little while. But, you know, I slid back a couple of times and everything. But I eventually -- I'd gotten down tot eh complete bottom, so I couldn't have gotten any worse. You know, I mean, I was really in a complete...

GROSS: What was the bottom?

ROLLINS: Well, the bottom was sleeping in parked cars in garages and all that stuff, you know. And what we used to call in those days "carrying the stick." Carrying the stick meant that you were homeless. I guess today they would just say the guy's homeless.

But I did this mainly when I was in Chicago. Chicago was where I was sort of -- was out there on my own. In New York, even though I was persona non grata at home, I could always perhaps get by, sneak in the house or something. But when I was really away from home, I really had to pay a lot of dues, as we used to say.

GROSS: How would you protect your horn during the periods when you were homeless?

ROLLINS: Well, I didn't protect my horn. I mean, I didn't have a horn, really.

GROSS: Were you borrowing other people's horns, then?

ROLLINS: I was borrowing other people's horns, yes.

GROSS: Yes. What did you learn about yourself during that period?

ROLLINS: Well, what I learned about myself -- well, I learned that I had the strength to get over something which was really deep, and I think one of the things that I'm always -- that I always feel good about myself was that I was able to overcome that, because I really had to struggle. You know, when I came away from the hospital one time and I went back to the night club, it was really the classic scene of the old drug pusher standing there saying, Come on, man, come on, you know, and this is good.

And I really went through the classic scene of fighting myself, you know, saying, Well, gee, if I go with them it wouldn't be so bad, it's just one time, and maybe I should do it, and why not, and this. And then I'd -- the other part of me saying, No, don't do it. You know, I mean, the real classic battle between good and evil, right and wrong, whatever you want to call it.

But anyway, I won out, you know, and I'm -- and that's one thing that I really feel good about myself, you know. I really went into the lions den and came out alive. And then after that, it increasingly got easier and easier to say no to drugs, which are really a debilitating thing for people to do.

GROSS: Over the years, you've taken several hiatuses. There have been several periods where you haven't performed. And I think one period like that lasted -- was it five years, was, like, the longest (inaudible) performing?

ROLLINS: I think about -- I think the long -- well, it's hard to say. I took a hiatus on the bridge, which was pretty well documented.

GROSS: Wait, this was during the period when you were practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York, because it was too loud for you to practice in your apartment.

ROLLINS: Right.

GROSS: So -- but what were some of the reasons that have led you during different times of your career away from performing?

ROLLINS: Well, there was also a period when I ran into a lot of difficulty with the powers that be in the music business. I mean, I was looked upon as sort of a person that was hard to get along with. Somehow I got that reputation, I guess because I tried to demand a certain amount of money and -- or I didn't want to be messed around like a lot of guys were. Whatever. But I've always dealt with that during my whole career in one way or another.

GROSS: So when you take a hiatus, when do you know it's time to get back to performing?

ROLLINS: Well, when I took my hiatus on the bridge, it became apparent, because I had sort of gotten what I wanted to do. I was trying to really accomplish something musically. And I'd sort of gotten close enough to what I was doing that I felt if I stayed there, it might have turned into a self-indulgence. And that's not what it was about. So I'd sort of gotten to that point when I realized, Well, it's time to come back.

I didn't accomplish everything that I wanted to, but I felt I accomplished enough that I proved the point to myself.

GROSS: I'd love to know what it feels like to play your horn on the Williamsburg Bridge. And this is the period when you weren't performing, but you were practicing a lot on the bridge, I guess in the middle of the night?

ROLLINS: Well, yes, we'd play it in the night, and in the daytime, any time. It was actually a beautiful place to play, because it was a nice space up there. You were really on top of the subway trains that came across the bridge underneath you.

GROSS: You were on a pedestrian walk?

ROLLINS: Yes, the pedestrian walk. So it was really a nice space up there. And you're sort of right in the middle of everything. You can see the -- Manhattan and on the other side Brooklyn, and the boats would be coming by at night, and you could blow as loud as you want, and nobody would even look at you. You know, every now and then people would walk by, but nobody would even look, you know, I mean, this was the sophistication of New Yorkers.

GROSS: Yes, New Yorkers are immune to everything. (laughs) Do you think your sound got bigger during that period?

ROLLINS: Oh, yes, definitely. Yes. So it did have certain good effects, really.

(END AUDIO TAPE)

GROSS: Sonny Rollins, recorded in 1994. His five-CD boxed set, collecting his Riverside recordings form the late '50s, will be released next month.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(AUDIO CLIP, JAZZ EXCERPT, SONNY ROLLINS)

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Sonny Rollins
High: One of the greatest improvisers in the history of jazz, Sonny Rollins, has a collection of recordings on the Riverside label from the late '50s on a new boxed set that comes out next month.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Sonny Rollins

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 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: Interview With Sonny Rollins

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 25, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 022502NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Maureen Corrigan Reviews "City of God"
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:30

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

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

E.L. Doctorow's latest novel is called "City of God." But book critic Maureen Corrigan says it falls short of divine.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BOOK CRITIC: Scary things happen when an E.L. Doctorow novel becomes unmoored from history. When Doctorow writes about the Rosenbergs, as he did in "The Book of Daniel," or the Stanford White murder scandal, as he did in "Ragtime," his characteristic overlay of digressions and jack-in-the-box narrators and mile-long catalogs provide color commentary on the main narrative.

When he abstains from using a historical template, the riffs take over. They become the narrative, and his readers are cast out in a wilderness of words without a map. That's what happened in his novel "Lives of the Poets," which I started long ago but never finished, and that's what happens here in his latest novel, "City of God," which I did finish but didn't understand.

That overarching problem acknowledged, there's enough that's distinctively Doctorow about "City of God" to keep a fan like me intermittently engaged. The novel is set in New York City, which no living writer sings about more electrically than Doctorow. In a three-page hymn at the beginning of the novel, Doctorow says of the city, "New York, New York, capital of literature, the arts, social pretension, subway tunnel condos. It is the capital of all music. It is the capital of exhausted trees."

There's also a long poem that sporadically materializes throughout the novel in which the narrator vividly conjures up his Depression-era Bronx childhood, as so many other of Doctorow's narrators have done.

But the subject in "City of God" is a new and risky one for Doctorow. This time round, he's writing about religious belief. The original "City of God," of course, is the theological masterwork written by St. Augustine, describing the societies of the Elect and the Damned.

In Doctorow's "City of God," signs and wonders abound, but revelation, in a religious and literary sense, never arrives. The plot here, such as it is, concerns a renegade Episcopalian clergyman named Thomas Pemberton, nicknamed Pem, who's director of a church in lower Manhattan. Pem's church is regularly burglarized by neighborhood junkies.

One day, even the big altar cross disappears. It turns up on the rooftop of an iconoclastic upper West Side synagogue, the Synagogue of Evolutionary Judaism, run by Rabbi Joshua Gruen and his wife, Rabbi Sarah Blumenthal. The rector and rabbis join forces to solve two earthly mysteries, the double-whammy desecration of the church and synagogue, as well as the whereabouts of a voluminous Holocaust diary that Sarah's father, a survivor, helped smuggle out of the Vilna ghetto.

But there are also divine mysteries contemplated here, especially by Pem, who's struggling to maintain his religious belief in the face of modern horrors.

I'm making "City of God" sound like it unfolds straightforwardly when, of course, it doesn't. The novel is figured as the workbook of a New York reporter who's trying out various creative writing ideas even as he tracks the crucifix and Holocaust diary stories. We get interpretations here by Einstein and the theologian Paul Tillich, obsessively close readings of popular songs like "Me and My Shadow," Sarah's father's testimony, sermons, and speeches.

I was so bewildered much of the time that when a main character is referred to midway through the novel as deceased, I mistakenly thought I'd missed the crucial death scene and wound up rereading most of the preceding chapters.

Like any good postmodernist, Doctorow wants to convince readers of the centrality of writing for the preservation of memory, but he fails to shape the shards of memory scattered across "City of God" into a coherent narrative, which is what gives memory its power to startle, comfort, or delude.

I think Doctorow, the author-God, wants to give the impression through this unholy narrative mess of abdicating control the way God seems to have drifted away in modern times. But what irks me about "City of God" is that, paradoxically, it's main plot turns on coincidences, and coincidences imply the workings of fate or a divine events planner. So I'm not sure where this novel finally comes down on the God question, and as a meditation on spiritual confusion, it's too confusing itself to be illuminating.

I'm reluctant to sound like a doubting Thomas about an author whose work I mostly revere, but I suspect the narrative chaos in "City of God" is little more than a holy smokescreen for a flimsy idea.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.

Coming up from the archives, an interview with Donald Fagin, co-founder of Steely Dan, and we'll listen to music from the new Steely Dan CD.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Maureen Corrigan
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "City of God," the new novel by E.L. Doctorow.
Spec: Entertainment; E.L. Doctorow; "City of God"

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 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: Maureen Corrigan Reviews "City of God"

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 25, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 022503NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Interview With Donald Fagen
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:45

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: The founders of the band Steely Dan, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker (ph), have released their first album of all-new Steely Dan material since 1979. The CD is called "Two Against Nature."

On this archive edition, we have an interview with Fagin, the pianist and lead singer of Steely Dan. Fagin co-writes Steely Dan's songs with guitarist Walter Becker. Their hits include "Ricky, Don't Lose That Number," "Reeling In the Years," "Peg," and "F.M."

In the '70s, the band rarely toured, and Fagin and Becker seldom gave interviews. They went their separate ways in 1981 and reunited in the '90s for a series of summer concerts. The reunited Steely Dan will be the subject of a PBS special in March and an edition of the VH1 program "Storytellers" on April 24.

Before we hear from Fagin, let's hear a track from the new CD. This is called "Janie Runaway."

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "JANIE RUNAWAY," STEELY DAN)

GROSS: Music from Steely Dan's new CD, "Two Against Nature."

I spoke with the band's co-founder, Donald Fagin, in 1991.

(BEGIN AUDIO TAPE)

GROSS: What kind of music did you grow up listening to growing up in, I think it was, Passaic, New Jersey?

DONALD Fagen, STEELY DAN: Let's see. My mother was a dance band singer. She started at 5 years old, and doing shows up in the Catskills. Her -- she was kind of a, you know, local Borscht Belt child star. And she worked every summer until she was 17. So she knew, you know, every possible standard, and she had a very nice kind of back-phrasing, swing-type phrasing style, and she used to sing around the house, you know, during my childhood. So I knew all the basic standards.

And then when I was about 8 or 9 years old, quite young, I had some older cousins who turned me on to jazz. And I was kind of a weenie jazz fan. And that's -- I collected jazz, and became, you know, very involved with not only the music but the cultural realities of jazz and how it differed from my middle-class background, I think. Like a lot of white middle-class kids, black music was -- and its culture was an alternative. I think like a lot of kids, I found something missing in the American childhood, and jazz was, you know, in a way, was -- saved me.

GROSS: So how old were you when you were able to go into the city to jazz clubs?

FAGEN: Well, my cousins were in high school, used to take me into the city when I was, oh, 10 or 11 years old. I remember sitting in the kiddie section of the Vanguard.

GROSS: They had a kiddie section?

FAGEN: Well, I -- they said, "We'll put you in the kiddie section." What it actually was was the -- a -- the banquettes along the wall, right next to the -- where they used to have the drum kit. And I remember at 11 years old sitting right next to Danny Richmond, who was playing with Charlie Mingus, and having my glass of Coca-Cola vibrate toward the edge of the table from the power of his drumming, and have to keep moving my glass back towards the middle of the table.

GROSS: So how did you discover or rediscover rock and soul and rhythm and blues?

FAGEN: Well, I think in the mid-'60s, '65, which was the year I went to college up at Bard College in Annandale, New York, jazz had changed quite a bit, or was in the process of changing into a more -- really a more political music, because of the -- what was going on in the country culturally as far as black and white. And at the same time, I felt that I couldn't relate to the music as well as I had done.

And at the same time, I discovered blues and soul music, which had -- I think also had a lot of the political feeling, and in fact political relevance back then. But I could relate to it more easily. And it had a kind of directness which I was looking for at that time. And, you know, I just -- it was unfamiliar music to me, but it had a lot of the kind of soul that I had always heard in jazz. And it just attracted me.

And I also liked a lot of the -- you know, white rock bands that were around at the time.

GROSS: Now, before you and Walter Becker formed Steely Dan, you were part of the backup group for Jay and the Americans. His hits included "Only in America," "She Cried," "Come a Little Bit Closer," "Cara Mia." Now, you toured with them in '70 and '71. They had their last record on the chart in 1970, so this was the decline period for Jay and the Americans. I mean, let's face it, you know, psychedelic music was in, Jay and the Americans was out at that time. So what was it like to tour with a band that had had a lot of hits but was on the way down?

FAGEN: Yes, they were on a declining curve, no doubt. And -- but for us it was great, because it was a job playing music with a professional group, and it was our -- really, I think that was our earliest experience of doing real touring, and we got a lot of experience as, you know, with -- how to keep a rhythm section tight, how to play together. And we had a lot of fun in that group, because we didn't have any responsibility. We were -- there was four guys in monkey suits standing in front of us, and it made it very easy and fun.

GROSS: Did you like the band's music?

FAGEN: Well, you know, it wasn't really our cup of tea, but, you know, if you play music, any kind of music if it has a good groove, it's fun to play. It really doesn't matter what it is.

GROSS: You went out to Los Angeles with Walter Becker to become staff writers for ABC Records.

FAGEN: Right.

GROSS: Describe what the job was like as a staff writer.

FAGEN: Staff writing was a great job, but we were probably among the very last staff writers ever hired by a record company, which was definitely -- the idea of having staff writers was on its way out. But we had a little room with a piano in it, and every day we'd come in at 9:00 to the -- our little studio and try to write pop songs for the artists on the label. And it was fun.

Unfortunately, Walter and I are probably the -- among the worst pop song writers ever. Our songs tended to be imitative of other pop songs, and, you know, we were basically writing on order for groups like the Grass Roots, for -- there was a few other groups we tried to write for who were on the label, I guess Three Dog Night.

But none of them ever actually recorded any of our songs. I think Danny Dougherty (ph), formerly with the Mamas and Papas, did one, but I don't think it was ever released.

GROSS: Were you writing lyrics as cryptic for the Grass Roots as you later wrote for your own group?

FAGEN: Well, we tried to -- you know, that was another problem. We tried to write lyrics that, you know, were less personal and, you know, more universal and more romantic. But generally, that was another element that was -- made them sort of easy to resist by the commercial pop singers.

GROSS: (laughs)

(END AUDIO TAPE)

GROSS: We're listening to a 1991 interview with Donald Fagen, co-founder of the band Steely Dan. Let's listen to one of their hits from the '70s. This is "Bodhisattva."

(AUDIO CLIP, EXCERPT, "BODHISATTVA," STEELY DAN)

(BEGIN AUDIO TAPE)

GROSS: Whose idea was naming the band Steely Dan? Had you read a lot of William Burroughs' fiction?

FAGEN: Yes, I (inaudible) Burroughs fans, and we needed a name in a hurry, and this was about 1971, we'd already started recording an album, and we thought that this was kind of a funny in-joke to call it Steely Dan, which is a sexual device which is mentioned in -- kind of cartoon sexual device which is mentioned in "Naked Lunch" by William Burroughs.

And, of course, we thought that this band would last about six months, and that we'd -- you know, then go on to something else. So I think probably if we had thought about it, we would have come up with something more original.

GROSS: Well, did you ever feel -- once everybody found out what Steely Dan meant, did you ever feel stuck with a name that you didn't want any more?

FAGEN: In a way. But, you know, it kind of -- by that time, it sort of meant something else, so...

GROSS: Right, it meant the band.

FAGEN: Yes. So, you know, apologies to William Burroughs.

GROSS: Why did Steely Dan become more of a studio band than a touring band, especially given that you and Walter Becker had, you know, gotten your start playing as the backup band for Jay and the Americans? So you had experience being on the road playing very different music, but being on the road.

FAGEN: Well, the band was put together very quickly, the same way the title -- the name of the band was chosen. We basically started recording with a five-man group that were recruited from -- mostly from studio players that we had played with on the East Coast. And we -- for years, we'd been looking for a singer that could be a front man. And, you know, what we at the time thought of as a true singing voice. And we'd never been able to find one. At the last moment, we brought in a guy named Dave Palmer, who one of the other guys knew. And we started recording the record with him singing.

But everyone seemed to agree that the attitude we were trying to express was really lost, it just -- it was something very personal. So I was elected as being able to, you know, sing the most in tune. And maybe between Walter and I, my pitch was a little better, and I had the right attitude. So I became the front man. And in fact, first record I -- professional record I ever recorded was "Do It Again," which became a big hit.

GROSS: You think of a singer as being the front man.

FAGEN: Well, certainly on stage. We -- you know, there was no one else willing to do it, really, so by default I became the singer and the front man.

GROSS: Were you uncomfortable with this new position?

FAGEN: Oh, well, yes and no. I didn't like the pressure. You know, I had an untrained voice, and my voice would get tired by the end of a night of singing for, like, an hour and a half in front of a big, noisy rock and roll band. And, you know, I enjoyed performing, and I enjoyed playing, but the singing and the -- and especially talking to the audience was new to me. And it was difficult for me. I'm basically -- was a shy kid, and it was a little hard for me -- hard going for me.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

FAGEN: Nice talking to you.

(END AUDIO TAPE)

GROSS: Donald Fagen co-founded the band Steely Dan. Steely Dan has its first recording of all-new material since 1979. It's called "Two Against Nature." Our interview with Fagen was recorded in 1991.

(AUDIO CLIP, SONG EXCERPT, STEELY DAN)

GROSS: Coming up, a review of the film "Wonder Boys."

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Donald Fagen
High: Co-founder of the 1970s rock group Steely Dan, Donald Fagen. Their hits included "Rikki, Don't Lose that Number," "Deacon Blues," and "Josie." Since then he's issued a solo album and some singles, and worked at film scoring. Steely Dan's new CD is "Two Against Nature"
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Steely Dan; Donald Fagen

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 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: Interview With Donald Fagen

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: FEBRUARY 25, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 022504NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: John Powers Reviews 'Wonder Boys'
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:56

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: "Wonder Boys" is a new comedy based on the acclaimed novel by Michael Chaban. It stars Michael Douglas, Robert Downey, Jr., Frances McDormand, and Toby McGuire and is directed by Curtis Hanson, who made "L.A. Confidential." Our film critic, John Powers, has this review.

JOHN POWERS, FILM CRITIC: Whenever I travel around the country, people over 30 always ask me the same question, Why aren't there movies for grownups any more? And though I sympathize with what they're saying, I always give the same answer -- because when a movie for grownups does come out, you don't go.

I hope that doesn't happen to the new comedy "Wonder Boys," a tender, low-key charmer about a middle-aged rascal who's struggling to behave like an adult. Michael Douglas stars as Grady Tripp, a 50-ish writer who once wrote a celebrated novel. But now this one-time boy wonder is teaching at a Pittsburgh university and making a has of his life.

He can't stop getting stoned, he's on his third marriage and having an affair with a married woman, played by Frances McDormand, who also happens to be the university's chancellor. And most disconcerting, perhaps, he's spent years failing to finish his next novel.

All these strands start forming a noose around his neck during a weekend literary festival at the university. Grady's wife leaves him, and his lover tells him she's pregnant. His editor, played by Robert Downey, Jr., is flying in from New York and is desperate to see Grady's manuscript, for he's another fading wonder boy who needs a hit.

And finally, Grady gets sucked into a series of loony misadventures triggered by his best student, James Lear -- that's Toby McGuire -- a brilliant misfit who's destined to be the next wonder boy.

Over the course of the weekend, Grady's already-misshapen life is suddenly inundated with all manner of farcical stuff, a stolen car, a murdered dog, a transvestite with a tuba, a woman's pink housecoat, a jacket once owned by Marilyn Monroe, and, of course, his novel, which, like a cancer, just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

In the process of dealing with all this madness, Grady comes to realize exactly what he's turned into, never more forcibly than when he and his editor stumble across a page that James Lear has written about him.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "WONDER BOYS")

ROBERT DOWNEY, JR., ACTOR: Hey. Check this out. "Finally the door opened. It was a shock to see him shuffling into the room like an aging prizefighter, limping, beaten." Does this sound like anyone we know? "But it was later when the great man squinted into the bitter glow of twilight... " Oh, "of twilight," this (inaudible) needs an editor. "... and muttered simply, `It means nothing, all of it, nothing.' But the true shock came (ph). It was then that the boy understood that his hero's true injuries lay in a darker place, his heart."

MICHAEL DOUGLAS, ACTOR: Yeah, his heart what?

DOWNEY: "His heart, once capable of inspiring others so completely, could no longer inspire so much as itself. It beat now only out of habit. It beat now only because it could."

(END AUDIO CLIP)

POWERS: Michael Chaban's original novel was a buoyant delight, blending lyricism, absurd comedy, and romanticized fondness for the foibles of the writing life. Screenwriter Steve Clovis (ph) does a terrific job of distilling all this, and while the movie never quite achieves the novel's comic exuberance, it's still quite funny, with an energizing turn by Robert Downey, Jr., who brings a what-the-hell brio to everything he does.

Still, "Wonder Boys" is not a side-splitting yuckfest like "There's Something About Mary," or one of those screwball jobs made by guys like George Cukor. Rather, it's a comedy of character done in a minor key. Things keep happening, but there's not a lot of plot.

The movie's very well directed by Curtis Hanson, who, like Grady, is attempting to follow up on a big success -- in his case, "L.A. Confidential." Hanson made his name doing genre films like "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle." But now that he's doing subtler stuff, his directing is increasingly effortless and confident.

Though a couple of the slapstick scenes don't quite click -- he's never before made a comedy -- he imbues his story with gentle humor, ruefulness, and an affectionate regard for the quiet glories of Pittsburgh. In an industry full of wonder boys who quickly burn out, the 54-year-old Hanson just keeps getting better and better.

So does Michael Douglas. His acting has always been laced with sourness, like a wine that's corked. But here, fattened up and playing a man fuddled by reefer, he gives his gentlest, most vulnerable performance. He lets us see that Grady's a 50-year-old child who needs to start making choices in his life rather than just drifting through it. He learns to make peace with the fact that he's no longer a wonder boy. That mantle has been passed to his protegee, James Lear.

"Wonder Boys"' ending is saccharine, perhaps sweetened for the studio, and as the credits rolled, I heard a woman in her 20s grumble that this was a film for, quote, "middle-aged people." She did not mean this kindly, but I do. "Wonder Boys" is a thoroughly enjoyable picture for middle-aged people, which is why, if you're over 30, you ought to rush out and see it before it's replaced in the multiplex by the latest masterpiece starring Adam Sandler.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for "Vogue."

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Fred Snyder. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our theme music was composed by Joel Forrester (ph) and performed by the Microscopic Septette.

I'm Terry Gross.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: John Powers
High: John Powers reviews "Wonder Boys," the new film starring Michael Douglas, Frances McDormand, and Tobey Maguire based on the novel by Michael Chabon and directed by Curtis Hanson.
Spec: Entertainment; "Wonder Boys"; Movie Industry

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 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: John Powers Reviews 'Wonder Boys'
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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