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Behind the Myth: A New Beatles Biography

Rock journalist Bob Spitz's new biography of the Beatles is decidedly not prettified: venereal disease, drugs, and bad business are all part of the story of the Fab Four. The book is The Beatles: The Biography.

20:53

Other segments from the episode on November 29, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 29, 2005: interview with Bob Spitz; Interview with Dennis Quaid; Commentary on language.

Transcript

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*****

SHOW: Fresh Air

DATE: November 29, 2005

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "The Ed Sullivan Show")

Mr. ED SULLIVAN: Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles.

(Soundbite of screams)

THE BEATLES: One, two, three, four, five! (Singing) Close your eyes and I'll
kiss you. Tomorrow I'll miss you. Remember I'll always be true. And...

GROSS: The new book "The Beatles" is a nearly 900-page biography of the group
based, in part, on hundreds of interviews with The Beatles' family members,
friends, fellow performers and colleagues. My guest is the author, Bob Spitz.
He's also the author of the books "Barefoot in Babylon" about the Woodstock
festival and "Dylan: A Biography."

Bob Spitz, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to do a Beatles book? There
are hundreds of them that have already been written.

Mr. BOB SPITZ (Author, "The Beatles"): Yes, there have been; close to 600
books, Terry. But I think that they were all embroidered around a story that
The Beatles told their biographer, Hunter Davies, in 1967. And they did that
largely to keep their wives, girlfriends and family members from being offended
by some of the facts that they didn't want to be let out. Since then everybody
has embroidered their story from that very first interview that they gave
Hunter Davies. And because of that, The Beatles have told these stories so
often that they themselves had forgotten what was true and what was not true.
So it became this fantastic myth. And when Paul told me, during an interview
that I did with him, that they had made up so much of this material, I felt
that a real biographer ought to tackle a real biography.

GROSS: So you say that The Beatles withheld a lot of facts because they didn't
want their friends and family to know. What's an example of one of the stories
that was not told to protect friends and family?

Mr. SPITZ: Well, you know, their apprenticeship in Hamburg, when they actually
became The Beatles--it's kind of a grimy story. Hamburg was a grimy place for
them. They were in the Reeperbahn, which was a no-holds-barred little strip of
community that was populated by some clubs that played rock music, brothels, a
lot of male-female mud wrestling. And The Beatles worked very hard there, but
The Beatles also discovered amphetamines there, and that kept them going
through those very grueling days. Sometimes they played 10 to 14 hours a day,
with only a 15-minute break every two hours. They got gonorrhea there. Of
course, they didn't want their wives and girlfriends to know that either.

These are not crucial parts of The Beatles story, and yet that very difficult
time that they spent in Hamburg working so hard to define their sound and
really become a fabulous performing rock band, was--this was part of the
atmosphere that was there, and this was part of their story that they did not
want known.

GROSS: Brian Epstein, the managed The Beatles for many years, didn't really
want the fans to know that Paul and John had girlfriends 'cause he was afraid
that this would discourage the female fans from fantasizing about Paul and
John.

Mr. SPITZ: Yes, that's right.

GROSS: And, you know, a lot has been said about John Lennon's first wife,
Cynthia, and she's written about this as well--about how she had to stay in the
background and keep out of sight and so on. What about Paul's girlfriend, Dot,
who he nearly married? She nearly had a child; she miscarried. But his
life--they came close to getting married, and they came close to becoming
parents together.

Mr. SPITZ: Yes.

GROSS: Has much been known about her before your book?

Mr. SPITZ: No, it hasn't, and it really took me quite a long time to find her.
She was a very key part of the story. She came into the story at a very early
time, when the boys were still in Liverpool, before they went to Hamburg, and
was with Paul for about two years. And those were the two years in which he
met John, in which George Harrison joined the band. This was before Ringo
Starr joined the band. And they started writing together. So I felt I had to
find her. And it was only by a stroke of luck that someone in the UK told me
she was in western Canada, and she prefers not to be identified and found there
with--under her new married name.

But she was very critical to this story because she was with them all through
that time but, also, a confidante of Cynthia Lennon's and helped me set some of
that story straight. Like Cynthia, Dot was pregnant and confronted Paul, and
Paul decided, like John, to do the right thing and get married. He was
reluctant, but he knew that that's the way it would have to be. They talked to
Paul's father. They took out a marriage license, and Paul gave Dot an
engagement ring. They went so far as to have Dot be given lessons in how to
prepare a house for her man by Paul's Aunt Jean. And Dot was incredibly
excited about this wedding.

Sadly, she miscarried, and she was gone from the equation almost within a week.
Paul took that as a license for his freedom and moved on. It's kind of a sad
ending to that story and perhaps a little revealing about Paul McCartney.

GROSS: Well, what did you learn about how The Beatles worked together from
talking to Dot?

Mr. SPITZ: That they were like businessman. They sat down at a certain point
every day. John put on his glasses. They smoked like fiends. And they opened
their notebooks, and they wrote. And nothing--nothing--interfered with that.
They could do this in a crowded cafe, they could do it in a bus, they could do
it at a party. But they would remove themselves to a corner of the room, and,
very much like Rodgers and Hammerstein, they would write music in a very
businesslike way. Nothing deterred them. And if anybody came and annoyed them
while they were doing this, they told them in very stark language to remove
themselves immediately.

GROSS: One of the things I really love about The Beatles' early work--I mean, I
have to say I'm really a fan of The Beatles' like song era, when they were
actually writing songs and doing great harmonies, hand claps, you know.

Mr. SPITZ: Sure.

GROSS: So did you learn anything about how they learned to harmonize with each
other, about figuring out where they were harmonically with each other, John
and Paul?

Mr. SPITZ: You know, that was as natural as it came. Paul was taught harmony
by his father, Jim McCartney. Jim had played with several jazz bands in the
1930s and 1940s and was always playing the piano in the house. And very early
on he had taught Paul and his brother, Mike, all the essential elements of
harmony--how to sing, you know, a third above or below. And so by the time
John and Paul sat down together, it was as natural as breathing. They never
talked about it. They knew exactly where to go, and they went their naturally
because their voices were so different.

GROSS: Choose a record that you learned a lot about how it was made, things
that weren't known publicly before, and tell us what happened behind the
scenes.

Mr. SPITZ: Well, I think the greatest change that we have in music, our
understanding of how pop music is made, comes with "Revolver." "Revolver," many
people think, is still one of the greatest rock 'n' roll records of all time,
and I think, without a doubt, it's perhaps The Beatles' greatest album. Before
that record, everything was created in the studio in a day or two days. There
was a discipline in the studio that anybody making a pop record in the UK had
to come and do the entire thing right away. They dressed in suits. The boys
could take a little lunch break, but they had to come back and complete
everything. At the end of the day that was the album.

"Revolver" was completely organic. It had never happened before that way. They
came into the studio with half-finished things. Feedback was never used before
on a record. All kinds of strange instruments that were lying around the
studio that had been used for sound effects on comedy albums, on spoken-word
albums were dragged out of the closets and tried. Arrangements were put behind
certain songs that George Martin had to play for them on harpsichord or piano.
And what he did was give The Beatles free reign.

GROSS: You want to choose a track from "Revolver" and talk about that specific
track?

Mr. SPITZ: Well, the one that always amazes me in "Tax Man." It's the first
song on the album. And the reason it amazes me is this: Before that, rock 'n'
roll to everybody was a two-and-a-half-minute song, and the
two-and-a-half-minute song had a little bridge that started out. It had a
chorus or two. What we hear on "Tax Man" is this: We hear a coughing and
somebody counting down and then that very unusual syncopation of instruments.

This song was not about cars or girls or high school. It was about being
overtaxed. George Harrison hated paying tax. He thought it was unfair. In
fact, when someone told him that the reason money had been taken out of The
Beatles' paychecks for tax purposes, he was shocked. He had never dreamed that
they would have to pay tax, and it infuriated him, and that was his paean to
it. So "Tax Man" is--"Tax Man" was put together in a very, very organic way,
and they allowed him to play some very strange lead guitar in it that no one
had ever heard anybody play before. When that album first came on, it
befuddled people.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Tax Man" from "Revolver"? And my guest is Bob
Spitz, author of the new, nearly 900-page biography called "The Beatles."

(Soundbite of "Tax Man")

THE BEATLES: One, two, three, four.

(Soundbite of coughing)

THE BEATLES: One, two--(Singing) Let me tell you how it will be. There's one
for you, 19 for me 'cause I'm the tax man. Yeah, I'm the tax man. Should 5
percent appear too small, be thankful I don't take it all 'cause I'm the tax
man. Yeah, I'm the tax man. If you drive a truck, I'll tax the street. If
you try to sit-sit, I'll tax your seat. If you get too cold, I'll tax the
heat. If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet. Tax man. 'Cause I'm the tax
man.

GROSS: We'll talk more about The Beatles with Bob Spitz, the author of the new
book "The Beatles," after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Bob Spitz, and he's written a new biography of The Beatles.

You know, The Beatles were one of the first bands to be known to be using, you
know, marijuana and LSD, and you can hear the influence of that in their music.
You can see the influence of that in their album covers and so on. At about
the time that he was--started seeing Yoko Ono, John Lennon started using
heroin, different kind of drug. Did that come between him and the other
members of the band at all when they found out, and did it change him in a way
that affected their relationship, too?

Mr. SPITZ: This is one of the few, few areas that The Beatles have completely
protected, talking about John's use of heroin, and only in a little way do they
do it. Paul talks about it in his biography a little. They were horrified by
it. They experimented with marijuana, of course, and then LSD, but by a few
years later, LSD--they had finished with LSD. George wanted no part of it
anymore, and he was perhaps its most avid practitioner. Paul experimented a
couple times. Heroin was a completely different, different animal to them.

I pretty well think that they thought that John was on the way to killing
himself. He was in turmoil. His relationship to them was in turmoil. They
were the Four Musketeers all throughout The Beatles, and now they were coming
apart at the seams. And I don't think they knew what to do with it. Luckily,
John seemed to pull himself out of it, although I was told he was using heroin
again even here when he was in New York. But that soon became not a factor in
his life as well.

GROSS: What are the artistic differences that came between Paul and John?

Mr. SPITZ: I guess very early on Paul decided that the image of the lovable
mop-tops that were The Beatles was something that he wanted to keep forever. He
liked that. He was Mr. Entertainment, and he fit more easily into the showbiz
mold of The Beatles, while John, of course, was not interested in that at all.
In fact, the time that Brian Epstein put The Beatles in suits and made them
bow--from that time on, John was removing himself, I think, from The Beatles,
and George was as well. And that really drove them in opposite directions.

I know that John wanted out much earlier than The Beatles split up, maybe two
years before. He was finished spiritually with being a member of The Beatles.
It--he had outgrown it. What John wanted to be was the Rolling Stones. He
loved their image. They were rebellious. They were a little bit dangers. The
Beatles weren't at all dangerous. I mean, in some respect, when they appeared
at their Sgt. Pepper's party, looking very withdrawn and having mustaches and
long hair, in a sense that we had never seen that kind of long hair before, and
wearing very mod clothes, he was a little more comfortable. But John would have
liked to have put on that leather jacket and been, you know, Keith Richards at
some point in his life.

And so they were going their cross-purposes, and that really affected
everything in The Beatles. They--there was chaos from within the group. They
would snap at each other a little more. In the studio, they accused each other
of trying to be more influential with George Martin, to have more of their
songs and, hence, more of their kind of influence of where The Beatles should
go on a particular album. It got to a point where John and George didn't want
to be in the same room with Paul anymore.

GROSS: Why not?

Mr. SPITZ: Paul was very controlling. He would come back...

GROSS: In what way? Controlling of what?

Mr. SPITZ: Oh, in the recording studio he would tell them how to play, what to
play, when to play it. He would take over almost as the producer of the album.
He would find a way to dictate whose songs would go where on the album. He
became friends with all the engineers in the studio, so that he could come in
at different hours and put different sounds on all the tracks, even tracks that
George and John were working on separately. And Paul would give these
long-winded interviews to the press on his own as well that really ire--it
really annoyed George and John. They didn't want that image anymore. They
didn't want to be part of it. And there was Paul again being Mr. Charming, Mr.
Outgoing, Mr. The Face of The Beatles.

So I think towards the end there, things got very, very tense in the studio. At
one point George left the band, and they were going to replace him with Eric
Clapton. John actually said, `Let him go. We'll get Clapton to play.' And at
another point Ringo left the band. Ringo, who was the voice of calm through
The Beatles, was a lovable, lovable guy who everybody loved. He couldn't take
it anymore either, and it was chiefly because of the way Paul had taken over in
the studio. They all had a hard time with it.

GROSS: Well, a lot has been made over the years of how it was Yoko Ono that
really drove The Beatles apart because John was so obsessed with her, and she
monopolized so much of his time. How much did Yoko Ono's relationship with
John actually have to do with the breakup of the band, do you think?

Mr. SPITZ: Well, I think it had a lot to do with it, but it had to do with it
in a different way. As I said before, John had already spiritually removed
himself from the band, and I think he was looking for anything that would help
him make the final break. And when he met Yoko, he found it. He found someone
who was strong, who was outspoken, not afraid to stand up to Paul and could
easily intimidate Paul McCartney, who I think John was intimidated by all
along. And I--it's my belief that John used Yoko as almost a hand grenade to
lob into this to blow it up once and for all.

She was a very, very divisive character. I think in "The Beatles Anthology,"
they were very restrained, but you can hear George saying and Paul saying, `We
didn't know what to make of her being in the studio. We didn't--we had never
had a woman in the studio before, let alone any guests in the studio.' And here
was Yoko insisting to be let in to every one of their recording sessions, and
she interrupted. She would say, `No, do this. Do that. Beatles do this.
Beatles do that.' They were furious with John, and Yoko, I think very craftly,
played her part. But she helped remove John from The Beatles very ably.

GROSS: Bob Spitz, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SPITZ: It's been my pleasure, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Bob Spitz is the author of the new book "The Beatles." I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Don't Let Me Down")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Don't let me down. Don't let me down. Don't let me
down. Don't let me down. Nobody ever loved me like she does. Ooh, she does.
Yes, she does. And if somebody loved me like she do me, ooh, she do me, yes,
she does. Don't let me down. Don't let me down. Don't let me down.

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, Dennis Quaid. His recent films include "Far From Heaven,"
"The Rookie" and "In Good Company." He stars in the new remake of "Yours, Mine
and Ours." And linguist Geoff Nunberg considers some of the more controversial
uses of dictionary definitions in Supreme Court decisions.

*****

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is Dennis Quaid. Early in his career he starred in such films as
"Breaking Away," "The Right Stuff," "The Big Easy" and "Great Balls of Fire!"
After a lull in his career, he's made a comeback in the past few years with his
roles in "The Rookie," "Far From Heaven," "Frequency," "The Day After Tomorrow"
and "In Good Company." Now he's starring opposite Rene Russo in the remake of
the family comedy, "Yours, Mine & Ours." They play high school sweethearts who
are reunited 30 years later as single parents. They marry on an impulse and
form a new home with the 18 children that they have between them only to figure
out their parenting styles are completely incompatible. She is a designer who
loves chaos and freedom. He is a Coast Guard admiral who runs a tight ship at
home. He draws a big flow chart outlining each family member's
responsibilities for the week, but in this scene he finds the youngest children
scribbling all over it.

(Soundbite of "Yours, Mine & Ours")

Mr. DENNIS QUAID: (As Frank Beardsley) Stop!

Unidentified Child 1: Isn't it pretty?

Mr. QUAID: (Frank Beardsley) That was very naughty.

Ms. RENE RUSSO: (As Helen North) Ooh, what's happening? Ooh-ooh. Boys, I
don't think that was a good idea, do you?

Unidentified Children: (In unison) No.

Ms. RUSSO: (As Helen North) But that was very important to your father. So you
need to say you're sorry.

Unidentified Children: (In unison) Sorry.

Ms. RUSSO: (As Helen North) OK, now go on and play.

Mr. QUAID: (As Frank Beardsley) Whoa, whoa, whoa. That's it? Go play?

Ms. RUSSO: (As Helen North) Well, they're four years old, Frank. What else is
there?

Mr. QUAID: (As Frank Beardsley) There are other...

Unidentified Child 2: A spanking?

Ms. RUSSO: (As Frank Beardsley) No, honey, of course not. We don't spank our
children.

Unidentified Child 1: The admiral does.

Mr. QUAID: (As Frank Beardsley) Occasionally a little pat on the butt sends a
clear message.

Ms. RUSSO: (As Helen North) Well, you're not spanking my children.

Mr. QUAID: (As Frank Beardsley) I thought they were our children.

Ms. RUSSO: (As Helen North) You're not spanking our children.

Mr. QUAID: (As Frank Beardsley) OK, fine. Let's just let them all run naked
and wild.

Unidentified Children: (In unison) Yeah!

GROSS: Dennis Quaid, welcome to FRESH AIR. So what is it like to act with 18
kids? Some of them are pretty grown up, but a bunch of them are not.

Mr. QUAID: Well, it's kind of like being the director of a rehab. At times it
could get pretty crazy, just the din of children, you know, with their voices
and everybody trying to talk over each other. And then there was the sugar at
the craft service table that they would invade at about 2:00 in the afternoon.
It was something. But they were all great. They're professionals. At the end
we were a big family actually.

GROSS: Did you have to be kind of parental on the set?

Mr. QUAID: Yeah. I play an admiral in the movie, in the Coast Guard. And so
I was the one wearing the uniform, so I took on the sort of, you know, stern
dad thing on the set as far as getting everybody to focus. And that way the
director could be the good cop to my bad cop.

GROSS: Since you were already the bad cop.

Mr. QUAID: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you like family films as a kid? Did you go see those?

Mr. QUAID: Oh, yeah, sure. You know, like Fred MacMurray's "Follow Me, Boys!"
and, you know, so many of them from back then, you know, kind of like "Dumbo"
and--I just--I loved 'em.

GROSS: Were you surprised to learn that Fred MacMurray was also in like
hard-boiled films?

Mr. QUAID: Oh, yeah, and that--like "Double Indemnity"?

GROSS: Exactly, exactly.

Mr. QUAID: Yeah, that guy's incredible. When I grew up I got a new
appreciation of him.

GROSS: And I bet that's how some kids are going to react when they see--when
they grow up after seeing "Yours, Mine & Ours" then they see, say, "Far from
Heaven."

Mr. QUAID: Yeah, yeah. That's not dream dad. Oh, my God!

GROSS: And speaking of "Far from Heaven," you were so wonderful in that film.
This is an homage to 1950s melodramas...

Mr. QUAID: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...particularly melodramas directed by Douglas Sirk. And in those
movies, like, every character has this dark secret. And in this film your
secret is a secret that wouldn't have actually been addressed in '50s films
'cause it was too taboo then. Your character is gay but he's trying to
suppress it because your character is married to Julianne Moore and you have
two children.

Mr. QUAID: Yeah.

GROSS: How did you get the role...

Mr. QUAID: I think it was maybe alluded to in a couple of films from back then,
but nothing spoken. And I think that Todd Haynes, the director of "Far from
Heaven," sort of brought that atmosphere to this production as well, only, you
know, it was--it was spoken of.

GROSS: I want to play just a short scene from this movie. There's some point
where you can't go on with the charade anymore. You've realized that you are
definitely gay. You can't continue in the marriage, but you're very broken up
about it. This is toward the end of the film. You're seated on the couch in
your living room and you've just broken down in tears and this is the scene
with you and Julianne Moore, who plays your wife.

(Soundbite of "Far from Heaven")

Ms. JULIANNE MOORE: (As Cathy Whitaker) Frank, what is it?

Mr. QUAID: (As Frank Whitaker) Cathy, something's happened.

Ms. MOORE: (As Cathy Whitaker) What?

Mr. QUAID: (As Frank Whitaker) I've fallen in love with someone who wants to be
with me. Oh, Cathy, I just--I never knew ...(unintelligible) But I know that
sounds so cruel but--Cathy, I tried. I tried so hard to make it go away. I
thought that I could do it for you and for the kids. I can't. I just--I
can't. I can't.

GROSS: That's Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore in a scene from "Far from
Heaven." You know, one of the things I love about this movie is that it kind of
gets so to the heart of, like, melodrama particularly with, like, the music
behind you as you're speaking. Did you do anything to immerse yourself in the
mood and in the style of '50s melodramas to prepare for the performance?

Mr. QUAID: Well, yeah. I got a big pile of Douglas Sirk movies that I would
watch in my trailer while we were in production of it and that helped out a
lot. Then personally, you know, although I'm not gay myself, I mean, I could
understand this guy's pain. It--you know, he was leading a double life and,
you know, we all have--we all go through life where at some times we have
secrets that we feel that we can't reveal to anyone because we feel humiliated
and we're in such pain about it. And that's what I related to in playing this
guy.

GROSS: Some people--some actors get kind of washed up in middle age, like, they
start as the leading man or leading lady and as they get older and their looks
fade a little bit, there's no place for them. And I think, in a way, like,
you've just gotten more interesting as you've gotten older, both visually and
in terms of the performances that you're giving.

Mr. QUAID: Well, I don't know. I feel really lucky. A lot of things that are
happening in my career now are really the things that are supposed to happen to
actors in their 30s. And I feel really grateful to still be here. I'm quite
aware of that. A lot of people I started out with, I don't know where they are
anymore. But I think it's important, too, to--if you're going to have
longevity in whatever you do, you have to be able to remake yourself instead of
just playing the same thing over and over again because eventually that's--you
know, we do get older and it's--people aren't going to buy it anymore.

GROSS: You've said in other interviews that when you became very successful I
guess in your 20s or earlier in your career, that you didn't appreciate it or
at least you didn't fully appreciate it. What was it like for you to become
well-known then and, you know, particularly in, like, the leading-man role of
the detective in "The Big Easy," you know, the hunk of the moment.

Mr. QUAID: Right.

GROSS: What are some of the great things and some of the problems that come
along with that?

Mr. QUAID: Well, the good things about that was that the roles were coming my
way and--you know, movies like "The Big Easy" and Jerry Lee Lewis, "Great Balls
of Fire!" and things like that. But I started out really--I always thought of
myself as a character actor who could do leading parts, I guess. And I was sort
of in denial and I don't think I was really ready for the fame part that came
along with it. I don't think I knew how to handle that very well. I tried to
be in denial of it and I think I was kind of a jerk about it, to tell you the
truth. But I didn't really know how to handle it. And I sort of asked for
that to be taken away from me and it was for a while.

GROSS: When you say you were almost asking for your success to be taken away
from you, is that a reference to the period when you were having problems with
drugs and alcohol?

Mr. QUAID: Yeah, I think so. I think, you know, having--like, I was addicted
to cocaine and I think that was my way of sort of handling success in a way or
sort of going into myself to kind of get away from myself.

GROSS: I had read, and you can tell me if this is correct or not, that your
father had problems with alcohol. So I was wondering if that's true and if
you'd seen your father have problems with alcohol, what it was like for you
when you started having, you know, like drug or drinking problems yourself,
having seen what it does to a person, what it does to the people who love that
person?

Mr. QUAID: Yeah, my--I think my dad did, but it wasn't anything severe and
it's something that he dealt with, you know, in life, too, later on. And--but
it's definitely something similar I saw in myself in relation to cocaine when
that came up because, you know, it's all about--when somebody's addicted to
something, it's usually their drug of choice and cocaine was my drug of choice.
It was the thing that I really wanted and really liked because I liked to go
up.

GROSS: One of the good things about being an actor, I would think, is that even
bad things that happen to you, you can use in the long run. You can somehow
learn from that and use that in a performance. So I'm wondering, you know,
growing up having a father who drank and then having, you know, a period in
which you were addicted to cocaine, what did you learn about how to play
somebody in a real way who actually has addiction problems?

Mr. QUAID: Well, you know, stay away from the overt stuff. It's really, you
know--for one thing, somebody who's addicted to something, they'll do
everything they can to hide it from you--to hide that fact from you. And, you
know, the drunk is usually trying to prove that, you know, he can still
function. And that's what--you know, the cocaine addict is trying to pretend
that he's cool and you can tell he's worried everybody's going to find out.

GROSS: Can you think of a specific film where you've done that?

Mr. QUAID: No. Well, except in "Far from Heaven." You know, those--that's--I
think I brought that same--those same feelings that I had about, you know,
cocaine and hiding that, you know, secret that I thought I had from the--you
know, from the world, I think I brought that to that character, who himself had
a secret.

GROSS: My guest is Dennis Quaid. He's now starring in the new film "Yours,
Mine & Ours." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Dennis Quaid is my guest and he's now starring in the family comedy
"Yours, Mine & Ours."

Your older brother, Randy Quaid, older by, I think, about three and a half
years...

Mr. QUAID: Right.

GROSS: ...is, of course, an actor too. In fact, he's in a new movie, "The Ice
Harvest." How close were you as brothers when you were growing up?

Mr. QUAID: Growing up, we were really super close. And we shared the same
room, in fact, for the first 12 years of my life. And, you know, we both--our
father was a frustrated actor and, I think, turned us both on to--into movies,
into acting, and Randy went into drama. And I followed. He went into baseball
and I followed along in Little League. He went into drama, I followed along
with that. He went to University of Houston and Mr. Cecil Pickett, who is an
acting coach there, and I followed along that. He went to Hollywood and I
followed along with that, too. So I owe my brother a lot. I don't even know
if I would be an actor if it weren't for my brother.

GROSS: Are you still close?

Mr. QUAID: Yes. There's no one closer. Well, I wouldn't say no one because I
have my son and my wife as well, but I--it's--he knows me like no one else. I
know that.

GROSS: You say your father was a frustrated actor? How frustrated was he? I
mean, how close did he get to actually acting?

Mr. QUAID: Well, my dad was an electrician. There was a family story that
he--you know, during World War II he was in San Francisco and a couple of
talent scouts wanted him to do a screen test and he couldn't because he was
shipping out. So that was the family legend. That and then my cousin is Gene
Autry. So...

GROSS: No kidding?

Mr. QUAID: Yeah. We get free Angels tickets all the time. So that's a good
thing.

GROSS: Your much older cousin, huh?

Mr. QUAID: Yeah, well, he--makes my third cousin in a way. But he was always
talked about. And on my father's side they come from a lot of people who were
in vaudeville and, you know, carnival people and things like that.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. QUAID: So there's, like--it was always show business.

GROSS: Because you had family in vaudeville, did people tell jokes in your
family a lot?

Mr. QUAID: Yeah, my dad was just--you know, he was always doing his act, you
know, several times. Always trying out the same bit and he was hysterical. And
he was a crooner as well, you know. He could sing like Dean Martin and Bing
Crosby and, I mean, he was pretty funny. In fact, Randy and I--speaking of
comedy acts, you know, Ra--that's another thing I followed my brother into, you
know, doing comedy acts on stage.

GROSS: Well, I know, he used to be on "Saturday Night Live." Where you--did you
ever do stand-up?

Mr. QUAID: Yeah, we both did stand-up back in Houston when we were growing up.
I did at my uncle's nightclub at the Tidelands Hotel in Houston at that time.
I would do a stand-up five or six nights a week during the summer.

GROSS: What was the act like?

Mr. QUAID: Oh, I would do pretty bad impressions of people of the times,
celebrities of the time and politicians and...

GROSS: Like who?

Mr. QUAID: Oh, I would do Richard Nixon and W.C. Fields and people like
bad--Lyndon Baines Johnson, of course, and do take-offs on ads in comic books
like the see-through glasses and the, you know, karate kicks and the Atlas and
all that. And I don't know if people were actually laughing or if they just
thought is was funny that this 16-year-old kid appeared at a nightclub.

GROSS: So you followed your brother in terms of going into acting, into comedy,
moving to LA. What was the first movie set you were ever on?

Mr. QUAID: Very first movie set I was ever on--I was very lucky--is when I got
to LA my brother was doing "Missouri Breaks" and I drove his car from Los
Angeles up to Montana. And I, you know, just walked into, you know, being on
the set with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando and getting to watch them work.
And that was a great education for me actually. It's the first time I'd
actually seen film acting up close and it was--I spent like three months up
there and just--I had a ball.

GROSS: What did you find most interesting about watching Brando and Nicholson
act in front of the camera?

Mr. QUAID: Well, Brando especially did--he never did the same thing twice and
he seemed to really not care so much about what he did, but it sure was
interesting to watch everything that he did, that's for sure. And I got the
opportunity--because he had to play a mandolin in a scene. So I learned a
couple chords on the mandolin and I got named the mandoline teacher for Brando.
So that was a lot of fun.

And then watching Jack, who was just--he was just great with everybody and, you
know, a very--I got a lot of advice from him. He was very generous with
himself.

GROSS: What kind of advice did he give you?

Mr. QUAID: Well, you know, just about--he told me his story about how he, you
know--how he came to Hollywood and how it--at the time I was just starting out.
You know, it seemed like an impossible task and it--you know, he told me how it
seemed that way to him, too, and, you know, it just takes time for things to
happen and you just stick in there. And certainly his career, you know, is an
example of that. He spent years, you know, doing B movies with Roger Corman
and then really struggling to get a job. Even his own agent told him, I think,
to quit the business at one point because he couldn't act. And look what
happened.

GROSS: Right. You recently got a star in the Walk of Fame. What did that mean
to you? Like when you're a kid, that seems like it's such a big deal. When
you're an adult and you get it, does it still seem like a very big deal?

Mr. QUAID: Well, at--it's really hard to kind of--I'm not all that good at
getting honors to tell you the truth. It's not--it's really nice. If
anything, it's nice in a way that I've been a part of the Hollywood community
for 30 years. And it's, you know, it is a town. And I know, in some ways it
is my hometown and so it's nice to be like part of the community. On the other
hand, you know, the second day I got to Hollywood, I remember walking down the
streets of Hollywood Boulevard and seeing all the stars and asking myself,
`Well, who's that?' Also my star is between Meryl Streep and Woody Woodpecker.
So as far as highbrow, that'll tell you something, won't it?

GROSS: Well, Dennis Quaid, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. QUAID: Thank you so much, Terry. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Dennis Quaid is starring in the new film "Yours, Mine & Ours."

Coming up: On the 250th birthday of Samuel Johnson's dictionary, linguist Geoff
Nunberg considers the controversial use of dictionaries in the legal world.
This is FRESH AIR.

*****

TERRY GROSS, host:

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the publication of Samuel Johnson's
dictionary, the first great dictionary of the English language. Nowadays most
of us think of dictionaries as an accepted part of our culture, but as our
linguist Geoff Nunberg points out, in recent years there's been a heated
controversy over the use of dictionaries in the legal world.

GEOFF NUNBERG:

In an age when anxiety about the language is usually relegated to Sunday
supplement features and the perky titles in the language ghetto at the back of
the bookstore, it's hard for us to understand why Samuel Johnson's dictionary
had such a serious political importance when it was first published in 1755.

The dictionary appeared at the moment when public opinion shaped by the press
and literature was becoming a social force to reckon with, challenging the
authority of traditional institutions like the monarchy, the church and
Parliament. But how could you count on printed words to determine common
values when they seemed to change their meaning from one speaker to another or
from one generation to the next? As William Warburton wrote in 1747, we have
neither grammar nor dictionary, neither chart nor compass to guide us through
this wide sea of words. The publication of Johnson's dictionary instantly
allayed those anxieties. It seemed to capture the elusive and fluttering
meanings of words and pin their wings to its pages.

By the modern age dictionaries would be largely ceremonial fixtures of public
life, honored with inattentive piety. We refer to dictionaries as if there
were only one of them. We talk about "the" dictionary the way we talk about
"the" periodic table, as if it were merely a clear window on the truth of
words. That's a harmless illusion for people who turn to dictionaries only to
get a general idea of the meaning of a word like vilify or plangent.

But the illusion starts to fray when you try to use a short dictionary
definition to sort out the marginal cases and fine shades of meaning that
courts often have to resolve. For most of its existence, in fact, the Supreme
Court rarely referred to dictionaries to determine the meanings of the words of
the statutes it was considering. Justices Holmes, Brandeis and Cardozo didn't
once cite a dictionary in all their years on the court.

It's only recently that the use of dictionaries has become a routine practice.
Since 1990 the court has referred to dictionary definitions in more cases than
in the preceding two centuries of its life. The main reason for that shift is
the rise of the legal doctrine called textualism. When courts are trying to
determine the meaning of a statute or regulation, the doctrine says, they
should look only at the plain meanings of the words of the text itself, not at
the intentions of Congress or the legislative history of the law. And where
better to look than in the neutral source that most people turn to to settle
disputes over meaning?

So it's no accident that the justice who's referred to dictionaries most often
is Antonin Scalia, the most eloquent advocate of textualism. He's followed by
Clarence Thomas, though to judge from Samuel Alito's penchant for citing
dictionaries in decisions, he might give both of them a run for their money.

But using a dictionary to determine the meanings of words turns out to be not
quite the automatic or neutral procedure that most of us take it to be. Some
dictionaries define words more broadly than others, and when a dictionary gives
several meanings for a word judges have a lot of discretion in deciding which
of them is most appropriate.

In one 1993 case, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that a man who traded a
rifle for some cocaine could be sentenced under a statute that provided for an
increased penalty for someone who uses a firearm to obtain narcotics. Writing
for the majority, Justice O'Connor justified the decision by citing one
dictionary's definition of use as to employ. To his credit, Justice Scalia
dissented, following a rule of interpretation that you could paraphrase as
`gimme a break.' In ordinary usage, he said, using a firearm means using it as
a weapon, not as a medium of barter.

But Scalia hasn't been above what some have called dictionary shopping. Does
the word representatives as used in the 1982 voting rights act apply to elected
judges in addition to legislators? In a 1991 decision, Scalia said it didn't.
He cited the definition of the word in the 1934 Webster's Second, a dictionary
that language traditionalists regard with the same kind of reverence that folk
purists have for Bob Dylan's acoustic era. But if he'd wanted to argue the
other way, Scalia could have referred to the broader definitions of
representatives in the more recent Webster's Third or the American Heritage,
both of which he has found it convenient to cite on other occasions.

But the most dramatic recent example of the selective use of dictionaries comes
not from a Supreme Court decision but from the memorandum on torture that was
written for the Justice Department in 2002 by Assistant Attorney General Jay
Bybee, who has since been appointed to the 9th Circuit of Appeals. By
cherry-picking his dictionaries and definitions, Bybee managed to come up with
a definition of torture that ruled out any practice that doesn't cause lasting
impairment or inflict pain that rises to the level of death or organ damage.
By that standard, nothing that happened at Abu Ghraib would count as torture,
even if most people would describe it that way. Bybee's definition winds up
being a far cry from the plain meaning of the word, but the appeal to a
dictionary seems to cloak it in Johnsonian rectitude.

Johnson himself approached his project with more humility than that. He knew
that no dictionary could regiment what he called `the boundless chaos of a
living speech and reduce it to mechanical certainty.' And there's no great
insult to his memory than to imagine now that that's a done deal.

GROSS: Linguist Geoff Nunberg teaches at the University of California at
Berkeley's School of Information and is the author of the book "Going Nuclear:
Language, Politics and Culture in Confrontational Times."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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