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Biography Traces Political Mistakes And Personal Scars That Shaped Joe Biden

Evan Osnos talks about Joe Biden's enduring quest to become president. He says Biden has a different mindset today than he once had: "He's a man who is at peace." Originally broadcast Oct. 27, 2020.

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Other segments from the episode on January 22, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 22, 2021: Interview with Evan Osnos; Obituary for Howard Johnson; Review of film 'The White Tiger.'

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. On the week that Joe Biden was inaugurated as our new president of the United States, our first guest today is Evan Osnos. His recent bestselling biography of Biden, written and published before the 2012 presidential election, is called "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now." Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker who covers politics and foreign affairs. He was The New Yorker's China correspondent from 2008 to 2013. His book "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, And Faith In The New China" won a National Book Award. Terry Gross spoke with Evan Osnos last October, shortly before the 2020 election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Biden was elected in October of '72 to the Senate. And in December, just a few weeks before he was supposed to be sworn in, his wife was driving her station wagon with their two sons and baby daughter in the car when they were hit by a tractor trailer. And as most people know, his wife and baby daughter were killed. His two sons were badly injured. It's a famous life-changing story in Joe Biden's biography. What did you learn that you didn't already know and that you think the public might not know about the impact of that tragedy on his life and his political career?

EVAN OSNOS: Well, when it happened, the reality is that Joe Biden did not expect to take his seat in the Senate. He thought that period of his life was over. He didn't see, practically or spiritually, how he could go on. I mean, the reality was he considered suicide. And some older members of the Senate said to him, you need to do this - not only because it's the right thing to do for your voters, but it's also the right thing to do for you personally because if you don't do something, you will cave in. And his sister Valerie told me that one of the ways that they were able to get him off the floor, in effect, was by telling him, you have two boys at home now who have no mother, and if you collapse, then they have nobody.

And Biden struggled in that period with what it meant to become this kind of public symbol of grieving. And what surprised me was he really bridled against it. He didn't like that that was the public image that people were imagining for him, that they were thrusting upon him, the sort of grieving widower and father. And it was only later in his life - really, it was after the death of his son Beau in 2015 - when Biden kind of came to accept more fully that that's something that people wanted from him as a political person. They wanted, actually, somebody in politics to talk to them about something like suffering and like vulnerability. And he kind of embraced it. But he didn't come to it quickly. It took a long time for him to acknowledge that.

GROSS: What did he stand for in his early years as a senator?

OSNOS: Interestingly, in his very early years as a senator, he was kind of a moving target politically. I mean, to be blunt about it, he was sort of - he was more concerned about being reelected than he was about specific policy items. And there's a - the most acute example of that is that he had run for office as a progressive candidate on the side of civil rights, and he had played a sort of bit part in some desegregation efforts in Wilmington, Del. And he got to the Senate, and he was occupying a district. He was representing a district that was - that had a large white suburban contingent who were very wary of court-ordered busing, and they told him so. And he - there was a famous meeting that he went to in which parents in the suburbs - most of them white, of course - attacked him for being in favor of integration and civil rights efforts. And he turned on that issue and became the Senate's most forceful Democrat against court-ordered busing. And for a long time, I think that made other members of the Senate say, well, what does this guy believe in? Is he an opportunist? You know, what does he really care about?

And I think it's useful these days, if you speak to people who have really studied Wilmington and Delaware politics - which, after all, is the district that he represented - they will say, you have to remember that Delaware was very much suspended between North and South. It was a - you know, in some ways it had elements of Jim Crow. There were still segregationist policies in places. African diplomats, for instance, who drove between Washington and New York, when they passed through Delaware, would find themselves unable to get served at rest stops. And yet at the same time, it was sort of closer to New York City than to Raleigh, N.C. So it had this very strange composite identity, and that's what Joe Biden, this first-term senator, was trying to represent and was trying to figure out a way how to inhabit that role. And so he sort of became a little bit of something for everyone.

GROSS: You know, in talking about his early years, you write that the ADA, Americans for Democratic Action - which was a liberal progressive group - gave Biden a high rating, and he was very concerned about that. He thought that might be a political negative for him. So what did he do in response to that? Did he do anything?

OSNOS: Yeah, he had a funny reaction to that rating. It was, after all, supposed to be a great compliment to him. He had run against the war in Vietnam. He'd been active on civil rights. And so he'd received this high mark from a progressive organization. And then he said, this is a problem for me. It makes it hard for me to operate politically. It's hard for me to get elected. He said it in interviews at the time. And so that's one of the reasons why you began to see him try to announce his conservative credentials. He started telling people, look - I'm one of the more socially conservative people I know. My wife always used to tell me so. And so he was trying to, on legislative matters, be progressive in some respects, but at the same time not lose the constituency that he needed, which was in many ways still a conservative Democratic working-class district.

GROSS: If he was so driven by getting reelected and getting votes, do you think that his reaction changed over the years and that he became more concerned about policy and his positions that he really believed in, as opposed to just playing to voters?

OSNOS: He did. I think you begin to see that he was developing a political identity and sort of a personal identity. I mean, he - when he got to Congress, partly because of his youth, partly because people sensed that he was so determined to get reelected, people didn't take him all that seriously. And there was a moment in which he gave a speech in the Senate in which he talked about a subject that he knew really very little about - oil wells. And he was challenged on it. Somebody said, you know, Senator Biden, do you know anything about oil wells? And he was embarrassed.

And inside his staff, they began to see a slightly different person, where he became kind of fanatical about being prepared for things. He would demand all kinds of notes and preparation before he would go out and speak. And there was another member of Congress who once turned up in the Senate late at night. And it was almost empty. There was almost nobody in the chamber. And there was Joe Biden speaking, as this person put it later, as if he was holding forth in the Roman Coliseum, that he was kind of speaking with great gusto. And he was kind of practicing. I mean, as this person put it, he was working it like a tennis pro. He was trying to learn what it meant to be a senator and how to be taken seriously.

BIANCULLI: Evan Osnos speaking to Terry Gross last October. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with author and New Yorker writer Evan Osnos, who wrote the recent biography of Joe Biden. It's called "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: One of the important things about Joe Biden's career in the Senate is that he served as the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In that role, he helped stop Robert Bork, who was very conservative and was an originalist - stopped him from being confirmed. But a few years later, when Clarence Thomas was facing his confirmation hearings, Biden prevented women from coming forward to testify before the committee who would have supported Anita Hill and who would have offered their own similar allegations that they were sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas. What's your understanding of why Biden did not allow those women to testify to the committee?

OSNOS: Yeah. I think you're right to bring up both of those two confirmation hearings because they were sort of, in his mind, related. I mean, Joe Biden - the important fact was that Biden imagined himself in that period as being somebody who was a Democrat but who treated Republicans seriously, tried to maintain the standards of the Senate, which was that you give the other side credence and allow them to have a serious hearing for their ideas. And in the Bork nomination, Biden wouldn't describe it as him successfully preventing Bork from getting on the court so much as he would say that he conducted the process fairly enough that in the end, Bork was not successful in reaching the court.

So then he gets into 1991 and the Clarence Thomas hearings, and Biden was dealing with this very complicated set of pressures on him. On the one hand, he is a Democrat who came to office partly on his support for civil rights, who is contending with the candidacy - the nomination of what would be the next African American member of the Supreme Court. And he felt some weight of history in making sure that that was a serious process. And then at the same time, of course, Clarence Thomas was facing very serious accusations of sexual harassment. And Biden tried to have it both ways.

In some ways, what he tried to do was give - was to try to pay respect to the Republican side of the process by allowing Republican senators to question Anita Hill very intensively, harshly in some cases. And then he also did not allow these other accusers to testify in person. They were allowed to testify in written form, which ultimately meant it didn't really have any impact on the proceedings. And Biden came to regret that. He said later that the mistake was that he gave Clarence Thomas more credence than he deserved.

And I think there was, running through his mind at that time, this sense that in the interests of trying to give a full hearing to the accusations against Thomas, he was afraid that he was going to be seen as somebody who was not allowing an African American nominee to receive a full and fair hearing, and that led him into trouble. And it's a mistake that he has expressed remorse about. But to be precise, he doesn't say that he made an error. What he says is that he wished Anita Hill had been treated better. And I think that's a key distinction because, you know, if we're trying to understand the ways in which Joe Biden is capable of self-reflection and what are the issues on which he has expressed his clear regret and not, he has not gone as far as Anita Hill wants him to in saying that he was wrong about handling that case.

GROSS: She's kind of reluctantly endorsed him.

OSNOS: She has. I mean, they spoke before he was a candidate, and he expressed his, you know, his regret to her that she had not had a more decent appearance in Congress in which people had treated her more fairly. And she does not think that his handling of that case should be disqualifying for a president. But she also wishes that he was more clear and emphatic in his apology to her.

GROSS: The first time that Biden ran for president in the Democratic primary was in 1987. He didn't do very well. He dropped out pretty early. What was the perception of why he didn't do well?

OSNOS: At the time, he was regarded as a bit of an arrogant guy - I mean, a bit of a blowhard in a town, after all, that is known for blowhards. I mean, that's the reality. The young Joe Biden - he was still, at that point, relatively young for a senator - was the person who would speak longer and louder than anybody else. And there was something about him that was a little too raw, a little too ambitious - nakedly ambitious.

And he failed in that campaign partly because he stole the words of a British politician named Neil Kinnock. He had been - Biden had been quoting Neil Kinnock in his speeches for a long time, but he gave a speech in which he dropped Kinnock's name and kind of absorbed Kinnock's biography as his own. And he said that he had coal miners in his ancestors and so on. Of course, it wasn't true. And when reporters began to look at some of the details of his speeches, they discovered that he'd also taken a quote from Bobby Kennedy. And so the joke became that Joe Biden was not an authentic person, was kind of trying to be something he wasn't. That - people used to joke that the Kennedys quote the Greeks, and Biden quotes the Kennedys.

And his race was finished. And I think it took him a while to acknowledge that it was - as he later put it - it was his own arrogance that cost him that race. But he was not a person who was able to - had the capacity for that sort of self-reflection at that point. He was running too hard and too fast to be responsible.

GROSS: Dropping out of the race may have saved his life because after he dropped out, he had a cranial aneurysm, and he'd been basically ignoring the symptoms that he was having.

OSNOS: Yeah. It's one of these amazing episodes that doesn't really get talked about that much because it's overwhelmed by some of the big milestones in his political biography. But within a few months of dropping out of that race, Joe Biden nearly died. He found himself lying on the floor of a hotel room with this searing pain in his head. And it turned out that he had two aneurysms. And they were able to get him to a hospital, and doctors called in a priest to deliver last rites even before his wife could be there because the situation was so grave.

And he had surgery, and he ended up being out of the Congress for seven months before he came back. And there is this curious bit of fate, which is that had he been on the campaign trail, he might not have survived because he would not have gone to see a doctor about the symptoms. He might have, in fact, ignored them and it could have become more serious.

And that experience of sort of having been through that and surviving that is a bit of a pattern that you see in his life. And it's one that his friend Ted Kaufman, one of his advisers, described to me once. And he said, if you ask me who the luckiest person I know is, it's Joe Biden. If you ask me who the unluckiest person I know is, it's also Joe Biden. And there's a kind of deep truth to that.

GROSS: He came so close to death last rites were read to him. A surgeon warned him that after surgery, he might not ever be able to speak again. What impact do you think that had on his life and his approach to politics?

OSNOS: I think it confirmed this growing sense, which became a big part of his self-narrative, that in the end, political problems - none of them - are going to be as serious and as grave as the sheer matter of life and death. And the death of his wife and his daughter began to form that idea for him, then the fact that he almost died. And then, of course, later, when his son Beau died of a brain tumor, it began to form this sense that you hear from him occasionally in private that, look; if I don't become president of the United States, it's not the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and I'll be OK.

I think that idea became much more evolved in his mind as he grew older and as he kind of was weathered by these experiences because the young Joe Biden, after all, wanted nothing more than being president of the United States. I mean, on his first date with his future wife, he told her mother that he wanted to grow up to be president of the United States. He was barely out of his teens. But if you talk to the 77-year-old Joe Biden now, he's a man who is at peace. And he's at peace from a series of hard-won scars. And it's a very different mindset than he had back then.

GROSS: The Trump administration has dismantled parts of government. A key department in handling pandemics was shut down. The State Department was kind of dismantled - so many empty offices there, even before the pandemic emptied out a lot of offices. But, I mean, there's just so many positions not filled. What would it take for the Biden administration to rebuild some of the parts of government that were dismantled by the Trump administration? How hard is it to rebuild a government?

OSNOS: Well, they face this very hard problem, and it's two things. One is there are parts of the government that have just been starved of resources, offices that have been closed, experts that have been sidelined. And they have to - not only do they have to begin to reopen them; they have to inventory all of those areas in which damage has been done, and that's going to take some time. And then you have to begin to draw people back into government.

I mean, one of the things is, at the State Department, they - the Trump administration got rid of so many jobs and closed down the pipeline for recruiting to such degree that people often feel as if they have lost a generation of growth and development in the foreign service. I think the encouraging thing is that actually some of that can spring back faster than we might imagine at its worst moments, that there are people who still want to go into government, who believe it is a noble profession. They believe they have something to provide.

And this is where the voice from the top matters so much, that if you have a president who says, I believe in what this government can do to protect people's lives in this pandemic, I believe in what a foreign service can do, and beginning to project American values and begin to rebuild our relationships around the world, that could have a greater effect. We saw it in some ways with the arrival of Barack Obama, who - you know, at the time, there were parts of the U.S. government that were demoralized. And when Obama came in, he did provide some sense of inspiration.

Joe Biden is not Barack Obama, but he does stand for a belief that government can make your lives better if it's being conducted in the right ways. And I think that's one of the spirits that he would - that's one of the ideas that he would try to bring in to an administration at the beginning.

GROSS: Evan Osnos, it's always a pleasure to have you on our show. Thank you so much for returning.

OSNOS: Thanks very much, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Evan Osnos is the author of the recent biography "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now." Terry Gross interviewed him last October. After a break, we'll remember jazz tuba player Howard Johnson, who died last week. And film critic Justin Chang reviews "The White Tiger," a new movie now on Netflix. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Today, we're going to remember tuba player Howard Johnson, who, through his own skill and determination, carved a place for tuba in contemporary jazz. He died last week at the age of 79. In the 1960s and '70s, he played on jazz recordings by Charles Mingus, McCoy Tyner, Carla Bley and Charlie Haden. He was, for the most part, self-taught. And though tuba was his main instrument, Johnson also learned to play bass, clarinet, baritone sax, flugelhorn and electric bass. He led his own ensembles, most notably the band Gravity, which consisted of six tubas and a rhythm section and released several albums.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWARD JOHNSON AND GRAVITY'S "BE NO EVIL")

BIANCULLI: Johnson wrote arrangements for and was featured on rock albums by The Band, John Lennon, Taj Mahal and Maria Muldaur. And he helped form and then played in the original "Saturday Night Live" house band and even appeared in some of the show's musical sketches. Terry Gross spoke to Johnson in 1984. He told her about breaking into the New York jazz scene as a tuba player.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HOWARD JOHNSON: What I would do then is just go around and sit in a jam session, so - just to get the idea in people's heads that it was happening. And that wasn't particularly easy because people don't think in those terms, you know? They can't - they couldn't at the time figure out, what could a tuba possibly do in a small band setting, you know? But I was prepared. I was - came to New York to play jazz, you know, basically. And so I knew all the tunes. I knew all the changes. You know, and for me personally, I never really had much difficulty after being heard, you know? I mean, but writers were using the instrument very well in the '50s. They kind of discovered the instrument then.

Now, as it turned out then, what they could hear was a good deal more than a lot of the players who were available at that time could do. You know, they were writing things that the players were saying, well, you shouldn't write that for the tuba and everything, you know? And I made an effort to get heard by these folks and ended up working with some of them - Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson, Quincy Jones, Ernie Wilkins. And, of course, starting in '64, I started with Charles Mingus.

And he and Gil Evans actually stretched me. Like, usually, when a writer would call, he'd say, well, I have this idea. You see - the tuba can double the bass line, or the tuba can do - you know, it would always be something so simple to me but a real stretch - or so simple to a tuba player but a real stretch of his imagination, you know? But Gil Evans and Charles Mingus did ask things of me that I hadn't ever done before.

I used to get calls from Mingus every day when I was in his band. He had a speakerphone, a crude, early speakerphone where he'd put the phone in its cradle, and then he'd go across the room to the piano and say, can you play this? And he'd play something on the piano, you know? And I'd say, well, yeah, I think so. You know, I hadn't tried it before, but I said, you know, just write - I tell him, just write anything you want, you know, just anything you think it sounds like 'cause you got a - you know, a view of it that I don't have. You know, I learned from that.

But he would still call, you know? And because the phone was across the room, he would yell really loud, you know, although the speakerphone had an amplifier, didn't really need that. And he would say, (mimicking yelling) hey, can you play this? I'd be holding my ears (laughter).

TERRY GROSS: Could you sing one of the lines that he wrote that he thought would be very challenging but that worked really well into the piece?

JOHNSON: Can I sing one?

GROSS: Yeah.

JOHNSON: Oh, gee (laughter). I'll tell you what - that band never officially recorded that I was with, but it was a very unusual band of Mingus's. And there's a limited edition album that we recorded at a UCLA concert in 1965, also on Mingus's "Let My Children Hear Music" album. There's one called "The Clown's Afraid Too" and "The I Of Hurricane Sue." Those two were orchestra arrangements of things we played in that band. We would do like (vocalizing) - you know, like, just having that kind of phrasing. If you did that for regular symphonic tuba, you'd say (vocalizing), you know? But he would write things that were supposed to have, you know, that kind of phrasing and and very high things.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS'S "DON'T BE AFRAID, THE CLOWN'S AFRAID TOO")

JOHNSON: There's some good writing by Bob Hammer on his album called "Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus" - has to do with singing, you know, when there's long chords being held. It has to do with singing up through the chords 'cause he's got, like, the bass trombone and the baritone sax covering the low notes. I really like that kind of thing. When I joined Mingus in '64, we played that music from that album and also the music that he had just - he'd just come back triumphantly from Monterey and his "Mingus At Monterey" album. The music he did there he he wanted to do in New York at Birdland. Red Callender was supposed to come out and play the tuba because he'd played it in Monterey, but he got studio commitments and couldn't come. And I wandered into the Five Spot one night, and Jaki Byard suggested, well, here's your tuba player. That's actually how I got into the band at all.

GROSS: How did you start playing in rock bands?

JOHNSON: Well, my very first experience as a professional musician was with my sister, who used to be what was called in the '50s an exotic dancer. That's somebody who dances in a very brief costume like a stripper does, only they can really dance. You know, it isn't just jiggle time, you know. And she would sometimes book herself at maybe four or five dances on an evening.

And I would come in with her, with my baritone sax at age of about 15 or so and talk the band into her show, you know, tell them what happens next, what kind of thing to play, give the drummer the tempo, you know, because she does a long thing with just the drums and then the band comes in. And then while she was getting dressed, I'd be maybe jamming on a couple of tunes with the guys. And then we'd take off for the next one, you know. And this was just about entirely rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll scene.

So I've always known the music. I mean, in the '50s, you weren't considered a saxophone player if you couldn't play "Honky Tonk," you know that Bill Doggett old hit, you know. And so as the music developed over the years, I just kind of stayed with it. I played with King Curtis in 1965 and got connected with the soul recording scene at that time, you know, and did a lot of dates like that on baritone sax. So that just kind of progressed. I guess that went over to the rock scene with Taj Mahal. We did that band with Taj Mahal that did that album, "The Real Thing," live at the Fillmore East in '71. And later on in that year, I did "Rock Of Ages" with The Band.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OPHELIA")

THE BAND: (Singing) Was it something that somebody said? Honey, you know we broke the rules. Was somebody up against the law? Honey, you know that I'd die for you. They got your number, scared and running. But I'm still waiting for the second coming of Ophelia. Please knock on my door.

JOHNSON: I never had the sense that there was any kind of music that's not as good as some other, you know. There's no bad music. There's some bad playing.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yes.

JOHNSON: But if I could see myself in it, I would do it, you know. I mean, I did stuff with John Lennon, you know, I loved doing that, you know.

GROSS: What did he have you do?

JOHNSON: I actually came in just to play on his album "Walls And Bridges." There weren't any arrangements. And there was an atmosphere in the studio where nobody wanted to be the one to say, why don't we do this? You know, John himself had ideas, but he thought of horn players as real musicians as opposed to rock 'n' roll players, you know. And he was kind of shy of really communicating what he wanted, you know. So what I did was I decided, well, maybe, you know, let's try this or let's try that, you know. And none of that stuff ever got written down.

It was all done on - you play this and I'll play that and he'll play that. And I ended up being the arranger for the whole - I did all the horns for the album. I didn't do the rhythm section or the strings. But Lennon had these wonderful ideas about things that he just didn't trust that well, you know. And in the last three or so arrangements, I worked very closely with him. And his ideas, you know, are what really made it happen, I felt. And I just kind of filled some of them out, you know.

BIANCULLI: Howard Johnson speaking to Terry Gross in 1984. He died last week at age 79. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1984 interview with musician Howard Johnson, who found ways to popularize the tuba as a contemporary jazz instrument. In 1975, he began working with the original "Saturday Night Live" house band and was with that band for five years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: How did you get into the band? '75 was the first year, wasn't it? Yeah. So how did that happen?

JOHNSON: Hard as it is to believe, that was nine years ago, folks.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNSON: Well, actually, because I'd done some work with Geoff Muldaur as an arranger. His producer, Joe Boyd, was a friend of Lorne Michaels. Lorne was telling him that they had this band going to put together, and he had brought his own man to lead the band and be musical director - Howard Shore down from Toronto. But they didn't really know New York musicians, so they needed someone to contract the band, you know, and hire the musicians. And Joe suggested me for, you know, putting together bands 'cause he knew I'd organized the horn section for "Rock Of Ages" and Taj Mahal. And so he suggested me. Lorne told that to Howard, and Howard agreed because apparently that first month or so and I was with Mingus. When we went up to - in November of '64 when we went up to Canada to do a show on CBC, Howard Shore was, like, a high school guy. And he he heard that. And he kind of remembered me from then.

I actually (laughter) - I actually almost ended up not doing that one, too, because I told Howard when he first talked to me about it, I would give him some names. But I didn't really want to play because I didn't want to get tied down to a studio situation or be in some kind of network-generated sense of what the music should be.

GROSS: Did you think it would be like the Merv Griffin band?

JOHNSON: Yes, something like that, you know. And he said, well, if you feel that way, then you're definitely the man for us 'cause we don't want a band like that. We want this to be the best band on television, you know, which isn't that hard to do. But it was.

GROSS: (Laughter) Was it fun being in the band? I think that, like, during rehearsals, for instance, that the actors might have really played to the band.

JOHNSON: Oh, yeah. There was a lot of a lot of hanging out with the band, especially in our dressing room. The band's dressing room was referred to as the departure lounge. See, I can refer to that because I was one of four in the band who did not do any drugs (laughter). But the cast would come up there and hang out a little bit, but they couldn't hang with the band too much 'cause they had to be more together than that, you know.

GROSS: Do you think that your work has inspired music students to learn tuba?

JOHNSON: I don't really think so. Well, first of all, they don't know what it is, you know. Like I said, I haven't been overrecorded as a soloist or as doing what I do. I'm mostly recorded as what other people want.

I mean, I get calls from time to time from people who say, well, look, I want to get into jazz on tuba. What should I do? You know - and I said, well, you know, you don't kind of get into jazz. You know, it's either in your life, or it isn't. You talk to saxophone players, trumpet players and trombone players, keyboard players - you know, they're absorbing all this stuff from the music in a real personal way, you know - something they want to do with it themselves. Tuba players don't tend to have that kind of attitude.

So when they ask me things like that, they really - what they really want is for me to take them and show them how, you know. And I really think - I mean, see there wasn't any jazz education when I came up, you know. If you lived in Ohio, you know, and were 14 or something like that, you weren't going to any Berklee. And I wasn't going to just do nothing until such time as I could get some instruction.

Well, what did the people before any of that was happening do? They listened to the music. They learned it. They found a way to learn it. I mean, you know, who gave Sonny Stitt lessons? When I was trying to understand intervals in music well enough to learn to improvise by ear, I mean, everything was an interval to me. You know, I'd hear the - a car horn or a doorbell. You know, I'd say bing-bong - ope (ph) - minor third. There we go.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: You know? And I mean, you know, I just had to be tuned to that in every way 'cause there were no - I mean, I grew up in Ohio. Right? There was nothing on the radio, maybe two hours a week of jazz on the radio. I didn't have a record collection or a record player. I just kind of had to slide around to wherever the records were and listen to little stuff that I could take off the radio and try to learn. So I had to really absorb myself into it in a way that people don't tend to do if they have - you know, if they can just go to Berklee.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad it's worked out as well as it has 'cause I've enjoyed your music.

JOHNSON: Well, thank you.

GROSS: And I want to thank you very much for being here.

JOHNSON: OK. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Howard Johnson speaking to Terry Gross in 1984. The jazz musician and tuba player and founding member of the "Saturday Night Live" house band died last week. He was 79 years old.

After a break, film critic Justin Chang reviews the new Netflix movie "The White Tiger." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON NEVILLE'S "HOW COULD I HELP BUT LOVE YOU (INSTRUMENTAL)")

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The 2008 Booker Prize-winning novel "The White Tiger" told the story of a young man dealing with corruption, poverty and class warfare in modern-day India. The Aravind Adiga novel has now been adapted for the screen by filmmaker Ramin Bahrani. Our film critic Justin Chang has a review of "The White Tiger," which begins streaming today on Netflix.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The year 2008 saw the publication of Aravind Adiga's novel "The White Tiger" and the release of the film "Slumdog Millionaire," two stories about young men escaping poverty and defying the odds against the backdrop of a rapidly globalizing India. But Adiga's novel was a far more cynical and morally unsettling piece of work, with a protagonist who came into his fortune through acts of theft, deception and worse.

Now, 12 years later, there's a darkly funny new movie adaptation of "The White Tiger," and it plays even more like the flip side to "Slumdog Millionaire's" pure-hearted optimism. There's even a cheeky line in the trailer about how there's no million-rupee game show prize at the end of the story.

That story is narrated in flashback by its protagonist, Balram, played by a superb Adarsh Gourav. We meet a younger version of Balram growing up in a poor coal mining village, where he shows early promise as a student until his domineering grandmother pulls him out of school and puts him to work in a tea shop.

But Balram is smart and ambitious, and he has bigger things in mind. Some years later, he lands a job working as a driver for a wealthy businessman known as the Stork. Balram works his way into the good graces of one of the Stork's sons, Ashok, played by Rajkummar Rao.

Ashok was educated in the U.S., which is where he met his wife, Pinky, played by Priyanka Chopra Jonas. They're a young, beautiful couple, and they seemed kinder than the others. They chafe at how casually the rest of the family abuse their servants, and Ashok and Balram strike up a close friendship. But when tragedy strikes and the family's security is threatened, Balram quickly becomes a scapegoat, destroying any illusions he may have harbored about his privileged place in the household.

In a way, "The White Tiger" taps into the same vein of class rage that fueled recent eat-the-rich thrillers like "Parasite" and "Knives Out." Gourav's marvelous performance shows us Balram's inner turmoil as his gratitude toward his employers gives way to anger. And so he begins to rebel, at one point telling us the various tricks that he and other drivers use to secretly cheat their bosses.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE WHITE TIGER")

ADARSH GOURAV: (As Balram) No. 1, give your master phony invoices for repairs that are not necessary.

Thank you, sir.

Two, sell your master's petrol to other drivers.

As you gain confidence, cruise around picking up and dropping off paying customers. Delhi has many pickup points. Over time, you will learn them all. When I looked at that cash, I didn't feel guilt. I felt rage.

CHANG: "The White Tiger" is like a Dickensian rags-to-riches story by way of a Patricia Highsmith psychological thriller. But Balram's wickedly conspiratorial narration gives it an extra layer of satire. He unfolds his story as a kind of high-risk business plan. When most of the country lives in poverty, he argues, anyone trying to break out will have to resort to cutthroat tactics. Throughout the film, Balram likens the poor to roosters in a cage, unquestioning in their acceptance of an economic system that is forever stacked against them. That's not the only unsubtle animal metaphor here. Balram himself is the fabled white tiger of the title, a rare and remarkable beast that will forge its own destiny.

The Iranian American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, who wrote and directed the movie, has always been fascinated by stories of poverty and survival. He began his career with low-budget New York dramas like "Man Push Cart." And since then, he's branched out to explore the socioeconomic complexities of rural and suburban America in films like "At Any Price" and "99 Homes."

Even on the bigger, splashier international canvas of "The White Tiger," there's an attractive modesty to Bahrani's approach. He doesn't sensationalize or aestheticize poverty - or wealth, for that matter. And despite the movie's considerable visual energy and upbeat musical selections, Bahrani doesn't turn India into a flashy spectacle. He tries to keep his focus on the characters and the desperate circumstances in which they find themselves.

For about two-thirds of the movie, that approach works beautifully; even with its occasional lapses in pacing, it never loses your attention. But I'm not entirely convinced that Bahrani is temperamentally in sync with the darkness at the heart of the story. His past films could be pessimistic and brutally unsentimental, but they also had a striking moral clarity. And there's something about the gleeful amorality of "The White Tiger" that ultimately eludes him. The film rushes through its violent closing passages as if it were unwilling to fully grapple with what it's showing us. By the end, Balram may have become quite the businessman, but "The White Tiger" doesn't quite close the deal.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "The White Tiger," now streaming on Netflix. On Monday's show, after damaging his vocal cords trying to be a rock singer, New Yorker staff writer John Colapinto became fascinated with the human voice. He'll talk about how the voice evolved, how it works and how different voices affect us, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. His new book is called "This Is The Voice." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE OSCAR PETERSON TRIO'S "YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Charlie Kaier. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Hertzfeld. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE OSCAR PETERSON TRIO'S "YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG")

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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