DATE July 11, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Jed Horne, author of "Breach of Faith" and of the New
Orleans Times-Picayune, discusses New Orleans and Hurricane
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Jed Horne is the metro editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. And
for nearly a year now, metro coverage has meant coverage of all things
Katrina. His paper won two Pulitzer Prizes for its reporting on the hurricane
and its aftermath. Now Horne has written a new book called "Breach of Faith:
Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City." He writes,
"There is some comfort in thinking of Katrina as a natural disaster, but it
has been essentially a man-made disaster." Horne chronicles the engineering
and political failings behind the disaster and looks at efforts to rebuild the
city, including the work of Mayor Nagin's recovery panel, the Bring New
Orleans Back Commission. Horne lives in the French Quarter of the city.
Some of the things you describe are just absurd. I mean, I'll give you an
example of what I mean. You mention that one of Michael Brown's handlers,
when he was making TV appearances just shortly after the hurricane, one of his
handlers wrote him--I guess this was an e-mail. "Please roll up the sleeves
of your shirt. Even the president rolled his sleeves to just below the elbow.
In this crisis and on TV, you need to look more hard-working. Roll up the
sleeves!" Exclamation point.
Mr. JED HORNE: And Michael took him literally rather than figuratively. If
only he had in fact rolled up his sleeves and gotten to work, we might have
been that much more quickly on the road to recovery. Yeah, there was just
crazy, crazy stuff that happened. I mean, it's in the nature of a
catastrophe. It's in the nature of a disaster to push people beyond
reasonable decision-making abilities.
Joe Alba actually said something interesting at one point. No hero of mine,
he's the political hack who proceeded Michael Brown and, in fact, greased the
skids for Michael, his college roomy and buddy, to take over FEMA. But Alba,
sometime before Katrina, said that by definition a disaster is something that
outstrips the ability of the local government and local emergency people to
deal with it. And we saw that again and again and again. And FEMA alas,
although it came at us from the distance it should have made them able to
project power into this void, made those same asinine mistakes. That is one
episode that will always stay with me: a doctor who is trying to resuscitate
patients out at the hospital, literally patients--at the airport, I should
say--patients dying before his eyes. And his credentials are questioned by a
FEMA worker, and he's ultimately told he has to stop with the cardiovascular
resuscitation of a patient because he doesn't have the clearance that's
needed. He begs for permission to continue. He is told in no uncertain terms
GROSS: Now, in the answer you just gave, you mentioned that you were no fan
of Joseph Alba, who was former head of FEMA. And you called him, as I recall,
Mr. HORNE: Well, that's maybe too harsh, but that's the word I just used.
GROSS: Well, I guess what I'm wondering is, you know, you're the metro editor
of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Did you find yourself becoming more
involved and less distanced or, you know, objective during the hurricane and
Mr. HORNE: I think objectivity is maybe the wrong yardstick to use here.
Objectivity is not really a relevant consideration when your clothing is on
fire and your house is under water, if you'll forgive me a mixed metaphor. It
was impossible to be in New Orleans at that time and not be passionately
involved. And the newspaper, I think, in the proper proportions of editorial
and news coverage, responded in those ways. The news coverage was vigorous,
to say the least. The editorial writer was impassioned, as were the columns
that flowed from this event. But were we energized by Katrina? Were we
enraged by Katrina? Yes, we were enraged by Katrina, as anyone would be who
had been through that kind of experience.
GROSS: Well, you know, about the response in Washington to Katrina, you
write, "Even more than the war in Iraq, Katrina laid bare the shortcoming of
the Bush administration's rigid top-down management style. A chain of command
meant to free the president from distracting minutia and allow him to
implement a grand vision of conservative reform instead seemed to put him out
of touch and out of reach."
What's an example of that? And, if you would, elaborate on what you mean by
Mr. HORNE: Well, I think the classic sort of representation of how Bush
handled himself is captured in a contrast with LBJ, who after Betsy in
1965--another apocalyptic hurricane--showed up in the middle of the city,
shined a light on his face, stood up among people who had lost everything and
said, you know, `I'm here.' That was within a day of the storm striking. And
that was a time when travel was no easier than it is today.
Bush, four, five days later, managed to get himself by airplane to New Orleans
and sat on the tarmac and met with Governor Blanco and the mayor. He had
passed over the city. I think it was a--if we're talking simply spin
management, one of the more egregious of Karl Rove's errors was to let Bush be
photographed peering kind of nonchalantly from the window of the plane as it
passed over New Orleans, having cut short his vacation by a couple of days.
He was heading back to Washington, and this was his signal of concern for the
almost complete destruction of a major American city. I mean, it was an
We then learn, sometime after the fact, that the protestations from the White
House that nobody could have known about the disaster, that Bush was not
informed, nobody knew about the levee breaks until Tuesday, was a falsehood.
That, in fact, on Sunday prior to the hurricane striking, Bush was seated in a
room and given a recap of the Hurricane Pam scenario in which exactly what
happened was predicted to a gnat's eyebrow.
GROSS: The Bring Back New Orleans Commission had actually commissioned a plan
from an architectural group that's based in Philadelphia but had done a lot of
work in New Orleans, and one of the major parts of this plan was to shrink the
New Orleans footprint. In other words, instead of having this city be as
large as it once was, to make the city smaller so that the city would only
have to supply electricity and water and other infrastructure kind of
resources to a smaller region, because it might be very difficult to keep up
services to as wide a region as previously. What happened to that plan `to
shrink the footprint'?
Mr. HORNE: It was essentially scuttled by the mayor in his decision to allow
rebuilding all over the city. He was in election cycle. People were
clamoring for permits to gut or rebuild their housing. And the plan died
of...(unintelligible)...as he and his bureaucrats offered up not just permits
for those who clearly qualified for them but actually helped people rejigger
the numbers on the percent of damage on their property in order to get around
a FEMA rule that requires a house to be elevated if it's more than 50 percent
damaged in a flood plain.
GROSS: So is there a kind of overarching plan now on how the rebuilding
Mr. HORNE: No, there isn't. Although there is a plan in place to develop a
plan. The Rockefeller Foundation has stepped in with some money, $3 million I
think it is, that is meant to jump-start a neighborhood planning process that
will bring all of New Orleans under the umbrella of some kind of rational
plan. Interestingly, the neighborhoods, on their own initiative, while
waiting for this kind of direction from city hall, in many cases have
undertaken their own kinds of neighborhood assessment and their own kinds of
wish lists and plans for rebuilding. And they show, in a lot of cases,
tremendous resourcefulness and insight. It's a question again of grass-roots
people having the wherewithal, having the savvy and being actually hobbled by
government processes that are, you know, tied up in petty partisanship or just
simple bureaucratic bungling.
GROSS: Is there an example of a community-led design to revitalize the
Mr. HORNE: I think you can see it in the Broadmoor section of town, where
people have gotten together in a very emphatic way and have chosen, you know,
what parts of their neighborhood are probably too far gone and might be
committed to green space or parks. They have a plan in mind to put a museum,
which seems to them to be a neighborhood amenity that might draw people back
to Broadmoor in one of the pumping stations that shows how pumps, in fact,
operate, they're integral and crucial to the viability of New Orleans as a
And that's an example of, you know, good thinking at the neighborhood level.
Unfortunately, what also has to happen is--or at least the opportunity that's
being squandered is to rethink mass transit throughout the whole region, not
just individual neighborhoods, because you can't build mass transit in
individual neighborhoods. It has to cross neighborhoods and reach out beyond
the city limits themselves. And you have to rethink the ways in which in some
cases the trackage for such an installation might double as an interior levee
system, as the Urban Land Institute people proposed. And all that is lost
when you don't get the chance to think that would have been provided by a
retrenchment and a moratorium, which is what was recommended by the
authorities and the experts in this area on rebuilding. Planning first and
then the rebuilding.
GROSS: You mentioned that in one plan for the redesign of the city, there'd
be a new transportation system that could actually double as levees. Could
you explain how that could be. Like, how the transportation system can double
as levees. And also, is that part of the design still a possibility or has
that been ruled out?
Mr. HORNE: Well, the way it would work is you have tracks are on kind of
raised beds. You know, we've all seen train tracks that appear to be up on
kind of moles that carry them across pastures or whatever. The plan
envisioned by the people who are in the Bring New Orleans Back Commission
involves light rail system that links the city together from east to west and
on up into Mississippi, actually, and out to the airport and eventually up to
Baton Rouge. And the interior parts of that trackage provide a perfect
opportunity to raise the tracks on earthen mounds, if you will, earthen moles
and in that way have interior basins that if a levee breach were to occur, you
wouldn't have the entire city flooded, you would just have that quadrant or
that portion of the city between those sections of rail would flood. And
you'd be far, far better off than was the case after Katrina.
GROSS: So is this still under consideration, this plan?
Mr. HORNE: My concern is that it's jeopardized by the willy-nilly decision
to let people put houses wherever they will, wherever they once were, rather
than retrenching to a consolidated city and then letting that city grow back,
if in fact it retains and recovers the economic vigor to do so, move back into
its old footprint.
GROSS: My guest is Jed Horne, the metro editor of the New Orleans
Times-Picayune and author of the new book "Breach of Faith."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jed Horne. He's the metro
editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the author of the new book
"Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American
Some people in New Orleans are afraid that the city is being redesigned
intentionally in such a way so that the city will be less black, more white.
What is giving some people that belief that that is happening? And is there
any evidence that that's actually happening? Is that just a conspiracy theory
or is that--does there seem to be any evidence of that?
Mr. HORNE: Well, there are many conspiracy theories and some of them are
demonstrably false. The most rampant one was that the levees had been blown
up intentionally by the white elite in order to drown the black parts of the
city. I've heard people in City Hall repeat that one, and it is frankly
As to whether people are trying to keep New Orleans from becoming as black a
city as it was--two-thirds black I think is roughly the proportion--that's
more complicated. There are certainly people in New Orleans who would like
there to be fewer black people because racism has not gone away in New
Orleans. In so far as there are government policies that can be pointed to,
there may well be a tacit desire that New Orleans not be repopulated by a
population as dependent on government and on welfare as it had before, because
New Orleans economy could not support that population before the storm and is
only going to be less able to do so now.
As a result, you see a lot of retardation in the recovery of the public
housing, for example. New Orleans traditionally had a lot of public housing
and a lot of people who depended on it. The Bush Housing and Urban
Development Department has chosen to announce that it's going to redevelop
public housing rather than simply open up the shuttered public complexes for
immediate occupancy. And that has the effect of delaying the possibility of
some of these folks returning. And that, you know, yeah. Is that racist? Is
that by design? Well, it's the effect. It's the upshot of a policy that is
definitely being consciously enforced.
GROSS: The hurricane season has started, and we're nearing the anniversary of
the hurricane, of Katrina, just a few weeks away. What are some of the
warnings you've gotten about the levees and their ability to withstand a
Mr. HORNE: Well, the worst part about the levee situation is not knowing
because there has been no way to really comprehensively assess the levees,
where there might be other weak spots that were just about to go when the ones
that did failed during Katrina. So you're left with a situation, the worst
links in the chain, if you will, those that broke have been patched back
together. And fortunately and at long last, the so-called outfall canals, the
17th Street Canal and the Orleans Canal and the London Canal--London and
17th's having failed horribly during the storm--have been gated. So if a
storm comes, they can drop the gate and the surge won't come crashing right
into the middle of the city, which was the folly in designing them that way in
the first place, putting up those walls that collapsed.
Unfortunately, with those gates comes a reduced pumping capacity in a city
where every single inch of rain has to be pumped out. It's a city below sea
level, as I'm sure most of your listeners have come to understand. And a
reduced pumping capacity means that even minor weather events or, you know,
big storms that fall far short of a hurricane might be the better way to put
that, can flood the city.
GROSS: So what are residents being told about what to do if there's another
Mr. HORNE: Well, the evacuation plan has been tweaked. It has been conceded
by the mayor and others in authority that the buses should be activated. The
people who don't have the means to get out of the city should be given
transportation out of the city ahead of the storm, not just after the fact, as
was the case with Katrina. And it will be interesting to see if that works.
I'm afraid, having heard that this policy shift had taken place, that none of
us really knows--there's no dress rehearsal for this thing. None of us really
knows what--where to go. What do you do? You're living on a flood street.
Where are you--what block are you supposed to stand on to get onto that bus?
And where is that bus going to take you? I'm not sure protocols have been
worked out with adjoining states as to where the next Astrodome is going to be
that takes the city of New Orleans and relocates it for purposes of a storm
GROSS: In your book "Breach of Faith," you tell some pretty harrowing
stories. What's the worst thing that happened to you in New Orleans during or
after the hurricane?
Mr. HORNE: I had a couple of experiences where it all came home. Lucky as I
was at the end of the day not to have lost a house, thinking that I had, I
rushed through a kind of a camp that my family has maintained on the edges of
the city. And thinking that this was probably where I was going to have to be
living for the foreseeable future, and I sort of blew in there in the middle
of the night after a kind of a crazy drive through the woods from Baton Rouge
to be confronted at gunpoint and by crossbow pointed at delicate parts of my
body by a group--a family, actually, that had come in there needing a place of
refuge and had holed up there. We finally worked out our differences and came
to understand each other, came to understand that, in fact, they knew someone
who knew somebody, and they were, in fact, welcome on that property. And I
certainly was happy to have them stay. They thought I was--they were a black
family. I'm white. They thought I was a Klansman or some kind of redneck
come to roust them out of there in the middle of the night, which was not my
intention. We met, you know, on the property basically trying to figure out
who each other was. That was a harrowing moment. That obviously could have
resulted in bloodshed or death. It also could so easily, had it resulted in
bloodshed, confirmed one of these stereotypes, you know, `Raging band of black
refugees kills white landowner in, you know, on the edge of town.' It didn't
come to that.
GROSS: When you were confronted with a gun, was there ever a moment where you
thought, in addition to needing a computer, maybe you needed a gun?
Mr. HORNE: I had a gun.
GROSS: You had a gun.
Mr. HORNE: Yeah. But I had left it back in the car. And I'm awfully glad I
did. Yeah, this is the South, you know. We have a different approach, and
one is aware at all times that, you know, trouble can be just around the
corner. Yeah, I have a shotgun. Various reporters carry sidearms. Those
that have had, you know, over the years, a need to get into high crime zones
and into drug, you know, drug deal reporting and that kind of stuff have
needed to equip themselves in that way.
I'm awfully glad that I didn't have it with me because I might have been
stupid enough to try to use it or to brandish it. And I'm not by any stretch
a marksman. So my gun was best left in that car. But I was thinking about it
as all of this hardware was aimed at my face.
GROSS: Well, Jed Horne, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. HORNE: Well, thanks so much, Terry.
GROSS: Jed Horne is the metro editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. His
new book is called "Breach of Faith."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Author Edmund White discusses his homosexuality and his
autobiography "My Lives"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
When he was a boy in the 1950s, Edmund White, trying to find a cure for his
homosexuality, he eventually gave up trying and became one of the most
important writers chronicling gay life and culture. He's written many books
of nonfiction, including a biography of the writer Jean Genet, which won a
National Book Critics Circle Award. And he's written several autobiographical
novels. Now, he's written an autobiography called "My Lives." The book is
divided into chapters titled "My Shrinks," "My Father," "My Mother," "My
Hustlers," "My Women," "My Blondes" and "My Friends."
Let's start with a short reading from the chapter titled "My Shrinks."
White's mother was a child psychologist and when he was a child she sent him
to psychologists. He writes that when he was 15, he stopped thinking of
homosexuality as being interestingly artistic and saw it as a problem to be
Mr. EDMUND WHITE: (Reading) "Already I'd hoped to be a writer, but as I was
beginning to realize, successful writing entailed a grasp of universal values
and eternal truths, which were necessarily heterosexual. Foolishly, I had
imagined I could transform the droves of homosexuality into the gold of art.
But now I saw I could never be a great artist if I remained ignorant of the
classical verities of marriage and child rearing, adultery and divorce. But
if psychoanalysis could convert me into a heterosexual, might it not at the
same time ablate, the very neurosis that made me want to write? Should I
tamper with my neurosis?"
GROSS: That's Ed White reading from the first chapter of his new
autobiography, "My Lives."
Ed, welcome back to FRESH AIR. The first psychologist who you knew was your
own mother, who, she became a child psychologist when you were young, and she
practiced on you. The way you describe it, she practiced administering
Rorschach tests on you and psychoanalyzing you. Was there anything
inappropriate to you about that looking back?
Mr. WHITE: Well, looking back, yes. At the time, of course, I--you know,
you don't really judge your parents that much. But, now, looking back, yes,
of course, I realize it was very crazy. And that it wasn't--I mean, if your
mother says to you, `You have severe psychological problems,' and you're seven
or eight years old, that's not an objective piece of information for you, the
child. It becomes something that shapes you and damages you and makes you
lose your confidence in yourself and feel that you're very weird. And that
certainly is the way I felt.
GROSS: Are you describing what actually happened, that she told you this and
that was how you reacted?
Mr. WHITE: Yeah. I mean, she did really want to test me all the time. For
instance, I remember she gave me a Rorschach and she was very dismayed because
I didn't see any human beings in it. I only saw gravestones and diamonds and
totally weird, impersonal things. And maybe, quite correctly, she saw that as
a sign of a kind of borderline psychosis. I mean, I certainly was a very
disturbed child, partly because I felt enormously guilty about my parents'
divorce. And soon after they did get divorced, I locked myself in the
bathroom and I wouldn't come out. And I kept screaming, `I did it, I did it,
I did it.' I mean, it's almost like a classic example of an Oedipal complex of
where the boy wants to get rid of the father and then when he does, he feels
GROSS: Were most of the psychologists you were sent to when you were young
because you were gay or there're other reasons why your mother sent you to
psychologists or that you wanted to see psychologists?
Mr. WHITE: Oh, it was because I was gay. And it was mostly I--I was the one
who initiated all this. I mean, I think I had, you know, Sartre talks about
people who have bad faith, an act of bad faith, that is they're not being
honest with themselves. And I think I was a classic example of that kind of
bad faith because on the one hand, I was lusting after boys my own age and
even older men. And that's what I really wanted, and I was obsessed with that
idea of having some sort of sex with older people. But, on the other hand, I
knew that it was a bad thing. And I also knew that it would limit me as a
writer because that was very much the idea in the air that a writer could only
be successful if he could touch on universal topics. And homosexuality was
obviously too narrow a focus or too neurotic a point of view to ever make a
successful writer. So, for various reasons, some of them artistic already,
even at that early age of 14, 15, but also just because I wanted to be a
regular guy. I mean, teenagers do want to be like other teenagers. And it's
really hard to perceive that you're different.
GROSS: Your father didn't like the idea of psychologists because they cost so
much money, and he was already paying alimony by this point. But you say he
also believed that mental problems could be cured through willpower and
self-discipline. Did you ever try to, through willpower and self-discipline,
Mr. WHITE: Yeah. I mean, I went through a period where I was a Buddhist as
a teenager. And I would meditate every night, and I--and, of course, part of
the kind of Buddhism I subscribed to, which was the Hinayana, the earliest
kind, part of that is giving up all your desires including your sexual
desires. But, I mean, you're supposed to root out from yourself your
hankering after money, fame, love, sex, success of any sort. You're
supposed--because those are the things that keep you attached to the world and
cause you to be reborn. But I think if Buddhism appealed to me so much and if
I actually tried to apply it to my life, it was because I was so guilt-ridden
about being gay.
GROSS: It's so interesting to think of you practicing that kind of Buddhism
because your books are so much about the kind of attachments that you were
trying to give up as a young Buddhist.
Mr. WHITE: No. I think you're absolutely right. And I think it's a real
conflict. But I also think that is sort of the heart of the religious
experience. I mean, I'm an atheist now, and I--even then, I--one reason I was
attracted by Buddhism was because you could be an atheist and be a Buddhist.
But, in any event, I do feel like, at least as a teenager, I had a very strong
religious side, spiritual side. And I think part of that--I mean a real sign
of that spiritual vocation is that you be in deep conflict about it. I have a
lot of Texas relatives who are born-again Christians, and I always say to
them, `I don't believe you really believe.' And they'll say, `What do you
mean? What do you mean?' I say because you never have any conflict about it.
I mean, all the great spiritual leaders I know of, whether it's Emerson or
Nietzsche or different ones, all went through these, certainly Kierkegaard,
went through these terrible crises of faith. And you see that in the 19th
century again and again when people still really did believe. Their beliefs
were constantly being shattered and tempted and rewritten. And they anguished
over the whole thing a lot.
GROSS: The first gay therapist who you saw was Charles Silverstein, who you
later collaborated with on the book "The Joy of Gay Sex." What year was it
that you started seeing him?
Mr. WHITE: That would have been in the mid-1970s, maybe 1974. And then
I--that book came out, "The Joy of Gay Sex" came out in, I think, '76 or '77.
GROSS: So what are some of the insights you got from actually seeing a
therapist who was gay as opposed to a therapist who was trying to make you
Mr. WHITE: Well, it was interesting because he wasn't at all interested in
talking about what caused homosexuality. And if I would sort of start harping
on the, usually in a very ready-made, rehearsed way that I'd learned from my
earlier therapist, he would just sort of look away or lose interest. But what
he was interested in was why I kept choosing to be involved with people who
spurned me. Why I was always unhappy in love? Why I couldn't seem to settle
down with somebody who liked me? And I think that, quite correctly, he saw as
an aspect of gay self-hatred. And he would do very interesting things, like I
would say, `Yes, it's true. I hate myself.' Then he would bring in to the
next session a mirror, and he'd say, `OK, now I want you to look at yourself
in the mirror and I want you to list all the things you like and all the
things you don't like.' What was interesting is that there were many, many
things I did like. And that surprised me. I mean, there were--I had
qualities that I did approve of, and I do and did like. But the ones I didn't
like were very intense and deep. So I think that was very illuminating.
GROSS: My guest is Ed White. He's written a new autobiography called "My
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is writer Edmund White, and his new autobiography is called
We had been talking about your chapter "My Shrinks." You have a chapter called
"My Hustlers." You say in your book that you first became interested in
hustlers because in your world, when you were younger and the world you were
living in, it was hard to find anybody that you thought was gay. But you
could tell if a guy was a hustler, so that's who you had your relationships
with. But you remained interested in hustlers, and I guess I'm wondering why?
I mean, you're somebody who could have had many relationships without ever
seeing a hustler again.
Mr. WHITE: That's true.
GROSS: Without ever having paid again.
Mr. WHITE: I guess it was always sort of exciting for me. I mean, for
instance, I can remember when I was in my 30s and I was still pretty
presentable-looking, and I was working doing a lot of freelance writing, and
one way I'd make myself stay at my desk was to know that at midnight somebody
would be coming up those steps to see me. So, in a way, I supposed if you pay
for sex, one of the advantages is that you can get exactly the person you want
physically, and you can orchestrate when it will take place and under what
circumstances and so on. I mean--in other words, I suppose it's one aspect of
being a control freak is that--I mean, people who go out, even very attractive
people who go out cruising, spend an awful lot of time in bars, hours and
hours and hours and hours trying to line somebody up. I mean--and that's true
whether you're straight or gay. And--but I think that one of the advantages
of--but I've often--but also it sounds so impersonal when you talk about
hustlers. But almost every one I've ever seen, I've gone on seeing for a long
period of time. I've always had very close relationships with these guys,
most of whom are middle-class, most of whom have other jobs, most of whom are
educated and are fun to talk to. Oftentimes, they're other writers. So it's
not like it's quite the barren, impersonal thing that it might sound as if it
GROSS: You have a picture in the back of the book of the man who's been your
partner since 1995. So, should I assume here that he's OK having his picture
in the book? And you saying that he's a partner while you're writing about
all these other relationships you've had?
Mr. WHITE: Well, he is very tolerant. Poor guy. Maybe awfully
long-suffering. But, I mean, we really love each other. And he--I mean, we
have a very tender, close supportive relationship. He's a writer. We read
each other our work. I especially read to him. He's a little more reluctant
to read to me. But we certainly have an enormous esteem for each other. And
I really think that maybe the first--we've been together 11 years now--the
first two years maybe we had some quarrels. But we haven't had any since
then. We really get along very well.
GROSS: Is there anything that really surprises you about what has happened
with gay culture since Stonewall? I mean, you were active in the Gay Rights
Movement, you know, back then. And you've watched gay culture evolve, gay
life evolve. What surprises you most?
Mr. WHITE: Well, I think, in the '70s that most gay leaders who, the
visible, active leaders, politically, were leftists. And it's because, I
think, people who were conservative and gay felt they had nothing to gain by
coming out, at least in a political way. So the gay movement was quite
radical and progressive. And there was a tremendous emphasis on linking up
the gay fight with the fight of women, of blacks and of other minority groups.
I think that that isn't the case anymore. That what happened in the '80s was
AIDS killed off a lot of those radical leaders and flushed out of the closet a
lot of more conservative, middle-class people who sort of took over the
movement. And I think that's fine. But it has meant that the whole movement
as a political movement has drifted very much to the right, as has the whole
culture. And in the same way, I think that gays used to feel they had to be
cultured, that the most important thing about proving you were eligible for
gay culture was to have an opinion about Maria Callas or to have seen the
latest Pasolini movie or to have read the latest Andre Gee journal. Now,
there's very little pressure to do that. And I think that gay culture has
been dumb-down the way the rest of the culture has been dumb-down. And that
gays feel that the most important thing is to go to the gym and look great or
maybe have a very good job.
But I'm, of course, exaggerating slightly because maybe the final thing to say
about difference between now and the past is that gay culture has become
extremely pluralistic so that you have many people who are skinny and don't go
to the gym, and who are artistic and live in the East Village. And you have
many people who live in Chelsea, where I live, who have these big showboat
bodies and go to the gym and are mostly interested in that. And you have gays
of absolutely every stripe and variety, and you have many, many people who
don't define themselves by their sexuality anymore. I mean, it's quite common
for me to meet a younger person who, after I've known him for a few weeks or
months even, I'll find out, sort of in passing, that he's gay. But that isn't
the most important thing for him about his identity. Whereas I think in an
earlier period of oppression, it was very important to everybody's identity.
GROSS: You were diagnosed as being HIV-positive back in 1985. And your
health is still good?
Mr. WHITE: Yeah. Only last summer, for the first time ever did I start
taking meds. I mean, I never was on any kind of medication until last summer.
And it turns out I'm what's called a slow progressor. And about 4 percent of
people who are HIV-positive are slow progressors, that is their numbers drift
down very, very, very slowly. And mine over a period of 20-some years. And
in my case, I did need to finally start taking meds, but once I started taking
them, I felt tiptop again. So...
GROSS: I'm wondering how having that kind of cloud hanging over your head, of
being HIV-positive, has affected your life. Because you probably thought at
one point that that was an early death sentence.
Mr. WHITE: I definitely did.
GROSS: And, you know, thank goodness, it turned out not to be. But you
didn't know that. So, did you make changes in your life based on the fact
that you thought that you might not have long to live?
Mr. WHITE: Well, I think it's made me very productive. I mean, I think that
I'm very grateful for every year that has been granted me. And so many of my
contemporaries died. I mean, I belong to a writers group called the Violet
Quill, and there were eight of us, and only three of us are still alive. And
so I think, you know, I sometimes feel that I'm writing the books they might
have written, or I'm expressing the things that otherwise would be lost.
Anyway, I do feel very grateful about having been given this extra lease on
GROSS: Well, Ed White, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. WHITE: Thank you, Terry. I enjoyed it so much.
GROSS: Ed White's new autobiography is called "My Lives."
Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews two new CDs by Tom Verlaine,
co-founder of the punk bank Television.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews two new CDs by the punk
TERRY GROSS, host:
Tom Verlaine, the central musician in the '70s New York punk band Television,
hasn't released an album of new material in 14 years. Now, he's put out two
albums. The disc called "Around" consists of 14 instrumentals, while "Songs
and Other Things" includes compositions with Verlaine's vocals.
Rock critic Ken Tucker says the albums perpetuate the legend of Verlaine's
perfectionism while offering a lot of lively music.
(Soundbite of Verlaine song)
Mr. TOM VERLAINE (Singing): "It's really cool, she's got five ribbons coming
out of each finger. And all the day of well...(unintelligible)...visions of.
Hmm, bah, bah, bah. (Unintelligible)...girl for me, for me.
(End of soundbite)
Mr. KEN TUCKER: Thirty years ago, it was possible to go to the dingy little
New York City clubs CBGBs and behold a punk rocker who looked like a stork
with a guitar. Thin, long-necked Tom Verlaine, fronting the band Television.
He sang in a strangled groan, and he distended high register notes with a
precision that was rare among the primitive bashing that characterized most
punk. Indeed, what distinguished Television from colleagues like The Ramones
or Blondie was Verlaine's meticulousness, a willingness to regularly break
with punk's short, fast, loud ethos. Listen to the band's 1977 debut album
"Marquee Moon," and now it sounds like a showcase for something punk rock was
supposed to replace. The long soloing guitar-god rave-up, Verlaine is still
up to some of his old tricks. He sidles into a resounding cave of hard rock
on this new song "Heavenly Charm."
(Soundbite of song "Heavenly Charm")
Mr. VERLAINE (Singing): "There's no...(unintelligible)...slow, walk slow.
(Unintelligible)...wicked. I find heaven in your arms. Wicked. Some kind of
(End of soundbite)
Mr. TUCKER: The compositions on "Songs and Other Things" consist of lyrics
whose meaning are, for the most part, like abstract poetry without the
pretentiousness. A series of striking images that rarely cohere into a
narrative. The opposite is true of his guitar playing. Only one cut exceeds
five minutes. And most are in the vicinity of three, sketches or doodles of
what might have been longer, more elaborate structures. That's if Verlaine
were interested in a conventional rock star career. As it is, he tours
occasionally with members of Television to pay the bills that supply the
electricity for what he apparently really wants to do on the evidence of these
records. Noodle around with interesting arrangements of chords and tempos.
The instrumental album "Around" offers Verlaine versions of everything from
spaghetti western soundtrack music to a fractured rock-a-billy track like this
(Soundbite of instrumental "Flame")
Mr. TUCKER: My favorite piece of music on these two records is from "Songs
and Other Things." The track called "Shingaling." The opening announcement
finds Verlaine saying pretty much what I said earlier, that he doesn't want to
perform conventionally structured rock songs. A sentiment the music then
pleasingly contradicts. Diving immediately into a funky riff. This in turn
splinters into a series of those precisely plucked notes that have made
Verlaine's music so instantly recognizable for three decades. You can
practically see his spidery long fingers crawling across the strings.
(Soundbite of song "Shingaling")
Mr. VERLAINE (Singing): "Don't want to jump and sing. Just want to stay in
Shingaling. Trees so skinny, leaves of gold. My baby, baby be bo. Eyes a
glow. I don't care what you sing, just want to play in Shingaling.
(Unintelligible). Your very soul for ever. Another link and half together.
Baby fascination fever and swim just like a beaver. Don't care what you
bring. Don't care what you bring. Don't care what you sing. Just want to go
across Shingaling. Don't care..."
Mr. TUCKER: On another song here, Verlaine claims to feel as his title has
it "All Weirded Out." Yet, the overall feeling you get from this break in his
long silence is that Tom Verlaine sounds very comfortable making music in a
vacuum without public reaction or commercial judgment. I know. Nice work if
you can get it. But this isn't self-indulgent work either. I hear it as a
series of exercises Verlaine has chosen to make public. An opportunity to
hear what Verlaine does in his apartment at night when he keeps vampire hours,
endlessly teasing out new variations on an old sound. What we're privy to is
nothing less than the pleasure of obsession, a man and his infinite absorption
in getting sound out of a guitar.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
two new albums by Tom Verlaine.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with a track by Pink Floyd. Today, it
was confirmed that the reclusive founder of the band, Syd Barrett, died a few
days ago at the age of 60. This is his song "See Emily Play."
(Soundbite of song "See Emily Play")
PINK FLOYD: (Singing) "Emily tries, but misunderstands.
She's...(unintelligible)...inclined to borrow somebody's dreams till tomorrow.
There is no other day, let's try it another way. You'll lose your mind and
play. Free days to play. See Emily play."
(End of soundbite)
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