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Chris Hedges

Former New York Times Balkans Bureau Chief and Middle East Bureau Chief Chris Hedges. He's currently living in New York. He has covered war zones in Central America, the Middle East, and the Balkans for over 20 years and is the author of the new book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.

35:41

Other segments from the episode on September 3, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 3, 2002: Interview with Chris Hedges; Commentary on Domino Records; Commentary on language.

Transcript

DATE September 3, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Chris Hedges discusses his experiences covering wars
for 20 years for The New York Times as told in his new book "War
Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

After reporting from war zones for nearly 20 years, New York Times reporter
Chris Hedges figured out he'd become addicted to war. With that disturbing
realization, he gave up covering wars and wrote a book reflecting on how war
changes people and countries. He's not a pacifist, but he thinks that
particularly in times like these, we have to guard against the myths that
romanticize war and render complex situations into moral absolutes.

He's taken many risks during his career. As he describes, he's been in
ambushes on desolate Central American roads, shot at in the marshes of
southern Iraq, imprisoned in the Sudan, beaten by Saudi military police,
deported from Libya and Iran, held hostage for a week by Iraq's Republican
Guard, fired on by Serb snipers and shelled for days in Sarajevo. His new
book is called "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning." Let's start with a
short reading.

Mr. CHRIS HEDGES (Author, "War Is a Forces That Gives Us Meaning"): (Reading)
`I learned early on that war forms its own culture. The rush of battle is a
potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many
years. It is peddled by mythmakers--historians, war correspondents,
filmmakers, novelists and the state--all of whom who endow it with qualities
it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above
our small stations in life in a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a
grotesque and dark beauty.

`It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language and infects
everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim
perversities of smut and death. Fundamental questions about the meaning or
meaninglessness of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those
around us sink to the lowest depths. War exposes the capacity for evil that
lurks not far below the surface within all of us. And that is why, for many,
war is so hard to discuss once it is over.'

GROSS: That's Chris Hedges reading from his new book "War Is a Force That
Gives Us Meaning."

You write, `Like every recovering addict, there is a part of me that remains
nostalgic for war's simplicity and high, even as I cope with scars that it has
left behind.' Where did you get hooked on war?

Mr. HEDGES: Well, my route to war--I wasn't--I went to seminary and, you
know, read just war theory and liberation theology, and then as a teen-ager
was fascinated by the Spanish Civil War and the Holocaust. And, you know--so
I wasn't a gun nut. I mean, I didn't subscribe to Soldier of Fortune and
those kind of stuff that does attract these kind of voyeurs.

But I went to war, and I went to Latin America, because--this was in the early
'80s. Latin America was ruled by military dictatorships, and I felt that as a
young person, this was as close as I was going to come to fighting fascism in
my lifetime, and that's why I went. However, once I went to El Salvador to
cover the war--I was there for five years--and once I got caught up in combat
or once I experienced combat and experienced the rush of war, I became
addicted to it the same way anyone else who spends a lot of time in that
environment becomes addicted to it. And it seemed--and I did it for a long
time, for many years, ending with the war in Kosovo.

It was a lifestyle that was terribly unhealthy and, you know, I couldn't sort
of wait for the next conflict. I mean, it was not accidental that there were
reporters and photographers in Kosovo that I had worked with in El Salvador,
which was, you know, almost 20 years ago.

GROSS: Listen, in your book, you describe--and I ...(unintelligible) this is
one of the first times you were under fire. This was in, I think, San
Salvador.

Mr. HEDGES: It was in Suchitoto, which was a town outside of San Salvador.

GROSS: OK. And you were under attack by rebels. And you were saying to
yourself, `God, if you get me out of here, I will never do this again.' Talk
a little bit about what you were experiencing and what was going through your
mind at that moment.

Mr. HEDGES: At the moment that I was being shot at?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HEDGES: I had a range of emotions. I mean, the biggest was fear, of
course. I was terrified. And I felt helpless. I couldn't move. I
desperately wanted to get out of there. You know, I wasn't big into prayer
and--I mean, I put that in the book because it's true. And I, you know, at
that point, would have made a bargain with anybody to get out alive. I didn't
think I was going to get out alive.

GROSS: OK. Now how did you go from there to deciding that--well, in fact,
you were going to go back for more, and not only that, you're going to go from
war to war to war for about 20 years?

Mr. HEDGES: Because a half-hour later, it was the greatest cosmic joke I'd
ever played. And, you know, the excitement of being in a situation with that
kind of intensity and that kind of danger and escaping was a huge rush, and it
became a deadly kind of game. And I think it was a game I was playing,
although not with the same kind of enthusiasm, in Kosovo, when it's a constant
kind of cat-and-mouse, where the Serbs would cut a road into a village where
they had murdered a bunch of Kosovar Albanians, cut most of the roads, and
we'd walk in. And, yes, you know, the motives are always mixed. You know, it
wasn't--it had a higher purpose in that we wanted to document the kinds of
atrocities that the Serbs were trying to cover up, as was also the case in the
war in El Salvador. But it was also the rush of the game itself. And, you
know, it's--I think Churchill said there's--well, I can't remember the exact
quote, but "There's nothing quite like the exhilaration of being shot at
without result."

I mean, that was much part of the--and I think, also, one becomes initiated
into the fraternity itself. I mean, there is a small group of photographers
and camera people and reporters who do this. And I didn't ever really care
particularly what my editors thought, but I cared an awful lot about what they
thought. It was very important to me that they respect me and my work. And
because I often did go--I mean, I worked for 10 years with this great
reporter, Kurt Schork, who was killed in an ambush in Sierra Leone in May of
2000. And started in northern Iraq with him, and was in Sarajevo and Kosovo.
And it was important to me what Kurt thought. You know, his opinion of me--it
mattered in a way that perhaps few others opinions did because he'd been
there. And Kurt was the perfect example of somebody who couldn't break free
from the addiction. I mean, he couldn't break free and it killed him.

GROSS: You write about a friend you had in El Salvador when you were covering
the war there. He was a war photographer and he was nearly killed a few times
in El Salvador. And so he went back to Florida to get away from the war, did
local stories for one of the papers there, was bored, returned to El Salvador,
and you say from the moment he stepped off the plane, it was clear he had
returned to die. He was actually shot a few months after he returned to El
Salvador. You say it took him less than a minute to die. Do you see a
certain type of war corresponding or a certain type of war reporting as almost
being a death wish?

Mr. HEDGES: I don't think it's a death wish. I think it's more a matter that
you can't cope outside of that environment, and that when you--I don't--you
know, when Kurt and my friend, Miguel Gil Moreno, went down the road in Sierra
Leone--you know, and I spoke to people who were with them when they were
killed. I mean, they did what we all do. They were careful. Now they got to
a junction ...(unintelligible) junction, and their drivers wouldn't go on, so
Kurt and Miguel said, `OK, we'll drive.' But, you know, we've all done that.
I think they were weighing the risks.

I think it's--and I think in this case, there was a kind of grimness with this
photographer, where he understood that he sort of could never go back. I
think in the other cases, it was more that they couldn't function outside of
that environment, that when they got back they felt alienated from normal
society, they had a hard time coping with the routine, they--you know, it's
hard to replicate that kind of excitement and that sense of purpose.

GROSS: Did you have trouble coping in the other part of the world? Like...

Mr. HEDGES: Terribly. Very hard.

GROSS: Like what?

Mr. HEDGES: Well, all of that. I mean, I felt, you know--well, especially in
the middle of a conflict, when I'd come back, it was like I was 1ooking at
everything from the end of a long tunnel. You know, I just felt like I was
four or five steps removed. I saw so much of life as trivial, and I think
that that is one of the--if there are any good things about war, it does tend
to put what's important in life in perspective. And in sitting down with
friends of mine, it just seemed to me that their life was filled with a lot of
banalities. I think that's unfair. I mean, I think I was unfair, but that's
how I felt. And I sort of couldn't wait to go back. And I think--you know,
wherever. And it was hard for me to stay out. And then when I finally
decided to stop, it was probably three years before I was comfortable.

GROSS: Why did you decide to stop?

Mr. HEDGES: Well, I covered the war in Kosovo and, you know, I'd done, let's
say, pretty much in and out of war zones for 15 years, I didn't get any zip
out of it. I think that, you know, the first war you cover is almost like
your first love affair. And you spend a lot of time after that trying to
recreate it, and you can't. El Salvador was the experience of my life, and
nothing I ever did--everything I did paled beside El Salvador, although, of
course, Sarajevo was probably the most frightening place I was ever in. I
couldn't recreate that, and I think that's part of what you're looking for.
You're looking to recreate that initial experience where you accept the
fact--or you believe it's worth dying for, let's say, the story, for the
cause, for--you're a believer. And I think in every other conflict you get
to, you're never quite--you never are that naive again.

So by the time I got to Kosovo, you know, I knew how to do it. I'd been doing
it a long time. It's what I did professionally. You know, I knew what the
sound of an incoming mortar was and an outgoing mortar. And I knew, you know,
how to sort of smell out a situation and whether we should go forward or not.
But I grit my teeth and did it. There was no--you know, I did it with a kind
of grim determination, and I didn't like it. I mean, I felt profoundly alone.
I still believed in what I doing, but I guess I wondered why I was still doing
it, and I realized that it was time to stop. And when I finished the war in
Kosovo, I took a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, and spent the year just reading
classics, mostly translating Catellus and Virgil. And that was the beginning
of my recovery.

But it was hard and difficult. And I think--and as you read, I mean, there'll
always be a part of me that's nostalgic for that, because while, you know, I
can never say that I was happy in the midst of a war zone, I felt a kind of
fulfillment and a purpose. You know, I woke up every morning and I felt that
what I was doing in life was incredibly important and meaningful. And
that--you know, it's hard in a peacetime society to replicate that.

I think part of what we're doing, also--I just want to add--is we're running
away, that also, you know, living day-to-day life in some ways is harder than
living in the midst of a war. It's certainly more complicated. It--you know,
you don't have these sort of grand, momentous highs and causes. And I
think--and Ernie Pyle wrote of this. And I think part of it is a fleeing from
day-to-day responsibility.

GROSS: You know, when you talk about your years as a war correspondent, your
approximately 20 years as a war correspondent, it sounds almost as if--you
know, you talk about war addiction. It sounds almost as if you were--you see
yourself as having been a war addict who's now kind of gone through a recovery
and you're out the other end, and you still have to learn how to keep away,
and that part of your life is in the past tense, but you still have feelings
for it. It's just interesting to hear you talk that way about it. Do you
feel like you're in this completely different phase of your life now?

Mr. HEDGES: I went back to Gaza for The New York Times and got caught in a
very bad ambush in the Netzarim Junction. There was a kid shot and killed
about 15 feet away from me. And I ended up sprinting down a road under pretty
heavy fire with a bunch of young Palestinian boys and men who were carrying
plastic bags full of Molotov cocktails. And I thought, `You know, this is
nuts. It's crazy. You know, I don't need this experience. I've had it.'
You don't stay lucky forever. I think it was I really profoundly didn't like
it, and I think it was just a realization that if I didn't stop, I was going
to end up like Kurt and that I had to force myself to stop.

GROSS: Your new book is about the myths of war and the kick of war that some
people experience. Do you feel as a journalist that journalists sometimes
feed those myths? Do you feel like you ever do that yourself?

Mr. HEDGES: I think in wartime, it's very rare that any journalist doesn't
feed the myth. I think in almost every war, if you look closely, the press is
part of the problem.

And the other thing that the press does is we not only perpetuate the myth of
war, but we perpetuate the myth of our own nobility. And those of us that
have been there know full well the very dark side to what we do.

GROSS: But I feel like I read a lot about the dark side, you know,
particularly in The New York Times. I think they have excellent war
correspondents--yourself included, though you're not doing it right now--who
write about the dark side of war, and who write about the tragedy, the deaths,
the loss of limbs, the loss of health, the loss of freedom. And I think it
paints us a pretty grim picture. So explain to me how you think that your
reporting helped feed the myth.

Mr. HEDGES: Well, I think that by writing about--I mean, let's take the war
in Sarajevo, where on a daily basis, we're trying to write about troop
movements or positions or what the UN has done or the collapse of the safe
area in Srebrenica and stuff. It oftentimes misses the fundamental point of
what war is doing to the society itself. I think that, and especially in
daily journalism, we tend to get caught up in daily events. I mean, that's
our job.

You know, one of the--people never really--every picture or--every reportage
of a war is heavily censored. And when I got to Sarajevo, which was in '95,
if a shell came in and landed, the pictures that were transmitted back--which
by then were not being run, you know, and a lot of the television crews were
upset because the editors were saying, `Well, you know, it just looks too much
like the pictures. It's just too much repetition. It was kind of numbing.'
But even those pictures are cut. I mean, they're terrible, but they're not
anywhere near as terrible as what they are. They just would be too shocking.
You just couldn't transmit them. And print is always much tamer. I mean,
you--I mean, especially, I think, The New York Times is--and correctly
so--pretty restrained. I mean, we don't sort of go in for huge, graphic
descriptions.

So I think when I say we don't talk about the darkness of war, I think what
we're not coping with is the disease of war itself. We may--and I think we do
write about, you know, the tragedy and what happens, but whether we
fundamentally get to the sickness that is war, I sometimes wonder. And then
when I talk about ourselves, I think that there is, you know, the--I think
sometimes the press could be a little more honest about how they're part of
problem.

I mean, certainly, the Gulf War was an example of that. I mean, the press
coverage was horrendous. You know, really, we ate out of everyone's--out of
the military's hand. And there is a kind of scramble to be patriotic. I
mean, it's a little easier when you're covering a conflict where you're not
directly involved. But once your nation is directly involved, I think the
press, especially because there's a kind of guilt among some of the press,
that, you know, they're only writing and reporting rather than actually
engaging in the conflict, they see it as their duty to sustain moral. And
there's a kind of self-censorship that often takes place to sustain moral.
That's less true when you're in a situation like Bosnia where we don't have
troops on the ground. But if you look at the Persian Gulf War, you look at
the recent war in Afghanistan, I think, you know, generally the press assumes
that that is their role.

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

Let's continue our interview with New York Times reporter Chris Hedges. He's
reported from war zones from Latin America to the Middle East and the Balkans.
After realizing he'd become addicted to war, Hedges ended that chapter of his
life and took time off from reporting to write a book reflecting on how war
changes individuals and countries. His new book is called "War Is A Force
That Gives Us Meaning."

Well, you know, in talking about war there's, I think, just a very interesting
phenomena happening in the United States, which is that a lot of Americans who
have been very skeptical of recent wars, particularly of Vietnam, but also
skeptical even of the Gulf War, feel so personally violated by the attacks on
the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that this surge of patriotism has been
experienced by people who haven't experienced it quite that way before. And
people are flying flags who never dreamed they'd be doing that before. And I
just wonder what your observations are of this phenomenon?

Mr. HEDGES: Well, I think that in every war that is what happens. You know,
if you look at the start of conflicts there usually is an incident, real or
created, whereby your innocents are horribly murdered by, you know, terrible
forces of darkness. And that was true in the war in Bosnia where
supposedly--I can't remember which was which, but there was a wedding party
that was fired upon in the initial stages of the war. It was true in El
Salvador, where you had a peaceful demonstration before the start of the
insurgency where they were gunned down in the streets, which happened. I
mean, it was real. But I think that that is always what triggers that kind of
stuff, so there's--it's not any exception, and it's a kind of natural
response. There's the kind of banding together. You know, it does create a
kind of pride.

But I think that one has to be very cautious, because, you know, that kind of
communal solidarity in an emergency--and, you know, having been in situations
and lived through it, I'm awfully thankful that it does exist among where
people will really watch out for you. And at the same time, one has to not
allow that to blind yourself to your own faults and your own need for change
and your own injustices. I mean, you know, the problem with that is that, you
know, injustice suddenly always becomes committed only by the other and not by
us. And that's the danger of that kind of patriotism and self-glorification,
and it's been true in every single conflict that I've covered.

We have great pity for our own and no pity for the other. And those we oppose
have the same illness. And it's only when you break free from that I think
that you can begin to communicate, because you don't--what you end up doing is
speaking in two different languages. You speak past each other. There is no
common language in which you can speak anymore. I mean, you see that between
the Israelis and the Palestinians. When you ask Hamas why they're doing
suicide bombings, and they say, `Well, the Israelis'--and they say, `We only
started doing suicide bombings after Baruch Goldstein shot down the worshipers
in the mosque in Hebron and because the Israelis kill our civilians. And when
they stop killing our civilians, we'll stop killing their civilians.' But
they don't speak anymore. There's no common language.

And that's why after a conflict, it's so important that you create, rather
than a mythic history, a real history as was so--you know, was done in South
Africa with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, so at least people have a
basis by which to talk. And that's always the danger of wars, that, you know,
there is no longer a common vocabulary and, therefore, there's no longer a
possibility of a resolution.

GROSS: Our country might be going to war with Iraq. We might be invading
Iraq and trying to overthrow Saddam Hussein. As you listen to the Bush
administration make its case for going into Iraq and sending thousands and
thousands of American troops to Iraq, what are you listening for? What are
you listening for between the lines?

Mr. HEDGES: Well, I'm listening for a real and credible threat. And, you
know, I covered Iraq for many years and have no illusions about Saddam
Hussein. He's about as bad as they come.

GROSS: I'm going to stop here and say that you were kidnapped by Saddam
Hussein's Republican Guard right after the Gulf War and you were held hostage
for a week.

Mr. HEDGES: Right. You know, the evidence has certainly not been shared with
the American public. And according to our allies, including our British
allies, it's not been shared with them. And I think what worries me about
this war on terrorism is that it's this never-ending conflict. I worry that,
you know, the many wars that nations get drawn into when they're ill-conceived
become incredibly dangerous swamps that it's hard to wade out of. And, you
know, it's pretty easy to start a war and pretty hard, especially when your
nation's prestige is on the line, to walk away from.

Iraq is--you know, there may be credible evidence that, you know, he's on the
verge of building a nuclear bomb. But having covered conflict after conflict,
oftentimes assumptions are made on faulty intelligence or on weak
intelligence, and to go wading into a conflict of the magnitude of Iraq, we've
got to be very, very sure.

And I guess I'm looking for that kind of evidence. And that's certainly not
been shared not yet. And the other thing that worries me is that it does not
appear that anybody's particularly thought out how they're going to do it.
And once it gets started, it's just a sinkhole. You can't walk away from it.
So I guess all of that worries me. It worries me that in the end, you know,
war just cannot be, you know, begun or waded into lightly. And I guess that's
my biggest fear.

GROSS: What about the counterfear, which is that if we don't invade Iraq, we
might be the target of a chemical attack, a biological attack or, in the
not-too-distant future, a nuclear attack?

Mr. HEDGES: Well, if there's credible evidence that that's something that
Baghdad is planning, then obviously it has to be pre-empted. That said, if we
go to war with Iraq and he has that stuff, you can be pretty certain he's
going to try and use it. So I mean, that's the only way he's going to strike
back; his Scuds don't make it to New York. So if he goes after us, once we go
into a conflict and he does have that stuff, one would assume he's going
to--and knowing Saddam Hussein--there's going to be no real--you know, not
much is going to stay his hand.

I remember after the Gulf War asking Schwarzkopf number two--because I went
into Kuwait with the Marine Corps. And we all were prepared for--and our
biggest fear were these artillery shells that had chemical and biological
agents in them. We knew they had them. They blew the dumps up after the war
at a range of 70 kilometers, if I remember correctly, so we were all within
range. And I asked him why. And he said the only reason why Baghdad didn't
use them is because the command and control was broken between Baghdad and the
front lines and he couldn't get the orders out. So if we start tangling with
Iraq and he does have this stuff, whether he planned to use it or didn't plan
to use it, I would suspect that once we're in the midst of a conflict, he will
try and use it, knowing the Iraqi regime.

GROSS: Do you feel like you're watching your own country go through some of
the things you've watched in other countries as we are in the midst of this
war on terrorism and are considering invading Iraq? You've covered so many
other countries' wars. Now you're seeing your own country participating in
it.

Mr. HEDGES: Yeah. I mean, I look around and sometimes think we've become the
Serbs: the rhetoric; you know, the belief that somehow everything we do,
especially in the Middle East, is just and good; the lack of introspection;
the lack of self-criticism; the lack of understanding of what we do in the
world and how we're perceived in the world. I mean, we have now built a sort
of triple alliance with Putin and Sharon, who are pretty dubious characters,
frankly, especially, you know, among the Muslim world.

I mean, the Muslim world looks at us through the prism of Palestine and
Chechnya. And it's hard, I think at this point, to fathom either what the
Russians are doing in Chechnya or the Israelis are doing in places like the
West Bank and Gaza, yet we have built a pretty uncritical alliance with these
two people. And that, you know--the failure to look at who we've allied
ourselves with and what our power represents and, you know, where we're laying
our forces in this war on terror, I think we're becoming increasingly isolated
and, in the sort of gush of patriotic fervor, we're not asking the right
questions. We resort to the kind of cliches--the very hollow cliches and
rhetoric that always typify a country that's marching into war. And, I mean,
that is the--you know, that has just been repeated in conflict--I don't know
how many conflicts I've covered--10 or 11 or 12. And every single one I've
been in there's--and we're no different from anyone else.

GROSS: You're no longer covering war for The New York Times. One of the
things you're doing now is writing occasional contributions to the Public
Lives column, which is a series of short portraits of interesting people that
appears in the Metro section. Where do you see yourself heading now
journalistically?

Mr. HEDGES: Oh, that's a good question. I'm not sure. You know, the--I
think probably backing away from journalism to a certain extent, and, you
know, I've written another piece for Harper's that will be out. I think
longer pieces, stuff that perhaps is not as tied to daily events. I think
it's--you know, after everything that I've been through and everywhere that
I've been, I guess I know I'm not going back to that. I'm not completely sure
where I'm going, to tell the truth.

GROSS: Well, Chris Hedges, I wish you good luck. And I want to thank you
very much for talking with us.

Mr. HEDGES: Thank you.

GROSS: Chris Hedges reports for The New York Times. His new book is called
"War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning."

Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward on the label Domino Records. This is FRESH
AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Austin, Texas, label Domino Records
TERRY GROSS, host:

Domino Records of Austin, Texas, produced clean teen music for four years and
ended its career with some early soul. Rock historian Ed Ward has the story
of the label and its unusual beginnings.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Sha, dah, sha, dah. Sha, dah, sha, dah. Sha,
dah, sha, dah-ah. Ah-ah. Sha, dah, sha, dah. Sha, dah, sha, dah. Sha, dah,
sha, dah-ah.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) There'll be times when you'll miss her.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Sha, dah, sha, dah. Sha, dah, sha, dah. Sha,
dah, sha, dah. Ah-ah.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) There'll be times when you'll want her. No
matter...

ED WARD reporting:

I managed to live in Austin, Texas, for 13 years without ever having heard of
Domino Records, a label which flourished there from 1957 to 1961. I say
flourished, but that's a small exaggeration. It did, however, manage one big
hit during its lifetime. Domino started out in a way no other record label
has ever begun to my knowledge. It grew out of a six-week seminar called How
to Market a Song held at the YWCA by a local songwriter named Jane Bowers,
who'd had a hit with "Remember the Alamo" recorded by Tex Ritter and The
Kingston Trio.

She must have been a persuasive speaker, because afterwards four attendees,
Laura Richardson, Ed Nichols, Bob Williams and Anne Miller, formed a record
label. Now they needed talent. Off they went to a Girl Scout dance and found
three boys from McCallum High who called themselves The Spades.

(Soundbite of "Baby")

THE SPADES: (Singing) Baby, baby, I love you so. Baby, baby, never let you
go. Baby, baby, I love you so. Baby, baby...

Unidentified Man: (Singing) You're the one for me.

THE SPADES: (Singing) Baby, baby, you're the one for me. Baby, baby...

WARD: "Baby" was a good choice for Domino's first release. Firmly in the
mold of Texas' biggest selling artist of that time, Buddy Holly, it sold well
enough that Liberty Records in Hollywood came knocking at Domino's door and
leased it for national distribution. They also changed the group's name to
The Slades. The boys were so innocent, they'd named themselves after the suit
of cards and had no idea the word had another meaning.

Domino's next artist was a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who'd been
given a scholarship to the University of Texas and formal music training.
Joyce Webb was handed The Slades as a backup group and a young blind kid,
Bobby Doyle, played bass.

(Soundbite of "Right Here")

Ms. JOYCE WEBB (Singer): (Singing) Closer, baby, right here. I want you
right here.

THE SLADES: (Singing) Right here. Right here.

Ms. WEBB: (Singing) Can't you see. I want you right here.

THE SLADES: (Singing) Right here. Right here.

Ms. WEBB: (Singing) Next to me. I want you right here.

THE SLADES: (Singing) Right here. Right here.

Ms. WEBB: (Singing) Constantly. Constantly right here. I want you right
here.

THE SLADES: (Singing) Right here.

WARD: Joyce Webb and The Slades' "Right Here" didn't do much, but as long as
it was cheap to rent time at the university's radio station to make
recordings, it didn't matter. Fired by the success of "Baby," The Slades
tried again.

(Soundbite of "The Waddle")

THE SLADES: (Singing) Bum, ju, wadda, wadda. Bum, ju, wadda, wadda. Bum,
ju, wadda, wadda.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Well, learn to do the waddle and waddle your
blues away.

THE SLADES: (Singing) Bum, ju, wadda, wadda. Bum, ju, wadda, wadda. Bum,
ju, wadda, wadda.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Let's get 'em in the waddle is the only thing
they say.

THE SLADES: (Singing) Bum, ju, wadda, wadda. Bum, ju, wadda, wadda.
Ah-ah-ah-ah.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Let's rock to the moon at the honeymoon in June,
the waddle.

THE SLADES: (Singing) Bum, ju, wadda, wadda.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Well...

WARD: Disc jockeys heard "The Waddle" and realized quickly it was a pretty
ordinary dance novelty, but what was on the other side?

(Soundbite of "You Cheated")

THE SLADES: (Singing) Bom, bom, doo-wah. Bom, bom, doo-wah. Bom, bom,
doo-wah. Bom, bom, doo-wah. Bom, bom, doo-wah. Bom, bom, doo-wah.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) You cheated, you lied, you said that you loved
me.

THE SLADES: (Singing) Bom, bom, doo-wah. Bom, bom, doo-wah. Bom, bom,
doo-wah. Bom, bom, doo-wah.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) You cheated, you lied, you said that you want me.

THE SLADES: (Singing) A-a-a-a-ah. A-a-a-a-a-ah. A-a-a-a-a-ah.
A-a-a-a-a-ah. A-a...

Unidentified Man: (Singing) O-o-o-oh. What can I do but just keep on loving
you? Love is something you know nothing about. Love...

WARD: "You Cheated" was a magnificent record. The lead vocalist, who might
have been Don Burch, who wrote the song, delivered a passionate teen-age
lament over a soaring melody that had hit written all over it. And it was a
hit for The Shields, a group put together in LA by a producer named George
Motola that included Jesse Belvin and Johnny "Guitar" Watson. Their version
hit number 12 on the charts while The Slades stalled at 42. But not all was
lost. Domino had learned well from the seminar and owned 100 percent of the
publishing, so they made money on all the versions.

Domino was expanding now that they had some cash. Next up was a young former
drama student with weird eyes named Ray Campi.

(Soundbite of "My Screamin' Screamin' Mimi")

Mr. RAY CAMPI (Singer): Say, Meemy, tell the folks what you said when I
kissed you last night.

Unidentified Girls: (Sighing loudly) (Singing) Waah, ooh. Waah, ooh. Waah,
ooh. Waah, ooh. Waah, ooh. Waah, ooh.

Mr. CAMPI: (Singing) Well, did I tell you about my brand-new girl, I call
the Screamin' Mimi? Don't you try to date her unless you want to deal with
me. Because she's my screaming, screaming Meemy.

Unidentified Girls: (Singing) Woo, woo, woo.

Mr. CAMPI: (Singing) I can be a meanie.

Unidentified Girls: (Singing) Woo, woo, woo. Woo, ooh.

Mr. CAMPI: (Singing) Don't know what I would do ...(unintelligible). She's
a screaming kitten. I'm an alley cat. Well, I took my little Meemy...

WARD: "My Screamin' Screamin' Mimi" was pretty high production for Domino,
but failed to make a dent. Ray Campi would remain one of America's most
obscure rockabillies until the '80s when he moved to LA and started sharing
stages with the likes of The Blasters.

After a few more flops, a couple of the partners left to move to Hawaii and
the remaining Austinites looked to the other side of town for a new sound.

(Soundbite of "Something Is Wrong")

THE DAYLIGHTERS: (Singing) Tell me, baby, what's happening to our love? Oh,
tell me, baby, what's happening to our love? Is it just about all over,
darling? Am I someone you're thinking of?

WARD: The Daylighters played Austin's black east side and were led by a guy
named Clarence Smith, a proficient guitar player. "Something Is Wrong" was
cut at the tail end of a session for this song, however.

(Soundbite of "No Way Out")

Mr. CLARENCE SMITH (Guitarist and Singer): I've got ya. I've got ya. And
there's no way out.

Ms. JOYCE HARRIS (Singer): (Singing) Well, I don't want to go and I don't
want to stay. I can't escape. I've tried every way. I need to leave. No
exit for me. I love you so much, I'm in misery. No way out.

Mr. SMITH: (Singing) No way out.

Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) Can't forget.

Mr. SMITH: (Singing) Loving you like I do.

Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) No way out.

Mr. SMITH: (Singing) No way out.

Ms. HARRIS: (Singing) I can't think of nothing but loving you. Well, I
never...

WARD: A friend of mine spent a good part of the '70s trying to figure out
which part of Ike and Tina Turner's career "No Way Out" came from. But it's
actually by a white woman from New Orleans, Joyce Harris, with Clarence Smith
on second vocal. Unfortunately, black record business in the state of Texas
was run by the gangsters Don Robey in Houston, and the Domino folks knew they
couldn't play in that league.

With The Slades broken up after one boy's parents decided that enough was
enough and sent him to college and no other action on the horizon, Domino
folded in 1961, not even leaving the residue of a legend locally. Bobby
Doyle, the blind bassist, went on to a number of bands, including Blood, Sweat
& Tears. Clarence Smith moved to Oakland, changed his name to Sonny Rhodes,
and became famous for playing blues on the steel guitar. Joyce Harris now
lives in Bogalusa and sings bluegrass. And Joyce Webb became a vocalist with
the Houston Pops Orchestra and now sells stained glass.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Berlin. "The Domino Records Story" is on Ace Records
of London.

Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg on a study analyzing the vocabulary of
welfare mothers. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Analysis: Study analyzing vocabulary of welfare mothers
TERRY GROSS, host:

Everyone knows that vocabulary size tends to vary with education, but people
sometimes exaggerate the differences. Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has been
noticing a story that has been making the rounds in Washington these days
about the tiny vocabularies of welfare mothers.

GEOFF NUNBERG reporting:

To linguists, it has a familiar sound: Somebody claims that some primitive
language has a vocabulary of only a few hundred words that leaves its speakers
incapable of expressing abstract ideas. People have said that about Cherokee,
about Inuit, about Australian Aboriginal languages. A century ago they were
even saying it about Hungarian and Finnish. And yet when linguists look at
those languages, they always turn out to have vocabularies that are more than
rich enough to express the complexity of a people's experience.

Those claims have their echoes on the things that people have always said
about the language of the poor and the underclass. Back in 1776, the Scottish
philosopher George Campbell said, `As the ideas which occupy the minds of the
poor are few, the portion of the language known to them must be very scanty.'
And until a few years ago, a lot of educators were saying that lower-class
children spoke a restricted code that made abstract reasoning impossible. And
yet both educated and uneducated people turn out to have vocabularies that are
perfectly adequate to cope with the moral and mechanical complexities of daily
life. Most of the edge that educated people have is in the words we need to
talk about politics, historical ideas, technical topics and the like.

Linguists have been battling those canards about vocabulary size for decades,
so it's a little depressing to hear them trotted out again, all the more when
they come from reading experts serving in the current administration. Not
long ago somebody pointed me to a speech by G. Reid Lyon, the chief of
reading research at the National Institute of Health. According to Lion, a
three-year-old child in an affluent family has a larger working vocabulary
than the mother of a three-year-old from a welfare family, and I found the
same claim in talks by Susan Newman and Grover Whitehurst, two academics who
are both serving as assistant secretaries of Education.

The people who make that claim cite an influential study published in 1995 by
Betty Hart and Todd Risley, two researchers at the University of Kansas who
looked at parent-child interactions among different social groups. Hart and
Risley did find some striking differences. On average, professional parents
talked to their toddlers more than three times as much as welfare parents did.
And not surprisingly, that difference resulted in a big discrepancy in the
children's vocabulary size. The average three-year-old from a welfare family
had an active vocabulary of around 500 words, whereas a three-year-old from a
professional family had a vocabulary of over 1,000 words. Those differences
get more pronounced as kids get older and have an effect on their success in
learning to read. In all, it's strong evidence for the need for early
intervention. By the time the low-income kids get to school and start to
learn to read, they're already at an enormous disadvantage.

But how did that lead to the claim that welfare mothers had smaller
vocabularies than the three-year-olds from professional families? Well, Hart
and Risley did find that the average welfare mother used only about 1,000
different words in talking to her kids over the three hours of parents' talk
that the researchers recorded. But to put that in perspective, the average
professional parents only used about 2,000 different words in talking to their
kids in larger samples of speech. But that scarcely means that the
professional parents only had 2,000-word vocabularies, only that parents of
all classes tend to talk to kids in simple language. And when I talked to
Betty Hart at the University of Kansas, she told me that the welfare mothers
used far larger vocabularies when they were talking to their friends, their
older children or the researchers themselves, conversations that weren't
recorded for purposes of the study.

When you think about it, in fact, the claim that any normally functioning
adult could get by on a three-year-old's vocabulary is absurd on the face of
things. Welfare mothers may seem to live restricted lives by the standards of
middle-class professionals, but they still have to function in a wide range of
situations, whether it's a question of going to church or the supermarket or
the welfare office or simply sitting around chatting about friends or music or
TV shows or sports teams the way everybody else does.

I can't hear this sort of thing without being reminded that the word `infant'
comes from a Latin word that means not having the power of speech. In that
sense, the claim that welfare mothers have 1,000-word vocabularies is
infantalizing in the literal sense of the term. It suggests that the mothers
don't actually have enough language to be able to make sense of the world they
live in. And from there, it follows that these women simply aren't in a
position to articulate their needs or make reasoned judgments about their
lives, that they literally can't speak for themselves.

Now I should say that I don't think that the administration education honchos
who've been repeating the claim about welfare mothers' vocabularies set out to
deliberately distort Hart and Risley's research. My guess is that none of
them actually read the study. This has the sound of one of those thirdhand
factoids that are always making their way around the scientific grapevines.
But even so, it's telling that this found a credible soundbite. Whether
you're disparaging the vocabularies of welfare mothers or the Cherokee, the
claim always carries an unfortunate tone of condescension. It's easier to
ignore people's voices when you've decided that they couldn't possibly have
one.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a researcher at Stanford Center for the Study of
Language and Information and the author of the book "The Way We Talk Now."

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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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