DATE June 27, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Singer, songwriter and guitarist Dave Alvin discusses
his career and new album "West of the West"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
What do Brian Wilson, Merle Haggard, Tom Waits and John Fogerty have in
common? They were born and raised in California, and they're among the
California songwriters that Dave Alvin pays tribute to on his new CD, "West of
the West." Alvin is a songwriter, singer and guitarist who was born, raised
and still lives in California. In the '80s, he and his brother Phil played in
their roots rock band The Blasters. He left the band in '86, and for a short
time played lead guitar for the LA punk band X. Alvin still plays with the
founders of X, John Doe and Exene Cervenka, in the country band The Knitters.
He's also recorded several albums of his own songs and tours often with his
band The Guilty Men. In 2000, Dave Alvin won a Grammy with his traditional
folk album, "Public Domain."
Let's start with a song from "West of the West," which I'm sure you'll
recognize, a Beach Boys hit written by Brian Wilson.
(Soundbite of "Surfer Girl")
Unidentified Singers: (Singing in unison) "My little surfer girl."
Mr. DAVE ALVIN: (Singing) "I have watched you on the shore, standing by the
old ocean's roar. Do you love me? Do you, surfer girl?"
Singers: (Singing in unison) "Surfer girl."
Unidentified Man #1: (Singer) "Surfer girl."
Mr. ALVIN: (Singing) "We could ride the surf together while our love would
grow. And in my Woody, I would take you everywhere I go."
Singers: (Singing in unison) "...everywhere I go."
Mr. ALVIN: (Singing) "So I..."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Dave Alvin from his new CD, "West of the West."
Dave Alvin, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to include "Surfer
Girl" on your CD of songs by California composers?
Mr. ALVIN: One is that Brian Wilson is, you know, considered the ultimate
California songwriter. But the other reason was I wanted to do something that
combined, you know, the sort of the surf music scene and the LA R&B scene.
And 'cause I know that for all of his Four Freshmen
influence...(unintelligible)...influence on Brian Wilson, that they also grew
up--the Beach Boys also grew up hearing the local R&B stuff like Jesse Belvin
and Richard Berry and people like that. So I thought Hawthorne is about two,
three miles from where the Calvanes come from. And the Calvanes were a real
R&B vocal quartet, doo-wop group, that started making records out here in the
early '50s. And so I thought, you know, `Let's bridge that two-, three-mile
distance. And that was really one of the reasons.
I had a couple of personal reasons I wanted to do it, too, but...
GROSS: We'll get to those in a second.
Mr. ALVIN: Yeah.
GROSS: You know, it's...
Mr. ALVIN: So, I mean, there was a funny bit, you know, at least funny to
me, and a telling story about Los Angeles, California and, in a way, the
entire American culture, a conversation I had with Fred Willis, who is the
leader of the Calvanes. And I'd sent him like a Beach Boys greatest hits CD
to make a vocal arrangement of the song. And then I called him and I said,
`Well, what do you think?' And he goes, `Oh, well, that guy's a genius, man.
He's--blah, blah, blah.' And then he played me his arrangement, and it sounded
gorgeous. And he says, `I just have one question.' And I was, `Well, what's
that?' And he goes, `What's a Woody?' And to me that was really telling
because, like I said, Hawthorne, where Brian Wilson was from, where the Beach
Boys were from, and southern central LA where the Calvanes are from, it's two,
three miles, and it's a whole different language. It's a different culture.
And it's one of the stereotypes--or one of the anti-stereotypes of California
is people don't understand the mix of cultures here and the differences in
just two, three miles, you know?
GROSS: And for anybody wondering, `So what is a Woody?' It's like one of
those station wagons with wood paneling.
Mr. ALVIN: With wood on the side. Yeah, exactly.
GROSS: Yeah, right.
Mr. ALVIN: And so I told Fred. I said, `Yeah, well, you know, the surfers
used to have those station wagons with the wood pa--`Oh, they called those
Woodys?' And I was like, `Yeah.' So there you go, you know?
GROSS: You know, it's so interesting to hear you singing a Brian Wilson song
because your voices like couldn't be more opposite. He has that light
falsetto and your voice is really deep. And when you sing "Surfer Girl," it
almost sounds like what you're longing for isn't necessarily the surfer girl,
it's like another time, it's youth. It's--do you know what I mean? It's
Mr. ALVIN: Yeah. Yeah. There's a--you know, the bittersweet quality, you
know? But it's--also it's kind of like some songs, because "Surfer Girl" was
such a huge hit and it became sort of an icon, right? That when you hear
"Surfer Girl," most people just--they just hear it, you know? They don't
think about it. They don't do any--it's just, "Do you love me? Do you,
surfer girl?" you know?
In all of Brian Wilson's music, there's an underlying drone of melancholy, no
matter if it's, you know, "California Girls" or "Good Vibrations." Underneath
it is this, you know, in maybe sometimes in the chord structure of the songs,
things like that, you can just sense the melancholy. And so I kind of wanted
it to be bittersweet, a little bit melancholy. And, yeah, it's kind of, as
you said, it's kind of referring back to the California mythology in a sweet
way. But it's also maybe that doesn't exist. Maybe it never existed.
GROSS: Do you have personal connections to the song?
Mr. ALVIN: To the song, no, but to the concept, yes. Of "Surfer Girl"?
Yeah, I do.
GROSS: To the concept of yearning for surfer girls, is that what you mean?
Mr. ALVIN: Uh-huh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah. For me, it's a love song. Let's
put it that way.
GROSS: Why did you want to do an album of songs by California songwriters?
Mr. ALVIN: It's something that came into my brain about 15 years ago. Tom
Russell, the great songwriter, and I were putting together a tribute record to
Merle Haggard. And we were just talking about, you know, Merle as a
California songwriter because he is. And then, you know, the idea started
formatting in my mind. You know, it would be cool to do as a whole album the
native California songwriters, not the transplants or the people that grew up
here. And then, you know, over the years, I'd put it on the back burner or
whatever. And my previous album was a collection of all original songs called
"Ashgrove," and it was sort of for my dad. And this is the record for my mom.
My dad came out to California from Indiana. He literally rode the rails out
in the 1930s. And that's got its own mystic and mythology and all that. My
mom's family goes back to the 1870s out here. And we were brought up, in a
way, with my mother's family to think of ourselves as Californian, you know?
And to think of ourselves as distinct from the rest of the country in a way,
you know, because we were separated by deserts and mountains, and everything
was "back East." That was the phrase, you know. If you talked about
Wisconsin, Virginia, New York, Phoenix, you know, that's back East, you know?
And back East kind of implied, `Well, that's back there. That's like that's
in our past. This is our future.'
GROSS: Your father was a union organizer in California mining camps. Did you
grow up with union songs, protest songs or mining songs?
Mr. ALVIN: Oh, yeah. Yeah. We'd sit around the kitchen table, and my dad
had the little--even though my dad was not a wobbly--he had the little red
wobbly songbook, and we'd pull it out. He'd pull it out. Actually, we'd pull
it out. He didn't have to. He knew them all by heart. So, yeah, there were
times when he'd had maybe a little too much vodka, and "Solidarity Forever"
and "We Shall Overcome," the union version, and "Joe Hill," and all the songs
would come out. And, yeah, so that was definitely a part of shaping my view
of the world.
He was an organizer for both steel workers out here in cities like Maywood and
Fontana that used to have steel mills and cities on the east side of LA. But
also in the greater West, the Southwest, yeah, it was coal and copper miners
in Arizona and New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado. And in the summers
growing up, we would spend our, you know, he'd either pull us out of school or
we would spend the summers living in motel rooms on organizing trips. And a
lot of those images--when you see them at five, six, seven years old--of
company towns down in the Rocky Mountains and clandestine union rallies at
midnight in small little, like I said, company towns, that sticks with you.
GROSS: My guest is Dave Alvin. His new CD is called "West of the West."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is singer, songwriter and guitarist Dave Alvin. His new CD,
"West of the West," pays tribute to songwriters from his home state,
One of the people who you include on this new CD is Merle Haggard, who, I
guess, was he born in Bakersfield, California?
Mr. ALVIN: He was born, technically, born in Oildale, which is on the north
side of the Kern River. And it was sort of the economic dividing line between
the haves and the have-nots. And Oildale being the have-nots at the time, you
know. It was where the Dust Bowl diaspora was one of the places that, you
know, they could live. Back in the Dust Bowl days, there were restrictive
covenants out here in some places where people from Oklahoma and Arkansas
could live. And Oildale was one of those kind of places. And, yeah, he was
born in Oildale.
GROSS: So he's known as one of the creators of, you know, what's called the
"Bakersfield Sound." What is it? What is that sound? What does it mean to
Mr. ALVIN: To me it's--well, you know, I interviewed Buck Owens a few years
ago and I asked him what's the difference between West Coast country and back
East country. And he said, `Buckle polishing.' And I was like, `Yeah?' And he
goes, `Yeah, you know, back East you had to hold your partner at a--you know,
at an acceptable distance of like a foot away from you.' And he said, `But out
here, the morals were looser and you could shine each other's buckles. You
could grab your partner and hold her real close.' And so that kind of, in a
way, explains it in that there could be a lot more influences in country music
than maybe there were back East.
If you listen to, you know, there's more R&B. The guitars are aggressive,
whether it's the pedal steel or the telecaster, guitars of, you know, Roy
Nichols and Ralph Mooney and people like that. And if you listen to the
records of Wynn Stewart and Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, yeah, you know, in
the classic period of that sound, yeah, it's very kind of aggressive and it's
a mix of, you know, there's a little, you know, Mexican influence. There's a
lot of R&B influence. And it's subtle, you know, but it's there. And I think
it's the kind of thing that could only happen out here or in parts of Texas,
GROSS: The song you've chosen by Merle Haggard is called "Kern River." Why
did you want to do this one?
Mr. ALVIN: To me it's his best California song, you know. And it's also,
I--you know, maybe to me it's his best song, period. And it covers a lot of
ground in that it refers to, you know, the river was a boundary. And that was
a big boundary back then, you know, in the '40s and '50s between, I was
saying, between the economic have-nots in Oildale and the economic haves on
the south side of the Kern River in Bakersfield proper. And I think that
artists are shaped by everything, including their environment. And so, you
know, with the references not only to the river but to Mount Whitney and all
that, to me it's just the song says a lot of things and it's not just, you
know, it's not just like that song from the '50s. You know? "Little Jimmie
Brown" about the guy drowning or what--you remember that one?
GROSS: The guy drowning in the well.
Mr. ALVIN: Exactly. It's not that. It's about other things, you know. And
it's about a guy--at least in my reading of it--it's about a guy examining his
own life, you know. So that's why I wanted to do it. And, you know, the
thing about Merle and the thing about a lot of these songwriters is people
don't realize they're from California, you know? Like I said, when
people--you say--if you walk up to a person in the street anywhere in the
world, `Name a California song? Who is the California song writer?' `Oh,
Brian Wilson.' You know? And, yes, he is. So is Merle Haggard. They're both
born and raised in California, and they're both shaped by the environment and
the culture and all that.
And, you know, so is John Fogerty. Most people don't realize that John
Fogerty is from the Bay area. He's not from Louisiana, you know? When he was
writing "Born on the Bayou," I read an interview with him once where he was
saying, you know, that came from--you know, there is a bayou area up between
Stockton and Sacramento, and that's where his family would take their
vacations when he was a kid. And that's where all the Green River, "Born on
the Bayou" stuff, you know, came from.
GROSS: Let's hear the Merle Haggard song that you were describing. This is
"Kern River" and it's from Dave Alvin's new CD of songs by California
songwriters, "West of the West."
(Soundbite of "Kern River")
Mr. ALVIN: (Singing) "And that river was a boundary where my darling and I
used to swim. And one night in the moonlight, the swift current swept her
life away. Now I live on Lake Shasta. Lake Shasta is where I will stay. And
I'll never swim Kern River again. It's there that I met her, there that I
lost my best friend. Now I live in the mountains, I drifted up here with the
wind. I may drown in still waters, I'll never swim Kern River again."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's the Merle Haggard song "Kern River" from Dave Alvin's new CD of
recordings by California songwriters. The CD is called "West of the West."
One of the interesting things about your new CD is that you've chosen songs
that show a different side of some songwriters that we know. And as an
example, I'll use Richard Berry who, you know, his song is more famous than he
is. He wrote "Louie, Louie" and had the first recording of it. But everybody
knows "Louie, Louie." Not everybody knows Richard Berry. And most people
certainly don't know the song of his that you've decided to do on the new CD.
So talk a little bit about what he means to you as a songwriter. And what
about the song that you chose?
Mr. ALVIN: Oh, Richard Berry just always been one of my favorites. He was a
great singer and he was a seminal guy in the LA R&B scene. And I was sort of
torn between choosing Richard Berry or choosing Jesse Belvin, who is sort of a
genius of the '50s LA R&B. There's no way on earth I could sing like Jesse
Belvin. And there's really no way I can sing like Richard Berry, but I can
kind of get myself around the song "I'm Bewildered," which was a song I bought
when I was a junior record collector when I was 11 years old. I bought it at
a swap meet in Paramount, a scratchy copy--Paramount, California--for like a
quarter. And I just always dug the song. And it was also a way of me giving
a little nod to one of my other LA R&B Blues heroes, which is Johnny "Guitar"
Watson. And I always considered Watson and Richard Berry kind of, you know,
partners, even though they never recorded together. So I just decided I'd do
"I'm Bewildered" as if Johnny "Guitar" Watson is doing the guitar lead and,
you know, it was, like I said, that was my tribute to LA R&B.
And also, you know, Richard Berry, when he passed away a few years ago and
when Johnny Guitar Watson passed away a few years ago, for me a lot of what I
love about LA was gone with them. They were the seminal guys. They were
always on the scene. You know, when I was growing up as a kid, you'd always
see their names in the front of clubs and all that. `Richard Berry, Johnny
Guitar Watson at the Tudor Room,' you know, on Florence Avenue, or something.
And I would just be like, `Wow, I want to go live in that world. I want to go
live in the world of Richard Berry and Johnny Guitar Watson,' you know. So
this was my tribute to them.
GROSS: OK. So this is a song by Richard Berry called "I'm Bewildered." And
it's sung by Dave Alvin, featured on his new CD of songs by California
songwriters called "West of the West."
(Soundbite of "I'm Bewildered")
Mr. ALVIN: (Singing) "I'm bewildered. Lost in a dream of you. Oh, but what
can I do? My poor life is through if I can't have you. My friends all tell
me what a great big fool I've been. But what difference does it make how much
this fool can take if I can't have you. Oh, it seems as though I've been lost
in a world I have never known. Darling, show me the way through the dark by
being mine alone. Oh, please believe me."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Dave Alvin singing a song by Richard Berry, from his new CD, "West of
Did you know Richard Berry?
Mr. ALVIN: No. I only--I kind of met him once. Again, I've been collecting
his old records since I was a kid. And, you know, he was a guy who had done a
lot of things. He was in bands like the Flares. He did the great duet with
Etta James on, you know, her answer to "Work with Me, Annie," on "Dance With
Me, Henry," you know...
(Singing) ..."All right, baby." You know?
Mr. ALVIN: And just a big, you know, LA R&B guy. And we did a benefit in, I
think it was the early '90s, late '80s. And he had just finally got the money
after his publishing for "Louie, Louie." So he had just become a rich man.
And we're doing this benefit and we're backstage in the dressing room. And I
am very shy, and I never realized how shy I was because I could not say one
word to him. Like I could not say, `I've been collecting your records since I
was 12 years old, Mr. Berry. And I just think it's a great honor to meet.'
And he was the sweetest guy in the world. And he was actually friends with a
friend of mine, and I was just too intimidated to say one word. I just--I
held him in such high regard, and still do.
GROSS: Dave Alvin will be back in the second half of the show. Here's
another track from his new CD "West of the West," paying tribute to California
songwriters. This is a Grateful Dead song written by Jerry Garcia and Robert
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. ALVIN: (Singing) "If I had a gun for every ace I've drawn, you know, I
could arm a..."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
I'm Terry Gross back with singer, songwriter and guitarist Dave Alvin. His
new CD "West of the West" pays tribute to songwriters from his home state,
California. In addition to his solo work, Alvin co-founded the roots rock
band The Blasters with lead guitarist with the Punk band X and plays with the
country band The Knitters.
One thing I should bring up that has absolutely nothing to do with your new CD
is that you've done the voice for a Jim Beam commercial.
Mr. ALVIN: Yeah.
GROSS: And I'm wondering like how you got to be their voice. Where did they
think, `Oh, there's a voice that sounds like it's done a lot of drinking.'
Mr. ALVIN: Maybe. I don't want to--yeah, I don't know. I just got called.
They said, `You know, do you want to go down and try out and do a Jim Beam
thing?' And I was like, `Yeah, sure. I'll go down and do it.' You know, I got
bills to pay. And, yeah, I guess they figured that--I never really thought of
it. Yeah, but I guess I sound like a guy that's drank a little bit, I guess.
GROSS: It's just a voice over. You don't sing on it, right?
Mr. ALVIN: No. No. I'm just reading. You know, people have called me in
before to do voiceovers, and I've failed miserably because I lack the sales
gene. And I can read whatever they give me, you know, and I can, you know,
put it on. The worst one was corn flakes. I get a phone call from some ad
company and they said, `Oh, the copywriter is, you know, he's a big fan.
Loves your voice and he really wants you to do this ad.' And at the time I
really needed some money. You know, I was like, `Sure.' So I go down to the
voiceover studio and it's an ad for corn flakes. And it was one of these
things where it was like, `It's 8:15. Your husband has left for work. The
kids are at school. Now it's your time. Your time to be alone with your cup
of expresso and a bowl of co--cor--co--corn flakes.' You know? I couldn't do
it. And the poor woman engineer was just, she was having--she was like,
`Look, you've got this gig. You're going to get a lot of money. You know,
you get some checks. It's going to be great. You just got to say corn flakes
right.' And there's a skill to saying corn flakes that, guess what, I don't
have, you know? She even said--she just says, `OK, I'll tell you what. I'm
just going to run the tape machine. Just say corn flakes 50 times and I'll
find one in there.' And so I don't have the selling gene, but the Jim Beam ad
didn't require me selling. I was just talking. So I can do that, you know.
GROSS: So that was supposed to be like the mellow--the mellow Dave Alvin.
Mr. ALVIN: Exactly. The mellow. Yeah, sort of like I'm the guy coming in
the back door after the husband left. `Hello, honey. You've got your'--you
know what I mean, instead of the--you know, I guess.
GROSS: I don't think that's what they had in mind.
Mr. ALVIN: I don't know. Oh, really? I'm sorry.
GROSS: But maybe they do, huh? Oh, I did...
Mr. ALVIN: I don't know. I just--all I know is I read it kind of like,
yeah, kind of like Barry White, I guess, you know. `How are those corn
flakes?' You know? Hey, that would have got me the ad right there.
GROSS: `My dear.'
Mr. ALVIN: Yeah. I just remember for like literally five minutes of me just
going, `Corn flakes, corn flakes, corn flakes, corn flakes.' And I'm not an
actor. I have absolutely no acting, you know, experience, acting training.
And I never sold anything. I'm not a salesman, and so I don't have that
skill, you know?
GROSS: Now, while I got you here, I thought we could...
Mr. ALVIN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...I thought we could listen to something from the latest Knitters
album, which came out...
Mr. ALVIN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...oh, about a year ago or something.
Mr. ALVIN: Yeah. A little over, yeah.
GROSS: And since we never had a chance to talk about that. Why don't you
compare a little bit. You know, you're in The Knitters with Joe Doe and Exene
Cervenka, who, you know, were also X. You were all on X together.
Mr. ALVIN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: So the bands are so similar and so different. You know, you do some
of the same songs, but X had more kind of, you know, hard-edged punk kind of
sound, and The Knitters are more, you know, like rootsy, in some cases almost
blue grass sound, a country sound. So can you talk about playing both ends of
that music with the same people, what that's like and how--yeah.
Mr. ALVIN: Well, The Knitters was an escape valve, you know. When we put it
together back in like 1982, it was an escape valve to, you know, to get me,
you know, some break from The Blasters. And it was a chance for John and
Exene and DeeJay to get a break from being, you know, these sort of, you know,
hard-core punk rockers.
And it was a goof. You know what I mean? It was like, `Well, let's, you
know, let's do a Leadbelly song. Let's do a Merle Haggard song. Let's do a
Carter Family song.' And, `Hey, we're a little out of tune.' `Oh, big deal.'
You know, it's The Knitters, you know. And, you know. And you don't want to
think too much about it. And the record, you know, the record we did last
year was the first record we did in 20-some years, and it was like, `Yeah,
we'll do another one in 20 years, maybe.' You know, I don't know.
GROSS: Well, in the spirit of it's just fun, there's a really fun version of
"Born to be Wild" on this that's much more, I don't know, country or
blue-grass version of it. Whose idea was it to do it this way?
Mr. ALVIN: I think it was John's. And, you know, the idea he had was, well,
you know, probably, you know, songs like "Louie, Louie" and "Freebird," you
know, they're--yeah, they're passing into the folk cannon now, you know,
because people sit around at home and that's, `Hey, that's what they play,'
you know. And you go to some parts of the country and, yeah, people--there
will be kids still learning how to play, you know, "Old Joe Clark" or
something, and then they'll turn around and play "Stairway to Heaven." So it
kind of was like, `OK, what would a contemporary--what would The Knitters
characters be doing now?' And the idea was kind of like, `Well, we just
learned this hip rock song called "Born to be Wild,"' you know?
GROSS: OK. My guest is Dave Alvin, and this is from The Knitters album which
is called "The Modern Sounds of The Knitters."
(Soundbite of "Born to Be Wild")
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) "Well, I like chasing lightning."
Man #2 and Unidentified Woman: (Singing) "Heavy metal thunder."
Man #2: (Singing) "Riding with the wind."
Man #2 and Woman: (Singing) "And feeling that I'm under."
Woman: (Singing) "I'm going to make it happen. Get the world in a love
embrace. Buy all the guns as one thing, shoot them off into space."
Man #2 and Woman: (Singing) "Like a true nature child, we were born, born to
be wild. Cause we're riding so high, never going to die. Born to be wild.
Born to be wild. Born to be wild. Born to be wild."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's The Knitters album from last year. My guest is guitarist,
singer and songwriter Dave Alvin.
Since it's Fourth of July time, I should ask you, you wrote a song called
"Fourth of July."
Mr. ALVIN: Yeah.
GROSS: What inspired the song?
Mr. ALVIN: I was working a day job. My girlfriend at the time was working a
day job. And there was a, you know, there was a Fourth of July where I came
over. A car came to the place where we were staying, and it was a duplex in
kind of a, you know, funky little part of town. And, you know, there were
things going on in the personal life, and there were kids downstairs shooting
fireworks and on the street, and listening to--had the radio blaring oldies,
you know, doo-wop oldies. And they're shooting off fireworks. And I went out
and I sat on the porch, and just the top of the stairs, lit a cigarette and
just thought, `My God, you know, it's the Fourth of July, and we're either
going to break up or get back together.' And some people can see it as a, you
know--when I wrote it, I was thinking of it as an actual--`It's a breakup
song, it's a Fourth of July, I'm free, I'm declaring my independence.
Goodbye.' But as I've gotten older, to me it's now like it could be a lot of
things. It could be--I think now it's, you know, `Come on out. Let's go
shoot fireworks off with the kids. Let's go dance in the street. Let's go
celebrate everything that's good about the country. Let's go'--you know, it's
that kind of song now.
GROSS: Has this song ever become like the "White Christmas" for indie rock
band Fourth of July gigs?
Mr. ALVIN: You'd have to ask some indie rock bands. I don't know. You
know, it does eliminate me from ever writing another holiday song, I know
that, because I'll be busted for that. `Alvin's new record contains Memorial
Day and Arbor Day and a rousing tune to Christopher Columbus,' you know? So I
guess you're allowed one holiday song. Irving Berlin had "White Christmas"
and I've got "Fourth of July."
GROSS: Well, Dave Alvin, happy July Fourth and thanks for talking with us.
Mr. ALVIN: Thank you, Terry.
(Soundbite of "Fourth of July")
Mr. ALVIN: (Singing) "Oh, but I want her lips. And I don't have the
strength to go. On the lost side of town in a dark apartment, we gave up
trying so long ago. And on the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone. Mexican
kids are shooting fireworks below. And, hey, baby, it's the Fourth of July.
Hey, baby, it's the Fourth of July. Whatever happened, I apologize. Dry your
tears and, baby, walk outside. It's the Fourth of July."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Dave Alvin doing his song "Fourth of July." His new CD, "West
of the West," is a tribute to California songwriters.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews two new historical novels.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Maureen Corrigan reviews "Suite Francaise" by Irene
Nemirovsky and "Triangle" by Katharine Weber
TERRY GROSS, host:
In summer, lots of readers like to tackle complex works of nonfiction. Book
critic Maureen Corrigan tells us why this summer she turned to two ambitious
works of historical fiction.
Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: What compels someone as a deadly threat is drawing
closer and closer to sit down and write a novel? That was Irene Nemirovsky's
response to the German occupation of France in 1940. Nemirovsky was a Russian
Jewish emigre who had become a celebrated novelist in France while she was
still in her 20s. When the Germans invaded, Nemirovsky, her husband and two
small daughters fled Paris to the countryside. There she set to work on an
ambitious project, a five-part novel about the current situation in France.
It would be constructed like a symphony and called "Suite Francaise." She
completed two of the projected five parts before the French police knocked at
the door in July of 1942 and arrested her. Nemirovsky was deported to
Auschwitz where she died at age 39. A few months later, her husband was sent
there, straight to the gas chamber. Largely, through the help of their
governess, their two daughters survived the war on the run with their mother's
notebook in their suitcase. Sixty-four years after Nemirovsky's death, the
uncompleted novel in that notebook has been published. Nemirovsky's artistic
and moral response to the horror that she fatalistically predicted would claim
"Suite Francaise" is much more than a historical curio. Although one thing
that is decidedly odd about the two existing sections of this novel is that
there's barely a mention of Jews in France. Instead, we get a sweeping vision
of gentile French citizenry. Everyone from bank presidents to ordinary clerks
caught first in a panicked exodus on the eve of the Nazi entry into Paris, and
then, as Nemirovsky writes, the inert French masses, loathsome in defeat and
Throughout both sections Nemirovsky displays enormous energy and intelligence
as a writer. As when she describes village merchants pawning off junk on
their German soldier customers. Women's corsets from the last war. Linen
decorated with little flags and embroidered Eiffel Towers. They'd buy
anything. They inspired in the inhabitants of the occupied countries fear,
respect, aversion and the amusing desire to fleece them, to take advantage of
them, to get hold of their money.
Why did Nemirovsky choose to begin a novel about the German occupation rather
than a piece of nonfiction, like the "Diary of Anne Frank," to which "Suite
Francaise" has been compared? One answer is the panoramic quality of this
work, the way fiction allows Nemirovsky entrance into even the most mundane
thoughts and betrayals of her fellow French citizens.
And why write another book, particularly a novel, about the Triangle Shirt
Waste fire of 1911. That was my first, admittedly, ungenerous thought when I
got an early copy of Katharine Weber's just published novel "Triangle." Before
9/11, the Triangle fire was New York City's greatest workplace tragedy,
claiming the lives of nearly 150 people, mostly young immigrant girls who
worked at that sweatshop.
There have been so many novels, documentaries, poems and historical works on
the subject, including reporter David von Drehle's fabulous 2003 social
history, "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America."
Do we really need a new novel? Well, the answer, to quote Ralph Waldo
Emerson, is that "Beauty is its own excuse for being." And Weber's novel is
indeed a thing of beauty.
Weber dreams up a character, Esther Gottesfeld, who's 106 years old and the
last living survivor of the Triangle fire. But Weber's novel really gets
intriguing when we readers catch on to one more fact about Esther. She's a
deliberately, unreliable narrator. Altogether, "Triangle" is a structurally
dazzling novel whose formal acrobatics have a purpose beyond their own
cleverness, that is to make readers feel anew the tragedy of the Triangle
fire. Listen to this sentence, the last sentence in a paragraph describing
Esther's eventual peaceful death in a nursing home. "It was more than 90
years since the day she didn't die, but you can only survive a disaster for so
long, and 90 years is a very long time."
Just when you think a much documented horror has lost its ability to touch
you, novelists like Nemirovsky and Weber make an observation, turn a phrase,
and you find yourself startled into awareness once again.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan reviewed "Triangle" by Katharine Weber and "Suite
Francaise" by Irene Nemirovsky. Nemirovsky's daughter Denise Epstein is in
the US this week on a brief book tour.
Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a few movie musicals that have just come out
This is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews vintage film
musicals just released on DVD
TERRY GROSS, host:
Movie musicals usually get lumped together as a category, but classical music
critic Lloyd Schwartz says that a batch of original musicals from MGM and
Twentieth Century Fox just released on DVD reveals an array of categories that
date back to the earliest sound films.
Mr. LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Some of the very earliest movie musicals were modeled on
Broadway reviews like the Ziegfeld Follies, shows that had no story, just a
series of lavish production numbers and comedy sketches with all-star casts.
A similar string of loosely connected production numbers occurs in another
genre, the composer biography which usually had little biographical accuracy
but served as an excuse to film big stars singing some great songs.
"Till the Clouds Roll By," about Jerome Kern, an invented dramatic conflict
concerns Kern's inexperienced niece who gets upset when she's replaced in a
show by the great Broadway star of the 1920s, Marilyn Miller, played by Judy
Garland. The film begins with a condensed version of Kern's most important
musical, "Show Boat." Here's the droll Virginia O'Brien, perfectly cast for
"Show Boat"'s best comic song.
(Soundbite of song by Virginia O'Brien)
Ms. VIRGINIA O'BRIEN: (Singing) "Life upon the wicked stage ain't every what
a girl supposes. Stage door Johnnies aren't raging over you with gems and
roses. When you let a feller hold your hand, which means an extra beer or
sandwich, everybody whispers, ain't her life a word. Though you're warned
against a...(unintelligible)...ruining your reputation, when you played around
the one night, trade around the great indignation, wild old men who'll give
you jewels and sables, only live in Aesop's Fables. Life upon the wicked
stage ain't nothing for a girl."
Unidentified Singers: (Singing) "Though we listen to you moan..."
(End of soundbite)
Mr. SCHWARTZ: The formulaic plots are often about show business itself,
breaking into it or putting on a show with songs that had nothing to do with
In "Summer Stock" the iconic Judy Garland number "Get Happy" was the last to
be filmed. Garland famously lost 20 pounds and looked suddenly sexy in
jacket, tights and tilted Fedora.
(Soundbite of Judy Garland song "Get Happy")
Ms. JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) "Forget your troubles, come on get happy. You
better chase all your cares away. Shout hallelujah, come on get happy, get
ready for the judgment, say forget your troubles, come on get happy, chase
your cares away. Hallelujah, get happy, before the judgment day. The sun is
shining, come on get happy. The Lord is waiting to take your hand. Shout
hallelujah, come on get happy, we're going to be going to the promised land.
We're headin' cross the river, wash your sins away in the tide. It's quiet
and peaceful on the other side. Forget your troubles, get happy. Your cares
fly away. Shout hallelujah, get happy, get ready for your judgment day. Come
on get happy..."
(End of soundbite)
Mr. SCHWARTZ: In the 1940s, Franklin Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy
encouraged wildly colorful technicolor musicals set in Latin America.
Twentieth Century Fox imported the delicious Brazilian star with the
cornucopia on her head and bare midriff, Carmen Miranda, most of whose
American movies like "Down Argentine Way" and "Week-end in Havana" were not
set in Brazil.
(Soundbite of song by Carmen Miranda on foreign language)
Mr. SCHWARTZ: By the 1950s, a decade after "Oklahoma" and "Carousel" changed
Broadway's approach to musicals, movie musicals also became more plot-driven.
One MGM musical that's often overlooked, though it was co-directed by Stanley
Donen and Gene Kelly, is "It's Always Fair Weather," which was a kind of
sequel to "On the Town," the Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green
show about three sailors on leave in New York at the beginning of the Second
World War. "It's Always Fair Weather" is a darker satire about three Army
buddies, Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd, who reunite 10 years after
the war is over to find that in the postwar culture they no longer have much
in common. The songs by Andre Previn with lyrics by Comden and Green, further
the plot, though they never became independent hits. One high point is "I
Like Myself," Gene Kelly's self-psycho analyzing number on roller skates.
And Dolores Gray, blonde and leggy, is memorable in a parody of a TV hostess
who likes herself all too much.
(Soundbite of song by Dolores Gray)
Ms. DOLORES GRAY: And now, you dear ladies and gentlemen, guess what I'm
going to do? I'm going to sing you a song. It's my latest recording and I do
hope you just love it. But even if you don't, I don't really mind as long as
you love me.
(Soundbite of applause)
Ms. GRAY: (Singing) "I'm watching and waiting. Hello, Sam. Hello, Joe.
I'm waiting and watching. Hello, Max. Hello, Bob. Hello, Jasper. I hope
and I yearn. Hello, Bill. Hello, Phil. Just boy is return. Hello, fellows.
Thanks for the present of the silver blue mink. Thanks for the plane and the
ice skating rink. Thanks for the yachts and for the solid gold sink. Thanks
for a lot, but no thanks. Thanks for the travel..."
(End of soundbite)
Mr. SCHWARTZ: It's not that I necessarily prefer musicals with serious
plots, I think if I had to choose between "Down Argentine Way" and "It's
Always Fair Weather," I'd probably pick the sillier but more entertaining film
with Carmen Miranda, the miraculous Nicholas brothers and the irrepressibly
high kicking Charlotte Greenwood. Fortunately, we don't have to choose. And
besides being enormous fun, these new DVDs also provide a valuable initiation
into the history of a major American institution, the Hollywood musical.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor at the Boston Phoenix.
(Soundbite of music)
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.