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Complete Disclosure On Credit Card Reform
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
Last month, President Obama signed into law the Credit Card Accountability,
Responsibility and Disclosure Act. It was designed to curb some of the credit-
card industryâs most controversial, some would say abusive, practices.
The bill prohibits companies from raising interest rates on existing balances
unless a borrower is at least 60 days late, and it requires 45 days notice
before raising any interest rates. It also increases disclosure requirements
and limits the companyâs ability to market credit cards to young people.
But our guest, Adam Levitin, believes the traditionally regulatory approach of
banning specific practices and requiring more transparency wonât effectively
rein in companies determined to squeeze customers for more revenue. We invited
him in to explain his ideas for an alternative approach to credit-card
regulation. Adam Levitin is an associate law professor at Georgetown,
specializing in bankruptcy and commercial law. Heâs testified before Congress
several times on the credit-card industry.
Adam Levitin, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now a credit card is, in some sense, a way
of transacting a loan. I mean, the bank is loaning you money for a purchase,
and in most traditional loans, the lender wants the principal back, and they
want some interest, and they make money on that. You told Congress in April
that what the credit-card companies really do is fundamentally different. In a
lot of cases, theyâre not so interested in getting the principal back.
Mr.Â ADAM LEVITIN (Law Professor, Georgetown University): Thatâs right. There
are several different business models that operate within the card industry,
but one of them is what Ronald Mann at Columbia Law School has termed the
sweat-box model. And the sweat-box credit-card lender is not looking to get its
principal back. Instead, it wants to keep the consumer paying, and the way it
does this is that it will loan money to a consumer beyond the consumerâs
ability to repay in the short term, and even if the consumer never is able to
actually repay that principal, the card issuer will still make a profit because
the interest rates and the fees on the balance will be so high that it will
offset the loss of the principal. And this is a very different model than
anything weâve seen in the credit world before where we have a lender who is
making a loan and really not wanting to get paid back - and that starts to look
If you wanted to go to a sort of a basic definition of predatory lending, it
would be lending with conscious disregard of consumersâ ability to repay, and
thatâs exactly what the sweat-box model is. Itâs saying we want to keep you
forever locked in as an annuity, that we want you just paying, paying, paying
and never getting out of debt.
DAVIES: Right, so youâre kind of â you get on this treadmill where youâre just
running and running and generating fees, and in the end, the principal, I mean,
doesnât matter so much.
When you spoke to Congress in April, you talked to them about what effective
reform would be like, and one of the interesting points you made was that all
of this talk about providing more transparency, disclosing information in
clear, readable English in bold type, as opposed to these dense statements,
which are utterly inscrutable, that that kind of disclosure really is not going
to work. Why?
Mr.Â LEVITIN: Well, disclosure has been the primary model for credit-card
regulations since 1968, since we enacted the Truth in Lending Act, and the idea
behind disclosure has always been that if you put the information out there so
that consumers can see it and understand it, then consumers will make
intelligent, responsible choices, that consumers will know whether to use a
credit card and which credit card to use.
The problem with disclosure as a model for credit-card regulation is that it is
not very good at dealing with complex financial products. So disclosure might
have been a sensible thing when credit cards first appeared because credit
cards used to be pretty simple. They would have a single interest rate and
maybe an annual fee, and that was it.
Today, however, thatâs not what credit cards look like. Credit cards have more
price points, different types of fees and interest rates, than any other
consumer financial product. Itâs not even close, and the result is that it
makes it very hard to do comparison shopping between credit cards.
I can very easily look at two different credit cards and compare their purchase
interest rate, but that doesnât tell me what the total cost of revolving a
balance on the card will be.
DAVIES: What are some of those other ways that you can get smacked, those other
Mr.Â LEVITIN: Well, some of them are very â are explicit price points, the
things that are actually disclosed up front, things that there is a cash-
advance interest rate. Well, you have to know what qualifies as a cash advance.
So for example, you will often get convenience checks with your credit-card
statement. Those checks are subject to the cash-advance interest rate, and
there may also be an additional fee.
None of those fees are actually disclosed on the convenience checks,
incidentally. So you get the check, you say oh great, I can use this to pay my
rent or my utility bill, put it on my credit card, and you donât realize that
well, itâs actually at a much higher rate than if you went to the store and
purchased some groceries.
There are also things like, over-limit fees and late fees. There are foreign-
transaction fees now. There are all these very direct-to-consumer fees. Some of
them are up front, like annual fees that you know you have to pay. Others are
contingent upon your use of the card like late fees or over-limit fees.
There are also fees like interchange fees that are charged to the merchant, but
they get passed through to consumers. And then there are a lot of hidden price
points, credit-card billing practices that effectively goose up the cost of
using a credit card without having to have that disclosed.
So for example, a practice called double-cycle billing that - double-cycle
billing means that the balance on which interest accrues is not the balance
solely of this current billing period, but itâs the average balance of this
billing period and the previous one. So if you had a high balance in the
previous billing cycle, that means that you are going to â even if your balance
was very low in this current cycle, youâre going to be paying interest on a
very high notional balance.
There are tricks and traps like the time on which a payment is credited. You
think if my payment was received in the mail by the card issuer on the first of
the month, when it was due, well, the card issuer might say well, your payment
was received after 2 p.m., so thatâs actually the next day, and itâs late.
Therefore, you get hit with a late fee, and therefore youâre going to pay
So credit cards have developed, over - since the Truth in Lending Act, into
very complex financial instruments with lots of different explicit price points
and lots of hidden ones. The result is that disclosure just doesnât work, that
you cannot look at a credit card and know what it will cost to revolve a
DAVIES: So a typical way of dealing with an abusive practice is to simply ban
specific practices. You canât change interest without a certain amount of
notice, or you canât change interest rates on a previous balance. But you told
Congress in April that this practice of prohibiting specific abuses also is, in
the end, not going to work. Why not?
Mr.Â LEVITIN: There are two problems with it. First of all, you end up playing a
game of regulatory whack-a-mole, where Congress says okay, card issuers, we
donât like bad practices A, B, C and D. You canât do them anymore. The card
industry, though, is incredibly innovative and has a tremendous incentive to
innovate around regulation.
So if you say you canât do practices A, B and C, the card industry will come up
with new practices D, E and F, and those practices may even be worse than the
So for example, a couple years ago, consumer groups started making a fuss about
a practice called universal cross-default. Namely, you default with a creditor
other than the credit card, and that triggers a default on your credit card. So
youâre late on your cable bill, and all of a sudden, thatâs a default on your
DAVIES: So Iâm late on my cable bill, so the rate on my credit card goes up
because thatâs considered a default?
Mr.Â LEVITIN: Thatâs right. So your being late with one creditor, totally
unrelated to your credit card, could lead to higher costs for your credit card,
even if youâve been paying your credit card on time.
Credit-card issuers respond to this by dropping universal cross-default and
adopting a practice called any time, any reason term changes. So now itâs not
that you were late on your cable bill, itâs well, we just felt like it, and now
your interest rates are higher.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.Â LEVITIN: This new practice is, you know, broader than universal cross-
default. Itâs actually worse, but card issuers were then able to get up in
front of Congress and stand up and say we donât do a universal cross-default,
of course not. We stopped doing that a year ago.
DAVIES: So if by banning a specific practice youâre simply going to get all of
the really smart MBAs and other people in the companies to work with some new
innovation that will be just as predatory, whatâs the solution? How do you
Mr.Â LEVITIN: The solution is to flip the regulatory model on its head. Right
now, our regulatory model is do whatever you want except for really bad
practices A, B and C, as long as you disclose, and what we need to do is flip
this upside-down and say you canât do anything except for A, B and C.
So what this would mean would be standardized credit cards that most of the
terms on credit cards, thereâs â consumers donât know what those terms are, and
they donât care. The only thing that consumers care about with credit cards is
the cost. Thatâs what this product is about.
We want there to be price competition, not non-price competition in credit
cards, and the way we can do that is to require standardization of most credit-
card terms and let the market compete its heart out on a few essential price
points, namely an interest rate, a transaction fee and an availability fee, and
if we said the issuers can only have those three price points, and they can
charge whatever they want on those three price points, we would get reasonable
product differentiation for different types of consumers.
So consumers who transact but donât revolve balances, they would want a card
with a high interest rate, low transaction fee, low availability fee. And
consumers who are planning on revolving balances would want a low interest
rate, but they might be willing to have a high availability fee and transaction
fee. Where you get product differentiation, and we would be able to get pretty
good price competition. This would start making credit cards a lot more like,
you know, the stuff you buy in the grocery store, where you can look at the
unit price and have the apples-to-apples comparison.
DAVIES: So youâre kind of putting the industry, in a way, in a straightjacket,
saying that, you know, forget all this fancy kind of gizmos that youâve come up
with. Youâre going to do a simple product, and itâs going to be identifiable
and disclosed in simple ways. I mean, that kind of sounds to a lot of people
like, you know, socialism. Youâre just kind of squelching the innovative power
of markets and capitalism.
Mr.Â LEVITIN: Well, thatâs correct in that itâs squelching some innovative
power, but letâs be clear about innovation. Innovation is not always a good
thing. If you have an innovative product, thatâs â it can be very good, but
innovation in the credit-card industry has not been produce innovation, itâs
been pricing innovation. Itâs been innovation in how to structure the same
basic credit product so as to make its price less transparent to consumers.
Thatâs where all the innovation in the credit-card space has been, and thatâs
been negative innovation. We donât want that kind of innovation. We want to
channel the innovation so that it benefits consumers, not that it harms them.
And the current regulatory system encourages innovation in figuring out how to
do end-runs around regulation rather than how to make a cheaper, better
DAVIES: Weâre speaking with Adam Levitin. Heâs a law professor at Georgetown
University, where he specializes in bankruptcy and commercial law. Weâll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If youâre just joining us, weâre speaking with Adam Levitin. Heâs an
associate professor of law at Georgetown University, where he specializes in
bankruptcy and commercial law and has testified numerous times before Congress
on issues involving the credit-card industry.
Well Adam Levitin, Congress didnât exactly take your advice and adopt the
sweeping models of reform that you would like to see. Congress has enacted a
law, which makes some changes in the credit-card industry. What do you like
about this law?
Mr.Â LEVITIN: The thing that I think I like the most about it is that it imposes
sort of a basic requirement of contract law on the credit-card industry. For a
while, the credit-card industry operated as if it wasnât subject to regular
Basic contract law principle is that penalty fees have to be reasonable in
light of the actual and anticipated harms, and if you look at credit-card late
fees and penalty fees, you know, theyâre just flat, $35 fees. You know, youâre
late one day by one penny, and itâs going to cost you $35. Thereâs no
reasonableness there. You could be late 30 days with, you know, $10,000, itâs
still $35. So this reasonableness requirement I think is an important
restoration of basic principles of contract law.
Another thing that I like about it is that it really prohibits a lot of
retroactive term changes. So a problem that current exists in the card industry
but this legislation takes care of, is that card issuers can not only change
your interest rate or the terms of your credit card, but they can change them
retroactively and apply them to existing balances.
This law makes â limits card issuersâ ability to do that. They can only do that
in a few narrow circumstances.
DAVIES: What was not accomplished? What concerns you?
Mr.Â LEVITIN: Well, there are a few things that it doesnât address. Firstly, it
does not address the interchange fees that are charged to merchants. And well,
it has a little provision saying that the Government Accounting Office is
supposed to study these fees.
DAVIES: And thatâs a transaction fee that Home Depot pays when I use my card,
right? To the bank, right? Okay.
Mr.Â LEVITIN: Thatâs right, and that fee is pretty significant. Interesting that
you mention Home Depot. Home Depot paid more to credit-card companies in these
transaction fees than it spent on healthcare last year. I mean, thatâs pretty
For a lot of merchants, this is one of the largest and most rapidly growing
costs of doing business, and merchants are not seeing any additional value from
these fees as they keep going up and up and up.
So it doesnât do anything to address that, and thatâs a problem because, you
know, these fees actually encourage consumer usage of cards, even when itâs not
efficient. These fees are used to fund rewards programs. Itâs very explicit,
actually, in card-issuer accounting, that the rewards programs are taken as a
deduction from these transaction fees. And the problem is that if Iâm using my
credit because Iâm a rewards-points junkie, and Iâm desperate to get a few more
frequent-flyer miles so I can get that first-class upgrade, I might use my
credit card more than I otherwise would. And the law of large numbers says,
when you have more people using credit cards more often, youâre going to have
more people falling into the quicksand of interest rates and fees and who are
not able to pay off their balances.
So merchants are funding rewards programs, but merchants arenât necessarily
seeing any benefit. And people who are not paying with credit cards, people
paying with debit cards or people paying with cash or even with food stamps,
are seeing higher prices in order to subsidize rewards programs, and thatâs
DAVIES: What does the new law do about marketing to college kids, you know,
people under 21?
Mr.Â LEVITIN: It has some pretty good restrictions there. If youâre under 21,
and you want to get a credit card now, youâre going to have to either have an
over-21 cosigner, or youâre going to have to be able to show that you have the
financial wherewithal to have a card. So card issuers canât start sending out
cards, willy-nilly, to every 19-year-old.
They also canât go to campuses and say hey, you get a free iPod if you open up
a credit card. Theyâre banned now from distributing inducements to open up
credit cards, and they also cannot start sending out pre-screened offers to
under-21-year-olds. In other words, if youâre under 21, and you want a credit
card, you have to come to the card issuer. They canât come to you.
DAVIES: You know, credit-card companies, along with a lot of other companies,
have gotten better at mining more of our data, how we actually spend our money
on â you know, whether we buy alcohol or shop at Target. What are they doing
with that information?
Mr.Â LEVITIN: Theyâre doing two things with it. First of all, theyâre selling
it, data is extremely valuable; and secondly theyâre analyzing it. Theyâre
mining it to figure out consumer behavior patterns, and another way to put that
is theyâre looking for consumer behavioral weaknesses.
One example is that the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Deposit Insurance
Corporation brought litigation earlier this year against a company called
CompuCredit and some of its business partners, for various credit-card
practices. And one of the things that was alleged in the litigation was that
CompuCredit was raising rates on people based on where they shopped.
So if they saw that you used your credit card to pay for marriage counseling or
that you used it at a massage parlor or you got your tire retreaded, theyâd say
aha, that indicates something to us about this consumer. That indicates that
this is a risky consumer, and so weâre going to raise rates.
And some of that seems kind of reasonable from a card issuerâs perspective,
that if they see a behavioral pattern, you know, why shouldnât they price for
it? On the other hand, you can imagine this really starting to interfere with
consumer privacy. So imagine you went to the grocery store, and the card issuer
â currently they donât get SKU-level, the actual item-level data. They only
know the store, but theyâre trying actually now to get the item-level data in
the name of fraud prevention.
So they see that youâre purchasing condoms or that youâre purchasing anti-
depressants or something like that. Maybe they say well, that says something
about this type of consumer, and therefore weâre going to raise rates. And
thatâs just not something consumer bargain for - that first of all, most
consumers that what they choose to buy is going to determine the cost of credit
for them, and even if they did, I think very few consumers would be comfortable
with that. That you know, the deal with the credit-card company, itâs always
been you charge me your interest rate for my risk, and if I pay it and I pay
off my balance, then you donât worry about what Iâm buying. Thatâs none of your
business. Your business is simply make a line of credit available to me.
And weâre seeing that card issuersâ use of behavioral data is really starting
to bump up against consumer privacy concerns.
DAVIES: You know, the credit-card companies have warned that now that they are
restricted in their activities in the industry, and particularly on the fees
and charges they can impose on those who are behind on their balances, they say
those of us who pay our cards off every month are going to get dinged. Thereâs
going to be a higher cost for people with good credit. What about that?
Mr.Â LEVITIN: There may be some of that. I think what weâre going to see is â
weâre seeing first of all a lot of flux in the industry regardless of this
legislation. So even before the legislation passed, we had card issuers cutting
back on credit limits and raising rates, even on good, creditworthy
cardholders. So itâs going to be hard to just say, you know, itâs the
legislationâs fault. This was happening already.
Secondly, we are going to see a reshuffling of the way credit-card price
structures work. Weâre going to start to see lots of new fees and just product
features. So my best guess is weâre going to see something like a high-risk
transaction fee. So maybe thatâs saying that you make a purchase over the
Internet, that thereâs an additional charge or something like that, and theyâre
going to come up with a bunch of new fees. Theyâre going to start charging fees
for things like getting a paper statement.
Weâre probably going to see interest rates go up, but that doesnât mean that
the cost has actually gone up. And thatâs sort of a nice trick the card
industry likes to play, is to say oh look, interest rates are higher - this
legislation has caused the cost of cards to go up. Thatâs not the case.
My best guess is that the cost of credit cards is going to remain basically
stable and that weâre just going to see card issuers manage to restructure the
cost of cards around the legislation.
Weâre going to see some non-creditworthy consumers have a tougher time getting
credit, and that may not be a bad thing, that some of these so-called fee-
harvester cards, where to get a $300 line of credit, you have to pay $150 in
fees, those are going to be substantially restricted, and thatâs probably a
very good thing. You know, maybe itâs a little paternalistic, but weâve seen
the problems that unregulated markets can wreak on society with the mortgage
DAVIES: Well Adam Levitin, weâre out of time. Thanks so much for speaking with
Mr.Â LEVITIN: My pleasure.
DAVIES: Adam Levitin is an associate professor of law at Georgetown University,
specializing in bankruptcy and commercial law. Iâm Dave Davies, and this is
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'Furore': Handel, Causing Quite A Fuss
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
For some time, our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, has had his eye on
the young American opera singer Joyce DiDonato. Sheâs just released her first
CD and Lloyd has this review.
(Soundbite of opera music)
LLOYD SCHWARTZ: The last time I saw Joyce DiDonato on stage, she was playing
"Cinderella" in Massenet's sweetly lyrical romantic opera. She was touching and
loveable, exactly right for the role. So I was surprised to discover that her
first recording was an album of Handel arias called "Furore," the Italian word
for madness or fury. And she plays a number of characters who couldn't be less
like Cinderella, heroines and heroes who are tormented by jealous rages,
obsessed with personal and political revenge, or suffering insane despair over
the damage theyâve caused.
Even the most gorgeous of these Handel arias have an edge, often created by the
tension Handel exploits between the powerful emotional situations and the
neoclassical formality of his musical structures, which includes a lot of
repetition. During the 19th century and well into the 20th, Handel was ignored
because singers didn't understand the dramatic power of these repetitions. In
these so-called da capo(ph) arias, loosely translated as from the top, there's
a long first section, then a change of mood, and then the entire first section
is repeated. In productions, and on recordings, these arias were often
abbreviated or the repeated section was just eliminated.
But in the 1980s the extraordinary Handel productions of Peter Sellers and the
late Craig Smith taught us the way this music communicated obsession and that
these repetitions embodied some of the opera's most intense states of mind.
Joyce DiDonato is from that new generation of singers who understands the
nature of these repetitions. In Aria Dante's great tragic aria "Scherza
infida", the hero laments his betrayal and warns the woman he believes is
unfaithful that he'll return to haunt her after his death.
(Soundbite of opera music)
Mr. SCHWARTZ: But in the repeat, Joyce DiDonato not only projects Aria Dante's
increased anguish; we can practically hear him turning into a ghost.
(Soundbite of opera music)
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Joyce DiDonato is a strong vocal actress. She's as impressive in
her quiet singing as in her brilliant coloratura, and she makes distinctions
between characters who are demented or just plain angry, or sad. In one of
these arias, she seems to be trying too hard. "Dejanira in Hercules" is one of
Handel's great operatic roles. There's a new live recording of arias from
"Hercules" sung by the late Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson in 1999, conducted by Craig
Smith. Her "Dejanira" is a grand and heartbreaking tragic figure.
But DiDonato, in her effort to show as Dejanira's madness, makes her sound like
a witch than a madwoman. But in an aria from Handel's Julius Cesar, DiDonato is
right on target. She plays Sesto(ph), the son of Pompeii(ph), who has just been
assassinated by one of Cesar's henchmen. In this revenge aria, Sesto was a kind
of younger Hamlet trying to convince himself to take action. Conductor
Christophe(ph) Rouse and his period instrument group understand that Handel's
music is depicting the way Sesto is being strangled by his conflicting
feelings. Even snakes, Sesto sings, are not satisfied until they have injected
venom into their attacker's blood and Handel let's us hear the venom of revenge
that is also trickling into Sesto's own blood.
(Soundbite of opera music)
Mr. SCHWARTZ: Joyce DiDonato has made a brave debut by presenting some of the
most difficult music ever written for a singer. I can't wait to hear what she
DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and
teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed
"Furore," a new album of Handel arias sung by Joyce DiDonato.
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Remembering David Carradine
DAVE DAVIES, host:
We learned this morning that actor David Carradine has died in Bangkok, where
he was shooting a film. Thai police said he was found dead in his hotel room.
He was 72. Carradine appeared in more than a hundred films, including "Bound
for Glory," where he played Woody Guthrie, the Quentin Tarantino films, "Kill
Bill," volumes one and two, and âThe Long Riders," where he appeared with his
brothers, Keith and Robert. David Carradine was the son of actor John
He rose to fame in the 1970s, when he starred in the ABC series "Kung Fu." He
played Caine, a half Chinese/half American who was brought up in China in a
Shaolin monastery, where he learned kung fu as part his training. The series
followed Caine's adventures as he wandered through the American West, using
kung fu on the bad guys and passing on ancient wisdom.
Terry spoke to David Carradine in 1991, when he'd written a book called "The
Spirit of Shaolin" about the "King Fu" TV series and the history of the martial
art. She asked him what role "Kung Fu" had played in his life off camera.
Mr. DAVID CARRADINE (Actor): Well, itâs had certainly an affect on me. It's not
always easy to say exactly what. But it's changed my road, for sure, and since
it's not over yet, I can't tell you where the path is going to lead. But it's
made me concentrate on things that maybe I wouldn't have in the first place.
You know, I began as a Shakespearean actor, and the directions I thought I
would go in turn out not to be the directions I am going in. But I think that's
true of anybody's life.
GROSS: You spend part of your new book talking about things that happened
behinds the scenes in the TV series "Kung Fu." Did they do anything to try to
make you look part Chinese?
Mr. CARRADINE: Yeah. They put a little tiny corner at the inside of my eyes. It
made my eyes look slightly more Oriental, and they painted me yellow.
GROSS: Oh really?
Mr. CARRADINE: And also I bent my legs a little bit most of the time so I
didn't look so tall.
GROSS: Huh. How tall are you?
Mr. CARRADINE: I'm 6'2.
GROSS: Uh-huh. When "Kung Fu" was first on, I was taking Taekwondo lessons.
Taekwondo is a Korean form of karate. And in our Monday class our teacher would
always make some comment about the previous episode of "Kung Fu," about how the
fights were just so improbable that you wouldn't be able to stay alive through
one of those fights. Youâd have so many broken limbs, you wouldn't be able to
function and come back for more. I'm wondering what you think.
Mr. CARRADINE: Well, you know, right in front of you I wouldn't want to tell
you that your master doesn't necessarily know what he's talking about. But we
were looking for realism. We were looking to more illustrate the possibilities
of the various forms of kung fu than we were actually trying to just simply
show you a fight. I mean you might say on the other hand, you know, this is a
form of entertainment, that the fights were closer to the fights that you see
in, say, "West Side Story" than what you would see in an arena. But I think,
you know, the modern things that you see now with Van Damme and all those
people are even more so in that way, that any one...
GROSS: Oh yeah.
Mr. CARRADINE: ...of those punches would, you know, crack your clavicle or
break your skull or something like that, knock all your teeth out. But I really
think, really, in "Kung Fu" that we stressed the softness more than we stressed
anything else. I think Bruce Lee's version of it, or you know, these modern
guys is much more, much more unbelievable in terms of people getting hurt. You
know, we basically tried to show that Kwai Chang Caine was not trying to hurt
people. He was just trying to stop the violence. A lot of that had to do with
the fact that the FCC said that they didn't want me to kill people, and we had
GROSS: Yeah, well...
Mr. CARRADINE: ...some kind of adjustment.
GROSS: Yeah. Let me bring up here something I found very interesting, that the
FCC used to limit the number of minutes per show that you could fight. And
they, what, they objected to you killing people on the show too?
Mr. CARRADINE: Yeah. See now, we didn't really have an attitude ourselves. We
just thought we were doing a good show, and we hated the fact that we'd do
these great fights and then the FCC would say, well, you got to cut this out
and cut that out and all that.
And some of the things that are the absolute identifying characteristics of the
show were reduced as a result of these things. For instance, the slow motion
created a softer look and the FCC would be more happy about it. And that's also
why we went to so many training sequences, because that way we could do the
moves and it would not be thought of as violent.
GROSS: You not only did the "Kung Fu" TV series, but you did a lot of films in
which you performed martial arts. I'm wondering if over the years a lot of
people have come up to you on the street and tried to pick a fight with you
just to test themselves against your skills.
Mr. CARRADINE: Well, a few. Yeah, that's happened. I never got in any real
trouble, but there were certainly some people who try to give me some. One of
the convenient things about âKung Fu Masterâ is that, real Kung Fu masters are
very unlikely to try to pick a fight with you, itâs usually punks more or less.
But there were a couple of times when the numbers were really kind of large,
you know. If you got nine rednecks walking across the street to pick a fight
with you that does kind of get formidable.
GROSS: So, tell me what happened in that instance and what you did?
Mr. CARRADINE: Well, you get out of it anyway you can. You know, the first rule
when faced with a superior opponent is run away. And I did some of that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CARRADINE: And sometimes I was able to make a couple of moves that were
impressive enough so that people backed off and some people â sometimes I was
able to â just change it from a confrontation to something like an autograph
GROSS: You write that the reason why you were able to perform the Kung Fu parts
on TV so well was that you love dance and you had the body and the flexibility
to really do this kind of stuff. You loved dance as a child but you say, your
father, the actor John Carradine, wouldnât let you take dance classes. Why not?
What kind of problem that you have with dance?
Mr. CARRADINE: Well, the way he put it was he said no son of mine will make his
living with his feet. And that just shows you that destiny is inescapable
because what I ended up doing instead of tapping around was kicking people.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Did you sneak in dance lessons behind his back?
Mr. CARRADINE: More or less, yes.
GROSS: What kind?
Mr. CARRADINE: Well, I studied ballet, and I studied tap and I studied a lot of
ethnic forms as well.
GROSS: How close did you get to performing that kind of dance? Any of those
Mr. CARRADINE: I performed it a lot.
GROSS: Musicals orâ¦
Mr. CARRADINE: Yeah. Musicals and ballet and, you know, just â well, I had a
band for a long time where I performed on stage and one of the numbers was I
would tap dance down into the audience and around on tables and stuff like
GROSS: Did seeing the example of your father and his acting career make you
want to act or did that give you reservations about becoming an actor?
Mr. CARRADINE: Both. I had reservations. I saw how much pain is involved and
how much artifice and how much of it â how much of the business part of it, I
would probably never understand because I saw my father going through these
problems. Also part of the reason why I went in to an acting career was to
finish the job he started because he always felt he didnât go as far as he
could. And as a matter of fact it was kind of a revenge motif that started me
out in it. I wanted to get even with these guys for not giving my father what
he wanted. And to a certain extent I guess Iâve accomplished that and to a
certain extent I havenât. But then, you know, thatâs part of the story we were
always trying to tell was that, you know, revenge doesnât work. It belongs to
GROSS: I - you know, I read all these things about the people Iâm interviewing
and I never know whatâs true and whatâs not. But I read somewhere that you shot
yourself accidentally with a Colt 45 while shooting a sceneâ¦
Mr. CARRADINE: Sure did.
GROSS: â¦in a film. Was it â did you shoot yourself with a blank or with an
Mr. CARRADINE: No, you donât use actual bullets in movies unless youâre
Mr. CARRADINE: Which - by the way certain people are. Henry Hathaway did a
picture once, a war movie, in which he had â he wanted to have tracer bullets.
But by and large you donât do that. But point blank range a blank can actually
kill you. It didnât kill me, I have a tough groin.
Mr. CARRADINE: I mean, I was shot in the groin but I â it did ruin a perfectly
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So you have a scar in the middle of the tattoo?
Mr. CARRADINE: The butterfly now has a rather ragged wing, letâs put it that
GROSS: All I can say is if you shot yourself in the groin and the tattoo was
the worse of the problems, you are really lucky.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: How did you â how do you do scenes now with guns differently than you
did that time you were hurt? Was there a lesson that you learned about handling
Mr. CARRADINE: Well, Iâve always been pretty good at handling a gun. The
problem was we were in a real hurry. And the way I was using the guns â well, I
had to repeat what Iâd done in an earlier scene and it was dangerous. We all
knew it was dangerous. You take a lot of chances in movies. Look in these Kung
Fu movies, I have broken or dislocated virtually every finger and every toe
that I have. Iâve crushed my ribs. Iâve smashed my shoulder. Iâve destroyed a
ligament in the knee. I could go on.
Acting is a dangerous profession. And when you consider Iâve made 68 features
plus all the television and everything, you just got to expect that Iâm going
to hurt myself now and then. Itâs sort of like being a football player or
GROSS: Well, David Carradine, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.
Mr. CARRADINE: Well, hey I want to thank you a lot for allowing me to.
DAVIES: David Carradine speaking with Terry Gross in 1991. Carradine has died
in Bangkok where he was making a film. He was 72. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan
on the debut novel of the New York Times scent critic Chandler Burr. This is
Dave â this is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Novelist Explores Book Groups, Hollywood-Style
DAVE DAVIES, host:
On the face of it, Chandler Burr surely has one of journalismâs most curious
jobs. He is the New York Timesâ scent critic. He has also written nonfiction
books about the olfactory realm like âThe Perfect Scent,â and âThe Emperor of
Scent.â But group - book critic Maureen Corrigan says that Burrâs debut novel
called, âYou or Someone Like You,â noses down a thornier path. Hereâs her
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Chandler Burrâs debut novel, âYou or Someone Like You,â is a
must-read for any book group serious enough to spend more time discussing the
book rather than what wine to serve at their meeting. Burrâs novel is about
just such a serious book group, one that tackles off-road authors like William
Golding, Anthony Trollope, William Blake and Christina Rossetti. The group is
formed in Hollywood of all places, where, as our main character observes,
people talk on the phone all day long and, thus, put an immense value on
language, yet have an utter disdain for the written word.
But the book-group plot constitutes only one of the unfolding stories in this
smart novel, which is, primarily, a very tough reflection on the idea of group-
ness itself â whoâs in and whoâs out, whoâs considered a full person and whoâs
not. âYou or Someone Like Youâ is sure to stir up controversy because it
doesnât just stick to the safe pieties of decrying discrimination in terms of
race or gender. Instead, it confronts what it sees as a more socially
acceptable form of discrimination practiced by organized religion â
specifically here, Judaism. Even raising the issue of whether Jewish solidarity
is a form of self-preservation or exclusivity probably will invite accusations
of anti-Semitism to be tossed at this novel.
But Burr, like his main character, Anne Rosenbaum, clearly subscribes to the
view that one distinguishing mark of a good piece of literature is that it
doesnât set out to please everybody. The gist of the story is this: Anne and
her husband, Howard, met decades ago at Columbia University. Both were word-
drunk English majors: Anne was a transplanted English Protestant girl, Howard
hailed from an Orthodox family in Brooklyn. Against his parentâs protests, they
married. When the novel opens, theyâve been living in Hollywood for decades,
where Howard is a movie studio wheeler-dealer with ties to the New York
literary world, and the more retiring Anne takes pleasure in books and her
During a business dinner, a studio exec turns to Anne, whoâs renowned for
always carrying a book with her, and proposes that she make up a recommended
reading list. The list circulates, and soon Anne finds herself leading book
groups where the likes of producers and script doctors are going mano-a-mano
about Mansfield Park. Naturally, Burr canât resist cracking jokes about book
group eating rituals. Anne tells us that: The unwritten rule was that the
participants brought dessert. In typical industry fashion, like emerging
nuclear powers, they rapidly escalated the desserts in intricacy and number and
size and exoticism and, quite predictably, cost.
The Virginia Woolf dessert was appropriate in size, small, but it cost $800 and
came in four cream-colored bamboo boxes lined in silver paper and tied with raw
While Anne has her head in books, Howard, reacting to a deep family insult,
finds himself drawn back more and more into the world of Orthodox Judaism that
he left when he married Anne. She fiercely tries to hold on to him, and when he
shuts her out, she communicates to him through the literature of her book
clubs. Anne sees herself as a universalist, like her beloved W.H. Auden who
left England to settle in a chaotic New York. Even as Howard engages in a
search for origins, Anne defiantly counters with Audenâs view that home is the
place you choose. Literary as she may be, she also flings unpoetic words like
tribalism, racism and bigotry at the increasingly reclusive Howard.
When does cultural pride transform into cultural arrogance? Itâs an uneasy
question we consider daily in this mixed-up democracy of ours, most recently
with the controversy over whether Sonia Sotomayorâs Hispanic pride remarks are
or are not racist. Chandler Burrâs provocative new novel weighs in on the issue
of identity politics and also makes a powerful case for why great books are a
great danger to small minds.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed âYou or Someone Like You,â by Chandler Burr. You can download podcasts
of our show at our Web site, freshair.npr.org. Koko Taylor, a blues vocalist
icon died Wednesday in her hometown of Chicago. She sang such hits as âIâm A
Woman,â and âHey Bartender.â Taylor died from complications of gastrointestinal
surgery. We will close with her 1965 hit âWang Dang Doodle.â For Terry Gross,
Iâm Dave Davies.
(Soundbite of song, âWang Dang Doodleâ)
Ms. KOKO TAYLOR (Singer): (singing) Tell Automatic Slim, Tell Razor Totin' Jim,
Tell Butcher Knife Totin' Annie, Tell Fast Talkin' Fanny, Tonite we're gonna
pitch a ball, Down to that union hall, Gonna romp and tromp 'till midnite,
We're gonna fuss and fight 'till daylight, We're gonna pitch a wang dang doodle
all nite longâ¦
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