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'Conchords': Music, Comedy, Clueless Kiwis

Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, aka the folk-parody band Flight of the Conchords, hail from New Zealand. They were named best alternative-comedy act at the 2005 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.

Now they're the stars of an acclaimed HBO series called, yes, Flight of the Conchords — which is, yes, about two transplanted New Zealanders living in New York City's Lower East Side. The first season is out now on DVD.

Clement and McKenzie join Fresh Air for a conversation and a few songs.

This interview first aired on June 14, 2007.

21:18

Other segments from the episode on November 9, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 9, 2007: Interview with Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie; Interview with Reynolds Price; Review of the film "No Country for Old Men."

Transcript

DATE November 9, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, stars of the
HBO comedy series "Flight of the Conchords," perform satirical
songs and talk about their experiences on the show
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for tvworthwatching.com,
sitting in for Terry Gross.

"Flight of the Conchords" is the name of a two-person band, two singer/song
writers from New Zealand, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, who play acoustic
guitars and perform their own songs. The songs are intentionally funny and so
are they. They starred earlier this year in a very dry comedy series for HBO,
also called "Flight of the Conchords," which was just released on DVD. In the
series, they play comic variations on themselves, two laidback struggling
musicians newly arrived in New York and trying to make a name for themselves.
Here's a scene from the show in which Bret and Jemaine, after taking heaps of
verbal abuse from a sidewalk fruit vendor, finally confront him, non-verbally,
by making a series of rude hand gestures. The first voice you'll hear is that
of the vendor, played by comedian Aziz Ansari.

(Soundbite of "Flight of the Conchords")

Mr. AZIZ ANSARI: (In character) How dare you come here and give me those
offensive hand gestures in my fruit stand.

Mr. JEMAINE CLEMENT: (As himself) It was either this or getting you
sentenced to Alcatraz.

Mr. BRET McKENZIE: (As himself) How dare you treat us like secondhand
citizens.

Mr. CLEMENT: (As himself) It doesn't matter what country someone's from or
what they look like or the color of their skin, it doesn't matter what they
smell like, whether they spell words slightly differently, some would say more
correctly.

Mr. ANSARI: (In character) Yeah.

Mr. CLEMENT: (As himself) Let me finish. I'm a person. Bret's a person.

Mr. McKENZIE: (In character) Yeah.

Mr. CLEMENT: (As himself) You're a person. That person over there's a
person. And each person deserves to be treated like a person.

Mr. ANSARI: (As himself) It's a great speech. Too bad New Zealanders are a
bunch of cocky a...(censored by station)...descended from criminals and
retarded monkeys.

Mr. CLEMENTS: (As himself) You're thinking of Australians.

Mr. McKENZIE: (As himself) Yeah, that's Australians.

Mr. CLEMENTS: (As himself) That's Australians.

Mr. ANSARI: (As himself) No, no, no. New Zealanders. They're, `Throw
another shrimp on the barbie.' Ride around on your kangaroos all day.

Mr. McKENZIE: (As himself) No, no, no. That's Australians.

Mr. CLEMENTS: (As himself) No, no.

Mr. McKENZIE: (As himself) You're thinking of Australians. That's not us.

Mr. ANSARI: (As himself) I've totally confused you with Australians. I feel
terrible.

Mr. CLEMENTS: (As himself) Oh, no. When--oh, no.

Mr. ANSARI: (As himself) Your accents, they're just kind of similar.

Mr. CLEMENTS: (As himself) The accents are completely different. They'd be
like, `Where's the car?' And we're like, `Where's the car?'

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: McKenzie and Clement first started doing their songs as part of
their "Flight of the Conchords" music and comedy routine, which was named Best
Alternative Comedy Act at the 2005 US Comedy Arts Festival. They started
performing in their native New Zealand. Earlier this year, McKenzie and
Clement visited Terry in the FRESH AIR studios to perform some of their
satirical songs. Their show was about to premiere on HBO.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Bret McKenzie, Jemaine Clement, welcome to FRESH AIR.

How would you describe your new show?

McKENZIE and CLEMENT: (In unison) Boring.

Mr. McKENZIE: It's like "The Monkees" combined with a little bit of "Curb
Your Enthusiasm."

Mr. CLEMENT: It's about Bret and I, or our stage personas or television
personas, I guess, now, and our fictional lives trying to live in New York as
poor musicians.

GROSS: And those fictional personas, like you're both kind of nerdy, really
uncomfortable around women.

Mr. CLEMENT: No, that part is real.

GROSS: That part's real?

Mr. CLEMENT: That part's real.

GROSS: And you're also both incredibly insecure, but at the same time really
self-absorbed and egotistical.

Mr. CLEMENT: It's a fine line to play.

GROSS: These are the characters I'm talking about, not you.

Mr. McKENZIE: All right.

Mr. CLEMENT: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Let's set up like what a scene is like. Like, in episode one, you're
both at a party and, Jemaine, you see a woman who you find yourself attracted
to, and suddenly you're imagining this kind of rock video that you're both in
in which you're having a hamburger with her and you're talking with her...

Mr. CLEMENT: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and singing about how beautiful she is. Would you do that song for
us?

Mr. McKENZIE: Yeah, yeah, sure.

Mr. CLEMENT: Certainly.

McKENZIE and CLEMENT: (Singing in unison) Lookin' 'round the room,
I can tell that you
Are the most beautiful girl
In the room
In the whole wide room, yeah.

And when you're on the street,
Depending on the street
I bet you are definitely in the top three
Good lookin' girls on the street
Depending on the street

And when I saw you at my mate's place
I thought, `What is she doing
At my mate's place?
Oh, how did Dave get
A hottie like that
To a party like this?'
Good one, Dave!
Ooh, you're a legend, Dave!

I asked Dave if he's gonna make a move on you
He's not sure--I said, `Dave, do you mind if I do?'
And he says he doesn't mind, but I can tell he kinda minds,
But I'm gonna' do it anyway
I see you standin' all alone by the stereo
I dim the lights down to very low
Here we go
You're so beautiful,
Well, you could be a waitress
Mm, ah
Well, you could be an air hostess in the '60s
You're so beautiful
Well, you could be a part-time model
And then I sealed the deal,
I do my move, I do the robot
Ooh, ah
(Makes robot noises)
Just talking to
Just me and you
And seven other dudes around you on the dance floor

I draw you near, let's get out of here
Let's get in a cab
I'll buy you a Kabam
And I can't believe
That I'm sharing a Kabam with the most beautiful girl I have ever seen
With a Kabam
Ooh
Oh, why don't we leave?
Let's go to my house
And we could feel each other up on couch
Oh, no! I don't mind taking it slo-oh-ow! No-oh-oh!
Yeah!
Because you're so beautiful
Like a tree
You're so beautiful
Like some beautiful ceramics or something
You're so beautiful
Like some of those girls I've been definitely, definitely chatting to in the
chat room
You're so beautiful
Wildslutangel22@yahoo-hoo-hoo
You're so beautiful
I think you could be a part-time model
But you'd probably still have to keep your normal job
Part-time model
Spend a part of your time modeling
And part of your time next to me-ee-hee-eh-hee
Next to me-hee-hee
And the rest of your time doing your normal job
Waitressing

GROSS: That's Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement.

Did you ever like perform in a straight band that wasn't comedy?

Mr. McKENZIE: I have.

Mr. CLEMENT: I've never, but Bret's performed in several bands.

Mr. McKENZIE: Yeah.

Mr. CLEMENT: I've never been in what I'd call a real band. This is...

GROSS: Why? I mean, do you lack confidence in yourself as a...

Mr. CLEMENT: Yes.

GROSS: ....as a non-ironic performer?

Mr. CLEMENT: As a person.

GROSS: As a human being in general?

Mr. CLEMENT: No, it's just, well, when we started this, I definitely
wouldn't have been able to really keep up.

Mr. McKENZIE: Yeah, we've gotten a lot better than when we started. We
both, we could barely play guitar when we started. We started off like we
had--I think we knew three or four chords, and then now we know probably 11
chords, so.

GROSS: Don't overdo it.

Mr. McKENZIE: Yeah.

Mr. CLEMENT: Between us. We learn a new chord...

Mr. McKENZIE: Each year.

Mr. CLEMENT: Each year. Each year at Christmas, we give each other a new
chord.

Mr. McKENZIE: Yeah, I say I know five, and Bret says he knows six. So
that's 11.

GROSS: Can I ask you to do another song that you do in the TV show?

Mr. McKENZIE: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CLEMENT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And this one's called "I'm Not Crying," and why don't you describe the
context that you sing it in in the HBO series?

Mr. CLEMENT: In the show, my character Jemaine, based loosely on myself, has
just been dumped by a woman, and he's...

Mr. McKENZIE: By the most beautiful girl in the room.

Mr. CLEMENT: Yes, actually.

Mr. McKENZIE: Yeah.

GROSS: So beautiful she could've been a waitress.

Mr. McKENZIE: So--at the beginning of the episode she could've been...

Mr. CLEMENT: Exactly.

Mr. McKENZIE: ...a part-time model, but now she's--yeah, now she--later in
the episode she dumps Jemaine.

Mr. CLEMENT: Breaking my heart, and I'm...

Mr. McKENZIE: Yeah.

Mr. CLEMENT: I'm in denial about my emotions.

Mr. CLEMENT: (Spoken) You say you're leaving
You say you have to go
Well, if you have to go, then I suppose you have to go
That's what it means to have to go, doesn't it?
It means you have to go

(Singing) But if you're trying to break my heart
Your plan is flawed from the start
You can't break my heart, it's liquid
It melted when I met you

(Spoken) And as you walk down the path that leads to my door,
Don't turn around to see me once more
Don't turn around to see if I'm crying
I'm not crying, not crying, not crying

Mr. CLEMENT and Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing in unison) Not crying, not crying

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) It's just been...

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) ...raining
On my face

And if you think you see some tear tracks down my cheek,
Please, please, please don't tell my mates
I'm not crying
No, no, no, I'm not crying
Oh, well, well, if I am crying, it's not because of you
It's because I am thinking of a friend of mine you don't know
Who is dying
Yes, that's right, dying

Mr. CLEMENT and Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing in unison) These aren't tears of
sadness because you're leaving me
I've just been cutting onions
I'm just baking a lasagne
For one

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) I'm not crying, no! No!

Mr. CLEMENT and Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing in unison) There's just a little bit of
dust in my eyes
It's from the cloud that you made when you said your goodbye
I'm not weeping because you won't be here to hold my hand
For your information, there's an inflammation in my tear gland
I'm not upset because you left me this way
My eyes are just a little sweaty today
I've been looking around and out searching for you
They've been looking for you, even though I told them not to

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) These aren't tears of sadness because you're leaving me,
They're tears of joy, I'm just laughing

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, oh, ah!

Mr. CLEMENT and Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing in unison) I'm sitting at this table
called love
Staring down at the irony of life
How come I face this fork in the road
And yet it cuts like a knife?
Oh, I'm not crying
I'm not crying
No, I'm not cry-I-I-I-yi
Yi-yi-yi-yi-yin, no, I'm--no, I'm, no...
(Sniff)

GROSS: That's really great. And that's the...

Mr. McKENZIE: Quite emotional.

GROSS: It's very emotional.

Mr. McKENZIE: Quite hard to bring...

Mr. CLEMENT: To come back from that.

Mr. McKENZIE: Bring myself.

Mr. CLEMENT: Yeah, come back to the room.

GROSS: Compose yourselves.

Mr. CLEMENT: Yeah.

GROSS: That's the Flight of the Conchords, made up of Bret McKenzie and
Jemaine Clement.

You know, I love that kind of Barry White kind of spoken beginning. Who are
the singers you've most tried to sound like over the years, or you've wished
most you could sound like?

Mr. CLEMENT: Recently, I've been loving Daryl Hall's vocals.

Mr. McKENZIE: Oh, yeah.

Mr. CLEMENT: From Hall & Oates. Amazing singer. And--oh!--and I'm
listening to a lot of Ray Charles.

Mr. McKENZIE: And Oates. Don't forget John Oates.

Mr. CLEMENT: And Oates, I'm not so familiar with. I just love the way Daryl
Hall always goes `Mm, mm, mm, mm,' at the end of all his phrases.

Mr. McKENZIE: I see, that's where you picked that up from.

Mr. CLEMENT: That's what, I've been trying to put that into more songs.

GROSS: Who is most unlike you, in addition to Barry White, that you've tried
to, you know, channel through your songs?

Mr. McKENZIE: Well...

Mr. CLEMENT: I...

Mr. McKENZIE: Again, Prince is quite an influence, which I guess we're
not...

Mr. CLEMENT: Yeah.

Mr. McKENZIE: ...neither of particularly like Prince.

Mr. CLEMENT: Prince is a bring influence.

Mr. McKENZIE: He's very individual, though, so it's hard to imagine anyone
else like him, really.

Mr. CLEMENT: It's often depressing in the studio, when we're trying to
emulate Prince, because it's just two guitars. We imagine it sounding a lot
grander than it perhaps actually does, and often we listen back to a
recording, and--well, I'm often surprised.

Mr. McKENZIE: You go, `Where's the drum?'

Mr. CLEMENT: And disappointed.

Mr. McKENZIE: `Where's the horn section that I had envisaged?'

Mr. CLEMENT: `Where's the funky groove?'

BIANCULLI: Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's visit with Jemaine Clement and Bret
McKenzie of "Flight of the Conchords."

GROSS: Can I ask you to do another song?

Mr. McKENZIE: Yes, you may.

Mr. CLEMENT: Yeah.

GROSS: Good. And, you know, you say the songs that you do kind of reflect a
type of song, and this one is called "What Is Wrong with the World Today?"

Mr. McKENZIE: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And to me, it's one of those real like '70s, what's--you know, "What's
Goin' On?" type of songs.

Mr. CLEMENT: Yeah, Marvin Gaye.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. CLEMENT: It was sort of a--this one--like it was a mixture of Marvin
Gaye and I guess the Black-Eyed Peas song "Where's the Love?"

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CLEMENT: There's something kind of funny in that.

(Soundbite of "What Is Wrong with the World Today?"

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) There's children on the streets using guns and knives
Taking drugs and each others' lives
Killing each other with knives and forks
And calling each other names like "dork"

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) There's people on the street getting diseases from
monkeys
That's what I said, they're getting diseases from monkeys
Now there's junkies with monkey disease
Who's touching these monkey's bellies
Leave this poor, sick monkeys alone
They got problems enough as it is

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Man's lying the street
Some punk has chopped off his head
I'm the only one who stops
To see if he's dead

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Is he dead?

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Ooh, it turns out he's dead
And that's why I'm singing why,

Mr. CLEMENT and Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing in unison) What is wrong with the world
today?

Mr. McKENZIE: (Spoken) What's wrong with the world today?
Ya-da-dee-dee-doo today

Mr. CLEMENT and Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing in unison) Why-hi-hi--what is wrong
with the world today?

Mr. McKENZIE: (Spoken) Yeah, sing about it
Think, think about it

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Good cops get framed
And put into a can
And all the money that we're makin'
Is going to the man

Mr. McKENZIE: (Spoken) What man?
Who's the man?
When's the man a man?
What makes a man?
Is Bret the man? Yes
Technically, he is

(Singing) They're turning kids into slaves
Just to make cheaper sneakers
What's the real cost? `Cause the sneakers don't seem that much cheaper
Oh, why're we paying so much for sneakers when you got them made by little
slave kids?
What're your overheads?

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) At the end of your life,
You're lucky if you die
Sometimes I wonder why we even try
I saw a man lying on the streets all dead
With knives and forks sticking out of his leg
And he said, `Ow-ow-ow, ow, ow, ow
Can somebody get the knives and forks out of my leg please?'

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Can somebody please remove these
Cutleries from my knees

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) And then we broke it down

Mr. CLEMENT and Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing in unison) This is where we break it
down Oom--this is where we break it down
Ow--this is where we break it down

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) I could do a capella jams

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Mm-hmm, a capella jams, bringing it to you

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Yeah, breakin' it right down
Yeah, oh, yeah,
Ooh, ooh

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) And then we bring it back, why, why

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Ooh!

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Whoo! Jammin' in the studio.

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Mm-hmm-hmm.

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Jammin'

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Jammin' at

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Jammin'
Fading out

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Fading out, fading out

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Just fading out

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

Mr. CLEMENT: (Singing) Just fading out
Fading out

Mr. McKENZIE: (Singing) Fading
Ooh, yeah-ah-hah

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's really great. That's the Flight of the Conchords. That's one
of the songs they do on their new HBO TV series called "Flight of the
Conchords," in which they play two members of a band who sing songs like that.

Are their stories within the TV series that are based on things that happened
to you, and if so, would you tell us one of them?

Mr. CLEMENT: I'll do one of mine. I don't know if it's appropriate to say.
We do one story about where a girl wants to have a threesome, a menage a
trois, with Bret and I, which is based on a real story, which we...

Mr. McKENZIE: A fan.

Mr. CLEMENT: We didn't. And it was very awkward and embarrassing, and we've
got a story that borrows from that.

Mr. McKENZIE: Some parts from that, yeah. It was in England, where they
call a threesome a "spit roast," which is a very British term that we weren't
familiar with. Are you familiar with that term?

GROSS: No.

Mr. McKENZIE: It's quite horrendous term. I think you can really understand
how it would transpire. And this girl comes up to Jemaine at this party and
goes, `Do you think'...

Mr. CLEMENT: She said, `Would you be interested in'...

Mr. McKENZIE: She said, `a spit roast.'

Mr. CLEMENT: ...`having a spit roast?' Spit roast.

Mr. McKENZIE: And Jemaine thought she meant a...

Mr. CLEMENT: I imagined a barbecue.

Mr. McKENZIE: Yeah.

Mr. CLEMENT: And I said, `Yeah.' And she said, `Would Bret be interested?'

Mr. McKENZIE: And at the time, I was going through a big like steak phase,
so I was really into eating meat. And so Jemaine said, `Oh, Bret will be
really into it if it's a roast. It sounds really good.'

Mr. CLEMENT: Oh, definitely. Definitely.

Mr. McKENZIE: And...

Mr. CLEMENT: Meanwhile, she was saying, `Really?' `Oh, definitely,
definitely. Bret will love it.'

Mr. McKENZIE: It's a very--yeah, so we used that as the basis for a story
for the show.

Mr. CLEMENT: And in--yeah, it...

GROSS: Well, what happened to you after that?

Mr. CLEMENT: Well, she said, `I wouldn't usually ask. I'm a lesbian.' And I
was thinking, `Why would that stop you asking us from a barbecue?' And then
I--because there's something awkward about the situation that made me figure
out that it wasn't what she was asking. And then I, as politely as I could,
turned down the offer.

GROSS: Now, Bret, you apparently played like one of the elves in...

Mr. McKENZIE: "Lord of the Rings," yeah.

GROSS: ..."Lord of the Rings."

Mr. CLEMENT: Bret played Legolas.

GROSS: So is this because Peter Jackson is from New Zealand? Do you know him
from that?

Mr. McKENZIE: He's from New Zealand, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. McKENZIE: They made the films in the town where we live.

GROSS: Oh. So...

Mr. McKENZIE: So a lot of people were in those films. My brother and my
father were both in it, as well.

GROSS: No kidding? And your costume was?

Mr. McKENZIE: I had pointy ears and a long wig, and a sort of velvet gown,
and I got to wander around the forest. Yeah.

GROSS: What's the pay like for doing something like that?

Mr. McKENZIE: It's not so much about the money, it's about the credibility.

GROSS: The credibility?

Mr. McKENZIE: Yeah. It was more the opportunity.

Mr. CLEMENT: How much credibility does walking around the forest with a
velvet gown given you?

Mr. McKENZIE: A lot. You'd be surprised.

GROSS: Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, I want to thank you both so much.
That was really fun. I really appreciate you performing for us.

Mr. CLEMENT: Thanks you...

Mr. McKENZIE: Thanks very much.

Mr. CLEMENT: ...for inviting us.

GROSS: Good luck with the show.

Mr. CLEMENT: Cheers.

BIANCULLI: Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, otherwise known as Flight of
the Conchords. A DVD set of the first season of their HBO comedy series, also
called "Flight of the Conchords," has just been released. Our recording
engineer for their performance was Al Banks. I'm David Bianculli, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite from "Flight of the Conchords")

Mr. McKENZIE: (As himself) Come on. It'll only take five minutes. We've
been out here talking about it for two hours now.

Mr. CLEMENTS: (As himself) What do I have to do?

Mr. McKENZIE: Just make me seen popular. If I say something, you agree with
me.

Mr. CLEMENTS: (As himself) All right.

Mr. McKENZIE: (As himself) Hi.

Unidentified Woman: (In character) Hi.

Mr. McKENZIE: (As himself) I'd like a croissant, please.

Mr. CLEMENTS: (As himself) Yes, that's true. He would.

Woman: (In character) OK, a croissant. Sure.

Mr. CLEMENTS: (As himself) He's very popular.

Mr. McKENZIE: Be more subtle about it.

That's true. I suppose he didn't have to say that. (Speaks French)

Woman: (In character) What?

(Mr. McKenzie and Mr. Clements sing in French)

(End of soundbite)

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

Interview: Author Reynolds Price discusses his book "Letter to
a Godchild Concerning Faith," which tells of his life-long
relationship with religion and faith
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.

In his latest book, just out in paperback, Reynolds Price asks the question he
suspects his students and colleagues often wonder about him: How can someone
as educated as he is sustain a belief in God's existence? Is this a symptom
of his mental blindness or of some other failure of plain intelligence? Price
tries to answer that question in "Letter to a Godchild Concerning Faith." The
book is a letter to his godchild about how, now past the age of 70, he has
sustained his faith and why the spinal cancer, which left him a paraplegic in
the mid-'80s, actually deepened that faith. Reynolds Price is the author of
over 35 books of fiction and nonfiction. He has won the National Book Critics
Circle Award and the William Faulkner Award. He's a professor of English
literature at Duke University, where he's taught since 1958. He's also been a
commentator on "All Things Considered." Terry spoke with Reynolds Price in
2006.

TERRY GROSS, host:

One of the things that first got you interested in faith was an illustrated
book of Bible stories. Would you describe the book and what was so powerful
about it?

Mr. REYNOLDS PRICE: My father bought it for me when I was three years old
from a door-to-door salesman. I don't know whether there are still
door-to-door Bible and Bible stories salesmen but they were around in my
childhood. And he bought this wonderful book which I still possess called
"Hurlburt's Picture Story of the Bible," and I had the book well before I
could read myself. My parents didn't read to me a great deal. But I thumbed
through this very thick book--it was about four inches thick--and looked
endlessly at these wonderful pictures, most of which were black and white but
some of which were in color, and they tended to be pictures done by 19th
century German painters, and they featured lots of sort of semidressed women
and men, you know, Delilah and Samson, and Deborah and her father, etc. It
may well have been the beginning of my whole interest in storytelling and
narrative that I sort of made up stories to go with the pictures, and then I,
of course, the minute I began in first and second grade to be able to read,
then I really went to it with a passion, but then I read a huge amount. It
wasn't just "Hurlburt's Picture Story of the Bible."

GROSS: What does it do for you when you look at that Bible book now, the
illustrated Bible book? Do you get the same--do you get like flashbacks to
your childhood or any of the same sensations that you first had when you first
looked at it?

Mr. PRICE: I literally do get flashbacks to my childhood, and I'm a bit
amused sometimes at how amazingly graphic the photographs are, the semiclothed
people, as I said, Delilah and Samson, for instance, being perfectly
acceptable as a book for children in the mid--early to mid-1930s. Now, of
course, it would be essentially impossible. You'd be arrested if you gave
such a thing to a child. Of course, I...

GROSS: How semidressed are they?

Mr. PRICE: Well, not literally, not literally, pornographically, but
certainly not fully clothed. Lots of unclothed arms and, of course, in the
case of men, you know, loincloths of extraordinary economy. No, no. Part of
my feeling about it now, as I said, is amusement. But a lot of it is just
great interest, and if you read the text, which was written by this man named
Hurlburt, it's amazing how he really doesn't suppress, you know, aspects of
the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian scriptures that a lot of us thought of
when we were in Sunday School as `the good parts,' that is the parts
concerning sexual relations and incest and adultery, etc. It's right there in
"Hurlburt's Illustrated Story of the Bible for Children."

GROSS: Now you had a vision when you were a child, when you were about six or
seven. You write about it in your book. Would you describe it?

Mr. PRICE: Yeah. We were living in what to me seemed like the country.
There were a lot of pine woods around us and a wonderful creek and all sorts
of animals, and I was essentially alone most of the time because I didn't have
any siblings then. And one day I was simply out there at the edge of these
woods, and I had this vision, which was really of a great wheel of nature in
which I saw and realized that everything that was, that is everything that I
was aware of at the age of five or six or seven, was all one thing. It was a
vision of the sort of unity of nature and that somehow that one thing was in
constant motion and was impelled by some sort of creative power. Now, you
know, the language in which I'm describing it to you and in which I describe
it in the book would not have been available to me in my preschool years but
that was the sort of--that was the intent and the purpose of what I saw.
Interestingly, just in the two or three weeks since the book has been
published, I've had letters from two people telling me that they had almost
identical sorts of visions in their childhood. They have both said, `But I
didn't tell anybody this.' And I'm certain that I didn't go racing indoors and
tell my mother or my father, and I don't know that it seemed very
extraordinary to me then.

GROSS: Well, you know, that's the funny thing about--like, for instance, in
Christianity, there's this thing about witnessing, right?

Mr. PRICE: Yeah.

GROSS: So to witness, you'd be, you know, proclaiming this vision, you'd be
talking about this vision. But there's also the urge to privacy or secrecy
with something like this because you don't want people to think that you're
crazy.

Mr. PRICE: Exactly. No, I published a book a few years about the whole
three-year bout with spinal cancer that I had in the mid-1980s, and I had the
only other vision I ever had in my life. I'm not a sort of nonstop visionary.
I've had two in 73 years, so I'm not really a frequent visionary. But the
other one I had described in this book about cancer, it's a vision of healing.

GROSS: Would you describe the vision that you had when you had your spinal
tumor, and this was a cancerous tumor that went a good deal down the length of
your spine and...

Mr. PRICE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and you--why don't you describe what your medical condition was
then and what the vision was?

Mr. PRICE: Right. Well, in the summer of 1984, it was discovered. The very
large tumor had produced almost no symptoms, and then suddenly it began
producing symptoms with great difficulty in walking and using my legs. And
then it was discovered that I had, beginning of my hairline and back--and I
have a fairly normal man's haircut, so I don't have the locks of Samson--but
beginning at the sort of more or less end of my hairline and down for about 11
inches, inside my vertebrae, in the spinal cord itself, there was this--there
was this very malignant tumor which had been in there about a great many
years. In fact, several of my doctors thought I had probably been born with
it, that it was probably congenital and that it had just developed very, very,
very slowly. At that point in American surgical history and amongst the
neurosurgeons of Duke Hospital, it was impossible to remove. They got about
10 percent of it and then had to surrender me to the tender mercies of
radiation. I had five weeks of radiation. I was warned that if I went with
the maximum dosage of radiation which they hoped to give me, that I stood a
very good chance of losing the use of my legs. And sure enough, within three
weeks after the end of the radiation, I had become paraplegic and have
remained so ever since.

However, a couple of days--I believe that's correct--certainly not a week, but
two or three days before the radiation was to begin, I was sitting up in bed
waiting for a friend to come from another bedroom in the house and get me up
and help me get dressed, and I just saw myself lying down by a very large
lake, which I realized was what's--what in the New Testament is called the Sea
of Galilee, and I realized that I was dressed in sort of modern American men's
clothes and all the men who were lying down around me were dressed in sort of
Jesus suits, and, all of a sudden, one of them got up and came toward me and
silently sort of beckoned me to follow him into the water, and I did, and we
wound up in this lake up to our waists. And in the way that one often can in
visions that I've read about, I could see myself as though I were in a sort of
mini-helicopter looming over the scene, and I could see my back and I could
see the very bad scar that was down my back and the sort of tattooed radiation
lines that had been drawn around that scar for the ra--to guide the radiation
when that was to begin. And this man, whom I realized was Jesus, was just
simply picking up handfuls of water out of the lake and pouring them over that
scar, and he said--the only thing he said initially--was `Your sins are
forgiven.' And I thought, `Well, that's the last thing I want to hear right
now,' and I said, `Am I also healed?' And as though I had extracted it from
him, perhaps rather against his will, he said, `That, too.' And he turned and
walked away. And that was the end of the vision.

GROSS: When the vision ended, did you test yourself to see, `Am I healed?'
And, you know, did you see...

Mr. PRICE: Well, clearly I was...

GROSS: ...did you see that it was something like literal and medical or
something more metaphoric?

Mr. PRICE: I didn't know what I thought it meant, and I didn't know how
seriously I could take it, and then, you know, the radiation began two or
three days later and rather quickly, I began to lose the use of my legs. I
was already--my legs were in bad shape already, after the surgery, and I began
rapidly to lose the use of those legs and was paraplegic in a matter of six
weeks or so after the beginning--I mean, within three weeks after the end of
the radiation. So why did I go through with the radiation if I believed that
Jesus had healed me in some sense with this vision? I don't know.

I had a fascinating letter from a woman in Mexico shortly after I published
the book about that moment, that included that moment, and she said, `Why did
you go ahead with that radiation, which may have left you crippled, when you
had, in fact, already been healed?' And the answer is I don't know why I did.
I did it because all my doctors were telling me to do it. But, meanwhile, at
that time, one of my most respected physicians told my brother that I probably
had 18 months to live at best. I wouldn't let them give me a prognosis
because I knew if they said, you know, X number of weeks or months or years,
I'd probably, you now, outrace the prognosis just to prove I could. And that
was 22 years ago.

BIANCULLI: Author Reynolds Price. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI: Back to Terry's 2006 interview with Reynolds Price. He had been
telling Terry about the vision of healing he had over 20 years ago, before he
began radiation for a tumor he had on his spine.

GROSS: So when you had this vision, did you tell your doctors?

Mr. PRICE: No, I didn't tell my doctor, and I don't know--I don't know whom
I told first. Interestingly, again, shortly after I published the book about
those cancer years and mentioned that vision, I got a wonderful letter from an
old, very old Jesuit in India, and he had read the book, and he said that he
trusted that I knew I had had a great privilege. He said, `You have seen our
Lord, and perhaps you would tell me,' he said, `how he looks.' And I could
only answer in a way that might have sounded scoffing or comical. I said, `He
looks, father, he looks just like his picture.' How would I have recognized
him if he'd, you know, if he'd been seven feet tall and wearing a Harris tweed
jacket and corduroy trousers or something. No, he looked like Jesus in
Renaissance paintings of Jesus. He was standing out there. He had no shirt
on nor did I. We were in some sort of clothes that people would wear to wade
out into a lake, and he was sort of putting these handfuls of water down my
spine.

GROSS: So he didn't look just like the Jesus in the Bible book you got as a
kid?

Mr. PRICE: A lot like that, yeah.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

Mr. PRICE: Because, again, in that book he looked...

GROSS: Oh, I guess those are...

Mr. PRICE: ...pretty much like...

GROSS: Those are art...

Mr. PRICE: ...the traditional Jesus.

GROSS: Yeah. Right.

Mr. PRICE: Yeah.

GROSS: OK. So, how do you interpret the whole concept of vision now? You
know, there's a lot of like medical explanations of it, including, you know,
like epileptics are said to have certain visions. There's, of course,
pharmaceutically, you know, drug-induced hallucinations.

Mr. PRICE: Right.

GROSS: There are hallucinations that can come with like fasting or illness.

Mr. PRICE: Yeah.

GROSS: So like, of all--you know, like how do you interpret the fact that
you've had two visions?

Mr. PRICE: Well, the thing that's most impressive to me, if I think about my
own visions is, that in 73 years, I've only had these two. I haven't run
around the landscape envisioning things. And after I had this healing vision
of me being--my spinal scar being washed by handfuls of water applied by
Jesus--after that happened, I had another couple of years of very frightening
cancer. Because as I said they were not able to remove it surgically, and the
radiation--I had already been given all the radiation I could ever have. And
so I was just at the mercy of the tumor at that point, and it got really bad
over the next two years. But in those two years I never had another
consolatory, visionary experience of any sort. So my assumption is that the
vision came from outside my own sensibility, because I think had my mind in
any sense been cheering me up by inventing a healing vision of Jesus, why
wouldn't I have had something else in that next two or three very scary years?

GROSS: How do you explain that you have this vision of being healed when you
still have like two more years of like really serious, like pain and cancer
crisis and a whole lifetime following that--a whole remaining lifetime...

Mr. PRICE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...of being paraplegic? I mean, that wouldn't fit the classic
definition of being healed.

Mr. PRICE: It wouldn't, no, and I've found out that if I were--happened to
be in Lourdes, France, that it would not be accepted as a miraculous healing.
You know, Flannery O'Connor went to Lourdes, which I've always thought was
very moving but she was not healed there. She died shortly after going there
of lupus, though--despite her extreme devout Catholicism. I don't explain it.
I just know that it happened, and I know that--what is it? I think there's an
old hymn, `God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.' That's all I
can say. And I don't go on platforms presenting myself as a visionary, though
I have indeed mentioned it in two or three books.

GROSS: Do you think that life would be too unbearable without faith?

Mr. PRICE: You know, I've never thought of that. Because I never came
really close to losing it. I've realized that I was being almost tortured by
what I thought was God, if not tortured, but I just went on. I mean, I
once--when I was very, very--in very bad shape with this cancer in the summer
of '84, as paraplegia was really becoming inevitable for me, I remember lying
in bed one night and just saying, you know, to the dark, `How much more of
this is there going to be? How much farther is this going to go?' And I think
if you'd been there with your tape recorder, you wouldn't have heard it with
your own ears, you wouldn't have heard it. But I distinctly heard something
that sounded like someone else's voice, a man's voice, and it just said,
`More.' And there was more, and I still think that somebody sent--that was
probably a communication of some sort. But that's it.

I mean, I'm not weird. I'm not religiously weird. And I'm about the most
unmissionary soul you could possibly find, which is probably a contradiction
of saying that I'm religious, but I don't feel that I have any right whatever
to go out into the world and try to change the morals and the ethics of anyone
else, unless that person is trying to hurt me.

GROSS: Reynolds Price. Thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. PRICE: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Reynolds Price, speaking to Terry Gross in 2006. His latest book
"Letter to a Goldchild Concerning Faith" is now in paperback.

Coming up, film critic David Edelstein on the new Coen brothers movie. This
is FRESH AIR.

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

Review: David Edelstein on Coen brothers movie "No Country For
Old Men"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Before his best-selling end-of-the-road novel "The Road," Cormac McCarthy
wrote "No Country for Old Men." Now Joel and Ethan Coen have adapted that book
into a movie. David Edelstein has a review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: The first nine-tenths of Joel and Ethan Coen's "No
Country for Old Men" is the best thing they've done, with the possible
exception of their stoner classic "The Big Lebowski." The brothers are known
for joke-y, post-modern thrillers and comedies, marvelous or annoying,
depending on your perspective.

This is different. It's somber, straight, subdued yet explosively violent,
and so tense it's almost unbearable. The movie is a faithful adaptation of
Cormac McCarthy's downbeat novel with the great sardonic dialogue intact and
the overinflated descriptions discarded. Stuff like, "That god lives in
silence who has scoured the following land with salt and ash."

It opens with shots of those mid-Texas deserts and mountains, a malignant
landscape, while an aging sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones, narrates in
plaintive tones. He can't begin to comprehend the horrors young people
inflict on one another nowadays compared to when his dad was a sheriff and
mostly didn't wear a gun. And the horrors to come are indeed horrific.

He and his deputy are summoned to a scene of slaughter in the desert. Mexican
drug smugglers shot to pieces along with their dogs.

(Soundbite of "No Country for Old Men")

Mr. GARRET DILLAHUNT: (As Wendell) Well, this is just a deal gone wrong,
isn't it?

Mr. TOMMY LEE JONES: (As Ed Tom Bell) Yeah. Appears to have been a glitch
or two.

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Wendell) What calibres you got there, sheriff?

Mr. JONES: (As Ed Tom Bell) Nine millimeter, a couple 45...(unintelligible).
Somebody unloaded on that thing with a shotgun.

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Wendell) How come you reckon the coyotes ain't been at
them?

Mr. JONES: (As Ed Tom Bell) I don't know.

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Wendell) I think we're looking at more than one fracas.

Mr. JONES: (As Ed Tom Bell) That Mexican brown dope.

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Wendell) This was earlier, getting set to trade, then,
whoa, differences. You know, might not even have been no money.

Mr. JONES: (As Ed Tom Bell) That's possible.

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Wendell) But you don't believe it.

Mr. JONES: (As Ed Tom Bell) No. Probably I don't.

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Wendell) It's a mess, ain't it, sheriff?

Mr. JONES: (As Ed Tom Bell) If it ain't, it'll do until the mess gets here.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: Before those policemen got there, the carnage was discovered
by a trailer park loser, played by an exceedingly likeable Josh Brolin. He
finds a suitcase with millions of dollars and decides, as dumb guys often do
in this sort of movie, to make off with it. It isn't long before he's tracked
by Mexican assassins and, more chillingly, a psychopathic terminator played by
Javier Bardem, who murders thugs and bystanders alike with a kind of air gun
used to blast the brains out of cows.

Sometimes he flips a coin to determine if someone will live or die, as with an
old gas station owner he made the mistake of asking how he was.

(Soundbite of "No Country for Old Men")

Mr. JAVIER BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) What's the most you ever lost in a
coin toss?

Mr. GENE JONES: (As Gas Station Proprietor) Sir?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) The most you ever lost in a coin toss?

Mr. JONES: (As Gas Station Proprietor) I don't know. I couldn't say.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) Call it.

Mr. JONES: (As Gas Station Proprietor) Call it? For what?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) Just call it.

Mr. JONES: (As Gas Station Proprietor) Well, we need to know what we're
calling it for here.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) You need to call it. I can't call it for
you. It wouldn't be fair.

Mr. JONES: (As Gas Station Proprietor) I didn't put nothing up.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) Yes, you did. You've been putting it up your
whole life. You just didn't know it. You know what date is on this coin?

Mr. JONES: (As Gas Station Proprietor) No.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) 1958. It's been traveling 22 years to get
here. And now it's here and it's either heads or tails, and you have to say
it. Call it.

Mr. JONES: (As Gas Station Proprietor) Well, look, I need to know what I
stand to win.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) Everything.

Mr. JONES: (As Gas Station Proprietor) How's that?

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) You stand to win everything. Call it.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: The Coens' artistry is in every frame of "No Country for Old
Men," from shots of corpses that bring out the full obscenity of murder to the
apocalyptic shootouts in which the bad guys' relentless gun blasts come from
nowhere and everywhere. The actors' faces are indelible, especially Woody
Harrelson as a cowboy-hatted bounty hunter with a doofus air of infallibility.
And, of course, Bardem. You might have nightmares about his dark, freaky
stare and the extended foreplay before his killings.

I said the film was nine-tenths a masterpiece, but the ending brought me up
short for reasons I won't go into. What I can say is that it's closer than
anything else in the film to McCarthy's fatalistic tone, and that that tone
doesn't entirely mesh with the Coens' universe in which their actors bring so
much soul to characters McCarthy treats as puppets.

You'll want to talk about that ending when you see "No Country for Old Men,"
which you should, as long as you're prepared for its essential cruelty, which
is presented as the way of the world. Twenty-three years ago, the Coens made
a splash with a splattery Texas noir called "Blood Simple." Now they've
returned to that milieu and emerged with something richer and stranger, in
which death has a heartbreaking sting.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

(Credits)

BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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

Newscast: Country hall of famer Hank Thompson dies at age 82
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

We're going to close today with some music from country hall of famer Hank
Thompson, @ who died this week from lung cancer at the age of 82. Thompson
was a Texas native who blended Western swing with harder-edged honky tonk.
Here is with one of his most popular songs. It's the 1960 hit "Six-pack To
Go."

(Soundbite of "Six-pack To Go")

Mr. HANK THOMPSON: (Singing) Hey, Mr. Bartender,
Please don't be so slow
I got time for one more round and a six-pack to go
Tomorrow morning's Sunday
I'm gonna be feeling low
So please, please, bartender
I want a six-pack to go

I've been a-drinking all day long
Painting up the town
I've done spent my whole paycheck
A-honky-tonkin' round
Well, I don't have enough to pay my rent
I ain't gonna worry though
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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