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David Milch: Trying His 'Luck' With Horse Racing

The new HBO drama Luck examines the inside world of horse racing through the lives of thoroughbred breeders, owners, jockeys and gamblers. Series creator David Milch spent much of his childhood at the track and has struggled in the past with gambling addiction.

33:46

Other segments from the episode on January 25, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 25, 2012: Interview with David Milch; Review of the Smiths' CD box set "Complete"; Review of the television show "Touch."

Transcript

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Guest: David Milch

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's in New York today for an appearance on "The Colbert Report" on Comedy Central. Our guest today, David Milch, has a history of creating groundbreaking television. The first TV script he wrote for "Hill Street Blues" won an Emmy. He co-created "NYPD Blue" and created the HBO series "Deadwood," known for its colorful characters, intricate plotlines and distinctive use of language that was both antiquated and profane. Milch has won four Primetime Emmys and a host of other awards.

Milch is the creator and executive producer of the new series "Luck," which premieres Sunday on HBO. In "Luck," Milch brings his gift for re-creating the language, visual details and the social relations that capture a particular culture to the world of horseracing.

Its central character, played by Dustin Hoffman, has emerged from prison, determined to own a championship racehorse and get even with old associates. But the episodes are richly populated with colorful characters from the track: trainers, owners, jockeys, agents and, of course, gamblers. I spoke to David Milch yesterday.

Well, David Milch, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, this is a world that you know well. I mean, you've owned - and - you owned racehorses, and I know that you, as a kid, your dad owned horses, right, and was at the track.

DAVID MILCH: My dad owned a few horses, and my first exposure to the races began when I was five years old. My dad took me out to Saratoga, which is a couple of hundred miles from where we lived in Buffalo, New York, on the other side of the state.

But it was very much of a charged experience for me in that my dad's own feelings toward the racetrack were highly ambivalent and were communicated in all of their doubleness to me. The first thing he informed me was that he knew that I was a degenerate gambler - which made me quite farsighted since I was five years old - but that it would be impossible for me to gamble because you had to be 18 to make a bet. On the other hand, he had arranged with the waiter, Max, to run my bets for me. And therefore, I would be able to bet. And with that set of mixed messages, I was off.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: Was he kidding? What did he mean when he called you a degenerate gambler?

MILCH: No, I think he was projecting. My dad himself was the son of the eldest of 10 children. His mother was the eldest of 10 children, and he grew up with uncles who were more or less his contemporaries, and they were - my uncles, my great-uncles, his uncles - pretty much all in the rackets.

My dad - because he was of the next generation, despite the fact that he was a contemporary of his uncles in many cases - was not allowed to go to the racetrack. He was - in fact, there's a story, which I have no reason to disbelieve, which was that no one was supposed to fraternize with my dad in a way that would lead him astray. And he was come upon once shooting pool on the second floor of the Williams Street Pool Ball in Buffalo, New York.

And my great-uncle, Hutch(ph), who was the guy who came upon him, picked up the guy who was shooting pool with him and threw him through the window and broke his neck, which I should think imposed it on my dad's consciousness as a sign of disapproval.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MILCH: In any case, his own feelings about gambling were very much mixed, and my brother, who was two years older than I, was raised to be a physician, as my dad was. But secretly, I think my dad nourished hopes for me in an area which had been denied him. And so he started sneaking me out to the racetrack and - with all of the complicated messagery(ph) that ensued.

DAVIES: So he was a successful physician, and he wasn't going to the track just to get you there, right? I mean, he liked to play the ponies.

MILCH: He liked to play the ponies himself, but only in the months of August, only at Saratoga and only with a compound of strict regulations, all of which he transferred to me in terms of recognition of the degeneracy of the enterprise and the disaster that it almost inevitably led to.

DAVIES: Right. And when you say a compound of strict regulations, you mean betting limits, that kind of thing?

MILCH: All kinds of limits of that sort, yeah, and - so that it was a very - it was a charged and mysterious environment.

DAVIES: I wondered if you can recall some of your earliest experiences at the track when you were a kid. What was it like?

MILCH: Oh, I remember the first ticket that I ever bought. I mentioned that I had commissioned - that I'd dispatched Max the waiter, and he bet $2 for me on a horse called North Quest. And I remembered that the horse paid $2.80. And when I returned with the ticket and I showed it to my dad, there was a mix of emotions in his features, which was - I guess scary would be the only way to describe it.

And he just turned away from me and said: Well, go get your dough. And I suppose, in a lot of ways, I've been trying to figure out what that means ever since.

DAVIES: Well, let's talk about this HBO series "Luck." I mean, early in the series, you introduce us to some of the characters in the racing world. You know, it has its own ecology. There are owners and trainers and jockeys and agents, and four guys who are a band of gamblers in this series.

I thought we'd listen to a clip, here. This is the four guys, led by Marcus, who is in a wheelchair and sucks frequently from an oxygen mask. He's played by Kevin Dunn. And this is a clip of them talking about bets they're going to place on a horse. Two of the guys, Marcus and Jerry, seem to know quite a lot about it - the other two, not so much. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LUCK")

UNDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) So give me the seven, the 2-3-5-6-8, $10 try, seven with a 2-6 cold for $50, $200 daily double, 7-7. That's $500.

UNDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) Give me a $50 double wheel seven-all and the cold 7-2-6 try for $100. That's $800.

UNDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as character) (unintelligible) mimic 500, plus pick-three, us with (unintelligible) for five bucks.

UNDENTIFIED MAN #4: (as character) That for me, too: 500, mimicking Marcus, and Lonnie's - your...

#2: (as character) That's $300.

#1: (as character) Can we get to the window, please? Does it occur to you people that by mimicking my play, you reduce my perspective payout?

#2: (as character) You know, I never thought of that.

DAVIES: And that's a scene from the new series "Luck," which premieres this Sunday, created by our guest David Milch. Tell us about these four guys. I mean, are they - do they come from people you knew at the track?

MILCH: Yeah, very much so, and they're called degenerates. And they find their - the rhythms and textures of their day in gambling and in associated behaviors, and mostly importantly, they regard themselves as outsiders to what would be the normal course of a regular guy's day.

DAVIES: Now, do they arrive...

MILCH: What they do is gamble.

DAVIES: Right. I mean, are they at the track all day? I mean, is it...

MILCH: Yeah, they're at the track all day, and they live in fleabag motels. And at night, they spend their time studying the racing form.

DAVIES: And can you make a living doing that, or do they have jobs and then disappear for gambling?

MILCH: You can make a living, although it's very unlikely. And this is a story of four guys who, through a fortunate set of circumstances, get lucky and win a jackpot of over several million dollars.

DAVIES: Right. Now, you observed guys like this. Were you ever at the point where you could spend all day at a track, or wanted to?

MILCH: Oh, hell yes, and have done for, dare I say, certainly months, and more honestly, years at a time.

DAVIES: Can you explain its draw? I mean, like, what happens if you go away?

MILCH: It's an alternate reality, and the - if you'll recall the circumstances under which I first came to experience a racetrack, that was a kind of concentrated and elaborately mixed set of messages that I was receiving about what - theoretically, what I was compelled to do because of my nature and how I was going to spend my time.

And I must say that once one enters into that world, there is - your chemistry changes in the same way chemistry changes when you become a drug addict. And your - the reward systems are very different.

And the paradox is that as all of this alteration is going on, you still have the opportunities and challenges of being a human being. That's the rest of the story: how to be a human being and, really, the fascination with how these people conduct their lives is what engaged my imagination.

DAVIES: We're speaking with David Milch. He created the series "Luck," which premieres Sunday on HBO. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with David Milch. He created the series "Deadwood." He also created the series "Luck," which premieres Sunday on HBO.

Let's talk about another character, here. Joey Rathburn, he is an agent who represents jockeys. He's played by Richard Kind. And we're going to hear a scene here where he's gotten one of his young, apprentice jockeys to - a chance to ride a horse for the legendary trainer Turo Escalante, who is at the track. And he screwed up by talking too much about how good the horse was. Escalante complained to the agent, Joey, that this kid was talking too much about that, how fast the horse would run, which might undermine some of Escalante's plans.

So the scene we hear here is where we see the agent, Joey, encountering this young jockey, who's played by Tom Payne. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LUCK")

TOM PAYNE: (as Leon Micheaux) Hey, Joey. I met Mr. Escalante at his barn.

RICHARD KIND: (as Joey Rathburn) Oh, yeah? How'd that go?

PAYNE: (as Leon) Good. You know, he's foreign. He's a little hard to understand.

KIND: (as Joey) Yeah, well, you did some job.

PAYNE: (as Leon) I did?

KIND: (as Joey) Yeah, pissing him off with your wise-ass chirping about how good you thought this horse was going to run today.

PAYNE: (as Leon) Well, I was just saying something to say something.

KIND: (as Joey) That's what how-is-the-weather's for.

PAYNE: (as Leon) He's a great trainer. I wanted to have something to say.

KIND: (as Joey) Suppose he's making a bet. You think he wants some big-mouth riding his horse?

PAYNE: (as Leon) He betting, Mr. Escalante?

KIND: (as Joey) I don't know, and if you want to know, I don't want to represent you. You're a bug. You bite everything hard, and you don't chirp about what ain't your business.

DAVIES: And that is Richard Kind and Tom Payne in the new series "Luck," which premieres Sunday on HBO, created by our guest, David Milch. What a great character, Joey Rathburn. Is that - that stutter, is that something you heard at the track?

MILCH: I was a stammerer when I was a kid, and my name was Dudi(ph), because I couldn't say David.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MILCH: But no, I didn't know anyone literally who was a stammerer. But the difficulty of communication, I think, thematically is what conjoins those two scenes that you've represented: the mysteries of language and what is or isn't meant to be understood. And that's part of the fascination and, obviously, the compelling mystery of that world.

DAVIES: Right. The agent calls the jockey a bug. What does he mean?

MILCH: A bug is an apprentice jockey. An apprentice jockey is a jockey who has just begun to ride. And the way that in the racing form, which is the publication which shows the entries every day, the way that - when a horse is being ridden by an apprentice jockey, there is an asterisk next to the apprentice jockey's name, and that asterisk looks like a bug on the page. So that's where the nickname comes from.

DAVIES: Tell us about jockeys. I mean, they're a unique breed, right? They lead a tough life. Yeah.

MILCH: They sure are. They're great, great athletes and ferocious competitors and disciplined by the - weight is a compelling and everyday fixation. If a jockey weighs too much, that's going to be reflected in his horse's performance. And so, typically, jockeys are always dieting and more in order to keep their weight down.

They - again, addiction, speed, every kind of way of keeping weight off is used, and - in addition to which, of course, they're in the sweat box all the time. And it's an awfully, awfully tough way to make a terrifically good living.

DAVIES: When you were a kid, did you know jockeys?

MILCH: Oh, sure, sure, very well. And, in fact, I used to get smuggled into the track. There was a trainer named Slim Sully(ph) who used to help me get into the track when I wasn't there with my dad, and he introduced me as a Russian exercise boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: You needed somebody to sneak you in, why, because you were underage and you couldn't go without your dad?

MILCH: Oh, I was - well, from the time I started sneaking out to the track outside Buffalo, I'd go hitchhike across the border into Canada, where the races were. And from the time I was seven or eight years old, I was going to the track on my own.

DAVIES: Wow. Now, I also read that you would go to your basement and put on one of your dad's fedoras, light up one of his Hav-a-Tampa cigars and read racing forms. True?

MILCH: Yeah. And they were expired racing forms, just to add to the futility of the moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: So what was going on there?

MILCH: I was imitating my father, and the mixture of admiration and awe and fear, all of those elements cohabit, I think, in the portrayal of all of the characters, but especially the character of Dustin Hoffman in the show.

DAVIES: Yeah. Did you get caught sneaking out to the track?

MILCH: Oh, sure. I'd get whacked around a little bit on occasion. But it was also a source of great pride to my dad that I was doing it. Even as he was speaking one way, you could see in his eyes something else, and don't forget he loved the track himself.

Even as he was rebuking me, you know, he was the doc, and he was taking care of - you know, we used to have - I was just thinking about this. Did you ever hear of the Appalachian - there was a series of arrests that were made - there was a gangland meeting in Upstate New York in the mid-'50s, and there were hearings held in the aftermath by the Kefauver Committee.

And my dad would give operations to these mobsters who didn't want to have to testify. He would give them hernia operations so they wouldn't have to testify at the hearings.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MILCH: And I would hang around with them in the basement in the aftermath, and that - you see the sort of doubleness in the atmosphere, in the domestic atmosphere, where it was regarded with both misgiving and a kind of admiration.

DAVIES: David Milch is creator and executive producer of the new series "Luck," which premieres Sunday on HBO. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Here's another clip from "Luck," from the second episode. Chester "Ace" Bernstein, played by Dustin Hoffman, has just gotten out of prison and has his eyes on a racetrack he wants to take over to expand his gambling business.

But since he's convicted felon, he can't be the owner of record, so he set up a meeting with associates of a former business partner to explain how the deal would work.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LUCK")

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") Shall we start? The U.S. economy's in the (beep) toilet. The New York bankers, with their three-card-Monty bond swaps have brought the whole (beep) walls down, tremendous structural damage, the tax base, unemployment, plus - my impression - tremendous, tremendous compression of the leisure gaming dollar.

UNDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) One hundred percent accurate.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") Well, then why look to buy a racetrack with all the added arguments against - the churn is slow, the unexploited square footage, the stables, the racing surface, the grassy grounds and the flowers? Because, in California, established and passed by the legislature, horseracing is legal, and casino gaming isn't - leaving aside for a second the (beep) rain-dancers. And, like the whole state economy, the track is desperate for new streams of revenue: the perfect Trojan horse.

MAN: (as character) To bring in slots and table games.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") I put up the money. Your name's on the signs. Your end's 10 points, plus you've got a 12-month option up to 39 more - my purchase price, plus my costs.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MAN: (as character) This isn't just some (beep) cost. It's a full-court press in Sacramento.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") The last I understood, option means your choice, 12 months stands for a year.

MAN: (as character) Here comes the famous Bernstein temper.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") What you get for your 10 points, if you decide to nix the option, you get for us being friends.

MAN: (as character) And for our name on the signs.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") Because I'm a (beep) felon. Anything else you want to explain to me?

MAN: (as character) No.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest is David Milch, who co-created the TV series "NYPD Blue" and created the HBO series "Deadwood." Milch's a new project is the series "Luck," which premieres Sunday on HBO. Milch is the show's creator and executive producer. It's set in the world of horseracing, and is filled with colorful characters from the track.

Let's talk about the Dustin Hoffman character, who's at the center of the story...

MILCH: Sure.

DAVIES: ...name is Chester Bernstein, known as Ace, who, as the series opens, has just finished a three-year prison term - taken a fall to protect some other guys who we learn more about as the series progresses. And this is a scene when he's sitting around with his driver and good friend Gus, who's played by Dennis Farina. Ace has had Gus buy a racehorse, a $2 million racehorse. Gus had to hold (technical difficulties) because Ace, as a felon, is barred from owning a horse. Here, they're back in a hotel room at the end of the day, and Gus has just returned from finally seeing the horse and is speaking with the trainer, Escalante, who's going to be working with him. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LUCK")

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") So, how did it go?

DENNIS FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) Good. The horse moved his bowels. I took that as a positive. When he landed, he was all bound up.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") But generally, how'd he look?

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) What do I know, Ace? All four of his legs reached the ground.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") Escalante was satisfied?

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) Yeah, he was satisfied. He was grinning, pinching his cheek.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") Those screws at Victorville, they could buy Cadillacs what I pay to let his race tapes through the mailroom. That horse is all heart. He gets by you, forget about going by him.

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) Roosters and birds, Ace, and goats. You'd take yourself for being on a farm out there.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") Oh, I know.

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) I'm saying, beside the horses.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") Oh, beside them.

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) Yeah. I saw a goat out there, had nuts the size of pumpkins.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") I hope to Christ he was bowlegged.

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) He was bowlegged. How the hell did you know that?

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") How else would he walk around? Escalante?

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) Desi Arnaz.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") Some (bleep) trainer. I followed him 25 years, watching him climb up the ladder from nothing.

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) That regard, he reminds me of you.

HOFFMAN: (as Chester "Ace" Bernstein") 7:45, I'm falling asleep, here.

FARINA: (as Gus Demitriou) You had a full day.

DAVIES: And that's Dennis Farina and Dustin Hoffman, reading dialogue written by our guest David Milch, the creator of the new series "Luck," which is set at the race track and premieres Sunday on HBO.

Now, Ace, in addition to being a horse owner, is a tough guy, but, I mean, it seems a guy who uses financial leverage rather than muscle in the main. I mean, is he a mob guy? Is he a businessman, or businesslike mob guy?

MILCH: Keep going.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MILCH: A businesslike mob guy sounds right to me. What distinguishes Bernstein from the men among whom he customarily moves is his willingness, in fact, his interest in re-engaging with animals. And he doesn't himself quite understand it, but it becomes the instrument for him of a life change, to the extent that he's a protagonist, the change one hopes occurs in the audience, as well.

DAVIES: I've always wondered how much of the appeal of racing is, you know, seeing these magnificent creatures, the horses, and how much of it is gambling. I mean, is a horse that wins races really more beautiful than the one that finishes eighth?

MILCH: They tend to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MILCH: But, in fact, what you're - you have your finger on something which is of crucial thematic importance: the alienation of spirit that occurs in the woundings - what we can call the particulars of the upbringing of these characters - receives an opportunity to be ameliorated, to be improved by their exposure to these animals. And it's a mystery to them, but it's also a blessing and, in the deepest sense, it's their luck.

DAVIES: Now, Ace is an interesting character. In what ways is Ace like your dad?

MILCH: Well, he - a very strict guy, and very much given to routine. There are paradoxes in Bernstein that were shared with my dad of enormous capacity for kindness and, simultaneously, a tremendous distance.

DAVIES: Did you talk with Dustin Hoffman about your father?

MILCH: Not too much. You know, it's a little bit like telling the Mississippi how to run.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MILCH: He brings - Dustin is as pure an athlete as I've ever encountered, and he works from the outside in in certain key ways, and I didn't want to interfere with any of that process.

DAVIES: There was a fascinating profile of you in The New Yorker a few years back. And one of the things that struck me was a description of your writing process. I guess this was when you were working on "Deadwood." And the story was you would lie on a floor on your back dictating your thoughts, while someone transcribed them. There were a couple of other writers in the room and even a couple of interns. And the result was this long stream of your thoughts from which terrific scripts would eventually emerge. Do you still do that?

MILCH: Yeah, that's, for better or worse, that's the way I do it. The lying on the back is, I suppose, the least idiosyncratic of the elements.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MILCH: But I just have a bad back. And I was fortunate enough when I was in college to be taught by Robert Penn Warren, who made a tremendous difference in my life and certainly in my writing. And that's why I try to have other writers, and especially interns, in the room all the time, so that - to make that process accessible to them. And frankly, the rest of it doesn't sound that strange to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: OK. And you won't sit at a computer, because just the process speaking...

MILCH: The same thing that happens with the corruption of the symbol, I feel like the voice is like the horse. Now I know that sounds ridiculous, but what I mean is that, to the extent that I type stuff and rewrite it, I am mechanizing a process which ought to be somatic. And so I try to minimize as much as - I watch the words come up on the screen, and then I suggest a change, but I try not to use my hands in the process.

DAVIES: So when you're editing a script that's a draft of a script, same thing. You prefer to...

MILCH: Yeah. I dictate it.

DAVIES: You dictate it.

MILCH: Yeah.

DAVIES: Mm-hmm. The dialogue in the series "Deadwood" was so distinctive. I mean, it's profane and, you know, kind of antiquated, almost Shakespearean, and people commented on that a lot. Do you want to talk a little about finding the language and the voice for this series, the voice of the track?

MILCH: Yeah. The - so much of language for me consists of what is evasive and circumlocuitous(ph). And to the extent that the numbers - you used, for example, at the very beginning of the show, a segment where - that consisted really of give me the four, the six, the six, four, three, the six, four - in other words, whatever emotional process had gone into that character's selecting those numbers is obfuscated. So it provides a different challenge for the writer, because that process of ellipses and circumlocution has already been neutralized by the fact that the character's going to choose to use a number rather than words. So it was left, in some measure, to the camera to accomplish in "Luck" what I had tried to accomplish verbally, for the most part, in "Deadwood."

DAVIES: Well, David Milch, it's been great to have you back. Thanks so much.

MILCH: Thank you, sir.

DAVIES: David Milch is creator and executive producer of the new series "Luck," which premieres Sunday on HBO. Coming up, Ed Ward reviews a collection of the work of the band The Smiths. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: They didn't have many big hits. And in the beginning, when it would have made a difference, they didn't even make videos. In the 1980s, when post-punk extravagance was the name of the game, they dared to call themselves The Smiths, as if to pretend they were just an ordinary bunch of guys, and yet they were one of the defining groups of their era.

With the release of their complete works, rock historian Ed Ward has the occasion to look back and try and figure out what made them so important.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALF A PERSON")

THE SMITHS: (Singing) Call me morbid, call me pale. I've spent six years on your trail, six long years on your trail. Call me morbid, call me pale. I've spent six years on your trail, six full years of my life on your trail. And if you have five seconds to spare, then I'll tell you the story of my life. Sixteen, clumsy and shy, I went to London and I, I booked myself in at the YWCA. I said, I like it here, Can I stay? I like it here. Can I stay? Do you have a vacancy for a back-scrubber?

ED WARD, BYLINE: When Steven Patrick Morrissey was 13, he was watching "The Old Grey Whistle Test," a BBC rock television show, when the New York Dolls came on. Later, he said that it was my first real emotional experience. It was hardly his last. Growing up awkward, tall and shy in suburban Manchester, he was the archetypal kid who didn't fit in, writing poetry and letters to the British rock press, disagreeing articulately with their critics.

Years before, Manchester had lost out to Liverpool as Britain's provincial rock capital. But with the arrival of punk, it snatched the crown back. Morrissey joined a punk band called the Nosebleeds briefly, but he had other ideas. In May 1982, he read that a writer for Record Mirror named Johnny Marr, a guitarist who'd been in a couple of bands, was looking for a lyricist. The two met and hit it off immediately, and a year later, they'd put together a band, had a couple of gigs, been signed to London's Rough Trade Records and started releasing singles. It took a couple of them, but they eventually had a hit, of sorts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?")

SMITHS: (Singing) All men have secrets, and here is mine. So let it be known, for we have been through hell and high tide. That means I can rely on you. And yet you start to recoil. Heavy words are so lightly thrown. But still, I'd leap in front of a flying bullet for you. So what difference does it make?

WARD: This wasn't pop music as we knew it, by any means, although a superficially similar band, R.E.M., was operating in the United States: an odd vocalist matched with a guitarist who could seemingly do anything. Unlike Michael Stipe, though, Morrissey didn't cloak his lyrics in ambiguity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLIAM, IT WAS REALLY NOTHING")

SMITHS: (Singing) The rain falls hard on a humdrum town. This town has dragged you down. Oh, the rain falls hard on a humdrum town. This town has dragged you down. Oh, no, and everybody's got to live their life. And God knows I've got to live mine. God knows I've got to live mine. William, William, it was really nothing. William, William, it was really nothing. It was nothing.

WARD: Morrissey claimed to be celibate, although the British pop press was skeptical. The slowly increasing number of fans didn't care though. Some of them were drawn to the confessional songwriting, some to the guitar sounds. For instance, on the B-side of "William, It Was Really Nothing" was this gem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW SOON IS NOW")

SMITHS: (Singing) I am the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar. And son and heir of nothing in particular. You shut your mouth. How can you say I go about things the wrong way? I am human and I need to be loved. Just like everybody else does.

WARD: The Smiths were also lucky to have a rhythm section like bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, who seemed to navigate the odd twists and turns of Johnny Marr's melodies with ease. The Smiths were also masters of marketing. Each of their singles and albums had, on the cover, an icon of filmdom, his or her photograph manipulated by Morrissey and Rough Trade's art director, Jo Slee.

Terence Stamp, Elvis Presley, Shelagh Delaney and James Dean were among the cover boys and girls who gave a new Smiths release a distinctive look. And it was a good thing that there was a distinctive look, because after their second album, "Meat is Murder," took aim at some social issues, it became clear that Marr's melodies were pretty similar, and that Morrissey's great subject was himself, take it or leave it.

What happened next was complicated. The band slowly gained momentum with the fans, at least in Britain. Their third album, "The Queen is Dead," is probably the high point of the band's career, released in June 1986 after a long and unexplained delay.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE IS A LIGHT THAT NEVER GOES OUT")

SMITHS: (Singing) Take me out tonight where there's music and there's people and they're young and alive. Driving in your car I never, never want to go home because I haven't got one anymore. Take me out...

WARD: By 1987, the band was big enough that it had to sign with EMI in order to meet the demand for its records - and immediately everything fell apart. Johnny Marr had been working nonstop both with The Smiths and with other bands, and he realized he was about to have a breakdown. He quit the band, and within a few months The Smiths were no more.

Well, that's not strictly true. Their cult was growing in America, and it was rampant in Britain. They'd released a lot of singles and B-sides which hadn't shown up on albums, and their record companies set about repackaging them. And they've influenced pop culture disproportionately.

Smiths phrases turn up everywhere, from the "Meat is Murder" meme to Douglas Coupland's novel "Girlfriend in a Coma," which is a Smiths song, to a poster for a club event this past weekend which I saw emblazoned with the words "Hang the DJ." The Smiths are dead. Long live The Smiths.

DAVIES: Ed Ward lives in France. He reviewed "The Smiths Complete" collection, now repackaged for CD and vinyl.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: When Kiefer Sutherland ended his very long, very intense days as Jack Bauer on the Fox series "24," few people, including Sutherland himself, expected him to be starring in another TV series right away. But tonight, in a special sneak preview of a new Fox series that will begin March 19th, Sutherland returns to television.

The series is called "Touch," and Sutherland plays the father of an 11-year-old son who has some significant disabilities, and some very significant abilities, as well. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The new Fox series "Touch" doesn't begin with Kiefer Sutherland, who plays a father - a widower - raising a withdrawn preteen son with behavioral problems. It begins, instead, with the son - Jake, played by David Mazouz - providing the narration that opens the series. By the time the opening narration is over, you already know you're watching something a little different.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "TOUCH")

DAVID MAZOUZ: (as Jake) The ratio is always the same: 1 to 1.618 over and over and over again. The patterns, mathematical in design, are hidden in plain sight. You just have to know where to look. Things most people see as chaos actually follow subtle laws of behavior. Galaxies, plants, seashells, these patterns never lie. Only some of us can see how the pieces fit together.

(as Jake) 6,919,377,000 of us live on this tiny planet. This is the story of some of those people. There's an ancient Chinese myth about the red thread of fate. It says the gods had tied a red thread around everyone one of our ankles and attached it to all the people whose lives we're destined to touch.

(as Jake) It's all been predetermined, a mathematically probability. And it's my job to keep track of those numbers, to make the connections for those who need to find each other, the ones whose lives need to touch. I was born 3,786 days ago on October 26th, 2000. I've been alive for 10 years, 5 months, 17 days and 14 hours. And in all that time, I've never said a single word.

BIANCULLI: Jake has characteristics of being both mute and autistic, but apparently, he's something else entirely. He spends his time drawing tiny patterns of numbers, collecting cell phones, and other things that his dad has come to accept but not yet to understand. But in the opening episode of "Touch," the explanations come quickly. They may not make too much sense, at least at first, but they're intriguing.

"Touch" is created by Tim Kring, whose last TV series was NBC's "Heroes." That program also focused on seemingly ordinary people who turned out to possess extraordinary gifts - and whose gifts, in turn, tied them to some sort of important destiny. "Heroes" went downhill after its first two seasons, but was fun to watch for a while, and had an enjoyable, anything-can-happen, comic-book feel.

"Touch," though, is less like the story of Peter Parker turning into Spider-Man than Helen Keller finding a way to communicate. And the center of the story, at least at first, isn't young Jake, though with the opening narration, he gets the first word. It's his father, Martin, played by Kiefer Sutherland with all the angst and empathy that propelled him through all those adventures on "24."

Martin lost his wife to 9/11, which means he's raised his challenged and challenging son as a single parent, for almost the boy's entire life. His son won't speak, doesn't like to be touched, and is obsessed with numbers to the exclusion of almost everything else, but finally Martin finds a website for something called The Teller Institute, suggesting that youngsters like his son may be special in quite a different way.

Martin visits the institute, which turns out to be a one-man operation. The man is Arthur Dewitt. He has an explanation for Jake's numerical obsession, and he's played by Danny Glover.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOUCH")

DANNY GLOVER: (as Arthur) Mr. Bohm, your son is one of those kids. He discovered the Fibonacci sequence on his own.

KIEFER SUTHERLAND: (as Martin) The what?

GLOVER: (as Arthur) Yeah. A mathematical sequence discovered by a 12th century mathematician named Fibonacci. The pattern's found in nature over and over again: the curve of a wave, the spiral of a shell, the segments of a pineapple. The universe is made up of precise ratios and patterns all around us. You and I, we don't see them, but if we could, life would be magical beyond our wildest dreams, a quantum entanglement of cause and effect where everything and everyone reflects on each other, every action, every breath, every conscious thought connected. Imagine the unspeakable beauty of the universe he sees. No wonder he doesn't talk.

SUTHERLAND: (as Martin) My son sees all that?

GLOVER: (as Arthur) Mr. Bohm, your son sees everything: the past, the present, the future. He sees how it's all connected.

SUTHERLAND: (as Martin) You're telling me my son can predict the future.

GLOVER: (as Arthur) No. I'm telling you it's a roadmap, and your job now, your purpose is to follow it for him. It's your fate, Mr. Bohm. It's your destiny.

BIANCULLI: Don't worry. I haven't given too much away. All this just sets up the premise of "Touch," which will have the father running around trying to find and help selected strangers, or stop certain accidents, thanks to this mystical, numerical road map. Basically, it's a variation on the new CBS series "Person of Interest," except that the stories are propelled by a human computer, not an actual one. And in the pilot, several characters are indeed changed thanks to their interactions with Martin, suggesting how this series is likely to play itself out in the future.

What remains to be seen, though, is whether future installments of "Touch" will play out as an interesting, interwoven narrative that's as satisfying as it is unusual - or, on the other hand, whether they'll just turn into some sort of metaphysical "Mission: Impossible," with new cases to solve each week, as in dozens of other adventure series.

I don't know which way "Touch" is going to go, but I'm willing to stay with it to find out. Young Jake, with his gift of seeing into the future, he may know. But he's not talking - at least not yet.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website "TV Worth Watching," and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

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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