DATE June 1, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Author David Sedaris discusses growing up gay, his
family and his latest writing
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
David Sedaris has developed a passionate following for his funny,
autobiographical essays and his terrific readings. His greatest hit, so to
speak, is his piece the "SantaLand Diaries," about the Christmas season he
spent wearing an elf suit working in Macy's SantaLand. It became a hit when
he read the piece on NPR's "Morning Edition." Sedaris is now a regular
contributor to the public radio program "This American Life." His books
"Barrel Fever" and "Naked" have been best-sellers. His new collection, "Me
Talk Pretty One Day," includes several pieces about his recent move to France,
where he's been struggling to learn the language. The book is dedicated to
his father, about whom he says, `You wouldn't seek him out for advice on a
personal problem, but he'd be the first one you'd call when the dishwasher
broke or someone flushed a hairpiece down your toilet.'
David's father is also a jazz fan, and he encouraged his kids to take music
lessons. Although David's only music ambition was to be a song stylist like
Billie Holiday, he briefly took guitar lessons from a midget named Mr.
Mancini. Here's an excerpt of his guitar lessons piece. He's just confessed
to his teacher that he hasn't practiced.
Mr. DAVID SEDARIS (Author, "Me Talk Pretty One Day"): (Reading) `My voice
shaking, I told him that I had absolutely no interest in mastering the guitar.
What I really wanted was to sing in the voice of Billie Holiday. Mainly
commercials, but not for banks or car dealerships, because those are usually
choral arrangements. The color ebbed from my teacher's face.'
`I told him I'd been working up an act and could use a little accompaniment.
Did he know the jingle for the new Sara Lee campaign? "You want me to do
what?" He wasn't angry, just confused. I felt certain he was lying when he
denied knowing the tune. Doublemint gum, Ritz crackers, the theme songs for
Alka-Seltzer and Kenmore appliances. He claimed ignorance on all counts.'
`I knew that it was queer to sing in front of someone, but greater than my
discomfort was the hope that he might recognize what I thought of as my great
talent; the one musical trick I was able to pull off. I started
(unintelligible) on an a cappella of the latest Oscar Mayer commercial, hoping
he might join in once his spirit moved him. It looked bad, I knew, but in
order to sustain the proper mood, I needed to disregard his company and sing
the way I did at home, alone in my bedroom, my eyes shut tight and my hands
dangling like pointless, empty gloves.
`I sang that my bologna had a first name. I added that my bologna had a
second name. And concluded with (Singing) Oh, I love to eat it every day, and
if you ask my why I'll say that Oscar Mayer has a way with B-O-L-O-G-N-A.'
`I reached the end of my tune thinking he might take this as an opportunity to
applaud or maybe even apologize for underestimating me. Mild amusement might
have been an appropriate response. But instead he held up his hands as if to
stop an advancing car.'
`"Hey, guy," he said, "you can hold it right there. I'm not into that scene."
A scene? What scene? I thought I was being original. "There were plenty of
screwballs like you back in Atlanta," he said. "But me, I don't swing that
way, you got it? This might be your thing or whatever, but you can definitely
count me out." He reached for his conk shell and stubbed out his cigarette.
"I mean, come on now. For God sakes, kid, pull yourself together."'
`I knew then why I'd never sung in front of anyone, and why I shouldn't have
done it in front of Mr. Mancini. He'd used the word screwball, but I knew
what he really meant. He meant I should have named my guitar Doug or Brian,
or better yet taken up the flute. He meant that if we're defined by our
desires, I was in for a lifetime of trouble.'
GROSS: And that's David Sedaris reading from his new collection "Me Talk
Pretty One Day."
David, you know, I love that story, and I had to have you read it so that you
could do your Billie Holliday thing. You know, reading that made me wonder if
there was a lot you had to hide as a kid because you were gay and it wasn't a
good thing to let people know that.
Mr. SEDARIS: Well, it was pretty much the last thing that you wanted to be
if you were, you know, growing up at that time in North Carolina, or maybe
it's still that way for kids growing up today, is that you just think, `It'll
change tomorrow. I'm just this way today, but tomorrow it will change,' and
then it has to be your secret. What's so funny is, I mean, you look back and,
I mean, you see in family photographs, or--I should have just had the word
`queen' tattooed on my forehead. I wasn't fooling anybody--anybody. You
don't wear your mother's pantyhose and think that your parents are going to
mistake you for a heterosexual. But at that time you think, `Oh, I'm clever'
and that `They'll never know.'
GROSS: So did cover-ups and lying become necessary and commonplace in your
life when you were young?
Mr. SEDARIS: Yes. Oh, yes. I mean, you had to hide what it was that you
were really doing and what you were really thinking. But the thing is in my
family, I probably didn't need to hide it at all. I think that my--because I
wasn't fooling anybody. I don't think that they would have really had any
sort of a problem with it.
GROSS: But the outside world might of.
Mr. SEDARIS: The outside world, yeah. But my mother was kind of those
people--one of those people that if you could buy a kit in how to make your
child a homosexual, she would have bought that kit, because it means your
child's not going to be a juvenile delinquent and that they're going to wind
up, you know, probably, you know, spending some money on your Mother's Day
present and be a good--I mean, if your son is gay, you don't really worry
about him--oh, you certainly don't worry about him, like, marrying a woman who
you're not going to like, but you don't worry about him getting into trouble.
GROSS: If covering up became a kind of part of your personality, or if it
became a part of your art, too, or if it gave you liberty to play it fast and
loose with the truth sometimes in the art, in the writing.
Mr. SEDARIS: I think I'm just very comfortable with that. I'm very
comfortable at--I don't know if lying would be the word, but exaggerating.
Yes, I'm very--that sounds like such a modern thing to say, doesn't it? I'm
very comfortable with exaggeration. What that means is that I'm a lair and I
always have been.
GROSS: So are you saying your a liar and you always have been?
Mr. SEDARIS: Yes, I've always been a liar. I still am one now. Nothing
irritates me more than somebody calling me a liar. You know, like, if
somebody called me an Eskimo, I wouldn't really care, because I'm not an
Eskimo. But there's nothing more irritating than being called what it is
that you really are. And I've just noticed that over the years. When people
call me a liar, I get so angry that I can't control myself, so it must be
GROSS: But this is a handy thing to have for fiction, isn't it? I mean to be
able to take something kind of boring that happened and make it into something
Mr. SEDARIS: Yes. And really that was sort of my challenge with the stories
in this new book, is to try to exaggerate less and to try to work with the
truth and to try to make the truth as interesting as I possibly could, and
fight my natural inclination, which was to lie.
GROSS: Why did you want to do that in these stories? I mean, is that
something you hadn't done in previous stories?
Mr. SEDARIS: Well, I just looked at it as an assignment, and I thought,
well, if I was going to try to make this book a little bit different, maybe
that would just be an assignment that I would give to myself because certain
thing are, you know, fairly anti-climactic. And so I just fought my impulse
to embroider those things. I thought, `Well, this is my homework. This is my
assignment is to restrict myself to the truth.'
GROSS: I mean, on the whole do you find daily life boring or interesting?
Because, like, daily life, when it's interpreted in your fiction, always
becomes really interesting and really funny, full of lots of perceptions. But
a lot of times daily life is really pretty tedious.
Mr. SEDARIS: Yeah, but I just feel like I'm lucky whenever I find evidence
to the contrary. I left Paris yesterday morning, and I went to the taxi stand
to get a cab to the airport and there was a fire truck there--and in Paris you
call the firemen instead of calling the ambulance. And the firemen were
administering to this woman who appeared to be in her mid-30s--I don't know
what her problem was, but they gave her some aspirin--and it's powdered
aspirin there mixed with water--and they served it to her in a goblet. It was
a glass goblet. Not a paper cup, but a goblet that they had in their fire
truck. So they're driving around the city of Paris with goblets in their fire
truck. And I see a thing like that and that's just plain interesting. To me
that's just great. I love it when something like that happens. But you know
most days you don't see anything that good, so you just have to exaggerate.
GROSS: Getting back to the idea of exaggeration or lying or whatever it is,
do friends or family ever feel betrayed when you have toyed with the truth?
Mr. SEDARIS: They feel more betrayed when I have not toyed with the truth.
They feel more betrayed when I'm telling the truth and the truth involves
them. If I exaggerate about them, then they have less of a problem with it.
But my family...
GROSS: Oh, because you're not really betraying what happened here.
Mr. SEDARIS: Right.
GROSS: You're giving this a different version, so you're not really telling
Mr. SEDARIS: Right. But I'm just very fortunate to come from a family of
good sports, and they don't--you know, if there's something they don't want me
to write about it, they'll preface it by saying, `You cannot write about
Mr. SEDARIS: But other than that they don't really have a problem with it.
Like, you know, I'll say to my dad, `Well, it's not really you. You know,
it's someone who looks just like you who says the exact same things that you
said and lives in your house and speaks in your voice, but it's not you. It's
just an idea of you.' And he said, `Yeah, OK,' which is just amazing. I
didn't know that he could be talked into things that easily. He's just a very
good--all of my family--they're good sports that way. But I do have to think
about them. Like when I write about myself, I have to--like I write about
myself every day in my diary, and that is me. But in order to write a story,
then I have to think of myself as a character. And that doesn't mean that I
have to necessarily lie or exaggerate, but if I'm going to be in a story, then
I have to think of myself as a character. And then I think of my family as
characters, too, when I write about them. Not when I talk to them on the
phone, but when I write about them I do.
GROSS: Now do you see yourself differently in real life because you've made
yourself into a character in your story? I mean, do you see things about
yourself that you maybe only would have noticed by turning yourself into a
Mr. SEDARIS: Yes. In order to--when I write about myself as a character, I
look at every horrible thing about myself, and I concentrate on that, much
more than I would in real life.
Mr. SEDARIS: Because I don't think it really works to say horrible things
about other people, unless you're going to really be hard on yourself.
Because otherwise people read it and then it's like, `Oh, poor him,' you know?
`Oh, everyone's unfair. Everyone's being so mean to him.' And it just
doesn't work. So if I acknowledge just what a shallow, pretentious jerk I am
and keep my finger on that, then I can still say horrible things about other
people, but it's understood that I'm worse than they are. Which I generally
believe that I'm worse than just about anybody who's not in prison.
GROSS: My guest is David Sedaris. His new collection is called "Me Talk
Pretty One Day." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is David Sedaris. His new collection of funny personal
essays is called "Me Talk Pretty One Day."
One of the stories in your new collection "Me Talk Pretty One Day" is about
your earlier life before you were a writer as a conceptual artist and
performance artist. And I'd like you to read an excerpt of that story.
Mr. SEDARIS: Sure. The story is called Twelve Months in the Life of the
Artist, and it's split into 12 different chapters, and this is the fifth
(Reading) `Five. My sister Gretchen was leaving for the Rhode Island School
of Design just as I was settling back into Raleigh. After a few months in my
parents' basement, I took an apartment near the state university where I
discovered both crystal meth amphetamines and conceptual art. Either one of
these things is dangerous, but in combination they have the potential to
destroy entire civilizations.'
`The moment I took my first burning snootful, I understood this was a drug for
me. Speed eliminates all doubt: Am I smart enough? Will people like me? Do
I really look all right in this plastic jumpsuit? These are questions for
insecure potheads. A speed enthusiast knows that everything he says or does
is brilliant. The upswing is that having eliminated need for both eating and
sleeping, you have a full 24 hours a day to spread your charm and talent.'
`"For God sakes," my father would say, "it's 2:00 in the morning. What are
you calling for?"' I was calling because the rest of my friends had taken to
unplugging their phones after 10 PM. These were people I'd known in high
school, and it disappointed me to see how little we now had in common. They
were still talking about pen and ink portraits and couldn't understand my
desire to drag a heavy cash register through the forest. I hadn't actually
done it, but it sounded like a good idea to me.'
`These people were all stuck in the past, setting up their booths in the art
fair and thinking themselves successful because they'd sold a silk screen of a
footprint in the sand. It was sad in a way. Here they were struggling to
make art while without the least bit of effort I was living art. My socks
balled up on the hardwood floor made a greater statement than any of their
hookey claptrap with the carefully matted frames and big, curly signatures in
the lower left-hand corners. Didn't they read any of the magazines?'
`The new breed of artists wanted nothing to do with my sister's idea of
beauty. Here were people who made a living pitching tents or lying in a fetal
position before our national monuments. One fellow had made a name for
himself by allowing a friend to shoot him in the shoulder. This was the art
world I'd been dreaming of, where God-given talent was considered an unfair
advantage and a cold-blooded stare merited more praise than the ability to
render human flesh. Everything around me was art, from the stains in my
bathtub to the razor blade and short length of drinking straw I used to ingest
and cut my speed. I was back in the world with a clear head and a keen vision
of just how talented I really was.'
GROSS: David, is there a piece that you did during that period that you could
describe for us?
Mr. SEDARIS: You know, the thing is my performance art was just so vacant
and just so formulaic. Like if I talk about plays that I've done, I can
recall them because the plays had a story. But this was like the worst sort
of performance art because it told no story whatsoever. It was all
prop-driven. It was that sort of thing where you bring out like 15 objects
and the audience just sits there and waits while you go through the rubber
boot, and you while you go through the inflatable shark, and while you go
through the aspirin bottle filled with BBs. And the part of it what made it
so horrible was this notion that it was the audience's job to figure out the
meaning. It wasn't your job. Your job was to just get up there with a sort
of slack expression on your face and, I don't know, cut your hair with garden
sheers. That was all you really needed to do.
And I think it was something I read about in a magazine. You know, I just
saw, `Oh, you can be an artist, and you don't really have'--you can do the
same things you do at home; you just invite people to come and watch you. And
so I was--I did that for a couple of years, and I look back, and `Gee, I am so
embarrassed over some of the things that I did.' And, of course, I was just
as high as I could be the entire time, which convinced me that what I was
doing was actually brilliant.
GROSS: But as embarrassed as you are about the pieces that you did then, I
bet there was something really liberating in a good way about your conceptual
art and performance art periods.
Mr. SEDARIS: No, there was nothing, really. It was just torment, and I just
tortured everybody around me--everybody around me in forcing my family to come
and watch me in these horrible, horrible spectacles. And it wasn't really
until I went to--I had dropped out of college and I was living in Raleigh when
I discovered speed and conceptual art. And then I went back to school when I
was 27, and I was in art school and I would watch people do these
performances, and then I was able to really sort of clearly see, for the first
time, just how unfun it is to sit in the audience. Because it's all just
about you being a performer. You don't really think about people in the
audience. With a play you think about people in the audience and you think,
`Are they going to get this story? Are they going to be bored? Are they
going to walk out?' And you sort of tailor what you're doing to those
concerns. Whereas with the performance art you can just convince yourself
that if people didn't get it, they were stupid. And you would think, `Well,
who wouldn't want to watch me take a nap? Who wouldn't want to see that?'
GROSS: So what was the actual turning point when you decided to give up your
Mr. SEDARIS: When I ran out--my drug dealer moved to another state, and I
did not have any speed left, and it was all I could do just to, really, get
out of bed. I'd never--I mean, I've always been fond of drugs, but I had
never--I don't think I'd ever been really hooked on anything before. And you
don't really know you're hooked until you don't get your drugs anymore and
then you go through a withdrawal. And it was, I think, coming through the
withdrawal from that, I thought, `Well, that part of my life is over--it's
completely over--and it's time to try something new.'
GROSS: Is that when you started writing, or were you already writing?
Mr. SEDARIS: I was already writing, and then I just sort of moved into that,
more or less full time--into the writing, rather than into the--well, I went
on to go to art school, but when I was in art school, it was mainly for
painting and for sculpture, and I didn't do any performance art while I was in
GROSS: How much talent did you have, for, say, representational painting and
Mr. SEDARIS: I have no talent whatsoever. No talent whatsoever. If I was a
courtroom sketch artist, it would look like drawings of a five-year-old. All
the characters would have really big heads and they would either smile or
frown. It would be like those drawings that children do after they've been
abused or whatever with the angry mommy or the happy mommy. They would be
drawings like that. I can't draw--no, I can't draw anything.
GROSS: David Sedaris will be back in the second half of the show. His new
book is called "Me Talk Pretty One Day." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Coming up, we continue our conversation with David Sedaris. Milo Miles
reviews three funny hip-hop albums. And David Bianculli reviews the latest
game show "Survival(ph)." It maroons contestants on an island and the one
left standing wins.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Back with writer David Sedaris.
His new collection of humorous personal essays is called "Me Talk Pretty One
Day." Sedaris is a regular contributor to the public radio program "This
When we left off, we were talking about how he tried to be a visual artist and
performance artist before he became a writer, but he eventually figured out he
had no talent for painting and sculpture.
Why did you want to be an artist if you felt you had so little talent for it?
Mr. SEDARIS: I wanted to be an artist just from when I was young and reading
books and biographies, and I had the idea that you would be an artist and it
would just be very romantic, and you would live in a garret and you would have
a closet full of berets. And it was just a life--some goofy, romantic notion
that I'd picked up when I was young. And it was enough to keep me going until
the age of 28, this romantic notion.
GROSS: So what you wanted was the artist's life, maybe more so than the art
Mr. SEDARIS: I wanted the artist's life, and I wanted to live in a studio
and--filled with naked men, you know, who would be posing for me while I would
chisel them out of marble. And then I saw myself, like, wearing long scarves
and going to museum openings, but I just could never see the work itself.
That was a problem.
GROSS: So when you took writing more seriously and gave up painting and
sculpture and performance art, did you fashion a kind of artist's life for
yourself as a writer? Did you see the possibilities for that?
Mr. SEDARIS: No, strangely, I never did. But with writing, I would just
know just how--when I was doing artwork--how I could look at something and
walk away from it and just forget it, whereas, there would be certain stories
that I would read that I would be haunted by, and I would read them over and
over and over again until I memorized them. And I just noticed that the words
had power over me, whereas visual art didn't--generally didn't. So, no, I
never--that's not why I got into it. I think I just got into it because
nothing else worked. I tried being an actor; I was horrible. I tried
performance art; I stunk. I tried visual art; I was terrible. I'm just lucky
I found writing before I went through a dance phase.
GROSS: The funny thing is, though, that there is a whole romance around
writing, just as there is a whole romance around the life of the visual
artist, and I'm surprised, kind of, that you didn't hook into that
romanticized vision of the writer.
Mr. SEDARIS: No, I guess because I would--I've always read a lot of
biographies and you always just read about writers wind up--you know, they
wind up being really drunk and calling their friends until their friends don't
answer the phone, like Jean Stafford. She was one of those writers who wound
up just a mess and her last project--she had an idea for a book called
"Cooking for One While Drunk(ph)." So I never thought of a rosy ending...
Mr. SEDARIS: ...to a writing life. But then I look and I think, `OK. Well,
I live in Paris and I--gee, I mean, from the--and I have some books and, you
know, I get to go on a book tour.' And from the outside, I think, `Gosh, that
looks OK. You know, that looks pretty good.' But it's not; you know, it's
GROSS: Uh-huh. Now you say that crystal methamphetamine was your drug of
choice because it was so good at eliminating doubts and make you feeling
really confident and good about yourself and your work. What were some of the
doubts you needed to eliminate that were very inhibiting for you?
Mr. SEDARIS: That I had no talent whatsoever and that what I was doing was
absolutely meaningless and that everybody was laughing at me instead of
admiring me because I came up with these great things that they couldn't
understand. The speed pretty much eliminates any doubt that you would have.
You know, you take it, you look like a million bucks. You're incredibly
bright. I look back at my diary during that time and I would easily write 10
pages a night. It is just awful, just awful. There's not a single sentence
in there worth salvaging. And that's what I wrote down. When I think what
came out of my mouth was probably even worse.
GROSS: When you stopped taking speed, did the old doubts come back, the
doubts that you were suppressing with the speed?
Mr. SEDARIS: Oh, yes, they came back. Oh, they came immediately, only
GROSS: Well, how did you deal with those doubts in your writing?
Mr. SEDARIS: With the writing, it's OK--it seems much easier to deal with
those doubts because you can confront them honestly. And, also, you're
telling a story. If I'm telling a story, there's something I can work with.
But if I'm not telling a story and if I'm just--if I'm using a hammer to crack
open a boiled egg, that's not really telling any kind of a story. There's no
narrative thing there. There's no real meaning to it. And I don't know how
you convey doubt while you're doing that without saying anything. How do you
convey doubt while you're cracking open a boiled egg? Whereas on paper or out
loud, you can do that. I don't know. There was something about that whole
period where narrative was bad, narrative was a bad thing. And to tell people
a story was cheap and easy.
Mr. SEDARIS: It was just...
GROSS: Like, when you started writing, was there kind of experimental fiction
that was the equivalent of performance art?
Mr. SEDARIS: Yes. But I noticed I never read those things.
GROSS: Right. Right.
Mr. SEDARIS: Those are the things that I would read a couple lines, and I
would just skip over. I didn't want that. I wanted to be told a story. And
I didn't feel any--you know, like sometimes you're young and you go through a
certain phase and you pretend to like these things that you can't bear. You
pretend to like these movies that are just--in fact, are just a bore, but you
think that if you would--if you say that they're boring, then everyone's gonna
think you're stupid. But I noticed that I would never subject myself to
reading things that didn't have the story, that didn't satisfy me. And I felt
OK in saying, `That's not for me.' And so, luckily, I never went through that
GROSS: So the doubts that came back after you stopped the crystal meth and
started writing, it sounds like those are doubts that you were able to
incorporate into the writing; that you were, in part, writing about the doubts
so you could describe them instead of suppressing them?
Mr. SEDARIS: Yes. And they were very helpful that way. Because, really,
that's basically all I have to talk about is my doubts and deny that, gee, you
just pour Styrofoam pellets into a rubber boot and empty them into a pail and
call it a night.
GROSS: You're living in France, how long have you been there?
Mr. SEDARIS: I've been there for--it's almost two years.
GROSS: And what brought you to France? Why did you leave New York?
Mr. SEDARIS: Smoking. You can smoke wherever you want to in France, and
it's heaven that way. All those European countries, they should just
represent them on maps with big ashtrays. I recorded a book on tape in New
York--my last book--I recorded it on tape here and you had to leave the
building. You had to go down eight floors in order to have a cigarette. And
I recorded the new book on tape in Paris and there were two standing ashtrays
right in the recording booth, which was the size of a closet. And then,
beyond the glass wall in the engineer's area, I lost track of the ashtrays, I
lost--it was like looking at a thick fog, and every now and then I would see
the director wave her arms. I chose my bank because it had the biggest
GROSS: Wait. Let me stop you. How does your boyfriend Hugh feel about you
smoking in the house in Paris, 'cause I don't think he like it particularly in
New York? So just 'cause everybody else smokes in Paris, what about in your
Mr. SEDARIS: He has no problem with it in Paris. But in New York, our
apartment--we used to call it the trailer in the sky because it looked like a
double-wide trailer. The ceiling was about that high. And in Paris, the
ceilings are really tall and there's huge windows. So he never says a word
about it there.
GROSS: What's it like for you, who is so verbal and so defined by your
language, to function in a country where you can't do what most defines you,
which is speak? I mean, I think your French is probably still fairly
rudimentary. And so it's hard, I'm sure, for you to communicate with a lot of
the people there.
Mr. SEDARIS: That's what--that's my incentive, though, to learn. Because,
you know, it drives me crazy to sit there and have to keep my mouth shut;
drives me absolutely out of my mind. So that's been my biggest incentive to
learn. I talk like Yoda, basically. Now my verbs are--I'm getting my verbs
down and that makes it a lot easier because you can't--some exhaust people a
little bit less than I did before. I just try to be the most cheerful person
in the country, that's how I go about it and just try to have a really good
attitude. And I'm Mr. Polite. But it's hard. We'll go to dinner sometimes
and Hugh--he speaks French perfectly and he's got a lot of French friends, and
we'll go to dinner at their house. And at one end of the table, everybody is
laughing and engaging in sparkling conservation, and I just see the guests at
my end of the table saying, `I had to sit next to him the last time.' And
everyone on the other side of the table, they're having a ball. And on my end
of the table, it's me saying, `I saw a rabbit in the road yesterday and he was
happy.' That's what I have to bring to the table.
GROSS: David Sedaris, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SEDARIS: Thank you.
GROSS: David Sedaris has a new book. It's called "Me Talk Pretty One Day."
Coming up, Milo Miles reviews funny hip-hop recordings. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Songs "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome," "It's Very Stimulating"
and "Green Velvet"
TERRY GROSS, host:
These days, hip-hop is associated with gang violence and leering sexism, not
jokes. But the earliest rap singles were considered novelty music. The
founding tune, "Rapper's Delight," was full of comedy passages. Music critic
Milo Miles wants to counter today's harsh sounds with a review of three
records that combine good beats with funny lines.
Mr. MILO MILES (Music Editor, Rock.com): The old show biz adage got it
right: Comedy is hard. It's especially difficult assembling an album when
all you play are turntables and snippets of other people's songs. But that's
what Canadian deejay Eric San, who calls himself Kid Koala, does on his album
"Carpal Tunnel Syndrome." Many deejays manipulate or scratch a vinyl record
so that they talk and even tell stories. But Kid Koala is an ace who must
have spent half a lifetime practicing as he confesses `we're nothing but the
nerds they say we are.'
(Soundbite from "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome")
Mr. ERIC SAN: We're nothing but the nerds they say we are.
(Soundbite of record skipping)
Mr. MILES: Part of the fun of listening to a sharp deejay collage like
"Carpal Tunnel Syndrome" is how thoroughly a fragment of dialogue or music can
be turned into something else. As when Kid Koala inserts a cartoon voice
saying, `Scratchy, you got a problem,' the flow seems and sounds as so
delightful on tracks like "Barhopper 1," you can only wonder, `Where'd he find
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #1: His first date, he wasn't quite sure what to do and what
Unidentified Man #2: See for yourself, that's her.
Unidentified Man #3: Where?
Unidentified Man #2: Sitting right in front of us, that's Sharon.
Unidentified Man #3: Oh, wow.
Unidentified Man #1: The most important thing is the first thing you say.
Unidentified Man #3: Hello.
Unidentified Woman #1: What do you want?
Unidentified Man #1: I feel I might lay an egg any moment.
Unidentified Woman #1: I beg your pardon?
Unidentified Man #1: What's a beautiful woman like you doing in a bar like
Unidentified Woman #1: Beat it, jerk.
Unidentified Man #1: Now don't sugar coat it, just what is it you're trying
Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, grow up.
Mr. MILES: The problem with Kid Koala is that his jokes are more verbal than
musical, making "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome" almost a spoken comedy record. And
you just don't play even the best of those too often. But in an era of attack
comedy, Kid Koala is attractively lovable and modest.
On the flip side, rapper MC Paul Barman proclaims himself an unappealing mess
and proud of it. He calls his debut album, "It's Very Stimulating." His
producer, Prince Paul, has been making sound movies for your mind ever since
the first De La Soul album and he makes sure that Barman's 20-minute CD
develops grooves even as if it portrays a goofball personality. Barman
cheerfully admits that any girl who wants to get with him should expect bad
sex and slapstick and that he fantasizes lusty adventures because he doesn't
have any in real life. All he gets is grief. He disrespects himself. Nobody
remembers his name, even his own fantasies put him down. But he's verbally
gifted, raunchy, funny and even well-read. Here, he adopts a female persona.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. PAUL BARMAN: (Singing) Next, I took the express to 86th and Lex, flexed
my ...(unintelligible) back in my wallet and walked to the metropolitan. The
Grayhaul(ph) had hundreds of boys straight out of eight ball. Wait, Paul
Barman, was posted at his station. He said, `For Sue, it's $5; for Joe, it's
a donation.' Our eyes met. It's fun to be hypnotized by a man you don't
despise yet. He had a type of flow and I can't quite label it. All I know it
made me want to take off my cable knit sweater. Oh, he better be hetero. I
hope they don't catch us in the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing when Paulus brings
the mattress in. Rudely, he backlashed my booty like I was Susan Faluti over
the great ...(unintelligible) Rogers rostrum. When I wants him, I gets him.
If I'm lost in the flotsam and jetsam, I'll draw some Lacost(ph) alligators,
chasing an opossum. I'm frigging awesome.
Mr. MILES: A fellow named Curtis Jones calls himself Green Velvet. And his
album of the same name combines the precise sound switches of Kid Koala with
the vivid characterization of Paul Barman. Plus, you could actually play it
at a dance party. "Green Velvet" comes out of Chicago house music in Detroit
techno and his synthesizers have the woozy even wispful tone typical of those
styles. But he's a very atypical storyteller.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. CURTIS JONES: (Singing) There are things I conceal. Oh, how I wish I
could reveal, but I know if they are told, I'll allow myself to be controlled.
In my mind, I have these thoughts. In my mind, I keep these thoughts.
Everybody has these thoughts. In our minds, we keep these thoughts. You ask
me what's on my mind to satisfy yourself not mine. Always probing in my head,
tell me what's in yours instead. In my mind...
Mr. MILES: All the jokes on the "Green Velvet" album are equally off-kilted
or disturbing. In the tune, "Flash," crying parents are invited into a rave
club to see their children getting decadent. Mom and Dad's flashing cameras
provide part of the rhythm track. On "Answering Machine," Green Velvet gets
one horrible bad news message after another until going out dancing is the
only sane release. Green Velvet keeps the tone light as when he dreams of
being reincarnated as a water molecule, so that he could flow anywhere and
inside anyone. Like Paul Barman and Kid Koala, Green Velvet offers a timely
reminder that at least on occasion, you should smile when you dance.
GROSS: Milo Miles is music editor at Rock.com.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. JONES: (Singing) Is there such a thing as reincarnation? I'd like to
come back as a water molecule, because if I were a water molecule, I could do
whatever I wanted to. I would be so free. I could sail across...
GROSS: Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli on the new game show "Survivor."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New summer series "Survivor"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Last night, after months of intense promotion and Pentagon-style secrecy, CBS
finally unveiled its new high-concept summer series, "Survivor." Based on a
show that was a smash hit in Sweden, it takes 16 contestants and maroons them
on a tropical island for more than a month, with the lone survivor taking home
a million dollars. TV critic David Bianculli has a review.
Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI (TV Critic, New York Daily News): I didn't really get
"Survivor" until I finally got a chance to watch it. Beforehand, when the
show was getting tons of attention and magazine covers and "Entertainment
Tonight" features, I wasn't sure whether there was anything truly compelling
behind the hype. But there is: It's high school. Oh, I know, none of the 16
contestants, eight men, eight women, is of high school age. The youngest is
22 and the oldest is 72.
But "Survivor" isn't about survival skills, not really. It's not about who
can eat grubs or kill rats. At bottom, it's about butting heads and getting
along. The one left standing at the end will be the one person who annoys the
fewest people, and is voted most popular by his or her peers. With all its
cliques and back-biting and open, unadulterated meanness, it's high school,
all over again. And island isolation aside, who can't relate to that?
(Soundbite of "Survivor")
Mr. JEFF PROBST (Host, "Survivor"): This is more than just a test of
survival skills; it's also a test of social skills. Here, it's the
impressions you make on the other castaways that determines your fate. Under
the rules, one tribe must visit tribal council every three days with a single
purpose: vote one of their own members off the island. To win, you must
survive the island, survive the vote and, ultimately, survive each other.
Mr. BIANCULLI: That's Jeff Probst, the host of "Survivor," explaining the
basic rules. The castaways are divided into two groups of eight, named the
Tagi and the Pagong, after the local beaches where they'll set up camp, and
given a raft to row and tote ashore. From the second they hit the beach,
"Survivor" shows why it's such fascinating TV.
The cameras are there, capturing human behavior in the raw, as various alpha
males and a few alpha females try to assert themselves as leaders and
immediately take charge. One old guy, a retired Navy SEAL named Rudy, starts
barking orders at once, but this isn't the Navy, and other people have other
ideas. Meanwhile, a corporate planner named Rich sits in a tree and pouts,
upset that he isn't being taken more seriously.
(Soundbite from "Survivor")
Unidentified Woman: Should we, you know, talk for a little bit...
Unidentified Man: Yeah.
Unidentified Woman: ...or should we start moving stuff up?
Unidentified Man: Hey, let's--let's discuss some things, man. Let's figure
some things out.
Unidentified Man: Here's what we plan on doing. High tide is that line right
Unidentified Woman: Yeah.
Unidentified Man: See that line?
Unidentified Woman: Uh-huh.
Unidentified Man: So it shouldn't come up to here.
Unidentified Man: Right.
Unidentified Man: And this piece of bamboo back here, we can lay it from up
here over to there...
Unidentified Man: Oh, that causes a similar glare. I mean, none of the...
Unidentified Man: ...and that'll be the beginning of our shelter.
Unidentified Woman: Actually, if before we build the shelter...
Unidentified Man: What about this one? This one would be (unintelligible).
Unidentified Woman: ...just knock that whole branch off.
Unidentified Woman: Yeah. Yeah.
Unidentified Man: Yeah, let's try it ...(unintelligible).
Unidentified Woman: No, I mean, this is an awesome spot to stay at.
Unidentified Man: What's the first thing we need to do?
Unidentified Man: ...(Unintelligible).
Unidentified Man: Get some shelter.
Unidentified Man: What's...
Unidentified Woman: A place to sleep.
Unidentified Man: We need a latrine.
Unidentified Woman: Yeah ...(unintelligible).
Unidentified Man: OK. So we don't need fire tonight, is that what we're
Unidentified Woman: No. That's ...(unintelligible).
Unidentified Man: That's an option.
Unidentified Man: We got enough water to make it tonight, you think?
Unidentified Woman: Yeah. I think so.
Unidentified Man: You guys, I think the first thing we ought to do...
Unidentified Man: Because the...
Unidentified Man: ...is talk about how we're going to do whatever we're going
Unidentified Woman: That's what we're doing.
Unidentified Man: Talk about the process.
Unidentified Man: All right.
Unidentified Woman: ...(Unintelligible).
Unidentified Man: Listen, listen, let me give you a rough quick. The camp
will be right there. We'll clear these leaves off, that's a flat piece of
ground. The latrine'll be down there; the wind's heading in the back right
Unidentified Man: So we're saying...
Unidentified Woman: Yeah. ...(Unintelligible).
Unidentified Man: ...we need a latrine, and--when we just need a clear place
to sleep. Is that all we want tonight?
Unidentified Woman: Off the ground. Off the ground.
Unidentified Woman: And if we need more...
Unidentified Man: We'll check the bu--let's see what we got first.
Unidentified Woman: Yeah, let's see what we got.
Unidentified Man: Before we make any decisions, let's see what we got, don't
Unidentified Woman: Should we check the ...(unintelligible).
Unidentified Man: Well, there might be a blowtorch in there.
Unidentified Woman: Well, we need a bathroom.
Unidentified Man: You guys all done talking?
Unidentified Man: Huh?
Unidentified Man: I don't know.
Mr. BIANCULLI: At the end of last night's first episode, this particular
group has failed to work together well enough to win the day's physical
challenge, and must cast secret ballots to eject one member from the island.
A rather frail 62-year-old cancer survivor named Sonja is given the boot. But
Rudy, the rugged former Navy SEAL, got nearly as many negative votes.
"Survivor" is set up to explore and exploit all sorts of culture clashes. The
people on the island are doing the same thing as the people watching at
home--making first impressions, and ultimately voting based on those
impressions. If viewers at home vote to keep watching, "Survivor" will be a
major buzz summer hit, and I believe, for this first one at least, it will be
Meanwhile, we haven't seen the last of these high-concept, high-profile series
based on hits from other countries. A CBS version of the German hit "Big
Brother" was advertised twice during "Survivor," and will arrive next month,
and other adaptations are in the works. It's all due to last summer's smash
success of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," a steamroller that has changed the
rules and the face of television, and clearly, those changes aren't over yet.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Tito Puente, king of Latin dance music and jazz, dies
at age 77
(Soundbite of theme from "The Simpsons")
TERRY GROSS, host:
Latin bandleader Tito Puente was so popular, his music so contagious, that
even "The Simpsons" found a way to use his talent. That's Puente's band
playing "The Simpsons" theme.
Tito Puente was one of America's greatest popularizers of Latin dance music
and Latin jazz. He died early today. He was believed to be about 77,
although there are several conflicting birth dates that have been published.
He was born in New York to Puerto Rican parents. His recording career spanned
more than 50 years. His career was encapsulated on his recent CD anthology,
"Fifty Years of Swing." Here's a 1949 recording of "Ran-Can-Can(ph)," which
was one of the first hit mambo recordings. Tito Puente is featured on
(Soundbite of "Ran-Can-Can")
GROSS: Tito Puente, recorded in 1949. He died this morning.
(Station credits given)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of Latin music)
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.