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Earl Scruggs, On Life — And Banjo Picking

Earl Scruggs' name is almost synonymous with the banjo. And for a good reason, too — he helped pioneer Bluegrass music with his three-finger banjo picking technique, now known as "Scruggs Style."

21:20

Other segments from the episode on November 21, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 21, 2008: Interview with Earl Scruggs; Review of the new season of "24;" Interview with Barney Rosset; Review of the film "Twilight."

Transcript

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Earl Scruggs, On Life -- And Banjo Picking

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross. Earl Scruggs, one of the most important players in the history of bluegrass, has a new CD. Last year, he returned to Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, where he first played in 1945 for a concert with a variety of bluegrass musicians, including his sons, Gary and Randy. The live recording of that concert has just come out on Rounder Records. It's called "Earl Scruggs: The Ultimate Collection / Live at the Ryman."

Scruggs is known in part as the banjo player who perfected the three-finger picking technique that became standard in bluegrass. In 1945, Scruggs joined Bill Monroe's band, the group that virtually invented bluegrass. In 1948, Scruggs and guitar player Lester Flatt left to form their own group. Flatt and Scruggs became one of the most popular acts in country music. Their hit "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" became even more famous when it was used on the soundtrack of the movie "Bonnie and Clyde." They also crossed over by playing the theme for the TV series, "The Beverly Hillbillies." In 1969, Earl Scruggs and his sons, Gary and Randy, formed their own band, the Earl Scruggs Review. Scruggs has been inducted into Country Music's Hall of Fame. In a moment, we'll hear Terry's 2003 interview with Scruggs. First, let's hear the track "Earl's Breakdown" from his new album.

(Soundbite of song "Earl's Breakdown")

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, October 16, 2003)

TERRY GROSS: Now, you grew up during the Depression. Your father died when you were four. How did your family make a living when he died?

Mr. EARL SCRUGGS (Bluegrass Music Pioneer; Banjo Player): He was a farmer also, so I stayed on the farm until I got old enough to get a job in the factory. On the farm, you work from daylight till the dark, and in the factory, you work eight hours, so I thought that was great.

GROSS: Right. Who did you hear play banjo before you started playing yourself? I mean, I've read that there was no radio in your house when you were growing up.

Mr. SCRUGGS: No.

GROSS: So, who did you hear? How did you hear them?

Mr. SCRUGGS: We had a banjo in our home. My father played old-style banjo, so we had a banjo there. And my brother Horace had a guitar, and so, we just started playing just old tunes that we'd heard before. And then a little later, we got a Sears, Roebuck radio and started listening to some - mainly "The Grand Ole Opry" and some programs like that. But as far as the style of banjo that I play, nobody had played it before me. And the only thing that is different from my playing from what I'd heard is I had a three-finger roll; it's later been called Scruggs style. But it seemed to help me to play slow tunes as well as up-tempo tunes. Most of the banjo playing in the old days were hoedown-type tunes, up-tempo tunes.

GROSS: So, could you put into words what your style of picking is the three-finger style?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, it's just what you hear. It involves - it's a little misleading to say three fingers - it's actually two fingers, middle and index finger and your thumb. And it's kind of - some of the roll will go, if you number your thumb one, the index two, and the middle finger three, it's like one, two, three roll over and over. But to do a tune, it's like trying to say a word with the same exact - same amount of syllables in the word, you've got to alternate the roll some to make the tune flow.

GROSS: Since you didn't have a radio when you were very young and you didn't have a record player...

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: And so, you're just, like, hearing, you know, the musicians who may have been, you know, living where you were, how did you come up with your style of playing, with your style of picking?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Oh, we - I guess - the old days, you have one main room, you have - you take company to when they come that you don't use every day. So, I was in what we called the front room with the banjo one day. And I was in the mode where if somebody had asked me what I was thinking about - I bet you'd been in that mode yourself - you couldn't tell them what you was thinking about; you was just kind of sitting in there. And I was picking the banjo, and I was playing a tune that I still play today called "Rubin." And when I realized what I was doing, I was playing the way that I play now. It was like having a dream and wake up you was actually playing the tune. So, that was the mode I was in and what I was doing when I learned exactly what I am doing today.

GROSS: So, did you think, like, oh my God, this is a breakthrough, or did you just not make, you know, much of it at the moment?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, my brother said I came out of the room saying I got it, I got it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCRUGGS: So, I didn't know what I had, but he said that's what I was saying.

GROSS: You joined Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in 1945. This was the group that basically created the sound that's become known as bluegrass. When you joined the band, could you hear that something different was happening there?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Oh, yeah. Nobody had this style of banjo in the group, and he just did the type of tunes that would make the banjo sound good. So, it was a good shot to start with, because he had "The Grand Ole Opry" exposure, and he give me a lot of exposure when I went to work with him and got immediate attention because nobody had heard that kind of banjo-picking, so it caught on real fast with the public.

GROSS: Why don't we hear one of your recordings with Bill Monroe from 1947? This is one of the famous ones, "Bluegrass Breakdown," with Bill Monroe on mandolin, Lester Flatt, guitar, my guest Earl Scruggs, banjo, recorded in 1947.

(Soundbite of song "Bluegrass Breakdown")

GROSS: Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys recorded in 1947 with my guest Earl Scruggs on banjo. You're considered one of the first banjo players to be a serious musician and to not be a comic with a banjo.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: A lot of banjo players before you would tell comic monologues or sing comic songs with banjo accompaniment.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: And in fact, there's a story that may be apocryphal that Uncle Dave Macon, the banjo player, said after hearing you the first time, he ain't one damn bit funny.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you realize that you were a departure from that, a departure from the kind of comic tradition of banjo playing?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, I used to just try to - stood - and see if there was some kind of routine I want to do as being a comedian, because every banjo player in the world - very few, but they all were comedians. But all my interest was just in picking, not only tunes, but songs behind the singers, not only the lead part, but doing a backup; you know what I mean by backup?

GROSS: Mm-hm.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Playing a alto or something to support the singer. So, that's where my interest was, was just a lead picker with the banjo but also a supporter with the banjo.

GROSS: What was life on the road like with Bill Monroe?

Mr. SCRUGGS: It was terrible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCRUGGS: If I hadn't have been 21 years old and full of energy that just came off on a farm and thread mill, where I could - you know, I thought to do an hour show on the road was a pushover compared to eight hours in the mill or from sun up to sun down on the farm. And music was my love, so to get into a group that had good singing and playing, and Bill had that. We did it 24 hours a day, practically. Back then there was only two-lane highways, and he traveled in a '41 Chevrolet car, and we'd leave after "The Opry" on Saturday night and maybe work down South Georgia. It was about as far as you could get for a Sunday afternoon show, and on down to Miami some place for Monday or Tuesday, and worked till about Thursday and start working back to Nashville. So, it was just - you'd only be in Nashville long enough to do "The Grand Ole Opry" and to get a change of clothes and pack your suitcase and head out again.

GROSS: Now, it was in the Bill Monroe band that you met guitarist Lester Flatt, who became...

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: Your long musical partner. What were your first impressions of him when you first heard him play and sing?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, I liked his singing and his playing fit in good with that style of music, and we played around together. You know, in a group, you kind of find one or two guys that you like better than the other part of the group or the other maybe interesting things that you don't care for. So, anyway, Lester and I got along with each other, roomed together, and so, we did that and - for two and a half, three years, and that's when - really, we never had talked about starting a show ourselves. But I had made up my mind that I was going to just get off the road. So, I worked two weeks' notice, and when I started to leave that night, Lester turned in his notice. And while he's working his notice, he gave me a call over in North Carolina and said, why don't we get on the radio station over close to your home and try it as a group ourselves? So, that's how we got started with the Foggy Mountain Boys.

DAVIES: Earl Scruggs and Terry Gross. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's 2003 interview with Earl Scruggs. When we left off, Scruggs was recalling how he and Lester Flatt formed the Foggy Mountain Boys.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, October 16, 2003)

GROSS: Now, you started recording - you and Lester Flatt started recording in, I think it was, 1948, and for the first couple of years, you recorded for Mercury Records.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Uh-huh.

GROSS: During that period you recorded what became one of your best known songs, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: Is there a story behind the song?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Why, it's just simple song that I probably wrote in 10 or 15 minutes, and it - and I've written several other tunes and had some pretty big hits, but nothing like "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." You'll have a ringer, as I call it, one that might make a hit with just about everybody and - so, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" was one of them and it got a lot of support like in the film, "Bonnie and Clyde" movie. They used it as a chase song and that supported that tune a lot. So, the tune did a lot for not only me, but it did a lot for situations like that in the movie like "Bonnie and Clyde."

GROSS: How did "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" end up being used in the movie "Bonnie and Clyde"?

Mr. SCRUGGS: He called and wanted me to write a tune for...

GROSS: Who called?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Warren Beatty...

GROSS: Mm-hm.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Who wrote and starred in the show. And so, he called back - I think I'm quoting this exactly the way it was - in a few days and he said he didn't want me to write anything because he'd found a tune that he thought fit what he wanted. See, we recorded that tune before they got what I say good equipment, I mean, just plain everyday microphones in the radio station and no - to start making tunes sound fuller or something. So, that's what Warren Beatty heard in that tune. So, he didn't want to try to record another tune, because he thought that they equipment that they had then was probably - would give it a more modern tune than what we had recorded, which turned out to be "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" and the sound that we got then.

GROSS: So, are you saying that he used the original recording, and he didn't want you to rerecord it?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah. They took the Mercury recording, and that was it.

GROSS: Why don't we hear that original recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown,"? And this is Lester Flatt and my guest Earl Scruggs.

(Soundbite of song "Foggy Mountain Breakdown")

GROSS: The original recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which was later used in "Bonnie and Clyde," featuring Lester Flatt on guitar, Earl Scruggs on banjo. My guest is Earl Scruggs. Now, you mentioned what - when you got off the road with Bill Monroe, what you wanted to do was a radio show, and first you did one in Bristol. Then in 1953, you ended up doing a radio show in Nashville at a station there, and...

Mr. SCRUGGS: WSM, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, and it was, I think, a 15-minute program, every morning at 5:45, which is pretty darn early to have to perform.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah. We'd come in 2 o'clock. And go to bed and get up at 4 to try to get awake enough to do a live radio program, but that was your bread and butter in those days. By that I mean we made our real, really, our living by the roadwork that we did. We'd go out and do shows and charge admission and get a percentage of that and also some flat rates, too. But that just put us to working in better - bigger auditoriums and bigger crowds.

GROSS: The show was sponsored by Martha White Flour.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: And I understand, the jingle for that became pretty well-known, and you were even requested to play it at some of your concerts. I've never heard it. How did it go?

Mr. SCRUGGS: (Singing) Now you make bright with Martha White, goodness gracious, good in light, Martha White. For the finest biscuits, cakes and pies, it's Martha White self-rising flour.

And the group says...

(Singing) The one all purpose flour. Get Martha White for self-rising flour. It's got hot rise...

Hot rise was actually a baking soda that went into the bread that would - it makes bread rise, you know that yourself, being a lady. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCRUGGS: But I thought it's pretty cleverly written.

GROSS: So, did you get, like, a lifetime supply of free Martha White Flour?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Oh, no. Oh, no. They would probably have done that, but I got a lifetime award with Martha White, a great company, and they helped us just more than I could total up, I guess.

GROSS: Now, why did you and Lester Flatt split up?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, the biggest thing for me - see, I had three boys coming along, Gary, Randy and Steve was my youngest boy. And they were good musicians, and as a matter of fact, Randy had been recording with Lester and me as far as the guitar work ever since he was seven or eight years old. So, I just had a band in my home. And one of the biggest thrills a person will ever get is to go on stage with his children, especially if they're good musicians, and I'll have to brag in on them. Even though they are my boys, I thought some of the best musicians I'd ever played with, because they had grown up listening to me. They knew everything that I did and could play it. Plus, they knew younger people's material, new material, and still they kind of made it sound like they were a Scruggs boy when they played it. So, it was a great outlet for me to start working with my boys.

GROSS: There is a Gibson banjo that is named for you; it's called The Earl.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: It has a portrait of you on it.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: And your signature. Do you play one of those Gibsons, or do you play something else?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, yeah, I play a Gibson banjo.

GROSS: Is it an Earl?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, basically it is. I'm playing a banjo that I've been playing since back in the late '40s, I guess, early '50s. But it's still basic - they're still making basically the same banjo they were making way back there.

GROSS: When you say you're still playing the same banjo, do you mean it's literally the same instrument or that it's the same model?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah, same banjo.

GROSS: Same banjo. Now, what do you love so much about this banjo? Is it just a sentimental attachment, or is there something special about the sound?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, it produces the sound that my ears are looking for. Maybe I've just gotten used to it, but I like the sound that I get out of that particular banjo. I feel at home with it when I take it out of the case and start, you know - there's no - when you start with another instrument, they all have their feel, and playing the same instrument you know what it's going to feel like when you take it out of the case and start to perform.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Been my pleasure.

DAVIES: Earl Scruggs' new CD is called, "Earl Scruggs: The Ultimate Collection / Live at the Ryman." I'm Dave Davies and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of song "The Ballad of Jed Clampett")

Mr. JERRY SCOGGINS: (Singing)
Come and listen to the story about a man named Jed,
A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed.
Then one day he was shootin' at some food,
When up from through ground came a-bubblin' crude...
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Jack Bauer's Compressed, Two Hour 'Redemption'

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross. The serialized Fox drama series "24," starring Kiefer Sutherland as terrorist-fighting federal agent Jack Bauer, hasn't been on TV since May of 2007. The next season of the series won't begin until January of next year. In between, Fox is presenting a special self-contained two-hour "24" movie this Sunday. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Asking viewers to wait more than 18 months between seasons of a TV show, even if it's their favorite TV show, is asking a lot - maybe too much. "The Sopranos" over on cable got away with it, but few shows do. When the writers' strike crippled TV production last season, the shows that rushed back in the production afterward, like the procedurals and comedies on CBS, recovered nicely in the ratings. The shows that decided to wait and reboot this fall, like ABC's "Pushing Daisies," didn't.

For "24," which dramatizes its action in hourly doses of real-time excitement, the producers decided they couldn't present a partial season of shows. For one thing, they'd have to call it "12" or "9," which somehow doesn't sound as cool. So, while working on the next season, which wouldn't be televised until the show's usual mid-season launch in January, the "24" folks decided to present a sort of bonus installment.

Consider "24: Redemption," which premieres this weekend, a sequel to last year, and a prequel to next year. Jack, played by Kiefer Sutherland, is in Africa, hiding out from a bunch of people - including his own government - and working at a charity boys' school run by an old friend from Special Forces. On this particular day - and I'm not giving anything away here, because it happens right at the start - someone shows up at the camp looking for Jack. The stranger is played by Gil Bellows from "Ally McBeal," and Jack's friend who runs the boys' camp and introduces the stranger to Jack is played by Robert Carlyle from "The Full Monty."

(Soundbite of TV movie "24: Redemption")

Mr. ROBERT CARLYLE: (As Carl Benton) Jack, this is Frank Tramell. He's the ambassador's chief political officer.

Mr. KIEFER SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) I know who he is.

Mr. CARLYLE: (As Carl Benton) He says he left some messages for you to come see him at the embassy.

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) I got his messages.

Mr. CARLYLE: (As Carl Benton) What's going on, Jack?

Mr. GIL BELLOWS: (As Frank Tramell) I'll tell you what's going on. Senate subcommittee has questions about the illegal detention and torture of certain prisoners in Mr. Bauer's custody. I have a subpoena requesting your appearance, and it's way past due.

(Soundbite of papers rustling)

Mr. BELLOWS: (As Frank Tramell) So, consider yourself served.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) I told the boys I'd help them unload the truck. Excuse me.

Mr. BELLOWS: (As Frank Tramell) Failure to comply to a subpoena is a federal offense, Mr. Bauer. You are bound by law to respond.

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) Then give them my response. They want me back in Washington, they can come and get me.

BIANCULLI: That's not the only problem Jack faces. The other problem - and again, this is established at the very, very start - is that an army of tribal mercenaries aims to kidnap the boys in the camp and forced them to act as soldiers, or walk through minefields, or just be slaughtered later for the fun of it. Normally, when Jack Bauer is up against these sorts of problems, it makes for a very bad day. But in this telemovie, it makes for a very compressed two hours.

And that's actually the weakness of this particular Jack Bauer adventure. Sure, there's all this excitement and conflict and action. There's even a stateside story set during Inauguration Day of a new president. No, not that new president - "24" had a black man in the White House long before it was fashionable. But because of all this compression, the usual elements of "24" get squeezed next to one another like plot points in an outline. As in every season-long story, Jack will either torture or be tortured. As in every other "24" adventure, there are scheming villains, showdowns with government authority and a noble sacrifice or two.

Seen at this speed, though, it's like watching "24" on fast-forward. The familiar elements whiz by, and you check, check, check them off - but without lingering on them, few get to resonate. The best exception is the character played by Robert Carlyle, who stands out as one of the most capable and memorable fighting partners Jack Bauer has ever had. Since we don't get to see any of the CTU regulars in this narrative, including Chloe, Carlyle's contribution is not only welcome; it's invaluable.

And yes, despite all the speedy drama in this avoid-capture, save-the-kids adventure, there's a really strong payoff at the end. The big reward, though, is the bigger payoff that comes after the end. The second this "24" telemovie is over, Fox presents a very lengthy teaser promo for the upcoming season of "24." And hold onto your seats, because that looks great. We'll just have to wait. But during this sorry TV season, we've been doing a lot of that anyway.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is TV critic for tvworthwatching.com and teaches TV and film studies at Roan University. Coming up, the National Book Foundation honors publisher Barney Rosset for his battles with censorship. This is Fresh Air.
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For Publisher Barney Rosset, Risk Has Its Rewards

DAVE DAVIES, host:

On Wednesday, the National Book Foundation honored publisher Barney Rosset with the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. The awards committee called Rosset a tenacious champion for writers who were struggling to be read in America. Through his publishing house, Grove Press, and his magazine, The Evergreen Review, Rosset introduced American readers to such authors as Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, Jean Genet and Eugene Ionesco, as well as many of the writers of the Beat Generation.

He fought two landmark First Amendment battles in order to publish the uncensored version of the D. H. Lawrence's novel, "Lady Chatterley's Lover," and Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer." His publication of erotic Victorian novels was attacked by conservative Christian groups associated with Reverend Donald Wildmon, who demanded their removal from the shelves of Waldenbooks and Dalton Bookstores. Terry spoke to Barney Rosset in 1991. She asked him if his publishing choices were a reflection of his personal taste or based more on his social and political interests and his interest in challenging obscenity laws.

(Soundbite of NPR's WHYY, April 9, 1991)

Mr. BARNEY ROSSET (Publisher, Grove Press): Well, I think it was both of those things, plus a very important thing, which is what is available. I mean, when I started publishing, I most definitely would have liked to have published Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald, but they were already published, so they were eliminated. So, that's an important thing to remember. And the books I published which I felt were an affront to obscenity law I also happened to like very much as books.

TERRY GROSS: Have a lot of people misunderstood you over the years and sent you a lot of not very good pornography thinking oh, it's Grove Press; they'll love to publish this?

Mr. ROSSET: Yes, indeed, great amounts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSSET: But also, great amounts of other things equally bad that did not fit under that category.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What was the first book that you published that ended up getting taken to court over obscenity charges?

Mr. ROSSET: "Lady Chatterley's Lover," and that was a very deliberate, clear idea that - actually - I mean, we planned a battle plan which was to get the post office to take action against us as opposed to local government or whatever so that we could keep it as simple as possible and win or lose at a federal level. And it turned out that way, and we won.

GROSS: So, the attorney general, I think, accused it of being smutty pornography...

Mr. ROSSET: I think it was the postmaster general.

GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry. I meant to say the postmaster general. What were the grounds that you argued that case in court?

Mr. ROSSET: Well, my grounds has always been that anything should be - can be published. In this case, judicial or legal wisdom was that it should be argued on the basis that it was a good book and therefore not subject to any kind of censorship. And on that basis, we won very clearly.

GROSS: The trial, I think, demonstrated that "Lady Chatterley's Lover" had redeeming literary merit. Did you feel that books should have to prove that they have redeeming literary or social value in order to...?

Mr. ROSSET: No, I certainly don't think so.

GROSS: And why not?

Mr. ROSSET: I think that if you have freedom of speech, you have freedom of speech.

GROSS: Was there a period in which you or writers and publishers who you knew were testifying about a book's literary and social merits even if you didn't really like the book very much, but you felt the book had the right to exist so you would testify on the grounds that were needed?

Mr. ROSSET: Well, I mean, I don't think that happened with our books. But I was really aiming at was publishing "Tropic of Cancer," which I had read in 1940 when I was a freshman at Swarthmore College, and it made an enormous impression on me, and I kept it in the back of my mind for many years that someday, somehow, that book would be aired to the rest of the world. So, my way of getting to "Tropic of Cancer" was through "Lady Chatterley's Lover."

GROSS: How did you use "Lady Chatterley's Lover" to publish Henry Miller's book?

Mr. ROSSET: To show that a book of literary merit, whatever, could be published and go from there to showing that Henry Miller had the same merit of that. I felt that it would be more difficult to start with Miller.

GROSS: Because he didn't have the kind of literary track record that Lawrence did.

Mr. ROSSET: That's right, and it worked out that way.

GROSS: So, how difficult was it to prove for Henry Miller?

Mr. ROSSET: Very difficult.

GROSS: What did you have to do?

Mr. ROSSET: There, we had hundreds of court cases - hundreds in one state, I mean. Eleven in one city - it was a very strange chaos. But ultimately, it worked out all right.

GROSS: What spoke to you about the book? Why did you want to publish it so much?

Mr. ROSSET: Well, when I read it, the sex part of it I didn't even notice, which I say is amazing. To me, it was a tract about the United States, and it went along with another book called "The Air-Conditioned Nightmare." It's sort of funny because there wasn't much air-conditioning then, but Miller had a very unusual and cynical viewpoint of modern American life of his time of the '30, '40s. I was living in it. Everything he said struck something inside of me, excited me, made me want to be creative and do things like run away from Swarthmore. But other things, I thought it was a marvelous expression of one human being.

GROSS: An expression of alienation.

Mr. ROSSET: Of alienation, I think, is good way to put it. And so, I just remembered that from 1940 until whenever it was - we published in the '60s.

GROSS: Let's go back to the very beginning when you started to publish. You've told us that part of how you made your choice of who to publish was who was available, who was already taken. Some of the first authors you published are now celebrated authors - Jean Genet, Ionesco, Samuel Beckett. These were, I think, among - these were the first three authors you published, weren't they?

Mr. ROSSET: No, they weren't. The first author I published was Henry James.

GROSS: Well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSSET: I republished "The Golden Bowl" of James and another old English novel, "The Monk" of Matthew Lewis, and eventually worked up to Samuel Beckett and Ionesco and Jean Genet, but it took a few years. These people, though, I had learned about them, had read things by them, I admired them, and the mainstream - so-called mainstream of American publishing - had bypassed them.

GROSS: No one wanted to publish Beckett or Genet or Ionesco in those days?

Mr. ROSSET: No, no, no, no.

GROSS: You must have felt really lucky to have a field to yourself, you know, untouchables who you thought were very, very important.

Mr. ROSSET: I certainly did. I certainly felt exactly that way, that it was very fortunate for me, in a certain sense, that these people whom I felt were amongst the greatest of the living writers of our time somehow were overlooked by the American establishment.

GROSS: In 1985, you sold Grove Press to another house.

Mr. ROSSET: Not to another house - to a woman.

GROSS: Oh, to an individual?

Mr. ROSSET: Yes.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. ROSSET: Ann Getty.

GROSS: Why did you want to sell?

Mr. ROSSET: Well, we were always on the brink of severe financial problems, and incidentally, I didn't own Grove Press. It was, for 20 years or so, a publicly held company of which I was a minority stockholder, the biggest but still definitely a minority. And I was promised that if the Gettys came in, there would be a great deal of money made available to buy new manuscripts, books and so on, and that I would have a contract to stay there and it all seemed very appealing. And I was wrong.

GROSS: Right. You ended up leaving.

Mr. ROSSET: They threw me out.

GROSS: So, who owns the backlist now to...

Mr. ROSSET: Grove Press.

GROSS: Right. So, you don't have access anymore to the books that you brought out.

Mr. ROSSET: Access? I can read them.

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSSET: I have them, individual copies.

GROSS: I've always wondered what that feels like, you know, when you're the head of a company for a long time and then you're out of that company and works that you acquired over the years are no longer under your control.

Mr. ROSSET: Well, I mean, I - I mean, for example, Samuel Beckett remained a close friend of mine, and Ionesco and so on. So, I mean, I like the books as much as I've ever, and anything I can do to help them, you know, to continue with the books I'm happy to do. I feel terribly disappointed personally, but that certainly doesn't change my feelings about the books.

GROSS: How come when you sold Grove Press you didn't just retire?

Mr. ROSSET: Why would I retire? I feel the same today as I did when I was 17. First of all, I have no money. I have no pension. So, that's, again, like saying, what books are available amongst those you'll have to publish? What are my options? I'm going to retire to where?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSSET: That's number one. Number two, I don't understand the idea of retiring. I mean, that, to me, is another word for death.

GROSS: Do you feel strongly about the books you're publishing now?

Mr. ROSSET: I do.

GROSS: What is it about them that makes you feel strong?

Mr. ROSSET: I like them.

DAVIES: Publisher Barney Rosset speaking with Terry Gross in 1991. Rosset was just honored by the National Book Foundation with the Literarian Award. Let's hear a track from the new live Sonny Rollins album, "Road Shows." This is "Some Enchanted Evening."

(Soundbite of song "Some Enchanted Evening")

DAVIES: Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new teen vampire film, "Twilight." This is Fresh Air.
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An Undercooked but Enjoyable "Twilight"

DAVE DAVIES, host:

If you happened by a Multiplex last night, you would have seen teenage girls camping out in line to see a midnight screening of "Twilight." That's the film based on Brigham University graduate Stephenie Meyer's bestselling vampire-romance novels. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: It's no mystery why Stephenie Meyer's romantic vampire saga "Twilight" gets under the skin of so many young readers, and why the movie, although nowhere near as penetrating, will be the occasion for mass public swoon-a-thons. It's the biochemistry angle. See, the gorgeous vampire Edward is driven mad with desire by the high-school heroine Isabella's scent. She's just arrived in their remote Pacific Northwest town to live with her chief of police father. Edward smells her while they're peering through a microscope at microbes, and his eyes become a feral yellow-black. And she soon loves him hungrily, too, in her ordinary, teenage, raging-hormonal way, which is powerful enough.

But in this universe, the vampire's appetites cannot be controlled. One taste of her blood could trigger carnage on an operatic scale. Meyer's prose is skimmable, but her dialogue hits all the right beats. Experiencing these two beautiful creatures' enforced sexual suppression on the page made me feel like I was 17 again. But "Twilight" the movie is cautious, virtually bloodless and, of course, sexless, a sort of teen-magazine version of "Twin Peaks." In its undercooked way, though, it's enjoyable. A lot of people have so much invested in it being the biggest hot-date movie since "Titanic" that they'll love it anyway, and their reactions will be part of the show.

At the screening I went to, three rows of girls in the front shrieked at the entrance of Robert Pattinson and shrieked again when he locked eyes with Isabella, or Bella, played by Kristen Stewart. He's a strange-looking actor, more my idea of a hunky Frankenstein's Monster than a hunky vampire, with six inches of hair above six inches of forehead above a foot of face in too-obvious white greasepaint. But he matches up with Stewart, who has a long face herself, although rather less lipstick. In the high-school cafeteria, he tilts his head down and rolls his eyeballs up soulfully and tries to convey the hopelessness of their situation.

(Soundbite of movie "Twilight")

Ms. KRISTEN STEWART: (As Isabella Swan) You know, your mood swings are kind of giving me whiplash.

Mr. ROBERT PATTINSON: (As Edward Cullen) I only said it would be better if weren't friends, not that I didn't want to be.

Ms. STEWART: (As Isabella Swan) What does that mean?

Mr. PATTINSON: (As Edward Cullen) It means if you were smart, you'd stay away from me.

Ms. STEWART: (As Isabella Swan) OK. Well, let's say for argument's sake that I'm not smart. I can see what you're trying to put off, but I can see that it's just to keep people away from you. It's a mask. Would you tell me the truth?

Mr. PATTINSON: (As Edward Cullen) No, probably not. I'd rather hear your theories.

Ms. STEWART: (As Isabella Swan) I have considered radioactive spiders and kryptonite.

Mr. PATTINSON: (As Edward Cullen) It's all superhero stuff, right? What if I'm not the hero? What if I'm the bad guy?

Ms. STEWART: (As Isabella Swan) You're not.

EDELSTEIN: The emotion in the scene is palpable, except they're in the throes of intimacy before their intimacy has even been established. I think you'll need to read the book to pick up on all the vibes, because the script by Melissa Rosenberg is barely functional. And even with the heroine's narration, the director Catherine Hardwicke doesn't bring us into Bella's head as she's observing Edward and his strange family of marbleized outsiders, his adopted parents and brothers and sisters.

The idea that this pallid clan passes as human is a laugh. When Edward's father, Carlisle, a much-loved doctor, strides into the hospital emergency room, he looks ready to host a "Monster Chiller Horror Theater" marathon. You expect him to say...

(As Dracula) Do you have a table for one?

Hardwicke jacks up the atmosphere with a camera that swoops all over the woods and a romantic grunge-rock soundtrack. Good and bad vampires gorily fight it out, and there are werewolves around, too, although you won't see them transform until the next movie in the "Twilight" saga.

The best thing in the film is Kristen Stewart, and she's better at conveying physical longing than any of the actors playing vampires. She alone suggests how this series was born, in the mind of a young Mormon girl who had to sublimate like mad with thoughts of vampires. Duncan Lance Black, the screenwriter of the gay-rights activist Harvey Milk biopic with Sean Penn opening next week, is also a Mormon. With characters that veer between implosive sexual repression and explosive sexual liberation, Mormons might, well, be the new Catholics.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our engineer is Bob Perdick. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Sue Spolan directed the show. Our digital production project supervisor is Julian Herzfeld.

We'll close with some music from the great jazz pianist, Dave McKenna, who died in October. We'll remember him on Thanksgiving Day by playing some of his performance on Fresh Air and by talking to his sister, Jean McKenna O'Donnell. This is Dave McKenna playing "Deep in a Dream." For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(Soundbite of song "Deep in a Dream")
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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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