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Elektra Records Founder Jac Holzman

Holzman founded the record label in 1950, initially focusing on recording folk and ethnic music. In the 1960s he signed on some of the big pop and rock voices of the era like Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, and the Doors. He talks with Terry Gross about working with the Doors. Holman headed Elektra Records for 23 years. He has a new book, "Follow the Music: The Life and High Times of Elektra Records in the Great Years of American Pop Culture" (FirstMedia Books)


Other segments from the episode on July 7, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 7, 1998: Interview with Jac Holzman; Interview with Michael Gazzaniga; Review of Lucinda Williams's album "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road."


Date: JULY 07, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 070701np.217
Head: Follow the Music
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Yesterday on FRESH AIR, Ray Manzarek, who was the keyboard player with The Doors, told us a lot of great stories. One of those stories was about how singer Jim Morrison threw a TV at the control room window during The Doors' first recording session. So, how did the head of the record company feel about that kind of behavior?

Well, we asked Jac Holzman, the founder of The Doors' record company, Elektra Records. Holzman has a new book about Elektra called "Follow The Music." Elektra started out as a folk and ethnic music label and first made its mark with such performers as Gene Ritchey (ph), Theodore Bikel, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, and Phil Ochs (ph). Elektra's first big hit was The Doors single "Light My Fire."

What attracted a folk and classical music fan like Jac Holzman to The Doors? Well, one thing was their version of the Brecht/Weill song "Whiskey Bar."


To the next whiskey bar
Oh, don't ask why
Oh, don't ask why
Show me the way to the next whiskey bar
Oh, don't ask why
Oh, don't ask why
But if we don't find
The next whiskey bar
I tell you we must die
I tell you we must die
I tell you
I tell you
I tell you we must die

Oh, moon of Alabama
We now must say good-bye
We've lost our good old mama
And must have whiskey, oh you know why

Oh, moon...

GROSS: I asked Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records, about the difficulties he faced working with Jim Morrison, who was talented, commercially successful, but often out of control.

From our standpoint, the difficulties in Jim's life and the way he expressed them were nothing as compared to the magic of the recordings. It was more than Light My Fire. The first Doors album was as close to a perfect album as I've ever been involved with. That album really pushed the envelope. And I was just so thrilled to be associated with it, and if there was a price to pay, that was OK with me.

I had dealt with some outrageous artists before who had problems, and artists afterwards who had problems. And I found it best to keep my distance, because I'm the person who runs their record company and I am the surrogate for the audience, and it's my job to make sure that things keep moving and that the artists are given the very best possible circumstances in which to record.

And these are the issues that you have to deal with.

GROSS: So, you tried to keep your distance in part so you could remain kind of the authority figure, and not get too close with anyone?

HOLZMAN: Well it's -- it makes it difficult if at some point you have to take a stand on something, and you've been hanging out with them all the time. It erodes the special relationship that you have with them. And I think that The Doors appreciated that.

I know Jim did. Before he went to Paris, he wanted to have sort of a farewell drinking session with me. Well, I'm smart enough not to have more than two with Jim Morrison because Jim's big enemy was alcohol.

And he could be a prince. You could take him anywhere. But pour a few drinks into Jim and he would go from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. And it was a real problem. So I would never -- I would never try to match him drink for drink.

But I remember this evening so vividly because we were sitting in this bar and we each had our second drink, and Jim begins to taunt me: "Jack, you gotta go more out on the edge." And I responded: "Jim, it's great being on the edge. The trick is not to bleed."

And he sort of paused for a moment and then we talked about movies.

GROSS: Your record company, Elektra, was coordinating The Doors tours and club dates. How would you deal with it if club owners got scared by Morrison's behavior and they wanted to cancel a date?

HOLZMAN: That never really happened until after the Miami incident.

GROSS: When he was accused of exposing himself on stage.

HOLZMAN: That's correct.

GROSS: And then what happened? And how did you handle it?

HOLZMAN: Well what happened then was that a decency movement began in Florida, and there was a move among concert promoters to cancel Doors dates. And Doors dates were being canceled all over the country, and The Doors were in a major funk over this, as well you might imagine they would be.

We just kept our cool, and we kept doing what we were supposed to do: be responsible for their records and supporting the boys wherever we could. There's not a lot you can do.

GROSS: As the head of the record company, did you ever think: oh, well maybe I should sit down with Jim Morrison and either try to discipline him or have a little talk with him about -- about controlling himself more?

HOLZMAN: I thought that was better left to Ray Manzarek and the other members of the group. My function is not to discipline artists. My purpose is to be the midwife to their music; to support them; to help them in what they want to do creatively. If an artist asked me for an opinion, they know they'll always get an honest one. But I didn't think it was my place to -- to get involved in what was essentially an internal group problem.

I had seen this before. I had had other artists who had problems, and I always let the groups handle them.

GROSS: Now, why did you decide to sign The Doors? What appealed to you about their music?

HOLZMAN: I went to see another group called "Love" who was on Elektra. And Arthur Lee (ph), who was the essential linchpin of that group said: "stick around for the other group that's on the bottom of the bill." And I did. And I wasn't really very impressed, but there was something about the group that kept bringing me back.

And it was only later that I figured out what it was. It was a kind of austerity in their musical line. If I were compare The Doors to architecture, I would say that they were the Bauhaus of '60s rock and roll.

And I think that cleanliness of line and the expressive lyrics and the sheer beautiful simplicity of it is what has made the group last for over 30 years.

GROSS: You were kind of unprepared for the incredible success that their first record had. And you had to call the pressing plants to get more records made very quickly 'cause there was a big demand for them. What impact did that have on the company? To have this big, sudden demand?

HOLZMAN: Well, first of all, it was wonderful, and I smiled so wide that my face hurt. But it was fantastic, because suddenly after having struggled for 17 years with folk albums and singer/songwriters that had found increasing popularity, I was now riding the tiger.

And the company was catapulted into a leading position. People were bringing artists to us. We got a first crack at things. And the logistics of pressing the records was left to my brother Keith, and we had relationships with pressing plants over the country and we were able to get everything manufactured that we needed.

But the important thing was that we were able to attract other artists because we had moved up one order of magnitude, I guess, on the scale of record companies. It was heady stuff.

GROSS: When you found out about Jim Morrison's death, what responsibilities did you have? Did you have to take care of his personal effects or anything like that?

HOLZMAN: No. What I had to take care of first was my own emotion. Jim had been so special to me and the band was phenomenal. And they had played such a vital and pivotal role in the growth of Elektra. Jim had been kind to me and my family. He would remember my son Adam's birthday and bring him a musical instrument and spend time with him.

So, I had to deal with that. But I also realized that I had to deal with what I thought was going to be a media circus, and indeed it had been for Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. But I was lucky. I had two days to prepare. I knew about it on a Monday and it wasn't public knowledge until Wednesday evening.

So I sent my number two man Bill Harvey (ph) out to the West Coast. We had press releases prepared. We told the staff at the appropriate time. We had to tell Paul Rothschild, who had been their producer for all of the albums except the final one, "L.A. Woman."

And we got all of that stuff done. So when the phone calls started coming and people wanted the radio interviews, we had determined that we were going to let The Doors do most of the talking -- The Doors and Pam -- and we would speak only about what their music meant to us and to their fans.

GROSS: Must have been really interesting to be making records during the psychedelic era. And you were one of the record companies that had what you describe as "the company freak." What was the job of the company freak?

HOLZMAN: The company freak was a -- I led a much more nine-to-five life, and the company freak sort of took over when I went home. The company freak's job was to be out on the street at all times interpreting the company to the artists and the public, and giving us feedback as to what was being said. Company freaks were instrumental in getting The Doors' Light My Fire single on that very, very important juke box at Max's Kansas City.

They were out and around and knew what was going on. Now, we had one in New York named Danny Fields (ph), and he was an amazing man and still is. Danny began to take on A&R responsibilities. One of the things that happened at Elektra was that you could take on almost as much responsibility as you were willing to be responsible for. So Danny decided to start doing A&R, and he came up with the "MC-5" (ph) and almost by accident, "Iggy Pop and the Stooges."

GROSS: In your book, you tell the story of what happened after you signed the MC-5, and the MC-5 is this revolutionary singing group that sang songs, you know, against the police and against the war and used a lot of language that you couldn't say on the radio.

For example, their record "Kick Out the Jams" (ph) had the word "MF" in it. So you had to come up with a creative solution to dealing with the fact that this was going to be unplayable on the radio. So you cut two versions of it: one for radio play where the word "MF" was substituted with -- with what? -- brothers and sisters?

HOLZMAN: Brothers and sisters.

GROSS: And...

HOLZMAN: And sometimes, unfortunately, in a couple of stores, the boxes were mislabeled.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

HOLZMAN: And there was a store, Nordstrom's in the Midwest who happened to get the wrong box and some mother brought the record back in, and Nordstrom's sent all the records back. So the MC-5 were very, very upset and they took out an ad in the Detroit Free Press, which is like the underground newspaper, with a big Elektra logo. And it said the "F" word -- oh I'm sorry -- It wasn't Nordstrom's. It was Hudson's -- " 'F' Hudson's" -- and signed my name and the Elektra logo to it.

Well, I contacted John Sinclair (ph), the great white panther, and said you can't do this because suddenly Hudson's, in response, was sending back Judy Collins, Theodore Bikel, The Incredible String Band. Plus, they were sending back all my Nonesuch (ph) Records -- Mozart and Bach and all of his progeny were pouring back into the distributor's doors.

And we had a disagreement. Later on, Danny Fields, the company freak, said, in defending the MC-5: "well, it's OK for Jim Morrison to take out his penis, but it's not OK for the MC-5 to take out their ad?"


Which was gloriously incongruous logic, but it was so charming I just had to laugh. We gave a lot of permission and we suggested to the MC-5 that they might be happier elsewhere, and within 24 hours they had a new deal with Atlantic and they went and drove them crazy.

GROSS: Well, it must have been a thankless job in a way to try to run a business when the people who you were signing saw themselves as revolutionaries and you, of course, were part of the establishment 'cause you were a businessman. So you know, who needs you, right?

HOLZMAN: Well, we may have been part of the establishment and I may have been a businessman, but I was a music lover first. And if it hadn't been for music and a love of music and folk music and a passion for engineering, I would never have gotten involved in this. In 1948 when the LP was invented and inexpensive tape recording became available, it was possible for someone like me to grab his bar mitzvah money and start a record company.

Interestingly enough, of the 500 to 600 labels that started at that time, only two survive today -- where the threat of continuity has -- can be determined over the years, and that's Elektra and Atlantic.

Elektra took political positions. I was horrified by the war in Vietnam. We took out radio editorials which I spoke in my own voice. We took out paid ads in magazines. Kent State, I thought, was an abomination. I thought what happened at the 1968 Democratic Convention definitely needed to be addressed. And I thought that we as a label stand for something and I just wanted to speak out and express my own dismay and outrage.

GROSS: My guest is Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records. His new book is called Follow The Music. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records, and he's written a memoir called Follow The Music: The Life and High Times of Elektra Records in the Great Years of American Pop Culture.

So you started the label in 1950 when you were 19 years old, with your bar mitzvah money. How much bar mitzvah money did you get?

HOLZMAN: Well, I got $300 and I cadged another $300 from a friend who would -- who just took his veterans bonus and he put it in the company. I later bought him out, of course.

GROSS: So, what was your vision for the company at the age of 19?

HOLZMAN: At the age of 19? Well, my vision for the company was a personal vision. I wanted to make a good record, make enough money to make another good record, and go to the movies. I had no sense that I was going to be building a company this large, but what I wanted to do was to be able to not take crazy risks so I could stay in the game. And I would just follow the music and follow the industry, and see where it would take me.

I did not have a big vision. It was only later, after I had survived for 10 years, that I realized I might be able to take this someplace interesting. And I never knew where the idea was going to hit me. I remember the evening in 1963 when I was sitting in a restaurant waiting for someone, and I was right across the street from Carnegie Hall.

And suddenly, the idea of Nonesuch Records hit me, based upon experience I had as a youngster in Annapolis, Maryland going to St. John's College and not being able to afford two records; only being able to buy one. And they were $5.95 in those days.

And so in 1963, I decided to create a label with a unique personality; all fustiness removed; that would issue the kinds of records that I loved when I was going to school in my late teens and early 20s, and I called it Nonesuch. And it was an enormous success -- so great a success that unlike most situations with record companies, whereby the pop music subsidizes classics, at Elektra it was Nonesuch that subsidized Elektra and permitted us to go out and make rock and roll records.

GROSS: In 1970, your label Elektra merged with Warner and Atlantic. Why did you decide to merge?

HOLZMAN: In the early '70s, I could see that being good at A&R and being effective marketeers, which is really just the connection of something wonderful with an audience that might want to hear it, was not going to be enough. We were running into problems of smaller independent distributors throughout the country folding and going out of business and not paying us. And I recognized that we would have to control our own distribution if Elektra was to survive as a label.

And so I began to have talks with friends of mine -- Bill Austin at Warner Brothers and the Ertigan (ph) brothers at Atlantic about perhaps moving Elektra into an orbit where the three of us would -- would have a merger for purposes of distribution only.

What happened was that the Warner-Atlantic labels were taken over by what became Warner Communications, and I met with Steve Ross, who was the chairman -- who sat on top of the entire Warner Communications mini-empire to be. And I liked Steve enormously, and I thought he had a real vision for the company. And the ability to control our own distribution, not only in the United States, but throughout the world, was enormously attractive to me.

And on top of that, Steve gave me an opportunity to use my love and knowledge of technology throughout the entire company. So it was an irresistible opportunity and I went for it. And unlike most people who have ended up having latter-day regrets about the selling of their company, I never did. I had a wild and wonderful ride.

GROSS: After 23 years with Elektra Records, in 1973 you decided to get out. You write: "my instinct was it's time to go." You weren't quite 42 at the time. Why did you give up the company?

HOLZMAN: Couple of reasons. When I had been growing up, I had seen a movie called "Holiday" with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. And part of the premise of this movie was that this Cary Grant character wanted to take time off at mid-life to find out why he was doing what he was doing. And that was always a ruling image for me. So, that was always in the back of my head.

In 1968, I had found Maui and the Cary Grant image came back again. But I think the most important reason was that I had had seven or eight phenomenal years from 1966 to 1973, and I could tell that I had enjoyed a phenomenal cycle and that cycle was not likely to continue into the '70s. And I just did not want to preside over the company when the music was going to be far less interesting.

GROSS: Are you glad you got out? Or do you have regrets?

HOLZMAN: No, I'm glad I did what I did.

GROSS: Now, what are you doing now?


HOLZMAN: Well, I've had an interesting career ever having -- ever since leaving Elektra. I went to Hawaii and lived there for eight years and was chief technologist of Warner Communications. And I was deeply involved with Warner's entry into the cable business, and I did the initial research and development for Warners on behalf of optical discs, which later became laser disc and the CD.

And I was later chairman of Panavision, which is the world's pre-eminent designer and builder of camera systems for motion picture and television cinematography. And I got involved in a bunch of companies. And about five years ago, I came back to the Warner Music Group and I'm their chief technologist.

GROSS: So, it hasn't exactly been retirement.

HOLZMAN: Well, I had it easy for the seven or eight years I was in Hawaii, and I'll never retire. My mind is just too active and I'm too curious as an individual. But as long as people are putting out decent music, I'll be -- I'll be listening to it, although I think there's been a dearth of really good music over the last few years, and I think that's a result of the -- of the changes and the differences between making records in the '60s and '70s and making records today where the control of the industry is in the hands of fewer people.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

HOLZMAN: It's been my pleasure.

GROSS: Jac Holzman founded Elektra Records. His new book is called Follow the Music. Here's another Elektra Record by the late Phil Ochs.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


PHIL OCHS, SINGER, SINGING: Oh I marched to the battle of New Orleans
At the end of the early British war
The young land started growing
The young blood started flowing
But I ain't a-marching anymore

For I've killed my share of Injuns
In a thousand different fights
I was there at the Little Big Horn
I heard many men a-lying
I saw many more a-dying
But I ain't a-marching anymore

It's always the old who lead us to the wars
Always the young to fall
Now look at all we've won
With a sabre and a gun
Tell me, is it worth it all?

For I stole California from the Mexican land
Fought in the bloody Civil War
Yes I even killed my brothers...

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Jac Holzman
High: The founder of Elektra Records, Jac Holzman. He founded the record label in 1950, initially focusing on recording folk and ethnic music. In the 1960s he signed on some of the big pop and rock voices of the era like Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, and The Doors. He'll talk with Terry Gross about working with The Doors. Holzman headed Elektra Records for 23 years. He has a new book, "Follow the Music: The Life and High Times of Elektra Records in the Great Years of American Pop Culture."
Spec: Music Industry; The Doors; Jac Holzman; Elektra Records
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Follow the Music
Date: JULY 07, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 070702np.217
Head: The Mind's Past
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Can you really become more artistic by strengthening the right side of your brain? Probably not, according to neuroscientist Dr. Michael Gazzaniga. He's a pioneer of split brain research and has mapped which parts of the left and right hemispheres perform certain functions.

The people he studies for most of his split brain research are epileptics who have had the connections between the left and right hemispheres of their brains severed in order to control seizures.

Dr. Gazzaniga's new book "The Mind's Past" explores how the left hemisphere of the brain seems to act as the interpreter of our actions, forming the narrative explanations of why we do what we do.

Dr. Gazzaniga is the director of the Program in Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College. He says that of all the syndromes in neurology and of all the discoveries in brain science, none is more wondrous than studying people with split brains.

MICHAEL GAZZANIGA, DIRECTOR, PROGRAM IN COGNITIVE NEUROSCIENCE, DARTMOUTH, AUTHOR, "THE MIND'S PAST": You wouldn't know a split brain if you had dinner with one. They're completely normal; completely seemingly integrated; completely wonderful folks in every sense of the word. You really have to get into the laboratory and do lateralized testing techniques and all these things we do to show the differences between the hemisphere.

And the reason is, you've got this big dominant left hemisphere sitting there controlling the conversation, looking around the room, making sure information gets into its part of the brain. It's -- these patients are utterly normal in every sense of everyday life.

GROSS: You've been studying split brain patients now for -- what? -- nearly 40 years?

GAZZANIGA: That's correct.

GROSS: How did you start studying split brain patients?

GAZZANIGA: Well, it was an opportunity given to me by my mentor Roger Sperry, who then was a professor at Cal Tech, and the opportunity came up through the fact that a neurosurgeon, a young neurosurgeon named Joseph Bogan, had decided that the surgery could be very useful in the control of epilepsy. And they proceeded to carry out the surgery which in effect is to disconnect the two half brains from each other. And the idea was to keep the -- if one hemisphere went into a seizure, the seizure activity would not spread to the other and the patient would remain in control of their conscious function.

And by and large, the surgery works and it's continued to be used throughout the years. My own contribution to the work is to look at the psychological and basic neurologic results of that surgery.

GROSS: So, you've been studying basically behavior and cognition by studying...

GAZZANIGA: That's correct.

GROSS: ... split brain. What procedure do you use to study the difference between the left and the right brain and how they process information?

GAZZANIGA: Sure. Well, it's actually very simple. If you fixate a point on the wall -- just look at any point in space, it turns out that everything to the right of where you're looking is projected to your left brain exclusively, and everything to the left of where you're looking is projected to the right.

So there are many devices one can build that start off with just the basic tachistoscope (ph) where you have someone fixate a point and then you would flash information either to the left field or to the right field, and that would either go to the right brain or the left brain exclusively.

And once the information was lateralized using that technique, you could then ask for what a particular hemisphere could do with that information. And then it turned out each hemisphere could do quite different things with it.

GROSS: Let's start with the basics. What are some of the basic things that the left hemisphere can do that the right can't and vice versa?

GAZZANIGA: Well, the left hemisphere is the hemisphere you don't want to leave home without. It's the one that has all the language processing capacities that you and I enjoy. It is the one that carries out most of the problem-solving activities that you and I are capable of.

And the right hemisphere is specialized for another set of functions -- the recognition of upright faces; attentional control mechanisms; and perhaps even monitors some of our emotional life in a specialized way.

So, they're quite different in what the two hemispheres do. Now, one of the things that gets picked up, of course, people talk about your left brain or your right brain or what have you, and those tend to be over-popularized extensions of the work. You have to remember that your brain and my brain is connected. So all of these functions are pooled together into what looks like our -- our whole personhood.

GROSS: So you don't recommend books like -- what is it called? -- "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain?" It shows how you can strengthen your artistic abilities by strengthening the right side of your brain?

GAZZANIGA: Well, that was a enthusiastic interpretation of the work. And actually, that book has some well-known drawing techniques communicated that do help draw -- people learn to drawn, but it doesn't have much to do with right or left brain processes.

GROSS: Now one of your theories is that the left side of the brain has a kind of interpreter in it. The left side of the brain makes sense of what we do; puts things into some kind of context; narrates our life as we live it. Tell us more about what the interpreter does?

GAZZANIGA: Well, we discovered this actually a number of years after carrying out these studies -- we sort of sat around the lab one day and asked: what does the left hemisphere think about all these things that we can get the right hemisphere to do? What does the split brain patient -- how does it deal with the behaviors that we can trigger from the silent right hemisphere?

And so what we did was set up a simple experiment, where to the left brain and the left brain only, we showed a picture of a chicken, and we had in front of the patient four choices, one of which was a chicken claw. And to the right brain at the same time, we showed a picture of a snow scene, and one of the four choices the right brain could pick was a picture of a snow shovel.

And so we would flash these two pictures to the patient, and what would happen is the patient would point to the chicken claw because that goes with the chicken, and the shovel because that went with the snow scene. But the left brain -- the one we're talking to all the time -- really only understands the chicken claw part of it.

So there's the patient pointing with one hand to the -- the chicken claw and the other hand is pointing to the shovel, and we just said: why are you doing that? And so the left hemisphere answers us -- it says: oh, well that's easy; the chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.

And the point being that the hemisphere immediately built up a story that made sense to explain a behavior that was coming out of his own body. And this interpretive function of the left hemisphere seems to be going on all the time.

We're constantly trying to interpret and give meaning to behaviors that we engage in. And sometime these behaviors come out before we really actually have a meaning for them, but the interpreter quickly lassos them in and builds them into why we did such a thing.

And you see this very commonly in emotions, where there'll be some quick metabolic change in us that either triggers an anxiety or triggers maybe a mood depression. And pretty soon, the person is in there trying to come up with a theory as to why this occurred when in fact the event could be -- could have been totally spurious. But the left brain won't leave us alone. It's constantly trying to construct a theory to explain our emotional states and our actual behavior.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to give another example of that, and that's the example of the test that you gave where you told somebody's right brain to take a walk.

GAZZANIGA: Right. So here -- in some of the patients, the right hemisphere can understand simple commands, and here is an example where we told one of the split brain patients to take a walk. We told the right hemisphere to take a walk. And so the patient gets up away from the testing table, and starts to leave the room. And we yelled after him: why -- where are you going? And he looked around at us and he quickly said: "oh, I'm thirsty. I thought I'd go get a drink."

And here again was a behavior triggered by his silent right hemisphere. His left hemisphere really didn't know why he was walking. But we instantly generate a theory to explain these quick changes in our behavior and our moods so it doesn't look like we are a collection, a mosaic of independent units; that in fact we have a narrative center, a personhood, that we're in charge; that we're in charge of all these things.

And in fact, there's many things we're not in charge of.

GROSS: So sometimes this interpreter in the left brain is actually finding the truth; finding a narrative that is true. But sometimes it's just kind of rationalizing or trying to explain something and it's getting it all wrong.

GAZZANIGA: Well that's right. The -- the basic function of the interpreter is to get it all right. It's to try to explain why A -- or how A relates to B and in most instances, this is a very productive function and in most instances, it can solve the problem correctly.

But occasionally, actually quite commonly, it can mess things up and spin a story about the meaning of something when in fact there's really no meaning to the story line at all.

GROSS: Now, do you think that this connects at all with false memory, which is a really important social topic today and a very controversial one?

GAZZANIGA: It sure is. It's a fascinating topic and I think the interpreter is very, very involved in that process. What I think the -- what I think the left hemisphere does is stereotype. It takes a scene and it says: OK, this is this -- let's say it's a picture of a school house. Here's a school house. And a little while later you're asked about the picture, and you're asked if a particular item was in the picture.

Well, your left brain said: well, it was a school house. They're asking me about a billboard -- there must -- I mean a chalk board -- there must have been a chalkboard in the picture. And they say: yes, of course, there was a chalkboard in the picture. And because that has a high probability of being right, we are comfortable with the result. And yet, one can do these things experimentally and show there was no chalkboard in the picture whatsoever.

So what the left hemisphere does is it tries to grasp the overall context of the scene. It stores it that way. And then when asked about it later, it -- it will include all kinds of things that could have been in such a picture, and come to believe that they actually were. The right hemisphere doesn't do that, and we can test of course, the right hemisphere separately in these patients.

When you do the same sort of test with the right hemisphere, it just gives the information right back to you. It doesn't do any of the interpretation; doesn't do any of the expansion on the actual information given. It just sits there kind of like a tape recorder and it indicates exactly what happened and exactly what didn't happen. The right -- the left hemisphere, just like you and I, are constantly embellishing past memories and expanding on them, and creating a -- just a warehouse full of false memories.

GROSS: Has this led you to any conclusions or theories about recovered memory and false memory?

GAZZANIGA: Well, there's a -- this is a very active area of research carried out by many people, and there is no question that one can produce false memories. One can do it in a laboratory on a regular basis. And that's not to say that there aren't memories of -- traumatic memories from the past that are true.

The question here is really the quality of the evidence that a particular event happened. It is so easy to bring out a false recollection in somebody, that one simply needs several points of information about the past to verify a claim of an event. You can't go on one person's testimony. It's just too dangerous.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dr. Michael Gazzaniga. He's a neuroscientist and the author of the new book The Mind's Past. He's been conducting research about the brain and the split brain for nearly 40 years.

Let's take a break and then we'll talk some more about your research.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with neuroscientist Dr. Michael Gazzaniga. He's been conducting research on the left and right hemispheres of the brain for close to 40 years. His latest book is called The Mind's Past.

You're one of the neuroscientists who pioneered research on the two different hemispheres of the brain. There's a lot of pop psychology that's happened since to describe the two hemispheres of the brain and to help us strengthen them and so on. What do you think are some of the popular beliefs that may actually just be myths?

GAZZANIGA: Well, the -- you know, there are people who seemingly work at a more intuitive level. There are people who are super-rational. And people will say: OK, the super-rational person is left-brain; the intuitive person is right-brain. What's unfortunate is that there are those two styles of people. There's no question about that. To give it a false anatomy or a false neuroscientific basis is to miss the point.

And I don't know -- I think it's at the level -- most of these things are at the level of the humorous New Yorker cartoon and aren't really things that should drive one's research program.

When you actually get down to the basic data like we've been talking about, you do have this very inventive smart left hemisphere and you do have this rather copy-cat veritical (ph) right hemisphere. That's true. That's the way the brains are built. But in you and I, they're hooked together. They're absolutely hooked together, so that's not a way to think about how you and I are behaving.

Yet, there are these overriding styles, so people use this sort of short-hand neuroscience to talk that way, and you know, I guess it's fun and I don't think about it too much.

GROSS: So if I'm a really rational person, it's not because I have a bigger or stronger left hemisphere of my brain.


GROSS: And because both hemispheres of my brain are connected...


GROSS: ... they're working together and it doesn't matter which is stronger. Is that what you're saying?

GAZZANIGA: Yeah. I mean, it turns out the networks that allow you to be rational are in your left hemisphere. That's -- that seems -- all the data seems to point to that. And it turns out that those neural systems that allow you to recognize unfamiliar faces from a lineup -- that's -- tends -- turns -- seems to be a right hemisphere function. Those are -- those are set bases of truths.

But what you're saying when someone is rational versus when somebody's intuitive, you're -- you're -- you don't know where really you are on this little left-right dichotomy thing. And my guess is that a intuitive person is also using their left hemisphere madly, wildly -- more outside of their conscious control than the average person. It's not that it's going on in the right hemisphere.

GROSS: One of the things you've been interested in is how the brain's ability to learn and to remember changes with age. And I'm wondering if you see any changes in yourself as you get older?

GAZZANIGA: Oh, God yes. The -- I have -- I have two children, 10 and 12, and -- the second family -- and I wouldn't be so acutely aware of this if I didn't have these children, who are these little tape recorders running around the house remembering every event as it literally occurs, and how my wife and I have come to embellish on the event and to change its meaning and so forth.

And there's no question that there are changes. The basic thing that is understood is again that we confuse our sources of information. We'll tend to remember the gist of something, but we'll forget where we heard it -- that kind of thing.

Or we'll -- we'll incorporate too much into the narrative what actually happened because -- by the way, because of this left hemisphere's need to get a narrative, to get a stereotype going so you can sort of capture the situation and go on and deal with the next piece of information.

We're -- we -- we're, as we age and as adults, we do that, you know, with reckless abandon. And that -- that leads to these -- these memory problems that we have. I actually like them, though.


GROSS: Now, as I recall, you say in your book that proper nouns are often the first things to go -- the names of things.

GAZZANIGA: That's true. That's true -- that's just a clinical fact and the -- this anomia for specific things is probably related to the beginning of the degenerative process that -- that we -- that occurs to the brain where cells are lost and somehow that is believed, although there's no mechanism here worked out, that ritually explains this, it is believed that it somehow correlates with the increase in anomias. It's called inability to get a name.

GROSS: And if you have that, as so many people seem to, does that mean that you should brace yourself for worse memory losses to come?

GAZZANIGA: Well no. I mean, it hits pretty soon after 50, and I think it's just a device that people are aware of, and they -- you'll see greater note-taking in people and you'll see that the little props they'll use to try to remember so and so's name and that kind of thing.

But no, the -- the capacity for liquid intelligence, for problem-solving remains fairly well intact, and that's the important thing. It is -- if you can solve a problem and can't quite remember the name that you should apply to the task at hand, that's sort of a secondary issue and I don't think one that should be that frightening.

GROSS: Since you've hit upon this theory of the left hemisphere of the brain having an interpreter within it who tries to make sense of things and the sense that it makes isn't always accurate, are you less trustful of your own perceptions of things and your own understanding of things? Do you often think: well, hmm, this is a reflex to make sense of things, but what I'm thinking isn't necessarily the truth? It's not necessarily accurate?

GAZZANIGA: Oh, yeah -- I mean, that's what keeps you awake at night, is the belief that you've missed something here. And -- the beauty of science, of course, is that you have the duty and the responsibility to go back into the lab and test it from another direction to make sure you -- you've got it right.

And the beauty of -- and the reason scientists sometimes are -- are unhappy with the humanists and what have you is that they, too, will generate a theory about something, but in fact they don't have the tools to see which of these truths is actually true; which of these claims is actually true.

So, one of the blinding aphrodisiacs of science is that you can go check yourself. And even when you check, you still wake up the following week worried about that, and you go back and forth and back and forth. So yes, it's a -- the fact that you may be wrong is what motivates you to keep going and to constantly check and recheck ideas.

And it's not uncommon that you have to -- if you don't junk them, someone next door...


... junk them, and you have to respond to it and try to see who in fact is right.

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

GAZZANIGA: Thank you.

GROSS: Dr. Michael Gazzaniga directs the program in cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth College. His new book is called The Mind's Past.

Coming up, a long-awaited new CD by Lucinda Williams.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Michael Gazzaniga
High: Cognitive Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga is a pioneer in the study of brain-mind relations. His new book "The Mind's Past" is about how our brain and mind construct the past. Gazzaniga is a professor and director of the Program in Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College.
Spec: Health and Medicine; The Mind's Past; Culture; Brain-Mind; Neuroscience
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Mind's Past
Date: JULY 07, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 070701np.217
Head: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Lucinda Williams' new album "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road" was six years in the making. Williams' well-publicized perfectionism and numerous changes of producers and record labels led to her long absence from the recording scene.

But rock critic Ken Tucker says the results have been well worth the wait.


I don't think about you
You left your mark on me
It's permanent
A tattoo

Pierce the skin
And the blood runs through
Oh, my baby

The way you move
It's right in time
The way you move...

KEN TUCKER, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: It's the weathered, world-weary tone of Lucinda Williams' voice that both inspires devotion among her fans and indifference among the mass pop audience that, for example, preferred Mary Chapin Carpenter's tidy rendition of Williams' "Passionate Kisses" to Williams' earthier own version.

Lucinda Williams takes pride in fashioning rough-hewn music, perfectly realized stuff that sounds as if it had just been dashed off. That's the trick she's always trying to pull off and on Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, she does the trick almost every time.


WILLIAMS, SINGING: He had a reason
To get back to Lake Charles
He used to talk about it
He'd just go on and on
He always said Louisiana
Was where he felt at home

He was born...

TUCKER: Lucinda Williams has a lot of stories like this to tell -- tales of guys or girls who don't fit into the world, despite charm, talent, and a knack for breaking hearts. Sometimes you get the feeling she's writing about herself even when, as on that song, "Lake Charles," she's writing about a guy she used to date.

At the very least, she has a genius for recognizing soul mates in bad luck, and the sort of stubbornness that makes for doomed relationships.


WILLIAMS, SINGING: This world divides us
On two different sides
There's walls in our brain
How can it be real
It's only made of concrete and barbed wire
Concrete and barbed wire
Concrete and barbed wire
It's only made of concrete and barbed wire

Back in Algiers
My darling broke my heart
You can't seem to break down this wall
His two strong hands
They couldn't move it at all
And it's only made of concrete and barbed wire
Concrete and barbed wire...

TUCKER: Rock critics are always reminding people that Williams is the daughter of a poet and teacher, Miller Williams, and that despite the "romance of the road" image she cultivates, Lucinda has an academic understanding of lyric writing that few singer-songwriters possess. But one of the great strengths of her writing is that it never sounds academic or fussy the way the music of say, Nancy Griffith (ph) or well, Mary Chapin Carpenter's does.

The title song of this album tells a whole short story of a life, sketched in quick details that never get in the way of the music.


WILLIAMS, SINGING: Sitting in our kitchen
The house in Macon
Loretta singing on the radio
Smell of coffee, eggs and bacon
Carl wheels on a gravel road
Pull the curtains back
And look outside
Somebody somewhere, oh know
C'mon my child
We're gonna for a ride
Car wheels on a gravel road

Car wheels on a gravel road
Car wheels on a gravel road

TUCKER: I don't hear this album as Williams' commercial breakthrough, much as her latest label, Mercury, may be banking on it. What makes Williams' music so compelling -- the way it falls between the cracks of rock and roll, country, blues and folk -- is what dooms it as radio programming.

But no one who makes music as passionate and precise as this is ever going to lack for a nurturing audience. Join the Lucinda Williams cult today and help keep this stuff coming, no matter how long it takes her to come up with it.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. Lucinda Williams' new CD is called Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Ken Tucker; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Rock Critic Ken Tucker reviews Lucinda Williams' new CD "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road."
Spec: Music Industry; Lucinda Williams; Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
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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