Other segments from the episode on October 26, 2021
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Katie Couric, has written a new memoir called "Going There" about her 40 years in journalism and her personal life. As she puts it, the book is about summoning the grit to make her way in the male-run media business, adjusting to the thrilling, chilling world of sudden fame, learning on the job, experiencing institutional sexism at the highest levels and hanging in long enough to see things start to change.
Couric was the co-anchor of NBC's the "Today" show for 15 years, first with Bryant Gumbel and then Matt Lauer. She writes about the sexual harassment and assault allegations against Lauer, but she left the "Today" show and NBC years before that story broke.
In 2006, she became the first woman to solo anchor a network evening newscast when she accepted the position of anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News." She left CBS in 2011. She now has her own production company, Katie Couric Media.
Let's start with one of the most significant interviews she conducted, her 2008 interview with Sarah Palin. It was broadcast on the "CBS Evening News" in 2008 when Palin, who was then the governor of Alaska, was John McCain's vice presidential running mate.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS EVENING NEWS")
KATIE COURIC: And when it comes to establishing your worldview, I was curious. What newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?
SARAH PALIN: I've read most of them, again, with a great appreciation for the press, for the media.
COURIC: Like what ones specifically? I'm curious. That you...
PALIN: All of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years. I have...
COURIC: Can you name a few?
PALIN: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news, too. Alaska isn't a foreign country, where it's kind of suggested and it seems like, wow, how could you keep in touch with what the rest of Washington, D.C., may be thinking and doing when you live up there in Alaska? Believe me; Alaska is like a microcosm of America.
GROSS: Katie Couric, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your memoir. What we just heard Sarah Palin say in response to your question about what she reads - what was your reaction when you heard that?
COURIC: I think, Terry - first of all, thanks for having me. I was befuddled, I think, by her answer. My producer, Brian Goldsmith, and I had seen her actually reading The New York Times on the way to that campaign stop in Ohio. And so the fact that she seemed so hesitant about talking about what she read was surprising to me.
You know, I went back and thought in my head, what would I have said? And I really wanted - I asked her what she read that shaped her worldview. I was interested in finding if there was an author, if she was an acolyte of William F. Buckley, how she became so, you know, entrenched in her political views. And, you know, it was kind of an open-ended question. We were just getting b-roll of us walking and talking. And, you know, really, I didn't even know if it was going to be something we would use.
GROSS: So how do you prepare for an interview with someone like Sarah Palin? You knew in advance, as you write in your book, that sometimes her answers were word salad, as they were when you asked her about what being in Alaska in proximity to Russia prepared her for actual, like, diplomacy with Russia.
COURIC: Right, right. You know, I think because she was such a blank slate, she was a slightly unknown commodity - you know, quite unknown at that moment in time. She'd given a gangbusters speech at the Republican National Convention. She had all those people eating out of the palm of her hand. And she was so - you know, I write later that the pit bull line was kind of - she pulled that out when a sign was blocking her teleprompter. So she seemed to be fast on her feet.
But there was so much about her and about, honestly, her understanding of national policy that I spent several days really trying to figure out what people wanted to know about her and where she stood on certain issues. And the fact that Senator McCain had had melanoma four times and I think at that point would've been the oldest president elected in history, I believe, I thought it was critically important to really see if - you know, really understand her acumen when it came to a lot of these public policy issues.
GROSS: I just want to quote something she said and get your reaction to this. You asked her, have you ever been involved with any negotiations, for example, with the Russians? And she said, "we have trade missions back-and-forth. It's very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia. As Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States of America, where do they go? It's Alaska."
Like, I have no idea what that means. Did you?
COURIC: I think what she meant is sometimes he flies over Alaskan airspace. You know, I - in fairness to her, sometimes her - the way she spoke and her cadence, I think, at times actually detracted from what she was trying to say, so it made it sound even more confusing. But I would agree with you. I wasn't quite sure what she was getting at.
GROSS: So when you have an answer like that, that you're not really sure what is she saying, do you leave it in because it reveals something about the candidate that they speak so unclearly, and maybe that reveals something about their thought process, or do you take it out because it's so, like, I don't know what she even means; why leave it in?
COURIC: Well, I mean, I think this is what her claim was in terms of how proximity to Russia as the governor of Alaska may heighten her - or, you know, improve her foreign policy credentials. So that was the explanation she was giving, and I thought people deserved to hear that was her - you know, those were her thoughts, and that was her rationale for making that statement.
GROSS: Well, certainly - that interview certainly got a huge response and won you a duPont Award. Let me ask you about another interview, and this has been a takeaway in a lot of reviews and articles about your book. And it was your interview with Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she was a Supreme Court justice. And you had asked her about what she thought of Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem in protest against police brutality against Black men.
GROSS: And I'll quote what she said.
COURIC: Oh, well, I have the whole quote if you want to use the one.
GROSS: Oh, sure. Yeah.
COURIC: Even in the book, I didn't really do the whole quote, which probably was a mistake, honestly.
GROSS: Sure. So can you read for us the quote that she gave you that you printed and the part of the quote that you edited out?
COURIC: When I asked Justice Ginsburg - I was there to interview her for her book that came out in 2016. And I thought, well, let's see if she has anything to say about Colin Kaepernick, who was really in the news at the moment and the - his taking a knee during the national anthem - and other players - was making a fair amount of news.
So I asked her, how do you feel about San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who have basically refused to stand for the national anthem? And her response was, which I included - "what do I think? I think it's really dumb of them. Would I arrest them for doing it? No. It's dumb and disrespectful. I would have the same answer if you asked me about flag burning. I think it's a terrible thing to do, but I wouldn't lock a person up for doing it. I would point out how ridiculous it seems to me to do such an act, but it's dangerous to arrest people for conduct that doesn't jeopardize the health or well-being of other people. It's a symbol they're engaged in."
So I followed up by saying, but when it comes to these football players, you may find their actions offensive, but what you're saying is it's within their rights to exercise those actions? She said, "if they want to be stupid, there's no law that should be prevented. If they want to be arrogant, there's no law that prevents them from that. What I would do is strongly take issue with their point of view that they are expressing when they do that."
GROSS: Well, that's really different from how it is in the book.
COURIC: Yeah, I think that was a mistake that I did not, probably, write that because that was included in the interview. And if I had to do it again, I would've said, this is all the stuff I did include. The part that I didn't, Terry, was this.
GROSS: Wait, wait. Let me just back up a second. The part that you do not quote in the book is the part where she says, you know, would I arrest somebody for this? Do I think it should be against the law? No. It's like flag burning. You know, I don't approve of the conduct. I'm paraphrasing here. But...
COURIC: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: But it shouldn't be against the law. These are symbols.
GROSS: And that part, that qualification isn't in the book, and maybe that's why people are having such a harsh reaction.
COURIC: Yeah. You know, I think in retrospect, maybe for the second printing, if there is one, I will make sure that's in there because I think I probably did not go into enough depth of what I did include. The part that I didn't is when she says it's "contempt for a government that had made it possible for their parents and grandparents to live a decent life, which they probably could not have lived in the places they came from. As they become older, they realized that this was youthful folly. And that's why education is important."
Now, when I heard that, I was like, what exactly does that mean? I should've asked a follow-up to get her to elaborate or clarify those statements. And I think in retrospect, I should've included that and let her clarify them herself. She did issue a statement after the interview saying that she should not have spoken on the issue, that she felt her comments were harsh and dismissive.
And what had happened after the interview is her clerks had reached out and said she didn't really understand the question. She misspoke. And that's when I was, like, going through my sort of moral dilemma. What do I do with this? And that's what I talk about in the book. And I think, honestly, I did myself a disservice by not kind of talking more about what I included and what I didn't because I almost made it sound like I included very little when, actually, I just didn't include that last statement. And as I said, I wrestle with my decision, and I still question it. So there you go.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Katie Couric. Her new memoir is called "Going There." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GERALD CLAYTON'S "ENVISIONINGS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Katie Couric. She's written a new memoir called "Going There."
I want to ask you about Matt Lauer, who, you know, allegedly harassed and assaulted women when he was the co-anchor of the "Today" show. You had spent years anchoring with him. You were gone and had moved to CBS by the time these allegations surfaced. But it seemed like this was a side of him that you were pretty clueless about, although you knew that he'd had an affair with somebody younger because his wife seemed pretty steamed about it and, also, a memo was leaked. Well, it wasn't leaked. It was sent to the wrong person. You know how it is. You type in a name and it goes to the other person who has the same name. It was one of those affairs.
COURIC: It was one of those. And who knows? I mean, was it an affair? Was it - it was inappropriate. That's for sure.
GROSS: So what was your reaction when you heard these allegations?
COURIC: You know, I was really surprised. And I know people have a hard time understanding that. They think, oh, yes, everything's out in the open. But it really wasn't like that. You know, I had a really wonderful, close working relationship with Matt. I would say we were friends. But I think this idea that we were together all the time - after the show was over, we went our separate ways. We had very separate lives. And I made a very conscious decision I write about in the book that I did not want to socialize with Matt. That was not something - I just thought that was not a good idea - not necessarily a recipe for disaster, but I just thought - you know what? - I want to have a professional relationship with him.
So I think what I gathered was that he was unhappily married - and that was really from the tabloids; that wasn't anything we discussed - and that he liked beautiful women. I mean, he made that clear. When actresses would come to the show, you know, he would comment on, you know, on their beauty - right? - but nothing really out of bounds, although I think he did some interviews, in retrospect, that I saw, like with Anne Hathaway, that we're just really kind of, I think, creepy. So I think that I had a sense that he was probably not faithful. But I had no idea that some of the activities and some of the things that he was involved in within the - within 30 Rock - I had no idea that was going on.
There was one incident that you mentioned where there was a top line that was sent to the wrong person. And it was sort of - it was creepy. It was like, come to my office and, you know - and I hope you're wearing that skirt that came off so easily. And I was like, what the heck is going on? And I remember saying to the person who unfortunately got that wrong message, that's disgusting. And she said, I know. That's so weird. But at the time, I thought, oh, I'm so disappointed that he's cheating on his wife. And I have - you know, I think I know who this was intended for. I'm not sure. And I just said, that's gross.
Now, in hindsight, should I have approached him? Should I have approached the young woman - the intended recipient for that top line? You know, maybe. But I also didn't want to embarrass her. And I just - I didn't do anything about it. And I thought, well, this is a creepy one-off. And I never saw any other evidence of this kind of behavior. And granted, I do talk about how, at NBC in the '90s, there were a lot of rumors and gossip about extramarital affairs - that, you know, people were involved with, you know, various people. And I really didn't - I just sort of said, gross, and kind of focused on my job and my family and didn't want to get kind of down in the gutter with that kind of behavior.
GROSS: You know, I have to say that a lot of the men who have been accused of sexual assault or harassment have been guests on our show. And it's made me just really wonder - when somebody presents their public self on our program, what do I really know about their private behavior? And how - it's just disturbing to think about how somebody can seem so wonderful in their public self and in their work, and in their private lives, have been doing - have been transgressing in very disturbing ways. And I wonder what it made you wonder about in terms of, what do you know about people when you know their public selves?
COURIC: It did make me wonder, honestly. And I think people can present themselves and show a side that they want to show at certain times. And I think what it made me wonder is why someone would be, first of all, so abusive. Because some of the women I spoke with - you know, I - you know, I spoke with Addie, who I brought into the show. They've been really traumatized by this, and the damage is lasting. And I think what I've always wondered about is the callousness of these kinds of encounters and the recklessness and the dehumanizing aspect of this. And I think that's - that is what really troubled me.
But you know, I was processing this in real time. I was learning about this in - you know, as soon as this was announced. And you know, I don't know whether I was naive, or I just didn't want to believe it. But I think it was evident to me, after hearing information come in, that he abused his power mightily and deserved to be fired.
GROSS: You sent him a note after this expressing your concern about him.
GROSS: How did you decide to get in touch with him as opposed to just keeping your distance? And I think that was the last contact that you had with him.
COURIC: Yeah. Well, I - you know, I was confused. I was really confused. I had very little information at the time. I didn't know what the transgression had been. I didn't know how serious it was. I didn't know whether it was just really embarrassing for the network. I just didn't know. And it was so abrupt and so swift and intense. You know, I wanted to make sure he was OK. And I think my human side just wanted to reach out to him and say - I had just seen him a couple of weeks prior, ironically. And we hadn't really - we would maybe have dinner once a year or something like that. And I had actually had dinner with him. And I don't know. I was clearly not very perceptive. I take real pride in my emotional intelligence, but I didn't have much EQ when it came to this.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Katie Couric. She has a new memoir called "Going There." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Katie Couric. She has a new memoir called "Going There."
There have been so many changes in journalism and in television journalism since you started your career. And when you started your career, there were very few women in TV. I think that's fair to say.
GROSS: In your early years at CNN, where you went to after ABC...
GROSS: ...Ted Turner's No. 2, Ed Turner, complimented you on your work. And he said Katie is successful because of her determination, hard work and breast size. So what was your reaction on the spot, like, as he said that in front of other people who you worked with?
COURIC: Yeah, probably in front of us - there were probably eight mostly men around a conference table. What was my reaction? I was like, what? You know, I'm sure I turned beet red. I was all of 26 years old. And I was humiliated. I sat down and sort of proceeded to listen. You know, it was an editorial meeting for discussion of the day's news. I was filling in for the producer. And I just thought this, this is wrong.
And as I write, I went back to my boss - bosses - Don Farmer and Chris Curle, a husband and wife anchor team for whom I worked at the time. And I said, this just happened. What - you know, I am really mad. You know, what was that all about? And Don sat down with me and put a piece of typing paper, a memo, you know, or whatever. And we - he said, let's write him a memo. And we did. And I basically said in no uncertain terms this was - gosh, I wish I had the memo in front of me.
GROSS: I have it right here. It's Page 38. Hang on.
(Reading) I found your remark that I had succeeded because of my determination, hard work, intelligence and breast size insulting, demeaning, embarrassing, humiliating and totally uncalled for. If you were intending to be humorous, you failed. I request that you apologize to me and that you somehow indicate to the others who heard the remark that you have so apologized.
GROSS: Yeah. What was the response you got?
COURIC: He called me very quickly and was oozing with apologies. I think I didn't include that on the memo I wrote, I'm going to keep this matter private between us
GROSS: Until I write my book.
COURIC: Yeah (laughter). Well, yeah. I mean, Ed Turner had passed away quite a bit ago. But, you know, I think what I was saying is I'm not taking this to personnel, even though I'm not even sure I understood the existence of human resources or personnel back then in those days. But he apologized profusely. I think I wrote that I liked the feeling of having his nuts in a vice. And I said, thank you for calling, but it was really offensive. And, you know, Don said, I'm so glad you stood up to him. I'm so glad he apologized. And I think in a way with Don's support, it set the tone for me not really tolerating that kind of, you know, that kind of exchange or those kinds of attitudes
GROSS: Was that kind of comment about you or that kind of reaction to your looks a recurring theme in your early career or is this like a one-off?
COURIC: It wasn't. I didn't experience that a lot. I did - I do write about a station manager at a radio station in Washington who asked me if I was on the pill because my breasts seemed bigger than they had the previous summer.
COURIC: Yeah. Yeah. And I remember then too just like, you know when you're so embarrassed and your whole body gets hot? I just remember feeling like, are you kidding me? But I also think, again, it was in the '70s. And those kind of comments, I think, were despicable and upsetting, but I don't think they were that uncommon.
GROSS: Did you have a foundation in feminist literature or consciousness-raising groups of the period to help you think through what reactions that you got and how to respond?
COURIC: You know, I wouldn't say that I was attending feminist consciousness-raising groups, you know, in college necessarily. But I think I was very influenced by the burgeoning feminist movement by women protesting in Houston in the early '70s, by my parents, who were very ambitious for my sisters, as ambitious for my older sisters as they were for my brother. From an early age, I went for leadership positions. Happy to report I was both vice president and president of Jamestown Elementary School.
COURIC: And so, you know, I think that it was just ingrained in us as kids. And, you know, you read the book. And you know my mom's motto was let them know you're there - that we shouldn't be shrinking violets, that we should be assertive and strong. And a lot of my friends were going to business school. They were going to law school. It was just a very exciting time for women who were entering these arenas, I think, in record numbers, so much more so than our mothers did, of course, but even more so than my older sisters were. And it was just very exciting.
GROSS: Let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Katie Couric. Her new memoir is called "Going There." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Katie Couric. Her new memoir is called "Going There."
Your husband, Jay, had colon cancer and died in his early 40s. And you had a lot of tough decisions to make at that time. I mean, you were totally broken up about this, but you had to decide whether to keep working or to stay home with him and, you know, take care of him. If you stayed at work, you had to figure out how to keep it together on the air. Can you talk a little about deciding to - you know, to keep working while he was very sick?
COURIC: Well, I think for me and for Jay - I think having some kind of routine was really, really important. I was always with him. I had a lot of flexibility in my job. I could leave, even though this was not sort of my habit. But during Jay's illness - and he was sick for nine months - I could leave right after the show. I could, you know, go with him to his chemotherapy appointments. I could, you know, really make sure I was there for him in a big way.
But I also think, as I said, having some kind of cadence to your life - you know, my girls were really little, and they were 5 and 1 when Jay was diagnosed. I think work provided, for me, a routine and, as I said, the flexibility I needed. So I was really, really lucky. It wasn't as if I had a job where I was covering Capitol Hill or at the White House and working 14-hour days. I had a lot of support and NBC and, as I said, a lot of flexibility to come in and work and, you know, reduce my work schedule.
Because before, I was the kind of person who would stay - you know, I never left right after the show. I would book other interviews. I would shoot other interviews for upcoming shows, and I was doing things for "Dateline." So you know, I was working long hours then. But when Jay was sick, I was lucky. I was very, very lucky I didn't have to make that choice between quitting work and taking care of him.
GROSS: One of your regrets is that you weren't totally forthcoming with him about his prognosis, which was very bleak. And I'm wondering what you think you might have done differently in retrospect.
COURIC: I had no right to not be brutally honest with him. But it was also - you know, it - he could have been more - and maybe he was. I mean, this is the question I think I struggle with - one of many - in the book, is, I tried to - I wouldn't say sugarcoat the situation. But I tried to make it seem that it wasn't as bad as it was and that we were going to fight this and the doctor - we were going to figure this out. The doctors were going to come up with great therapeutic solutions, and, you know, we can make this work, and - or we can beat this.
And I think that - listen. Everybody is also responsible. Jay was a smart person. But I wish that we had talked about what might happen if all of that didn't work. And I think I was so determined to keep him fighting and feeling hopeful and living a life that was as full and joyful as it could be in the time he had left that I wasn't completely honest with him. And I regret that to this day.
GROSS: What do you think would have been different if you were more honest with him?
COURIC: I think maybe there were a lot of things that would not have been left unsaid. I think maybe he would have done a video for Ellie and Carrie.
GROSS: Your daughters?
COURIC: Yeah, like Michael Keaton did in this movie called "My Life" for his unborn baby. I think he might have written them a letter, you know? Who knows?
GROSS: Yeah. One of the things you decided to do after he died was to have a colonoscopy on video and play that on the "Today" show.
COURIC: Yeah, very appetizing (laughter). Enjoy your breakfast, everyone.
GROSS: When I heard you were doing that, I thought, like, that's crazy (laughter), you know?
COURIC: Yeah, I know. I know.
GROSS: And also, it meant you weren't going to be totally out. You had enough anesthesia so that you wouldn't feel the pain, or at least not all of it.
COURIC: Yes, I wanted to give a play-by-play of my own colonoscopy. I wanted to save some lives, and I had the potential to do that. I wanted to explain to people - demystify and destigmatize a procedure that, you know, can actually save your life, that colon cancer has a greater than 90% cure rate if it's detected early. I wanted to do - for people in the viewing public or in the audience, I wanted to do for them what I couldn't do for Jay. I wanted to arm them with the information they needed.
And that was really my only goal. I didn't think people were jonesing to see my colon. But I thought if they saw me go through it, they would say, oh, that wasn't that bad. I'm going to call my doctor because I'm 50 years old, and I need to get one. And that's why my sister Emily, who was a state legislator in Virginia, was the first state to pass that insurance companies have to pay for screening colonoscopies starting at age 50 because of what happened to Jay. So I think we saw this heartbreaking, tragic situation that happened to Jay, and we said, what if - I said, what have I learned that I need to share? And that's why I did it.
GROSS: In the period when you were hosting the "Today" show, it was so big, and you were the No. 1 show. And you, yourself, were very popular on the show. I want to ask you about the booking wars when you were doing the "Today" show. Because as the host of an interview program...
GROSS: ...I know something about the competition that happens between shows. Because even NPR shows are competitive with each other. It's not cutthroat. But you know, there's competition.
COURIC: Oh, I bet even NPR can be cutthroat at times, Terry.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, that's probably true. But you run through some of the kind of crazier ways that people got guests and got promises that that show would be the first to interview the person. Tell us one that you think was among the more extreme examples you can think of.
COURIC: I mean, it was just crazy. And I think some of the craziest things were when someone would go to a hotel where a guest had been flown in and was going to appear on a morning show. This was mostly "Good Morning America" and "The Today Show." And some - a producer would call up and say, your car is here, and the person might get in the car and say - and they'd say to the person, oh, you're actually going here first. And did you get the message that you're actually going to be on "Good Morning America" or "The Today Show" first? I think it was mostly "Good Morning America," but I'm sure "The Today Show" did a lot of it, too. And so it was just - it was just crazy.
GROSS: When you were on "The Today Show," you were just - you were loved. You were so popular. I mean, you even write in your book, when you were in high school, you wanted to be the most popular girl in high school. And on "The Today Show," you were like the most popular girl in the country.
COURIC: (Laughter) That's what I told them.
GROSS: But then things changed. You know, when you left "The Today Show," things didn't work out on CBS, and you were getting criticized for what you wore, getting criticized for the stories that you did. You're getting criticized for not making the news like - evening newscasts serious enough.
COURIC: Right, even though they brought me there to kind of rethink the evening news and to retool it and to get rid of sort of the anachronistic voice of God. They wanted something different. So I went there and tried to do that, but I don't think America was ready. And I mean, it would be enough just to have an anchor wearing lipstick. And then I think, internally, CBS was a very traditional network, and I think internally there were forces that weren't ready for what I had been hired to do. But you know - I mean, I think you're getting to the likability thing. And listen; I'm so happy if people enjoy my company or they somehow like me. But that's not sort of my raison d'etre anymore. I wrote my story. It is my story. People can criticize, judge it. They can get something from it. They can love it. They can feel moved by it. But my goal in life isn't to please people anymore. I'm 64 years old, and I did just buy this T-shirt that said, I'm not for everyone. And it feels really liberating to say - you know what? - it's OK. If you don't like me, that's OK. You know, that's not my - mass appeal is not my goal in life anymore.
GROSS: And you say your therapist told you, did it ever occur to you that not everybody's going to like you?
COURIC: Yeah. I mean, I think if you're likable, sometimes you are like Milquetoast. You don't necessarily stand for anything. You don't rub people the wrong way because you have strong opinions, and honestly, I think if you're just likable, you're not very interesting.
GROSS: You do acknowledge that sometimes when you make reservations at a restaurant now, people don't recognize your name. They ask you how to spell it (laughter).
COURIC: Yeah. And that makes my husband laugh. And he always goes, it's over.
GROSS: How do you feel about that?
COURIC: I think it's funny, honestly. I think it's funny.
GROSS: Katie Couric, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
COURIC: Terry, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
GROSS: Katie Couric's new memoir is called "Going There."
After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review the new Beach Boys collection that includes albums from 1970 and '71 as well as lots of previously unreleased tracks. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GILBERTO SANTA ROSA'S "CONTEO REGRESIVO (SALSA VERSION)")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. By the end of the 1960s, The Beach Boys had come to a crossroads. Their early, lightweight surf music hits were behind them, and Brian Wilson's more ambitious compositions were being met with a lukewarm commercial response. Then, in 1970 and '71, the Beach Boys released the albums "Sunflower" and "Surf's Up" back to back, two albums that rock critic Ken Tucker says represent the Beach Boys at the peak of their artistry. A new five-disc collection called "Feel Flows" includes reissues of those two albums as well as 108 previously unreleased tracks. Here's Ken's review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ADD SOME MUSIC TO YOUR DAY")
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) This Sunday morning gospel goes good with a song. There's blues, folk and country and rock like a rolling stone. The world could come together as one if everybody under the sun add some music to your day. You'll hear it...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: This new release covers my favorite period of the Beach Boys, a time when the group had moved beyond its surf music pop hits, when Brian Wilson, an undeniable genius, the center of Beach Boy gravity, but also its most unstable force, was still active enough to be trying for mainstream success. But 1970's "Sunflower" was also a time when The Beach Boys truly became a band. Each member - brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston - was called upon to contribute more than he ever had, not just the gorgeous harmonies, but also lyrics, riffs and concepts that could further their goal of being both popular and respected.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS WHOLE WORLD")
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) I'm thinking about this whole world. Lat at night, I think about the love of this whole world. Lots of different people everywhere. And when I go anywhere, I see love. I see love. I see love.
TUCKER: Every member produced at least one track on "Sunflower," making it unique in the group's history. The result was the best music ever made, for example, by drummer Dennis Wilson, whose "It's About Time" is a remarkable comment on creative frustration and breakthrough taken at a harder pace than The Beach Boys had ever attempted.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ABOUT TIME")
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) I used to be a famous artist, proud as I could be, struggling to express myself for the whole world to see. I used to blow my mind sky high searching for the lost elation. Little did I know the joy I was to find in knowing I am only me. I'm singing in my heart. I'm singing in my heart. I'm singing, love to sing. I love to sing it from my heart. Of the creation, yeah.
TUCKER: That track was written by Dennis, but its lead vocal was from brother Carl. And by all accounts, it was Carl who was the glue holding things together during this period. Carl, who died in 1998, played lead guitar and led the band on stage and was often the group's most impassioned voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG PROMISED ROAD")
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) So hard to answer future's riddle when ahead if seeming so far behind. So hard to laugh a child-like giggle when the tears start to torture my mind. So hard to shed the life of before, to let my soul automatically soar. But I hit hard at the battle that's confronting me, yeah. Knock down all the roadblocks stumbling me. Throw of all the shackles that are binding me down.
TUCKER: The Beach Boys next album, "Surf's Up," was built around its title track, a four-minutes-plus opus whose stately pace announced a new self-seriousness. Its cryptic lyrics, written by Van Dyke Parks, made sure you would not mistake it for just another "Surfin' Safari." The pretensions of the "Surf's Up" album matched the mood of the record-buying public in 1971. "Surf's Up" sold much better than "Sunflower" and was more widely praised - over-praised. You can hear Mike Love introduce "Surf's Up" in this 1973 concert version, telling the crowd that the then-famous classical music conductor Leonard Bernstein had praised the song. It's a naked plea for admiration at a time when pop art still looked to high art for cultural validation.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MIKE LOVE: In case anybody's interested, this song was written by Brian Wilson and his friend Van Dyke Parks. And Brian played it once on a TV show on a Leonard Bernstein special. And Leonard Bernstein said that it was one of the best songs ever to come out of rock music. So cousin Carl here is going to sing the song that Brian and Van Dyke wrote called "Surf's Up."
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) A diamond necklace played the pawn. Hand in hand, some drummed along to a handsome mannered baton. A blind class aristocracy. Back through the opera glass you see the pit and the pendulum drawn. Columnated ruins domino. Canvas the town and brush the backdrop. Are you sleeping?
TUCKER: Where "Sunflower" was still reaching out to its audience, the "Surf's Up" album documented a process of withdrawal from the center of pop music. Brian Wilson in particular, struggling with his mental and physical health, would remove himself not just from the fans, but from his brothers and bandmates as well. After these two albums, the narrative of The Beach Boys twists and distorts and shatters. Mike Love becomes the leader of what is essentially an oldies act, and the studio recordings vary wildly in quality. Looking back now, this was the last time The Beach Boys were men united in a common goal of capturing the sound of pure pleasure.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the new Beach Boys collection called "Feel Flows." Tomorrow, on FRESH AIR, we'll hear a dramatic account of the 1971 prison uprising in Attica, N.Y., which ended with a bloody assault. Law enforcement gunfire killed 39 prisoners and hostages. We'll speak with Arthur Harrison, who was incarcerated in Attica during the uprising, and Stanley Nelson, director of the new documentary "Attica." I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.
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