DATE June 15, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Garry Wills, author, discusses the Catholic Church
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Wills is one of the Catholics who stays
in the church in spite of his disagreements with the church's power structure
and its insistence on upholding positions that he says no longer make sense in
the modern world. In his new book, "Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit," Wills
looks at the history behind several of the church's positions. He argues that
in order to justify their positions, popes have misinterpreted Scripture, or
let others coax them in to disingenuousness, such as when Pope Paul VI said
that the ban on contraception was for the good of the church. Will says that
Paul's 1968 encyclical against contraception was one of the most disastrous
Garry Wills is a professor of history at Northwestern University, and the
author of several books on American history, as well as a recent biography of
one of his heroes, St. Augustine. I asked Garry Wills whether his perspective
as a practicing Catholic guided what he chose to write about.
Mr. GARRY WILLS ("Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit"): Yes. As a practicing
Catholic, I have concerns that many people share over the fact that there's a
vastly decreasing number of priests because of the celibacy discipline, and
other things, like the condemnation of all forms of homosexuality. There is a
total disregard for the papal teaching on things like contraception, where a
large number of the Catholics polled say they just don't believe what the pope
is saying. The rate of abortion among Catholics is the same as among
non-Catholics. So all of these things I've written about in various places,
as have other Catholics. There's nothing in this book that I haven't
addressed in some way, somewhere.
But two years ago when I came out with a book on St. Augustine, I came across
again--and read more carefully and with much more benefit--the two treatises
on truth that he wrote. The occasion for both of them was the attempt by some
Christians of that day to use deception in order to promote the gospel and the
church. And he said that lying is never very good, but it is worst when it is
used to promote the truth, that God is not served by lies, by distortion. And
so I saw that all these questions that had been troubling people are not
It's not as if the pope now really is a misogynist, an anti-Semite, or
homophobe or any of those things. He clearly does want to have much better
relations with all kinds of people, but he has to draw back constantly just
when he's opened the door and say, `But, of course, we've never said anything
that was wrong about our relations in the past. Popes have always been
It gets to the point where he just denies history, in apologizing to the Jews,
for instance. Constantly now, he seems to have apologized kind of nonstop for
two years and more. He constantly says that individual Catholics, what he
calls the sons and daughters of the church, have done things that were wrong
in the past, but the church itself, by which he means the teaching church, the
magisterium, the voice of authority, has never been wrong about the Jews.
This flies in the face of history. You know, the medieval history is full of
pogroms and other persecutions of the Jews, which were actively supported by
the teaching of the church that the Jews were a cursed race. As recently as
the 1930s, Pius XI said `There is a curse on this people because they killed
GROSS: You say that the most crippling, puzzling blow to organized
Catholicism in our time was the birth control encyclical, which was issued by
Pope Paul VI. And why do you think that that's, like, the worst blow to
Mr. WILLS: Yes. Well, I'm including Andrew Greeley on that, but I think
that there's a case to be made for that. You have to remember, first of all,
that there's nothing in Scripture or revelation about birth control, about
contraception. It used to be thought that the Onan story applied to that, and
the papacy taught that for a while. It doesn't do it anymore because it's
clearly not true. So what we have is a natural law teaching, according to the
church, and natural reason in people of good will and good intellect should be
able to recognize that law.
Well, Paul VI brought together a group of very well-qualified
Catholics--theologians, family counselors, all of them loyal Catholics, men,
women, lay, clergy--to study the problem, and these people, who were eminently
qualified, who had been trained by the church from childhood in almost all
cases, looked at it honestly and said, `We can't accept this. There's no
valid argument for it.' And the leaks out of that commission made people
expect that there would be a change in the teaching. After all, why did you
bring together these people; why did you trust their expertise?
But when the question went to Paul VI, members of his curia, and some
conservative theologians said, `You can't say that your predecessors erred on
this matter. You'd be saying...'
GROSS: Why? Because popes are supposed to be infallible?
Mr. WILLS: Yes--well, this was not, technically, an infallible teaching, but
GROSS: I see.
Mr. WILLS: ...they were saying that it would be such a blow that you've
asked people to make these tremendous sacrifices to have large families, or to
practice kind of psychologically crippling things, like the rhythm method, and
have said that people have actually sinned if they didn't believe in this, and
gone to hell if they didn't believe in this. You can't say that all of that
was just a mistake.
Well, obviously you can, because it was, but Paul VI, who was really a very
humane, good man, and did wonderful things, caved in under that pressure. And
that's the pressure of a structure of deceit that I'm describing in this book.
GROSS: What did he base his opinion on? I mean, there was a dissenting
report that was issued. Who wrote that...
Mr. WILLS: Yes.
GROSS: ...and how did ...(unintelligible)?
Mr. WILLS: He tried to argue that in the nature of things, sex is always
meant for procreation, and if it's not aimed at procreation, then it's wrong.
Now that's the old stoic teaching that was a part of late antiquity among
Christians and non-Christians, but it's one that would, when you take it
seriously, mean that intercourse between sterile people, intercourse after
menstruation ceases, intercourse that's interruptus, masturbation, oral
intercourse, intercrural intercourse--all of those things are equally sinful,
and that's what the church, at one time, did teach.
In the course of time, it said, `Oh, no, married people can have intercourse
even when there's no chance that they're going to have children,' because
you're not actively intervening to prevent the procreation. But the whole
argument that because the end of sex is procreation, therefore, you can never
use it for anything else, is like saying the end of eating is nourishment, and
anything beyond the minimal nourishment of your body is sinful, or having a
meal just for the celebration of an event, having champagne rather than
healthy water--all of those things are sinful. That's the parallel in natural
law that he's trying to make. And that's what the commission said makes no
sense at all.
He went back to that old argument. And, of course, he didn't recognize that
one of the reasons that the condemnation had arisen and been maintained for so
long was the misinterpretation of the Onan story. He knows that's not
available any more, but he still sticks to the teaching that was partly based
GROSS: Well, what is the Onan story?
Mr. WILLS: That because Onan spilled his seed on the ground
rather--practiced coitus interruptus--that the Lord was displeased with him.
That was taken by the medieval exegetes to mean that he prevented conception,
and any prevention of conception is wrong. Now Bible scholars realize that
Onan had been forced to marry the widow of his brother to continue his
brother's line, and out of jealousy for his brother's line, he refused to do
that. So the sin was against the family hopes of dynasty, not a sin against
procreation as such.
GROSS: Now the ruling against birth control is based, in part, on a belief in
what's called natural law?
Mr. WILLS: Yes.
GROSS: Well, what is that?
Mr. WILLS: That the working of natural law is God's signal to us of the way
he wants things to go, and that when you see, for instance, that eating is for
nourishment, that you should take care to eat for nourishment. That's kind of
common sense rather than any real doctrine of natural law.
But it was taken by medieval theologians to mean that you could really work
out a system of prohibitions and exhortations from the workings of nature.
Very few philosophers accept that anymore. It's a very time-bounded
philosophy. And the papacy is kind of the last stronghold of it.
GROSS: When did natural law originate?
Mr. WILLS: Well, it originated with the classical Greek and Roman authors,
as did so much of the church's teaching. Much of the problem of the church is
that it accepted into its flow, historical life, things from antiquity--late
antiquity to Middle Ages--which were really extraneous to Gospel--were kind of
sociological conditioners that were affecting everything at the time--and they
were taken to be essential rather than accidentals, like barnacles on a hull
of a ship. And sometimes they'd been promoted to be the most important thing
GROSS: Do you think that the continued Catholic ban against contraception is
putting practicing Catholics in the position of having to either lie, or feel
that they're sinning, or feel that they have be be a Catholic and yet defy the
church at the same time? That it puts them in...
Mr. WILLS: No.
GROSS: ...this kind of compromised position?
Mr. WILLS: It doesn't so much compromise the layperson, because the
layperson is just ignoring it, and doesn't feel that he or she is defying the
church, so they know quite well the difference between the papacy and the
The people who are compromised are the priests, who are told that they have to
teach this. And that puts a strain on their integrity: Should they just be
silent rather than teach it? Should they pretend that they're teaching it,
but not teach it? I know a priest, who is not ordained, because his bishop--I
mean, he's not a priest; he's a Jesuit brother. The bishop said, `You have to
promise to teach that this is a sin--contraception is a sin.' He said, `Well,
I can't do that.' And he said, `Well, then you can't be ordained.' But I think
it's more likely that some people are ordained who make that implicit promise
and have no intention of keeping it.
GROSS: Garry Wills is my guest. He's a professor of history at Northwestern
University; the author of many books including his new one "Papal Sin:
Structures of Deceit," and it's a critique of the Catholic Church. We'll take
a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: (Joined in progress) ...Wills. His new book is called "Papal Sin:
Structures of Deceit," and it's a critique of some of the papal encyclicals,
which are still followed in the Catholic Church.
Let's look at the encyclical that priests cannot be married. Where does that
teaching date back to?
Mr. WILLS: Well, St. Peter, of course, was married, and he traveled with
his wife in a missionary team. Missionary teams of husband and wife are very
common in the early church. It is presumed that other people, who are not
expressly said to be married, were also married in the disciples. Paul
himself, who was not married and said he would prefer that people not be
married, because the world is about to end, was according to most Bible
scholars, now including very conservative ones, like Raymond Brown, Joseph
Fitzmyer and others, was originally married, and then was either a widower or
separated from his wife.
In the Jewish culture, it was wrong not to be married. And there's no reason
to think that Jesus meant to affront that by choosing people who were not
married. It was a duty to your family to be married. Priests were married in
the Jewish dispensation. There was no idea that the ministry had to be
celibate, and it wasn't until the Middle Ages. The way it became celibate is
that in late antiquity, when there was a high regard for asceticism throughout
the culture, not only among Christians, but among pagan philosophers, the idea
of self-denial, of transcending the body, or even torturing the body, became a
matter of prestige. And the desert fathers, the great ascetics, became so
famous for their holiness that people went to them to ask for guidance. They
were the oracles of God, in effect.
And a married priesthood became second-rate citizens in the Christian culture.
And in order to catch up with the authority of the ascetics, they started
adopting some of the ascetical maxims, including celibacy. So that idea grew
gradually in the West, and was finally legislated in the Middle Ages. But in
the Eastern part of the church, even that part which continued its adherence
to Rome, it has never been a rule. So it's something that came and went in
history, and could go again, but the pope has now decided that that's not the
GROSS: What has our current pope had to say?
Mr. WILLS: He has very strenuously upheld the encyclical of Paul VI that
priests cannot marry.
GROSS: Do you think that the encyclical that priests cannot marry has also
been based on certain beliefs about women and women's sexuality?
Mr. WILLS: Sure. The teaching of the church in the Middle Ages was very
clear. It was derived from two sources. One from pagan antiquity, and
especially from Aristotle, which thought that women were inferior. They were
a mistake of nature; that if everything in the conception process had gone
right, you would have a man. When it went wrong, for various imagined
physical reasons, you got a woman. And the other source was Jewish rules of
uncleanness; that a woman could not enter the holy of holies because
menstruation made her unclean. Both those were accepted into the Christian
papacy in the Middle Ages. St. Thomas Aquinas said, `God deserves the best
only, and woman is second best in the species human--humanity, and, therefore,
she cannot be a priest. That would be an insult to him not to offer the best
that we have, the man.'
Now, the modern papacy can't teach either of those things. They're too
manifestly absurd to people now. And so they abandoned that and denied that
they ever taught that, as a matter of fact, and went back to a fundamentalist
scriptural argument and said, `Jesus didn't ordain as priests any women.'
Well, there's a problem with that. He didn't ordain any men either. There is
no priesthood in the New Testament. That's a development of the doctrine
And this is so strained and disingenuous and deceptive. And the only reason
to do it is not out of some hidden animus against women, but out of this
nervous fear that if we allow that the teaching of a pope can change, the
whole structure of Christianity will collapse, which is--of Catholicism, at
least, will collapse, which is nonsense.
The great saving truths don't have anything to do with contraception. The
church has changed on things like that on usury, on celibacy through the ages.
The great saving truths that have to be preserved are things like creation,
and the Trinity, and redemption, the resurrection, the mystical body of
Christ, and the Eucharist.
It's so sad to see these dramatic mysteries, that are the part of the
revelation that we were taught in our faith, reduced to a matter of, `You're
not a Catholic if you don't agree with the pope on contraception.' That's the
sad thing that I'm talking about in this book.
GROSS: Let me get to another issue that you discuss in your book, and that is
the ordination of women, which the church does not allow. What are the
reasons that the church currently gives for that?
Mr. WILLS: Well, they're the reasons I already gave; that says that they
were not ordained in the New Testament. And, of course, they denied the real
reasons--the inferiority of women and the uncleanness ritual impurity of
women. The idea that women should just be handmaids, which gave us the nuns,
for which I'm very grateful, because they educated me and did it with great
love and great skill, but, nonetheless, that image of women is so unacceptable
now that nuns are disappearing.
The approach then was that nuns could be nurses, but not doctors, nuns could
teach textbooks, but not write them, nuns could serve priests, but not come
near the altar. And, you know, that has disappeared so entirely in our modern
world, and in other religions, by the way, which don't treat women that way,
that the papacy is losing its credibility with some of the most devout members
of the church, the women, who are not only half the human race, but usually
far more than half of the people who go to church.
GROSS: Now you've said about some of the other encyclicals that are still
upheld that you think it's more about maintaining the church's authority and
consistency than anything else; that the church...
Mr. WILLS: That's right.
GROSS: ...is afraid to say, `Oh, we were wrong. We made a mistake.' Do you
think it's the same thing with the ordination of women?
Mr. WILLS: Oh, yes, definitely. Yes. Not all these things--you know, they
are trying to overcome past attitudes. The church, in the past, clearly was
anti-Semitic and homophobic and misogynist. And they're not that anymore, and
they're trying to get away from that tradition, but they can't quite bring
themselves to say, `We were wrong.' They think that the trust in the church
will not last if the pope says, `We were wrong.' And, of course, it's exactly
the opposite. It would tremendously increase trust in the church if he
admitted such things. And it doesn't endanger the real deposit of faith, the
truths taught in Scripture and entrusted to the church.
GROSS: How does this relate to the subtitle of your book, which is
"Structures of Deceit"?
Mr. WILLS: It is that they don't set out to lie, and they don't set out to
punish women, or gays even, or married--people who marry who are priests, but
the structure of their culture in the curia is so self-defensive and
self-protective that they slide over into evasions and distortions and
suppressions. I liken it to a concept that St. Thomas Aquinas used. He
called it ignorantia a factito(ph), `a cultivated ignorance;' an ignorance
that's so useful to you that you, consciously, or unconsciously, or both, are
careful not to disturb it. You don't want to know the real truth about what
was said in the past because it might embarrass you in the present.
GROSS: Garry Wills' new book is called "Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit."
He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is
(Soundbite of music; credits given)
GROSS: Coming up, staying with the church in spite of his disagreements, we
continue our conversation with historian Garry Wills. And we talk with Tom
Maxwell, formerly of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, about writing new songs
inspired by early jazz. He has a new solo album. We're listening to it now.
(Soundbite of music)
HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with historian Garry Wills.
He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book "Lincoln at Gettysburg." His new book
"Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit" argues that popes have often misinterpreted
Scripture or made disingenuous statements to justify positions that no longer
make sense in the modern world, such as the ban on contraception and the
insistence on the celibacy of priests. Wills is a practicing Catholic.
You know, a lot of people say if you have such disagreements with the church,
you know, why don't you leave and go to another religion or just stop
Mr. WILLS: I don't have any disagreement with the church. I have criticisms
of the papacy. That's two different things entirely. The church...
GROSS: Is it?
Mr. WILLS: Oh, absolutely. Of course. The church is not the papacy. If
so, we would be in sad shape. It would mean that only person really had
access to God and that he told us what God told him. The spirit is not
granted to one person. It's granted to the whole body of the church. In
fact, the second Vatican counsel defines the church as the people of God, not
the person of God, not the people listening to a person, but the people of
God. So I have no criticism of the church. The church I belong to now is a
very loving community, a very active and intellectually questing
community, much more socially active than any one that I've ever belonged to
in my life. I've never been more at home in a church than I am now.
As I say, the great saving truths of the revelation that were also taught me
along with nonsense about masturbation are things that I still believe in. I
still say the creed and believe it. I still believe in the Trinity and the
incarnation. Those are the things that really matter. And to say that if you
disagree with the pope on contraception you're not a Catholic is kind of
nonsense. It's small potatoes next to the great truths, the great content of
the revelation, the great message of Scripture.
And people of very high standard have been very critical of the popes in the
past. John Henry Newman, who later on became Cardinal Newman--is normally
considered a pretty good Catholic--actually said, `I hope Pius IX dies soon
before he can do more damage to the church.' I've not said that, but--so
Dante, who was a good Catholic, put the pope in hell--Pope Celestine in hell.
I haven't done that. I haven't said any pope should be in hell. Of course, I
can criticize the pope and be a Catholic.
GROSS: You're a historian and an intellectual. Does your grounding in
history and your questioning mind as an intellectual ever get in the way of
Mr. WILLS: Well, I don't know that I would say get in the way. It makes me
constantly question faith. It's not something that's given to you as a child
and just you accept it and that's the end. I have to keep probing into what
the meaning of the revelation is. Let me take as an example--it seems to me
that reality is one in many. There is no such thing as a one or a many, but
there's--we experience in ourselves a oneness and a manyness(ph). That's how
Augustine argued to the Trinity. He didn't do it the way the Greek fathers
did with metaphysics. He said, `How do I experience myself? Because I and my
fellow human beings are the closest things to God there could be.' We're the
highest reality on Earth. And so we're taught when we're in catechism class
that God is Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Well, God is obviously not father and
son. He's not male. These are analogs. They are approximations. They are
GROSS: You mean God doesn't have a specific gender.
Mr. WILLS: Right. And he doesn't have fatherhood or sonhood or any of those
things. He has a relationship with himself that we figure that way. It's
what Newman called an economy--that you can't say something directly, you have
to say something approximate and get more and more approximate so that God is
not man or woman, God is not gender, God is not of fatherhood or sonhood, but
those things help us understand the kind of intense personal relationship that
God has with himself. And so obviously there's a feminine component to God.
I think that's indicated by the Holy Spirit, whose actions are kind of
maternal and nourishing and warming. And the Spirit should not be called it,
obviously. I think the Spirit should be called she. But all of those things
are adumbrations. They are probes into the mist of the mystery of God.
That's all they can be, and it's only wrong to accept these if you consider
that they end the mystery, that they perfectly embody the truth. And if you
say, for instance, that God is only Father and Son, God is only male, God is
only any of those things--he's none of those things--but he's something that
we can come toward by thinking of him in those terms provisionally.
GROSS: My guest is Garry Wills. His new book is called "Papal Sins:
Structures of Deceit." He's also the author of a biography of St. Augustine.
In addition to writing your recent books about religion, you've written a lot
over the years--books and articles--about American politics in history and
present politics. Since you've been writing these books about religion, I'm
wondering some of your thoughts about the role religion is playing in the
current presidential race. Both presidential candidates have talked about the
place of religion in their lives. Is that something you want to hear
presidential candidates discuss?
Mr. WILLS: Depends on how it's done. Religion is an extremely important part
of American history. There's no modern nation that's as religious as ours is.
And, of course, I think one of the reasons for that is precisely the
separation of church and state. We have given religion a freedom from the
bondage that it had to the state under all the preceding polities that I know
of. Religion is no longer something that you have to belong to in order to be
a citizen. It's not something that promotion in comes from politics or the
head of the state, or any of those things. So it's been an immensely freeing
thing. And so we should have a separation of church and state.
On the other hand, it is part of our life, even when it's not a state
religion, and there's no way that we can entirely separate it from politics
without separating it from morality. Because I used to do an experiment with
my students. I would say, `How many of you believe in the separation of
church and state?' And everybody, except an occasional Mormon, would say they
all did. I said, `How many of you believe in the separation of politics and
morality?' And none of them did. Then I said, `How many of you think that
religion and morality have nothing to do with each other?' And none of them
thought that either. Obviously, when we make moral choices, many of us, we
make them on the basis, in part at least, of the religious tradition we were
trained in--respect for life, duty to the poor. All of those things have a
religious element for many of us, if not most of us.
And so there's nothing wrong with religion in politics as long as it's not
state recognized, state establishment religion. It can be exploited, and
that's bad, as anything can be exploited--money or celebrity or whatever. But
there's--you certainly can't have a ban on religion in politics because the
First Amendment allows you to vote and to talk according to whatever your
principles are, and if they're religious, then the Constitution guarantees you
the right to talk and think and vote in those terms just so long as you don't
have an established religion.
GROSS: Garry Wills, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. WILLS: Thank you.
GROSS: Garry Wills is author of the new book "Papal Sin: The Structures of
Coming up, Tom Maxwell, formerly of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, talks about
his first CD as a leader. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Tom Maxwell, formerly of Squirrel Nut Zippers, talks
about his first CD as a leader
TERRY GROSS, host:
Tom Maxwell is a former member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, one of the most
popular bands behind what has been described as the neo-swing movement.
Maxwell wrote and sang the Zippers' biggest hit "Hell." He left the band
last year and has just released his first CD as a leader. It's called
"Samsara." In addition to featuring new songs inspired by such early jazz
performers as Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Django Reinhardt, it features
a country song by George Jones and a song that features a gospel quartet.
Maxwell sings and alternately plays guitar, saxophones and drums. He also
wrote most of the songs on the CD, including this one, "Sixes and Sevens To
(Soundbite of "Sixes and Sevens To Me")
Mr. TOM MAXWELL: (Singing) Not one for the money and two for the show, but
add three to get ready, won't work no more. Couldn't see that number coming.
It's sixes and sevens to me. You can put your loaded dice away. For me, it's
snake eyes all the way. Couldn't see that number coming. It's sixes and
sevens to me. Bank account number.
Backup Singers: (Singing) Yeah, man.
Mr. MAXWELL: (Singing) Telephone number.
Backup Singers: (Singing) No, man.
Mr. MAXWELL: (Singing) Waiting line number.
Backup Singers: (Singing) No, man.
Mr. MAXWELL: (Singing) You know some things just don't add up. As sure as
five will get you 10, I'm going to cross her path again. When I see that
number coming, it's sixes and sevens to me.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Music from Tom Maxwell's new CD "Samsara."
Tom, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. MAXWELL: It's a pleasure.
GROSS: With the Squirrel Nut Zippers and, in part, on your new CD, you play
what some people would describe as like neo-swing or swing dance music or...
Mr. MAXWELL: Ah. Ooh.
GROSS: Right. I know you feel that way about it...
Mr. MAXWELL: Neo-swing--what does that mean?
GROSS: Yeah. What are some of the problems that you feel you've run into
playing the music that a lot of people see as retro?
Mr. MAXWELL: Well, for one thing, words like `retro' or `nostalgia'
clinically remove any teeth or soul from the music that you're playing. I'm
not interested in--I'm not a historian. I want to play music that kicks
people in the stomach, basically, or affects them in a visceral level, even if
it's incredibly beautiful. So retro means that it's become--like it's become
a figurine. It's placed on a shelf that's only brought down to be dusted off.
GROSS: One of the problems I have with the kind of retro approach to jazz is
that it requires dressing up. You know, the band and the--a lot of the
audience is expected to dress a certain a way in clothes from the past and
just--use a certain language from the past, so it becomes so much about like a
costume party instead of just about music.
Mr. MAXWELL: Yeah. In almost every interview I did regarding the swing
movement had nothing to do with what we were doing artistically and it was all
about the associated iconography. `Do you wear zoot suits? Do you smoke
cigars? Do you drink martinis?' And I'm like, `Look, y'all, what does this
have to do with music?' I wear jeans and I listen to Beatles records, you
know, or Howlin' Wolf records. I didn't understand. It was incredibly
frustrating to me.
And I also have to say that--without naming names--although a lot of very good
music was being made by people like Andrew Bird, most of what was held up
as being representative of the swing movement was pitifully two-dimensional.
It was like a combination of Kansas City Jump(ph) blues and Gene Krupa
backbeats. And it was--I heard endless variations on "Sing, Sing, Sing"
by Benny Goodman. I mean, as an artist, I want to sort of put my own stamp on
things and at that same time honor what's come before. It's my job to sort of
internalize it and put my own kind of individual stamp on it. I thought the
vast majority of so-called swing music was artistically dead on arrival.
GROSS: Well, listen, before we hear more music from your new record, let me
play the song that you're best known for from your days with the Squirrel Nut
Mr. MAXWELL: Oh, "Paint It Black."
GROSS: This is called "Hell." It's a calypso.
Mr. MAXWELL: It's a calypso, yes.
GROSS: Tell me why you wanted to write a calypso song, how you were
introduced to calypso music.
Mr. MAXWELL: I was coming back from practice when I was a rock 'n' roll
drummer and I was listening to WXYC, the University of North Carolina college
radio station, and "Seven Skeletons Found in the Yard(ph) by Lord Executor
came on, because it had just been issued on Rounder Records. I was floored.
I was floored, because it sounded like he was reading the news. And from what
I could make out of the lyrics, it was really, really scary stuff, but the
instrumentation was American jazz. It was, you know, clarinet, saxophone,
string bass--very jazz--but the rhythm was--well, it was calypso. How can one
describe it? It just had me in its thrall. So I immediately went out and
bought that record and then I was introduced to The Growler and King Radio and
Caresser(ph) and Tiger and Lion and all these guys. I just love them all. I
just love them so much. So I thought, `Well, heck, calypso's really
phenomenal.' I need to write a calypso and I wrote one and it was horrible,
just a horrible gloss. And then I wrote another one and it was "Hell."
GROSS: This is "Hell," written by my guest, Tom Maxwell, from the Squirrel
Nut Zippers' CD "Hot."
(Soundbite of "Hell")
SQUIRREL NUT ZIPPERS: (Singing) In the afterlife, you could be headed for the
serious strife. Now you make the scene all day, but tomorrow there'll be hell
to pay. Now the D and the A and the M and the N and the A and the T and the
I, O, N. Lose your face, lose your name, then get fitted for a suit of flame.
D and the A and the M and the N and the A and the T and the I, O, N. Lose
your face, lose your name, then get fitted for a suit of flame.
GROSS: That's the Squirrel Nut Zippers' recording of "Hell," a tune written
and sung by my guest, Tom Maxwell, who has a new CD of his own, which is
What music did you grow up listening to?
Mr. MAXWELL: Oh, Small Faces, Beatles--lots and lots of Beatles. See, I
heard The Rolling Stones doing Howlin' Wolf before I heard Howlin' Wolf. I
was very much--I wanted to get away from "Disco Duck" and all that stuff that
was on the radio at the time, and my brother was coming home with a canonical
British band record collection, so Zeppelin and Stones and stuff, Yardbirds.
And then, I think in 1988, I--once again, I was coming home from a gig, and I
turned on the TV--it was about two in the morning--and I saw a film clip of
Cab Calloway singing "Minnie the Moocher" very soon after the song was a hit,
so he was a young man, was the early '30s. It was his Cotton Club orchestra.
He was in the white tails, where he's just--oh, he's just dynamite. He's so
frightening, it's so, so unnerving, and he's singing this song which is about
heroin addiction, for crying out loud. It's incredibly sad and menacing, you
The verses of "Minnie the Moocher" start with Minnie the Moocher's a nice
girl, and then she gets--then she hooks up with a bad guy who gets her hooked
on drugs, and then the last verse is her dreaming about wealth and power. I
was just--I was, like, `Wow, this band is rocking! These guys are really
rocking.' And the gal with whom I was living at the time had, like, the
Smithsonian history of jazz, and I played--I heard "East St. Louis Toodle-oo"
by Ellington's band, I think the Washingtonians, in about '26, and I thought,
`How come I never heard this before?' Why was all the music from that era
that was offered up to people my age incredibly candy-ass and toothless, and,
you know, nostalgic. This stuff isn't nostalgic, this stuff rocks.
GROSS: My guest is Tom Maxwell, formerly of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. His
first CD as a leader is called "Samsara." More after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Tom Maxwell, formerly of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. He's
just released his first CD as a leader.
I want to play another track from your new CD, "Samsara," and this is a
track--and it's a song that you wrote--and you're singing and accompanying you
is someone on pipe organ.
Mr. MAXWELL: Uh-huh.
GROSS: Now before we hear it, let's talk a little bit about pipe organ...
Mr. MAXWELL: Let's.
GROSS: ...and why you wanted the pipe organ backing you up. Fats Waller made
some classic recordings with pipe organ. I assume he inspired your choice.
Mr. MAXWELL: Well, considering I don't think anybody else bothered, after
Fats, to do any jazz pipe organ, those sides just tore me up, they just ripped
me up. I knew Fats as a phenomenal piano player and Hammond organist. And
then somehow--well, you know, in "Eraserhead," all those years ago, that David
Lynch movie, they had Fats Waller pipe organ music in it. And I thought,
`Fats Waller pipe organ. Come on. How cool is that?' He came up--his dad was
a preacher; he used to accompany his father on the sidewalk. He played in the
Lincoln and Lafayette Theaters in Harlem, backing movies, and then he was a
full-on jazz beau. And so when he went into that desanctified church in
Camden in 1926, he did first what Ray Charles did many years later, which is
to completely synthesize the sacred and the profane. So he's playing "St.
Louis Blues" on a pipe organ, or he's playing "Beal Street Blues" with an
incredibly terrifying and menacing foot pedal solo on what one normally thinks
of as a kind of dull, sanctimonious instrument, and they're very difficult to
play. It's like driving a truck, playing those things.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear the song? This is "You'll Always Get What's
Coming." My guest, Tom Maxwell, co-wrote the song. He sings on it, and it's
featured on his new CD, "Samsara."
(Soundbite of "You'll Always Get What's Coming," by TOM MAXWELL)
Mr. MAXWELL: (Singing) Mr. So-and-So's on my mind. He like to worry me all
the time. He can spend his life ducking, dodging, running. Might not get
what you want, but you'll always take what's coming. Oh, yeah, now. I hear
footsteps when there's no one...'
GROSS: That's "You'll Always Get What's Coming." My guest, Tom Maxwell,
co-wrote the song. He was also the featured singer on it. It's on his new
The pipe organ that we heard on there--as you said, you were inspired by Fats
Waller's pipe organ playing. Now I know you tracked down his former guitar
player, Al Casey.
Mr. MAXWELL: Yes. My friend.
GROSS: Where did you find him, and...
Mr. MAXWELL: Let's see. RCA Bluebird has been steadily reissuing the
sides that Fats cut with his band, the Rhythm, of which Al was a member, and I
just sort of assumed that all those guys were dead. I mean, Fats conked out
pretty quick. I read in the liner notes that the guitarist, Al Casey, was
still alive and Al was the guy on whom I patterned my guitar playing when I
came into the Squirrel Nut Zippers. It's like, well, if I'm going to be up
front and I'm going to be playing guitar, who do I want to sound like? Well,
Al Casey. It was a no-brainer. He's so sweet. His playing is so sweet to
me, and a little sad, and has such a--it's just so great. I just think he's
so great. So I'm like, `Al Casey's alive. You're kidding me.'
I ended up looking him up in the New York directory--Al Casey, you know--and
called him on the phone. `Hello? Excuse me, are you Al Casey?' `Yes, I am.'
`Are you the Al Casey that played guitar with Fats Waller?' `Yes, I am.' Can
you imagine? I just about jumped out of my clothes. And from there, it was
getting his address. He ended up being nice, very nice and solicitous,
although I don't think he was used to people calling him up and worshiping
him out of the blue. And we went and met him and hung with him, and I've
since performed with him, wrote a song about him, performed that song on stage
with him, had drinks with him, talked to him about Fats. What a dream come
GROSS: Did he...
Mr. MAXWELL: I can't tell.
GROSS: Did he show you anything nifty on guitar?
Mr. MAXWELL: No, he says he can't play that chorded style anymore. He
started playing single note stuff after the mid-'40s when he became amplified,
because in Fats' band, he played, you know, a Gibson L-5. He played an
acoustic instrument, you know. And he's been playing single note stuff, and
he constantly complains about his arthritis, although he plays beautifully.
No, but we talked about what kind of strings one would use, or the sort of
approach one would have. He did bring out his scrapbook, which is like,
basically, this unbelievable history of jazz, with signed pictures from, of
course, Fats and Armstrong and Holiday, because he took a year off to play in
Teddy Wilson's band and back Billie Holiday. I mean, that ain't shabby.
And all these guys were friends of his. That was his life. That's what he
did. He's constantly self-deprecating.
GROSS: Did he ask to hear any of your records?
Mr. MAXWELL: Yeah, I played him some stuff, but I didn't really pursue him
about it, because it didn't matter to me whether he liked it or not. It
certainly wasn't any basis on which I was going to predicate our relationship.
You kidding me? I was thrilled to be around him, so I've never asked him,
although he seemed very, very pleased when I played him "Pallin' With Al(ph),"
and when we played it together in New York, I burst into tears.
GROSS: Tom Maxwell, formerly of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, has a new CD called
"Samsara." Let's listen to "Pallin' With Al," performed by the Squirrel Nut
(Soundbite of "Pallin' With Al," by the Squirrel Nut Zippers)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "Pallin' With Al")
SQUIRREL NUT ZIPPERS: (Singing) All the birds up in the trees got a different
song to sing. And it's better now they've learned that swing. They've been
pallin' with Al. Down below at the candy shop, they're still working at the
same old chore. But the stuff is sweeter than it was before. You know why.
Pallin' with Al. Who's that man that's got the sentimental swing, plays that
mesh just like it doesn't mean a thing? Gather 'round, you all, and watch him
pluck those strings. When he gets the right hand pumpin', all those kiddies
want to start a jumpin'. Listen now and don't forget, if you got for that
solid jive, you can always keep the dream alive, pallin', pallin', pallin'
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