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How Thousands Of U.S. Guns Fuel Crime In Mexico.

Since 2006, more than 60,000 of the weapons used in Mexican crimes have been traced back to the United States. Washington Post investigative reporter James Grimaldi explains how a team of reporters uncovered the names of the top 12 U.S. dealers of guns traced to Mexico.

20:35

Other segments from the episode on January 5, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 5, 2011: Interview with James Grimaldi; Interview with Mark Ribot.

Transcript

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Tracking Gun Dealers Linked To Mexican Violence

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The Washington Post recently concluded a series called "The Hidden Life
of Guns," tracing where guns used in crime scenes come from. My guest,
James Grimaldi, is an investigative journalist who has co-written
several articles in the series with Sari Horwitz.

In 2006, Grimaldi shared a Pulitzer Prize for helping to uncover the
Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Grimaldi and Horwitz investigated how an
unprecedented number of guns sold in U.S. stores are crossing the border
into Mexico and ending up in the hands of the drug cartels.

The identities of the U.S. dealers that sell those guns have remained
confidential by law, but Grimaldi and Horwitz managed to trace these
guns and uncover the names of the top 12 U.S. gun dealers whose weapons
ended up in Mexican crime scenes.

One of the reasons why the drug cartels need U.S. guns is that gun laws
in Mexico are very strict. There's only one legitimate gun store in
Mexico, and it's run by the military.

James Grimaldi, welcome to FRESH AIR. So a lot of the guns being used in
the Mexican drug wars come from the United States. Give us a sense of
the scope, what percentage of the guns come from here.

Mr. JAMES GRIMALDI (Investigative Journalist, Washington Post): Well,
that's probably the most controversial question you could ask, at least
from the point of view of the National Rifle Association. Really,
probably, the better figure to focus in on is the raw number of guns
that have been traced to the United States, and that number is well over
60,000 guns just in the past four years.

And when you look at that, regardless of what the percentage is, that's
a lot of guns. That's what both the ATF and Mexican officials say. The
vast majority of the guns in Mexico are coming from the United States.

And there are some pretty obvious reasons for that. We're the closest.
It's easy to get guns. It's not difficult to cross the borders with the
guns once you get them. And there's very little stopping gun runners
from doing that, at least currently. And the efforts by the United
States and Mexican authorities have not really been a very strong
deterrent in stopping the flow of guns south of the border.

GROSS: What has the U.S. been doing to try to stop gun running from the
U.S. to Mexico?

Mr. GRIMALDI: They've beefed up enforcement and opened offices along the
borders. They've increased inspections at gun stores to make sure that
the gun dealers are actually selling guns to legal buyers.

Part of the problem that you see in guns going to Mexico is straw
purchases. That's where someone who's a legal buyer is buying a gun for
someone who's an illegal buyer or prohibited buyer. Those straw
purchases really put the gun stores in the front lines of defending or
preventing this flow of guns to Mexico. Basically, private operators of
stores are our main line of defense.

GROSS: You mean because they should be screening who gets the gun and
who doesn't?

Mr. GRIMALDI: They essentially are the main screeners. As required under
federal law, you have to be the actual buyer of the gun. You can't be
purchasing it on behalf of another person. You can't be a felon or
someone legally insane or under the influence of drugs, and there's
several other requirements.

They also have to submit to a national background check that's done
pretty much instantaneously by the gun dealer. And as we found in some
of the cases where there's gun running to Mexico, some of the buyers are
actually doing it for prohibited purchasers who are then taking them
across the border.

GROSS: There are many reasons why it's difficult to trace where the
American guns that end up in Mexico actually originated. One of the
problems comes from the National Tracing Center itself, and this is the
tracing center that handles what?

Mr. GRIMALDI: Hundreds of thousands, over the years, of traces.

GROSS: For the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Mr. GRIMALDI: Alcohol, tobacco and firearms.

GROSS: Okay, so what are the problems that the tracing center has?

Mr. GRIMALDI: The tracing center is required to follow laborious and
very complicated regulations that have been put out over the years,
largely put in place because of the Second Amendment and at the
insistence of the National Rifle Association.

Essentially, the ATF cannot have a computerized database of people who
own guns in the United States. The NRA opposes any registration, any
registry of guns to be kept by the government. And as a result, the ATF
essentially has to trace every gun in a crime gun trace by hand.

GROSS: So you're talking about literally paperwork.

Mr. GRIMALDI: It's literally paperwork or phone calls. There may be some
computers that are involved, but there's a prohibition on, frankly,
these computers communicating with each other and creating a national
registration. That's been banned by federal law since 1978.

GROSS: Now, you actually went to the National Tracing Center, which not
many people who aren't agents get to do. So tell us what you saw there.

Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, it's really an amazing place, maybe out of something
like out of the movie "Brazil," where you could literally see boxes and
boxes of documents that pile up at the tracing center, and the tracing
center is trying to process them.

The reason they have these - so these are out-of-commission or out-of-
business dealers, and when a dealer goes out of business, they need to
keep these records of purchases so that they can search them by hand,
and they ship them off to the National Tracing Center.

They can be, you know, written down in pencil and in ledger books. They
could sometimes arrive waterlogged from hurricane damage or flood
damage, which may have led to the store closing. It's really a
bureaucratic mess that even friends of the NRA believe has put unusual
restraints and difficulties on the ATF.

GROSS: And when was the law preventing a computer database put into
place?

Mr. GRIMALDI: It goes back to the 1970s, after the passage of the Gun
Control Act of 1968. The Carter administration came in with a rule in
which they proposed asking each of the gun dealers to keep an inventory
of their guns so that they could facilitate these traces of guns used in
crimes.

The NRA blocked that rule and put in place a prohibition, beginning in
1978, and in every appropriations bill since then, that restricts the
ATF from creating a computerized registry of any sort or shape of gun
ownership.

GROSS: When you say the NRA put it into place, the NRA doesn't literally
get a vote in Congress. So what do you mean by that?

Mr. GRIMALDI: Yeah, no, that was a slight overstatement, but at the
urging of the NRA, members of Congress, who gain a lot of their support
from the National Rifle Association added this rider into congressional
appropriations legislation. This came at the same time that the NRA had
marshaled a letter-writing campaign that resulted in 350,000 letters
opposing this rule going to the ATF. And that was certainly noted by the
members of Congress who put this in place.

GROSS: So you wanted to do your own tracing to see, like, what stores in
the United States were selling the most weapons that ended up in Mexico.
But you don't have access to tracing information. A few years ago, you
would have, through the Freedom of Information Act. But that is blocked
now. You can't use the Freedom of Information Act to access tracing
information. When and how did that change?

Mr. GRIMALDI: That changed in 2003, when the gun lobby, the NRA, gun
manufacturers went to Congress and asked them to put it off-limits. And
they did that through an appropriation bill to the ATF, basically saying
you can't give this data out.

And it basically shut down any news stories that had been published in
the past exposing where the guns were coming from, showing which stores
tended to be the place where criminals went to buy their guns.

The NRA and the gun industry opposed this mostly not only because of
that embarrassment but also because trial lawyers had been suing many of
the gun stores and the manufacturers, and they felt they were at risk of
destroying the industry by using this gun-trace data to follow the
patterns of gun trafficking.

GROSS: Yet, you managed to get access to this information and find out
which stores in the United States were selling the most guns that ended
up in Mexico. How did you get access to the information? Tell us what
you can tell us?

Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, not a lot. We don't talk a lot about sources and
methods. And we decided to set out and break the secrecy and find out
which gun stores were providing or selling the guns that ended up in
Mexico and then taking a look at the gun stores.

And that's what we did. We analyzed their background and the lawsuits
that had been filed against them and whether their cases had shown up in
any criminal cases that were made by the federal government or the ATF,
and not surprisingly, the ones that ended up on the list, many of them
actually did have somewhat checkered records - involvement in purchases
by gun runners to Mexico.

Now, all of the stores, of course, say that they were unwitting, they
didn't know about this. And one of the stores that we had focused on in
fact is now saying they were deliberating making these sales in
cooperation with the ATF. And it's come out that that store is under
federal investigation. The ATF says they don't do that kind of
arrangement with a gun store unless they catch the person before they
leave the property.

GROSS: You're talking about, like, a sting operation?

Mr. GRIMALDI: They suggested it was a sting operation. The ATF says, you
know, we won't make a deal with a store unless we tell them, don't make
the sale until we show up. This store says they were routinely making
sales and then tipping off the ATF about it after the fact.

GROSS: So now that you did your own tracing of where guns in the Mexican
drug wars came from, the stores that sold them in the U.S., do you have
any reason to believe you have information or a kind of pattern that
you've been able to map out that the ATF does not?

Mr. GRIMALDI: No, I think the ATF has been very much on top of where the
guns are being traced to, and that wasn't really the point of our
investigation. I think our point was to show the broader public, gun
dealers themselves, law enforcement agencies outside of the federal
government and outside the ATF what these patterns really are.

There is a lot of myth and mythology promoted by supporters of gun
rights and others about where the guns were coming from. And I think our
story showed that, very clearly, they're coming from gun stores in the
United States primarily, and going across the border to Mexico. And why?
Because it's easy.

GROSS: So you wanted to make this information public because the ATF
isn't allowed to?

Mr. GRIMALDI: The ATF is prohibited, under federal law, from releasing
this information. It, in fact, is exempted. This information is exempted
from the Freedom of Information Act by a law passed in Congress in 2003.

GROSS: So we wouldn't know about these stores if you didn't write about
them because the ATF is not allowed to tell us.

Mr. GRIMALDI: That's right. There's no other way to get it than the way
we got it. And I can't even tell you how we got it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Grimaldi. He's an
investigative reporter with the Washington Post, and he's been
contributing to the Washington Post series "The Hidden Life of Guns."

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about guns. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is James Grimaldi, an investigative reporter with the
Washington Post. He's been writing articles for the series "The Hidden
Life of Guns." His articles have been focusing on how American guns end
up being used across the border in Mexico's drug wars. He and his
writing partner have also been writing about the power of the NRA in the
U.S.

Now, getting back to Mexico, last spring, President Obama promised
Mexican President Felipe Calderon that he'd work to deter gun running to
Mexico. But you say Rahm Emanuel, when he was still chief of staff,
stopped anything from happening. Why?

Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, there was concern in the White House, based on our
reporting, that they didn't want to upset the gun lobby in Congress.
Many strong friends of the NRA in Congress would raise up and probably
put a limitation on certain kinds of restrictions.

For example, an assault weapons ban was something that was opposed by
many Democratic members of Congress when it was first announced by Eric
Holder early in the Obama administration.

And one thing to remember in Congress, in recent years, it's almost been
a fact that Democrats can't control Congress unless they have a number
of conservative, rural Democrats, and usually that translates into a
strong NRA rating.

And so the White House was concerned just before the midterm elections
that something that would rile the base of the NRA would further hurt
them in their midterm elections. And as a result, that proposal that was
sent over by the ATF was postponed until December.

GROSS: So what is the Obama administration proposing now?

Mr. GRIMALDI: They are proposing something that is already required by
gun dealers for handguns. They're asking that gun dealers, only along
the border, report the sale of what they call long guns, basically
assault rifles.

So those rifles that have a detachable magazine and are larger than .22
caliber and are sold more than two guns in a period of time of five
days, they have to be reported to the ATF.

If that happens, the ATF can actually go and see if this person is, you
know, using it for legitimate purposes or if they're part of a larger
ring. It's a key flag or an indicator for investigators trying to stop
gun running to Mexico.

GROSS: Is this proposal something that President Obama is proposing as
legislation or as a regulation, as an executive order?

Mr. GRIMALDI: This is being proposed as an emergency, essentially, rule
that would be required if the gun dealers along the border, essentially
immediately, sometime this month.

The NRA opposes it strongly. They believe that if the ATF wants to
attempt to do this rule, that they should actually try to pass it as a
law, which they would of course oppose. That would put the debate
squarely into Congress, where the NRA believes it would have the
stronger hand, it probably could defeat it.

GROSS: So in addition to writing about how U.S. guns end up in Mexico,
you've been writing about how the NRA, the National Rifle Association,
became so powerful in American politics. Where does it get its power to
influence congressmen?

Mr. GRIMALDI: It largely comes from the four million members of the NRA
across the country, and I think it also is really rooted in our
democracy.

The fact that even rural states have two senators mean that in many of
the lower-population states, you're going to have probably strong NRA
membership there.

Plus, they spend at least 20 percent of their budget, or about 20
percent of their budget, annually on political activities that begin at
the state level and go all the way to Congress. We calculated that just
over the past two decades, they've spent more than $100 million in
political activities, which includes $22 million on lobbying and $75
million on campaigns.

That doesn't include such things as voter information brochures and
websites that provide information to voters. And, you know, NRA ranking
can make a difference in certain states. It was used quite powerfully in
a large-money campaign by the NRA in the state of Missouri this year to
defeat Jean Carnahan, who was running for United States Senate against
Roy Blunt.

GROSS: So let's get back to what's happening now. So, President Obama
would like to see this emergency proposal that would require gun dealers
along the southwest border to report to the ATF any time that the store
makes two or more sales over a five-day period of semi-automatic rifles
that have a caliber greater than a .22 and that have a detachable
magazine.

Mr. GRIMALDI: Right.

GROSS: So the NRA opposes that. You say the NRA would like to see this
being done as a law, because that way they think they'd have the power
to defeat a law from actually being passed.

Mr. GRIMALDI: Right.

GROSS: Do you think this is going to be a showdown now between the NRA
and President Obama?

Mr. GRIMALDI: It really could be one of the first gun showdowns with the
NRA. Essentially, there hasn't been anything else. Some of the gun-
control groups like to point out that the only legislation he has signed
was a provision in an appropriations bill allowing people to carry
firearms in national parks.

And obviously, that's more of a pro-gun stand than it is a gun-control
stand. So this really does mark, I think, the first real confrontation
between the Obama administration and the NRA.

GROSS: Okay, well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, thanks for having me.

GROSS: James Grimaldi is an investigative reporter for the Washington
Post. You can find links to the articles he co-wrote for the Post's
series "The Hidden Life of Guns" on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

We'll end this half of the show with a song by Scottish singer and
songwriter Gerry Rafferty, who died yesterday at the age of 63. His song
"Baker Street" was a top 10 hit in 1978 in both the U.S. and Britain,
and his 1972 song, "Stuck in the Middle With You," gained new popularity
when Quentin Tarantino used it 20 years later in his film "Reservoir
Dogs." Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Stuck in the Middle With You")

Mr. GERRY RAFFERTY (Singer): (Singing) Well I don't know why I came here
tonight. I got the feeling that something ain't right. I'm so scared in
case I fall off my chair, and I'm wondering how I'll get down the
stairs. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. Here I am, stuck
in the middle with you.

Yes I'm stuck in the middle with you, and I'm wondering what it is I
should do. It's so hard to keep the smile from my face losing control,
yeah I'm all over the place. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the
right. Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.
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Marc Ribot: Translating 'Silent Movies' To Music

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

My guest, composer and guitarist Marc Ribot has many musical identities.
He's played with such diverse performers as Wilson Pickett, Elvis
Costello, Tom Waits, and jazz avant-gardist John Zorn. He was featured
on the Grammy award-winning album by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant,
"Raising Sand."

Ribot was a member of John Lurie's Lounge Lizards and he's led several
of his own jazz groups, including the Rootless Cosmopolitans, Los
Cubanos Postizos, a Latin-tinged band, and Spiritual Unity, an Albert
Ayler tribute project.

Ribot latest CD is a solo recording called "Silent Movies." Some of the
music is inspired by his experience accompanying a screening of the
Charlie Chaplin silent film "The Kid." Other tracks are pieces
originally composed for movie scores, some for films he turned down but
found himself writing for anyways. Other tracks are from movies he just
imagined.

Let's open with "Delancey Waltz," which he wrote for an as yet
unreleased John Malkovich film.

(Soundbite of song, "Delancey Waltz")

GROSS: That's Marc Ribot from his latest CD, "Silent Movies."

Marc Ribot welcome to FRESH AIR. You’ve written film scores. Do you
think of your music as telling stories and has it been helpful to write
music for movies and to need to think of your music as fitting into a
narrative?

Mr. MARC RIBOT (Musician): Well, when I wrote for film, I felt I was
able to write in a more, like, lyrical way. I kind of permitted myself a
kind of freedom to be lyrical that I didn't normally have. You know, I
mean, I came out of like playing R&B and punk rock and free jazz and
free improvised music. And the words lyrical or narrative were weren't
the first ones most people would've thought to describe my records.

But when I wrote for film, it was a whole different set of concerns and
I found out that it was fun. But even beyond being fun, it seemed like
at this particular moment I was attracted to doing this.

GROSS: So when you found out that writing for film gave you permission
to be lyrical in your composition and playing, did you find like lyrical
is not a bad thing?

Mr. RIBOT: Well, I don’t know if it's a bad thing. I mean, I think there
are reasons why not only me but I mean a lot of other people that I came
up with seem to approach certain kind of lyricism with great difficulty.
I mean, most of the people on my scene, either they, if they were going
to be lyrical it would be - they would be some kind of formalist or, for
example, minimalism.

Like a lot of minimalist composers are very lyrical but they just repeat
the phrase a thousand times, or it's kind of subsumed beneath this kind
of formalist treatment, or other people did away with it entirely and
dealt with a lot of noise elements and - or would have like a kind of
could be lyrical, but there would be these kind of quote/unquote,
"postmodern quotation marks around it." So it was cool to be lyrical
only if it sounded exactly like a piece from the '30s. Or, you know, if
it had those kind of historical or quotation concerns. So this felt
different somehow.

GROSS: But everything that you’ve just said is basically that the people
you came up with musically thought it was not a good thing to display
genuine emotion through music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: I don’t know if - you know something, again, I don’t know if
we thought it wasn’t a good thing, but there seemed to be some kind of
difficulty. I don't know if this was because we thought that the way
people had done things before wasn't cool, as much as that this was the
only way we could do things.

GROSS: So I want to play another track from your latest CD "Silent
Movies." And this is a composition that is not an original one. It's the
only one that's not an original one. But I think you've thoroughly re-
imagined the song. And it's a song that Americans know as "Under Paris
Skies."

Mr. RIBOT: Yeah.

GROSS: You give the French title, the original title, "Sous le ciel de
Paris."

Mr. RIBOT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Is it Edith Piaf who first sang this?

Mr. RIBOT: I don't know who first sang it. I just know I like it. I know
Edith Piaf did sing it, yeah.

GROSS: How do you know this song and why did you want to do such a
really dark version of it?

Mr. RIBOT: I heard a recording of that piece by the Argentinean
guitarist Oscar Aleman. I think he was actually living in Paris when he
recorded it. And I liked it a lot and my version doesn't sound anything
like his but I just decided to do it, that's all.

GROSS: But it's such a dark version. And it sounds almost like a Western
showdown.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: Yeah. Well, that's, you know, I like those guitar sounds. The
guitar is somehow linked to Westerns.

GROSS: What were some of your favorite Western movie or TV themes?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: I loved the theme from "Bonanza" and I liked a lot of...

GROSS: That was actually, like, a big hit on the radio.

Mr. RIBOT: Yeah, it was. And I liked a lot of other things that Duane
Eddy played on. And I guess I was more drawn towards like surf music
than Westerns per se, like The Ventures and The Shadows, they were big
heroes and still are. I mean, that kind of - those kind of sounds are
just what the guitar, if guitars could vote, you know, they would
vote...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: You know, like guitars might vote to play a lot of different
things but all guitars would vote to play surf music.

GROSS: Because?

Mr. RIBOT: Because that's what guitars like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: That's what they do if you leave them alone.

GROSS: And since this track is on your album "Silent Movies," did you
have any kind of narrative or movie scene in mind when you played this?

Mr. RIBOT: This piece in particular?

GROSS: This piece.

Mr. RIBOT: No. I don't think I literally sat there with a scene in mind
but I know that certain kinds of reverbs and certain sounds evoke
certain ideas of space. So on this piece and the record in general, that
was a concern.

GROSS: Okay. So this is Marc Ribot on solo guitar from his latest album
"Silent Movies."

(Soundbite of song, "Silent Movies")

GROSS: That's Marc Ribot from his latest album "Silent Movies," playing
"Sous le ciel de Paris," which is known to Americans "Under Paris
Skies." I think that's great. I really, I'm so glad you recorded that.

Mr. RIBOT: Thanks.

GROSS: What we just heard is very, you know, like dark and grave
sounding. But, you know, some of your stuff is so different from that.
You got started professionally playing in like R&B bands and rock. You
backed up a lot of people when you were young, before you started your
own bands. Who are some of the names everyone will recognize who you
backed up?

Mr. RIBOT: Well, I came to New York in '79 and I worked briefly as a
side musician with the late Brother Jack McDuff, a jazz organist. And
later on, as part of the band The Realtones, we recorded with Solomon
Burke and we backed up a lot of different people, Rufus Thomas, Carla
Thomas and other, some others like Stax recording artists.

I did a short tour with Wilson Pickett and, you know, just a lot of
other people. At the same time I was working with a lot of singer-
songwriters and people and rock people as well. And I would say that the
America that I saw touring with Brother Jack McDuff was quite different
than the one I had grown up in.

GROSS: My guest is guitarist and composer Mark Ribot. His latest CD is
called "Silent Movies." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is guitarist and composer Mark Ribot. His latest CD is
called "Silent Movies." When we left off we were talking about his early
career when he was playing in R&B bands and working as a sideman with
jazz organ player Jack McDuff.

Jack McDuff was an organ player and probably played a lot of lounges.

Mr. RIBOT: Yes, he did. I mean, he worked on what musicians called the
chitlin' circuit, which was a kind of soul jazz oriented black working
class musical circuit. I mean I'm sure it’s still out there somewhere.

GROSS: So did you feel out of place?

Mr. RIBOT: Musically, it was the best audience that I had ever played
for and have ever played for since. It was the only audience that I ever
played for that rewarded restraint.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. RIBOT: Yeah. A lot of people seem to think, mistake the guitar for a
trumpet and think it's you're doing something really remarkable if you
play high. I mean if you bend really notes high up on the guitar it's
actually fairly easy to do, but it's hard to do on a trumpet, of course.
People think you're doing something great if you play high and fast.
Whereas, I remembered that Jack McDuff's audience, if you held back,
would actually get more into it.

GROSS: Are there things that you learned playing with R&B bands that
you've taken with you over the years in lots of different settings?

Mr. RIBOT: One thing is that I've discovered that there's a kind of a
hidden connection a lot of people aren't aware of between R&B and free
jazz: the need for that kind of visceral connection with the audience
and for something to happen that moves people. It's...

GROSS: I mean, for that honk, for that cry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: Yeah, for the cry. Exactly.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. RIBOT: I think that maybe beyond just R&B, it's the thing in black
music - the moment when the solo builds and builds and at a certain
point, it hits that cry. And knowing when that needs to happen is
something that you, you know, that players who come from that tradition
seem to have. And I notice that a lot of people, Ornette Coleman and
Albert Ayler and a lot of other people who wound being part of the free
jazz movement started out in R&B or jump bands and then it seems like
they were, I don’t know, this is just my guess, but people who were
trying to get to the same place but by other means.

GROSS: So I want to play a track that's very R&B influenced, but it's a
kind of almost avant-garde take on R&B. It's really fun. It's from your
album "Party Intellectuals," featuring your band Ceramic Dog and the
composition is called "Never Better."

(Soundbite of song, "Never Better")

GROSS: That's from the album "Party Intellectuals," from the band Marc
Ribot's Ceramic Dog and Marc Ribot is my guest.

So you grew up in New Jersey. You describe it as a suburban
neighborhood. Tell us a little bit about the neighborhood.

Mr. RIBOT: Well, I mean, I was actually born in Newark in what would not
be described as a suburban neighborhood, but then my family moved to
Orange and East Orange and wound up in South Orange, which is a suburb
of New York, I guess, of Newark, borders on Newark.

GROSS: Now I want to quote something that you told an interviewer in
2002 when you were talking about being in high school. You said the
people who are imitating Eric Clapton struck me as kind of like the
musical version of the high school jocks. So my life as a young artist
was by day, I would be beaten up by the high school jocks and by night I
would be beaten up by the jocks of music who played these things so
perfectly and had all the right equipment. So my aesthetic began to form
as a kind of reaction to that. So what was the aesthetic that formed in
reaction that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: Well, you’re hearing it. All I know is I started listening to
people like Hubert Sumlin and trying to deal with a less muscular way of
reaching people. Part of what was going on maybe was a little bit of
jealousy. Who knows what I - I had like certain technical limitations. I
didn’t learn to play with a pick until I was like 25 or something. So I
wasn't playing as fast as all the boys.

But yeah, I started to gravitate towards people who could, who had a
certain amount of economy, partly because I liked it and partly because
I couldn't do the other thing anyways. So it was a great relief to me
when I finally started to, like, when punk rock and no wave came along I
thought, ah-ha.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: All of those people who were doing it wrong, now we've got
our own club.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: I mean, when I heard Robert Quine play I thought, okay, this
is something I can get into. Robert Quine played with Richard Hell & The
Voidoids and before that with Lou Reed. But yeah, he didn’t sound like
the shredders or the fusion guys or the, you know, no one would have
ever accused him of having immaculate technique.

GROSS: My guest is guitarist and composer Marc Ribot. His latest CD is
called "Silent Movies."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is guitarist and composer Marc Ribot. His latest CD is a
solo album called "Silent Movies." He's led several bands, including the
Rootless Cosmopolitans.

Now, Hendrix was an influence. Jimi Hendrix was an influence on you and
you do a Hendrix song on your Rootless - one of your Rootless
Cosmopolitans albums. It's "The Wind Cries Mary." This is hardly a note
for note reproduction or imitation of what he does. It's a bit of a
reimagining of it. Do you want to talk about what you did with the song
and why you did it?

Mr. RIBOT: Well, you know, I, you know, like all of the other pimply
adolescents in the late '60s, I listened to and loved Jimi Hendrix. And,
you know, of course, he was an amazing virtuoso on the guitar. But what
seemed to me, when I later thought about him, really, the most important
thing about Hendrix was that he was a poet in terms of what he said and
what he played. And that's something that all of the many guitarists who
are directly working in the Hendrix tradition, what so few of them seem
to get, that it seemed to be something that surrounded the music that
made it be great.

So I never felt like I could approach Hendrix directly, and so as you'll
hear, if you listen to that track, I approached him very indirectly.

GROSS: What do you mean by that?

Mr. RIBOT: Well, my version of "The Wind Cries Mary" basically doesn’t
use any of the music, just the lyrics.

GROSS: And I never paid any attention to the lyrics before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I thought of the title line.

Mr. RIBOT: Well...

GROSS: Obviously it really hits - they really struck you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: Well, they struck me but also like the idea of, like,
indirectness strikes me. You know, the idea of covering a tune but
throwing out the tune.

GROSS: All right. Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It sounds like a Zen koan or something when you put it that way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: Well, maybe it is, you never know.

GROSS: So this is Marc Ribot's version of "The Wind Cries Mary," the
Jimi Hendrix song, from Marc Ribot's album, "Rootless Cosmopolitans."

(Soundbite of song, "The Wind Cries Mary")

Mr. RIBOT: (Singing) After all the jacks are in their boxes and the
clowns have all gone to bed, you can hear happiness staggering on down
the street, footsteps dressed in red. And the wind cries Mary. And the
wind cries, Mary.

A broom is drearily sweeping up the broken pieces of yesterday's life
somewhere a queen is weeping. Somewhere a king has no wife. And the wind
cries Mary. And the wind cries Mary. And the wind cries, Mary.

GROSS: That's Marc Ribot's from his 1990 album "Rootless Cosmopolitans."

Now you grew up in New Jersey and you have a song that I think is both
really pretty and really funny called "The Hills of New Jersey." And
this was a song that you wrote during a period when you were doing Latin
music, Cuban music.

Mr. RIBOT: Yeah, I was in a band called Los Cubanos Postizos, The
Prosthetic Cubans. And the title of the tune is actually "Las Lomas de
New Jersey." And I started to get into - interested in Cuban music,
like, around 1990. A lot of recordings of classic Cuban songs started to
be released. I think what happened was, you know, when the Berlin Wall
came down, a lot of the great stuff had been on - recorded by or owned
by East German or Eastern European record labels and started to become
available here.

And when I was listening to those, you know, classic Cuban recordings,
there's a lot about distance and exile and wanting to return home, you
know, the lost home. And I thought, wow, I wish I could write that song
but, you know, New Jersey is right across the river. And so I said,
well, I'll write a long lost home song about not being able to go back
to New Jersey for some mysterious reason. And the hill in question, the
hills of New Jersey refer to a memory of mine.

My grandparents lived in Coney Island, in Brighton Beach, actually. And
we used to commute in from New Jersey. Every weekend we'd go visit them
out there. And at the outskirts of Newark, before you got to the Holland
Tunnel, there were these garbage dumps.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIBOT: And like, so we drove past them on the way to the Holland
Tunnel. And over the years, you know, they filled up and then they
covered them over and planted grass on them and built houses. And, you
know, people grew up in those houses and I thought, wow, those kids that
grew up in those houses on the garbage dump, like, that's what they’re
going to call home. That's what they are going to be nostalgic for. So I
wanted to write a song of nostalgia for a garbage dump.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is "The hills of New Jersey" from Marc
Ribot's album "Muy Divertido!" Did I say that right?

Mr. RIBOT: "Muy Divertido!"

GROSS: "Muy Divertido!"

Mr. RIBOT: I probably said it wrong, too.

GROSS: Okay. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. RIBOT: Oh, my pleasure.

GROSS: Okay. So here we go.

(Soundbite of song, "Muy Divertido!")

GROSS: You can hear tracks from Marc Ribot's latest CD "Silent Movies,"
on our website, freshair.npr.org.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
132628713

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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