DATE May 3, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Michael Chabon, author of "The Yiddish Policemen's
Union," on where the idea for his novel came from, and how he
created the fictional alternate history in which it is set
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Michael Chabon won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel "Kavalier and
Clay," in which he imagined the lives of people working on the early superhero
comics. He rewrites a different chapter of history in his new novel "The
Yiddish Policemen's Union." It's based on this premise: What if the fledgling
state of Israel collapsed in 1948 and in the wake of the Holocaust, part of
Alaska was set aside as a temporary refuge for Jews. The novel is set 60
years later in Alaska, when Jewish rights to this district are running out and
it's just about to revert to Alaskan control.
The main character, Meyer Landsman, is a homicide detective living in this
temporary Jewish homeland investigating a murder. Reviewing "The Yiddish
Policemen's Union" in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote, "It creates
a completely fictional world that is persuasively detailed, even as it gives
the reader a gripping murder mystery and one of the most appealing detective
heroes to come along since Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. Here's a short
reading from the beginning of the book.
Mr. MICHAEL CHABON: (Reading) "The Holy Land has never seemed more remote or
unattainable than it does to a Jew of Sitka. It is on the far side of the
planet, a wretched place ruled by men united only in their resolve to keep out
all but a worn fistful of small-change Jews.
"For half a century Arab strongmen and Muslim partisans, Persians and
Egyptians, socialists and nationalists and monarchists, pan-Arabs and
pan-Islamists, traditionalists and the party of Ali have all sunk their teeth
into...(unintelligible)...role and worried it down to bone and gristle.
Jerusalem is a city of blood and slogans painted on the wall, severed heads on
telephone poles. Observant Jews around the world have not abandoned their
hope to dwell one day in the land of Zion, but Jews have been tossed out of
the joint three times now: in 586 BCE, in 70 CE, and with savage finality in
1948. It's hard even for the faithful not to feel a sense of discouragement
about their chances of once again getting a foot in the door."
GROSS: That's Michael Chabon reading from his new novel "The Yiddish
Michael, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Mr. CHABON: Thanks, Terry. It's so nice to be here.
GROSS: How does Sitka become an unlikely homeland for Jews after the
Holocaust in your novel?
Mr. CHABON: Well, in my novel, an actual proposal that was made initially by
the Department of the Interior under Franklin Roosevelt to permit refugees
from Europe, Jewish refugees from Europe primarily, of course, to enter the
United States on a very limited, very controlled basis and to settle,
temporarily in all likelihood, in Alaska, has come to pass. So, obviously in
our world that didn't happen and in fact there was a bill introduced into
Congress. It was called the King-Havenner Bill. It died in committee. It
was never brought to the floor for a vote. But in the world of my novel, it
actually passed, and these Jews ultimately--several million of them--were
allowed to enter the United States. They thought it was going to be a
temporary thing, but they ended up--the way these things tend to happen,
nobody else ever quite got to figuring out what to do with them after the war
was over and they were granted a kind of semi-permanent lease. But that lease
in this year, 2007, has now come due and they all have to figure out where to
GROSS: And their claim on this territory is running out, so they're going to
have to like relocate.
Mr. CHABON: Exactly. It's called reversion. The territory, this little
ribbon of territory that they were permitted to settle in, which is just the
western sides of Baranof and Chichagof Islands up in the southeastern
panhandle part of Alaska, a region whose center is, right now, in our world,
is the very small city of Sitka, Alaska, which has about 9,000 people living
there. In the world of the novel, that was sort of the capital city, and it's
actually a big metropolis. And they've all made homes. They've made lives,
industries businesses and everything. They actually have a whole almost like
a little micro-nation that they've created. It's Yiddish-speaking. But yes,
now this territory is set to revert to the state of Alaska, and Alaska is
going to regain control over it and it will be incorporated into the state.
GROSS: Tell us more about what almost happened historically, the bill that
didn't past but that was talked about.
Mr. CHABON: Well, the Interior Department, under Harold Ickes, proposed
essentially killing two birds with one state by exploiting the vast untold
resources, the wealth of Alaska, which at this time in 1940 was very much
untapped and unexploited; and this pressing, heart-wrenching problem of all of
these people that were desperate to get out of Nazi occupied Europe. And that
sort of humanitarian concern was hidden within this notion that we can exploit
Alaska and get a foothold there and so on. And so they proposed letting these
refugees settle there and a bill was introduced. There was very stout
opposition. The native Alaskan community, the European, the
American-descended people living there were vehemently opposed to it. And
they were sort of championed by their delegate to Congress, this guy Anthony
Dimond, who was also dead-set against this happening, and he campaigned and
ultimately was able to quash this thing before it ever even made it into a
floor vote in Congress.
But in my novel, this delegate Dimond is coming out of Hogate's Restaurant in
Washington, DC, which at least used to be famous for their rum buns, I don't
know if they still are. If they even are still in existence, but he drops his
rum bun and he's chasing it down the street and he's run over by a taxi and
killed, so with him not there to spearhead the opposition, the motion is
eventually carried and this territory comes into being.
GROSS: How did you even find out about this arcane bit of history?
Mr. CHABON: You know, I don't even know. It's like one of those items of
Jewish trivia that you pick up over the years like, you know, that Cary
Grant's mother was Jewish or something like that. I just, I heard about it, I
read about it somewhere. I've always been struck by these possible alternate
Jewish homelands that have been proposed over the years. It's been proposed,
you know, that Jews--at one time there was a Uganda plan that the British
empire had put forward that Jews should be allowed to settle in Uganda.
Australia, Madagascar. You know, one hears I think even Suriname. There was
a brief Dutch plan to allow the Jews to come into Suriname at some point. So
you know, those what ifs, those might have beens, those maybes, those are
endlessly fascinating to me, and so I think I just picked it up along the way
and never forgot it.
GROSS: So you created for your novel this place in Alaska as a kind of like
temporary homeland for Jews displaced by World War II. Can you describe a
little bit what this community has grown up like in your novel?
Mr. CHABON: Well, it's a big city. Sitka has become a big city, tall
buildings. They've filled in a lot of the harbor area. There are a lot of
islands up there. It's an archipelago, and close into the city of Sitka
they've done all this land filling so they can have construction. And it's
got everything a contemporary city, you know, is expected to have in the range
from big bucks shopping malls to symphony orchestra and everything in between.
There's a very diverse community of Jews living there--and by diverse I mean
they range from the most secular, contemporary, somewhat--let's not--I don't
want to say deracinated, but just people who don't identify terribly strongly
with the religious aspects of Judaism all the way to ultra-Orthodox, Hasidic
sects and everything in between.
And it's kind of a swinging place in some ways, you know. There's a lot of
art and music and culture, and Yiddish language remains in full flower. On
the other hand, it's, you know, it's a dark place. It's in Alaska, it's gray,
it's rainy, and there's also this constant anxiety that's been hanging over
these people for 60 years that it is meant to be temporary and it could all be
You know, in a way, that's been the facts for Jews for the past 2,000 years in
a sense, the knowledge that, no matter how well you do in a place, no matter
how greatly you prosper, your lease could be canceled at any time, at any
moment, and you have to move on. And so in one sense they're just, they're
living with that consciousness in a way that, you know, their ancestors had
been living for 1,000 years or more.
GROSS: In your novel, there's an island called Verbov that is populated by
ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are known as Verbovers, and there's a passage I'd
like you to read that's set on this island that describes the ultra-Orthodox
Jews that live there. Could you just set up who we'll be hearing from in this
Mr. CHABON: Yes, well, Meyer Landsman, the protagonist of the novel, is a
homicide detective in Sitka, and he and his partner, Berko Shemets, have drawn
this case. There's a murder in the opening pages of the novel, and in pursuit
of a lead they've gotten that the victim might have possibly been connected to
the Verbovers in some way, they've decided to brave Verbov Island, which is
this kind of almost like a--I think it's an idealized shtetl in many ways. It
was created sort of out of nothing by this sect, this ultra-Orthodox sect to
recreate the world of their sect's homeland in Verbov back in the old
country--which, Verbov, I think it's a small city somewhere in eastern Europe
and Russia, or Poland. And my mother's maiden name was Verbo--or her mother's
maiden name, so I was just kind of trying to draw my own heritage in naming
it. There is no such sect, obviously.
(Reading) "Friday afternoon on Verbov Island and Landsman's Chevelle Super
Sport surfs the wave of black hats along Avenue 225.
"`Look at this place,' Landsman says. `It's hopping.'
"`Not one empty storefront,' Berko says.
`And more of these no-good Yids than ever.
"Landsman stops for a red at Northwest 28th Street. Outside a corner store by
a study hall, Torah bachelors loiter, scripture grifters, unmatchable
luftmensches and garden variety hoodlums. When they notice Landsman's car
with its reek of plainclothesman hubris and its inflammatory double S on the
grill, they leave off yelling at one another and give Landsman the Bessarabian
fisheye. He is on their turf. He goes clean shaven and does not tremble
before God. He is not a Verbover Jew and therefore is not really a Jew at
all, and if he is not a Jew, then he is nothing.
"`Look at those bums looking,' Landsman says. `I don't like it.'
"The truth is, black-hat Jews make Landsman angry and they always have. He
finds that it is a pleasurable anger, rich with layers of envy, condescension,
resentment, and pity."
GROSS: That's Michael Chabon reading from his new book, "The Yiddish
What you're getting at in that reading is the division between secular Jews,
like your main character, who's a homicide detective, and the ultra-Orthodox
Jews, who are in this new homeland for the Jews in Alaska. But, you know,
that division exists in real life, and...
Mr. CHABON: Absolutely.
GROSS: Why did you want to write about that division?
Mr. CHABON: Well, it seemed to me to be an inevitable feature of any large
community of Jews living all together. You know, I felt like it would be an
inaccurate portrayal of this place if it didn't--if those fissures didn't
exist, and really that--my knowledge of that comes out of my knowledge of
Israel, the state of Israel in our world. You know, my somewhat limited
knowledge, but it was apparent to me on my one visit to Israel that there's so
many divisions among Jews there, not just between ultra-Orthodox and secular
but between Ashkenazic and Sephardic and Russians and non-Russians and so on
that it just, it would have been inaccurate to leave that out.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Chabon. His new novel is called "The Yiddish
Policemen's Union." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Michael Chabon. His new novel "The Yiddish Policemen's
Union" is based on the premise: What if the state of Israel collapsed in 1948
and a district in Alaska was set aside as a temporary Jewish homeland?
Why did you want to combine the fictional story you tell in the book of this
alternative version of history where a homeland for the Jews after World War
II is created in Alaska, to combine that with, you know, a detective story?
Mr. CHABON: Because I'm a nut. I don't know. It seemed like the right
thing to do. I think--you know, there was a review in The New Yorker
magazine, sorry, a few weeks ago by Clive James, where he kind of did a
roundup of some detective fiction from around the world, international
detectives that--Michael Dibdin books and so on. And he talks about how these
detectives are all connected to the cities that they live in, whether it's
Venice or Stockholm or wherever it might be. He said in passing something
like, you know, `The detective book as always been part a guide book.' And I
thought that was putting it really well and it wasn't anything I had ever
exactly thought to myself in those terms.
But I think I had that sense so that when I came up with the idea of setting a
novel in this imaginary land, I realized that I had this job to do of making
it feel clear and plausible and articulated to the reader so that the reader
would understand the place. And in order to understand the place, the reader
needed a kind of guide, and I felt, I guess just intuitively that a policeman
with his badge, and therefore with his access to all levels of society. No
door is really closed to him. That he would be the perfect guy. That in the
company of the policeman we would be able to go everywhere and see everything.
And, you know, then--I love hard-boiled detection fictive. Raymond Chandler's
one of my favorite writers, always has been. I loved the novels of Ross
MacDonald and you know, as soon as I started to germinate this idea, the
thought, Oh, I'll get to write a hard-boiled detective novel, my own version
of Chandler and MacDonald. That was just immediately appealing to me.
GROSS: Now, what do you like about taking history and completely rewriting it
with a different premise? You did that with comic books in "Kavalier and
Clay," and you're doing it with the Jewish homeland in your new novel "The
Yiddish Policemen's Union."
Mr. CHABON: Well, actually, I think it has a lot to do with comic books, in
a way. When I was young kid reading comic books, it was a--there was a sort
of very popular kind of story that was being written then. It was popular
starting in the '50s, in particular, in Superman comic books, that was called
the imaginary story, which I kind of love that distinction being made. But
imaginary Superman stories were Superman stories in which something was
different than in the sort of official canonic Superman story, where he comes
to earth and crashes outside of Smallville, you know, and the Kents rescue him
from his rocket ship and they raise him. And they would do these stories, you
know, `What if Superman's rocket ship had landed in Africa?' Or `What if the
rocket ship from Krypton had landed in Canada,' you know, and we had a
Canadian Superman. What would that be like? Or, you know, `What if Lois Lane
was the one who came from Krypton?'
And that sort of hypothetical story, the what if story, which later also was
done a lot at Marvel, and in fact, Marvel Comics had a whole series called
"What If?" in which, you know, the Fantastic Four each had the other one's
powers and so on. I think that was really my first introduction to the idea
of counterfactual or hypothetical kinds of stories, the what if story? What
if this one thing had been different? And it's always a kind of story I took
an interest in. There's a classic novel called "Lest Darkness Fall" by L.
Sprague de Camp in which the Roman Empire never fell and has survived into the
modern era and so on. And I was always drawn to those kinds of stories.
I mean, I think anyone who lies awake at night sort of going back over the
course of his or her life and asking him or herself the question, you know,
`How did I get here?' That sort of David Byrne question. You know, `What
brought me to this point?' You look back over your life and you see--I mean,
at every moment you're making choices that determine the future course of your
life, but there always do seem these sort of key junctions where, `If I had
taken that job or said yes to that person, if I had done this or done that, my
whole life would have been different.' I think we have that tendency to do
that with our individual histories, and then it's just a short step away to do
it with "History" with a capital H and look at those sort of what seem to be
juncture moments and wonder how things might have come out differently.
GROSS: So, if those `what if?' moments in comic books inspired your new
novel, what was the first like `what if?' you came up with for your novel?
Mr. CHABON: Well, the genesis of the novel really lay in this book, an
actual book published by Dover Publications called "Say It in Yiddish," and
"Say It in Yiddish" is subtitled "A Phrase Book for Travelers." And I came
upon this book in a bookstore. I was entranced immediately by the idea of
there being a phrase book for travelers in Yiddish that's, like any phrase
book, is full of all these unintentionally droll things that you might need to
say such as `I need a tourniquet' or, you know, `Which way to the casino?' And
I was so struck by this idea of a phrase book in Yiddish with no obvious
destination that I wrote an essay that was published many years ago now, where
I sort of speculated on possible places that might have come into being where
you could have taken this phrase book for Yiddish as you would take, "Say It
in French" to France and "Say It in Swahili" to Africa...
GROSS: Because there is no country in which Yiddish is the national tongue.
Mr. CHABON: No, I mean, and there--in a sense there was at one time. I
mean, there were many millions of Yiddish speakers in Europe going up to, you
know--obviously, in America as well--going right up to the second world war,
but they never had--Yiddish speakers never had a country of their own, the
kind of place that seemed to be implied by this phrase book that gave you
phrases to use when dealing with customs officials in Yiddish and, you know,
casino employees, airline employees and so on. Like, the idea of a Yiddish
airline, for example, a Yiddish-speaking Jewish airline just entranced me.
And so, I mean, the initial `what if?' was not a specific forking in history
so much as a `What if there really were a country where everyone spoke
Yiddish? What would that be like?' So that `what if?' was presented to me by
this little book "Say It in Yiddish" that I came upon so many years ago now.
GROSS: Michael Chabon will be back in the second half of the show. His new
novel is called "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." I'm Terry Gross, and this is
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Pulitzer Prize-winning
novelist Michael Chabon. His new novel, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," is a
detective story that also rewrites history. It's based on this premise: What
if the state of Israel collapsed in 1948, and a district in Alaska was set
aside as a temporary Jewish homeland? The novel is set 60 years later, after
conflicts have arisen between Jews and native Alaskans, and there are
divisions between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
You know, by getting into something that, in some ways, is like a parable of
the Middle East--it's a kind of shadow version, an alternative version of the
Mr. CHABON: Right.
GROSS: ...and it's also a kind of parable about divisions between Jews,
between secular and ultra-Orthodox. So are you prepared to enter into a world
of controversy unlike anything that you've ever entered before?
Mr. CHABON: Oh. Geez, no, I guess I'm not. I've had--you know, even with
that essay that I referred to that I wrote many years ago about that phrase
book "Say it in Yiddish," in the very confined world of Yiddishists and
Yiddish scholars and lovers of Yiddish and enthusiasts of the Yiddish
language, that essay caused some controversy, and I got a lot of people
outraged. They were mad at me for various reasons: that I seem to be
implying that Yiddish was a dead language; or that I was mocking the authors
of that phrase book, who are very much respected and revered scholars. And so
I stirred up a little, little, little hornets' nest with that essay, so I do
have a sense that there's probably going to be people that're upset for one
reason or another. And, yeah, I've, you know, I've done a certain worrying
and fretting in advance about just what that might be.
But on the other hand, I also feel like--I think I was definitely motivated by
this spirit of--there's a Yiddish phrase, "ahf zu lochis," which kind of means
`spitefulness' or sort of mischievous, perverse kind of knowing--saying
something that you know is going to annoy someone or irritate them. You know,
in the wake of writing that essay and exciting the outrage of some people, I
definitely had a sense, `Well, you know, if that made you angry, you know,
just wait till you see the whole novel that I'm going to write now that's set
in this place.' I don't know why. You know, there's like a little bit of a
devil inside, I guess.
GROSS: When you're creating, like, a whole fictional world, you know, that
rewrites history, you have to make sure that you're consistent in that
everything you create kind of adds up...
Mr. CHABON: Right.
GROSS: So what kind of like map of the world did you have to create so that
you knew--you know, did you actually have a plan on a wall someplace with like
a flow chart or a timetable...
Mr. CHABON: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...so you could follow your own rules in this world that you created?
Mr. CHABON: You bet. I mean, you know, got into this business so that I
could do that kind of thing. I mean, when I was a kid, for me, creative
writing as, you know, we called it in school back then, it all had to do with
maps and charts and diagrams and chronicles. And you know, I was really into
"Lord of the Rings" and the whole kind of apparatus that Tolkien created
around--I mean, in a way, the story, in the case of Tolkien, was just an
excuse to invent the languages, from his point of view, and draw the maps and
make the charts and the chronologies. And I had the sense from a very early
age that maps and making maps and charts and chronicles was part of the
And I grew up in this town in Columbia, Maryland, that was a planned community
that was built in the suburbs between Baltimore and Washington, in the
countryside between Baltimore and Washington, back in the late '60s, and we
moved there when Columbia itself, which is now a city of close to 100,000
people, existed almost entirely on paper as maps, as plans, as diagrams and
charts and proposals and projections.
And I sort of grew up in this place where the maps were translated into
reality before my very eyes, where the houses would be built--you know, there
would be a street proposed. They would come out with stakes and strings and
stake it out, and then, over the course of the next several months, the street
would be laid, the pavement, the sidewalks, the houses would grow, and it
would all sprout before my very eyes. It was this very powerful demonstration
of how somebody's idea, somebody's map that they just make up and they come up
with all these names for streets and neighborhoods and so on, and then there
it is. It's right before your very eyes. And in fact, the streets in the
city of Columbia were named after the works of great America writers, so
there's always this kind of intense connection for me.
And so starting this novel, one of the pleasures that I looked forward to in
doing it was that I would get to do that. I did draw maps for my own use. I
did a number of them, and city maps and territorial maps, and I came up with a
timeline of world history in the event that the state of Israel didn't come
into existence because it failed to come into existence in this world. And I
had charts and all of that kind of stuff. The whole Tolkien apparatus was
there. But I don't know, I just felt like it was all there for my benefit to
make the book--hopefully, the world within the book seem real and feel real
and be clear to the reader.
GROSS: Michael Chabon, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. CHABON: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Michael Chabon's new novel is called "The Yiddish Policemen's Union."
Coming up, John Savage, the author of a new book about the prehistory of teen
culture. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Jon Savage, author of the book "Teenage," on the
prehistory of teen culture, how writing about punk culture has
affected him, and where he is in his life now
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest Jon Savage is best known for chronicling the development of punk rock
in his book "England's Dreaming." He's written extensively about pop culture.
In his new book "Teenage," he traces the creation of youth culture and the
idea of youth as a separate class with its own rituals, rights and demands.
He considers the book a prehistory of the teenager. It begins in 1875 and
ends in 1945, the year after the word "teenager" becomes a common part of the
American vocabulary. Music is an essential ingredient of what we've come to
think of as youth culture. Savage says there are signs of young people having
their own music in the early 20th century, but it's in the 1930s and '40s with
swing that teenagers start to be identified with a particular style of music.
Mr. JON SAVAGE: One of the great revelations to me in the book was
researching and entering the world of swing, which I'd never really considered
before. To me it was the music of my parents' generation. And I was
absolutely bowled over at how good it was, and I was also really struck by the
descriptions of how popular it was and how it offered this kind of complete
lifestyle. There was a whole language, there was a whole way of speaking,
there was a whole way of walking, there was a whole--you know, clothes,
dancing. It really was to me the first, one of the first really cohesive
But the interesting thing about all this, which goes back to your question, is
the fact that none of the tunes that these people played actually talked about
what it was to be young. They didn't say, `I'm a teenager. I'm a just
a...(unintelligible)...teenager,' or whatever, it was just you know standard
stuff. They were just saying, you know, writing songs about dancing or
writing songs about love. So you don't actually have this much evidence of a
self-conscious youthful musical culture really before the end of the second
GROSS: So that really starts with rock 'n' roll?
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, I don't think so, quite. I think that there's evidence of
it in R&B, you know, post-war R&B, there is a great track by the
producer/guitarist T-Bone Walker called "Bobby Socks Baby" from 1946, which is
one of the first tracks I've been able to find that actually self-consciously
references youth culture. And there are songs about wild, wild young men, but
basically, yes, it starts with--much more with--the advent of rock 'n' roll,
with tracks like "Seventeen" by Boyd Bennett, and obviously then going to "I'm
Not a Juvenile Delinquent" by Frankie Lymon, and "Sweet Little Sixteen" by
Chuck Berry, etc., etc. And that shows how the advent of rock 'n' roll really
triggered much more coherent kind of youth self-consciousness and youth
GROSS: Now, you will always be associated with youth culture because you were
one of the chief chroniclers of punk rock...
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes.
GROSS: ...in the '70s and '80s. And, you know, you knew the bands and you
wrote about it in magazines, and later in books. What did teen culture mean
to you then?
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, I was born in 1953, so I was very fortunate. The Beatles
hit in the UK when I was nine, and that was it. And my entry point into all
this was always music. I'm one of those people that, I heard the piper at a
very young age and I followed, and that was it. So I was very fortunate,
really, to see the whole '60s thing as it happened; and then I just kept on
You know, I was glued to the television in those days and I just saw
everything happen. You know, Tom...(unintelligible)...and The Byrds, Bob
Dylan, the whole of the British, you know, invasion, period. And it was just
wild. And it was the only culture I had, really, because I was brought up in
the suburbs of West London, and my parents weren't, you know--they were busy,
you know, having a life and making a living and doing what they had to do.
They weren't particularly interested in areas of culture. My mother was very
interested in books, but they weren't interested in music. So I had the field
to myself, really. And so, as I became an adolescent, it was really
everything to me. That's the world into which I would retreat and that
actually shaped the way that I saw the world. So I very much found out about
the world through popular culture, particularly music, at a very young age,
and I continued to do so for quite a long time.
GROSS: I mean, music is one of the ways that youth culture not only tries to
differentiate itself from its parents but from previous youth cultures.
Because every generation of teenagers has its own music. So when you were
writing about punk rock--you know, by the time the Sex Pistols came along,
you're already in your 20s.
Mr. SAVAGE: I was 23 in 1976, which is just within the
teenage...(unintelligible)...which ends at 24. And also, you know, in some
ways I was a late developer because in my actual adolescent years, I was busy
studying. You know, I was very academically--you know, I was a high-flyer
academically, and I was always taking exams. And then in the holidays, when I
wasn't at school, I'd be wandering around central London with a friend or two,
so I never had that thing that a lot of people have in adolescence, which is
hanging around in gangs and going to clubs and stuff and getting into trouble.
And I needed to do that. And so punk provides me with that arena. And also,
I just loved the music. It wasn't an intellectual decision, `Oh, I'm going to
get involved with this youth culture.' I heard the call again, I heard The
Ramones' album and I went to see The Sex Pistols and that was it. Bango, you
know? And no thought about it. Just dive in.
GROSS: Now, you changed your name from Sage to Savage...
Mr. SAVAGE: That's right.
GROSS: ...and I imagine you did that when you started writing about punk?
Mr. SAVAGE: That's correct.
GROSS: Tell us why you made the change. Now that you're an adult, how do you
feel about having kept the name Savage? Now that being Savage wouldn't be an
important part of your professional personality.
Mr. SAVAGE: Rowr. Well, the immediate reason was that. When I started
writing about punk, I actually had a day job. I was training to be a lawyer.
And I would have got fired if they'd've found out what I was doing. And so I
had to invent a pseudonym, and a friend of mine got my name wrong on the
telephone in an interview he gave to a London paper, and so my name came out
as Jon Savage. And I thought, `Oh, I like that. I'll keep that.' And in
retrospect, also, it's in the great tradition of pop transformation. You
know, if you get involved with pop culture, you transform yourself, and you
actually--a pseudonym is a very basic part of the process. I love having a
pseudonym. It's great. Because you know, I can put Jon Savage in a box and
go home and be Jonathan Sage. And it's something that, you know, I'm totally
used to now after 30 years. To be honest, I don't really think about it.
GROSS: So you never changed your name legally?
Mr. SAVAGE: No, no, no, no. I would never do that. No, no, no. I mean
it's fun. It's supposed to be fun. It's pop. You know, it's the idea of
changing your name. You think of all those Hollywood actors who change their
names and all the British pop stars who change their names. You know David
Bowie--David Jones became David Bowie. So--and Savage was a great punk name.
And, you know, I still have a bit of that about me. I can be savage if I have
GROSS: As part of your research for this book, I think you talked to your
father about what his teen culture was like. What are some of the things your
father told you that you never knew about him?
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, the great thing that my father said to me was that he was
born in 1918, so when the war broke out in Europe, he was 21. And he had been
convinced that--two or three years before the war, there was going to be a war
with Hitler, so he joined the territorial army, which is just like the
reservists before the war, and he just knew there was going to be a war. And
he had a very, very distinguished wartime career. He was involved in the
desert war in Allemagne, the battle of L'Allemagne; and he won a military
cross, which is quite a high honor in the UK. And we were talking about all
this, and in some ways it was the high spot of his life. And I think, knowing
my father's character, I think it actually--it was very exciting for him and
actually quite suited to his personality, even though he had to do very
dangerous work. He was a sapper, an engineer, and he had to go and clear
paths through the minefield, which is something that I just could not imagine.
And he said to me that the war took six years out of his life and then it took
him another six years to get his life really back together again. Although he
was working, although he was doing OK, he found the whole aftermath of the
experience extremely difficult, and I think it marked him for the rest of his
life. And I think one of the things that my generation has had to do, has had
to deal with and examine, the damage that World War II did--not only really to
Britain. I mean, I partly deal with it in the book in Europe, as well, is to
examine the damage that was done in World War II, not to feel envy for the
golden generation, but actually to try and unblock some of the emotions, some
of the events that actually happened during that period.
GROSS: Do you feel like you were personally shaped, or that your generation's
culture in England was personally shaped by growing up in the aftermath of
World War II?
Mr. SAVAGE: I really do, Terry, yes. Absolutely, absolutely centrally. If
only on the physical level. During the punk period, for instance, I was
working in the city of London in the financial district, and probably about a
third of the city of London was still, you know, vacant lots. It was still
bomb sites. And there was this particular flower that grew on the bomb sites
called buddleia, which is a very sweet-smelling flower. I remember just, you
know, acres and acres of bomb sites with this very sweet-smelling flower; it
was a very bizarre juxtaposition. And I took some pictures of London at that
period, and it just looks--you know, they're black and white--and it just
looks like a bomb site. It looks almost Dickensian Victorian in its squalor.
So there's that physical aspect of it.
And a lot of my heroes when I was younger, say, like The Who or The Beatles or
the Rolling Stones, for instance, were all actually born during the war. And
you know, I think some of what they did, in their music, was acting out war
damage. I really do. And that high volume and that violence that you hear in
a lot of British music from that period, particularly in somebody like the
Rolling Stones and The Who. The Beatles transmute it slightly but it's still
You know, I was brought up in the suburbs, and the whole point about that was
that it was almost like a tabula rasa. It was almost like an ideal
environment where, you know, nothing would happen; everything would be safe.
And although I hated that when I was an adolescent, I now realize that that
was a very valid thing for my parents to do. It was perhaps one of the only
things they could do, because they'd just been through this terrible
experience. And you know, I still talk about it with my mother who still
lives in London, and you know, when the whole, you know, bombings happened in
London, I said to her, `You know, how do you feel about this? Are you
worried?' And she started telling me...
GROSS: You're talking about the subway bombings?
Mr. SAVAGE: Yeah. The subway bombings. Yes. July 7th, 7/7. Yeah. And
when this happened, I said, well, you know, `How do you feel about this. Are
you worried?' And she said, `Oh, no, I remember when, you know, there was a
buzz bomb, one of those B-1s,' which were this pilotless bombs which would fly
over London and then they'd suddenly cut out, and it was when they cut out you
knew that they were going to fall to the ground. And she said, `I remember
being in the garden at home and one of these things came over and it aimed
straight for us and then just at the minute it veered away and, you know, hit
a garden, you know, two or three houses down.' So she'd lived through all this
stuff. And she was very sanguine about it. She just said, you know, `If my
number's up, my number's up. I'm not going to be scared by these bastards.'
GROSS: My guest is Jon Savage. His new book is called "Teenage: The
Creation of Youth Culture."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Jon Savage. He chronicled the history of punk rock in his
book "England's Dreaming." His new book, "Teenage," is about the creation of
I'm wondering if you have children, and if your decision to or not have
children was affected at all by your kind of prolonged period of being
immersed in youth culture and being identified with teen culture and all the
kind of music rebellions that came along with that.
Mr. SAVAGE: Well, Terry, I'm never going to have kids because I'm gay. So,
you know, that's just not going to happen.
GROSS: You can still adopt.
Mr. SAVAGE: No. No. No. I think that for whatever reason I knew early on
that I wasn't going to have children...
Mr. SAVAGE: ...and so obviously, in a way, yes, absolutely dealing with this
topic is, you know, one way of experiencing that whole facet of life. I mean,
I do have to reiterate that, you know, I don't actually live like an
adolescent in my life. I do live like an adult, so this is very much, to some
extent, work for me. It's not something that I have--I do distinguish my own
personal life from my professional life in the work that I do. It's very
important for me to do that. And again, that's encoded in the difference
between, you know, my real name and my pseudonym.
Absolutely, I think, and I do find it very interesting that I can give
insights to my friends who do have children. I'm, you know, staying with
friends at the minute in New York who do have children. We talk about it a
lot--adolescent children, in fact, just coming to the upper limit of
adolescence--and we've talked about it a lot over the years. And I can
sometimes offer insights, you know, because I've studied the whole thing so
carefully and I have, you know, I'm abstracted from the situation. I'm not
emotionally involved. And again they tell me things that they do, and I spend
time with, you know, their children and it's all very interesting. I feel
perfectly happy about it.
GROSS: Just curious, during the punk period--I don't know if you were out
then or not, but did you feel that punk culture was, on the whole, open to
people who were gay and out, that there was a place for that within punk?
Mr. SAVAGE: That's a very good question. I think absolutely not. In fact,
there were a lot of gay people involved with punk, both in the UK and in the
US, and absolutely none of them were out. The only person who was out in the
UK was a singer called Tom Robinson, who wasn't really punk, he was New Wave.
And these things really mattered then. And actually, he was very brave, and I
really appreciate him now, but at the time I absolutely hated his music, which
was just very, I found very boring.
So although punk was a movement of outcasts, which it was in the early stage,
for some reason, it was quite--it had a very puritan aspect, anyway. A lot of
punks were not particularly involved with sex or said they weren't
particularly involved with sex. And for some reason, I think probably as a
reaction against the previous sort of glam glitter rock generation, which was,
you know, very much promoted bisexuality, I think there was a certain amount
of homophobia and intolerance. You know, there's a song by The Sex Pistols
called "New York," where they talk about, you know, "poor little faggot," and
I never noticed it then. But you know, now it really grates, and I didn't
have much sense of my own gay identity at the time, even though, in fact, it
was extremely important to me. So that's something I've really thought quite
a lot about in the intervening years.
GROSS: So what was it like for you during that period when you're part of
this culture and you're changing your name to Jon Savage and it's like, `This
is who I am, this is what I'm about,' except a fundamental part of who you are
and what you're about can't be included in this part of teen culture.
Mr. SAVAGE: Yes, well, when people ask me about the punk period, it was
obviously, on one level, incredibly exciting. On one level, it was, you know,
the time that formed me, the time that enabled me to write, which is what I
always wanted to do. And I suddenly, you know, I conceived of the idea--I had
a real problem when I was studying for law and I had to do these exams and I
hated it and I thought, `Well, what do you want to do, Clever Clogs, you know?
OK, it's all very well to say you hate this. What do you actually want to
do?' And I thought, `Well, I want to write.' And then six months after
thinking that and making that decision, I was doing it. And then I was able
to do it for a national music newspaper called Sounds and that was, you know,
we were reaching probably half a million kids every week. It was insane, the
exposure that you got. So at one level, it was just fantastic. I was seeing
all these incredible bands, incredible groups, performances, and I was in the
swing of this thing and I was writing, which was what I'd always wanted to do.
And on another level it was as though I was emotionally frozen, and in some
ways I was incredibly unhappy and incredibly frustrated and also, at that
point, I was taking, you know, I was taking drugs like, you know, like you did
in rock 'n' roll in that period, and that didn't help, either. And so, you
know, it wasn't--when people ask me about punk, I say, `Well, it was very
exciting but it wasn't a personally happy time.'
GROSS: Having completed this really large book on the creation of youth
culture, would you ever now want to be a teenager again, or are you glad to be
way beyond that?
Mr. SAVAGE: I'm really happy to be way beyond it, thank you, Terry. I'm
really, really, really happy. I mean, I just think you have to be who you
are, be where you are, not want to be somebody different. It's OK if you want
to be somebody different when you're young, when you can experiment. But you
know, when you're 53, you've got to be pretty grounded. Otherwise, you've got
serious problems. And I have no desire to be a teenager again. I think that
would be, you know, beyond nature in a very, very dangerous way. And, in
fact, you know, this goes back to the book and the parables in "The Picture of
Dorian Gray" and in Peter Pan about eternal youth. It's disastrous. It's
incredibly toxic. And within our culture in general, there's, you know, a lot
of people trying to prolong their youth, you know, in disastrous ways. It
just doesn't work. You know, the human body has finite limits.
GROSS: Well, Jon Savage, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. SAVAGE: OK, Terry, it was a pleasure.
GROSS: Jon Savage is the author of the new book "Teenage: The Creation of
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "Teenage Kicks"
Unidentified Singer: (Singing) Teenage dreams so hard to beat
Every time she walks down the street
Another girl in the neighborhood
Wish she was mine, she looks so good
I want to hold her, want to hold her tight
Get teenage kicks right through the night
I'm going to call her on the telephone
Have her over 'cause I'm all alone
I need excitement, oh, I need it bad
And it's the best I've ever had
I want to hold her, want to hold her tight
Get teenage kicks right through the night
(End of soundbite)
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