DATE January 11, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Abstract painter Frank Stella talks about his art
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
A new 31-foot-high sculpture by Frank Stella now stands in front of the east
wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The first
collection of his complete writings has just been published in conjunction
with an exhibition of his work that's on tour in Europe, and there's a new
gallery of Stella's work in Manhattan. Although Frank Stella's recent work
oversized, wild and colorful, he was one of the fathers of the minimalist
of the '60s. His early work in the late '50s was a series of black
whose austerity contrasted with the bold brush strokes and drips of Abstract
Expressionism. In the '60s, Stella moved on to geometrical paintings, often
in vivid, clashing colors. I spoke with Frank Stella in November of 2000.
Are you working on a very large scale now? You work not only in your
you have a foundry. You have a staff. You have a crew that you have to
with because the works are so large.
Mr. FRANK STELLA: Yeah. People make a lot of that, actually. It's
interesting. I mean, it's not my foundry. I work at a foundry. I have a
studio and I have people who work with me and help me out. But, you know,
from my point of view, there's a lot of work to do and we all work at it. I
mean, it's not exactly collaboration because, by and large, they're supposed
to be doing what I tell them to do. Sometimes they don't and the results
good, and sometimes they don't and the results are quite bad. But we've
doing it for a fairly long time. The people who work with me have worked
me for 15 or 20 years. But now it's sort of leveled out and they're all,
know, ready to go on to their own lives and everything like that. And that
kind of thing is winding down for me. But maybe that's why this is sort of
last burst to get some big things done while I both have the energy and have
people who can stay focused to work with me.
GROSS: Now I'm not an artist, but, you know, I would think that something
might get lost in the process of not just doing it all yourself--you know,
man alone in his room with his paint and the canvas or with his sculptural
Mr. STELLA: You know, I mean, it's sort of ludicrous, actually. I suppose
that people can mess things up, but by and large, one man can't do very
although Michelangelo did fire some of his assistants when he was working on
the Sistine Chapel because they were annoying him, I guess, and he had to
finish it himself. On the other hand, I would be more than happy to have
Sebastiano del Piombo and Perideno(ph) and to have--and Polidoro Caravaggio,
or something; the people that helped, you know, Michelangelo. It wasn't bad
those kind of a...
GROSS: But has your role as an artist become something you never imagined
would be, somebody who basically has to run a business and pay a staff and
work with a foundry?
Mr. STELLA: You know, it's changed, I mean, but it's just as hard to pay
yourself or take care of your children or whatever you do. The scale of it
doesn't matter somehow all that much to me. I don't know. The one thing
hasn't changed actually is the problem. The problem is always the same, to
get the work done. That's always hard.
GROSS: What's your...
Mr. STELLA: I mean, money never made it easier, and now that I don't have
much money, it's still hard. I mean, actually, I don't understand.
GROSS: You don't understand what?
Mr. STELLA: I don't understand how it came to be that you could be
successful and so overwhelmingly unsuccessful at the same time.
GROSS: What's the unsuccessful part?
Mr. STELLA: It's the effort that it takes to make anything...
Mr. STELLA: ...and to make--and it doesn't change the amount of effort that
is needed to make something good. In fact, actually, maybe it gets harder.
GROSS: Your work has changed so much since the late '50s, when the public
became aware of your work and you first became known for your black striped
paintings, and these were paintings that helped launch the minimalist
movement. Then you did color paintings that often used very geometrical
forms. And then eventually your work became, like, wildly colored with
and brushstrokes, and your work became more sculptural with a lot of, like,
edges and you started working with hard materials like metal. Do you feel
that by starting with all black and then by adding color and then adding
kind of wild elements to it that you stripped things down to a basic
vocabulary of yours and then kind of added things to that vocabulary and
things up again?
Mr. STELLA: I suppose. I mean, you can imagine, I guess, a life story
anyway you want. I mean, it starts with a lot of youthful enthusiasm and
with mature wisdom, which is a simplification if anything happens. Or you
start out as a sort of aggressive, hard-nosed, kind of arrogant youth and
everything down and dare everybody to say that you can't--you know, that you
can't get it all before you even know what it's all about.
GROSS: Did you feel like your early black canvases were a dare?
Mr. STELLA: They were--yes, I think they were. I mean, they were pretty
aggressive, yeah. But, I mean, I was--but I felt very confident about them,
GROSS: What were they about to you? What did you see yourself as trying to
do or to say?
Mr. STELLA: Well, it was about being able to make an abstract painting that
really wasn't based on anything but the gesture of making itself, so that
gesture of drawing was--it was just a path of the stripe that was
the painting or sort of the path of the brush on the canvas.
Mr. STELLA: And that...
GROSS: Go ahead.
Mr. STELLA: Well, it's not--most drawing is outline or edging to create a
form, and the drawing and the painting in this work was one and it didn't
create a form. It was the form.
GROSS: What did you think were some of the most interesting on-track and
off-track pieces of art criticism about your early work?
Mr. STELLA: Well, I had a hard time with criticism because, you know, I
really liked what I did and I was interested in painting and I had a kind of
critical attitude towards painting. But the writing about it was really a
little bit beyond me. I mean, I was a relatively unsophisticated person in
that way. I mean, I really wasn't interested in philosophy or, you know, in
the notion that you could appeal to smart people by saying smart things
painting. I just wanted to make paintings that I liked. I didn't care if
smart people liked them, actually, unfortunately.
But it wasn't--you know, it's hard to make paintings, and I was really
interested in the idea of art. And criticism is a little tricky because
criticism is worried about so many things and it hardly ever worries about
good the art is or how hard it is to make art. So criticism--I'm not
criticizing criticism, but it always has to place it within a context. And
you're actually the person who's making the art, there is no context. The
context is the immediate moment that you make the painting and the paintings
you make. And that's the only place I live in or I am. I am there and
where I live.
And then the other things happen afterwards. But, you know, to me criticism
is like--I don't know--a sport or entertainment or something. It's not,
unfortunately, really serious for me.
GROSS: What was the impact on you to become famous and controversial when
you're in your 20s and just starting off as a painter?
Mr. STELLA: Actually, the thing about being famous and never--I wasn't
worried about it because the art world was a much smaller place and I had
much interest in fame. I liked other artists who were famous and I
I really wanted more than anything to make art that was as good as the good
artists were making. I wanted to make art that someday--and I didn't expect
it to be that way right away--that it would be as good as de Kooning or
or Newman or Pollock or Rothko. They were my heroes and I wanted to make
that was as good as their's. All I cared about was whether--if you put one
my paintings next to a Rothko, it looked OK. That's what I wanted.
I don't know what fame is really. But, I mean, that was what I was
GROSS: When you were in your 20s in the 1950s, it was a period when some of
the very famous artists like Pollock were famous not only for their work but
for their lifestyle, you know, a kind of Bohemian lifestyle and...
Mr. STELLA: Yeah. I mean, what's the big deal about being...
GROSS: ...a lot of drinking and everything.
Mr. STELLA: Right. Right.
GROSS: And some people in their attempt to be artists would emulate the
lifestyle as well. Did that lifestyle mean anything to you? Is it...
Mr. STELLA: No. It didn't mean much, largely because I was so young and it
was just very hard to, you know, keep yourself together--I mean, to keep
working, to get money, to do whatever you have to do. I mean, I didn't
actually have that much time to get drunk.
GROSS: Artist Frank Stella is my guest.
You grew up in, I think, a pretty middle-class family.
Mr. STELLA: Yes.
GROSS: Father was a doctor, a gynecologist.
Mr. STELLA: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And apparently he worked as a house painter...
Mr. STELLA: Yes.
GROSS: ...during the Depression to put himself through college.
Mr. STELLA: Yes.
GROSS: And from what I've read, it sounds like occasionally he'd, like,
repaint the house you lived in and you'd help him paint.
Mr. STELLA: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. I was in paint all my life. Yes, yes.
GROSS: Did you enjoy the feel of house paint or the colors of house paint?
Mr. STELLA: Yes, I did. I liked it. I mean, I always liked paint, the
physicality of it, yeah. It was never a problem for me. My mother was an
artist and she painted with oil and my father painted with house paint. So
had paint pretty well covered. When I first saw a de Kooning and Kline say,
for example, and even Pollock, I knew right away how it was done. I mean,
didn't--it wasn't a problem for me about how to make those kind of
GROSS: And did you know that more from house paint than anything else?
Mr. STELLA: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. STELLA: And it knew it from painting houses. And, I mean, even at the
time that Pollock was doing that, there's a tradition for decorating and
dripping paint on floors and on furniture and stuff. So, I mean, it's been
around. I mean, it just hadn't been in the art world.
GROSS: So what connection did you see between, you know, the house painting
and the Pollocks?
Mr. STELLA: Well, I thought, you know, painting a wall is a big physical
expanse. You do it, and I could see most of the time that if you stopped
halfway through while you're painting your wall, it'd be a lot more
interesting. But, you know, no one's going to let you stop and sort of have
it half white and half red. But it was beautiful, and so I liked doing it.
And I could easily see that you could make paintings like that.
GROSS: How did you get from, you know, painting walls to actually painting
Mr. STELLA: Well, I mean, I painted all my way through school. I mean, I
went to Phillips Academy in Andover and I took art classes, and then when I
was at Princeton we had art teachers, you know, sort of not--and I took
classes there. And I just--you know, I was around the studios, as it were.
GROSS: Yet, the impression I get from reading interviews with you is that
never studied the technique of representational art.
Mr. STELLA: That's true. When I was at Phillips Academy, you had to--there
was an introductory course which consisted--to the arts, to fine art. And
that consisted of an art history course and a studio course. It was a
combination. And one of--so you went to art history lectures and then you
went to the studio and you made paintings. And one of the prerequisites in
the painting course, the first thing was a kind of motif, so you had to make
painting of a still life. You know, there was something set up and that was
requirement. But--and then you went on from there. And somehow--I don't
how it worked, actually.
Patrick Morgan(ph), who was a painter, and his wife, Maude Morgan(ph), was a
painter, and she showed in New York and he showed in Boston. They were
relatively, at that time, successful painters in the early '50s. That was
Pat's idea of the course. You did that and then you went on to do something
else or whatever it was. But they made it--you know, you had to--you
make a mess. You had to sort of paint it in some kind of way. And so I
didn't really like it and everything, and we had a class and they started
showing us about Seurat and Neoimpressionism and things like that. And then
said to myself, `Oh, that's, you know, kind of obvious.' And so I ran
downstairs to do my painting and I just made it all splotches, so I made a
table with splotches, a cylinder with splotches, some ivy with splotches,
it all held together. It looked sort of like a painting, and everyone else
was doing the modeling and the light and shadow, and having a wonderful time
doing what they were doing. But I was done.
And I showed it to Pat Morgan and he said, `All right. All right,' and he
me go. And from there on, I just did whatever I wanted. I didn't have to
any more representational art.
GROSS: So how much did you actually do before abandoning it?
Mr. STELLA: Well, I did about 20 minutes.
GROSS: How old were you?
Mr. STELLA: I was probably 15.
GROSS: And I'm surprised that your teacher just kind of allowed you to
dismiss the technique like that.
Mr. STELLA: Look, I was a wiseguy. But, you know, a lot of teachers have
deal with kids who are wiseguys. I mean, but if you know what you're
mean, it's like, you know, what are you going to do? You're the tennis
and the kid comes in and he hits the ball 80, 90 miles an hour, and no
what you do he hits it back, you know. You can say, `Well, that's not
the right way to do it,' and you can talk to him, but you're not going to
him to forget it. I mean, you know, either you can hit the ball or you
GROSS: My guest is artist Frank Stella. We'll talk more after a break.
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with artist Frank Stella.
GROSS: Now what was it that made you realize that you just weren't about
representational art? Was it a technical problem or just, like, an
lack of interest?
Mr. STELLA: You know, I had representational art on my window. My mother
painted Santa Claus on there and she was always making things. I saw
representational art all the time. I wasn't very moved by it. But when I
magazine reproductions of Franz Kline and when I saw the Pollock painting
Hans Hoffmann paintings in Patrick Morgan's house and in the gallery, the
Addison Gallery, I mean, I was overwhelmed by them. I mean, I just loved
and I wanted to make paintings like that. And I just wasn't going to let
anything keep me from making paintings like that right away. I wasn't going
to wait, you know, 10 years and then make an abstract painting.
GROSS: Was there ever a point in your life where you said to yourself, `I
wish that I had studied representational technique and that I had more of
technique available to me'?
Mr. STELLA: You know, I didn't understand representational painting very
much and I probably wouldn't understand representational technique, up to a
point. But when I--you know, maybe 30 years later, when I saw in the
Line Museum(ph) Caravaggio's the young "St. John The Baptist," it really
knocked me out and I really liked it and it was very real, and the realist
technique. I should have said, `Oh, my God. But I can't do this,' and I
should have been very worried about it. But actually, the effect was the
opposite. It was a kind of incredible euphoria about saying, you know,
actually, that's it, you know, that's what painting is about. And I
that Caravaggio's success and what made this painting beautiful, which was
sense of being very real, being very physically present, had to do with the
fact not--had actually nothing to do with the technique, but with the fact
that Caravaggio worked very hard at painting and that he had wanted to make
painting. And once I realized that, you know, the goal is what counts, what
you intend to do, what you want to make, making things pictorial is what's
The technique you use to make the pictoriality manifest and make it
is--that doesn't really matter. You know, you get the job done, whichever
you can. They never had a problem in caves in Lascaux or wherever,
They got the job done.
GROSS: I want to, if it's OK with you, ask you about your finger.
Mr. STELLA: Uh-huh. Yeah, it's OK. Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: You have one finger that...
Mr. STELLA: Yeah. I have a crushed left hand. Yeah. Yeah. I have one
finger is half, and a couple of other fingers are damaged, yeah. It's a
injury from when I was 10 years old.
GROSS: What happened?
Mr. STELLA: A concrete urn in the yard was toppled over onto my hand,
all. It was a crush injury.
GROSS: And were the parts of your finger amputated on the spot...
Mr. STELLA: No, when they cru...
GROSS: ...or was the surgery afterwards?
Mr. STELLA: I mean, well, when it's crushed, it turns black. I mean, and
eventually they had to cut it off. Yeah, I went to the hospital, yeah.
GROSS: And do a lot of physical work. It's never interfered with that?
Mr. STELLA: Yeah. But I'm right-handed, so it's not...
GROSS: And it's your left hand that was crushed.
Mr. STELLA: Yeah.
GROSS: So you're OK with that?
Mr. STELLA: It's not a problem.
GROSS: And I think--did they get you out of the military?
Mr. STELLA: Actually, indirectly it did, yeah. And I wasn't thinking about
it, but there was a turning point in my artistic career, because when I left
school, when I graduated from Princeton, I went to New York and took a loft
and started painting. And I wasn't really that aggressive about being a
painter or being an artist, but I did it because I had to go--in that
September to go home to Boston to take a physical examination we still had
the draft. And I expected to be drafted, so I thought, `Well, you know,
is just a bad time. I'll paint for a while and then go in the Army. And
I'll worry about my career when I get out--after I do my military service.'
And that really was the only thought that I had. I mean, it wasn't
complicated. And I wasn't conflicted or anything. I mean, I was just
painting and living in New York with my friends, meeting people and making
And then I went to take my physical examination, and I didn't really want to
go in the Army, so I did all the things--I wet my bed, I sucked my thumb--I
don't--and they just laughed at me and they stamped all my papers. And then
the last guy--there were three doctors in a row on a table, and the guy
at me and he said, `Well, let me see your left hand.' And I said, `Yes,
And he picked up an envelope and he held out the envelope to me. He said,
`Put this between your thumb and your index finger.' And I said, `Yes,
`Your third finger, your fourth finger, your little finger.' I said, `Yes,
sir.' He said, `You know, son, you have faulty opposition.' And I said,
sir.' And he said, `You don't want to go in the Army, do you?' And I said,
`No, sir,' which I think is not exactly what I should have said. And he
`You know,' he said, `you went to Princeton, didn't you?' And I said, `Yes,
sir.' He said, `I don't think you'd make a very good soldier anyway.' And
picked up the other thing and he stamped it, and I was out.
GROSS: How'd you feel?
Mr. STELLA: Well, I felt weird actually. I mean, I was happy not to be in
the Army, and then I suddenly realized that I was going to go back to New
to my studio and that I didn't have a career ahead of me in the Army. They
kept telling me my tour of duty would be in West Germany or Korea, and I
wasn't sure which fabulous place I wanted to go to, but I had these
of going on tour. I mean, the Army tour is a little bit different than my
idea of touring. But anyway, I called up my father and I said, `Gee, I'm
sorry, Dad. I have bad news. I failed my physical examination. I won't be
able to go in the Army.' And he said, `Too bad. It would have made a man of
you.' And I said, `Well, I'm just gonna go back to my studio.' And that
GROSS: Were there things you had to face in the studio that you didn't feel
ready to face yet because you thought you were putting all of that off till
after your tour of duty?
Mr. STELLA: You know, no. I don't know. I mean, I didn't--it wasn't a
problem. I don't know. I just went back to my studio and kept on painting.
You know, life at that age, it was a nice--you know, New York was sort of
relatively gentle. I mean, there were artists around and you could sort of
bum around and it was OK. You could manage.
GROSS: Well, Frank Stella, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. STELLA: Thank you. It was fun.
GROSS: Artist Frank Stella recorded in November 2000. His new 31-foot-high
sculpture now stands in front of the National Gallery of Art in Washington,
DC. His recent work is on exhibit in Manhattan at the Paul Kasmin Gallery.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, space-age bachelor pad music. We remember pianist and
composer Juan Garcia Esquivel. He died last week at the age of 83. Also,
Tucker reviews the new album by Stan Ridgway formerly of Wall of Voodoo.
film critic John Powers reviews "Black Hawk Down."
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Positive review of Stan Ridgway's album "Holiday in Dirt"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In the late '70s and early '80s, Stan Ridgway led the punk band Wall of
Voodoo. As a solo artist, Ridgway's moody Los Angeles music has drawn
comparisons less to musicians than to writers like Raymond Chandler. His
album, "Holiday in Dirt," is a collection of songs Ridgway has written over
the past decade, tunes that didn't make it onto his other albums, some
commissioned for film soundtracks, one or two from a lesser-known band he
called Drywall. Rock critic Ken Tucker says that this album of odds and
actually coheres as one of Ridgway's best collections.
(Soundbite of "Operator, Help Me(ph)")
Mr. STAN RIDGWAY (Musician): (Singing) Operator, help me. There's a sound
out in the street, and it just keeps getting louder as we speak.
KEN TUCKER reporting:
That song, called "Operator, Help Me"(ph) is a good, fast introduction to
Ridgway: his flat vocalizing, more speech than song; his hammering piano
style and eerie echoing instrumental backgrounds. In his liner notes, he
describes "Operator, Help Me" as, quote, "a very paranoid song, one that
Angeleno wrote soon after the Rodney King riots." But really, most of
Ridgway's music is either faintly or heavily paranoid, the sound of a man
doesn't trust the thoughts in his own head. Take, for example, this vision
an apocalypse that seems to be taking place deep in Ridgway's
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. RIDGWAY: (Singing) After the storm we'll all need to dry out. And the
forecast will be sunny and fair after the storm. We'll have a big parade
the smell of victory will be in the air. We'll march in the sun and listen
speeches. Life will be a bowl of Brie and peaches. After the storm...
TUCKER: By contrast, one of the most engaging songs on this album is its
straightforward. It's called "Garage Band '65"(ph) and it really captures
feeling of starting a band, of creating music from scratch. It contains one
of the best single throwaway lines I've heard in a long time, `I call this a
song because I say it is.' That's where Ridgway's instinctive
dovetails with his love of collaboration.
(Soundbite of "Garage Band '65")
Mr. RIDGWAY: (Singing) In an old garage, rain is coming down. Half a block
away, you could hear that sound. Powered up by love and electricity.
lots of noise and seeing it free. Got a brand-new amp, a speaker with a
Shock ourselves on the wires. Make believe that we don't care. I call this
song because I say it is. This one's about Cleopatra or maybe Dick or Liz.
TUCKER: Ridgway's music is inseparable from his life in Los Angeles and
probably one of the few musicians besides Randy Newman and Warren Zevon who
can get away with writing a song about the movie industry and not have it
sound coy or ill-informed.
(Soundbite of "Beloved Movie Star (The Billy Wilder Mix)")
Mr. RIDGWAY: (Singing) My beloved movie star. There's more than cold cream
in your jar. When eyebrows arch and lips are dry. When you're alone at
you cry. Stunt men make you feel secure. Wrap you up in soft allure. Your
key lights brights, your close-up's now. This picture could tank, but
make out somehow.
TUCKER: That song is called "Beloved Movie Star (The Billy Wilder Mix)."
Take that, Cameron Crowe. At the same time, Ridgway's perfectly capable of
writing songs that would sound appropriate on one of Crowe's pop-happy movie
soundtracks, like this one.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. RIDGWAY: (Singing) Tonight I'm looking for someone to tell my troubles
to. Some fish will swim, but some fish just get caught. I'm walking by a
market and I'll remember me and you, feeling like an old filet that no one
TUCKER: That's typical of Stan Ridgway: jaunty music whose lyric is all
about, as its title goes, floundering, looking for one's place in the world,
even if that world is just show biz or the music biz. Let's hope Ridgway
keeps floundering so skillfully, passing off musical assurance as one man's
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"Holiday in Dirt" by Stan Ridgway.
Coming up, we remember Esquivel and his space-age bachelor pad music.
Esquivel died last week.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Remembering Mexican pianist and composer Juan Garcia
Esquivel and his distinctive style of music
TERRY GROSS, host:
We're going to remember Juan Garcia Esquivel, the Mexican pianist and
behind perhaps the craziest easy-listening music of the '50s and '60s. He
died last week at the age of 83. Music critic John Pirellas(ph) described
Esquivel as writing flashy arrangements that change texture every few
and ping-pongs from speaker to speaker. Esquivel came to the States in 1957
to record for RCA. In the '60s he was a popular act in Vegas and Tahoe. He
also wrote soundtrack music for Universal Studios. He returned to Mexico in
'79. His music was rediscovered in the '90s during the lounge revival. In
'94, producer Irwin Chusid collected Esquivel's music on a CD called "Space
Age Bachelor Pad Music." In a few minutes we'll hear the interview we
recorded with Esquivel when that collection was released.
First, let's hear our 1994 producer with Irwin Chusid. His "Esquivel!" CD
opens with this version of "Sentimental Journey."
(Soundbite of "Sentimental Journey")
GROSS: Irwin Chusid, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. IRWIN CHUSID (Producer, "Esquivel!"): Hi, Terry.
GROSS: You know, this Esquivel stuff strikes me in a way as a very
flipped-out version of square music, and I wonder how it strikes you.
Mr. CHUSID: This is from a genre which, at the time, was known as
instrumental pop or easy listening; strangely enough in the case of
it's not very easy listening. It's often very challenging listening. But
this was music that was meant to really test the limits of stereophonic
systems back in the late '50s and early '60s. And the genre is a very broad
genre, encompassing music like Costaraniz(ph) and Mantovani, which is really
very relaxing music. It's very bland, it's very often colorless. It's
really, to relax by, just to have in the background. Then there's music
Martin Denny, which creates a great mood and can be listened to and enjoyed,
and there is a challenge there. Then you've got the Esquivels who simply
down from the planet Jupiter. It's almost as if it is music done in the
Earthling style by someone from another planet.
GROSS: How was the music received in its time? Was it seen as just another
easy-listening recording or was it seen as being the experimental version of
Mr. CHUSID: Well, first of all, in trying to do some research on Esquivel,
came across very little literature, which leads me to believe that he wasn't
taken that seriously by the critics at the time. I did find reviews of him
the high-fidelity publications from the period and a lot of reviews in
Variety. And they would refer to him as the Mexican Duke Ellington. They
would say that what Aaron Copland is to serious music, what a John Coltrane
to jazz, Esquivel is to pop. So there were people who recognized what he
doing back then. He did sell records. He didn't have any chart hits,
they did release a lot of singles. And I think his top-selling album
sold around 200,000 copies, which is not even a gold record, but enough to
keep someone making more records.
GROSS: So what was he marketed as?
Mr. CHUSID: He was marketed as a bandleader who composed and arranged for
stereo. The earliest stereo records were really the products of engineers
the studio taking popular artists and doing stereophonic mixes. Esquivel
would go into the studio and write his charts and arrange his own
and set up the band in such a way as to maximize the stereophonic impact of
the recording. He had a background in engineering. He had a degree in
engineering, in fact, from the University of Mexico, so he knew his way
a recording studio and he knew what stereo records were capable of doing.
GROSS: I'd like you to tell us a little bit about Esquivel as a person,
what you know of him.
Mr. CHUSID: Stubborn, strong-willed, a genius and I'm sure very, very
hard-working and a perfectionist. That's one thing I like. This is a man
obviously worked very hard to create music the way he heard it. I find a
of similarities between Esquivel and Raymond Scott. Maybe that's why I like
them both. They're both very stubborn, they're both very strong-willed.
both know their way around a recording studio. They both were probably
bullies a bit in the studio, you know, `I want this. You do it this way.
you don't do it this way, I'm not going to use you. You've got to do it my
way.' They were not one to say to a musician, `Well, however you want to
interpret, just go right ahead.' I don't think they did that at all.
They also were great at using--going beyond the mere instrumentation that
in front of them. Beyond using the personnel, they really knew how to use a
recording studio and microphones and a mixing console to try and create
something which could not be duplicated on a stage or in a concert hall, to
create something that was designed specifically for records.
GROSS: Irwin Chusid, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. CHUSID: You're quite welcome, Terry.
GROSS: Irwin Chusid produced the 1994 reissue of Esquivel's music called
"Space Age Bachelor Pad Music." Esquivel died last week at the age of 83.
In 1994, after we spoke with Chusid, we called Esquivel in Mexico, where he
was recovering from a broken hip at his brother's house. We also called a
former member of Esquivel's stage show, Yvonne de Bourbon. She danced and
sang and managed the band. For several years she and Esquivel were married.
Before we hear that conversation, let's hear Esquivel's version of "Bye Bye
(Soundbite of "Bye Bye Blues")
GROSS: Listening back to your music now, it sounds as if you took the
blandest form of music, middle-of-the-road music, and made it eccentric and
almost avant garde, and I'm wondering if you thought of it that way.
Mr. JUAN GARCIA ESQUIVEL (Composer): No, no. I was very criticized at the
time because my music was a little ahead of the time. So I was then called
crazy because of my ideas, but it was planned to heat the audience by
listening what they were not used to. But it wasn't my intention to be
futuristic or avant garde.
GROSS: Let me introduce Yvonne de Bourbon.
Yvonne, you joined the band in 1965.
Ms. YVONNE de BOURBON (Esquivel's Ex-Wife): That's correct.
GROSS: Now what was your place within the band? What did you do?
Ms. de BOURBON: I was the first dancer that Juan ever used in his show, and
I also sang background with the other girls on all of his music and, of
course, backing the other girls when they would sing their solo music.
GROSS: So what were your dances like?
Ms. de BOURBON: They were very fun. I would write monologues for Juan to
narrate my dances, because I would do series of demonstrations of what was
popular on the scene at that time. Whether it's the Monkey and the Jerk and
the James Brown and all of the steps that were very, very popular. A lot of
parents never had the opportunity to see what their kids were doing in the
discotheques, and I had many compliments from parents that said, `Oh, that's
what it was all about,' because they had this absurd idea that their kids
doing something that was perhaps a bit risque. So it was a lot of fun, and
always had humor with my dances. And then eventually learning all of the
shows and incorporating a lot of costume changes, and one thing or another,
eventually I went on to also be the manager of the show.
GROSS: Yvonne, a lot of the vocals that the singers did weren't really
lyrics. They were more just like sounds like `zu-zu-zu' or...
Ms. de BOURBON: Right.
Ms. de BOURBON: Right.
GROSS: Or, in the case of "Who's Sorry Now?" `boink, boink.' Actually, let
me play a little bit of that.
(Soundbite of "Who's Sorry Now?")
Singers: Boink, boink. Boink, boink. Binty. Boink, boink. Boink, boink.
Unidentified Singer: Sorry.
Singers: Boink, boink. Boink, boink.
Unidentified Singer: Shame.
GROSS: Juan Esquivel, let me ask you why you used sounds like this instead
lyrics. Why did you use `boink, boink'?
Mr. ESQUIVEL: Well, see, when I wrote an arrangement written by a
composer, I don't want to be influenced by the lyrics, so my idea was, like,
having a doll, a beautiful doll with a certain amount of clothes, to be
dressed at. So sometimes I will just strip the doll. That is, I strip the
lyrics, and I use whatever kind of a dress I would imagine to put on the
Or perhaps sometimes I will strip bare completely nude and perhaps I will
a mini bikini or her, and I may add for fun big moustache and perhaps a
GROSS: Juan Esquivel, Yvonne de Bourbon, I want to thank you both for
some of your memories with us.
Mr. ESQUIVEL: You're very welcome.
Ms. de BOURBON: Thank you for having us on your interview.
Ms. de BOURBON: Bye, Juan.
Mr. ESQUIVEL: Thank you. Thank you very much.
GROSS: Juan Garcia Esquivel and his former dancer, manager and wife, Yvonne
de Bourbon, recorded in 1994. Esquivel died last week at the age of 83.
Coming up, John Powers reviews the new film "Black Hawk Down."
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Review: New film "Black Hawk Down"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The new movie "Black Hawk Down," best on the best-seller by Mark Bowden, is
the story of the US military's disastrous mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, in
1993 that left 18 American soldiers dead. It's directed by Ridley Scott,
also made "Alien", "Bladerunner," "Gladiator" and "Hannibal." Film critic
John Powers has a review.
JOHN POWERS reporting:
The other night I watched an old TV documentary about the Vietnam War. I
hadn't seen any of that old footage for a while, and I was shocked by how
different coverage looked back then. It was so much closer to the action.
You actually saw American boys dying. The Pentagon learned its lesson and
press hasn't been able to show us anything like it since, certainly not in
Afghanistan, where everything is viewed from a safe distance. Yet even as
TV's war coverage has grown more detached, warfare in the movies has grown
more assaultive and spectacular. The chopper raids in "Apocalypse Now," the
D-Day landing in "Saving Private Ryan," even the Germanic wars in
Hollywood can now thrust us into the belly of battle, rattling out seats
Dolby-ized explosions and rattling our senses with jittery camera work and
tracer bullets whizzing by our ears.
You get all that and more in "Black Hawk Down," a powerful new movie that
attempts something very strange. In chronicling America's debacle in
Mogadishu, Somalia, a misfired attempt to grab a violent warlord's two
henchmen, it seeks to grab victory from the very bowels of defeat. The
centers on a group of American soldiers, a cross-section of guys who refer
the Somalis as skinnies. There's the grisled old pro, played by Tom
the loquacious supplies man--that's Ewan McGregor--and the good-looking
sergeant. He's played by Josh Hartnett and is the closest thing the movie
to a hero. He's an idealist. The rest are a largely indistinguishable
of actors whose faces we may recognize--`Hey, there's William Fichtner'--but
who never register as individuals.
In fact, the movie never gets deeper into its characters than in this early
scene in which the idealistic staff sergeant talks with a fellow soldier.
(Soundbite of "Black Hawk Down")
Mr. JOHN HARTNETT: You know, it's kind of funny. A beautiful beach,
beautiful sun. It would almost be a good place to visit.
Unidentified Man: Almost.
Mr. HARTNETT: You don't think we should be here?
Unidentified Man: You know what I think? It don't really matter what I
think. Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that
goes right out the window.
Mr. HARTNETT: I just want to do it right today.
Unidentified Man: Just watch your corner, get all your men back here alive.
POWERS: Director Ridley Scott isn't always the subtlest of directors. And
the soldiers head into the city, he blasts Gun N' Roses' "Welcome to the
Jungle." Welcome, indeed. Things instantly start going wrong: a soldier
falls from the chopper, two Blackhawk helicopters get shot down and the
soldiers get penned in trying to save their fallen mates. The hunters have
become the hunted. What was supposed to be a simple in-and-out job lasts an
excruciating 15 hours, and it feels that long in the theater, too. This was
movie of 144 minutes, of which the last hundred or so are devoted to
"Black Hawk Down" is a war picture of undeniable purity. It weds our Yankee
obsession with nuts-and-bolts factuality--`What exactly happened in
Mogadishu?'--with a sense of abstract pattern that recalls ancient
It's not about characters, it's not about psychology, it's not about
It's about being in battle, having a mission, in this case rescuing our men,
and trying to get out alive. At that level, it's a triumph, albeit an
overbearing one. The action is savage, exciting, relentless. It's also
art-directed to the teeth. Scott, who made "Bladerunner" and "Hannibal,"
gives us a highly polished version of verite.
Still, his sympathies are all with the working-class soldiers sent into a
hellhole by a military command, here represented by Sam Shepard, that fail
give them proper backup. Yet even as Scott seems eager to show us exactly
what happened in excruciating detail, he conspicuously emits the episode's
most notorious moment which was caught on the world's television cameras:
American bodies being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, followed by
jubilant Somalis. He leaves this out for the same reason he studiously
ignores the political meaning of this humanitarian effort gone sour, a
half-baked attempt at nation-building that nobody back in the US really
Truth is, showing bodies being dragged or dwelling on political ineptitude
simply far too bleak for a Hollywood film made during wartime, especially
produced by entertainment whiz Jerry Bruckheimer, who's given us everything
from "Flashdance" to "Pearl Harbor." "Black Hawk Down's" whole marketing
strategy is to portray the Mogadishu calamity as a kind of triumph, a
celebration of our brave fighting men and an inspirational tale for a
post-9/11 America. The movie closes with a crawl that speaks of American
strength in the world and our newfound willingness to fight for what we
While I don't doubt these things, nothing in "Black Hawk Down" justifies the
pretense that the Mogadishu affair was anything but what it actually was, a
botched, foolish, ultimately pointless mission that left 18 Americans dead,
injured, one captured and nearly a thousand Somalis dead, too, many of them
civilians. Watching our soldiers get picked off one by one and still
everything for their comrades, I kept admiring their courage. But really,
it's no triumph when brave men die as senselessly as that.
GROSS: John Powers is media columnist and executive editor of the LA
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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