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Lenny Kaye: 'The Sensuous Song of the Croon'

Musician Lenny Kaye is perhaps best known as Patti Smith's guitarist. But he's also a music writer, whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and Creem. His new book, You Call it Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon, chronicles the male singers of the 1930s known for their suave, sophisticated and romantic interpretations of song: Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee and Russ Columbo.

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Other segments from the episode on October 25, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 25, 2004: Interview with Lenny Kaye; Interview with Russell Banks.

Transcript

DATE October 25, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Lenny Kaye talks about the crooners of the 1930s
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Lenny Kaye, has played guitar with Patti Smith's band since she
started performing 30 years ago, and he produced the influential garage band
anthology "Nuggets." But his latest work is a book about the 1930s crooner
Russ Columbo and his contemporaries, Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee and Al Jolson.
It's called "You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon." We
invited Lenny Kaye to talk with us about his new interest in crooners and to
perform a couple of his favorite songs from the era. Let's start with Russ
Columbo's recording of "Prisoner of Love."

(Soundbite from "Prisoner of Love")

Mr. RUSS COLUMBO: (Singing) Hello the night, tonight you'll find me, too
weak to break the chains that bind me. I need no shackles to remind me, I'm
just a prisoner of love. For one command I stand and wait now from one who's
master of my fate now. I can't escape, for it's too late now. I'm just a
prisoner of love. What's the good of my caring if someone is sharing those
arms with me? Although she has another, I can't have another, for I'm not
free. She's in my dreams, awake or sleeping. Upon my knees to her I'm
creeping. My very life is in her keeping. I'm just a prisoner of love.

GROSS: That's Russ Columbo, recorded in 1931.

Lenny Kaye, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now you're famous for playing with Patti
Smith and for loving garage bands. What sent you back to the '20s and '30s,
to early pop?

Mr. LENNY KAYE (Songwriter and Musician): Well, I feel like I was sent there
for a reason. I don't really know why. I was driving along one night, and I
heard the story of Russ Columbo on the radio. It was pretty random. And he
piqued my imagination. I was attracted to the circumstances of his passing,
which were somewhat tabloid. And I liked the song, and I thought, `Well,
here's someone I don't know anything about. What's his story?' In a way, I
feel like he chose me, actually, and the deeper I got into it, the more I felt
like this was a period of music that wasn't recognized for the effect it had
on the rest of music. It was kind of almost the beginnings of modern-day
popular music. The microphone had just been invented. This kind of soft,
intimate singing was possible, and the singing was very sensual, and it
appealed to my sense of, you know, curviness, I guess.

In a sense, it's the same attraction that one has to rock 'n' roll, only
one--you know, it's a lot louder. Rock 'n' roll's a lot louder and more
energetic. And I have to say, there was some attraction in the fact that it
wasn't rock 'n' roll, that it was something new, that it was kind of a world
that I could go to whenever, you know, I could feel the tintinnabulation in my
ear. It was kind of different.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to read a short excerpt from your new book, "You
Call It Madness," and this is, you know, a little bit about the newness of the
microphone and how that was changing things.

Mr. KAYE: (Reading) `The Romeo of song, nothing too fast, mind you. All
tempos decelerated for slow and sinuous dancing, a music for whispering in
ears, for sliding out the slots in the Bakelite, a glowing dial and the warm
crackling static hum of electricity. Russ didn't know about electric
instruments. They hadn't been invented yet, mere rumors and prototypes, if
you didn't count the microphone, and he did, because it allowed him to sing
softly, to mouth each word as it came out of his mouth, to send it just toward
you; you, just the way you always wanted to hear it and experience it, how you
always wished it would be, head back, eyes lidded, hand pressed inside your
thigh, to reach that one moment of total real-time bliss in which something
meaningful passes back and forth between your heart's flutter, to know how
deep love can stick its tongue in your ear.'

GROSS: So you really got to thinking about what it was like to be a singer
when the microphone was first invented and singing was changed forever.

Mr. KAYE: And, let's not forget, when the radio was first invented.

GROSS: Right. Right.

Mr. KAYE: I mean, this was a way it kind of was--you needed both to suddenly
create a sense of intimacy in going into people's homes and going into their
private lives, essentially. It's not so different from what you do, Terry.

GROSS: Without the singing. There's one line in your book, you write, `The
microphones hide in the shrubbery in the foreground. There's something
shameful about their presence, that they must be disguised to preserve an
illusion.' Were microphones often hidden early on?

Mr. KAYE: Well, especially in films. You know, they were somewhat
controversial, and I'm sure that the quality of microphone technology at the
time was a little squawky. But it was regarded as somewhat artificial in the
same way that electric guitars, when they came along, were regarded as
somewhat--you know, they weren't real. They weren't like acoustic
instruments. I think part of the 20th century is understanding how important
electricity is to the sound and texture of the times and the music that was
created as a result of it.

GROSS: Well, you've been performing with Patti Smith around the world lately,
and you have--Patti Smith has a new CD that you're on, but how has listening
to crooners and writing about crooners changed the kind of performing you're
doing on your own?

Mr. KAYE: Well, for one, it awakened me to a lot of chords that rock 'n'
roll kind of sidesteps over. These songs are very complex. Some of the
passing notes and passing tones are things that rock 'n' roll kind of blew by
in its quest for the classic one, four, five progression.

GROSS: I'm really glad you say that, because so many people, like, dismiss
the early pop of the '20s and '30s as being simple, Tin Pan Alley, Moon June
Spoon. And musically...

Mr. KAYE: Well, simple?

GROSS: Yeah, there's some pretty...

Mr. KAYE: It's hard.

GROSS: Yeah. Thank you.

Mr. KAYE: I mean, it takes me about a month to learn these songs, let me
tell you. I try to get all the little inner chords. But you know, it also
helps you see it from the other side, what rock 'n' roll must have looked like
to people like, for instance, Les Paul or Bing Crosby, who kind of honed their
craft in a different time. And then you have all these kids coming up with a
very simplistic, almost common-denominator sense of melody and texture, and
you know, you could see that it was probably very shocking to them.

I like seeing it from both ends. To me, what this book really helped me do is
knit together pre-rock. I was pretty good starting in the late '40s
understanding how rock 'n' roll grew, but to take it back to the turn of last
century was really quite an adventure. And you also begin to realize that the
people who made this music, Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, Russ Columbo, were as
crazy and as driven and as scandalous in some ways as, you know, any rock star
myth that you have. They weren't throwing televisions out their hotel
windows because they hadn't been invented yet, but I'm sure when Bing Crosby
had a snootful, he tossed a radio out, at least.

GROSS: Well, you brought your guitar with you, for which I thank you very
much. Would you perform one of the songs that you've been listening to that
one of the crooners made famous?

Mr. KAYE: Well, first, when I started learning this music and the people and
the names and the characters and the great songs, I was especially drawn to
what became Bing Crosby's theme song, "Where the Blue of the Night Meets the
Gold of the Day." And in the book, there's a really nice little event where
Russ Columbo, even though he knows that Bing is ready to choose it as his
theme song, decides to get the jump on Bing and record it five days before
Bing records his version, resulting in the justly legendary battle of the
baritones, which, if you lived in America in 1931, was, you know, your great
feud, Bing vs. Russ, at a time when Russ and Bing were probably neck and
neck and it wasn't apparent who was going to win the race to be America's
most romantic singer. "Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the
Day," a truly, truly, truly beautiful song.

(Soundbite of "Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day")

Mr. KAYE: (Singing) Where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day,
someone waits for me. And the gold of her hair crowns the blue of her eyes
like a halo, tenderly. If only I could see her, oh, how happy life could be.
Where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day, someone waits for me.
Why must I live in dreams of the days I used to know? Why can't I find real
peace of mind and return to the long ago? Baba baba boo boo boo boo baba ba.
Baba baba baba baba baba ba. If only I could see her, oh, how happy life
could be. Where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day, someone
waits for me.

Bing Crosby.

GROSS: Done by Lenny Kaye. That was wonderful. I really enjoyed that.

Mr. KAYE: It's really--it's a beautiful music, and it's just a real honor
and pleasure to be able to learn it and to place oneself in that time. I
mean, when I was working on the book, I spent a lot of time in the library
just kind of familiarizing myself with that moment, late '20s, 1928, '29 to
'34, and I could, you know--all the tabloid scandals, the murder mysteries, it
was really fun. It was the time of the Lindbergh kidnapping. It
was--television had just kind of come over the horizon but wasn't there yet.
The silents were moving into the talkies, resulting in much upheaval in
Hollywood. The Ziegfeld Follies were kind of in their final glory. It was a
really marvelous time, and I felt very pleased that I had the chance to
understand it so completely and follow any tangent, really, that came up. You
know, I was whistling records of the turn of the century. I was spending a
few good weeks learning about them. It's pretty amazing.

GROSS: My guest is Lenny Kaye. His new book is called "You Call It Madness:
The Sensuous Song of the Croon." We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Lenny Kaye. He's played guitar with Patti Smith since she
started performing, and he produced the garage band anthology "Nuggets." His
new book, "You Call It Madness," is about Russ Columbo and other crooners of
the 1930s.

I'm wondering if you hear early rock 'n' rollers differently now and if you
hear a crooning influence in their voice that you didn't hear before. And I'm
talking about the people who came of age before rock 'n' roll but ended up
performing it as the early performers. I'm thinking specifically of Elvis.

Mr. KAYE: Well, to me, there would be no Elvis without Bing Crosby.
Certainly (imitating Elvis Presley) `My love, my love can understand you,' you
know, all that stuff, it's complete, complete Bing, and it's a kind of root
that is, A, ironic, because Bing Crosby hated Elvis, but also he said that
Elvis never contributed anything to popular music. Well, that's, you know,
one side of a generation gap.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. KAYE: But basically, you know, someone like Elvis, someone like Roy
Orbison, the more romantic singers.

GROSS: Let's hear another performer from the period. You write a lot about
Rudy Vallee in your book.

Mr. KAYE: Now there's a nut.

GROSS: What do you find nutty about him?

Mr. KAYE: Well, first of all, he was just a total girl hound. I mean, he
was the kind of guy who would walk down the street and just, you know, keep
running into telephone poles because he'd be craning his neck. Toward the end
of his life, he wanted to write a book called "Dolls of the Vallee," where he
talked about his conquests through the ages. But he was just a really funny
guy, quite a character, and one of the funniest things I found in the book was
his relationship with this woman named Fay Webb, who he married in 1931 about
the same time that Russ came from California to New York, and you know, his
incredible--her infidelities, his infidelities and their divorce proceedings,
their getting-back-together proceedings. It really--he's a funny guy.

GROSS: Before he sang with a microphone, Rudy Vallee used to sing with a
megaphone, and that's--like, if you know anything about Rudy Vallee, that's
probably, like, the one thing that you know.

Mr. KAYE: That's his stereotype.

GROSS: And I remember, I think, like when I was growing up, in a lot of the
old, like, Warner Bros. cartoons, there'd be a character singing into a
megaphone. What do you actually like about Rudy Vallee's singing?

Mr. KAYE: Well, he has a beautiful voice, for a start. It's a lot higher
than Russ' baritone. He's not quite--he's kind of almost like a precursor to
what I call the croon, which is--to me, the croon is, like, wordless singing.
It's singing that's beyond language. It's when you have so much in your heart
to say that you can't say it in actual words. You have to go, `Baba baba.'
It's like the language of love. Rudy Vallee had such a beautiful voice and
such a great taste in the song that you really--you know, his voice almost
breaks down into its syllables. He's not as croon-oriented as Russ Columbo or
Bing.

And actually the croon became almost a cliche within two or three years of its
invention. A crooner moved from being this thing that somebody thought of and
invented, this kind of--it's almost like scat singing--and all of--you know,
it became like a kind of cliche, not unlike the movement of any genre, you
know, where you have the breakthroughs where things are exciting and
then people really understand it and kind of jump on the bandwagon and then
it's time to move on to something else. But the heyday of the croon really is
the voice really as musical instrument. It's very understandable, even if you
don't know what the singer is saying, because you can understand the tone, the
notes, the inflections, and that, to me, is what the crooner's about. It's a
sense of higher language, the language that's so overflowing in your heart
that you just have to break into song.

GROSS: Well, let's hear a 1933 Rudy Vallee recording, and this is "Orchids in
the Moonlight." It's a song that was in the Fred Astaire movie "Flying Down
to Rio," but Rudy Vallee had the popular recording of it, so why don't we hear
it?

(Soundbite from "Flying Down to Rio")

Mr. RUDY VALLEE: (Singing) When orchids bloom in the moonlight and lovers
vow to be true, I can still dream in the moonlight of one dear night that we
knew. When orchids fade in the dawning, they speak of tears and goodbye.
While my dreams are shattered, like the petals scattered, still my love can
never die. There is peace in the twilight when the day is through, but the
shadows that fall only seem to recall all my longing for you. There's a dream
in the moonbeams upon a sea of blue. But the moonbeams that fall only seem to
recall love is all, love is you.

GROSS: That's Rudy Vallee, recorded in 1933, "Orchids in the Moonlight." And
my guest is Lenny Kaye, and although Lenny Kaye is best known as Patti Smith's
long-term guitarist and also well-known for producing "Nuggets," the garage
band anthologies, his new book is about crooners of the 1930s, and the book is
called "You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon." And Rudy
Vallee, Russ Columbo and Bing Crosby are three of the main characters in this
book.

So, Lenny, I'm wondering, was Rudy Vallee a hard sell to your friends? I
mean, when your friends were finding out that you were going home and
listening to Rudy Vallee records, did they think that was surprising?

Mr. KAYE: That I'd lost my mind? Yes. Yeah. Most people didn't quite
get what I was doing.

GROSS: I like Rudy Vallee. I should say that. I actually...

Mr. KAYE: I like him, too. I think he's a very funny guy. But I really
enjoyed like trailing these people because you think of them as very
grandfatherly, and really, they were young and wild, and especially at this
time when all this music was being invented. I particularly like "Orchids in
the Moonlight," because one of the dominant themes in the book is the sense of
the night. To me, crooning takes place after the sun goes down.

GROSS: Lenny Kaye. His new book is called "You Call It Madness." He'll be
back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Credits)

GROSS: Coming up, the twist of fate that ended crooner Russ Columbo's life.
We continue our conversation with Lenny Kaye. Also, novelist Russell Banks on
why temperament trumps ideology. His new novel, "The Darling," is about a
former member of the radical group the Weather Underground.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Lenny Kaye. He's
played guitar with Patti Smith since she started performing. He also produced
the influential garage band anthology "Nuggets." His new book, "You Call It
Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon," is about Russ Columbo and other
crooners of the 1930s like Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. Here's Russ Columbo's
1931 recording "You Call It Madness, I Call It Love."

(Soundbite of "You Call It Madness, I Call It Love")

Mr. COLOMBO: (Singing) I can't forget the night I met you. That's all I'm
dreaming of. And you call it madness. Ah, but I call it love. You made a
promise to be faithful by all the stars above. And you call it madness. Ah,
but I call it love. I keep repeating my heart is beating for you constantly.
You're all I'm needing and so I'm pleading, please come back to me. You made
a plaything out of romance. What do you know of love? And you called it
madness. Ah, but I called it love.

GROSS: When the crooners started singing romantic ballads in a much smaller
voice than performers could have had before because that small voice couldn't
fill a big theater...

Mr. KAYE: Right.

GROSS: ...was that kind of smaller, almost whispery, romantic voice ever seen
as effeminate?

Mr. KAYE: Yes, it was, and very much so. In fact, to someone like Rudolph
Valentino, who was regarded as probably the most romantic figure of the
early 1920s--and, in fact, Russ Columbo was often called the Valentino of
song--there was quite a scandal about him, whether he was effeminate. And,
you know, even when he wore a wristwatch, this was an effeminate symbol.

To me, the croon is the male singing to the female in her language. It
requires a sense of becoming female, of bending the knee to the female. You
know, we're dealing in kind of strange stereotypes here and kind of gender
characteristics, but I think, to me, what someone like Russ Columbo did was
sing to a woman in her own language. And then he has permission to enter her
world.

GROSS: Early in the interview, you said one of the things that first
interested you in Russ Columbo, and this is what lured you into this whole era
of the crooner, was finding out the kind of tabloid circumstances behind his
death. Tell us the story of how he died.

Mr. KAYE: Well, you couldn't make it up. I mean, that's what really
impressed me the first time I heard it. He's visiting a friend of his. He's
about to marry, perhaps, the actress Carole Lombard, who would call him the
love of her life, even after she was with Clark Gable. His first starring
movie was about to be released. He'd gone to the preview. And he went over
to visit a friend of his, a Hollywood photographer named Lansing Brown. And
on the table are two antique dueling pistols. And during the course of his
conversation, Lansing lights a match in the percussion pin of one of these
dueling pistols. There's a sudden explosion. A long-forgotten bullet
explodes, ricochets off the table and strikes Russ Columbo in the left eye.

And I'm thinking, `Wow.' I'm just imagining that bullet waiting there for 60
or 70 years for its moment and Russ Columbo being in the exact place for that
bullet to strike him. The hindsight of fate is how I refer to it. It's
pretty spooky.

And then I hear, as this announcer is talking, that because his mother was
very ill when he suddenly died, they kept his death from her and for the next
10 years, they would write letters from all over the world to her saying,
`Dear Mom, I'm in Barcelona. I'm held over. I'm going to Paris, hope to be
home for Christmas but maybe not.' And for 10 years they, like, sent these
letters from him kind of from the beyond. And also I thought, `Wow, that's so
strange. It's like having a lifeline past your own lifeline.'

GROSS: How old was he when he was shot?

Mr. KAYE: Twenty-six.

GROSS: That's really young.

Mr. KAYE: Really young and had lived quite a life. You know, had come to
New York, got on the radio, been a big star, lost his money, gained his money,
participated in the era. One of the things I liked about Russ was that he
kind of moved through the major cultural moment, kind of attracting
personalities to him. Benny Goodman, before Benny Goodman was the King of
Swing, organized a band for Russ, so I could see exactly what it was that
Benny Goodman did that made him so important in American culture. These are
things that I didn't know. When I started, I wanted to see what Benny Goodman
was like in 1932 and what made him, you know, gather the bare bones of swing
together and really become the king of the music of the late '30s.

GROSS: Lenny, I'd love to close with a song. Would you perform another one
for us?

Mr. KAYE: I'd like to. I thought I would do--since we did a song of Bing's
and a song of Russ', this is a song that--well, all of them recorded but Rudy
Vallee was the one that snagged a piece of the publishing. I'm not sure that
he deserved it, but that was--in those days, you know, if you introduced a
song, you could put your name on the writer's credit. And this is really a
beautiful song. It kind of closes just about any show. It's called
"Goodnight Sweetheart," and I'm sure you've heard it. This is almost in the
common currency.

(Singing) Good night, sweetheart, till we meet tomorrow. Good night,
sweetheart. Sleep will banish sorrow. Tears and parting may make us forlorn,
but with the dawn, a new day is born. So I'll say good night, sweetheart,
though I'm not beside you. Good night, sweetheart. Still my love will guide
you. Dreams enfold you. In each one I will hold you. So good night,
sweetheart. Good night.

Rudy Vallee.

GROSS: Lenny Kaye, thank you so much.

Mr. KAYE: Oh, it's a total pleasure, Terry. I really--I like revealing this
world. It's very sweet and there's something very warming about it.

GROSS: Lenny Kaye's new book is called "You Call It Madness: The Sensuous
Song of the Croon."

Coming up, Russell Banks talks about his new novel "The Darling." It's about
a former member of the Weather Underground. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Author Russell Banks on his new book "The Darling"
TERRY GROSS, host:

My guest, Russell Banks, is the author of "Affliction" and "The Sweet
Hereafter," which have both been adapted into films. He was recently named
president of the North American Network of Cities of Asylum, an international
organization which provides refuge for writers whose lives are threatened in
their own countries.

Banks' new novel, "The Darling," is about a woman, Hannah Musgrave, who, in
the '60s, was a member of the radical group the Weather Underground. Tired of
living underground as a fugitive under the name Dawn Carrington, she moved to
West Africa, where she married a Liberian and got caught in the country's
civil war. The novel begins years later in America when she decides to return
to Africa, and we learn the story of what happened to her family there.

Reviewing "The Darling" in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Mary Gordon
described the book as `a symphony of history, politics and impossible failed
dreams.' Here's a short reading in which Hannah is describing why she married
her husband.

Mr. RUSSELL BANKS (Author): (Reading from the novel) `So what was it about
Woodrow Sundiata that brought me to believe that I had fallen in love with him
and that made me, after a few short months, decide to marry him? My initial
attraction had been mostly sexual and within weeks, once I got used to his
rigid, nearly expressionless face and constricted manners, had weakened
somewhat. I no longer saw him as an African Samurai.

What exactly then did I see in him, other than a benefactor or protector? If
it wasn't the color of his skin, perhaps it was the fact that he was African,
that he was pointedly not American. In those years, I was bone-weary of my
war against everything American: the war against American racism, the war
against the Vietnam War, the war against the system, all of it. It felt like
I'd been at war my entire life, even as a child, an adolescent, waging a war
against my parents. I hadn't realized it until after I'd left Ghana and Zack,
my last links to the movement, but by the time I arrived in Monrovia, I was,
in a sense, shell-shocked.'

GROSS: That's Russell Banks reading from his new novel, "The Darling."

I'm interested in that sense that she describes in that paragraph of being
perpetually at war against parents, at war against the war in Vietnam, against
racism, against the system. Would you talk a little bit more about that sense
of being constantly at war?

Mr. BANKS: Well, I think what I was trying to get to there is that anyone,
well, particularly, let's say, Hannah Musgrave--anyone who is as profoundly
engaged in moral combat as she is throughout her adult life and youth, even,
is there because of a whole braid of motives. I mean, some of it's
psychological and familial, some of it is situational and historical, some of
it is ideological, and some of it is simply and purely moral principles. And
it pervades everything. It isn't just, you know, one or two issues. It's
temperament. At some point she says, `Temperament trumps ideology.' And I
think that's what I was trying to get to, what makes up temperament. And her
temperament happens to be that of somebody who is in combat.

GROSS: Her father is a famous doctor, and her family's very prosperous.
She's very guilty about her sense of privilege, about the family of privilege
and entitlement that she was born into, and I think that's part of her reason
for becoming a radical.

Mr. BANKS: Yeah, yeah, class guilt, privilege guilt. That and, you know, I
don't want to dismiss or step around the real historical circumstances, too.
I mean, we mustn't forget this is the late '60s, early '70s, and that was a
particular historical situation. And a lot of people reacted to it as well.
I mean, it isn't just simply reducible to her family dynamic, although that's
certainly a factor at play.

I mean, that was one of the things that I was trying to get to, Terry, in the
book was the complex net of motivations that operate so that we don't simply
reduce someone like Hannah or even an entire generation to a kind of
caricature.

You know, it's funny right now, of course, with the election, we're thinking
about--we're re-fighting the whole culture war and Vietnam War, in many ways,
over positions taken by, say, John Kerry and George Bush--or not taken--in
that era. And we're reducing our analysis of those two men and everyone
around them, really, to one or two motives or one or two impulses or reasons
for taking a position or not taking a position when, in fact, there are dozens
and dozens of them. And, in a sense, I guess, a novel can get at that net,
that cluster of motives, in a much better way than most of us do through
journalism or other kinds of accounts.

GROSS: So what about you? What was the closest you came to becoming part of
a larger radical group in the '60s or '70s?

Mr. BANKS: Probably formally the closest I came was in organizing the SDS,
Students for a Democratic Society, chapter at Chapel Hill when I was at
college. And--but then that was about as far to the left within an
organization that I actually got.

GROSS: Now I read about you--tell me if this is accurate--that there was a
period when you were thinking of joining Castro's revolutionary army.

Mr. BANKS: Yeah. Well, I made my feeble attempt at that. I was, after all,
18 years old and Castro--this was 1958, Terry, and at that time, Castro was a
romanticized figure on the cover of Life magazine being called `Dr. Castro'
and he was portrayed as a sort of Robin Hood figure in the mountain vastness
of the Sierra Maestra. And I hitchhiked out of New England, on my way south
to join Castro, and got about as far as Miami in the winter of '58-'59. In
February, Castro marched into Havana and no longer needed me, needed this
18-year-old boy who couldn't speak Spanish, to come to his side. So I got a
job moving furniture in a hotel, and my life took on a different kind of
swirl.

GROSS: I want to ask you about the relationship that you've created for your
main character with the African who she marries. And, you know, in the United
States, when she's living underground, she becomes so disillusioned with men
that she has an affair with another woman. And neither of them really think
of themselves as lesbians, they're just both kind of tired and fed up with
relationships with men...

Mr. BANKS: Yeah, and lonely. Yeah.

GROSS: ...for the moment and lonely, yeah.

Mr. BANKS: Yeah.

GROSS: But in Africa, in Liberia with the man who she marries, she puts up
with things that she'd probably never consider putting up with with the States
relating to birth control and, you know, gender roles and...

Mr. BANKS: Fidelity. Yes.

GROSS: ...fidelity, yes. So tell me why you created that predicament for
her.

Mr. BANKS: Well, I didn't have a plan, and that's--inasmuch as it evolved.
And I was aware of the fact that she's like a changeling and that she's an
extremely adaptable person, perhaps too adaptable, in many ways, and keeps
moving through identities depending upon the people that enter her life.

There's a great story, actually, that the title of the book alludes to, "The
Darling," by Chekhov, and it's about a woman who is a changeling. And I've
always been deeply moved by that story 'cause it's extremely compassionate
towards a character that might otherwise be easily dismissed by almost any one
of us.

And I feel this way about Hannah Musgrave, too, because she is a woman who
moves through identities in a kind of constant quest for authenticity, and
none of them quite fit her. And, you know, the role that she ends up playing
in Woodrow Sundiata's life, or the role he ends up playing in her life
perhaps, creates an identity for her that is, in a sense, fresh and new, even
though it's in profound conflict with the identity that she wore as Dawn
Carrington in the Weather Underground or earlier on as kind of this
proto-feminist adolescent named Scout. So it was part and parcel of her
character, Terry. That's really how it came about. It wasn't that I had a
plan or a scheme or a message, for that matter.

GROSS: My guest is Russell Banks. His new novel is called "The Darling."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Russell Banks. His new novel, "The Darling," is about a
member of the Weather Underground who becomes tired of living as a fugitive
and moves to West Africa, where she marries a Liberian and gets caught in the
country's civil war.

Your character of Hannah is a radical who comes from a very privileged
background.

Mr. BANKS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You were a radical who came from a very working-class background.

Mr. BANKS: Right.

GROSS: And I'm wondering when you met people like Hannah in your real life
what you made of the fact that they were from very comfortable backgrounds and
were now voluntarily, you know, identifying with the working class, living a
life with little or no money and few comforts. Did that make sense to you?
Did you think of them as being, like, less authentic or more fake or, you
know, just...

Mr. BANKS: Yeah. Well, yeah, I did back then. I mean, one of the reasons,
actually, I wrote this book, I think--you know, now that it's done and I'm
looking at it, I can see it more or less as a reader and less as a writer and
I can say, `Well, what was I doing then?,' see what's on the page and reason
backwards from it.

And I think one of the things I was trying to do was to avoid or to step
around and maybe get away from the stereotyping of someone from Hannah's class
because I did do that. The biggest stretch for me was not that she was a
woman, but that she was from a privileged background and I'm not. And so I
did have to come to a kind of compassionate understanding of the melange of
motivations and forces that were at play in her life. I couldn't just simply
stereotype her the way, in fact, I did stereotype people from her background
who went into radical politics--did as a young man and well into my adult
life. It took me--well, it took me perhaps until now. I don't think I could
have written this book with the kind of sympathy--or written a book about a
character like Hannah with the kind of sympathy, with the kind of compassion
and, I hope, understanding that I've managed to write it now these many years
later.

GROSS: When you were a young man, do you feel like you tried on different
identities through the desire to or the need to?

Mr. BANKS: You know, I think I sidestepped some of that--a lot of that,
really--because by having committed myself fairly early on--barely in my early
20s--to a life of writing, to dedication to an art in a way and bending my
life to the discipline and rigors of that--having done that, you know, fairly
early in my--you know, as I say, in my early 20s, I had really kind of created
an identity for me that was flexible enough and yet fixed enough and had
enough models and examples in front of me that I didn't go through the kind of
shape changing, certainly, that Hannah goes through and that a lot of
people--most people go through.

So I didn't have a midlife crisis, as it were. I didn't have, you know, a
career change or a sudden desire to go out and buy a red Porsche and so on in
my 40s. I more or less evolved out of that early, you know, format which was
really because of my time and my era, rather, and the models that were around
me was more or less formed out of, you know, male writers who preceded me.

GROSS: So tell me more about how you think writing saved you from that kind
of shape changing or midlife crisis.

Mr. BANKS: Well, it saved me from a lot of troubles, actually, because I was
a very turbulent and angry young man. And it gave my life a real meaning.
Storytelling, writing, put me under a kind of discipline and focus that I
couldn't really have achieved any other way. I mean, I might have achieved it
had I become a Zen Buddhist and dedicated my life to that practice or--Who
knows?--you know, done 10 years of psychotherapy or something. But it had the
effect, really, of stopping me and making me sit down and pay attention to the
world and to my perceptions of the world and put me under the discipline of a
craft, of an art that really had the effect of saving my life and probably
saving someone else's life as well.

GROSS: Do you ever look back at your younger self, as if you were a fictional
creation, and ask yourself, `Well, what was it that shaped the violent side of
the personality?'

Mr. BANKS: Sure. I think so. I've learned a lot from writing fiction just
about why and how people do the things they do. And so naturally I've applied
whatever I've learned from writing to my own life. It's a form of, I guess,
autotherapy or something. But certainly, you know, if Hannah Musgrave does
what she does for a multitude of reasons, from, you know, historical and
ideological to personal and familial and so forth, then I do, too, whatever I
do for a myriad of reasons. And so it--I can sort of untangle that braid in
myself in the same way I can untangle the braid in Hannah's life.

GROSS: And I fear it would be too reductionist for me to ask you to untangle
that particular braid. Yes? Should I not--I mean, I hesitate--I just feel
like I'm going to ask you to be giving a simplistic answer about why you were
that way, so I hesitate to ask.

Mr. BANKS: Why I was this turbulent, angry and violent young man?

GROSS: Yeah. Is that...

Mr. BANKS: No, I can answer that. I think that there's a whole lot of
reasons, though, and I can't just simply reduce it and say, `Because my father
was an alcoholic and was violent,' which happens to be true, or because I was
born into a working-class family where male physical violence was, if not
celebrated, was certainly admired in certain ways, or because I was born in
1940 and my parents were Depression-era parents. And I was born into a
patriarchal family that--very much a male-dominated family. Those were all at
play. The time and place that I was born, northern New England in 1940, was a
factor, growing up in the war years. And then the late '40s and early '50s
was a fact--they were factors. All those things were at play. So, yeah,
you're right. I mean, I am avoiding a simple, reductive answer to it, the way
I would for--avoid a simple, reductive answer as to why Hannah behaved the way
she behaves.

GROSS: Well, Russell Banks, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BANKS: Well, thank you, Terry. It's great to be here.

GROSS: Russell Banks' new novel is called "The Darling."

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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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