Skip to main content

Levon Helm Sings Again

Drummer Levon Helm once backed Bob Dylan and sang with Van Morrison. Now, 30 years after The Band split up — and 10 years after he was diagnosed with throat cancer — Helm is putting out a solo album. The Washington Post has called Dirt Farmer "an exquisitely unvarnished monument to Americana from a man whose keening, lyrical vocals have become synonymous with it."




Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on December 11, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 11, 2007: Interview with Levon Helm; Obituary for Jane Rule; Commentary on DVD gifts for television lovers.


DATE December 11, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Levon Helm on his new album, "Dirt Farmer," and on his
career since he started singing again in 2004

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Levon Helm was the drummer in the group The Band. This is the group
that backed Bob Dylan after he went electric and went on to become famous in
their own right after the release of their 1968 album "Music From Big Pink,"
which featured Helms singing lead on "The Weight." Recently Helm released his
first solo album in 25 years. It's called "Dirt Farmer" and it features
traditional songs and contemporary songs in that style. The Washington Post
review described it as, quote, "an exquisitely unvarnished monument to
Americana from a man whose keening lyrical vocals has become synonymous with
it," unquote.

It's remarkable that his singing is this good after being diagnosed with
cancer in his vocal chords in 1998. He was able to start singing again in
2004. For the past four years he's presided over what he calls his midnight
rambles, intimate concerts with his famous and not so famous friends at the
barn that's become his home recording studio in Woodstock, New York. Let's
start with the opening track of "Dirt Farmer."

(Soundbite from "False Hearted Lover Blues")

Mr. LEVON HELM: (Singing) False hearts have been my downfall
Pretty women have been my craze
I'm sure my false-hearted lover
Will drive me to my lonesome grave

They'll bite the hand that feeds them
Spending money that you save
From your heartstrings...(unintelligible)
They really know how...(unintelligible)
When my earthly stay is over
Sink my dead body, then they see
Just down my false-hearted lover
(Unintelligible)...will watch over me

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Levon Helm from his new CD, "Dirt Farmer."

Levon Helm, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know I wasn't sure what to expect when
I put your CD on because I knew about your vocal cancer, and your singing is
so great on this and it's so full out. And I'm wondering if the act of
singing has changed for you, either technically or emotionally since your

Mr. HELM: You know, it's a lot more fun for me these days. I'm not quite as
hard on myself as I used to be. And I still haven't fallen in love with the
sound of my voice, but I am able to get some satisfaction when we try and do
these tunes. And it takes me a little while sometimes, but it's an
interesting process.

GROSS: What state is your voice in physically now? I said recovery. Are you
in a, like a full recovery, a partial recovery, where are you?

Mr. HELM: Well, I think I'm in a full recovery. My voice don't sound a
whole lot better than it did before I had cancer. But I had a period of time
there for about two and a half years or so where I had to just kind of whisper
or either write you a note and tell you what I wanted you to know. And of
course it, you know, there's nothing I can do except just be the drummer,
which is my main ambition anyway. But it sure is a whole lot brighter of a
future now that I can sing my part and help out with some of the lead vocals.

GROSS: Was it a lonely period when you couldn't talk?

Mr. HELM: It sure was. It was real lonesome.

GROSS: So I know that your doctor, your first doctor told you that he'd
perform surgery and you'd need a voice box. But after the second opinion you
went with radiation treatments instead, which seemed to be effective in
stopping the cancer. But were you able to imagine life with a voice box?

Mr. HELM: I couldn't. It was just a horrible thing, you know, to face.
Since then I have friends, of course, that have faced it and have conquered
it. So it's, you know, it's just one of those burdens that some of us have to
bear. My saving grace was to run into Dr. Kraus down at Sloan-Kettering in
New York, and they certainly saved my bacon.

GROSS: Let's hear another song from your new CD, "Dirt Farmer," and I want to
play "The Blind Child." I really love your recording of this. I wasn't
familiar with this song before. How do you know this song?

Mr. HELM: Oh, that's one of those old back porch songs that my dad and my
mom and my aunts and uncles used to sing and play for each other. Those
were--"Blind Child" and "Little Birds" and "The Girl I Left Behind"--those
were some of the first songs that we started with. The original working title
was "Songs from Home."

GROSS: Well, let's hear "Blind Child," and this is from Levon Helm's new CD
"Dirt Farmer."

(Soundbite of "The Blind Child")

Mr. HELM: (Singing) They tell me, Father,
That tonight you'll wed another bride
That you will clasp her in your arms where my dear mother died
They say her name is Mary, too
The name my mother wore
But tell me, Father, is she kind
As the one you loved before?
And is her step so soft and light,
Her voice so meek and mild
And tell me, Father, will she love
Your blind and helpless child?

Mr. HELM, Ms. AMY HELM and Ms. TERESA WILLIAMS: (Singing) Her picture is
resting on a shelf
Her books are lying near
And there's a heart her fingers touched
And there's her vacant chair
The chair where, by her side, I knelt
To say my evening prayer
Oh, Father, do not bid me come
I could not meet her there

Well, his head fell back and his eyes were closed
'Neath his little dark curly hair
And the very last words that the blind child spoke
"There'll be no blind ones there"
The very last words that the blind child spoke
"There'll be no blind ones there"

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's "Blind Child" from Levon Helm's new album, "Dirt Farmer."

You said you learned this song as a child. Did the song scare you as a child?
Because it's about a child who's blind and whose mother's died, and it's a
really tragic song.

Mr. HELM: Yes, it is. It's one of those story songs, you know, a
true-to-life kind of a song. And those were the songs that people really went
for back then. Anything else was suspect. It could be something that
somebody just made up, you know, with no real bearing to it. So songs like
that were the ones that had lasted and stood the test of time when my folks
came along.

GROSS: You know, I'm interested in the fact that you've done an album of
largely traditional songs and more contemporary songs written in the manner of
traditional songs. You know, I listened back to our 1993 interview a few days
ago and I had quoted to you something in your memoir which was published in
'93 and you had said that you were reluctant to record with Dylan initially
because you thought Dylan was too folky. And in the interview you said "we,"
meaning your band at the time, The Hawks, `we were more into R&B and blues
music. We weren't big folk fans. We liked horns, rhythm sections. We liked
the full house on the bandstand. And Bob Dylan was coming from more of a
troubadour kind of place, just him and his guitar.'

Mr. HELM: Yeah.

GROSS: What happened between then and now to change your mind about recording
folk music?

Mr. HELM: Well, it sounds like we all got religion, don't it? Yeah. You
know, what I meant to say, I guess, is I still kind of feel that way. I'm a
drummer, and Bob was a strummer without a drummer when we first ran into each
other. So, you know, I'm just not drawn to songs that don't involve a set of
drums and a full rhythm section.

GROSS: Now, the song we just heard, "The Blind Child" doesn't drums and a
full rhythm section. But the first song that we heard, "False Hearted Lover,"
the drumming's great on it. And it's almost like somewheres between rock and
a march that you're playing.

Mr. HELM: Yeah.

GROSS: So do you feel like you transformed certain traditional folk songs by
putting your beat behind them?

Mr. HELM: Well, I think I've made it a little bit easier in spots, maybe a
little more danceable.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HELM: And hopefully I've made it, you know, easier for people from my
school, the, you know, the full house rhythm section school to hear.

GROSS: Since 2006 you've been doing midnight rambles...

Mr. HELM: Yeah.

GROSS: at your home and studio.

Mr. HELM: Uh-huh.

GROSS: And these are--you describe what they are.

Mr. HELM: Well, they're basically music parties. We have, you know, two,
three, sometimes one a week, at least two or three a month. And we have them
on Saturday nights in Woodstock at the studio. And it started out as
basically a modern version of the old fashioned rent party. But since then
the musicians that have taken part in it have really raised it to another
level. And this, I guess, it's three years going on four years later now, and
we have people that are coming in from all over the place to celebrate with
us. And that includes the players, too.

GROSS: Did you need it as a rent party? Because I know when you--after you
got sick you had to declare bankruptcy.

Mr. HELM: This is true. Well, it started off as a rent party, so to speak.
It looked like the studio was going to be put on the blocks because I was in
pretty rough shape financially. And just as I started to kind of get my voice
back and was able to work a little more is when we tried the midnight ramble.
And it paid the rent so we basically kept it up. And now this much later it's
really turned into a benefit for a lot of players.

GROSS: Now, you named the midnight ramble after concerts that you saw as a
child growing up in Arkansas. Describe the midnight rambles that yours are
named after.

Mr. HELM: Well, there used to be--one of my favorite traveling tent shows at
the time was an outfit called, it was called the F.S. Walcott's Original
Rabbits Foot Minstrels. And this was a big four-pole, or five-pole tent that
they set up, and they parked two of the big tractor trailer flatbeds side to
side to make the stage, put the tent around that. And they had a chorus line,
a band, a troupe of singers, dancers and players. And they would put on in
these small towns through the South, they would play every week, and you would
go to the midnight--you would go to the concert.

At the end of the concert, which would be over around 10:30, 11, they would
offer a midnight ramble ticket. And for the people who could stay up late,
all the kids were supposed to go home and get ready for school or Sunday
school, and the grown-ups could stay and buy an extra ticket and get an extra
half-hour, 45 minutes of music and spicier jokes. And one of the prettiest
girls in the chorus line would do a little hoochie koochie and what a show.

GROSS: Well, there's no like hoochie koochie in your midnight ramble, is

Mr. HELM: You know, we've almost had it break out a couple of times. Amy
and Larry Campbell's mom the other night jumped up and started doing a little
hoochie koochie.

GROSS: Now, getting back to the midnight rambles, which are kind of like
house parties but on a very elevated level, you write in your memoir that your
father used to perform weekends at house parties.

Mr. HELM: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Did he tell you stories about that, or were you old enough to go to
any of them when he was still doing that?

Mr. HELM: Well, you know, by the time that I got old enough to go,
televisions were just starting to come out, and we didn't get electricity and
didn't have one yet. But the trend was started towards couch potato and, you
know, just the participation generation was going by the wayside. And I
didn't have a chance to play many of those house parties. I got to go to a
few. As a young kid, I remember one night they had one at my uncle's house,
and my Uncle Pudge, who also played guitar, and I had a big grocery box,
pasteboard box, and I beat that thing to death that night. I was the--I
volunteered to play percussion. But that was the old, you know, move the
furniture out of the biggest room, and a guitar player, a fiddle player and
maybe a mandolin player was about the, you know, the strength of the band.

GROSS: After being used to playing big venues, was it unnerving at first to
play in an intimate setting, you know, with much fewer members of the audience
in your own studio?

Mr. HELM: You know, those big things, you know, they're kind of a payoff in
a way, I guess. But they're not very much fun. I've never been able to hear
myself correctly...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HELM: one of those situations. And it's basically like sticking
your head in a barrel and trying to perform. And you do the best you can, but
some of the worst shows I've ever played has been in those big places.

GROSS: Let me choose another song from the new CD. This is "Single Girl,
Married Girl" which I believe is another song that you grew up with?

Mr. HELM: Well, it's just another one of those songs. It's kind of in the
same area there. And it gave me, as a drummer, another opportunity to kind of
monkey up the beat of a traditional country rhythm.

GROSS: So here it is, from Levon Helm's new CD, "Dirt Farmer."

(Soundbite of "Single Girl, Married Girl")

Mr. HELM: One, two, three
(Singing) Well, a single girl

Ms. HELM and Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Single girl, single girl

Mr. HELM: (Singing) Single girl

Mr. HELM, Ms. HELM and Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Single girl
She always dresses so fine

Mr. HELM: (Singing) She dresses so fine

Mr. HELM, Ms. HELM and Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Oh, she always dresses so fine

Mr. HELM: (Singing) But the married girl

Ms. HELM and Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Married girl, married girl

Mr. HELM, Ms. HELM and Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Oh, the married girl

Mr. HELM: (Singing) The married girl
She wears just any old kind
Just any old kind

Mr. HELM, Ms. HELM and Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) Oh, she wears just any old kind

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's "Single Girl, Married Girl" from Levon Helm's new CD, "Dirt

There's such great harmonies on your CD, and your daughter Amy...

Mr. HELM: Yeah.

GROSS: ...does most of the harmony singing on this.

Mr. HELM: Well, that's Amy and Teresa Williams, Larry Campbell's wife, and
that's one of the great gifts from "Dirt Farmer" for me is the sound of Amy
and Teresa's harmonies. We didn't know before "Dirt Farmer" that they would
blend and sound the way they sound together.

GROSS: I've asked this to other performers who have ended up performing with,
you know, their children, their adult children. But when your daughter was
born, did you ever think, `This is my future performing partner. She's just

Mr. HELM: No, I never did. I had--I guess I had the same hopes for Amy that
my parents had for me. I wanted Amy to be a scholar. You know, my parents
wanted me to be smart and be a scholar, and the best I could do was graduate
high school. And, bless her heart, Amy, I've got to say, she did finish
school out at West...(unintelligible)...and made a beautiful picture of her in
her graduating robe. And I'm so proud of her. But the same bug that bit Amy
that bit me and she fell back in with the rhythm section as soon as she got
out of school.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Levon Helm. He was the
drummer in the group The Band and sang lead on "The Weight." In 1998 he was
diagnosed with cancer in his vocal chords. His new CD, "Dirt Farmer," is his
recording comeback. He sings and plays drums. His daughter sings harmony and
played a key part in getting the recording made.

Now, you grew up singing with your family. Did you do a lot of tight
harmonies at home?

Mr. HELM: A little bit. My mother and sister were so good at it that I
stood around with my mouth open and listened for the most part.

GROSS: So when you started to sing, if you were singing with your mother--and
her sister, did you say?

Mr. HELM: My mother and my older sister, uh-huh.

GROSS: Your older sister. So you were used to female harmonies. So when you
started doing harmonies with The Band did you have to kind of transpose male
and female parts in your mind?

Mr. HELM: Well, you know, you try to. It just, you know, depends on how
much, you know, athletic ability you've got in your voice. I've always
thought it was easier for girls to sing harmonies because their voices can go
to that higher plane so much more easy than a male voice. And I'm not sure
that they just don't sound sweeter and prettier.

GROSS: Your father was a cotton farmer, but performed on weekends. What kind
of songs would he do? The kind of songs you've done on your new CD?

Mr. HELM: You know, he would probably have done, you know, things like the
up-tempo stuff that we do on "Dirt Farmer," some of those tunes he would have
done. And I know one of the old songs--we didn't do it in this recording
phase, but that "Sitting on Top of the World" was an old favorite back then.
(Singing) Now, don't you come here running, holding out your hand, I've been
your daddy, I've been your man. But now I'm gone and I ain't worried, I'm
sitting on top of the world.

GROSS: Yeah, and didn't Cream record that tune? Of course, Bob Wills...

Mr. HELM: You know, I think they did.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HELM: And I'm sure my dad, you know, jumped the beat up, like Cream did,
to make it as danceable as possible.

GROSS: Now, you performed with your sister when you were a teenager...

Mr. HELM: Yeah, my baby sister.

GROSS: ...and won a lot of contests.

Mr. HELM: Uh-huh.

GROSS: This is your younger sister?

Mr. HELM: Yeah.

GROSS: OK. And you write in your memoir that, you know, in those
performances you would play harmonica, juice harp and slap your thighs. Are
there ever occasions musically that call for thigh slapping now?

Mr. HELM: Well, you know, that's the old hambone trick. When I was coming
through school, that was one of the things you wanted to learn how to do, was
hambone. And that's, you know, how you slap your hand on your leg and your
chest like, I don't know if you can hear it or not, but...

(Soundbite of hamboning)

Mr. HELM: Like that. And it was just one of those things that you learned
as a kid, you know, in south Arkansas schools. And not knowing how to play
guitar or anything, that was my first reaction to music.

GROSS: So you were doing that before you had a drum kit?

Mr. HELM: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, we've been talking about your music, but you've also been in
a few films, including "Coal Miner's Daughter," "The Right Stuff," and most
recently you were in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," which was
directed by Tommy Lee Jones, who also starred in it. And you have a small,
but terrific part in it. And I want to play that scene. Tommy Lee Jones, in
the movie, is going across the desert to bury his friend in the small town
that his friend wanted to be buried in. So he's on this kind of like almost
epic journey taking the corpse, like dragging the corpse to the burial place.
And he comes upon you, a blind man living alone in the middle of nowhere, and
you make a very unusual request. Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada")

Mr. HELM: (As Old Man with Radio) I'd like to ask you a favor.

Mr. TOMMY LEE JONES: (As Pete Perkins) Anything you want!

Mr. HELM: (As Old Man with Radio) I wanted to ask you if you can shoot me.
My son ain't coming back.

Mr. JONES: (As Pete Perkins) Oh, he'll come back.

Mr. HELM: (As Old Man with Radio) No, he told me he had cancer. He told me
to go back to town with him, but I don't want to go. Of course, I've always
lived here.

Mr. JONES: (As Pete Perkins) Well, we can't do it.

Mr. HELM: (As Old Man with Radio) I don't want to offend God by killing
myself. It's a problem.

Mr. JONES: (As Pete Perkins) We don't want to offend God, either.

Mr. HELM: (As Old Man with Radio) It'd be the best thing to do.

(Soundbite of horse hoofs clattering)

Mr. HELM: (As Old Man with Radio) You're good people. You need to go ahead
and shoot me.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: What a great scene.

Mr. HELM: Oh, thanks.

GROSS: What did you do to get into character? You play a blind man who, I
think, is probably older than you are. You have scars and everything, you
know, around your eyes.

Mr. HELM: Uh-huh.

GROSS: So did you just kind of walk in and do it or did you like prepare?

Mr. HELM: No, I'm just one of those guys that goes in and tries to do it. I
don't know enough about it to prepare myself. You know, I try and sleep as
good as I can and just enjoy it. I enjoy being with people who do know how to
do that stuff. And I've never had anything but a good time around any of
those shows that I've had the opportunity to be part of.

GROSS: You know, your new CD is dedicated to your parents.

Mr. HELM: Yeah.

GROSS: And you perform on that CD with your daughter. Are you surprised now
at the power of blood? And I ask that knowing that, like, you know, you left
Arkansas at a pretty young age, and traveling around as a musician around the
world as you did with The Band, I would imagine it would be easy to lose track
of your family. But family in your early life and certainly now is so
essential. I mean, the way you describe it, your daughter helped you survive.
She took you to your radiation treatments in New York every week during your
radiation. She sings with you now. She co-produced the record.

Mr. HELM: This is true. Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: So I'm wondering if like family ties have a different meaning to you
than you thought they would of have when you were, say, in your 20s or 30s.

Mr. HELM: You know, they are stronger for me now. And I've always
appreciated my family and friends, you know, and those ties that bind us
together. But it's like my music, this much later and after you've almost
gotten everything taken away from you, once you get that back, boy, it's a
joyful life that we've all been given and, you know, you can really--you know,
when you see a young nephew or a young person in your family that's blood
related and you see them for the first time and they're not old enough to know
that you're all related, but you can look into their face and they look into
your eyes and you both know it. You know, we take it for granted and, you
know, we enjoy that kind of thing without even a big thank you most of the

GROSS: I want to close with another song from your new CD, and this is a
Buddy and Julie Miller song called "Wide River To Cross." Can you talk about
why you chose this song and why you chose it to end this CD? Yeah.

Mr. HELM: Oh, it's just such a great tune. And Buddy and Julie Miller are
some of the best music makers that we've got. And I just love them for
helping me do "Dirt Farmer."

GROSS: Well, this is a beautiful performance. Thank you so much for talking
with us.

Mr. HELM: Oh, thank you, Terry, for calling. It's a pleasure. Thank you so
much for playing the record.

GROSS: We're really glad you're recording again and performing.

Mr. HELM: Oh, me too. Thank you, hon.

GROSS: Thank you.

Levon Helm's new CD is called "Dirt Farmer."

(Soundbite of "Wide River To Cross")

Mr. HELM: (Singing) There's a sorrow in the wind
Blowing down the road I've been
I can hear it cry while shadows steal the song

Mr. HELM, Ms. HELM and Ms. WILLIAMS: (Singing) But I cannot look back now
I've come too far to turn around
And there's still a race ahead that I must run

I'm only halfway home
I've got to journey on
To where I'll find, find the thing I've lost
I've come a long, long road
But still I've got some miles to go
I've got a wide, a wide river to cross

I have stumbled
I have strayed
You can trace the tracks I've made
All across the memories my heart recalls
But I'm still a refugee
Won't you say a prayer for me?
'Cause sometimes even the strongest soldier falls

I'm only halfway home
I've got to journey on

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Coming up, we listen back to an interview with Jane Rule, the author
of a classic work of lesbian fiction. She recently died at the age of 76.
This is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: Jane Rule, who died recently at the age of 76, from
a 1988 interview

In 1964, at a time when few writers dared to address the subject of
homosexuality, Jane Rule published her first novel, "Desert of the Heart." The
main character was a woman who divorced her husband and fell in love with
another woman. The book was adapted into the 1985 movie "Desert Hearts." Rule
went on to publish other lesbian-themed novels, short stories and essays.
Yesterday we learned that she died late last month of complications from liver
cancer. She was 76.

We're going to listen back to an interview I recorded with her in 1988 after
the publication of her novel "Memory Board" about two women in their 60s. I
asked Rule if she was out among her friends and colleagues in 1964 when her
novel "Desert of the Heart" was published.

Ms. JANE RULE: Not officially. You have to remember that in those days you
didn't talk about things like that. Certainly among my friends and my family
I was, but I was teaching at the University of British Columbia at the time,
and someone did bring up the issue after the book came out. And the defense
in the department was, `You don't have to be a murderer to write murder
mysteries.' And I think this is a very silly defensiveness, but in 1964 not

GROSS: The stakes are really much higher then--there was no gay or lesbian
movement--the stakes are much higher to admit to yourself or to anyone else
that you were gay.

Ms. RULE: Well, it's not very hard to admit if you're in a very happy
relationship. In fact, it's something to celebrate, so that it didn't seem to
me anything humiliating, just awkwardly private. So that there were social
problems about it. You know, we kept being invited to dinner parties with two
gay men so that it would all look alright. And it was a totally open secret.
But, I mean, you simply dealt in those terms in those days. I got much more
restless much earlier than most people, I suppose, and then found myself the
only open lesbian in Canada. And therefore, anytime an issue came up I had to
address it. So I became a kind of spokesperson for no movement because there
wasn't anybody else out there.

GROSS: Well, how did you feel being thrust into that role?

Ms. RULE: Sometimes irritated. I don't really feel that my chief job is
educating the world about lesbianism or that it should be necessary. But
obviously it is. And I think if you're put on the spot, the one thing you can
do about it is to be educative as you can be.

GROSS: Well, you once said that you hate labels that are used to describe
writers. You know, women writer, feminist writer, lesbian writer, but if a
label had to be applied to you, you'd like it to be Canadian writer. Why do
you feel so strongly about that, and what got you to Canada?

Ms. RULE: Well, what got me to Canada was discovering Vancouver, which is
one of the most beautiful cities in the world. And so it was actually the
landscape, but also I was looking for a way to get out of the United States.
And you may not remember, but in the 1950s McCarthy was requiring loyalty
oaths and hunting down homosexuals all across the country and universities and
the Army. It was a very ugly, ugly time in the United States.

GROSS: Although the movement, the feminist movement and the gay and lesbian
movement, has had a lot of really positive effects for you, I think that
their--one disadvantage that you've cited is the emphasis on political
correctness which has, which you've always taken issue with.

Ms. RULE: In a sense, being a writer of fiction, I'm strongly opposed to
fiction being used as propaganda for any reason. However, I think that if you
present any characters--gay characters--positively, you're accused of
propaganda because the spoken and agreed on cliche is that all gay people are
sick and miserable. But really, that one line that I must write all my
characters to be perfect if they're gay that comes out of a gay movement is as
silly. We aren't. We come in all different stripes, as everyone else does.

GROSS: I would suspect that your readers write you very emotional letters.
I'm thinking especially of readers who were first coming out as they started
reading you. And it's so exciting to find characters in fiction whose lives
reflect in some way your life. And gays have been so marginalized, especially
in the past, in our culture that it's just been impossible to find images of
people who were gay. And if you find it, it can be so exciting. So I'm sure
you've gotten very personal letters from readers who really wanted to make
some kind of emotional contact with you. But it's really hard for an author
to pay back emotionally, you know, in the same way that a reader would write
in. How have you handled that?

Ms. RULE: I think it was most difficult for me when "Desert of the Heart"
came out because, of course, that was a little book out there all by itself
without any other books for people to turn to. When you get a letter from a
distressed reader or a reader who feels you're the only person in the whole
world who understands them, there really isn't very much you can do. You
know, when someone is writing you from South America saying they're about to
kill themselves and only you can help, it's horrifying. And I think that it
was the greatest burden to me after that book came out. I don't get as many
distressed letters anymore. I get many more happy, celebrating letters, which
are much easier to deal with.

GROSS: When you were young did you look for literature that had some evidence
of homosexuality in it?

Ms. RULE: No. I read "The Well of Loneliness" when I was a kid and was
horrified by it.

GROSS: What horrified you?

Ms. RULE: Well, I thought I'm going to have to live in the ghetto and dress
up like a man, and I was already six feet tall with a deep voice, So I could
always--and I couldn't speak French and apparently the only people who knew
each other were people who lived in Paris. And the whole thing just turned me
off completely. And there was nothing else.

But I didn't really look in literature for much of anything. I really, when I
was a kid, thought that novels did an awful lot of lying about how people
really felt. I didn't really understand that they were making social
comments. I mean, I knew perfectly well that children didn't die so that we
would be better people, as they do in Dickens. And I was very suspicious of
literature, perhaps because I didn't find people or feelings that I could much
identify with.

GROSS: Well, then, what made you want to write?

Ms. RULE: To tell the truth. Somebody had to.

GROSS: Well, Jane Rule, I want to thank you very much for talking with us
about your life and your writing.

Ms. RULE: Thank you. It's been a lovely interview.

GROSS: Jane Rule recorded in 1988. She died November 27th at the age of 76.

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

Review: David Bianculli recommends TV DVD box sets as gifts

If you don't know what to get a certain someone as a holiday gift, our TV
critic David Bianculli suggests getting someone you love something they
already love: television. Here are his suggestions for some TV series on

Mr. DAVID BIANCULLI: A few years ago, when I started suggesting certain DVD
box sets as holiday gifts, there weren't all that many from which to choose.
Now there are tons, so many that not even the most well-stocked video store or
bookstore can carry them all. As the boxes get bigger and the inventory gets
larger, it's a matter of shelf space. So if you can't find something I'm
about to recommend at your local retail outlets, head to the Internet.

Let's start with the ultimate gift for all ages suggestion. BBC video has put
out a collector's set combining "Planet Earth," the best nature documentary of
the past few years, and "The Blue Planet," the best one of the few years
before that. Even for someone who watched and loved "Planet Earth" on the
Discovery Channel, this gift will seem fresh because this set preserves the
original narration by Sir David Attenborough, not the one recorded for
Discovery by Sigourney Weaver. There's a world of difference. And if you're
buying for someone with all the latest technological goodies, this collector
set also comes in both high definition formats. Either way, there's no one,
from a little kid to a senior, who won't be absolutely enthralled by these

For little kids specifically, you've got the usual suspects: a new season of
"SpongeBob SquarePants," that sort of thing. But I'd like to suggest
something that's not new, but that's relatively off the map and probably has
to be ordered online. It's from BMG video, and it's a movie-length cartoon
originally made for ABC in 1970 called "The Point." `What's "The Point?"' you
ask. You ask that a lot during my reviews, I suspect, but this time I won't
take it personally. "The Point" is an animated fable written by Harry
Nilsson, who also wrote the music. And even though this special will be 40
years old before too long, it still charms kids instantly and completely. I'm
always road testing my copy on young children, especially over the holidays,
and they've always loved it. If you're old enough to remember the '70s, you
may not have seen the TV show "The Point," but I'm betting you remember the

(Soundbite of "Me and My Arrow")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Me and my arrow
Straighter than narrow
Wherever we go everyone knows
It's me and my arrow
Me and my arrow

(End of soundbite)

Mr. BIANCULLI: Great music, great story, delightful animation. And, as a
single disc, even Ebeneezer Scrooge would consider it a bargain.

Teenagers are tough to buy for, but if they're old enough to have seen and
enjoyed "Suberbad" or "Knocked Up," I'd recommend getting two old TV series
with similar sensibilities and lots of the same talent in front of and behind
the screen. One is "Freaks and Geeks," the other one is "Undeclared," and
they're both from Shout! Factory. Or, if you dare, Comedy Central's
"Christmastime in South Park" is a good choice, too.

College kids and 20-somethings? Always a tough demographic to buy for, but
here are some ideas that should be almost foolproof. In the single-disc price
range, there's a "Best of the Colbert Report" from Comedy Central that's
loaded with great stuff. And since the writers' strike is keeping Stephen
Colbert off the air right now, it's a double treat. There's a two-disc set
collecting the first season of HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" that's also a
very smart gift choice. And if you really want to spoil someone in his or her
mid-20s, especially her mid-20s, get the six-disc complete collection of "My
So-Called Life" from Shout! Factory. Young women in their 20s now absolutely
loved this series when they were in their mid-teens, the same age as Claire
Danes, who starred as a mixed-up teenager. The set is new, the extras are
wonderful, and the television show itself is superb.

If you're shopping for someone in their 60s or above, I have three
suggestions, two silly, one serious. The serious one is the PBS video box set
of the new Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary "The War" about World War II. On
TV, it was fabulous. On DVD, when you can watch what and when you want, it's
even better. The first silly suggestion is a new, almost ridiculously
complete collection of "Hopalong Cassidy" from Infinity Entertainment,
presenting all the TV shows and a lot more, featuring that oddly genteel but
amazingly popular Western hero from television's early days. The second
really silly one is a new collection of very old Spike Jones TV appearances
called "Spike Jones: The Legend." The centerpieces are four live shows from
the dawn of television, featuring Spike as host: two "Colgate Comedy Hour"
shows from 1951, and two "All Star Revue Hour"s from 1952. The visual quality
is amazing, and the sound--well, the sound is pure Spike Jones, which means
it's totally insane.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BIANCULLI: OK, that leaves baby boomers. There's an embarrassment of
riches here, so I'll just mention the titles. The complete "Man from
U.N.C.L.E." just came out, but you have to order it through the Time-Life Web
site. The first episodes of "Route 66" just came out, too, from Infinity. My
favorite set of the year may be the gold edition collection of "Twin Peaks"
from CBS/Paramount. And brand new this month on DVD are season four of "The
Wire" from HBO and the second complete season of "Saturday Night Live," the
one introducing Bill Murray, from Universal.

And finally, on December 18th, come two last-minute holiday releases. One's
another boomer treat, the first episodes of "The Mod Squad" from CBS. And the
final treat for everyone is a movie from 20th Century Fox, but I feel
justified ending this report on TV releases with it, anyway. It's "The
Simpsons Movie," and it's as yummy as a frosted doughnut.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic and editor for

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,


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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Leaks Reveal Spyware Meant To Track Criminals Targeted Activists Instead

Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg explains how military-grade spyware licensed to governments and police departments has infiltrated the iPhones of journalists, activists and others.


'The Green Knight' Fulfills A Quest To Find New Magic In An Old Legend

Justin Chang says with this boldly inventive adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an anonymously written but enduring 14th-century poem, the writer-director David Lowery has taken a young man's journey of self-discovery and fashioned it into a gorgeous and moving work of art.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.


Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue