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Michael Jordan's Impact on Basketball and Culture.

Pulitzer Prize winning author, David Halberstam has turned his attention to Michael Jordan's impact on American culture in his new book "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and The World He Made." (Random House) His other books include: "The Best and the Brightest," "The Powers that Be," "Summer of 49," and "The Amateurs." Halberstam says Jordan is the most popular human being in the world.

33:55

Other segments from the episode on January 21, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 21, 1999: Interview with David Halberstam; Interview with Seamus Heaney; Review of Beck's album "Mutations."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 21, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 012101np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: David Halberstam
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Last night the National Basketball Association and the players union signed a new agreement, ending the 204 day lockout. The season begins without Michael Jordan, who retired this month.

My guest David Halberstam has written a new book about Jordan called, "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made." It's about how Jordan became an icon and how his stature changed the NBA.

Halberstam is the author of "The Best and the Brightest," "The Powers that Be," and "The Breaks of the Game." He describes Michael Jordan as the most compelling and most charismatic athlete in all of sports in the '90s.

He says basketball was in the midst of a renaissance the year Michael Jordan was drafted thanks to the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird, Lakers-Celtics rivalry. In Johnson and Bird's rookie year, 1979, the NBA had hit its commercial low point. I asked Halberstam why.

DAVID HALBERSTAM, AUTHOR, "PLAYING FOR KEEPS: MICHAEL JORDAN AND THE WORLD HE MADE": I think some of it was racism. It was not yet deeply rooted in the culture, perhaps. One spurt of growth had been a little too quick. The players were predominantly black and there was a sense somehow that the players did not play hard, or they only played hard in the last two minutes.

There was certainly a significant amount of drug use. And somehow it had not gotten into the American vein. On the eve of Larry Bird, at the time that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the league for their rookie years and they had starred in the NCAA final that spring. The finals, in their first year, with Magic Johnson playing center without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar against the Philadelphia 76ers, was done nationally on a tape delay.

I mean, I think that most of the country got it around midnight. So, you know, the networks didn't even want it. That was the low point. And then, for a variety of reasons, the coming of Magic, Larry Bird, and then Michael -- the skills of David Stern, the commissioner. The talents of Julius Erving as well, and the coming of satellite and ESPN, which helped basketball dramatically, the game began to take hold and enjoyed a kind of golden age.

GROSS: What do you see as ESPNs role in boosting the NBA?

HALBERSTAM: Well, because it gave sports addicts -- serious sports addicts -- a great channel all their own. And it started picking up college games. These great players when they were in college -- Michael playing at Carolina. It began to track them through the pros.

In addition, it provided an outlet for them to be used in commercials. So you began to see them as people. Michael doing commercials which might not, early on, be on the regular networks so much. But sports fans could see him, get a sense of the duality of his beauty which was not just on the court, but in commercials. That there was a real charm.

And so it began to inflate the importance of sports. Give sports fans a place where they could look. And that carried over into the networks. In the same way, Terry, that some of the stuff that's less attractive about news journalism today starts in the network -- in the cable channels. The sort of tabloidization and celebritization, and has profoundly effected the way the networks cover news. The much more stuff on people's personal lives. I mean, a lot of stuff started in cable and moved onto the mainstream.

GROSS: David Halberstam is my guest. His new book is called, "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made."

Now, David Stern became commissioner of the NBA the year that Michael Jordan arrived in the NBA. And you say that Stern wanted to turn around the NBA's image. And one of the things he was looking for was more corporate connections, more corporate sponsors. What were the difficulties he faced in getting that?

HALBERSTAM: I think he faced the most elemental thing which was racism. In an odd way, it seemed to affect basketball more. I mean, in part baseball was the most rooted sport at that time, and had its own base given popularity.

Football is a sport of great violence where race didn't seem to make that much of a difference, in part because the coaches had more authority and control of the players. In part because they wear so much armor that race seems less a fact. You can barely tell the race of a particular player.

But basketball, where they're virtually playing in their underwear, which was the blackest of sports, probably, around 80 to 85 percent of the best players were black, seemed to have a problem. And when he tried to sell the sport, and people in his office like Rick Welch, to large corporate companies -- potential sponsors -- and they went to Madison Avenue they kept hearing, "your sport is too black."

And they would say, "Well, what about the Final Four? You advertised the Final Four, and that's very black too." And they said -- and they answer would be, "That's different." And what it was, I think, was that it meant that in college game the white system -- the white hierarchy -- the coaches, the colleges still could control their players.

Whereas in basketball, because it was professional, the level of authority of the white system had declined. Probably, in fact, that's why a lot of people didn't like John Thompson at Georgetown because you had a sort of black coach with an innate sense of black nationalism coaching a predominately -- almost -- virtually all black team. And that made some people nervous.

So he ran into -- I don't think there's any doubt -- overt racism. And he felt he had to show that the game was beautiful. He had -- he did two things that I think were very important. They got with the players association with their full cooperation a very good agreement on drugs. On how to do testing that had the cooperation and participation of the players, which showed that, in part, they were getting their house in order.

And then secondly, they came up with a thing -- a plan -- for shared revenues where, again, the players were participants. And that showed to corporate America that they were getting their house in order.

GROSS: Well, certainly one of the things Michael Jordan did was show that, you know, an African-American athlete could do a great job with commercial endorsements.

HALBERSTAM: See, that's a breakthrough. That's a major change. You know, when I was young, self evidently, the most attractive and charming and winning baseball player was, I think arguably, Willie Mays. I mean, he was ingenuous as a kid, full of enthusiasm. But there was a perception in the '50s and '60s that, you know, Madison Avenue's belief that a black with all that charm could not sell to whites.

And I think they're wrong, by the way. I think Willie Mays, particularly generationally, transcended those barriers. I think he would have been a great salesman of cereal. I don't happen to want to eat cereal, but I think he would have done very well.

The Jordan coming along with the Nike commercials and the Nike Air Jordan shoes just took off. I mean, nobody was prepared for how well that did. And then suddenly, you know, the Nike thing broke it down for all these other companies, whether it was Big Macs, Coke, then Gatorade. You know, Hanes underwear. Michael, with that dazzling smile, became the great salesman in America. This was a huge breakthrough.

GROSS: How did Michael Jordan get the Nike campaign?

HALBERSTAM: I think it's a very good story. And we're really talking here iconography. I mean, one of the interesting things that the book is about is iconization. I mean, how did this young black man make this breakthrough and become the best salesman in America -- the best salesman in the world -- the best-known American in the world?

Even though he is a good basketball -- great basketball player, there's still a quantum leap to this other incarnation. And it starts out in Portland, Oregon. He has the Nike commercials -- the Nike contract. Nike goes all out for him, and they don't pick up a lot of other basketball players. And they put all their money behind Michael.

And they decide they want to sort of sell him, but they don't quite know how. And they go to a talented local firm there, Widen & Kennedy (ph). And a guy named Jim...

GROSS: ...this was an advertising firm.

HALBERSTAM: ...advertising firm. There's a guy there -- young guy -- who's a basketball nut named Jim Rizwald (ph). And he just wanted to do Michael Jordan. He wanted that account so badly. He just went down and said, "I want this. I want this." Because he'd been around pro basketball earlier in Seattle, he wanted this thing.

As he hears he's doing this commercial -- he gets the job -- he's down in L.A. and he goes to see a movie that's not very good. But there's a trailer for a film called "She's Got to Have It" by this young black filmmaker named Spike Lee. And he sort of likes the trailer.

There's Spike Lee selling these tube socks and asking people to see his movie because if they don't see his movie he's going to spend the rest of his life selling tube socks. So they go to see "She's Got to Have It," and in the movie there's this goofy, squeaky little guy named Mars Blackmon played by Spike Lee. Done on a low-budget. And he's in love with the lovely Nola Darling.

And here's the problem. When he finally gets to make love to Nola Darling he loves his Air Jordan's even more and won't take them off. And Jim Rizwald sees that and says, "Oh, have we got a story line. This is it."

The next day Jim Rizwald called him up, as he says, Spike answered his own phone in those days. Spike was, you know, a recent graduate of the NYU Film School. At first he thought it was his colleagues -- his classmates -- at NYU pulling his leg.

But they convinced him that they wanted him to do this. He says, "I get to make these commercials?" "Yeah." "Do I get to act in them?" "Yeah." "Do I get to be with Michael Jordan?" "Yeah." Couldn't wait to do it.

And he invented Mars Blackmon as Michael's Emmanuensis (ph). "Is it the shoes? Is it the shoes? Is it the shoes?" It's wonderful stuff and it takes some courage to put on a kind of goofy looking young black man.

And what they did was they used Michael as the straight man, because he was new at acting. I mean, he has charm, he knows how to wink, he knows how to smile. But the cameras mostly -- the heavy stuff is being done by Mars. And then Michael just comes in and is the straight man. And it worked from day one. It was just wonderful. And that's the breakthrough. And that's what those commercials were about.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Halberstam. His new book is called "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more about Michael Jordan and the NBA.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: Back with David Halberstam. His new book is called "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made."

You have a photograph in your book of the Olympic Dream Team on the Olympic podium. And Michael Jordan has an American flag draped across his arm covering up the Reebok logo on the uniform. I'm wondering how you think his endorsements for Nike affected his career and the choices he made during his career. And how he had to take care of his image.

HALBERSTAM: Well, there's a story I tell in the book, even in his first season when they bring -- "The Sporting News" decides to put him on the cover and to say -- I think it's almost posed as a question -- "The Best Since Dr. J." And then they have him in a surgeon's togs -- photographed. And there's this huge hand -- and Michael has huge hands -- over a basketball.

Michael didn't -- Michael doesn't like doing hokey things. He's very sensitive about how he's perceived, very image conscious. He didn't want to really wear that doctors outfit, but he did. And then they had the ball, but it wasn't a ball he was endorsing. So he very careful -- it was too late to get another ball. He just very carefully put his giant hand over the logo.

He's extremely aware of the corporate sponsorship and his image. When -- what you ask about at the Olympics -- Michael has great loyalties to the people he's been with. He's very loyal to Dean Smith. Very loyal to Carolina where he went to school. He's still wears his Carolina -- he wore in his career, right to the end, Carolina blue shorts under his Chicago Bull shorts.

When he got to the Olympics -- at the Dream Team -- you know, Reebok had this contract that you were all supposed wear the Reebok logo. Michael's a Nike man. That's -- so the big struggle there was not the U.S. versus the Soviet Union or the U.S. versus Lithuania or Yugoslavia. It was, you know, Reebok versus Nike.

And, you know, were they going to wear -- you know, were Nike men going to wear the logo. I think there's a great line of Charles Barkley. Someone said, "Well, are you going to do it?" And Charles, who was a Nike man, said, "I've got two million reasons not to do it." But if Charles had two million reasons each year not to do it, Michael probably had about 20 million reasons.

So they finally worked out this compromise where Michael draped the flag over the Reebok logo. Now, the interesting thing is, at this point in the struggle, Michael was more impassioned than Phil Knight, the head of Nike. Nike -- Phil thought it was getting out -- the debate was getting out of hand and he was going to be attacked for being anti-patriotic or whatever. And he was ready to give up the fight.

Michael was sort of a little irritated that maybe Phil was not quite as much a warrior as Michael was in this heroic, death day, doomsday battle against the evil forces of Reebok.

GROSS: How did Michael Jordan handle it when the story broke about Nike's operations in Third World countries where workers were paid low wages, unsafe working conditions, exploitation of child labor?

HALBERSTAM: Well, I think, you know, he's not very political. He's not comfortable being political. He's very much a businessman. I think it's the way he's raised. And Michael has a very good sense of comfort zone, of what he does well and what comes naturally to him, and what doesn't. And he avoids with significant skill occasions and places where he's not comfortable. He's deliberately apolitical. But also because he really doesn't have any feel for it.

And when this happened, I think he was embarrassed. He didn't quite understand it. He didn't -- he didn't understand, as many celebrities do, that there's no such thing as a free lunch. That if you make millions of dollars doing this kind of endorsement, eventually there's going to be a downside. And now in a world which has no economic barriers if you're doing these clothing and sneaker commercials here, eventually someone's gone to trace it back to another part of the world and check on the conditions.

He was, I think, embarrassed, didn't handle it terribly well. It was, I think, essentially awkward. And gradually Phil Knight himself began to see the dimensions of what I think they had done that they had been exceptionally cavalier. Not just in the way they were operating, but in fact in the way they were handling it in terms of public relations.

Knight went on with Michael Moore in his most recent movie and really looked foolish, and Nike began to realize it had to back down. For one thing, it had an obligation to protect Michael.

GROSS: Jordan's agent, David Falk -- you say Falk helped revolutionize the process of representing basketball players. What was different about Falk?

HALBERSTAM: He changed it. Up until then the kind of commercial endorsements that you got as a player were relatively small, particularly for team players. And the idea basketball was a team sport. What he began to do from the start was sell Michael the way, in the past, only tennis players had been sold -- as individuals.

In fact, very early on, almost in Michael's rookie year, Rod Thorn (ph) the general manager of the Chicago Bulls turned to Falk and said, "What are you trying to do to my player, sell him like a tennis player?" And Falk said, "That's absolutely what I want to do."

And with that the idea -- there was a feeling in the past that it wouldn't work if you tried to make a special iconic hero out of a basketball player. Secondly, it would disrupt the texture of a team if one player got too much fame and too much money. And besides which, these players were black so it probably wasn't going to happen.

Falk, very shrewdly, understood that Michael Jordan had qualities that were surpassing it. That went beyond the sport and went beyond Madison Avenue's previous sense of what the limits of what a black basketball player could do. That there was a charm, a natural grace there. Falk saw a glimmer of that very early on and knew how to push it.

GROSS: How do you think the Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson dealt with having a superstar on the team?

HALBERSTAM: With extreme skill. Phil is an incredibly smart, deft man. I mean, for one thing he dealt very well with Michael. He understood Michael's rage to be a winner. He was very smart in knowing that the one thing he must never do is ask Michael for anything.

Michael is very tough and very predatory. And that he, Phil, would lose some authority as a coach if he asked Michael to do anything other than on the court. On the court he understood one true thing about Michael. A, his love of the game and how hard he would play. And B, how desperately --by the time Phil Jackson became a coach -- how desperately Michael wanted to be a champion.

That he was tired of what people were saying, which was that he was a great individual player but that he limited his team in terms of championships. Because it was too dependent on him as a superstar. What Phil did in those critical first two years was sell the idea of Tex Winters' offense which is what they called the triple motion offense where the ball was shared a little bit.

It was hard. It took a way from some of Michael's individual glory, but it in fact made it harder on the defensive team. What he wanted to do was enhance Michael's greatness and his threat while keeping him from sucking the oxygen away from lesser players. And that takes great skill.

When you have somebody like that around it can be very very hard on the other players, because they become tentative. They tend to defer to the great players. What they wanted to do, and it took Phil two years to do it, was to bring some kind of systematic offense where other players had the ball. Where the ball was shared. Which would enhance Michael's threat to conserve some of his energy, which was very important.

And yet, when we got -- when the Bulls got to the fourth quarter, allow him to be the individual one on one threat which so distinguished him.

GROSS: David Halberstam. His new book is called, "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made." Halberstam will be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with David Halberstam. His new book is about basketball superstar Michael Jordan who retired this month. The book is called, "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made."

You devote a whole chapter in your book about Michael Jordan to Dean Smith, who was Jordan's coach, first at summer basketball camp, and then his coach in college at North Carolina. What do you think was Dean Smith's impact on shaping Michael Jordan when he was a young player?

HALBERSTAM: Well, I think it's critical. I think he was absolutely the right coach with the right program for Michael. And the player who came out of Carolina after three years was the player who became so great an NBA star because he was so complete and so disciplined. Not just a great offensive threat, that part was easy, but a great defensive player as well.

I mean, all those Carolina players -- in the last 41 seconds in Michael's final game against Utah where he hits the driving layup, then makes the steal on Karl Malone and then hits the jumper. All those Carolina people -- Dean Smith, Roy Williams -- they knew that Michael was going to make that move on Karl Malone. They knew he was going to make a defensive play. That that's who he was.

So Dean Smith had a program there that was disciplined that did not feed the ego of superstars. He taught Michael about winning. About respect for teammates. About respect for the game. He taught him all of these intricate little things -- passing off the double team -- all the sort of stuff that players today, the superstar ability when they're in high school, don't have because they don't -- they don't listen to anybody. They don't have to.

They go to college for one year and the coach is already at the mercy of them. The coach is lucky to get them for a year and then they're on their way to the pros. So they don't pick up all the disciplines that Michael has. And the love of the game -- the love of every aspect of the game -- of defense. And he enhanced Michael's competitive spirit.

GROSS: Are you sorry that Jordan has retired?

HALBERSTAM: No, I'm sort of glad. I mean, I was ambivalent because I got such pleasure from him. But there's a part of me that thinks he went out on top, at the best. I think that team -- I thought the last season was exhausting. I thought there was a sense of him slipping a little bit. The team was old. It won, but it looked like it was patched together with Elmers glue and Scotch tape.

And I don't think this would have been a good season. I thought Pippen was probably going to go. Phil Jackson, who did such a deft job holding together those diverse egos, was gone. I did not want to watch Michael slip, and I think we have the wonderful final memory of him in those 41 seconds in Utah.

I mean, a big game anyway, because Pippen is virtually crippled. So he has to put the team on his back. And the last 41 seconds, driving basket, steal, perfect jumper. So, I think it was time for him to go and I think he went out with great elegance playing at his very best.

GROSS: You have another book that's about basketball, and that one was about the 1979-1980 season. How has the relationship between players and journalists changed in the interim?

HALBERSTAM: Dramatically. That was another season. That was sort of almost the horse and buggy era, roughly, 20 years ago. I think in those days players -- the best players -- were making the three or four hundred thousand dollars. And the people who ran the league thought it was the end of Western civilization as we knew it if a player made $300,000 and had a no cut contract.

But it was, you know, much simpler. And in those days, for example, the players -- the teams -- flew charter flights. And that meant if you were a reporter you could get to know the players. You'd be on the early flights with them. You'd sit around in the coffee shops. And you could get beyond barriers of generation, of race, of economics, and you could make friends.

I have a number of friends from that season, you know, 20 years later. You can't do that anymore. It's gone. I mean, part of it is the money. Part of it is race. A lot of it is the charter flights. The charter flights make sense for the teams, but they exclude the players so that a great deal of what might have been human contact is diminished.

I think one of the reasons the players came out looking so foolish in the recent lockout is because they have been so separated by -- from reality -- by the nature of these giant no cut contracts. By agents who have screened off reality and inflated their own sense of their importance and how much the country depends on them.

That in fact they were not prepared for the sense of diminished -- greatly diminished -- public approval. And Patrick Ewing, who makes $18 million a year, giving out statements that they were fighting for their survival. I think there was a separation from reality that's been going on and is most unpleasant.

GROSS: So what do you think the season -- the shortened season -- is going to be like?

HALBERSTAM: I think you have two forces that are a downer. One is the post lockout tremor that will go through. I think there's some degree of fan frustration and irritation. I think that they'll lose something. And of course the post-Michael -- subtract Michael, subtract the transcendent athlete of a generation from a sport that he helped lift and you're going to get a particular sort of downer.

And I think that will show in the NBC ratings for the finals. They'll be down 20 to 25 percent because they were just a huge number of people out there who are not basketball fans, but watched because it was Michael. I mean, whether it's women or just people who sort of caught the balletic quality of what he did rather than the basketball quality.

GROSS: One of your early books, David Halberstam, "The Best and the Brightest" was about the leadership in the Kennedy era. And I'm wondering what your take is, your very short take, on the trial of President Clinton.

HALBERSTAM: Oh, it's a melancholy moment. The combination -- everything -- I mean, it's painful to watch it from every aspect. You have the Republican party, which has been, in some way, taken over by a fundamental -- people committed to the fundamentalist right, married up with the new tabloid driven part of the media.

On one hand -- and then President Clinton, who is obviously extremely gifted in some ways, but his own behavior has been so reckless. I mean, that he would put so much at risk for so little at a time when he knew there was, in effect, a de facto posse -- right-wing posse -- out there for him -- that he would take these chances, so that the country is subjected to this demeaning process.

It isn't really a great moment of democracy at work. It's really, essentially, mutual sleaze at work. I have -- you know, I don't like Ken Starr. I don't like the Republican right. I'm very diminished -- I think President Clinton is greatly diminished in the eyes of people who once thought him attractive. And there's nothing attractive about this.

Not the media. Not my alleged colleagues who have been feeding off it, who don't cover the chaos in what used to be the Soviet Union. And they'll cover this process but they won't be covering something that may turn out to be an even bigger story which is the implosion of Russia in this post Soviet Union period.

I'm very disappointed by everything I see. It's a very bad time. And I get no pleasure -- I refuse to go on any number of shows for the last year or so when that subject would come up, and they'd ask you to be on a panel to talk about the media and Clinton and this process.

I got no -- my wife would say when they come -- "I don't think he'll go on. I think he's trying to get through his life without spelling or writing the words "Monica Lewinsky."

GROSS: Why do you feel so strongly about not participating in panels?

HALBERSTAM: I just didn't think I was going to add anything, and I thought most of the panels were exploitive on it. And I didn't like what the media was doing and I didn't want to be part of it. I mean, I'm old-fashioned. I'm not really interested, by and large, in people's personal lives. I don't think it's about character.

I think all this new thing that they're covering these things because it's about character is false. I don't think they're really covering character. I mean, I think in "The Best and the Brightest" I really tried to penetrate the character of Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk and Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy as to what had led them to this tragic miscalculation in Vietnam.

I don't think this new stuff is about character at all. On the other hand, I think the recklessness of the president -- I mean, he seems to me like someone who has -- I mean, he's got all this talent, and the other side of the talent is this huge emotional hole and nothing can fill that hole. I mean, no matter how much you pour into it's still empty. There's something -- I mean, I think it's a tragic equation for the country. And we've all been diminished.

GROSS: Well, David Halberstam, I really want to thank you for talking with us.

HALBERSTAM: Well, it's very nice to be with you again.

GROSS: David Halberstam's new book is called, "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

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Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: David Halberstam
High: Pulitzer Prize winning author, David Halberstam has turned his attention to Michael Jordan's impact on American culture in his new book "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made." His other books include: "The Best and the Brightest," "The Powers that Be," "Summer of 49," and "The Amateurs." Halberstam says Jordan is the most popular human being in the world.
Spec: Entertainment; Lifestyle; Culture; Sports; Media; Michael Jordan; David Halberstam

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: David Halberstam

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JANUARY 21, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 012102NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Ken Tucker
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Beck has called his new collection, "Mutations," an unofficial follow up to his previous CD "Odelay." Recorded quickly, in over just two weeks, it's a much elaborate production than 1997s "Odelay." But rock critic Ken Tucker says "Mutations" has its own charms.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- MUSICIAN BECK PERFORMING)

Cold brains
I'm moved
I'm touched
I'm glue

Alone at last
No thoughts
No mind
To rock behind

KEN TUCKER, ROCK CRITIC: These days it's usually the case that when a young pop music performer talks about his career in terms of tradition, he's either a pompous fool or a budding old fogey. And sometimes both.

Twenty-eight year old Beck Hansen, however, is different in this respect. He samples and layers his songs like a hip-hop producer. Dances onstage like a cross between James Brown and David Byrne without a trace of irony. And when he's not making music he's as likely to be listening to old blues records as he is to making a collage or a painting. He's what we used to call in rock and roll an artist.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- MUSICIAN BECK PERFORMING)

Lazy flies all hovering above
The magistrate puts on his gloves
And he looks to the clouds
All pink and disheveled

There must be some blueprint
Some creed of the devil
Inscribed in our minds
(Unintelligible)

Vanishes in thin air
Vanity of slaves
Who wants to be there
To sweep the debris

The harnessed horses
That ride in the sun
A life of confessions
Written in the dust

TUCKER: A lot of this album, "Mutations," sounds like a cracked folk music record. The lyrics rarely make sense. Beck has a gift for using words just for their syllables to keep metric pace without meaning. But the melodies make a lot of sense. Their lovely meandering creations made all the more attractive by Beck's froggy vocals.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- MUSICIAN BECK PERFORMING "BOTTLE OF BLUES")

I've just found me
A bottle of blues
Some strange comfort
For a soul to soothe

Ain't it hard
Ain't it hard
To want somebody who
Doesn't want you

And I've been waiting
For a year or a day
Some strange weather
Must be blowing my way

Cause I got no mind
To go or to stay
Or be left behind
Holding hands with a (unintelligible)

With a bottle of bacon (ph) and dreams
Run an echo (unintelligible)
I get higher lower
I get higher lower

Like a tired soldier
With nothing to shoot
And no to lose
His bottle of blues

TUCKER: That's "Bottle of Blues," whose chorus goes, "Holding hands with an impotent dream in a brovel (ph) of fake energy." "Huh?" You ask pleasantly. Beck responds just as pleasantly, "Put a nickel in a graveyard machine. I get higher and lower."

Well, as inviting as this low-tech, low key collection is, it refuses to yield whatever its meaning may be to its creator.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- MUSICIAN BECK PERFORMING)

There was no one
Nothing to see
The night is useless
And so are we

Cause everybody knows
The fabric of folly
Is falling apart at the seams
And I've been looking

For a good time
But the pleasures
Are seldom and few
There's no whiskey

There's no wine
Just a (unintelligible)
Cause everybody knows
(unintelligible)

Til you feel safe in his arms

TUCKER: That's one of the most amiable, open and inviting songs about death I've ever heard. Beck has said of his new work, "It's a walkman record." He's down playing its significance, which, the more you listen to it, only takes on greater resonance.

He's also said, "The next record is going to be a lot more bombastic with hip-hop elements." Fine. Looking forward to it. In the meantime, though, these mutations are pretty fascinating on their own.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for "Entertainment Weekly." He reviewed Beck's CD "Mutations."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Ken Tucker
High: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Beck's new CD Mutations."
Spec: Entertainment; Culture; Music Industry; Beck; Ken Tucker

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Ken Tucker
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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