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Filmmaker Mira Nair

Mira Nair Brings 'The Namesake' to Film

Filmmaker Mira Nair has just adapted Jhumpa Lahiri's 2003 novel The Namesake to the big screen. Her previous films include Vanity Fair, Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala.

21:22

Other segments from the episode on March 6, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 6, 2007: Interview with Mira Nair; Interview with Mary Weiss.

Transcript

DATE March 6, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Film director Mira Nair talks about her new film, "The
Namesake," adapted from best-selling novel by Jhumpa Lahiri
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Mira Nair, is a film director who grew up in India and has made
several films about India and Indians in America, including "Salaam Bombay,"
"Mississippi Masala" and "Monsoon Wedding." She also made the adaptation of
the Thackery classic, "Vanity Fair." Nair's new movie, "The Namesake," is
adapted from the best-selling novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning
Indian-American writer Jhumpa Lahiri. The film is about a man and a woman who
enter in an arranged marriage in Calcutta and then move to New York and raise
two children. The children grow up immersed in American pop culture and
American values about love and sex. So there's a lot that the parents and
children don't understand about each other's lives. The son is named Gogol,
after the Russian author, but the name is so unusual it's always been a source
of embarrassment for him, and he's never understood why his father chose it
until this scene when his father explains how the name relates to a train
crash he survived before he was married.

(Soundbite from "The Namesake")

(Soundbite of train)

Unidentified Actor #1: (As father) It was 1974. I was a student in Calcutta.
Every year I would take the train to visit my grandfather in Dumshapur. I
carried one book with me to read on the journey.

Unidentified Actor #2: (As son) Gogol.

Actor #1: (As father) Yes. The Well Code. So the train late at night, a Mr.
Kosh befriended me and he kept trying to persuade me to leave him there, and I
just wanted to get back to my book. My grandfather always says that is what
books are for, to travel without moving an inch. And this man, it happened...

(Soundbite of train)

Actor #1: (As father) I kept hearing Kosh's voice in my head...

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Actor #3: (As Mr. Kosh) (Unintelligible)...and blankets, see
the world. You will never regret it.

(Soundbite of automobile)

Actor #1: (As father) That is how I came to America and you got your name.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Mira Nair, welcome back to FRESH AIR. "The Namesake" is about many
things but you've described it as being about the death of a parent in a
foreign country, and of all the things that happen in the movie, I'm wondering
why that's such a defining moment for you.

Ms. MIRA NAIR: I guess it's what inspired me to make this beautiful novel
into a film. It was inspired by grief and melancholy. I read this novel by
chance on a plane in a period when I was in abject mourning for losing my
mother-in-law who died of medical malpractice in a New York hospital kind of
unexpectedly. And in our custom, we bury almost the next day and sort of
found ourselves burying her in a freaky snowstorm in New Jersey, and it was in
my first, you know, experience of the finality of death and loss like that and
all the more tough because I never expected it at all. And I read "The
Namesake" purely by chance on a plane, you know, six weeks after this. I was
just absolutely captured by the distillation of Jhumpa's writing, especially
the death of a parent, and I felt like I had found solace. I had found a
person in the world who understood exactly what I was feeling. So that was
the first kind of recognition or the first feeling of this fever that I had to
make this novel into a film. But then on rereading and rethinking before the
plane even landed, it was so much--it was that and more than that.

GROSS: When you optioned "The Namesake," you knew how you resonated with
certain experiences in the book, but did you also want to learn about the
author's experiences more directly? Did you talk with her directly and meet
members of her family?

Ms. NAIR: Well, I knew Jhumpa a little bit from "Interpreter of Maladies."
She had talked to me about the possibility of directing one of the short
stories, and we knew each other very briefly but, of course, as soon as I came
back to the States, I met with her and told her, more than asking her what her
experience was, I told her my vision of "The Namesake" as a film, which really
made her, to use her word, `ecstatic,' and only after that, after she gave me
the book, which was within a week of my reading it, it seemed, only when I was
deeply entrenched in it, I insisted that I spend a weekend with her family,
her parents in Rhode Island who are, in Jhumpa's own admission, sort of she
channeled especially her mother to write the character of Ashima, the mother
in "The Namesake," and I loved Mr. and Mrs. Lahiri. You know, they became
like my own uncle and aunt, kind of, and meeting them and even being in their
home was a great model for how I wanted this film to look and feel, and the
first thing I made Tabu and Irfan Khan, the actors who play Ashoke and Ashima,
do when they came to the States months later to shoot this film was to spend a
day with the Lahiris, and that was a key for them to understand how to
interpret the character.

GROSS: Tell me something that you got from spending time with Jhumpa Lahiri's
parents.

Ms. NAIR: You know, the feeling of her father, who is a librarian and a very
self-effacing man, deeply intellectual, deeply erudite, but completely as if,
you know, a quiet presence, never someone to assert himself or to make himself
heard, but by his own kind of contentment and the love in him, you know, you
gravitate towards him. He's strongly sure of who he is and doesn't need to
brandish anything about himself, and that was a very important quality that
Irfan had to adopt for--to play the role of Ashoke.

Her mother is a lot like as she's described in the book as Ashima. Also
someone who is incredibly cultured, a great--very knowledgeable about Bengali
movies and about movies in general, about songs, about--I talked with her a
lot. You know, for instance, even the lullabies that I had Ashima sing in the
film are all lullabies that Mrs. Lahiri sings to her grandchildren. I wanted
to make the film as personal to the Lahiri family as "Monsoon Wedding" was to
my family.

GROSS: Now, in the movie "The Namesake," and in the novel as well, the
parents in the story have an arranged marriage and although their relationship
is pretty formal with each other by a lot of American standards and, you know,
they're not given to emotional displays, they are very deeply in love. And
falling and staying in love is actually much more difficult for their son, who
was born in America and grew up in America, and relationships for him are much
less permanent even when he thinks they're going to be permanent.

Now, you made a movie about an arranged marriage, "Monsoon Wedding," and I'm
wondering if your views on arranged marriages have changed over the years.

Ms. NAIR: Well, you know, I'm very intrigued by arranged marriages. I'm not
a candidate for arranged marriage myself. I've never had an arranged
marriage, but my brothers have, for instance, and you know people very close
to me have had very, very successful arranged marriages. Oftentimes, if one
would put a statistic to it, oddly more successful than the so-called love
marriage, although I haven't, you know, compared the two with any great study.
But what intrigued me and what enchants me about the story of "The Namesake"
partly is the fact of two people who choose each other to marry. They are set
up by their families but they are strangers to each other, who then fall in
love, you know, and that is, sort of--the eros of that idea is very
interesting to me, and for me, more than the book does, I very much was very
clear that I wanted to rest my adaptation of "The Namesake" on two basic
pillars. You know, one, the exquisite love story of an adult romance of
Ashoke and Ashima through the years, a romance that--a love story really that,
like people I know of my parents' generation who are content to be still, you
know, who are not--who don't need roses and diamonds and Hallmark cards and I
love you's and proclamations of public displays of love, but it's more about
how one looks at each other over a cup of tea and that kind of a stillness and
contentment between the two, which is in such sharp contrast to Gogol's life
and to all our lives today, you know. Our multitasking sort of lives which
instant gratification kind of reigns supreme, you know, and...

GROSS: Was there a period of your life when you didn't have as sympathetic a
view towards at least some arranged marriages when you thought that they were
all, like, a terrible idea and you, you know, like fully rebelled against it?

Ms. NAIR: Oh, I fully rebelled against it. I was--one time, I was 18 years
old and my mother said that there was a proposal that came in from a big
industrialist family, and she said, `He'll be at such-and-such wedding and I
want to introduce you,' and on that wedding--for that wedding, I borrowed my
friend's outrageous flouncing gypsy skirt and I had both my brothers, who are
older than me on either side of either arm, and I, you know, strided--you
know, strode up to this father-in-law-to-be and said to him, `Meet my two
boyfriends. I have no idea whom to go with tonight.' And that settled that,
you know. I was no longer a candidate for arranged marriage after that. So
I'm completely rebellious against the arranged marriage for myself, you know,
but I must say, you know, growing up and seeing the sort of permutations of it
and seeing also some of the people who have completely ridden with it, you
know, in a beautiful way, it's not as simple as we make it out to be in
terms...

GROSS: What about your parents?

Ms. NAIR: They had an arranged marriage completely and are not--are
separated. They're not together for the last, say, 15 years or so, but, you
know...

GROSS: They don't all work.

Ms. NAIR: They were not--they don't all work at all, of course not, but I
also know many that have, yeah.

GROSS: So what was your parents' reaction when you pretended that your
brothers were your boyfriends?

Ms. NAIR: Oh, they just rolled their eyes and said, `Oh, Mira strikes
again,' you know. My nickname was Pagli, which means `the crazy girl' and
that was the act of a crazy girl.

GROSS: Can I ask how you met your husband?

Ms. NAIR: I met my husband in Kampala, Uganda, in 1989. I was researching a
screenplay on the Asian expulsion from Uganda, and I had read a book that he
had written called "From Citizen to Refugee." He was a famous writer, an
academic, and I asked to interview him, and, by chance, he had seen "Salaam
Bombay" and loved it and agreed to be interviewed. And so he was one of many
people that I was talking to in 1989 when I--my first visit to the continent,
in fact, and I have to say it was love at first sight, so three months later
we were together forever.

GROSS: Since you grew up in India and not in Uganda and your family wasn't
part of the expulsion, the Asian expulsion from Uganda, what drew you to
Uganda to make a movie about Indians who were forced to leave...

Ms. NAIR: When...

GROSS: ...and this was the movie "Mississippi Masala" and it's--in working on
that, as you explained, you met your husband.

Ms. NAIR: Well, I--as an Indian student at Harvard, you know, in the late
'70s, I was always interested in what I call the hierarchy of color, you know,
of being brown in the middle of black and white...

GROSS: Hm-mmm.

Ms. NAIR: That I was sort of welcome in both communities but there were also
invisible lines, and I called it in my own way the hierarchy of color, and I
wanted to make a film that was about this, about being brown in the midst of
black and white.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. NAIR: And I remember reading, totally, intellectually and completely,
you know, completely in a cool way, I was--I had never been to Africa, leave
alone Uganda and the Asian expulsion. I didn't even know about it. But I
remember reading about the Asian expulsion where Idi Amin, you know, threw out
a generation of Ugandan Asians who had never known India as their home, who
had only known Uganda as their home, based on the color of their skin largely
and give them 90 days to leave the country, and, you know, these were third
generation often many of them and how also the trick of history was such that
many of these Ugandan Asians came to Mississippi, where they began to buy
motels because they were very inexpensive and--you know, and also the
weirdness was that in Mississippi it was the birth of the civil rights
movement, and I thought to myself--it was a complete fiction--what if, you
know, a young girl who has grown up in Uganda, an Asian girl who thinks of
herself as African, comes to Mississippi, as history had shown me did happen
and what if she falls in love with an African American who also, like her has
never known Africa as his home.

GROSS: My guest is Mira Nair. She directed the new film, "The Namesake."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is film director Mira Nair. Her movies include "Mississippi
Masala," "Monsoon Wedding" and "Vanity Fair." Her new movie is called "The
Namesake."

In "The Namesake," there's a cultural difference between the parents, who come
to the United States from India after they marry, and their children, who are
born in the United States and are very American. They don't have that kind of
formality in their relationships with other people that the Indian couple
does, and the children's relationship with their parents is different than the
children's friends' relationships with their parents, you know, like there's a
nice scene where the son brings his girlfriend over to the house, and when
she's introduced to his parents, she kisses them hello and that's such a
forward thing for them, I mean...

Ms. NAIR: And she calls them by their first name...

GROSS: And she calls them by their first name.

Ms. NAIR: ...which is a shocking thing for an adult. You never refer, in
our culture, you never refer to any person who's older than you without a
prefix or suffix, without an aunt or uncle or Mrs. or some sign of respect.

GROSS: So they're just like really--they're not mean about it but they're
really just kind of taken aback...

Ms. NAIR: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...like astonished...

Ms. NAIR: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...at how familiar she's being with them, and it seems to me you're
kind of like culturally probably in the middle of all of this because you came
here when you were how old?

Ms. NAIR: I came here when I was 19.

GROSS: So you were already pretty formed.

Ms. NAIR: Yeah.

GROSS: But, on the other hand, you came here, you know, you're a filmmaker,
you're making movies, you're really so connected to people, but your son has
grown up in three cultures...

Ms. NAIR: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: ...in Uganda and India and in the United States. So do you have that
kind of like gap with him in terms of him being like more American or more
Ugandan or whatever and of being of a slightly like different culture than you
are.

Ms. NAIR: No, I like to think he isn't--we--firstly he came to this country
when he was eight years old, which is, you know, from living entirely in
Uganda and then South Africa. And as I mentioned earlier, we live in three
generations, whether it's in East Africa or in Manhattan, you know, there are
always his grandparents are with us and we have a sort of rule that only
Hindustani is spoken at home. We don't speak English at home...

GROSS: Really?

Ms. NAIR: And so he's very fluent in many languages and he has a different
accent for when he leaves the house, I have to say, but he's very interesting
about that as well, and because he lives with his--the older generation,
there's an enormous dimension to both his relationship and his solicitous sort
of looking after them, which I think is a huge--something that the Americans
have really cut off from their lives, which is a real lament for me. You know
how much an American family can gain from the presence of an older genera--an
older person with them, you know. It's so much a nuclear family here. So
much just your mother, father and your kid, you know. So Zohran is kind
of--and also we live actively in Uganda as well three months a year and also
in India. And it's like "Monsoon Wedding" in my house, you know. People are
always coming and going from other places, from--you know, my brothers, their
children and so on. So he's part of a network, you know, that is--I mean,
when Zohran goes to India, for instance, he--his cousins speak less Hindi than
he does, you know. They speak English entirely, and he speaks Hindi at home
in Manhattan.

GROSS: You know, your movies, like several of them, do explore kind of like
cultural connections, cultural identities. Living in three different cultures
as you do, in three different countries as you do, Uganda, India and the
United States, as you get a little bit older, does your tie to any one country
increase, you know, and as you think about where you want to spend most of
your time?

Ms. NAIR: I think that in about a few years, as my son begins to go to
college and we are actively thinking of spending more time between Uganda and
New Delhi in India. There's so much I want to do. I'm a gardener, for
instance, in Uganda and I have--and you know, really possessed by that, and
you know, I miss my garden. And I also have a film school in Uganda called
Maisha, which is a Swahili word which means life. Every summer we have a kind
of boot camp for cinema where we give 24 fellowships to students from Uganda,
Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, as well as India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh,
and we bring in mentors, great screenwriters and great directors from
everywhere from Bollywood to Nigeria to Los Angeles to London, and they come
together, much like a Sundance lab here.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Ms. NAIR: And we--you know, we have a school, because I believe that if we
don't tell our own stories, no one else will tell them and the Africa that we
see on our screens is rarely made by an African, and so I'm very, you know,
involved with Maisha and we want to build a center for it and so on, so it's a
longer-term dream that keeps me coming back, you know.

GROSS: Did you grow up watching a lot of Bollywood films and--no?

Ms. NAIR: Not at all. I grew up in a one-horse town, a tiny town, with
one--Bubanishur--with one film theater which consistently and forever showed
"Dr. Zhivago," and I had no interest or no, you know, idea that film
as--could be an interesting or important medium, you know.
Even...(unintelligible)...movies were unknown in India at that time. They
were just not shown beyond Calcutta, in fact, and I saw an occasional
Bollywood movie but nothing I took desperately seriously. I mean, I would
swoon over some of the romantic love songs but the movies were not to be taken
seriously, you know. My interest was political theater and street theater,
which is what I got involved with in Calcutta, for instance, when I was 15 and
I pursued that, you know, that was what I came to this country for, in fact,
is to pursue, you know, engage theater and I arrived at Harvard on a
scholarship, and the theater was, you know, "Oklahoma!" Hoop skirts and
musicals. It had nothing to do with changing the world, you know, and so I
had to choose something else that this university could give me, and through
taking a course in photography, stumbled into documentary filmmaking, which
was a great blessing because at an age of like 20, 21, I had found my place in
the world.

GROSS: Making fiction films now, has it given you more respect for the hoop
skirt musicals like "Oklahoma!"?

Ms. NAIR: Actually, "Oklahoma!" came back to haunt me because my son Zohran
was cast as the lead Curly in his school play of "Oklahoma!" so I, you know,
wake up singing, "Oh, what a beautiful morning," and it's hilarious and it's
the same play that drove me out of the theater is now what I'm living with,
but, well, yeah, I mean, making narrative film one has greater respect for so
many things.

GROSS: Well, Mira Nair, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. NAIR: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Mira Nair directed the new film, "The Namesake."

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

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

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

Interview: Singer Mary Weiss talks about her new CD called
"Dangerous Game," her first solo album since her former group
The Shangri-Las broke up in the late 1960s
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MARY WEISS: When I say I'm in love you best believe I'm in love. L-U-V.

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) "Here comes my guy walking down the street. Look
as he walk...(unintelligible). Dah, dah, dah. Big wavy hair..."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's one of the hits that the great girl-group The Shangri-Las had
in the '60s. Some of the other hits were "Leader of the Pack," "Remember
Walking in the Sand," "Give Us Your Blessings" and "Long Live Our love." The
Shangri-Las had a tough, urban image and sang songs about teenage love that
often ended in tragedy. Some of their records were produced like mini-dramas
with dialogue and sound effects. The group originally consisted of sisters
Mary and Betty Weiss, and twin sisters Marge and Mary Ann Ganser. The lead
singer, my guest Mary Weiss, left music after the group broke up in the late
'60s, but now she's returned with her first solo album called "Dangerous
Game." Weiss' new CD was described in The New Yorker as a remarkable solo
debut, quote, "Weiss is in fine voice and the songs combine the dark innocence
of girl-group records with a mature sense of regret." Here's the opening track
from Mary Weiss' new CD "Dangerous Game." The song is called "My Heart Is
Beating."

(Soundbite from "My Heart Is Beating")

Ms. WEISS: (Singing) "When you held me close that's when I knew it showed me
through and through. I couldn't let you go, I couldn't let it show.
(Unintelligible) The whole world's unfair. I know it's true. What can I do?
One day you'll be free. You'll come running to me. Till then my heart is
beating, beating, baby. I know you've been cheating, but if I take you back,
you better walk the straight and narrow track. I said, if I take you back, I
want to know if you'll be good to me."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Mary Weiss from her new CD "Dangerous Game."

Mary Weiss, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's so great to have you recording again.

Ms. WEISS: Thank you.

GROSS: Yeah, you really sound great on the new record, but you haven't
recorded, and you haven't even performed much since The Shangri-Las broke up
in the late '60s. Why have you stayed away from music for so many years?

Ms. WEISS: Basically, when we first started, it was all about music, and by
the time we finished, it was all about litigation, and it just became thicker
than the music.

GROSS: So you'd become very disillusioned with the whole music business.

Ms. WEISS: Mmm. I'd say that.

GROSS: So what change and did somebody convince you to come back now?

Ms. WEISS: Interestingly enough, I was listening to an interview you did
with Iggy Pop and he mentioned life being in seven-year cycles, and I was just
floored because I've always viewed life that way, and I've had a lot of things
happen to me in recent years. I lost my mom. I lost my brother, and I've
been re-evaluating what it is I want to do with the last sector of my work
life.

GROSS: And why did you think you wanted to go back to music?

Ms. WEISS: Because music is home to me, it always was. Music was my life as
a child growing up, and it got me through most of the things in my life, and
it's, I feel like, where I belong.

GROSS: So it must have been horrible to not be able to perform for all those
years.

Ms. WEISS: I've never been real fond of performing live. I'm a very private
person. But I love the studio. That's my home.

GROSS: So that must have been frustrating, not being able to record.

Ms. WEISS: Yes and no. When I put something down, I really put it down, and
I packed my bags, and I went on my way. I developed a new career.

GROSS: What was it?

Ms. WEISS: I was working for an architectural film, and I had started in
their accounting department. By the time I left, I was their chief purchasing
agent, and I worked at commercial furniture dealerships, and I installed
multimillion-dollar installations.

GROSS: Did they know who you were?

Ms. WEISS: Yeah, unfortunately. Sometimes people would show up at my place
of employment with an album in hand.

GROSS: So through those years, when you weren't recording, were you singing
at home?

Ms. WEISS: No, not really.

GROSS: Not even just for pleasure.

Ms. WEISS: No. I know it sounds weird.

GROSS: In the new record, it seems to me like you have some connection to The
Shangri-Las sound without trying to mimic that sound. So can you talk a
little bit about the kind of sound you wanted to have on your new CD.

Ms. WEISS: I was hoping to sound like an adult me...

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. WEISS: ...which is kind of a given.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. WEISS: When I listen to some of my old records, I can't believe how
nasally I sounded, but I was a child, so that's understandable. But I wanted
to make a straight-up rock and roll record, and I think we achieved that
without going too far off-base from my roots.

GROSS: How did you find new songs that you liked?

Ms. WEISS: It was quite difficult, initially. Everybody kept sending me
death records, death songs. Everybody was dying off left and right.

GROSS: Because so many in the melodramas of The Shangri-La songs so many
people died.

Ms. WEISS: Right, right, which is fine as a teenager, and I could relate to
it as a teenager but we have enough of that in life.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about The Shangri-Las. Now you started out in
high school performing at local bars with The Shangri-Las before you started
recording, and the band was initially made up of you, your sister Betty, and
two twins who were your friends.

Ms. WEISS: Right.

GROSS: What was the band like before you started recording?

Ms. WEISS: Well, actually, we met in grammar school. The neighborhood I
grew up in there were maybe 300 kids around the same age, or in the same age
bracket, and we used to sing on the street corner, all of us, so that's how we
really started. And not bars. I was too young to be in a bar actually.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. WEISS: Little hops and dances and things like that that we did initially
until we went up to Bob Lewis' apartment and met Shadow Morton.

GROSS: And the story of how you met George Shadow Morton, who became one of
your producers and one of your chief songwriters, is a story that's kind of
entered rock and roll lore, but I want you to tell it.

Ms. WEISS: We had an original manager, I believe his name was Tony Michaels,
and he wanted Bob Lewis to hear us singing, so he made an appointment with
him, and we went up to his apartment just to hear us, and we got up and sang
for him a cappella, and George was there, Shadow...

GROSS: Shadow.

Ms. WEISS: ...sitting there, and that's when I met him.

GROSS: And he, I think, wrote this on a dare. He was trying to convince the
songwriter Jeff Berry that he was really a songwriter and he could write, you
know, a ballad or, you know, an uptempo tune, and so he--the way the story
goes, as I've heard it, is that he wrote this song as a dare--on a dare to
prove to Jeff Berry that he could do it, then asked The Shangri-Las to record
it, and the song was "Remember Walking in the Sand," which is one of those
like great, like drama songs that...

Ms. WEISS: I really liked that record.

GROSS: Oh, I love the record. I mean, who doesn't?

Ms. WEISS: I'm doing that on stage.

GROSS: Are you?

Ms. WEISS: Yes, I am.

GROSS: What was your first reaction? It was so unlike other songs, you know.

Ms. WEISS: I loved the song from the first time I heard it, and we went into
a studio, I believe it was in Long Island, and laid it down on demo and then
brought it up to Red Bird.

GROSS: Red Bird Records.

Ms. WEISS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So let's hear, "Remember," which was The Shangri-Las' first hit, and
you were what, 15 when this was recorded?

Ms. WEISS: I believe so.

GROSS: OK, here we go.

(Soundbite from "Remember Walking in the Sand")

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) "Seems like the other day, my baby went away. He
went away across the sea. It's been two years or so since I saw my baby go.
And then this letter came for me. It said that we were through. He found
somebody new. Let me think, let me think, what can I do? Oh, no, oh, no, oh,
no, no, no, no, no. Walking in the sand, walking hand in hand. The night was
so exciting. Remember his smile was so inviting. Remember then he touched my
cheek. Remember with his finger tips. Softly, softly, we'd meet with our
lips. Whatever happened to the boy that I once knew..."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's The Shangri-Las on their first hit. My guest Mary Weiss was
the lead singer of The Shangri-Las and now she has a new solo CD, which is
called "Dangerous Game."

Now this song has such drama to it, you know, like when you're saying, "Let me
think, let me think, what can I do?" Were you used to that kind of drama in
your performances?

Ms. WEISS: I was used to that kind of drama in my life, so I think it would
come out in my performances.

GROSS: What kind of drama in your life?

Ms. WEISS: Well, I think teenagers for the most part--I can only speak for
myself--but teenagers have an intensity that we seem to--I don't think we grow
out of but there's variable shades of gray added where when you're a teen--a
lot of things were for me anyway--everything was black and white. I don't
know if I'm expressing myself correctly.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Can you give us like an example of a dramatic incident that
had already happened to you when you were 15 and recorded this?

Ms. WEISS: Not specifically. It's just the way--I grew up with a difficult
childhood.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WEISS: We grew up pretty poor, and I--I mean I've been supporting myself
since I'm 14, so I don't know, there was a lot of pain in me.

GROSS: My guest is Mary Weiss. In the '60s, she was the lead singer of The
Shangri-Las. She has a new solo album called "Dangerous Game."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Mary Weiss. In the '60s, she was the lead singer of The
Shangri-Las. Now she's returned to music with her first solo CD called
"Dangerous Game." Weiss was only 15 when The Shangri-Las had their first hit,
"Remember Walking in the Sand."

Some people lose their bearings when they have that kind of sudden success at
a young age. Did you?

Ms. WEISS: Definitely. I think most--it's hard enough for an adult to deal
with that type of situation, much less a child. Sure, I had a lot of problems
with that.

GROSS: In what ways do you feel like you were knocked off balance?

Ms. WEISS: Well, I think most kids have a structured home, a more structured
home than I did...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WEISS: ... and well, in today's world, maybe not, but years ago I
remember people having like two parents and finishing school and, you know,
more structure than I did. I grew up on the road. I had a road manager who
was barely a couple of years older than me. So I mean, kids were going to
proms, and I was giving press conferences in London. It's quite a weird way
to grow up.

GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, did guys and bands try to hit on you on
the road when you were traveling in rock and roll shows and sharing a bill?

Ms. WEISS: Other bands?

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. WEISS: Sometimes. Of course. We have such a tough image supposedly
but...

GROSS: The Shangri-Las, absolutely, yeah.

Ms. WEISS: I think a lot of that comes from surviving, from making people
back down.

GROSS: Including the guys in the bands that you traveled with.

Ms. WEISS: Sure, some of them.

GROSS: So you didn't have a tough image before your success?

Ms. WEISS: I never thought much about image. I just didn't like chiffon
dresses and high heels. I'm, you know, that's as honest as I can be, and I
never liked women's slacks back then. You know, they didn't have low-rise
pants...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WEISS: ...in 1964. They just didn't make them, so I used to go to a
place on 8th Street and have men's clothes tailored for me.

GROSS: Did anyone ever try--anyone like from a record company--ever try to
make The Shangri-Las more girlish and glamorous and less kind of tough-looking
in, you know, your boots and pants?

Ms. WEISS: No, actually not. What we wore on stage after we started making
money--I mean, you can see the difference from early on. We didn't have any
clothes. Where you saw other groups, where they had money and support behind
them, were extremely well-dressed from the beginning...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WEISS: ...we were out there pretty much in our street clothes. But then
when we started making money, we designed our own clothes and had them made in
the Village.

GROSS: Let's hear, but talk about first, another really famous Shangri-Las'
recording, and I'm thinking of "Leader of the Pack."

Ms. WEISS: OK.

GROSS: Your first impression of the song when it was presented to you?

Ms. WEISS: I really had to sit down with this one. I took it home and
listened to it for a very long time before I agreed to do it.

GROSS: Why were you so reluctant?

Ms. WEISS: Even at the time it was pretty much out there. I mean, in
England, there was a very rigid environment, even globally--I mean the record
was banned in England the first time it came out.

GROSS: Did you rehearse the song differently than you usually rehearsed songs
because of the spoken parts in it and the drama?

Ms. WEISS: Well, usually, I'd rehearse those home initially, and I remember
having hard times with certain songs where we'd actually dim lights in the
studio so I could feel, like, alone in order to be able to deliver it
properly. The "Lookout!" took a little bit because it's kind of metered, and
it had to be right on the money to do so I would just sit at home and yell,
`Look out!' I'm sure my neighbors loved that.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear the song?

Ms. WEISS: OK.

GROSS: And this is The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack."

(Soundbite from "Leader of the Pack")

Unidentified Girl #1: Is she really going out with him?

Unidentified Girl #2: Well, there she is. Let's ask her.

Girl #1: Betty, is that Jimmy's ring you're wearing?

Unidentified Girl #3: Mm-hmm.

Girl #2: Gee, it must be great riding with him. Is he picking you up after
school today?

Girl #3: Mm-mmm.

Girl #1 and Girl #2: (In unison) By the way, where'd you meet him?

Girl #3: (Singing) "I met him at the candy store. He turned around and
smiled at me."

You get the picture?

Girl #1 and Girl #2: Yes, we see.

Girl #3: (Singing) "That's when I fell for..."

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) "The leader of the pack."

(Soundbite of motorcycle engine)

Girl #3: (Singing) "My folks were always putting him down."

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) "Down, down."

Girl #3: (Singing) "They said he came from the wrong side of town."

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) "What do you mean when you say that he came from
the wrong side of town?"

Girl #3: (Singing) "They told me he was bad, but I knew he was sad. That's
why I fell for..."

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) "The leader of the pack."

(Soundbite of motorcycle engine)

Girl #3: (Singing) "One day my dad said, `Find someone new.' I had to tell my
Jimmy we're through."

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) "What do you mean when you say that you'd better
go find somebody new?"

Girl #3: (Singing) "He stood there and asked me why. But all I could do was
cry. I'm sorry I hurt you."

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) "The leader of the pack."

(Soundbite of motorcycle engine)

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) "Da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da."

Girl #3: He sort of smiled and kissed me goodbye. The tears were beginning
to show. As he drove away on that rainy night, I begged him to go slow.
Whether he heard, I'll never know.

(Soundbite of motorcycle engine)

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) "No, no, no, no, no, no, no."

Girl #3: Look out, look out, look out, look out!

(Singing) "I felt so helpless what could I do? Remembering all the things
we'd been through. In school, they all stop and stare. I can't hide the
tears, but I don't care. I'll never forget him..."

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) "The leader of the pack."

(Soundbite of motorcycle engine)

THE SHANGRI-LAS: (Singing) "Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh. Gone. Leader of the
pack.Now he's gone. Gone, gone, gone. Leader of the pack. Now he's gone,
gone, gone, gone."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's The Shangri-Las. My guest, Mary Weiss, was the lead singer of
the group. She has a new solo CD, her first solo CD, called "Dangerous Game."

You know, as we were saying, The Shangri-Las had the image of being very
tough. What was your neighborhood like in Queens when you were growing up?

Ms. WEISS: I probably would consider it middle to low-middle class.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WEISS: There were a lot of kids in the neighborhood, an average
neighborhood, pretty much.

GROSS: What did your mother do to support you?

Ms. WEISS: She had periodic jobs on occasion but nothing really substantial.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WEISS: Mmm.

GROSS: So you were pretty much scraping by?

Ms. WEISS: Yeah, absolutely.

GROSS: So it must have been really welcome when you started making a lot of
money.

Ms. WEISS: There you go.

GROSS: And did you send a lot back to your mother?

Ms. WEISS: Always.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WEISS: We kind of raised her, as much as we could.

GROSS: We'll talk more with Mary Weiss after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Mary Weiss. In the '60s she was the lead singer in thee
girl group, The Shangri-Las. She's just released her first solo album. It's
called "Dangerous Game." Here's another track from it called "Stop and Think
It Over."

(Soundbite from "Stop and Think It Over")

Ms. WEISS: (Singing) "I know your folks give you a hard time. Little boy,
just put your hand in mine. You'll see what a good, good girl I'll be. Then
all your friends, well, they'll say, I'm mad. I ain't no different than any
other girl that you had before except I need you more. You'd better stop and
think it over. You'd better stop and think it over again. Think it over
again."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Now you were on with The Shangri-Las shows like "Hullabaloo" and
"Shindig." Was it fun to lip-sync on TV to your records?

Ms. WEISS: I never really cared for it. I liked it when you went to--if you
look at some of the ones on YouTube, you can--the sync isn't correct...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WEISS: ...but I know which ones are actually sung live. Several of them
are...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WEISS: ...and several are lip-synched. I mean, if you did a show like
"Clay Cole" or "Soupy Sales," obviously you would lip-synch and some...

GROSS: Yeah, "Clay Cole" was one of those like dance shows that were shown in
New York--I'm not sure if it was national. I know I used to watch it in New
York.

Ms. WEISS: Yeah, it was in the WPIX building.

GROSS: Uh-huh, uh-huh.

Ms. WEISS: But the other shows were much larger, and they took a week to do.
You'd fly out to LA and a lot of them were live. The music might have been
pre-recorded but all of the vocals were live.

GROSS: What are you hoping for, musically and professionally this time
around? You've stayed away from the music business since the late '60s.
There was so much litigation, you were so kind of disillusioned with the
business at that point, you stayed away for decades. What do you want this
time around?

Ms. WEISS: Actually, I want music. The funny thing about it now is I'm not
a kid. There is no ladder I'm trying to climb. I have nothing to prove. No
one can remove what I've done from my past. It is what it is. And now it's
time to just have some music in my life and have some fun. I don't know. The
whole thing has been fabulous, and the response is absolutely overwhelming,
but I'm not looking for anything specific. I just want to rock and roll.

GROSS: Since...

Ms. WEISS: That's how I want to spend my last days before I retire.

GROSS: ...since you didn't sing for so long...

Ms. WEISS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: It sounds like you didn't even sing around the house, were you
surprised that your voice is still there and still really good?

Ms. WEISS: I wonder if that isn't why sometimes.

GROSS: Like you didn't blow it out on the road?

Ms. WEISS: Well, I--obviously, I mean, everybody that worked back then had
their own throat specialists because we didn't have monitors. You couldn't
hear anything ever, so everybody's vocal chords were way far extended. To me
monitors are a luxury. I look at them, and they're like--I'm amazed. I'm
really not looking for anything specific, so that's why it's really about
music and just fun.

GROSS: I'd like to close with another track from your new CD and since I've
been making all the choices, I'm going to ask you to choose one of your
favorites.

Ms. WEISS: "Break It One More Time." "Break It for Me One More Time."

GROSS: Tell me why you're choosing it.

Ms. WEISS: I just really like the song. I loved doing it, and I just really
feel that number.

GROSS: OK. Mary Weiss, a real pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
And congratulations on...

Ms. WEISS: Thank you.

GROSS: ...the new CD.

Ms. WEISS: Thanks so much.

GROSS: Mary Weiss was the lead singer of The Shangri-Las. Her new solo CD is
called "Dangerous Game."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

Here's "Break It One More Time" from Mary Weiss' new CD.

(Soundbite from "Break It One More Time")

Ms. WEISS: (Singing) "My heart won't let you go even though I often tell you
so. There are some things it just won't do no matter how many times I tell it
to. It still thinks you are mine. It still seems to think..."

(End of soundbite)
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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