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Music Journalist and Filmmaker Robert Gordon

His biography of blues legend Muddy Waters, Can't Be Statisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters, is now out in paperback. Waters is credited with inventing electric blues and creating the template for the rock 'n' roll band. Gordon also produced and directed an accompanying documentary of the same name which was broadcast on PBS in April as part of the American Masters series. Gordon's other books are It Came From Memphis, and The King on the Road. He also produced the Al Green box set, Anthology. This interview first aired October 3, 2002.


Other segments from the episode on July 11, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 11, 2003: Interview with Todd Solondz; Review of film "Hell's Highway;" Interview with Robert Gordon.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Screenwriter and director Todd Solondz discusses his
movies "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Storytelling"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, sitting in for Terry Gross.

You could say that screenwriter and director Todd Solondz has a strange sense
of humor. He zeros in on psychological kinks, malfunctions and extremes, then
exaggerates them. Some viewers found his 1998 movie, "Happiness" in bad taste
because the characters included a pedophile and someone obsessed with phone
sex. But his fans and many movie critics thought he used these extremes to
create a funny and perceptive take on the anxieties of modern life. His
previous comedy, "Welcome to the Dollhouse," was about the least popular girl
in junior high. His latest film, "Storytelling," is told in two separate
parts. The first part begins with a college student, Marcus. He's an
aspiring writer but is very insecure about his work. He has cerebral palsy
and has just written a short story based on his relationship with his
girlfriend. He reads it in class and is critiqued first by his fellow
students, then by his Pulitzer Prize-winning professor.

(Soundbite from "Storytelling")

Unidentified Woman #1: I thought that was really good, Marcus, really moving
and emotional.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah, I thought it was really emotional, too.

Unidentified Woman #3: And, I mean, really good word choices. It kind of
reminded me a little of Faulkner but East Coast and disabled.

Unidentified Woman #4: Or Flannery O'Connor. She had multiple sclerosis.

Unidentified Woman #5: And Borges; he was blind.

Unidentified Man #1: Updike has psoriasis.

CATHERINE: Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm afraid I found the whole thing to be a
little trite. Its earnestness is, well, it's a little embarrassing and those
adjectives are flat-footed and redundant. I'm sorry. I mean, anyway,
don't--what do I know? Don't even listen to what I say. I mean...

Unidentified Man #2: Anyone else? Catherine is right. The story is a piece
of (censored). You express nothing but banalities and, formally speaking, are
unable to construct a single compelling sentence. You ride on a wave of
cliches so worn, in fact, it actually approaches a level of grotesquerie; and
your subtitle, the rawness of truth. Is that supposed to be a joke of some
sort or are you just being pretentious?

BOGAEV: A scene from the movie "Storytelling" which is now out on video. The
DVD will be released next week.

When we first meet Marcus, he's passionately making love to his girlfriend.
Only after do we find out he has cerebral palsy. Terry spoke with Todd
Solondz last year and asked him about creating this character.

Mr. TODD SOLONDZ (Film Director, Writer): The last thing you want is to have
a character defined by his affliction. If you don't have cerebral palsy, then
the natural response is to feel for this person; and yet, of course, this
person doesn't want to be reduced to, of course, just someone with cerebral
palsy. It cheats him of the right to be admired, on the one hand, for who he
is as a person, or on the other hand, to be condemned for who he is as a
person, and should be, I think, respected or not on the same basis as everyone


In your movies, you've created a lot of characters who are very depressed,
very alienated, also very self-delusional. In your movie, "Welcome to the
Dollhouse," the junior high school student at the center of the movie suffers
every insult and indignity, from being taunted in the cafeteria to being
threatened with rape at knifepoint. You grew up in suburban New Jersey. What
were your school experiences like? Was that a difficult period for you, going
to school?

Mr. SOLONDZ: Well, it had its high points and its low points. I went to many
different schools. I attended an Orthodox yeshiva. I attended a public
school and attended also a progressive experimental school. And then I went
to an all-boys prep school.

GROSS: Wow, that's really 360 degrees of schooling.

Mr. SOLONDZ: Yeah, so I kind of covered the gamut there and wanted, when I
made "Welcome to the Dollhouse" to make it a general public school junior high
school experience.

GROSS: Now you've taken the kind of alienation and discomfort that you write
about and turned it into comedy, into a very kind of strange eccentric form of
comedy, but it's often comedy. And I'm wondering why comedy, and I ask
that--I mean, for some people, comedy is just--it's where they live. You know
what I mean? But it's not like you're being very funny or ironic in your
approach to explaining things now. So does comedy feel like the natural place
that you want to write in or is it a more conscious thing that you're doing
when you write comedy?

Mr. SOLONDZ: Well, I think that my work is certainly reflective of how I see
the world and how I experience it, in some sense. And what I find to be funny
I'm often very moved by, and vice versa, that there is a connection between
the two and that if I'm not really moved, I probably won't find it very funny.
My movies are comedies, emphatically comedies. They may be terribly sad and
sorrowful and painful, but comedies nevertheless. And this is, I think, what
may not sit well with many people, that I, in fact, do look at them in this
way. But without this level of detachment that the comedy or irony, what have
you, provides, I think that the material would be unbearable. I don't know
that I'd be able to sit through it otherwise.

GROSS: You create characters who are often very disturbing, particularly in
"Happiness." You know, one character is a pedophile, one character is a phone
sex--you know, somebody who calls up strangers to engage them in phone sex.
Everybody in the movie is self-delusional about something. You know,
there's--one of the sisters in the movie is a popular writer of transgressive
S&M fiction. And she worries that she's not authentic because she writes
about rape but she's never been raped, and maybe if she was raped then she
could be authentic. So everybody's just a little bizarre in this. At the
same time, I think you've written the characters with so much sympathy, even
though they're very comedic, that it's almost as if you're playing out
everybody's worst fear about themselves, kind of blowing out of proportion
everybody's fears about their own fantasies or their own feelings that make
them uncomfortable and have them embodied in these other characters.

Mr. SOLONDZ: Well, I appreciate your saying that. Sometimes people look at
my movies and will say to me, `Why do you make movies about such ugly
characters?' And, well, I say, `Well, they're not ugly to me. The people may
not be conventionally beautiful, so to speak, but it's not only in spite of
their flaws, but in part because of their flaws that I can more fully embrace
them as human. And it doesn't mean, for example, that you have to sympathize
exactly with--certainly, what Bill Maplewood has done is unequivocably
unforgivable. I don't think there's any doubt about that.

GROSS: The pedophile character.

Mr. SOLONDZ: Yes. Yes. Nevertheless, to be able to recognize him as human
and not just the demon seed, I think accords oneself, I think, a greater level
of humanity. And, of course, it's much easier--if you want to create
sympathetic characters, and it's the easiest thing in the world; you know, you
give them cancer. And, of course, your heart will go out to the person. But
that's not a very challenging way of working, let's say, for me as a
filmmaker. What I am most compelled by is getting into the minds and to
getting into subjects in ways that I think may force us to reevaluate our
perceptions about not only other people but ourselves.

GROSS: Well, have you ever had people make assumptions about you that you
found upsetting?

Mr. SOLONDZ: Let me say this. If someone doesn't like what I do, if they
hate the movie, I don't have a problem with that. But occasionally, there
will be a journalist who will say something of a personal nature that, of
course, I will take offense at. But most people are not like that. I
remember back when "Welcome to the Dollhouse" was being received, often very
favorably, nevertheless, some journalists would describe Heather Matarazzo or
myself physically in very unflattering terms. And I couldn't help wondering
how the irony seemed to elude these journalists, that they, in fact, became
the seventh-graders in that movie, to describe this 11-year-old girl as an
ugly girl. I just can't understand how anyone would write that and how one
can possibly write that and feel good about oneself.

GROSS: It sounds like when you were young you weren't a very social person.
You liked to stay home alone, and when you make movies, you kind of have to be
a social person in a way, not necessarily going to parties, but being on the
set with a lot of people, engaging with actors in a way that they're willing
to still work with you. Do you think that you've been changed by the act of
making movies?

Mr. SOLONDZ: It's true. I think that my character really isn't designed well
for being a director on a set. I don't really enjoy the position. I don't
get much pleasure out of all the power that I'm accorded. I get no adrenaline
high from this. All I dream about while I'm on set is being back home again.
It's an assaultive process and one in which you simply don't have the absolute
control, far from it, that you have as a writer when you're working alone in
your room. Nevertheless, if someone's going to screw it up, I'd rather it be
me than someone else, so I take on the job. On the other hand, I have to say,
you know, it's part of the dilemma, part of the reality of being the filmmaker
I am, at least, is that I find that when I am writing alone, my fantasy, of
course, is being out there on set; anything but being alone in this room.

GROSS: I want to ask you about one scene in your new movie "Storytelling."
There's a sex scene in which you obscure the sex act that's going on by just
taking an orange rectangle and covering the actual coupling with the
rectangle. Did you actually shoot the scene as a sex scene and then cover it

Mr. SOLONDZ: Here's what happened, and it's really more of a Soviet red, I
believe, than an orange.


Mr. SOLONDZ: But I--in order to make this movie, I needed a certain amount of
money that only New Line was going to provide. That's the studio that
financed it finally. So it was either make the movie with New Line or not
make it. I knew that New Line would not be able to release a movie that was
not R rated or PG13. They will not release NC-17 movies. And I knew I had a
scene in it that was a little bit troublesome. So I put in the contract, I
negotiated in the contract the ability to put beeps and/or bars as necessary,
as need be, in order to procure the R rating if there would be a problem.
I've always felt good about this, that in any movie, that if there was going
to be a problem with the ratings, I always wanted there to be--I'd rather
there be a big red box covering something up or a beep covering up a line than
to having something removed. So for me, this is very much a victory, to be
able to put this red box over that shot rather than having the shot removed.
I didn't want to have to redesign the movie to appease the needs of the
ratings board.

And, of course, when the film was finished and we did have that big red box
there, the head of the studio saw it and he said, `Over my dead body. You're
not putting a big red box in this movie.' But because I had negotiated at the
get-go the ability to do that, the contract was respected, and this will be
the first studio movie released with a big red box in the middle of it. I'm
very proud, and I think that it actually adds a layer of meaning, I think, to
the film. It does make it more overtly political in a way that I have never
imagined it would be.

GROSS: Well, Todd Solondz, I really want to thank you for talking with us.

Mr. SOLONDZ: Thank you so much.

BOGAEV: Screenwriter and director Todd Solondz speaking with Terry Gross.
His film "Storytelling" is just out on video and comes out on DVD next week.
Coming up, "Hell's Highway." This is FRESH AIR.

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

Review: "Hell's Highway," a compilation of a series of driver's
ed films that contain bloody footage of real dead bodies

A new documentary, "Hell's Highway," tells the story of a company that made a
series of driver's ed films in the '50s and '60s. They were movies that
combined preachy and melodramatic narration with bloody footage of real dead
bodies, and they scared the daylights out of millions of baby boomers. Critic
David Edelstein has a review.


Sometimes it's not enough to face up to your nightmares. You have to figure
out where they came from or who gave them to you. When I was in elementary
school in the '60s, the wise elders screened a movie called "The Child
Molester," a supposed reenactment of the abduction and murder of two little
girls. It ended with actual footage of their mutilated bodies. I got the
message. I kept my distance from strangers in cars. Thirty-five years later,
though, I'm still haunted by that movie. And as a typically anxious parent, I
think about how graphic I want my warnings to my own children to be. It's for
their own good, right?

It turns out that "The Child Molester" was made by the Highway Safety
Foundation of Mansfield, Ohio, the same organization responsible for notorious
driver's ed films with names like "Wheels Of Tragedy" and "Mechanized Death."
They offer the usual stern warnings about the perils of driving recklessly or
sleepily or drunk, except these films were capped with scenes shot by a shaky
handheld camera moving in on flashing police lights in the night, then closer
to smashed cars, then closer to shattered faces covered in glass and blood and
bodies twisted in unnatural positions. Sometimes you could hear the real
moans and shrieks of the injured and dying. Once, the camera caught a man at
the instant of death.

Director Bret Wood attempts to tell the story of the Highway Safety Foundation
in a documentary called "Hell's Highway: The True Story Of Highway Safety
Films." He tracks down two of the surviving employees, Earle Deems and John
Domer, and he mixes in original footage, including the finale of "The Child
Molester." Thanks, Bret. But to convey the monstrousness of these films,
Wood, obviously, had to show something, and there are lessons to be learned,
if not precisely the lessons these movies set out to teach. Here's some
sample narration from one of them. It's just as well you can't see the
footage of the dead young man in a black-and-white flannel shirt half in and
half out of his car.

(Soundbite of "Hell's Highway")

Unidentified Man: A young man speeds home after enjoying a rollicking stag
party. He thunders down a dirt road and plunges through a dead end, through a
farmer's fence and into an area that had recently been cleared of trees. With
the man's body momentarily hanging outside, the car door hits a stump and
forces the door against the driver's chest, crushing him between the door and
the car's door post. Two ironies presented themselves in this case: One, the
damage to the car was slight. A repair bill of $75 to $100 would have covered
it easily. Second, the man and his wife were planning a party for the next
day, a party observing his young son's birthday.

EDELSTEIN: It sounds like kids today, but there's no dating the power of that
image. "Hell's Highway" offers several points of view on the Highway Safety
Foundation without really synthesizing them. The brilliant film historian and
archivist, Rick Prelinger, explains that the educational movie genre was
created in the '30s by insurance companies hoping to shift blame for accidents
from careless companies onto careless workers. The approach was adopted for
World War II training movies and then mutated into a full-blown social
guidance movement to teach teen-agers in the '50s how to behave. But John
Butler, an amazingly charismatic ex-cop who worked closely with the Highway
Safety Foundation, sees its late founder Richard Wayman as a hero, a man
responsible for saving who knows how many lives by scaring the bejesus out of
kids. And then there's Mike Vraney, a guiding force at Something Weird Films,
who simply marvels at the movies as camp artifacts that have retained their
taboo fascination.

It's too bad that the documentary isn't hip enough to invoke J.G. Ballard's
novel, "Crash," and contemplate the fetishistic side of the highway safety
filmmakers who slept little and were obsessed with grabbing their cameras and
heading to the side of the highway or to the morgue. Someone in the movie
suggests that these films aren't as shocking now that we've had Sam Peckinpah
and graphic video games and zombie cannibal movies. But to paraphrase
Aristotle, `We might get pleasure of a sort from seeing horrible images
reproduced, even in minute detail, but not from viewing the thing itself.'

After seeing those little girls again and the especially horrible shots of a
dead baby under a car, I was upset for days. So I emphatically don't
recommend "Hell's Highway," unless you were exposed to these films as a child
and hope for a kind of exorcism. The documentary isn't nearly as revelatory
or as penetrating as it would need to be to overcome the exploitation factor.
But my hope is that as the shock of it recedes, "Hell's Highway" will help me
to put my 35-year-old memory of "The Child Molester" into perspective and to
grapple with the question I'm not even close to answering: When is the
benefit of instilling caution worth the price of the nightmares?

BOGAEV: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
"Hell's Highway" opens in San Francisco next week and opens in other cities
throughout the summer. I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this FRESH AIR.

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Interview: Robert Gordon discusses the life and musical career of
Muddy Waters

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

Robert Gordon's biography of blues guitarist and singer Muddy Waters is just
out in paperback. Muddy Waters grew up on a plantation on the Mississippi
Delta and moved to Chicago as a young man. He not only took the blues in a
new direction, he influenced rock 'n' roll. Gordon writes, `His song "Rolling
Stone" inspired a band name and a magazine. When Bob Dylan went from acoustic
folk music to rock 'n' roll, he hired white musicians who'd learned from Muddy
in Chicago.' Songs that Muddy wrote or made famous have become mainstream
hits when performed by Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and plenty of

Robert Gordon is also the author of "It Came from Memphis" and "The King on
the Road." He directed the blues documentary "All Day and All Night." Terry
spoke with him last fall. Here's Muddy Waters, recorded in 1950.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MUDDY WATERS: (Singing) Well, you know, you leave home in the mornin',
you don't come back. You don't come back until night. You won't cook me no
food, and you're still sad. You treat me right, but, hey, you gonna need,
you gonna need my help, I said. Well, you know I won't have to worry. I have
everything, little girl, coming my way. No, I ain't going to worry about it
no more, man. All right, little walkin'.

(Soundbite of interview)


Robert Gordon, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with just summing up Muddy
Waters' musical importance. Would you do that for us?

Mr. ROBERT GORDON (Music Journalist and Filmmaker): OK. I think his great
musical contribution is sort of juicing the blues and creating the foundation
for rock 'n' roll. He started in the Delta in the South on an acoustic
guitar, and in the '40s, went to Chicago, where an acoustic guitar couldn't be
heard in the clubs and adapted the Delta blues style and the feeling of the
Delta blues and put it first to an electric guitar and then into a full band.
And when they started doing that faster in the '60s, they called it rock 'n'

GROSS: You've put together some tracks that are well-known and some that are
obscure. So let's listen to what is I think a pretty obscure Muddy Waters
recording. This is from 1941, before he started plugging in...

Mr. GORDON: Right.

GROSS: ...and it's a well-known song of his, "I Can't Be Satisfied." What
should we be listening for in this 1941 recording?

Mr. GORDON: Well, this is the first time he's going to hear himself back,
which is an interesting thing to think about. He gets the validation from
hearing this that he can do it. And what I think you hear in these early
recordings in his type of blues, you can hear the work, you can hear sort
of--there's like blues like Robert Johnson, where you hear kind of the field
hand playing hooky. He's not at work. In Muddy, I think you hear the work.
And so you can just kind of--I think this evokes the feel very clearly.

GROSS: So here's Muddy Waters, recorded in 1941, recorded by Alan Lomax.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) Well, I feel in my heart, like I feel today, I'm gonna
pack my suitcase and make my getaway. 'Cause I'm troubled. I'm all worried
in my mind. And I never been satisfied and I just can't keep from cryin'.
Yeah, I know my little baby, she gonna jump and shout. That ol' train
delayed, girl, and I come walkin' out. Well, I'm troubled. I'm all worried.
And I never been satisfied and I just can't keep from cryin'. Yeah, I know
somebody sure been talkin' to you. I don't need no tellin' girl, I can watch
the way you move. I'm troubled. I be all worried. Yeah, and I never been
satisfied and I just can't keep from cryin'.

GROSS: You described what Muddy Waters' reaction was after Alan Lomax played
back Waters' first recording. What was his reaction?

Mr. GORDON: He hears himself, you know. He's got all these 78s in his cabin
that he's heard, and when he hears himself back, he goes, `Man, I can sing.'

GROSS: So he was pleased with what he heard?

Mr. GORDON: Yeah. He was pleased. I think he was astounded.

BOGAEV: Robert Gordon. His biography of Muddy Waters, "Can't Be Satisfied,"
is just out in paperback. We'll hear more of Terry's interview with Gordon
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Back now to our interview with Muddy Waters' biographer Robert

(Soundbite of interview)

GROSS: Robert Gordon, let's jump ahead seven years when he makes this song
again and records it commercially. What's the difference between the two

Mr. GORDON: Essentially, what we're going to hear in this is what I call
amplified Delta blues--that is, he's now been given an electric guitar and
begun to figure it out. He hasn't created what will soon be called Chicago
blues or urban blues or city blues, and instead here, it's the Delta style
that we just heard with a little more power. I think you can feel the kind of
tractor-seat bounce in that song that we just heard and that we'll hear now.
I, you know, just imagine him in a seat, either on a tractor or behind a plow,
and I think there's the rhythm of those wheels and the furrowed field--I think
all of that is right here.

GROSS: Here's Muddy Waters in 1948, "Can't Be Satisfied."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) Well, I'm goin' away to leave, won't be back no more.
Goin' back down South, child, don't you want to go? Woman, I'm troubled, I be
all worried in mind. Well, baby, I just can't be satisfied, and I just can't
keep from cryin'.

Well, I feel like snappin', pistol in your face. I'm gonna let some
graveyard, Lord, be her resting place. Woman, I'm troubled, I be all worried
in mind. Well, baby, I can't never be satisfied, and I just can't keep from


Mr. GORDON: If I can, can I just talk a little more about that song?

GROSS: "Can't Be Satisfied"?

Mr. GORDON: Yeah.

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. GORDON: Because that--when he makes that recording, you know, on which
basically his career is built because "Can't Be Satisfied" comes out and it
takes off. You know, he's established. It comes out on a Friday, it sells
out over the weekend, which was very rare. And all of a sudden, he's a name,
you know, and then his career is going. That was recorded at his third
session with Leonard Chess in Chicago. And at each session, it was Muddy
Waters on guitar and a piano player. And you can hear where the guitar is
about to break into modernity, and the piano gets in the way, you know, like,
Leonard knew the old style. That was all he knew. And so when this third
session is about to be done, Muddy speaks up and says, `Hold it. Let me do
one my way.' And because, you know, the results hadn't been great so far,
Leonard says, `OK.' Muddy goes back out, no piano, you know, just him and a
bass player now. And that's when he records this sound, and that is
when--Leonard's in the studio going, `What's he saying?' You know, he can't
even get it. He can't get the sound or even understand it. And when it--and
there was a lady partner in the business at that time. Muddy always appealed
to the ladies. And she got it. She said, `No, we've got to put that out.'
And it gets, you know, leapt on right away by the Chicago people who thirsted
for that sound.

GROSS: Well, we've already heard that recording to which you just referred.
Let's listen to another recording that Muddy Waters makes pretty early in his
stay in Chicago. This is from 1950. And this is "Rollin' and Tumblin',"
which has since been covered many times. What do you find remarkable about
this recording?

Mr. GORDON: Well, this is recorded upon the return to Chicago. In 1950,
after he's enjoyed some success, he and Jimmy Rogers, who was his guitarist,
and Little Walter, who was the harmonica player, and Baby Face Leroy on drums,
they say, you know, `Man, we made it. Let's go home triumphant.' And that's
when they go back and do this tour in the South, and they get a program on
KFFA, where they'd heard "King Biscuit Time," you know, in their youth. And
they come back North, and Leonard Chess at Chess Records will not record the
band. He's very--you know, he's got a successful thing. He didn't like to
change. And Muddy was all about change. So the band went to this competing
recording studio and I think--and they laid down this track. And in it, I
think you can hear, you know, the excitement of their triumphant return home
and they're back in the North and, you know, the world is theirs and they're
just enjoying it. Very sexual, what we'll hear, too, which I think is, you
know, at the core of the blues. You'll hear no words, essentially here. This
is just power.

GROSS: Let's hear it, recorded in 1950, Muddy Waters.

(Soundbite of "Rollin' and Tumblin'")

GROSS: That's Muddy Waters, recorded in 1950, "Rollin' and Tumblin'." And my
guest, Robert Gordon, is the author of a new biography of Muddy Waters called
"Can't Be Satisfied."

Well, as you were explaining, Muddy Waters recorded that for a record label
that wasn't Chess because Leonard Chess of Chess Records didn't like the sound
of it. But then Leonard Chess decides to record that song. What happened?

Mr. GORDON: Chess was really the power in the market at the time, and that
record came out; it didn't have Muddy's name on the label. But, you know, his
sound was all over it. It was very clear who it was. It came out under the
name of, variously, either Little Walter, the harmonica player, or Baby Face
Leroy, the drummer. And I love that drumming there. It's just, like, you
know, it's punk rock, sixteenth notes just constant. And so Chess says, `Hey,
you know, this is starting to take off. You come over here and do it for me.'
And they record a much cleaner version that doesn't have that same kind of
frenzy to it. And it doesn't have the band either, but at that point, after
that, Leonard Chess begins to bring in other bandmates because the audience
response to that version of "Rollin' and Tumblin'" indicated that the audience
was ready for a band.

GROSS: I want to skip ahead to 1951, to a recording called "Still A Fool."
And you say that this recording really exemplifies what's going to happen with
the use of electric guitar. Talk a little bit about this 1951 recording and
the new sound that Muddy Waters is getting in it.

Mr. GORDON: This is the beginning of urban blues. This is the beginning.
This is when the electric guitar is no longer playing amplified Delta blues.
This is a new sound. This is not a sound that they heard or could have made
in the Delta. Listen to the power in the electric guitar, the crunch of the
strings. Again, this is--I think it speaks for itself, really, but you'll
hear--I mean, from here, this is essentially the foundation of modern blues.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. Muddy Waters, recorded in 1951, "Still A Fool."

(Soundbite of "Still A Fool")

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) Well, now there's two, there's two trains running.
Well, they ain't never, no, going my way. Well, now, one run at midnight and
the other one, running just 'fore day. It's running just 'fore day. It's
running just 'fore day. Oh, Lord, sure enough, they is. Oh, well.

Mm, mm. Ho, ho, ho. Somebody help me, ho, with these blues. Well, now,
she's the one I'm loving, she's the one I do hate to lose, I do hate to

GROSS: Muddy Waters, recorded in 1951. My guest, Robert Gordon, is the
author of a new biography of Muddy Waters called "Can't Be Satisfied."

Now that's a really pretty great recording. Do you think his singing changes
as his guitar playing changes?

Mr. GORDON: That's funny because right in that song, I think the--you hear
the guitar playing so entwined with the singing. And they both have
that--it's almost like a distortion, you know, that rattle, that
deep-chestedness. So I guess in a way, it does. You know, the guitar sound
essentially pulls him into this new kind of singing. Yeah, I hadn't really
thought about that. But there, I think there it is, you know. That's where
they're both entwined and they're both going. These are--this is, like, new.
And I love hearing that song. I could hear that song all day.

BOGAEV: Robert Gordon, from an interview recorded last fall with Terry Gross.
His biography of Muddy Waters, "Can't Be Satisfied," is now out in paperback.
We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WATERS: The blues ...(unintelligible) are rollin'...

BOGAEV: Let's continue Terry's interview with writer Robert Gordon. His
biography of Muddy Waters is called "Can't Be Satisfied."

(Soundbite of interview)

GROSS: One of the things you did for the biography of Muddy Waters is find
some of his surviving friends and surviving relatives. Who were the surviving
relatives that you were able to make contact with?

Mr. GORDON: I made contact and became friends with Muddy's brothers,
half-brother in Rolling Fork, Robert Morganfield, and his granddaughter, whom
he raised, Amelia "Cookie" Cooper. And through them, really, once I met them
and gained their trust and developed a rapport, I began to get beyond the
stage and beyond the recording studio. It was easy to find bandmates, and
they were happy to talk, but getting into the family--they took me inside the
home. And Cookie, especially, the granddaughter, she was raised by Muddy and
his wife, lived with them since she was three in 1959. And I knocked on her
door. She was expecting me. She opens the door and says, essentially, `I
told you I would talk to you, so come in, but I don't really want to talk to

And I had waited about a year and a half or two years into my research to
approach her because I wanted to go in educated and armed. And once I began
to ask, you know, detailed, family-specific questions, she opened up. And she
said that Muddy, you know, was not a great man in the house, that, you know,
she talked frankly about his womanizing and about the effect that had on his
wife and in the household and on Cookie. And she laid it all on the line.
She spoke very honestly. And that gave me--her doing that was a huge
inspiration to me because it gave me--there is a dark side to Muddy Waters.
In the foreword to the book, Keith Richards writes, `There's a demon in all of
us, and certainly, there was a demon in Muddy.' And her frank and forthright
account of it allowed me to approach it similarly in the book.

GROSS: Well, there's a certainly a lot of darkness in his lyrics and a lot of
sexuality in his lyrics, so I guess in that sense, it's not surprising that
there was darkness and a lot of sexuality in his life as well. How did it
affect your sense of him as a man to hear stories of his womanizing and of
other things that he did that, I imagine, were dark or offensive to you?

Mr. GORDON: I was on this book--it took me five years to write. Because, you
know, he didn't read or write, there was no filing cabinet I was going to find
that had the box with his journal and all the answers in it, you know. So it
took going around and finding the people. And in that five years, I went
from, you know, really liking him to--there was a period where I really didn't
like him.

GROSS: Did it affect your feelings about his music? Because, let's face it,
a lot of his songs are about having sex with women who you are not married

Mr. GORDON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and who may be married to other people or you may be married to
another person.

Mr. GORDON: `She said, "Come on in now, Muddy. My husband just now left."'
That's from "Rolling Stone." In the five years, I never tired of listening to
the music, and I think what this sort of understanding of his--of his
understanding of his sexuality--what that gave me was, I think--you know, I
began to examine the lyrics deeper and kind of feel the sex in the songs

GROSS: Why don't we close with a recording of Muddy Waters singing his song
"Mannish Boy"? What's the significance of this recording?

Mr. GORDON: Well, you know, the sexuality here, again, is very clear. And
several people in Muddy's family talked about that when he would sing this
song, he brought a voice--you know, he threw his whole self into it, which I
think was part of his art. You know, there's a lot of people who sound great,
but he was able to make it work on tape time and time again. So I think what
you hear here is Muddy Waters singing, you know, `I'm a man,' and he--when I
asked Cookie, the granddaughter, once, you know, `Why do you think he did
these bad things to the home?' And she said, `Because he's a man.' And, you
know, whew, that kind of left me stunned, but, you know, in this song, I think
you'll hear it.

BOGAEV: Robert Gordon's biography of Muddy Waters, "Can't Be Satisfied," is
just out in paperback.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Whoo! Everything, everything,
everything gonna be all right this morning. Oh, yeah. Whoo! Yeah! Now when
I was a young boy, at the age of five, my mother said I was gonna be the
greatest man alive. But now I'm a man, way past 21. I want you to believe
me, baby, I have lots of fun. I'm a man. I spell M, A, child, N.


BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WATERS: (Singing) I'm a natural-born lover's man. I'm a man. Yeah!
I'm a rollin' stone. I'm a man. Yeah! I'm a hoochie-coochie man. Sittin'
on the outside just me and my mate. You know I'm made to move, honey, come up
two hours late. I'm a man. Yeah. I spell M, A, child, N. That
(unintelligible). Whoa, child. Whine--that means ...(unintelligible) boy.
Man, I'm a full-grown man. Man. I'm a natural-born lover's man. Man. Yeah!
I'm a rollin' stone. Man, child.
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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