DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Bruce Eric Kaplan is a TV writer and producer whose name you may or may not know. He works on HBO's "Girls," and previously worked on "Seinfeld" and "Six Feet Under." But even if his name isn't familiar, New Yorker readers may know him from his initials, BEK. That's the way he signs his New Yorker cartoons.
Kaplan has written and illustrated a memoir about his childhood growing up in the 1960s and '70s in Maplewood, N.J. It's called "I Was A Child," and it's now out in paperback. It's a collection of memories of his parents and about the furniture, food, sound and smells he remembers. He describes how when he was a child he wanted to be an adult but was petrified he would be stuck in his parents house forever. When Terry Gross spoke with Bruce Eric Kaplan last year, she told him that passages in his memoir made her laugh out loud because of the descriptions that made her think about her own childhood.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Bruce Eric Kaplan, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let me ask you to start with a short reading from your book "I Was A Child."
BRUCE ERIC KAPLAN: (Reading) Emotions were a confusing thing for me and still are. I'm not angry, my father would shout when you asked him if he was angry. I'm not upset, my mother would say in an upset way when you asked her if she was upset. I'm upset, I would tell my father, who would say firmly, you're not upset.
I think I love the clarity of emotions on television. Everyone was what they were. I loved how direct Ricky and Lucy were, even when they were not being direct with each other. Of course, I loved "I Love Lucy" and saw every episode over and over again. I found it heartbreaking that Ricky got to be famous and have an exciting life at the Tropicana while Lucy was stuck in that terrible apartment with the Mertzes. Her pain was too much for me. I guess I identified. I don't remember a time when I didn't think, why did I get stuck in this house? It's not that it was such a bad house or the people were so bad, it just seemed like life was elsewhere.
GROSS: Bruce, did you always feel that way growing up, that you were just kind of, like, trapped in your parent's world?
KAPLAN: I would say trapped is a strong word for it but yes.
GROSS: Why did you want to do this book, which I consider a kind of inventory of childhood memories, of objects and of feelings? Is this is your version of Proust's "Remembrance Of Things Past" (laughter)?
KAPLAN: I haven't read it.
GROSS: Me neither (laughter).
KAPLAN: So I can't say.
GROSS: So I don't even know what I'm talking about.
KAPLAN: But it probably - I feel very comfortable saying it definitely is my version of Proust.
KAPLAN: I didn't know that I wanted to do it, actually. I had a meeting with a publishing company, and I intended to try and sell a light - sort of a lighter piece that sort of - not as autobiographical. But soon after sitting down with them, I was talking about my father's death 'cause it had happened a few months before the meeting. And then, like, one story kept coming out after another. And I just was talking about my childhood and, like, things that I saw or things that I thought about and my parents. And then, you know, at the end of it - it was a long meeting. I think it was over an hour, you know? They acted as if I had sold them a book about my childhood, so I guess I had.
GROSS: I think there's something especially potent about childhood memories 'cause they're our first memories. They're the most, like, deeply engrained in our brains. What was it like for you to do an inventory of those memories in putting this book together?
KAPLAN: It was good. It was good and bad, I would say. You know, as I said, I started writing the book soon after my father died. And so it was very comforting to go back into my childhood, go back to another time when both my parents - my mother died long before my father died. So it was very comforting and soothing to go back into a time when I had - when both my parents were alive and young and healthy. And so that was great and wonderful. And then - but at the end of the day when I would stop writing or stop drawing, they would be gone again. So I was always continually reliving the loss of them, actually, in the writing of the book.
GROSS: And yet, your feelings toward them in the book isn't like, oh, you love on them so much, you're so close to them. You say your parents' marriage almost seemed like it must have been an arranged marriage. You never understood (laughter) their relationship. I mean, you weren't especially close, it sounds from the book.
KAPLAN: No, no, not at all. I wasn't, and yet, you know, they were my parents.
KAPLAN: You know, so just having them...
KAPLAN: ...Be there, you know, in any capacity was a comfort. Even when it was horrifying, there was still - you know, they're your parents, and you want to, you know, have a closeness with them. Just by being in their presence, there's a closeness that isn't there when they're gone.
GROSS: So let's get to some of your memories. Cheez-Its on New Year's Eve represented total wild abandon (laughter).
KAPLAN: Yeah, completely 'cause it was - we lived for that box. I mean, I lived for that box of, you know - that red box of Cheez-Its because you didn't get them for the rest of the year.
GROSS: So what was food like in your house?
KAPLAN: It tasted horrible. I mean, my mother was a terrible cook. I didn't - when I went to college - and I remember 'cause we didn't go out to eat that often. And when I went to college and I went in the cafeteria and I tasted, like, the, you know, broccoli, I was like, oh, my God, this is incredible. This is what food is like.
KAPLAN: I mean, I used to go crazy that freshman year at the cafeteria, like, this is incredible.
KAPLAN: This is, like, a BLT. I can't believe this.
GROSS: On Halloween, your mother gave out pencils or Trident sugarless gum. That's pretty joyless.
KAPLAN: Right. Well, she was, you know, very against sugar. And she thought you're getting all this candy, and so why not get something that's good for you? And she used to insist that all the kids were very appreciative about her pencils and her Trident.
KAPLAN: Like, that was the worst part - not that she did it, but, like, her insistence that kids loved it.
GROSS: So let's talk about one of the objects that bring back a lot of memories for you. Your parents, through your childhood, had this big cabinet that was actually a stereo or a record player - I'm not sure if it was quite a stereo yet (laughter).
KAPLAN: Oh, I'm sure there couldn't have been anything stereophonic about it.
GROSS: OK. So describe this big, hulking piece of furniture and what memories it brings back to you.
KAPLAN: It was this enormous wood box that had a record player on the left and - no, a record player on the right and a place to put records on the left. It was really big. And I remember, as a kid, like, you know, listening to my parents' copy of "My Fair Lady" on the floor next to it when it - and I was very young - like, probably under 5. I would sit on the floor staring at the album cover 'cause that's what you did when I was a kid. You just - when you listen to the music, you stared at the album cover. It was like a law.
KAPLAN: Like, you just - I don't remember ever listening to music and not staring at the album cover. The "My Fair Lady" one that I would listen to had a drawing of Rex Harrison. And he was holding the strings, and Julie Andrews was a marionette. And it was so horrifying to me. I just remember, like, as I would listen to these sweet songs or something, just being, like, freaked out by, like, someone being - the idea of a person having strings that someone else was, you know, manipulating was, like, just - had me in its thrall in a horrible way.
But anyhow, the main thing I remember about the record cabinet is that soon after I was that age, the record player broke. And it was never fixed. And that was that, you know, that we had a broken record player in the living room in this huge cabinet that took up, you know, a lot of space. And it just was there for years - I mean, over a decade, you know?
If something was put somewhere, it was, like - it stayed. It was like God had put it there. Like, you just didn't move it. Like, if it broke, if it, like, didn't look good anymore, well, you know, it was like a member of the family. It's here. It's staying.
GROSS: (Laughter). You write that in the summer, windows were open and parents would scream for their kids at dinner time. I grew up with that, too, and in an apartment building, so there were lots of open windows and lots of parents screaming for their kids at dinner time and at other times when it was time to come in. Was that embarrassing to you, or was that just, like, that's the way the game was played?
KAPLAN: No. Yeah, I just thought it was happening for everyone, and I didn't know otherwise. I do remember - and I was young, you know, when that - when you're that age, when that's how you - that's the system for coming home. Your mother just yells for you. I remember later being a teenager in McGuire's, the clothing store in the town that I grew up in, and my mother yelling my name as we were getting our - you know, the fall clothing. We only got clothing once a year, like, right before school began. It's like, that's when you got your clothing. But when she said my name in McGuire's from a different aisle, that was, like - I was freaked out. Like, I guess, you know, I was a different age then, so I guess that's why.
BIANCULLI: TV writer, producer and New Yorker cartoonist Eric Kaplan speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's conversation from last year with TV writer, producer and New Yorker cartoonist and author Bruce Eric Kaplan. His illustrated memoir "I Was A Child" is now out in paperback.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Reading your memoir, I really find myself thinking a lot about your mother. You write that your mother was overwhelmed by having three boys to raise, and everything seemed to weigh on her. Anything at all was a burden. And it seems like she just - she couldn't handle the stress of raising three boys, of, like, cooking all those meals when she had no gift for cooking. The work that she ended up doing as a counselor in a school seemed to overwhelm her, too. Did you have any understanding of it as a child...
GROSS: ...Or do you as an adult?
KAPLAN: No, you know, that's the thing - my parents...
GROSS: I mean, it must look different to you as an adult than it did as a child.
KAPLAN: No. I wish it did. My parents were and are mysteries to me, which is, you know, one of the horrors of your parents passing is when they go, that's it. You're never going to find out. I just knew that my mother had a hard time with things. So, like, if I came to her and said I was having a problem, you know, it became her problem. Like, it just was too much for her to deal with this thing. Everything was too much - she couldn't, you know - for her.
I think my only understanding about my mother's - why everything was too much for her, is that now that I've become a parent, I understand. It actually is too much for you (laughter). I mean, there's so much horror about having children and their pain and all the things they need that, you know, she was not capable of sort of moving past whatever was going on for her to be able to, like, address children's stuff.
GROSS: So there's a sentence you just slip into the memoir about how your father once told you that your mother had two abortions. What do you know?
KAPLAN: All I know is I have this hazy memory of my father saying this. So it's not even - I'm not even a 100 percent sure about it. It's just I believe my father referenced that my mother had one abortion before they were married and then one abortion after I was born. I was the youngest of three.
GROSS: What clue does that give you about your mother's life? And - I mean, abortions were so risky before they were legal.
KAPLAN: They were. I think - I mean, obviously a lot of people were doing them, though. I mean, I think it was part of life, as far as I understand.
GROSS: Right. But I mean, like, you know that she had trouble coping with three children. And I'm just trying to imagine what was going through her mind thinking, you know, there might be a fourth on the way after you were born.
KAPLAN: Oh, right. Yeah, she was done. There was no - I mean, that - it wasn't a surprise when I - if it is true, it's not a surprise to me because a fourth would've put her over the edge. I mean, like, I actually - impressed that she held it together the way she did because she seemed to be, you know, just very fragile, as if, you know, she needed a stay at McLean's (ph) for a few months from having three boys.
GROSS: You write that neither of your parents believed it was possible to get what you want. I guess they didn't get what they wanted, or maybe they didn't even know what they wanted?
KAPLAN: You know, this is an area about my parents that I just shut down when I try to understand it. It's like I go into a childlike place, I think. I know my father wanted to be a successful novelist or television writer or playwright, and he ended up being a textbook editor. So I know, you know, he had a part of him that had wanted to be something more than he was professionally.
In terms of my mother - I think this might be a cultural Jewish thing, which I'm sure my father had also - I don't remember her wanting - knowing that she wanted more than she had in - but I do feel there was this feeling of deprivation and don't ask for too much or it'll be taken away from you. Is that a culturally Jewish thing?
GROSS: I think it is. I really think it is. And I think a combination of, like, the Holocaust and the Depression...
KAPLAN: Oh, yeah, right.
GROSS: ...Made a lot of adults - and with the Holocaust, particularly Jewish adults - think, you know, work hard for a good outcome but don't expect it. Expect things to turn out bad 'cause that way, when they do turn out bad or if they do turn out bad, you won't be disappointed because...
KAPLAN: That's definitely it.
GROSS: ...Things usually work out bad (laughter). Yeah.
KAPLAN: Right. That was a big part of our house; don't expect too much or you'll be disappointed. You needed this armor to, like, you know - well, I don't need anything so then, I'll be fine.
GROSS: I think there's this idea that negative thinking was actually a very helpful approach. It was a very protective way of interacting with the world.
KAPLAN: For my parents, it's like, if you don't talk to anyone, then nothing bad could happen.
GROSS: Could you have written this book if your parents were still alive?
KAPLAN: I really wanted to do an honest portrait of my parents, like, nothing that would - you know, they were great in some ways. And they were loving, you know, and tried to be. So I wanted to do something that was a kind portrait of them but also a very honest portrait of what it was like to grow up in my parents' house. And they wouldn't have been happy with the honesty of the portrait. In fact, my dad's girlfriend at the time of his death, she just read the book. And she emailed me. And she was like, oh, it's very interesting; I don't think dad would have loved it.
GROSS: Do you feel a little guilty about it?
KAPLAN: I don't... I have many emotions about it. And one of them is, as I said, I feel like it's a very loving tribute to them. And it's a way of keeping them alive. I actually - not just for me, but for the world. So that's the positive. And then in the negative, there is some guilt because there's things that I write in the book that I feel like they wouldn't have been happy about it. They just wouldn't like that to be the portrait of them for the world.
GROSS: Well, you know, along with the negative thinking that is perhaps part of a Jewish cultural trait from having been thrown out of so many countries and then the Holocaust, I think there's also this feeling from parents of a certain generation who witnessed the Holocaust, even if it was from afar, even if their own lives weren't in jeopardy, and who witnessed McCarthyism. So it's, you know, like, McCarthyism and anti-Semitism in the same era, this sense of, like, don't tell anybody. Keep it in the family.
KAPLAN: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Don't expose...
KAPLAN: Oh completely...
GROSS: ...Anything, no one should know. We'll be safer if no one knows.
KAPLAN: Yeah, I mean, that was - our house had that completely. Like, no one should know anything - like your ZIP code. You told someone our ZIP code? What, are you crazy?
KAPLAN: How could you tell a person our ZIP code? And then you'd say, well, what would they do with our ZIP code? They could already figure it out. They know what block I live on. They'd be like, what are you doing? Don't give them anything.
GROSS: You said that you couldn't have written your memoir about your childhood when your parents were alive 'cause you wanted to be able to be honest in a way you wouldn't have wanted to do when they were alive 'cause it would've made them uncomfortable. Was it that way with cartooning, too? Did - were you able to do things in your cartoons that you wouldn't have done before?
KAPLAN: No. The cartoons have always been this great thing for me because you can hide in them. What I mean is that they're very autobiographical and very personal. And I mean, I've said this in the past, they're my journal. They're my diaries. Like, they're what I'm thinking about. They're what I'm scared about. They're what I'm seeing. But you put them through a prism of goldfish or about children or about two women on the street. And then that's the freeing part.
You don't know what it - you know, it's not an autobiographical essay where you say this happened, and this is what I thought and this is what I saw. It's more like you take those, and then you put them in this blender and they come out in a different way. So no one - no one will quite know what it is, the moment that it happened, that you had that thought or that you saw something.
GROSS: Can you think of a cartoon that was, like, two fish or whatever...
KAPLAN: Yeah, there was one...
GROSS: ...And it was really, like, your parents...
KAPLAN: Once I did a cartoon about my father. And it was a man on a telephone. And he's alone in his house. And he's saying to the person on the other line, I'm not saying anything. I'm just talking.
KAPLAN: And, you know, it was about my father. But my father would have no way of knowing that he was the person that I was writing that about. And, you know, the punch line to this story is, you know, mostly, I do these cartoons, and I never hear anything from anyone. You know, they just - they're published, and then that's that. You know, it's not like someone in my life says, oh, I saw that cartoon, and that was funny or not funny or anything. I mean, occasionally they do but not that often.
In this particular instance, my father - I was talking to him on the phone that weekend. He said, I saw your cartoon this week; I loved it. And I was, like, amazed 'cause I thought, like, well, he can't possibly think it's about him 'cause he wouldn't love that. But - so does he feel other people are this way - like, the way of the guy in the cartoon who isn't saying anything, he's just talking? And that, you know, it's a mystery that I'll never know.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.
KAPLAN: Oh, absolutely. This was fun. It was great.
BIANCULLI: Bruce Eric Kaplan speaking to Terry Gross last year. His illustrated memoir "I Was A Child" is now out in paperback
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Musicians ranging from Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams to the Blind Boys of Alabama and Sinead O'Connor have come together to cover the music of gospel blues performer Blind Willie Johnson. It's for a new tribute album called "God Don't Never Change." Music critic Milo Miles begins his review with Sinead O'Connor performing "Trouble Will Soon Be Over."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLE WILL SOON BE OVER")
O'CONNOR: (Singing) Trouble'll soon be over. Sorrow will have an end. Trouble'll soon be over. Sorrow will have an end. Well, Christ is my burden bearer. He's my only friend. Till the end of my sorrow he tells me to lean on him. Oh, trouble'll soon...
MILO MILES, BYLINE: It's essential to emphasize the many contradictions of Blind Willie Johnson, starting with the basic one that he sang religious music while playing slide guitar that was all potent blues. He was from Texas but sounded like a performer from the Mississippi Delta. He often sang in a growling bass that was not his natural voice but a signal of his possession by the spirits. Most of all, as mysterious as his life remains, his songs are vivid and present. All the proof you need is on the new collection of cover tunes "God Don't Never Change." It begins with a striking rendition by another distinctive growler, Tom Waits.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUL OF A MAN")
TOM WAITS: (Singing) Now, won't somebody to tell me, answer if you can. I want somebody to tell me now what is the soul of a man? I traveled to different countries. I've traveled to foreign lands. And I haven't found nobody that can tell me just what about the soul of a man. I want somebody...
MILES: There is only one known photo of Johnson and tales of his private life have an eery legend-like quality, not unlike the stories of other blues sorcerer, Robert Johnson. Blind Willie's widow, Angeline, told blues scholar Sam Charters that he had been blinded as a child when his stepmother threw lye in his face after she was beaten for infidelity by his father. Explanation enough for one of Johnson's best-known originals, "Mother's Children Have A Hard Time." Here giving as straight gospel reading by the Blind Boys of Alabama.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTHER'S CHILDREN HAVE A HARD TIME")
BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA: (Singing) Motherless children have a hard time when mother is gone. Motherless children have a hard time when mother's gone. They don't have nowhere to go, running around door to door. Motherless children have a hard time when mother's gone. Let me sing this. Nobody on earth...
MILES: "God Don't Never Change" includes many inventive, reformulated songs. The band Cowboy Junkies would not seem ideal candidates to cover Blind Willie Johnson. But their version of "Jesus Is Coming Soon" incorporates a sample of Johnson's original vocal that delivers his withering fervor. Johnson is not just a Christian but an apocalyptic who concentrates on the fallen world's anguish and calamities, such as the 1918 flu epidemic described here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JESUS IS COMING SOON")
BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON: (Singing) Well, we done told you, our God's warned you, Jesus is coming soon. We done told you, our God's done warned you, Jesus is coming soon.
COWBOY JUNKIES: (Singing) In the year 19 and 18 God sent a mighty disease It killed many a-thousand on land and on the seas. We done told you, our God's done warned you, Jesus is coming soon. We done told you, our God's done warned you, Jesus is coming soon. He spread disease...
MILES: The most certain part of Johnson's life is his professional career. He drew large crowds as a street singer and recorded for Columbia three times from late 1927 to 1930 when the Depression devastated the music industry. He toured and played in New York City as late as 1938 before dying in 1945, either from malaria or the more legendary account that he caught pneumonia sleeping in the ashes of his house that had burned down. The standout reinvention for me on this record, the one that best conveys Johnson's strangeness, is the title track by Lucinda Williams. Her searing conviction hammers home Johnson's faith that an omnipresent God was not only all over the floor but down in Hell and could order a mountain to skip around like a lamb.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD DON'T NEVER CHANGE")
LUCINDA WILLIAMS: (Singing) God don't never change. He's God, always will be God. He's God. God don't never change. He's God, always will be God. He's God. God don't never change. He's God, always will be God. Right, he's God. God don't never change. He's God, always will be God. He's the God in the middle of the ocean, a God in the middle of the sea, by the help of the great creator, truly been a God to me. He's God.
MILES: Blind Willie Johnson's complete original recordings are made available on Columbia. And whether you hear them or this set of covers first, you'll immediately want to acquire the other. I want to acknowledge producer Jeffrey's Gaskill's years of effort to bring out "God Don't Never Change," including a kickstarter campaign, and praise Michael Cochran's detailed liner notes which come as close as anyone ever will to piercing the veil's around Blind Willie Johnson.
BIANCULLI: Milo Miles reviewed "God Don't Never Change: The Songs Of Blind Willie Johnson" on the Alligator label.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Longtime Chinese activist Harry Wu died Tuesday at age 79. Earlier in his life, he survived 19 years in Chinese labor camps before emigrating to America in 1985. He became an American citizen in 1994, the year he visited FRESH AIR and spoke with Terry Gross. The crimes for which he had been imprisoned included criticizing the Soviet invasion of Hungary and being an intellectual and a bourgeois.
In 1995, Wu returned to China undercover to expose prison conditions and was detained for 66 days before pressure from human rights advocates led to this release. Wu grow up in Shanghai, part of the Westernized upper-middle-class. His father was a bank executive. Wu was arrested on the day after his college graduation and sentenced to life imprisonment. But he was released in 1979. When he spoke to Terry in 1994, he described how the years of imprisonment, brainwashing and mistreatment had been designed to turn him into a robot.
(SOUNDBITE ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
HENRY WU: I had once been reduced to such a robot, I forgot my dignity, future, freedom, everything. I surrendered. I cooperated with the wardens, and I beat fellow prisoners. I stole food. I begged guard's mercy at his feet while in the solitary confinement. That's how I survived the camp. You know, the heroes cannot survive the camp, the system. They are physically crushed right away.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Your attitude was you would do whatever you needed to do to survive.
WU: Yes. And I think the way is you have to turn yourself into a beast. That's the only way. If you're thinking you are human beings, then you are thinking about freedom, family, future, sex, right and wrong. And those things only cause suffering. And a hungry beast only thinking about grabbing food from anywhere. The police guard use the food control the people.
GROSS: They used food to control people.
WU: Yeah, the police say no labor, no food. You cannot complete your labor quarter, reduce your food, remove away your food.
GROSS: One of the ways you found to get a bit of extra food was to look for rat holes because where there was a rat hole, the rat might've stashed some grains, some corn. What was the best stash you ever found in a rat hole?
WU: I still remember my very lucky times I found rat holes. The rat is a very good collector. They collect same size the soybean. They collect rice, collect the corn. And in the hole, even - you pull the water, you can damage the storage. If one day one of the prisoners can find a rat hole, then he become like a milliner. No, it's really good. And if we can - caught rats and also eat it.
GROSS: And the rats, too. So you ate rats.
WU: I ate - I ate a lot. And also the frogs, snakes, any kind of life.
GROSS: When you would find food, would you try to share it with other people, or was it...
WU: No, never.
GROSS: It's too important to survive.
WU: No, never.
WU: Never. I never share with other people and always tried to grab the food from other people. I did it many times. I beat them and robbed their food - if I'm strong, I did.
GROSS: Did people beat you and rob you of your food?
WU: They did to me also.
GROSS: When you were released, you went back to your home in Shanghai. Let's talk about what happened to your family. It turns out your mother - your stepmother had committed suicide shortly after you were imprisoned after she got your first letter. Do you know why she killed herself?
WU: It's hard. Yes. No choice for her, really scared and really disappointed. And she commit suicide. And I never know about it. My family not allowed to tell me about it because committing suicide in China also is a kind of crime, especially for these counterrevolutionary families. Suppose you are using the death against government. So they have to tell the police our mother was dead in heart attack.
GROSS: Because if they knew she'd committed suicide after she got your letter...
GROSS: ...It would be seen as a criticism of the Communist government?
WU: Yes, and then these problems will come to my - the rest of my family.
GROSS: Now, your father was denounced by members of his own family as a stinking reactionary. Who did that to him?
WU: My sister. They have to.
GROSS: And she was forced to do it?
WU: Forced - you have to. In China, if one person become a counterrevolutionary, all your friends and family have to stay away with you, make a clear separation with you. They should not sympathize you. They cannot do that. If they sympathize and stand with you, they also have to - were sent into the camp. Sympathize the counterrevolutionary is also - it's a crime in China.
GROSS: Now, one of your brothers became a Communist. He expressed love for Chairman Mao, but then he was attacked because of his reactionary family. And those blows left him mentally disabled. What happened to him?
WU: My youngest brother didn't become a Communist, but he is - impossible for him to become a Communist because his father, his brother is counterrevolutionaries.
GROSS: I see, so - right, he couldn't...
GROSS: ...Become a Communist.
WU: But he's really - in his heart, he wanted to become a revolutionary. He want to - he really loved the Chairman Mao, so he want to separate with the family and go to the countryside and so call receive the reeducation for the poor peasants. And he want to serve the people. And he got a job assignment in the far remote area, and he worked very hard. But one day, he found the portrait of Chairman Mao was dusty by someone. And it seems to him this is very bad things, so he report to the Red Guard and the reported police say maybe some people do something wrong to our great leader. And then the Red Guard and the police suspect maybe my brother did it, you know, because you come from the counterrevolutionary family. And they handle him to (unintelligible) and beat him and damaged the brain. So my brother came went back to home under my father's - take care by my father. Finally, my father was gone in and 1980, nobody can take care of him. And he have some kind of recover in It 1980, '81. It was sometimes OK. And then he went to Beijing. He wanted to visit the government and to request to have a job and request to have a rehabilitation. But unfortunately, the police arrested and beat him and torture him to death.
GROSS: So your brother is dead now?
WU: Yeah, died in 1981.
GROSS: A couple of years ago, in you decided 1991, you decided to go back to China to try to document the prison camp system there. And you took a hidden camera with you - you did this for "60 Minutes." They helped, I guess, equip you with what you needed to take pictures and to take video. Why did you take the risk to go back to China and do that?
WU: First of all, the pieces of land in the (unintelligible) we call China, that is my motherland. My parents, my brother, they are still over there and many, many of my inmates, my friends they are over there. I cannot stop thinking about them. The nightmares always come back to me. I am lucky. I survive. I want to enjoy my life in a peaceful land. I'm a very normal person. I want to be loved. I want to love. But I cannot turn back on these people, these nameless, voiceless, faceless people. Forget means betraying. I cannot do that.
BIANCULLI: Chinese activist Harry Wu speaking to Terry Gross in 1994. He died Tuesday at age 79.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. It's likely that most people have seen the now classic photo of President Nixon shaking hands with Elvis Presley at the White House on December 21, 1970. The new film "Elvis & Nixon" is about that historic meeting. It stars Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey is Richard Nixon. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Like many people, I can't get enough of Richard Nixon, and not just in relation to Watergate, which Bob Woodward called the gift that keeps on giving. In Harry Shearer's online series "Nixon's The One," he showed you could make a great psycho comedy simply by performing the transcripts of Nixon's Oval Office conversations. And the charming new film "Elvis & Nixon" goes a step further. It dramatizes the meeting of two American icons and illuminates both men's strange minds.
In December 1970, Presley actually delivered a letter to the White House, asking to meet with Nixon and be appointed a federal agent at large in the war on drugs, though no such title existed. Yes, Presley had scandalized conservatives in the '50s, but the movie shows him to be a fundamentally well-mannered Southern boy who loved his guns and his country and only abused legal drugs. He's appalled by much of the counterculture. He fantasizes going undercover and bringing drug dealers to justice. And he gets his meeting.
It's hard to imagine the weirdness, the sheer discontinuum of Nixon and Elvis together. Nixon's alienation from the pop culture of his day was total. He didn't know rock 'n' roll, but he knew it was made by his enemies - long-haired kids who flouted authority. In the movie, Kevin Spacey's Nixon assumes Elvis is like all the others maybe worse - as he rambles to his aide Egil Bud Krogh, played by Colin Hanks.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ELVIS & NIXON")
KEVIN SPACEY: You know, Krogh, guys like that who were just born good-looking - well, you obviously know - they never had to work for it, if you know what I mean. Not me, no, I had to make something of myself to get a girl to notice me. It wasn't just handed to me by some sort of genetic lottery. I wasn't born looking like a Kennedy, you know. But that's why guys like me are survivors. But guys like this Elvis fellow - no, underneath all that they're weak. They whither at the first sign of trouble. They just crumble like a sand dune.
EDELSTEIN: There's a subtext to that scene in "Elvis & Nixon." Nixon never got over losing to the photogenic John F. Kennedy. And he's pickled in bitterness. Kevin Spacey captures as no one I've seen the stiffness born of terrible insecurity, that lack of elasticity that made Nixon so ill at ease and such a stickler for protocol. Michael Shannon plays Elvis before the weight gain, but after Presley's alienation from the world. Shannon doesn't do much of an Elvis impersonation, but I think he nails something in Presley - the casual, soft-spoken kingliness. This Presley believes that he can bend the world to his will, and it's a riot when he saunters into federal offices and causes people to freeze in disbelief. Everyone bows down to him, no matter how ridiculous his words, with the notable exception of the African-American characters who plainly resent his appropriation of their music.
Director Liza Johnson has the right sprightly touch. The film comes in at a trim 86 minutes, but not all of them work, perhaps out of fear the audience won't relate to either Elvis or Nixon. The filmmakers often focus on an old chum of Presley's, Jerry Schilling, played by Alex Pettyfer, whom Presley drags to Washington and who's forced to choose between the king and his own fiance back in Los Angeles. It's not a painful subplot, only formulaic and inessential.
But the last act is everything it should be. A title crawl informs us no tape exists of the actual Elvis-Nixon meeting. But if it didn't happen the way it does here, it should have. Nixon is disarmed by Presley's denunciations of hippies and war protesters, which really was how subordinates won Nixon's confidence, attacking his enemies even before he could. You can't believe what you're seeing. In their insane way, these two lost souls connect. "Elvis & Nixon" is a doodle, but it's not a slight as some of its critics have complained.
In addition to depicting its title characters in a new light, it shows the crazy-making insulation of celebrity. Elvis and Nixon, each in his own way, have so much power. But their windows on the world are now fun house mirrors, reflecting back, even magnifying their own nuttiness.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
On Monday's show, we look back on the heyday of LA's punk scene with John Doe and Exene Cervenka of the band X and Dave Alvin of The Blasters. Doe has put together a new book about those early days. They brought guitars and will perform live versions of a couple of songs, including this one by the band X.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WORLD'S A MESS IT'S IN MY KISS")
X: (Singing) No one is united and all things are untied. Perhaps we're boiling over inside. They've been telling lies. Who's been telling lies? There are no angels. There are devils in many ways. Take it like a man. The world's a mess. It's in my kiss. The world's a mess. It's in my kiss. The world's a mess. It's in my kiss. The world's a mess. It's in my kiss. You can't take it back. Pull it out of the fire. Pull it out in the bottom of the ninth. Pull it out. In chords of red disease dragging my system, dragging my head and body. There are some facts here that refuse to escape. I could say it stronger but it's too much trouble. I was wondering down at the bricks. Hectic, isn't it? Down we go, cradle and all. No one is united...
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