DATE February 20, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield discusses his career,
family and New Orleans
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Today is the second Mardi Gras in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. My
guest is trumpeter and composer Irvin Mayfield. The 29-year-old musician has
been the official cultural ambassador for the city of New Orleans and the
state of Louisiana since 2003. Mayfield is also the founder and director of
the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, leads his own quintet, and co-leads the Latin
jazz group Los Hombres Calientes. After Hurricane Katrina, he was
commissioned by the Episcopal Church to compose an orchestral work that would
echo the city's grief but also commemorate the city's rebirth. Soon after his
first performance of the piece in mid-November of 2005, he learned that his
father, who had been missing since the hurricane, had actually died in the
Irvin Mayfield, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Given all the problems the people in New Orleans are still having, how do you
feel about celebrating during Mardi Gras?
Mr. IRVIN MAYFIELD: Well, I think, in the city of New Orleans, you know, if
we don't celebrate, we're not going to have anything else. I think it's one
of the few things that we can do well that we control ourselves. And when you
really look at the story of New Orleans, the biggest American part of it is
how we do celebrate through adversity, how we can do like our founding
forefathers did and the slaves did. We take something that starts out one way
and we manipulate it to represent ourselves. And so we, in that sense, we
really have the true American sense of rebuilding.
GROSS: So this is the second Mardi Gras in New Orleans. How much of the
music scene has come back and what is still painfully missing?
Mr. MAYFIELD: I would say the thing that would be most painfully missing is
the variety of the types of people for Mardi Gras. Even though I know a lot
of people are coming back, and they're coming in town to celebrate, a lot of
the folks, so it feels somewhat the same, you know, the feeling that you just
can't go to that person's house afterwards. And we're a very small community
in New Orleans, and you really miss that fact that you see this guy, say,
`Hey, man, what you doing? Want to go by your mama house later?' You know,
that community sense has changed, and also a lot of the areas that would have
their own celebrations just don't exist anymore, from the Lower Ninth Ward all
the way down to New Orleans East, also the areas of the Sixth Ward and New
Orleans, Gentilly. A lot of places that you just drive by, there are not a
lot of people back. And that's just--that's really one of the tragic things.
As far as how many musicians are back, I would say a large percentage of the
musicians are back, more than half, and it's growing everyday. Because the
reality is from all the musicians--and this is really an honest answer--all of
the musicians that I've talked to as being a cultural ambassador for New
Orleans, I have not had one tell me they don't want to come back to New
GROSS: You know, I was going to ask you about the things that you miss most
that you lost in the flood, but I was thinking what you must really miss that
you lost in the flood is your father. He died in the flood, and I know it
took you three months to find his body. Were you ever able to find out what
actually happened to him?
Mr. MAYFIELD: Yeah. He was a victim of drowning for Hurricane Katrina. And
what we kind of have--the story we've kind of put together was he was in the
house on Music Street in Gentilly, which is where my parents lived. He had
talked to my mother the morning after the storm had passed. They spoke on the
phone. He said, `Everything's fine, you can come on back.' You know, they got
a little roof damage and, you know, must have been a half an hour later we
look at the TV and see that there's a levy breach. And then, you know, all of
the phones are out, and that was the last time we spoke to him.
We then assumed that he went to the attic, because we actually went back to
the house and saw that they had peanut butter and a candle and things like
that and some of his clothes up there. He must have stayed in the attic for
maybe about two or three days. And then which we know that he was evacuated,
because we found the person who evacuated him. He was evacuated about five
blocks away to a school called Brother Martin. And at the school, a bunch of
people were there, but it wasn't a real evacuation site. Most of the
evacuations that were taking place were by the New Orleanians themselves, so
this was just a neighbor who lived down the street, came with a boat, took
him, as well as some other people, to this school.
And then we believe that after, you know, another day or so of not having any
food and water, some of these people just decided to walk, and he probably
thought he could swim, not realizing that the water in the streets were some
places eight feet to 12 feet to, you know, 16 feet. And his body was found
somewhere around the Elysian Fields area.
GROSS: What kind of funeral did you want to give him? I mean, I know you've
thought a lot about classic New Orleans funerals, and what did you want to do
for him? Did you want music and things like that at his funeral? Or...
Mr. MAYFIELD: You know, that kind of thing at a funeral, I think it's
important, but when you really dealing with, you know, loss of parent, you
know, your thinking on that level just changes. You know, once again, it's
such a deep emotional experience. It's very hard to put in words. So the
things that become important at that point in time, playing a song or those
kinds of things aren't the most important. But the one interesting kind of
development musically out of the whole thing was that that the first song I
ever learned how to play that he taught me how to play, actually, was a church
song called "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," which is a song that, in New
Orleans, we play at all the funerals, all the jazz funerals. You play it at
church at funerals. And I had played this song in dedication to him when I
did a lot of national concerts, you know, reminding people that he was missing
because I thought a lot of people were getting the image that, `Oh, if you see
Irvin Mayfield, Wynton Marsalis and Aaron Neville, they're doing a concert,'
and everybody having a good time, people may not really understand how severe
and personal the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina is. So I would announce to
people every time I played it that, you know, `This song is in dedication to
my dad who is still missing. It's the first song he ever taught me how to
play.' And I actually played it at his funeral because he actually did ask me
to play that song.
But I since then retired the song at the White House with President Bush as
the last time I would ever perform it, just because I found that a lot of
people were asking for the song and the emotional content of the song, but I
thought it was more important for New Orleans to get past the funeral and
start getting to the second line celebration of our jazz funeral, so I just
thought it would be better to retire the song altogether.
GROSS: Would you mind if I played it on the air now and give it...
Mr. MAYFIELD: I don't mind.
GROSS: Because you did a beautiful performance of it at a hurricane relief
benefit called On Higher Ground, when your father was still missing. And it's
a beautiful recording, so I thought it would be good to hear it. So this is
Irvin Mayfield on trumpet with Ronald Markham at the piano.
(Soundbite of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee")
GROSS: That's my guest Irvin Mayfield on trumpet. We were talking about your
father. I know he prided himself on having been your first music teacher.
What did he teach you about music when you were a little boy?
Mr. MAYFIELD: Hmm. That's a good question. Well, the interesting thing
about--you know what's New Orleans such a great place? My dad never thought
he was a musician. My dad was 100 percent New Orleanian, meaning that in New
Orleans everybody either plays music, they cook or they dance, or they just do
all of them. And so he just was a guy who just happened to play the trumpet.
I didn't even know he knew how to play the trumpet when I got a trumpet. And
it was after I couldn't get a sound of it that he showed me how to get the
notes out of it. But the most important thing, I think, he always taught me
was the greater importance of it, the ceremonial aspects. That's what gives
New Orleans jazz a different depth, you know, the fact that you learn how to
pay your dues in the jazz funerals. And, you know, I remember just doing
my--he made me do my first jazz funeral, which was four hours long, and it was
not fun. And the things he taught me was that, you know, it's not easy all
the time but there's a reason you have to do these things. There are other
things that are as important as playing the trumpet.
GROSS: So when you say he made you do your first jazz funeral, so that was
playing at a jazz funeral, playing in a parade?
Mr. MAYFIELD: Yeah.
Mr. MAYFIELD: Playing in a parade outside in the hot sun in August, at like
98 degrees, wearing a suit and a hat. It wasn't fun at all.
GROSS: I mean, how do you get to play in it? Were you part of that band?
Can you just tag along and play like--he encouraged you to do it, but how do
you actually get to do it?
Mr. MAYFIELD: Well, my brother and I were playing in this band called The
Algiers Brass Band, and they were a bunch of older guys. And we would just
show up at rehearsal.
Mr. MAYFIELD: But they were going to do a funeral for one of the prominent
preachers on the West Bank in New Orleans, and my dad said, he asked the guys
could we come along and play because he wanted us to learn how to pay our
dues, you know, marching in that, you know, the funeral, which as a slow part
in the beginning and then the celebration piece at the end that's much faster.
And, you know, I didn't know what to expect and I just, you know, I actually
might have been excited about it at first. But I can guarantee you, when we
got out there, there was nothing exciting about it. But in terms of any
musician can join a funeral procession, that's just a New Orleans thing. If
you have an instrument and you know the guy who died, you want to get out
there--even if you don't know the guy, I mean, you can just come in and join
in. That's what makes New Orleans one of the best places to learn how to play
GROSS: My guest is Irvin Mayfield, the founder and director of the New
Orleans Jazz Orchestra and the cultural ambassador for the city of New Orleans
and the state of Louisiana. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is trumpeter and composer Irvin Mayfield, the founder and
director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. He's also the city of New
Orleans' cultural ambassador.
What else do you think of as being uniquely New Orleanians about your musical
Mr. MAYFIELD: There are so many things. You know, well, a couple of things
immediately stick out. First of all, at any point in time you can live
anywhere in town and there's a marching band, military style marching band
with a tuba and a clarinet, instruments that are not thought of to be sexy
today, with 500 people following behind it and some of them jumping on cars
and dancing and, I mean, it's just crazy for people who have never seen it
before. And, you know, you might just be like on a Saturday afternoon, you
know, sweeping your porch or something, and all of a sudden here comes these
500 people, and just like they were they, they're gone. That's one thing.
Another experience is seeing the Mardi Gras Indians. Same kind of thing.
Here you see all these black guys dressed up with these elaborate headdresses
that they've taken a year, 364, 365 days to make, you know, just to wear one
day a year. They come out on Super Sunday, and they come out on Mardi Gras
morning. And, I mean, to see how beautiful these suits are, I mean, it's
crazy. I mean, the yellow and pink, you know, white, I mean, all the blue,
all these beautiful colors. It's so amazing. And then they have all these
songs that they sing.
And then the other experience is--just to show you how New Orleans culture is
so indigenous to itself, you know--the tambourine. In New Orleans there are
two different styles of tambourine playing, and you can tell where a person is
from by the way they play the tambourine. The uptown people punch the
tambourine with their fist, while the downtown people slap it with their hand.
So, you know, and I could just keep going on and on about all these little
things about New Orleans that, you know, you would wonder what makes a city
able to produce this kind of a thing.
GROSS: So you think that because of the bands you were exposed to clarinets
and tubas in ways that you wouldn't have been before, and you think that's
helped you as a composer?
Mr. MAYFIELD: I think the great thing about New Orleans and what it did for
me was it constantly made me have to think about things that were larger than
me. See, it's not just saying, `I saw a clarinet.' It was the fact that I had
to learn who Sidney Bechet, who Benny Goodman, folks that had nothing to do
with me and my upbringing, I had to learn about white people, black people,
had to learn about Italians, had to learn about the rumba, had to learn about
Cubans. You have to learn about things that have nothing to do with you,
which is why it's such a great American experience. Because jazz is just not
home to one thing, jazz actually gives the foundation for anything to come to
it. And being in New Orleans, you wind up playing with all kind of different
people. You play with men who are in their 70s, you know. I was a young boy
and here I'm working with 70-year-old guys. You play with women. You might
play with women singers, woman who plays clarinet. I mean, just a vast array
of different people and--this is the other great thing--you wind up socially
interacting with different people. I mean, you might be a guy's house that's
a multi-multi-multi-millionaire, and here you guys are talking, and he's
dancing with you or, you know, Mardi Gras brings everybody together. New
Orleans really, really is an example of what America got correct about
democracy as far as the culture is concerned.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear an excerpt of one of your orchestral
compositions, and this is you with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and it's an
extended piece that you wrote called "Strange Fruit." I'm going to ask you to
just say a few words about the piece as a whole.
Mr. MAYFIELD: Mm-hmm. "Strange Fruit" is a piece I was commissioned to do
by Dillard University and is based on lynching in America. And the story is
about, you know, a young guy in the early 1900s, and he falls in love with a
white girl. Well, they fall in love with each other. And he winds up being
lynched even though the person who set him up to be lynched says that the
young guy didn't do anything wrong. It was a mistake. And because so many
people were already coming to the lynching, that the sheriff and the rest of
the mob said, `Hey, well, too many people are coming so we got to kill this
guy anyway.' But the story kind of also gets past that and shows how, you
know, these things happen, but there's a certain healing that takes place in
the blues. And, you know, that blues is the American optimism that, `Hey,
things are bad, but they're going to be all right.' And I think that American
optimism is what helps us, that sound of the blues is what has helped us get
through a lot of these tragic times in America.
GROSS: Let's here a track from "Strange Fruit" called "Ballad of the Hot Long
Night." And this is composed by my guest Irvin Mayfield, who is featured on
(Soundbite of "Ballad of the Hot Long Night")
GROSS: That's an excerpt of my guest Irvin Mayfield's extended composition
"Strange Fruit," and it's recorded and on CD.
Now, one of the bands you play in is a kind of Cuban-Latin band called Los
Mr. MAYFIELD: Yeah.
GROSS: How did you start gravitating towards Latin music?
Mr. MAYFIELD: Another interesting aspect about New Orleans, you know, in New
Orleans we feel that we're a Caribbean city more so than a Southern city. I
mean, if you really look at a lot of stuff that we do, we really are. I mean,
even our cuisine, to the beans and rice, you know. You can go to any island
like, you know, Puerto Rico to Trinidad to Haiti to Cuba, and they have their
beans and rice. We have our own dance, like in Cuba they have the rumba. In
New Orleans we have the second line. You know, we got our own music. In Cuba
they may have the, you know, they have their salsa. In Trinidad, they have
the steel bands. In New Orleans we got our second line music, you know, which
obviously is the foundation for jazz.
I would say New Orleans is the northern tip of the Caribbean culturally. And
we've enjoyed great relationships. And I always would hear this music, and it
seemed like it related to me. I don't know, when I would hear Cuban music,
the way these people would sing, over the notes, it always sounded like Louis
Armstrong's trumpet to me. Or the way the Brazilian singers would sing, you
know, over their music, it always has some relationship to music that I heard
growing up. And the same thing with the Jamaicans. It's just all the music
always felt close to me, and I realized that all of this music you could dance
to, but the music was hard to play. And that's how I came up with the idea
for starting Los Hombres.
GROSS: With Los Hombres, you've recorded a lot of Mardi Gras or Mardi Gras
inspired music. And I'd like to end by asking you to choose and to introduce
for us one of your favorite of your Mardi Gras inspired recordings.
Mr. MAYFIELD: I think my most favorite Mardi Gras inspired recording would
be the one called "Mardi Gras Second Line," which is off of the "Carnival" CD,
which is Volume 5. And the reason that this track is so amazing to me, first
of all, is, even though I composed the song, you know, in New Orleans it's not
like you can really take credit because everybody just creating as you go
along. But on the track I got to use my good friend Kermit Ruffins, who
showed up in the studio with a Bud Light and a handkerchief and did a great
narration. You know, I got to have "Big Chief" Donald Harrison on the track
singing on it, and musicians like John Boutte. We used 80 tracks for that one
song. We used the Rebirth Brass Band, the young "Trombone Shorty," who was a
great musician, and we just threw down. I mean, it sounds like a real New
Orleans party, and I really feel like I wanted to capture the true carnival,
Mardi Gras experience in New Orleans, and I really feel that this track comes
the closest to it.
GROSS: Well, why don't we end with it? And, Irvin Mayfield, I want to thank
you very much for talking with us.
Mr. MAYFIELD: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.
(Soundbite of "Mardi Gras Second Line")
Mr. KERMIT RUFFINS: Back again, y'all. You thought we were finished, huh?
We're back again. Irvin Mayfield, Bill Summers, Rebirth Brass Band, Trombone
Shorty, and yours truly, Kermit Ruffins. Here we go, y'all. Come on. Come
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Irvin Mayfield is the founder and director of the New Orleans Jazz
Orchestra and will tour with the band after Mardi Gras. He also leads his own
quintet and co-leads the Latin jazz band Los Hombres Calientes. His album
with Ellis Marsalis and the Louisiana Philharmonic will be released later this
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Allen Shawn, composer, author of "Wish I Could Be
There," on his many phobias, his life and his family
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Phobias. Those seemingly irrational fears are pretty mysterious. Why is one
person afraid of heights but not afraid of performing in public? Allen Shawn
thinks a lot about that and other questions relating to phobias. He lives
with many phobias of his own. As we'll hear, so did his father, the late
William Shawn, who was the long-time editor of The New Yorker.
Allen Shawn's new memoir is called "Wish I Could Be There: Notes From a
Phobic Life." Shawn is a composer who has also written a biography of the
composer Arnold Schoenberg. He teaches at Bennington College and lives in
Vermont. Let's start with a reading from his memoir.
Mr. ALLEN SHAWN: "Were I now to unfold for you a scroll upon which I had
written my phobias, it might stretch all the way to China. I don't like
heights. I don't like being on the water. I am upset by walking across
parking lots or open parks or fields where there are no buildings. I tend to
avoid bridges, unless they're on a small scale. I respond poorly to stretches
of vastness, but do equally badly when I'm closed in, as I am severely
claustrophobic. When I go to a theater, I sit on the aisle. I am petrified
of tunnels, making most train travel, as well as many drives, difficult. I
don't take subways. I avoid elevators as much as possible. I experience
glassed-in spaces as toxic, and I find it very difficult to adjust to being in
buildings in which the windows don't open.
"I don't like to go to enclosed malls. And if I do, I don't venture very far
into them. Even large museums cause me problems, despite my hunger to visit
them. In short, I am afraid of both closed and of open spaces. And I'm
afraid, in a sense, of any sort of isolation. When I am invited to a new
house or an apartment or to an event of any kind, my first reaction is to
worry about its location. Often, I go, but I end up missing things and
harming or losing relationships.
"When I am in settings that are far from my own home, I sometimes do adjust.
But just as often, my body lapses into a kind of closed hypervigilance or
maintains a steady interior tremor like a car engine stalled in traffic. The
degree of my self-preoccupation is appalling."
GROSS: That's Allen Shawn reading from his new memoir, "Wish I Could Be
There: Notes From a Phobic Life."
Allen Shawn, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your reading ended with the sentence, "The
degree of my self-preocuppation is appalling." Do phobias force you to be
preoccupied with yourself?
Mr. SHAWN: Or do they come from that, being very self-preoccupied? I think
that they force you to think about yourself and be distracted from the
experiences you might wish to be having, you know, so that instead of
being--let's say you're in a theater and you want to focus on the marvelous
play you're watching. If you're, instead, looking around to see where the
exit is, you're feeling trapped because you're four seats into the aisle, and
you think the person next to you might have a cold and is coughing in your
face, that's self-preoccupation getting in the way of living. So, in that
respect, yes, in those situations about which people are phobic, they are very
self-preoccupied. Whether the rest of the time they are is a different
question. I don't know about that.
GROSS: Which of your phobias interfere with your life?
Mr. SHAWN: I would have to say traveling. There's no question about it.
You know, as someone who writes music, and I think I'm quite interested in
varieties of experience, too, it's horrifying, even to me, that I can't just
get on a plane and go to Paris or to Japan. The truth is that I have a whole
series of reactions to traveling that have to do with things you wouldn't even
believe are true, you know, they're so bizarre. But it's not just about the
plane. I used to think it was until I gave this a lot of thought. It's not
just about the fact that the train will go through a tunnel and I don't like
tunnels, it's also about the stretches of the trip on the train in which the
train is passing through empty fields or many miles of forests in which I
can't see any towns on the sides of the roads. I used to think there was
something peculiar about me that I was looking for human habitations. But
since embarking on this, I've heard from a lot of people who associate, you
know, civilization, as it were, with some kind of safety. And it isn't just
some fixation on houses that I have. It's a common reaction.
GROSS: You write that phobic terror is immune to normal reasoning. What are
some of the typical, logical reasons people have used over the years to try to
talk you out of your fears?
Mr. SHAWN: Well, the one that's most compelling and that I believe and have
tried to apply is that there's nothing wrong with any of these things that I
dread, and what I'm really afraid of is the way I feel when I am dreading
them, and that those sensations and feelings are benign, and that, therefore,
that reaction might not be exactly controllable. But the sense that it is
going to kill me or that I will be, you know, forever mad as a consequence is
something I can reassure myself about.
GROSS: There's an incident you describe in your book from when you're
young--I forget how old you were in this--but you were mugged, and...
Mr. SHAWN: Yes.
GROSS: ...while you were being mugged, it wasn't so much like the physical
fear of being beaten up or of having your stuff stolen that got you to like
ward off your attackers, it was claustrophobia.
Mr. SHAWN: Yeah, that's right.
GROSS: I just found that fascinating. Would you describe what the experience
Mr. SHAWN: Well, yes, I mean, and I use the example to try to draw the
distinction between fear and phobia, and to also point out, as Freud did in
one of this articles, that you can have fear and phobia at the same time. But
I was coming home with some packages from the supermarket on Halloween night,
actually. I was in my mid-20s, maybe early 20s. And I opened the vestibule
door and was fumbling for my keys, and three young men jumped on me and just,
you know, burst through the door and jumped on me and were pinning me down.
And I said, `Take my coat.' And the panic I was feeling had to do with the
fact that they were pinning me down, and that I couldn't move and that they
were heavier and stronger than I was. Although I was extremely--I mustered
up, you know, as much energy as I possibly could to throw them off.
But it's often true with me that I am in a situation which is quite
nerve-wracking, but the thing I'm focusing on is, you know, where it is, or
whether there's, you know, stairs to go down instead of an elevator. So it's
quite common for me to have an experience that should be making me nervous in
itself--although that's literally life-threatening, that's an extreme example.
But let's say this interview had been on the 30th floor of some office
building. Well, that, I would've focused all day on that, whether I could
take the elevator, and not been nervous about the interview at all.
GROSS: When you were mugged, that's probably a rare example of when your
phobia actually saved the day because it gave you like the adrenaline rush to
like ward off the attackers, to throw them off.
Mr. SHAWN: Yes. I mean, obviously, since I lived in New York for a long
time, I was mugged quite frequently. I mean, probably five times. But that
was the only time that it was a physical attack. But there was another time
when someone held a gun to me, or, well, I should be more accurate. They said
they had a gun, and they pointed through their coat. Maybe they didn't. But
they might've. And faced with this threat and asked, you know, for my money,
I reached into my pocket and I pulled out some of what I had, and they said,
`Is that everything?' and I said, `Yes.' And I walked off, thinking, `Well, I
might be about to be shot in the back.' So I would call that, you know,
irrational bravado or something. It's like that was a case where I wasn't
phobic at all, and I was nervous, but maybe I even acted, you know, foolishly.
I don't know. But, you know, so I know what it is to be normally nervous. I
would say when I perform or give a class, I experience normal anxiety, and you
just go, you know, muster up the courage to do those things.
GROSS: My guest is Allen Shawn. His new memoir is called "Wish I Could Be
There: Notes From a Phobic Life." We'll talk more after a break. This is
GROSS: My guest is composer and writer Allen Shawn. His new memoir, "Wish I
Could Be There," is about phobias and what it's like to live with them.
Your father, William Shawn, edited The New Yorker magazine for 35 years, and
he was phobic, too. Today, you say, he would've been diagnosed as agoraphobic
and suffering from panic disorder, but for most of his life, those words
weren't used as diagnoses. How do you think your father's phobias affected
his life as an editor of The New Yorker?
Mr. SHAWN: Well, as I say in the book, I think they were crucial because he
found a way of working that gave him a tremendous sense of adventure but was
safe for him. He had a huge appetite for life and a huge emotional range. I
mean, people talk about how serious he was, and he was serious to the point of
having a truly tragic understanding of the human condition. At the same time,
he would--you know, he loved Richard Pryor and Henny Youngman, and he watched
"Soul Train" on TV. You know, he really, he took in a tremendous amount of
life. But he couldn't go many places, and he had a lot of trouble in social
gatherings even. So here he could sit at his desk at The New Yorker and meet
people pretty much on a one-to-one basis, which was how he functioned most
comfortably, and hear about all of life.
GROSS: Now, so here we have a family in which, like, your father had a lot of
phobias but was incredibly, you know, productive and important as the editor
of The New Yorker. But he had a secret from the family that was really pretty
shocking, and I think that most people, at least most people who don't know
him, see as incredibly out of character. And this was revealed a few years
ago in Lillian Ross' book, that Lillian Ross, who wrote for The New Yorker for
many years, had a long-time intimate relationship with your father, and your
father was, of course, still married to your mother. Their relationship
stayed together until your father's death. How did you find out about this
secret, that your father had a double life, a second family?
Mr. SHAWN: Well, of course, it was a secret from my brother and me, but it
was not a secret from my mother. Well, I found out about it almost in
passing. I grew up with it without knowing that I was with it, and about,
maybe when I was about 28, a friend who was angry at men at the time, a female
friend, who did know about this--since most people who did know my father did
know--just, she had a certain amount to drink and she just blurted it out.
She said, you know, `Men are--they behave horribly. Look at your own father
with his, you know, relationship.' And I said, `Huh? What?'
So that was the first time I heard about it, and I was skeptical, actually, at
the time, as one might be. Because you have to realize, there was no--it
wasn't one of these situations where there was a lot of evidence that there
was something going on that was unexplained. There was no such evidence. My
parents were really very romantic together, and my mother looked 15 or 20
years younger than she actually was, and they weren't openly fighting, there
weren't strange, hidden messages, and my father was working very hard. So to
the extent that he was absent, it was easily explained as part of his routine.
He was there every night, even when I was away at high school and college, and
I would call, he would always be there.
GROSS: But you mentioned he sometimes had like four or five meals a day, so
that he'd have meals with both families.
Mr. SHAWN: I believe so. I mean, as far as I know, he did. You know, I
eventually talked to him about it. In fact, it wasn't too long after I found
out about it that I had my first conversations with him about it, and then,
really, in the last year of his life, we talked quite a bit about it. So
that's where I know most of what I know.
Mr. SHAWN: And I--no, go ahead.
GROSS: This might be much too personal, but if it's not...
Mr. SHAWN: OK.
GROSS: ...how did he explain it to you, the fact that he had another woman in
his life for so long?
Mr. SHAWN: Well, it does get hard to talk about. I think that the best I
could do in answering that is just to say that he made it pretty clear to me
that, instead of having one center to his life, he had two. And of course he
was speaking to me as my father. I may never know to what degree he softened
some of what he was trying to say for my benefit, but it seemed to me he was
speaking very frankly, and I related it, even then, and I still do, to this
need he had to live, which was also a bit at war with his many limitations.
GROSS: You seem really understanding of this, but when you found out about
your father's other relationship, did you feel like betrayed, like he was
cheating you and the rest of your family?
Mr. SHAWN: Well, I'm sure I'll get hate mail for saying this, but I had my
own very, very personal reaction to it, which was some strange feeling of
relief. I can't quite account for that, but, although, as I say, there had
never been any signs that I consciously registered that there was something
unexplained about his life, and there was nothing troubling about his marriage
to me, when I heard about this, it did feel as if something that I hadn't ever
quite grasped about him, suddenly I understood. And I felt also an incredible
compassion for my mother, which had--this is sad--but it had slightly eluded
me up to that point because I had been subject to her need to control things,
and also I had felt there was some falseness coming from her that I couldn't
quite account for. And when I found out about this, it did break my heart,
but not in the way that you suggest. I felt incredible tenderness towards
her, and it really ushered in a completely new phase in my relationship with
her, even though she didn't know that I knew. But I could see a lot by virtue
But in terms of my dad, I would have to say that I was able to identify with
him better, and I don't know what that means, but I understood something about
him and I could relate to it in some way.
GROSS: My guest is Allen Shawn. His new memoir is called "Wish I Could Be
There: Notes From a Phobic Life." We'll talk more after a break. This is
GROSS: My guest is composer and writer Allen Shawn. His new memoir, "Wish I
Could Be There," is about phobias and what it's like to live with them.
For your phobias, you've gone through your share of therapy. And for this
book, you've done a lot of reading about, you know, the medicine, the science
and the evolution that pertains to, you know, the evolutionary theory that
pertains to phobias and how the body responds to phobias. Of all the science
and evolutionary history that you read for your book on phobias, was there
anything that was actually particularly helpful to you in understanding your
own responses to your fears?
Mr. SHAWN: Darwin's expression of emotions in animals. I just, you know, I
didn't grow up in the country, as you know. I grew up on cement, you know,
pavement. And I was so far from nature, despite my parents' best efforts, and
I relate to the natural world totally differently having done all this
reading. Particularly the Darwin really knocked me out. And it's just so--I
feel a respect for animals that I never felt before and a kinship with other
types of creatures when I see how closely my responses mirror theirs. That
really meant a lot to me. And I have to say that I feel closer to other
people as a result of this reading, even reading Darwin on animals. That was
my favorite, I think.
GROSS: In your book, you have a great quote from Elfriede Jelinek, something
that she said after receiving the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature, and she
said, "I would like to attend the ceremony if I were able to, but,
unfortunately, I'm mentally ill with agoraphobia. I'm unable to be in crowds,
and I can't bear to be looked at."
Mr. SHAWN: Yeah.
GROSS: Is this a quote that's famous among phobic people?
Mr. SHAWN: I don't think so. It was in a short interview in The New York
Times magazine a couple of, maybe two years ago, two or three years ago, so I
don't know. But I was so struck by her directness and candor in that
interview, and she does speak very frankly about her reactions. And she does
come right out with it and say "mentally ill with," which I think is very
brave, because there's a tremendous amount of fear and apprehension
surrounding anything that's called mental illness, and the mind and the body
are part of the same thing. Mind and matter really are one and the same, and,
you know, we should have more openness towards understanding the more obvious
mental problems that a lot of people suffer from, and they are illnesses.
GROSS: Now, she has a blurb on the back of your book. And I just have to
quote that because it's just really great. She says, "Allen Shawn, whose
family history is as similarly dysfunctional and full of catastrophes as my
own, speaks of useful human fears that can be turned into strengths, and of
unnecessary fears. Unfortunately, I can no longer differentiate between
either form." And I thought, `Well, that's about it, isn't it?' That about
covers, sums up, what a phobia is, is being unable to tell what's like a real,
rational, useful fear to have and what's just irrational and is going to be
completely counterproductive to worry about.
Mr. SHAWN: Yeah. That's right. But, you know, the shocks that we
experience go into that reptilian brain, you know, the part of the brain that
is totally nonverbal and totally animal. So that when those shocks are called
up by some immediate experience, we don't think that we're having the wrong
reaction, we think `This is true,' because it's become part of our brain in
the most primitive, inaccessible way. So we just think, `This is bad. This
is actually bad.' We don't think, `Oh, I'm having a neurotic reaction. How
silly of me.'
GROSS: Last question. You refer, in your memoir, to how, when you were a
child, you developed a strange fear of a picture of a man in a cowboy hat on
the front of a cereal box. And this was an actor who played a sidekick in a
TV Western. And I'm dying to know which actor it was.
Mr. SHAWN: It was Andy Devine, I believe.
GROSS: From "Wild Bill Hickock"?
Mr. SHAWN: Yes, yes, that's right. How did you...
GROSS: And what scared you....
Mr. SHAWN: How did you know that?
GROSS: And what scared you about it? I used to watch it. What scared you
Mr. SHAWN: He had a kind of crazy grin on his face that just freaked me out,
and, you know, in the book I try to interpret that a little bit, but I'm not
sure I have it right. But that was an example of a phobia that I certainly
GROSS: Well, good. So progress can be made?
Mr. SHAWN: Yes, exactly. I don't need to worry about Andy Devine anymore.
GROSS: Well, Allen Shawn, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SHAWN: Thank you very much, Terry.
GROSS: Allen Shawn is the author of the new memoir, "Wish I Could Be There:
Notes from a Phobic Life."
I'm Terry Gross. And we'll close with music by the saxophonist Michael
Brecker. He died earlier this month at the age of 57 after a bone marrow
disorder progressed to leukemia. For years, he played with his brother,
trumpeter Randy Brecker, in their band The Brecker Brothers. He leaves behind
a huge discography, having played as a leader or a side man on over 900 jazz,
rock and fusion recordings. There will be a memorial gathering for him
tonight at Town Hall in New York City. Michael Brecker won 11 Grammys,
including one for his last album "Wide Angles." We'll close with a track from
(Soundbite of Michael Brecker performing)
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