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Novelist Scott Spencer.

Novelist Scott Spencer. His new book "The Rich Man's Table" (Knopf) is the story of a boy who discovers he is the illegitimate son of a legendary folk singer, a character said to be based on Bob Dylan. Spencer's previous novels include "Men in Black," and "Endless Love."


Other segments from the episode on May 12, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 12, 1998: Interview with Bruce Feiler; Interview with Scott Spencer; Review of Nick Lowe's album "Dig My Mood."


Date: MAY 12, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051201NP.217
Head: Dreaming Out Loud
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

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

Country music has become the mainstream American music. As Bruce Feiler writes in his new book "Dreaming Out Loud," country music was once the voice of working class Southerners, but it's become the voice of the new American majority -- middle class suburbanites.

In the '90s, country became the dominant radio format in the U.S., and by 1993, 42 percent of the radio audience was listening to country radio every week.

Feiler's book examines how Nashville and country music have changed, by focusing on the careers of two stars, Garth Brooks and Wynonna Judd, and one newcomer Wade Hayes. Feiler has written about American music for the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the New Republic. He now lives in Nashville and New York.

He says he grew up hating country music and Nashville. I asked him what Nashville represented to him.

BRUCE FEILER, JOURNALIST, AUTHOR, "DREAMING OUT LOUD": Well, I grew up in Savannah, Georgia. I'm actually a fifth-generation Georgian, but I -- I hated the symbolism of it. I hated the hay bales and the hound dogs and the overalls. And it -- to me, it sort of was a set of shackles that bound me to an outdated image of the South that I couldn't wait to escape.

GROSS: And what does Nashville represent to you now?

FEILER: It's an interesting question. To me, Nashville now is actually sort of the best combination of sort of old Southern imagery with a sort of modern edge to it. So, it's sort of neon and apple pie. It's dirty fingernails and designer clothes, if that combination works. I think what happened to me was I left the South after high school. I lived in the Northeast. I lived abroad for five years.

And I found that though I had tried to escape that imagery of the South that I didn't like, I still felt attached to certain aspects of it that I think as a child I'd overlooked -- that being, say, storytelling or that being a sense of bedrock, a sense of narrative, a sense of place that I found that when I was living in a remote corner of Japan or traveling in Europe, that that's what grounded me to home. I still felt pulled back.

And when I came back in the '90s and started hearing contemporary country music, it spoke to me as a person who grew up not liking that imagery -- watching Saturday Night Live and wanting to be New York, say. But the sense of -- that sense of values is what grounded me and pulled me back I think. And I think that's what pulled people to Nashville -- people who didn't like country music also -- that's what's pulled them to Nashville in recent years.

GROSS: Your book describes a little bit how Nashville became the capital of country music. Can you give us a little crash course on that? Why Nashville?

FEILER: Well, that's a really good question because in the 1920s and '30s, when these Opry-like radio programs that played traditional Southern music were coming into being, they were broadcast from lots of places -- Shreveport, Louisiana; Dallas; Atlanta; Chicago. And essentially, these were programs that were ways for large companies to reach rural listeners. The Opry was broadcast on WSM, which was owned by the insurance company. "WSM" stood for "We Shield Millions."

So at that time, it could have gone anywhere. Nashville became the headquarters for several reasons. One, it's centrally located. Thirty states are within 600 miles of Nashville -- 600 miles being significant because that's precisely how long a bus would take to go overnight and play there.

So, what happened was the Opry was the publicity machine. On the weekends that the Opry would be -- stars would play the Opry, people would hear about them. They'd get in their vans or their buses. They'd go out to these places during the week and play concerts in high school gyms, then return back to Nashville.

So, it was central. The musicians started living there because they could get these gigs also. And then in time, the publishing -- and when the song publishing came to Nashville in the 1950s, basically because Fred Rose's (ph) wife was from Nashville and he felt homesick. And Fred Rose came back. They formed Acuff-Rose (ph) Publishing. So once the publishing was there, the money stayed. The musicians were there. The studios came to Nashville, essentially in the 1950s.

GROSS: Well, a lot of your book focuses on Garth Brooks. And you see him as the kind of father of New Nashville or new -- how would you put it? -- new country music?

FEILER: Yeah, I think new country, odd country, young country -- but I think contemporary country works for me.

GROSS: Is there a lyric of Garth Brooks that you would choose that you think kind of exemplifies his appeal to baby boomer country listeners?

FEILER: I think the classic Garth Brooks song, as far as I'm concerned, is "Unanswered Prayers." And what happens in this song -- it's Garth and his wife go back to his small town and they run into the woman who he had adored as a child.

And he -- he's looking at her and he's remembering that every night he would pray to God to make her mine. And at just the moment of the song when it risks becoming a cliche, and you think he's going to leave his wife for the girl, he looks at his wife and he says: "you know" -- first of all, he looks at the woman and he says: "you know, she's not quite as -- she's not quite as wonderful as I remember." And then he looks at his wife and he says: "you know, I really do love my wife."

And he says some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. What's amazing about this is it sort of perfectly anticipated the family values ideas of the '90s, right? I mean, go home to your wife. It's a sort of fanfare for the reconciled. And though he was sort of a young man at the time -- he was in his early 30s -- he really spoke to those baby boomers who were saying: "you know, it may not be exactly what I wanted, but hey, it ain't bad what I got."

GROSS: Well, let's hear it -- Garth Brooks, Unanswered Prayers.


GARTH BROOKS, SINGER, SINGING: Just the other night
At a hometown football game
My wife and I ran into
My old high school flame

And as I introduced them
The past came back to me
And I couldn't help but think of
The way things used to be

She was the one
That I'd wanted for all times
And each night I'd spend praying
That God would make her mine

And if he'd only grant me
This wish I wished back then
I'd never ask for anything again

Sometimes I thank God
For unanswered prayers
Remember when you're talking
To the man upstairs

And just because he doesn't answer
Doesn't mean he don't care
Some of God's greatest gifts
Are unanswered prayers

GROSS: That's Garth Brooks, and my guest is Bruce Feiler, and Bruce Feiler's new book is called Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes, and the Changing Face of Nashville.

Now Garth Brooks, you say, got his success in part by creating albums, designing concerts, and devising a persona that all reinforced a single image. What was the image?

FEILER: The image was Garth Brooks as the modern-day cowboy. What Garth did, and I -- this is actually something that I don't think Garth has spoken a lot about -- is he set himself out to become a modern-day John Wayne. More than sex, more than money, more than power -- all of which, granted, he had more than his share of -- he wanted to turn himself into this icon.

I see him as this little kid in rural Oklahoma looking up at those heroes on the screen and wanting to become one of them. So in all aspects of his life, at least in the beginning when it was really working -- from what he wore, he wore -- he wore Wranglers because cowboys wear Wranglers. He wore these old-fashioned western shirts.

He wore the hat -- and the hat had been around for lots of years, but it had sort of become gaudy in recent years, after the urban cowboy boom of the '80s. He wore a very simple hat. It was "yes, Ma'am/no Ma'am."

But what he did was update it for the '90s, when -- I think a classic Garth story is that early in his career, like so many young artists, he got carried away and he started sleeping around on his wife. Came back to his wife. His wife heard about it. And he and his wife went on national television in 1991 and he confessed to his infidelity. He apologized and they promised to rebuild their relationship.

It -- sort of, it was the cowboy for the age of Oprah who would confess his transgressions and promise to do better. And I think it's worth noting here that it was a year later -- a year later to the day, almost, that Bill Clinton went on "60 Minutes" and followed that pattern to a "T."

GROSS: What pressures did it put on Garth Brooks to have succeeded in becoming an icon? How could see that take shape when you were spending a lot of time with him writing this book?

FEILER: Well, I think that's precisely the key change that did happen in Garth's life. I mean, when you create this figure that is this sort of idealized cowboy who is "aw shucks/gee whiz/just so glad to be here," the problem is that is a really great responsibility to live up to. As Garth's career went on, and his -- he tried to live up to his early success, which was in the early half of the 1990s, 10 million, 11 million, 13 million copies sold of each of his first three albums.

And what happened was is eventually Garth began doing a lot of stunts to make sure he could get back to that number. I think what happened to Garth is something along the lines of what happened to Madonna. If you think back to the 1980s, every six months, Madonna would change her image. She would have some media events to create spectacle around her.

In the beginning, that was very fresh. It was exciting -- wow, this is a woman who is experimental. But after a while, the public began to see that she was changing her image every six months and they sort of turned on her. And that's sort of what happened to Garth. He really made numbers really important. The sales figures were really, really central to his identity and to his success. It said to him that the public was really responding.

When those numbers began to dip in mid-decade, he became increasingly desperate to get those numbers up and eventually the pressure sort of really overwhelmed him. I met him around the time that "Fresh Horses" came out in 1995, and he talked about the voices in his head: "what are you gonna do? What are you gonna do? What are you gonna do if it doesn't work?" He talked about laying in a fetal position on his farm for three days, worrying that the public was not going to like it.

And that pressure, I think -- the moment I think that it changed, came to -- came to bear at the American Music Awards in 1996 when he was given an award as best overall artist in all genres of music. It was the first time the award had been given, and Garth felt "wow, my album sales have been disappointing and I haven't performed publicly in a year" -- and he decided to leave the trophy on the podium at the stage.

And it was widely viewed as a media stunt. And though in Garth's mind, it was: "well, my sales aren't up, so therefore I don't deserve it." It sort of -- it was the -- the straw that broke the back of the camel and that sort of started this momentum of "oh my God, Garth is really -- he's gonna lose it."

GROSS: How do you think all this pressure to keep up with the numbers affected his music?

FEILER: I think what happened was, in the beginning you're an artist. You come from Oklahoma. Garth was born in Tulsa and grew up in Yukon, Oklahoma, which is a bedroom community outside of Oklahoma City. You really have this passion to express what is in your heart.

Those early songs, like Unanswered Prayers, "If Tomorrow Comes," which is about a man looking at his daughter sleeping in the night and wondering will she know that he loved her if he dies in the night. They're small. They're simple narratives. They're great big messages.

As his career went along, the messages started getting bigger and grander: "I'm an icon. I get to speak to the entire world." The change -- you know, "the world is going to give pressure on me, but I refuse to change." He kept reaching for the stars with every song. And I think that if you listen to the change, it really exemplifies -- you can feel the pressure on his shoulders.

GROSS: My guest is Bruce Feiler, author of Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes, and the Changing Face of Nashville. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Bruce Feiler is my guest. He's the author of the new book Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes, and the Changing Face of Nashville.

One of the performers profiled in your new book is Wade Hayes. And you watched him as he was in the process of becoming a country music star. And one of the things you focus on in his story is about how his records are researched before they're released.

What -- what is the process of researching a record? -- basically seeing -- are consumers going to like it and buy it? Will they prefer this track or that track? What was the research process like for his records?

FEILER: First of all, a little background. Radio is the backbone of country music. There are essentially 10,000 radio stations in America; 2,500 of them are country radio stations. Country, though it has only about one-sixth of the record-buying market, has one-third of the listening audience -- pretty much 30 or 35 percent of people listening to radio at any given time are listening to a country radio station. It has become the mainstream radio format in the last 10 years.

That means there is an enormous amount of money at stake. When you're spending $150,000 to $250,000 recording a record, the radio labels -- they need a hit. When people are buying consolidated radio stations at four or five times their multiples, they are having to make sure that people stay there. The result is this research -- market research process which I think is basically sucking the soul out of country music.

And it works something like this: Wade Hayes releases a record. On a good night, it's the title cut off of his second album. Sony records releases that to 180 stations that report to the charts -- Billboard and R&R. And they need to move it up those charts, and the rest of the 2,300 stations will then play whatever the reporting stations are playing.

After about four or five weeks, when consumers have become accustomed to hearing the song, they employ this market research. They employ these companies. They call 100 people at dinner time, between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m. They play these 100 people six seconds of 100 different songs. That's "On a Good Night" or "I've Got Friends in Low Places." And they ask these consumers to rate the song on a scale of one to five -- one if they like it a lot; five if they don't like it a lot.

They tabulate all these numbers and they rank the songs according to popularity, and they fax them around to all the radio stations, and the radio stations basically programs -- program the songs that people like a lot. The reason is, is because the programmers have to report to station owners who have to report to these conglomerates.

They are scared. There's no more individuality. The day when Loretta Lynn, like in her movie, "Coalminer's Daughter," could go to a station, sweet-talk the DJ, play him a record. He could have it on the air in the afternoon. Those days are dead and they will never come back.

And -- but the problem with the research is that the research has consistently shown that songs that test really well -- songs that get "ones" -- also get fives because they excite a lot of passions. Some people like them a lot. Some people dislike them a lot. LeAnn Rimes's (ph) "Blue" is a classic example of this. It had a yodel in it. People don't like yodels -- really high scores; really low scores.

What radio stations are interested in is not good music. Radio stations are interested in having people stay around for five more minutes and not change the channel so they can listen to a commercial. So what happens is, the radio stations end up favoring the songs that are in the middle -- the twos and threes and fours -- so the research, though it sort of promotes safety, also promotes mediocrity.

GROSS: And you say in the book that most of the songs that get both the very high and the very low numbers -- the real positive and the real negative responses -- are the ballads. And the songs that are -- get the kind of middle response without a lot of negatives are the up-tempo tunes, so that there's a lot more emphasis on up-tempo.

FEILER: There's a lot more emphasis on up-tempo -- the ditty. And some of these songs are great songs. I've Got Friends in Low Places, for example, is a great song. The problem that the labels face in Nashville is ballads move product. The songs that people feel passionate enough to go buy the records are the real emotional songs. But these songs are not getting on the radio.

And I think what it's basically showing here is the tension. The radio stations have one objective. The record labels have another objective. And the artists have another objective. Now, if you're Wade Hayes -- if you're a 26-year-old kid and you're fresh from one of the smallest towns in Oklahoma, you are really beholden to what your record label wants you to do. And what was going on with Wade was Wade constantly trying to do the right thing.

The days of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson saying "up yours" to the record label -- "I'm gonna grow a beard and do drugs and have a good time" -- those days are long gone. You've now got the era of the "yes Ma'am/no Ma'am" artist and unfortunately, the "yes Ma'am/no Ma'am" artist is not always necessarily an "artist." He is looking at the bottom line like everybody else. And so, there it is -- that -- the commerciality just sort of hovering in the air in every decision.

And as you know, you just can't make artistic decisions if that is so preeminent in your mind at every given moment.

GROSS: Why don't you choose one of Wade Hayes' records that you think illustrate why he became so popular?

FEILER: I think the best Wade Hayes records that captures that sense of him as a young, sexy person, but also as a traditional person, is his first song "Old Enough to Know Better." And if you listen here, you can -- you can feel the tradition in his voice, that he tries to sound like his hero Waylon Jennings, but you can also hear a sort of youthful bravado that's just coming out.

And it's -- if you compare it to Unanswered Prayers, where you have sort of a 30 -- young 30-year-old man speaking to people who were his elders -- a sort of patron saint of the baby boomers. In Wade Hayes, who was essentially the same age when he did Old Enough To Know Better, you can hear someone speaking to people who are his junior, and you can see country music sort of changing its focus from looking toward older people to looking toward people in their young 20s and even in their teenage years.

GROSS: OK, well this is Wade Hayes.


Neon lights draw me like a moth to a flame
Mama raised me right
That just leaves me to write
When I need a little sideways honky tonk turn
I'm old enough to know better
But I'm still too young to care

Cowgirls with an attitude
Boots and tight blue jeans
Take my mind off doing right
And doing other things

When the weekend's gone
I won't have a dime to spare
I'm old enough to know better
But I'm still too young to care

Monday morning I wake up
With a hammer in my hand
The boss man yelling something at me
That I don't understand

I don't know how I got to work
But I sure know I'm there
I'm old enough to know better
But I'm still too young to care

GROSS: Bruce Feiler is the author of Dreaming Out Loud. We'll talk more about the changing face of Nashville in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Bruce Feiler, author of a new book about country music called Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes, and the Changing Face of Nashville.

One of the little episodes that you cover is the story behind an album cover for one of Wade Hayes' CDs, and there's a lot of controversy about which photograph to use for the album cover. Give us a sense of what the controversy was about -- what was the choice of pictures?

FEILER: Wade Hayes is a handsome man. He's 27 years old. He's tall. He's lanky. He's got the good looks. The issue here is: to wear the hat or not to wear the hat? When Garth had his success in the early 1990s, the hat became the symbol of all things Nashville.

And what happened was, the record labels started cramming hats onto all these citified young artists. "Oh, you graduated from Vanderbilt? Doesn't matter -- put a hat on you. You never set foot on a farm? Doesn't matter -- put a hat on you."

And the hat sort of became a token of the homogenization of country music. So, Wade Hayes happens to be from Oklahoma. The hat is a very natural part of his upbringing. However, the marketing people wanted him to take the hat off because they wanted to show that he was young and sexy. They knew that television bookers -- Jay Leno and David Letterman -- are not putting artists on who have hats because they seem to be anonymous.

So, Wade wants to wear a hat. For him it's sort of a -- almost like a safety blanket and a sort of statement of who he is. And label wanted to take it off.

And there was this moment in the course of this afternoon when they were shooting these photographs and we were -- it was a freezing cold winter day and we were in this dude ranch in this cabin and the fire was burning and they -- they took a couple of shots with the hat on. And Bill Johnson (ph), who is the photo director. He used to work for Rolling Stone.

He walks up and he was sort of mentoring Wade and he was being very avuncular and he just -- he sort of talked to him and created this atmosphere of security. And he said: "let's take the hat off."

And so they took the hat off, and a sort of -- really an electricity filled the room and they took these wonderful photos that really showed the character of this man. And Bill later took those photographs and overlapped them with a picture of a hat, trying to get both looks in there. But Wade's camp said no -- Wade is Bayer Aspirin. He's a brand. People won't know who he is.

And the battle waged back and forth. Everyone got very emotional. And in the end, the producer decided: "OK, let's put the hat back on." They put the hat back on and I have to say, as much as I love Wade, they chose an album cover that really didn't do the music any -- any justice.

GROSS: It's amazing that the hat should be so -- so important, yet so controversial. You know, that -- the emblem of the hat is -- should be such a big deal, 'cause it's such a cliche. It's amazing that it even has any potency anymore, it's become such a cliche.

FEILER: Well, it's become such a cliche -- at the same time, what you have here is you've got this basic tension that goes on in American life between the culture that comes from New York City and Los Angeles, which is the culture of irony, which is the culture of cynicism, which is the culture of sex and youth and rebellion. And Nashville is trying to stake a claim for itself as the music of earnestness; as the music of values; as the music of Americana.

And for better or for worse, the hat has become emblematic of that.

GROSS: Politicians who want to draw crowds and align themselves with popular groups often call on country groups to perform at, you know, benefits and fundraisers and political events. How does country -- how does the country music world divide now between Democrat and Republican?

FEILER: Well, I think that's a very interesting question. I mean, traditionally it has been perceived to be a very Republican -- a bastion of Republicanism. It was definitely viewed as being against -- very much aligned with the Republican Party.

Again, though, in recent years, as it's become younger; as it's become more suburban; as it's become more interested in a sort of new set of problems, there is this whole Democratic streak that's now taking -- taking over Nashville.

And the other thing that's going on is that the Democratic Party has moved more in the direction of country music. So, I think there's a sort of benign centrism that really gets expressed in country music now. I mean, you think back to Garth Brooks singing "We Shall Be Free."

Garth Brooks' sister is a homosexual and he included a line in the song "you should be free to love anyone you choose" which he said openly meant homosexual love. There were some people that got into an uproar about that, but basically the country audience accepted that.

GROSS: Of course, we have a Southern president, too.

FEILER: Well, we have a Southern president -- I mean, the similarities between Garth Brooks and Bill Clinton, I think, are enormous and fascinating. They're both basically men of the New South, or actually that region where the South, Midwest, and Southwest collide. They both come from fractured families with strong mothers. They both have larger-than-life appetites, whether it be power or women or food. They both have this eating problem.

And it's interesting, as the decade has progressed and these two men have been such dominant figures, the problems that they have faced are really precisely the same, which is that they both have this "aw shucks" image of being honest and straightforward, yet both are increasingly perceived, as the decade has gone on and as their problems have increased, as having a problem telling the truth.

They are both perceived now to be so self-serving to the point of being manipulative. So, these two men who made sincerity sexy are now routinely characterized as being insincere. But what they both had that made them successful is they have the ability to appear empathetic to ordinary Americans, both, you know, over television and in person. And it's that same skill -- "I am you," Garth would say to his fans. "I feel your pain," Bill Clinton would say.

I don't think it's a coincidence the two of them have been the dominant figures of this decade.

GROSS: You describe Garth Brooks as somebody who's really focused on his own success and on the numbers that will empirically illustrate how he is doing. How is he doing now?

FEILER: It depends on who you ask. I mean, Garth Brooks -- his new album "Sevens" came out in November. It started selling at an enormously fast rate -- 600,000 units a week, making it one of the fastest-selling albums of the decade. And what happened was, Capitol Records -- he had had a feud with his record label last summer. The album was supposed to have come out around the time that he played Central Park on -- in August of last year.

But he did not like the management. He had a feud with the first manager that he served under, that was Jimmy Bowen (ph). And Bowen essentially was forced to leave. And then they brought in a new man -- Scott Hendricks (ph). Garth also did not like him. So he went to a feud with the people at VMI and then Scott Hendricks was asked to leave.

Eventually, Garth delivered the record in November. It started selling very quickly. The new head of the label, Pat Quigley (ph), spent an enormous sum, what he has identified as $23 million, to try to get Garth Brooks' record to 10 million, which was the plateau he wanted to reach.

And -- but unfortunately, as soon as Christmas was over, the record sales plummeted from 600,000 units a week to somewhere in the neighborhood of 40- to 45,000 units a week. And Garth became upset and sort of desperate in an attempt to get the numbers back up again.

He sold 4.5 million copies of this record. By any measure, that is an enormous success. Unfortunately, by the measure of his previous success, it is disappointing. So, I think that Garth is feeling the pressure again of trying to live up to his own standards.

One of the most -- I think one of the best quotes that I have in my book is from Garth's mother. I was with her back stage in Atlanta before Garth's first concert in several years. And we were talking about Garth's attempt to make himself into John Wayne. And she said: "if I could say anything to my son, it would be: Son, be happy; you're there; enjoy it; you have become the person you set out to become."

But unfortunately, Garth -- when I asked him about that quote -- he said: "that's sweet; that's sweet; but she's wrong. I'm not there yet. There are 5 billion people in the world. I've sold 67 million records. You do the math. There's still a lot of people that I haven't reached."

That's the answer to the question.

GROSS: Well I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

FEILER: Thank you for having me. It's been my pleasure.

GROSS: Bruce Feiler is the author of Dreaming Out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes, and the Changing Face of Nashville.

Coming up, Scott Spencer's new novel about mythmaking in the music world.

This is FRESH AIR.

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

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Bruce Feiler
High: Journalist Bruce Feiler. His new book is a history of country music: "Dreaming out Loud: Garth Brooks, Wynonna Judd, Wade Hayes, and the Changing Face of Nashville. Feiler writes regularly about American music for The New York Times, The New Yorker, and other publications.
Spec: Music Industry; Bruce Feiler; Books; Authors; Dreaming Out Loud
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Dreaming Out Loud
Date: MAY 12, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051201NP.217
Head: The Rich Man's Table
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: You'll recognize Bob Dylan as the inspiration for Luke Fairchild, the central figure in Scott Spencer's new novel "The Rich Man's Table." The novel is told from the point of view of a son born out of wedlock to the beautiful woman who was the love of Luke's life.

But Luke walks out during her pregnancy and never admits to being the father. The novel follows the son as a young man when he tries to investigate the man behind his father's myth, or as the son puts it: "how did a shapeless Jewish kid from the Midwest become so famous, so beloved, so despised, so lonely, so pious, so drug-addicted, so vicious, so misunderstood, so over-analyzed?"

For the novel, Scott Spencer had to write lyrics similar to Dylan's over-analyzed ones. Scott Spencer is also the author of the novels "Endless Love," "Waking the Dead," and "Men in Black."

I asked Spencer why he chose a Bob Dylan surrogate as the focal point of his new novel.

SCOTT SPENCER, AUTHOR, "THE RICH MAN'S TABLE": First of all, let me say that I didn't choose Bob Dylan necessarily. I did want somebody of that magnitude. I wanted somebody whose voice and whose sense of himself and whose analysis of society and whose sense of style had impact beyond the wildest imaginings. It seemed to me that the larger the figure, the more painful and dramatic the narrator's quest would be.

GROSS: Were you ever a Dylanologist? Were you ever deep into Dylan and studying the symbolic significance of lyrics and album jackets et cetera?

SPENCER: No, not even for a second. In fact, I don't think I had but one or maybe two Bob Dylan records when I started writing this book. He was never -- I'm from Chicago, where our tastes run more toward blues and rhythm and blues. And his music really had very little impact on my -- on my musical life.

But I have to admit that as I started thinking about this figure, and there's no question that he's -- reminds me of Bob Dylan, I was drawn to listen to more and more of Dylan's records. And by the time I was finished with this book, I was just filled with admiration for Dylan's work.

GROSS: I think your book in a way is about how pop myths are written and rewritten.

SPENCER: Yeah. I think it is, too. I think it is, too. It's -- it's, you know, it's like a game of telephone in a way. It's -- it's told from person to person and it changes as it goes along.

GROSS: In showing how myths are created, and how they vary from telling to telling, you have a lot of different tellings of the Luke story in your book. And one of them is told by someone named Judy Wittemore (ph) who as I recall was one of -- or at least purported to be one of Luke's lovers. And was she a songwriter herself or a singer herself at any point?

SPENCER: No, I don't -- I don't think so. She was just somebody who really, really liked songwriters and singers.

GROSS: Right.


OK. And listen -- let me just read a few lines in which she writes about Luke. She writes: "man-child, man-cub, oh Pan with your magic pipe, how I love thee -- I love thee, but yea, I knew we were doomed. I taught you to make love. When I introduced you to Allen Ginsburg, he fell in love with you and came with us when we shopped for your clothes on Eighth Street."

"He held my hand while we waited for you to come out of the changing room and he said: 'Judy, the whole world is a changing room to Luke; don't try too hard to hold on to him.' 'Because you want him, Allen?' I said -- because he was a poet and a mystic and you could say anything to him. He looked a little surprised by my bluntness, and then he patted my hand and said: 'Luke is a killer who has not yet found his thing to kill.'"

I love that phony baloney poetry...


... kind of way -- that kind of like high-falutin' "I'm a sensitive poet" style of language you gave to her.

SPENCER: I have to confess I had an inordinate amount of pleasure in writing her little piece of memoir.


More -- more pleasure than any man has a right to have sitting all alone in a room.


GROSS: Tell me what went through your mind when you were writing the memoir excerpt that I just read.

SPENCER: Well let's see -- what was going through my mind? I -- well I pretty much -- I had a pretty close bead on her and I just had a real sense of this woman -- a camp follower of -- in those early folk-rock days, and filled with appreciation for talent and probably having just a tiny bit of talent herself -- enough, just enough to drive her crazy.

And -- and that sense of -- that sort of dramatic, oh, highly-sexualized sense of self-presentation. I also had a sense of Judy Wittemore, because one of my favorite Luke songs in the book, "Trust Fund Mama"...


... is written about her. So we -- we get Judy from two directions here.

GROSS: Would you read one of the lyrics for us?

SPENCER: Well, here's a little bit of lyric from Trust Fund Mama: "get your hands off my head. Don't push me down. Do it yourself. It's scary down there."


GROSS: Oh, does that remind you of anything Dylan has written?

SPENCER: Not really; not really. Although, you know, Dylan has written so many hundreds of songs that I'm sure there's at least half of them I've never heard. So, who knows? He's -- he's covered a huge gamut of subject matter and emotion.

GROSS: Some of your novel is really about the power that celebrities or rock stars have in the lives of the people who adore them. That's a very mysterious kind of power. And I'm wondering if anyone has ever had that kind of power in your life? If there was ever a writer or a musician who meant to you what the figure of Luke means to his most devoted followers in your book?

SPENCER: Well, there was a time in my life -- I think I was between 19 and 21 -- when I really felt that I could profitably spend the next few years of my life -- spend, following James Brown around the country, and just going from concert to concert, not because I thought he had any particular answers for me, you know, because James Brown never really pretended to be a philosopher. He had -- he had social and romantic insights, but not a real worldview that I could discern.

But because I never felt so profoundly alive as I did when he was on the stage. There was some kind of magical connection between his energy and mine. And life just seemed less when I wasn't there watching James Brown on the stage.

I'm trying to think. I think that really, for me, was the -- was the ultimate experience in fan-dom.

GROSS: Now, people don't study "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" in the same way that they study Dylan lyrics.


SPENCER: Well, maybe they ought to.

GROSS: Looking for the meaning of life.


So -- so what's it been like for you to not only listen to a lot of Dylan's lyrics, but try to approximate lyrics like that yourself in songs that you came up with?

SPENCER: I always thought that there was something a little facile in most of the Bob Dylan lyrics that I'd heard, until I really started listening to them and began to realize how incredibly textured and brilliant and subtle and supple they are. And then, I -- I of course had to write about 10 or 12 songs for this novel.

And after doing that, I really began to appreciate and admire the -- the lyrical genius of not only Bob Dylan, but people like Leonard Cohen as well. It's a tough job.

GROSS: Would you -- would you quote for us one of Dylan's lyrics that you now find especially interesting?

SPENCER: Well, I loved the lyrics to "Idiot Wind" (ph), which is one of the most bitter breakup songs I'd ever -- I've ever heard. You know, "they say I" -- what? -- "they say I killed a man named Gray (ph), and took his wife to Italy; she inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me. I can't help it if I'm lucky."


And he goes on talking to the woman who he's breaking up with, says: "I can't even touch the books you've read."

GROSS: Well, I think I'm going to ask you to end our interview with another lyric you wrote for your new novel, and this is a song that you named "From Bad to Worse," recorded in 1980. And this is one of Luke's most successful songs. It was covered by Sinatra, Mel Torme, Andy Williams, ABBA, Sting, the Neville Brothers, and Eddie Vedder (ph).


You want -- you want to do a couple of verses?

SPENCER: "The days went slowly
The night stood still
Check the hour on a clock without hands
All I wanted was to be myself
Me and my traveling band
The city's so quiet
Not a soul around
Except for fools who quote me chapter and verse
I thought I could get over you soon
But things just went from bad to worse

Looked for you in San Antone
Called your name in Old Tangier
Had to find you
Or at least die trying
That much was coming clear
Lovin' you was all I knew
Though love was like a curse
Had to find you before the next daylight
Things are going bad to worse

Followed your trail to Italy
To a little brown town in the hills
Heard you were there
With a son and a lover
Living on wine and pills
By the time I was there you were gone
The harlequin said you'd said split with your nurse
So I went to the church
And damned my fate
Things have gone from bad to worse

GROSS: Scott Spencer, thank you very much for talking with us.

SPENCER: It's good talking to you, Terry.

GROSS: Scott Spencer's new novel is called The Rich Man's Table.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Nick Lowe's new CD.

This is FRESH AIR.

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

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Scott Spencer
High: Novelist Scott Spencer. His new book "The Rich Man's Table" is the story of a boy who discovers he is the illegitimate son of a legendary folk singer, a character said to be based on Bob Dylan. Spencer's previous novels include "Men in Black," and "Endless Love."
Spec: Books; Authors; Scott Spencer; The Rich Man's Table
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Rich Man's Table
Date: MAY 12, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 051201NP.217
Head: Dig My Mood
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Nick Lowe has been making music since the mid-70s, when he hooked himself onto the more accessible end of punk rock, producing Elvis Costello's debut album and calling his own first album "Pure Pop For Now People."

Lowe's new CD is called "Dig My Mood" and rock critic Ken Tucker says that mood is distinctly subdued.


Raindrops are falling on the city's glitter heart
Everywhere there are lovers, like we once used to be
Each turn I take reminds me how we're now apart
And I'm lost in a lonesome reverie

KEN TUCKER, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: In the history of '70s punk, Nick Lowe was always the boozy wise guy, priding himself on banging out cleverly-phrased songs with lightning speed, and never taking himself or the music too seriously. That was his image at any rate. In fact, lots of Lowe's music has stood the test of a couple of decades as melodic, witty, often black-humored material.

Given that history, it's a subdued surprise to hear the middle-aged Lowe turn out a CD full of lovely, lonely songs like this one, called "What Lack of Love Has Done."


LOWE, SINGING: Well I go around the world
And this is what I do
I say love's a hurting thing
'Cause I know it to be true

When I get up in the spotlight
And my story has begun
I try to explain
What lack of love has done


And though I do it nightly
It never is the same
For it's a never-ending story
Of jealousy and blame

I know what you're saying
That I'm on the run
But there is no where to run
From what lack of love has done

TUCKER: It used to be that irony ran through Nick Lowe's songs like blood. It soaked his humor in cynicism and dread. When Elvis Costello sang Lowe's great song "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?" it sounded like a manifesto of sincerity. Lowe's own version dripped with sarcasm.

But like a lot of middle-aged wiseguys who find themselves feeling empty inside when the irony evaporates, and younger, faster wise guys start surrounding you, Lowe has turned his attention to his own soul, and the results are gratifyingly earnest.


LOWE, SINGING: I'm a failed Christian
I don't go to church
I smoke and I drink
And I lie and I curse

It never got to me
Your sermon and all
It talked and talked about
Nothing at all

I'm a failed Christian
Failed Christian, y'all

TUCKER: Included on Dig My Mood is a song Lowe wrote for his former father-in-law Johnny Cash. Lowe used to be married to Cash's stepdaughter Carleen (ph) Carter. The song called "Man That I've Become" has Cash's trademark chucka-chucka beat, but its lyric is far more despairing -- the confession of an aging outlaw who now finds his lawlessness contemptible.


LOWE, SINGING: There's a kind of man
That you sometimes meet
World's passing him by
On winged feet

He walks around
With his senses numb
If you know him
That's the kind of man
That I've become

The kids all know him
'Cause when they play
He comes and shoos
Them away

He's irritated
By everyone
If you know him
That's the kind of man
That I've become

TUCKER: Nick Lowe has a frayed, thin voice, but it's a good instrument for his new world-weary material. His last album, 1994's "The Impossible Bird," owed a lot of its mood and melody to old-fashioned country music; to the stately ballads of Ray Price and the baleful honky-tonk of Webb Pierce.

On Dig My Mood, he's moved back into pop territory, but retained an attitude of stoic suffering, worn by self-forgiveness and an opening of his heart. I loved the old cynical Nick Lowe, but the newly old, realistic Nick Lowe is a good guy to spend time with too.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Nick Lowe's CD Dig My Mood.

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

Dateline: Ken Tucker; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews "Dig My Mood" the new CD by Nick Lowe.
Spec: Music Industry; Nick Lowe; Dig My Mood
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Dig My Mood
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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