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Parsing 'Sentences: The Life of MF Grimm'

The rapper MF Grimm, whose real name is Percy Carey, has written a graphic memoir entitled Sentences: The Life of MF Grimm. He spoke to Terry Gross about his story.


Other segments from the episode on November 7, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 7, 2007: Interview with Percy Carey, a.k.a. MF Grimm; Obituary for Mary Lillian Ellison; Review of the film "L'avocat de la terreur."


DATE November 7, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Percy Carey, aka MF Grimm, on his life and career from
being a child actor on "Sesame Street" through selling narcotics,
getting shot, and years in prison up to writing a graphic memoir,
"Sentences: The Life of MF Grimm"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Percy Carey, aka MF Grimm, is probably the only successful rapper to
have gotten his start on "Sesame Street." He may also be the only "Sesame
Street" alum who became a narcotics dealer and barely survived a murder
attempt by rival dealers. The bullets paralyzed him from the waist down. In
2000, he was sentenced to life on narcotics and conspiracy charges. In
prison, he studied law and filed countersuits. His sentence was reduced and
he was released in 2003. Percy Carey tells his story in a new graphic memoir
illustrated by Ronald Wimberly. It's called "Sentences: The Life of MF

Now Carey's business is legit. He runs his own underground hip-hop label
called Day By Day and has returned to recording. Here's a track from his 2006
triple CD "American Hunger." It's called "Page Six," named after the gossip
page in the New York Post.

(Soundbite of "Page Six")

Mr. PERCY CAREY: (Rapping) The world will help you climb
'Cause they love a superstar
Someone has to crash and burn
So they love a superstar
And, yes, I'm a superstar

Darling of PR, paparazzi shoot from close and far
(Unintelligible)...profit the moments alone
I heard he's been through hell
Though his rap music clearly sells
Among the elite will he prevail?
Is he on his way back to jail?
(Unintelligible)...shot it out with the cops
Beat his ass until he dropped
Threw him in the cell, told him to rot
Who do he know and how did he get out?
Can I walk? 'Cause I heard he's wheelin'
All the drugs, involved in dealin'
Shot 10 times, do he have feelings?
Heard he's violent; do he have feelings?
Got a girl; do he got feelings?
Life story, so appealing
Not just us OK!, Globe,
Enquiring minds, they all want to know

World will help you climb...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Percy Carey, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, your book starts with you
getting shot during a blizzard in 1994, so let's start there. You were on
your way to sign a record deal with Atlantic Records. You were driving with
your brother Jay in a blizzard. What do you remember about the attack?

Mr. CAREY: Well, actually, the car was parked, and it was just snow all over
the place. We were getting into the car. Couldn't see anything; the windows
were covered with snow. It was coming down hard. And actually, the last
thing I remember and will never forget is the fact that Jay said that today
was going to be the first day of our new life.

GROSS: Because of the record deal?

Mr. CAREY: Yes. You know, there was no looking back, you know. We didn't
have to do things that were considered--well, were obviously considered
illegal or just not law-abiding, period. And, you know, we were looking
forward to it. We were looking forward to a different type of life.

GROSS: So then what happened?

Mr. CAREY: From there, that's where the gunfire started, and was shot
several times.

GROSS: Your brother Jay was killed pretty instantly.

Mr. CAREY: Yeah.

GROSS: How many times were you shot, and where were you shot?

Mr. CAREY: I was shot seven times, from my neck. I had a bullet ricochet
and come out my mouth, arm, sides, back, just multiple shots. I looked like a
Dalmatian, to be honest. But all around, mostly mid-body.

GROSS: Do you know who attacked you?

Mr. CAREY: That's something...

GROSS: Not that I'm expecting you to name them by name, but, I mean, do you
know who it was?

Mr. CAREY: Um.

GROSS: It sounds like you don't want to say.

Mr. CAREY: Well, actually, it's just that it's so--I put that so behind me
that I don't talk about it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAREY: And I say that because, at that time and the things I was doing,
I put myself in that predicament, so I'm just as guilty, if not more guilty,
than the people who actually shot me. So to make a long story short about who
shot me, yeah, I'm aware who shot me, you know, in my own way, in my own
sense, because I've done a lot of things myself.

GROSS: Do you remember when you came out of a coma and realized that you were
partially paralyzed? I think at the time you still didn't have--your hearing
and your vision hadn't returned yet.

Mr. CAREY: No. I was blind, I was deaf and I was paralyzed. But there were
things--those were things that I didn't even pay attention to, if it makes any
sense. OK, the sight, that kind of automatically, you're like, `What's going
on? I can't see.' You know? The hearing, I was aware that I was shot, you
know, and I had a bullet in my head. So the ringing and the non-hearing, I
dealt with. The paralysis itself, it didn't dawn on me because I knew my body
went through a certain amount of trauma, so my assumption was I couldn't move
just because of the trauma, not that any nerves were severed or things to that
nature. So it took me some time to understand that I was paralyzed.

GROSS: How much of your body is paralyzed now?

Mr. CAREY: I'm what's considered a T4 paraplegic, thoracic fourth bone,
which is like right under my chest. You follow me?

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAREY: OK, so I'm paralyzed from there down, but it's interesting
because all my sensation came back. A lot has changed. I was told that I was
severed and I would be like that the rest of my life. A lot has changed since
that time, so to state what type of paraplegic I am is difficult, because I'm
considered T4, thoracic, but I can feel all the way to my toes now.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. CAREY: Yes.

GROSS: Well, that's great.

Mr. CAREY: I can slightly constrict my muscles and start moving somewhat.

GROSS: After you were shot, and then survived, you ended up going back to the
life you were living beforehand. You ended up going back to that gangster
kind of life and dealing drugs again. And I guess I'm wondering, why go right
back to that world where you're likely to be shot again?

Mr. CAREY: Well, I have to say, and my point of view is economics, because
if I wasn't in this chair right now and I walked outside and I tried to get a
job, it would be very difficult for me to get a job. It's not impossible, but
it would be difficult. To be in the wheelchair with my record and things to
that nature, it made it harder to get a job. I've attempted to get employment
and work in even pet stores. I've tried everything, and it was difficult. I
was on Social Security, SSI. I was receiving, I believe, 200, $300 maybe a
month to live off of, food stamps. I believe it was like $70 a month to live
off of. And that's not including the fact of medical supplies, medical
situations. Like, if I needed medical supplies, I paid for it. And bottom
line, I'm also a distributor. I don't know if you're aware of that, but I
have a distribution company, music.

GROSS: Oh, Day By Day records.

Mr. CAREY: Day By Day Entertainment, yes, international distribution
company. So I deal with companies around the globe: Australia, Japan. So it
wasn't all just about selling drugs. It was, for me, it was to try to make a

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAREY: And, I mean, the narcotic itself was something I was able to get
my hands on because it was available, and I chose to take that and sell it to
make a profit so I could put into myself.

GROSS: I guess, you know, I'm wondering why you got into the gangster life
and dealing drugs in the first place, and I ask this because...

Mr. CAREY: Temptation.

GROSS: Yeah, well, let me just backtrack a second and say that you were like
really lucky when you were a kid. I mean, you were one of the kids on "Sesame
Street," so...

Mr. CAREY: Yes.

GROSS: So like on your resume, by the time you were a teenager, you had
"Sesame Street." So I mean, there's so many things, as a performer, as
somebody who wanted to like make records, like you...

Mr. CAREY: Yes.

GROSS: You really could've used that to help parlay that into a career. So
how did you end up in the gangster life as opposed to just kind of heading
right towards show business?

Mr. CAREY: Well, I have to say, up to that period of time. You're talking
about--you said like 14, before that, yes, I was on "Sesame Street." It was
great. I've done several other things in between, I mean, all the way up to
about, I guess, maybe I was 10, 11.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAREY: But 14, that was a different age, and that was a different era.
I don't want to say I fell into any type of peer pressure, but temptation
itself is a test that man has been going through since the beginning of time,
and not every man has successfully overcome it.

GROSS: My guest is Percy Carey, aka MF Grimm. His new graphic memoir is
called "Sentences: The Life of MF Grimm." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Percy Carey, who's also known as the rapper MF Grimm. His
new graphic memoir, "Sentences," tells his story, from being a regular on
"Sesame Street" to becoming a rapper and narcotics dealer and surviving a
murder attempt which left him paralyzed from the waist down.

You did time on charges of dealing narcotics and having illegal guns. You got
out on bail for $100,000, and on the last day of your bail, you spent that day
recording an album, a CD...

Mr. CAREY: Yes. Yes, that's correct.

GROSS: ...called "The Downfall of Ibliys." Correct me if I'm not saying that

Mr. CAREY: Yes, that's correct. No, that's correct.

GROSS: Subtitled "A Ghetto Opera."

Mr. CAREY: Yes.

GROSS: And that must--like, how did that feel to record an album knowing that
next day you're going to be in prison? And it was a, you know, at the time it
was 15 years to life. You ended up getting out after three years, but you
didn't know that would happen.

Mr. CAREY: Yes.

GROSS: So you're facing 15 years to life and you're recording an album. Just
describe how that felt that day in the studio, knowing what lay ahead of you.

Mr. CAREY: See, that was the beauty of the album, because I didn't know what
lied ahead of me. So creating the songs, I believe most of those songs were
like really like questions to myself of what's going to become of the future.
It was an album that I didn't have no answers to. Like, every other album I
have, as far as I'm concerned, are answers. It's my reply to how I see the
world and things to that nature. But that was the only album that I had no
certainty whatsoever of my future.

GROSS: I want to play the track "Howl."

Mr. CAREY: Sure.

GROSS: Would you say something about it before we hear it?

Mr. CAREY: "Howl" is--I basically compare life in America, or at least a
specific type, style of life, to the life of being a wolf in a wolf pack. So
it's like nature channel.

GROSS: OK, let's hear it. This is "Howl," and this is MF Grimm.

(Soundbite of "Howl")

Mr. CAREY: (Rapping) In darkness sometimes sun shines
Drunk off death
Throwing up moonshine
Slit vein, sit still,
Crush all bones brittle
No pain, quick kill
Maybe it'll hurt just a little
Hunger on cellular,
Yes we call you
Don't have a prayer
Say one for you
Shake life out body
In throat sink fangs
Today's your last day
Too slow, can't hang
Don't take personal
But you must die
Kill or be killed
We kill, that's why
Make it easy on yourselves when the wolves bite
Accept your fate, no struggle, don't fight
Alpha, omega, pack overpower you
Reminiscing as a pup while we devour you
All my wolves, blood we thirst
Kill with Perc,
Moon we howl

Jump, jump, jump, jump, jump, jump, jump, jump

Temptation's hunger pain...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's MF Grimm, who's also known as Percy Carey, from his album "The
Downfall of Ibliys: A Ghetto Opera," which he wrote out on bail the day
before he went to prison on narcotics and gun charges. Now he has a new book.
It's like a graphic novel, but it's not a novel, it's a memoir. It's called
"Sentences: The Life of MF Grimm." And it's about his life as a kid on
"Sesame Street," where he was a regular, as a rapper, as a drug dealer, as a
prisoner. It's about all of that.

As we said, you recorded that album right before going to prison.

Mr. CAREY: Yes.

GROSS: How did you deal with, like, distributing the album and getting people
to listen to it while you were behind bars?

Mr. CAREY: Actually, I write a lot of letters, mostly to stores, buyers. I
sold my CDs right from prison. There's, for instance, Fat Beats. You got
Ameba Muzik, you have Sandbox. There's so many mom-and-pop stores, and then
one stops and distributors that I just reached out to all of them while I was
incarcerated, and I kept my communication with them open. So...

GROSS: How did it sell?

Mr. CAREY: It did well. I think it sold--at the time, I think it was like
12 or 24,000. I really don't remember.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAREY: Because it was a while. At the time. You know, which was great.

GROSS: You write in your book that you had like a drum machine that you hid
in your cell.

Mr. CAREY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How did you manage to get it in in the first place, and how did you
keep it hidden?

Mr. CAREY: OK. First, I was in the maximum security prison. There I wasn't
allowed to have any type of drum machine. But when you get to a medium
security prison, you're allowed to have an instrument, you know, like a drum
machine, as long as it's under a certain amount of money.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAREY: So when my classification went down, I bought it. I purchased
it. But for some apparent reason--I really don't remember why--I ended up
going to somewhere and being in solitary confinement. They put me in what's
called "the box." But I snuck it in there with me. I put it under my seat,
and I brought it in. And I just created music while I was sitting in solitary

GROSS: Did you...

Mr. CAREY: And it had an electrical outlet, and it worked.

GROSS: Did you have to keep the volume really low so the guards wouldn't

Mr. CAREY: Oh, no, you can't use it like with speakers and--only headphones.

GROSS: Headphones! Of course, right. Something else to keep hidden.

Mr. CAREY: So yeah. So yeah, so--yeah. And I used to throw my coat over my
head and just lay there, or sit in my chair with my--and just tap on my drum
machine, and really they didn't pay any attention because I was already in
solitary confinement, and it's dark, you know. It's like one little glass
little mirror, that's about it. They walk by every 45 minutes, so, you know,
it was cool.

GROSS: Why were you in...

Mr. CAREY: It saved my life.

GROSS: Why were you in solitary?

Mr. CAREY: See, that's what I'm trying to remember why at that particular
time. I think it was a conflict of interest, the fact that I was in--I
believe I sued the Department of Corrections for $3 million because it wasn't
wheelchair accessible and I was denied work release at the same time because
of my disability. So sometime they would make it hard for me. They would put
me in different little spots, different places. They kept moving me around,
and I would sue every facility I was at. So they would get tired of it, and
they would just throw me in solitary confinement sometime until they could
figure out what they would do with me. Or they'll shoot me back upstate, you
know. It became a game.

GROSS: Now, when you were shot, you went back the, you know, to the gangster
life. You were dealing drugs. But when you got out of prison, you changed
your life.

Mr. CAREY: Yes.

GROSS: Why did you change it then?

Mr. CAREY: My grandmother passed while I was incarcerated. And when she
passed, it was like it was the last straw. It was like, `OK, this is how you
want her to remember you? This is how you want to be remembered?' You know,
her grandson is locked up in prison, you know, and she's gone now, you know?
My grandmother was a very well loved and respected woman, and it just, it
broke my heart knowing that the last image of me was the fact that I was in
prison. And for me not to be able to redeem myself in her eyes, you know, it
haunts me. That was the wake-up call.

GROSS: Now, one of the things you've done--I know you don't like to mention
for who--but one of the things you've done is you've ghost written some raps
for some pretty well-known performers.

Mr. CAREY: Yes.

GROSS: Where does that fall in chronologically? Was that before or after

Mr. CAREY: Actually, that was way before prison.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. CAREY: That was in my younger, younger age.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAREY: I'd have to say from like teens, from like 14, 15, 16, 17.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAREY: You know?

GROSS: If you mentioned--and I'm not asking you to--but if you mentioned who
you had ghost written for, would they be angry because it would make them seem
less authentic if they hadn't written their own raps themself?

Mr. CAREY: Yes, definitely.

GROSS: Is that frustrating for you?

Mr. CAREY: No, not at all. Because it's--I have to--I put it equivalent to
the fact of when my time period and my younger age of deciding to be in the
streets or try to sell drugs or things to that nature, it's something that I
chose to do and I knew the outcome of it. So it's the same with being a ghost
writer. There was a lot of people that they offered me money to do these
things, and certain things were exclusively just for them. Some things were
supposed to be silent, and you have to respect that. It's funny, because I've
written for record companies where they would take a song and chop it up and
give it to like three different artists.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAREY: You know? So I've seen a lot of strange things.

GROSS: Percy Carey's new graphic memoir is called "Sentences: The Life of MF
Grimm." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Percy Carey, who's also
known as the rapper MF Grimm. His new graphic memoir, "Sentences: The Life
of MF Grimm," is published by Vertigo Books, part of DC Comics. It tells his
story, starting in the late '70s, when he was a regular on "Sesame Street."
When he left, he headed far away from that street. He became a rapper and
drug dealer, and was shot several times in a murder attempt that left him
paralyzed from the waist down. He served three years on a narcotics
conviction. Since his release in 2003, he's been running his own hip-hop
company, Day By Day Entertainment, and recording his own music again.

I want to go back to your early days when you were on "Sesame Street."

Mr. CAREY: Sure.

GROSS: How did you get on it? Like, how did they find out about you or you
find out about, you know, how did it happen?

Mr. CAREY: It was through a friend, one of my mother's close friends. She
actually got me an audition, I believe, for "Sesame Street." It was one of my
mother's dear friends. She had a lot of ties with, I think it was called
Reeves Teletape at the time. It was only like two blocks away from the house,
"Sesame Street," and she just, she got me in there. But I did, I had a
manager--I think her name was Toby Gibson or something to that nature, you
know, so went through the whole works. But it was through a friend.

GROSS: So you already knew you wanted to perform?

Mr. CAREY: You know what? I wanted to be a program director since I was
like five years old.

GROSS: You're kidding.

Mr. CAREY: No, I'm not.

GROSS: No five-year-old wants to be a--no five-year-old knows what a program
director is.

Mr. CAREY: Yes. You're talking to a 37-year-old man that, when he was
five--I was on "Sesame Street" and I would constantly question, `How did
you'--you know, like, `How can you make show people on this television?' You
know, and just, you know, create a world, and you go to school and everyone
believed that that world was real. And I was fascinated that they would put
it on at a certain time, what would come in between. I've always wanted to be
a program director, especially of ABC, since I was a kid. I'm from Upper West

GROSS: That's great. Uh-huh.

Mr. CAREY: Think about it. I'm from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, 85th

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. CAREY: ABC's right in 60s, so I'm--I don't know, I'm a special child
because I've always wanted to do that.

GROSS: So how old were you when you were on "Sesame Street"?

Mr. CAREY: From five years old all the way up to--I believe I was like maybe
nine. At least nine, at least till nine.

GROSS: What was your part on the show?

Mr. CAREY: I was Percy. Actually, I'm the first kid to ride Suffleupagus.
Yes. It's documented that the first episode of Suffleupagus, when Big Bird
meets him and wants to see him, I'm riding on his back. But he don't see
Suffleupagus, and he just sees me riding. So it's documented. It's on the
Net, so--it's on the Internet. You can find it.

GROSS: So, look, when you started rapping and you started, you know, hanging
out with people like Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre and stuff, did you tell them that
you were the first kid to ride Suffleupagus? I mean, was that the kind of
thing that would add or detract from your cred?

Mr. CAREY: Nah. Actually, I've never been ashamed of anything to that
nature, but, no, I didn't see it as beneficial, just bringing up--and when you
talking about--I've been offered to write Vanilla Ice, "Ice, Ice, Baby."

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. CAREY: That was brought to me first. The producers, I know the
producers, I know--when you're a writer, a ghost writer...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAREY: ...or you're a producer, it's a community. So all these things
come across you. But it's funny, no. We didn't talk about "Sesame Street"
back then. But I'm quite sure that they admire me now for that. They have
to. Because...

GROSS: You--yeah, go ahead.

Mr. CAREY: ...everybody wanted to be on "Sesame Street" when they were kids,
except me.

GROSS: You didn't want to be on?

Mr. CAREY: I wanted to be the program director. I wanted to put it
together. I sat there long enough. I was five years old, seven, I realized
that I can do this. I really wanted to put "Sesame Street" together: create
new characters, you know.

GROSS: In a way, you eventually did that, just through like having your own
record company, your own, you know, your own distribution company.

Mr. CAREY: Yeah. Yes.

GROSS: So, like, just connect the dots for me a little bit about how you got
to be, you know, riding Suffleupagus on "Sesame Street" to hip-hop.

Mr. CAREY: OK, well, that's what was in. That's what was done on the
corners. It wasn't part of--how can I say?--corporate America. It was part
of growing up.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAREY: You grow up with graffiti artists, and if you didn't know how to
do that, then you had to figure something out. There were break dancers. I
grew up around some of the greatest break dancers in the world, Rock Steady
Crew. I grew up around some of the greatest graffiti artists that they're
world known. You have to find your place. But at the time, it was just
things that, you know, you do. You do that to kill time, or as something that
you really love. I became an emcee. I was around some of the greatest
deejays in the world.

GROSS: I want to close with another track of yours.

Mr. CAREY: Sure.

GROSS: And this is from a three-CD set that you put out not long ago, I think
it was like 2006, and it's called "American Hunger."

Mr. CAREY: Yes.

GROSS: And the track I want to play is the opening track, "American Hunger
(Breakfast)." And, again, I'd like you just, you know, introduce it for us,
talk about it a little bit.

Mr. CAREY: Well, it's amazing because you picked "American Hunger
(Breakfast)." That started it all. On "American Hunger," obviously, on
"Breakfast," "Lunch" and "Dinner," it's the same actual sample.

GROSS: Which I believe is "The Windmills of Your Mind."

Mr. CAREY: Yes.

GROSS: Yes, the Marilyn, Alan Bergman song. They were just on our show

Mr. CAREY: Ah, that's cool. I couldn't decide which one I wanted to use, so
I used all three different versions of it, and that's the reason why we
decided to make a triple-CD. That was the only reason.


Mr. CAREY: Yes.

GROSS: Interesting.

Mr. CAREY: Otherwise--yeah, I couldn't put them all on one CD, it wouldn't
be justified. Because I felt that it was powerful to be the initial one for
each one. So I love it. I love "Breakfast," "Lunch" and "Dinner."

GROSS: Before we hear "American Hunger (Breakfast)"...

Mr. CAREY: Yes.

GROSS: I have one final question for you.

Mr. CAREY: Yes.

GROSS: If you were programming your own TV station...

Mr. CAREY: Yes.

GROSS: ...and you could choose shows from any part of television history...

Mr. CAREY: Yes.

GROSS: ...what would you put on your TV station?

Mr. CAREY: Hm. Good question. I love channel 13.

GROSS: That's the public television station in New York where you live.

Mr. CAREY: Yes. Yes. So mostly documentaries, I would focus on. I love
the nature channel, I love the History Channel. We're talking about just for

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAREY: It would be just history and nature and science, definitely
science, the future. Learn what's going on. Weather. Weather Channel. I
kind of like that, too.

GROSS: You do?

Mr. CAREY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What do you like about the Weather Channel?

Mr. CAREY: Just the fact of watching them get it wrong every time, thinking
that they're smarter than the creator. So it's like, come on. But I have to
say, if you're talking about just the Percy channel...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAREY: ...that's what I would watch. Yeah, I like old "Masterpiece
Theater." Also, the shows from overseas, the UK, back in the days.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAREY: Yeah, that's what I would go with. I'd go with that.

GROSS: All right. Well, it's really been terrific to talk with you. Thank
you very much.

Mr. CAREY: Man, you made me feel at home. I really appreciate it.

GROSS: Percy Carey. His new graphic memoir is called "Sentences: The Life
of MF Grimm." He has a new MF Grimm CD called "The Hunt for the Gingerbread
Man." Here's the track we were talking about from his CD "American Hunger."

(Soundbite of "American Hunger (Breakfast)")

Mr. CAREY: (Rapping) I'm trip-a-trapped in the belly of the beast
Trying to get regurgitated because I am the feast
For hundreds of years and infinite tears,
With no remorse they took us all to war
I was told you're a sinner
To become a winner, then you must put faith in the Lord
I do not choose to lead you astray
But for me, friend, don't

Over here we eat our young
American hunger
Vegetarians are bloodthirsty
American hunger
Oh! No!

I'm trip-a-trapped in the belly of the beast
And it's a fight to get released
Damn, it's hard being black in America
We're under attack in America
In the belly causing gas to America
Start...(word censored by station)...
Come out the...(word censored by station)...of America
They don't want us here
They hunt us here
Lynch mob kicked in our doors
They torture us as our women and our children watch in awe
2008, not just black anymore
New objective, target, for
Those who resist, raise up a fist
Yes, blood must be spilled on floor
Down they gun us, overrun us,
Anything to have control
Then on judgment day, when all pay
May God have mercy on their souls

In the media
We're portrayed evil, constantly...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Coming up, we listen to an interview with The Fabulous Moolah, a
leading figure on the women's wrestling circuit from the mid-'50s to the
mid-'80s. She died Friday at the age of 84. This is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: Ruth Leitman and Lillian Ellison discuss the new
documentary "Lipstick & Dynamite," which profiles lady wrestlers

The Fabulous Moolah was a championship wrestler on the women's wrestling
circuit from the mid-'50s through the mid-'80s. She was also a trainer and
promoter. Her real name was Mary Lillian Ellison. She died Friday after
shoulder replacement surgery. She was 84.

In 2005, she was featured in a documentary about the early days of women's
professional wrestling called "Lipstick & Dynamite." At the time, Ellison was
still working on the circuit as a promoter and occasional wrestler, even
though she was in 80s. In 2005, Ellison and the director of the film, Ruth
Leitman, spoke to our frequent guest host Dave Davies. Dave asked Leitman
about how women first got started in wrestling.

Ms. RUTH LEITMAN: There was a legacy that led back to the late '30s that
there were these women from economically challenged backgrounds that were
recruited to the road by one promoter named Billy Wolfe, and he basically had
men--other wrestlers who were wrestling in territories all over the country
that would see women in diners and in shopping centers, and he would pick them
up and offer them $50 and send them to Columbus, Ohio, for a chance at
becoming a wrestler.


What were they looking for? Beauty, brawn, skill?

Ms. LEITMAN: All of the above: beauty, brawn, skill. They were looking for
women who were very attractive and very athletic, and often on the spot they
would say, you know, `Get down there and do some sit-ups for me, or show me
what you can do. Do push-ups.' And so many of them were acrobatic and
athletic, and basically they were offered fame, fortune. Many of these women
were sort of presented and marketed like movie stars. They wore furs and
high-heeled shoes, and they were presented as showgirls.

DAVIES: As we listen to the stories of these women and how they got into it,
I mean, there's some pretty tough survival stories here, aren't there?

Ms. LEITMAN: They really were looking for a way out of some difficult home
lives, so that they learned how to fight when they were young because many of
them came from abusive homes, they were ready to get out there and get into
the ring. But it was also a way for them to have a career, and they really
perceived it as a career. And some of them were able to do it for decades,
especially Lillian and Mae Young.

DAVIES: And I think that's probably a good point--we can bring Lillian
Ellison, The Fabulous Moolah, into the conversation.

Are you with us, Moolah?


DAVIES: Great. Should I call you Lillian or Moolah?

Ms. ELLISON: Whatever you want to, but if you write a check, just don't let
it bounce.

DAVIES: All right. That's...

Ms. ELLISON: I've been called a lot of things. I don't mind.

DAVIES: All right. Now, it's said that you held the world title for 28 years
going back to 1956, right?

Ms. ELLISON: Yes, sir. I won it in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1956, and lost
it in Madison Square Garden in 1985.

DAVIES: Take us back to those days in the '50s a little bit. What were a
couple of your favorite moves in the ring?

Ms. ELLISON: Favorite moves?


Ms. ELLISON: Anything I could get to win. I liked to do the flying drop
kicks and flying head scissors, and liked to do flying mares.

DAVIES: Well, describe a couple of those for us.

Ms. ELLISON: OK. A flying drop kick is when you jump flat-footed from the
floor up as high as the person you're looking at and kick them in the face or
in the chest, wherever you want to kick them, and then you fall to the floor.
And then the flying head scissors is where you jump up, would put both legs
around their head and throw them forward as you come down. And a flying mare
is when you get a girl by the hair of the head and pull her over your
shoulder, then slam her to the mat as hard as you can. And I love doing that.

DAVIES: I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about what it was like in
the ring and the crowd. I mean, they're yelling at you. Did you feed off the
crowd? Could you hear individual people yelling at you?

Ms. ELLISON: Well, I would tell you--it's kind of hard to explain, but it
just gives me a joy when I walk out to the ring and I hear people yelling. I
don't care if they're yelling or booing. It just gives me a thrill to know
that the people are there to enjoy themselves and enjoy the entertainment that
we will be giving them. And, then it's hard to explain, because like in the
city of New York, I would go in the ring and I'd get everything thrown at me,
from rotten eggs to rotten oranges and everything else, and then when I'd come
out of the ring, they'd be tapping me on my back and saying, `Moolah, we love
you. You're so great. We love you.' So it's hard to explain.

DAVIES: When you're in the ring, did you ever turn around and respond to

Ms. ELLISON: Oh, I yelled back a lot, yeah.

DAVIES: Like what would you say?

Ms. ELLISON: Well, I don't know, whatever it called for.

DAVIES: Lillian, why do you think you...

Ms. ELLISON: I would tell them to shut up or if they thought they were big
enough, to climb inside the ring, I had something waiting for them. Whatever
I felt like telling them.

DAVIES: Were there rules in--you know, a lot of people, when they see
wrestling, it looks like anything goes. I mean, were there rules about what
you couldn't do in the ring? Like, for example, grabbing someone by their
hair and throwing them into a turnbuckle?

Ms. ELLISON: Yes, there's rules, but everybody does not abide by the rules.
And I'm one of them.

DAVIES: You're one that does not always...

Ms. ELLISON: I do my own rules. In fact, I don't mind wrestling men because
I know their weak points.

DAVIES: Give me an example of their weak points.

(Soundbite of Ellison laughing)

DAVIES: Well, can you give an example of a rule that you bend?

Ms. ELLISON: Well, I would--in fact, I wouldn't mind choking you or gouging
your eyes, pulling your hair or kicking you below the belt. It wouldn't
bother me at all.

DAVIES: OK. Well, I'm glad we're in two different cities here. Most of the
other women in the film "Lipstick & Dynamite" went on to other careers, but,
Moolah, you just stayed right in it. And I'm wondering, did you ever think
about leaving? What kept you in the wrestling game all your life?

Ms. ELLISON: What has really kept me in it so long is that every year I got
older, I could see people, senior citizens, sitting in a rocking chair or
either saying, `Oh, well, I'm going to retire this year and I'm--and
this'--and when you do that, you can bet one thing, you're driving nails in
your coffin. And I will be wrestling when I'm 100 years old, and I want the
senior citizens to know just because they're 60, they're 65 years old, they do
not have to sit in a rocking chair and rock, because when they do, they're
rocking themselves to the grave.

GROSS: Mary Lillian Ellison, aka The Fabulous Moolah, died Friday at the age
of 84. She spoke to our frequent guest host Dave Davies in 2005, along with
Ruth Leitman. She's the director of the women's wrestling documentary
"Lipstick & Dynamite."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, John Powers reviews a new Barbet Schroeder documentary
about a lawyer notorious for defending alleged terrorists and war criminals.
This is FRESH AIR.

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

Review: John Powers on the documentary "Terror's Advocate"

"Terror's Advocate" is a new documentary in theaters by filmmaker Barbet
Schroeder, who made "Idi Amin Dada," "Barfly" and, most notably, "Reversal of
Fortune," which won Jeremy Irons an Oscar for his portrayal of Claus von

The new documentary is about a French lawyer who has made his name defending
internationally reviled figures. Our critic John Powers says that the film
offers a look into the many forms of evil.

Mr. JOHN POWERS: Everything has a moral, said the duchess in "Alice in
Wonderland," if only you can find it. This could almost be a review of
"Terror's Advocate," a sprawling but riveting new documentary about one of the
world's most notorious lawyers, Jacques Verges.

Over the years, the flamboyant, cigar-smoking Verges has defended the likes of
Klaus Barbie, the Nazi known as "the butcher of Lyons;" the sociopathic
terrorists Carlos the Jackal; Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic; Holocaust
denier Roger Garaudy; that fine fellow Saddam Hussein; and various other
clients who are euphemistically called "controversial."

As it happens, Verges started off rather admirably. Born of a French colonial
father and a Vietnamese mother, he was raised on Reunion, a small island east
of Madagascar, where he was instilled with a life-long rage at being looked
down on by the pure-blooded French. Still, during World War II, he went to
Europe to fight against the fascists, staying on to become a lawyer and an
organizer against colonialism.

He first became well known during Algeria's struggle for independence from
France, when he defended Algerian terrorists by arguing that they were merely
doing what the French resistance had done against the Nazis. Along the way,
he married one of his clients, Djamila Bouhired, the model for the young woman
bomber in the film "Battle of Algiers." All this made Verges something of a
third-world hero. He even converted to Islam. But he's one elusive cat, and
he soon abandoned his wife and child, disappearing for eight years. Was he in
Cambodia with his old comrade Pol Pot, the mass murderer he would later
defend? Was he hanging out with Palestinian terrorists? Was he hooked up
with Swiss Nazis or Congolese gangsters? Or was he really, as some suspect, a
French secret agent? It's all murky.

But when he reappeared and resumed his legal career, he remained mysterious
even to those closest to them. Here, his Yugoslav girlfriend recalls a
typical Verges maneuver.

(Soundbite of "Terror's Advocate")

Unidentified Woman: He had a very simple life. That's how he continued
living in Paris, at the beginning. And then, suddenly he bought a full house
of furniture when he moved from Montmartre to Notre Dame des Champs. It was a
very big apartment, huge, beautiful apartment. One day I came, it was full of
furniture: big rugs; tapestry on the walls; old, antique furniture.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. POWERS: "Terror's Advocate" was made by Barbet Schroeder, whose whole
career displays a fascination with those who live outside the normal rules, be
it the scabrous writer Charles Bukowski, murder suspect Claus von Bulow or
Uganda's psychopathic dictator Idi Amin. Verges is the slipperiest of the
lot, and Schroeder knows better than to expect the truth from direct
questions. Instead, the film takes us from witness to witness, country to
country, slowly revealing how Verges always appears linked to forces of
international terrorism, with a special finesse for causes that are virulently
anti-Semitic. In the process, he emerges as a genuinely brilliant
provocateur. `They asked if I'd defend Hitler,' he told Schroeder. `I said
I'd even defend Bush, but only if he plead guilty.'

Joking aside, Verges is no clown. And his legal work reveals the unsavory
side of our belief that every accused person deserves the best possible
defense. He specializes in a form of moral jujitsu that flips a trial from
being about the guilt of his clients to the culpability of a society that
tries others for something it's guilty of itself. Thus, in defending Barbie,
he argued that this barbarous Gestapo boss had merely done in France what
France did in its own colonies, and although this is specious, Barbie was
still guilty of crimes against humanity, it's not altogether wrong. The moral
Verges finds in such a story is nearly always the hypocrisy of nations holding
others to enlightened values that they themselves routinely betray.

Which is one reason we must pay close attention to his sophistries. They
force us to sharpen our own ways of thinking about terror and justice, about
whether the civilian deaths caused by the Iraq war are morally different to
the deaths ordered by Saddam.

Not that Verges cares what we do. The movie shows him to be a very happy man.
The terror business has clearly been good to him. He lives in material
comfort, skates across the world's front pages and, as terror's top lawyer, he
uses his cases to exact his revenge on the France and the West that once
treated him as a third world inferior. Beaming with self-satisfaction, he
spends the movie quoting his own best lines and boasting how he's flummoxed
opposing lawyers. He denies backing international terrorists, but his smile
makes it clear that he likes us to think that of course he does, but that he's
also too sharp to ever get caught. The smartest snake on the block, Jacques
Verges is the kind of enthrallingly sinister figure who makes every lawyer
joke you've ever heard seem pre-eminently fair.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. He reviewed the new documentary
"Terror's Advocate."

You can download podcasts of our show by going to our Web site,


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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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