DATE March 14, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Jonathan Haas discusses his career as a timpanist
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Jonathan Haas, is a soloist on the an instrument that's usually
relegated to a supporting role, the timpani, aka the kettle drums. He's
rediscovered forgotten classical and jazz compositions for timpani and has
commissioned and premiered new works by Philip Glass and Karlheinz
Stockhausen. He also has his own jazz band and is the principal timpanist in
the New York Chamber Symphony, the Aspen Chamber Orchestra and the EOS
Ensemble. He's the principal percussionist of the American Symphony
Orchestra. If this hasn't convinced you of his versatility, consider that
he's also recorded with the heavy metal bands Aerosmith and Black Sabbath.
Let's start with a track from his jazz recording Johnny H. and the Prisoners
of Swing. This is the Duke Ellington composition "The Twitch." It was
arranged by xylophonist Ian Finkel, who plays in the band and co-produced the
CD with Haas.
(Soundbite of "The Twitch")
GROSS: That's the Duke Ellington composition "The Twist," with my guest,
Jonathan Haas on timpani. Jonathan Haas, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Would you describe the timpani set that you use on that track.
Mr. JONATHAN HAAS (Timpanist): Well, timpani are usually found in the back of
the orchestra, but in the "The Twitch" with my jazz ensemble, Johnny H. and
the Prisoners of Swing, they're out in the front playing with all of the
standard jazz instruments. So in this recording I use eight timpani.
GROSS: Now I know you're trying to expand the timpani repertoire. What are
the typical parts that the timpani are used for in classical music and film
Mr. HAAS: Well, the best description if the timpani is the second conductor.
That's what my teacher, Saul Goodman, used to describe our job as. And not
only are we keeping the time for the orchestra, but the pitch that the
instrument produces is very important both to the melody and to the harmonies
in any orchestral piece. The timpani is a very low instrument. It's amongst
the lowest pitch in the orchestra, and it's looked over because of that, sort
of--I like to call them the low boys. And it's like the heartbeat. I mean,
you have to have a heartbeat to stay alive, so symphonic pieces need the
timpani. And since we're in the back, we're not as visible as other
instruments would be. We certainly are there and serving an important role.
GROSS: What are some of your favorite pieces that are more kind of familiar
pieces that use a lot of timpani?
Mr. HAAS: Well, I think the most famous timpani piece is the "Zarathustra,"
the Strauss. Because we heard it in 2001, it was the opening of--with the C
and the G going bom, bom, bom, bom, and then everybody recognized the
instrument. Probably my favorite piece is either "The Rite of Spring" by Igor
Stravinsky, and then Mahler's symphonies, of course, are some of the greatest
timpani parts ever written.
GROSS: You have a classical CD, and one of the compositions on it is by
Johann Fischer, who was an 18th-century musician, and you play his "Symphony
for Eight Timpani and Orchestra." Tell us a little bit about this piece and
how it was rediscovered.
Mr. HAAS: Well, that's how it all started. I was in a music library just
going through catalogues of pieces, and I stumbled upon George Druschetzky,
who's considered sort of the Hungarian Haydn, if you would, and there was a
piece at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts in which was noted
a concerto for eight timpani and orchestra. And that began a whole series of
phone calls and letters written to Budapest, and I finally found the pieces;
there's actually a number of them. One is a partita, "For Six Timpani and
Orchestra." The Druschetzky "Concerto for Oboe, Eight Timpani and Orchestra"
and then Johann Fischer also wrote a piece, "For Eight Timpani and Orchestra."
So at that point I decided not only to find the pieces, make additions of
them. And then, of course, we had to make a recording of it, because people
wouldn't believe it.
GROSS: And what would you say about how Fisher uses timpani in this piece?
Mr. HAAS: The timpani are used as a melodic instrument. That's why there's
eight of them. And that was the intrigue, and that was the allure for me,
because timpani is--I use it as a melodic instrument, not necessarily as a
rhythmic instrument, although because it's percussion you can't get away from
that. But the timpani create a pitch, each drum has a pitch. So if you have
eight timpani, you have eight pitches, and that means the drummer can start
playing melodies. And that was just the real kicker to do this, to have
audiences see the drums and then they discover that you're actually playing a
melody that they can whistle to.
GROSS: So you basically have a scale that you could play.
Mr. HAAS: Exactly, you have a scale.
GROSS: So let's hear the opening of this Johann Fisher piece, "Symphony for
Eight Timpani and Orchestra," and you can hear the timpani playing the melody
in part of this, along with the rest of the orchestra.
Mr. HAAS: That's right.
(Soundbite of "Symphony for Eight Timpani and Orchestra")
GROSS: That's Jonathan Haas on timpani from his recording of 18th-century
concertos "For Timpani and Orchestra." Jonathan, you were explaining that you
used eight timpani in this recording, so you have a full scale. But what you
don't have is all the accidentals. Like you can't play any sharps or flats
outside of what falls in a regular scale. Do you feel inhibited by that?
Mr. HAAS: Well, since this was taking place in the 1700s, it certainly was
ground breaking, and it does sort of anchor me into the C major scale with
certain minor keys that you can stray to; not many. So as a first try and as
an historical event for the instrument, no, what it did is encouraged me to
then find modern-day composers who then would write--they would write in all
the accidentals that the 17th-century composers couldn't figure out how to do.
And that's really as a result of the pedal mechanisms that now modern-day
timpani have. We tune the timpani literally using our feet, very much like a
harpist would, and this innovation really didn't exist in the 1700s. They
used what are called hand-tuned drums, so they had to use their hands to turn
the turning knobs. There were about six of them on a timpani. And it would
take quite a while, so you couldn't change your pitches. Now we can play two
octaves on one drum in about a nanosecond.
GROSS: Huh. Do you have to have a really good sense of pitch, a really good
ear for pitch, to tune the timpani?
Mr. HAAS: The timpani absolutely requires a great ear, as they would say.
The way that I approach it is that if I can sing something, if I can sing a
part that I have to play, then I know I'm going to be able to play it on the
timpani. It's a singing type of instrument. Unlike a guitar that has
different frets on it where you can see where you can place your fingers,
because we're tuning with our feet, you have to really just rely totally on
your ear to know if you're in tune or not. And the timpani tend to go out of
tune, especially when you use calf timpani heads because of weather and
climatic changes that can occur in a concert hall during a concert. So you're
always putting your ear down to the timpani and tapping so that you can hear
the pitch. A lot of people think we're smelling the drums, or kissing them
worse, but we're really tuning them when we bend over and listen to them.
GROSS: And you have to do that sometimes during a performance?
Mr. HAAS: Oh, all the time. I mean, if you're playing a piece by Bartok,
the "Music for Strings, Cellists and Percussion," you're retuning all of the
time, and, yeah, you're constantly making sure that you're in tune. And even
while you're playing, you're actually hearing your tunefulness, or
tunelessness, based on how you're doing at any particular time.
GROSS: My guest is timpanist Jonathan Haas. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is timpanist Jonathan Haas. Like you said, in addition to
trying to go back and rediscover early pieces that used timpani, you're trying
to create a contemporary repertoire. You commissioned Philip Glass to write
a piece for timpani. Why did you want Philip Glass to write something?
Mr. HAAS: Well, I became enamored with his music a long time ago. I've
followed all of his orchestral pieces and then I was actually sitting in one
of his films watching--the "Powaqqatsi," and it dawned on me that he was the
melodic composer that would be perfect to write a timpani concerto. And at
the same time, coincidentally, I'd heard of a piece he'd written called
"Prelude to Endgame" that was used for the play, for the Beckett play, and
he'd written it for timpani and for double bass. And at the time, Philip
still had his phone number in the Local 802 Union book, so I just called him
up. And I introduced myself, asked if I could come over to his house, and he
invited me. He gave me the score to the piece, and then I rearranged it so
that the timpanist played half of the double bass part, while the double bass
played half of the timpani part. That way I was playing melody besides just a
rhythmic pattern. Then halfway through the piece we switch back to the parts
we're supposed to have. And when Philip heard this arrangement, he was
thrilled. He enjoyed it. He thought it was very whimsical and fit very well
in his composition. So that was sort of our beginning and our introduction to
each other, and my love of timpani and his understanding of how to write for
GROSS: What does it take to commission Philip Glass?
Mr. HAAS: Well, it took 10 years for me, because the first time out, I didn't
get the grants that I needed to get in order to finance it. And then the
second attempt, 10 years later, Meet the Composer was very generous and
helpful in creating a fund and a granting for this concerto. And it also
takes a certain amount of just stick-to-itiveness. My career as a timpanist,
as you can probably imagine, has been with wrought with lots of people telling
me what I can't do, shouldn't do and what won't be possible to do. And
although I've taken everybody's word with great respect, I really ignored it
all, because if that'd been the case, I would have never done this to begin
with. So it's sort of one of these against all odds, and when people said,
`Well, you're going to be turned down' and `A timpani concerto isn't something
that's going to really interest grant-giving organizations,' I had to stick it
out. I had to wait it out and be patient.
GROSS: The Glass symphony is actually for two timpanists, isn't it?
Mr. HAAS: It's a double concerto, and the way that came about is that my very
good friend and colleague, Katherine Kahill(ph), who was at the New York
Philharmonic at the time, had recommended to me that if I was going to
commission a concerto, that I ought to do it as a double concert. In other
words, I play the concerto with the timpanist of the orchestra that I'm
playing with. And the reason for that is that timpanists really don't get an
opportunity, as a soloist, to play in front of the orchestra. So it was her
feeling, and I thought she was right on with this, is that I'd have much more
opportunities if I invited the timpanist of the orchestra I was playing with
to join me. And surely it has been an absolute--it was a brilliant move, on
top of which it gave Philip Glass the opportunity to write for twice the
number of timpani that we originally had planned on. I play my part with
seven timpani and the other timpanist plays with seven. So that's 14 timpani,
but it's not 14 notes, because we have pedals now. So we have access, you
know, to any note and every note that even a concert pianist would have, and
that's why the concerto has the complexity and the depth that it has.
GROSS: So let's hear the beginning of the piece you commissioned from Philip
Glass, the "Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra." And my guest
is timpanist Jonathan Haas.
(Soundbite of "Fantasy for Two Timpanist and Orchestra")
GROSS: The beginning of Philip Glass' "Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists
and Orchestra." The piece was commissioned by one of the timpanists, my
guest, Jonathan Haas. This recording has not yet been released commercially.
Is there anything that you do in this piece that you hadn't done before?
Mr. HAAS: Well, just about everything, starting from being in front of the
orchestra as a soloist. It was one of the experiences that I had wanted to
have a timpani soloist that I hadn't had to date, except for playing in the
17th-century timpani concertos, which was a lot of fun and it was the
inspiration to carry on into the modern age.
Besides that, the experiences include everything from having to be able to
adjust to different concert halls with the type of timpani mallets you use.
And because I've gone to--I've probably played with more orchestras
now--different orchestras than any timpanist has in the history of music--14
so far--that I've also had to learn how to adjust different styles of the
timpanist that I'm playing with my companion, as well as to fit into the sound
of the orchestra. Because I've played it now with everything from a chamber
orchestra--last week I performed it with the Iris Chamber Orchestra in
Memphis, and it was a real adjustment from playing with the BBC in December
with a huge orchestra.
So there's been a lot of different experiences just in adjustment that have
been very intriguing and a lot of fun to figure out.
GROSS: Why did you want to specialize in timpani?
Mr. HAAS: Well, I specialized in timpani, first and foremost, because I love
the sound of the instrument. It's a very rarified instrument. Unless you
know what it sounds like and your ear's adjusted to it, you're not even sure
many times that it's playing in a Mozart symphony or in a Haydn symphony;
maybe even Beethoven. But I was drawn to it early in high school. I went to
New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, and we had an orchestral program
where I played through all of Beethoven's symphonies by the time I was done
with high school, and that means I played timpani parts. So I had a real
knack for it out of high school. And as a solo instrument, it really is the
only instrument that wasn't investigated fully in terms of its capability, its
capacity and, in particular, its ability to thrill audiences. So it being a
unique instrument, it was a perfect match for me. I loved the sound. I
wanted to have a career as a soloist. There were marimba soloists becoming
very active, percussion soloists, but I wanted to find my niche, which was on
GROSS: No timpani are kettle drums. They're really big, and they're probably
pretty expensive, so it's not like you can rehearse at home in your little
bedroom when you're growing up. So did you go about having drums to even play
Mr. HAAS: Well, they began as a combination of dining room table and
instrument to practice on. When I was living in Manhattan, I had a studio
apartment, and at the time I'd bought four Goodman timpani made by my teacher
and put them in the apartment and basically it was that and a sofa. And when
I ate dinner, I put a board on top of the timpani, and that was the table.
They are heavy, and they're real big. In fact, I'm building one now that's
going to be 70 inches in diameter. I'm building the world's largest timpani.
Many people ask me why, and it's sort of like why would one climb Mt.
Everest? Well, if you're a timpanist, than you should build a 70-inch timpani
and see what it sounds like. But that goes with the territory.
Now I have a very successful percussion rental company, and there's very
experienced people who pack my instruments and ship them all over the world,
actually. It's just a well-oiled machine, but a heavy one.
GROSS: Jonathan Haas is the principal timpanist in the New York Chamber
Symphony and the Aspen Chamber Orchestra. He'll be back in the second half of
the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, a cop, a cop killer and tabloid reporter. We talk with
British crime writer Jake Arnott, author of the new novel "He Kills Coppers."
His first novel, "The Long Firm" is being adapted into a miniseries by the
BBC. Also, more with timpanist Jonathan Haas.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with timpanist Jonathan
Haas. He's a soloist who's performed with many orchestras and is the
principal timpanist with the New York Chamber Symphony and the Aspen Chamber
Orchestra. He's commissioned and premiered works by Philip Glass and
Karlheinz Stockhausen and has performed with the heavy metal bands Aerosmith
and Black Sabbath. He also has a jazz band. He thinks of timpani as a solo
When you're playing with an orchestra and you're not doing the pieces that are
for timpani, but the timpani is just kind of a part of the piece, do you have
to wait a long time for your few measures?
Mr. HAAS: There's a lot of sitting around, and actually, that sitting around
time was time that I devoted to thinking about things like commissioning
Mr. HAAS: So, yeah, you sit around a lot, and sometimes you read a book.
Other times, we're talking to our friends in the orchestra and getting in
trouble in the back. I mean, that goes back to high school.
GROSS: So like during a rehearsal, you might just be reading a book, even
though you're in with the orchestra, but you have like 10 minutes of sitting
out maybe before your part.
Mr. HAAS: Oh, yes. Most timpanists are very well-read.
GROSS: Right. Now when you were growing up, were you just listening to
classical music or were you also listening to whatever the pop music of the
Mr. HAAS: Well, I'm really mostly interested in rock 'n' roll. That's where
I came from in high school, besides playing in this wonderful orchestra,
really was in rock bands. I would say the majority of percussionists,
timpanists, in the United States who were growing up in the late '50s and '60s
were in some sort of rock band or possibly a jazz band.
GROSS: Yeah, but there aren't timpani in your average garage band.
Mr. HAAS: Well, Ginger Baker made the timpani as famous as can be in "White
Room," and when I heard him playing timpani on those tracks in "White Room," I
was hooked on both styles of instrument from then on.
GROSS: So did you play timpani in your own rock band?
Mr. HAAS: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. I wouldn't miss having that
opportunity. Something I'd like to do actually more is to play more rock 'n'
roll. And maybe with the 70-inch timpani that I'm building, it's the perfect
vehicle to form a rock band around.
GROSS: Now I've read that you played with Aerosmith and Black Sabbath. What
was the context for that?
Mr. HAAS: Well, I was the timpanist on some recordings. "Armageddon,"
there's a nice little timpani part in the background, and I'm a member of the
orchestra playing on those tracks. And my rock 'n' roll experience goes back
to Emerson, Lake & Palmer, who went on tour in 1979. We were supposed to go
on a world tour, but because of the economy and some lighting poles that fell
down on our first gigs, we went out for about two months, and I was the
percussionist and timpanist with Emerson, Lake & Palmer. So I got a really
good taste of playing in arenas with 30,000 people screaming and yelling and
just having a ball, and having timpani mic'd up to about a trillion decibels
and just had a ball doing it.
GROSS: Where do you rehearse now?
Mr. HAAS: Well, for the concerto, I have a studio built in the basement of my
house. And I've had it soundproofed so that my family doesn't have migraine
headaches all day long. And at this point, I've played it enough where I
don't practice it a lot. I don't need to because I remember it. But I have a
studio in my house. I used to have a place when I was going to school down on
Eighth Avenue. It was called The Music Building, and it's still there. It's
on Eighth Avenue and 38th Street. And I remember I would come back late at
night with my concert tails on from Carnegie Hall and with five, six timpani,
and in the middle of this neighborhood that, for a better way to characterize
it, it's very colorful; carrying my timpani up these stairs up to a little
tiny rehearsal room up in The Music Building, which was basically filled with
the heavy metal bands.
GROSS: It sounds like being a timpanist is actually a pretty expensive
affair, especially if you want to, like, have drums made and have drums
shipped and soundproof your basement.
Mr. HAAS: Being a timpanist is a labor of love, without a doubt. The
instruments--they're large and they are expensive, but like anything, you
know, it's all within context. I certainly wouldn't compare myself to
somebody who has to buy a Stradivarius violin. We're not in that price range.
And that in essence, any musical instrument that you'd fall in love with, that
you become an advocate for, all of those sorts of things, how big they are and
how expensive they are become really very trivial in comparison to the music
that you want to make with them.
GROSS: I want to play something else from your jazz recording with your band,
Johnny H. and the Prisoners of Swing, and this is an excerpt of a suite you
put together of music for timpani that was written to feature Vic Burton in
the 1920s. Who was he?
Mr. HAAS: Well, Vic Burton is one of my role models. I met his brother,
actually, who's still alive and in the New York area. And Vic Burton was a
very well-known percussionist, a jazz percussionist, as well as a studio
player, and he was playing with Red Nichols & the Five Pennies. And at a
recording session in 1928 in Chicago, there were some old beat-up timpani
sitting in the corner of a room in the studio, and Red Nichols suggested to
Vic Burton that he play something on them. And he took them out and he
recorded a very spontaneous recording session, the very first jazz timpani
parts that have ever been recorded or known to anybody that I know, and
really, when I was introduced to Vic Burton's music, I was really hooked on a
whole new genre in which the timpani can exist.
GROSS: And were you able to find the transcriptions for this?
Mr. HAAS: There were no transcriptions. They were improvising, so what I did
is I took the recording, which had about four or five pieces on it, to Ian
Finkel, who's a virtuoso xylophonist and also a fantastic arranger who lives
in New York, and he basically took the recording and transcribed everything
that Vic Burton was doing, and then created a jazz ensemble and sort of
gussied up the timpani parts, made them a little more complicated, made them a
little bit more interesting to play, and that was really the beginning of
Johnny H. and the Prisoners of Swing, thanks to Ian Finkel's great artistry.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear this recording? And, Jonathan Haas, I want to
thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. HAAS: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: This is Johnny H. and the Prisoners of Swing playing "Delirium."
(Soundbite of "Delirium")
GROSS: Music from the CD "Johnny H. and the Prisoners of Swing," featuring
timpanist Jonathan Haas.
Coming up, British crime writer Jake Arnott. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Jake Arnott talks about his latest novel, "He Kills
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest, Jake Arnott, is a British crime writer whose first two books have
been very well-reviewed. His first novel, "The Long Firm," was a best seller
in England and is being made into a five-part series by the BBC. His second
novel, "He Kills Coppers," has just been published in the US. In The Sunday
New York Times Book Review, Hugo Lindgren wrote, `Like the best crime novels,
"He Kills Coppers" is really not about crime or even about criminals. It's
about cultural disintegration, a city stuck in the shadowy interlude between
the end of empire and whatever was coming next. Arnott positively revels in
the filthy rotting decadence of gangster-era London, spinning a tale that has
the authority of well-researched fact and the felicity of fiction.'
The story revolves around three men: Billy Porter, who kills three cops in
1966 in London and disappears into assumed identities; Frank Taylor, the
partner of one of the murdered cops; and Tony Meehan, the tabloid journalist
and closeted homosexual who breaks the story of the cop killings. Let's start
with a reading from the point of view of the tabloid journalist.
Mr. JAKE ARNOTT (Author): `I suppose I'd always wanted to write. Ever since
I can remember, I was making things up, telling tales, nasty stories, but this
creativity was never nurtured when I was child, never understood. "You're a
dirty little liar," my mother's own words. Can you imagine the effect of such
an accusation on a young mind? I did well at school, but I got into trouble,
an unpleasant business that meant that I left earlier than I might have done.
I wasn't expelled, but the headmaster asked me to leave. Mother was very
upset, but she never saw my side of the story. I worked as a clerk in a
pickle factory for two years. I did shorthand at night school and got a job
as a junior reporter in The Reading Mercury(ph). Not terribly exciting, I
must say, but at least I was writing. I stuck with that for a year or so.
`But as soon as I'd saved enough money, I came up to London and got away from
mother at last. I had some mad idea that it was here I would become a great
writer. I got a cheap bedsit in West London, just a few meager possessions:
a Remington typewriter, a battered chest of drawers that I improvised as a
desk. I was a loner. I'd always felt different, apart from people. Like
Colin Wilson's "Outsider," I was an existentialist, I decided, as with
Barbusa's(ph) hero that Wilson refers to, the man outside. I had come to the
capital with no genius, no mission to fulfill, no remarkable feelings to
bestow. I have nothing, and I deserve nothing. Yet in spite of it, I desire
some recompense. I was meant to be a writer, I felt. This could be my
revenge, my way of getting back at them all, my way of articulating the
`The problem was, what to write about? I waited in vain for inspiration. I
managed a half-finished draft of a novel, derivative stuff, purple prose and
descriptions of emotions I'd never felt. I couldn't bear to look at it. I
kept it in a shoe box under my bed, collecting dust. I had this perceived
notion that a novelist should be somehow autobiographical, that fiction should
be personal, but the very thought of it made me feel sick. I didn't want to
write about myself. I had no desire to express my inner feelings; on the
contrary. I wanted to use ink the way an octopus does, to hide.
`The money ran out and I started doing bits of free-lance journalism. I had
the basic skills for it, after all. The gutter press was teeming with life,
with stories. I found what I was looking for, a peephole to look through. I
particularly liked crime stories; the more brutal the better.'
GROSS: That's Jake Arnott reading an excerpt of his novel, "He Kills
Jake, would you describe the tabloid reporter and how he fits into the novel?
Mr. ARNOTT: Well, Tony's sort of a well-adjusted psychopath. It's funny that
apparently there are more psychopaths out there than we imagine there are and
some of them lead quiet lives of anonymity. Of course, Tony is attracted to
the sort of crime journalism, the tabloid crime journalism that's really
wolfed down by the public, because he is drawn to some of those impulses
GROSS: Is part of the research you had to do to research what the tabloids in
London were like in the '60s and how they covered crime and what the crimes
Mr. ARNOTT: Mm-hmm. I spoke to a guy who'd worked on the news desk at the
Sunday People all through the '60s and '70s, and so I got a lot of the color
of what was then the British press. Fleet Street it was called. It's
completely changed now. It's all become computerized and moved out to
Docklands. But back then, it had a particular character to it that I wanted
GROSS: What did you want to capture about that character?
Mr. ARNOTT: Well, it's the seediness really. I mean, this is sort of what I
do, the kind of dark side of society. And there was something quite gloomy
and almost Gothic about the sort of Fleet Street life.
GROSS: What were the big crime stories in 1966, when part of your novel's
Mr. ARNOTT: Well, the central crime in the novel is based on a real event
that happened just a few days after the World Cup final, and it was a very hot
summer. Time magazine had just called London the `swinging city.' Everything
seems to be going well, and suddenly three unarmed police officers got gunned
down in broad daylight in a West London street. And even now in Britain that
would be quite shocking, but back in '66 it was a sort of a really disturbing
GROSS: The title of your novel is "He Kills Coppers." Can you talk about
where that title comes from?
Mr. ARNOTT: Yes. It's a football chant. It was a chant sung to the tune of
"London Bridge is Falling Down." And originally it was a chant about the cop
killer that I base my fictional cop killer on, somebody called Harry Roberts.
And it would go: `Harry Roberts is our friend, is our friend, is our friend.
Harry Roberts is our friend. He kills coppers.'
And I'm very interested in kind of modern mythology and sort of things that
are folkloric in an urban sort of age, and this was one of them. It's
extraordinary when somebody in a very modern age becomes a sort of folk devil
or folk hero to some people. And I felt this song sort of reverberating down
through the ages.
GROSS: Why did that cop killer become a folk hero in some areas?
Mr. ARNOTT: It's an interesting question. I think all sorts of things came
together at the same time. In the '60s when the event happened there was a
lot of social change, but generally then the police would have been considered
to be very well-trusted by the majority of society. They were also up to no
good, some of them, because they had such a free hand. Then as things slowly
did change through the '60s and '70s, a lot of young people felt more
instinctively oppositional towards the police and people generally--because of
the corruption trials that happened in Scotland Yard in the '70s, a lot of
just ordinary people lost the sort of blind faith they had in the police as
So it's funny. I ended up writing quite a lot about the history of the police
force, but seeing different angles, really. And often by the crowd
themselves, a few times in the book there are sort of set pieces where it's
the crowd that are the character, not individuals themselves.
GROSS: When you were growing up, were you exposed to a lot of crime or pretty
well sheltered from crime?
Mr. ARNOTT: A little bit of both; nothing serious. But I did get quite
consistently in trouble when I was younger, but nothing hugely sort of--I was
no great criminal mastermind. Let's put it that way.
GROSS: Shoplifting, things like that?
Mr. ARNOTT: That sort of thing, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: What about your neighborhood? Was it a crime-ridden neighborhood or
was it a pretty calm...
Mr. ARNOTT: No. It was pretty suburban, quite calm. But the city, you see,
London was always the thing that drew us in, you know, to go out, because it
was near. And I always wanted to sort of come down to the big city.
GROSS: You left school at the age of 16. Is that right?
Mr. ARNOTT: Yeah.
GROSS: So I figure you must have had some authority issues as a young man.
Mr. ARNOTT: I certainly did. Looking back, I think, `God, what a handful,
really.' But it is. Yeah, I didn't get on with secondary school and I didn't
really get on I suppose with things around authority when I was growing up. I
think I wasn't very happy about myself as well. I wasn't really sure about
all sorts of things about myself. And I really needed to go off and sort all
of that out, really.
GROSS: What were the things about yourself that you had to settle?
Mr. ARNOTT: I think a lot had to do with my sexuality, I suppose...
Mr. ARNOTT: ...other things, as well. But I felt terrified by the whole
prospect of being--a bit about being not normal.
GROSS: Right. What is it, the whole kind coming out kind of thing?
Mr. ARNOTT: Sort of. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: My guest is Jake Arnott. His new novel is called "He Kills Coppers."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is British crime writer Jake Arnott. His new novel is called
"He Kills Coppers."
Now you lived in squats for a while when you were, what, in your teens?
Mr. ARNOTT: Mm-hmm. Late teens and through my 20s; yeah.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. So basically these are like abandoned homes that you...
Mr. ARNOTT: Yeah, that you occupy. There was a lot of unoccupied property in
London at that time, so it was quite widespread.
GROSS: One of the jobs you took on when you were young was working at a
mortuary. What kind of work were you doing?
Mr. ARNOTT: Well, it's a medical school mortuary and I was--one of my
official titles was a technician. But essentially I was a glorified cleaner,
though I did assist in the odd embalming here and there. It was pretty grim
stuff that I had to do, I have to say.
GROSS: It's stuff that comes in handy, though, for crime writing.
Mr. ARNOTT: Well, it's funny. I haven't used it as much as I might.
Certainly with Tony's sensibility, the journalist. That sort of sense of
morbidity I can plug into.
GROSS: Why did you decide to write about crime?
Mr. ARNOTT: I'm not sure if I did make that decision consciously. I started
with the first book, "The Long Firm," and I knew I was going to write about a
criminal who's homosexual and, you know, through the eyes of one of his
boyfriends, but then it expanded into a big novel and I realized it was going
to be sort of a novel that would involve gangland in the '60s. And so then
the second book came after that.
I don't think I'm a crime writer per se, but I am fascinated by crime as a way
of looking at society.
GROSS: There are some gay activists over the years who have protested when
homosexuals are depicted in a movie as the psychotic or the killer, because
they fear that the implication is that homosexuality is a result of or leads
to anti-social, evil behavior. So as a writer who is gay and who has created
a killer who is homosexual, what would you say to people who might argue that
this is a bad depiction of homosexuality?
Mr. ARNOTT: Well, I think there was a time when there was a lot of talk about
the need for positive role models. And hopefully we've moved away from that,
because I think a positive stereotype is just as bad as a negative stereotype.
And I think that it's important to feel that one's experience on whatever it
is is universal and human.
Actually in the first book I based Harry Starks on a real-life London gangster
who was homosexual. And I always thought--I mean, he's certainly not a
positive role model, but for me he always gave me a sense that there's a broad
human experience here. It's not confined to a particular type. And I think
that can be quite liberating. I think we need villains as much as we need
GROSS: And that's where you come in, huh?
Mr. ARNOTT: Yeah, I can provide them.
GROSS: What were some of the things you went through, either individually or
in a kind of larger social, political way, that had the biggest impact on you
either artistically or politically?
Mr. ARNOTT: I think when my house burnt down. I was squatting in this lovely
house in south London and I came home one night and there had been a fire, and
suddenly I was homeless. Also, all my possessions had been burnt in the fire.
And then, just as we were trying to organize things, the police turned up and
arrested all of us on suspicion of arson. So in one evening I lost my home,
my possessions and my liberty at one fell stroke. It was extraordinary. And,
yeah, it was sort of months before I got back onto some sort of normal track
But it did have a profound effect on the way I thought about, not so much
politically, but just the very sort of notion of existence, really, that
suddenly everything can just go.
GROSS: And did that make you, as the croupier would say, hold on tightly or
let go lightly?
Mr. ARNOTT: It definitely makes you let go lightly. I mean, it was kind of
instant Buddhism. I wouldn't recommend it, but strangely enough there was a
feeling of being able to let go of all these things because none of them
really matter that much. Of course, then there was also a lot of frustration
or anger I felt about things as well at the same time. But I'd say I suppose
the things I miss most were maybe things I'd written, maybe letters,
photographs that you couldn't reproduce. It's things that almost have a
cultural significance rather than a material significance. You know, anything
else can be replaced or, you know, it's not that important, anyway; it's only
GROSS: Jake Arnott, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. ARNOTT: Thank you.
GROSS: Jake Arnott's new novel is called "He Kills Coppers."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music; credits)
Mr. MEL BROOKS: Listen to Terry Gross' FRESH AIR. Mel Brooks is her guest.
GROSS: We'll not only hear from Mel Brooks, we'll feature highlights of
interviews with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick. Sunday is their last
performance in Mel Brooks' hit Broadway show "The Producers."
I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
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.