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Peter Greenaway's Newest Film Is an "Exquisite Commentary" on Eroticism

Film critic John Powers reviews Peter Greenaway's new film "The Pillow Book."


Other segments from the episode on June 5, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 5, 1997: Interview with Matthew Sweet; Interview with Bob Garfield; Review of the film "The Pillow Book."


Date: JUNE 05, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 060501NP.217
Head: Matthew Sweet
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

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

Matthew Sweet's records have a lot of what you want out of pop: catchy melodies; intriguing lyrics; and high-powered guitar playing. Sweet has listened to lots of pop and in the songs he writes, you can hear many of his influences, like the Beatles, the Birds, Neil Young, the Beach Boys, and R.E.M.

Sweet's third album, "Girl Friend," released in 1991, was his breakthrough record. On his new CD, "Blue Sky on Mars," Sweet plays most of the instruments himself: guitar; bass; and synthesizers. And of course, he sings.

Before we meet him, let's hear a track from his new CD. This is his song "Over It."


SWEET, SINGING: You're over it. You're not angry anymore.
'Cause you're over it.
Because you're over it
No big deal unless you make it one
You don't even have to fake it now.
You're over it. You're over it.
And in a way
You should never have to feel
Yet you say it'

If you're lookin' all around you
And there's nothing that's profound
You know you're over it
I won't ask you what you think of me
'Cause I'm exactly who I want to be
Not like me
You're over it

I won't ask you what you think of me
'Cause I'm exactly who I want to be
Not like me.

You're over it.
You're not angry any more.
Because you're over it.

You can go back to being normal
'Cause I guess this makes it formal now
You're over it. You're over it
You're over it

GROSS: That's Matthew Sweet from his new album Blue Sky on Mars.

When did you know that music was it for you?

SWEET: I think I knew pretty early on in my teens, probably when I was in junior high. I used to say: I know I'll do something in music. I certainly didn't think I'd be doing what I do now, and be a solo artist or anything. I guess I more thought, you know, I'll play bass in a band or, you know, maybe I'll be a studio bass player or something like that.

GROSS: Did you play in bands in high school?

SWEET: I did. Yeah, I played with, you know, various kids. Around junior high we played at an assembly. I remember in seventh grade, my fist year of junior high, I played in a band that played "Carry on, My Wayward Son" by Kansas and can't remember what the other song we played was. We played two songs at an assembly at school, and so, yeah, I played in various bands.

When I was in high school, I was like the kid member of a band of a bunch of guys who were in college. They were called "The Specs" (ph), and we were like kind of a new-wave cover band, although we played some kind of '60s songs like The Yardbirds or -- my big number in the band where I sang was "My Generation" by The Who.

And they were originally like a prog rock group called "Spectrum" and then they went new wave and were called The Specs. At this time, I was probably 13, 14 years old and we would play at proms and high school dances and things.

GROSS: So when you were singing My Generation, was that supposed to be ironic since you weren't of the generation of The Who?

SWEET: Well, I don't know if we thought that much about it. That just happened to be my number that I got to sing.

GROSS: I was wondering...

SWEET: Well, I guess it was ironic.

GROSS: ... how much time when you were a teenager did you spend in your bedroom just recording demos of your own songs and overdubbing?

SWEET: I spent a lot of time doing that. I guess it was probably -- I worked in a music store in Lincoln called Dietz Music (ph) after school and on weekends, and I guess it was when I was working there that I first got a hold of the new technology of the four-track cassette recorder, which really, I think, made multi-track recording much more available to people in general than it had been before.

Cost-wise, it was much less expensive than you probably were able to do multi-tracking before then. And had I not had a multi-track to work on, I don't know if I'd be doing what I do today because I was very, very shy about singing. I was shy about writing songs.

And if I hadn't been able to hide out, you know, in my bedroom with no one hearing me and figure it out myself, you know, singing along with my own instrumentation, I don't know if I'd have ever stuck my neck out to do it.

So I definitely regard myself as coming from what I would call the porta-studio generation. And I imagine you'll probably see more and more people these days who could probably point to that era as being important for them.

GROSS: You mentioned performing for high school auditorium gigs.

SWEET: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: You didn't have to do things like do Arbor Day songs on Arbor Day or anything like that, did you? I mean, my memories of school -- horrible songs.

SWEET: Well, not so much. I do have some great memories of songs like my grade school graduation, we sang "The Way We Were."


That was good. When I think about it now, I think that's pretty funny.

GROSS: Oh, what kind of absurd nostalgia.

SWEET: But that was -- the whole class sang it, you know.

GROSS: Well, what did you all do on the high notes?

SWEET: Oh, we could all sing pretty high, I think, at that age.

GROSS: Oh, too funny. Now, your breakthrough record, "Girl Friend," was actually your third record. You had earlier records with Columbia and with A&M, both major record labels. Why do you think Girl Friend took off and that the first two albums didn't? Do you think it was something in your music? Something in the marketing? Something in the time?

SWEET: Well, I just think that I had come of age sort of, as an artist. The first record I made I think that was totally me -- really kind of felt right to me. It was the first record I had any expectations about, where I finished making it and I said: you know, there's something good about this. Somebody will like it.

Which -- I think before then, I don't think I ever expected anybody else to like what I was doing, necessarily. And it was still a difficult record to get released, but it didn't really sound like other records at the time. It was very dry recording, which was not yet in vogue then.

GROSS: Dry as opposed to a lot of reverb?

SWEET: Yeah. There was no reverb on that record. Now, that's a really common thing on the radio, but at the time, that was kind of an old-fashioned way to make a record; it was more of a '70s way to record or something.

GROSS: Oh, interesting. Tell us the story of how Girl Friend was signed?

SWEET: There was a guy named Scott Byron (ph) who was working for a fledgling BMG label called "Zoo Entertainment," and he really liked the record and sort of convinced his label to sign it. And we kind of got into legal affairs and made the deal. And then they decided, well, we've signed too many things. We're not going sign it. So it was again in limbo.

And finally, I guess about nine months after the record was mastered and finished, Zoo Entertainment came back on. One day I got a phone call -- they were going to sign the record.

And as the story was told to me, Lou Malia (ph), the president of the label, was walking through the hallway and heard the album being played by Bud Skapa (ph), who was head of artist development. Bud was a writer for Rolling Stone in the '70s and he had gone and worked out that morning and listened to the record again, and thought: you know, I'm going to write a memo and try and drum up some more interest.

And while he was playing it, getting ready -- getting his computer started and everything to write the memo, Lou stuck his head in and said: "what is that thing?" Bud said: "well, it's the Matthew Sweet record, Lou." And he said: "yeah, I like that." You know, "what's our status on that?" And Bud said: "well, you passed on it, Lou." And he said: "oh, you think we should sign that?" And he said: "yeah." And he said: "OK, I'm going to go down and tell legal affairs."

So I guess that's how my life turned around, really. It was that random. And had that not happened that day, I don't know what the course would have been with the record.

GROSS: Well let's hear a song from your CD Girl Friend -- the CD that really put you on the map. And the song I'd like to play is "Divine Intervention." I think it's really catchy, and when we're done hearing it, I'd like to talk with you about the lyric.

This is Matthew Sweet.


SWEET SINGING: I cannot understand, my God
I don't know why it gets to me
One day my life is filled with joy
Then we finally disagree
And all depending on his
Divine intervention

All right
We're all counting on him

GROSS: Matthew Sweet from his earlier CD Girl Friend.

Matthew, why did you want to write a song in which the question: "is there a God?" prominently figures?

SWEET: Well, I think at the time I wrote this song, I was in my early 20s. I was like really starting to think more about how I felt about God -- whether I thought there was one. It wasn't even something where I decided to do it.

I don't think I sat down and said: I'm going to write a song about my feelings about God. I just started having songs now and then where God, you know, popped up in them.

And I think it's not the only one on Girl Friend. In fact, I remember early on hearing some comment -- somebody said it was too religious for them. And I remember that really stuck with me, 'cause I -- that was when I realized: wow, I'm really talking about this, like in a few songs.

GROSS: So were you wrestling with that a lot?

SWEET: I think that I was, you know. I think that, in a way, a lot of my "God" references, especially on that record, were more meant as kind of swipes at God a little bit, you know? It was funny, because people who were really religious tended to look at it in a positive light, like it was this, you know, "oh yes, we all have to have our faith" and, you know, "pray for divine intervention." Whereas I meant it a little more sarcastically, I think.

GROSS: Anyone from Christian pop approach you and...

SWEET: There's always a confusion because of Michael Sweet from the Christian rock band Striper -- went solo after Striper. So every now and then there is a little bit of confusion between the two of us.

GROSS: My guest is Matthew Sweet. He has a new CD called Blue Sky on Mars. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with songwriter, singer, and musician Matthew Sweet. Let me get in another song from your new CD, and the CD's called Blue Sky on Mars. And I want to play "Behind the Smile," a song that I think of as having the title "Good Friend."

Tell me about this song before we hear it.

SWEET: Behind the Smile -- well, I didn't mean for it to, but right after I wrote it, I realized it had an obvious reference to Girl Friend which -- by the way, the song Girl Friend was originally called Good Friend -- and Behind the Smile starts with, you know: "I haven't been a good friend."

And in a way, it echoes a feeling I have a lot of the time, I think, since my career has somewhat taken over my life, I feel more and more unable to kind of keep up with all my friends and people I know and kind of be a good friend to other people.

So it's a little bit my confession of that feeling. There's a line in Behind the Smile that really means a lot to me, in the kind of bridge section, where it says: "you know I'm fighting to be real." And it just gives me a little chill when I hear that line, and I think it just is -- it just means, you know, I'm trying not to let everything else, you know, take me away from who I was, you know, originally.

So "Behind the Smile" is one of the most important songs to me on the new record.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it, and this is from Matthew Sweet's new CD Blue Sky on Mars.


SWEET SINGING: By your side or standing in your way
'Cause if this is a sign, I don't know what it's 'sposed to mean
And I haven't been a good friend
For a long, long time
I haven't been a good friend
While you've been mine

I have seen my perfect day
I have watched it fade away
You know I'm fighting to be real
I haven't been a good friend
For a long, long time

You know I wasn't happy
Behind the smile.

GROSS: That's Matthew Sweet. Matthew, before we heard that, you were saying that the line about fighting to be real was an important line to you. What are you trying to protect yourself from?

I mean, I'm wondering if you've seen a lot of people who've been in the middle of that power spot -- you know, the microphone on stage -- and have been transformed in not very good ways by it.

SWEET: I don't know if it comes from me seeing that in other people so much. Maybe more from my own experience and my own fears about it. It's a strange life, where you talk about yourself all the time, and it's like your name projected to be this person out in the world.

And I've always really tried to get a lot of my real self into my records, and into the art work. I always have been putting my weird hobbies, you know, on the covers of my records and things.

And sometimes it's just -- gets to feel sort of overwhelming, like too much me-ness, you know, and it kind of drives me crazy. And maybe I have fear of, like, what do I really feel? Who am I really?

You know, I'll just get kind of worn out emotionally doing what I do, and sort of sticking so much of my personal self kind of out into the world.

GROSS: What do you do right before and right after you get on stage?

SWEET: Before we go on stage, I'll usually play CDs of bands I like. I'll jump up and down a lot -- gotta get warmed up; sing along a lot; try and warm up my voice. And when I come off stage, I usually -- I'll go back on the bus, change clothes.

I sweat a whole lot, so I'm always completely wet after I play. So I have to get changed, and then I'll go up to the front of the bus and we'll -- and sign autographs for whoever's waiting.

That's become a real routine over the last couple of years, especially. There's almost always a group of people kind of waiting outside. Until I've kind of gotten through signing stuff and all of that, I can't really relax. So that's the next thing I do.

GROSS: You keep mentioning the bus. You don't fly. You don't like to fly, anyways.

SWEET: Oh, yeah. Well, you know, touring here in the states, we probably wouldn't be flying that much anyway. But yeah, I have terrible fear of flying, and I did do it a whole lot for many years. It got to the point where I was having to do a lot of things where I flew every day -- a lot of international flights.

And I guess it reached its kind of hardest point for me during the time of "Altered Beast," which is the last time I toured internationally. And I really had some big problems with it during that time. I guess I was feeling a lot of pressure about the record in general. I was having to do a lot of explaining about it.

Then, combined with all the flying I was doing, I just started to kind of have a mini-nervous breakdown, and a couple of times I had to sort of call it quits and go home for a few days. And during that time, I saw someone about it. I got hypnotized. You know, I tried all kinds of things.

But what ended up happening is my manager really came to me at the end of the Altered Beast campaign and he said: "OK, for the next record, how about you don't do any flying at all, and we'll just tour in the states and in Canada." And I said: great. Sounds wonderful to me. I can't believe you think we could get away with it."

And -- but that's what we did. For 100 Percent Fun, I didn't fly at all and I haven't flown in, gosh, I guess three-and-a-half years now. And that record did very well for me. I was really focused for it. It went gold within about nine months.

I guess Girl Friend finally went gold the same year. So it was a really good year for me. Had my first Canadian gold record. I'm not saying 'cause I didn't fly, but it was a good year for me.

I have found that this year there is much, much more pressure internationally to go over and tour. For some reason, people are really liking the new record out in all the territories, and so I'm finally going to go to Europe in August. I'm planning on going across on the QEII. My wife's going to travel over there with me, and we're going to tour as extensively as we can over there while I'm there.

GROSS: What shape do your mini-nervous breakdowns take?

SWEET: You know, I would describe it as just a very black cloud kind of feeling. I would just get a very bad feeling as kind of the first indication I would have. Just kind of like just a bad funk kind of mood -- just very dark.

Didn't feel like talking to anybody. I would get really nauseous -- start throwing up a lot. I'd just throw up -- just kind of spontaneously, not really in any connection with anything; crying, just for no reason.

I would -- a lot, it manifested itself as I couldn't sleep. I'd be like up all night, just kind of having like waking nightmares. You know, it was pretty nasty, really. I was just not -- kind of coming apart, emotionally.

GROSS: You must have been scared by that (Unintelligible) what was causing this.

SWEET: I was really scared by that. I thought I might go crazy, you know. I occasionally will get a little bit that feeling nowadays, and it's very scary, you know. It makes me think: am I going to go crazy some day? It's like the main thing I would think, and I would try and say to myself, you know:

I know I've felt better than this. I know I can get back to that feeling somehow, when I felt better. You know, it's funny 'cause talking about it now, I remember a time when I had a sort of a period when I went through that was like that when I was about 19 years old -- almost like a mid-life crisis, but...

GROSS: Premature.

SWEET: Yeah, you know? And I went through a period a little bit like that, where I was kind of shell-shocked. I couldn't sleep. Any noises and things would really freak me out, you know. But generally, I'm a pretty normal person, you know.

I don't come apart much. I'm pretty strong, so the flying thing really was the lethal element added to the other stresses of my life after the success of Girl Friend that really put me over the edge, was my fear of flying.

GROSS: Matthew Sweet will be back with us a little later. His new CD is called "Blue Sky on Mars." Here's the single from it: "Where You Get Love."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


SWEET SINGING: Instead of running, stay and keep it coming,
You're getting kicks right at the source;
You;re taking the guidance from the force
Where you get love?
Coming over from somewhere far
Kind of scary feeling, I know I know
Where you get love?

Am I the whore you're working for?
I'm here if you want to keep me near
Much further away than out of here.
Where you get love? Tell the (Unintelligible)
From somewhere far
Got a scary feeling, I know
Where do you get love?
Where do you get love?

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with songwriter, singer and musician Matthew Sweet. His new CD is called Blue Sky on Mars.

Let's talk about songwriting.


GROSS: When you're writing a song -- so many of your songs have, in the real kind of spirit of pop, a very solid hook that they're built around. Does the hook come to you first? Whether the hook is the catchy phrase or the catchy -- you know, lyrical phrase or musical phrase?

SWEET: Well, I would say music comes the easiest to me.

GROSS: Before the lyric.

SWEET: Before lyrics, usually, although not always. Sometimes I'll have a lyrical idea first or I'll write words and music kind of simultaneously. But more often than not, I have more of the music first, and maybe some words, you know.

And it's not something I think about a lot, you know. I almost think of it like there's this universe kind of in my head and it's all full of all these melodies going on all the time.

And when I kind of get in the mode where I turn that on, I could just come up with a different melody like all the time, and it's really kind of -- it's almost routine to me to do that.

I think if there's -- the biggest misconception people have about me is how carefully constructed my songs are and stuff, because they're very free form to me, how they're written. I guess I have a real sense, after making demos for so many years, of kind of how to structure things. You know, it kind of -- it's something I don't think about a whole lot.

I remember when I -- it was early-on in my career, I did some writing with Jules Shearer (ph), a great songwriter and a great friend of mine. And Jules said to me: "Matthew, how come you don't ever work on your songs? Like, do you ever think about like taking one that like had something good in it, and like, you know, working on it and making it better?"

And the reason he said that to me is because I would tend to -- there would be songs every now and then that somebody would like, you know, a part of it, but, you know, not so much the rest of it. And I tend to write so many songs, I would never take a song and fix it. I'd just write more songs, until one came along that seemed more whole.

And so it's never been my problem, writing lots of material. The work really comes later on when you have to talk about it and explain it and everything.

GROSS: So that sounds like there's a little faucet someplace that you turn on and the melody comes out.

SWEET: It's totally like a faucet, and it usually has a lot to do with how I'm feeling emotionally, when I will write. If I'm really down and feeling melancholy or depressed about my life, I'll always write songs in that mood. If I'm really excited and hyped up about something in my life, I'll write songs in that mood as well.

So I've come to think of it as being like whenever I have excess emotion, that's when I'll write songs, and I guess it just happens often enough that I will rarely find myself in a situation where, oh no, I've got to write some songs; you know, I've got to make a record. More often than not, I have far more songs than I could ever record.

GROSS: Did you ever get flak from your friends for liking pop and for writing pop, as opposed to, say, you know, heavy metal or really heavy hard-core of one sort or another? Did people say: oh, this is too light, this is...

SWEET: I think -- I don't think I ever so much got flak from my friends as much as just the media in general, from -- especially early-on in my career.

I got a lot of the, you know, sappy love songs; you know, happy -- people tended, when they hear melodies, they think it's all about happy-go-lucky, you know. I find people don't often take the time to actually listen to what the words are saying. I think on my records, you often find some of the sunnier melodies undercut by some kind of subversive lyric.

But over the years, I see that less, I think. I just found over time, that's what I really care about -- are good melodies and I think that's a thing that I do, as far as doing really melodic music, that not everybody does. And so I fell more and more of a responsibility to, like, go for that pop angle.

GROSS: Matthew Sweet, a real pleasure to talk with you.

SWEET: Oh, same here, thanks.

GROSS: Matthew Sweet's new CD is called Life on Mars. Here's his earlier song, Girl Friend.


SWEET SINGING: I want to love somebody
I hear you need somebody to love
Well, I want to love somebody
I hear you're lookin' for someone to love

'Cause you need to
Get back in the arms of a good friend
And I need to
Get back in the arms of a girl friend

I didn't know nobody, and then I saw you comin' my way.
But I didn't know nobody, and then I saw you comin' my way.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Matthew Sweet
High: The music of singer, songwriter, and guitarist Matthew Sweet is a mix of pop and alternative and has been likened to Revolver-era Beatles. His albums have enjoyed international critical and popular success. In his newest album, "Blue Sky on Mars," Sweet sings both lead and background vocals, as well as playing most of the guitars, keyboard, and bass.
Spec: Music Industry; People; Matthew Sweet
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Matthew Sweet
Date: JUNE 05, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 060502NP.217
Head: Bob Garfield
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:35

TERRY GROSS, HOST: As a roving correspondent for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and a syndicated newspaper columnist, Bob Garfield has been embarked on a search for American quirks and eccentricities. In his travels around America, he's found the largest collection of hotel room soaps, the drainage hall of fame, and a museum and retail complex called "Sponge-a-rama" (ph).

He has a new collection of his pieces, called "Waking Up Screaming from the American Dream." Before we meet him, let's hear an excerpt of the piece he did for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED about one of his own adventures. The premise was this: while he was in Nashville on business, he figured why not try to become a country music star?

Taking the advice of people who say "write about what you know," he tried to write a lyric about life in the beltway, and he enlisted the help of a composer named Rivers Rutherford.

BOB GARFIELD, NPR CORRESPONDENT, SYNDICATED NEWSPAPER COLUMNIST, AND AUTHOR OF "WAKING UP SCREAMING FROM THE AMERICAN DREAM": OK, wait, wait, wait. What about this: Everyone's so busy, you know, they're running behind. What if -- you ever have a conversation with somebody you can't have because you're calling their voice mail and they're calling your voice mail.


GARFIELD: And then...

RUTHERFORD: Phone tag.

GARFIELD: Phone tag. And you know, at the end -- by the end of it, you're just saying "tag, you're it." Right.


GARFIELD: So, what if the relationship building in an exchange of voice mail messages, and the whole song was just this exchange of voice mail messages, and the hook was "tag, you're it."

Well, come to think of it, why not a song about telephone tag with your sweetheart? It's a common experience, harvested from my own life, completely consistent with my inside-the-beltway sensibilities, and just as the proprietor of the Bluebird Cafe suggested, it could be about a clueless guy who treats his woman wrong until she slaps him upside the head and gets him back on the road to love.

Just calling to let you know, I got your message
I got your message
I got your message a while ago

In my suitcase by the door
Suitcase in my hand six o'clock this morning
I hadn't talked to you in a couple days
(unintelligible) checking on my calls
Seven messages, yours was last of all

GARFIELD: What if it tells a story? What story can we tell on the basis of two people who are just like electronic ships passing in the night?


RUTHERFORD: La, la, la, darling I miss you.

GARFIELD: La la la -- I love you. I think you should leave the --- tag you're it -- call me when you can --- something, something, something -- I'm a busy man.

RUTHERFORD: Tag, you're it. Call me when you can.

GARFIELD: All told, it took us about six hours, and I don't mind telling you, I was dripping with satisfaction like gravy over hot biscuits. All we had to do now was play the song for his publisher, Jody Williams, president of MCA Music-Nashville.

Then it would be demo'd and then shopped to likely artists -- Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson, what have you. And my career would be launched even as I boarded the 6:05 pm flight back to Washington.

GROSS: Well, on Garfield's trip home to Washington, who happened to be on the plane but Jimmy Carter, the former president who loves country music. Garfield recognized this coincidence as a great opportunity.

GARFIELD: I traded seats with the Secret Service agent next to him, and asked Jimmy Carter about his taste in music.

JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Do I listen to a country music station? In Americus, Georgia, and I listen to a whole gamut of country music.

GARFIELD: Is it possible, do you suppose, to bring a Washington sensibility to country music?

CARTER: I'd be amazed.

GARFIELD: OK, well, then, I just want to play this for you. Would you just listen to this?


GARFIELD: OK, thanks.

Whereupon the former president of the United States strapped on my headphones and listened to my song, flashing his famous toothy grin and, if I'm not mistaken, tapping his toe securely beneath the seat in front of him.

So what do you think?

CARTER: I think the song is good, and the music's good. I'd like to hear it every now and then on my country radio station, and you know, you might get in touch with -- I'm not -- I think the performer's very good, but if somebody like Willie Nelson or Tom T. Hall -- who's one of my best buddies. I think they would like it, and they could give you some good advice.

GARFIELD: With your compliments?

CARTER: Of course, yeah.

GROSS: Bob Garfield, welcome to FRESH AIR.

GARFIELD: Thank you.

GROSS: Don't you think it's really clever the way you enlisted Jimmy Carter and Willie Nelson to help you with this piece? How did you get to sit next to Jimmy Carter and ask him that?

GARFIELD: Well, the first thing you have to know is, I was flying first class, you know -- I was doing a speaking engagement that I wasn't getting paid for and I, over the years, I've learned that one thing you can do is ask people to fly you in in comfort and style. So there I was in the first class cabin, and there was -- across the aisle from me was the Secret Service guy and then there was President Carter.

And I mean, I knew -- I had -- I was on my way back to Washington with a pretty good seven minute story about me failing as a country music writer. You know, pretending to be condescending and going in -- kind of getting my comeuppance. That was the story. And I thought: it'll be fine. I had some pretty decent tape and so forth.

But when I saw Carter, the instant I saw him, I knew that this thing had transmogrified somehow, and if I could just get him on tape talking about the song, that I was on my way to a much better story. And so I just asked, and he thought about it awhile, and ultimately he came around.

GROSS: Now, what did you tell him? Did you tell him: this is a comedy piece? And you'll be in on the joke?

GARFIELD: I didn't tell him that at first. I first -- I just said: Mr. President, I'm -- you know, I told him who I am -- and I said I would like to interview you briefly on tape about country music. And he said, well, I'll think about it.

And he went back to visit some people in the coach cabin of the plane and he came back, and this by the way was November 22, November 22 -- it was the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.

I don't know what I was thinking of, but he walked back towards me. I said to him: "by the way, Mr. President, I'd still like to get a shot at you." Whereupon, I was certain that this Secret Service guy was going to collapse on me in the airplane aisle, but he was not unduly alarmed.

Anyway, yeah, he agreed and you know, switched seats with the Secret Service guy and he was very much accommodating. And he really liked the song. He was really tapping his presidential toe underneath the seat in front of him.

GROSS: Your book is called Waking Up Screaming From The American Dream and a lot of the people who you profile are pursuing their version of the American dream; their version of happiness. And I wonder if you've given a lot of thought to what different people think happiness is? What people expect happiness will be?

GARFIELD: You know, I have thought about that. And you know, while I'm sometimes hesitant to make, you know, pronouncements that are supposed to apply to an entire country of 280 million people, I'm inclined to throw in with de Tocqueville and say that there is something extraordinary and unique to the American character about this whole idea of self-improvement.

That, you know, as I say in the introduction to this thing: we are not a -- my dad was a shepherd and his dad was a shepherd and his dad was a shepherd, so I guess I'll be a shepherd, too, kind of society. We think that it is our birthright to -- since we're in this land of opportunity, to find the opportunity for us and to, in one way or another, hit it big.

I don't think the American dream is the white picket fence. I don't think that's it. I think the American dream is the big score -- to do something enormous; something grand; something wonderful; something that will make the whole world take notice and will make you probably rich in the bargain. And this book is all about people who are trying to do something large.

They just, yeah -- by and large, I mean, there are -- some of the people in this book are actually, their efforts are redeemed by success. But for the most part, they end up doing nothing, just in a very large way.

GROSS: Like the guy whose big idea was the condom key chain.


GROSS: That one didn't work.

GARFIELD: Did not work. Two guys came back -- they're young guys. They're college graduates. In fact, I think they went to Princeton. And they -- one of them came back from some studies in Thailand with this gimmick, this novelty he had picked up there, and it was a key chain with a condom in the key fob, and -- which I guess is handy for emergencies or just as kind of a conversation piece.

And they thought that their ticket to riches was to just import these things by the hundreds of thousands of millions. They thought, you know, this was a zeitgeist situation they were in, and the condom key chain was going to take them, just, places they'd never even dreamed of being.

And it did. It took them to a place they had never really dreamed of being. It took them into illiquidity at the age of 24.

GROSS: What's the most interesting thing that has happened to a person as a result of you profiling them?

GARFIELD: Hmm. That's a good one. I guess -- well, the answer is: I don't know what the most interesting thing is, although I did do a piece -- a woman in New York who was a dominatrix, and she called herself a "psychodramatist," but nonetheless, what she did was dress up in leather and flog men with whips and cat-o'nine-tails and meat tenderizers and various other implements of torture.

And -- wasn't a prostitute, mind you -- but she thought that she was doing some sort of psychological service and the -- mainly lawyers, who were her clientele apparently agreed, because they're paying good money to come over to her place and be subjugated and humiliated. And I did a profile on her -- I think it was a 750-word newspaper column.

And I guess what happened was the radio talk shows -- the a.m. talk shows started coming to her -- started coming to her big time. And all of a sudden she was, you know, kind of a demi-celebrity. And when I revisited her about five years later, she had moved to much nicer quarters.

She now had a large West Side dungeon with nine employee dominiatrix's or dominiatrices or whatever you would say. And, you know, her business had grown quite handsomely and she said she owed it all to me.

GROSS: Were her clients judges instead of lawyers?

GARFIELD: No, I don't know if she had any, you know, an upgrade in the quality of the clientele, but she certainly had more volume.

GROSS: What got you started in this direction, being, you know, a roving correspondent for NPR?

GARFIELD: Well, I -- back in 1985, I went hunting with my in-laws.

GROSS: This is one of the pieces in your book.

GARFIELD: That's right. That's right. I went hunting with my in-laws in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania -- actually north of Pittsburgh, in the woods of Warren County, Pennsylvania. And the deal is, my in-laws are Catholic hunters.

I mean, they've been hunting since they were little kids, and they, you know, own a lot of flannel garments and a house full of rifles and so forth. And I grew up on the other side of the state, in the Philadelphia suburbs -- a nice Jewish boy who -- you know, all of my guns had caps in them. I mean, they weren't real guns.

And I was not exactly what you would call an outdoorsman. But after years of invitations, I finally accepted and went hunting with my in-laws, and went to northwestern Pennsylvania, and for three days, you know, tromped through woods and did my level best not to freeze to death.

And it turned out actually to have a very wonderful experience. And I did a column about it for the New York Times. I did just a little op/ed piece for it, and it, you know, it was funny. It was a very funny column. And the New York Times bought it, and were going to run it on a particular Saturday or something like that.

And two days before it was due to run, the editor of the op/ed section calls me. He says: look, we're not running the column. He says, you know, at the New York Times, we only have one sacred cow, and that's religion, and there are too many religion jokes in it, that it has been decided by powers on high, and so, you know, keep the money, but we can't run your piece.

Well, I was crestfallen. Number one, I was excited to be having an op/ed piece in the New York Times, but apart from that, I really like this story. And for whatever reason, I don't know why, because I really wasn't a regular listener at the time, I called ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and said, look, I wrote this story and the New York Times bought it, then they un-bought it; and...

Would you listen to it? And they said: yeah, we'll listen to it. And it was on that night. And all of a sudden, overnight, I was an NPR commentator, and did a whole series of increasingly good -- or I should say, increasingly not good commentaries. I mean, I was -- I'm not a born commentator. I just didn't have all that much interesting to say, but didn't stop me from trying to say it.

After a while, I was -- very rapidly, actually -- I was running out of steam. But at the same time, I was writing this newspaper column about, you know, traveling around the United States looking for these examples of bizarre Americana and quirks and idiosyncrasies and just sort of uniquely American traits that were otherwise unchronicled in America's newspapers.

And the producer at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Art Silverman, was encouraging me to do radio versions of those.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

GARFIELD: And seeing that my radio career was otherwise going to be very brief, I said: yeah, OK, I'll do that, and I was kind of off and running.

GROSS: Did you, earlier-on in your career, think that your career would be as a, you know, a straightforward reporter as opposed to as a humorist?

GARFIELD: Well, I was always good at lots of different stuff, even when I was a general assignment reporter at a very small paper in Pennsylvania. I did, you know, a lot of straightforward, general assignment reporting and went to the, you know, sewage treatment plant meetings and I went to the school board meetings and all that stuff.

But if there was a feature to be written that involved, you know, something with a light touch, I did those as well. And I chased after drug dealers and corrupt politicians, but I also, you know, did the cute stuff. So even from the very beginning, even as an intern, I did stuff that was supposed to, you know, that tried to make people laugh.

And I never knew which way my career was going to go. I mean, I'd never really given it all that much thought. I knew I wanted to get out of Reading, Pennsylvania. I knew I wanted to do that in the worst way. But I didn't know exactly where I was going to wind up.

And even today, I don't -- I really don't think of myself as a humorist. I think of myself as a journalist who reports strictly based on the facts and my subjective take on those facts. But in most of my reporting, I also try to make the stuff funny.

GROSS: Well, Garfield, thanks a lot for talking with us.

GARFIELD: My pleasure.

GROSS: Bob Garfield is a roving correspondent for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and a columnist for Advertising Age. His new book is called Waking Up Screaming from the American Dream.

Here's Garfield's country song, sung by Willie Nelson.



Hello, I'm sorry darlin', I missed your call again
If you'd a tried at ten to five, I might have squeezed you in
I really want to reach you, but time is kind of tight
I love you, hon, but I gotta run, so kiss the kids goodnight

Tag, you're it
Catch me if you can
I'd love to say I love you, but I'm such a busy man
I know we'll reach each other
It's just a question when
I'm callin' you but I can't get through, so try me back again.

Dateline: Bob Garfield; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: NPR's roving correspondent Bob Garfield has reported on the oddities of America for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and in his syndicated column. His new book "Waking Up Screaming from the American Dream" is a collection of stories about the bizarre measures people have taken to live the American dream.
Spec: Entertainment; People; Books; Bob Garfield
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Bob Garfield
Date: JUNE 05, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 060503NP.217
Head: The Pillow Book
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This season has been filled with movies about erotic obsessions. The latest is Peter Greenaway's "The Pillow Book." Greenaway is best known for his film "The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and Her Lover," starring Helen Murrin (ph).

John Powers has a review of "The Pillow Book."

JOHN POWERS, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: We're going through a period when bodies are no longer just bodies. They're potential works of art -- sculpted in gyms, studded with piercings, tattooed by the most precious of canvases. No new movie explores our current body fetish any more skillfully than "The Pillow Book" -- an exquisite, slightly eerie portrait of romantic craving.

Set in Kyoto and Hong Kong, it tells the story of Nagiko (ph), played by Vivian Wu (ph), a young woman who's living out a strange Oedipal fantasy. When she was a little girl, Nagiko's father used to celebrate her birthday by doing calligraphy on her face. Now grown up and working as a fashion model, she keeps looking for new men to write elaborate characters all over her naked body.

Disappointed by their handiwork, Nagiko eventually switches roles. She becomes the one who wields the brush, inscribing herself on the bodies of men, in particular one man.

She plunges into an affair with a bisexual English teacher played by Ewan McGregor, the rising Scottish star who appeared in "Trainspotting" and "Emma." But this teacher is also the lover of a male publisher, and their love triangle ultimately creates a passion so deep that it seeks to defy death.

The first thing that should be said about "The Pillow Book," is that unlike most movies that are supposed to be erotic, this one actually is. This isn't simply because the actors are good looking and spend considerable time undressed, although I should mention that devotees of full frontal male nudity will not feel cheated by McGregor's scenes.

Still, what gives this movie its erotic charge is Nagiko's deep seriousness in her pursuit of her obsession, and the palpable sensuality of dark, wet ink being brushed onto pale warm flesh.

The movie is filled with sexy scenes, some earnest, others cheerful, as when Nagiko first meets the language teacher and asks him to write on her body -- a task he initially performs very badly.


VIVIAN WU, ACTRESS: I'll give you another chance. The last one.
Write on the breasts.

EWAN MCGREGOR, ACTOR: A little inappropriate.

WU: Why? I'll decide what's inappropriate. Write in Yiddish, what's Yiddish for breasts. If you're a writer, surely you'd write on anything?

POWERS: To see what happens next will cost you the price of the ticket. "The Pillow Book" marks a huge comeback for Greenaway, whose reputation reached its peak in 1989 with "The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and Her Lover," then popped like a bubble two years later when he released the unwatchable "Prospero's Books."

Of course, Greenaway's work will never be all that popular, for it's a strange contradictory blend of the visually refined and the viscerally repellent.

He's addicted to nastiness, like the swarming maggots in "A Zed and Two Knots" (ph) or the cannibalism in "The Cook, the Thief." Yet he treat this ugly material in the aestheticized style that's studied, packed with illusions, and almost insanely baroque. For him, more is more. If you asked Greenaway to design a communion wafer, he'd give you something that looked like a wedding cake.

Like all of his work, The Pillow Book has its disgusting moments. For instance, a corpse being flayed. And it sometimes threatens to smother us beneath an avalanche of ravishing images. But for the first time since "The Belly of an Architect," one of his movies is also grippingly human.

Even as we're dazzled by the nude calligraphy and visual opulence, we're drawn into Nagiko's story by Wu, whose deliberately flat manner hints at reservoirs of passion and melancholy. In fact, for all its kinky excess, "The Pillow Book" is rooted in universal emotions: love; desire; jealousy; the heartbreak of passing time.

As brainy as it is perverse, the movie transforms its heroine's calligraphic yearnings into a metaphor for romantic longing and sexual possession. It suggests that, one way or another, we all want to put our signature on our lover's body.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.

I'm Terry Gross.

Dateline: John Powers; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Film critic John Powers reviews Peter Greenaway's new film "The Pillow Book.
Spec: Movie Industry; The Pillow Book; Books; Language; Women; Labor; Writing

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: The Pillow Book
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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