Quincy Jones: The Man Behind The Music.
Legendary music producer, arranger, composer and media mogul Quincy Jones was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on May 18. In 2001, Fresh Air spoke with him about his career and working with the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson.
This interview was originally broadcast on Nov. 5, 2001.
Other segments from the episode on May 27, 2013
May 27, 2013
Guest: Quincy Jones - Lt. Col. John Nagl - Brian Turner
TERRY GROSS, HOST:This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Quincy Jones was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month, receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award. This year, he turned 80. Today we listen back to our 2001 interview with him. Here's an excerpt of what Quincy Jones said when accepting the award.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
QUINCY JONES: I believe that a hundred years from now, when people look back at the 20th century, they will look at Miles, Bird, Clifford Brown, Ella and Dizzy, among elders as our Mozarts, our Chopins, our Bachs and Beethovens. I only hope that one day, America will recognize what the rest of the world already has known, that our indigenous music - gospel, blues, jazz and R&B - is the heart and soul of all popular music; and that we cannot afford to let this legacy slip into obscurity, I'm telling you.
GROSS: Quincy Jones started his career as a trumpeter in Lionel Hampton's big band in the early 1950s. Jones never became a noted instrumentalist. What made him famous and wealthy was his work as an arranger, composer, producer and media mogul, work that spans from the big bands through bebop, pop, movie soundtracks, TV themes and hip-hop. Jones arranged or produced recordings for Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Dinah Washington, George Benson, James Ingram and Ice-T, and he produced the Michael Jackson megahit "Thriller." Here's a sampling.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Another bride, another June, another sunny Honeymoon, another season, another reason for making whoopee.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) I never cared much for moonlit skies. I never wink back at fireflies. But now that the stars are in your eyes, I'm beginning to see the light.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Look at me, I'm as helpless as a kitten up a tree, and I feel like I'm clinging to a cloud I can't understand. I get misty just holding your hand. Walk my way...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars and let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars. In other words, hold my hand; in other words, baby, kiss me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) You don't own me. I'm not just one of your many toys. You don't own me. Don't say I can't go with other boys. And don't tell me what to do, don't tell me what to say, and please when I go out with you, don't put me on display
GROSS: One of the first musicians Quincy Jones became good friends with was Ray Charles. They met when Charles was 16 and Jones was 14. I asked Quincy Jones how they met.
JONES: I think it was at the Elks Club, Terry, where after we played two jobs - we'd worked from 7 to 10 in the white tennis clubs and the - well, we'd play a couple of - music of the popular music of the day, "To Each His Own" and "Room Full of Roses." And then at 10:00, we'd go play the black clubs, The Black and Tan, The Rocking Chair and the Washington Educational and Social Club. And we played for strippers. We sang.
GROSS: Oh, really?
JONES: We had choreography. We had everything. As kids, we were pretty cocky because we had a great band. We could read music very well. And we did everything. It was a show band, too. So we got most of the jobs that came around. It was nice. We played with Billie Holiday in '48, behind her. And then in '49, we played with Billy Eckstine and Cab Calloway and all the bands that came through, so we were pretty confident in those days. And the band just kept getting tighter because we rehearsed a lot.
GROSS: You said that you admired Ray Charles' independence. He was 16 years old, he was blind, but he had his own apartment, he got around town himself, he had a girlfriend; I mean, he had a lot of things that you wanted.
JONES: Yes, he did.
JONES: He had his own apartment, too, and two suits. It was amazing. But I guess what impressed me the most with Ray is that he was so independent, and his sightlessness did not hinder him at all. It's one of the treasured, cherished friendships that I really have because as kids we used to talk about everything.
He'd show me how to write music in Braille, Dizzy Gillespie songs like "Emanon" and bebop, etc. And we used to dream about the future, like wouldn't it be great to work with a symphony orchestra? One day we're going to do that. One day we're going to have three girlfriends each, you know? One day we're do movies together. We're going to do all of that stuff, and we did it.
That's what's amazing. We did, you know, "In the Heat of the Night" together. And we did "We Are The World," all of those things, everything, the girls.
JONES: So we did - it's amazing to dream and have your dreams executed like that, you know
GROSS: I thought I'd play a 1959 recording that you arranged for Ray Charles, and this is from "The Genius of Ray Charles" album, which was recorded in 1959. We're going to hear "Let the Good Times Roll." Would you like to say anything about this track?
JONES: I would just like to add that we had half of Count Basie's band on that session, and half of Duke Ellington's band on that session. And in those days, that's when I first started to work with Phil Ramone, the engineer, who's now producer.
And Ahmed Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun and Jerry Wexler came by because in those days what you heard was what you got. It wasn't about fixing in the mix. There was nothing to mix so - because it was mono. And we went in the booth to listen to a playback of that tune. I remember this very vividly. And when it was playing back, I said what's that, Phil. And he said that there was something coming out of the left speaker and a different thing coming out of the right speaker.
He said it's called stereophonic sound.
JONES: Never forgot it because I had heard it earlier in Portland put on earphones, and it was called binaural sound by the man that invented stereo.
GROSS: This is Ray Charles' arrangement by Quincy Jones, "Let The Good Times Roll."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL")
RAY CHARLES: (Singing) Get everybody, let's have some fun, you only live but once, and when you're dead, you're done, so let the good times roll. I said let the good times roll. I don't care if you're young or old, you ought to get together and let the good times roll.
Don't sit there mumbling, talking trash, if you want to have a ball, you got to go out and spend some cash, and let the good times roll now. I'm talking about the good times. Well, it makes no difference whether you're young or old, all you got to do is get together and let the good times roll.
GROSS: Ray Charles recorded in 1959 from the album "The Genius of Ray Charles." the arrangement is by my guest, Quincy Jones. Your first important music job was with the Lionel Hampton big band. You got that job while you were still in high school. How did he hire you when you were still in school?
JONES: Well, he - I had written a suite I had been working on for a long time called "From The Four Winds," and it was almost a descriptive piece. And I didn't understand theory too well then, but I just went ahead straight. It didn't stop me from writing.
I didn't understand key signatures or anything, you know. I'd say silly things at the top of a trumpet part like note, when you play B naturals, make the B naturals a half step lower because they sound funny if they're B naturals. And some guy said: Idiot, just put a flat on the third line and it's a key signature, you know?
JONES: And so - because it didn't bother me that I didn't understand that, because I knew eventually I'd learn it. And so I gave this arrangement to - submitted this to Lionel Hampton. And he said you wrote this, huh. I said yeah. He said yeah, you play the trumpet, too. I said yeah. He said, yeah, well, he said how'd you like to join my band, please.
JONES: Are you kidding? And so they had little brown leather bags for your trumpet then. I had that and just very few toilet articles and so forth. And I went and sat on that bus so nobody would change their mind, and I wouldn't have to ask the people at home whether I could go or not.
And sure enough, everybody got on one by one. Hamp said hi, and I felt secure. Then Gladys Hampton got on the bus and says uh-uh, what is that child doing on this bus. Ashe said no, son, you get off the bus and said we'll try to talk later, but you go to school. And I was destroyed.
And so I got a scholarship to Boston, to the Berklee College of Music, and I got the call. A friend named Janet Thurlow was singing with the band, and she reminded them, and they called and said we'd like you to be with the band. I was 18 then, and I was ready. And I told the school I'd be back, but I guess down inside, you know, when you go with a band like that you never go back.
GROSS: Now you say that you were afraid that when you were playing with Hampton that Parker or Thelonious Monk might show up in the audience, and you were worried they'd laugh at what you had to wear in the band. what did you have to wear in the Hampton band?
JONES: Well, that incident happened when we were playing at a place on Broadway called - right next door to Birdland; I mean, totally like adjacent. And it was down - both places were downstairs. And we had to wear Tyrolean hats, purple shawl collar coats and Bermuda shorts.
GROSS: Bermuda shorts, why?
JONES: Oh, my God, the whole band. And...
Why did you have to wear shorts?
I don't know. That's just Hamp's idea. But he - Hamp was like a rock-'n'-roll band. He was the first rock-'n'-roll band because he attacked an audience like a rock-'n' roll-band; no prisoners, and he knew how to get them, too. He put...
GROSS: Well, some of the tenor solos are almost like a rock-'n' roll-band, too; yeah.
JONES: Yes. They'd walk - in the theaters, they'd walk - they had thin-soled shoes. They'd walk over the audience's heads with these thin-soled shoes on top of the chairs, you know. It was absolutely incredible. And he had this sense of show business, but he had a lot of music in the band, because, you know, they had people like Wes Montgomery and Charlie Mingus and Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown - amazing musicians in the band.
And I loved Hampton for having that ambidexterity because he liked great music, but he also liked to level his audience and take no prisoners. Until they were wrung out, he was not satisfied.
GROSS: So did any of your bebop friends end up seeing you in that band that night?
JONES: Well, that particular night, he had his favorite thing that he'd like to do. He'd have everybody - he'd get his drumsticks and start a whole line, almost like a conga line. The saxophone section would follow him around the audience, and he'd go around and beat the drumsticks on everybody's table.
The trumpets and trombones were right behind him playing "Flying Home." Then he'd go upstairs. I said oh, my God. Clifford Brown and I said if he goes upstairs, we may run into Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and Mingus and all these great musicians.
JONES: And Hamp went upstairs and he's playing his drumsticks all over the awnings and the guys are saying what is going on here. He'd even go so far as to get in a taxi cab with the saxophone section and go to another club maybe three blocks away and play with the saxophone section there.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we're still playing. So it was quite an experience. He had no shame, and he was a great musician - one of the great times of my life.
GROSS: So but did Parker see in your Bermuda shorts?
JONES: Oh, yes. But on top of that, Parker would come next door. Bird would come next door. He loved to read music. And he was starring next door with like the 52nd Street All-Stars, the BeBop All-stars, and they were looking for him next door.
It was time for him to play his set. And he's sitting over there in our band playing second tenor because he loved to read music. And he's sitting in for an hour while people next door are waiting to hear him as this genius of the 20th century. And he's over there playing second tenor parts to practice his reading because all the musicians read music back then.
GROSS: So playing with the Hampton band, did you get an appreciation of the value of like show business in music? Or did you come to hate it and want something that threw that out the window, kind of like Parker threw show business values, you know, out the window?
JONES: No, no, no, no because we were weaned and, I mean, trained in Seattle. That's the way we had to do it in Seattle, too. We had to play shaudises(ph). We had to play rhythm and blues. We had to play stripper music. We played comedy. I mean, the trombone player and myself had a comedy team called Dexedrine and Benzedrine, (unintelligible).
We used to steal all of the comedy lines from the older guys, and we'd imitate them and wear hats and wine bottles in our pockets and stuff. It was insane. But, no, not at all. We were used to that. We were used to that. He'd have gloves for the whole trumpet section that would shine in the dark, and you'd do kind of a hand choreography and so forth.
And it was ironic because the underlying attitude with all of the bebop musicians is that we have heard Stravinsky now, we've done this, and we want to be pure artists. We don't want to entertain anymore, we don't want to sing, we don't want to have to dance and move or entertain an audience.
GROSS: We're listening back to our 2001 interview with Quincy Jones. There's more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to our 2001 interview with musician, composer, arranger and producer Quincy Jones. This year he turned 80, and last month he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, receiving its Lifetime Achievement Award.
Well, you know, one of the things you say about the Lionel Hampton band bus, and this might have something to do with why Gladys Hampton wanted you off the bus, was that there were four different sections of guys on the bus. Why don't you describe how that broke down?
JONES: Well, they had - up front were the holy rollers, I guess, and then they had the drinkers, and then they had the guys that indulged in sweet wheat and giggle grass, and they had the guys that were the hard core, you know, that dealt with - like mainliners really, and the...
GROSS: And which section did you sit in?
JONES: The sweet wheat.
JONES: We were very young then and - I was 18 when I went with that band. And you'd bounce back between that and trying to figure out how to make that work with Logan David wine or Manishevitz. It was ridiculous.
GROSS: Well, the first recording that you made was with the Lionel Hampton band. this was in 1952. It's also your first recorded composition and first recorded arrangement. It's called "Kingfish." Why don't you say something about what you think of this musically now?
JONES: I look at the whole book and the whole life I guess as like somebody else. I don't know where I have the spirit or the stick-to-itiveness to write something like that then because, you know, number one, I wanted - I knew that music was my ticket out of this other life that I had, you know, of the thug life and dysfunctional family life.
And it was like wonderland to arrange and the idea of orchestration and arrangements and composition, and that to this day is what my core skill is. as an arranger and orchestrator and composer. And I was just so happy to have a surrounding, an environment where that was encouraged all the time.
GROSS: OK, so here it is, 1952, Quincy Jones with the Lionel Hampton band, "Kingfish."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KINGFISH")
GROSS: From the early 1950s, that was Quincy Jones' first recording with the Lionel Hampton orchestra. It's called "Kingfish."
JONES: Terry, by the way, I think that's one of the - that's the first recorded solo I ever had on record, the first record I was ever involved with, and I think it was one of the only solos I have on record.
GROSS: Why didn't you solo more often?
JONES: I don't know. I was getting more and more pulled into the quicksand of writing. And then about a year or so later after we begged Hamp to give Gigi Gryce and Benny Golson and Clifford Brown in the band, sitting next to Art Farmer and Clifford Brown and Benny Bailey helped me get into writing quickly because they were - Clifford Brown is probably one of the greatest trumpet players that ever lived; unbelievable.
GROSS: We'll hear more of my 2001 interview with Quincy Jones in the second half of the show. Last month he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received its Lifetime Achievement award. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're listening back to the interview I recorded in 2001 with musician, arranger, composer and producer Quincy Jones. This year he turned 80 and last month he was inducted into the rock 'n roll Hall of Fame, receiving Lifetime Achievement Award. Among the luminaries he worked with are Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson.
I want to get back to your music, and to get to the most colossal success that you had, and that was the album "thriller" with Michael Jackson. You first met him in 1972 at Sammy Davis' house. You worked together on "The Wiz." What was his or yours or, you know, the both of yours original concept for "Thriller"?
JONES: Well, it starts before that. It starts during the movie, you know, of - when we first met after - initially at 12 years old. It was - he was about 19, so about '77 or so. And he came over to the house. That's the first time we really met on a professional basis. He was growing up then. And he said, please to meet you, etcetera and was very sweet. And he said, I'm doing a - have a new contract with Epic Records, and the Jackson 5, I'm still working with them, but I'm going to do a solo album and I was wondering if you could help me find a producer. I said, `great, Michael, but right now, we've got to mammoth job here to prerecord all the songs with you and Nipsey Russell, Richard Pryor, Lena Horne, Diana Ross and everybody else, to prerecord the songs before you make a film. That's just the nature of what films are about. You prerecord the voice, everything, and you have to really guess right about the dramatic context of how a song starts and stops, how long it is, because it's all going to be filmed. And that's what the film's going to be, is it's a slave to that track. So you really have to concentrate.
And so I said, if you be patient and just wait until we get through this, maybe we can talk about the producer.' So we finished the prerecords, we start getting ready, preparing for the film. Sidney Lumet is at the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn one day, and he's blocking out a scene with the four principals, and Michael's the scarecrow, and he had pulled - out of his straw chest, he'd pull out little quotes from, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, Confucius. Dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, Aristotle. Dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, Socrates.' And he kept saying, Socrates. And about the third day, I just took him aside and said, Michael, the word is Socrates. And he said, really? And he was really surprised, you know, because he's been a star since he was five, you know, so he's been on the road since then. So he's like an old man in one sense; he's like a baby in another sense. And there was something about the look in his eye -and I had been watching him - the discipline he had. He'd get up at five in the morning for his makeup tests and everything else. Very, very conscientious of discipline young person.
I mean, one of the most I've ever seen. He knew everybody's lines, everybody's song, everybody's lyrics, everybody's dance steps, everybody's movement, everything. And the most amazing and absorbing and involved person I'd ever - artist - I'd ever seen before. And I loved the records they'd made on Motown, you know, the bubble gum things, you know, "Dancing Machine" and those things, but after seeing this other side of him, I felt that there was much more inside of Michael that hadn't been touched because you look at Michael at first, you'd say, `there's nothing else to do with him. He's done everything and he did it at nine. You know, he was singing "love song" to a rap, you know, then and everything and he was fearless and sincere about it. He had a very strong sense of maturity.
GROSS: What was your approach to producing "Thriller"? What did you think of as your major contributions to the sound of that record?
JONES: Of course, "Thriller" was a combination of all of my experience as an orchestrator and picking the songs and Michael's - all the talents he has as a dancer, as a singer, as an amazing entertainer. It was like us throwing everything we - accumulated experience, putting it all together.
GROSS: Well, let's hear "Billie Jean." I really regret we're out of time. I wish we could talk some more. I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
JONES: It's a pleasure, Terry.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILLIE JEAN")
MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) She was more like a beauty queen from a movie scene. I said don't mind, but what do you mean I am the one who will dance on the floor in the round. She said I am the one, who will dance on the floor in the round.
(Singing) She told me her name was Billie Jean, and she caused a scene. Then every head turned with eyes that dreamed of being the one who would dance on the floor in the round. People always told me, be careful what you do. Don't go around breaking young girls' hearts. And mother always told me be careful who you love, be careful what you do 'cause the lie becomes the truth.
(Singing) Billie Jean is not my lover. She's just a girl who claims that I am the one. Oh, no. But the kid is not my son. Whoo. She says I am the one. But the
GROSS: My interview with Quincy Jones was recorded in 2001. Coming up, some Memorial Day reflections.
This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: On this Memorial Day, we want to honor those who have died in war, and pay tribute to those who have risked their lives and are coping with the aftermath of war. In a couple of minutes, we're going to hear from Brian Turner, who fought in Iraq and wrote a book of poems about facing the constant possibility of death. The book's called "Here, Bullet."
But first, we're going to excerpt the interview that led us to Turner - an interview with retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, who was the operations officer of a tank battalion task force that was deployed to Anbar Province - in Iraq's Sunni Triangle - in 2003 and '04. He lost 22 young men, and his task force earned over 100 Purple Hearts. Nagl was one of the first military leaders in Iraq to practice counterinsurgency tactics, and he wrote the introduction to the U.S. Army-Marine Corps' Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
When I was preparing my interview with Nagl in 2008, I read an eloquent review that he wrote of Turner's poetry collection, "Here, Bullet." I quoted some of that review when I spoke with Nagl.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: (Reading) It is Halloween as I read this, and I'm being visited by ghosts - some friendly, some not - whom I have kept away, locked inside me for years. But Brian Turner, Ghost 1-3 Alpha, that son of a bitch, he's calling them back. I've put them away, kept them inside, the ghosts of the lieutenants and the captain and the first sergeant, their bodies torn by shrapnel or a sniper's bullet or gone, just gone, into hundreds of shreds of flesh the size of my still-living hand. But Ghost 1-3 Alpha speaks to ghosts. He calls to his ghosts, and they bring mine along for company, and now they will not go away.
And you go on to describe, you know, some of what you experienced in war. And let me just read a little bit more. (Reading) If you have been to war, if you have held a microphone in your hand, begging for medevac with the blood of your friends on your hands, pouring out your soul over the airwaves to keep your friends from becoming ghosts, from joining the shades in an unholy company of men who have given limbs and eyes and hearts; if you have held that bloody hand mic, then Ghost 1-3 Alpha will take you back to that day, that day when time stopped and life stopped and never really started again, no matter how hard you try to make the ghosts go away.
That's really beautifully written. Do you write a lot?
LT. COL. JOHN NAGL: I wrote poetry - I still write poetry. I'm working on a novel, actually, about Iraq. So someone - I think it was Alfred Lord Tennyson - said that poetry is powerful emotions recollected in tranquility; and I was asked to write a review of Brian's wonderful book, "Here, Bullet," and it was Halloween, and (pauses) got to deal with some ghosts. And that was a good thing. And it is an enormous privilege to have worked with and fought with the men I fought with, and I will never forget them.
GROSS: Are the emotions that you expressed in that review that I read, things that you can't really keep on the surface when you're actually fighting the war?
NAGL: In the particular battle scene that I was remembering when I wrote - when I talked about that "with the hand mic in my hands, calling for medevac," someone told me afterwards that when I came on that scene - and it was my job as the operations officer to report to places where things were happening; so I saw the worst of what happened, and also the best - someone said that, one of the soldiers told me that I came in smiling and calm and collected. And I was shocked. I - that wasn't at all what I was feeling, at the time. And I'm pleased that I was able to maintain a positive attitude because it's important in that kind of environment to keep the soldiers focused and professional, and try to ensure that they maintain their professionalism. And if you show anger or rage, that can create an unhealthy dynamic. And so I tried very hard, in those circumstances, to be as professional as I could. And apparently - in that one case, at least - I succeeded, although the turmoil inside was very real, and still is.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us, and I hope we talk again. Thank you.
NAGL: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, recorded in 2008. In July, he'll become the new headmaster at the Haverford School in Haverford, Pa.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: After that interview, we set up an interview with poet Brian Turner, whose poems took Nagl back to his days fighting in Iraq - back to the ghosts he tried to put away. Turner was a team leader for the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. It was the first Stryker brigade to be sent into the combat zone in Iraq in 2003. Turner's book of poems about Iraq is called "Here, Bullet."
Let me ask you to read the title poem from your collection "Here, Bullet."
BRIAN TURNER: Sure. (Reading) Here, bullet. If a body is what you want, then here is bone and gristle and flesh. Here is the clavicle-snapped wish, the aorta's opened valves, the leap thought makes at the synaptic gap. Here is the adrenaline rush you crave, that inexorable flight, that insane puncture into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish what you've started. Because here, bullet, here is where I complete the word you bring hissing through the air, here is where I moan the barrel's cold esophagus, triggering my tongue's explosives for the rifling I have inside of me, each twist of the round spun deeper because here, bullet, here is where the world ends, every time.
GROSS: When you wrote that poem, which side of the bullet did you think of yourself being on?
TURNER: It was coming towards me. And that poem has a lot of bravado to it, and I think that's really just the fear masking itself. I'd say about 80 percent of that poem is fear, and then there's 20 percent of sort of an ugly psychology of finally wanting to meet that moment - because so often, as an infantry soldier, what I actually experienced wasn't direct combat, but was indirect attacks against us: roadside bombs, snipers, mortar attacks, those types of things.
GROSS: Did you write that poem while you were in Iraq?
TURNER: I did. I wrote this book while I was in Iraq, except for two or three poems.
GROSS: What's the closest you came to the bullet actually hitting you?
TURNER: One of the times I remember, for example, is going around a traffic circle in Mosul, and the vehicles have to slow down to make the circle. And as we were going around this, there's many streets, of course, that sort of spiral out of those circles, and from one of them, a guy fired a rocket-propelled grenade, an RPG, that slammed in the back of our Stryker, an event that made me think about people that might be trying to kill me. And I remember writing in my notebooks that night, questioning whether or not, if I could meet that person tomorrow and if we could break bread and sit down at a table and eat lunch together and eat and talk, would he still fire at me the day after that? Or would I fire at him, you know? And I still don't know the answer to that.
GROSS: Was it after that that you wrote the poem?
Yes, it was, actually. There were a few events. There were two or three different rocket attacks in the space of about a week, and I think it was shortly thereafter that I wrote that poem. I wrote it in about 10 to 15 minutes. It's one of the fastest poems I've ever written, if you discount like 20 years of study prior to that. But I wrote it while listening to the Queens of the Stone Age, this rock band, and as sort of wallpaper music so I couldn't hear people outside. And I wrote it, and it's verbatim what it was when I wrote it. And I took it, and I folded it up and I put it in a Ziploc bag and I carried it in my chest pocket the rest of the time that I was in country. And it seemed sort of like a talisman, an acknowledgment of where I was.
Forgive me for bringing this up, but had a bullet or an IED found you that would have been with your remains.
GROSS: And if it was legible, it kind of would have been your epitaph. Were you thinking that when you carried it with you?
TURNER: I can't really remember exactly what I was thinking, as far as that goes; but prior to going over to Iraq, I was chosen, my company did it, to take this one class with the mortuary affairs specialist. He was a sergeant first class. He taught me, if they're on a battlefield, for example, if there were, say, 40 people killed and we came across the scene, and I was supposed to come out.
And they would secure the area, and then I was trained on how to mark the area and to properly bag the remains of people and body parts and things like that. And I saw him again in Kuwait, and then I saw him again in Mosul in the dining facility.
And I remember, it felt sort of like death was following me. Because I knew that if I did die and that poem was with me in my pocket, then my body would be processed through him, and he would maybe read it somehow. You know?
GROSS: I'm going to ask you to read another poem from your collection "Here, Bullet." And this is called "What Every Soldier Should Know."
TURNER: This poem begins with a quote from Rousseau, which says: To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will. It is at best an act of prudence. "What Every Soldier Should Know." If you hear gunfire on a Thursday afternoon, it could be for a wedding, or it could be for you. Always enter a home with your right foot; The left is for cemeteries and unclean places. O-guf! Tera armeek is rarely useful.
It means, stop! Or I'll shoot. Sabah el kahir is effective. It means good Morning. Inshallah means Allah be willing. Listen well when it is spoken. You will hear the RPG coming for you. Not so the roadside bomb. There are bombs under the overpasses, in trash piles, in bricks, in cars. There are shopping carts with clothes soaked in foogas, a sticky gel of homemade napalm.
Parachute bombs and artillery shells sewn into the carcasses of dead farm animals. Graffiti sprayed under the overpasses: I will kill you, American. Men wearing vests rigged with explosives walk up, raise their arms and say Inshallah. There are men who earn $80 to attack you, $5,000 to kill. Small children who will play with you, old men with their talk, women who offer chai. And any one of them may dance over your body tomorrow.
GROSS: GROSS: Brian, I know you're completing a new book now. Are you still writing about combat in Iraq?
TURNER: I'm actually writing about what I feel is missing back here. I was trying to write poems that were in Iraq, the poems that I'd started over there but never were finished, and I found that they weren't working. And I realized that, you know, of course I'm no longer there, so I can't write those poems.
But I started looking around and seeing that, you know, we're a country at war, but disturbingly, I don't see war like in Marfa, Texas, or Fresno, California, where I'm from. I'm not seeing it in my daily life. I'm not experiencing. And yet there are these sort of imagistic rhymes all around us.
I went into Lowe's Home Improvement Center, for example, and I was buying some nails. I started looking at them, and I realized that there was a type of scaffolding nail, double-headed nail, that looks a lot like the firing pin inside my weapon that I used to carry.
And then, like, when you go to the register and you pay for the cash, and the register slides open, that shuh-shuh, that sound when it slides, sounds a bit like a machine gun being charged. And the fan blades above, you know, they're imagistically rhyming a bit with the rotors of a helicopter, for example.
So these are the poems I'm writing now. I'm writing about the soldiers that have come back. What is that experience like for us, as we come back? And then, what is experience like as a nation? It seems to me a bit obscene that we can bury so many people in the earth and yet know so little about them. And that's what I'm writing about now.
GROSS: Brian Turner, thank you so much for talking with us.
TURNER: Oh, no, it's an honor. Thank you.
GROSS: Brian Turner, recorded in 2008. He's the author of the poetry collections "Here Bullet" and "Phantom Noise."
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. For this Memorial Day, our book critic Maureen Corrigan has decided to put the spotlight on a letter instead of a book.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: In the fall of 1945, my father was honorably discharged from the Navy. He was one of the lucky ones. He'd served on a destroyer escort during the war, first in convoys dodging U-boats in the Atlantic; and then in the Pacific, where his ship, the USS Schmitt, shot down two kamikaze planes. My dad always kept a framed picture of the Schmitt above his dresser but like most men of his generation, he didn't talk a lot about his war years.
One story he did tell me, because it haunted him, was about a shipmate who was lost on duty one night. That sailor had told the other guys on watch that he was going to the galley to get some cherry pie and coffee; while he was crossing the deck, a wave smashed into the ship and washed him overboard. The captain, against regulations, ordered the ship's lights turned on to search for the sailor in the black waters.
That poor guy was never found. Like I said, my dad was one of the lucky ones. And how special he must have felt in late December of 1945, when a letter from Washington, D.C., came for him at his sister's house in Llanerch Hills, Pa. My father was living with his sister and her family because by then, both of his parents had died.
The letter, signed in fountain pen, was from the secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal. It began: My dear Mr. Corrigan, I have addressed this letter to reach you after all the formalities of your separation from active service are completed. I have done so because, without formality but as clearly as I know how to say it, I want the Navy's pride in you, which it is my privilege to express, to reach into your civil life and to remain with you always.
I found this letter about a year ago in one of the many boxes of stuff that people leave behind when they die. My dad died in 1997 and I'm still finding stuff. The beauty of the letter's opening paragraph literally took my breath away. This may have been a quote-unquote form letter, but there was a compassionate presence behind those words.
Someone, either James Forrestal or an anonymous aide serving under him, had the humanity to think about the hundreds of thousands of sailors who were going to have to adjust to civilian life. Many of them, like my father, had been in the Navy since right after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In that pre-computer age, clerical staff would have had to hunt up all those former sailors' forwarding addresses and mail this letter out to them.
The letter goes on to list some of the achievements of the greatest Navy in the world. And it concludes with these words: For your part in these achievements you deserve to be proud as long as you live. The nation which you served at a time of crisis will remember you with gratitude. The best wishes of the Navy go with you into civilian life. Good luck.
I've tried to find out what I can about this letter. It seems that it was sent, as it should have been, to all discharged sailors. The fountain pen signature on my dad's letter is probably a facsimile of Forrestal's handwriting, made with an autopen. If you go on eBay, you'll see this same vintage letter for sale, for as low as 14.99.
Also sad is James Forrestal's own post-World War II history. He became the first-ever secretary of defense under President Truman, but Truman later dismissed him in March of 1949. Suffering from depression, Forrestal committed suicide two months later by jumping from a window on the 16th floor of Bethesda Naval Hospital. Many conspiracy theorists still allege that Forrestal was murdered.
Here's what I know for certain: I know that when my 25-year-old father received this letter, it meant the world to him. I'll bet that in 1945 most other discharged sailors around the country felt the same way. I've asked a couple of friends who served in Vietnam whether they ever received a letter of gratitude, and they say no.
One vet I showed my dad's letter to printed a copy to tape over his desk, so that other vets in his office could read it. Almost seven decades later, that letter conveys something special to ex-service people. I know Memorial Day is about honoring those who've died in service to this country, but the tender grace in that gesture from an earlier age reminds us that gratitude to those who've served and continue to serve doesn't need to be rationed.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can see the letter Maureen's father got from the secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, on our Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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