March 21, 2013
Guests: Justin Gillis â Hal Willner
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You might remember the scorching heat wave that seized many areas of the U.S. last year or the deadly tornadoes that ripped through several states or the widespread coastal damage inflicted by Hurricane Sandy. Are these harsh weather events connected to global warming or simply the random violence nature sometimes visits upon us?
That's one of the questions considered by our guest, New York Times reporter Justin Gillis in his series "Temperature Rising," which focuses on the central arguments in the climate debate and examines the evidence for global warming and its consequences. Justin Gillis is an environmental reporter working at the Times science desk. In 2011, he won Columbia University's Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism. He previously covered genetics and biotechnology for the Washington Post. Gillis spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Well Justin Gillis, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, it's a question that you hear in comedy routines, you know, just how hot is it. It's a question that you addressed in a recent piece about temperatures in the United States in 2012. How hot was it?
JUSTIN GILLIS: Well, 2012 was the hottest year in the historical record in the United States. They've now - the thing to understand about that is for thorough coverage of the whole country, the lower 48 states, our records go back to 1895, which of course is not that far back in time. But within that record we can say 2012 was the hottest year ever by about a full degree Fahrenheit over the previous record year, which was 1998. So that's a pretty big jump to occur in one year.
DAVIES: And if you kind of look back over the last 15 or 20 years, is there a clear trend?
GILLIS: Well globally there's certainly a clear trend. And within the United States, there's a trend of rising temperatures. There's a regional pattern to it. For instance, the Southeast has not warmed up as much as some of the parts of the country. But overall, both globally and in this country, the temperatures are rising, no question about that.
DAVIES: You also wrote about extreme weather episodes. Do you want to mention some of those and kind of tell us what we might know about their potential relationship to climate change?
GILLIS: Well, we've certainly had some remarkable weather in the last few years, weather extremes. People will remember the really intense drought from last year, for example, that did so much harm to the corn crop in the Midwest. We've had spectacular examples of cases of tornadoes, you know, such as the one that destroyed Joplin, Missouri. We seem to be living through this period of intensified and heightened weather extremes.
Now the truth is that scientists are - the common question that people ask on the street is: So is this climate change? And scientists have a bit of a hard time with that. For many of these kinds of weather extremes, we don't have particularly good statistics going back that many decades, for example. And so it's hard to say, in the case of tornadoes for example, we just don't have a very clear picture of what's developed over a long time.
With some types of extremes, though, climate science is fairly clear that there's a relationship between those extremes and the ongoing climate change. For example particularly with heat waves, you know, theory and evidence predicts that there will be a change in the distribution of heat extremes as the climate warms up, and that seems to be happening.
In addition, in some parts of the world, at least, there seems to be a rising trend of heavy rains or heavy precipitation, a rising percentage of precipitation falling in these short - these heavy bursts. That seems to be also related to climate change. So I would say overall it's an ongoing struggle for the scientists to puzzle out which of these things are linked and which ones aren't.
And of course the real question is how is the statistical likelihood of any given type of event changing in a changing climate. That's just ongoing research to puzzle that out.
DAVIES: I don't know if this is easy to explain or not, but why would the kind of climate change we're seeing result in short, heavy bursts of rainfall?
GILLIS: Well, the most basic reason is that the air is getting moister, and we've actually detected that scientifically. It sort of stands to reason that when things are hotter, there's going to be more evaporation at the surface of the ocean and more ability of the atmosphere to hold extra moisture. And that is indeed what we see.
And so eventually of course that moisture has to rain out and return to the surface of the Earth, and so the basic theory of climate change predicts that in a hotter climate, we will see an intensification of what's called the hydrologic cycle, and it appears that that's already happening. We're beginning to see that and beginning to detect that.
It has not been detected everywhere on the planet yet, and in fact in some places the statistics are just not good enough, the past statistics are just not good enough that we'll be able to detect it. But we do have places, and the United States is one of them, where we seem to be seeing this pattern already of heavier precipitation.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things that climate skeptics say is that if you look back over the long view of the Earth's history, you see variations in temperature, and there are ice ages, and there are periods of warming. And I know you've looked at how scientists have looked at past temperatures and rates of change of temperature. How does what we're seeing now compare to the historic record?
GILLIS: The way the skeptics, the climate skeptics or climate deniers, whatever you want to call them, tend to pose this is, well, there have been big changes in the climate of the Earth in the past; therefore, we humans can't possibly be causing any change in the climate. And that, of course, does not logically follow. It's true that there have been big changes in the climate in the past, that were purely natural and had nothing to do with human activity. You can't leap from that to, well, what we're doing now is going to have no effect. That's just a sort of irrational leap of logic to make, really.
One of the ways that we are trying to get a handle on what's likely in the future is to look at what's happened in the past. For example we can look in the past at the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. I mean, we can measure that directly for about the past 800,000 years from bubbles trapped in air in the ice in Greenland and Antarctica.
And what you see is this very, very close association, relationship, between the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the temperature of the planet. And so that's one of the things that leads scientists to say boy, if we put a huge amount of carbon dioxide in the air really rapidly, which is what we're doing, that's going to lead to an increase in temperature.
We do know, Dave, that there have been rapid changes in climate in the past that were, again, purely natural. This event, the current period that we're living through in which on a geological time scale we're causing an essentially instantaneous, very large increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there appears to be no real precedent for that in the geological record of the Earth as far back as we can look.
DAVIES: And when you say there have been periods of rapid temperature change in the past, we mean rapid, what, like over hundreds of years?
GILLIS: Well, rapid to a scientist would be on the geological time scale, would be sort of a few thousand years, actually. So, you know, as I say, on that time scale, geology, what we're doing is essentially instantaneous.
DAVIES: OK, so - and what implications does that have for, you know, the rest of the planet to adjust, you know, plant and animal life?
GILLIS: Well, we don't really know. When you look at the history of the Earth, there have been - sort of depending on how you count - six mass extinctions in Earth history. One of the theories about what causes them is that when things change too rapidly for species to adjust - you know, so, the theory would be that there's a speed limit, you might call it, on the rate of evolution or the rate of ecosystems adapting to changes in the climate.
And if you get too rapid a change, I think a lot of biologists would tell you, you're putting species at risk, or critters at risk, essentially. And so the theory, unproven, is that as we cause this probably fairly large change in the Earth's climate as a consequence of industrialization and the release of greenhouse gases, we will put so much stress on the ecology that a whole lot of organisms just won't be able to keep up.
Now what that implies for the way the world looks in 100 or 200 years, I think, nobody really has any great certainty about that. People are struggling with it.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Justin Gillis. He is an environmental reporter on the science desk of the New York Times and recently wrote the "Temperature Rising" series in the paper. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: You're listening to FRESH AIR, and our guest is Justin Gillis. He's an environmental reporter for the New York Times, recently completed the "Temperature Rising" series, which examines central arguments in the climate debate.
You wrote, in September, about new data on the rate of melting of ice in the Arctic. What are we finding?
GILLIS: Well, what we're seeing, Dave, is a fairly rapid, now, decline in sea ice in the Arctic. Now a lot of people tend to confuse sea ice and land ice, and it's pretty important to separate them. Melting sea ice does not cause sea level rise. So the sea ice is already floating and displacing its weight in water, the old Archimedes principal, if you remember that.
And so when the sea ice melts, that does not cause sea level rise. When land ice melts, on the other hand, such as in Greenland and Antarctica, that does contribute to a rising sea. What we're seeing right now is acceleration, apparently, in the level, the amount of summer meltback of the sea ice in the Arctic. Our master overview of how much sea ice there is in the Arctic only goes back to 1978, which is when we first put satellites in the air that could look at the sea ice.
So within that period, we saw a record low last year. In fact there's been about a - something like a 40-percent decline in Arctic summer sea ice over the time that we've been watching. It's a pretty dramatic change in the face of the Earth. So science is now trying to figure out, OK, what's that going to do now that we're replacing a white surface up in the Arctic with a dark ocean surface that absorbs more energy. Are we in sort of a feedback loop? They're fairly sure we are. That's going to warm the Arctic up.
DAVIES: The feedback loop meaning that white stuff used to reflect sunlight, now it absorbs it and heats the oceans?
GILLIS: That's right. Some listeners might have heard the term albedo, and what that means, the albedo of the planet is its reflectivity. And one of the things that keeps the poles cold is that they're white, and therefore they reflect a tremendous amount of sunlight back to space. When you replace that white surface with a dark surface, that absorbs more of the sun's rays, and it just warms up more.
And so you get a little bit of warming, more absorption of heat. That causes more warming, and so you get what's known as a feedback loop that can cause the poles to warm up a good bit faster than the Earth as a whole. And that is indeed what we see happening.
So this situation with sea ice, I have to say, is - I mean, the scientists years ago, in fact more than 100 years ago, first predicted that this would happen, that we'd see a differential warming in the Arctic. But it is happening faster than they expected, and it's an example of potentially nasty surprises that are waiting for us as climate change unfolds.
The big question right now is as we get less and less sea ice in the summer, more and more heat absorption up there, what's that going to do to the nearby land ice. For instance the Greenland Ice Sheet is very near to the area we're talking about. Will we see a more rapid melting? For instance, you could imagine sort of more, warmer rain falling on the Greenland Ice Sheet as a result of the decline of the sea ice. Will we see more melting of the ice sheet?
In fact we're already seeing a substantial speed-up in the melt of both the Greenland the West Antarctic Ice Sheets, it would appear. And so scientists are pretty worried about that because over a fairly long time period, it could be that we're going to get 20, 30, possibly even more feet of sea level rise from the melting of those ice sheets.
DAVIES: So the melting of the land ice will contribute to sea level rise, unlike the melting of the ice in the ocean?
GILLIS: No question about that, and in fact the ocean is rising already. Many people know this. It's gone up about eight inches or so in the last century. That doesn't sound like much, but if you can imagine a very gently sloping shoreline, even eight inches of sea level rise has meant a whole lot of erosion. And in fact people have spent billions of dollars along the coastlines of the United States battling erosion already.
Now we're trying to understand, well, how much more sea level rise are we going to get over how long a period? The essential question is really how fast will this unfold. And a lot of scientists lately have been coming to the conclusion that we could fairly easily see three feet or so of sea level rise in the coming century and, you know, possibly as much as six feet.
So if we get that much, that's going to start to become a pretty serious problem.
DAVIES: You know, it struck me that one of the challenges that you face in doing this kind of reporting is, if you, for example, as you did in September, have a story about new information about the rate of polar ice melting, I mean, I think the reaction to a lot of editors would be: didn't we just run a story on that? Doesn't everybody know the polar ice is melting? And then the story gets to be on page B6. How do make the case that no, this is still front-page news?
GILLIS: Well, the most fundamental problem of all, I think, for a reporter trying to cover this, is much of the science that tells us there's a problem, that you need to understand, to know that there's a problem, was done 20 and 30 years ago. The last few decades of research have been trying to fill in the gaps and understand OK, exactly how much of a problem. And, you know, we haven't really narrowed the uncertainties all that much.
And so it's absolutely true that when you confront this on a, sort of, day-to-day basis, you're constantly wrestling with the question: didn't we already know that? And, I mean, my approach to this has been to say, well, if I back up and figure out a way to take deeper dives in and not just write about, you know, the polar ice melting on page, you know, A20 or whatever, but try to do somewhat deeper dives into the overall science and what it means, that people will respond to that.
And that seems to have worked over the past few years.
DAVIES: There's a website that calls you a warmist, and, you know, there are climate skeptics out there that treat climate change as a scientific hoax. Now I've heard from a lot of credible journalists that among serious climatologists that there is consensus that the climate is changing and that human activity is, you know, contributing to or causing it.
But as a journalist, how do you deal with this? I mean, how often do you feel like you should quote climate change skeptics in your stories, even if you feel like, you know, they're really outside the credible mainstream?
GILLIS: Well, it's important to understand, first of all, Dave, that I mean this is a robust, healthy science. And within the scientific mainstream, there is a considerable range of views about just exactly how much risk we're running. There's probably - there's certainly a range of views about what the likely ultimate consequences are going to be in terms of temperature.
When I look at the scientific majority, the scientific mainstream, I would say that, as a group, they fear this is going to be pretty bad. They don't know exactly how bad it's going to get, and they don't know how fast it's going to get that way - which might be the ultimate question.
Now to answer your question, my approach to this is I quote the climate skeptics or deniers, whatever term you prefer, when they're relevant. So when I'm doing a piece about the science itself and what the latest kind of scientific findings are, especially if that's kind of a short piece, I don't necessarily feel obliged to quote the climate skeptics in the same way that if you were doing a story about evolution, a New York Times reporter wouldn't feel obliged to call up, you know, creationists and ask them what they think.
On the other hand, the climate skeptics are politically relevant in a way that, at this point in American history, the creationists are not, for example. So we have a fair chunk of the Congress, for example, that sees political traction right now in questioning climate science or purporting not to believe it. And so in a political story or in a longer story, I usually do give some amount of space to the climate skeptics.
Now I try not to overdo that. As journalists, we don't want to fall into this trap of what's called false balance, where you take two positions that have completely different weight of evidence and treat them as equal. So sort of in no story am I treating the climate denier position as equal to the mainstream scientific consensus, because I don't think it is. I mean, I think you look at the weight of evidence, and there's sort of just a huge pile of it in favor of the mainstream science and not very much published scientific evidence at all that really stands up to say this is not a problem.
DAVIES: So you'll quote the climate skeptic, but you make clear where the mainstream scientific community is.
GILLIS: That is exactly what I try to do, yes.
DAVIES: Justin Gillis, it's been interesting. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.
GROSS: Justin Gillis spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Gillis is an environmental reporter for the New York Times. You'll find links to his articles and his "Temperature Rising" series on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Sea chanteys aren't my thing, but I've really been enjoying the new compilation of pirate ballads, sea songs and chanteys interpreted by Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Michael Stipe, Richard Thompson, Macy Gray, Iggy Pop and others. The album is called "Son of Rogue's Gallery," because it's the sequel to a 2006 compilation called "Rogues Gallery." Both were produced by my guest Hal Willner. He came up with a pirate song concept with Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski when they were on the set of the second "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie.
Willner is known for producing tribute albums with new interpretations of Nino Rota, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Kurt Weill and songs from classic Disney animated films. Since 1980, Willner's worked on "Saturday Night Live," handling music for sketches.
Let's start with a song from "Son of Rogue's Gallery." This is Shane MacGowan of the Irish band The Pogues, doing "Leaving of Liverpool."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVING OF LIVERPOOL")
SHANE MACGOWAN: (Singing) Fare thee well, (unintelligible). There were many fare-thee-wells. I am bound for California, a place I know right well. So fare thee well, my own true love. When I return, united we will be. It's not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me, but my darling when I think of thee.
(Singing) Oh, I've (unintelligible) the pilot once before. I think I know him well. The captain's name is Burgess, (unintelligible). So farewell thee well, my own true love. When I return, united we will be. It's not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me, but my darling, when I think of thee.
GROSS: That's Shane MacGowan from the new Hal Willner anthology "Son of Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys." Hal Willner, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's really a pleasure to have you.
HAL WILLNER: Thank you.
GROSS: He sure growls that one. Tell us about Shane MacGowan and why he belongs on this collection.
WILLNER: Oh, he was one of the first ones that we thought belonged on the collection. In fact, he's sung piece titled songs forever. I mean, he's a true pirate. He's - I know he's got a reputation, but...
GROSS: A reputation for what?
WILLNER: Outrageous behavior, a lot of alcohol in his act. And once you get past the fact that he talks like White Fang from Soupy Sales...
WILLNER: Right? (makes funny sounds) And start to understand what he says, he's one of the most well-read, sophisticated people I've ever met. It's incredible. So he knew exactly what he wanted to do, and then he went into the vocal booth and nailed it in take one, perfectly. And then you saw that weird, Nosferatu vampire face through the glass smiling at you.
GROSS: And I'll tell you. I'll make a confession to you Hal Willner. I've never thought of myself as liking sea chanteys. I've kind of avoided them. I listen to a lot of music. That's one form I've kind of avoided. And now I think oh, yeah. These are great songs. When you started researching pirate songs, did you go into the history of the songs, too? Did you just want the music, or did you want like a larger context for the songs?
WILLNER: I did a bit of research into the history. I mean, one had to, especially when just listening to those amazing Folkways Smithsonian recordings of real sailors singing it, because they would explain the history and where it came from and what they added to it. So - and then also seeing all the different places they were written at or came from. It was consistent: Liverpool, Cape Cod, some in Australia - places that, you know, there were ports. Interesting, Sean Lennon, who's on the record, told me about how much his dad loved and was influenced by these songs - once again, Liverpool, one of the big ports. And if one listens carefully to some of The Beatles things, you will hear certain lines from some of these songs in it.
GROSS: I want to play another track, and this one is by Tom Waits, accompanied by Keith Richards. They've performed together before. You said they were supposed to be on the first volume of your sea chantey and pirate songs...
GROSS: ...but because of timing, they didn't make it. First of all, what's it like to watch the two of them work together? They're both such big personalities and interesting people.
WILLNER: To be honest, they weren't in the studio at the same time, but it didn't matter...
GROSS: Oh, no wonder they get along so well.
GROSS: I'm kidding.
WILLNER: No, they don't need to be in the same studio. I mean it's - both of them I've worked with quite a bit. Tom was one of the first people on our records from '85 . And...
GROSS: He sang "Hi-Ho" - was it - "The Work Song."
GROSS: Yeah. Hi-ho, hi-oh, it's off to work we go.
WILLNER: "Hi-Ho" and "What Keeps Mankind Alive."
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
WILLNER: And so I've known him since the mid-80s. And Keith, we did - was on the Charles Mingus record we did, "Lord Don't Drop That Atomic Bomb." And I've recorded him with Marianne Faithfull. So there was already a comfort thing there. But Tom, though he could be one of the great spontaneous artists, doesn't really work that way. So it was a long process to pick the right song, and then we tried it three different ways.
GROSS: There's a chorus behind him. Is that Waits' overdubbing himself?
WILLNER: Yeah. That's a chorus of Toms, with Keith sailing over it. Once again, we tried it with a rhythm section, tried it with a jazz band, and then he fell in love with a version that was done by Ex-Seamen's Institute, where it was a call-and-response thing. And he just went and recorded this orchestra of Waits, and then Keith came in later and, like, what do I do on this?
WILLNER: And we worked on it - for him, it's a long time to work two or three hours. But he found it, and that smile came on his face when he did, and beautifully sang along. Once again, they know each other so well. They started working together on "Rain Dogs." I mean, they might as well have been in the same room.
GROSS: OK. So this is Tom Waits with Keith Richards doing the classic "Shenandoah."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHENANDOAH")
TOM WAITS: (Singing) For 10 long years, I courted Sally away, you rolling river. She broke my heart here in this valley. Away, we're bound away across the wide Missouri. The Missouri, she's a mighty river. Away, you rolling river. The Missouri, she's a mighty river. Away, we're bound away, across the wide Missouri.
(Singing) Oh, Shenandoah, I'll not deceive you. Away, you rolling river. Oh, Shenandoah, I'll never grieve you. Away, we're bound away, across the wide Missouri.
GROSS: That's Tom Waits and Keith Richards performing "Shenandoah" from the new collection of pirate ballads, sea songs and chanteys called "Son of Rogue's Gallery."
Now, this is probably the best-known song, or one of the best-known songs on the album. And did you say it was Waits who chose it?
WILLNER: Yeah. I sent him - in the case of Tom, I sent him of a lot more songs than I would normally send. But, at the end of it, he just - I think it was maybe the Ex-Seamen's, as opposed to the song itself. Maybe it was a song he always wanted to do. And it is - it does fit into - this type of song, it fits into a lot of ways. It's probably the hallelujah of its day.
WILLNER: He said, well, there's something about "Shenandoah." So, yeah, be my guest.
GROSS: My guest is Hal Willner. He produced the new compilation "Son of Rogue's Gallery." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking with Hal Willner about producing the new compilation "Son of Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys."
Now, you said one of the things that you found in your research going through pirate songs was pirate poems.
GROSS: And one of those poems is sung by Mary Margaret O'Hara, whose work I'm not familiar with. I'd like to get to know it now. I think this is a terrific track. Would you tell us a little bit about this poem and her approach to turning it into a song?
WILLNER: Well, I love exposing people to things. Now, Mary Margaret O'Hara is from Canada, and from a very talented family. Her sister is Catherine O'Hara, the actor.
GROSS: Right, the actress who started on SCTV and...
GROSS: And was in "Home Alone" films and...
WILLNER: Also brilliant and quirky.
GROSS: Oh, and in a lot of those Christopher Guest documentaries.
WILLNER: Yeah. Mary, I met her when she was in a band called go Go Deo Chorus. She went out on her own, and she made one of the greatest records I've ever heard in my life. "Miss America" came out in the '80s, and she's not really put out another solo record since. But she's, you know, came out of a cave or something. You don't hear any influences. Everything she does is a surprise, and every emotion you'll get listening to her.
GROSS: Did you choose the poem and give it to her?
WILLNER: No, I gave her the book of poetry. Mary will often, when coming into one of these projects, not decide on what she wants to do until she's already on stage or in the studio.
WILLNER: And then at the end of the day, she picked up this book of poetry, and just started going through it and cutting up different poems and just singing the lyrics. The band was in the room, and they just started playing behind her. But, I mean, it's always the perfect way to end the records.
GROSS: And so this is Mary Margaret O'Hara singing the poem "Then Said the Captain to Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THEN SAID THE CAPTAIN TO ME")
MARY MARGARET O'HARA: (Singing) When all the sea's high ships have dropped beyond my sky. And life's trumpet leaves my lips and women pass me by. Dear God, let me die. Dear God, let me die. Dear God, let me die. When all the sea's high ships have dropped beyond my sky, and life's trumpet leaves my lips and women pass me by. Dear God, let me die. Dear God, let me to. Dear God, let me die. Dear God, let me die.
When all the sea's high ships have dropped beyond my sky. And life's trumpet leaves my lips and women pass me by. Dear God, let me die. Dear God, let me die. Dear God, let me die. Nothing but damn fools sail, nothing but damn fools sail the sea, said the captain to me. I have a young son, says the captain to me. I don't believe he ever shall sail the sea. Nothing but damn fools sail the sea, said the captain to me. I have a young son, says the captain to me.
GROSS: That's Mary Margaret O'Hara from the second volume of "Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys," produced by my guest Hal Willner. And this volume is called "Son of Rogue's Gallery."
I love the way she sings let me die. And I'm surprised. I'm...
WILLNER: Yeah, she...
GROSS: I'm surprised the poem isn't called that.
WILLNER: No. But that was a line, obviously, that she latched onto while she was singing it. Again, she did not rehearse this. She just started going through the book and singing it. So, obviously, she tuned into the same line you just did and kept repeating it: Let me die, let me die. And, I mean, there's a period to this, you know, to show the other side that these sea voyages were not all joyful.
GROSS: Let's hear another song from your new collection of pirate songs and sea chanteys. And the album's called "Son of Rogue's Gallery" because it's volume two. My guest is Hal Willner, who produced these albums. And the next song that I want to play is "Pirate Jenny," which isn't really a pirate song, per se. It's a show tune.
GROSS: I mean, it's from "Threepenny Opera," the great Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht collaboration. So I thought it was an interesting, surprising choice for this. And the performer is somebody who I am not familiar with. I was prepared to not like because I thought, oh, gosh knows what they're going to do with this. I love the "Threepenny Opera." But I think it's really quite good. So tell us a little bit about the performer, how you know her and why you chose her.
WILLNER: Well, this is how this happened. In this one, Larry "Ratso" Sloman took Nick Cave and I to see Shilpa Ray, who plays harmonium. She had a band called Shilpa Ray and the Happy Hookers. And watching her was just, you know, right away one of those this-artist-is-incredible. "Pirate Jenny" is - I see it as a sea song, but it was also - it was the one I was not going to have on the record, because what does one do with it that hasn't been done? Dylan always stated "Pirate Jenny" as the song that showed him where writing - where songwriting can go.
GROSS: So you thought that Shilpa Ray was right for "Pirate Jenny." Did she know the song?
WILLNER: No, didn't. So once again...
GROSS: So how did you introduce her to the song? Did you give her an album or sheet music?
WILLNER: I gave her three different versions - I mean, four, maybe. You know, Lotte Lenya's, Nina Simone's, Ellen Greene's from - and Bea Arthur from the old soundtracks. And she got the attitude and came in and killed it. And being that Nick Cave has taken an interest in her, took her on the road with him, they were totally up for Nick and Warren Ellis participating on the track. So they overdubbed some subtle parts.
GROSS: Yeah. And he's doing some very quiet backup vocals on it.
WILLNER: And piano. Yeah.
GROSS: Hmm. OK. OK. So this is Shilpa Ray singing the Kurt Weill-Burtolt Brecht song "Pirate Jenny," and it's from the new collection of pirate ballads, sea songs and chanteys called "Son of Rogue's Gallery."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIRATE JENNY")
SHILPA RAY: (Singing) All right. You people can watch while I'm scrubbing these floors, and I'm scrubbing these floors while you're gawking. Maybe once you tip me and it makes you feel swell in this crummy southern town in this bitter hotel. But you'll never guess to who you're talking. No, you'll never guess to who you're talking. Then one night, there's a scream in the night, and you wonder who could that have been.
(Singing) And you see me kind of grinning while I'm scrubbing and you say, well, what she's got to grin? Well, I'll tell you. There's a ship, the Black Freighter, with a skull on its masthead coming in. There's a ship, the Black Freighter, with a skull on its masthead coming in. Well, you gentlemen say, hey, gal, finish them floors. What's wrong with you? Earn your keep here. And you toss me your tips and you look to the ships, but I'm counting your heads as I'm making the beds. 'Cause nobody's gonna sleep here tonight. Nobody's sleep here tonight.
GROSS: Music from the new compilation album "Son of Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, and Chanteys," which was produced by Hal Willner. Thanks for talking with us about it. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new HBO movie "Phil Spector," written and directed by David Mamet, starring Al Pacino. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This Sunday, HBO Films presents a new, made-for-TV movie called "Phil Spector." It's about the famous - and infamous - record producer as he and his legal team prepare his defense in court, on charges of murdering a female companion. The movie stars Al Pacino as Phil Spector, and Helen Mirren as the lawyer who ends up leading his initial defense. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE'S A REBEL")
THE CRYSTALS: (Singing) See the way he walks down the street. That's the way he shuffles his feet. My, he holds his head up high when he goes walking by. He's my guy...
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The HBO movie "Phil Spector" is a production that demands attention because of the heavyweight names attached. First, of course, there's the subject of the drama - Spector himself, the man who invented the Wall of Sound and recorded hits for everyone from the Crystals, Darlene Love, and Ike and Tina Turner; to the Beatles and The Righteous Brothers. Oh, and who also went on trial in 2007, for the 2003 shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson. He claimed she shot herself with one of his many guns. The prosecution argued that he put the gun barrel in her mouth, and pulled the trigger.
Then there are the names attached to this dramatization. Barry Levinson is the executive producer. David Mamet is both writer and director. Jeffrey Tambor plays the leading defense attorney, Bruce Cutler, who brings in attorney Linda Kenney Baden as a last minute co-counsel. Linda is played by Helen Mirren, and Al Pacino plays Phil Spector. Almost the entire movie focuses on those last two, with Linda trying to get to know Spector quickly while mounting a defense and assessing whether he should be put on the stand.
But what demands the most attention here, to me, isn't the subject, or the production team, or the stars. It's the opening disclaimer, written by Mamet as a preface to his story. I've been a TV critic for more than 35 years now, and I've never seen anything quite like it. Even though it's based on actual people and concerns an actual event, here is the disclaimer to the movie called "Phil Spector." Quote, "This is a work of fiction. It's not based on a true story. It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome," unquote.
Mamet may as well have written: Don't anybody sue us. I'm just making stuff up, using names and a few bits of court testimony that are in the public record - except if you look closely at the credits for this HBO work of fiction, you'll find that Linda Kenney Baden - the attorney played by Helen Mirren - serves as a consultant. So even though her exchanges with the real Phil Spector are protected by attorney-client privilege, you get the feeling - at least, I do - that Mamet may not be winging it as much as he claims to be with that disclaimer.
But take that disclaimer seriously. You can't trust what you see in this HBO movie. But you can, and should, enjoy it. This "Phil Spector" movie, essentially, is a two-person play - an awkward dance between Linda and her eccentric client, as he reveals his shifting psychological states by jamming his mental gears between charming remarks, challenging questions and emotional rants.
Pacino is an actor set at hurricane force here, and Mirren matches him by countering his fury with her calm. Mamet's dialogue, as expected, is crisp and thought-provoking; and these two acting pros make the most of it. Here's a scene from their first meeting, when Linda visits Phil's mansion and he reaches for a vinyl record, to put on the turntable as they talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PHIL SPECTOR")
HELEN MIRREN: (as Linda Kenney Baden) As your attorney, I must counsel you not - whatever the provocation, not to talk to anyone.
AL PACINO: (as Phil Spector) They're indicting me for murder. All right, sorry. "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" - what was it? Are you kidding me? What was it? It was - it was the greatest song ever released. I sold over 2 and a half million copies. You say that Jews invented the music business. The Jews didn't invent the music business. I invented the music business. Seventh Avenue, New York, there's a statue, a little old Jewish guy, yarmulke, bent over a sewing machine. He's that guy invented ready-to-wear. I invented the music business. Where's a statue of me? Where's the presidential medal? (Puts record on turntable)
THE RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS: (Singing) You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips...
PACINO: Sidney Poitier broke the color barrier? Are you kidding me? He was playing Superman. You want to know who he was? He was an uptight, frightened, white guy's version of a black man. I put the Ronettes in their home. I put black America in the white home. First time you got felt up, first time you got somebody's hand on you, guess what? You were listening to one of my songs.
MIRREN: (as Linda Kenney Baden) Did you kill that girl?
PACINO: (as Phil Spector) I thought attorneys never asked that question.
BIANCULLI: This "Phil Spector" movie does ask that question, but never answers it, and never even tries to. In essence, it reminds me of "Fatal Vision," the famous 1984 miniseries about preparations for the murder trial of Jeffrey MacDonald.
But even there, that story's author, Joe McGinniss, eventually came down on one side and delivered his own verdict, even making himself a character in that drama. In the HBO movie "Phil Spector," the only verdict comes at the end, when we're told what the jury decided at the end of Spector's days in court.
And after the movie is all over, I'm left with my final verdict as well. I may not believe a lot of what I see in HBO's "Phil Spector," but I'm certainly impressed and entertained by it.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
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