Skip to main content

Sire Records Co-Founder Seymour Stein Reflects On Life In 'The Pursuit Of Music'

In his autobiography, Siren Song, Stein writes about how he started out in the music business as a teen before going on to sign groundbreaking artists like Talking Heads, Madonna, Ice-T and k.d. lang.

35:06

Other segments from the episode on August 13, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 13, 2018: Interview with Seymour Stein; Interview with Jim Gavin; Review of the book Baby, You're Gonna Be Mine.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest has had a huge impact on music by signing such groundbreaking artists as the Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Madonna, Ice-T and k.d. lang. He released solo albums by Lou Reed and Brian Wilson. Seymour Stein co-founded Sire Records in 1966 and continued to run it decades after his founding partner left the company. Stein got his start in the record industry when he was still in his teens working at King Records, which specialized in R&B and had James Brown and The Famous Flames on its roster. Stein has a new autobiography called "Siren Song: My Life In Music."

Seymour Stein, welcome back to FRESH AIR. In your book, you write, I'm a hit man, a record business entrepreneur. What I'm not is a producer like Phil Spector or Quincy Jones. I can't play any instrument. I can't operate a studio. My exact job description is A&R, artist and repertoire, the old show business term for talent hunting.

How do you think not being a musician has been both a shortcoming and an advantage for you?

SEYMOUR STEIN: Well, I think that, for me, it's been somewhat of an advantage because what I listen to, first and foremost, are the songs. And I always feel that an artist as a performer can always get better and usually does - the same thing with a musician. They usually get stronger, you know, as it goes along. But the songs have to be great from the very beginning, and that's what I've always looked for in all the different categories and fields of music that I've signed artists in. It's always been the songs.

GROSS: You started in the record business at age 15 when Syd Nathan, the founder of King Records, convinced your father to allow you to spend summers in Cincinnati at King's headquarters.

STEIN: Well, no. No, that's not exactly correct. I started really going up to Billboard when I was 15 years old, just to copy down the charts because I had kept the charts religiously from around - when I was about 9 years old, I started writing them down. I would listen to a show called "Make Believe Ballroom," and they would play the top 25 hits off of the Billboard chart. And I wanted to go backwards and go into the '40s and find out what was going on then. But that brought me to New York. That brought me to Billboard in the Palace Theatre building. And that was the center of the music business there, and I saw everything that was going on.

GROSS: You were just really pivotal in the punk movement in America. You signed the Ramones, one of the first punk rock bands. How were you tipped off about them? How did you know to go hear them?

STEIN: I had heard about them from a number of people, but I think mostly from Danny Fields. And I had wanted to go see them a couple of times, but I was in England. And I came back particularly to see them. And I got sick when I was in England, and I couldn't go, so I sent my wife with Danny, and she came back raving. So the next evening, I bundled up, rented a rehearsal studio. And I rented it for an hour, but their set - they must've done, you know, about 18 songs in about 25 minutes. I may exaggerate a little bit. But they were just incredible. I was - it was like nothing else I had ever heard. I started talking to them immediately, and we came to an agreement, a deal right then and there. And two days later, they were in the recording studio. And that was it - you know, one of the greatest signings for me and really a great thing for Sire Records.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite track from the Ramones among the records that you put out on Sire?

STEIN: I suppose, you know, what always comes to mind immediately is "Blitzkrieg Bop." There are so many of their songs that I like, but "Blitzkrieg Bop," I think, is my favorite.

GROSS: So let's hear "Blitzkrieg Bop" by the Ramones on an album released by Sire Records, which is the label co-created by my guest, Seymour Stein, who still has Sire Records.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLITZKRIEG BOP")

RAMONES: Hey, ho. Let's go. Hey, ho. Let's go. Hey, ho. Let's go. Hey, ho Let's go. (Singing) They're forming in a straight line. They're going through a tight wind. The kids are losing their minds. The blitzkrieg bop. They're piling in the back seat. They're generating steam heat. Pulsating to the backbeat. The blitzkrieg bop. Hey, ho. Let's go. Shoot them in the back now. What they want, I don't know. They're all revved up and ready to go. They're forming in a straight line. They're going through a tight wind.

GROSS: So that's the Ramones, one of the great bands signed by my guest, Seymour Stein of Sire Records. So you...

STEIN: I...

GROSS: Yeah. Go ahead.

STEIN: Wait - one correction. I don't still have Sire Records. About a month ago, I left. And...

GROSS: Oh.

STEIN: You know - yes. I left Sire, and I left Warner Bros. And I'm now interested in pursuing new objectives in music.

GROSS: Well, that's interesting because in your book - and granted, you write the book, like, months or a year before it's actually published.

STEIN: Yes.

GROSS: In the book, you keep saying, like, I'm still in the music biz; I still have Sire Records; I'm 75, but I still got the company. So what was the turning point for you?

STEIN: Well, a number of reasons - I'd rather not go into them right now. But I want to get back a little bit more to, you know, my indie roots. And, you know, that's what it's really all about.

GROSS: OK. So let's get back to the Ramones. It was very hard for you to get any kind of radio play for the Ramones because - because why? And we're talking at a time when there's like - there's AM, and there's FM. And FM is more album-oriented then, and AM is still, like, singles. So at the risk of asking the obvious, why was it so hard to get the Ramones some airplay?

STEIN: I think they were kind of misunderstood and not fully appreciated. And that was in the United States. But when we finally got them out of the United States and, you know, touring in England, they were a sensation. In fact, the first gig that they did, a lot of English bands came to see them - the Sex Pistols and The Clash and others, and they were so enthralled with the Ramones that it made them convinced that they could make it, too, and it kind of turned the tide for them. They were also big in other parts of Europe and South America. And it's a shame. They would be playing big theaters in England, and then coming back to America and playing, you know, small clubs. It kind of broke my heart, and I'm sure it broke their hearts, too.

GROSS: So one of the things you tried to do to get your bands airplay was to tell your promotion people, don't use the word punk; use the word new wave. Why did you do that? And was it effective?

STEIN: Well, that really came about with the Talking Heads because they were describing them as punk, and they were the furthest thing from punk. I said, look; New York used to be the absolute center of the music business. And that was maybe 20, 25 years before that. And then, of course, LA came into prominence, San Francisco, Detroit with Motown, and Philadelphia with labels, you know, like Cameo and Parkway and later Philadelphia International, and Memphis, and Nashville was growing. And it all took away from the importance of New York. And then I think that this music, which was predominantly coming from New York but not exclusively, was like a new wave for New York. And that's what I called it. And it didn't sound bad like punk.

GROSS: So let's talk about Talking Heads. You heard them kind of accidentally the first time around. Correct me if I'm wrong. But you went to hear new songs by the Ramones at a club.

STEIN: Yes.

GROSS: Talking Heads was opening for them.

STEIN: Yeah, and...

GROSS: And that's how you heard them.

STEIN: It was a surprise opening. They weren't supposed to be the opening act. But I had heard about Talking Heads. But they were not spending that much time in New York. They were very early involved in video, and they were working on that. And they were going back to Rhode Island, you know, which is where they went to school. And so they - I missed a lot of their gigs. And Johnny wanted me to hear some new songs.

GROSS: Johnny Ramone?

STEIN: Johnny Ramone, yes. And so I came down. I investigated what the opening band was going to be. And they were a band called The Shirts, which I had seen and liked but not liked enough to sign. And so I was waiting outside of CBGBs, and all of a sudden I hear this music. And, I mean, it, like, sucked me into the room. That's how incredibly good it was. I was standing outside with Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith band, and I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was so incredible. I said, this isn't The Shirts. He said no, no, they got another gig. He said, this is Talking Heads. And, boy, I was just blown away.

GROSS: So I want to play a track from their first album that you released, "Talking Heads: 77." And this is "Psycho Killer," which is such a - it's such a great track.

STEIN: Fabulous.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear Talking Heads. And this is "Psycho Killer."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PSYCHO KILLER")

TALKING HEADS: (Singing) I can't seem to face up to the facts. I'm tense and nervous, and I can't relax. I can't sleep cause my bed's on fire. Don't touch me. I'm a real live wire. Psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est. Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa (ph) far better. Run, run, run run, run, run, run away. Oh, oh, oh, psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est. Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa far better. Run, run, run run, run, run, run away. Oh, oh, oh, oh. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. You start a conversation. You can't even finish it.

GROSS: So that was the Talking Head's "Psycho Killer" from their first album, "Talking Heads: 77" after they were signed by my guest Seymour Stein, who co-founded Sire Records and continued to operate it until just a few weeks ago. He has a new autobiography called "Siren Song: My Life In Music." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES BROWN SONG, "LICKING STICK - LICKING STICK")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Seymour Stein. And he is the man behind Sire Records. He signed groups like the Ramones, Madonna, Talking Heads, The Pretenders, The Replacements, Ice-T, k.d. lang, Lou Reed and Brian Wilson when they were doing solo records. His new autobiography is called "Siren Song: My Life In Music."

So let's talk about another great performer that you signed, and that's Madonna.

STEIN: Yes.

GROSS: And you signed her under the most unusual of circumstances. You were in the hospital...

STEIN: Yes, I did.

GROSS: Explain why you were there.

STEIN: Well, let's go back a little before that. Mark Kamins was someone that I thought had a lot of potential as a producer or a scout and everything. I gave him some money, $18,000, to try to find some artists for me that I might sign. The third or fourth artist he brought me was Madonna. And he brought the record to me while I was in the hospital. I had come down with a thing called subacute endocarditis. And in those days, the only cure for that was 28 days in the hospital on a drip of penicillin or something like that.

And this - I was there about a week and a half when he came to see me. And he played me this one track, "Everybody" by Madonna. And I was totally blown away. And so I said, look; I'd like to see her. I'm going to be here for another almost three weeks. Try to bring her down here so I can meet her and we can, you know, do a deal.

So he goes away and calls me up at 5 o'clock and says, Madonna and I are coming to see you at 8 o'clock. And here I was, you know, laying in this hospital uniform and a mess. You know, and I probably hadn't taken a shower in a few days and all that because they had to take all the needles out of me.

I freaked out. I had somebody come and shave me and cut my hair and look the best I could in 2 1/2 hours before she got there. But when she came - when I saw her, I realized that the way she spoke - firstly, she's amazing. But she wanted a shot more than anything. And I wanted to give her that shot 'cause I totally believed in her. So we spoke about a deal, and we agreed on a deal for recording and for publishing as well. And, you know...

GROSS: This is in the hospital you're agreeing on - to all this?

STEIN: In the hospital. Yes, in the hospital, me and Madonna and Mark Kamins. And she walked out of there very happy. And I went to bed very happy that night. And that was great. And later I learned that she had been trying to get a deal for over two years. And people like Chris Blackwell, who was somebody that...

GROSS: He ran Island Records.

STEIN: Yeah, he owned Island Records and ran it - had turned her down. And other people had turned her down. I couldn't believe it because to me it was a no-brainer. And it was a great day in my life.

GROSS: So of the early tracks that you recorded with her, do you have a favorite?

STEIN: I think that the song I like best and was really the song that became the one that launched her most was "Borderline." I loved it. But I liked everything that she did.

GROSS: Well why don't we hear "Borderline"? So this is Madonna, one of her first tracks after she was signed by Sire Records, the record company of my guest, Seymour Stein, who has a new autobiography.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORDERLINE")

MADONNA: (Singing) Something in the way you love me won't let me be. I don't want to be your prisoner. So, baby, won't you set me free? Stop playing with my heart. Finish what you start when you make my love come down. If you want me, let me know. Baby, let it show. Honey, don't you fool around. Just try to understand. I've given all I can because you got the best of me. Borderline, feels like I'm going to lose my mind. You just keep on pushing my love over the borderline.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Seymour Stein. And he owned and operated Sire Records for decades - until very recently. Among the performers he signed were The Ramones, Talking Heads, Madonna, The Pretenders, The Replacements, Ice-T, k.d. lang, Lou Reed and Brian Wilson, when they were solo performers. And the track that we just heard, "Borderline," was one of the first tracks that Madonna recorded for Sire Records after he signed her.

Do you ever have a conflict in terms of how much listening you want to do to music of the past and how much you want to listen to what's happening right now? I know I experience that in my life because I like a lot of early recordings from the '20s and '30s and '40s and '50s. And I want to listen to that, but I also want to know what's happening now. And there just is a limited amount of time.

STEIN: Yes, I agree with you completely on that. I try to listen as much as I can to new music. But I probably don't listen to enough. But the older you get, the more attached you also to the past. But I try to keep current as much as possible.

GROSS: Seymour Stein, thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for signing the bands that you signed.

STEIN: I appreciate it very much.

GROSS: Seymour Stein's new memoir is called "Siren Song: My Life In Music." Let's hear a great Brian Wilson recording "Love And Mercy" on Sire Records, released after Stein signed Wilson to record solo. And then after a break, we'll hear from Jim Gavin, the creator of the new AMC comedy series "Lodge 49." I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AND MERCY")

BRIAN WILSON: (Singing) I was sitting in a crummy mood with my hands on my chin. All the violence that occurs - seems like we never win. Love and mercy, that's what you need tonight. So love and mercy to you and your friends tonight. I was lying in my room, and the news came on TV. A lot of people out there hurting, and it really scares me. Love and mercy, that's what you need tonight. So love and mercy to you and your friends tonight.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The second episode of the AMC comedy series "Lodge 49" airs tonight after "Better Call Saul." It was created by our next guest Jim Gavin. "Lodge 49" is the shabby and failing Long Beach, Calif., chapter of a fraternal organization called The Lynx, where the show's down-on-their-luck characters get away for a few hours from the pressures of their lives.

The main character, known as Dud, played by Wyatt Russell, is a young aspiring initiate hoping that the purported mysteries of the lodge might help lift him out of a particularly bad year. He used to clean pools as part of his dad's business. But his dad disappeared while body surfing and is presumed dead. The business closed down, and Dud's lost his apartment. And the family home is gone as well. His twin sister cosigned a loan for her dad's business and is feeling crushed by the $80,000 in debt she now owes the bank. Also Doug suffers from a snake bite that won't heal and must be kept dry. So he can't do the thing he loves most - surf.

"Lodge 49" is Jim Gavin's first TV show. He's also written a collection of short stories called "Middle Men." He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Let's start with a clip from the show. Dud has found a LYNX ring at the beach with a metal detector. The next day, his car inexplicably runs out of gas in front of Lodge 49. He knocks on the door and meets Ernie Fontaine, played by Brent Jennings, who lets Dud in. Dud is entranced by the lodge and asks if he can join.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LODGE 49")

WYATT RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) How do I join? I'm sorry, I'm probably doing this all wrong. It's a big secret thing, isn't it?

BRENT JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) Actually, no, it's not. All you have to do to join is ask. We are obligated by tradition to give anyone who's serious a chance.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Can I join?

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) OK. Well, what's your name?

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Dud.

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) Is that your Christian name?

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Sean - it's Sean Dudley.

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) Oh.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Yeah.

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) Ernie Fontaine.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Mr. Fontaine, it's very nice to meet you. And - oh, women can join, too.

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) Yeah, negroes, too.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) I - that's not...

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) I was just giving you a hard time, Dud. Come on, let's go into the office.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) OK.

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) I hate to admit it, but someone asking to join is a rare event these days.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Really?

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) Our membership's been declining for years. Maybe this is a good sign. We need to get younger. I'll just need your contact info.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Oh, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. OK. So, like, what is it that you guys do here?

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) Community services, recreational activities. Plus there's a whole philosophical component - alchemical or whatever you want to call it.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Oh.

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) But mainly we just get together. Tonight's bunco night.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Well, that sounds great.

JENNINGS: (As Ernie Fontaine) You do understand we may not take you? For all I know, you could be some kind of deadbeat or psycho.

RUSSELL: (As Sean Dudley) Definitely not a psycho, so - (laughter).

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: That's a scene from "Lodge 49" with Wyatt Russell and Brent Jennings. The show was created by Jim Gavin. Jim Gavin, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JIM GAVIN: Hi, thanks for having me.

BRIGER: So why did you want to build a series around a lodge like the Elks club or the Masons? I mean, I think the last show that I saw that had a lodge in it was I either "The Honeymooners" or "The Flintstones."

GAVIN: Yeah. I think driving around Southern California and probably many parts of the country, you drive by these places, and they feel lost in time. They feel a bit like a relic. They're often windowless, and you can drive by them many times and then suddenly notice or ask what that building is or if it catches your eye or - for some reason. The show's set in Long Beach.

And after World War II, Long Beach was this very prosperous place, just sprawling streets full of bungalows. And it was all based on government investment in aerospace and, you know, feeding the growth of these communities. And then it was also the height of membership in these fraternal orders. The Elks of Long Beach had the largest membership in the nation at one point. And then by the late '80s they were bankrupt and closing. And this huge place they built they had to sell. And membership in these places seemed to mirror decline in - or the falling fortunes of the middle class. So that was another part of it.

But maybe the main thing was I just had this image in my head for a very long time of a young man knocking on the door of one of these places and an older man opening it. And I didn't know the meaning of it, but it seemed like a moment that had meaning of some kind. And the show in many ways is kind of just trying to figure out the mysterious resonance of that moment.

BRIGER: So when you were doing research on lodges, did you go into any? Like, did you ask, hey, can I come into your Mason lodge? I mean, they're very secretive, aren't they?

GAVIN: Yeah. I mean, some are - almost function a bit like museums around Southern California. My older sister actually belongs to the Elks in Orange, and they have a beautiful, you know, building that was - I forget when it was built, but early 20th century. And they were very kind to us. And - yeah, we went in with our production designer. And we were trying to capture both a world in our own sets that felt very familiar and modest in a certain way but also had these touches of the surreal and the weird and alchemical.

BRIGER: There's a scene at the lodge where Dud's been drinking a lot, and he's in the urinal. And he looks up, and on the tile - one of the tiles represents the card from the tarot deck called the fool. What's that image, and what does that say to the character of Dud?

GAVIN: Yeah. The image of the fool on the tarot is - it's a person standing on the edge of a cliff with one foot up in the air. There's a little dog behind him. He has I think, like, almost like a bindle stick or satchel. But he's about to step off into the abyss. And, you know, as I imagine it in my head, there's almost a smile on his face. And...

BRIGER: Like he's sort of oblivious to that fact.

GAVIN: Yeah. So the abyss awaits, but he is gladly stepping forward. Or maybe he doesn't quite know it's there. But the fool is the one willing to believe. And in this show, we're way more interested in what people believe than the things they actually believe in or the actual reality of that. And it is that eternal drive to know, to understand, to unlock some secret that is at the heart of alchemy. And I think it also drives Dud and a lot of our characters forward to try and figure out their life and see, is there a greater meaning beyond this everyday world? The seen and the unseen, I guess.

BRIGER: You've said you write your characters as fools of their worlds rather than as the heroes.

GAVIN: Yeah. I feel like there's two types of storytellers. And I mean this not in terms of, like, writing but just in life. Like, at the pub where there's someone who tells a story, and they're always the hero of their own story, and everyone around them is stupid. And then there's the storyteller who is always the fool in the story. And they don't seem to understand life and are always at the mercy of people who are smarter than them. I am definitely the second type of storyteller. And I've stumbled through life as such. And I think Dud is an expression of that on some level.

BRIGER: One of the small things I really like about the show is the depiction of a strip mall ecosystem. Dud's father's pool supply store is on this strip where there's a doughnut store, a nail salon, and this pawn shop which is called the Two-Star Pawn. It's, like, not very ambitious. And, you know, all these people are interacting with each other. Like, Dud and his father pawn stuff at the pawn shop. They take out loans because the guy's also a loan shark. Dud surfs with the daughter of the owner of the doughnut shop.

GAVIN: Yeah.

BRIGER: And it's - they go to the same church. It's this little community. It was really interesting to me.

GAVIN: Yeah. I think in just Southern California strip mall life is kind of a reality for all. I worked for a long time at a gas station. It was on a corner, and behind it there was a strip mall. And, you know, there was a doughnut shop there owned by a Vietnamese family and all these other little shops and proprietors. And you do get to know each other in this weird way. So, yeah, the strip mall where the Dudley - Dudley and Son Pool Supply is kind of a second home for Dud. And it was really fun to kind of bring out the actual humans who occupy it.

BRIGER: Yeah, 'cause, I mean, usually if you don't work in a strip mall, like, your experience with a strip mall is you drive in, you go to one store, you drive out again. Like, you don't sort of imagine it as this own environment.

GAVIN: Yeah. The show is also a lot about the relationship between Dud and his reluctant mentor Ernie, played by Brent Jennings. And in the system of the lodge, Dud is the squire to Ernie's knight. But it's also just - you know, it's an older man sort of reluctantly providing some advice for this wayward young person.

BRIGER: And you described his character Ernie as a master because he's made it through life. Is that a low bar for defining someone as a master?

GAVIN: In my world, yeah. No, yeah, just sticking around. That's it. It kind of - for me it goes back to how you define success. And I feel like I became successful as a writer the moment I was taking adult education class and just was just trying to write in a way that felt truthful. And everything after that - I mean, you can put yourself out there, but in the end it all goes back to just what you actually value.

And so success for me was - has nothing to do with any type of professional, you know, luck, which, you know, at this point I can say I've had quite a bit of. But I don't think that luck would have come if I had been chasing some sort of laurel or anything like that. It came from just sticking to the page and trying to - just trying to stick around.

I think Ernie has a bit of that. You know, he's had - he's had a full life. He was in the Navy. He's had a bunch of jobs. He's been grinding as a toilet salesman, you know? And he also just has - he has a taste for life. He's a - you know, books he's reading like "A Sense Of Wanderlust" and "Night, Air And Sea" (ph). He's a man for all seasons. Let's put it that way.

BRIGER: When I went back and watched a few of the episodes of the show, I noticed that there's just a ton of beer drinking, like, everywhere. Like, people are drinking on the golf course. People are drinking at Ernie's office. Like, people are drinking as they wake up, at the beach. And of course at the lodge, like, people are just pounding beers. What was the intent of that?

GAVIN: I don't know. It's a bit of a transcription of reality.

BRIGER: And it's like rarely was there a scene without someone without a beer in their hand.

GAVIN: Yeah. I don't know. It's just - you feel more comfortable. Like, even if you're not drinking, it's just you got something to hold onto. It's like a handrail.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Jim Gavin, creator of the new AMC series "Lodge 49." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDENBOY SONG, "KITTENS OF LUST")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Jim Gavin, creator of the new AMC series "Lodge 49." He's also an author.

BRIGER: I'd like to talk to you a little bit about your collection of short stories, "Middle Men." One of the stories is called "Elephant Doors," and it's based in part on your experience working as a production assistant for the game show "Jeopardy!" It sounds like you drove a golf cart around a lot and gave Alex Trebek - filled his refrigerator with Diet Rite, which I guess he likes. I won't to ask you to confirm any of that, but...

GAVIN: (Laughter) OK.

BRIGER: ...One of the things - Adam, your main character, is an aspiring comedian. And there's one point where he gives a stand-up routine at this comedy club called El Goof. And I'd just like to read some of the jokes that he tries to tell if you don't mind.

GAVIN: OK. Yeah. This scene is basically a total meltdown onstage. So in between each joke, just imagine just excruciating silence. So he gets up on stage and opens with this. (Reading) I finally found a self-help book that's going to unlock my potential. It's called "Mein Kampf."

There's this silence. OK, and then he keeps going. (Reading) I've got the audio book on my iPod, and it really gets me going when I'm doing hills on the elliptical. It's just nothing.

BRIGER: I'm sorry I'm laughing (laughter).

GAVIN: Then he gets a bit - starts to go a little blue here. (Reading) Do you know what I like most about pornography? The raw and explicit content.

BRIGER: Now, these are just...

GAVIN: They're not...

BRIGER: ...Patently terrible jokes. Are these your jokes? Did you tell these jokes in public?

GAVIN: I will admit the only one I think actually did was the "Mein Kampf" joke, which...

BRIGER: How did that go over?

GAVIN: It went over terrible. I just - I did - for a little bit, I was - did some open mics and discovered pretty fast that I was, yeah, meant for other things. The one thing I will say - everyone should try it at some point because it will give you such an appreciation for that art form.

BRIGER: The final story, "Middle Men," has two sections. One of them is about a young guy named Mike whose mother dies from cancer, and he doesn't know what to do with his life. And his father is a successful plumbing salesman and gets Mike a job just 'cause he doesn't know what else to do. But he's terrible at it. And so in that story there's a part where Mike remembers taking care of his mother in sort of the last few months of her life when she was dying of cancer. And you told me before we talked that this is kind of a hard passage for you to read. And I think it's a really beautiful passage, so if you don't mind, I'd just like to read it.

GAVIN: Oh, yeah, please.

BRIGER: (Reading) A year ago, when people stopped by to see his mom, they would often ask him once they had left her room what he was going to do after. It seemed like an irrelevant question, and he never had an answer. He would just walk them to the front door and return to her room. The walls were covered with family photos, a crucifix and a framed map of Ireland. In the afternoons, he opened the curtains and the glass slider, letting in the breeze and giving his mom a view of the pool.

(Reading) Twenty years ago, during one of the booms, the Costellos had put in the pool. It was their greatest triumph as a family. They probably should have saved the money to get them through the next bust, but Ellen Costello wanted her kids to have a pool. She gave her children everything she had and more heedless of cost, and Matt knew that he owed much of his happiness to his parents' willingness to live beyond their means.

(Reading) A million things about his mom should have made Matt nostalgic, but for some reason, the time he longed for most was the last couple months of her life. They rarely spoke about anything important, but they had never been closer. Her suffering was beyond words, and Matt knew that the frail, bed-bound woman in front of him was the toughest person he had ever met. He wanted to be with her again in hell, shifting her pillows, changing her TPN bags, rinsing her vomit bowls.

(Reading) Those afternoons destroyed him and would continue to destroy him every day of his life. For this, he was thankful. He needed to be destroyed. Matt liked to think that the last thing his mom saw before she died was the tranquil surface of the pool.

So you know, that's just very beautiful and obviously close to you emotionally. But I wanted to ask. What do you mean by Mike saying he needed to be destroyed?

GAVIN: That's a good question. I don't know. I think there seems to be this premium on happiness making your life better - self-help, all these things. But I think suffering is a part of life. And suffering brings a greater appreciation for what makes life meaningful and beautiful. And I think, especially with young men, you meet people in life who you can tell they've never been punched in the face. And if they just got punched in the face, they might actually be a full person at some point. And so in a larger sense, dealing with loss, some suffering, is the thing that's going to make you whole on some level. There will always be pain. But it is that thing that's going to define you. It's going to be the crucible through which you might become the person you're meant to be.

BRIGER: So like, a full person is a damaged person.

GAVIN: I believe so, yeah.

BRIGER: Did you take care of your mom while she was dying?

GAVIN: Yes. My sisters and I, we all moved back home. You know, it's something that a lot of people I know have dealt with. And, you know, it's just - it is what it is.

BRIGER: It's really hard when someone dies because, you know, the last memories you're going to have of them is of this person when they're in their weakest state.

GAVIN: Yeah.

BRIGER: And sometimes, it's - in my experience, it's hard to reach back and recover memories of them when they were healthy - probably the person you'd prefer to remember - although there seems like there's a little bit in this story how those moments that Mike had were some of the closest he had with his mother. So that's kind of conflicted.

GAVIN: Yeah, no. I think watching someone go through, you know, what my mom went through or what, you know, anyone who's had a family member suffer through something like that - it's just terrible in every way. But there are these weird, weird moments of grace and togetherness that are so intense that, you know, you may not have had those without the terrible thing that's happening.

BRIGER: Do you live near the house where you grew up?

GAVIN: No. I - well, in a way. I mean, I'm in L.A. And that house is down in Orange. So I haven't been back in like six years because it - once the bank took it, I just felt weird. So yeah, maybe someday, I'll kind of make the pilgrimage back.

BRIGER: I think, at one point, you thought you'd want to buy back the house.

GAVIN: Yeah, that's a very Dud-like sentiment, I realize. Yeah, I don't know. There's almost a "Gatsby" - I read "Gatsby." I should learn a lesson from it. But, yeah, who knows? I hope who's ever living there is happy there.

BRIGER: Well, Jim Gavin, thanks so much for being on FRESH AIR.

GAVIN: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Jim Gavin is the creator of the new AMC comedy series "Lodge 49." Episode two begins tonight after "Better Call Saul." Gavin spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. After a short break, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new collection of short stories she describes as funny and raw by Kevin Wilson. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL BISIO QUARTET'S "A.M.")

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Kevin Wilson is known for his best-selling novels "Perfect Little World" and "The Family Fang," which was made into a film with Jason Bateman and Nicole Kidman. But Wilson started out as a short story writer. His 2009 collection "Tunneling To The Center Of The Earth" received an Alex award, from the American Library Association, and the Shirley Jackson award. His new book, a second short story collection, is called "Baby, You're Gonna Be Mine." And our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: I've been a fan of Kevin Wilson's writing since 2011, when I read his debut novel "The Family Fang." That novel delved into the life of a husband and wife pair of performance artists, who work their young children into their pieces. Without being pat about it, Wilson drove home the realization that every family constitutes its own ragtag troupe of performance artists and that children are mostly at the mercy of their parents' acts.

Family was also a concern in Wilson's second novel "Perfect Little World" about a "Gilligan's Island"-type collection of adults and children who participate in an experiment about child rearing. What I love most about Wilson's writing is that he'll start off with these goofy, almost sitcom-type contrived premises and from there create stories that knock you out with the force of their emotional truth.

That distinctive sweet-tart flavor of Wilson's writing is triple-concentrated in his new short story collection "Baby, You're Gonna Be Mine." Take the opening lines of the very first story called "Scroll Through The Weapons." A young man named Cam is narrating.

(Reading) It was almost midnight when my girlfriend got a call from her sister who had been arrested for taking a kebab skewer at a cookout and stabbing her husband. Even though it was over an hour away, I drove my girlfriend to their house so she could watch over her nieces and nephews until their parents found a way to get back home. If they end up killing each other, my girlfriend told me, I think I'm the one who gets custody of the kids. I didn't have to say anything in response because she knew as well as I did that I would not be around if that scenario ever became a reality.

Whoa. Just as we're taking in that mess of information about the quality of the relationships here, we meet those aforementioned kids who are feral in ways that can't be politely described on radio. The most disciplined is the oldest girl, who's around 14. She's obsessed with a video game about the apocalypse where she has to try to kill zombies with weapons like a baseball bat with nails in it. At first Wilson seems to be riffing on the old decay-of-the-family theme. But his story grows more nuanced so that when Cam again looks at that tough teenager playing her vile video game, his reaction shifts into a commentary on the tragic nature of life.

Cam says, my girlfriend and I sat on the floor and watched the oldest do her thing with the video game, finding no weapon to her liking, eventually giving in to her inevitable and quick death. She wanted, I now understood, to be stronger than anything evil, but she never would.

In ingenious ways, all the stories here are about surrender, whether they're about a character's surrendering to loss or human failing. For instance, there's a quiet stunner of a story called "A Signal To The Faithful" about a sensitive, fatherless boy named Edwin and the troubled priest who befriends him. Contrary to expectation, nothing sexual happens. But a game of make-believe the two play together is devastating in the way it exposes the pain that lives within the emotionally stunted priest. Other stories like "Housewarming" and the title story feature parents who've surrendered to the knowledge that their angry, adult children are beyond saving.

In that title story, a mom gets a phone call from her son, a once moderately successful rock musician whose band, the Dead Finches, has just broken up. Much to her dread, the son moves back home. A narcissist, the son thinks the end of his musical career is a unique blow. But his widowed mom knows otherwise. She understood exactly what was happening, that he had devoted his life to something that had ended before he was ready. She knew what it felt like.

All the while I was reading "Baby, You're Gonna Be Mine," I kept hearing one of Holden Caulfield's signature lines in my head. Remember how Holden is always saying variations of that killed me about people or books that deeply affect him? There's a lot of Salinger in Wilson's writing - the wit, the vulnerability and the cosmic sadness. And these new stories of Wilson's are something else. They're funny, raw and beautiful. And for sure they killed me.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Kevin Wilson's new short story collection called "Baby, You're Gonna Be Mine."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about growing up in the '70s in the Mojave Desert on a secret weapons testing site where her parents designed missiles. My guest will be Karen Piper, author of the new memoir "A Girl's Guide To Missiles." Her home was a place where a bomb could accidentally land on your house, parachuters fell from the sky and a man could fly by in an ejection seat. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEVO SONG, "GUT FEELING")

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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

42:54

John Brown And Abraham Lincoln: Divergent Paths In The Fight To End Slavery

In The Zealot and the Emancipator, historian H.W. Brands reflects on two 19th century leaders who fought the institution of slavery in different ways: one radical and the other reformist.

31:39

How Women Have Been 'Profoundly' Left Out Of The U.S. Constitution

As a teen, Heidi Schreck debated the Constitution in competitions. A film of her Broadway play, What the Constitution Means to Me, is now available on Amazon Prime. Originally broadcast March 2019.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue