DATE August 3, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: John Crawford discusses his National Guard service in
Iraq and his memoir, "The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
John Crawford was stationed in Iraq as a member of Florida's National Guard.
He didn't believe in the war; he didn't want to fight in it and didn't expect
he'd have to. Crawford had spent three years in the 101st Airborne Division,
then enrolled in Florida State University. He enlisted in the Guard because
it paid full tuition, and returned for one weekend a month and two weeks a
year. But in the fall of 2002, with two credits left, he was called to active
duty and sent to Kuwait and then Iraq. He says his Guard unit was promised a
short tour--three months, six at most--but his unit was deployed for more than
one year. He fought during the invasion and, during the occupation, patrolled
the streets of Baghdad. While he was there, he started writing stories. A
reporter embedded with his unit for a day read one of his stories, liked it
and helped him find an agent. Now Crawford has a war memoir called "The Last
True Story I'll Ever Tell."
One of the things you talk about in your book is your gear. You complain
about everything from your vehicles to your guns, your shoes. Would you
describe some of the problems you had?
Mr. JOHN CRAWFORD (Author, "The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell"): Well,
actually we didn't even go over there with vehicles. We ended up getting
vehicles from the 3rd Infantry Division, and when they left, we didn't have
any. And we just--you know, you beg, borrow and steal. At one point, my
squad had a SUV we had knocked the doors out of. We had taken it from a guy
who had threatened us with a bomb. We knocked the doors off of it and mounted
a machine gun on the back and we drove that around and painted `Ali Baba' on
the side. That was the Arabic term for a thief. And that was what we drove
We were wearing Vietnam-era flak vests. We actually carried M-16 A1s, and
there was a little scratch mark and there was a 2 written there. And, you
know, the rifles were over two decades old. All our equipment was Vietnam-era
except for our night vision, but the night vision we got, we didn't have
enough swing arms to mount them, so nobody could use them anyway. I think in
my platoon we had six operating night-vision systems, something like that, by
the end of the war.
GROSS: So you're basically saying you had to, like, steal cars in order to
Mr. CRAWFORD: We did. We did. We stole vehicles in Baghdad for a while and,
of course, everybody saw the big thing on the news a while back--What?--a year
or two ago, whenever they were talking about rummaging through landfills, and
we did that. We took steel plates and put them on the side of our Humvees
when we did get Humvees. We took old flak vests and cut them up and nailed
them onto the sides. We knocked down metal bars and mounted them--welded them
into the back to use to make machine-gun mounts. So we were very
self-sufficient. A lot of stuff we made, kind of we made it up as we went
GROSS: How did it affect your performance, your ability to protect yourself
and to protect others, to have to improvise so much of your stuff?
Mr. CRAWFORD: Well, it gives you a bad feeling like, you know, you're kind of
somebody's stepchildren, you know, like nobody really cares about you. As far
as affecting our ability, you know, we were all good soldiers and we held our
own no matter what, but it does make you feel a little bit better when you
know that, you know, what you're going in will actually stop a bullet rather
than just, you know, slow it down.
GROSS: And what about your clothing? You talk about your uniform being
ripped beyond repair, walking through streets filled with sewage in shoes with
holes in them.
Mr. CRAWFORD: Yeah, we had a--well, we got, I believe, four uniforms total in
the beginning, and they just were torn up by the end and we didn't get any
replacements, couldn't get any replacements. And the boots were torn up just
from walking so much. I mean, we do three patrols a day in Baghdad, and each
patrol was, you know, I think had to be two hours long or three hours long,
something like that. So, I mean, you'd walk, you know, easily five to 10
miles a day through the city, and it's so hot, you know, the rubber on your
soles is starting to melt and you're stepping on glass and all sorts of stuff.
So it gets torn up.
And, yeah, the streets were full of sewage because the Iraqi toilets weren't
made to take toilet paper, and so all of a sudden there's all this toilet
paper everywhere going into the sewer system from all the American soldiers
there, and it clogged up almost immediately. And then the trash in the street
clogs them up because nobody's taking out the trash anymore, and so, I mean,
there was always sewage and water in the streets.
GROSS: There was no way of getting shoes without holes?
Mr. CRAWFORD: You could order them online but, I mean, you were going to pay
for them yourself.
GROSS: Did you decide to do that ever?
Mr. CRAWFORD: No, I actually stuck with my boots. I wasn't--I'm not usually
too hard on my boots. They--I had one pair, then the soles were all the way
gone, and I threw those away and managed to get out my other pair from my
A-bag. So they weren't too bad, but I did have a couple guys in my team that
had significant holes in their boots.
GROSS: One of the things you had to do was guard duty at gas stations in
Baghdad. Why did the gas stations require you to guard them?
Mr. CRAWFORD: Well, I think the gas stations required us to guard them 'cause
there was--the lines were so long. There were lines just kilometers around
the corner, and there were always riots and always problems. When we first
got there, that was just what the 101st was doing, and we took over for them.
And there was just constant, constant problems there, people getting shot,
people stabbing each other and stealing each other's gasoline.
So--and of course, everybody's scalping. We didn't speak Arabic. We couldn't
read what the gas station sign was. And it wasn't for three or four months
that we realized that the people running the gas station were charging way,
way more than they were supposed to. And we were just basically there to keep
the peace and try to keep things running decent, because as long as everybody
had gas in their cars, they were at least a little bit happier.
And we had to write the numbers down every day to show how much progress we
were making in our sector. That was part of the deal they supposedly made
with us was that as soon as crime went to zero and everything was good in our
sector, they would let us go home, which, of course, wasn't exactly true, but
we still did our best to make that happen.
GROSS: God, crime is never zero.
Mr. CRAWFORD: Well, we had it pretty close to zero.
GROSS: Did you, really?
Mr. CRAWFORD: Well, at least that's what we thought.
GROSS: You say you didn't have interpreters, you know, you didn't have
translators when you were guarding the gas stations. So how could you keep
the peace if you couldn't even communicate with most of the people?
Mr. CRAWFORD: Very rarely did we have interpreters. I think for a little
while we had--there was a unit that came in and stayed with us, and they had
an interpreter, but you're talking about three or four guys for an entire
battalion. So for the most part, yeah, you made it up. But there were--you
know, people are resourceful, and the Iraqi people are the same, so kids would
come over or teen-agers and they'd offer to be your translator. But then, of
course, you had to deal with the fact that they had ulterior motives. Their
friends and their cousins would skip the line and stuff like that, and it was
just something you dealt with. But other than that, you know, you just--you
do with what you can. You sort of observe the situation as best you can, you
make decisions as best you can, and if you're wrong, you're wrong, you know;
there's nothing you can do about it.
GROSS: What was your worst encounter with the Iraqi insurgency?
Mr. CRAWFORD: With the Iraqi insurgency? I don't know, I always think about
the day that my buddy Wyse(ph) got killed as probably being the worst
GROSS: What happened to him?
Mr. CRAWFORD: They were coming back from a patrol. I was outside actually
next to the gate with another friend of mine. And somebody had buried a 155mm
round in a--they would bury them in the curb. They would go in at night and
they would put in bombs inside the curb and they'd put, like, plaster of Paris
or something or concrete over the top of it so it just looked like the curb.
And then when you went by, somebody, you know, five houses down or whatever
would blow it with a garage door opener or a cell phone. And so they blew it,
and Wyse got hit in the head with a piece of shrapnel and he died on the
scene. And we immediately, as soon as the explosion, ran outside and had to
clean that up, and there were, you know, wounded all over the place, and it
was--and we waited outside till the MedEvac came.
GROSS: What impact did it have on you to see your buddy killed? I mean, does
it shake--in addition to, like, feeling his loss, does it shake your own
Mr. CRAWFORD: No, I don't think it particularly shook our confidence, 'cause
I don't remember ever waking up in the morning and thinking that today might
be the day that I could die or that something bad could happen. There's a
constant nagging feeling, you know, that something bad could happen at any
moment, but it's not really a sharp fear and it never really presented itself
on my mind too much. I can't speak for anyone else.
GROSS: Now you mentioned having to clean up after your friend was killed, and
you describe a phone conversation with your wife while you were in Iraq. And
you were talking to her, and she was describing what a horrible day she had
cleaning up dog poop at home, and then you described cleaning up your friend's
brains. And you write, `Imagine a war where you can call home after a bad
day.' How were you able to do that?
Mr. CRAWFORD: Actually, that story was about cleaning up Iraqi brains on that
particular day. But I don't know, it's very difficult. It's very hard to
compartmentalize, and I'm not quite sure that I was good at it. You know, you
like to think you are, and you think you're very smooth, but you know, when
you're upset and you're stressed out, and you get on the phone and then you
try to have a natural, normal conversation, you just have nothing at all in
common to talk about. You know, you don't watch the same television shows;
you don't listen to even the same kind of music anymore. You have nothing to
talk about. Your experiences are so different. And you're on the phone with
somebody, and the whole time in the background there's tracers going by and
flares going up and explosions and you're just, you know, carrying on a normal
conversation, and it--you know, it's very, very awkward and very difficult.
And it--I think it's a problem that we've never really faced, that I don't
know if anybody's really faced it in a war, this constant communication home.
You have the ability to--we didn't have the ability during the war to use the
phone, but I mean, by the time, you know, we were an occupying force, you
could use the phone whenever you wanted if you wanted to pay for it, and you
could use the Internet whenever you wanted if you wanted to pay for it. So
there was a constant communication going back and forth, and instead of
worrying about the task at hand and worrying about, you know, patrolling and
stuff like that, you're dealing with things that you really shouldn't be
dealing with. You're thinking about, you know, what little Tommy did in
school yesterday and all that sort of stuff and what's going on at home, and
you really shouldn't have that on your mind at all.
GROSS: It also sounds like, in your case, you felt that instead of the
telephone bringing you closer to your wife back in the States, it was
constantly pointing out how big a gap was growing between you because your
lives were so totally different.
Mr. CRAWFORD: Yeah. Yeah, it did. I mean, there's--you know, it's
difficult, like I said, whenever you're going through such different things,
and in your mind's eye, I suppose you can keep, you know, sort of one image of
what's happening, and you expect that when you leave, everything sort of
stopped, that everything froze, and of course it didn't. And then you come
back and you're surprised because, you know, however many months has gone by
and everything's a little bit different. And when you use the phone and when
you use the Internet and you're in constant contact, you can see that
happening; it's very frustrating because you can't stem the tide of it at all.
So I think in a way it probably would have been a lot easier just to sort of
disappear and then come back for--you know, after a year or so.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Crawford, and he's written
a new memoir about the more than one year he spent with the Florida National
Guard in Iraq, and the book is called "The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell."
One of the themes in your book is the squalor that you experienced in Iraq,
more specifically just feces and sewage. You know, we talked a little bit
about walking through streets that always had sewage in them in Iraq, but you
also write about how, you know, lots of the soldiers had diarrhea or mild
cases of dysentery. The latrines were really, you know, not the most
desirable places. And I guess--how difficult is it to live, if I might put
this bluntly, with your own stink and with the stink of others, you know,
without access to good ways of cleaning yourself up or your clothes, not to
mention the streets?
Mr. CRAWFORD: When we first got in the country, we didn't have showers at
all. Some of the guys took showers in Kuwait. You had to drive down--they
would come in in trucks and take you, and not everybody went. And I think
Specialist Gaddis had the record at about 74 days without taking a shower.
GROSS: Wow. That's really impressive.
Mr. CRAWFORD: Yeah. We were--I didn't know it was really a race. I took a
shower, like, three days before, so I was disappointed. But you
actually--honestly, you don't notice it after a while. You know, you think,
`Wow, it's been a while since I had a shower,' and then pretty soon you don't
smell anymore; you just sort of smell like the desert. You don't notice
anybody else stinking. And the odd thing is that then you do take a shower,
and the next morning you wake up and you say, `Man, I stink,' you know. And
it takes about another week, a week and a half for that smell to go away
before you start just smelling like the desert again.
So we had gotten so used to that by the time we got to Baghdad that any kind
of bathing was, you know, wonderful. It didn't--you know, so we had--after
maybe two or three months in Baghdad, they managed to get us cold water
running in our rooms, 'cause we were staying in little apartments. Granted,
it was what you would think of as, like, a studio apartment, and there were
nine of us in each room, so it was still very small. But we had--you know,
you had your own bathroom and a tiny little shower. And so there was cold
water. It didn't always run all the time, and you certainly wouldn't want to
drink it 'cause it smelled pretty bad. It smelled a little bit like sewage.
So--you know, but even that was so much better than what we had had in the
desert that we--it never really occurred to us that we were nasty.
GROSS: Well, I'm wondering how this experience affected your sense of
personal hygiene now.
Mr. CRAWFORD: I actually have an excellent sense of personal hygiene now.
But I think I did before, though. I mean, I bathe quite a bit.
Mr. CRAWFORD: But I mean, when you're doing soldier stuff, it's not--you
know, there's nobody around to impress. Like we used to always say there's no
girls around. You know, it's just all the guys. And some are definitely
worse than others. You have the guys that you call the dirty birds that, you
know, see who can make their feet smell the worst and stuff like that, and
that's not really my scene. But you definitely have them, and they take a
little bit more pride in it than they probably should.
GROSS: My guest is John Crawford, author of the new memoir "The Last True
Story I'll Ever Tell" about being stationed in Iraq with his National Guard
unit. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Crawford, and he was in
Iraq for more than a year with the Florida National Guard. And now he's
written a new memoir called "The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell."
You describe how there may have been a shortage of uniforms and boots and
vehicles while you were in Iraq, but a lot of people seemed to have access to
steroids. How could you tell?
Mr. CRAWFORD: Actually somebody asked me that the other day, how could I
tell. And it's actually kind of funny. We had a--we set up a gym downstairs,
and a lot of people in my company worked out. It was our Alpha Company gym.
And I worked out down there a lot, myself and a good friend of mine, Mitchell,
and we weren't on steroids, and I can't say about anyone else that really
wasn't on steroids. I would guess probably half the people were and, I mean,
you know, I certainly would never name names or even insinuate who was doing
it, but I mean, I can tell you for a fact people were doing it because some
people are scared of needles and they would ask you to help them out with it.
GROSS: Oh, help them out with injections?
Mr. CRAWFORD: Yeah. Somebody says, `Hey, man, I'm scared of needles. Can
you give me a shot?' And you'd say, `Sure, you know, it's no big deal.'
GROSS: And in addition to getting bigger muscles, did it change the behavior
of the men who were doing it?
Mr. CRAWFORD: Yeah. I was on a patrol with a guy, and he was taking, you
know, an inordinate amount of steroids. And he showed me one day--he was on
three or four different cycles all at once, and it was unbelievable. You
know, he had made amazing gains. He was a huge guy. And he's covered in body
hair and, you know, just monstrous guy, and he's such a nice fellow. And
we're walking on patrol, and he's trying to get to the hose on his CamelBak to
get a drink of water, and he can't reach it. And all of a sudden, in the
middle of this patrol, he takes it off and he throws it as hard as he can
against a wall and, like, stomps on it and then just keeps walking. And we
get done with the patrol and he says, `Hey, did you pick up my
CamelBak?--'cause you were behind me.' And I said, `No, I didn't pick it up.'
And then he was upset with me for not picking it up after he had his 'roid
rage episode. But that was about it. I mean, I can't say that there were
real instances where people, you know, blew up all the time and stuff like
GROSS: What was the policy about steroids?
Mr. CRAWFORD: There was no--I mean, obviously the policy of the military is
they don't tolerate drug usage. It was somewhat overlooked, and I can't say
that that's an Army standard. I can just say that, you know, in our
particular unit, there was really no doubt that guys in my company were using
it. The guys in the headquarters company--I remember once walking by where we
had a chow hall set up. There was a picture of a soldier with these bulging
muscles ripping out of his T-shirt--somebody had drawn one--and it said Alpha
Company on it. I mean, it was--there was no doubt that people in my company
were using steroids. Everybody knew it and everybody just kind of overlooked
Mr. CRAWFORD: ...you know, figuring, I guess, there were worse things.
GROSS: You write that you preferred Valium and anti-depressants. You took
Valium and anti-depressants. How did you get access to them?
Mr. CRAWFORD: Actually we just went to the pharmacy. It was really funny
because the thing about it was we worked out all the time, myself and some
friends of mine, and everybody said, `Hey, why don't do--you know, why don't
you start doing steroids?' And I said, `Well, I don't want to do drugs,' you
know, 'cause when I get back, depending on, you know, what kind of job I get,
a lot of federal jobs have lie-detector tests, and I didn't want to have any
kind of, like, recent drug usage in my test. So that was the whole reason I
wasn't doing steroids, not thinking that popping seven Valium a day might be
considered a drug problem.
But you would just go on patrol and you'd go to the pharmacy, just like
buying, you know, a candy bar or a Coke, and you'd go in and Valium, I think,
was, you know, a thousand pills for 2 or $3, and, you know, you'd just buy a
whole bunch of them and take them back. It was no big deal.
GROSS: You didn't need a prescription?
Mr. CRAWFORD: No. You just walk right in and buy them.
GROSS: Why would you take Valium? And what I'm thinking is you don't want to
be sedated in any way if there is a crisis and you have to respond quickly.
That's when you want adrenalin, not sedation.
Mr. CRAWFORD: Well, yeah, and I--I never really--I didn't really know much
about Valium at the time. I just remember we took them as sleeping pills in
the beginning because you'd work strange shifts and, you know, when you got
four hours to take a nap and then you gotta do something else, and it was real
hard to fall asleep a lot of times 'cause it's, you know, 130 degrees out and
you're just laying there in a pile of sweat. And so you would take a couple
pills--and we just called them sleeping pills for a long time; we knew they
were Valium, but it didn't really sink in, I don't think. And then after a
while, you just keep taking them and keep taking them.
And I don't know that it ever really affected me in the way that, you know,
you couldn't get adrenalin up. I do know that when Christian Parenti, a
journalist for The Nation, came, we talked about it afterwards and he said,
`You know, man, I thought you were the coolest guy in'--like he thought that
we were so calm and collected and the biggest professionals in the world just
because we were so junked out on Valium, we had no emotions anymore.
GROSS: Was it hard to get off of Valium.
Mr. CRAWFORD: I actually--it was very difficult for me. I didn't realize
that it was addicting. I think everyone else I knew that was on it did and
weaned themselves off when we got back from Iraq. I got home and we--or not
home; I got back to Ft. Stewart and we were in the barracks, and I just
remember for a couple days I wasn't hungry and I couldn't sleep, and all of a
sudden, I just--for, like, two weeks, about two weeks, I was extremely sick
and I lost about 20 pounds. It was very, very difficult. But like I said, I
was taking seven or eight Valium a day by the end of it. So, I mean, that was
significant drug usage there.
GROSS: Do you expect to get a phone call from friends, family or people in
the military saying, `You're not supposed to say this'?
Mr. CRAWFORD: I know that plenty of people are worried about it. I didn't
name any names, do anything like that, to the point where I would get anybody
in trouble. I was very careful about that. But it is difficult. You know,
most war memoirs are, of course, written 10, 15 years down the road or at
least, you know, what we've had in the past, and so you don't have to worry
about as much. But in this case, I was writing it, you know, not only while I
was there, but shortly after I got home, and so it was a very real concern
what everyone was going to think and what everyone was going to, you
know--what part they were going to take, and everybody was very worried about
GROSS: John Crawford is the author of the new memoir "The Last True Story
I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq." He'll
be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
GROSS: Coming up, Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker of the band
Sleater-Kinney, a female rock band described in The New Yorker as `one of the
best rock bands, period.' Also we continue our conversation with John Crawford
about fighting in Iraq while serving in the National Guard.
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with John Crawford. He's written a
memoir about being stationed in Iraq for more than one year with his National
Guard unit. He joined the Guard because it paid his college tuition. Before
enrolling in college, he spent three years in the infantry. His new memoir is
called "The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell."
You were not a writer when you went--you didn't think of yourself, I don't
think, as a writer when you went to Iraq. And you come home and write this
book. You describe a little bit about how that happened in your book. There
was a reporter from The Nation who was embedded for a day with your battalion.
What was his role in encouraging you to write?
Mr. CRAWFORD: Actually, I enjoyed writing before, and I had taken some
writing classes, and that was my minor at Florida State. I was extremely
bored one day, and a guy on my team, Pearson, had a laptop. And I borrowed
it, and I cleaned out a side room and began to write a short story for nothing
more than something to do. And as I was finishing up doing a spell check, the
journalist from The Nation came in, looked at it and said, you know, `Hey, I
like writing, too,' and I said, `Well, that's good. I suppose you should
since you're a writer.' And he ended up liking the story and took it back
with him to New York. I gave him my e-mail address, and just a few days
later, I got an e-mail from an agent and signed with her. So he actually has
been a very big help. He got me that and has always given me advice. Even
now I still talk to him.
GROSS: I guess that's probably not what you were expecting from the embedded
Mr. CRAWFORD: No, no, not at all, 'cause, yeah, you get taught to be very
careful about what you say. And he wrote a story that, while very good, got
me in a lot of trouble, because 24 hours doesn't sound like a long time, but
they let him come up to the barracks, so it's different when you--normally,
when you have a journalist embedded with you, you go out on patrol, you talk
to him downstairs, do a couple interviews, and that's about it. But for some
reason, they said, `Oh, well, why don't you go upstairs into their room?' And
once he was up in our room, you know, after 30 minutes or so, you forget that
he's there, or you forget what he's doing and you kind of forget that they're
taping, and you start talking like you normally would.
So we got in a little bit of trouble. He came back a few months later to try
to embed with us again, and they wouldn't let him onto the compound because of
what he'd written.
GROSS: What did he write that got you into trouble?
Mr. CRAWFORD: He--I know he quoted me saying that I worked in population
reduction. He mentioned...
GROSS: What's the significance of saying that?
Mr. CRAWFORD: Nothing. I had just made a joke, saying that my name's John
Crawford and I work in population reduction. I guess the chain of command
didn't think that that was a good way to perceive our mission in Iraq. And he
wrote a few other things just about us, you know, regular soldier stuff that
soldiers realize, that not everybody else does, and--but it didn't paint quite
the rosy picture that our unit had wanted to paint, so he actually wasn't
allowed back on, and we got in quite a bit of trouble and didn't talk to any
more reporters for the rest of the war.
GROSS: You joined the National Guard because you wanted to take advantage of
the fact that the Guard pays for tuition.
Mr. CRAWFORD: Yes.
GROSS: And otherwise, you couldn't have afforded to go to college. And
there's a lot of people like you who join the Guard to pay for tuition. And,
of course, there's a lot of people who don't have to do that to pay tuition;
they can just pay it. And consequently, they're not in the National Guard.
Does the system feel unequal to you?
Mr. CRAWFORD: I have a friend who was telling me he went fishing with two of
my other buddies from high school the other day, and these two guys are very
well off. And one of them says, `You know, I have no problem with this war.
I would go if they needed me.' And my buddy said, `Well, they do need you.
You know, they're raising all the bonuses, and they're offering all these
things, and they're talking about raising the age to 42 years in the Army, you
know. They actually do need you.' And he said, `The bonus is something like
$20,000.' And my other two buddies said, `Well, I don't need $20,000.'
And I think that's the point is that, you know, you can talk about it all you
want, but when it comes down to it, it's always been people that--you know,
you do have the volunteers that are truly patriotic, but, of course, along
with that come people who are there for the money. They needed, you know--the
economically challenged are--usually make up the most of wars.
GROSS: You write in your book, `This was a war I didn't believe in, but no
one had asked my opinion.' Now I've spoken to soldiers who were in Iraq, who
think of themselves as being not political. And when I ask about the war,
they say that, you know, they're not political. They were there to do their
job. Their job is to serve the country and to go where their country tells
them. It sounds like your reaction was a little different to that. I mean,
obviously, you went where your country told you to, but you say that you
disagreed with the war. How did that affect your feelings about fighting in
Mr. CRAWFORD: It didn't affect them at all. You know, I was a soldier, and I
was, you know, obeying the orders of the commander in chief. That's exactly
what my job was, and it didn't bother me at all, going over there for whatever
reason. I mean, regardless, Saddam Hussein, you know, was a bad man, and I
didn't have any qualms about going to war there. I didn't particularly think
that it was what the country needed to do, but for me personally, that wasn't
really an issue.
GROSS: Have your feelings about the war changed? You say you didn't support
the war when you were sent to Iraq. Having come home, what are your feelings
about the war?
Mr. CRAWFORD: I didn't support the war. I didn't believe that there were
weapons of mass destruction, and I didn't believe Iraq was an imminent threat,
and I didn't believe that they had ties to al-Qaeda, being a secular nation.
But what's done is done. You know, you're in the middle of a fight, and you
can't back out now. I always--I liken it to getting in a bar fight.
Occasionally, you know, you get drunk and you get in a fight because you think
some guy's eyeballing you in the bar. And you wake up in the morning, and you
say, `Wow, that guy didn't deserve that at all.' But the morning is the time
for regret. If you do it in the middle of the fight, then you still wake up
feeling bad, but you got beat up, too. So the way I see it, you're in the
middle of a fight, and you finish what you started. So to say that I don't
support the war isn't to say that I don't think that it needs to be done now
that we're in it.
GROSS: Your book is a memoir. And at the very end of it, you write, `I'm
home now and will never again write a true story.' Why not?
Mr. CRAWFORD: I don't know. That part actually just sort of came to me. I
was trying to think of a way to end the book, and I was writing, and I just
kind of started free-writing without thinking that I was going to put it in.
And when I came up, there was this very, very frustrated, angry couple of
paragraphs that I really felt summed up my experience. And I put that in, and
I just felt very frustrated, felt like, you know, I don't want to tell true
stories anymore. If I write anymore, I don't want to write anything that's
like that, and I don't want to experience anything that's like that anymore,
'cause that was just--it was not worth it to me.
GROSS: You know, there's an anger that comes across in your book that I'm not
hearing as I talk to you.
Mr. CRAWFORD: Well, you have to remember that I wrote a good portion of it in
Iraq and then the rest within just a few months of being home. So I've had a
year or so to cool down and think about things and get a little bit of
distance from them. I still get angry, but not quite as bad.
GROSS: And what were you most angry about?
Mr. CRAWFORD: I couldn't even tell you what I was--I was just--it's this
very, very frustrating feeling. I think it's like being a kid, where you
can't affect your own future anymore, and that's what you feel. You don't
want to do it anymore. You don't want to be there, but you're there anyway,
and there's nothing you can do about it. It's very frustrating, and nobody
seems to appreciate it, and nobody seems to understand it. And you just--I
can't even begin to explain how angry you can get and how much that can fill
you up. So, yeah, I did have a lot of anger, and it still comes out
sometimes, but I do pretty well with it.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us, and I wish
you good luck.
Mr. CRAWFORD: Well, thank you very much. It was a pleasure talking to you.
GROSS: John Crawford's new memoir is called "The Last True Story I'll Ever
Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq."
Coming up, two founders of the band Sleater-Kinney. The band was described in
Spin magazine as the den mothers of the girl rock nation. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein talk about their
TERRY GROSS, host:
In the 1990s, Olympia, Washington, home of Evergreen College, became the
birthplace of a musical movement of young women who changed the sound and
image of women in rock, called riot grrls. They played guitars and drums,
sang fiercely and never dressed to fulfill a man's image of what sexy is. Out
of this scene came the band Sleater-Kinney. The band now features Corin
Tucker, lead vocals and guitar; Carrie Brownstein, lead guitar and vocals; and
Janet Weiss, drums.
Here's how the band was described in The New Yorker magazine. Quote, "It's
insulting to call Sleater-Kinney the best female rock band in the world when
they're one of the best rock bands, period. Still, this power trio is
unmistakably a girl group thanks to Corin Tucker's piercing ululating vocals
and a preoccupation with gender injustice, both personal and political,"
They've just released their seventh album, "The Woods," and they'll be opening
for Pearl Jam on their tour this fall. Before we hear from Corin Tucker and
Carrie Brownstein, let's hear the lead track of their new album. This is "The
(Soundbite of "The Fox")
SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) On the day the duck was born, the fox was watching
all along. He said, `Land ho!' when he saw the duck. `Land ho!' and the duck
saw him, too. `Shiny pretty fox,' thought the duck. The duck came up onto
GROSS: That's Sleater-Kinney from their new CD, "The Woods." We heard the
opening track, which is called "The Fox."
Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, welcome to FRESH AIR. Corin, one thing I
find interesting about the new album is that, you know, everything is so kind
of loud and aggressive on it, and you're at a time in your life where you've
recently become a mother. And people might assume that, after becoming a
mother, things would--you know, your music would kind of quiet down, become
more tame, you'd be thinking about lullabies to sing to your son, and that
would influence the direction you wanted the band to head in. But that is
clearly not what's happened.
Mr. CORIN TUCKER (Sleater-Kinney): Not with this record at all. I did write
a song for my son. It's called "Lions and Tigers," and it's exactly what
you're describing. It's a really sweet lullaby. But I think that with this
record, we all have this other need to kind of take away these roles that we
play in other parts of our lives. I know, I think, as a mom, I sometimes play
the role of saying that everything's OK and, you know, being happy and, you
know, saying, like, `Don't worry about what's on the front page of the
newspaper. Everything's all right,' you know. And I definitely needed
another place to sort of let my guard down and let out all these other darker
feelings that I have about what's been going on in our country and culturally
as well. And so there's this other, you know, place that's just all about
rage that I think has come out on this record.
GROSS: Yeah, that's interesting. So Sleater-Kinney has always been you both,
two guitarists and singers, and a drummer. The drummer has changed over the
years. But how did you arrive at that combination, you know, two women who
sing and play guitar and one drummer?
Ms. CARRIE BROWNSTEIN (Sleater-Kinney): I think a lot of things at the
beginning were quite unintentional and kind of existed because there were no
other options. And both Corin and I played guitar. Neither of us were
interested in playing bass or having one of us give up guitar to play bass.
And, I mean, Corin had been in a band with just a guitarist and a drummer, and
I had been in a band with two guitarists and a drummer, similar to
Sleater-Kinney. So I think for some reason, Corin going from two to four
would just be too big of a change for her. And I was already used to that
dynamic, so I think, you know, that was already the kind of musical sphere
that we were operating in and felt comfortable in. So, yeah, I think that we
And despite it starting unintentionally, it forced us later, as we started
thinking about the musical language between the two of us and thinking about
the dynamics of the song, we realized that it was actually forcing us to be
more creative in our songwriting. And we weren't really able to listen to
other bands and emulate what they were doing. We were really forced to forge
our own style of chord playing, of intertwining guitars, of, you know, melody,
countermelody. And I think it ended up working to our advantage, but it was
slightly accidental to begin with.
GROSS: Let me ask you about a guitar thing. There's a certain, like, guitar
hero style of playing on stage, usually by a guy with a lot of, you know,
really big gestures and jumping around and interplay with the bass player and
everything. So I've never had the pleasure of actually seeing you perform on
stage, but what--you know, when you're doing something really interesting and
loud on the guitar, what's your body language like? Like, what are you doing
Ms. BROWNSTEIN: I guess it depends on the song. I mean, there are moments
where I'm jumping around. I mean, I'm...
Ms. TUCKER: Carrie can't stand still.
Ms. BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, I'm in my head...
Ms. TUCKER: She's amazing on stage. She is, like--I look over, and she's,
like, leaping through the air.
Ms. BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, playing music is so freeing for me. I'm stuck in my
head so much of the time and sort of overly analytical. And in so many ways,
the music is the escape, and it is the moment to connect with people on a
visceral level and on a level that's outside of the constraints of the everyday
discourse that we get bogged down in. So to me, just being able to move
around on stage or to jump or to, you know, just feel the music going from,
you know, my fingertips, like, through my heart then out the other side is
really exhilarating, so I try to make the most of it. I feel like--you know,
like Corin said, I kind of can't stand still. And I try to, I guess, just
take advantage of that feeling of freedom.
GROSS: Do you feel like you're more inhibited offstage than you are onstage?
Ms. BROWNSTEIN: Yes. People are often surprised, after hanging out with me
or meeting me, that--to see me on stage. And I always get the, `Oh, you're so
much shorter off stage,' as well, which drives me crazy. But I think that
there is something about confidence and just, you know, somebody that is
letting go of certain, you know, restraints on stage that they do seem larger,
taller, that somehow they're extending outwards and upwards in ways that, you
know, when you're just talking to someone offstage, you know, you just don't
get that. So, yeah, I do get a lot of people being a little bit surprised.
GROSS: Well, Carrie, why don't we hear a very uninhibited guitar solo from
the new Sleater-Kinney CD, and this is a guitar solo on the track "What's Mine
Is Yours." Can you talk a little bit about what you're doing on this?
Ms. BROWNSTEIN: Well, to me, the song is, in some ways, a microcosm of the
larger picture of the record wherein we wanted to attempt some things where we
were both building things up and destroying them at the same time and trying
to find beauty and grace in both those processes. And the song starts out
fairly typical with, you know, a verse and a chorus that you can latch onto
quite immediately. And then the song breaks apart and is sort of destroyed
right there in the middle and goes into just guitar. And it was completely
improvised. I knew that we were going to stop, and I knew that I had to
essentially play by myself for about 45 seconds, which I've never done before.
It was the last song to be written for the record, and we hadn't rehearsed it
So I guess in this moment, it's just me feeling my way through the song and
feeling my way through a moment of uncertainty. And a lot of this record,
thematically, is about that very thing. So I guess it's trying to find a
place of comfort or even just knowing that it's OK to not have all the
answers. And then Corin comes in and saves me with a really fuzzed-out guitar
part. So it's just basically me and a guitar and a little bit of backwards
GROSS: OK, so here's an excerpt of "What's Mine Is Yours" from the new
Sleater-Kinney record "The Woods."
(Soundbite of "What's Mine Is Yours")
SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) Come on, darling, let's hang around. Let's wreck
this precious and their perfect town. If it's all a dirty shame, I'm gonna do
it night and day. Someone's in the kitchen, cooking hearts over the stove.
Don't lie to me. Never say goodbye to me. I don't want to be here alone.
Someone's at the front door, selling Band-Aids for our sores. You can bleed
it as long as they don't see it. We're not going to be ignored.
GROSS: That's an excerpt from "What's Mine Is Yours" from the new
Sleater-Kinney record "The Woods." And with me from Sleater-Kinney is singer
and guitarist Corin Tucker and singer and guitarist Carrie Brownstein.
Did you consider yourself part of the riot girl movement?
Ms. BROWNSTEIN: Oh. Corin.
GROSS: Is that an annoying question?
Ms. TUCKER: Well, I...
Ms. BROWNSTEIN: No, no, it's not.
GROSS: I heard you groan.
Ms. BROWNSTEIN: I'm sorry.
Ms. TUCKER: I was definitely a part of riot girl when it happened way, way
back in the early '90s. But that all kind of took place and came and went
really before Sleater-Kinney started. But I think that our presentation
probably carries over a lot of feminist notions about, you know, wanting to be
seen as multidimensional humans and as musicians first and foremost, you know,
and not wanting to be sort or seen as these objectified ladies. You know,
that probably is something that I, you know, was a part of in riot girl, and
that carried over into the music that we made in Sleater-Kinney.
GROSS: My guests are Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein of the band
Sleater-Kinney. Their latest CD is called "The Woods." We'll talk more after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guests are Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein of the band
Sleater-Kinney. Their latest CD is called "The Woods."
Now I understand that there was a period during the evolution of
Sleater-Kinney that the band basically went into therapy. What was the
problem, and what kind of therapist did you go to?
Ms. BROWNSTEIN: I think the problem is a problem that exists to this day,
which is it's tumultuous to have three people in a band. There's always an
imbalance or often an imbalance of two vs. one, and that dynamic is always
shifting, and there's always one person that's, you know, being singled out,
because, you know, they're pulling away or because--you know, for some other
reason. And at the time, that's basically what was going on. And I just was
really disinterested in being in the band and, you know, really kind of
resenting all the things that were going on and the things we had to do. And
it was just a really hard time.
There was also a lot of pressure after we had made "Dig Me Out," which was the
first album that garnered us a lot of attention, and there was so much--we
felt so much pressure. It was the first time that we felt like there was an
externally defined Sleater-Kinney except, you know, in addition to just the
way that we thought of ourselves. And so so much about being in a band is
analogous to a relationship. And for us, I think for all of us, it's the
longest relationship we've ever been in. So we decided to see a therapist.
And Corin and Janet were living in Portland, Oregon, but I was still up in
Olympia. And we went to a therapist up there. And I think we actually went
to two therapists, and I think they were a little bit out of their league, but
they handled the three of us basically the same way they would handle a couple
except we were a six-legged couple. And basically, we just set up some ground
rules and just kind of worked on opening the lines of communication. And, I
mean, it's very un-rock 'n' roll, but I honestly think so many other bands
would have stayed together if they had just aired some of their grievances.
And it was nice to have an objective opinion and listener. We just went a
couple times. It was very surreal, but it really did help us out.
GROSS: So does having a baby in the band change any of the band's ability to
go on the road?
Ms. TUCKER: It's definitely changed things, and we don't tour as long or as
often as we used to when we first started the band. But we are going to have
a tour bus on our tour this summer. So my son Marshall is going to come, and
he's four, and so he's totally ready for the tour bus, and he's packed his
toys and, you know, he's completely ready to get in his bunk, so it should be
GROSS: Corin, of all the music that you really love, what does your
four-year-old enjoy, too?
Ms. TUCKER: He loves Green Day, and he, in fact, tells me every day that he's
in that band. And he also just heard R.E.M. on the radio and loves their song
"It's The End Of The World As We Know It," and wants to hear it every day.
GROSS: Interesting. OK. Thank you both so much for talking with us.
Ms. TUCKER: Thank you, Terry.
Ms. BROWNSTEIN: Thank you.
GROSS: Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein of the band Sleater-Kinney. Their
latest CD is called "The Woods." You can hear a track from it on our Web
site at freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with another track from Sleater-Kinney's
new CD "The Woods." This is "Jumpers."
(Soundbite of "Jumpers")
SLEATER-KINNEY: (Singing) I spend the afternoon in cars. I sit in traffic
jams for hours. Don't push me. I am not OK. The sky is blue most every
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