Skip to main content

Sleater-Kinney's New Album Deserves More Than Just Critical Claim

Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews "Dig Me Out" by the rock band from Olympia, Washington called Sleater-Kinney.



Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on May 28, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 28, 1997: Interview with David Isay, LeAlan Jones, and Lloyd Newman; Review of Sleater-Kinney's album "Dig Me Out."


Date: MAY 28, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052801np.217
Head: Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

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

My guests are two teenagers who've produced a couple of remarkable documentaries about what it's like to grow up African-American and poor in a Chicago housing project.

Lealan Jones was 13 and Lloyd Newman was 14 when they produced the autobiographical documentary "Ghetto Life 101," which was broadcast on NPR in 1993. Three years later in another NPR documentary, they reported on the murder of their neighbor, five-year-old Eric Morse, who was thrown from a 14-storey window by two other boys from the neighborhood who were 10 and 11.

Both of these programs were produced with NPR regular contributor David Isay, who first conceived of the autobiographical documentary and chose Jones and Newman to do it. The three of them collaborated on a new book called "Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago."

Before we meet them, let's hear an excerpt of Ghetto Life 101. Here's Lealan Jones.


LEALAN JONES, DOCUMENTARY REPORTER: Compared to other people in this neighborhood, my grandma says she's had it easy.

GRANDMOTHER OF LEALAN JONES: I think I've been blessed 'cause things could have been a whole lot worse than they have been.

JONES: But she has had her share of troubles. The kinds of things you see in every family around here. My grandmother had one son who was murdered. She has another son who's addicted to drugs and is in and out of jail. Her grandson, my cousin Jermaine (ph), came down with leukemia when he was six.

He was cured, but the medication left him learning disabled. It upset his mother so much that she started drinking. Now he lives here with my grandmother -- sleeps in her bed.

How old are you?

JERMAINE, COUSIN OF LEALAN: I'm 11. I be 12 this year.

JONES: What do you think about your mother?


JONES: You love her?

JERMAINE: Yeah. When she's not drinking, I love her. She start drinking I don't.


JONES: Me and my mother and my little sister all stay downstairs in the front room. I sleep on the couch. My mother and my sister sleep on a mattress on the floor. Even though my mother lives with us, my grandmother also has custody of me and my sisters because of my mother's mental illness. This is my mother, Toochy (ph).

TOOCHY, MOTHER OF LEALAN JONES: I've been on medication off and on since 1977.

JONES: She's OK now, but she's had a lot of problems in the past. It's upsetting to see her when she's sick.

MOTHER: One time, I had one downstairs and it's a long story, but I started seeing shadows on the porch, on the back porch when I used to look out the window at night, and it would look like Ronald Reagan, and he was talking to my grandmother, and I was hearing voices, and the voices told me to run -- get butt naked. I had did that before, too, taking my clothes off.

JONES: What's type of voice are these, are they a man voice or a female voice, or just voice?

MOTHER: Just a regular little voice up there.

JONES: Who is my father?

MOTHER: Your father's a fellow named Toby Slipper (ph). He seen you -- he know you exist. He seen you when you was about two, and I ain't seen him since.

JONES: What do you think happened to him?

MOTHER: He probably dead.

JONES: Thank you.



JONES: Lloyd lives about two blocks from my house in the Ida B. Wells projects. The Ida B's are made up of about 3,000 units. Most of them are low-rise houses. A lot of them are in miserable conditions.

Now we're walking in the Ida B. Wells, which is -- 50 percent houses are boarded up.


Now we're goin' into my house. We're knockin' on the door -- kickin' on the door. Kicking on the door.


I hope she hurry up and open.

Now, we're walkin' into our house.


UNKNOWN: Wipe off your feet.


JONES: Lloyd's house is kind of messed up. There's a lot of roaches creeping around. The toilet's been stopped up off and on for years. Place is always noisy. Lloyd's mother died two years ago from drinking. His father is also an alcoholic, so Lloyd's two older sisters have been bringing him up since then.

Lloyd's sister Sophia (ph) was the closest to their mother.

How did you react to when you heard that she died?

SOPHIA, SISTER OF LLOYD NEWMAN: I was very upset. I just thought my life wasn't worth living. I wanted to die, too. I just thought we wasn't gonna make it without her, but I see that we made it, and I'm very proud of us.

JONES: Do you think it's hard bringing us up at the age of 20?

SOPHIA: Well, I'll be 20 this year. I'm 19, but sometimes you all give us a tough time, but I love having you all as my brothers and sisters.

JONES: All together, there are four boys and three girls living in the house. Lloyd's sister's bringing them all up on a $500-a-month welfare check. It isn't easy.

VOICE OF MICHAEL MURRAY (PH): My name is Michael Murray.

UNNAMED MALE: Your name is Silly Back (ph) -- he's at the liquor store.

JONES: Almost every day, Lloyd's father visits the house. His name is Michael Murray, but everyone calls him "Chew." (ph)

MICHAEL MURRAY, LLOYD NEWMAN'S FATHER: They gave me that name. I used to shoot pool. I used to hustle. (Unintelligible) I get some money.

JONES: When he comes over, he's almost always drunk, and the kids make fun of him. Like today, they asked him: can he spell "fool"?

UNNAMED FEMALE: Spell "fool."

MURRAY: L - O - O - F.


MURRAY: L - O - O - F.


UNNAMED FEMALE: You don't even know how to spell it.

UNNAMED FEMALE: What did you spell? We said spell "food" -- what you eat...

MURRAY: Oh, food.


MURRAY: What'd you eat?

UNNAMED FEMALE: Yeah, buddy boy, spell "food."

MURRAY: L - O - O - F


LLOYD NEWMAN, DOCUMENTARY REPORTER: I asked my father Chew what his best memories of my mother are...

MURRAY: (Unintelligible) four -- puttin' our feet in the water together. I was sober then. (Unintelligible) started getting high. Them memorys' gone. They're gone.

JONES: Why are you drinkin?

MURRAY: I don't understand why I'm drinkin'.

JONES: Do you think you're gonna stop?

MURRAY: Yeah, I'm going in rehab and take care of myself.

JONES: What do you drink?

MURRAY: I drink about two or three pints of wine. They -- but they ain't helping me, they only killin' me. Don't people understand, it's destroyin' you?

JONES: If it's destroyin' you, why do you still drink it then?

MURRAY: That's why I got to go into rehab for wine next week. 'Cause I don't want to destroy my family, 'cause I want my family.

JONES: Do you think you've been a good father?

MURRAY: Yes. I have. To the best capability I could.

JONES: I have no further questions.

GROSS: That's an excerpt of Ghetto Life 101, first broadcast on NPR in 1993. It's since been released on CD. I spoke with reporters Lealan Jones and Lloyd Newman from Chicago, while producer David Isay, who conceived the project, joins us from New York.

Lealan, I'm wondering if on this excerpt that we just heard, if you asked people in your family that you never asked them before, like: who is my father? And what do you think happened to him?

JONES: Oh, I asked that question maybe once beforehand.

GROSS: Did you learn anything you didn't know during that interview?

JONES: Not really. I mean, me and my mother had a really nice relationship beforehand, and it was just -- it was the same, basically.

GROSS: Lloyd, you asked your father: why are you drinking? And do you think you will stop? Are those questions you had asked him before?

NEWMAN: Yes, I asked him that plenty of times. Every time I asked him, I -- probably it bothered me, but keep on asking him the same question, so it felt the same.

GROSS: Lloyd, how did you feel when kids made fun of your drunk father?

NEWMAN: It hurted me. Because what is you doing telling my father about his drinking disability, when your father's out here doing worser and your mother's out here doing worser? So what's goin' on with me and my family should be no concern to anyone.

GROSS: David, I say, how did you start working with Lealan and Lloyd?

DAVID ISAY, RADIO PRODUCER: Well, I had been commissioned by the public radio station in Chicago, WBEZ, for a series they were doing to do a story about poverty. And I had just read Alex Cotloutt's (ph) book "There Are No Children Here," and wanted to model something in spirit after his book.

I had enough funding to do a week worth of recording, but I knew that I wanted to find young people living in the inner city and give them tape recorders and give them a chance to tell their own stories.

So I sent out faxes and letters to junior high schools and grade schools and social service organizations -- everybody I could think of -- looking for young people; looking for a-typically eloquent young people in -- growing up in fairly typical situations, and asking these organizations to have the kids call me collect in New York -- kids who they thought were appropriate.

And I got dozens and dozens of collect calls in my studio in New York, and one day I got a call from a man named Earl King (ph), who runs an organization called "No Dope Express" -- an anti-drug organization. And he said he had a young man he thought I might want to speak with, and he put Lealan on the telephone.

And Lealan got on the phone and started talking, and he completely blew me away. He was funny. He was smart. He was introspective, and a great young man. And I knew pretty quickly that he was the right person. I asked him if he could find someone to pair himself with to do this project.

It didn't matter if it was a brother, sister, friend -- whoever. And he called me that night from a pay phone in the Ida B. Wells with Lloyd, and said I have someone you might want to talk to. And he put Lloyd on the phone and the two of them just seemed to have this chemistry.

And I knew from the minute I heard the first tape that, you know, Lealan recorded on that first morning, that they were gonna -- they were gonna do something that was really true.

GROSS: What impressed you about that tape?

ISAY: It -- well, I mean, Lealan picked a -- it was amazing. I mean, I was sitting -- I got -- I would have the guys give me the tape -- the tapes in the evening that they had recorded during the day, so it was that first evening. And Lealan just got up -- I had trained them the night before. We spent an evening in Lealan's living room. I flew into Chicago. I got in late. It was, like, 10:30 at night, and I was up with them.

And I trained them for a couple of hours with the tape recorders, and then they went to sleep. And Lealan got up the next morning and he pressed "play" and "record" on the tape recorder, and he said: "this is Lealan. Day one. I'm gonna tell you the story of my life. This is my life. Yeah."

You know, and he was, you know, having the dog bark and just doing it -- it was -- he was a complete natural. Everything was so -- it was so -- it was just so real. And I just put on the tape and I pushed "play" and I just shook my head. I couldn't believe what he was doing, because it was so right.

GROSS: My guests are David Isay, Lealan Jones, and Lloyd Newman. We'll talk more after a break. They've collaborated on the new book "Our America."

This is FRESH AIR.

My guests are Lealan Jones, Lloyd Newman, and David Isay. they've collaborated on two NPR documentaries about growing up in a Chicago neighborhood dominated by housing projects. Now they've collaborated on a new book called Our America.

I want to move to another part of the story that's included in your new book Our America, and this is the story of the death of Eric Morse, who was a five-year-old boy who was pushed out of I think, what, a 14-storey window by two other boys, aged 10 and 11 in 1994. And this was in the Ida B. Wells housing projects in Chicago.

And Lloyd, you live in those housing projects. Why don't you describe what the projects are like?

NEWMAN: The projects is bad. You got babies raising babies. You got dirty kids walking around with -- their mama don't care about you. People (Unintelligible). You got people snatching purses, change, robbin' sticking up. You got high-rise buildings -- abandoned buildings, windows open. Everything that's wrong with a world is packed up in one community.

GROSS: What did everybody already know about the story when you started to make your documentary?

NEWMAN: I believe that everybody knew that, I mean, it was -- candy was a factor in it.

GROSS: Yeah, well, explain the story, because I'm not sure all of our listeners remember it that well.

NEWMAN: It was that Eric and his brother Derek wouldn't steal candy for these two kids they went to school with, and Eric and Derek, I believe, told their mother. And their mother went to the two kids' mother who tried to get them to steal.

And for revenge, the two kids took Eric and Derek to the 14th storey and dangled Eric out of a window -- out of a vacant apartment on the 14th floor in the Darrow Homes (ph), which is an extension of the Ida B. Wells housing development. And after they dangled him one or two times, I think they pulled him back in. And then they dangled him out again, then he fell 14 flights of stairs to his death.

GROSS: You stay 14 flights of stairs?

NEWMAN: Fourteen storeys -- 14 floors of building, yes.

GROSS: What else did you want to know? I mean, people knew, like, the basics of the story, but you wanted to know more. What did you want to know?

NEWMAN: I knew that, you know, something like that could happen, but I just really wanted to get inside the story. I wanted to find out the kids. I wanted to find out if they truly were vicious as -- were vicious enough to do a crime like that.

I wanted to find out about Eric. I wanted to find out about Derek. I wanted to find out about -- I believe we wanted to find out about their lives and things like that. And, I think we did that.

GROSS: Did you know Eric Morse, the five-year-old who was thrown out the window?

NEWMAN: I didn't know Eric off-hand, but I knew Eric's family. I know Eric's -- his aunt. I know Eric's sister. His sister goes to school with me. So I mean, I knew his family, but I didn't know Eric.

GROSS: You spent a lot of time trying to find the family of one of the boys responsible for Eric's death. And you got a tip that they had moved in with a sister in a different housing project.


GROSS: So you went to that building to find the family of this boy, the boy who you called "Johnny" -- you don't name the two boys who were convicted of killing Eric because they're juveniles, so you gave them pseudonyms for this piece. Anyway, so you went to the building to try to talk to the family. And I'm going to play an excerpt of that part of your documentary.


NEWMAN: When we walked in the building, we saw an old friend hanging out at the security desk, Little Wade (ph).

What's up, Little Wade?

JONES: What's up, Little Wade?

NEWMAN: We thought nothing of it until we asked the security guard where we could find Johnny's sister.

JONES?: Yvonne Ranker (ph).

LITTLE WADE?: That's my sister.

JONES: It is?

UNKNOWN: What's up Wade?

NEWMAN: Johnny, the 10-year-old killer, was our friend's little brother. Me and Little Wade used to play baseball together, and I remember the little boy he used to bring with him to the games. Johnny.

That's your little brother?


NEWMAN: Man, what happened, man?

LITTLE WADE: I don't know.

NEWMAN: Little Wade took us up to his sister's apartment.

JONES: I'm Lealan Jones for National Public Radio.

VOICE OF UNNAMED FEMALE/SISTER OF MURDER VICTIM: Well, that's my brother and I ain't talkin' about it. Go on, get out.


JONES: The rest of the family wouldn't talk to us, so we interviewed Little Wade outside his apartment.


NEWMAN: Talked to him in a crowded hallway in the projects with about six little kids around, man. That's why it's so noisy.

Who's this?

LITTLE WADE: My nephew.

NEWMAN: How old are you?


NEWMAN: What's your name?

NEPHEW: (Unintelligible)

NEWMAN: What grade you in?

NEPHEW: Kindergarten.

NEWMAN: Kindergarten. You miss your uncle?

NEPHEW: Yeah. I miss him.

UNNAMED BOY: He been smokin' reefer. His uncle.

NEPHEW: No he don't.

UNNAMED BOY: He do. He do. Stop....

NEWMAN: The kid ran up and down the hallway, and we talked to Little Wade about his brother Johnny.

You know what was some fun things that you remember about your little brother?

LITTLE WADE: He used to help me fight. I used to help him fight.

NEWMAN: Do you other thing with each others, though?

JONES: Do you ever (Unintelligible) about your little brother?


JONES: Why? Why not?

LITTLE WADE: 'Cause. I just get that off my mind.

NEWMAN: You just gonna keep livin' your life.


SECURITY GUARD: Sister just said she doesn't want (Unintelligible) in her apartment, so you all have to leave her apartment.

NEWMAN: Johnny's sister called Nation of Islam security on us.

JONES: So we wrapped up the interview and walked out.


NEWMAN: I always knew when I started this story, I was gonna know some of the faces involved, but I didn't expect this. I couldn't believe I actually knew this little boy who committed the murder. Just a shy, scrawny light-skinned boy, no different than any other kid in the neighborhood. Just exposed to too much, too young, and he exploded.

JONES: It's closer than I imagined. It's closer than I got (Unintelligible).

GROSS: That's an excerpt of the documentary Remorse: The 14 Stories of Eric Morse, produced by my guests Lealan Jones, Lloyd Newman and David Isay. And they've also collaborated on a new book called Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago.

Lealan, how did it change the story for you when you realized that one of the killers here was your friend's little brother?

JONES: When we walked in the building and I saw him, I was like -- 'cause I'm not a person who really believes in coincidence -- and I saw him there, I was like: oh, man. I didn't want to really believe that, but yet when I saw him when we first walked in the building, I was like oh, man.

And after I talked to him, and he said that was his little brother, you saw the reaction that I had. I mean, it was like -- I mean, it was sort of -- it came true, that we were closer than we'd ever imagined.

And I think it was a little bit closer, so after I saw him, it was totally -- I mean, kids who you thought would prosper a little bit, had, you know, sort of fell. And not sort of fell, they both fell because Johnny's little brother that's mentioned in the piece, he was convicted or rape -- of raping, I think, a five or a six-year-old little girl.

And, you know, kids who you thought could make it because he had good baseball talent -- we played baseball together. Even though he -- we play PeeWee league together, and I played Little League, 'cause I could play with the big boys.

And after I saw him and I knew what type of kid he was -- to see him and know that him and his little brother -- it hurt me. And it's still kind of shocking for me today, but some things you just have to live on with.

GROSS: So you felt that these kids were kids who could have gone either way.

JONES: Exactly, and I thought that, I mean, I guess the environment was the deciding factor in their making it and them not making it.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting to me -- a lot of people around the country were saying: what kind of monsters could have done something like this? And it turns out, well, they weren't exactly monsters. They were guys from the neighborhood who you knew. I mean, you knew them.

JONES: Exactly. I don't -- what type of monsters would put them in an environment like that? What type of monster would put them in an environment where their swings are not there? Where, you know, there's not grass, there's just dirt patches -- who -- what type of monster would put them in homes where, you know, toilets aren't working?

Where roaches rum rampant? What type of monsters would put them in -- where, you know, garbage cans -- the stink of garbage is in the air? What type of monster would put them in that environment? Then, you see what type of monsters can be created, if they are so monsters.

GROSS: When you first started doing radio documentaries, you were, I think, 12 and 13? Do I have that right?



GROSS: In what, eighth grade?



GROSS: Where are you now? How old are you? Where are you in school?

NEWMAN: (Unintelligible) Commons. (Unintelligible). 41st Lake Park, Chicago.

JONES: I'm 18 years of age right now. I'm a senior at Martin Luther King High School. I'll be graduating June 7. I'll be attending Florida State University, where I'll be majoring in criminology and a minor in linguistics. And I'm going to try to walkon playing football.

GROSS: Wow, so criminology. Why'd you choose criminology?

JONES: Ah, criminology, I believe, has a broad aspect of things. It deals with philosophy. It deals with history, and it deals with mankind, and to learn origins of mankind. So I wanted to deal with something that was broad-based and not -- the major -- I want to minor in linguistics is because I see myself traveling a lot over the world, and I want to be able to speak in the dialects and the tongues of everybody in the world.

GROSS: Is your interest in criminology in part because you've been exposed to a lot of crime growing up?

JONES: It might, in such a way. It might, you know, take me to the reason why -- I think I know the reason why there's crime. I just want to see if that's what they're teaching or if that's the ramification that they use in teaching it.

I think I know the elements of crime and why people do them. I just want to see if it's just condensed to my environment or is it worldwide and -- why it's like that.

GROSS: Lealan Jones, Lloyd Newman, and David Isay collaborated on two NPR documentaries about life in Chicago's inner city. And they collaborated on the new book "Our America." They'll be back with us in the second half of our show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


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

Back with Lealan Jones, Lloyd Newman and David Isay. Jones and Newman are two teenagers who reported on life in Chicago's inner city in two award-winning NPR documentaries. They worked with NPR regular contributor David Isay, who conceived the first program, trained Jones and Newman, and produced both documentaries with them.

Now, the three have collaborated on the new book "Our America." Newman lives in the Ida B. Wells housing project in Chicago. Jones lives around the corner from the project.

Lealan, Lloyd -- how important is it to each of you to try to get out of the neighborhood?

NEWMAN: It's very important to me, 'cause I've been in there all my life, and I think it's time for me to make a change and move on and I look forward to other things.

GROSS: What do you think is the best way out?

NEWMAN: Stay in school.

JONES: I think it's more -- it's more than stayin' in school. I believe you have to be -- I mean, because school at times can become very boring. It -- I mean, because it's not a lot to do. If you're not a star athlete or a -- or I mean, a big time drug dealer, you sometimes don't see the ways out.

Therefore, you need a -- you need somebody to motivate you. You need somebody that's at where you want to be. Like you either have somebody -- like if you want to be a businessman, you -- it should be great that somebody you know in business, so they can help you along that road.

Because walking this path of the ghetto and walking this path of poverty is -- this path of violence -- if you don't have anything to look at a far as where the road's gonna end and where you want to be at, then it's gonna be hard walking it because there are so many temptations; there are so many things that will, you know, distray you on your walk.

So I mean, you know, to say, you know "stay in school and don't do drugs" is one thing, but yet -- I mean, it's a lot of more temptations out there than that.

GROSS: So you're going to Florida State University in September?

JONES: Yeah. And I should be there in August.

GROSS: So do you think that that's gonna kind of guarantee that you'll get out of the neighborhood?

JONES: I don't know, because I'm not so sure that I want to get out, because I believe that all too often, when people become successful in environments like that, they tend to leave and never come back. And they tend to -- it sort of robs a community, because that -- like I said, when you want to walk that path, that road, that, you know, you want to see somebody there at where you want to be.

I want to be that type of person to where kids can look at me and say: that's what I want to be, instead of not being there. I mean, if more people went back to the environments in which they came and show kids, you know, alternative routes, then I believe there were be a lot more success stories.

But it seems as though people get out of the situation, but yet don't want to come back to the situation A because they don't want -- they, I mean, like Lloyd said, they've lived all their life and they don't feel that they can contribute any more; or you know, B they just don't like to, you know, look at life as they used to look at it before. I mean, but me, I'm more (Unintelligible) about helping people and, you know, giving my all back. I mean, because, like, me -- we -- me and Lloyd are a generation of our own. There's another generation behind us, and someone has to ensure their future.

GROSS: Lealan, you said it's really important to know people who you can look up to, kind of as role models. Who's that in your life?

JONES: I would say when I was very young, my grandfather. There's no one that I looked at more keenly than him. He was a -- first of all, he was a grown man. And that's -- and I knew that first of all, that's what I wanted to be when I got older -- at least be a grown man. And he was an independent man. He worked for CTA. He worked for CTA for many years.

GROSS: Chicago Transit Authority.

JONES: Yes, he worked for Chicago Transit Authority many years, and he drove the bus and he had quite a big success in his life. He traveled. I mean, I saw him get his pay checks. He had his own money.

He was a church-going man. He was a family man. And by me looking at him in that manner, I said that if I wanted any type of prosperity in life, that you know, I would have to some -- do something on those lines. So he was my role model.

GROSS: Who else?

JONES: I would say that -- I wouldn't say that -- I don't really look at other people in the media as role models. I knew that -- I was a -- as a child, I was more -- so independent. I looked to myself. I didn't really look at other people and say: well, you know, that's what I want to be. I looked at other men -- and this is how I looked at people: I looked at maybe the people on the street corner, said, you know -- they were like role models, but in a different way. I looked at them and said: that's what I don't want to do.

Then I looked at other people, and I'd say, you know: They -- this is where they went wrong at, so therefore I learned off people's mistakes. That's how I looked at role models -- I looked at people and look at where they fail, and I said, you know, when that time comes for me, I'm not going to fall there.

So, I mean, my grandfather was my really bona-fide role model, to that's the one I wanted to be like.

GROSS: But I wonder if you ever feel that there was pressure on you to sell drugs or to do drugs or to steal -- to do the things that could get you into a lot of trouble and ruin your life and make you like the guys on the street corner who you didn't want to become.

JONES: The peer pressure was great, because after -- like after my grandfather had his -- suffered, I think, two strokes, I believe and he wasn't working, and the money wasn't coming in like it used to and, I mean, I was -- I mean, we didn't have it made, but we had it decently.

I mean, we had, you know, a decent pair of shoes to wear every morning and decent clothes. After he stopped working, I mean, it wasn't there anymore. We went from wearing Nike's to Pro Wings (ph), and that was something that, I mean, I could accept -- be at going to school. The kids couldn't accept me like that, and it was sort of, you know, their mothers could provide for them maybe a little bit better with what they had.

And I -- it was sort of, you know, pressuring me because I wanted that. I wanted to have the Michael Jordan gym shoes. I wanted to have the Nike outfits, but yet I -- we couldn't afford 'em, and so I couldn't have 'em. And I think that made me more strong -- 'cause that made me more independent.

I mean, in school, you -- any day, you find me and Lloyd being by ourselves because we really weren't accepted in any group. And yet I'm glad of that, because not a lot -- I mean, we're probably -- I don't think -- we're probably -- but yet it's only probably at least 10 to 12 people out of our eighth grade class that's really making things happen, that'll probably be graduating in June and will be probably going to college.

So I guess -- I'm kind of glad that I wasn't accepted then, because if I would have, then it would probably just -- been another temptation in taking me off my path.

GROSS: Lloyd, do you feel like you've had role models in your life? People to look up to?

NEWMAN: Yes. I was looking, though, to my father when I was much younger, until he really started drinking. Because he -- we -- he kept me doing something, like we used to sell laundry bags or do anything. He didn't have a regular job.

He worked with himself doing his -- with his own business, so -- and I had -- I really kept myself with a job, so I looked up to school, and my father, really, and my sisters -- I looked up to them every since that I was out of eighth grade. They told me -- showed me the rights paths that I needed to take.

My sisters, they was like 18 when they was raising me -- that's after my mother passed and father started drinking. So they was younger then, and I knew that they had to be strong to help me up.

GROSS: Lealan, now that you're headed toward college, is that something that your friends or, like, the people in your school are really proud of? Or is that something that they're trying to put down?

JONES: I believe -- I mean, anytime -- I've had someone tell me this at prom Friday night, which really touched me. This guy, you know, we're the same age, and he says: you know, this is really good, man. You about to make it up out of this, man. You about to do something. And I'm looking at it. He's saying, you know, it's good that you going to make it up out of here.

And I looked at him, I said: now, if he's telling me I'm going to make it up out of here, then that means he's still going to be in there. So that making me just -- that makes me fight a little bit harder.

When I found out that I got accepted to college and that I was going to be able to go to college, the first thing that stuck in my mind was the movie "Boyz 'n the Hood" because I remember when I was younger, and I said, you know, I want to go to college and I probably will, but yet, I -- I mean, when I saw that guy Ricky (ph) -- Ricky who had a scholarship to USC in that movie and he got shot, when I found out I was going to college, I said: oh, man.

I said, now I got to live the rest of my six months really, I don't know about -- I said not living scared, but as having to be aware.

And I just told myself now, I said, like I told you earlier, I said it: I don't believe in coincidence. I believe in divine order. If it's in divine order that -- I be shot or I be killed or whatever that happens to me and I don't go to college, then it was in that fashion, it must have happened. I mean, so, I stop living in fear, when I find out I was going to college.

GROSS: In the 1993 documentary, Lloyd, your father was drinking a lot, and I wonder if he's still drinking and how his health is?

NEWMAN: He stopped drinking for about a month, but I don't know that will turn out, because he -- he does it off and on, but since he's been stopped drinking, he's been doing fine.

GROSS: So it's been about a month that he's not been drinking.


GROSS: Well, that's good. Lealan, how has your family changed since 1993, when you did Ghetto Life 101?

JONES: I would guess that -- I sort of, I think I might have sort of challenged my family, because the success that I gained off of Ghetto Life -- it sort of challenged, maybe, my sister to get up off her butt and do some things. She started working.

And then, she got her GED, and she was working at Ameritech recently, for about a week or two, as I think a helper or something like that -- I don't know if they've called her back to work full time yet. And I'm just -- you know, really, basically, I'm trying to help my family.

I'm trying to -- with the few connections that I've gained off doing this work, I'm trying to help them out for getting jobs and employment, because I just -- I mean, I don't -- I'm not one that, you know, sit here and brag and what I can do and what I've attained, if I can help someone else get the same thing, or reach a certain -- or help them do something in their lives.

GROSS: Well, Lloyd and Lealan, I want to thank you very much for talking with us. I want to stick around with David for a few minutes and talk with him a little bit about some of the other pieces that he's done. So Lloyd and Lealan, thank you very much and congratulations on the new book.

JONES: Thank you.

NEWMAN: Thank you.

GROSS: Lealan Jones and Lloyd Newman collaborated with David Isay on the new book Our America.

This is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: David Isay; Lealan Jones; Lloyd Newman
High: Radio producer David Isay and reporters Lealan Jones and Lloyd Newman. The new book "Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago," is compiled from interviews by Jones and Newman conducted at the Ida B. Wells housing project in Chicago, where they live. These are the same two boys who worked with Isay on the acclaimed documentaries, "Ghetto Life 101" and "Remorse: the 14 stories of Eric Morse."
Spec: Cities; Chicago; Youth; Housing; Crime; Violence; Deaths; Books; Media; Radio
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago
Date: MAY 28, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052803np.217
Head: David Isay
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:45

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Back with radio producer David Isay. He's a regular contributor to NPR. His first book has just come out in paperback. It's called "Holding On: Dreamers, Visionaries, Eccentrics and Other American Heroes."

David Isay, in your pieces over the years for NPR, you've -- you've done a lot of pieces on people who are eccentrics, obsessives. You did a wonderful documentary on life in prison.

And I'm wondering if you see yourself as having a specific focus or -- how would you -- how you would define what you gravitate toward as a journalist?

DAVID ISAY, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Yeah, well, I think what I'm interested in in documenting are people who are kind of on the fringes of society, but finding the poetry and the beauty in their stories. And that's what I -- I mean, it is a wide-range of stuff that I've done over the years, but I guess that's what -- I've thought about this, and I guess that's what pulls it all together.

It's about finding poetry in places you wouldn't expect it, and I think that this piece falls squarely in that category and, you know, the pieces I did that became this book Holding On -- about dreamers, eccentrics, visionaries around the country -- falls into that category. It's about using this medium which is so introspective and lyrical to let people tell their stories.

GROSS: What do you think it is about radio that lends itself to the introspective and the lyrical?

ISAY: Well, I just -- it's a very intimate medium, and there's something about just being with a tape recorder and not having to worry about how you look -- it's very unobtrusive -- that lets people talk. There's also a lot of freedom with editing. So, it's about language and you can -- you have these wonderful voices with these beautiful words and it creates this atmosphere which lends itself to this sort of story.

GROSS: Your previous book "Holding On" featured your profiles of dreamers, visionaries, eccentrics and other American heroes, as you put it in the title. And I -- you know what I find, is that sometimes eccentrics who are obsessive can actually be very disturbing. That -- it's -- and -- which isn't to say it doesn't have lyricism in it, but I'm thinking for instance of the person who you profiled who had the longest diary in the world.

ISAY: Right. Right.

GROSS: And you did a radio piece on him, too.

ISAY: Right.

GROSS: Really fascinating piece. This is a guy who wouldn't even allow himself to leave the house, basically, because he wouldn't be able to -- he wouldn't be able to -- he'd be forced to stop writing in his journal...

ISAY: Right.

GROSS: ... if he did anything other than write in it. And, I mean, it's very interesting, very obsessive, but it's really a very disturbing -- there's something very disturbing about it.

ISAY: Sure. It's disturbing, but, you know, here's a guy who has -- this is his creative vision that he's putting out into the universe, and when you meet this man, Robert Shields (ph), who's an 80-year-old guy who's been keeping this diary now for -- this is the 25th anniversary of his diary. I mean, the man's at peace with himself. I mean, this is what he wants to do.

And, you know, who are we -- I guess, the way I go in is: who are we to judge? I mean, he seems comfortable with what he's doing, and he is excited that he gets some notoriety for it. So I mean it's, I guess, I -- I just don't -- I can't really judge him. It's what he wants to do. He ways that if he didn't have this diary, he wouldn't have anything. And he loves it. He loves doing this, so there you go.

GROSS: Let's hear an excerpt of your radio documentary on him.


ROBERT SHIELDS, DIARIST: Five-forty-five to 6:15, I read more from the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. I ate half a dozen large Archway sugar cookies while I drank two cups of milk. This...

ISAY: In his diary, Robert Shields records everything he eats. He records his blood pressure and pulse at various times during the day; the temperature outside and in; every conversation he has; every piece of junk mail he receives. He sleeps no more than two hours at a time, so that he can record his dreams.

Robert Shields has also Scotch-taped a variety of his life's keepsakes into this diary. For instance, samples of his nasal hair.

SHIELDS: For DNA purposes. It might, in years to come, they might be able to figure out my genetics from having a physical artifact.

ISAY: What is this in your diary?

SHIELDS: Oh, whenever we purchase anything like meat, particularly, I peel the stickers off and put it in the diary, because then there's a record of how much we bought and what the price of it was.

Eight-thirty-five to forty, I peel meat labels from a (unintelligible) to mount in the diary. Bacon is up 20 cents a pound; T-bones are terribly high. I bought them to feed Dave Isay Sunday evening. I don't know if they will...


ISAY: It is somewhat disconcerting to see the extent to which this task has taken over the life of Reverend Robert Shields, chaining him to his typewriter on this endless endeavor. Shields, it seems, is so busy documenting the insignificant minutiae of his life that he has become oblivious to everything else going on around him.

How does your family feel about this?

SHIELDS: Never asked them.

ISAY: What about leaving town?

SHIELDS: I don't leave town. I haven't left town since 1985 to visit my brother in Tennessee. I don't like to be away over night, because it gets me behind.

If I travel to Walla Walla to do shopping, it puts me behind on the diary. I have to take notes all the time and get back, and it takes almost a day to catch up with the notes, so I avoid going out; avoid being away.

GROSS: David Isay, how is Robert Shields' life changed by your documentary on him?

ISAY: I think he -- it's funny, because he kept a diary of when I came to visit him, which was very bizarre. He keeps a diary of every five minutes of everything that happens in his life, and it's strange to see this.

You know, an hour after we left, he transcribed everything that happened when we were there. And at the end of the diary, he wrote: maybe now the National Enquirer will do a story about me. And indeed, two weeks later, the National Enquirer did a story about him.

But he's gotten -- you know, he's had a lot of radio interviews and TV interviews, and you know, I think he's been treated with a fair amount, you know, he's been treated respectfully. And he's -- his diary is, you know, going to be put in a library and he's -- I think he enjoys it. He enjoys it a lot.

GROSS: How did you get started in radio and what was your very first piece?

ISAY: Oh, do you want the abridged version? Or the unabridged version? It's a long story. I started -- it was 10 years ago. This is my 10th year anniversary in radio. And I was headed to medical school right out of college, and knew that I didn't really want to do that. I deferred admission for a year, and spent the year tutoring.

And one day, I was walking around and I saw this really interesting- looking storefront. It was -- and I went inside. And it was a 12-step shop, like a recovery -- addiction recovery place, and they had all sorts of different tschotskes (ph) having to do with, you know, 12 steps and key chains, but it was really -- it was really well done.

And I started talking to the proprietors. It was a Puerto Rican husband and wife. And we started talking, and eventually they took me to the back of the store, and they showed me this model of a museum that they were hoping to create. It was made out of tongue depressors and toothpicks, and it was this very intricate eight-storey model of a museum of addiction that they were certain that they were going to create.

And then they pulled out the floor plans, and they had planned out every exhibit on all eight floors of this museum. And it was just this incredible project, and as we talked, it turned out that they were both HIV positive, and they were working to raise the $20 million to create this museum.

And they had letters -- they had written to Donald Trump, and they had a notebook full of the letters that they got back from various rich people who they wrote to, which were form letters, but were your typical encouraging form letters, and they seemed to think that they were going to get the money to do this. And I was very moved by their story.

And I went home and I got out the yellow pages, and I started calling television stations to tell them about these two people, and everybody said: sounds great. Thank you. No. And I called the newspapers and then I called radio stations. And I'd never really listened to radio. I'd never heard public radio -- never heard public radio.

And I started calling down the stations, and at one point I called WBAI, which is a community station here in New York, and everybody was telling me: sounds great, but no thanks; sounds great, but no thanks. And I called WBAI and the news director said: it sounds great, but we don't have anybody who can do it. Why don't you do it yourself?

And I picked up a tape recorder and went and interviewed them, and as I was doing it, and as I was putting the story together, you know, it was one of those epiphanies -- I mean, I knew I had found the thing that I wanted to do. And I brought the story back, and it aired on WBAI that night, and it happened that someone from NPR was driving through New York, and he heard the story and picked it up and it ran on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, on the WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

And that was it. I mean, it was -- I mean I knew I had found the thing that I wanted to do, and fortunately, you know, within a year, year and a half, I had gotten a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, so I was able to, you know, survive doing this. And I've been doing it ever since.

GROSS: It's funny, you know, somebody gave you your start by saying, well, we're not going to do the story, why don't you just go do it yourself.

ISAY: Yeah.

GROSS: And in a way, with Lealan Jones and Lloyd Newman, you gave them the chance to do a story themselves.

ISAY: Yeah.

GROSS: So I guess you really believe that a lot of people could really rise to the occasion and do a really good story if you just give them the means to do it.

ISAY: Absolutely. And radio's a great medium to do that, and, you know, at some point I also became bored of hearing my voice on the radio, and more and more have kind of tried to, again, be the vehicle through which people can tell their stories -- to give them tape recorders or, you know, walk with them. And I'm doing a project now where I'm working with writers, having them translate their nonfiction work into radio documentaries.

I did something with Ren Wexler (ph) from the New Yorker on the Museum of Jurassic Technology (ph) -- this amazing museum in Los Angeles last year. So, absolutely. Radio's a great medium in that way, I mean it's incredibly inexpensive. The equipment is very simple to use, and it's unexplored. I mean, there aren't really people doing this kind of work -- too many people doing this kind of work.

And it's really rewarding. It's a medium that has so much potential, but is really terribly underutilized -- the radio documentary.

GROSS: Well, David Isay, I really want to thank you a lot for talking with us, and thanks for your work, which is so terrific. Thank you.

ISAY: Thanks for having us on.

GROSS: David Isay is a producer who contributes regularly to NPR. He's the co-author of the new book Our America: Life and Death on the South Side of Chicago. His first book, "Holding On: Dreamers, Visionaries, Eccentrics and Other American Heroes has just been published in paperback.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: David Isay
High: A continuation of the interview with David Isay.
Spec: Media; Radio; People
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: David Isay
Date: MAY 28, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 052802np.217
Head: Dig Me Out
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:54

TERRY GROSS, HOST: "Sleater-Kinney" is an American rock band formed in and named after a street intersection in Olympia, Washington. Their 1996 release "Call the Doctor" placed third in the Village Voice national poll of rock critics.

Ken Tucker says that Sleater-Kinney's new CD deserves more than just rave reviews.


Take me out, take me in
Out of this (Unintelligible), baby out of my hair
What do you want? What do you know?
Take me out in, take me in
Out of (Unintelligible), Our of my hair.
Take me out take me in
Out of my body, Out of my skin.

KEN TUCKER, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Sleater-Kinney's lead singer is a woman named Corin Tucker. Her voice is pretty phenomenal. It's more than just a super-strong punk-rock influenced weapon.

This is Sleater-Kinney's third album, and where she used to tear through lyrics, Tucker now uses her standard tone, a sort of throaty, modulated shriek, to carry all sorts of moods and emotions, as it does on this remarkable song about the pleasures of making rock and roll, called "Words and Guitar."



Words and guitar. I Got it
Words and guitar. I'm, on it.
I got it.
Words and guitar
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.

Words and guitar
Tick tick
The noise in my head
Tick tick
The noise in my head.

Come on and turn, turn, it up.
I want to turn, turn you up.


Words and guitar.
I dream of quiet stars
I have a (Unintelligible)

Oh, give me pretty songs,
Oh, let me have the sound tonight

Words and guitar

TUCKER: There's a lot of exhilaration, as well as fresh-blooded anger spurting out of various songs on "Dig Me Out." This all-woman band came together as part of the Pacific Northwest's Riot Grrrl (ph) movement, which yielded women-led bands like "Bikini Kill" and "Bratmobile," as well as Corin Tucker's previous, more doctrinaire group "Heaven's to Betsy."

In Sleater-Kinney, a steely-punk feminism remains vital. It's never merely a pose or an image, but rather an essential part of their discussion with listeners, as in this song "Little Babies."



I'm the water, I'm the dishes
I'm the (unintelligible)
I was younger, making
When you're down and feeling helpless
Come inside, I am the shelter
And then when you're feeling better
Oh, out you go.

Dum, dum, dilly, dum, dum, de, dum, do
All the little babies go ah, ah, I want to
Dum, dum, dilly, dum, dum, de, dum, do
Other little babies (unintelligible) one, two, three.

Are you wondering ...

TUCKER: While Corin Tucker's voice remains the most immediately striking thing about Sleater-Kinney, there's a wiriness to the guitar playing of Carrie Brownstein (ph) that gives the music a tensile strength. And the drumming of Janet Weiss (ph), the most recent member of the band, has given Sleater-Kinney a new rhythmic expansiveness that they take full advantage of on a playful tune like "Dance Song '97."



Well, you know, there ain't no doubt.
When the feeling finds you out.
You know you can try to run
I tell you it still will come

When you feel your body shake,
Tripping for you can't walk straight
Baby, then, you know it's done.
You can feel your heart (unintelligible)
You're the one that I saw
You're the one that I want

TUCKER: I can't think of a recent album with a more thorough mixture of joy, rage, and puzzlement than Dig Me Out. Corin Tucker said in a recent interview that she wants her band to be able to "raise the hair on the back of a kid's neck."

Well, I'm no kid, but they raised the hair on mine, and it feels really good.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Dig Me Out, the new CD from Sleater-Kinney.

Dateline: Ken Tucker; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews "Dig Me Out" by the rock band from Olympia, Washington called Sleater-Kinney.
Spec: Music Industry; Cities; Olympia, Washington; Sleater-Kinney
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Dig Me Out
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?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.


This Romanian film about immigration and vanishing jobs hits close to home

R.M.N. is based on an actual 2020 event in Ditr─âu, Romania, where 1,800 villagers voted to expel three Sri Lankans who worked at their local bakery.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

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

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue