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Stephen Colbert's Most Meaningful Musical Moments

Colbert loves music and loves to sing, so Fresh Air's Terry Gross asked him to bring a few songs that mean a lot to him and tell her why.


Other segments from the episode on October 24, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 24, 2012: Interview with Stephen Colbert; Interview with Tom Wolfe.


October 24, 2012

Guests: Stephen Colbert – Tom Wolfe

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. At the end of my interview with Stephen Colbert earlier this month, I promised there would be a part two, and we've got that for you today. His show "The Colbert Report" is largely political satire, but Colbert loves music and loves to sing, so he often has on guest performers, and when we're really lucky, he sings with them. He even sang a duet with General Odierno of "I'll Be Home For Christmas" last December in honor of the troops returning from Iraq in time for the holidays.

Last year, Colbert also performed in the New York Philharmonic's production of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Company." So part two of our interview is all about music that has influenced him. I asked him to bring a few recordings that mean a lot to him and tell us why. Colbert has a new book called "America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't."

So I've made it clear to you several times on FRESH AIR when you've been a guest in the past that I love it when you sing. I love it when you sing onstage. I love it when you sing on your show. I love it when you sing with guests on your show. So someday I hope maybe you'll sing on our show. But in the meantime...

STEPHEN COLBERT: That'd be fun.

GROSS: In the meantime, we asked you to bring some of your favorite recordings so we could talk about music. And so you sent us, you know, the names of a few recordings; we have them ready to play. So I thought we'd start with the first one, which is a song from "Jesus Christ Superstar," which I assume you first heard when you were very young.

COLBERT: Yeah, I think I was probably 7 or 8 when I first heard it, the Broadway cast recording.

GROSS: The Broadway cast recording, OK. And how did you hear it?

COLBERT: One of my brothers and sisters had it, maybe my sister Lulu(ph) or something like that. And just for the record, Terry, the three songs that I sort of, I picked for today, they're not necessarily my favorite recordings. I just felt like, oh, what are three songs that mean something to me and almost specifically aren't my favorite recordings.

I just thought of three different aspects of my life, and I thought, OK, are there any songs that just speak to that. And the first one would be Herod's song, "King Herod's Song" from "Jesus Christ Superstar," and I just remember hearing it as a kid. And, you know, it's an upbeat, contemporary song in an otherwise very, very serious, you know, musical.

And it's the only song that's sort of comedic in "Jesus Christ Superstar," and as a child, I remember thinking it was scandalous because, you know, the lyrics go - Herod is facing Jesus, and he says:

(Singing) Oh, so you are the Christ, you're the great Jesus Christ. Prove to me that you're no fool, walk across my swimming pool. If you do that for me, then I'll let you go free. Come on, King of the Jews.

And I thought as a kid, like, oh that's so blasphemous, that's so scandalous.


COLBERT: And yet I loved the song. Because I was from a fairly devout family. But even as a young kid, my mom said no, no, that's fine, that's exactly how they would have spoken to him. That's just...

GROSS: Far worse, yes.

COLBERT: That's just - you know what I mean, but that's like a theatrical expression of contempt. And that opened my eyes as a kid that you could actually be - well, you could be wrong in character. You could be blasphemous in character, and it doesn't negate how you feel about the subject. You know, like...

GROSS: Oh, so...

COLBERT: The greatest example is just because I play a murderer doesn't mean I'm a murderer. In the same way, you could actually mock Christ in this song, effectively mock Christ, and, you know, comedically mock Christ, and yet it's not a mockery of the story.

GROSS: Wow, that's kind of like you were seven and figured out what it means to be in character, which you now are so much of the time on your show. It's like this is the roots...



GROSS: This is the roots of your character.

COLBERT: Well, certainly my ability - certainly it's the first time I thought, oh, you can make jokes about religion that aren't anti-religious.

GROSS: Right, great, OK. So let's hear the version from the original cast recording, 1970, "Jesus Christ Superstar," and here it is.


MIKE D'ABO: (As King Herod) (Singing) Jesus, I am overjoyed to meet you face to face. You've been getting quite a name all around the place. Healing cripples, raising from the dead, and now I understand you're God, at least that's what you've said.

So you are the Christ, you're the great Jesus Christ. Prove to me that you're divine, change my water into wine. That's all you need do, and I'll know it's all true, c'mon King of the Jews.

Jesus, you just won't believe the hit you've made around here. You are all we talk about, the wonder of the year. Oh, what a pity if it's all a lie. Still I'm sure that you can rock the cynics if you try.

So you are the Christ, you're the great Jesus Christ. Prove to me...

GROSS: So that's "King Herod's Song" from the original Broadway cast recording of "Jesus Christ Superstar," one of the recordings that Stephen Colbert brought with him when we asked him to bring some recordings that have meant something to him over the years. And we did this because...

COLBERT: I could do that whole musical, by the way. You just start the...

GROSS: Really? Were you ever in it? It's one of the musicals everybody - you know, like "Hair," like everybody was in "Hair."

COLBERT: No, no, I'm not really a musical guy, but if you just started like the opening, (vocalizing notes), like the opening of "Jesus Christ Superstar," I could probably sing every note and every word from beginning to end. I love that musical.


COLBERT: I don't even know if it's good. Do you know what I mean? At this point, I have no idea whether it's even a good musical. It's just, it's just too much, like, in my DNA.

GROSS: Right, right, OK. So let's move on to another recording that you named as one that's been important to you, and this is Elvis Costello, who unlike King Herod has actually been on your show several times, including on your great holiday special a few years ago.


GROSS: And tell us what this recording is and why you chose it.

COLBERT: This is a recording - this is a demo that Elvis Costello did in a hotel room. It wasn't released on an album originally. I think it was - I've loved this song for about 20 years. It was released as an album extra off of "My Aim Is True," a reissue in the early '90s. And it's called "Jump Up."

And what I like about it is - one of the nice things about having a show is I've gotten to meet a few of the people, artists that I really love, and Elvis and I have become, you know, somewhat friends, which I just can't believe that occasionally there'll be a voicemail on my phone from Elvis Costello, telling me he just ran into Bill O'Reilly in Reykjavik.


COLBERT: You know, that's a completely surreal message to get on your cell phone to a kid who was rocking out to, you know, "Armed Forces." But I love the song because it's sort of a satirical song. It's got a parodic nature to it, or not a parodic nature, but it's really, it's got sort of a political, satirical song.

And I've never discussed this song with Elvis, so I might get a message from Elvis Costello after this interview with you, saying, "You know nothing of my work. What are you talking about?"


COLBERT: But I've always thought of it as a - it's sort of like a - it's a person who is talking about insignificance in the name of power or of something that they want, and also talking about the hypocrisy of politicians. The second verse goes:

(Singing) Candidates talkin' on the radio from the Cheaters Jamboree. He must be their latest fool, 'cause it's a two-horse race, and he changed his bets like it was just another brand of cigarettes. Some people judge, then they just guess the rest. They can't understand it don't mean that you're blessed. They got to catch the express, next stop: nowhere. That way you can't forget. Jump up, hold on tight. Can't trust a promise or a guarantee, 'cause the man around the curve says that he's never heard of you or me.

And I've always loved that line, you know, it's a two-horse race, and he changes bets like it was another brand of cigarettes. And back long before I did political satire, I thought, yeah, isn't that interesting, there are only two choices, and people flip back and forth as if it doesn't matter, when there should be bold lines between these two people.

And it's just got one of my favorite lines of any song in it. The poetry in this line about - it's a young man, he says - I'm not sure who the character is, but the young man says: I was a statue standing on a corner. Tell me, how else can a boy get to see those pretty pleats?

And that seems like a young man who does - like, has no personal power. He's a statue standing on the corner. No one's noticing him. But he's looking at the girls going by, and he's trying to figure out how I am someone significant enough to be noticed. How else can a boy get to see those pretty pleats, which clearly means their skirt?

But also it's got the word pretty please in it, and so by describing what he wants, he's also describing how he feels about what he wants. You know, let me see your skirt, pretty please. And those kind of lyrics are all through Elvis Costello's work, and I'm sort of in awe of his ability to often write in character, like as, you know, Spike the Entertainer. He sort of writes in that character. He's wry. He's sort of sardonic.

And I'm not a musician, but his music speaks to me and is - if there was somebody's songs I wished I had written, it would be Elvis Costello's songs, and this is a song, one of the first songs I can remember thinking, God, I wish I had written that.

GROSS: OK, so let's hear it. This is Elvis Costello, "Jump Up." It's a demo recorded in a hotel room or a bedroom or something in the mid-'70s, very lo-fi Elvis Costello, a great recording.


ELVIS COSTELLO: (Singing) Everybody's talking like they can't sit down and looking like they can't stand up. It must be the latest style, and they've seen a lot of things that you never see back on the mile up to the hanging tree. Some people can't keep their fingers clean, just clicking their heels to the beat of the scene, trying to keep careen until the first edition of last night's obituaries.

Jump up, hold on tight, can't trust a promise or a guarantee 'cause the man 'round the curve says that he's never heard of you or me.

No tombstone would ever surprise me when I'm locked in a room about half the size of a matchbox. Got holes in my socks. They match the ones that I got in my feet. I put my feet in the holes in the street, and somebody paved me over. I was a statue standing on the corner. Tell me, how else can a boy get to see those pretty pleats?

Candidate talkin' on the radio from the Cheaters Jamboree. He must be their latest fool, 'cause it's a two-horse race and he changes bets like it was just another brand of cigarettes. Some people judge, then they just guess the rest. They can't understand it don't mean that you're blessed. They ought to catch the express, next stop: nowhere. That way you can't forget.

Jump up, hold on tight, can't trust a promise or a guarantee, 'cause the man 'round the curve says that he's never heard of you or me.

GROSS: So that was an Elvis Costello recording from the mid-'70s, which was chosen for us by my guest, Stephen Colbert. We asked him to bring some of his - some recordings that mean a lot to him because I love his music so much, because I love Stephen Colbert's singing so much. We wanted to go musical today on the show, and the occasion for this interview is Stephen Colbert's new book "America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't."

Something else you want to say about Elvis Costello?

COLBERT: Oh, well, yes. I had a conversation with Elvis maybe about six months ago, which again is a very weird thing, sentence for me to say. But I had a conversation with Elvis about six months ago, and we were talking about the song "Radio Radio." And I don't - you know, this is Elvis' story, so I hope he doesn't feel like I'm stealing something from him, but he said that the song "Radio Radio" was originally sort of anthemic.

It wasn't sort of a biting, kind of aggressive song. It was about how great radio feels. I said oh, that's interesting. And he said, yeah, people don't ask him much about it but that he was trying when he was younger to try to write Bruce Springsteen songs, and he really, he liked Bruce Springsteen's sound. And he said, but then he eventually stopped doing that because he would try to write these songs like Bruce Springsteen, and he would end up writing things that were a little bit wry, sardonic or even sort of character-based, and they didn't have that sort of sincere, anthemic quality that Bruce Springsteen's songs sometimes has.

And that was - that kind of blew me away because he is describing his relationship to Bruce Springsteen kind of like my relationship to Jon Stewart, and Jon's favorite artist is Bruce Springsteen, and probably my favorite rock artist is Elvis Costello. So there's an odd parallel between Elvis' evolution from what he was trying to do, like Bruce, and my evolution from what I was trying to do when I worked with Jon.

GROSS: That's actually really interesting.

COLBERT: Oh, God, I hope so.


COLBERT: Because I just stole Elvis Costello's story, and if I didn't make it interesting, God, I'm in trouble. All right.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Colbert. He has a new book called "America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't." We'll talk more about his music life after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to part two of my recent interview with Stephen Colbert. This part is about his music life. We asked him to bring some recordings he loves. OK, so let's go another recording, and this is a Ben Folds Five recording and perhaps not coincidentally, he was just on your show.

COLBERT: Yeah, he was on my show two nights ago, and I really like Ben Folds. Every night, actually, on my show, just for fun at one of the commercial breaks, we usually play his song "Steven's Last Night in Town." And we'll sometimes play - I love the song "Philosophy" by Ben Folds. And I mean, I like a lot of his stuff.

But there's one particular song that is - that I just love called "The Best Imitation of Myself." And there's sort of an obvious resonance for me because I do an imitation of myself professionally. And the lyrics go: You know, I feel like a quote out of context, withholding the rest so I can be for you who you want to see. I got the gesture and sound, got the timing down. It's uncanny. Yeah, you'd think it was me.

Do you think I should take a class to lose my Southern accent? Did I make me up or make the face till it stuck? I do the best imitation of myself. And when I first heard the song, it was just a few years ago actually, somehow this song had escaped my notice, I just thought he had written it for me.

But then when I listened to it more, I though it's just a beautiful expression on how we are toward each other as people. We don't think that we are sufficient for each other, that no one wants to know the real me or the whole me. I just want to give you the part of me that I think you expect to see from me and almost as if that little part of me is more than the whole of me, 'cause I don't want to give you any of the poison, I only want to give you the meat of me. Do you know what I mean?


COLBERT: And this constant slight changing of our mask, or as Eliot says in "Prufrock," time to prepare a face for the faces that we meet. I just hadn't heard in a song in the same way as this one. And I just, I couldn't love this song more.

GROSS: Were you already doing "The Colbert Report" when you heard this?

COLBERT: Yeah, I had already done the show for a few years when I heard this song. And, I mean, even it says, like, you know: If it's all the same, I have people to entertain. You know, I'll juggle one-handed, do some magic tricks and the best imitation of myself. And...

GROSS: You could probably do that. I know you could stand on your head.


COLBERT: Right, yeah. You know, it's a great song for an entertainer to listen to, but what's beautiful about the song to me is that we all play the entertainer for each other, just some of us do it professionally.

GROSS: And some better than others. OK.


GROSS: So this is the Ben Folds Five, "Best Imitation of Myself," one of the songs chosen by my guest, Stephen Colbert.


BEN FOLDS FIVE: (Singing) I feel like a quote out of context, withholding the rest, so I can be free what you want to see. I got the gesture and sounds, got the timing down. It's uncanny, yeah, you think it was me. Do you think I should take a class to lose my Southern accent? Did I make me up, or make the face till it stuck? I do the best imitation of myself.

The problem-with-you speech you gave me was fine. I liked the theories about my little stage. And I swore I was listening, but I started drifting around the part about me acting my age. Now if it's all the same, I've people to entertain. I juggle one-handed, do some magic tricks and the best imitation of myself. Maybe you think...

GROSS: That's Ben Folds Five, "Best Imitation of Myself," and it's one of the songs Stephen Colbert brought with him today because we asked him to bring a few songs that really mean something to him, and we did that because I really love Stephen Colbert's singing so much.

So what's some of the music you grew up with in the house, that your parents or older siblings were playing?

COLBERT: Well, I'm the youngest of 11 kids. So a lot of the music I listened to was, like, hand-me-down albums from them. As a kid, I listened to a lot of James Taylor and Gordon Lightfoot and Deep Purple. I mean, it was pretty eclectic. It's whatever the older ones left behind: Nancy Sinatra, Paul Anka, Elvis Presley, you know, Creedence Clearwater.

It's - because my eldest brothers and sisters, my brother Ed bought an original 45 of Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock," but my closest brothers and sisters, you know, left behind Cat Stevens' "Tea For the Tillerman." So I listened to all that because those albums were just laying around.

So basically from the beginning of rock 'n' roll through the, you know, mid-'70s soft-rock, folk, post-folk, Feel Good Festival, I listened to all of it. I don't - I didn't really have a singular music that I listened to. I can't say that I was like, I was a Who guy, or I was - I mean, The Beatles were gigantic. They just, they eclipsed, The Beatles still, they eclipse everything on the musical landscape. It's hard to imagine a band more important than them to me. I don't know musically, but that argument can be made, obviously, but The Beatles were the biggest and most important, but I wasn't, you know, I wasn't sort of slavishly devoted like some people. Their identity was associated with a single group.

GROSS: Stephen Colbert will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When I recorded an interview earlier this month with Stephen Colbert, we had more than we could fit into one broadcast, which is why we're getting to hear part two today. And part two is devoted to Colbert's love of music.

As his fans know, he often has on music guests, and sometimes even sings with them. Last year, he performed in the New York Philharmonic production of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Company." Colbert has a new book called "America Again: Re-becoming The Greatness We Never Weren't."

So when you were very young did, your parents play music in the house?

COLBERT: No, not really. No, not really. We sang. We were all encouraged to sing at all times. And...

GROSS: What, around the piano or a guitar?

COLBERT: No, just around the house. Just around the house. Nobody in the family played piano or guitar. No one played any musical instruments. As a matter of fact, my sister, my sister Mary beat up my sister Margo one day because Mary had been taking guitar lessons and Margo started playing - running her toes across Mary's guitar.


COLBERT: And Mary, Mary beat up Margo. And, like, my brother Billy had to pull Mary off of Margo and say, why did you do that? Just because she put her toes on your guitar? And Mary said no, because she sounded better than me playing.

GROSS: Oh, no.


GROSS: So when you sang around the house did you sing harmony? And what songs did you sing?

COLBERT: No, we didn't sing harmony. Like, we have a few family songs, like, you know, at a drop of a hat, anyone in our family will sing...

(Singing) I am I, Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha. My destiny calls, and I go.

Or we'll sing, you know, we'll sing "Men of Harlech" from the movie "Zulu," which is kind of our family movie. We'll sing, you know, this is what they're singing when the Zulus basically breach the line and kill everybody, and Michael Caine, you know, dies in his movie debut. You know, how does that go?

(Singing) Men of Harlech, stop your dreaming. Can't you hear those - men of Harlech, stop your dreaming. Can't you see their spear points gleaming?


COLBERT: (Singing) See the warrior banners streaming through this battlefield.

At weddings, at family weddings, the men will get on one side of the room and we'll sing "Men of Harlech," and the women will be across the room and do the "Zulu" chant, and they'll attack us.


COLBERT: And then we'll meet in the middle of the room and hug. It's really lovely.

GROSS: That's so funny.

COLBERT: True story. True story.

GROSS: Now, were you ever in summer camp or anything like that, where you had...

COLBERT: No. No. No. I mean, I - well, 11 kids, it was always camp. So we - I didn't go to camp.

GROSS: Right. Right.

COLBERT: I just - I hung around - we lived on a, you know, a street with a dirt road, and it was - we had all the outdoorsy I needed.

GROSS: Were you ever in a band?

COLBERT: Yes. Oh, yeah. I was in two bands. I was in a band in elementary school. I was in a band called Nebula Five, and there were only three of us in Nebula Five.

GROSS: Cosmic. Yeah?


COLBERT: And - because nebula was a cool word and a cool thing. And five, I didn't - we kind of picked five because we thought five was the best number. It never occurred to...

GROSS: This was just to shadow Ben to foreshadow Ben Folds.

COLBERT: Exactly. Exactly. I actually talked to Ben about this the other night, is that I didn't realize - it never occurred to us that the Jackson Five were because they were five of them. You know, as an elementary school kid, you're always, like, what's the best color? It's blue. Wrong. It's red. It's blue, stupid. Or, like, what's the best number? It's three. It's five. Five is definitely the best number.

And so we thought five was the best number. So we were Nebula Five. It was me, Tommy Whittle(ph) - who, at the time, in third grade, called himself Tommy London, that was his stage name - and Gray Motsinger(ph) on drums. And I sang.

And then in high school, I was in a band, briefly, called A Shot in the Dark, is what we called ourselves. And we did mostly, like, Rolling Stones covers. And we would, like, play at a party for free beer or something like that.

GROSS: So did you do Mick Jagger parts?

COLBERT: Yeah, yeah, yeah, like "Honky Tonk Woman" and stuff like that, "Brown Sugar," all that kind of stuff. It'd strut around on stage in New Jersey.

GROSS: Would you really?


COLBERT: Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, you got to move, baby. You gots to move. You got to give the ladies what they want.


GROSS: What would you wear?

COLBERT: I would wear a pair of jeans, and I would wear my brother Peter's jersey, which had a zero on the back.

GROSS: So it wasn't really tight leather pants?

COLBERT: It wasn't tight leather pants, but it was a pretty tight jersey.


COLBERT: Nor did I have the physique to pull it off. But, again, you got to just - you got to put it out there.

GROSS: Did you sing in church?

COLBERT: Uh... No. I was never in a choir. I was in my school choir. I was a bass in the school choir and, you know, we did a lot of religious music. And my church was - it was a religiously affiliated school, and so we did things - we would do like Mozart's "Mass" kind of religious music. And I still remember the bass line to things like the national anthem.

You know, in my mind I almost can't sing the national anthem, the melody anymore. I have to sing, you know...

(Singing) Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light? What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming? Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight, o'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming? And the...


COLBERT: You know, I can't remember the melody anymore.

GROSS: You have quite a range, though, because I wouldn't imagine you being able to get that low...

COLBERT: Thank you. Thank you.

GROSS: ...because I know you have a nice high range.

COLBERT: I'm actually much more comfortable really low.

GROSS: Seriously?

COLBERT: I'm much more - oh, yeah, yeah. I'm much more comfortable singing, you know, oh, "Jesus Christ Superstar," Caiaphas, great bass role, is...

(Singing) No, wait. We need a more permanent solution to our problem. What than to do about Jesus of Nazareth? Miracle, wonder man, hero of fools?

That's the part for me, is Caiaphas.


GROSS: Well, now you just need to be in a production. So one more music question: If you could perform in any kind of music venue, would it be a Broadway show? Would it be a rock band? Would it be a country band? Would it be an opera with Audra McDonald?


GROSS: What would it be?

COLBERT: Probably a show, you know, because I'm an actor and I like a story, so a show. I mean, King Herod. Man, playing King Herod: one song, it's in my range. Call me.


GROSS: OK. Well, Stephen Colbert, thank you for bringing music with you. Thank you for singing for us. It was just such a treat. Thank you so much.

COLBERT: It's always a pleasure. Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Stephen Colbert's new book called "America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't." Earlier, he talked about why he loves Elvis Costello's music. We're about to hear the Elvis Costello song that Colbert sang on "The Colbert Report," accompanied by Costello on guitar. On our website, you'll find a link to that performance, as well as links to all the songs Colbert discussed, and Ben Folds Five recent performance on "The Colbert Report." So, here's Stephen Colbert and Elvis Costello.


COLBERT: (Singing) Oh, well, I feel so loose tonight, I might fall to pieces. So be prepared to sweep me out the door. And I might be horizontal by the time the music ceases. So I think I'll get acquainted with the floor. Oh, I was trying to get away from those things I always do. Hello, floorboards once again, how are you? Lip service - well, that's all you'll ever get from me. Well, how could you believe I would take you seriously? With your cheap rewards, your blackmail, and your comical rage, just remember you'll only be the boss so long as you pay my wage.

(Singing) Oh, the sign posts on this road that point one way. Don't act like you're above me, just look at your shoes. I'll turn the light out now, 'cause there's nothing more to say. And it's all been lost before, so there's nothing to lose. Oh, but you could say that you love me very painlessly. I would've done the same...

GROSS: Coming up, Tom Wolfe talks about his new novel, "Back to Blood." This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Decades ago, our guest Tom Wolfe pioneered what became known as New Journalism, using techniques of fiction - such as evocative scene descriptions and dialogue - to tell true stories. He used those storytelling methods in his books "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and "The Right Stuff."

Wolfe turned to fiction in 1987, with the bestseller "Bonfire of the Vanities," a sprawling story of social relations and racial tensions in New York City. His subsequent novels are "A Man in Full" and "I Am Charlotte Simmons."

Wolfe's new novel, "Back to Blood," is set in Miami and deals with racial and ethnic conflict among the city's diverse inhabitants, which include immigrants from Cuba, Haiti and Russia, as well as the long-established African-American and Anglo communities. Its central character, a young Cuban-American police officer, struggles with his identity after a heroic act on the job makes him a traitor in the eyes of his community.

A one-hour documentary about Wolfe's research in Miami, called "Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood," is airing on some PBS stations. Tom Wolfe spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Tom Wolfe, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

TOM WOLFE: Thank you.

DAVIES: When you wrote "Bonfire of the Vanities," it was this remarkable picture of social currents in New York. And in your novel "A Man in Full," you took us to Atlanta. This is about Miami. What drew you to South Florida?

WOLFE: I wanted to do a book on immigration. I was thinking of it even when I was doing my last book. At first, I was interested in the Vietnamese in California because they were spreading rapidly, at first around Los Angeles. Then one day, I discovered they were up in San Jose, which is Northern California, to an extent that they were now publishing not only the San Jose Mercury, which is an old newspaper, but the Viet Mercury.


WOLFE: And I said, hey, there must be some - a few people around here. But, unfortunately, I couldn't speak the language, and it was just one group of immigrants. And then I heard about Florida. The first thing that caught my ear was that Miami is the only city - the only one I can find - in which people from a foreign country with a different language and a different culture have taken over a metropolitan area politically at the voting machine in slightly over one generation. Of course, that's the Cubans.

DAVIES: Right. So you have the Cubans, which are so powerful politically. And I was surprised to read more than half the police force is Cuban. Right?

WOLFE: Oh, yes. Slightly more than 50 percent are Cuban. Another 20 percent are Latins. They're from somewhere in Latin America. Eighteen percent are American black. And just 12 percent are what is known there as Anglo - really meaning American-born whites. And that pretty well reflects the composition of the population as a whole.

DAVIES: I want to ask you about - the central character of this book is a young Cuban name Nestor Camacho. He is on the police force. You want to just give us a little profile of him?

WOLFE: Yeah. Nestor Camacho lives in Hialeah, in one of these little casitas with his parents and his grandparents. His older siblings have, by getting married, moved out of the house. And he is a young policeman. He was actually a pretty modest, conscientious policeman. He turned out to be pretty good, and he seemed to be pretty steady in tough, dangerous situations. But his horizon really was not much beyond being a good cop and marrying his girlfriend of three years named Magdalena, who was absolutely gorgeous.

And this was his life, and he never realized that that kind of a rather comfortable, conventional life could explode. Again, the police force was heavily Cuban, as he was second-generation Cuban, and he seemed to fit in perfectly.

DAVIES: Well, of course, he's a character in a Tom Wolfe novel. So what he doesn't know is he's going to get involved in some big events, here. And there's this incident that sort of sets the plot in motion. Nestor is on the Marine Patrol Unit.

WOLFE: Yeah.

DAVIES: And they get a call that this bedraggled Cuban refugee who's been dropped off by some boat has shimmied up the tall mast of a sailboat that's parked near a causeway. And he's at the top at this bosun's chair atop this mast pleading for someone on the causeway to help get him, because once he gets to dry land he gets asylum. But if he's in the water, he can be sent back to Cuba.

And then Nestor effects - I won't give away all the details here, but, I mean, he effects a heroic rescue of this guy, which makes him a hero. He saves the guy's life. But it also makes him a traitor in the eyes of the Cuban community, because the guy's probably going to get sent back to Cuba because he didn't make land. It's a fascinating - it's a really gripping description, and I'll let people get the details from your book.

But I'm wondering, what, is there a particular - what inspired that incident?

WOLFE: It's the entire dry foot/wet foot policies of the United States government. It's not Miami. This was all done in the wake of Castro and all the people who wanted to escape from Cuba and so on. And it was a great, if you will, public relations coup and also rather humanitarian thing to allow as many in as, you know, could be accommodated.

How exactly this dry foot/wet foot thing began, that point I don't know. But if you had reached land - and this is actually for any Cuban anywhere in America - if you had reached land you could not be sent back to Cuba. You might be prosecuted for some vile crime that you had committed, but you couldn't be sent back.

And if you touched anything that is connected to the United States, like a bridge, then you were considered a dry foot. But if you came in by water and you didn't make it all the way in, you could be sent back. Actually, there were these people who came in as wet foots, or tried to come in, would be questioned by the Coast Guard and given a chance to prove that they had left because they were in immediate danger.

DAVIES: One of the details that caught my eye as I was reading this, this character Nestor Camacho is a police officer, and you say that he's learned the cop stare.

WOLFE: Yeah.

DAVIES: What is the cop stare? Where did you observe that?

WOLFE: When I see it, I recognize it. And I've, you know, not all of my relationships with the police have been all that polite as they have been when I'm reporting. It's a look that says, in some way - I don't know how you move the muscles - it says, look, out here on this street I am the only authority. Once I arrest you and drag you in to the precinct, there will be other authorities who will take over, but here on the street, I rule.

That is the look. And I see it over and over again. It's a great technique for keeping the peace. In effect, it says you don't have a chance against me. For one thing, I'm armed. And it works.

DAVIES: One of the memorable descriptions in this book is of something called the Columbus Day Regatta, which I hadn't heard of but is a real thing in Miami.


DAVIES: And I know that you visited this. You want to just tell us a little bit about this? About your...

WOLFE: Yeah, I'll tell you.

DAVIES: ...visit to the Columbus Day Regatta?

WOLFE: Yeah. I'll tell this as briefly as I can. The regatta is actually a sailboat race. It ends up in a rather barren little island called Elliott Key. It's about, oh, 60 miles south of Miami. When the regatta first began, after the race, all the crews and the owners and everything would get together and have a party. Well, these parties began to get wilder and wilder, and people on the mainland began hearing about these Columbus Day Regatta parties.

And so when I got there, there were easily more than a thousand boats had congregated around Elliott Key. I mean, a thousand boats is a massive lot of structures and humanity. And they were waiting for the evening and the police, up until recently, didn't try to control things. People would lash together boats, 12 in a row, which created one gigantic deck.

You had to go up and down on the deck, but... And it became wilder, and wilder and wilder until finally they would be showing pornographic films on the sails of schooners and they would, in essence, have orgies right there on the decks. I couldn't believe this.


DAVIES: You saw this personally?

WOLFE: So I saw it personally. As I say, oh, I mean I stayed at this thing for a very long time. It has cooled down a bit, because there is a police presence now, but nevertheless - or, for example, I won't go in too graphic detail, but the bare breasts began about 5:30 PM and then we go on from there. It's absolutely extraordinary.

DAVIES: Do you think it says anything about Miami culture?

WOLFE: Well, it probably does. John Timoney, who was deputy commissioner of police in New York, then became chief of police in Philadelphia, and then became chief of police in Miami - so he knows the East Coast pretty well - he said to me New York is the city of money. Washington D.C. is the city of power. Miami is the city of sex. And I haven't checked out all the other places to see if that's really true, but there is a little bit of hedonism in the air.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Tom Wolfe. His new novel is "Back to Blood." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with novelist Tom Wolfe. His new book set in Miami is called "Back to Blood." When you were on this show 25 years ago Terry Gross asked you would you ever let somebody follow you, spend, you know, a few days with you and observe what you do and write about your technique? And at the time you said, I don't think so.

But here, in fact, this reporter, Oscar Corral, who showed you around Miami, videotaped a lot and has produced a film doing just that - looking at the Tom Wolfe method. How do you feel about somebody else capturing you here?

WOLFE: Well, I was very grateful to him because he'd done a lot for me and I wasn't going to say no. But I did tell him a reporter cannot afford to have a camera around in any sort of sensitive information gathering. It just puts the other person off so badly. That's why I've always felt following a reporter around, or following a writer around, is you're going to have a lot of boring stretches in which the poor guy's hunched over his desk trying to figure out what to do next, tapping his forehead.

I think he did a good job. He showed me in the midst of reporting scenes.

DAVIES: He wrote, I believe, that you wrote this book completely by hand. Is that right?

WOLFE: Yes. If I had my choice I would be writing by typewriter. I worked on newspapers for 10 years. I typed with the touch system and unfortunately, you can't keep typewriters going today. You have to take the ribbons back to be re-inked. You have to - it's a horrible search to try to find missing parts. So I went to the computer.

And the computer kept winking at me. You know, like, OK, big boy. I'm ready. Let's have some action here.

DAVIES: Winking, like a light would flash or the screen would change?

WOLFE: No. There was little - those little lights were coming on. Just to put in a piece of paper, to use typewriter talk, you have to go through about three steps. I mean, it drove me nuts. The fact is, I was born too early. That's all that means.

DAVIES: You know, in so many of your books you write these wonderful descriptions of characters, kind of, struggling in changing times. You ever picture yourself writing a description of Tom Wolfe?

WOLFE: Actually, I do and I think I would write of him, Tom Wolfe, as this rather old-fashioned figure, all these damn white suits he has and all this stuff. And, oh, you ought to see his shoes. Oh, they look like spats. They're not spats. But that's the kind of thing you run into when you run into Tom Wolfe. I could do a good job on myself, I think.


DAVIES: You know, when you write about a character, one of the things I notice is that you're - and you're using this character to examine the particular culture or subculture in which the character lives. And one of the things I notice is that you find these subtle ways in which status and pecking order are defined in that subculture. The little things. And I'm just -is that - how do you get that? Do you ask that question? Is it just careful observation?

How cops distinguish one another - or strippers, or whoever?

WOLFE: This attention to status or status, however you like to pronounce it, started when I was in graduate school and I was in a program called American Studies which was a mixture of different disciplines. But one that you were forced to take was sociology.

I had always looked down on sociology as this arriviste discipline. It didn't have the noble history of English and history as a subject. But once I had a little exposure to it, I said, hey, here's the key. Here's the key to understanding life and all its forms. And the great theorist of all the status, or status, theories was a German named Max Weber. From that time on I said this, obviously, is the way to analyze people in all their manifestations.

I mean, my theory is that every moment, even when you're by yourself in the bathroom, you are trying to live up to certain status requirements as if somebody were watching. Well, anyway, you can think about it. It really is true. It's only when your life is in danger that you drop all that.

DAVIES: And at 81, what are the status requirements for your life?

WOLFE: Well, I'm - in the, oh, just the last month I've seen myself referred to, oh, quite often, as an octogenarian. And I always say, look, that's a hobby of mine. It's not an occupation. It's something, you know, I like to do at night. But I think it doesn't really matter how old you are if your health is all right and your mind hasn't gone yet.

DAVIES: Well, Tom Wolfe, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

WOLFE: Dave, you're more than welcome and if you see Terry Gross, tell her hello. It was just 25 short years ago that I first appeared on this program.

DAVIES: I promise I will.

WOLFE: Yeah.

GROSS: And hello back to you, Tom Wolfe, and thank you for being back on the show. Tom Wolfe spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. You can read an excerpt of Wolfe's new book "Back to Blood" on our website, And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at

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.

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