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Theo Bleckmann Goes Back To Berlin Roots

From jazz concerts and cabaret acts to multimedia art installations, Theo Bleckmann has made a name for himself in new York. Now, the vocalist and composer looks back to his native Germany.

36:54

Other segments from the episode on July 2, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 2, 2008: Interview with Theo Bleckmann; Interview with Elizabeth Warren; Review of Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland."

Transcript

DATE July 2, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Avant garde musician Theo Bleckmann on his new album
"Berlin," his life and career
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

There's not a lot of people who love showtunes and avant garde music, even
fewer who can perform both well, so let me introduce you to Theo Bleckmann,
who is full of vocal surprises. He's been a part of the New York downtown
music scene for over 15 years. He's performed with Meredith Monk, John Zorn,
Laurie Anderson, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and has been a soloist with
the Estonian Radio Choir, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and Mark Morris
Dance Group.

Bleckmann's 2006 collection of showtunes and pop songs "Las Vegas Rhapsody"
was described in the Village Voice by jazz critic Francis Davis as "the most
transcendent vocal album in many a moon." Bleckmann moved to New York in 1989
from his native Germany. His new CD, "Berlin: Songs of Love and War, Peace
and Exile," features songs by Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler, and
others.

On this track, Theo Bleckmann sings "Surabaya-Johnny" from the Brecht-Weill
musical "Happy End."

(Soundbite of Theo Bleckmann singing "Surabaya-Johnny" in German)

GROSS: Theo Bleckmann, welcome to FRESH AIR. That's such a really good
version of "Surabaya-Johnny." Would you talk about what the lyric means?

Mr. THEO BLECKMANN: Well, the lyric is a love song, pining for somebody that
no longer loves him and was abusive, and that is the gist, the core, of the
song. Of course, it's usually song by a woman, but in this case I'm singing
it as a man, from a man to a man.

GROSS: So you're out as a singer?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes.

GROSS: Good.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Out as a singer, out as a person.

GROSS: OK. Now, I particularly like the spoken part in that song...

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: It's like you're acting the song.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So maybe you could talk a little bit about doing that kind of
Sprechstimme? What's the...

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yeah. It's called Sprechstimme.

GROSS: What's the Brechtian word for it? Yeah.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Where it's part spoken, part sung.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Exactly. It's sort of that in-between place where there's no
pitch, but you're still somewhat singing the phrases. It's a very strange
place. Yeah, I feel very connected to that lyric because I have been in a
relationship like that--not with physical abuse, but, you know, abusive
otherwise, and so it felt very close to my heart. I didn't have to really
search that long to really find a place that I could connect to in this case.

GROSS: Now, most of the songs on your new CD "Berlin" are songs with lyrics
by Bertolt Brecht.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You grew up in Germany.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes.

GROSS: What did Brecht's songs mean to you in Germany when you were living
there?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Nothing.

GROSS: Glad I asked. Really, so you--did you not know them until you moved
to America?

Mr. BLECKMANN: I did know them, but from a far distance, and I wouldn't have
touched them. But when I came here, you know, I work a lot in music that has
no words, and I work a lot in music that has English lyrics, and, most of all,
sometimes very abstract lyrics. So for me to sing this material was a far
stretch at first, and then when I realized how close I actually felt--how
closely related I felt to them, it was actually quite overwhelming, because
it's part of my history, and it's also part of the history of this country
right now, in terms of the political context that these songs--on this record,
especially--have. So it was sort of a homecoming for me.

GROSS: Well, we heard "Surabaya-Johnny," which is a song about someone whose
lover has been abusing them.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I'm going to change the tone a little bit and play another track, and
this is a song with a lyric by Bertolt Brecht and music by Hanns Eisler.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I'll ask you to pronounce it, but it's "Als Ich Dich In Meinem Leb
Trug."

Mr. BLECKMANN: "Als Ich Dich In Meinem Leb Trug."

GROSS: Yeah, that's what I mean to say. And this is a much more, like,
march-like and in some parts dissonant song. Tell us what in means in English
and why you chose to sing it.

Mr. BLECKMANN: This is one song of a little suite that we actually took
apart on the record, but it's four songs of a working mother's song to her
unborn child in which she tells the child that `you are coming into a very
difficult and sad world and that they're already planning victories with your
little body.' But there's a little bit of hope in those songs, too, in saying
that `I hope you will stand up against tanks and generals and fight against
them.' So that's sort of the gist of these four songs, and that's one of them.

GROSS: And that explains the march-like beat?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes.

GROSS: So, this is Theo Bleckmann from his latest CD, "Berlin: Songs of Love
and War, Peace and Exile."

(Soundbite of Theo Bleckmann singing Als Ich Dich In Meinem Leb Trug" in
German)

GROSS: That's singer Theo Bleckmann from his latest CD, "Berlin," and the
song we just heard was written by Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht.

We established that growing up in Germany, you weren't paying a lot of
attention to the music of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill...

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What were you listening to?

Mr. BLECKMANN: I was listening to American musicals. I was listening to a
lot of jazz as I got older and into my teens, and that really took over. I
was listening to jazz music and then very, very contemporary classical
music--Stockhausen...(unintelligible)...John Cage.

GROSS: Were American musicals popular in Germany? Or was it unusual for
someone young like you to be listening to them?

Mr. BLECKMANN: There were on TV, and I would darken the living room and
forbid everybody to walk through the living room when a musical was on because
it was my private time with the TV. And then I would find the records for it.
I would--at that time you had to order the records in a record store, and it
would take six weeks for them to get there. I grew up in a small town,
so--but it was a big, exciting day when the record arrived and I would listen
to it until the next one came.

GROSS: So when you saw American musicals on TV, were they in English?

Mr. BLECKMANN: They were dubbed in German and then they broke out into
English songs. It was the weirdest thing. And you wouldn't question it at
all, that all of a sudden they're singing in a different voice with English
words--except for "My Fair Lady," which was overdubbed with German singers,
but...

GROSS: I see.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Overdubbed--the text and the dialogue was overdubbed in
German.

GROSS: How strange.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So did it help you--like, I assume you were singing along in English.
Did you already know English?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yeah, you learn it in school.

GROSS: You do? Uh-huh.

Mr. BLECKMANN: No, I just--most of it I didn't understand. I always thought
in "The Wizard of Oz" that Judy Garland sang, "I wish I were a porno star and
wake up where the clouds are far." I thought, why would she wish that? That
is so weird.

GROSS: Did you really think that?

Mr. BLECKMANN: I really thought that, yeah.

GROSS: That's great.

My guest is singer Theo Bleckmann. His new CD is called "Berlin: Songs of
Love and War, Peace and Exile." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is singer Theo Bleckmann. His latest CD, "Berlin," features
songs by Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler and others. Bleckmann moved
to New York from Germany in 1989.

You were born in 1966.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So you were born, you know, a couple of decades after the war.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did the war have any impact on you when you were growing up, or did
that seem like...

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes.

GROSS: ...something that was way over?

Mr. BLECKMANN: No, no, no. It was very present in my family. My parents
were children--my father actually went into the war. He lost a limb in the
war; he lost his leg in the second world war. My parents were quite old when
they adopted me so they were part of that whole generation--of course, my
grandmother too--so there was a lot of history about that in our family. My
grandfather, who I never met, but he--from my mother's side--he was a big
opponent of the war and of the Nazis and he got into some trouble in our
little town. And my mother had to go to another school because she didn't
want to join the Hitler Youth, so there was a lot of impact, and there's still
stories that I get from my mother to this day that are about that time.

GROSS: Did you father want to fight or was he forced to fight?

Mr. BLECKMANN: He was forced to fight, yeah, and he went to the Russian
front and came back, you know, crippled.

GROSS: And do you know the story behind your adoption?

Mr. BLECKMANN: I know very little. I tried to find my birth mother. When I
turned 30, I got this bee in my bonnet that I would want to do that,
especially fueled by all these reunification stories that you see on TV. And
so I wrote to the adoption agency through which this process had to be
facilitated, and they sent my letter to my birth mother, which they had found,
and then she sent a letter back through the agency to me saying that she
didn't want to meet me, didn't want to get to know me. This went on for two
more letters, I think, and me saying, you know, `I just want to meet you.
There's no financial impact, or I'm not a crazy person.' But she just didn't
want to meet so that was the end of that and I didn't pursue it anymore after
that.

GROSS: Do you feel bad about that?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well, it was a second adoption, really. It was being
adopted--you know, given up a second time. Maybe my hopes were too high, but
it was difficult, I have to say. It was difficult. But it's done, closed
chapter.

GROSS: All right.

My guest is singer Theo Bleckmann, and his new CD is called "Berlin: Songs of
Love and War, Peace and Exile." Most of the songs in there have lyrics by
Bertolt Brecht.

You know, we talked about how much you loved showtunes growing up...

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...in Germany. And an earlier CD that you did a couple of years ago
called "Las Vegas Rhapsody" has a lot of like showtunes and American pop tunes
in it. Are any of the songs on that album songs that had personal
significance from your childhood?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Particularly "Out of My Dreams" and "We Kiss in a Shadow"
meant a lot to me because I--those were two of the songs that were on records
that I had bought and listened to over and over and over again. I think I got
those lyrics right, hopefully.

GROSS: Those are actually my two favorite tracks on the album, and...

Mr. BLECKMANN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: ...I thought we'd play "We Kiss in the Shadows"...

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and this is from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "The King and
I." Is that one of the musicals that you watched a lot?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes. When they would come on TV. There was no VCR or
anything, so maybe once a year.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is "We Kiss in the Shadows" and Fumio
Yasuda is accompanying you at the piano. And this is from Theo Bleckmann's
album "Las Vegas Rhapsody."

(Soundbite of "We Kiss in the Shadows")

Mr. BLECKMANN: (Singing) We kiss in a shadow
We hide from the moon
Our meetings are few
And over too soon

We speak in a whisper
Afraid to be heard
When people are near
We speak not a word

Alone in a secret
Together we sigh
For one smiling day
To be free

To kiss in the sunlight
And say to the sky,
`Behold and believe what you see
Behold how my lover loves me'

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Theo Bleckmann from his album "Las Vegas Rhapsody," and his new
CD "Berlin" features German songs, mostly songs with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht,
and Theo Bleckmann grew up in Germany.

How old were you when you moved to the United States?

Mr. BLECKMANN: I was 23.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned your dream was to be a painter.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I had read that you were an ice dancer in Germany. Is that wrong?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes, that's correct. Yes, during my voice break I needed
something else to do, so I went into figure skating and, you know, after my
voice came back, that took backseat.

GROSS: So what kind of music did you dance to as a figure skater?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Oh, of course, showtunes--Gershwin. One of the routines we
did was to a "Sweet Charity" medley, and Gershwin--I always thought it would
be so kooky to use a Weber and string quartet or something completely atonal
and crazy, but of course so many people have fingers in their pie of what
decisions are being made, including costumes and music, and so that was never
an option.

GROSS: What's the greatest costume you wore?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Spandex, of course, and lots of glitter on it.

GROSS: Now, when you talk about your voice break, because you were singing as
a boy and you had to...

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...wait out the break in your voice, it sounds like, `well, you know,
taking a little hiatus while my voice breaks.'

Mr. BLECKMANN: Hm.

GROSS: But it must have been kind of scary for you when your voice broke to
not know...

Mr. BLECKMANN: It was very scary.

GROSS: ...how it would come back.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Oh my God, yes. Especially when your identity as a musician
as a child was so closely linked to that. I remember being in the recording
studio and doing a recording at that time, and I thought that licorice would
help it go away, so I just kept eating licorice, bag after bag after bag. And
it would help, you know, it goes up and down in the beginning, so I thought,
oh, this is really working. But of course, it didn't. Yeah, it is scary.

GROSS: For several years you sang in a group led by Meredith Monk, who is...

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes.

GROSS: ...a very extraordinary singer and composer.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And her style of singing is influenced by all kinds of singing around
the world, from Tuvan throat singing to you know, Bulgarian choirs and...

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Are there techniques that you learned by working with her that helped
you learn about things that your voice could do that you otherwise might not
have known about?

Mr. BLECKMANN: It wasn't so much technique that I learned with Meredith. It
was finding a motivation, or an impetus, for each sound that you do. I think
one of the many reasons why Meredith's work is so incredibly strong and
powerful is that it's not just any old sound making that's clever and fun and
interesting, but there's an emotional motivation for everything. And I
learned that without that, it means nothing. Without that you can sing the
craziest sounds and isn't that clever, isn't that interesting, but what does
it mean? What does it make you feel? Who is this person singing this crazy
sound? That's what we constantly worked on in the ensemble and working on her
music. And the same is true for regular singing, too, of course. But in
sound making, it's not really talked about as much because sometimes people
think that sound is enough. I disagree with that. I think that sound isn't
always enough.

GROSS: Theo Bleckmann will be back in the second half of the show. His new
CD is called "Berlin: Songs of Love and War, Peace and Exile." I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Theo Bleckmann, a singer
as comfortable with showtunes as he is with avant garde music. His 2006 album
"Las Vegas Rhapsody" featured showtunes and pop songs. His new album,
"Berlin: Songs of Love and War, Peace and Exile," features songs by Kurt
Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler and others. Bleckmann also sings and
performs wordless vocals in duo in small assembly settings.

I'd like our listeners to hear your more contemporary, or
experimental--whatever you want to call it--that side of you...

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Is there something you'd like us to play?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well, maybe "Norwegian Wood," which sort of brings together
both of those elements.

GROSS: Song and adventure.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And you...

Mr. BLECKMANN: That's nicely put.

GROSS: You do something in the break of this that sounds kind of like Tuvan
throat singing.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm. Which it is, yeah. I worked on my overtone singing
some while back and see if I could refine it on my own and work on which
overtones I get when and sort of that part entered this arrangement.

GROSS: Is there a way--would you be willing to just like demonstrate what it
is that you do, like how it sounds and how you get there?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well, the easiest way to start overtone singing is to go into
your bathroom, if you have a, you know, especially reverberant bathroom, and
start singing, you know, mid to low range on the word "bird" and stay on the
"ir", especially easy for Americans, especially from Texas. (Singing) Bird.
(Spoken) And play around with the position of the tongue and move it back and
forth very slowly and listen to what's coming out.

GROSS: Is it the lips, too, that you're moving?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Not so much the lips, but the inside of your mouth.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BLECKMANN: The cavities are changing, mostly the tongue. It's the
tongue position.

GROSS: But when you sing in overtones it sounds like you're singing several
notes at one time.

Mr. BLECKMANN: They just swing along. They just ring along with what I'm
singing because they're present. It's like a color spectrum. Each color has
other colors in it. The color white has all the colors in it, so I just, by
just changing the shape of my mouth, I emphasize red and blue and yellow and
purple in the spectrum.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear what you do with "Norwegian Wood," singing it and
doing a little throat singing--overtone singing in there.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And this is from an album that you made with the guitarist Ben Monder,
and the CD is called "At Night."

(Soundbite of "Norwegian Wood")

Mr. BLECKMANN: (Singing) I sat on a rug biding my time
Drinking her wine
We talked until 2, and then she said
It's time for bed
She told me she worked in the morning
And started to laugh
And I told I her didn't and crawled into sleep
in the bath

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's singer Theo Bleckmann with Ben Monder on guitar from their
album "At Night."

Because you have such range and flexibility and tonal variety with your voice,
I think you've also done some, like, movie special effects?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm. Yes.

GROSS: Tell us what you've done.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well, I got a call some years ago from a friend of mine who
was engineering a sound improv session for a movie, and he asked me to read
this dialogue in the voice of an alien. And I read through this, and it was
this person whose head opens and then this alien comes out of the head and
then this person falls into a plate of pierogis, and so I was supposed to read
this, but pretend I was an alien. And I thought, this is the worst movie
script I've ever seen in my life. It was just two pages, just this one scene.
And so I kept, you know, doing one take, and he said, `OK, now do it in
another way. And I did another take. And this goes on and on, and after six
takes, we're like, OK, done. I said, `Who directs this? This is not even a B
movie. This is like an F movie.' And he said, `This is a Steven Spielberg
production called "Men in Black."'

GROSS: "Men in Black."

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well. That was one of them.

GROSS: That little movie. Yeah.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yeah.

GROSS: So, we'll hear the scene but tell us what you did vocally.

Mr. BLECKMANN: I just--I just improvised what to me could be alien language.
And, you know, they asked for it to be lip-synch-able so not too crazy so that
people could learn it. I think what ultimately happened in this session was
that it was too complicated for them, or I don't know what happened, but
usually my biggest pet peeve with these alien voices is that they all have
this strange reverb on them, if you've noticed, so there's so much effect on
this alien in the movie that I can't even tell if it's my voice or somebody
else's voice.

GROSS: Because it's so processed?

Mr. BLECKMANN: It's so processed. It's so strange, like aliens come to this
world with a complete reverb chamber and EQ system that surrounds them.

GROSS: Hey, they have better technology on other planets. So since we won't
be able to tell it's you on the film, do you want to just do what you did?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well, I did something like...(fake alien language spoken).
Perhaps something like that.

GROSS: It almost sounds like it was processed in some parts.

Mr. BLECKMANN: If you put enough reverb on it, yeah.

GROSS: So when you moved to American, you were 23.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes.

GROSS: Were you already out in Germany when you moved to the States?

Mr. BLECKMANN: No. No. I still had a girlfriend when I moved here, and the
way I was outed in Germany was I was reviewed in a gay magazine for a record
that I did saying that I was gay, and I thought my life would end. I thought,
this is it. My life is over. I will have no career. And everybody will hate
me. I might as well just pack it up. And, first of all, nobody cares.
Nobody reads the thing, first of all. And then, secondly, nobody cares.
That's the most amazing thing. Nobody cares.

GROSS: So what year is this?

Mr. BLECKMANN: This was 1991.

GROSS: So this was a German gay magazine?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes.

GROSS: So did nobody care because nobody cared about you, or did nobody care
because the atmosphere was that open that nobody cared that you were gay?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yeah. Exactly. And most...

GROSS: Open? Open?

Mr. BLECKMANN: ...people--open and most people will say, `Oh, we already
knew. Hello, you were ice skating.'

GROSS: You were ice skating to showtunes.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes.

GROSS: With glitter costumes. Yes. So do you still skate?

Mr. BLECKMANN: No. The last time I went skating was with a good friend of
mine, Maria Schneider, who used to be a figure skater herself.

GROSS: Oh, she's a jazz composer.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes.

GROSS: An arranger. Yeah.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes. And we went figure skating in Central Park when the
Cristo installation was up, and that was really fun. But after an hour I
can't even stand it anymore because my feet start to hurt so much in my old
skating boots that I just had to stop.

GROSS: Right. OK.

Mr. BLECKMANN: And it's kind of depressing. You can do one trick and that's
it? You know, one little pirouette or one lame little jump. It's
just--that's no fun anymore.

GROSS: You've worked with like sound distortion and manipulation...

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and electronic music and stuff, and the German group Kraftwerk was
one of the...

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...first groups to bring like the pop version of electronic music.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes.

GROSS: And, you know, they had big heads. So did they have any influence on
you when you were younger?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Absolutely. I actually performed one of their songs on...

GROSS: No really?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes. With a little Cassio keyboard.

GROSS: Not the Autobahn?

Mr. BLECKMANN: No, it's called "The Model." "Das Model." I love them. I
think they're absolutely genius. I can't say enough about them. Yeah, I
tried to get tickets to their concert last time they were in New York, but it
was impossible. I just, I worship at their feet. They're amazing.

GROSS: What's the song that you do, "The Model"?

Mr. BLECKMANN: It's called "The Model." "She's a model and she's looking
good" is the first line of the lyric.

GROSS: Can you sing a couple of bars of it?

(Soundbite of Theo Bleckmann singing "Das Model" in German)

Mr. BLECKMANN: That's the song.

GROSS: That's like African clicking that you're doing as you hum, yes?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes. I'm trying to be my own Cassio.

GROSS: Have you studied a lot of world singing techniques?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Not really. I think a lot of this stuff is self-evident when
you start exploring.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. BLECKMANN: I've done a lot of just recording myself, exploring, seeing
what I can do. Let's say I would go through the alphabet. I'd start with the
letter A and I come up with every sound that I can on the vowel A. And then I
take the first one and I make three variations on the first one, etc. So it
becomes this tree of variations and then...

GROSS: Show me what you mean.

Mr. BLECKMANN: So let's say I have A, ah. Try to get a buzz in there a
little bit. Then I make a variation on that one, ah-ah-ah. Put a vibrato in
it. Or I go ah, ah, ah, ah. Do it staccato. Then I do another gravelly ah
on, maybe, on a slide, ahhhhaha. Etc. And then I do, you know, other ahs,
other sounds with ah that have different variations. So I write them down and
meticulously lay it out and see if I can combine them. So there's where the
click comes in, where I have--maybe I have (sings using ahs and clicks). Etc.

You know, it's endless. It's an endless game of just trying to find sounds
and see what you can do. Sort of like a painter taking their colors and
putting them together and mixing them to different degrees and seeing if this
one works next to that one and let's put, you know, more white into that and
more this and more that. So it's very simple. But then--and this goes back
to Meredith--then the hardest part is, what does it mean? What is this about?
Is this just a cool effect or what am I trying to say here, and this is what
I'm constantly struggling with and working on is, why. Why this sound? Why
that sound? What does it mean to me? And that's when the work starts to, I
think, to jam and get more--a deeper place for me.

GROSS: Theo Bleckmann, thank you so much for talking with us, and thank you
for demonstrating some of the things that you can do with your voice.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

GROSS: Theo Bleckmann's new CD is called "Berlin: Songs of Love and War,
Peace and Exile."

Coming up, why your credit card interest rate may be going up even though your
bank interest rate has gone down. This is FRESH AIR.

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Interview: Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren on credit card
interest rates
TERRY GROSS, host:

If you look closely at your credit card bill during this economic downturn, or
actually read the fine print in the contract updates you get in the mail, you
may be in for some surprises. Here to explain is Harvard law school professor
Elizabeth Warren. She specializes in credit card law and bankruptcy law.
Yesterday she talked with us about credit rating agencies and the mistakes
they often make when calculating your credit score.

Elizabeth Warren, welcome back to FRESH AIR. How are credit card companies
responding to the credit crunch that resulted from the subprime mortgage
meltdown and the resulting financial crisis?

Professor ELIZABETH WARREN: They're trying to improve their revenues, and
they're using two principal tools right now. The first is that they're
increasing interest rates and fees all over the place. So you've been making
payments on a regular basis on your outstanding credit card at 9.9 percent.
Hey, welcome to the new world. It's now 18.9 percent. Not because the
likelihood you would repay has changed, not because interest rates have
changed--indeed, they've fallen--but because the company needs the money. And
they think that in this time of economic pressure on families, you'll be less
likely to bolt at a higher interest rate than you were before. So...

GROSS: Because you're more desperate for the money.

Prof. WARREN: Well, or just more worried that you can't find it somewhere
else. That's exactly right. So, you know, if they got you, then they're
going to squeeze you. And that's part of what's going on right now.

GROSS: Gee, it's so counterintuitive that interest rates would have fallen in
the bank but interest rates are going up with the credit card agencies.

Prof. WARREN: Isn't that stunning? And always remember, interest rates are
just the visible sign of what's happening. The major credit card issuers this
spring sent out letters all across America just plain old raising interest
rates, and they did it in a way so that they would minimize the number of
people who saw it. So I actually saw some of these letters. They look like
kind of your standard form: `We have blah blah blah blah blah.' You know,
`Dear customer,' you know, it's on a mimeographed sort of thing, and down in
the fifth paragraph it just says, `and if we don't hear otherwise from you,
we're going to raise your interest to 18.99 percent.' And hope that they don't
hear otherwise from you. Or in some cases, they don't care, because under
their contract they can just change the interest rate whenever they want
anyway.

So lots of those went out. But always keep in mind, Terry, as we talked about
before, there are lots of ways to raise the revenues, and so a large part of
what they're doing is, well, is trying to squeeze in all the other areas that
are not as visible. So what used to be a $29 charge becomes a $39 charge.
What used to be a $15 charge moves to a $20 charge. All of these have
ratcheted up.

GROSS: You're talking about late fees and things like that.

Prof. WARREN: Late fees, over limit fees, pay to play fees, fee fees. I
mean, they've just--they've tucked them in everywhere because the credit card
contract is only partly about interest and much more--increasingly about all
the kind of tricks and traps and ways you can squeeze a nickle here and a
dollar there, and $20 here and $50 there. That's where the real growth in
revenues has been in the last four or five years. And, boy, is that happening
now big time in order to try to bring revenues, suck revenues into the
companies to offset losses as people are losing their jobs, as people can't
make their other payments, as people are getting into financial trouble,
they're putting the big push in fee areas, in double cycle billing and
trailing interest rates, and everything that the typical customer cannot see
until it's simply too late.

GROSS: So a couple of things you've given us to look out for. One is that
increasing fees, but also the interest rate that you signed up for might have
been raised by a lot very recently because of the credit crunch.

Prof. WARREN: Right.

GROSS: So you're suggesting that we check and see what is our interest rate
now. It might be higher than we think it is.

Prof. WARREN: Right. And then there's a third one.

GROSS: Yeah.

Prof. WARREN: And that is, there's more marketing of lousy products. So the
offers to buy credit insurance that sounds like, you know, `We're going to
play on your fears. These are dangerous times. You're nervous you might lose
your job, you know. You could get sick. You don't have health insurance.' So
there's a lot more marketing. There's been a real step-up in marketing of
what are really lousy credit products. And I say they're lousy because
they're very high-priced relative to the amount of insurance you're getting.
You may be getting, you know, somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 worth of
insurance and yet paying in the neighborhood of $20 a month. You know, you
could do a lot better by getting some other kind of insurance somewhere else.

So partly it's about the pricing of this insurance. And partly it's about,
quite frankly, many of these so-called insurance policies are designed to try
to, shall we say, never pay. You know, that you can't come up with the right
documentation. You really can't come up with the right set of conditions that
makes it so that the insurance company will pay off. Or if they pay off on
some of these, it sounds like, when you read the promotional literature, what
they're going to do is, if you lose your job they'll cancel your $6,000
outstanding credit card. No, it's if you lose your job, they'll continue to
carry your $6,000 balance, but they'll suspend interest for six months.
That's not very much protection. So there's a real step up in these revenue
generators. They're, frankly, just crummy deals.

GROSS: Have you been getting any new come-ons in the junk mail at your home?

Prof. WARREN: So I got a new one this morning. And the new come-on was a
gift card that, if I would sign up for what was described as a wonderful
opportunity with my credit card company, I had this $15 gift card that I could
go use. And gift cards have become the new freebie, I think, the new way to
seduce people in because as soon as I use the gift card, what happens is it
trigger my having signed up for a year's worth of this really lousy, in my
case, this really lousy credit insurance that would cost me money, far more
than the $15 I would have gotten on the gift card.

GROSS: Elizabeth Warren, thank you so much.

Prof. WARREN: It's always a pleasure to talk to you.

GROSS: Elizabeth Warren is a Harvard law school professor.

Coming up, our book credit Maureen Corrigan has a new novel to recommend.
This is FRESH AIR.

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Review: Maureen Corrigan on Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Joseph O'Neill writes regularly for The Atlantic Monthly and is the author of
two novels and a memoir, "Blood Dark Track," that was a New York Times notable
book. But book critic Maureen Corrigan says that O'Neill's latest novel is in
a class by itself. For one thing, it got her interested in the game of
cricket. Here's her review.

Mr. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: The strategy is so obvious, so inevitable, you wonder
why it took so long for a writer to carry it out. What I'm talking about is
the idea to write a novel about post-9/11 New York City as viewed through the
scrim of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece "The Great Gatsby." Gatsby is the
great American novel about dreaming, over-reaching, and loss, but what many
people forget is that it's also a great novel about New York City. Remember
that immortal ending where our wistful narrator, Nick Carraway, talks about
how when "the green breast of the new world, Manhattan, appeared before Dutch
sailors' eyes, it was the last time in history when man beheld an object
commensurate with his capacity to wonder"? It's all over, Carraway is saying
in that ending: the age of discovery, the vision of America as a land of
endless potential, the promise of roaring '20s New York City. It's finished,
kaput. We live in a permanent state of aftermath, which is where Joseph
O'Neill's marvelous novel "Netherland" begins.

Our narrator here is, loosely speaking, a latter-day Dutch sailor who's washed
up on the ragged shores of lower Manhattan. Hans van der Broek is an equities
analyst whose English wife, Rachel, has left him and gone back to England,
taking their young son with her. In the shuddering wake of 9/11, Rachel tells
Hans that she's been questioning the narrative of their marriage. He in turn
burrows into a dank apartment in the infamous Chelsea Hotel, long-time home to
suicidal rock stars and other desolation angels of the city. Through a fluke
encounter with a cab driver, the drifting Hans is drawn into the fraternity of
cricket players in New York City. Hans had played the sport as a child in
Holland, but he discovers that in contemporary New York the leagues are
populated by tribes of all nations. His teammates are from Trinidad, India,
Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Guyana. Hans, in short, is the only pale face
among them.

He strikes up a friendship of sorts with an umpire, a Trinidadian named Chuck
Ramkissoon. Ramkissoon thinks big. He harbors an ambition to erect a
state-of-the-art cricket field on the grounds of the derelict Floyd Bennett
Field in Brooklyn. The listless Hans gets caught up in this fantasy, but as
he becomes more entangled with Ramkissoon, he discovers that, like Jay Gatsby,
Chuck Ramkissoon is yet another flowering of that all-American hybrid, the
go-getter with the soul of a dreamer disastrously crossed with the brain of a
con man.

If you're going to invoke Gatsby as often as O'Neill does in
"Netherland"--and, by the way, catching all those references to ferry boats,
Jewish front men, and death by drowning is undeniably part of the insider fun
of reading this novel--you'd better be able to acquit yourself honorably
against the sheer gorgeousness of Fitzgerald's prose. That O'Neill does. And
believe me, I can't think of many novelists I would put within spitting
distance of Fitzgerald.

O'Neill is a wide-ranging stylist, capable of whipping out unexpected but
precisely right words like peregrinating, and also adroit at muted comedy,
like when Hans looks at Ramkissoon's hairy chest and spots a necklace's gold
drool. But where O'Neill really soars is in his appreciation of the shadowy
spaces in and around New York City. Like Fitzgerald, O'Neill is a poet of
retrospection, a mood that suits Hans in his depression and New York City
directly after 9/11. Hence we're treated here to haunting descriptions of the
aforementioned Floyd Bennett Field, with its runways overgrown with grass and
ghosts of dashing aviators; Greenwood Cemetery, with its graves of Tiffany's
and Steinways, and even lowly Flatbush Avenue, which Hans describes as being
crammed with hole-in-the-wall premises devoted to the beautification of those
body parts that continue to thrive after death: hair palaces, nail palaces,
barbershops, African hair-braiding specialists, and wig and hairpiece
suppliers.

In the decades since its publication, "The Great Gatsby" itself has become
something of a green light for novelists, a literary ideal to be reached for,
but never quite grasped. O'Neill in "Netherland" runs faster, stretches out
his arms farther, and approaches the glow of greatness.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill. You can read an excerpt from
"Netherland" on our Web site, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download
podcasts of our show.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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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