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Tin Pan Alley Artists And Times Of Change

Rock historian Ed Ward explains how New York City's Tin Pan Alley songwriters coped with changing times in the 1960s.

07:42

Other segments from the episode on April 23, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 23, 2009: Interview with Carol Leifer; Interview with Craig Yoe; Commentary on Tin Pan Alley songwriters.

Transcript

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'Reflections' On Life, Love And Comedy

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

My guest is comic, actress and writer Carol Leifer. She started working the
comedy clubs when Paul Reiser, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David were getting
started, and they became her friends.

She later wrote for the NBC series, “Seinfeld.” She’s also had her own TV
comedy specials. She’s written a new memoir, called “When You Lie About Your
Age, the Terrorists Win.” She’s 52 now.

Her book is about a lot of the surprising changes she made in her life as she
got older, like after she turned 40, she decided she wanted to have a lesbian
fling. That first fling turned into a committed relationship.

Leifer and her partner adopted a son a few years ago, another big surprise,
since until then, Leifer didn’t think she wanted to have a child. Her memoir is
also about comedy and how her father helped inspire her to become a comic.

Carol Leifer, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Ms. CAROL LEIFER (Author, “When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win:
Reflections on Looking in the Mirror”): Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Your opening essay in the new book is about your father, who recently
died at the age of 86, and you write that he’s the reason you wanted to be
funny because he was funny. And in this piece, you tell one of the jokes that
he used to tell. It’s a, quote, dirty joke that you didn’t get when you were a
kid. It’s such a great joke, so I have to start by asking you to tell it.

Ms. LEIFER: Okay, well, a guy goes to the movies with his pet chicken, and he
buys two tickets, and the person says who’s going in with you? And he goes,
well, my pet chicken here. And the ticket person says hey, you can’t bring an
animal in the movie theater.

So the guy goes around the corner. He stuffs the chicken down his pants, goes
into the movies. And the movie starts, but the chicken is starting to get a
little hot. So the guy unzips his fly to let the chicken stick his head out and
get a little air.

So a little bit of time has passed by, and a woman nudges her friend and says,
you know, this guy next to me just unzipped his pants. And the woman goes eh,
look. You know, you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. And the woman goes yeah,
I know, but this one’s eating my popcorn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I love that.

Ms. LEIFER: Yes, hilarity ensures. But I remember as a kid, you know, my father
telling this joke a lot and getting big laughs. And I was young enough that I
didn’t really understand it, you know, because all I heard was a chicken and,
you know, a zipper, and it didn’t really make sense.

I found out, you know, what the joke meant later, and that just might have been
the thing that pushed me into lesbianism, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: Which we’ll get to later.

Yeah, but I really – you know, my father was the king of the joke-tellers, and
I was so impressed as a child watching him hold people in rapt attention with
these stories, and it had a big impact on me.

GROSS: So did he actually collect jokes?

Ms. LEIFER: He did. My father, he was the kind of guy that, you know, he’s
always throw out any subject, and I got a joke on it. And he really – one of
the high points of his life was my mom is a Ph.D. in psychology, and she went
to one of her psychology conventions, and the scheduled entertainment for that
night had cancelled. And the psychologists, knowing that my father was a big
joke-teller, asked if he would mind stepping in and telling some jokes.

And as I hear it, you know, he was thrilled and delighted, and he I think told
about a half an hour or 45 minutes of jokes, and he killed, and it was really a
fantastic night for him.

GROSS: Now the essay that was the biggest surprise to me in your book is the
one in which you explain that although you’d been married, although you’d
always liked boys, you wanted to have a lesbian fling. And the woman you had
that fling with more than 12 years ago has become your partner. You’ve since
adopted a son. You have seven rescue dogs together.

So let’s start at the beginning of this. Why, after what being sounds like an
enthusiastic heterosexual, did you decide that you wanted to try being with a
woman?

Ms. LEIFER: I don’t know what came over me, Terry. It just became this
obsession. I just remember I really wanted to have an affair with a woman. I
remember this movie “Bound” was out at the time.

GROSS: Oh, Gina Gershon, is that the…?

Ms. LEIFER: Yes, but I remember there were these sex scenes in “Bound,” and I
must have burned through the videotape, I just watched it so much. It just
became something I had to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: And you know, little did I know that this woman that I would meet
at a charity event, at a Project Angel Food event, would, you know, be the
woman who I had this fling with who I didn’t expect I fell madly in love with,
and here we are 12 years later.

GROSS: When you realized that you were actually serious about her and her about
you, and this was going to be a long-lasting relationship, did you have to,
like reorient parts of your identity because now you were in a lesbian
relationship and a long-term one? You know, so it wasn’t about like having your
lesbian fling. It was the real thing.

Ms. LEIFER: No. You know, it was difficult because I did approach this as oh,
you know, my fun, chic lesbian affair. This will be a great story, and I didn’t
expect to be captivated and to find myself really so in love in such a
different way, and it was a difficult transition because, you know, it was like
this was supposed to be my fun fling. This was not supposed to be something to
redefine me.

It’s a vast transformation. I mean, I have a joke about it in my book that, you
know, I went to gay bookstores for help, you know. Yes, excuse me, do you have
what the (censored) just happened to me? Because it is that powerful of a
transformation in your life, and…

GROSS: So what does it say, do you think, that you changed? Do you think you
had, like, repressed feelings about girls when you were younger? Do you think
that you were heterosexual at one time, and that just changed? Do you think
that means you’re bisexual or that there’s this kind of like shifting scale of
sexuality, and your scale shifted? I mean, do you think of sexuality, the
nature of sexual orientation differently than you did before?

Ms. LEIFER: I do. I do. I think that what I’ve learned from the experience is
that our sexuality is constantly evolving and can be a fluid thing.

GROSS: Or at least for some people it can. I mean, I think for some people it
probably can’t be, on both ends.

Ms. LEIFER: Yes, but I do think that it really did hit me like a bolt of
lightning, and I’m not an unexamined person. I mean, I’ve been in therapy most
of my adult life, you know, but I’m not sure.

I mean, I do talk in the book about, you know, my first crush was on Davy Jones
of the Monkees, you know, and I had a lot of powerful feelings for boys, but I
remember as a kid being obsessed with - Herb Alpert had this album cover, and
it was a woman who was naked, who was covered with whipped cream, and I was
really fascinated with it.

And it’s like I don’t know. Was that some early indication of some attraction
to women? I’m not sure, you know.

GROSS: So how do you tell your parents when you’re in your late 30s, you’ve
been married, that you’re actually now a lesbian?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: Well, it was an interesting ride. You know, it had started a little
bit earlier because really, I think three weeks after I met Laurie(ph), I had a
breast cancer scare. And I went and had a mammogram. And it was the worst thing
that, you know, a woman expects when you go to have a mammogram, where you
know, usually you’re kind of in and out. And it was one of these oh, stick
around, the doctor wants to take more films and then comes back again and take
more films, and you know, I basically left this radiologist’s office that day
with – you know, I cornered him as I was leaving. I go, what do you think it
is? And he was like, I think it’s 80-20, probably cancer. And I was like what
are you basing that on? He was like, from 20 years of doing what I do.

And you know, I immediately called Laurie. And we’d only been together for
three weeks, you know, even to the point where I wouldn’t even have referred to
her as my girlfriend yet, but something in my adrenaline made me reach out to
her. And she was so rock solid to me in that moment, and I think about it a lot
because it had such an impact on me and our relationship.

It was like, you know, breathe and let’s get through this, and don’t worry
about it, and you know, I really had a day, 24 hours, where I thought I had
cancer, and she was amazing. I mean, she came over to my apartment and brought
a big basket of movies and thought we’d relax and hang out and kind of chill,
but I was like, I need to get drunk.

I just want to get drunk. And you know, she took me to this great place that we
like. She let me get drunk. She drove me home. And it turned out, you know, the
next day I spoke to the doctor, and it was a fibroadenoma, which is a non-
cancerous tumor.

But I had to go – I went back to New York to have this fibroadenoma out, and
Laurie came with me, and we went and visited my parents on Long Island, just to
say hello before my procedure.

So you know, I was not ready to come out to my parents yet. This was still very
new. So Laurie came as my, quote, friend. Anyway, we saw my parents, and I had
the procedure. About six months later, I called my folks up because I wanted to
come to New York and tell them about meeting Laurie and being gay now, and you
know, to Jewish parents.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: I mean, I called, I said I want to come back to Long Island and
talk to you about something. You know, the first thing my mother did was like
you’re not sick, are you? It’s like no, I’m not sick. You promise you’re not
sick? No, I’m not sick.

And I went back to talk to my parents about it, and I completely expected them
to be very emotional about it and basket cases and kind of the flip thing
happened. I was the basket case. I was so emotional, and my parents were cool
as cucumbers about it.

And I was crying, actually, and you know, my father, you know, my dear, sweet
father, was like why are you crying? And I said, well, I thought you would be
disappointed. And my father said disappointed? I’ll tell you when I was
disappointed, when you married that shaigetz, you know, which is Yiddish for
non-Jewish person.

So they were amazing about it, but what I think was also very revealing was
when I came home to come out to my parents. My mother did say to me, I knew. I
knew when Laurie came with you to come back for that procedure for the
fibroadenoma that you were lovers. And she knew, she said, because we took a
walk around the neighborhood that day, and we walked ahead of my parents, and
my mother said I could tell the way you two were walking together that you were
a couple.

And I think that’s so interesting. I mean look, she is also a shrink. She might
be a little more highly attuned to people and, you know, their behavior, but
it’s just interesting what you can think you can hide that you can’t hide.

GROSS: So you must have been really grateful to your parents for getting it,
and not for, you know, being upset or worrying, like, how are we going to tell
our friends, or you know, like don’t bring her home.

Ms. LEIFER: Well, you know, I do think, though, that like the power of Judaism,
you know, the fact that my parents met Laurie, liked her, but you know, the
fact that she was Jewish is like - you know, she could’ve been a chimp, but
it’s like hey, she’s Jewish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: You know, it’s like add 1,000 points.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: They were just so thrilled and delighted, you know, the trade-off
of a guy who’s not Jewish to a woman who’s Jewish. They were like, you know,
hey, let’s break out the Manischewitz, you know?

GROSS: My guest is comic and writer, Carol Leifer. She has a new memoir. It’s
called “When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win.” We’ll talk more after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is comic and comedy writer Carol
Leifer, and her new collection of personal essays is called “When You Lie About
Your Age, the Terrorists Win.”

You never wanted to have children, and you had been married. I mean, you could
have had children then, but when you were 50, and your partner, Laurie was 43,
you both decided to adopt. What changed your mind about having children?

Ms. LEIFER: It’s just still so interesting to me. I really, really thought not
only I couldn’t have children at that point, but I’d just never really wanted
to have kids, and then it became more of a passion for Laurie, and we started
to talk about it, and then it just became, it just suddenly became something
that we really wanted to do.

And you know, that’s what I love about, you know, adoption. There’s no age
limit to it, and so at 50 and 43, we adopted our son, Bruno(ph), and it’s
really been amazing. It’s been something that I never would have expected to be
as great as it is, and what I love about it is that I think I’m so much of a
better mother now at 52 than, oh God, I would have been at 42 or 32.

GROSS: Why?

Ms. LEIFER: I just think it’s – I just have a different pace to my life now
than I did then. It was much more go, go, you know, turning on all cylinders.
It’s much easier for me to kick back now, and I think what really makes a great
parent, especially now that I am a parent, is the ability to kick back and be
with it and enjoy it because I think it’s all – that’s what a kid is all about.

And you know, what I think is so fascinating is all the platitudes that I’d
heard about kids somehow start becoming real, you know, of the – I’d always
hear you kind of re-experience the world through your child’s eyes, and it
seemed kind of, you know, dumb and fake to me, and it really happens.

GROSS: Let’s get back to telling jokes.

Ms. LEIFER: Okay.

GROSS: You – at the beginning of our interview, you were talking about your
father and how he was a great joke-teller and how you got started when you were
still in college, working as a comic.

Do you now feel like there’s a part of you that’s attached to an older period
of show-biz, one that doesn’t exist anymore?

Ms. LEIFER: Hmm.

GROSS: I’m thinking for instance that I know in your collection of prized
possessions, you have some cue cards that – of patter between Milton Berle and
Bob Hope from a special that you worked on. You opened for Sinatra in Vegas.
You were on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.

Now grated, this was late in Sinatra’s life, it was late in Carson’s career,
but still you were there for that.

Ms. LEIFER: Well, you know, it’s also one of the things I love about, you know,
where I’m at in my life and my career. You know, I’ve been doing what I do for
it’s going to be 32 years. I mean, it’s just mind-boggling to me, you know,
that I’ve been doing what I love for so long.

And the advantage of being, you know, having been around for so long is that I
have, you know, been with the greats like Sinatra and, you know, being on a Bob
Hope special with Milton Berle. And you know, I’m very happy that I’m a little
bit of a yenta that way, you know, waiting around after a special like that,
like would you mind very much if I took the cue cards?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: That kind of stuff and making sure that I got a picture with Carson
when I was on with him. But what I love about show business, that it is this
long chain, and all these greats that went before me and the evolution of
comedy, to you know, have been a part of it, even started 30 years ago and see
how much has changed.

And then, you know, to be a part of it, you know, even now, I mean, I just did
a part in Judd Apatow’s new movie that’s coming out called “Funny People,” with
Adam Sandler, and in the movie, he has dinner with, you know, some of the
people, the comedy people he admired when he was coming up, and Paul Reiser was
in the scene and myself and George Wallace, and you know, it’s – I like being a
part of this history.

But in the end, what I love about it is a funny person is a funny person. And
I’m sure that if I came up, you know, with Bob Hope, if he were part of my
generation, or George Carlin, I would’ve buddied around with them like I
buddied around with the guys of my generation.

It’s a very kind of – it’s a small, little, fun clique to be a part of because
funny people do kind of gravitate to funny people. I trust comedians so much
more than I do regular people, you know, because there is this bond that you
have of this quirky little skill you have that does make you part of this
fraternity.

GROSS: One more thing. Growing up with a mother who was a psychologist, you
know, a lot of kids feel like their mothers are kind of omniscient and can read
their minds, and they can’t get away with stuff. Did you feel that way about
your mother, especially since she was a psychologist?

Ms. LEIFER: Well, I used to do a line about my mom in my act, Terry, that she
was not crazy about, which was it’s hard to picture my mom solving other
people’s problems when she’s the root of most of mine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: Yeah, she did not dig that joke, but you know, having a shrink for
a mom is just, it’s different. It’s weird. In certain ways, I think they forget
to take their shrink hat off and just put the mom hat on. I think that’s kind
of always the challenge, you know, but I do, you know, remember another funny
story.

When I was learning to drive, I went driving with my mom, and I accidentally
hit this squirrel in the road. And my mother, to cheer me up, was like you
know, don’t worry. The squirrel clearly displayed suicidal tendencies anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEIFER: So don’t bum out about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, Carol Leifer, thanks so much for talking with us.

Ms. LEIFER: Oh, it was my pleasure.

GROSS: Carol Leifer new memoir is called “When You Lie About Your Age, the
Terrorists Win.” You can read an excerpt on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. I’m
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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The Sexy ‘Secret Identity’ Of Superman’s Creator

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

America’s first caped superhero, Superman, stood for morality and
righteousness. But the artist who co-created him like Superman had a secret
identity - drawing illustrations that were the opposite of everything Superman
stood for. These pictures had women in their underwear being spanked, whipped,
chained, having their stiletto heeled shoes kissed - though sometimes it was
the woman dishing out the punishment. Golly gee, Superman, this stuff is kinky.

My guest Craig Yoe discovered the Secret identity of Superman’s co-creator, Joe
Shuster. Yoe tells the story behind Shuster’s fetish art and collects many of
those illustrations in his new book “Secret Identity.” The magazine that
featured Shuster’s fetish art, “Nights of Horror,” was at the center of a
gruesome crime case in 1954. In 1957 the Supreme Court ordered all copies of
the magazine destroyed. My guest Craig Yoe has written many books about comics.

He’s also the former creative director for Jim Henson and the Muppets and now
has his own design firm, Yoe’s Studio. Craig Yoe, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me
start by asking you to you describe the drawings that Joe Shuster did for
“Nights of Horror.”

Mr. CRAIG YOE (Author: “Secret Identity: The Fetish Art Of Superman’s Co-
creator Joe Shuster”): Well, these are like Superman gone wild. I mean
characters looked quite a bit like a Clark Kent, Superman, and his counterparts
Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and the villain who plagued him, Lex Luthor. You think
they’re the citizens of metropolis yet they’re in these very compromising
sexual situations. I’ve been kind of amused and annoyed that some people have
called the illustrations kind of quaint or charming because they’re from the
50s. But I think they’re anything but there’s - there’s bloodletting and
there’s whips and chains and a man menaces a young girl with a cactus.

And there’s pouring of red ants down another young ladies panties, if I be so
explicit and I – believe me I could me more explicit. The illustrations are
quite strong, quite pulpy, yet beautifully composed, beautifully drawn,
beautifully rendered in Joe’s strong, sure style. You know, the same style he
used to create Superman and now he is creating scenes of sexual horror.

GROSS: Give us an example of the kind of similarities in illustration style
between the Superman comics in the “Nights of Horror” illustrations that made
you think this is the same guy.

Mr. YOE: Well, Joe had an unmistakable style. It was very strong and sure, as I
said, and the characters are kind of squat and strong and the – the way it’s
rendered it’s – an artist’s style like his fingerprints. You can’t mistake it
and I’ve made a kind of career of detecting artist’s styles, because many
cartoonists or their comic work was never signed for different reasons.
Sometimes the publishers didn’t like them to sign it because they’re worried
about their competitors stealing the artists away or the artist getting too
egotistical and wanting more money and lots of the cartoonists were kind of
ashamed to be working in comic books, they really wanted to be doing
illustrations in sleek magazines. So for variety of reasons, artists didn’t
sign their works.

So comic historians like myself have – have learned to detect artist’s styles,
and everything from the squints in the eyes to the sheens on the heroes’ hair
to the way hands are rendered - which is a usual trait historians looked
forward to - to see, which artist delineated a certain strip. All these things
just made me, when I first saw the “Nights of Horror” book that I found in a
dusty old cardboard box under an antique book dealer’s table, made me just
exclaim, oh my god, Joe Shuster - it was just so obviously his work.

GROSS: You know, you’ve made comparisons between the illustration style of
Superman and the characters in Superman and this fetish art in “Nights of
Horror.” So let’s look at the cover illustration for the book “Secret
Identity.” I’m going to ask you to describe the cover illustration and then
tell us what similarities you see in the illustration style and in the
characters to Superman.

Mr. YOE: Well, the cover is simply a man and a woman, yet the man is half
naked, his torso is exposed and the woman is wearing frilly 50’s underwear, but
she’s garnishing a whip above him because he is chained to a table. But the
bizarre thing about this – or should I say, bizarro is that these look just
like Clark Kent and Lois Lane. And Superman is in pretty much pain here. I
guess he is not invulnerable to pain in this guise, and Lois seems determined
to thrash out some type of punishment.

It’s interesting, you open the flap and it shows what didn’t fit on the front
cover and there’s a woman bound in the background. She looks like Lois’s next
victim. But she looks like Lana Lang, which in the comic books was always
Lois’s nemesis in Lois’s pursuit to capture Superman’s love. So, you know, it’s
kind of a beautiful yet kind of a disturbing image.

GROSS: You know, your book is a book of history and speculation, part history,
part speculation - and you think that Joe Shuster just started doing this
fetish art because he was basically broke, which is an amazing story
considering he co-created perhaps the most famous character in comic book
history, one of the famous characters in history. How did he end up nearly
broke after creating Superman?

Mr. YOE: Well, it’s interesting, a lot of his points of pain - and Jerry Siegel
the writer and Joe Shuster the artist is always getting a raw deal, and they do
in fact sell Superman for $130. They sold out all rights. But they’re really
living the life. I think they’re millionaires just on the comic strip alone.
D.C. was paternalistically letting them have the lion’s share of the proceeds
from the newspaper comic strip and just on that they’re earning $750,000 – the
equivalent of what’s today is $750,000 a year on just the strip alone, not to
mention, you know, some of the licensing profits and they had a whole studio of
writers and artists working for them to produce the material for D.C.

So they really did make a lot of money, but I think maybe they went through it,
maybe just as fast as they made it. And they did see, and it bugged them, that
there was disparity between how much they made and the publisher. And so in
1948 they sued D.C. Comics to try to re-claim the rights to Superman and lost
that trial. And then they did fall on hard times. And I think somewhat, this
fact that Joe did this work, is more of the speculative part as far as his
motives than the actual fact, because we don’t really know quite why he did it.
Many artists were falling on hard times from the comic book industry because it
was under a lot of criticism at the time, titles were being canceled right and
left. But these artists were finding work in education, or advertising, or
different venues for their work. And Joe used to do this work. And I'm not sure
he made a heck of a lot of money doing it - only about $100 per copy, according
to the printer who I tracked down. And so that’s where the speculation begins.
What was his motive? Was it revenge against D.C. Comics - the fact that the
characters do look so much like Lois and Clark, and Superman and Lex Luther and
Jimmy Olsen or was it. Did he have a feeling or a fantasy or an enjoyment about
this material. So that’s when the story kind of gets interesting, as you
imagine what were his reasons behind delineating this.

GROSS: My guest it’s Craig Yoe. His new book is called “Secret Identity: The
Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe Shuster.” We’ll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us my guest is Craig Yoe. And he’s the author of
the new book “Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe
Shuster.” You know, the fetish magazine that Joe Shuster ended up drawing for
“Nights of Horror” figures into a gruesome crime case from 1954 - a case of
kind of famous known as the Brooklyn Thrill Killers. What were the crimes and
who were the killers.

Mr. YOE: Oh, that’s fascinating. The killers were four teenage juvenile
delinquents who happened to be Jewish, and happened to be Nazis. They’re
followers of Hitler and even sported Hitler moustaches - and ordering bullwhips
through comic book ads and switchblades. They went into the parks of Brooklyn
and terrorized victims, flogging girls with the whips, and setting bums on
fire, and punching them, and kicking them - according to the things they saw in
“Nights of Horror.”

GROSS: Did you say that they ordered the whips through comics?

Mr. YOE: Yeah. This is one of the big criticisms of comic books is that the
kids were able to get things like bullwhips, and switchblades, and all kinds of
toys that you wouldn’t want the average kid - or any kid - to have in their
hands. But they had at least two murder victims, the second one being Willard
Mittner who they were captured for and put on trial for.

GROSS: The way “Nights of Horror” ends up figuring into this murder is that the
court asks the psychiatrist named Fred Wortham to interview one of the
defendants and what was Wortham famous for by this point?

Mr. YOE: Well, he was a psychiatrist who dealt a lot with kids and he was
famous for being an anti-comic book crusader. He, early on, was horrified by
the horror comics and aghast at the superhero comics for their fascism -
alleged fascism.

GROSS: And he – he was on a campaign against “Nights of Horror” but the
defendant who he was interviewing didn’t know that. Tell us what happened in
the interview and how it was used in the court case.

Mr. YOE: Yes, he had written a book called “Seduction of the Innocent” against
comic books and called in by the court to interview the – the head of the gang,
Jack Koslow in his Raymond Street jail in Brooklyn. And Koslow revealed to
Wortham that he was an avid comic book reader and also had and read every one
of the 16 volumes of “Nights of Horror.” And that many of his crimes were based
on ideas of – of things he found in “Nights of Horror.”

GROSS: So, after two of the defendants were sentenced to life in prison there
were successful attempts to destroy the remaining magazines. There was a court
case that made it as high as the Supreme Court. When the case reached the
Supreme Court, it was a – you write all about this in your book - it was a five
to four decision. Felix Frankfurter, who was the founder of the ACLU, declared
the books to be quote “clearly obscene, dirt for dirt sake.” And it’s amazing
the court ruled not only against the further distribution of “Nights of
Horror,” it ordered their immediate destruction.

Mr. YOE: Yes. Well, the public I think put a lot of pressure on – on the courts
and the police force to get rid of “Nights of Horror,” you know, they’re so
concerned about juvenile delinquency so they’re so horrified by the Brooklyn
Thrill Killers crimes, you know, that they wanted some immediate action. And
Mayor Wagner, in New York at that time, assigned 80 detectives to the case to
find out who is behind “Nights of Horror.” It’s interesting, they found the
printer, they found the publisher.

They were starting to get – get to the writer, but then no one ever connected
the illustrations to Joe Shuster at the time. And I think they were satisfied
just to get their Brooklyn Thrill Killers behind bars and – and the book’s
banned and then the public wanted to move on.

GROSS: I just want to – while we’re on the subject of the Supreme Court case. I
just wanted to quote Hugo Black’s dissenting opinion. Justice Black wrote “in
my judgment the same object may have wholly different impact depending upon the
setting in which it is placed. Under this statuette the setting is irrelevant.
It is the manner of use that should determine obscenity. It is the conduct of
the individual that should be judged, not the quality of art or literature. To
do otherwise is to impose a prior restraint and to violate the constitution. It
savors too much of book burning.”

Mr. YOE: Yes, I mean no matter what you think of this material, whether you’re
pro or con, I mean, I think every freedom loving American would – would deem
this is a sad day in the history of freedom of the press when these books were
banned.

GROSS: How did the Brooklyn Thrill Killers case and its connection to “Nights
of Horror” affect the future of comic books and the comic book code?

Mr. YOE: Well, the public was outraged. I mean the Brooklyn Thrill Killers was
like the Columbine of its time and was written up in Life, Time, Newsweek
Collier’s, Saturday Evening Post. And the – the government, the police force,
you know, the psychiatrists and – and just the religious folks and – and
everyone was - was wanting something to happen to like stop this kind of work
from being published. And so even the newspapers were reporting on the anti-
comic crusades and then they would give an update on the “Nights of Horror”
crusade against that. And so within weeks, just mere months, after the Brooklyn
Thrill Killers trial, that’s when the comics code came into being.

GROSS: You know as shocking as it may seem, that the artist who created
Superman also did this fetish art, there is a kind of connection in some way
through the publisher, in the sense that the original publisher of Superman
first made his living publishing porn and then he published a lot of fetish art
stuff, you know, like, magazines for, quote, “art students” of you know, naked
or semi-clad, you know, models. So I mean, there was not necessarily through
the artist himself but through that world some kind of pre-existing connection.

Mr. YOE: Well, yes, it is true. Comics definitely had their roots in the pulps
and one of the seamiest pulp publishers was Harry Donenfeld, who did published
pulps like Spicy Tales and Spicy Detective and spicy this and spicy that, and
these word like pulpy tales of, you know, half naked folks and bondage and
villainy and definitely for prurient interest. And so when he did get into,
lucked into publishing Superman and saw that it was so good and saw that so
many young kids were buying it, he did try to, you know, keep a strong hand
about Superman.

And there’s even letters that have resurfaced recently from the editor of
Superman’s time telling Joe to keep Lois’s bosom small and, you know, no
suggestive poses. So I think there was something, you know, Joe and Jerry, his
writer, you know, did enjoy the pulps and were very much influenced by them,
and they’re – now, seeing the “Nights Of Horror” work, you can look back on
Superman and see how they’re - you know, that this was kind of part of Jerry
and Joe’s makeup but, you know, wasn’t allowed to maybe really come out in full
force like Joe eventually did in “Nights Of Horror.”

GROSS: You know, in making the connection between Superman and the fetish art
that Joe Shuster drew, some people always thought Superman’s tights were a
little kinky.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YOE: Well, I mean he was in tighty whiteys or his tighty reddies, his
little red shorts, they were awfully tight, and I think the superhero costume
in itself has a bit of a kinky side to it, this skin-tight costume with capes
and then these powers that dominate over people; I mean the whole thing, you
know, does have a kind of a kinky side to it.

GROSS: When he was growing up in the 1950’s and ’60s watching westerns and old
movies and TV shows about buccaneers, there were always people getting whipped.
There were always characters getting hung by their arms. Women are always
getting kidnapped and bound and gagged. And a lot of the poses in westerns and
pirate movies and buccaneer TV shows were really very similar to the poses in
Joe Shuster’s fetish art. The difference was people were clothed in the TV
shows and the movies.

Mr. YOE: Yes. And even apart from genre pictures, I mean just, you know,
comedies of the time films, there was always a spanking scene and, you know,
it’s interesting to see the things Joe drew. I mean this material was illegal,
it was under the counter. Yet there’s no showing of genitalia and there’s also
a very curious convention of the time. The women had nipples but the men
didn’t. Illustrators never showed men’s nipples in this era because that was
somehow considered obscene or politically incorrect for its time.

GROSS: What did Superman comics mean to you when you were growing up?

Mr. YOE: Everything. I mean comic books were my life, and I was a skinny kid
who was getting sand kicked in his face at the beach, and to see that me, Clark
Kent, could actually become a Superman, you know, I loved Superman. And due to
the status – working on this book has given me a new appreciation for Superman,
certainly for the art of Joe Shuster.

GROSS: Craig Yoe, his new book is called “Secret Identity: The Fetish Art Of
Superman’s Co-Creator Joe Shuster.” You can see several of Shuster’s tamer
illustrations from the book on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
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Tin Pan Alley Artists And Times Of Change

TERRY GROSS, host:

The Beatles changed the paradigm of popular music. Bands started writing their
own songs. For songwriters working in the old Tin Pan Alley system, this could
have been disaster. Rock historian Ed Ward looks at how a number of these
songwriters and songwriting teams coped with the new order.

(Soundbite of song, “I Have A Boyfriend”)

THE CHIFFONS (Music Group): (Singing) I have a boyfriend, Met him a week ago,
He's my forever, Last night he told me so, He's the boy that I adore, Never
felt like this before, And I know I'll never let him go, I have a boyfriend…

ED WARD: By 1965, songs like this one sung by the Chiffons and written by the
Brill Building songwriting team of Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry were fading
from the scene. A movement spearheaded by the Beatles, picked up by their
countrymen the Kinks and the Animals and reinforced in America by the likes of
the Birds saw American teenagers opting for more serious subjects and more
complex harmonies. The artists were writing their own material, so that song
writers who had been used to showing up at a session with demo records of songs
they’d written for the performers to choose from were becoming irrelevant. Or
were they? Were all these new performers actually writing all their own
material?

(Soundbite of song, “Every Time You Walk in to the Room”)

THE SEARCHERS (Music Group): (Singing) I can feel a new expression on my face,
I can feel a glowing sensation taking place, I can hear the guitars play lovely
tunes, every time that you walk in the room…

WARD: On the face of it, the Searchers’ “Every Time You Walk into the Room” was
a pretty typical British Invasion record for the chiming electric 12-string
guitars and the maracas used as percussion. The band was even from Liverpool,
but the song was written a West Coast-based professional songwriter named
Jackie DeShannon, who had also provides the four with their first hit, “Needles
and Pins.” Paul Revere and the Raiders were an American success story. Regional
hits in the Pacific Northwest had led to a contract with Columbia Records and a
television job with Dick Clark’s replacement for “American Bandstand” called
“Where The Action Is.”

Sure, they were hokey Revolutionary War outfits onstage, but hey, their
keyboard player really was named Paul Revere. And in fact, in their previous
incarnation as local wonders, they, like many of the other bands on that scene,
were known for their instrumentals. When it came time for their vocalist, Mark
Lindsay, to sing, he used other people’s words.

(Soundbite of song, “Hungry”)

Mr. MARK LINDSAY (Paul Revere and the Raiders): (Singing) Girl you got this
need to know what I’m all about, well, there was something that you dig you
can’t figure out, well, now you want to know what moves my soul, and what ticks
inside of my brain, well, I got this need I just can’t control, and it’s ah
driving me insane, I can’t take it, ow, because I’m, Hungry for those good
things baby, Hungry through and through, I’m hungry for that sweet life baby,
with a real fine girl like you, I can almost taste it baby, and it’s sweet as
wine, There’s a custom-tailored world that…

WARD: The fact is, their two Top Ten hits in the 1960s, “Hungry” and “Kicks,”
were both products of the Brill Building team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil,
who also wrote for the Chiffons, the Cinderellas, and Jean Pitney. And the
Byrds? They had two songwriting dynamos, Gene Clark and David Crosby, and were
famous for their electric versions of Bob Dylan songs, but even so, they
occasionally availed themselves of the pros.

(Soundbite of song, “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe”)

THE BYRDS (Music Group): (Singing) Don’t doubt yourself babe, Let your feet
stand up for your beliefs babe, I know what’s running through your mind, You
think you ought to capture time, Make love walk the straight and narrow, Oh,
oh, oh, Don’t doubt yourself gal…

WARD: “Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe” is another Jackie DeShannon song. The band
knew her because she hung around the Troubadour Bar like they did. So when they
needed material for their first album, she had it. The Byrds even raided the
Brill Building itself once for song by perhaps its most famous team, Gerry
Goffin and Carole King. The song they got later took a the life of its own.

(Soundbite of song, “Wasn’t Born To Follow”)

Ms. DUSTY SPRINGFIELD (Singer): (Singing) Oh I’d rather go and journey where
the diamond crest is flowing and, Run across the valley beneath the sacred
mountain and wander through the forest, Where the trees have leaves of prisms
and break the light in colors, That no one knows the names of, And when it's
time I’ll go and wait beside a legendary fountain…

WARD: Dusty Springfield’s version, “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” the song the Byrds
had put into the soundtrack in the film “Easy Rider,” is based on another
version of the song by a band called the City. The City, in fact, pointed in
the direction which some of these songwriters went. It was fronted by Carole
King. Although it didn’t do very well, it gave her the confidence to record an
album under her own name. “Tapestry” would go on to become one of the best-
selling albums of all time. And then there were songwriters who weren’t
particularly successful, for whom performance might be a way out of the
contract songwriting game.

(Soundbite of song, “Amazing Dancing Bear”)

Mr. ALAN PRICE (Singer): (Singer) I may go out tomorrow if I can borrow a coat
to wear, Oh, I’d step out in style with my sincere smile and my dancing bear,
Outrageous, alarming, courageous, charming, Oh, who would think a boy and bear
could be well accepted everywhere, It’s just amazing how fair people can be…

WARD: Clearly someone who wrote songs like this, even if they could get them
recorded by former Animals keyboardist Alan Price was too weird for the pop
market. The young Randy Newman had connections in the film music business and
was lucky enough to get a contract with Warner Brothers, which gave him a free
hand. Eventually it was a pay off for both parties. But by then the word
songwriter would have the word singer in front of it.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the south of France. You can download podcasts of our
show on our Web site, fresh.npr.org.
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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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