Other segments from the episode on April 7, 2015
April 7, 2015
Guest: Masha Gessen
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The brothers behind the Boston Marathon bombing, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, are the subject of a new book called "The Brothers" by my guest Masha Gessen. Tamerlan was killed during a shootout with the police after the attack. Dzhokhar, the younger brother, is on trial for the bombing.
Yesterday, closing arguments were made in the first phase of the trial. As we go to broadcast, the jury is deliberating on the charges against him. The defense conceded that Dzhokhar planted the bomb. The question facing Dzhokhar now is whether phase two of the trial will end a sentence of life imprisonment or the death penalty.
Masha Gessen has written extensively about Russia and Chechnya. She grew up in the Soviet Union and emigrated to the U.S. with her parents when she was 14. She returned to Russia to work as a journalist and covered the Chechen wars. She moved back to the U.S. over a year ago.
When we spoke yesterday morning, we talked about the Tsarnaev family history. The father's family was exiled from Chechnya toward the end of World War II, when Stalin deported much of the population. The boy's mother is from Dagestan and is a member of the Avar ethnic group. Wars kept uprooting the family, and they moved between Kyrgyzstan and Dagestan until they were granted asylum in the U.S. Masha Gessen, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
MASHA GESSEN: Thank you. It's good to be here.
GROSS: During the period of dislocation, when, because of war and discrimination, they have to keep fleeing from one to another, where did Islam fit into the lives of the family?
GESSEN: So both Chechens and Avars are Muslim people, but during the Soviet period, especially, the practice of religion was a very difficult. Sometimes it was outright banned. Sometimes it was tolerated in sort of small portions. But basically what happened - and this happened particularly in exile, but it happened in Dagestan, as well - was that the Islamic tradition sort of devolved into local tradition. And while some people referenced the Quran, really, when they talked about being an Islamic people, they talked about the adat - the sort of - the set of local traditions that are ethnic in origin or familial in origin, but that are only loosely related to the Quran.
And this actually has had major consequences for Dagestan, especially after the break-up of the Soviet Union. As young people in Dagestan began to be exposed to a different practice of Islam, to a modern study of Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia, where many of them started traveling to study, a real chasm opened up between generations, between young men who had - who sort of were exposed to what they felt was a rigorous study the Quran and a completely different way of interpreting it and living it and older people who stuck with the local traditions of adat.
GROSS: So the people going to Saudi Arabia to study Islam were getting a very conservative version of Islam or very radical, depending on (laughter) how you want to phrase it.
GESSEN: Exactly, exactly. I'm trying to stay away from the words conservative and progressive or radical because it really depends on your perspective. From the perspective of these young men in Dagestan, conservative was the adat, the local tradition. And progressive was what they saw in Saudi Arabia. It was intellectually stimulating. It was sort of future-oriented. It was difficult and challenging.
GROSS: So how did this generation gap, in terms of an interpretation of understanding of Islam, initially affect the Tsarnaev family before they moved to the United States?
GESSEN: Actually, I think it pretty much passed them by before they moved to the United States. From everything I can tell, they were pretty oblivious to the religious struggles that were rippling through Dagestan because they were - they were raising four small kids, they were moving back and forth all the time. Religion wasn't central to their lives.
What happened after they moved to the United States was a couple of things. I mean, first of all, when you get to this country, if you're an immigrant, you have to figure out an identity - and a muddled identity. You know, they call themselves Chechens, or we call them Chechens, but they aren't truly Chechen. Well, they were quite aware of the fact that they weren't really Chechens, not to mention that no one in this country knows who Chechens are. And they weren't really Russians, and they had never really practiced, but they kind of identified as Muslim.
So they had to look for who they were, and that was - that's always part of the appeal that religion holds for immigrants - is you can at least attach yourself to a community and attach an identity to yourself. So I think that was part of what happened. Part of it was that in - back in Dagestan and Chechnya, Islam was starting to play a more and more important role. So as more people were coming from those places to the United States, sort of with each new arrival, they were more religious, more observant.
So this seemed to be sort of that the progress of history was that people were becoming more observant. And in that sense, the Tsarnaev family really didn't stand out. At some point, part of the family, especially the mother and the older brother, started becoming more observant. That, in itself, wouldn't have raised any red flags. A lot of people around there were also becoming more observant.
GROSS: Well, but they - the family got to the United States - was it, like, just after 9-11?
GESSEN: It was just after 9-11. I mean, so their timing - the timing of all their immigrations was awful.
GROSS: So they get to the United States just at the time when suddenly Muslims are considered very suspect by a lot of Americans who don't or who are unwilling to differentiate or don't know how to differentiate between the radical Islam that was behind 9-11 and the rest of the world's Muslims. So - and the FBI is trying to investigate a lot of the Muslim community in the United States, so how did that affect them when they moved here?
GESSEN: Well, one thing was that obviously they weren't surprised. They were used to being suspect. They were used always being outsiders. And they've actually been articulate about it, and some of the other members of the family have talked about it very openly. You know, they, especially the Tsarnaev side of the family - Anzor Tsarnaev's side of the family - had grown up always being - always be suspect, always having to prove that they were not criminals. The other thing that was happening at the same time was that Russia and the United States were entering into a new alliance against so-called international Islamic terrorism. And the reason I say so-called was because for Russia, this was actually a great opportunity to quash any criticism of the wars that has been waging in Chechnya and Dagestan, which now got reframed as wars against Islamic terrorism.
GROSS: Right. So because the family had roots in Dagestan and Chechnya, when they were given asylum in the United States, they were probably considered to be representative of freedom fighters, people fighting against, you know - people, you know - people who had fought against the Soviets and communism. Just as the family gets to the United States, it's after 9-11, and the Chechen and Dagestan war is against the Soviets. They're now considered to be signs of Islamic terrorism, so suddenly, like, their identity, in terms of immigrants, is recast.
GESSEN: Absolutely. And in fact, in the very small Chechen community in the Boston area, some people get stuck in limbo because they were originally given refugee status because they had been fighting the Russians in Chechnya. But once the war got reframed, they actually were disqualified from getting permanent residency in this country because they were guilty of what they call material support for forces that are now considered to be affiliated with international Islamic terrorism, which is not a change in the facts. It's a change in the framing.
GROSS: So how did the Tsarnaev family get asylum in the U.S.?
GESSEN: Well, we don't know exactly because we - asylum documents are actually not - they're not a matter of public record. But from everything that I can tell and other reporters have been able to tell, they told the story of persecution. They embellished in places. They claim ethnic persecution in Kyrgyzstan, which is and isn't true, in the sense that Chechens have lived in this sort of weird, lesser, second-class citizen status in Kyrgyzstan ever since they got there in 1944. But they haven't actually been the object of any particular persecution in Kyrgyzstan in the last decade and a half, unlike some other ethnic groups.
So they seem to have embellished a little bit and said that they have been persecuted the way that others ethnic groups had been persecuted. And the Immigration and Nationalization Service, which I think was still in existence at the time, didn't really distinguish between the various ethnic minorities in Kyrgyzstan. It looks like Anzor probably told a couple of tall tales about being imprisoned in Kyrgyzstan on the basis of being Chechen. I don't think that happened. But it is absolutely true that they were members of one of the most discriminated against and most systematically persecuted minorities in the former Soviet Union, which is saying a lot.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Masha Gessen, and she's written a new book about the Tsarnaev brothers. It's called "The Brothers: The Road To An American Tragedy." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Masha Gessen. And she's written a new book about the Tsarnaev brothers, the brothers behind the Boston Marathon bombing. And the book is called "The Brothers: The Road To An American Tragedy." She is of Russian descent and moved to America with her parents when she was 14. She's worked as a journalist in the U.S. and Russia, and she has covered the wars in Chechnya and was for a long time covering Russia. So in covering the Tsarnaev story, she knows a lot about the story that frames their background. She's now a full-time resident of the United States.
So the Tsarnaev family moved to the U.S. shortly after 9/11, but not the whole family came; the parents and the youngest, Dzhokhar, came. But the parents waited until they got asylum before bringing over the rest of the children from Kazakhstan. So how old was Tamerlan, the oldest son, when he got here?
GESSEN: He was 16, which is a horrible age to emigrate. And it was also a very difficult moment for the family because, you know, here was their first born, who they believed was destined for greatness. But he was too old to really go to high school and get into a good college, so how were they going to make sure that he got sort of the greatness that he deserved? The whole family and some friends were mobilized to figure this out. And they decided that he was going to become a boxing star, that he was going become a boxer and join the U.S. Olympic team. And one of the weird tragedies of the story was that this wasn't an unrealistic dream. It wasn't crazy. He was that talented. He was - immediately after he started boxing, he started winning amateur competitions. He may very well have been on his way to the U.S. Olympic team. He didn't make it, apparently, because right around the time that he would've qualified, the amateur competitive circuit changed its rules to disqualify non-U.S. citizens. So he had permanent residence, but he didn't have citizenship, and he could no longer compete.
GROSS: His youngest sibling, Dzhokhar, was much more Americanized than Tamerlan was 'cause he got here earlier; he got here younger. So he was much more American in terms of, you know, having better English, knowing how kids did things in America.
GESSEN: Yes, he was 8 when he got here, so he started second grade in the United States. He was a good student. He spoke English without an accent. His high school classmates remember him as a social superstar. Everybody loved him. There was something that was happening to him around the time that he started college - or just before. I mean, he - there were weird and sometimes inexplicable details. He chose the least competitive school that he could possibly go to, which was UMass Dartmouth. He - around the time that he started college, he started sort of creating a new Russian-speaking Chechen identity for himself online, which for a kid who was 8 when he came here is actually sort of a feat of linguistic heroism. It's very difficult to write in Russian for someone who's never been schooled in Russian. But he was clearly sort of immersing himself in this Russian-language culture and, again, claiming this Chechen-Muslim identity online. All of this looks sinisterly in retrospect. At that time, it would've looked weird, but it's also not unheard of. I've seen other teenagers who are brought to this country as kids, start to explore their identities and start to relearn a language in an ongoing effort to figure out who they were.
GROSS: And Tamerlan came over as a teenager. After being in the U.S. for several years, he returned to Dagestan where he stayed for six months. As research for your book, "The Brothers," you went to Dagestan, where you'd been before reporting, to find people who knew him so that you can learn more about his story. Among the people you spoke to was the deputy of a group called the Union of the Just. This is a group that one of Tamerlan's older cousins actually founded. When you got to Dagestan, this cousin was in jail. So you did get a chance to talk to the deputy of the group, Mohammed Gadzhiev. And sounds like the relationship between Gadzhiev and Tamerlan was that Tamerlan, quote, "educated Gadzhiev about America and the injustices there." And Gadzhiev educated Tamerlan about Islam and about, you know, like, radical protest. What did you learn from Gadzhiev about Tamerlan during this period?
GESSEN: So he and Mohammed Gadzhiev spent a lot of time sitting around talking about sort of the need for a Pan-Islamic caliphate and also about all the things that were wrong with the world - the many very real injustices in Dagestan, the many very real injustices in the United States. The fact that while there was some distinctions that made Russia maybe a little bit better than the United States, like Russia doesn't support Israel and isn't waging war in Iraq, they're basically the same. They are anti-Muslim. They are discriminatory and they're based - and their systems are based on social injustice.
GROSS: I thought it was interesting that Gadzhiev thought that Tamerlan's understanding of Islam was very superficial. But at the same time, it sounds like Gadzhiev accepted Tamerlan's analysis of the United States as being right on.
GESSEN: Yes, and he parroted a lot of it back to me. I mean, Tamerlan was a smart and articulate young man. And he could certainly talk a good line, and he was pretty well-read. So I think that Gadzhiev actually wasn't crazy to be impressed by what Tamerlan could tell him, and he wasn't crazy to feel that he was learning something.
GROSS: So since you covered the trial - were you there throughout the trial?
GESSEN: I've been in and out of Boston, but I've covered most of the trial, I'd say.
GROSS: What's your analysis of the trial? Do you think that the prosecution and the defense did a good job? Did you learn what you hoped to?
GESSEN: Oh, those are two very different questions because I think that the prosecution and the defense have been doing a sterling job. I mean, they are amazing. It's absolutely - I've covered a lot of trials, and it's absolutely the best tried trial I've ever seen in my life. The choice of witnesses, the dramaturgy, the timing of the prosecution's case was unbelievably good, but it is not the - structurally, it's not the role of the American justice system to find the truth. The American justice system administers punishment. It does not conduct inquests, and it does not find facts.
So we were hoping - I mean, those of us who have been interested in the case, that's a lot of us - we were hoping that some facts would emerge from the trial, that as the FBI presented its case for the prosecution, we would learn things that were conspicuously absent that we didn't know before. There were some gaping holes in our knowledge. One of them is, where and when were the bombs made? The FBI - the agents who testified at the trial admitted that they don't know where the bombs were made. If they don't know where the bombs were made, that also means that they don't know if anybody else was involved in the plot to bomb the marathon.
GROSS: My guest is Masha Gessen, author of the new book "The Brothers" about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers behind the Boston Marathon bombing. Our interview was recorded yesterday morning before closing arguments in Dzhokhar's trial. So we brought Gessen back this morning to record a new chapter of our interview, which we'll hear after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Masha Gessen, author of the new book "The Brothers" about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers behind the Boston Marathon bombing. Tamerlan was killed during a shootout with police after the attack. Dzhokhar is on trial. Yesterday, the defense and prosecution made their closing arguments in phase one of the trial. As we go to broadcast, the jury is deliberating. The defense has admitted that Dzhokhar planted a bomb. Phase two of the trial will determine whether he's sentenced to death or life imprisonment. This morning, I spoke with Gessen about the closing arguments of the trial.
So Masha, what stood out to you in the closing arguments of the trial?
GESSEN: The closing arguments in this sense were pretty much the same as the entire first phase of the trial. And the incredible thing about them was that the defense chose not to contest guilt and chose, basically, not to put up a defense. It's - it was a very strange thing to watch, but it's possibly brilliant as a strategy.
The prosecution's case was talking about the horror and the tragedy of the Marathon bombing, and the defense's approach was to acknowledge the horror and the tragedy of the Marathon bombing and basically try to make the jury think that what has happened to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is part of that tragedy.
GROSS: The defense is saying that Dzhokhar was following his brother, Tamerlan, but unlike his brother, Dzhokhar was not a self-radicalized terrorist. What is the expression self-radicalized mean?
GESSEN: Nobody knows. Nobody knows what self-radicalized means, and that's one of the weird things about the way that we talk about terrorism. We talk about radicalization as though it were a thing, as though you could sort of track it and identify it, and that's not the case. And then we've added this other layer, which is self-radicalization. Originally, radicalization was supposed to mean that there was an organization that sort of took you through the stages, and then when it turned out that some people just came to terrorism by themselves, this new thing called self-radicalization showed up. No one knows what it means.
GROSS: You've traced Tamerlan's return to Dagestan and the radical interpretations of Islam he was exposed to there. And Tamerlan and his mother, in the U.S., had studied Islam through the Internet, and through the sites they used, they were exposed to extremist views and conspiracy theories. But what about Dzhokhar? Any understanding of how he was exposed to that or what his exposure was?
GESSEN: Oh, he was watching some of the same videos and talking about many of the same things, but so do hundreds of thousands of other people. So you know, the - holding radical beliefs, in and of itself, is not a predictor of terrorist behavior. There are many, many people out there who hold radical beliefs and even some of them who suppose violence who don't go up and blow up the Marathon.
GROSS: You made a trip to Dagestan to report for your book on the Tsarnaev brothers. And Dagestan is where their mother is from, where she and their father are living now. It's also the place that they considered their homeland.
So when you were there, you met one of Tamerlan's friends, Mohammed Gadzhiev. This was a new friend that he had made when he returned to Dagestan before the Boston Marathon bombing. And this friend is a deputy in what's called The Union of the Just. It's an organization that Tamerlan's older cousin had started, and I'm going to ask you to briefly describe that organization.
GESSEN: The Union of the Just is affiliated with Hizb ut-Tahrir, and Hizb ut-Tahrir is a large international pan-Islamic organization that actually publicly takes a very strong stand against violence in talks about establishing Islamic rule through peaceful means. A lot of experts believe that it's actually a gateway organization to more-radical organizations, which I don't think is necessarily contradictory. It can be an organization that espouses peaceful means, but it can serve as a gateway for young people who are looking for a more radical organization.
GROSS: So this friend, who's the deputy of The Union of the Just, said to you about Tamerlan, why can't you believe that he simply objected to U.S. foreign policy and that's why he did it? That's why he did the Boston Marathon bombing.
What is really especially interesting about that is it's the same argument the prosecution was making. Prosecution has said that the Tsarnaevs committed the bombing to retaliate against the U.S. for wars in Muslim countries. What does it say to you that Tamerlan's friend and the prosecution are kind of saying the same thing?
GESSEN: Well, they're not really saying the same thing. The prosecution has used that line as, actually, part of its narrative of both of the Tsarnaev brothers being absolute monsters, and this is an argument for putting the younger one, the surviving one, to death. What Gadzhiev was saying was almost the opposite. He was saying, look, it was a rational choice. And that's something that's actually very important to understand and something that I had sort of known but forgotten, is that for a person in a certain position with a kind of certain frame of mind, this can be a rational choice. This can seem like the right and reasonable thing to do. It doesn't require some sort of huge event. It doesn't require an enormous organization that, quote, unquote, "radicalizes" them. What terrorist experts have said over and over again and what we almost refuse to hear is that one distinguishing characteristic of terrorists that they have studied is their normalcy.
GROSS: So Gadzhiev, the friend, says, this could've been a rational choice for him in objecting to U.S. policy in Muslim countries and U.S. wars in Muslim countries. If it was a, you know, a, quote, "rational choice," why would he choose to target the Boston Marathon, which is an event for athletes? Tsarnaev was an athlete. He was a champion boxer. Why target a marathon in which the gathering is all athletes and the friends and family of athletes?
GESSEN: I don't think he saw it as an athletic event. If you grew up in Boston, you actually grew up thinking that Patriots' Day is a major American holiday, sort of like the other Fourth of July. Massachusetts is one of three states that celebrate Patriots' Day and the only one that celebrates it on a grand scale, so...
GROSS: And the Marathon's always held on Patriots' Day.
GESSEN: And the Marathon is always held on Patriots' Day. And it's always a day off, and it's also the first Red Sox game of the season in Fenway Park. All of that is part of the ritual. There's also a reenactment of the Battle of Concord and Lexington. So he was attacking that ritual. He was attacking a major American holiday, and that's the way terrorism works. Terrorism is targeted at civilians, not at state actors, so we wouldn't expect Tamerlan to commit a terrorist act against the makers of American foreign policy. We would expect him to choose an event that was symbolic and that would affect and shock a lot of people.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Masha Gessen. She's the author of the new book "The Brothers" about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers who committed the Boston Marathon bombing. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Masha Gessen. She's the author of the new book "The Brothers." It's about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers who committed the Boston Marathon bombing. When you went to Dagestan to do some background research for your book on the Tsarnaev brothers, you interviewed their mother, who grew up in Dagestan and has returned there and is living there. Does she still think her sons did not do it?
GESSEN: Yes, absolutely. She believes that they were framed. She believes that - in conspiracy theories that a lot of people actually, all over the world, believe. And one of the amazing things about researching this was that I would encounter people as far apart as, you know, Dagestan and Nevada who would say the same thing, word for word, about the Tsarnaev brothers being framed, about this being a state - a government-organized bombing that was blamed on a couple of stand-ins. So that's very much what she believes.
GROSS: How has the bombing affected her status in Dagestan?
GESSEN: That's an interesting question. I certainly met a number of people who think of the parents, Anzor and Zubeidat Tsarnaev, who are both living back in Dagestan and who briefly seem to have gotten back together - they think of them as a sort of celebrities and, you know, people of special standing. At the same time, when they first went to live in Chechnya right after the bombing, I think sort of hoping to be with some family and to do enjoy the protection of a human rights organization in Chechnya, they were basically driven out of Chechnya by the Chechen government.
GESSEN: I think that they were too high-profile, too controversial. They didn't want them there.
GROSS: So the Tsarnaev boy's mother cannot really return to the United States because she would be arrested for shoplifting charges. She shoplifted at a department store or was accused of shoplifting in a department store.
GESSEN: To the tune of $2000.
GROSS: So it's pretty certain, you think, that she won't be coming back to the States.
GESSEN: I think we'll likely see some family in the courtroom during the sentencing phase of the trial. This is when the defense is going to talk about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's background, his childhood, his various experiences of dislocation. So I think we'll probably see some relatives on the stand and certainly some relatives in the courtroom, but it's more likely to be his two older sisters who live in New Jersey. There's also an aunt who was a lawyer in Canada. She emigrated before the Tsarnaev family did. And she had been a judge back in Kyrgyzstan and got her qualifications as a lawyer in Canada, has been living back in Chechnya since the bombing. So I wouldn't be surprised to see her in the courtroom.
GROSS: So you mentioned that Zubeidat and Anzor, the Tsarnaev boy's mother and father, who had separated, got briefly back together. Are they separated or together now?
GESSEN: I believe they are separated now. They were actually divorced in 2012 before they went back to Dagestan separately. And after the bombing, they seemed to be together, brought together by grief. I mean, it's a very, very understandable phenomenon.
GROSS: Is Anzor, the father, also adamant in his belief that his sons did not do it?
GESSEN: He hasn't been as outspoken as the mother, but that's sort of their respective personalities. He's the quieter type, but he does seem to believe the same thing, yes.
GROSS: What was it like for you, after covering Russia and Chechnya and witnessing terrorist - or the after effect of terrorist acts that were an outgrowth of the war between Russia and Chechnya, seeing now the aftermath of that carry over into the United States?
GESSEN: Well, I'm not sure that what we're seeing is the aftermath of the war in Chechnya. I think it's more complicated than that. But one thing that's absolutely striking for me, as a journalist, is that the stories I was writing in the early 2000s in Russian about terrorist attacks carried out by ethnic Chechens was that the narrative that this was the aftermath of the war in Chechnya was sort of widely accepted.
It was the - it was the basic assumption that we went into writing the stories with, and there isn't that assumption in the United States. There isn't the assumption that this is the outgrowth of U.S. foreign policy, which would be sort of the equivalent of my writing that terrorist attacks in Russia are the outgrowth of Russian - of the Russian aggression in Chechnya. There isn't even the assumption that this could be the aftermath of the war in Chechnya. I don't think there's any one such simple explanation, but I do think we need to give some validity to the fact that U.S. actions abroad do ultimately have an influence on terrorist attacks.
GROSS: When you were in Dagestan, did you find anybody who said the Tsarnaev boys did it, and it was a good thing?
GESSEN: No one quite came out and said that. There were a couple of people who clearly tried to get a rise out of me by implying that there will be more terrorist attacks. And there were a couple of people who weren't trying to get a rise out of me, who I think were sort of feeling quite desperate after watching what had happened in this country following the marathon bombing, especially the killing of Ibragim Todashev, a friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's who was shot dead by an FBI agent during an interrogation in Florida in May of 2013.
That was such a shocking event for many of the people who were watching it from Chechnya and from Russia who are actually great and sort of naive believers in the American law enforcement system. And their grief and outrage was sort of directly proportionate to the extent of the belief that they had held in American law enforcement. And one of them, a human rights activist, said to me that that, combined with the possibility that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would get the death penalty, would lead to more terrorist attacks.
GROSS: Dagestan is a very dangerous place for journalists. What did you do to protect yourself when you were there?
GESSEN: I texted my sort of designated friends where I was going at any given time. So I would check in every half hour to an hour, and I would say I'm meeting such and such at this cafe. This is the address. This is the person's phone number. And that's sort of standard protocol for reporting from Dagestan.
GROSS: Well, Masha Gessen, thank you very much for talking with us.
GESSEN: Thank you.
GROSS: Masha Gessen is the author of the new book "The Brothers" about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. The interview we just heard was recorded this morning. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead has an appreciation of Billie Holiday. She was born 100 years ago today. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The great singer Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia 100 years ago today. Our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, has some thoughts on how Holiday's style evolved, her influences and singers she influenced.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL GET BY")
BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) I'll get by as long as I have you. Though there'll be rain and darkness, too, I'll not complain. I'll live with you.
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Billie Holiday in 1937. Quizzed about her influences, Holiday would say she always wanted Bessie Smith's big sound and Louis Armstrong's feeling after hearing them as a youngster. Billie could never match Smith's lung power. Holiday's volume level was more conversational. But she did catch Bessie's depth of feeling. Here's how Smith sounded in 1928, when Holiday was 13.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK WATER BLUES")
BESSIE SMITH: (Singing) I woke up this morning, can't even get out of my door. There's enough trouble to make a poor girl wonder where she wants to go.
WHITEHEAD: Trumpet king Louis Armstrong was a great singer himself, and his influence on Holiday is more direct, the way he'd revamp a melody and swing the rhythm to personalize the tune.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GEORGIA ON MY MIND")
LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Oh, Georgia, Georgia, the whole day through, babe, just an old, sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind, Georgia on my mind.
WHITEHEAD: You can hear Armstrong's inspiration in Billie Holiday's way of editing a written melody, sometimes to accommodate her fairly narrow range, sometimes to sell the lyric Bessie Smith-style. But like any great artist, Holiday brought more than what she inherited. Here she is at 22 with the original hit version of a recent Gershwin tune.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMERTIME")
HOLIDAY: (Singing) Summertime, and the living is easy. Fish are jumping, and the cotton is high. Oh, your daddy's rich, and your ma is good-looking. So hush, little baby, don't you cry.
WHITEHEAD: Inspirations aside, Billie Holiday had her own style from the first. Her cool demeanor and way of teasing the beat endeared her to swinging cats like saxophonist Lester Young and his buddies in Count Basie's band. They often recorded with her. She and Young could really egg each other on.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME, MYSELF AND I")
HOLIDAY: (Singing) Me, myself and I are all in love with you. We all think you're wonderful, we do. Me, myself and I have just one point of view. We're convinced there's no one else like you. It can't be denied, dear. You brought the sun to us. We'd be satisfied, dear, if you belonged to one of us or if you...
WHITEHEAD: Billie Holiday's fleet sound mirrored modern instrumental styles, pointing the way for much mid-century jazz and pop singing. Frank Sinatra once called her his single greatest influence. But by the '40s, when Sinatra hit, Holiday's girlishness was fading and a new world-weariness crept in. Her new producers positioned her more as a pop singer, but that was mostly a matter of changing the settings. Now violins were in.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE MY THRILL")
HOLIDAY: (Singing) You're my thrill. You do something to me. You send chill right through me when I look at you because you're my thrill. You're my thrill.
WHITEHEAD: Billie Holiday had a famously tough life. Her autobiography was called "Lady Sings The Blues" for more than musical reasons. She hooked up with bad men and got hooked on narcotics at a time when celebrity addicts made easy pickings for law enforcement. By the mid-1950s, her voice had weathered dramatically, turned to leather. Hard knocks had knocked the wind out of her.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE'LL BE SOME CHANGES MADE")
HOLIDAY: (Singing) I'm going to change my way of living. And if that ain't enough, then I'll change the way that I strut my stuff. Nobody wants you when you're old and gray. There'll be some changes made today. There'll be some changes made.
WHITEHEAD: I used to think fans of Holiday's late period were ghoulish, relishing the pain in her voice. Now, I better appreciate the musical challenge she faced, how to keep swinging when you've only got half a breath and three notes left. But even her final recordings had wide influence. One young singer who emerged after she died learned so much from her records about being expressive with a meager voice, he placed one of her last albums on the cover photo for one of his.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT YOU")
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Now, your dancing child with his Chinese suit, he spoke to me. I took his flute. No, I wasn't very cute to him, was I? But I did it because he lied and because he took you for a ride and because time is on his side and because I want you.
WHITEHEAD: Give Bob Dylan the last word. In 1968, he said, a great poet like Wallace Stevens doesn't necessarily make a great singer, but a great singer always, like Billie Holiday, makes a great poet.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LADY SINGS THE BLUES")
HOLIDAY: (Singing) Lady sings the blues. I'm telling you, she's got them bad. But now the world will know. She's never going to sing them no more because the blues ain't nothing but pain in your heart, when you get a bad start, when you and your man have to part, ain't going to just sit around and cry. I know I won't die because I love him. Lady sings the blues. I'm telling you, she's got them bad. But now the world will know. She's never going to sing them no more, no more.
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" Billie Holiday was born 100 years ago today. Tomorrow, we'll talk about a subject I'd rather not even think about, but you kind of have to nowadays. Bedbugs - we hate them. They love us. They're attracted to the carbon dioxide in our breath and the heat from our bodies. And when they find us and bite us...
BROOKE BOREL: They fill up more like if you were attaching a balloon to a spigot.
GROSS: We talk with Brooke Borel, author of "Infested: How The Bedbug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms And Took Over The World." That's tomorrow.
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