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Tuvan Throat Singer Ondar and Producer Ralph Leighton.

Tuvan throat singer Ondar and producer Ralph Leighton. Tuvan throat singing is a biphonic sound in which the performer produces two or three distinct tones at the same time. It originates from Tuva. Leighton co-produced Ondar's debut CD, "Back Tuva Future" (Warner Bros/Reprise)


Other segments from the episode on March 3, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 3, 1999: Interview with Ralph Leighton and Kongar-ol Ondar; Interview with Evan Hunter; Review of Alice Echols biography "Scars of Sweet Paradise."


Date: MARCH 03, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 030301np.217
Head: Ondar and Ralph Leighton
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

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

Listen to this singing.


GROSS: This singer is using a technique known as throat singing, an ancient style, still practiced in Tuva, a small republic between Siberia and Mongolia's Gobi Desert. My guest is the singer we've been listening to, Kongar-Ol Ondar who performs under the name Ondar.

He was born in Tuva in 1962. He won a U.N. sponsored international festival of throat singing, and has been honored by his nation with the title "People's Throat Singer of Tuva." He's also performed around the world and collaborated with Ry Cooder, The Chieftains, and Mickey Hart.

His new CD, "Back Tuva Future," features him backed by country musicians including guest appearances by Willie Nelson and Randy Scruggs. Ondar is going to demonstrate his singing for us, but he doesn't speak English so joining him is Ralph Leighton, who co-produced the new CD and has been touring with Ondar. Leighton first went to Tuva nearly 10 years ago and is the author of "Tuva or Bust."

GROSS: You know, the sound of Tuvan throat singing is a little bit like the sound of those Tibetan monks chanting -- that really deep sound. And I'm wondering is Tuvan throat singing considered a religious or a secular music?

RALPH LEIGHTON, RECORD PRODUCER, "BACK TUVA FUTURE;" AUTHOR, "TUVA OR BUST": In Tuva it's mainly secular and the Tibetan style chanting that you're familiar with is but one of several styles of Tuvan throat singing. Tuvans throat sing many different ways in many different circumstances.

They do have a certain religious aspect in that they sing to nature -- they're singing about nature. But then they'll quickly make metaphorical allusion to the beauty of, and longing for, a sweetheart. So the Tuvans can put it into many contexts, not just religious.

GROSS: There's different kinds of Tuvan throat singing and I was wondering if we could ask Ondar to perform, you know, to kind of demonstrate those styles for us. And in part because I think it's so hard for us Westerners to imagine making those sounds, they're so different from the kind of singing that Westerners do.

So a demonstration would be great. Can we start with the style called -- I think I'm pronouncing it right -- "hoomei?"

LEIGHTON: Sure. You can think of them as high, medium and low if you want. I mean, it's just arbitrary words, really. The hoomei style is actually a three note style. You're starting right at the top here, and what you can listen for in this is a drone note that's going to be a constant note.

And then you'll hear a melody much higher that is moving around up in the registers where one normally whistles. But it's really a harmonic.

And then the third note, if you really concentrate, you can hear a rhythmic syncopation suggesting riding on horseback. And that's an octave above the low notes. You're going to get three notes at once in the hoomei style.


GROSS: Wow. Ondar, thank you very much for that performance. Ralph, can you explain at all how this is done technically?

LEIGHTON: I can try, but I would like to point out that in Tuva the culture encourages this. The culture encourages people to sing in this way, producing several notes at the same time. So children are able to pick it up.

You know, children over here could pick it up if the culture around them encouraged it, I observed this in my own son when the Tuvan throat singers would come through town, in a matter of a couple of weeks. Two, three-year-old kid is starting to make overtones with no formal instructions, it's just that he's around it.

So if you asked Ondar how he does it he says, I just do it. But when I try to learn it then I have to think about what I'm doing, and in this case you'd just start sounding a little bit like the Wolfman Jack. That's the first thing you have to do, is tighten your throat.

And then for this particular hoomei style you make a kind of a "ooh" sound.


That's about as far as I've gotten in about five years.


It's a lot of fun. And in fact, a lot of fun is also in developing your hearing. So you can listen to the CD of throat singing over and over and you'll hear more and more as you study it.

GROSS: More and more of those overtones?

LEIGHTON: That's right.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, let's get to another style of Tuvan throat singing. And this is called "sygyt."

LEIGHTON: Sure. Sygyt is the highest style. And this one is on the CD, "Two Lands, One Tribe." It's the introduction to a song that Ondar sings with the American Indian singer-songwriter Bill Miller. And this one has special significance to me because last fall in the newspapers there was a report from a Russian geneticist who was going around Siberia looking for similarities between Siberia peoples and American Indian tribes.

And the highest correlation, 70 percent, was found in Western Tuva where Ondar comes from...

ONDAR, TUVAN THROAT SINGER: ...seventy-five percent.

LEIGHTON: OK. Seventy-five percent. See, Ondar speaks more English than he will admit to. So in Ondar's view the American Indians are a lost tribe of Tuvans. And this is the style and the song that Ondar sang to Bill Miller.


GROSS: That's wonderful. Wow. You know, I can't help but wonder what that does to the throat. Like how much of the singing is actually in the throat. Like in Western singing singers are encouraged to get the voice out of the throat and higher into the head so it just resonates on the bones and doesn't hurt the throat. Does this hurt the throat, this kind of singing?

LEIGHTON: Not so much, but I should say that Ondar's face turned completely red. It was like he was choking himself a little bit voluntarily. It restricts the air passage through the throat. It's like holding your breath and just letting out the tiniest bit of air.

And he does get headaches sometimes, but this may be related to his general high blood pressure. There's a lot of mystery to this. There's a folklore that in Tuva throat singers die early, but this hasn't been backed up scientifically.

It is very very strenuous, that's for sure. His neck muscles are extremely strong. And you see this blood vessel on the side of his neck practically popping out when he does this because the key is you got to tighten up your throat to make a narrow narrow little slit through which the tone comes out and then your mouth makes the overtones.

A little bit like when you're playing a juice harp. That's a somewhat similar way of managing overtones.

GROSS: Let's go to another style of Tuvan throat singing called, I believe, "kargyraa."

LEIGHTON: Yes, kargyraa is the low style or the deep style. And this is the style, by the way, that the American bluesman Paul "Eathquake" Pena learned -- taught himself -- to do this more than 10 years ago. And then when Ondar came through San Francisco the to met up.

Ondar invited Pena over to Tuva, and Pena came back to Tuva bringing the Tuvan's own culture to them and they were just swept off their feet with him. And the documentary film about that is called "Ghengis Blues," and that revolves around this friendship between Ondar and Pena.

And the kargyraa style that you're going to hear Ondar do, he does it a little differently than Pena. Each person sounds different. Here's the kargyraa.


GROSS: Thank you, Ondar. Thank you very much. Is there any improvisation in the singing that Ondar is doing or are these songs that are passed down?

LEIGHTON: They're songs that are passed down, but what will happen is there's a lyrical line where you'll say, "I don't know if it will come out or not but I'll just give it my best shot," and then he takes off. And then the rest of the line where the harmonics come in, that's all improvised. He says when he sings that he takes off and flies.

GROSS: And I know like there's the group Huun Huur Tu, which is a group of Tuvan throat singers. Is there like harmony groups in Tuva since you harmonize with yourself basically because you get so many overtones when your singing? What are the harmonies like when singing in a group?

LEIGHTON: Well, actually groups are a recent phenomenon. That's not the traditional way to sing the Tuvan overtone way because, as you pointed out, you don't need to do this. In fact, one wag quipped, "if Gladys Knight could do this she wouldn't need no Pips."

The traditional way of Tuvan throat singing is for a lonely cowboy on his horse out in the step looking at his herds to sing some songs. And if he wants harmony he's got to produce them himself. But of course if you have three or four singers you can have a 12 part chorus.

GROSS: My guests are Tuvan throat singer Ondar and Ralph Leighton, associate producer of Ondar's CD, "Back Tuva Future." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guests are Tuvan throat singer Ondar and Ralph Leighton, associate producer of Ondar's new CD "Back Tuva Future." We're talking about the history of Tuvan throat singers.

Now you mentioned that these are herders. What are they herding, sheep?

LEIGHTON: A lot of different animals. Sheep is the core, but then they herd goats; but then also cattle and the yak, reindeer and camel. All in a relatively small area about the size of North Dakota. They have a lot of different climate zones and a lot of different animals that they herd.

And they've been doing this for thousands of years. They have a herding tradition that goes back into pre-history. So these are perhaps the world's oldest Cowboys.

GROSS: And the herders are on horses and that, I guess, explains that kind of "clip clop" rhythm in some of the songs.

LEIGHTON: That's right. In fact, Ondar has a wonderful medley that he sings that alludes to that and has different paces of the horse. And sometimes they name their throat singing styles after what kind of pace of the horse is going. Rather than a technical aspect of the singing, they describe what they are singing about -- the picture that's in their mind.

GROSS: Could he perhaps do part of that medley?




GROSS: Oh, that's really great. Ondar, thank you so much. Ondar is a throat singer from Tuva. And he has a new CD which is called "Back Tuva Future." And Ondar doesn't speak English, which is why I'm not including him in the actual interview part of our program today.

But with him is Ralph Leighton, a longtime friend and associate who is the associate producer of the new CD, and the author of a book called "Tuva or Bust" about his own adventures getting to Tuva.

LEIGHTON: Along with the late great Richard Feynman.

GROSS: Right. The late physicist. And we'll get to that part of the story little bit later. So since this medley that Ondar just performed shows that kind of "clip clop" of horses and the influence of those rhythms on the rhythms of the songs, I'm wondering if Ondar was ever a herder himself or if anyone in his family who he learned from was in that position.

LEIGHTON: Yes, you hit it right on the head. In the summertime when he was a child he would visit the Yurt (ph) villages where his relatives herded their animals, and in the evening they would sit around the fire and he heard a particular uncle singing in this way. And through hearing this over and over Ondar said that this type of singing got into his blood.

GROSS: When Ondar started singing Tuva was part of the Soviet Union and my understanding is that the Soviet Union discouraged Tuvan throat singing. I wonder if it was actually banned or just discouraged. What was the status of throat singing under the Soviets?

LEIGHTON: It was kind of an underground activity that you did way up in the hills far away from the centers of Soviet colonization in the towns of Kyzyl, for example, and Turan. It was something where you had to learn it from two generations before you -- the grandfather generation -- because, for example, Ondar's father was discouraged from learning his own culture.

He went to school and learned Russian, didn't speak Tuvan as well. They, in fact, even broke and burned Tuvan folk instruments. This was how serious it was, people had to hide these instruments in the mountains. So it was from this older generation that Ondar and his generation learned.

And it's perhaps only because Tuva joined the Soviet Union so late, relatively, in 1944. They were the last territory, outside of the Kuril Islands north of Japan, to be incorporated in the Soviet Union. So there were still people alive who -- who learned throat singing when Tuva was an independent country before 1944.

So this in a way saved the culture. And now Ondar is teaching school in Kyzyl. He teaches students the musical traditions of Tuva. He's got a wonderful group of kids which would make the Vienna Choir boys jealous. And now that the Soviet Union has fallen the Tuvan culture can be practiced openly and Ondar is proud to bring it to America.

And he's taken on all comers. It's a strong enough tradition that you can even add lots of American country music to it and it won't overwhelm the Tuvan throat singing.

GROSS: Now Ondar was actually drafted into the Soviet Navy in 1983, and ended up leaving after he broke his neck while loading hundred pound bags of sugar, is that right?

LEIGHTON: Yes, it wasn't exactly that he broke his neck it was more that -- imagine someone from the center of Asia, about as far away from any ocean as you can get, being assigned to naval duty. But he was loading heavy sacks of grain and a Russian seamen sort of threw it down on him. So that's what ended up breaking his neck.

GROSS: Oh. Was it intentional?

LEIGHTON: So-called accident that seemed pretty intentional. There's a lot of prejudice towards the native peoples in Siberia by the Russians.

GROSS: It sounds like Tuvan throat singing puts so much strain on the muscles of the throat and the neck, it's amazing to me that after breaking his neck Ondar was able to continue the tradition of throat singing.

LEIGHTON: Yes, that's true. And he does have a lot of neck problems, and we're trying to look into that. Whether acupuncture is the best way -- he loves massages, and it is still a problem for him. So he throat sings in spite of the setbacks that he has suffered just because the tradition is so compelling to him.

GROSS: Ondar and Ralph Leighton will be back in the second half of the show.

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


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

Back with Tuvan throat singer Ondar and Ralph Leighton, associate producer of Ondar's new CD, "Back Tuva Future." Leighton is traveling with Ondar and has been helping to introduce Tuvan singing to Americans. He is the author of the 1991 book, "Tuva or Bust" about how he first went to Tuva.

Ralph Leighton, I'm interested in hearing your story about how you discovered Tuvan throat singing for yourself. Let's tell the story of how you got to Tuva in the first place. You were a friend and colleague of the late famous scientist -- physicist -- Richard Feynman.

And he got really into this thing about wanting to go to Tuva. Why was he so into this idea of getting to Tuva? And this was when I think foreigners, at least Americans, were banned from going to Tuva -- banned by the Soviets.

LEIGHTON: Well yes, back -- well, first of all for Feynman -- back in the '30s, Feynman was a collector -- an avid collector -- of wonderful postage stamps that came from Tannu-Tuva. The were triangular and diamond shaped and they showed the most marvelous scenes of herders, with camels and yak and reindeer and horsemen. Just a wonderful wonderful feast for the eyes.

But little did those stamp collectors know that there was an equally fascinating musical tradition. But in 1977 I was at Feynman's house and we were talking about far-flung obscure places in the world, and he popped out with this question, "well, whatever happened to Tannu-Tuva?"

So we went over to a map and looked for where this country might be, because it had disappeared. And we saw something called Tuvinskaya, ASSR (ph) in the Soviet Union, which we figured must be it. And the capital of it was spelled "K"-"Y"-"Z"-"Y"-"L" which to us looked very very exotic.

And when he saw that word he said, "any place that's spelled `K'-`Y'-`Z'-`Y'-`L' has just got to be interesting." And he was right. When we looked into it there were so many interesting little details of history and surprises. And the biggest one, I would say, was this throat singing. So one thing led to another. We just had a wonderful wonderful adventure.

GROSS: Now Richard Feynman never made it to Tuva. He got sick before he was able to get there, and then he passed away not long after that. But you did go to Tuva kind of carrying on his wishes as well as your own. How did you get in given all the obstacles?

LEIGHTON: It was extremely difficult. We hatched all kinds of plots and I happened to be in Washington D.C. here, from my end of the interview, and I went across the mall where the Smithsonian Institution is. And I remember that one of our plans was to see if we could get a museum exhibition of archaeological artifacts which just happened to include things from Tuva. Just so we could join up with the host institution and go over to Tuva in connection with the exhibition.

And this indeed happened. We brought over an exhibition which was called "Nomads of Eurasia" back in the late-'80s . And it was the largest archaeological exhibition ever to come from the Soviet Union to the United States.

So we just did all kinds of crazy things to try to get there. And in connection with that exhibition there was a particular historian who came here as one of the curators, and he issued a personal invitation which was only good for one person. But after Feynman died, tragically, just weeks before getting a more official invitation in connection with the exhibition I decided to go ahead with that personal invitation and went over.

GROSS: And how did you meet Ondar?

LEIGHTON: In Kyzyl the host presented a concert of throat singers and Ondar was among them, and he'd just shown. He's just so brilliant -- the tragedy of radio, you don't get to see what a fantastic presence he is. But he was unforgettable.

And a few years later I succeeded in getting some Tuvan's into the Tournament of Roses Parade in 1993. And Ondar was one of them, and again he just wowed the crowds. From then until now we've become friends.

GROSS: I'd like to end with a selection from the new CD, "Back Tuva Future." And the CD, again, combines Ondar's singing with contemporary American performers. And in fact Richard Feynman -- a recording of Richard Feynman -- is mixed into this. And Ralph, maybe you can explain how Richard Feynman's presence ended up on this recording.

LEIGHTON: Well, this is all part of a wonderful, playful adventure. We're having fun. And I made some recordings back in the '70s of when Feynman and I would drum together and then he would tell stories -- these wonderful stories -- that ended up becoming published as "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman."

And some of these recordings were used by the producer David Hoffner to make a delightful little song which we call "Kargyrra Rap." Ondar does a tongue twister here -- that's another one of the past times in Tuva, is how much of a tongue twister can you get out in one breath.

And then alternating with that are snippets of stories that Feynman told me. And I'll tell your listeners a little secret here, that although there are 10 tracks listed on this CD there's more if you fish around a bit. In the spirit of Richard Feynman we've put a few hidden things on this CD, and you can understand the context of these stories if you look a little further on the CD.

GROSS: Well, that sounds like a riddle. Well Ralph Leighton, I want to thank you very much for talking with us. And Ondar, let me thank you again. I wish we could have spoken. I wish I could speak Tuvan. I wish we could have communicated more, but your music was extraordinary and I thank you very much for performing it.



ONDAR: OK. Thank you.

GROSS: OK. Ondar's new CD is called "Back Tuva Future." Ralph Leighton is the associate producer and author of "Tuva or Bust."

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Ondar and Ralph Leighton
High: Tuvan throat singer Ondar and producer Ralph Leighton. Tuvan throat singing is a biphonic sound in which the performer produces two or three distinct tones at the same time. It originates from Tuva. Leighton co-produced Ondar's debut CD, "Back Tuva Future."
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Tuva; Lifestyle; Culture; Asia; Ondar; Ralph Leighton

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Ondar and Ralph Leighton

Date: MARCH 03, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 030302NP.217
Head: Evan Hunter
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: If you want to see how crime has changed in American cities you can read the "87th Precinct" series of novels, a police procedural series which began in 1956. The city is imaginary, but the stories ring true. The 49th novel in the series has just been published. It's called "The Big Bad City."

The author's name, Ed McBain, is actually the pen name of Evan Hunter, who also wrote the novel "Blackboard Jungle" and the screenplay for the Hitchcock classic "The Birds."

I asked him how the "87th Precinct" has changed since the series began.

EVAN HUNTER, MYSTERY WRITER, "THE BIG BAD CITY": It's a tougher world out there since the '50s, and I guess in the first of the books the plot centered around a shooting with a zip gun, you know, a "Saturday Night Special."

The gun today would be a Glock 9 (ph) or an Uzi or any one of any number of semi-automatic weapons. Drugs back then in the early '50s, the mid-'50s were mostly marijuana and mostly among musicians and in ghettos. Now drugs are, you know, widespread. The crack academic is gone, but now heroin is coming back again. So it's a whole changing scene out there.

GROSS: What about youth crime?

HUNTER: Youth crime? It was different back then. The street gangs were mostly gangs organized to give kids a sense of self-esteem and worth. The gangs now have changed -- and they would rumble over stupid things like their turf, not -- I mean, stupid to us but not stupid to them. This was a matter of pride.

But now it's -- the gangs are dope gangs. They're selling drugs. I mean, this is what they're rumbling over. The turf they're rumbling over is drug turf. It's a very very different situation. They're gangs for profit now not for fun and games.

GROSS: Do you think you write about race differently now than you did in the '50s?

HUNTER: Yeah, I think race is the biggest problem in America today. And I think very few of us are willing to face it squarely and say how serious it is and how we've got to solve it if this country is going to stay together. I write -- I had black cops in the series when it first started, but I think the series as a whole has become more socially conscious over the years.

So I can deal -- I didn't think when I first started writing mysteries that I could deal with serious social problems the way I had in "The Blackboard Jungle." Which, by the way, centers around race as well. But over the years I've discovered that you can still tell a good mystery story and bring into it the social issues that are confronting America today. And so I can deal with race realistically in the books.

GROSS: Do you think your audience's expectations have changed since the '50s in the amount of violence or suspense -- the kind of language that they expect to read?

HUNTER: They've grown used to that. You know, when I wrote "The Blackboard Jungle" I had to change the "F" word to "friggin," you know, which was nice and clean. And you wouldn't dream of doing that today, and indeed you can't go into a movie theater without your friendly neighborhood cleric using the word or your grandmother.

But aside from that, I think the readers have grown enormously sophisticated because of television. They are able to -- you can't dally, especially in a mystery. You can't hang around forever describing a room or getting out of a scene or into a scene. They're used to quick cuts, you know, they're used to cinematic cuts.

And you've got to get in and out fast. And they're also used to better writing. When I started the "87th Precinct" series I was a so-called serious novelist, at least I had written several books that dealt with themes other than people killing each other.

And they -- the writing in mysteries at that time was at a very low level, and I thought what I would like to do is to bring to the mystery novel the same novelistic skills I would bring to a so-called serious novel.

And I did that, and I think if I taught anything to mystery writers out there it was that they could dare to write well. You know, "gee, I can write well in a mystery and I won't be punished by having stones thrown at me or something."

And I think the writing -- the level of writing in the mystery novel overall is better today. And I think the mystery reader expects good writing, and if he doesn't get it will throw the book across the room and say goodbye.

GROSS: Why have you stuck with not only the genre for so long, but this particular series for so long?

HUNTER: I find it endlessly fascinating. I find the reasons people find to hurt each other, and to justify their hurting of each other, are endlessly fascinating. And I feel that the characters in the series -- I keep discovering new things about them each time so that each book in the series is a fresh entity that stands alone and that the reader can find something in even if he's a first-time reader.

I love writing about these guys. I love them -- and the women in their lives. I just love writing about them. I would never stop.

GROSS: Have you ever been the victim of a crime?

HUNTER: No. I'm thinking. No.

GROSS: That's really interesting, that after writing about crime for 40 years.

HUNTER: I've talked to a lot of victims of crimes.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

HUNTER: And I've seen a lot of victims of crimes. And I've seen them on sidewalks and hanging from the ceiling. You can get a pretty good sense of what it's about. I try, in the novels, to understand both sides of the picture. The side of law and order, and also the side of the guy who is committing the crime.

I always like to feel that there's a very thin line that if you or I need money we'll go to a bank and ask to borrow it. The criminal will go to the bank and hold it up. And there's just a slight difference there, but it's close to it.

If you or I feel we're unhappy with our mates we'll seek a divorce. The criminal mind will say, "gee, no, I'll kill her" or "I'll kill him." But it's almost the flip of the coin which way it's going to go isn't it?

GROSS: I don't know why you chose the pseudonym Ed McBain back in the '50s when you started writing the "87th Precinct" series, but are you ever sorry that you've been using the pseudonym since the series has lasted for so long and been so popular?

HUNTER: No, not really. I chose it because my editors and my agent felt that it would be damaging to my career again as a so-called serious novelist if it became known that I was also writing mystery novels. And they said you had better put a pseudonym on the novels.

And in fact it was a deep dark secret for at least -- at least 10 years that Ed McBain was in reality Evan Hunter. I felt like Superman, you know, run into a phone booth and rip off the cloak and there comes Evan Hunter instead of Ed McBain.

And I'm not sorry I made the change, you know, we came out of the closet a long time ago and they knew that I was Ed McBain. But I sometimes wonder if it wouldn't have helped mystery writers everywhere if I had played it straight from the beginning. If they had known that a serious novelist was writing mystery novels. That there was not any taint to writing mysteries.

You know, I know deep in my soul and so does Patricia Cornwell and John Grisham and anyone plying the trade that they are never ever ever ever going to get the Nobel prize or the Pulitzer or the Booker or the (unintelligible) -- never ever ever. You know, they may get the Mystery Writers of America prize, but that's it kids.

GROSS: But you wish you had said that as a writer you take the genre seriously and you take your books about crime seriously.

HUNTER: I do indeed. Well, they are about life and death, aren't they? I mean, what could be more serious than that?

GROSS: Absolutely. Well, Evan Hunter, thank you so much.

HUNTER: Thank you. Thank you.

GROSS: Evan Hunter writes the "87th Precinct" series under the pen name Ed McBain. The new novel is called "The Big Bad City." He'll be back sometime soon to talk about writing the screenplay for Hitchcock's "The Birds." On that same show, Janet Leigh will discuss the making of "Psycho," as we celebrate Hitchcock's centennial.

This is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Evan Hunter
High: Writer Evan Hunter. Under his own name he is the author of "The Blackboard Jungle" and Privileged Conversation." He also wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's film "The Birds." Under the pseudonym Ed McBain he is the author of a series of mystery novels for which he won the British Crime Writers Association's highest award, the Diamond Dagger, and the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award. His latest McBain novel is "The Big Bad City."
Spec: Entertainment; Lifestyle; Culture; Crime; Ed McBain; Evan Hunter

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Evan Hunter

Date: MARCH 03, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 030303NP.217
Head: Maureen Corrigan
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Historian Alice Echols is the author of an acclaimed study of radical feminism in America called "Daring to Be Bad." Her latest book focuses on the life of one of the bad girls of the '60s, Janis Joplin. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of this new biography of Joplin called "Scars of Sweet Paradise."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BOOK CRITIC: Further proof that we live in diminished times: last week's Grammy awards. Proclaimed afterwards as the "Year of the Woman," the Grammys went ga-ga over the likes of Lauryn Hill -- OK. Celine Dion and, it gets worse, Madonna. I heard about the awards as I was reading a newly published biography of Janis Joplin, and I swear I could hear her trademark cackle from beyond the grave.

On a merely average night Janis could have blasted all three of those women off the stage without missing a beat or a belt from her trusty bottle of Southern Comfort. I say that even though I have mixed feelings about Janis Joplin, whose out of control quality still scares me, and about this new biography of her by Alice Echols called, "Scars of Sweet Paradise."

As sometimes happens, the biography has taken on some of the coloration of its subject. For instance, according to many of those who knew her Janis was really intelligent and so is this biography. It offers a lot of informed commentary on Janis' life, her music and her difficult one-two punch of a personality -- alternately needy and abrasive.

Echols also frequently widens the focus to discuss larger cultural shifts of the '60s like the changeover from folk to rock, and the early '60s intermingling of black and white music. As well as its subsequent re-segregation after Martin Luther King's assassination. Throughout her biography Echols, who's a respected historian of the '60s, reminds her readers just how far out, in terms of her time, Janis was.

Echols writes, "Janis refused to be a good girl long before the revival of modern feminism legitimized such refusal. And when it came to relations between men and women, even the counterculture wasn't really counter."

For all its smarts though, Echols' biography can sometimes be as brash as Janis herself. Almost 30 years after her death it seems depressingly clear that Janis was one of a kind. But Echols unconvincingly keeps wanting to claim her as a representative figure, as someone who changed the rules for all of us. I wish.

My other problem with this book is that when it comes to capturing the super hyper-most energy of Janis' performances, Echols just can't seem to let her freak locks fly. This biography should be sold with an accompanying set of CDs so that readers could, to paraphrase the title of Pete Hamill's superb recent appreciation of Frank Sinatra, "hear why Joplin matters."

The loneliness and anger that drove Janis' music are the constants of her life story, much of which reads here like one big wince. Those nightmarish high school years in Port Arthur, Texas when ill favored Janis was derided as a pig by her classmates.

Her defensive strategy of adopting an outrageous chick persona to ward off rejection. Her string of sexual encounters with men and women. And then, after the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, the shaky vindication of fame.

During this heady period Janis boasted to reporters, "people aren't supposed to be like me, sing like me, make out like me, drink like me, live like me. But now they're paying me 50,000 a year for me to be like me. That's what I hope I mean to this kids out there. After they see me maybe they'll have a second thought that they can be themselves and win."

Of course Janis' was a qualified victory. Aside from the self- administered drugs and booze, Echols implies that Janis was also done in by her looks. "Scars Of Sweet Paradise," in addition to being a good though not great biography and cultural history, is also a cautionary tale about what happens to homely women who don't hide.

From the moment she began singing in public, Janis was the object of hatred because, as Echols says, "she was an acne scarred frizzy-haired woman who refused to cede center stage either to the guys or to the pretty girls."

And here we are decades later after the enlightenment of the second women's movement giving Madonna awards not because she has an amazing voice like Janis', but because she really does amazing things with makeup.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed a new biography of Janis Joplin called "Scars of Sweet Paradise."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Maureen Corrigan
High: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "Scars of Sweet Paradise," the new biography of Janis Joplin by historian Alice Echols.
Spec: Entertainment; Music Industry; Lifestyle; Culture; Janis Joplin; Alice Echols; Maureen Corrigan

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Maureen Corrigan
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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