Other segments from the episode on July 31, 2001
DATE July 31, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Barry Hannah discusses his new book, "Yonder Stands
Your Orphan," his career and his battle with cancer
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest is novelist and short story writer Barry Hannah. Larry McMurtry has
called him the best fiction writer to appear in the South since Flannery
O'Connor. William Styron described Hannah as an original and one of the most
consistently exciting writers of the post-Faulkner generation. Hannah writes
about the American South. He grew up in Mississippi and has taught for many
years at the University of Mississippi. He has won the William Faulkner
Prize, been nominated for an American Book Award and was a National Book Award
The title of his new book, "Yonder Stands Your Orphan," borrows a line from
the Dylan song, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." There are orphans and guns in
the novel and plenty of evil, as a killer changes the lives of everyone around
him in a small Mississippi community. Hannah wrote the novel while getting
chemotherapy treatments for lymphoma. Let's start with Hannah introducing a
short reading from the book.
Mr. BARRY HANNAH (Author): This is Man Mortimer, who is the evil that lurks
in this book, and he likes to cut people. He comes from Missouri, and this is
a little piece about him.
`At this juncture, he had no plans to hurt people around the lake. He did not
like bodies of water much, had never seen the ocean. He was indifferent to
trees. Soil was hateful to him, as was the odor of fish. But like many
another man 45 years in age, he wanted his youth back. He wanted to have
pals, sports, high school girls. This need had rushed on him lately. He
lived in three houses, but he had no home. He did not like the hearth, smells
in the kitchen, an old friend for a wife, small talk. It all seemed a vicious
closet to him. He moved, he took, he was admired. But he had developed a
taste for young and younger flesh. This was thrilling and meant high money.
Men and women in this nation were changing, and he intended to charge them for
`Religion had neither formed, nor harmed him. Neither had his parents in
southern Missouri. But he despised the weakness of the church, and of his
parents in whom he had in whom he had gulled. He was a pretty boy born of
hawk-nosed people. It was a curse to have these looks and no talent. Long
lank, hooded eyes, sensual lips that sang no tune. Still, he quit the
football team because of what it did to his hair, claiming a back ailment that
had exempted him from manual labor since age 14. There are thousands of men
of this condition, most of them sorry and shiftless, defeated at the start.
Many are compulsives and snarling fools, demeritus at 20.'
GROSS: Is this character of Man Mortimer based on anyone?
Mr. HANNAH: No, he's not. He's a compound I've gotten just by looking
around and believing that I perceived evil in front of me. So it is an
imaginative but a collected history of my impressions, I believe.
GROSS: You describe him as a quiet man, a gambler, a liaison for stolen cars
and a runner of whores, including three Vicksburg housewives. Describe his
kind of crime.
Mr. HANNAH: His kind of crime is the kind of crime that begins out of
laziness and being admired by women. He finds he can make a living at it, and
he continues since he ran away from home in high school. He's not been
particularly violent, but he has induced violent suicides in others. He is a
thief. He has a stolen car ring, especially expensive SUVs. He's a man who
doesn't like to work and he doesn't like much of what's offered by nature. So
I've painted him as an alien without real pals and only a commercial
connection to women. He wants to join in society now, but he only knows how
to hurt, and that's the base of the book, evil when it reaches out to you and
when it befriends you, and in Mortimer's case, he likes to use a knife. He's
dangerous and he has made quite a deal of money off the casino life around
GROSS: Why did you want to create a character who embodies evil?
Mr. HANNAH: I have been fascinated with how evil goes unpunished, even
unseen in this life. And I wanted the evil to work on a group of folks I have
already imagined in my short stories around a beautiful lake of my youth. And
I thought the evil that Mortimer represented would give each of them decisions
to make. And it would give a focus to their lives. So that I suppose I am
just interested in evil and what it does to folks in a community.
GROSS: Has evil like Man Mortimer's kind of evil ever come into your life?
Mr. HANNAH: I've been around it. Usually, evil is something you can't face.
It simply has to wear out. Sometimes you work for evil unwittingly. And I
can't think of a particular person right now, but I think I've felt the
closeness of evil in casinos. And it brings out the old Baptist in me. I
find the wretched excess and the sort of zombified folks that attend and
participate in casinos pathetic and also dangerous, in many cases.
GROSS: Now what about violence? There's some violence in this book. Has
violence come into your life? Have you witnessed it? Have you ever had a
violent streak yourself?
Mr. HANNAH: I liked to throw knives back in my drinking days, but, no, I've
never been personally violent. I can't be an honest man, though, and tell you
but that I am occupied by violence. It seems to be out of my nightmares. And
my wife wishes I wouldn't write about violence, but as soon as the pen starts
going, I become interested in it all over again. And it's almost dictated to
me. I've been writing for 35 years, and it's attended a good deal of my work.
At this point, I don't think I can do anything but confess that I am a student
of violence, because of what it does, because of how it quickens the character
of those around it.
GROSS: You've also collected guns, right?
Mr. HANNAH: I've collected guns, yes.
GROSS: And have you used them? What kind of things do you use them for?
Mr. HANNAH: I have not used a gun in 10 years. If I used them right now, I'd
shoot beer cans at the city dump. It's a .22 rifle. No. I don't have any
real personal urge to shoot anymore. It just passed and I've never shot at a
human being, never threatened a human being, if that's covering the subject.
GROSS: So what did you use the guns for?
Mr. HANNAH: You know, this is a difficult thing to explain to others about
how a gun is a piece of art. Guns are history. I like to look at the
mechanism. I like to feel the heft, and they are a kind of history. So
that's about all I can say. I don't collect guns anymore, but I'm not
sorry for the ones I have. They just feel like a decent hunk of the past
hanging on the wall.
GROSS: Now you say that whenever you pick up the pen, you end up starting to
write about violence.
Mr. HANNAH: It...
GROSS: What is it do you think about violence that's so seductive in fiction
or in movies? And, you know, I wouldn't compare your new novel to an action
film, but there just seems to be something that people gravitate to in stories
Mr. HANNAH: Yeah. They gravitate toward it. By the way, I have done column
pieces, meditated pieces, even religious pieces and without violence. But I
don't know why the preoccupation especially, except that it wakes up my
imagination. And I may be a tragic case. It may be that the good does not
light up my imagination as much as the evil. It may be a personal failure.
But I am trying my best to get through this phase, and I do love hard drama
and I will imagine it in different ways and in several ways in the future, I'm
GROSS: My guest is writer Barry Hannah. His new novel is called "Yonder
Stands Your Orphan." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Writer Barry Hannah is my guest. His new novel is called "Yonder
Stands Your Orphan."
Everyone in your book is quite damaged in some way or another. Why is that?
Mr. HANNAH: Well, you know, I noticed that a New York Times reviewer said
that this book was a parade of gargoyles, and there are damaged folks in it.
I think that people are needing to mend around a lake. A lake is a great
contemplative body for me, and lakes have soothed me all my life. And I think
that the wounded and those in despair might naturally gather around such a
lake to live. I do not think my characters are particularly grotesque. It is
my honest view of how folks live. And those fans of mine who don't really see
them as terribly eccentric or my painting them as obsessive, they think
they're looking at life straight on. When you look at all of us, you're going
to find a kind of private hurt that can be monstrous, and our private
obsessions are very strange to others if they knew them. That's about all.
GROSS: Now I think you wrote most of this novel after being diagnosed with
lymphoma and some of it while taking chemotherapy treatments. Were you
feeling kind of particularly damaged yourself when you were writing,
Mr. HANNAH: Yeah. And that probably contributes to the themes of damage in
the book. I hadn't considered that, but my wife read the book and she said,
`You know, this is very dark.' And I had told a buddy of mine, very close to
me, Dan Williams(ph), `You're going to have fun with this one, Dan. There's a
lot of exuberance,' and when it was finished, it was darker than I knew. I do
think I was writing out of some real obsession with mortality and physical
pain and on steroids some of the time, where the steroids were my only energy.
They were the only drug that kept me standing during the chemotherapy. But I
believe that you're right on the money, that I do think my occupations were
with death, when I was facing hurt and I also hope you don't miss the humor
that saves us in the book.
GROSS: How uncertain has the outcome been of your treatment?
Mr. HANNAH: Well, it's been good. I mean, I've been without cancer for a
Mr. HANNAH: And so I'm a hopeful and happy and very grateful man.
GROSS: How do you think the exhaustion of being sick and taking chemo
affected your will to write, your ability to write, the style that you wrote
Mr. HANNAH: You know, I really can't answer for that. I know that much came
in a rush, private inner rushes, and that it was composed in tranquility that
became a little more panicked and more panicked as I wrote. Because I got
deeper into treatment and into weakness. So it was a book that may be paced;
beginning, it was kind of a healthy or just clinical observations about folks,
and then it becomes maybe more frantic.
GROSS: It takes a lot of endurance to write. I mean, I think it's a pretty
exhausting, mentally exhausting occupation; physically not so much, though,
because you're just sitting in a chair. Were you surprised at how much energy
it took to write?
Mr. HANNAH: Yeah. I've never been this weak in my life, and I was shocked by
weakness which just accompanies the treatment, and I agree it takes a lot of
energy and a lot of muscular strength. I mean, I used a pencil, and I love
all of these tools, but it never had occurred to me what a vast physical job
writing was until this book. Because in my earlier books, I had trouble
keeping up with my pencil. The stories were coming so hot and heavy. And
this one--this was a rather long and very exhausting view into a force that
weakened me personally. I had a hundred pages more than this book was and it
was cleaned up and helped beautifully by my editor, Amy Hundley(ph), and by my
wife also. My wife typed the manuscript. I was, for the first time in my
life, very, very dependent on the women around me, and I'm very beholden and
full of love for these people.
GROSS: Let me get back to your novel, "Yonder Stands Your Orphan." There's a
bar in which your novel opens. It's called the Walnut Bar(ph). I want you to
describe this bar.
Mr. HANNAH: This bar is one of the few surviving--I'm turning the pages now.
I'm looking into what it is. It's a roadhouse really, with a little bait.
He's the man who still has roaches for bait, which is really unheard of since
the '50s almost. But he's a wise man in the ways of fishing. He advises
folks on depth and lures and the wind. He's a bard. Men come there because
it has none of the trappings of a woman about it. It has a calendar of a
naked bosomy girl on the wall. And it evokes the '50s around the Korean War.
So it's where men gather in different places in the South, you know, to be men
and to talk manly. And it's a rough place, but it's also a kind of a church.
I can't--the bar is Walnut. As far as I know, it's unnamed. And it also is
unlicensed. The sheriff allows it or disallows it to be open. What it is is
a mecca for fishermen, and every fisherman I know who's serious about going
long distances to fish will know something about a roadhouse like this.
GROSS: Whereas I know nothing about a roadhouse like this. And I don't know
whether it's because I'm a woman or because I'm from the North or because I'm
from the city. But, you know, I was reading this, I'm thinking I've never had
the experience of being in a bar like this.
Mr. HANNAH: There's no reason why you should, Terry. I wouldn't go in there
if I were a woman. There's nothing attractive, unless you fish and you see a
sort of rugged charm about the folks. It's pretty pathetic really on its own
merits, but he does have good whiskey, which he overcharges for, and he's got
tales. He's telling stories about people around the lake. So he is kind of
the Homer of the place. And the people are disappointed in him, in fact.
He's now got a videotape he's selling behind the counter, which is close to
child pornography. And the two men that we're introduced to, Robbie(ph) and
Cecil(ph), are sad that he's joined the modern times, but we find, of course,
that Man Mortimer himself is doing local films with orphan girls. It's not an
attractive place. There's just no reason for anybody to go there, except
rough and kind of manly fishermen who are trying to get away from everything
back at the office or the hardware store or wherever.
GROSS: Barry Hannah will be back in the second half of the show. His new
novel is called "Yonder Stands Your Orphan." The title refers to a line in
this Bob Dylan song. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. BOB DYLAN: (Singing) You must leave now, take what you need you think
will last. But whatever you wish to keep, you'd better grab it fast. Yonder
stands your orphan with his gun, crying like a fire in the sun. Look out,
those things are coming through, and it's all over now, baby blue. The
highway is for gamblers. You better use your sense. Take what you have
gathered from coincidence. The empty hand is painted from your screams, is
drawing crazy patterns on your sheets. The sky, too, is folding under you,
and it's all over now, baby blue. All your seasick sailors, they are rolling
GROSS: Coming up, writer Barry Hannah talks about growing up in the South,
and David Bianculli considers the 20th anniversary of MTV.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with novelist and short
story writer Barry Hannah. His new novel, "Yonder Stands Your Orphan," is
about an evil man, a killer who changes the lives of everyone in a small
community in Mississippi. William Styron has called Hannah one of the most
consistently exciting writers of the post-Faulkner generation.
You grew up in Mississippi, you still live in Mississippi. What are some of
the things that you think most separate Southern culture from Northern
Mr. HANNAH: Oh, gad. It's still relatively unhurried here, when you get out
of the big urban centers like Nashville and Atlanta, which are very
cosmopolitan now. They're very much like a lot of the nation. But there's a
world of difference between a football crowd at a Vandy-Ol' Miss game
and a Penn State crowd. I can tell by experience. There is just a leisure
about the culture and a kind of love of jokes and especially old times.
People in the South are nostalgic by age 11. I tell you that in the book, but
it's not a joke. It's--looking back even to poverty as a great old time. We
have a great yearning for softer, quieter, kinder times. I think we're just
afflicted with that Irish look at the past, as a comfort and a joy. And we
celebrate the past a great deal more than other places.
GROSS: Did you grow up like that, always looking back?
Mr. HANNAH: I certainly did.
GROSS: On what?
Mr. HANNAH: I certainly did.
GROSS: What were the things that you were brought up to be nostalgic about?
Mr. HANNAH: My mother was from Delta planters, and I heard her stories about
boats coming up to their plantation full of oysters and candy and mints. And
it sounded like an outpost in Africa. I mean, my mother was, you know, born
back at the turn of the century, 1906 or something. And it just seemed it was
so happy--Christmastime, so happy to get these things up from New Orleans on a
big boat. It sounded like the best times available. It just sounded happy.
And I listened to those stories, and now I am just as nostalgic as my mother
for very modest homes down the coast of Mississippi, very sweet people with no
money, a lot of gentility, natural and affection for family. I had a very
wonderful youth and I was babied as a late child. And I had every opportunity
to be what I wanted to be. And one of the best things they gave me was
pleasant and gentle memories of family.
GROSS: Describe where you grew up.
Mr. HANNAH: I grew up in Clinton, Mississippi, which is right outside the
state capital in Jackson. But it was a distinct village, about 2,000 people,
with a little college, a little Baptist college. So that we had professors
for neighbors and the culture of the Baptist Church, the high school band and
the football team. That was it. That was civilization as I knew it. Also,
there's no crime. We disappeared sometimes in the summer at 8:00 in the
morning, didn't come back until 7 at night. There was no fear because we--the
whole village took care of us.
GROSS: Did you go to the Baptist Church?
Mr. HANNAH: Oh, yes, I did. Yeah.
GROSS: What was the oratory like in a church and do you think that influenced
your sense of storytelling or the way you write?
Mr. HANNAH: The preachers did not, but the Bible itself has. I just--the
rhythms of the Old and New Testament--the saint--the King James Version--are
just as solidly set in a person of my era who went to church as a moral
foundation. I make my sentences, I'm sure, from Biblical rhythms. I've been
called post-modernist, but I doubt it. I think I just write in more
fragmented ways in narration. But the base of my sentences, although they are
sometimes baroque, is, I think, from the Scriptures, as far as I can feel it
GROSS: Was the Bible for you mostly an oral work that you heard preachers
read out loud in church, or was it a book that you read to yourself?
Mr. HANNAH: Both. The preachers interpreted, and actually, the Protestant
faiths have become almost Catholic in not reading the Bible. The preachers
have become sole interpreters of the Bible, whereas the original Baptist idea
was that every man was his own interpreter with no intercession. Yeah, we
read a lot of the Bible. We knew Scriptures by heart, especially Psalms and
a great bit of the Book of John, the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew and
certain things like that were memorized, and I had them memorized until I was
15, 16 years old.
GROSS: Can you think of a line or a passage from the Bible that has the kind
of rhythms that you're speaking of and how they influenced you?
Mr. HANNAH: Yes. It's something like the 23rd Psalm. `The Lord is my
shepherd, I shall not want. Ye though I walk through the valley of the
shadow'--and so on. This had just such wonderful, basic human poetry in it,
and I never was sophisticated enough to consider the Bible as literatarian
until I was--I never even heard the term `the Bible as literature,' until I
was way into graduate school. So I--in fact, I'd stopped going to church,
but the church is--the Scriptures are very much with me. And more and more
now, I'm reading Mark and John in the Bible, not a bit--not all the time, but
I just love the clarity and the mystery at the same time.
GROSS: I know when I was young and the Bible was read out loud in our
assemblies every week in grade school, when I would hear, `The Lord is my
shepherd, I shall not want,' I was always just confused, like, `Well, why
wouldn't I want him then?' You know, I didn't realize that want could mean
Mr. HANNAH: Right. You would want.
GROSS: Yeah, why don't I want him? Yeah. So, `I shall not want.'
Mr. HANNAH: Right. OK.
GROSS: Were you ever confused by the language?
Mr. HANNAH: I was confused constantly. Either the Southern pronunciation on
things or the preacher's interpretation of things--I just--I always adored
Christ. That never has left me. But I was totally confused by God, and I
remain confused. But I give large attention to Christ. And I do believe,
like Thomas Jefferson said something, `the best code of morals we've ever
had--we've ever had.' And I--that goes deep into me. And I--if you get sick
and there's nothing left for you but Christ and a few pals, you tend to become
deep in your religious mind. I had even had an inner vision of Christ
after--a week after I almost died of pneumonia. And I didn't expect it. In
the dream, I said, `You know, I haven't been paying enough attention to you.'
And he was very physical and he made no comment. But he had gave me to
believe that he was there and it just shocked me, because I've not been a very
wonderful Christian in a pronounced way. But he is still there, deeply in me.
I know part of it is cultural, but also a great deal of it is very real.
GROSS: My guest is writer Barry Hannah. His new novel is called, "Yonder
Stands Your Orphan." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Barry Hannah. His new novel is called "Yonder Stands Your
Did you grow up reading a lot of the literature of the South? Did the fact
that you were from the South affect your choices in what to read or the things
that you were assigned in school?
Mr. HANNAH: I did not read the literature of the South. I only heard the
great names spoken, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams. I was
not literary a bit, frankly, until I went to high school. I got a high school
class and started reading some Keats, and then I think next was Jack London.
So I'm a schooled literary man. It wasn't just instantly available in the
GROSS: What was it about Keats that did it for you?
Mr. HANNAH: I think it was the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and I had such a
good teacher, Mrs. Lois Blackwell(ph), that made that thing come alive, and I
could see the joy in language and how somebody could get rapturous over
beauty. And also knowing that he died at 26 interested me because I was,
like, 17, and that seemed like a really decent life span then, you know? And
so you just kind of get the move on, you can get your poems in, die at 26 and
be famous. So that was actually kind of inviting to a stupid boy in school
GROSS: Did that give you also this romantic sense of an early death?
Mr. HANNAH: It may have. It may have. And I've since shed that.
Mr. HANNAH: There's not a damn thing glorious about tuberculosis and
I--everybody who knows a thing of that disease knows that it should be
de-romancified, as they said about Orwell, who had it, too. It used to be the
writer's disease. And I don't know, I kind of even wanted it. You know,
anything to get you to pure ecstasy in words, I thought I was willing to bear.
GROSS: So you thought fever could give you a vision?
Mr. HANNAH: Right, right. Fever and then liquor for several years. And so I
went my way in liquor, which is almost a boring story with writers. But I
thought that you needed it for insight, and my heroes had become Faulkner and
Joyce and Hemingway, who all slugged it back. And I thought it liberated
vision, and it does make you more comfortable with saying anything you want
to. It may have made me a little funny or sometimes a little wittier, but
the fallout was negative, as it always is. It continued.
GROSS: Well, some people have a constant editor sitting on their shoulder.
You know, there's an editor part of their own personality that's always
silencing the writer, and it's a very inhibiting experience. Did you have
that, and did alcohol get rid of the editor?
Mr. HANNAH: I think it just--you've just put your hand on the exact problem.
Yeah. It made me better at parties. It made other people more interesting,
as Jack Nicholson said, giving the reason why he drank. You were just a
happy, old thing. And the same thing when you sat down at the typewriter,
your inhibitions go away. And I think if you can limit it to, like, two
whiskeys, there's something to be said for it. That you are looser and you
actually are more friendlier to the universe and more inviting to strangers
and you can imagine other people a little better. Now I just have coffee,
and I think I do it pretty well. But I do want to caution the young that
it's--you neither want alcoholism or tuberculosis, nor any of the things that
have killed off many wonderful people like Jimi Hendrix, whom I still miss.
You just don't--you just got to gut it and be more stubborn and trust your own
GROSS: Were you an obnoxious drinker? If you had too many, were you
Mr. HANNAH: Sure. Sure, especially in the last years. I haven't had a
drink in 11 years. But, oh, yes, I lost a marriage because of it. It's
everything that's in the book. It's unbearable, especially as you grow older.
An old drunk is really a pitiful, pitiful thing.
GROSS: Barry Hannah is my guest, and his new novel is called "Yonder Stands
Your Orphan." Have you ever gone through a real dry period writing, where
it just wouldn't come and you give up?
Mr. HANNAH: Yes. But I think that's what--it's good to teach and have a
regular paycheck because I go for some months without inspiration and it
frightens me. It frightens me deeply. Nobody wants to be out of gas. Nobody
wants to repeat himself. So these are frightening times. And I was keeping a
journal to try to help myself. I've heard that it helps, but my journal was
full of such banal thoughts I wouldn't dare let anybody read them. I'd be
just like, `Taking out the dog' and `It's raining today.' I had no great
thoughts unless I was working, and that's the way it's been. I just don't
think--my thoughts are very average, ordinary, until I get among people and
language. I think I do have some thoughts then, and there's my real work, my
mental life. You just wait out these periods. I think it's good. There are
already too many books, and you want to save it until you're ready and you can
do your best. And when those days come, that's just a wonderful feeling,
because, you know, I get up at 4 in the morning full of joy, go into those
notebooks and I just feel like I'm the luckiest man in the world.
GROSS: You mentioned before that you've been cancer-free for a year. Do you
still have to take any kind of treatments?
Mr. HANNAH: No, unless it recurs. And even then there are new drugs to help
me along and kill the cancer. So I don't know how to feel, frankly. I have
the attitude of a healthy man, but I'm not quite healthy yet. And I just
remain grateful that I got to do this book we're talking about, and that I'm
talking with a pleasant and intelligent woman like you. I'm not going
to--there's nothing to gain by my coming onto you at this point, but I do
appreciate--this is nice. This is very, very, very nice. And I'm flattered
by your attention.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. HANNAH: You bet.
GROSS: Barry Hannah. His new novel is called "Yonder Stands Your Orphan."
The 100th anniversary of Louis Armstrong's birth is Saturday, August
4th, according to his birth certificate, even though Armstrong said he was
born July 4th, 1900. We'll celebrate on Thursday with Michael Cogswell,
the director of the Louis Armstrong House and Archive. We'll listen to
excerpts of home recordings Armstrong made. In the meantime, here's one of
his classic recordings. This is "Weather Bird", featuring Armstrong with
Earl Hines, recorded in 1928.
(Soundbite of "Weather Bird" by Armstrong and Hines)
GROSS: Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. Coming up, TV critic David Bianculli
on MTV's 20th anniversary. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Commentary: Impact MTV has had on American culture
TERRY GROSS, host:
The cable music channel MTV turns 20 years old tomorrow and is celebrating its
birthday with an all-day retrospective of influential videos and a prime-time
live concert featuring many familiar acts from Billy Joel--that is, Billy Idol
to Busta Rhymes. For the occasion, TV critic David Bianculli has some
thoughts about MTV, then and now.
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
My daughter is 19 years old, about to start her sophomore year of college. My
son is 17, a high school senior. Neither of them has ever known a world
without MTV, which turns 20 tomorrow. They're both part of what has often
been called the MTV generation. Bob Thompson, who teaches popular culture at
Syracuse University, points out that the mere fact that MTV has a generation
named after it shows how important it is. CNN doesn't have generation,
neither does HBO. And when I was a kid, I wasn't part of the CBS generation.
I was a member of the TV generation, period. That's quite a leap in one
generation, from being identified with a new medium, in general, to being
linked with one channel out of hundreds in a cable universe that many millions
of people in this country can't get or don't watch.
When I started watching TV as a child in the '50s, the TV was an appliance
with only a handful of channels and a smudgy black-and-white picture. After
the late movie or before the morning farm report, TV didn't show anything but
a test pattern. The picture often went screwy, and you had to adjust the
horizontal hold or the vertical hold to keep it from rolling.
Color TV? That didn't arrive in our house until the late '60s, when I first
found out there was a big difference between Kansas and Oz in "The Wizard of
Oz." Since we only had a black-and-white set, it had all seemed the same.
My kids, though, were born with cable. They've never known rabbit ears or TVs
without remote controls. Technology can make you feel very old, very fast.
And I feel even older because when MTV was launched two decades ago, I was a
TV critic then watching it at the very beginning.
What MTV did then was take the term `cable network launch,' and use launch as
a metaphor. Its symbol those first few years was an MTV logo super-imposed on
a lunar flag. And if you tuned in, waiting to watch MTV that very first day,
the sound you heard was mission control from NASA, and the picture was that of
an Apollo rocket on the launching pad. When the countdown hit zero, the
rocket and MTV took off. And the first video, by a group named The Buggles,
was called "Video Killed The Radio Star."
(Soundbite of MTV broadcast)
Unidentified Man #1: T-minus 45 seconds and counting. T-minus 40 seconds and
counting. The development flight instrumentation recorders are on. T-minus
35 seconds. We're just a few seconds away from switching to the redundance
and sequencer. T-minus 27 seconds. We have gone for redundance and sequencer
start. T-minus 20 seconds and counting. T-minus 15, 14, 13. T-minus 10, 9,
8, 7, 6, 5, 4--we've gone for main engine start--we have main engine start.
(Soundbite of rocket taking off)
Unidentified Man #2: Ladies and gentlemen, rock 'n' roll.
(Soundbite of "Video Killed The Radio Star" by The Buggles)
Unidentified Man #3: I heard you on the wireless back in '52, lying awake
intently tuning in on you. If I was young, it didn't stop you coming through.
Unidentified Woman #1: Oh-a oh.
Unidentified Man #3: They took the credit for your second symphony.
Rewritten by machine and new technology. And now I understand the problems
you can see.
Unidentified Woman #1: Oh-a oh.
Unidentified Man #3: I met your children.
Unidentified Woman #1: Oh-a oh.
Unidentified Man #3: What did you tell them?
Unidentified Woman #1: Video killed the radio star. Video killed the radio
Unidentified Man #3: Pictures came and broke your heart.
Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.
Unidentified Man #3: And now we meet in an abandoned studio...
BIANCULLI: There were 14 videos shown on that first hour. From The Who's
"You Better, You Bet," to Pat Benatar's, "You Better Run." Benatar, before
Madonna, was MTV's first sex symbol. The first host we saw then, identified
by MTV as a video jockey or veejay, was Mark Goodman, the 1981 equivalent of
The power of MTV over the years is evident in music, on radio, on television,
in the movies and in fashion. Videos, as they developed into dramatic
mini-movies, paved the way for "Miami Vice" and "Flashdance" and a whole new
vocabulary of film and editing. Big hair and Spandex were spread like a virus
by MTV in the '80s. And because of MTV, Michael Jackson and Madonna are
But MTV's power also is measurable in what it doesn't show. Before Michael
Jackson, it had an unofficial ban against black artists. Today, after such
shows as "Yo! MTV Raps," there's no question MTV helped spread hip-hop
into the heartland. If MTV had been even more inclusionary, adding jazz and
soul and folk, as well as electronica and newer musical movements, who knows
how tastes for this new generation might have been shaped?
Right now, some of the biggest things around are the good-looking boy bands
and sexy girl singers. MTV deserves a lot of blame for that. But I have a
hard time getting upset about it. On my first color TV, one of the shows I
remember watching was a TV series about a music group whose members were
assembled specifically for that show. Today, that would be Eden's Crush, an
all-girl group formed on the WB reality series, "Pop Stars" and now singing
and gyrating on MTV. Back in my day, it was a boy band called The Monkees in
a sitcom that included goofy short films that looked an awful lot like MTV
videos. Come to think of it, people my age should consider themselves
fortunate. At least we weren't stuck with the label of The Monkee generation.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News. I'm Terry
(Soundbite of "Material Girl")
MADONNA: Some boys kiss me, some boys hug me. I think they're OK. If they
don't give me proper credit, I just walk away. They can beg and they can
plead, but they can't see the light. That's right. 'Cause the boy with the
cold, hard cash is always Mr. Right. 'Cause we are living in a material
world and I am a material girl. You know that we are living in a material
world and I am a material girl.
GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, Sarah Jessica Parker talks about her HBO
series, "Sex and the City," in an on-stage interview, we recorded a couple of
weeks ago on Martha's Vineyard. I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH
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