DATE July 1, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Matthew Brzezinski discusses the global narcotics
industry and the cover story he wrote on heroin for The New York
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We were saddened by the recent news of Rosemary Clooney's death. We'll
remember her on Friday with a concert and interview that we recorded on stage
in San Francisco.
My guest today has been tracking a global business that is not traded in the
stock market: heroin. Matthew Brzezinski wrote last week's New York Times
Magazine cover story, Heroin: The Sleek New Business Model for the Ultimate
Global Product. Brzezinski is a contributing writer to the magazine and a
former reporter for The Wall Street Journal. His book, "Casino Moscow," is a
tale of greed and adventure on capitalism's wildest frontier. It just came
out in paperback.
Brzezinski followed heroin from the cultivation of poppy crops in Southeast
Asia through the drug sale on the streets of American cities and suburbs. He
says that this year, Afghanistan will have a bumper crop of poppies, because
when the Taliban were overthrown, it brought an end to their prohibition
against growing poppies. And he says despite the military and security
measures taken to fight international terrorism and shore up America's
borders, the global heroin industry has had a remarkably good fiscal year.
Has the business changed a lot since there's been a lot of new security
measures established after September 11th?
Mr. MATTHEW BRZEZINSKI (Journalist): Well, interestingly, I think it's a
little bit early to say what the long-term effects will be. In the short run,
right after 9/11, talking to border guards and Customs officials here in the
United States, they were very surprised. They said that all of a sudden,
things had became very, very, very quiet. And they didn't see any drugs
whatsoever, and they're usually at the big borders along, say, the California
border with Mexico, for instance--they're usually making a dozen big seizures
a day, and all of a sudden, there was nothing. And it was if the smuggling
syndicates, the drug runners, were hanging back and waiting to see what would
happen. And so far, there's been a dramatic rise in seizures, but again, that
could be misleading, because part of the reason there's been such a dramatic
rise in seizures since 9/11 is that passenger traffic everywhere was way down,
and this gave Customs and border guards the opportunity to screen every
entrant entering into the United States more carefully.
GROSS: Now you say that the business of heroin, to stretch it a little bit,
like terrorist cells. Make that analogy for us.
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Well, any drug organization, but particularly heroin, can't
operate like a normal business venture, in that it cannot be vertically
integrated. It has to operate sort of horizontally in that you have to have a
lot of what I would call freelance contributors that only specialize in their
particular niche in the entire, you know, distribution and supply chain. And
there can be no one big boss. It's just a whole bunch of players who have a
common goal; in this case, it's to make money, it's greed. It's not a
political statement or a jihad or a war like al-Qaeda. But they get together,
and they will move a certain product, and then they will disband. And then
the next time they want to move more product, they'll get together again very
And this is all done so that the different players don't know who they are,
and you can never break more than one link in the chain, so you can never
bring down the entire organization if somebody gets caught. And I think we've
seen that as well with al-Qaeda and all sorts of terrorist networks; when you
bring down one cell, you don't bring down the entire organization.
GROSS: Now how does heroin sales compare to cocaine in the United States?
Heroin has its kind of ups and downs in terms of distribution and demand in
the United States. Where are we now?
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Heroin is actually picking up a lot of ground on cocaine.
We've been seeing a decrease in cocaine use in the United States and a change
in demographics in that fewer users are using it, but the users that are using
cocaine are using more of it. In other words, they're habitual users or
they're addicts or, as we're seeing much more recreational use of heroin. And
in a sense, this is sort of the opposite of the introduction of crack cocaine,
if you'll recall, in the '80s, which took what was essentially a yuppie drug
and opened it to the mass markets to people with limited income and disposable
income. What has happened now is heroin was traditionally injected, but now,
because of increases in purities and the way it's distributed, you can now
smoke or snort heroin. So you're having alarming trends, such as teen-agers
now are snorting heroin. And heroin is very, very addictive--much more so
than cocaine. And so you're seeing a change in demographics.
GROSS: Probably a lot of teen-agers assume that if you smoke or snort heroin,
it's not addictive. It's not the same as shooting it.
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Right. I think that there's a misperception there and, of
course, there's no stigma of HIV or AIDS that one can get with a tainted
GROSS: So is part of like the marketing design here to keep heroin affordable
enough so that you can find new teen-age markets to sell it to?
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Well, there's a whole price range for heroin, and there's
different varieties of heroin, and that is part of the sophistication of the
industry. And when I went with the undercover police, the Narcotics Squad in
Baltimore, to buy heroin, I was very surprised that it came in vials with
different colored caps. You had pink caps. This was the cheapest sort of
snorting heroin. And this was targeting teen-agers, kids from the counties,
as the police referred to them. You had red caps. You had blue caps. You
had green caps, which would then increase in purity and price. So you could
have up to 40 percent purity, which is a very, very, very, very strong dose of
heroin. And it...
GROSS: Who does that go to? Who is that for?
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: That is for people who want to smoke it, again, or snort it,
but this is for people who--this would be, you know, doctors and lawyers.
It's unlikely that addicts could afford to pay $40 for a milligram of it.
They'd probably pay $10 for a milligram of what's called scramble, which is 4
to 7 percent purity, but that you inject it directly into your bloodstream, so
you don't need it to be as strong. And, in fact, this is where you get
overdoses. And in the '90s when America was inundated with heroin, when the
Colombians decided to switch partly from cocaine and start producing opium and
heroin, they flooded the market with very strong heroin, and you had a rash of
overdoses, because addicts who were accustomed to injecting scramble, which is
4 to 7 percent pure, were getting doses that might be 30 percent in purity.
And if you inject a dose of 30 or 40 percent pure, there's a very strong
chance you won't be able to survive that. I mean, that's why you had a lot of
GROSS: Give us a sense of how many times heroin changes hands, from the poppy
crop to its sales to individuals in American cities and suburbs.
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Ooh, could be hundreds of times. I know that I tried to
follow it as closely as I could, and going to Myanmar--Burma as it's more
popularly known--and trying to follow the trail, crossing borders and whatnot,
and I just got lost because you can't. Probably on average, about 100 times
or so before it ends up being sold on the street.
GROSS: And each time it passes hands, there's another profit that has to get
made, so the mark-up's pretty extraordinary.
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: The mark-up is spectacular, more than 5,000-fold. When I
met the poppy farmers in the mountains along the Burmese-Chinese border, they
were selling raw opium, which they harvested, for just over $100 dollars a
kilo. And, of course, by the time I ended up buying it with the undercover
police in Baltimore, that same kilo will have generated sales of close to $1
million. And it is spectacular the profits that are involved. And as you
mentioned, every time it changes hands, because of the risk premiums, you
know, it increases in price. And you can really see where the big increases
are, and that's when the highest risk is involved; when crossing the border
into the United States, it'll, you know--a kilo of refined 90 percent pure
China white heroin, which is among the best heroin in the world, in Burma is
around $2,000, $2,500 rather. It goes to 10,000 by the time it's in Bangkok;
cross the border into the United States, and it's 100,000. So you get a
tenfold jump just getting it into the United States. And, you know, then the
dealers and the wholesalers in certain places like New York or Chicago or LA
sell it to crews, which then break it down to street crews, and it keeps
changing hands and changing hands and doubling and tripling in price every
time it does so.
GROSS: My guest is Matthew Brzezinski. He wrote last week's New York Times
Magazine cover story on heroin. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Matthew Brzezinski is my guest, and he wrote the recent cover story in
The New York Times Magazine called Heroin: The Sleek New Business Model for
the Ultimate Global Product.
Let's trace some of your steps. You went to Myanmar, Burma, to talk to poppy
farmers. What did they tell you about why they're growing poppy crops?
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Well, I think that they really don't have much of a choice.
They live on the top, top, top of these mountains, where just about nothing
else grows. And ironically, they started poppy cultivation about 120 years
ago at the behest of British colonizers, who were looking to fuel trade with
China next door. And the British introduced them to poppy cultivation and
brought them up into these mountains where nothing else grows. And they've
been farming poppy ever since.
And now that there's increasing pressure, international political pressure on
Burma to crack down on these areas where they live, which, in fact, are areas
run by warlords, just like in Afghanistan, where central authorities have
very, very little say in what goes on, the farmers are very upset because they
say, `Well, this is our livelihood,' and they're not exactly rich. There's no
running water. There's no electricity. The children run around barefoot.
There's mud everywhere. I mean, you feel like you've stepped back into the
19th century. And they live in straw huts.
And if you do take away this poppy farming, then they will all starve. They
showed me corn. They're trying to grow corn, and the ears of corn looked like
gnarly little kosher dill pickles. It just doesn't grow properly there.
Nothing else does. So they're in quite a quandary. If you want to eradicate
poppy cultivation, you have to then resettle tens of thousands of families and
entire villages from the mountain areas of Burma. And that is politically and
logistically almost impossible to do.
GROSS: Do you think it's an issue to them that the poppy they're growing ends
up as heroin that addicts teen-agers around the world?
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: I don't think they have any clue. When they asked me, you
know, `Where am I from?,' I said, `Washington,' and they didn't know what
Washington was. They had heard of New York City, but they had never heard of
Washington. You know, these are people who can't read, who can't write. In
fact, in one village where I went, I was the first Caucasian that they'd ever
seen. These are extremely isolated places. You know, just getting there took
us two days of going over absolute treacherous mountains. And they're
completely cut off from the rest of the world, and they don't know, you know,
what happens to opium and the effect that it has on people in the United
States or in Europe.
GROSS: So how much of the heroin that's cultivated comes from poppy crops
grown by people like the people you visited in Myanmar?
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Globally, almost everything. I would say that 90 percent of
the world's supply comes from people like this. Whether they live in Burma or
they live in Afghanistan or they live in the jungles of Colombia--I mean, that
is a prerequisite for growing opium because, you know, you need large tracts
of land, and it's very difficult to disguise, because when poppy blooms, when
the pods bloom, they have these very distinctive red or white petals, which,
in fact, the DEA and the CIA use spy satellites, and that's how they measure
what the acreage are, where it's all growing. But to do this, you know, you
are very much exposed to the law enforcement. And the only places that this
can be grown in is places where there is no law enforcement, where there are
fiefs run by warlords. And these people are peasants almost like serfs from
another age, and they do what the warlords tell them.
And it's the warlords, of course, that make the money. And when I met the
warlords in Burma, you know, they would pull up in this convoy of $65,000
Lexus Land Cruisers. They would all have, you know, Rolex watches and one guy
had a gold-plated sidearm. And, you know, you can see that, you know, they're
clearly aware of where the drugs go and what effect they have on people, but
they don't care because they're the ones who are making the money there.
GROSS: OK. So you met poppy farmers in Myanmar, Burma. Who do they sell the
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Well, they'll tell you they don't know, which is nonsense, of
course. But, of course, it's also the smart answer. They have to live there
and deal with these people. It's, generally speaking, brokers who work on
behalf of the warlords. In Myanmar, you have the Waa(ph) and the Kukong(ph)
and the Shan. They're the three sort of ethnic tribes that are all run by
warlords, who have their own armies. And when I would enter their territory,
they would have a formal frontier with a gate, and I would be met by all these
people in jeeps and technicals with machine guns mounted in the flatbeds of
the trucks and their own soldiers, and they would escort me. And, you know,
you can't get 10 feet there--if they don't want you there, you're not going to
last very long. They're very good fighters, and the reason that they can
control their territories, these mountainous territories, is because the
central government in Rangoon has tried for decades to fight them and lost
every time. They're very much like the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, where
they're almost unbeatable in the mountains.
GROSS: So they buy the crops, and what part do they play, these warlords, in
the manufacturing or the distribution of heroin?
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Mostly just in the manufacturing. They set up these labs,
and the labs are relatively simple. To process opium into heroin, you need a
55-gallon drum, a source of heat and running water--and you can have the
source of heat by just, you know, making a little fire and using a stream--and
then some precursor chemicals. And the general rule is it takes 10 kilos of
raw opium to produce one kilo of heroin, and there are different brands.
There are different sort of brands or qualities of heroin that you can
produce, depending on how much you're refining it.
But the first step is you produce morphine. From morphine, you'll produce a
heroin base, which is often called heroin brand Number 3, or brown sugar.
From that, you add more chemicals and cook it one more time, and you can get
the China white, which is the Number 4 heroin, which is the top-of-the-line
heroin. And it's either the warlords themselves or it's private businessmen
who are then just paying the warlords, you know, or maybe the warlords are
shareholders in some of the refineries or they're just getting money purely
and simple for protection.
But the warlords do play a role in the first sort of steps in the
distribution, and that is transporting the heroin from the refineries to the
borders of either Thailand or China, and this is something out of a movie, how
they do this. They have caravans that go through the mountains, and there's
up to a hundred people in a caravan. Sometimes they use mules as well in
which the heroin is attached in sacks to the mules. And it's done very much
like a military operation, because the warlord armies are involved, where they
have advance scouts. And when I was there, a couple of days before I arrived
at one of these border posts, a few of these advance scouts had been caught.
And when the Thai border guards refused to turn them over, the warlords
started shelling them, and there was a mortar and shelling and howitzer
exchange over this. So, you know, they're not kidding around. They're very
well-armed and everything, you know, moves like a military operation.
GROSS: Did you travel with a caravan?
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: I did not travel with a caravan because that is impossible,
unfortunately, to do. I met a confidential informant that the Thai police
had who is actually a soldier in one of these caravans, and he described what
goes on. And then while hanging out with the DEA, they had told me in one
of the firefights--they got into a 40-hour firefight with one of the caravans
in which there were no American casualties, but one American captain was
actually bitten by a cobra during the firefight and had to be MedEvaced for
that reason. It's very rough territory, and it's the exact same process in
And ironically, Iran is fighting the biggest war on drugs on behalf of all of
us in the world, and they're not getting any recognition. Three thousand one
hundred and seventeen Iranian border guards have died over the past few years
in firefights with Afghan heroin caravans, and that is at a very, very, very
frightening border, the border between Iran and Afghanistan.
GROSS: Why do the Afghan drug dealers want to get their stuff across the
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Iran is both a dome--there's two million heroin addicts in
Iran, and Iran is also a transit country to European markets and a little bit
to US markets as well. But it's mostly for domestic consumption in Iran.
It's something that, of course, the clerics will not acknowledge in Tehran,
but they have a very serious problem with drug addiction over there.
GROSS: Matthew Brzezinski wrote last week's New York Times Magazine cover
story on the global heroin industry. He'll be back in the second half of the
show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music, credits)
GROSS: Coming up, smuggling heroin in condoms coated with honey for easier
swallowing. We continue our conversation about the global heroin industry.
Also we remember Timothy White, the editor in chief of Billboard magazine. He
died Thursday at the age of 50. And film critic Henry Sheehan reviews "Mr.
Deeds" starring Adam Sandler.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Matthew Brzezinski. He
wrote last week's New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story, Heroin: The
Sleek New Business Model for the Ultimate Global Product. Brzezinski is a
contributing writer for the magazine.
OK. We've been tracing heroin from the poppy crops through its manufacture
and distribution. So we've talked about the farmers who grow it, the warlords
who get the crops and then manufacture it into heroin. Then warlords ship it
out from the refineries. What happens next?
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: There are two principal pipelines by which heroin leaves
Myanmar and enters the global markets. One is through China, mostly through
the Hunan province. And the other is Thailand. The Chinese pipeline seems to
be the biggest and the most efficient. And it's also unfortunately the one
that US law officials know the least about. The other is, of course,
Thailand, and this is sort of the more traditional route, the one people know
or have heard more about. And I tagged along with the DEA, who have an office
just across the border from Burma in Thailand where they'll sort of sit there
and they wait for the drugs. And rode along with this huge, huge former
Marine who runs one of the offices there. And, you know, we had over $100,000
in cash, in buy money, and everybody was armed to the teeth. And they were
trying to set up some sting operations with Burmese brokers. But essentially
the heroin changes hands at the Burmese-Thai border. And then Thais there
pick it up and bring it to Bangkok where again it changes hands and there the
international buyers come. And the biggest groups there are West Africans and
the Nigerians, and they're some of the biggest importers of heroin into the
GROSS: You say that the West Africans have the riskiest job, which is getting
the heroin into the United States. What are some of their approaches to doing
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Well, there are a number of approaches they use. One is to
bring the drugs into Lagos, into Nigeria, where it's repackaged into these
pellet-sized pieces that are then put in condoms and then coated with honey.
And they recruit people. And they could be from their tribes or family
members. And then they get them bogus visas to come to the United States,
either as tourists or work visas or whatnot. And the couriers--and they'll
often send as many as, you know, 15, 20 couriers on the same plane, all with a
kilo of heroin in their stomach.
GROSS: Wait, I've got to stop you here. So the sugar-coated condoms, you
swallow a whole condom worth of heroin?
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: You swallow up to--I'll give you an example. In April, a
13-year-old Nigerian boy got sick at La Guardia, and it turned out that he had
87 condoms filled with heroin in his stomach. Basically one kilo of heroin in
a 13-year-old's stomach in 87 condoms. And he got sick and started passing
them through his system. He survived. He didn't die. Of course, if just one
of these condoms ruptures, you are facing certain death. And he was offered
$19,000 by, of all people, his father, who ran a $33 million heroin ring in
Georgia and has been caught and sentenced to prison.
GROSS: Wow! So after you swallow the honey-coated condom of heroin pellets,
how do you get it out? It has to pass through your system? You have to
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Yes. You let your digestive system do its thing, so to
speak. And the people who do swallow--they're called mules or body packers or
swallowers. But these couriers are very, very difficult to catch obviously
because even if you suspect that they have heroin on them, you know, JFK
Airport or most ports of entry do not have the special medical X-ray machines
that you need. And then you need to prove some sort of cause, then you need
to send them to a hospital where they can be X-rayed. And only then, you
know, can you determine whether or not they've ingested heroin in condoms. So
they only time, you know, that they get caught is when something goes really
wrong. And I remember talking to one customs official on the border with
Mexico. And while somebody was passing through customs, they got sick and
started--basically couldn't hold it anymore and started defecating. And the
condoms started coming out while they were going through customs. And that's
how they caught them. Or one of them breaks and then somebody gets sick and
they're rushed to the hospital. And then you find out, `Oh, look, their
stomach is filled with heroin.' But otherwise, you can't catch them.
And let's say you do catch one. It's actually a very good way of spreading
risk because if there is a dozen people on one plane and one gets caught,
well, you're still getting 90 percent of your load through. And it's like
paying a transportation tax or a tariff, you know, if one person gets caught.
So it's in one sense a very effective method of smuggling dope, but it jacks
up the price tremendously. And this is why heroin is, by far, the most
expensive opiate on Earth.
GROSS: Well, let me ask you, since we're talking about price here, the people
who take that risk of swallowing the condoms of heroin--and the risk includes
either getting caught or dying if the condom ruptures, and either way you're
really playing around with your digestive system here in a way that can't be
very good--how are they compensated for it? Is this one of the more lucrative
ends of heroin, or one of the more underpaid parts of it? Underpaid, I mean,
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: This is actually a fairly well-paid aspect of the trade. You
have to remember that the people they recruit to do this very often come from
isolated little villages in very poor developing countries where if you're
offered, you know, 10--it's as much as, you know, 10 to $20,000 to move a
single kilo. That is as much money you can earn in a lifetime. And in a lot
of those places, life is cheap. And the people also are not told of the
risks. They don't understand that if a condom ruptures and the heroin enters
your system you will die. They don't need to know that, and so, you know,
there is no shortage of mules.
And, in fact, a great many of the mules that when seized they're not
necessarily swallowers--they usually bring it in their briefcases--are
Americans and Canadians and Europeans. And this is another one of the routes
that West Africans use out of Bangkok. If they want to ship it directly from
Bangkok to the United States, they often employ Caucasian mules and this is
sort of to throw Customs people off guard and often women are used for this.
I don't know why, but they've sort of decided that women tend to be overlooked
perhaps more often than men do at the border.
GROSS: Did you get to observe any of the American base parts of heroin
distribution and sale?
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: I was fortunate enough to accompany the undercover police in
Baltimore. Baltimore has traditionally been one of the biggest heroin centers
in the United States. And one very senior officer there told me that out of a
sort of a population of 600,000 for Baltimore proper, they once registered
60,000 heroin addicts. That is stunning. That is 10 percent of the
population is addicted to heroin in the inner city of Baltimore.
And I tagged along with the undercover police as they sort of prepared to go
in and do a few of these sting operations that they do, the controlled buys.
And it was quite an experience. First, we had to dress into costumes and we
were posing as construction workers. And we got dressed up in all kinds of,
you know, dirty clothes and with paint all over them and got into a beat-up
old pickup truck with scaffolding in it and just littered with all kinds of
garbage and never in a million years would I have guessed that the police
officer I was accompanying was, in fact, a police officer. I mean, it was a
very, very, very effective disguise.
And we sort of went into the tougher neighborhoods. It's, in fact, very
frightening that the main economic activity seems to be selling drugs in those
neighborhoods. What's really sad is that looking at these young kids I really
was reminded of the peasants in Myanmar who grow the poppy because really they
don't have any other economic alternatives. It's the only matter of survival.
GROSS: Matthew Brzezinski, one last question for you. If you don't mind my
asking, you're the nephew of the former national security adviser, Zbigniew
Brzezinski, and I'm wondering if in any of your journalistic travels around
the world people make that connection and ask you if there is any relation.
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Certainly in the former Communist bloc, yes, and particularly
in Russia where he was known as this sort of the great enemy, an adversary of
the Soviet states, and, yeah, in a few situations it led to some rather
uncomfortable and chilly welcomes. And I remember one top former Communist
official in Russia sitting me down and saying, `Well, you know, maybe the
children should not be held accountable for the sins of their fathers, but,
you know, we know who you are and who your family is and what you've done to
us.' And I sort of laughed it off and found that amusing. But, yeah, you
know, in some parts of the world he's not a very popular man because of his
very hawkish stance on communism.
GROSS: Well, Matthew Brzezinski, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Well, thank you very much.
GROSS: Matthew Brzezinski wrote last week's New York Times Magazine cover
story on the global heroin industry. He's also the author of a book about the
new capitalism in Russia called "Casino Moscow." It's just come out in
Coming up, we remember Timothy White, a music writer and the editor in chief
of Billboard magazine. He died last week at the age of 50. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Excerpt of 1995 interview with author Timothy White,
who died at the age of 50 of a heart attack
TERRY GROSS, host:
Timothy White loved music and played an important part in the music world. He
was the author of books about Bob Marley, The Beach Boys and James Taylor as
well as a collection of musician profiles. He worked as a senior editor at
Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone and spent the past 11 years as editor of Billboard
magazine. Last Thursday, Timothy White died in his office of an apparent
heart attack. He was 50 years old. As our remembrance of him, we're going to
listen back to a brief excerpt of his 1995 interview about his book, "The
Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys and the Southern
(Soundbite of interview)
GROSS: One of the things you try to do in your new book is to see how The
Beach Boys actually connected with surf culture. I mean, they became famous
for their surf songs. What's your explanation for how Brian Wilson, with his
fear of the ocean, ended up writing all these important surf songs?
Mr. TIMOTHY WHITE (Billboard): What happened, this was a family kind of a
thing, too. Dennis Wilson, Brian's brother, was a loner, and I got to know
Dennis Wilson very well over the years, and he was really a searching and kind
of unfinished personality, but he used to go down to the beach to sort of hang
out as like, you know, a teen-age vagabond or whatever. But the beach culture
at that point in time, the late '50s and early '60s, and surfing was a big
part of it, it wasn't this sportive, healthy, you know, sun-kissed outdoor
activity that people perceive it as now. As people that I talked to, the
earlier surfers, like the late Dewey Webber, you know, explained to me, surf
culture at that point in time took a lot of skill to surf. And it was
especially hard because they were still surfing on the old hardwood boards and
things like that.
But more particularly, it was kind of a vagrant culture in a way, really on
the fringes of towns that were very tough or marginal towns in Southern
California to begin with. And a lot of people hanging on the beach, the
beachcombers, they were AWOL from the Army, they were on the lam from, you
know, unhappy lives elsewhere, and they were really--it was an improvised
culture on the beach and very much a Bohemian nomad kind of a thing. And
Dennis got to know it because of his own sense of being an outcast. And then
he'd come back to Brian and to Mike Love, who later on surfed, as Dennis did,
and explains his experiences and says, you know, `There's something going on
here that you guys aren't really aware of, and it's really, really cool.'
But they didn't pay attention until it came down to specific moments in the
studio when they were auditioning for people and showing what they had cooked
up as a group, and people weren't terribly impressed. And Dennis stood up and
said, `You know, surfing is a big thing. What if we did a song about surfing?
You know, Brian has this surf tune he's been working on,' and they all turned
to Dennis--meaning the band turned to Dennis, kind of gaping, and this was not
Brian's ambition for himself. He wanted to be the next sort of pop Gershwin,
and he wasn't interested in surfing. As you say, he was afraid of the water,
had no interest in wave riding, didn't care to learn, wasn't interested in
the Bohemian culture that Dennis was kind of meandering through. But when he
saw the reaction that other people had to Dennis' suggestions, he started to
take it seriously.
GROSS: Well, you actually brought with you a rehearsal session that The Beach
Boys did. Maybe you could play some of that for us and talk with us a little
about what you think we might listen for in it.
Mr. WHITE: This is an outtake from the "Beach Boys Party" album. The
Beach Boys are playing "California Girls" hootenanny style, and it's one of
the rehearsal sessions for that "Beach Boys Party" album, which was very
important because it was the first time that a usually important rock 'n' roll
band had let the public in on its private process and the interpersonal sense
they had with each other.
GROSS: Let's hear it.
(Soundbite of rehearsal session; music)
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) ...and the Northern girls, with the way they kiss,
they keep their boyfriends warm at night. Yeah. I wish they all could be
California girls, I wish they all could be California, I wish they all could
be California girls. Ooh.
Unidentified Man #1: You going to keep on singing after that?
Unidentified Man #2: No.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #3: Round, round, round, round...
Unidentified Man #4: Brian...
Unidentified Man #5: OK, rolling.
Unidentified Man #6: Sorry. ...(Unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #7: ...so exasperating. Hal's been here for two hours.
GROSS: That was interesting to hear that. When The Beach Boys started
recording, they were perceived as, you know, helping to define a certain
aspect of surf culture. How were their records actually seen within surf
culture in California?
Mr. WHITE: They are admired for their harmonies. People liked the ballads.
They were a well-regarded band, and they played at the local surf hops and
things like that. You've got to understand that in most cases, the surfers
themselves weren't making music. An exception is this fellow, Dick Dale. He
had a group called Dick Dale & The Del-Tones. He was a surfer. He had a
guitar and stereo repair shop. But most surf music as played by people like
Dick Dale, they were instrumentals. They were very aggressive, almost
caustic. Volume was a big factor, and they wanted to replicate the sound of
the waves, the sensation of surfing. They weren't looking for pop ballads,
per se. So The Beach Boys brought something pretty to something that was kind
of less pristine.
GROSS: Timothy White, recorded in 1995 after the publication of his book
about The Beach Boys. White was the editor in chief of Billboard. He died of
a heart attack Thursday at the age of 50.
(Soundbite of music)
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Ooh, ooh, ooh. There's a world where I can go and
tell my secrets to, in my room, in my room, in my room. In this world, I lock
out all my worries and my fears, in my room, in my room, in my room...
GROSS: Coming up, Henry Sheehan reviews the new movie "Mr. Deeds." This is
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Negative review of Adam Sandler's new movie, "Mr. Deeds"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Comedian Adam Sandler stars and is the executive producer of the new movie
"Mr. Deeds," a remake of the 1936 Frank Capra classic "Mr. Deeds Goes to
Town." Sandler plays the role originated by Gary Cooper. Film critic Henry
Sheehan says Adam Sandler is no Gary Cooper.
HENRY SHEEHAN reporting:
Adam Sandler's last movie, "Little Nicky," laid a box office egg and was the
first sign that the comedian's six-year run of hits--a delight to some, a
mystery to many--was coming to an end. Sandler's latest, "Mr. Deeds," would
seem to confirm the trend. A work of stunning ineptitude and blind egotism,
it's a remake of Frank Capra's 1936 Oscar winner, though Sandler is obviously
counting on the fact that his fans have never seen the original.
It looks like a career ender, unless you happened to have been at the Cannes
Film Festival last month. There, Sandler unveiled his next movie,
"Punch-Drunk Love," which he produced and starred in and which turned out to
be one of the highlights of a festival full of good films. Sandler had either
the courage or the ruthlessness to abandon his usual collaborators for the
chance to work with writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, the once-promising
director of "Boogie Nights."
Anderson had his own career troubles thanks to the self-indulgent and
pretentious Magnolia. A fan of Sandler, he had seen the possibilities of
expanding the comedian's screen persona into something beyond the wacky
vulgarian of his early movies. On the evidence of "Mr. Deeds," it's obvious
Sandler yearns to make that leap, but he can't do it with his usual crew.
It's hard to communicate just how bad a movie this is.
This story of an unsuccessful New Hampshire greeting card poet who inherits a
fortune from an unknown uncle is shot and staged with the elan of a
Sunday-morning talk show. If director Steven Brill is looking for excuses, he
can point a finger at the witless screenplay and at the cast. Though it's
larded with Winona Ryder and John Turturro, it features only one good
performance, Peter Gallagher as a villainous businessman out to fleece Deeds
of his dough.
The most serious problem, though, is Sandler's indecision over what type of
performer he is now. Unlike the Deeds in Capra's film who was played by Gary
Cooper, Sandler's character has yet to sell a single greeting card verse and
it's obvious why; they're too gross. Sandler's doggerel lets him keep his old
vulgar self in the movie, while in other scenes he gets to construct a more
dashing and romantic self.
Here, for example, Deeds has come to New York, a town of danger as far as he's
concerned. Wynona Ryder, a producer for a TV tabloid show, sets Deeds up with
a phony mugging, all the better to cozy up to him. Still, Deeds is acting
heroically, at least in his own mind.
(Soundbite of "Mr. Deeds")
Mr. ADAM SANDLER: (As Deeds) This could get dangerous.
Ms. WYNONA RYDER: (As producer) No, he said he likes ladies in distress, not
men who wear too much cologne.
(Soundbite of traffic)
Ms. RYDER: Oh, there he is.
Mr. SANDLER: Thanks for the New York City tour, Tommy.
Unidentified Man: You're welcome, Deeds.
Ms. RYDER: Hey, a hidden camera's on. Ready to go.
Molest me. Do it. Marty, molest me!
"MARTY": You got it.
Ms. RYDER: Gee. Oh, God! Help! Help me!
"MARTY": Yeah. Come on, give it to me. All right.
Ms. RYDER: I'm being mugged! Help! Help! Help! I'm being mugged!
(Soundbite of suspense music)
Ms. RYDER: Stop it.
Ms. SANDLER: Good luck. See you at the office.
(Soundbite of running)
Ms. SANDLER: Don't worry. I'll get him.
Unidentified Man: Oh, shoot.
Stop! Stop right there!
(Soundbite of running)
"MARTY": Ah, ah, ah, ah, ow!
(Soundbite of Marty being thrown into trash can)
Unidentified Man: Yeah, man.
(Soundbite of Marty being thrown into trash can)
Ms. RYDER: Ah.
Unidentified Man: What's your problem, pal?
(Soundbite of punch; Marty crying)
Unidentified Man: Got your pocketbook! Get a job, pal.
SHEEHAN: Moments like this, which culminate with a solemn Sandler acting as
if he's the moral center of the universe, make your skin crawl. Not even
Capra's "Deeds" displayed that arrogance.
On the contrary, Capra's film is his best romantic comedy and features one of
Jean Arthur's most appealing performances. Cooper provides the underlying
masculinity necessary to make a weirdo like Deeds likably plausible, and the
movie's underlying theme, that money and mass media enforce conformity, rings
true even today. But where does that leave Sandler in "Punch-Drunk Love"?
Anderson discovers the perfect halfway point for Sandler's vulgar and romantic
sides, casting him as a toilet plunger wholesaler in the San Fernando Valley
who falls in love with Emily Watson. At the same time, the lonely Sandler
innocently gets involved with a phone-sex ring that tries to blackmail him.
More important than story elements, Anderson has invented a subtle level of
stylization that gives the movie a modern, fairy-tale lift. The question is:
After the debacle of "Mr. Deeds," is anyone going to be around to care about
Adam Sandler? I hope so.
GROSS: Henry Sheehan is a film critic living in Los Angeles.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with a recording by the wonderful Rosemary Clooney. She died
Saturday at the age of 74. We'll devote Friday's show to Clooney in the 1997
concert and interview I recorded with her.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. ROSEMARY CLOONEY: (Singing) I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar
places that this heart of mine embraces all day through. In that small cafe,
the park across the way, the children's carousel, the chestnut tree, the
wishing well. I'll be seeing you in every lovely summer's day, in everything
that's light and gay. I'll always think of you that way. I'll find you in
the morning sun. And when the night is new, I'll be looking at the moon, but
I'll be seeing you.
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