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William F. Buckley, Irrepressible Conservative

William F. Buckley, Jr., died Wednesday. He was 82. Fresh Air remembers the founder and longtime editor of the National Review with excerpts from a 1989 interview.

21:47

Other segments from the episode on February 28, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 28, 2008: Obituary for William F. Buckley; Interview with Stew and Heidi Rodewald; Review of Mark Miller's "High hat, trumpet, and rhythm: the life and music of…

Transcript

DATE February 28, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: 1989 talk with William F. Buckley on his life and views
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As you've probably heard by now, the conservative thinker, writer and
broadcaster William F. Buckley died yesterday at the age of 82. We're going
to listen back to an interview I recorded with him in 1989 about his life and
his views. He had just written a book about his talk show "Firing Line,"
which ran from 1966 to 1999.

First, let me quote an appreciation of Buckley, published today on the
editorial page of The New York Times, written by Robert B. Semple Jr. Quote,
"His views--a combination of free market economics, cultural conservatism and
anti-communism--were hardly original. What was pioneering was his insistence
on giving conservatism, as he saw it, a voice and a forum. That was National
Review, the magazine that Mr. Buckley founded in 1955. There he fanned a
very small flame that, over time, gave the country Young Americans for
Freedom, who gave it Barry Goldwater, who in turn laid the groundwork for
Ronald Reagan," unquote.

Here's my 1989 interview with William F. Buckley.

Is it fair to say that in the late '50s and then the early '60s you saw it as
your mission to take the right out of the hands of John Birchers and Klansmen
and the lunatic fringe?

Mr. WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY: Well, to the extent that it is correct to say that
the right was their property. For instance, the John Birch Society wasn't
founded until '59 so it was hardly in the hands of the Birchers in 1958. But
what I felt was my responsibility to do was to do something to revitalize the
right. The right was generally thought of as an aggregation of rich people
who sat around in rooms puffing their cigars deciding how best they could
exploit other people for the benefit of a privileged few. This wasn't my idea
at all of what the vibrant conservative movement had done to create the most
prosperous country in the world. So the answer is yes, that was my feeling
about what needed to be done.

GROSS: What was wrong with the Republican establishment?

Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, it was strangely unvocal. There wasn't a single magazine
that was both conservative and intellectual. There wasn't a journal of
opinion. The Freeman wasn't that because it was a popular foundation. The
American Mercury was eccentric and...

GROSS: That's a magazine...

Mr. BUCKLEY: ...fell into the hands of the anti-Semites in 1952.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BUCKLEY: So when we came around there wasn't really another guy on the
street--with the exception of Human Events, which was primarily
Washington-oriented. So National Review began that whole--rather, revived
that whole movement.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. National Review is...

Mr. BUCKLEY: Is my magazine, yeah.

GROSS: ...the magazine that you started.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Now, it seems in a way that some of your positions were similar to the
Bircher-type positions, but sometimes for different reasons. For instance,
you sided with the white Southerners who didn't want to give blacks the vote
but for a different reason than, say, the Klan did.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, most people who defend the Constitution acknowledge that,
using constitutional mandates, people do good and bad things. The
Constitution tells us that we can present pornography without any particular
bar. It was nicely put by Irving Kristol when he said you can copulate on the
stage in New York provided you're paid the minimum wage. Well, that's
invoking a constitutional privilege.

Now, the constitutional privileges were invoked for 75 years by the South to
enforce Jim Crow and for all intents and purposes to prevent the vote under
the grandfather clauses in Texas. This was a misuse of the Constitution.
There were some people who said, `well, let's simply forget the Constitution
and correct the abuses,' and those were people to whom we said, `Now, wait a
minute.' Just as some people say don't fuss with the First Amendment even
though it gives you pornography, we were able to say don't fuss with the
Constitution just to create a piece of legislation because you don't like
Plessy v. Ferguson. I don't mind saying this now to you because I've said it
before, which is that I'm rather glad we lost that fight. I welcome the
results of that disruption, but it was, in my judgment, a constitutional
disruption.

GROSS: Can I read something that you wrote during that period and see...

Mr. BUCKLEY: You can...

GROSS: OK.

Mr. BUCKLEY: ...write something I write at any period.

GROSS: OK. Here we go. "The central question that emerges is whether the
white community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are
necessary to prevail politically and culturally in areas in which it does not
predominate numerically. The sobering answer is yes. The white community is
so entitled because for the time being it is the advanced race. The question,
as far as the white community is concerned, is whether the claims of
civilization supercede those of universal suffrage. National Review believes
that the South's premises are correct."

Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, I think that's absolutely correct. That is to say, if
you believe, as we have traditionally believed up until about 12 years ago,
that you shouldn't vote unless you're literate, and if you are prepared to
admit that the South was very heavily neglecting the education of black
people, then under the circumstances, you would have a much higher incidence
of white people than of black people voting.

GROSS: So you don't...

Mr. BUCKLEY: You have to remember...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BUCKLEY: We lived then in an age in which people, including myself,
contributed to something called The National Association for the Advancement
of Colored People. Well, if you acknowledge that you want to advance colored
people, you acknowledge that they weren't at that point as advanced as other
people. And under the circumstances they suffered certain disqualifications
which we all deplore but which we can't assume were not so.

GROSS: So you still don't believe in universal suffrage.

Mr. BUCKLEY: I don't believe in universal suffrage if it's defined as
anybody who is biologically 18 years old is entitled to vote. Absolutely not.
I believe there ought to be certain minimal reservations which is what was
also believed by John Stuart Mill and Thomas Jefferson and George Adams and
anybody you can think of.

GROSS: After trying to create a right that was a more intellectual right, I'm
wondering what your impressions were of the new right that came to power with
the election of Ronald Reagan, and if you identified with the various groups
that supported...

Mr. BUCKLEY: No. That wasn't a new right. Ronald Reagan was an old
fashioned conservative. He....

GROSS: Well, I'm not talking about the president himself, but rather some of
the groups that supported him.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, if you want to get into the taxonomy, I will. There are
the so-called new right and then there's the neocons. They're very different.
And then there are the traditionalists and then there are the accumulists.
So, did you want to ask me a specific question about the new right?

GROSS: Yes, well, let's take one of the elements of the new right, say, the
Christian right groups, like the Moral Majority. I'm wondering if you felt
alienated from them and they from you? I think that you to them might have
represented the hateful establishment.

Mr. BUCKLEY: I...

GROSS: I guess what I'm try to clarify here is, as someone who tried to kind
of carve out a new definition of what the right was, when new groups and new
points of view were added to the right, whether you felt that the right that
you had envisioned was being changed for the better or for the worse.

Mr. BUCKLEY: You would have to be more specific. One of National Review's
responsibilities and one of my responsibilities to the extent that I'm a
figure in it is to guard against accretions. If some fitful movement or
political candidate or whatever thinks that he has the power to attach to the
conservative position and obnoxious or eccentric or idiosyncratic position,
where there's no--where do you get off trying to do that? You can't say that
it's part of the American tradition to deny, for instance, a black man
absolutely equal rights with a white man. So in that sense we are guardians
of a tradition and are highly resentful at any attempt to pass off as
conservative a body of thought that isn't in the least that.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1989 interview with William F. Buckley. He
died yesterday at the age of 82. We'll hear more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: The influential conservative thinker, writer and broadcaster William
F. Buckley died yesterday at the age of 82. He founded the conservative
magazine National Review. I spoke with him in 1989 after the publication of
his book about his long-running TV talk show "Firing Line."

In your book about hosting "Firing Line," you talk about the manifest
evasiveness of many of the people who have been on your program. What are
your techniques for dealing with it?

Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, the first thing, of course, to do is to spot it. As you
probably know, there are formal rhetorical techniques by which one avoids
answering questions. Probably the generic evasion goes under the Latin title
ignoratio elenchi--that is to say, pay no attention to the counterargument.
So that, for instance, if I accuse you of not having done anything to stand in
the way of a particular riot on Tuesday morning, you will perhaps give me a
lecture in which you denounced riots, so that you give the audience the
satisfaction of denouncing riots, but not me the satisfaction of answering why
you didn't do anything about the riot on Tuesday. That would be an example.

What I do is take eight or 10 distinguished people--Norman Mailer, John
Kenneth Galbraith and a few others--and show how they use these various
techniques. By the way, I give several examples of how I engage in it myself.

GROSS: Do you think you're very good at manifest evasiveness yourself?

Mr. BUCKLEY: No, I tend not to be for this reason, and that is that, since
I'm not a politician, I almost search out difficulties. If I were a
politician, my primary concern would be self-defense, and self-defense simply
requires you to ignore answering a question to which the only answer you could
give would be embarrassing, but since I'm not that I almost look for
difficulties in my own position and tend to relish them.

GROSS: In the 1960s and '70s there was a period when no impressionist, no
comic impressionist, could get off the stage without doing their impression of
you. Who were among your favorites, in terms of the impressions that they did
of you?

Mr. BUCKLEY: I only heard one. I'm trying to think of his name...

GROSS: You don't watch enough TV, do you?

Mr. BUCKLEY: Excuse me? Well, I don't watch an awful lot of it, but this
one was terribly funny. In fact, I retained him to show off at a National
Review function, where he did Kissinger and Nixon and a few other people who
were present. His first name was David.

GROSS: Was it David Frye?

Mr. BUCKLEY: David Frye, exactly. Thank you ever so much. He was terribly
funny. And Johnny Carson has done it in my presence as well as when I wasn't
there.

GROSS: When you see somebody doing an impression of you, like David Frye,
does it may you self-conscious? Do you feel like you've ever changed anything
in the way you sit or hold yourself on TV because of an impression that you
saw?

Mr. BUCKLEY: No. Because a successful impressionist is primarily a
caricaturist. If I were, for instance, able to speak exactly like, oh, say
Harold Macmillan and I spoke and said exactly what Harold Macmillan said,
people wouldn't think of me as an impressionist. They would think that it was
Harold Macmillan talking. So therefore a successful caricaturist is someone
not only who imitates your voice but hugely exaggerates the idiosyncratic way
in which you speak so that, for instance, anybody imitating Henry Kissinger
would not merely, say, read a paragraph from a Henry Kissinger book or
article, he would get into thoughts of a kind that made amusing or distorted
his common conversations.

GROSS: I know your father was a multimillionaire who made his fortune in oil.
You went to private schools in England and France when you were growing up.
Did you ever regret being that set apart from other Americans during your
formative years?

Mr. BUCKLEY: It's an interesting question. I hadn't though of myself as
being set apart. I suppose somewhere along the line when you're nine, 10 or
11 years old you recognize that you're traveling first class, but there wasn't
ever any sense of alienation. I had a very large family, and large families
tend to be egalitarian in their impact. It's almost impossible to have an
affectation when you have nine brothers and sisters as I had, so that I didn't
feel that alienation.

Besides which, if you pick up your knowledge from reading, as I think most of
us do, and you do read, it's inconceivable that you should not know about
Dickensian life in the 19th century or the life of the slums in the 20th
century here and in Manila. Gibbon knew an awful lot about the Roman empire
without having experienced it. So I'm always a little bit taken aback at the
notion that because one has gone to private schools or to private colleges one
is eo ipso ignorant of other conditions.

GROSS: There are a couple of stories which I suppose are true about how, when
you were eight, you wrote to the King of England demanding that England repay
its war debt, and when you were 15, just during the first week at a new school
you wrote the headmaster with your critique of the school. Assuming those
stories are true, where did you get the chutzpah to do that?

Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, mostly ignorance, certainly, in the first case. In the
second case, the second story is largely apocryphal...

GROSS: The one about headmaster, writing the headmaster.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Yeah. You know, I've always expressed myself fairly freely,
but with some sense of decorum. You know, I don't interrupt the parade to
lecture the band master, which is a misimpression that people cultivate
because it's kind of fun.

GROSS: When you were growing up, did you have a sense of your father grooming
you to become a certain kind of man...

Mr. BUCKLEY: Yes, I did.

GROSS: ...or to take a certain place in society?

Mr. BUCKLEY: Yes, I did. My father groomed, or tried to groom all of his
children to be intellectually honest and morally responsible. Having said
that, I should say that he failed spectacularly because I don't consider
myself as having lived up to the very high standards that he set.

GROSS: You went to Yale and, I think right after getting out of Yale--though
perhaps you starting writing this in Yale, you wrote the book, the best seller
"God and Men at Yale," in which you critiqued liberal education. Would you
give us a very brief synopsis of your critique? I realize this is difficult
to ask, but...

Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, my critique was based on the assumption that the purpose
of education is to make discoveries, however tentative. If you discover, to
take a simple proposition that two plus two equals four, you have to be very,
very firm in dealing with people who say that two plus two equals five. Now,
transporting a simple mathematical proposition on over to other moral
propositions, I maintain that the purpose of education, among other things, is
to cultivate values which you think are correct. And under the circumstances
to take, say, "Das Kapital" and the Declaration of Independence and say, `As
between the two, I decline to commit myself as to which of the two represents
the values we seek to further' is an act of nihilism. Academic freedom, to
the extent that it does that, is nihilistic. It says that we cannot ever
know. The formulation of John Stuart Mill, you will remember, was that as
long as one person doubts their proposition, that proposition cannot be held
to be true. I think that's utter and total frivolous nonsense.

GROSS: After you graduated from Yale, you briefly joined the CIA as a covert
agent. You were sent, I believe, to Mexico. Why did you want to join the
CIA?

Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, I wanted to join the CIA because I had been in the
infantry in the second world war, and a professor who was also partly a mentor
of mine at Yale turned out himself to have a tentative but nevertheless
genuine connections with the CIA, and it was his informal job to try to
recruit talent. As you know, there was a lot of recruitment in 1950 for the
CIA. I don't know the round numbers, but he said to me, in effect, `Look, the
Korean War is going to heat up. You plan to get married next month'--which I
did plan to do and did do--`would you prefer to go back into the infantry or
to do something a little more interesting?' That was a very easy choice.

GROSS: So you were stationed in Mexico?

Mr. BUCKLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: What was your mission?

Mr. BUCKLEY: Oh, I can't tell you what my mission was. But my cover was
that I was there looking after some investments of my father, who lived there
for 20 years.

GROSS: Why did you quit? You only stayed nine months.

Mr. BUCKLEY: I got bored. And I had published my first book, and various
people were offering me jobs so I signed up to work as an associate editor of
the American Mercury.

GROSS: Do you think you could have been a good agent? Did you have a talent
for the kind of work?

Mr. BUCKLEY: I don't think so. An agent has, above all, to be extremely
patient, and patience is not my specialty. Ninety-eight percent of the work
of CIA agents is equivalent to walking the beat. As somebody pointed out, we
spend perhaps a billion dollars a year collecting material that the Soviet
Union can collect by simply going down to a magazine store at Grand Central.
All of that requires very, very careful reading, very, very careful note
taking. So there's an awful lot of sheer tedium in the CIA. That's not the
kind of thing that we read about in my novels so much--though I do make it a
point to remark that phenomenon--or see in the movies because you're always
showing people shooting at each other and jumping off towering infernos. That
aspect of the CIA life is probably one millionth of 1 percent.

GROSS: Well, I thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Nice to talk to you.

GROSS: William F. Buckley recorded in 1989. He died yesterday at the age of
82. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Stew and Heidi Rodewald, writers of the musical
"Passing Strange," on the show and their band, The Negro Problem
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When Mark Stewart was a black teenager growing up in south central LA in the
'70s, he was enamored with the music of Burt Bacharach and the Strawberry
Alarm Clock. Feeling out of sync with the people around him, he ran off to
Europe to find his identity as an artist. When he returned to LA, he started
going by the name Stew and formed a band called The Negro Problem. Now he's
the star of a Broadway show that's loosely based on his life and features
music written by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. The show, "Passing Strange," opens
tonight at the Belasco Theater. When it was staged downtown in New York last
year at the public theater, Charles Isherwood wrote in The New York Times,
quote, "The biography of a songwriter on a wayward journey of self-discovery,
this bracingly inventive show introduces an exciting new voice to contemporary
musical theater, a witty wordsmith, composer and performer who goes by the
single name Stew," unquote.

There's no cast recording, at least, not yet, to play for you, but here's a
song by The Negro Problem called "Sea of Heat."

(Soundbite of "Sea of Heat")

THE NEGRO PROBLEM: (Singing) Sea of heat, sea of heat
The wind does strange things to these windows
Sea of heat, sea of heat
Tour the space where your instincts meet
See, I would like you to chill and turn to glue
I could see if you have somewhere else to be
That's all right, sister
You could bang the drum
And I could burn my hands on your wings
When I spin on your waist
When I spin on your...

'Cause I can burn
Uh-huh
I can burn my hands on, yeah
I can burn
Uh-huh...
I can burn my hands on you
I could burn
Uh-huh...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Stew and Heidi Rodewald in their band The Negro Problem. FRESH
AIR contributor David Bianculli talked with them about their new Broadway
show, "Passing Strange."

DAVID BIANCULLI: Stew, Heidi Rodewald, welcome to FRESH AIR.

STEW: Thanks.

Ms. HEIDI RODEWALD: Hi. Thanks for having us.

BIANCULLI: The group that the two of you formed, I guess, 11 years ago now...

STEW: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: The name of the group was The Negro Problem.

STEW: Yes.

BIANCULLI: Who came up with that name and why?

STEW: I came up with the name because I'm very much influenced by sort of mid
to late '60s psychedelic bands like, names like The Velvet Underground, and
you know, Strawberry Alarm Clock...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

STEW: And the reason why bands named themselves that is because they thought
it was a way to communicate with their potential audience. So in other words,
you were flipping through Perry Como and then Frank Sinatra, and then when you
happened upon Chocolate Watchband, you knew that they were slightly different
than Perry Como, and you might buy that record just because of the weird name
and because he band was crazy enough to name themselves that. And so we just
wanted to reach people who we thought would understand us and get our sense of
humor, so that's why we named ourselves The Negro Problem.

BIANCULLI: And then finally the name of your musical, "Passing Strange." It's
got several meanings that you explore in the play itself, but what are the
best meanings to you?

STEW: Oh, I still like just the way we found it, which was in this thing
called "Othello" by this guy named Shakespeare, and it's this section where
basically Othello is the kind of guy who would, you know, when he wasn't being
a soldier, he would tell these like tall tales, these war stories, to
Desdemona, and she kind of fell in love with him based on these tall tales,
you know, and she described those tall tales as "passing strange," meaning,
you know, like, very strange...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

STEW: As soon as I--I knew the play was going to be about "passing" as well,
sort of the different masks that people wear, so when I saw that phrase, I
just thought, well that's got to be the name of the play because it refers to
passing the time, it refers to passing as in, you know, the American sense of
passing, you know, the whole racial history of passing, and also moving
through space, you know, this idea of travel, passing from city to city, you
know, mask to mask, what have you.

BIANCULLI: So in the play, when you go from south central LA to Amsterdam to
Berlin and you're playing that part of the title in terms of passing,
this--are there parts of your life, chunks of it that you left out? I know
you call this an autobiographical fiction, and I guess we should talk about
that...

STEW: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: ...as a difference between how you're putting this down on paper
and on the stage, how it differs from your actual life and how it's similar.

STEW: Yeah, I mean, it was a purely autobiographical piece for, you know, a
very short amount of time. I started realizing that in order to make the
points I wanted to make, I would have to tell some lies in order to kind of
tell a bigger truth, you know. And it became less about me and more about
everyone, more about anyone who was raised in a community that was too tight,
too strict, too uninteresting. It was, yeah, it became to me a more universal
thing and not just--you know, my life isn't really that dramatic, actually.
And again, people, even in the cast, you know, Annie, Heidi, various actors
all felt like this was their story. Some people went to Berlin in order to
look for the real, you know. Some people went to San Francisco. Heidi always
talks about going to punk rock clubs from--where?

Ms. RODEWALD: Well, just driving an hour away, I feel like I could relate to
the story of going to Amsterdam.

STEW: Yeah, for some people it was...

Ms. RODEWALD: I guess that's kind of pushing it.

STEW: No, but it's not. It's like some people...

Ms. RODEWALD: Yeah.

STEW: ...just had to drive out of Orange County to go to a punk club in
Hollywood to look for that thing that they felt was real. It doesn't matter
whether it's Berlin or Amsterdam or New York or wherever.

BIANCULLI: Well...

STEW: So--yeah, it became much more--it's so not my story at this point.
It's almost any artist's story, I think.

BIANCULLI: Well, let's listen to a part of that to show, what it is that
we're talking about. In this one scene you've arrived in Amsterdam. Not you,
but this young counterpart, I guess he's called Youth in the play?

STEW: He's called Youth, yeah.

BIANCULLI: Played by Daniel Breaker. And you get to witness what he's going
through. You're still on stage, as is the band.

STEW: Right.

BIANCULLI: And in an arrival in Amsterdam, you show up there, you go to a
hash bar, and a beautiful woman basically offers to give you a place to stay.

STEW: Thanks.

BIANCULLI: So...

(Soundbite of "Passing Strange")

STEW: (Singing) After a little conversation
He's got keys to her flat
After a little conversation
He just walks across her welcome mat
Now, who'd have thought trust could be bought
For a song and a little chat
See, he had friends and family
Nowhere near as cool as that
She gave him these: her keys

Now, in Beverly Hills they gave him chills
And South Central put his soul in the deep freeze
But she gave him her keys
You know those LA ladies in their Mercedes
They'd lock their doors if he'd just sneeze
Now he's like, `Bitch, please
She gave me her keys'

He said the kind of place I want to be
Is where no one's cold or scared of me
And then she handed him these, her keys
Yeah, I guess no one ever made him feel as real
As when she...(unintelligible)...him by lending him her keys
And said, `Welcome to Amsterdam
Welcome to Amsterdam
Welcome to Amsterdam'...

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Well, that's one of those songs that, you know, begins one way and
then builds and builds and goes in other directions, and that song ends up
being full-blown rock...

STEW: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: ...at the Belasco Theater on Broadway, and there are a few numbers
like that.

STEW: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: So what's that like to perform? What has it been like in
previews?

STEW: Oh, it's been great. I mean, we were really concerned as to what it
would feel like up here after doing it downtown in a very intimate space, and
I still think that the Belasco Theater is intimate; it still feels very
intimate. And yeah, it's been fantastic. It's just a big rock show now.
It's just a bigger rock show.

Ms. RODEWALD: Oh, yeah, we're on Broadway and the sound is really great, and
we're working with all these really great people trying to make it sound
great. It's really nice.

STEW: Yeah, our sound people are incredible. They're really doing like this
miraculous job of making the show both rock but still making it so you can
hear the lyrics. And Annie, our director, always said that "Passing Strange"
is a concert out of which a play emerges, and...

BIANCULLI: Oh, I like that.

STEW: Yeah, and we've always--that's pretty much been our, like, our mantra,
our credo, our--that's the plaque on the inside of our minds, you know.

BIANCULLI: Can you talk about--I know that "Passing Strange" is not
autobiographical, but since you did live in Amsterdam and Berlin...

STEW: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: Can you talk about what it really was like for you to try and
identify yourself as an artist there, and how much of your musical heritage
and your racial heritage you would use...

STEW: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: ...in cutting through all that?

STEW: Right. Yeah. It became, you know--I arrived in Europe with two other
black American friends, and the other friends of mine that went with us were
Jewish and, yeah, I mean, we all sort of had cards--race cards--that we could
play at any given moment if we chose. You know, like history cards that we
could play, you know, cultural cards that we could play. Because when you're
6,000 miles away from home, you can completely reinvent yourself.

And the question that we used to all sort of like ask ourselves at the end of
the evening or maybe the next morning, is like, `oh, did you play a card last
night? And if so, which one? And to what extent, and how far did you go?'
And it wasn't something that we did all the time, but it was always a card
that you could play. And that tension and that sort of suspense, whether it
was some woman you were trying to make time with or whether it was some club
you were trying to get a gig at, or you know what I mean?

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

STEW: It gave you this weird power that was--it was heady, you know? I mean,
it was--because you can't do that back home. Everybody knows who you are
so--and all that passing, so to speak, that, you know, the kid--frustrated the
kid in the play so much, the passing that he felt he had to do as a black man
within the black community, he felt like he had to live out certain black
stereotypes in order to be accepted by his own community.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

STEW: Right? So he hated that, so then he goes away to try to become his
true self and ends up playing some of the same cards that he refused to play
back in Los Angeles, back in his black community.

GROSS: We're listening to Stew and Heidi Rodewald talking with FRESH AIR
contributor David Bianculli. Their new musical, "Passing Strange," opens
tonight on Broadway. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Stew and Heidi Rodewald of the
band The Negro Problem. Their new musical, "Passing Strange," is loosely
based on Stew's life. It opens tonight on Broadway. They're speaking with
FRESH AIR contributor David Bianculli.

BIANCULLI: Stew, let me ask about your early influences musically growing up
and what it was like being in LA. How did you get attracted to the various
types of music that you obviously got attracted to, and how easy was it to
find other people with that passion to play with?

STEW: Well, I mean, initial influences were just Los Angeles AM radio, but
yeah, when it got to the point of playing in bands, like in high school, I
didn't have trouble finding people who liked the crazy stuff that I liked, but
there weren't a lot of them. You recognize kindred spirits, you know? I
mean, you--there's a look, sometimes a smell, you know? I mean, you know who
the rock 'n' roll drummer is in the room, even if you're all wearing church
outfits, you know? You can just kind of tell. But yeah, I mean it was, you
know, there were difficulties in being, you know, I was in an all-black rock
band in high school and early sort of junior college days and no, that was--it
was problematic sometimes. You walk into a club and people would go, `oh, are
you the R&B funk band?' You know.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

STEW: And we'd be like, `no.' And, you know, how many times would that
happen? You know, like all the time, and so that got a little frustrating,
you know, especially when you're, you know, it's a little odd when you're
doing this, playing this rock 'n' roll music, and people--and you're
black--and people are looking at you like you're weird, and you're going,
`well, wait a minute. OK, now, there's Jimi Hendrix, there's Chuck Berry, you
know, I mean, need I go on? You know, it's like, what exactly--you know, I
think we were actually part of inventing this music.

BIANCULLI: Right.

STEW: You know, I mean, so like, that was like this constant sort of grating,
annoying thing that like like we were somehow weird because we were playing
this music that we actually were completely entitled to, you know. I mean, it
was a part of our culture.

BIANCULLI: Once you two were playing as a group called The Negro Problem, the
sort of music that you put forth on your CDs was nothing if not eclectic, and
I'd like to play a little piece, just the first minute of one song that to me
is the most bizarre and one of the most lovable songs in your catalog, and I'd
like you to set it up and tell me where in the world you came up with this
idea and why, and it's the song "Ken."

STEW: I just liked the idea of a Ken doll who was sort of frustrated.

BIANCULLI: OK. Let's play a little bit of "Ken."

(Soundbite of "Ken")

THE NEGRO PROBLEM: (Singing) My name's Ken and I like men
But the people at Mattel
The home that I call hell
Are somewhat bothered by my queer proclivities
It's safe to say that they are really pissed at me

They always stick me with Barbie
But I want them to know
I'd prefer GI Joe
But any able-bodied man doll will surely do
Just someone to love...

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Can I--I love the lyrics to that and I just wondered, what has
been your reaction to that song over the years?

STEW: People like--that's one of our most popular songs. We tend to do it in
a more acoustic, folky fashion live so that people can really hear the lyrics
better. There's something about taking a piece of sort of an iconic toy like
a Ken doll and having people think that maybe that Ken doll, A, is gay, B, is
very frustrated that he is constantly being thrust upon a naked Barbie, you
know, and that maybe that gay Ken doll is not really happy about being rubbed
up against Barbie all the time.

BIANCULLI: My last question to you guys. You're just about to experience
your first Broadway opening night. Now, as veteran rockers, is this a big
deal or not a big deal, and what do you plan to do after opening night?

Ms. RODEWALD: Oh God. OK, so Broadway to me is all about my mom, really.
It's all--you know, we're going to Broadway. It's like family. Yeah. You
know what? I--and I've been saying lately is I think that this whole thing,
this whole week leading up to opening night and the whole thing is meant to be
looked back on, not to actually experience. I just can't wait for it to be
over. I don't know.

STEW: No, that's brilliant. I think that's actually--I'm going to start
looking at it that way. It's definitely all about family for me too. I am
thrilled that my daughter is going to see this, who--she's done some acting
her in high school so it's going to be thrilling for me to have her out there,
but I know what this means to Heidi's mom because I know, you know, Heidi's
family, they've done theater. Her grandfather has, you know, her mom has, her
sisters, and the idea that Heidi is the one person in the family who decided
to join punk rock bands rather than, you know, be an actress, and now suddenly
she's the one on Broadway. It's just...

Ms. RODEWALD: Yeah, it's crazy, really.

STEW: It's like a fairy tale. It's like a fairy tale. It's too much.

Ms. RODEWALD: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Well, I wish you best of luck with "Passing Strange" on Broadway.
Stew, Heidi Rodewald, thank you for being on FRESH AIR.

STEW: Thanks so much.

Ms. RODEWALD: Yeah, thanks for having us.

GROSS: Stew and Heidi Rodewald's musical, "Passing Strange," opens on
Broadway tonight. Their band is called The Negro Problem. They spoke with
FRESH AIR contributor David Bianculli.

Coming up, our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new biography of a woman
who became a popular jazz musician in the '30s, Valaida Snow. This is FRESH
AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Kevin Whitehead on Mark Miller's biography of jazz
musician Valaida Snow
TERRY GROSS, host:

A new biography of singer and trumpet player Valaida Snow is out, prompting
this appreciation by jazz critic Kevin Whitehead. Snow was a globe-trotting
entertainer and instrumentalist who'd started her career in vaudeville and
ended it on the cusp of rock 'n' roll. Kevin says Snow would surely have more
champions were it not for the fraudulent claims she made in the 1940s of
having been held in a Nazi concentration camp. But, Kevin says, if you can
get past that...

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. VALAIDA SNOW: (Singing) I got my hi-hat, trumpet and rhythm
I'm ready to swing
Hi, hi, ho, ho,
Won't you swing with me

Got my hi-hat, trumpet and rhythm
And I'm ready for,
Ready for--help me!
Hi hi hi, ho ho
Won't you swing with me

I got a brand new...(unintelligible)...
to go with them
And I'm ready to swing
(Scats)
Swing with me

(End of soundbite)

Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Valaida Snow in London in 1936.

Snow came from Chattanooga, but she'd been every place. She spent so much
time in Shanghai and Paris and Copenhagen, she was a bigger celebrity abroad
than in the States. But in the 1930s no horn playing jazz woman was so
extensively recorded.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Owing to her travels and her multiple careers--singer,
trumpeter, conductor, dynamic stage performer, theatrical producer--Valaida
Snow's been long overdue for a biography. Now we have it. "High Hat, Trumpet
and Rhythm: The Life and Music of Valaida Snow" by Canada's great jazz writer
Mark Miller. He's dug the known facts of Snow's life out from under a pile of
misinformation, much of which she piled on herself.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Born in 1904, Snow was a teenage dancer, violinist and blues
singer on the vaudeville circuit before appearing in stage revues in New York
and Chicago. In 1926 she crossed the Pacific to China to entertain Shanghai's
expatriate community. After that she took a troupe of performers on tour
through much of Asia before returning to the States by way of Paris.

Valaida Snow made her first record in Chicago with pianist Earl Hines in 1933.
As a torch singer she has some old fashioned mannerisms, but she comes alive
over a swing number.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SNOW: (Singing) When stars become to creep
I cry myself to sleep
My only consolation
Is in knowing that you came

I guess it couldn't be
He's just a memory
Oh, but maybe I'm to blame
Oh, that man of mine is gone
And has left me all alone
My heart is broken
And, oh, I'll never be the same
I don't know what to do
I thought that love was true
I don't know what to do
And I thought that love was true
But maybe I'm to blame...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Snow's biographer Mark Miller is a critic, too, and he's fair
in his judgments of her recordings as a trumpeter. She was a frank admirer of
Louis Armstrong--"Little Louis," they called her in Europe--but then so were
most '30s jazz trumpeters. She could hit some wobbly notes, but shows off a
high sense of drama on 1935's "Imagination."

(Soundbite of "Imagination")

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Valaida Snow was working in Denmark when the Germans invaded
in 1940. Danish authorities detained her at one point, possibly for her own
protection, before she made her way back to New York in 1942. A reporter who
saw her then found her in good spirits and looking well fed. But soon she was
selling a different story of having arrived in New York emaciated after being
held in a Danish concentration camp, never mind that none of the death camps
was in Denmark. The story stuck and still circulates on the Web.

We don't know all the doubtless complicated reasons for her deception.
Biographer Miller doesn't pretend to read her mind and doesn't pass judgment.
She did invest in a role as a camp survivor, doing many benefits for Jewish
causes after the war, and the scandal obscures the odd musical turn in her
later career. The archaic sounding ex-vaudeville crooner morphed into a
terrific, if not so successful, rhythm and blues belter.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SNOW: (Singing) `Cause you know
I'm waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting
For you patiently
And I keep hoping, hoping, hoping
That you won't make a fool of me
You made me cry...

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Valaida Snow on her last recording session from the Chess
label in 1953. She died pretty much forgotten three years later.

There's so much to tell, we haven't even touched on her colorful personal
life. She first wed at 15 and married a teenage dancer at age 27. She was
accused of bigamy and was sometimes of interest to European police owing to
the silverware that kept gravitating to her luggage. Hard to think of any
jazz musician anywhere with as sensational a life story as Valaida Snow. Mark
Miller's scrupulous, unsensationalized biography is the place to go for the
facts.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the University
of Kansas and he's a jazz columnist for emusic.com. "High Hat, Trumpet, and
Rhythm: The Life and Music of Valaida Snow" by Mark Miller is published by
Mercury Press in Toronto.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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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