Writer Alice Randall
Writer Alice Randall is the author of the controversial new parody of Gone with the Wind. Her book The Wind Done Gone (Houghton Mifflin). Randall retells the story of the antebellum South from the viewpoint of Cynara, a beautiful illegitimate mulatto woman, the daughter of a plantation-owning father, and a slave mother.
Other segments from the episode on July 3, 2001
DATE July 3, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Songwriter and novelist Alice Randall talks about her
new book "The Wind Done Gone" and about her family and career as
a country music songwriter
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Alice Randall has written what she describes as a parody of "Gone
With the Wind," the 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell. "Gone With the Wind"
told the story of plantation life in the South from a white slave owner's
perspective. Randall's new book "The Wind Done Gone" reinterprets the story
from the slaves' point of view. The Margaret Mitchell estate tried to prevent
the publication of "The Wind Done Gone," arguing that the book was an
unauthorized sequel and, therefore, a violation of copyright. The publisher
says it's a parody which is protected by the First Amendment. The Mitchell
estate won the first round in court, getting an injunction blocking
publication of Randall's book. But in late May that injunction was
overturned. And although the case is still in the courts, the book has just
been published. "The Wind Done Gone" is Alice Randall's first novel. She's
also the only African-American woman to have written a number-one country
music hit. I asked her what "Gone With the Wind" meant to her when she first
Ms. ALICE RANDALL (Author, "The Wind Done Gone"): I first read "Gone With the
Wind" when I was about 12 years old. I was living in Washington, DC, and I
found the book shocking. I did not know until I read that book that there
were any people--there was any person who was smart enough to write a book who
thought the Klan was a positive organization. I didn't really know that there
were people who had a sustained view that black people were intellectually
inferior until I read "Gone With the Wind." So it was shocking. At the same
time, I was attracted to parts of the romantic tale.
GROSS: Why did the book continue to matter to you enough to take it seriously
enough to write a parody on it and to spend so much time on it?
Ms. RANDALL: Well, you know, I'm speaking to you from Nashville and I live in
the South. I think that I have found in my life that "Gone With the Wind,"
the book, has come back literally to haunt me time after time, that people
have quoted the book to me, quoted from the book. I've come across many
people whose opinions and impressions about certain aspects of Southern
history and, more importantly, certain aspects of the African-American
character seem to have been meaningfully influenced by "Gone With the Wind."
GROSS: Can you give me some sense of a time when somebody quoted the book at
Ms. RANDALL: Oh, I've had people say often, when there's a question of doing
something, taking an action and I hesitate for a moment, `I don't know nothing
about birthing no babies, Ms. Scarlett,' literally.
Ms. RANDALL: I had a woman tell me today at my signing that she used to say
that to her mother when her mother asked her to do any kind of housework.
Because the face has become a kind of shorthand to speak of black incompetence
and, even more complicatedly, it is sometimes used as a shorthand to speak of
black incompetence in the face of the assertion of competence, the prior
assertion of competence. Prissy she says she knows everything about birthing
babies, but finally she doesn't. I think that's a particularly damaging
structure: the assertion of competence followed by this incompetence.
GROSS: When you were an undergraduate at Harvard, you wrote your honors
thesis on mothers and daughters in Jane Austen's fiction. And in a way your
new book, "The Wind Done Gone," is also a book about mothers and daughters,
but it's about mothers and daughters and mammies. Why don't you explain what
I mean by that.
Ms. RANDALL: Well, Cynara has two mothers. She has a biological mother,
Mammy, who doesn't mother her at all, who mothers, rather, Other.
GROSS: Other is the Scarlett O'Hara figure.
Ms. RANDALL: Exactly. And Cynara actually finds her mothering, receives her
literal mother's milk, from Lady, the white aristocratic wife of her
biological father, Planter. So she has both a white and a black mother. The
white mother is not her biological mother, but is essent--is her emotional
mother, and the black mother, at least to her childish view, is her biological
mother, but not her emotional mother.
GROSS: In part because her black mother, who's her biological mother, is so
busy being the nanny to the white daughters on the plantation.
Ms. RANDALL: Exactly, Other. And, in fact, you know, the thing that inspired
me most to write this book in a sense was that Mammy is perhaps the most vivid
portrait of a mother in all of American literature. And it is a black mother
that is coopted completely to mothering only a white child. Mammy is not only
asexual, which many people have commented on, the Mammy of "Gone With the
Wind" is afertile. She doesn't have a child of her own at all. It's a
complete coopting of the image of the black mother. One, the central act of
my parody is to give Mammy a child and then to give that child, Cynara, a
voice. But that child, that voice, could not exist in the other text. It
points out the absurdity of the other text.
GROSS: Let's go over some of the characters in your book, "The Wind Done
Gone." Let's start with the narrator. Who narrates the story in you novel?
Ms. RANDALL: Cynara. She is a mulatto woman, a not-so-tragic mulatto woman
who is very intelligent and who, in a meaningful way, reads and writes her way
into being. She is writing a diary and coming to terms with herself as she
lives and writes of her life.
GROSS: And she is the daughter of the owner of the plantation.
Ms. RANDALL: She's the daughter of a planter, a white aristocratic--well,
not aristocratic, a white planter and a mammy on a plantation.
Ms. RANDALL: Planter and Mammy.
GROSS: And the character who we know as Scarlett in "Gone with the Wind," who
is she in your parody?
Ms. RANDALL: The Scarlett analogue, if you will, is a character called Other,
who has no other name than Other.
GROSS: And why did you name her Other?
Ms. RANDALL: I chose the word Other for three reasons. One is because the
word `other' is actually a subset of the word `mother,' and that is one of the
places I want to emphasize that Other is important only as a pawn in this
other relationship between Cynara and Mammy. Also, you know, as you well
know, the word `other' comes out of feminist criticism and is used for the
rejected self--the other, the mad woman in the attic, in the Jane Eyre
story--is also the other, often used with the word `the' in front of it, the
article `the,' is a word that certain black psychologists and sociologists
have used, a phrase to suggest the rejected social identity of black people as
being `the other' in society, where we project some of our darker desires and
ideas. So I have reversed all three now of those things in my novel. The
same way Mammy was a character in the other book, Other is a caricature in
GROSS: And what are some of her qualities?
Ms. RANDALL: She has very few qualities.
GROSS: OK. So she's just a little blank stereotype...
Ms. RANDALL: Yes.
GROSS: ...of a white woman on a plantation.
Ms. RANDALL: Yes.
Ms. RANDALL: Yes. I have stripped her of her--yeah. I have stripped her of
her sexuality, her attractiveness and her work, so there's not much of her
GROSS: OK. And the Rhett Butler character, who is he in your novel?
Ms. RANDALL: R.
GROSS: And what is he like?
Ms. RANDALL: Well, the significant difference between the two is R is willing
to marry a black woman, which I don't think Rhett Butler would ever have done.
Also, R is definitely over-the-hill aging. This is a very cynical look at R.
GROSS: I heard things about your own background that you were kind of
wondering out loud about in writing "The Wind Done Gone."
Ms. RANDALL: Well, I am examining my own experience of reading this text, so
1here is that experience of reading. And one of the things that has
interested me greatly is that most African-Americans that I personally know,
and particularly women, reading is a very, very important part of their lives.
And part of the African-American tradition coming out of the South is a
tradition of reading, partially because if you imagine back in the '50s and
the '40s, if you were a black child in the South in the summertime, there were
no such things as summer jobs, except for working out in the field or in
someone's house. There were no summer camps. You couldn't go to the swimming
pool. You couldn't eat in a local restaurant. And so often what kids would
do, and certainly what I did in the summers when I was young, is to read every
day. I mean, that's what was available to you.
And so I wanted to work on a book that depicted my experience of growing up,
which was largely an experience of reading. And so that was something
important to my own experience. In my own family, I have a number of my
relations, including my mother, whose father was white, my father's parents,
my grandparents, my grandmother and grandfather, both were half-black,
half-white. So I have a lot of experience in my own family of intermarriage
and racial dynamics acted out in families.
GROSS: Have you gone through different stages in your feelings about the
white parts of your ancestry?
Ms. RANDALL: Yes, I have. And I think, you know, that first stage was
ignorance. When I was a very little girl I didn't know that I had any, you
know, white relations. I learned that I had white relations about the very
same time when I was four or five that I learned that I had black relations in
Alabama who could not vote because--you could not vote. I remember the day
that my cousins in Alabama were able to vote for the very first time. That
was in my lifetime. That's not something prior to my history. That's a part
of my history. And around that same time that we were talking about Alabama,
I was told about my father's ancestry.
And it's interesting, my grandfather could not read or write, to the day he
died, much more than his name, and so illiteracy is very important to my
family and literacy is very important to my family. My grandfather turned out
to be a successful man and a very, you know, active father and active husband.
So in some odd ways my grandmother could never put but so much value in
reading and writing. But ultimately, it was the one thing--my grandfather was
also the one who would thump me on the head and say, `Education is the only
thing they can't take away from you.' So I think that it's interesting about
my experience in race relations.
One of the central tensions in my feelings about race is the way, as the story
was told to me originally, the reason my grandfather could not read or write
is because his white father would not allow anyone to teach him and that he
was a very prominent and important man, wealthy man in the community in which
he lived and that he intimidated everyone away from teaching my grandfather
how to read and write as a way of maintaining some control over my
grandfather. And in our own personal family story, he gave my grandfather no
education but money and land. And so it sort of created a bias in our family,
I think, away from materialism and towards education as really the thing to be
GROSS: My guest is Alice Randall. Her new novel, "The Wind Done Gone," is a
parody of the 1936 novel "Gone with the Wind." More after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Alice Randall. Her new novel, "The Wind Done Gone," is a
parody of the 1936 novel "Gone with the Wind."
Now you're so absorbed in the South, both through country music and through
writing "The Wind Done Gone," your parody of "Gone with the Wind," but you
grew up in Detroit, which is the North. Are there certain stories that your
parents or grandparents told you about the South that stuck with you and
helped define your image of the South when you were a child living in the
Ms. RANDALL: Yes, one of the most memorable is my father describing going
back down South after he lived in Detroit and went to high school there when
he was drafted and went to the Army. And he said he'd get on the train and
they'd be gambling and talking and drinking from Detroit to Chicago. In
Chicago, they would change trains and head South. And he would tell me about
the men, grown men, Army men, crying in the night 'cause they were going back
into segregation, into Jim Crow segregation.
GROSS: Did that scare you from going to the South?
Ms. RANDALL: I hesitate to answer it because the answer is yes. I was
afraid of the South a lot. I grew up with fear and courage. I grew up with
fear and taught to not back down in the face of that fear. So the South was
something my father rejected. A sweet story is when I graduated from Harvard,
my father wanted to meet Derrick Bach, who was the president of Harvard
University at the time. And I said, `Daddy, everybody wants or doesn't want
to meet Derrick Bach. This man does not know me. He's not going to want to
meet us at my graduation.' But he insisted and I called the office and he
agreed to meet with us a couple of days before the graduation. And we went
and stood beneath the statue of John Harvard and what my father said to
Derrick Bach was that he was going to forgive America--was he had big--he was
going to forgive America for giving me this Harvard education; that is wasn't
something he could buy or achieve or give me; that it was something the
university, that America had to give me and that he was making his peace with
America over the opportunity I had to be educated at Harvard.
And after that my father went back down South. He actually went back and
stood in the river in which he had been baptized as a boy. But you've got to
remember that my father says he had never worn shoes until he was 13 or 14
years old and he wasn't born in the last century. He was born in this
century. I do remember I was with my grand--my father. I was with my father
when our relations down South got to vote for the first time and that he knew
his own grandfather, who had not let his father learn to read or write.
So my father had a lot of issues with America. He was a Malcolm X radical.
I used to tell people when, in country music, they say, `How can you deal
with all the racists in country music?' First of all, there aren't many
racists in country music, but, second, I said, `I was raised by a racist and
I tried to redeem that racist and teach my father to love people, regardless
of the color of their skin.' I think I achieved some of that. But he had a
passionate, you know, hatred of the South. And, strangely enough, I've got a
passionate love of it because it is the land that created him and all of his
GROSS: Was your father educated? Had he gone to college or even high school?
Ms. RANDALL: He graduated from high school and did part of a year or about a
year of college before he came home to help my grandparents in their family
business. And so he really did not have or take the opportunity. He was more
about the--to get a complete education. He's a very, very smart man. He read
tremendously every day lots of books, lots of newspapers. He was the kind of
man who'd wake you up at 5:00 on a Sunday morning to go get--or before
that--newspapers off the line in Detroit--read you know, two, three, four
newspapers a day and, you know, several books a week, sometimes. And when I
was writing my thesis on Jane Austen, my father was very much what you'd call
a Detroit sort of street guy. He owned dry cleaners. He knew people high and
low. He knew--he was very much a man grounded in the street but who had
achieved a lot. And he read all those Jane Austen novels when I was writing
my thesis on Jane Austen. He was a tremendously loving and literate father.
GROSS: When you moved to Nashville to write country songs, did you love
country music or did you just see it as a good forum?
Ms. RANDALL: Yes. You know, I love country music. And this is one of those
strange things. When I was at--in college, I was typing a very long
screenplay once. And I started listening to country music as a joke, frankly.
And--but when I was listening to it, I was, at that point, really interested
in 17th century Puritan sermons and some of the early American metaphysical
poetry. Edward Taylor, you know, who was sort of the cousin of John Dunn(ph).
And I noticed in an image. There was a song out about that time called
"Coca-Cola Cowboy"--that this was, essentially, a metaphysical image in the
sense that the 17th century poets used them.
And I became intrigued with some of the strategies of country music and a
sense of what I perceived as dynamic stasis. I loved that song "He Stopped
Loving Her Today," where there is not--in all of Western literature, the hero
develops; the hero grows. Well, there is a strain in country music which I
call dynamic stasis where no change occurs at all. The only change is death
and the narrator moves around this fixed object of a life. And "Mama's Hungry
Eyes"--Merle Haggard--is another example of that. I don't recall a change of
So I was fascinated by the strategies of country music and I was fascinated
by--and this is--sort of relates to my dilemma right now--the degree to which
educated, intellectual people perceive the art form as being ignorant, stupid,
limited; that people feel very free to make fun of country music, whereas I
personally believe that some of the great poetry of our time appears in
country songs, as well as blues songs.
GROSS: Well, I want to play a song that you wrote. And this is a song that
Trisha Yearwood recorded. It's called "XXX's and OOO's" or "An American
Girl." You want to say anything about the song?
Ms. RANDALL: I wrote the song on a very desperate day when my daughter
needed something and my work needed something completely different. And I
thought everything was failing and falling apart. And I literally was in the
shower and I thought, `You've got a picture of your mom in heels and pearls.
You're trying to make it in your daddy's world. You're not gonna do it,
girl.' And I thought. That is a song I need to write right now. And I
literally came up with a few other little things. I was working very hard on
something. I had put on a lot of weight, so if you notice the beginning of
it, `phone rings; TV diet guru lies.' There was that strange woman with the
white hair out then. So I think of the two things that helped me get through
and they are, in that song, Aretha Franklin and Patsy Kline. And I was so
thrilled that we could get Aretha Franklin and Patsy Kline in the song.
And, also, I've put in, `She's got her God and she's got good wine.' And I
have a religious sensibility, which is often, again, looked down upon from
people who are very intellectual. And so I wanted to be honest to that, too.
So we put God, wine and Aretha and Patsy Kline in the song. So I actually
like it a lot, although it is--it has a ditty-like frame on the outside.
GROSS: OK. And this is Trisha Yearwood singing a song by Alice Randall. And
I believe you have a co-writer on the song, too.
Ms. RANDALL: The brilliant Matraca Berg, who wrote "Fakin' Love" when she
was still a teen-aged girl, and she's a brilliant, brilliant writer.
GROSS: Well, Alice Randall, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. RANDALL: Thank you.
(Soundbite from "An American Girl")
Ms. TRISHA YEARWOOD: (Singing) Phone rings; baby cries; TV diet guru lies.
Good morning, honey. Go to work; makeup; try to keep the balance up between
love and money.
She used to tie her hair up in ribbons and bows, sign her letters with Xs and
Os. Got a picture of her mama in heels and pearls. She's trying to make it
in her daddy's world. She's an American girl; an American girl.
Slow dance; second chance; mama needs romance.
GROSS: Alice Randall's new novel, "The Wind Done Gone," is a parody of "Gone
With the Wind."
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, director Julien Temple on his two documentaries about the
Sex Pistols and his new film, "Pandemonium" about poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge
and William Wordsworth. And Ken Tucker reviews the new CD by the Detroit duo
The White Stripes.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Julien Temple talks about his career in filmmaking
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Julien Temple was getting started as a filmmaker at about the same time the
British punk band The Sex Pistols started playing music. He's since made two
documentaries about the group, the 1978 film "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle"
and last year's "The Filth and the Fury," which recently came out on video.
Temple also directed the movie musical "Absolute Beginners" starring David
Bowie and has directed rock videos by Bowie, Neil Young, Tom Petty and The
Rolling Stones. But his new movie isn't about rock stars. It's about two
late 18th century British poets, Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth. The
film describes the idealism that brought them together and the jealousies and
opium addiction that tore them apart. In this scene, Coleridge and Wordsworth
have started a small utopian community built around nature and poetry.
They're having dinner with Wordsworth's sister, Coleridge's wife and a friend
who has just been released from prison. Wordsworth's sister speaks first.
(Soundbite of "Pandaemonium")
Unidentified Actress #1: William and Sam are working on a book together.
Unidentified Actor #1: Now do you write one line and he the next or what?
Unidentified Actor #2: We've scarce begun to write yet.
Unidentified Actor #3: We're still gathering material.
Unidentified Actress #1: The poetry will be simple. It should appear almost
not written at all, but discovered.
Unidentified Actor #1: Like Davy's gasses.
Unidentified Actor #3: And when we publish, it should be anonymously.
Unidentified Actress #2: What?
Unidentified Actor #2: I wasn't aware.
Unidentified Actor #3: I've only just thought of it. They should walk away
from the poet, out into the world an orphan, adopted by every heart that hears
Unidentified Actor #1: But surely Sam is famous. His name would bring in
Unidentified Actor #2: No, this is brilliant, anonymous, like Homer, like the
hills and clouds themselves.
GROSS: Julien Temple, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your new movie is about two
poets who lived in the late 18th, early 19th centuries. You're more used to
making films about punk rock and videos by rock stars than movies about 18th
century poets. Do you see any connections between Wordsworth and Coleridge
and the rock and punk musicians that you've documented over the years?
Mr. JULIEN TEMPLE (Director, "Pandaemonium"): Well, I think you've got to be
very wary of too facile a comparison with totally different people in totally
different eras and situations. But I did feel very strongly that I wanted to
make a film that wasn't perhaps a conventional period movie, but a movie
propelled by the idea of how relevant and resonant these two lives and the
work of these two men were to our own time. I think they lived in a very
similar period to us in a strange way, that they were on the brink of the
Industrial Age, the Industrial Revolution.
Obviously, Coleridge and Wordsworth stand at the beginning in a sense of a
long tradition of celebrity. They did shock the world, the reading world of
their time, profoundly with their first collaborative book, "The Lyrical
Ballads" by using language that was no longer of the court or the king, but
took its inspiration from the everyday words and phrases that they'd hear in
the streets and taverns and fields. They democratized poetry in a very
shocking way at that time, and as a result, became hugely famous figures.
They share that aspect of shock and celebrity that, you know, perhaps is
associated with certain more modern rock stars.
GROSS: Your documentary about The Sex Pistols, "The Filth and the Fury," is
out on video now. I want to ask you a little bit about that. It's your
second film about this British punk band. The first was from the point of
view of their manager, Malcolm McLaren, and that was called "The Great Rock
'n' Roll Swindle." But the second film, "The Filth and the Fury," is more
interviews with the band, more from the band's point of view.
Let's start with "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle." Before that film--which
was made in 1978--before that film was made, Malcolm McLaren wanted to make a
film, I think, featuring the band, that was supposed to be directed by Russ
Meyer, and Russ Meyer's most famous for "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" and
"Beyond The Valley of the Dolls." He's also famous for his obsession with very
Mr. TEMPLE: Right.
GROSS: What was that film directed by Russ Meyer supposed to be?
Mr. TEMPLE: It was a very bizarre film, and actually, the plot gets even
stranger when you realize Roger Ebert wrote the script, actually.
GROSS: Right, the script for "Beyond the...
Mr. TEMPLE: "Who Killed Bambi?"
GROSS: Oh, no!
Mr. TEMPLE: "Who Killed Bambi?," yeah.
GROSS: I didn't know that, because he also wrote the script for "Beyond The
Valley of the Dolls."
Mr. TEMPLE: Yeah.
Mr. TEMPLE: Yeah. So, perhaps, you should talk to him, but it was a
very--it was a kind of Robin Hood story of a big, kind of, Rod Stewart '70s
rock star figure who kills a deer in the forest, and I have only very vague
recollections of it. But pays--he kills this Bambi figure, which, I think,
was killing the spirit of youth and punk rock and so on, and in the end, he is
killed by the little girl who finds the dead deer. It was a very
straightforward story on that level, I think, but I never actually read the
script, so I don't know a great deal...
GROSS: That's nice, because you were supposed to be the assistant director.
How could you not have read the script?
Mr. TEMPLE: Well, there wasn't a finished script...
GROSS: Oh, I see.
Mr. TEMPLE: ...which is one of the reasons it didn't get made, I think, you
GROSS: Right. So my understanding is since this film was not actually
getting made, Malcolm McLaren came to you, who are supposed to be the
assistant director of "Who Killed Bambi?" and asked you to make a documentary
about The Sex Pistols.
Mr. TEMPLE: Right. I was working with The Sex Pistols before the "Who
Killed Bambi?" chapter began. I was filming them archivally in a way,
documenting what they were doing, so a lot this footage in "The Filth and the
Fury," as was in "The Rock 'n' Roll Swindles," came out of that process. So
I'd been involved far more as a documentarist, capturing that band at the
time. I was really asked to show Russ Meyer around, you know, my--because we
really didn't get to make this film. It was very initial, my work, as
assistant director of Russ Meyer consisted of taking him to punk clubs in
London, really, and, you know, try and calm him down when he realized they
didn't have huge tits, as you say, you know.
GROSS: A great disappointment, I'm sure, to him.
Mr. TEMPLE: Yeah.
GROSS: So when you were documenting The Sex Pistols, you know, before making
"The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle," was this to be a movie that you were
making, or was that something that Malcolm McLaren had asked you to do?
Mr. TEMPLE: Well, initially, I was at film school at the time, and we were
secretly filming them. We had a key to the camera room at the film school,
and would--as long as we had the camera back by morning--would be able to film
them at night if we smuggled the camera into the gig and hid behind pillars
and so on. Obviously, this didn't last for too long, and we were caught doing
GROSS: Caught by who?
Mr. TEMPLE: By Malcolm, who didn't want anyone filming them without his, you
know, permission, which is fair enough, really. But he realized, I think,
that a bunch of kids with a camera were probably cheaper than, you know,
hiring in film crews, and probably more enthusiastic and more into it than
other people would be at that time, so he signed me up, initially, to document
things. But as the group were banned, we started making little films that
could be shown when they were not able to play, and we made a couple of these
films out of this material and material that we'd re-filmed from television
and kind of cut-up movies that--you know, again, some of the footage in "The
Filth and the Fury" comes from those very early movies.
GROSS: And how did the band feel about being filmed early on?
Mr. TEMPLE: They hated it. I mean, you probably see in "The Filth and the
Fury," they were very good at spotting a camera 20 feet away and hitting it
with well-aimed gob of spit, you know, and you were lucky not to get kicked
off the stage. It was difficult filming them, because they really didn't like
being filmed, although I think they're probably quite glad now that we did
film it at the time. It just wasn't what they were involved in. They just
didn't think in terms of capturing what they were doing.
GROSS: And did it bother you to be spit at while you were trying to film
Mr. TEMPLE: No. That was part of the ritual, part of the fun. I mean, they
were getting spat at, too, so it wasn't as though they were...
GROSS: Just part of the scene.
Mr. TEMPLE: Yeah.
GROSS: So what connection did you feel to The Sex Pistols as people and to
Mr. TEMPLE: Well, I loved their music. I mean, it totally regrounded the
original rebellious ideas of rock 'n' roll in a simple stripped-down way that
was accessible to people living lives in London again. You know, during the
'70s, that music that had been so important in the '60s in London had moved
further and further away from that reality to Hollywood or wherever it had
gone, and Sex Pistols just knocked all that on the head and started from
ground zero again in a very ferociously honest and angry way, talking about
their lives, the lives of most young kids in England were going through at
that point. And it's similar to the hip hop thing later in a different
context in the black community in the States. The great power of their music
was that it connected to the reality of people's lives.
GROSS: My guest is film director Julien Temple. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is film director Julien Temple. His new movie "Pandaemonium"
is about poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Temple is also
the director of two documentaries about the British punk band The Sex Pistols,
the 1978 film, "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle," and last year's "The Filth
and the Fury." Here's the recording The Sex Pistols are best known for,
"Anarchy in the UK."
(Soundbite of "Anarchy in the UK," by The Sex Pistols)
Unidentified Vocalist: The lights down. (Singing) I am an Antichrist. I am
an anarchist. Don't know what I want, but I know how to get it. I want to
destroy power supply, because I want be in anarchy. Now, dogs
(unintelligible) Anarchy for the UK is coming sometime. I might be a giver of
tide stop a traffic line. ...(Unintelligible) is a sharp (unintelligible)
because I, I want to be in anarchy in the city.
GROSS: Let's go back to your first Sex Pistols movie, "The Great Rock 'n'
Roll Swindle." Part of the point of that movie is Malcolm McLaren saying that
he created this band, he put it together, he come up with the tactics that got
people interested in them and created their image. He takes credit for a lot
of the band's identity and a lot of their popular success. Did you agree with
that perception when you were making the movie?
Mr. TEMPLE: Well, you have to take, you know, the title at face value. The
film is called "Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle," and it is a swindle and was
designed as a swindle in order to make the audience confront what they were
feeling about this group at the time. It was very--I mean, we wrote it
together. It was very inspired by "F for Fake," for example, where Orson
Welles had very much confused what was real and made it seem fictional and
vice versa. And we were, in the context of what had happened to The Sex
Pistols, trying to do the same thing.
When they started, which was only a couple of years before, they wonderfully
destroyed the barrier between an audience and a performer, which had grown out
of all proportion in the rock 'n' roll context, you know, the whole stadium
thing with ants on stage and thousands of faceless people in the crowd had
become very depersonalized and very meaningless. Sex Pistols triumphantly
reclaimed the sense of theater and involvement of the audience as an element
in that theater and said, `Stand up. You can do it yourself,' you know. It
was very much empowering people to believe in themselves. Two years later,
when the music industry had done its bit, they had been somehow digested and
spat out as new gods to go on your bedroom wall and to be worshipped in the
same way that, you know, Rod Stewart or Elvis Presley had been worshipped in
the past, the same unthinking way. So the whole point of "The Rock 'n' Roll
Swindle" was to confuse and annoy and confound these fans' ideas about why
they should worship a group who was totally opposed to that notion.
GROSS: And about 18 years after making that movie, you made your movie, "The Filth and the Fury," The Sex Pistols documentary that focused on the point of view of the surviving members of the band. How does the story compare when the band tells it?
Mr. TEMPLE: Well, obviously, it's a very different time, and it wasn't made
in the heat of confronting that process that we just talked about. Having
done that, it seemed to me that there were certain debts I owed to the band
themselves, their human story, what it was like for teen-agers to be dragged
through this kind of chemotherapy of fame and notoriety, which scarred them
all for life. Obviously Sid didn't get out of it alive. And I feel they felt
that they hadn't had a chance to tell their own story, so it was an
interesting and provoking thing to make a film about the same subject in a
radically different way.
GROSS: You're obviously uncomfortable with the corporate intervention in pop
culture and the kind of corporate selling of pop culture.
Mr. TEMPLE: Yeah.
GROSS: And yet, you've made a lot of rock videos, and in a way, rock videos
kind of represent turning a band into a commercial for the band, you know.
They really started off, I think, as sales vehicles for the record, and so
many rock videos have helped mythologize the rock stars, which is something
that you also seem to be uncomfortable about. So have you been ambivalent
about being--you know, about making so many rock videos yourself?
Mr. TEMPLE: Yeah, I had a very mixed feelings about the whole form.
Certainly at the beginning of rock videos, one was able to get away with a lot
more than you can now. They have been, you know, kind of target-audience
marketed out of existence, most of them. But at the beginning, you have to
understand that record companies knew nothing about film. The levels of
naivete were quite extraordinary, so you could treat music videos as, in a
sense, personal comment on those issues that you just raised, and I certainly
tried to do that in many of the--particularly--I have done music videos for
some time now anyway. It's for kids to learn how to make films, really. It's
like, instead of film school, it's a good way of trying out and experimenting.
But you know, I think you can say things within rock videos, and still, the
best ones do that manage to escape the simple nature of kind of selling fluffy
toys to unthinking consumers.
GROSS: Do you have a favorite of the ones that you did make?
Mr. TEMPLE: Well, I love the one I did for Sid Vicious singing "My Way." I
don't know if you've seen that...
GROSS: Yeah, I have.
Mr. TEMPLE: ...one where he shoots the audience at the end. I certainly
enjoyed making one called "Undercover," where I had The Stones in El Salvador
at that time had a, I think--I don't know if you remember the scene. Keith
Richard is playing one of the death squad characters that executes Mick
Jagger, who's a journalist there. I mean, those kind of things were possible
at that point in time. I don't no whether they are now. I made a film that
won the MTV Best Video of the Year for Neil Young that was called "This Note's
For You," which was about Coca-Cola and Pepsi and McDonald's and all those
characters sponsoring the soul out of music, and it directly confronted that.
It was actually banned on MTV, although it won the best video award of that
year. So there were things you could do, and I'm sure there are still things
you can do. It's an important audience that these videos reach, and to just
treat them as though they're only possible to disseminate sales pitches to
people, I think they can carry much more information than that if someone
intelligent gets hold of them, and people are still doing that, I think.
GROSS: In your own music listening, though, do you find yourself listening
more to music of the present and trying to keep up with what's new, or do you
find yourself also kind of going backwards a lot, catching up on earlier music
that you haven't heard or listening to things that you know and love and want
to keep listening to?
Mr. TEMPLE: I don't like to obsessively listen to things I know and love. I
much prefer, as you say, to go back and find things that I would never have
countenanced listening to before. That's one side of it. The other side is
to go forward and hear what you haven't heard coming at you the other way, you
know. I'm not obsessive about keeping up with what's going on, but I have a
lot of friends who are involved in music, so I hear a lot anyway, and that's
the way I like it. I like people playing me stuff and responding to it or
not, you know. I'm not (makes knocking sound) trying to see what's happening
I do like a lot of what has been happening. I think dance music, in a way,
you know, has gotten rid of The Sex Pistols altogether, the act on the stage,
so there are elements of dance music and hip hop that I really love, too. But
I have got into opera and things that, when I was a punk rocker, I wouldn't
have dreamt of enjoying, you know.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. TEMPLE: OK. A pleasure.
GROSS: Julien Temple's recent Sex Pistols documentary, "The Filth and the
Fury" is out on video. His new movie "Pandaemonium" is about poets Samuel
Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.
Here's Sid Vicious live with The Vicious White Kids.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. SID VICIOUS: (Singing) Kids, blowing up their parents (unintelligible).
GROSS: Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker on The White Stripes. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: The White Stripes release "White Blood Cells"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The White Stripes is a duo from Detroit, who, depending on which interview
with them you read, are either brother and sister or husband and wife. Rock
critic Ken Tucker likes their new CD called "White Blood Cells," and also
finds that these musicians raise some long-standing questions about
authenticity in pop music.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. JACK WHITE: (Singing) Fall is here. Hear the yell, `Back to school.'
Ring the bell. Brand new shoes, walking blues. Climb the fence, books and
pens. I can tell that we are going to be friends. I can tell that we are
going to be friends.
Mr. KEN TUCKER (Rock Critic): That's Jack White singing a melody that's half
blues, half children's song. Jack plays guitar and piano, and his partner,
Meg, plays drums and otherwise keeps pretty mum, lest this duo reveal anything
more about themselves. Together, they've made The White Stripes a pretty
interesting proposition. Their CD "White Blood Cells" often draws upon
African-American music to get its best effects. Here's a white boy's blues
lament, if I've ever heard one, called "Hotel Yorba."
(Soundbite of music)
Mr WHITE: (Singing) I was watching with one eye on the other side. I had 15
people telling me to move. I got moving on my mind. I found shelter in some
thoughts turning wheels around. I said 39 times that I love you to the beauty
I had found. Well, it's one, two, three, four, take the elevator at the Hotel
Yorba. I'll be glad to see you later. All I got inside is vacancy. Hey.
Mr. TUCKER: Listening to The White Stripes, I found myself thinking about
Lucinda Williams. Until I heard "White Blood Cells," I couldn't quite figure
out why I'd been so turned off by Lucinda Williams' latest release called
"Essence," well, apart from that awful title. Any time a musician announces
she's offering up her essence, she either better be Elvis Presley or Ella
Fitzgerald. Listening to The White Stripes' stripped-down punk blues offered
as a passionate put-on, I realized I couldn't stand any more of the apparently
autobiographical confessions of selfishness and sin that Williams has now
turned into her stock and trade.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. LUCINDA WILLIAMS: (Singing) Just to sit and talk the way we used to do,
it just breaks my heart that I can't get close to you. If our eyes should
Mr. TUCKER: Instead of reading in endless agilatory(ph) interviews about how
much Lucinda Williams suffers to eke out pain like that, I'd much rather
listen to Jack White yelp out this quick, funny, yet entirely believable
description of trying to create something worthwhile, a song so short, I can
play it in its entirety. It's called "Little Room."
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WHITE: (Singing) Well, you're in your little room, and you're working on
something good, but if it's really good, you're going to need a bigger room.
And when you're in the bigger room, you might not know what to do. You might
have to think of how you got started, sitting in your little room.
A-da-da-da-da-na-na-na-na-na-na, na-ya-na-na-na-na, na-ye-na-ne-na-da-na.
Mr. TUCKER: "White Blood Cells" isn't a great CD. Its intentional technical
imitations eventually hem in instead of freeing the music. And in truth,
sometimes Jack White can be a whiny little creep. Still, I'll take The White
Stripes' whine over other artists' complacency any day.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"White Blood Cells" by The White Stripes.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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