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Writer and Journalist Sarah Vowell.

Contributing editor for This American Life, and columnist for, Sarah Vowell. She has a new collection of essays, “Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World” (Simon & Schuster).


Other segments from the episode on April 20, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 20, 2000: Interview with Sarah Vowell; Review of Lou Reed's album "Ecstasy."


Date: APRIL 20, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 042001np.217
Head: Sarah Vowell Discusses Her New Collection of Essays
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

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

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

On today's FRESH AIR, a popular presence on radio who doesn't have a so-called radio voice. We talk with Sara Vowell, a contributing editor for "This American Life." Her new book, "Take the Cannoli," is a collection of personal essays in which she writes about such subjects as growing up obsessed with art and pop culture, while her father was obsessed with guns, and being raised in the Pentecostal faith, learning to prepare for the end of the world.

She also writes about movies, music, Goths, punks, and mixed tapes (ph).

And rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Lou Reed's new CD, "Ecstasy.

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.

First, the news.


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


(sound of shots)

ACTOR: Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.


GROSS: In her new book, "Take the Cannoli," Sara Vowell wonders why the film "The Godfather" kidnapped her life, although on the surface it had nothing to do with her. She's a feminist, not Italian, grew up in small towns, and was raised in the Pentecostal faith.

Sara Vowell spends a lot of time with movies, TV, books, and music, and what she sees and hears leads to interesting and funny reflections about pop culture and its impact on our lives. She also writes witty personal essays about her own life.

Vowell is best known as a contributing editor for the Public Radio program "This American Life." Her "This American Life" piece about Sinatra was broadcast on "Nightline" after Sinatra's death.

Vowell is also a columnist for the Internet magazine Salon.

The opening personal essay in "Take the Cannoli" is called "Shooting Dad." Before we talk, let's hear her read an excerpt of the piece.

SARA VOWELL, "TAKE THE CANNOLI": "I am a gunsmith's daughter. I like to call my parents' house, located on a quiet residential street in Bozeman, Montana, the United States of Firearms. Guns were everywhere, the so-called pretty ones, like the circa 1850 walnut muzzle-loader hanging on the wall, Dad's clients' fixer-uppers leaning into corners, an entire rack right next to the TV. I had to move revolvers out of my way to make room for a bowl of Rice Krispies on the kitchen table.

"I was 11 when we moved into that Bozeman house. We had never lived in town before, and this was a college town at that. We came from Oklahoma, a dusty little Muskogee County nowhere called Braggs. My parents' property there included an orchard, a horse pasture, and a couple of acres of woods.

"I knew our lives had changed one morning not long after we moved to Montana when, during breakfast, my father heard a noise and jumped out of his chair. Grabbing a BB gun, he rushed out the front door, and standing in the front yard, he started shooting at crows. My mother sprinted after him, screaming, `Pat, you might ought to check, but I don't think they do that up here.'

"From the look on his face, she might as well have told him that his American citizenship had been revoked. He shook his head, mumbling, `Why, shooting crows is a national pastime, like baseball and apple pie.'

"Personally, I preferred baseball and apple pie. I looked up at those crows flying away and thought, I'm going to like it here."

GROSS: That's Sara Vowell reading an essay from her new collection, "Take the Cannoli: Stories From the New World."

Sara, I think a lot of our listeners know you from "This American Life" on Public Radio. How did you start writing for that show?

VOWELL: Well, I lived in Chicago, and I was friends with Ira. And one night I was having -- Ira Glass (ph), the host of the show. And one night we were just having dinner, and I started telling him this story, where I had written a book review and mentioned my favorite band, the Fastbacks. And then not long afterwards, I got a letter from some guy in Chicago thanking me for mentioning the band in my book review, even though the guy was not a member of the band.

And Ira said, "Huh, great, can I get you a tape recorder?" And I went and interviewed him, and that was my first piece. And it just -- I don't know, it just immediately clicked, I guess.

GROSS: Now, you have what is usually described as, quote, "not a radio voice." (laughs)

VOWELL: Yes, I think, like a lot of people on "This American Life," I sound like I shouldn't be on the radio. But I think that's one of the reasons people like the show. You can get professional broadcasters anywhere.

GROSS: Now, when you started to work on "This American Life," did you and Ira see your voice as an obstacle, or a good thing? Because it was not a radio voice.

VOWELL: Well, I guess Ira saw it as a good thing. I've always sort of seen my voice as a liability, because I guess, like most people, I would like to receive some modicum of respect in this world, and I think my voice, because it's so -- just weird and also childlike, I -- I get -- not -- it's not like people -- well, I guess, for example, telemarketers, when I pick up, always ask if my mother is home. And that's just not a good feeling, you know. And it's also just not a very effective sales technique for them, I should mention.

I don't know, sometimes that's why I like print, because I think I can sound a little more eloquent when you don't hear me. (laughs) Because even if I'm saying the smartest thing in the world with this voice, it still sounds rather peculiar.

GROSS: Now, are you always kind of amused or surprised about what listeners tell you they find either sexy or irritating or mature or childish?

VOWELL: Of course, yes. Well, especially -- well, you must get this too. I think anyone who has any kind of access to a mass audience, eventually you're going to appeal to somebody. It's just the odds. You could be the most hateful, annoying weirdo, and some person out there is going to find that attractive.

But if -- I mean, I'm basically -- I've just always been a big nerd. And so I don't know how to deal with that, because my regular life has never been -- I'm not one of those, you know -- I'm not one of those blondes that get approached in hotel bars a lot, you know, and I think those women have a better defense system than I do. So I do get a lot of kind of mash note mail through the radio show, and sometimes I feel like being sexualized isn't necessarily always -- I guess they wouldn't do it to Stephen Hawking, you know.

I feel like -- I just kind of think of myself as a normal smart person.

GROSS: I have another listener question for you.


GROSS: How do people usually imagine you look, and what's their reaction to you when you meet listeners, and what's your reaction to their reaction to you, as you watch the look on their face as they see you?

VOWELL: Well, I was in a restaurant last night in New York City, and I was -- it was actually a business dinner, and I was talking with my colleagues about this project we're supposed to work on. And this woman at the next table recognized my voice, and had read a particularly grueling review of my new book that really made her mad. And she said, "Are you Sara Vowell? I wrote a letter to the editor on your behalf. And I just wanted to say that I thought you got robbed." And so that was nice, you know, that people are out there kind of sticking up for me.

Usually I'm always in the process of saying something embarrassing when they recognize my voice. Like, I think the first time it happened, I was in Chicago at a restaurant, and my friend walked across the room to get some water. And I yelled, "Hey, get me some water," really rudely. And then the woman at the next table over, you know, this very nice woman, said, "I'm sorry, are you on Public Radio?" And it was just kind of an embarrassing moment.

But mostly people are just really nice. I mean, I guess that's something fortunate about radio, because writers don't really come into too much contact with their audience. And at least I can sometimes put faces on mine.

GROSS: You know, Public Radio is considered by a lot of people to be very middle-aged, and I think you're one of the younger voices on Public Radio on a national level. You're, what, around 30?

VOWELL: I am 30.

GROSS: Yes. I wonder if you could reflect on age and Public Radio a little bit, if you feel like you're, like, the younger member of this middle-aged thing, or if it doesn't strike you as being as middle-aged as it strikes others, or -- I'm not exactly sure what the question is, but (laughs) you can tell that.

VOWELL: Yes, I know what you mean. I guess I have two points of view on that. The first is that I feel kind of out of time, you know, like, I have an LBJ keychain...

GROSS: (laughs) Right.

VOWELL: ... one of my favorite singers is Frank Sinatra. I, like, don't go a day without thinking about the Civil War, you know. On the other hand, one of my favorite bands is Hansen. I just feel like -- I just feel like a person, and I've always been, even as a little kid, I always liked, you know, really square oldster stuff.

On the other hand, I feel like probably my generation and the one before it, we are -- we're all definitely sort of post-rock and roll. And in some ways I wish a lot more Public Radio and American broadcasting in general would just reflect that a little, because I don't think anyone post-Watergate really believes in the voice of authority any more. And a lot of mainstream news programs on Public Radio or elsewhere sort of still have that tone, you know, I'm the grandfatherly smart person in charge of your news.

And in some ways, I wish things could relax a little more.

GROSS: What would you like to hear on the news?

VOWELL: Well, I don't know, I guess it's probably impossible. Sometimes I wish the person reading the news would react to it. You know, like, you can turn on the news every day, and the newscaster's voice is exactly the same whether he or she is talking about some major tragic earthquake or it happens to be Easter. You know, there's no differentiation. Which I can understand why they want to keep things simple and elegant, but on the other hand, sometimes I just want to scream, Aren't you a person? Like, why can't you sound like 10,000 people just died?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sara Vowell, and she's a contributing editor to "This American Life," a columnist for Salon, and author of a new collection of essays called "Take the Cannoli." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sara Vowell. She has a new collection of essays called "Take the Cannoli." She's a contributing editor to "This American Life" on Public Radio and a columnist for the online magazine Salon.

Now, in a lot of your essays, the fat that you're from Muskogee and then at age 11 moved with your family to Montana comes up a lot. And it's almost as if you think you're from another country than many of your readers. Do you feel that way?

VOWELL: Well, I guess I keep trying to stick up for the fly over Rand (ph) voice, because a lot of people in -- with access to the media are coastal types, and a lot of them are sort of East Coast, establishment, went to really good schools kind of people. And I guess I always bring it up because -- well, for two reasons, just to say, you know, We exist and we have things to say, but also I felt like an immigrant as a child, moving from small-town Oklahoma to a college town. I mean, we did move to Montana, but it was a very college town atmosphere, and that was incredibly foreign to me, and also incredibly exciting.

So I guess there were -- so I have two kind of cultural references there. As a child, we were Pentecostal, and so I guess music was part -- prob -- music has always been one of the most important things in my life. And as a child, country music was very important to me. And then when I moved to Montana, that's when I sort of eventually fell in with the kind of '80s indie rock underground, where -- I guess the people who were important to me were people like the poet Alan Ginsberg, or -- I was a huge Philip Glass fan as a teenager, things like that.

And then when I -- right towards the end of high school and the beginning of college and that, I stayed in Montana for college. I guess rock and roll kind of took me over. And that was sort of my introduction to fun. So that was every -- and the town that I lived in had this amazing college radio station, and it still exists, and it's still marvelous, where one thing about it was there were categories of music, but everyone seemed interested in so many different kinds of music, so you could -- if you had it on during the day, you could hear Chuck Berry, and then you'd hear REM, and then you'd hear the Young Fresh Fellows, and after that maybe some Sibelius, and then Muddy Waters at night.

And so it was a very exciting, open-minded musical atmosphere.

GROSS: You must have felt really lucky to be living in a college town where there's always record stores and bookstores and movies and things like that, which you might not ordinarily find.

VOWELL: Oh, yes, I mean, the town we lived in in Oklahoma did not have a library. In fact, at our school, there was -- the library was literally a shelf. And so we had to drive, you know, a long ways to go to a library when I was a little kid. And then we moved to Montana, and it was really like moving to Paris, in a way, because, you know, the town had a separate building that was a library, and there were record stores.

And it was just like this incredibly open thing.

GROSS: Do you think that the shortage of books and records and libraries and bookstores and record stores made books and records more exotic and interesting to you?

VOWELL: Kind of. Like, when I was a little kid, we lived about 25 miles from Muskogee, which was the nearest sort of big town. And we had to go there to get groceries and stuff every week. And I was usually allowed to buy a record when -- at least once a month, I was allowed to buy a record. And that was a really big deal. You know, my mom would do the grocery shopping, and I got to go to the record department at the -- in the mall and pick out, pick out a record that I was allowed to buy.

And so that was always sort of the big moment of the week. And that was -- we had to go there for movies too, so I think I sort of always saw movies and records as the big reward. And I still see them that way.

GROSS: Now, you grew up Pentecostal and went to a Pentecostal church when you lived in -- near Muskogee. What were the services like when you were young?

VOWELL: They were very Holy Roller. There was a lot of speaking in tongues, and it was pretty fire-and-brimstone, you know. And the first -- it wasn't -- well, when we moved to Montana, we went to this kind of nondenominational church, about which my mother said, "Too much teaching, not enough preaching," because it was definitely -- in Oklahoma, you were preached to, and there was a lot of yelling. And there was even finger-pointing, you know, the preacher would be in the middle of a sermon, and he would point at a (inaudible).

I remember once he pointed at this very nice man named Bob Brewster and said, "You're still smoking, Bob Brewster." And gee, I was just scared to death that I would ever do anything wrong and get, you know, yelled at in church with that finger pointing at me.

And then the one thing that was great about it was music. I mean, all -- we sang all those old hymns, you know, like, I guess "I'll Fly Away" was my favorite one. And they were very musical people. So that was a definite saving grace.

But I was terrified of the (inaudible) -- it was a very -- Revelation got a lot of play, so I was terrified of the end of the world, and I was terrified of hell, and I was terrified of the devil.

GROSS: Did you read the Bible, or have it read to you a lot as a kid? And I'm wondering if you think it affected what you expected from books or had some impact on your literary style, (inaudible)...

VOWELL: Oh, completely. I mean, I still actually love the Bible and the Old Testament especially, and I aspire to that kind of musical writing. And just the images within it and all the metaphors and all the, you know, blood and smiting and pillars of salt and things -- I mean, it's pro -- I mean, it's the greatest book ever written from a literary standpoint that way. I mean, it's never boring.

And then, like, you know, just the language, all that "begat" chapter or -- yes.

GROSS: I remember when I interviewed the writer Walter Kern (ph), who was brought up as a Mormon, he said that you can't really understand the pull of, say, heavy metal music and its satanic imagery unless you were raised in a fundamentalist community where the devil was the only real rebel that you knew. Do you have similar feelings to that?

VOWELL: Hm, that's interesting. Well, the devil was not the only rebel I knew. I mean, because the -- it's, like, it was a horribly gossipy town...

GROSS: (laughs)

VOWELL: ... and there were constant -- I mean, there's no way you can live up to those standards of not drinking, not smoking, not falling in love with the wrong person, not having sex. You know, there were -- everyone was a rebel in that sense, because no one was com -- I mean, there were very few people who were cutting the mustard that way. And they were -- to me, they were all women, you know, that's why I always had this dream that I would know the Rapture came, because all the women would be gone, because all the horrible men and ill-behaved children would be left behind.

But in -- I guess I still have -- I do see the world kind of in good-versus-evil terms, and I -- even though I don't believe in that devil any more, I am kind of always looking for them. And also, one thing I learned after I got out of there and after I started completely questioning those beliefs, is that true evil often has a pretty face.

And that's -- I think that actually definitely comes from the whole antichrist theory. You know, they always told us the antichrist is probably going to be blond and handsome and nice and funny and smart and sweet, and to always look behind that face to see what's going on. And, I mean, in terms of heavy metal, I guess they're heavy metal, but the big demons of my '70s childhood there were Kiss, and they were -- they were the antichrist. You know, they were supposed to be knights in Satan's service, and we had to pray against them.

I think they were the only people we ever prayed against. You know, we were constantly praying for, but they were just seen -- they -- they were deemed irredeemable, and we were to stay away from them. And I was just scared to death of them. And, you know, meanwhile, my mom is letting me listen to, like, Loretta Lynn's "The Pill," you know, which is, I guess, fine, because it was country music, but it was a song about, you know, putting on the hot pants because now she's got birth control.

GROSS: (laughs)

VOWELL: And then years later in college, I had a roommate who was an old Kiss kid, and I heard Kiss for the first time, you know, like that love song, "Beth." And I thought, This was the problem, you know, it's just totally candy rock, and way more acceptable than some of those sexy country songs I was allowed to listen to.

GROSS: So you were praying against Kiss without even ever having heard them?

VOWELL: Oh, of course.

GROSS: (laughs)


GROSS: Sara Vowell will be back in the second half of the show.

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


GROSS: Coming up, leaving the Pentecostal church. We continue our conversation with Sara Vowell, contributing editor for "This American Life" and author of the new collection "Take the Cannoli."

And Ken Tucker reviews Lou Reed's new CD, "Ecstasy."



I'm Terry Gross, back with Sara Vowell. She's a contributing editor for the Public Radio program "This American Life" and a columnist for the Internet magazine Salon. Her new book, "Take the Cannoli," is a collection of personal essays on a range of subjects, including "The Godfather," faith, guns, Goths, music, mixed tapes, and insomnia.

When we left off, we were talking about growing up in the Pentecostal faith.

I think you left organized religion at about age 16. Did you feel when you left, it left any kind of gap in your life that you needed to replace with something else?

VOWELL: Oh, it was just a hole that's still there. I mean, I guess it's a rarer and rarer experience as the world becomes more secularized, but it was -- I think I'm still getting over it, because I always had little doubts, even as a little kid, because a lot of the things don't make sense, you know, especially if you read the Bible. Partly I always had problems because I'm so gullible, I believed everything. Like, I didn't -- I couldn't understand how you could be a Christian and be a racist, because Jesus said, Love everybody and preach to the whores.

Or I remember in my mom's ladies' prayer meeting, we had to hold hands in a circle and pray for the local bar to be shut down, the little Oklahoma bar. But I remember, like, thinking, Didn't Jesus turn water into wine? You know, I just didn't understand any of that.

So I had little nagging doubts, but I still -- I mean, I talked to God constantly, I guess until I was 16, and I was therefore never lonely. I mean, I was always kind of a loner, but I always felt like I had someone to talk to. And then once I'd lost that, it was a few years before I kind of got used to just thinking to myself instead of talking to the Supreme Being or something.

GROSS: So, so, yes, so there was a kind of vacuum (inaudible).


GROSS: Why did you leave organized religion?

VOWELL: Well, it was sort of a domino effect. One thing was -- I mean, I was a fundamentalist, and I was definitely -- I definitely thought abortion was wrong. And when I was 16 -- I've never told this story in public before. When I was 16, I had a friend, a girlfriend, who thought she was pregnant. And this girl was -- she was, like, a butterfly, you know, she was very delicate and kind of spacey and just this sort of magical pixie-like person.

And I knew there was no way this girl could have a child, much less raise a child and give birth to a child and carry a child. And she was just a child herself. And I -- that was the moment I thought, She can't have this baby. I -- she can't. And I changed my mind about abortion in that second. She turned out not to be pregnant, luckily. But I -- after I questioned that, then everything else was -- all the other nagging doubts were just thrown into relief, and within a couple of months I had given up on the whole shebang.

GROSS: What else had to change when your religion -- when, when your -- when -- when your faith in your religion ended?

VOWELL: Well, you have to figure out how to be good without having hell hanging over your head. And in a way, it's harder, I think, to figure out how to be a moral person when you don't have a book telling you how to be moral. And so that was an interesting question. This all, of course, kind of happened simultaneously with the existentialism chapter, or the existentialism unit in high school English class. So I think a lot of those teen angst books I was reading, then too, you know, things like "The Stranger" by Camus or something, asked those sort of questions, how can there be morality in the absence of God?

And basically, I just -- I actually still -- it eventually occurred to me that, you know, things like the Ten Commandments are -- it's a very good idea, like, those are good rules, and I believe in them. And I don't have to believe in impending doom to decide not to sleep with someone else's husband, you know.

GROSS: (laughs) Did you have to change other things in your life as well when you left your religion, like, did your friends change? Did your -- what you did on the weekend change? The kind of music you listened to change?

VOWELL: Well, Sunday morning became open right away, I guess.

GROSS: Right. How did you feel it?

VOWELL: And I still -- I mean, I still will -- I still have this little thrill on Sunday mornings. I mean, it's -- on the one hand, I still have this little thrill, like, I can do whatever I want. On the other hand, it's, like, Oh, what am I going to do? You know, because that was always planned.

GROSS: Watching Sam Donaldson doesn't fill that gap.

VOWELL: (laughs) I do watch Sam Donaldson. I mean, and in some ways, I mean, I have -- I've obviously -- I mean, I believe in the First Amendment, I believe in freedom of religion, and I don't look down on people who spend their Sunday mornings at church. And I feel like, yes, I do spend my Sunday mornings watching Sam Donaldson. I don't think that's any better than going to church.

I mean, my friends didn't change, because none of my friends in Montana were very religious. Or if they were, they went to what I like to call the rec room churches, you know, those, like, high Protestant churches where there's a pool table in the basement, and God is love, and if the kids were involved, they were just playing pinball together or something. So religion was either nothing they really thought about, or not part of their lives at all.

I guess the biggest, most excruciating result was how it affected my mother, who was very devout. And there was a big wall between us for a really long time. And, I mean, she still prays for me every night. You know, she still prays that I'll come back to my religion every night.

GROSS: Did she take it personally when you left, like, it -- you were not only leaving your religion, you were leaving her in some way, because she lives in that religion?

VOWELL: Yes, well, I was leaving her. I mean, if you're in that world -- (inaudible) people, like, down on the fundamentalists. But in a way, I have more respect for that than the -- than (inaudible) the half-assed believers, because, I mean, I have re -- I guess, and -- on a certain level, I have a lot of respect for people who really believe what they believe. And my mother really believes what she believes.

It's more -- it's worse for her. For me, I just feel like, Oh, she's spending her life hoping this afterlife is going to come, and no one knows if it's going to. Whereas for her, she really feels like I'm doomed to the flames of hell for eternity if she doesn't help me. And I guess that's harder for her to live with.

GROSS: This is a kind of giant leap here. But, you know, when you went to church, to the Pentecostal church as a kid, it was a very demonstrative church, where people would sing and they'd get pointed to by the minister, and it just sounds, sounds like there was just a lot of public display of feeling and belief. And I'm wondering if that made it any more -- made it any easier for you to write publicly about your private feelings or your personal life when you started writing personal essays.

VOWELL: I never thought about that, but, you know, I think that's true. There's this certain -- if you really are a Christian and you really are doing what you're supposed to be doing, you have to be brave. You know, and I'm actually -- it's my tendency to be a sort of loner and clam up and -- clam up around people. But I always thought -- like, even as a little kid, I had to get over that. And I tried to, you know, minister to my friends and tell them about God and stuff. And I think it does make you braver, because no one really wants to hear that. And so if you're going to tell them, you're going to tell them about Jesus, you have to, you have to, you have to be brave.

So -- and also, I mean, the one thing I love about that, about that, about the Pentecostal culture, and I think that's why a lot of my favorite singers, people like, you know, Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis, came out of churches like that, is because it is very passionate. And you don't have to be -- you don't have to be silent or cold in public. You're supposed to -- you're supposed to express, you know, joy, and you're supposed to make noise unto the Lord.

And so I guess that would make sense, if, you know...

GROSS: And you're supposed to testify.

VOWELL: Yes, yes. Guess that's what I'm doing, testifying about Frank Sinatra.

GROSS: My guest is Sara Vowell. She's a contributing editor for the Public Radio program "This American Life." And she has a new collection of personal essays called "Take the Cannoli." More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Sara Vowell. She's a contributing editor to "This American Life," a columnist for Salon magazine, and author of a new collection of essays called "Take the Cannoli."

You often write about music, even in essays that aren't directly about music. One of your essays is even about playing music in school and band. And you also write about a relationship you had with somebody who didn't share your musical tastes. His tastes were different than yours. And you wrote, "Our incompatible music pointed to incompatible worldviews."

And I'd like to talk with you more about taste and relationships. I mean, do you, (laughs) do you find it possible to be in a really serious relationship, friendship or love relationship, with someone who has really different tastes in literature or music than you do?

Like, how much, how much do you think, like, your taste defines your connections to people?

VOWELL: I would like to be a real grownup and say, no, I can get past that. But I think it is important, partly, I think, most of my friendships are based on things like, I like -- oh, you like Jonathan Richman (ph)? I like Jonathan Richman too, let's have coffee. I think I'm a constant fan, you know. It's not just music, it's things like television or books or movies too. I'm just kind of constantly enthralled with those things, and I guess most of my friends are too.

That story you're talking about, I -- is about making mixed tapes. And I really was -- I was really in love with this guy, and we would send each other mixed tapes, and I would send him my nice little pop songs, you know, really romantic, like, Blondie's "In the Flesh," you know, "Darling, darling, darling, I can't wait to see you." And he would send me these techno tapes back that were just this, like, whirring motor noise.

GROSS: (laughs)

VOWELL: And, you know, not to be too much of a girl, but I felt like he had no understanding of, you know, how to treat a girl. I mean, even if I loved the whirring motor noise, send me something nice.

GROSS: Well, you know, some people might feel, well, you know, books, movies, music, what a kind of trivial basis for a relationship. So what's the counter to that? Or why, why, why is it ultimately, for you, so important?

VOWELL: Because I don't take those things as just mere entertainment. They're not something to do when my day is over. They are my day. You know, I -- I think because -- I guess I'm always going to be a fundamentalist, and I just switched one religion for another. And I guess pop culture kind of is my religion. So it would sort of be like, I would be one of those people, one of those Muslims who only wants to marry a Muslim. You know, I -- I don't know if I could love someone who didn't think Jonathan Richman was really charming.

GROSS: (laughs)

VOWELL: Because that's just one of the fundamental things that makes life great, that Jonathan Richman is really charming. And if someone looked down on that, there would just be wrong -- something wrong with his soul, I guess.

GROSS: Now, I think it was for a column in Salon, you wrote about how, like, when you speak before an audience of your listeners and readers, you, you, you do really well, people really enjoy it, you know, you'd get really positive feedback when it was over. But you did a reading at the HBO Comedy Festival, I think it was last year, with other people from "This American Life," they did, I guess, did the show there. And, and you really died on stage, as I think did other people from "This American Life."

It wasn't a "This American Life" audience.


GROSS: I'm wondering what the moral of that was for you, having, you know, done performances where, you know, people really loved it, and then did a performance where you just really felt what it was like to die onstage.

VOWELL: Yes, well, obviously it was grueling. On the other hand, it was reassuring, because I feel like I want to be one way or the other. I want you to love me or hate me. I just -- I don't want -- I don't want that boring little, She's OK, kind of in-between ground. It's -- I guess if you're doing something -- we're kind of a boutique enterprise culturally speaking, and we have a -- we have a definite sensibility and point of view.

And in some ways I think the questions of who's going to like us and who's not are different after things like Nirvana, you know, because that would -- that definitely messed with the peculiar people's minds. And I -- I'm calling myself one of the peculiar people, because I always thought, you know, everything I care about and want to talk about, not very many people are going to be interested in. But when that band, who was interested in everything I was interested in, became so huge and so beloved by so many, it sort of called all audiences into question.

So I never know what are we -- are we Nirvana or are we Love Battery? You know, are we speaking to the masses, or are we only reaching a few people who are sort of like us? And the HBO Comedy Festival sort of pointed to the fact that we are reaching a very specific audience, and that those people in that audience were not from our audience.

GROSS: In your book, you also talk about how you've had insomnia, and that you really don't know what it's like to wake up feeling refreshed. Do you still have it?


GROSS: Have you found it, like -- you compare yourself to your father. Your father would, like, build contraptions when he couldn't sleep and say things like, "Too bad those other people had to waste their night sleeping."


GROSS: Do you ever try to, like, write or, you know, do -- clean, do something productive in the middle of the night when you can't sleep?

VOWELL: Yes, he does productive stuff. I don't. I just -- I feel like, oh, I'm up in the middle of the night, this is my time, you know, so I'll watch movies or I'll listen to records and stuff. I mean, it's my hope to one day have an apartment big enough to have a Ping-Pong table, because I thought Ping-Pong would be a really great thing to do in the middle of the night. And I'm sure the neighbors would love it.

GROSS: Absolutely, yes.

VOWELL: But, no, I don't have that, Oh, I'm up, I might as well get cracking feeling. I have that, I'm up, you owe me some fun.

GROSS: So what did you watch last night?

VOWELL: Let's see, last night I listened -- I actually listened to "The Capital Years" on my Discman.

GROSS: Sinatra?

VOWELL: Mm-hm.

GROSS: At what time?

VOWELL: Three-ish.

GROSS: Do you get angry...

VOWELL: I stopped really looking at the clock after a while, you know.

GROSS: Do you get angry with yourself when you can't sleep?

VOWELL: It's not that I get angry with myself. I just worry about the next day. I frequently have kind of scary days because I have so many jobs and so many people to answer to and stuff to keep track of. I just wonder, well, how bad am I going to feel tomorrow?

GROSS: Right.

VOWELL: But no, I mean, it's -- there's -- it's kind of pointless to be angry at the sleep gods or whatever.

GROSS: Well, Sara Vowell, it's really been fun to talk with you. Thank you very much.

VOWELL: You too, Terry, thank you.

GROSS: Sara Vowell is a contributing editor for the Public Radio program "This American Life," a columnist for Salon, and author of the new collection of personal essays, "Take the Cannoli."

One of her musical heroes, Lou Reed, has a new CD. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, will review it after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Sarah Vowell
High: Sarah Vowell is contributing editor for "This American Life" and columnist for She has a new collection of essays, "Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World."
Spec: Entertainment; Art; Recreation; Travel; Families

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Sarah Vowell Discusses Her New Collection of Essays

Date: APRIL 20, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 042002NP.217
Head: Ken Tucker Reviews Lou Reed's `Ecstasy'
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

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

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Since the '60s, with his work as part of the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed has offered one of the most varied personas in rock, from gender-bending Fugg (ph) to happily married man. Rock critic Ken Tucker says that Reed's new collection, called "Ecstasy," manages to contain nearly all the ways in which we think about Reed.


KEN TUCKER, ROCK CRITIC: The music on Lou Reed's new CD, "Ecstasy," is only occasionally ecstatic. But it does possess the sweep and audacity of an old crow (ph) who wants to stretch out. It commences with that song, "Paranoia in the Key of E," which is typical of the entire collection in one respect. It features a great, drenching torrent of guitar and percussion that sweeps along Reed's direct, often dryly banal lyrics.

Where Reed's 1996 CD "Set the Twilight Reeling" was a career anomaly for its portraits of contentment and domesticity, "Ecstasy" is notable for its scenes of disillusioned romantic discord.


TUCKER: That song, "Mad," is a pretty remarkable piece of work. A song about a guy who's been caught cheating on his wife or lover, and his reaction is to get angry about it, to be enraged rather than guilty. The last thing the 58-year-old Lou Reed ever asks for is sympathy, and he certainly won't get it here. But as a quick sketch of the way sexual desire makes people greedy and needy, "Mad" is a perceptive and unsparing work.

Another song, "Rock Minuet," is equally grim and equally rewarding.


TUCKER: "Rock Minuet," with the image that Reed summons up of restless hustlers seeking out fast sex and cheap drugs as a way of trying to stave off boredom and a despair that they refuse to think through, can stand as one definition of how to grow older making rock and roll that deepens the themes an artist might have tackled more blithely as a young man.

"Rock Minuet's" lyric echoes Reed's most famous song, the concert millstone around his neck, "Walk on the Wild Side." But it's a more interesting, provocative song.


TUCKER: There are tunes on "Ecstasy" that don't really work, such as that semi-acoustic reverie of a youth and a sour young adulthood that Reed may or may not have experienced. But when Reed cranks up his guitar with long-time collaborators Mike Rathke (ph) on guitar and Fernando Saunders (ph) on bass, he often achieves a sonic ecstasy that can stand with anything he's done over 40 years.

That's true of the 18-minute epic called "Like a Possum," whose power builds so slowly and carefully, I won't do it the disservice of serving up a snippet that doesn't provide its grand context. But I can recommend it, as well as many of "Ecstasy's" quieter moments, as the work of an artist who's earned his truculent arrogance on the strength of music that takes you down emotional alleys that many young rockers wouldn't even be able to locate with a map.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for "Entertainment Weekly."

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced by Phyllis Myers, Amy Salit, and Naomi Person, with Monique Nazareth, Ann Marie Baldonado, and Patty Leswing, research assistance from Brendan Noonam.

I'm Terry Gross.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Ken Tucker
High: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews "Ecstasy," the new collection by Lou Reed.
Spec: Music Industry; Lou Reed; Entertainment; Art

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Ken Tucker Reviews Lou Reed's `Ecstasy'
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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