DATE March 27, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Actor Seymour Cassel discusses his work, and working
with John Cassavetes and others
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Director John Cassavetes is considered
the father of independent film. My guest Seymour Cassel is one of the actors
Cassavetes often worked with. Cassel was in several Cassavetes films of the
'60s and early '70s, including "Too Late Blues," "Faces," and "Minnie and
Moskowitz." Cassel was also Cassavetes' close friend. In the '90s, Cassel
started appearing in the independent films directly by his young admirers.
Wes Anderson cast him in "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums," and "The Life
Aquatic." Now Cassel is in the cast of the new TV series "Heist," which
premiered last week on NBC, and he's in the new independent film, "Lonesome
Jim," which is directed by Steve Buscemi, who also cast Cassel in his films
"Trees Lounge" and "Animal Factory."
"Lonesome Jim" is set in rural Indiana where a young man has returned home
after failing to make it in New York. He reluctantly takes a job in his
parent's factory. In this scene, the father, played by Cassel, calls the son
into his office with some shocking bad news about his mother. The son is
played by Casey Affleck.
(Beginning of soundbite from "Lonesome Jim")
Mr. SEYMOUR CASSEL: (As Don) Sally got arrested this morning for using the
company's FedEx account to ship drugs. They got proof of her signature on
over a dozen packages sent from here.
Mr. CASEY AFFLECK: (As Jim) Are you kidding?
Mr. CASSEL: (As Don) No, I'm not kidding. Does it sound like I'm kidding?
Mr. AFFLECK: (As Jim) Maybe.
Mr. CASSEL: (As Don) Well, I'm not. Now, listen I'm going to go down there
and explain to these...(censored by network)...that they got the wrong person,
and what I need you to do is cover for your mom and me while I'm gone.
Mr. AFFLECK: (As Jim) Sure. Sure.
Mr. CASSEL: (As Don) (Unintelligible). Anybody asks what's going on, just
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Seymour Cassel, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your new movie, "Lonesome Jim,"
is directed by Steve Buscemi, who you first met on the 1992 movie "In the
Soup." He acted in that along with you. And this was kind of like your
comeback film. Did you and Buscemi hit it off right away?
Mr. SEYMOUR CASSEL ("Lonesome Jim"): Yes, we did. I mean--I started in this
business a long time ago, and in New York I used to follow people down the
street and imitate their walks. So I can do Steve's walk, you know, and
I---and it sometimes drives people crazy, and sometimes they go `That's not
the way I walk.' And believe me, I'm pretty good at it. But we hit it off
well. I didn't really know him or know his work, but Steve--I think I've seen
him in one or two films in some small parts, and he was a great discovery for
me. He's an actor that reacts. And by that I mean he listens and you see him
GROSS: I assume that Steve Buscemi was a fan of yours before casting you.
Did he already know you before meeting you? Did he already know your work...
Mr. CASSEL: He knew my work.
GROSS: ...before meeting you in "In the Soup?"
Mr. CASSEL: He's a big John Cassavetes fan.
GROSS: And--yeah, I figured. So before we talk about your work with
Cassavetes I want to talk about your early--and I mean very early show
business career--though career is probably not exactly the right word. Your
mother was in Burlesque on the Minsky circuit when you were a child, and it
sounds like you toured with her when...
Mr. CASSEL: Yes. I toured with her.
GROSS: ...when you were very young. What was her act like?
Mr. CASSEL: Well, she was a chorus girl, then she became a specialty act.
And if you know Burlesque, Minsky had the main theater here and he had road
shows. And you'd go from New York to Baltimore to DC, Kansas City, Missouri,
St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Boston. But I got to get on
stage when I was about three and a half, and I'd do the matinees in a little
checkered suit and--with the baggy pants comics, and I could only work the
matinee. And I loved the way--to me, the life on a train and then coming back
to New York City and, you know, some down time here. And I wasn't in school
yet, and when I had to go to school I was not very happy about that.
GROSS: So your mother had a specialty act. Does that mean a specialty strip
Mr. CASSEL: That's right.
GROSS: So what was her specialty?
Mr. CASSEL: Oh, she tried dancing with the feathers for awhile. You know,
the big feather fans.
Mr. CASSEL: And then she tried a balloon once. And there were times that
she wasn't as good at one as the other, and I'd see her crying in the wings,
and never understanding what it was about, you know.
GROSS: How did your mother feel about exposing you to a lot of nearly naked
women? And how did she feel about you seeing her that way?
Mr. CASSEL: I guess I took baths with her, you know, as a little kid, you
know. And she'd wash me and say, `We might as well not waste the water, and
we'll both take a bath.' But it was just natural for me backstage. You know,
chorus girls getting dressed--getting undressed and, `Hi, Seymour, how are
you.' `Hi. Hi, Rosie, how are you?' You know you just--I learned very early
that this was my world and I was going to learn how to live in it.
GROSS: Now your mother got married when you were young to--and your step
father won a casino in a crap game. This must have been...
Mr. CASSEL: That's not true. He said that.
GROSS: It's not? Is it--I keep reading this every place. So what happened?
Mr. CASSEL: Well, it's true. That's what I was told. I was nine, and I was
living on 42nd with his mother and sister. He was a master sergeant in the
Air Force during World War II. I guess he had been in 17 1/2 years. And we
lived down in Fort Myers, Florida, we lived in Miami Beach. I remember the
end of the war, riding in a car with him, and him saying, `Remember this day.
A great man died today,' and it was Franklin Roosevelt. And then, you know,
we lived in Birmingham, Alabama.
And then the next thing I know they were going to Panama, and that's what he
told me, that he won it at a crap game. I later figured out--I got a feeling
that he did a little business with some guys in Brooklyn and in the Bronx, you
know? I mean that--where else would--because we lived in a club--we had the
whole corner on Ancon in Panama City. Ancon is the first little town in the
canal zone. And he also had card games for the officers from the canal zone.
So he was a busy guy, and I'm not sure what he did, but I'm sure some of it
was a little illegal, but he made it work.
GROSS: So did your mother act--did your mother do her act at the club?
Mr. CASSEL: No. No. Once we got the club she quit the business. And in
fact, when they divorced and I went back to live with my godmother in Detroit,
she stayed in Panama. She loved it there.
GROSS: Your mother stayed in Panama?
Mr. CASSEL: Well, I did, too.
Mr. CASSEL: Yeah.
GROSS: How did you feel about being sent to your godmother's?
Mr. CASSEL: You know what? By that time I had gotten used to being on my
own. I mean, I would walk on 42nd Street and walk up to 45th, 46th and watch
"Felix the Cat." So at six and seven years old I could do that. People knew
me in the neighborhood, and 42nd you know, and I'd go to 9th Street and they'd
say, `Were you going Seymour?' and `How you doing?' I'd say, `I'm going to go
watch "Felix the Cat."' `OK. Well, say hello when you come back by." People
kind of--I mean--the world has changed a lot....
GROSS: So you were...
Mr. CASSEL: ...since.
GROSS: ...you were a pretty street-wise kid?
Mr. CASSEL: Oh, totally. I'm still a street-wise guy. I mean--and people
start to talk trash with me and I'd say, `You don't know I've been there.'
Snoop Dogg, I did a movie with him, and he started with me and he said,
`Where'd you learn that?' And I said, `Well, between 42nd Street in New York,
Snoop, I was doing the--and rapping before you ever started.'
GROSS: Cassavetes has been such an influence on independent filmmaking. I
mean, he's probably one of the most influential filmmakers in the world of
independent film. And he was improvising in movies before that became a
popular thing to do. What was his approach to getting the actors to improvise
a scene? What were you given before the scene and how would you work it?
Mr. CASSEL: Well, John--with "Shadows" we would do an improvisation, and
John would see where the actors' tendencies and their instincts would take
them, then he would write, you know. But with "Shadows" we would just
rehearse it again and again and improvise it again, and do it. And once he
started writing and wrote "Too Late Blues" and wrote "Faces," you know, there
was very--actually the only improvisation in "Faces" is the songs I make up
with the girls in the--in--that I pick up at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go. You know,
where I am saying, "Put on the red meat, mamma, don't know want no tatos, no
onions." Because we had no money for music. So John knew that I could kind of
make up songs. I had been doing it, you know, in the late '50s.
But when you get to know an actor and you know their instincts as well as John
knew mine, and Cassara and, you know, and Gena, he could leave you--you could
always add something to a scene because your instincts are to embellish it
somewhat to contribute to the text. And ideas come to you and you try them.
And if they're good you keep them. If they're not, you just eliminate them.
GROSS: Now, you had a pretty major part in "Faces." You don't come in to the
film until around two thirds of the way in, but then it's a--it's a pretty
important part. "Faces" is about--espcially about a middle-aged, middle
class, very unhappy couple. So the husband in the couple goes off with Gena
Rowlands, who plays a prostitute in it.
Mr. CASSEL: Uh-huh.
GROSS: And his wife goes to the Whiskey-A-Go-Go with her girlfriends. They
pick you up, or you pick them up. And you end up going to bed with the wife
of this unhappy couple. And she's so miserable, by the time--you know, later
on--about what her life has become that she tries to overdose on sleeping
Mr. CASSEL: Yes.
GROSS: And then, you try to revive her.
Mr. CASSEL: I do revive her.
Mr. CASSEL: Yes.
GROSS: And then I want to play the scene that happens right after that, after
you've stuck her fingers down her throat to revive her...
Mr. CASSEL: Right.
GROSS: ...and kind of slapped her awake...
Mr. CASSEL: Make her throw up. Yeah.
GROSS: ...you're talking with her, and here's part of that scene.
(Beginning of soundbite from "Faces")
Mr. CASSEL: (As Chet) I like you. I caused you a lot of pain and a lot of
grief and I almost killed you. And I prayed, man. Oh, I prayed to God. I
said, `God, please dear God, don't let anything happen to her because I love
her so much and I'll do anything you say, God.' And man, I don't even believe
in him, you know? But, I mean, it doesn't matter. I--we protect ourselves.
You--someone--you talk ethics, and values, and honesty, and I'm a nice guy and
you're a nice guy, and this and that, you know? I mean it just doesn't
matter. Nobody cares. Nobody has the time to be vulnerable to each other.
So we just go on, you know? I mean, right away our armor comes out like a
shield and goes around us and we become like mechanical men. And I called you
a mechanical woman, huh? I got to do this. `I'm so mechanical. Honey, it's
absolutely ludicrous how mechanical a person can be. (Makes a noise like an
engine) I am the sexiest guy in the world. (Makes noise like an engine) I
have blonde hair. (Makes a noise like an engine) I can get all the women I
want. (Makes a noise like an engine)' You're waking up aren't you?
Ms. LYNN CARLIN: (As Maria Forst) Uh-huh.
(End of clip)
GROSS: Seymour Cassel in a scene from John Cassavetes' movie, "Faces."
Seymour Cassel, tell us a little bit about making that scene.
Mr. CASSEL: We were shooting it and John--as I say to her, the dialogue,
`You know, you think you're mechanical. Honey, I'm so mechanical. Look,' and
I smoke a cigarette mechanically. And John said to me, off camera, do the--do
a mechanical man. So I did that (makes a noise like an engine), you know,
kind of a `Look at this, honey.' And--but that's the relationship you have
with a director that knows you, that trusts you, and that you respect, and you
would try anything for him, because you know he won't let you look foolish.
GROSS: My guest is Seymour Cassel. He co-stars in the new film "Lonesome
Jim" and in the new NBC TV series, "Heist." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Seymour Cassel. He first became know for his roles in
films directed by his good friend, John Cassavetes--films like "Faces" and
"Minnie and Moskowitz."
There are so many, like, myths and legends about, you know, the--Cassavetes'
movies and the people who made them and their adventures together making
movies, and their adventures together off the set. The impression I always
get is that there's a lot of, like, partying and drinking that everybody
making the movies did together.
Mr. CASSEL: Well, in the '50s that's what people did. Dope wasn't
the--around--only up in Harlem could you get a nickel match box of marijuana,
you know? And who the hell is going to go up to Harlem alone, you know, at
night if you're a white guy in the '50s? But--so we drank and it was a
social--socially accepted. And people drank high balls and cocktails, and
every bar had a piano bar with a pianist who sang and, you know, and
entertained. And there was joints like Jilly's, that Sinatra hung out at and
made famous. And--but there was Five Spot and Basin Street and, you know,
Birdland and then, you know, 52nd Street. I mean, you could stand outside at
16 years old and hear Billy Holiday sing because they always had the door open
in the summer and in, you know, all those clubs.
GROSS: Did any of the partying and drinking interfere with the moviemaking?
Mr. CASSEL: No. No. If you got too drunk we--you know--we would wrap it.
I mean, we didn't drink that much when we worked. We would wait until
afterward. John had a basketball court built on his house on Woodrow Wilson.
And we'd finish shooting the older actors, Molly, you know and Dorothy
Gulliver and some would tire maybe around 3:30 in the morning, or 3, and we'd
go out there, put the lights on and, you know, take a couple of six packs of
beer and play basketball and the beat the hell out of each other. It didn't
bother nobody because Frank Zappa lived right next door and he had a recording
studio there, so who the hell were we bothering?
GROSS: John Cassavetes died in '89 of cirrhosis of the liver. What impact
did that have on you? Were you still close then?
Mr. CASSEL: That still has an impact on me. I think of him almost every
day. I mean, he was the older brother I never had and he was the closest male
friend that I ever had, and he was extremely influential in how--in creating
my career and guiding it. And by loving me as much as he does--or did, yeah,
that was the closest person in my life ever, because I never knew my father,
and my mother I only knew until I was about 12 and then I went back to live
with my godmother. So John became a really very close person in my life. And
we were like--he'd lost a brother, excuse me--very young, before I met him--of
a heart attack, and--misdiagnosed, and so to me was the older brother I never
had. And I don't know what I was to him, but I know he loved me and I love
him very much. I mean...
GROSS: Now, I understand that you gave up drinking after he died?
Mr. CASSEL: I did. Well, I did it just when I saw how bad he was I quit. I
quit everything. Just twenty some years ago.
GROSS: And you...
Mr. CASSEL: But...
GROSS: ...your comeback wasn't very long after that. Were the two connected?
Mr. CASSEL: Well, probably people were less fearful of me then because I was
crazy. I mean, people would have one foot in Dan Tana's in LA and one foot in
the--inside the door and one out. `What's Seymour going to do now? I've got
to see it, but I don't want to be here when he does it.'
GROSS: What were you doing?
Mr. CASSEL: I mean, I..
GROSS: What were you doing?
Mr. CASSEL: Anything I wanted. I was--you know when I would get a little
drunk I would just be funny, and stupid, and that's what people do when
they--they either get stupid and mean, they get funny and stupid. I chose to
be funny. Mean was not something I liked to be.
GROSS: So--so you gave up drinking, and that--that's when you started to make
your comeback. You said people were afraid to work with you before that.
Mr. CASSEL: I was unpredictable.
GROSS: And I think it was largely, like, independent filmmakers that you made
your comeback with. You know, your first film was "In the Soup," that
co-stars Steve Buscemi. Wes Anderson, for example, has cast you in three
Mr. CASSEL: "Rushmore."
GROSS: ..."The Royal Tenenbaums"...
Mr. CASSEL: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...and "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou." How did he first approach
Mr. CASSEL: He was at Sundance when we won. He had a short called the
"Bottle Rocket." And what impressed me most was his knowledge of film. And I
liked the script and I liked the part. And so after that, he insisted I be in
"The Royal Tenenbaums." I didn't want to do "Life Aquatic." I was doing
another movie. He said, `You got to be in this movie. You got to be.' And I
had to fly to Rome. And then he looks at me and he said, `Can we shave your
head?' And I said, `Wes, who the hell do you think you are? I'm shooting
another movie. I've already established my hair." He said, `Well, you could
wear a wig.' I said, `For Christ's sake, Wes, you're not the only filmmaker in
the world, you know? Why don't I wear a wig here?' He said, `Well, no the
character has to be bald.' I said, `Then do the skull cap.' And that was
miserable. It's two and a half to three hours to put that on.
GROSS: Your new movie, "Lonesome Jim," you play the father in a nuclear
family. Husband, wife, two sons. And I'm thinking that must be very exotic
to you in a way because you never really had that kind of nuclear family.
Well--I guess maybe you've had it as an adult--but you surely didn't have it
as a boy. Does the idea of, like, a real nuclear family seem somewhat exotic
Mr. CASSEL: Well, it--I thought being as crazy as I was and knowing that
very early I was my own source of entertainment--when I had my own family--and
I still do it with my grandchildren--I created craziness. My kids grew up
around--in LA, the Rolling Stones, you know, and Jimi Hendrix, and Cassavetes,
and all this, and their father was a bit crazy, but he loved them very much
because it was what I never had, and I was grateful to have it.
Playing a straight family and a guy like them--people suppress themselves, and
they get comfortable with a specific way of life, and they don't take chances
anymore. And I just knew from three, four, five, six years old that life is a
chance and everything that you do in it is. And, you know, I wasn't going to
climb up the side of a tenement until I was sure I could make it, you know,
and then we'd go up that brick that sticks out on the edge of 42nd Street on
those buildings, we'd go up to the roof. There were only about three of us
that could do that when I was, you know, eight. And a new kid would move in
and we'd--you know--`Hey, hey can you climb that? Come on try it.' He'd get
stuck a floor and a half up and we got to call the fire truck to come and
rescue him, you know. But I mean, that was kids here.
So I was always an adventurer, you know. And to play this character that I
played in "Lonesome Jim," to play Don, I met the guy and I met his wife, and
to play someone like that, it was tough for me to be that quiet, you know?
And I understood who he was, and it's just the safe way, and I've never done
GROSS: Well, Seymour Cassel, thank you so much.
Mr. CASSEL: Thank you.
GROSS: Seymour Cassel co-stars in the new film "Lonesome Jim" and the NBC TV
series, "Heist." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, why water is the defining crisis of the 21st century. We
talk with Fred Pearce, author of "When the Rivers Run Dry." And Ken Tucker
reviews Willie Nelson's new CD of songs by Cindy Walker. She died last week
at the age of 87.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Fred Pearce, author of "When the Rivers Run Dry,"
discusses water consumption by humans in the world
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR I'm Terry Gross. As a typical meat-eating, beer-swilling,
milk-guzzler Westerner, my guest Fred Pearce figures he consumes as much as
100 times his own weight in water every day. No, he doesn't drink or shower
that much. He's counting the amount of water it takes for the crops and the
cattle that feed him. When you look at water this way, you can see why Pearce
thinks that water is the defining crisis of the 21st century. In his new
book, "When the Rivers Run Dry," Pearce writes about the environmental and
political issues surrounding water. He's been writing about water issues for
over 20 years. He's a former editor at New Scientist and is currently its
environment and development consultant.
Now you measure water not just in terms of the water we drink and cook with
and bathe with, you measure it in terms of the water we use to grow crops and
feed the animals that are slaughtered for meat. The amount of water we use
when we look at it that way is really startling. Would you give us some
Mr. FRED PEARCE (Author, "When the Rivers Run Dry"): It's scary. We always
think about maybe how we waste water when we flush the toilet or run a tap or
so on. But really, it's--the amount of water we use in our homes is very
small compared to the amount of water that we need to get through our lives.
Most of that water--and this is true really around the world--is used for
growing crops, is used for irrigating crops, for formal irrigation systems or
however it's done. So far instance, the pound of rice you buy in the shop,
now that's--typically uses 500 gallons of water to grow that rice; wheat for
bread or whatever purpose, 100 gallons, 130 gallons, something of that sort;
milk, 500 gallons to produce a gallon of milk. Now that's....
GROSS: So this is 500 gallons to feed the grain for the cow that produced the
Mr. PEARCE: This is--yeah--we're getting into complications when you're
dealing with animals. But basically this is the water needed to grow the
crops to feed to the animals to provide whether it's meat or milk or cheese or
whatever it is we're producing. And do you know that for that pound of coffee
requires 10 tons of water to grow. To me--and I didn't come across these
numbers till a couple of years ago when I started researching this book--these
are quite staggering numbers. I had no idea that we used so much water.
GROSS: So a lot of the water that's used for crops is, of course, rain water.
But a lot of the water used for crops is not rain water. It's--go ahead.
Mr. PEARCE: That's right. I mean the rain water, of course, if it's used
for crops doesn't necessarily get into rivers. So however it's collected it
can have effects. But it is certainly true that the biggest effects are
caused when you have to dam rivers or pump water from underground in order to
supply water for formal irrigation schemes to keep crops growing. So in the
arid lands of the world, that's where you most need to irrigate. So that's
where the pressures are so great. We're simply emptying rivers in order to
feed ourselves. Well, irrigation is one of those hugely inefficient
technologies. We're used to having a lot of water around, and traditionally
farmers would simply flood their fields to irrigate crops. These days we
generally--or in many places--are a little more sophisticated. We use spray
irrigation very often. But even so, huge amounts of water are wasted.
Usually it's evaporated. Sometimes it percolates under ground. Now,
sometimes you can pump that up again. It's expensive to pump it, but you can
GROSS: When--when water is diverted from a river for irrigation is there any
way of preventing a lot of it from being lost to evaporation?
Mr. PEARCE: It's a little hard. If you put it in a pipe it won't evaporate,
that's for sure, but that's quite expensive. The most modern, sophisticated
irrigation systems are pretty good. Their drip irrigation systems, say would
tend to port water in a pipe rather than in a canal so that you don't have the
evaporation from the surface of the canal. And then once it gets to the
fields you don't want to have it sitting around at the surface of the field on
top of the soil in the middle of the day when the sun's at its hottest. So
it's a good idea to deliver the water directly to the roots. Now that's where
you want the water. You don't want the water flooding the field, you don't
want it waterlogging the soil. You actually want to deliver water to the
roots of the crops.
The Israelis are very good at it, the Jordanians are getting quite good at it.
Some other countries have taken the lead in this. I have to say, I don't
think the US is the leader in this certainly across most of the country. But
countries are beginning to realize you have to be rather smarter about how you
use water. Otherwise you run out, and then you have crop loses, crop
failures, and so on. It becomes a serious economic matter.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Fred Pearce. He's the author
of the new book "When the Rivers Run Dry." It's about water and the crisis of
Obviously desert countries have unique problems when it comes to water. Some
deserts have terrific underground supplies of water. Would you just briefly
describe how underground aquifers end up in desert areas?
Mr. PEARCE: It's one of the strange features of the hydrology of the world
that some of the biggest underground reserves of water are in some of the
driest regions. The two biggest underground reserves, indeed, are under the
Sahara desert in North Africa and under the Arabian desert, too, the driest
places of the world. This is really simply because climates changed. Until
about 6,000 years ago, the Sahara region was really quite wet. There were
huge rivers and wadis and, you know, where there is now sand dunes there were
crocodiles. So it was a wet area, and large amounts of that water percolated
down through the soils into big sandstone areas underneath. Now, sandstone is
quite porous and it can hold a lot of water, and that water is still there.
In the last couple of decades the Libyans in particular have been pumping
large amounts of water out to irrigate crops. The Saudis have been doing much
the same thing. So this is a major resource. It's--can be quite expensive to
pump to the surface because much of it is quite a long way down. And it is a
finite resource. There's only so much water there, and the more you pump out
it tends to get saltier and various chemical problems can emerge. But it's a
But of course, it's a fossil resource. It's not being replaced. In some
parts of the world, if you pump the water out more rain will replace it.
Those kind of places it's not replaced. One you've used it, it's gone.
You're mining water.
GROSS: So in that sense, it's a lot like oil.
Mr. PEARCE: Very much like oil. I was talking earlier about how we have a
water cycle in which water rains to the ground, and flows down rivers and goes
out to the sea and gets--evaporates and goes back into the sky and comes back
as rain. A detour of that can be if the water goes underground. But much of
that underground water comes to the surface in springs and forms rivers, or we
pump it to the surface and use it for irrigation. But there are large of
reserves of water which have simply gone down there sometimes thousands of
years ago and simply stayed there.
GROSS: And Libya is creating what's been described as a "man-made river."
What are they doing with these underground water supplies?
Mr. PEARCE: They are pumping it to the surface, and they have huge network
around of large pipes--pipes big enough to drive a truck through--which bring
the water from the desert--the water is quite deep in the desert--by which I
mean, you know, a couple thousand kilometers you drive into the desert before
you find the big water well fields. So they've built well fields, pumped the
water to the surface, pour it into these pipes and take it to the coastal
regions where their farmers desperate for water because they've used up their
own underground reserves. It's a very large scheme. It's cost tens of
billions of dollars. Much of it designed by US and UK companies...
GROSS: Including Halliburton?
Mr. PEARCE: Halliburton was certainly deeply involved in it, yes. And
Korean manufacturers built the pipes. So it's a big international effort
which has rather quietly been going on over the last 30 years through, you
know, all sorts of political conditions.
GROSS: So basically Libya is using a lot of its oil revenues to get water.
Mr. PEARCE: Yeah. Qaddafi decided to invest a great deal of his oil
revenues in delivering water to the surface. His idea was he would be using
this short-term flux of money from the oil to provide a long-term future for
his people. Many people think it won't work out that way because the costs
are really very high. It's kind of fantasy economics, and maybe that worked
while you were a closed socialist state that set your own prices for things,
but now Libya is moving into the international market. It's not so clear
whether this will carry on. I think the Libyans may well find that it'll be
cheaper to import their water in the form of crops, if you like. So they'll
buy the crops rather than pumping up the water to grow their own crops. And
that might economically in a free market make more sense. But certainly it's,
in engineering terms, a quite extraordinary enterprise.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest in journalist Fred Pearce. We're
talking about his new book "When the Rivers Run Dry: Water, the Defining
Crisis of the 21st Century."
One option for desert countries that are near oceans is desalination. How
effective and environmentally safe is desalination?
Mr. PEARCE: The main problem with desalination is it's expensive. It uses a
lot of energy. Now there are two ways of doing it. You can either distill
water, which is essentially putting all the water in a kettle and boiling it
up and taking the water vapor that comes out and taking that back into water
and delivering that to your customers. Or you can use a process called
reverse osmosis, which is essentially filtering. You blast the water through
filters which take out the salt so you're left with fresh water. Either
system uses a lot of energy and therefore the water costs--though they're
coming down--are still very high. This system has been mainly used in the
Gulf states and in Saudi Arabia where it's been--where they've had plenty of
oil supplies cheaply available locally so they can cope with the energy costs.
As prices come down, other places are coming in--one--Perth in Australia, Cape
Town in South Africa, one or two cities in--Santa Cruz, I think, in California
has been looking at this and building these salination plants. So it is
beginning to become more mainstream, and perhaps 2, 3 percent of all the water
that we use for drinking purposes around the world now comes form
desalination. It's still too expensive for irrigation or for agricultural,
but if you're short of water for drinking then it's a reasonable option.
GROSS: My guest is Fred Pearce. His new book is called "When the Rivers Run
Dry." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Fred Pearce. His
new book is called "When the Rivers Run Dry: Water, the Defining Crisis of
the 21st Century." Now in the United States we have a lot of old development
in arid areas like Los Angeles, and newer development in arid areas like
Phoenix. You looked at Phoenix for your book.
Mr. PEARCE: Yeah.
GROSS: What do you see there in terms of the water future?
Mr. PEARCE: It's a kind of crazy water city in the middle of the desert.
What strikes you about Phoenix--and I would think it is probably true of LA as
well--is the way that water is kind of a status symbol. You have fountains
and you irrigate all your parks through the day. You flaunt your water.
You--everybody wants a swimming pool. Now that's kind of understandable.
It's a great--a swimming pool's a great thing to have if you're sweltering in
the desert. But there's a kind of flaunting of water that goes on there which
is, given how little water there is, is crazy.
So, both LA and--or both Southern California and Phoenix rely a lot on water
piped in and brought in by canal from the River Colorado. The River Colorado
is classically a river that is running dry. So there are serious limits here,
particularly in the last few years when the flow in the Colorado seems to be
reducing. Maybe that's due to climate change, maybe not. And maybe it's a
long-term, maybe it is a short-term phenomenon, but it begins to look a bit
long-term. And that is a serious problem which the various states that use
the water from the River Colorado are going to have to resolve between them.
And that may mean cities like Phoenix, which are quite a long way from the
river, and--are going to have to think carefully about whether they can carry
on relying on water from the Colorado. And if they are not, then where else
are they going to get their water from? There is water underground there, but
it's quite limited. There are efforts to conserve water more in Phoenix and
its suburbs than a few years ago. But even so, these are some of the biggest
water users in the US, which is one of the biggest water users on the planet.
And they're city in the middle of a desert,and there really are some limits.
GROSS: Let's talk about one of the big victories in water conservation, and
that happens in our bathrooms with our flush toilets. You say we used to use
3.4 gallons to flush a toilet and now we're using 1.6. So that's pretty darn
good. How did we do it?
Mr. PEARCE: I'm not an American so I don't know exactly how you did it. I'm
impressed, though, because over in Europe we have a sense of Americans that,
you know, you'll just use all your resources and you let rip and you don't
care and you don't have any controls and it's all a little--a little bit too
much of a free market for the tastes of some Europeans. And yet, in the US
you've made much more progress in simple techniques from saving water from
your flush toilet than we have in Europe.
I think you just had some civic authorities who set some new rules about what
a proper design of a toilet flush system should be, and they have been
adopted. I was in Canada about a year ago, and it turns out that they haven't
followed the same rules that you have. So old US flush toilets that are no
longer legal in the US, there's a now kind of black market in them going over
to Canada, and the Canadians have suddenly woken up to the fact that as a
result, they are now bigger per capita water-users than the US. But
you've--in the last 20 years you've swapped places in the US. Per capita use
of the water in the home has really not changed at all, whereas in Canada it's
soared. A simple matter of a few basic laws and regulations have changed
that. So, you've done pretty well.
GROSS: Do you think we have zestier flushes to compensate for the lesser
amounts of water?
Mr. PEARCE: I--well, maybe you do. I think it's just a matter of design.
It's a complex design of the pipes and the flush mechanism, which means that
you can get away with using less water and still have an effective flush.
Because there's nothing what you--more that you don't want than an ineffective
flush. But you seemed to have managed it. I think probably it's just basic
good design and sensible regulations.
GROSS: You know, so many people in the United States certainly drink bottled
water. I always wonder what effect that's having on water ecology around the
world. And what's happening to all the springs that we're drinking when we
drink the spring water?
Mr. PEARCE: I think probably most of the springs do manage to keep going
because they're pretty productive to start with. But it is--it's a crazy way
to buy water for starters. It costs so much compared to what you get out of
the tap. Now, if the tap water is unsafe, that's one thing, but if the tap
water is safe and you still drink bottled water, I think that's just plain
GROSS: Wait, wait. Let me stop you. You might now understand that sometimes
the tap water is safe, it just doesn't taste very good.
Mr. PEARCE: Yeah. Well, if you--yeah, if you have rather inefficient and
poor chlorination systems for disinfecting the water than yeah, sure that can
affect the taste. The answer, I think is a more effective disinfection system
so that you don't communally have those kind of problems.
In environmental terms I think the damage is not so much that you're
destroying local water supplies--though I'd guess locally that that can
happen--so much as the amount of energy that you use carting this water around
in trucks around the world. So you probably are not destroying the rivers so
much as destroying the climate by all these greenhouse gases. It's a crazy
way to operate, but you know, we live in a crazy world.
GROSS: You've pointed out how much water we use in irrigating crops in arid
lands, and also in growing the grain that is used to, say, feed the cattle
that we eat for steak and hamburgers. So are things out of proportion in a
way that we can change? I mean, do you think that we should stop growing rice
in arid countries? Should we stop growing cotton in arid countries?
Mr. PEARCE: I think we have to think about how we breed our crops. Over--I
don't know, I remember 30 years ago when I was pretty young, but I remember
huge stories about how the world wasn't going to be able to feed itself any
more and thousands of--millions of people were going to starve for want of
water to grow or want of crops, want of food. Great crisis 30 years ago.
Well, scientists came up with a new generation of crops, what they call the
green revolution of crops, which were high-yielding varieties of rice and
wheat and barley and so on.
Well, we fed the people, but those crops turned out to be huge users of water.
Compared to 30 years ago we grow twice as much food as we did then, feeding a
population of the world twice as large, but we use three times as much water
to do it. So those new super crops, the high-yielding, green revolution
crops, were highly productive measured on the amount of land--so you get more
tonnage per acre of land--but you got less tonnage off them for the amount of
water you used. So the next revolution I think has got to be not a green
revolution, but a blue revolution in which we start engineering crops,
breeding crops, which will be efficient in their use of water as well. We can
solve a lot of problems if we do that.
GROSS: Well, Fred Pearce, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. PEARCE: Thank you.
GROSS: Fred Pearce is the author of the new book "When the Rivers Run Dry."
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new CD on which Willie Nelson pays tribute to
country song writer Cindy Walker. She died last week at the age of 87. This
is FRESH AIR.
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Review: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Willie Nelson's "You Don't
Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Willie Nelson's new album is a collection of songs written by Country Music
Hall of Famer, Cindy Walker. She died last Thursday at the age of 87. Walker
had her first hit when Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys recorded her song
"Dusty Skies." She wrote it when she was 12. Singers as various as Bing
Crosby, Roy Orbison, and Webb Pierce sang Cindy Walker hits. Rock critic Ken
Tucker says, "Nelson's tribute album is a testament to Walker's unique range,
concision, and wit." It's called "You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy
Mr. WILLIE NELSON: (singing) "Oh, it's all your fault if I'm not sleeping.
I live on dreams instead of eating. And I'm just a wreck. Yeah, it's all
your fault. Oh, it's all your fault if I'm not playing and having fun. And
if I'm staying all by myself, well, it's all your fault. And when you
KEN TUCKER reporting:
That tone and attitude--playful, teasing, yet with an undercurrent of
melancholy and yearning--is what distinguishes so many of Cindy Walker's
songs, and is perfectly captured by Willie Nelson on this near-perfect album.
The song I just played, "It's All Your Fault," written in 1942, sports a
jaunty little melody that bounces right along. But if you read the lyric
without music you'd think you were just hearing a suicide note. Quote, "It's
all your fault if I'm not sleeping. I live on dreams instead of eating. I'm
just a wreck and it's all you fault."
The contrast between form and content gives the song a buoyant power. And
Nelson's vocal is pitched just right. He sings it almost straight, with the
slightest smile in his tone, which nicely sets up the impeccable little joke
in the bridge. Again I quote, "It's all you fault when I'm a grandpa if my
grandkids don't call you grandma." The meter there is so tight it makes you
want to hoot with delight. What a marvelous way to say to a girl, `You'll be
sorry if you don't marry me.' Is it any wonder that Cindy Walker was a born
Mr. NELSON: (singing) "Take me in your arms and hold me like I've been
holding you in my heart. Take me in your arms and tell me that you miss me
since we've been apart. You just"...
TUCKER: That to me is another perfect song, but for reasons not usually
associated with perfection. The title phrase is so piercingly poetic,
conversational, and just a tad undramatical. Quote, "Take me in your arms and
hold me like I've been holding you in my heart." The crucial verse is four
lines with one off-rhyme. "You just don't know how heart sick and lonesome
I've been, or how much I've prayed that you'll come back again."
The song is very bare bones. Willie Nelson has to sing the same verse twice
at the end to make it last three minutes. Yet as a composition and a
performance, it's a killer.
One of Cindy Walker's other gifts is that she could turn out novelty songs
that had a brisk energy and were fun to sing. Old timers Red Foley and Ernest
Tubb had a good time making a hit out of "Don't be Ashamed of Your Age,"
written in 1947. And Willie Nelson, now in his 70s, sounds like he is having
a gas with it, too.
Mr. NELSON: (Singing) "Don't be ashamed of your age. Don't let the years
get you down. That old gang you knew, they'd still think of you as a rounder
in your old home town. Don't mind the gray in your hair. Just think of all
the fun you had putting it there. And as for that old book of time, boy, you
never skipped a page, so don't be ashamed of your age. Brother, don't be
ashamed of your age."
TUCKER: Cindy Walker managed to find the nexus between country honky-tonk and
Hollywood movie and show tunes. Many of her songs would sound just as good
coming out of the mouth of Bugs Bunny as they would from Bob Wills and His
Texas Playboys, who cut this one.
Mr. NELSON: (Singing) "When it's sugarcane time all around about June, I'll
be walking with Sugar, neath that old sugar moon. Gonna drop her a line to
expect me soon. Say, `I'm craving some sugar 'neath that old sugar moon.' I
can see her right now, she'll get the calendar down, scratch a circle around
the day we're altar-bound. When it's sugar cane time, 'long around about
June, wedding bells will be chiming 'neath that old sugar moon.'
TUCKER: Willie Nelson wanted to make this album because he'd been familiar
with Walker's music since he was a teenager. He and Walker were each born in
small Texas towns, and his fondness for different genres probably combined to
make him feel that Walker was a kindred spirit. I could listen to Nelson
singing Walker, especially heartbreakers like "Take Me in Your Arms and Hold
Me" and "I Don't Care," forever. And I probably will.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
Willie Nelson's new album "You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker."
Walker died last Thursday at the age of 87.
Mr. NELSON: (Singing) "You give your hand to me and then you say hello, and
I can hardly speak my heart is beating so. And anyone could tell you think
you know me well, but you don't know me. No you don't know the one who dreams
of you at night and longs to kiss your lips and longs to hold you tight. To
you I'm just a friend, that's all I've ever been, but you don't know me. For
I never knew the art of making love, though my heart ached with love for you."
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Sign-off: Fresh Air
TERRY GROSS, host:
On the next FRESH AIR, Angela Nissel on writing humor about race for the TV
series "Scrubs." Her new memoir is about being the child of a black mother and
white father. Also, Fred Barnes on his new book "Rebel-in-Chief" about the
I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
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.