The Odd Interview 5: Norman Lear’s Victory Lap

PThe fifth installment of The Odd Interview features an expanded, lightly edited version of an interview that originally appeared in the Late Fall 2015 issue of Austin Way magazine. I’ll assume Norman Lear doesn’t need much of an introduction to you (otherwise, why would you be reading this?). I talked with the legendary writer/producer (who immediately told me, “Call me Norman”) over the phone on July 8, 2015, less than three weeks before his 93rd birthday.

But before we get to the Q&A itself, let’s jump ahead to October, when Lear came to Austin to receive an award for Outstanding Television Writer at the Austin Film Festival, which was the reason I got to talk with him in the first place.

From all accounts, because of thunderstorms in Texas, Lear and several family members traveling with him from the West Coast had to spend about 12 hours in the Chicago airport before getting in to town, but he wouldn’t hear of turning back. This is a determined guy. Instead of being deep in retirement, he published his autobiography, Even This I Get To Experience, last year (read it: you’ll be glad you did) and since then has been on a sort of victory-lap tour around the US, going from interview to interview, award to award, recounting his life, dispensing political advice, and regaling audience after audience with engaging anecdotes about everything from participating in over 50 bombing raids during World War II to discussing the first interracial marriage in sitcom land with Roxie Roker when casting “The Jeffersons.”

Sitting onstage in a director’s chair at the Austin Film Festival with the moderator, Phil Rosenthal, the ebullient creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and a pal of his, Norman (go ahead, call him Norman) comes across like a twinkly, elfin wise man, an elderly kid, casually dressed in jeans, a sweater and, of course, that hat. When he momentarily loses the thread of a story, Phil interjects, “This is 93 showing!”

If there’s an elephant that’s housed in this room, filled with appreciative people who grew up watching his shows, it’s that Lear hasn’t had a sitcom on the air in over 20 years (the short-lived “704 Hauser” in 2004) and it’s been 30 — a whole generation, plus some — since his last real hit, “The Jeffersons,” went off the air. Seven years short of a century, he still roams the land (Lear out on the blasted heath of film festivals?), pitching a pilot for a sitcom set in a retirement village, titled “Guess Who Died.” There will be a live staged version of it later that afternoon at a local theater. The script has made all the rounds; the lords of TV, network, cable and otherwise, still wedded to the 18-to-49 demographic, don’t want to touch it. Back in 1994, he tells the crowd, he did a TV pilot starring Peter O’Toole (who was in his early 60s at the time) and nobody was interested in picking it up.

Lear explains: ” ‘Well,’ they say, ‘we already have Betty White. I love Betty White, but she does not a demographic make. It must be that the people in charge don’t want to be seen as old.”

I can’t help thinking of Orson Welles, who couldn’t get a major movie deal greenlighted for decades before he died — although unlike Welles, Lear not only has a much better sense of humor, including the oft-underrated virtue of laughing at oneself, and also unlike Welles, Lear has a track record of much success and profitability in his past work. 

Of course, you might ask, isn’t having created “All in the Family”, “Maude”, “Sanford and Son”, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”, “One Day At A Time” and all the rest enough? Of course it is, but if even Norman Lear, for all the well-deserved accolades and awards he collects these days, as he goes from podium to podium, interview to interview, talking about how he changed the face of television forever, acknowledging his influence and keeping in contact with great numbers of entertainment-industry movers and shakers, can’t get a series on the air anymore, what does that say?

With that, on to our interview.

Norman Lear in Los Angeles, CA on Tuesday, May 15, 2012 (Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)
Norman Lear in Los Angeles, CA on Tuesday, May 15, 2012
(Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

Q: The title of your book, ‘Even This I Get To Experience,’ I take this to mean that even when you go through experiences that most people think of as bad, like business failures or political defeats, you find some value in them in that you at least get to have firsthand knowledge of something you hadn’t previously. Or in other words, everything is raw material – which to me is a way of thinking that seems to be specific to writers.

Norman Lear: That’s interesting. I’ve always felt that way. Even if, you know, the surprise of the amount of…the surprise of the amount of surprises (laughs). I didn’t expect this. But, even this I get to experience. This phone call is a good example, y’know. Even this; I’m talking to Austin, I’m going to be in Austin, I’m looking forward to Austin.

You’re being honored with the Outstanding Television Writer Award at the Austin Film Festival –

Yeah, I love that! Even this I get to experience.

Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, as you know, television was generally considered an inferior art form compared to movies – now, not so much. I know you’ve produced and/or written over a dozen movies, but do you have any regrets about not making more of them, and focusing on television?

You know, that’s a subject in itself, regret. I don’t do too well with regrets. This is the moment, and I have no regrets, no. The way I feel, I remember saying – we [Lear and his wife Lyn] have our anniversary, 27 years, coming up – no, 28 years, and I remember saying at that anniversary, we had three daughters sitting there from an earlier marriage.

I bless everything that led to this moment. Every split second, every brawl and every boo-hoo, because it took them all to get me here. Then I look at my daughters, who are thinking, ‘Wait a minute, he’s marrying somebody…about the same age as my oldest daughter, and we had never met before,’ they were thinking, because it was all new. But that’s exactly the way I felt: that I had to go through everything I went through to get to that moment, and so, bless ‘em all, every one of them, for those moments.

It seems to be an attitude that celebrates diversity.

Well, yeah.

I have to connect that with your TV shows, which really focused on diversity before it was cool – blue-collar working-class families, African-Americans, single mothers, gay people – why was it important to you, at a time when that was not really done, to portray characters who were something other than the typical white suburban Brady Bunch and Cleaver-type families you saw on TV in the ‘50s and ‘60s?

Well, my experience growing up suggested that everything we ever did on television, all of those topics, whether arguing politics, or the Vietnam War, or menopause, or – there wasn’t anything that I didn’t hear growing up, so, y’know, I thought we were reflecting what everybody lives through.

Right. Although it wasn’t on television until you set about changing that.

Yeah, I can’t truly say I knew that at the time. It wasn’t like – I was working in television, it was very new, and – I’m talking about 1950, it was very new. By 1970 it was still new, but it was out of its infancy.

If there’s a thread that runs through all those shows, ‘All in the Family,’ ‘Good Times,’ ‘The Jeffersons,’ ‘One Day At a Time,’ it’s that they all tried to address various social issues while also being entertaining. I’m guessing you don’t subscribe to that old quote, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.”

God knows, I had my share of that.

 What do you think is the right balance of comedy to seriousness in a sitcom, or, to put it another way, how do you wrap messages in a candy shell for easier viewer digestion?

 I didn’t think we were sending messages. I realized some years in, when I heard for the umpteenth time ‘There’s Western Union,’ that, wait a minute, I’m fifty-whatever I was years old I was at that time; I have a point of view; we are dealing with social problems, I am expressing a point of view about it, I’m trying to express all the points of view, because that’s where the comedy comes from, the conflict. But I’m favoring what I think is the way things want to be, so I finally accepted, ‘Well, wait a minute, isn’t that what they were doing before me, when the largest problem a family (on a sitcom) might have faced is the roast is ruined and the boss is coming to dinner.’ Twenty-four, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling of that would suggest well, no problems in America, no Vietnam, no menopause, no abortion, no economic problems, life is just sweet.

I’ve looked at a few right-wing blogs to get their opinion of you, and their main criticism seems to be that you set up characters like Archie Bunker, and Conrad Bain’s character, Arthur on ‘Maude,’ as straw men to be knocked down by the liberal arguments of Mike Stivic, or Maude, or whoever. Their point being that in real life, they think that those characters would have had more compelling arguments for their point of view.

 Well, I’d like to know what they are! I’m not hearing them now (laughs). I don’t hear strong points of view. I hear strong points of view against; I don’t hear strong points of view pro: ‘This is what I’m going to do, this is the map.’ I just hear ‘Everything is wrong on the other side.’

Of course, it’s been an interesting couple of months in America. You’re credited with introducing the first sympathetic gay character on TV, Archie Bunker’s friend Steve, early on in the show’s run, and only 44 years later, here we are with nationwide marriage equality. Barack Obama is president, Hillary Clinton might be next, Bernie Sanders is drawing crowds, there’s more of an appreciation for diversity and women’s rights – these are all triumphs for liberal values –

 While there are triumphs, as you put it, for liberal values, I think they were significantly aided by the mistakes George (W.) Bush made. We’ve only recently come to terms [that] it was not only a serious mistake to go into Iraq, it followed a series of other lies. We don’t accept that, we Americans, easily; we don’t swallow that and say ‘he lied.’ But we’re getting the idea that we were lied into this. We’re accepting it without spelling it out, like swallowing a bitter pill, you know. So while it’s a triumph of liberal values, it’s as a result of serious mistakes in the other direction.

And of course we’re also still dealing with massive amounts of racial tension, riots, gun violence, a totally polarized political system – with all the change you’ve seen in your lifetime, what do you make of what’s going on now, and do you get discouraged by all the one-step-forward, two-steps-back craziness? Is it better or worse than it was in the ‘70s?

 Because it’s now, and we’re living in the moment, it seems worse. I can’t be certain that I’m correct about that, but we’re living with it now. We’re not reading about it historically, we’re living it, and it’s worse.

Because we don’t have the benefit of rose-colored glasses, of looking back through a filter at the past.

Right. I’m not the least (bit) apocalyptic, by the way. I don’t want to wake up in the morning without hope. We’re going to save our asses somehow, but it’s going to require saving our asses.

I wanted to talk about “Mary Hartman” a bit because I was in high school when it premiered and I remember vividly how much it affected me; I watched it every night –

Oh, I love that…

I guess I was a good age to start watching it, because it immediately seemed to me that something had shifted in the cultural wind, and that it was a new animal. It was the first instance I know of postmodern satire in the mass media; it was kind of a view of the world that I later saw in David Letterman, Jon Stewart, “Saturday Night Live,” God knows how many later sitcoms. Would you agree with that, or do you think I’m totally off-base?

 No, I don’t think you’re totally off-base at all. The single idea behind Mary Hartman was, what is this amount of media doing to an average American woman? In those years there was a lot of talk about women saw more television because it was on during the day and they were home during the day, it was before feminism, y’know, and women were more or less content to be at home. It began in those years. And so, from the very first show, when she was looking at some waxy yellow buildup on the floor and Loretta came running in to talk about “around the corner from them, a family of five and their eight goats and several chickens were slaughtered.” And Mary, “Who would want to kill goats and chickens,’ she said, as her mind is on the can she has that guarantees there will be no waxy yellow buildup. She was already a product of the media: ‘Wait a minute, it can’t be, the can says…” She believed it. She believed the advertising. Well, in the last episode, or near to the last episode, she went crazy on the David Susskind Show, literally. Lost her mind on the David Susskind Show under the questioning of a handful (of) talking heads, who were psychologists, and they drove her out of her fuckin’ mind. And it was one of the best pieces of acting I can remember.

I remember that to this day; I thought it was one of the greatest single episodes of television I’ve ever seen.

Yeah, I thought so too, by the way, and it was one take. That whole thing was a single take.

I know there’s been some noise about doing a reboot or remake of “All in the Family.” I wonder how a remake of “Mary Hartman” would do today in the age of social media and political correctness.

 It’s funny, you don’t have to remake it, you can rerun it (laughs). I don’t know why it hasn’t been rerun. It looks great. It seems to me the problems we dealt with are the problems we have today. I guess, well, and the timing is altogether the same. She was unusual then, she’d be unusual today.

It must be very gratifying to know you’ve had a lot to do with nurturing along the maturity of television as a medium. What do you think of the state of TV today, in the age of Netflix and cable, “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Orange is the New Black,” the last of which (which I’m a big fan of) seems close, in some ways, to your vision of TV as a little engine for social commentary and showing diversity and minority cultures that don’t often get represented. What current shows are you watching?

I think it’s the Golden Age. I can’t keep up with the amount of shows that people tell me (to watch): “Norman, you’re not watching — you must watch…” and then I watch it and it’s everything they said it was, but I don’t know where everybody is finding the time to see it all. Streaming, the way Netflix and Amazon and so forth are doing it, I’ll take it – let me have 13 – because they believe in the idea and in the creative individual they’re dealing with. It’s the golden age. I just can’t see enough. I watched all the early episodes of “Transparent,” for example. And “Orange is the New Black,” I saw the first season. By the time the second season came around, a dozen friends had said, “What, you’re not watching ‘Empire’? You’re not watching ‘Boardwalk’? You’re not watching..” Titles I can’t even think of, that I never got to see any of, but I respect so much the people who said ‘Are you kidding, you gotta be watching.’ It’s just, here’s what – think about this. I think our most important product is excess. We export excess in everything we’re doing, whether it’s the pharmaceutical industry promising everything in the world, product after product, or lying ourselves into Iraq, or lying to ourselves with flag pins about how well we care for our men and women in the service and then treat them so badly when they come home; so poorly, I should say. We are a nation of glorious excess.

It’s like, going back to “Mary Hartman,” it’s the public relations, promotions vs. the reality or the dream vs. the reality, I guess, that produces all the conflict.

Right. I realized as you just said that, I made a film a lot of years ago called “Cold Turkey.” And that was also about the same thing, what happens when a town is threatening to catch all the attention in the country because the smokers have stopped smoking for 30 days, and the media, winding up with Nixon coming at the very end, and winding up the movie with the little town is so saved that it’s got smokestacks that are choking it to death.

Right. And that’s what they wind up with as the prize.

Yeah, they wind up being a real city with real companies (laughs). Emitting foul…

That’s satire. That’s one of your lesser-known movies, but I’d like to watch it again now.

I watched it about four or five months ago. “American Masters” is doing a documentary about me, and I looked at it so that I could talk about it, and I couldn’t believe how prescient it was in that sense.

To switch gears, you’re a card-carrying member of what Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation,” along with millions of people, but you don’t worship the military and you don’t view everything with rose-colored glasses. How did serving in the Army Air Corps, quite actively, change your view of the military and soldiers in general?

One of my great heroes is Dwight David Eisenhower. He was the general that won, led the troops, led us, I was among the troops, led the direction we took that won the war. Then he became a two-term president, from whom we begot the National Highway System. And he did not listen to a lot of his military advice that would have put us into a half dozen foreign situations, sending troops and so forth. Then he leaves the presidency and in his farewell address, warns us about what is choking us to death right now, which was the military-industrial complex. In his first draft – he cut the word before he went on the air, but in his first draft it was the “military-industrial-Congressional complex.” And as I view the country today, that complex has got us by the throat right now, the military-industrial complex.

Some people might be surprised, who call you a Hollywood liberal, to hear that Eisenhower is a hero of yours, but of course he’s never referred to at all by today’s Republicans, is he?

He’s not referred to, period. You do not hear his name ever mentioned. And by the way, I’m the “Hollywood liberal” who did a show called “I Love Liberty” that was co-chaired by Gerald Ford and Lady Bird Johnson. On the air you saw Barry Goldwater and Jane Fonda in that show, and John Wayne. You know, I had a relationship, I had a long correspondence with President Reagan; the Wall Street Journal printed pieces of a dozen letters we exchanged. I don’t know if I was the only liberal, but Mrs. Reagan invited me to the funeral, I flew up there with her; so, that’s my America.

It’s sort of a civility that’s gone missing from a lot of political discourse these days.

Oh, totally, totally, totally.

I read your remarks at the Take Back America conference in 2008 about being a “born again American” and refusing to cede talk about God and religion to the religious right, which was very eloquent. Do you think that things have gotten better or worse in that department since then?

Well, I think, in a subtle but important way, worse, because the Tea Party reflects a great deal of that. They don’t talk about it as openly as they used to, and money pours into those places, y’know, and money in politics is just one of the great problems of our time, as a result of Citizens United.

But, as you said, you’re not apocalyptic and there is some hope.

Oh, yes. I think when we save the world, then we will. The door will have been kicked open by the arts, by all the things, music and theater and laughter. All the arts that bring us together. And the politicians and the politics and so forth will follow.

That’s very eloquent. I wanted to ask you maybe one or two more questions. As a kid, I remember watching “All in the Family” with my family in my living room and my father – he was not Archie Bunker, but identified with him to some extent, they were working men in Queens – he was sort of confused by why Archie always seemed to get the short end of the stick and ended up getting ridiculed for his beliefs. I was just fascinated. It seemed to me like a TV show as a social studies class, designed to provoke arguments among the viewers at home. I’m certainly not the first guy to note that TV viewers like to root for an antihero, whether it’s Archie Bunker or Tony Soprano. Did the widespread sympathy for Archie surprise you at the time?

 Did it surprise me at the time? I don’t remember – I don’t think so. I mean, what was interesting about that was that all the letters that came, after a while I really watched it to see if this would be true – every letter that ever said “right on, Archie,” and there were a ton of those, never failed to say something about “but you’re making a fool of a good (man)” – that was Nixon who said we were “making a fool of a good man.” The White House tapes revealed him talking about “All in the Family” – he didn’t know the title, but he knew that guy, and he knew the one you referred to, when the gay guy makes his point when they’re arm wrestling, and he (Nixon) talks about that to Haldeman. That tape is a true badge of honor (laughs).

Along with being named to his enemies list, I imagine.

Yes. That might have been what got me there.

I admire you for sticking with the concept of “All in the Family” for several years and making a couple of pilots first, until everything seemed to gel. I think it’s that way in any kind of new thing that’s really never been done before; I guess it has to be actually done before people realize that this could be a success, and watch it.

Always. So true, so true.

_________________________________________________________________________

After the panel, Norman Lear graciously sticks around for photos and handshakes with the fans even as the festival staff do their best to shoo everyone out of the room so the next event can get underway. In person he looks his age, and his eyes are milky blue, and you sense he’s probably tired from the hour and a quarter conversational performance. Accompanied by family members, he descends to the hotel lobby. Wherever he goes, it seems, he is accompanied by a great deal of hugs and affection.

“You made my life better, Norman Lear!” Phil Rosenthal exclaimed at the end of the interview, and the crowd rises as one to applaud him. Even this, he gets to experience.

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The Odd Interview 4: Chris Butler

Chris Butler’s Still Waiting

 For the fourth installment of The Odd Interview, I’ve gone deep into the archives. This post is based on an article published in Boston Rock #84, July 1987. I’ve edited the Web version significantly for clarity, readability, and relevance, because if I don’t know how to do a better job on this story now than I did 27 years ago, I’m really in trouble. I’ve also interpolated material from a somewhat different version published in The Old Colony Memorial, the weekly newspaper of Plymouth, Mass., on May 21, 1987. Obsessively interested parties can click on the original texts at the bottom to enlarge them, but trust me, you don’t really need to.

Chris Butler, circa 2008
Chris Butler, circa 2008

Note from the Present Day, 2014: Looking back, there was no great pressing reason to interview Chris Butler in the summer of 1985. Although his band, the Waitresses, had made some noise earlier in the decade, he had left it a couple of years earlier, and the group was no longer together in any case. Although Butler wasn’t a recluse, and was busy with several projects under the radar of anyone not in the music business, he wasn’t with a major label, didn’t have a publicist, and, in those pre-social media, hard-copy days, wasn’t that easy to find.

However, I can be persistent to the point of irritation when I latch onto a cause that interests me. I found the Waitresses and their unusually literate lyrics highly intriguing; they struck a chord with me, and I wanted to talk to one of my songwriting heroes of the day and get the “story behind the songs,” as they say. This was a guy worth getting to know, and he likely had a few worthwhile stories to tell and opinions to impart. I didn’t have an assignment from any publication to pursue the interview, but didn’t let that stop me.

I had only been in Boston (as a non-student) for about a year at that point after definitively leaving Long Island for good, but during that time I’d made some contacts in the local music scene (East Coast garage-rock central, back then) and, through a friend of a friend of a friend, as I recall, succeeded in getting a message to the man, who phoned me out of the blue one day and left a message saying, “I understand you’ve been trying to get in touch with me.” I called him back and made arrangements to meet, and so, one day in late July I drove out to the tony suburb of Weston, some 15 miles west of Boston, where his then-girlfriend’s parents lived, and found him out back in a lounge chair by the pool, and conducted an interview. Butler was honest, forthcoming, and generous, if probably somewhat bemused by his visitor, and I greatly appreciated his kindness. I’m probably guilty of romanticizing the memory a bit, but I still think of it as the journalistic equivalent of a D.I.Y. indie project. Nothing wrong with that.

For one reason or another, the interview didn’t see print for nearly two years, when I placed two different versions in two outlets I was writing for: Boston Rock, the city’s preeminent music zine, and the Old Colony Memorial, the daily newspaper of Plymouth, Mass., where I wrote a weekly column (see this post for greater detail on that period in my life). Coincidentally, around the time those pieces finally came out Butler had been spending a bit of time in the Bay State on musical matters, producing the debut full-length album for a rising, self-described “roots-pop-cowpunk band” called Scruffy the Cat. 

___________________________________________________________________________

Present Day: 1987 

“Why me? I’m yesterday’s news!” – Chris Butler*

*This was Butler’s reaction when I first told him I wanted to interview him back in ’85.

Well, he was in the late ‘70s local-legend Akron band Tin Huey and was the songwriting brains behind the Waitresses and produced the dB’s Like This LP and most recently Scruffy the Cat’s debut LP Tiny Days, and he plays drums and guitar and writes columns for semi-obscure magazines and is interested in what most people might consider to be a few too many things. This working-class Renaissance man may have suffered at times from the effects of such overwhelming curiosity, but his intentions are good, and he’s on our side.

Chris Butler may be one of the key missing connections in pop music. Hell, he knows so many people in it. Also, he happens to have written some of the greatest rock lyrics of all time. Not be-bop-a-lula, not Anthems of a Generation, just an inner voice expressing itself. The voice of a brain only a bit too clever for its own good. Indulge me for just a couple of short snippets from the Waitresses catalog:

My goals?

My goals are to find a cure for irony

And make a fool out of God

– “Jimmy Tomorrow”

Getting married? Making babies?

But you haven’t been to Paris

The object of the game is to leave town

Want false hopes, expect magic

Put your life on the line again and again

Make a country that’s fat and smart

That doesn’t love to screw its own

And gives, instead of sucks the world dry

– “They’re All Out of Liquor, Let’s Find Another Party”

“I was just up in your neck of the woods producing Scruffy the Cat,” he says on the phone from his Brooklyn apartment. He met Scruffy “through a friend of Peter Holsapple [the dB’s]. Peter knew a woman named Naomi, and Naomi knew a woman named Lilli Dennison [Scruffy’s manager]. Scruffy spoiled me. They’re the proverbial Righteous Bunch of Folks. I had the most fun with them, they’re the eagerest to please. The grunge [of the previous EP, High Octane Revival] carried through for six songs, but there’s country, there’s ballads – I don’t know if the world is ready for a sensitive Scruffy.”

Asked what he looks for in a prospective band to produce, he said, “Everything I can’t do! Ideas, a good sound. I don’t think the Waitresses ever sounded ‘good’ as a band…if they’re smart, if they read books, if I can get along with them. It also helps if they have enough financial backing so we can do the record we want to make.”

If there’s one constant in his many careers as musician, producer, composer, and columnist, it’s that he’s never cared too much for the spotlight. Give Butler some power behind the scenes and a chance to express himself through back channels, and he’ll likely be a happy camper.

Summer 1985

It’s a perfect day in late July, 1985. The man sits under the patio umbrella at poolside, out back on the handsomely landscaped grounds of his girlfriend’s parents’ house in Weston, Massachusetts, an upscale suburb of Boston (“I’m very suburban,” he joshes). Chris Butler, in red T-shirt, tortoiseshell shades, black clogs and blue swim trunks, is humoring a visitor claiming to be a journalist and wanting to hear his story.

“I never wanted to be a fucking star,” he tells me. “I never wanted to be Leif Garrett. Who’s Leif Garrett?…I’ve been on ‘Solid Gold,’ and I don’t want to be on it again.”

The Waitresses broke up in late 1984. Butler had the band over a year before that, in May of  1983, after personal differences with singer Patty Donahue [she died of lung cancer in 1996]. “The best thing that ever happened was when the Waitresses broke up,” he says. “When it was falling apart, I thought the best thing to do was to keep it together. I was into being responsible. I forgot that record companies, most of the time, are used to being shit on. I finally said, ‘I’m not having any fun anymore – it’s time to chicken out!’”

Butler is 36 this summer of ’85. “I’m having a great time now,” he says. He has forsaken the guitar for his first instrument, drums, pounding the skins for the New York art band Artless, in summer rehearsals before playing out.

“It’s just a pickup band, a bunch of avant-garde or experimental musicians who wanted to be in a hardcore, burnin’ unit,” he says. “Most of us are older, quote, jaded pros.” The quintet is led by underground cult figure Mykel Board, and also includes Mark Kramer from Eugene Chadbourne’s group Shockabilly.

“Instead of drum solos, I’m going to do poetry breaks,” he adds. “Screaming stream-of-consciousness.”

Butler is also, this summer of ‘85, a co-editor and columnist for a New York magazine called This, which he calls “MAD magazine for adults, with an artistic bent.” There have been three issues of This to date. He also writes a column on pop culture for a music magazine called Music, Computers and Software (although, he said, “I don’t play keyboards, and I’ve only had a Macintosh for six months”).

Butler describes his writing, of both songs and columns, as “too weird for straight people and too straight for weird people.

“I’m not 18, English, and blond. I’m not interested in writing for kids,” he says. “I want to write for people my own age, past 30.

“I never thought of myself as a musician,” he adds, “I always thought of myself as a writer. Pop lyrics haven’t changed in 75, 80 years. I have sheet music from 1910; the lyrics are the same as ‘Let’s Hear It For The Boy.’ There are only so many things you can do with E-A-D chords.”

Present Day: 1987

As it turned out, Butler left Artless on the eve of their European tour. “I love Mykel Board,” he explains, “but his idea of a good tour is $5 at the end of the night and sleeping on the floor! As it turned out, I would have had a great time and probably should have gone.”

Besides Scruffy, he recently produced a band called Cargo Cult, an African/Brazilian group utilizing computer-generated sounds [a novelty for 1987?]. “Mr. Microchip is atomizing all these cultures and reassembling them,” he says, “which I think is kinda neat.”

Back in the day; Butler is top left, Patty Donahue front and center (click to enlarge).
Back in the day; Butler is top left, Patty Donahue front and center (click to enlarge).

 The Inevitable, Yet Gripping, Backstory

Butler is from Cleveland, as was Patty Donahue (they met while she was dating the drummer in one of his earlier bands). He took up guitar while a student at Kent State, he says, “because you couldn’t bring in drums.” During 1969/70 he lived in the same dorm as Chrissie Hynde and Devo’s Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh. He soon got involved in the fermenting Akron rock scene.

“It was a lot of smart suburban or working-class kids who didn’t want to become 9-to-5’ers,” he says, and in that time and place it was possible to afford what he called the “introspection and quiet rage.” He hung with James Gang, Pere Ubu, Rubber City Rebels. “After the Kent State shootings,” he adds, “the town slid right down.”

Butler invented the concept of the Waitresses in 1975 in Kent, over a cup of coffee with fellow musician Liam Sternberg. Both were looking to get into new bands. “The solution,” he recalled, “was to invent two hypothetical groups.” The first of these was called Jane Aire & the Belvederes, which Sternberg formed with a singer named – what else – Jane Aire (Jane Ashley). Sternberg later discovered Rachel Sweet and wrote “Walk Like an Egyptian,” a number-one hit for the Bangles in 1986. As for Jane Aire & the Belvederes, they recorded for Stiff and Virgin Records with mixed success; interested parties can refer to this biography.

The second band, the Waitresses, didn’t become a reality until 1981, about a year after Butler’s previous band Tin Huey had ran its course and Butler moved to New York. He had previously recorded a couple of cuts as the Waitresses for Stiff Records’ Akron Compilation LP, using studio musicians and sounding completely different from the later band.

The Waitresses’ creation was as calculated as any corporate heavy-metal band’s, but toward a diametrically different end. Cerebral at its core, deconstructionist-pop in rhythm, with a lead singer essaying white rapping/spoken monologues rather than conventional warbling, and based in constant self-examination, the group appealed to those sharing Butler’s consuming interest in what he terms “the sociology and psychology of pop culture.” In other words, smart, if not neurotic, young moderns of the ‘80s.

Patty Donahue’s single career-woman persona is the most obvious example of Butler’s songwriting modus operandi of speaking from behind a mask. At the time, he explains, “I had been relating better to women.

“That character was popular earlier in the ‘80s, the struggling woman trying to make it on her own,” he adds. “Now it’s Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, perhaps doing less moralizing and just going out to get what they need without lying on the psychiatrist’s couch. An on-the-surface, simplistic image.

“The idea behind the Waitresses was to get away with as much weirdness as we could, leave the pop stuff to someone else, and still get airplay.”

And it almost worked. The single “I Know What Boys Like” was a minor hit, initially released as a single in 1980 but not peaking in popularity until two years later, when it was included on the band’s debut LP, “Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?” That LP sold 350,000 copies, not in Michael Jackson territory but nothing to sneeze at, either. To this day – 2014, that is – “Christmas Wrapping” can still be heard here and there come December. The band even created and performed the theme song for the 1982-83 TV series “Square Pegs” (starring the teenaged Sarah Jessica Parker, originally from southern Ohio and later to play another version of the “struggling woman trying to make it on her own”), crafting the hyperactive number, Butler recalls, “in a five-hour inspiration session.”

 Check, Please

The Waitresses’ follow-up album, “Bruiseology,” however, “went into the toilet,” as Butler put it, with a good amount of regret. “That was a bloody masterpiece, to bring risk-taking back into pop culture. I thought the world was going to start expanding; the world was in contraction, not expansion. It was a conservative time, and (the record was) propagandizing, not the rock ‘n’ roll life, but just (through having) a character who takes a lot of risks in her life, and if it’s not right, she splits.

“I wanted smart people to buy our records,” he says. “I wanted to get people over 25 back into the stores. In that, I think I was ahead of my time.”

In the end, the band broke even. And on that warm sunny day in 1985, Butler was more or less happy to be on the sidelines. “I’m doing glassblowing again,” he told me. “I haven’t done glassblowing since college. I’m learning about investing and real estate. I’m reading all the great books I did Cliff’s Notes for in college.”

Does he want to be in a band again? “I’m writing songs, I play drums every day, but the idea of being in a band I have mixed emotions about,” he says. “There are other things I want out of my life. It’s a part of me and always will be, but right now I’m in turmoil about it.

“I want my life to be expanding. I don’t want to live in the rock ‘n’ roll life and dry ice and limos, and do drugs and fuck 14-year-olds. I don’t want to make a lot of money being stupid.”

Butler probably couldn’t if he tried, which is good news for listeners on his wavelength everywhere.

********

Postscript: In the ensuing years, Chris continued his mainly behind-the-scenes career as a subversive exponent in pop music, playing in various bands like Half Cleveland and Purple Knit, writing and producing. In 1996 he wrote and produced a 69-minute single, “The Devil Glitch,” which was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records the following year as the world’s longest pop song. More recently he’s been making the song even longer, and if you’d like to contribute to it (it’s currently over three hours long), here’s where to go.

Also of note, he’s just released a record “Easy Life,” on his own label, an autobiographical concept album centered on his college years at Kent State and the shooting deaths of four students there at the hands of the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970, which he witnessed. If that doesn’t make you want to buy the record, this piece, well worth reading, should do the trick. I suppose I could try for a new interview with Chris, but it wouldn’t come close to this definitive, spectacular effort by his latter-day Boswell, Dave Cantrell, so why bother?

If you want to catch up on other things Chris is doing these days, and I highly recommend you do, check out his website.

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The Odd Interview 3: Mary Battiata

Performing with Little Pink South at notSXSW, 3/15/14
Mary performing with Little  Pink South at notSXSW, Austin, 3/15/14
mary_lp_poster
Poster by Mark Gerking (from a photo by Charles Steck)

In the third installment of The Odd Interview we chat with Mary Battiata, a musician whose normally low-key demeanor (even onstage) belies a fascinating past. In the ’80s and ’90s, Mary was an intrepid reporter covering famine in East Africa, revolutions in Eastern Europe and the war in Bosnia as a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post. These days she’s an independent singer-songwriter based in Arlington, Virginia, fronting an alt-country band she put together in the late ’90s, Little Pink (the name being an obvious allusion to The Band’s Music From Big Pink, though she does tell an amusing story from the stage about the lawyers for Pink, the singer, sending her a cease-and-desist letter). Though her primary stomping grounds are Maryland, Virginia and DC, she plays Austin about twice a year with her Texas-specific pickup band, which she dubs “Little Pink South.” Little Pink has issued three CDs: Cul-de-sac Cowgirl (2001); a four-song EP, 12 Birds (2003); and Gladly Would We Anchor (2008). Mary plans to issue another Little Pink CD in the not too distant future.

Despite our shared interest in the former Yugoslavia (I lived in Slovenia for five years and traveled in Croatia and Bosnia), I first became aware of Mary via her music, not her journalistic endeavors. Over a nearly hour-long interview, she spoke about the impacts both of these very different creative paths have had on her life. Here’s a midlife career-changer par excellence, then, with more than a few stories to tell. Although she was a capable and successful journalist, Mary was ultimately dissatisfied with the restrictions that journalism (at least the old-fashioned variety) places on a writer. Still, she retains a justified pride in her efforts on both the page and the stage.


It surprises me to realize that I’ve known Mary Battiata for nearly a decade. Along with many year-round Austinites, I certainly have issues with SXSW and what it does to my adopted city every year (it’s been a long time since the official fest has had much to do with keeping things weird, or even alternative, if it ever did at all). But if you can brave the crowds, good music can be found, much of it unofficial and wristband-free. When I first encountered Mary at a 2005 concert, I was immediately struck by her distinctive voice — at once earthbound and soaring, mature and knowing, yearning and sad at times but not defeated, as if possessed of some ancient wisdom. (The closest vocal analogue I’ve found is Christy McWilson.) Her offbeat, imagery-filled lyrics were a perfect match for that voice. Who can say why one artist moves you and another, quite similar one leaves you cold? The best way I can explain it is that some performers just resonate on your private inner frequencies (or, as McWilson once put it, you hear the dog whistle that most others don’t).

I tried to see Mary and “Little Pink South” each time when she came down for her annual SXSW visit and sometimes at another time of year, as when she played the Mean-Eyed Cat  back in October 2007, which inspired me at that point to wax on about the place of music and its performers in one’s life as you age, how experience and time deepens and changes the way you perceive a concert, and  my appreciation for what I like to call “Music for the Real World.”

Eventually, I introduced myself to Mary after one of her shows and gave her some clips of articles I’d written about Slovenia (Mary had covered the war in Bosnia and elsewhere in ex-Yugoslavia for the Washington Post during the first half of the ’90s, so we had that territory in common even though I arrived later on the scene). Over the years, from one show to the next, we got to know each other a little bit. This interview was conducted by phone on May 30, 2014, with Mary adding a bit more information later on by email, which I’ve interpolated into the main (more or less seamlessly, I hope). Before we dive in, to give you a better idea of why I wanted to interview her, have a look at Mary’s lyrics to “Ceiling Rain,” one of my favorite Little Pink songs, from their debut album Cul-de-Sac Cowgirl:

Rain, coming down tonight. 

I parked the moon

Under the ceiling light.

And I wonder where you are and if you’ll come back.

And if I prayed how would, how would it feel? If you held me tight?

[Chorus] We’re wandering out beyond the blackness

All the ships have crashed and dented

And they’re drifting down like faded furies

And broken bits of galaxy trash

That we won’t even see someday…

And the sound

Of your car at night

I heard Ulysses took a long long time,

To appease the sirens and come back home

And his dog pricked up his ears

And now he waits, on the porch side…

[Chorus]

In the rain


 

The Odd Interview: Tell me a bit about your early life: Where you grew up, what you wanted to be when you grew up.

Mary Battiata: I grew up in the Washington, DC area. My grandparents, except for one, were Italian immigrants; they started out in New York City, in Little Italy, in fact. But my parents came down to DC and my dad went to medical school here, and so they were here in, I guess, the late ‘50s. I grew up all around DC and I have five brothers and sisters, so we kind of moved around. My dad was in the Air Force, out of Andrews Air Force Base for a while. He was a pediatrician, and so he was in the Air Force for a couple of years. They lived in Georgetown for a while and then they moved to Maryland, kind of all over the DC area, mostly on the Maryland side. It’s very compact. Five minutes one way you’re out of DC and in Virginia, which is where I live now, and 20 minutes the other way and you’re in Maryland. There are two big rivers that meet here, the Potomac and the Anacostia. The terrain is really interesting, too. Part of it is the Piedmont and part of it is the coastal plains. My grandparents emigrated from Italy at the turn of the 20th century.

Do you know what part of Italy?  

Yeah, they were on one side from outside of Rome in the mountains, this very poor, beautiful but very mountainous area called Abruzzo. An intense earthquake region. The little town that my grandmother was from, the last big earthquake they had in Italy, that town and her little house fell to ruins, around 1910. And then the other side, my father’s side, it’s a little complicated; they were from Sicily originally but they lived in Trieste, in the northeast. But essentially Sicilian, and the name Battiata is Sicilian.

In a way, my paternal grandfather Josef Battiata was an immigrant twice over. His family moved to Trieste before he was born and ran an osteria (translation: humble wine pub) there in the last decade of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was born in Trieste and grew up there, hence the spelling of his first name. (He told us that the osteria was a meeting place for Italian nationalists and was frequented by undercover A-H police posing as same.) Some time around the time of the first World War, his family moved back to Sicily (a fishing village near Palermo) and in 1918, at age 16, he emigrated to America.

With my parents’ move to DC in the 1950s and my younger brothers’ eventual moves to points west (California) and south (Richmond and South Carolina), many of my little nieces and nephews are growing up with southern accents and for the first time since before 1900, there are no more Battiatas in NYC at all. So we are all still migrating, I guess. Maybe that never stops. And that’s really what the songs (and the title) of my next record are all about. That kind of moving and also the migrating –  physical and mental –  I did as a correspondent.

When did you become interested in journalism and writing, and were you always interested in music as well or is that something that developed later?

I can remember writing little short stories in the third grade and having them read aloud at school, but I was always interested in, for lack of a better way to put it, just going into new worlds and scoping out what was going on. That was my sort of journalistic impulse; it’s very much a part of my personality and my brain, because I still have that. I just like to move and strike out (to) new places. I was kind of operating as a journalist even in college – I was an American Studies major – all my papers were really about going into some unfamiliar world and reporting, basically, finding ways.

How did you get into working for the Washington Post?

I actually got into working for the Post two years (after college). I worked for the National Gallery of Art for a while, selling books, because I had lived in Italy for a year. My senior year of college I graduated early and I went to Italy; my great-aunt was living in Rome and I studied art history in Bologna, and I learned Italian and then I came back, and I kind of didn’t know – I really liked art history but I didn’t want to stay in school and so I worked at the National Gallery of Art for a while selling books, which was fantastic, and then I started working at night – I heard that the Post was looking for copy editors. So I started working there at night, in the arts section, and then I started freelancing for them doing odd assignments here and there, and then I became a Metro reporter because I was good at writing features, and they needed that. And then it just kind of went on from there.

It was a very lucky thing; the paper was expanding in the ‘80s post-Watergate and newspapers were doing really well, and it was kind of the last era – I kind of feel like by the late ‘80s it just became tougher and more professionalized. I don’t think without clips and probably a journalism degree, in the ‘90s you really kind of had to have that, I think, to get hired at a major daily. So I feel I was extremely lucky. I did a lot of different jobs there; I liked it a lot. I went first to East Africa and then to Eastern Europe in the very late ‘80s, so it wasn’t until I came back in the mid-‘90s that I started writing songs. I think I wrote my first song in ’96.

I had been really interested in music in high school; I played guitar and I listened obsessively to music, but it didn’t really occur to me to write songs until much later. And that was at a point where it came out of a feeling of exhaustion with long-form journalism, really. I felt like I needed to mess around with a much shorter form, more compact.

What was your frustration with writing longer features?

I felt that I needed to write in a more personal voice. You could do that in a limited fashion in journalism, but unless you were an essayist you could only do that up to a point and I needed to do more than that.

You realize there’s a built-in joke in there: I assume you didn’t leave journalism because you realized the business model was collapsing and you wanted more security by becoming an independent musician.

Yeah, really, I know. No, I mean, I didn’t give up journalism for another – around the mid ‘90s I returned to the United States from Eastern Europe, I began working for the Post Magazine and I talked my way into a part-time writing gig. I worked for the magazine for another 10 years, but it was as a part-timer, I was rarely in the building and I was gradually leaving.

How did you get the gig as a foreign correspondent, covering Bosnia?  

I had a friend who was posted for the Post in East Africa, and I was working for the Post Style section. The paper was so flush at that time that I proposed pieces and amazingly, they would go for it. The first piece, I think, I went to Kenya to cover the UN Women’s Conference. That might have been in ’85, and while I was there I did some pieces on elephant conservation and other stuff. And then I went back, and (American zoologist) Dian Fossey was murdered in Rwanda (December 1985) and I asked if they would send me to Rwanda to cover that, and they did.  Then I went there to join this friend who became my partner at that time…I left the paper, I went there as a super stringer – it was a very common arrangement with British papers, not so common then with American papers but it’s more so now – I had a contract, but that was it. I wrote a lot of pieces about conservation, but also it was the time of the famine in Ethiopia and the beginning of the conflict in Southern Sudan. So I spent much of my time in Ethiopia and Eritrea and then in Khartoum and in South Sudan, in Juba and places like that; it was very rough reporting. And then when it came time to go to Eastern Europe, the foreign editor at the time was a very smart man who’d been the Post’s Berlin correspondent; he recognized that basically Eastern Europe was going to probably blow and crumble, however you want to put it, and so they hired me back as a full-time correspondent. So I moved to Warsaw, that was in June in ’89, and then by September it was just dominoes, it was one (country) after the other.

To watch everything, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Romania, Hungary…

Oh, yeah, it was crazy. I have very visceral and visual memories of being in Prague during the revolution, right before – I feel really fortunate, because I went to each of these places right before things changed, so I saw Romania under Ceausescu, I made two trips there while he was still in power; I went to Prague before the revolution (in Czechoslovakia) and interviewed (Vaclav) Havel and some of these other people. When I look back on it, I can hardly – it seems like a dream, honestly, but it was amazing. Long time ago, now.

When did you leave journalism altogether? I assume you don’t do it anymore.

No, I don’t. I decided to leave and, you know, they were buying people out but I did not qualify because you had to be a certain age and you had to also be full-time. I’d been there a really long time by then, and I loved the place and they liked me, but I just kind of felt – I’d been playing music since ’98-‘99, I’d been playing out and put a band together, I’d been writing (since) ’97. I felt like I needed to focus more on music and it just seemed like this was the time to go; if I was going to do it I really had to do it. It kind of made it easier in some ways because some things were changing. I left in 2007 and you know, the economy sort of collapsed in 2008 and that’s when print really started to reel because advertising went away.

So you were like the last lifeboat off the Titanic.

I just had lunch with an old editor of mine, David Rowell, an amazing guy, one of the best editors and writers I’ve ever worked with; he was at the magazine, he’s still there. It was really hard to leave, actually, but I felt I had to do it. But what’s interesting is you find out, I thought, “I’m a reporter because I’m working for a newspaper,” but actually, I’m a reporter because I’m a reporter. You’re born that way, you know?

It was very hard to leave journalism. At the time, it felt like walking off a cliff. But I felt it was necessary in order to give songwriting its due. Maybe today I could do both, but then, I really felt I had to separate myself completely. So I did. And I’m not sorry. The wrench was made slightly easier by the fact that what I did best – long form magazine journalism – was going the way of the dodo, at least at (the) Sunday papers. But I do miss journalism sometimes – the freedom and the clarity of it. The purity. (I know there are plenty of people who would snort derisively at the idea of journalism as being pure, but that’s what I think.)

Do you consider yourself more of a journalist, or more of a musician at this point?  

I consider myself to be both. I’m not working as a journalist; I’ve been teaching essay writing. I taught essay writing to journalism graduate students; I’ve been doing that in DC for two years at this art college called the Corcoran. I guess I have to say musician, because I’m producing songs and I’m performing as a musician and I’m not writing prose journalism right now.

The genesis of Little Pink was, as you said, in ’97-’98…

I put the band together in the late ‘90s, and the genesis was I had been writing songs and I wanted to record and play out. I was working with a very cool songwriter up here in DC named Karl Straub, who played some shows with me and kind of lent me his rhythm section from a band called the Graverobbers, and then he co-produced half of the first Little Pink CD. Around this time I also met and began hanging out with another of my big influences, the songwriter and producer Philip Stevenson. He was the co-producer on Gladly Would We Anchor (nightworldrecords.com).

What inspires your songwriting? There’s definitely a downbeat or depressive streak that shows itself sometimes, but there’s also optimism and a sense of the beauty of nature, and poetry, maybe especially birds. I want to know how you think your songwriting has evolved over the past decade or so.

Well, I’m still trying to evolve it, so I’m definitely a work in progress. I actually work part time as a naturalist here, outside of DC in northern Virginia. I love being outdoors, and so I’m very much inspired by nature and I think I’m also pretty alarmed about the state of the environment. When I’m out I’m often pierced by this feeling of loss, but that is also just part of one’s DNA as well. You can’t be awake and not be alarmed by everything that’s going on in nature right now, in the environment, and changes. I think that life is full of wonders, but at the same time it’s always about change and loss, you know? I don’t think of it as being depressed at all, but I know – I’ve heard that before, so I don’t think I’m the only person – I don’t think my perception or idea of what I write about is the only legitimate perception at all.

I think it deals a lot with what I might call wisdom born of maturity or perspective, and having lived a certain amount, and maybe that you see things clearly and some things break your heart, but I think there’s some hope down deep within, if that makes any sense.  

Yeah, I mean, I like the way you put that. I think that from when I first moved to Africa in late 1987, to when I came back from Bosnia  in early 1994, that reporting, that was a lot of really dire – I mean, it was war reporting. I was reporting on catastrophe, like famine. And when I think back on it, I’m amazed that I kept on enough of an even keel to be a good reporter. I think I was a decent reporter and I think that when I came back, things kind of fell apart for me a little bit. I had a year and a half of extreme physical disability. I had very bad, disabling carpal tunnel, cubital tunnel and thoracic outlet syndrome. I was supposed to be there another year, covering Yugoslavia, and I wanted to be, but basically, my hands stopped working. I was on a medical leave for a year and a half. I could not drive, and in the early months of it I could barely lift a plate or a bag, and I had a lot of physical therapy. I think it was a physical malady definitely exacerbated by stress. I don’t have any doubt about it.

So you were reporting from battles and sieges when they were going on.

Yes, almost never intentionally. But you would go to some place and think it was all over, you would hear that things had calmed down and you needed to go there to find out what had happened, and then you’d get there and lo and behold, the streets are deserted and there are shells flying around, and snipers, and you know – and that was really, that will fry your nerve endings, let me tell ya.  

Were you traveling with anybody, an interpreter or someone else from the paper, like a photographer?

Never with a photographer, because that wasn’t the way they staffed that, but I was usually traveling with a colleague, sometimes from another paper, sometimes from radio; sometimes it was an American news outlet, sometimes it was British folks that I knew. And yes, usually an interpreter that we shared. It was very interesting, it’s fascinating on many levels, but it is stressful and it’s very upsetting. I always remember, there was a man –  in the early days in Bosnia, I did some reporting in the aftermath of the siege of a town, and really vicious things had been carried out against the local populace by certain militias. This man was telling me, he was very shaken up, he was an old man and he said, “I’ve seen things that no human being should ever see,” that had been sort of burned into his brain and he would never be able to get rid of them. That really stuck with me and I was very struck by it.

What also ties into this: I did some reporting in a small town with people who had survived a siege by Bosnian Serb militias. A lot of civilians had been killed and their bodies left in the open, between houses and on streets to rot. No one could get to the corpses to bury them, because of the snipers. This was deliberate, on the part of the militias. It was part of the terror strategy. It was horribly traumatic, especially for the children, who had no way to process what they’d seen, and some of them were struck mute by the experience. Later, in Zagreb, in Croatia, I met a team of Norwegian child psychologists who’d gone to the same place to help some of these children, and interviewed some of them for research.

The people in these towns had been assaulted by Serb militias, so the victims were these Croat and Bosnian Muslim populations. These researchers said, and it’s since been reported (every few years another study comes out supporting it), this idea that emotional trauma not only affects people emotionally but it also actually – and I think they say this about depression as well – that it carves different pathways in the brain, so the brain is physically altered by these experiences. And this is kind of what they talk about now with PTSD for returning troops. So even very early on this was therapeutic treatment they were giving these children, but they were also taking note for their own research. I think that comes right around to art, because I think songs and art are ways of exploring and processing all of life, including this kind of experience, which is horrible.

So would you say that your experiences as a journalist, witnessing these kinds of horrors, has influenced you as a songwriter and a musician?  

Probably more as a songwriter – those two things are inextricably intertwined but yeah, I think so. Anybody who’s writing songs is writing about a personal experience. I’ve  definitely written some songs that are directly out of that, I would say.

Journalism and poetry are maybe two different ways of finding or seeking the truth.  

Yeah, that’s right, I think that’s well said. Yeah. For a long time I’ve never really talked about that too much, because I always felt, and I still do, that as a journalist you are there as a neutral observer and your job is to relay back what you’ve seen, and not to inject yourself into it at all. Unless you’re George Orwell and you’re writing an essay, and then that’s what’s called for in that form.

I would agree with that, very much.

I always tried to keep them separate, but of course those experiences are a part of who I am and they’re a part of my writing. It’s just a fact. These days I’ve been doing some painting and I’m sure that will creep into my songwriting; I hope it will, you know. Good songs have to come out of your experiences, I think. They don’t have to be confessional, but you do need to write from who you are.

Even though it comes out of a very different place in your brain than just communicating stories for the Washington PostI get the sense that you don’t miss it too much, though, these days.

Well, I do. But you can’t do both, I don’t think. You can’t be a poet. I thought that I had to choose, I really did.  Part of it was, journalism is like, even no matter where you’re doing it as a reporter, which is what I wanted to do, you’re carrying it with you all the time. Whatever you’re working on – I could never just set it aside and at the end of the day I always carried it with me. And I couldn’t do that. It felt harder and harder to carry both worlds in my head.

Does songwriting come easy to you?

Sometimes the best ones come really fast. I write a lot of songs that get to a certain place, and I’ll sometimes even play ‘em for the band I work with, the rhythm section I’ve been working with for a long time and they’ll say, “Well, that’s finished.” But I won’t think it’s finished, and I’ll pull it apart and a lot of times it won’t come back together. So I guess it’s like having a garage full of car parts you pull off of many cars and they’re in boxes laying around, and maybe I’ll use ‘em again someday.  

Would you call what you do alt-country or Americana, or do you just not like to be labeled?

I don’t mind being labeled. I think alt-country is right. Increasingly I would say I’m a singer-songwriter. Americana seems a reasonable label, too. I love country music a lot, traditional country music, I love it. When I was growing up in Maryland, the street that I really grew up on had a bunch of people – they worked for the federal government or the University of Maryland or whatever – many of those people had come up from North Carolina or West Virginia and settled in DC in the postwar era. And there was a huge bluegrass scene in Baltimore and even in DC, all through the ‘40s, ‘50s, into the ‘60s. There were great players. The public radio station the whole time I was growing up had several hours of bluegrass programming every day, Monday through Friday, and I learned years later that there was apparently a big supporter of the station, a financial supporter, who loved bluegrass music and had underwritten many hours of it each day, to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars a year! So there was a lot of it and I honestly thought, growing up, that bluegrass was country music, you know. But I loved the way that stuff sounded. That was a big influence on me. Well, there were a lot of other influences, too. I don’t know what other people would call me. I guess it depends on who’s doing the calling.

You’ve built yourself a good following in DC, and maybe in Texas also.

Yeah, decent. And a little bit in New York. But I would love to tour more. This is the perpetual issue for a very wide swath of songwriters and performing musicians: is it better to spend your time and energy and money trying to tour, or do you spend it on recording and just hope that you’re going to get everything out over the Internet. The answer is all of the above, of course. I’ve never played in Philadelphia, which is not very far away. I’ve played once or twice in North Carolina. I want to do more on the East Coast. I have a musician friend in Colorado, Boulder, who wants to put a little tour there. So, yeah, I’d like to expand the base and I’ll try to do it. I’m putting together songs for a new record and trying to figure out where to record it.

That was my next question, because the last album, Gladly Would We Anchor, came out seven years ago.

I actually went back to school to get certified as an art teacher, and it was also an excuse because I really wanted to study painting and composition and art, but I wanted something that would be more conducive to playing music on several different levels. I haven’t done as much recording, and I feel a little behind schedule making a record, so that’s what I’m working on this year. You know, it’s funny how the questions are all slightly different now than they were seven years ago. Many people say, “Well, you’re not going to make a physical CD, are you?” And the answer’s yeah, of course I am, because I like them, I like having them. I like the physical object. Yeah, there are a lot of questions about what physically to make. How do you feel about it?

I like the object, but I also like the convenience of having it all on an iPod, to call it up whenever you like without the whole business of getting the record out and putting it on. It has its charms, though. But that’s another thing, now that journalism is sort of collapsing and the music business is collapsing –  

I know! I mean, my old friend my editor was just talking about, this is the waning of the print age, and in book publishing, too, so much has changed. And basically, everyone’s attention spans have changed. I’m much more distracted than I was and I have to work much harder to settle my brain and kind of physically turn off all these inputs, but also just kind of mentally and psychologically turn them off, so I can think.

Twitter and Facebook are always running in the background and in the Internet age everybody is a writer, which doesn’t mean everything is worth reading, but there you go.

Right, right.

The Odd Interview 2: Gus McIntyre, of Gus & Fin

Gus (L) and Fin
Gus (L) and Fin

In the second installment of The Odd Interview I venture back to my roots in the swamps of rock journalism to interview Angus “Gus” McIntyre, of the ukulele duo Gus & Fin. You probably know these guys–if you know them at all–as the two wacky Scotsmen who have become YouTube stars of sorts over the past (nearly) eight years for their covers of punk classics performed on ukes.

If you’re not familiar with Gus & Fin, you could do worse than start with this sparkling cover of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” from 2007, and go from there (warning: like certain types of snack food, it’s nearly impossible to consume just one of their videos). Fin is the one with the goatee and glasses; Gus is the one without.  Here’s a link to their YouTube channel, GUGUG. Although their hilariously spot-on covers of the Ramones, Buzzcocks and the like are their calling card, they regularly branch out into other genres, including the best version of “Georgy Girl” I’ve ever heard and even Blue Oyster Cult, all, of course, featuring the uke (cheap plastic ones welcome).

According to this blogger, Gus & Fin are the UK’s leading purveyors/acolytes of ukulele punk, a genre they may have invented (Gus himself isn’t sure). There aren’t too many interviews with Gus & Fin out there (here’s one with Gus from back in 2008), so I figured it was time for another one.

Although Gus and Fin sometimes use the nom de YouTube of Raucous as their surname, I wasn’t sure whether the two lifelong Glaswegians were cool with being referred to by their proper names. However, says Gus, “Refer to us any way you like.” Gus answered my questions via email.

The Odd Interview: How long have you known Fin? 

Gus McIntyre: I have known Fin since we were both 12. We were in the same class at school, which was in the West End of Glasgow.

According to this article, you (Gus) taught Fin the uke in school and you started by performing Ramones covers. When did this come about, why did you decide to make videos, and what & when was your first video? 

Gus: Ha ha, no – me and Fin went to the same school but we didn’t know anything about ukuleles till many years later, except perhaps a vague awareness of a ukulele being the thing that George Formby played in the musical numbers in his films. Ukuleles appeared in our consciousnesses many years later. Also I didn’t teach Fin the ukulele – I just showed him one and he took it from there.

I think the first GUGUG video was a rather obscure ukulele version of the music (by Burt Bacharach) in an obscure film called After the Fox. The first Gus & Fin tune was probably a doo-wop version of the Ramones’ “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker” (in 2006).

Have you been in other bands and if so, which and where? 

Many, many bands. Generally rock ‘n’ roll and ska, and generally playing the drums.

What does GUGUG stand for?

Nothing.

Were you the first people to perform covers of punk songs on the ukulele, an instrument previously regarded (at least in the USA) as largely the province of Hawaiian musicians, vaudeville performers and Tiny Tim, perhaps the least ‘cool’ instrument this side of the tuba? Why punk + ukulele, and how did you realize they would go together well?

I’m not entirely sure if we were the first. We may have been. When I started playing ukulele I checked YouTube (which was relatively young at the time) to see if I could pick up some tips on the ukulele, but there were very few people on there playing the uke. I copied the idea for a “ukulele channel” from a guy called Randy Greer who is a professional jazz/swing singer who was playing uke on YouTube, and I thought, “I could do something like that except not jazz, obviously.” There was never a question of whether they would go together musically. We didn’t even consider it — we just did it!

Along with the ukulele, you and Fin have played the likes of the tea-chest bass, wobble board and suchlike. What is your attraction to these kinds of obscure instruments?

Fin and I have always liked the idea of playing music on cheap, home-made instruments. Kind of punk innit? I have an aversion to musical instruments that cost a lot of money — takes all the fun out of it!

You have over 11,000 subscribers on YouTube at the moment and (I think) 126 videos on GUGUG. You’ve branched out beyond punk to classic ‘60s pop and other standards, and have covered “Georgy Girl” with Duglas Stewart (BMX Bandits) and “Destination Venus” with Fay Fife (Rezillos/Revillos). Do you seek out guest performers, or do they seek you out?

Duglas is my pal, so I’m not sure who asked who? Fay Fife and Gus & Fin were playing at the same gig (Norton Records Benefit) and so I think we may have asked her if she wanted to perform a Rezillos song with us onstage (which she was right up for).

Do you do much live performing, and have you only performed in the UK? Any plans for touring in other countries?

We don’t tend to play much in the UK — we prefer to play in exotic far-off lands. We like playing  all over the world. All we ask is travel, accommodation and beer money.

Which foreign countries have Gus & Fin played? Ever played the USA, or have any plans to?

We always have plans to play in the USA but we haven’t got it together yet. The UWC (Ukulele World Congress) have asked us every year since it started. Maybe one day. We have played in Ireland, France, Belgium, Germany and we almost played in Holland, but there was too much snow in Amsterdam for aeroplanes to land. Bummer!

What is it about Scotland that makes it such fertile ground for a particular sound – not just punk rock but a punked-up, almost cartoonish version of power pop with fun in mind (like the Rezillos/Revillos), which sits side by side with a love for classic ‘60s pop of the kind purveyed by the likes of BMX Bandits? What kind of camaraderie exists in the Scottish alternative rock scene in general?

Well that’s a big question. I’m not the best person to answer that one. Better to ask a music journalist. Must be something about the miserable weather keeps everyone indoors practising.

Are you satisfied with just having a YouTube presence, or will there be actual records for sale, videos, concerts, a website, T-shirts, signature “Gus & Fin” ukes, etc. in the future?

We’re very disorganised.

What do you guys do when you’re not playing music and making videos? 

Ride motorbikes (generally not at the same time), Fin likes to go camping and climb mountains. I like snowboarding and drinking coffee.

Last question: Do you have a favorite Gus & Fin video? 

Fin’s is “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Mine is “Get It On.”

The Odd Interview 1: Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Hayden Planetarium, with tools of his trade. (Photo by David Gamble)
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Hayden Planetarium, with the tools of his trade. (Photo by David Gamble, 2008)

Something you take away from interviews with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the noted astrophysicist and great popular explainer of the properties of the known universe to the United States and beyond, is that one should never accept things at face value, never take received knowledge on faith, never go along with the conventional wisdom just because it’s conventional to do so, and always test suppositions and hypotheses to see if they hold water. After reading his books (OK, a few of them) and speaking with him at length, I believe this applies to the way Tyson views all things in life. It’s got something to do with a little thing the guys and gals down at the lab like to call “the scientific method.”

What follows is the source interview for my profile of Tyson that ran in the Austin American-Statesman newspaper on Dec. 15, 2013, prior to a lecture he gave at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin (you can read this article, with additional notes, on my other blog, Pogoer 2.0). A few hours away from the general televised premiere of the rebooted Cosmos series (Sunday, March 9), and with media interest in the good doctor reaching a fevered pitch, there could hardly be a better subject to launch this modest website devoted to the art of the interview.

This is a minimally edited transcript of my full, 38-minute-long, wide-ranging phone interview with Tyson, over the phone from his office at the Hayden Planetarium, on  November 22, 2013. In general I’ve taken out nothing except redundancies, vocal tics and what basically amounted to extraneous small talk. Most people I’ve interviewed have benefited greatly from editing; Neil Tyson is one of the few individuals I’ve encountered whose extemporaneous speaking is generally worth the read. A born educator, Tyson took pains throughout the interview to clarify his thought processes and points of view, including gently correcting me when he felt I was proceeding from the wrong assumptions. (He didn’t just single me out for this; I love his explanation of why a well-known poll stating that a large percentage of the public thinks the sun revolves around the earth was incorrect because it was asking that question in the wrong way.)

The Odd Interview:  I know this is a very busy season for you, especially, so I appreciate your taking a little time for us to speak together. How far along are you in filming the Cosmos series?

Neil deGrasse Tyson:  All the filming is done, so we’re in post-production now. We finished maybe a month ago. I was exhausted at the end. I don’t know how movie stars can make movies continuously, because I was just ready to go to the Bahamas. (laughs)

What are you, making 13 or 14 episodes?

Yes, there’s 13 episodes.  It’s longer than what a movie would be, so the total effort was larger. Still, it was a lifestyle that I was so unaccustomed to. But I enjoyed it—I enjoyed watching how creative people make video.

I know that Carl Sagan was a mentor and a friend to you—

He wasn’t a mentor; both of those words are overstated. I met him only four times in my life, or five times, and so we never worked together, and I don’t know that I could have ever called him a close friend. But he knew I existed in the later years, when I got my Ph.D. and started doing visible things like writing books. But he was influential on me, by just how he treated me in my first encounter. And normally, one wouldn’t call that a mentor, right? So if someone did something influential and you remember that the rest of your life, that’s not your mentor; that’s just a role model, or somebody who behaved in a way that you wanted to emulate.

I know you’re not trying to be Sagan in the Cosmos series, you’re doing your own thing, but did some of what he did in that series carry over to your presentation of the show?

 Well, the spirit of the series is there. I think that’s the way to think of this. It is unmistakably Cosmos, and given that, I am now folded into that frame. That’s how you think of it. Not folded, but blended. I’m on that landscape. I knew that if I tried to be Carl then I would just fail, but I knew I could be a really good version of myself. Or a really full-up version (laughs). So if I fail at that, then I fail, sort of a legitimate failure.

I wanted to talk a little bit about teaching astronomy and astrophysics to kids. Like you, I grew up in the New York area, in Queens and Long Island. Like you, I first went to the Hayden Planetarium when I was a kid, about eight or nine. The lights went down, and ALL the stars came out. It was a revelation to me and millions of city kids—

Yeah, yeah. It’s a singular psychoemotional experience when you first see that.

I know you’ve done major revisions to the planetarium—

It’s completely rebuilt, so revision wouldn’t even be the right word.

How do you engage the interest of today’s kids in space and astrophysics, as opposed to our generation, in the age of the Internet and iPads and having the entire storehouse of world knowledge at your fingertips? Are these kids more jaded than we were, or are kids, you know, just kids?

My professional focus has always been adults, not kids. But the way I bring science to the public, it tends to also attract kids, high school down to maybe middle school. If you’re a curious middle-schooler you can follow almost anything I do, but the target is adults. We have problems in the world because of science illiteracy in the adult population, not because of science illiteracy in the children’s population. So I focus on adults almost entirely. I have some opinions about kids, but it’s not because that’s what I actually do professionally. All the books I write are for adults. My Pluto book (The Pluto Files), that was really for adults, although it featured angry mail from children in it, third-graders who were genuinely pissed off that in our new facility we reclassified Pluto from its planet status. That angered a lot of elementary school children. So I reported on these letters in The Pluto Files, but the book itself is not a kids’ book. So I don’t have a special magic wand to invoke here with kids.

What I do know about kids is that they are born curious about their environment. Every kid I’ve ever met is turning over rocks, plucking petals off of flowers, or reaching for things just out of their reach because it’s something that they don’t know what it is and they want to find out. And parents generally squash this activity, because almost every expression of this activity breaks something (laughs)! It’s, “Oh, don’t touch that egg on the table, you might break it. Oh, don’t pull on the tablecloth, you’ll pull the dishes off. Oh, don’t crawl over, don’t touch that, don’t, that’ll tip”—and it’s all about don’ts. So the real issue here is not how do you get kids interested in science, it’s how to get out of their way as they express this curiosity that perhaps is inherent in our DNA.

I’ve read a couple of your books, not all of them;  in your books and in your lectures you take an almost journalistic approach to your subject matter, by which I mean that you’re able to take a disparate collection of data, make connections between them, and illustrate scientific and somewhat arcane subjects in a vivid way so that the layperson will not only understand, but be entertained as they receive the information.

I think at its best it will succeed at that; that’s the target. I don’t know that I hit that in every paragraph, but you perceptively identified exactly what a perfect paragraph accomplishes.

I think of you sort of as the ambassador of the known universe to the United States. When did you discover that you had a gift for delivering information, and that you really wanted to devote a significant portion of your career to educating the public?

I’ve never been happy with the word “gift,” because it implies that someone actually didn’t have to work at it. People tend to use the word “gift” when they see someone who is hugely talented at something and they’re not as good at that, and so they just say it’s a gift. Take, for example, Michael Jordan, who’s arguably the best basketball player ever. Many people say he had a gift of (playing) basketball. But then you realize he didn’t make the first string in his college (team) and he wasn’t the first-round draft choice in the NBA. He was a very good player, but nothing remotely approximating what he is remembered to be. And he basically worked at it. And not enough credit goes to people who actually work at being good. And so, I worked at what it is people notice that I exhibit when I’m interacting with the public, or with Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, or anyone where the public is eavesdropping on a discourse about the universe that I’m having.

And so, what I noticed was in eighth grade there was a particular moment when we were learning matrices in our math class. And I finally understood what matrices do, and the pathway that I took to understand it was different from what was being taught by the teacher. And I thought the pathway that I took was clearer than what the teacher was doing. And so when other people were having problems with what he was saying, I said, “I’d like to try,” and then I went up to the chalkboard and described my understanding of matrices. And the whole class (said), “Oh, now I understand!” (laughs)

I don’t know the mind of the teacher; was he embarrassed or was he happy for me or was he frustrated, I don’t know. But at that point it occurred to me that maybe my efforts to understand things come closer to being sensitive to whatever might be the tangled mental roadways in others who are also grappling to try to understand something, so that I’d share these pathways that I took, and they tend to be successful in ways that textbooks are not presenting information, or really erudite people are not considering presenting it this way. So all I’m really doing is sharing how I came to learn and understand what I know.

 Can you give us a little preview or blurb of what you’ll be speaking about at the Paramount in Austin?

The talks that I give are constructed in the weeks and days that precede the talk, because I  fold in things that were cosmic current events. I’d have to check what title I’d given them. Do you have the title in front of you? Do they actually give a title? [No, I respond.]

If there’s no title, then I know what I’ll be talking about. What I will do is highlight for the audience the urgency of not only science literacy in modern times as a fundamental driver of tomorrow’s economies, but also the importance and the value of having a cosmic perspective on who and what we are on Earth and in the universe.  And I might highlight a few current events, just to round out the talk. And in that way you get to see some current cosmic events, you learn about how we’ve been failing at trying to compete internationally, so it might be a call to arms for you, and you’ll also have a fresh view on who and what we are in this universe, and why that matters. Because I like leaving people with some sort of philosophical outlook that they can debate when they’re at home, or at a bar. I love it when people have bar fights over the meaning of the universe (laughs).

I believe the event is sold out already.

Yeah, that’s what I heard. Good for the theater. It’s a great—if I remember, is this the theater on Sixth Street, is that right? When I was in Austin, I don’t know that it was used for much. It may have been one of these old grande dame theaters that no longer worked for movies, because I don’t remember having a relationship with that theater back in my years there, in the early ‘80s [Tyson came to Austin to pursue a master’s degree in astronomy at the University of Texas].

I read your book [The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist, his autobiography]. I know your time at UT was, let’s say, less than ideal in some ways. I know you did have kind words for Frank Bash.

He was chairman [of UT’s Astronomy Department] at the time I had arrived. I think he may be emeritus now [Bash has been, since 2003]. But I learned a lot of teaching skills from him; I was his teaching assistant. He had a way of interacting with the class that helped to inform how I interact with a big group of people in front of me. There is just a kind of, it’s a respect for the intelligence of who’s in the room and fearless once you do that as to where you’re going to take them next. And that way, the audience lands in a place that is beyond where they thought they could have reached.

Have you heard from anyone at UT wanting to mend fences, and do you plan to revisit any old places in Austin while you’re there?

 I have some friends, and my wife, the maid of honor at her wedding lives in Austin. So I’ll be meeting up with a couple of friends while I’m there, and I have some overtures from the university but I haven’t figured out what my schedule will look like. I got a call from the president’s office. So I still need to see if there’s time. Normally, on these kinds of trips I’m highly choreographed by the sponsor. For example, the evening before I’m at a fundraiser for the Paramount Theatre and I’m sort of the featured person at that dinner. So my time is not really my own on these sort of lecture-circuit trips. Once that’s all in place, I can then see if there’s time left over and then revisit some of these overtures.

 Your posts on Twitter about the inaccuracies in the movie Gravity got a lot of attention. You’ve not been shy about pointing out the serious flaws in some other sci-fi movies. So: Which movies have gotten space right, or at least not too badly off?

2001 probably leads the universe in this effort (laughs). The couple of errors that slipped in, it’s not because they were on purpose to try to tell a story, they were just slipped in, it’s an oversight. There’s a small scene, for example, where they’re in zero-G and the guy’s sipping liquid through a pouch, as astronauts do, and then when he turned his head away from the straw, the liquid fell back down the straw. Little things like that.

You’re the guy who sits in the movie theater maybe scribbling all this down, or just remembering it, but at the same time, it doesn’t interfere with your enjoyment of these movies as movies.

Well, to clarify, I don’t do that for all movies. I didn’t keep the list of bad physics for Star Wars. I didn’t keep a list of bad zoology when watching The Lion King. But I could have! I could have said, “Lions don’t talk and if they did, it wouldn’t be English,” and Simba would’ve eaten Pumbaa the first day they met, right? But there’s certain movies you just don’t do that with, because they have no pretense of being correct. And if a movie has no pretense of being accurate, I will not invest time trying to say why it’s not accurate. That’s a waste of everybody’s effort.

You don’t criticize when in Mary Poppins they jumped into the painting on the sidewalk.

Exactly! I’m not criticizing that. So you pick a movie that has some premise of portraying precision and accuracy, and then I find out what they got wrong. By the way, conversely, I’ll take a movie where nothing is accurate, where there’s no pretense of being accurate, and highlight things that they got right. For example, in the movie Monsters, Inc., the factory manufactures doors. And the monsters take the door home, and they go through that door, and there’s an entry to the closet of the kid they’re going to scare. That is a wormhole through the fabric of space-time. It’s brilliant. It’s all about the door. I think I tweeted about that a couple of years ago. Celebrating the fact that this movie has a deep and accurate sense of what would happen if you had access to wormholes. You go through one door and show up in another part in space and time, just by going through that one door.

So, that’s what I do. Most movies, I don’t say anything at all. Just let the movie be a movie. By the way, I’d like to defend my right to criticize movies that attempted to be accurate, because it’s no different from any other specialty community that would log criticisms on the film that they just observed. My sister, for example, is a fan of 19th century period movies like Jane Austen novels. And if there is a costume that did not arrive on the scene until 10 years after the date of the scene, you hear about it. They’re going to blog about it. And if I give an exaggerated example, if someone walked into a Jane Austen dinner party wearing bell-bottoms and a tie-dyed shirt, you would cry foul. You would say this costume designer was clueless. Why did you choose such a person? And so, I’m just holding the science to the same standards that so many other professions hold movies to. And I seek the right to do that, and I want to be embraced for that.

I would think that at this point, the next time someone makes a major movie about space travel or astronauts, they might want to hire you as a consultant for a couple of days.

(Laughs loudly) Well, fortunately, my expertise is not unique in this regard, so they can get a graduate student or somebody who just knows the physics. But yeah, it kind of put ‘em on notice, hasn’t it? I had Seth MacFarlane call me up and say, “What was the sky on Christmas Eve over Boston in 1988,” or whatever was the year, “and the moment when Ted came to life, when a shooting star crossed the sky?” So I gave him the correct sky. Because he didn’t want me coming later commenting on his sky the way I did with Jim Cameron and the Titanic. I don’t want to call it ironic, but it’s fun to recognize that here’s the movie Ted, a talking, walking, foul-mouthed teddy bear, that has the correct night sky, and Titanic did not.

Seth MacFarlane is, I guess, the major underwriter behind Cosmos?

Well, he’s a major fan of the project and it’s his effort and interest that brought it to Fox in the first place.

By the way, I was completely surprised that the tweets went viral. They were on the Today show the next morning and on Brian Williams that afternoon. It was like the great NBC trifecta. It was also on Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live on the Saturday that followed. And it was in the blogosphere for weeks to come. And people accused me of not liking the movie, when in fact, I never said I didn’t like the movie.

 If you could travel to witness up close any astronomical phenomenon in the universe, where would you choose to go?

 Can I go back in time?

 Sure.

 I would go back and see the formation of the Moon, which would just be awesome! All ideas regarding the formation of the Moon tell us that a Mars-sized protoplanet sideswiped Earth, rendering most of Earth molten in this process, scraping off huge chunks of our crust that coalesced in a ring around Earth and then became the Moon. That would be quite a spectacle.

Fascinating. That would not have been what I would have–

 Yeah, it takes a couple of months to coalesce and shape up, so you could even watch that happen. Sell tickets to it.

 Now that the launching of the James Webb Space Telescope is back on track, thankfully, what kinds of discoveries do you think might be made after it’s put into orbit [planned for 2018]?

 Well, we know in advance what it’s supposed to discover. The real fun stuff is what it discovers that no one thought it would find. All good telescopes, all good scientific instruments, serve you in both ways. So we expect it to see galaxies being born in the early universe; that’s what it’s tuned to do. It’s a piece of the universe that no previous telescope has had access to, and it’ll sort of patch up that hole in our awareness of what’s going on in the great unfolding cosmic void.

A well-known Gallup poll in July of 1999, that I’m sure you know of, stated that 18 percent of Americans thought the Sun revolves around the Earth.  Sixteen percent of Germans believed the same thing, and 19 percent of the British, so this is what people are up against in educating the public.  Do you think the general public’s knowledge of space has increased or decreased in the past 15 years, with the religious right and creationism and so forth? [Note: A more recent and widely reported study by the National Science Foundation, released in February 2014, said much the same thing, with about 25 percent of Americans supposedly believing the sun revolves around the Earth.]

I’m not convinced that the people who said the Earth goes around the sun, that they fully understood the question as posed. I’ll give you an example—I was told this, I didn’t re-verify it, but it’s intriguing nonetheless—that in one of the U.S. Census forms,  it might have been 1990, it asked, in terms of where you’re from, what is your ancestry, is it from Europe, is it from Africa, Asia, Central America, South America. And there was a huge number of people who checked Central America who lived in Kansas, because that’s the center of America, right? (laughs) So the way you word something can influence whether someone understands what your intent is in asking that question, or not. And just because you get an answer that’s one way, doesn’t mean you asked the right question to probe what it is you need to know about your audience.

So if you sit here, we still say “The sun rises, the sun sets.” It’s in our vocabulary. And so, to say “Does the sun go around the earth?,” yeah—it rises, and it sets. But if you said ‘In space, what would you see?’, I don’t think any of them would say that the sun went around the earth. It depends on how you ask the question. And so, I don’t believe those statistics. I saw them; I just don’t believe them. I think there’s a flaw in the connection between the intent of the question and the wiring of the mind of the person who answered it.

That’s a very scientific way to look at it.

 No! If you say, “Draw the solar system,” I don’t think they’re going to draw the sun going around the earth. They’re going to put the sun in the middle. You know they’re going to do this, right? And so, I don’t believe that.

But your greater question is still an important one. The science illiteracy that is rampant is real; I just wouldn’t cite the sun going around the earth as the best example of it. It’s real, and it’s a problem. But I think there’s more access to science than ever before. At the time the original Cosmos came out [1980], you could go months before you would channel-surf, though no one called it that at the time, and land on a science program. And you’re old enough to remember the two science programs that were on the air, and technically they were more sort of descriptive—you know, you’d watch Marlin Perkins in Wild Kingdom and you learned what a lion did. You wouldn’t learn about the DNA of the lion, or the pre-embryotic stages of the—you know, it was a descriptive account of what animals did. And there was Jacques Cousteau: once again, a descriptive account of what marine life did. But today you can find shows on black holes, and the Big Bang, and on the search for life. Morgan Freeman is hosting a show on the Science Network [Through the Wormhole on the Science Channel] and it’s all about the philosophy of knowing about how the world works.

There is no end of science programming. So access to it is greater than ever before, and I think we are experiencing a shift in the public’s appetite and interest in the frontier of science. And I measure that by a few things. First, how else could I possibly have one and a half million Twitter followers? How else could The Big Bang Theory be the number one sitcom on television? How else could CSI be one of the most fertile franchises on television there ever was, in three incarnations in different cities, when it features scientists solving problems using their expertise in biology, in medicine, in chemistry, physics, geology, and forensics? And how is it that the movie Gravity could be a number one film, and people could be blogging about the physics errors a month later, long after Sandra Bullock and George Clooney did the couch circuit with the talk shows?

So you’re saying we’re not a nation that’s just glued to the couch watching Duck Dynasty and the Real Housewives of wherever.

 Well, there’s a lot of that, but we now have access to alternatives. And it’s that access that I celebrate. I think people ought to be able to watch Kim Kardashian if they want; it’s a free country. But if they don’t have an alternative to learn about what happens when you fall into a black hole, then you don’t really have choice.

I know you’re a fan of Star Trek–

 I like its messaging, but I don’t don Spock ears and go to conventions.

 To what extent do you think Star Trek’s particular science-fiction vision is driving today’s scientific goals? We keep hearing about real scientists experimenting with teleportation and warp drive and things like that, and we seem to be pretty much there with hand-held communicators and computers already.

Yeah, well, the hand-held devices, that’s engineering, not science. So science-fiction and art, and the visions of creative people about a future that has not yet arrived has had profound influence on the creativity of engineers, who typically, in a storyline, the item that has been invented for the story is a commercial product, right? The wristwatch with a TV on it, as Dick Tracy used. And so, a clever engineer can find a way to capitalize (on) that and thus create the flip-phone, though that was only in style for two years or less. But nonetheless, you look at the creators of that and they were thinking of the communicator on Star Trek, no doubt about it.

In terms of science, I don’t think we needed science fiction to ask ourselves how do we teleport something. I think we would be thinking about that anyway. But so often, science-fiction science is so remote that it’s not realistic to connect one as the cause for the other. In fact, I don’t know of any advance in science that derives from the vision of a science-fiction person. But plenty of engineering things do. Countless, actually.

You’ve written extensively about how the space program was nourished by the Cold War, and how NASA’s funding was to a large part spurred on by perceived military applications.

 No, no, no, no, no. NASA is a civilian agency and it did not make weaponry. The point was that Russia was going to get the new high ground, and so we wanted to race them there. And we did it with a civilian agency, although all the lead astronauts at the time were military pilots. Just to clarify that bit of history, there.

 Thanks for the clarification. My question is, do you think that the first space-based conflict, an actual “star war,” is inevitable, or is there—

Yes.

 —or is there anything about space travel that inherently promotes cooperation rather than conflict?

 If we can be friends with each other in space, if we can have world peace in space, then why can’t we have world peace on Earth?

 Good question.

And the fact that we have failed miserably to sustain world peace on Earth gives me no confidence that we can sustain world peace in space. If we have the power to be peaceful in space, then presumably we have the power to be peaceful on Earth. And I haven’t seen that exhibited. So I’m cynical about the future of our species in that regard.

You’re optimistic about the interest of people in space exploration and science, demonstrably so. But human nature doesn’t change, as we know.

 Right. I mean, I think it can change. For example, slavery is not a condoned activity by any major national power, whereas there was a day when they all participated in it. There was a day when women were considered second-class citizens in the more advanced nations, and that’s pretty much on the way out. And those are deeply held and deeply felt sentiments. So I think it is possible to change, for people to—I think it is possible that you can have a change that it would be inconceivable to think that it would ever reverse itself. But we’re still killing one another, and I don’t have a solution for that.  [Pause]

Well, yes, there is a solution. It’s the cosmic perspective. It’s the view that there you are, killing someone because they exist across some line that you’ve drawn in the sand, and they pray to a different god, or they have a different political, cultural, sociological, economic ideology, and that justifies killing them.

How important to the future of space exploration is a manned mission to Mars, and are you hopeful to see that in your lifetime?

 I want to see manned missions everywhere; I’m not just singling out Mars. Put people back on the Moon. Send them to asteroids, to LaGrangian points where all the forces of gravity balance, and to go to one place or another, you’d have different motives. We’re still doing good science on Mars, so send scientists there. The near side of the Moon and the far side of the Moon might be an interesting tourist junket, so tourists would go see the Moon. You might have mining interests to go to asteroids, so you send the folks up who do that. There might be—we have tourism, we have mining, we have science, what else might there be? So once you do all of this, then the entire solar system becomes your backyard.

 Right. But governments will still have to take the lead.

 By my reading of history, it tells me that is a necessity. That’s correct. It’s not otherwise happening.

 It’s just a matter of scale and cost.

 Right.

 Well, thank you very much, Dr. Tyson. I so appreciate your fascinating conversation with me, and I really look forward to seeing you in Austin.

Thanks for your interest. And yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve been down there, so I’ll sure I’ll enjoy my trip. What’s the best barbecue joint, by the way?

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