Other segments from the episode on September 18, 2014
September 18th, 2014
Guest: Zak Ebrahim
TERRY GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new book "The Terrorist's Son" isn't a novel. It's a memoir by my guest, Zak Ebrahim. In 1990, when Zak was 7, his father, El Sayyid Nosair, assassinated Neir Kahane, the militant, ultra-orthodox, anti-Arab Rabbi who founded the Jewish Defense League. When Nosair was in prison, he helped plot the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and was later convicted as one of the conspirators. Zak was shocked to learn that his father was capable of this. So was Zak's mother. Nosair's terrorist acts sent the family into a downward spiral. Zak, his mother and siblings had to move to protect their safety. They kept moving and lived on the edge of poverty.
Zak says he spent his life trying to understand what drew his father to terrorism and has struggled with the knowledge he has his father's blood in his veins. For most of his life, he lied to people about who his father was. But a few years ago, he decided to go public with his story and offer himself as an example of someone who was raised by a fanatic and embraced nonviolence instead.
Zak says his mother, who remains a devout Muslim, was never a zealot. His father grew up in Egypt and moved to the U.S. in 1981. Zak's mother was raised in Pittsburgh by a mother who was a devoted Christian. After Zak's mother's faith in the church was shaken, she looked for a new religion and became absorbed in Islam. When she became a Muslim, she changed her name from Karen Mills to Khadijah Nosair. Within a week after her conversion, she met El Sayyid Nosair, who was a member of the mosque's men's prayer circle. Ten days later, they married. Zak was born less than a year later in March, 1983.
Zak Ebrahim, welcome to FRESH AIR. You were 7 when your father assassinated Meir Kahane. So your understanding of what your father - what your father believed in what he was doing was the understanding of a 7-year-old. But looking back, do you have any idea of what turned your father into a zealot?
ZAK EBRAHIM: Well, I think he had negative experiences when he came here that made him, perhaps, disillusioned with, you know, American culture or American lifestyle. You know, ultimately, it was this group of men that he began interacting with in Jersey City that would ultimately be responsible for the World Trade Center bombing, in particular, the blind sheikh, Omar Abdel-Rahman, who at the time was one of the most important figures in the Muslim world as far as raising funds and finding volunteers for the Afghan war effort that was going on at the time. When - when that option was closed off to my father, he very much wanted to go to Afghanistan to fight. And his father, my grandfather, came to visit us from Egypt and basically told him in no uncertain terms that this is absolutely not something that you can do. This is, you know, your family is your responsibility.
GROSS: Do you think that's what your father wanted to do is deposit your mother and the kids in Egypt with your grandfather while your father went to Afghanistan to wage jihad against Russia, which had invaded Afghanistan?
EBRAHIM: That's right. And many families all over the world had been separated like this. I even knew of friends of mine, children, who were taken to Afghanistan and to Pakistan to train, fight - ultimately fight in the war. And, you know, my grandfather told him, if you want to make a jihad, stay here and take care of your family. A lot of people think that the word jihad has to include some sort of violent act. But in fact, you know, it says in the Quran that just taking care of your family you - your responsibilities - is a form of jihad. And my grandfather told him that, you know, I'll watch your family starve before I accept them if you do this. And because that was closed off to him, I think that he felt he needed to find some, you know, other outlet for these frustrations. And sadly, you know, it was the violent means that he chose.
GROSS: So you're father started going to a mosque in Jersey City that became known as a gathering place for would-be terrorists. And the blind Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman was a part of that mosque. And he was, like, one of the masterminds behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Your father even took you to hear the blind sheik preach. And I'm wondering, what impression did he make on you as a 7-year-old or a 6-year-old?
EBRAHIM: Well, it was very scary for, you know, for a kid that age. You could see very clearly - even though he spoke in Arabic and at the time, I only understood about every third word that he was saying - but you could just see the emotion on his face and the way he spoke that - you know, that he spoke with this very passionate anger. That, you know, when my father tried to take me to the front after the sheik was done with his sermon, I just - I remember my apprehension at even shaking his hand.
GROSS: So what impression did that leave you of Islam if this, like, important sheik who was preaching was so frightening to you?
EBRAHIM: You know, I'm not sure that even at that age that I drew a correlation between the two. You know, what I'd been taught as a kid, I wasn't old enough to really form opinions about whether the things that I believed were right or wrong yet. You know, you just - you listen to what your parent says, and you take that as truth. And so I didn't really draw a conclusion between, you know, the violent acts that he called for and it being representative of the religion or not being representative of the religion. I really wasn't able to draw that conclusion.
You know, one of the main reasons that I wrote this book was because, you know, I wanted to give people insight into what it was like for a child growing up in that ideology. But it was also very important for me to show people that my experience was unique - among Muslims - that the vast majority of Muslims in the world are never indoctrinated into this level of extremism. And if someone like me who could come out of this ideology that so many people fear - could do it without being radicalized - then what does that say about the vast majority of Muslims in the world who are never exposed to it?
GROSS: What were you taught?
EBRAHIM: Basically that anyone who wasn't a Muslim was a potential threat. You know, I recall my father, you know, mentioning Jews specifically.
GROSS: You don't recall him mentioning that?
EBRAHIM: No, no. I do recall it.
GROSS: You do recall him mentioning it.
EBRAHIM: I do recall him mentioning, you know, Jews specifically.
GROSS: As being a threat? What else?
EBRAHIM: Just this - people who wanted you to commit sin so that they could drag you into hell with them was basically, you know, the message behind most of the things that I was taught.
GROSS: Another extremist that your father became close to was Abdullah Azzam, who was actually one of the founders of al-Qaida.
GROSS: And he was preaching at the mosque in New Jersey. What was your father's connection to him?
EBRAHIM: Well, just because my father had been so involved in this movement with these group of men, that essentially when Abdullah Azzam came to visit, you know, my father had an opportunity to interact with him.
GROSS: And it sounded like Azzam became almost like a mentor.
EBRAHIM: Yes, very much so. My father pretty much hung on his every word.
GROSS: Is that one of the reasons why your father wanted to go to Afghanistan?
EBRAHIM: Yeah, absolutely. I think he saw many men around him who were going over there to fight, and, you know, I believe he was looking for some sort of outlet for these frustrations that he'd had. And once that outlet had been taken away from him, you know, he found ulterior means.
GROSS: So one of your last outings with your father before he assassinated Meir Kahane was to a shooting range. Your father took you there with some of his friends who turned out to be some of the other people behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. And you're there with pistols and AK-47s shooting at targets. And you were 7?
EBRAHIM: That's right.
GROSS: And you participated in the shooting.
EBRAHIM: I did. I had a few different chances to fire the weapons. And, you know, I remember my father trying to show me how to hold the rifle and standing right behind me and kind of helping me support it. I remember the last chance that I had to shoot - the last bullet I shot struck the light that sat on top of the target and it basically exploded. And I got very nervous for a second thinking that I done something wrong. I turned to my father and he had a smile on his face and my Uncle turned to him and said (speaking Arabic), which means like father, like son in Arabic. And I didn't quite understand what that meant at the time, but I think in some ways even my uncle saw, you know, the potential for violent action in my father and was making a sort of side joke about it.
GROSS: Or maybe hoping that you'd become a jihadi like them?
GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Zak Ebrahim. And he's the author of the new memoir called "The Terrorist's Son." His father assassinated Meir Kahane and later from prison was one of the conspirators behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Your mother learned about the assassination by watching television and seeing your father's face when the reporter was talking about the gunman. She apparently had no idea how radicalized he'd become.
EBRAHIM: She definitely saw a difference in the way he had acted, certainly not to the extent that she she thought that he was going to be turning into this violent - you know, these violent extremes. But, yeah, she was - in November, 1990, she was sitting in the living room watching television. And her program was interrupted by breaking news, and it said that Rabbi Meir Kahane had been shot and so had his assailants. And they cut to video of my father lying in a pool of blood on the street, and that was essentially her introduction into this radical ideology.
GROSS: Your father was shot by - what? - a U.S. postal agent who was happening by - saw your father fleeing with a gun?
EBRAHIM: That's right.
GROSS: And there was a shootout between them?
EBRAHIM: Yeah, they exchanged gunfire. I believe the officer was shot. I'm not sure if it hit his vest or if it him in the shoulder. But my father actually had similar gunshot wounds to Meir Kahane. And Kahane died at Bellevue Hospital that night, and my father lived.
GROSS: So tell us what your experiencing was of that evening. Was it an evening?
EBRAHIM: It was. My mother woke me up probably around midnight, and she seemed very startled and told me to grab whatever clothing I could and throw it in a sheet because she didn't know if we were coming back. I had no idea what was going on. I was, you know, kind of scared and very sleepy as well. And, you know, I remember grabbing whatever I could carry and going down to the living room. I actually fell asleep, and I was woken up by my uncle who had come to take us to his apartment in Brooklyn. And we would never actually return to our house in Cliffside Park after that.
GROSS: Why did you flee her home and never return?
EBRAHIM: Well, my mother had gotten a phone call from neighbor saying that they were talking about her husband on television. And, you know, it very quickly dawned on her that it might not be safe for us to be where we were. And we just thought it would be safer to be with friends in New York.
GROSS: So the New York City police came to your apartment after you had fled and confiscated over 40 boxes of mostly papers of your father's, and many of those papers were written in Arabic. So the police didn't know what it was and didn't have it translated. The FBI later got their hands on it and translated it. Do know what they learned from those papers?
EBRAHIM: Well, as far as I understand, there were bomb-making manuals and, you know, different written recordings of sermons given, talking about attacking sites and that sort of thing. The initial investigation, after the Kahane assassination, was that my father was a lone gunman. And they had resolved it as that. It wasn't until after the World Trade Center bombing that then he became implicated in it - that they realized that he was a part of this cell, as they would begin to call it, and part of this larger conspiracy.
GROSS: So that night, your mother finds out on the news that her husband, your father, is the man who shot the ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Meir Kahane who was also - he was not only a very divisive figure in the United States 'cause he was so extreme; he was very divisive in Israel. He was part of the far, far right in Israel - very anti-Arab, very anti-peace. It's not like he was a beloved figure in the, you know, mainstream Jewish community.
But anyway so you found out about him and about your father assassinating him when your mother woke you up after she learned about it on TV. And then so your father's in the hospital and mother goes to see him, but you stay with your uncle. What's the next time you saw him?
EBRAHIM: That wouldn't be until a few weeks later that we got to visit him in Rikers Island. You know, my father maintained his innocence throughout the, you know, his initial arrest and throughout the entire, you know, court proceedings. And really that was the first time - because when my mother went to see him in the hospital, he was unconscious, and she didn't get to speak with him. Rikers Island was the first time that they actually got to have a conversation. And he could tell her in his own words that he was innocent. And of course, you know, she loved my father very much and wanted, I believe, to believe what he was saying. And so she accepted it as true.
GROSS: And at what point did she stop believing that?
EBRAHIM: I think it was after the evidence of the World Trade Center bombing had come to light and his involvement in it that she realized that he had been lying to her.
GROSS: My guest is Zak Ebrahim. His new memoir is called "The Terrorist's Son." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest Zak Ebrahim is the author of the new memoir "The Terrorist's Son." When Zak was 7, his father, El-Sayyid Nosair, assassinated the ultra-Orthodox, militant, anti-Arab Rabbi Meir Kahane. While in prison, Nosair helped plan the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and was later convicted of conspiracy. He's serving a life sentence. So you spent a lot of time visiting your father in prison, first the Rikers Island then in Attica - any other prisons?
EBRAHIM: I also visited him at the federal prison in Manhattan. And, you know, we spent many years traveling up and down New York State visiting him. And we would spend whole weekends - three days and two nights - inside Attica state penitentiary, basically in a tiny home surrounded by fencing where we would pretend to be a family for, you know, a two-day stretch at a time.
GROSS: And your father was allowed to be with you?
EBRAHIM: Yeah, he would spend nights with us - all day and night in these little houses. You could rent movies, and we would bring lots of food so my mother could cook us our meals. And we could all act like like we were a family - a normal family.
GROSS: What was that like for you at that point? Did you still have the same, you know, love for your father, or had you become skeptical of what he was telling you?
EBRAHIM: At that time, you know, I - my father was my father. You know, as far as I knew, he was innocent of these crimes that he had been charged with. And, you know, it's very counterintuitive for a child not to love their father. And that was actually something I struggled with for a very long time because I tried to hold this image of my father and the happy memories that I had before he had become radicalized as that being my father. And it wasn't frankly until I was in my 20s that I started to really think about how his actions affected my life and the negative outcomes that had come about because of what he had done - had I started to realize that I maybe didn't know my father at all and then in fact maybe I didn't love him, maybe I hated him. But I knew that if I wanted to try to make something positive out of this, that I would have to try and focus that negative energy into something positive.
GROSS: So let's skip ahead a few years to 1993 when terrorists bomb the World Trade Center. This is not the 9/11 bombing. This is 1993 when friends of your fathers drive a van filled with explosives into the parking garage - one of the buildings of the World Trade Center. Their ambition is the blow up one tower so it collapses and falls into the other and knocks the other down. They failed to do that but they blew a really big hole into the tower and six people were killed -- over a thousand injured. When you first heard the news did you think in any way that maybe your father was involved with this?
EBRAHIM: I was home from school, actually, the day of the bombing. And I remember, - again I was - this time it was my turn to be sitting in front of the television and for it to, you know, and for the breaking news to come on and say that there had been an explosion. And they initially thought it was some kind of transformer or something, they hadn't realized that it had been an attack. So, I didn't really make the connection. I knew that this was something very important and very big and I tried to go tell my mother that this was going on. But she was, you know, busy in her room with this novel that she was writing at the time. And it wasn't until later in the day that she came out and saw what was happening. She was like, why didn't you tell me? And, you know, I tried to, you know, say I tried. But it wouldn't be until much later that we realize that my father had been involved.
GROSS: And tell us what the nature of his involvement was, as you understand it.
EBRAHIM: Well, I believe that from his prison cell he would often get visitors and have phone calls with many of the men that would eventually be involved in the World Trade Center bombing and had been involved in planning the attack. You know, when my father first went to prison, although he maintained his innocence, there were certain people who thought that he had done what he had done, you know, mainly because Kahane was seen as a very evil figure - in particularly in the Muslim community because of the things he had advocated for. And many people saw it as one extremist killing another extremist...
GROSS: I think Kahane was acknowledged as a Zealot.
EBRAHIM: Yes, absolutely. And so they tried to justify it that way. And I suppose I thought to myself, even if he was guilty that that was some sort of justification. It wasn't until after the World Trade Center - and it was very apparent innocent people were being attacked. That even as a child, I knew that that was wrong and that I couldn't accept any excuse for that. And it was also when I realized that our family would no longer ever be together because, you know, he wasn't sentenced to life in prison after the first case. But he got life plus 15 years without the possibility of parole after the World Trade Center bombing. And I knew we would never be a family again and I was, you know, very hurt at the realization that in a sense my father had gotten off for the first crime and that wasn't enough for him. That he needed to make sure that he was involved that he was involved in something that ensure he would never be with his family again. That was very very difficult for me to process.
GROSS: As you put it in your book - it was as if - you felt as if her father had chosen, you know, terrorism over you.
GROSS: Zak Ebrahim will be back in the second half of the show. His new memoir is called "The Terrorist's Son." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Back with Zak Ebrahim, author of the new memoir "The Terrorist's Son." When Zak was 7 in 1990, his father, El Sayyid Nosair, assassinated the ultra-Orthodox militant, anti-Arab rabbai, Meir Kahane. While in prison, he helped plan the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and was later convicted of conspiracy. He's serving a life sentence. After years of concealing that his father is a terrorist, Zak decided to go public and show that it's possible to be raised by a fanatic, yet renounce hatred and extremism. Let's get back to his childhood, his mother remarried after Zak's father was in prison.
So your stepfather briefly moved the family to Egypt, in part because he thought it'd be cheaper?
GROSS: To live there - and he had family there to help out. So I'm wondering if you were exposed to a more moderate form of Islam while you were in Egypt or not?
EBRAHIM: I actually spent a great deal of time while I was in Egypt, that was the third time I had lived in Egypt and I spent a great deal of time at the mosque. And I was exposed to, frankly, for the first time in my life, you know, positive male role models that wanted me to see the religion the way that they did, as a peaceful one and as one that included people rather than precluded them.
GROSS: You said that was the third time you lived in Egypt?
EBRAHIM: Well, we went to visit for about two months when my father first went to prison and that experience was very surreal because we had armed soldiers with us everywhere we went.
EBRAHIM: Because of the death threats to my father or more specifically to the sons of El Sayyid Nosair. You know, they wanted to punish my father for what he had done and they looked to use, you know, his children as a target. And so we had...
GROSS: So Egyptians?
EBRAHIM: No. At the time, most of the death threats were coming from, you know, extremist Jewish groups. And so the Egyptian government arranged for a security detail, essentially to follow us everywhere we went. We had a soldier in the lobby, we had snipers on the rooftops of all of the buildings around ours. You know, I wasn't sure at first whether I was supposed to be afraid or...
GROSS: Or secure (Laughter).
EBRAHIM: Or secure.
EBRAHIM: You know, the men were very nice and, you know, they closed down the pyramids when we went to visit. To allow us to go in there by ourselves...
EBRAHIM: And have a private tour. You know, they were just very surreal experiences. It's not really any other way that I know how to describe it.
GROSS: I'm trying to imagine what it's like. You go from America, where your real identity is a secret because you don't want anyone to know. Then you go to Egypt where it's not a secret and you have armed guards on rooftops protecting you. It's like one extreme to a real extreme.
EBRAHIM: Yeah. You know, many people in the Muslim community didn't want to have anything to do with our family because of our connection to this extremist. You know, but there was a small minority of people who...
GROSS: This extremist being your father.
EBRAHIM: My father, yeah. You know, but there was a minority of people who very much supported what he did and saw the assassination of Meir Kahane as something, sort of heroic act. As an adult, I realized that perpetuating the cycle of violence only made things worse. I'm sad to say that Meir Kahane's son and wife had been murdered actually years after his father's assassination by radical Muslims. And, you know, it was one thing to try and justify this action that my father had taken in assassinating Meir Kahane as, you know, as this, you know, terrorist killing another terrorist and that was it. But I realized that even that, later on, couldn't be a justification because things were only made worse by trying to use violence to solve our problems.
GROSS: So during this period when your father is in prison and the first few years before you really understand the depth of his commitment to terrorism and the amount of terrorist activity he was actually involved with, did you consider yourself devout at the time?
EBRAHIM: Very much so. Religion was a very big part of our lives growing up. In a lot of ways I think that believing as strongly as I did, in particular this idea that anyone who commits suicide is committing a mortal sin and so I would go to hell, I think in some ways that scared me away from doing anything to myself when things were at their worst.
GROSS: Which you otherwise might have done?
EBRAHIM: Perhaps. I unfortunately spent a lot of time as a young kid - 12,13, 14 - thinking about, you know, what it would be like to end my life because things were so difficult.
GROSS: You are no longer religious.
EBRAHIM: That's right, yes.
GROSS: You've kind of abandoned religion, period.
EBRAHIM: Yeah and, you know, it sounds strange to say that my father's actions really didn't have very much to do with that. I basically have gotten to a point where I was very easily able to, you know, separate what he had done and his ideology from the vast majority of Muslims in the world. But it was really just - I had a problem reconciling human history with the idea of a 2,000-year-old religion or 1,400-year-old religion and the notion of an omnipotent being who would create us the way that he or she or it did and then judge us for the way we acted - it didn't seem to make sense to me. That was a very difficult conversation to have with my mother.
GROSS: So you kept secret the fact that your father assassinated the ultra-Orthodox Jewish zealot Meir Kahane and you kept secret that he was one of the plotters in the World Trade Center - that that was your father. And your name - your last name was different from his because of your stepfather?
EBRAHIM: No. We, as a family, decided to disconnect ourselves from our father - from my father. I decided to change my name so that he wouldn't be able to find us. So that others who knew him wouldn't be able to find us.
GROSS: So you just changed your own name or the whole family changed their name?
EBRAHIM: We all did.
GROSS: Yeah. So when you went public, to friends and then to the greater public, were you afraid that people would distrust you, that they'd think - oh, but secretly, you know, in his heart of hearts, he might still have connections to people that are terrorists or might have sympathies toward them?
EBRAHIM: You know, the first two people that I ever told, who I explained my identity to were my two closest friends and it really was a very positive experience for me. You know, they didn't judge me for my father's actions and I think perhaps because of that experience I was a little more lax, because the third person that I told was a coworker of mine. And we had actually - we had been out drinking that night and I thought, hey, this may be a good opportunity to tell him who I am. And I remember his eyes went cold and he said that he would be doing this country a favor if he killed me. And he grabbed a knife and started kind of swinging it back and forth in front of me and I made the foolish mistake of trying to grab it by the blade and he ripped it away and he sliced my hand. And frankly, he was so drunk that he almost immediately forgot that the altercation had taken place. He set the knife down at the table and went to the bathroom
EBRAHIM: And he came out of the bathroom and he had completely forgotten that we had had the conversation. And I realized that not everyone was going to react the way that my two friends had.
GROSS: So when you apply for a job or something, do you find that you still have to keep certain things a secret? Even though you're so public it doesn't mean that the person interviewing you for a job is going to know that.
EBRAHIM: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I learned the value of discretion, we'll say. You know, not everyone needs to know the whole story all the time.
GROSS: Do you sometimes wonder, like, you won't tell the full truth to someone, you say goodbye and then they're going to go Google you? (Laughter) They're going to be like really shocked?
EBRAHIM: There are times when I realize that I'm having a conversation with someone that it's gone further than I'd intended and I've actually uttered the words, please don't Google me, like afterward, which is the worst thing you can say to someone because that'll just make them much more inclined to do it. But, you know, sometimes it happens, but I've been doing it publically for so long now, you know, it doesn't really affect me or come up very often.
GROSS: You know, we've talked about how your father became a terrorist. Have you ever had the conversation with him in which you ask why did you do this? Why did you change? Why did you abandon the family?
EBRAHIM: You know, I didn't talk to him for about 10 years. There was complete silence between the two of us. And...
GROSS: Which 10 years was that?
EBRAHIM: I was 17 when we disconnected ourselves from him as a family. The first time that I ever gave a speech publicly was at Southwestern University in Texas and I was speaking - I was one of the keynote speakers for the National Peace Alliance's annual conference. And when I got back to my hotel room that night, there was an email from one of my father's lawyers saying that your father has been looking for you for many years and he'd really like to be in contact with you. And I was frankly just, like, so freaked out by this connection to him so immediately after I began speaking publicly that I didn't even respond. But about a year later, I got an email from the Bureau of Prisons saying that an inmate, my father, would like to be in communication with you and you have 10 days to decide yes or no to this communication. And I knew when I got the email, because I thought about it for so many years, that there were things that I wanted to say to my father and there were questions that I wanted to ask him. And I think in a very naive way, I thought I would ask him these very deep questions and he would give me his most honest answer and I would have some kind of, you know, moment of truth or something. And I knew that I wanted him to understand at the very least how hard things were for our family after he left and that they were a result directly of his actions. And I didn't want to pass up that opportunity, I thought, you know, what if he died in prison and I never had this chance. So I said yes and we began communicating through email back and forth. And, you know, he basically - when I confronted him with the experiences that I'd had and I told him that I was no longer a Muslim, he basically wrote me back saying that this was all God's will and that any negative repercussions of his actions or my life experience were a direct result of my no longer being a Muslim and that if I would just convert back to Islam that everything would be fine, which was certainly not something that I was interested in hearing. And it just became very unhealthy for me mentally to be talking to him and so I again disconnected myself from him.
GROSS: So you're no longer in touch again?
EBRAHIM: Yes, that's right.
GROSS: Well, Zak Ebrahim I want to thank you very much for talking with us and I wish you good luck.
EBRAHIM: Thank you very much. This has been a privilege.
GROSS: Zak Ebrahim is the author of the new memoir, "The Terrorist's Son." Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album by Pere Ubu. This is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. The new album from the band Pere Ubu is called "Carnival Of Souls," a reference to the 1962 cult horror film. But as rock critic Ken Tucker hears it, the band. led since the late '70s by cofounder David Thomas, has created something far more rich, experimental and emotional than spooky horror-movie music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROAD TO UTAH")
PERE UBU: (Singing) Follow the moon. Drive under the sea. Fiction is swallowing me. I say here I am, the sea is gone. Tide is pulling me on, is pulling me on. I hear 15 monkeys with carnival eyes. My head is full of spies. Nothing to show for, nothing to choose, so I follow the clues.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: I follow the clues, sings David Thomas on the new Pere Ubu album "Carnival Of Souls." It's a kind of road trip detective story about, as the band says on its website, people who don't fit in. On one level, Pere Ubu has never fit in to music industry since it emerged from Ohio in the 1970s. It's assiduously abrasive, pugnacious, yet fundamentally romantic music at odds with anything popular at the moment. On the other hand, Pere Ubu, with a shifting lineup averaging about a half dozen members, has made music for 40 years now that sounds eternally fresh no matter which album you pick up to listen to. However democratic he insists on trying to position Pere Ubue, David Thomas remains the center of this storm. And he is steeped in the blues, early rock 'n' roll and art rock with a particular interest in the British and the German. Thomas' voice is Pere Ubu's signature sound - it's grave, wily, sly insistences are immediately hypnotic.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARNIVAL")
PERE UBU: (Singing) The monkey is loose inside my head. His eyes are green, the coat he wears is read. On the days that he talks to me, this is what he has said, hang on. Hang on. Ninety-six years will burn your cheeks. Ninety-six tears, it's going to stain your breast.
TUCKER: The songs on "Carnival Of Souls" are studded with references to other songs - Question Marks And The Mysterians' "96 Tears" in the one I just played. In others, phrases from Screamin' Jay Hawkins "I Put A Spell On You" and Johnny Cash's "I Walk The Line" bubble up and burst in. The 12-minute piece that ends the album called "Brother Ray" plays on Ray Charles' nickname, as well the Velvet Underground song "Sister Ray." And "Irene" is Pere Ubu's gorgeous variation on the song made famous by Lead Belly, "Good Night Irene."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IRENE")
PERE UBU: (Singing) Good night, Irene. You are the prettiest thing that I've ever seen, Irene. I'd see the sunlight is in your eyes. But I know the moon is on your mind, Irene.
TUCKER: For all its fondness for quotation and allusion, Pere Ubu isn't interested in pastiche or an attaching itself to a tradition. David Thomas addresses this question directly on the band's website. And in a recent video you can see on YouTube, in which he asserts Pere Ubu fixes things. That's what we do. He elsewhere says Pere Ubu currently aims to be the white "Funkadelic." Well, make a few more songs like this new blast of noise - "Golden Surf II" - and he's well on his way.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLDEN SURF II")
PERE UBU: (Singing) I have a map I make inside my head. A map only shows you what you already know. Where shall we go? Where shall we go?
TUCKER: Ultimately, "Carnival Of Souls" is a series of scenes about a figure roaming across a barren landscape in the broiling sun or wandering through city streets at night, looking for clues to a mystery that may exist only inside his head. It's a dreamscape that's never dreamy. Its hard-boiled, hardheaded stuff. It's music made to endure. After all, Pere Ubu's latest motto is a Latin phrase that roughly translates as art is forever, the audience comes and goes.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Pere Ubu's new album "Carnival Of Souls." Coming up, our TV critic, David Bianculli, reviews the return of "The Good Wife," and the premier of the new series "Madam Secretary." This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. This Sunday, CBS follows "60 Minutes" with two drama series about women juggling family lives and high-intensity jobs. One is a new series called "Madam Secretary," starring Tea Leoni as a college professor asked to step into the White House as the new Secretary of State. The other series is the returning drama "The Good Wife," starring Julianna Margulies as a lawyer who in last year's season-ending cliffhanger was asked to run for state's attorney of Illinois. Our TV critic David Bianculli is going to review both shows.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: My first impression of "Madam Secretary," back when CBS presented a brief a highlights reel when the new series was announced in May, was a good one. In fact, it was a great one. It had Tea Leoni returning to television in a show that looked like a perfect fit to be paired with a smart female-driven drama, "The Good Wife." Set in the White House in the corridors of power, "Madam Secretary" at first glance, had the feel, the look and even the energy and potential of "The West Wing" - TV's all-time best series about national politics. But then I previewed the entire "Madam Secretary" opening episode, which premieres Sunday night, proceeding and paired with the season six opener of "The Good Wife." And while I love the cast of "Madam Secretary," almost every role is played by someone who's done excellent work on TV, the writing and the unfolding storylines just keep spiraling downward and becoming more disappointing. The show, created by Barbara Hall from "Joan of Arcadia," starts with a strongly presented set up, but never manages to live up to it. Here's one of the earliest scenes from "Madam Secretary." It's when Elizabeth McCord, a college professor played by Tea Leoni, gets a surprise visitor at her home - the president of the United States, played by Keith Carradine. The secretary of state has just died in a plane crash. And in Elizabeth's kitchen, the president explains the reason for his visit. The scene is well acted, but not particularly well written.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MADAM SECRETARY")
KEITH CARRADINE: (As President Conrad) The death of Vincent Marsh is catastrophic on many levels. It's a bad time to be without diplomatic representation.
TEA LEONI: (As Elizabeth McCord) Because of the peace talks with Iran and President Sharazz's (ph) upcoming visit to the U.S.?
CARRADINE: (As President Conrad) So you understand why I can't waste any time on this decision. And I want you to step in.
LEONI: (As Elizabeth McCord) Step into what?
CARRADINE: (As President Conrad) Secretary of state.
LEONI: (As Elizabeth McCord) You're joking. I don't mean you're joking, but you can't be serious. Obviously, you're serious. I just - why?
CARRADINE: (As President Conrad) I recruited you for the CIA. I trained you as an analyst. I know how you think, how you work. I trust you.
BIANCULLI: After that scene, "Madam Secretary" jumps forward two months. So Elizabeth is well into her new job. In one way, it's a bold choice because it skips the usual introductions of a new workplace and a new set of characters. But in another way, it avoids the difficulties inherent in staging those various scenes and establishing the conflicts. After the two-month leap forward in time, the conflicts already are there, and we viewers are asked to catch up. In the end, there's at least one conflict too many, with a running subplot introduced that throws a conspiracy theory into the already convoluted mix. There were two ways this show's producers - who include the actor Morgan Freeman - could've gone with "Madam Secretary." The series could emulate the intelligence of NBC's "The West Wing," or focus on the soap opera excesses of ABC's "Scandal." Despite a gold standard supporting cast that includes Tim Daly, Bebe Neuwirth and Zeljko Ivanek, "Madam Secretary" opts for the "Scandal" route. "The Good Wife," on the other hand, features some of the smartest writing on television right now, and many of the smartest characters. Series creators Robert and Michelle King made last year's season five the show's best yet. With the sudden death of one main character and the continuing shuffling of the relationships, both professional and personal, among all the others. Cable and streaming TV may be where almost all the action is on television these days, but the "Good Wife" holds the fort for broadcast TV beautifully. Last season ended with a quiet but stunning cliffhanger. As Eli Gold, the governor's political advisor played so brilliantly by Alan Cumming asked Alicia Florrick, the wife of his boss an expected question after a small holiday dinner at her home while music is played in the background. This season's premier episode on Sunday picks up seconds later with her answer, and we're off. It's a scene similar to the one from "Madame Secretary" except it's so much more gripping and more real. Julianna Margulies, who just won her second Emmy for the role, stars as Alicia. And when Eli pops his question, surprising them both, Alicia's response is to get up from the dinner table and begin clearing and rinsing dishes. Retreating into a more comfortable role as homemaker.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD WIFE")
ALAN CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) Alicia.
JULIANNA MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Yes?
CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) Would you want to run for state's attorney?
MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) What?
CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) Would you want to run for state's attorney?
MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) I - no.
CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) Why not?
MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Why not - Eli, are you serious?
CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) Yes. I've been watching you for the last five years, you'd be perfect. We need a woman and people respect you, they like you.
MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) I'm not a politician, Eli.
CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) But you have political instincts and you're a brand. You're Saint Alicia. Well, you said yourself you want something new - empty nest syndrome. Zach's gone now.
MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Yes, and I have another child. Is this about Peter? Did he tell you to ask me?
CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) No, no.
MARGULIES: (As Alicia Florrick) Then why are you doing this. I'm never saying yes.
CUMMING: (As Eli Gold) Because you could win.
BIANCULLI: All these years in, I don't have to spend much time raving about why I love "The Good Wife." The legal cases they dramatize are as intelligent and as multilayered as the characters, and the acting from the guest stars as well as the regulars is marvelous. Each week on "The Good Wife," the show's opening credits don't show up until about ten minutes into the show and they always catch me by surprise because by that time, I'm so involved with the plot I forget that the credits haven't run yet. But when they arrive with flair and a bit of dramatic punctuation, they always remind me, week in and week out, that I'm watching one of TVs best dramas. "Madame Secretary," by being paired with the "Good Wife" on Sunday nights, suffers badly by comparison.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
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