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'A Serious Man,' At Sea In A Tragically Absurd World

A Serious Man is the Coen Brothers latest (and most specifically Jewish) take on the question of cosmic injustice. Larry Gopnik, a staid Mid-western physics professor, watches helplessly as his life begins to crumble. Critic David Edelstein says the movie unfolds like a strange, sad joke that makes you wonder whether the punchline "will make you laugh or want to kill yourself."

05:26

Other segments from the episode on October 2, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 2, 2009: Interview with Richard Thompson; Review of the film "A Serious man."

Transcript

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Richard Thompson, Looking Back

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is Fresh Air, I’m David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.

Over the past 41 years, singer, songwriter, guitarist Richard Thompson has made
a lot of great music in different settings.

In the ‘60s, it was as guitarist for the British band Fairport Convention, one
of the most important folk rock groups. In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, he performed
with his wife Linda Thompson. And since their divorce, he’s performed solo
under his own name, continuing to create evocative music - often darkly
humorous, sometimes just dark.

A new boxed set, “Walking on a Wire – 1968 to 2009,” collects 71 tracks
covering Richard Thompson’s entire career; from his early Fairport Convention
days to his latest solo work. Here’s one of the songs included on the new box
set, Richard and Linda Thompson from their 1982 album “Shoot Out The Lights,”
performing his song, “Wall of Death.”

(Soundbite of song, “Wall of Death”)

Mr. RICHARD THOMPSON (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) Let me ride on the wall of
death one more time. Let me ride on the wall of death one more time. You can
waste your time on the other rides, this is the nearest to being alive. Oh let
me take my chances on the wall of death.

BIANCULLI: Richard Thompson is such a welcome and frequent visitor to FRESH
AIR. But today, we’re pulling performances and interviews from three different
appearances. The first is from 1994 when Thompson brought his guitar to the
FRESH AIR studios and spoke with Terry about his CD, “Mirror Blue.” He opened
with “Easy There, Steady Now.” Terry asked him what inspired that song.

Mr. THOMPSON: I don’t know what I was thinking about - what, when this was
written. It’s a very kind of paranoid song. A very, uh, (unintelligible) kind
of urban desolation song, I suppose. You know? And the guy singing the song is
really kind of controlling - trying to control himself. But, yeah, you get a
feeling that, you know, he isn’t going to succeed. It’s a little darker, this
song. But I thought, well, you know, dark song, let’s put a nice wacky sort of
polka beat…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: …and that will fool everybody into thinking it’s something a
little lighter than it is. So it’s got strange things. I play a lot with an
acoustic bass player, Danny Thompson, who’s – no relation. But the arrangement,
we kind of worked up together. So, you know, some of his ideas (unintelligible)
arrangement. So, it’s kind of – a funny kind of Bulgarian bits and things in
it. I don’t know where they come from.

(Soundbite of song, “Easy There, Steady Now”)

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) Jack-knife with a precious load spills its guts all
over the road. Excuse me, I had to smile, lost my grip, too, for a while. I
said easy there, steady now, easy there, steady now. She didn't have the
decency to sweep away what's left of me. I don't have the presence of mind to
walk along on a straight line. Easy there, steady now, easy there, steady now.
I call your name, I call it loud. I see your face in every crowd.

3 am an empty town, Doctor Marten's echo down. Old man heartbreak follows you,
corruption's shadow swallows you. I said easy there, steady now, easy there,
steady now. Easy there, steady now, easy there, steady now.

TERRY GROSS: You know, I don’t know that I could think another guitarist who
combines the best of folk and rock, better than you do. And I’d like to like go
back to when you first got a guitar, and ask you about what you were listening
to then. What direction you thought you wanted to head in back when you were
however old you were?

Mr. THOMPSON: I don’t know if I had a direction, you know, I don’t think you
think when you’re that young or if you do, you know, Mozart or something.

GROSS: Why did you want a guitar?

Mr. THOMPSON: There was already a guitar in the house. My father played guitar
and there’s a lot of guitar music in the house, you know, Django Reinhardt
records and Les Paul records. Then my oldest sister, you know, when rock and
roll came along, she had Buddy Holly records and Gene Vincent records. So,
there’s lots of guitar stuff. So it was very logical to pick it up and play it.
And I really tried to play everything. So, I really absorbed you know a lot of
folk stars and a lot of rock stars. You know, really improved before I was 15
or 16.

GROSS: What was your father playing?

Mr. THOMPSON: He was playing dance band jazz, very badly though. He’s just an
amateur musician. And…

GROSS: So what (unintelligible) play in? He was a policeman?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. He was, you know, he just noodle around the house. I mean,
I think at some point, he was in a dance band. You know, the Swinging Cops or
something…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: …the Four Truncheons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So did you teach yourself?

Mr. THOMPSON: I taught myself a bit. My sister’s boyfriends used to teach me. A
couple of her boyfriends played guitar. So, while they were waiting for her to
get ready, it was just - usually a good couple of hours, I get a good guitar
lesson. And then I took classical lessons at one point for a couple of years.

GROSS: Oh, really?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah.

GROSS: So when you were, say, a teenager, what were the licks that you were
trying hardest to learn.

Mr. THOMPSON: You know, Buddy Holly sort of stuff…

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. THOMPSON: You know, some Elvis stuff.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. THOMPSON: You know, that sore of stuff. The Shadows, who were a great
British instrumental band.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. THOMPSON: That kind of stuff. This is the folk stuff here.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) And away we go. Away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: That was awful. Yaahhh! A lot of that sort of stuff, you know. I
used to go to folk clubs as well. You’d get a real diet – you know, you’d see
someone really good, you know, you’d see David Graham one week and then
somebody, like, really atrocious next week, but then, you know, you could see
blues artists coming to Britain from about ’63 onwards, ’63, ’64.

GROSS: And did they leave a big impression on you?

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, yeah, I mean, it’s great. You know, you could see someone,
you know, you’d heard on a record, and you thought they were dead and then, you
know, they’d turn up. It was just fantastic.

GROSS: So you were learning to play in many different languages, really, when
you were starting.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, so really, I used play a really wide range of music, and
when Fairport started up, we were really doing the same kind of thing, you
know. We tended to be whatever band was required to get the gig. So if they
wanted an acoustic band to play in the folk club, you know, that was us, you
know, we’d just get a repertoire together and do that, and if you wanted a
blues band, then you know, we’d learn some blues and be a blues band.

So I suppose it was a good education. At a certain point, we settled down to
play in a kind of, you know, assort of a traditional base style, rock style
that was very constant, still constant for me.

GROSS: But you really have a lot of folk in your playing and in your singing. I
think you have family from Scotland.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah.

GROSS: You grew up in London. Was it ever a roots kind of thing for you?

Mr. THOMPSON: It was, yeah. Well, you know, I grew up, you know, listening and
not really thinking about, you know, Scottish music. You know, there was a lot
of Scottish dance music in the house.

GROSS: That your parents played?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, yeah, and the bookshelves were lined with sort of Walter
Scott and Robert Burns and stuff, which, you know, out of boredom I used to
read and actually I kind of got into, and – but back a generation, my family
really used to be very musical.

You know, my great uncles used to have a dance band in Scotland, and they’d
play Scottish country music and jazz.

GROSS: Scottish country music. Is that, like, just…

Mr. THOMPSON: Scottish dance music.

GROSS: Okay, right.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. THOMPSON: It’s like I’m in the wrong tune again.

GROSS: Now, did you like that when you were growing up because a lot of people
grow up very much disliking the music of their parents and their grandparents,
and then when they get older, they go back to it.

Mr. THOMPSON: I liked it, but I discarded it. I thought it wasn’t important,
and it definitely wasn’t fashionable, yeah, until I was about, 17, 18 really,
and…

GROSS: And why did you go back to it then?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, I started to listen to more traditional music, and I
started to connect it, you know, going to folk clubs and hearing a really
great, you know, Scottish, Irish singer. I thought oh, you know, this will make
sense.

GROSS: Now, did you think it would make sense within the context of your
playing? You know, did you think you’d find a place within the context of rock
‘n’ roll?

Mr. THOMPSON: No, I really didn’t think so, but in Fairport, you know, we were
sort of a thinking band. You know, we were a bit intellectual, you know, for
better or worse, and we used to think, well, you know, what should we do? You
know, what’s our direction? You know, do we want to be, you know, a secondhand
British blues band? You know, did we want to be a really lousy soul band, you
know, or do we want to be original? And in pursuit of sort of originality and
meaning, I think, in our music, it took us to play traditional music with a
more contemporary lean, you know, and that for us was satisfying, and we
thought, well, here’s something that we can do best, here’s something, you
know, if Muddy Waters ever tries to sing “The Bonnie Bunch of Roses,” he’ll
come really unstuck, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: We can show him a thing or two.

BIANCULLI: Richard Thompson, speaking with Terry Gross in 1994. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let’s get back to Terry’s 1994 interview with Richard Thompson. A
new CD box set spanning his entire career, “Walking on a Wire: 1968 to 2009,”
recently has been released.

GROSS: Do you want to do another song for us?

Mr. THOMPSON: Okay, yes.

GROSS: How about another one from the new album. There’s a song called Mingus
Eyes,” which is Charles Mingus, and…

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, it refers to Charles Mingus, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, do you want to say something about the song?

Mr. THOMPSON: I could say that I suppose it’s a song of someone looking back at
youth, you know, and saying, you know, how stupid people are when they’re young
because they think they look like James Dean and that people think they’re cool
an intelligent. Actually, people think they’re stupid.

Perhaps at some point in your life, you realize that you look stupid, so you
know, in the song, the protagonist says, well you know, or he used to think if
I talk like Marlon Brando and people can’t understand me, and if I make big,
soulful eyes at people and look like Charles Mingus, then perhaps they’ll think
I’m really great, but maybe not.

(Soundbite of song, “Mingus Eyes”)

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) What a fool I was. What a thin disguise. Brando mumble.
Mingus eyes. Was a time she fell, but then she got wise. Brando mumble. Mingus
eyes.

I never had the squint of James Dean or the Stanislavski tears or the rebel
hunch that kills or the smile that slowly disappears. What a fool I was. What a
thin disguise. Brando mumble. Mingus eyes. Brando mumble. Mingus Eyes.

GROSS: That was great.

Mr. THOMPSON: Thank you.

GROSS: Something else I have to say about your guitar playing. It’s - all the
technical virtuosity is in service of the music and the emotion. I just feel
like you’re such a not-show-off player.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah, right.

Mr. THOMPSON: (Unintelligible) Well, I fooled you.

GROSS: Anyway, I love it. Now, I have to talk to you about your voice, too.
I’ve been talking to you about your playing. Back in the days when you were
learning Buddy Holly licks and Elvis Presley, you know, things off of Elvis
Presley records and stuff, what were you trying to do vocally? Did you think of
yourself as a singer yet, or were you just focusing on guitar?

Mr. THOMPSON: Not really. You know, I didn’t really sing, except for my own
amusement, probably. I probably got up in a folk club and sang, but it was
pretty awful, I’m sure.

I never really, you know, tried to be a singer until I think when Sandy Denny
left Fairport, then us chaps, we sort of looked at each other and said oh,
who’s going to sing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: So we sort of reluctantly, you know, took on the roles, but we
weren’t born singers. I mean, you know, I’ve really had to work very hard to
get anywhere as a singer. I’m still working at it, and you know, even 10 years
ago, you know, I don’t think I was very good at all, and 20 years ago, I was
pretty horrible.

You know, just singing live a lot and doing solo shows a lot helps me to be
better.

BIANCULLI: Richard Thompson speaking to Terry Gross in 1994. We’ll hear more
stories and more music from Richard Thompson in the second half of the show.
For now, here’s one of most recent songs from the box set, a 2007 from the
point of a view of a soldier in Iraq. The song is called “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me,”
and the dad in this case is short for Baghdad. I’m David Bianculli, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, “’Dad’s Gonna Kill Me”)

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) Out in the desert there's a soldier lying dead,
vultures pecking the eyes out of his head. Another day that could have been me
there instead. Nobody loves me here. Nobody loves me here. 'Dad's gonna kill
me. 'Dad's gonna kill me.

You hit the booby trap and you're in pieces with every bullet your risk
increases. Old Ali Baba, he's a different species. Nobody loves me here. Nobody
loves me here. 'Dad's gonna kill me. 'Dad's gonna kill me.

I'm dead meat in my Humvee Frankenstein. I hit the road block somehow I never
hit the mine. The dice were rolled and I got lucky this time. 'Dad's gonna kill
me. 'Dad's gonna kill me.

I got a wife, a kid, another on the way. I might get home if I can live through
today. Before I came out here I never used to pray. Nobody loves me here.
Nobody loves me here. ‘Dad's gonna kill me…

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.

Richard Thompson recently released "Walking on a Wire," a CD box set spanning
his entire career, from his Fairport Convention days in the ‘60s to his recent
solo recordings and concerts. So we're listening back to some his many visits
to FRESH AIR. The first one was in 1991.

GROSS: Now, a lot of British rock performers were inspired by the British blues
revival. What effect did that have on you?

Mr. THOMPSON: I probably went the other way. I think I was slightly repulsed by
the blues revival.

GROSS: Repulsed?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, I've always - you know, since I was about 11 or 12 I was
listening to the blues, you know, and when the blues revival came along there
was suddenly, you got thousands of British kids playing, you know, what were
really inferior versions of Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King and Otis Rush, and I
thought, well, this can't be right. You know, this isn't really any good. This
is always going to be nothing more than a pale imitation of this wonderful
music.

You know, kids living in the suburbs of Manchester, England are never really
going to capture it because, you know, there's things that you can't know.
There's experiences you can't have about America and about being black and that
way of life, you know. So I sort of went the other way, really. I think the
blues revival and the popularity of soul music in Britain in the ‘60s really
drove Fairport to traditional music, really, to an indigenous form of music.

GROSS: So when you turned the other way and found music that was traditionally
in your country, the kind of folk ballads that you drew on, was that a return
for you to that kind of music or was that a brand new discovery of it?

Mr. THOMPSON: It was a bit of both. I think we knew about it, you know,
sketchily, really. We'd always, you know, hung out in folk clubs and listened
to traditional performers and we had a little bit in childhood and they ram a
bit of it down your throat at school, you know. But actually, to really
understand it and get into it, we had to do quite a lot of research. We had to
do a lot of learning. We had to spend a lot of time with traditional musicians
to learn our stuff, really.

GROSS: Why did you leave the band when you did?

Mr. THOMPSON: I was writing a lot of songs that didn’t seem to have any place
in the band. It was very difficult for me to take those songs because they
seemed really rather eccentric songs and rather bizarre songs. But...

GROSS: What, like "Henry the Human Fly" or something?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. A lot of stuff ended up on "Henry the Human Fly", you know,
which is a very eccentric album. And, but it was a direction that I really
wanted to explore and it seemed it'd be better - I'd have more time to work on
it if I was outside of the band. You know, I was reluctant to leave because
there were all great friends and we still are great friends. But you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: ...but bands have to change.

GROSS: For many years after the Fairport period, you performed and recorded
with your wife Linda Thompson and I think a lot of people assumed that the
songs that you were singing were personal songs about your relationship
together. I'm wondering if that is something you feel like you would never want
to do again. In other words, to really sing with someone who you had that close
a relationship and to sing songs about a relationship together.

Mr. THOMPSON: Hmm. First of all, I’d say that the songs really weren't about
our relationship, whatever people might think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: Again, the songs were fiction. What was going on in the
subconscious? I mean I don't know, but there's nothing deliberately written
about, you know, people. Obviously if you’re writing for a man's voice and a
woman's voice you have to write some songs from a woman's point of view, so if
you’re writing about relationships, then you know, you have her angle and you
have his angle and it almost looks as if you’re writing a, you know, kind of
soap opera.

But would I like to do it again? It's difficult. You know, like all - I think
it was, it’s a difficult thing to sustain, you know, a career and a marriage at
the same time, where you’re in such close proximity all the time. You know,
you’re working together and you’re home together. It's a very hard thing, very
hard thing to do. I wouldn’t want to do it again.

BIANCULLI: Richard Thompson on FRESH AIR in 1991. His new box set, "Walking on
a Wire," featuring songs from 1968 to the present, was recently released.
Here's the title track recorded in 1982 by Richard and Linda Thompson.

(Soundbite of song, "Walking on a Wire")

RICHARD AND LINDA THOMPSON: (Singing) I hand you my ball and chain. You just
hand me that same old refrain. I'm walking on a wire, I'm walking on a wire and
I'm falling. I wish I could please you tonight. But my medicine just won't come
right. I'm walking on a wire, I'm walking on a wire, and I'm falling.

BIANCULLI: Richard and Linda Thompson from their 1982 album "Shoot Out the
Lights." We'll continue with our Richard Thompson retrospective after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: In 2002, Richard Thompson came to FRESH AIR to perform songs from a
show based on great tunes he didn’t write called "A Thousand Years of Pop
Music." It included a Shakespearean song, a madrigal, songs by Hank Williams,
the Beatles, and a hit made famous by Britney Spears. Terry asked him about
that one.

GROSS: Nowadays when want to illustrate how bad certain pop music is they will
use as an example "Oops I Did It Again," the big hit by Britney Spears...

Mr. THOMPSON: Would they do that really? Well, that's a shame.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You have taken that show and you’re doing it in your show. Obviously
there's something that you really like about the song or the record.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, I think it's a good song. I think it's somewhat in the
Swedish pop tradition. As far as I know, the songs are written and recorded in
Sweden and then they get flown over to the States and Britney puts the voice on
it and they fly them back and produce them and the results are mega, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: But you know, I kind of like Swedish pop music, you know, the
Cardigans and ABBA and what have you, you know. And I think it’s actually, it’s
kind of a good song. It's quite witty in its own way and I don't think it’s
terrible. I could find a lot more terrible songs around these days than this.

GROSS: Well, why don't you do it for us?

Mr. THOMPSON: Okay.

(Soundbite of song, "Oops I did It Again,")

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) I think I did it again. I made you believe we're more
than just friends. It might seem like a crush but that doesn't mean that I'm
serious. But to lose all my senses, that's just so typically me, oh baby, baby.
Oops I did it again. I played with your heart. Got lost in the game. Oh baby
baby. Oops, you think I'm in love, that I'm sent from above. I'm not that
innocent.

You see my problem is this. I'm dreaming away wishing that heroes truly exist.
I cry watching the days you see I'm a fool in so many ways. But to lose all my
senses, that's just so typically me, oh baby baby. Oops I did it again. I
played with your heart. Got lost in the game. Oh baby baby. Oops, you think I'm
in love, that I'm sent from above. I'm not that innocent.

GROSS: That's good.

Mr. THOMPSON: It's not so bad, is it?

GROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's very good.

BIANCULLI: Richard Thompson recorded in 2002. That was one of the songs
included in his show "A Thousand Years of Pop Music." Let's keep moving and
get right back to the other Richard Thompson concert we're featuring today,
recorded in 1994.

GROSS: There's another song I'd like to ask you to do called "I Can't Wake Up."

Mr. THOMPSON: Okay. Here it comes.

(Soundbite of song, "I Can't Wake Up")

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) In my nightmare everything's wrong. I'm waiting for
love, but you come along. You smile, you wave, you kiss me, ciao. But you seem
too happy to see me somehow. And then the sky falls in on my head. Your nails
grow long, your eyes turn red. You say forever dear and a day. You swear that
you're never going to go away. And my feet won't move to run the other way.

And I can't wake up to save my life. Oh I can't wake up to save my life. In my
nightmare you forgive me. The cruelest gift you could ever give me. You say
that you understand me now. Your eyes say, brother, I'll get you somehow. And
then the lightning streaks across the room. You smell like something fresh from
the tomb. You squeeze too hard, you insist on kissing. When it seems like half
your face is missing. And your hairs turned into reptiles hissing.

And I can't wake up to save my life. Oh I can't wake up to save my life, oh.
Things I done make my dreams go bad. Like Borstal boys coming home to Dad. What
you reap so shall you sow. So feet don’t fail me. Go man go.

I can't wake up to say save my life. No I can't wake up to save my life. No I
can't wake up. No, I can't wake up. No I can't, ooh.

GROSS: Great. Is there a story behind the song?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: That’s just, you know, just a story.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: It's just a dream, you know.

GROSS: A bad dream.

Mr. THOMPSON: A bad dream. I suppose it’s a kind of, it’s a, I suppose a
classic putdown song, really. It's, you know.

GROSS: There's something I want to quote here. Can I ask you to quote the line?
This is from "The Way That It Shows." I just think it's a particularly well
written couple of lines here. Can you quote the first few lines?

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh that one. Going to give yourself away to some Casanova on the
spills and stains of a backstage sofa. He'll catch you yawning with one leg
over. Is that enough?

GROSS: Yeah. I think that's really great writing. I mean I think...

Mr. THOMPSON: Casanova - over. Well, at that point I was, the rhyme scheme was
getting desperate. I was running out of possibilities.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I'm not even thinking about the rhyme but the spills and the stains on
the couch. I thought that was really nice. Did you...

Mr. THOMPSON: I was actually thinking of a backstage in Philadelphia.

GROSS: Oh really?

Mr. THOMPSON: I can't remember what the place is called, a really sort of
rundown rock ‘n’ roll theater. It's got the smelliest couch I ever seen in my
life.

GROSS: Hmm.

Mr. THOMPSON: You know, you can sort of smell the sort of improvised sex oozing
off this couch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: It's quite disturbing.

GROSS: Now, who are the songwriters you admire? And did you ever go through a
period of trying to write in the manner of different songwriters like you went
through a period of trying to play in the style of different guitarists?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. I think it’s a great exercise. I still do it. You know, I
still think, well, you know, here's a songwriter who, you know, has a great
kind of flow or something. You know, why don't I try and write a song in that
style? You know, I still do that. But you know, early on I was listening to -
well, I just think, it’s - you know, people like The Everly Brothers and, you
know, Phil Ochs and Richard Farina. And I have always been influenced by
Scottish ballads, I think that’s probably the richest place you can find songs
because they’re just so good and they’re so stunningly, you know, succinct.

GROSS: And they tell full stories.

Mr. THOMPSON: There, you know, there is so much in a verse and it’s so
beautifully pared down over the centuries, just wonderful stuff. So that, you
know, that’s a big influence. And some of the Scottish, you know, writers like,
you know, Carolina Oliphant and Burns, you know, Burns Walter Scott.

GROSS: Can I ask you to play a chorus of one of your songs that you feel is
specially influenced by traditional Scottish ballads?

Mr. THOMPSON: Phew, gosh. Okay…

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) Oh you speak the words locked in my brain, but it’s
left me, let an old man rest, one more block in time, on the barricades to keep
me safe from loving.

Mr. THOMPSON: And it goes on. But in terms of, you know, the verse structure,
you know, word usage, word repetition…

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMPSON: …blah, blah, blah, you know, and tune, I mean, it’s very…

GROSS: And the way you sang it.

Mr. THOMPSON: Very Scottish. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. I’ve really just so enjoyed the concert. I’m so thrilled we were
able to do this. I want to thank you very, very much.

Mr. THOMPSON: I’m very grateful you have me. Thank you.

GROSS: Would you like to close with another song from…

Mr. THOMPSON: Sure.

GROSS: …the new album or if you prefer something earlier or…

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, I can do something earlier.

GROSS: Yeah, great.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. What would you like?

GROSS: Want to do “Feel So Good?”

Mr. THOMPSON: Okay.

GROSS: Yeah, why don’t you do “Feel So Good.”

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is from a previous album, from a couple of years ago, called “Rumor
and Sigh.”

Mr. THOMPSON: It is indeed, yes. Here we go…

(Soundbite of song, “I Feel So Good”)

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) I feel so good I’m going to break somebody’s heart
tonight. I feel so good I’m going to take someone apart tonight. They put me in
jail for my deviant ways. Two years, seven months and sixteen days. Now back on
the street in a purple haze. And I feel so good. I feel so good. I feel so good
I’m going to break somebody’s heart tonight. I feel so good I’m going to make
somebody’s day tonight. I feel so good I’m going to make somebody pay tonight.
I’m old enough to sin but I’m too young to vote. Society’s been dragging on the
tail of my coat. But I’ve got a suitcase full of fifty pound notes. And a half-
naked woman with her tongue down my throat.

And I feel so good. And I feel so good. I feel so good I’m going to break
somebody’s heart tonight. They made me pay for the things I’ve done. Now it’s
my turn to have all the fun. I feel so good I’m going to break somebody’s heart
tonight. And I feel so good. And I feel so good. I feel so good I’m going to
break somebody’s heart tonight. Oh oh oh, I feel so good I’m going to break
somebody’s heart tonight. Break somebody’s heart. Break somebody’s heart. Break
somebody’s heart.

BIANCULLI: Richard Thompson from a 1994 FRESH AIR performance. That last song
is one of the 71 tracks featured on his new box set, “Walking on a Wire.” The
FRESH AIR performance was recorded by Audrey Bentham.

This is FRESH AIR.
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'A Serious Man,' At Sea In A Tragically Absurd World

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

In a 2008 acceptance speech after winning an Academy Award for “No Country For
Old Men,” Joel Coen thanked the industry for allowing him and his brother Ethan
to, quote, “continue to play in our corner of the sandbox,” unquote. The Coen
brother’s 14th feature, “A Serious Man” is set in suburban Minneapolis, 1967,
not far from the sandbox in which they played as kids.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s, “No
Country For Old Men” had a radical twist for the thriller genre. The hero,
Sheriff Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones, gave up. He concluded that the world
was ruled by cruelty and chance. God might exist, but he’d gone elsewhere.

“A Serious Man” is the Coens’ Jewish take on the question of cosmic injustice.
It’s set in suburban Minneapolis, where they grew up, in 1967, when Joel was 13
and Ethan, 10. They’d reportedly intended the film to have two protagonists, a
13-year-old boy and his father. But as they wrote the script, the father moved
to the center. He’s Larry Gopnik, a physics professor affectingly played by
Michael Stuhlbarg, a stage actor who’s never had a lead role on screen. Like
mischievous angels, the Coens seem to enjoy bombarding him with bad things.

At first, his life seems a model of stability. His son is about to be bar
mitzvahed, and his college is on the verge of granting him tenure. Then his
world begins to get strange — even David Lynchian, if you go by the slanted
light on the flat landscape, the hard angles of lawns and fences and ticky-tack
houses. Most devastating is the news that his wife has taken up with an older
man, a widower named Sy, played by Fred Melemed, who wants her to have a Jewish
divorce, a get. The philandering Sy looks like he could play Tevye in “Fiddler
on the Roof” and fancies himself a moral Jew, or as the movie calls it, a
serious man.

Stuhlbarg’s Larry endures this misfortune with passive incomprehension. His
face tightens, his lips press together from the effort not to scream. He’s
teaching Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, so his science won’t help him
understand the forces in the universe. When a friend in leg braces, played by
the luminous Katherine Borowitz, says, it’s not always easy to figure out what
God is trying to tell us, Larry goes to a series of rabbis.

The first is a young assistant, who advises him to appreciate the beauties of
God’s creation and gestures out the window to a remarkably forgettable parking
lot. The second, middle-aged, says God owes us nothing. The obligation goes the
other way. There’s a third, ancient rabbi, who doesn’t ordinarily have office
hours. The desperate Larry makes his case to an unsmiling secretary.

(Soundbite of movie, “A Serious Man”)

Mr. MICHAEL STUHLBARG (Actor): (As Larry Gopnik) Please I need help. I’ve
already talked to the other rabbis, please. It’s not about Danny’s bar mitzvah,
my boy, Danny, this coming Shabbat, very joyous event. That’s all fine. It’s
more about myself. I’ve had quite a bit of tsuris, lately. Marital problems,
professional, you name it. This is not a frivolous request. This is a – I’m a –
I’ve tried to be a serious man, you know? Tried to do right, be a member of the
community, raised Danny, Sarah. They both go to school, Hebrew school, a good
breakfast. Well, Danny goes to Hebrew school. Sarah doesn’t have time. She
mostly washes her hair. Apparently, there are several steps involved but you
don’t have to tell Marshak that. Just tell him I need help. Please, I need
help.

EDELSTEIN: “A Serious Man” is far from perfect. Some of the dialogue is
mannered. Larry’s wife is a cartoon shrew. And there are too many fleshy close-
ups that emphasize things like ear hair. But it’s the first of the Coens’ films
that seems vaguely personal, not just because it has elements of their
childhood, but because the tone is less controlled, as if they weren’t sure
where they were going when they set out to write. Is it a comedy, a tragedy?
It’s on the border. It’s like a broad Jewish joke that slowly becomes a
jeremiad, a tale of woe that keeps you wondering if the punch line, when it
comes, will make you laugh or want to kill yourself.

Larry’s son smokes dope before his bar mitzvah, and the vision of the rabbis
from his stoned perspective is both uproarious and oddly consoling. The Coens
might not believe in the substance of the Torah, but they seem to respect its
solidness in a chaotic world. Their vision is morbid, absurd, but not
nihilistic. “A Serious Man” opens with a quote from the Bible scholar, Rashi:
Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you. The lesson of this
haunting film is stuff happens, and if you’re going to lose, lose gracefully.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can
download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

For Terry Gross, I’m David Bianculli.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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