At SXSW, Garth Brooks Sees The Constants In A Changing Industry

“You cannot stop creating,” Garth Brooks says. “That’s what I think you’re put down here to do.”

Jeremy Cowart/Courtesy of the artist

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Jeremy Cowart/Courtesy of the artist

The South by Southwest music festival is well-established as a venue where up-and-coming artists get discovered. But it also offers a chance to hear from the music industry’s icons — like veteran country star Garth Brooks, who delivered a keynote address at the Austin Convention Center during SXSW this week. Brooks kicked off his career in the 1980s, and he’s still breaking records and selling out shows. Over the years, he’s solidified himself as one of the best-selling solo artists of all time. Most recently, he’s been traveling throughout North America on a three-year tour with his wife, fellow country singer Trisha Yearwood.

NPR’s Michel Martin caught up with Brooks at SXSW to discuss changes in the industry, the ways listeners connect with certain songs and the relationship between music and political polarization. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

Michel Martin: This festival focuses on music, technology and film, and it often talks about disruption and change in all of those industries. How has the industry changed since you’ve been involved in it?

Garth Brooks: This show ain’t long enough for that. You gotta remember when I — when we hit, it was vinyl, cassettes — CDs weren’t even out yet, right? I remember CDs were coming out right when the first album came out. So my first album that they gave me — that was free — cost me 300 bucks, because I ran home so excited and realized I don’t have a [CD player]. I had to go out and buy one to hear the first CD. So it’s been an unbelievable change throughout, but the one thing that remains constant is the music and how that music affects people.

I’m very fortunate to be involved with songs like “The Dance,” “If Tomorrow Never Comes” for that. Someone’s going to pull you over in the grocery store and say, “I lost my son and we played “The Dance” at his [funeral]” — and then, “To Make You Feel My Love,” “Shameless,” people are going to pull you over and go, “That was the first song at our wedding.” “Friends In Low Places” — you don’t want to know the story they pull you over for that. It’s so cool that the music kinda lets you be in their life. And it’s been doing [it] that way now for 25 years.

In addition to being a singer, you also have an MBA; you obviously wanted to understand and master the business side as well. Did you have an epiphany moment where you realized that the business is one thing and the art is another, or was that something that you always felt? Because a lot of artists are really angry about some of the changes in the industry.

Well, they should be angry about them, but the artists should be angry for the songwriters. Those are the people that are getting left behind. We talk about movies, we talk about music, we talk about gaming. If it’s not for the people that write it and create it, we don’t have it — and if we do have it, it sucks. It’s very stale, it’s very white, it’s just — bleh. And that can’t be. So if anybody should be angry, it should be the songwriters.

Let’s talk a little bit about streaming. You resisted it for a while, but now you have an exclusive deal with Amazon. A lot of artists, especially the big names like yourself, have these exclusive deals. Some people feel that that makes it harder for that 12-year-old on an allowance to access the music that he or she loves.

100 percent agreed. For me, we’re going to consume music any way we can. ‘Cause we love music — that’s what I love about the human race.

You’re talking about a dad of three daughters, and they were raised like I were raised: Once they got old enough to drive, they got a job. And so they had three summer jobs before they went to college. … So they’d consume music however they can. They had money they could spend, but they didn’t spend it on streaming. Radio, terrestrial radio, they just tore it up. And then anything that was the vibe anywhere, YouTube was the next place that they would go.

What I think I also hear you saying is that people will pay for the things that they value, and if they value it, then they will find a way to pay for it.

Yeah, I think so. And you gotta remember what things are worth. … When you talk about a song that means everything to you — I’m trying to think of a song for me and Ms. Yearwood that just means everything, and it might be [The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody”] off the movie Ghostwhen they’re doing that clay thing, it’s one of the coolest moments in movie history. You think about that song — that song’s got to be worth more than 99 cents to me in my life, right?

So I think the thing with albums for me, why I love them, is for 10 bucks — price of a movie ticket, or maybe a little more — you can see that movie through music a thousand times if you want. … But if you understand how music works, if you understand what that does for the songwriters, that’s what makes songwriters survive long enough until they get to write the song that changes the world. And I think music is that powerful. So I’ll stand behind that any day.

At the press conference you gave at SXSW, you talked about a song that you wrote in response to the LA riots, “We Shall Be Free.”

We just re-released it. It’s just showing up at all the concerts now. Signs [that say] “We Shall Be Free,” and you’re like, what’s going on?

What is going on?

I think that song resurges when there is unrest, and right now, I don’t know if we’ve ever been more polar opposite than we are right now within our own country. The thing that kills me is if we’ve got 10 things that mean something to us, if we don’t agree on all 10 things, if we disagree on one of them, we can’t be in the same room together. When did that happen? When did it not happen that, “hey man, I don’t agree with you on this point, [but] I agree with you on this point, this point, this point, let’s exist”?

It seems that certain genres are now aligned with certain political points of view. It’s not a secret that a lot of people in hip-hop and R&B and a lot of the indie folks seem to lean left. A lot of people in country seem to lean right. Is there a way in which the music industry is actually abetting the polarization and not bridging it?

Well, I hope not, because for me — let’s just talk about what I know, and that’s Garth Brooks as an artist. There is no left and right. There is what is, and then wherever they pigeonhole you or put a label on you, that’s their deal. But what you gotta do is you just gotta speak from the heart. And [in] “We Shall Be Free,” “when the last thing we notice is the color of skin, and the first thing we look for is the beauty within,” there is no left and right there — that’s just, I’m going to base what I think about you on how you treat me and how I treat you. And to me, I don’t think there’s a fairer system than that. So I’m gonna stay away from the left or right, not because I’m afraid of alienating somebody, because I am always gonna tell you what I feel. And if it puts me in that left or right category in your mind, or if it sets me apart, whatever, it’s going to be what it’s going to be.

What are you excited about these days?

That’s a broad question, because I’m going to talk about my babies and I’m going to talk about being Ms. Yearwood’s husband. Those are the things that I’m excited about. Miss my mom and dad. And I love God and Jesus, and that’s it. But you want to talk about music?

Yeah, what’s keeping you motivated musically?

I think [playing] live is always wonderful. Love to see the faces that we’re seeing again, and love to see these faces that weren’t born last time we were touring. That’s sweet, it’s fun and it’s neat to see all those faces singing every word of every verse of every song. That gets you up every day and it makes you feel like you’re 20 every day. And then just the creation of content, always. Because I am a firm believer that what’s going to go on is what’s going to go on, but you cannot stop creating. Because that’s what I think you’re put down here to do.

Radio producer Liz Baker and web producer Rachel Horn contributed to this story.

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After Schizophrenic Inmate Dies In A Shower, Florida Prosecutor Finds No Wrongdoing

A prisoner works on the lawn at the Dade Correctional Institution In 2014, in Florida City, Fla. On Friday, Miami-Dade prosecutor Katherine Fernandez Rundle found no wrongdoing in the death of mentally ill prisoner Darren Rainey, who was locked in a shower stall at the Dade Correctional Institution in June 2012. He died after he was left unattended for two hours with the water running.

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Prosecutors in Miami-Dade County said that they found no evidence of a crime in the death of a prison inmate who was left for two hours in a hot shower.

Four years after Darren Rainey died at the Dade Correctional Institution, the state’s investigation found that the corrections officers who locked Rainey in the shower committed no crime. Miami-Dade prosecutor Katherine Fernandez Rundle opted not to charge any of the officers, finding that “the evidence does not show that Rainey’s well-being was grossly disregarded by the correctional staff.”

The state’s medical examiner, Dr. Emma Lew, found that Rainey’s death was an accident resulting from his schizophrenia, heart disease and being confined in the shower. “It is not substantiated that temperatures inside the shower room were excessively high,” she wrote.

But the investigation’s findings are disputed. As the Associated Press reports, several witnesses said that Rainey’s skin appeared to be “peeled back” and reddish in spots, with one inmate claiming that Rainey looked like “a boiled lobster.”

The Miami Herald also spoke with witnesses who disputed the state’s conclusions:

“Witnesses, including a nurse on duty that night, and several inmates interviewed by the Herald over the past two years, have said that two corrections officers, Cornelius Thompson and Roland Clark, forced Rainey into an enclosed, locked shower stall and that the water had been cranked as high as 180 degrees from a neighboring room, where the heat controls were. … Rainey screamed in terror and begged to be let out for more than an hour until he collapsed and died, witnesses told the Herald. Some of the officers taunted and laughed at him, some inmates who were in the unit at the time of his death said.”

The Herald interviewed Dr. Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist who was on New York State’s prison medical review board for 40 years, and he questioned the medical examiner’s findings:

” ‘Well, you don’t die from schizophrenia,’ said Baden, former chief medical examiner in New York City. ‘And skin just doesn’t slough off by itself.’

Sloughing, he said, is ‘hot water trauma’ that can only be caused by prolonged exposure to elevated water temperature.

If pieces of Rainey’s skin peeled off simply from his being exposed to a lengthy shower spray, Baden said, then anyone who ever takes a long bath would find their skin peeling off their body.”

Baden also questioned why it took more than three years for the state’s autopsy report to be completed.

From state hospitals to state prisons

Rainey was four months into a two-year sentence on a cocaine charge when he died. He was being housed in prison’s Transitional Care unit, for the mentally ill.

In 2014 and 2015, the Heraldpublished an investigative series on deadly abuse in Florida’s prisons; the paper’s reporting eventually led to a settlement between the Florida Department of Corrections and a statewide disability advocacy group, requiring the state to improve the way it treats inmates at Dade Correctional Institution, where Rainey died. A study by Governing magazine found that Florida ranked 49 of 51 in mental health expenditures per capita in 2010.

A 2016 article in The New Yorker about the dangerous conditions for the mentally ill inside Florida’s prisons notes that by the 1990s, “prisons had become America’s dominant mental-health institutions. … [B]etween 1996 and 2014, the number of Florida prisoners with mental disabilities grew by a hundred and fifty-three per cent.”

How did this come to pass?

A major policy shift known as deinstitutionalization began in 1955, alongside the creation of the first effective antipsychotic medication, chlorpromazine. Deinstitutionalization is the policy of moving mentally ill people out of state mental hospitals and then closing those institutions. State mental hospitals were costly and unpopular; the development of new psychiatric drugs seemed poised to revolutionize treatment of the mentally ill.

In 1963, Congress passed legislation called The Community Health Centers Act. “The legislation sought to create a nationwide network of locally based mental health centers which, rather than large state hospitals, would be the main source of treatment,” as the The New York Times explained two decades later.

The Timeswrote about the compounding problems that resulted from this policy, and the climate that led to its creation.

“The original policy changes were backed by scores of national professional and philanthropic organizations and several hundred people prominent in medicine, academia and politics. The belief then was widespread that the same scientific researchers who had conjured up antibiotics and vaccines during the outburst of medical discovery in the 50’s and 60’s had also developed penicillins to cure psychoses and thus revolutionize the treatment of the mentally ill. …

[The] architects of the community centers legislation believed that while there was a risk of homelessness, that it would not happen if Federal, state, local and private financial support ‘was sufficient’ to do the job.”

The passage of Medicaid and Medicare in 1965 gave states incentives to move patients from state mental hospitals and into nursing homes and the psychiatric wings of general hospitals that received federal funding, writes Columbia University law professor Bernard Harcourt. Changing social perceptions had also turned against mental institutions. “With the political backdrop of the civil liberties movement, advocates for the mentally ill viewed institutionalized care not as an asylum to protect the mentally ill, but as an intrusion on the liberty and autonomy of the mentally ill, and they sought legal reforms restricting involuntary psychiatric treatment,” argues Harcourt.

This combination of factors — a belief that new drugs would reduce the number of mentally ill people, financial incentives for state hospitals to close, and increasing discomfort with committing people to mental institutions — gave rise in the 1950s and ’60s to our eventual status quo, where it’s common for the mentally ill to be imprisoned or homeless.

And as the Herald‘s investigations made clear, prisons can be very dangerous places for the mentally ill.

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Indonesia's Peat Fires Still Blaze, But Not As Much As They Used To

Farmer Arif Subandi surveys scorched peat lands near his house in the village of Punggur Kecil in West Kalimantan Province on Borneo.

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Yosef Riadi for NPR

With fires crackling in the peat soils, smoke billowing up and hot ash raining down just a stone’s throw from his house, farmer Arif Subandi chokes up as he surveys the scene.

“Now our land is burned, our environment neglected,” he says, sobbing. “Where will my children and grandchildren go?”

The 48-year-old father of five, who lives just outside the capital of Indonesia’s West Kalimantan Province on Borneo, says he doesn’t have enough to support his family. He’s worried about local companies trying to take the land from him.

The fires can be hard to extinguish. “We’re in the bush,” Subandi explains. “These are ferns. And the fire burns the dry roots beneath us. During the dry season, the fire can burn three feet or more underground.”

On top, the peat is a dry, loose, spongy tangle of roots and leaves. Subandi sticks his hand through the top layer up to his elbow, and pulls up a handful of dirt. It’s wetter and more compacted, showing what happens as the decaying vegetation sinks and mixes with the water below.

It’s been just over a year since massive forest fires ravaged the Indonesian island of Borneo, throwing millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere and sickening thousands. Some observers called it the worst environmental disaster of the century so far. Peat fires and deforestation contribute to Indonesia’s status as one of the world’s top carbon emitters.

Indonesia responded by banning the use of fire in clearing peat lands, and by naming and shaming companies responsible for setting some of the fires. With help from a wetter rainy season, fires last year were down more than 80 percent compared to 2015.

Indonesia is home to half the world’s tropical peat lands, and the catastrophe focused unprecedented attention on their importance. Despite being illegal, clearing peat land by fire remains widespread in Indonesia, as it is the cheapest way to clear land for agriculture and industry.

Peat is basically made up of decaying plants underwater. It is one of nature’s most effective ways of taking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it underground, which helps mitigate global warming. But when the peat swamps are drained and burned, they release some 10 times more carbon than forest fires.

Smoke and flames rise from a peat fire in West Kalimantan Province. Peat fires and deforestation contribute to Indonesia’s status as a leading carbon emitter.

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Yosef Riadi for NPR

Subandi’s story illustrates the issues of population pressures on the peat lands, unclear land rights and complicated economic and political issues that result in peat fires.

Subandi says he moved with his parents from the island of Java to Borneo in the early 1970s. Many of today’s peat land residents were moved there by the government to ease population pressures on more crowded islands.

When Subandi’s family arrived in Kalimantan Province, sun bears, monkeys and wild boars still roamed the intact peat forests. Trees were so big, Subandi says, it took three or four people to wrap their arms around some of them.

Subandi says his family worked hard to make the land arable. They felled trees with axes, saws and machetes and used the timber to build their homes. They dug canals to drain the peat swamps, and then planted the land with corn and rice.

As Subandi’s family grew, he built a second house to stake his claim to a plot of communally owned village land. But he says a local Yamaha motorcycle dealership has tried to take some land near his first house, and he is concerned that a palm oil company is about to encroach on land near the second.

He said men from the motorcycle dealership tried to give him money for the land. “They said, ‘If you don’t take the compensation and move, you will face the consequences,'” he recalls. “We understood what they were implying. We felt threatened.”

A representative of a local organization that supports small farmers in West Kalimantan told me that a palm oil firm had claims on about half the land in Subandi’s village, but had not started planting there yet. NPR was not able to contact either the palm oil firm or the motorcycle dealership.

The organization representative said the chief of Subandi’s village was working as an agent for the palm oil firm, something the chief denies.

“There’s just no legal clarity for anyone, and everyone suffers,” says Erik Meijaard, founder of the Brunei-based environmental group Borneo Futures.

Legal uncertainty about land ownership “is creating this push for rapid and often unsustainable use of natural resources and land,” he says. That includes the use of fire to clear peat.

Many environmental groups blame big palm oil and pulp and paper plantation owners as the worst offenders, but Meijaard says the distinction between big and small players is an artificial one.

“Everyone is trying to make a buck,” he says.

Smoke rises from smoldering fires on peat land in the village of Punggur Kecil, West Kalimantan Province. Despite being illegal, clearing peat land by fire remains widespread in Indonesia, as it is the cheapest way to clear land for agriculture and industry.

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Before the 1960s and 1970s, he says, very few Indonesians were living on peat lands. The soil is acidic and not suited to farming. More importantly, he says, most peat is on coastal lowlands, and draining that peat for industry or agriculture is, in the long run, a losing proposition.

Peat naturally sinks and after 30 or 40 years, will disappear. “What you end up with,” Meijaard says, “is basically a hollowed-out area where seawater will come in and you end up with an area that’s totally unproductive for anything” – a situation all too familiar in Meijaard’s native Netherlands.

But as far as Indonesia’s government is concerned, moving all inhabitants off of the country’s peat lands “is not an option,” says conservationist Nazir Foead, named last year to head the country’s new Peatland Restoration Agency.

He says people living on peat lands have rights that should be respected.

“They spent almost all of their fortune to buy a piece of land in that area,” he says, “and I think it’s wiser to help them earn their living, but adaptive to the wet ecosystem.”

That means planting crops suited to peat lands, such as sago and pineapple. It also means, Foead says, clearing land without fire — even if that requires greater inputs of labor, time or capital.

Despite the challenges, Foead says Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo is committed to restoring the peat lands.

“I see everything is lining up,” Foead says. “We need to get a few very important successes on the ground that drive markets and investors to adopt sustainable practices.”

Nearly half of Indonesia’s nearly 60,000 square miles of peat lands are still intact. The government has begun re-wetting the drained areas. Foead says if Indonesia can protect its intact peat lands and restore the degraded ones, it will save about a gigaton of carbon emissions a year, more carbon than Germany — with an economy five times as big as Indonesia’s — emits in a year.

And that, Foead says, could set an example for others.

“We will inspire tens of countries,” he says. “This is what you can do, if you do it right.”

That goal remains many years off. For now, Foead’s agency is aiming to restore 10 percent of Indonesia’s degraded peat lands by 2020.

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Ahead Of House Hearing, Committee Head Says No Evidence Of Collusion Or Wiretapping

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. (right), and the committee’s ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., depart after a briefing with FBI Director Jim Comey about Russian influence on the American presidential election earlier this month

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The head of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said that there is still no evidence that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower, as President Trump has claimed, even after the Department of Justice provided to the committee documents related to the allegation on Friday.

The allegations of wiretapping are part of a broader House Intelligence Committee investigation over accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. It will hold its first public hearing Monday, in which FBI Director James Comey is expected to be asked to weigh in on the president’s claim.

A wiretap would require a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, but Nunes told Fox News Sunday there’s still no evidence of a FISA warrant for surveillance of Trump Tower.

When asked whether the committee has seen evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the California Republican was direct.

“I’ll give you a very simple answer: No,” he said.

The top Democrat on the intelligence committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, had a different perspective. He said that there is “circumstantial evidence” of collusion. Speaking on NBC’s Meet The Press, he added that there is “direct evidence of deception,” but did not elaborate.

“There is certainly enough for us to conduct an investigation,” Schiff said. “The American people have a right to know, and in order to defend ourselves, we need to know whether this circumstantial evidence of collusion and direct evidence of deception is indicative of more.”

Monday’s much-anticipated hearing will feature testimony from Comey as well as Adm. Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency.

As NPR’s David Welna has reported, Schiff and Nunes differ on the scope of the investigation and what its focus should be.

Nunes wants to focus on the alleged espionage and leaks of classified information, such as releasing information about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn speaking to the Russian ambassador.

“We know a law has been broken and we need to get to the bottom of it,” Nunes said on Fox News Sunday.

Conversely, “the main thing that Schiff wants to know is if Russia’s interference in the campaign was purely the work of Moscow or if others were involved,” as David reported.

The White House doubled down on the wiretapping claims last week. Here’s more from NPR’s Arnie Seipel and Brian Naylor:

“[White House press secretary Sean] Spicer said the president ‘stands by’ his claim, then went on to read off a number of media reports, many of which revolved around the investigation of possible Russian interference in the campaign but not necessarily surveillance of Trump Tower.

“The response from Spicer lasted approximately nine minutes and involved the press secretary repeating the accusation of possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia, which the intelligence committees have not said they have evidence to support.”

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Legendary Newspaper Columnist Jimmy Breslin Dies At 88

Pulitzer Prize wining Columnist Jimmy Breslin died on Sunday from complications of pneumonia. Breslin was 88 years old.

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Pulitzer-Prize winning New York City newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin died Sunday morning from complications of pneumonia. He was 88 years old, and his death was confirmed by his physician, William Cole.

Breslin was the tabloid voice of the little guy, famous for celebrating gritty New York City characters in newspaper columns, as well as several books of fiction and non-fiction, Often these characters lived in the less glamorous boroughs outside Manhattan. But Breslin was also a character in his own right.

Breslin was old school. He began his career as a copy boy working his way up to a hard -bitten reporter.

“At 5:00 at night at the New York Daily News you couldn’t see from one end of the city room to the other because of the smoke,” Breslin said in a 2004 interview. “Tremendous scene. Looked like an old fight club. And the noise of the typewriters was loud, like subway train running through. And out of all this noise and smoke came nervous energy. Words in a newspaper are made of nervous energy.”

He wrote on deadline for 40 years, first gaining notoriety at the old New York Herald Tribune in the mid-1960s. There, a group of writers employed novelistic techniques that came to be known as the New Journalism. One of the best known examples by Breslin is still taught in journalism schools today. Published the day after President John F. Kennedy’s funeral, the column focused on the man who dug the president’s grave.

“Pollard is 42. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.”

His nontraditional approach to the column, and how it left readers feeling that they were there, still inspires journalists to find the “gravediggers” in their stories.

“What he saw was that the guy you were sitting next to on the subway could have a dense complicated interesting life,” says novelist Pete Hamill, a former newspaper man and close friend of Breslin’s.

“He had a very sympathetic heart and I think he was trying to figure out ‘Who are these people that I’m living with?’ and that kind of curiosity made him into a terrific reporter and a very good novelist,” Hamill says.

As a reporter, Breslin’s sympathies were clearly with the have-nots in the world. Les Payne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter himself, worked with Breslin at Newsday.

“We say that in journalism one of our goals is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, but we almost never do it,” Payne says. “I think that one of the things that Breslin has done over the years is to pay some attention to the afflicted in ways that journalism preaches, but so very often refuses to practice.”

Another of Breslin’s colleagues, Jack Newfield, said Breslin had a way with words.

“I once described him as Charles Dickens disguised as Archie Bunker. He could talk like Archie Bunker but he could write like Charles Dickens,” Newfield said.

Breslin won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for a series of columns that included investigative scoops on municipal corruption and police brutality. But to some, the characters he wrote about seemed too good to be true. These include an arsonist known as Marvin the Torch and a one-eyed mobster with a pet wolf. Breslin loved to tell the story about New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal showing up at a bar in Queens where Breslin and some of the characters he wrote about hung out.

“He wanted to end my days of telling lies to the public,” Breslin said. “So he walked in and Fat Thomas, who did not exist according to Rosenthal, Fat Thomas was at the bar, a fellow named Cousin was in the office cleaning a machine gun, Jimmy Burke, who subsequently did the Lufthansa robbery was at the bar and Peppy and Johnny MaGuire were there. Rosenthal was stunned. He said, ‘My God, it’s all true.'”

The newswriter becomes a newsmaker

Breslin had a knack for making news himself. In 1969, he ran unsuccessfully for city council president. In 1977, the serial killer who came to be known as the Son of Sam sent letters to Breslin at the Daily News. And a decade later after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Breslin was briefly suspended from New York Newsday after making racial and sexual comments to an Asian American colleague. He also suffered two vicious physical assaults, first at the hands of a reputed mafia figure. In 1991, he was beaten while covering the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn. Breslin says that’s what you had to endure if you wanted to write about your city.

Then in 2004, Breslin announced, in one of his columns that incorrectly called the election between John Kerry and George W. Bush, that he would stop writing them and end his newspaper career. But he wasn’t done writing. Breslin’s mafia tale, The Good Rat, came out in 2008. Instead of a gravedigger, the book’s star, Burk Kaplan, had gotten involved with the mafia and gone to jail, but then found himself as a witness in a trial against two New York detectives who were indicted for acting as mafia hit men.

“Gangsters in the Mafia that are known, there’s nothing about them but crime. Kaplan committed more crimes, but he did it in a suit,” Breslin told NPR’s Michel Martin in 2008. “He looked like he had the demeanor of somebody in the garment center, and he put together more crimes than they were able to think of, the gangsters. It was tremendous.”

Throughout all his work, Breslin never stopped leaving his desk and going out to find the gravediggers.

“I still pursue the art of climbing flights of stairs. Go to the scene. Go ring the doorbell and ask the guy. Nobody does that,” Breslin said. “It’s an art that’s going to come back however.”

Breslin’s words resonate with a new generation of reporters dedicated to the art of climbing tenement stairs. It would be well worth their time to read his work. Breslin himself would have told them so.

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Tributes To Chuck Berry Pour In: 'One Of My Big Lights Has Gone Out'

In this Sept. 2, 1995 file photo, Bruce Springsteen, left , and Chuck Berry laugh as they perform the Berry hit “Johnny B. Goode” at the Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Berry was the opening act of the concert.

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Chuck Berry, the legendary musician who was one of the founders of rock and roll, died Saturday night at age 90. Almost immediately, the tributes started rolling in from some of the most famous names in music.

Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger wrote that he was “so sad” to hear of Berry’s passing.

“I want to thank him for all the inspirational music he gave to us. He lit up our teenage years, and blew life into our dreams of being musicians and performers. His lyrics shone above others and threw a strange light on the American dream. Chuck, you were amazing, and your music is engraved inside us forever.”

I am so sad to hear of Chuck Berry’s passing. I want to thank him for all the inspirational music he gave to us. 1/3

— Mick Jagger (@MickJagger) March 18, 2017

Jagger’s bandmate Keith Richards chimed in. “One of my big lights has gone out,” he tweeted.

“One of my big lights has gone out.”
– Keith, 3/18/17

— Keith Richards (@officialKeef) March 19, 2017

“RIP #ChuckBerry, the genesis behind the great sound of rock n roll. All of us in rock have now lost our father,” tweeted heavy metal singer Alice Cooper. (Cooper being well-known to some of us for this legendary cameo.)

RIP #ChuckBerry, the genesis behind the great sound of rock n roll. All of us in rock have now lost our father.

— Alice Cooper (@RealAliceCooper) March 19, 2017

Beatles drummer Ringo Starr tweeted lyrics from one of Berry’s biggest hits, “Rock And Roll Music.”

Just let me hear some of that rock ‘n’ roll music any old way you use it I am playing I’m talking about you. God bless Chuck Berry Chuck 😎

— #RingoStarr (@ringostarrmusic) March 18, 2017

“Just let me hear some of that rock ‘n’ roll music any old way you use it I am playing I’m talking about you. God bless Chuck Berry,” tweeted Starr.

Beach Boy Brian Wilson tweeted his appreciation. “I am so sad to hear about Chuck Berry passing – a big inspiration! He will be missed by everyone who loves Rock ‘n Roll. Love & Mercy”.

I am so sad to hear about Chuck Berry passing – a big inspiration! He will be missed by everyone who loves Rock ‘n Roll. Love & Mercy

— Brian Wilson (@BrianWilsonLive) March 18, 2017

Back in 1963, Berry’s lawyers contended that the Beach Boys’ hit “Surfin’ USA” ripped off Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Wilson’s father and the band’s manager, Murry Wilson, signed over the song’s publishing rights to Berry’s publisher. The Los Angeles Timesnotes that Wilson regularly plays Berry’s songs in his live shows, even weaving “Sweet Little Sixteen” into “Surfin’ USA.”

Questlove, drummer and bandleader of The Roots, had a simple message for people trying to discuss Berry’s legacy, tweeting “he literally was THE STANDARD for rock n roll.”

Journalists are getting it wrong #ChuckBerry didn’t help define or was part of the fabric: he literally was THE STANDARD of rock n roll.

— Questlove Gomez (@questlove) March 19, 2017

The Boss weighs in

Bruce Springsteen also tweeted what Berry meant to him. “Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived,” he wrote. “This is a tremendous loss of a giant for the ages.”

Chuck Berry was rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist, and the greatest pure rock ‘n’ roll writer who ever lived.

— Bruce Springsteen (@springsteen) March 18, 2017

Springsteen and Berry played together on at least two occasions. The Boss and his E Street Band played backup for Berry at the University of Maryland in 1973. Springsteen asked what songs they were going to do, to which Berry replied, “Well, we’re going to do some Chuck Berry songs.”

More than two decades later, Springsteen again played backup for Berry, at a concert at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, celebrating the opening of the Rock and Roll Music Hall of Fame. Berry was inducted into the hall in 1986 its first class, alongside musicians including Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, and Sam Cooke.

Springsteen’s grin says it all, as Berry leads the 57,000-person crowd in yelling “Go!” before shimmying his one-legged duck walk across the stage. It was a show for the ages.


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Rex Tillerson, Xi Jinping Meet In China As Secretary Of State Wraps Asia Tour

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson holds a joint press conference with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on March 18, 2017 in Beijing, China.

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Rex Tillerson concluded his first trip to Asia as secretary of state, sounding optimistic about the prospects for U.S. cooperation with China on the North Korean nuclear issue.

The upbeat notes he struck in Beijing contrasted with his remarks on Friday in Seoul about how all options, including military strikes against North Korea, remain on the table.

As if to underline the seriousness of the situation, even as Tillerson was discussing North Korea with his Chinese hosts, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un presided over the test launch of a new rocket engine. Pyongyang called the test “of historic significance,” although its capabilities and possible uses are not yet clear.

On Sunday, Tillerson made no public mention of the test as he met with President Xi Jinping in the cavernous Great Hall of the People on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Both men effused about phone calls and letters exchanged so far between Xi and President Trump. Tillerson’s visit is expected to pave the way for their first meeting, as early as next month, at Trump’s private club in Mar-a-Lago, Florida.

“I also appreciate your comment,” Xi told his guest, “that the China-U.S. relationship can only be defined by cooperation and friendship.” It’s not clear when or to whom Tillerson made such a remark.

At a press conference on Saturday with his Chinese counterpart, Tillerson noted that the U.S. would continue to raise thorny issues with China, including maritime disputes in the South China Sea, as well as human rights and religious freedoms.

But North Korea’s continued progress towards putting a nuclear warhead on a missile capable of striking U.S. territory has forced the North Korea issue to the forefront of U.S.-China relations.

“We renewed our determination to work together,” Tillerson said, “to convince the North Korean government to choose a better path and a different future for its people.”

Tillerson said Beijing and Washington agree that the situation on the Korean peninsula has “reached a rather dangerous level.”

He added, “We’ve committed ourselves to do everything we can to prevent any type of conflict from breaking out, and we view there are a number of steps that we can take,” without saying what they might be.

Tillerson dodged a reporter’s question about where the U.S. might draw a “red line,” the crossing of which might trigger a military strike.

Nor did he address a query about whether Trump’s remarks on Friday on Twitter, complaining about China’s inaction on the North Korean issue, had made Tillerson’s trip to China more difficult.

North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been “playing” the United States for years. China has done little to help!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 17, 2017

Tillerson drew criticism back home for not taking the diplomatic press corps along on his Asia trip. The only journalist allowed on his plane was a reporter for the Independent Journal Review, which is reportedly owned, in part, by an advisor to Vice President Mike Pence.

The U.S. embassy notified journalists of Saturday’s briefing about four hours before the event.

Tillerson’s counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, meanwhile insisted at the briefing that the U.S. had reached a “fundamental consensus” on dealing with the North Korean issue.

Wang said that includes strictly implementing U.N. sanctions on North Korea, while seeking a resumption of six-party negotiations, with the ultimate goal of ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons.

North Korea in 2009 walked out of the talks hosted by China, and swore it would not return.

To the surprise of many observers, Tillerson referred to a mutual U.S.-China understanding of “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.”

This was a near-verbatim repetition of the Chinese government’s framework for relations with the U.S. Beijing refers to it as a “New Type of Great Power Relations.” At its core, it implies that the U.S. and China are not only both great powers, but co-equals.

The Obama administration was reluctant to adopt Beijing’s formula. Instead, it envisioned using its signature “pivot to Asia” policy to shore up American primacy in Asia and the Western Pacific.

Tillerson’s use of Beijing’s formula may leave the Trump administration open to criticism that either Tillerson bent over too far backwards to placate his Chinese hosts, or he failed to articulate the U.S. vision of the relationship, perhaps because it has yet to come up with a coherent policy towards China and Asia. Or both.

President Trump’s campaign rhetoric about a punishing China for its policies on trade, Taiwan and the South China Sea has somewhat moderated since taking office.

China, for its part, has reacted to Trump with restraint, as it prepares for a crucial leadership transition this fall. The ruling communist party will hold its 19th national congress, which is expected to give Xi Jinping a second five-year term as head of the party, state and military.

China’s dissatisfaction towards North Korea continues to grow with each missile or nuclear test that Pyongyang carries out, in defiance of Beijing’s warnings. But China has not changed its bottom line of avoiding actions that would destabilize Kim Jong-un’s regime.

And analysts point out that the North Korea crisis actually gives Beijing some leverage over Washington, or at least, distracts it from applying more pressure on China.

For the meantime, China has vented most of its fury on South Korea, where the U.S. has deployed anti-missile defenses known as Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD. Tourism, transport business and cultural exchanges between China and South Korea have all reportedly suffered since the spat.

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