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Exclusive First Read: Colson Whitehead's 'The Noble Hustle'

Apr 22, 2014

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Don't let that smile fool you: Colson Whitehead is a card-carrying representative of the Republic of Anhedonia.  His previous books include The Intuitionist and Zone One.

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In the annals of great first lines, The Noble Hustle's ranks near the top: "I have a good poker face," Colson Whitehead writes, "because I am half dead inside." Hustle is a gritty, grimly funny — and seriously self-deprecating — account of Whitehead's adventures in poker, from home games to seedy $2 tables in Atlantic City and finally a trip to Las Vegas to play in the World Series of Poker — with a few detours for beef jerky, and a discourse on Anhedonia, his gloomy spiritual homeland. Spoiler alert: He didn't win the millions or the diamond-encrusted champion's bracelet. But he did produce a royal flush of a story (for you nonplayers, a royal flush is a pretty great thing). The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death will be published May 6.


I pity people who've never been to Vegas. Who dismiss the city without setting foot on its carpeted sidewalks. I'll forgive the sanctimony in the question "But what do you do there?" The obnoxious self-regard. Sanctimony and self-regard are as American as smallpox blankets and supersize meals. As a foreigner, I make a point never to judge the cultural norms of my adopted country.

The pity remains, however. Frank Sinatra, the king of Rat Pack-era Vegas, once said, "I feel sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning, that's as good as they're going to feel all day." The world is a disease you shake off in the desert. To delude yourself that you are a human being with thoughts and feelings, when your experience is but the shadow of truly living — it moves me to tears. Although I should note that in Anhedonian, the word tears means "to shrug in a distinctive 'well, what are you gonna do?' fashion," and has nothing to do with lachrymal fluids produced by glands in the eye.

I recognized myself in the town the first time I laid eyes on it, during a cross-country trip the summer after college. My friend Darren had a gig writing for Let's Go, the student-run series of travel guides. Let's Go USA, Let's Go Europe, Let's Go North Korea (they always lost a few freshmen putting that one together). The previous year his beat had been New York City. We spent the summer eating fifty-cent hot dogs at Gray's Papaya for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and "researching" dive bars like Downtown Beirut and King Tut's Wah Wah Hut, which were beacons of pure, filthy truth in a city still years away from its Big Cleanup. This summer he was assigned the Southwest. The subways didn't run that far out, but his roommate Dan had a car, a brown '83 Toyota Tercel, and the idea was we'd hit the open road and split the writing duties and money three ways.

It was 1991. We'd just been diagnosed as "Generation X," and certainly had all the symptoms, our designs and life plans as scrawny and undeveloped as our bodies. Sure, we had dreams. Dan had escaped college with a degree in visual arts, was a cartoonist en route to becoming an animator. Darren was an anthro major who'd turned to film, fancying himself a David Lynch-style auteur in those early days of the indie arthouse wave. I considered myself a writer but hadn't gotten much further than wearing black and smoking cigarettes. I wrote two five-page short stories, two five-page epics, to audition for my college's creative writing workshops, and was turned down both times. I was crushed, but in retrospect it was perfect training for being a writer. You can keep "Write What You Know" — for a true apprenticeship, internalize the world's indifference and accept rejection and failure into your very soul.

First thing, Dan hooked up our ride with new speakers. We didn't have money or prospects, but we had our priorities straight. No, I couldn't drive, those days being the template of my passengerness. That spring, on schedule, I swore I'd get my license so I could contribute my fair share, but no. Look, I know how to drive, I'm just not legal. I took driver's ed, but never got around to taking the road test. Never mind that I passed the class on false pretenses. I shot up half a foot junior year and had weird growing pains, like an excruciating stinging in my neck if I turned my head too fast. So every time the instructor led me into busy Broadway traffic, or told me to merge onto the West Side Highway, I faked it. I'd turn my head a little to simulate checking my blind spot and hope for the best. Everyone has blind spots. The magnitude of my self-sabotage was such that I willfully ignored all of mine. If you don't look, you can pretend nothing is gaining on you.

I promised to make it up to Dan and Darren by being a Faithful Navigator, wrestling with the Rand McNally and feeding the cassette deck with dub. Dub, Lee "Scratch" Perry, deep deep cuts off side six of Sandinista! — let these be indicators of the stoner underpinnings of our trip out West. As if our eccentric route were not enough. From New York down to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to visit a college pal. He took me to my first mall. Even then, I had a weakness for those prefab palaces. "I asked Andy why there were no security guards around," I wrote in my notebook. "He told me I had a New Yorker's mentality."

Then hundreds of miles up to Chicago for a disappointing pilgrimage too complicated and inane to detail here. We bought two tiny replicas of the Sears Tower as consolation. Veered south, taking in the territory, cooking up plots. Inspiration: "discussing the plot of the movie Darren wants to write, about 7-Elevens that land in cornfields." Down to New Orleans, where we slept in a frat house on mattresses still moldy and damp from the spring flood. One of Darren's childhood friends belonged to the frat. His brothers wanted to know why he was "bringing niggers and Jews" into their chill-space. We sure were seeing a lot of America on this trip.

Then west to tackle our Let's Go assignment proper. Bull's horns and turquoise rocks. We wrote up the Grand Canyon, which almost rivaled our Great Trouble Ditch back home, where on the vernal equinox we burn offer- ings to Saint Gus, who drove the smiles out of Anhedonia with nothing more than an electric zither and a list of proof. Hit Lake Mead, which also summoned pleasant memories of another homeland monument, the Puddle of Sorrows, where we held Senior Prom.

Decided to keep driving so we could spend the night in Las Vegas, the camping thing not really taking. ("Hours of agony. Impossible to sleep. Bugs. A consis- tent feeling of itchiness.") Miles and miles of black hills and winding roads and then at one crest it manifested, this smart white jellyfish flopping on the desert floor. We suited up in a cheap motel downtown. Anticipating all the sweaty, laundryless days and nights we'd spend in the Tercel, we'd hit Domsey's, the famous Brooklyn thrift store, before we left NYC. We required proper gear for our Vegas debut. Dead men's spats, ill-fitting acrylic slacks, and blazers with stiff fibers sticking out of the joints and seams. Roll up the sleeves of the sports jacket to find the brown stains from the previous owner's track marks. We looked great.

The whole trip out I'd maintained that I wasn't going to gamble. Gambling was a weakness of the ignorant masses, the suckers inhabiting the Great American Middle we'd just driven through. I was an intellectual, see, could quote Beckett on the topic of the abyss, had a college degree and everything. Humming a few bars of the Slacker National Anthem here. I had a nickel in my pocket, though. I can't remember the name of our hotel, the place is long demolished to make room for the Fremont Street Experience. It wasn't a proper casino, just a grim box with rooms upstairs, but the first floor had rows of low-stakes gambling apparatus to keep the reception desk company. On our way to check-in, we passed the geriatric zombies in tracksuits installed at the slots, empty coin buckets overturned on their oxygen tanks. These gray-skinned doomed tugged on the levers, blinked, tugged again. Blink. Tug. Blink.

Grisly. But I had a nickel. We were about to get our first glimpse of the hurly-burly of downtown Vegas. To stroll past Binion's Horseshoe, in fact, where the twenty-second World Series of Poker had just wrapped up. Two hundred and fifteen people strong. The winner, Brad Daugherty, got a million bucks. Not that I knew that then. I was contemplating the nickel in my hand. Before we pushed open the glass doors, what the heck, I dropped it into a one-armed bandit and won two dollars.

In a dank utility room deep in the subbasements of my personality, a little man wiped his hands on his overalls and pulled the switch: More. Remembering it now, I hear a sizzling sound, like meat being thrown into a hot skillet. I didn't do risk, generally. So I thought. But I see now I'd been testing the House Rules the last few years. I'd always been a goody-goody. Study hard, obey your parents, hut-hut-hut through the training exercises of Decent Society. Then in college, now that no one was around, I started to push the boundaries, a little more each semester. I was an empty seat in lecture halls, slept late in a depressive funk, handed in term papers later and later to see how much I could get away with before the House swatted me down.

Push it some more. We go to casinos to tell the everyday world that we will not submit. There are rules and codes and institutions, yes, but for a few hours in this temple of pure chaos, of random cards and inscrutable dice, we are in control of our fates. My little gambles were a way of pretending that no one was the boss of me. I didn't have time for driving lessons before our trip because I was too busy cramming a semester of work into exam period. It had been touch and go whether I'd graduate, as I'd barely shown up for my final semester's Religion course. The last thing I wanted to hear about was some sucker notion of the Divine. There's a man in the sky who watches over everything you do, as all-seeing as the thousands of security cameras embedded in casino ceilings. So what? Nothing escapes his attention, and nothing will move him to intervene.

After a few phone calls, the administration released me into the world with a D-minus. What was it to them? My passive-aggressive rebellion against the system was meaningless. The House doesn't care if you piss away your chances, are draining Loretta's college fund, letting the plumber's invoice slide until next month. Ruin yourself. The cameras above record it all, but you're just another sap passing in the night.

The nickels poured into the basin, sweet music. If it worked once, it will work again.

We hit the street.

Copyright Colson Whitehead 2014. Reprinted with permission from Doubleday, a division of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Audio production copyright 2014 by Random House LLC. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group.

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The 17th-century rivalry between English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, left, and English mathematician John Wallis lasted decades. (Getty Images)

Far From 'Infinitesimal': A Mathematical Paradox's Role In History

Apr 20, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Don't let that smile fool you: Colson Whitehead is a card-carrying representative of the Republic of Anhedonia.  His previous books include The Intuitionist and Zone One.

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Here's a stumper: How many parts can you divide a line into?

It seems like a simple question. You can cut it in half. Then you can cut those lines in half, then cut those lines in half again. Just how many parts can you make? A hundred? A billion? Why not more?

You can keep on dividing forever, so every line has an infinite amount of parts. But how long are those parts? If they're anything greater than zero, then the line would seem to be infinitely long. And if they're zero, well, then no matter how many parts there are, the length of the line would still be zero.

That's the paradox lurking behind calculus. The fight over how to resolve it had a surprisingly large role in the wars and disputes that produced modern Europe, according to a new book called Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World, by UCLA historian Amir Alexander.

The Jesuits: Warriors Of Geometry

Today, mathematicians have found ways to answer that question so that modern calculus is rigorous and reliable. But in the 17th century, those questions didn't yet have satisfying answers — and worse, the results of early calculus were sometimes wrong, Alexander tells NPR's Arun Rath. That was a sharp contrast with the dependable outcomes of geometry.

"Geometry is orderly. It is absolutely certain. And once you get results in geometry, nobody can argue with you," Alexander says. "Everything is absolutely provable. No sane person can ever dispute something like the Pythagorean theorem."

That orderliness had captured the attention of the Jesuits, who had been trying to cope with the crisis of the Reformation.

"If we could have theology like that," Alexander explains, "then we could get rid of all those pesky Protestants who keep arguing with us, because we could prove things."

But the debate over infinitesimals threw a wrench into that thinking.

The whole point of mathematics was to be certain, Alexander says. "Everything is known, and everything has its place, and there's a very orderly hierarchy of results there. And now, in the middle of that, you throw this paradox, and you can get all those strange results. That basically means that mathematics can't be trusted, and if mathematics can't be trusted, what else can?"

So the Jesuits waged a war of letters, threats and intimidation against the supporters of the infinitesimal, a group that included some of Italy's greatest thinkers — Galileo, Gerolamo Cardano, Federico Commandino and others. In Italy, the Jesuits' victory was complete.

"Italy was — before the 17th century and into the 17th century — it was really the mathematical capital of Europe. It had the greatest mathematicians, the greatest mathematical tradition," Alexander says. "And by the time the Jesuits were done, that was gone. All of it. By the 1670s, Italy was a complete backwater in mathematics and the sciences."

An Infinitesimal Victory For The People

Meanwhile a similar situation was playing out in England, where civil war was also threatening upheaval. The aristocracy and propertied classes were desperate to hold onto their traditional power while lower class dissent fermented underneath. Thomas Hobbes, remembered today for his works of political philosophy like Leviathan, was also acknowledged at the time as a mathematician.

"He thought the only way to re-establish order was much like the Jesuits: Just wipe off any possibility of dissent. Establish a state that is absolutely logical, where the laws of the sovereign have the force of a geometrical proof," Alexander says.

Part of Hobbes' strategy included a campaign against the infinitesimal, championed in England by Hobbes' greatest rival, a mathematician named John Wallis. Today, he's remembered best for introducing the familiar ? symbol, and he helped found the Royal Society of London. Over three decades of correspondence between the two, Wallis argued vehemently for the infinitesimal — and for democracy.

Wallis argued, "What you have to build now is some space where dissent can be allowed, within limits at least," Alexander says. "Build a society and build a social order from the ground up rather than imposing it by one single law."

Wallis' ideas eventually prevailed; Hobbes' opinions proved too unpopular, and fearing retribution from the rebels after they executed King Charles I, he pledged his allegiance to their new government in the 1650s.

A World Without Calculus: Would It Add Up?

What might have happened if the Jesuits and Hobbes had won out? What if the infinitesimal had been successfully stamped out everywhere?

"I think things would have been very different," Alexander muses. "I think if they had won, then it would have been a much more hierarchical society. In a world like that, there would not be room for democracy, there would not be room for dissent."

And more materially, he says, we might not have all the modern fruits of this kind of math. "Modern science, modern technology, and everything from your cell phone to this radio station to airplanes and cars and trains — it is all fundamentally dependent on this technique of infinitesimals."

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Craig Nova's writing has also appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review and The New York Times Magazine. (Courtesy of Tandem Literary)

All Grown Up? Three Books About The Mystery Of Coming Of Age

by Craig Nova
Apr 20, 2014

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So Long, See You Tomorrow

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Some books have a subject so timeless as to be almost mythic — it's as though these stories are reinvented each time a new book appears, since the subject is right at the heart of what it means to be human. Coming of age books, if they are any good, have this mythic quality. Here are three that are at the top of the scale.

What does it mean to grow up? And why are adults so fascinated by this transition from the innocent to the knowledgeable?

It seems to me that great coming-of-age books allow us to look back at the time in our lives when we discover, almost always the hard way, that some things shouldn't be done — and if they are, they come at an astronomical price. This passage from innocence to knowledge, while sometimes painful, is often so exciting as to be unforgettable. What wouldn't we give to return to that transition, if only for a few imaginary hours?

Craig Nova's most recent novel, The Informer, was named a New Yorker Best Book of 2012. His new novel, All the Dead Yale Men, is out now in trade paperback.

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detail from cover of worst person ever (Courtesy of Penguin)

Writing The Wicked Ways Of The 'Worst. Person. Ever.'

Apr 19, 2014 (All Things Considered)

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Douglas Coupland's other books include Generation X, Player One and The Gum Thief.

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Douglas Coupland's latest book, Worst. Person. Ever., is a profane, shocking novel that centers around an awful guy named Raymond Gunt.

"Imagine there's this really bitter English guy who has Tourette's and swore all the time, except he doesn't have Tourette's, he just swears a lot. Like, a lot — to the point where it almost becomes like performance art," Coupland tells NPR's Arun Rath.

Raymond is struggling to pay off debt that he's acquired making bad decisions in his miserable life, and he ends up taking a job as a cameraman for a Survivor-style reality show.

This requires moving to an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Halfway through the book, he still hasn't made it to the island. But he has had two life-threatening encounters with tree nuts and two stints in jail. And that's only the beginning of the havoc-filled journey.

"Of all the characters I've done, he's the one that I don't know where he came from," Coupland says.

Raymond Gunt is truly a despicable character, with no redeeming qualities. But he doesn't take any responsibility for that.

"The essence of comedy is the difference between how you see yourself and how the rest of the world sees you," says Coupland. "And he, of course, thinks of himself as Jason Bourne, except he doesn't have a chin."


Interview Highlights

On creating a terrible character, as a nonterrible person

Is Angela Lansbury an ax murderer? The thing about characters — and this is weird, I mean, I've been doing this for 14 books now — is you start writing a book, and then about a quarter of the way in, usually the characters basically write the book itself and you're just sitting there channeling it.

In the case of Raymond ... "Oh my God, I can't believe he just did that. Wait, technically I just did that. Didn't I? What's going on here?" Of all the characters I've done he's the one that I don't know where he came from.

On the goals of the book

Every book I do is different from the ones that preceded it. They're always an experiment. Everything new should offer some chance to change the reader in some way. And with this book, I kind of want you to feel like what would it be like to be hit from fire hoses from seven different directions at full blast. And then, they turn off and you're sort of standing there, like, tingly, and little cartoon stars sort of flying around the top of your head.

One of the reasons I wrote the book is just because things have been sort of grim in a lot of ways and there's sort of this epidemic of earnestness. Why not just go against that trend and write something that, you know, might actually damage a person's soul if they read it.

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Lisa Robinson interviews a young Michael Jackson at his family's house in Encino, Calif., in October 1972. (Courtesy of Riverhead Books)

How A Music Writer Learned Trust Is The Ultimate Backstage Pass

Apr 19, 2014 (Weekend Edition Saturday)

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Lisa Robinson is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Robinson goofs around with Robert Plant at a New York City restaurant in 1976.

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Lisa Robinson has done just about every kind of music writing there is. She has followed Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones on tour, covered the scene around CBGB in the 1970s, been a syndicated newspaper columnist, written live reviews for The New York Post and cover stories for Vanity Fair. In that time — four decades plus, beginning as a filing clerk for a late-night radio DJ — she got to know everybody, and held her own as a woman in the quintessential boys' club of rock and rock journalism.

Robinson's new memoir, There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll, is an insider's look at some of the biggest personalities in music, and how their hopes and fears changed as the industry changed around them. She spoke with NPR's Wade Goodwyn; hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

It's sometimes astonishing, and perhaps a little frightening, the age in which our destinies can be set in motion. You write that your destiny began with a transistor radio, listening to Symphony Sid's jazz radio show as a kid in New York City.

I was listening to music my whole life. My parents were sort of these left-wing, New York, Upper West Side, semi-intellectuals, and I grew up listening to the blues, and Woody Guthrie, and Lead Belly, and Alan Lomax, songs of the South. When I heard jazz, it sounded so sophisticated and so different, and so amazing to me. I snuck out of my house at a very, very young age — I must have been about 12, and I don't know how I got into these nightclubs — to see Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, people like that. And when I discovered rock 'n' roll, it was kind of the same thing. It was just like a discovery, a door opening to a whole new world.

You began writing about rock 'n' roll at the suggestion of your husband, Richard — a writer, DJ and record producer, who gave you your first part-time industry job. What did you think of the idea at the time?

My husband had a column in a little tiny English newspaper called Disc and Music Echo, and he just didn't want to do it anymore. He was doing other things: He was producing Lou Reed, he was working at a record label, he had a syndicated column [in the U.S.], he was on WNEW-FM . He said to me, "I don't want to do this column anymore. You do it." And I said, "I don't know how to write. I never took journalism classes. How do I write a column?" He said, "Don't be silly. Just be yourself. If you know how to talk, you know how to write." And I certainly know how to talk.

In the first part of the book, you talk about going on tour with The Rolling Stones. You say that, while it was not that big of a deal to get an interview with Mick Jagger, it was really difficult to get Keith Richards — and that became who you really wanted to interview, but it was hard to get into his inner circle.

Well, it wasn't easy for anybody to get an interview with Mick Jagger. There were people waiting for days to talk to Mick Jagger. But I was in a really privileged position in that, because I had written so much about Led Zeppelin, and Mick had been aware of it, he decided, "Oh, let's take her on tour with us. She can help us decide who to talk to in the rock press." You have to remember, this was 1975 and The Rolling Stones were starting to be considered a dinosaur band, because it was at the time of the punk rock scene. I was very close with the CBGB bands and the English punk bands, so I think Mick wanted me along — partly to sort of whisper in his ear to tell him who he should talk to, partly to write about him, because there was no such thing then as a conflict of interest, and partly because he just liked having me around. We gossiped about other people together.

Keith was, of course, very secluded, and not really in great shape at that time to do interviews. I waited for an entire summer to talk to Keith, and I finally did get a bit of a — sort of slurred, slightly incoherent — interview with him. But Keith cleaned up, and I met him as a different person years later. From about 1978 or '79 on, to this day, he is without question one of the most lucid, hilarious, funny, brilliant, insightful, smart guys I've ever talked to. So my instincts were right that Keith would be a great interview. I just had to wait a long time.

There was a tremendous amount of drugs and sex, and an occasional bout of nasty violence, going on around you in your travels with these artists. You write, "I was here to tell a story, not to judge, and it was understood that in exchange for access, these subjects were off the table." At the time, did you kind of see the world as divided into us and them? Us being the world of rock 'n' roll, and them being everyone else who wouldn't understand?

Ever since Little Richard yelled out, "A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom," people have hated rock 'n' roll. People have treated musicians as criminals, drug addicts, outlaws. And I just loved the music so much that I wasn't really judging the people. It wasn't necessarily a quid pro quo; it wasn't like, "OK, we'll take you on tour if you promise us you're not going to write about this stuff." It just wasn't really what I wanted to write about.

[Journalist] Pete Hamill once said about me, "Everybody else who writes about rock 'n' roll is the prosecuting attorney, and Lisa Robinson is the attorney for the defense." I love Kanye West because he's unpredictable, provocative; he's judged the way Little Richard was judged 60, 70 years ago for his crazy stuff. But on the other hand, I love the work, I love the music. I listen to Yeezus constantly. So in that way, I never changed.

You were close to and admired Lou Reed; you called him "the greatest rock 'n' roll songwriter in history." But he almost drove your husband, Richard, around the bend when Richard produced some of Reed's early albums. Can you talk a little bit about Reed the musician and the Reed the man?

Well, Lou Reed went through so many different stages. He went through periods in his life where he was cranky, he was bitter, he was angry. Later in his life, when he found tremendous personal happiness with Laurie Anderson, and did a lot of tai chi, I think he was more at peace with a lot of stuff in his life. But we knew him in the '70s. I don't know what drugs he was taking. I know he was drinking. I know he was often belligerent. He was often cranky. He was surly and nasty to a lot of journalists. You never knew which Lou Reed you're going to get. On the other hand, we spent many, many times with him where he was hilarious and fun. We have early videotapes of him singing "Walk on the Wild Side" on my sofa. That time wasn't one of his finest moments personally, but one of his greatest records came out of it, Street Hassle. Richard co-produced that with him, and that is a work that has certainly withstood the test of time.

You talked about how Mick Jagger was worried of being thought of as a dinosaur in 1975, which, looking back now, seems ludicrous. But it makes me think of Bono, who continues to insist U2's best work is still ahead of it, or of Robert Plant at the end of Led Zeppelin. It's not exactly like boxers who can't let go even though they're finished — because, of course, a musician is theoretically never finished — but there can be a similar feeling of desperation.

Bono kept saying, "A lot of bands do their best work when they're young, and then they just bore everybody to death." But, you know, they're musicians — what else do you do? Interestingly enough, Keith Richards never talked about age; he never cared so much. The singer, the frontman, I think, has a different position: Mick Jagger was such an androgynous, gorgeous beauty in the '60s that for him to see himself aging — it's hard, for guys as well as for women. But Keith Richards always had the most, sort of insightful and transcendent view on this. His attitude was that Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, all those old blues guys, were in their 60s or 70s when they made the records that first turned the Stones on when they were teenagers. Those guys died on the way to a gig, and that that's how he wanted to go.

You were a woman in a very male profession. From the pictures in the book, though, it looks like you were one of the boys.

You know, I wasn't one of the boys, because I wasn't sleeping with groupies and I wasn't taking drugs. I was a girl in a boys' club. There are many women today who are basketball players, but it's not the same as being a guy who's a basketball player. I just knew that I wanted to get these stories: I wanted to be professional, I wanted to be taken seriously. And as much as I could gossip and fool around and kid around with them, and they did trust me and I had that kind of access, it wasn't something that was going to be any kind of a problem. It was just the way I conducted myself.

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