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Author Thomas Ricks and Singer Josh Ritter


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Every war has its soundtrack. In World War II, Glenn Miller tunes, the Andrew Sisters and nostalgic love songs like "I'll Be Seeing You." In Vietnam, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Eric Burdon singing "We've Gotta Get of This Place."

The Iraq War seems to be metabolizing more slowly through the culture. But a year ago, just back from Iraq, Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks discovered an album by Josh Ritter that spoke to him. And for Ricks, the "Animal Years" became the soundtrack to the war he's been covering. Since then, the war correspondent and the singer-songwriter have become friends, and they're both with us here today in Studio 3A.

Later on in the program, we'll talk to Joan Claybrook about crash test failures and with NPR's Julie Rovner about the death earlier today of the race horse Barbaro, winner of last year's Kentucky Derby.

But first, Tom Ritter - excuse me - Tom Ricks and Josh Ritter, and we'd like to hear from you. What are listening to today that speaks to you about this time in American history? We'd especially be interested to hear from members of the military. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255 - 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And let me begin with Tom Ricks, who covers defense for The Washington Post and is the author of the book "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq." Tom, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. THOMAS RICKS (Journalist, The Washington Post; Author, "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq"): Thank you.

CONAN: And I understand there was one song on Josh's album that really got to you.

Mr. RICKS: Yeah, what happened is when I got back from a long reporting trip in Iraq about a year ago, my wife had gotten "Animal Years." My wife has great taste in music, by the way. And then we went to see Josh play at the Rams Head, and I didn't - I'd never heard of him. And this song "Animal Years" I was so struck by for two reasons. First, it went beyond just protest songs - the president is bad and I am sad type of songs. I think Josh really has a feel for the American culture. He was thinking about it. He was capturing, I think, the feeling that I was picking up among a lot of soldiers and a lot of citizens, with a question - the song, (unintelligible) on the war. What is it we've done? And that's the refrain.

The other thing is the ending of the song just struck me as pure poetry. The lines, I have a girl in the war. Her eyes are like champagne. They sparkle, bubble over, and in the morning all you've got is rain. That just sends a chill down my back every time I hear it.

CONAN: I think Josh'll sing it better than you did, though.

Mr. RICKS: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's hear. Josh Ritter, here with us in the studio.

Mr. JOSH RITTER (Singer-Songwriter): Hello.

CONAN: Can we hear the "Girl in the War?"

Mr. RITTER: Sure. Yeah, I'll play...

(Soundbite of song, "Girl in the War")

Mr. RITTER: (Singing) Peter said to Paul, you know, all those words we wrote are just the rules of the game, and the rules are the first to go. But now talking to God is Laurel begging Hardy for a gun. I got a girl in the war, man, I wonder what it is we done.

Well, Paul said to Petey, you've got to rock yourself a little harder. Pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire. I got a girl in the war, Paul, the only thing I know to do is turn up the music and pray that she makes it through.

Because the keys to the kingdom got locked inside the kingdom, and the angels fly around in there, but we can't see them. And I got a girl in the war, Paul, I know that they can hear me yell. If they can't find a way to help her, they can go to hell. If they can't find a way to help her, they can go to hell.

Paul said to Petey, you've got to rock yourself a little harder. Pretend the dove from above is a dragon and your feet are on fire. But I got a girl in the war, Paul, her eyes are like champagne. They sparkle, bubble over, and in the morning all you got is rain.

They sparkle, bubble over, and in the morning all you got is rain. They sparkle, bubble over, and in the morning all you got is rain. Hey, hey, hey.

CONAN: Josh Ritter, "Girl in the War" from the CD called "Animal Years." And Tom Ricks is right, Josh. It's not exactly I ain't a-marching any more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RITTER: No, it's not, no. I'm always kind of wary of anything that could sound like an anthem, you know.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. It seems to be a personal song that is happening to take place now.

Mr. RITTER: Yeah, yeah, that's - it's - I - well, I don't believe in - I just believe that most songs that really speak to me and most of the things that I think I write about are mostly just about confusion, you know, and not lot like, you know, about being in love or this war that we're in that is something that is new to me. And, well, you know - or how we talk about God, how we talk about love, and so those are the songs that seem to jump out at me, you know.

CONAN: Yeah. The only thing I know how to do is turn up the music and pray she gets through. That's a great line.

Mr. RITTER: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Tom Ricks, let me go back to you. As you were, as I understand, writing the end of your book, as you were listening to the CD.

Mr. RICKS: Yeah, after we saw Josh at the Rams Head - and by the way, I think Josh's live show combines the best elements of a young Dylan and a young Springsteen. I don't mean to embarrass him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And music critic, Tom Ricks.

Mr. RICKS: I think he's great. Anybody who doesn't go see him live, you know - you should just go see him live. And if you don't like him, I'm sure NPR will reimburse you.

CONAN: And press agent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKS: After we went to that show at the Rams Head, I was working on the last two chapters of my book "Fiasco," and the last chapter is called "Too Little, Too Late?" question mark. It could have as easily been called "What Is It We've Done?" - the question Josh poses in that song.

CONAN: Yeah. We're talking with Tom Ricks of The Washington Post and Josh Ritter, singer-songwriter here in Studio 3A about soundtracks to the war. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And why don't we speak with Glenn? Glenn's with us from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

GLENN (Caller): Hi. Great show. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

GLENN: My daughter-in-law came back from Iraq in October, and had just been notified that she's got to go back again this August as part of the buildup. And I put her and my son onto some songs I listened to during Vietnam era, which were by Buffalo Springfield, "For What It's Worth," and "Fortunate Son" by the Creedence Clearwater Revival. And I think both those songs speak eloquently enough about the situation that we're in, in the Middle East again.

CONAN: Yeah. And I see Tom Ricks shaking his head. Let me explain. Both Tom Ricks and Josh Ritter have curly hair. Tom's is a little bit whiter than Josh's. You might be old enough to remember those songs at first run, Tom.

GLENN: So is mine, unfortunately. Long ago in a galaxy far away. Listen guys, I'm going to let other people talk. Great show. Thank you very much.

CONAN: All right. Thanks, and we wish your daughter-in-law the best of luck. You got a girl in the war.

Mr. RICKS: One of the things we were talking about last night was what songs Josh should cover. And I actually think "Fortunate Son" would be a great song for him to cover.

Mr. RITTER: Yeah, yeah…

Mr. RICKS: With a live - when you have your band with you.

Mr. RITTER: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Brian on the line. Brian's with us from Boise, Idaho.

BRIAN (Caller): Hello, Josh, beautiful song. I heard you're a Boise native.

Mr. RITTER: Yeah. I'm actually from up in Moscow.


Mr. RITTER: I love Boise, man. It's great.

BRIAN: That's pretty up there, too. You know, I wanted to mention Green Day. I think that they - especially their last album, Billy captures a lot of the frustration, probably more among the youth than anybody else. But about the war, specifically, and about the just kind of the current political situation in the - you know, they talk a lot about the kind of the corporate-America-political relationship and all that. And I think that they do a good job at doing it, not necessarily the same way as Josh. Josh's music is, but I think - I think is pretty relevant.

Mr. RITTER: Yeah. Yeah. I totally agree with you. I think that that's - there's such a wide - you know, the margins for talking and for the opinions in songs is so huge now. It seems like - and those guys, that last record, is such a - it's - man, it's…

BRIAN: Definitely. One more thing, just real quick, and I'll get off. I think that Pink Floyd, especially in the '80s before the Cold War was over, did a real good job. Roger Waters kind of led that, but did a real good job capturing Cold War. I know that's obviously not what we're talking about, but I wanted to through it out.

CONAN: Maybe another show. Thanks for the call.

BRIAN: I'm sorry?

CONAN: Maybe the subject for another show, Brian.

BRIAN: No. No. It is, you're right. Anyway, I like your show, Neal. Thanks very much. I listen all the time.

CONAN: Thanks very much.

BRIAN: Have a good day.

CONAN: All right. We'll do our best. It's hard to have a bad day when you got Thomas Ricks - the military correspondent for the Washington Post - here in Studio 3A along with Josh Ritter, singer-songwriter. His CD that we're listening to some tunes from this afternoon is called "Animal Years."

If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. What are you listening to that speaks to you at this particular moment in American history? I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're speaking today with Tom Ricks, military correspondent for the Washington Post and author of "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq." And also, singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, whose numerous top 10 hits, including Steven King's in Entertainment Weekly. There's more music from Josh Ritter at our Web site, and we posted links to a text excerpt and audio reading from Tom Ricks' book "Fiasco," all at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org/talk.

And, of course, we want to hear from you. What's the soundtrack of the Iraq war for you? What are you listening to that speaks to you at this moment in history? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And Tom Ricks, how did you guys actually end up meeting?

Mr. RICKS: Well, I was on a book tour, and I got so tired of talking about my book that when I got tired of it, I talk about Josh's album probably because it really did - I think - I was trying to puzzle out where the country was at. I think Josh really did capture it. So I'd bring it up a lot. Then as it happened, we were both on Amazon.com's TV show called "Fishbowl" done with Bill Mahr. And at some point, I think it was Josh's manager sent me a note saying Josh is coming through D.C. And I invited Josh to come over to the Washington Post, give him a tour. People like to see the place.

Mr. RITTER: Which is awesome. I mean, it's like, you know, there's papers everywhere. And, you know, and it's very quiet, but people are running around really fast and…

Mr. RICKS: Then we went to the file section and the rock critic J. Freedom du Lac saw us and kind of freaked out. What was the Pentagon reporter doing with this pop rock star, Josh Ritter, who was actually on the Post's top 10 albums of the year list? So it was a fun time.

CONAN: And it was interesting - and I wonder, Josh, are you familiar with Tom's book?

Mr. RITTER: Oh, yes. Yeah. Yeah. I've read it and I love it. I've actually given it as a gift to a lot of people in my family this year and - yeah, I am. Very much so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Nate, Nate with us from Emerald Isle in North Carolina.

NATE (Caller): Hello. Yes. I just want to make a comment. You're talking about the songs that were for the soundtrack for the Iraq war. And I was in Fallujah twice. I just got back few months ago. I just got out of the Marine Corps. I just to make a comment about Tom Waits' "The Day After Tomorrow." Not really -it wasn't any sort of an anti-war, it's just sort of a summary of the sort of emotions being felt by any sort of - anyone over there fighting or sort of wearing the uniform and why we're over there. And I was just wondering if someone else has heard about that, that they could…

Mr. RITTER: Oh, yeah. I love that song.

NATE: Expand on it.

CONAN: Yeah. Josh Ritter was just saying how much he likes that song.

Mr. RITTER: I love that song because, you know, for what you said, like, it's just about - it's about being in the situation. It's not about, you know, how we got there or what's going to happen. It's just about that.

NATE: Exactly.

Mr. RITTER: My hat's off to you.

CONAN: Nate…

NATE: I just want to make one more comment that that's really - I mean, I know for decades to come, I'll be listening to that song and it will always mean quite a bit to me.

CONAN: And it will always been that particular place for you?

NATE: Oh, yes. I mean - it just encompasses so much about what I think the majority of young people in uniform, why we're doing what we're doing - not necessarily on a grand scale, but on a personal scale of sort of fulfillment of the basic needs, not any sort of political or anything else, but just sort of feeling.

CONAN: Nate, thanks very much. We appreciate the call.

Mr. RICKS: I know what Nate means. There's a song by a British singer, Richard - I think Chandel(ph) - called "Long Black Train," which I would just listen into the ground when I was in Iraq. I had it on my laptop, and I'd come in from a day of reporting and just put that on.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Ronald, who says James McMurtry's song "We Can't Make it Here" is a biting commentary on today's America. And while we've got Josh Ritter here on the studio, why don't we get another tune? This is a song called "Thin Blue Flame."

(Soundbite of guitar strumming)

Mr. RITTER: Yeah. This is a song about - this is - I always thought that "Girl in the War" is kind of the envelop for the record and "Thin Blue Flame" is kind of this letter. And it's - this is just about complete confusion and…I'll play you a little.

(Soundbite of song, "Think Blue Flame")

Mr. RITTER: (Singing) I became a thin blue flame, polished on a mountain range. And over hills and fields I flew, wrapped up in a royal blue. I flew over Royal City last night. A bullfighter in the horns of a new moonlight. And Caesar's ghost, I saw the war-time tides. The prince of Denmark's father still unquiet. The whole world was looking to get drowned, and trees were a fists shaking themselves at the clouds. I looked over curtains and it's then that I knew only a full house is going make it through.

And I became a thin blue stream. The smoke between sleep and dreams. And in that clear blue undertow, I saw Royal City far below. The borders soft with refugees. Streets are swimming with amputees. It's a Bible or a bullet they put over your heart. It's getting harder and harder just to tell them apart. The days are nights and the nights are long, And beating hearts blossom into walking bombs. And those still looking in the clear blue sky for a sign get missiles from so high they might as well be divine. And now the dogs are howling at our doors singing about vengeance like it's the joy of the Lord. Bringing justice to the enemies, not the other way round. They're guilty were killed, then they're killed where they're found.

If what's loosed on earth will be loosed up on high, it's a hell of a heaven we must go to when we die. Where even Laurel begs Hardy for vengeance, please. The fat man's crying on his hands and his knees. Back in the peacetime, he caught roses on the stage. Now he twists indecision takes bourbon for rage. Lead pellets peppering aluminum, halcyon, laudanum and opium. He sings kiss the heart of this poisoned cup. His winding sheet is busy winding up. In darkness he looks for the lights that have died. You need faith for the same reasons that it's so hard to find. And this whole thing is headed for a terrible wreck. And like good tragedy, that's what we expect.

At night I make plans for a city laid down. The hips of a girl on the spring-covered ground. Spirals and capitals and the twist of a script. And streets named for heroes that could almost exist. The fruit trees of Eden and the gardens they seem to float like the smoke from a lithium dream. Cedar trees growing in the cool of the squares. Young women walking in the portals of prayer. The future glass buildings in the past an address. The weddings in pollen and the wine bottomless.

And all wrongs forgotten and all vengeance made right. The suffering verbs put to sleep in the night. The future descending like a bright chandelier. The world's beginning and the guests in good cheer. Oh Royal City, I went into a trance. It's hell to believe there ain't a hell of a chance.

And then I woke beneath a clear blue sky. And the sun was a shout, and the breeze with a sigh. And the old hometown and the streets I knew were wrapped up in a royal blue. And I heard my friends laughing out across the fields. Girls in the gloaming and the birds on a wheel. And the raw smell of horses and the warm smell of hay, and cicadas electric in the heat of the day. A run of Three Sisters and the flush of the land. The lake was a diamond in the valley's hand. And the straighter of the highway and the scattered out hearts. Coming together, they were pulling apart.

And angels everywhere were in my midst. In the ones that I loved and the ones that I kissed. And I wondered what it was we've been looking for up above. Heaven is so big there, ain't no need to look up. So I stopped looking for royal cities in the air. Only a full house going to have a prayer. Only a full house.

CONAN: "Thin Blue Flame," Josh Ritter in Studio 3A, along with Tom Ricks, who's the military correspondent for the Washington Post. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Josh Ritter, you've got to be the first person since Sir Harry Lauder to use gloaming in a song.

Mr. RITTER: I love that word.

CONAN: We'll go roaming in the gloaming. I don't think even you're old enough to remember that, Tom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right. Here's an e-mail we got from Misco(ph). Let's not rehash the '60s and '70s - and I'm old enough to remember all of it. Today it's Bad Religion, Pennywise, Green Day, Audioslave, even Dixie Chicks and Springsteen.

So there's a vote from someone of Tom and my generation for some of the new music. Do you hear a lot of war songs, Josh Ritter, as you listen to other musicians on tour?

Mr. RITTER: You know, no, I don't, you know. And I guess the ones that I do hear - and I think that one of the big - one of the things that spurred me to write some of these songs - and all of "Animal Years" is about America. It just came out sounding like love songs because I love it, you know, and I love my country. I love this place, but I do believe it's so important to question it.

And I think that's where, you know - how do you question it effectively in art? You know, how do you pay honor to the sacrifices that people are making every day, ultimate or otherwise? You know, how do you respect those sacrifices while at the same time questioning the necessity for them? And I do believe that there are ways to do it that don't respect people, like the soldiers that are over there that are trying to do the job that's been given them.

And I do believe that that's important. So how do you write a song about that, because that's what I do. And I want to try and bring my own personal visions into bear, whether they're useful to anybody else or not, you know.

CONAN: And Tom Ricks, that's a level of nuance we often don't get. Here in Washington we're used to rants on both sides and not a lot of middle.

Mr. RICKS: That's one reason I love this stuff. I think what Josh captures in "Thin Blue Flame" is a sense of tragedy. And that's really important in looking at Iraq now. It is a tragedy. I think it's a Shakespearian tragedy of five acts; we're probably only in act three. I think it's no accident that Josh, when he's on tour, runs while listening to Shakespeare.

CONAN: You listen to Shakespeare while you're running?

Mr. RITTER: Yeah. That's my thing now these days. I mean I've done other things. I sound like a tremendously huge nerd now, but yeah that's my…

CONAN: But you can lope in iambic pentameter?

Mr. RITTER: It changes how you run, that's for sure. And you get out of breath in the love scenes mostly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I can imagine. Josh Ritter is with us, along with Tom Ricks. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Maryanne(ph) on the line. Maryanne's calling us from St. Louis.

MARYANNE: (Caller) Hi.


MARYANNE: My comment was that the music that - my boyfriend is from Iraq and he still has family there. And basically when he listens to music, he likes to listen to stuff that makes his heart lighter. Because as much as we worry about our people who are there, our troops and stuff who are there, people who are from Iraq who live in the United States really worry a lot about their families over there.

And so the music that he really enjoys to listen to is things like Bob Marley. Like "One Love" and that kind of thing, because it kind of makes his, you know, like I said, it makes his heart lighter and it gives him something to look forward to and hope that, you know, one love will happen someday.

And as far as a good song that I think is really a song that speaks to me is "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" by U2, because it really, you know, even though they had the trouble in Ireland and probably still have a lot of stuff going on over there, that song is really indicative of Iraq today as well.

CONAN: Yeah, there are - Tom Ricks, you've obviously spent a fair amount of time in Iraq with American troops. What do you hear them listening to?

Mr. RICKS: Arabic music, mainly.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. RICKS: Yeah. You know - oh, you're talking about Iraq? I was talking about Iraqis.

CONAN: Oh, yeah.

Mr. RICKS: Oh, American troops listen to the broad cross-section. Young infantrymen tend to either be listening to country or hip-hop. I like Special Forces because they have broader taste in music.

I was with a Special Forces team in Haiti and they asked me to leave my tape of music behind because they liked it. It was all Sarah McLachlan and Los Lobos, and they really liked that.

So it really is age dependent. But they pretty much listen to what everybody else their age is listening to.

CONAN: Josh Ritter, I wonder have you had the opportunity to go play before military audiences.

Mr. RITTER: You know, no, I haven't, you know. And that's something that - I mean I certainly have met a lot of people and gotten a lot of letters from service people and I've met them at shows and things. And that's always a pretty powerful experience, you know. But that would be something I would love to do if I felt like I could help out.

Mr. RICKS: I did notice the military people at the Birchmere last night, where he was playing here in the Washington area.

CONAN: Over in Virginia. Yeah.

Mr. RICKS: Yeah.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one last caller in. This is Amy, who's been very patient in South Bend, Indiana.

AMY (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Amy.

AMY: I have been trying to get through to NPR forever and I finally did it, so.

CONAN: There you go. Congratulations.

AMY: My comment was - actually, I listen to two things and I'm very political. Anyway, is anything by the Indigo Girls just really always speaks - as a matter of fact, your writing style, Josh, reminds me a lot of Amy Ray and…

Mr. RITTER: Thank you very much.

AMY: …(unintelligible) you guys hooked up and did something together. That would be very cool. And I'm really into spoken word as well. And I think it's a genre that's really not given a lot of attention here in the United States. But there's a lot of good spoken word too. Alex Wilson, Andrea Gibson, they all have some really powerful things to say about the war. So those were my two comments.

CONAN: OK, Amy. Thanks very much.

AMY: Thank you.

CONAN: And Josh, what are you working on now, I wonder?

Mr. RITTER: I just finished recording a new record. And I'm up in Maine and I'm just doing this solo tour. Just me on my own all over the country and up into Canada for the next month or so.

CONAN: It must be liberating - you're a bit of a star now - just to go up by yourself and your guitar.

Mr. RITTER: It's awesome. I've been touring with a band around the, you know, States and all over the place, all over Europe and everywhere, with a band for quite a while, so. And I started out, you know, playing in coffee shops and in bars, and so just on my own it's great. And you know when you - sometimes you wake up next to your band members so often you feel like you should, you know, give them a ring or something like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: When's the new album come out?

Mr. RITTER: I just finished it, so it'll be sometime probably in the middle of this year.

CONAN: And if you want to know what Tom Ricks is up to, you can get tomorrow's edition of the Washington Post and see what he's been reporting. Tom Ricks, as always, it's a great pleasure to have you on the program.

Mr. RICKS: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Thanks for bringing Josh over for - tour our studios as well.

Mr. RITTER: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Josh Ritter was here and he was playing cuts from his CD called "Animal Years."

When we come back from a short break, we'll talk about crash test failures, Consumer Reports and the federal government. Plus, sad news about Barbaro earlier today.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.