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tv   Talk to Al Jazeera  Al Jazeera  March 19, 2016 4:30am-5:01am EDT

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to change anything radically is unrealistic. for many cubans, the fact that he is coming is the biggest change lots more on the news at the website at >> this week on talk to al jazeera best selling author mitch albom. >> i use death to ricochet your attention back on to life. >> albom's latest novel is "the magic strings of frankie presto", a tale about the greatest guitarist to ever live and the lives he changes. the writer's first dream was to be a musician. >> i didn't write anything until i was already well into my twenties, cause everything i wanted to do was based around music.
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>> his books have sold more than 35 million copies worldwide. albom's best known for the memoir he wrote about his dying professor. >> he was an enormous influence on my life. everything that i write basically is a stem from a tuesdays with morrie tree. >> trying to live by morrie's motto of "giving is living". albom dedicates much of his time to his charities, including one that helps impoverished children and orphans in haiti. >> i wasn't, blessed to have children of my own. and so, i kind of look at this as, as sort of my, this is what i was fated to sort of be when it comes to whatever father instincts i must have. >> albom's career as a writer took off covering sports, a trade for which he won countless awards. >> i was fairly good at being a sports writer. and, i just felt that sometimes, you know, you could find the best story in sports by talking to the person who lost, or by talkin' to the, person who finished second.
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>> i spoke to mitch albom in new york as his latest book was being released. let's start with, with your new book because it's about music. it's called "the magic strings of frankie presto". and, this is a novel. it, it, what's so interesting to me about it is it is written, through the voice of music. it's narrated by music. what kind of voice or personality does music have? >> well, in my imagination, music is very proud to begin with. it's proud of itself. it sees itself as the greatest of all talents. and in this book, it begins, you're right, by, at a funeral, where music has come to collect the talent that was inside the soul of frankie presto, who is my mythical hero, who was the greatest guitar player to ever walk the earth. and in, in this story, music tells you, he sa, he s, music so loves this child, it's, it's prodigy, that it comes to the funeral personally to get the talent out and then to distribute it over other newborn souls. and while music is at the
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funeral, it decides it's gonna stay and listen to all the hosannas being thrown at its prodigy because it's so proud of its, the, this young ma, this man's life. and so, as the book goes on, you start to hear about his life, you start to hear some of the mourners at the funeral. but you keep hearing it in the voice of music. and right in the very first page, music says, "well, you may think that i'm being fickle, but i, i, i can be, but i'm also sweet and i'm also difficult and i'm also dissonant and i'm also angry and i'm all the things that, if you think of what music is, there is angry music, there is sweet music, there is loving music, there is disturbing music. and, music is all those things. >> and music is sort of personified in this way, through this book. talk about frankie presto. so he's this virtuoso. and he works with all of the musical greats, duke ellington, elvis presley. you know, what story did you wanna tell through this character? so my theme that i wanted to do, having been a musician myself, i
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know that there's a certain, certain relationships within a band, when you're in a band, even though you're not speaking, you're speaking musically. and everybody has a certain role to play in a band. you know, the drummer has to maybe keep the time steady. someone else gets to be the soloist and go off wild. someone else has to be the rhythm player and keep it real. and i realized that that's very much what life is like in all the other bands that you join. family, a workplace, school, army. everybody sorta has a role, you know. so i wanted to do a theme about, well, a musical book but, but show that how we all influence each other, whether you're in a band, of musicians or you're just in a band in life, you influence people that you come in contact with with your talents. and so frankie became sort of this great symbol of that because he is, as you pointed out, he's the greatest guitar player to ever walk the earth. >> he loses his mother the day that he's born and becomes an orphan. >> and he's sent to america when he's nine or ten years old with, a single guitar and six magic strings.
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and those strings, empowered by his playing, can actually change people's lives. and when they change a life, they turn blue. and he gets six sort of opportunities to, with these blue strings over the course of his life to change six lives. >> and the last element was, as you pointed out, he's sort of forrest gump. he's fictional but everything else in the book is real. so he's with duke ellington's band and he travels over with django reinhardt, the jazz guitar player. he ends up influencing little richard and singing "tutti fruity" and he backs up elvis and then elvis doesn't show up one night and he takes over for him. and he's, he's at woodstock and he's, meets tony bennett later in his life. there's all these real people who were nice enough, many of them, to let me actually write in their voices in the book. but he's fictional. >> in some ways, did he have your dream life, to be able to meet all of these people? >> yeah, i guess he did. haven't thought of it that way, but yeah, i suppose a lot of my own musical fantasies were sort of played out. he personifies what i would like
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my musical playing to do, except he's, frankie presto is a much better musician than i was or ever will be. >> but you wanted to be a musician from, from a young age, you wanted to be a musician. >> it's all i wanted to be. i didn't write anything until i was already well into my twenties, cause everything i wanted to do was based around music. and so, i put myself through college playing music. and i really didn't write much in college, not more than the average kid does. and then when i got out, i tried to make it as a musician in new york. and, you know. >> what happened? >> i failed. like many people. and i, maybe if i had stayed with it longer, something else might've happened. but i found that it was breaking my heart. i was so in love with music and music, had been everything i dreamed about my whole life. and so, i hadn't really thought of anything else other than being a musician. i went to college because, you know, i had a set of parents that said, "that's fine, you'll be a musician. first, you'll go to college". literally, the day after i was done, i went overseas and i started being a musician. i lived over in europe for a while as that, then i came back
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to new york. and i went the whole starving musician route. >> i knocked on record company doors and i wa, you know, i would play them my tapes and songs that i had written. and i'd pour my whole soul into these songs. so by the time you actually went into a record company, you know, you had poured out a lot into this. and they'd put it on and listen to ten seconds of it and say, "nah, i don't hear it," you know, and out the door you'd go. >> that must've been frustrating. >> it was heartbreaking. it wasn't, frustrating wasn't as much of just, you know, i, i think the combination of being young, and i was very young when i got outta school, and, and having the lights turn red for me for the first time in my life. you know, music started to become, like, a source of, of anger and, and, and difficulty. and, during this time, while i was still working as a musician at nights and paying my bills such as they were, i had time during the day and i ended up volunteering for a local newspaper, that had a little ad saying, "if, if you can write little stories for us," and i thought, "well, it's something to do anyhow". >> and, i found that i had an aptitude for writing.
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>> and, that's where your talent was? >> well, i think that there's actually more connection between music and writing than a lot of people think i, i do think that writing is very much rhythm, cadence, pacing, theme. and those are the same things you do when you write a song. those are the same things you do when you compose. so there's a lotta techniques in writing, even the rhythm of a sentence. where do you put a comma? where ha, do you use an "and" or a "the" or do you just make it two sentences? does your writing go ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba or does it go ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba? >> so that's something. >> you know? >> you're thinking about as... >> constantly. >> you are composing? >> constantly. >> a piece? >> constantly. as i compose a paragraph. >> with this new book, "the magic strings of frankie presto", there's also something special about it because there's a soundtrack that goes with it in which you are actually able to also do your music. >> yeah, finally. thirty-five years after tryin' to make it in the music business, i have a record. it grew out organically. you know, frankie presto has this real career and he, he
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comes to america and he's this virtuoso guitar player as you say, even by the time he's a teenager. but then he falls into the whole rock and roll thing and he becomes, he's very handsome and they turn him into, like, the next elvis. and for a period of time, they tell him, "don't worry about the guitar. just go out there and dance". and he does. and so, of course, it's a metaphor for sort of losing what really is where your heart is. and he puts the guitar away, this magic guitar, and he becomes very popular but he loses his soul along the way and he loses the girl of his dreams and all the rest of it. and then eventually, when he kind of realizes what's happened and fame disappears on him, as it frequently does, he works his way back to the actual guitar. and so along the way, i wrote about these songs, like his first hit song was called "i want to love you". i just made it up and i gave it some lyrics 'cause that's the kinda songs that they were singing in 1960. and then he had a ballad song called "our secret". and i made up the lyrics. and after i was finished with the book, i said, "you know, it would be really cool if these songs were real songs," because in my head, they were real songs.
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and so, i ended up calling a bunch of different people and meeting some of 'em for the first time and saying, "would you like to write the real song of the fictional song that was supposed to have been written in 1960?". and they loved it. i mean, to, to a person, all the musicians i contacted, they loved, like, an assignment. consequently, we ended up with a soundtrack album that has six original, original songs of fake songs that were created by me in the book. so i wrote the lyrics in the book. they took them and then they added music to them and they recorded them and they're terrific. and then we added a bunch of real songs, you know, like, tony bennett songs and, and "tutti fruity" by little richard. andtoday i met the boy i'm gonna marryby darlene love. and, and lyle lovett's "god willand" a bunch of other songs that are in the book. >> let's go back to 1997 and "tuesdays with morrie" comes out, because that is one of, the bestselling memoirs of all time, i believe. but it is also a book that i think a lotta people still associate with mitch albom. it was a story, of course, about, a professor of yours who
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was dying of als. and sort of the lessons that he left you with. do you still to think morrie schwartz? >> sure. probably every day. if i didn't, i wouldn't be able to help it anyhow because some point every day, if i'm out in the public, someone will come up to me and say, you know, something about "tuesdays with morrie". sometimes it's just, "i like that book, "tuesdays with morrie". other times, it's very personal. you know, my, frequently i hear, "my father died from als, my mother died from al--" anyone who dies from als, i'm, i'm sort of a lightning rod for that story. he was an enormous influence on my life. everything that i write basically is a stem from a "tuesdays with morrie" tree. and, even the themes of "frankie presto" and how we affect one another, i don't think i would've thought of those things if i hadn't been exposed to how a professor who's no longer here, okay, he's been dead for almost, 20 years this month, is still affecting people in schools and, and, and, and even
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in our conversation right here, long after he's gone. so that ripple effect of how you affect people is, is actually one of the themes of the "frankie presto" book. >> and, as you say, a lotta the subsequent books that you wrote also deal with how sort of the acknowledgement of death changes life and one's life. at what point did you realize you were sort of onto something, that you were hitting a nerve with people, with that theme? >> probably the moment i finished the oprah winfrey program, and, i had gone on to, at that point, the book was tiny. i mean, it wasn't, people rewrite history and they somehow think that "tuesdays with morrie" was, like... >> started out big. >> yeah, started out some kinda big thing and one of the biggest books. it wasn't. it was a tiny, little book. i only wrote it to pay his medical bills. many publishers turned me down when i tried to make a proposal for it. they said, "y, it'll be boring, it'll be depressing and you're a sports writer so what do you know about this anyhow"?
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they printed 20,000 copies and that was it. >> so i thought i'd have them in the trunk of my car for the rest of my life. you know, one of those guys who r, rides around and opens up, "you want a book? anybody want a book"? >> mostly known for his novels, mitch albom is also an award winning sports columnist. up next, albom says how he is able to make the switch from one writing style to the other. >> "inside story" takes you beyond the headlines, beyond the quick cuts, beyond the soundbites. we're giving you a deeper dive into the stories that are making our world what it is.
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>> this is "talk to al jazeera" i'm stephanie sy. i'm joined this week by mitch albom, best selling author and acclaimed sports columnist. >> you talked about how people weren't expecting sort of this sensitive bone from a sports writer.
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and, and certainly, journalists in general, we're not really known to be sentimental. we're known to be cynical. and yet, you've come out with all these feel good, oprah-ish books. ha, has that in any way affected your credibility as a journalist (laugh) or as a sports journalist? >> i think... >> can you be cynical? >> yeah, i'm sure i can be cynical about sports. i never wanted to lose my soul just because i was gonna be a sports writer. and i like to think, before "tuesdays with morrie" came out, that i, i wrote with some compassion and some humanity long before people attached those traits to me from an outside book. and i don't think that they hurt me. i was fairly good at being a sports writer. and, i just felt that sometimes, you know, you could find the best story in sports by talking to the person who lost, or by talkin' to the, person who finished second. and, i always approached it that way. so you don't have to be, a curmudgeon to be a journalist.
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i think what happens is you see so much, so many awful things when you're a journalist. and you see so much cynical behavior, particularly if you're covering pol, covering politics or business or, in many ways, sports, that you start to say, "well, why should i be open and, and, and, and, and sensitive when everybody around me that i'm covering is all just tryin' to spin everything their own way"? but i always felt that, if you sink to the level of the lowest part of what it is that you're writing about, how are you gonna write any better than what's going on? >> one of the lines, from "morrie" is, "giving makes me feel like living." and it is actually a creed that you, mitch, seem to be living up to with the amount of charity work that you seem to devote. talk about what the focus of a lotta these charities is. >> they're twofold. i have a charity called "s.a.y. detroit", which is, basically just helps, needy detroiters from birth all the way till
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senior citizen years. it started when, i was on line at a homeless shelter, doing a story and, and, during the 2006 super bowl. and, and it's a whole long thing about they were scooping all the homeless people off the streets in detroit and tryin' to hide them from the general public, which i thought was awful. and so, i went down to spend a night at the shelter to write about what this was all about. and while i was on line, the guy in front of me, you know, we're waiting for the meal and he turns around, he looks me up and down, he says, "aren't you mitch albom"? and i said, "yeah." and then he looks me up and down again, he says, "so what happened to you," you know? and, he just presumed that i had fallen from grace and was. >> and that you were a homeless person? >> yeah, i was on line. and, you know, after i kinda chuckled, then i realized, you know, that's a perfectly acceptable question. i'm pretty sure he never figured to be on that line himself. and, it really was one of those moments, you know, everybody has them, where you just can't stop thinking about it. and i wrote that column i think
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infused with the spirit of that moment. and it must've been fairly effective 'cause i was tryin' to raise $60,000 to keep all these homeless people in the shelters for another couple months. and i ended up raising in a week $360,000, in a week, just from a bunch of $10 and $20 donations. so then it was, "well, what am i gonna do with this"? and i formed "s.a.y. detroit", which stands for super all year detroit. and it's now grown into a multimillion dollar operation that, supports nine different charities all over the city of detroit. and, every dollar we bring in, we spend right back out. we have no salaries, we have no offices, we have no, we (laugh), our offices are our cars. detroit and michigan in general is an incredible place for charitable, giving, considering how hard pressed it is and considering, you know, detroit, one of the most bankrupt cities in america a few years ago. and, still struggles greatly, but the charitable attitude is really incredible. so most of my work is there.
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and then i have an orphanage in haiti that i've been going to for the last six years, or i've been operating for the last six years. i go every month, for three or four days. >> what's it like interacting with the kids? >> oh, it's the best. i mean, this is, this is childhood the way it was meant to be. there are no cell phones, there's no internet, there's no television, there's no anything. and so our kids, which range from three years old to 18 years old when, when they leave, they've not been taught anything that's cool or not cool. so an 11 year old boy will take his arm and, and, and put his own arm around you and lean into you, you know, 'cause nobody told him that 11 year old boys aren't supposed to do that. i love these children. you know, i wasn't, blessed to have children of my own. and so, i kind of look at this as, as sort of my, this is what i was fated to sort of be when it comes to whatever father instincts i must have. and, i know everything there is to know about these kids. i know where they came from, i know their backgrounds.
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you know, i was the one who, who said, "okay, you, you and not ten other or 15 other kids," 'cause for every one we accept, i have to turn away at least that many. and i know that we're helping them. i mean, i know in many ways, we're saving their lives because a lotta these kids, one, one of our children was literally left under a tree to die. and i don't know his name. we never, we don't know who his parents are. we don't know anything. we took him. he was left there when he was about two months old. and, if someone hadn't heard him crying, he would've died under the tree. and, he eventually was brought to us and now we're raising him with, a name that we gave him. and, you know, it's just a remarkable thing, to think that you can have that kind of an impact on a young life. and these kids are the happiest, most joyous, most songful, you know, musical kids that you will ever meet. so it probably sounds like i'm goin' on and on and i am. i, i, ah.. >> well, it sounds like you're passionate. >> i am. >> about this. >> and, i believe in what we do down there. and i don't ever think you can save haiti. i never tell anybody that you
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can. that, that's a country with a lotta problems. but you can save this much of it. and if everybody saves this much of it, you know, you can make a dent. and that's my, that's my this much, those 40 kids. so that's the other part of the charity that i do. >> mitch albom writes about death but he says that dying is not the focus of his books. he explains, up next.
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al jazeera america. >> i'm stephanie sy and you're watching "talk to al jazeera". i'm speaking this week with mitch albom, author of "tuesdays with morrie" one of the best selling memoirs of all time. >> so much of what i'm hearing you say, seems to go back to these lessons from morrie. but, you know, reading your
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writing is almost like a spiritual, almost quasi-religious experience i think. i, i'm just curious whether that is a part of your life in any way, whether you're driven. >> faith? >> whether you had a rabbi or you have a faith. >> yeah. i was raised with faith. faith is a big part of my life. probably more in a spiritual and, and knowledgeable way than, like, rapid attendance at any particular place, mostly because i'm not in a particular place. when i'm in haiti, it's a christian mission and, there's church and so i'm sitting in the church services. when i'm at home, or go back to where i grew up on the east coast, i'll go to the synagogue that i was raised in. my wife is christian. so i move between a lot of faiths. i pray every morning and i thank god for what i have. i also don't believe that you're, you know, you're supposed to start telling everybody else what they're supposed to do with their faith. i think i got more than my own hands full just tryin' to figure out my relationship with a higher power than for me to tell you or anybody else what they're
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supposed to do with theirs. i'm always, pleased and a little surprised when my books are embraced by different religions, many of whom don't believe the same thing, but they, they'll embrace the book. it's, like, wow, okay, so you can write a novel and people of one faith can say, "yes, this is, we can see our lessons in this," and then people who are in another faith can say, "yes, we can see our lessons in this". and what does that teach us? you know, that be, because it didn't have a label on it, everybody embraced it. i think a lot of what faith is about, people react to because, "oh no, that's a jewish idea. that's a christian idea, that's a hindu idea, that's a muslim idea." but if you didn't know where it came from and you just heard the idea, you might say, "that's a great idea". and, you know. >> if the idea is, as, as simple as just giving makes you happy and makes you want to live. >> what difference does it make where it came from, you know? and i think you, i think, morrie said to me at the end of his life, he said, "i've become a religious mutt, like a dog,
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mutt, you know? i, i, i, i take a little from here and a little, i got a little of this in me and a little of that in me" and, you know, that's not a terrible way to be. it means that you're open to hearing ideas from, backgrounds other than your own. >> with all of these writings, has it really sort of given rise to your own thoughts of mortality and, and how you view, i mean, do you believe in heaven, for example. >> yeah. well, number one, i don't know, sometimes people will ask me, "you know, well, why do you always write about death"? and i, i say, "i don't really think i do." i, in my books, there's usually one death. it usually happens at the beginning. and then the rest of the book is sort of an explanation. i use it as a springboard for, to examine the life. i think they might be getting a little confused with the fact that we really don't often think about our lives and the value of our lives or how we should be leading our lives, until we're faced with our mortality. you know, you always hear about, "boy, i had a near scare," or, you know, "i had a heart attack
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and i survived it. now i'm quittin' my job. i'm not doing all these things. i'm, i'm gonna go h, enjoy my life". well, why didn't you do that before the heart attack? 'cause you didn't think that your life was actually going to end. we all think we've got endless sand in our hourglass, right, until something happens that shakes the hourglass up. that's essentially what i write about. i use death to, ricochet your attention back onto life and say, "okay then, if you now recognize that the days are limited, what, what are you gonna do differently". >> how old were you? >> when you wrote "tuesdays with morrie"? >> thirty-seven. >> so to have, realized that at 37 must (unintel). >> it was a blessing. it was a great, great gift. it's, i'm sure i would not have stumbled upon that on my own accord until i was probably at least as old as i am now, 20 years later, or, or maybe even older, you know? and, i had my eyes opened to this very early on. i watched a guy die in front of me and i watched the way that he lived. and then i sat down and wrote about it so it was, like, while
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it was fresh in my mind. i am mortally afraid of dying. not because of the pain or the, i don't want life to end. i enjoy being here. i really do. i, i like, i'm blessed to be one of those people, i wake up in the morning, i, i'm busy as all can be. but i never, i never open my eyes with regret. >> mitch albom, thank you so much. >> sure. thank you. >> that's great. >> all right? >> thank you so much. >> my pleasure. >> grammy award-winning jazz singer cassandra wilson. >> everyone comes into the world with their unique voice. the question is, do you know how to develop it? >> her life, legacy and song-writing secrets. >> tapping into a spirituality inside of the music is very important. >> i lived that character. >> go one-on-one with america's movers and shakers. >> we will be able to see change.
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