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For author J.R. Moehringer, 'The Tender Bar' was a chance to revisit childhood

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

The new movie "The Tender Bar," about a boy who finds comfort and an escape from his chaotic family life in a neighborhood taproom, is based on the memoir of our first guest, J.R. Moehringer. Moehringer was an accomplished newspaper journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature reporting in 2000. His books include a novel about the legendary bank robber Willie Sutton. He also collaborated with tennis star Andre Agassi on his memoir and has been signed to work with Prince Harry on his autobiography. The film, based on his memoir "The Tender Bar," is directed by George Clooney and stars Ben Affleck, Christopher Lloyd and Tye Sheridan as Moehringer. In this scene, Affleck, as Moehringer's uncle, is giving him advice on growing up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TENDER BAR")

BEN AFFLECK: (As Charlie) OK. Two rules - I'm never going to let you win, ever. You beat me, you know you beat me fair and square. But I never let you win. And I'm going to always tell you the truth. I saw you in the yard playing sports. You're not very good and probably not going to get a whole lot better, so might be wise for you, in order to avoid tears and disappointment and, above all, delusion, find some other activities that you like, you know? Like, what do you like to do the most?

DANIEL RANIERI: (As J.R.) I like to read.

AFFLECK: (As Charlie) I also like to read. I'm good at sports, too.

DAVIES: "The Tender Bar" opens in selected theaters today. It will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime January 7. Terry spoke with J.R. Moehringer in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Let me start by asking you to describe this bar that played such an important part of your childhood. It's kind of like it takes a village. But in your case, it takes a bar (laughter).

J R MOEHRINGER: (Laughter) Right. It takes a barroom full of barflies, yeah. Well, I - yeah, I grew up, it was just me and my mother. My father was a rock 'n' roll DJ in New York. He was quite well known at the time, so I grew up knowing what he sounded like, but not knowing what he looked like, which was...

GROSS: Yeah, say his name.

MOEHRINGER: Johnny Michaels. And he was - he bounced around a bit. He was at WNBC and WABC. He was there at the at the vanguard when rock 'n' roll was making that switch from AM to FM. And he had the most beautiful voice, which, you know, made it even more vexing that he wasn't around 'cause this gorgeous baritone would be coming out of the radio. And I knew that was my father, but I didn't know what he looked like or why he never came around.

And pretty early on, my mother kind of handed me off to my uncle and these guys from the bar, asked them to, you know, take me to the beach and to the ballgame. She knew that I needed some kind of male influence. She trusted my Uncle Charlie more than she - might have more than she should have, maybe. So from a very early age, I was spending, you know, a good bit of time around these guys. I was never sitting at the bar with a scotch in front of me. It wasn't that strange. But - and in fact, these guys were pretty careful, conscientious babysitters until the time that I was of legal age.

But boy, I got an education in, you know, cursing and manhood and manly interests real fast. And my - I guess my mother recognized that some male influence is better than none. And then, of course, when I was old enough to drink in the bar, you know, I really kind of embraced these guys, and I spent a lot of time at that bar learning different lessons about manhood, about courage, about character from those guys.

GROSS: What did manhood mean to you?

MOEHRINGER: Well, to me, it meant just total mystery and confusion. I mean, it was just me and my mother. And she's a wonderful woman and knows all there is to know about courage and character and grit. But I just felt, as so many young boys, young men do, that there were some secret knowledge that men had and that I wasn't privy to it 'cause there was no man in my house. So at the time, the problem was I didn't know what manhood meant.

And to these guys, it meant a certain kind of John Wayne aura. It meant not complaining, and it meant grinning and bearing it. It meant a certain kind of wry humor. It meant being very respectful, courteous with women. Thankfully, they were kind of old-school, these guys.

It meant having a sense of humor. I mean, I remember being around these guys from, you know, 11 years old until I was about 25, and I remember laughing a lot. That's my single greatest memory. And it wasn't all drunken laughter. They were just uncommonly witty guys. There was this sense of - that the best response to life is a kind of gallows humor. And I certainly - I adopted their ethos.

GROSS: So you were basically brought up in part by the macho kind of guys at this bar. And then you get a scholarship to go to Yale. So I'm thinking the women - the young women at Yale might have had a different sense of manhood the way they wanted it (laughter)...

MOEHRINGER: (Laughter) Right.

GROSS: ...Than what you were exposed to. And what you were just describing there was like, they're old-fashioned men who really, like - what was the word you used - gentlemanly? I forget what the word you used.

MOEHRINGER: They were respectful. They were courteous.

GROSS: Respectful.

MOEHRINGER: Yeah.

GROSS: Yes. But you didn't say that they treated women as equals (laughter)...

MOEHRINGER: No, I (laughter)...

GROSS: ...Which you probably can't say.

MOEHRINGER: I can say that, certainly, about some of them. I don't want to malign...

GROSS: No, no. I understand.

MOEHRINGER: But yeah. No, I mean, there were - there was a variety. These guys were not all of a kind. And so...

GROSS: Right.

MOEHRINGER: ...It's hard to generalize about them. So yes, certainly there were some old-school chauvinists.

GROSS: But did you find that your preparation for manhood wasn't necessarily the kind of manhood that was going to be a positive thing for the women who were your peers once you got to college?

MOEHRINGER: Oh. Yeah. It - I mean, it was unorthodox, my childhood, my training. And it wasn't just the women at Yale. It was the young - it was my - you know, it was the young men among my classmates who noticed that I had come from a kind of a different world. But yeah, so I felt very out of place. My mother and I had nothing, and I arrived as a scholarship student. I could barely afford my books. And my mother, I remember, canceled her subscription to People magazine so that she could send me that money. You know, it was - times were very rough.

And so I had a lot of rough edges as I arrived. And I was acutely conscious of that throughout my time at Yale. I mean, I've learned since then that I was not alone, that the most seemingly polished kids in my class felt the same sense of being out of place. I wish someone had told me that then. I wish there had been a way for all of us at Yale to communicate, you know, our sense of alienation and that social awkwardness.

But yeah, you're right. It was not the best training (laughter) to grow up in a bar and in a tiny apartment with a single mom and to go to a bad public school. This is not how you prep for college, I think.

GROSS: So in talking about the bar where you grew up, in part, you write that there was lots of sex at the bar - that sex was one of the foundational premises of the bar, so it made a kind of sense that people had sex all over the premises - in the parking lot, in the bathrooms, in the basement. Did you end up running into some of these examples before you actually understood the facts of life?

MOEHRINGER: No, I was pretty conversant in the facts of life when I was in the bar and observing what the grown-ups were all doing. And, you know, this was a different time. It was the '70s, early '80s. And, you know, people drank a lot then and smoked a lot. And it just - it made for a lot of good stories. It was - every night, there was something interesting to watch.

There was sex in the air at the bar. I mean, the bar was unusual in that it attracted, you know, men and women and couples. And it was really the gathering point for my entire town. And so if you weren't observing, you know, overt displays of sexuality, you were observing couples breaking up or married couples deciding to end it. I mean, every permutation of sex and relationships was on display there. So it was quite an education, but I came to it with some basis of knowledge.

GROSS: Well, who needs to watch an HBO series when you have that?

(LAUGHTER)

MOEHRINGER: No, the bar was always better than television. That is the truest thing you can say about that place.

GROSS: So I'm just fascinated by the idea that your father was a DJ. And you didn't really know him because he and your mother split up when you were very young. But you'd hear him on the radio. And anyone else in the house would turn the radio off 'cause he had mistreated your mother so badly. Or at least, that's what you had been told growing up.

MOEHRINGER: Yeah.

GROSS: And so you'd hear him on the radio and just, like, fantasize about who he was and read all kinds of things into his voice. You thought of him as the Voice, with a capital V. And you thought of his radio show as, like, this party that your father was giving with, like, Stevie Wonder and Van Morrison and The Beatles.

Can you describe a little bit what it was like? I know, like, when I was growing up and I listened to the radio, to me, it was, like, that place that no one could take away from me 'cause even alone in my bedroom, I could listen to the radio. And (laughter)...

MOEHRINGER: Right. Right.

GROSS: It would be, like, my - you know, my connection to, like, not only great music, but, like, the world outside - and, like, a world that seemed, like, just like so hip, you know (laughter)?

MOEHRINGER: (Laughter) Right. Right.

GROSS: So just talk a little bit about what it meant to listen to this absent father on the radio and imagine who he was.

MOEHRINGER: It was surreal because, as I say, his voice was spectacular. He just had these beautiful pipes. I might not have been so inclined to romanticize him if he hadn't sounded the way he sounded. But he really did have this beautiful, almost Paul Robeson voice. And then when he wasn't speaking, he was playing this new, incredibly exciting music. Every time I hear certain Stevie Wonder songs, certain Van Morrison songs, I just - you know, I can hear my father. But it was so frustrating to be a little kid. I didn't have a relationship with him.

But also, the radio provided this spotty access to him. So I was always trying to dial him in. I didn't understand that he had a certain shift every day. So I'd sit out on the stoop. And I had this transistor radio. And I was turning the dial excruciatingly slowly, trying to find his voice, which, you know, really broke my mother's heart. And yet she didn't quite know how to step in and take the radio away from me.

And then what was strange is that when he died in 2002, a lot of his fans posted their favorite shows. They'd saved recordings of some of his best shows. And so I was trying to download them on the internet. And I was having trouble. And I was getting frustrated. And suddenly, I just stopped. And I had this complete flashback. I was doing exactly what I had done when I was a kid sitting on the stoop. And I just had to turn the computer off and walk away.

It was just - it was too trippy. And it took a long time to unwind my sense that he was living this exotic party life - that, really, he was he was a lonely guy projecting a false image through that microphone. It took decades to figure out that that wasn't the truth.

GROSS: I think if you listen to the radio, you're always surprised if you meet the person you've been listening to 'cause you have imagined them to be one way. And they're probably not that way, either physically...

MOEHRINGER: Right.

GROSS: ...Or, you know, biographically. Now, in your case, it was your father who you were obsessed with on the radio.

MOEHRINGER: Right.

GROSS: So you were imagining him in your mind. You got to know him a little better before his death. What surprised you most about the differences between who he was and what you'd imagined?

MOEHRINGER: Well, yeah, I met him when I was 16 or 17. And you know, I was just too - I was too filled with longing for a father. And I was too emotionally overwrought by the moment to notice any disparity between the voice and the person. I know exactly what you're talking about. There's always that the jolt when you meet. It's not just radio people - but writers. You've admired their work. And then here they are. And they never live up.

But that didn't happen to me when I met him because he was my father, and I was so excited to meet him. And we sat in a coffee shop in Phoenix. And he told me stories. And he was so funny. And he was an incredible mimic. He had just absolutely the most pitch-perfect ear. So he would do voices. And he'd known famous people. And he'd had stories about The Beatles. I'd never met anybody like him. And he was my actual father.

So disillusionment wasn't one of the things that I felt in that moment - quite the contrary. In fact, it just took forever for me to gain any perspective on that moment and realize who he was and how eager to please me he was. I mean, I went into that meeting hoping he would like me. And it took most of my life to realize that as much as I hoped that, he was twice as anxious for me to like him.

GROSS: And did you meet him again after that, later in life?

MOEHRINGER: I did. I had several meetings with him, which were - now they seem funny. But at the time, they were - I mean, he was a hard drinker. And nobody could make a bad decision like my father. So his life was spiraling downward. And so whenever I met him, he was always sinking. And so I got to know him, which I think is important - as much as it was possible to know him. But then at a certain point, I had to keep him at arm's length because he just wasn't a healthy influence on my life.

GROSS: In what way was he an unhealthy influence?

MOEHRINGER: Well, he was destructive - self-destructive. And I think he was destructive to people around him. He was incapable of being happy. And he was just sort of brutally insensitive.

I remember I was a correspondent at the LA Times in the Atlanta office. And a giant box arrived. And I opened it up. And there were, maybe, 20 gifts - little gifts - like dollar gifts - things you'd buy at a 99-cent store - a kazoo. I remember there was a picture of Yogi Berra. And each gift had a tag. And they said, like, eighth birthday, 11th Christmas, 14th birthday. It was just - it was horrifying because it wasn't really an attempt to make up for all those birthdays and Christmases that he'd missed. It was an attempt to salve his own conscience.

So he just didn't get it. He never got it. And as he got older, he got it even less and less. All I wanted him ever to do or be was kind and there. And that was more than he was capable of. He tried the grand gesture. He tried the makeup gift. And it just - it always felt fake, forced. He just - he seemed incapable of being genuine and present and just a dad.

DAVIES: J.R. Moehringer speaking with Terry Gross. The movie, based on his book "The Tender Bar," opens today in select theaters. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LULLATONE'S "ALL THE OPTIMISM OF EARLY JANUARY")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's 2012 interview with writer J.R. Moehringer. The movie based on his memoir, "The Tender Bar," opens in theaters today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: When you got into Yale on a scholarship, did you have to write one of those entrance essays?

MOEHRINGER: I did.

GROSS: So did you basically write a draft of your memoir, "The Tender Bar," for your college essay?

MOEHRINGER: No, not at all. There's actually a chapter in the book - I thought that - you know, I was 17 at the time, and I thought that writing meant using $20 words. And, you know, if you can find $50 words, all the better. And I wrote these essays about, oh, I don't know what topics, topics I considered worldly. And I had my mother read them before I sent them off to colleges. And she said, you sound insane.

(LAUGHTER)

MOEHRINGER: It was one of the biggest arguments we've ever had, and we just went around and around. I thought, this woman obviously doesn't know good writing, and we were slamming doors. I remember this like it was this morning. But she, as she always does, she prevailed and she said, just tell them the truth. Pick out something from your life, speak from the heart.

And so I told them about a part-time job I had with these two eccentric booksellers in this little bookstore near our dinky apartment. And I just wrote about how these guys gave me books and talked to me about books and how much I looked up to them and how they'd opened the world to me. And I couldn't wait to kind of extend that experience to college, just, you know, read more books with smart people.

And I thrust it at her like this will show you, you know, because I knew it was terrible because it was just simple words and nothing but the truth. And she said, perfect and - like, we just put a stamp on it that day. I was never so confused about writing. So, you know, my mother has always been my best editor, but she has suffered so much...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOEHRINGER: ...Through my life as my best editor. She just takes the brunt of it because she's the one who has to tell me this is awful (laughter).

GROSS: Do you remember any of the sentences from the essay that she didn't want you to send or any of the, you know, million-dollar words that you used?

MOEHRINGER: Well, you know, to her credit or discredit, she saved the essays. I think maybe she thought she might have to have me committed one day and these would be - and I quote them in the book. I mean, she brought them out when I was writing "The Tender Bar," and I quote some of the worst - the most offensive sentences in the book.

GROSS: Oh, so do you have the book with you?

MOEHRINGER: I do. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. So find a phrase there.

MOEHRINGER: OK, sure. Let's see. I'm going to flip the pages here. Yeah, I turned right to it. Before beginning my essay for Yale, I made a list of big words and my mother saved this list, and I quote it in the book. It's a - these are words that I was determined to shoehorn into my college essay - so provisional, strident, bucolic, fulcrum, inimical, behemoth, Jesuitical, minion, eclectic, Marquis de Sod - spelled S-O-D - and aesthetic. And you can imagine the essay that resulted from these words.

GROSS: (Laughter) Wait, wait, how were you going to use Marquis de Sod - S-O-D - in a sentence?

MOEHRINGER: I really - I really would rather not go into it, frankly.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MOEHRINGER: But I do quote one line from this essay. Try as I might, I wrote - I actually remember writing this on a manual typewriter. Try as I might, I feel unable to truly convey the emphatic pangs of hungry ignorance that attend this, my 17th year, for I fear that my audience is well fed.

GROSS: (Laughter) Bravo.

MOEHRINGER: It's really - there are kids right now who are applying to Yale just steaming, fuming that I got in. But my mother - you know, I think another parent would have said, well, you know, he obviously thinks this is great. And so I don't want to break his little heart. So no - but my mother is - my uncle always said that my aunt - my mother is tough as a $2 steak, and it's still the best description of her. And she just stood there and bore the brunt of my hubris and my yelling and my sticking out my bottom lip and has done it since more times than I care to count.

But it's because of her that I kept going back into my bedroom and toning it down, dialing it down. And I wrote - you know, I did write a plain, simple essay about this bookstore where I worked and these two guys who were so good to me and gave me books and gave me a love of books. And I do think that that is a big part of why I got into Yale from a really bad public school.

DAVIES: J.R. Moehringer speaking with Terry Gross in 2012. The movie based on his book, "The Tender Bar," opens today in select theaters and will be available for streaming on Amazon Prime January 7.

After a break, we'll remember novelist Anne Rice, best known for her bestseller "Interview With The Vampire," and culture writer and critic Greg Tate. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK'S "STRANGE MEADOWLARK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.