Full transcript:

Robert Scheer: Welcome to another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, a really interesting film director and producer, John Scheinfeld, who I first encountered his work when he did a very important movie on the U.S. vs. John Lennon. And it went into John Lennon’s political development, and when he became a strong antiwar activist, among other things. And also, the whole record that was revealed of how the U.S. government and the FBI and so forth went out to destroy this fellow. And he’s made other interesting movies, but the main one we’re here to discuss is called Chasing Trane, the story of John Coltrane, who is one of my great heroes; well, so was John Lennon, for that matter. And there’s two musicians that you’ve now tackled and done sort of a, well, a bio-doc-pic on them. Why don’t we start with John Lennon and discuss that first? Although they overlapped in time, didn’t they?

John Scheinfeld: A little bit. Coltrane died young at age 40 in 1967, so he was there for, certainly, the explosion of the Beatles. They never met, as far as we know.

RS: Well, what you capture in both stories is a search for integrity and rebellion. You’re talking about two truly great artists. There’s no question about John Coltrane being one of the greats, certainly; I mean, one could argue he’s the greatest American jazz figure; jazz is the great cultural contribution the United States made to music. And in your movie you’ve got a lot of very well known people commenting on John Coltrane being the unique, brilliant force, and I think there’s Wynton Marsalis and others who compare him to Beethoven and so forth. And certainly John Lennon, for people who really didn’t follow his development, the album Working-Class Hero for my money is one of the great American, great international albums. Because he was an American, but it’s certainly, as someone who grew up with that kind of background, you know, “a working-class hero is something to be,” they feed you drugs and sex and TV, and tell you you can be wonderful but you’re not, you know, going to be and you’re not going to have the breaks. And you know, so let’s start with John Lennon, then we’ll get to Coltrane, which is your current movie, and we do want to devote most of our time here to that. But Lennon, I think there’s two aspects of that story that are really important: his own development, and the fact that that development made him a target of both the British and U.S. governments. So why don’t you just discuss that.

JS: Lennon had a remarkable evolution, both as an artist and as a thinker. I think early on, many people admired his wit, but I don’t think they really appreciated what a deep thinker and critical thinker that he was, and really became as he moved along in the 1960s.

RS: We’re not talking about Vladimir Lenin now, we’re talking about John Lennon. [Laughter] No, I just have to remind people, because not everyone thinks of him as a deep thinker; I do.

JS: Yeah. And you see it in his writing, and in interviews that he increasingly did as the sixties turned into the seventies. Bob, to what you mentioned, I would also add truth; both he and Coltrane were seekers of truth, and Lenin of course wrote the great song, “Give Me Some Truth.” What happened was is that he fell in with the left-wing, and particularly the anti-war activists. And what a lot of people forget is that 18-year-olds didn’t always have the vote. The first year that 18-year-olds had that right was in 1972, and the Nixon administration was particularly paranoid that all the young people would vote against him. And so as we know, he had an enemies list, and Lennon was on that list; but they paid particular attention to him, because they were concerned that he might be able to sway a lot of young people, either with his words or with his music. And they started, through the FBI, going after him to try to silence him or neutralize him, because of his anti-war politics.

RS: Yeah, Jon Wiener, a professor of history at UC Irvine, wrote a whole book on the files and did a lot of the Freedom of Information–

JS: Well, we love John. He was such a big help to us making The U.S. vs. John Lennon. He had gone in through the Freedom of Information Act and got access to all these FBI documents that were really invaluable to us telling this story. Many different stories over the years, in terms of they started going after him in 1971, and he ultimately took them to court and won his case in 1976.

RS: I actually show your movie in my teaching, and I use Jon Wiener’s book, and I’ve actually brought him in. Because I wanted to describe the surveillance state before the modern surveillance state. And this is when the FBI went out to destroy Martin Luther King; they really went out to destroy anyone who stood up on the war, on civil rights, and so forth. And in your documentary, you show sort of the coming out of John Lennon, I believe it was after he met Yoko Ono, and she had a great influence on him. But it was the John Sinclair [Freedom Rally] in Wisconsin–

JS: It was in Michigan.

RS: Michigan, I’m sorry–and here was someone who was in jail for quite a stiff sentence, and really hadn’t done anything, and was singled out to make an object. And a lot of people, Jerry Rubin and Rennie Davis and Bobby Seale all organized this concert to support him.

JS: John was sentenced to many years in jail for having three joints.

RS: Sinclair was, yeah. And then the thing that really turned that, there was a big concert, but then John Lennon showed up.

JS: And brought international attention to this situation. And within weeks, John Sinclair was released from jail. And I think there was an element of John and Yoko feeling a little proud of this, and feeling that they needed, they saw they could make a difference and they wanted to make a difference in other areas as well.

RS: And what was the song he sang that sort of broke open the show?

JS: Well, he had written a specific song called John Sinclair. And not his most popular, but it was very much on point. And it was as a result of this concert that they started to spend more and more time with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the two anti-war activists, and through them got very much hooked into the anti-war movement. And it was a lot of intersecting intelligence surveillance at this time, not only Hoffman and Rubin and all of their cohorts, but then John and Yoko were being observed as well, and all of this sort of came together.

RS: Yeah. Full disclosure, we actually did have John Lennon on the cover of Ramparts magazine when I was editing it, and before that his manager had made a movie, an anti-war movie that he had supported, and he was really quite outspoken at that time. And you know, Ramparts as well was.

JS: And continued to be. We had a, there’s a wonderful photograph of him and Yoko standing on a stage with their fists raised in the air, power to the people–and then he wrote “Power to the People,” of course–and this very much was a stance that they took publicly. And I think what I admire so much about Lennon is that he did this without fear for what might happen as a result of the surveillance, what might happen to his record sales, what might happen to his fan base; he did it because he thought it was the right thing to do.

RS: And he ended up dying in part because of it.

JS: Ah, you know, I will say, I got the sea question at many Q&As that I would do about The U.S. vs John Lennon, the sea question being the conspiracy question.

RS: Well, I don’t know about conspiracy. I mean, he was a target emotionally. Forget about whether the government targeted him; I mean, he had gone from being one of the loveable Beatles to being a provocative figure.

JS: Yes, very much so.

RS: And that bothered people, and no, I wasn’t suggesting–although I’ve always wondered about the death of Martin Luther King and John Lennon and others, these people were being followed nonstop, 24/7, by the FBI; we do know that, there’s ample records now that have been released. And I just do have to raise the question, how is it if our government agencies are watching these people 24/7, some–if you believe what comes out–some lone nut can actually pull this off. I mean, why didn’t they know this?

JS: Sure. I can’t speak to the JFK or the MLK or the RFK assassinations; what I can say, because we’ve seen the documents, again thanks to Jon Wiener, there is no evidence that the government had any interest in Lennon beyond the Nixon administration, but certainly when he won his court case. We just didn’t see anything; we looked. And I think there was a lot of, when I say the sea question, we’d always get somebody that would get up and raise their hand and say, well, didn’t the CIA come after him or something. And honestly, we found no interest in Lennon afterward, and the truth is he kind of disappeared for five years. Became a house husband, raised his son Sean, and tried to become a better husband. And wasn’t doing anything publicly that would have raised anyone’s ire at that time.

RS: So just to switch subjects here, because another great musician is the subject of your current film, why don’t you talk about it? I saw it the other night, and I thought it was really quite terrific. And it just brought me back, I happened to go to graduate school in Berkeley in ‘59, a long time ago, and we’d go over to San Francisco, go to the Jazz Workshop, the Blackhawk, then was Bop City, it was the center of a lot of jazz; I’d come from New York, where we had the Five Spot and a lot of great clubs. And you know, Coltrane was it. And everybody said he was; you know, whether it was Monk or Mingus or all these people, they all spoke with great admiration about Coltrane. And why don’t you, for people who really don’t know him, explain the movie begins with this guy sort of coming from nowhere. And then he had his encounter, he’s one of the positive stories about getting off heroin, because there’s always been this mythology that if you take drugs, your music or your writing will get better, your sex will get better, something will get better. And in Coltrane’s case, he was not really an outstanding musician until he got off heroin. That’s one of the revelations of your movie. And he actually became a good family man, and you have all of his various children speaking so highly of him, as well as his colleagues. And he seemed to be a, I hate to use the word, kind of a sober fellow in his approach, very workmanlike in his composing and his craft. Why don’t you give us some sense of the person you describe in [Chasing] the Trane, the documentary you made on John Coltrane.

JS: One of our producers had come to me and said, how would you feel about making a film about John Coltrane? And like many people, I’d been introduced to his music through his recording of “My Favorite Things,” which is just a sensational track. But I didn’t really know much about his story. So I started to do more research, and the more that I read about him, the more I thought this was a special kind of story. We all know the story about young artists, mostly rock and rollers, but young artist comes from nowhere, has great talent, has great success, explodes on the scene, makes a lot of money, abuses substances, and dies young; we all know this story. There was a documentary a year and some ago about Amy Winehouse, very much that story. But to me, Coltrane’s the antithesis of that. He was a guy that, yes, as you make reference to, had his challenges early on with heroin addiction. And we opened the film at a crisis point for him in Chasing Trane. What’s he going to do? He gets fired by Miles Davis because of his heroin use, and the music is suffering. I think Miles would endure many things except the music suffering, and when it started to suffer, he said, you’re outta here. And now he’s faced with the choice: am I going to go the direction of Charlie Parker, my hero, who died at age 34 because of his addiction to hard drugs? Or am I going to get clean and try to do something better and different with my life? And we pose that question right at the head of the film. And then we kind of go back and say, how did we get here. And he’s a small-town kid from North Carolina, was exposed to music as a–

RS: You should mention, segregated North Carolina.

JS: Jim Crow. Sure. It was the Jim Crow United States, very much so. And so I think he, we spend some time sort of laying the groundwork there. Because in the South at that time, [there were] sort of separate cultures, black and white. But I think from an early age he was exposed to the music of the church and the music that was on the radio at home, and it sort of fired his imagination. Started on the clarinet, then turned to the saxophone. Seems to have been–you used a good word earlier–workmanlike; seemed to be a workmanlike guy for a while. But there was something in his playing that people seemed to recognize.

RS: What was his training? Because one thing that comes across in your documentary is, this guy really knew music. And he was very serious about composing and about music, and so this was not something he just picked up by ear. Did he have any formal training?

JS: It’s remarkable; not really. He was largely self-taught. He did have a saxophone teacher after high school for a year or two, but largely he learned by doing. And what really, Bob, that he did is he was a practice nut. He would practice hours and hours and hours every day. Jazz legend Jimmy Heath tells a story in the film about how when they were both working in Dizzy Gillespie’s band, that Coltrane would sit in the hotel room and he’d be practicing late at night, even though they were finished, and they ought to be asleep or doing whatever they were doing. And then people in the hotel would complain about the noise, and he would stop blowing, but he would still finger the horn, just getting his hand motions correct. So he was very dedicated, very devoted. But I think also, he had the mentors of some great, great artists. He worked for Dizzy Gillespie, worked for Miles Davis, worked for Thelonius Monk. And he was a sponge, and I think he picked up so much. But we could not find any evidence that he had serious training, other than what he did for himself.

RS: You know, you just threw out three names that might not be familiar to people listening. And we’re really talking about an intense period of creative explosion in American jazz. The big bands were gone, you had these small groups; I mean, Gillespie was kind of a bridge figure. You had somebody like Thelonius Monk, I would go to the Blackhawk and hear him night after night, you know, and he would just play for hours in his own style, in his own way. Miles Davis, obviously Parker. And I don’t think there’s ever been in this country as creative a period of that kind artistically. I mean, it was just unbelievable. You know, yes, jazz exists today, but it’s not the same thing. The years of the fifties and into the sixties were startling. And the man you made the documentary on, really, everyone acknowledges was the key guy. And not to take anything away from Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie and so forth, but it’s very clear in the movie–and you’ve got a lot, you should talk a little bit about the people you have in your movie–but they speak about Coltrane with reverence.

JS: They do, and for a lot of reasons. I think as we were talking before, he stayed true to his musical vision, irrespective of commercial concerns; he was constantly pushing the envelope, constantly experimenting. One of the interesting things for me–and somebody, when we were doing the Q&A the night you came to see Chasing Trane, John Densmore and I were going back and forth; John Densmore, the drummer of The Doors. And John said, so what are some of the similarities you see between Lennon and Coltrane? And I think a lot of that is staying true to the vision, expanding their repertoire; but I think also, one thing I noticed about the Beatles, at least from my point of view, is each album was different than the one that came before it. They were constantly trying new things, new sounds, and that’s exactly what Coltrane did. If you look at the broad range of his career, he started off fairly traditional be-bop and then he starts experimenting. And he just goes. And each album is different; he does one called Africa Brass, which has a very sort of African percussion oriented sound. He does an album with Duke Ellington, another great jazz legend. He does Giant Steps, which is just, for any music fan, not just a jazz fan, is an extraordinary album. And then of course we come to his masterwork, which has inspired so many people across many genres of music, and that’s A Love Supreme. But he’s constantly following some message in his head about “go this direction,” and he’s going there, whether people want him to go there or not. And I think that’s to be admired.

RS: It’s interesting you used “workmanlike.” Because you have him disappearing into the studio above the garage in what looks like a ranch home, right?

JS: Yeah, it was his home in Dix Hills, which is on Long Island in New York.

RS: Yeah. And you know, you’ve seen thousands of those kind of homes, and he’s up there. And his wife would, what, pass him meals up there. I mean, he was a good family man, and he loved his children, but he just disappeared for weeks to work on–

JS: He was inspired by something. And he said, just let me do my thing. And Alice Coltrane, who was a renowned musician in her own right, felt that he was on a mission. Whatever that mission was, no one was quite sure, but he was up there in his attic for two weeks, possibly three weeks. And when he came down, Alice describes it as being–he was like Moses coming down from the mountain. He didn’t have the tablets of the Commandments, but he had finished this remarkable composition, A Love Supreme, which has inspired so many people, as I say. Carlos Santana is in the film; he talks about how he was inspired by that piece of work. Bill Clinton, President Clinton is in the film; very thoughtful, very passionate on the subject of Coltrane.

RS: Well, a sax player, right?

JS: Sax player, too. But he says that when he first heard A Love Supreme, he said, oh my God, this is what everybody should be reaching for. And there is something universal, universally inspiring in that piece that Coltrane just captured.

RS: [omission] We’re right back with John Scheinfeld, and we’re talking about jazz and popular music and integrity. You know, it’s interesting, because in the film Coltrane clearly has Christian religious roots that are very important to him. And yet–or I shouldn’t say “and yet,” but he then rises or goes off in different directions. And it’s not the old tradition–oh yes, there was gospel and then there’s music and so forth; it’s really integrated, where he is at that time and who he is.

JS: Very much so. He, music seemed to have always been around, either at church, but also the radio. The radio in those days was the primary vehicle through which people listened to music. And we have a lovely illustration, it’s a beautiful painting by a Latino artist named Rudy Gutierrez, and Rudy does this very impressionistic painting of young John Coltrane listening to the radio, and all the famous musicians whose work he’s hearing coming through the ether. And he seems to, again, if I can use one word, not such an eloquent word but I think an accurate one, is he was a sponge. He absorbed so much of what was around him, whether he heard it on the radio, whether it was in the movies, whether it was going to clubs and seeing other musicians play. Or, as you said, it was such a vibrant jazz scene in the fifties that they all sort of knew each other and crossed paths at various clubs in various cities. And he seemed to always be learning and seeking the truth. And this to me made him so unique. But if I can go back to your question, I didn’t want to make a jazz film. And in fact I think the word “jazz” appears in Chasing Trane maybe five times. This is a journey film. It’s a journey of this remarkable artist, it’s a portrait of this remarkable artist. And largely, from my point of view, his journey was a spiritual journey. That he was exposed to his Methodist faith as a child; both of his grandparents were ministers; but then he fell far from the tree, and became a heroin addict, and didn’t really go to church or anything like that. And again, it’s when he got clean, not only did his playing and his writing really explode, but also I think his critical thinking kicked in. And how many musicians, whether jazz or rock and roll, can you say were inspired by Albert Einstein?

RS: You know, it’s interesting. In both cases, John Lennon and John Coltrane, you’re talking about people who are practicing a profession which is not always associated, until you get to classical music, with brilliance; with being an intellectual, with being profound. And what comes across in both of these documentaries is that these are very bright people. And very hardworking, and take their craft very seriously. And in both things, in both places, it’s interesting because yeah, they have some chaos in their lives; they both end of being involved with very strong women who clearly do not suffer fools. Who are clearly, you know, some people even think Yoko Ono just took over, you know, John Lennon; but then you have Alice, John Coltrane’s wife, who was an accomplished musician; they met while touring. And clearly, you know, she runs a family operation that is clear and, you know [laughter], and there’s a work ethic, and–

JS: Well, they both found, both Johns found the love of their life. John with Yoko, and John with Alice. I asked somebody once that was close to John and Yoko, just to go there for a moment; there are the stories that Yoko was sort of leading him by the nose and telling him what to do. And this guy just shook his head and looked at me, and he said, no one–no one told John Lennon what to do. If he went there, it was because he wanted to go there. I think what he found was a partner, and from my point of view, that’s exactly what John Coltrane found in Alice Coltrane, was a partner; that they shared similar visions of the world, they shared similar spiritual concerns. And I think–

RS: But they were both very strong.

JS: Very strong women–

RS: Yoko Ono, yes, was an accomplished performance artist, and so forth, with very strong–I actually met her a couple of times during that period, very strong views, very clear, and brought a whole international perspective to the discussion. And from your film on Coltrane, his wife certainly had very strong values and ideas about music and everything else. So we’re not talking about, yes, the little lady partner; these are strong.

JS: Oh, very strong women and accomplished women, very much so. And in the case of Alice and John Coltrane, when we talk spiritual, we’re not talking any particular religion; I think they had left that behind. As people told us, they read the Bible, they read the Kabbalah, they read Buddhist and Hindu texts and many different things. And again, I think that sponge factor–that he would read all of this, internalize it, and it would somehow come out through his music. And so it’s that spiritual journey that really fascinated me, and that really is at the core of Chasing Trane, is following this man’s spiritual seeking, his search for the truth as he defined it.

RS: You know, this series that I’m doing here, podcast, my overarching theme is the search for American originals, people who out of this crazy-quilt of American culture and religion and immigration and freedom and slavery and everything else, somehow produced unique individuals. Now obviously, John Lennon was also a product of British culture, but he certainly resonated very much within American culture.

JS: And lived here the last ten years of his life.

RS: Yes, and responded to America’s role in the world. And certainly Coltrane is a product of the segregated South and overcoming it and everything else. And I think in both cases–I did a podcast with Willie Nelson, I felt very strongly in his case–a search for integrity. You know, and that’s what people don’t understand, and particularly in the jazz scene of the fifties and sixties. I felt like when I went to these clubs, yeah there was drinking and yeah there was smoke and yeah, you know, loud–but it was like going to a church. I mean, this was the search for the perfect sound, and you know, you were not–yeah, you heard the glasses tinkling, and people could talk once in a while if they were drunk or something off in the corner, but whether it was Mingus or Monk or Coltrane or Sonny Rollins or any of these people, and Miles Davis–you felt, wait a minute, the man’s preaching. There’s something happening here, and you’d better take it very seriously, because this is really high art. And it’s dealing with philosophy, you know. And I think looking at these two people that you examine in your films, John Lennon and John Coltrane, there’s clearly, the overriding quest here is to figure out, what’s it all about? What’s it all about?

JS: And as you say, with integrity; that was very important to both of them. They were very authentic, both of these artists. And I think that stands out. When I started off deciding who I wanted to interview for this, I sort of divided it into four categories. I wanted people that knew Coltrane, had played with Coltrane, and so could speak with credibility and legitimacy to who he was as a person and as an artist. So we have jazz legends Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, Reggie Workman, Wayne Shorter, Jimmy Heath. And they all bring real knowledge of the man to bear in the film. Second category was family, as you mentioned before; they give us a more intimate window into the artist, so we interviewed four of his children; one of which, his stepdaughter Antonia from his first marriage to Naima, had never given an interview before in her life.

RS: And she’s great in your film, yeah.

JS: She’s wonderful! She tells this wonderful story about–I won’t spoil it for your listeners; they should go see Chasing Trane.

RS: No, no, tell the story about the shoes–

JS: OK, I’ll tell the story about the shoes–

RS: –yeah, no, because that was quite moving.

JS: And she didn’t think I would like the story, because she thought it was just such a small story. But as filmmakers, it’s the small stories that tell you big things about your subjects. So it was a snowy night; Coltrane was playing at a club uptown in New York. And she needed a pair of shoes, and they weren’t doing so well economically; it was quite early on in Coltrane’s career. And so in spite of the snow–he didn’t take a cab home, didn’t take the subway home, didn’t take the bus home–he walked home. And he walked home so he could save the money so they could buy her a pair of shoes the next day. And I thought this spoke volumes about him as a father and him as a man. And that’s what we, really what we tried to do in Chasing Trane, was to bring him alive as a three-dimensional human being. We’ve all seen the record covers, where it’s this very serious, thoughtful guy; but I wanted to show that there was a whole human being there. We were able to do that with his kids. The third category was artists who have success in their own right that claim Coltrane as an influence. So we have Carlos Santana and John Densmore and young up-and-coming sax star Kamasi Washington, who’s terrific. And they all talk about how Coltrane inspired them. And then, I wanted to have–and Wynton Marsalis, who’s very much–although it’s interesting. I didn’t include him in that because he’s had mixed things to say about Coltrane over his life. Sometimes he’s critical, sometimes he’s praiseworthy. And that’s one of the things, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to him. And we got really eloquent observations from Wynton as well. And then I wanted to have just a couple of people where folks like you, or some of your listeners, might say: what the heck are they doing in this film? So we’ve already talked about Bill Clinton. But another one is Cornel West, who I had seen on television as a pundit and loved his way of speaking and his view of the world, and I thought he would have something unique to say. And sometimes you get smart, and sometimes you get lucky; and this time I got lucky, because I wanted him to be a cultural historian to talk about the black experience in America.

RS: And he shows reverence. This is the guy we think of as a political person, expressing reverence for the artist, in Cornel West. I have never seen–I mean, I’ve seen Cornel West, I’ve heard him speak many times, and I think he is quite brilliant. But he’s really saying, Coltrane does something that we can’t do, most of us. And I do want to say, just in wrapping this up, I’m not a disinterested observer. Most of my own writing has had Coltrane playing in the back when I write. I actually would have to say, you know, one of the most significant forces in my own life. And we’re not capturing that here; this is all talk, talk; the great thing about the documentary is you got the sound, you got it in there. And you know, the sad thing is, jazz kind of has died as a force in America. You could say, yeah, it lives out in certain areas and it’s been transformed. But there was a creative explosion in this country, long-lasting about jazz in many different forms, but that period that Coltrane really was the principal person after Parker, and so forth–I said it earlier, I don’t think we’ve ever had a creative period like that musically in this country. And Coltrane really was the central figure in pushing that, and extending it. So I just want to urge people to go–what’s going to happen now? You know, hopefully you’re going to win an Academy Award or something with this, but I mean, it’s just–

JS: [Laughs] From your lips to someone’s ears, that would be nice. We’ve been in theaters for the last few weeks, and will continue to be for the next two months; we’re on 110 screens across the country, and the number is growing every day as people hear about this film. But I’d like to leave you with one thought: that I think Coltrane transcends jazz. I think his music is universal in a different way. There’s a quote from Coltrane that Denzel Washington voices in the film. We haven’t talked about that, but Coltrane did no TV interviews and only a handful of radio interviews in his lifetime, and the sound wasn’t good enough for me to use. But I wanted to hear what he thought and felt about certain things. So long story short, we were very honored that Denzel Washington agreed to speak the words of Coltrane. And there’s a quote there, I’m paraphrasing it now, but something to the effect of: I know we’re sold under the name jazz, but that doesn’t mean anything to me; I just feel that I play John Coltrane. And I think in some ways that really was his view, is that yes, he’s in the jazz idiom; but he was reaching for other things, more cosmic, more universal aspects of music. And it does speak to so many people who like all kinds of music, not just jazz lovers.

RS: Well, John Coltrane, one of a kind. And people should go see the documentary, Chasing Trane. That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence, where my guest has been John Scheinfeld, the director and producer of Chasing Trane, his great movie on legendary John Coltrane. Our producers are Josh Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. The engineers at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. And this time we got a great assist from Peter Spencel at NPR West. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

—Posted by Emma Niles


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