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Roger Bennett's New Book Is 'An Englishman's Love Letter To His Chosen Home'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Roger Bennett loves soccer.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MEN IN BLAZERS")

ROGER BENNETT: One last dance before we go, and it's the Champions League Final. Man City arrive in Porto after drowning Everton five-nil with...

CHANG: The co-host of the "Men In Blazers" podcast and NBC show also really, really loves the United States. The Bennett family myth - says Roger's great-grandfather, a kosher butcher - left Ukraine and headed to Chicago. When his boat landed in Liverpool, he was sure he had made it to New York City and made his exit. And although Roger Bennett's great-grandfather never did make it to the U.S., the dream to get here never died.

BENNETT: I was very close as a kid with my grandfather, who is obsessed with America. I play chess with him almost every afternoon. And in dark times - and there were many - my grandfather Sam would take a cheap plastic tourist tchotchke of the Statue of Liberty off his fireplace. I now have it on my desk in New York City. And he'd read the inscription about, give me your tired, your poor. And he'd shake his head and say, we should have lived there. We should have lived there.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERRY AND THE PACEMAKERS SONG, "FERRY CROSS THE MERSEY")

BENNETT: I came of age in Liverpool, England, in the 1980s. It's a magical city, but back then it was a town in turmoil - Britain overwhelmed by economic and social change in which the north of England rotted away and the coal mines, the steel mills, the cotton industry fell apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: In Liverpool, unemployment's double the national level. There are some parts of the city where 18% of the people are out of work.

BENNETT: And it felt like you could stand on the street corner of Liverpool, which had massive unemployment, no real hope, a heroin epidemic and witness the city decomposing before your very eyes. And I survived by making believe I was an American trapped in an Englishman's body by inhaling everything American I could lay my hands on - "The Love Boat"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE BOAT")

JACK JONES: (Singing) Soon we'll be making another run.

BENNETT: ..."Fantasy Island"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FANTASY ISLAND")

HERVE VILLECHAIZE: (As Tattoo) The plane, the plane.

BENNETT: ..."Miami Vice"...

(SOUNDBITE OF JAN HAMMER'S "MIAMI VICE THEME")

BENNETT: ...Music, books, clothes, an occasional pair of knockoff Ray-Bans which made the United States my light in the darkness. In my imagination, Chicago remained my family's spiritual home. So when the NFL started to be broadcast in England in the early '80s on a remote channel, it became a cult hit on Sunday nights...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: New York Jets nil, Los Angeles Raiders 31. The Raiders trampled all over Giants quarterback Ken O'Brien.

BENNETT: ...Where it ran as an hour-long highlight reel of the previous week's game all scrunched into an hour. I would watch, and I'd root for the Chicago Bears.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Tampa Bay Buccaneers 28, Chicago Bears 38.

BENNETT: I chose a phenomenal time to start tuning in because the Bears had been a shambolic entity. Yet as soon as I started tuning in, their fortunes changed. They became a smashmouth team who eviscerated opponents, brutalized them, taunted them with swagger and collective joy. The Bears won the Super Bowl that season, releasing a single right before the big game, "The Super Bowl Shuffle."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SUPER BOWL SHUFFLE")

THE CHICAGO BEARS: (Rapping) We're not here to start no trouble. We're just here to do the Super Bowl shuffle.

BENNETT: The Bears, who proved that it's possible to take an identity of failure, self-sabotage, an inferiority complex and shook it to rewrite who you are to turn from perpetual loser to glorious winner. And then came the Beastie Boys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SLEEP TILL BROOKLYN")

BEASTIE BOYS: (Rapping) No sleep till...

BENNETT: "License To Ill," their debut, was faintly audible all over Britain when it came out with its attitude of, let's push every boundary but see what we can get away with. And I love that origin story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SLEEP TILL BROOKLYN")

BEASTIE BOYS: (Rapping) Brooklyn.

BENNETT: With Starter-jacket-fueled undaunted confidence, they didn't care what others thought about, and their way made them self-made superstars.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO SLEEP TILL BROOKLYN")

BEASTIE BOYS: (Rapping) Foot on the pedal, never ever false metal, engine running hotter than a boiling kettle.

BENNETT: And then the Beastie Boys came to England on an eight-day tour that ended in Liverpool. The moment they landed in England, they were met by a tabloid frenzy of outrage against their bawdy behavior and lack of morals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: It's five to 1 Friday afternoon here at Heathrow Airport. And the Beastie Boys are due to arrive from Amsterdam in just five minutes.

BENNETT: That bawdy behavior and lack of morals instantly made them even more beloved to everybody below the age of 18. I went with my mates from school in our uniforms to make sure we got tickets the day we came out. The whole city of Liverpool was ready to welcome them as heroes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Unintelligible).

BENNETT: The excitement crackling across the theater - it felt like this was going to be our Woodstock. But the Beastie Boys made a terrible mistake. As the lights went down, their set was about to start. MCA burped into the microphone, [expletive] you, Liverpool, which might work in Cincinnati or LA or London or Manchester. But in Liverpool, those are fighting words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Unintelligible).

BENNETT: The crowd went wild. A riot broke out, which led to tear gas from the police and Ad-Rock's arrest. A night that should have been one of the best of my life ended in carnage. And it reinforced the scent of that old adage that if you give an Englishman the choice between his success and your failure, he'll choose your failure every time. That desire to cut others down to our level was so powerful that to do something different, to be different, there's really only one option. I had to leave.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACY CHAPMAN SONG, "FAST CAR")

BENNETT: It was Tracy Chapman that saved my life, the healing presence whose debut album came out with its central message - tenacity in the face of suffering - arriving just when I needed it most.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAST CAR")

TRACY CHAPMAN: (Singing) You got a fast car. I want a ticket to anywhere.

BENNETT: Her message in every interview became a map I knew I now had to follow. Stay in touch with your emotions in times of both light and darkness. Be willing to act and make big, bold changes to your reality. Attack life with courage. And above all, get out when you can.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAST CAR")

CHAPMAN: (Singing) And I had a feeling that I belonged. I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone.

BENNETT: I did get out of Liverpool. I moved to Chicago at the earliest opportunity, completing the journey my great-grandfather had dreamed about but never made. I became an American citizen in 2018, and that which I believe is the greatest single achievement of my life - to stand in a courtroom in Lower Manhattan surrounded by 162 individuals from 47 countries, many of whom had escaped civil wars and famine, had undertaken incredible journeys to be here. When you say the oath with them, you understand just how powerful the idea of America is - the sense of courage, the sense of wonder, the sense of possibility it can and does provide.

CHANG: That's Roger Bennett. His new book is called "Reborn In The U.S.A.: An Englishman's Love Letter To His Chosen Home."

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACY CHAPMAN SONG, "FAST CAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.