LYNN NEARY, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is on vacation.
Some musicians are content to play the same songs the same way over and over again. Bruce Hornsby is not one of those musicians. Steeped in the traditions of many musical styles, from blue grass to pop to jazz, he improvises on even his best-known songs, like The Way It Is, Mandolin Rain and The End of the Innocence.
The winner of three Grammies, The New York Times has called him a walking dictionary of jazz and pop piano styles and a superb technician. Hornsby is also known for his many musical collaborations. He's played with the Grateful Dead, Don Henley, Ricky Skaggs, Brandford Marsalis and many more.
Intersections is a new box CD set. It's a compilation of some his work over the last 20 years. And Bruce Hornsby joins us now in Studio 4A. You may have heard him.
Mr. BRUCE HORNSBY (Pianist, Singer/Songwriter): I'm sorry. I was interjecting. It was appropriate because our box set is called, Intersections.
NEARY: Intersections. I'm sorry.
Mr. HORNSBY: So that was a couple of interjections from me. It seemed appropriate at the moment. I just want - I interjected that I'm - you said I won three. I've also lost eight.
NEARY: That's good to know. I want to say that Bruce is also here with his band and a live audience, as you just heard. And they're going to be playing for us. And if you have any questions for Bruce Hornsby about his music, give us a call at 800-989-8255. You can email us at NPR.org.
Bruce, it's great to have you with us. And we're going to start with some music.
Mr. HORNSBY: That's right. We're going to start with the very beginning.
(Singing) The very beginning, a very good place to start.
(Soundbite of The Way It Is)
Mr. HORNSBY: They asked us to play this one first.
(Singing) Yes, standing in line marking time waiting for the welfare dime, whoa, because they can't buy a job. The weatherman in the silk suit hurries by. He catches the poor old ladies' eyes Just for fun he says, get a job. That's just the way it is. Some things will never change. Never change. That's just the way it is. Oh, but don't you believe them. Don't believe.
They said, hey little boy, you can't go where the others go. You don't look like they do. Said, hey old man, how can you stand to think that way? Did you really think about it before you made the rules? He says, Son, that's just the way it is. Some things will never change. Never change. That's just the way it is. Oh, but don't you believe them. Don't believe. Don't believe them. JT Thomas on the organ.
Well, they passed a law in '64 to give those who ain't got a little more, but it only goes so far. Because the law don't change another's mind when all it sees at the hiring time is the line on the color bar. Oh, no. Now that's just the way it is. Some things will never change. That's just the way it is. That's just the way it is.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. HORNSBY: Thank you. That was J.V. Collier on the bass at the beginning, J.T. Thomas in the middle. The initials dominate.
NEARY: That, as I'm sure you know, was Bruce Hornsby with his band playing The Way It Is, and that's a song you've played a lot of times. Did you ever play the same way twice?
Mr. HORNSBY: Well, we have a basic arrangement now, including that sort of Who-esque ending. Would you say it's sort of a Who-esque thing? The little Townshend-esque action there. So we have a basic arrangement, but it's very open to new things happening, like different hits and things. So it's kind of close - just like the record I thought we'd do it for you.
NEARY: You know, that box CD we were talking about before, unlike a lot of box CDs, you did a lot of - a lot of the cuts are live. I mean, live is really what you thrive on, it seems like.
Mr. HORNSBY: Well, yes. I feel like lots of times when I hear the old records, they don't hold up for me. The live versions are better. I wanted to present definitive versions of the songs, and so that's why I did that.
NEARY: Yeah. I read that you talked about the whole idea of having to play the same song over and over again with sort of like a, sort of a creative prison for you, you know, that you just didn't like doing that when you were earlier in your career, I think.
Mr. HORNSBY: I got fired from lots of Holiday Inns and Ramada Inns for playing Shake Your Booty like Herbie Hancock would. And that's why these guys like playing with me - the same reason we got fired.
NEARY: Well, how has this, your sort of musical style, evolved over the years. Like say a song like The Way It Is or Mandolin Rain. What's important to you now when you're playing it that wasn't when you first started playing those songs?
Mr. HORNSBY: I just wanted to be more expressive. I feel vocally I'm more expressive. I wanted to be more soulful, the grooves to be a little better. We were hearing the songs on the radio the other day in Idaho, and we just thought they weren't grooving back then like they are now.
NEARY: Yeah. And the piano work as you lead in on some of the cuts that I've heard, sometimes you just, it takes - you just spend so long getting to the song, but the piano work -
Mr. HORNSBY: I'm sorry about that.
NEARY: But the piano work is so beautiful.
Mr. HORNSBY: Long-winded, I know.
NEARY: Just listening to the riffs.
Mr. HORNSBY: So you'd just as soon the song didn't come in. You like the intro more than the song.
NEARY: I like the intro more than the song.
Mr. HORNSBY: What you're really saying, in a very nice way there.
NEARY: We're going to keep talking with Bruce Hornsby after a very short break, and of course you can call with your questions, 800-989-8255. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, and we're joined in Studio 4A by three-time Grammy Award winner and many-time loser, Singer-Songwriter Bruce Hornsby and his band.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. HORNSBY: Well, you're right. We can call it like it is. It's okay. I'm okay with it. I can take it.
NEARY: I forget exactly how many times you lost, so -
Mr. HORNSBY: I'm very sensitive. You really hurt me with that. I'm allowed to say that, but not you.
NEARY: And I just want to also introduce the band: Doug Derryberry on guitar, Sonny Emory on drums, Jervoni Collier on bass, Bobby Read on saxophone, and John Thomas on keys. And again I invite you to give us a call at 800-989-TALK if you'd like to join the discussion. You can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We've got a lot of people who want to talk to you now, so I'm going to go to a call. We're going to go to Gregory, and he's in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Hi, Gregory.
GREGORY (Caller): Hey, good afternoon. How are you?
NEARY: Good, go ahead.
GREGORY: I was in Madison, Wisconsin, a few years back and I saw you play, and I just had two quick questions. One, the song you just played, do you ever feel like as a songwriter, do you ever feel like you're kind of boxed in and that, you know, you have to write songs like that, or - because a lot of artists, after they have a big hit, they feel like they, you know, that they have to sort of mimic that. And I know you want to spread your music and everybody to like it, but do you ever feel like that you're just boxed in in having to write a popular song?
Mr. HORNSBY: Well, I ask you, Gregory, have you heard my last five records? If you have, you would know the answer to that. They don't sound very much like that at all. I'll give you a little sample of something that's exactly like The Way It Is from our last record, just for a minute here.
(Soundbite of What The Hell Happened)
Mr. HORNSBY: (Singing) Look at my mama, look at my pop. Look at my brother makin' them little girls' jaws drop. Look at my sister, she's so beautiful to see. What the hell happened to me? Got a big-ass nose, fat gaps in my teeth, hair growing out my ears and big old stinky feet. I swear the girl at the gate just gagged when I gave her my ID, for real. What the hell happened to me?
Well what the hell happened, Gregory? I wish I knew. Well, what the hell happened? Don't sound like the way it is. Not so much I can do but play for you, Greg.
And there you go, so that's a part - this woman over here, that's your favorite song of mine you've ever heard.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. HORNSBY: So Gregory, there you go. That's the answer to your question. No, I don't feel boxed in at all. I always thought of - I've always felt the Top-40 audience was a very fickle audience and, frankly, not really a music loving audience. They just like the song, and once you stop having hits, that audience tends to leave you behind very quickly.
And so it's always been about pursuing adventure in music for me, ever since then. So no, I couldn't feel less boxed in by that. And once again, if you listen to our last several records, you'll know that. That last song, What The Hell Happened, is on our last record, on Columbia Records' Halcyon Days.
GREGORY: Can I ask one other question?
Mr. HORNSBY: Yeah, sure.
GREGORY: Real quick. That's Just The Way It Is, how did you come about that? Because it's a very, very - I mean, you know, that da-duh-dum-dah - how'd you come about writing the song? What happened first? Was it something that inspired that song, because for me it's a trademark song and yes, I do have your other albums and I'll hang up and listen to your answer on the air. Have a great day.
Mr. HORNSBY: Well, okay. Thank you.
NEARY: Thanks, Gregory.
Mr. HORNSBY: A bolt of lightning struck in Van Nuys, California as I was sitting in my garage, 1984, and the lick came to me. No, I can't really explain it. It's just something - I wrote it in my garage, in Van Nuys, California, near Balboa Park. And maybe it was the bucolic, pastoral nature of the farms near Balboa Park that led me to this bucolic line.
(Soundbite of The Way It Is)
Mr. HORNSBY: Actually, as I remember it, I was really interested in writing a song like Big Country, the group Big Country. In a Big Country. And the beat of the song was -
(Singing) In a big country, dreams stay with you, like a lover's voice on a mountain.
So I loved that, and so The Way It Is was my version of that. I failed miserably in my Big Country attempt, but came up with the song that ended up. So there you go. That's the real answer. I've never before discussed that until right now - a first.
NEARY: I don't believe that.
Mr. HORNSBY: Well, it's hard to believe, as many times as I've been asked questions about that song, but there you go.
NEARY: All right, we're going to go to Sam, and he's in Athens, Georgia.
SAM (Caller): Hi, how's everybody today?
NEARY: We're good. How are you?
SAM: Great. Well first of all, I just wanted to say that I am so excited, Bruce, for your upcoming performance at Wolf Trap in a couple of weeks.
Mr. HORNSBY: Yes, I am also. We love Wolf Trap. It's a great place to play.
SAM: Good. Yeah, that's great. I do live in Athens, Georgia, but my whole family is up in the D.C. area, so we're all really looking forward to coming and seeing you and Tea Leaf Green. But my question was that you've been so, you know, had such an illustrious career in forming collaborations with such a, you know, huge and high echelon of other artists, you know, whether as a musician or a songwriter. And my question for you was is there anybody, you know, young or old that you are still striving to work with?
Mr. HORNSBY: Well, I'm not really striving, I'm not really aiming to work with anybody. All these people who I collaborated with through the years, they all called me, with one great exception. Robbie Robertson. I called him up because I thought I had a song idea that he would like for this record he was making.
But otherwise, it was all people who called me. I've never been much for pursuing others, although I do ask a lot of people to play on my own records. I always thought Mark Knopfler would be a good match with my music, and so that's something - that's my standard answer to this question, frankly, is Mark Knopfler, but I've been saying that for years.
I've never called him, I've only met him once, but if that happened, I always thought that would be good. I'm sure there are people, but I can't think of anybody else other than Knopfler.
NEARY: There you go, Sam.
Mr. HORNSBY: Thank you, Sam.
NEARY: Thanks for calling.
SAM: Thanks a lot.
NEARY: I want to ask you more about some of your collaborations, but first we'd like to hear some more music.
Mr. HORNSBY: Okay.
NEARY: What do you have planned here?
Mr. HORNSBY: What do I have planned?
NEARY: Yeah, what are you going to play?
Mr. HORNSBY: This is - Okay, you can just call me the reverberant one right now, because that's where I am in here, and it's okay. You can leave it there, fellows, in the NPR control room. We're going to play a song about some actions that reverberated through the community of Williamsburg, Virginia, and about a guy who got caught in the bushes behind the church with another woman on the day of his wedding.
(Soundbite of White Wheeled Limousine)
Mr. HORNSBY: (Singing) Well, she walked into town in a long white gown, and the band plays on with no one around, and the rice was gone oh hours ago, oh and the white wheeled limousine's standing alone, standing, standing, standing, standing.
Let me tell you a story where they met at the club where the brasses blow, where the wine did flow and he moved so slow, and finally one night as the wind stood still, well he got up the nerve and she said I will. Well, the day did come and the groomsmen arrived. Came a little early to go over the wedding lines. As they walked to the church on the cobblestones, was heard in the bushes, well a moan and a groan, a moan and a groan.
Well, she walked into town in a long white gown. And the band plays on. No, no one around. And the rice was gone, oh hours ago. And the white wheeled limousine stand alone. It was standing alone. And the wedding reception bass and clarinetist played on in a (unintelligible) manner.
Well, she didn't want to think that she lived a lie. There was always talk of a wandering eye. You see he'd come to the club and he'd look all around. It took a fair-minded man not to wonder aloud.
Well, she walked into town in a long white gown. And the band plays on. No, no, no one around. And the rice was gone, oh hours ago. And the white wheeled limousine stand alone. And the father of the bride is drinking so slow. Drinking, drinking so slow, so slow.
Well, she walks these hills in a long black veil. She even did smile great as the cold winds wail. Nobody knows and nobody sees. Nobody knows but me. Nobody knows but me.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. HORNSBY: Thank you Bobby Reed on the bass, clarinet, and saxophone. And Doug Derryberry on that old guitar.
NEARY: That was Bruce Hornsby and his band live in Studio 4A. Want to remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Before we go to a break I want to read an email. This is from Lisa in San Francisco. And she says, “Your piano style is so distinctive and evocative” She says it makes her feel “like I'm driving along the highway through a vast empty western landscape.”
And can you say anything about how that piano style has evolved?
Mr. HORNSBY: Well, it makes a lot of sense seeing as how I grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia, that is sounds like, you know, Nevada or something. But -
NEARY: But you lived in California for a while, so -
Mr. HORNSBY: That's right, maybe it was there. She asked what exactly?
NEARY: How did your distinctive piano style evolve and who's influenced you?
Mr. HORNSBY: Well, my influences are pretty varied. I got into playing the piano because of Elton John, Leon Russell -
(Soundbite of piano)
Mr. HORNSBY: I guess I can't really illustrate, we don't have time. But anyway, Elton, Leon, got into jazz music. My harmonic concept is very much out of the jazz world, Bill Evans. I call my style of playing chords Bill Evans meets the hymnbook, ok. So it's got a little church in it but a little sort of jazz language in there. That's as good as I can do with 27, 26 seconds.
NEARY: He's counting down the clock for us. We've got to go to a short break. We can keep talking about this when we come back from that break. And, of course, we're going to hear more music from Bruce Hornsby. We're going to take more of your calls. I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
NEARY: Today we're talking about the music of Bruce Hornsby with Bruce Hornsby. He and his band are with us in Studio 4A. Doug Derryberry on guitar, Sonny Emory on drums.
Mr. HORNSBY: That's (unintelligible).
NEARY: Say that again.
Mr. HORNSBY: That is our sound.
NEARY: How about - all right, how about Jervoni Collier, have I got that right, on bass?
Mr. HORNSBY: (unintelligible)
NEARY: How did you just do it.
Mr. HORNSBY: Well, you know, as you can see, I've done it before.
NEARY: Should I keep going or not?
Mr. HORNSBY: Go ahead. It's your world.
NEARY: Ok. Bobby Reed. Bobby Reed on saxophone.
Mr. HORNSBY: That's a bumble bee.
NEARY: And John Thomas on key.
Mr. HORNSBY: Fantastic J.T. Pappy on boosiac.
NEARY: And, of course, Bruce Hornsby on vocals and piano.
Mr. HORNSBY: (Unintelligible).
NEARY: Ok. And I just want to tell everybody that you can hear a full concert of Bruce Hornsby playing solo at last May's Gilmore Festival in Michigan at the TALK OF THE NATION page at NPR.org. And you can also join this conversation by calling 800-989-TALK. Let's get a call in right now.
Mr. HORNSBY: Yeah, not much time left for that, but yes please.
NEARY: Because he's taking up so much time playing that music. I don't know what that's about.
Mr. HORNSBY: Yes. I'm rather long winded I know. I apologize for our (unintelligible).
NEARY: Michael in Boise, Idaho.
Mr. HORNSBY: Boise, wow. We were just there.
NEARY: Are you there, Michael? Oh, I went to the wrong place. Michael?
MICHAEL (Caller): I'm here.
NEARY: Go ahead.
MICHAEL: All right, Bruce. It's a great honor. My wife and I caught you in Boise a couple of weeks ago. You guys were awesome.
Mr. HORNSBY: That was a very fun night. Very hot night, but we had a great time.
MICHAEL: Yeah. Remember them riparian rights, right?
Mr. HORNSBY: Riparian right, exactly. We discussed it with the people of Boise.
MICHAEL: Yeah. So, I have a question. This kind of piggybacks on what Sam asked earlier. But I have your Three Nights on the Town DVD and everybody - J.T., Doug, everybody - mentions about how your style is so tough and how they have to watch you like a hawk, you know. It's like you're a steelhead being, you know, stalked by a bird.
Has that ever limited your ability to work with people? Have you ever sat down with someone you said gosh, I'd really like to work with this guy and he looked at you and said, no way, man, and put down his guitar and bailed or - Because I can see Mark Knopfler doing that. I don't want to rain on your parade, but.
Mr. HORNSBY: You can see him being what, worried about this approach?
MICHAEL: Yeah. He'd look at you and say, oh man, I don't know. I'm out of here. And he'd, you know. But has it ever limited your ability to work with people?
Mr. HORNSBY: Well, usually when I was working with someone else, it was usually on their project, you know. And so it never came up. They asked me to play something and I would play it or sing a part or sing a duet or whatever or write a song with them.
When I had people come in on my records they were generally people who were just totally game. You had, you know, Pat Metheny, Branford Marsalis. They're not going to be thrown by any of this. Jerry Garcia, Wayne Shorter. I mean, I could just name, you know, I could just name drop like a - But anyway - I kind of threw myself there with that one.
So no. Generally when I have people work with me, it's because they're of like mind and they're ready to roll and ready to be spontaneous and adventurous. And so it's never been a problem yet. But I'll let you know out there in Boise next time we play that backyard barbecue, whatever it was we were playing.
MICHAEL: That's right. But we loved watching Doug, because he always looks like he's a deer in the headlights, you know. He's just watching you, but he was always right on. So it looked like a real honor to play with you guys.
Mr. HORNSBY: Well, maybe that's his new name, Deer Haze.
MICHAEL: Deer in the headlights. Sorry, Doug. But it was a real honor. I'm a longtime fan. I own all your albums and thanks for the great evening.
Mr. HORNSBY: Thank you. We had a great time in Boise. In the Boises, as we call them, right?
MICHAEL: That's right. Thank you.
NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Michael. And let's hear more music now. We're going to play -
Mr. HORNSBY: Ok, here we go.
(Soundbite of King of the Hill)
Mr. HORNSBY: (Singing) Well, I'm leaning on a rail. I'm letting my eyes roam over the plain. Well, I'm laughing on my break. I'm feeling like a captive on a long chain. Watch the people pick up sticks, big boss man cracks his whip, it's serious but we laugh to keep from crying, crying, whoa, crying. Spouting out the company line, everything here's just fine. He says he cares about me but I know he's lying, whoa, lying, sitting up, up in the big house, the king of the hill.
I'm watching the boss man talking to his sister with the dirty hands. They sit, cussing at the rules, wishing they could lose me as fast as they can. He's got me in the roughest rig. He thinks I took his brother's gig. People say they've got the game rigged. His daddy gave him everything, you know, a job and a house and his earring. Why does he think that I'm so threatening, so threatening, and hey, and up, up in the big house, king of the, king of the hill. And there, driving the big cat, king of the hill.
Well, I'm over in my space, I'm swatting bugs, sweat stains rolling down my face. I'm trying not to drink, knowing I've got to roll out of this place. Hey. Watch the people pick up sticks, king of the hill with his nightstick, well I'm caught up in accounting tricks. Throw a bone to the poor hicks, got some candy, take a lick, great white hope, shooting bricks. Time to let us all share the wealth. Getting coffee for the big stick, he's got his hand in his pants at the skin flick, he's a suit who takes his pick, lots of poisons, take your pick. Mama, mama, mama, come quick, feeling like I'm getting sick. I've been noticing a nervous tic. I think I'd better take care of myself, oh myself. Yes, and up, up in the big house, king of the hill. And there, driving the big cat, king of the hill.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. HORNSBY: Thank you very much.
NEARY: Bruce Hornsby and his band, here live in Studio 4A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
I have to say that took a turn I wasn't expecting there.
Mr. HORNSBY: Yeah, me neither. We've never done it quite that way, had we?
NEARY: Okay, so how does that work, when you just sort of -
Mr. HORNSBY: We're just going with what's happening, just listening, just using our ears, and just reacting to what other people are doing, and that's really all it is. It's just really playing music. It's not a pop music or rock music aesthetic. It's totally coming from improvised music or jazz music. But that's - a lot of us are coming from that background, so we're well-versed in winging it and listening to what people are doing and, you know, using something that they do for the next section, the next bit.
NEARY: There's some eye contact going on, too, I think, right?
Mr. HORNSBY: Oh, always.
NEARY: I mean, you're kind of looking at each other and trying to figure where the next -
Mr. HORNSBY: We're mostly looking at each other and laughing. Can you believe he did that - sort of thing. Oh now, that's what he's doing. Okay, well let's do that. That sort of thing.
NEARY: All right. Let's see if we can get a call and one more song in.
Mr. HORNSBY: Okay.
NEARY: All right. We're going to go to Paul, and he's in Sacramento, California. Hi, Paul.
PAUL (Caller): Yeah, hi. My question is related to your last comment. On the portions of the song where you're not the instrumentalist, for instance if there's a guitar solo or a solo for wind, do your band members write those portions of the songs or collaborate with you as the songwriter on those parts of the song, or do you write those portions of it yourself?
Mr. HORNSBY: Did they do what? I missed it. Did they write something? What did he say?
NEARY: Do they write part of the song -
PAUL: Do they collaborate with you in writing the music, the notes in the song?
Mr. HORNSBY: The notes that they're playing?
Mr. HORNSBY: No. What they're playing is improvised, it's totally improvised. They would do it differently every time. I think they would. I would hope they would. No, it's not written at all. It's just a basic chordal framework coming from the song that I've written that dictates what they're going to solo over, but no, it's not written at all.
PAUL: Would that be true of the album version, as well, on these songs?
Mr. HORNSBY: Well, yes. Yeah, the only difference would be is sometimes they will come in and over-dub over a track that's already existing, so - but no, actually it's the same approach, it's the same thing.
PAUL: Oh, I see. Well, thank you.
Mr. HORNSBY: Well thank you, Paulie. Paulie from Sacramento.
NEARY: Thanks for your call, Paul.
Mr. HORNSBY: Thanks, Paul.
NEARY: And an email here saying “I've seen Bruce play with the Grateful Dead, I've seen him play Dead songs with his own band. Now I'm just a fan, but it seems to me that Bruce really gets their songs more than most musicians. So can you speak to your kinship with the Dead and the time you played with them?”
Mr. HORNSBY: Well, I can only say that I get it in the way that I love it. I love their songwriting. I think they're underrated, they're underappreciated as songwriters. I think they have fully 50 great songs. Lots of songs of theirs sound like old folk songs that could've been written 100 years ago. So that's how I get it. I just get it because I love it, and so that' just a simple answer. It's got to be a simple answer, because we're going to run out of time to play this song.
NEARY: I was going to say, do you think you can play this song in the -
Mr. HORNSBY: It's going to be hard. I'm going to play a short version of it.
(Soundbite of Halcyon Days)
Mr. HORNSBY: (Singing) Bright lights stream in the end through my windowpane. I think I'll stare at the shapes it makes in the floor and then stare again. You've got your curtains drawn. Anything I can do? Maybe a rose or a pillow or picture or a funny joke just for you. Carry you away? Let me bring you tokens of esteem. Close the door on the world, make it our own beautiful scene.
There's a darkness visible, maybe only to me. Maybe just a dream, time's slowing down, dream, before you're sinking down deep, come loose at the seams, they can dream these.
Some rise by wrong and some by virtue fall. Those in judgment could be guiltiest of all. Washes all away. Oh, I'd love to bring you on a silver tray some halcyon days, some bright days, some great days, peaceful days. I'd just love to bring you, on a silver tray, I'd just love to bring you on a silver tray some halcyon days, yes.
Then some rise by wrong. Some by virtue fall, and those in judgment could be guiltiest of all. Yes, wash it all away. I'd just love to bring you on a silver tray some halcyon days. I'd just love to bring you on a silver tray some halcyon days, some bright days, some great days, peaceful days. I'd just love to bring you on a silver tray some bright days, some great days.
NEARY: Thanks to Bruce Hornsby, to his band, and to his crew for making all of this possible today here in Studio 4A.
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