Sachs and the Cinema: Introduction to the Podcast

During the late ’70s and early ’80s, I hosted the popular weekly film segment, Sachs and the Cinema, on Chicago radio. Under that banner (a wry take on the old Playboy magazine feature, “Sex and the Cinema”), I’m delighted to present an eight-part series of relaxed, unscripted, never before heard interviews from the 1980s with great directors including John Carpenter, Bernardo Bertolucci, Arthur Penn and British visionary Michael Powell. Recorded in the Windy City in hotel rooms and restaurants on Sachs’ trusty cassette recorder (forgive the occasional police siren or ringing phone!) these interviews put you in the room with these outspoken artists, who discuss their hits as well as their misses with great candor. Here’s a lavishly produced introduction to the series. (Music by Geof Bradfield. Production by Rick Riggs. Design by Genevieve Sachs.)

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Coming soon: Sachs and the Cinema reboots with intimate, never-before-heard interviews with great directors, beginning with the remarkable John Carpenter!

Sachs and the Cinema was my long-running feature on Chicago radio in the late ’70s and early ’80s. You won’t want to miss these intimate, never-before-heard interviews from that period. Episode one presents a lively chat with “Halloween” maestro John Carpenter. More details to come!

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Coming: The way-belated reboot of Sachs and the Cinema! Season one features interviews with eight great directors!

Sachs and the Cinema was my long-running feature on Chicago radio in the late ’70s and early ’80s. You won’t want to miss these intimate, never-before-heard interviews from that period. Episode one presents a lively chat with the one-of-a-kind artist John Carpenter. More details to come!

Announcing paperback edition of T-Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit

At long last paper! So happy to announce the paperback edition of my T Bone bio. Official pub date is September, but it should be available much sooner. Why settle for just the hardback (and my Audible version of it) when you can enjoy more great blurbs! Easier carryability! Nifty corrections! (Belated apologies to Sam Phillips for one unexplainable screwup.)

No book release party scheduled aside from the one in my living room. But to mark the moment, here’s a video of Joe Henry performing T Bone’s “Kill Switch” at my big hardback release party at Grimey’s in Nashville.

A Chat with Ornette, 1984

In 1984, in advance of his appearance with Prime Time at the Chicago Jazz Festival, I spoke with Ornette Coleman over lunch at China Peace restaurant in New York. The topics included his disappointment in his acolytes’ failure/inability to carry his harmolodic concept forward; John and Yoko; his indignation over being a mere “showcase for labels,” King Sunny Ade and the role of jazz tradition.

Listening to the chat – the first such interview with great artists I’ll be posting (unedited) on SoundCloud – I’m struck again by what a decent, unassuming and reasonably outspoken spirit he was. (Thanks to Jim Macnie for suggesting I post these talks on SoundCloud. Apologies for the background chatter.)

https://soundcloud.com/sachs-on-jazz/lunch-with-ornette-1984

New from the archives: No end to tension in Iain Reid’s thriller

BY LLOYD SACHS | JUN 15, 2016 

Iain Reid's "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" is a thriller as original as it is bold.

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” a psychological thriller by the young Canadian writer Iain Reid, begins innocently enough. A young man named Jake and a young woman who remains nameless are in a car in the middle of nowhere, heading toward his parents’ farmhouse for her first visit. They are boyfriend and girlfriend. They haven’t been in the relationship for very long.

Judging by the way the unnamed girlfriend talks (she’s the narrator), they may by splitsville by the time they reach their destination. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to end it,” she says. But being that she’s just described the “rare and intense attachment” she has with Jake and goes on to say what a good spooner he is in bed, we’re not quite sure what she’s thinking.

We can understand her ambivalence. Jake, who does all the driving, is a bit of a drip. He seems to be talking to himself more than her. His idea of conversation is serving up what he considers deep insights — “You’re never just sleeping …. Not even when you’re asleep.” Or, “Even in lifelong relationships, and fifty-year marriages, there are secrets.”

In saying she’s going to “end it,” could the girlfriend mean she’s contemplating suicide? Her life, she says, has been “lacking a dimension. Something seems to be missing.” She keeps dodging incessant cellphone calls from a stranger who leaves unsettling messages: “I’m scared. I feel a little crazy …. Now is the time for the answer. Just one question. One question to answer.”

A lot of bizarre sights and scenes await us in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things:” photos of body parts in Jake’s old bedroom; a Dairy Queen from hell where a counter worker has strange bumps on her arm; an abandoned high school where, in the middle of the night, Jake insists on finding a proper trash can in which to deposit their used frozen dairy cups. Plenty of things go bump. There will, we fear, be blood.

However creepy the circumstances, though, it’s the disembodiment of the characters that grabs us the most. “Spoiler alert!” warn stickers on copies of the book, inviting readers who “want to talk about what happens” to do so on a designated web page. But what happens plot-wise in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” — even in its tingliest moments — is of secondary interest.

In fiction, as in music, many artists master the strategy of tension and release, by which a story builds and builds in intensity, leading to an outpouring of emotion or energy that frees us to move back from the edge of our seat. Reid, a Canadian whose writing seems influenced by the great Toronto-based filmmaker David Cronenberg, is a master of tension — and more tension. Never does he release us from his unsettling grip.

What some readers may want to be warned about is the deep unease they will experience as Reid unmercifully zeroes in on things we usually don’t like discussing, like inescapable sadness. “What if intelligence leads to more loneliness rather than to fulfillment?” posits the girlfriend. What if human connection is a myth? And the cruncher, as stated by the girlfriend: “What if suffering doesn’t end with death?”

That’s a lot of philosophic weight for a slim, 200-page volume to bear (Jung gets name checked, as does Thomas Bernhard). But with his relentless attack and edgy, pared-down, sneaky prose (note how the girlfriend says “a hand touches my leg,” not “his hand”), Reid pulls it off. We could probably do without the brief italicized sections that offer teasing exchanges between unidentified parties (“It must have been terrible to stumble across”). But in introducing a “normal” outside consciousness, these inserts have a way of heightening the prevailing abnormality.

In addition to Cronenberg, the ghost of Stephen King hovers over these pages: Reid pays homage to “The Shining” with four pages consisting of nothing but the line, “What are you waiting for?” The chilly post-modernism of J.G. Ballard and deadpan sci-fi narratives of Jonathan Carroll also figure in the writing. But for all that, this is the boldest and most original literary thriller to appear in some time.

New from the archives: Segal is (or should be) committed

November 11, 1990 | Chicago Sun-Times | Lloyd Sachs 

Joe Segal was mad as hell and he wasn’t going to take it anymore. “I’m gonna cancel this gig,” he said with a stricken expression, pacing the lobby of the Blackstone Hotel as waves of electronic sound penetrated the walls of his Jazz Showcase. “He promised he would tone things down. This is horrible.”

The kingpin of Chicago jazz impresarios was steamed at Wayne Shorter. Once upon a stylistic time, the saxophonist was a big favorite of mainstream purists like Segal. He was a member of the greatest edition of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis’ brilliant mid-’60s quintet, and made thrilling sounds on his own. But now he was pursuing amplified truths on the terrain of jazz-rock fusion, a genre he pioneered as co-leader of the long-running band Weather Report.

Why did Segal, who turns pale at the mere mention of fusion (he blames rock ‘n’ roll for most of the world’s ills), book Shorter? Partly out of respect and affection (it’s no accident that he named his youngest son, who works with him at the Showcase, Wayne), and partly because the saxophonist, who hadn’t played in Chicago under his own name in years, has a sizable following.

Having seen the Shorter gig through to the bitter end, and shuddering through subsequent non-acoustic sets by the likes of guitarists John Scofield and John Abercrombie and drummer Jack DeJohnette, Segal could only shake his head and sing a song of tolerance.

“The biggest concession I make is to electric,” he said at a Chinese restaurant around the corner from the Showcase. “And believe me, it isn’t easy.” He stabbed at an egg roll. “DeJohnette’s a wonderful musician, but he was in the same bag as Shorter, turning it way up. He was terrible. Terrible.” The stricken look returned.

Is Segal the voice of old-fashioned taste? Stubbornness? Close-mindedness? You bet, and who would want it any other way? In a field dominated by pragmatic profit strategies and loyalties that sometimes don’t last three weeks, Segal is that rare phenomenon: committed. For more than 40 years, he has bucked all odds and commercial temptations by doing things his way.

As the Jazz Showcase moves into the home stretch of another star-studded year – blues singer-pianist Mose Allison will perform nightly at the club, 636 S. Michigan, from Tuesday through Sunday, followed later in the month by the Maynard Ferguson “Nuevo” Bop Big Band and the McCoy Tyner Trio – Segal can claim a longer reign than any American jazz impresario now that Max Gordon of New York’s famed Village Vanguard is dead.

Since the shuttering of the London House and Mister Kelly’s in the ’70s and the disappearance of dozens of lesser-known clubs, the Showcase has been an oasis for lovers of bigtime jazz in Chicago. It has survived relocations (its former spots include the Happy Medium on Rush Street), disco, the death of too many jazz greats, more disco, losing acts to competing clubs (before invariably regaining those acts), and financial woes that necessitated a series of “Save Our Showcase” benefit performances.

It also has survived an embarrassing indifference on the part of the populace. In New York, a weeknight club appearance by the Jazz Messengers routinely drew a long line of ticket-buyers. In Chicago, it wasn’t uncommon for Blakey and his troops to perform before 14 people on a Tuesday or Wednesday.

Segal shrugged when asked why jazz has such a difficult time here. “My only theory,” he said, “is that Chicago is still mainly a Midwestern cow town, basically, and people’s interests lie elsewhere. The people who were interested in jazz when I first came here – mainly black people from the South and West Sides who are in my age bracket, 60-plus – don’t come out anymore.

“Jazz really needs to develop a new audience. That’s why I have Sunday matinees for children. They’re the future. They’re the ones we’ll need down the road to keep jazz alive.”

Chicago’s leading presenter of jazz is a native Philadelphian. An only child who hardly knew his father (his parents separated when he was little), he developed two passions early: reading and listening to music on the radio. He won a 78 album in an “I like Woody Herman because . . .” contest and claims to have graduated from “Kay Kyser’s College of Musical Knowledge” with flying colors. He would tune in the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts from New York and, upon their conclusion, switch over to Eddie Condon’s jam sessions from Town Hall.

Hearing the music in person was revelatory. “There was nothing as thrilling to me as going to the Earl Theater, which was like our Chicago Theatre,” Segal said. “There would be music by a local band in the morning, and then a movie, and then the screen would rise up and you’d see a transparent curtain, and the band lights behind the curtain. The band would be tuning up and the offstage announcer offstage would say, `Ladies and gentlemen, Artie Shaw and his Orchestra,’ or whomever, and they started playing `Nightmare’ or whatever the theme was. It was really something.”

Seeing the up-and-coming likes of saxophonists Stan Getz and Al Cohn and trumpeters Red Rodney and Bernie Glow in nearby Atlantic City as well as Philadelphia stirred in young Joe a desire to play himself. His first choice was drums, but his mother was afraid the noise would endanger the lease on their basement apartment. He took trombone lessons, he said, “because I wanted to play like Lou McGarity, Tommy Dorsey and J.C. Higginbotham all at once.”

A sufferer of emphysema and asthma, Segal never expected the Army to come a calling, but it did and he ended up serving his country – and, mainly in an organizational capacity, jazz – on bases in Texas, Wisconsin and Downstate Illinois. He wasn’t good enough on trombone to play in an Army band, but to get out of duty on one occasion, he signed up for special services and “pretended to play the drums and sing. You can’t imagine how horrible it was.”

During weekend getaways to Chicago, he discovered such spots as Joe Sherman’s Downbeat Room and the Panther Room in the Sherman Hotel, where he encountered one of his heroes, Higginbotham, in the flesh. After his release from the Army, he enrolled at Roosevelt University, where he “just sort of fell into taking over” the student jazz club.

“I had an affinity with the musicians right away,” he said, pouring out names of faces and places. “I liked them, I admired them, and I didn’t think they were weird. I would sit with people like Barrett Deems at an all-night restaurant with my ears open, my eyes open, soaking up their stories. I was in heaven.”

Segal began booking shows under the Jazz Showcase banner in 1947. The rest of the story embodies a good chunk of Chicago jazz history.

In “Mo’ Better Blues,” Spike Lee’s recent film about jazz musicians, two Jewish nightclub owners are stereotypically presented as crass money-grubbers. The portrayals drew widespread accusations of anti-Semitism, and inspired heartfelt tributes to tireless Jewish supporters of jazz such as Max Gordon and Commodore label founder Milt Gabler.

Segal, who is Jewish, does not jerk his knee in responding to the Lee treatment. “It’s true to a point, what I’ve heard about it,” he said. “But the many sleazy club owners I’ve met haven’t been all Jewish. There are shtarkers (shamelessly self-interested characters) from every race. I’ve seen a lot of black club owners screw their own people.”

Though Segal, 64, has long been separated from his wife, who is black, he has symbolized the possibility of blacks and whites, and blacks and Jews, living together in harmony. While attending Roosevelt College, one of the few Chicago schools in the ’40s to have a non-restrictive admissions policy, he participated in an experimental program that placed white students such as himself with black South Side families and black students with white North Side families.

Later on, he and his wife, who have five children and 11 grandchildren, lived in a row house in Cabrini-Green. “I had a lot of fun at Cabrini,” Segal said. “It was very nice until they started building the high-rises and the gangs started up. Most people knew me and protected me from people who didn’t, so it was pretty cool.

“Down on the South Side, I used to stand on 63rd and Cottage Grove handing out my flyers and postcards. People knew who I was. No one bothered me.”

Over the years, Segal has been friends with many jazz greats, some of whom bypass agents in arranging to play at the Showcase. “J.J. Johnson just called and said he wants to come in Jan. 15. Usually I’m closed in January and February, but I said fine, let’s do it. Dizzy [Gillespie] will call up when he’s tired and he wants to sit down for a week instead of running one night here, one night there. He usually plays concerts, but he’ll play for me.”

Not all musicians are big fans of Segal, who can be irascible (“I used to dance around to `Filthy McNasty,’ ” said Segal, and say Horace Silver wrote it for me”) and, to their way of thinking, uncomfortably budget-minded. Two veteran players have said, off the record, that they will never appear at the Jazz Showcase.

In turn, Segal isn’t the biggest fan of certain modernist players who enjoy great critical reputations. He writes off pianist and bandleader Sun Ra as a “mediocre” musician who dresses up his Arkestra in glitzy costumes and has them prance around because “the music alone is not gonna do it.” He admits Ornette Coleman “might have a lot of meaning to musicians,” but criticizes him for “taking music into a language that most people can’t enjoy.

“It’s an artist’s privilege to play for himself, but if he comes to an owner like me and demands X amount of dollars, then he has to have an audience who appreciates him. Philanthrophy is not my big suit.”

If Segal is tight with the dollar, he’s certainly not getting rich on jazz. He rents an apartment and doesn’t own a car. In fact, he doesn’t own the Jazz Showcase, only its name, which means his take is limited to what he collects at the door and doesn’t include the beverage sales crucial to people in his business.

Is it possible to be an honest club owner and make money? “Sure,” he said, “but I wouldn’t start a jazz club now. I’d try to get a bar and get a jazz jukebox. That’s it. A club takes too much energy.”

He cracked open a fortune cookie, read the slip – “He who knows he has enough is rich” – and smiled. “I got enough,” he said, and, as if to confirm the sentiment, jazz – serious jazz, Joe Segal’s kind of jazz – flowed from the restaurant speakers.

New from the Archives: Do Not Go Gentle Into This Good ‘Night’

March 31, 2002 | Chicago Sun-Times | Lloyd Sachs

Everybody in Chicago is reading it and, theoretically, everyone will soon be discussing it with the same sense of purpose with which they discussed To Kill a Mockingbird. Me, I had a hard time going with the One Book One Chicago program and getting myself to read Night, Elie Wiesel’s slim but weighty Holocaust novel.

That was partly because the subject matter stabs at my Jewish psyche and stokes the guilt I feel over distancing myself from my ethnic roots, but also because, as much of a pop culture maven as I am, my internal authentimeter resists the notion of dialing up this monstrous tragedy as a citywide entertainment event or mass homework assignment or Oprah book extravaganza.

You don’t have to read me chapter and verse about the need to keep memories of the Holocaust alive or to create memories for those in need of them. At a time when anti-Semitism is back on the front burner, not only in predictable places such as the Middle East and Germany, but also in France and Spain, and in revelations that Richard Nixon and Billy Graham traded ugly putdowns of Jews, I fully understand and appreciate the impulse to honor the victims by taking pains to remember them.

I just don’t put much stock in this kind of grand gesture any more than I put much stock in the love-in the Oscars staged last week for African-American artists. It would be nice if raising consciousnesses about Jews and Blacks led to pervasive changes in people’s attitudes and responses toward them. And of course, a certain amount of this good stuff does seep into people’s heads. But you and I know how easy it is for this culture to return to business as usual, especially where the profit margin is concerned.

Actually, I fear that far from making people’s souls shiver and minds boggle, fictional treatments of the Holocaust have come to make it easier to confront. Repeated in films and high-minded T V dramas, concentration camp images have become so familiar as to become almost toss-offable. The horrors are reduced to docu-drama formula, the outlandish becomes mundane.

For all their claims on realism, emotional and other, movies ranging from Steven Spielberg’s neatly composed “Schindler’s List” to Roberto Benigni’s Patch Adams-ish “Life is Beautiful” carefully avoid hard truth, messy truth, truth that can’t be sentimentalized or buffed to an uplifting finish. They are less interested in nuance than landing on the correct emotional keys, like Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia stepping out in “Big.”

Literature can take you to the hellish places that exist beyond the most nightmarish visuals. Though Night is not a great novel, it gets to you with its eerie calm, its refusal to dally over its unthinkable sights and sounds, its withheld screams. Told from the autobiographical viewpoint of Wiesel beginning at age 12, it absorbs the shocks to his system the way a crate of eggs can absorb a shock and leave the shells undamaged. But I have to think that when it was published in 1960, before tales of Nazism became more codified and we became more exposed to Holocaust confessions, the novel had a more powerful and profound effect.

As much as I liked it, I shook it off in a way I couldn’t shake off Leslie Epstein’s 1979 King of the Jews, a comic – yes, comic – as well as tragic take on life in a Polish ghetto under the Nazis starring a rascally Jewish power broker named Trumpelman. Here was a book that avoided the standard telling and paid the price: critics attacked it for not treating the Holocaust with proper sobriety. Epstein answered them by explaining how the jokes in King of the Jews were taken from real life – how a man in the Warsaw ghetto named Ringelbaum wrote down the jokes that the Jews were telling and buried them in milk cans.

The idea of dark or even light comedy in a story about the Holocaust might be unthinkable for Spielberg (though not to Lina Wertmuller, whose “Seven Beauties” took a deadpan absurdist look at life in a concentration camp). But laughter can be as crucial to survival in the same way that music can be. Employed by an artist, it can pull you past all the received information you’ve built up about an unspeakable chapter like the Holocaust and make you gaze upon it through fresh eyes.

My late shrink impressed upon me the usefulness of denial, how it can be a good thing for the mind not to be encumbered by shattering events, and how it’s through denial that people are able to get past grievous personal losses. “…a kind of psychic shutter closes around your heart,” Epstein said in an interview a few years ago, describing how his emotions shut down during his research for King of the Jews. For him that shutter enabled him to point a lens at the most wrenching moments, for himself as well as his readers.

I thought of my shrink and Epstein during the Oscarcast when, during a montage of documentary clips, the image of a woman getting her hair shorn for the concentration camp appeared on the screen. For that brief moment, unprepared for the jolt, my defenses gave way and the pain of history flew through me, getting to me in a way that even “Shoah” couldn’t. I knew what I was getting into when I sat before Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary about the Holocaust. I was geared up. With the Oscar moment, I was unguarded, ripe for the emotional taking.

More often than not, it’s not the extended moment, the orchestrated emotion, the manufactured event that gets to you. It’s the moment that leaps out at you when you least expect it, when life flashes before your eyes and then, in an instant, returns control of your consciousness to you.

I would never suggest that there’s such a thing as overexposure to the Holocaust via films and plays and book discussions and even that idiot exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York that includes concentration camps made out of Lego sets and Calvin Klein ads juxtaposed with fascist- inspired images. But catching up to the enormity of this tragedy sometimes means slowing down, pulling back and letting the truth hit you where the sun of popular culture don’t shine.

New from the Archives: Election’s End Jolts Loyal Viewers

December 19, 2000 | Chicago Sun-Times | Lloyd Sachs |

People say they’re glad the election is over, and a week after the Supremes stopped the really big show, there certainly are reasons to share that sentiment. At the very least, we don’t have to contend with those hooting demonstrators who did their best to reduce one of the most gripping episodes in American history to the level of pro wrestling.

But for those who became addicted to the TV coverage of Gore vs. Bush, adjusting to its loss has not been easy. Having submerged ourselves in the ultimate maxi-series – at home, at work, at the health club, in our unsettled dreams – many of us experienced a case of the bends in returning to the surface of business as usual.

Here was the perfect vehicle for the browser era. Sifting through the verbiage for signs that the good guys might win (and you know who you were), we clicked from CNN to MSNBC to lowly Fox News, from “Hardball” to Larry King to “Nightline,” from Tallahassee, Fla., to Washington, D.C., to the land now forever known as Miami-Dade. There was never a time of day or night when we couldn’t get an instant infusion of ripe speculation or reportage – which however warmed-over or non-“breaking” – was headline material in downloading the amazing moment we were living through.

It’s not surprising that many more people were interested in the post-election than the alleged main event: It had much better characters. While George W. Bush and Al Gore did their best to render their personalities null and void – appropriately disappearing for long stretches during the most crucial turns of Election 2000 – their supporting cast carved their names into history.

In attorneys David Boies and Barry Richard, you had a pair of brilliantly understated, camera-savvy pros who could teach “The Practice” a few things about lawyerly charisma. Boies was a master at defusing tense moments with his reflexive smile and down-to-earth delivery. Out of court, the extravagantly coiffed Richard was no less magnetic with his steely demeanor and dryly amused manner.

You also had a great femme fatale in Katherine Harris, a seasoned character-assassin-for-hire in James Baker, a punch-weary corner man in William Daley and a prime-time sermonizer in Joseph Lieberman. Comic relief was provided by Palm Beach County Judge Charles Burton, who in testifying before Circuit Court Judge N. Sanders Sauls, lightly made fun of his recounting exploits as he demonstrated how he had held up ballots to the light (“I think you’ve seen this before”). By covering his cutthroat intentions with Southern civility, Sauls was an update of Elmore Leonard’s Maximum Bob.

And then, among the media, there were such memorable players as David Cardwell, CNN’s affable, Pillsbury-doughy Florida election specialist, who seemed permanently affixed to his outdoor backdrop; Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, who made not being able to get in a word edgewise on MSNBC’s nightly panels sexy with her perfectly pursed lips, and CNN’s Austin, Texas, correspondent Candy Crowley, a cross between Kathy Bates and Mama Cass with her severe, statuesque presence.

It was difficult not to play Hollywood casting director with these characters. How about Holly Hunter as Harris? Dennis Quaid or Sam Elliott as Richard? Madeleine Stowe as Vanden Heuvel? The late John Candy as Cardwell? And, of course, Larry King as Larry King? But no movie could do justice to this story with all its improbable twists, turns and bombshells and its ability to keep us on the edge of our seat for more than a month.

For all its entertainment value, this epic was educational. If TV’s wall-to-wall coverage of the O.J. Simpson case and all-Monica-all-the-time spree left us with a guilty conscience for indulging it, Election 2000 left us with a heightened understanding of politics, the judiciary and the electoral process. The rare access it gave us to Supreme Court hearings was invaluable, even if the justices’ woozy split decision may not have inspired confidence.

But all that was then. What do we do now that the party is over? Develop an interest in Court TV? Sign up for civics courses? Immerse ourselves in an Internet retrospective? Send away for a highlight tape of the saga – or hope one will be given away free with a subscription to Time or Newsweek?

Not since “Lonesome Dove” ended has TV left us in this bad a lurch. Bush likely will help ease the loss by providing abundant material for Letterman and Leno. But as much as it may benefit the country, all this unity stuff is bound to be a drag. On second thought, maybe we should bring back the demonstrators. As obnoxious as they were when history was on the line, they’d be great fun as mud wrestlers now that normal reality is sinking in.