One man’s selection of five mystery novels with music soundtracks T Bone might well be inspired by
One man’s selection of five mystery novels with music soundtracks T Bone might well be inspired by
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.
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.)
BY LLOYD SACHS | JUN 15, 2016
“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.
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.
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.
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.
December 1, 2002 | Chicago Sun-Times | Lloyd Sachs
Show biz dysfunction notwithstanding – heck, show biz dysfunction standing – CBS’ “Martin and Lewis” was at least as much fun as a trip to the wax museum. If you didn’t feel a pang of hunger for the glory days of the comedy duo while watching it, you’re either still licking your psychic wounds over the mid-’50s breakup of Dino and Jerry – after the dissolution of the Beatles, it remains the most painful pop cultural split ever – or you’re too young to remember when two could tango to the tune of standup.
In recent years, except for the magic act of Penn and Teller and the wholesome revue of Al and Tipper Gore (speaking of wax), there has been a dearth of laughsome twosomes. But in the wake of Martin and Lewis (and, of course, Abbott and Costello), we had Wayne and Shuster (67 times on Ed Sullivan!), Rowan and Martin (before “Laugh-In,” they starred in a Western!), Allen and Rossi (the former boasting the most riotous white-guy Afro this side of Steven Wright) and Stiller and Meara (Jewish hubby and Catholic wife – there’s a concept!).
And let us not leave out the great Bob and Ray, who were to zany sketch comedy what Marconi was to party lines, or forget how the popular music scene was dotted less rewardingly by (ouch!) the twin pianos of Ferrante & Teicher, crooners Sandler & Young and folk-rockers Chad and Jeremy and Peter and Gordon. Back then, two was not the loneliest number you could ever do.
What was great about many of these comic pairings was their lively potential for less-than-copacetic chemistry. Everytime you watched short, squat and sweaty Marty Allen (“Hello Dere!”) do that pinched-toe dance while smooth and handsome Steve Rossi sang straight (and not so impressively), you could visualize Allen stomping on his partner’s toes and Rossi decking his clownish sidekick for upstaging him. Never mind what their official histories tell you: You just knew that Dick Martin wanted to ruffle Dan Rowan’s cocktail hour sophistication and Rowan wanted to wipe that google-eyed grin off his buddy’s face.
In comedy, neurosis rules. Comedians want to “kill” each other as much as the audience. Just ask Jerry Lewis (effectively played by Sean Hayes in the CBS film). For all his expressions of love for the womanizing Dean Martin (Jeremy Northam, in a bolder, more inspired turn that captured the man’s unfathomable undercurrents), he did anything it took to steal attention from him, whether it meant mugging during one of his songs or bending over backstage with manufactured stomach pain. But to succeed, a duo has to perform as one, with clockwork precision, so that every gesture and inflection pays off. When you get three or four minutes on Sullivan to do your thing, you can’t miss a beat. (Question: Did Senor Wences and his talking hand count as a duo?)
With this format just begging to be dusted off for a new generation, I can’t figure out why no up-and-comers have had the genius to lay claim to it. How many cookie-cut standups can be trotted out on the stage of Zanies before someone figures they can rock the house with a doubles act?
Why is it that standups aren’t seizing on the buddy formula when it’s throwing down heavy box office returns at the movies (witness the various combinations and permutations of Martin Lawrence, Chris Tucker, Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson, who in “I Spy” drags Eddie Murphy, Nick Nolte’s opposite in “48 Hrs.,” back into the fray).
When you’re struggling to get by as a solo, I suppose, it doesn’t make sense to halve your paydays by taking on a partner. At last look, sitcoms were making individual comics very rich: Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey, Tim Allen and Ray Romano for beginners. And it’s not as though variety shows are about to spring back onto the tube to usher in any new trends. The late-night talk shows are a comic’s only real shot at wide exposure.
Beyond the economic factors, though, is the basic me-me-me-ness of standup, as reflected in Seinfeld’s need to go back to the drawing board before the documentary cameras and expose his difficulties in putting together a new routine. Comedy is damned hard, he tells us in “Comedian.” (To which I might say, if I were being a jerk, no, being held in Guantanamo not knowing when or if you’re getting released or what you’re being held for – that’s hard.) So duo comedy is twice as tough, right? Not with two minds beating as one!
It can be argued that Martin and Lewis enjoyed greater personal triumphs after their breakup than they did as the wildly popular team that gave us such films as “Pardners” (Dean Martin is Slim Mosely Jr. and Slim Mosely, Sr.; Jerry Lewis is Wade Kingsley Jr. and Wade Kingsley, Sr.). Jerry starred in his own hit movies, flowered as an auteur, conquered the French and roped in millions for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. To the great surprise of many people, Dino not only didn’t sink, he swam as a movie star, crooner, chainsmoking lounge king and TV host, doing as much for Italian-American pride as Tony Soprano has done for Italian-American anger.
But you can also advance the notion that their parting of ways never stopped haunting them. Dino ended up in a state of private misery, detached from his own life. Jerry, who ended up taking on Ed McMahon as his sidekick (no problem with egos clashing there), has had a troubled personal life as well. Could be their falling out had nothing to do with their subsequent troubles – maybe their psychic screws were just waiting to loosen, and their instabilitiy as individuals was what produced their special chemistry. However you want to pop-psychoanalyze them, just as John and Paul in their solo careers never matched their efforts as Beatles, Lewis and Martin on their own never created the excitement – the pandemonium – that they did when they were joined at the hip. When they were hip enough to dance to each other’s song.
April 6, 2020
“I also have a weakness for stories about survivors of plane crashes, so ‘Dear Edward’ was right up my alley,” says the pop culture writer and book reviewer, whose most recent book is “T Bone Burnett: A Life in Pursuit.”
What books are on your nightstand?
This question always bugs me, because it ignores the Kindle factor. But, sticking to hard copies: Robert Forsters’ Grant & I: Inside and Outside the Go-Betweens; David Joy’s When These Mountains Burn; Zeruya Shalev’s Pain; Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal; Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table;
What’s the last great book you read?
My recent discovery of the Oxford Mississippian Michael Farris Smith left me in a state of exultation. His current novel, Blackwood, is a dark, penetrating, sometimes overwhelming masterpiece about the impossibility of reconciling with the past. It’s also a stark warning not to go near kudzu vines if your life depends on it.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Years ago, Warren Zevon strongly recommended Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers. I took it out of the library and put it on my reading list – which is where it stayed for a year, three years, 10 years… I was thrilled when the Chicago Public Library declared an amnesty on overdue – or, in this case, stolen – books. I haven’t gotten to it yet, but I have started it!
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
No and nothing.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Since my wife left a hot iron on a Barcalounger I got for cheap many years ago, I haven’t had a good place to read in the house. (I know, I know: I could buy a new one!) And I tend to fall asleep reading in bed. I’ve always fared best on getaways and vacations, best on a canvas chair facing a lake. I hear cruises (remember them) were really good for that too.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
I’ve raved in print about two or three books over the years that I was sure would get a lot of attention, only to see them fall off the zeitgeist and never be heard from again. I was knocked out by the eerie atmosphere and lyrical despair of The Broken Ones, a 2011 doomsday thriller by Australian screenwriter and poet Stephen Irwin. But as far as I can tell, I’m the only person outside Brisbane who is aware of its existence.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Deep breath: Walter Mosley, Lorrie Moore, Greil Marcus, Roger Angell, Rachel Kushner, Michael Chabon, Attica Locke, Jennifer Egan, George Pelecanos, Gary Giddins, Paul Auster, A.B. Yehoshua, Scott Spencer, Michael Koryta, George Sanders, Manohla Dargis, I can’t go on I can’t go on.
Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?
Only one, The Merck Manual. When I was a kid, I looked up every last symptom I had in my dentist father’s desk copy. I was sure I had tapeworm! I have a revised edition from about 20 years ago that I grabbed at a book sale, but I haven’t looked at it in at least three weeks.
What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?
I’m not an easy touch in this regard, but Stanley Elkin never fails to make me LOL. I found The Living End, which I recently re-read, even funnier the second time around than the first.
The last book you read that made you cry?
Aharon Appelfeld’s The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping. The stealthiest inducer of tears, Appelfeld wrote about the Holocaust, which he survived as a child, without directly referring to it. Your emotions rise up from the deepest depths, as if from beneath the floorboards of consciousness.
How do you organize your books?
Inconsistently. One shelving unit is dedicated to crime fiction, grouped by author, but I’ve got mysteries scattered all over the house. I have all of Philip Roth’s books together – it’s my personal Monument Park – and Ian McEwen’s and Ann Beattie’s and William Trevor’s. But other favorite authors are upstairs and down, inside and in the garage.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
I’m not easy to gift when it comes to books. G-d bless friends and family members who try! My choice would be Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, even if I did make it known to my sister-in-law that I wanted it and even if I haven’t read it yet.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
From Ann Napolitano’s Dear Edward: When a plane is flying too slowly, “a synthesized human voice. . . repeatedly calls out, “Stall!” in English, followed by a loud and intentionally annoying sound called a cricket.”
What moves you most in a work of literature?
Overcoming odds and/or obstacles, by a character or group of characters or a community. Or tragically failing to overcome same.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
Crime fiction comes first. I also have a weakness for stories about survivors of plane crashes, so Dear Edward was right up my alley. I don’t avoid science fiction or romance novels, but I don’t read them either.
Who’s your favorite fictional couple?
Tony Hill and Carol Jordan in Val McDermid’s Wire in the Blood mysteries. The TV series was pretty, pretty good as well.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Horn of the Moon Cook Book. I certainly was surprised. I’m going to ask my wife to re-file it.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I was an active reader from an early age, gobbling up the Hardy Boys, baseball biographies and the works of William Pene du Bois. The strange mystique of those books, including The Twenty-One Balloons, really captured me.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Franz Kafka, Elaine May and Philip Roth, even though he’s never very happy with me in my dreams.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I’ve started John le Carre’s The Honorable Schoolboy two or three times and for some reason am unable to get into it. It’s a father and son novel; maybe that has something to do with it.
What do you plan to read next?
My big toe has been hurting, so maybe The Merck Manual. If not, Lily King’s Writers and Lovers, which important people in my life say they love.
Here is my review of Fredrickson’s new mystery. Originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Feb. 11, 2020.
“If most crime novels cut sharp, crooked paths to their resolution, this one moves slowly, as if finding its way through a fog. There are no sudden breakthroughs to provide excitement; revelations arrive via the local line, not the express.”