Friday, May 31, 2019

The Muppet Movie at 40

For those of us who were kids in 1979, one of the best things on TV was The Muppet Show. An irreverent show that had something for everyone--kids as well as parents--the exploits of Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, Miss Piggy, and the rest were essential appointment television for my family. It came on at 6:30 p.m., right before prime time, and my family always laughed often.

So imagine everyone's surprise when there was news about the Muppets jumping to the silver screen. And the biggest thrill was seeing Kermit the Frog not only outside and off a sound stage but also riding a bike.

You may laugh now, but that feat was a high-water mark in the history of the Muppets.

In celebration of the movie's 40th anniversary this year, I re-watched it, and The Muppet Movie still thrills.

The Rainbow Connection

If you read my Favorite Songs by Year post, you'll note that my favorite song from 1979 was the opening number of The Muppet Movie. As Kermit sings this magical song, the camera slowly zeroes in on him, sitting on a log, playing a banjo, singing. Paul Williams' lyrics about longing is spot on not only for the character of Kermit but the dreamers in all of us. It always serves as a touchpoint song for my own life, and depending on how it is presented, can act as a time machine for me, taking me back to when I was eleven when I had little cares in the world other than Star Wars, comics, KISS, TV, and riding my bike for hours out in west Houston.

The Guest Stars

On each TV episode, a single human guest starred on the show. With the movie, they overflowed. In fact, it is Dom DeLuise who just happens to be rowing a boat in Kermit's swamp and tells the frog about an opportunity in Hollywood. It is then Kermit gets the idea to travel across the country, picking up fellow Muppets along the way. It's a road picture that serves as an origin story.

In each new city or town or setting, it becomes a fun mental game to see which human shows up for a cameo. Steve Martin, as a put-out waiter, is especially funny. My boy watched it with me and I had to explain only a few of them, notably Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen. As I pointed out to my boy, one of the best special effects of this movie are the guest stars.

Irreverent Comedy Flips the Script

The best part about a show like the Muppet Movie is all the little gags in the dialogue. Unlike other animated films aimed at children at the time, this film is easily something an adult can watch and enjoy and, frankly, get some of the gags intended solely for them.

From a certain point of view, you could even argue the Muppet Movie is an adult show that kids can enjoy.

That isn't to say there isn't enough broad humor for everyone. Among my favorite bits of dialogue are the following:

Kermit: "Read my lips: al-li-ga-tor."
Kermit: "Gone with the Schwinn"
Dr. Teeth's nickname to Kermit: ”Green Stuff”
Kermit [telling Fozzie to take a left turn]: "Bear Left" and Fozzie's response: "Bear right!"
Fozzie: "Patriotism swells in the heart of the American bear."

The Meta Nature of the Film

The end of the film is one I thought was kind of cool as a kid, but one I truly love as an adult.

The whole crew get to Hollywood and are given the standard rich and famous contract by none other than Orson Wells, and they make a version of their story (i.e., the actual movie you've just watched) except something goes awry. All the sets--actual stage sets showcasing the scenes of the movie--break and fall over. Then, a real rainbow comes in from the hole in the ceiling. Then the characters turn to the camera and address the audience directly. They talk about writing your own ending to the movie before breaking into a reprise of the chorus of The Rainbow Connection.

It is a marvelous way to end this magical film. It tells children to use their imagination. It tells all of us never to stop dreaming. Never stop putting good into the world. And that's a message we can all get behind, no matter what year we watch this film or how old we are.

Someday we'll find it
The rainbow connection...
The lovers, the dreamers and me

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade at 30

The first major movie of the summer of 1989 was the third Indiana Jones film. It was five years since the second film of the trilogy--Temple of Doom--and the buildup was pretty intense.

It was also well worth the wait.

A Return to the Original Vibe

After my recent re-watch of Temple of Doom on its 35th anniversary, I naturally migrated to Last Crusade for its 30th. Of the two, I know Last Crusade much better largely for two reasons. One, the soundtrack is, more or less, chronological with the film. Since it is one of my favorite soundtracks John Williams ever wrote, I listened to it constantly, internalizing much of it. Two, I had the best summer job ever in that magical year: I worked in a movie theater. I got to slip inside the theater and catch snippets of the movie. In an era before the Internet, I was able to memorize chunks of the movie.

For obvious commercial reasons, Spielberg and Lucas turned their attention back to a Middle Eastern setting and a Judeo-Christian artifact. It worked. They also added Indy's father to the mix, which was brilliant. Loved it in '89. Still love it in '19.

Brody and Sallah Return

It was always great to have these two characters return for the third film. Sallah was pretty much the same, but Brody changed. Well, not entirely. In Raiders, he was the man who said if he was younger, he'd go with Indy. In Last Crusade, right up to the point where he says, "I'll tell him [Donovan] we'll take two [tickets]," he's the Raiders version of himself.

The very next scene, he's already a worry-wart. What gives? Sure, the punchline after Indy convinces the Nazis that Brody could blend in is funny--as is the comment about getting lost in his own museum--but it does disservice to the character. Would have liked him to remain as he was.

The Music is Magical

Still remains one of my all-time favorite soundtracks. Especially loved the music accompanying the motorcycle chase. "Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra" I believe it's called. We even played it in college marching band.

Love the musical cue when Donovan opens his eyes after drinking the water from the fake grail.

New Things I Noticed/Wondered

Speaking of that scene, I wondered if Elsa picked the wrong grail on purpose?

When Indy returns with the magical water, Brody crosses himself. Never noticed that before.

This is the first time I've seen this film all the way through since I became a dad. Henry's calm mention of Indy's preferred name, "Indiana," at that crucial moment brought the emotions to the front. I knew it was coming, but I hadn't experienced it from this side of parenthood. It means everything.

The Sunset

In 2019, we are on the other side of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and still awaiting a potential Indy 5. This re-watch of Temple of Doom and Last Crusade pretty much means I'm going to re-watch Crystal Skull. But I still contend they should have stopped with Last Crusade.

They literally rode off into the sunset. What better ending is there?

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. What better way to kick of the Summer of 1989?

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Best Summer Job Ever

Thirty years ago, I started one of the best summer jobs ever: working in a movie theater.  In itself, that's an awesome thing. That it was the Summer of 1989 made it glorious.

Starting the Job

I can't even remember why I ended up applying for the job. Knowing myself now at fifty, I can pretty much assume it was because I loved movies. What better way to be able to see a bunch of movies for free. And eat lots and lots of popcorn.

Late May 1989 was sunny. It's pretty much always sunny in summer, right? The theater I applied to and was hired to work was the Cineplex Odeon theater on Gessner just north of Westheimer. In those days, I can't remember if the Westchase theater, also on Gessner, but to the south, was still open or not. What made my theater unique was that it was partially hidden behind a strip center including a Randall's supermarket. I ate a few lunches over there, now that I'm remembering.

This theater had three screens, if I'm remembering correctly. Three. Can you imagine that in these days of a couple dozen screens being a smaller complex? What that allowed us employees to do was have some down time between the screenings, something I don't think modern workers in theaters have.

Learning the Ropes

Hired on as an usher, I had the desire to work the box office at the front as well as learn how to operator the projector. Even as late as 1989, the projectionists was an old guy--probably late forties which seemed really old at the time--who snuck cigarettes into his upstairs booth. He had lots of downtime, and seemed to spend it in the half twilight of his projection room. He and I struck up a friendship. He actually gave me a physical copy of the Batman movie trailer. By the end of the summer, I was going to learn how to operate the projector, making me a quadruple threat.

Naturally, when you're an usher or ticket taker or concession stand attendant (everyone did everything), there was down times between shows. I got quite adept at taking a single popped kernel of popcorn, dipping it in the butter, and then dipping that in the wonderful orange salt. I also got past the gag reflex and ate the cancer-looking hot dog franks. And I'd take a hit of Dr Pepper whenever I needed a little pick-me-up.

The Rush

This was the summer of 1989. The summer of Batman. Of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Of Ghostbusters 2. Of License to Kill. Of When Harry Met Sally. Of Star Trek V. And others. With only three screens, we didn't get a lot of different films, but we got the Big Two: Indy and Batman.

It is difficult to reconstruct just how many people all stood in a "line" waiting to buy food. Those times were frantic, hectic, and a blast! I loved the rushes because there were so many people, all wanting something. Most were nice, but there were those special folks. Gotta love'em.

I also learned how to pack a bag of popcorn in order to give the customers their money's worth. Even now, I still comment on concession stand workers who know how to pack a bag full of popcorn.

Seeing Snippets of Movies

During usher duties, we were required to walk the aisles and check on things. Which means we got to see snippets of the movies over and over again. For Last Crusade, it was the scenes with the blimp and the subsequent escape. I got to know those lines of dialogue pretty well.

But I never tired of seeing those scenes. I started to memorize the lines of dialogue, a keen feat in the age before the internet and DVDs.


Sometime in early July, the projectionist was fired. New management came in, and I was transferred to West Oaks Mall. They had seven screens! More than double. What made that mall special was that it was my hangout in high school. Now, I was working there. It was in this theater where I first saw When Harry Met Sally. That film remains my all-time favorite romantic comedy. And I really enjoyed walking those aisles.

By August, my summer was effectively over. I was in the Longhorn Band so I needed to get back to Austin and start a new year. Plus I had to talk to all my band friends who were geeks like me about all those awesome movies we had all seen. Some, like me, more than twice.

I never tired of working at the theater. Sure it was long and I'd often get off work after midnight, but I was young. I had a car. And my parents were cool enough with their college-aged son working until midnight. My dad never truly slept until I arrived back home, something I know I'll be doing with my own boy as his days of driving on his own approach.

A summer job in a movie theater the summer of 1989. Was there any better job?


It was the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college at The University of Texas at Austin. It was the second summer I returned home. It would also prove to be the last.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom at 35

I didn't get to see Indiana Jones at the Temple of Doom on opening day because of school. And my parents.

Back in 1984, I was finishing my freshman year of high school. It was Finals Week. Some of my friends were going to see the movie opening day. My parents said no. It wasn't a full no. It was a no until after finals. I grumbled, knowing I wouldn't be able to see it opening day. But I ended up seeing it.

As a youth, I loved it. It was an Indiana Jones file. What's not to love? Temple of Doom was different than Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not bad. Different. I loved seeing Short Round, a few years younger than my fifteen-year-old self. The love interest, Willie Scott, was not Marion Ravenwood. The music was fantastic. And seeing Indy/Harrison Ford react to the blood of Kali was pretty gripping stuff.

Over the years, I've rarely rewatched Temple of Doom. Once Last Crusade came out, it eclipsed the second movie in my list. Then, when Crystal Skull was released, Temple of Doom was no longer the "worst" Indy film. That's a misnomer. Temple of Doom was never the worst. It was just third in a great trilogy of films.

Now that we've had the 35th anniversary, I felt it was long past time to revisit the movie. I've got a lot more years in me--and a many more stories--so I was able to appreciate Temple of Doom on its own.

The 2019 Verdict

And I really enjoyed it. Yes, it is definitely different in tone, but that's what Lucas and Spielberg wanted. They wanted the darker sequel/prequel to the bright first entry. Granted, Raiders was plenty dark. The vibe Lucas and Spielberg seemed to be going for was the scary adventures of the pulp magazines of the 1930s. I've read and studied much about the pulps by now, and I can easily see they got what they wanted.

I also appreciated Indy's choices in the movie. For all of his heroics in Raiders, he was on a mission for someone else. Well, something else: the US government. In Temple of Doom, Indy is out for himself. He's figured out the missing sacred rock of the village is one of the Shakara Stones. "Fortune and glory" is what prompts him on the journey, but the missing children is what grips his heart.

This is the first time I've watched this movie as a dad. I viscerally felt the anguish of the parents this time. What if some ancient evil took all the children? What if it took my child? What would I do?

What Indy did. His utterance of "All of us" right as he starts the children revolt is striking. Always was, but when you're a fifteen year old, you don't get it as much as you do when you're fifty.

Which made the reunion of the kids with the parents so much better this time. I know all those folks were actors but dang, did the emotions come during that scene. Well done.

I noticed how Ford lightened up Indy a little bit. Despite the darkness of the film, Indy himself is mostly light, especially with the interplay between him and Willie and him and Short Round. I'm sure Ford shaped the character in this manner, and I enjoyed it.

The music! 

I haven't heard this music in a long time, but I was humming it all the time after the re-watch. "Short Round's Theme" and "Mine Car Chase" are as great as always, but "Slave Children Crusade" was extra special this time. 

And I didn't even mind Willie's screaming all the time.

In all, I again thoroughly enjoyed re-watching Temple of Doom.  And no: I cannot believe it has been thirty-five years!

With the Temple of Doom anniversary and Last Crusade anniversary (30, all part of the magnificent Summer of '89 at the movies), I think you know what's coming next.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Memorial Day 2019

Yes, it's the unofficial start of summer, but it's much more than that.

Thank you to all who laid down their lives for us.

Learn some history about the day.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Back to the Future and George McFly: When Did He Know?

On Friday, when asked what movie he wanted to watch that night, my boy suggested Back to the Future. Easy sell for me. BTTF is one of my all-time Top 10 movies. It is wonderfully self-contained and perfect. The music. The acting. The actors: Christopher Lloyd's facial expression! Lea Thompson's Loraine as a teenager. Her falling in love with George after he belted Biff. Even Biff's transformation in the new 1985 was spot on.

But I got to thinking about the time travel aspect as well as the characters themselves. Despite what Avengers: Endgame posited, let's keep BTTF's time travel idea in mind: Marty travels back to 1955, meets his parents, and, as a result of the differences, returns to 1985 with a new life. In this new life, his siblings are successful and his parents are happy and in love. We already know George loved science fiction. We know that George as a teenager was visited by an alien named Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan. Which brings us to a simple question:

When did George McFly know his own son Marty was the same Marty from 1955?

The Star Trek Coincidence

I think most of us over the past 34 (!) years have wondered about a couple of things, both of which have to do with his parents. Let's zero in on George McFly in particular. As a teenager in 1955, he meets Marty who basically appears out of nowhere and helps George learn how to stand up for himself. A part of that is Marty, dressed up in his radiation suit, visiting George's room. He refers to himself as "Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan."

Now, what do you suppose George thought when, as a science fiction fan (and future writer), he watches the 1966 debut of the new TV show Star Trek. "Hey, that's funny. That weird guy I met eleven years ago mentioned he was from the planet Vulcan, just like this Spock character. What are the odds of that?"

The Rug Fire

Cut to, say, the summer of 1976. His youngest child, Marty, is named after that strange kid he knew for a week back in 1955. Sure, he and Loraine named their second son after their friend Marty, but you have to assume George rarely if ever thinks about his high school days. Then, the young Marty accidentally sets fire to the living room rug. A memory ticks at him. Marty, back in 1955, mentions that if George and Loraine had a kid who did what their youngest child just did, to go easy on the boy. Maybe the Vulcan thing is a coincidence, but this? No, this is something more. George's mind turns it over and over. How in the world could Marty the Teenager accurately predict Marty the Eight Year Old would set fire to the living room rug?

How indeed?

Star Wars and the Darth Vader Coincidence

Cut to 1977 when George, now a dad of three kids, takes the family to see the new SF movie, Star Wars. In that film, he learns there is a character called Darth Vader. Maybe's he's shrugged off the Vulcan thing or it rarely enters his mind, but you have to know the memory of that night in his bedroom back in 1955 with that strange alien who called himself Darth Vader.

Now we have two pop cultural references and a very specific moment in young Marty's life that George has experienced. One can assume, considering George's first book was science fiction, that he continued to read and watch science fiction books and movies and TV shows. One can also assume that he would be aware of the concept of time travel over the 60s and 70s and into the 80s. It was in the Twilight Zone, Planet of the Apes, and, of course, H.G. Wells's book and movie.

Time travel was always in the back of his might, right?

His Son Learns the Guitar

Sometime in his high school years, Marty McFly gets the music bug. He picks up a guitar and learns how to make it talk. He's got Van Halen as his modern inspiration, but he also loves the classics. And what better classic riff is there that Chuck Berry's 1958 song "Johnny B. Goode"? Naturally, young Marty sits in his room, guitar in hand, and learns all the chords to that song. You can imagine George, who is now empowered, listening to his youngest son up in his room work out the notes until he has the song down pat. One might even assume a proud Marty invite his parents and siblings up to his room for a mini concert. "I've been working on this for a bit, but I finally got it," Marty might say before breaking out the opening riff.

George's mind would naturally return to that night in 1955 at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance when he and Loraine fell in love.

And that friend of his, Marty: 1955, played this same song. What are the odds of that?

Seeing His Son Look Just Like Marty: 1955

We parents see our children grow older gradually, day by day. But there is always that one moment when you look at your child and it hits you: the child is no longer a kid. He's a youth. He's a teenager. He's all grown up.

Marty McFly and I are the same age. That means the summer of 1985 was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school. If you want, we can make Marty a grade older, say, the summer between his junior and senior year of high school.

Seeing his son age daily, perhaps George might not have "seen" Marty: 1985 as Marty: 1955. But he or Loraine snapped that photograph we see all during the movie. Let's say it was Loraine. She gets the film developed and shows George that night. "Look at how old our kids are, George," she might say.

George would look at the photograph and see not just how old Marty His Son had become but he would also see Marty: 1955.

And it would click.

George Would Know

By the summer of 1985, George has already written his novel, inspired by his real-life events from thirty years before. Chances are good George might've changed what "Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan" said in 1955 because there's already a Vader and a planet Vulcan in pop culture. But he would have realized that the alien who visited him had to have been a time traveler.

And that time traveler was his own son.

George isn't dumb. He would have easily deduced Doc Brown the Inventor was the man responsible for building a time machine. Doc Brown and Marty: 1985 spend lots of time together. It is the only answer.

George McFly, lifelong lover of science fiction and writer of a brand-new science fiction novel, now would know time travel is real and his son has done it.

Which means there is the obvious question: when would George ask Marty:1985 and Doc Brown about it. Because if you're George McFly, you absolutely want to travel through time, right? But George would have to know the exact date Marty left 1985 and traveled back to 1955. For that, he might hit a brick wall. How does he find out?

A Conversation Between George McFly and Doc Brown

If he asks his son about time travel before Marty leaves, George knows he could risk disrupting the space-time continuum. C'mon. He's seen lots of movies and TV shows. He's seen the original Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever" and knows all about not disrupting the timeline.

So he does what any normal parent would do: ask Marty's friend, who just happens to be the inventor of the time machine. Ostensibly, George could show up at Doc's doorstep and just talk, man to man, about the relationship between Marty and Doc. A concerned parent would want to know, right?

But George would have to assume Doc's already working on or have already invented the time machine. George wouldn't know what form it takes, but it has to be in the window from the time Marty met Doc and they started hanging out together (not sure when. Maybe a year or two? So, the freshman year of high school.) and that very day.

George, being a smart man, might indirectly ask Doc about time travel or this and that. Doc would, naturally, be cautious. Why is the dad of my teenaged friend asking me questions about time travel?

But this is the More Enlightened Doc Brown. He read the note Marty: 1985 left in 1955. He knows about the night of the first test of the time machine. He's made preparations and already bought the bulletproof vest.

And Doc's just now realized George McFly, standing in his laboratory, knows about not only the time machine but that Marty is the time traveler.  There's that moment between them. Likely no words are spoken. It's just eyes of a father staring at the eyes of the man who invented time travel.

Doc would be the one to speak first, addressing the one answer any father would want to hear. "I get him back safely."

George would nod. "Thanks. When I finally figured it out, that explains why the Marty in 1955 just vanishes." He pauses, wanting to ask more questions, trying not to jump the most obvious one. "How does it work?"

And Doc would tell George McFly about the flux capacitor and show him the Deloren. He would explain the science and tell his side of things from 1955. He might also remind George about those few times over the past decades where Doc Brown would show up, say, at town picnic or a parade, to see and make sure George and Loraine are still together. Maybe Doc even shows George a newspaper clipping announcing their engagement and marriage.

Doc would then ask George when and how he knew. George would explain. At the end of the afternoon, the two men would have had a nice conversation, stimulating and mind-bending in its repercussions.

George would then, finally, ask his question. "Can I go?"

Doc would smile knowingly. He already knew the question was coming. He just waited for the younger man to ask it. He would already have his answer ready.

"Not until after Saturday, October 26. That's when Marty leaves and to which he returns. After he gets back, I'm going to want to have a go at it." He would smile. "I want to see what 2015 looks like."

George's eyes would get bigger. "The future," he would say in a whispered tone. "I want to see the future, too."

Doc would clap George McFly on the shoulder. "I'll look you up when I get there." He would squeeze George's shoulder and bring him face to face. "But you can't say anything to Marty until after October 26th. You can't even let on that you know. You can't even tell your wife." He pauses, looking at George. "Does she know?"

George knows Loraine is a smart woman, but admits he's not brought it up to her.

"Make sure she doesn't say anything to Marty. We can't risk upsetting the timeline." If he hasn't already, Doc would explain how the photograph of the three McFly children changed and reverted back again.

"It's fixed now?" George asks.

"Yes. But if you let on to Marty you know about him, it'll all be erased from existence."

George would nod. "Got it."

He would inhale and look at the time machine. Maybe he notices the calendar hanging from the wall and notes how far away October 26 is from that day.

Then, maybe a thought strikes George. He frowns.

"What is it?" Doc asks.

"When Marty returns to this time, will he remember the original timeline?"

Doc's eyes narrow in thought. "Maybe. Here, come over to this chalkboard, and let's talk through the possibilities."


This is really a thought experiment. It's all just occurred to me since I re-watched BTTF on Friday night. Maybe there are websites that go into detail about this--I'm sure there are--but I don't know them.

What do you think? Do you think George McFly knew about Marty? What would you do in George's place? And where would you go in time?

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 21

Boy are there a ton of anniversaries this week.

Thursday alone saw the 24th anniversary of Chicago's Night and Day album, the 35th anniversary of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and the 40th anniversary of KISS's Dynasty album. I reviewed the KISS album, but wanted to re-watch Temple of Doom before I review it. That post will be coming next week.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade's 30th anniversary was yesterday. Same thing: want to re-watch it and review it. This movie kicks of the Summer of 1989 at 30 series that'll run throughout the summer as I re-watch and revisit the incredible films of 1989.

Today is forty years since Alien was released.

Lots of fun to experience these things again and, in some cases, share them with the family for the first time.

Podcast of the Week

Same one: Blockbuster. The last of the six episodes dropped on Tuesday and it is incredible. I updated the review I wrote when I first heard twice, once to include Episode 5 and again for Episode 6. It is one of my favorite things of 2019. I listened to the last episode on Tuesday morning on the way to work and prompted donated money when I got there. Give it a listen and see what you think.

Later, when I tweeted how much I loved it, the folks a Blockbuster picked it up and included none other than Mark Hamill. That moment of thrill I experienced when I thought Hamill might actually read something I wrote was fantastic. He liked my separate tweet about it.

Made my day.

TV Show of the Week

Elementary returned for its last 13-episode season. I have loved this show from day one. If we can agree that Jeremy Brett is the epitome of the traditional Sherlock Holmes, then Johnny Lee Miller's Holmes is my favorite non-traditional version. He has been allowed to have Sherlock grow over these past seven years. That's made all the difference. I will sincerely miss this show when it goes for its final bow. (see what I did there?)

The Summer Writing Session Starts

Monday marks the opening of Summer 2019. Labor Day is 97 days later. This is perhaps my favorite writing time because of the clear bookends.

What are you going to write this summer?

I have to finish the proofing and editing for the fourth Calvin Carter story, Brides of Death, but I aim to try something new. Something different. I don't know what it is yet, but I intend to have fun writing.

Memorial Day

Lest we forget, here in the United States, Monday is Memorial Day, and it is dedicated to all the soldiers over our history who have given their last full measure of devotion to our country. They will forever have our gratitude.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Top 10 Favorite KISS Albums

Yesterday's post on Dynasty compelled me to wonder where I'd rank it within the entire KISS catalog. This is my attempt.

A caveat: KISS Alive! is my favorite KISS album. It's in my all-time top albums list. Desert Island Record. The next two live albums I also enjoy. As a kid who never got to see the band in person in the 1970s, the opening of Alive II was magical. The live versions of "I Stole Your Love" and "Ladies' Room" are my preferred versions. And the Alive III version of "Deuce" is kick ass.

Moreover, Unplugged is also in my top 10 favorite KISS albums.

My only standard is this: which albums do I, now in 2019, return to over and over again, happy to hear the songs?

Other than KISS Alive!--my clear number 1--the rest are in chronological order.

Rock and Roll Over
Alive II
Paul Stanley
Psycho Circus
Sonic Boom

Rock and Roll Over is my favorite studio album of the original six (although I didn't own it as as kid).

Like Dynasty, I didn't own the solo albums or Paul, Gene, or Peter until 1997. I instantly enjoyed Paul's. He knew what kind of songwriter he was and wrote an album chock full of late 70s rock and roll. Nothing to hate. My favorite of the solo albums by far.

Unmasked is a fantastic power pop album that I enjoy top to bottom. It was the last KISS album I would buy until Revenge. It has, arguably, one of my all-time favorite Gene songs: "Naked City."

Psycho Circus was inevitable once the original four members got back together and put on the makeup again. The album is, for my money, really strong despite the fact I always skip the Peter song. The title track I absolutely love. "Within" is the crunchy Gene song still laced with grunge elements. "Into the Void" is a perfect Ace song. "We are One" is a wonderful love letter to the KISS Army while "You Wanted the Best" always gets my blood pumping. And I enjoy the outro of "Journey of 1,000 Years" and how it incorporates the guitar solo from the title track.

Sonic Boom is a terrific album and contains three songs I consider to be among the very best by the band: Modern Day Delilah, Danger Us, and Yes I Know (Nobody's Perfect). When I break down the catalog into favorite songs by vocalist, all three of those tunes make the list. The vibe of the record is perfectly in 1976.

Monster is loud and over the top, but we are talking KISS here so I'm perfectly fine with it. Can you imagine a concert opening with "Back in the Stone Age"? "Hell or Hallelujah" is another terrific song by Paul. And Eric Singer's "All for the Love of Rock and Roll" is basically an outtake from Rock and Roll Over. If this is their last album--and it looks to be the case--then it's a fine one cap a career.

The Next Five

My initial list was just about at fourteen, so here, also in chronological order, are the next five.

Hotter Than Hell
Peter Criss
Crazy Nights

I'm a big fan of bands that come out of the gate all but fully formed, especially with the lead-off track. That's "Strutter" here. Then, with the second song, you get Gene's vocals on the verses of "Nothin' to Lose" and Peter's awesome voice on the chorus. A great one-two punch.

Hotter Than Hell is special. I didn't own it back in the day, but I've really come to appreciate it. The sound is unique, and it contains my all-time favorite Peter song: "Mainline."

My appreciation of Peter Criss's solo album has been a gradual understanding of what he was trying to do and I've come to really enjoy it. "You Matter To Me" is excellent. If it wasn't saddled with the KISS brand, this could have been a hit. "I Can't Stop the Rain" is great. About the only song I tend to gloss over is "Kiss the Girl" mainly because it's really just "Beth 2.0". Give the record a spin without any preconceived ideas and you'll be surprised.

Dynasty - See yesterday's review

Crazy Nights is one of those newly discovered gems. How did I miss this back in 1987? "Turn on the Night" is the epitome of late 80s power metal songs. The title track is just plain fun. And Paul's vocal range is outstanding. My favorite 80s/unmasked album.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

KISS Dynasty at 40

Forty years ago today, a record came out that I didn't buy.

Actually, it was more like couldn't. In the height of KISS's initial 1970s popularity, there was a rumor among parents that these make-up wearing rock stars were not appropriate for a ten year old. My parents, therefore, restricted my acquiring of KISS albums after I purchased 1978's Ace Frehley solo album, the only one I bought that year. What I cannot remember, however, was how I came to own Unmasked (1980). Perhaps, by then, things had changed.

Be that as it may, it took me another twentysomething years to finally purchase KISS Dynasy (I bought the 1997 remastered version). I've now lived with "The Return of KISS" (as it was billed in 1979) for an additional twenty years. And I'm come to a conclusion: the album gets a bad rap for being a disco album. The truth is in the music.

Disco Permeated the Culture

By May 1979, the crest of the disco wave may have already passed, but the music was still everywhere: on radio, on TV, on commercials. Yes, the growing punk movement was already railing against disco and yes, there was the famous Disco Demolition Night in Chicago, but many established artists and bands brought elements of disco into their music. David Bowie did it. Chicago did it. Rod Stewart did it. The charts of popular songs and albums demonstrated the buying public enjoyed the music.

So why wouldn't KISS try their hand at writing a disco song?

The genesis was already out there. In 1978, they released Double Platinum with a remixed and discoized version of "Strutter." Now, it wasn't really a disco song. All that was basically added was a hit hat cymbal doing sixteenth notes. Nevertheless, Paul Stanley brought to the studio a song destined to overshadow the rest of the new KISS album.

I Was Made For Loving You

I may not have owned the album in 1979, but I knew the song. It was on the radio. It was featured in the commercials for the new record. It was even sung by Linda Carter on a variety show. Then, as now, I love this song. There are the high hat beats underscored by the bass played by Gene Simmons. I was not adept at musical knowledge to hear that it wasn't Peter Criss playing the drums, but Anton Fig. If any song on this album could be said to be disco (well, there are two), it was this one, but it's still not 100% disco. It's a power pop song, and a darn good one. Even the 1993 version on the Revenge tour when KISS created the harder-edged version, it remains a good song.

The Rest of Side One

If the opening track rang disco bells, then the intro of the next song, Frehley's cover of the Rolling Stones's song "2,000 Man," reminded listeners KISS remained a rock band. There's nary a disco note in this tune. It's all Ace, almost as if he wrote it himself.

"Sure Know Something," also written by Paul, could also be lumped into a disco bubble, but only tangentially. It's more mainstream pop than disco, and it is arguably one of the best songs Paul ever wrote. All performers are working at perk performance here. The bass kicks off the song and drives the opening riff. It is one of my favorite melodic bass lines Gene eve performed. The rhythm guitar lays in tasteful chord patterns. Anton Fig sets the tempo with tasteful and sure-footed playing. And Paul's singing is incredible. One of the best of his entire career. I never heard this song until the Unplugged version debuted, but have loved it ever since.

"Dirty Living" is Peter Criss's lone song on Dynasty, but it's a winner. Many people who hear it now (and maybe even in 1979) think it sounds like the theme song to some 70s cop TV show. Spot on. Peter's vocals are really good on this tune, a nice return to his early 70s sound. I'm thinking of Mainline, Strangeways, and Baby Driver. Yes, there is a definitive disco vibe, but the pocket is such a good groove, you don't care. The guitar solos that interweave throughout this song bring this song up in stature, especially the latter solos that go higher on the fret board. Great song. One of Peter's best.

Side Two

"Charisma" is Gene's first song on the album. That it arrives on side two might give you and indication of where Gene's mind was at the time. As a kid, I heard this song at a friend's house, and the only thing that shocked me was Gene emphasizing the word "sexuality." The Gene vocals from the mid 70s is on full display here, with all of his ad libs and peculiar vocal tics. The guitar solo is good, a nice respite from the driving rhythm of the main verses. And there's cowbell! What's not to like?

Over the years, I've learned that Paul either wrote most of songs during the studio sessions or only brought in a handful for consideration. That the trio of songs he contributed to Dynasty are so good is a testament to his songwriting prowess and keen ear for what works. "Magic Touch" is a nice, mid-tempo song that serves to highlight Paul's growing vocal ability. That it includes yet another melodic bass line and a good guitar solo is icing on the cake. What does Paul think of this song? He brought it out in 2006 during his solo tour. To think that all three of Paul's songs on this album have reemerged in later years is all the proof you need to know these are special songs.

Ace returns with "Hard Times," his autobiographical song about his time growing up in New York. Ace songs have a certain vibe. His 1978 solo solidified it, and "Hard Times" fits right in that pocket. Whimsy is on full display with the various background noises, too. Befitting a song with that title, this is a rock and roll song with zero disco. More evidence? The solo. A nicely composed piece that changes the feel halfway, basically giving listeners two guitar solos. And it ends without a fade.

"X-Ray Eyes" is Gene's second song. Like "Hard Times," there is no evidence of disco here. One of the criticisms of Dynasty is that it sounds less like a KISS album than outtakes from the four solo albums. That's very true here. I don't dislike the song, but it there's a throwaway song, this is it. I suspect, however, ten year old me would have loved the sound effects in the background.

"Save Your Love" closes out the album on a spare, rocking song. You get punched in the gut on the opening few beats before Ace starts lamenting the singer's recent breakup. He all but screams at her in the chorus. Paul sings in his lower register on the chorus, and that's always a treat. The solo is a quirky solo chock full of trademark Ace-isms. I also love Gene's "Save your lo-ove!" call backs toward the end. And cowbell again. This is a rock that drives straight to the end, allowing listeners to pump fists and know KISS as a rock band still lived.

The Verdict

By the time I finally purchased the CD in 1997, I knew Dynasty as 'the disco album.' But when you actually listen to the songs--especially far away from the later 70s--what emerges is less of a disco album but a power pop/rock record with disco stylings included in at least two songs, maybe three. At nine songs, that's only a third at most. Since when does a third of something define something?

Dynasty is a really good record with some terrific songs that have stood the test of time these past forty years. I never begrudge a band for seeing what's popular and, if compelled, giving it a try. That's how a band remains popular. It's the job of a band to produce records people want to buy. In 1979, that meant incorporating disco into KISS's original sound to try and bring in the new, younger fans (like I was) with their existing fan base.

And they nailed it. No, the album wasn't to everyone's tastes. The dangerous band from 1973 had given way to the superhero rock stars who starred in comic books and sold toys by 1979. But as a collection of songs in 1979, it was perfectly suited to that time frame.

I have enjoyed Dynasty ever since I first listened to it back in 1997. It barely misses my own person Top 10 KISS albums (tune in tomorrow for the list) but it's in the Top 15.

A Different Point of View

In the most recent episode of Ken Mills's excellent PodKISSt, they did something neat in regards to Dynasty. Many of the initial album covers listed the songs in a different order. The physical LPs always had the track listing I mentioned here, but the album sleeve was different.

Ken and co-host BJ listen to the album with this as the song order:

Charisma | Dirty Livin' | Hard Times | I Was Made For Loving You | Magic Touch | Save Your Love | Sure Know Something | X-Ray Eyes | 2,000 Man

Take a listen. The album takes on a whole new vibe. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Blood and Treasure: Premiere

I saw the promos for this show last week and knew I'd enjoy it. I caught the first of two parts last night and this show looks exactly like what it is: a breezy, action/adventure show perfect for the summer.


I'll admit, the historian in me cringed at what happens in the opening segment.

After an opening narration giving a little history with a map of the Mediterranean Sea region for reference, we cut to 2019 and an American archaeologist and her team find the lost tomb of Marc Antony and Cleopatra. Except the crypt only has his body. Where is Cleopatra?

They have little time to think about it before mercenaries storm the pyramid, capture the archaeologist, and then blow up part of the pyramid! Even though it was fiction, the idea of all that lost history gone gnawed at my gut.

Enter the Two Attractive Leads

The first of the two leads is Danny McNamara (Matt Barr), a former FBI agent who knows art. Again, the historian in me can't not think of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and that's probably on purpose. He's hired by rich guy John Larroquette to find the missing archaeologist. Money is no object. But he needs one thing: a partner.

Naturally, the best person for the job is Lexi Vaziri, an attractive cat burglar, played by Sofia Pernas, who just happens to be his former girlfriend. She's just pulled a heist, gotten herself arrested, and is in jail.

But not for long. Danny shows up and they team up.

Flashbacks Give Backstory

Through a series of flashbacks, the characters and situations are fleshed out, including why Danny and Lexi broke up. Hint: it's not good and it's not romantic.

The dynamic is as old as storytelling. One of the pair is the brains and the other is the brawn. In this case, Lexi's the brawn. Yeah, in the age of Lara Croft, this also isn't old. Neither is the guy-as-nerd character type either (Jack Ryan?). But as I told my wife after the first commercial break: there is a wheelhouse of things I enjoy--especially in the summer--and this show checked off every box.

Action: check
Exotic locales: check
Attractive leads: check
Mysterious enemies: check
Backstory that will be revealed as time goes on: check
Knowing the leads will get  together: check

There's a certain mentality that descends on me in the summer. I want a particular kind of show, movie, and music. Blood and Treasure fits that bill perfectly.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

First Pop Cultural Loves: Are They Still Your Favorites?

No matter what type of pop culture thing we enjoy, there was always that first time.

The first time you heard a song from your favorite band.
The first time you saw your favorite movie.
The first time you read a book by your favorite author.

But do those particular firsts remain high on your Favorites Lists or do they fall in the rankings?

Let me give you some personal examples.

Star Wars

I am part of the Star Wars Generation. The first Star Wars movie I saw was the first one, in a theater, in 1977. It has remained my favorite on an emotional level primarily because if I sit and watch it just so, the movie is a time machine and I'm back to being a nine-year-old kid again with nary a care in the world. The Empire Strikes Back is also a bit of a time machine because it arrived just as I graduated from elementary school. The movie's ending showed me the heroes don't always win. What the heck was that? Return of the Jedi, at the time, was an awesome film, but over time, as I've become an adult and a writer, I can see its faults. So, too, the other films in the franchise. Some are better than others (Rogue One), some deserve a re-watch and re-evaluation (The Phantom Menace), while others deserve respect for trying to do something different (The Last Jedi).

My brain puts Empire as my favorite of the franchise, but my heart will always remain with Star Wars.


KISS was my first favorite band. I discovered them in 1978 with Double Platinum (a hits collection) and then made my way to the studio and live albums. I was limited to the number of albums I could buy, but Destroyer ranked high in my list as a kid. Over time, however, Alive! (1975) is now my favorite KISS album.

When David Bowie landed on my radar in 1983, Let's Dance was everywhere. In the 80s, I loved his 80s material. The 1987 Glass Spider Tour was the first of three times I saw Bowie live. But over time, I've changed. Now, if push came to shove and I was asked my favorite album, I'd probably pick 2000's Live at the Beeb.

Chicago 17 was out when I finally discovered Chicago in 1985. A year later, Chicago 18 was my first purchased album. Now, it's not even my favorite Chicago album of the 80s. I rarely listen to it, instead focusing on the early material with their first record, CTA, my now favorite. Chicago 18 doesn't even crack my top 10.

Invisible Touch was my first Genesis album, but Duke and Foxtrot are the ones I like the best (I get two choices, a Peter Gabriel and a Phil Collins). Speaking of those two, it was So and No Jacket Required that were my first true introductions to them (although, for Collins, it was really "Take a Look at Me Now.") and those records remain my favorites. Synchronicity was my first and favorite Police record, yet Sting's 1999 solo record, Brand New Day, that tops my list now.


Pet Sematary was my first Stephen King novel, but it's nowhere near my favorite. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, on the other hand, remains my favorite by him. Right as Rain was my first George Pelecanos but Hard Revolution stands as my favorite. I first read one of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason novels, but now I prefer the Cool and Lam books.


The same applies to TV shows. I discovered The X-Files in 1996 or so, but quickly grew to appreciate the early-to-mid 1990s seasons vs. the latter ones. I loved Castle from day one, but the midway part of the series was just spectacular. I didn't jump on the Friends bandwagon until a season or two in, but I actually enjoyed most of the later seasons. Star Trek: The Next Generation's first couple of seasons were good, but they hit their stride in season three. It must have had something to do with Riker's beard.

It's Bruce Springsteen's Fault

What prompted this was when I bought and listened to a 30-song 1992 concert by Bruce Springsteen (from For me, I discovered Springsteen in 1989 or so. Tunnel of Love was his most recent record. By 1992, when Human Touch and Lucky Town were released, they were my first new Springsteen records.

And I realized something: those two are my favorites of his. Yes, Born to Run is an excellent album. Yes, The Rising is amazing. Yes, Born in the USA is almost the perfect 80s album. But if I had to take one album from Springsteen's catalog, it would be Human Touch and Lucky Town. [I've always considered them basically a double album.]

I could think of others, but I think you get the idea.

So, has the first introduction to your favorite pop culture things remained your favorite?

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Game of Thrones Finale

First off, I have enjoyed being a geek who has seen very little of this series. It just didn't do it for me. My wife enjoys it and, up until this month, always watched the shows via binging when HBO offered a week's worth of free programming. But for Mother's Day, I bought her HBO so she could watch the end live.

I actually sat in for most of the penultimate episode. I also watched most of the finale. I think by now, I've watched something like six or seven full episodes. With my wife's running commentary, I get caught up.

So, as an outsider and a storyteller, I've got a couple of thoughts about the finale.

Spoilers of course.

Peter Dinklage is Incredible

You know that. I already knew that. From what I've seen in the GOT episodes I've watched and his other non-GOT material, I've known the man could act. But his acting abilities and the role of Tyrion were paired perfectly. His anguish at locating his siblings' bodies in the rubble and, despite all that's occurred, still weeping for them. He can convey more emotion by the movement of his eyes than many actors can with a long soliloquy. I very much enjoyed him last night, especially in his speech in which he puts forth the idea of an elected king. And I love the idea that they made Bran the Broken the king even though he didn't want to. A little like America's own George Washington, a man who accepted responsibility because it was his duty. Tyrion, in his own way, was the one who kind of was the leader of that little group, and gave the power to Bran. And then accepted the role of The Hand because it was his duty. Powerful stuff.

I'm not sure how many Emmys he's won for this role, but he needs another.

The Iron Throne

Even from the outside looking in I've known about the Iron Throne for eight years. It's jumped out of the show and become its own thing. Heck, there was even a replica here in Houston for Comicpalooza.

But to have the dragon melt it? Boy, was that a brave choice. I expected to have the last scene of this show be whomever sitting down on the throne. Nope. A brave choice that led to something better.

The Actual Ending

Over the years, all my favorite shows end. Some, like Friends, have the characters break up and leave the confines of the familiar apartment or neighborhood bar. An actual ending.

But I've become more of a fan of how GOT ended last night. Just like with The Big Bang Theory, you know life will go on, but we viewers won't be around to see them. Tyrion at the head of the table, discussing the business of the kingdom. His tone was simultaneously hopeful, bored, and light. Jon Snow going off with those people (I've forgot the names but my wife tells me they are the people of his dead wife) to make a new life. The  one young lady [daughter of someone...hang on: let me look her up. Arya!] sailing off on the ship to see what's west of Westeros. That's adventure! That's hope.

As a storyteller, I really enjoyed that kind of ending.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Phantom Menace at 20: A Re-Watch and Re-Examination

It was a Star Wars event sixteen years in the making. It was eight years after Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire novel filled the void some wondered if anyone wanted filled. It was two years after the triumphal return of the original trilogy returned to the theaters with new content.

And that first trailer was spectacular. Everyone in my office all but crashed the system downloading it and watching it over and over again. New worlds. A young Obi-Wan. And a double-bladed lightsaber! This was going to be an awesome movie!

My wife and I went on opening day. We were engaged and this was the first new Star Wars movie we would share together. She's not the geek like me, but I hoped my enthusiasm might extend a little to her.

She was excited for me...

The music was, of course, fantastic. It was John Williams. What did you expect? Some of the new themes, especially "Dual of the Fates," stands as one of the best pieces of music he's ever done. Someone intermixed this piece of music with dialogue and sound effects from the movie and it's still my favorite thing about this film.

The novelization by Terry Brooks is actually quite good. There's more in it than just the movie. In fact, all of the Prequel novelization are good, and all on Audible.

But what about the movie itself? Well, over the last twenty years, Phantom Menace kept getting bumped lower and lower on the all-time best Star Wars movie list. Well, there's always Attack of the Clones. All of my thoughts about Phantom Menace are now something like fourteen years old. The last time I can remember seeing Episode I was leading up to Episode III. Now, with the twentieth anniversary today, I broke out my DVD and watched Episode I once again.

The verdict?

Well, first some thoughts.

Thoughts on the Movie

Opening sequence - pretty darn good. The Jedi are in full command. Up until now, we've only heard stories about the Jedi. Now we see two. When Qui-Gon sticks his lightsaber in the door and starts to melt it, that is tres cool!

Jar-Jar Binks - Yeah, when we first see him, he's really difficult to understand. But he's not that bad at first. He's a local. Qui-Gon saved him. Jar Jar becomes their guide. What makes the whole Gungan part neat is that we get to see an underwater world in the Star Wars universe. Something new! As the movie went on, however, and I accepted Jar Jar as what he is--comedic relief although at times, he's not that funny--he wasn't as annoying as I remember. Well, he's still annoying at times. And I would have liked for him to rise to the occasion, like in the big battle scenes at the end. But I didn't dislike him as much as I remember.

Anakin as a kid is jarring. Yes, every adult bad guy was once a kid, but it's still a little weird. It is what it is. And Jake Lloyd does his best. Like Jar Jar, I actually found Anakin as a kid less annoying this time. And dang if his phrase "Now this is podracing" right after he blew up the droid ship was a pretty nifty moment.

Coruscant - First heard about in Zahn's trilogy, and seen briefly in the special edition of Return of the Jedi, now, we get to see it writ large.

"He was meant to help you."

So, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan (QGJ and OWK from now on) just happen to land on the desert planet that happens to have Anakin on it, a boy we are led to understand was the result of immaculate conception. By the midi-chlorians. Is that how it works?

Or did the Force direct  QGJ or OWK to Tatooine?  When Shmi Skywalker says what she says, is this the moment she knew was coming? As the mother of a Force-sensitive person, does some of it stay with her?

Speaking of this, QJG's actions regarding Anakin are rather....self-serving, right? He basically swoops in and takes Shmi's son away because of the Force? Isn't that the kind of Jedi attitude Luke Skywalker eventually rebels against in The Last Jedi?

"Finding him was the will of the Force," QGJ says. Maybe that really is the simple answer.

On the subject of Qui-Gon Jinn, he's a pretty interesting character. In all the movies, he the only one who refers to The Force as the "The Living Force." That's a fascinating concept, something Yoda told Luke about but doesn't get much time in the subsequent. I would have liked more of this philosophy explored. Maybe it is in the novels. If so, please let me know titles.

In some of the novels, Qui-Gon's spirit communicates with Obi-Wan and teaches him how to become one in the Force. His Force Ghost shows up in the novel of Attack of the Clones. How cool would it be if Qui-Gon shows up in Rise of Skywalker.

A thought just occurred to me: in the thirty years since Return of the Jedi, Luke studied the history of the Jedi. He learned about Qui-Gon and the Jedi Master's role in discovering Anakin. With Qui-Gon basically being a Jedi Rebel, might Luke's actions in The Last Jedi be more akin to Qui-Gon than any other Jedi?

Oh, and this time watching Anakin leave his mother behind? Well, that'll be me next year. Didn't even affect to me back in 1999. Now, all the emotions come to the front.

The Lightsaber Battle is Awesome!

As I think over all the lightsaber battles we've had to date, I think the one between OWK, QGJ, and Darth Maul might be the best. It in itself is a three-act play. Finally, we get to see three combatants, each at their prime, fighting each other with all their skills. A villain who can hold his own against two Jedis. Excellent stuff.

The Verdict

Twenty years ago today, I watched The Phantom Menace for the first time. Then, it was new, the first new Star Wars film in sixteen years. I remember loving it, but I had doubts. Over the years, I relied on my memories or memes to remember what happened in this movie. But there's nothing like watching it again to either reinforce what I remember or form a new opinion. That's what I did yesterday.

And, dang, if I didn't enjoy it. Actually I enjoyed it quite a bit. Yeah, Jar Jar was still annoying at parts--like when he and QGJ and OWK jump from the balcony and saved the queen, Jar Jar slips on the rampart and squeals--but I found myself getting into the show even though I knew what was on the way.

But keep this in mind. Up until 1999, George Lucas always talked about how he saw Star Wars in his head and, up to that time, it had never materialized on screen. The Phantom Menace was the first one where he had complete control and all the money to realize his vision. Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are just more of the same. Lucas's vision was fully realized with The Phantom Menace.

And, visually, it is stunning. The worlds. The ships. The aliens. It all came together.

In an odd bit of ironic timing, I'm listening to the six-part podcast series called Blockbuster. It's about how Lucas and Steven Spielberg created Jaws, Close Encounters, and Star Wars in the 1970s. Lucas's vision of the original Star Wars was a great adventure with heart. The Phantom Menace doesn't have as much heart as Star Wars, but it's clearly in that wheelhouse.

So I've changed my mind on The Phantom Menace. It is not as bad as I remember. It's actually a pretty decent movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed the re-watch.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 20

It's all in the details.

Proofing the Hardcopy of Aztec Sword

Always, always order a hard copy of your books printed by Amazon.

When you create a paperback via Amazon (or IngramSpark), you are provided with a template. On the template are the bleed areas and the bar code space. It is incumbent on you to design your cover with those lines and boundaries in mind.

Amazon also has a great online viewer where you can proof your book electronically. It's good, because it has all the borders marked. But sometimes, you just need the paper.

Because of mistakes like this.

That's all on me. I got this text as close to the bar code as possible in my design program. Clearly, I got it too close. The spine's text also was misaligned, so I've got more than one thing to fix.

The interior is good. Vellum is a good program that takes care of all the little details so you don't have to. It also makes ebooks, so this is a key piece of software for any independent writer.

Oh, and Amazon now puts this banner across the whole cover.

The End of The Big Bang Theory

Strangely, I didn't watch this show out of the gate. I don't hardly watch anything live at 7pm CST. But when it finally landed on my radar, the family and I bought the DVDs and caught up. Ironically, we didn't watch live, but we watched both episodes on Thursday.

For many of these long-running shows, the characters face some big change and move out of the apartment or bar or whatever. But what I loved about the series finale of TBBT was that we now know things will continue just as they have for the past twelve years...we just won't be seeing their lives. Babies will be born, children will grow up in this wonderful make-shift family, and they finally have a working elevator. Come on. That's not a spoiler. You knew going in the thing would finally work.

Anyway, loved the finale. Well done.

Game of Thrones: Leave the Creators Alone

I love being a geek who has seen very little of this series. It just didn't do it for me. My wife enjoys it and, up until this month, always watched the shows via binging when HBO offered a week's worth of free programming. But for Mother's Day, I bought her HBO so she could watch the end live.

And I actually sat in for most of last week's episode. I'll also tune in tomorrow live. I think by Sunday, I'll have watched something like six or seven full episodes. With my wife's running commentary, I get caught up.

As a Star Wars fan who loved The Last Jedi and groused about those fans who signed petitions trying to get Disney to remake Episode VIII, I rolled my eyes this week as GOT fans wanted a do-over of this season.


I can imagine one day we'll have some famous author write a blockbuster book and they'll be fans demanding the publisher re-write it to their tastes. Sigh.

Always Have an Answer

Last week, at Houston's Comicpalooza, a friend of mine asked me why I haven't written any genre stories that would find a home at a geek convention. It was an honest question and one to which I didn't have a good and ready answer. I fell back on my humorous answer as to how I came up with my western hero, Calvin Carter: Growing up a SF geek kid, I discovered mystery fiction as an adult, so naturally I ended up writing a western.

It prompted me to examine my writing to date and I arrived at an answer: I enjoy writing thrillers, mysteries, and westerns.

But I think I'll be trying my hand at some SF before year's end. It might even be this summer.

Podcast of the Week

Blockbuster. It's fantastic. It is an immersive podcast, completed scripted like a radio show, about how Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, with John Williams, created their massive films of the 1970s. How good is this series? When Lucas and Spielberg face challenges to their productions, you can't help but be worried for them...and we KNOW the answer! Check it out.

Book of the Week

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe. I bought this on Audible when it was a daily deal, but highly recommended...and I'm not even finished.

Song of the Week

Could it be anything other than the second single from Bruce Springsteen's new album? Just listen to the lush orchestration. And the chimes!

Friday, May 17, 2019

Spielberg, Lucas, and Williams: The Blockbuster Podcast as Old Time Radio

Aural perfection.

That's what I think about Blockbuster, the six-part podcast that focuses on the friendship of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in the 1970s. The third member of this revolutionary team was composer John Williams.

Look, I would have listened to a plain old podcast just reciting the events of these visionary directors in the 1970s as they created from whole cloth the blockbuster movie. I am part of the Star Wars generation. I never tire of hearing or watching World War II histories, so, too, do I never tire of hearing about 1970s film making.

But creator Matt Schrader went one better. He scripted this story as if it were an old time radio. Don't be fooled by this phrase. This movie-of-the-mind is utterly current, with the latest technology brought to the sound design, that makes me hopeful things like this might come around more often.

I can't even be sure how the podcast popped up on my radar in the last week or two, but it did. Five of the six episodes are available. Like I said, I'm a sucker for this stuff, but by the first few minutes of episode one and I was hooked. It is an excellent piece of craft, and the storytelling is rich and immersive.

How immersive? Well, when they get to late 1976 and early 1977 when each director faced massive challenges to complete their respective films, you're actually wondering if they'll get the movies done. In fact, in episode 4, there's a moment with the Star Wars production that actually made me swear under my breath...and I knew the end result!

The voice cast is stellar. I don't know their names, but the folks who bring Spielberg, Lucas to life, as well as their friends Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese are spot on. And don't get me started on the casting calls for Han Solo.

Heck, I even learned something about John Williams I never knew.

 I'm starting episode 4 later today on my home commute and I think episode six drops next week. It'll end up being a three-hour movie for your mind.

Just give it a listen. If you're even remotely interested in the stories of these two friends and rivals, you'll have a blast.


Now, I've listened to episode five, the one where the characters first hear the music John Williams composed for Star Wars. At the time, Lucas was quite depressed. He didn't think his movie would be very good. It wasn't well received by his small group of peers. The executives at Fox, including champion Alan Ladd, Jr., had all but given up and expected a flop.

There, Lucas sat in the recording studio in London. There, Williams stood on the podium, ready for that initial baton drop.

And the music started.

I've always been an easy cry, but just hearing this famous music in this one scene, knowing the stakes, it was emotional. Goosebumps and some extra tears behind the lids.

It was a great moment in this incredible series and in the history of cinema. That the creators of Blockbuster nailed it as well as they did is yet more proof how good this podcast series is.


Episode 6 dropped this morning and I couldn't wait for my morning commute.

And I was incredibly rewarded.

What makes Blockbuster so magical is the intimacy of the story. Now, in 2019, Lucas and Spielberg are legends, larger-than-life masters of film, but in the 1970s, they're just young directors trying to make things work despite uncountable challenges and setbacks. Matt Schrader wrote the scenes you wished you could have witnessed. Not the interviews or awards ceremonies, but the ones where George and Steve just talk. Brilliant.

The best thing about episode six, titled "May 25, 1977," is how the characters learn about the success of Star Wars. We know what happens, but George, Steve, and Marcia Lucas in Blockbuster don't. Wonderful. I actually had goosebumps ripple across my skin when Marcia looks across the street and realizes the line around the Chinese Theater is for "You're movie, George!"

A large part of this podcast series features the music of John Williams. Perhaps the best scene in the entire series was when George heard the Star Wars theme the first time. When you have Williams's music, I imagine it would be a difficult challenge to compose original music. But Ryan Taubert and Benjamin Botkin knocked it out of the park. There's a special magic when you watch movies like Star Wars, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, Superman, Jurassic Park, and Harry Potter 1 when the visuals on the silver screen and the music you hear instantly transport you. Taubert and Botkin nailed the intimate vibe of this series. How good is the music? If I didn't know any better, I would have sworn John Williams himself wrote the score.

It's one thing to have content like this available for free. But it's another thing entirely when, upon completing the entire broadcast, I happily headed over to their site and donated money. It's one of the best investments you can make. I can't wait to hear what comes next.

How good is this nearly three-hour Blockbuster podcast series? It's one of the best films of the year. Never mind that it's audio only. In some ways, that makes it better.

Well done, everyone involved with Blockbuster. Very well done.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Lawyer Lifeguard by James Patterson and Doug Allyn

Last year, after I read THE PRESIDENT IS MISSING by James Patterson and Bill Clinton, I wanted to read another Patterson book. There are a lot to choose from, so when I was at the grocery store a week ago, I made the choice of MURDER IN PARADISE. It’s a print collection of three of Patterson’s BookShots stories, quick reads that cost less than five dollars. The three stories in the collection all appeared in ebook first, so this was the first time in print. Of the three co-authors Patterson used, the only name I knew was Duane Swierczynski, which more than enough reason to buy the book. But Doug Allyn’s story, THE LAWYER LIFEGUARD, came first in the paperback and I read it.

Part of modern book description writing is to pose a question of the potential reader. For THE LAWYER LIFEGUARD, the title itself was the first intriguing piece. How do those two words go together? It’s almost a riff off of Michael Connelly’s THE LINCOLN LAWYER. Anyway, the initial question presented in the description was this: Are you the lawyer who got blown up with his girlfriend?  If I had seen the original standalone ebook, I would easily keep reading the description, but I’ll admit the rest of the description is all but mediocre. But what wasn’t mediocre was page one. It describes a seemingly idyllic scene on Lake Huron’s beach. The lawyer/survivor in question is there, taking in the scenes. And he’s holding a pistol, because he blames himself for his fiancée’s death. (By the way, the word ‘fiancée’ should have been used in the description versus ‘girlfriend.’) He’s wondering if the beach is the best place to kill himself when he notices a dog in the water. The poor thing has a ball in its mouth and its drowning. Instinct kicks in, and Brian Lord saves the dog. The various cell phones capture the moment and it goes viral.

And then Lord’s life really takes a nose dive.

The police question him about the car bomb that killed his fiancée. The main partner in his law firm shows up in the hospital to fire him in person. One of his client’s has a stalker ex-husband who just happens to be a state trooper who knows all the ins and outs of working the system. Things go from bad to worse as the story moves on at a rapid-fire pace.

One of Patterson’s initiatives with BookShots is to have a compelling story boiled down to its essence. And that’s pretty much the case here. Little pieces of description almost act as short hand. The reader fills in the gaps of how certain characters look. Short chapters propel the story forward. I finished the 152-page story in two sittings. That in itself is rather nifty, and likely what Patterson is after with things like BookShots. With so many choices available to folks—movies, TV, video games, internet—having a large book might seem too daunting. But few people should shy away from a 152-page book.

THE LAWYER LIFEGUARD has some pretty good twists and turns and, most important of all, I was entertained. I was happy to turn away from the TV for those two reading sessions. Granted, I’m a reader so I’m an easy mark, but this is the kind of book that might get a non-reader to open a book and read. And that’s a great thing.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Replay by Ken Grimwood

(With a certain famous movie out recently dealing with time travel, I thought I'd post a review of a book that takes a different look at what it would really be like to go back.)
What if your life had a reset button, just like the old Nintendo game consoles? Would you push that button?
First published in 1986, Ken Grimwood’s REPLAY asks that very question and provides one answer. Jeff Winston is a 43-year-old man, a journalist by trade, with a marriage that has meandered off course. One day, sitting in his office, Jeff dies of a heart attack. The next moment, he wakes up in his college dorm room. It’s May 1963 at Emory University in Atlanta. As bewildered as he is, he slowly comes to the conclusion that—somehow, someway—he is living his life over again, but with one huge caveat: He remembers everything from Life Prime, or Life 1.
Seeing this as an opportunity to “get things right,” Jeff decides he’s going to get rich, quick. He bets on a horse race, one in which the outcome nobody saw coming, and makes a substantial amount of money. Next, he convinces a friend—one who committed suicide in Life 1—to journey with him to Las Vegas where he wins even more cash. He also finds a pretty young lady, one you wouldn’t necessarily want to take home to the parents on Thanksgiving, but one who wants nothing more than to quench the lust of the young and spend a lot of money. Isn’t that what every 18-year-old wants? For Jeff, the answer is yes.
Until he wonders if he can change the course of history. It’s summer 1963. Later that fall, President Kennedy will be assassinated, but only Jeff knows where and when. So he does what any Baby Boomer would do: try and stop it. He concocts a fake letter as if from Lee Harvey Oswald and sends it to the White House. Naturally, the Secret Service arrest Oswald days before the 22nd of November. And, yet, Kennedy still dies. The shooter now has a different name.
If you read the description at your favorite bookstore, I’m giving away nothing away when I say that when Life 2 Jeff Winston reaches his 43rd year, he dies again. And again he wakes up at Emory University, May 1963. Only this time, Life 3 is a little past where Life 2 began. All that he knew in Life 1 and Life 2 is still intact in his memory, yet Life 2 is erased from history. Now, Jeff has another 25-year life to live, but this time, it’ll be different. But he’s already starting to realize that on that particular day in his 43rd year, he’ll die yet again. Perhaps, however, he can do something about that. He tries certain things, but I’ll leave you to read and discover the outcome.
This book is simply marvelous. It was a selection of my science fiction/fantasy book club, an informal gathering of five guys that has gone on for seven years. I didn’t select the book, but it’s already in my Top 10. While this book might be classified as fantasy, there is no magic. For all intents and purposes, this is a standard fiction book with the one conceit. Jeff makes his choices and has to live with the consequences. What really makes this book shine is the length to which Grimwood details Life 2 and Life 3. In Life 2, Grimwood has Jeff Winston make the obvious choice many of us would make: I want a life with more money. Jeff reaches a certain conclusion, so that when he starts Life 3, he makes different choices. I’d say that Life 2 and Life 3 take up at least half the book, maybe two-thirds (I listened to the audio). That time really allows the reader to become immersed in Jeff’s world and gives the reader the opportunity to ask the big question: If you could relive your life over again, what, if anything, would you do different?
This book asks so many deep questions of the reader. One is about the nature of history and typical time travel stories. The central idea of time travel is that a person can go back into the past and change history. That’s what Marty McFly did in “Back to the Future.” (As an aside, I can’t help but wonder if the writers of Back to the Future II read REPLAY or if betting on sure winners is just standard fare in time travel stories.) But what if the flow of history is too great a force to overcome? That’s where REPLAY goes. Jeff gets Lee Harvey Oswald arrested, but someone else kills Kennedy. Thus, was Kennedy always destined to die in Dallas? In Grimwood’s version, yes.
REPLAY is one of the best books I’ve read this year. My historian self reveled in the minor details Grimwood changed. My reader self loved diving deep into a character’s mind and seeing him through many lives. I was also richly rewarded with the ending, the nature of which I’ll detail below in an “EPILOGUE.” There will be spoilers, so if you don’t want to know the ending, stop reading now.
You know I love this book. You should give it a try.
Oh, and I have my answer to the first question I posed. Do you?

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Chicago 17: Thirty Five Years On

Thirty five years ago today, I was not even aware of the band Chicago, so I had no clue about their seventeenth album. But when I finally discovered them the next year, Chicago 17 was the first record I bought.

The New Approach Paid Off

Chicago 17 was the second album produced by David Foster. He had come on board for 1982's Chicago 16, changing the band's sound to match the new trends for the 1980s. I've often wondered what it was like for long time fans to hear the opening song from 16, "What You're Missing," and the brand-new, polished, and slick style. That record included "Hard To Say I'm Sorry," the mega hit, so when it came time to record 17, the band did more of the same.

Singer and bassist Peter Cetera was again front and center, co-writing five of the ten tracks. He either sings lead or is featured on seven of the album's songs. Foster knew how to make hit records, however, so no matter the costs, the band continued to ride their wave of popularity, this time to an even greater degree.

The Songs: Side One

"Stay the Night" opens the albums with drummer Danny Serephine's snare hits, laced, as probably every drum sound was in the 80s, with reverb galore. The propulsive song, with quarter-note synthesizer, was the first single, a brave move considering the band was probably most known for ballads by the spring of 1984. Absent from this tune are the trademark Chicago horns, but guitarist Chris Pinnick really nails the solo, which could have been featured on any pop metal track that year.

"We Can Stop the Hurtin'' comes next and with it, the return of the types of songs featured early in the band's career: Robert Lamm as a vocalist, his social consciousness, and the Chicago horns: Walt Parazaider on sax, Jimmy Pankow on trombone, and Lee  Loughnane on trumpet. This is a traditional Chicago song, just filtered through the all the current trends of the 1980s: sequenced drums and synths. Even when I first heard 17 back in 1985, I knew the hits, but it was songs like "We Can Stop the Hurtin'" to which the band geek that I was gravitated. Again, for those fans from the early days, this must have been a welcome sound.

"Hard Habit to Break" was the second single and the first duet of the album. Cetera trades vocals with soulful Bill Champlin who had joined the band in 1981 to fill the deeper soulful voice vacancy of Terry Kath. While not written by any member of Chicago, it included all the best elements of the band for an excellent ballad that, over the years, became my preferred ballad from this record. Everything an 80s ballad needs is in this song.

"Only You" is that rare Lamm/Champlin duet. Throw in Cetera's prominent voice for a few transitional phrases and you have a triple vocal, another hallmark of the early years of the band. (I'm thinking "What is This World Comin' To?" from Chicago VI) Given the fact Cetera leaves after this album and "Only You" is the only triple vocal from this line up. The horn break is slight, but at least it's there. A nice album track, but, alas, the last time we'll hear Lamm's voice in the lead. Interestingly, as I've listened again to this album while writing this review, this is the song I keep singing.

Side one concludes with another ballad, "Remember the Feeling." Here, Foster and Cetera and in full-on ballad mode, with lush strings and solo piano. Say what you want about the band's direction and the choices they made, but Cetera can belt out a ballad performance with the best singers out there. One aspect I've grown annoyed with over the years--and it's not just Chicago that does this--is to have lead singer Cetera be his own backing singer. I would have enjoyed hearing Champlin and Lamm's voices (like you do with Hard Habit to Break) adding warmth to Cetera's crystal clear tenor. I've always linked this song with Chicago 16's "Love Me Tomorrow." Not sure why.

The Songs: Side Two

Starting off the second side with another uptempo song, Chicago again reminds listeners that they can do things other than slow songs and do it well. "Along Comes a Woman" is a stripped down tune, full of Serephine's sixteenth-note hit hat keeping things moving along. When you listen with headphones, you can hear Pinnick's guitar mimicking Cetera's vocals in the verse. It's a rather simple tune that I've always loved, especially the horn break.

It's also my favorite video the band ever made. Chicago did not make great videos, but in the MTV era, they had to. "Stay the Night" was humorous, but with "Along Comes a Woman," it was a take off the movie Casablanca with Cetera as Bogart.

"You're the Inspiration" was the massive hit off this album, and it's about as 80s as you can imagine. This tune would have been at home on any movie soundtrack. 80s synths, power ballad guitars, that particular riff, and Cetera's vocals all combine for a great song. For me, it's not one I return to often, but when I do, boy am I thrilled to hear it. This song is probably the textbook case of how to make a soft-rock ballad, complete with key change. In 1997, the group Az-Yet re-recorded the song, bringing their harmonies to bear, and it is glorious, especially the version where Cetera joins them.

"Please Hold On" was the first song I could remember actually having different versions on the CD and the LP. I owned both back in the day, and always attributed it to the space considerations on the actual LP. I prefer the longer version (only a bridge), but this is a terrific Champlin song. Propulsive with the synth bass, soulful in delivery, and featuring the horns, this is a tune that I always think about when I think of 17. It's one of my favorite Champlin-in-Chicago songs.

"Prima Donna" is an uptempo, guitar-driven song that fans of the band circa 1972 might've recognized as Chicago. Cetera sings lead and the horns are all over the place. Over the years, I've found myself drawn more to the faster songs rather than the ballads, and when I make a compilation CD or a playlist, this tune (most of the time) makes the cut.

"Once in a Lifetime" is a very 80s, synth-heavy song that nevertheless sounds like Chicago. Champlin sings on the verses while Cetera takes the choruses. You've even got a power ballad guitar in the mix, and the horns get one last good horn break that, one realizes, bears more than a passing resemblance to the horn breaks of "Here With Me" (1992) and "Free" (2006). Well, when something is good, it's always good. Great way to end an album.

Original Ownership

I've mentioned here before that I discovered Chicago in 1985 via the first greatest hits collection. Once I heard this band, I knew I wanted more. Turned out I already owned Chicago 17. How? Well, remember the days of the Columbia music service? You got 12 albums for a penny. Somehow, I ended up picking (or was given? The memory is hazy) Chicago 17, but hadn't listened to the album yet. What this likely tells me is that must have heard one of the songs on the radio and got the album. But I never put two and two together. Weird. Later in the 80s, I ended up getting the CD, but felt no compunction to get the remastered version in 2006.

How Chicago 17 Stacks Up 

Chicago 17 is the biggest album of the band's career. Arguably, it gave them the push they needed to keep making records. I think it's safe to assume the band would have continued touring, but the success of 17 enabled them to maintain a formula for the rest of the 1980s. Granted, they'd tire of the formula and try for something different (Stone of Sisyphus) and we know how that turned out.

In the 1980s, I preferred the sound of the band at that time, but as time went on, I gravitated away from the 80s sound. My favorite 80s record is Chicago 19, and I rank it in my Top 5 with CTA, II, V, and SOS. But Chicago 17 was the perfect album for the band at the perfect time. They built upon the successful re-imagining of themselves with Chicago 16 and continued it with Chicago 18. Of the three David Foster produced albums, I prefer 17 the most (although my heart is with 18, the first new record after I discovered the band). The production is crystal clear, not muddy, and I've quite enjoyed listening to it as a whole this week.

Yes, one can grumble at the lack or horns or Lamm's vocals or Cetera backing himself, but given where the band was in 1983-84, this was a great group of musicians working to make the best possible songs. And they knocked it out of the park. I can't imagine anyone who loves the music of not only the 1980s but Chicago itself not enjoying Chicago 17.

It is an 1980s masterpiece.