Monday, September 27, 2021

Chicago 18 at 35

For any fan, there is always the first, that one special album, and Chicago 18 is the one for me.


My Journey to Chicago 18


I was introduced to Chicago by my friend, Chris, in the summer of 1985 when he loaned me a cassette copy of Chicago IX with the memorable phrase “You'll probably know half the songs and like the rest.” Well, I knew none of the tunes, but fell in love with the band on first listen.


What came next was obvious: I started collecting Chicago albums. Chicago 17 was the obvious next choice as it was ending its year-long run on the charts. Chicago 16, featuring its famous ballads, soon followed as did Chicago II. It was with that latter, 1970-era album that I discovered why the new album was named “17” and learned the band had quite a number of styles to its name.


But this was 1985. I was smack dab in the middle of high school and I didn't get all the political stuff featured on those early albums. I loved the music. Well, most of it. At the time, I didn't take too kindly to songs like “Free Form Guitar” or “Liberation” by this guy, Terry Kath, who was no longer in the band. In fact, without the internet, I can't even remember how I learned his fate, but I knew the fate of Peter Cetera, the seeming front man for this new band I loved.


He was leaving Chicago.


What the heck? I had just joined Chicago's fandom and the lead guy's leaving? What would that mean for the future of the band? Would there even be a next album, presumably titled “18”? Without social media or the internet, my high school band group, all of whom loved Chicago, would just have to wait.


The New Single (which was an old song)


Flash forward to August 1986. My love of Chicago had done nothing but grown. I can't remember all the albums I owned by that point, but by scouring used record stores, I had expanded to include III. I even put the poster on my wall, the one of the band sitting in the military cemetery.


I had purchased the single (either the actual 45 or the cassette version) of “25 or 6 to 4,” a remake of a classic tune. During a break from summer band rehearsal, Chris, our friend Richard, and I piled into my 1973 Dodge Dart and I slipped in the song to the cassette deck. Out came the first new Chicago song for any of us since 1984 (Chris already had Chicago 17 and none of us had yet purchased the We are the World album with “Good for Nothing” on it). More importantly for me, this was the very first new song I had heard by this new-to-me band.


I remember us digging the tune quite a bit, but there was still a slight hesitancy. As horn players ourselves, we wondered if the famous Chicago horns would be featured more like the old days or relegated to the background like on the two most recent records. Well, all we had to do was play the flip side. “One More Day” blared through the speakers and, almost as one, we three shouted “Now that's Chicago!”


Buying That First New Chicago Album


Wikipedia tells me that the official release date for Chicago 18 is 29 September 1986 (a Monday), but I can assure you I bought it on a bright and sunny Saturday, 27 September. How can I remember it so clearly? Well, life events seared this date and this album into my own personal memory.


By 1986, I had gone something like three years with weekend trips across Houston to visit my grandpa, have breakfast with him, mow his lawn, have some lunch, and have him overpay me for my efforts. Isn't that what grandparents are supposed to do? After lunch, I headed over to the Sound Warehouse near his house and there it was, Chicago 18, on cassette.


Now, my fifty-two-year-old brain is trying to sift through memories. I own the 1986-era CD version but I no longer own the cassette. I’m pretty sure I bought the cassette that September day thirty-five years ago, so we’ll just go with that. But later, when I bought the CD that came in the longbox, I cut up the cardboard and used it to decorate my room and, later, dorm room walls.


The Music


With only two songs on the initial single, that meant I had eight brand-new songs to hear. I had pretty much internalized both the new “25 or 6 to 4” and “One More Day” by 27 September so I had an inkling of what to expect. Right out of the gate, the new guy gets to shine.


“Niagara Falls” opens the album with that triplet rhythm. The sound is soaked in Peak 80s synth, something I loved at the time. Probably at the behest of producer David Foster, Jason Scheff sounded more like Peter Cetera than he, Scheff, probably wanted to, but that was the gig in 1986. Danny Serephine’s drums are also largely programmed as was many of the percussion in the mid-80s. Complimenting Scheff’s initial vocal is veteran Bill Champlin, then on his third Chicago album.


In light of my commentary on the sequencing of Chicago XIV, it’s interesting on listening to Chicago 18 all the way through for the first time in a long time that Champlin doesn’t have a lead vocal until track 7, and then only two on the entire album. But by 1986, all the main hits Chicago had in that decade featured the high tenor of Cetera, with “Hard Habit To Break” being the only exception, so it makes sense. It also points to the next album where Champlin would finally get the spotlight on him.


“Forever” is Robert Lamm’s first song of the album. Much like nearly every Lamm-penned tune over the band’s fifty-four-year history, Lamm’s soaring vocals are always complimented by the Chicago horns. It also features not only the first extended horn break of the album, but a fantastic tenor sax solo by Walt Paraziader.


“If She Would Have Been Faithful” comes in a track 3, the usual first single spot for many an 80s album. A power ballad the likes of which Foster and Chicago are renown for, Scheff and Champlin shine on their vocal delivery. The guitar work—especially that short solo before the bridge—is stellar, the horns, and the overall orchestral vibe make this a standout. I always loved that little stinger towards the end before they start repeating the chorus, and Scheff’s high vocals on “missed out on you” are great,” but one of the best things on Chicago 18 is how this song ends and the next begins.


With no silence between tracks, “25 or 6 to 4” begins on the downbeat right after the last note from “If She Would Have Been Faithful” concludes. I enjoy this reimagining of the then sixteen-year-old song. The brass additions are fun, but that metal-like guitar solo is fantastic.


When it comes to arranged songs by Chicago, “Will You Still Love Me?” is arguably one of the best. There is an ethereal quality to Scheff’s vocals that would work well had this song been played by an orchestra. Champlin again compliments with his deeper baritone. One of my favorite ballads the band has ever done.


Lamm opens Side 2 with “Over and Over,” another song with Lamm singing long, lofty notes over the rhythm. Again, Champlin serves as a sideman here, throwing his vocals judiciously, making this one of two (?) songs—“Only You” being the other—where Champlin and Lamm co-sing.


Finally, with “It’s Alright,” Champlin gets to sing lead. It’s a fun song with a group chorus that is primed and ready for in-concert audience sing-a-long.


Horn players James Pankow (trombone), Lee Loughnane (trumpet), and Parazaider probably became irritated as they were sidelined in the 1980s in favor of the hornless or horn-lite songs, so they threw on “Free Flight,” as a short interlude to remind listeners about the thing that make Chicago unique on the rock landscape. Yet it leads directly into another ballad, the first Scheff-penned song for the band. “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is a good tune that features the horns, Scheff’s excellent bass playing on the upper frets, all coated in that Foster-mandated synth gloss.


Speaking of 80s-era synth sounds, “I Believe” is drenched with it. Champin’s second lead vocal also serves as the first true duet with Scheff. Taking nothing away from the Cetera/Champlin or Cetera/Kath, but the vocals of Champlin/Scheff seem to meld together a bit more seamlessly. Now, one might argue that this similarity lends itself to a listener wondering when one guy stops singing and the other guy starts (see “Bethlehem” from the second Christmas album), but I have always enjoyed how well these two vocalists sing together.


Speaking of singing together, Chicago 18 boasts one of the few triple-vocals in the entire discography. “One More Day” not only has Lamm, Champlin, and Scheff trading off singing, but it’s got a great horn break. It also brings back some of that social consciousness so prominent in the early days. Just like that afternoon in August 1986 when my friends and I heard this tune for the first time, this is classic Chicago circa 1986.


It took years for me to learn this, but there was one more song recorded for Chicago 18 but never released. In fact, I heard it first on Lamm’s 1995 solo album Life is Good in My Neighborhood. “When Will the World Be Like Lovers?” is another triple-vocal tune, co-written by Lamm, with lyrics lamenting the state of the world. A kick-ass short guitar solo leads to an outro laced with horns and a lyric callback to the song “Beginnings”. I loved this tune as soon as I heard it and wished it would have landed on the official album. Back then, however, when you had three formats available, the LP still dictated how long an album could be. Not sure there was space enough for an eleventh song or if Foster thought this song was too similar to “One More Day,” but WWTWBLL went unreleased. You can find it online.


The Verdict and What Chicago 18 Means to Me


As the years have passed, my infatuation with the sound of music from the 1980s has waned. I’m talking the synth-fueled pop tunes of that decade versus the hair metal or heavier songs. I don’t dislike those kinds of songs, but I also never seek them out either. Over time, my favorite Chicago album of the 1980s has become Chicago 19, largely because the band had parted from David Foster and his style and sound of producing. It gave the guys in the band, especially Scheff, space to breathe and try something a bit different, and that difference mattered to me. Sure there are ballads on 19, but they just sound a bit edgier than those from 16-18. The horns are higher in the mix on 19, and Champlin simply shines. That album also features my favorite 80s-era song, “You’re Not Alone,” a hornless rocker the irony of which is not lost on me.


Chicago 18 has fallen out of my Top 10 favorite Chicago albums. Even in 1986, I still had new albums to discover in their back catalog. I honestly can’t remember the last album from the older discography I finally bought, but I think it was either XI or XIV. As you can imagine (or even remember in your own journey of discovery of Chicago), with each new/old album you hear, it jockeys for position in the Top 10. Eventually, I enjoyed more albums to a greater degree than Chicago 18 and it never recovered. The truth of that fact is that, in preparing for this piece, I listened to the album all the way through for the first time in forever.


But I still love a core set of tunes from Chicago 18 and I have eight of the eleven (I include WWTWBLL on my iTunes) songs on my phone’s playlist (NF, NGSUN, and IB don’t make the cut). Side 1 is all but perfect. Heck, every album from 16-19 has a great Side 1. Just imagine if those four sides were packaged as a double album.


Circling back to my personal history with Chicago 18, you might remember that I know for certain I bought this album thirty-five years ago today. Not sure how Sound Warehouse put the album out early (if Wikipedia is to be trusted) but they did.


September 27 is my mom’s birthday and it’s always good to remember your mom’s birthday. But that September weekend in 1986 was also homecoming. My first girlfriend and I had been dating well over a year by that point. As a senior, it was my last homecoming game as a student. I had my eyes set on attending the University of Texas at Austin and joining the Longhorn Band (done and done) and becoming a lawyer (not done, much to my happiness). How awesome was it to have homecoming, Saturday morning with your grandpa, your mom’s birthday, and the new Chicago album all released on the same weekend?


Well, it was great, until Sunday morning. That was when my girlfriend’s mom informed her the family was moving from Houston to Pittsburgh in a week. Thankfully, the mom had kept that news from her daughter and me so that homecoming could be celebrated without that dark cloud hanging over everything. But after the news broke and our hearts were ripped out of our chests, songs like “Forever” and “Will You Still Love Me” took on a greater meaning.


I can listen to these tunes now and not think about that time. Thirty-five years of additional life memories will do that for you. But it also marks the double-edged significance this album holds for me. In fact, in a recent 2021 interview, I experienced something similar. Trombonist James Pankow dropped the news that the band used the pandemic lockdown to get in the studio and record new songs for a brand-new Chicago album. The elation that erupted through me—complete with a yell of triumph heard throughout the house—instantly grew somber as he went on in the next sentence to state that’ll it likely be the band’s last album. It’s understandable for a band that’s nearly fifty-five years old featuring founding members in their seventies, but the news still stings.


Yet the music of Chicago 38 will live on, just as the music of Chicago 18 has lived on these past thirty-five years. Happy birthday mom, and happy anniversary to my first-ever new Chicago album.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Process and a Podcast

There must be something in the air this week, because a good number of the writers I follow on Twitter had writing challenges. I did, too, but there is a solution.

On Thursday, Texan Jeff Abbott tweeted this:

“writing early this morning, i had been pondering since last night how to fix a chapter opening, had no good idea, sat down to the chapter, in desperation typed three sentences, character-driven solution presented itself to my weary brain, onward”

Later the same day, Bryon Quertermous had a short thread, the last of which contained this little nugget:

 “Writing can cause so many problems, but almost every time, the solution to a writing problem is to write through it. 5/5”

As for me, I’d been suffering a lazy streak. Part of it certainly had to do with how to craft the beginning of my next chapter. I had struggled to end the previous chapter in a satisfactory way, so I just ended it. The subconscious must’ve festered on my dissatisfaction with that ending because it kept hindering my forward progress.

Until this week. As a writer with a day job, I’m time locked with my writing time. I also hadn’t been doing my exercises as often as I needed to and it’s lack was catching up to me. So I did the most basic thing in the world: Gave myself no excuses. I compelled myself to wake at 5am, get on the rowing machine within five minutes of waking, and after a brisk ten-minute session, sat at my computer and wrote.

Guess what? The words came, fast and furious, until I had to stop and get ready for work. I didn’t mind, really. I had accomplished something. Two things, in fact. I had cleared my mind of the block that hampered my writing as well as the exercise. That was a great day.

No matter the writer, no matter how many stories the writer has completed, there will always be days in which the stuff just doesn’t happen. The brain might be wonky or filled up with life’s clutter. It’s going to happen, so it’s best not to get upset about it.

But there is a way to mitigate the hangups: Rely on the process. Don’t wait for inspiration. For nearly all of us, that means getting in front of our screens and doing the work. When we’re there, inspiration will come. It always does.

My First Podcast Interview

This process of always being available is part of my writing life on which I constantly rely. It’s one of the things Paul Bishop and I discuss in my first-ever podcast interview. It dropped this week and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Have a listen.

Or use this link to get the episode in your preferred podcast-listening app.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

My Interview on the Six Gun Justice Podcast

I'm an avid podcast listener, so it thrills me to say that I'm actually on a podcast!

Paul Bishop of the Six Gun Justice podcast interviewed me recently and the episode dropped today. You can download the episode on the podcast app of your choice--I use Overcast--or listen in a browser at this link

In the conversation, Paul and I discuss westerns, how I came to write my first book, the writing process overall, and Cash Laramie and the Sundown Express, my first collaboration with Edward A. Grainger, featuring the teaming up of his characters and my own Calvin Carter, Railroad Detective.


Saturday, September 18, 2021

Favorite Movies and TV Shows Featuring Trains

Earlier this week, over at the Western Fictioneers blog, I posted this column. It served as a fun list of my personal favorite movies and TV shows that feature trains, but it also revealed the cover of an upcoming collaboration with David Cranmer, aka Edward A. Grainger.


When you think of what makes a western a western, railroads and trains naturally make it onto the Top 10 list. They may not be in the Top 5, but they certainly play a significant role. I know they did when it came time for me to write my own western stories, especially with the creation of Calvin Carter, Railroad Detective. You see? It's right there in his title.

David and I emerged on the scene more or less at the same time, now over a decade ago. We each ended up creating a western hero. He created Cash Laramie, the Outlaw Marshal, who, along with his partner, Gideon Miles, deal with outlaws and desperadoes wherever they rear their ugly heads. For me, I spawned Calvin Carter, a former actor who, in the course of tracking down the man who killed Carter's father, learned he had a knack for detecting. He often dons disguises and uses his acting abilities to bring a certain amount of flair to the role of his lifetime.

A while back, David suggested we team up our heroes and, after a decade of stops and starts, the first pairing of Cash and Carter will be published this fall. In Cash Laramie and the Sundown Express, owlhoots have hijacked the inaugural run of the fastest train in the west, and it's up to Cash and Miles to retake the train. Unbeknownst to them, Carter is on board, in disguise, as he, too, attempts to thwart the hijackers while saving the passengers, including the renowned actress Lillie Langtry.

David thought it a fun idea if I made a list of favorite trains in movies and TV. I agreed, but then quickly realized something. Not only did my list almost instantly get filled with non-western ideas, but some of the more well known westerns to feature trains were movies or TV shows with which I am not familiar. Thus, you won't find Hell on Wheels on this list because I simply haven't watched it. And while I have watched both versions of 3:10 to Yuma, I can't speak with any authority because I can't remember a lot of the plot. 

So, with these caveats in mind, here's my list.

The Great Train Robbery (1978)

If I'm being honest, this might be the first heist film I ever saw. From the opening of Sean Connery's voiceover explaining how the gold is transported and secured, you sit on the edge of your seat wondering if he and his team will pull off the robbery from a moving train. 

Many of the scenes I first saw in my youth remained with me, but two always rose to the top. The ending, when Connery's Pierce, escapes on the police carriage as he was destined for jail, smiling all the way, his arms extended in a sort of bow, really stuck with me. Only now that I think of it do I think a part of Carter's DNA must have emerged from Connery's performance.

The other scene that has always stuck with me is Donald Sutherland's Agar as he runs into the train office and makes wax impressions of the keys, all within 75 seconds. I was enthralled by that kind of thinking and ingenuity. I think this film might've set the stage for my continued enjoyment of heist films, and it undoubtedly enamored me with the charming con man.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

I only saw this film for the first time this century as it is my wife's favorite western. And really, what more is there to say about this Sergio Leone epic that hasn't already been said? Ennio Morricone's score is brilliant, giving the film not only its epic feel but saying, through music, how the modern world is encroaching on the frontier in the form of the railroad.

I appreciate how the locomotive and the building of the railroad serve as the central character in this film, a character that is, in effect, the march of time and we people must adjust to it or get out of the way. And, unlike many westerns that feature railroads, it was a dirty, hot, and mind-numbingly brutal job, but a job that needed to be done, no matter the cost. Of all of Leone's films, this one remains a favorite.

From Russia With Love

I love James Bond and nearly all of his films, but as I've gotten older, I've become more interested in the movies with smaller stakes. This film, the second in the franchise, has a pretty spectacular train sequence that the historian in me loves. 

After Bond and Tatiana Romanova have escaped with the Lektor cryptograph machine, they flee on one of the most famous trains: the Orient Express. In these scenes in the middle of the film, you get to see what it was like to travel in style in what is probably the last major decade where train travel was considered a viable economic means of transportation before planes surpassed it.

Key to my enjoyment of the train sequence is the fight between Bond and Red Grant (Robert Shaw). It is the close confines of a train compartment that give the fight its brutal nature. No gadgets, just fists and brawn and brains. A different Bond (Roger Moore) would again fight in a train (Moonraker), but this Sean Connery version--look at that; two Connery films--is my favorite.

The Wild Wild West

No discussion of westerns and railroads would be complete without a mention of The Wanderer, the train and tricked out rail car of James West and Artemus Gordon. Again, TWWW was my first, favorite western TV show. Being a Star Wars kid, I loved the gadgets, the steampunk-before-steampunk-was-a-thing vibe, and West and Gordon's "home." No matter how many time owlhoots or Dr. Miguelito Loveless boarded the train, you knew there was something the Secret Service agents could do to get themselves out of any predicament. 

Not only the gadgets, but I also appreciated how there was science equipment for Gordon to do his investigations and his disguises. 

Like the bridge of Star Trek's Enterprise, so many episodes either began or ended on board The Wanderer that it became a crucial component of a wonderfully entertaining TV show.

Back to the Future: Part III

When David asked me the question about railroads in the old west, this is the first one that came to mind. 

I consider the first film to be one of those perfect films not only as a time capsule of its time, but the storytelling mechanics within the movie itself. The second one gave us three looks: their future (2015, now our past), an alternate 1985, and a trippy return to the events of the 1955-part of the first film. 

But I have a special love for Part III. Set almost entirely in the old west, director Robert Zemeckis basically made a western that held true to all the aspects we have come to love about westerns, but with a twist. Doc Brown not only makes a steam-powered ice machine but he also gets a delightful love story.

Act III's central action sequence is on a train, one they have to get up to 88 MPH as it pushes the futuristic Delorean down the tracks and back to the future. Plus we get a spectacular crash as the locomotive in 1888 falls off the incomplete bridge and crashes into Eastwood Ravine.

As fun as that is, however, it's in the movie's closing moments when we get a truly over-the-top train. Doc Brown, his wife, and two boys (Jules and Verne) return to 1985 to say good-bye to Marty McFly in a *flying train*. 

Mic. Drop

Well, those are my favorite trains in movies and TV. What about yours?

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Ignore the Scoreboard: A Writing Process

The NFL season kicked off on Thursday of this week, but I was already prepared because of Peter King.

For many years now, a NFL weekend is not complete until I read King’s Monday column. And they are long. Wonderfully so. He covers the weekend’s action, what he’s reading, what beer he likes, tales from the road, and other non-sports pieces as well in a segment he dubs “10 Things I Think I Think.”

On Monday, King commented on a recent article with Nick Saban, the head football coach at Alabama.

“I think I learned something about Nick Saban in his enlightening interview with Alan Blinder of the New York Times. Saban’s a lot more malleable as a coach than I thought. Listen to him about how his approach to coaching has changed:

“The biggest thing that has changed for me — and you might be shocked when I say this — is that I’ve actually become, through the years and through the experiences, a lot less outcome-oriented and a lot more process-oriented. I think that approach carries over to the players because then they become less outcome-oriented, and they’re more focused on process, they’re more focused on one play at a time, exactly what do I have to do and how do I have to do it, what’s going to help me be successful here, and they’re not looking at the scoreboard like we’ve got to win the game. They’re focusing on one play at a time.”

King then continued:

“I think that reminds me so much of what Drew Brees told me a couple of years ago, when I asked him what advice he’d have for your quarterbacks. In effect, Brees said, Ignore the scoreboard. Think about making every play the best it can be. Worrying about the scoreboard distracts from the only thing you can control—the next play. Great advice for football, and for life.”

And great advice for us writers.

The scoreboard for us is when the book is published and some of us might obsess about Amazon reviews or how our book is doing with readers. All things we cannot control and over which we have zero power.

To keep the football analogy going, the next play for us writers could be something as small as the next chapter or as large as the next book. Keep your focus localized to your own work and let the scoreboard take care of itself.

Because every now and then, you’ll fumble the ball and produce a book folk won’t enjoy even if you loved it and poured your heart into it. But at the same time, there will be those days when you publish a story everyone loves and the confetti will cascade down from the rafters.

Be mindful of both moments.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Reading Aloud to Improve Your Writing

Over at DoSomeDamage, I read Jay's blog from yesterday and I thoroughly enjoyed his bonus content where he posted a video of him reading a chapter of his latest work in progress. (I really loved that one of the characters shared my name.) 

Anyway, I loved it so much...that I did the same thing. 

It's a fundamental truth in writing that if you read your prose and dialogue aloud, you will hear errors your eyes miss. It'll also help your character to sound more natural. 

So, here you go: me reading a random chapter (actually the latest) of my current manuscript. (Boy, did YouTube select an awkward image of me.)