In November 2015, Debbie and I had the privilege of visiting Pearl Harbor. It was a cloudy day with intermittent sprinkles. The exhibit docents took great pains to remind each tour group that they were visiting a gravesite, and to comport ourselves with that in mind. Our group didn’t seem to require the caution, as we milled quietly about on the U.S.S. Arizona memorial after the journey across the harbor.
The experience was every bit as emotional as you would imagine, as we all thought of the young men whose names were inscribed on the memorial wall, many of them just teenagers.
What affected me most was a video of divers taking a waterproof urn containing the ashes of a recently deceased Arizona veteran into the wreck. I thought of how these men made it through the war, went home, married, raised families and had careers, but that Sunday morning in 1941 remained such a part of them, that when the end of their lives came, the thing they wanted most of all was to be return to their friends who never had that privilege.
I will always spend a few minutes on December 7 to contemplate and honor their sacrifice.
The Mannheim Steamroller is bringing its Christmas show to Cedar Rapids again this year. And it’s special, because 2021 is the thirty-fifth anniversary of the release of “Christmas,” their first holiday album, a collection that completely changed how people listened to Christmas music.
And it’s all thanks to me. Because I was the first person to play Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas album on the radio.
Yep. To the best of my knowledge, at least, the former WMT-FM (now a country station) was the first station anywhere to put that record on the air.
And if you were around Cedar Rapids back then, you heard that music pretty much before anyone else in the world. Even before a lot of the people in Omaha, where the group got started.
I was familiar with the Mannheim Steamroller from their Fresh Aire series of albums, which founder Chip Davis, at one time a high school orchestra teacher, had originally conceived as a way to mix rock and roll rhythms with classical forms to make orchestral music more accessible to his students.
Heck, I actually go back even farther than that. I saw the “Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant Band,” the name Davis and his Steamroller compatriots played under when they were C.W. McCall’s backup band. Yes, that’s the Mannheim Steamroller playing behind the Seventies anthem, “Convoy.”
Anyway, we were so taken with “Christmas” at 96 1/12 FM that we went a little nuts. I think we played every tune on the album. WMT-AM, at that time also a music station, got into the act as well.
Months later, I chatted with a rep from American Gramophone, the Mannheim Steamroller’s record label, who confided to me that their statistics showed an unusually high concentration of album sales in Cedar Rapids. I told her I knew why.
And the album’s success in Cedar Rapids was what catapulted it into pop culture, changing holiday music forever, and giving Chip Davis a pretty nice retirement nest egg.
OK, maybe that’s pushing it. But regardless, we were first. So whether they know it or not, when Mannheim Steamroller plays Cedar Rapids, they’re coming back to the place where it all started.
Trombonist Curtis Fuller passed away on May 8. The New York Times posted this remembrance.
Here is my memory of the jazz great.
In 2002, Curtis Fuller appeared at the Iowa City Jazz Festival as a part of “Legends of the Bandstand,” with Cedar Walton, Ray Drummond, Louis Hayes, and David “Fathead” Newman. One by one, we have lost these legends, except Drummond and Hayes.
As I was preparing to introduce the group, Curtis comes up to me and asks “You know how to introduce a jazz band, right?”
A little non-plussed, I asked him what he meant. He then explained that the proper etiquette was to introduce the front line, then the rhythm section. He may have even specified Sax, Trumpet, Trombone, Piano, Bass, Drums, although I don’t specifically recall that part.
Regardless, I followed his instructions and to this day, when I introduce a jazz band, that’s the order I use. And each time, I thank Curtis Fuller for making sure I knew how to do the job.
To say that Roger Zelazny’s Amber books were an influence on me is like saying Donald Trump doesn’t care to admit when he’s wrong.
I’ve just completed what has become an annual winter tradition: a re-read/re-listen to all ten books, usually while shoveling snow and hanging Christmas lights.
“Nine Princes in Amber” was published in 1970. I probably stumbled on it in 1973 or 1974, which means I’ve read the series something on the order of thirty times. It is the single greatest influence on “Traveler,” both in its sardonic, first-person narrative style, and overall theme. Trav’s mental process of moving between reality streams is a direct descendant of Corwin’s hellrides through Shadow.
But it’s the collected set of all five of the “Corwin Cycle” of Amber stories in the two volumes with the bad cover that’s the one that I have read again and again So many times that I wore out the dust jackets and have purchased backup copies (In addition to all ten audiobooks. More about that in a minute).
When the third book in the series, “Sign of the Unicorn,” was serialized in Galaxy magazine, it even got me into trouble with my mom. An installment arrived at the same time as her brother, on a rare visit from the West Coast. I was way too distracted to hold up my end of the conversation.
The one and only cosplay in my entire life? You guessed it. Corwin of Amber, complete with a silver rose clasp on my cloak.
The second set of five books, featuring Corwin’s son Merlin, aren’t quite as strong. But I’ve come to appreciate them a little more in recent re-reads. Might be partly nostalgia.
But let’s not talk about the estate-authorized prequels, written after Zelazny’s death, and against his oft-expressed wishes. All that’s missing is Jar-Jar.
I turned my son Alex on to the series pretty much as soon as he graduated from picture books, and thoroughly indoctrinated him. It was Alex who cottoned on to the audiobooks and recommended I take a listen. It was like reading them for the first time all over again.
The narrator, Alessandro Juliani, best known as Felix Gaeta on Battlestar Galactica, is fabulous. If there was an Academy Award for book narration, he should win it hands-down. He gives each of the nine princes their own identity, and captures Corwin perfectly. Wil Wheaton takes over for the Merlin cycle, and does a more than adequate job, even if he’s not Juliani’s equal. Although Wil’s pronunciation of one character’s name JEHR-ard is grating. Plain-spoken Gerard would never have been so ostentatious.
The only downside is paying full price for each book. All ten hardly add up to even one Game of Thrones! This is great for Audible. For me, not so much. But I will consider it an investment in their ongoing effort to record classic sci-fi.
I often say that one of the nice things about getting older is that you can re-read your favorite books again and again, blissfully surprised by the plot twists you’ve forgotten.
If I’m lucky, I’ll get another twenty or so trips to Amber in before I embark on my own journey to Shadow.
The History Center of Cedar Rapids recently invited me to do a live-streamed author event. Afterward, I edited out some long pauses and fixed other “live broadcast bumps” in the presentation. It was fun doing a reading that incorporated visuals and even a video of the climactic chase scene in Traitor.
It’s only about 20 minutes long. Check out the link below.
Need a quarantine holiday binge? Or a last-minute gift you don’t have to ship? The Traveler Trilogy is now available as a Kindle box set.
All three Traveler books, Traveler, Prisoner, and Traitor, in one discounted ebook, just $9.99.
Traveler: Meet Trav Becker, a down-on-his-luck ex-cop who must hunt a deranged parallel version of himself bent on killing every Trav Becker in the multiverse.
Prisoner: Trav races against time to rescue two kidnapped girls, even as he is drawn into a hidden war whose stakes are the very existence of him and his friends.
Traitor: Trav must battle foes on every side, including his own memory, and seek help from the unlikeliest of allies, to reunite with the woman he loves and prevent the looming collapse of reality itself.
Includes the Traveler short, “The Diner,” in print for the very first time!