Hey Chip, You’re Welcome!

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.

Read With The Lights Turned Off

If you’re feeling like a little no-calorie treat while you’re handing out candy, here is a little something to pass the time.

“The Audition” is a spooky-themed short story I wrote a few years ago. It originally appeared in an anthology called “Sadistic Shorts,” which you can still buy on Amazon.





“Sweet Caroline!”


Mike Harris grimaced and downed the rest of his Newcastle in one gulp, wishing he could drown out the ridiculous chorus. The piano player, on a raised dais across the bar, stopped playing long enough to raise his hands and conduct the shouting.

“So good! So good! So good!”

Webb, Cooper, and Clark raised their drinks in time to the refrain. Mike shook his head and signaled the bartender for another drink.

“Don’t like Neil Diamond?” asked a voice behind him.

Mike turned and found himself staring into a pair of brown eyes so dark they were almost black. He had to resist the temptation to look her up and down, but if the rest of her body matched her face, it was world class.

She wore light makeup, which complimented her ebony skin. Her hair style was a retro Forties look, a short bob, straightened and then re-curled. One wave brushed her left eye, Veronica Lake-style. The other was held back by a white barrette in the shape of a gardenia. She slid onto the stool next to him.

Her movement gave him a chance to quickly take in the rest of the view. His original assumption had been correct.

World class.

She wore a simple red dress, sleeveless, even though it was late fall. The hem was conservative, falling just past her knees, although it rode up enticingly as she hitched herself up onto the seat.

“Well?” she asked. She gave him a smile that told him she knew he was looking, and that it was okay.

Mike shrugged. “I like Neil Diamond fine. But there is now an entire generation that only knows this song as a cheer at a baseball game. I just hate to hear good music trivialized.”

“Then why come here?”

Mike inclined his head toward his co-workers.

“Those knuckleheads thought that just because there was a piano here, I’d be into it.”

“What’s wrong with it? Everyone seems to be having fun.”

“Nothing’s wrong with it,” Mike replied. “It’s just that I only have one night left in St. Louis, one of the great jazz cities in the world. And I’m stuck in the hotel bar, listening to a piano player who only seems to know four chords.”

“So, find a jazz club.”

“Yeah. The concierge said there aren’t any on this side of town.”

Now another smile spread slowly across her face. “The concierge doesn’t always know what he’s talking about.”

The bartender came over, pointing at Mike’s beer. He didn’t look at the woman. Mike turned to her to ask if she wanted a drink, but she had slid to her feet.



“You want to hear some jazz? There’s a place a block away.”

“I, uh…”

“You afraid this is some kind of scam?” she asked playfully.

“Well… I’m obviously not from around here.”

“Don’t worry. The street is lit up like daytime, and the bicycle cops circle through every ten minutes. You don’t like the look of the place, you don’t have to go in.”

He looked over at Webb, Cooper, and Clark. They were leaned over two young things who were writing requests on little slips of paper.

The piano player said something that included the words “Piano Man.”

“Oh, God. Let’s go. Now.” He tossed some bills on the bar and heaved himself to his feet.

She was standing near him, not moving. She seemed to be waiting for something. Finally, she rolled her eyes and took his arm. Her touch sent a chill from his wrist to his shoulder.

She hadn’t been kidding, it was a short walk. But by the time they reached their destination, she had drawn out just about every detail of his musical avocation.

“What do you play?”


“Who are you listening to?”

“Seamus Blake and J.D. Allen, if you’re talking current guys. But when I really want to woodshed, I put on Cannonball, Sonny Rollins. Or Miles, of course.”

“Oh, you are really going to like this place.”

And suddenly, there they were. She stopped in front of an empty storefront. It still bore the signage of its most recent tenant, a men’s store.

A huge, dark shape materialized out of the shadow of a single wooden door next to the shop window. Mike stiffened, realizing the foolishness of taking off with some random woman to a club his hotel knew nothing about, even if she did seem to know something about music.

The shadow resolved itself into the figure of a black man. He was big. BIG. Wycliffe Gordon big.

Mike looked anxiously around for the bicycle cops the woman said were everywhere.

There were none, of course.

Mike took a deep breath, preparing for the worst. Buth then he saw a small neon sign above the big man’s head.

It buzzed softly in the night, cursive letters glowing in green.

Seven Steps.

If this was a scam, at least they’d picked a proper jazz name. Mike let himself breathe again, starting to believe that maybe this would be okay after all.

As the big man approached, Mike could see now he was dressed in an exquisitely-tailored dark suit. Fine pinstripes glowed slightly green from the reflection of the sign. The suit hung perfectly on his Hulk-like frame, but the material still would have yielded three suits for Mike. The man’s hair was cut so close to his scalp, a comb wouldn’t stir a single strand. A thin line simulating a part was shaved into the right side.

He smiled pleasantly at the two of them. If he noticed Mike had been two seconds from running for his life, he gave no indication.

“Evening, miss,” the big man rumbled. His eyes flicked to Mike. “He with you?”

She nodded.

“We gonna hear you sing tonight?”

She laughed. Unlike her speaking voice, which was a bright contralto, her laugh bubbled up from the back of her throat, deep and rich.

“Tonight? Not with these cats. You ever hear them with a singer?”

The doorman smiled. “They would for you.”

“Bring your sax and join us, and maybe I will.”

The big man shook his head. “Not my scene.”

“Mine, either.”

“Too bad. For both of us.” The big man sighed and opened the door for them.


Before Mike could ask what this odd exchange was about, the woman had taken his hand and led him down a narrow stairway, lit by two red light bulbs spaced evenly along the sloped ceiling.

As soon as the door behind them shut, Mike could hear the sounds of a band tuning up.

His eyes soon adjusted to the gloom, and he could make out a number of yellowed posters which lined the walls. The names on them were a roll call of jazz royalty. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Milt Jackson.

Mike wasn’t even aware he had stopped to look at them until he felt the woman tugging on this hand.

“C’mon, I don’t want to miss this set.”

“These guys all really played here?” he asked.

“Honey,” she replied with a small smile, “sooner or later, everybody plays here.”

Mike let her pull him back into motion and they descended the rest of the stairs.

There were exactly seven.

Mike was expecting a cramped dive to go with the narrow stairs, but Seven Steps was surprisingly spacious. It wasn’t huge, but the ceilings were higher than you’d expect in a basement room. The lights were low, except for the stage, which was well-lit by six can lights hanging from a truss.

There was something strange about the scene, and at first Mike couldn’t identify it, but then he noticed a haze in the beams of light streaming from the cans and his brain identified what his nose had been trying to tell him.

“Doesn’t Missouri have an indoor smoking law?”

He was sure he had seen the usual knots of people loitering outside the hotel and convention center.

She frowned. “I don’t know. No one bothers anybody about it here.”

Mike inhaled again. The smell made him crave a smoke himself, even though he hadn’t had a cigarette since college.

Still holding his hand, she led him to a table near the stage.

The bar was about two-thirds full. The bright stage lights cast the tables into darkness, so he couldn’t pick out faces, although the crowd seemed to be about evenly split between male and female, mainly couples, and an even distribution of black and white.

He pulled out a chair for her. She smoothed the skirt sheathing her nicely-formed rump and sat.

“You know,” he said as he sat down, “you never told me your name.”

“Eleanor. Now, hush. They’re starting.”

Mike looked around for a waitress, but before he could say anything, one appeared at his elbow, setting a glass of wine down for Eleanor, and a Newcastle for him.

“How did you know what I’d been drinking?”

He looked from the waitress to Eleanor, but she held a finger to her lips, and inclined her head toward the stage.

Before he could reach for his wallet, the waitress waved him off, mouthing, Later.

Mike shrugged and angled his chair so he had a more comfortable viewing angle.

The stage was raised about eighteen inches, just enough to give most of the house a decent view.

Five men were onstage. Piano, bass, drums, tenor sax and trumpet. Two microphones on stands stood near the horn players, whose backs were to the audience as they conferred over a piece of paper that was probably the set list.

Mike looked the players over. All were black, except for the piano player, who looked more like one of the NASA guys from the movie Apollo 13 than a musician. Dark crew cut, Buddy Holly glasses, skinny black tie with a short-sleeved shirt.

The drummer wore a white shirt, open at the collar. He had a mustache, and wore a black newsboy cap, backwards, in the approved jazz-guy fashion.

The bass player, in a black turtleneck, sported a soul patch in addition to his own mustache.

The sax player turned from his conference with the trumpeter and walked toward the center of the stage, pulling the mouthpiece cover from his horn and dropping it into the jacket pocket of his own dark suit. He was a good-sized man, although not nearly as big as the doorman. He looked familiar, and Mike was trying to place him, when the trumpet player turned around and Mike nearly spit out his drink.

The man had long wavy hair, combed straight back to emphasize his improbably high forehead. His eyes were covered by an enormous pair of mirrored sunglasses, which were closer to the size and shape of welder’s goggles than anything you could buy at Sunglass Hut. He wore a black tank top and gold chains under his suit coat.

Mike didn’t even have to look at the trumpet to know there would be a metallic Harmon mute sticking out of it.

He turned to Eleanor. “What the hell is going on here?”

She held a finger to her lips.

“What is this place?” Mike demanded.

“Shh,” she hissed. “Sit back and enjoy. If you want to stay, you have to be quiet.”

The trumpet player with the amazing resemblance to Miles Davis put his horn to his lips, and nodded to the drummer, who softly counted off. The band launched into “Now’s The Time.”

Mike sat back in his chair. He knew it was ridiculous, but for all the world it looked and sounded like he was listening to one of the greatest jazz musicians the world had ever known, surrounded by some of his most legendary sidemen, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Philly Jo Jones and Paul Chambers.

As the tune progressed, Mike grew more and more impressed. He didn’t know where these guys had come from, but they played their roles, as well as the tunes, perfectly.

Evans stroking the keys almost timidly, coaxing out soft but intriguing chord voicings. Jones and Chambers sitting stock still, only their hands in motion on the drum set and bass strings.

And Trane and Miles, stalking each other on the small stage, making music that was as much battle as collaboration.

The quintet swung smoothly through several standards. “I Fall in Love too Easily,” “Bye, Bye Blackbird,” even “Basin Street Blues;” but staying away from Miles’ own compositions.

Finally, there was a pause, and Miles took a swig from a bottle. He stepped up to the mic.

“Shorter’s taking his sweet time getting here. Anyone want to sit in?”

Mike was so busy marveling that this guy had even nailed Miles’ voice, halfway between a whisper and a growl, that what he had said did not sink in until Eleanor nudged him.

“You up for it?”

“What? Me? You’re kidding, right?”

She didn’t reply, just stared at him with a raised eyebrow.

“I don’t have my horn.”

“What’s that?” She pointed underneath their table.

A rectangular black case was stuck in between the table legs.

Mike frowned and picked it up.

It was his alto. No question about it. There were a couple of dozen stickers, bearing the names of different clubs and tours that dated back to his college days.

“Where did you get this? I didn’t bring it on this trip.”

Eleanor shrugged.

“I don’t get it,” he murmured. Then, a thought occurred to him. “Wait. What is this, some Jazz Fantasy Baseball Camp? Did Michelle set this up?”

His girlfriend had hinted she had something special planned for his birthday.

“Is she here?” Mike craned his neck to look around the room, but he was interrupted by a rasp from the bandstand.

“You gonna play that thing or just keep it in yo’ lap?”

Mike looked at Eleanor again. She didn’t say anything, but her expression was clear. Up to you.

He shrugged, took his neck strap out of the case, and put the two pieces of the horn together. He stuck a reed into his mouth to get it moist.

The band watched in silence as he took the stage. He inserted the reed into the mouthpiece, and asked “Bill Evans” for an E. He tuned, then determined to play it cool, flicked his eyes toward Miles.

“You dig Monk?” the trumpeter asked.

Mike nodded, and just like that, they were tearing through “Straight, No Chaser.”

After they finished each song, Mike held his breath, waiting for Miles to call the next, afraid it would be one he didn’t know and he would have to sit down. But the entire first set could have been culled from the “favorites” playlist on his phone. He knew every one down to the last note.

And he was playing better than he had for a long time, even though he hadn’t picked up his horn in months.

After they finished “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” Miles reached for his drink and took a swig.

“Gotta tell you man, this is pretty impressive,” Mike said.

“What is?”

“All of this,” Mike replied. He waved a hand to encompass the bar as well as the band. “These guys are all perfect. They look like the real dudes, and they’re monster players.”

The other man looked amused. “You don’t say.”

“And you’ve got Miles totally down, man. I can’t believe I haven’t heard of you before.”

“I gotta lot of practice.”

Miles put his horn back to his lips. Time to go back to work.

Whatever reluctance bandleader had to the music of the real Miles Davis apparently evaporated, or maybe he was satisfied after testing Mike’s bona fides. Because in the second set, it was one Miles tune after another. “So What,” “Freddie Freeloader,” “All Blues,” “Nefertiti.” And, apparently just to show the band was not embarrassed by Miles’s fusion phase, they closed with an ethereal, twenty-five minute take on “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” that encompassed just about every musical trend from the last forty years.

As Miles softly faded out the closing, mournful notes, the audience leapt to its feet.

Miles looked at Mike, tilted his sunglasses down. He nodded, and the barest hint of smile twitched across his lips.

The other sax player, whose resemblance to John Coltrane was even more uncanny close up, leaned over to Mike and held out his hand. Mike shook it.

“Looks like they want one more,” Trane said, inclining his head toward the audience.

“What do you want to play, whitey?” Miles asked. But he smiled as he said it.

Mike thought for a minute. “Place is called ‘Seven Steps.’ How about that?”

Miles nodded. The drummer smiled. Drummers love “Seven Steps to Heaven.”

“Double time,” Miles said.

Mike almost choked on his beer for the second time. But, he’d been able to hang with these cats up to now, he wasn’t going to say no.

Miles counted off an impossibly fast tempo and they were off.

At first, Mike thought they were going to leave him in the dust, but he hung in there, even playing a pretty fair solo in the third chorus. He and Miles traded fours with the drummer after that, each trying to top the other in a joyful cacophony.

They galloped to the end of the tune, and the audience erupted again.

Now, both Miles and Trane had hands on Mike’s shoulders, and they were joined by the other three to take a group bow.

The house lights came up. Eleanor brought Mike’s horn case up to the stage.

“We’re back here tomorrow,” Miles said as Mike packed up. “You in?”

“Can’t. This is my last night. I will definitely come back the next time I’m in town, though. Hope to see you again.” Mike put out his hand.

“Right,” the other man drawled. He shook Mike’s hand. “See you tomorrow.”

He ducked into a back room before Mike could set him straight. The other guys had left as well.

In fact, Eleanor had also disappeared.

The bar emptied out quickly. Mike half expected Michelle or one of his other friends to turn up and let him in on the gag, but the few faces left were unfamiliar.

Automatically, Mike’s hand went to his back pocket. Nope, wallet still there. The waitress hadn’t even charged him for the drinks. If this was a scam, it was a weird one.

He grabbed his horn case, and headed for the stairs.

The big doorman was still on station outside the door.

“See you tomorrow,” he rumbled.

“Probably not,” Mike replied.


Mike was puzzling over how the doorman’s answer was exactly the same as Miles’ as he crossed the street.

In his preoccupation, he didn’t see the panel truck that ran a red light and sped toward him. His head jerked up just in time to see headlights fill his entire field of vision. As the truck bore down on him, the driver frantically laying on the horn, he stood frozen in the middle of the street.

And as the sound of the horn transposed from a one-note blast into the duet he and Miles had played, Mike realized he would in fact, be playing at Seven Steps  tomorrow.


What I’ve Been Reading – The Agony, The Ecstasy, and The Buddha

I first met Rachel Eliason right after I “came out” myself.

As a science fiction author, that is.

Since then, we’ve been together on several author panels and readings, and I was honored when Rachel and A.R. Miller invited me to contribute Traveler to a 3-in-1 ebook they wanted to publish.

Rachel’s grace and honesty make her a delight to be around, but I have to admit to being a little trepidatious in taking on this memoir of her sexual reassignment surgery in Thailand in 2010.

I was afraid that like hot dogs and laws, perhaps I didn’t want to too much information on how my transgender friend was made.

But in the opening pages of “The Agony, The Ecstasy, and The Buddha” Rachel cheerfully confesses that TMI should be her middle name, and invites the reader to join her on this most private journey that by its very nature must be carried out in public.

This memoir pulls no punches in discussing both the emotional and medical aspects of her journey, but she tells the story with such good humor, that soon you’re right with her in a humid Bangkok hotel room, and glad to be a part of the trip.

The picture of Rachel Eliason that emerges from this book is one of honesty and strength, along with hope that by telling her story, she might help other transgendered folks feel less alone, and give cis people like myself a small window into her life.

It’s a quick read, but its brevity in no way reduces its impact, or the emotional connection you’ll make with her as you experience her story. I’m proud to call her a friend.

Oh, and you should also check out her sci-fi and fantasy books, too, at www.racheleliason.net.



What I’ve Been Reading – Made Safe

The streets of Des Moines are just as mean as Spenser’s Boston in this impressive debut.

In the first casebook of private detective Moses Winter, Francis Sparks exposes the underbelly of immigrant culture in a gripping, noir novel.

Made Safe, while listed on the cover as the first adventure of Des Moines-based detective Winter, is just as much the story of Raif Rakíc, the Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) investigator who crosses paths with Winter, as the two strike up an uneasy alliance.

Winter takes what should be an easy case of getting proof of a cheating husband, but before he knows it, he and Rakíc are neck deep in a fight against a Bosnian crime ring leaving a trail of bodies on the streets of Iowa’s capital city.

Sparks advances the various threads of a complicated mystery with facility, utilizing multiple points of view as a tool, not a cheat, as is often the case. Both of the story’s heroes are damaged men, whose histories and personalities lead them to make mistakes and trust the wrong people.

The story takes many delightful twists and turns, but again, Sparks always plays fair with his reader, expertly hiding the clues that only become obvious after the plot is revealed.

An impressive debut from a talented writer. Sign me up for the next adventure of Moses Winterl

What I’ve Been Reading – Sins of Intent

Randy Roeder takes us back to Cedar Rapids of the Sixties in Sins of Intent, the first of a series featuring haberdasher-turned-amateur-detective Cletus Efferding.

I’ve lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa since the Eighties, and while that is much later than the period Sins is set in, many of the sights and places Roeder references were still around when I moved here. And Cletus’s movements around Cedar-Rapids-that-was ring true and accurately.

Cletus works in the Men’s Department at Killian’s, a retail anchor of Downtown Cedar Rapids for decades, but is also a dance instructor. It’s this second job that leads him to investigate the death of a fellow instructor and good friend.

Cletus is a fellow with heavy emotional and legal baggage, which keeps him in the sights of the local cops, even as he tries to get justice for his friend. Along the way, we learn of the tragedy that destroyed his former life, and we also watch him make several rookie (and in one case, racist) mistakes in his investigation. It’s a credit to Roeder’s character development that we still are rooting for Cletus as he bumbles along.

Cedar Rapids is just as much of a character in Sins as any of the people. And as the manager of Iowa’s only jazz radio station, I appreciate his inclusion of jazz players and jazz clubs in the novel, particularly the colorful Joe Abodeely, who makes a cameo toward the end, and whose shady business dealings were the inspiration for much of the novel’s action.

Sins of Intent is a worthy debut, and I will definitely be climbing back into Roeder’s Linn County Time Machine for Cletus’s next adventure.

What I’ve Been Reading – Fool

“This is a bawdy tale. Herein you will find gratuitous shagging, murder, spanking, maiming, treason, and heretofore unexplored heights of vulgarity and profanity, as well as non-traditional grammar, split infinitives, and the odd wank.” 
― Christopher Moore, Fool

Shakespeare parodies are a dime a dozen, but few twist familiar tropes like Christopher Moore. He’s previously tackled vampires, Death, and the life of Jesus (as told by the Savior’s best buddy, Biff), and his take on The Bard doesn’t disappoint.

Fool retells King Lear from the point of view of Pocket, the King’s jester, whose sarcasm and sharp wit keeps him on the edge of getting his neck stretched most of the time. Moore doesn’t feel the need to constrain himself to one play, however, as the witches from Macbeth make a cameo, and when Pocket journeys to Scotland, he traverses Birnam Wood, which also figures in The Scottish Play.

Moore’s Olde England may be muddy and rainy, but its definitely merry, particularly where sex is concerned. Pocket beds two of Lear’s three daughters, not to mention a variety of the kitchen staff. I guess all those Londonites crowding the tube had to come from somewhere. Pocket’s somewhat-requited love for Cordelia, the third daughter, gets derailed in the opening scenes of the novel when she is married off to Jeff, the King of France, but proves later in the book she is no damsel in distress who needs to be rescued by her dashing suitor. Pocket is a lot of things, but dashing isn’t one of them.

I picked the book as plane reading on a vacation to the U.K., figuring a novel set in medieval England would be the perfect prep prior to touring the Tower of London (I had recently seen a production of Richard III, so was already all set imprisoning boy princes-wise), was not disappointed.

A knowledge of Shakespeare is definitely not required to enjoy Fool. There is just enough Shakespearian phrasing to give the novel the right flavor, but not so much as to make reading an exercise in deciphering Sixteenth Century slang.

Pocket returns in The Serpent of Venice, where we will discover, I’m sure, that he is the true hero of Othello. I’m in.


It Was Forty Years Ago Today, In A Galaxy Far, Far Away

“I saw the most amazing movie last night,” Jim Thorn said.

It was May 28, 1977 (give or take a day), the summer between my junior and senior years in high school.

The movie, of course, was Star Wars. Jim and I were what today would be celebrated as geeks knowledgeable in a variety of arcane Sci-Fi and Fantasy lore.

In the Seventies, they just called us weird.

As far as the movie was concerned, I was ambivalent.

“Yeah, I think I read that book. It was so-so.”

(My apologies to Alan Dean Foster. In his defense, he had no idea the book he was ghost-writing for George Lucas would spawn a literal galaxy of stories. He was just trying to stitch something together from what I am sure was a pretty bare early version of the script. And if you ever pick up a copy of that original novelization, you’ll be amused by some of the remarks about the history of the Empire and Old Republic that are– well, let’s just say no longer canon.)

“I’m going back to see it again tonight,” Jim continued. “You need to come. We’ll need to get there early. There was a big line last night.”

And so we did. We arrived ninety minutes or so prior to show time at Omaha’s Cinema Center, kind of a dingy multiplex that today has been turned into an indoor gun range. 

We staked out our spot in line outside the single room in which the movie was showing, and waited. Jim was so excited to share the unique look of the movie that one point, he insisted on cracking open the door a little so I could get a preview. I only saw a few minutes of what I would later learn was the Death Star running blaster battle, but it was enough to realize that something special was going on.

Finally, the show was over, and we waited impatiently for the prior crowd, dazed by what they had just seen, to exit. We took our seats, and a few minutes later, the Twentieth Century-Fox fanfare sounded, followed by the first notes of John Williams’, which would become just as legendary.

I don’t have to go in to my reaction to the movie. If you’re reading this, you probably have memories just as fond of the first time you saw it.

The drive home, between concrete barriers that narrowed Interstate 80 due to construction, made it seem like it was us who were barreling through a trench on the Death Star toward a small thermal exhaust port.

Thus began what I will always think of as The Summer of Star Wars. We saw the movie just about every weekend, dragging whichever of our friends (including long-suffering girlfriends) we could induce to go.

I stopped counting at seventeen viewings, not very impressive in today’s Netflix-bingeing era, but quite a commitment in the days you had to schlep out to a theatre across town and buy a ticket in order to satisfy your Star Wars craving.

May 28th is also the birthday of son Jack. I wasn’t thinking about Star Wars the night he was born, but I do remember that the day I introduced him and his brother to the movies a few years later was the closest I ever got to the feeling I had when I watched it the first time.

Thanks, George.


SF & Drugs & Rock & Roll – Is All My Brain and Body Needs

Music in Science Fiction & Fantasy

By Dennis W. Green

 (This is an expanded version of an article that was originally published in PerihelionSF under the title “More Than Zarathustra.)

What jazz standard shares a melody with the Star Trek theme? And what rock & roll tune tells its story against the background of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity?

Artists have always been inspired by the art of others. Musicians and writers have traded inspiration for centuries. Science Fiction is no different. But SF is unique in how it has touched, and been touched by music that spans not only genres, but generations. Even more so, if you include the rich (and mostly drug-induced) legacy of connections between Rock ’n Roll and Fantasy. Since Perihelion is not Fantasy publication, we’ll keep the discussion to mainstream Sci-Fi as much as possible, only touching on Fantasy in a couple of spots for completeness.


Sci-Fi At The Movies – A Classical Gas


When I started researching for this article, I thought I would spend most of my time discussing the various classical pieces that have found their way into science fiction and fantasy movies, beginning with “Also Sprach Zarathustra” in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Turns out, it’s pretty much Zarathustra and… well, not a lot else. Most of the music we know and love from our favorite movies are original compositions, which we’ll cover in the next section.

Now, cartoons are another matter. If not for Bugs Bunny, I would know nothing about classical music, and I can’t ever hear “The Barber of Seville” without seeing that rascally rabbit wielding a shaving brush and razor. But that’s another article.

If there is another classical piece that has been so totally intertwined with any movie, let alone a sci-Fi movie, as much as Strauss’s meditation on Friedrich Nietzsche, I don’t know what it would be. No other “pre-composed” movie theme even comes close.


But Stanley Kubrick is not the only director to mine the archives of classical music for inspiration.

A good example from a fairly recent film is Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13, used to excellent effect in The Avengers. 

Prometheus mined Chopin, and Elysium did the same with Bach in recent films as well.

The composition I was most expecting to see represented is largely absent from sci-fi on film.


“O Fortuna” is from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The piece has been called “the most overused piece of music in film history,” and shows up in dozens of movies, movie trailers, commercials, and TV.

For me, the most memorable usage is when King Arthur and his knights charge into battle with the choral epic in the background in Excalibur. It also pops up in 2007’s Beowulf: Prince of the Geats, not to mention The Doors, Speed, Last of the Mohicans and even Jackass.


Putting The Original into Original Soundtrack

Where original movies scores are concerned, let’s start at the top of the mountain, John Williams and Star Wars.


The Star Wars Soundtrack was the first non-rock and roll record I ever bought, and I listened to it over and over again after seeing the movie. Remember, this was in the days when if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to a theater. So in between viewings, listening to the soundtrack was a great way to re-live the movie. If you’ve never sat down and listened to the full 5:51 of the Main Title, do it now.

Leitmotif is a musical term that means a phrase or melody that is associated with a particular character, place, or emotion. Common in symphonic music and opera, It was not used much in film until Williams revived it for Star Wars.

It’s really a very simple device, but it is now impossible to imagine the Star Wars movies without the unique musical signatures associated with particular characters and scenes.

The re-stated melody of the Main Title which plays under Luke’s first appearance, answering Uncle Owen’s bellow, will come to represent him throughout the films. The same for Princess Leia, the Jawas, even The Force, whose theme first appears in the Binary Sunset scene, and returns in each of the films.

In his recent Star Wars re-watch reviews on IO9, Germain Lussier goes even further:

The other MVP of the movie—especially once you get to the Death Star action scenes but during the whole thing, really—is John Williams. The importance of his music in setting the tone for Star Wars cannot be overstated. Including just how perfectly integrated into each and every scene it is. Years have passed since this movie was released, and I dare you not to get goosebumps when Luke and Leia swing across the retracted bridge on the Death Star.

The Star Wars soundtrack remains the highest grossing non-pop recording of all time. But it was just the beginning for John Williams. He, of course, composed the five-note figure the aliens implant in Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, not to mention the music to Superman, the Indiana Jones films, and the entire Star Wars saga, including (thankfully) The Force Awakens.

As far as other original music composed for sci-fi movies goes, the music from Lord of the Rings comes very close to achieving Lussier’s “MVP” status. Howard Shore used over ninety leitmotifs, the most identifiable of which would probably be “History of The Ring,” which plays during the title sequence of all three films, and the song Pippin sings to Denethor that accompanies Faramir’s suicidal charge into battle in “Return of the King.”

The lyrics to “Pippin’s Song” are not from Tolkien at all, but were composed by Billy Boyd, the actor who played Pippin, written on just twenty-four hours notice, the day before the scene was filmed.

Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture theme introduced us to the “new” ST theme. Although it was certainly helped by a decade of ST:TNG to burn it into our minds.


Honorable mention to Queen, because there are very few themes that captured the essence of their films (that is to say, ridiculous camp) better than Flash.

( More about Queen later)


The Jazz of Star Trek

At first listen, the original Star Trek Theme seems to be a pretty conventional orchestral piece, using classical forms, as most TV and movies themes of the era are. But Alexander Courage’s composition has its roots in jazz.

In a 2000 interview, Courage explained that his inspiration for the main part of the theme is from “Beyond The Blue Horizon,” a pop tune from the 1930s. Courage said it gave him the idea for a song which was a “long thing that…keeps going out into space…over a fast moving accompaniment.”


This swing version of the song, by Jack Hylton and his Orchestra, illustrates that.

But the most interesting musical parallel is apparently coincidental. The Star Trek theme shares a harmonic progression with the jazz standard, “Out of Nowhere.” That is to say, the two songs share the same several notes, played in the same order, to form each tune’s main melody (“the hook” in music parlance).


“Out of Nowhere” was introduced by Bing Crosby in his 1930 film Dude Ranch, and was Bing’s first Number One hit. You can definitely hear the melodic similarity in Bing’s version, but when Charlie Parker and Miles Davis slowed it down and made a ballad out of the tune in 1947, the resemblance is downright eerie:

It’s difficult to believe that Courage wasn’t familiar with “Out of Nowhere,” but he never mentioned it as an influence, and absent an “unconscious plagiarism” ruling of the sort that led George Harrison to pay a bunch of money to the composer of “He’s So Fine,” we are left with the resemblance as a coincidence. But a coincidence that the show has had some fun with.

In the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Gene Roddenberry suggested doing a detective story based on the holodeck, and writer Tracy Tormé got the job of writing “The Big Goodbye.” In the process, Tormé created the character of 1940s literary detective Dixon Hill, one of the most memorable additions to the Star Trek canon.

As Captain Picard enters Dixon Hill’s office for the first time near the beginning of the episode, a radio is playing “Out of Nowhere.”

It was producer Robert Justman who suggested the Easter Egg. A jazzer would say he was “hip” to the connection.

(It’s interesting to note that Tracy Tormé is the son of legendary jazz singer Mel Tormé. The younger Tormé would go on to co-create “Sliders,” and cast his famous father in the show.)

A musician friend of mine also insists there is a scene in Voyager that takes place on Earth at a Star Fleet reception where a combo is playing “Out of Nowhere,” but I haven’t been able to locate it.

Jonathon Frakes happened to play the trombone, which led the ST:TNG writers to send Commander Ryker to a holodeck jazz club to unwind. Ryker’s musical bane was “Nightbird,” which he could never master.

In fact, once jazz broke into the Star Trek franchise, it would play a small but significant role in every series.

  • The Deep Space Nine crew also liked to hang out in holodeck bars. Their favorite hologram was lounge singer Vic Fontaine, played by former teen heartthrob James Darren. Eventually, he would come to serve as a father confessor of sorts to various members of the crew.
  • Lieutenant (and clarinetist) Harry Kim led a jazz quartet on Voyager called the Kimtones. Unlike Frakes, Garrett Wang did not play the instrument, but memorized the correct fingerings, no small task.
  • And on Star Trek: Enterprise, we learn that free jazz has an interesting effect on the Vulcan psyche, when T’Pol hits a San Francisco club in the episode “Fusion.” “It was unusual, chaotic, but I was drawn to it,” she says. “I felt…invigorated.” This idea popped up in Voyager as well. In the episode “Riddles,” Tuvok loses his intellect for a time and quits repressing his emotions. During this time, he develops a fondness for jazz.

A word of advice: Don’t hint to a jazz musician that it’s best to be stupid and emotional to enjoy the form.

SF & Drugs & Rock ‘n Roll Is All My Brain & Body Need

Up to now, we’ve mainly discussed music as it relates to Science Fiction in the movies and TV. In general, a songwriter can reference a literary character in any way he or she likes. But the reverse isn’t true. A writer must pay for rights to quote song lyrics in a book or story, so it’s not always easy to discern what music may have influenced a writer.

But since Bill Haley and the Comets ushered in the Rock ’n Roll era, we can be sure that hundreds of writers have written to the beat of Rock tunes. Urban Fantasy writers in particular like to draw connections to Rock in their writing. An informal survey (Okay… me looking at my own bookshelves), reveals many Urban Fantasy books and stories with titles that directly or indirectly reference Rock ’n Roll.

But the connections are there for straight-ahead Science Fiction as well. In fact, IO9.com found 100 Sci-Fi songs inspired by Rock ’n Roll. You can visit that site to see the entire list, but here are a few, plus some they missed, that I think represent the best of the lot.


The Brains of Rock ’n Roll




The original members of Queen are the most highly-degreed in all of pop music.  Singer Freddie Mercury had a Masters in Art (and designed the group’s logo, the Queen Crest). Bassist John Deacon possesses a Masters in Electronic Engineering, and guitarist Brian May has a PhD in Astrophysics. Drummer Roger Taylor is the slacker of the group. He “merely” has a BS in Biology.

In fact, in July of 2015, May was invited to NASA, where he joined the New Horizons team in examining the first photos of the Pluto flyby.

So, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that one of May’s songs deals with a love story disrupted by the physics of relativity.

“39,” from the group’s breakout album “A Night at the Opera,” tells the story of a group of space explorers dispatched to find a replacement for a dying earth. After a year, they return to discover a hundred years have passed, and everyone they know and love has died. Hidden in what at first listen appears to be a cheerful folk tune with a skiffle beat are some of the most plaintive and haunting closing lyrics I’ve ever heard:


For my life,

Still ahead,

Pity me.

The time dilation effects of Einstein’s special theory of relativity are familiar to those of us who read the literature, but it’s unusual territory for pop music. On an album known for the optimistic “You’re My Best Friend,” and the bombastic anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “39” is just a musical footnote. But with its emotional punch and empirical accuracy, it may be Rock’s only true science fiction story.

Queen would also mine Science Fiction art, choosing a well-known Astounding cover by Frank Kelly Freas as the cover of News of the World. The album would go on to generate two more Rock anthems for the quartet (or one, depending on how you look at it), “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions.”


Heroes and Villains


“Iron Man”

Black Sabbath


“Magneto and Titanium Man”



The ultimate meta-moment of Marvel’s Iron Man is when Tony Stark wages battle to the soundtrack of Black Sabbath’s song of the same name. Taken by itself, the tune is the kind of turgid, guitar heavy arena rock tunes best listened to under the influence of the chemical of your choice. And it doesn’t have anything to do with the Marvel Comics character.

But that scene was awfully cool.


Paul McCartney went Ozzy and his crew one better, invoking not one but three Marvel characters in his “Magneto and Titanium Man.” Featuring not only Iron Man’s Soviet antagonists Titanium Man and Crimson Dynamo, but also the mutant master of metal, the song appeared on the B side of “Venus & Mars Rock Show,” and was a Wings concert staple, accompanied by original Marvel art.

An avowed comics fan, Paul McCartney gave Jack Kirkby and his daughter front-row seats during the “Venus & Mars” tour. Kirby returned the favor with a hand-drawn comic.


The Ones On Every List

“Space Oddity”

David Bowie


“Rocket Man”

Elton John

 You can’t do a list of Sci Fi songs without including these two. 


 Even though Mark Watley must engineer his own survival to a disco beat in Andy Weir’s The Martian, what the movie is actually about is proving the 1972 John-Taupin Theorem of Mars climate:

Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,

In fact, it’s cold as hell. 


“Space Oddity” is another tune which makes just about every “Sci-Fi rock tunes” list. Bowie would come back to the Science Fiction theme again, as Ziggy Stardust, bisexual alien rock star, and play an alien in his movie debut, “The Man Who Fell To Earth.” He would also eventually tell us the fate of Major Tom, labeling him a “junkie” in the 1980 tune “Ashes to Ashes.”

Bowie also wins the award for providing titles to genre TV shows. “Ashes to Ashes” and “Life on Mars” (both the excellent BBC original and the not-quite-so-good American remake) would have been poorer without their titles. And thankfully, fully licensed to use Bowies’ music within the shows.

Speaking of licensing, in a triumph of common sense, Bowie’s music publisher agreed to extend astronaut Chris Hadfield’s license to “Space Oddity,” so the first music video ever produced in space could continue to be seen.

Included here, because that means I can.



Paul is Dead. Or Maybe Just On Another Planet

“Calling Occupants of Interstellar Craft”



This is probably the most obscure tune on my list. The closest it came to being a hit was when the Carpenters recorded a predictably-sappy version of it in 1977, which only cracked the Top Forty for a few weeks. But the original comes with an interesting story.

The song was written and recorded by the Canadian band Klaatu. So right off the top we have a cool The Day The Earth Stood Still reference. But when the album was first released in 1976, it was without pictures of the band or even their names anywhere on it. Everything was “Written by Klaatu,” “Produced by Klaatu,” etc.

Somehow, a rumor got started that Klaatu was actually a reunited Beatles, recording anonymously. The band’s record company denied it from the get-go, as did the founders, John Woloschuk and Dee Long, when they finally revealed themselves. But it took quite a while for the rumors to die down.


News Flash: Sixties music was kind of trippy.

“In The Year 2525”

Zager & Evans


Zager and Evans’, “In The Year 2525,” not only makes most Sci-Fi music lists, it has also topped many One-Hit Wonder countdowns over the years. The group has the dubious distinction of being the only act to top both the U.S. and U.K. charts and then never have another hit.  

The 1969 song stops at 1,010-year intervals, making disturbing predictions about human society at each. Writer Rick Evans is the anti-Roddenberry, predicting that we will never learn from our mistakes.


Life is Cheap and Death is Free

“Transverse City”

Warren Zevon


Warren Zevon is one of music’s most iconoclastic personalities. He began his career penning hits for artists like Linda Ronstadt. In his final years, he talked candidly with David Letterman about his terminal lung cancer. “Werewolves of London” is his most recognizable song, although his “Keep Me In Your Heart” is one of the most poignant songs ever written. He was well-read, despite dropping out of high school. “Transverse City” was directly influenced by William Gibson.

Zevon was definitely a reader, and a fan of writers. He dedicated an album to detective novelist Ross MacDonald, and served as musical director and occasional guitarist for the Rock Bottom Remainders, the famous “garage band” made up of Stephen King, Dave Barry, Matt Groening, and Amy Tan.


At Least There Were No Anal Probes


The Killers


Lest you think science fiction and music quit cross-pollinating in 1980 (or that the writer is an old fart, although that is probably true), let’s fast forward to 2009 for “Spaceman” by The Killers.

The narrator is kidnapped by aliens, but returned none the worse for the experience, except for one lingering effect.

I hear these voices at night sometimes.

The song may be 21st Century, but the video, while entertaining, is strictly Eighties MTV cheese.


It’s Just Too Peculiar Here

“Two Little Men in a Flying Saucer”

Ella Fitzgerald


I work at a jazz radio station, so I am hardly going to leave off the UFO tune by none other than the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald. “Two Little Men in a Flying Saucer” exhibit their discriminating taste by fleeing the earth after getting a taste of our culture, notably our television shows. And this was in 1951, decades before TV political ads.


View It, Code It.


Daft Punk 


Daft Punk is a “must have” on the list, since they’re robots from the future and all. Plus, their guest shot was the best thing about Tron: Legacy.

“Technologic” is textbook for the helmeted French duo, mixing up funk, techno, rock, and synth pop, with vocals that might actually be what my computer is thinking at any given moment.


I Hear The Weather in Transexual Transylvania is Great This Time of Year.

“Science Fiction Double Feature”

Rocky Horror Picture Show


Referencing classic sci fi cinema from Triffids to George Pal, Rocky Horror Picture Show’s “Science Fiction Double Feature” is a smooth ballad whose pop veneer lulls us into complacency before we are thrust into the gender-bending, rock ’n roll fever dream that Brad and Janet experience.


Citizens of the Universe

“Mothership Connection”



“We have returned to claim the pyramids,” proclaims George Clinton as “Mothership Connection” opens. Clinton, a fan of Star Trek, put together the 1975 concept album to “put black people in space.” Of course, today, the album cover featuring a pimp atop his space-faring Cadillac is a little jarring. Generally regarded as one of Parliment’s best albums, Mothership Connection was the first to feature Maceo Parker and Fred Weasley, two veterans of James Brown’s horn section, who would go on to be important jazz and funk musicians in their own right.

The Library of Congress added the album to the National Recording Registry in 2011, noting it’s influence on the jazz, rock, and dance music that followed. So in a way, it predicted the future of music just like Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein predicted the future of science.

And maybe gave Roland Emmerich the idea for Stargate, who knows?


Just a Ramblin’ Hobbit

“Ramble On”

Led Zeppelin


“Ramble On is one of three Led Zeppelin tunes that reference characters and scenes from Lord of the Rings, along with “Misty Mountain Hop” and “The Battle of Evermore.” Although if your girl left you to be with Gollum, it’s possible you’re better off without her.

Bonus points to Jimmy Page, who designed the mysterious “Four Symbols” logo, which looks to me like Elvish.

 And the Beat goes on…


Music plays an important role in Dennis W. Green’s “Traveler” books, which tell the story of a police detective who must slip between parallel realities to track down a murderous version of himself. A popular radio personality in his native Iowa, Dennis’s work has been recognized by Billboard and by JazzWeek, which has named his station, KCCK-FM, Station of the Year four times in the last six years.