Friday, March 18, 2016

American Idol - The Final Season

Back when I was in college, some major local store spent a month or two going out of business.

The first week, everything was 50% off.  The next week, 60%.  The next week, 70%.

And so on.

The point, of course, was that everything must go – the day the store closed its doors everything had to be sold or trashed, and it was better to get some money than no money.

I’m making up most of the details, by the way, because I was away at college.  But my parents would email me every week, talking about how the prices kept dropping and how the store kept getting more and more empty, but every week they’d go back and see just how much cheaper certain things were.

By the end, they were buying movies for a dollar or two because they had wanted to see them and it was cheaper than renting.  That was, in fact, how I ended up finally getting a copy of Purple Rain and seeing it for the first and last time.

That’s kind of how Idol feels right now.

Oh, they talk a good game, I guess, with Jennifer going on and on about how she’s sad it’s the last season, and how no other show has produced so many stars and/or hit records. 

Which is true, or was at one time.

Of course, the last three years have been a near-complete bust.  Two of the last three had records which barely charted or sold.  And the last one?  We’ve got three weeks left of Idol, and his record isn’t out.

He instead released one fresh single, which, um… wasn’t great.  And didn’t chart.

They’re not even talking about an Idol tour for next year, after last year went from the top ten to the top five only. 

And the fact that last year’s winner doesn’t have an album out yet means this year’s winner probably shouldn’t be holding their breath.

Which is to say, it’s the last year, and everything must go.


I’ve started writing about the show this year a couple of times now, but I’ve been busy, my blog has been neglected, and honestly I’m waking up every morning and while I wasn’t hugely invested in the winners, well, this year the show isn’t even very invested.

That said, it’s the last Idol season ever (until they bring it back in five years in a desperate attempt to get solid ratings for ANYTHING on Fox), so I feel like I should at last take a stab at the top five, and see if I can guess who goes out when.

In previous years, I always stated that I would get within two places for going out, and then I would always a) miss one person who would do a massive climb even though they were terrible, and b) would whiff the actual winner, usually putting them somewhere in the middle of the pack.

This is because American and I like different things, for the most part.

So, from bottom to top:

Sonika: She has a great voice, but she got a save twice in a season where there were “no” saves, and now she can’t be protected.  She’s got a great voice, but her stage presence needs honing.

Dalton: I really like Dalton as a person.  First, for putting his bipolar status out there.  Mental illness is still pretty much the silent disease in this country, and putting it out there into the world will surely help someone who thinks she’s great and will finally have someone to identify with.  I hope he and Demi Lovato had a nice chat last week.  But his voice isn’t the best on the stage and his showmanship can really vary when he gets outside his wheelhouse.  I wish him so much luck.

MacKenzie:  I really liked his original song, and he owns the stage.  But the sensitive singer/songwriter doesn’t really win this competition.  Alex Preston (who just released a fantastic record last July) went out third.  So will this guy.

Trent:  Great voice.  Amazing stage presence.  Any other year, I’d think he could take it, and really, I think he still could, because the voters can be stunningly fickle. 

La’Porsha:  Every performance of hers has been nothing less than stunning.  She deserves to win.  And get a great record deal.  And become a huge star.  And she has the cutest baby.  But as I said, everything must go.

In reality, there’s always one bad vote every year, and with no saves, someone else could take it.  But yeah, she’s eared this one.

Friday, January 22, 2016

In Which I Buy New Music

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine was lamenting the fact that bands don’t use the word monstrosity in songs any more.

I had to think about it.  She was referencing the 80s, because was talking about a local radio station that was doing a marathon of songs from 1986.

I thought about it for a while, trying to come up with an 80s song that used that word.  Finally, I said, “Um, Bohemian Rhapsody came out in 1975.”

It was a shot in the dark, but it turns out I was thinking of the right song.  Where things fell apart was that she didn’t know if the station screwed up, or she remembered the year incorrectly, or… well, we basically shrugged it off.

It was what she said in light of the discussion that bothered me – that she didn’t listen to or buy any new music.

And I sighed, and realized that, yes, I am getting to that age where there is a definite dividing line between “our” music and “their” music.  People my age are writing articles and posting memes about how modern music is too musically simple, and too lyrically dumb, and why can’t we have musical artists that are as talented and smart as when WE were kids.

Of course, maybe six months ago I read that people pretty much give up on new music starting around age 32 or 33.

I’m 39.  That freaks me right out.

I debated going off on a long-ish rant about how people my age need to at least try out some new music from time to time, but I can’t say that it felt like it would be worth it.  If my friend wants to be trapped in 1986, where the New Kids on the Block are about to come to prominence, well, that’s her right.

I think it just saddens me, because there are literally dozens of records coming out every week.  And while I don’t pick up something new all THAT often, over the last few months I’ve picked up no less than 12 albums.  That might be a record for such a short period of time.

And you know what?  I really liked some of them.  And was not very wowed by some of them.

So – capsule reviews!

Pentatonix – Pentatonix:

There’s a rant to be written about multiple versions of the same record coming out.  With this one, there was the regular edition, a deluxe edition, and a Target edition that had three extra songs.


Don’t do that, folks.  If you want to cram some songs on there as a bonus, note them as bonus songs.  That’s fine.  But hopping from store to store to store to get a handful of extra songs… it’s maddening.

But in this case, it’s almost worth it.  Pentatonix has put out three pop music EPS, a Christmas EP, and a Christmas record.  This one was “the big one” because it was going to be ALL original songs.  Unless you get the extended version, because there are extra covers on there, and… you know what?

It’s a great record.  The gang got together with a handful of accomplished songwriters and made a fun pop record that uses five voices to sound like what’s on the radio today.  Back when they won The Sing-Off, one of the judges said he felt these guys were sent back from the future to save A Cappella.

And this year, they had the number one record in the country for a week.  It’s a well eared accomplishment.  All I hope is that they take all future records as seriously as this one.  There are no bad songs, so weak arrangements.  It’s fun and impressive from end-to-end.

How good is it?  Kirstie Maldonado, the sole female in the group, often regulated to background vocals and a verse here and there?  She writes and sings and just SLAYS a little R and B number called Water.  She’s been in the background so long I’ve kind of taken her for granted, and this is me saying I was wrong.

I want a whole record like that someday. 

Ultimately, it’s a dance/pop record, designed to recreate the forms and fashions of what’s on the radio today.  That might not be your kind of thing.  But they’re well worth a listen for the level of singing talent alone.

Prince - HITnRUN phase one

Much was made of this record because Prince shared producing duties.  It would seem that he, like Pentatonix, wants to sound like the radio today.

Reviews were… interesting, basically saying Prince needed someone he couldn’t push around to really make the experiment work.

But truthfully, I realized years ago that there’s not going to be another great Prince record – or at least not one I love end to end, like I did Purple Rain, or The Gold Experience.

But there’s still good stuff here.  "1000 X's & 0's" is a great little song, for example. 

But I once heard Prince say he wrote a song every day.  And this felt like he took a random sampling and put it out there.  There’s nothing bad here, but nothing that makes me excited for what comes next.

But I’ve felt that way for something like two decades now.  So that’s on me.  (Side note: I started writing this before Phase 2 came out.  I still haven’t heard it.  But I’m weak, and I’ll probably pick it up, because Prince.  I really wish that impulse would pay off in a bigger way.)

Demi Lovato – Confident:

I’ll admit – this one actually made me a little sad.

I got Demi’s last record for free, thanks to Google offering it at no cost, and I really grew to love it. Heart Attack was an awesome vocal over a solid pop hook.  In Case was just heart-rending.

But Confident…

It seems there’s this thing where former kiddo pop princesses suddenly need to prove themselves, and it happens to ALL of them.  In one record, they go from making fun songs you can sing along to, to dropping F bombs and talking about doing it, more often than not with someone of the same sex.

I think I’d feel better about it if I really enjoyed anything on here, but it feels… broken.  Confident, as a song, is fun, but the fake horns don’t really work for me.  Cool for the Summer was a big hit, but there’s a buildup to the chorus that stops the song dead, and I can’t play it in front of my kid, which is sad, because she loves Demi.

As for the rest of it?  I spent a week listening to it and sitting here now I can barely recall any of the songs.

Sorry Demi.  Maybe next time.

Ben Folds – So There

So There is, now that I think about it, an odd title for a record with a Piano Concerto on it.  It gives of the air of refusing to grow up, while having music only a grown-up would want.

And it’s… okay.

I love Ben’s first couple of records, and Rockin’ the Suburbs, but his work has been hit or miss for me since then.  He has a gift for melody, is an amazing pianist (the concerto really shows this off), but he seems… stuck.

Supposedly a lot of these songs came out of recent breakup, and, well, he’s DONE that before.  This is a man who’s been married and divorced four times.

I mean, there’s good stuff here.  I liked the Concerto, though I question how often I’ll listen to it.  The songs are mostly pleasant, except when they’re basically a goof.

I dunno.  Maybe Ben has said most of what he’s needed to say?  I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that.

Come to think of it, the last full record of his I really loved was Lonely Avenue.  Maybe he just needs another collaborator…

Ed Sheeran – 5

A while back, I picked up copies of both of Ed Sheeran’s records, thanks to various American Idol and Glee and soundtrack work that my wife and I dug.

And what I learned about Ed is he either write’s an amazing song you can’t ever forget and can’t not love, or… he writes a song you forget the second it’s over.

My wife loved the records, and asked if he had anything else.  I said he had some EPS, but they were hard to come by and often ran you $25 or more for five or six songs.

So we shrugged it off.

I’m guessing Ed or his label realized they were leaving money on the table, so they put the five EPS into a box, called it 5, and slung it out into the world.

And I’m glad they did, because there’s some great stuff here.  Songs I Wrote with Amy is an entire EP of stuff from the team that gave you Thinking Out Loud, the new big wedding song everyone will be using for the next ten or fifteen years.  It’s delightful.  The live record is fun. 
Some of his better songs pop up on the EPs in earlier versions, and it’s interesting to hear them stripped down or rearranged. 

If I wasn’t fan, I’m not sure this collection would make me one.  And while I like having the artwork, putting all the EPs into little sleeves makes listening to them in the car way more complicated than it needed to be.  I think I’d prefer to have these fives discs on two discs, perhaps with some liner notes from Ed talking about the process of making them.

But for a fan, they’re well worth a listen.

The Silent War – Introducing

I was reminded to finish this article by Facebook, which informed me that this band was putting out their first record TOMORROW.

Introducing was the free online EP they offered for download.  Six songs, four of them fully produced, and two demo/acoustic numbers, and all of the songs are delightful.  I discovered them months ago when one of their songs ended up in a movie I was watching and I ended up spending hours trying to track it down.  It wasn’t available for sale OR for free at the time, which was maddening.

But, then I got this EP for free, and really, all was forgiven.

I’ve described the band as being The Indigo Girls laced with 80s pop, and I think that best describes their work.  Lovely harmonies, bright keyboard work, catchy melodies, it’s all there.

Honestly, I rate them as my favorite musical discovery of 2015, and I hope their record leads to bigger and better things.

Twenty One Pilots – Twenty One Pilots, Regional at Best, Vessel, Blurryface

I’m trying to remember the last time I felt compelled to pick up the entire back catalogue of a band or artist after getting an initial taste, and it might go back to my college days.  I do recall getting both of the Ben Folds Five records back then.  And grabbing everything Elliot Smith had done up to that point, which ended up being a five record binge.

I first heard of 21P thanks to a friend linking to their performance of I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You, which is a cute video that someone with an iPhone and some free time clearly edited together and turned into a video made of pure fun.

Mostly I thought it was interesting that the lead singer was holding a ukulele.  So I hit up their YouTube channel and learned they used both the uke and the piano on a regular basis.

It wasn’t until I picked up their records at the library that I realized their videos kind of… reduced them.

21P will, I think, be written off by people who only hear a couple of their songs as decent pop songsmiths who occasionally tip into the hipster world by adding ukulele to the mix. 

In reality, they’re a lot more eclectic than that.  The opening song of Blurryface, their most recent record, starts with heavy dance music drums, has rap verses, and then adds a piano lick and sung hook that…

I mean, it wasn’t what I was expecting.

And that sums up the rest of the record nicely.  There’s some rapping on there.  Tear In My Heart is a wonderful piece of piano-pounding pop until it moves into an oddball, loping bridge.  Songs change time signatures, often at a whim.

It’s a second-listen record, where it works just a little better once you know what you’re getting.

From there, I went backwards.  Vessel is more of the same, though the songs are a little more straightforward here and there.  Regional at Best is now out of print, but pulls it back to songwriting basics even more.

And their debut, Twenty One Pilots, really is their infancy.  The songs are straightforward, but they also suffer a bit for being too repetitive.  They’ll find a lovely musical phrase and repeat it just a few too many times.  There’s good stuff there, but it isn’t the record I’d start with.

Adele – 25

I’m not sure I could convince anyone to listen to or not listen to this record.  Right now there are maybe five musical artists in the world who can sell a million records, no questions asked.  If you wanted this, you already bought it, and if you hate Adele, this will not change your mind.

Me?  I like it fine.  But it comes on the heels of 21, which was, I felt, just about a perfect record, a collection of songs so good they can just retitle it “The Best of Adele” and call it good.

25 experiments a bit more with musical textures, but in the end you’re listening because Adele sounds like she’s willing to scoop her emotions out of her soul and place them directly in your hear via your eat canals.

The more I listen to this record, the more I find things to like, but 21 was pretty much perfect.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Summertime Is TV Time

Summer has always been TV catch-up time in our household.


We have a handful of summer shows, to be sure, but our big start-of-summer project is binge-watching all the things we put off during the year.


So, hey, here’s the stuff we knocked out over the last two months.


Parks and Recreation:


We burned this one off in a week, and honestly, I’m surprised it took that long.


It’s far too rare that a show knows that it’s ending, and it’s even more rare when they have an entire year to plan.  Parks knew it’s last season was coming, and they didn’t have to live in fear of ending halfway through a season, or of suddenly getting renewed. 


When they were gone, they were gone.


And so we got what might not have been the BEST season of Parks, but one that was certainly the most gratifying.


Even with the short order, we eventually got two seasons of TV.  The first one was Leslie winning one more big park.  If the show had ended there, it would have been perfectly lovely and I’m sure that fans of the show would have been overjoyed to see it happen.


Then came the second half of the season, which a friend of mine dubbed: Everyone gets what they want.


And it really was.


The “second” season was, quite simply, one person after another wrapping up their bits of business and moving (happily) on to whatever came next. 


In certain hands, things like that don’t work.


(See: The last season of Glee, where everyone spent the latter half of the season bouncing around aimlessly and pointlessly, and then we got the season finale where everything turned out AMAZING for everyone, ever.)


But with Parks… I dunno.  I guess I just wanted these people to be happy.  Which is dumb, since they aren’t real people, but still…


In all seriousness, however, the season worked because it was earned.  And while the laughs weren’t always as big as in previous seasons, we got Leslie and Ron in their own episode, which deserves about 15 Emmys.  And we got a whole show where Chris Pratt got to be completely ridiculous, and proved why he’s suddenly a massive box-office star who can carry three giant movies in two years.


And there are all the flash-forwards in the finale, where we get to see how awesome everything becomes. 


Too sappy, probably.  And in years to come I can see people claiming it’s a weak season that spent too much time making everyone’s lives too perfect.  But I don’t care.




Community season six. 


So, that happened.  On Yahoo.


Community has long been a show under the gun, which turned the last three seasons into… I’m not even sure.  Something bizarre, that’s for sure.


We’ve got the fourth season, where the creator was gone and the show kinda-sorta carried on and was still funny, but not quite right. 


There was the fifth season, where the creator came back and two cast members left, and the show once again never quite found its bearings.  It was funny, it had some great episodes, but it was a lesser show.  One that spent a lot of time trying to recreate fan-favorite episodes in a sort of greatest-hits way.


And then there was the sixth season.  Where everything really started to crumble.


The problem can be pretty easily summarized in two parts:


First, I think they were just out of stories to tell.  That’s not abnormal for a sixth-season show, really.  They tried to do some of-the-moment stories, tried to revisit some well-loved bits of business, and while the show was still funny, it often felt like one more return to the well.  A victory lap for a for that wasn’t quite up to taking one.


Second: The cast.  They lost two cast members last year, and another one this year.  Except, they also lost the two cast members they built up LAST year to replace the two they lost in the first place.


So they slotted some people in, and the new guys were game, but… this show was, at its center, about a tight-knit group of friends who ended up together despite their differences.


And by the end, it was about a bunch of people in each other’s orbit for no real reason.


In particular, Abed spent the entire season stranded.  Without Troy to bounce off of, he went from a fun character who existed in his own world but took Troy along with him… to an oddball who never really connected with anyone.


That might be why the final episode worked as well as it did for me.  In the end, everyone (just about) headed off into the world, indicating that, yes, the show was over, and that, yes, things change and that’s both hard and sad.


Was it a terrible year?  I think the “true” fans, as opposed to the casual ones like myself, were probably hit the hardest by this year, and I’m glad that the final plug is finally pulled. 


Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt:


I’m going to say something NO ONE else has been willing to say:


NBC was right.  They were right to cancel and/or never air this show.


They were right to keep it away from themselves.


They were right to let Netflix pick it up.


And here’s why. In an alternate universe, critics pick up the first few episodes of Kimmy.  They review it, and it falls into the B/B-/C+ arena.


And why not?  It’s an odd show, with odd characters that work very hard to exist in a semi-fantasy world.  There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a sitcom after all, but I can easily see the first episode barely grabbing an audience, a second losing half the people who saw the first, and then it’s gone.


Whereas, the way it was released, well, it’s Netflix.  You turn the show on, and you let it roll.


That’s where Kimmy starts to work.  It’s not that it’s bad at first, but it takes a while to settle in and get used to the odd little fantasy world that’s somewhat like the real world, but not really.  And it’s perfectly bite-sized, which means you can watch an episode while you eat your dinner, watch another while you eat dessert, and then run through two more as you think about doing other things but figure you’d rather sit on your comfy couch and, you know, NOT do chores.


Three nights of that, you’ve watched the first season, and you’re kind of in love with the show.


Look, the show is funny.  Sometimes it goes for big laughs, but mostly it’s the charming story of a girl who spent ten years in an underground bunker, her gay roommate, and various other weirdos who cross her path.


It’s a charming show, and charming works better when you can control the pipeline a bit. 


I’m happy that Kimmy got a full season, and I’m also happy that it’s getting a second one.  I’m curious to see what they can do with the world they built.


I’m more curious to see if this should have stayed one delightful, charming, season. 


We shall see.

Speedy Review: Armada

So lately, I’ve been hung up on writing these long, long, long essays that detail everything ever about my experience with something.

So now we’ll try something new – a short review, just to see if I can pull it off.

Armada is the latest novel from Ernest Cline, who made a big splash a couple of years ago with the novel Ready Player One.  This was after his first movie took years and lots of re-editing to come out.

At any rate, Ready Player One came out with lots of geek cred authors all over the back cover, praising it like nothing else.

As for me, I thought it was an impressive pulling together of a bunch of generation X nerd culture.  Is was the kind of book I had trouble recommending to friends, because the plot was paper-thin, but the game of spot the reference was kind of fun.

And now, only a couple of years later, I can barely recall the plot. 

So perhaps I wasn’t the best bet for being a fan of Armada.

The super-short plot synopsis.  We’ve got a main character, who is a boy.  He likes to play a video game called Armada.  His dad was killed years ago in an industrial accident, but he left behind a lot of notebooks detailing a possible conspiracy having to do with video games.

Finally, after 50-some pages, we learn that Armada was actually a simulator created to teach the world how to fight an alien invasion.

And of course, our protagonist is high up in the game rankings, so he’s being recruited.

Which is to say, if you’ve seen the movie The Last Starfighter, you’ve kind of read this already.

Is it exactly the same?  No.  But what we have here is, once again, Cline mining his lost youth for references.  Our hero idolizes his dead dad, who is, of course, just about Cline’s age.  So he loves that era of nerdery and talks about music and video games that your average 17-year-old probably isn’t terribly familiar with.

Much like in Ready Player One, I never really invested in any of the characters, even though Cline clearly went out of his way to attempt some emotional scenes for them.

And as the book progresses, it morphs from a Last Starfighter story until it essentially becomes (spoiler alert, I suppose) Ender’s Game, in far, far, far too many ways.

The book itself also seems… rushed, I guess.  After a too-long 50 page setup, the book never really stops moving but not in a relentless, fun way.  Instead it feels like Cline knew he had a deadline coming up, waited until the last possible second, and then bashed out a first draft.

Or perhaps, as sometimes happens, he sold the book on a pitch or an outline, and didn’t realize until it was too late that he was essentially photocopying a couple of older books/movies.

No matter.

In its favor, the book glides by quickly, so… there’s that.

Cline apparently already has another novel in the pipeline.  I’ll be curious to see what it’s about, but I really, really hope he goes in a bit of a different direction this time.

I wish him luck.


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Stephen King and Me: A One-Sided History

Recently, I realized that Stephen King is creeping up on 70.


You can tell he’s getting up there, because every interview couches “that” question somewhere: How much longer can he do it?


Granted, we’re talking about a man who has produced a book a year.  Sometimes two.  And yet, I think King fans all live with a certain fear – that one day, there will be no more books.  King will put down the pen, or he will die, or perhaps both at once, and the King library will add a final volume or two to the bookshelf, and then that will be it.


I feel like I’m writing a eulogy, and maybe I am.  But I just finished reading the latest King novel a couple of weeks ago, and it’s gotten me to thinking – this is a guy I have a history with.  He’s the man who almost died when he was hit by a van.  The guy who talked about retiring in 2004, when he “finished” The Dark Tower.


They guy who said he might go blind, in the future.


And I’m sure there are times I wanted him to stop.  But now isn’t that time.  I kind of hope he writes until he’s 100, and I’ve got sixty-plus books to look forward to.  That would be remarkable.


So this isn’t really a eulogy, and it isn’t really an essay.  Instead, it’s a series of little essays.  Tiny stories, some of which go places, many which don’t.


I imagine a lot of King fans have their own tales.


These are mine.




This is my most often-told story, about how I discovered King.


When I was a kid, I used to go grocery shopping with my mom.


At the time, the impulse purchase area at our local grocer, instead of being packed with trashy magazines, held a collection of bestselling paperbacks.


And I remember, very clearly, seeing It there.  It was that first, unforgettable cover, with the paper boat, and the sewer, and the claw.


I was a reader by nature, but it was 1987, which would have made me 10 or 11 years old when I saw the cover.


“That’s a scary book,” said my mom.  “That guy writes scary books.”


I noted the title, and the author name – Stephen King.  I didn’t much care for scary movies, couldn’t handle the most intense parts of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even Star Trek II.  I had to look away when watching those movies and faces melted or worms crawled in ears.


So I filed the name away in my brain.  Those were, surely, books I didn’t want to read.


The world moved on.




In the seventh grade, I started to learn how useless study hall was.  Or at least, how useless a badly timed one was.


In high school, I had one first thing in the morning.  On test days, it was nice.  On regular days, I sat and did nothing, because trying to cram an hour of homework in the day it was due was foolish at best.


But I’m talking about seventh grade.  Where I still had many, many days where I had nothing to do.  Passing the time was hard.  Sometimes I literally just sat.  A few times I tried to make up stories of my own.  A few times I sat and read the dictionary, just to pass the time.


One day, a friend of mine finished reading his book about ten seconds into study hall.  Without even looking at the cover, I asked if I could borrow it.


It was a book of scary short stories.


I’ve never been able to hunt down the book again, though I remember the cover well, and the fact that the first story was about druids. 


But I do remember enjoying that first story.  It was scary, sure, but mostly it was surprising.  Short horror stories are, after all, often about that last paragraph, or that last line, where the author springs his or her little trap.


What I learned was that scary stories had STORY.


All I knew was, I liked scary stories.  And I was suddenly very curious about this Stephen King guy.




I went to the library, and got Salem’s Lot.  Mostly because it was about vampires, and vampires I understood.  Vampires were, after all, a safe monster.  One I knew, was familiar with. 


The monster behind the door is scary.  It could be anything, coming to get you.


But these were vampires.


Long story short, I liked the book, so I went back.


There was an entire bookcase, and King filled every shelf.  I had a lot to catch up on, even though it was only 1988. 


I read Carrie next.




At one point in the seventh grade, we were supposed to write a review of a novel.  I said I wanted to write a review of a Stephen King book.


“Stephen King is not a real author,” insisted my teacher. 


This statement puzzled me.  I mentioned it to my parents, who didn’t really seem to be able to explain it.


An author, after all, is a person who writes a book.  How was he not an author?


I didn’t bother arguing about it.  I chose a Lloyd Alexander book instead.


That was the first time I ever encountered author prejudice.  Even today, I have to admit I don’t know what you make of it.




My dad was online a long, long time before being online was a thing, connected with a 2400 baud modem using his Commodore 64.


He got involved in an early version of a chat room.  And in there, by chance, was a guy named Stephen King.  Look up his information, and all it said was “Boo!”


I’d been reading him for a while.  I knew he was computer savvy.  I’d read a story in some magazine or another that King had used his computer to co-write The Talisman, using his modems to share the manuscript back and forth between himself and his co-author.


I asked King if he could name his first novel – “Carrie,” was the reply.  A bit of information that literally anyone who had ever read King probably knew.


No matter.  I was convinced it was King.


My dad said I could send him a message, using the most primitive possible version of email.  I said I was a reader, that I really liked his books, and even told him the story about my English teacher stating he was not a real author.


I got a very nice reply back that he was not, in fact, Stephen King.


In the best of all possible worlds, it would have been Stephen and I would have had a cool story to tell.


But in the real world, it was a good lesson to learn early: People online aren’t always who they say they are.


Or maybe it was Stephen King, and he didn’t want to be pestered by a 12-year-old.




In the 8th grade, one of my parent’s friends found out I was a King reader, and actually mailed me two of King’s books.  In hindsight, I find that both cool and a little odd.  Given the cost of shipping, it would have been cheaper to send my parents cash and a map to a used bookstore.


Instead, their friend sent me a copy of Misery and It.


My memory is that I read Misery first, as It still seemed like something of a challenge.  The book topped 1000 pages after all.


Misery was great, of course, and it’s probably in the top ten or fifteen of any King fan.


It was something else altogether. You would have to read Misery three times to be reach the page count of It.


Start the book, and congratulations, you’re going for a very, very, very long trip.


I remember getting sucked into the book.  I remember reading it, and reading it, and reading it.


And I remember getting to the last day of 8th grade.  My school held a little “graduation ceremony,” which I don’t really remember.  I do recall my parents weren’t there.  They were working, because the graduation of an 8th grader isn’t all that important of a thing.


I finished the last 12 pages of it on the way home.  I then handed the book to my parents and said they could send it back to their friend.  I guess they did.




King’s other giant book back then was The Stand.  The original version was 800 or so pages.  I had to take it back to the library twice to re-check it out.


But I did finish it.




My mom found a copy of Night Shift, King’s first collection of short stories, at a garage sale, and brought it home for me.


I’d already read it, so I set it on the shelf next to the handful of books I owned and barely gave it a thought.


A friend asked to borrow it, and I loaned it to him.  He never returned it.


To be fair, he brought a bunch of Archie comics to my house, and never asked for them back.  They’re in a box somewhere.




My freshman year of high school, our English teacher brought us to the library and had the person running the place tell us what was there.  Among the things she mentioned: “We do have SOME popular fiction.”


In other words, they had a couple of King novels. 


One day, bored in English class, I pulled It off the shelf and started reading it again.  I checked it out and reread the entire books in the two weeks I was allowed to have it.




As high school progressed, I slowly caught up with King.  After all, he could only produce a couple of books a year, and at the time I could read a good-sized novel in a week, maybe two.


I remember my English teacher saying he probably wasn’t going to finish reading The Dark Half.  I was stunned.  Who doesn’t finish a book?  Plus, I had already read and enjoyed it.


I had to write a book report, and chose the first two books of The Dark Tower.  There was no mention of King not being a real author.


I spent years waiting for new Dark Tower books.  The idea that they were a series, and that King had no idea when they would be written, or when they would be published, but did know the titles of the next couple of volumes made me crazy.




I’ve known many people who own every King novel, and love most of them to one extent or another.  But I learned a lesson early on.


My mom came to me in the middle of putting in a book order for one of her book clubs.  There was some King listed, did I want any?


No.  I loved King.  Even loved re-reading some of King’s books.  But they were not all universally great.  And the chance that I would ever go back to them was fairly slim.


Plus, they were all available at the library.  Copy after copy.  King was popular and easy to come by.


Over the years, I’ve bought some favorites.  The Dark Tower.  His short fiction.  The Bachman books.  A couple of other novels.


But even today, King fills a couple of bookcases at the library.  I can get my hands on whichever books of his I desire.  Why own them all?




I’ve read the expanded version of The Stand three times.  After struggling to get through the short version in three months, I sailed through the long one in a month.


Then I read it again, in about two weeks.


A few years into my marriage, I finished all my books while visiting my in-laws.  My father-in-law was a fan, and I randomly grabbed his copy of The Stand off the bookshelf.


I sat on the couch and read fifty pages, once again transported by the massive cast and relentless narrative.


I left the book there, but went home and finished the book with a copy from the library.


I’m terrified to open it again, for fear of taking the massive journey yet another time.  I’m almost 40.  I have a lot of books I want to read before I can’t read anymore.




Most King movies are R rated, some for language, most for violence, and my parents weren’t big on me watching R-rated movies as a kid.


So I saw a few of them chopped up for TV. 


I watched The Stand, which was great until the hand of God.  I watched It, which was pretty good until the spider.


In college I was shocked when someone turned Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption into a movie.  I had always thought it could be a great one, but Shawshank was pretty much perfect.


I missed it in the theater, but caught it at an on-campus showing with a bunch of riveted college students.  Even projected on a white wall, as the second half of a double feature, it killed.


Me, anyway.


I had a VCR in college, and taped the new version of The Shining.  It was six hours long, but I sat and watched all of it, back-to-back-to-back on a long Sunday afternoon.  I know a lot of people don’t like it, but I literally couldn’t stop myself from rolling along.


My wife-to-be walked in somewhere in the second hour, and sat and watched the whole thing with me, equally taken with it.  Then she asked to watch the first hour, since she had missed it.


It was a long afternoon, and at the end I had a TV headache.  But I sometimes wish I had the kind of time to do things like that with my wife now.




I never had any time to read in college.  Most people don’t.  I’d cram my King fixes in on summer breaks.


I do remember my mom being amused that King wrote a novel called Insomnia.  She sent me a sticker with the title on it, thinking it would be funny to see my lifelong affliction as a book title.


I laughed, a little.




Stephen King got hit by a van, and I thought the same thing every other fan thought – he needs to live to finish The Dark Tower.




Not long after being hit, he released On Writing, which was a great book with a little short story contest in it.


I wrote an entry, trying to finish it by midnight, before the new year started.  I ended up being late, as they’d used Midnight on the East coast as their marker.


I begged to be let in.  I don’t know what I thought, maybe that King would see a diamond in the rough and I would finally hear from the actual man himself.


But I didn’t win, place, or show.


I’ve never re-read the story, which is probably a good thing.




King finally finished The Dark Tower, and I stacked the books up and read the whole series from beginning to end.  Book two is still my favorite.


In the middle of the fourth book, which is 90% love story, a woman I knew saw me reading and commented she could never read King because he was too scary.


I didn’t know how to explain that I was basically reading a western romance, and that most or all of it wouldn’t bother her.  So I just let it drop.


It’s still one of my least-favorite of his books, smack dab between all the books of his I like very much.




King saying he was retiring after finishing The Dark Tower was the only reason I read his non-fiction book, Faithful.  He co-wrote it with another guy.


I really, really didn’t care for it.  It was about baseball, which isn’t my thing.  I eventually skipped all of the other author’s sections, and read only Kings and it was still a chore.


But it was 2004, and I thought I might be reading the last King book, ever.


This was not the case.




King has written some very good books, and some books I could barely get through. 


A friend loaned us his copy of From a Buick 8, and when we tried to return it, he said not to bother.  We did anyway.


Lisey’s Story won for being the worst, I think.  I tried to complete it, and only managed because it was an audiobook, and I just let it run, even when I barely tuned into it.


I bought it for a friend as a gift, before I read it.  He’s read all the other King in the world, but not that one.  He says he’s saving it for when King dies.


I’ve told him that’s a bad idea.




I loved the idea of The Green Mile, with the new chunk out every few weeks.  I remember having a summer job as a delivery guy, with nothing to do.  So I sat and read the entire part 2 of 6 while sitting in the shop.


Then my co-worker, who was also bored, read it, even though she hadn’t read part 1.


I wonder if she ever finished the series.


I finally complete it at college, one of the rare times I read a book in college, because a friend of mine had it and said she could loan it to me.


School was almost over for the year, so I scrambled through it at top speed. Finals was probably not the time to do that.




Other books of King’s that I hated. 


Tommyknockers is awful.  I checked it out from the library multiple times, always returning it about twenty pages in, and choosing another King novel instead.


I finally read it when I finished EVERY other King book, up to that point.


Even King doesn’t like it.  I read somewhere that he felt that if the book was half the size, it might have been good.  But I doubt it.


I also didn’t like The Talisman, I suspect because it just seems never-ending.  That one also hung me up early on in the narrative, and took a major push to get through.


Years later, after I read the sequel, I was surprised to discover that Black House was quite good.  So I went back and re-read The Talisman, via audiobook.


Still awful.  Mostly, it was just too long.


Maybe that one could be chopped in half and made good.




Of the King books, I have almost always listed my favorites as The Stand and The Dead Zone.  As I said, I’ve read The Stand multiple times.


The Dead Zone… I think I’ve read only once.  Perhaps twice.  I’m a little afraid to go back again, only because so many things I loved as a kid, especially some King books, don’t hold up.


I mean, I read It twice.  And yet when I pulled it down from the shelf recently, and began re-reading that awesome, mood-setting start… I realized it was way, way, way overwritten.  Instead of sucking me in, I gave up five pages in, and never went back.


I read The Shining again, after the TV movie came out.  I wasn’t a huge fan the first time around.  The second time fared no better.


I liked Salem’s Lot enough to move on to another King book, but reading it again… didn’t do much for me.  I could see where King was bouncing off of the original Dracula, but it wasn’t as relentless a read.


I do have a lot of love for The Bachman books.


If what I’ve read is correct, every amateur screenwriter wants to take a crack at The Long Walk. 


The Running Man was a stupid-fun movie, but an amazing book that beat the actual world of reality TV to the punch by about 25 years.  It’s kind of a terrifying read now.


Rage is… Rage gets a little more scary every year, really.  It was probably an odd, creepy concept when King wrote it.  Today, it’s practically a novelization of an event that’s happened far too many times.


Even King is a little afraid of it, now, and asked that it be taken out of print.


And then there’s Roadwork.  I’ve read it twice.  It was bad the first time.  I thought age and maturity might make me feel differently, but no.  It’s just a bad book.




The one area I’ve always envied King – he came from an era where selling short fiction was worth actual money.


I look at the pile of short stories he accumulated over the years, and there are a lot of great ones.  But a hundred bucks in 1971 and a hundred bucks in 2011 are two very different numbers. 


I made about the same amount of money on my first novel as he made on his.  Back then , it was almost enough for him to quit his job.  I might have been able to buy a functional used car, after taxes.






Oddly, I’ve never read my own personal copy of The Stand.


When I was newly married, a friend offered to buy me a copy of Christmas.  It never came, though he said he’d ordered it.


When I mentioned it to him, he said he’d look into it.


Months later, my wife asked me what happened to the book.  I asked him, and he said they must not have delivered it.


This isn’t impossible.  I’ve ordered things online and had them not show up.  Both times, this ended in irritated battles with credit card companies and businesses, though in both cases I got my money back.


Eventually, years later, I bought a used paperback.


But it’s a big book.  If I was going to read it again, I wanted it in a format that wouldn’t crumble.  So I picked up a used hardcover.


I gave the paperback away to another friend who had recently gotten into King.  He seemed to not really want it.  I think he looked at the size of the thing and knew it would be a major commitment.


He’s not wrong.




I don’t read as fast as I used to, and I don’t generally buy King novels.


This has led to an odd issue, where I have to read King books in chunks.


When I got Under the Dome, I read about 600 pages.  The book was due at the library, and I was ending my vacation.  I knew there was no way I was going to sail through the last 600 pages once I was back at real life.


So I gave it back to the library and put it on reserve.


Three weeks later, I got it back, and finished it.


I’ve done this with multiple books now.  It’s like reading a series that just sits between one set of covers.


Granted, I won’t argue it’s an ideal way to read a book…




One of the things I find a little magical about King is that he really is that early adopter of technology. 


When Barnes and Noble tried to get people to read books on their computers, in the pre-Kindle days, King gave away a story for free.


It crashed servers.


I eventually got, and read the story.  And then I never opened the Barnes and Noble software again.


King did other variants on this premise.  Kindle-only work, for example.


The most famous was probably when he published The Plant online, in chunks, one section at a time, getting people to pay as they went.


I bought all the parts, and King, in turn, gave up on the experiment.


Not having a real ending to the book bothers me.  It bothers me very much.




A friend of mine thinks King is in a renaissance after several hard years of iffy books. 


I want to agree with him, as the last nine or ten years have almost been clunker-free. 


And yet…


And yet, there have always been good novels, mixed in with bad ones.  Good short stories created in and around so-so books. 


Like I said earlier, Misery is probably one of King’s best, and it came out right around some of his worst.


So… maybe there’s no rhyme or reason.  Maybe it’s like every mine in the world, gold threaded in an around useless rocks.


King has claimed in the past that there are no more books squirrelled away, which means that once he’s dead, the books stop.  He’s said of various books that perhaps one of his sons could finish the job, if it came to it.


But there isn’t much he’s held back.  Or so he claims.


I’ve done enough reading to know that’s not entirely true.  I suspect there is probably a minor bestseller for anyone who pulls together all of King’s lost Pop of King columns.  There’s probably some lost gold in King’s student newspaper days.


A handful of stories have gone missing, according to Wikipedia.


And there’s at least one novel that never saw the light of day.


Heck, I’m sure someone will finally put The Plant between covers, for all the people who didn’t want to mail a dollar to King, pre-Paypal.


King’s next two books are already in the pipeline – a collection of short fiction, and the final novel in a series of three books.


Is there more?  I dunno.


I confess my biggest fear is that the books will get bad, and that King, who really has been having a good run, will pass away, leaving us with a sad, “If only he’d stopped HERE,” feeling.


And yet, I don’t want him to quit.


Because there’s always the chance he’ll strike gold one last time.




I find it amazing that I’ve been reading King for almost thirty years now.


Here’s hoping there are 30 more.  And that they are good ones.