Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker

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Winner of the Prose Award for Humanities
Finalist for the NAACP Image Award
Finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award
A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year

No musician has lived a more transformational, or tragic, life than Charlie Parker, one of the most talented and influential figures of the twentieth century. Drawing on decades of original interviews with peers, ...

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Winner of the Prose Award for Humanities
Finalist for the NAACP Image Award
Finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award
A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year

No musician has lived a more transformational, or tragic, life than Charlie Parker, one of the most talented and influential figures of the twentieth century. Drawing on decades of original interviews with peers, collaborators, and family members, Stanley Crouch reveals Parker as he was: from the dance clubs of late-night Kansas City, where he learned his craft, to the ballrooms of wartime Harlem, it offers an unprecedented window into the world—and intimate life—of the young genius.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - David Hajdu
…[a] judicious, strategically crafted new book about Charlie Parker…Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker is, like the music made by its subject in his abbreviated life, free-flowing and severe, volatile, expansive, allusive and indulgent. From bravura sentence to serpentine paragraph, the book is a virtuoso performance of musical-literary mimesis…Kansas City Lightning provides more ideas and better writing in its 365 pages than any other book about Parker…
The New York Times - Dwight Garner
Kansas City Lightning is all about polyrhythmic cadences and percussive thumps. It's a book about a jazz hero written in a heroic style; it's a tall tale, a bebop Beowulf…a 365-page riff on Charlie Parker, on America in the first half of the 20th century and on black intellect and feeling…To settle in and listen to Mr. Crouch on Parker's sound is to send you racing to your CD collection or Spotify app.
Publishers Weekly
With the straight-ahead timing and the ethereal blowing of a great jazzman, Crouch delivers a scorching set in this first of two volumes of his biography of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, capturing the downbeats and the up-tempo moments of the great saxophonist’s life and music. Drawing on interviews with numerous friends, fellow musicians, and family members, Crouch traces Parker’s life from his earliest days in Kansas City, Mo., his early romance and eventual marriage to Rebecca Ruffin, and his heroin addiction to his involvement with his mentors Lester Young and Buster Smith. Crouch brings to life the swinging backdrop against which Parker honed his craft: “Kansas City was becoming a kind of kind of experimental laboratory, where the collective possibilities of American rhythm were being refined and expanded on a nightly basis.” Parker eventually decides that Kansas City isn’t big enough for him, and he rides the rails to Chicago and New York, ending up on Buster Smith’s doorstep, eager to absorb all the lessons the big city has to teach him. “By now, he had long since mastered the physical challenges of playing... and become preoccupied with the coordination of mind and muscle necessary to make his own way.” As Crouch reminds us, however, “Charlie Parker, no matter how highly talented, was not greater than his idiom. But his work helped to lead the art form to its most penetrating achievement.” (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
A veteran cultural critic and jazz historian tells the simultaneous stories of the rise of jazz and the emergence of one of its brightest comets, Charlie Parker (1920–1955). Crouch (Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz, 2006, etc.), whose journalism has appeared in just about every major venue and whose books have earned widespread critical appreciation, is uniquely qualified to guide readers on this tour. He begins in Des Moines, Iowa, where Parker, 21, was touring with the Jay McShann Orchestra. Here, we get an early hint of troubles to come when Crouch notes that Parker's "disappearing acts were his specialty." Hard drugs would limit Parker's ascension and eventually bring him down. But Crouch's agenda comprises not just the story of the early Parker. He tells the tales of towns (New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago, New York), of ragtime and jazz legends (Scott Joplin, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum and others of lesser name but considerable significance), and of families and friends. We see Parker's impecunious struggles to learn his instrument (alto sax), his repeated visits to the pawn shop (morphine was not free), his experiences of having to borrow other players' instruments, his gift as a musician, his ferocious work ethic (striving to find his own sound) and his transformation into a dweller of the night. We learn, as well, about his youthful love affair that eventually became his first marriage. He became a father and then left his family to pursue his dreams, which no longer included them. Crouch takes us with Parker to Chicago and then to New York City, where he was just about to make it when the story stops. Crouch is a phrasemaker, and the text is chockablock with memorable lines. A friend's death "was like drinking a cup of blues made of razor blades." A story rich in musical history and poignant with dramatic irony.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Kansas City Lightning succeeds as few biographies of jazz musicians have. . . This book is a magnificent achievement; I could hardly put it down.”
Wynton Marsalis
“It takes a lifetime of passionate engagement to write with the intensity and depth of Stanley Crouch. . . The results are insightful, profound, and wholly original. . . This a must read, not just for jazz fans, but for anyone interested in American possibilities.”
starred review Booklist
“A jazz biography that ranks with the very best.”
Geoffrey C. Ward
“This is a memorable book. . . Stanley Crouch takes us deep into places most of us can only imagine—including into the heart of the mysterious split-second alchemy that takes place nightly on the bandstand.”
Gary Giddins
“[A] riveting, long-awaited book . . . Here is Bird making his watershed discoveries before he fired his own lightning bolts.”
Tom Piazza
“A portrait of the young Charlie Parker with a degree of vivid detail never before approached. . . [Kansas City Lightning is] a deft, virtuosic panorama of early jazz. . . This is a mind-opening, and mind-filling, book.”
Madhav Chari
“Stanley Crouch’s work is perhaps the most important writing on jazz today. . . This outstanding book is food for the soul for any serious listener of jazz music.”
New York Times
“A book about a jazz hero written in a heroic style. . . a bebop Beowulf.”
Huffington Post
“The soul of Stanley Crouch joins the soul of the legendary jazz legend. . . Crouch recreates ‘the Bird’ with his writer’s talents at their peak and the result is magical.”
New York Observer
“Fans of Mr. Crouch have been waiting so long for him to complete this volume, which is the first installment in a two-part series, that it has taken on a kind of mythic status. It lives up to its aura.”
“He tells Parker’s story in vivid detail, with a historian’s eye and Crouch’s unwavering love of the art. All of these elements coalesce into one engrossing account of an American legend that is a must-read for music fans.”
Jazz History Online
“The rich details make Parker’s story come alive.”
Buffalo News
“[Crouch’s] great, indeed historic, glory is original research, its interviews with Parker friends from boyhood on about the first half of his life in Kansas City.”
New York Review of Books
“’Bird Lives!’ his followers proclaimed, as if a man as brilliant as Parker could not possibly be mortal. But Charlie Parker was a man, and Stanley Crouch’s enchanting biography returns him to the soil that nourished him before he took flight.”
Wall Street Journal
“It is from Mr. Crouch, a novelist as well as a critic and essayist, that we come to see Charlie Parker in the context of his time and place in America. . . One comes away from Mr. Crouch’s book wanting more.”
The New Yorker
“Crouch. . . meticulously examines the musical mechanisms of Parker’s genius and, in prose that veers toward lyrical rapture, conjures the inner life of the improvising artist. . . The book also unfolds, with remarkable personal nuances, a social history of black America in the Jim Crow era.”
Dallas Morning News
“Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning shoots out of the gate with the gale force of a Charlie Parker solo. . . [An] immersive chronicle, more than 30 years in the making.”
Los Angeles Magazine
“Stanley Crouch’s soulful, poetic and often graphic Kansas City Lightning. . . reads like the jazz version of Batman Begins, with Crouch detailing the raw materials of culture, class, and race that forged Parker’s musical identity.”
David Hajdu
“From bravura sentence to serpentine paragraph, the book is a virtuoso performance of musical-literary mimesis. . . . Kansas City Lightning provides more ideas and better writing in its 365 pages than any other book about Parker.”
Named One of the Best Books of the Year NPR
“Crouch’s prose is, as usual, perfect-it takes a genius to write about one, perhaps—and Kansas City Lightning is a thoughtful, generous look at one of the country’s most important artists.”
Washington Post
“A tour de force that is the print equivalent of a long, bravura jazz performance. . . Crouch has given us a bone-deep understanding of Parker’s music and the world that produced it. In his pages, Bird still lives.”
Toronto Globe and Mail
“Capture[s] the excitement of a Charlie Parker performance, his incandescent swing, the way he took notes to places they’d never been before. . . Takes us as close as we are likely to get to the early years of a genius-in-waiting.”
“[A] meticulous biography of Parker. . . . In Crouch’s passages, he very nearly invents a new language for discussing jazz.”
The Millions
“In Crouch’s hands, the phrase that used to be ubiquitous around New York rings true: Bird lives. I hope I’m not the only one out there who is waiting with bated breath for Crouch’s next volume to see this Bird take flight.”
Jeff Sultanof
“An instant classic. . . . With a novelist’s sensibility . . . Crouch portrays Parker’s world more vividly than anything I have ever read previously. . . . Parker ‘lives’ in Crouch’s telling.”
“Reads like a jazz record. . . Cradling Parker’s past in the long and incredibly fruitful history of music in America, Crouch brings the alto saxophonist to life, his biography an amalgamation of the people who knew him, loved him, and, of course, played alongside him.”
Boston Globe
“Will send you searching for recordings. And really, there’s no more important litmus test for a music biography. Reading these books makes you want to listen.”
Chicago Tribune
“Charlie Parker’s story can’t help but fascinate anyone interested in the most American music of the past century. . . I am eagerly awaiting [the] sequel.”
Jazz Times
“A riveting read. . . Crouch, through years of research, has done an exemplary job.”
Philadelphia Inquirer
“Strikes with enlivening insight, and will leave jazz fans hoping Crouch is as good as his word when he says Volume 2 will be out in the next two years.”
San Jose Mercury News
“Crouch writes in a heroic style. . . This 30-years-in-the-making biography of the saxophonist evokes Parker’s life and times with visceral power, as well as real finesse.”
Shelf Awareness
“This first volume in the epic biography of Charlie Parker showcases Stanley Crouch’s encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history and effusive prose.”
Eugene Holley
Kansas City Lightning paints a profound portrait of a great American musician, but also features Crouch operating at the top of his game.”
Daily Beast
“Stanley Crouch has a store of fresh information for you in his new book about Charlie Parker (1920-55), the genius of American music universally known as Bird, and invaluable insights to offer into the meaning of Parker’s achievement. It is imperative that you come into possession of this material…”
Denver Post
“Award-winning Crouch takes a deep look at [Parker’s] rich life.”
New York Post
“Social and cultural critic, columnist and MacArthur Genius Crouch offers a mix of impressionist strokes, historical facts and context in his masterful Charlie Parker bio.”
Kansas City Star
“Meticulous and steeped in local lore. . . Feel[s] as urgent as a blast from Parker’s saxophone.”
“[Crouch] crafts lush scenes and crackling music writing. . . Jazz fans will want to read this book. . . This is a thorough and entertaining account of one of the greatest rises—and the prelude to one of the greatest falls—in jazz history.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062005595
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/24/2013
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 282,321
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Stanley Crouch has twice been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, for his essay collections Notes of a Hanging Judge and The All-American Skin Game. His other books include Always in Pursuit, The Artificial White Man, and the acclaimed novel Don't the Moon Look Lonesome. He has served on and off as the artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center, is the president of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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Interviews & Essays

Capturing Bird: Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Stanley Crouch

While learning to play the saxophone as an eleven-year-old, I expressed an interest in jazz almost immediately, so my mother bought me the Charlie Parker Omnibook: an extensive collection of the bebop player's improvised solos transcribed in perfect notation. The pages were filled with a spattering of sweeping arpeggios, sophisticated harmonies, and blazing thirty-second-note runs that would make your head spin; in some sections the staff was barely discernible beneath the flurry of broken chords and winking grace notes. As I struggled against Parker's genius, I would usually wonder about the man himself. Parker was the enigmatic figure behind the music, whose distinctive style was nevertheless channeled through my poor approximations of his masterworks, a melodic phoenix consistently reborn from the ashes of my attempts.

To most, Charlie Parker is considered a tragic virtuoso, a man of endless talent whose life ended at thirty-four due to the accumulated damage wreaked by heroin and alcohol. As one of the most influential jazz musicians in history, it's surprising that until now, Parker has remained the man in the iron mask of his genre, his story coming through his horn but not from those who actually knew him. Yet Stanley Crouch, jazz historian, novelist, critic, and one of the founders of Jazz at Lincoln Center, has managed to lift that mask in Kansas City Lightning, a chronicle of Parker's early life and the beginnings of his musical career. The book itself reads like a jazz record: Crouch zigs and zags around the mysterious years of Parker's childhood and adolescence with the seemingly erratic nature of a soloist, but don't be fooled: he keeps a straight narrative beneath the brass, the beat of a jazz band's rhythm section that becomes louder and more prominent as the story develops. Cradling Parker's past in the long and incredibly fruitful history of music in America, Crouch brings the alto saxophonist to life, his biography an amalgamation of the people who knew him, loved him, and, of course, played alongside him.

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation about Parker, the strange and colorful years of the Depression that birthed him, and of course, that temperamental swinging beast that's distinctly, unapologetically, gorgeously American: jazz. —Sarah Ungerleider

The Barnes & Noble Review: Kansas City Lightning is a biography thirty years in the making. What kind of writing process did you develop for this book, and how did you accommodate the vagueness that surrounds Parker's early years?

Stanley Crouch: After I responded to Clint Eastwood's biopic of Charlie Parker, Bird, in the New Republic, I was convinced by my agent that I should come up with a proposal for a biography. At that point I started going to Kansas City, Parker's hometown, to interview those who had drunk wine with him and played music with him, and Charlie Parker began to appear to me. He became even clearer when I went to Texas and interviewed bassist Gene Ramey, a homemade "Mr. Memory" who had known and worked with Parker in K.C. and traveled across the country with him in the Jay McShann orchestra, destined for the Savoy Ballroom in 1942.

It was at that time that I became aware of the central challenge to a biographer: to make the data come alive to the reader, which is something David S. Reynolds and I have discussed at length. The reader should not feel that he or she is looking through a fishbowl but feel like he or she is in the water — that all of this life is going on around them, not just in front of them.

I found that I had to develop a technique that involved listening to a tape of someone speaking about Parker, and studying it over and over again until I could hear the rhythms of the way the person spoke, then take that first-person recording and turn it into a third-person narrative that still kept that person's particular voice. For instance, when you read about anything where Gene Ramey was there, traveling with Bird or playing in Harlem at the Savoy, his voice and Jay McShann's voice dominate the rhythm of the narrative, give it a vitality. Or with Parker's mentor, saxophonist Buster Smith, and how he felt as a young man, that's him talking through the third person, as though he's become the omniscient narrator of his own life. I also used the technique of concentric circles that I learned from Herman Melville when teaching him in California at Pomona College, among the Claremont Colleges, lecturing three hours a week for four weeks. That time changed my literary life and thought.

I discovered that Melville wrote Moby-Dick as if the narrative's riding a train on the straightaway, moving up and down as the shape of the land changes. It's going where it's going, but it's constantly throwing things out of the train windows into water, forming ripples that symbolize different aspects of the entire story. The water creates these concentric circles of meaning so the reader goes "That makes me think of..." The shapes and nuances of the prose begin in the first person, and move to various persons for better angles of perceptions demanded by the free aesthetic will of Melville.

There are many different and intentional diversions in the book, small portraits of jazz greats like Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, and Count Basie, but they are all connected by certain words and certain themes and all relate back to Parker. Parker appears along the way or at the conclusion of each sequence.

I don't really believe that a straightforward biography actually gives you the feeling of what was happening to the person. In order to give a true narrative of someone's life, there's a fundamental approach, one that I actually got from Homer. Homer collected all of these vantage points from both the people his hero was in battle with and from the gods, so when each person is first introduced he's unknown, a blank outline in a coloring book. But then these various shades start filling in and you realize who the person is. I felt that it was very important for the Parker book to have as big a scope as it could possibly have to truly tell the entire story. I don't see Buster Smith, for instance, as somebody who was in a side pocket of Parker's reality. In Kansas City Lightning you read about Smith and tenor saxophonist Lester Young being forced to hop trains on their way back to Kansas City after being stranded in the South, and several years later, Parker started hobo- ing on the trains in order to make it to New York. Parker learned how to survive on those trains from Smith, how to prop open the freight car door so it wouldn't lock him inside and suffocate him. Without this knowledge, Parker may never have made it to New York and into the jazz scene there. Though I make many other associations and tell many other stories in the book, Charlie Parker is always there, no matter how far the narrative seems from him initially. Were he not there, the book would be a failure instead of the one I am now proudest of. That is natural because as Duke Ellington said, the new baby gets the most affection.

BNR: You mention that if the Kansas City political scene hadn't been so corrupt during the Great Depression, the city's musicians, Parker included, wouldn't have had as much freedom to play where and how they wanted to at nightclubs and other gangster-run venues. A similar thing occurred in Chicago and New Orleans, two other cities that helped to spawn what we know today as jazz. If the economic downturn and subsequent rise in crime hadn't occurred in the 1930s, would jazz be what it is today?

SC: No. Jazz needed that kind of proving ground for people to play. A musician playing concert music can learn how to become a concert musician without jamming: that's not especially important in that genre, because it's about playing the notes as they are on the page. In jazz it's different. I was talking with trumpet player Wynton Marsalis about how great musicians always have the same effect on listeners. They maintain a note in its actual notated value but it actually seems bigger in person. If you hear someone play a triplet, on the page it's notated as such, but it sounds bigger because of the intensity that the player brings to the notes. That kind of knowledge can only come through performance, along with learning phrasing, knowing how certain people interpret the beat, and other nuances of live playing. You can only learn these things in performance, not on your own. So the corrupt factor of Kansas City in the 1930s allowed people to play all the time, every night, and it led to jazz developing at an extreme velocity.

BNR: Kansas City Lightning is a book of hybrids. It reveals the mishmash cultural background of Kansas City from the Wild West Days until the 1930s, the components of jazz as a fluid mix of improvisation and composition, and even the makeup of the saxophone, which combines big brass sound with the delicacy of a reed instrument. You also write about a link between "the steady and unpredictable" that's "essential to the American soul." Can you explain what you meant by this?

SC: The American soul has seen, many times over, things happen that people said could not happen. Openness to the unusual develops. I was talking with Saul Bellow once, and I told him that I thought our national symbolic creature, the American eagle, actually needed to be replaced with the platypus. Bellow said, "I can see why you would think that."

The enormous vitality of American inventiveness helped to produce people like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Chaplin because they developed in a world where new things were constantly being made. All those great figures lived through the Depression together, and it affected everybody, rich or poor. In the artistic sense, it didn't make any difference what class someone was in, because there was a curiosity, an appetite for adventure, and constant attempts to look over the horizon that became a common kind of experience. It's Americana, and everybody was touched by a vitality, mystery, and vivaciousness in America at that time. And that's why jazz is so American: it is an aesthetic version of "E Pluribus Unum" — "out of many, one" — the groove big enough to hold everyone with the talent and the discipline. You can have a very sophisticated and well-trained musician, and you can have an untrained musician with a good ear who can play, and you can have both of them playing together and not know which is which. That's another one of the miraculous ways that talent appears in so many guises and part of what made jazz work. You could have a well-trained musician, like tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and another musician, like Sidney Bechet or Lester Young, who didn't know any music theory, and you could put them on the bandstand together and people would say, "Man, those guys can play." You don't have this in European music or African music; in fact, you don't have it anywhere except in America, as far as I know.

BNR: Parker is commonly portrayed as a tragic figure mired in drug use — but throughout Kansas City Lightning I got the impression that without these vices he may never have achieved such musical greatness.

SC: No, he was too talented not to rise above everyone. Trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie told me that he'd heard Charlie Parker play four or five times when he wasn't high — and Parker was always high — and he said that Charlie Parker with nothing in his system played so much better. It's important to know that Parker always played better than everybody else, but when he wasn't high he played even better than that. As many people existed who loved his music when they heard him playing while high, it's hard to say how many would have loved him if they had heard him playing sober. That was another talent completely.

Guitarist Biddy Fleet also talks about the fact that you didn't have to show Parker something a bunch of times. Once he knew what it was, he'd blow it right out the saxophone and then it was in there for good. A friend of mine even told me that if Malcolm Gladwell had read my book before writing Blink, his chapter on "thin slicing," or making quick but complex decisions, Charlie Parker would probably have his own chapter. Overall, this particular book is really about the triumph of Charlie Parker because you know what he had to get through in life. His triumph as an epic hero resulted in a proof that has never been intellectually and aesthetically embraced and made clear in a book about jazz. All jazz players do what we call "multitasking" because they hear their own note and all the other notes creating the context as they adhere to the form. This is super-fast conceiving, feeling, and executing art. Before America, it never happened to that profound an extent.

BNR: Addie Parker, Charlie Parker's mother, considered him her "little prince," spoiling and coddling him relentlessly during his childhood and into adulthood. Charlie's lazy behavior and dependence on his mother is contrasted with the incredible diligence that he had in mastering the saxophone; that ultimately "was the only thing that gave him exactly what he wanted and he gave in return." What do you think the saxophone gave Charlie that his mother, and other important figures in his life, could not?

SC: It opened the doorway to vitality. You have to understand that Charlie Parker was initially a silent child, who started to come alive when he discovered that he could mimic things. His first wife, Rebecca, talks about how she and Charlie would go to these shoot-'em-up movies, westerns, and when the names of the actors came on the screen, he would literally change his face to look like them. If he wanted to talk to you about Charles Laughton, he'd start imitating Laughton's voice and mimic his facial expressions. Later, he'd do the same thing with the saxophone: he could hear something and he would learn it instantly. He had what's called superior digital memory. This means that his fingers would forever remember where the notes were on the saxophone. There are all of these different things that lead to making you understand why hewas such an impressive musician when he really began to focus on jazz.

Furthermore, the saxophone gave Parker what Rebecca thought she gave him. She felt that he existed at a distance from other people naturally, and that when he started playing the sax, he could actually express what he couldn't tell people. The person inside him who wanted to get out, could get out through the saxophone. The music liberated him, not the drugs, his family or anything else in his life. That's why I ended the book recounting a long-lost early solo recording of Parker. It's just him and the saxophone; no band, no real performance, and he probably forgot about it as soon as he did it. But it's the only evidence we have of this incredibly talented man at the point in time right before the flame touches the gasoline — just before the explosion.

BNR: Since Kansas City Lightning ends with Charlie just beginning to make his mark on the New York music scene in the early '40s, do you plan to write a second volume that covers the alto saxophonist's later life and subsequent success?

SC: Yes. I now have all the material that allows me to connect different periods of his life and to deal with the bizarre ways that things happen in people's lives. I think that the major achievement of this book is to present to people the world of the jazz player, the atmosphere of the 1930s where people seemed to live in two different spheres, and also introduce the idea that Charlie Parker embodied more than just the American Dream — he embodied the American dreamer. That is a specific type of person that appears in American life over and over again, a person who dreams, who sees something else, who wants to go someplace else constantly. Parker's first wife, Rebecca, talked about working in the school library as a teenager, and Charlie would sit outside on the steps and read books about religion, science, and different societies and customs. He was interested in everything, and that'll remain in place in the second volume. He was always curious, he was always looking, he did a number of things that let us see the kind of person he really was. In Kansas City, in Chicago, in New York, he remained enthralled by the life of the mind and the affirmative vitality of life itself. he learned to say all of that through the saxophone and the collective expression of the jazz band. Hermann Broch said, "The civilization of an epoch is its myth in action." If it must come down to one line, that is what Kansas City Lightning is all about: the book itself is the myth in action.

--October 24, 2013

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    Destiny to jake

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