About 18 months ago a friend of mine from high school, Scott asked me a few questions about my music collection. Was it all digital? No it’s all cds and vinyl. Do you have a lot of vinyl? Sure I have a fair chunk everything I have ever bought. So my friend proceeds to tell me about this informal group he belongs to that host and attend vinyl parties. Having never heard of a vinyl party he explained that the host of the party picks a theme and the attendees pick songs from their vinyl collection and share those songs with a story. It sounded interesting and just like that I was invited. I don’t remember the theme and for some inexplicable reason probably due to my own excitement that someone wanted to hang out with me I chose a song without realizing the consequences and when it was my turn I played the song and it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized it was the first time that I listened to the song without becoming emotional since 1978. That night sharing that song with Scott and Genia, Greg and Denise and Cindy and Jason and a few others put me on a path of resolution of a grief and sadness that I have never been able to process. Since that moment I have been able to write 4 times about a fallen musical hero, watched a documentary and allowed myself to cry a sorrowful grief so that I could move forward and even look behind.
Terry Kath was my hero.
Somewhere late in my elementary career I began to discover music. I like to call it a career like it was some planned out event when really it was controlled chaos, a social drubbing and learning my place in the world. I had friends with older sisters, and I had a sister who was older although we didn’t get along well……..at all. We were also friends with the neighbors across the street and they had a son and a daughter. The son was a year older than my sister and the daughter was two years older than me but that poor son got stuck with me every single time that our families hung out and he was nice, kind, offering me advice on all sorts of things and he always made me listen to music. Another friend’s sister liked show tunes and thankfully I didn’t follow her down that road, yikes, although yea I still like the music from Godspell because of her.
Mostly as kids there just came a time when music began to be something we took notice of more and more. If we were outside we would listen to radios. I had this radio with a cassette player an early boom box without the boom but I am sure it was a prototype. Mostly we listened to pop music, the hits of the day. My parents would have frowned at me listening to anything heavier at that time. I always tell the story that the first album I bought was John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High and the second was Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies which I wanted for the song No More Mr. Nice Guy; however the second side was banned for me due to the last 3 songs about loving the dead and it is the first song on the second side so I only listened to it when I had headphones. I also listened to a lot of Elton John but the first band that I really loved and really followed was Chicago. They were my first favorite band and they remain a band that I love and I guess I always will despite not wanting to hear anything from them for years. There would be others but Chicago was first. They were a big band, horn players, keyboard players, bass player, great drummer and one amazing guitarist.
When they first went out to California they ended up touring with Jimi Hendrix who loved Terry Kath the Chicago guitarist and told James Pankow from Chciago that Kath was better than him. That’s pretty high praise. Walter Parazaider said he was the only guy he ever saw who could play rhythm guitar, lead guitar and handle lead vocals all at the same time. None of this I cared about. Terry Kath was my favorite band member of Chicago, of any band and would be for a long time. So you might wonder what I saw in him. Well he was the only guitar player in the band so it was easy to recognize when he was playing. You don’t have to wonder who is playing on 25 or 6 to 4. It’s Kath. He had an amazing voice, deep resonant and you knew when he was singing. I could identify with him easily because I was red headed with a million freckles and I was awkward, not very athletic and lacking in a lot of social confidence. Kath was big, chubby, chunky even with a giant head and always wearing a big goofy smile. He looked exactly the way he lived like everything was one hundred miles an hour. He drove fast, scary fast, drank a lot, drank too much, experimented with drugs, took too many of them and loved guns, loved shooting guns. There were times he did all of these things at once. He had a band that loved him, loved him a lot, worried about him, wondered how they could help him, hoping it would not end tragically.
The first song I fell in love with was not Color My World. The first song I loved was Make Me Smile. I also loved and still do the interplay of Peter Cetera and Terry Kath on Dialogue Parts 1 and 2 on Chicago 5. You might not know the song readily because of the title, but it’s a dialogue between a college student who has an optimistic everything is fine with the world viewpoint (Cetera) and a more disgruntled activist type who sees problems everywhere (Kath). Sound familiar, well it seems to have a lot of relevance for today which actually should scare you a bit. Have we really managed to not come so far? I digress. This is about Terry Kath. My favorite song from Terry Kath though is from Chicago 8. It was not a hit song and for a long time I was unable to listen to it without really crying. In fact the first time I played the song where it had a lesser emotional impact on me was at a vinyl party, strangely my first time with this group many of whom I didn’t know and that one of the songs I shared that night was Oh Thank You Great Spirit. It has everything that is wonderful about Terry Kath, great guitar, energy and his wonderful deep vocals. I just love it and no matter what came after, how many songs Chicago had as hits it remains as one of my very favorite Chicago songs.
By 1977 I had begun to be a lot broader in my tastes and in the bands I listened to and Chicago was no longer the center of my musical universe. That isn’t to say that I had stopped listening to them I had just stopped with the be all end all that I had been. One thing about the 70’s it was so full of amazing music and I listened to a lot of it. In 1977 I was nearing the end of Junior High School 14 years of know it all, gangly teen age angst (one of my favorite words.) Chicago seemed more of my past and less of my future but as it turned out they had one more defining moment for me, one unforgettable moment that occurred early in 1978. Terry Kath loved to clown around, loved to drive fast, loved to drink a lot so he wasn’t a lot different than a big teenager. The drugs and alcohol though had significantly began to affect his body and health and he had begun to talk about needing and getting help to sort it all out. His behavior was concerning. He frequently played with guns, shooting them carrying them around and many in the band were very worried about him because he was intoxicated or high so often. On the night of January 22, 1978 he had been at a roadie’s house where there was a gathering of people and they were partying pretty hard. People left and the party wound down. Kath took out a revolver and began to clean it. His friends encouraged him to go to bed that it was not the time to be doing such things and he laughed at them showed them that the revolver was empty put it to his head and pulled the trigger and laughed at their faces. He was a goofball until the end. He then took out a semi automatic pistol removed the clip showed that the clip was empty replaced the clip put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He had forgotten the round that had been chambered. In the early hours of January 23, 1978 just short of his 32nd birthday Terry Kath died of a gunshot wound to the head.
I was not a naïve person. I was no dummy. I knew that Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison had died from drugs and alcohol. I knew they had died young with so much more left for them to do. Like many things I suppose that it was like so many of us who believe that nothing bad will happen to us that we are somehow exempt. If we drive too fast we will not get into wrecks, we won’t hurt other people we won’t hurt ourselves. Other people may experience these things but it can’t happen to me. We believe that our parents will be okay that they will make it home, believing anything else is unacceptable. I loved Terry Kath. He was my hero and he was my friend even though I never met him. That’s the way I felt about him. It was somehow a mistake and he would be in the news the next day with that big goofy smile. I cried for a week. I wondered how I could ever listen to a song with his voice singing and not feel that devastation. It was a loss the same as any other loss. It would be a long time before I could listen to Chicago, a very long time. The albums I had sat idle. The grief I felt would fade, the pain would lessen and of course I vowed never to love a rock star like i had worshipped Terry Kath. It wasn’t worth it. I was mad at him too, angry that this big galoot, this big awkward galoot with the big head and goofy smile had left me to deal with my awkwardness alone. My favorite Terry Kath song Oh Thank You Great Spirit just seemed to take on a whole different meaning but it would take me a long time to see that.
When I began this blog I tried really hard to communicate how much music meant to me, how passionate I was and where this blog journey would take us, me and the 4 ½ readers that I have. Today I shared a Cars song and said something about being a big girl when it came to Benjamin Orr. Well I am that way with a lot of musicians. I don’t have a lot of friends. I guess I am not very likeable. I don’t know what it is and now that I am vision impaired there isn’t a lot I can do except sit at home. This isn’t me whining it is just a fact of my life. It is music that fills the gaps allows me to dance alone sing as loudly as I want turn it up when I want. Many of the musicians I listen to are old friends, the oldest friends that I have
Robert Lamm who sings so many of the great Chicago songs said that 40 years after Terry Kath’s death he has hardly begun to process the grief he feels. Walter Parazaider said that Kath did so much that one guy could never replace him and given how many guitar players came after Kath it’s hard to argue with him. There is a line in the song Saturday in the Park, “a man playing guitar, singing for us all” It is a wonderful happy song written and sung by Robert Lamm. When he comes to that line he looks to the heavens, and he has done so since that January day in 1978. Now, when I hear the song, that’s the image I have. As you might know I am a bit of a cryer. It took me a long time to learn how to cry and ever since learning I seem to find every reason in the world to shed a few tears. Terry Kath is still my hero. I still see that big head and that big goofy smile. I just can’t help it and if his songs and his death still sadden me, well then some of his songs still lift me up and it’s really hard to be sad or mad at someone who loved life as much as he did and found so many reasons to share that big goofy smile.