Rock Reflections I

"God above, is there not anything that we might do
To try and make this world of ours a better place for me and you?"
Terry Kath "Tell Me" from 'Electra-Glide in Blue'

This is part 1, not due to its chronological sequence but because it's on my mind. I'm sitting at home, recovering from the flu, and I have Amazon Fire streaming 80s music. And after sitting through "You're the Inspiration" I am face-to-face with the realization that when the late Terry Kath accidentally shot himself in the head, he shot the rock and roll right out of Chicago. I know people who didn't get into the music of Chicago until the 80s so they are under the impression that the band is bastion of elevator music and saccharine love ballads designed to slow-dance prom goers into the back seat of their daddies' cars. It's sad, really. Chicago once kicked serious rock and roll ass.

I started listening to them around 1971. It was a rock band with horns and as a trumpet player in the high school band, that appealed to me. So, I got into Chicago and also Blood, Sweat, and Tears. I would eventually come to realize that there were two things these bands had in common: blues-based rock and rough-edged power vocals. In the case of BS&T, the vocals belonged to the great David Clayton Thomas. They used the brass to add power to blues songs like "God Bless the Child" and "Hi-De-Ho". The studio version of "Go Down Gamblin'" is still one of my favorites because of the awesome tuba solo.

NOTE: Yeah, the link is audio only but live BS&T from the early days is hard to find and I don't think they used the tuba live. This shows off Thomas's voice just fine. And for you tuba enthusiasts, it starts at 1:22.

In the case of Chicago, the blues songs and vocals belonged to Terry Kath, their lead guitarist. Most of the band's radio-friendly hits were sung by bassist Peter Cetera and keyboardist, Robert Lamm. Lamm was clearly jazz-influenced and that permeated his compositions which complimented the brass section just fine. Cetera actually did some gutsy rock vocals back in the day, but by the end of the 70s, he'd begun to specialize in touchy-feely romantic ballads which would be his trademark until he was abducted by aliens in the 90s. (Just a theory but seriously, where DID he go?)

Back to Kath - he played a Fender Stratocaster and he played with fire. He was innovative and rough-edged; a white Jimi Hendrix. He wrote a number of the band's songs on their first few records and those were usually memorable for being the hardest Chicago songs they did. "In The Country" might have been the best. Trading vocals with Cetera (and incidentally proving Cetera could actually rock out) the song was long and loud. It used the brass perfectly: adding muscle and not stealing melody.

He was a superb blues guitarist and even though I came for the horns, I stuck around with Chicago for the guitar. The first true rock concert I attended was Chicago in 1973. The tickets cost $5 which was a serious investment. It was at the Roundhouse at WSU - then known as Henry Leavitt Arena. The opening act was Fanny, an all-girl band that included Patti Quatro. Yeah, you never heard of them. I thought they were pretty good, but I was there for Chicago. Later I would realize one memorable aspect of Fanny was the guitar work, which makes sense. Patti could play. FYI, the attached clip is pre-Patty Quatro, but they were always good. And live video of them is hard to find.

Someone who was even more impressed was David Bowie who said, "One of the most important female bands in American rock has been buried without a trace. And that is Fanny. They were one of the finest... rock bands of their time, in about 1973. They were extraordinary... they're as important as anybody else who's ever been, ever; it just wasn't their time. Revivify Fanny. And I will feel that my work is done."

What I remember was Terry Kath playing the lead guitar solo from "25 or 6 to4" wearing a pair of sunglasses and staring into the beam a super trouper spotlight as if it was a contest of wills. I saw them three years in a row and I remember another interesting Terry Kath moment. They were playing one of the more freeform jazz tracks off their seventh album and Terry stopped the band in the middle of the song because the crowd was getting unruly. He announced, "We've had a complaint. My drummer can't hear what the hell he's doing. So SHUT UP!"

NOTE: As I said, Kath was usually on a Strat. Even though the video quality on this clip is pretty bad, the guitar work is awesome and surprisingly, Terry's rocking a Gibson SG. Gotta represent the family name.

Terry Kath had a history of drug and alcohol abuse and but was struggling to keep it under control. He was also a gun enthusiast and when messing with a 9mm pistol in 1978, he was warned to be careful. Laughing off the warning, he removed the clip and showed everyone that the gun was "safe". He then put it to his temple and pulled the trigger, not realizing there was a round in the chamber. Yeah, I know: Darwin-award level stupid. Also tragic. He was extremely talented and the gutsiest part of a band that straddled the lines between rock, jazz, blues, and pop.

Post-Terry Kath, Chicago was a different band. I know a lot of people - mostly younger than I - who like Chicago but what they like is not the band I loved in the 70s. Not even close. I really do NOT like what Chicago became. The Chicago of the MTV era is just so different from their roots, it's sad to me.

The final live Chicago concert I attended was in 1975. I arrived with several friends, but somehow, I found Bobbie Loeffler, a really good debate rival of mine from Newton High School. Bobbie was there with her brother who had run off with friends and she spotted me while looking for him. So, she and I ended up sitting together and enjoying the show. As an encore, they performed the Robert Lamm hit "Harry Truman". Behind the band, an inflatable 'Chicago' logo emerged from a box and never quite achieved full inflation. Years later I would remember this, when the Simpsons featured a performance by Spinal Tap in which their giant head of Satan had a similar problem.

In case you wondered, everything you have ever seen involving Spinal Tap is 100% true. It happened somewhere to someone: guaranteed.