It was thirty-three years ago this week that I awoke one morning to the usual sounds of older siblings rustling and Dad shaving at the sink, this benign familial din differentiated from that of any other day’s only by my mother asking my brother, “Did you hear about the guy from Chicago who died?” This I found puzzling—I thought she was referring to some resident of the city of Chicago who had expired. Only after I’d come downstairs to the breakfast table, where I listened to the news on the rock station WNEW-FM, did it become clear that she meant Terry Kath, the guitarist in the band Chicago, the guy who sang lead on “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World.” He had accidentally shot himself in the head, fatally, while playing with his handgun in an inebriated state.
Maybe it’s because this week has been so brutally cold, or maybe it’s because I’m writing a book about the seventies, but this buried memory flashed into my consciousness today. We were a Chicago-loving household back then. If you know the band only from the eighties era of plinked-synth ballads and multi-tracked Peter Cetera vocals, reconsider. They were a damned good band in the early to mid 1970s, one that realized with tight horns, tight songs, and a good rhythm section the vision that prog rock got wretchedly wrong: complex, full-sounding, big rock music that wasn’t gloppy and overegged. I say without shame that side two of their 1970 double album Chicago II, the bulk of which is taken up by “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon,” a seven-part song suite written by the trombonist James Pankow and sung mostly by Kath, is one of most emotionally evocative pieces of music I can listen to: the soundtrack to long family car rides, summer nights humid with hamburger fumes, and other irretrievable moments of a patchwork-denim early youth. Those shaggy, paint-splattered young men on the cover of 1975’s Chicago IX, their first greatest-hits collection, seemed like gentle hippie freaks rather than menacing rockers, akin to the outgoing, not-flagrantly-druggy backpackers we met atop the mountains we were constantly hiking in the seventies:
Everyone in a cold climate falls victim at this time of year to seasonal affective disorder, the winter doldrums. I wonder now how much mine are informed by the death of Terry Kath. It was a brutal and coldly final tragedy, especially in freezing January, and especially as it fell between the November ’77 death of one grandfather and the February ’78 death of the other. And it introduced to me the sacred Rock Snob tenet of the Sanctity of the Original Lineup: No band can ever again be considered whole and truly good without all the members who were in the band at the time of its initial success. I knew, even in my tadpole phase of Rock Snobbery, that Chicago, the real Chicago, was done for. It’s entirely possible that the spiky, exhilarating Talking Heads and Clash records my brother was already playing would have smothered my Chicago-love anyway. But this was a cruel, forced curtain-drop.
The record business moved faster then, and it wasn’t but eight or nine months before Chicago reemerged with a new album and a new guitarist, an alarmingly poodle-haired, visually acontextual fellow named Donnie Dacus. I remember watching this broadcast in October 1978 of Chicago performing its comeback single, “Alive Again,” and recognizing the song as a credible facsimile of the old Chicago, but, alas, not quite the real thing. (Though I was unfair to Dacus, who, despite his ridiculous hair, was a perfectly fine musician and vocalist on his own terms.) It would be egregiously hacky to say that this was the end of my childhood innocence, but it was certainly an end—a punctuation point to a chapter of my childhood.