News item: Chicago is one of five performers voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I say I do not care about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I genuinely believe that to be true.
Still, the news that Chicago has been chosen to enter the hall puts me in mind to listen to their Seventies albums – and to think about the one member of the original septet who’s not around to mark the group’s acceptance.
Guitarist, singer and songwriter Terry Kath is most often remembered outside the band’s circle of fans for the shocking and unexpected nature of his death. There was much more to him than that, as anyone who knows the band’s first 11 albums can tell you.
Five For The Record is a recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.
Today, then, we give Terry Kath five:
1. The hockey. In the last few years of his life, Kath was often seen onstage sporting the jerseys of hockey teams, including the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota North Stars and St. Louis Blues. Kath’s modified Fender Telecaster also carried the Indian-head logo of his hometown Chicago Blackhawks on its upper bout.
I don’t specifically know how deep the guitarist’s attachment to hockey went. (I suppose it’s possible he opted for generously cut hockey jerseys to accommodate his increasing weight.)
Still, as something of a hockey fan, I don’t think you see nearly enough rock stars sporting hockey gear onstage.
And I like to imagine going to a Blackhawks (or maybe an L.A. Kings) game in the Seventies and finding the beefy guitarist at the beer stand between periods. The band members were pretty low-profile when offstage, and it seems like a believable rock n’ roll fantasy.
2. The sparkplug. Kath’s role in the band declined in his final few years, as his vocals and guitar no longer occupied center stage on the band’s hits.
(One nadir: The band’s performance of “Harry Truman” on Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve 1975 special found Kath — rendered irrelevant by the song’s old-timey sound — holding cue cards for a crowd singalong.)
That said, his last two albums with Chicago both lead off with Kath songs that showcase the groove and energy he brought to the band.
1976’s Chicago X starts with “Once Or Twice,” a barnburner that reminded anyone listening that the band hadn’t given itself all the way over to ballads just yet:
And 1977’s Chicago XI kicks off with “Mississippi Delta City Blues” — a bit slower, a bit funkier, featuring impassioned vocals and multiple layers of slice-and-dice rhythm guitar:
Terry Kath could make his band break a sweat. No one in the years since has had quite the same ability, to the band’s long-term detriment.
3. The spam. 1971’s Chicago III, decreed to be a double album like its predecessors, found the road-weary group struggling to come up with worthy material.
Kath contributed a five-minute mini-suite called “An Hour In The Shower,” a tribute to a working stiff’s day at home and on the job, featuring some memorable lines sung with his usual gravelly brio:
Now I usually have my breakfast
Which consists of tasty spam
Yeah, I could eat it all day long
But I only love one brand
And I can’t find it way out here
So I have to take a pass
And settle for some hash
Seventies Chicago, with its multi-part suites, hits by Varese and detailed horn arrangements, was a pretty cerebral band. There are not a lot of purely random what-the-hell-was-that? moments in their discography.
So Kath and his ode to inaccessible canned meat stand out as a rare off-the-wall moment. While it’s far from my favorite Chicago tune, I can’t think of it without smiling.
4. The grunge. Kath was also responsible for another bizarre and unique song that stands out in the band’s repertoire.
“Free Form Guitar,” from the Chicago Transit Authority album, consists of almost seven minutes of atonal live-in-the-studio feedback and whammy-bar abuse.
It is — how best to put this? — a bracing listen, and an acquired taste. While I don’t put it on a lot, I do like it, and I suspect Jimi Hendrix — who is often said to have been an admirer of Kath — would have said the same.
Kath was also capable of adding dissonance within the structures of the band’s more formal compositions.
“Song For Richard And His Friends,” from the At Carnegie Hall live album, features Kath wrenching howls of feedback over an ominous horn riff. And “A Hit By Varese” kicks off the band’s finest album, Chicago V, with a whammy-bent chord that dissolves into feedback.
5. The memories. Chicago keyboardist and singer Robert Lamm has spoken often of his connection with Kath and his ongoing feelings of loss. A few years ago, he recorded a song, “Out Of The Blue,” in tribute to his former bandmate.
Lamm contributes a heartfelt vocal that helps make up for the song’s slick electronic sheen. And his words describing Kath’s ongoing presence in his life — presented in the video as captions — are touching.
It’s one of the best things I’ve heard from Lamm in a while. If it’s true that you write best about what you love, it’s clear that Terry Kath left a deep impression on those closest to him.