On The Occasion of Chicago Guitarist Terry Kath’s 70th Birthday

I think about Terry Kath every time a rock star dies. We've become accustomed to the cycle. It's how we process the death of famous people now. The social media churn. The first 24 hours of wall-to-wall Facebook. The headlines, the think pieces, the tributes, the sharing of video. Then it gradually dissipates over the next 72 hours, until you are left alone with your own muscle memory - the way you identified with the artist yourself. You are alone with the artist, again.

Terry Kath shot himself in the head while fooling around with a 9mm handgun one week shy of his 32nd birthday, January 23, 1978. His last words were, according to bandmate James Pankow, "What do you think I’m gonna do? Blow my brains out?’ I found out about this by reading the October 16, 1978 People magazine cover story on Chicago while waiting to get my haircut in a local barbershop in Plainview, Long Island. I was eleven years old. There was a photo spread of the Chicago band members with their wives and babies. I remember a wave of nausea coming over me as I pored over the article in a disbelieving stupor. It made no sense at all. Terry Kath was my first experience with feeling something profound around a death. The sensation would soon become all-too familiar, with Keith Moon, Bonzo and others to follow. The difference was that news of Terry Kath's death was traumatic for me, and I use that word with no irony, and with all its potency.

Now it's 38 years on. It looks like we could see a little revival of appreciation for the great Chicago guitarist and singer now that his band is headed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His daughter, Michelle Kath Sinclair, only two when her father passed, has completed a documentary about her dad. She seems like a very sincere person who wants to get the Terry Kath story right, not just for the world but for herself, by learning as much as she can about a father she never really knew.

Chicago is one of the most commercially successful bands of all time, having sold well over 100 million records worldwide. Each one of Chicago's eleven albums preceding Kath's death went platinum. That kind of sustained success seems unfathomable today. Eleven albums is a sizable body of work for anyone, and there is plenty of Terry Kath to listen to, including lead vocals on indelible hits like "Colour My World", "Wishing You Were Here", and "Make Me Smile", still heard in taxi cabs and piped into retail stores across the US every single day. His voice is a mellow baritone sounding most like bandmate Robert Lamm, his hero Jimi Hendrix, and Ray Charles. There are plenty of great moments to discover, notably the soulful "Hope For Love" from Chicago X; the experimental, corrosive "Free Form Guitar" from Chicago Transit Authority (Chicago's very own mini-'Metal Machine Music', which pissed off fans immensely, recorded in one take); the bluesy strut of "In the Country" from Chicago II; "Little One" from Chicago XI, written by Danny Seraphine about his daughters but sung by Kath (touching to hear today if you think about Kath singing those words to Michelle); the loose, gritty "Mississippi Delta City Blues" written and sung by Kath and recorded for Chicago V, eventually surfacing on Chicago XI. Hendrix was supposedly a big fan of Kath's guitar playing, and Kath wrote the expansive, tripped out "Oh, Thank You Great Spirit" for Jimi on Chicago VII. He was supposedly set to start work on a solo album at the time of his death. We get a hint of what that might have sounded like on the stirring 7:47 "Tell Me," which is not on a Chicago album - an edited version of the track was used in the final episode of Miami Vice.

Kath killed himself four months after Chicago XI was released. The band was already contemplating a new direction as it would be the last album overseen by producer James William Guercio. Upon reading it again after 38 years, there are several interesting revelations in the People Magazine article I read in the barber shop. Robert Lamm says of Guercio : "Somewhere around our album Chicago V it went from 'being taken care of' to being manipulated. It was part him, part us . . .we were naive and idealistic and stuck to the music. Jimmy produced some great albums and encouraged and supported us financially in the beginning. But then he got up on a mountain and gave directives. It didn't wear well." It wasn't just a business or musical direction that shifted in the aftermath; there was a marketing conundrum. The massively successful band had no identifiable star power.

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