(Above: Terry Kath represents the hometown team.)
Chicago guitarist Terry Kath died forty years ago today – January 23, 1978 – in one of rock and roll’s stranger stories. Kath, who had fancied himself somewhat of a gun enthusiast, shot and killed himself at his home in California. Reportedly, his last words were “See, it’s not even loaded” as he pointed a 9mm pistol at his head and pulled the trigger. The clip in the gun, which Kath believed to be empty, contained a single round. Kath died instantly from the wound.
Kath was one of the founding members of the Chicago Transit Authority, which was famously forced to change its name when the actual city transit authority balked. By far the band Chicago had more consistent success than the bus line. The band’s string of LPs, named with sequential Roman numerals, sold millions of copies. (Fun fact: there is no “Chicago II.” The first LP is Chicago Transit Authority, the second Chicago, and then the third jumps right to Chicago III.)
Terry Kath was said to be the favorite guitarist of Jimi Hendrix, lest you be unsure of his level of talent. Unlike other members of the band, Kath was mostly self-taught as a musician. Originally starting with the banjo, he settled on the guitar as his musical weapon of choice. That weapon was initially deployed on the lead track to the band’s first album, cleverly called “Introduction.” Kath also played the seminal riff on “25 (Or 6) To 4,” which I believe that everyone tries to play when handed a guitar.
In the band Kath shared vocal duties with Peter Cetera and Robert Lamm. That’s Kath’s voice you’ve heard on “Colour My World,” which you’ve probably heard at at least one wedding reception and/or prom in your life. He’s also the featured vocalist on “Make Me Smile,” which has always been a favorite of mine provided we’re talking about the LP version and not the radio edit. (Edits have always been a problem with Chicago. The piano intro to “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” is fantastic, but didn’t fit well into Top 40, so off it went.)
But my favorite Chicago song of them all is also a Kath vocal – at least half of it. On Chicago V‘s “Dialogue,” Kath trades lines with Peter Cetera. The lyrics of the song have always captivated me. “Dialogue” is just that – a conversation, between what we surmise as an older man talking to a young college student about the state of the world in 1972. I think what’s most special about the record is the fact that 45 years later, some of the lyrical exchanges are still really damned relevant:
Kath: When it’s time to function as a feeling human being, will your bachelor of arts help you get by?
Cetera: I hope to study further, a few more years or so. I also hope to keep a steady high.
That’s just one exchange. The two trade thoughts on the power of the young generation to change things (Cetera: “What is this power you speak of and the need for things to change? I always thought that everything was fine”) and the war dragging on overseas (“I hope the President knows what he’s into”). The song, once it passes the instrumental break, switches to the two singing in unison “We can make it happen” and “We can change the world” and lines of hope, suggesting that the older voice and the younger voice found common ground. I’d love to hear the 2018 version where the Boomer and the Millennial sing together and realize that they’re really not that different after all.
The song ends abruptly as the instruments stop: “We can make it happen, we can make it hap.” No matter how many times I hear the record, it always catches me off guard, and I expect a WLS jingle to follow it – even when I’m in the car. (And yes – in the car, you can sing both sides of the conversation.) It’s as abrupt an end as came to Terry Kath’s life at the age of 31. Fortunately, Chicago’s music lives on, and we can continue the dialogue.