It was 40 years ago today that Chicago’s original and most brilliant lead guitarist, songwriter and vocalist, Terry Kath, died here in Los Angeles. He shot himself in the head. It was a horrible, ghastly accident; he thought the gun was unloaded. He was eight days short of his 32nd birthday.
The news came through to me in Sydney as I lay in bed on a summer morning during school holidays in January 1978. I was 15 years old, and Chicago was one of my three favourite bands. (The other two were, and still are, Eagles and Queen.) I was listening to 2SM, the most popular and influential radio station in Sydney, in all of Australia back then, and I heard the news announcer say that Terry Kath of Chicago was dead. It was big news. I lay there taking it in. I got up, went for a walk around the local neighbourhood and tried to process it. My school friend Jan had a summer job working in The Pavlova Pantry up on the Pacific Highway in Lindfield, the suburb where I lived. I walked into the sugary meringue-scented shop and said to her, “Terry Kath from Chicago died.”
I knew she would understand how big a deal this was for me. Jan was a David Bowie fan. Another of our friends from school, Marina, was a Bob Dylan fan. We were each devoted, ardent fans of our guys; this was serious, hardcore music loving stuff. I didn’t really know how to manage this information, back in those pre-internet, pre-social media times. I just went home and played Chicago X and Chicago XI and Chicago IX (Greatest Hits) on my little mono record player and wondered what losing Terry now meant for the band.
I hadn’t known much about Terry Kath. Back in 1978 I didn’t really know as much of their earlier recordings as I started to learn and appreciate in the years that followed. I just knew that he was an important element of the band. Life whizzed by in those days. High school and music were equally at the centre of my life, there was a lot of studying Shakespeare, and a lot of rock and pop concerts on my calendar, and friends and the beach and life just went on. Before I knew it, Chicago had hired a new guitarist and released a new album, their 12th, the first with a title – Hot Streets – and it was announced they would be touring Australia in January 1979.
When the band came to Australia, I was so excited about it, determined to meet them, sit in the front row of their Sydney concert and hang backstage – all of which happened – that it never actually occurred to me how completely bizarre it was that they were in Australia with a new album and new guitarist on the first anniversary of Terry’s death. They were so upbeat, so friendly and personable, so excited to be performing in Australia for the first time in seven years, that it was almost like nothing had happened. Had I been older, wiser and more inquisitive, I would have asked them each, in my conversations with them, how it felt to be so far from home at that exact, profound time. Whether they were thinking about Terry. What it was taking to carry on like this without skipping a beat.
Over the years, as I got to know the band members better, as I got to know their music and their history in more depth, I figured it out. Many years later, Robert Lamm wrote about it in one of his best solo songs, “You Never Know The Story” (from his album Subtlety and Passion in 2003), revealing that they “Lied to ourselves to live / Chump reasons that we give.” Another Lamm song, a few years earlier, on an album he recorded with Gerry Beckley and Carl Wilson (Beckley Lamm Wilson, 2000) called “Feel The Spirit”, all about the effect of Terry’s death on him, contained the lyrics, “There was no joy in playing / And no sense in staying.”
That much denial will destroy a body and a soul as much as the drugs themselves that led to Terry’s demise, and some of the band members admitted they had their own substance abuse issues at the time, but Terry’s death was a wake up call. Too many drugs, too little sleep, and so Terry missed that one bullet that remained in the chamber of his handgun that he put to his head, just fooling around, in the early hours of January 23, 1978.
Lamm said Terry Kath was his best friend, his soul mate. When I interviewed him in 1999 he said he still dreamed about Terry. Whether it’s still sincere or just an affectation, he makes a point of looking upwards, as if to some heavenly dimension, when he sings the lyric “a man playing guitar” in “Saturday In The Park”.
Meanwhile, through the 1980s and beyond, the more I immersed myself in the early Chicago albums, devoured them, obsessed over them, sang every lyric and every horn line and every guitar lick over and over, the more I felt the dreadful, sad loss of Terry Kath. Especially as his replacement, Donnie Dacus, didn’t last more than two years, after which two more guitarists played with the band for various lengths, during very different musical times when Chicago’s sound changed dramatically, until the current guitarist, Keith Howland, joined in 1995. None played with the same soulfulness and certainly none sang with the raspy, bluesy, like-no-other voice that Terry had.
Jimi Hendrix famously touted Terry as being a better guitarist than he was. The stories of Terry’s exploits, some told to me directly by the band’s trombonist Jimmy Pankow in interviews, others that I read and heard about from other sources, became the stuff of legend. But still, until recently, Terry was one of the great underrated, unsung heroes of rock music. And then Chicago was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two years ago. Terry’s daughter Michelle was there to accept for her father, and Rob Thomas’s impassioned introduction, the vintage footage of the band, and some of the buzz in the press and on social media, allowed Terry’s greatness to get some attention.
At the time Michelle was finishing a documentary about the father who had died when she was only two years old. The working title had been Searching For Terry, because she was on a long journey to find out about her father. But when the film was finally completed and launched at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2016, the title had become The Terry Kath Experience. It was a nod to Hendrix’s endorsement and a fond look at parts of a life lived in music and beyond that, an experience like no other. I’ve watched the film twice on television and once on the big screen with an audience of illustrious music industry people including Chicago’s original producer James William Guercio and tour manager Jerry Vaccarino, who both feature significantly in the film. Michelle’s film is sweet, tender and very incomplete – it ignores his first, significant marriage and skims over a lot of the years and music with Chicago – but it’s more than we have ever had before and it is definitely worth seeing, especially, on the DVD, with a bonus 10 minutes of home video footage that Terry shot of the band, his dogs and just non-descript things that he passed by while driving or walking around. It’s 10 minutes of seeing the world through Terry’s eyes, and it is precious.
Anyone whose opinion of Chicago is based on songs from the 1980s and beyond, the David Foster-produced soppy ballads with minimized horns, muted guitars and synthesizers dominating the tracks, needs to go back to the beginning – Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago II, Chicago III (listen to the monumental “An Hour In The Shower” to get to know Terry and his wonderful, warped, whacky sensibility), Chicago VII (“Byblos” is a perfect piece of wistful, sensual, lovelorn storytelling) – all the albums up to and including Chicago XI, to hear how important Terry Kath was in the sound of the original Chicago. Even the songs he didn’t write, but sang, such as “Little One” on the 11th album, will melt you to the core. My friend Nanette, who lives in Florida, runs the Terry Kath Fan Group on Facebook, where she posts every day about a song from Terry’s era, with beautiful insight and perspective on why each song is so vital in the canon of Chicago’s early years recordings and performances. With Nanette I have twice visited Terry’s grave here in LA. It’s a sweet resting place. He’s not there, he is everywhere else, but not in that hole in the ground, and yet it’s comforting for Terry’s fans to go there and pay respects.
Today is 40 years since Terry Kath died. Last year Chicago celebrated its 50th anniversary. I planned to write something about them last February when the exact date rolled around but didn’t. Then I went to an intimate show they played at the Whisky a Go Go, in honour of the anniversary, in July last year and took my customary hundreds of photos and planned to write a story about them centred on that. But I didn’t. I’ve been trying to write a truthful story about Chicago and my very complicated feelings about them for about seven years, in fact, since they last toured Australia. Maybe I will do that in time for their 51st anniversary. But for today, I wanted to pay tribute to the brilliant, beautiful, incomparable Terry Kath, whose legacy looms larger than ever. Terry would have been 72 at the end of this month. I doubt very much he would still be playing with the Chicago that is today. He might be sitting with his dog on a beach at Malibu, breathing in the salty air, humming a new tune, smiling at the sunshine. I wish he was sitting there right now so I could sit on the sand and watch him be. I wish I had met him. Peter Cetera wrote “Wishin’ You Were Here” but Terry sang the lead vocal, and it’s the soundtrack of my day today.