Saturday, November 18, 2017

Writing Within the Guardrails

Scott D. Parker

Do you like driving inside the guardrails?

Earlier this week, I watched The Terry Kath Experience. It’s a documentary about one of the founders of the band Chicago. Kath was the only guitar player and he sang lead. I’ve long zeroed in on Kath as my favorite member of the original group of seven guys who made up the band with Robert Lamm a close second. This despite me, a kid who ‘discovered’ Chicago in 1985 and wondered why their ‘newest’ album was named ‘17.’ Anyway, when I learned Kath’s daughter, Michelle Kath Sinclair, was making this documentary to learn more about her father, I couldn’t wait to watch it. I thought I was going to have to purchase the DVD, but the channel AXS aired it. Lo and behold I actually get that channel and viola! I got to watch this wonderful film.

When you trace Terry Kath’s life, you see a truly remarkable musical genius. If you listen to any studio album, you can hear Kath’s intricate soloing. His talent for lead guitar playing was even more on display on any of the live albums featuring the original seven. With the advent of YouTube, I have been able to see live footage from the 1970s and the manic energy Kath brought to the fore as the only guitar player in the band. One of the all-time best shows available is the 1970 concert from Tanglewood. They open with my all-time favorite song, “Introduction,” and the group rarely slows down.

Speaking of “Introduction,” one of the reasons I love it so much is that it is track 1 of side 1 of Chicago’s first album. It’s the ‘mission statement song,’ the one song that encapsulated what Chicago was back then. In the documentary, there’s a segment that I hadn’t heard before. You see, Kath couldn’t read music, at least back then. He enlisted trombonist James Pankow—the third member who helped shape the sound of the band in the beginning(s)—to write down the chart for everyone. When Pankow complied, he was astounded that a song as intricate and complex as “Introduction” was all there…in Kath’s mind.

Many folks might chalk Chicago up to a band who excelled in mid-tempo hits in the 70s and ballads in the 80s. That’s true, but that isn’t how they started. For the time, they were a progressive band, their song often involving intricate arrangements and constantly shifting time signatures. Guys like Lamm and Kath loved that part of the early tenure of the band. But fame and fortune did the same thing it did to many artists: it began to suffocate them. The more hits the band produced, the more audiences expected to hear certain songs. Where Kath was able to put “Free Form Guitar” on the first album (a 6-minute track with just Kath, his guitar, and the amp) and the band opened side 1 of Chicago VII with a bunch of experimental instrumentals, gradually the pressure to play “Saturday in the Park,” “Just You n’ Me,” and “If You Me Now,” every single night began to weigh on him.

As the documentary relates, by the last tour, Kath was all but ready to bolt. He missed playing whatever he felt like playing. You get the impression that Kath’s mindset was akin to “Look, I’m gonna play what I’m gonna play, the audience be damned.” In that spirit, he’s in the same boat as Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix to name just two. Chicago did that for the Chicago VII tour…and they’ve never done it since. They saw the audience reactions to their long solos and instrumentals. It wasn’t why audiences came to their shows. They wanted the hits and little else.

Thus, we have the age-old conflict between artistic vision and commercial expectations. Sure, you can play whatever you want on an album, but if you don’t give the listeners what they want, then you’re albums sales will fall and your concerts will be less attended.

The very same thing applies to us writers (and artists and other creative types), too. We can be perfectly happy to write some genre title that no one has ever seen, but you have to put yourself out there and suffer the consequences. Sometimes, you can strike gold and be an outlier. For the majority of us, however, it seems like we need to drive within the guardrails already laid out by writers before us. Some days, you might chaff at the guardrails, but they’ve been laid by not only writers but readers. They are there to help steer you straight.

I count myself in this latter group. And I’m perfectly happy to be there. Are you?

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