Sunday, October 14, 2012

Enacting the Masque (Another free chapter from "Embracing the Gray")

Each man has a memory
Much more than the eye can see
Yet still others linger deep inside you
Haunting thoughts of pain and joy divide you
Look beyond your eyes
At the dark and moody skies
For they're standing in your way
You must find the light of day

(Kansas, “Apercu,” from Kansas, 1974)

I’ll never forget that warm Indian summer evening, when I would be introduced to something that would ultimately impact my life in many ways. It was sixteen months before my decision to renounce my faith, and I was playing sand volleyball next to one of the dormitories at Wheaton College.  Four stories above us, a student had placed both of his huge Jensen speakers against his window and began blasting some of the most stimulating music I’d heard in a long time.  Asking several in our group if they had any idea who it was, we all became curious. 

When we were finished, I climbed the stairs and sauntered down the hallway to the door of the room where the music was emanating from.  I had to knock several times in order to be heard over the symphonic rock of intricate drum patterns, blistering guitars, crisp keyboard riffs, and soaring vocals.  But what set it apart from other great bands of that time like Yes, Queen, and ELP was the distinctive use of violin as a rock instrument.

When a scruffy faced kid with a shoulder-length mane opened the door, the massive sound was made all the clearer.  So as not to make him feel like I was some goody-two shoes there to complain about his “jungle rhythm heathen rawk,” I extended my hand, and yelled “My name’s Mark.  What on earth is this great music you’re playing?”

“Cool…I’m Rich.  You dig it?!  It’s a band called Kansas.”  He handed me the cover, and I recognized it from the local record store racks.  You see, I frequented Johnny B.Goode, a music and head shop in downtown Wheaton at least once a week to check out new releases.  The proprietor, Don McLeese, went on to eventually become a pretty well known syndicated music journalist for the Chicago Sun Times.  He’d often play hip new stuff, and it helped in my quest to stay on top of all the latest trends. Earlier that spring I had seen this same album in the New Releases Bin, but because of the band’s appearance, of plaid shirts, ripped jeans, and even one of the dudes wearing bib overalls, I presumed they were some sort of country bumpkin git-fiddle band a la Charlie Daniels. Man, was I wrong.

I asked Rich if I could listen for a while, and he eagerly complied by offering me a beanbag chair and lifting the needle to start the record from the beginning.  “Check out the lyrics, too…pretty amazing stuff.”

From the very start
I screamed for the devil to let me be
I called to the heavens to set me free
Today I prayed for the answer and not one
Of your gods in the sky would rescue me

(Kansas, “Journey From Mariabronne,” from Kansas, 1974)

It was breathtaking to hear something that so immediately captured my imagination.  As a kid I had always loved the romantic era of classical music, and then as the rock explosion of the mid-late 60s came along, with my brother’s help, I was swept up into that.  And even though the progressive rock scene started to meld the two with some powerful bands like those mentioned above, there was still something missing.  I was now hearing it, and it was mesmerizing.  Incorporating elements of Hendrix, Deep Purple, Zeppelin, Mahavishnu, and even Leo Kottke with powerful arrangements and orchestrations influenced by the likes of Mahler, Wagner, Debussy, and Tchaikovsky was the perfect blend of power and serenity.  To top it off, the lyrics were at times probing, then confessional. Some angry, others contemplative.  But there was honesty and yearning to it all, and when mixed with the music, it made a delicious feast. 

The next day I promptly bought their first two releases. I tried finding out everything I could about this obscure band from Topeka that was really beginning to make noise across the country. I became especially taken with the songs by guitarist/keyboardist Kerry Livgren.  He seemed the more classically inspired of the composers, and I resonated deeply with much of what he spoke. I couldn’t help but begin praying regularly for such an ardent seeker.

Run a silent path to nowhere, everything is all
You could have a pleasant life if Summer had no Fall
Treat yourself so gently though the task is often hard
Man is not a God it seems, who holds the final card
Close your eyes and feel the darkness, speak and hear the sound,
We only catch a glimpse of all the life that is around,
The man is not alive who knows the value of his soul,
And when our lives are pulled away, there's more to fill the hole
I wonder what you'd think if all the changes didn't come?

(Kansas, “Incommudro,” from Song For America, 1975)

As my misgivings about elements of Christianity were becoming more defined, I found Kerry’s words giving me solace…even giving me strength to keep moving forward in my search for clarity.

A few months later, I was the first at Wheaton to get their third album, entitled Masque.  A French word that means “A disguise of reality created through a theatrical or musical performance.”   So much of what I was struggling with was reflected in the album art, Arcimboldo’s eerie Water. It was a surrealist painting of a native warlord’s head that on closer examination was actually a conglomeration of aquatic creatures and plants writhing about.  This is how I often felt…from a distance I was one who somehow could fit in, but in reality, there was a complex, even squeamish jumble of questions that made me and others feel uneasy.

With glory and passion no longer in fashion
The hero breaks his blade
Cast this shadow long that I may hide my face
And in this cloak of darkness the world I will embrace
In all that I endure, of one thing I am sure
Knowledge and reason change like the season
A jester's promenade

(Kansas, “The Pinnacle,” from Masque, 1975)

So during my junior year, in the six week stretch where my three friends perished, I finally saw Kansas perform twice.  In their first three years of national exposure, Kansas had become known as “the touringest band in the land,” averaging close to 250 concerts per year.  They opened for seemingly anyone and everyone, and they played around Chicagoland alone eleven times that year.  They were also gaining quite the reputation as a band that many did not want to have on the same bill because they regularly blew others off the stage with their force and skill.  For instance, at a recent gig as opener for Rory Gallagher at the infamous Aragon Ballroom, most of the sold out audience left during the Irishman’s set having been so thoroughly entertained by the sextet from the desolate heartland.
Despite a lack of a hit single, each album was selling more than the one before, and Kansas was beginning to garner headline gigs at universities and in major cities.

It was hard to imagine a group being able to pull off the intricate arrangements of their complex epics…but they did so even more convincingly on stage than their albums.  The music was more primal and urgent in person, and with creative lighting and theatrical staging to help interpret the many moods, the concerts were everything I had hoped.  In fact, at the show at College of DuPage, I met up with Doug Pinnick, the lead singer/bassist for an area hard rock outfit I’d gotten to know (and now famous with King’s X). Kansas was also his favorite band, and we were enthralled with what we experienced.
“Man, Kerry Livgren is so far into my head now.  He seems to be writing for me,” declared Doug, who had also experienced deep grief and spiritual anxiety growing up.  And with what I had been going through with my heavy losses, I had to concur.

Sweet child of innocence
Living in the present tense
Father Time will take his toll
Rack your body and steal your soul
What became of all the years?
Are you drowning in your tears?
Who will catch you when you fall?
Who will hear you when you call?

(Kansas, “Child of Innocence,” from Masque, 1975)

The leading monthly music paper in Chitown, The Illinois Entertainer, asked if I would like to become a regular contributor after seeing some of my other rock journalism.  One of the first assignments I requested was to interview Kansas.

The band had just put the finishing touches on their Leftoverture album, and was doing a quick run of dates across the Midwest to help pay some bills before the album would be released a few months later. Kansas’ popularity had grown to beyond cult status in Chicago by that point, and the small Randhurst Ice Arena in suburban Palatine was packed with 4,000 “wheatheads.” 

In a dingy, dripping, rackety locker room (abundant with the stench of sweat-soaked leather padding that hockey players are known for), I met Kerry Livgren for the first time while the Earl Slick Band pounded out senseless drivel to the impatient masses sitting above us.  It remains one of my favorite interviews ever, partially because Kerry was excited to be answering intelligent questions about his band’s music from someone who had done his homework; but also because we really started to hit it off.  In the forty- minute session, we learned we loved many of the same classical composers; knew way more than we would normally admit about detasseling corn; were influenced by many of the same writers, philosophers, and filmmakers; shared in deep-seeded distrust of the music business; could both quote Monty Python ad infinitum; and were both on a quest for truth and meaning that was paramount above all else. 

I felt so comfortable with him that at one point I asked if he were ever open to suggestions for their set.  “Normally not, but you’re more interesting than the average bear, so go ahead.”  I told him that I’d always been fond of Franz Liszt (“me, too” he interjected), and his Hungarian Rhapsody series (“Once again, me as well” he chimed).

“Have you ever thought about adapting one of those pieces somewhere in your set?  They are so fun, Robbie (Steinhardt—the band violinist) could easily pull it off, and I’m sure your crowds would love it.”

Knowing that this was their first gig on this run of dates, and that everything they would be playing that night would be new to me, Kerry sat there amazed.  “Well, as a matter of fact, we ARE playing a bit of one of Liszt’s pieces during the encore.” 

At that point, my photographer, Sam Smith, said, “this is just too strange with you two.” “Yeah,” Kerry concurred, “it’s like we’re two long lost brothers or something.”

We agreed to chat more (Kerry really wanted us to see the cover art from the new album) after the show.  We made our way out into the packed arena, and weaseled our way down to about fifteen feet in front of the stage in the general admission floor “seating.”  I have seen over 2,000 musical performances in my life, and what I was about to experience would be one of the tops on that list.

In following chapters more unfolds about the deepening friendship between Kerry and I, not the least of which was our mutual spiritual search. I continue to be humbled by the response the book is generating.  If you have read it and wish to correspond with me, I always interact with any communiqu├ęs.   You can also read many reader reviews (97% are Five Stars) at:

Embracing the Gray is still available for a limited time as a 99 cent Kindle download at that same link, or as a free PDF download at my website (donations accepted):

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