By Bruce Pollock
In 1970, Kerry Livgren formed the first Kansas, an experimental rock band that was a cross between Frank Zappa and King Crimson, with horns. The songwriter of the group, Livgren maintains it was a terrific training ground. "I wrote bizarre poetry," he says, "not unlike Kansas, but weirder." In 1973, when the second coming of Kansas was at hand (and Don Kirshner with his checkbook at the ready) Livgren was more than willing to grant the world a few concessions - in return for a few favors. "Having done strange music for several years, we got a little tired of eating rice," he says. "I realized I'd have to make my stuff a little more approachable."
After writing two of the rock world's certified classics, "Dust in the Wind" and "Carry on Wayward Son," the '80s found Kerry older and wiser, but still creating. "I was very idealistic back then. I still am, but I've learned to temper that with a certain amount of reality."
This interview took place in May, 1984.
Before Kansas got signed you could sum up everything I'd written in two words: I'm searching. But from that point on you could sum it all up by saying: I've found. What changed was my world view. I went from one of existential despair to one of joy and peace. I write about God almost exclusively at this point. Basically it's always been that way. And when that's the subject, by definition, there are no limits to what you can say. If you look at my lyrics, even "Dust in the Wind" is a song about the transitory nature of our physical lives. That falls under the umbrella heading of God. If you find something fulfilling then you want to communicate it to other people. What could you write about, ultimately, that could be more interesting?
At this point in my life I tend to write when I have to more than when I just want to. It used to be the other way around. I used to write for the sheer joy of writing. Now there are so many other considerations, other things that take up time in my life, that I have to allot the time. It's a discipline. You have to sit down and say, I'm going to write. When you do that, sometimes inspiration comes, sometimes it doesn't.
Then there are times I wake up at three in the morning and there's a completed song playing in my head. I run down to the piano and I record it and then go back to bed. The change in the spontaneity of my writing, I find, has to do with just being older and more seasoned. There's something about first entering the maturity of life that has a sort of urgency about it. Not that it shouldn't be there all the time. It's just that now I have to work at it more. It's not so spontaneous. But I'm writing some things now that are much better than what I wrote back then.
"Dust In The Wind"
I originally wrote "Dust in the Wind" as a finger-picking exercise. My wife was listening to me play it one day and she said, 'You know, that's really pretty. You should make a song out of that.' I didn't think it was a Kansas-type song. She said, Give it a try anyway. Several million records later, I guess she was right.
Musically, though, it's not one of my favorite songs. I tend to like the more bombastic things, like "The Wall."
To me a song's value is not determined on an applause meter. I personally would play a song that I believed in even if the crowd hated it. I'm probably the only one in the band who feels that way. When I go to a concert I don't measure my enthusiasm for the group by how much I jump up and down and yell and scream.
I tend to sit there and analyze something on a level that isn't manifested in loud applause and gyrations. There's a level on which you can appreciate things and even be so blown away that you can't even move. If you were judging how much the audience liked the band only from the volume of the applause, you'd get a completely wrong picture of what was actually happening. You might think the song didn't go over. I think with certain songs we play, the object is to just leave people with their mouths open.
Bruce Pollock has written ten books on music, including Working Musicians: Defining Moments from the Road, the Studio, and the Stage. In his column "They're Playing My Song," Jackie DeShannon, Neal Smith, Dean Friedman and many other songwriters tell the stories behind the one song that most impacted their careers. Visit Bruce at brucepollockthewriter.com.