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Kerry Livgren of Kansas

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.

God

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?


Maturity

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."


Applause

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.
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Comments: 7

When Livgren wrote "Dust in the Wind", he was in a cult called Urantia. In 1979, he left Urantia to become a born-again Christian.Don from Sevierville, Tn
I saw Kansas about 15 years ago in Virginia Beach. They were old, but played very well. They sounded even better than the records they put out: amazing live band.Nishar from Fayetteville Nc
Michael, get in touch with me through this page, and I'll do a story on your wife.Bruce Pollock
Mr. Livgren had a stroke a few years ago. He tells all about it on his personal website. His recuperation has been slow, and he can't tour. His faith is enduring. Anyne who loves his music needs to buy his solo album. It rawks!!Cathy Creswell from Grand Rapids, Mi
Mr. Livgren, you are an inspiration.....Hopelessly Human is a haunting masterpiece.Keith from Buffalo
I first heard "Dust In the Wind" live in a concert in Lincoln, Nebraska shortly after I became a member of the Baha'i Faith in 1976. The lyrics sounded as if they were drawn from the Words of Baha'u'llah Who, in the 19th century, wrote such statements as "The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens," and "Ye are all the leaves of one tree and the branches thereof," and "Know ye not that ye were created from the same dust?" all of which are conveyed in this song. I first saw Kansas in the early 1970's (1971?) in Kansas City. Outstanding, even back then.Coldnebraskanite
Please Mr. Livgren, give my wife the credit she deserves. My wife Katherine wrote the words to "Dust in the wind".Michael Triska

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