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.

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.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 19

  • Nadine from New MexicoWhen I was 17, I was a camp counselor for underprivileged 6th graders in our district, along with 7 other kids from my high school. Up to that point, my only real musical exposure was hymns and gospel songs; my little girls even insisted I sing them to sleep every night. One day while we counselors were on our break, one of the male counselors brought out a boom box and put on a Kansas cassette. I vaguely recognized "Carry On Wayward Son", but the song that caught my attention, and held it for the next 40 years and counting is "The Wall". An absolute masterpiece depicting the struggle involved in deciding to continue following the world because the Christian walk is too hard, too unknown. I have never heard such honesty, such openness about ones own frailties and the struggle to keep up the climb. I will forever be grateful for the impact it has made in my life.
  • Tony from Woodstock I love his music, from Kansas to AD and beyond, thank you.
  • Carl from Belle Chasse, Louisianamy favorites from kerry are the 2 songs that featured ronnie dio on vocals - mask of the great deceiver, and live for the king.
    dio's voice was practically made for those songs, even if he didn't understand them while he sang them.
  • Rod Burnett from Virginia MASQUE
    Kerry wouldn't agree I'm sure, but it was his pinnacle to me. I like most of his offerings, but album #3 was special, still is.
  • Carrie Brown from Covington, Georgia Kansas has always been one of my Favorites! I had the pleasure of meeting Kerry Livgren on a personal level in my hometown of Covington Ga a few years back.He has a kind, compassionate loving heart! Down to earth. He talked about his stroke and recovery, a true Miracle. Met his lovely wife! Both were Spiritual and uplifting. Kerry we hope you visit again soon, as you definitely left your mark on our town and lives through your writings, music and as a friend! We love you...
  • Wendell Schexnider from Lake Arthur, LouisianaI grew up and grew old listening to Kansas (The Wall being my favorite) and plant to go out listening to kansas! I find their music as fulfilling today ass i did back then! It’s timeless!!
  • Loren Bjork from Vancouver Bc CanadaMichael Triska haha! oh yeah? " PROVE IT! "
  • Peter O' Driscoll from Grand Falls-windsor, Nl, Canada, A2a 1l1This song is " Dust you came in this world, dust you shall return".
  • Christine from Phoenix AzKansas has been my fave band for decades. I love their progressive music and interesting lyrics. Kerry Livgren is the best songwriter in my book. I'd like to meet him since I'm a songwriter too. Their movie Miracles Out of Nowhere is so interesting. I thank them for making it. They said the last time they were together was 1980. But it must have been later. They got together again in 2000 to record their millenial album. It was great! I'm glad Kerry Livgren wrote all the songs to that. I wish he were still in the band.
  • Pamela Pechanec from Topeka Ksall of the Christian lyrics in his songs are so beautiful and uplifting to me after all these yrs listening to them brings a kind of peace to the soul-so spiritual and unbelievable instrumentals that came from mr livgren-the music is timeless and amazing...I had the pleasure of meeting mr livgrens cousin who is also a musician here in Topeka ks and he told me that they may have played and sung something at a family reunion and that he is still very active in his church and I wish him well in his struggle recovering from stroke as he seems to have fought very hard to overcome -I saw Kansas here in Topeka at free concert and they were fantastic-should be in rock and roll hall in Cleveland just like chicago
  • Fritz Souder from MarylandGreat writer and one whose songs shape images in peoples minds that influence their own lives. He's made his mark on society and that's notable accomplishment. Now that's a good reason for songwriters like some of us who read these interviews to keep on writing...huh?
  • J.a. from NyWhat amazes me is how their music holds up over time, and also what great guys they seem like. Very normal and not like the many losers in the rock world.
  • Don from Sevierville, TnWhen Livgren wrote "Dust in the Wind", he was in a cult called Urantia. In 1979, he left Urantia to become a born-again Christian.
  • Nishar from Fayetteville Nc 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.
  • Bruce PollockMichael, get in touch with me through this page, and I'll do a story on your wife.
  • Cathy Creswell from Grand Rapids, MiMr. 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!!
  • Keith from BuffaloMr. Livgren, you are an inspiration.....Hopelessly Human is a haunting masterpiece.
  • ColdnebraskaniteI 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.
  • Michael TriskaPlease Mr. Livgren, give my wife the credit she deserves. My wife Katherine wrote the words to "Dust in the wind".
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Danny Kortchmar

Danny KortchmarSongwriter Interviews

Danny played guitar on Sweet Baby James, Tapestry, and Running On Empty. He also co-wrote many hit songs, including "Dirty Laundry," "Sunset Grill" and "Tender Is The Night."

John Waite

John WaiteSongwriter Interviews

"Missing You" was a spontaneous outpouring of emotion triggered by a phone call. John tells that story and explains what MTV meant to his career.

Jon Oliva of Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Jon Oliva of Trans-Siberian OrchestraSongwriter Interviews

Writing great prog metal isn't easy, especially when it's for 60 musicians.

David Clayton-Thomas of Blood, Sweat & Tears

David Clayton-Thomas of Blood, Sweat & TearsSongwriter Interviews

The longtime BS&T frontman tells the "Spinning Wheel" story, including the line he got from Joni Mitchell.

Steely Dan

Steely DanFact or Fiction

Did they really trade their guitarist to The Doobie Brothers? Are they named after something naughty? And what's up with the band name?

The Truth Is Out There: A History of Alien Songs

The Truth Is Out There: A History of Alien SongsSong Writing

The trail runs from flying saucer songs in the '50s, through Bowie, blink-182 and Katy Perry.