In one of my first posts here at Progarchy.com–“A Pilgrim’s Prog-ress”–I wrote about the key role that Kansas (the band, not the state) played in opening the doors to prog for me:
Around 1985 or so, I bought a copy of “The Best of Kansas”. That opened the door to prog. There was something about the mixture of Livgren’s lead guitar, Steinhardt’s violin, and Steve Walsh’s amazing voice, along with lyrics soaked in spiritual longing and Americana, that grabbed me by the scrawny neck. Over the next three or four years, I ended up collecting everything by Kansas, Kerry Livgren (solo and with AD), and Steve Morse (solo, Dixie Dregs, etc.). My favorite Kansas albums are “Song for America” and “In the Spirit of Things”, although they weren’t the chart-toppers that “Point of Know Return” and “Leftoverture” were.
Early on in the documentary, “Miracles Out of Nowhere”, which was released in March, drummer Phil Ehart emphasizes that it was Livgren’s song writing, Steinhardt’s violin, and Walsh’s vocals that made Kansas such a distinctive-sounding band in the 1970s. He is surely correct about that, but he also, in saying so, humbly passes over another key to the band’s steady rise and eventually rather surreal success (or miraculous, a consistent theme in the documentary): he own unassuming, balanced personality and rooted, yet deeply musical, drumming. As Garth Brooks, one of several rather surprising guests, marvels in recalling his first Kansas show: “It was the first time I’d seen a drummer play actual notes!”
Miracles and music: those are the two constant themes throughout the documentary, which begins with childhood memories and concludes with 1977’s “Point of Know Return”, Kansas’ fifth album and the apex of the band’s commercial success (it hit #4 in the U.S. and featured the band’s biggest hit and best-known song, “Dust in the Wind”). That album is, arguably, a fitting conclusion to the documentary as the band would soon learn there really are points of no return; or, in the words a certain young lady, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”. It wasn’t long, in fact, before Walsh departed, then Livgren, and then the band entered into the post-classic-Kansas era (I provide some details here).
There have been complaints, at Amazon.com and other places, about the documentary not covering the splits, substance abuse, departures, and fights, which might be understandable for fans but hardly makes sense for men in their sixties who are seeking to assess and to enjoy, rightly so, the warm glow of those early and often magical years. Ehart, in an interview with UltimateClassicRock.com, directly addressed the matter, indicating that if the focus had been the fights, clashing personalities, and dirty laundry, the documentary would have been, well, dust in the wind:
We said this early on, in putting this together: If somebody didn’t want to do it, we weren’t going to do it at all. It just didn’t make any sense to have somebody not there. We didn’t have to do any arm twisting. Everybody just went, “Yeah, it sounds great; let’s do it,” because the premise for doing the story was just the first five albums. We weren’t going to discuss the breakups and the drugs, and all of that kind of stuff.
We just kind of agreed as a band, let’s not do that. I mean, who cares? Not that we didn’t discuss tensions and things between people getting things done, but at the same time we didn’t want to drag out the same tired dirty laundry that a lot of bands do to where people go, “Oh God, it’s just another story of a bunch of sad people.” We just thought, let’s just leave all of that out and let’s actually tell a pretty cool story about how we started here and how we ended up there.
So, I think the story stands on its own, without having to drag everything out. I think once we decided to keep all of that out, everybody felt a lot more comfortable being involved. Everybody just knew that, “Look, if there’s anything in here that really embarrasses you or you don’t want to talk about, we’ll just take it out.” I think everybody felt good about that premise. So when it was time to show up, everybody was there. …
We just knew that you get about 11 or 12 years into Kansas and everything starts to fall apart, and it gets so convoluted that it’s hard to tell the story. It was like, “Screw it.” [Laughs.] I mean, I couldn’t even keep track of all of the players. So we said, “Look, let’s just do this: Six guys started out from here and we made it to there.”
In truth, some bands are far more interesting for what they did off the stage than for what they did on the stage. And then there are bands that really are, at the end of the day, all about the music, and it seems quite clear that Kansas is in the latter camp. It is rather striking how ordinary these six musicians appear to be, with only Walsh (who retired last year) giving occasional glimpses into a more prickly, difficult side. Ehart, whose warm humor and casual self-deprecating approach make him the star of the documentary, is keen to praise his bandmates, expressing obvious awe over Walsh’s vocal prowess and Livgren’s songwriting, saying that back in the day he didn’t think of Livgren as a musical genius, but perhaps only because they ate hamburgers together. And even Livgren, who nearly died in 2009 after suffering a stroke, seems genuinely surprised at the astounding run of classic songs he produced in those years, offering up thanks to God in a somewhat “Ah, shucks” sort of way.
Kansas, of course, was never given much due by the usual suspects in the music media world, so it is quite fun to hear musical icons such as Brooks, Brian May (Kansas opened for Queen many times and the two groups have an obvious respect for each other), and Brendan O’Brien speak with obvious respect, even awe, about the band, whose commitment to the road resulted in hundreds of shows each year. Critics sometimes carp that Kansas (and Queen, for that matter) were “pretentious” and “indulgent”, but “Miracles Out of Nowhere” shows something quite different: musicians paying their dues, working at their craft, and creating music for the love of music, not for fame, fortune, or carnal pleasures.
In truth, Kansas was a socially conscious and spiritually aware band long before it was considered hip to sing about saving the forests and escaping the clutches of materialism. “Death of Mother Nature Suite,” from the band’s 1974 debut album, is a blast of straight-up eco-apocalypticism:
We’ve strangled all her trees and starved her creatures
There’s poison in the sea and in the air
But worst of all we’ve learned to live without her
We’ve lost the very meaning of our lives
And now she’s gonna die
Once she ruled the earth with love and wisdom
But we were much too smart to live her way
With greed and lust we tried to rise above her
The ignorance of man will reach an end
‘Cause now we’re gonna die
Interestingly, the documentary doesn’t dwell much on lyrics, which is a shame, for Livgren (as he documented in his autobiography, Seeds of Change) embraced or flirted with just about every form of Eastern mysticism and neo-monistic belief system in existence. Yet he apparently did so with little or no chemical assistance; he eventually became an evangelical Christian in 1980 (and, yes, it was while in a hotel room) and soon embarked on a varied and fairly prolific solo career.
“It’s about the music to us,” Ehart told UltimateClassicRock.com. “That’s why we continue on, because it’s about the music. From the beginning of the band, it’s been about the music. It hasn’t been about anybody in the band.” In a real sense, that sort of statement is quite anti-rock, for rock music has often been about the Performer, the Front Man, the Guitar God, the Drumming Demon. It suggests that what is unique about “progressive rock” is that it really isn’t progressive–at least not philosophically or politically–and it really isn’t even “rock” in many common understandings of that word. It has far more in common with classical music, which is composed, elaborate, complex, and created for an ensemble of performers who are dedicated to the performance (rather than just performing for the dedicated). Livgren, in speaking of his influences, mentions spending countless hours listening to classical music; the same goes for violinist and vocalist Robby Steinhardt, who was equally influenced by classical music and classic blues and R&B. The music of Kansas–at least in its original, classic line-up–is often the music of old Europe baptized in the summer thunder storms of Midwest USA.
The critics may never give Kansas its due, but the band certainly paid its dues. And in doing so, it created a sound that is instantly recognizable. How did that happen? “Miracles Out of Nowhere” provides some answers, but not all answers. Come to think of it, the story of Kansas does seem shot through with something miraculous and a bit mystical:
Here I am, I’m sure to see a sign
All my life I knew that it was mine
It’s always here, it’s always there
It’s just love and miracles out of nowhere