That brooding stare from the record sleeve of Leftoverture (1976) belongs to Kerry Livgren, born this day in 1949. Despite being an early Boomer, Livgren was (as he wrote in the song “Two Cents Worth”) “born in the wrong century.” At an early age he was rapt in the majesty of Lutheran hymns, Strauss, and Wagner, rising from a Swedish church and a relative’s phonograph into the wide sky above Topeka, Kansas. Although his early gigs included a R&B band, Livgren would carry the classics with him into a career that carved out one of the most distinctive sounds in progressive rock — a fusion of jazz, classical, arena rock, and country. The music of Kansas (the band) was as fierce, dynamic, and restless as the cover art to their eponymous first release, a painting by John Stuart Curry of John Brown astride “bleeding Kansas.”
As a teenager growing up in the southern Piedmont of North Carolina I, too, was listening to Also Sprach Zarathustra, Elektra, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. But I was also weaned on the Stanley Brothers and Buck Owens; so when I heard the opening harmonies and heavy bombast of “Carry On Wayward Son” erupting from the FM station my dad managed, I found something musically that harmonized what had seemed distressingly disparate tastes. Livgren proved you can put these diverse elements together and make something glorious and coherent of them.
The greatness of Kansas’ music never rose higher, in my mind, than “The Pinnacle” (Masque, 1975); but majestic moments are found all over of the band’s catalog. Moreover, coupled with the music was Livgren’s deep spiritual search. As a rocker from the Plains he epitomized Jesus’ challenge to, “Seek, and you will find; knock, and it shall be opened to you.” If there was one American who exhausted the religious and philosophical well of thought, it was Kerry Livgren. That search, chronicled on Kansas’ albums, concluded with a return to the faith of his fathers. Livgren wrote of his career and conversion in Seeds of Change (1980, ed. 1991), an autobiography coauthored with Kenneth Boa.
Settling the religious question did not settle Livgren’s music. As a solo artist he wrote — and, in Todd Rundgren fashion, played all the instruments — on a characteristically diverse and fascinating album, One of Several Possible Musiks (1989). Together with Kansas bassist Dave Hope (now an Anglican priest) Livgren formed AD, releasing a string of albums in the ’80s of ’90s. In 2000 he produced one of his best solo efforts, Collector’s Sedition (an album I was privileged to review for PopMatters) that again showcases the sheer breadth of his interests and abilities.
In his bio Livgren introduced the tantalizing subject of the “pre-” Kansas bands — Kansas I and II, featuring Lynn Meredith’s histrionic vocals and John Bolton’s wild, Coltrane-inspired saxophone solos. Doing the prog world an unspeakable service, Livgren re-mixed and released Early Recordings from Kansas, 1971-1973 (2002), which I would say holds up as a prog album worthy of any collection. On the strength of that effort, the aptly named Proto-Kaw became a band again, touring and recording three new albums.
We’ve barely scratched the surface here; but suffice to say that Kerry Livgren is a renaissance man: church elder, husband, father, farmer, pilot, student, promoter of others’ gifts and talents, and yes, a brilliant composer, arranger, and musician.
Happy birthday, Kerry Livgren. Thank you for a tireless witness to honesty, truth, beauty, and order over the past five and a half decades.