Saturday, February 10, 2018

Documentary Review: The Terry Kath Experience



The Terry Kath Experience
Documentary
Directed by Michelle Kath Sinclair


When I mention the band Chicago, what do you think of? Syrupy love songs of the ‘80s and ‘90s and endless tours of the nostalgia circuit? That’s the recent and quasi-recent past, but that’s not the Chicago I remember.

The jazz-rock hippies of my childhood released double albums with songs in odd time signatures, with a prominent horn section and 12-minute songs based on classical music song cycles. And their original guitarist, Terry Kath, was deemed to be better than Jimi Hendrix by none other than….Jimi Hendrix. Unless you’re a musician or a longtime Chicago fan, you may not have heard of Terry Kath. He died in a freak accident in January 1978 when he was cleaning out one of his handguns.



The Terry Kath Experience, a documentary directed by Kath’s daughter, Michelle Kath Sinclair, retraces her Dad’s life via interviews with his friends, relatives, bandmates and fellow musicians. She was only two years old when he died and has little recollection of him. She produced the documentary through Kickstarter donations after traditional funding fell through due to the usual complaint - “limited appeal.”  

A daughter interviewing friends of the Dad she never knew gives the film an emotional appeal most other documentaries lack. (Of course, there are a few documentaries where an unrelated filmmaker interjects himself or herself into the subject’s life during the course of filming.) Even Peter Cetera showed up for this one. (He declined to be interviewed for the Netflix Chicago documentary.) There’s a clip of Kiefer Sutherland, Sinclair’s stepfather, at her wedding, recalling the day Kath died. 

There’s lots of archival footage - notes Kath was taking for his solo album, family photos and home movies, a concert filmed at Caribou Ranch and New Years Rockin’ Eve with the Beach Boys (both Dick Clark Productions).

In addition to her father’s bandmates in Chicago, Sinclair interviews all the usual suspects (Jeff Lynne, Joe Walsh, Mike Campbell, etc.) She also talks to a Chicago high school student who recreated Kath’s famous Fender Telecaster guitar after studying articles about the instrument in old guitar magazines. (Yes, there’s hope for the youth of today.)

Chicago at Caribou Ranch


The band’s first manager, James Guerico, bought Caribou Ranch, a recording studio/playground in Colorado for the band, and put them in Electra Glide in Blue, a movie he financed. But he also performed that obligatory rock manager move - cheating the band out of money. Like Cetera, he passed on the Chicago documentary, but grants Sinclair an interview

The documentary film crew pays a visit to the ranch on the day it’s slated for demolition. Camelia Kath recalls some of the memories in between the wood paneled walls. (The chivalrous way he wooed Camelia, whom he married in 1974, is endearing.)

A short interview clip reveals Kath wasn’t a connoisseur of groupies like many ‘70s rockers. Unfortunately, Kath did enjoy cocaine, another ‘70s vice, a bit too much, and that contributed to his early death.

The Chicago documentary Now More Than Ever (currently on Netflix) will fill you on the 40 years since Kath died. The band documentary also covers much of the same material in The Terry Kath Experience in more detail and with more era-appropriate drug and Playboy Bunny references.

Terry's famous Fender Telecaster


Sax player Walter Parazaider recalls Jimi tell him one night at the Whisky “Your guitar player is better than me.” (Probably the inspiration for the title The Terry Kath Experience.) The band’s keyboardist, Robert Lamm, among others, have said that Kath’s singing voice was that of a white Ray Charles. Those comments may sound over-the-top if you aren’t familiar with early Chicago. “Wait - this guy played guitar better than Jimi Hendrix and he sang like a white Ray Charles?” Here’s some supporting evidence.

25 or Six to Four (OMG Did they ever play this song on the radio ALL THE TIME)

After not hearing the song for years, you really appreciate it in all its glory.
If you doubt the accuracy of the statements about Kath’s guitar playing, this solo may convince you otherwise. 



Make Me Smile 




Question 67 and 68


Cetera lip syncs to a recording in this clip. Check the comments section for Danny Seraphine’s memories of the filming and a great revelation from one viewer – “Whoa! Who’s that on guitar? I thought Chicago was weak-ass Dad music. That dude’s an animal.”



Little One (written for his daughter, it was the last song Kath ever sang with Chicago)


“Wishin’ You Were Here” (not to be confused with Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”), and “Color My World” were other omnipresent songs in the early to mid ‘70s. There was no relief from Chicago ballads when I was in high school. Some kid played the intro to “Color My World” on the piano in the gym every damn day at the same time. Even the teachers complained, “Learn another song!!”

Listen to any pre-1979 Chicago album, especially Chicago Transit Authority and Chicago II, for more Terry Kath-era Chicago.

Michelle Kath Sinclair at  her father's alma mater, Taft High School in Chicago 


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