Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Book review: Street Player: My Chicago Story, by Danny Seraphine

Street Player: My Chicago Story, by Danny Seraphine (with Adam Mitchell)
Nashville: Wiley, 2010

The times. In 1969 I turned fourteen. According to various websites, gas was 35 cents a gallon, you could buy a nice new car for under $2000, and a new house for $15,000 - $16,000. There were protests of the Vietnam war, man walked on the moon, and a woman named Golda Meir became Prime Minister of Israel.

The music. I liked listening to the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Blood, Sweat & Tears, some by The Who, Janis Joplin, Santana, and other artists. I did not notice the arrival of a double-record album called Chicago Transit Authority, with its nondescript black and blue cover and its too-long-for-AM-radio songs.

This band. But somewhere around this time my beloved sister Maryly was blown away by this new band playing the Whiskey A Go Go on Sunset Boulevard, and she bought their albums. Visiting her apartment, I heard this different style of music, with its evocative mix of jazz and rock, its complex, layered songs, its turn-by-turn interplay of top-notch musicians. It stuck in my mind, and in short order I became a fan.

This was after, by the way, my dear sister kindly took me to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. I was not a fan at that point. We sat in the nosebleed section, and could barely see the little figures on the stage. Only the closed-circuit screens brought them out. What really stood out to me was the funny-looking cigarettes people brought out, and the gut-churning clouds of stink they produced. "They aren't cigarettes," Maryly informed me. But I digress.

This drummer. As I say, all the musicians were excellent, but the single member who hooked me was their crazy drummer. This cat had a sound like no one else I'd ever heard. I almost immediately thought of it as loose-tight. Most rock drummers were straight-ahead, like machine guns, rat-a-tat-tat. Even The Who's frenetic drummer was pretty vanilla in his timing and punctuation.

Not this fellow. He had a slinky, sharp, creative groove that was all his own. It was impossible to hear and not respond, not to nod or tap or move. It was worth listening to the songs just to pick out his beat and catch his fills.

The man's name was Danny Seraphine. Hearing (and, later, watching) him was so fun that I decided to try it myself. Got a set of drums, and went at it. On my best day I was miles and miles away from Seraphine's worst day, but the pursuit was fun.

And now finally, some forty years after I started listening to Chicago, Seraphine has written a biography titled Street Player: My Chicago Story.

I've followed Chicago at varying distances since the 1970s, attending well over a dozen concerts, buying all their albums, participating in fan discussions in the 90s — even arranging an after-concert meeting with one of the members (bass player Jason Scheff) after a concert for my DAOD's twelfth birthday.

But always they were by design a faceless band. Prior to the 80s, no individual stood out as the public face of Chicago. They were intentionally about the music, not the personalities. Algore hadn't invented the internet yet, so information was not widely available, and all we had was the songs. So Seraphine's book offered a fun opportunity to be able to peek inside the life of a favorite founding member, and I appreciate Wiley publishers providing me with a review copy.

Disclaimer: as I will explain, this book is not at all the typical BibChr readering material. There are quite a few obscenities. There are also tales of drug use and immorality, though the former ends up strongly cautionary and the latter stops well short of lurid detail. It is a very engaging read, but definitely not for everyone. More, later.

Beginnings. The book starts, arrestingly, with Danny at the house where friend and fellow band-member Terry Kath had just accidentally shot and killed himself. Danny numbly watches Kath's body being carted off by the coroner, too tall to fit into the body-bag. From that attention-grabbing intro, Danny turns back to his own childhood.

Danny grew up in the rough streets of Chicago, running with gangs just a few removes from the Chicago Mafia. He was a high-spirited kid, never one to walk away from a fight or a challenge. This meant trouble around home, and major problems at school.

But Danny discovered as a young child that he loved banging on his mother's pots and pans. His father was a more distant figure, but his mother doted on him, and she got him a drum kit and lessons. Danny took after drumming with real fire, developing his chops by playing in various bands. He details the move from group to group playing in small venues.

One group was Jimmy Ford and the Executives, with whom he was paid the princely sum of $50 a show. Among the band, Seraphine met sax player Walter Parazaider and bass payer (!) Terry Kath. Danny clicked with those two... but the three of them were let go, in a sudden personnel change. Some time later, inspiration struck Danny. Why not put together a band comprised of the most talented players in Chicago? He looked up his former band-mates Parazaider and Kath. They talked and worked at it, and brought in Lee Loughnane on trumpet, Jimmy Pankow on trombone, and Bobby Lamm on the keyboard. Lamm would play bass on organ pedals, and Kath would switch from bass to guitar.

This was the core group of what was eventually to be known as Chicago. They got together and jammed in Walt's mother's basement, and realized they had something special going. Gathered afterwards, Danny said to his new bandmates:
"Everyone has been involved in bands that have gone nowhere and had to deal with being treated like [garbage] by other members on a regular basis. We've seen big egos take over and ruin groups. Well, this band isn't about any of that; it's about the music. Everything will be done by a democratic vote. I say we make a pact right now that no one is ever going to be fired from this group. You either quit or you die" (52-53)
Walt was on the same page, and everyone agreed. This is an ominous bit of foreshadowing of what was to come later.

Before long, bass player Peter Cetera (who had studied to be a priest, in seminary!) was added, completing the seven core members who alone powered the first five albums, and — apart from Terry Kath's death — stayed together for seventeen albums

From there the book traces Danny's life and career as Chicago struggles its way into the limelight and transitions from barely being able to fill small venues, to playing massive sold-out stadiums and pressing multiple-platinum albums.

What is interesting.  If you're a fan, you'll learn a great deal of interesting back-story. You'll learn of their encounters with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Chuck Berry, Bill Cosby and others. You'll learn as well of Terry Kath's increasingly troubled life, and his tragic, pointless death. You'll learn of the first post-Kath guitarist, Donnie Dacus, and why he was eventually let go. You'll learn about rumors of mob-involvement with Chicago, through (of all things) a Wall Street Journal piece. You'll learn a lot more about Pete Cetera's voluntary departure, and then finally about Danny's own involuntary dismissal from the band (more on that, later). Also, you'll learn the stories behind songs like "Little One," "Greatest Love on Earth," and of course the titular "Street Player."

What is sad. While much of the book is fun and interesting. a lot is sad as well, from several angles.

Right away one sees Seraphine's father as a somewhat remote figure. What is worse, neither parent seems to have pointed Danny to the gospel of Jesus — so what follows is as predictable as it is sad. Danny hooks up with the wrong kind of male figures as a youth (cf. Proverbs 1:10-19), makes bad associations and bad choices. He starts having sex at age 14 and becomes a father at 15... then has no involvement (beyond paying support) for years. The guilt from this comes back to haunt him.

What "redeems" Danny is strictly horizontal. Young Danny reaches a point where he realizes that his life-path is going in a direction he doesn't want to go, and music becomes his positive outlet. This eventually leads to his involvement in Chicago. Older Danny returns to his music, helped by a solid marriage.

The saddest complex of events in the whole saga is Seraphine's ejection from the band he helped found.

As I mentioned above, the founding members were agreed: nobody would be fired from the band, period. Over the years, Danny shows himself true to his word. When success and drugs literally drive saxophonist Walter Parazaider into a mental hospital, some in the band suggested firing him. Seraphine will hear nothing of it, and says he'll walk out if Parazaider is fired. When cocaine so ruins Bobby Lamm that his performances are wrecked, Danny confronts him, Lamm goes into extensive rehab, and rejoins the band as "Robert" (198-202). He similarly stuck by Pankow and Loughnane through rough periods. Firing founding members is not an option to Seraphine, period.

However the 90s form of the band, with relative newbies Jason Scheff (bass, vocals) and Bill Champlin (keyboard, vocals, everything), get antsy about their commercial profitability. Danny is having a rough stretch, due in part to the advent of electronic drumming and a hit to his self-confidence. Parazaider assures him he's not going to be let go, no matter what. However, they hold secret meetings behind Danny's back, and they fire him. Boom.

As Danny tells it, it is just that callous, just that treacherous, just that brutal and cold. His loyalty is repaid by cold shoulders, whispered conversations, covert meetings, and then a quick shove out of the door. Seraphine attends the next band business meeting, and confronts each of them (except no-show Pankow) eye to eye — but they lamely make excuses and stand by their verdict.

The band's story at the time is that Danny's playing was off, and he'd lost focus. I can only tell you a fan's perspective. I noticed the drumming in his later albums to become very un-Danny-like — which the book explains. But in concert, I never saw Seraphine do a solo that wasn't a show-stopper. (Here is a solo from that period; in it I notice one false stroke, which is fewer than the other musicians average.) It's forty years after I first started listening to Chicago, and I've seen some phenomenal drummers since that time. But Danny Seraphine is one of a kind, and the band really lost something when it flaked on him.

Seraphine's heartbroken, shattered. He quits drumming entirely. It takes a long time for him to get himself back together, rejoin the music industry, and eventually form a new band. His attempts to be reconciled with the band on a personal level are only partly successful; his former bandmates do not come off admirably.

The saddest. Saddest of all is the fact that there isn't even a passing appearance by anyone who knows Christ in the entire saga. There is vaguely religious language here and there, and Seraphine in the Acknowledgments starts with this:
First and foremost, to My Sweet Lord—who has given me such an incredible and interesting life. You have always taken care of me, no matter what.
But there's no context for that in the entire book, and the only religion that appears (and only very faintly so) is Roman Catholic.

If Seraphine and the band ever met a genuine Christian believer, that person does not appear as such in the book. If anyone has ever in his life told Danny Seraphine how he could know God, it isn't mentioned.

Seraphine comes off ultimately as a likable, goodhearted (as we say) guy. He pulls no punches in criticizing himself, and expressing guilt and regret for many of his decisions and actions. It actually reads like an extended testimonial in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. And it is all horizontal. That is, he is sorry for betraying his wives, he is sorry for handling Pete Cetera and Bobby Lamm wrong. But none of these actions or attitudes is viewed in relation to God as holy judge. For instance:
Women had become a destructive vice and I could not overcome the temptation. I tried to justify my behavior in my mind, but I was only lying to myself (121)
There is candor there, yet the wrong perspective. If Danny is judge, he must save himself. Such redemption as there is can have nothing to do with the person and work of Christ, who came to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15) — not merely from lying to ourselves, but from our offenses against a holy God.

I write this sadly, not as a scold. Danny Seraphine's music has brought a lot of pleasure to me, for decades. But lost people act like lost people. I did. You did. How could they not?

So I think, Really? All the traveling and shmoozing that Seraphine has done over the last decades, and no Christian ever crossed Danny Seraphine's path and saw him as other than a tremendous talent and a celebrity? Did no Christian ever take the time to get to know him, show him love, and tell him what he most needs to hear?

AN ASIDE: in the course of looking for videos, I found that apparently Danny Seraphine made an appearance at Drummers for Jesus. No idea what that was about. I'm following up.

What is instructive. Anyone who views sex, drugs and rock and roll as an inseparable troika would read this book, snap it shut and announce "Case closed." With no relationship with Christ, and no external moral standard, Seraphine dives right in. He unstintingly (though without details) tells of numberless groupies, girls who give themselves sexually to anyone and everyone to "get at" the guys in the band. He "cheated" (his word) on his wives repeatedly, leading to broken marriages, regrets, and a guilty conscience.

Though cocaine's effects alarm and repel the younger Seraphine, he does other drugs extensively, as do his band mates. But drug use ruins them — and, arguably, contributes to Terry Kath's tragic death — and by the end of the book most or all have been through rehab and are apparently "clean." Danny also is in a marriage to which he's devoted, and he has given himself to being the best father he knows how to be to all his children by his marriages, as well as the girl he fathered out of wedlock.

What is missing (in terms of the narrative). I was a little puzzled that Danny did not mention the circumstances behind the release of lightning-fast guitarist Chris Pinnick, who was with the band from 1980-1985, nor the tenure of guitarist Dawayne Bailey. Danny was let go in 1990, and Dawayne's tenure with the band was 1986-1995, so they did overlap. Is it a loud silence, or just a silence?

Also, Seraphine never mentions the drummer who replaced him, Tris Imboden. Perhaps too painful a subject?

In sum. The book is a fast and interesting read. I had trouble putting it down. Seraphine is very engaging, and tells his story in rapid succession. Some of it is pretty funny, such as the story of the toupe that saved Danny's life.

Seraphine is not easy on himself, or on the excesses of the rock-star lifestyle. In fact, in this age of mealy-mouthed politicians (and fallen "evangelical" "leaders"), his candor is refreshing. Take one example:
Rose [his wife] and my daughters deserved much better treatment from me. I had failed miserably as a husband to her and as a father to my two little girls. I was devastated at the thought that they would have to grow up without a full-time father in their lives. But I only had myself to blame. Nobody had forced me to do the things I had done. I repeatedly gave in to the temptations of the rock-star lifestyle and I alone was responsible for my awful behavior (148)
Honestly, couldn't some fallen "Christian" "leaders" learn something from a confession like this?

But once again, be warned: there are many obscenities in the book. Danny also alludes to a lot of sexual immorality, though that part of the narrative is never detailed or lurid — again, in contrast to the supposed "confessions" of so-called Christian leaders.

I was interested in hearing Danny's story. Now I'm glad I heard it. Seraphine's given interested fans a fast-moving, involving, good read.


Robert said...

I think I'll have to snag a copy and give it a read. I only started hearing them in the 80's (I'm not 40 yet), so I probably don't have the same appreciation for them. I did really like their music in the 80's and in my older years have listened to more of their older stuff (along with listening to The Who). Indeed, it is sad to hear that no Christian influenced him or made any impact in his life.

Being a bit younger, I have listened to a lot of Dave Matthew Band because of all the music and think of Chicago along the same lines (just in a different time and genre). A group of musicians just making good music/songs. I'd say Chicago is actually a bit more collective because the singing wasn't just one guy, but I'd say the music is the driving force for both.

Mark Patton said...

Fancy myself a Chicago fan, but because I'm 38 that usually just gets me a "isn't he cute" pat on the head from real Chicago fans. Sounds like a good start to get a view of the band from Seraphine's perspective so I can carry on grown up conversations about the band. One day, with study, cd purchases, and perfect internet info. I hope to actually become a card carrying member of the Chicago fan club.

Fred Butler said...

When I was in jr. high, I always had them confused with Journey. I was so uncool in those days. I just remember our band director had "25 or 6 to 4" in the rotation of tunes we played for the home basket ball games.

Susan said...

Good review. Very thorough. Which means I won't have to read the book. :)

I'm not a Chicago groupie (even though I like some of their songs), so it surprised me to read that Peter Cetera started out playing bass. And I've always thought that his enunciation was quite interesting--looks like Wikipedia has the answer to that:

His trademark singing style would develop as a result of having to sing for a period of time with a wired-shut jaw after getting into a brawl at a Los Angeles Dodgers game in 1969.

No wonder he always sounded like he had something in his mouth when he sang....

Anonymous said...

Great review! Makes me want to read the book again. And I do pray for him and some other well known musicians. I so wish they would know and experience the gospel if they don't..... Looking forward to the new CTA album when it comes out. Thank you for the review!

DJP said...

Susan, that story is related in the book as well.

Dan, thanks for coming by. I pray for them too, and look forward to the album. Wish they had horns, but he's playing with some really terrific musicians, isn't he? NO ONE will ever be Terry Kath, but CTA's guitarist is very good.

Chris H said...


Good review. I'm not a Chicago fan, but I am a music fan, and enjoy learning about other bands, and the lives of their members.

One question: Have you written to Danny Seraphine to tell him about Christ? Maybe arranged to meet up as a life-long fan, and then shared the Gospel?

This isn't an attack (I have many a plank in my own eye in matter such as this), just an encouragement to be that Christian who crosses his path and tells him what he NEEDS to know; point out the vertical for him.

I'll do the same for some of my favourites.

Bill Honsberger said...

Did you get to hear this song "Restoration" from the Drummers for Jesus event? Seraphine co-wrote it and if definitely has that old CTA flavor to it.

DJP said...

Yes, and agreed.

I still haven't heard back from them.