by Melissa Brunner
In the days before I met with "Kansas" co-founder Kerry Livgren to discuss his recovery from a stroke, I came across a picture posted by contemporary Christian singer Michael W. Smith. It was from his dressing room before his recent TPAC performance and his caption identified the man in the photo with him as "one of his heroes." It was Kerry Livgren. Wow, I thought, no pressure on this story!
You might not recognize Kerry's name when it's mentioned, but you most likely are familiar with the songs he wrote, namely "Dust in the Wind" and "Carry On My Wayward Son." Our conversation at his rural Shawnee County studio was, to me fascinating and inspiring. He'd done a couple print interviews and spoke at his church since his stroke, but this was his first television interview since the stroke. He told me up front that he might stumble over a word or two and maybe struggle to find a thought from time to time. But I tell you - if you didn't know he'd suffered a massive stroke, you probably would never have noticed it. It's a testament to how hard he's worked - and how lucky he was to get medical attention as quickly as possible.
Before I share a couple of the stories he shared with me, I do want to emphasize his most important message - that people recovering from a stroke should never give up hope. He said he's not sure why this happened to him, except, perhaps, it's because he has the voice to spread the message of awareness. First - as soon as you notice any symptoms of a possible stroke, get help as quickly as possibly. Think FAST, is what doctors say - if your Face starts to droop to one side, if you raise your Arms and one starts to drift or if Speech becomes slurred, it's Time to call 911. Kerry's stroke evidently started when he was sleeping, but his wife heard him fall when he got up and called for help. The quick action clearly scored points in his favor for minimizing damage and making the recovery he did.
Okay, now to the fun stories! I'd never heard the story of how Kansas was discovered. The short version, Kerry says, is that someone who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone got their demo tape on the desk of a big record executive in New York who told them if they sounded live like they did on tape, he'd sign them to a deal. So the band members rented out a hall in a small town (I think he said it was Ellinwood, which is near Great Bend) and drove all across the state, advertising their free show with - here's the hook - free beer! The gimmick worked, because Kerry says people lined up down the street - for the band or the free beer, who knows for sure, but the record exec pulled up and saw the huge crowd and thought these guys must really be something! They were signed to their first deal!
I also love the story he told when I asked him which was his favorite of the guitars he had hanging on the wall. He said it was tough to pick just one, but then he pointed to a red one and said that would probably be the one he grabbed to save from a fire. When Kansas played in Japan, he says a man stood on the side of the stage with a guitar case opened in front of him and kept bowing to Kerry. Kerry bowed back. A little later, the same thing. Kerry says he finally asked their interpreter what the man was doing and was told the man had made him a gift - a guitar...the red guitar. Kerry says he was greatly touched by the gesture. He says he even used that guitar on several later Kansas albums.
A more recent honor for Kerry and the Kansas members was their induction into Topeka West High School's Hall of Fame. Kansas continues to tour, so Kerry represented the group. He says he told the crowd that he was an unremarkable student, both academically and socially, so it was incredible to think he was receiving such a high honor!
Of course, for music fans, it might have been disheartening when Kerry picked up the guitar, contemplated a moment, then told me the song he has the most trouble playing is "Dust in the Wind."
"I may never play 'Dust in the Wind' again," he said.
But then he went on to say he practices every day and continues to improve, so he believes on day he might be able to play his iconic song again. Recovering from a stroke, he says he's learned, can take years. Even if he doesn't, he continues to make music - music he says may be even better... just different from what he could do before.
If you haven't had a chance to check out the story, please do. Among the extras, you'll get an exclusive listen to the overture of his "Cantata: The Resurrection of Lazarus." A project 33 years in the making, Kerry says it's not about 72 minutes long. Someday, he says, he'll bring it to an end. I can't wait to hear when he does!