Kansas songwriter Kerry Livgren carries on after devastating stroke

By Jeb Wright

The odds of a kid from Topeka, Kan., barely out of high school, writing two of the biggest hits of the 1970s — “Dust in the Wind” and “Carry On Wayward Son” — are at, best minuscule.

Add in more hit songs, sold-out concerts worldwide and a few Gold and Platinum record awards for selling more than 30 million units, and the odds of this being anything but a fairy tale stretch so far out, not even a desperate, down-on-his-luck gambler would bite.

Kansas Epic Legacy publicity photoBut Kerry Livgren is that kid, albeit one who has traveled a few years further down the road. Along with five rough-and-tumble Kansas bandmates, Livgren and company were either too ignorant or too feisty to realize that they shouldn’t have a chance to make it in the music business.

Livgren, who wrote many of Kansas’s biggest hits, has a way of presenting his musical revelations that captures the listener’s imagination. The mystery and mayhem, the emotional turmoil and the searching to make sense of this realm of existence and find a deeper meaning fill his lyrics, while his music drips of raw, impassioned rock and roll mixed with an innate knowledge of classical music. His is a special gift, a true higher calling.

In September 2009, Livgren and his music were temporally silenced when he suffered a massive stroke. Rumors ranging from everything from his demise to his loss of higher functions of the brain to being just fine spread like wildfire on the Internet. The grim truth was found somewhere in between, as Livgren, a man of immense faith, fought for his life.

Kerry Livgren Kansas

You may not recognize Kerry Livgren’s face, but you likely are familiar with his work, which includes “Dust In The Wind” by Kansas.

“Recovering from a stroke is a long and painful process, something I never thought I would ever have to go through,” he admits. “I suppose I am at around 80 percent, and on some days I feel even better, some worse. One hundred percent recovery from a massive stroke is rare.”

While Livgren’s fans wondered if he would ever make music again, he had much bigger obstacles to overcome.

“I couldn’t even give music any serious thought. I was much more concerned with things like walking and talking,” he says. As prayers were offered, his condition began to improve.
While many men stripped of their ability to do what they loved would become bitter and angry, Livgren faced the possibility of never again creating a note of music with peace.
“It was disappointing, but the thought occurred to me that I had been given such a great gift — a gratifying career of playing music — that if I never played another note, it was enough,” he says.

Even at his lowest points, Livgren’s creative side lurked in the periphery, waiting to be tested.

“I never felt like those abilities ever left me. I began writing music shortly after I returned home, although my playing ability was limited. At this point, I have resumed playing both guitar and keyboard, although I have to be choosy about what I attempt,” he says.
Although he admits that he tires out faster than he would like and still struggles physically, Livgren is determined to carry on with his spiritual quest.

“It was a bit of a freak thing, medically speaking,” Livgren says. “There was nothing to account for it. As to whether or not it was a test, I can’t say, but it was definitely a wake-up call, especially spiritually.”

As Livgren approaches the third anniversary of the stroke, his recovery is ongoing, although not to the degree he would like.

“My recovery was miraculous in that I lived, but I’m afraid that now I have hit a plateau,” he says. “I still have hope.”

One of the things that brings Livgren strength is the knowledge that he helped to build a lasting musical legacy through Kansas.

“They [the songs] represent a time and place for me, as they must for our fans. I am glad the band is still going. I wish I could be a bigger part of it,” Livgren said. GM

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