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Chicago In Song: Leader of the Lame

Today, a truly special Chicago In Song: We take a look at the signature song of an extremely popular Illinois rock artist who recently died of a tragically preventable disease - a heartfelt ode to his beloved father that is adored by millions of this musician's fans around the world. And we tell you why it sucks.

Dan Fogelberg/Leader of the Band
When you look at the late Dan Fogelberg's contribution to pop music, you could say he took the kind of soft rock pioneered by the likes of James Taylor and Bread and helped turn it into one the dominant forces of the late 1970's and early '80s. His considerable popularity was indeed formidable - his string of platinum and gold records peaked in 1981 with the double album The Innocent Age, which contains what is probably his signature song, the weepy "Leader of the Band."

dan_fogelberg.jpgNot my cup of tea, really. In fact, I remember the time around 1981 as a real low point in rock history; in the captive land of Midwestern FM radio, back then you pretty much had a choice between Fogelberg-style soft rock and lame hair metal. It was then that I realized that radio programmers had turned into corporate money-grubbers and had betrayed me. I was lost, and in my despair wandered off to the local Minneapolis dive bars to drown my sorrows. I still thank God that happened, though, because in those bars I found bands called The Replacements and Husker Du, and a totally rocking, independent music world influenced by something called "punk," the likes of which I never heard on my radio, anyway. I was musically reborn. So thanks, Dan Fogelberg. Thanks for driving me into the arms of punk rock.

I actually felt kind of funny writing that just now because the world has barely stopped mourning the passing of Dan Fogelberg and it's really not in good taste to speak ill of the recently dead. So I'll stop bashing him now and move on to the real reason we're here, which is his song "Leader of the Band," its reference to Chicago and his central Illinois roots.

Dan Fogelberg died barely five months ago, on December 16, at age 56, which is way, way too young. He died of prostate cancer, a very treatable disease which wasn't detected in his case until it was too far along. And really, if that isn't an illustration of why fiftysomething men shouldn't gleefully submit to the rectal exam, I don't know what is. What's worse: a doctor with a digit up your ass or a slow, cancerous death? And don't say "cancerous death," smart ass.

Fogelberg was born and raised in Peoria where his father, Larry Fogelberg, was a very well-known high school band director, first at Woodruff High School (from which Dan graduated) and then at Pekin Community High School. (This is the second Pekin, Ill., rock music connection I've come across. The other is Wilco's name-check of the city in "Kingpin." ) In the '50s Larry was also the director of Bradley University's marching band. "Leader of the Band" is dedicated to Larry, who raised Dan and his two older brothers in the cultural and geographical middle of the middle-est part of Middle America.

No one who grows up in Central Illinois will ever deny that it's about as reflective of uniquely Midwestern culture and values as it gets. Both Peoria and Pekin were then and are now dominated by Caterpillar, and so have the distinction of being geographically isolated blue-collar small cities, something that's getting pretty rare. They're company towns and, since unions have always had a big presence there, have been solidly pro-worker, pro-Democratic Party and pro-middle class values. Although there have been periods of strife between Caterpillar and the unions, it's mostly been a success story. Even now Caterpillar is doing fabulously well while most American manufacturers are dropping like flies.

caterpillar.jpg

In "Leader of the Band," Fogelberg talks about what it's like to feel like an alien in such a setting, where all the boys end up working in dirty, boring and stressful heavy manufacturing jobs and there's really no appreciation for creativity and sensitivity. He describes himself in the song as "an only child, alone and wild," whose biggest gift in life was the "tough love" and understanding he got from his father.

A quiet man of music, denied a simpler fate
He tried to be a soldier once, but his music wouldn't wait
Earned his love through discipline, a thundering velvet hand
His gentle means of sculpting souls took me years to understand

And in the song's chorus:

The leader of the band is tired
And his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through my instrument
And his song is in my soul
My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man
I'm just a living legacy to the leader of the band

Yikes. I'm sorry, but this song makes me remember again why the '70s were so god-awful at times. I mean, it's one thing to be young and dumb but it's entirely another to embrace soft rock and disco. I knew better, dammit! Why didn't they? Maybe I just had extremely sensitive lame-dar . . . I probably still do. It gets me in trouble sometimes. Anyway, here's the money lyric, where Dan talks of geography and fate:

My brothers' lives were different, for they heard another call
One went to Chicago, and the other to St. Paul
And I'm in Colorado when I'm not in some hotel
Living out this life I've chose and come to know as well

According to a 1982 story I found from the Peoria Journal Star, Fogelberg's brother Mark was then a lawyer living in Evanston. His other brother, Pete, was said to be "still living in Peoria" and playing music himself. Does that mean Dan took license with his family history in order to rhyme "call" with "Paul?" In fact, Pete Fogelberg did indeed become a local musician in Peoria, so that also calls into question whether he indeed did hear a "different call." Sounds like the same musical calling to me.

Alright, I admit that's nitpicking. I get the Chicago reference, especially since Dan Fogelberg was a pretty proud son of Illinois. But St. Paul? It could be his brother ended up here (it's where I sit as I'm writing this, actually) because he hopped on the Milwaukee Road, one of the great postwar passenger train lines, and took its sleek Hiawatha passenger rail service to Minnesota (this line is still operated by Amtrak as the Empire Builder). Chicago and St. Paul have always been connected by rail and share a long railroad legacy. In fact, another song mentions both cities, and it's about a train: the traditional standard "Wabash Cannonball." After he got a load of the deep-freeze St. Paul lifestyle, Pete probably jumped right back on the train and got on back to the comparatively balmy Peoria.

Yes, Dan Fogelberg gets props from me for being a Midwestern bard of some repute, as well as sympathy for his untimely demise. That wasn't fair. I just wish I could get past the "dragging rock into mediocrity" part.

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From "Cubs 'N Roses" to "The O'Hare Blues," Chicago In Song explores the myriad and fascinating ways our fair city is portrayed in popular music. Check out the whole collection. Comments? Write Don.

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1. From Lisa Phillips:

I submit that, while lame, Dan F. was the Leader of His own Thang; certainly a product of the times.

And perhaps there should be room in the well-rounded fan's tastes for the likes of Husker Du AND Dan Flugelhorn. Further, it is understandable how your lame-dar could get in the way at times. Such as, perhaps in getting laid. Most chicks probably like Dan. Just sayin'.

Don's reply:

Yow! That hurt. One thing I'll say for the lame-dar, though. While it indeed may have prevented me from getting laid by women who think soft rock is sexy, the upside is I never had to pretend to like Dan Fogelberg to keep a girlfriend happy. And that's a pretty crowded boat, methinks.

2. From Gregory Pogioli:

About Dan's music, Don, you're a punk fan that's great. I myself enjoy Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and others. I grew up in Pekin, Il. (lived there 26 years). I know a lot people men and women who, when Fogelberg is mentioned go into a period of reminiscence and sometimes longing for simpler times and memories, from his music. I myself am a loyal fan. Dan's music touches peoples' souls in places that we wish we'd never left behind. I can't imagine saying that about any other music.



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Posted on May 20, 2008


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