Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Dan Fogelberg: 1951-2007

Singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg died Sunday morning at home in Maine. He had been battling advanced prostate cancer since 2004.

More than any other single musician, Fogelberg was the reason I am a musician and a songwriter. My sister Lisa introduced me to him in the early '80s with The Innocent Age, an album that remains one of my favorites. Every time Lisa and I went anywhere, I wanted to hear The Innocent Age on the stereo, mainly the first side of the tape. I must have worn out her cassette. Every time I hear that album, I can remember where the squeaks and thin spots in her tape made funny noises 20 years ago. He was the first person I would ever identify as "my favorite 'band'." I sang "Leader of the Band" for my first musical audition in 1987.

Dan Fogelberg was a pioneering voice of what would become soft-rock, which leads many to miss his folk and American roots influences, not to mention his intricate songwriting. He was a master musician, a guitarist and pianist both. And he was a magnificent songwriter, able to swing from the deeply personal to the the soaring epic at will.

Like Rich Mullins, my current musical hero (also deceased), Dan was a product of Midwestern upbringing. Like Rich, Dan played every instrument he needed to get the song out right, and like Rich he wasn't afraid to overdo or underdo an orchestration, from pedal steel twang to solo piano to rock guitar to fully orchestrated grandiose works. It's amazing to me, as I sit here typing this, how much Rich and Dan have in common: musical similarities, mid-American background, passion for the natural world, and death far too young.

Dan Fogelberg was never ever cool. His sound ended up becoming the template for soft rock, with too-earnest hits like "Longer," "Leader of the Band," "Run for the Roses" (a song I frankly can't stand), and "Same Auld Lang Syne" defining his career. His approach, and especially his voice, were painfully earnest and passionate; he seemed to care too much about what he was singing. You wanted him to calm down a little bit; he was embarrassing himself.

Like me. Dan Fogelberg sang the way I feel almost all the time.

He was never cool, but managed to be accessible to a large audience. He had a long string of hugely popular albums: 1974's Souvenirs, 1975's Captured Angel, 1977's Nether Lands, 1978's indescribably wonderful and completely unique Twin Sons of Different Mothers (with floutist Tim Weisberg), 1980's Phoenix, and 1981's epic double-album The Innocent Age. You know a half dozen songs of his by heart and don't even know it: "Part of the Plan," "Heart Hotels," "The Power of Gold," and the ones referenced above, just to start. He continued to record after his heyday was over, and while the records didn't sell huge numbers, the concert tickets did.

I was fortunate enough to see Dan on the Exiles tour in the mid-'80s. He pulled out an acoustic guitar to play a solo number and told us that we were the first audience to hear this new song, called "Forefathers." The only person he had played it for was his immigrant grandmother, and he wasn't sure if he was going to record it or not. He played it; it was beautiful. After the applause died down, a lone voice in the audience shouted, "RECORD IT!" He did, on his next album, The Wild Places.

It's easy to dismiss Dan Fogelberg as having a sound rooted in 1970s rock. But it's more accurate to say that 1970s rock had a sound that was rooted in the songwriting of Dan Fogelberg. Modern music may not have another pioneer quite as overlooked. He suffers from the legacy of schmaltz that followed his example, tarred with a brush he never quite deserved. It isn't schmaltz if you're sincere, and Dan Fogelberg's music bleeds painful sincerity with every note.

Dan Fogelberg is the biggest reason, aside from my essential design by God, that I am a musician. He is a big part of why I endeavor to play both piano and guitar. And he sure as hell is the first person who made me want to write songs. Because of Dan, my first memories of playing piano and guitar are of writing my own songs, not learning anyone else's — not even his.

Like me, Dan Fogelberg has never quite been cool. Like me, he didn't seem to care at all; his artistic voice was his voice, and it was going to be what it was.

Today I've lost a mentor I never met. Godspeed, Dan Fogelberg. The leader of the band can rest at last.

* * *

Dan's website still has his final public statements, including a May 2004 plea for men to get a prostate exam.

CNN's coverage reads, in part: "Fogelberg's music was powerful in its simplicity. He didn't rely on the volume of his voice to convey his emotions; instead, they came through in the soft, tender delivery and his poignant lyrics. Songs like "Same Old Lang Syne" — in which a man reminisces after meeting an old girlfriend by chance during the holidays — became classics not only because of his performance, but also for the engaging storyline."

All Music Guide's beautiful obituary reads, in part: "It’s odd to say that a singer/songwriter with four Top 10 singles and four Top 10 albums each, along with a stack of gold and platinum records, slipped through the cracks, but in an odd way Dan Fogelberg — who died on December 16 after a three-year struggle with prostate cancer — was often taken for granted.... [H]is music was so song-oriented — his albums sounding so clean, pure, and tasteful.... All of this was delivered with the gentle, easy touch that was his signature. It may have been a signature that was never, ever hip but that doesn’t quite mean that he was square. He was too much a child of the ‘60s to be square, too much a true believer in the music — specifically folk-rock — and what it meant and could be."

Labels: ,


  • At 12/17/2007 12:30 PM , Blogger Scott Wichmann said...

    Andrew, that was a beautiful tribute to the man. Thanks for that heartfelt post, and keep making YOUR music-- it is a gift to us all. Best, Scotto

  • At 12/19/2007 9:59 AM , Blogger Dave T said...

    Mr. Fogelberg's death comes at a particularly poignant time for me. I recently emailed a high school girlfriend who I hadn't corresponded with in over a year. I referenced "Same Auld Lang Syne" in the note, which was kind of our song after we broke up and got back together. I received her response the day Fogelberg died.

    I played "Longer" at my sister's wedding -- the sister who recently initiated divorce proceedings with her husband. I think you are right, Andrew, that sometimes Fogelberg was too earnest in his delivery. It's true that some of his songs postively ache with emotion. But sometimes so does life.

    Thanks for compiling this wonderful reminder of the power of his work.

  • At 12/20/2007 5:21 PM , Blogger Frank Creasy said...

    Andrew, your life clearly is NOT a "poor attempt to imitate the man", but perhaps through your continued musical innovation you CAN be a "living legacy to the leader of the band."

    God Speed, indeed, Dan Fogelberg.

  • At 12/21/2007 11:52 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    I've decided I have to record a Fogelberg song and post it on my MySpace page in tribute (you know, with all that spare time I have). I need help deciding which one. I'm leaning toward "In the Passage," "Heart Hotels" (which I already do as a solo piano song), or "The Power of Gold."

  • At 1/04/2008 2:27 PM , Blogger JB said...

    I LOVED this post. Believe it or not - I bought a gutiar just to be able to play HIS songs. I only ever played for myself but it was always a comfort and good therapy for a young teenager. This post reminded me just how it felt to play those cords for the first time. He must have inspired many great musicians.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home