Street Player, the new autobiography from former Chicago drummer Danny Seraphine, immediately grabs the reader’s attention with a riveting introduction: the frantic musician’s arrival at the tragic aftermath of bandmate Terry Kath’s self-inflicted, fatal gunshot. Following the conventions of modern memoir, this fascinating glimpse is only a snapshot of what is to come, and the clock accordingly winds backward to the author’s birth so that we may get all the details of his formative years. Many autobiographies stall out almost as soon as they begin by using this familiar template, and the reader is left fighting the urge to flip through the pages until the story becomes interesting. Not so with Seraphine. Focusing on his upbringing is not a personal indulgence but rather a necessary exploration in order to understand the man. By the time he helps found the band that will bring him international success, he has cemented a confrontational philosophy that will ultimately lead to his devastating downfall.
“From the time my parents brought me home from Oak Park Hospital in the late summer of 1948, I was a wild child with a constant need for movement,” Seraphine begins. “I had a tendency to run toward the flame.” And so he did, evolving into a defiant delinquent who once pushed an aggressive nun with such force that she staggered down a small stairway. At the age of 15, he became a father, and soon afterward he was getting into violent street fights as the member of a gang. Seraphine’s Chicago was an urban nightmare ruled by mob mentality (literally, as it was customary for members of Seraphine’s gang to work their way up to the local Mafia). His talent for drumming and a dogged persistence helped him escape from an existence that had a strong likelihood of ending early and violently. Yet to paraphrase an old axiom, you can take the kid out of the streets, but you can’t take the streets out of the kid. Seraphine’s past would cast a long shadow.
Initially, the hot-tempered drummer’s street-smart swagger served him and the fledgling Chicago well. The loyal fraternity of a gang and its accompanying attitude that “respect is everything” is applicable to a band as well. Seraphine initiated a pledge by which each member agreed that no one would ever be fired from the group. Then he and the others set about the hard work of earning respect, not only artistically but also in their dealings with management and record labels.
Seraphine stayed in touch with a few of his old neighborhood pals, some of whom in turn were friends with well-known member of the Outfit, the Mob of Chicago. When asked about his ties to organized crime, Seraphine would shrewdly refuse to confirm or deny it, recognizing the pragmatic utility of fear in the everyday negotiations of the music business. Like the “nobody messes with me” mindset that kept him alive during his gang years, this deceptive tactic worked to his advantage – for a time.
Despite perpetuating an image as clean as their contoured logo, the members of Chicago were not immune to the excesses of the 70’s. Drug binges and extramarital promiscuity were part of life on the road for a massively successful band, and Seraphine indulged at the expense of his personal life. The devastating death of Kath in 1978 was merely the first plunge of a roller coaster career comprised of a series of setbacks and comebacks. As the band’s fortune vacillated, so did the well-being of its various members.
Seraphine rode the tide while trying to salvage a pair of marriages and stay involved in the lives of his children. He also had to walk a fine line between some old friendships and an FBI investigation into alleged mob ties. As if that weren’t enough, a further and bizarre stressor was added to his life when an impostor posed as Seraphine and left a string of jilted women and angry robbery victims in his wake.
Still, there was always the band – until there wasn’t. When Seraphine unleashed his temper in a pair of regrettable physical confrontations with road crew and management, the ties of loyalty between him and Chicago’s other founding members were seriously strained. Poor and inconsistent drumming while on tour only made things worse, resulting in Seraphine being fired in 1990. The news was shocking and ruinous to him. Seraphine retreated to Colorado, where he wound up living for a time as a recluse.
Street Player certainly serves as a cautionary tale, for though it may tarnish the nice-guy reputation of some of Chicago’s members, the most unflattering portrait is that of Seraphine, himself. Repeatedly he acknowledges the poor choices he has made and notes that he has only himself to blame. His bitterness is almost palpable as he recalls the final band meetings concerning his dismissal, yet he does not deny his shortcomings. What is clearly evident is his sense of betrayal. In an account of his final discussion with the other founding members, he relates turning to each of them and emphasizing that none of them were fired during their own personal crises. It was a fruitless plea.
“I left the building with my head held high,” Seraphine remembers. “I wanted those guys to look me dead in the eye when they pulled the trigger. And they certainly did.”
However, there is also an element of redemption to Seraphine’s Chicago story. He eventually emerged from his cocoon of isolation and regret. He made some positive reconnections with a couple of his old bandmates. Most importantly, he dragged himself out of his depression and began to play drums again. In 2007, Seraphine released Full Circle with his new band, California Transit Authority. The album is a strong collection of tunes, consisting mostly of imaginative rearrangements of old Chicago songs (and not just the hits, either – it includes obscurities like Happy ‘Cause I’m Going Home and Mississippi Delta City Blues). If anyone once believed that the old drummer had lost his chops, Full Circle has corrected that misconception.
The former street fighter seems to have his swagger back, but it’s a confidence tempered by humility. He even leaves the door open for a personal and musical reconciliation with his old band. “Whenever fans today come up and ask, ‘Hey, are you guys ever going to get back together again?’ I look at them and say, ‘If there is one thing I have learned, it’s never say never.'”