The Songs and Lyrics of Chicago’s Robert Lamm, by Stephanie Carta

What does it mean to be a songwriter, to write an original song and lyrics? Before I was old enough to think about the answer to that question, I knew how it felt to be moved emotionally by a song’s words:

Does anybody really know what time it is?

Does anybody really care?

If so, I can’t imagine why

We’ve all got time enough to cry

I was in high school when I first heard Robert Lamm’s classic song from Chicago Transit Authority, Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? Like most teenagers, I was thinking ahead to the inevitability of my adult life, determined to avoid the predictable and boring. At the time, I did not know anything about Robert Lamm but took great comfort in his message as encouragement to be different, to take time out to think deeply and appreciate art of all forms. My high school years overlap with the era of grunge and the heyday of MTV, yet I was taking solace from a song and album from 1969. Perhaps it is rare that a song that one relates to as a teenager continues to inspire, but in the end, Robert’s words express a mature sentiment.

Robert Lamm is a truly intelligent songwriter with an amazingly diverse catalog of songs ranging from the profound to the joyous, sometimes in the same tune. Mr. Lamm’s more recent compositions are just as urgent and relevant as his classics. Chicago fans have heard him mature as a songwriter and superlative lyricist, throughout his career remaining a dynamic and relevant artist who also keeps his ear open to talent (who might go unrecognized by the mainstream) with whom to collaborate. His contributions to Chicago’s albums have helped ensure that they are much more than just a classic rock or catalog band. His songs, never formulaic, are relevant in the present, not just nostalgia.  

Chicago’s most recent studio album, Now (XXXVI), showed all of us that Mr. Lamm is still unafraid to comment on issues larger than ourselves. Naked In The Garden Of Allah (co-written with Hank Linderman), about recent American actions in the Middle East, ranks with the best of his topical songs. The term “protest song” does not adequately describe this song or his other socially conscious tunes. Instead of being simply divisive or opinionated, the tone is one of collective introspection. His use of the first person “we” is especially powerful. The second verse shows the contradictions of our times, that no complex issues can ever be boiled down to simplicity:

We are children

We are discontent

We are fatal

We are broken

We are impotent

We are lost

Naked In The Garden Of Allah is also musically daring, bringing out intensity of the original Chicago Horns who play a series of fierce triplets and sixteenth notes. The arrangement also features an evocative Middle Eastern-inflected fiddle, by John McFee of The Doobie Brothers, and gives the song a texture that was different on a Chicago album.

In the early 90s, Robert contributed Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed (co-written with John McCurry) to Chicago’s Stone of Sisyphus (XXXII) album, ultimately released by Rhino Records in 2008. The impromptu rap vocal added a force and spirit that completely suited the lyrics. The progressive hard rock vibe brought an updated faithfulness to the idea that Chicago as a band would express the urban roots of the city for which it is named. The New York City connection, the place of Robert’s birth and childhood, is also made with samples from the proto-hip hop group The Last Poets.

Another stand out track on Stone of Sisyphus is Robert’s song, All The Years (co-written with Bruce Gaitsch), a reflective tune featuring samples of speeches by Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Robert Kennedy which symbolize the great optimism of American society in the middle of the 20th century. As he says in the liner notes, the tune started out as personal but “then it kind of morphed into a bigger subject, the political landscape of the early 90s.” The hope expressed in the first part of the song gives way to an ominous mood, followed by the chant from the chaos outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, “the whole world’s watching,” a symbol of the collapse of the collective forward momentum of society. Of course, this chant is heard on Chicago Transit Authority as well. These types of contradictions show up repeatedly in Mr. Lamm’s songwriting, a subtlety that sets him apart from some other topical songwriters. The most poignant lines of All The Years make me feel that all the dreams have certainly not died:

I’ve spent my life believing,

It would not end this way

These songs from Chicago’s more modern eras are among my personal favorites, and I’d argue some of his most creative. Going back to the beginning of Chicago’s history, it should be noted that Robert Lamm wrote or co-wrote about half of the songs featured on their first five studio albums. Saturday in the Park from Chicago V was not only a chart hit and an enduring fan favorite, but it is also a wonderfully visual song. Robert’s vivid imagery brings to life the scenes in Central Park that inspired his lyrics. The bridge of the tune will always be sentimental:

Slow motion riders fly the colours of the day

A bronze man still can tell stories his own way

Listen children all is not lost

All is not lost, oh no no

As with Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?, I was just a teen when I first heard Saturday In The Park, another tune that provided solace in the early 1990s when the mainstream culture espoused a fair amount of soullessness and cynicism. Yet, I truly believed that all was not lost, that the optimism of a previous generation shone through in Chicago’s words and music. Robert wrote all but two songs on their fourth studio album, Chicago V. The opening track on V, A Hit By Varese, was a reference to Edgard Varese (1883-1965), a composer who redefined the frontier between noise, sound, and music. The lyrics illustrates the ethos of Robert Lamm and Chicago as musicians:

Can you play free, or in three, or agree to attempt something new?

Chicago did all three of those things, and more. This is another Robert Lamm tune that provides a platform for the Chicago Horns to solo and play off of each other, their improvisations all reflecting the sentiment of freedom expressed in the words.   

It would be fitting if Robert Lamm and James Pankow were recognized by their peers and inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame as members of Chicago. As we contemplate their upcoming 50th year as a band, I am grateful that Robert Lamm continues his songwriting and bravery as an artist, with his band brothers by his side. Astute fans also know that Robert Lamm’s solo albums, all of them very different, contain not only more of his original songs, but also adventurous arrangements and progressive production values. In the end, this one fan is thankful for his lifetime of compositions, his endlessly inspiring spirit and optimism.  

(This photo of Robert Lamm was taken by the renowned photographer Harry Langdon, Jr. I merely purchased the negative. Please comment if you can date it.)robertlamm

(A recording session posted by Chicago: Jimmy Pankow, Walter Parazaider, and Lee Loughnane recording their parts for Naked In The Garden Of Allah, overseen by Hank Linderman, producer and arranger, and Robert Lamm. I agree with Jimmy about the chops!)