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“Beginnings”:  How a Book I Read in 5th Grade About a Teenage Boy with Leukemia Taught Me My Favorite Chicago Song

“Beginnings”: How a Book I Read in 5th Grade About a Teenage Boy with Leukemia Taught Me My Favorite Chicago Song

Munk's Junk (Everything Else), Music
"Sunrise in Montauk" by David Munk "Eric" by Doris Lund

In 2010 I took the photo on the left at sunrise at the lighthouse in Montauk, Long Island.  When I looked at the digital image, I had a powerful analog sense memory, immediately recalling the cover of Doris Lund’s Eric, a book which I read in sixth grade.  Published in 1975, Eric was a bestselling tome in the “women’s-suffering-memoir genre,” this time with the dying Judith Traherne-like Dark Victory protagonist recast as a stunning blond high school athlete with leukemia and told from his loving mother’s point of view.  Could anything possibly be more compelling to a grade-school-drama-queen-“indoor child”-book-worm? Though probably not intended for young readers particularly, my pre-pubescent fixation with the book could almost certainly be connected to two of its main characteristics: the inherent drama of Eric Lund’s brave but unsuccessful struggle and its mysterious and romantic cover photo, an image that both embodied and encouraged my fantasy of living in California and its concomitant assurance of both inner peace and outer virility.

If memory serves, the arc of the story followed the usual structure for the genre—from diagnosis to death—but it is my emotional response to the book that still resonates most.  In addition to affirming the idea that if I could just get to L.A. and be photographed from behind at sunrise I would somehow feel less awful about everything, the book also introduced me to a pop song that is still one of my all-time favorites: Chicago’s “Beginnings.”  In the book Doris Lund recounts her son’s unfailing optimism, embodied by the Chicago song which he would play as he bravely endured the indignities of his illness, its jubilant strains echoing throughout the oncology ward.  Though I read the book almost forty years ago, I can still paraphrase Doris Lund’s passages pertaining to “Beginnings” which were placed very near to the end of the story and used to great effect to convey the essence of her narrative: “Even today, when I hear ‘Beginnings’ I can feel my son’s spirit and remember that time.”  From this I learned about music’s profound spiritual ability—even to summon the dead.  Listen for yourself:

Chicago, Beginnings

After my sixth grade catharsis of reading Eric, I became curious about “Beginnings” and wanted to hear it myself, which in the pre-digital days meant buying the album.  I wondered, What was this song that had such transcendent power?  Soon after, I joined the Columbia Records club behind my father’s back, and included Chicago IX: Chicago’s Greatest Hits in my 13 records upfront for a penny windfall.  Problem solved.

The day that cache of vinyl arrived was a thrilling one for me.  I gleefully dug into the pile over the next days and weeks, exhilarated with my instant vinyl collection. When I got to the last song on side B of the Chicago album I was, in an instant, transfixed by “Beginnings”; Eric and his mother were right.  “Beginnings” is an awesome pop song, distinguished by its loping, ascending melody, uplifting horn chart, joyful lyrics, and pulsing, samba-flavored beat.   Originally included on their debut album in 1969, the Robert Lamm-penned song was Chicago’s second single but failed to chart.  After the band broke through the next year with their second single “Make Me Smile,” the “Beginnings” was re-released in 1971 as a two-sided single with “Colour My World” and rose to number seven on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.  It was a number one adult contemporary song, as well.

It’s hard to imagine a contemporary band writing a pop song as uplifting, musically complex, and sincere as “Beginnings,” which is a bummer—but in the spirit of Eric Lund and the essence of the song, let me end on a positive note: measure for measure, “Beginnings” is about as good a pop song as has ever been written, and track for track, as fine a pop record that has ever been laid down on tape.  When I hear the song today I can still picture Eric sitting on the beach and remember the power of that image and its importance in helping me construct the fantasies that I needed to keep moving forward.  Though many years have passed, I still draw strength from the power of music and dreams to help me remember the past as I look to the future.


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The Saddest Album of All Time: How Joining the Columbia Record Club at Twelve Led to an Adolescent Fixation With Janis Ian’s Between The Lines*

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  1. EZ
    July 17, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    Have you heard Astrud Gilberto’s cover of this?

    • David Munk
      July 18, 2014 at 9:01 pm

      I haven’t but I will definitely check it out.

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