“Whither Absent Friends, or, Hoping You Won’t Sit This One Out: Notes on Yes Is The Answer And Other Prog Rock Tales, edited by Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell…”
Is this the part where Gentle Giant was the greatest band of the ‘70s?
Okay, maybe in a minute…
Prog was indulgent, sure, but it wasn’t aimless noodling. That was Jazz Fusion, which ditched good songwriting for chops, man. Jazz Fusion fans were douchebags, anyway, the kind of kid that grokked on instrumental gear and got hard-ons during their long Saturday afternoons in guitar shops, ogling over Ovation double-necks.
–Marc Weingarten, from his introduction
I guess every persecuted minority needs to think their alcove higher than that top layer in the outhouse pit. They need someone thereupon to evacuate. And I wouldn’t bother with this fusion-bashing mindset except it shows up several times from several authors here. In the first place, I personally went to a middle-school party where I put my Weather Report record on and nobody got it, nobody found anything worthwhile in it, and I got some strange looks for even presuming. My host picked up the needle not even all the way through the live version of “Birdland.” Can I join the Loser’s Club at those prices?
In the second place, I call the jury’s attention to the derisive “double-neck” rejection above. I direct the jury’s attention to a drawing which covers three pages at the very beginning of this book. Can anyone tell me what the drawing depicts?
In the third place, anyone sniffing at an aimless noodle and/or gear grok may not have heard of this band called Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Which brings me to…
The difficulty only began when [ELP] stopped innovating in terms of their compositional interests. In their later work, the innovations are only technological. They aren’t musical.
–Rick Moody, from “Defending The Indefensible”
Moody goes on to say that Yes, Genesis, and Jethro Tull haven’t made any “uniformly good” (not even saying “great”) albums since respectively Going For The One, Wind And Wuthering, and Heavy Horses, and while I disagree three out of three (Fly From Here, …And Then There Were Three, The Broadsword And The Beast), he at least admits that the tech/heart problem exists and takes its wearying toll (unless of course you achieve transcendence with your toy, launching from within the parameters of the toy but pushing for escape-velocity transcendence — Laurie Anderson and the Synclavier, Allen Ravenstine and the EML).
Most of ELP’s stuff just slides off me (all parts of me) but one of their biggest fans is a lady I know in West Virginia. Maybe I haven’t heard the right records. Maybe what I have heard hasn’t sunk in yet. They were British, but they were so very big-(egoed) they transcended British-ness in a blaring way…
“I remember Dan once said that to be truly Progressive, you had to be British; American bands, such as Kansas or Styx, just didn’t cut it.”
–Paul Myers, from “The Cherokee Record Club”
This Dan fellow’s awfully shortsighted although, to his defense, American proggers tend to walk the streets blazing Anglo- and/or Euro-philia through their veins given that the “Big Five” prog groups (and don’t take my word for it, this is straight out of a Wikipedia book), it’s true — Genesis, Rush, Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull — four UK acts and one Canadian, speak to the “over there” nature of the enterprise if you’re reading this from within the USA.
With the above dismissal as provocation I tried investigating Kansas (as I’d never done systematically) and re-investigating Styx. Kansas it’s true, slaps together Americana with prog, an odd combination since Americana bands are “supposed” to opt for jam-band status. I’d known generally that plenty of people loathe prog and were urged to loathe prog by the rise of punk (it only comes up in the book enough times); I know from personal experience, though, how people can hate Americana’s guts as well. (See –philias above—obviously you can love one thing without hating another, but that’s logic, and the music heads I know hardly run on logic). Is it a sin then to saw on the “fiddle,” that thing which English records call a “violin”?
So I’m damned impressed with Kansas as I sit here listening to YouTube through headphones. I can’t take this stuff in “properly” that is to say with several friends lying on a bed, a sofa, and/or the floor with the lights turned out and at least two things smoking in the dark. Sorry. I was only young once, and I spent that youth with Vanilla Fudge (The Beat Goes On — hey, involuntary concept album!), ELO (though I missed Eldorado, their first overt heavy scenario unless you count the wretched misanthropy-woe on the second set), Elton John (does Tumbleweed Connection count conceptually?) Zappa/Mothers (the misshapen Thing-Fish of progdom, sniffed over for American-ness, smarminess , smut, and too-close-to-fusion, but never right out). Sofas, beds, meanings, that was mostly Led Zeppelin and Devo with a side order of Starblazers, drying off from the swimming pool in Roy’s back yard.
And I eventually got to the Sex Pistols but that’s another story.
I’ve got one friend who utterly loathes Styx, I mean, down there with Satan (if he believed in Satan, so maybe Styx is worse) — “irredeemable at every level” — though I figure a lot of people this man included, can’t stand Styx for their stage-musical formulations, which apparently everybody in the band except Dennis DeYoung hated anyway, but bang, whoops, it worked for them. Not for my friend obviously. And okay, the underpinning wasn’t reaching the constituency entire, to the point where you could well imagine Styxheads beating up the drama kids and/or the marching band. (Especially in middle school where if you were a boy and not hormone-shock crazy, stick up a hand.)
I re-find Paradise Theater, finding it redolent not only of that cheeseburger grease of the Dick’s Drive-In next door to where I think I bought the thing, but mystery (that laser-logo ectching in the grooves themselves) and Dennis DeYoung’s sentiment to the unrecaptured past. I share this sentiment and the awareness that many find it silly. I don’t know how to defend myself against that chuckling. Sentiment once meant looking to emotion for truth, but I don’t know that even I can defend DeYoung’s truth as anything more than his truth, which a lot of people certainly agreed with at one time anyway.
Sentimentality, says J.D. Salinger’s Seymour Glass, is to give “to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.” Nice rhetoric.
But what if you don’t believe in God?…
…the energy that burns in the bright car is the same as the energy that burns in Peter Gabriel’s eyes—and that energy, inhuman and beyond good and evil, is all we know of God.
–Tom Junod on the cover of Peter Gabriel’s first solo album, from “Out, Angels Out”
I asked my philosophy group to say what “beyond good and evil” meant and we didn’t get very far, partly because you get hung up on defining “good,” “evil,” and “beyond” and partly because I was leaning on the above, which I didn’t mention, and a verse from Rumi I discovered too late was mistranslated anyway. I’d wondered about going beyond good and evil because I’m hung up on evil recently, hung up on bad people who do bad things to good people and get away with it and the world thinks that’s fine. Roman Polanski? Woody Allen? Hey, boys will be boys and it’s not our place to judge. Want to throw a ninety-seven year-old man out on the street? Hey, it’s your building.
Genesis’ Foxtrot has a lot of stuff, Arthur C. Clarke-inspired, about how we’re going to leave humanity behind and venture into the stars as something else. Entirely possible; even if we can’t see it right now, we might be just sitting in the caesura between flame and fuse, or fuse and bomb. We get more obsessed electronically (in the “West” at least) and stupider environmentally. Those could eventually form a pincer. Clarke and Genesis find all of this exciting; “Watcher Of The Skies” watches the transformation come down, and “Supper’s Ready” climaxes with, so far as I can tell, an alien Jesus leading his revamped followers to the New Jerusalem. “Has life again destroyed life?” asks “Watcher.” By the end of Foxtrot, life has again (as with the original Christ) remade and redeemed life. New life.
I’m uneasy with the idea of humanity left behind. But then again I’m sentimental.
…and I didn’t get to how Gentle Giant was the greatest band of the ‘70s. Sorry. Just listen to them.