Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Resounding Yes

Note: This is a piece from my forthcoming book, posted here in response to this request by Robert Christgau for a defense of prog-rock on ARTicles. I don't think this answers what he is looking for, "a ringing, systematic, polemical defense in which the perceived shortcomings of danceable rhythms, blues changes, and foursquare structures are articulated," but then I don't think that is really what prog rock is about.
A few weeks before I started to assemble this manuscript, my wife and I were sitting around the desk listening to music, flipping through the endlessness of one of the subscription services to which I've subscribed. These services are a mixed blessing: on the upside, they allow you to listen to nearly anything anytime (the glaring omissions are counterbalanced by the encyclopedic additions), on the down, you can listen to anything anytime, on a whim, and the whim tends to be the dominant factor. I can spend all day clicking through the “see similar artists” and listening to half a song from a hundred different albums/bands I’ve never before heard without finding anything on which to focus. As I get older, I find my attention, which I understood was supposed to grow in both duration and intensity with age, is winnowed to an alarming degree, compartmentalized, quartered, and devoured like a pizza greedily shared by the younger me that could listen to one album all day, all week, all the time and do little else.

For some reason, I was trying to sell her on The Decemberists’ somewhat maligned The Crane Wife album. I happen to love the overreachingness of this record, how the songs are defiantly conflated with their shtick. She shrugged, “It sounds like Yes to me.”

For her, Yes has pleasant nostalgia overtones of when she was finding herself in central coast California, in a small town where one of the members had bought a giant beachfront home. The whole town was abuzz with Yes, wondering when he would pop in to the sandwich place or the bookstore. For me, Yes was a band that sent me gagging. Yes was the band that people who’d lost their sense of danger in rock ‘n’ roll liked. Yes was “Owner of a Lonely Heart” with those garish orchestra crashes deftly lifted from Paul Hardcastle’s curious anti-war electropop nugget “19.” Yes was a picture of Vincent Gallo in spangled bikini shorts and Yes half-shirt. Yes was also a band that I realized I had never listened to. “OK," I sighed, resigned to answer my own challenge. "Let’s listen to some Yes then.”

I dialed up Fragile and let the effervescent counterpoints and counter-counterpoints ripple through the room as we kept talking, until we found our conversation couldn’t keep up with the amount of information flying at us. I had wrongly viewed their excesses as a defiance of rock ‘n’ roll, ignoring the fluid meaning of progressive. Saying that progress is fixing something that is broken is a defensive reaction we have when we greatly identify with the thing being progressed from. We have no choice but to progress, it is our fourth-dimensional mandate, and we can choose to do so tilling the same soil as our fathers and our fathers' fathers hoping some new kind of corn or soybeans magically appears, or we take to the sea, open our sails full to the wind, and wave bon voyage to Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly on the dock, confident that they will still be around when we return.

“Go ahead, Yes!” she shouted over Rick Wakeman’s locust-like overload in“Cans and Brahms.”

“Well, the band isn’t called ‘Maybe’….it’s not ‘Perhaps’,” I replied. “They called it ‘Yes’ for a reason! More keyboards? Yes! Flute solo? Yes! Recitation in Elvish? YES! The answer to all your questions is YES!”

She soon got tired of listening to Yes, like any rational person would after twenty minutes and we moved on. The impetus for this gathering around the laptop was for me to dump some music onto my new phone, a multi-use replacement for my long trusty but outdated iPod, another progression in how I listen to music. I dropped Fragile on it along with the thirty other records we’d flipped through and shut the computer off.

A few days later, I was walking across campus and had a melody locked into my head, duh Duh du DUHHH duh Duh that I was certain was The Decemberists, but somehow I’d neglected to put that on my phone. I cycled through everything on the cursed device with the melody getting louder and more entrenched until I got to the last artist entry: Yes and it short order, the melody was revealed to be “Roundabout.” The last option, the right option, is always ‘Yes.’ Naming the demon song in my brain usually sends it back to the nethrworld, but in this case it drug me into it's plane. Yes was satisfying some need I couldn’t get elsewhere, and I go a lot of places looking for answers.

I cycled through all those majestic landscapes depicted on their covers, even the dubious Drama, where only shards of the original band were still present (Jon Anderson being replaced by the guy from The Buggles, producer and future Art of Noise dude Trevor Horn filling in for Rick Wakeman) and which laid the ground work for Asia, the simultaneously worst and most awesome giant group of the 80s, found resonance. I found all my sonic questions being answered by a resounding Yes.

This obsession passed as new shiny things came into view and creepy old ones dragged out of the shadows, but I have found myself in the habit of keeping at least one Yes album on my phone, for emergencies, like a sudden prolonged trip to the grocery store or a stall at the bank. Because unlike most of music I spend my time on, I find I can’t analyze Yes, I can’t pick it apart for influences and impacts. I can’t even remember how it goes. It simply inverts the world I experience to my own advantage. Tales of Topographic Oceans masks the dull landscape of my workaday life, Relayer holds all messages, Close to the Edge ironically pulls me back from it. The whole new-to-me body of Yes provides my jaded musical brain a way out of the morass it finds itself. Like the giant footsteps of Iron Man, like the plaintive pleas of Tomas Dolby, like the first time I ran around the room to The Ramones, like succumbing to the fractured hypnosis of The Fall, like the scalding groove of Funkadelic, Yes offered release, and as I rise with all that filigree, no longer listening to the band Yes but the affirmative “yes” of music, I see that on each billowing cloud there rests a ladder leading to another billowing cloud, that there is always more and more and more and each one will reveal a new facet of the Everything when I get there.


  1. I have the same issue with Yes that I have with most prog of its era (and probably prog today if I paid more attention) - that it seems so detached from time and the world. Prog "songs" remind me of Faberge eggs - beautiful objects that don't obviously speak to anything except other Faberge eggs.

  2. You are right about the Faberge eggs. I think it is supposed to be disconnected and absorbed in its own creation and evolution. Closed-circuit art - the trick is to be able to do that without being impenetrable, and Yes leaves a crack in their gilded gates big enough to squeeze through.

    Van der Graff Generator, The Fall, and Frank Zappa do the same kind of thing, and maybe that's why I like them (except Zappa, he blows it for me when he does make a connection to the mortals through his (to me) dopey humor)

    As for modern prog, I like the way ...And You Know Us by the Trail of Dead have evolved into a modern interpretation of arena prog, and Of Montreal has not a little prog in them, masquerading as Prince.

  3. I didn't like Yes until Sherie turned me on them in around '04 (also the first time sitting down to listen to Yes, after claiming for years that I hated them). I think it took an appreciation of electronic music, and a hunger for hearing a jillion things crammed into a measure of music. Maybe I just needed to hear the album tracks of Fragile. Either way, I hear you.

    I was also toying with the idea of naming my new band No, but I think that might be too negative for a pop band.

  4. Hmmm, I see the Fall almost the antithesis of this discussion, with the language and sound rife with allusion and links to Mark E. Smith's world. There are so many and they're so dense, reshaped by his unique pronunciation and/or reconfigured through wordplay that they may be impentrable, but the links are there.

    Zappa - also a Faberge egg, good call. His satire reminds me of Swift in its privacy (tells you what not to, but you can't reliably infer how to be from it) and Pope in his mockery of all things popular, made from a position of semi-isolation - Zappa from outside the mainstream, Pope from the country outside London.

  5. Alex: I say the Fall because MES is pulling in scraps of his life in a similar way Yes pulls in butchered mythology and Zappa does doo-wop and Varese and then they go hermetic with it. But I concede The Fall is not the best example to throw in here.

    I like that the artistically successful prog groups are willing to follow through on creating something grand, something bigger than it should be or needs to be but calls to be that big, which is a rock 'n' roll thing to do in spirit if not in strict practice. Yes still comes off as a little unstable to me, like a cathedral that could come crashing down any second despite how beautiful the stained glass looks and how powerful the organ sounds.

    I just saw they are playing at one of the casinos in Biloxi in a week, I suspect I could go to this show and be rid of this prog predilection once and for all and get all those 11-minute, four-movement intervals of my life back.

    Kevin: It was actually your telling me that story at the Spanish Moon about a year ago that planted the seed for this prog-olution. See what you've done? I used to have respectable tastes in things. Are you happy now?