Chris Squire, 1948-2015

Chris+Squire+YesChrisSquireIn the summer of 1984, I was 10 years old. I spent most of that summer the way I had spent the two previous summers: playing a lot of Atari, and watching a lot of MTV. My ultimate favorite band at the time was, without a doubt, Duran Duran, and “The Reflex” was my favorite song. (My family had just gotten a VCR, and I had a tape that was the video for “The Reflex” over and over, filling up the entire tape. I had sat for days watching MTV with the VCR paused, ready to record as soon as it came on.)

The “Fab Five” aside, I had two other favorite songs that I had seen on MTV but that were a lot harder to find, by two “new” bands I’d never heard of before. The first was “That’s All” by Genesis. The other, and my new elusive favorite that threatened to nudge out “The Reflex” — if only I’d gotten to hear it more often — was “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes. The video was surreal and the song was the most amazing thing I had ever heard.

It’s funny that, at the time, I thought Yes and Genesis were “new” bands, and “progressive rock” was a term I’d never even heard. At some point over the next couple of years I saw the Rush Grace Under Pressure concert video (on MTV or HBO; I can’t remember which), and then my mind was really blown when (again, on MTV or HBO) I saw a Genesis documentary that revealed to me how, in the 1970s, Genesis (which had existed in the ’70s!) had been fronted by Peter Gabriel (seriously?!) and they had performed insanely complex 20-minute songs with Gabriel acting out characters while wearing bizarre costumes. It was all too much for my young mind to take. But I had no idea what was just around the corner.

In 1988, when I was a freshman in high school, U2 and R.E.M. were my favorite bands. That is until one night at a sleepover when my friend Mark played me a tape of A Show of Hands, the new live album by Rush. This. Changed. Everything.

The next summer, now firmly ensconced as a hardcore Rush fan, Mark played me another tape. This time it was Classic Yes. I will admit I couldn’t get past the second track, “Wonderous Stories,” to hear the rest of the album, but it didn’t matter. “Heart of the Sunrise” was the most beautiful, bewildering, mesmerizing piece of music I had ever heard, and it immediately became my favorite song of all time.

It still is.

As amazing as I found that song to be in almost every way, the part that was most compelling to me was Chris Squire’s bass. I had already started developing a fascination with the electric bass from listening to Geddy Lee with Rush, but Chris Squire took it to a whole new level for me.

I had been playing clarinet since 5th grade, but I almost quit band before I started high school. My mom convinced me to give it one more year. That was the year that changed everything. My high school band teacher inspired me, and I became obsessed with music. That year he let me borrow a saxophone from the school (a soprano, of all things, but that’s all that was available), and I taught myself to play it so I could join the jazz band. The following year (now doubling on clarinet in concert band and tenor sax in jazz), I branched out yet again and borrowed another unused school instrument, a sickly green colored Fender Precision Bass. I didn’t have an amp, but that was no problem, because I learned to pluck the strings hard enough that I could hear it as I played along and learned the bass parts to songs like “Cygnus X-1” by Rush and “Perpetual Change” by Yes. That hard plucking style worked perfectly for someone trying to imitate Geddy or Chris.

As high school wore on, Mark and I explored the Yes catalog about as thoroughly as our limited budgets (and the limited availability of “obscure” CDs in a town with one small Musicland outpost as its only record store) would allow. I special ordered the mysterious Tales from Topographic Oceans album and called Mark to come over for a special listening when it arrived.

He later did the same for me, when he acquired Relayer.

This was seriously weird music. And finding it on our own felt like exploring an alien world. Roger Dean’s phantasmagorical cover art only increased the sense that we were tampering with forces of nature that the straitlaced world we were growing up in didn’t want us to know about.

Then came Yesyears. A huge boxed set and documentary video that peeled back the layers of mystery and wonder shrouding the 5, 6, 7, 12 37? people who had been in this band. They became real, and messy, and mockable. The real life Spinal Tap. Mark and I still loved them; if anything we loved them even more. And we watched the video again and again, cracking jokes like our own rockumentary version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, much to the dismay and confusion of Mark’s girlfriend who was unfortunate enough to sit through one of the viewings with us.

Mark and I went to separate colleges, but we kept in touch over the nascent Internet, discovering new prog bands — and new prog fans — via the Usenet newsgroup. We even made our own music, bizarre and inept but occasionally inspired free-form improvisations, with Mark on organ and me on electric bass. We called ourselves Bassius-O-Phelius, after the instrument Rockette Morton was credited as playing on a couple of Beefheart albums.

But always I kept coming back to Yes, and to Chris Squire and his punchy, in-your-face “lead bass” playing style. Although I was a music major in college, the web hit in a big way during my years there (I graduated in 1996), so I ended up pursuing a career as a web developer. But music never left my life, and though my interest in prog rock waned, I never lost my love for Yes, even as their off-stage drama continued to become more absurd and mockable.

In 1997, while living in Southern California, I got to hear Yes live for the first time, on the Open Your Eyes tour. I saw them in Los Angeles, and was so blown away that I immediately got a ticket for their next show in San Diego and drove down there two nights later to hear them again. (Interesting side note: the audience at a rock show in San Diego is way different than in Los Angeles, something that Jon Anderson made note of from the stage. Specifically, he mentioned how… “aromatic”… shows in San Diego always were.)

I saw Yes again the next summer in Las Vegas. At least, part of the show. I was seated in the balcony for their show at the Hard Rock Hotel, with a great view for the opening act — Alan Parsons Project. But when Yes took the stage, their lighting guy came into the booth that I hadn’t noticed was right in front of me, and completely blocked my view. I stood up, which led to an argument with an usher over the fact that I was supposed to be in the SRO area (even though I had a ticket for the seat), and after bickering futilely with him for a few minutes, I ended up leaving early. Walking back in the dark from the Hard Rock Hotel (which is, emphatically, not on the Strip) to where I had parked by Caesar’s Palace was harrowing, to say the least. This was in the days before smartphones with GPS. I had relied on a tiny Las Vegas city map in my road atlas that made it look like the Hard Rock was on an adjacent road to the Strip, whereas in reality there are about two miles of desolate wasteland between them.

Around this time, in the spirit of “lovingly mocking” this lovable, mockable band, I started a website wherein I attempted to review their entire catalog, album by album, song by song, in a somewhat sardonic tone. I was surprised by how many people the humor was lost on, but it didn’t stop the band’s fan club from approaching me at the time, asking me if I would be interested in becoming the “webmaster” (as we were called back then) of the band’s official site, I politely declined, in part because I felt it would only be fair to take down my own website, but more because it sounded like it was going to be a lot of work for the foreseeable future, and I would only be compensated in VIP passes and band merch. Do I regret the decision? Somewhat. But although it meant I never got to meet the band or become involved with them in an official way, it probably would have been a lot of work that I would have come to resent. C’est la vie. I eat at Chez Nous.

I saw Yes live three more times in subsequent years, after moving back to Minneapolis. A highlight was definitely getting to see them with the classic lineup including Rick Wakeman reunited, and hearing that lineup perform a song I never thought I’d hear live: “South Side of the Sky.”

But although I had endured many tribulations of the band over the years, I vowed never to see them live again after they unceremoniously kicked Jon Anderson out in the late 2000s over his respiratory health problems. Yes with a cover band impersonator of Jon Anderson singing lead vocals is not really Yes, even if the other four guys on stage are long-time (or not-so-long-time but long-ago) members of the band.

Refusing to see them live didn’t stop me from buying their new music though, and I have to say, I was actually somewhat impressed with Fly from Here, the album the band released in 2011 sans Jon Anderson. They even released a music video that seemed to be in much the same spirit as that of “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which was what drew me to the band in the first place, so many years earlier.

Unfortunately I can’t offer similar praise for last year’s Heaven and Earth, which sadly now will be the final new Yes studio album to feature Chris Squire. What can I say? It’s really, really awful. Oh wait, I already said that. But, when you’ve followed Yes for as long as I have, you realize that there’s at least as much bad as good, and being along for the ride is part of what it’s all about.

Lately my Yes fandom has taken another unexpected turn, as I’ve become most intrigued with a couple of albums that, while I have certainly listened to them plenty of times (after all, I’ve listened to everything they released up through 1999’s The Ladder plenty of times), have never been favorites that commanded a lot of my attention: 1980’s Drama and 1983’s 90125.

Yes, 90125. The album that introduced me to the band. Although I loved that one song, for whatever reason I never owned the album as a kid. And by the time I was in high school and approached the Yes catalog from the other direction, the Trevor Rabin years were to be ignored at best, ridiculed mercilessly at worst.

But life throws unexpected surprises at you. And in this case it comes in a very convoluted fashion. I have a Raspberry Pi-powered arcade cabinet at the Room 34 studio. A couple months ago, I reprogrammed it to also be a jukebox. It was originally just playing ’80s music, to go with the era of the games it runs, but eventually I loaded it up with all of the MP3s in my music library. The thing is, I don’t have many MP3s in my music library. Most of my music lives today in my iTunes Match account, so even if it originally came from a ripped CD (which I always do in MP3 format), I now only have ready access to most of those songs in Apple’s AAC format. But any albums I’ve purchased on Amazon (CD or MP3) are available to download through Amazon Music Player as MP3s. So naturally, I downloaded everything I could from my Amazon account and loaded it up on the arcade cabinet. As it happens, for Yes that means Drama and 90125, which are apparently the only studio albums by Yes that I bought on CD through Amazon.

Anyway, I’ve been hearing those two albums a lot lately.

In fact, last month I ran in a 10-mile race, and I decided to set up a playlist that just “felt right” to me that day. It was three full albums. The first was my own 5mi. (Yes, I listen to my own music a lot when I run. Don’t ask.) The second was Drama. The third was Van Halen’s 1984. The playlist was awesome, and now I have vivid memories of running along the banks of Lake Waconia in the western exurbs while listening to “Tempus Fugit.”

I was deeply saddened to learn last month that Chris Squire had leukemia, and I knew from that point that his prognosis was not good. Michael Brecker (the jazz saxophonist who inspired me to play, in much the same way as Chris Squire had with the bass) succumbed at a relatively early age from the disease, as had a coworker and friend from my time in Atlanta.

So it was with sadness, but not surprise, that I learned this morning of Chris Squire’s passing. I may have poked fun at him and the band over the years, but I loved his bass playing, and I loved their music. This digressive personal recollection of my life through his music is, in my own weird way, a tribute to Chris Squire and the music that he made, in his own weird way. It has meant more to my life than I can say. So, after all of the above, I’ll just say: thank you, Chris.

Rolling Stone obituary
Tweet by bandmate, keyboardist Geoff Downes

I found the photo of Chris in the late ’70s with his (in)famous triple-neck bass here. If anyone has a proper photo credit, please let me know.


This is my latest album. It is called Three. I’ve just made it available for free streaming and download over on my music site.

Warning: here there be dragons. Well, not really dragons so much. I would classify the album as progressive rock, but not the wizards and sorcery kind of prog rock. Still, if you’re not in the mood for 20-minute rock suites or free-form improvisation, it may not be your bag, baby. There’s Mellotron. A lot of Mellotron. Never fear, there’s also a long essay describing the album’s creation in copious detail for your insomnia-curing pleasure. Enjoy!

(Note: CDs are on their way in the next week or so…)

On separating artists’ work from their beliefs

Seals and Crofts: Unborn Child
Magma self-title

My musical tastes have taken a couple of painful blows in the past 24 hours. First, an old friend and fellow musician tipped me off to an ongoing controversy over French prog rock/jazz drummer Christian Vander (founder of Magma) and his possibly pro-Nazi beliefs. Ouch.

Then, my growing interest in exploring the catalog of early ’70s soft rock duo Seals and Crofts, best known for the hits “Summer Breeze,” “Diamond Girl” and “We May Never Pass this Way (Again)” (gotta love those parenthetical song titles — they just don’t do that anymore), was waylaid by learning about the controversy over their anti-abortion song and album Unborn Child, released in 1974, right after the Roe v. Wade decision. The song led abortion rights activists to protest against the band, and probably accelerated their demise.

Christian Vander

The stuff about Christian Vander and Nazism is truly disturbing, although it should be noted that there’s no concrete evidence that he really does (or ever did) espouse these beliefs. Taking an honest look at Magma’s work, though, it’s not a huge leap to that conclusion. There’s plenty of Wagnerian influence in their work; Vander’s concocted language, Kobaian, sounds heavily Germanic, especially when shouted with a Hitler-like cadence (as did happen on some of their early recordings); and the band’s overall concept — a select group of humans flee an apocalyptic Earth and settle a new homeworld — is like a sci-fi version of the Third Reich. Another friend and Magma fan even pointed out that there’s a swastika in the cover art from the band’s first album, something I had never noticed before.

Of course, even with all of that, there’s no concrete evidence that Christian Vander is a Nazi. But since all of the band’s lyrics are sung in his own made-up tongue, and he’s never published an official Kobaian-to-French (or any other real language) dictionary, the best knowledge we have of what he’s actually singing about is the result of questionable fan translations.

Seals and Crofts

As for Seals and Crofts, one song written from the perspective of a fetus is a far cry from an entire body of work that may (debatably) promote a white supremacist agenda. But as a pro-choice liberal, knowing this song is part of the Seals and Crofts canon alters my perspective on the rest of the band’s work. Abortion is a complicated issue, however, in ways that Nazism isn’t: as far as I’m concerned, there’s absolutely no way to justify Hitler’s beliefs. I find Nazism so abhorrent I can hardly even talk about it.

But it’s possible to support abortion rights even though you think, ideally, no one should ever have an abortion. I would like to live in a world where abortion didn’t have to exist, but no one who hasn’t been in the position of having to make that difficult decision should feel like they have the right to take the option away from someone else. I don’t wish to belabor the abortion discussion in this post, however, as it is not the point. (And I think far too many important issues already get derailed by the abortion argument; case in point, the recently passed House bill for health care reform.)

The Big Question(s)

In both of these cases, the question for me becomes: Can I still enjoy the work of these artists, knowing that I disagree with their beliefs? I think there’s an important corollary to this question, and that is: Are the artists actively trying to promote their controversial beliefs with their art?

In the case of Seals and Crofts, on the second question, I would have to say yes they are, quite explicitly. To have released the song “Unborn Child,” with lyrics like “Oh unborn child, if you only knew just what your momma was plannin’ to do / You’re still a-clingin’ to the tree of life, but soon you’ll be cut off before you get ripe,” mere months after Roe v. Wade was a clear response to what was going on, and an unequivocal statement of beliefs on the issue. But, like I said, abortion is complicated. I think it’s possible to appreciate the difficulty of the decision, the moral ambiguity of the act, and still, ultimately, believe in a woman’s right to undertake it, if her circumstances lead her to do so.

As to the first question, I’m not sure this one song by Seals and Crofts can take away from the merits of the rest of their work, especially when you consider this song in the context of the band members’ Baha’i faith. I’ve tried to do some research (since I’m ignorant on the matter) on what Baha’i says about abortion (you can google it for yourself), and have come to the conclusion that, just as I’ve been saying, it’s complicated. There are certain readings that say it is “absolutely forbidden,” but also a broader interpretation that says it’s up to the individual conscience. This leads back to my general belief on the matter, which is that the decision should be left to the conscience of the person who is making it. If you feel abortion is an absolute wrong, don’t have one. But it’s a legal right, and its morality is a subject of debate. Don’t impose your beliefs on others who may also have carefully weighed the matter and conscientiously arrived at a different conclusion.

The song states the band’s (or actually, lyricist Lana Bogan’s) beliefs on the matter. And if you really read the lyrics, the message, repeated again and again, is “Stop, turn around, go back think it over.” Think it over. Not “don’t do it.” This is not a message I necessarily disagree with. The song, on the whole, feels a bit like the simplistic, emotional body blow delivered by the “I could wiggle my toes at 18 weeks!” pro-life billboards. A bit disingenuous and distasteful, focusing on one narrow aspect of the debate. For that reason, I think I may never be able to appreciate this particular song. But it’s not going to turn me off from the band otherwise.

Thinking about these two questions in relation to Magma leads to much different conclusions. First, it needs to be repeated that there’s no concrete evidence, at least none that I’ve seen so far, to suggest that Christian Vander is in fact pro-Nazi. I deeply wish to believe that he is not, because although there’s much tension and fury in Magma’s music, there’s also a tremendous life-affirming energy, and I would hate to think that is tainted with repugnant anti-Semitic beliefs. But, assuming for the moment that the story is all true, where does that leave me with his music? First, it’s important to consider whether he’s actively promoting these views within his art. That question is almost impossible to answer, given the fact that I have no idea what he’s actually singing about. This has nagged at my conscience since I first heard the band, but I dismissed it for two reasons: 1) I rarely pay much attention to lyrics anyway, focusing mostly on the instrumental parts and harmonic structures in the music I enjoy, and 2) since I couldn’t understand any of the words, I could appreciate the vocals as abstract sounds. I always assumed that this was Vander’s main intention with the invented language: since the vocal performances are somewhat operatic in nature anyway, with extended repetition of lines, removing any recognizable meaning from the words allows the listener to focus solely on the sounds of the voices. Of course, it’s just as easy to interpret this decision as his way of getting people to listen to his deranged rants without realizing the horror of what he’s talking about.

I sincerely hope that it’s not the latter. But knowing that it might be, and that this is a fundamental part of not just one song, but the band’s entire body of work, is extremely off-putting. Fortunately I haven’t been listening to Magma much lately anyway, but until I can learn more about the truth of these allegations, I will find it difficult to give them any attention at all.

In general, then, the conclusion I arrive at is that I can separate an artist’s work from their beliefs, if they do. But as with everything, it’s complicated. One isolated work that promotes a viewpoint I disagree with is one thing; an entire body of work devoted to actively promoting an abhorrent philosophy is fundamentally unacceptable. But that’s a pretty extreme scenario, one that’s unlikely to exist except in rare cases of extremely idiosyncratic artists… like Christian Vander. It’s tough to face the prospect of abandoning long-held enthusiasm for the work of such a gifted musician, especially when I’m not sure there’s any foundation to the accusations leveled against him. But it’s something to consider.


I was discussing this situation with SLP, and she mentioned a concept that came up yesterday in a class she’s teaching: disidentification. Disidentification arises mainly in queer theory, in the context of discussions of gender role identification. I hope I’m not committing an egregious offense in appropriating the term, but I think it has broader implications as well, in the form of “deeply engaging with ideas/theories and using them, but not identifying with them.”

This concept shows up a lot in art (especially music): talented artists can write from a perspective that is not necessarily their own. I am thinking in particular about “The Rake’s Song” from the recent Decemberists album The Hazards of Love. Colin Meloy is embodying a despicable character, one who has murdered all of his own children just to be rid of them, yet no serious listener assumes that Meloy himself is filicidal. From this perspective, it’s possible — though a bit of a stretch — to assume that Christian Vander is writing lyrics from Hitler’s perspective in order to reflect critically upon that perspective, or that Seals and Crofts are pro-choice but exploring the worldview of someone who is not.

As a listener, it is possible, of course, to hear “The Rake’s Song” and not feel the urge to act upon its message, nor even to be particularly appalled by it. After all, it’s tongue-in-cheek; the rake is an outlandish cartoon of a character in an already outlandish rock opera. It’s also possible to engage critically with the genuine views expressed in Seals and Crofts’ song without agreeing with them. And, presumably, it’s possible too to engage with whatever Christian Vander is singing about, even if you don’t like it. The questions then raised are: 1) do you want to engage with them, and 2) if not, why not?

I’m inclined to say “no” regarding engagement with possible pro-Nazi messages in Magma’s music. As to why I feel that way, is it because I find these views distasteful, even if I wouldn’t have known about them through the music alone? Or is it because I’m self-conscious that someone else might think I don’t just l like the music, but I actually agree with what he’s saying? Well, it’s probably a lot more likely that an outside observer would just think I was a nut for liking something so obviously weird, but I’m used to that.

Probably what it really comes down to for me is that, most of the time, I’m just not interested in engaging with these difficult topics. I have not devoted myself to a life of activism. I prefer to spend my time focusing on the positive things I enjoy. That doesn’t make the bad things go away, and it doesn’t make me care any less. I’m just not that good at that kind of engagement, and it just leaves me frustrated and upset that the things I dislike exist in the first place. Perhaps that’s a weakness to be overcome, but in the current context, I think all it means is that, for a while at least, I’ll be listening to more “Summer Breeze” and less “Kreühn Köhrmahn Iss de Hündïn.”

New blog: Hall of Prog

It occurred to me tonight, while reading a post on outsidedown, that I know of two sources on the planet of encyclopedic knowledge of progressive rock: YouTube and my own brain. And YouTube is catching up.

With that in mind, I have started a new blog: Hall of Prog: A Curated Exhibit of Progressive Rock on YouTube. The idea is simple: there are tons of videos of obscure 1970s progressive rock bands on YouTube. All you have to do is search for them. But you have to know what to search for. That’s where I come in.

The plan is to post a link a day (or more) to interesting progressive rock performances available on YouTube, with a small side dish of my own commentary. Though not usually known for brevity (a trait I share with most prog rockers), I will keep my writing to a minimum, and let the music speak (ad infinitum) for itself.

Strictly for the Yes fan(s) out there

I realize I’m not exactly surrounded by a vast sea of Yes fans. We’re few and far between, and with every further Spinal Tap-esque step our beloved band takes, our numbers dwindle even more.

Perhaps no step the band could have taken would epitomize their claim to the title of “real-life Spinal Tap” more than the tour they’ve undertaken this year. With legendary lead singer Jon Anderson facing a long recuperation from acute respiratory failure, and longtime keyboardist Rick Wakeman no longer up to the rigors of touring either, the band forged ahead on the potentially dangerous decision to have Rick’s son Oliver fill in on the keyboard duties, and they (temporarily) replaced Jon Anderson with a guy named Benoit David, lead singer of a Montreal-based Yes tribute band that bassist Chris Squire discovered on the Internet.

True fans may see parallels between the current situation and the infamous period in 1980 when, faced with the abrupt departure of Anderson and Wakeman (Anderson’s first, Wakeman’s second), the band recruited The Buggles as replacements, because they happened to be recording in the same studio at the time.

Trevor Horn may be a great producer (may be), and he’s a decent enough singer. But he could never be a replacement for Jon Anderson, and not just because Chris Squire made him perform songs at Madison Square Garden after only having heard them on a cassette during the limo ride to the gig. (Does it really happen? It can happen.)

Although I have seen Yes live more than any other band (five times), I had no intention of seeing them on this tour. That may be in part because it would’ve required driving to Milwaukee, but I’ve driven to Milwaukee for a concert by a prog rock dinosaur before (King Crimson in 2000). Mostly, though, I was afraid of Benoit David.

Then I saw this:

Pardon the poor sound and picture quality. Apparently Yes is OK with having video from someone’s cell phone represent them on their official site. So be it. But the lack of visual clarity only helps to reinforce the message I’m trying to convey here. You wouldn’t know by looking (the white pants, the vest, the quasi-conductor dancing) — or by listening — but no, that’s not Jon Anderson. It’s Benoit David. And now I get why Chris Squire was so excited to bring him in as a substitute. Too bad teh interwebz didn’t exist 28 years ago.

And too bad we can’t shut up the tone-deaf holder of the cell phone.

Full disclosure of geekdom: 8 or 9 years ago, before Yesworld was established, I ran a Yes fan website — well, it actually poked fun at the band, song by song, album by album, but it was done out of love — and I was approached to be the webmaster for the band’s official site. It was not a paid gig, of course — I would’ve just been compensated with some merch, backstage passes, stuff like that. I decided it was too much work for too little reward; plus, it would probably mean I’d have to take down my own site. Which I eventually did anyway.