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 alt.music.progressive 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, yesworld.com. 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.

21 years gone: remembering life as a 15-year-old Rush fan

For much of the past decade I’ve been systematically reliving my childhood. I’m not totally sure what stirred up this extended wave of nostalgia, but it may have something to do with the simple fact that I have vivid memories of things I did 20-plus years ago.

It started in 2002, on the 20th anniversary of my acquisition (as an 8-year-old second grader) of an Atari 2600. I went crazy back in that summer of 2002, buying up lots (as in, auction lots, on eBay) of the games I never managed to convince my parents to buy me as a child. In the end I wound up with over 350 games in my collection, counting duplicates, including a dozen copies each of Combat and Pac-Man.

This year I’ve been rekindling my middle school obsession with baseball. (Good timing, with the Twins in a new stadium and playing exceptionally well.) I went so far as to bid on a complete Topps 1985 baseball card set, but lost in the final bidding war I didn’t expect would happen. Back in the day I owned thousands of baseball cards, mostly from the 1984-1988 Topps sets, but ironically I sold the entire collection on eBay back in 2002 to fund my Atari collection. I should have had more foresight.

And then there’s Rush. My long-dormant obsession with the band I spent so much of high school listening to (when I wasn’t — ugh — reading Ayn Rand) had been renewed back around 2002 as well, when I played briefly in a Rush cover band in Atlanta, and then in 2007 with the release of their outstanding Snakes and Arrows album. But now I’m really beginning to relive the summer of 1989, when I was 15 and first immersing myself in the band’s already extensive back catalog.

I’m not sure what prompted the latest resurgence. It might have something to do with the great new documentary about the band, which I saw at the Riverview Theater last week. But as with my Atari fixation in 2002, it’s more like there’s just something in the air.

A friend introduced me to Rush during our freshman year of high school, right around the time A Show of Hands was released. That was my first exposure to their music. Or so I thought, until the Replay x3 DVD boxed set was released a few years ago and I suddenly remembered having seen the Grace Under Pressure concert special on MTV back in fifth grade. I know that concert video had a big impact on me (probably because with his New Wave hairstyle Alex Lifeson looked so much like Simon LeBon), but for some reason I never pursued the band further.

Anyway, back to 1989: I had just gotten my first job, bagging groceries for $3.69 an hour (minimum wage), and, flush with cash, I made frequent trips to the local ShopKo store. The store’s electronics and entertainment section was well stocked both with cheap Rush cassettes and cheap (probably bootlegged) PC games. I bought a lot of both that summer.

My first two Rush cassettes were A Farewell to Kings and Signals. Even all these years later, those are probably my two favorite Rush albums, because they had such an impact on my young ears. They were so different, it was hard to believe they were produced by the same band, just five years apart. And yet they were both so good, so unlike anything else I was accustomed to hearing on the radio or on MTV in the late ’80s. (You see, there was once a time when MTV played something called “music videos,” which were just popular songs set to music. They played them 24 hours a day. And it was good. But not as good as a then-12-year-old Rush album.)

Whenever summer comes along, I start to reminisce about the summers of my youth, especially the summer of 1989. I can see, hear, almost smell my bedroom back then, window open, cool breeze wafting in, “Xanadu” blasting out of my Panasonic boombox on a hissy cassette tape I purchased at ShopKo in the $3.99 cutout bin. (Hey, that was more than an hour’s wages!)

Why am I drawn back so strongly to that summer of 1989? I’m not sure, but I do know something about it that is strongly compelling. Even though I was working at the grocery store, that was still the last summer of my childhood. The next summer, I had my driver’s license, and everything changed. But back in 1989, I was carefree, virtually no responsibilities, and I could just sit in my room and listen to Rush and play Adventure Construction Set on my Tandy 1000 computer.

Maybe part of what reminds me of then is that in some ways, my experience during the summer now is more like 1989 than it has been at any point in my life since. I have plenty of obligations and responsibilities now — I’m married with two kids, mortgage, car payments, etc. But I’m a freelancer, working mostly from home. And like in 1989, I can sit at my computer in my bedroom, cool breeze wafting through the open window, and crank “Xanadu” up to 11. Only now it’s an MP3.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Oh wait, that’s from Hemispheres.

Call it “Rush for Neophytes”

If you’ve been following my recent blog entries (or if you just care to scroll down the list of articles right now!), you’ll know I’ve been going through a bit of a “Rush Renaissance” lately.

I first got into these guys back in high school (of course), almost 18 years ago. My interest in them waned after I moved on to more obscure progressive rock bands, but by the early part of this decade, after I had bored of most prog rock, I actually found myself drawn back to Rush, and I’ve listened to them more than any of the other bands in this nebulous genre over the past five years. But something clicked a month or so ago, and I’ve rekindled an obsession with the band that may in fact be even stronger than it was at its peak when I was a scrawny teenager with a learner’s permit.

On Sunday, much to my surprise, I actually heard “New World Man” on KQRS. While it’s certainly not that unusual for Rush to be on the radio, I don’t believe I’d ever heard this particular track on the airwaves.

Inspired by this radio surprise, I started to think about what might go onto a CD of the band that I could use to introduce new people to their music. Personally, my first exposure was listening to the live A Show of Hands album in its entirety. Even though most prog maniacs generally consider the band’s 1977 to 1981 period (from A Farewell to Kings through Moving Pictures) to be its best, I think the end of that period, overlapping into the next, say, from 1980’s Permanent Waves through 1985’s Power Windows, is best for an introduction. The early ’80s songs are a bit more accessible to an unindoctrinated ear than what preceded, yet they are of higher quality than the weaker material of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

With that in mind, I’ve prepared a track list for a 79-minute CD spanning from 1980 through 1985 (with a nod to the earlier era at the end), that I think would serve as a near-ideal introduction to the band for a new listener. Here we go:

  1. The Spirit of Radio (Permanent Waves, 1980)
  2. Limelight (Moving Pictures, 1981)
  3. Subdivisions (Signals, 1982)
  4. Tom Sawyer (Moving Pictures, 1981)
  5. Distant Early Warning (Grace Under Pressure, 1984)
  6. Marathon (Power Windows, 1985)
  7. New World Man (Signals, 1982)
  8. YYZ (Moving Pictures, 1981)
  9. Freewill (Permanent Waves, 1980)
  10. Natural Science (Permanent Waves, 1980)
  11. The Enemy Within (Part I of ‘Fear’) (Grace Under Pressure, 1984)
  12. The Weapon (Part II of ‘Fear’) (Signals, 1982)
  13. Witch Hunt (Part III of ‘Fear’) (Moving Pictures, 1981)
  14. La Villa Strangiato (Hemispheres, 1978)

We start off with some of the band’s most accessible (and, once upon a time, popular) tracks. I’ve heard all of the first four tracks with some regularity on classic rock radio. Next we move into a few of the great but probably less familiar mid-’80s tracks. After a couple more “fan favorites,” I move into longer pieces that hint at what a new listener will discover if they go back into the extended late ’70s tracks, including the “Fear” trilogy that is rarely heard together in sequence.

OK, Rush fan(s). Let’s hear what you think!

Rush Bass Tabs!

I’m posting this mainly to remind myself to check it out more fully at a later date. (Hmm… could just bookmark it…)

Just what I was looking for (even though, curiously enough, I wasn’t looking for it at the time when I found it): Rush bass tabs! Any Rush fan or bass player (or, both, and I’d guess that both do occur in disproportionate numbers to that of the general populace) would want to check this out.

Frankly, since I can read music, I’d rather have actual notation instead of tablature, but any transcription is a good transcription. (Check that; not every transcription is a good one, but I’ll have to study these more closely to determine if that is true in this case.)

‐.‐‐‐.‐‐‐‐..

Wow. For all my many years of waxing and waning Rush fandom, including having played several of their songs on the bass myself in a band a few years back, I never knew this about one of their oddest songs, the instrumental track “YYZ.”

Yes, of course I know YYZ is the code for the Toronto airport. But what I never realized, even as I was playing that rhythm, is that the opening of the song spells “YYZ” in Morse Code!

(I must admit I have some misgivings about saying I never realized it. I vaguely recall that as my bandmates and I were working the song out — from memory, not a recording — I was convinced that the last part of long beats was 5 and not 4, but the other guys might have used the Morse Code argument to prove me wrong. In fact, even tonight as I read about this and played the song in my head, I was still thinking it was 5, and, in my usual cocksure way, thinking “these websites have it wrong!” or “the band messed up the ‘Z’!” But then I actually listened to the song and realized it’s 4. Then I assumed the band I was in must have played it wrong, since I was so sure it was 5. So I listened to our recording of it and sure enough it was 4 there too! I guess the only thing that proves is that once again, it’s a bad idea for me to stay up too late on a Saturday night surfing the web.)

Here’s some more on the matter…

While I’m on the subject of Rush, I quickly googled (yes, it’s officially lowercase now, much to Google‘s chagrin) and was surprised to discover that, apparently, my high school friends and I are the only ones in the entire wired world who ever thought the band’s self-titled debut album cover looks more like it says RLISH than RUSH.