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.

Finally, more than 25 years later…

I think it was probably around 1983 that I got my first Rubik’s Cube. Wasn’t that the year they really hit big in the U.S.? Anyway, I just never had the patience or the logical foresight to be able to solve it. Never. Not once. Oh, sure, I was able to solve one side. I think once I might have solved two. But I could never envision how to put it all together. It’s the same reason I suck at chess.

Before long, I knew that it wasn’t possible to just solve the whole thing one side at a time. And, unnervingly, when you were closest to having the whole puzzle solved, just a couple of turns away from a complete solution, there would be a sequence of moves where none of the sides were solved. That was just too much for my 9-year-old brain.

Eventually I just gave up on ever solving my Rubik’s Cube. It didn’t help that I had also learned that you could turn one side to a 45-degree angle, pop out the middle edge piece, and easily disassemble the entire thing, reassembling it in perfect order. And so it was, that my speedy solution to the Rubik’s Cube, sadly, always involved a screwdriver.

This year my parents gave me a Rubik’s Cube for Christmas. (It’s OK… that’s not the only thing they got me for Christmas. I also got this, which rocks.) Today I decided, by gum, I’m gonna solve it! Of course, not on my own. These days Rubik’s Cubes ship with a little pamphlet revealing the magical seven-step solution. (No, not seven moves, more like a hundred or so. But seven basic logical steps.)

I was doing great… halfway through the seventh and final step, when… well, the whole thing fell apart. Not literally. They’re made pretty well — and it’s no longer possible to pop out the edge piece with a screwdriver. (Don’t ask me how I know that it’s no longer possible. I just have my ways.)

I realized after a moment of fretting that I had misinterpreted part of Step 7. I was left with this:

Almost had it...

One good side, and five sides of crap. (Much like Yessongs. Sorry… had to say it. Not too often you can work in a joke about a 36-year-old prog rock triple live album. By Yes.)

After dinner I was sufficiently distanced from my devastating defeat that I was willing to have another go, and this time… success!

Success!

Something else for the Yes fan(s)

Often I sit down at the computer in the evenings after the kids have gone to bed, with the best intentions of doing something productive, and yet somehow before long I find myself watching YouTube videos of people playing “Watcher of the Skies” on their home Mellotrons. (Who even has a Mellotron at home? Someone, I guess.)

Anyway… in the midst of that extremely productive use of my time, I found this rare gem: it’s the original lineup of Yes performing “Beyond and Before” live in France in 1969. Worth seeing if for no other reason than to laugh at Bill Bruford’s t-shirt.

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.