Monday, September 2, 2013

Book Review: Yes is the Answer

“This wasn’t rock music.  Was it?  It couldn’t be rock music.  It sounded like science.” -Joe Meno page 266

    I was probably 12 or so when I first heard Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.  I didn’t know what it was.  But I knew it was for me.  Considering how well adjusted I am today, it may come as a bit of a shock to readers that I was a pretty weird kid.  Thanks to parents with distinct and different musical tastes, and two much older brothers with different and distinct musical tastes, I grew up in a household filled with a multi-generational cornucopia of sound.  My mom’s taste was rooted fairly strongly in the 50s, with a dash of light classical.  My dad’s in the 60s, with dashes of I don’t even know what.  My brother Tom was into hard rock and punk.  My brother Bill was into psychedelic rock and blues.  And in what turns out to be a blueprint for my life, I sampled a bit of everything and came out with a jumbled mess of a bit from column A and a bit from row 8.  Give me the broken glass rage of Ministry’s Stigmata, the thunderous pomp of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, the smooth sounds of Dean Martin, the tinny pluck of Josephine Baker, or the poppy awkwardness of Kate Nash.  I like a little of this, and a little of that.  And one of the things I like, I found out is called Prog Rock (Progressive Rock).  It was an attempt to take music in a new direction; it was the music that was going to carry us into the future.  And I never realized that like so much else in my life, it isn’t cool to like Prog Rock.

These guys seem pretty cool to me.

    But I didn’t know it wasn’t cool.  And I didn’t know it had a name.  I just knew that when I heard Brain Salad Surgery, my mind was totally blown.  I was just discovering the weird and wonderful world of fantasy and science fiction literature and art, with Michael Morcock, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rodney Matthews, and Frank Frazetta.  And suddenly, it all had a soundtrack.  Soundscapes that carried me to other worlds, flying through ruins of ancient civilizations, battling impossible creatures and machines.  It was as epic as Beethoven, but plugged in.  And I mean plugged in.  It wasn’t just electric, it was cybernetic; like William Gibson’s black ice, hunting me inside my own mind.  To this day, I have never taken any kind of psychoactive drug (or anything stronger than flu meds).  But I feel like I floated through purple haze and ran with Lucy through fields of gumdrops.  When I popped in the cassette (much later, the CD), slid the giant headphones on like a knight's helmet, closed my eyes, and cranked it up…my mind expanded and I felt like the universe opened up.  Matt’s 12 (through 21) year old brain...Blew.  The f*%k.  Up.

    Turns out, I listened to a lot of Prog Rock over the years without ever really knowing it.  I just listened to things I liked.  I could never get into Yes, in the same way I could never get into Mozart.  They were fine on a technical level, but didn’t engage me on an emotional level.  Yet, like Mozart, it was fine to have on in the background.  I lost my taste for Pink Floyd because of the radio.  Genesis because of Phil Collins.  It would take nearly 20 years for me to sit in the Court of the Crimson King for the first time.  But that crazy, classically influenced, science-fiction inspired madness kept bringing me back.  I think perhaps it was because I grew up (musically speaking) after Prog had its day, I listened without baggage, without expectation.  I could hear a band’s entire output in an afternoon or day, and pick what I liked and what I didn’t, without having to wait a year for a new album; without having to face disappointment.  I didn’t have to live through member changes or directional shifts.  It was just there, laid out before me in toto (and yes, sadly even in Toto).  Growing up with such diverse musical tastes surrounding me, and never feeling connected to people my own age, I was used to being outside my own generation’s taste norm.  To this day, I just hate the 90s.  Yes, absolutely, there are some exceptions.  But musically, I think the 90s is one of the worst times in the history of ever.  It was the music of my high school career, and yet, it was never my music.  And while I eventually experienced a certain nostalgic joy with 80s music, even the stuff I used to hate, the 90s still exists as a psychic vampire, draining my hope and will to live.  There isn't enough bleach in the world to get rid of the Grunge.  So, I never had any kind of shame, or any idea that I should have shame, for loving Prog Rock.

Nothing amiss here.

    I bring all that up, because when I picked up Yes is the Answer, I was hoping to get a good solid understanding of the subgenre, its history, and its legacy.  But, for a good part of the book, what I got was sheepish, foot staring monologs on how ‘it was a different time, and I was young;’ diatribes on why Prog Rock sucks.  Admittedly, some of the essays are quite amusing, self-effacing, and biting.  Some of them also feature interesting glimpses into different times and different places.  The youngest writer seems to be about my age, the oldest somewhere between my brothers and my parents.  They come from places like Spain, England, and California.  But wherever or whenever they’re from, they seem to know that liking Prog Rock isn’t cool, something you shouldn’t admit, and its an embarrassing part of their neurotic pasts.  Each chapter is written by a different author, and their backgrounds are very disparate.  Male and female (though, as almost every writer points out, heavily biased toward the male side), some were in bands, some journalists.  Many are novelists.  But most of them have one thing in common, they don’t like Prog Rock.  Most of them did at one time, or knew someone who was really into it.  Only a couple seem to enjoy it in any way now.  And that’s sad.

Chicks dig a flute player in makeup, right?

    If you’re interested in essays about how music effects our lives in countless ways, about the scene in the late 60s through the early 80s, about growing up and burning out, coming to terms with age, this is a good read with some sad bits, some angry bits, and a lot of very funny bits.  If you’re looking for a celebration of an over the top and grandiose subgenre of music we now call Prog, this ain’t it.   Most of the essays are well written and fast moving.  A couple turned out to be slogs.  And I did get some interesting history, as well as a few new bands to check out.  But it’s overall a mixed bag, and not just because it’s an anthology of essays.  While not nearly as rage inducing, the book smacks of hipsterism, which is the pop-culture equivalent of Communism in the 50s, so far as this cat is concerned.  I can't really recommend it, but I wouldn't advice against reading it either.

Yes is the Answer and other Prog Rock Tales
Editors: Marc Weingarten & Tyson Cornell
Publisher: Rare Bird Books
ISBN: 978-0-9854-020-1


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