“I think. I think I am. Therefore I am. I think.”
Okay, let’s trip back to 1969. Berkeley, National Guardsmen all over campus. Your brother just killed in the skies over North Vietnam, so your once short hair is now hanging down somewhere south of your shoulders. You’re questioning everything, even all your cherished assumptions about the future, which is, really, kind of alright. College is the place to do it, if you got to do that kind of thing. You’re taking courses you never thought you would, philosophy for one, and nerdy stuff like calculus. One day you read Descartes – dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum – and it clicks. There is nothing trivial about the proposition. It’s simple, and the premise is demonstrably true.
Then you’re driving down the road and turn on the radio – and you hear something different.
“I think. I think I am. Therefore I am. I think.”
The Moody Blues. On The Threshold of a Dream. To many, Threshold was an epiphany. It was to me too, back in 1969.
I’d played in a few groups – in high school, and even (cringe) before – usually bass, sometimes keyboards (though badly; I have real performance anxiety issues), and I was playing weekends with some Bay Area freaks in ’69 – who were trying to find their big break while flying LSD Airways. Music was then, or rather, had always been peripheral to the main events in my life, until I heard the Moodies, that is. I took music more seriously after 1969, for a while, anyway, but eventually other passions intervened, flying chief among them, and music drifted back into the static. Still, 69-72 was music land for me.
Because I listened – carefully. And I think with a critical, questioning ear, to lyrics and structure, because there are messages in both.
I listened to King Crimson and their primal scream In The Court of the Crimson King, then the offshoot ELP – or Emerson Lake and Palmer. When Keith Emerson passed last year I damn near wept, and reading about the ‘why’ behind his death left me feeling bereft. Then last month Greg Lake passed, and one of the century’s great poets left the light – his voice still now and the world a lesser place.
I’ve written a good deal about Yes here, and about the ARW concert we went to last November, about memories and about the relationship music has to the words I put down on paper – or screen, as the case may be. There are three keyboards on my desk as I write: one QUERTY alpha-numeric and two piano – all running into my Mac – and they help me indulge this minor synesthesia I have developed over the last twenty or so years.
Yes, I hear music and I see story.
I play a chord and I hear emotion. I play a string of chords and I can see a story develop.
It drives Erica nuts. Hell, it drives me nuts too.
A couple of nights ago it was back rub time, and Erica had just pulled up her nightgown and rolled onto my lap – which means ‘it’s time to get down to it, or else!’ So, I was rubbing her tensions away and, unexpectedly, I heard a chord or two. I’d been working on a critical passage in TimeShadow and had written myself into a box, lost and waiting for the muse, so to speak, to strike up a conversation with me. I’d struggled and struggled, even while out front on shovel duty, to see my way out of the dilemma. With no luck.
So, sitting there with Cute Stuff on my lap, me dutifully rubbing away, here comes the chord. Then another. Out of the blue, with no conscious thought on my part – from back rub to ‘it’s time to write…!’ in a nanosecond.
So – suddenly – I’m not rubbing anymore – I’ve got an iPad up on my lap open to Garageband, and I’m playing chords, then opening up Notes and jotting down the flow of ideas that come from the music. I play a sequence of notes, see a conversation take shape, the structure I see in the music reveals the outcome I’ve been searching for.
How’s that for weird? Sometimes the flash comes in the middle of the night, or driving into town, but the process is the same. Pull out a keyboard (even have one on the phone!) and listen to the words and ideas that form in the music, then transcribe ideas to Notes. That’s where Sketches In The Night came from…just a few days ago. Five oddball chords out of nowhere, five ideas that formed with the sound.
So…music matters. It’s where ideas take shape. I think of Justin Hayward of the Moodies, like Greg Lake another poet, another master who helped define an age, and I wonder where their ideas come from, where the music comes from. Do they hit a note and see color? Read the lyrics from the album In Search of the Lost Chord and you’d be forgiven if you thought so.
On their latest studio album, Yes came up with a hidden gem called The Game (from 2014s Heaven and Earth). Yes without Jon Anderson is a stretch for me, but Jon Davison is an able substitute – though he tends to drift deeply into Christian mysticism with his lyrics. The Game is an moody, oddly textured song – until you know the backstory. Chris Squire, who with Anderson co-founded Yes, was ill when they made this album, very ill, as it turned out. Dying, I think, you might say. When you listen to the music it all makes sense, it all comes together. Even the tonal structure seems resolute and enduring to me.
Speaking of Jon Davison, are you familiar with Glass Hammer? A prog group out of Tennessee, they delve into mysticism and Tolkien, and they emulate Yes in structure and chromaticism. Check out an album called If, or the song She, A Lonely Tower off the album Cor Cordium. Along the same lines, Spock’s Beard is another group that takes the same road as ELP and Yes, et al. Their song I Know Your Secret (Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep) is an anthem, while Revelation (off V-EP) is just a trip.
Steven Wilson is another musician following in these footsteps. Have a listen at an album titled ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase.‘ to a track called Perfect Life. Listen, closely, to the lyric, then go read the album’s backstory, where the music comes from, and put it all together. Wilson is some kind of genius, and if you need more evidence, try the tracks Drive Home and Pin Drop from The Raven the Refused to Sing. He’s picked up where Pink Floyd left off in the 80s, only he’s appears to be a better producer as the sound quality seems even better. Oh, do NOT listen to the title song The Raven that Refused to Sing unless you have a steady drip of Prozac running. Brutal terrain.
Another group I’d mention is a newish one (first album came out in November) called, strangely enough, The Pattern Forms. Have a go at Daylight or A Simple Walk from Peel Away the Ivy. Long live the 80s…shades of The Thompson Twins. If you miss Tears for Fears, check out a group called The War on Drugs, an album called Lost In The Dream. Same 80s vibe, which was an echo of the mid-60s…which was echo of…
I’m going to end this musing with one more song, one that after two weeks of snow is filling me with all kinds of joy this morning…
Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right…
Peace – love, y’all, and keep on trucking’ – I’m kissing my shovel bye-bye today, and takin’ the pups out for a long walk!