The Day – Ex-Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman performs a solo concert on October 16 at La Garde
Keyboardist, progressive rock visionary and member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Rick Wakeman appears on October 16 during a solo exhibition at Garde Arts Center in New London. This is the start of his “Even Grumpier Old Rock Star” tour – a tour that has been delayed for 18 months due to COVID.
It’s unfortunate but understandable that when someone like Wakeman spends two days exclusively doing pre-tour advertising phone interviews, the demand is such that every reporter has a strict 15 minutes.
Let’s do some math. The journalist – and avowed fan – must then divide 15 minutes by who knows how many potential questions concerning the passage of Wakeman in the group Yes for albums like “Close to the Edge”, “Fragile” and “Tales From Topographic Oceans” ; more than 70 (!) solo albums including “The six wives of Henry VIII”, “The myths and legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table”, “No Expense Spared”, “Night Airs” and the excellent recording 2020 “The Red Planet”; two successful memoirs; and working sessions with artists ranging from Cat Stevens and Elton John to David Bowie and Al Stewart. Oh, and since last month he received this “Thank You, Your Majesty” honor known as the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).
Hmm. It’s not going to be easy, especially when the conversation begins just as a mailman arrives at the reporter, triggering a barking frenzy from the dogs in the family.
“Are these your dogs?” Wakeman asks.
The reporter shyly acknowledges that, yes, he works from home and sometimes Mabel and Virgil like to bark loudly at a variety of perceived threats. Wakeman sits up. How old are Mabel and Virgil, he wants to know, and what kind of dogs are they? It is fortunate that they were rescued from shelters in the southern United States, which leads to a discussion of Wakeman’s own dogs.
“We have three rescues,” he said. “Two are from Bosnia and one is from Syria. They were street dogs in war zones and treated horribly. But we have them and now they’re incredibly adorable. Then, literally in the last two weeks, we took another, a three-year-old Labrador who was rescued from the meat trade in China. “
Again, this is a very limited interview about Wakeman’s music and career, and what people might expect when he steps onto the Guard stage. But … DOGS! There is a bit of common commiseration about the overwhelming need to save more animals.
Wakeman salutes the reporter for his efforts in this context, then says, “Well, you can’t save them all, but all we can do, right? And I have to say our dogs – and we have three more rescue cats, they are absolutely adorable. And they have so much love to give. Like all rescued animals, they just want the chance to give love. “
To move on…
With a mental image in mind of a giant countdown ticking by speed, the reporter, who feels a bit like ripping a pacifier off a happy child, quickly asks the artist to briefly review general details of the upcoming tour. Not surprisingly, each night’s set list will be different. With all this great material, why wouldn’t Wakeman jump a bit? But, yes, there will be explorations of Yes songs and solo works. He could do a few classic pieces, and doesn’t rule out a tribute to his late friend, Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Could he cover songs he recorded during sessions for Stevens and / or Bowie? Yes, that can happen too.
The sets will also be peppered with hilarious and revealing anecdotes according to his two autobiographical books, “Grumpy Old Rock Star” and “Further Adventures of a Grumpy Old Rock Star” (hence the title of the tour). Wakeman is already working on the third in the series.
Like anyone who may have seen Wakeman’s speech when Yes was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (easy to find on YouTube), he is a very funny and masterful storyteller – moving easily from the layman to the deep – and both volumes of memoirs are unlike any you are likely to see from a rock star.
“I got the whole idea for the method to write the Grumpy books from David Niven’s books, ‘The Moon is a Balloon’ and ‘Bring the Empty Horses’,” he says. “These are the first autobiographies I read that didn’t start at the beginning and then went through life chronologically from year to year.
Niven was talking about something, then suddenly moving on to something else – but there was still a connection. I loved it. And I thought about it when I was approached to write an autobiography. I would but in the format Niven used, which is basically NO format. I’m just going to tell you stories. Stories are about other people, but where I’m involved to some extent – and in this way, a progressive portrait emerges. “
See the music
Listening to Wakeman discuss his approach to writing prose, it’s obvious he’s thinking very visually. Does this apply to musical performance and composition? Obviously, for solo works like “Journey to the Center of the Earth” or “King Arthur”, there are stories the music is based on. But where does Wakeman’s muse take him?
“To me, these are just visuals,” says Wakeman. “When I was 5 years old, my music teacher, with whom I have stayed all her life, Mrs Symes, said to me: ‘This is how it’s going to be, Richard. Once you’ve learned a piece of music, I want you to put the sheet aside, play it from memory with your eyes closed, and paint pictures, because that’s music. You paint pictures with music, and it gives you the vibe of the way of playing and all the fluctuations. ‘”
Wakeman pauses – five more seconds! – and adds: “And I still do it today. People often ask me why my eyes always seem closed when I perform on stage. And I say: ‘Yes, it’s because I paint pictures.'”
This explanation is the kind of alluring commentary that demands some specific examples from the artist’s own catalog. What about the beautiful song “Dance of a Thousand Lights”, for example, “Return to the Center of the Earth”?
“I was working on this album in the Canary Islands,” Wakeman recalls, “and I would frequently pick up the book and reread a passage here and there. And in one part, (the characters) are in a cave where there was a lot of this. that I suppose to be the equivalent of glowworms or fireflies – and I imagined this huge open cave with all these little twinkling and flickering lights. And I wrote the whole piece in about 10 minutes. It came very quickly and the photo in my brain is always the same when I play it. I see it very, very clearly. “
It’s a different process, however, when Wakeman collaborates. The very difficult compositions of Yes, for example, may have been brought to the group by one member or another, but almost by definition each of the virtuoso players added depth and vision to the works. One of Wakeman’s most famous tracks in this regard is the chord-soaked angelic ascension in the song “And You and I” – which almost automatically gives any fan or, indeed , to any classic rock radio listener.
As gorgeous as this section may be, Wakeman insists it was just another day’s work.
“I remember coming up with the song you’re talking about,” Wakeman said. “I still think of a lot of those Yes pieces back then as puzzles made up of pieces from different puzzles that still fit together. And sometimes you get to a certain point in a song – what you’re talking about in” And you and me ”and“ Heart of the Sunrise, ”for example – and it’ll be a musical spread and all of a sudden you’re like,“ Hey! I know what that missing piece is! ”And it ends up working.”
What the fuck is he singing ?!
It’s also true that Jon Anderson’s mystical and obscure lyrics shaped much of Yes’s musical composition.
The reporter tells Wakeman that he asked Yes drummer Alan White a few years ago if he had any idea what Anderson’s words meant. White laughed and said happily, “I have no (expletive) idea!” Does this answer sufficiently summarize Wakeman’s experiences on this subject?
Wakeman recounts an anecdote from the first Yes tour of America when he and Anderson were approached by a fan outside a hotel bar. The man confidently informed Anderson that he had determined the meaning of the lyrics to the song “Your Move” and began to share a lengthy analysis involving, as Wakemen remembers, “various astral planes working within planets and moving from place to place in tune with the band’s music. “
The fan finished his explanation, beaming at Anderson and asking if he was right in his interpretation.
Wakeman said, “And Jon said, ‘Yeah, you’re absolutely right!’ and the fan left very happy. I turned to Jon and I said, “Is that really the topic of ‘Your Move’ ?!” And he said, “No, this is a chess. But if that’s what the guy thinks and wants it to be, then it’s okay. As long as people have a meaning for themselves of what the songs are, that’s great. That does not bother me.'”
Wakeman laughs and explains that Anderson is indeed a skillful blacksmith with a great deal of Salvador Dali-style surrealism in his lyrics, and that they have become an integral part of Yes songs for all the right reasons. He laughs again. “And I would just add that Alan’s comment ‘I have no idea (expletive)’ sums it up perfectly!”