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Thursday, October 28, 2010
Current Affairs ... Personal Reflections ...

Something or other got me thinking today about Yes – the art-rock band that had its fame and glory in the early 1970s (Yes is still around in one incarnation or another, playing at state fairs and local art centers). I was specifically thinking about the opening routine Yes used in concert back in the early 70s, which was captured perfectly on their first live album, Yessongs. I was hearing it all in my head this morning, and remembering the time or two that I myself experienced a Yes show back in my youth.

Ah yes, Madison Square Garden in New York. The opening act started at 8, but was mostly just a distraction. They got off stage around a quarter to nine, and everyone in the seats got restless. Then just before 9, the lights went out, the arena went dark – and you could feel electricity pulsing thru the crowd. You could see hundreds of yellow light spots amidst the crowd – young people toking up. And then, very quietly at first, you heard the opening notes of the lead-in theme song. That was a recording of the finale to Stravinsky’s Theme From Firebird Suite.

The Firebird went on, resonating in the darkness for another 2 or 3 minutes, growing in volume and intensity. On the dark stage, if you looked closely, you could tell that a set of musicians were getting ready. It was Yes. The crowd started cheering, as Firebird reached its pompous crescendo and then trailed off. Suddenly, a single stage light was shining on keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who took over with a 30 second slow dirge. And then, POW. All the lights came on as lead guitarist Steve Howe blasted out the opening chords and started plucking the leit motif of the opening song, Siberian Khatru. And then everyone else in the band joined in, leading to Jon Anderson’s semi-falsetto vocals. And the main event was under way, with 19,500 or so other Yes fans happily cheering.

Ah, sweet memories. But I look back on it now and wonder, was it really worth remembering? In reality, it was a capitalist endeavor. Someone was making a bunch of money entertaining spoiled suburban Baby Boomer youth. The band was trying to be artistic, even poetic and mystical. Jon Anderson’s lyrics were often “impressionistic”, especially in Siberian Khatru. As one reviewer on the web said, Khatru is “Impressionistic and not literal. One of the greatest songs about nothing ever written. Totally impressionist work that only succeeds if you don’t think about it and just feel it.” Especially, I might add, if you were high on some intoxicating substance (which I generally wasn’t; I never got into pot or anything worse than beer and an occasional mixed drink).

Here are a few lines from Khatru, just to give you the feel of a classic Yes tune:

Sing, bird of prey; beauty begins at the foot of you –
Do you believe the manner?
River running right on over my head.
Warm side, the tower; Green leaves reveal the heart spoken Khatru.

I’m looking back introspectively from 35 years later. I wonder what a historian looking back from 350 years in the future would make of a big Yes concert (back when Yes could fill a big venue like MSG; now they appear at much smaller venues, and a new generation of performers uses Madison to entertain their fans, including the dreaded Lady Gaga). As I said, it was capitalist in a big way. It used an incredible amount of carbon-based energy and required cutting-edge technology (cutting edge in 1972, anyway). It made a lot of young people feel good about Mother Earth and nature and art, giving them the impression of a new and better world evolving. But in reality, it was the same old world they inherited from their parents. Ah, to be young and self-deluded again.

But then again, no one got hurt. An historian might compare an art-rock concert to the big public events in Rome during the Empire. Plenty of stimulation and titillation for the masses, but no gladiators or Christians were going to the lions.

Speaking of gladiators and people getting hurt, I saw an article in the NY Times the other day questioning whether it is ethical to watch NFL football, given all the head and brain injuries that medicine is now detecting in football players. Hmmm. I used to go to Yes concerts with my brother; now we mostly get together to watch football. Have we taken a step backward, ethically? Do we require permanent injury of our entertainers now?

The Times article admits that it doesn’t have to be like this; in earlier times, football players blocked and tackled each other in a safer fashion (around the waist). But in modern times, when every little thing on the field is displayed on TV and the players get millions to keep the fans entertained (and thus watching beer commercials and buying overpriced game tickets and branded merchandise), the capitalists involved have amped-up the playing style. Offensive guards and defensive backs aren’t just out there to stop the other team; they’re out to do it in an entertaining way. So there are more high- body shots that jar the skull.

To be honest, I hadn’t really noticed. I was never a big football fan, never really played the game (could never figure out how to properly carry a football, not to mention throw one), and most of the plays look like blurs to me. At best I get a sense of the overall strategies involved and I try to keep track of the play outcomes, but I can’t really make out all the banging happening on the field. So I’ve kind-of been an NFL innocent thus far. But now that I know what is going on, well, I suppose this is the end of the innocence.

Not that I’m going to stop watching; it’s still a good way to maintain bonds with my brother. I’ll probably be with him at a local watering spot for at least part of the Jets-Green Bay game this Sunday. But, I do hope that enough people do become uncomfortable about feeling like spectators at a Roman game in the Second Century, watching animals and people maimed and killed. Those big Yes concerts of “YES-ter-year” weren’t the vanguard of a new and better civilization, as we had naively hoped. But at least I hope that the NFL of today isn’t part of the return to an older and worse civilization.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:27 pm      

  1. Jim, You bring up a topic I’ve always wondered about: Will today’s music be played 200 or 300 years from now? I doubt it–well, at least not much of it will be played then. Will any of it ever be classified as as “classical” music? Then again, when Mozart was writing, his music was shocking, considered much like extreme music of today–something that would never survive. So, who knows?

    I must say, though, that much of today’s music will simply be forgotten–especially that music written by the lovely girl who has a voice range of two notes (or so it seems) and writes songs to fit in that range. She’s a lovely young woman, but how did she become a singer is a mystery to me.

    I once heard Gene Simmons say that Kiss adopted its “costuming” and grotesque facial gestures because it was the only way to compete with Eric Clapton. So, Simmons was actually admitting to the fact that they have little or no talent and make up for that lack with all the other nonsense. Will that become “classical”?

    I also have to say that Lady Gaga (while I think she likely could have chosen a much better name) does have a beautiful voice–which is a quality lacking in most of today’s singers.

    And then as regards the violence in today’s sports that doesn’t have to be there: Years ago I knew a football player. When I questioned him about being “hit” at that time, he spoke in terms of “learning how to fall” when a player was hit. Nowadays, obviously “learning how to fall” is the least of the problems for the players.

    It does seem to me that something is “wrong” with people today in that in so many different areas people demand more and more violence–movies, hockey, football, ultimate fighting, video games, etc.

    Frankly, I really don’t understand the whole ultimate fighting business. The main purpose of that “sport”(?) is to knock out, do the most damange possible to the “other human being.” At the rate things are going I wonder just how long it will take before the crowd will wait for the death of a player on some field and we will be back to the gladiators. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 29, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

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