This is the kind of book you’ve been waiting your whole life for and you may not have even known it. Rather than an historical account of the rise and fall of progressive rock, Yes Is the Answer features essays from a number of musicians, critics, and authors who reflect not just on the genre, but the ways in which it has shaped (or misshaped) their lives. This goes beyond an analysis of favorite Yes, Gentle Giant or Todd Rundgren albums, it’s about, as is so often the case, what happens once those albums have entered our orbits. Some of these essays are touching, haunting, beautiful, others are funny or even in their way frightening. Some are all of those things and more. And reading this from cover to cover is an absolute pleasure.
Co-editor Marc Weingarten writes in the introduction that those who have derided prog aren’t all wrong. It was pretentious, but, he adds, “We didn’t give a damn about rock’s first principles, all that three chords and the truth business; give us Prog Rock’s grandeur, it mushy mysticism, its blissed-out mystery”. Forget those gods in capes and tights from Marvel, Weingarten adds, “When you’re a young boy looking up at a man with flowing blond hair negotiating a groaning bank of very complicated circuitry, it’s like you’ve come face to face with some kind of earthly God. Or Thor with a Moog”.
Within seconds of this witty introduction we’re whisked into the past, the glory days of religious reverence for odd time signatures, adaptations of English folk songs and poems, and tales from topographic oceans. To explore each of these wonderful works in detail would deny the reader the joy of discovery but an extended list with details behind these selections seems in order. Thus:
Tom Junod recalls the passage that the secret (albeit imaginary and unspoken) meanings of a Peter Gabriel album cover gave him in college, slowly weaving a tale of LSD exploration, a specific brand of fan obsession, and a friend’s descent into madness. But it’s also a story about love, something that’s at the core of many of these tales, including Peter Case’s “Your Magic Christmas Tree”, which uses the prism of The Incredible String Band to impart upon us a tale of musical brotherhood. Case, a formidable songwriter whose own music is as close to prog as Merle Haggard is to dubstep, is as sharp and wise with his prose as he is with his lyrics; not a word is wasted and when the essay ends you want to flip back to the beginning, start over, as you would with one of his brilliant songs.
Wesley Stace, the novelist and recording artist who, until recently, recorded as John Wesley Harding, pays homage to that most unique brand of prog, that which emanated from Canterbury. This is progressive rock with humo(u)r, a brand of sometimes esoteric word and musical play that is always endearing rather than repelling, and a brand so particular in its Englishness that it never translated to American audiences in the same measure as Yes, say, or Genesis.
Ricky Moody offers a delicious examination of Emerson, Lake and Palmer in “Defending The Indefensible” that is hilarious and exacting and sad and filled with sentences that seem to dance off the page with the fluidity of an Emerson keyboard solo. (How do you know that Moody knows whereof he speaks? He mentions––and has clearly listened to––that most dreaded of all ELP recordings, Love Beach, a record you can judge by its cover.) The conclusion of his essay reminds us of mortality and fickle nature of the muse and is as intriguing and resonant as anything Moody has written in works such as The Ice Storm.
Jim DeRogatis, whom some would consider America’s greatest living rock critic, provides some typically awe-inspiring prose and observations on Genesis via “Ode To The Giant Hogweeds” which culminates in him gaining an audience with Rutherford, Collins and Banks c. 1991, the band’s absolute musical nadir (and the death rattle of Genesis’ commercial peak years). You can almost see the look on Phil’s face when DeRogatis asks a question that many of us would have asked given a chance to rap with Phil, Tony and Mike. (No spoilers. Also: It’s OK to giggle when you learn that a prog rock band once retreated to a place called Dorking to write music. Dorking is about a prog a name as you could possibly.) Viva DeRogatis! Viva the good Genesis!
One might be forgiven for assuming that the latter half of any anthology would begin to diminish in quality, not unlike the Gentle Giant catalogue from 1977 to 1980. But in this case, it never happens. Former Guided By Voices member James Greer examines the close (and maybe, to some, unlikely) connection between GBV head honcho Robert Pollard and the music of Genesis. Longtime fans won’t be surprised about this and doubters are encouraged to spin classic GBV albums such as Under The Bushes, Under The Stars (which Greer discusses at some length) alongside The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and hear the striking similarities in timbre, humor, and mood.
Elsewhere, Andrew Mellen discusses the joys of progressive rock as a gay man and Beth Lisick outs herself as one of the 100 or so women to ever listen to (and maybe enjoy) Rush. But it’s Charles Bock’s “In The Court Of The Crimson King 02” that offers the most touching moment here. It’s the poignant story about a friendship of sorts struck up between himself and another man via the heavy metal website Metal Sludge. (And, yeah, that’s a “hair metal” site but the relationship this story has with prog rock is epic.)
There’s no real talk in these pages of the newer wave of progressive rock that’s been going strong once more since the late 1990s or so with bands such Spock’s Beard, The Flower Kings, and Porcupine Tree. These are about prog’s classic era and they are perfect in that way, capturing the music in its original light, then showing how it has been tinted, shaded by time.