Rock gods typically fall into two distinct camps: the ones who live off heroic deeds of yesteryear and the ones who plug along, pushing themselves because they can’t live any other way.
We can think of numerous instances of the former group, some of whom are on an endless loop of remunerative “farewell tours” — and more power to them. As always, so long as people are happy to pay them, why should they have any objection to separating fools from their money?
There is not, on the other hand, a surplus of the latter category: the artists that are (rightly) comfortable celebrating past achievements, but are compelled to reside in the here-and-now while ceaselessly contemplating tomorrow. When it comes to the great guitar players, that list is small, indeed. Age, boredom, lack of inspiration or just plain laziness all conspire to deprive artists of their chops. Simply put, disconcerting numbers of these former icons cannot duplicate the licks they laid down several decades ago, and they can’t be bothered to try.
It is therefore refreshing and encouraging that Steve Howe, undeniable prog-rock deity, is able to do his classic compositions justice while still exploring and discovering new ways to express himself. I had the welcome opportunity to speak with him as he prepared for the big American tour Yes has planned for this summer (after three months in Europe).
Note: this is not the occasion to contemplate the rotating cast of characters (the current line-up includes original member Chris Squire on bass and long-time associate Alan White on drums), or interrogate the notable absence of original lead singer Jon Anderson. Certainly, Anderson is missed, for a variety of reasons, but the present situation is what it is, and whether things could or should have played out differently, the fact of the matter is that Yes is an ever-changing ensemble. This is merely the latest and probably not last incarnation of the group that best epitomized the prog-rock aesthetic during the early ‘70s.
“It’s still about testing and challenging myself,” Howe says. “I’m competing with myself, essentially, and if you set your goals high you can test yourself in a healthy and productive way.”
What keeps him engaged and invigorated, having done this, and played this material for so long? “It evolves, but it’s always about improving the show. As soon as you accept what’s below the standard you’ve set, it rots the band. It’s still important to me.”
So how does one avoid the rot, and keep one’s work healthy and fresh? “It’s not simply a bunch of guys having a ‘good time’; this is a brutal business, and it’s always difficult to make it work.” Howe relates over breakfast that morning and having a waiter recognize him. After a sarcastic remark about it being rather early for a rock star, Howe replied with a blank stare that expressed his attitude about such clichéd thinking. “I keep going by my own momentum. If you don’t nurture that, as a musician, you can’t go on. One needs clarity of mind and a dedication to always proving oneself.”
In my article celebrating the three best-loved Yes albums, “The Holy Trinity: Yes”, I offered the following appraisal of Howe and his importance to the band:
(Howe) was the indispensable visionary who helped the group get to that elusive next level. Steve Howe is, like Robert Fripp, a thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are often like algebra equations, full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song from Yes’s most fruitful era.
When I reiterate my opinion about Howe being a “thinking man’s guitar hero”, he doesn’t protest (too much). “I’ve always been more interested in stylistic things, not the flashy solo and big cheesy smile. I don’t want to wave my hand to the crowd for an easy reaction. I’m more about connecting to the music without all that nonsense.”
Howe clearly has no time or interest in stereotypes or facile pandering, however simple those routes might be toward gaining approval. While acknowledging the less enduring aspects of the prog-rock heyday, Howe sardonically notes that he’s never been one for striped trousers, or anything that would remind fans of Spinal Tap. “It’s been easier to grow older gracefully, because I never patronized the audience, and it’s always been entirely about the music.”
Asked how arduous and/or exhilarating it was to play three full albums on last year’s tour, Howe is refreshingly candid. “Tours can be exhausting, but music never is. Our keen interest in the music keeps us going, and we wouldn’t play at all if it wasn’t good in the first place.”
Howe and his bandmates are obviously driven by a desire, perhaps an obsession, to measure up favorably, and to improve upon what they’ve already achieved. “It shows we did something right way back then, since people, including us, are still interested. We must continue to refine it, keep trying to get it right.”
Asked about performing Fragile for the first time in its original sequence, Howe acknowledges the challenges, but relishes the opportunity. “Even back in the ‘70s, we never played albums in their original running order, with the exception of Tales from Topographic Oceans. Now, it feels right; it enables us to retain the mood and flow of the album. It’s important that it doesn’t feel rote or forced.”
Howe is understandably proud to discuss Heaven and Earth, the latest installment in the Yes catalog (release date July 7). “We spent a lot of time preparing the material. We had to develop a chemistry that had nothing to do with the ‘70s.” The guitarist has a routine, from practice to keeping fit, and allowing for plenty of time for advance deliberation before setting foot on stage or in the studio. “This is not a nostalgia trip. I’m glad the juices are still flowing. There is a great deal of collaboration here, and I believe something organic has developed.”
Howe maintains that Yes has never been easy to describe or categorize, and this versatility is clearly part of the band’s staying power. “This new work feels different and I can’t quite pin it down. It’s intriguing and I’m glad we could pull it off. Now we’ll see if I’m right, during this tour!”
And what of the future, after another series of shows and the mixture of new and familiar experiences? “I will keep going,” Howe promises, sounding confident, calm, focused as ever. “Otherwise you become a candle in the wind, as Elton John said.” Then he laughs. “Plus, if I couldn’t do this, I don’t know what else I’d do.”