Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Filtering by Tag: Yes

Rock and Roll Lyrics

Rock and roll lyrics run the gambit, from positively poetic to brazenly banal.  A friend of mine once made the claim that song lyrics are never poetry, which is a pretty bold statement and a pretty dumb one, I think, but there’s no denying that often song lyrics are embarrassingly bad:

Time to find the right way
It seems to take so long
When I find the right way
I know I will be strong

- Head East, “Lovin’ Me Along”

But it in the hands of a gifted lyricist, meaning and imagery jump from the speaker and grab you by the gut:

There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets

- Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road”

Sometimes lyrics can reach us on a very personal level and describe us more succinctly than we could ever hope to achieve on our own.  A woman once gave me a hand-written copy of the lyrics to Billy Joel’s “Code of Silence,” explaining that the words described her “to a T.”   I had already owned Joel’s album, The Bridge, but had never really studied the lyrics before, and upon reading the feminine script on a pink sheet of notepaper with no musical accompaniment, I was given insight into a human being who was clearly wrestling with a difficult past (I never found out what it was, but I can take a wild guess).

But you can’t talk about it
And isn’t that a kind of madness
To be living by a code of silence
When you’ve really got a lot to say?

Many times lyrics – even good ones – are unimportant to me.  As a rule, as long as lyrics don’t overtly suck, then it’s the tune that matters.  So, for instance, the band Yes typical composes songs whose lyrics are so esoteric and so stream-of-conscious that they’re virtually meaningless.  Take the opening lyric for Yes’s “Going for the One”:

Get the idea cross around the track
Underneath the flank of thoroughbred racing chasers
Getting the feel as the river flows.
Would you like to go and shoot the mountain masses?

I don’t know exactly what goes on in Jon Anderson’s head, but I suspect it’s been aided by lots and lots of drugs.  But his lyrics lead to images that are malleable, subject to the listener’s own experience, so that as long as the words aren’t blatantly bad, to me it doesn’t really matter what they say.  But what if, for instance, the opening lines to “Going for the One” were the following:

Get the idea come and take me back
Underneath the sheets like thoroughbred racing chasers
Getting the feel as my love blood flows
I would like to go and shoot your mountain masses

Well, now, that would lead to a very different image, and it would suck!  There’d be nothing left to the imagination except an overwhelming desire for the song to finish as quickly as possible.  It doesn’t matter how good the tune is, the lyrics would make it completely unlistenable.  Ridiculous lyrics are the main reason why I could never get into the big-hair metal bands of the 80s; the words were so pitifully bad that I couldn’t possibly excuse them.

The lyrics to Prince’s “Darling Nikki” were no doubt titillating to me when I first heard them as a sixteen-year-old:

I knew a girl named Nikki
I guess you could say she was a sex fiend
I met her in a hotel lobby
Masturbating with a magazine

Hearing it today, it may turn you on, it may turn you off, but there’s no denying what the lyrics are about.  There’s nothing left to the imagination, and really, there’s nothing to be moved by.  It’s just…there.

But then I consider a pop song like “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” by ELO, and I realize that even the worst words in the world can sometimes be rescued by a great melody:

I was searchin’ on a one-way street
I was hopin’ for a chance to meet
I was waitin’ for the operator on the line
She’s gone so long
What can I do?
Where could she be?
Don’t know what I’m gonna do
I gotta get back to you

Pretty soul-grabbling stuff, huh?  And yet, it’s a fun song!  Why can I overlook terrible lyrics in some instances but not in others?   What’s the secret?

And then, why can I overlook great lyrics in some cases but not in others?  Take “Limelight” from Rush, a fantastic tune whose lyrics I never really thought too hard about until I saw the documentary, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage.  Sure, I had known some of the words and I got the Shakespearean reference, but I never knew that the chorus had the word “seem” in it, as in:

Living in the limelight
The universal dream for those who wish to seem

Didn’t know it, never thought about it, didn’t care.  I just knew that Geddy Lee was singing Neil Peart’s lyrics, the music was unbelievable, and the message was something about fame or something.  It didn’t really matter to me.  And even now, the lyrics aren’t so important to me. I just know the song rocks and the lyrics don’t suck, and that’s enough for me in this case.

But then I look at another Rush song, ”Subdivisions,” whose lyrics are so strong and whose message of suburban conformity is so relatable to me, that they elevate the song to new heights:

Growing up, it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass-production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer
Or the misfit so alone

When I consider lyrics that have reached me over the years – songs like like “The Logical Song,” “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” “Read Emotional Girl,” etc., – the words are simple, direct and heartfelt.  Take Elvis Costello, an undeniable wordsmith, but who often packs way too many words into a song, with too many syllables, too many metaphors, and stories that are too abstract to understand just what the hell he’s so pissed off about.  Ah, but then he offers us a respite in a song like “Painted from Memory,” co-written by Burt Bacharach, and you have – in my mind – lyric perfection: simple, meaningful, relatable:

Such a picture of loveliness
Didn’t you notice the resemblance?
Doesn’t it look like she could speak?
Those eyes I tried to capture
They are lost to me now forever
They smile for someone else

And that’s often what it takes: simplicity and directness, not only for the lyric, but for the tune.  Sometimes the simplest forms of human expression are the most pure and most effective.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and listen to my favorite power pop album, On by Off Broadway, and sing along to the deeply moving “Full Moon Turn My Head Around”:

We got a beat, we got a good good beat, we got a good beat.
We got a band, we got a good good band, we got a good band.

The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock

David Weigel’s book The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock traces the arc of a semi-vague movement in rock history, devoting a good deal of space to the usual suspects of Yes, Genesis, Rush, Emerson Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, etc., while highlighting various bands who may have fallen under the radar for some listeners (me, for instance). If nothing else, the book provides a jumping off point to discover new music, but unless you’ve already submerged wholeheartedly into the waters of 20-minute long epics, this book will not wade you in gradually via the shallow end and let you get used to the temperature. You’re getting thrown into the deep end and will likely drown.

Weigel doesn’t hand-hold, so that when he delves into the history of chaps named Daevid Allen and Robert Wyatt – two people I had never heard of – he doesn’t give the reader the benefit of context. In the hands of a better writer, I would have expected a brief “…who would later form Soft Machine…” No such luck. Mercifully, a few pages later he applies this technique for Michael Giles, as “…the future drummer of King Crimson.”

But until the Weigel anchors the reader firmly in the 1970s and the bands that gained traction, the book is a bit of a mess, devoting a page to one band, then a page to another, so that it’s hard to find one’s bearings. The promising prologue is the only thing that kept me turning the page at first, but once we reached 1970, I was all in, finishing the book in just over a day (which, for me, is quite an accomplishment).

Once again, I had my handy streaming service next to me throughout the reading of this book, playing hours of music to see if any music struck a chord. Recognizing that I didn’t give compositions the same chance I would have had I shelled out $7.99 for an LP in 1980, here are some of my hasty conclusions:

1)     I hadn’t considered Procol Harum a prog rock band, and really, I hadn’t considered them at all. But after streaming through half an album, I’ve decided that I need to investigate them more fully (I'm listening to them as I write this blog). Aside from their breakout hit, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” I have no clue, but I like what I’ve heard thus far.

2)     The funnest fact I learned was that the vocal/organ line of Yes’s 20-minute epic “Ritual” was sampled for a song by De La Soul called “The Grind Date.” Now THAT was something Jon Anderson couldn’t have foreseen back in 1973 as critics were panning the double album, Tales from Topographic Oceans (one of Yes’s best).

3)     The prog rock bands that hit the big time were likely the best, so give a hand to the masses for taste. I listened for a while to Soft Machine, Van der Graaf Generator, Gong, etc., and more modern bands like Porcupine Tree and Dream Theater, and none of them grabbed me.

4)     Given the inclusion of Gong, I was surprised that 10cc wasn’t given a brief shout-out, as the quirky nature of the music is similar. Styx too is mentioned only in passing on page 214, a little surprising given the content of their first several albums.

5)     Two additional bands that I’d like to investigate more are Hatfield and the North, and Gentle Giant. My ears perked up for both and I’ll need to add them to the list along with Procol Harum.

6)     A great deal of space is devoted to Robert Fripp, from his King Crimson output to his work with Brian Eno, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel and Daryl Hall, and I found both the man and his music to be insufferable. I’m not a fan of Bowie’s Heroes and Gabriel’s second album, and last night I listened to the Daryl Hall release Sacred Songs – terrible. And then I found a King Crimson concert recorded just last June from the Chicago Theater – a concert I actually considered going to until I learned that neither Bill Bruford nor Adrian Belew would be on stage – and I’m so glad I saved my cash. Aside from the song “Three of a Perfect Pair,” I guess I’m simply not a Fripp fan.

7)     As a vinyl purchaser, I’ve occasionally had a Jethro Tull album in hand before placing it back in the record bin (they tend to be pricey). After listening to Thick as a Brick in its entirety, I think I’m going to pass on this band. Aside from a few songs, they aren't my cup of tea. However, I have to give Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull a bit of a shout-out, as his 1980 description of why prog rock went out of favor is spot on:

Ten years ago, there was a great deal more flexibility and freedom both in radio programming and in terms of the record company policy, as to what they would take a chance on.

I agree, but the rise of the Internet and home recording studios of course changes all of that. As connoisseurs we can listen to anything we want whenever we want, and I imagine that aside from the terrible metrics that Pandora uses to crap out the same old shit time and time again, there has got to be access to interesting, innovative music at everyone’s fingertips. The trick is finding it. If I put in a Yes song in Pandora and press play, I’ll get the usual Genesis, Kansas, Styx and Rush – nothing that exposes me to interesting bands I’ve never heard of, including many of the bands explored in Weigel’s book. But I suspect if I were 20 years-old and cared more, I would find the music I was longing for.

For the time being, I’m going to go backward and explore some of the bands I missed the first time around. And then I’m going to put on Close to the Edge. Because really, it doesn’t get any better than that.

A Lost Song: State of Independence

It’s been a full two months since my last entry, so it’s high time to get back into the swing of things. As such, I’ll start with something light: a lost song that found its way back after two decades of being MIA.

Songs from long ago have a way of creeping back into conscious thought if I sit still and sit silently long enough. Enter the road trip. A perfect opportunity to turn off and tune in, as it were. Last month it was twelve hours to D.C. and twelve hours back, and while podcasts by Marc Maron and Terry Gross are my favorite way to kill time on the highway, I find that after three or four hours I need a respite. No music. No interviews. No dialogue with the family. Just silence. 

During these moments I find that can do a number of things. One, create. I’ve written many songs when I allow myself to just…be. Two, plan and worry. I go through lists of things I need to do, should have done, ought to do. Three, completely zone out. When I do this, the subconscious seeps through the little crevices of conscious thought, and all of the sudden I’m mentally singing a song I haven’t thought of in twenty-two years. 

Chrissie Hynde begins singing a phrase of unintelligible lyrics and then more forcefully sings the line:

“The state of independence shall be.”

I think, what the hell is that? I recall hearing it regularly on The Cities 97 in Minneapolis back in 1993, right around the time I started dating my future wife, and it sounded similar to another song from around that period: “Protection” from Massive Attack, which my subconscious happily resurrected a few years back. 

Enter the Internet search. And this is where things get kind of interesting if you’re a music geek.

The song in the form I remember is by a duo called Moodswings, who in 1992 released their debut album featuring a song sung by Chrissie Hynde called “Spiritual High (State of Independence)”. I’ve since learned that this song is actually included on The Pretenders’ Greatest Hits album (which is kind of lame, if you ask me), but I knew nothing about this.

But the song’s origins go back to 1981, when former lead singer of Yes, Jon Anderson, teamed up with Vangelis (the same year that Vangelis’s Chariots of Fire theme became an unexpected and ubiquitous radio hit) to release their second album, The Friends of Mr. Cairo. I was familiar with the title track, as on a Sunday night in September of 1982 I listened to Jon Anderson’s solo concert on the King Biscuit Flower Hour on WQFM, Milwaukee. Hell, I still have the recording I made of the show on cassette! The show featured several tracks from his very solid album, Animation, a bunch of Yes songs, and the one tune from his collaboration with Vangelis.

I never purchased any Jon and Vangelis record, but on the aforementioned album is a tune called “State of Independence,” a lengthy piece that somehow got to the desk of Quincy Jones, who in 1982 produced a version of the song for Donna Summer’s eponymous album. And lo and behold, it was a modest hit in Europe. How the hell did Quincy Jones come upon a song by a couple of prog-rockers? No clue.

An open and empty mind can do amazing things, and I suspect a good portion of my latter years will be me sitting in a comfy chair and my mind playing a crazy shuffle of songs I lost track of long ago.

Or maybe I’ll just worry.  Could go either way.

Yes by Any Other Name

It’s gotta beat Steve Howe and four other guys calling themselves Yes.

On Saturday night in Chicago, former Yes-men Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman – along with bassist Lee Pomeroy and drummer Lou Molino – performed two hours of Yes music at the a three-quarters full Chicago Theater, and judging from the audience response, this was the version of Yes they preferred. Wakeman in particular has long-claimed that any Yes without frontman Anderson is no Yes at all, though there are probably some who say the same of guitarist Steve Howe, who continued to tour last summer under the Yes moniker even after Alan White suffered a back injury. Perhaps one day Howe and Anderson will perform on the same stage together, though it’ll have to be soon: Anderson is now 72, and Howe 69.

Balancing the setlist nicely between long-time Yes favorites and songs from the Rabin-era, the transition from prog-rock to pop and back again at times felt jolting, but it also kept the concert from falling under its own weight of self-importance. The group performed four songs from Yes’s resurgent album 90125, one from 1987’s Big Generator (“The Rhythm of Love”) and one from Union (“Lift Me Up”), which allowed Rabin to shine in more familiar territory. Oddly absent were any songs from 1994’s Talk, an album many Yes fans believe is underrated. (I am not one of them.)

Beyond that, the setlist consisted of many of the usual favorites, along with two songs I’d never seen performed live before – a shortened “Perpetual Change” and “Heart of the Sunrise" – and the concert pinnacled with an extended performance of the already monumental “Awaken” from Going for the One, clocking in at close to 20 minutes.

The band performed well together, with drummer Molino approaching the songs with the same rock-oriented technique of Alan White, and Pomeroy doing a terrific job imitating the deceased Squire, including a terrific bass solo during “The Fish.”  But the standouts for me were the voices of not only Anderson – whose vocal chords should one day be donated to science – but of Rabin, who sounded as strong and clear as he did when I last saw him perform 32 years ago.  The newly-added song “Changes” off of 1983’s 90125 allowed him to showcase his chops, and I was surprised to hear him deftly hit the high notes during the bridge. Anderson had to at times choose an alternate melody to the original (the first bridge of “And You And I”), though he seemed to be able to summon his high tenor voice when it counted most.

Wakeman sported a Cubs t-shirt underneath his signature cape – a wardrobe that might have warranted groans were it not for his well-known comedic nature – and surrounded himself with a keyboard setup that wouldn’t have looked out of place in 1972. I counted eight keyboards, including two Minimoogs, which is really kind of silly in this day and age, but there’s no denying his ability and influence. Still, to my ears, he’s a keyboardist who overplays, muddying mixes that would otherwise sound crisp and clean (and I can't stand the synthy-piano sound he prefers to the real thing), which is why it’s probably best that he wasn’t a part of the 80s Yes lineup. There were times in the show when I wanted him to stop playing so I could hear a signature Rabin or Squire lick, though I did notice that the mix from where I was sitting in the balcony was less clear than just one section to my right, so some of the what I heard might have been attributed to poor acoustics more than Rick’s playing.

Rabin primarily handled the licks of Steve Howe well, though there were times when I missed Howe’s subtleties, such as the intro and breakdown of “And You and I,” and the jazz-influenced solo of “Perpetual Change.” Rabin is a different type of guitarist, and Anderson told him from the get-go to approach the songs in his own way.  Mission accomplished, and largely successful.

I suspect this will be the last time I see any of Yes’s members perform, be it under the name Yes, ARW, GTR, Bruford-Moraz or otherwise. I saw some semblance of Yes perform in 1984, 1985 (Bruford-Moraz), 1986 (GTR), 2001, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2011 and now 2016, not officially as Yes, but in my book Yes by any other name is still Yes.  It’s been a hell of ride for these prog-rockers. Perhaps someday soon it can culminate with an induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Squire's Death and Concert Memories

I was shocked upon hearing the news earlier this week of Yes bassist Chris Squire’s death at age 67.  I didn’t worship or even revere Squire – the last time I saw him perform, my main impression of him was that he could lose about fifty pounds and definitely lose the leather pants – but he was one of those guys back in the early 80s that inspired me and my love for music.  And as I read the details of his passing, it occurred to me that this is only the beginning.  If you’re a music fan of the old bands from the 60s and 70s, the next couple of decades are going to be rough.

I went through a mental list of all the performances I’ve seen since I saw Billy Squire at Summerfest in 1981 with my buddy John, followed by Crosby, Stills and Nash and Rush the following year.  The truth is that except for a few supporting members like Clarence Clemens and Danny Federici of the E Street Band, Howie Epstein of the Heartbreakers and two of the Wilson brothers of Beach Boys fame, the guys I’ve watched perform are still around and still performing, which is something I never fathomed.  When I saw Yes for the first time in 1984 I recall thinking that a whole fifteen years had passed since the band originated and that I was lucky to be seeing them before they call it a day.  Well, now more than double that period of time has passed, and lo and behold, Yes will be performing this August in Chicago.  Crazy.  I mean, who would have thought back in 1982 that in 2015 you could see The Who, Rush, Yes, Paul McCartney, Elton John, and CSN? Insane.

But here we are in 2015, and Squire’s passing has prompted me to try to recall all the concerts I’ve seen over the years.  Unlike some of my prolific concert-seeing buddies, I’ve never been a huge live music guy.  I see a few big concerts a year, maybe a small one every couple of years, and that’s about it.  And with me, I tend to see the same bands over and over (Rush, Rufus Wainwright, Bed Folds).  I’m happy to say that most of these guys are still around (I just remembered seeing Big Country in 1993, and sadly, Stuart Adamson is no longer with us).  It’ll be very sad to see more of these guys go, as more and more of my record collection turns into a sort of memorial to artists of yesterday.

Here’s my list.  Not included are the 12 or 13 times I saw Pat McCurdy, and many of the bands listed were opening acts or part of a larger event (Steve Miller in 1994, for example).

’80 – Off Broadway (from the back!  I didn’t realize kids got discounted tickets for lower grand stand seats).

’81 – Billy Squire

’82 – CSN, Rush

’83 – Beach Boys, Supertramp, Genesis

’84 – Yes, Bruce Springsteen, Spyro Gyra, Rod Stewart, Elton John

’85 – Jean Luc Ponty, The Tubes and Utopia, Til Tuesday and Tom Petty, Patrick Moraz and Bill Bruford, Supertramp

’86 – Leo Kottke, Marillion and Rush, GTR, Julian Lennon, The Moody Blues

’87 – Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Tom Petty

’88 – Sting, Bruce Hornsby

’89 – Elvis Costello, BoDeans, Violent Femmes and Cowboy Junkies and Edie Brickell, Joe Jackson

’90 – Innocence Mission, Billy Joel, Jimmy Buffet, Rush

’91 – Blake Babies (I think this year?), Elvis Costello, Al Stewart, The Guffs, Innocence Mission, Rush

’92 – Genesis, John Mellencamp, Indigo Girls, Randy Newman, Wallflowers and 10,000 Maniacs

’93 – Michelle Shocked, Da Da and Sting, Big Country, The Connells

’94 – Rush, Melissa Etheridge and Steve Miller and Natalie Merchant, The Pretenders

’95 – Van Morrison, They Might Be Giants, Elvis Costello

’96 – Wynton Marsalis, James Taylor

’97 – Bar Scott (I think this year?).  Generally lost in parenthood, Broadway plays and living in Allentown

‘98 – Lost in parenthood, Broadway plays and living in Allentown

‘99 – Bruce Springsteen, but generally lost in parenthood, Broadway plays and living in Allentown

’00 – Joe Jackson, but generally lost in parenthood, Broadway plays and living in Allentown

’01 – Eve 6, Joe Jackson, Paul Simon, Yes, Ben Folds

’02 – Harry Connick, Jr., Rush, Paul McCartney, Yes, Ben Folds

’03 – Joe Jackson, Leo Kottke, Tom Petty, The BoDeans, Steve Earle, Jackson Browne, Randy Newman

’04 – Yes, Rufus Wainwright and Ben Folds, Patti Austin, Harry Connick, Jr., Barenaked Ladies, Marc Cohn

’05 – Paul McCartney, James Taylor, Indigo Girls

’06 – um…what the heck was I doing?

’07 – Rufus Wainwright, Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers

’08 – Randy Newman, Yes

’09 – Steely Dan

’10 – Company of Thieves, Craig Ferguson, Rufus Wainwright

’11 – Yes, Weird Al Yankovic, Rufus Wainwright, Paul Simon, Sting

’12 – The Hush Sound, James Taylor, Rufus Wainwright, Bruce Springsteen, Rush, Joe Jackson, Ben Folds Five

’13 – Sara Bareilles, Rush, Barenaked Ladies, Ben Folds Five, Paul McCartney, A Silent Film

’14 – Roger Hodgson, Devo and Arcade Fire, Jackson Browne, James Taylor

’15 – The Who, Rufus Wainwright, Graham Parker, Rush

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