Saturday, February 02, 2008

Jon Anderson

Cosmic elf. Iron-fisted hippie. Mother Earthship's lost child. Napoleon. A descendant of angels . . . call him what you will. But Jon Anderson, best known to the musical world as the lead vocalist of Yes, is without a doubt one of the most creative, visionary forces in music over the last 40 years. His distinctive contra-tenor voice is without peer. No one else sings like him because no one can. No one writes lyrics like him because no one can. And no one could have combined his personal vision, the self-styled mysticism that has inspired such incredible pieces of music such as "Close to the Edge," "The Gates of Delirium," the two-album suite, Tales From Topographic Oceans, "Awaken," "In the Presence Of," and "South Side of the Sky," to name just a handful of stunning, mind-blowing compositions that bear his imprint.

The first time I heard Jon Anderson sing was 1972, when his voice shone like the sun through the transistor radio I kept by my bed. That radio was pretty impressive for its day. I had AM/FM and, even better, FM Stereo. Not all small radios could broadcast in stereo -- some were still in mono. "Long Distance Runaround" came through the speakers one night, the opening guitar/piano riff stopping whatever else I was doing, the jazz-inflected drumming making me tap my foot and then . . . and then . . . and then the voice calling out:

Long distance runaround/Long time waiting to feel the sound
I still remember the dream there/I still remember the time you said good-bye
Did we really tell lies?/Waiting in the sunshine
Did we really count to one hundred. . . .

And so it was, my introduction to Yes, the band that changed my musical life, and Jon Anderson, the voice that, more than any other in rock music, I wish I had as my own. I didn't really know what those lyrics meant, and later, reading interviews with Anderson, he would confess that a lot of his lyrics weren't supposed to tell stories or recreate love lost or regained, or never gained in the first place. He wrote lyrics to create atmospheres or match some vision that came to him during his sleep, or sitting on a cliff somewhere, staring off into space, assisted by some combination of drugs and personal imagination. Sometimes he wrote lyrics because he liked the way they sounded when he sang them. He might first put down a chord sequence and then start singing over it. Whatever the words were they were. And if they didn't make sense to other people they always made sense to him. Musicians, especially imaginative lyricists, live in their own world, a world that mortals like me can never hope to enter. We are lucky to have visionaries like Jon Anderson to tell the stories and dream the dreams the rest of us are afraid to share with the outside world.

I've probably seen Yes close to 20 or 25 times since 1972, far outdistancing the number of concerts I've attended by any other rock band. Putting together an essay about Yes will require more time and separate space. But one thing I never realized until about 6 or 7 years ago, even after all the times -- and in almost every incarnation -- I'd been to Yes shows and dissected their music with the exactitude of a Nobel Prize winning physicist on the verge of a major innovation, was just how powerful a musical force Jon Anderson is. Early on, like most guys, I think, I was dazzled by the musicianship of guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Christ Squire, drummers Bill Bruford and later Alan White and, of course, keyboardist Rick Wakeman (although Patrick Moraz, during his abbreviated stint with Yes, was also great), and just sort of assumed that Anderson wrote the lyrics and sang. He rarely played an instrument on stage during the early days, only occasionally donning a guitar to strum along in the background or banging around on some drums and other toys on his percussion tree. Then, in August 2001 when I saw Yes perform with a symphony orchestra, it hit me: Jon has always been the vision behind Yes, the guy that pushed the boundaries, who, because of his lack of formal training, broke rules he didn't know existed, and always for the better. His founding partner in Yes, Chris Squire, has always been the earth to Jon's stars, and, hands down, the greatest bass player ever after Paul McCartney. Squire is also a musician of mind-boggling talent. But Jon's hippie-dippie vision of what music should be, and the images it should paint through words and sound . . . these are not the folksy, grounded songs that build legions of fans who can "relate" to what the singer-songwriter has written. Jon Anderson's appeal is precisely the opposite -- that, for people like me, he is off in a place that I couldn't get to if you gave me a road map and GPS. The older I get, the more I want to connect musically with the unknown, the songs, sounds and ideas that I could never come up with on my own but wish I could. I read recently that we are all prisoners of our own talent; that at some point we have to recognize we've only got what we've got, and to do the best with it. That's true. But it's nice to have elves in our midst who remind us that anything is possible if we'd only let ourselves imagine that it is.

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