Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Steve Hackett

Blues-drenched rock guitarists who dominate the rock music pantheon have never done it for me. Strangely enough, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, around the time that guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page emerged -- justifiably -- as the Guitar Gods of rock, I found myself drawn to players that could not have been more different. Until I was about 11 years old, I never listened to music "seriously." I listened to music all the time, but I didn't think much about what it was I was listening to. Either I liked the song on the radio or I didn't. And after the Beatles, I didn't really think much about what other bands had to offer musically. For me, the turning point came when I heard three songs in succession on the radio one night that changed how I listened to rock music: "Living in the Past," by Jethro Tull; "Do It Again," by Steely Dan; and "Long Distance Runaround," by Yes. The unusual melodies and rhythmic feel of the first two songs grabbed my ears, and the vocals of Ian Anderson and Donald Fagen were far different than the conventional rock singers of the era. Their voices weren't great, by a singer's standards. But they were perfect for the music, and added a voice that complimented the instruments perfectly. Jon Anderson of Yes was entirely different. His angelic, contra-tenor voice was unlike anything in rock music, and perfectly suited the jazzy, sophisticated feel of the song. Everything about that song registered with me -- the vocal harmonies, the melodic bass playing of Chris Squire, the jazz-influenced drums and precise cymbal playing of Bill Bruford and the clean, scale-based guitar runs of Steve Howe. That "clean" guitar sound appealed to me much more than Hendrix, Clapton, et. al. (Duane Allman is only one of that bunch that still resonates with me, simply because you can really hear and feel the blues in his playing). I read an article about Steve Howe in a music magazine soon after I heard the tune, and discovered that his influences were not the blues-based guitarists, but jazz guitarists like Joe Pass, Jim Hall, Tal Farlow and, of course, the incomparable Wes Montgomery. To this day, Steve Howe is one of two rock guitarists I'd pay top dollar to watch from a living room distance.

The other guitarist is much less well known, yet arguably one of the most original and creative guitarists of the post-Hendrix era in rock music. I had never heard of Steve Hackett until a the stoner-guy who owned the used record shop around the corner from my house played "Genesis Live" for me and some friends one afternoon while we were hanging out in his store. The first song I heard was, "Watcher of the Skies," which remains one of my all-time favorite Genesis pieces of music. The dramatic mellotron opening by Tony Banks, the "tap-tap-tap" in what sounded like Morse Code on the hi-hat by Phil Collins, the counterpoint bass of Mike Rutherford and the altered-state vocals of Peter Gabriel were quite an introduction to this band. But what really shook me -- literally -- was the first searing guitar line by Hackett that ended the first chorus. I'd never heard a guitarist play like that in any genre. Whoops, swoops, near-orchestral approaches to structuring a guitar line . . . rock guitarists didn't play like this. And while I had decided after hearing that entire record that I wanted to learn to play like Phil Collins (don't laugh -- between 1972 and 1982 he may well have been the best drummer on the planet. Plus, he's left-handed), I also concluded that Steve Hackett was about the coolest guitar player around, save only for Steve Howe.

From 1971 to 1977, Steve Hackett was the lead guitarist for Genesis, leaving after the "Seconds Out" live album to begin what has been a very interesting and musically diverse solo career. A couple of weeks ago, one of my still-best friends from my teen years and I traded our "Top 10" Genesis songs. Not a single song after "Duke" made the list for me. Only one song from 1982 forward made my friend's list. We distributed fairly evenly between the "Gabriel" and "Collins" eras (a false distinction, but it serves a purpose here). Only three tunes, though, did not have Steve Hackett playing on them. My friend and I agreed that Hackett's departure was much more musically significant for the band than Gabriel's. Peter Gabriel is a great, great talent, and was a great vocalist and interpreter of Genesis's early music. But he was fortunate to have Tony Banks, the most underrated great keyboard player in popular music, as the compositional backbone of the band. Rutherford and Collins were completely original players, especially the latter. And Hackett's completely unorthodox approach to the guitar was the perfect foil to Banks's cinematic approach to composition and keyboard playing. At one moment, Hackett could play perfectly formed classically-based pieces as part of a song, then in a later section introduce a guitar part that bore through like a laser. Listen to his guitar solos on, "Supper's Ready," "The Knife," "Watcher of the Skies," "Firth of Fifth" (his most famous), "One for the Vine," and "Los Endos," for starters. Then listen to the gorgeous composition, "Blood on the Rooftops," "Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers," and "Entangled." Save the best for last, "In That Quiet Earth." Some of the most beautiful moments in modern rock music come from Hackett and Mike Rutherford's 12 string duets in such songs as "The Cinema Show" and "Ripples."

Steve Hackett is a musician who traded fame for artistic integrity. He left Genesis just as the band had made a major breakthrough to the American market because he wanted to play his own compositions and believed the Banks/Rutherford axis in Genesis allowed him no room for his own material. The move benefited Hackett much more than Genesis, which went on to staggering commercial success by departing from the aural seascapes upon which it based its early identity. I've seen Steve Hackett play live twice, once on the "Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" tour (when he sat crouched over in a chair) and the "Wind and Wuthering" tour (when, in a complete makeover, he stood tall in knee high boots, black scarf and all-white shirt and pants, looking too cool to be real) and listened to his recordings over the years. Yes, he can summon up the flurry of notes that possess erotic-qualities for many guitar enthusiasts. What still impresses more than anything else about his playing, though, is his use of the guitar as an expressive voice in ways that defy rock convention. Listen to Steve Hackett and you'll get a clinic on the admonition that less is often much, much more.

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