Tag Archives: Steve Howe

65th Favorite: Close to the Edge, by Yes

Share

Close To The Edge. Yes.
1972, Atlantic Records. Producer: Yes and Eddie Offord.
Purchased ca. 1984.

close edge

hamster nutIN A NUTSHELL: A progressive-rock masterpiece full of music and performances that demand repeated listening to take it all in. There are only three songs on the album, but they are epic, twisting tales reminiscent of mythical sagas. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but if you’re of a mind to experience something different, and allow yourself to be carried away by it, you and your fellow travelers be rewarded handsomely at the end of your Quest.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
{Blogger’s Note: This is an epically long post. Somehow, it only seems right.}

footballThe house that I grew up in has a good-sized backyard, large enough for running deep post patterns for my dad’s tight spirals. It was a good size for family cookout croquet matches, although the lawn’s gentle slope demanded an accounting by players in the strength and speed of their strikes, or else a seemingly flawless ball rolling toward a wicket could lose steam and curl away in the final foot of approach.

wiffleIt was also perfectly-sized for wiffle-ball games, and featured a (somewhat-but-not-perfectly-maintained) forsythia hedge that bounded the back of the property providing a natural, albeit difficult to reach, home run fence for the backyard ballfield.

forsythia
Beyond this hedge was an undeveloped lot owned by our lovely neighbors, the Rank family. It was perhaps an acre, groundhog about the size of a large, but not huge, lot for my rural area. The field, which my family always referred to as “The Field,” was an empty pasture of scrubby grass, and The Ranks allowed us to use it for stuff like family volleyball games, pitching a tent for mid-summer “camping,” and the hours of fungo sessions my dad held with me. It also featured a pile of wooden, creosoted telephone poles stacked to one side. Mr. Rank worked for the local electric company, and I don’t know if the forty-foot long poles were pilfered from his workplace (That’s a joke – Mr. Rank was an honest man.) or if he stored them as a favor to the company, but I do know they provided a great cover for the many grundsows who lived among them.

Beyond the The Field, about 60 yards from our hedge, was a decent-sized woods. woodsLarge enough to spend the afternoon exploring, but definitely too small to be a forest, this long rectangle of old trees ran parallel to our homerun hedge, extending about an eighth of a mile, all the way from Kercher Ave. on the west to Kochenderfer’s Church on the east. It wasn’t very deep, but it provided plenty of cover for traveling deer and all the kinds of wildlife associated with a Pennsylvania woods. My family always referred to these woods as “The Woods.”

modhairI was 20, in my sophomore year at college, and I peered over the hedge across The Field, scanning The Woods. The bear was much larger than I thought a bear would be, and it agilely galloped back and forth in front of The Woods from which it had emerged. It was shaggy, too, its black and brown fur seemingly longer than bear fur should be, like a Mod-Hair Ken version of a bear. It also seemed shabby and sloppy, its fur matted in some places, and with swaths missing in others. It was a bear, but there was something strange about how it looked and acted. And it shouldn’t have been in The Woods. Not these woods. A deep feeling of dread welled up within me as I watched this animal in The Field. But I knew that Butch was a Pennsylvania Game Warden, and that he would know what to do. I alerted him and strung my recurve bow while I waited.

All of the men around me in my childhood were hunters. It was the tradition where I grew up, archerysuch that to meet a man who didn’t hunt, at least in some capacity, was a curiosity akin to meeting a visitor from a foreign country. At 20 I was still struggling with my hidden distaste for hunting, but I did enjoy archery. It was something of a pastime in my family. My dad and mom had gone shooting at archery courses while they were dating, and my sisters and I had our own little bows as kids. The Field, with its distance apart from houses and unpeopled woods beyond it, had always been a safe site for a couple of hay bales and a target – often handmade by my sisters and me from the cardboard circles inside frozen pizza packages – for archery practice. So I was comfortable shooting my bow in this field, although I’d never shot an animal with one before.

I nocked an arrow – a target arrow, with a dull metal point and feathers that had been mounted and cut by my dad on his own basement fletching apparatus – buzzardand as I drew back the string, a lazily flying large bird, with a large beak and small wings, caught my eye. It glided high in the air, set against the late afternoon sun like an image from a child’s drawing. An instinct deep within me, vestigial from the genes of scores of generations of hunters before me, took control of my body and sent that arrow flying, scoring a direct hit. The bird fell to earth, pinned to the ground in the middle of The Field, a lepidopterist’s specimen magnified.

I closed my eyes in frustration and fear. gamewardenHadn’t I just called Butch, the Game Warden? Didn’t I know that hunting without a license was a crime? Couldn’t I foresee that Butch would have to arrest me? I had put Butch in a difficult position. As my aunt’s son-in-law, he’d feel compelled to let me off easy, but he also knew that he had a job to do. The feeling of shame was immense, paralyzing: for myself, my actions, my callous indifference. And now that shame colored this entire sequence of events. I returned from the house with my dad’s hunting license pinned to my shirt just in time to see the bear make its charge toward the pinned bird. Or was its target my hedge, my yard, me? I threw my bow to the ground and sprinted into The Field to find out.

antMy heart boomed in my ears and I couldn’t even feel my legs moving as a manic energy carried me toward what felt like certain death. It was exhilarating and frightening, and stood all my hairs on end. The charging bear’s sloppy, shaggy fur horrified me, but the horror dissipated when a tranquilizer dart dropped the beast in a heap. Butch had arrived in penguintime to fire a payload of M99 into its neck. He and I looked at the bear. Before either of us could speak, it began to wriggle and shake. It curled and uncurled, twisted like a wet towel being wrung, and it growled as it grew into an ant the size of a mid-sized sedan – an ant that retained the shaggy, shabby coat of fur. Butch, the game warden, looked at me and said, “That’s the biggest penguin I’ve ever seen.”

I awoke. I laughed to myself.

I’ve always been a vivid dreamer. daliI generally remember my dreams, at least for a little while, and many – such as this one – have remained with me for years. As a child I learned to appreciate the sagas and images my unconscious brain chose to share with me. Whether the dreams were incredibly wonderful, incredibly scary, or just plain weird, I’d awake and in an instant think to myself, “That was really cool.”

What fascinates me about dreams is probably what fascinates everyone about them. The feelings are so real – the dread of seeing a threatening animal, the shame of breaking the law and troubling a relative, the excitement of rushing toward potential death – while the actions are so absurd, and the information so inaccurate. It’s true my family liked archery, and The Field and The Woods lay beyond my wiffle ball field, but Butch wasn’t a Game Warden. I couldn’t shoot a bird out of the sky. Birds and bears and ants and penguins don’t exist in any way close to how my brain depicted them for me. Dreams seem real and unreal at the same time, and that may be the best way I can describe why I find myself liking Yes’s Close to the Edge so much: it seems real and unreal at the same time.

I got into Yes in high school. The band is 80swell-known for its long history of changing members and musical styles. I became a big fan during their 80s version, a reinvention from their history as a progressive rock, AOR staple to a flashy, top-40 competitor to Madonna/Michael Jackson/Huey Lewis. It was a bad era for music on the radio. Sure, some of the songs are fun to look back on, or fun to hear at an oldies dance, but a look at the top 100 songs of, say, 1984, reveals that, for the most part, even the songs by the respectable artists would – in the parlance of the time – “gag me with a spoon.”

My reaction to the music around me was to start exploring the music of the past two decades, and so, being a fan of the “new” Yes, I decided to check out the “old” Yes. I immediately was sucked in to their musical world of intricate and wide-ranging guitars, complex rhythms, strange lyrics, and harmony vocals. In a simile I’m sure I’m not the first to make, their songs are the aural equivalent of fantasy novels like The Lord Of The Rings or the Narnia books. Their musical worlds draw on the recognizable to create the beautifully bizarre. My attraction to the music was intensified because I was the type of nerdy teenager drawn to remarkable displays of talent – jugglers, magicians, pro athletes – and the virtuosity displayed by the Yes band members was striking and daunting. These guys could play parts on their instruments more complex, and faster, than almost anything I’d heard, AND they’d sing harmonies while doing it!

Yes enhanced the otherworldly feelings conjured by their music by having artist Roger Dean conjure Other Worlds and draw them as album art. This inside gatefold from the vinyl version of Close To The Edge shows a world that's, well, close to the edge.

They were also decidedly NOT of the “Less-Is-More” mindset when it came to songwriting. Why not change key in the middle of a verse? Why not have an organ solo last three minutes, AND have a guitar solo last four minutes … in the same song!! Why not pause an upbeat song and play five minutes of slow, moody passages before returning to the upbeat part again? Yes has always pursued a path that interested themselves yes concert2musically, and what’s resulted are several full-length albums (even double-albums) containing a few 20-minute songs!

Close To The Edge has exactly three songs. Now, you may remember buying several cassingles back in the 80s and early 90s, and so think “What’s the big deal? Lots of cassingles had a third “bonus track” song on them!” But the difference is that Close To The Edge is a full-length LP. The title track is nearly 19 minutes long, and took up the entirety of Side One on the vinyl and cassette versions of the album. Why don’t you run to the bathroom and maybe grab a snack before we dive into this behemoth! And don’t worry: it’s true that dreams can be unusual, hard to understand, even scary, but I will be your guide through this dreamscape of songs, so you have nothing to fear. We will get close to the edge, but I’ll make sure you don’t fall over.

Right off the bat, I’ll tell you this: I’m not sure I’m as huge of a YES fan, as I am a huge STEVE HOWE fan, the band’s extraordinary guitarist. He plays innumerable styles: finger-picking, classical, super-speedy fret-burning, subtle soundscapes … there’s nothing he can’t do. The first part of the song “Close to the Edge” steve howeis titled “The Solid Time of Change.” Indeed, Yes songs are so long, and have such varied parts, that the band actually titles the different sections of the songs to keep things straight!!! “The Solid Time of Change” begins with an aggressive solo by Howe. Actually, the solo starts at about 56 seconds because the band – in typical, over-the-top fashion – begins the song with about a minute of woodland sounds of birds, insects, a stream … The peacefulness is broken by the beautiful cacophony of Howe’s guitar. The solo begins with an introductory cadenza, then reaches full furor at 1:21, as the bass, drums and organs pound away behind him. And it wouldn’t be a Yes song without singer Jon Anderson piping up in the middle of an instrumental section with a vocalization – here it’s an “AAh!!” at 2 minutes. After this, bassist Chris Squire amazingly doubles Howe’s guitar solo part, an ascending digital workout. Another “Aah!!” and more craziness from Howe and the whole band, as the energy increases, straining the limits of rock music (and, frankly, good sense – it’s sections like these that are dreamlike to me) until we reach the 2:57 mark, at which point Howe plays a melody that will serve as a touchstone for the entire 19-minute track.

stopwatchYou see, here we are, three minutes into a song – a length of time greater than some of the best rock songs ever recorded – and Yes haven’t even reached the main melody of the first section of the first song!!! Being a Yes fan takes patience and concentration, but you are rewarded for your efforts. Patience because the songs are so long, and concentration because sometimes – if you’re not paying close attention – it’s difficult to hear how all the parts fit together. Usually the bass, drums and keyboards are each playing ridiculously intricate parts at the same time. But at 3:00 of “The Solid Time of Change,” a very nice section of pop-rock jon andersonnormalcy is exhibited. It’s a bit baroque sounding, with individual instruments playing frilly, light parts. After another minute, just after 3:54, the vocals begin – harmonies by Anderson and Howe, with Squire joining on the chorus. Anderson is one of those helium-voiced 70s singers that pose a large problem for many rock fans. But really, if you’ve listened this far – 4 minutes of woodland sounds, weird guitar, a jumbled knot of instrumental chaos, and faux-baroque powdered-wigcraft – don’t let a high pitched man drive you away.

One of the reasons I find Close To The Edge so dreamlike is that for a good two years of my life, I would come home from college classes and play it in my headphones and fall asleep – well, sort of asleep. I’d travel along that strange sleep/wake border, and Close To The Edge was my traveling music. So Howe’s guitar parts are ingrained in my head, and the solo he plays at 4:54 is one of my favorites. It’s actually two different solos that he plays over top of each other, and when Anderson picks up singing the next verse, he continues to fill in with nifty figures and runs.

We’re now at the 6:00 point, still not as long as “Hey Jude” or “Hotel California,” but then again, bill brufordthis song isn’t yet a third of the way complete!! The song has now entered Section Two, titled “Total Mass Retain.” This is actually a pretty cool, nearly funky section, with syncopated bass and drums. It’s only a bit over two minutes long, but it may be my favorite part of the song. If you listen to only one section of this song, it should be this section. You’ll hear how each instrument plays a different part, how drummer Bill Bruford somehow manages to keep it together, and how they sing harmony while they play this stuff!! It probably sounds ridiculous for me to say, but there’s a fifteen second section – from 7:10 to 7:25 – that gives me CHILLS when I hear it, every time! Maybe it’s from the years of subliminally listening while sleeping. I don’t know. But it has an effect on me, dear reader.

There’s some more powdered-wigcraft from 8:00 to 8:30, rick wakemanand then … Okay, I get it. You’ve been listening to the same rock (ostensibly) song for 8 and a half minutes – about as long as CCR’s “Suzie Q” – but we’re not even at the halfway point. You might need a break. Now would be the time to take it, as we enter Section 3, “I Get Up, I Get Down.” It’s a subdued, magical hippy-trippy section, with water drip sounds and a medieval forest vibe. It has some nice harmonies, but I feel like they could’ve skipped this section and gone right to keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s second (yes, SECOND!!) pipe-organ solo. I’m hoping by now it doesn’t surprise you that Yes would decide on TWO pipe-organ solos in this song, actually played on an organ at a famous church, the Monty Python-esquely named St. Giles-without-Cripplegate church (I shit you not.) This second solo starts at about 13:10.

We now enter the fourth and final section of this beast of a song, this veritable giant, dangerous, shaggy ant/bear-but-really-a-penguin of a song that I’ve listened to a million times and will listen to a million more: the rather heroically, if strangely gendered name of “Seasons of Man.” chrissquireIf you haven’t been listening to the song in its entirety, and you really want the full Bombastic Yes Effect, tune in to 13:10 and listen to the majestic build of the pipe-organ, the tension Wakeman creates up to about 13:55, where a synthesizer takes over and builds things up some more til it all flies apart in a fury at 14:12. (There are three notes at 14:12 – I think on guitar – that always remind me of the bells rung by the Philadelphia trolly cars at intersections in the mid-80s.) Howe reprises the melody he first posited way back in Section Two, this time in a minor key, and at the 15:00 mark, Wakeman returns with a blistering synth solo. We’re approaching the end of the song, and I still haven’t mentioned as much as I should have about bassist Chris Squire. Brother/Sister, if you’re a fan of bass guitar at all, you need to go back to the beginning and just listen to the crazy stuff he plays throughout the whole song, all Four Sections (while participating in three-part harmony, I should add!) What he does is truly stunning.

The song returns to another verse/chorus from Anderson, with harmony vocals and dazzling instrumentation, and concludes with a return to the gentle woodland sounds. Good heavens, I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted!! You’ve just made it through a song even longer than the famed “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” and Yes didn’t even pad thingssleep with a three-minute drum solo, like Iron Butterfly did! You may have noticed that I didn’t discuss the song’s lyrics at all. Really, at this point, what is there to say? Jon Anderson writes very strange, yet cool-sounding lyrics, stringing words together like an 8 year old at summer camp with a lanyard and a new bucket of beads. I just listen and think, “Whatever, dude, sounds great …”, but if you’d like more insight into them, here’s an article in which he discusses them in-depth. He says stuff like “[The line] ‘A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace’ – that means your higher self will eventually bring you out of your dark world.” I’ll take his word for it. I like singing along, I like the mood the lyrics create, but I haven’t done enough drugs to allow me to attempt to decipher meanings!

Okay, look, we’ve still got two songs left, and they’re both epic, grand pieces of progressive rock. It’s been a long haul already. I don’t know about you, but I’m moving on. Please join me – we’ll do this together. Let us consider TRACK TWO (which indeed marks the beginning of SIDE TWO of the vinyl/cassette) … “And You And I.”

Believe it or not, this puny 10-minute song single ayaiwas actually released as a single! It was released as “Parts 1 and 2,” with the first quarter on Side A and the second quarter on Side B. It begins with Steve Howe tuning his 12-string acoustic guitar, and at about 1:12 flows nicely into a 70s singer-songwriter type of song with a lilting melody, and (of course) strange lyrics. This first section is called “Cord of Life,” and lasts until about 3:47, when part two, “Eclispse,” begins. Similar in feel to the “I Get Up, I Get Down” section in “Close to the Edge,” this passage is another psychedelic, ethereal journey howe andersonto the center of a British hippy’s mind. I particularly like Bill Bruford’s bass-drumming (of all things) in this slow passage.

Section Three begins (about 5:48) with a return to Howe’s acoustic guitar. It leads to the jaunty section, “The Preacher, The Teacher,” which I love for two reasons: 1) Steve Howe’s guitar, of course; and 2) Anderson’s kooky lyrics, such as “There’ll be no mutant enemy, we shall certify/Political ends our sad remains will die/Reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you.” The famous Dr. Dave and I have spent hours giggling over lyrics like these. If you’re gonna be a big Yes fan, you can either defend Anderson’s poetry to all critics, or – like Dr. Dave and me – admit they’re pretty silly, but belt them out nonetheless. Or, like Hollywood impresario Joss Whedon, name your production company after them. Section Four, “Apocalypse,” consists of the final 50 seconds of the piece.

We are almost there, nearly experienced this entire, fantastic sphere of Yessian reality, but I know you must be tired. You may need a break. So here’s a cool clip of the early 70s Monday Night Football theme song for you to watch.

anderson 2The final song on this sojourn to the very edge of … rock music? Rock instrument virtuosity? Human listening endurance? SANITY!!?? Well, whatever the edge is, we are close to it, and as if things haven’t gotten crazy enough in the 30 minutes of music we’ve been enjoying, the band, and Anderson in particular, has now had to make up a new word to properly express what it is that is inside them. Thus, the song “Siberian Khatru.” Jon Anderson says Khatru is a Yemeni word meaning “as you wish.” (How Siberia fits in remains unclear.) Yes fans have other ideas about the word. Heaven knows, the lyrics themselves offer little, if any, insight. But we are in a dreamland, folks, and it doesn’t have to make sense to pick you up, give you a shake and kick you in the ass. And that’s what this polyrhythmic song does just fine.

Again with the Steve Howe Guitar. And again with the Chris Squire Bass. And the Bill Bruford Drumming, and the Rick Wakeman Organ. At about 25 seconds in, Howe begins playing a little riff that he’ll return to throughout the song, and at 52 seconds he hits the main riff of the song, with Wakeman doubling on organ, while Bruford and Squire play around them. It all sort of doesn’t fit, but fits perfectly – like a shaggy bear tranquilized by my cousin’s husband.concert2

Anderson starts in with the melody (he may write goofy lyrics, but he sure writes great melodies) and the guys sing their harmonies. It’s a groovy song, with a strong, strong early 70s feel, and at billboard3:03 Howe blesses us with a brief sitar-esque solo, which ends in some major powdered-wigcraft: harpsichord (!) and bass interplay between Wakeman and Squire. Howe rejoins at 3:30 for an airy, breezy answer that breaks into a traditionally-picked solo at 3:48. It all leads to Anderson, at 4:14, gently inviting us to hold down a window to reveal an unspoken Khatru. (No, really. Look, you’d better be listening to this song, because it sounds WAY better than I can describe it!!) At 4:50 they’re rockin’ again, and you’d think they’d just go with it for a while. But we’ve learned that these dreams of Yes take all kinds of twists and turns, so by 5:21 they’re getting all slow and trippy again, and Bruford plays some furious, FURIOUSLY TIGHT rolls on the snare. At 6:21 they snap out of it, and return with typical abandon to their intricately crafted parts. But then at 7:21 they interject a hiccuping, yesbandvocal section, a part that, if this song really was a dream, is the part where you start to realize you’re dreaming, and if you liked the dream you try desperately to remain inside that world, and if you don’t like the dream you make the firm decision to wake up. It’s a sense that we’re reaching the end. By 7:37, the dream’s landing gear is down, Howe plays some of his coolest shit, as does Squire, and we gently glide our prog-rock ship into its proper berth.

There you go, dear reader! You are out the other side. I hope you didn’t find the dream too disturbing. I expect you may have found it weird, or it may seem like a place you don’t wish to revisit. Some of you may have enjoyed it greatly and hope to return again. I encourage you to do so, and find your own hidden paths and vistas within its alien world. Like our dreams, music is personal. It’s hard to say what it is about music that makes it relatable or moving. Close To The Edge is very different than many of the other albums on my list. But I love this bearantpenguin of an album, and it is with me forever.

Track Listing
“Close to the Edge”
~~i. The Solid Time of Change
~~ii. Total Mass Retain
~~iii. I Get Up, I Get Down
~~iv. Seasons of Man
“And You And I”
~~i. Cord of Life
~~ii. Eclipse
~~iii. The Preacher, The Teacher
~~iv. The Apocalypse
“Siberian Khatru”

Share

“Just Gonna Have to Be a Different Man. Time May Change Me …” – David Bowie

Share

Several years ago, while my family was living in a condo without much storage space, I was searching for some item in the hallway closet. I don’t remember what I was looking for, but my kids were very small – younger than 5, I’m sure – so it very well may have been a gift I had put away for them; or a potentially dangerous object I had hidden to keep them safe; or maybe a very large bottle whose contents I felt helped improve my parenting skills.

bourbon

In my search, I came across a box with a stickynote label – “LETTERS” – printed in a fashion I recognized as my handwriting from the college-age me.

I had been an avid letter-writer in my college days, and all the way through the beginnings of the email era.

I mostly wrote to friends Dan, Dave and Josh. All three of these guys are some of the funniest people I’ve known, and they each had a distinct, clever way of communicating on paper and I always looked forward to their next letter. For some reason, I hadn’t thrown away most of their letters. (I say “for some reason,” as if I don’t know for sure, but I’m quite certain the reason I kept them is because I expected, as a twenty-year old, to lead the kind of life that would culminate with millions (billions?) of people seeking out tidbits from my existence to get an idea of what I was “really” like. I thought people wouldn’t have gotten enough of me in all the novels, music, comedy, and movies I would make – or in all the articles written about me, and TV segments about my life – and that this box of letters would be something for my estate to review, edit and release posthumously; both to help sate my hungry fans’ undiminished appetite for new ERMabilia, but also to maybe provide my heirs with a little more money to purchase that second boat for their extra (but still nice in its own way) vacation home. [Many people share this self-image.] I can only hope Dan and Dave and Josh each have a similar shoebox in their closets.)

letters 2

Anyway, I dug in for a letter from Josh, because – not meaning to diminish other letter-writers over the years – his letters always had a little something special about them, a turn of a phrase or an interesting way of telling a story – that I thought would have held up well over the years. I opened the letter, imagining myself as a future curator of a museum of the arts that had won the rights to display my memorabilia, excited to find out “what made ERM tick?” and maybe anticipating the book I would write about him, and the interviews I would grant on the topic.

I pulled out a letter from either 1985 or 1986. I know this because I distinctly remember opening the letter and thinking, “I wonder if this will provide insight into why I wore a mullet?”

I tingled with excitement.

Then I read with horror the first sentence from my friend:

“E –

I have to say I was very disturbed to read that you called that guy a kike.”

I folded the letter up, put it back in the envelope, and have never opened that box again. (I didn’t throw the box away, though – I still have my Estate to consider, and that second boat …) It was just too disturbing, for several reasons.

The biggest, most obvious reason is that this was evidence that I was, apparently, a bigoted asshole. I mean, that’s what I’d think if I was the curator/biographer in my dreams – “Geez, despite the Oscars, Pulitzers and scores of humanitarian awards, ERM was actually a bigoted asshole.” And that’s disturbing to think about one’s self.

But nearly as disturbing is the fact that I don’t ever remember using the word “kike.” It’s not a word I even think about using. I was a standup comic for years, and I could imagine, in the service of a joke, a situation in which I might want to use a derogatory term for effect (ironically, to make a point … I’ve done it before), and if I was going to use a derogatory term for Jews in such a case, I think “kike” would probably be the fourth or fifth word I’d consider. (I won’t bore you with a list.)

In addition to being confronted with these upsetting thoughts, I also felt confused because not only was I, apparently, a bigoted asshole, but I was the type of bigoted asshole who not only 1) used the word “kike,” and 2) directed it at another person, but also 3) felt the urge to put the incident in a letter to a friend! Like I was really super-proud!! I was the kind of person you know tangentially in real life, and so accept as a Friend on Facebook, then read a couple of his posts about “nailing chicks” and “the goddam illegals” and so you quietly Unfriend him.

I was a person I didn’t like, and I didn’t remember being him.

Reading that sentence was weird. I don’t remember being anti-Semitic. I don’t remember the feeling of wanting to call someone such a name, or believing there was a reason to distinguish someone with such a term. I know I grew up in a place and time where I was definitely instilled with bigotry and intolerance. And I’m not proud to say it, but I do remember having feelings of superiority over and prejudices toward women, gays and lesbians, African-Americans, Asians, Latinos … pretty much the whole spectrum of non-straight-white-males out there. But the strange thing is that I don’t remember harboring these same feelings toward Jewish people. There were so few Jews where I grew up that I just didn’t “get” the stereotypes.

I knew the Jewish stereotypes because I was a fan of comedy, and many of my favorite comedians – Woody Allen, Garry Shandling, and especially Don Rickles, – were Jewish, and would mention them. I also devoured Mad Magazine, and many of their writers were Jewish and used Yiddish words for a funny effect, and the magazine often tackled the subject of racism in a humorous way, and so touched on all stereotypes. But none of these Jewish stereotypes meant much to me, other than as a punch line for Rickles. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that the first time I even remember hearing the word “kike” out loud was as a high-schooler, in a theater, watching the “classic” film Porky’s II.

(The fact that I saw that film in the theater when it was released is only SLIGHTLY less embarrassing than the fact that I used to be such a bigot.)

So reading that first sentence of that old letter was strange, embarrassing, disorienting and quite shameful: kind of like the first after-gym-class shower in 6th grade.

So, WHAT (you may ask) would make me reveal such a distasteful, humiliating part of my past, and place it out here in the internets, where it will be preserved forever, causing folks who don’t know me to think I am a racist, self-delusional asshole, and those who do know me to question themselves about just how well they really do? Where it could cause harm to myself and my loved ones, professionally, personally and just about any other way possible? And HOW ON EARTH could it EVER relate to music??!!??

I have three words for you: Asia, by Asia.

I bought this CD specifically for this list-making project. I remember loving this album back in high school. My sister had it on vinyl, and I listened to it a lot. At some point, I transferred it to cassette (the old-school form of piracy, which was musically promoted by Bow Wow Wow back in the day …) and it remained in heavy rotation in my walkman,

walkman

car stereo and bedroom stereo. At some point, I stopped listening to it, and I hadn’t thought much about it in the intervening years, except to remember, “Man, I used to LOVE that tape!” Even when I heard some (both?) of the hits on 80s radio, I never felt compelled to go out and get a new copy of the record. The bootleg tape version is gone, as my collection of cassettes – which numbered hundreds back in the day – has dwindled over the years to a couple collections of TV theme songs, some mix-tapes from my wedding party, and one or two recordings of various high school concert bands in which I played trombone.

So, I thought – for completeness’ sake – I should re-experience Asia all over again. I found it cheap on the internet (cost twice as much to ship as the CD itself, 3 dollars total) and when it arrived, I put it in the rotation of CDs.

I soon found myself asking the same question I pondered upon reading about my younger, bigoted, angry self:

“Who the fuck WAS I???”

I felt no connection to, had no interest in, and could barely listen to this CD. Steve Howe was in the band, and I always did – and still do – like him. And listening to the CD again, I could pick out bits of his playing that were really cool. But they were buried beneath an avalanche of Geoff Downes’ synthesizer woodles (yes woodles) and John Wetton’s voice, which I believe is the least-soulful voice that’s ever been recorded and put to music, apart from that of Radiohead’s “fitter, happier.”

Carl Palmer played drums on the album, and I always did – and still do – like him, but even a great drummer can’t save this crap. As each song began, I found myself thinking, “Wait, this must be the song I loved … right? It must be coming up … I know there must be a song I loved on this thing …” And as I pressed the “NEXT” button on my car’s CD player in the middle of each song, I thought “Nope. I don’t remember this song at all, and there’s NO WAY I ever loved this thing …”

I could find nothing redeeming about this CD, and I can’t recall how I ever loved it so much. Whatever did I hear in this music, and why – today – does it not even conjure a tiny speck of affinity within me? What the hell happened? Who was I?

And for that matter, how did I ever go from being an Asia fan to being a New York Dolls fan? At what point did a musical ablution rid me of the grime of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and leave behind a gleaming finish of The Beatles, Prince and Maria McKee? And maybe more weirdly, how did I retain my love for Yes and Rush, but still become a fanatic for The Replacements and The Hold Steady? How is all of this possible?

I’ve often felt like I haven’t changed much at all since I was fourteen or so. I still find Caddyshack hilarious, Columbo awesome, and pretty women intimidating (including my wife!) I still like the Phillies, can’t wait to play my next game of pickup hoops, and still await the Hollywood Stardom that is just around the corner for me. But in some ways, I’ve changed immeasurably.

I’m proud to say that I was appalled to read about who I was on that day in 1986 that I wrote to Josh about. And I’m happy to divulge that I took a peek at the second sentence in that letter, in which Josh wrote, “That really doesn’t sound like something you would do,” meaning that whatever it was that happened, my best friend at the time found it out-of-character as well.

Really, all I can imagine is that the incident involved someone I knew fairly well, who was Jewish, and who I was trying to piss off because I was pissed off at him – probably during a pickup basketball game. Of course, this doesn’t make the actions more defensible, but it at least provides a context that I can understand. But who knows? If I was such a fan of something that now, 30 years later, sounds to me like music from a different species’ CD collection, maybe I was parading around at the time wearing a white hood and robe …

It’s shocking to say, but Asia sounded so bad to me that it has the power to make me wonder if I was ever part of a white supremacist group.

Maybe I’m overthinking this whole CD thing.

Share