In Defense of Grey Bands
Chris Squire, bass extraordinary for the progressive rock band Yes, died last week at the age of 67. He was the only member of the band to be featured on every one of their records and to take part in all their tours. There is probably no band that encapsulates the grandiose excess of the Prog Era as well as Yes (keyboardist Rick Wakeman made the case that the mockumentary Spinal Tap was basically a true-to-life retelling of their adventures), and being a fan of progressive rock still carries with it derision from many in the music community.
Squire has earned his share of glowing obituaries; this piece is not a reflection on who he was or what he accomplished throughout his existence. I did not know the man, but I wish to celebrate what he stood for in the last 15 years of his life. I spent my youth involved in punk and underground music scenes, and a band of old men playing music from my father’s era seemed about as uncool as possible to my teenage-self. I made arguments similar to Grayson Currin at IndyWeek about the need for musicians to leave the stage gracefully when their moment of inspiration and significance had faded. Writing about the ever-undulating Rolling Stones, Currin echoed the popular sentiment that a band needs to know when to stop.
“With a sporadic succession of stand-ins and special guests, the Stones have creaked along for 40 more years, issuing records that have ranged from decent to disastrous and launching bloated tours and box sets that thrive more on spectacle than sound. They remain, at best, a nostalgia act—a curiosity that’s survived from rock’s antediluvian phase, like a Late Cretaceous coelacanth in an impossibly complicated aquarium. That’s why parents—and their children or grandchildren, eager to witness living history, in lights—continue to consume the band’s high-price tickets. At worst, they are an infinite punchline.”
Yes became more than a punch line for many, and yet they soldiered on. They recorded a slew of records well after their creative fit in the early 70s. In fact, they were a few weeks from starting another massive tour, just as they have unwaveringly done for the last decade. Yes was not played in my household when I was young, so no nostalgia was involved when I came to appreciate their music. It simply sounded great coming off the stacks of vinyl I could readily get in dollar bins around the Bay Area. The Roger Dean covers initially enticed me, but I ended up enjoying the music as well (I still chuckle at the fact that many of these gatefold sleeves smell as if joints have been rolled frequently on them. Oh, the things they have seen).
I saw Yes twice in the last 4 years, and there was no doubt that the band was playing to its established audience. Their sound, style, and touring venues were as far from the hip-epicenters of town as possible. While still playing tracks from their newest records, they pulled extensively from the material that made them famous in the 60s and 70s (in fact, they played Close to the Edge and Fragile in their entirety at one of those shows). Sitting next to other middle-aged men as I sipped my white wine in my comfortably cushioned seat, I could fell my inner teenage-self rolling over in his fictitious grave.
Yet, Chris Squire looked thrilled. He played with gusto and enthusiasm and seemed to generally enjoy being on stage. Clearly, he had new music he wished to share, as he released original material continuously since the inception of the band. He was at peace with playing to greying fans. Perhaps the real problem was in my youthful expectations for musicians and artists, and not in those that continue to do what they love (and profit from said work to boot). While my mid-life, married status puts me outside the realm trendsetting insurrectionists, I began to question my youthful standards for art and music earnestly.
I still deem the yearning to destroy what preceded you a healthy mindset to have in youth. Wanting to create something innovative and matchless is what pushes culture onward, and it isn’t coincidental that young people often carry that burden and demonstrate that disregard for the past. I do not fault my young self (or the fledgling hipster) for holding said position.
Yet, if I my previously held position were endorsed by society at large, where would that leave musicians decades removed from their prime? They would be required to quit what they love or face social and critical contempt. Sure, some could enter academic circles to enshrine and document an era. Syracuse University has an excellent collection of radicalism in the arts from last century, but this trend also reflects a cherishing of the past and not reintroduced inventiveness. Hardly revolutionary tendencies.
Some may read this and contend that the issue outlined above is not a problem in the least. Of course, if someone enjoys something, why would they stop? Are musicians and artists required to bow to the fickle demands of youthful trends?
Clearly, a musician has every right to continue playing, regardless of their work’s resounding impact. What I find so endearing in Chris Squire (and older musicians like him) is the sheer enthusiasm he had for continuing to play. As I have aged, I too have discovered that my creative energies did not evaporate when I rolled into my thirties. My hair is gone, my belly has swelled, but I am not ready to give up artistic pursuits.
Chris Squire was a professional, touring musician until the last days of his life. He could have sat back and reminisced about past glories from the comfort of some British estate, but instead continued to pursue his passion even when some scoffed at a man his age touring behind songs he created 40 years prior. Seeing his pleasure for music late into life, coupled with my own aging, has forced me to reject my youthful sense of artistic righteousness; celebrating an artistic community that extends beyond the young means praising for those who wish to create, even when their gray hair they no longer fits the bill for a rock n’ roll act.