Yes bassist Chris Squire passed away last night at age 67. I don’t usually think too much about what goes on in the entertainment world, as I don’t have much personal investment in it, and never really have. But there have been some exceptions. Chris Squire would be pretty close to the top of that exception list.
Squire had noted on Facepalm® last month that he had fallen victim to a menacing disease, so today’s news was not entirely surprising, but it was disturbing nonetheless, and I’m feeling as if I lost a friend. That’s a silly sentiment, really, considering I never met the man, and may not have gotten on very well with him if we had met. I haven’t had any interest in the music he’s been involved in for the past decade and a half or so, and even the older Yes music can wear a little thin these days.
Yes, as a band, has become little more than a Yes tribute band after parting ways with Squire’s co-founder Jon Anderson several years ago, and, frankly, they’d exhausted their musical genius decades ago. But, at least at the time, it seemed to be a formidable genius, indeed.
My older brother introduced me to the Yes cult when he gave me the Close to the Edge album for my birthday. It would have been late July 1974, when I turned 14. Thinking that the side with two songs looked somewhat more inviting than the side consisting of a single, 18-minute song, I played the second side of the album first. My relation to music was absolutely transformed by the end of that first twenty minutes, and after spending a couple minutes in silence, futilely trying to understand what had just happened, I flipped the album over and listened to the title track. My wonder and consternation were magnified. As the saying goes, I was blown away.
As he handed me the record, my brother told me that it would cure me of my interest in Grand Funk Railroad. I took that as one of those annoyingly paternalistic things older brothers say to their little brothers to keep the pecking order establishment clear, but by about the time my next birthday had come around, I’d sold all my Grand Funk, Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, and other non-Yes albums to a kid up the street, for $10. I would soon enough listen to other music again, but the contours of my engagement with music had forever changed, and there would be no going back to Alice Cooper. For the first time in my life, I’d experienced music as a form of art, and not just a come-on, or an entertainment.
Prior to my initiation into Close to the Edge, I’d spent many hours listening both to radio and to albums from popular rock bands, searching for a personally satisfying connection with the music: convinced that such meaning was available for the mining, and invariably disappointed as the music failed to deliver. A satisfying ditty here, a satisfying ditty there, perhaps, but even at that tender age, I knew experientially that the music I was listening to was shallow and contrived; that the excitements it created were ephemeral and, ultimately, phony. Yes music was different. It was serious music.
It’s not uncommon to hear people try to distinguish Yes music from most other rock by calling it somehow “spiritual”. I get what’s meant by that, but the truth is that all music is spiritual. If it weren’t it would only be sound, because “spiritual” is really just a synonym for something having meaning, and music, by definition, is the appropriation of sound as sound into meaning, expressed in time. But meaning in music can range from boring monotony to cheap titillation to transformative profundity. There’s nothing unspiritual about cheesy music, it just wallows in the shallow end, and it often leaves the intellect unengaged – if not disengaged. So we could call it spiritually incomplete or even impoverished, but it remains spiritual even when it is so in a trite or even denigrating way. Political slogans function in largely the same way. We could draw an analogy and say that much pop music relates to serious music like sloganeering relates to literature (i.e. the art of writing).
The sensual nature of music implies that it always approaches us at the level of our passions, but a further engagement on the intellectual level is what allows music (or language) to engage a person in a fully human way, in a way that is spiritually “complete”, and thus form a deeply penetrating meaning. Yes was by no means the only or even the first rock band that pushed their music beyond the banalities of pop and into a realm of deeper meaning, but they took advantage of the opportunities presented by the times to produce work that stands as paradigmatic of the possibility of intellectually serious commercial rock music. Thematic development, intricately interwoven melodic and rhythmic phrasing, shifting modalities and tonal centers, complex meters and metrical diversity, all coupled with the esoterically ambiguous but aesthetically charged character of Anderson’s lyrics: the Yes experience was a compelling introduction for this young teen – and many others like me – to the pursuit of the spiritual goal of art, which is the third metaphysical transcendental attribute of God: beauty.
I became a hard-core Yes fan. I absolutely loved their music. For a time at least, being a Yes fan seemed like an important part of who I was. Modern people attach themselves to musical acts – or to sports teams, or TV shows, or any number of products and/or ideas – in ways that are pretty totemistic. We wear their logos, or colors, or names, or other symbols. We say that we idolize them, because, well, we do. We “identify” with them, because they somehow provide meaning to us; they mediate or middle-man some greater, unreachable reality for us in ways that allow us to feel we have at least some small part in it. None of this is particularly healthy, but some attachments are worse than others. I drew their logo on my jacket. I wrote their lyrics on my t-shirts. I put their album covers on my walls. After high school, I dropped most of the pieties, though the devotion lingered for years, until I found a better way to what I was really seeking.
I was very glad, at the time, to be a Yes fan, and I’m still glad that I was. In fact, I was blessed to be a Yes fan, because in showing me how the musical genre which modern consumer culture had basically imposed on me could be used as a vehicle to strive, with excellence, the path to true beauty – and to the awe and wonder beauty inspires – Yes also showed me the path which leads to truth and to goodness – that is, the path that leads to God. It is true that I had to take my eyes off my “idols” in order to properly turn them to God. Nonetheless, Yes opened my eyes to His reality – whether anything like that was ever the band’s intent or not. This is no exaggeration. I was as convinced an atheist as a 14-year-old can be: disgusted with the world, and frighteningly self-destructive. Yes music was a ray of light in the dreadful darkness of my adolescent existence that started a revolution in my life, and that is so no matter how long it took that revolution to come to a boil.
Though I’ve moved on in many ways, there are still three albums from Yes that I would grab for the proverbial desert island supply. One is Close to the Edge, another is the brilliant Relayer album from 1974. But the third would be the 1975 solo album from Chris Squire: Fish Out of Water. Less brash than the band albums, it sounds like what I once hoped Yes would come to sound like as they matured. It didn’t quite work out that way. The album nodded toward the Yes mode in places – the thematic resolution at the 12:00 mark of the “Safe” song is a minute and a half of probably my favorite rock bombast ever. And the outro that follows it, closing the album, is about as gorgeous as electronic music gets. Squire’s distinctive bass playing combined the driving rhythmic foundation of electric bass with a melodic sensibility that really set him apart from other bassists. I always hoped he’d record a second solo album before he retired. He had forty years, but he never did it.
But I am thankful for what he gave the world in his work. I don’t know anything about his personal life, but I hope he died in peace with himself and his world. I pray that his family and friends may be comforted in their grief. And now that he has died and faced his Maker in judgment, I pray that Chris recognizes Him as his Lord and Savior, and that he know the peace of his Lord telling him that “you will be/safe with Me”. Cue the outro…