The Fish, Out of Matter: R.I.P.

Yes bassist Chris Squire passed away last night at age 67. I don’t usually pay too much attention to 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 to that. Chris Squire would be pretty close to the top of that exception list.

csSquire had noted on Facepalm® last month that he had fallen victim to a brutal 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. That 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. I was absolutely transformed in my relation to music by the end of that first twenty minutes. After spending a few moments in silence, futilely trying to understand what had just happened to me, 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 eventually listen to other artists again, but the terms 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 as a come-on, or an entertainment.

Prior to my initiation into Close to the Edge, I’d spent many hours listening both to “hit” 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. But Yes music was different.

It’s not uncommon to hear Yes music referred to as “spiritual”, as one way of distinguishing it from most other rock. I get what’s meant by that, which is to say that Yes music is not vulgar, and that it is open to and even traffics in a certain level of transcendence. But to grasp the importance of that, it is important to understand that all music is spiritual, for better or worse. 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 such music 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 much the same way. We could draw an analogy and say that most pop music relates to music-as-art similarly to the way sloganeering relates to literature (i.e. writing-as-art). It would not be inapt to relate both depraved forms to propaganda. It is not for nothing that sensitive souls have from time to time been alarmed concerning the presence of the demonic in certain music. Nor should we fail to recognize that sacred music actually exists, even if one can hardly find a modern liturgist who is cognizant of that fact. Not all bad music is debauched.

The sensual nature of music implies that it always approaches us at the level of our passions, but it is a further engagement on the intellectual level that allows music (or language) to engage a person in a fully human way, in a way that is spiritually “complete”, and thus to 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 musical 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 metaphysics calls the third transcendental attribute: 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 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 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 the Yes 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 outward pieties, although 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 (rock) could be used as a vehicle to strive, with excellence, the path to true beauty – and to the awe and wonder which beauty inspires – Yes also showed me the path which leads to the first and second transcendental attributes: truth and goodness. That is to say, Yes ultimately showed me the path that leads to God.

It is true that I was not only already baptized, but lived in a family that honored virtue, and acknowledged Christ as Lord. It is also true that I would eventually have to unfix my eyes from all 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, utterly alienated, and frighteningly self-destructive. I was one sad-sack kid. I still grieve for that kid, constantly. It is a grief that deeply informs my relationships with my own children. I don’t know what would have happened to me if Yes hadn’t happened to me. Yes music was a ray of light in the dreadful darkness of my adolescent existence that started a revolution in my life, however slow-moving that revolution turned.

Though I’ve moved on in many ways, there are still three albums from Yes that I would grab for my 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 foowsound 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 “Safe” is a minute and a half of probably my favorite rock bombast ever. And the outro that follows it, closing the album, is 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 might know the peace of his Lord telling him that “you will be/safe with Me”. Cue the outro…