Ex-Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman performs a solo concert Oct. 16 at the Garde
Keyboardist, progressive rock visionary and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member Rick Wakeman appears Oct. 16 at a solo show in New London's Garde Arts Center. It's the front end of his "Even Grumpier Old Rock Star" tour — one that has been forestalled 18 months due to COVID.
It's unfortunate but understandable that, when someone like Wakeman allocates two days devoted exclusively to doing pre-tour publicity phone interviews, demand is such that each journalist is allocated a strict 15 minutes.
Let's do some math. The journalist — and admitted fan — must then divide 15 minutes by who knows how many potential questions concerning Wakeman's stint in the band Yes for albums like "Close to the Edge," "Fragile" and "Tales From Topographic Oceans"; over 70 (!) solo albums including "The Six Wives of Henry VIII," "The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table," "No Expense Spared," "Night Airs" and the excellent 2020 recording "The Red Planet"; two bestselling memoirs; and session work with artists ranging from Cat Stevens and Elton John to David Bowie and Al Stewart. Oh, and as of last month, he received that "Thank you, Your Majesty" honor known as the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).
Hmm. Not going to be easy, particularly when the conversation starts off just as a mailman arrives at the journalist's house, igniting a frenzy of barking from the family dogs.
"Are those your dogs?" Wakeman asks.
The journalist sheepishly acknowledges that, yes, he's working from home and sometimes Mabel and Virgil enjoy barking loudly at a variety of perceived threats. Wakeman perks up. How old are Mabel and Virgil, he wants to know, and what kind of dogs are they? He's pleased they were rescued from kill-shelters in the American south and this leads to discussion of Wakeman's own dogs.
"We've got three rescues," he says. "Two are from Bosnia and one from Syria. They were street dogs in the war zones and appallingly treated. But we've got them and now they're just incredibly lovable. Then, literally in the last two weeks, we've take another, a three-year-old Labrador who was saved from the meat trade in China."
Again, this is a tightly constricted interview about Wakeman's music and career and what folks might expect when he steps on the Garde stage. But ... DOGS! There's a bit of joint commiseration about the massive need for more animals to be rescued.
Wakeman salutes the journalist for his efforts in that context, then says, "Well, you can't save them all, but anything we can do, right? And I have to say that our dogs — and we've got three rescue cats as well — they are just absolutely adorable. And they've got so much love to give. Like all rescue animals, they just want the chance to give love."
Moving on ...
With a mental image in mind of a giant countdown clock speeding by, the journalist, who feels a bit like he's wrenching a lollipop from a happy child, quickly gets the artist to briefly go over general details of the upcoming tour. Each night's set list will be different, which is not surprising. With all that excellent material, why wouldn't Wakeman jump around a bit? But, yes, there will be explorations of Yes songs and from the solo works. He might do a few classical pieces, and don't rule out an homage to his late friend, Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Could he cover songs he recorded during sessions for Stevens and/or Bowie? Yes, that might happen as well.
The sets will also be peppered by hilarious and revealing anecdotes as per his two autobiographical books, "Grumpy Old Rock Star" and "Further Adventures of a Grumpy Old Rock Star" (and hence the title of the tour). Wakeman is already working on the third in the series.
As anyone who might've seen Wakeman's speech when Yes was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (easy to find on YouTube), he's a very funny as masterful raconteur — easily segueing from the profane to the profound — and both volumes of memoirs are quite unlike any you're likely to see from a rock star.
"I got the whole idea of the method for writing the Grumpy books from David Niven's books, 'The Moon is a Balloon' and 'Bring On the Empty Horses,'" he says. "They were the first autobiographies I'd read that didn't start at the beginning and then go through life chronologically year by year.
"Niven would talk about something and then suddenly scoot to something else — but there was always a connection. I loved that. And I thought of it when I was approached to write an autobiography. I said I'd do it but in the format Niven used, which is basically NO format. I'm just going to tell you stories. The stories are about other people, but where I'm involved to a certain extent — and in that way a gradual portrait emerges."
Seeing the music
Listening to Wakeman discuss his approach to writing prose, it's apparent he thinks very visually. Does that apply to music performance and composition? Obviously, for solo works like "Journey to the Centre of the Earth" or "King Arthur," there are stories upon which the music is based. But where does Wakeman's Muse take him?
"It's all visuals to me," Wakeman says. "When I was 5, my music teacher, who I stayed with throughout her life, Mrs. Symes, said to me, 'This is how it's going to be, Richard. You're going to read music as you go along. Once you've learned a piece of music, I want you to put the sheet music to one side, play it by memory with your eyes closed, and paint pictures. Because that's what music is. You're painting pictures with music, and that gives you the mood of how to play and all the fluctuations.'"
Wakeman pauses — five more seconds off the clock! — and adds, "And I still do that to this day. I often get asked why my eyes always seem closed when I'm playing onstage. And I go, 'Yeah, that's because I'm painting pictures.'"
This explanation is the sort of beguiling comment that demands a few specific examples from the artist's own catalog. What about the lovely song "Dance of a Thousand Lights," for example, from "Return to the Centre of the Earth"?
"I was working on that album in the Canary Islands," Wakeman remembers, "and I'd frequently pick up the book and re-read a passage here or there. And in one part, (the characters) are in a cavern where there were lots of what I suppose are the equivalent of glowworms or fireflies — and I imagined this huge, open cavern with all these little glittering, flickering lights. And I wrote the entire piece in about 10 minutes. It came very quickly and the picture in my brain is always the same when I play it. I see it very, very clearly."
Pieces of the jigsaw puzzle
It's a different process, though, when Wakeman is collaborating. The very difficult compositions in Yes, for example, might have been brought into the band by one member or another, but almost by definition each of the virtuoso players added depth and vision to the works. One of Wakeman's most famous bits in that regard is the strings-drenched, angel-chasing chordal ascension in the song "And You and I" — which almost automatically gives chills to any fan or, indeed, listener to classic rock radio.
However magnificent that section might be, Wakeman insists it was just another day at work.
"I do remember coming up with the bit you're talking about," Wakeman says. "I always think of a lot of those Yes pieces back in those days as jigsaw puzzles made up of pieces from different puzzles that still all slot in together. And sometimes you come to a certain point in a song — what you're talking about in 'And You and I' and 'Heart of the Sunrise,' for example — and they'll be a musical gap and suddenly you go, 'Hey! I know what that missing piece is!' and it ends up working out."
What the hell is he singing about?!
It's also true that the mystical, obscure lyrics of Jon Anderson shaped a lot of the musical composition in Yes.
The journalist tells Wakeman about asking Yes drummer Alan White a few years back about whether he had any clue as to what Anderson's lyrics meant. White laughed and cheerfully said, "I have no (expletive) idea!" Does that response pretty much summarize Wakeman's experiences thereof?
Wakeman relates an anecdote from the first Yes tour of America when he and Anderson were approached by a fan outside a hotel bar. The fellow confidently informed Anderson that he'd worked out the meaning of the words to the song "Your Move" and proceeded to share a lengthy analysis involving, as Wakemen remembers, "various astral planes working within the planets and moving from place to place in harmony with the band's music."
The fan finished his explanation, beamed at Anderson, and asked if he was correct in his interpretation.
Wakeman says, "And Jon went, 'Yeah, you're absolutely right!' and the fan went away really happy. I turned to Jon and said, 'Is that really what 'Your Move' is about?!' And he said, 'Nah, it's about a chess game. But if that's what the guy thinks it is and wants it to be, then that's fine. As long as people have a meaning for themselves of what the songs are, that's great. I don't mind.'"
Wakeman laughs and explains that Anderson is indeed a clever wordsmith with a large streak of Salvador Dali-style surrealism to his lyrics, and that they became an integral part of the songs of Yes for all the right reasons. He laughs again. "And I'd just add that Alan's 'I have no (expletive) idea' comment sums it up perfectly!"
Who: Rick Wakeman
What: The Even Grumpier Old Rock Star Tour
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 16
Where: Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London
How much: $40-$50
For more information: gardearts.org. (860) 444-7373