Sunday, June 28, 2015

In Memoriam: Christopher Russell Edward Squire, 1948-2015

I was probably not quite yet 13 when I put Classic Yes on my cheap little kiddie turntable for the first time. The first sound to come rumbling out at me was the frantic opening salvo of “Heart of the Sunrise.” I’d just discovered Yes a few months earlier with their comeback album, 90125, and their hit song “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” That was a glossy, Trevor Horn-produced pop album, and I had since learned that Yes had a long history behind them, filled with music that inhabited a different universe from what I’d heard so far. So I scraped together what money I could and went off to the store to buy some Yes albums, eager to hear as much of my new favorite band as I could. (Because that’s what you did in the days before YouTube clips and MP3 downloads.)

Classic Yes was a compilation of some of Yes’ most popular tracks from the '70s, so it seemed like a good place to start. And boy, am I happy I picked that as my starting point, because “Heart of the Sunrise” just floored me. And it got even better about half a minute in, when the band stopped playing and Chris Squire took over.

I’d never heard anyone play a bass guitar like this before. He was playing a snaky, slightly sinister melodic line, with little variations each time he ran through it to keep things fresh and exciting. It was a big, fat, punchy, meaty, clangy sound, with some nice vibrato, a hard attack that surely had to come from playing with a pick, and a bit of a trebly overtone. It sounded sort of like a cross between a Clavinet and a cello. Don’t bass players just stay in the background, playing root notes? I always thought so. But Chris Squire was showing me that I didn’t have to think about the bass guitar in those terms.

The deeper I got into my Yes exploration, the more I realized that Yes was all about pushing boundaries like that. They were grounded in rock, but they weren’t afraid to blend influences from other genres, especially jazz, folk, and classical, plus a little funk and rockabilly here and there. On some songs, you could have three or more separate melody lines going at the same time, with “Heart of the Sunrise” being a prime example. What the guitar, keys, and bass were doing were each sort of mini-songs all their own, yet they somehow all meshed together into something brilliant and cohesive.

But the bedrock of that sound was always Chris Squire’s Rickenbacker bass. Chris came from the Paul McCartney-Jack Bruce-John Entwistle school of playing bass like a lead melodic instrument. Hearing what Chris did in Yes led me to seek out and ultimately appreciate what those other legendary players had created. I’ve had an enduring love for the bass guitar ever since, and whenever I listen to Yes music, the first thing my ears go to is Chris Squire’s bass line. It’s there in every song, because Chris was the only member to appear on every Yes album. He was the constant, the keeper of the flame: He co-founded the band with singer Jon Anderson in 1968 and was the only member to have never left. How fitting, then, that the first sound on the first Yes album would be that of Chris Squire's bass ringing out, with his distinct tone already intact:

So while different musicians have brought their own styles to the band and left their creative marks as they've come and gone, the one thing you could always count on to be there was Chris’ bass playing, pinning it all down and propelling the music forward.


Chris was the ham, the showman. While the other members tended to focus on their playing and didn’t move around a lot, Chris prowled around the stage during his solo moments, making exaggerated motions to the delight of the crowd and generally smiling from ear to ear. Even if he was playing “The Fish,” his solo feature, for the millionth go-around, he looked like he was having as much fun as if he was performing it fresh for the first time. 

His physical presence was dominating, too: He was a large man, towering over most of his bandmates. Raised as a performer in an English church choir, Chris was also a fantastic singer. In fact, his backing (and sometimes lead) vocals were as much a part of the Yes sound as his bass playing. Jon and Chris started Yes with the idea of creating a band with a high level of musicianship coupled with strong vocal harmonies—and sure enough, their voices blended beautifully together. Here's a taste of what Chris sounded like handling lead vocals:

Throughout the ’70s, Chris was the guy who kept the rock ‘n’ roll in Yes. In a band whose members freely incorporated non-rock elements into their sound, and whose singer was busy ruminating in his soaring countertenor about cosmic love and all-embracing spirituality, Chris was the reliable masculine yang energy to balance the softer yin elements that made up so much of Yes’ music back then.

In their tributes to their fallen bandmate, Jon and original drummer Bill Bruford both commented on how the music they made together back then came out of a time of high musical creativity and individuality. The Beatles opened the floodgates, and for a precious short time — from roughly 1967 to 1974 — the sky was the limit in rock music, as record companies mostly left bands alone to their own devices, trusting them that their artistic muses would deliver. Progressive rock was born out of that era of artistic freedom. Yes could not exist as a new band today, in an age of corporate bottom lines that treat rock music like a disposable commodity. Back then, you had the freedom to carve yourself out a niche. Today, you have to fit into a pre-planned niche. Those freewheeling days are long gone, but thank goodness we had them, because it gave rise to a climate in which, as Bill said, “it was possible to establish individuality” as a musician.

Chris Squire took that opportunity and ran with it, so much so that you can immediately tell when you’re listening to him, even if it’s outside a Yes context. Few musicians are lucky enough to have a signature style so instantly recognizable, so much their own. Bill again: “Chris fearlessly staked out a whole protectorate of bass playing in which he was lord and master. I suspect he knew not only that he gave millions of people pleasure with his music, but also that he was fortunate to be able to do so.” Chris influenced countless musicians through the years, but even though many bassists have paid homage to his style, no one has replicated it. I don't think anyone ever will.

I’m not much of a musician, but music still touches me like no other art form. Nothing else even comes close. I was a shy and awkward kid who grew up in a dysfunctional family, and the only people I could always count on to be there to see me through good times and bad were the musicians who touched my soul. I lived inside my headphones and escaped into the worlds my favorite musicians built. And of all the music that’s touched my life in a profound way, Yes has done so more than any other band. There was a blend of beauty, originality, grace, virtuosity, and fearlessness about their music that spoke to my spirit like nothing else. And the two men in that band who spoke to me the most were Jon and Chris — the heart and soul of the band, the two without whose vision Yes would never have been born. Jon helped me grow on a spiritual level, but Chris opened my ears to what was possible in music. David Gilmour is probably the only other contemporary musician whose life’s work has touched me so deeply and profoundly.

Chris was known as The Fish, both because he enjoyed taking long baths that often kept the rest of the band waiting for him, and because he was a Pisces. His birthday was only two days before mine. I always got more excited about his birthday than I did about my own. David Gilmour and I actually do share a birthday, and that always made me wonder if there was something in the cosmos (or maybe just the water, since we’re all Pisces) that made the music of those two men resonate with me so much. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but if so, it was a happy coincidence. I always hoped Squire and Gilmour would get together and work on a project. I would have loved to hear what my favorite musicians would have cooked up. But alas, it was not to be.

I got to meet Chris briefly once, at a meet-and-greet when he was playing with The Syn, a band he’d been in back in the ’60s before Yes had formed. He’d joined them for a reunion during a lull in Yes activity. Here's a bit of his work from that project:

At the meet-and-greet, I handed him the cover of his Fish Out of Water solo CD to sign for me. The cover is mostly black, and he had only a black Sharpie. But I’d come prepared, with a silver Sharpie! He took it and smiled as he signed. I told him he could keep the pen, in case anyone else wanted a Fish Out of Water cover signed. He thanked me and shook my hand—and it was then that I realized just why he’d become a bass player: His mitts were enormous. What a blessing for all of us that nature gave him just the gift he needed to bring his music to the world. 

Now the news has come that Chris has lost his battle with leukemia, less than a month after he announced his illness to his fans. To say I’m devastated would be an understatement. Chris Squire has been front and center in my life’s soundtrack for more than 30 years, and it’s almost surreal to me to think he’s not here anymore. His loss has left, as one person quipped on the day of Chris’ death, “a Rickenbacker-shaped hole in my heart.”

Jon Anderson's words for Chris were especially touching and brought a tear to my eye. Jon was pushed out of the band several years ago when he fell ill, and there were no doubt hard feelings—heaven knows there have been among the fans. But Jon was his usual optimistic, cosmic, upbeat self, choosing to reflect on what he and Chris had built together. He also suggests that he and Chris may have mended their fences before it was too late. It's just a pity they didn't have a chance to make any more music together.

Here's Jon:
Chris was a very special part of my life; we were musical brothers. He was an amazingly unique bass player - very poetic - and had a wonderful knowledge of harmony. We met at a certain time when music was very open, and I feel blessed to have created some wonderful, adventurous, music with him. Chris had such a great sense of humor... he always said he was Darth Vader to my Obiwan. I always thought of him as Christopher Robin to my Winnie the Pooh.

We travelled a road less travelled and I'm so thankful that he climbed the musical mountains with me. Throughout everything, he was still my brother, and I'm so glad we were able to reconnect recently. I saw him in my meditation last night, and he was radiant. My heart goes out to his family and loved ones.

Love and light.....Jon
"I saw him in my meditation last night, and he was radiant." I love that so much. It puts a lump in my throat just to read it. I hope it means that Chris' passing was peaceful and that he didn't suffer. If there's anything after this life, I hope he's rocking out with all the great musicians who have passed before him.

Chris Squire's musical legacy will live on, but rock music has lost one of its greatest musicians. And I feel like I’ve lost a close and dear friend.

Dream on, on to the heart of the sunrise …