Sunday, February 12, 2023

In Praise of Jon Anderson and "Close to the Edge"

I know how ridiculous it sounds to say a singer in a rock band has been one of my greatest spiritual influences. But then the English progressive-rock band Yes is no ordinary band, and its founding singer and lyricist, Jon Anderson, has been an inspiration not just to me but to scores of fans who have found comfort and insight in his dense and probing lyrics.

Though his words may often seem incomprehensible, even nonsensical, at first glance, the deeper you go into them, the more you find a common thread running through his most intriguing and thought-provoking lyrical explorations. That thread spins ever outward and upward, looking past the confines of our egoic limitations in search of union with something greater than ourselves. Curiosity, yearning, and an almost childlike sense of wonder consistently wend their way through his words. Jon decided early on in his career not to write about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, because he figured everyone else was already doing that and others did it better than he could anyway. I’d say the world is a little bit richer for his decision to take a different path.

I started thinking about Jon’s influence on my spiritual outlook when I recently got the itch to put together a compilation of my favorite Yes songs. I’ve been a fan ever since “Owner of a Lonely Heart” tickled my 12-year-old eardrums. From there I waded into the band’s back catalog, and I promptly fell in love with the uncompromising musical explorations that marked their best works. No one made music like Yes did, not even their prog-rock peers. The top-notch musicianship was consistently employed in service of the song, rather than in things like long, indulgent solos or displays of dexterity for their own sake — the things that critics have always accused prog-rockers of doing as a matter of course. Sure, Yes had some misses along the way, but on the whole, no one could craft extended pieces of music the way they did, with their beautiful melodies, their seamless flow, their internal musical logic.

For me, what made it all work were two things: Chris Squire’s unparalleled approach to bass guitar and his choirboy harmony vocals, and Jon’s angelic countertenor voice soaring over the arrangements, his mystical lyrics putting the finishing touch on a musical universe that the band created and inhabited all by itself. Even in the decades that have passed since the height of Yes’s fame and influence, their sound has been often imitated but never duplicated — not even, it has to be said, by the band itself in the years since.

So when I was putting together my recent Yes music mix, I forced myself to think about what tunes I’d want with me if I could only ever listen to a limited number of their songs again. And that prompted me to think about what would be at the very top of the list.

For years, the answer would have been “The Gates of Delirium,” the 22-minute extravaganza that took up the entirety of the first side of their 1974 Relayer album. The song has an extraordinary energy that leaves you emotionally spent by the end. In what is something of a musical adaptation of War and Peace, the song begins with a buildup to conflict, with all its attendant rationalizations, and then descends into a maelstrom of battle. A victory march emerges from the chaos, and then the dust settles as the survivors grapple with the aftermath of the evil that’s been wrought. Eventually, the clouds part, the sun shines down anew on the earth, and Jon leads us through a heart-rending ballad that looks ahead with optimism toward a better and brighter future for mankind. No matter how many hundreds of times I’ve heard the piece, the closing E on the Mellotron that brings everything to a resolution has never failed to send chills down my spine and leave me covered in goose bumps. It often brings tears to my eyes. To me, this is exactly what a good piece of music should do to you. It should reach deep inside you and leave you transformed in some indelible way.

Heart of the Sunrise” is up there, too. I have yet to hear a rock song that does an equally tremendous job of making such seamless transitions between such musically disparate sections. The whole thing shouldn’t work, and yet there it is. There’s an incredible ebb and flow to the piece that feels perfectly organic, not forced or contrived in any way, with some fascinating musical counterpoint along the way, along with the kind of memorable melodies and harmonies and riffs and motifs that mark all of Yes’s greatest works.

Awaken” is a spiritual masterpiece, no less than a long-form rock ‘n’ roll hymn. But musically, it just doesn’t hit me the way some of Yes’s other pieces do. That’s just my subjective experience, not a slight on the absolute genius of the song itself.       

The Revealing Science of God” is a song from an album I used to dislike. I still agree with Rick Wakeman, Yes’s keyboardist at the time, that there was a bit of padding involved with the making of the double album Tales From Topographic Oceans to fit the music to the template of one song per side of vinyl. But I’ve softened my stance over the years and now hear the ambition and creativity of the music above all else. What once sounded like meandering to my ears now feels more like a record whose creators deliberately chose to take their time telling a story and unfolding the narrative. You can rush to your destination, or you can leisurely look out the window and gaze at the passing scenery. “The Revealing Science of God” is firmly in the latter camp, as is the rest of Topographic, and that’s a legitimate artistic choice. To top it off, some of Yes’s most sublime musical moments are contained within this particular song. The opening chant, for one, never ceases to mesmerize me. It’s essentially Yes’s “In the beginning” story, recounting the evolution of humanity from our primitive beginnings to the moment of our “dawn of love” that sends us on a quest for “the freedom of life everlasting.” Amazing stuff.    

But after all of these reflections on the music of what has been my favorite band for close to 40 years as I write this, I came to the conclusion that if I had to pick just one Yes song to listen to for the rest of my life, it would be the 18-minute title cut from their 1972 album Close to the Edge.

I think the other songs I mentioned have just as great of an emotional impact on me as this one does, but “Close to the Edge” was a synthesis of everything Yes were aiming for in the early years of their career. It’s the moment when all the pieces finally fell into place. And in doing so, the song set a new standard for what listeners could expect from Yes’s music. It remains the creative pinnacle of their sizable repertoire and is arguably the greatest artistic achievement of the entire prog-rock genre.

And no small amount of its success comes down to the creative vision of Jon Anderson, who, himself being a musician of limited skill, would convey to his very talented and capable bandmates what he heard in his head. They’d bring the music to life while Jon focused on the lyrics. 

And boy, were these lyrics something special. In three short years, Jon had progressed from writing an innocent love song about a special lady who stirred the sweetness in with a spoon to taking on a masterwork of existential wonder, spurred on by his reading of Hermann Hesse’s classic spiritual work Siddhartha. If you ask me, the Beatles were the only other rock band that managed to so drastically evolve their musical vocabulary in such a short amount of time.

I have to admit that I hadn’t read Siddhartha when I first heard “Close to the Edge.” By some great act of serendipity, I discovered the book a few years later, discarded, of all places, in a trash dump on my grandfather’s property. I took the book home and finished it in a day or two. And I could immediately see the connection to Jon’s lyrics. The book tells the story of a man on a spiritual quest. He looks for answers in other people but finds that they can’t give him what he’s looking for, not even when the protagonist encounters the Buddha himself. In the end, he sits down by the banks of a river and finally reaches his moment of clarity.

When you understand that, you also understand why “the river” is such an important part of Jon’s lyrics in “Close to the Edge,” and why the song begins and ends with the sounds of running water and birds singing and chirping all around. Jon is a staunch believer that, in spiritual terms, all rivers flow into the same ocean — which is to say that all religions, despite their individual dogmas that lead to endless sectarian squabbles, are, in the end, searching for the same Ultimate Truth. But you could just as easily look at Jon’s lyrics and say that one finds God, or whatever you wish to call the Truth, through harmonizing with nature. That’s a legitimate interpretation too.

The wonderful thing, to me, about Jon’s lyrics is how they lend themselves to multiple meanings. He’s said in the past that he never desired to be direct and blunt with his lyrics, and he’s also admitted to using words purely for how they sounded. But even so, that spiritual thread is always there, undeniably, giving you something to hold on to as you let your mind explore the many symbolic possibilities that lie within the richness of the words. And what might not make sense on first listen often reveals itself within the context of the whole song. It may take multiple listens, but eventually things start to click. Even Jon has admitted that some of his lyrics didn’t unfold their full meaning to him until months or years after the fact.    

In a spiritual context, it makes perfect sense to me to take this lyrical approach. “God” is far beyond our feeble human ability to fully comprehend anyway, so why not talk about the spiritual in broad impressionistic brushstrokes that prompt the listener to dig for a meaning? You can similarly do a surface reading of the Bible and interpret it all on a literal level, or can you delve under the surface and see if there’s something else, something deeper and possibly more profound, that the writers were trying to tell us. Sometimes the Truth is hidden in plain sight; you just have to know where to look, and how to look.

I’m not going to go line by line through the song. I used to run a Yes album-review website where I devoted a lot of space to dissecting Jon’s lyrics. Been there, done that, and in hindsight I think I was probably missing the point by trying to nail down a definitive meaning. As I said, you have to really experience the words in their overall context to appreciate what they’re expressing. And anyway, it’s not so much about a key line here and there, but about the greater message.

Still, there are a few lines that have always hit me particularly hard, like “I crucified my hate and held the word within my hand.” That’s some powerful imagery. Or “The time between the notes relates the color to the scenes,” which to me means that we encounter God in the silence, the “time between the notes,” and that that encounter subsequently imbues our lives with the presence, the brilliant “color,” of divinity.

Then there are lines whose full import is inseparable from the music that accompanies it. For instance, “I get up, I get down” is a lyric that’s central to the portion of the song with the same name. (“Close to the Edge” is divided into four interconnected movements, similar to the construction of a classical piece.) But you don’t feel the weight of what seems to be a succinct observation of the peaks and valleys of life until you hear that transcendent pipe-organ solo that serves as its culmination. When I was still discovering Yes’s back catalog, one album at a time, I knew I was on to something special. But when I put on “Close to the Edge” for the first time and Rick’s solo came rumbling out of my bedroom speakers, well, it was at that moment that I knew Yes was going to be my favorite band for the rest of my life.

I watch a lot of music-reaction channels on YouTube because I get a vicarious thrill out of seeing other people experience for the first time the music that’s long been the soundtrack of my life. And more than once I’ve seen YouTubers wiping tears from their eyes when they get to the pipe organ in “Close to the Edge.” This music has the ability to cut through the hardest of hearts and the most jaded of cynics. It’s impossible not to have an emotional reaction to it, in my opinion. You might love it or hate it, but either way it’ll leave its mark. For me, that peak moment of “I Get Up I Get Down” was like having a religious experience. I’m not kidding. Some people have those peak moments in church, some in meditation, some staring at a blank wall in a zendo. For me it happened listening to a couple of English hippies on a song that was released when I was but a mere 1-year-old. Who knew I’d have my mind blown about a dozen years down the road?   

I think the opening of the song, after we leave the tranquility of the riverside, is probably the hardest part to digest. On the surface, it sounds like chaos. A jumble of unrestrained anxious energy. But it’s punctuated with a couple of brief wordless vocals from Jon that grab your attention before you’re thrown back into the whirlwind. To me, this section represents the frenetic pace of modern life. It’s discordant. It’s confusing. It moves fast, leaving you unable to know where to look, where to find a modicum of calm and sanity amid the chaos. But those little vocal interjections act as a reminder that the clarity, peace, and transcendence of the spiritual are always there, even in the most hectic and frantic of times, and we risk passing them by if we don’t learn how to slow down and take a breath.

That’s just what the music does, too, eventually leading us into a major key with a slower tempo. Now we can breathe. 

A few minutes later, Jon begins to impart his cosmic sermon, and we keep on twisting and turning through a panoply of moods, letting the band take us on a journey of ever-shifting keys, tempos, and melodies, punctuated by a little bit of jazz here, courtesy of guitarist Steve Howe, some classical stylings there, courtesy of Wakeman, and a heavy dose of funk throughout from Squire. (As my daughter would say, that bass guitar slaps.) Pinning it all down is drummer extraordinaire Bill Bruford, whose inimitable approach to percussion has never, as far as I’m concerned, been duplicated in the rock genre.

Part of the power of the message of “Close to the Edge,” for me, is that it comes to us in the midst of our hectic everyday lives. That’s what makes that tense opening section an indispensable ingredient of the song. It meets us where we are and only then points us toward the divine. Some religious people — we’ve all encountered them — live with their heads in the clouds, so busy trying to get to the next world that they forget to live in this one. Yet this is our spiritual training ground. This is where we learn lessons and grow. That’s not possible in the static perfection of the spiritual realm. This is where the action is. Right here, right now.

Jon once said that the final verse of the song came to him in a dream. This dream was about “passing on from this world to another world, yet feeling so fantastic about it that death never frightened me ever since.” That meaning becomes clear when we see the narrator of the song taking in a panoramic view of the valley below, after encountering a man who “pointed, revealing all the human race.” The narrator’s reaction? “I shook my head and smiled a whisper knowing all about the place.” It’s his moment of enlightenment. The song began with Jon telling us that “a seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace, and rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace.” He has explained that this line, to him, means that “your higher self will eventually bring you out of your dark world.” In contemporary terms, you discover that “the kingdom of God is within you,” that there was never anywhere to look but within yourself. And that’s where the story of “Close to the Edge” ends, as the music fades away and we find ourselves sitting peacefully back by the river. It all comes full circle, as life does.

I credit Jon Anderson with giving me the courage to look beyond the limiting confines of the religious tradition I was born into. It’s not easy to admit that you need to expand your horizons to find the Truth, especially if you find yourself under pressure from friends and family to conform to their way of seeing things. But I’ve never been one to passively accept other people’s truths. I have to do things on my own terms, until I find the answers that satisfy my intellect and resonate with my spirit. I sense that Jon’s spiritual journey has been similar, and that’s a big part of the reason his lyrical ruminations have struck such a strong chord with me over the years. In a way, he’s been my guru. I’ve read hundreds of books covering dozens of religious and spiritual traditions, but when I put a book back on the shelf, the music of Jon Anderson and Yes remains, rolling ever on through my mind, taking me to fantastical uncharted territories that I never would have visited without them as my tour guide.       

As I get older and my health challenges persist, maybe there’s also some part of me that yearns to find the peace with death that Jon discovered in his dream. Maybe that’s part of why the song hits me in a way that perhaps it didn’t when I was 13 years old and death was a far-off abstraction, a thing for the old and sick, of which I was neither. Even Jon is an old man now, and I know I’m going to be absolutely devastated the day he leaves this earthly realm. Long story short, you reach a point in life where you have to confront your mortality. We’re all going to die. How do you come to terms with that unavoidable reality? Well, it’s a work in progress for me. But with Jon’s help, I think I’ll eventually get there.

The first step in that process is to know that through all the health challenges, money challenges, and other various challenges that keep insisting on making themselves known to me, the Truth remains and will always remain. You can call that Truth whatever you want. Brahman, the Tao, nirvana, God, whatever. To me it’s all the same thing. You can argue about how they all have different meanings, but to me that’s just dogma and conditioning talking.

Jon has said that the phrase “Close to the Edge” means being “close to the edge of realization,” “the realization of why you’re here, why you live.” And part of that realization, I believe, is to see, with clarity, who we really are, and then to come to terms with the implications of that discovery. It’s a deeply profound thing that can’t be put into words.

I think even Jon Anderson understands that. But he nevertheless did a pretty good job of pointing me in the direction I needed to go.

Thanks, Jon.