Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Prog Rock Lyrics

I am a prog rock music lover, on the side.  Not as much as I once was, not as able to defend as I might have been, but even closeted, standing alone in a room or riding in a car, I have yet to experience from anyone else the soaring, transcendent beauty of passages, played or sung, that appeared on Yes albums in the 1970's.  Those songs took me places where nothing else before or since has ever taken me.  To this day, I can quote large passages of lyrics to those songs.  The question is: what the hell are they saying?

Many would agree that Close To The Edge, the 3-song Yes masterpiece from 1972 is the pinnacle of their achievement, perhaps of all prog rock.  It had all the trappings of what came to be known as "prog rock"--long songs with multiple sections, superb musicianship, innovative acoustic guitar sections, banks of synthesizers, quirky vocals, and, of course, meta-something lyrics.  Here are opening lines of "Close To The Edge," which set the tone:

A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace,

And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace,
And achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar,
Then taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour.
And assessing points to nowhere, leading ev'ry single one.
A dewdrop can exalt us like the music of the sun,
And take away the plain in which we move,
And choose the course you're running.

I have no idea what that means.  I can attack it with all of the tools and skills that have come from teaching poetry for over 30 years, and still I come up empty-handed.  I think it's about some aspect of  Maybe.

Or, from Emerson, Lake and Palmer's "Karn Evil 9":

Cold and misty morning, I heard a warning borne in the air
About an age of power where no one had an hour to spare,
Where the seeds have withered, silent children shivered, in the cold
Now their faces captured in the lenses of the jackals for gold.

The song is the beginning of a story, but not one that anyone (save the songwriter) can follow.  To be fair, Tommy doesn't make much sense, either, and until the narrative film, I didn't understand a lot of Quadrophenia, either.  Or The Wall.  But it is progressive rock lyrics that really push the boundaries of sense.

If you followed the bands at the time, or poured over their lyrics as I did, or had a few happy coincidences, it wasn't that hard to figure out where the songs' inspirations were coming from.  Jon Anderson from Yes was a big fan of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, and you can hear some of that in Close To The Edge, but only to name check characters or to identify situations.  When he read The Autobiography Of A Yogi that informed the pretentious Tales From Topographic Oceans (double-album, 4 sides, all one song).  And virtually all of the prog rock bands--Yes, ELP, Rush, and others--founds connections between what they were trying to do musically and science fiction.

The sci-fi connection led to all kinds of themed albums and songs, from ELP's computer-takes-over tale of "Karn Evil 9" to Rush's "2012" to any number of trippy-hippy Yes songs, as well as even more-whacked-out solo endeavors.  (I guess I need to admit here--I'm not really a "prog rock" guy; I just like Yes, ELP, and a little Rush.)

The problem was, not unlike other favorite rockers of mine, these songwriters had no one to edit them, no one to say, "That makes absolutely no f-ing sense!  That is just a bunch of cosmic bullshit."  Or maybe the problem was mine for listening to the lyrics and wanting/demanding that they mean something.  Certainly, the music seemed to push the words toward meaning, if only the meaning of what the world is to a confused, romantic, sensitive, introverted teenager.  Maybe if the words inspired the singer to give us his best show because he felt them, that was enough.

But to look at those lyrics now, especially with Internet assistance where I can actually see passages that I couldn't really understand from hearing them, they really are pretty silly.  "In and around the lake/Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there?"  How can that even work?  Are these mountains untethered to the land?  Do they drop down like stalactites?  Almost everyone in the Western world knows those words.  Do they mean anything?

But I don't poke too much fun.  As a high school student, I thought it all meant something.  It certainly seemed to at the time.  And I quoted them all over the girls' yearbooks that I signed on the last day of school:

And you and I climb, crossing the shapes of the morning.
And you and I climb, over the sun for the river.
And you and I climb, clearer, towards the movement.
And you and I called over valleys of endless seas.

What a dreamer, what a lover, what a romancer I was.  I'll be your roundabout.


stowstepp said...

Don't leave out Genesis. They were to me what Yes was to you. They had some crazy stories in their songs that were somewhat understandable (i.e. Get 'em out by Friday) but also those that made no sense at all (to me). They still took me where no other could. (And seeing Steve Hackett recently play old Genesis tunes was a complete flashback to that time/experience).

"When the sun beats down and I lie on the bench,
I can always hear them talk.
Me, I'm just a lawnmower - you can tell me by the way I walk."

Really? WTH does that mean?

Bob said...

That is hilarious, and exactly what I'm talking about. Thanks.

troutking said...

Would it be fair the say that prog-rock lyrics are the illogical end of the trend started by Dylan? Bob certainly played with words in non-traditional ways, used nouns as adjectives ("my existence led by confusion boats") and wrote lyrics that didn't follow logically from one line to the next at times. Certainly the Beatles at times went this direction too---Come Together, Being for the Benefit of Mr. K, etc. And eventually it just got really silly...or the drugs got really good.

Robert Berman said...

Troutking has the answer. At least some of these lyrics are the free-associative work of British schoolboys high on one substance or another. (I've heard that the original Yes guys were drug-free vegetarians. Nevertheless, when I search for Yes lyrics, an ad for drug rehab comes up.) The erudite phrases swirling in their cerebella flowed onto the page unimpaired by the demands of coherency. Thus we have Robert Plant's lament that Gollum stole his girlfriend, the thought fragments of "I've Seen All Good People," and so on. The brain of the non-inebriated listener rebels against such chaos, imposing an external Rorshachian order upon it.