Monday, May 6, 2013

Prog Rock Tales

YOU would have to look long and hard to find someone who felt less warmly about the movement known as progressive rock as your humble blogger. (If the genre was bad in its original appearance, it seemed doubly awful in its ‘80s AOR rebirth.) I expect a lot of us who came of age in the years after punk feel the same way, and preferred the concision of college radio or “modern rock” acts like R.E.M. and Elvis Costello to endless prog symphonies. (Of course, I will make an exception here for the bizarre genius of Robert Fripp.)
Why, then, can’t I put down this new book, Yes is the Answer , a collection of writers on prog? I’m still not sure, but I love its combination of humor and critical seriousness. The book is edited by longtime LA writer Marc Weingarten – an old friend whose music journalism I read in the '90s -- and Tyson Cornell, who once booked authors at Book Soup and now runs Rare Bird Lit. 

The years between Sgt. Pepper’s and those first Clash and Pistols singles were a strange disorienting time for rock music. Glam found one way out of that puzzle, and prog took another road. Was all that heavy, high-pitched silliness worth it?

In any case, Yes is the Answer includes writer/producer Seth Greenland on The Nice, novelist Matthew Specktor on Yes, Wesley Stace (John Wesley Harding) on the prog scene of Canterbury, UK, Rick Moody on Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Jim DeRogatis on Genesis, music writer Margaret Wappler on getting laid to King Crimson, New York Times food writer Jeff Gordinier on how failed sex is a lot like a Styx concert, writer/bassist Jim Greer on Guided by Voices' debt to prog, and many other sharp, counter-intuitive pieces. 

Overall, it's way more fun than it has any business being.

Keep your eyes peeled for events around town. For now, here is my conversation with Weingarten.

Why did this seem like the right time for a book on this once-mighty musical form? Is there a prog revival going on, like when Yes returned with “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” and Rush and Asia were rockin’ the suburbs? 
I think there are a lot of bands out there who secretly love prog but don't want to admit it - they have no cultural cover, so to speak, because this is the last rock subgenre that hasn't been reclaimed by hipsters.  So, we thought it was a good a time as any to point out that there's a lot of great music here, made at a time of pretty outrageous and often overreaching experimentation. Which is also part of the charm of prog - how crazily ambitious it was.  I love the idea of bands writing hour-long suites and traveling with orchestras - it speaks to a kind of silly grandeur that I think is lacking in indie rock  - you see it in contemporary metal, I suppose.  
Most of your contributors are -- like you and me -- Xers who came of age with post-punk or alt-rock. We’re a generation, then, for whom prog became a punch line or a bad memory. What undercut prog’s world domination back then? 
Because Prog was almost exclusively a British phenomenon, it was completely stomped by Punk Rock, because Punk in England was really a tsunami.  It was time for Prog to go, anyway - it had gotten really overblown and quite awful.  I don't think any of our contributors would argue that Relayer is better than London's Calling, but we all have a soft spot for Prog.  
How did you and your co-editor come up with your contributors? There are a few well-known rock critics like Jim DeRogatis, but mostly this is literary folk.
We didnt want this to be a wonky, "Robert Fripp created Frippertronics in 1979," facts-and-figures book. We didn't see the point of that, especially with a genre like Prog, which is so rooted in adolescence, and cherished memories of early drug experiences, arena shows and gatefold album analysis.  It seemed like a good idea to have non-music writers have a fresh go at it.  
I count two women among all the contributors, and suspect this is NOT the fault of the editors. Could it be that prog has traditionally been a guy thing, and as some of your essayists suggest, a pre-adolescent guy thing?
Totally young dude thing. One hundred percent! 
Do you have a favorite prog band or album? Anything involving Phil Collins?
Well, Phil Collins is an incredible drummer - and I do love all the Gabriel-era Genesis stuff. I guess King Crimson's Red is my favorite album - a noisy, dark and disturbing record. So unlike most Prog, in other words! 


LUCA said...

An acquaintance of mine, a corpulent man in his sixties with a white ponytail, lovebead jewelry and a striking resemblance to the Simpson's Comic Book Guy, recently told me he had returned from a "fantastic" week in the Caribbean, aboard a prog rock cruise. Yes, five dreamy days on a cruise ship with Yes. Also remnants of Genesis, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Tangerine Dream and other prog superstars currently eligible for medicare, much as their fans. The name of the daiquiri proglapalooza: Cruise to the Edge.

Scott Timberg said...

Awesome anecdote!