distal muse

observations, opinions, ephemera, and views

This content shows Simple View

Most Definitely…YES

I’d like to start this new version of the Distal Muse with a few words on the band that has been the center of my musical aesthetic for over 35 years.

How do you explain the connection made between audience and artist that is instant and somehow never fades?  I don’t know.  It’s the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to magic (with the single exception of falling in love…but, I suppose, they are related experiences).

I’ve been listening to YES since I was fifteen, maybe sixteen.  It’s difficult to remember exactly now.  It was shortly after I got my first stereo.  I remember that stereo.  A Panasonic combination receiver/turntable.  The turntable rose up out of the body when you flipped the lid up.  It was not, in my estimation, a bad turntable and I later fitted the tone arm with a cartridge and needle way better than the rest of the unit.  I bought a pair of Radio Shack speakers which, quite fortuitously, were the perfect size for my small room.  (Like most teenagers’ rooms, mine functioned something like Doctor Who’s tardis, containing far more than it possibly could under normal space-time conditions.)


Because our house was small–first floor apartment of a two-family flat, maybe 700 square feet total— sound traveled easily.  Loudness was to be eschewed.  Eventually, I acquired headphones to get a proper volume fix, but before that it was a classic contest between parental desires for decorous quiet and my “need” to crank it up.  I would listen to the radio at night, after bedtime.  I remember the green glow of the stereo panel suffusing the room with the perfect night light ambience my science fiction saturated brain required.  Had to keep the volume way down, but this was rock’n’roll, so how hard was that?  Not like listening to classical, where some parts would vanish from audibility on a regular basis, only to have the orchestra thunder back when least expected.


I slept that way for years.  When I finally got my own “place” in the basement, isolated and insulated from the rest of the house, I’d leave the radio on all night long.  But somewhere around one in the morning, those first couple years, I’d somehow rouse long enough to switch it off.  Better than letting my parents discover come morning that I still had it on.  They were concerned enough about me as it was, and they were the sort to take things away when they suspected obsession encroaching on their son’s psyche.


I heard a lot of really good music those nights.  We had a local station, which back then was in the throes of becoming “commercial” but for the time being still retained a great deal of its “underground” sensibility, that was more like a college station than anything else.  FM broadcasting was still relatively new and apparently cheap enough that the dollar requirements that had turned AM into a musical wasteland had yet to apply.  I remember the freedom the DJs had and that meant the listener would be treated to music that those still wedded to the bubblegum AM stations would never hear.  Sure, there was some elitism involved, but in retrospect the musical offerings were indeed superior, if for no other reason than the FM rock stations of the late Sixties, early Seventies had broken with the AM constraint of the three-minute tune and the “rotation” list.  For the most part, you only get that from small, underpowered college stations now.


Between ten and one or two in the morning, though, sort of when “no one was paying attention”, the DJs would play music radical even for the bulk of the station’s broadcast choices.  I heard Family, a band which has sunk out of sight.  Gentle Giant.  Early Genesis.  King Crimson (other than the first album).  The DJ at the time, right around midnight, would play his “underappreciated artist” of the week on Friday or Saturday nights.  A lot of obscure stuff got aired.


One night, though, as I was on the cusp of fading to sleep, he put on YES.  The track was Sweet Dreams, which can be found on the band’s second album, Time And A Word.


Something about it…

There are many things to which that line may be applied in our lives.  “Something about it…”  The look, the feel, the sound, the chemistry. 


The connection.  My eyes snapped open and I listened intently.  It was, to say the least, unusual in many respects.  The bass playing, the harmonic structure, the major key that still managed not to be saccharine.  But mostly, Jon Anderson’s voice, which was high, almost childish, and still managed to be powerful.  Had I been reading Tolkein at the time I might have said that he sang the way a hobbit might sing, but I had yet to read any of that, so comparisons eluded me.  It was certainly alien, but in the best sense of the word.  As an avid SF fan, “alien” to me connoted, often, something superior, something aspirational, and certainly something to be embraced.  Through the alien we might find our humanity.


I was not then a very savvy record buyer.  I had yet to discover the worthwhile record stores in town.  I was, simply, pretty geeky and a bit of a dork.  People didn’t tell me things because, first, I tended not to ask–I hated being stupid and I really did indulge in pretending not to be by never admitting I didn’t know something, hoping I’d find out somehow later without having to reveal my ignorance; secondly, probably because my charade fooled no one, people tended not to want me to know the really cool stuff, preferring to keep me at arm’s length.  Sad, really.  But I was smart, even if I used my intelligence stupidly, and eventually I learned everything I thought I needed to know.


Since the DJ did not bother to say which album that track was on, I ended up buying two other YES albums before finding the one on which Sweet Dreams was on.  But that didn’t matter, because the two albums I did buy–in the vernacular–blew me away.  They were The Yes Album and Fragile.


First off, the only other bands of my acquaintance up to that point with ten-minute tracks were Chicago, the Nice,  and live Cream.  Very, very different kind of music than this.  Even the bands I really loved still hewed closely to the AM time limits, few exceeding five minutes.  This seemed somehow extremely significant to me.  The longer tracks gave the band room to really indulge the unique sound they were developing.  YES was far more structured than Cream, not at all derivative of earlier-period music like Chicago, and most of the Nice was classical cover work–their original pieces, except for The Five Bridges Suite, were still short.


Now that I think of this, it had to have been in ‘71 or ‘72.  Certainly ‘72 when I bought Fragile, that was the year it came out.  But very quickly after finding The Yes Album, I found–because I had found one of the “cool” record shops–ELP, Genesis, a number of other bands that were all breaking many of the same boundaries then.  By late ‘72 I was very much a progressive rock fan, and pretty much “in the know” about what was happening.


But I want to talk about those two YES albums.


The Yes Album was alien to my ear.  The opening bars of Yours Is No Disgrace, the crystal clarity of Squire’s bass line underlining the punctuated guitar chords, then the growly Hammond of Tony Kaye, all leading to that unexpected walking bass line over which the vocals sort of saunter in…I didn’t know song writing like this, I didn’t know it could be done that way.  It was all so casual until the next bridge, when everything explodes back in, loud but with nothing mushed together as was the case with so many bands.


On that album it was Steve Howe’s guitar playing that finally kept me listening to it over and over.  It was delicate.  He played electric more like an acoustic guitar, and yet when it needed to slice air the power was not lacking.  It reminded my most of Les Paul, only not as “cute” as that.  And then there was the live track, Howe’s acoustic solo piece Clap.


To this day, though, one of my favorite songs of all time is from that album.  Starship Trooper.  Perhaps a bit obvious, yes, the title had me even before I heard the music, but the music still stands up.  It is very much in my mind “future” music.  Now, imagine, it’s 1972, and the most sophisticated thing in rock’n’roll you have heard to that point is a couple Beatles tracks, Jimi Hendrix, and Santana, mainly the Abraxas album.  The Beatles, for all their genius, were doing mainstream rock’n’roll.  Even Abby Road is pretty much standard rock, derived from AM radio sensibilities, some good blues, and a dash of classical thrown in probably by George Martin.  Hendrix was pyrotechnic blues—brilliant, yes, propulsive, certainly, but blues.  Santana possessed a kind of “old world” quality to it from the Latin rhythms and the romance sensibilities, but wedded to the blues and hard rock.  Santana’s guitar work raised it above the level of dance music and to this day it is Carlos’ playing that makes Santana music anything more than rhythmically interesting.  Compositionally-speaking, all this material is very conservative.


Now enter the third YES album.  You have four long tracks that are broken down into “movements” of sorts.  Not just key or time changes, but actual complimentary but different thematic movements.  The sensibility comes distantly from a little English folksong, but mostly it comes from a sensibility derived from Stravinsky and Ravel.  You can hear Ravel and Debussy in some of whole tone improvisation and in the major key modulations.  But neither of those composers did “songs” as such.  They did landscape with their music, and landscape is possibly the best way to describe the effect of YES’s longer pieces.  They are doorways into alternate realities where the day-to-day elements of life are different.  Electric meadows, with antigravity trains overarching them under a daytime-visible moon fifty thousand miles closer so that you can see the campfires of the settlers living in the great Mares.


But not so different that you can’t connect the traditions up with recognizable predecessors.  Listen to Perpetual Change and you can hear stride piano themes paired to swing era three and four-part harmony, with a taste of Sixties era television theme music in the connective tissue.  It’s a weird mix that, to a certain ear, is immediately recognizable. 


YES has never been a universal taste.  The music speaks to a certain mindset.  I’ll pass on describing that mind, but I have one.  YES was an immediate soundtrack to the Roger Zelazny, Gordon Dickson, Alfred Bester novels and stories I was reading at the time.  It clicked into place for me, the way Maxfield Parish clicked as well as Escher and Magnus Robot Fighter 4000 A.D. all clicked.  And the substantive element, the aspect that continued to make it work, was that slightly askew of present reality approach to the soundscaping.


Which is what they did, and very clearly so, on Fragile, which was a showcase of what they intended.


Once more, one has to put this into the context of the day.  1972, the country, the world, was obsessed with Vietnam; Nixon was about to be reelected; the Culture Wars were well under way; in music, we had Paul McCartney’s band Wings hitting the airwaves with songs like Wildlife and Uncle Albert, John Lennon was singing about imagining no heaven, prom dances across the country were just beginning to experience of numbing banality of Chicago’s Color My World, and sides had been drawn up between the Top 40 lovers and those who were abandoning AM radio by the droves, searching for “real music.”  The Who was making thunderous music, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were teaching children, Janis Joplin was dead and martyred, and Elton John was launching into the early stages of what would become glamor rock.  Protest music had gone hard, Deep Purple was breaking eardrums, Jesus Christ Superstar had come out and created a cultural stir with its rock’n’roll Christ image….


In the middle of all this, a band releases an album of music that is wholly involved with metaphorical imagery suggesting an alternative consciousness that one doesn’t need drugs to attain because the music will carry you.  In fact, if you’re stoned it probably won’t work as well.  It’s orchestral, dynamically positive, and an embrace of the unembarrassed grandeur of magnificently skilled musicianship., In other words, these guys were showing off.  Fragile is nothing if not an epic of “Hey, listen to what we can do!” showmanship.  And if it wouldn’t have been clear enough through the main pieces on the album, they structured in to make sure you knew what they were doing by giving each individual member his own track to strut on.


They had replaced their original keyboard player, Tony Kaye, with Rick Wakeman.  What can one say about Wakeman that doesn’t sound sycophantic?  He was, at that time, light years ahead of other keyboardists, with the single exception of Keith Emerson.  In fact, it’s worth comparing the two to see how completely distinctive their aesthetic approaches to music were while still being essentially equals in technique.  Emerson was far more influenced by jazz, though his classical grounding is indisputable, while Wakeman is predominantly a classical musician influenced by rock’n’roll and ragtime.  Ability, though, is not the story–what counted was how YES used that ability.


The advancement in musical adventurism was instantly apparent in the opening track, Roundabout.  All due respect to Mr. Kaye, YES could never have done this kind of music with him.  In the 80s Kaye rejoined the band and it was evident he couldn’t copy Wakeman’s chops.  Kaye, to be fair, is a very accomplished rock keyboardist, and if you listen to all he did after leaving YES, you can’t take anything away from him.  In bands like Flash, Detective, with David Bowie, and Badger, Kaye is a damn good player.  But YES, collectively, was going somewhere else, and the band needed a Wakeman.  (Wakeman has been successfully replaced only twice, and for short periods.  Patrick Moraz, who later became a member of the Moody Blues, was every bit as good as Wakeman, although far more jazz influenced, and more recently a Russian player named Igor Korasev admirably filled the bill.  But among Wakeman’s contemporaries at the time, there just weren’t any who could do what he did.)


YES was one of the cause celebres of a movement decrying quality musicianship, as if there were a kind of bizarre Marxist class consciousness about playing really well that violated some basic tenet of rock music.  The ultimate flower of that movement was punk rock, wherein playing badly became a badge of honor.  It’s perverse, but one of the evidences that music is a social phenomenon as much as anything to do with the artist.  YES hit its stride at the same time as many bands that later were tagged by the label “Art Rock” which was used as much as epithet as praise.  (Once I heard an argument that I sort of agreed with on this topic, in which the critic said that bands like YES just struck his as essentially “operatic”–the show, the elegance, the glitter, the ostentation being as important as the music, but since the music was inextricably tied to those elements, they reinforced each other.  I don’t care for opera.  I could almost see this.  But I do care for classical music as a whole, and I really detest bad playing.)  At the time, ELP, Genesis, Mike Quatro, King Crimson, the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, and many others were beginning or were at the top of their game presenting music that loosely fit the rock category but which had expanded the possible range of the music far beyond anything envisaged by the Rolling Stones and their ilk.


The test of any music is its staying power.


I said Fragile was nothing if not showing off.  What was it showing off for?  In 1973, what may arguably be YES’s masterpiece came out.  Close To The Edge.


What Fragile did was set listeners up for the experience of Close To The Edge, which was unique to that date in structure and sensibility–at least in the rock idiom.  Mind you, many other artists were moving toward something like this–certainly Keith Emerson with his Tarkus suite had something like this in mind, but Tarkus is really a number of separate pieces stitched together into the semblence of a whole work.  Symbolic theme is carried through, but not musical theme, except in the framing devices.  Emerson didn’t achieve his own symphonic exegesis till Karn Evil 9 on the Brain Salad Surgery album.  YES, in the title track of the album, produced a rock symphony.  Four movements, clear and distinct, each one playing off the others musically as well as thematically, and it is one cohesive piece, almost 19 minutes long–which is short for a symphony, of course, but monumental for a piece of rock music.


There are only two other tracks on the album, and both are revolutionary in sensibility and execution–and in the fact that they “feel” complementary to the title track.  So in total effect, the entire album seems to be one musical statement, even though in concert the three pieces were usually played separately and effectively.


Of minor significance, this was also the album which debuted the now-iconic YES logo, designed by artist Roger Dean.  Even when Roger Dean did not do later YES covers, they kept the trademark logo, at least until their 80s incarnation with Trevor Rabin on guitar.  The softly-contoured interweaving of that logo became a visual cue for what the band was all about.  Simple on the surface, intricate in execution.


Roger Dean did the cover for Fragile as well, but it was clearly an aesthetic in progress.  The logo is different, but heading in the direction that became the trademark.  Dean’s distinctive cover work and, later, set designs for the stage shows were every bit as important in the long run as the music.  YES was creating an alternate world in their visual as well as musical presentations.  Dean became part of the band in this sense.  It was with Close To The Edge that his stage sets began to appear, sets which hit their peak with the Tales From Togographic Oceans and Relayer tours.


YES released a three record live album in the wake of Close To The Edge.  The stage show cohered into an event, the musical sets dovetailing with the special effects on stage to create a threatrical experience making these concerts more than just a good band playings its tunes.  The first of these seem thin and crude compared to what was to come later in the 70s, but like everything else about YES it was a progression. 


That live set captured the tour in which another new member replaced a departing player.  Bill Bruford had been their drummer from the start.  He claims to have been a jazz drummer and thought where YES was going would give him opportunity to do “interesting” percussion.  He experimented a lot with polyrhythms, but quite frankly in those albums it seemed his reach exceeded his grasp.  He did bring it all together on Close To The Edge, which makes it all the more ironic that he chose that tour to leave the band.  He joined King Crimson after that, where Bruford’s drumming achieved polish and style and enviable musicality.  YES gave him the chance to experiment, and not all of it was successful.  His replacement, Alan White, was a more traditional rock drummer, very solid but not flashy.  In fact, his approach is deceptive–what he does sounds simple, until one realizes what kind of extraordinary rhythmic environments he is drumming in.  He is an engine for the band and may sometimes be underrated, but only by those not listening closely.  White remains with YES to this day, and with his addition the so-called “classic” line-up was achieved.


Other musicians have entered and left YES, but it is these five musicians who formed the essence of the band–Anderson, Howe, Squire, Wakeman, and White.  And they keep coming back together in various incarnartions to recapture the brilliance of the band.


After Close To The Edge, and the live album, came a double album of four tracks which clearly were intended to stretch the boundaries of the symphonic form achieved in that album.  Tales From Togographic Oceans is a masterpiece built on the aesthetic template of Close To The Edge.  YES successfully created a soundscape which captured the idea of another world in musical terms.


Critically, people saw this album as self-indulgent.  As far as it goes, this is true.  These people were insulated in a creative pocket and doing what they now knew how to do for no other reason than the pure artistry of the process.  If it cut some listeners off, if it left critics with too little to compare it to, if it seemed that YES was going places only a few might follow, well, they joined a long list of composers of whom the same thing could be said–Beethoven, Schubert, Scriabin, Stravinsky, Parker, Coltrane, Coleman…they left the precincts of what might be called popular idiom and did something else.


In point of fact, they did not lose audience.  The concerts were selling out, the albums were going platinum, the following they had built up did not dwindle.  But perception is a funny thing, and something in the feedback they received must have tapped a problem.  After Tales… Wakeman left.  He wanted to pursue a solo career, and a prolific one it has been.  Patrick Moraz replaced him, after a European tour with Greek synthesizer wizard Vangelis sitting in with the band.  (Jon Anderson had sung on one of Vangelis’s albums, Heaven and Hell, foreshadowing a collaboration that would produce four unique albums.) 


Moraz.  Swiss, a keyboard master, he had the year before produced an album with the two musicians Keith Emerson had cut loose when he ditched The Nice and formed ELP.  The band was called Refugee and they only did one record, but it was magnificent (despite Jackson’s insufferable vocals).  Then YES drafted him and the next album was Relayer


Relayer was another three-track album, with one long piece on one side--The Gates of Delirium.  Clearly, the band thought it had something with the longer form, and musically this was every bit as daring and ambitious and deft as the previous two studio albums.  Moraz’s keyboard work was frenetic, seemingly on the edge of control, more jazz influenced that Wakeman, yet thunderously powerful.  There was a darkness to this work as well that had not been in the previous work.


Perhaps they exhausted themselves with this one.  It seemed they broke against a shore and shattered.  The experience perhaps dazed them.  Whatever happened, they all went off to do solo albums.  Jon Anderson did Olias of Sunhillow, Chris Squire did Fish Out of Water, Moraz did a strange thing called !…they were all distinctive and you could hear what each brought to the whole very clearly.


It was a worrisome period as well.  Other bands had reached points of discontent or exhaustion, and the members went off to do solo work, and then never reformed.  Or, when they did come back together, something had been lost, and their previous magic was absent.


When YES did come back together in 1978, the result was unexpected and relieving.  Wakeman returned and the album they produced was Going For the One.  It was more traditional.  Several tracks, couple of them airable even on AM.  They had clearly taken what they had developed during the time of the epic compositions and applied it to more conventional songwriting.  More conventional, I say, but still outside any kind of norm for what might be the order for a rock tune.


I went to all but one of their concerts during this period.  They just kept getting better on stage.  They had the ability to hold an audience in the palm of their metaphysical hands and imbue emotional reverie, joy, exhiliration.  They worked together syncretically, utterly in step with each other.


And they were still building that other world.


Time passes, movements end, appreciation shifts.  I don’t believe YES ever lost its edge, although it did become insular, and sometimes the work seemed to possess a disregard for whoever else might be listening.  Never less than wonderful, but removed from more common sensibilities sometimes to the extent of putting up a wall between artist and audience.  Not for long, never a whole album.  And while other bands of that period found that their ability to fill large venues faded, YES still manages to pack a stadium, although they took to doing smaller venues in the 90s.


None of which particularly interests me in terms of what the music does for me.  I don’t care if a hundred or a hundred million other people like something.  It is the way it touches me that counts, and YES continues to possess an aural approach that draws me.  I like their idea of where music ought to have gone.


Going For The One represents for me one parenthetical marker of a principle period for YES, the other one being The Yes Album.  Between these two recordings, the band established a comprehensive aesthetic that can be listened to as a continuum, a progression from the grasp of an idea to its ultimate flowering, to the point at which, now achieved, the band made a change in approach.  The palette developed and employed through these seven albums continues to be used today, but in very different compositional approaches.  I dislike the cliche-ridden notion of A Golden Age, but most artists have expressive periods which, at least to their audience, seem to represent an ideal.  Going For The One marked the point at which YES left the arena of “epic” compositional experiment and reduced what they had learned to what at first glance seems to be traditional song writing.  If by that, one recognizes “traditional” and “songwriting” to mean a specific format which has dominated American (and by cross-pollination European) popular music throughout much of the 20th Century, then the description is deceptive.  Bar for bar, the notion of “tune-smithing” has been consistently and continually subverted by YES, even within the context of pieces that hew to that traditional format.  They are not writing “songs” per se, but composing set pieces wherein experiment is most important–not experiment for the sake of being different, but experiment in the service of creating a moment or two of unique experience.  They are as much concerned with the afterimage of each piece as with its initial impact, something most popular music doesn’t bother with because the idea that the listener should carry something more than the beat and the hook away from a single listen is foreign to the industry.  (This is also what separates good literature from “popular fiction”–the chief experience of a potboiler is exhausted in the process of reading, while “literature” creates impressions that linger and influence long after the book has been finished and put away.  So, too, with great music, but the hurry-up-and-move-to-the-next-distraction aesthetic of popular culture doesn’t allow for contemplative after-considerations.  Hence artists whose chief quality is that deep listening–or reading–produces secondary or tertiary effects as significant as the initial impact tend to be underappreciated or overlooked expressly because such qualities require deep attention.)


After Going For The One, the band seemed to hit a period of crippling reassessment.  The next album–still with the “classic” line-up–Tormato was a disjointed production.  Not that the individual tracks were any less than fine, but the totality failed to cohere.  It seemed that these songs belonged on some other albums which were never released (leaving one to wonder what other songs unwritten or simply unrecorded might have gone with them).  It felt like a collection of “extras” from previous recordings.  (To be clear, YES had lost nothing in their ability to do what they had been doing since The Yes Album, as witnessed by the transcendent heights of On The Silent Wings of Freedom, one of the finest “short” pieces since Starship Trooper.)  The members of the band seemed to sense it as well, since the next album marked drastic, almost cataclysmic changes in personel.  Wakeman left again, but so too did Jon Anderson.  The hallmark vocalist went elsewhere, to pursue other interests.  That album–Drama–is an odd object. It is perhaps better regarded from the vantage of history than it was when it came out.  While the band that did called itself YES, and there were still the profound ideas that had always informed YES’s music present, it is not, really, YES.  While excellent, it proved too much a departure.


Jon Anderson went on to a prolific solo career, and, as noted above, made four superb recording with Vangelis.  Wakeman had never stopped making solo albums, and Steve Howe began to record on his own.  Chris Squire and Alan White, however, kept experimenting with new bands, unwilling or disinterested in solo efforts.  Through them, eventually, a new formation of YES gelled in the early 80s. Incorporating their original keyboardist, Tony Kaye, and South African guitarist Trevor Rabin.  Initially called CINEMA, once Squire asked Anderson to sing lead it inevitably became YES.


Since the release of 90125, YES has become something of a workshop, with members joining, leaving, sitting in, going in unique directions.  During this period one of the most distinctively “yessish” albums released was not even by YES—ANDERSON BRUFORD WAKEMAN & HOWE, which reintroduced Bill Bruford (who had become the drummer YES had always needed) and but for the absence of Chris Squire was pretty much classic YES.   (The “classic” line-up did get back together for two albums which, in the original compositions, revisited the Epic compositional techniques of the 70s–the Keys To Ascencsion discs, which include what may be the definitive “live” sets of the band, plus studio recordings made during the same period, and are magnificent examples of the musical landscaping that set them apart in Close To The Edge.)


Sometime during the late 70s I finally found the album on which was Sweet Dreams, the track that first drew me to this band.  It was their second release, called Time And A Word.  I found their first album, simply called Yes, at the same time.  I’m happy to have them, but I am very glad they were not the first YES albums I owned.  The two records contain pretty traditional songwriting.  The sonic motifs that were to become YES are there in snippets, but they had not yet found their radical expression, and there was actually little to recommend them above many other bands at the time.  Perhaps a comparable experience would be for someone who discovered the Beatles with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, followed them through everything that followed, and only then, after Abby Road, found the first two or three Beatles records.  There would have been a bit of a shock and some puzzlement as to how the band you had fallen in love with had come from what seemed such unoriginal beginnings. 


But on close listening you can hear the genius even then…


Critics have hated YES from time to time, because, damnit, they don’t follow trends, and they don’t write music to meet the expectations of fashionistas.  Sometimes where they went musically seemed strange even to those who did love them, but they were, first and foremost, very serious about music as music–not as show or entertainment or pop culture or anything outside of the aesthetic concerns of a given soundscape.  Such music implicitly instructs the listener to “pay attention” and, in some cases, to catch up.

Robertson, Sharon & Abraham

This happened some time ago, but it’s taken me a while to “process” it and come up with a cogent observation. Sometimes, certain things are just too unbelievable to take. But this is by no means the first, nor shall it be the last, time someone from the frothing-at-the-mouth christian right has said something which leaves most reasonable (and reasoning) people flatfooted.

Partly, this is about not knowing history, which is something all of us could do with a little more intimate acquaintance.

The right Reverand Pat Robertson, who spews forth on the 700 Club–a televised ministry previously notable for bad hair, excessive eye makeup, and monetary and sexual hypocrisy that ran off the scales–let the public know what he thought was behind Ariel Sharon’s massive cerebral hemhorrage this past week. Seems God did it.

If there is a more ideologically corrupt pundit currently mouthing off, I am unaware of him or her. Mona Chabon might qualify, except her observations are so fecklessly ill-formed that she poses no serious challenge to reason, and Ann Coulter seems to have turned purely to a Limbaugh-esque “don’t confuse me with the facts, my numbers are more important than truth” kind of screeding moronity.

According to Robertson, God struck Sharon down because he was about to give God’s land to the Palestinians. He said:

“God considers this land to be his…You read the Bible and he says, ‘This is my land,’ and for any prime minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it away, God says, ‘No, this is mine.”

He quoted the prophet Joel.

He declared that Sharon could not do what he was going to do to appease the EU, NATO, the United Nations, or the United States–which made it a political statement. So much for separation of church and state on Mr. Robertson’s show.

There’s a little something called common decency which seems to be lacking in all this, not to mention common sense. But without doubt, many people will agree with Mr. Robertson, and, given our current religio-political climate, will send a message to congress to try to affect policy in accordance with this latest reading of what Yahweh wants.


Joel was one of the so-called minor prophets. It’s not even certain when the Book of Joel was written, but most evidence points to some time in the Fifth or Fourth Century B.C. He wrote mainly about Judah, which at that time was a small slice of what had once been what we know as Israel. To give some perspective, the Empire of David and Solomon–which was the greatest extent of ancient Israel— included a number of what might be considered States: Edom in the south, Moab, Ammon, Bashan, Gilead in the east, Judah and Israel in the center and west, Zobah and Hamath in the north, in what is present-day Syria. Jerusalem sat on the border between Judah and Israel at the time.

Borders shift. Between Solomon and “Joel”, so-called Israel underwent a number of calamities, namely the Babylonian and Assyrian conquests. Judah was pretty much all that was left when Joel was written, and it had both shrunk and moved. Jerusalem was about dead center in Judah, whose eastern border was the Dead Sea and the Jordan River. Jericho was well inside its northern boundary.

So when Joel speaks of dividing God’s land, you have to bear in mind that (a) the land had already been divided about as badly as it could have been with there still being a Jewish state left worthy of the title, and (b) the reference was to a tiny circle that contained Jerusalem and Bethlehem and not much else.

In other words, Joel’s ravings don’t really count for much in the great scheme of anything.

The minor prophets, by and large, seem to have been a group of disgruntled misanthropes who spent all their time kvetching about the state of the world and spinning out warnings of what terrible things would eventually happen to everyone who had caused the Hebrews any grief. They stood on their metaphorical mountains shaking their fists at everyone–past, present, and future–who contributed to the lack of greatness God had promised Abraham.

Why would any reasonable person pay the least attention?

There are two points I’d like to make in this essay. The first doesn’t take very long to state: Pat Robertson exemplifies the complete lack of reason inherent in the fundamentalist mindset. Prophecy trumps compassion, revelation beats out practicality, and divine authority crushes genuine morality. Robertson’s pronouncement in the aftermath of Sharon’s tragedy demonstrates clearly where the dividing line is between the ideal and ideological.

Which brings me to the second point.

Where does that mindless commitment come from?

I mean, while it is true that we have a history of misreading the so-called “will of god” and thereby unleashing untolled misery in the name of the Prince of Peace, we nevertheless have this idea, whether we accept it or not, of absolute obedience to perceived divine authority. How does that bumper sticker go?

God said it, I believe it, that’s the end of it.


Never mind how you might know what god actually said. Let’s assume, for the sake of this argument, that we can take the Bible as true.

The key passage, I think, is Genesis 22. That’s the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. This is Sunday School stuff. We all know the story. Isaac was Abraham’s only son. One day God tells Abraham to take Isaac to such-n-such location and offer him up as burnt sacrifice. Abraham saddles up, takes Isaac to the place, and proceeds to do just that. At the last minute, God stays his hand, tells him he’s proved himself, provides a ram for the sacrifice, and promises Abraham all kinds of stuff for his descendents because of his willingness to kill his son for Yahweh.

We are taught to read this story as symbolic that God values absolute obedience over all else, that because Abraham would give up the one thing he loved more than all else for God he was somehow worthy of God’s special love. Lesson being that divine authority is NOT to be questioned.

Well. What if we’ve been reading it wrong?

See, if indeed this was a test–if God was testing Abraham to see if he was worthy of something–why do we assume he passed?

My take is, Abraham failed. The test was to see if a moral code had actually taken root in Abraham. The correct response would have been–“Are you kidding? That’s murder. You want a sacrifice, I’ll offer myself, but it is IMMORAL to expect me to coopt Isaac’s life in Your name.” Instead, Abraham was going to obey, regardless of the right or wrong of the request.

A moral compass is supposed to work independently of divine authority–otherwise, why even discuss morality? Why even bother with the notion of free will?

Free will, of course, was more a problem to the Medeival and Renaissance philosophers and theologians than it was to Abraham–or Joel–but it’s implicit in much of the Old Testament.

You may say, but God went on to promise Abraham blessings for his obedience. He did, didn’t he? Did it come true? Did it happen? Did, in fact, Yahweh deliver?

Think what we may, Israel was never a great power. A strong kingdom for a time under David and Solomon, but not of much international influence. In the reckonings of history, it was a land of the conquered and reconquered more often than it was ever a Player. I’m suggesting that, if we want to take all this at face value, it’s just possible that God was being disingenuous–out of intense disappointment.

But people like Pat Robertson cling to that story as the anchor that holds their ship in the bay, keeps their world in place, lets them know that whatever may appear moral, may well not be what God wants–and between the two, morality and God’s whim, the latter is always more important.

Like I say, why would any reasonable person pay any attention to this?

If, since we’re taking all this as if it were true, God is really like that, then we have no choice. This is a question of brute force and overpowering potential to deliver on threats versus…scruples. Which would you bet on? Which would you willingly sacrifice yourself or your family to defy?

And if that’s the case, then my only point here would be to say–stop talking about morality. This is an autocracy, nothing less, and it doesn’t matter what is right or wrong, only what the Boss wants. So it’s a sham to talk about those demands as if they have anything to do with morality.

But obviously, when you go to connect the dots, when you look at what was promised for what and what was actually delivered, it’s not true. Not literally, certainly. God made a promise to Abraham which was not kept. (Don’t even bother with the “well, the children of Israel fell into immorality, so God punished them” stuff, because it doesn’t matter–the promise was made on condition of Abraham’s obedience, not his heirs’. The promise was broken. Nothing was ever said about “well, if your great-great grandchildren tow the line etc then they’ll get all this stuff.” No, Yahweh made the promise based on Abraham’s character.) When you go through the Bible you see most prophecy failing, most promises broken, most expectations disappointed. Yahweh did not follow through.

So evidently He gave us free will and told us to figure it out for ourselves.

Comes Pat Robertson, who feels qualified to tell us that God is killing people today because of this or that condition of Biblical circumstance.

The word that comes to mind is–bullshit.

But I think Mr. Robertson is not himself deceived. He’s not an uneducated or stupid man. I think he well knows how all this actually lays on the ground, but he’s banking on his followers being thoroughly ignorant. I mean, who really reads the Bible? There are people in this country who have trouble getting through a Harlequin romance novel because they’re so long. People rely on single source media for their understanding of almost everything, with the exception of a literate few, but even among those, how many read the Bible? I’ve been through it a couple of times and still miss a great deal. But even more frightening is the fact that among those who do regularly read the Bible, they do not actually read it. My grandmother, before she died, had read the Bible beginning to end twelve times. She
could not tell you what was actually in it. The reading was a ritual. She did not read it to find out what it said but as an act of worship. When I would occasionally point things out to her of an eschatological nature, she would deny it vehemently. I’d show it the passage to her and she would be astonished.

And then forget all about it. Next time through, same thing.

Yet there is supposed to be something called a Christian Spirit. Generosity, compassion, empathy. Cashing in on the misfortune of others to make political points or to gain bragging rights (my god is bigger than your god) is supposed to be anathema to this “spirit”.

Personally, I concede nothing to such men as Pat Robertson. If someone says something I know is B.S. I call them on it, especially in mixed crowds, because people do not know, and the words of powerful men, even when false, carry great weight…simply because they’re powerful. Which is autocratic. Nothing to do with Truth.

Or fact.

  • Categories:
  • Uncategorized

Transcending Genre: Why 1984 is Literature and Starship Troopers Is Not

Right off, I have to make a disclaimer. I don’t actually believe in what the title of this piece suggests–that there is a pecking order separating Literature (capital L) from genre, and that it has something to do with a quantifiable approach to form. If we really wanted to sort out what Henry James and many 20th Century critics mean by Literature from all the rest of the publishing world, we’d be remiss if we didn’t go back to the precursors of contemporary literature and make the same qualifiers apply.

Immediately we have a problem. Where does one put Gulliver’s Travels? What about most of James Fenimore Cooper? And Robert Louis Stevenson? Rudyard Kipling? Jules Verne?

Starting with H. G. Wells, we begin to see the delineation. Henry James took Wells to task for writing beneath his ability by paying attention to all sorts of things having no direct bearing on or descent from character.

Character. That’s where it starts and ends for most serious modern critics. And by modern, I mean from about 1920 to the present.

A few years ago a very good critic named Sven Birkerts, in a review of Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake, came right out and made the statement that science fiction will never–never–be Literature with a capital L. In his words: “…science fiction will never be Literature with a capital ‘L’, and this is because it inevitably proceeds from premise rather than character. It sacrifices moral and psychological nuance in favor of more conceptual matters, and elevates scenario over sensibility.”

When I plucked the two books out of the air to compare in this talk, my first intention was to take two works that both qualify as science fiction and see why one remains solidly genre and the other has the appellation of Literature, despite its clearly science fictional qualities. I didn’t at the time realize how similar the two books were in many ways. As it turns out, they are ideal for this kind of comparison. For 1984 is indeed Literature, and for precisely the reason Mr. Birkerts argued–it is drenched in character. Starship Troopers is virtually without character. My position is that this fact in no way renders the one superior over the other. Merely different, even while they share similarities.

At first glance, there could not be two novels more different. In spite of the ongoing war depicted in Starship Troopers, it is relentlessly optimistic. It is born of an American optimism that must have been pervasive during World War II. 1984, on the other hand, is one of the most profoundly cynical and pessimistic novels not written by a Russian–a pessimism, interestingly enough, also born in WWII.

Yet in both we see a member of the middle class–and I’m stretching the label here just a bit–laying out how the society in which he lives functions. Both have become members of the power elite–one having joined through the inevitabilities of survival, the other out of a vague desire to actually have power, specifically the vote. Both societies are run by minorities. The vast majority of populations in both novels neither understand nor care about how things are run. The justifications for the societal structures are part of the narrative. Both are persuasive in making their cases, yet both cases are seriously flawed, yet to those who live within them, they are utterly convincing, also in both cases. In the end, neither Johnny Rico nor Winston Smith have lives of their own.

Now, before I say more, with all that they share these two novels are fundamentally different in one basic way. Approach. Which in this instance, for the purposes of this discussion, is the only difference that really matters. As I said, Starship Troopers is virtually devoid of character. Oh, there’s charm. Johnny Rico has a glib, pseudo personality that comes through in his travelogue–which is what Starship Troopers is basically, a travelogue–but we end up knowing almost nothing about him. We don’t know if he ever had any hobbies, we don’t know how he feels about girls or sports or politics or music or art or theater. These things are mentioned along the way and there’s the implication that, yeah, sure, he likes all those things well enough, even understands some of them, but it’s like a resume, not an actual revelation. By the end of the book, we may sort of like Johnny, but it’s his almost boyish enthusiasm for defending the human race and his modest competence that wins us over. If asked, “How about that Johnny Rico? What’s he like?” What could we say? Not much.

Winston Smith, on the other, is as fully fleshed a character as might be encountered in fiction. We know his obsessions, his fears, his reactions to various stimuli, we know his opinions, we know his ignorance. Above all, we know his ignorance, and the pathetic will to challenge limitations that ultimately dooms him. He is a human being in a horrible situation and we know him as well if not better than we know Oceania and Big Brother. Because we see very clearly how his situation affects him. Personally. We don’t get that insight with Johnny Rico.

When modern critics and theorists talk about Literature with a capital L, that’s what they’re talking about. In a nutshell, Starship Troopers in prescriptive. It’s concerned with its premise, it wants to tell you about the way things work, and that is primarily what it’s all about. 1984 is concerned with its main character and while you certainly learn all about how Oceania works, you learn about it through its impact on Winston. He’s not a guide, he’s a victim. He not a narrator, he’s an inhabitant. In the scheme of things, though, I have to ask: So What? I mentioned Gulliver’s Travels. This, too, is a travelogue. How come it’s not considered genre? Well, for one, it was written before any such considerations had any meaning. It’s old, and still read. It has survived, and thus has passed a major test. But for a contemporary sensibility, it becomes Literature by virtue of the fact that it’s satire. This is, by the way, how Kurt Vonnegut manages to be regarded as Literature, rather than genre–he’s a satirist. Of the first water, to be sure, but a satirist nevertheless. Satire, for some reason, seems immune from the castigation of the Literati.

There’s nothing wrong, I think, with a certain amount of labeling in fiction. It’s not so bad to let people know more or less what kind of story they’re about to read when they pick up a book. If I’m in the mood for, say, a mystery thriller, I’m going to be miffed if I get a sacharine romance instead. The harm is in making the label a hierarchical judgement. To say that such-and-such sort of story is necessarily inferior by virtue of its conceits. Because all conceits can be used to make great art.

That said, I want to make a few observations about the use of art, which I think has much to do with its reception and classification as great, middlebrow, or vulgar. Unfortunately, what each person defines as Art is subjective. There are a couple of methods by which we determine what is Art, one of which is the test of time. If enough people over a long enough period agree that a work is, in fact, Art, we tend to accept the designation. The other method is both less and more democratic, and that is if we discover that a work impacts people differently–I mean, significantly differently–even while evoking similar responses. Repeatedly. That is to say, if you pick up a book and read it at ages 12, 18, 25, and 35 and come away with a deeper, fresher appreciation of the work, then you probably have a work of art in your hands. Works that aren’t up to that description exhaust themselves with one, at most two readings. But a work of Art–capital A–lives, insofar as it interacts with us as an aspect of growth. This is subjective as well, because the reactions are personal, but again if the reaction is definite and rich each time–and, linking this to the first test, is something more and more people experience, each in their own unique way–then the work in question is probably Art. And Literature–capital L–is Art–capital A.

You may detect a bit of tongue in cheek at this point. That’s because any attempt to create categories which are all-encompassing is doomed to fail since there will always be a way to step outside the category and still create Art. Is Starship Troopers literature? In the sense of great Art, no.  Is 1984? Yes. And it’s all in the way each book brings us into its world. 1984, for all that it’s a bleak, dismal ride, draws us in fully, engages the emotions, makes us feel what Winston is going through. We don’t get that with Johnny Rico.

This is a function of character, certainly. But it’s also a function of the conception of the worlds. Heinlein was interested in laying out a blueprint. He describes how his system ought to work. It’s even elegant, and an engaging read. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as a good book. But a blueprint is not a house. Orwell built a house–which means that he didn’t neglect the stains on the carpet, the dust on the shelves, and aging furniture, and the faulty thermostat. He left the flaws in and made us feel that you could walk into this world and live in it and recognize it as a real place–emotionally.

Now you have to ask: does this make any difference insofar as the kind of fiction the two books represent? No. 1984 is science fiction in every definition of the term. Just because it is also a wholly fleshed world with well-drawn characters does not magically remove it from that definition. But it brings us to the common failure of any book in any genre to transcend that genre.

A good novel–like any good work of art–always gives more than it seems to contain. It always offers the reader more than one avenue, more than one way to read it, always surprises with its possibilities. Such a book depends on its genre conceits, if it has any, but it is not limited by them. And there is no genre which in and of itself automatically limits these possibilities.

But some books–some writers–quite comfortably remain within genre limits, because it’s fun. There’s a pleasure to be found inside those walls, and it’s always a mistake to dismiss a work as genre as if to say that makes it inferior. It would be like condeming an Ansel Adams photograph because it’s not a painting, then condeming it further because it accepts a naturalistic approach to subject as opposed to a surrealist approach. Apples and corkscrews. Starship Troopers is an excellent example of the kind of book it strives to be. It should be judged accordingly.

I said Starship Troopers is prescriptive. So is another of Heinlein’s great novels, Stranger In A Strange Land. But that novel goes beyond its genre limitation insofar as Michael Valentine Smith–and those around him–are far more richly affected and affecting. Partly, this is because the world they inhabit is more fully realized, more emphatically tactile and human. But it still offers the pleasures of its basic form, which is didactic.

As is Orwell’s other famous work, Animal Farm–which is in no way a character novel. All the characters are archetypes, some even stereotypes, and unapologetically so. It is also a blueprint. If Stranger In A Strange Land is Heinlein’s 1984, Animal Farm is Orwell’s Starship Troopers. But Animal Farm is also blatantly satirical. It declares itself so almost from the first sentence. Starship Troopers strives in its way to be naturalistic. We’re meant to take Heinlein’s effort at face value as mimesis.

There is one other use of art which is vitally important and utterly personal, and I’ll wrap this up by talking about it. Nostalgia. Not so much in the evocation within the text of a time gone by, but in the evocation of an emotional response to a given work. This is why the homage functions, why it’s possible to write an homage. Because much that we treasure, we reacted to in a time and place where its importance became paramount. There is no way an artist can do this intentionally. All he or she can do is make the work as well as possible and as honestly as possible, because it is good and honest work that creates this particular aspect of art.

Some books, as I said, exhaust themselves after a reading or two. But going over them again and again, triggering those reactions long ago made familiar, is a legitimate use of art. You don’t expect to find something new in this use, you expect to relive a pleasant experience. So Heinlein’s Starship Troopers has engendered a number of homages. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is the first I remember. More recently there is John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. All these works function because they play on the original impact of the Heinlein. They can also be read quite easily and pleasantly on their own, but they are part of a tradition. 1984, while it is part of a tradition of dystopias, does not need or invite homages or this sort, because we don’t read it for that reason.

Page generated in 1.626 seconds. Stats plugin by www.blog.ca


Page generated in 1.630 seconds. Stats plugin by www.blog.ca