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Just Say Yes

A fan returns to the source of his obsession


Published September 8, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

If you've ever been brainwashed by the Moonies or the Hare Krishnas or any other cult, this tale will seem familiar. When you've been utterly obsessed with something, recovery means training your brain to think about other things. My mania was rock 'n' roll in general, but one band in particular.

Yes controlled my mind.

Who would have thought that a bunch of English guys playing really esoteric, complicated, psychedelic music could completely dominate every waking thought of a young man? Well, it happened. And as Jon Anderson explains in one of their songs, "It can happen to you, it can happen to me, it can happen to everyone eventually..."

Well, it probably wouldn't happen to most of you, but it did feel pretty infectious at the time. And since I surrounded myself with other Yes freaks, the possibility of taking over the world seemed plausible.

This is a little embarrassing, so I'll just begin by explaining that I was searching for something of greater meaning than the world had been able to offer thus far. A high school experiment with evangelic Christian-ity -- complete with people speaking in tongues -- didn't quite take. By college, I was an "agnostic," i.e., I didn't know what the hell to believe in.

And then it happened to me. The gospel cut through a fog of smoke, beer and shouting college students. Ander-son's angelic voice told me, "Love comes to you and then after... Dream on, on to the heart of the sunrise..."

It might have been that mystical, poetic line or one of a thousand others that sealed the deal. Yes lyrics are loaded with spiritual and incredibly optimistic imagery. So when Ander-son sang, "Dreamer easy in the chair that really fits you," he was describing me and his band.

Anderson became Jesus. Steve Howe was God. Rick Wakeman, Bill Bruford and Chris Squire were the Apostles. Alan White, Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn were saints. Tony Kaye, although the band's original keyboardist, never quite made the pantheon because he just seemed to lack the requisite talent and credibility. Trevor Rabin? Possibly the most controversial Yes member ever, he was occasionally a deity but usually Satan. After all, he admitted to writing a Yes song on the toilet. Talk about sacreligious!

Life became one long road trip, as I attended 13 services, er, concerts. But how to meet these masters of music? My friend Suzanne, who gave me the first taste of this crazy Kool-Aid, started a fan magazine and that got us backstage. My first taste of media perks -- sweet! drinking beers with Steve Howe, GOD HIMSELF! I had been to Mecca.

We were such geeks. To pass the time, Suzanne and I would quiz each other on Yes minutiae. You mean you don't know Rick's favorite Russian composer? Poser! How can anyone not know Jon's tea of choice?

In fact, I found myself reading books that Anderson was known to read. Herman Hesse and Carlos Castaneda were way over my head, but still I struggled to share my idol's obvious deeper understanding. Suzanne went so far as to organize YesFest conventions -- hardcore revivals for others with the fever. If I had the sniffles, she had full-blown malaria. It's amazing that neither of us ended up with a Yes tattoo.

Eventually, the obsession ended. I saw disappointing examples of the band members actually acting human. I graduated from college and was no longer surrounded by fellow Yes zombies. I started a family, which gave life much deeper meaning than rock 'n' roll could offer.

So it was intriguing to hear this summer that Yes would be playing at the Fair in Essex Junction. More than a decade after we broke up, my old flame was back in town. Should I stop by and say hello? Would she sound as sweet, or would it be a bitter reunion? Maybe I should leave well enough alone, and just savor the memories.

A week before the show, the last temptation of Kirt could not be ignored. I got a ticket.

I've seen Yes in Madison Square Garden, so the Champlain Valley Exposition initially seemed like a big fall from grace for my old heroes. I mean, what self-respecting band could play in between the pig races and some guy promising to guess your weight?

At the fairgrounds, my fears were initially right on target. A scary-looking carnie holding a bubble gun stared at me intensely, no doubt mentally chopping me up. Another sketchy man offered to let me see tiger cubs for a fee. Charming. Tents full of grotesque knick-knacks teemed with surprisingly undiscerning consumers.

Inside the concert venue, I learned that beer was not available for sale -- this at the Budweiser "True Music" series. Oh, well. The savings on alcohol could go toward my choice of $50 Yes T-shirts. Um, I passed; I was there for the music.

What struck me immediately was the crowd's diversity. Baby boomers I expected, but not entire families and roving packs of teenagers. Was this because of the Fair environment, or is a new generation discovering prog rock?

Then the show began. Immed-iately, I was drawn into the flow. That's when the yuppie in front of me popped up, sporting one of those $50 T-shirts, and held up his digital camera for shot after shot. Then he whipped out his cell phone to make a few calls and share the experience. This guy was so into his techie toys, I had to wonder if he was really experiencing anything or just saving it for later.

Next to him was Drama Man. His much older Yes T-shirt had been signed by band members. He acted out every word of every song, like an opera singer high on Red Bull. Either he was so into the music he didn't care about looking ridiculous (in which case I could see my own reflection a little bit), or he was desperate for attention. Finally I decided he was having fun, and that's the important thing -- even if he did keep smashing into people.

On stage, Yes sounded as dynamic and awe-inspiring as ever in their first Vermont show. "It's taken us 35 years to get here, but it was worth the trip!" Anderson enthused. Later, in the song "America," he changed one line to "Burlington seems like a dream to me now." Shamelessly pandering to the local audience is a must!

Starting the show with "Going for the One" set the tone for a classic evening. "Sweet Dreams" was one of a few songs from way back in the '60s -- now the band members themselves are approaching 60. After an acoustic version of "Long Distance Runaround," Anderson explained the Caribbean roots of the song and how the band used to enjoy smoking a little weed for inspiration. "The only drugs we do these days are vitamins," he quipped, to great laughter from the crowd. "And Viagra," added Squire, to even more laughs. Yeah, rock 'n' roll is getting older, but don't we have a sense of humor about it?

I used to fantasize about Yes doing a show without all the hits I've heard a million times. They should drop "Roundabout" for something totally obscure and out there, such as "Sound-chaser." Instead, they gave us a compromise. The requisite hits were still there, but so was an insane version of "South Side of the Sky." A lengthy back-and-forth "duel" between Wakeman and Howe now counts among my greatest Yes moments ever. My eyes began to glaze over, like those of the fairground folks I'd seen mesmerized by a hypnotist before the show. And I liked it.

Would my family mind if I quit my job to follow Yes around?

"It's amazing the power of your listening... it's like we're doing something together," said Anderson, continuing with a lengthy rhapsody on the power of love. I'd heard this harmonic-convergence hippie-dippy stuff many times before, but I still enjoyed it.

The lights of the Fair rides twinkled beyond the psychedelic stage, and the result was bewitching. At the end of the epic, very spiritual "Awaken," Anderson crooned, "Like the time I ran away, turned around and you were standing close to me." How true. I had left Yes, but they had never left me.

We're both 35 years old now, Yes and I. Old enough to be cynical but still willing to close our eyes and feel the magic. For me, the obsession is gone, but I think I know what Anderson means about love. "A clearer future -- morning, evening, night with you..."

Thanks for the memories, guys.