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The Highest Pass and Songs of a Lifetime: Conversations With Jon Anderson and Greg Lake

Posted: 05/04/2012 10:53 am

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A Conversation With Jon Anderson

Mike Ragogna: Jon, there's so much to talk about, but let's start with the film The Highest Pass that you've contributed a couple of songs for -- the title track, "The Highest Pass," and "Waking Up." The movie is about following a modern guru. Jon, can you take it from there?

Jon Anderson: Well, the movie was sent to me last year. I was very, very excited about the movie. It's about a dozen guys on their motorbikes who go to the highest point in the Himalayas. They're taken there by a guru in India, and he's a wonderful man. It's just the idea that these guys would try to get to the highest pass in the mountains of the Himalayas, it being a very spiritual place that they went to. It's the trials and tribulations of the motor bike riding in the mountains; it's pretty dangerous there. It's quite an interesting documentary and I just like the idea very much. Michael (Mollura) sent me some music to sing on top, so I wrote this melody and lyrics about how I felt about what the characters were going through and what we're all going through, to find a higher self.

MR: And, of course, you personally are into spirituality.

JA: Well, the movie is all about that. People find their spiritual selves as they ride up these crazy mountain passes on their motorbikes. They were very excited to do it and eventually thankful to do it and I think that comes through in the movie.

MR: In the movie, it's almost like the path itself, the journey itself was the evolutionary "path" of this particular group.

JA: Yeah. We go through this everyday in our lives on many levels -- these challenges to keep the spirit going, you know. This was sort of a metaphor for how we feel. That's why it struck me as a great movie.

MR: Also, the motorcycle ride -- in comparison to the more acetic ways of trying to find evolution -- is almost like the path the rest of us are on, like we're riding motorcycles trying to get there in comparison.

JA: It's true. I just put it on to watch it to see what it's about. I thought, "Okay, I'll add a song," but then I got into the movie and it inspired me to write the song. It's an inspiring project for anybody to go and watch that movie and feel that they're part of that journey.

MR: Jon, as I said earlier, you have your own spiritual path, right?

JA: We all have the same path, we just speak about it in many ways. We have that same path that we travel in our lives to find that divine energy that surrounds us.

MR: Is that divine energy where you feel that your creativity comes from?

JA: For sure. Everything is from The Divine, whichever way you look at it. As Gandhi said, "God has no religion." It has to do with our spiritual connection and rediscovering that connection.

MR: Jon, when you sing, do you feel that connection?

JA: Constantly. To me, I'm so thankful everyday. I've been singing this morning. I got up this morning in my studio and I sang. That's my life. Then I go on tour and I sing. I do a lot of singing. It's a connection that I have with this incredible power out there. It's ageless and limitless.

MR: And after all these years, your vocals seem ageless and limitless.

JA: I like singing. I get high when I'm singing on many levels, especially in front of an audience for my solo shows around the world. It's just an amazing feeling to be standing on stage and this voice comes out. It's wonderful.

MR: Jon, how much touring do you do?

JA: I tour at least three or four months a year. I do a month here or a month there. I'm doing a month in June, touring the West Coast of America and the Chicago area. I go to England in August for a concert, then I go to Brazil for a month in September, so I get around.

MR: Looking back at your first solo album, Olias Of Sunhillow, do you have any observations at this point in your life?

JA: Interestingly, in my solo show, I do two songs from Olias. I am starting to revisit that period. I might be doing a concert with some musicians from Philadelphia who learned the whole album. It's interesting to look back 35 years later. I'm still singing those songs that I wrote with Yes and by myself, and people still want to hear them, which is a great feeling.

MR: I imagine you play Yes material live?

JA: Well, I sing the songs I wrote for the band and I do them exactly as I originally wrote them on guitar and a couple of things on piano. When I wrote for the band, I would write ideas and go to the band with the song and we would expand the idea of the song within the framework of the musicians in the band, because they were so talented they could play anything. It was always simple songs like "You And I" and "Close To The Edge" that I wrote with Steve (Howe). When you're with really talented musicians, you expand them and let everybody get their musical thoughts together and you finish with Yes music.

MR: When working with Yes, was there a lot of compromise or was everyone on the same page for the most part?

JA: Well, we're all on the same page, of course. There was a lot of practicing going on. The idea was that we would get together, I came up with this idea of how the framework of the piece would be, we would just start working on it. The band would be rehearsing a certain section, I'd already be working on a next one, and then I'd go back with the next one, and we'd work on the next one together and start rehearsing that section, and I'd be thinking about the next piece. We'd be working in tandem, but I'd be leap-frogging as we went along on ideas that I thought would work, and that's how the piece came together. It was definitely something that we all did together. It was a wonderful experience. We were all very much in harmony in the beginning of the '70s, of course, because we'd started off and struggled at the beginning doing our concerts. Then we became famous. When you become famous, you start working harder to maintain that career energy. It never stops, it just keeps going.

MR: I does, it just keeps going. When you look back at the Yes years, what are your thoughts about that whole thing?

JA: Amazing. When you start a band, you think you're going to be together two or three years later. Then you think five years later, ten years later, 20 years later, 35 years later, and you can't believe that you're still performing. Thank God for the fans that would come and see the band. We were doing music that was really, really different, very, very different than the norm. A lot of our music, like "Close to the Edge," never got played on the radio. The only reason it survived is because of the fans that loved the music itself. Music is everything, really.

MR: Plus you had a resurgence when Yes recorded the album 90125 that included "Owner Of A Lonely Heart." You guys segued nicely into the video age.

JA: I agree. We survived. We kept playing our music, expanding our ideas. Even the last album, Magnification, which was released probably six or seven years ago, is still a great album. Whenever I was involved with the band, I made sure we always created really good music. You never go into a studio and create music thinking this is rubbish but we'll put it out anyway. You always believe you're doing great work.

MR: Let's move on to another body of work of yours. Jon and Vangelis.

JA: Well, that was totally a different world. Vangelis is one of the greats. He is the original keyboard player. I had never seen anyone with four or five keyboards before. We became good friends. He even joined the band. He carried on working in London making music for movies like Chariots Of Fire and a couple of science fiction titles.

MR: Yeah, Blade Runner was my favorite.

JA: Right. One of the things with Vangelis is we always had fun. Music was fun. We put out albums over a period of ten years. He was like a mentor to me, so I had a great energy with him.

MR: I especially love "Italian Song." Okay, let's get back to the movie here. I asked when you sing does it come from that divine source. Do you feel all creativity comes from that?

JA: Everything -- all music, all creation -- everything. That's the way it is. It's one of those interesting things. We do forget that nature that surrounds us is part of our life's experience and that is a part of the divine as well.

MR: As in everything is a part of the one.

JA: Exactly.

MR: When you're watching a playback of The Highest Pass, do you feel there was anything concerning spirituality or enlightenment that you hadn't considered before this movie turned you on to?

JA: Sure. I think everyday, something happens that enlightens us in many ways -- in this movie, that they survived to the top of this highest passage. Halfway through the movie, I thought they weren't going to make it. Some terrible things happened. Eventually, they all got there. They had to push through the snow and ice and everything. It's like, "Are they going to get there, are they going to get there?" And of course, they do, and you realize that's what life is. You still have to climb those mountains everyday.

MR: Speaking of mountains to climb, there are mountains that new artists have to climb everyday in order to achieve their goals. Do you have any advice for new artists?

JA: Just keep practicing. You have to have faith in what you do. Don't try to become a pop star or a rock star, become a great musician first and foremost. Everything else will evolve.

MR: Right, everything else will evolve. That's nature's play with a growing artist?

JA: Yeah, for sure. I work with a lot of young musicians. I always tell them the first thing is to believe in yourself. Practice and study what you're doing and don't be pushed to one side thinking money is everything. You don't make music for money; you make money for the joy of making music.

MR: Nicely said. Jon what do you think when you're watching shows like American Idol?

JA: I only watch them in the beginning because that's the best part. Then it becomes like showbiz, then the image arrives and everything. I love the first two or three episodes when they're trying to get to Vegas, and the young people who have come through that are very, very talented. You can see in their heart they have talent. It's wonderful to see those first parts.

MR: For me, when the show had a meaner spirit, I couldn't watch it.

JA: Well, the whole idea is you don't build people up to break them down, and that's why sometimes these kinds of TV shows are just for TV. They'll keep somebody that isn't good but he's funny or crazy or it's good TV. They'll keep somebody that looks the part but can't really sing that great, just for the TV, just for ratings. They forget that these are people and they've got to go through that real difficult time when they're dropped. Then where does it go from there? They've got this big dream to become an idol of the day and 90 percent of them they don't make it, and you wonder what happens to them. Do they get really broken up because of it? That's what would happen with record companies. They would expect the band to sound like the last band or the last hit record. If you're not sounding like what's on the radio, you're not good. A lot of young musicians would go find another job. I always believed that music was a lot more important than getting to number one. Music is all about your inner powers and the connection you have with the audience that you play to.

MR: Obviously, you're not just making music for money, it's coming from a higher place. Are you fulfilled with where you are?

JA: Constantly! And I do things for money, too. Money is part of God. It's all it is, as we said before, it's not the driving force. When you start up, you don't make music for money, you want to get on stage and sing songs. In the old days, you copied The Beatles or The Stones or whatever, then you grow old and you get better as a songwriter and you travel the world and you play music to everybody around the world. It's a daily thankfulness of what you're doing. It's such a blessing to do what I do. That's why I constantly work on what I'm doing. Like I said, I was singing this morning. I'm just enjoying life.

MR: Any other new projects?

JA: People can actually hear a piece of music called Open that was released on my birthday, October 25, last year, which is a tournament at work. It's a lovely piece of music. I think it's on YouTube so they can hear half of it, then go buy it on iTunes. I have a new album coming out this summer. I'm having a good time writing songs. There are always projects I'm working on.

MR: Well, we definitely enjoyed this time with you. Close To The Edge, Fragile... Jon, there are so many recordings that you've performed on over the years that mean a lot to people including me. Thank you so much for your time.

JA: Thank you, I appreciate it very much.

Transcribed by Brian O'Neal

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A Conversation With Greg Lake

Mike Ragogna: Greg, your Songs Of A Lifetime tour is like your autobiographical tour, right?

Greg Lake: You're quite right. Songs Of A Lifetime came about, really, while I was writing my autobiography, which is unsurprisingly titled Lucky Man. During the writing, songs kept popping up that were really influential, sort of pivotal to my career. It occurred to me that they also represented a journey, really, that we'd been on together, the audience and myself, and we've shared this music over the years -- not only my songs but other people's songs as well. I thought it would be a nice thing to relive that journey as a concert. Along with that go a lot of stories. I was interested in telling stories to the audience. I came up with the title "Songs Of A Lifetime." It is really fascinating to play a song and to hear the audience tell their sort of side of that story.

MR: You're touring initially in the UK?

GL: I'm going to the UK later this year with it and also all over Europe and Japan.

MR: Have you performed Songs Of A Lifetime in the States yet?

GL: No, we just started up.

MR: Are you surprised how your music has become a part of people's lives?

GL: I'm not surprised because every time I meet someone, they tell me something in a bar about Brain Salad Surgery... You get all of these stories, some of them are quite remarkable. Music, generally, especially over the last few decades, has sort of been a tapestry through most people's lives. It's been a very important part of the culture, so I'm not surprised. Music, for a lot of people, is a kind of identifier for certain periods of their lives.

MR: Yes, it's like mile markers, and for many, important ones.

GL: I hope so. Occasionally, you get big traffic stories, but most of them are happy, thank goodness. That's why I love doing it. When I'm walking out on stage, it's not like walking out for a concert, it's more like walking into a family room, with a tremendous feeling of warmth and happiness in there. I've never done a tour quite like it. It really is phenomenal, the amount of goodwill. I suppose people just love to remember those good times.

MR: It's like a commentary track, a behind-the-scenes concert, as opposed to just standing in front of them playing a bunch of songs. You've taken the experience into the living room aesthetically.

GL: I think that is right. You know, it is good thinking about how these songs came about. It makes it more interesting than just standing up there and performing them. I sometimes talk to people in the classical world about the way the conductor walks on stage, doesn't stay a word, picks up his baton and starts the music and then walks off afterwards and not a word is spoken. I think that's one of the reasons classical music is not more popular than it is -- the absence of communication.

MR: While you were being an prog-rocker with Emerson, Lake & Palmer and King Crimson, you integrated classical music into a lot of people's lives. For example, there's Pictures At An Exhibition. You've slyly taught people about classical music int the format.

GL: As a by-product, it's true. We opened the door to classical music to ordinary people. Before that, classical music was really for the elitist, the well-knowns, the intelligencia of Europe. We brought it right down to ground level and said it's for everybody, come on. The other part of it was, up until King Crimson, around that period, as far as British brands were concerned, they all took their influence from the blues, American music, soul, gospel, and some country and western. In order to be original and different, we turned to European music for our inspiration. That is what really made bands like ELP -- to some extent -- Pink Floyd, and people like that, have more of an original sound because they weren't drawing from that same well of the blues, soul and gospel. But I would hate anybody to get the interpretation that we were in any way trying to be smartasses, because that wasn't the case -- quite the reverse. We were trying to make it accessible. For us, it was just in order to be original. I think the first album like that actually was Sgt. Pepper, and that didn't take its influence from the blues, really.

MR: We have to get to King Crimson. You were a childhood friend of Robert Fripp. Do you have any stories about you and your childhood friend, Robert?

GL: Well, Robert and I had the same guitar teacher and we would practice guitar together as kids. We grew up together, Robert and I. It's a long story, really. But when it came time to form King Crimson, Robert had never been in a band before and I had for many years so he was worried about how he should dress on stage. For some reason, he had always been interested or intrigued by the violin player Paganini. Paganini was sort of a Satan worshipper; he'd play his violin between two black candles challenging people to play in competitions. He was really a weird character. So Robert decided that that's maybe how he should be dressed. We went down a place called Portobello Road in London. We bought him a lot of this gear, like a black cloak, a black top hat, black silk shirts, and all of this stuff. So, we went home, and later on that day, we went to London to watch a band perform. I came back late that night into the flat. I opened the front door, I pressed the light to go up the stairs because we were on the first floor, but it didn't work. It was dark and I thought, "Well, I've got to go upstairs and started to walk upstairs. All of a sudden, I noticed, upstairs, there was a candle flickering, and all of a sudden, there was Robert. I didn't realize it was him at first. He dressed himself in all this gear. He put these false horror teeth in, and he had a candle up by his face. He was pretending to be Jack The Ripper. It frightened the life out of me. Of course, it gave me great pleasure.

MR: Oh my, look what you created.

GL: From that, of course, came this whole thing Robert did playing with his back to the audience or playing behind the speakers. All of that came from that one idea of some stage clothes.

MR: Greg, with King Crimson, you have the classic track "21st Century Schizoid Man." Are we all 21st century schizoids?

GL: I think we are.

MR: Yeah, and how could we not be when we multi-task all day long.

GL: I think you're right. There is too much multi-tasking for people. I was on the train from Boston back to Philadelphia, and every single person on that train had a computer working away. Every split second of life is answering emails and sending texts. You're available and accessible 24 hours a day. I'm not sure it's a good thing, it doesn't give people a piece of mind. It's important to work, it's great to work. But, if you watch any great athlete, they don't train all of the time. They train, they rest, they train, they rest.

MR: That's a very good point.

GL: People are 24 hours a day. It's just too much.

MR: I've worked with young people and I was amazed at how addicted they were to their devices. Then again, I am too. What sucks is if somebody texts you, it comes off as more urgent than email. So if you don't reply to that text in an instant, the texter thinks there's something wrong.

GL: I mean, I have to say, way back over 30 years ago now, this was before faxes were invented, there was an ELP song that said "Load your program. I am yourself." It was about computers. It goes more and more to the simple device almost controlling your life.

MR: Prophetic. Let's take it one step further. With Facebook, Twitter, website pages, etc., it's almost like your identity is that page, it's not the human being anymore.

GL: You're right. It's a vicarious form of life. I think in the end, it needs to rebalance itself and it probably will. It's the newness of it all. I'm fairly convinced it's not a good thing.

MR: But we have to do it, it's where we are.

GL: You have to do it. I heard Apple -- the corporation Apple -- was the biggest corporation in the world, and all they make is little boxes with electronics in them.

MR: Electronics that, without endorsing Apple, I also happen to like very much.

GL: Me too, I love them.

MR: (laughs) Okay, let's get back to your Songs Of A Lifetime tour. We're going to see it in the States too, right?

GL: Yes, yes. Traveling all over the United States.

MR: Greg, how did Emerson, Lake & Palmer start?

GL: It formed in an amazing way. On the very night that King Crimson broke up, we were playing at the Filmore West in San Francisco. Two members of King Crimson decided they didn't want to tour anymore. They wanted just to be recording artists -- that was Ian McDonald and Michael Giles. When they left the band, I just felt that it would have been impossible to replace them, really, and for the band to be the same thing. I just didn't want to continue on with that name. Coincidentally, on the same bill that night was a band called The Nice that was Keith Emerson's band. After the show, Keith and I met at the hotel bar. We started chatting. He asked me how King Crimson was going, I said, "To be honest with you, we're breaking up." He said, "That's amazing because I'm just coming to the end of The Nice, we're breaking up. Maybe we should think about getting together and starting a band." So, that's really how it began. Later on, we found Carl Palmer and it became it became ELP.

MR: One of the classic ELP tracks is your song "C'est La Vie."

GL: Lovely song. I wrote it when I lived in Paris. I just had a fancy to write a song with a French feeling. It was recorded by a French artist, Johnny Hallyday. It became number one in France, which I'm very proud of because it's very unusual for an Englishman to write a French number one.

MR: The album it comes from, Works, was a pretty ambitious album.

GL: It was a good album. But in a way, I think it was the beginning of the end of ELP.

MR: How so? Was it because of the segmented sides?

GL: No, no, not so much. Because the band no longer had that sort of hallmark of records like Tarkus, Trilogy, Brain Salad Surgery... All of a sudden, it was orchestral, straight songs really. Good songs and arrangements and everything, but it wasn't the ELP that people came to love. These records were conceptual and visionary, whereas Works really was more conservative, straight-forward, using real orchestras and I think that was really the landmark where I would say that was the end of the golden era of ELP.

MR: Solo albums include Greg Lake and Maneuvers. What are your thoughts about your solo recordings?

GL: My solo career was a kind of searching; I was searching really for direction. I'd just come out of this enormous band and was quite confused really with how I should move forward because I didn't want to continue on repeating ELP, but that's who I'd been for the last decade. It takes a while to sort of recover and collect your self. But I met a great guitar player, Gary Moore. Basically, he played guitar for me. Those were a couple of great records and it was a terrific band.

MR: And, you also joined Asia briefly.

GL: Yeah, well, to be honest, I was only together with Asia for a week. What happened was they had fallen out with the singer John Wetton. Carl called me up and asked, could you do me a favor? I thought he wanted to borrow a guitar. I said what do you want? He said, "You have to come and play with Asia." He told me the story. I asked when it was and he said next week. So I had to fly to Japan and learn all the music within a week, which I did in the end. I had a prompter onstage, a screen, and I managed to get through it. It was very difficult. That was my brief encounter with Asia.

MR: And you were back together with Carl for a bit during that, which must have felt great.

GL: Well, that was the big reason I did it really. And I was always quite good friends with John Wetton... a strange thing, we stayed friends after that. Johnny rejoined the group so all's well that ends well.

MR: Your "I Believe in Father Christmas" has become a Christmas essential.

GL: It did turn out to be a bit of a classic. I'm really pleased because what the song is about is restoring Christmas to be peace on earth, good will to all men, rather than a huge marketing exercise that it has become. It was a protest song for Christmas being used for financial gain rather than for good will. That's what that song is all about, really.

MR: I recently interviewed Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Paul O'Neill, and you're on the group's Night Castle album.

GL: I play with Trans-Siberia from time to time. We're just friends, really. He asked me as a favor, he just wanted me to be on the album. He's a very interesting guy. We get together with friends. We play together often.

MR: Greg, what advice do you have for new artists?

GL: Well, it's a tricky thing. The music business is not the logical path it used to be. I would say play your music honestly and play it for yourself and if you like it, other people will probably like it too.

MR: Other than the tour and the autobiography, what's in the future for Greg Lake, maybe on the personal side?

GL: I'm going to be recording this summer a new album and touring the rest of the year, and I'm really happy about it because this tour is going really well. It's taking up all of my efforts and my attention, but I'm having a great time. It's a fantastic thing. I'm going to take it all around the world.

MR: Will there be any guest appearances at the shows, perhaps some interesting reunions?

GL: I don't know, people are talking about that.

MR: Greg, thank you, this has been a joy.

GL: Thank you very much. This has been terrific.

Transcribed by Brian O'Neal

 
 
 

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