Jon Anderson still telling, writing his wondrous stories
Ryan Summerlin March 15, 2014
It would be easy to understand if Jon Anderson decided he’s written enough music in his life, but that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
The former frontman for the progressive rock band Yes is back in Aspen tonight for his third solo show since 2011 at the Wheeler Opera House. Good luck trying to guess what the prolific songwriter with the alto-tenor voice will perform, as his catalog of recordings is immense — 20 albums recorded as the lead singer of Yes, 14 solo albums and dozens of collaborations with other musicians and bands.
“The songs I play live are the ones I want to,” Anderson said. “I know people enjoy hearing them, so we have a lot of fun.”
Now 69, Anderson isn’t resting on his laurels. He’s feeling good health-wise and is busier than ever writing music. Thanks to the Internet, Anderson is working with musicians from all over the world. Just this past week, he received new music from friends in Poland, Italy and New York.
“The songs I play live are the ones I want to. I know people enjoy hearing them, so we have a lot of fun.”
There’s no talk of retiring but only of what’s up next musically. The Internet has opened another gate for Anderson to access musicians who normally would take weeks, if not months, to hook up with.
During a recent solo show, he announced his intention to form a band with violinist and composer Jean-Luc Ponty, who gained fame after recording with Frank Zappa and Elton John in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
“I worked with a friend of mine who used to live in Nashville, guitarist Michael Lewis,” Anderson said. “We’ve written two or three songs together, and he’s friends with Jean-Luc. I suggested we put some violin on one of our tracks, and Michael got Jean-Luc to add some to one of our songs. So now we have this connection, and last year we talked about putting a band together with Jean-Luc, so I got in touch with some guys, some fantastic musicians, and all of a sudden we have a band. We’re just trying to figure out the step. We’ve written about five pieces of music together through the Internet. That’s what the Internet is for — it’s like a modern studio. We should be up and running for a tour next year. I’m excited to do some creative work as a band and see where it takes us.”
When Anderson takes the stage tonight, fans can expect a mix of songs that span more than six decades of influences. Originally from England, he grew up listening to music with his brother, Tony, in the ’50s, when artists like the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly made lasting impressions with both young men.
He formed a band with his brother in the early ’60s and remembers going to see The Beatles in 1963 after hearing their first single, “Love Me Do.”
“It was amazing to be part of that whole ’60s experience, where there was music everywhere,” Anderson said. “I just kept going musically, and if you’re lucky, you get the breaks, which I did with Yes. That’s what really inspired me to get better at my creative craft and work with different people, like Vangelis. When you start working with other people, you start to learn stuff from them. It’s a never-ending adventure.”
The band Yes came together in 1969 and went on to enjoy both commercial and critical success. Anderson was the main songwriter, although many Yes songs were collaborations, with each band member adding their own unique touches to the music.
Yes was considered a progressive band that didn’t really fit any particular label or genre at that time. It was a rock band that adapted many different sounds and styles into its studio recordings.
“I think we were just following in the footsteps of The Beatles and Frank Zappa,” Anderson said. “There were a lot of very, very good bands at that time. Very much breakthrough, free-form rock and jazz, … bands like Cream and such. It was such an incredible period. We used to listen to Buffalo Springfield, and I was listening a lot to Jimmy Webb, the great songwriter. All these influences made Yes what it was. Obviously each member of the band brought in their own talents — it wasn’t just a bunch of guys from Birmingham or Newcastle. We were all different people from different parts of England with different musical aspirations. We all got together and managed to form and create the magic that was Yes. It was amazing.”
Anderson has left and rejoined Yes three times — in 1979, 1988 and 2008 — and not always under the best of circumstances. He considers most of the Yes band members as family, and sometimes they connect, sometimes they don’t.
He received an email from Yes guitarist Trevor Rabin on March 11 because they were connecting with ideas and working on film scores. Anderson was also in touch this past month with keyboardist Rick Wakeman, but as for bassist Chris Squire and guitarist Steve Howe, there hasn’t been much communication lately.
Yes was nominated to become a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 but didn’t win the honor. It’s back on the list of possible inductees for 2014.
“If we get into the Hall of Fame, maybe we’ll all be friends again,” Anderson said. “That’s probably the way a reunion would come about. Steve and Chris have their idea of Yes, and that’s what it is. I went through a similar experience. ‘90125’ (released in 1983) was a big record for the band, but it wasn’t my idea of what the band should be. I tried to push them back into the long-form pieces of music, and eventually I gave it up and decided I would do it myself. I started writing musicals — I wrote three in the 1980s and two in the 1990s. I like writing music that’s like an adventure, like a journey. So I still do.”
When he takes the stage at the Wheeler, Anderson will play some of the material he wrote for Yes and share some of the stories behind the music. Songs like “Roundabout” and “I’ve Seen All Good People” are mainstays to Yes fans, but not everyone is privy to the stories behind the music. Anderson may share some of those stories tonight.
As Anderson recalled what sparked the idea of “Roundabout,” it seems like he could have written the same song if he happened to be driving into Aspen in the right conditions.
“We were driving down from Aberdeen to Glasgow in England,” he said. “The road went through the mountains, and there were about 40 roundabouts on the drive. I was in the back of the van, and we went by Lake Loch Lomond, and it was amazing. I wrote all these sketches down. The clouds were very low, so I wrote how the mountains were coming out of the sky, in and around the lake, around the roundabouts, and we would be home in 24 hours. It was originally an eight-minute song for stage, like everything we did, but somebody in New York edited it down into a single, and it became a big hit. It’s great to have hit records. It’s not something I shy away from. I’ve always wanted to have records that do well.“
“All Good People” came about as Squire and Howe began playing the underlying melody and Anderson started making up the vocal line. He was trying to relate to the fans, the good people who were coming to see the band.
Anderson has a soft spot in his heart for Aspen. He’s always been drawn to the beauty of nature, and nature has been a huge influence on what he writes about.
“I love Aspen,” he said. “The first time I was there, we were walking along through the ice and snow and everything. We walked off the beaten path, really enjoying the beauty of the area, and the next thing we knew, we were in 3 feet of ice water. It’s funny to think of that now. Really, I’ve had nothing but lovely times in Aspen.”
The current solo tour has been enjoyable for Anderson on many levels. He enjoys being on stage with just his voice, the simple sound of one instrument and his lyrics. It’s an opportunity for his words and music to stand alone and to connect with the audience in ways that aren’t possible touring with a large production.
“That’s it, you know — you get that feeling, that energy from the crowd,” he said. “When I do my solo shows, that’s still there. People get connected and want to hear the songs they love and new songs, ideas, stories. … It’s still a lot of fun touring.”