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Ego Sent Rick (and Peter)

[Notice To Patrons: there is a lot of ‘I’ in this entry.  Look Away Now if self-referential rambling is not yer glass o’tea...]

So apparently, last night saw a gathering of the luminaries of the Progressive Rock world, and prizes were handed out to the sparkliest amongst them.  Yes, lads ’n’ lasses ’n’ leftovers – it was none other than the Progressive Music Awards.  This scintillant conventicle of caped crusaders convened under the auspices of Prog Magazine – a glossy, overpriced periodical that I, for one, have failed to buy in several railway stations.

Prizewinners (really, it’s too like Speech Day at a minor public school) included Rick Wakeman, who was hailed as ‘Prog God’ (which presumably equates to Victor Ludorum) and Peter Hammill, who took laurels in the ‘Visionary’ category (…I dunno, is that like Scripture Knowledge?!).

The above intelligence gives me furiously to think.  For it seems that Progressive Rock music, after decades of being considered unspeakable, inscrutable, an under-the-counter brown-paper-bag habit of the stubborn few (‘On entend le prog, on ne cite pas’ to misquote a Frenchman), has suddenly been deemed… ok.  Venerable, perhaps.  And even somewhat hip.

This astounds me, and slightly worries me as well.  I’m astounded because generally, anything that seeks self-consciously to be intellectual, earnest, extravagant and emotional is given short shrift by approximately 80% of British citizens.  (Sincerity and cleverness make them uncomfortable, don’t you know.)  The worry comes because… if these scary and outré creatures, these wide-eyed pioneers, daring to dream of hydraulically-operated mushroom-shaped stage architecture and unfathomable wells of lonely lyrics composed upon esoteric topics and giant synthesisers, if These People are now part of Thee Establishment... well, thusly are they rendered toothless.  The really excellent thing about prog rock, in my opinion, is its ability to make people uncomfortable – its propensity to needle otherwise rational beings to outbursts of apoplectic discomfiture.  “But you can’t do that!” they splutter.  “You mustn’t!  It’s -- it’s not decent!”

What, you mean that’s not allowed?  Forbidden territory?  That is catnip to me.  Whilst living an outwardly humdrum life I am eternally drawn to the transgressive.  I have great difficulty liking something that is simply likable.  But if it’s swathed in green satin, re-imagines the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in a futuristic dystopia and a new musical instrument was invented solely to realise its sprawling seventeen minutes in glorious stereo… well, as I said, 80% of people would begin to have a migraine just thinking about it (er, I apologise for any discomfort you may be experiencing…).  But me… I’m checking it.  Come up and see me sometime!

Ah, well, in truth I exaggerate.  I am not without discernment.  Careful listening habits have preserved my tender young ears from the likes of ELP and Rush.  Although in my case, that statement is rather like boasting of complete abstinence from vodka when one is an habitual toper of absinthe.  (Disclaimer: I am really not an habitual toper of absinthe, or of vodka…)

But that is beside the point.  The point, which I seem to have mislaid down the back of the sofa whilst rattling on tediously about my fictional drinking problem, is that it concerns me slightly when the outermost outsiders are handed a glass of champagne and slapped on the back by a jury of their peers.  I’m not speaking from a position of weirdo-snobbery (honest guv!) – it’s just a bit suspicious.  Mind you, why am I surprised, when even the grit and spit and muscle and stubble of punk has become ‘retro cool’.  If punk can be the soundtrack to a commercial for an ominous corporate entity (and it can; oh, it can…), then it’s hardly a shock to find prog rehabilitated as yet another brand of warm ’n’ fuzzy nostalgia.

The other (larger, more serious) point is: styling these people as gods and visionaries… that’s dangerous.  An important lesson that all must learn in their exploration of cultural this ’n’ that is that these souls whom we term ‘artists’ are just people.  Nobody asks to be a creative spirit – the universe thrusts it upon you, I feel.  Most good songs (ask any songwriter, from the gauchest hack to Cole Porter) are created in less than twenty minutes, in a state of shamanic transport.  Music – all art – speaks through a human receiver.  All that receiver has to do is be aware of it and write it down.  (Effort and skill come into play later, and there you will find the parting of the ways between your bona fide genius and your galumphing amateur.)

And to follow on from that set of circumstances, nowhere is it written that the artist has to be a prophet or a moral exemplar or a pastoral leader.  You can be an utter barsteward and write the tenderest hymn to brotherly love ever composed.  Or, more likely, you can contain all the shades of grey common to most humans and turn a select few of these outwards via the medium of song.  Artists are allowed, you know, to make mistakes, to have character flaws, to flail and goof and trip up and be wrong and stubborn about it.  What I am saying is, it is dodgy in the extreme to put these people on pedestals.  Or rather, if they’re going to be on a pedestal, they are there in the mode of a wild-eyed stylite, who got up on that pillar of his own accord, and stays on it for entirely personal reasons.  That is rather different from Nelson on his column – hoisted there by public subscription, symbolic, unchanging, oblivious, decorated generously with pigeon guano.

Further, to brand someone a visionary or a deity is (a) to place an unreasonable expectation on him and (b) a lazy thinking-shortcut or indeed marketing ploy with respect to his body of work.  It’s a bit like when somebody wins an Academy Award.  Ever after, that person is ‘Oscar-winner John Doe’.  You simply can’t say ‘John Doe’ without the ‘Oscar-winner’ prefix.  I predict little round stickers-on-product to remind the would-be record buyer that Mr Wakeman is Prog God, so everything he’s ever done must be bathed in a golden glow.  (It’s perhaps less likely that Mr Hammill will end up similarly bestickered, but nevertheless, all future press articles will no doubt make reference to his honorific: lo, the Visionary!)

You may, at this point, if you are still reading, be thinking that this Emy is a cheerless cynic, begrudging these admirable men their well-earned recognition.  Actually, no.  In real life (as opposed to verbiage-spewing mode) I’m delighted that their achievements are being celebrated.  It simply happens to have coincided with a recent train of thought about hero-worship and its uselessness.  (And also, I’m sorely disappointed that there was no award for Best Hair.)

In stumbling nearer to a conclusion, I must tell you that it is three weeks and two days since a chance remark of mine led a kind person to suggest that I ought to try listening to Van der Graaf Generator.  It didn’t take very long to realise that I was going to like it severely.  A sort of beneficent aneurysm occurred.  You know when you get near your resonant frequency and start floating about two inches off the planet?  Oh, well, yes, that.  Had I been 17 at the moment of this attack rather than 34, it could have been most unhealthy!  (I think it is the sort of music much cherished by sixth-formers, but then there is a portion of my soul that will be loitering in the sixth-form common room until the day I die.)  Fortunately, the danger of becoming morbidly infatuated with Peter Hammill is less ominous when one is happily married to the world’s most wonderful left-handed Spike Milligan-loving quantum physicist, but I won’t say it’s an entirely risk-free state of affairs!

Anyway, what I meant to say was, this whole ‘Visionary’ malarkey, now.  I suppose it’s sort-of appropriate – this is a person who can and will write songs about any-and-all subjects, often visiting cryptic shores on a raft of metaphor.  Unconventional tuneage (the sort where you can’t hum-in-the-blanks after hearing the first two bars) is offered.  Sometimes there is personal soul-searching; sometimes there are archetypes or symbols, or characters as wild and compelling as any Ancient Mariner.  There is transcendent singing – the sort that sounds just right to me, but generally gets described by music journalists as ‘unusual’ or even ‘divisive’.  This is a Personality who, even in the democratic waters of a band, has a hand on the tiller – The Main Songwriter – The Navigator.  There is here flamboyance and rawness, and that sense of someone utterly at home on a stage.  This is also someone who admits to thinking a lot, and enjoying using words a lot – quite unfashionable (indeed, considered unhealthy by many!) and of course approved of heartily by Yrs Trly.

And yet, the off-stage Mr H is not a moon-touched seer, clutching at his temples and speaking in riddles.  He seems, from my brief researches, to be down-to-earth, a courteous and willing interviewee, possessed of a rare clarity.  He speaks ruefully of having a certain amount of ego; well, how many ‘elder statesmen of rock’ (oh dear) display such insight?  Most would, in the matter of ego, unavoidably show rather than tell, I fear!

Does all of this add up to a Visionary?  Perhaps.  But more pressingly it adds up to a Recognisable Human Being.  Too many performers come across as caricatures, even as they confide their inmost thoughts.  Despite the masquerade and the throwing of shapes, Mr Hammill comes across as a Real Person.

(…Three weeks and two days.  And I am emboldened to make such pronouncements.  Make of it what you will.)

I must tell you also that the Beneficent Aneurysm has had some welcome side-effects.  Since its outbreak I’ve written three-and-a-half songs and seven-eighths of a short story (the initial eighth having been scribbled ages ago and left unpursued).  If the definition of a Visionary is someone who inspires and empowers others (through whatever mysterious means), then I guess we have a winner!

So, at the end of an appropriately concepty double-LP length oration, may I extend my congratulations and deepest gratitude to all the sparkly winners of prog.  I hope the champagne was the very good, non-hangover-making kind, and that there is room in the downstairs lavatory for the trophy.  Most of all, I hope the odd ideas, the searching, the sincerity, will keep flowing.  Flood out the nay-sayin’ men of grey with that rain of light and colour.  Swish a cape and wear half a beard on public transport and sing to me about mathematics and personal heartbreak and give your guitar a name and have a cup of tea, on me.

Eavesdrop, snoop, and sigh with yearning...

This journal is not a private diary, it is more like an occasional, imaginary column. Therefore, much of it is on public display. However, if you want to read my occasional attempts at creative writing, my Caution Elf tells me I should only show that stuff to my friends. You know what to do. :-)

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