The 100 Best Classic Progressive Rock Songs Part 4: 40-21

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  1. Jethro Tull: “Heavy Horses” (from Heavy Horses)

Meanwhile back in the year… 1978? It’s an embarrassing commentary on how close-minded so many folks are that they’ve probably never even heard this song. Of course, the professionals who write most often about rock music in the ‘70s are not known for their fondness of multisyllabic words and material that obliges a modest understanding of world history. Back to basics? How about back to the 18th century? That is the vibe Jethro Tull was emanating circa 1978. The band that dropped not one, but two single-song album suites had evolved into a proficient troupe of professionals that incorporated strings, lutes, fifes and harpsichords into their repertoire. To put it more plainly, the same years the Clash, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols were establishing a radically new and brazen rock aesthetic, Ian Anderson appeared on an album cover flanked by two Clydesdales. The title track is a typically literate—and unironic!—tribute to the working horses of England that, much like prog rock, were soon to step aside, their demise having less to do with trends and tastemakers than technology.

  1. Colosseum: “The Valentyne Suite” (from Valentyne Suite)

Vibraphone and saxophone? Yes! Dave Greensdale, who supplies the vibes as well as some remarkable organ work, gets the drop on ELP, delivering keyboard-dominated prog before Keith Emerson made himself a household name. A bit jazzy, a tad trippy, it’s still incredibly tight and multi-dimensional; at one instant frenetic and the next almost tranquil, this is mood music for those uninterested in paint-by-numbers performance. Released the same year as In the Court of the Crimson King, this album and especially the title track seem influenced by no one, but set a standard that would be frequently imitated but seldom surpassed.

  1. Renaissance: “Song of Scheherazade” (from Scheherazade and Other Stories)

One need not know who Scheherazade is or what One Thousand and One Nights is, but being aware of this famous character and text will help the listener appreciate what’s going on –and perhaps marvel at Renaissance’s audacity for putting their spin on this, well, epic tale. And what better way to condense an epic than create an epic, multi-part track? As usual, vocalist Annie Haslam provides vocals and lends a very appropriate feminine voice to the “story” of Scheherazade. Renaissance seldom lacked for purpose, but this track, more than any other, represents the triumph of ambition met with worthy material.

  1. Camel: “Rhayader Goes to Town” (from The Snow Goose)

One more from Camel’s masterpiece. “Rhayader Goes to Town” is mostly a showcase for the criminally unheralded guitar virtuoso Andrew Latimer. On this track he shreds like vintage David Gilmour, but with soul to spare and a technician’s control of his instrument. Some (okay, a lot) of music from the prog genre was conceived as anti-commercial, as challenging to digest as it was to execute. And for the most part, this was laudable, and in accordance with the savvy and discipline the music required (for both bands and fans), but too much of the music, either not discovered in the first place, or lumped in with all the good, bad and ugly, warrants a second (or first!) listen. The Snow Goose is certainly not easy listening, but it’s easy to be enraptured by; for anyone seeking fresh insight about how prog sounded, when it was lean and mean, “Rhayader Goes to Town” could not be more strongly recommended.

  1. Yes: “Starship Trooper” (from The Yes Album)

Regardless of intent or method, prog rock could be quite dark and often heavy, as a cursory examination of cover art and song titles will confirm. That said, there was, of course, a vast amount of gentler, even elegant music. Few bands worked together in unison the way Yes did during their prime, each individual an imperative part of the whole. And while, at various times, Bill Bruford, Chris Squire and especially Rick Wakeman made unforgettable contributions, the classic sound was mostly defined by vocalist Jon Anderson and guitar god Steve Howe. “Starship Trooper” is perhaps the definitive showcase for Howe, allowing him to illustrate his utter mastery of the instrument (both acoustic and electric), and when he and Anderson multi-track their guitar/vocal interplay, it’s as close to heaven as prog rock ever got.

  1. Traffic: “The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” (from The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys)

Traffic will never be known as a prog rock band. This is a testament to the fact that Traffic can’t be easily defined—or dismissed—as part of any particular genre; their interests were too wide-ranging, their abilities too matchless. Having mastered psychedelic rock in the late ‘60s and a more jam-based jazz-rock on the masterful (but not-proggy) John Barleycorn Must Die, Traffic became a bit of everything on their masterpiece The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys. One look, at the title, and the hipper-than-hip album cover tells you all you need to know: these were some cool cats. Steve Winwood, of course, was the resident prodigy, but the sax and flute contributions from Chris Wood are crucial. On this super laid back track, Jim Capaldi turns in some of his finest drum and percussion work, proving that prog could, on occasion, be groovy, if not entirely fashionable.

  1. Soft Machine: “Moon in June” (from Third)

From the Canterbury scene in the late ‘70s to full-on freak jazz in the early-to-mid ‘70s, in between Soft Machine got their prog on. Third is at once experimental in the extreme, but a very controlled and deliberate sort of experiment. The jazz and fusion influences are undeniable, but even with extended instrumental workouts, the results seldom seem like aimless jams or braggadocio. The passages with vocals have perhaps not dated so well, but there’s a pulsating energy that drives the piece. This is music from the underground and it’s probably best understood, and appreciated, as art that makes no apologies, but welcomes all who come to it with open ears, and minds.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Us and Them” (from The Dark Side of the Moon)

Originally an instrumental intended for Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (and rejected for the eventual soundtrack), this Richard Wright composition found new life a few years later. The lyrics by Roger Waters not only provide a “story” but evidence a stunning maturity in the band’s approach. Associations with outer space, which were always superficial in the first place, are now ancient history as Waters & Co. are setting their sights on the hearts of our darkness. Continuing a growing preoccupation (which would later become an obsession) with war and soldiers, like his father, killed in conflict, Waters exhibits a concision that’s able to leave a permanent mark: “’Forward!’ he cried from the rear/And the front rank died/And the General sat as the lines on the map/Moved from side to side.” Wright’s piano solos and organ provide a solemn but beautiful foundation, and Gilmour’s world-weary delivery is by turns hopeful and heartbreaking.

  1. Genesis: “Watcher of the Skies” (from Foxtrot)

The mellotron certainly had its time and place. It became overused, a crutch for bands hoping to mimic the sounds made by bands like King Crimson and late ‘60s Moody Blues, but when properly utilized, it could produce an oddly enchanting (I can’t bring myself to say haunting) effect that even the strings it was designed to replicate can’t quite convey. It was often employed as a layering effect, to embellish the other instruments, and the effect was surreal and murky; if it was loud or frequent enough to notice, it was probably being abused. However, on “Watcher of the Skies”, the opening song from prog rock benchmark Foxtrot, we are treated to the first (best? only?) mellotron “solo”. It takes over 90 seconds for the other instruments to (slowly, brilliantly) enter and build, and that extended introduction might be the best wordless evidence for what we could define as the essential “prog rock sound”: it’s all in there, whatever it is. Then there are the lyrics, with allusions to literature (Keats) and some of Phil Collins’s most satisfying accompaniment. As much as any song from the early ‘70s, “Watcher of the Skies” manages to invoke the past while commenting on the present, using new instruments and ideas to create a certain type of mood music that is crammed with feeling, intensity, and release.

  1. King Crimson: “Fracture” (from Starless and Bible Black)

Percussionist Jamie Muir, whose wonderfully ragtag percussion contributions gave Larks’ Tongues in Aspic its proper right-at-the-precipice atmosphere, departed, leaving King Crimson a quartet. Always up for a challenge, Bill Bruford simply expanded his repertoire, adding his own, more refined, percussive touches. These are put to ideal effect on album closer “Fracture”, particularly the brief xylophone flair that quite possibly inspired Danny Elfman’s immortal theme for The Simpsons. John Wetton locks in with Bruford to establish a sludgy groove, and David Cross subtly counters Fripp’s ominous grinding, which builds Crimson’s patented quiet-to-chaos dynamic before all Hades breaks loose courtesy of what may stand as Fripp’s most ferocious solo. Everyone doubles down (the beautiful brawling between Bruford and Wetton would continue to excellent effect on the subsequent recordings for Red), and Fripp—as if it’s even necessary at this point—makes his case for all-time prog guitar guru. When one realizes most of the material from this album was recorded live or grew out of improvised jams, it only adds to the import of what Fripp, the ultimate perfectionist, was capable of when he shifted into high gear.

  1. Jethro Tull: “Aqualung” (from Aqualung)

It remains tantalizing to imagine the augmented critical—and street—cred the album would receive if it had only been named after almost any of the other ten songs, especially “Wind Up” or “My God”. And if, as Anderson claims he preferred, the cover had featured the actual tramp from the Thames Embankment who inspired the tune (“Aqualung” referring to the gurgling sound of the man’s chronic bronchitis), it would make the lyrics about the real human being inexorably more vivid and disturbing. The song persists as a confrontational movie that directs itself: a shot that pans a city beside the river; quiet men bundled in rags, huddled together under a bridge, “drying in the cold sun”. Finally the camera zooms in on one individual, whose rasping cough makes him difficult to ignore (“snot is running down his nose/greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes”). First, a tracking shot follows him (“an old man wandering lonely”) as he goes about his daily routine (“taking time the only way he knows”): picking up used cigarette butts, taking refuge in a public toilet to warm his feet, queuing up for a daily dose of charity (“Salvation a la mode and a cup of tea”). Then, the guitar solo. The other two immortal solos from this (early ‘70s) era, David Gilmour on “Time” and Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” (coincidentally recorded in the same studio at the same time) are like Technicolor bursts of inevitability. Martin Barre’s less celebrated solo is a strictly black-and-white affair, sooty, unvarnished, irrefutable: it is the bitter breath of a broken down old man spitting out pieces of his broken luck. Finally, the reprise: we might see or at least imagine multiple Aqualungs (“and you snatch your rattling last breaths with deep-sea diver sounds”) in multiple cities—the nameless people we make it our business to ignore, the people we must walk by because it’s bad for business to do otherwise. Or so we tell ourselves.

  1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “Take a Pebble” (from Emerson, Lake & Palmer)

The centerpiece, and masterpiece from ELP’s debut is Greg Lake’s twelve-and-a-half minute “Take A Pebble” which, as well as any song from the era, epitomizes the all-in ethos these bands were running up the flag pole. Plucked piano strings, plaintive acoustic strumming, showers of cymbals, a countrified interlude complete with hand claps (that you can almost dance to) and an extended piano-led excursion that stands alongside any progressive music ever made. If certain bands seemed to try a bit too hard, or were so serious they sucked any joy (or life) out of the music, this was seldom an issue with ELP: they positively revel in their shared purpose and can barely check their enthusiasm. As a result, the passion is at once refreshing and exhilarating.

  1. McDonald and Giles: “Birdman” (from McDonald and Giles)

If, in a sense, King Crimson never fully recovered from the loss of founding members Ian McDonald and Michael Giles. Still, hindsight has confirmed that everything about In the Court of the Crimson King was sui generis; it couldn’t be duplicated and it would have been silly to try. More importantly, the departure of McDonald meant, from that moment forward, Fripp was the prime mover and the personnel changes and various stylistic shifts that ensued were inevitable, and quite welcome. More still, Crimson’s temporary attrition led not only to McDonald and Giles presenting the world with their quiet masterpiece, but also gave us Emerson, Lake & Palmer!

In any event, McDonald’s playing and artistic flair were all over In the Court of the Crimson King and that prodigious talent is apparent throughout McDonald and Giles. By necessity, and perhaps to retain the control he coveted, the duo was content to soldier on mostly alone (there is support from brother Peter Giles on bass and a brief contribution, on organ, from Steve Winwood), but in addition to drums and vocals from Michael, Ian handles guitar, piano, organ, saxes, flute, clarinet and zither. To their lasting credit, the results are anything but minimalist; indeed, the same type of color and flair that brightened Crimson’s debut are in abundance throughout these proceedings. Lacking neither determination nor drive, McDonald and Giles made their stab at a near-obligatory side long statement. It’s an unqualified success, and the presence of friend and lyricist extraordinaire Peter Sinfield helps up the ante. While In the Wake of Poseidon is a stunning and almost entirely satisfactory follow-up to the debut, McDonald and Giles provides an opportunity to hear Crimson 2.0, or what the other half (McDonald, with Sinfield, being the alternate visionaries), given their druthers, could achieve.

  1. Rush: “La Villa Strangiato” (from Hemispheres)

Fans, of Rush in particular and prog in general, already understand that “La Villa Strangiato” is endlessly enjoyable slice of perfection. Better still, it’s the ideal option for anyone who can’t stomach Geddy Lee’s voice or Neil Peart’s lyrics. Even (or especially) when they were crafting suites about fountains and necromancers, few would deny the collective musical prowess of this trio. Still, where certain proficient acts (ranging from Zappa to, in later years, Rush themselves) could on occasion be accused of being a tad too clinical, a tad too perfect, it may surprise non-believers to know that Rush always had both humor and restraint, when the situation called for it. While there’s nothing especially restrained about “La Villa Strangiato”, it never tries to be anything other than what it is. What is it? Foremost, a showcase for Alex Lifeson, who everyone knows can shred, but not enough people appreciate as the skilled and dynamic player he is. It’s possible that the band never exhibited this much joy on a studio album before and certainly after; it’s a ten-minute celebration of partners in crime who possess superhuman ability, but also healthy enough egos to understand they’re all better working together than with anyone else.

  1. The Moody Blues: “Melancholy Man” (from A Question of Balance)

It’s Justin Hayward’s voice on most of the hits (and many excellent non-hits), but The Moody Blues were very much a collective in every sense of the word. Presenting the other extreme to Hayward’s irrepressible conviction (showcased on the brilliant “Question”, from the same album), Mike Pinder’s “Melancholy Man” is not only the reliably subdued counterpoint, it might be the best thing the band ever did. The the Moody Blues made scaled-down extravaganzas their calling card, and in hindsight their restraint seems almost valiant. On “Melancholy Man”, the music matches the mood, and Pinder manages to sound commanding and vulnerable, sometimes at the same moment. And special kudos to the man who did as much as anyone to introduce our beloved mellotron to popular culture; where would progressive rock be without this quirky, uniquely bizarre instrument?

  1. Camel: “Lady Fantasy” (from Mirage)

Whether or not this signifies Camel’s finest moment is less important than the fact that it’s probably the most successful distillation of their singular aesthetic. All the crucial prog elements are in place: tricky time shifts, an irresistible lull from mellow to frenzied, and a sound that’s at once non-commercial but immediately pleasing. What separates even the better bands who can write and play mind-blowing music is the feeling; some can’t conjure it, others can’t help but do so. It’s pointless, with words, to try and pin down precisely what it is, but on “Lady Fantasy”, guided as usual by Andrew Latimer’s guitar wizardry (and, on this track, vocals), Camel makes one of the more compelling cases for why prog rock matters and, at its best, how it needs no excuses or elaboration.

  1. Gentle Giant: “The Advent of Panurge” (from Octopus)

It’s unadvisable to teach someone to swim by tossing them in the ocean during a thunderstorm. Likewise, it’s foolhardy to hope anyone would take to prog rock by sampling practically anything by Gentle Giant. As the band itself boasted, they were an “acquired taste”, and some of the time went out of their way to prove it. So what? If there had to be one band that put a line in the sand and effectively defied people to dig them, Gentle Giant was consistently up to the task. So, while it’s tough to determine where even a listener amenable to prog rock might begin to tackle the Gentle Giant catalog, Octopus is as safe a bet as any other album. Not for nothing, it might also be their most consistent and satisfying release. Perhaps the most unheralded aspect of this band’s contribution –aside from the outstanding string of albums—is the way they set a bar for other, better-loved bands to follow, and aspire to; Gentle Giant were the unacknowledged legislators of the progressive movement and, if enough fans weren’t paying proper attention, it seems safe to suggest many of their fellow acts were. It really can’t be said enough that Gentle Giant deserves extensive respect and kudos for remaining utterly uncompromising and committed to their demanding but gratifying objectives.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Atom Heart Mother Suite” (from Atom Heart Mother)

Pink Floyd was still an underground band of sorts (albeit a very successful one) circa 1970, mostly because they didn’t bother to write hit singles. For the fans that didn’t jump ship after Syd Barrett’s departure, the efforts between 1968 and 1972 were transition albums from a prog rock icon in progress. The title song from this 1970 work clocks in at over 23 minutes and has everything from trumpet fanfare to orchestrated choir. Originally and appropriately dubbed “The Amazing Pudding”, this opus crams in ideas (and serious shredding from Dave Gilmour) that would resurface on their ultimate breakthrough, The Dark Side of the Moon: the multi-tracked voices, reprises, odds, sods and half-assed grandiosity are shot out of a cannon and remain unabashed and untamed today. It sounds very little like what Pink Floyd would shortly become; it sounds like a band from another planet which, after all, was more than half the point in the first place.

  1. Genesis: “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” (from Selling England by the Pound)

Where to begin? As always, the words: the mastery throughout Selling England by the Pound is all-time, for the ages; a bottomless pit of riches you can plunge into and float around blissfully, for the rest of your life. For this opening number (did any prog band begins albums with more of a bang than Gabriel-era Genesis?), Gabriel pulls out all the stops, with poetry, puns, reportage, riffs on modern life (Oh, the humanity…) and, as always, a yearning not-quite-nostalgia for a quieter and less complicated time. Above all, the intolerable awareness that all of us are stuck squarely in the here-and-now, and even that moment just passed into a forgettable past. Everyone involved is en fuego, at the height of their individual and collective abilities. For people who want to know where Eddie Van Halen’s finger tapping technique originated, look no further. For people who don’t understand, or would never believe Phil Collins was, at one time, a first-rate drummer, check this out. And, well, nobody is daft enough to doubt the glory of Peter Gabriel, right? The angst, anger and, finally, euphoria his voice channels is (once again) all-time, for the ages.

  1. Van der Graaf Generator: “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” (from Pawn Hearts)

Every prog band wanted to add at least one undisputed classic to the canon; some failed, some came close, and some made multiple contributions. Van der Graaf Generator (the name itself almost a dare) tried and, depending on one’s level of faith, succeeded. But no one who knows anything about this genre would dispute that this album is their masterpiece, and “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” is their crowning achievement. On this sprawling and elaborate composition, crucial contributions are made by all, but keyboard wizard Hugh Banton and vocalist Peter Hammill are way out in the stratosphere. This as music as drama, as statement, as vocation.

This piece originally appeared at PopMatters on 3/30/17.

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The 100 Best Classic Progressive Rock Songs: Part 1, 100-81

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Welcome back, my friends to the show that never ends.

After gamely, if humbly attempting to track the 25 best old-school progressive albums of all time, it’s inevitable to turn our attention to the best songs of the genre. In the spirit of more expansive representation and to avoid, as much as possible, redundancy, I’ve tried to limit selections to one track per album though, of course, this proved impossible in several cases. To remain consistent with the previous installment, I’ve maintained my own arbitrary criteria and kept consideration to English-speaking bands and only songs released during the decade of 1969 to 1979. And again, while the more obscure cuts the better, there’s an honest effort here to celebrate songs that represent the best of the genre, meaning some (very) familiar friends are invoked. Believe me, if I were choosing my personal favorites, this list would look pretty different, if indulgent.

To repeat a prior admonition: you’re not going to agree with this list. It’s possible you’ll abhor it, and that’s the point, pretty much. I’ve never seen a list of this kind that I concur with, which is one reason recalcitrant writers roll our rocks up that hill. If my word’s but a whisper, your deafness is a shout, etc.

  1. Yes: “The Revealing Science of God” (from Tales from Topographic Oceans)

Inexorably, this list has to begin with Yes and of course it must include a song from perhaps the most maligned album in the prog canon. It could (should?) be chosen just because of its title, which—like many of the subsequent selections, for good, bad and obvious reasons—epitomizes much of what makes progressive rock beloved, misunderstood, mocked and mostly ignored. Where many of the elements making this band such a force to be reckoned with—or wrecked—all congealed on their previous three efforts, it’s difficult to deny the blokes set up more draughts than they could drink on this overstuffed, undercooked double album. Those same elements, including the remarkable individual abilities of each player, the focus, drive and naysayers-be-damned desire, are all accounted for, but despite typically solid vocals from Jon Anderson and the always-reliable guitar exploits of Steve Howe, Tales from Topographic Oceans is like Jackson Pollock doing Dali, in the dark, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Or Something. Unlike so much denigrated or willfully misconstrued prog music, this one actually is everything everyone says it is.

  1. Curved Air: “Vivaldi” (from Air Conditioning)

Sure it’s pretentious and more than a little earnest. It’s also brilliant: an extended violin and electric guitar workout, a quirky but compelling tribute to, well, Vivaldi. If the music, much less the execution, was in the least bit sloppy or uninspired, it would crumple under the weight of its own pomposity. Ripe for ridicule and like many prog rock compositions, almost inviting ill-will—especially from the elitist types who sniff condescendingly at any invocation of sacred cows like the creator of The Four Seasons—a band like Curved Air wrote and performed a song like this for the most obvious of reasons, which at once explains and inoculates it: because they wanted to; because they could.

  1. Pink Floyd: “Fearless” (from Meddle)

With two key elements (the guitar sound and the vocals) solidly established on this mature, confident album, a final one—Roger Waters’ increasingly mature and topical lyrics—comes to fruition on the third track, “Fearless”. This tune, which could be viewed as a poignant nod to Syd Barrett, is definitely an early installment of a growing Waters obsession: namely the alienated and isolated protagonist railing against (or reeling from) a mechanized, soulless machine called society. Another distinctly Floydian touch is the decision to insert a recording of fans at Liverpool’s football stadium chanting “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, which concludes the song on a hopeful and human note. This tactic also serves as an early blueprint for the sound effects and ironic employment of actual voices used on later albums, specifically The Dark Side of the Moon.

  1. King Crimson: “Trio” (from Starless and Bible Black)

Perhaps the most mellotron-y of prog songs from the most mellotron-y of prog bands. A few words about the mellotron: its sounds may be undeniably dated, kind of like movies without CGI—which helps explain why certain folks have an unapologetic nostalgia. Put another way, the mellotron was a novelty instrument replacing proper string sections the way auto-tune and overproduction are de rigueur these days. When used judiciously (which may seem oxymoronic, but bands like Crimson and Genesis did not use mellotron to replace other instruments), this odd device was best utilized as a layering effect, and for the occasionally otherworldly sounds and feelings it could invoke; a hallucinogenic edge that “authentic” instruments could never approximate. Robert Fripp, clinical, obsessive, even cold or at least calculating, honed the capacity of conjuring up profoundly emotional sounds and sensations, and “Trio” illustrates that machines (and machine-like men) can convey—and possibly have—soul(s). On this number, recorded live, the restraint from all musicians is notable, especially drummer Bill Bruford who had the good sense to lay out and, because his instincts were so sound, Fripp insisted he receive co-composer credit.

  1. Genesis: “Ripples” (from A Trick of the Tail)

Gabriel, gone? They could not go on. They went on. And, for a while, more capably than any reasonable fan could have expected or hoped for. Phil Collins, as it turned out, was not only a suitable, but almost perfect replacement for the former frontman, albeit—at least through the duration of the decade—in a subtler and more self-aware fashion. “Ripples” is as close as the band came to a thoroughly convincing, and satisfying, mini-epic post-Gabriel, and it remains one of Collins’ most effective, and affecting, vocal performances.

  1. Jethro Tull: “Wind Up” (from Aqualung)

Ian Anderson upped his already impressive lyrical game on Jethro Tull’s breakthrough masterpiece, Aqualung, a song cycle that remains as scornful and relevant as the year it was recorded. While the first side of the original LP concerns itself with, for lack of a better cliché, man’s inhumanity to man, the second side takes on religion with a righteous indignation that has scarcely–if ever–been improved upon by other mainstream acts. Anderson arguably saves his best for last when, in “Wind Up” he recalls being shipped off to church, eventually concluding that God is “not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays”. It brings full circle the concerns, both material and spiritual, that any sensitive –or sentient– person must grapple with, or make sense of. “In your pomp and all your glory you’re a poorer man than me/As you lick the boots of death born out of fear”, he snarls, assailing the fake humility and the appropriation of the holy for personal, earthly gains, et cetera.

  1. Caravan: “C’Thlu Thlu” (from For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night)

You can discern everything from a hint of Sabbath to a touch of Dead and a smattering of Genesis, with Peter Gabriel in full freak mode. It seems a certainty that Blue Oyster Cult was paying attention, and everyone from Randy Rhoads to Metallica owes at least a partial debt. Matching mood to lyrical and thematic content was something every prog band hoped to achieve, but only the best practitioners could pull it off with consistency. “C’Thlu Thlu” (Google “Cthulhu”) is a case study in creeping doom, a song that could only come from this genre, yet anticipating so much of what was to come.

  1. Camel: “The Snow Goose” (from The Snow Goose)

In a sensible world, this band would get a lot more love. While any number of their albums warrant reexamination or discovery, The Snow Goose stands not only as their masterpiece, but one of the first-tier concept albums from the prog genre. The title track ably encapsulates what is essentially a free-flowing suite connected by “chapters”, using only music to narrate the band’s interpretation of Paul Gallico’s novella. If all this sounds like impenetrable mish-mash to the uninitiated ear, the music is almost surprisingly accessible. A dreamlike production influenced equally by classical music and film scores, it’s possibly the closest prog rock ever got to Ennio Morricone—and yes, that’s intended as the highest form of praise.

  1. Gentle Giant: “Nothing at All” (from Gentle Giant)

Possibly the most controversial of all prog rock outfits, Gentle Giant has indefatigable supporters, semi-enthusiastic fans, and everyone else who’s never heard of them. This, of course, is not fair, and the band did enough exceptional work over an extended period of time that they should be name-checked more frequently, both in and outside proggy circles. It should go without saying that on this song (like the album it’s taken from; like most of their other albums) the musicianship is top notch. An acoustic-based number, its charms are reserved, somewhat of a refreshing change of pace from Gentle Giant’s typical more-is-a-half-measure modus operandi. Of course there are some mid-song explosions and an extended drum solo, among other things. Probably as appropriate an introduction to this outfit’s intimidating oeuvre as anything.

  1. The Moody Blues: “Have You Heard?” (from On the Threshold of a Dream)

On the Threshold of a Dream is definitely The Moody Blues’ Progressive-with-a-capital-P album: it’s not so much that the material deals with the obligatory inner-space explorations, it tries to capture, with words and music, elements of the sounds, colors, shapes and emotions these journeys can encompass. The band goes for broke, aesthetically, on the psychedelic suite that closes Side Two: “The Dream” (another poem from Edge) into Pinder’s stirring and profoundly affirming “Have You Heard” (Parts One and Two, naturally). And in between, the interlude/centerpiece “The Voyage”. A bit of avant-garde whimsy, a touch of Stravinsky, a full measure of aspiration, more mellotron than you can fit in a freight train, chirping flutes and crashing snares, et cetera. If you think it sounds hopelessly dated, well, you’re right. You should also consider what today’s pre-programmed beats and auto-tuned atrocities are going to sound like in 40 (or four) years.

  1. Rick Wakeman: “Catherine of Aragon” (from The Six Wives of Henry VIII)

Wakeman looms large as a prog deity, providing memorable keyboard handiwork throughout the ‘70s for Yes. But as more than a few people know, he was also busy with other projects. His solo efforts at once validate his status as a prog monster, and provide plenty of ammunition for haters who, taking one look at the album titles, would dismiss him as a monstrosity. As much or more than later works Journey to the Centre of the Earth and (take a deep breath) The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, his arrangements on The Six Wives of Henry VIII are an ideal vehicle for his seemingly unlimited range and, yes, ambition.

  1. Rush: “Xanadu” (from A Farewell to Kings)

After three albums the band itself would declare full of hits and misses, everything came together during the recording of 2112. After that, Rush did the most prog thing possible: upping the ante and doubling down on the determination. Using the all but requisite literary reference as point of departure, lyricist Neal Peart did not half-step, selecting “Kubla Khan”, a poem by Romantic heavyweight Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Whether or not old Samuel spun in his grave or headbanged in approval, “Xanadu” gets full marks for concept and execution. Love or loathe them, Lifeson, Lee and Peart are among the better players in all prog-dom (Lifeson’s extended solo during the song’s climax features some of his all-time guitar heroics). While they were gradually getting away from side-long marathons and easing into more straightforward snippets of song, in 1977 they were somewhere in the middle, stretching out with confidence but also expressing maximum feeling with something that could almost be called moderation.

  1. Traffic: “Roll Right Stones” (from Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory)

If their earlier stuff was, by turns, more folk and jazz oriented, in the early-to-mid ‘70s Traffic was incorporating multiple elements and idioms and crafting something decidedly prog-like, albeit funky as all get out. Singer, multi-instrumentalist and creative dynamo Steve Winwood was on a hell of a run by the time Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory dropped; if this one gets less love and wasn’t as radio-friendly as the previous efforts, there is a darker, at times deeper vibe in effect. Piano, organs, sax, flute and those vocals: this is the soundtrack for a trip that need not be augmented with drugs or lava lamps; Traffic was always more substantial than any simple reduction, and they never pushed the boundaries of what was possible quite like this.

  1. Pink Floyd: “The Great Gig in the Sky” (from The Dark Side of the Moon)

It wasn’t so much that Pink Floyd “got” prog better than other bands, in part because everyone on the scene was making it up as they went along. Rather, they were the outfit that, arguably, used the idiom to its fullest effect, showcasing musicianship and experimentation with (increasingly) mature and, yes, universal themes. For The Dark Side of the Moon, the Alpha and Omega of concept albums, Roger Waters & Co. explored the pressures of modern, mechanized life and the devastating effects it has on us all, especially the ones “hanging on in quiet desperation”. The title here, like those of the other songs, makes it clear what the song is “about”. However, using no vocals, only the off-the-cuff caterwauling of Clare Torry, the most deliberate prog band (possibly excepting King Crimson) embraced improvisation, and between Rick Wright’s mournful keyboards, David Gilmour’s solemn slide guitar and the aforementioned Torry, this track goes somewhat beyond its already ambitious subject matter.

  1. The Alan Parsons Projects: “I Robot” (from I Robot)

Already a minor prog legend for his involvement as engineer on The Dark Side of the Moon, Parsons went on to make significant contributions to prog rock before becoming somewhat of a household name in the early ‘80s. I Robot, like the album the preceded and followed, might be classified as “thinking man’s prog” or prog that moved keyboard-propelled formulas into territory that, while borrowing a little from Brian Eno and Kraftwerk, also anticipated the synth-laden music that would dominate the next decade. Like Eno, the Alan Parsons Project proved that one could be both meticulous and curious, and like his most lauded and disparaged compatriots, Parsons was unabashed about being intelligent, driven and willing to take risks, all in the service of art that took its audience as seriously as it took itself.

  1. King Crimson: “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Pt. 2” (from Larks’ Tongues in Aspic)

At times cerebral, others sullen, always extraordinarily sensitive, make no mistake, Robert Fripp could throw down and wail with the aggression of a caged honey badger. On an astonishing album that contains a bit of everything, for the final number the band follows Fripp’s lead into the abyss. Like the best Crimson, there are moments where the tension threatens to overwhelm and absorb everything, and then, there’s release; here, courtesy of David Cross’s surreal violin stylings. Anticipating grunge, there’s a feel here that shifts from far-East to outer space, but with Bill Bruford and John Wetton (barely) keeping the back-end stable enough to avoid lift-off, this is a roller-coaster of wrath and control.

  1. Yes: “Roundabout” (from Fragile)

This song almost single-handedly ensures that even the most intractable cynics can’t dismiss everything about progressive rock. A musical marvel, it is by turns self-assured and over-the-top, and it has an almost sing-along appeal (even if no one joining in has any idea, as ever, what the hell Jon Anderson is on about). Interestingly, this is likely the gateway drug for neophytes who quickly and wisely head for murkier waters, “Roundabout” remains almost impossibly fresh and unsullied, even after decades of radio overplay. Courtesy of Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe, the song sounds at one moment like something from medieval times and the next like robots getting electrocuted. Special mention for Bill Bruford who somehow managed to be the busiest, most unorthodox and inventive drummer in rock.

  1. Genesis: “Return of the Giant Hogweed” (from Nursery Cryme)

God bless Peter Gabriel. Appearing on stage dressed like a flower, or a fox, or with a faux-hawk, he had brilliance to burn. Still a tad rough around the edges, Gabriel’s earliest work with Genesis mixes heady ambition with elements of rock’s most admired iconoclasts: there are pieces of T-Rex, David Bowie and Roky Erickson in his approach, but the entirety of his artistic personas is utterly unique. This song, about a giant hogweed (obviously) only hints at how wonderfully weird Gabriel was before he became Peter Gabriel. What is generally—and unforgivably— overlooked is how incredible this band was all through the early ‘70s. The song bristles with anger and energy, and while the atmosphere is unquestionably of its time, everyone seems (and sounds) dead earnest.

  1. Egg: “Long Piece No. 3” (from The Polite Force)

A delight for those who find even the most anarchic time signatures in progressive rock too conventional, and who like a side of keyboard with their keyboards. This is another one that more or less sums up all extremes of all-things-prog: indulgent, interminable, incredible. Perhaps not the ideal point of entry (the shorter pieces, particularly the better known “A Visit to Newport Hospital”, might be safer sledding), this at times seems like the band asked “You know that organ solo from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”? That was too short,” and at other times, it wouldn’t sound out of place on a Mahavishnu or Weather Report album.

  1. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: “The Endless Enigma” (from Trilogy)

One way of looking at the complicated case of ELP: easily distracted, or thrown off-course because they had too many ideas and were too talented to do anything the easy or easily predictable way, they turned into a home run hitter who strikes out too much. But when they got hold of one, there was no doubt. This, which on earlier (or, amusingly, later) albums might have been unwisely stretched into a side-long suite, is, at just over ten minutes, a convincing and even economical min-epic. Never willing or able to do half-measures, there is a discernible beginning, middle and end here, and it combines the usual audacity (I mean,“The Endless Enigma”?) with a sort of hero’s quest narrative scope, in miniature (the first time the word “miniature” has ever appeared in any consideration of anything by ELP). And, in the end, it’s always all, and only, about the music. Here, the lads are locked in and letting their boundless proficiency do the talking.

This piece originally appeared on PopMatters on 3/27/17

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Written and Unread*

A vision:

I am reading words written by a dead person. Nothing unusual about this; it’s practically the story of my life. In this case, however, the person who was still living when these words were written is my mother. Words not intended for my eyes, I know.

Or are they?

All these words, something to which my mother could devote her attention; all that available time that required killing to make it pass more quickly—to make it pass, period. All those hours to fill, especially in the days when we did not have five hundred channels to choose from or electronic access to a wide, webbed world. All that boredom, all that solitude, alone with her thoughts, alone with herself. All the unappealing emotions we are better equipped to avoid when we have peace, or at least perspective. All the feelings that ultimately find their way out the only way they can: awkwardly, unabashedly, irrevocably. All those sad songs of uncultivated passions, unexplored options, hours and hours of isolation that turn into tiny eternities. All those entreaties to an indifferent world: equal parts confession and accusation, settling old scores and soliciting understanding—or at least empathy—from people that could never be reached, or were no longer around or who never existed in the first place. All the other people who were busy living while she was busy trying not to die. The dread of nothingness and eventually, the suspicion that a thing which could be so awful was still ending too suddenly.

Who will remember us?

This is the question implicit in all these words, addressed to God, or Nobody or anybody who might be willing to listen. This is the question that cannot be answered except by words and deeds and memories that will occur after you are gone. This is the origin of our primordial impulse to connect and believe we stay associated, somehow, some way, after we are no longer able to interact on human terms. This, perhaps, is what ran through her mind once her eyes closed and she stayed asleep, already in another place, still hoping to apprehend some of the miracles she had or had not happened to miss during her life. This is the final question that, scrubbed of its universal and spiritual covering, asks explicitly and directly: Who will remember me?

***

Starting in the fifth grade, encouraged by a teacher, I began to keep a journal. This practice, initially an assignment, became a compulsion that continued on and off for the next two decades. I seldom feel an urge to revisit these hand-scribbled artifacts, equal parts lack of interest and the likelihood of embarrassment that such necessarily solipsistic exercises would induce. But more importantly, I don’t need to read the words since I remember writing them and can readily recall the circumstances that inspired them.

Journals, as I see them—and utilized them—function as adult versions of diaries, where the purpose is less a regurgitation of events and more a one-way conversation with oneself and, by extension, the world. The act of trying to make sense of life and, by extension, myself, in writing was never intended for other eyes. It served as a self-fulfilling sort of therapy before I even knew what that word meant.

I was not aware, until after she’d died, that my mother kept journals of her own. Knowing her as intimately as I did, I am neither surprised nor am I unable to imagine what themes and concerns inexorably resurface throughout her personal narrative. The catalyst to write, whether it is rooted in an effort to justify or interrogate, is primarily an attempt to get whatever it is on record. Certainly the longing to relate, on a human level, permits us to unburden ourselves, whether this interaction involves friends, spouses or therapists. I know my mother frequently utilized all of these outlets and some of the time it helped. (I’d like to think it was most of the time but I can’t know and I won’t kid myself.) Regardless, she was still compelled to document her hopes, fears and disappointments on paper, and that fact is its own commentary on how reliable she found her various support systems.

I am not especially inclined to read these words. They were not addressed to me, and I am aware that they were intended for an outlet that could not adequately quall her discomfort, then, and no longer exists for her, now. My sister found some of these journals and could not resist the temptation to read them. She was not looking for them; her discovery occurred as part of the aftermath, during the process of going through items my mother left behind. My sister, at that time, wanted a piece of everything my mother had touched, anything she could put her hands on. Predictably, she was unnerved by the experience of reading my mother’s words, an experience that is destined to disappoint because all possibility of responding is eliminated.

I asked my sister the same question I ask myself: Why would you want to read about her fights with us, or our father, her friends, or herself, or the ways she could never quite ameliorate the misgivings she had regarding all those usual suspects: her weight, her career—or lack thereof—the people who disappointed her or the fulfillment that eluded her, or her ongoing, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to reconcile the early loss of her mother, et cetera?

I don’t need to read about those things in part because I saw so much of them as they unfolded in real time. I remain grateful that I was able, as I slouched toward maturity, to be an open ear and ally. Instead of requiring support the way only a child understands, I had the opportunity to reciprocate; to encourage her and listen as often and best as I could. I told her the hard work had already been done, and her efforts and dedication were beyond reproach. All you need to do now, I’d say, is focus on the rest of your life: be a grandmother, develop some new hobbies, and enjoy the peace you’ve struggled to earn. This was, as is the case with most of us—particularly homemakers whose children have left home—a work in progress. Progress was being made, and then cancer came calling.

*Excerpted from a work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone

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Progressive Rock With a Capital P: Traffic’s ‘John Barleycorn Must Die’

One difficulty with talking intelligently about much of the amazing music made in the ‘70s is that it is so often lazily lumped together. Classic Rock, Progressive Rock, Freedom Rock, etc.

This would be okay, or at least tolerable, if these facile generalizations were intended to be laudatory. Too often, they are not, which naturally trivializes the variety and significance of that extended era. More importantly, it shortchanges the historic import of a time when genres and boundaries were, arguably, more fluid and formless (and non-commercial) than ever before or since.

Music and culture were changing at an unprecedented pace as the ‘60s ended, with the margins and mainstream increasingly overlapping. This was when Sly Stone was listening to James Brown (and vice versa), Miles Davis was digging Jimi Hendrix, Ian Anderson invoked Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Neil Young busied himself creating entirely new categories of music, almost singlehandedly inventing grunge, country-rock and a prototype for the New Depression ethos, all in less than three years.

Perhaps only during this time and in this environment could an album like John Barleycorn Must Die be created. Initially intended to be a solo project, the project wound up ushering in the second reincarnation of Traffic. While the ‘60s albums blended acoustic folk and psychedelia and the ‘70s output featured larger line-ups and sprawling, adventurous compositions, John Barleycorn Must Die is a bit of both, an accidental but brilliant product relaunch.

While he may not have been a household name, Steve Winwood was, circa 1970, at the very top of rock music’s second-tier. Only 18 when he sang the ubiquitous ‘60s single “Gimme Some Lovin’”, his vocals were in the service of the Spencer Davis Group. In his next band, Traffic, he shared the spotlight with Dave Mason. After Traffic splintered, he joined forces with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker (and Ric Grech) in the uber-supergroup Blind Faith. Perhaps not surprisingly, that collective was a one-and-done affair.

Taking a page out of the Stevie Wonder playbook, Winwood contemplated playing all the instruments himself and making a true “solo” album, tentatively titled Mad Shadows. This would have been impressive for obvious reasons, but in a move shrewd as it was inspired, he turned to two former mates and recruited their services for his new project. Enter drummer Jim Capaldi and multi-reedist Chris Wood and suddenly the second incarnation of Traffic was officially underway.

Six songs, 35 minutes; a short album even by old-school standards, John Barleycorn Must Die manages to pack in plenty of action. There is not a weak song or wasted moment. The first three tunes (Side One for us nostalgic sorts) may not comprise one of the best all-time sides in rock, but certainly one of the most satisfactory. The individual songs are excellent, but the sequence and flow are flawless, with an opening statement, a centerpiece and a reflective, side-closing tour de force.

Album opener “Glad” is an appropriately named jam, jazzy without resorting to noodling, rocking in the right ways and, above all, a showcase for the considerable skills of all involved. Winwood’s (somewhat unheralded) organ playing is supple yet swinging, and Capaldi ably provides a less-is-more panache that is evident throughout the proceedings. The real star (and egregiously unheralded hero of this era) is Chris Wood. His sax work on “Glad” and “Freedom Rider” is as funky and infectious as just about any jazz playing of the time, but his economic style maximizes feeling and eschews any semblance of showboating. When he switches from sax to flute on “Freedom Rider”, his runs are soulful enough to make your head—and ass—shake. This band’s M.O., in short, is very different from the one that made “Dear Mr. Fantasy”. There is a muscular groove that blends rock, R&B and, of course, jazz. The result is an invigorating, effortlessly cool cocktail: progressive rock with a capital P. Nothing else being made at this time sounded anything like this. The album endures due to its unique energy, but mostly because it remains utterly engaging.

The legendary producer Chris Blackwell, who founded Island Records, once described Steve Winwood as “Ray Charles on helium”. While ostensibly amusing, it is also an accurate, possibly even perfect depiction. Considering he was barely into his 20s, it is astonishing how mature, distinctive and convincing Winwood sounds on this set. Take the third song, “Empty Pages”. If slowed down a bit you can almost fancy Ray Charles singing this number. The fact that it’s a diminutive, pasty white Englishman only proves that you can’t judge a bloke by his color. In any event, “Empty Pages” may be Winwood’s finest moment. The organ, the bass lines and, as always, those vocals, melancholy cut with resolve—just a 22-year-old making some of the best music of the new decade.

The second side slows things down a little but the intensity does not abate. Lyrically, “Stranger to Himself” is as relevant today as the hour it was written: “Through his nightmare vision, he sees nothing, only well.” He’s maybe a hippie, perhaps a politician, probably no one in particular, but certainly someone we all know. The title track, a traditional English folksong, is undoubtedly the best known of the bunch—certainly by music fans unfamiliar with Traffic. Winwood’s delivery is somber, and the acoustic guitar and flute flourishes are appropriately stark for this tale of death (and redemption/revenge). The last song, “Every Mother’s Son”, is as ideal a coda as “Glad” is an opening salvo. The organ swells and sharp electronic guitar chords accompany an extremely emotional—and affecting—vocal performance.

This deluxe edition boasts some bonus tracks, which should satisfy completists. The real draw, for aficionados, will be the second disc’s live set, recorded at The Fillmore East in late 1970. The band is certainly locked in, doing these tunes justice before an appreciative crowd, but these versions (inevitably?) are looser and less focused. They are worthwhile, but not nearly as memorable as the original material. The sound quality is sufficiently impressive that anyone who didn’t already pick up the original remaster from 1999 is advised to make the upgrade from the somewhat muffled original pressing.

Winwood was already on a roll. He would carry this momentum into the first part of the decade, and Traffic would follow up John Barleycorn Must Die with another near masterpiece, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. As noted, Winwood will never be mentioned in the same sentence as former bandmate Eric Clapton (unless it is to mention that they once worked in the same band), but the fact of the matter is this lesser-known legend was making better music than just about anyone during the earliest days of the prog-rock revolution. He makes a compelling case for his legacy when, in “Empty Pages”, he sings, “I’ve been thinking I’m working too hard / But I’ve got something to show”. He has indeed, and it shines on.

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Freedom Riders

ON THIS DAY

On May 20, 1961, a white mob attacked a busload of “Freedom Riders” in Montgomery, Ala., prompting the federal government to send in United States marshals to restore order.

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Like Ray Charles on Helium…

One of the blogs I take great pleasure in linking to is my man Mark’s delectably named Trotsky’s Cranium, here. There are always worthwhile and insightful nuggets to glean over there (what else would you expect with a name like that?) but I give him major props for posting a piece I would have otherwise missed. Interview Magazine has an amazing interview with Chris Blackwell here. Who is Chris Blackwell, you ask? The founder of Island Records, obviously. Who was associated with Island Records, you ask?  Oh, just a few moderately successful and impactful artists like Steve Winwood (Traffic), Bob Marley and U2. Have I got your attention now? Good.

The interview is great, and Blackwell very obviously is a living encyclopedia of the music scene (British, Jamaican and U.S.): he was on the front lines at the time it was all going down. He was the front lines. And just because the Mighty Upsetter, Lee “Scratch” Perry famously called Blackwell a vampire because of his aggressive (and better funded) business acumen, attention still must be paid to the man who discovered, and promoted, some acts who significantly altered the musical landscape.

There are a couple of indispensable quotes from the article, touching on two of the more beloved musicians Blackwell mentored, Steve Winwood and Bob Marley. Of the former, he has this to say:

BLACKWELL: It was the voice of Steve Winwood—because I loved Ray Charles, and Steve Winwood was like Ray Charles on helium. Because it was the same phrasing, the same drive—it was like blues chords, but there was also just this incredible voice and musicianship. So I signed The Spencer Davis Group. And, at that time, we pretty much managed everyone that we signed, so we managed them. The rock scene was just sort of exploding at the time, with The Beatles and, after that, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, and The Who. It all just changed. It was like the lights went on in England in the early ’60s, because up until then, nobody you heard on the radio had anything other than a BBC-type voice or accent. It was impossible for anybody with a Cockney accent or a Liverpool accent or a Manchester accent to get on the radio, much less have a decent job. But then, with those bands, that all started to change.

Like Ray Charles on Helium. That is perfect, and by far the best description I’ve ever heard of the diminutive blue-eyed boy wonder. The work he did with Traffic is largely overlooked these days, and it shouldn’t be. John Barleycorn Must Die is one of the great early ’70s rock albums and is, for my money, Winwood’s best work.

Moving on the Marley, this is where the real import of Blackwell’s involvement comes into clear focus. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that his destiny was to be the prime mover in terms of parlaying Marley’s raw genius into a more accessible vehicle. It took a while to take off, but the perfection of Catch A Fire (Marley’s first real exposure outside of Jamaica) simply was impossible to overlook. The album’s title was certainly prophetic, and one envies Blackwell’s mere involvement with the incendiary proceedings:

So they came around and picked me up and took me to the studio and played me some of the songs. The first one I heard was “Slave Driver,” and I remember it particularly because, firstly, I was excited that they had recorded anything. So I was really encouraged. It had this great kind of bass line. The second line of the song says “catch a fire,” and, you know, I remember thinking right there, Wow, if this record is good, then that’s the title of the album.

Blackwell does not have much to say about U2; he signed them (and that speaks volumes) but he admits he had little to do with their success. Rather he focuses on the one act he hoped, and expected, to break through: the amazing Jacob Miller:

First of all, after Bob, somebody who I felt could have been a big star was Jacob Miller. Bob basically became a rock star in Jamaican music, and Jacob, I felt, could have done the same. He was a big guy, but an incredible personality. Incredible. I mean, I have a picture of Bob and Jacob and myself standing in front of a plane, and you look at it, and you would say that Jacob is the biggest star there without any question. He just had that presence. But then he was killed in a car crash, and things ended before they began.

There is more where that came from.

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