The Yes Album and the Weirdness of Ideology and of Not Knowing Your Own Mind
[I began this as a breezy, whimsical entry for the minds.com Vinyl Collector group. Then it got weird, and long. So I’m posting it here instead, and I’ll post the link on the group rather than pasting the whole thing: it seems kinder that way — ed.]
I don’t know why I have a copy of The Yes Album. I don’t know why I decided to throw it on on Saturday morning when I noticed it among all the other records. I’ll get to my reaction in a bit, but I have been thinking about it ever since, kind of weirdly.
Guys like me aren’t supposed to like the band Yes. And by guys like me, I mean, guys who wear the kind of shoes I wear, who like the Ramones and, you know, Buddy Holly, the Who, and I don’t know, the Runaways, etc. Rock and roll slash punk rock people of a certain stripe… it’s a type. There’s a slate of things you’re supposed to support and things you’re supposed to oppose when you’re in that group of humans. It’s not a mandatory list, just a kind of unspoken set of parameters you probably follow as a matter of course if you’re in that broad grouping. All of these things are of low importance individually, but in the aggregate they form the basis of an informal “culture,” or “subculture” I suppose you’d say. And while there’s no “official” enforcement of it, people do care quite a lot about these parameters, at least sometimes, and signaling one’s orthodoxy and trying to ostracize those who fail to do so, stupid as it seems, is actually a thing that happens. People can be weirdly strident about these subcultural markers and the iconography and rhetoric that signal “membership.”
Of course, although I am one of those guys for sure, I don’t hold with any of that “what (and who) is punk?” stuff. It’s a “reference group” that I don’t mind being left out of. The stakes are low if you don’t care about the consequences, which I don’t. They are trivial. And plus, to hell with all that anyway. I’m not subject to “party discipline.” There are all sorts of things I’m allegedly supposed to think as a “punk rock guy” that I reject. I like country music, for one. For two, I don’t espouse any sort of quasi-Maoist hippie politics. Nevertheless, when it comes to music, I am frequently more in it than out of it. As I said, you can tell by my shoes.
Whatever else it is, and for better or worse, Yes has for many years been a sort of emblem within this subcultural set of parameters, as much as anything, maybe more so than any other single band. Ramones people do not like Yes and oppose everything Yes supposedly represents, and I knew this when I “joined up.” Somehow this was communicated; it didn’t have to be stated, you just knew. The criteria in these delineations tend to be crude, as crude as “Guitars Good Keyboards Bad.” Now, despite this, there is keyboard music that is okay, and you know it when you see it; and there is even music in the broad sweep of the “prog” tradition that is weird enough or interesting enough or “related” enough to be an exception. Lemmy was in Hawkwind. Hawkwind, then, is okay. Yes is just not. (And the parameters don’t always steer you wrong, either: Hawkwind is, of course, by some ways of reckoning, miles and miles more interesting than Yes.)
But the interesting thing about it is, these emblems work whether or not you’ve heard a note of actual music by Yes, or Hawkwind. Your identity reference group (Ramones guys) provides you with an opinion to have on Yes and Hawkwind that saves you the trouble of having to figure out an opinion on your own. In other words, it is a useful, time-saving prejudice, because, you know, you can’t check everything.
In this, the Ramones Guy set of parameters is, in effect and function, rather like an ideology. For what is an ideology but a system of allegedly useful prejudices, a set of parameters you can adopt and must heed, at least substantially, in order not to be left out of your reference group, a set of pre-supplied answers to any questions that may arise, a set of opinions and attitudes ready-made, the adoption of which saves you the time, trouble, and anguish of having to figure everything out on your own? (And the adoption of which saves you from the risk of the social awkwardness of being seen to stray too far from what is expected of you.) You can’t spend your whole life re-inventing wheels. Just take the wheels supplied and use them. They’re probably all right, for people like us.
The dangers of this kind of thinking are well-known in the political realm, of course. A mass populace trained to adopt unanalyzed opinions and to act upon them as directed can be manipulated into doing, or at any rate countenancing and justifying, truly horrible things, the most horrible things ever done by man. Or, even more alarming in a way, people will act as though they have adopted the unanalyzed opinions while in their hearts they really haven’t, out of fear of social and state retaliation against heretics and wrongthinkers. By some accounts, this manipulation of mind can be so pervasive and thoroughgoing as to place the individual in a state of unreality where none can tell the difference between the genuine and the “performed.” This is awful, of course, and political ideology and its pathologies should be resisted as much as possible, though this is quite difficult, since humans, for whatever reason, seem quite content to be manipulated and to respond in such fashion, and seem positively, in fact, to crave it with great fervency, whatever they may say. When people are caught up in such fervor, they often behave in ways they don’t recognize as their own and fail to remember having done so after the fact, such that it seems as though they literally don’t know their own mind. How can you tell when this is happening to you? This is a big problem.
The “Yes Question” is not, of course, a big problem. Yet the aesthetic or “lifestyle” ideology I’ve half-facetiously described here does resemble, in some ways, the dynamics of the bigger problem, in its stridency, its irrationality, its weird tribal character, maybe partly because politics itself is often one of its emblems. People have been known to come to blows, or worse, over art; moreover, subcultures can war with each other, and violently, music and its associated cultural accoutrements playing the role of emblems or insignia.
And vicious, destructive mobs can materialize on the most trivial of bases, as our recent internet history attests: it almost doesn’t seem to matter what it’s about, people just seem to enjoy doing it for its own sake. But of course, whether or not you like Yes, and whether or not your like or dislike is genuine or “performed”, matters not. It’s not going to get anyone killed, thank God, or even fired from his job (let us hope.) But the big problem, the irrationality of crowds, the danger of being swept up and not knowing one’s own mind, is something that I worry about a lot. And I suspect there’s a parallel between the trivial version and the serious one, even though you only have to worry about the latter.
If you cast the ideological prejudices described above in the most favorable light, you can view them as species of “heuristic,” mental short-cuts that experience has taught you usually get you to the right place, somehow. This method may fail sometimes, on some things (country music, pseudo-Maoism) but when it comes to things like Yes, well, as the saying goes, 50,000 Elvis fans can’t be wrong (and they most likely hate Yes too.) On information and belief, a bunch of people who also wear black Converse All-Stars and own a Modern Lovers shirt and like a couple of Russ Meyer films hold this opinion on such and such, and therefore, so this line of intuition goes, I probably also hold it. We take that as read and move on to the next thing without worrying about it too much.
In a certain way it’s not even all that irrational. However, there is something strange about these opinions, the ones derived unattested direct from culture rather than on the basis of real experience and consideration, and it bears on the “not knowing one’s own mind” danger that I find so disturbing. Even when undeniably true, it is a kind of “second order” truth. It has an unreal quality despite being true. And if your mental landscape, your “world-view”, your understanding of the way things are, is based on a whole lot of these unreal, second order truths stacked on each other, there’s a substantial part of “your reality” that is unreal. And when you stop to think about it, or… well, when I stop to think about it, I am rather shocked to note how much this may be the case in my own understanding of the world and all its contents. How many of my opinions are “unreal”, that is, not connected to my own sense of things based on experience and genuine consideration but rather absorbed whole, unthinkingly via culture? Loads of them, I’d have to answer. And I suppose it couldn’t be otherwise, with my limited time on earth coupled with a rather lazy disposition. I suppose that’s an argument for the value of culture as well as an indication of the danger of a process that has a hand in shaping it, how we need it, why we shouldn’t take it lightly when our schemes to save the world involve wholesale destruction of this or that bit of it. I mean, it kind of works, basically. When I happen to think about it, I am greatly disturbed by how unsubstantial the ground on which I stand really is, but I’m glad there’s some ground there.
But, back to Yes. If you thought this was leading to a revelation that in fact, I was wrong about Yes all these years… well, no, mostly. The Ramones guy ethos told me I wouldn’t like Yes, and I didn’t, much, at least as embodied in this album. The “heuristic” worked. I don’t believe I had ever played this record before, despite it being in my record collection for, how long, thirty years maybe? “I’ve Seen All Good People” is familiar enough that I must have heard it on the radio, but the rest was totally new to me. (Of course, I’ve heard “Roundabout” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart” on the radio; maybe that should have been enough data to confirm the collective wisdom of my people, but, you know, there’s a difference between overhearing and really listening, and in fact my prejudices have been wrong before, when I’ve taken the time to listen to something carefully and learned that in reality I didn’t not like it that much after all.) The vaunted “complexity” of the music didn’t do much for me; the sentiments expressed were faux-serious, yet rather pedestrian; and I like the Crosby-Stills-and-Nash-style vocal arrangements better in CSN form. (I realized, btw, listening to this how much I miss it when a recorded song has no clear “narrator voice” but rather instead features a gang of people singing the words of such a narrator; even though I love elaborate backup vox, it’s way better when they stop sometimes, or at least stay in the background.) It seems rather humorless as well.
However… however, there were some pleasant surprises, mostly concerning the contributions of guitarist Steve Howe (who joined the band beginning with this album, and whom I had never heard of before — just being honest here, folks; as I said, I am still mostly innocent of any contact with Yes beyond the cursory. I had been warned, you see.) There’s some great fingerpicking that was totally unexpected, including a swell solo acoustic instrumental called “The Clap” recorded live somewhere — according to wikipedia this song was written to celebrate the birth of Howe’s child, which seems weird and twisted, and of course, intrigues and appeals to me on some level best not explored probably. The guitar throughout is terrific in fact. It’s a shame it is set in such a lackluster context. And yet, I must concede, it was quite a pleasant thirty minutes of morning listening, nonetheless, when I didn’t think about it too hard. I also notice from the little box on wikipedia that all the big rock critics gave this record lots of stars, so maybe my heuristic and I are in fact wrong after all… that is, maybe it’ll grow on me? Anyway, if I didn’t become a Yes fan from this exercise, I did become a Steve Howe fan. If he recorded a fingerpicking album (did he?) I’d be all over it, I’m sure. There’s probably a solo album out there, and maybe I’ll check it out sometime.
But here’s the point: if you had asked me last week about Yes, I’d have had a ready-made opinion to offer you, and I’d have done it in a way that probably would have sounded convincing, with some caveats and to-be-sures and some self-deprecation and legitimate-seeming mentions of something or other about Rick Wakeman (whose name I did know) though he’s not on this album (which I did not know.) Unless your Yes knowledge was very extensive and you wished to try to trip me up for some reason, you probably wouldn’t have realized that I had, in fact, heard almost nothing of this band’s music in any real sense. And (and this is the crazy part): I wouldn’t have realized it either! You don’t know till you think about it per se, and you hardly ever do. And of course, I wonder how many things there are like that, that I think I’ve heard or experienced or considered, while in fact I have only absorbed an ideological slogan or two without being consciously aware of the difference. I’m sure the number is vast. I really don’t know clouds at all.
So, in its own way, The Yes Album opened my eyes. Which was far, far more than my Ramones guy heuristics had led me to expect, that’s for sure. How do you guard against this thing that happens continually in the background without your realizing it, and whose dynamic directs your actions and your very mind as though you’re nothing but a robot, an unwitting creature of culture and subculture, unaware of the nature of what you’re parroting? I’d like to think education could train it out of you, but my education wasn’t all that bad, especially by contemporary standards, and look at me. For better or worse, it usually works, and you get used to it working. Even when it works, “unreality” of the kind I’ve described affects the great and small things, and I do genuinely suspect that it may have a role in the really terrible, scary stuff alluded to above, along with its role in inconsequential trivia like the Yes Question, somehow. I simply don’t see what can be done about it, though. Except, when you can, listen to the damn album.