Yes Refuses To Reunite With Singer Jon Anderson. He’s OK With That
Jon Anderson started Yes in 1968 with bassist Chris Squire, and the prog rock band was at the center of his life for the next four decades through numerous permutations. But when illness forced him off the road after the group’s 2004 tour, Yes decided to hire a replacement vocalist and carry on without him. Anderson has been healthy and active for well over a decade, but the band — which now features Seventies guitarist Steve Howe, Drama-era keyboardist Geoff Downes, and hired guns — refuses to take him back.
That hasn’t stopped Anderson from bringing Yes music to concert stages all over the road. In 2016, he went out with fellow Yes alums Rick Wakeman and Trevor Rabin as ARW (later renamed Yes Featuring ARW), and last year he celebrated the 50th anniversary of Close to the Edge by playing the album straight through on tour with teenage musicians from the Paul Green Rock Academy.
When he kicks off his next tour April 14 in Westbury, New York, Anderson will be joined by the Band Geeks, which includes bassist Richie Castellano, keyboardist Chris Clark, drummer Andy Ascolese, keyboardist Robert Kipp, and guitarist Andy Graziano. They’re all ace musicians with decades of experience, and their plan is to play Seventies Yes epics like “Awaken,” “Gates of Delirium,” and “Close to the Edge” with incredible care and precision.
We phoned up Anderson at his Central California home to talk about the Band Geeks tour, the deaths of Squire and drummer Alan White, his estrangement from Howe, his dim hopes for a Yes reunion, and his five-year plan for releasing new music.
How did you discover the Band Geeks?
My good friend works at Sirius Radio. He got in touch and said, “I’m going to send you a video of this band.” I said, “Go for it.” They were performing “Heart of the Sunrise.” I went, “Wow. These guys are so damn good!” Not only are they good, they sound just like the record. Quite amazing.
What happened after that?
In the back of my mind, I always thought, “Wouldn’t it be good if some record company puts out all the epic Yes pieces in one release? That would be cool for fans of Yes, and people that aren’t quite aware of what Yes did in the Seventies.”
After a month or so, I decided to call up the bass player, Richie [Castellano], and have a chat with him. We had a very nice conversation. I said, “Would you be interested in going out and performing the Yes epics and classics?” I thought that covered everything. He was very excited. That’s how we started.
I’m sure he was stunned to hear from you.
Yeah. That was the great thing. You can sense an energy from somebody over the phone. I was thinking about playing “Close to the Edge,” “Awaken,” “Gates of Delirium,” and things like that. He was overjoyed. It was probably a couple months later that we got in touch again. Working with his agent, I said, “Let’s go out and have fun for three weeks, do about a dozen shows, and see how it feels.” That’s the whole concept. I want to see how it feels to perform those songs from 50 years ago.
Are you just playing Yes songs from the Seventies?
Mainly. I think that’s the key to the project. Of course, there were many pieces of music in the Eighties and Nineties, especially. There’s one called “Mind Drive” [from 1997], which we’re going to do. People wonder if we’re going to do “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” I don’t know. [Laughs.] I’d rather do “Roundabout” and “Perpetual Change” and songs I remember helping to create. The important thing is to perform them as though they were written this year. They are still… I wouldn’t say different, but still very fresh in the musical sense.
Are they going to sound identical to how they sound on the records? You guys always played them a bit differently live.
They’re obviously going to sound live since we’re playing live. We’ve gone through all the songs and I’m sort of mesmerized by how good they are. I think when you’re onstage, you tend to work the theater or the club that you’re playing in sound-wise. It’s never going to be like putting on the record. It’s a performance of the recordings done very, very well. That’s all I know.
Have you worked out any songs that will surprise fans other than “Mind Drive?”
Well, I did write a song for Yes about 20 years ago that we never recorded, “Counties and Countries.” I sent it to Richie and he did a beautiful rendition of it. He’s an excellent producer in addition to being a bass player. It sounded really good. When we do a rehearsal, we’ll decide whether or not we want to throw that new song in.
You’re just booked in 12 East Coast venues so far. If the tour goes well, will you do more shows?
Yeah. The idea was, “Let’s give it a whirl. Let’s see how the fans react to it and how we do.” From then on it’ll be, “Let’s go to Europe. Let’s tour the world.”
Your last tour was with the Paul Green Rock Academy. Those were obviously very young musicians without a ton of experience. This is almost the opposite.
Yeah. I’m going out with the teenagers in Europe this summer. They’re brilliant to work with because they are very grateful to do a show like that. The same goes for the Band Geeks. I feel very grateful that they actually play so good. They seem to be thankful about doing this show.
I’m at a place in my career where I’m feeling like I’m in a very creative mode all the time. I’m finishing four projects for the coming five years. You’re going to have a lot of music coming out over the next five years.
I have this feeling that, in my mind, in my thoughts, I’m still in Yes, even though I got very ill and they had to carry on. That’s what bands do. Then I just turned around and started doing solo shows, which I loved very much. I toured with the world with my wife doing a show of just me and my guitar. It was amazing.
What were you going through medically after the 2004 tour that prevented you from touring for a while?
It was just asthma. I had asthmatic attacks. I went through a really tough time. My wife saved my life, actually. You recover from that and can’t think about doing what you used to do, so you just need to take it easy for a few months. I was in a hospital for a couple of months. I got better and better. Then I put together a solo show with a guitar.
Yes didn’t tour for four years. I’m sure the guys got frustrated at having to wait.
I didn’t ask them to do anything. They just decided they wanted to get on the road. As you know, they hired a Canadian singer, a really nice guy. People just need to get on with life, no matter what.
How did you feel about them bringing someone else on?
In some ways, I thought, “Forget it. I’m just going to go on the road myself and tell stories and play small clubs.” In a way, it was a breakthrough for me. I was emotionally still able to enjoy performing the songs that I wrote for the band. You have to let go of things and just get on with life.
I spoke to the first guy that replaced you a couple of months ago. He said that singing your vocal parts was really hard for him. It ultimately just blew out his voice. Those are tough sings to sing every night.
Yep. [Laughs.] Well, I’m an alto tenor. Some of the recordings in the late Seventies and Eighties, I sing as though I’m in helium.
He pointed to the climax of “Heart of the Sunrise” where you go “Sharp…Distance!” It just killed him trying to recreate what you did there.
It’s true. It’s not easy up there. But I’m doing it now. It seems to be going pretty good.
Did you have any sort of chance to make peace with Chris Squire before he died?
He came and visited me when he passed away. I was in Maui with my wife Jane on holiday. I had this beautiful dream. There were a lot of people around in my dream. To my left, I could see this one lady standing there with robes. She looked like an angel, and she probably was. She pointed up the ski and there was Chris smiling with tears coming down his eyes and face.
I woke up from the dream and told my wife. I said, “I just saw Chris. He was heading towards the light of Heaven.” She said, “He loved you.” I said, “Yeah. We were brothers.” It was an incredible moment.
A couple of months later, I was doing a show in Phoenix. I met Chris’ widow, Scotland, and I told her the story. She said to me, “He kept saying before he passed away that he wanted to go to Maui.” There you go.
But you didn’t actually speak with him before he died?
Didn’t need to. He had his life to live, and I had my life. I actually had a great dream about Alan White last night. It was a lovely dream. He was with all the guys in the band … Not just one or two, but everybody who has been in the band. They were up there doing some gig or something. The next minute, he was right next to me. We hugged since he was the best man at my wedding about 25 years ago.
You got a chance to play with Alan and Steve at the Hall of Fame in 2017. What was that experience like for you?
It was great, but I was hyperventilating a lot. I just loved the idea of getting up onstage and performing a couple of songs. When you’re just doing a couple of songs, that’s one thing. When you’re hanging around and getting ready to go up, you’ve got your fingers crossed it’s going sound OK. When we got up onstage to say “thank you,” I was totally out of control. I just kept saying, “Everyone is so beautiful!” Then Rick, perfect, gets up and starts telling dirty jokes. That was perfect for me. It made me relax.
I could see you enjoying Rick’s speech, which I really think is one of the best Hall of Fame speeches ever, if not the very best, and Steve not really enjoying it so much.
Oh yeah. Exactly. [Laughs.]
ARW, or Yes Featuring ARW, was a really great group. It ended very suddenly, though. What happened?
I think there were difficult times for everybody. We didn’t know what to do next. I was up for some more recording, new music. But everybody has a life. Sometimes you can’t pull everybody together at the same time. That’s basically it. It just wasn’t right for everybody.
Did you guys make any new music?
We did some recordings at Trevor [Rabin]’s place. It just didn’t work out. Things are like that sometimes.
Are you still on good terms with Trevor and Rick?
Sure. I sang happy birthday to Trevor last week.
Might you tour with Rick as a duo again some day?
That was fun. That was so damn funny. You never know in life. You never really know. As I mentioned earlier, I have so many things I’m working on, especially the last couple years, just things coming together that I want to get clarified and produced, just get out there and perform and finish some recordings. I’m actually working a musical that I wrote 40 years ago.
I met this guy called Marc Chagall on his 90th birthday. He was a painter, very, very famous guy. I didn’t know how famous he was when I met him. I met him at his birthday party down in the south of France. Bill Wyman brought me. He was such a sweet guy. Then I discovered the incredible art of this man, and the stained glass he’d created around the world. He was so well-known around the art world, so I decided to write a musical about him.
He said to me, “Jon, if you’re going to write a musical, it’ll take a long time.” I thought, “I’ll get it done next year.” Of course, 40 years later, we’re in the brink of getting it produced. It’s about his life.
What’s the status of it?
We actually did a short performance of the project in San Francisco just a month ago. We’re testing the idea of it visually, musically. It was an abbreviated version, but it’s given us a lot of impetus to get on with it and possibly get it into production this year or next year. After waiting 40 years, it doesn’t matter.
The current version of Yes is pretty much Steve Howe and new people, even if Geoff Downes was briefly the keyboardist in 1980. Do you see this as an authentic version of Yes?
It’s Steve’s idea of Yes, I suppose. It’s hard to pinpoint. I’ve listened to a couple of songs, of course, and they’re OK. But I’m still into the voyage of musical Yes. I’m totally into the original idea of it. We were very fortunate to meet with Trevor Rabin and have a hit record [with “Owner of a Lonely Heart”]. That propelled the band for another 10 years. The energy of the Seventies, musically around the world… It was quite an unbelievable time. Yes was a part of it. I still want to perpetuate it, I suppose.
You’re playing Yes music on tour with new musicians. Steve is playing Yes music on tour with new people. Can’t one argue that what you’re doing is just as authentically Yes as what he’s doing?
Yeah. I’ve never seen his show though, so I can’t tell you. [Laughs.]
I spoke to Steve a couple years ago. He said that any reunion was “completely unthinkable.”
Why do you think he’s being so absolutist?
I’m a pessimist… I’m a pessimistic optimist. You never know in this life. And that was just him at that moment in time. I sang with him on my last album, 1,000 Hands. At the very end, I had worked on a piece of music [“Now and Again”] I started with Chris and Alan about 28 years earlier. I sent it to Steve and said, “Would you play some lovely guitar at the end?” And he did. All I could think of when I heard was to sing with it, and I did.
And every night he goes onstage with a singer that sounds just like you. How do you feel about that?
There’s a phrase for that: Imitation is the most sincere most form of flattery. [Laughs.]
To me and so many fans, the two of you are the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of prog rock. You should be onstage together.
Well, it’s not going to happen as far as I know. I’ve mentioned a couple of times over the years that I’m very open to giving it a whirl. In these days, though, you never know what’s going to happen.
They play about 50 shows a year. They even did nearly 90 a few years back. Do you think that would be too much traveling for you at this point in your life?
I don’t think so. I feel very healthy and happy. Me and my wife love touring. We’re going to be on the road this summer with the Academy of Rock all over Europe. Now we’re doing this wonderful experience with the Band Geeks. I just love their name. It’s so cool.
Your singing voice has really held up. A lot of singers much younger than you have totally blown out their voices.
I never got into the screaming singer, the wild, punk, rock & roll singing that some people did. That can
ruin your voice right away. And I sing every day. I’m going to go into my studio in an hour and do some singing. I write new songs all the time. I never stop creating. It’s a blessing to be able to do this.
Are you working on a second chapter of your solo album 1,000 Hands?
Yes. We’re working on it. I reckon that it’s going to be ready next year. I’ve been writing some songs. I even wrote an album in Chinese. Singing in Chinese is not easy.
You’re so positive and optimistic. A lot of people would be really bitter and angry if the band they started and fronted for decades was carrying on without them.
I come from the North of England. I had my first band in 1963. That’s when the Beatles came out. I saw them before they were famous. I just keep going because life is a wonderful experience, if you want.
Do you see yourself touring and playing Yes songs in your eighties?
Oh yeah. Of course.
Retirement is never a thought?
Never. There’s no point.
This is random, but I was just listening to that 1972 Knoxville, Tennessee Yes show you guys put out a few years back. It’s remarkable. It feels like the absolute peak of the band.
Thank you. We were very excited at that time. We just had Fragile do well. We had this idea of doing a longform piece of music. “OK, we’ve got 20 minutes on each side of the album. Why not do one 20-minute work?” That’s what we did with Close to the Edge.
Crazy it’s been 50 years.
I performed it with the Academy of Rock last year. We’re going to do it again this year in Europe. And doing it with teenagers is just unbelievable, the feeling.
I’ll let you go, but I’m optimistic that you and Steve are going to find a way to patch things up at some point and play together again. It just makes too much sense.
You never know. You really never know, honestly.
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