In the summer of my 13th year I spent two months listening to virtually nothing but Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII. It was hardly what I’d call voluntary. This is what happens when your older sister runs away from home with a hood named Don and leaves nothing behind, musically speaking, but a Rick Wakeman LP and a couple of ELP and Yes albums she only bought because prog rock was the kind of music Don’s predecessor, Rick, who was so acne-riddled he even had zits on his teeth, preferred. Hers was a musical scorched earth policy, and I was the survivor left behind to fashion a new world from the bombastic rubble.
I made the best of things. I grew wan and ethereal, lying day after day on the ratty carpet in the living room beneath a pair of big foam earphones, grimly irradiating myself with the ghastly sounds of what might well be the worst album released in 1973, my face suffused with eager suffering, like that of a medieval ascetic undergoing martyrdom. Afterwards, and for a long time, I bore an uncanny resemblance to Rick Wakeman. I wore my pastiness like a cape. You cannot listen to nothing but Rick Wakeman, and a smattering of other elite English prog hogs, and remain healthy in mind and body.
And I didn’t. I slowly went mad, listening day in and day out to the rococo ruminations of preening English synthwankers fixated upon the chimerical alchemical ideal of fusing rock and classical into one. Their ethos was simple: if your solo didn’t have 1,000,000 notes, it was dross. If a song had less than 47 chord changes, it was punk rock. The singers flitted about in the thin air of the falsetto realms, like fairies in a high-brow nightmare. Armies of pompous arpeggios snobbed their way across my ears, scouring my poor brainpan with pretentious visions of Henry VIII’s marital problems. I should have contracted rickets, for there is no vitamin D in prog.
But I did not, for I had bigger problems. Horrible things were going on in my house that summer. Mom, for reasons known only to her, had stopped cleaning and cooking. When I would ask her what was for dinner she would invariably say, “You have your choice of ravioli out of a can.” It was watery and by the end of that summer it was a toss up as to whom I considered the bigger war criminal, Hitler or Chef Boyardee. And I was worried about my dog Murky. There were things wrong with him. He had a crooked spine and formed a kind of hairy U, so that when you called him and he came running, his face and ass would arrive at exactly the same time. He was a bristly-haired mutt of unknown lineage; there was some terrier in him, and some mongoose, I think, too. His bark inspired mirth. His tail was, I suspected, appropriated from an opossum. Murky was so good at playing dead, you were half-tempted to bury him.
What can I say about the The Six Wives of Henry VIII? Other than the fact that it’s so prissy it makes ELP’s Pictures at an Exhibition sound like soul music? It has its Yes moments, which could almost be described as “rock,” but they’re subsumed by sinister overtones of Elizabethan grandeur. And then it has its “Listen to how well I can play the piano” moments, which come across like auditions for a slot in a rather uppity musical conservatory. Sometimes the songs gallop, but they don’t gallop like a horse. They gallop in a mechanistic way, like an electronic horse from an electronic apocalypse, and the effect is chilling. Pomp and circumstance abound, but you wish they would go away. They do not go away. You can swat at them like flies, but they simply will not go away.
I really think The Six Wives of Henry VIII might have been the death of me. But one day my prodigal sister returned. She found me lying on the living room floor in a kind of coma, listening to The Six Wives of Henry VIII. She ripped the earphones from my head just as Wakeman was letting rip with some particularly ripe synthesizer farts. She said, “Are you actually listening to this shit?” I said, “I’m rather afraid I’ve been brainwashed.” She said, “What you have here is pretentious tripe for pompous hippies who like their rock’n’roll with an Elizabethan sheen.”
I said, “But it’s so ethereal and complicated! Listen to that organ! We could be in church! And here comes the zooming synthesizer! Imagine what he could do with a concept album about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table!” My sister made a face of total disgust. “I pray that never happens because it’s too horrifying to even contemplate,” she said, before adding, “Look, you little moron. Rock’n’roll isn’t supposed to be complicated and revoltingly bombastic. It’s supposed to make you want to rip your clothes off in the back of Eddie Ferner’s van.” This came as somewhat of a revelation. Not that I wanted to rip my clothes off in the back of Eddie Ferner’s van, but I really did fancy ripping rip my clothes off, hopefully while in the company of an actual girl. Could it be that rock’n’roll was actually meant to thrill you? Set you free? It seemed rather far fetched. “This music is rather pompous,” I concluded. “It’s the sound of Bach shitting an idiot,” she said, adding, “There aren’t even any vocals!”
“What are vocals?” I asked.
“Come on!” she said. I asked her where we were going. By way of answer she pulled me by the hand out the back door, past mom who was sitting at the kitchen table in a trance staring at the face of Chef Boyardee on a can of his monstrous macaroni, and pushed me into the back seat of a bright yellow muscle car being driven by some new guy, Don the hood’s replacement evidently.
We tore out of the driveway like passengers aboard a nuclear rocket sled. “Where have you been?” I asked my sister. She smirked and said, “Ronnie, this is my little brother.” Ronnie tapped the accelerator by way of saying hello. We were already going 70 in a 25 zone. I could feel my face begin to smush under the incredible G forces. My sister appraised me from the front seat, and said, “I have discovered drugs, and they have changed my life for the better. You should smoke some marijuana, it will show you that you’re surrounded by idiots.”
“I already know that,” I said.
“Yes, but you are not immensely amused by the fact.”
“You have a point,” I said.
So we smoked a joint. I’d taken a few trial puffs on a cigarette once, and had deemed it obnoxious. I had no objection to lung cancer, but I didn’t want to have to pass through the various stages of green-faced nausea to get there. But the joint was different. We drove around town, past the Busy Bee Cleaners and the meat market and the appliances store where you could buy the top 100 45s of the day, and after suffering an inexplicable case of the giggles a great insight struck me: Perhaps there was a way out. Perhaps I didn’t have to spend the rest of my life listening to Rick Wakeman’s effete keyboard offerings. But was there anything else?
Then it happened. My sister handed me an album, Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes. She said, “You need this.” She said, “People say you cannot die for lack of a song but they’re wrong. Medical science is simply not advanced enough yet to make the diagnosis.” And she was right. “All the Young Dudes” saved my life. She dropped me off outside our house, and I didn’t see her for another three years, when she showed up to announce she’d discovered Jesus, who awesomely made drugs even better. That night I listened to Mott, and when Ian Hunter cried, “Hey you, with the glasses!” I knew with iron certainty that he was speaking directly to me. I knew it then and I still know it now. Mott the Hoople, and my sister, saved me. They carried the great news that the television man was crazy, and the concrete wasn’t just in my head.
The next day I threw my sister’s prog-rock LPs in the trash, Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII most definitely included. Then I went to the record store and bought Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. And I slowly began to get better. I got up off the floor and began to dance. And sing along. And I began to realize that progressive rock was a progressive disease, and brain salad surgery wasn’t going to help.