Howe it goes, in and beyond Yes

IMG-7834DOYEN guitarist Steve Howe joined Yes in June 1970, almost exactly two years after the newborn band began rehearsing in the basement of The Lucky Horseshoe café, between 10 June and 9 July 1968. He continued with them until early 1981, reconnected for ‘Union’ after ABWH (from 1990 to 1992), and has since been a permanent fixture from 1995 right through to today.

That means Howe has shared 38 of the 52 years the band has been (not-quite-continuously) in operation. But he also has a significant musical pre-history, a different kind of presence with several other groups (most notably Asia), a jazz-inflected life in the highly-regarded Steve Howe Trio, and a distinctive voice of his own across a remarkable 15 solo albums starting with ‘Beginnings’ in 1975 and running through to ‘Love Is’, which is to be released in 2020.

All of this, and quite a bit more, is documented in Howe’s new 319-page autobiography (perhaps closer to a memoir), All My Yesterdays (Omnibus Press, 2020), which also includes a full discography — minus the ‘Homebrew’ series, live albums and compilations — and 29 colour and monochrome photographs in two brief pictorial sections. A few of these have not been published before.

The title, which is not directly referenced or explained in the book itself, echoes back (consciously or otherwise) to the name of a big band jazz recording of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra playing at the Village Vanguard club in New York City in February and March 1966, featuring Sam Herman on guitar. Some of us of Steve Howe’s generation or a little below will also vividly remember the ‘All Our Yesterdays’ historical television series about the 1930s and the Second World War (1960-1973), or the penultimate episode of the third season of a certain American science fiction television series (which aired in 1969). Those and other half-associations could well have been flickering in the back of the author’s mind during the process of appellation, apart from more prosaically descriptive considerations.

Mark Hadley’s cover photograph sets the tone for the book. Capturing Steve Howe in characteristic guitar action, it emerges out of a black background, evincing  that sense of brooding intensity which is so consonant with its subject. It is framed by the title, and by the special logo created for Howe by artist and friend Roger Dean. A 2019 picture of the current iteration of Yes is featured on the back cover (with the misspelling of Jay Schellen’s name being one of a series of small misattributions throughout). The paperback’s folded sleeve boldly proclaims that this is “the first ever autobiography by a member of Yes”. In fact Bill Bruford (2009), Rick Wakeman (1995) and late founding member Peter Banks (2001) have all produced volumes which lay some claim to that moniker, though none of the other existing members have. Apart from that, and a few other small blemishes (late Philadelphia broadcaster Ed Sciaky’s name is twice misspelled as ‘Sharky’ and ‘Sharkey’), this is a handsomely-produced volume from the world’s largest specialist publisher of music-related books — including historian Pete Frame’s well-known Rock Family Trees, which is referenced inter alia.

Yes_concert_2010-12-01_(5253576425)The text follows a broadly chronological narrative, with a few flashbacks and discursions along the way. It is perhaps most personal in the opening couple of chapters, in which Howe describes his youth and early experiences in life and music. Beyond that, and some scattered references to family and friends, this is largely a description of a professional career, ending (perhaps rather curiously, given that it was apparently completed in late 2019) just short of the 2018 Yes half-centenary celebrations and tours, which are not mentioned at all.

In other words, All My Yesterdays is an account of exactly 70 years of the guitarist’s life (he is now 73), but with by far the greatest share of attention going towards the music, as one might expect. There is the occasional moment of private disclosure, nonetheless. The one that most of us will have been previously unaware of is that Howe’s first son, Dylan, was actually born to a first wife, Pat Stebbings, in 1969, and that Steve did not marry Jan Osborne, with whom he has been ever since, and with whom he has had three more children, until 1975.

Throughout the book, the guitarist’s deep devotion to his partner and to his family is very clear. But he remains, as his right, a pre-eminently private person, and few details are given. That is also true of the tragic death of son Virgil in 2017 (which he talked a little more about in an interview with Guitar Player magazine in March 2018), and of other personal matters which might be encompassed by Howe’s own description of a life “full of joy, happiness, difficulties, sadness, love, loss, ups, downs, creation and destruction, some memories in full colour, others in black and white.”

Indeed, the wider picture that he paints will be the one most readers will want to focus on: Steve Howe as a creative musician — learning, growing, flowering, expanding and diversifying over a career which has lasted (depending upon exactly how you measure it) some 58 years. At the beginning of chapter three he notes that he had been rehearsing and gigging for two years by the time he first entered a recording studio in 1964. So that is where I take my datum from.

There is plenty of information about Steve’s pre-Yes pop/psychaledia activities in The Syndicats, The In Crowd, Tomorrow, Canto and Bodast, as well as numerous other musical encounters and experiences. These include (but are not limited to) being transfixed by the playing of Wes Montgomery; meeting other, diverse guitar legends such as Jimi Hendrix, Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore, Frank Zappa, Steve Morse, Allan Holdsworth and Julian Bream; playing with John Williams, Tal Farlow, Les Paul and Martin Taylor; not quite depping for Syd Barrett or performing with Ella Fitzgerland; politely turning down The Nice, Jethro Tull and Atomic Rooster; and wishing he could have collaborated with Canadian-American jazz pianist, arranger, composer, bandleader (and vital Miles Davis cohort) Gil Evans. I particularly enjoyed the moment when he had to confess to acoustic classical purist Bream that he was indeed “[that] guitarist with three tons of equipment.”

IMG-7833Throughout the book Howe’s absorption, fascination and (healthy) obsession with the guitar shines through. He goes into technical and descriptive detail about some of his most treasured instruments, diverts to explanations of his own performance and compositional procedures, and offers sketches of some of the most significant figures and tendencies in the jazz, country, blues and classical traditions — that is, all the many shapes and sizes of musical expression he has inhabited or explored over the years.

Such information is scattered throughout the text, which could best be described as a broadly linear kaleidoscope of history, inspiration, opinion (sometimes quite angular), technology… and, yes, logistics. The trials and tribulations of touring are never far from the surface, and nor are his other, accompanying interests: motor cars, aeroplanes and (somewhat in contrast) the sustaining practices of vegetarianism, macrobiotics, meditation and concern for the environment. Given his multitudinous accommodation experiences en route to concerts across the globe, he could easily turn to being a hotel reviewer, he observes at one point!

The book naturally directs a fair amount of attention to Steve Howe’s ‘other band’, Asia, as well as to GTR and to collaborations with the likes of Billie Currie (Ultravox) and Paul Sutin. It ends with a chapter outlining some of his broader cultural influences and interests, both specialist and popular. One that particularly struck me was his engagement with Paul Elie’s fascinating and eclectic book, Reinventing Bach (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012). This looks at how creative performance, dedicated reflection and technological adaptation can combine, enabling a classic body of musical material to be invested with fresh life and possibility for succeeding generations. There is both metaphor and aspiration for Howe’s own journey in this, I am sure.

All of which bring us to Yes. Followers of the band will be looking for revelations, no doubt. I am not sure there are any great surprises in All My Yesterdays, but it would surely be hard for anyone genuinely interested in the topsy-turvy life and output of this extraordinary band not to find much of interest in Steve Howe’s chronologies and accompanying viewpoints. As you might anticipate, he pays full dues to his various bandmates, but he does not withhold criticism — of Rick Wakeman, for some of his antics and for his “crude and banal jokes” at the 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame presentation; of Chris Squire, for his drinking, lateness, sometimes excessive showmanship, and (latterly) stage volume; of producer Roy Thomas Baker (the account of ‘Heaven and Earth’ being produced is withering), and at one point for the amiable Alan White’s indulgence of Squire’s less conducive lifestyle habits.

Tensions with Wakeman and with Jon Anderson are especially evident, and at various points Yes are baldly described as “this strangely dysfunctional outfit”, “undisciplined and disorganised”, and similar. A temperamental and artistic closeness to Bill Bruford is there to be seen, and there is also a clear indication of regret for the treatment of Oliver Wakeman when we was ejected from the band as the ‘Fly From Here’ album and tour took shape in 2011. Howe is particular in the way he views and handles both music and the procedures of life. He demands high standards of himself, and looks for something corresponding to that from those he works with. At two points  in the book he courteously but firmly chides those fans who ‘cross the line’ into his personal space. This is something I have great sympathy with.

IMG-7835It is to be expected that some readers and reviewers will hone in eagerly on critical comments like this. But we should note that they are relatively few in number, and that the tone of All My Yesterdays overall is neither bitter nor vengeful. Rather, this is a book more than adequately sprinkled with gratitude, excitement and moments of good humour. Indeed, at times Howe can be seen visibly to be pulling his punches somewhat, referring to the actions of “a certain band member” and then moving on. He remains straightforward and fulsome in recognising the importance of the writing partnership he developed with Jon Anderson in the ’70s, and in acknowledging Rick Wakeman’s invaluable contributions to the arranging, composing and shaping of some key moments in Yes’s recorded history.

Howe also references the importance of the guitar sound developed by Peter Banks, Alan White’s percussive recasting of the band post-Bruford, the importance of Trevor Horn’s production, the significance of Geoff Downes and the ‘Drama’ period in giving Yes new legs, the artistry of Patrick Moraz, the endurance of Benoît David, the vocal range and complementary distinctiveness of Jon Davison, the key contributions of Billy Sherwood, and much else besides. Igor Khoroshev is described as a “wild card” and more, “but he could certainly play the keys”. Of Chris Squire, the final, generous verdict is that he “lived his life to the fullest extent and was a superb musician of the highest possible calibre.”

There are also some interesting twists and turns at various stages of the Yes story as Steve Howe recounts it. Although he and his Yes guitar counterpart Trevor Rabin are on different musical pages (with his dislike for Rabin’s showy “Yours Is No Disgrace” solo on the ‘Union’ tour forthrightly stated), Howe expresses a rather unexpected enthusiasm for playing “Rhythm of Love” (from 1987’s ‘Big Generator’), for example. He also gives a little more detail about why Vangelis did not prove to be a suitable artistic fit for Yes after Wakeman left for the first time in the ’70s. “Themes”, the opener on the ‘Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe’ eponymous CD, is abruptly dismissed as “musical folly” (it happens to be one of my favorites from that album). The amusing-with-hindsight 1993 Live with Regis and Kathy Lee “Roundabout” TV debacle evidently didn’t deflate Steve in the way it did Bill. The sad death of producer Bruce Fairbairn during the mixing sessions for Yes’s album ‘The Ladder’ in May 1999 is touchingly recounted. And the studio tracks from ‘Keys to Ascension’, despite the blemishes he identifies, are seen by Howe as the nearest Yes ever got in their later years to recapturing the spirit of the classic sound of the 1970s.

This and much else holds interest as we proceed. Perhaps there is too great a tendency to document the dates and details of tours and recordings in the closing chapters, but this certainly conveys three important facts about Steve Howe’s life as a musician. First, that he remains extraordinarily dedicated and hardworking. Second, that he has a strong sense of what he sees as ‘the Yes ideal’ (which will certainly shape any future studio album and live undertakings, as he makes clear). And third, that he is able (and willing, and keen) to switch rapidly from one style or set of influences to another — from the progressive ethos of Yes (the apotheosis of which, in the later years, is expressed by the 2000 Masterworks tour, he suggests), to the stadium rock of Asia. From the modal jazz sensibility of the Steve Howe Trio and his ‘standards’ duetting with Martin Taylor on the ‘Masterpiece Guitars’ album, through to the rawer blues/R&B roots of the band Remedy. From the classical influence of “Mood for a Day” (and playing with the likes of the Philomusica of London) to the country style of “Clap” and “Cactus Boogie”. All of this, and more, is covered, with particular attention being given to what could be described as Howe’s ‘research and development’ CD series — the ‘Homebrew’ titles, now numbering six, with another possibly in the pipeline.

This deep well of musical experience and enthusiasm has been brought to Steve Howe’s work in Yes in a variety of ways over the years. These days (to the delight of some, and the chagrin of others), the band’s longest-serving guitarist is de facto leader of the reconstituted group. Along with Jon Anderson and Chris Squire, at different stages in the Yes story, Howe has surely earned the right to be regarded as one of its ‘keepers of the fame’. Yes was, is and will continue to be a fractious, awkward and infuriating (as well as engaging and inspiring) band. There is no disguising that in All My Yesterdays — or, at times, in my own book, Solid Mental Grace: Listening to the Music of Yes. But neither is there any hiding the love and commitment that Howe has poured into Yes music over many years. Both the light and the shade is honestly conveyed in his memoir-cum-autobiography,* which at times may feel a little pedestrian, but which is never lacking in flashes of insight and passion.

[*Gore Vidal, in Palimpsest, describes memoir as “how one remembers one’s own life” and autobiography as “history, requiring research, dates, facts”]

Photo credits: author images of the book; SH playing in 2010 — Luque, Paraguay (Creative Commons); guitars – stevehowe.com.  If you enjoyed this article, please see my book Solid Mental Grace: Listening to the Music of Yes (Cultured Llama Publishing, 2018). 

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