Riding the Waves to Eternity

Hangin' with the Cosmic Surfer

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Auld Reekie

1 January, 2019 (21:45) | Uncategorized | By: Ian Burdon

We went into the city for a walk up and around Calton Hill, a way to blow away the cobwebs of the old year. It was a nice walk as far as it went–the light was good, the views over the old town and across to Fife were great, despite the construction cranes, and a kestrel happily hovered and hunted, oblivious to the number of people who were up there.

But the city itself was a shocking mess. It wasn’t just the detritus of the Hogmanay party–though we’ll come to that, it was the general state of Princes Street and Rose Street which look run down. They were already bad, with dreadful 60s, 70s and 80s buildings destroying the amenity, but now there are added homeless people in every second or third doorway and also litter, the remains of last nights vomit, and a pervasive smell of urine from every likely spot.

And the Hogmanay stuff: I understand that it was a major event with lots of attendees, but it seems to me that a licence to hold the event ought to bring with it an obligation to tidy up, something that we didn’t see any sign of until early afternoon.

There is a cluster of different problems, and I’m not drawing any equivalence between homeless people and the state of the streets, but taken together there is something seriously wrong with our city, and I see no sign it is likely to get better. In fact it looks as though it will get worse: the council can’t afford to run the services it already has and is reluctant to impose any kind of service charge for tourists to help cover the infrastructure costs of them being here. I don’t know why, I’m used to paying something similar everywhere I go, most recently in Porto and Lisbon. Homelessness is a much deeper and more intractable problem, but the last Labour governments made significant inroads into addressing the issue, inroads that have been reversed in the last 8 years.

It is obvious that, as they say, something must be done. Like all such things, the place to begin is not what others should be doing, although I have views on that, but on what I should be doing. I don’t know what the remedies are, but I do know that is something for me to think about as the year turns.

Happy New Year!

Obligatory end of year note

31 December, 2018 (10:49) | Dead Water | By: Ian Burdon

The years are passing too quickly! 2018 has come and gone in a flash. What is there to say? I enjoyed great holidays in the USA and Portugal and wrote a novel that I still need to revise. I listened to a lot of music, read some books, but watched little TV or cinema. I deleted my old Facebook account and haven’t missed it. I stick with Twitter but sometimes wonder why.

Going into 2019 I plan to

  • lose some weight
  • write more
  • be kind

There’s nothing more to say really.

All the Broken Dreams and Vanished Years

23 December, 2018 (17:29) | Dead Water, Heads, Music, Steal Your Face | By: Ian Burdon

It’s December 2018 and the Cosmic Surfer, pseudo-eponymous writer of this blog, is reading Jesse Jarnow’s Heads, A Biography of Psychedelic America. He found the book by way of a random tweet by Steve Silberman and downloaded it, legally, there and then–a sentence that would have been meaningless while the Surfer was growing up but is central to Jarnow’s tale.

As he reads he recognises elements of the unfolding story from other places, notably John Markoff’s What the Doormouse Said: How the Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. Elements are also known to him by osmosis, strands absorbed through finger-contact with time, the obscure lore and hidden knowledge secreted by gatefold album sleeves. Most of it is new.

Deep into the book Jarnow tells the story of Jacaeber Kastor, out in the wilds of Mexico, at the source of the sacred peyote, tripping under the heavens when

suddenly the peyote is not only easy to find, it’s everywhere, veritably glowing like some strange seabed creature.

The Surfer remembers reading something like this not so long ago, of someone out on a Scottish hillside munching on Liberty Cap mushrooms, once hidden in the grass but suddenly ubiquitous, calling out to be picked and eaten. And the Surfer perceives a path through his memories, recollections of bands and music and connections flowing even to his screen name and the tag line of his blog, joined together in a kind of asynchronous mesh, temporally-challenged coincidences, or possibly nodes on hidden tendrils of mycelium-like interconnectivity.

And he finds himself thinking and blogging in the present historic tense deployed by Jarnow, and resolves to kick the habit before it takes a firmer grip.


I was born in late 1959, a child of the fifties by the skin of my teeth, missing out on sixties psychedelia by virtue of being too young. But when I started listening to music in the early seventies, I followed a well-worn path away from the singles charts to albums, catching the wave of mainly Brit bands coming out of the psychedelic underground and into the grey morning light of the seventies. I listened to as much as I could, and still have some of the records I bought then, but was conscious of being one of a small number who went looking for the (relatively) obscure. I didn’t always understand it, or even like it, but I knew I was listening to something qualitatively different. As symbolic a moment as any was when I first heard Roxy and Elsewhere by Zappa and the Mothers, though it could just as easily have been Court of the Crimson King or a Saucerful of Secrets or Camembert Electrique or Pawn Hearts or Tales From Topographic Oceans.

There was a drugs scene of a sort in East Kilbride as I got to my late teens and the seventies wheezed their way to their emergent Thatcherite conclusion. I wasn’t an enthusiast, though I did join in (Apocalypse Now on the big screen of the Sauchiehall Street Odeon while stoned? Sure thing). Most commonly available was what were called Moroccan, Lebanese or Pakistani cannabis resins, though their true provenance was always uncertain and they as likely came from an allotment in Sheffield. Several people I knew were enthusiastic tokers, and unlike Bill Clinton I did inhale, sometimes heroically, but I moved quickly onto cask-conditioned ale and whisky. I had reasons for this, one of which was observing my stoner acquaintances progressively flattening their personalities and intellects and consciously deciding I didn’t want to go there. The only time I was offered something more exotic, by someone in the music business, I declined.

But music was a constant, and from an early stage I was drawn to bands that appealed to me for reasons I couldn’t quite put a finger on. In the early days this was Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and Gong, but over the years has included the likes of Quintessence, Hawkwind, Ozric Tentacles, Banco de Gaia and Shpongle. What links them is, one way or another, psychedelics.

Meanwhile, out in the Mexican desert:

Jacaester leans back and watches the sky as the stars communicate with each other, shooting zaps from one light point to another, until all of a sudden one zaps earthward and hits Jacaester Kaster in the head. He feels it move down his spine and there it throbs.

Whoa, spooky! I wrote something similar in a story two or three years ago, Coyote in the Corner, using images that came into my head while writing; more asynchronous coincidence, more non-quantum entanglement. Moreover it reminds me a lot of Paramahansa Yogananda’s description of Kriya Yoga in Autobiography of a Yogi, the book that both inspired Tales From Topographic Oceans and led to me to quietly chant Om and attempt circular, continuous breathing in the gym, not that I’ve ever told anyone about that until now.

Jarnow builds his book around the story of the Grateful Dead and those who moved in their circle and afterwash. I only saw the Dead once and they were on average form, comparing badly to, say, Weather Report who I saw on sparkling, spellbinding form around the same time, giving every indication of actually having, you know, rehearsed. It took me a long time to appreciate the Dead, though I now listen to them more than any other band and this blog post was written to the accompaniment cd3 of Dick’s Picks Volume 4 and Fire On The Mountain Vol. 1.

Looking back, I don’t regret preferring good beer to toking and making choices that separated me from my acquaintances from those days (being careful with language there, I still have contact with friends). But of late I do regret that I didn’t find the time and safe space then to try psychedelics when I had opportunities. These days I don’t have the wherewithal and there is an ever present worry about what exactly one might be given. Also, as I approach 60 and manage blood pressure issues it might not be the most sensible thing to do.

And yet the thought lingers.

A Very British Catastrophe

21 December, 2018 (10:06) | Dead Water | By: Ian Burdon

I haven’t written here much of late, partly because I don’t have much to say and partly because what I do have to say is still percolating. In particular I haven’t written much about the lunacy that is Brexit, I’ve just watched in dumb horror as our political classes take us down, basking in the adulatory cheers of Mr. Putin.

Yesterday I read this article by Aditya Chakrabortty in the Graun and it resonated. Back in July I wrote about a brief trip to the US and travelling on trains.

From a train window you see the back of everything, not the gussied-up frontage but the service entrance. The back is where everything is hidden, dumped and abandoned so no one can see it, except everyone can see it from the carriages speeding by. From the train it’s as though the city has inadvertently tucked its skirt into its underwear and is walking around showing its ass to the world.

This came back to me earlier this month when I sat on a West Coast mainline train from Edinburgh to Birmingham watching the arse-end of the heartlands go by after, say, Crewe. Between the attempts at modernisation and the alternating beauty and dereliction of the inland waterways, the arterial infrastructure of industrial decline, I thought I understood something about Brexit. I understood that, were I living there, I would have cause to wonder what the EU had done for me too.

It’s all very well for me to mock that sentiment following the Life of Brian patter, or to point to how intertwined our society has become with that of our continental neighbours; it’s all very well to say that most of our dereliction has been brought about by ourselves, and post March 29 2019 we’ll get a visceral awakening to the reality of Joni’s Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. None of that addresses the underlying emotional force of, or reasons for, the sentiment. Chakrabortty’s article highlights that.

I have form for being gloomy about this stuff, but nothing has lightened the gloom for me over the years. Some of what I wrote nearly two decades ago looks somewhat gauche now, of course, but I still agree with my 42 year-old self’s view that:

If we could reduce all of the variables in modern British society into
symbolic form and express their inter-relationships by integral calculus, the
limits of the function would be bounded by the lowest common denominator and the highest common bullshit factor.

The question that nags, though, is what am I going to do about it as I approach the end of my sixth decade. I have a couple of ideas, and if anything comes of them you’ll read about them here.


Time Flies

8 November, 2018 (21:25) | Dead Water | By: Ian Burdon

Fourteen years ago, more or less, on 3 November 2004, I wrote on my old blog:

As I’ve said before though, the history of the twentieth century was the history of the rise of America: the history of the twenty-first century will be that of its decline and fall. The hope has to be that it doesn’t drag the rest of us down with it.

Out of the mouths of babes …

My trip in July rekindled my optimism, but I don’t see any reason to resile from what I said back then. The speed of it all is taking me by surprise though.

Interim Report

1 November, 2018 (08:41) | Dead Water, Goggle-eyes, Holidays, Sense8, Writing | By: Ian Burdon

Since the previous post we’ve had a lovely break in Portugal, which I might write about sooner or later.

My TV viewing has been a mixed bag. I watched season 3 of The Man In The High Castle and enjoyed it. A Discovery of Witches is making its way to the end of the first season; it’s been efficient and watchable. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was an impulse watch that raised mixed feelings, but then I’m hardly its target demographic. After abandoning season 3, I took a look at the first episode of Supergirl season 4, but found nothing to entice me back. Revisiting the Sense8 finale confirmed my original impression that it is a beautifully made rush job and something of a sad end. Jodie Whittaker’s Dr. Who continues to impress.

Also, I’ve revised that novel I mentioned in the sense I went through it and reduced the wordcount by 11%. It needs a lot more work, but it also needs time so I can be objective about the words when I get back to them. I’m toying with ideas for what I’ll write next though they haven’t coalesced.

The Tenth Knot

1 October, 2018 (00:15) | Books, Goggle-eyes | By: Ian Burdon

In 2012 I dropped into one of our local charity shops looking for something to read on holiday. I picked up a hardback first edition of Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches. It was a good holiday read, a page-turner, as I wrote at the time. I checked to see if she’d written any other fiction and discovered the second volume, Shadow of Night, was just published; it was waiting at home when I got back.

I saw a few snotty reviews of the first book in the press, as I often do when a new author achieves the kind of popular success with her debut novel that has unaccountably eluded the reviewer. I’ve also seen some sniffy recent reviews of the new TV show from fantasy aficionados who don’t notice that Prof. Harkness is coming from a very different place, although there are obviously fantastical elements at the core of her stories.

Anyway, this is a long way to say I enjoy reading her books, just for the pleasure of it.

With that in mind, I come to the TV adaptation of A Discovery of Witches currently showing in the UK. So far so good, is my opinion on that I think.

It is beautifully made and shot, with an excellent and committed cast. Even so, I wasn’t immediately convinced on my first viewing of episode one: it seemed to me to fall on the heavy side of exposition disguised as dialogue. With that set-up done, though, episodes two and three hit the ground running (five episodes remain).

It begins with a discovery of witches

I met Professor Harkness once–nothing special about it, I went to a reading when The Book of Life was published and stood in line to get my books signed, feeling quite self-conscious as one of the few men there. I mention this only because one day, if I ever get any further than my two published short stories, I’ll tell you about the two distinct impacts she has had on my own writing, one of which came from a very brief conversation while she signed my books.

In other TV news, The Deuce is back for season 2 and it’s just as compelling as it was in season 1. Maggie Gyllenhaal deservedly gets the plaudits but the whole cast is excellent. I also quite enjoyed the pilot of New Amsterdam, also exposition-heavy and a bit breathless but shows a lot of promise when it settles down.

I Call Him Gerald

29 September, 2018 (21:10) | Music | By: Ian Burdon

Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun

One of the first LPs I bought with my own money was A Nice Pair by Pink Floyd, a repackaging of their first two albums, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets.

I’d heard Dark Side of the Moon and Meddle by then, but at that point didn’t own a copy of either except for cassettes dubbed by a friend’s big brother. To this day I don’t own a copy of Dark Side of the Moon, and I pretty much lost interest in them completely when The Wall came out.

These days, the only three Pink Floyd albums I own and play are The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, A Saucerful of Secrets, and Meddle. Of these, the one that gets played most frequently, probably once a week in the office, is The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Alas for my bank account, my original copy of A Nice Pair has long gone.

This is all to preface some comments on Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets at the Armadillo in Glasgow last night.

This is Mason’s deepdive into Pink Floyd’s earliest–and in my view greatest–material. Fearless and One of These Days from Meddle were the most recent things they played and they are from 1971.

And it was fantastic.

Lots of things stick in my head about the show, starting with the obvious: the spirit of Syd Barrett permeated the evening like the smell of joss sticks permeates your curtains. This was evident from first (Interstellar Overdrive) to last (Jugband Blues over the PA as we filed out at the end). I sensed that, whatever international acclaim Pink Floyd might have garnered subsequently, this was the music of the band Mason founded.

There are too many highlights to mention, from Guy Pratt’s casual virtuosity on Let There Be More Light, introduced by the disembodied voice of John Peel as ‘from their latest album’, to Mason’s poignant comment after Vegetable Man that the song was so short because ‘sadly we ran out of Syd, or maybe Syd ran out of us’, to the infectious enthusiasm of all the players. What took me by surprise, though it really shouldn’t have, was how raw and aggressive it was, given the reputation of British psychedelia for being fey and whimsical. This show was ferocious.

On the bus back to Edinburgh, one or two thoughts settled in my mind:

  • I have to see them again
  • It was terrific at the Armadillo; it would have been out of this world at Barrowlands, the venue for which this music is made
  • They could change the set completely and still have a fantastic show. I’d love to hear their take on Echoes and Rick Wright’s Remember A Day
  • I must listen again to Atom Heart Mother and Obscured by Clouds
  • There was only a decade between Pink Floyd at The Roundhouse and UFO and the emergence of punk. More than once I reckoned John Lydon would be a credible front person for this material, as would Siouxie Sioux or Viv Albertine. I’d love to hear Siouxie have a crack at See Emily Play for example. Robert Wyatt would fit in perfectly too.

Very highly recommended if they come round your way.


Interstellar Overdrive
Astronomy Domine
Lucifer Sam
Obscured by Clouds
When You’re In
Arnold Layne
Vegetable Man
Atom Heart Mother
The Nile Song
Green Is the Colour
Let There Be More Light
Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun
See Emily Play
One of These Days
A Saucerful of Secrets
Point Me at the Sky

The Writing Thing

20 September, 2018 (22:08) | Writing | By: Ian Burdon

It’s painfully obvious that I haven’t written anything here since July. However in the background, when not occupied with work things, I have completed the initial draft of a novel.

There is a long way to go until it is in anything like a presentable state, but I’m please that I actually did it. 130,000 words (too many, I know) in just under a year.

Assessing Points to Nowhere

29 July, 2018 (00:14) | Dead Water, Holidays, Yes | By: Ian Burdon

Ian Hunter’s voice rasped around my head as New York shimmered in a heat haze through the window on our final approach.

And the Manhattan skyline
Blew my mind the first time…

final approach

My first time in New York City was in July 2001. The memories are bright but jumbled after 17 years: the vibrancy of the city, my first walk in Central Park, the NYPD-exclusive donut stand in Midtown Manhattan (‘no wonder they have guns, they’re too fat to chase the bad guys’ said colleague Sean). Most of all I remember the disappointment of not getting a photograph I wanted of the Twin Towers. As we took off to come home the towers stood there on the skyline and I consoled myself that they would still be there when I next visited…

We went down to the scene of the crime
Looking for the soul of America
(https://youtu.be/8lNFEhxcoC8 )

And the towers are still there, phantom limbs in the city’s self-awareness, continually drawing the gaze to where they were, constantly itching though there’s nothing to scratch, the holy dust suspended in the humid air.

The stanza looped and looped and looped again until I was in the heart of New York City on the concourse at Grand Central Station, when Mary Chapin Carpenter took over:

Want to stand beneath the clock just one more time
Want to wait upon the platform for the Hudson line
I guess you’re never really all alone, too far from the pull of home
And the stars upon that painted dome still shine
(https://youtu.be/q94uwmRO2BY )

I’ve been visiting the USA since 1984. Well, technically 1983, but on that occasion it was just a quick walk over the bridge at Niagara Falls. In 1984 my friend Big Al and I left Toronto and drove down to Detroit and on up the Michigan peninsula as far as Elk Rapids, taking in the delights of Flint and Saginaw along the way, staying with his relatives. Is there a better introduction to the USA than a roadtrip?

tangled up in blue…

Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the soundtrack from Footloose dominated the US album charts in the first half of ’84; Born in the USA and Purple Rain were still to come. Yes had a hit with Owner of a Lonely Heart and Cindy Lauper was bubbling under with Time After Time, a tune so good Miles Davis covered it. On country music radio Merle Haggard got heavy rotation with Let’s Chase Each Other Round the Room Tonight, as did the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper’s Dream) a paeon to an idealised past.

Ronald Reagan was president, and if Americans chose to focus on his good-natured charm and affability rather than other aspects of his character and administration, well who was I to argue about it while a guest in the country? That was the same year Ronnie and Nancy visited Ireland and Christy Moore sang:

Hey Ronnie Reagan I’m black and I’m pagan
I’m gay and I’m left and I’m free
I’m a non-fundamentalist environmentalist
Fuck off, and don’t bother me

This was the same Ron and Nancy, the grand old Hollywood couple, who hosted their old friend Rock Hudson at the White House in 1984 and then one year later in 1985 refused his pleas for help as he lay dying in Paris.

But on that trip, against that background, I first encountered what I still think of as the soul of America, the courteousness and civility of the people I met, their personal expansiveness that matched the endless skies and the land, as well as the oddballs and the occasionally unfathomable attitudes of a minority. I wasn’t deaf or blind to other things I found, the casual racism and misogyny in unexpected places, flags everywhere, and a strange censoriousness amongst the civility, but my overwhelming impression was of something approaching the good society or at least aspiring towards it.

Or maybe that’s just my white male privilege talking.

The majority of my visits since then have been to Boston and work-related. At first these were enjoyable, but increasingly they were not. In part this is to do with the nature of business trips—jet lag, restaurant food and wine, lack of down time—but there was something more to it, a perception of a change in the society itself. This wasn’t just fuelled by changes in the media’s presentation of America or by the calamitous coarsening of political discourse; I found the civility and open courteousness I’d come to expect attenuating, replaced by something harder-edged, less welcoming, more suspicious.

So I built this short trip around Yes’s 50th anniversary US tour as a way to reconnect with something, if I could find it. Ideally it would have taken in more of the parts tourists and visitors don’t generally get to, but time and money were against me.

Instead I chose three east-coast locations where Yes were playing, bought my tickets, and travelled with only a shoulder bag and a couple of cameras, a Voigtlander Bessa-R loaded with colour film, and a Contax 139Q loaded with black and white. I had just one lens on each, a Canon f2.8 35mm on the Bessa, and Carl Zeiss 45mm Tessar on the front of the Contax. Those films have yet to be developed and the photos here were all taken on my phone (Huawei P20Pro). All my travel was by train except the shuttlebus from Newark to Grand Central Terminal.


My relationship with Yes goes back to schooldays and my discovery of music in the early seventies. I’ve written here previously about that period. I remember being given a copy of Close to the Edge and Fragile on cassette and I think Yesterdays too (home taping is killing music kids!). I liked them but they didn’t stand out for me amongst some of the other things I was listening to. I remember buying Tales From Topographic Oceans, which I still have, and really liking some of it but not quite getting what was happening. The album that really cracked it for me, my point of entry to all that went before, was Relayer, the album recorded with Patrick Moraz on keys after Rick Wakeman left for the first time. Even now Relayer, Tales, The Yes Album and 2011’s Fly From Here are the Yes albums I listen to most, and part of Gates of Delirium is the ringtone on my mobile phone.

But I had a long period away from them. In 1977 on my eighteenth birthday, when others were deep diving into punk and new wave, my friend Ian Blyde played me a Mississippi John Hurt album and I was hooked and gone. For the next 23 years I listened to many things, but not Yes. I was aware of Owner of a Lonely Heart and the early Asia material, but they didn’t really grab me.

It wasn’t until 17 February 2000 that I thought of them again, when I went to a gig on the Homeworld tour in Glasgow at the suggestion of Big Al. I found myself singing along with the older material, which surprised me as I didn’t know I ever knew the words, let alone could remember them. Since then I’ve tried to get to every Scottish gig they’ve played and have only missed two I think.

Along the way I’ve met many Yes fans I now see at every show. Most of them make the effort to see several shows on a tour, and not just in the UK. I’ve resisted doing this, content to see a show every year or so. I saw Yes in March this year on the UK leg of their 50th anniversary, and enjoyed it a great deal. I was tempted by a fan event in London to mark the occasion, but couldn’t go. For some reason in April I decided what the hell and bit the bullet. I booked four dates on the US 50th anniversary tour.


I don’t know when or why I first got the idea I wanted to travel up the Hudson Valley, but it was a long time ago. I always have the urge to get out of the city. Perhaps it was a facet of a mythical America I constructed, a mix of the pastoral and riparian small-town America that inhabits movies of a certain age.

Henry Ford paid seven bucks a day
Rockwell did the covers on the Post
FDR set up the TVA
And the stars rode silver trains from coast to coast
(https://youtu.be/NrUosW8Z7KE )


Peekskill is an hour north of Grand Central on the Hudson Line and it was a fine run in the evening sunshine. The early parts of the journey, through the northern part of the city, reminded me of a train ride in China from Chengdu to Six-Senses Mountain. The impression faded as the Hudson broadened and the route became more rural. The town is beautifully situated in a crook of the Hudson’s arm, opposite Jones Point and Bear Mountain State Park.

Tired and hungry I followed the recommendation of the concierge and took a cab to the NY Firehouse Grille  where tacos and beer made a satisfying end to a long journey. Every spare piece of wall in the place had a TV on, mainly showing sports, all with the sound down. It was here that a couple I chatted to said they knew I was from Scotland because I ‘sound like Sean Connery.’ I was too polite and tired to demur.

The breakfast room in the hotel had a TV in the corner, tuned to a local news channel. I tried to ignore it but it was difficult. In fact in my whole trip I never once turned a TV on in my room and only rarely looked at Twitter. And yet I couldn’t help but notice in hotels and bars that there were even more ads running than I remembered, a disturbing number of which were for pharmaceuticals.

A walk into town round the waterfront was delightful: at one point a muskrat hogged the path in front of me, not sure whether to stay put or run (it ran) and a chipmunk skittered over some rocks at the side of the railway track. Across the Hudson a seemingly endless goods train ran north carrying who-knows-what to who-knows-where. Later, another, just as long, came from the other direction. In the distance Bear Mountain Bridge spanned the river. The coves were full of geese and goslings.

Olga, me, Angel, Vilma

I liked Peekskill, nicely restored where necessary, though I was there quite early in the morning and most of the place wasn’t open. I didn’t mind too much: I was baking in the heat and still adapting to the time difference, so I reversed my route and hit the hotel for a second shower of the morning and a nap. I jotted down some notes for a possible future story/blog post based on some artefacts in the parks around the town.

Downstairs later I spotted the familiar Roger Dean Yes logo on a T-shirt and made friends with Vilma, Olga and Angel, brother and sisters there for the same reason I was. Happily, they had an icebox full of beer, the same icebox and beer we shared after the show with founding Yes keyboard player Tony Kaye.


Paramount Theatre, Peekskill

The lineup of Yes has, notoriously, changed many times over the years, leading to intense discussion amongst fans of particular eras. The current lineup, whom I saw just four months ago, played a great show in Glasgow, featuring 2/3 of Tales From Topographic Oceans and I left the venue into a freezing night feeling happy.

Something has happened in those four months; the same five people have completed that subtle transformation into a band, found a shared gestalt that is apparent the moment they start playing as one coherent entity. The current setlist starts with a defiant statement of intent, the title track of 1972’s Close To The Edge played with aggression and precision, and I knew after the first few bars that this collection of musicians was definitively, quintessentially you might say, Yes, playing and owning Yes music for themselves with style and confidence.

Steve Howe, Close to the Edge

The lovely Paramount Theatre in Peekskill was my first experience of Yes with an American audience. There was no sitting tapping one’s knee appreciatively, this audience was active and engaged, ready to leap to its feet and fist pump at the slightest excuse. It was also much more gender and age balanced than a UK audience. Of course, the band responded and fed off the energy.

The current setlist covers substantial chunks of their 50 years including all the parts I’m interested in. It is also more lyrically melodic than some previous tours. Nine Voices, something of an obscurity, became a firm favourite of mine over the week, and I was surprised by just how pleased I was to hear Fly From Here live again—more than pleased to be honest. A set that was already ace kicked up a further gear when Tony Kaye came on and they rocked out a lengthy ‘encore’ of a ferocious Yours Is No Disgrace, Roundabout and Starship Trooper that had the whole audience in the lovely wee theatre on their feet dancing in ways alien to UK Yes concert goers (except Glasgow).


It rained overnight, and the clouds blanketing the tops of surrounding hills reminded me a lot of Scotland. At the breakfast bar of the hotel I was surprised to see Steve Howe. After a quick double-take as our eyes met when I walked in, I respected his privacy and ignored him.

Leaving Peekskill

It was heating up when I went back to Peekskill railway station on Wednesday morning for the next leg of my travels. As I stood waiting, a fellow walked past with a phone to his ear and mouth saying ‘That’s right brother, everybody’s shit is all fucked up.’ I avoided talking politics the whole time I was there, but that seemed as apposite a comment as I could imagine.

I walked from Grand Central to Penn Station through a roasting New York and took the Long Island Rail Road to Hicksville then a taxi to Westbury. My taxi driver talked music during the ten-minute trip, telling me he led a great band once that could have made it if not for their management. Billy Joel opened for him in the early days, he said.

Westbury is much more of an urban desert than Peekskill, without the charm of the waterfront setting or the vistas. I was meeting up with some other Yes fans later in the afternoon for something to eat and a drink, but wanted some lunch. I ordered a club sandwich, which came with fries and unexpected cheese (nobody expects the fromage imposition) and a pint of a local beer. When I got to the meeting-up place later I asked for a salad and specifically a child’s portion. What came could have fed the 5000 with plenty left over for a doggy bag. I was assured this was the small portion. Needless to say, two thirds of it remained uneaten. Kirstin messaged me to ask what I was doing; ‘I’m in a restaurant with 42 Yes fans’ I said. All she could reply was “Eek!”


Westbury, with a revolving stage in a circular auditorium, was at least as good a show as Peekskill, notwithstanding the immobility of the stage in the second set. In some respects, with the audience closer to and surrounding the band, they responded with even greater energy. Even Steve Howe, who can be a serious man, was gurning with pleasure from behind Geoff Downes’s keyboard rig at the end.



Thursday began to another day of blue skies and hot temperatures. Outside the hotel waiting for the cab I was reminded of the early photographs of William Eggleston, of mundanity under a hot sun. For the first time I understood what Eggleston saw, and regularly after that I wanted to stop the train I was on to jump out and take pictures of the passing tableaux. It’s a very different aesthetic to Saul Leiter and the other New York street photographers whom I also like.

On the train back to New York City I stood in a vestibule by the door and watched towns and streets roll by. From a train window you see the back of everything, not the gussied-up frontage but the service entrance. The back is where everything is hidden, dumped and abandoned so no one can see it, except everyone can see it from the carriages speeding by. From the train it’s as though the city has inadvertently tucked its skirt into its underwear and is walking around showing its ass to the world.

Train tracks are the night-routes of coyotes and gossip and muted trumpets in the thick air and illicit passion and anything else that wants to pass quickly and unseen through human habitation. And that habitation is an ever-changing diorama of architectural juxtapositions, early 20th century tenements tight against cookie-cutter urban brutalism with anachronistic curlicues and finials, blocks of primary colours peeling in the sun.

Three goods wagons stand in a siding where someone uncoupled them once and forgot to come back; they nestle in unkempt grasses, their original livery obscured by aerosoled tags. Jean Ritchie was in my head from another time and place:

I was born and raised at the mouth of the Hazard Holler
Coal cars roaring and rumbling past my door
Now they’re standing rusty, rolling empty
And the L & N don’t stop here any more
(https://youtu.be/j6nARSpM-0s )

Amtrak to Philly

From the Amtrak train I took from Penn Station to Philadelphia things grew starker. At Newark, weather-stripped remnants of the industrial past sat in the landscape like the bleached bones of ancient camels on the Silk Routes of the Taklamakan Desert. Outside Trenton an old Silver Stream trailer sat under the trees of a lakeside trailer park; fading signs painted on the brick walls of abandoned buildings advertised long-defunct businesses. Trenton makes, the world takes, read a sign on a bridge: not any more buddy.

Just north of Philadelphia a gigantic old Amtrak locomotive decays in a siding. Research suggests it is an E9A unit, originally built in May 1955 as Baltimore and Ohio Railroad 56.

Engineers built that locomotive. Men and women and children lived their lives around these beautiful creations in metal and glass, leather and wood and grease; building them, maintaining them, driving them. They went to school and college and dated and married and had children who went to college and danced and built things and made art and music and had more babies, and argued and fought and lived and died in a changing world.

That locomotive was crafted a year before Elvis checked into Heartbreak Hotel. It was made in a mythologised American dreamtime of change and growth and white middle-class privilege. And now it’s abandoned and corroded and used as a spare-part resource by a billionaire hobbyist to restore other vintage rolling stock. There’s a cheap metaphor right there if you want it.

And past it all sped the train I was on, the metallic coaches of Amtrak Train 609, the Keystone Service, elongated Silver Stream trailers on bogies and rails.


Philadelphia turns out to be an easy town to make friends in if you’re a late middle-aged guy with a pony tail wearing a faded Grateful Dead T-shirt. Sitting on a shady terrace with a cold Sanpellegrino and a blueberry muffin, I lost count of the number of men and women with more than a touch of grey who gave me a smile and a wave and went trucking like the doo-dah man down the sidewalk, a fresh spring in their steps, and perhaps memories of youthful debauchery on their minds.

Maybe they went home and slipped on a Merle Haggard LP and chased each other round the bed and made gentle love into the evening, looking into each other’s eyes and saying do you remember when we…? smiling at shared memories of old times and places and friends and lovers.

Maybe they were tempted to get high for old time’s sake and wondered if they should tell their kids and grandkids the story of their lives, not the one told in the bound photo albums that come out on anniversaries and grandpa and grandma’s birthdays but the true one of hot breath and young flesh and dancing real close to the music of the Dead, and Santana and Yes. Because rock’n’roll is about nothing if not dancing and making out and smokin’ in the boys room until school’s out and you’re going back, Jack, to do it again wheels turning round and round and round in the circle game.

Maybe they were the sons and the daughters of those engineers who built the post-war America that oxidises on forgotten tracks, a link to an aspirational past and an imagined future that no longer seems so bright. But now the music that scandalised their parents is played on oldies radio stations and podcasts between adverts for blood pressure medication, incontinence pads and Viagra.


On the advice of a couple of people (thanks David, thanks Elijah), I spent a morning at Eastern State Penitentiary, an abandoned prison now kept in a state of stabilised ruin as a museum of sorts.

Eastern State Penitentiary

I find it impossible to visit such sites and treat them as abstract entities, as visitor attractions; for me they work on the level of empathy, of imagining the lives of everyone involved. A couple of people asked me why I wanted to go there, and it’s difficult to explain. All I can say is it was a completely absorbing 2-3 hours, wandering the blocks, contemplating the lives of the people incarcerated there. And maybe that’s the answer to why I went, the feeling that this was once a living, breathing institution where humans sat and thrived or died, sweltering in summer, freezing in winter.

I had other places on my list, but most were filled with school groups or masses of tourists and I decided to pass, opting instead to walk the mile or two back to my hotel, taking in the sounds and smells of the city, slapping on the sunblock.



By the third and fourth shows of the tour, in Philadelphia, I understood exactly why people travel to the USA to see Yes. The four shows are amongst the best I’ve seen by them with any lineup, not just in aggression and precision but also in a palpable sense of joy in the music. The Philly shows also featured Patrick Moraz and Trevor Horn as guests in addition to Tony Kaye. At the end of the fourth show, Steve Howe was grinning again, this time from the drum riser.

Relayer Jim, Me, and a decent pint of Mild

The fan convention in Philly was great fun too. A tribute band from New York, Total Mass Retain, played a blistering set of tracks Yes haven’t played in years, seemingly oblivious to the band members watching from the wings. Patrick Moraz in particular was on his feet fist pumping when they played Sound Chaser. Tom Brislin played a great set, then Moraz took to a Steinway grand piano for a stunning hour of mostly his own music, at least some of it improvised. I heard echoes of many players including Nina Simone, Billy Taylor, Stan Tracey with his quartet at Ronnie Scott’s, and Pinetop Smith if he played be-bop, but mostly I heard a great musician in his element having fun.

And I got to shake Roger Dean’s hand and thank him for the album covers and posters that decorated my teenage bedroom.

Yes 50th setlist:

Trevor Horn and Steve Howe

Close to the Edge
Nine Voices (Longwalker)
Mood for a Day/2nd Initial
Leaves of Green/Madrigal
Fly From Here, Part I: We Can Fly
Sweet Dreams
Heart of the Sunrise
Perpetual Change
Does It Really Happen?
Yours Is No Disgrace
Starship Trooper


Heading Home

Was the trip a success? You bet. I saw four phenomenal gigs, travelled around and talked to loads of people and had a great time.

And the America I remember is still there. I mentioned previously that I didn’t raise the subject of politics at all, in part because the ongoing shit-fiesta that is Brexit makes it hard to raise an eyebrow at America’s descent. And I’m glad I didn’t as it would only have got in the way of something else, of human contact and friendship and a set of shared values linked by love of a great rock band.

This voice
This dialogue
This voice
Singing as one.