Tuesday, June 30, 2015


The passing of Chris Squire on the weekend has brought a strange and profound sense of loss for me. Chris was one of my favourite musicians, and his band, Yes, was and still is my favourite band of all time.

I have written about so-called "Progressive Rock", that strange and often misunderstood branch of modern music, on a number of occasions. The genre has its detractors, of course, but it has a legion of fans around the world. I am one of them, and, for me, the best practitioners of the genre were Yes.

I was introduced to Yes by my good friend Dave Jack when we were both in high school. Dave had been a fan before me, and he lent me a copy of his tape ( I believe it was 8 Track! ) of "Close to the Edge". I was instantly blown away by this strange, unique and wonderful music. I became an instant fan and began to acquire other Yes albums.

While all the musicians in Yes were superb, it was Chris' bass that caught my ear. Most bassists are content to establish a basic beat, rhythm or "bottom" to the music they are playing. Not Chris Squire. His bass was bold and large. There's no other way to describe it. It didn't overpower the rest of the music: instead, it set up a counter-point, a type of low register harmony that enhanced the music. He was aggressive and fearless in his playing: his sound challenged the listener and riveted attention to it. It was an identifiable part of the organic whole that was Yes.

I only saw Yes perform live once. That was in 1974 at Maple Leaf Gardens. They were on tour to support their recent album "Tales from Topographic Oceans". This album was next in line to their other successes: "The Yes Album", "Fragile", and "Close to the Edge." To be honest, "Tales ..." was not a full success. It was too long, too pretentious and difficult to sit through in the concert. But, even as a possible failure, it was a magnificent failure, and to watch the musicianship and listen to the grand and far reaching music was a pleasure.

Chris on stage was larger than life, and not just because of his presence, but because he was a physically big man. Well over six feet tall and lanky in his youth, he seemed a little out of place during the "Glam" days, when bands would dress in satin and silky bright coloured outfits. As Chris got older, he put on weight and became even more imposing. A critic once described him as (paraphrasing) stomping around the stage like a Viking, wielding his Rickenbacker bass like a battle axe. That's a wonderful image.

His passing is a sad milestone in all our lives. The unfortunate thing is that Yes is still playing, still touring and still making albums. I have lost track of the recent ones, in large part because they have not had a good shelf life. And mostly because the band has gone through so many personnel changes, it's hard to keep track. But the one constant was Chris Squire on bass. He appeared on all studio albums, and in all tours and concerts. Now, he is gone. The classic Yes line up of Jon Anderson on vocals, Steve Howe on guitar, Rick Wakeman on keyboards, Allan White or Bill Bruford on percussion, and of course Chris Squire on bass, can never appear again.

Rest in peace, Chris. You were one of the greats.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


My love of history is a life-long passion. Ever since I was a little boy, I wanted to learn about past events. I'm not sure why I was this way, but it is a firm part of my personality.

In high school, I had the great good fortune to fall in with a group of friends who shared my love of history. This group were avid war gamers, and played various strategy and tactics games, sometimes in an imaginary role-playing scenario ( before Dungeons and Dragons ) and sometimes on a massive and realistic board, using lead figurines and elaborate calculations to determine moves, gunfire and casualties.

Part of this gaming involved careful and meticulous research, and it introduced me to the eminent British historian David G. Chandler, whose massive work "The Campaigns of Napoleon" was required reading for gamers. I devoured this book, loaned to me by one of my friends and fellow gamers. At the age of eighteen, I became versed in the art of strategy, tactics and logistics, all practiced at the highest level by the master general of his time, Napoleon Bonaparte. Needless to say, the vast majority of our game scenarios involved Napoleonic themes.

At around the same time, I was able to view Sergei Bondarchuk's epic film
"Waterloo", featuring Rod Steiger as Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as Wellington. Although the film is rather selective in its adherence to actual historic events, it was a glorious and spectacular version of the penultimate battle of the Napoleonic Wars at Waterloo.

Viewing the film made everything I had read in Chandler's book and everything I had played on the big boards of the war games come to life: at least I thought that everything came to life. The film served up a visual feast of bright and gorgeous uniforms, pyrotechnics that deafened the audience, and portrayals of the real life participants as heroic stereotypes: the flamboyant and erratic Napoleon, the calm and phlegmatic Wellington, the hot headed Ney ( played to perfection by the Irish actor Dan O'Herlihy ) the cursing and unpopular Picton ( equally well played by Jack Hawkins). Even the terrain used by Bondarchuk to stage the battle scenes bore quite a resemblance to the actual battlefield, which I was able to visit in 1985.

But the singular thing missing in Bondarchuk's film, and not entirely dealt with in Chandler's book, was the human cost. The battle was a horrendous bloodbath, with close to a quarter million men locked in mortal combat in an area of only a few square kilometers. The loss of life was terrible to contemplate and only became real for me in the last year with the release of Bernard Cornwell's marvellous non fiction work "Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles". Cornwell published the book to coincide with the bicentennial of the battle this year.

Cornwell is best known as a novelist, famous for the "Sharpe" series, and several other series mostly set in the distant Middle Ages, or during the Hundred Years' War. "Waterloo" is Cornwell's first offering of non fiction, and he combines his extraordinary skill in story-telling with his meticulous research and understanding of military history. Unlike Chandler, Cornwell is not a professional historian, so his work reads almost like a novel, whereas Chandler's work is a manual on Napoleonic strategy and tactics.

Only in Cornwell's book do we finally see the tragic human cost. Many letters written by troops before they died in battle to loved ones back home are highlighted. The famous Duchess of Richmond's Ball, held only 3 nights before the battle, contrasted the glittering scene of an army at peace only to jolted into readiness and action by the news of the impending march of Napoleon: many of the British and Allied officers were still in evening attire and dancing slippers when they were shredded to pieces on the field at Waterloo. And Cornwell spares no detail in describing the apocalyptic aftermath of the battle field, with corpses and wounded men left lying in agony for days after the battle: the exhausted armies had no energy or ability to care for the wounded or the disposal of the bodies. Only after several days did a private contractor begin to gather up the corpses, most of which had been stripped of clothing or valuables by "grave robbers", and to suffer the most ignominious of endings: to be ground up for fertilizer for the farms in the area. Their blood had watered the fields, now their bodies and bones would provide new life out of the wretched charnel house of the battle field.

Cornwell succeeds in making the Battle of Waterloo human and profoundly sad. And as we mark the bicentennial of this most decisive of battles, this most discussed and written about historic event, we must never forget that, two hundred years ago this week, on June 18, 1815, untold thousands of young men, officers and privates, and thousands of horses used in combat and transport, spent their last hours in abject terror and unbelievable misery before dying violent and painful deaths, all in the name of national pride and individual glory.

History is a stern and unforgiving teacher. Are we, as her students, worthy of learning her lessons ?

Friday, June 12, 2015


I love to debate. I know, that's a shocking revelation to many of you. But it's the truth. I enjoy taking a proposition, an issue, or an event out of the day's news and thinking about it, formulating an opinion and searching for a person to talk with. And I'm lucky in that I have many friends with whom I can do this. Those are wonderful occasions and I really enjoy them.

Sometimes, though, the "discussions" descend into something less enjoyable. I am as much at fault for this happening as other people are. And, because of this, I have spent some time thinking about thinking. Let me explain.

In my family life, in my professional life, and in my relationships with friends, I can recall far too many times when arguments, name calling, and insults erupt in place of debate. And on social media, the degeneration has reached appalling levels. A person expresses an idea, and it's an open invitation for complete strangers to hurl invective upon him/her, all in the guise of "free speech" or the "right to my opinion." This has forced me to give the matter much thought ( get it ? "much thought") and has led to some conclusions.

We often descend into the "knee jerk" syndrome because it fits in with our need to express an idea quickly and to get immediate feedback or reaction. Also, the knee jerk is intellectually lazy. A knee jerker gives an immediate reaction to a proposition and feels something like " my work is done: I have an opinion and I will stick to that opinion to the death because it's my right to do so." A knee jerker will not accept the notion that the first reaction might not be correct, nor is any other reaction or thought valid because the knee jerker has "made his/her stand."

And you cannot have a real, valid discussion or debate when that occurs. Believe me, I've thought about this!

So, after much thought (again!) and careful consideration ( I'm on a roll here) I offer three simple steps to help all of us think ... at least I think this will work.

Step One: formulate an initial response to an issue or propostion. That's just a fancy way of saying "go ahead and knee jerk to an idea." Why not? It's human nature: we all do this. If something happens or comes to our attention, we react: "oh, that's nice", or "isn't that horrible?", or "that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."  The classic knee jerker stops at this point. But I have tried, in my mellow old age, to force myself to accept that I do indeed knee jerk, but I also force myself to continue on.

Step Two: ask some questions about your knee jerk. This can take time and offers a person a chance to do some interesting and possibly painful self-examination. These questions are as follows:
     - why do I feel this way?
     - is my knee jerk harmful or insulting to others?
     - do I look or sound like an idiot or stubborn ass with my knee jerk?
     - is it possible that I could be wrong in my knee jerk?

Step Three: try to see the other side(s) of the issue after you have knee jerked. This one is really hard to do, but, when I actually try to do this, it has two interesting results. It can either prove that your knee jerk was actually right, or can show that you really need to think further and accept that there is "more than one way to skin a cat."

When these three steps are completed, you can at least slap yourself on the back and congratulate yourself for actually having thought an issue through. Now, go ahead and discuss it with friends. But be sure to listen to other ideas: concede some ideas to be true, but stick to your guns on the ideas you have thought carefully about.

And finally, ( and this is hard for me ) learn that debate and discussion should not be about "winning" ... it should be about sharing ideas.

Now that I've finished thinking about all this, I think I might have gone too far. It's very presumptuous to think this way. I think I'll delete this.

No, wait! That's a knee jerk ! I need to think about what I've just thought about ! Calm down, think this through.....

What do I do ?? ARRRRGGGHHHHH !