I remember it being a “nice” day in the small town where I grew up. I’m not sure what time of year it was; it might have been Spring. I’m guessing it may have been the Spring of 1972, in which case I would have been twelve years old.
I had a friend. He was one of those friends you have when you’re younger, who seems to know so much more than you do about so many things. He seems to have been places, to have experienced things. THINGS, in a pregnant sense (in German one would say Sachen). We went into his house, and into his room. I don’t remember any details about how we became friends, or what had happened before we went into his house.
Oh, sure, we had albums at home, including a few that were mine, which I played on my little portable (mono) record player. The Beatles, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass (remember Whipped Cream and Other Delights?), Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel. But the album covers that my friend showed me that day were different. Two of them stand out in my memory especially vividly: Tarkus (Emerson, Lake & Palmer), and Fragile (Yes), both released in 1971. As I look back on it now, seeing those two album covers corresponded with some kind of awakening within me. I knew not only that these were different, but also that the difference was important. This was not “popular” music that I had heard on the radio. Nor was it “classical,” the other main category in my classification schema at the time. When my friend played them, I was not at all surprised that they sounded like something totally new (to my ears, at least).
What was so special about those covers? Admittedly, the background against which they seemed special to me was quite limited. My exposure even to the Beatles was rather spotty; I was vaguely aware of how their covers had gotten more strange, but I think the main one that I actually owned at the time was the U.S.-only release, The Beatles Again (a.k.a. Hey Jude). I was used to covers on which the most prominent features were images of the performers. When I first saw both Tarkus and Fragile, I experienced something that I wouldn’t have the vocabulary to describe until a number of years later. Phenomenologists like to talk about the play of presence and absence, how an absence can be a presence of a sort. The absence of an image of “the band” leaped out at me from both covers. It was a palpable presence for which I was not prepared. The absence of an image provided a springboard from which the art on both albums could leap, seemingly not only into my eyes but maybe (so it felt) into my soul.
But it wasn’t just “artwork.” The images on these album covers (by William Neal and Roger Dean, respectively) were fantastic, in the root sense of that term. They violently insinuated themselves into my perception as essentially interstitial things. What I mean is that they had a “between” feel to them that was jarring, piercing, disconcerting, but also deeply attractive. It was not simply that I did not have a category for them; they both seemed to shine with some sort of resistance to categorization. Both immediately suggested a narrative that unfolded in some world or time or dimension that both was and was not this one.
They most emphatically were not “psychedelic” (think Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida). Even later, when I knew a little bit more about performance- (and listening-) enhancing drugs, there was never a point where those covers became anything that could be captured by any hushed murmuring of “Wow, far out!” They were not simply abstract, either.
As I remember those covers, and the revelatory feel of that day when I first saw them, I think about the “genre” to which they supposedly belonged. (It was that same friend who introduced me to the term “progressive rock,” though I’m not sure whether it was on that day or a bit later.) I think about how I tried to talk, in early high school, as if “prog” were the only kind of music worthy of the name ‘music.’ I think of how that label seemed to submerge into the miasma of my later teenage years, but also to rear its head here and there. I think of how it came to seem an historical curiosity and an object of nostalgia. I think of how it has reemerged in my life by way of certain friends whose fealty to the concept of “prog” apparently never flagged or wavered as much as my own did.
I recognize the inescapability of talk of genres, but I often find myself very skeptical of them nowadays. Arguments regarding what is and what is not “prog,” which I once would have entered into passionately, now seem tiresome to me. They often strike me as little more than specific manifestations of the need to bolster the goodness (sacredness?) of what I love by way of establishing the profanity (usually just the “suckiness”) of what Others (“They”) love.
But since I’ve been thinking lately about those two album covers, I find that something of that youthful fealty still stirs in my breast. I wonder if this remainder, this echo of a love for something that tries to escape any particular bin in the record store that might be aimed at a taste, considered as a marketing target, is still somehow important. I wonder if there is perhaps a resistance in prog to particular sociopolitical “bins” that is also essential. Since having my attention called to the later work of Rush, to the wondrous explorations of Big Big Train, I wonder if there’s a vital resistance, a stubborn but honorable refusal, that has gone by the name ‘Prog’ over these recent decades, that is more a flame to be kept lit than a curiosity to be archived and displayed.
It’s an aesthetic hope to which I give voice, not a claim that I make. I remember that day in 1972 now as a sort of birthday of that hope. May it live long, and may it be more than simply an aesthetic hope.