Michael Chabon is a prog rock fan. This surprised me when I learned it; I can’t remember why. Chabon’s first novels The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys were basically savants brimming with ideas and unsure where to put them. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, inspired by the tragic origins of Superman, portrayed smart young men who actually did create things, before getting ripped off.
Still! I wrote my Slate series about the early days and decline of prog because the smart culture gatekeepers seemed to ignore this music entirely. That put me in touch with Chabon, who said that he’s enjoyed the music for years, long after a heyday neither of us was around to fully experience. I asked him how he got into this music, how it plays into his new novel, and how he defends it against a cold and uncaring planet of haters.
Slate: How did you discover “prog rock” in the first place? What record was passed down; what store got your hard-earned coin?
Michael Chabon: I just grew up with it! I was around 8 years old when “Roundabout” was a radio hit, and I loved it the first time I heard it. Prog was, as you wrote, simply on the air, in every record store, a popular kind of popular music. Yes, Genesis, ELP, Tull, King Crimson (my dad had Islands); the Americans (Kansas, dare we invoke Styx?), and Rush. It was all just music I liked. I know I liked the SF and fantasy concepts and trappings, the album art. At age 15 my favorite was the (still pretty wonderful) Jon Anderson solo album, Olias of Sunhillow. Roger Dean’s Views was the gateway to curious encounters with Gentle Giant and Greenslade.
I don’t think I really became aware of prog qua prog until I hit college (1980), when it was already well into its decline, and so could be alternatively lionized or scorned with great precision by the incisive and encyclopedic musical minds I encountered during my freshman year at Carnegie-Mellon University.
Slate: Did friends understand or mock the music? Did you keep it on the DL?
Chabon: I did not really encounter mockery for my prog tastes until much later, well into young adulthood. Call it the late ’80s. I think it took a long time for prog to fade, and acquire the retrospective layer of Silly Dust.
Yes briefly redefined themselves as semi-cool with “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” and Peter Gabriel perfected the coolness self-transformation begun with his beat-heavy, world-music-influenced second solo album. Everybody else (except, I guess, Robert Fripp) kind of got left behind or betrayed their true natures (“Mr. Roboto,” “Sussudio”). On the other hand, I remember when Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” came out (1982), I knew all kinds of people who thought it was the shit. Black people, punk rockers. Of course, that was in Pittsburgh, which is like no other place. I have never concealed my love of Rush, Yes, Crimson, Gabriel-era Genesis. Eno.
I’m not sure it’s even accurate to define prog purely in terms of its lack of blues- or black-music-derivation, or its uncoolness. Eno is a valuable clue: The Eno-produced Talking Heads albums, and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts; to me those are like prog you can dance to. When I listen to TV on the Radio, I hear prog.
Slate: How did you prefer to listen to the music? Live? Through any particular set of headphones? Pharmaceutically-enhanced, dead sober?
Chabon: I actually write, frequently, while listening to Yes records: Close to the Edge, Relayer, and Tales from Topographic Oceans. The dynamics are pretty steady, the bass and drums are propulsive, and the lyrics make no sense (to me, at least) and thus do not intrude on my own word-flow. They are just pretty sounds. I listen to vinyl records, unless I’m working on a plane.
Slate: What prog do you listen to now?
Chabon: Over the past decade or so I have gone farther afield, back to some of the more challenging British bands (Soft Machine, Gentle Giant, Stackridge, Camel, Hatfield and the North), through some second-generation outfits like Marillion and Spock’s Beard (whom I adore), up to Porcupine Tree. Tons and tons of Eno. At this point I am pretty much a prog-head.
That said, prog is only one of many streams of modern popular music that is important to me. I loved the Clash and the Buzzcocks and the Ramones from the moment I heard them, madly, without it ever occurring to me for a moment that loving them meant I needed to stop listening to Nursery Crymes or Thick as a Brick.
Slate: In the novel, how did you decide to make Julie a prog fan–what would this music signal that no other music could signal?
Chabon: Basically, how completely out of step he is with his peers, his time, his world: And how being so is, at least partly, a matter of deliberate choice. He could wear earphones. He doesn’t have to go around blasting “Bungle in the Jungle” out of a portable 8-track player.
Slate: One thing I found interesting about that choice is that prog is rarely, if ever, seen as a music of rebellion. Is that unfair?
Chabon: I think rebellion is a pretty debased term. I think we ought to reserve the word, as a term of praise, at least, for people like Spartacus, Denmark Vesey, or Aung San Suu Kyi.
Slate: Where do you come down on the question of prog’s “sincerity”—that music removed from blues influences is less legitimate than music that comes from the gut?
Chabon: I find it completely uninteresting and unrelated to my experience of listening to the music, to all music. I’m just looking for a mood, the ache of time’s passage made audible, and find it equally in, say, “Love in Vain,” or “The Carpet Crawlers.” Insincere music can also be derived from the blues, and still be exhilarating and, in its way, perfectly true: Go check out “I Enjoy Being A Boy” by the Banana Splits.