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Review: Remember prog rock? Contributors to a new anthology certainly do

First, an admission of bias: Recently, while watching Rush’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, this reviewer said, more than once, “No, really, people took this shit seriously? That would be like putting Genesis in the Hall of Fame.” At which point a fear began to muster: Was Genesis in the Hall of Fame already? Was there an exhibit that explained the meaning of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway … or, barring that, can anyone, anywhere explain it? The answer to the first question is yes, indeed, Genesis is in the Hall of Fame already (part of the class of 2010), and the answer to the second question can only be answered by a visit to Cleveland, presumably, or a plumbing of Peter Gabriel’s mind.

Either way, Rush and Genesis are both in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, huge drum kits and all, the fathers of prog rock taking their place beside the Sex Pistols and Ramones, the two bands perhaps most responsible for prog’s general demise. It’s one of many ironies not lost on several of the contributors in the entertaining new anthology Yes Is The Answer (And Other Prog Rock Tales), which is composed primarily of middle-aged men who were once stoned teens, reckoning with the (sometimes profound/sometimes heartbreaking/sometimes-knowingly-pretentiously-profound-and-heartbreaking) understanding that what they once loved ain’t what it used to be. As to whether or not people still take prog seriously, irrespective of a group’s entrance into the Hall of Fame, well, it truly doesn’t seem to be an issue. Prog mattered.

Edited by Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell, Yes Is the Answer collects 20 essays, including excellent pieces by novelist Rick Moody and Las Vegas native Charles Bock, that both extol and deride prog rock while trying to make sense of those who loved 15-minute songs about watery moors and/or epic concept albums whose actual concept remains pretty muddy decades later. In many cases, it’s the very love of prog that becomes the backdrop of fraught adolescence, most notably in Tom Junod’s “Out, Angel Out,” which details how Peter Gabriel, during his turn in Genesis and then upon his defection from the band, gave the writer a kindred spirit: “He was transforming himself as I was transforming myself! He was getting out in order to open himself up. … Oh, it’s hard now to appreciate the extent of the powers I ascribed to him, or of the belief I burdened him with.”

Junod realizes what most of us do about our own youth, that we’re given to fancies that the adult versions of ourselves can barely swallow. Prog was, as Weingarten notes in the book’s introduction, ridiculous and often pretentious, but so, too, are many things that connect the loose social ends of teens; yesterday’s prog fan is today’s goth kid. It’s this sense of community that Yes finds again and again, as in Andrew Mellen’s “Do Gay Guys Listen to Yes?” Mellen says at least one did (“did” being the operative word for most of the writers in Yes, like Joe Meno, who hasn’t listened to Rush in 20 years, but for very good reasons, as he notes in “There Is No Rush”) and that prog saved him from the creeping emotional tumult as a gay Jewish teen in Troy, Mich. “Prog rock became an even greater refuge …” he writes. “I didn’t have to be anywhere else but flying through outer space, eventually landing in some lush, damp rainforest with Jon Anderson as my otherworldly, ethereal guide.”

It’s that very aspect of prog that seemed most absurd when punk showed up — the idea that you needed to be transported to Middle Earth to fight your demons when, instead, you could raise your finger to this world and tell it to fuck off — which makes James Greer’s piece about the formative influences of Guided by Voices, for which he once played bass, such a fun and informative read. It was well known that group founder Robert Pollard was a big prog fan, and so it becomes clear through Greer’s piece how prog begat the literate alt rock that came up in the ’80s, from Husker Du to Guided by Voices to Yo La Tengo to even punkish bands like Titus Andronicus, an outfit more than willing to spend 15 minutes on a song about a Civil War battle, or Fucked Up, with its penchant for concept albums. That those bands managed to perform live not dressed like they were about to fight disco Orks is probably for the best.

For the best pure music criticism, Yes turns to Jim DeRogatis, who adroitly deconstructs the rise and fall of Genesis from prog superheroes to Phil Collins and his invisible touch. But it’s the essay’s opening line that stands as the thesis for the entire book: “Show me some human beings in their mid-60s who are not the least bit embarrassed by some of the things they did in their early 20s, and I’ll show you some liars or the sort of people who never had an ounce of fun in their lives.”

YES IS THE ANSWER (AND OTHER PROG ROCK TALES) Edited by Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell, Rare Bird Books, 273 pages