I recently acquired two autobiographies by former members of Yes: Bill Bruford – An Autobiography and Grumpy Old Rock Star by Rick Wakeman. I have always enjoyed hearing both men speak on various YouTube videos related to Yes and progressive rock in general, so I was quite interested in reading their books. From the outset I expected Bill’s book would be very intelligent and introspective while Rick’ book I could guess would be very funny.
Bill takes a different approach to writing his life story here. Instead of the usual birth, childhood, adolescence, becoming a musician, etc. route, Bill has divided the book into chapters of FAQs where he then sets about answering those questions by way of telling of relevant episodes from his life. As such, this is mostly about being a drummer and a little about becoming a drummer with very little else about his personal life except for the part of being a touring musician with a family. Bill writes very intelligently and offers a lot of background information on the music business from the role of the manager to how a recording session goes, to the rise of the music industry and its pursuit of money making singles. The book is largely a no-nonsense saga of a serious-minded musician pursuing his own private goal of working with great musicians and bettering himself as a musician.
The book starts off with some humorous stories about his days with Yes and also includes some of his stories with Gong, Genesis, and of course King Crimson. There is a very interesting chapter on the man, Robert Fripp, and a number of anecdotes of experiences both good and bad with other musicians. These stories, along with Bill’s often very formal approach to English and his understated and sometimes dry humour, made the book very enjoyable for me at first. However, later on their are a number of lamentations about the music industry and the music-buying public, and at times I felt that Bill is not very impressed by his fans unless they love his latest works. If you meet Bill and tell him you loved his work on Close to the Edge and Red then he’ll likely politely thank you but secretly wish you would pick up an Earthworks CD and get into that. At times I felt the finger pointing was getting too personal. Hey, Bill, I am reading this book because I like your work with Yes and King Crimson. And I bought Bruford’s One of a Kind and Crimson’s Discipline because you and Stephen Lambe both sing a lot of praise for these albums. But I have to admit that I am more a rock guy and not really a jazz guy so, although I have great respect for what you are doing as a jazz drummer with jazz musicians, it’s not my cup of tea.
As I come to the final chapters, I find the moments of mirth are no longer coming and everything Bill writes about has me thinking and nodding or shaking my head, sympathizing in some remote way, or feeling like the real grumpy old rock star is the author of this book. A good read for many reasons. But don’t expect to be regaled with funny touring stories throughout as they only appear at the beginning.
If you have ever seen Rick speak about prog on a documentary or seen him speak at some music function then you have probably enjoyed a few big laughs. He has the right delivery to be very amusing and add to that some very amusing stories and you are in for a highly comedic book here. The first chapter is one of the best as far as laughs and stomach cramps go but there are plenty of other tear-jerkers – and I mean the kind where you laugh so hard the tears just flood out – throughout the pages. Read about how Rick acquired a KGB uniform, what happens when an inebriated trumpet player hits a high D, getting a work visa for Brazil from possible Nazis in Paraguay, or Rick’s first experiences behind the wheel. You’ll be either smirking or laughing in hysterics at least every other page.
Of course, if you’re a fan of Yes or Rick Wakeman’s solo projects there are plenty of stories there. The curry story is explained as it really happened; Brain Deal-a-Day Lane was very much unimpressed when Rick proposed doing King Arthur on ice; and two battling dinosaurs in Journey to the Centre of the Earth became very affectionate with each other during one show. The book does have its serious moments from time to time such as when Rick explains when he suffered two heart attacks at the age of 26 and was visited in hospital by a very concerned Jon Anderson.
One thing I really like about this book is how Rick seems to enjoy everything (except the heart attacks) and looks back on all his adventures with fondness. He sounds genuinely pleased with how his life has gone and that gives the book a very light, cheery atmosphere, quite in contrast to the brooding sobriety of Bill Bruford who has many unfavourable things to say about the music industry, the punter, and some of the musicians with whom he has worked. Rick is by far not the grumpy one of the two.
I have been reading these books simultaneously with Bill at home for when I have a slice of quiet time to read part of a chapter and Rick on the train during my commute, which has sometimes left me stifling a good belly laugh and wiping away tears while other commuters stand in solemn silence around me. I recommend both books: Bill’s for the intellectual side and Rick’s for comic relief.