Tuesday, January 31, 2017

John Wetton: My Tribute

The first time I remember hearing John Wetton was by seeing a video by a new band called Asia on MTV, with a song called "Only Time Will Tell", sometime in the fall of 1982. I seemed to have had a small knowledge of who was in this band, having been familiar with Yes and ELP for a while, but the singer was not familiar to me. I liked his voice, as it was rather captivating. Not long after that, I remember going to the local Kmart store with Dad, where he bought the single of "Heat Of The Moment", and sometime after that, he bought the self-titled album through the old Columbia House record club. Very cool cover image by Roger Dean, although I had been used the dragon in the sea being pink, not blue!

About a year afterwards, there was the "Asia In Asia" concert, beamed from Japan, via satellite. What we didn't know until the last minute was that John Wetton wasn't with them, and Greg Lake was now in his place. He did a fine job of standing in for him on such a short notice, and although I enjoyed the show, I wanted to see and hear the real guy I'd been hearing for a while.

A few years after that, in sixth grade, I remember looking at the back of an album cover by Uriah Heep, which charted out the various members that had come and gone by the time of the album's release. I saw Wetton's name as being the most current bass player. I'd seen the name "King Crimson" around a couple-few times, and eve had a small knowledge of Greg Lake having once bee in the band at one point as well. I thought, Both of those guys were in that band? I'm going to have to check them out someday!

I didn't get to it until the eleventh grade, when I brought home a used vinyl copy of In The Court Of The Crimson King, and it changed pretty much everything for, about and within me. Hands down, it was the best musical-listening decision I ever made. I then set out to look for and get any- and everything that I could by them. I tried to go in sequence as closely as I could, and try not to get too ahead of myself.

One item that I came across was a double-album compilation entitled The Young Person's Guide To King Crimson, which had a booklet with lots of text, and pictures of the various lineups from the first album, all the way to the original era's end. I didn't have a lot of money on me at that time in order to get it. I rummaged around the house, gathering up all of the loose change I could find, taking it to the bank up the street, and changing it into dollars. Then I walked the four-mile trek to House Of Records, bought it, and walked all the way back home again with it.

I was familiar with most of what was on side one, but side two is where it got interesting: not only had I not heard any of it, but John Wetton was on the whole side (even if it was only two compositions). The first one, "Red", was a heavy power-trio instrumental with lots of distortion and tritone chords, not to mention hammering drums and fuzz bass. The next cut, "Starless", was a 12-minute epic with lots of Mellotron, plus it seemed to be a three-part suite. After the vocal section, there was a slowly-building section with repeating guitar notes that made me wonder where it was going to go next, and then--BANG!--it slammed headlong into a fast ad heavy 14/16 time signature, restated the opening theme with heavy layers of Mellotron and saxophone lines, and it was over. When the record-player clicked off, I sat and stared at it for about five minutes in complete and stunned silence. I had never heard anything like that before, and I was completely blown away.

Well! After that, I went and got everything Crimson that I could get my hands on. I could not believe that a band with such a history, discography and a stylistic musical language all of its own was not being played on the radio. I holed up in my room for most of my eleventh-grade year (and the subsequent summer), listening to the albums again and again. In fact, aside from Crimson, I also played Yes, Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd. Hardly anything else came in between those four. In fact, I particularly played Larks' Tongues In Aspic (1973), Starless & Bible Black (1974) and Red (1974).

At the beginning of my 12th grade year, I picked up the self-titled album by U.K., a sort of successor to Crimson, which featured Wetton and Bill Bruford alongside Eddie Jobson and Allan Holdsworth. I especially liked the first side of the album, and played that quite frequently when I came home from school. They were not together terribly long, and the only other thing I'd found by them was their second album, Danger Money. I was a little reluctant to pick that one up, as I really enjoyed Bruford's work on the first album; plus, the band on this was now a guitar-less trio.

I finally said "heck with it" at Golden Oldies, and bought a copy of it, took it home, and slapped it on the turntable. Whoa! This one was harder and tighter than the first album, with Eddie Jobson's Hammond C3 organ being the lead keyboard on many of the songs, which were much more straightforward this time around. I played this album nonstop for months on end. And then I found a cassette copy of their third (and last) album, a live set called Night After Night. I was amazed at how "big" they sounded for being just three guys, and when songs like "Time To Kill" and "In The Dead Of Night" were played, it was easy to forget that they ever had a guitarist in the band to begin with.

Another thing I got my hands on was the 4-CD King Crimson boxed set The Great Deceiver, which was an anthology of live shows by the 1973-4 lineup. Again, I pored over the liner notes, and played this whenever I had any time to myself, imagining myself actually being there and seeing them live. It was said that Wetton's bass was so loud that he overwhelmed the mixing board, and most of the musicians onstage. It was great to hear live versions of "Starless", months before they recorded it for Red, and to hear different lyrics in the verses. It was also quite a treat to hear an unrecorded song, "Doctor Diamond".

Over the next number of years, I collected any- and everything by this lineup that I could get my hands on. They never played a song the same way twice, let alone an entire setlist. Songs like "Exiles" and "Easy Money" in particular had different intros or outros, sometimes leading into an extended instrumental improvisation.

Through it all, he had been a major source of inspiration, from his bass playing, songwriting and singing. Especially the latter. My own voice was rather similar in range and tone, and I saw that I could sing along to the Crimson and UK songs, and almost match what I was singing to.

In 2016, I noticed that he had a Twitter page, and although I wasn't sure if it was someone else handling it, I "followed" it anyway, and "liked" posts that would appear here and there. After a few visits and posts, it began to dawn on me that it was indeed the man himself posting, re-tweeting and commenting. He told one particular anecdote where Crimson had been booked at some place, billed as "King Curtis", and the owner of the place was baffled to see four white guys walk into the place (he seemed to be unaware that King Curtis had been dead for over a year by that point!).

I would find pictures of Crimson, UK and interesting pictures of Wetton himself and post them on my page, tagging him in them. Imagine my surprise one morning when I got a notification that he was "following" me on Twitter! That really made my day. I also got to meet some very interesting fellow fans from different corners of the world, and enjoying posting all kinds of pictures on his page, and occasional story on there. Someone posted a picture of the three-piece lineup of UK on there, and he commented: "It was a neat little band". I looked forward to seeing his posts on there, and sometimes whenever I'd post something, he'd give it a thumbs-up, or re-tweet it on his page. I wanted to write him a personal note, thanking him for all of the great music and inspiration for all of the past years, but I simply just enjoyed getting to bang it back and forth whenever something interesting came up.

We'd heard the news that he'd been fighting cancer for a while, and there was some concern for a while when his page went silent for a while. He finally emerged, with pictures of himself and his wife Lisa (whom he'd married just after Thanksgiving), and also explaining that he'd been fighting sepsis in addition to his cancer. We all sent him our warmest thoughts and regards. He posted that an upcoming tour with Asia would be commencing without him, due to doctors' insistence that he not go out on tour. Around Christmastime, he'd posted a few shots of himself with Lisa, and Robert Fripp at a Christmas party, which was very touching to see.

In mid-January, I found a picture of him with a tortoiseshell cat, and posted it on my wall, with him tagged in it. On January 14th, he posted the following:



This was/is Peggy, an angelic, frighteningly loyal,half-wild cat with a heart of feline gold.

And then it was silent again for a while.

On January 31st, I logged onto Facebook, and saw a post by my friend Henry Howard, which broke the news that John Wetton had peacefully died in his sleep in the night. My eyes immediately welled up, and that stinging feeling erupted between them. That was it. He was no longer with us. I really felt as if something had just been taken out of me. Apart from being a very important influence on my playing and writing music, he had also become somewhat of a friend on Twitter, and now he would no longer be there. I seriously regretted never having ever sent that fan letter in which I wanted to tell him how much he'd inspired me over the years, but what I've written here is pretty much the crux of what I would have sent to him.