Written by Erik Wermuth
Habit forms the backbone of our lives. Great or small, fry cook or Nobel laureate, humanity’s collective life is lived in the deep grooves we’ve formed for ourselves through years of repetition. Some use habit to free their minds from mundane details and focus on greater things. Some let themselves be controlled by habit; they become addicted to drugs or hostile takeovers or Netflix. Very, very rarely a person comes along who makes a habit out of doing the brilliantly unexpected. A man who can avoid the pitfalls of vicious self-destruction and accomplish this with integrity and grace is rarer still. Chris Squire, bassist for the London prog-rock band Yes who succumbed to leukemia on June 27 this year, was such a man.
His road was not always illuminated, however. Like all of the greats, Squire began simply as a curious child. At the age of 16, he was suspended from school for having hippie-length hair and given cash to cover a haircut. The pragmatic Squire took the money and never returned, finding work at a local guitar shop where the early beginnings of his technical prowess were to be found. This marks a crisis point in the bassist’s life. With the enveloping oversight of school removed, he suddenly found himself responsible for the formation of what was essentially a new life. In those early few years he turned to drugs—specifically he started taking acid on a regular basis.
Friday nights at the UFO club became a constant trip through the weekends and left enough time to recover for work on Monday morning. As a class of drug, psychedelics are legendary for their ability to take our minds out of their well-worn streambeds of consciousness and give new perspective (which is the reason acid has been used so effectively in therapies designed to break a person of alcoholism). However, steady use tends to unbalance the mind—after all, even the purest creativity requires some underlying structure to give it sense and beauty. Squire’s breaking point came one night in 1967 when he, sick with the flu, dropped acid a friend had homemade.
For 3 days afterwards Squire stayed in the hospital, completely divorced from himself not recognizing the well-wishers that appeared by the foot of his bed. After recovering enough to successfully lie to police about his source for the drugs, he spent the next year or so holed up in his girlfriend’s apartment, still too anxious to leave. His mind had returned, but something was still fundamentally wrong.
At this point in the story, Squire is not all that different from the thousands of others who have emerged into the world and found something there that broke a piece of their foundation. For some reason, they left the force of their old habits behind and what they saw frightened them back into a hollow recreation of their old selves. But Squire did something different. Day in and day out in week after week for month after month, he played his bass. With a recovering mind and seemingly endless time on his hands he tinkered and experimented, often finding and toying with his limitations on an instrument that wasn’t even plugged in. Throughout that lost year, Chris Squire rebuilt his shattered mind with music and when he emerged in 1968 he did so with an idiomatic style strong enough to sustain and develop through an almost four decade career. Combined with his amp-junkie genius for crafting the perfect sound, the 1968 reemergence constituted one of the closest things there can be to true rock godhood. The early Seventies perception of prog-rock as ‘drug music’ takes on an interesting irony here—the backbone of Yes’ sound did arrive on the scene through drug use, but it was the aftereffects and subsequent abstinence of a bad trip and not the transcendence of a high that produced it.
To this day (and hopefully for long after it), Squire is revered—particularly by his fellow bassists. Primus frontman and bass titan Les Claypool says Squire “always had and still has the best bass tone. His parts and the way he sat in the mix were always really incredible to me”. Claypool goes on to say that in spite of a youthful obsession, he still can’t play the entirety of the bassline on the Yes classic “Roundabout”. Squire’s instrumental skill and guitar-geek approach to his sound were a large part of what made Yes such a compelling brand of music. Their ability to retain entertainment value while taking advantage of every available complexity in equipment and arrangement is truly staggering. Of all Yes’ admittedly talented members, Squire, the only one to play on all of their albums to date, is most responsible for their sound and its attitude of pushing rock music to the furthest corners of the stage and the studio.
The world lost Chris Squire for a moment there in 1967, but the person that was left when he forgot himself pulled him back with its music. Almost 4 decades later his music is again most of what remains. But this time we’re unlikely to be getting him back, so do him and yourself a favor and go listen to Chris Squire and Yes. If you’re feeling generous find a copy with enough quality to really appreciate his legendary bass tones and Yes’ epic production: an old record, a CD, or a lossless download.