RICK WAKEMAN on David Bowie, His Crazy Rock Hall Speech, and Not Wasting Any Time

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“We do try to come up with a few silly ones,” legendary Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman tells me, after I dutifully recite the alias his publicist gave me to his hotel’s operator. (My lips are sealed, but it was a doozy)! “I’m quite happy to go under my own name," he explains, "but some of the hotels get a bit annoyed because of all of the fans.”

After nearly a half-century of acclaim as a storied session musician, solo artist and member of Yes, Wakeman talked to Keyboard about his enduring musical legacy.

This was a momentous year for you, with Yes getting inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Can you talk about what that kind of validation means to you?

Actually, it means a lot. I’ve always looked upon anything that goes into the Rock & Roll Hall as not so much about the musicians, but about the music. Because at the end of the day after we’ve all long departed this world, it will hopefully be the music that will be remembered. It’s tinged with sadness for me, because it’s taken 50 years for Yes’ music to get in and sadly, one of the founding members, Chris [Squire] was not there to get the accolades he really deserved. It’s not just Yes - it’s happened with a few bands like Deep Purple and [keyboardist] Jon Lord. That was tragic for me. Having said that, we got a good plug in for Chris and I know he’d be up there looking down and he’d be extremely proud.

We also learned a lot about prostate exams in your acceptance speech, which I think is something the entire world was wondering about!

[Laughs.] To be honest with you, it’s not known over here, but I do a lot of comedy in England. I have a comedy show on the TV. There were 17,000 some-odd people at the ceremony, and I loved Joan Baez’s speech, so there’s no disrespect. But all of the audience there know the entire history of all of the bands. It’s a bit like the Oscars or the Emmys - how many times can somebody thank their mum, their dad, their brothers and sisters, their milkman’s daughter, the man who lives down the road who carried his guitar once, and all that kind of stuff? There’s only so much until you go, “Oh God, really?” And you look around and nobody’s listening because they all know everything! It was actually Trevor [Rabin] and Jon [Anderson] who know what I do in England, and they were like, “Oh, go for it. Go on. Liven it up. Go for it.” I wasn’t going to and I didn’t have anything planned. I went, “Are you sure?” And they went, “Yeah, go on.” And as we were walking up they were like, “Go on, go on, go on.” It’s a bit of fun, you know?

Has anything changed in your keyboard rig since David Bryce interviewed you last year?

We changed a few things around. I think I had the [Roland] JD-800 up there the last time and that’s finally given up the ghost, sadly. The dreaded “red glue” finally struck, which it does. I’ve got it in back of the studio. I still use them, but you can’t take them on the road anymore. There will be a few new things going in next year, including the new Polyfusion modular. I saw all their guys the other day and it’s very interesting, what they’re doing.

You’ve recently been back on tour with Yes featuring Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin. It’s incredible to see not only the reaction of your fans, but the spirit with which you all play together. It’s like a master class on keeping things fresh on songs you played for decades. What would you tell a young musician about how to inject that kind of surprise into their performances, even on familiar material?

Well, there is nothing wrong with revisiting music, because as instruments and technology improve, it means you can do things with pieces of music that perhaps you couldn’t do at the time of recording or of the music’s inception. Providing that you keep the whole spirit of whatever the piece is, and providing you put in the main element if there are main themes, they’ve got to stay there. But the rest you can play with. And that’s what we’re doing, and we’re having a great deal of fun. When you consider, if you listen to “Awaken” now, it is completely different from the original but it’s still the same. It has all the elements that were there, but Trev’s done some amazing stuff on it which means I’ve completely changed the church organ solo things at the end. So it’s still the same piece, if you know what I mean. It’s the same in the introduction of “Roundabout,” which is completely different. A lot of the pieces that I wasn’t on originally, like “Rhythm of Love” are actually very different from the original, but it’s still the same song. And we’re constantly at sound check asking, “How about we try that? Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s no different than having a great standard song that somebody wrote being covered by 10 different people. They all look at it a different way, but it’s still the same song. I think the secret is to keep it fresh by always asking, “Can I change that little sound? Will it affect the piece?” You can have a lot of fun.

The other thing that I would say is a lesson that I learned from a young 16-year-old kid in Argentina back in 2001. A young boy was outside our hotel in Buenos Aires and he had a copy of my The Six Wives of Henry VIII album on vinyl. He spoke very good English and said, “Would you sign this please, Mr. Wakeman?” I said, “Yeah. What do you like about this old music?” And he got really annoyed and replied, “It might be old music to you, but it’s new to me. I only heard it for the first time last week. So please try and remember that at every concert you play, there will be people in the audience hearing the music for the first time. That means it’s new.” And he walked away. I was shell-shocked. It was a big lesson for me. So what I would say to any young musician is remember when you’re playing live that there are people out there that are hearing it for the first time.

Going back and listening to some of your work with artists like David Bowie and Cat Stevens, I was taken by the relationship you seem to have with the piano. There’s a visceral connection that comes through in the music. Do you feel that the piano can do something to you that even your favorite synths can’t?

Yeah, I have to be honest. You’re absolutely right. I mean, I just adore the piano. And they’re all different too. They’ve all got characters of their own. I have four pianos at home and they’re all different. Whatever sort of mood I’m in, there will be a different piano that I’ll pick. I could sit down and I could just go off into another plane. It’s strange. I do have a serious love of the piano. In fact, there’s a big program on the radio in England called “Desert Island Discs,” where you go to a desert island and you choose the music, and you can take one luxury. And I took the piano. I didn’t even have to think about it.

Speaking of David Bowie, one of our readers wrote in and asked, “When you played on ‘Life on Mars,’ were you given any instructions or did Bowie say to you, ‘Just play what you hear’?”

When I went ‘round his house when he first played me the pieces before we went into the studio, he played me “Life on Mars” and he said to me, “I want this album to be much more piano-based.” Before that, everything had been sort of acoustic guitar-based, because he came from the folk world. He was David Jones, the folk singer, really. He wanted to go to another level and he wanted this particular album to come much more from the piano. He played me “Life on Mars” and I just went, “That’s just fantastic. That’s one of the best songs I’ve ever heard in my life.” He said, “Think of it as a piano piece. Play it as a piano piece. I’ll sing around it. If there’s anything you do that is going to interfere with anything else, I’ll tell you.” So, I actually really had quite an easy task because I played it as a piano piece when we recorded it. And Mick Ronson, Woody [Woodmansey] and Trev [Bolder] literally had to work around what I played because that’s how David foresaw the piece.

One of our readers asked about your many Minimoogs. You have quite a collection!

I’ve got nine of them, and I love them all to bits. The reason I’ve got nine is that three are in the studio, three we take out on the road, and there are always three with the wonderful guy we call “The Vicar,” a chap called Tim Warhead, who is the finest Minimoog sort of maintenance man that I’ve ever come across. He lives in England, and for him the world stopped in 1974. So, if you take him any instrument to repair after 1974 he sort of turns his nose up. But he’s brilliant. So, there are always three in repair, or being serviced, three in the studio, and three on the road. And they do a rotation.

Another reader writes, “How many capes does he have?” Do you actually know?

I think I’ve got a rough idea. I’ve got four of the real, classic originals. I’ve got another one from the late ‘70s, a couple from the ‘80s. I’ve got four that were made in the last 15 years. So, I’ve got enough to give Batman a run for his money!

Back in 2007 one of our readers asked you, “You and Keith Emerson have influenced more than one generation of keyboard players in the way rock music thinks about keyboards. With that in mind, what still drives you to create? What still excites you?” You answered, “I was once asked what inscription I wanted on my gravestone and I answered, ‘That’s not fair, I haven’t finished yet.’ That really says it all. I have so many musical things I want to do. I know time is running out. Music is so exciting. Every day it’s a joy just to know that there’s more music to be made - new thoughts and new melodies.” Do you still feel the same way?

I’m so blessed to be able to do what I do. Both Keith [Emerson] and Jon Lord were really close friends. I mean, I played at Keith’s memorial just a few months ago. Keith and I spoke a lot. We were really close, especially in the last sort of 10 years or so. And of course, Keith had so much of what he wanted to do but as you know he was struggling with illness with his hands and it was very frustrating for him. Jon Lord I know had tons and tons of stuff to do before he was tragically cut short. I remember talking to Jon literally a week before he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and he said, “I’ve got so much to finish. I’ve got so much to do.” He said, “Have you got a lot of stuff left over to do?” And I said, “Oh I’ve got tons.” He said, “Get on with it!” I did the eulogy at his funeral, which was really tough for me. And as I was driving home I just kept hearing those words ringing in my head: “Don’t waste any time. If it’s in there, get it out.” So, to a lot of extent, I’ve got my two great peers, Jon and Keith, to thank an awful lot for the enthusiasm to want to keep going.