Whether it’s solo or with the band, he’s been on the road for the majority of the last few years (we don’t count 2020). In 2016, he reunited with Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin to form Yes supergroup Anderson, Rabin, & Wakeman. That group is no more, and since then, he’s used his grumpy old rock star status to travel the world with a grand piano, microphone, and his fucked-up humor. As a matter of fact, the 72-year-old keyboard legend is bringing his “Even Grumpier Old Rock Star” tour to Clearwater’s Bilheimer Capitol Theatre on Tuesday, March 8.
Along with Benmont Tench, Rod Argent, and Gregg Rolie, the 72-year-old keyboard legend is among one of the last standing great classic rock keyboardists in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even keyboardists in general are falling. Dr. John died the summer before COVID-19 hit, and I’ll bet that all the youngsters who watched The Beatles: Get Back on Disney+ this winter were bummed to later learn that Billy Preston isn’t around anymore. “I always say when we lose somebody, what wonderful music and heritage he's left behind, which will never go. That’ll be around long after even I’ve gone,” Wakeman told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay over the phone.
We should be so lucky to have the Yes keyboardist still on this earth at all. He had three heart attacks before he turned 25, is diabetic, and was once in a coma due to double pneumonia. And here he is, still touring strong.
Read our full interview with Rick Wakeman of Yes below, and go see him in downtown Clearwater next week. If you go, make sure to bring an extra pair of pants in case you laugh too hard.
Hey Rick, how are you doing?
Alright, my friend. How are you?
Great. Thanks so much for doing this with me.
Oh no, you’re welcome, sir.
So, the story goes that Bowie and Chris Squire contacted you on the same day to join their bands, and of course, you chose Yes. Do you ever think about what life would have been like if you joined the Spiders From Mars instead?
Yeah, I would have been out of work after three years, because David changed his band all the time. In fact, David said to me that I made the right choice. He said “you had to go with Yes.” I mean, David Bowie was much bigger at the time than Yes was, but I thought about it logically. Musically, I love David. David was the most influential person I ever worked with. I love his music. I loved playing on his music, and working with him. But he was The Spiders From Mars. I would have freedom to play, but I would always be playing everything that David wanted. There would be a ceiling of how far I could go. Whereas with Yes, I felt “this is a band where I can have input that doesn't have a ceiling, and go further with it.”
Would I like to have maybe done one show with him just to see what it was like? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, you have to make decisions sometimes, but hey, listen, what a wonderful choice to have to make.
It’s no secret that you hate being out of work. How did you survive the pandemic?
With great difficulty! I mean, normally, half my year is taken up doing concerts. That went, of course. I managed to get one album done called The Red Planet, which I really loved doing. I’m in the middle of doing another one, which will take probably another six, seven months off and on to finish off, which I'm pleased with. I think I squeezed in 30 shows over a two-year period, which is not good for me. And I always kept on playing the piano. People said, “Oh, you should do some Zoom concerts.” Why? I'll wait.
I'll wait until I can walk out and see people. I'm somebody who feeds off of audiences and people, and it's very hard to do if you're doing a Zoom concert. And in fact, the majority of people I know who did Zoom concerts weren't really successful. So, it was difficult for me, and you're right: I hate not working. And it was just an awful time. So you concentrate on other things. I've got some some charities that I'm heavily involved with, which you can work from home with. But overall, ugh!
Let's talk about your rig a little bit. If I'm not mistaken, you'll be playing a Steinway and Sons grand piano for your solo shows. This must be quite a break from the really elaborate ones that you had when you were playing with Yes.
Yeah, they're completely different, you're quite right. The piano has always been my favorite instrument, and it's lovely to sit down and play. And it's where most of the music evolved from, the piano. So I'm able to go back to when I first wrote or was involved with writing music, playing accordingly, which is great! And it's a way of paring back the music so that people can actually, if they want to know how it was really all put together and how it is. There's your giveaway: It's all on the piano.
It's also that there's an element of no hiding place. When you're on the piano, you haven't got any other musicians or instruments around you where suddenly the focus can be taken off of you and you're doing on the piano. So, it's in many ways, much harder to do than when you've got a band and a plethora of keyboards. It's a completely different mindset of the way of playing as well. But both are equally as enjoyable as each other.
Speaking of keyboards and pianos, we just passed the one-year anniversary of the passing of the great Chick Corea. Did your paths ever cross?
Yeah, we did! We went on a load of occasions, and certainly in early Yes days, where there were a lot of festivals. More often than not, Chick was either with his band, or whatever band he was with at the time, and we did cross paths on I would say half a dozen occasions, mainly in the ‘70s. A great player, and a great guy, and it was a sad loss. But as I always say when we lose somebody, what wonderful music and heritage he's left behind, which will never go. That’ll be around long after even I’ve gone. That’s what I like: It's important that people like him and like Keith Emerson, Jon Lord, what they've left behind will stand as a great heritage to other players coming up and what they want to do, and also to composers of music and styles. So, Chick was a tremendous loss when he died, but look what he left.
Yeah, it did. It was really funny. It wasn’t common to do instrumental albums at the time, so they kind of mentioned “Where are the vocals?” I said, “there aren’t any, it’s a keyboard album.” “What?” And it was just an area of the press that didn't understand it. And I found it really quite hard to explain. Basically, what that album was for me was, if you take a surrealistic artist, you can go to a gallery, and you see a painting on the wall that maybe just has a blue dot, and it will be called “The Beach At Sunset.” And it's a blur. Now, what I've learned from reading over the years—because I quite love my art—is that yeah, OK, it's a blue dot. But that's what the artist was thinking about when he painted that blue dot. That's what he had on his mind, and that’s what came up. And it was the same thing with The Six Wives.
I read prolifically about all of the wives and I only ever wrote the music are bits of the music when I was thinking about one of the wives and I made notes of all that music, and then put it all together. So for me, it's like surrealistic paintings of how I felt about the wives. But the press didn't get that, and I understand that. That's fair enough. The record company actually told me to my face, “We'll be lucky to sell 12,000 copies of some 12 million vinyl alone” or something like that, but that's fair enough. Luckily, A&M Records were brilliant, because even though the boss of A&M said “I don't get this at all,” there were a couple of people there that said “we do, and we think it's worth working on.”
I know we're running a little short on time, so I’ve only got one more question for you, and it relates to the current lineup of Yes. What are your thoughts on them releasing The Quest back in October?
I've not heard it, I’ve got to be brutally honest with you. I mean, Steve [Howe] is a great friend, and Alan [White]. They’re the only two I know. Steve, along with Chris [Squire] at the time, and Alan, they kept that the name and things going, and the different members have come and gone, which is fine. Whatever they want to do doesn't worry me in the least. I do what I want to do, and I did things with Jon [Anderson] and Trevor [Rabin], which we thoroughly enjoyed. And I have a lot of respect for Steve and what he does. I think the tragedy was losing Chris. Chris was such a mainstay of the band. He was the only person who was there throughout. I said at the time, and I still think I’m probably right: The time for the Yes name to be rested was after Chris died, because Chris is irreplaceable in so many ways.
It's not just the way he played, how he played, how he wrote. It was his whole presence as part of Yes that you cannot replace. Because you're talking…crikey, you're talking almost 50 years of time, which nobody else can bring in, because they weren't there. But I must be honest, I’ve not heard The Quest. But you know, I've read things about animosity and all that kind of thing going around. I know for a fact that my management and the Yes management are great friends and meet up a lot, and talk about what possibilities can happen or what can't happen. and so if it goes along with the bad Yes, of course I know Steve and I have a lot of respect for that though. But I have a lot of respect for Steve. I don't know the other guys. But I don't know them well enough to make any specific comments.
The time for the Yes name to be rested was after Chris died, because Chris is irreplaceable in so many ways.
That’s fair. Well again, thank you so much for doing this with me. I hope to see you in Clearwater, and have fun on your tour.
Thank you so much, Josh. I look forward to seeing you, mate. Cheers!