Since the stifling summer is winding down into the cooler bliss of autumn here in charming Wisconsin, I have decided to go back to the cool well of concerts from my never-ending immaturity and my ever-fading youth. After all, given the COVID circumstances out in the world, even the city of Milwaukee decided to conduct their Summerfest concerts in September. This is despite them knowing that while September is many things, not one of them has to do with summer festing. Also, here’s a fun fact about crowds in September: they aren’t all that different than crowds in June.
In fact, since this past June/July was hotter than Hell, Michigan, more Wisconsin residents would probably have crowded around their home A/C units instead of going down to a boiling Summerfest in June/July anyway. But since it is now September, the Wisconsin weather has been wonderful and lovely, which means more incentive to go out…and form even larger crowds… Ahem.
But no matter what, the allure of Summerfest beckons because apparently some just love being surrounded by the teeming hordes of drunken never-grownups who are vainly trying to relive their 1989 heyday by sweating out the cases of beer they imbibed all day in weather that makes Saigon look like Stockholm in comparison, before everyone finally stumbles over to see Guns N’ Roses predictably flail and wheeze through their set, while a stellar inebriate from Waukesha, who took the time to skip out of his court-mandated Huber law night job at the rendering plant in order to cry during “November Rain”, starts urinating on the back of your leg as everyone staggers amongst the gaggle of the general admission lawn seats which are covered with empty $18 beer cups, hundreds of cigarette butts, wrappers from $26.50 pretzels, and heaping mounds of used surgical masks.
Gosh, it sounds lengthily enticing, don’t it?
So, just like so many other efforts over this past year, this Summerfest schedule shift also is/was/has been completely pointless. But that’s typical. This is just another moment from the meandering winding road that continues for the sake of itself, only stopping to pat itself on the back in smug reflection of its own self-declared cleverness. And speaking of meandering, this brings me to progressive rock!
When I went to college, I knew it was time to experiment. However, since it wasn’t a good college, I didn’t have much to work with there. That’s what I get for attending a ministerial college out in the unexplored tundra in the outer rim territories of Minnesota. As a for instance, I was one of two guys on campus with long hair when I arrived. While this would have been radical in 1966, I was a freshman in…1996. Yes, having stringy locks at that school automatically made me a rebel against the man, I guess.
That’s how staid the campus life was at that time. Voluntarily listening to AC/DC was considered on par with burning a live puppy. (Given the amount of times that I spun Highway to Hell, let’s just say I metaphorically torched through all 101 dalmatians by the time I graduated.)
Yet I found one area where I could broaden my horizons: music. Yes, I was a grunger through and through, with several Fleet Farms’ worth of flannel shirts to prove it, but that genre was certainly in the throes of death by 1997. By sophomore year, I befriended a student whom I will call Mark, because that is his name. Mark turned out to be my prog rock pusher. And push it hard, he did!
When Mark initially inquired about how much I knew about progressive rock at that time, I can recall myself replying: “Of course I’ve heard of Genesis! I love “Sussudio”! Wait, that’s just Phil alone? Oh. What’s the difference? And I know Yes too. They were that one-hit wonder with “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, right? But King…what now? Crimson? Hm. Nope, I’ve never heard of King Crimson. Which band did he play in?”
Even with my progressive ignorance and his frustration mounting, Mark pressed on, like some sort of prog sensei. During the millions of rides that I bummed from him going back and forth between Wisconsin and Minnesota, Mark’s control of the car stereo was absolute. He took the opportunity to introduce me to a myriad of mostly progressive music. Given the current state of my CD collection, some of this music stayed with me to the present day, much to my wife’s irritation.
And now finally, here’s the concert part after hundreds of paragraphs of backstory and admittedly colorful wordplay! Mark and I had the opportunity to see some of these progsters live in concert. So, with that being more than enough said, let’s progress and show some progress with my first progressive entry! Progress!
King Crimson (Saw 2 times live)
So, you think you know all about progressive music because you own Yes: The Greatest Hits and Peter Gabriel’s So? Well, if this is the case, allow me to tell you that YOU KNOW NOTHING!!! King Crimson has no titanic hits and just doesn’t give a damn. Buckle up for some raw progressive rock, you idiot lovers of songs in 4/4 time!
King Crimson is almost deliberately unapproachable. They are certainly not radio friendly. In fact, I don’t know if any record labels were ever deranged enough to think that they could get KC’s stuff on the airwaves. There are some moments where Crimson sounds like someone recorded their sound checks and instrument warm-up exercises and then plunked out an album. Each album’s sound is different, each song stretches the form meticulously. In this regard, KC’s output at times is reminiscent of a Zappa album, just without the dick jokes to break things up.
Nevertheless, there are hardcore lifelong fans that embrace King Crimson’s constant bucking of the mainstream. They feel they truly get Crimson’s music. And maybe they do, so God bless ‘em! I will say that the ladies certainly don’t. At both of the shows where I saw KC, the only women within 2 square miles of the venues were either inside selling beer or were across the street, blissfully unaware that they didn’t have husbands/boyfriends/sugar daddies by their sides who would beg them to reluctantly attend a King Crimson concert.
The First King Crimson Extravaganza (November 2000)
Being a curious fellow, I immediately said yes when Mark brought up seeing King Crimson at the Modjeska Theatre in Milwaukee. At the very least, the show didn’t promise to be boring, so I was game. Mark’s younger brother, who was a prog lover in training, would be joining us. I think he wanted to follow in big brother’s footsteps, so my encouraging him to listen to more ZZ Top and Van Halen probably didn’t go over well with Mark.
Crimson’s founder and lead guitarist, Robert Fripp, is a quirky sort. I was informed that Fripp once had a policy of no flash photography from the audience during shows. If a flash did dare to go off, he’d stop the show and walk off for the night. (There was perverse part of me that wanted to see this happen, to witness such a colossal prick move. Imagine if he had a problem with applause or people whistling! Think of the utter bedlam!) Fripp also once broke up the band in the mid-1970s because he was certain the world was going to end. When it didn’t, he shrugged and simply reformed King Crimson in 1981.
But I admire KC’s sheer cojones at times. What other band had once decided to take two guitarists, two bassists, and two drummers and whack away at some ponderous tunes while mixing asymmetric rhythms, jazz improv, and metal? And there is quite a lengthy list of the revolving door of Crimson band members. In fact, one-time Crimson drummer Bill Bruford left Yes to join King Crimson because Yes wasn’t progressive enough for his tastes. (And this was before Yes next recorded a double LP that had only one song per record side. Sheesh.)
The show itself was fine. I think. There’s no question that there were fine musicians in that band; it was a very skilled performance throughout. Beyond that, the show must have been successful. This is based on my witnessing the violently single and quite male 50-year-old fans attempting to move their heads along with a beat that changed at least 5 times during a song. Imagine the prevalent neck injuries that occurred with those that followed the entire King Crimson tour.
As we drove home through downtown Milwaukee after the show, we noticed a rented passenger van motoring alongside us on the freeway. Incredibly, it contained the actual King Crimson group within, so we started waving at them. Surprisingly, they acknowledged us and waved back rather politely and warmly, so there’s that. Mark did have an idea where his brother should moon Crimson’s van as we drove by them. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, this didn’t happen. Well, let’s just say that the attempt was unsuccessful.
The Second King Crimson Extravaganza (November 2001)
Given the failure of the mooning opportunity, Mark and I saw that there was a chance for a possible reattempt since King Crimson was going to be at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, WI for a show. So, we went, dragging along two other friends and my brother. To be fair, they really didn’t know anything about King Crimson, but as John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin was the show’s opener, that was incentive enough for them.
Jones put on a great show! I witnessed a Jimmy Page and Robert Plant concert a couple years earlier; Jones easily blew them away. With plenty of Zep songs, a few of his own, and all of them played well, Jones held his own and put out a great performance. My friends and brother were elated that it went so well. A good-natured vibe was felt throughout the theater.
But then it came time for Crimson. And if you weren’t prepared for it, as our friends and my brother weren’t, then I don’t know what to say.
I knew that a then 30+ year-old progressive rock band with an unknown song catalog and a penchant for interminable improvisation was going to be a hard sell even on a good day with our group. The switch from the approachable, familiar rocking of J.P. Jones to the…well, whatever Crimson was doing was quite jarring, especially if you didn’t know what you were in for. I perceived a slight tinge of mounting resentment in the air, mainly due to our friends distinctly saying they thought this sucked. Mark was obviously in the prog zone, even if three others weren’t, and with clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, there I was: stuck in the middle.
After the show, or near the end of the show, or near to however long I bargained with the others to stay for the sake of Mark, we all went to Taco Bell for a post-concert meal. The meal passed without conversation, beyond my mentioning how lovely and delicious my Santa Fe Gordita was! I remember uttering aloud that it would be a crying shame if this fast-food chain ever eliminated this mouthwatering flavor sensation from their menu. (Yes, even after all this time, I didn’t forget about that! And where’d the caramel apple empanada get to, you Taco Bellstards?! ANSWER ME!!!)
As the pseudo-Mexican food mushed around in our mouths, I felt a bit bad for Mark, since this show elicited blatant irritation from the other three. They clearly dug JPJ, which really wasn’t Mark’s cup of tea, and they didn’t exactly relish KC, which exactly was not only Mark’s tea but also his teapot and biscuits.
I must admit I enjoyed Jones as well, being a Zep fan looooooong before I even caught a whiff of King Crimson. Led Zeppelin has always been a safe beginner’s guide to rock music, especially in comparison to the more challenging KC. As definitive measuring sticks go, I certainly saw more Led Zeppelin II CDs in high school than copies of Larks’ Tongues in Aspic. (Ah, from the look on your face, I can see you’re confused! Larks’ Tongues in Aspic is a King Crimson album. I know you didn’t know that. Don’t fret, I understand.)
I don’t know why the three others were that put out; the ticket prices weren’t astronomical, being the year 2001 and all. And they all were able to experience something new and different with this concert. I even drove them to the show in my luxurious Chevy Cavalier, so those complainers can have another soft-shell taco topped with shut the hell up! At least Mark did get to see this band twice in a year’s time, so that was something. Above all else, he got to experience the best Taco Bell that the east side of Madison had to offer at the time. Clearly, the night was a partial win!
At the end of the day, let’s just say that I hadn’t really embraced King Crimson either during those car rides with Mark back and forth between Wisconsin from Minnesota. Not that Mark’s other song choices were in vain with me as I wholeheartedly embraced the Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, the 1970s Yes output, and the 1980s Rush albums. But Crimson? To this day, King Crimson is a band that I sometimes think I should like more than I really do, and I’m stubbornly trying to half-heartedly convince myself.
And if that last sentence makes sense to you, try some King Crimson. You’re ready. Just start with their 1974 Red album. Seriously, it is quite palatable. No, really. Maybe not as palatable as the Bell Beefer at Taco Bell, but still it is…wait, what? That’s gone too?! What in the hell, Taco Bell?!?
Well, with beloved menu items that were dashed years ago on our minds, it is here that I must leave you. Like progressive rock, I too can meander, pretentiously overwrite, and abruptly end in an atonal fashion! Besides, I had other concert excursions into the world of progressive rock, but like an overpriced, limited edition, soundboard-recorded, 8-disc boxset from a snooty specialty label, those will be for another day!