My love of stories and writing began very early – my father reading me and my brother The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the Star Wars novelizations – but it was as a teenager that I began to write in earnest. And the inspiration for a lot of that writing came from the music of Yes, music I had grown up on, and the artwork on those album covers, painted by Roger Dean.
I was, and remain, an unabashed fan of progressive (“prog”) rock, a subgenre of music that is characterized by long, multi-part movements, incorporating elements of classical music and jazz, intricate musicality, narratives or themes, and mystical lyrics. It’s exactly the kind of music that one would imagine a futuristic space-faring utopian society creating. As a genre, prog rock reached its apex in the mid-70’s, a couple of years before I was born, and was driven by bands such as Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Rush, Renaissance. The genre faded to obscurity against the rise of disco and punk rock in the late 70’s and early 80’s, but die-hard fans continue to listen to those old albums, inspiring a generation of new nerds who grew up reading Terry Brooks and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Nerds like me.
When I was very young, I wasn’t allowed to play with my Dad’s record player, but I liked to open up the antique cabinet where he kept his records and flip through them, studying the album covers. Two in particular captured my attention – the aforementioned Relayer, and a solo album by Yes’s lead singer Jon Anderson called Olias of Sunhillow. Relayer’s cover seemed to paint a picture of another world, riders on white horses arriving in a fantastic city built into twisting walls of stone. In the foreground, a pair of enormous snakes slither between lichen-covered boulders, flicking tongues in warning.
As a teenager, I found this album and listened to it over and over again, studying the cover, trying to understand the story that it was trying to tell me. Who were these riders? Were they scouts, come to warn the denizens of this fantastic city of an oncoming army? Or were they emissaries, come to announce the arrival of distant visitors. Who were the people that live in this city with walls fluted like the pipes of a colossal organ? Elves, fairies, or something even more strange? And what of the snakes? Were they there to ward off intruders? Were they an omen of lurking danger? Or just the creatures that dwell among the rocks?
There were no answers forthcoming. The lyrics of the album offered me one broad interpretation. The first track, Gates of Delirium, is a sprawling 21-minute epic that tells the story of a peaceful people threatened with enslavement and standing up against their attackers, and the emotional cost of that savage war. The song suggested, in my mind, that the city depicted on the cover was about to come under attack from some terrible enemy bent on destroying or enslaving the people there. The riders were scouts come to warn them, to raise them to arms. Still, what was this place? Who were the attackers? Who were the riders? The interpretation offered by the album cover only raised more questions.
As a teenager, I spent hour imagining possible answers to these questions, scribbling down notes and fragments, histories and character sketches, trying to understand the bigger world in which this single moment fit, like trying to build a puzzle around a single piece. But every attempt to write the story quickly fell to pieces. I relied too heavily on cliché; I lacked the skill to write the story I wanted to write.
I would revisit this idea again in my mid-20’s. I devised a hero for my tale, a quiet wanderer, a sorcerer and sage, someone who wandered the world seeking out and collecting obscure bits of knowledge. A battle-hardened warrior who had survived bloody wars and faced down monsters that lurked in the forgotten corners of the world. I had lofty ideas for this story, which grew in scope every time I sat down to think about it. It would incorporate philosophical thought experiments, fantasy, rich characterization, deep, original world-building, basically all the things I loved. And yet every attempt I made to write this story still became mired in fantasy clichés. I had no structure to hang the story, I was writing exploratory fiction, trying to find the archplot. (Never mind that I didn’t even understand those terms yet.) I was trying to write a multi-novel epic and I could barely finish a draft of a short story. I just didn’t have the stamina to stick with a single idea. Every attempt I made, I could see, wasn’t living up to what I wanted the story to be.
Now I’m in my forties. That idea that still haunts me, still lurks at the back of my subconscious. Every few years I pull Relayer off the shelf and listen to it again, stare at that cover, wonder about that fantastical scene. For a few minutes, I lose myself in another world that I still don’t truly understand.
Artwork by Roger Dean.