Just mentioning his name exudes the stuff of legend, often eliciting a subtle gasp of awe at the stunning spectrum of his almost 60 year musical career, and the massive heights to which he has taken his virtuostic talent. Just merely playing any one of a number of Yes albums, or one of his solo records, reminds you of how deeply he has influenced so many, for so long.
But in other ways, yes, Rick Wakeman is just a regular guy, a kind, very funny and very appreciative 70-year old Englishman who treasures his family, his music, and just being alive and well, all as he enters his seventh decade on earth.
“To get up everyday and still be able to see, hear, and make music, that’s wonderful,” said Wakeman, who is in the midst of his Grumpy Old Rock Star Tour that stops at the Birchmere on September 25th. “I’ve got a wonderful family, a lovely wife, I’ve got 11 grandchildren and one on the way, and I’ve got six kids I just love. Plus I’ve got my own band, I’ve obviously got the shows with Jon (Anderson) and Trevor (Rabin), I’ve got my books that I write. I’ve got a load of TV too, so much TV in the UK. I’ve got my comedy shows that I do. Every day there is something to do. I could never ever get bored. I’m so lucky.”
No, the thought of Rick Wakeman getting bored simply doesn’t compute, not with all that he has done on a regular basis in his whirlwind of a life over the years. But Wakeman’s busy everyday existence is tempered by the utter simplicity of his craft, and is accentuated by his love of just putting his fingers on the keys and creating music. That’s clearly what brings Rick Wakeman the most joy.
“I love playing,” the sweet and affable Wakeman told me. “That’s the most important thing. A concert that I did earlier this year in England, a lady came up to me and said, ‘I want to ask you a question, and I want an answer straight away, I don’t want you to think about it.’ I said, “Okay, go on then.’ And she said, ‘If you weren’t here tonight on stage playing the piano, what would you be doing?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’d be at home playing the piano.’ She said, ‘That’s what I hoped you’d say, because it almost felt like we were in your house.’ I said, ‘That’s great, really. Thank you.’ ”
That’s what keeps Wakeman most content these days, and largely, always has. The friends he’s made, the places he’s visited, and always, it comes down to the music.
“I love going and visiting towns. I’ve made so many friends over the years. I’ve been coming to America now, it’s got to be nearly 50 years. I was 17 when I first came, so it’s always nice to see old friends when they come along. But I love visiting towns, I love people, and I just love playing.”
Given his rather grand and majestic presence onstage over the years, you know, adorned in his shiny golden cape and sitting amidst a mammoth sea of sparkling keys, one may not expect the wry, sardonic and downright funny nature of Wakeman’s onstage persona. That’s no surprise to people in his native UK who’ve seen the comedic side of Wakeman for years, and having experienced it myself, you sometimes feel as if you’re in a comedy club, yet with a bonafide musical legend cracking the jokes.
“I’m as much known for standup in the UK as I am for music,” Wakeman said. “I hosted my own comedy show, eight years I did that, still do. And it’s always been a nice thing cause I take my music very seriously, so it’s a nice contrast to have some laughter. And I’ve got a plethora of stories, some of which I tell through the two books I wrote, of just ridiculous things that have happened to me in my life. So you can tell the stories onstage, they’re great fun and it gives an insight into my life, and an insight into how some of the music came about. Again, I take the music very seriously. I don’t take myself seriously.”
Heeding some early advice from his Dad, Wakeman has been able to achieve that rare balance of having both his stage persona and his personal one. And he cites one of his most famous friends and collaborators as a shining example of succeeding at that elusive onstage/offstage equilibrium.
“My father said to me way back in the 70’s, ‘Always remember there’s two of you, there’s the Rick that walks on stage and then there’s the one that comes off.’ Well, David Bowie was the genius of that, he actually created other characters onstage like Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust, and then came off stage and he was David with his mates. I knew him really well, I played on some of his records [one was playing mellotron on “Space Oddity”] and off stage he was a completely different person. So yes, I find life very funny, and it’s great to be able to share the stupidity and the silliness, but also the life stories as well.”
Wakeman has also taken that comedic atmosphere and had some truly ball-busting fun with one of his longtime bandmates when they toured solo together, a joy to witness live, seeing old friends, and legendary musicians. having fun while creating miraculous music.
“When I did the tour with Jon, that was really funny ’cause he said, ‘What should we talk about between songs?’ and I said, ‘Tell you what Jon, you just start talking and I’ll interrupt you.’ So I just took the piss mercilessly out of him from start to finish. One of the things I always tried to do was make him laugh just before he had to sing, ’cause he’s got a good sense of humor. If I could get him laughing, then I knew it would be impossible for him to stop. We did have some great fun.”
Aside from those potentially surprising comedic tinges to Wakeman’s illustrious career, there is, of course, the music. Wakeman may have some funny life stories to convey, but he also has tales of some unforgettable musical adventures during his Yes and solo days, including the infamous Wakeman On Ice show; a spectacle in true Wakeman style that crystallizes his majesty and his scope, it’s a story worth hearing again and again.
“Suicidal, really, it was. It was the The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1975) album, I wanted to perform it at Wembley at the ice arena and was told I couldn’t because the ice would be frozen over at that time. That really annoyed me cause I wanted to do it there a lot, so I drove up to the head offices of Melody Maker newspaper where I knew them all, took the assistant editor to a pub and he says, ‘So what are you up to?’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you but this is completely off the record,’ yet I knew whatever I told him, it was going to get printed. So I said, ‘I’m doing it on ice.’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I’m doing it on ice, I’m building a big cast in the middle of the ice, I’m getting all the championship ice skaters from Eastern Europe and around the world to play the parts, and I’m going to have a big orchestra in the middle. I’m going to build a castle, the whole thing is going to be on ice. But for heaven’s sake, keep that to yourself.’ Two days later Melody Maker came out with the headline, ‘Arthur On Ice! ‘ My agent went nuts but there was no choice, they had to go ahead with it and it was fantastic, it was unbelievable, it was just tremendous. We did three nights and I would love to do it again. Ironically, America would be the place to do it cause you’ve got so many great ice stadiums, it would be perfect to do, but the trouble is it’s not cheap to do. So I can’t see anybody coming up with the money to say, ‘Yeah, we’ll put it up for you.’ “
When you talk to Wakeman, or Anderson for that matter, the topic of Yes inevitably comes up, and like his lead singer, Wakeman is very open and candid about the various chapters of his monumental career with his core band, including a difficult one: his strong opinions about one of Yes’ greatest achievements, Tales From Topographic Oceans. Well, “greatest” from most Yes fans’ and other Yes members’ perspectives, but not necessarily the keyboardist. It was a tumultuous time, one that even caused Wakeman to leave Yes temporarily.
Hmm, the Tales, yes,” Wakeman said with a sigh. “It was a period of time in the band where things were black and white, there were no gray areas, you either loved something or you hated it. The thing was, and Jon and I discussed it, we said if CDs had been available back then there would’ve been no problem, because the issue was I think one song was about eight minutes long, one was 15 and one was 18 and one was like 12, so you can’t put an eight minute piece on one side. So we had the choice of either shortening some of the others and getting it all onto one album, or make more music to make it a double album. The thing was, we were very unprepared for that, so the additional music was very much padding. It was just sort of filling in music, like, ‘Oh yeah, sure, we’ll use that. That’ll work.’ To me, that wasn’t how Yes worked. I went on record and said I dislike the album intensely. The truth of the matter is that there are a lot of great themes on that album, but also I can hear all the padding that was just thrown in to make the time up. And that to me was wrong. And in fact Chris (Squire) and I discussed it in 2002 and Chris said he would love to get ahold of the tapes and actually edit it and remix it out as a single album.”
“But that was the situation and it did upset me,” Wakeman continued. “We always planned very carefully, so this was a departure that for me didn’t work. If for example, some of the padding that we’d done turned out to be great playing and great things, I’d have gone, ‘Yeah, okay, I’ll buy that.’ But it wasn’t, so for me it’s a bit like, I don’t know, wading through the marshes before you get to the beach.”
So began a turbulent time for Wakeman after left Yes, he recorded his solo epics Journey To The Centre Of The Earth as well King Arthur, endured some financial hardship, refused to rejoin the band for the Relayer album, and then a couple years later, received a call from Anderson, urging him to return to join Yes.
“It was interesting, by the time Going For The One was starting to be recorded, Jon played me two songs, the title track and ‘Wondrous Stories,’ and I thought, yes, this was the music that should have followed Close To The Edge and Fragile. So Jon asked would I come back and join the band, and I said well, what about Patrick (Moraz) and Jon said, ‘He’s leaving’ so I said, ‘Well OK, I’ll come back’ and along with some convincing from Chris, I did.”
Since then, Yes has gone through numerous incarnations over the years, with Wakeman rejoining the band several times while also continuously re-embarking on his solo career. It all crescendo’d with Yes’ agonizingly long awaited induction into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2017. And Wakeman’s hilariously unforgettable, offbeat, Wakeman-esque speech remains a high and hilarious point of the one of the most celebrated events in Yes’ storied history.
“Well, I had nothing really planned,” Wakeman said with a laugh.”I mean, everyone there knows our whole history, so I’m not going to do another speech where ‘I thank my Uncle Bert’ or something. And Trev and Jon kept pushing me to speak, and I said, ‘They’re not gonna get it here, only in the UK would they get my humor’ and they said nonsense, so it ended up that I just went for it. So there it is.”
After all he has achieved and endured, amidst the many ups and downs of both his musical and personal life, Rick Wakeman has come through it overall as a truly happy, grateful and still very busy and involved seventy year old man. His upcoming treasures include his first Christmas album ever, of which he says in his own satirical way, “It’s lovely, I do lots of variations on familiar songs, and I’m hoping that people find it enjoyable to listen to, because it’ll be almost impossible to sing along with.”
But when it comes down to it, Wakeman has lived a fabled life many would relish and rejoice in, albeit one that some, well, may not have survived.
“It was once said to me by a good friend, ‘Ya know Rick, nothing normal ever happens to you.’ And it’s true. It doesn’t.”
Rick Wakeman, with special guests Kaula/Fath, performs Wednesday September 25th at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria VA 22305. For tickets please click here.
(Top feature photo courtesy Rick Wakeman)