It’s no small feat to seamlessly assume the drum throne from one of the true greats of the classic progressive rock era. But with breathtaking courage and a touch of swagger, that’s just what Alan White did when the baton was passed from the suddenly departing Bill Bruford of Yes back in 1972. He was told the band had a gig in three days’ time, so he needed to learn an entire set of complex music he had never played or even heard much of. He duly obliged, the Close To The Edge tour began, and 50 years later we now mourn the passing of the longest continually serving member of Yes.
Yes music is thickly woven into a lifetime of memories for me, and despite the on stage presence and towering personalities of his more visible bandmates, Alan is often at the heart of them. As a teenager in my bedroom, with sore wrists and calves from pretending that I was the one drumming in songs like Does It Really Happen and On The Silent Wings Of Freedom. As a young man carefully pinpointing the precise moment I could hear his low, deep vocal make its entrance during the opening chant of my Tales From Topographic Oceans LP. As a grown man in Toronto’s Molson Amphitheatre at sunset, the evening breeze cooling the tears rolling down my face as I watched him bash the cymbals during the triumphant climax of Awaken. As a now middle-aged man, popping in the CD he made with David Torn and Tony Levin and marveling at just how impressive his chops were.
I always smiled at the friendly, affable nature exuding from him in the many interviews I watched with rapt attention over the years. He seemed like the down-to-earth member that you could just sit and chat with, without any pretense or massive rock star ego. And that’s saying something when you had already been John Lennon’s drummer before even setting foot in the Yes camp (could I have been so humble?). He loved music, he loved making music, and he loved playing music. And he was fearless in the face of daunting challenge. How many could stride into an established band, take the reins from a guy like the jazzy Bruford, and make those songs their own, pounding their way through the next 50 years of the band’s career without missing a beat (literally)? Think about that for a moment… that is immensely impressive.
I have nothing but pure admiration for this most likable and gentlemanly of rock musicians, and the career legacy he has left for us all. And I’m forever grateful for the countless times that the music he anchored so flawlessly has sweetened my own life, especially during its most pivotal moments. So thank you, Chris Squire, for threatening to throw Alan out of the window if he didn’t join the band those many years ago – our lives have been enriched ever since. I hope you two have found each other again.
Master of time setting sail over all of our lands, shall we now bid farewell, farewell…