In social media and down the pub a favourite game for music fans seems to be ‘‘What If?’ ‘What if’ your favourite band had stayed together, or X had continued to play with Y? Top of that sort of thing in my case tends to be what if (or its close neighbour ‘Why didn’t you…’) I’d stayed with Yes, or possibly, what if I’d stayed with UK? My immediate response is that disappointment would have surely followed as night follows day: perhaps not immediately but inevitably – for you, me or probably both of us.
But it’s a difficult call, the one about knowing when to stop. I only have recourse to a feeling in the pit of my stomach that no more is possible – or at least I can contribute no more – to the given situation. That feeling was strongly evident with Yes when I’d done my best with Close to the Edge; with Genesis when I’d arrived at the end of the agreed tour in 1976; with Gong, when Daevid Allen called me a ‘professional’ with a lip-curling sneer; with UK, when John Wetton outlined his plans for a move towards a more Asia-like band; with Yes again after the Union album; with Earthworks when Django and Iain felt they had given all they could (a feeling I entirely understood); with King Crimson after some abortive rehearsals in Nashville TN in 1997. On all these occasions, it was time to move. The musician is obliged to seek more fertile pastures if he or she is marking time. Only the individual knows when that is, but that’s what you are paying him or her for. In contrast, it was not strong at all after Red in 1974, and the several other occasions on which Robert Fripp collapsed King Crimson. On those occasions I had the bubbling feeling that there was more to do, that more was possible.
What is it that links these situations? Sometimes it is made impossible by others for one to continue: sometimes one makes it impossible for oneself, based on the slimmest of evidence but on the strongest of feelings. It’s rarely black and white. There may be other considerations and circumstances. Supposing someone else left? Might that help? If something is jammed, stuck, or boring, time away can refresh and renew. But that’s hard on others who may be depending on you to show up.
And why stop anyway? Where does it say that all jobs have to be completely fulfilling 100% of the time? Why is a supposed ‘creative’ exempt from that? Everyone knows the doldrums, where there is no wind in the sails, where nothing works, nothing springs to mind, and all is exciting as old toast. Don’t have to leave the band, do you? Well, time is short, and if you have things you feel you can do as a musician it is your obligation to do them, to engage your highest sensibilities as much of the time as possible. Sitting around for a few tours waiting for things to pick up, artistically, was never quite my thing.
There is beginning to be a suite of ‘off-instrument’ skills that the intrepid instrumentalist might usefully acquaint him- or herself with. These usually include the organisational, promotional, administrative and presentational skills that go along with making musical progress a reality, but they also revolve around knowing yourself, knowing how best you function, and where and with whom your performance skills might best be deployed. This last one played into my own career to a high degree, and is increasingly something that impacts the ‘professional’ (calm down, Allen!) who is not entirely constrained by the business of putting bread on the table, and is lucky enough to have options. Mostly I was happy with my choices. Did I sit around kicking myself, wishing I’d never left Yes? Nah…