Patrick McGowan’s Prog Story: Some thoughts on “prog” from a reluctant progger

Patrick McGowan, the guy in the middle with the spectacles!

Proglodytes, meet Krillisander, also known as Patrick McGowan. Patrick, who plays guitar and sings in The Tea Club, is no stranger to the blog, having participated in several podcasts on behalf of his band. This time, Patrick stopped by to share his prog story.

Am I a reluctant progger?

Well, I guess it depends on what you mean by “prog.”

Labels like this can be useful. They can point us in a musical direction and help us get started. But they can also suck. For some, they can even feel like a prison sentence.

Now, I’m certainly no music scholar, so rather than attempt yet another abstract definition of prog, let me, instead, tell you a story.

This is the story of how I first encountered the music of King Crimson.

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I’m an unabashed King Crimson fanboy. All the detractors might want to stop reading now. And, yes, while I would happily rant about the greatness of classic records like Red and In the Court of the Crimson King (and make an impassioned defense for the much-maligned Three of a Perfect Pair), let me, instead, tell you how an early encounter with an obscure box set called The Great Deceiver dramatically impacted the interior life of a very weird teenager named Patrick McGowan. Allow me to explain.

One rainy afternoon when I was about fifteen years old, my father and I sat in our living room discussing music, as we occasionally did. I don’t remember all the specifics of the conversation but at one point he disappeared into his bedroom and re-emerged brandishing a tattered LP from the 1970’s in hand. “This is Red.” he said. “It’s by a band called King Crimson.” He handed me the dusty relic. The album cover featured three half-lit faces but our copy was so weathered and worn that it made them each appear as if they’d survived a shipwreck. The disc itself was copiously scratched and warped almost beyond playability. Clearly my father was not an immaculate collector. Suffice it to say, we weren’t even sure the thing would work, but I was so fascinated by this artifact from a different age that I needed to try it out. We put it on our old, cheap, rarely used turntable with ancient speakers, and gave it a shot. Remarkably, the needle crackled, the speakers popped, and the first track played (albeit somewhat wobbly). Unfortunately, everything after it was a garbled mess; unlistenable.

That first taste, however, was all I needed. I was mesmerized.

We listened to it over and over again. It was simply unlike anything I’d ever heard. It stirred up a mood, a somberness, a longing in my adolescent spirit which sank deep into my bones, defying explanation. I have a distinct memory of driving in our unreliable family car later that afternoon, sitting in the back seat, and staring out of the window at the rain-soaked roads under the spell of the song. I had been charged with a new quest: to hear more from this strange band. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a numinous afternoon, one which, as contrived as it may sound, began a shift in me that continues to this day.

This was in the 90’s when CDs were king, but our family was always kind of poor and, for whatever reasons, weren’t able to afford a CD player. We did, however, have multiple cassette decks. Yes, that’s right, C A S S E T T E S (my latent hipsterism goes deep, I suppose). My father had, and still has, an immense, disorganized library of cassettes (or “tapes” as he likes to call them). He must’ve realized he’d piqued my interest on that rainy afternoon because, not long after, he appeared with a King Crimson cassette tape. Was it Red that I might satisfy my mounting curiosity for what the rest of that record might sound like? No. Of course not. That would actually come years later. This one was called The Compact King Crimson. It was something of a compilation album which featured the unsettling cover image of a strange, elongated person holding a deformed stringed instrument and peering into the eyes of the beholder with both a hint of humor and malice. The cover disturbed and deeply fascinated me. It wouldn’t be the last time the band would evoke these emotions.

Dad came into our cramped living/dining room, where my brother Dan and I were both drawing, and announced there was a song on this tape he wanted to play for us. It was called In the Court of the Crimson King. My mother was also there with us and it became something of an impromptu family event. It took my dad a few minutes to cue up the track (remember, you have to rewind and fast forward a cassette to get to any particular song), and, after a few unceremonious false starts, he played it. It was nothing like the angular drone of Red. This was something entirely different; regal, lyrical, almost medieval sounding. This song was another animal altogether, but that longing was still there, and that feeling from the numinous afternoon returned. By the time the song finished I had drawn a medieval knight, a drawing which I kept and which is still laying around here somewhere in one of my many notebooks. It wasn’t a very good drawing but I dated it and kept it anyway. Maybe I had an inkling at the time that something important was happening.

There was a quality about this music that connected to me in a way which nothing had prior. I spent months listening to that tape, months being further enchanted by the sadness and somberness of this mysterious band. Side A was where I spent most of my time (yes, cassettes have “sides”). It consisted of “Red,” an edited version of “Cat Food,” and everything from In the Court… sans “Moonchild,” all of which were recorded before 1975. Side B was material from the band’s 80’s period. I listened to it, but not as much. It was missing a certain romance which I suppose I was craving. In essence, I think I simply wasn’t ready for it. It would take a few years before I discovered the dark nuances of the “Discipline era.”

I was fully entranced now. I had found music which was somehow communicating to me directly. It was also happening at an incredibly formative time in my development. But it wasn’t all there yet. The connection was still vague, nebulous. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was something evasive about what was happening.

It was more than novelty or curiosity, it was something like hunger, and that hunger led me to continue traversing this liminal space with a certain fervor. I went back into my father’s scrambled tape collection looking for anything with the words “King” and “Crimson” on it. But there wasn’t much. I found tapes with titles like Selling England by the Pound and The Inner Mounting Flame, but I set them aside, maybe intuiting that the time wasn’t yet right for them (although that time would most certainly come). In some way I think I understood that there was to be an “order of things” and I was on my first order of business which was to get to the bottom of this enigmatic Crimson King.

And then, one night, I found it. Somewhere in that commingled miscellany of cassettes I came upon an old, black, translucent Maxell Capsule UDX II cassette tape. It had a small label on it with some handwriting which I at first ignored and nearly tossed aside, but something caught my eye. In a long, attractive script was written: “King Crimson ‘live’ 1973, 1974.” My mind raced. It appeared to be a mixtape someone had made. I showed it to my dad and asked him what it was. He looked at it, uncertain at first, and then the lightbulb went off.. My father, who is also a musician and excellent songwriter, was friends with a local music store clerk. They had got to talking about King Crimson and this guy, who apparently was a Crimson fan, made a mixtape for my dad.

“I haven’t listened to this, at least as far as I can remember,” began my father, “but you should check it out and get back to me with your thoughts.”

I didn’t know it yet but this tape would bring all that was just out of reach directly into my heart and my mind. Maybe my dad saw something in my eye that night because I remember him saying: “If you like this, there’s a whole world of it out there for you to explore”.

I would later find out this tape was a mix of material from “The Great Deceiver” box set which was released in the early 90’s. The set is a four CD collection of King Crimson live performances from 1973 and 1974. It contains over four hours of music which is much too long to fit on a regular cassette tape, so this was a mix of what the music store clerk must’ve considered to be the highlights. Looking back, I can’t say I disagree with him.

I listened to it that night on headphones so as not to wake my brother with whom I shared a bedroom. I stayed up almost all night listening to it…over….and over….and over….I was transfixed and in some ways I think I was being transformed by the arcane mysticism seeping into my brain. The music on that crappy old tape was from another world. A world that maybe I had visited once or twice in another life, but which had fallen into the cobwebs and corners of memory. It was music that expressed and elicited a Feeling. This Feeling was beyond words or explanation, it was a different language, it was outside language, it was Other. But I knew it intimately and instantly. The music entered my soul and my soul replied: “Ah, welcome, old friend.”

I know what you are thinking … I’m laying this on pretty thick. But it’s hard to describe how deeply this odd, poor, uneducated, scared, autodidactic, overly serious teenager received this strange, strange music. I recognized it even though I didn’t, it was familiar even though it wasn’t. I knew the Feeling it was evoking: sadness, grief, longing, exploration, mystery. They permeated in me but I didn’t know what to do with them. I had gotten occasional glimpses, but I didn’t really Know until this little tape found me and showed me how I could finally express them, and finally get them out of me.

I picked up my guitar the next night and never looked back.

This music was about feeling, but it was also smart. It wasn’t Kiss. It came through the mind but it came from the heart. It was crafted, agonized over, written and rewritten, practiced, improvised by capable hands, and it was clever. But that’s not all it was. The mastery of technique was the vehicle which carried it’s true power. The feeling. The spirit. The heart. It borders on religious language and maybe that’s appropriate. God gave this music to me through King Crimson; I thank them both.

King Crimson has been called a quintessential prog band, some even call them the founders of the genre. But for me it’s never been about the prog label, it’s never been about the shredding, or the tricky time signatures, or all those ancillary things which, for better or for worse, have come to define prog. For me it’s about the feeling, the visceral, spiritual feeling being carried through the shredding and the tricky time signatures. They are mere tools used to their absolute best by well-rehearsed minds to convey a much purer and deeper power of spirit and heart.

I just think it’s the coolest thing.

I don’t know if King Crimson ever intentionally set out to do this with their music and, frankly, I don’t care. All I’m trying to say is that it reached a weird kid some thirty years after it was recorded and helped bring his mind and heart into fuller communion. It’s this ability to marry the heart and the mind which, I believe, makes prog music truly worthwhile. I’d argue it’s the real power of the genre and when it’s at its best I don’t think there’s anything else like it. So, if we must give this kind of music a name, and that name is “prog,” well, then call me a progger any day.

Check out Patrick’s band, The Tea Club, and their amazing new album here.

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