Today’s the birthday of Jon Anderson, lead vocalist for Yes. And yet today’s song is not a Yessong. Back when King Crimson was recording its third album, Anderson sang as guest vocalist on one track, today’s song.
Lizard is one of those acquired tastes I remember acquiring as a teen. At first I was somewhat aghast at it, as I had such hopes for it and, upon listening, found the album not at all to my liking. Horns, I felt, had no place in Prog! “Prince Rupert Awakes,” the first segment of Side Two’s sidelong “Lizard Suite,” though, was OK, largely because of Anderson’s vocal. He has a choir-boy-like sound that suits the song well, and the upbeat sound of the singalong chorus, with hand claps, perhaps recalled a bit a song from that same year: “Your Move,” from Yes’s third album, The Yes Album, which was the song that got them on the radio.
“Wake your reason’s hollow vote / Wear your blizzard season coat / Burn a bridge and burn a boat / Stake a lizard by the throat.” Well, sure. Though I’m not at all sure what the song—or indeed the entire Suite—is about, there’s no way I would go through a year of song posts without including the lyrics of Peter Sinfield. His lyrics—in their obtuse, ornate style—grace the first four Crimson albums, and it may be that on Lizard they’re at their richest and strangest.
The track is distinctive to me for its many interesting musical fills that seem almost like asides or comments on the basic tune. Fripp and company have no end of evocative sounds to pull out of their bag of tricks, including—besides the horns, including Mel Collins’ sax—synthesizer and Keith Tippett’s jazzy piano and fluid electric piano. Indeed, the piano playing on the album is one of its strengths, as is Fripp’s acoustic guitar playing. The album, but for “Prince Rupert,” features the vocals of Gordon Haskell who sings for Crimson only on this album. That too put me off a bit in the early going because the singing of Greg Lake had seemed to suit the heaviness of the first two Crimson albums. Lizard is so very different in all possible ways.
The part of the vocal that seems to really set the flavor of the whole is “Of rainbow eh-eh-ends and gold,” that way Anderson gives it such a madrigal-like feel. The song boasts many lines that I love just for the sound of them—“all your tarnished devil's spoons will rust beneath our corn / [. . . .] Lizard bones become the clay /And there a swan is born.” It always struck me as a song about transformation, especially since a lizard such as the salamander—which was believed to be able to live in flame or be born again from flame—was a symbol of alchemical practices. I also felt the song was a harbinger of winter and when I started creating tapes for my daughter—called Miscellanies—this song was featured on the second one because it has that late autumn into winter feel of uplift, to me.
Compared to earlier Sinfield concoctions such as “In the Court of the Crimson King” and “In the Wake of Poseidon,” “Prince Rupert Awakes” is even more obscure. Those other two—each a major track on the first and second LPs respectively—involve images that seem parsable. The line from “Rupert” that has that quality is “prophets chained for burning masks” which I still consider rather good. The idea that a prophet is never appreciated at home, as they say, enlarges to be a persecution of prophets for destroying the falsities we hide behind. One suspects that Sinfield imbibed Elizabethan and medieval poetry and various substances and then, in some Coleridgean transports, indited his oddball verse.
Fripp, nothing loath, was able to create amorphous musical textures in which such lyrics seem at home. It’s another matter whether the vocalists hired to sing this stuff ever had any idea of what they were saying. Haskell apparently didn’t like the assignment, even though the songs he sings on the album are more intelligible than “Rupert.” Anderson, who had a tendency to write rather oracular lyrics that could border on high-toned gibberish, doesn’t seem at all put off. And his sound is so pure: “Go, Polonius, or kneel / The reapers name their harvest dawn.” Sure, Polonius belongs in Hamlet but there’s no way to determine whether that Polonius is being referenced, except perhaps as the figure of the counselor to the king or a nemesis of the Prince. “Now tales Prince Rupert’s peacock brings / Of walls and trumpets thousandfold / Prophets chained for burning masks / And reels of dreams unrolled.” The echo on the “unrolled” and the dense sound of the chorale that follows is one of my favorite parts on the album. That has the true grandeur of the courtliness of King Crimson’s sound.
Gone soon Piepowder’s moss-weed court