My best friend John P. was visiting his family back in Montana a few years ago when he happened upon his grandfather’s diary. The grandfather was a farmer during the Great Depression, so John blew the dust off the cover and cracked open the old book, eager to learn more about his long-dead ancestor’s thoughts on the New Deal, the Roosevelt administration, and the ominous storm clouds in Europe.
But all he found was a dry recitation of daily weather reports and crop prices.
After reading Steve Howe’s deeply uninteresting new autobiography All My Yesterdays, I now know exactly how John felt.
Howe, guitarist for the British prog rock giants Yes (full disclosure: my favorite band), makes being a rock star seem about as fun as accountancy (a topic that he mentions frequently). To be fair, though, there are no doubt many accountants whose autobiographies would be more exciting than Howe’s, which ticks off name, dates, and places without the benefit of insight or reflection. Much of the book consists of lists of tour dates, obviously gleaned from the excellent fan site Forgotten Yesterdays, which Howe acknowledges backhandedly by noting that “we hope they were correct.”
Throughout the book, musicians come and go from Yes with absurd regularity, but these shifts in the band’s delicate dynamics Howe dispenses with in just a few lines. In trying to be diplomatic, he often comes across as cryptic, frustrating the reader. At one point he writes that “some members of the group were contributing less than satisfactory performances due to their indulgences in habits or vices.” Which ones? What vices? Who knows. By refusing to name one he implicates all.
The book is also that rare autobiography in which the author can come across as a jerk. Howe belittles the Heathrow customs officer who hassles him (with good reason) because the receipt for the expensive watch he brought back from Switzerland apparently reflects not the actual value of the watch, but the price Howe paid for it. (He bought the watch from a shop whose owner was a fan and gave him a discount.) For some reason, this incident from 1977 merits several paragraphs.
Howe makes clear his love of cannabis, which is apparent from the numerous errors that riddle the text. The popular Philadelphia DJ Ed Sciaky, who championed Yes in their early years, is twice referred to as “Ed Sharkey.” Alan White’s first concert with the band in 1972 was in Dallas, not Edwardsville, Illinois (it’s correct on the Forgotten Yesterdays site). At one point he even refers to the band’s most audacious album as Tales of [sic] Topographic Oceans.
My admiration of Howe’s musical talents is undiminished, but after reading All My Yesterdays, I hope he now devotes his energy to producing a new Yes album and not another book.
© 2020 by Matthew Algeo
Matthew Algeo is an author and journalist. His latest book is All This Marvelous Potential: Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Tour of Appalachia (Chicago Review Press). His website is malgeo.com.