The first thing I did when I got to college was join the Philosophy Club.
When I’d first visited campus in the spring of my senior year in high school, I had been fascinated by the student-activities bulletin boards outside in the quads, those hedgehogs of stickpins and staples, those rainbows of colored hand-made or cheaply-printed flyers, those cornucopias of stuff to do and things to be. And one of those flyers (pink with sober typewriting and a picture that I couldn’t identify because it had been photocopied fifty times from a newspaper) was for the Philosophy Club.
I wanted to join the Philosophy Club as both a thing to do and a thing to be. The Thing to Be was a Seeker (“I asked Bobby Dylan / I asked the Beatles / I asked Timothy Leary / But he couldn’t help me either,” sang the Who), an eighteen-year-old Searcher for Truth. As a new high school grad I hadn’t yet discovered Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg, but I had read my share of Kurt Vonnegut, and watched the Woodstock movie on PBS.
So, yes, it was a pose, but in my defense that Thing to Be was counterbalanced by the Thing to Do, which was to find truth. I was, at this point, already in an advanced stage of metaphysical confusion, having rejected the Faith of my Fathers for My Own Code, but having grown up just enough to begin suspecting that My Own Code was code for Do What Thou Wilt, which wasn’t quite what I was after. Anyway, CSN/Y sang, “I don’t know who I am / But life is for learning,” and what better place to learn, I thought, than Queen Anne’s Hall Room 301, and what better time than 4:30 Thursday afternoon?
So I arrive, fresh-faced freshman wanting to fellowship with fellow seekers after truth, fellow philosophers (“you may call my love Sophia / I call my love philosophy,” sang Van Morrison). There are about a dozen people there. Some of them clearly know what’s going on (must be upperclassmen) and some of them are sitting quietly (must be other freshmen). I meekly find a seat and open my notebook.
The meeting starts. An upperclass girl stands up at the front, introduces herself as Ruth Loess – she’s only about five feet tall, thin and boxy, long shoe-polish black hair, black-framed glasses (unusual, as this was a good ten years before the Berkeley Look), black clothes – and says that since our faculty adviser Professor Carnation couldn’t be there today she’d be running the meeting. She welcomes the new members, and without further ado (such as asking who we were), gets down to Philosophy Club business.
Which was: organizing a trip to an upcoming anti-U.S.-Central-American-policy rally in D.C.
This was the height of Iran-Contra; certainly I had heard of the Contras, the death squads, the CIA, Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, El Salvador, Somoza, Noriega; I was a fairly well-informed high school kid, and as a good aspiring hippie I espoused leftist positions, and was lucky enough to have parents I could argue with about them. Notwithstanding all of which, I was kind of dismayed to find that this was at the top of the Philosophy Club’s agenda, for a couple of reasons.
First, because in my question-everything mood, I was actually starting to doubt my political convictions. It was becoming plain to me that my high-school radicalism was a romantic pose. Not that I was becoming a Reaganaut, but I was becoming less sure of my own righteousness. I felt like for me, personally, it was time to step back and reexamine, not to march.
Second, and following from that, was this philosophy? I mean, Ruth Loess didn’t ask us what we thought about U.S. Central American policy. She didn’t invite us to analyze that policy’s philosophical underpinnings; nor did she offer any such analysis herself. She didn’t propose we think of U.S. Central American policy as a case study for questions of personal freedom and ethical citizenship. She didn’t even argue that we should participate in the rally. She just assumed that we would, that this was what the Philosophy Club was there for.
Okay, I’ll bite. “Excuse me, when are we going to discuss the philosophy?”
Ruth Loess gave me a blank look. Her veep, Forrest Blackwater, started passing out flyers for the rally. I walked out.
Cut to Friday afternoon, 5:45. I’m sitting in my dorm room, alone, my roommate having gone back home for the weekend. I have Yes’s Big Generator on the turntable: it just came out, and I’ve already listened to it about a dozen times. I listened to it all afternoon, while I was drawing on the door.
Out college had this tradition where students in the dorms were able to decorate their doors – the outsides of them – any way they wanted to. Personalize them. Some kids did, some kids didn’t. Some went all out: there was a door in the all-male dorm with an expertly rendered picture of the Cutty Sark box, one in one of the co-ed halls that had been transformed into an Esher. And then there was the one at the end of our hall that was a full-color rendition of the face on the cover of King Crimson’s first album. It would scare you shitless if you came upon it in the middle of the night unawares – it was infamous on campus – but I loved it. Nobody knew who had painted it: somebody who’d graduated long ago.
My roommate and I in my sophomore year turned the door into a joint project. We kept a magic marker around and asked every friend and visitor to add a bit of graffiti: a favorite saying or doodle. Of course neighboring idiots defaced it, but we kept that too. We saw it as a kind of collective unconscious made manifest. It became a bit infamous, too, and the next year they painted over all the doors.
But that was still in the future. First semester freshman year I was in a room with a virgin blue door. My roommate didn’t seem interested in decorating it, so I claimed the lower half for my own and spent that Friday afternoon with a black magic marker drawing the Yes bird-plane on it.
This is a design familiar to Yes fans and nobody else, because to see it you had to have not only bought Yes albums, but paid attention to the fine print. The cover of Fragile has a Roger Dean painting of a fragmenting green Earth and a strange winged contraption flying around it, looking like a cross between a mythical bird and the Wright Brothers’ airplane. The bird-plane as depicted on the front and back of Fragile is fluid, hard to define, but there was a miniature line sketch of it in the liner notes, a very organized presentation that was to show up in the liner notes of the next seven or eight Yes albums. They used it as a kind of colophon, although it never became as famous as the bubble-lettered Yes logo.
I always thought it was a perfect visual representation of Yes’s sound. It combined elements of machinery – they were a loud electric band sometimes, lots of synthesizers and distortion – with suggestions of organicity – they also had soft acoustic elements, and a strong emphasis on the fragile human voice. It combined utopian sci-fi - a spacegoing aircraft - with romantic poetry - a Bird. And it was a method of transport: if you could just find a way to climb in, oh the places you’d go.
So that’s what I drew on our door. I liked that it didn’t actually say “Yes” anywhere. I wasn’t advertising a band, but identifying with an aesthetic. Plus, I thought it complemented the King Crimson door.
It took me about an hour, and then I spun Big Generator again while I waited for it to be time to go to the dining hall. Alone. I hadn’t made any arrangements to go home for the weekend, and I didn’t know anybody at school yet, and my roommate was gone, so I was facing dining hall alone on a Friday night. I could already tell by the silence on the hall that campus had emptied out. This was not a heartening thought, but I tried to ignore it as I processed the new Yes album.
Halfway through Side 2 came a knock at the door. I opened it.
Two guys stood there. A tall towheaded guy in a blue-and-red tie-dye and a shorter guy with black curly hair wearing a pink Izod. I didn’t know them, but I recognized them: they had been in Philosophy Club.
“Oh,” says the alligator. “It’s you!”
“Huh?” sez I, eloquently.
“You’re the guy who walked out of Phil Club.”
“Uh, yeah. I did that thing.”
“I’m Vito, Vito Brevis,” he says. The other guy holds out a hand. “Art Long.”
I shake his hand, tell them my name. “Sorry I walked out like that. I just wasn't up for that.”
“No, no.” Art. “We’re not Philosophy Club Police or anything. Actually we walked out not long after you did, right around the time they started passing the hat.”
Vito chimed in. “Don’t get me wrong, I hate Reagan as much as the next guy, but I was hoping to, you know, sit around drinking Mad Dog 20/20 and talking about Plato in the cave or something. Not get ordered around by Marxists.”
“Not that there’s anything wrong with Marxists,” I say.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with Marxists,” Vito agrees. We all laugh.
“So anyway,” continues Art. “We weren’t actually looking for you, per se. We just saw the door and, well, we’re big Yes fans. Have been since junior high. We had to meet the person behind this door. Did you draw it?”
“He’s playing Big Generator, dude. I’d say he drew it.”
I did, I said. “So you guys are Yes fans, too? I didn’t think there were any here. I thought everybody was into U2 and REM. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, either –”
“Not that there’s anything wrong with them,” they laughed, eyeing the U2 banner my roommate had hung over the doorway.
“So anyway,” says Art. “Come to dinner with us. Let’s figure out this new Yes album.”