Some years ago, browsing through CDs at a ROSFest between acts, I heard someone call my name. I turned around to see a colleague from the office who sat just a few desks away from me. Neither of us knew that the other was a fan of progressive rock. In fact, not only is she a fan, she is also a gifted photographer whose work has graced many an album cover. Needless to say, that day led to an enduring friendship and many conversations about the music we love so passionately. One of many prog-related stories she related was about attending a festival where John Wetton was among the performers. A small group of friends had gathered in one of their hotel rooms with none other than Mr. Wetton. He was gentlemanly, gregarious, and a warm human being. I have never forgotten that story and admit to being just a tad envious of her encounter. John Wetton: An Extraordinary Life is a book filled to the brim with just such stories.
By all accounts – and there are many in this book – John Wetton was a truly extraordinary person. Talented, handsome, erudite, down-to-earth, troubled, loved and loving, every aspect of the man and his life is covered in this collection of essays by friends, family and associates.
The book opens with Geoff Downes’ eulogy, wherein he describes his friend and writing partner as “a star in every sense of the word” and a man “who had it all”. Using Wetton’s own words to memorialise him, Downes movingly quotes these lyrics from Bury Me in Willow, all the more emotional for their prescience:
It’s hard to swim against the tide,
The willow bends in a tornado,
The oak will shatter as it dies.
Save me, and give me the peace to surrender at last.
And when I’m gone do this thing for me,
For this is my final day, you know I would not joke,
So bury me in willow, not in oak.
Give me no standard, no eulogy,
No red, white and blue, no sceptre and no cloak,
Just bury me in willow, not in oak.”
From their first meeting in 1981, the two hit it off. Pulling no punches, Downes extols the man’s many virtues without shying away from mention of his darker side, from his moody personality to his alcoholism. However, because this is, after all, a eulogy, Downes concentrates on the positives of the friend he calls his “greatest musical collaborator”: the wicked sense of humour, his love of all sorts of music (with the exception, apparently, of jazz), as well as fast cars, fine food, coffee and crosswords. The longest and broadest entry in the book, it provides a movie version of Wetton’s life, whereas much of what follows is more like a series of photographs. For instance, Wetton’s older brother Robert, who you might expect to provide plenty of insight, spends less than a page addressing his and his brother’s childhood, and then it’s on to the next one. Wetton’s affinity for classical and church music is mentioned several times throughout the book. Crimson lyricist and former Supertramp guitarist Richard Palmer-James gives great insight into Wetton’s development as a musician, chronicling his career from early band the Corvettes to Family, King Crimson and Asia. Like so many others, it took a while and some distance before Palmer-James would realise the extent of his friend’s drinking problem. But, just as Wetton was committed to his music, he would become equally committed to his sobriety. As you read each story, you almost find yourself rooting for the man who is so beloved yet is unable to control his inner demons for years. Palmer-James recalls that once Wetton had found sobriety he would “pick up drunk people in the middle of the night and get them home safely”. In fact, tales of Wetton’s generosity abound.
While the memorials that comprise the book are presented in no specific order, I’ll break them down into three generalised categories, beginning with fellow musicians. It comes as no surprise that the bulk of the book is praise from those who performed alongside John Wetton in one project or another. The names read like a who’s who of British music royalty. Robert Fripp praises his bassist and foil in King Crimson as “the best player of his generation”. Bill Bruford offers a detailed history of Crimson and UK and the cornucopia of talents the bassist/singer/songwriter brought to each. Roger Chapman, Family’s vocalist, provides insight into how Wetton’s skills as a vocalist influenced the directions that band would take. Mick Box of Uriah Heep explains how vital Wetton’s ideas were to the arrangements of the songs during his tenure in that band. Annie Haslam met the bassist when he temporarily provided the bottom end for Renaissance in 1971. Not until 2004 did their friendship begin to solidify; it was she who took on the responsibility of getting him into rehab. Had it not been for Haslam, Wetton’s doctor told her, he would have died in a matter of weeks. IQ keysman Martin Orford regales with tales of being in Wetton’s solo band, of doing intimate duo gigs, and of recording masses of vocal harmonies for his solo album The Old Road with “the only person I’ve ever worked with who had that understanding of how vocal harmonies work”. Carl Palmer first met Wetton when the latter auditioned in 1970 for Atomic Rooster (as did Steve Howe), but became friends through Greg Lake during the ELP years. As you can imagine, the story of Asia gets a fair bit of mention, both the original and reunited versions. Surprisingly (to me at least), Steve Howe did not know much of Wetton until the Asia days. After being unceremoniously let go from the band after the second album, the two had little contact until the 2006 reunion. You can almost hear the joy and pain that were part of their relationship, something that comes across in so many of the contributions, which make this book so much more special than any linear biography would have done.
An interesting mélange of business relationships pepper the storytelling. Manager Ed Bicknell booked one of Wetton’s first bands in 1969 before forming a band with him. Their early history makes for some colourful reading. Asia’s manager, Brian Lane, says that “[b]y any standard, JW was a superstar.” MTV’s Rick Krim professes: “I was always warned to ‘never meet your heroes’, but in this case I am so glad I did”. Original MTV jockey Martha Quinn expresses her excitement at the VJs being called out on Asia’s Wildest Dreams. She and Wetton lunched a few times in the early ’80s and had a Twitter relationship up until his passing. Nicole Clemens was Wetton’s fan club administrator who became obsessed after seeing Asia perform in her native Netherlands. They met at a radio station in 1987 and formed a friendship. Her story is particularly moving in that she addresses not only his generosity and kindnesses, but how his alcoholism led to her decision to step away from running his fan club. She maintained the friendship and saw him through to his sobriety. Musician and songwriter Jim Peterik (Survivor) collaborated on the advice of legendary A&R man John Kalodner, leading to a number of co-writes during Wetton’s solo career. Biographer Kim Dancha tells the unlikely tale of how her brazenness led to her collaboration with her idol on the book about his life and, subsequently, how she ran his website for a dozen years. John would join the chats and communicate with fans. Her idea for a fan convention in Allentown, Pennsylvania was nearly derailed by the musician’s addiction. However, like most that knew him, they moved past the incident and remained friends to the end. Asia biographer Dave Gallant came to write his book after the record company put him and Wetton in touch for some promotion for the Battle Lines album. A friendship and numerous interviews ensued, leading to the book, Heat of the Moment. Wetton was Martin Darvill’s first client as a manager, although their friendship preceded the business relationship. Darvill relays the story of Wetton’s prison stint for a DWI hit-and-run, where he taught guitar to other inmates. This was a time when Wetton alternated between drunkenness and sobriety, and we get to hear from his point of view about the fan convention that almost did not happen. Darvill’s takes on the stories presented by others in the book flesh out the humanity of the subject in all his glory and bottom-scraping, alternately uplifting and breaking your heart.
Finally, some of the more touching tributes come from those closest to the man – his family and friends. As previously mentioned, brother Robert Wetton’s piece is mournfully short and leaves you wondering, “Yes, but what about…?” School chum Peter Viney gives insight into the man and his development as a musician and human being. From his favorite bassist (Paul McCartney) to his favorite song (God Only Knows by the Beach Boys), his stories of a lifelong friendship resonate deeply. Wetton’s first wife, Jill Briggs, met him through a housemate who had previously shared a flat with the musician. One of her more touching stories was how backstage, after a Don Henley concert, “every member of the band bowed before him and said how much they were fans of UK and King Crimson and worshipped his playing”. Its her regrets, over not being able to be friends after their separation and never having had the opportunity to say goodbye, that are among the most touching parts of this book. Beate, the mother of Wetton’s son Dylan, offers a very different perspective. She first saw her future partner as a solo act opening for Saga in Munich in 1995. So moved by the intimate performance, she joined his fan club. After attending a gig in the UK, she was invited to dinner with Nicole Clemons and John Wetton. When he asked for her address and promised to write, she was doubtful. But he followed through and they continued to meet, despite his still being married at the time. Eventually, they moved in together, first in Germany, then in England. John and Jill separated, and his drinking became more of a problem. Their son Dylan arrived in July 1998 and Beate found a house for them near John’s brother and mother (and a large AA community) in Bournemouth, which also made it easier for them to travel to Germany and spend time with her family. While the alcoholism was initially in check, it came roaring back before their planned wedding, and Beate left for Germany with son in tow. Wetton again became sober and the relationship continued long-distance. Dylan continued school in Bournemouth and stayed with his father, but Wetton’s and Beate’s relationship never went further. Dylan for his part recalls his visits and vacations with his father as a child in Germany. A common love of football was their connective tissue, and the bond between them is palpable. An emotional tribute is presented by Ross Wilson, a man for whom Wetton became an AA sponsor. At the time, he did now know that this was the John Wetton of Asia fame. For Wilson he was a big brother and role model, a humble and spiritual man who reveled in driving his summer and winter Porsches fast. He was the man Wetton confided in about having fallen in love with a beautiful American on a Cruise to the Edge. That woman, Lisa, would become his wife. Lisa Wetton explains how she came to be on that cruise through a twist of fate. When, the night before the cruise, she watched a DVD of Asia, she was smitten with Wetton. A photo opportunity resulted in a social media posting which led to him contacting her, and the two eventually getting together in NYC. Suffice to say that Lisa’s portrait of the man is eloquent, poignant and heartfelt. Luckily, its also one of the more extensive reminiscences of the book.
Steve Hackett gets the last word in the book and in this review. “If you worked with him, you loved him. It was as simple as that.” Which makes me even more jealous of my friend’s evening spent talking with the man who led such an extraordinary life.
Publisher: Rocket 88
Length: 256 pages
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 19th June 2023