With apologies to Socrates, who insists we “know nothing,” this I know: a review of The Friends of Mr. Cairo must come from the soul, because that’s where this album touches us. It’s pure emotion—music made to be felt more than understood. Oh, to have been there when Jon Anderson, the front man for rock icon Yes, and the visionary electronic musician Vangelis Papathanassiou dreamed up and delivered this masterpiece.
Through a friend, I discovered the album shortly after its release in 1981; it was a time when the heart of rock ‘n’ roll was still beating, when every song sounded different, when all the cool bands were touring—and I was into the music. Yes, I saw Yes in the early ‘70’s, and loved their style. Most often, their lyrics were cryptic, compelling and thought-provoking; you didn’t just hear the music, you had to listen and you had to think—but only if you wanted to understand what the band was hoping to convey.
Music to Live By
Empowering messages were wrapped in electrifying packages of previously untapped melodies and stunning arrangements. Of course, we sang along every time we heard their songs, though most of us had no idea what the words meant. Even then, Jon Anderson was promoting the idea of change from within ourselves, living by a code of ethics and ideals to better the world. The perfect example is a line from their song “I’ve Seen All Good People”: Take a straight and stronger course to the corner of your life. That’s probably one of the most straightforward, profound pleas you’ll find in his lyrics. I wish I’d had the wisdom at the time to decipher everything he was saying. Fortunately, you’re never too old to learn.
Jon, still performing with Yes but open to other synergetic opportunities, met Vangelis in Paris in 1974. Equally amazing individually as they are together, when Jon Anderson’s lyrical genius collided with the avant garde music of Greek composer Vangelis, whose wizardry with synthesizers is legendary, the collaboration brought us several albums, including The Friends of Mr. Cairo, a legendary work of art itself.
I should tell you up front that Mr. Cairo is on my list of the top two albums of all time. I’ve loved it from the first time I heard it, and I experienced an interesting phenomenon—you have a sense you know exactly what the lyrics mean, although you really don’t have a clue, and it doesn’t matter. Serenity drowns out the daily grind, and you flow with music that’s both powerful and soothing.
Back to School is pure bebop featuring jubilant saxes and cool vocals in the background. State of Independence (which has been admirably covered by both disco great Donna Summer and Pretenders’ lead singer Chrissie Hynde) will get you grooving with pounding percussions and astonishing digital cadence. Outside of This will have you floating on a cloud of celestial music, and if you close your eyes, Mayflower will settle you square on the deck of the boat. The buoyant Beside promises “a change of heart coming to you.” It’s there for the taking.
You may never fully grasp the meaning of the words, but those words with precisely that music somehow convey a feeling of optimism and hope, a deeper meaning to life, and compassion for your comrades on the planet—earthlings who face the very same obstacles in life that you do, and some even worse.
There is an exception to the esoteric nature of most cuts on the album, and it’s the title song The Friends of Mr. Cairo. For me, it’s one of the greatest songs ever written.
More Than a Song
Mr. Cairo is a key character in the classic movie The Maltese Falcon, and the song is an affectionate tribute to the movies and the unforgettable stars who made them in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s during the Golden Age of Hollywood. From the opening sounds of blaring horns, gunfire on a big-city street and the stereotypical film noir dialogue, to the last sounds of a film projector faltering and shutting down in the midst of showing “The Maltese Falcon”, this celebration of yesteryear’s blockbusters gives you the urge to pull up “Casablanca” on your i-Pad and drift into another time and place.
Anderson himself is paying homage, and in the song, we’re reminded of the acting superstars—Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks, Maureen O’Sullivan, James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, Peter Lorre. The actors are woven into the story Anderson tells of a man’s passion for the films of the era. The piece is just over 12-minutes long, and every millisecond pulls you further and further into the song.
Are there lyrics in Mr. Cairo (and other songs on the album) that still have me stymied as to their meaning? Plenty, and I’m working on it. I have the feeling it’s in my best interests to grasp the deeper meaning of lyrics, mostly meaningless to me on one level, yet they enable me to transcend the day-to-day and remember we’re here to be happy.
The first time you hear it, you’ll want to hear it again—right away. It’s that good. So is the rest of the album for that matter. Needless to say, I’d be incredibly interested to hear what you THINK…
See our interview with Jon Anderson here.