On Strings And Things: Peter Banks

There was a knock at the door of Room 517 at the Rubens Hotel around noon. I was packing, getting ready to check out predictably late-ish. It was Peter Banks, chitarrista extraordinaire (ex-Yes, ex-Flash), fresh off his Northern-line tube ride down from Barnet into Central London. We hadn’t seen each other in six years, since the first time I traveled to the UK. At that juncture in 2000, Pete was still married to Ceci, a young Peruvian woman. The three of us walked along the South Bank until settling on an old tavern with the finest pint of Guinness in town.

My notes from that particular trip recall a jazz show by Earthworks that I attended with two English friends, featuring Pete’s collaborator in Yes from 1968-70, drummer Bill Bruford. I wrote:

This gig was special because the American guitarist, Larry Coryell, had been “on loan” as Bill Bruford remarked, to the Earthworks ensemble for a few shows in London as well as select future performances in Italy and Spain. Already a bit buzzed from the wine at dinner, as well as a good ol’ pint at a pub on the corner of Dean, the three of us enjoyed two more bottles of red as Bruford and company played away for well over two and a half hours. One band member, Patric Clahar, is a runaway standout on tenor sax.

Five flights down in the hotel lounge, year 2006, Pete and I began a liquid lunch. Sauvignon Blanc for the American + Vodka Tonic for the Brit x 2 apiece. A not-so-great avocado club sandwich arrived later. Years ago, around 1974, Pete would come to The Rubens (situated near Buckingham Palace) to meet the guru Mayer Baba, someone Pete Townshend had recommended. Take Baba, add O’Reilly, and you get a huge rock classic.

Pete and I shifted to the front of the Rubens lounge where soft natural light washed over the small tables and chairs. While I made some portraits, Pete showed me a scar on his left hand, the result of an electric shock while on stage with Yes in 1969. One of the guitar strings, charged with current, singed a top portion of his finger.

We talked about his current projects, one that had him traveling to the States, but ultimately fell through. Feeling good, it was time to wrap around 3pm and walk together to Victoria Station where I boarded the Gatwick Express headed to the airport.

I first met Peter Banks in 1994. A mutual friend arranged for me and two pals to drive him to a Yes concert at Jones Beach on Long Island. Pete came to New York to attend a music convention in Philadelphia. Four years later, we reconnected at another convention in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. It was a merry-go-round of a time: fellow Yes fans, a limo invite, and partying it up on the way to a concert. Pete fondly recalled a stumbling incident in a future CD release Can I Play You Something where he writes in his list of thank yous, “Glen DiCrocco: for exiting a limo with style.”

Pete would go on to form a three-piece improv band called Harmony In Diversity in 2004. The music gave him opportunities to play out in free form. He would appear on various tribute albums; one story in particular involved the Return To The Dark Side CD: Pete had a disagreement with producer Billy Sherwood over the amount he would be paid to participate. After a call to the record label, Pete was able to get them to double up the ante. This resulted, however, with Sherwood leaving Pete’s name off the cover and back of the CD packaging. It read something like, “Featuring so on and so on…and more!” So Pete called up Billy Sherwood and said that if they ever worked together again he should be credited as “Andy More.”

I would speak to Pete only occasionally by phone. He was never very willing to embrace email. After Syd Barrett died he mentioned their friendship and added that Syd was the only nice guy in the group. Pete liked his guitar work but claimed he had no sense of rhythm. He would just skip a bar here and there.

A few times he sent cassettes of works in progress, archival material, or a newly-released CD. For a guy who was a pivotal figure in the formation of the progressive rock scene, his recognition was widely kept under the radar, and his status as a musician later in life, always mired with difficulty, had many starts and stops.

It wasn’t until he quietly passed away at home on March 7, 2013, that more write-ups and praise began to flow. He was a sweet guy, funny, clever, well-read, and a huge jazz aficionado. And above all, an innovative and imaginative top-notch guitarist.