After an hourlong interview at Café Andreini in Arroyo Grande, Jon Anderson sent a follow-up e-mail the next day, offering thanks on Thanksgiving.
“In your writings,” he wrote, “could you thank the ambulance people and the staff at Arroyo Grande Hospital, who helped save my life in 2008?”
Reports that Anderson, the former Yes front man, had fallen ill two years ago didn’t detail the gravity of his health issues. But as Anderson related, they were nearly fatal.
“I had six operations,” said Anderson, who performs at Cal Poly on Wednesday. “I couldn’t sing for about six months.”
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Anderson, whose recognizable vocals are heard on classic Yes songs such as “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” “Roundabout” and “Long Distance Runaround,” had doctors puzzled for about five years, he said, trying to figure out why he’d had a persistent cough. Then, one day in 2008, things intensified when he had a hay fever reaction.
“I started coughing and couldn’t stop,” said Anderson, an Englishman who has lived in the county more than 15 years.
His wife, Jane, called an ambulance, and eventually he was comatose, the result of a respiratory failure. While the surgeries repaired him, the always busy Anderson had to take a break. That’s where the laid-back lifestyle of the Central Coast helped, he said.
“I painted a lot,” he said. “I painted a mural 25 feet long by 4 feet wide. I think it was stuff I was seeing in my opiate moments.”
While he had planned to tour again with Yes, when he fell ill his band went on without him, finding a lead singer who sounded like Anderson on YouTube. While Anderson said that decision disappointed him, he didn’t mope or dwell on it.
Instead, he’s been busy recording an album with former Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman — “The Living Tree,” due out Jan. 11 — and a solo album, “Survival and Other Stories,” due out sometime later in 2011. After a recent tour of Europe, he begins his West Coast tour this month.
Even on the day of his Tribune interview, Anderson said, he was writing music.
“Now I can spread my musical wings and start creating large-scale music that I think Yes would be doing if I was in the band,” he said.
If writing music as a solo act is liberating, touring solo is much more simplified than the days of arena gigs.
“Touring can be so frustrating and very confusing and exhausting,” he said.
These days, Anderson travels from gig to gig in a car with his wife — a guitar, ukulele and dulcimer in the back seat. While his Yes shows once included elaborate theatrics, his solo shows reflect a stripped-down approach.
“I went from one extreme to the simplest performance,” he said. “What happened was, we were touring and we were in Turkey. We were flying to Stockholm, and it was me and Jane and my roadie, and they said, ‘The equipment cannot go on the plane — the equipment stays here.’ So we had to leave it in Turkey for a week. So I went and did these shows with an acoustic guitar, and the audience reaction to it was the same, so I thought: ‘Wait a minute, what’s the point of carrying all this equipment around?’ ”
While he continues to write and perform, he also spends considerable time collaborating with others, particularly youth. A concert he did with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra of Cleveland recently aired on HDNet. And he plans to collaborate with the San Antonio Youth Orchestra in the spring.
“It’s great to work with young people because they’re excited, they’re happy, and life is fun,” he said. “It’s better than working with grumpy old men.”
Not to slight Wakeman — who contributed to the BBC TV show “Grumpy Old Men.”
“He’s the grumpiest old guy, but, man—he’s the most beautiful guy in the world,” Anderson said.
Having worked with orchestras in the past, Anderson hopes to collaborate with the San Luis Obispo Symphony.
“I’ve got a great show for them,” he said.
He even pitched the idea to conductor Michael Nowak — but he hasn’t heard back yet.
“I want to sing with them — come on,” Anderson pitched.
Meanwhile, he hopes to work again with Wakeman and another former Yes man, guitarist Trevor Rabin, proving that even a near-death experience hasn’t slowed Anderson’s passion for music.
“The thing about music — it’s to touch people,” he said. “To wake them up, to give them good energy and to make them fall in love with life.”