From Genesis to Revelation: Guitarist Steve Hackett Lays Himself Bare

Steve Hackett | A Genesis in My Bed – The Autobiography | (Wymer Publishing)
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Steve Hackett could rightfully be called a journeyman musician. From the time he first picked up his very first guitar at age 12, his quest to create music that was original, imaginative and technically astute has never wavered despite the various side roads he’s travelled over the course of his career. Famously known as an early guitarist with Genesis, he later left that band and ventured out on his own, pausing only to participate in a pair of “super groups” — GTR, which found him pairing with Yes guitarist Steve Howe, and Squakett, a collaboration with Yes bassist Chris Squire. Yet for the most part since 1975, when he put out his first individual effort, he’s mostly been focused on his own solo career, one that encompasses over two dozen albums, several of which find him revisiting the Genesis catalogue through live concert recordings.

Indeed, the time he spent with Genesis throughout the bulk of the seventies remains a constant and never very far from his rear view mirror. He participated in the recording of what are universally considered products of the band’s most enduring era — albums that include such classics as Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Wind & Wuthering, and A Trick of the Tail. Not surprisingly then, Hackett’s recently released autobiography, A Genesis in my Bed, goes into great detail about the time he spent in that hugely influential and inspirational outfit and the factors that caused him to venture out on his own and purposely pave his way forward. Mostly anecdotal, it includes a wealth of illuminating insights, about his marriage to wife Jo, his muse and the lessons learned along the way.

Like most people, Hackett’s been sidelined by the pandemic, but he still remains eager and engaged. “I’m basically doing a lot of recording at home and watching a lot of news,” he suggests, speaking by phone from the U.K. “It’s extraordinary stuff. We’re very aware of it over here, all the protests and the pandemic and things. I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but we have a lot going on over here as well, the equivalent of what’s happening in the States. It’s global. These are interesting times.”

Interesting times indeed, especially since that’s a description that aptly sums up Hackett’s life in music and his desire to achieve satisfaction, both for himself and for his fans. He says that he began writing the book some 15 years ago, but received renewed impetus when his wife encouraged him to complete it. “There were so many other things going on,” he recalls. “Just before the American tour, I was working like crazy to get it finished. And then after the tour was cut short and we got back home, the publisher said I had some more time if I wanted to put some more things in. So I began working on anecdotes, less about chronology and more about standout moments. I kept diaries, and I was kind of an impressionist as far as that goes. There was need to reflect. It goes way back.”

Hackett notes that the writing process for the book was decidedly different from than the labor he was used to. “It’s not like writing a song, or even doing an album,” he suggests. “You prepare for those things as a musician, and inspiration comes in bits and pieces. If you get a musical idea, you jot it down and before long you have maybe four ideas and a sketch for a song. You record it, you polish it, and that might be over a long period of time. It’s not the same as a book where you have to work around inspiration. You can have those moments, but they have to join those other moments. It’s much more of a major commitment to communicate. You think you’ve opened yourself up and then you realize that it needs much much more.”

At the same time, the book allowed Hackett to look back at his life from a different perspective and to understand the ways in which he had evolved, both personally and professionally. He shares those insights with the reader, which allows for a great understanding of what has motivated Hackett throughout his career.

“Over the course of a lifetime you become a different person,” Hackett reflects. “You’re not the same person you started out to be. You change, and hopefully you become less prejudiced against foods you didn’t like, music you didn’t like, art you didn’t like… all those things. So you go through a reappraisal. Life is like that when you lose that judgmental attitude. When I was very young and I listened to music, I only really heard the guitar. And then someone would say, ‘That one has a good beat, doesn’t it?’ And I said, ‘What beat?’ I started to realize that drums were important, so that when I listen to something now, I hear everything on the same level, whether it’s the pounding drums or the screaming guitar or the almost inaudible triangle. They all have their place in the mix. That’s the difference between the young me and the old me.”

So too, having just turned 70, Hackett indicates that his enthusiasm for making music is as keen as ever. He’s eager to discuss that satisfaction, as well as the challenges of maintaining his high bar.

“I’m amazed that I’m still doing vital music, and that I’m still passionate about it at this place in time,” he allows. “I’m working on an orchestral album now at home. Yet the process is always the same. ‘Oh my God, how am I going to make this better than the last one? Or even just as good.’ My last album was a rock album, but this one will be different. This one will be instrumental. It’s something I can only do now. It’s borne from experience. It’s good to be able to draw from experience. I couldn’t do this when I was a kid. I wasn’t the player that I am now. I wasn’t the writer that I am now. I didn’t trust myself to the same degree that I do now. But I still approach it with trepidation and fear and the feeling that the mountain is a difficult climb. It’s an inner mountain. You have to fall in love with every note, and if every note doesn’t move you in some way, then there’s something wrong and you have to find another note. I have to regain confidence in my own judgement all the time. It’s a big journey.”

Part of that journey has been the result of his desire to expand his parameters, something Hackett’s never failed to do over the course of his career. At the same time, he’s keenly aware of the criticism that can accompany any bold new venture. “Over the years I’ve listened to a lot of classical stuff, and so I don’t want someone saying to me, ‘Ah I was thinking of getting your album, but I think Tchaikovsky or Ravel might have done the orchestrations better.’ Those are the people that I listen to, and I think, oh my God, is that possible? I don’t want to personalize music in that way. I must say that I listen to much more classical music than I do rock and roll. I like rock and roll and I like blues and I like progressive stuff, but I’m often disappointed when people just go through the motions. There’s got to be some voodoo in there somewhere. I have to feel like the spirit is present. It can’t just be one-two-three-go. Whatever it is, it has to have that feeling of danger in it like the things that fired me up so much when I was a kid. It’s got to have brains as well as balls.”

Because Hackett is aware that his audience has certain expectations, his live repertoire is often devoted to recreating one of those seminal Genesis albums with which was associated.

“I try to give people what they want,” Hackett insists. “I’ve been very lucky in recent years. My most recent album charted in the top 15 in twelve different countries. But promoters are completely unaware of that. All that concerns them is Genesis, so they prefer that I do nothing but Genesis, covering the years 1971 to 77. However I feel that I’m about what I was always about, and that’s the creation of albums, whether albums are fashionable or not, or whether music is considered disposable or not. It doesn’t really matter. Back in the day, there were albums, and they were milestones, and they saved your life. So when I got to make albums myself, I realized what a joy it was and it was freeing in many ways. It was a process.”

Hackett is decidely philosophical when it comes to measuring the music’s worth. “Your heroes will always be there,” he muses. “For me, it will be somewhere between Bach and Paul Butterfield. I absolutely adore rock and blues. Of course I could keep the museum doors for Genesis open 24/7, but I choose to make albums for people who are aware of my presence. So I tend to divide my gigs into two halves where one band goes off and then it becomes anther band and that band becomes Genesis for half that show. Those were songs that I feel passionate about, and so it doesn’t feel like a compromise. It’s a pleasure not to be the singer and the front man and just become the guitarist again. I like retiring into the shadows and doing that thing that I did with Genesis — being concerned with the arrangements and being a colorist and giving it the dynamite and the trajectory and the fuel that the band needed at a certain point.”

One would think that given his desire to reflect on his past, Hackett’s a sentimental sort. When asked however, he appears to demure. “I think nostalgia’s fine,” he admits. “But I think that when you’re playing for a live audience, you should be playing to your strengths. For years, I did nothing but new material, and sometimes I would get out there with just an acoustic guitar, and sometimes with a rock band. I’d try all sort of things. Once in the mid 1990s, I was playing in Sicily, and there was this guy in the lobby and he said he had everything I ever did and he asked me if I’d mind signing some albums. Then he had this other pile, and he asked if I’d sign those as well. And the other pile was all Genesis albums, and I was a little bit shocked. But now I’ve started to reclaim all that. It’s like with Yes. Many people regard Steve Howe as the heart of Yes. Any version of Yes without Steve Howe isn’t quite right. A friend of mine said to me, ‘I suppose a lot of people feel the same way about you and Genesis.’ I thought about that, and that turned into a record and then a live show. It’s very interesting, the Genesis connection.”

In fact that Genesis connection continues. He recently announced the release of another live album that will revisit the band’s earlier era, as well as his own. September 25th will see the release of Selling England By The Pound & Spectral Mornings: Live at Hammersmith. It’s the first time Hackett’s morphed his Genesis backstory with one of his efforts as well.

Surprisingly, Hackett seems to have mixed feelings about the time he spent working with his Genesis colleagues Peter Gabriel, Mike Rutherford, Phil Collins, and Tony Banks. While many pages of this easy read are shared on that period in particular, in conversation, one gets the sense that it was a bittersweet experience. 

“When Phil Collins and I joined that band, we were looking for a harder edge,” he says. “It’s not like we didn’t like acoustic music. We certainly did. Look at me now, I play a nylon guitar. Yet I found it difficult at first, being in a band. I wasn’t used to working with a team. Even with the other bands I had, I was used to being team leader, and suddenly it was like ‘Whoa! Get back in the queue. Join the parade.’ Those guys at the core of Genesis had a very different upbringing where they were taught to be competitive and strong and to try to knock each other off the perch. I thought we were supposed to be a collective and cooperative, but it wasn’t like that. At times you had to be sheerly singleminded to get stuff done. Being passive is not a good thing in a band. He who shouts loudest tends to be heard. It was composition by committee. And composition by committee can’t work when you need permission to forge ahead. Do musicians need a pat on the head in order to justify themselves?  Am I a slug or am I adored? I’m somewhere in the middle I suppose. I’ll settle for being human.”

Naturally, that begs the question of whether his former bandmates have ever attended one of his concerts, specifically those that spotlight the Genesis material. “I think they’re far too competitive to come to one of those shows,” Hackett replies. “When I was around for the launch of Mike Rutherford’s book, he said to me, ‘You’re keeping the legacy alive. ‘ That was the best complement he’s ever paid me. I think he’s quite proud of that early stuff, and he realizes I was as well. I wanted to bring out the best in the team, so I became a team player. Sometimes you have to be the glue, steady the machine, polish other people’s ideas, and bring out the best in others. On the other hand, if you want to become a fully fledged writer yourself, you can’t necessarily do that within the team environment so you have to launch a solo career, which is exactly what it was like for me in 1977. I made the decision to go it alone and I’m proud that I did. I wasn’t concerned about whether the albums sold or not. Some did and some didn’t. It doesn’t really matter. I know which tracks worked for me. There’s that shadow stuff, that internal evaluation that says ‘The hell with it, I’m just going to do this.’”

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