In Memoriam: Ian Bairnson
How can you be so sure?
How do you know what the earth will endure?
How can you be so sure… that the wonders you’ve made
In your life will be seen, by the millions who follow
To gaze at the site of your dream?
– Alan Parsons/Eric Woolfson (1978).
Of such things none can be so confident, let alone certain. If anything, given the vicissitudes of history, rather the opposite is the case. The question of legacy animates most older persons, especially if one is diagnosed with a terminal illness and has committed, in health and as future-looking, an enduring gift to our collective cultural bastion, the only bulwark we possess over against our individually fleeting immortality. Ian Bairnson was one such bearer of cultural gifts. Arguably the most under-rated guitarist in popular music, he died after a five-year struggle with dementia, at age 69 just a few weeks ago. A list of his musical peers would have to include the likes of David Gilmour, Alex Lifeson, and Neal Schon. These names are much more recognizable due to their being band leaders or founders. But as guitarists, all are, in my opinion, severely under-rated as well. Bairnson had no flash about him. The precisely dedicated passions in his work instead bore all the hallmarks of perfection, and when I think of his playing, this is the very word that comes to mind, first and last.
Think of the arcing solo in ‘What Goes Up…’ (1978) from which the above epigraph is taken. The seamless transition between moods, almost as if there in fact were two distinct players. This gift is revisited in the compare and contrast solo in ‘Somebody Out There’ (1984), where not merely the tone changes drastically, but also the very personality of the sound. The poignantly classical elegance throughout the ironic elegy of ‘Ammonia Avenue’ (1983). The elemental herald of the signature track ‘Sirius/Eye in the Sky’ (1982). Then there’s the soaring, wincingly beautiful bridge solo of ‘Closer to Heaven’ (1987), the impassioned fire of the flamenco-inspired guitar work in the instrumental ‘Paseo De Gracia’ (1987), the extended soloing throughout the epic suite ‘Turn of a Friendly Card’ (1980), the guttural defiance of the solo in ‘Turn it Up’ (1993), a song about resistance, even revolution. One feels more confident about staffing the barricades with Bairnson at one’s side. One feels quite clear in conscience about entering the gates of paradise with Bairnson ennobling a life with no mean soundtrack. One feels the ambiguity of one’s own selfhood, or the mystery of what has in fact ‘been lost’ to time, even though it too ‘must be found’. We do find it; in Bairnson’s music, for one.
Though it is the case that the very best of studio musicians must master not only the diverse instrumentation of one’s featured instrument, but also a wide range of styles from classical to popular and everything in between, Bairnson must be thought of as someone who went well beyond this impressive technical competence, even mastery. In the ever-burgeoning guild of guitarists worldwide, Bairnson must be seen as someone who transported the standard of studio work not only into the theatre of live performance, where so many things can go awry and there are no retakes, but also of transcending the studio quality of such work. There is nothing calculated about Bairnson’s guitar, even though once heard in situ, no other solo, no other riff, no other comp, no other chord progression could be imagined that would suit the overall music as well. Sometimes a song requires simplicity without being simplistic, sometimes sophistication without sophistry, care bereft of pedantry, or transcendence without the pompous. Bairnson was a musician who could gift any and all of these and in force, as Alan Parsons, himself one of the most respected names in the recording industry, and arguably the most knowledgeable about its history and techniques, demanded a stunning array of emotions and characters even on a single album. And though the guitarists who have been lucky enough to follow in Bairnson’s footsteps with the band into the 21st century have walked in his shoes without ever coming close to filling them, it is perhaps testament to Bairnson’s enduring legacy that Parsons has continued to shift among very competent guitar players over the more recent years.
I will remember Ian Bairnson (1953-2023), as an inspiring call to aesthetic conscience, a musician who came from the margins and arrived in a sense unknowing of the center whilst occupying it for a full quarter century. If dementia is itself a loosening of our ideally shared perception of the social world, if it is to be thought of as a loss of something which the rest of us must indeed find and continue to care for, the one who suffers from it remains a talisman for all of us who live on and bear the mark of the future upon us, uncertain because unknown. But it is not so much the works of the past that themselves cannot be lost to us, but rather the very essence of our resolute being that faces down that selfsame future and walks with intrepid grace towards it. These too are the calling cards of an Ian Bairnson guitar; each solo is possessed with a graceful resoluteness that is kindred with the deeper call to conscience with which a human life presents its vehicle. As such, his music attains the more profound aesthetic of being a serious commentary on the shared existence that alone, each of us is called upon to both endure and enact.
G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in aesthetics, ethics, education, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.