ELP

In Memoriam – Epitaph: Greg Lake

Confusion will be my epitaph

As I crawl this cracked and broken path

If we make it we will all sit back and laugh

But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying.

From “Epitaph” by King Crimson. Lyrics by Peter Sinfield

 

Today Progressive Rock fans shed tears at the loss of a legend. One can only react with confusion that for the second time in 2016 a member of that paragon of progressive power trios Emerson, Lake and Palmer has left us. On December 7th, Greg Lake passed away less than a month after celebrating his sixty ninth birthday.

It is ironic to write that the music scene will not be the same following his passing. The music scene has not been the same since he entered it. We first heard Mr. Lake’s extraordinary talents on King Crimson’s eclectic masterpiece, In the Court of the Crimson King. The 1969 album sounds ahead-of-its-time even today. That’s a remarkable observation for a record originally released almost fifty years ago.

Mr. Lake’s vocals augmented Crimso’s innovative style; and the band’s repertoire provided him with myriad opportunities to display his capabilities. He added soft crooning to the ethereal “I Talk to the Wind” and haunting vocals to the lesser known “Moonchild.” His somber rendition of “Epitaph” brought the disillusionment in Peter Sinfield’s lyrics to life. That’s quite a challenging task with words this powerful.

The wall on which the prophets wrote

Is cracking at the seams.

Upon the instruments of death

The sunlight brightly gleams.

Mr. Lake’s vocals made King Crimson a Classic Rock icon. His bass playing made the band legendary. During “21st Century Schizoid Man” he, guitarist Robert Fripp and drummer Michael Giles performed the best instrumental jam ever recorded. He anticipated Heavy Metal bass lines through his thunderous bottom end on the live staple “Mars, the Bringer of War” from Holst’s The Planets. The origins of progressive rock came about through the melding of classical music with hard rock in tracks such as this one.

Mr. Lake achieved more musically during the two albums he recorded with King Crimson than most could in several lifetimes. Had he retired following his all-too brief stint with the band, he still would have assured his place in music history. To the delight of Progressive Rock fans, he harbored higher aspirations.

Mr. Lake joined up with keyboardist Keith Emerson and drummer Carl Palmer. The three established a veritable Prog Rock super group. In addition to entertaining audiences with his singing, bass playing and even his proficiency with the guitar, he used the opportunity to showcase his songwriting skills. Cuts such as “Lucky Man”, “Still You Turn Me On” and “From the Beginning” showed that even “serious” musicians could resonate with mainstream rock audiences.

Mr. Lake had the misfortune, to use that word loosely, of working with poet Peter Sinfield. In addition to writing for King Crimson, he also penned the words to ELP’s tour-de-force “Pirates.” Because of the man’s talents Mr. Lake’s skill as a lyricist often gets overlooked. But who doesn’t recognize the opening to “Lucky Man”?

He had white horses

And ladies by the score

All dressed in satin

And waiting by the door.

Oh, what a lucky man he was.

Mr. Lake achieved the pinnacle of his lyrical abilities in “The Sage”; a track he added to the band’s version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The haunting opening stanza eloquently established the mood.

I carry the dust of a journey

That cannot be shaken away.

It lives deep within me

For I breathe it every day.

Like all progressive rock musicians, Mr. Lake always sought opportunities to expand the boundaries of his trade. During the late seventies, he experimented with an eight string electric bass guitar. He used it to full effect on Works Live. Since he couldn’t play both bass and guitar while on stage, the extra strings made the instrument sound like a bridge between the two. It gave early ELP classics like “Knife Edge” and “Tank” a fresh sound.

His musical peers showed immense respect for his skill with the instrument. It seemed fitting that the group which pioneered the “concept album” would invite Mr. Lake to join them. Following John Entwistle’s passing, The Who recruited him to play bass on their 2004 track “Real Good Looking Boy.”

Of course, Mr. Lake will best be remembered for his vocal talents. In addition to rock, he could sing jazzy tunes like “Show Me the Way to Go Home” and “Step Aside” with equal dexterity. He added an excellent Bob Dylan impersonation to ELP’s cover of “The Man in the Long Black Coat”, as well.

It’s sad that the person who wrote the Christmas staple “I Believe in Father Christmas” would pass away during the Holiday Season. I send my deepest condolences to Mr. Lake’s friends and family during this difficult time.

Just possibly, Mr. Lake wrote his own epitaph. For “The End” section of Pictures at an Exhibition he crafted the following lyrics.

There’s no end to my life   

No beginning to my death

Death is life.

In Memoriam – Keith Emerson

“From the beginning” it seemed as though “The Three Fates” predestined Keith Emerson to be an “iconoclast”. “The hand of truth” deemed that Mr. Emerson would become a veritable “tiger in a spotlight”. He approached the keyboards like Jimi Hendrix played the guitar: tilting and contorting the instrument and performing “the miracle” of melding feedback into a melody. Other keyboardists had to “step aside” after he entered the music scene. Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s sheet music became like “paper blood”. While I never possessed the skill to play Mr. Emerson’s compositions, I’m a “lucky man” for having had the opportunity to listen to them. I have immense admiration for the composer.

Keith Emerson passed away at the age of 71 this past March 10th. I send my deepest condolences to his friends and family during this difficult time. I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing him personally. As with any artist I feel like I got to know him a bit through his work.

I first encountered his music in the early 1980’s. Synthesizer driven ditties were ubiquitous staples of pop radio. Based on what I heard over the airwaves I figured the instrument rather facile to master. As I matured musically and began exploring Progressive Rock, Mr. Emerson proved me wrong. He approached the instrument as a substitute for an entire orchestra on covers of “Fanfare for the Common Man“, “Mars, The Bringer of War” and “The Barbarian”. In fact, I first heard a rock group play with an orchestra on ELP’s 1979 release In Concert. The Third Movement from Mr. Emerson’s “Piano Concerto Number 1” inspired me to learn more about Classical Music.

Not that Mr. Emerson’s capabilities were limited to that one genre. Had he so chosen, he would’ve made an outstanding Jazz Pianist. His playing on tunes such as “Step Aside” and “Show Me the Way to Go Home” exhibited his range with the instrument. One should also include his proficiency with ragtime playing, as well. He delivered a fine rendition of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” on ELP Works Volume Two. With the aid of a synthesizer he even covered Blues legend Freddie King’s “Hideaway”; a tune Eric Clapton also recorded.

In addition, the man had a fantastic ear for pop music. I can still recall the days in 1986 when Emerson, Lake and Powell’s “Touch and Go” received continuous play on MTV as well as the radio. His playing on “Karn Evil 9 First Impression, Part Two” served as a unique melding of classical and pop music. Of course, his addition of the modest synthesizer solo at the end of “Lucky Man” gave that track a unique character.

While not known as a balladeer, Mr. Emerson wrote the music for some of my favorites. “Farewell to Arms” from 1992’s Black Moon earned a special place in the band’s catalogue for its message. 1986’s “Lay Down Your Guns” featured the most intricate musical arrangement I’ve ever heard on a song about a troubled romance.

Musicians such as Mr. Emerson convinced me that the keyboards were too challenging for someone of my limited abilities. After trying to learn the instrument for years, to the relief of friends, family and neighbors, I gave up in favor of the bass guitar. The man even intimidated me at that! The bass line he played on his Moog during the “Battlefield” section of “Tarkus” on the live 1974 album would’ve given Bach a run for his money. The fact he managed to do this with one hand while playing the chord progression on an organ with the other made this achievement even more remarkable.

In addition to these outstanding attributes of Mr. Emerson’s abilities, he truly excelled as an arranger. The way he coordinated all the parts to “Pirates” made that song one of the best ever recorded. I liked how the orchestra, the band and the melody all worked together in such a way that didn’t clutter the mix. While a great accomplishment, he reached his true apex on 1994’s In the Hot Seat. On that album he directed an arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “The Man in the Long Black Coat”. (Yes, you read that correctly. Even ELP covered Bob Dylan’s music.) While ELP played numerous classical pieces, I always felt this one their best non-original recording.

I did have one issue with Mr. Emerson. On the cover of 1979’s Love Beach he showed off his washboard abs. The man was a classically trained rock musician who spent a lot of time on the road. The fact he managed to keep himself in that kind of shape took away any excuse I had for letting myself go when I worked as a performing musician.

The next time I hear Greg Lake utter the iconic line, “welcome back my friends to the show that never ends” I’ll feel a tinge of sadness. Perhaps Mr. Lake said it best in the lyrics he wrote appropriately enough for “The End” section of “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

There’s no end to my life

No beginning to my death

Death is life.

C’est la vie.