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.