The year 2016 has been beyond brutal for iconic musicians and music lovers alike. And apparently, the Grim Reaper is not yet finished.
Greg Lake, a progenitor of progressive rock music revered for his groundbreaking work with King Crimson and Emerson Lake & Palmer, died on Tuesday after a long battle with cancer. He was 69.
Like so many other music lovers around the world – I’d say “of a certain age,” but it isn’t really about that, as the myriad young people enamored of progressive music and educated in the work of its finest proponents have made clear to me – I fell hard for Lake’s incredibly warm and agile tenor singing voice and aggressively melodic bass playing from the moment I first heard it.
It was a copy of ELP’s “Trilogy” - played for me when I was but a wee lad by my older cousin Mike, during a family visit around the holidays - that turned me on to Lake’s brilliance. ELP was an often bombastic keyboard-led trio with the chops to be able to incorporate hefty classical motifs into lengthy and ambitious song structures, but on every album the group released, there would be a Lake-led dynamic shift, during which a lovely acoustic guitar-based tune would serve as a palette cleanser. “Trilogy” boasted one such piece, known as “From the Beginning,” and the tune compelled me to the point of obsession.
Soon, I had filled my plate with the entire ELP catalog, digested it and, looking for more brain-food, sought out the King Crimson albums that Lake had been a part of prior to the formation of ELP. That’s how I came upon “In the Court of the Crimson King” and “In the Wake of Poseidon,” two records that changed my Beatles-obsessed understanding regarding just what sort of magical universe rock music was capable of conjuring.
The members of the Robert Fripp-led Crimson, with Lake singing his heart out on tunes like “21st Century Schizoid Man,” “In the Court of the Crimson King,” “I Talk to the Wind” and “Cat Food,” sounded to me like they were cashing the check the Beatles wrote with “Sgt. Pepper” and “Abbey Road.” These records were towering achievements, and they still sound cutting-edge today.
Rochester-based artist manager and writer Bruce Pilato, who was managing the band I played guitar for throughout the '90s – the Tails – also happened to be Lake’s personal manager for all events related to his solo career, for more than a decade. I heard many great stories about the man as a result, and I relished them.
Pilato was simultaneously managing the Buffalo band Animal Planet, led by guitarist/vocalist Michael Lee Jackson, and when Lake needed a backing ensemble for a recording project, Pilato pointed him Animal Planet’s way.
“Animal Planet rehearsed a bunch of ELP and King Crimson tracks that Greg wanted to re-record with new approaches,” Jackson recalls. “He came to Buffalo to rehearse, and we practiced in my living room. We also helped him rehearse for his Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band tour that was then coming up quickly, if memory serves. Working with Greg was pretty challenging for all of us, especially keyboardist Paul Zablotski, who was expected to nail all of Keith Emerson's parts on ‘Karn Evil 9’, among other things - notwithstanding the fact that it was our reinterpretations of those tracks that first got Greg interested in working with Animal Planet. It was such an amazing experience for us.”
On Thursday, Lake’s former ELP band-mate Carl Palmer – widely held to be one of the most ferocious drummers in rock history – posted the following statement on his Facebook page:
“It is with great sadness that I must now say goodbye to my friend and fellow band-mate, Greg Lake. Greg’s soaring voice and skill as a musician will be remembered by all who knew his music and the recordings he made with ELP and King Crimson. I have fond memories of those great years we had in the 1970s and the many memorable shows we performed together. Having lost Keith (Emerson) this year as well, has made this particularly hard for all of us. As Greg sang at the end of (ELP’s) ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, ‘death is life.’ His music can now live forever in the hearts of all who loved him.”
And it surely will.