by Rick Krueger
“ELP were often criticized for running an overblown or overproduced show … The Persian carpets are useful because they cover the crisscross of wires over the stage, reduce slippage, absorb some of the noise so you can hear each other play and — this is the prima donna part — they make you feel more comfortable and at home on stage.” (Emphasis mine.)
This quote, from page 160 of Lucky Man, was when I finally understood Greg Lake. In books like Keith Emerson’s memoir Pictures of an Exhibitionist and David Weigel’s The Show That Never Ends, he usually comes off as pretentious, petulant, demanding and unsatisfied, the irrational antagonist to Emerson’s grand designs. After Lake’s passing in late 2016, Sid Smith’s lovely obituary in Prog Magazine humanized him for me, and Lucky Man — while not a tell-all book like Emerson’s — completes the process. Underneath the aura of entitled celebrity Lake projected, the man got the cosmic joke. He realized he was living the dream, he felt he’d worked hard to get there — but also that hard work wasn’t the whole story. So he figured he might as well live the dream in high style.
Lake draws the veil over a lot — we don’t get the play-by-plays of tour debauchery that Emerson overshared, and the conflicts during the recording of Tarkus and the 1977 Works orchestra tour are stated but soft-pedaled. What we do get is an outline of the classic rock and roll career — humble beginnings in Bournemouth, a wannabe pop star stint in London, success with King Crimson, and a ten year roller coaster ride to the top of the world and back down with ELP — all before he turned 35. What do you do for an encore?
Here’s what I take away from Lucky Man: Lake realized lightning like that doesn’t strike twice. He took opportunities when they came up (a brief 1980s solo career, a one-night stand with Asia to help out Carl Palmer, the extended 1990s reunion of ELP and their final 2010 show, his Songs of a Lifetime tour), but he never put much faith in another climb to the pinnacle. Working with and hearing great musicians obviously excited him — his stories of meeting the Shadows’ Hank Martin, seeing Elvis live in Vegas, touring with Ringo Starr and recording with the Who bring out his inner fan. But in Crimson and ELP, Lake knew his standards and his boundaries, and he stuck to his guns, no matter the friction that resulted. It was the music that mattered the most to him, and both Emerson and Palmer acknowledged that in retrospect. With any worldly ambitions fulfilled so early in life, he could simply take pride in his accomplishments and find satisfaction in his family.
Which makes the end of Lucky Man, where Lake reflects on Keith Emerson’s suicide and his own terminal cancer diagnosis, even more poignant. An Epicurean who enjoyed the high life in so many ways, the man’s final words provide a gracious, fitting coda to this surprisingly Stoic memoir:
“Without your love and encouragement the life I have lived would never have been possible. I have been a lucky man.”
Note: Lucky Man has only been published in Great Britain. It’s available worldwide through Book Depository, which is based in the UK, owned by Amazon but operating independently. They offer free worldwide shipping. Here’s the link.
(This post is in loving memory of the late Joel Kimball, master of the Rickenbacker bass and the bagpipes at Alma College from 1980-1984.)