Greg Lake: Deep Waters Unexplored
13th May 2018
Title: Lucky Man, The Autobiography
Greg Lake spent time in a host of small time bands before his big break as co-founder of the legendary prog outfit, King Crimson, invited as he was by Robert Fripp. Previously a lead guitarist, he was forced into the role of bass player by Fripp. A role he was again forced into when he was invited by Keith Emerson to become a co-founder of another legendary band, Emerson, Lake & Palmer. After ELP eventually split, Lake released a series of solo projects, finally displaying his guitar skills, which received little notice because they were never properly pushed by his record label and have thus sunk without trace. Unfairly too. They are well worth seeking out.
On the evidence of this book alone, Lake seemed to be a decent guy. Level-headed, quite centred in terms of his emotions, with no apparent ego, quietly confidant in his abilities, creative, talented and passionate about his art. He seemed to be the sort of chap you’ve be happy to get to know and hang out with.
He should also have never written this book. I’ll try and explain why.
The book itself is a start to finish description of his music career. You receive a little bit of private information. A little touch about his mother and father here, a smidgen about his wife Regina there, the odd grandchild thrown in for good measure. Not very much, though. Just a few lines worth if you add the whole thing together.
Hence, this is a career-spanning book, primarily. In those terms, it’s all here. Lake’s professional life is well documented. The early struggles with bands who were largely beneath him in creative terms (my words, not his – Lake would never say such a thing, he was far too polite), his early times with King Crimson, the sense of being on a music adventure with the same, the musical exploration and the boundary breaking, the immense sense of loss when the first incarnation of the band broke up and Lake’s utter confusion that Fripp would even consider re-starting the same band with new members. Lake wanted to start again with a different band name and a new direction.
Then there’s the times with ELP, the forging of the trio, the early fumblings, the finding of a musical vision, the rise and rise of the band and then the confusing fall into the abyss. Then the solo years, guest appearances with the likes of Ringo Starr and then the end. Literally. The book finishes with a funeral eulogy written by his manager, Stewart Young, when Lake passed away on 7 December 2016.
In amongst that lot are mentions of life on the road, what it was like to tour the USA, a couple of examples of disastrous concert venues and that’s yer lot.
I’ve structured the above as a brief list because that’s what this book feels like. It feels like a contract filler or that Greg Lake’s ticked off this book as part of a bucket list because there is very little energy or emotion in this book. It’s written almost in a low key manner.
There are highlights in this book, of course. For example, when Emerson and Lake were searching for a drummer for their new band they actually interviewed Hendrix’s old sparring partner, Mitch Mitchell. The latter turned up at Lake’s place and during the conversation, Mitchell placed a handgun on the table, in full view. Almost as a spot of bravado. I’ll let you read the full story but to say that the episode was unsettling was an understatement. As you might expect, our Mitch didn’t get the job.
There’s also intriguing tour notes including his view on an entire country, Austria to be exact. Lake thought Austria viewed music as a more academic exercise as opposed to embracing the free-spirit of the passion of the thing. Then there was his reaction to a heckler in Germany and, let’s not forget, his death threat in the USA and the, er, friends who dealt with the pimp who issued the said threat. There’s Lake’s absolute awe while watching Elvis Presley during the early 70s and the complete desolation as he saw Elvis again not long before Presley’s death. Over-weight, forgetting his words and playing the fool. There’s a refreshing honesty about the later ELP albums too.
But there’s also too much left out. What’s worse, Lake alludes to them during the text. Sometimes it’s little things that you’d wish he would dwell upon, expand a bit and explain in more detail. For example, in Japan he describes Japanese custom officials as being “overly suspicious”. He never explains that statement. You’re left wondering what on earth he meant. Was he searched? What was said? Did anything happen? There are many little incidents like this throughout the book. You often feel like shouting, “Whoa, whoa, hang on Greg. Go back a bit, what exactly was all that about then?”
Even worse is his lack of any sort of analysis of the band dynamic, the so-called arguments that the three had on a regular basis, it seems. Why did they have them, when, where and how? What were they all about? He talks a little bit about Palmer and Emerson not wanting Lake to produce the later albums but why exactly? Despite the fact that all of Lake’s-produced LPs were far superior and more successful when compared to those ELP albums he did not produce. There was a story there that Lake ignored.
Another example, “…Carl told the media that he had expected us to be at each other’s throats again. I have never understood this negative tendency.” Read that carefully: this had been going on for a while; this was a trait of Palmer; the arguments had been going on for some time. There’s no explanation for any of this. Nothing.
I also get a sense that Greg Lake was covered in a cloak of innocence. If not innocence then he wasn’t quite aware of the bigger picture which meant that he didn’t see elephants in rooms. Maybe he was so focused, in his own bubble, he lost a sense of the context within any given situation. For example, there are numerous parts of the book in which he addresses the accusation sometimes thrown at him and ELP of being pretentious. He talks about how the media treated ELP and the personal attacks they suffered in print and on the Internet. He also shows how nervous he was about the image of the band. He disliked ELP being described as a ‘super group’, for example, and thought that tag would negatively rebound on ELP later – it would.
At one point he discusses prog’s liking for odd time signatures and his disapproval of the same if the signatures were only used for effect or only to impress, “Often a piece claiming to be written in five-four time was just four-four with an added beat pasted at the end of each bar,” he said. He was wary of music “show boating” of losing “integrity” and that he wanted to prevent the music being “cheapened by pretension”. Which all sounds laudable if it wasn’t for the fact that, a mere six pages earlier, he proudly talks about ending ELP’s first ever live concert, at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, by firing two cannons into the air!
Greg! If you’re up there, looking own on this review, don’t you think that ending a gig by firing not even one but two entire cannons at the audience might just be considered a tiny bit pretentious? This from a band who’s keyboard player would eventually end up ‘flying’ in the air with a Steinway piano over Madison Square Garden. A gig that would have Lake singing Silent Night to the same audience while a full blown gospel choir rose from the floor to join in behind. Whereupon indoor snow fell from the ceiling! Pretentious? Our Greg? Just perish that thought, buddy.
Part of the problem is that Lake is just so darned nice. I can’t actually fault him for that but part of the reason for writing a book like this is to reveal truths. This focus being on the ‘reveal’ bit. There are just too many things left unsaid here. When you write a book, you either do the job properly or not at all. If you don’t want to upset anyone, then don’t even think about writing a book. If you are going to put finger to keyboard, though, supplying half a story is frankly dishonest. After all, you’re expecting the public to pay for this thing.
There’s more, though and maybe this is the main reason for the above. Maybe this is the source of the issues. Lake knew he had terminal cancer when he was writing this book and that seems to come through in his writing. He seems too much in a hurry to finish – this book spans 304 pages. It really should have been 608. At least. I wonder if Lake’s illness cramped this project.
Greg Lake should never have written this book. He should have employed a journalist to write a biography. Then that professional writer could have probed him with direct questions to produce a far livelier, informative and insightful tome.
Having said all of that, I did enjoy reading it. I was frustrated as hell during the entire process, I have to say, but there was still much to enjoy. Fans – and only fans – will still find much of interest here and fans – and only fans – should still grab a copy. It’s a shame that you’re only presented with half a book.
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