“The greatest music is made for love, not for money.”-Greg Lake
And let me assure you that Greg meant every word of it, too. Every word. Greg Lake lived to make music; music that he truly loved. Quality music. He was always striving for perfection in every aspect, every facet of what he was creating: music. He loved to create it, loved to share it. Simply loved it, period. It was the air he breathed. In 2015, a year before he left us, Greg told the now defunct, online publication Examiner: “As long as people want to hear me play and as long as I’m able to play, then I will. I enjoy playing and performing. If I wasn’t doing that, what else would I do?”
In the almost twenty years that I have been a music journalist, I have never met another artist whose love for music appeared to be so absolute. It was more than love, more than a passion. It was a reverence for music. In regard to its affect on the human soul, Greg Lake said, “Music is an emotional experience, and that is what imprints itself on the soul.” Music was both sacred and magical to the man I was lucky enough to have known in the early 1990s. A very special man and artist who left us exactly one year ago tomorrow on Wednesday, December 7th, 2016 at 8 pm UK time in his beloved London, England. Greg was 69.
I met Greg Lake on a blind date back in 1993, when both of us were living in Southern California. At the time, all the members of Emerson, Lake & Palmer were living in the Los Angeles area, as they quite literally worked their collective asses off 24/7 to make a musical “comeback” for the band. This second time around was presenting a daunting array of challenges which the band had not previously experienced during their ‘glory days’ of the 1970s.
For Greg, his personal ‘cross to bear’ was the private battle he was waging against COPD. The steroids he was taking to help control its symptoms were playing havoc on his body in every conceivable way, both in form and function. Adding to his distress was Greg’s decision to keep it a private battle. He chose at that time not to discuss it publicly, nor with anyone he was seeing at that time.
This resulted in some confusion for me, as I patiently tried to sort out exactly what was going on with Greg’s health issues. Greg:”Shirley, I’m supposed to be on steroids right now…I mean, I’ve been on steroids but…dammit! I can’t seem to keep the weight off! You work in the medical field. What the hell can I do to get some of this weight off my arse?!” Me: “Why are you taking steroids?” Greg: “Well, I’m not taking them right now!” Me: “Why were you taking steroids? Why would you want to take steroids?” Greg: “I DON’T want to take steroids! I want to lose the damn weight! Do you know of any way to lose the weight now?!” Me: “Have you tried exercising? Have you tried cutting back on sweets, eating more protein? Try doing an aerobic form of exercise, that might help! If you’d cut back on your alcohol consumption that would help A LOT! Alcohol has a lot of calories!” Greg: “ARE YOU THICK?! I’m not talking about THAT!! I’m just asking you what’s the best way to lose the weight?!” A deafening quiet fills the cabin of the boat. Fifteen minutes passes. Greg: (in a voice as soft as clouds and sweet as honey) “Is cycling an ‘aerobic’ exercise?” Sigh. My poor Greg.
When not on tour, making yet another television appearance or in the studio, Greg was splitting his time between a rented home and a boat which he kept docked in the Marina Del Rey area. As I think about it, I suspect that Greg spent more time on that boat than he did at the far more comfortable home he rented. As I look back, these twenty-four years later, I’m both amused and horrified at the extent to which he would push my limits of physical endurance, just for us to be near the ocean at all times. Greg was born and raised in the English coastal community of Dorset, and the love of the sea was imprinted on his soul almost as strongly as his love of music. I found that out the hard way, the very first night we spent together.
That first, unforgettable night we spent together wasn’t spent at some luxury hotel with room service, fresh linen sheets and a view of the ocean. Instead, it was spent on the shore itself; literally ON THE SHORE. ALL NIGHT. In his CAR. As I shivered in the front seat at 2 am in the wintertime, hardly dressed for the occasion in a sequined cocktail dress with a plunging back, I tried to focus on the stunning view of the Southern California ocean, its waves softly illuminated by the moonlight, as I quite literally froze blue in the cold. “Turn the engine ON, Greg! Turn the heater ON! Jesus Christ!! This car is like a refrigerator!” All the while, Greg is positively beaming with pure joy:”Can you believe that view, Shirley! Is this a beautiful place or what! I love Southern California! I love the lifestyle folks enjoy here! I think I’m gonna make this my permanent home. Why go back to England, where it’s cold in the winter, when you can enjoy a warm(!) night like this?!” Indeed.
Adding to my discomfort was the fact that Greg was a smoker; a heavy smoker. He must have easily been going through three packs a day when I knew him. As I am highly allergic to tobacco smoke, I forbade him smoking in the car. The lethal combination of concentrated tobacco smoke and freezing cold would have surely sent me to ER that night, had I not mustered the courage to tell him “No way in hell are you smoking in HERE!” As a result, Greg would duck out every 15-20 minutes, all night long, to enjoy that ‘pause that refreshes.’ He’d return, his body a two hundred-plus mass of pure ice, because it was me who was wearing his heavy, leather coat. He never complained, bless him.
It was the next morning, over a fried shrimp and calamari “dinner served at breakfast” on the marina pier, that I finally got to know Greg…and he got to know me. Boy, did he get to know me! Never before (or since) have I gone out with anyone who asked me so many personal-almost invasive-questions on a first date, as Greg Lake did that day! “Where were your parents born? Are they still alive? Where do they live? What did your father do for a living? Did your mother work? Are they religious? Do you have any brothers and/or sisters? What did you tell me that you do for a living? Do you enjoy your job? When was the last time that you went to your doctor…and what were you treated for?” The questions went on and on, to the point that it was almost impossible for me to eat a bite of my dinner (and I was hungry)!
Finally, in desperation, I did something utterly gross but necessary: I literally spit the food out of my mouth, right onto my plate, telling Greg: “Listen, I can’t get a bite in edgewise for all the endless questions you keep firing at me! I’ve answered all the questions I’m gonna answer until after we finish this meal, okay?! Why don’t you tell me about yourself?” That exasperated request opened the floodgates, and those gates didn’t close until hours had passed.
To my surprise, unlike anyone else I’ve gone out with, instead of talking about his family, his job…the usual subjects that I’m accustomed to hearing about on a first date…Greg began talking about his life’s passions: music, literature (poetry in particular), history (with an emphasis on the courts of Elizabeth I and Henry VIII), fishing and the “art of war.” Oh…and animals. He loved animals, especially dogs. He talked about his “Field dogs” and his favorite in particular: a lively Irish Setter he named “Oliver Cromwell.”
As he spoke about music, his eyes got an amazing look to them: a kind of intense glow that’s hard to explain but impossible to forget all these years later. “Do you like music, Shirley? No, do you LOVE music? Music has literally saved my life! It IS my life! If I’d had to work a ‘real’ job, I think I would have committed suicide years ago! I can’t imagine doing anything else. Music touches the soul; imprints itself on your very soul like nothing else can! It’s MAGICAL; pure magic!” I told Greg I felt exactly the same way; that had I not discovered music early on in my life, that I likely wouldn’t be alive today.
To my delight, I discovered that it was the Beatles whose music first set our hearts on fire; lit that ‘eternal flame’ that was still ablaze all these years later. I told Greg the story about how I first discovered the Beatles through a cousin of mine who was schizophrenic. How, for all her life, her main passion was the Beatles. For about the first twenty years of her life they were her sole passion. Their music (and Paul McCartney!) were her reasons for living. Greg listened intently, and nodded in agreement.
Greg excitedly recalled the first Beatles single that captured his attention and made him a life-long fan of them and their music, ‘Please Please Me.’ Years later, Greg enjoyed the privilege of performing in Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band. He and Ringo got along very well, and Greg enjoyed every minute of it. Greg told Ringo: “I was in a successful Rock & Roll band (ELP). But you were in a band that changed the world!”
‘Greensleeves’, complete with lyrics:
Another delightful discovery was finding out we shared a passion for the “court music” of Henry VIII…as well as the man himself. One song from that period was nearest and dearest to our hearts: ‘Greensleeves.’ We agreed that from the moment we first heard it, we were smitten with it! I eagerly told Greg that it was written by Henry VIII himself. He had never heard that, and was impressed (note: today most musicologists no longer believe that it was composed by Henry VIII). It was at that moment that Greg suddenly-right there in the restaurant-began singing Greensleeves…loudly, lol! Unlike me, he knew every lyric by heart. Without the least bit of embarrassment, Greg proceeded to sing the entire song, right there at our table! Unsure of what to do in such a public situation, I did the only thing one could do: I joined him! Surprisingly, hardly anyone seemed to take any mind of us.
Later that night, tucked away in his boat docked at the marina, Greg somberly discussed the aftermath of the German bombing of England during World War II. Greg: “Shirley, you can’t begin to imagine how utterly decimated England was after WWII! Most people lost their homes; some forever! For many years there wasn’t enough money available after the war to rebuild public structures, much less private housing. If you had traveled to England during the ‘Swinging Sixties’ you’d have been horrified to see the extent of the damage that was still there! A full twenty years after the war ended, there was still rubble present in much of London!”
I told him that, speaking as an American, I was ashamed that America had not entered the war sooner to help bring aid to England’s brave civilians left behind to struggle through the nightmare at home. At that, Greg was quick to correct me: “Your country may have entered late, but believe me, it made a big difference in the lives of my parents and countless other families! Many children were evacuated out by American troops and, after the war, American companies came in and built ‘temporary’ housing that-for many-became permanent housing for many years. My family were among those!” His love for America, and especially Americans, is one of the things I remember most about Greg Lake.
Although Greg was eager and willing to talk about other subjects, one subject he was almost loathe to discuss was his family. I had to ask him specific questions to get answers from him that weren’t vague. Like my own parents, his were “working class” from humble beginnings. He stressed to me how hard his father worked, and that his parents had never owned their own home until he bought them one (in the 1970s, after Emerson, Lake & Palmer became hugely successful). I told him that I had bought my parents a home in the late 1980s, but that-for the most part-our relationship continued to be strained. Greg proceeded to tell me in no uncertain terms that the “adult” thing for me to do was to get on with living my own life and to let my family “carry on with living theirs.” I could sense, from the tone in Greg’s voice, that this was a sensitive subject for him, and I didn’t pursue asking him any more questions about his parents. Only recently did I discover that Greg had (for whatever reasons) become estranged from his parents, shortly after his marriage in 1974.
He said that his father-Harry Lake-was an “engineer.” Many years later, I found out that, in actuality, his father had worked as a machinist, standing on his feet all day. It also took me many years to learn the full story of just how supportive his father had been in helping his son to achieve his dream of a successful career in music.
Greg began performing very shortly after receiving a guitar for Christmas in 1959. Before his 13th birthday, Greg was already performing in local venues, with boys much older than himself. Some of the venues in which the band performed would not allow a minor like Greg in without “adult supervision.” Harry Lake accompanied young Greg on countless school and work nights, acting as a kind of road manager, roadie, chauffeur and bodyguard. All this rolled into one big, jovial man that-as Greg got older-he became the spitting image of. Lake’s childhood neighbor and school chum, Graham Jones observed, “As Greg got older, he looked more and more like his father, Harry. Harry had the same round face and big frame as Greg got as Greg got older.” As of this date, I’m still trying to locate a photo of Harry Lake.
His mother Lily, known to her family and friends as “Pearl”, was a full-time housewife. Like my own mother, Greg told me that Pearl was a heavy smoker for most of her life, and-like my own mother-she smoked in front of her young children without a moment’s hesitation. I remember telling Greg that I thought that was “gross” behavior for a mother to do, and that I always resented my own mother for doing that to her children. Greg reminded me that this was common behavior for their generation and-until the 1970s-no one really understood how harmful ‘second-hand’ smoke truly is…and as usual, he was right.
By the time I knew Greg, both of his parents had died. Many ELP fans mistakenly believe that Greg wrote the song ‘Oh, My Father’ in honor of Harry Lake, after his father’s demise. In reality, the song was written and recorded eleven years before Harry Lake’s death. Sadly, Greg didn’t attend the funerals of either of his parents, as he was on tour at those times. Notwithstanding, Greg’s parents were devoted to their only child throughout their entire lives. Recalled Graham Jones, “Greg’s parents proudly displayed framed, golden LP discs that the band had received as industry recognition for their album sales. The discs were on prominent display on one wall in the lounge of their small bungalow. Greg’s parents just adored their son, always!”
‘Oh, My Father’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5YZ-DfsZK8
Harry passed away on January 4, 1982, and Lily followed him on January 15, 1988. Their ashes are buried at the Poole Cemetery in Oakdale, Poole, Dorset, England. In 2016, with the kind assistance of Graham Jones, I was finally able to locate the grave of Greg’s parents. Time and the elements have done their job on the headstone, rendering its inscription difficult to read.
Tomorrow, December 7th, 2017 marks the first anniversary of Greg’s death. Greg would have turned 70 on November 10th of this year. He waged a long (just over three years) and truly brave battle against Pancreatic cancer, before finally succumbing to it. Tomorrow, ELP fans all over the world will be lifting a glass to toast the man who was one of Progressive Rock’s founding fathers, and I will be among them. However, I won’t be raising a glass in Greg’s honor. Instead, I will be lifting a FORK, as I enjoy a cheesecake! That is one of my fondest memories of Greg: sharing a big, sticky cheesecake together, and we ate every bite.
I recall a funny story a friend of mine told me about Greg and his bandmates on tour in 1992. It revolved around an after-show party that almost (but not quite) happened in Greg’s hotel room. Anticipating a hungry crowd…a crowd that never came…Greg picked up the phone and proceeded to order literally everything on the hotel’s room service menu. The piece de resistance? A giant cheesecake. Don’t ask me what Greg did with all that food! The next morning, as Carl Palmer stood at the hotel lobby’s service desk, checking the band out of the hotel and back on the road, Carl literally hit the roof when he saw that enormous food bill; all of it charged to the band’s ‘travel expenses’ of course, lol!
It still seems inconceivable to me that he’s gone. My mind cannot, will not fully accept that he has left us. In fact, mere months before his death, Greg was announcing his plans for a tour to promote not one but two recent projects he’d just completed: his long-awaited autobiography and a documentary film that gives a comprehensive overview of his long, seminal career in music. The book has recently been published (‘Greg Lake: Lucky Man’) while we still await the release of the documentary, produced by Bob Harris. Dear Mr. Harris, guess what I want for Christmas…NOW!! Okay, pretty please?
Greg Lake had an amazing energy to him, the likes of which I haven’t experienced an equal to in my (almost) sixty-two years on this earth. For me, just being around him was both invigorating and exhausting…and I would gladly do it all over again. He was a “force of Nature” to be reckoned with; a man that I’m sure I will remember long after I’m so damn old that I can no longer even remember my own name. It was more than his mega-watt smile, more than the way his eyes would twinkle as he grinned at you. He just had that certain something about him, as both a man and an artist, that made your senses positively ignite as you watched and listened to him. It made no difference whether he was onstage sharing the experience with his audience, or offstage lying next to you, telling you a story; any story. You simply could not keep your eyes off of him…or your hands either, for that matter! As the late Robert Palmer would say, Greg Lake was “simply irresistible.” Simply unforgettable.
I would like to thank the following people for their kind assistance and cooperation:
Graham Jones, for providing previously unpublished photos and for sharing his insights/recollections of Greg Lake’s family and childhood. You sir, are a gentleman and a scholar!
Little, Brown Book Company, for allowing the use of photos from the book ‘Greg Lake: Lucky Man’
Cynthia Blair, for allowing this writer the use of her exquisite painting, ‘Moonchild.’ Cynthia, your artistry never fails to leave me breathless!
All photos, except where indicated, provided by The Emerson, Lake and Palmer Appreciation Group.
Special note: Over the years, countless photographers and fans took photographs of Greg Lake, many of which have found their way onto the internet and into Public Domain sites. I welcome any/all photographers whose work was used in the making of this article to please contact me at your convenience. I will gladly credit you by full name for your fine work as it was presented here. Furthermore, should you desire your work not to be included in this article, please alert me and I will graciously, promptly delete it.