"Songs of a Lifetime is a celebration of the age of shared music. That's what it is. I spent a long time preparing the show, I recorded all the music from scratch to build the show into what it is. I was determined that it should not be one of those, 'legend in his own lunchtimes,' sitting on a stool boring everyone rigid. I wanted it to be entertaining, and I wanted it to be emotional." ~ Greg Lake
Well, he certainly made it that - if you've not yet seen, or heard Songs of a Lifetime, it is a tremendously well done overview of the musical journey of Greg Lake. He covers his life from an early adoration of Elvis and The Beatles to the high flying private jet days of ELP to what he considers the necessity of reconnecting with his fans in a return to the 'shared music' experience, and he's done it in an extremely entertaining and emotional package.
I wasn't sure what to expect from my time with Greg, but whatever I hoped for was greatly exceeded by the man's generous and charming demeanor. We managed to keep the ball afloat for over an hour, and ended with an agreement to get together soon for more talk, and a glass of wine - this conversation definitely primed my desire to read his soon to be published autobiography, which he expects will be out by summer's end. What you'll find here is that Greg Lake is a great storyteller.
Our conversation, unfortunately, started with my informing Greg of the passing of guitar legend Alvin Lee. I asked Greg if he had yet heard the news:
Greg Lake: "No idea, no....no I didn't. Good lord. Very sad, very sad. Thank you for letting me know - I wasn't close to him as a friend, but obviously he was there as I was growing up, and a big part of the rock scene in England during my formative years.
"It just makes you realize that we have to be grateful for every day we've got. Because you never know. I suppose everybody, when you get older, you start to value your time more. When you're a young man, you just don't think about it, do ya?"
Getting that bit of rough news out of the way, we move on and I asked Greg if there had yet been a release date announced for his upcoming autobiography:
Greg Lake: "No, there hasn't but it will certainly be out before the fall. It's one of those things where, I get to a point where I think I've finished it - I can't do anymore. And then somebody will say something and I'll think, 'Oh crap! I've left it out, that's gotta go in,' so I go back.
"Sooner or later I'm going to have to close the door, and say that's it. Because, literally - anybody could go on for years, just carrying on with the writing, because it's an endless book, isn't it?"
Knowing when to end a project and say enough is enough is something that must be terribly familiar to Greg Lake - he produced King Crimson's first album at the age of 22, and has since produced a great many more - so is it harder to know when to end a book than a record?:
Greg Lake: "I think in a way, it is more difficult, because there's always something you've left out. And the horrible thing is that some of the stuff is real important in terms of an autobiography. You realize that you've left someone really important out of it, no matter how hard you try. You know, life is strange - there are so many things, and so many people in my life that I have to be grateful to for having played a part in the success I've had."
Knowing that Greg is a fervid book collector, I had to wonder if any classic autobiographies from history had influenced the writing of his own:
Greg Lake: "No, actually, no. For some reason, I'm not an autobiographical collector, not for any real reason, but I'm into, I suppose, literature - English literature, 18th/19th century and also, I'm into voyages and exploration, that kind of thing."
I realize the logic of a man like Lake being into travel and adventure, given his chosen profession as a poet and troubadour:
Greg Lake: "Well, of course - that was the beginning of the touring musician, I suppose."
Looking back at his early days with King Crimson, I asked if their sophistication, and grandiosity was an intention, or just the sum of the musicians who made up the band:
Greg Lake: "I think what you refer to as grandiosity was probably the fact that the music, instead of being influenced by the blues, and American music - soul, gospel, country and western, as almost all rock and roll was up to that time, we took our influence from European music, which was classical, medieval, folk, but certainly European in its form.
"I think that's what gave you, and other people the feeling that it was somehow designed to be grand. It wasn't designed to be grand. It was designed to be good and feelingful.
"You know, there's a lot of feeling in songs like Epitaph, or In The Court of the Crimson King. It's a different feeling to the blues, you know? It's a different passion and so it may have come across as being 'grand' in that sense, but really and truly the intention was not so much that - it was an unconscious by-product of what we were doing, really.
"We needed....you see, in those days it was very important to be original, and there was a premium on being original - in fact, if you weren't original, it was very difficult to get noticed, because there were so many incredible, original artists around at that time. You only have to look back at the record charts in those days to see how many acts there were that were stunningly different.
"If you played a record by the Pink Floyd, or Hendrix, The Who, Zeppelin - you'd know within three seconds who that was. They sounded so individual, so unique, and the challenge was when King Crimson began was, 'How are we going to be unique?"
I interrupt to congratulate and thank him for his part, and his success in turning a European rock band back to their European roots:
Greg Lake: "That well of American music had been visited so many times, as great as it was, it was becoming very hard to find any new way to approach it!
"I think it was an interesting thing to do, and I think, actually, now looking back on it, I think it had a good influence on music. It opened up music, so that instead of it just being, sort of that narrow bandwidth, as great as it is, as great as soul is, the blues is, and all American music is - it actually opened up the palette, the whole spectrum of music, and a lot of new music came about as a result of that influence."
Looking back at the late '60s and the early seventies, I asked Lake if he felt that music had somehow stagnated since - was it my imagination, or had the creativity of that era wained in the ensuing years?
Greg Lake: "I think that was a golden era of creativity - in the art, in music art. I think as with all golden eras - they come, and go, frankly.
"The same as with Hollywood movies, there was a golden era where these great classic films were made with these great classic actors, and it isn't the same today - it's more manufactured, more processed. You get the sense that it's more processed, and less natural.
"So that's my perspective on it - that isn't to say that there aren't great musicians around, because there certainly are. I think it's just that times have changed - when music doesn't play as big a part in culture, it's not as relevant to our culture as it was during the late '60s, and early '70s."
Being different, and original - that's an idea that never grows old, and in that regard it always struck me as fascinating that before Greg Lake and Robert Fripp decided to partner up in King Crimson, they had been taking guitar lessons, literally the same lessons from the same teacher, and yet as guitarists they are stylistically light years apart. I asked Greg how they ended up so different as players, coming from such a similar background:
Greg Lake: "Look, all musicians are different - it's just what's inside of you, really.
"I would say that Robert is more, sort of, his approach is more academic and technical - mine is more feelingful, and because I sing, my interest in the guitar was not being a soloist, it was being an accompanist for myself singing. I suppose that's the directional difference.
"Although we both learned exactly the same lessons from the same man, a guy named Don Strike. So did Andy Summers, incidentally, he went to Don Strike, as well. There was the three of us there - so, that'll just show you.
"Andy is very different from myself, or Robert - however, the one thing we do share in common is this cross-picking technique. We do share a technical similarity, but that's where it ends, really. As you grow older, you become more yourself. Your whole playing and motivation in music becomes very personal."
I noted to Lake that his acoustic guitar work is especially distinct, that I could recognize his playing in just a few chords, and this lead to a discussion of early guitar influences:
Greg Lake: "Well, that's quite nice of you to say - again, I think it's the approach, the cross-picking. And, of course, the other thing is the use of chords - European music has got more variety in terms of musical structure. A lot of guitar players play their music based around the blues effectively, and as good as it is, it can be a bit limiting.
"As far as influences, there are two sides to it, really. The one would be people like Django Reinhardt in the early days when I was in guitar lessons. Segovia was another great guitar player that I was kind of in awe of.
"But later, of course, it became people like Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck, people who were outstandingly good who I admired, and still do to this day. Their guitar playing has never ceased to amaze me!
"I should also mention a guy called Hank Marvin, who played for a group, The Shadows. He influenced pretty much anybody and everybody. You talk to any great guitarist - they'll all tell you that they respect Hank Marvin, because he had a wonderful way with melody, and a great guitar sound.
"The thing I tire of now is, I tire of hearing the blindingly fast guitar players ripping through thousands of notes a second, and it really doesn't say anything! All it says is that they can move their fingers very quickly.
"Music's not about that - it's about feelings, it's about the transference of feeling from one soul to another."
Greg Lake is a man who knows the difference between technique for technique's sake versus true musicianship. When he decided to tour as a solo artist in the early '80s, he immediately hired a man with staggering virtuosity and a ton of soul, Gary Moore:
Greg Lake: "Strangely enough, some of the most beautiful and feelingful things Gary ever played were not on record, and were not on stage. As you know, Gary was Irish, and he had this beautiful lyrical playing - we'd sit and play back and forth - if you're at all familiar with the music of Riverdance, he would play things like that, just sensational Irish music.
"I miss Gary a lot. Somebody asked me just the other day about him, and I said, "You know, I still don't really think of him as being dead. Not in a musical way, but almost in a physical way - he's one of those people I can still see as clear as day. I can actually hear him speak, and it's really as though he's never really passed away. Very strange."
Any fan of Greg Lake will never forget the sight of him at the California Jam back in 1974. Sitting on a stool with only an acoustic guitar in front of 250,000 people - I had to ask just how that felt?
Greg Lake: "It's a strange thing - on any of those really large events with hundreds of thousands of people, you start to become in a way detached.
"When you play a thing like the Cal Jam, it is like looking out at the ocean, or across a big carpet, haha! You don't pick out individual people, you're just playing to this field of humanity - it's awe inspiring. I mean, it's almost biblical by proportion, and you just get lost in that moment of being awestruck, and realizing that you'd better get it right, because that's going to go down in history.
"The nervousness about it is to be sure that you don't make any stupid mistakes and you do as well as you can. In another sense, it is an overwhelming thing to experience for anyone. To get up on a stage and to play for that many people is a strange experience."
Lake is no stranger to large stages, one of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's first shows was at the legendary Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 before over a half million people. ELP was a force of nature, known for their incredible live performances, and according to Lake, this was no accident:
Greg Lake: "In ELP, we practiced a lot - we worked very hard, so that the performances were very consistent. It wasn't that we were good one night, and not on another - you could see ELP most any night, or anywhere, and we'd hit the same mark pretty much all the time. I think we prided ourselves on that. When we came off the stage, we'd given it everything we had, absolutely everything.
"The other interesting thing about the ELP shows was that they always ended within - and I'm not exaggerating - 30 seconds. Over a two and a quarter hour show, they always ended within 30 seconds of each other. It's incredible, because you would think somewhere, somehow, there would be a difference, but that's how locked up they were."
Given the obvious brilliance of a band such as Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, I asked Greg how it was that the critics and the press attacked the band with such gusto at times?
Greg Lake: "They saw the band as being pretentious - but, we never said to anyone that we were classical musicians, or classically trained, or anything. We - all we said is that we were using these inspirations, those roots, really, as a source of inspiration.
"I think that some people thought that we were trying to be smart asses! That really wasn't it - we were trying to be original, we were trying to be different, and we were trying to be ourselves. I mean, if you look at albums for example - Trilogy, Tarkus, Brain Salad Surgery, these are, I think, truly unique and innovative records.
"Everybody is entitled to an opinion - you don't have to like ELP, and I think that's fair enough, if someone doesn't like it, or it's not for them, that's fine. I don't like every music I listen to, it's people's free choice, and that's never bothered me. One thing I can say, luckily, is that the audience was always with us."
Moving back to current events, I asked Greg if after all his planning and preparation for his Songs of a Lifetime Tours, the shows and audiences lived up to his expectations and hopes:
Greg Lake: "Yes - they exceeded them, really! I spent a long time preparing the show, I recorded all the music from scratch to build the show into what it is, and so I put a lot into it. I was determined that it should not be one of those - legend in his own lunchtimes, sitting on a stool, boring everybody rigid! I wanted it to be entertaining, and I wanted it to be emotional.
"I really wanted it to touch people, and I realized what it is - it is the audience that I grew up with - we were all bonded by the same thing. It was the age of shared music.
"It was when you used to go and buy a vinyl LP, and sit around with your friends and you listened to it, and in some way you were connected by this music. And, I think what made a lot of these great events like the Cal Jam you just mentioned - it wasn't that people were going to see ELP, or Deep Purple, they were going along because they felt bonded, and they joined - it was a gathering. Joined by the event. It was a communal belonging, and that was the age of shared music.
"That really ended with the invention of the Sony Walkman - when music became a solitary experience. You would put on the earphones, and you'd listen alone. So this really is a gathering of a family of people who were joined together in some way, bonded by the age of shared music.
"Songs of a Lifetime is a celebration of the age of shared music - that's what it is."
Sticking with Songs of a Lifetime, I asked Greg how he selected songs for the tour, and how audiences have responded:
Greg Lake: "The set list really developed from the autobiography! As I was writing it, these songs would pop up with a story attached to them, you see.
"I do Heartbreak Hotel, and I tell a story about Elvis, because that was just a fascinating story - and all these songs have got some story behind them, but really, what interested me were not so much my stories, I mean, I tell them because I want people to be entertained, but what fascinates me more is the people that stand up in the show and tell me stories that they've experienced connected with these songs!
"Some nights you'll have everybody in tears, because there will be some story that is really tragic, and then some nights it'll be funny, and some nights it's tragic and funny. It's like a roller coaster, and that's part of the value of the show is that when people leave, they really have been on a journey.
"They've been on a journey they know, in a way - a journey they've been on before. But they haven't lived it recently, and so there is that sense of going back to a beautiful place where, when you were young, I suppose, and it gives people a sense of reflection over their life, as music does.
"Music becomes a tapestry against which we live our lives. In a way, that's what it's all about. It's sharing and celebrating our life that we shared in music. I have to say, I've never been more satisfied with a show than these - I find it very gratifying. Some nights, after the show, I'll be there at the venue until 1:30 in the morning talking with people, because they've got something they want to say and they didn't want to say it during the show - they come backstage, and they talk to me.
"It's really like a huge family gathering. I realized that it's important for them to say what they need to say - it is important - so therefore, that's how it is. I'm very happy with the show."
One of my personal favorite moments on Songs of a Lifetime is hearing Lake recant his time playing with Ringo Starr in the drummer's All Starr Band. As I had recently with guitar great Steve Lukather, I had to ask Greg, what it was like to look back from the front of the stage to see that your drummer is a Beatle?
Greg Lake: "Hahahaha! It's a strange feeling! Especially when you're playing a song like Boys, or Act Naturally, or With A Little Help From My Friends - all these songs!
"Ringo is a great drummer - he's got a great feel, and when you really do feel what that energy was - that rhythmical energy that drove The Beatles in the way that it did. I mean, I don't know if you've ever done it, but I have - and that is I listen to Beatles records, and they're unbelievably good, the drum parts are really, really well thought out, well played - they're flawless.
"There's no slack in them, there are no gratuitous drum fills - it's all in the right place. He's an incredible player, Ringo, and the other thing that shocked me is that he is a tremendous disciplinarian. Most people, their impression of Ringo is probably this sort of floppy haired guy at the back of The Beatles, loose and happy-go-lucky, but he's not! He's a very disciplined person. He'll stay there rehearsing until his fingers bleed! Not only for his songs, but mine. He's just like that, he has to have it right, and so that taught me something about The Beatles - that he was actually a driving force for making stuff - for perfecting the music.
"He was not just a drummer, he was a motivator, and a catalyst in that sense - for getting that stuff absolutely perfect in performance. I don't know if you ever saw The Beatles, but they were impressive - they played, and it sounded fantastic!
"When you look at them as individuals they were incredibly talented, it was a wonderful chemistry of four talented guys coming together to make this band, The Beatles - the perfect cocktail. The exact ingredients to make the perfect drink were right there.
"I asked Ringo, I said, 'How on earth do you have that many hit records?' I mean, I had a couple, but not 200! He just told me that everyday, John and Paul would come in, no matter where they were, on tour, or in the studio, wherever they were, they'd both have brought a song, and they'd both be hit songs, and that's just how it was!"
Given that Greg's experience was so overwhelmingly positive, I had to ask if there had been any other run-ins with Beatles over the course of his travels:
Greg Lake: "I did have one experience a couple of years back, I went to Ringo's 65th birthday party in New York, and we all got up on stage at the end and played Give Peace A Chance - Yoko was there, and unbeknownst to anybody, as a complete surprise, Paul McCartney suddenly ran up on the stage and started playing - and the scream that went up from the audience was truly frightening. As you know, I've played in a lot of arenas, and in the hey day of ELP it was pretty screamy, but nothing like this! It was shrill and it was frightful - that's what people called Beatlemania, that shrill, out of control thing. I heard it for myself, and it was a shock to my system."
For a man of such stature, Greg Lake seems to be above all, a humble man. He wrote one of rock's enduring classics, Lucky Man, as a twelve year old boy and he's always been very subdued in blowing his own horn. But I was curious - if one can be understated about the writing of Lucky Man (the name of the autobiography, incidentally), what would one consider to be one's crowning achievement as a songwriter?
Greg Lake: "Ooooooh, I don't know! Hahahaha!
"You always polarize to the one's that are more successful, I suppose, but I'm very proud, and very fond of one called Closer To Believing - that I wrote with Pete Sinfield. We wrote it together, and it was a labor of absolute love. We decided that every single line in it should contain a perfect rhyme - no half rhymes, no close rhymes - and each line should contain some element of what we felt, or described as being 'universal truth.' So, that was a bar we set for that song, and it took us three months to write - every day - day in, and day out.
"Eventually we finished it, and I suppose in that sense, from the sheer quality standpoint, it would be difficult to beat - but songs are....the ultimate sophistication is simplicity, and some of the best songs that anyone ever writes are the most simple - instant and thoughtless - 'Oh, there they are.'
"Lucky Man was one of those that literally, I can't even remember, I didn't even think about it - it was out."
Knowing what I know about Greg Lake, I had to ask what he thought of the idea of ghostwriters - had he considered help with telling his tale?
Greg Lake: "No, no, no, no....I don't see the point in that, really. I mean, if you can't tell your own story, then you shouldn't tell it!
"In fact, the only reason I wrote the bloody thing was because all artists sit around dinner tables, and tell their stories, right? And I'm no exception - I'll tell all these stories, and all rock 'n' rollers do it. People always say, 'Greg, you should write a book,' and I'd say, yeah....But one day, my manager came up to me, and he said, 'You know, Greg, you really ought to write it, because if you don't tell these stories they will get lost, and no one will ever know about them' - and the thing is, and why I thought about it, and in the end what persuaded me to do it was - everybody knows what happens about ELP, they bought the records, went to the shows, but what they don't know is what happened behind the scenes.
"I'm not talking about the gossip, or fights and arguments, although there were the occasional ups and downs, as there are in all great bands. You show me a band that doesn't fight, and I'll show you a band that's rubbish. They all fight, because they are all passionate about what they do, they all want their own way. And I suppose it was the same in ELP.
"We were all forceful characters. It isn't a book of kiss and tell - it's just the intimate details about how the band worked behind the scenes, and how my life worked behind the scenes. It's the same with King Crimson."
So - there you have it. Greg Lake is a superlative storyteller, and I'm sure his autobiography will be not just a best seller, but on a lot of best book lists this year. Wrapping things up, I asked Greg if after the completion of his Songs of a Lifetime shows, and the book release, would the world perhaps see some electric Greg Lake shows again?
Greg Lake: "Funny you should say that, but I think the next thing I want to do is to come back out playing guitar. Strangely enough, in the show I get asked if I've any regrets, and I mean, on one level, how could I?
"I've lived an incredible life, a privileged life - and I came from nowhere! I was born in an asbestos pre-fab, and grew up in a very poor family. I was just incredibly lucky. But, when I came to reflect on it, there is a regret I have, and the regret is, when I was young, I used to play the music from the charts, and part of that was I used to play a lot of soul music - James Brown, blues things, and once I came to this sort of 'progressive music.' I don't like that term, but the progressive music world, I kind of became detached, and cut off from soul music.
"So I've got a kind of yearning to get back to that style, that flavor of music with more soul in it - I suppose with a more black influence, really, because it's music that I love!
"I don't know how I'm going to do that quite, but that's what is in the back of my mind, and I'd like to try, and do at least some of that."
Given Greg Lake's track record, I can't imagine he won't find a way to do this, and do this successfully.
My thanks to Greg Lake, and Billy James at Glass Onyon PR.