Dispatch From the Road:
When I interviewed Greg Lake in February 2012, it was a sort of personal victory for me because that meant I had now interviewed all three members of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, one of my favorite groups. The opportunity was ripe to talk to Lake because he was getting ready to hit the road with his Songs Of A Lifetime tour, his first venture into America as a total solo act, meaning he would be the one and only performer on stage. For my February 2012 interview with Greg Lake (note how I hyperlinked it so you can read it), I asked the singer about everything from King Crimson to ELP to Gary Moore to ELP and back again. I thought we had covered just about everything.
So imagine my surprise when the opportunity to talk to Greg Lake again came my way. Certainly, there were a few things I didn't get to ask the first time around. Mostly, however, I was curious to see how the Songs Of A Lifetime tour, well underway at this point, was going. As it worked out, I called Greg Lake at his hotel in Austin, Texas, on Cinco de Mayo, and we not only chatted about the tour and how well it's been going, but other strange and wonderful things too. Looking back, it may well rank as one of my favorite interviews.
Lake is having these kinds of conversations with a lot of his fans, and it's bringing a tremendous amount of joy and satisfaction to the people who love his music, as well as to the man himself. Like so many veterans at this stage in their career, Greg Lake is grateful for how music has affected his life, and how his music has affected the lives of others. The highs and lows are common in any man's career, but it's no mystery Greg Lake indeed considers himself to be a Lucky Man in every possible way.
How’s the tour been going so far?
It’s been fantastic. I don’t think I’ve anticipated the amount of feeling and emotion, really, coming off the audience. When I planned the show out, I had a vision of it being good. I was determined that it wasn’t going to be one of those boring legend in his own lunchtime, storyteller strumming guitar sitting on a stool things. And so I was fairly confident that it would be an entertaining show. But I never imagined that it would reach people on such deep levels. And that they would be so enthusiastic and appreciative.
We’ve had standing ovations every night. People love it. They love the formats of the show because they get to participate. I say it on the show, but it’s a shared journey. This is reliving a journey we’ve shared together. And they get it. They were on that journey. They understand that journey. And so it is just a remarkable reaction. And I suppose, you know, that I shouldn’t be surprised, but what is surprising is that it’s the same everywhere I play. Sometimes you expect a different reaction in different parts of the United States. But everywhere I’ve played, it has been exactly the same. So that’s been a very uplifting experience.
You talk about how this show is sort of interactive, where everyone is a participant. You’re taking questions from the audience. How has that been working out? Have people been asking some wild questions? Anything stick out in your mind?
(Laughs) You get everything, actually. It’s not just questions, it’s people telling memories they’ve got. Some people have got anecdotes to share. Some people have got a brother who used to work on the road crew. Somebody else wants to know why I was chewing gum at the California Jam when I was singing “Still…You Turn Me On.”
I’ve always wondered about that myself.
(Laughs) Other people want to know when ELP is going back on the road. I mean, I could go on all day. It’s just an unbelievable array of things. Generally speaking, it is rather like a family gathering. It’s usually quite emotional and you get this feeling of it being a family.
You’re even meeting up with some of your fans backstage and they’re getting their pictures taken with you and I imagine they’re sharing stories with you in that setting as well.
Yes. I also stop and talk to fans outside of the venue. I’m really trying not to make it selective because part of it…the whole point of this is…to actually contact people and share this with them. It was really to touch base with people with whom I’ve shared this music. That was the concept.
Have any interesting guests or old friends showed up at any of the shows?
Oh yeah. Not just famous people but people I haven’t seen for many years. And that’s been very lovely as well. All in all, it’s been just a very warm and emotional experience. The concerts are really going very well — not only from an emotional storytelling point of view, but from a musical point of view.
I have seen bits and pieces of your set list, so I’m not going to give away too much here, but I was pleased to see you’re playing a good selection of King Crimson songs. When we talked last time, I meant to ask you, do you still talk to Robert Fripp at all?
I haven’t spoken to Robert in a couple of years. We do speak occasionally. I obviously don’t know what he’s doing right now. But all the boys in King Crimson remain friendly. We don’t speak on a daily basis but we meet up now and again and we’re all friendly, very friendly.
We talked a little bit about King Crimson the last time. I was curious – what do you think of the subsequent versions of King Crimson? For example, what's your opinion of the version with Adrian Belew singing? Did you ever get into that?
I never did really. Obviously, I heard bits and pieces as they went along. For me, the only real King Crimson was the original band that made In The Court Of The Crimson King. After that, I believe they were a very good band, certainly musically, but they were sort of Robert’s version of King Crimson. Nothing wrong with that either, but it wasn’t the same band as the original band. The original band had a special and remarkable chemistry.
I always thought the band, the version in the ’80s, was just a completely different band – a good band, but nothing like King Crimson from 1969. I’ve talked to Adrian (Belew) and Tony Levin on a few occasions, and I always ask them about King Crimson. I ask, “What’s going on with King Crimson?” And they say, “You have to ask Robert.” Robert is definitely the captain of that ship.
Oh yes, it’s Robert’s band, and like I said, nothing’s wrong with that. More power to him. But it’s a totally different concept from the original King Crimson. For example, in the original King Crimson, Ian McDonald wrote a majority of the material. I was the singer. Mike Giles was the drummer. These are very different people and you take all of that away… One of the reasons I didn’t continue with King Crimson was because I felt that Ian and Mike were simply irreplaceable in that context, and I didn’t feel comfortable going on and just get two new people to replace them.
Well, that’s understandable. You’re also doing a Beatles song, and I won’t reveal which one, but I know you toured with Ringo back in 2001. I’m just wondering, do you have a history with the Beatles…an encounter, an experience or anything you could share?
Only to the extent that I went to see them when I was very young. They were fabulous. Not many people actually saw them because when they came to America, I think they were such a phenomenon that they were playing in places that were far too big for the equipment they had. And so nobody really saw them in an environment when they could really hear them play. But I did. I heard them play in very small theaters. They were absolutely stunning. They were very, very tight. The harmonies were pitch-perfect. It was a thrilling act to see. The moment they came on it was explosive. It was a real quantum leap between them and anyone else. I also — you probably know — I do a song by Elvis in the show. He also had that same, almost spiritual power of being better than great.
Is he someone you saw as well?
Yes, yes I did. In the early days. In 1970 I saw Elvis, which is when he started his comeback series. Both Elvis and the Beatles at their prime had this ability to push you over the edge. To be so great you really couldn’t take it. You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s where I think the Beatlemania came from. They would really drive people to screaming point. They were unique, and still when I look back today, I’ve still got that memory of them being absolutely impactive.
And so did their singing, for example, have a big impact on the way you approached your singing, or the way you played your instrument?
Yes, all of it. I think the Beatles had an enormous impact in every conceivable way. They affected fashion; they affected music, songwriting. It could be argued that Sgt. Pepper was the first progressive album…
That’s a valid argument.
...Because it really was…the music was taken from European roots rather than music from any blues or American roots. It was certainly riveting…songs like “Strawberry Fields,” “Lucy In The Sky” — these songs were very unusual.
Did any of the Beatles ever attend a King Crimson show or an ELP show that you know of back in the day?
No, no. Jimi Hendrix used to come and watch King Crimson.
Of course. And you’re doing a song of his, aren’t you?
Yes, I do.
Sounds like you’re covering all bases. I did want to touch on the fact that you are coming here to California. In just a couple of weeks you’re going to be playing Ventura, LA , San Francisco, and then you’re playing La Quinta, which is out by Palm Springs right where the Coachella Festival was a couple of weeks ago. I’m thinking about how every time you come to Southern California, since California Jam, I’ve seen every ELP tour that's come through. It got me to thinking about your relationship with California. You had the Cal Jam and you recorded Black Moon at a place called Front Page studios in Costa Mesa. Do you feel a certain affinity to California in any way?
Oh yes, indeed so. Indeed I do. I lived in California. I lived by the Mill Canyon for a while. I also lived in Beverly Hills for a while. I spent sufficient time there to tell it. I do write about that in my autobiography because I know enough about California to know that there are two types of people in California. One are the real Californians — you know, the people who are descendants of the people who migrated there 150 or 200 years ago. And then there are the transient Californians who were in search of the streets paved with gold. You’ve got to understand that to even begin to understand California and what it means. Otherwise you just skim across the surface. But when you start to really know the place, you do see the richness. There’s a richness of culture, which actually is quite difficult to find. Especially L.A.; L.A. is such a sprawling place; the place has got no center in a way. It’s very hard to sort of grab hold of it. You go to Rodeo Drive, and that’s not California, really. That’s a bunch of shops. But all in all, when you take the state as a whole, it is phenomenal. It really is phenomenal.
It is, I agree. I believe Keith Emerson, he lives here. Does he still live here in California?
Yes he does. He lives down in Venice Beach.
I’ve seen him around because I’m in Long Beach. I saw him at a Jeff Beck show in Anaheim and I saw him at a little club in Beverly Hills a few years ago. He was playing with a friend of mine, Stuart Smith. Anyway, you wrap up the tour at the end of the month and you’re going to take some time off in November and you just mentioned your book. What’s going on with that?
It’s pretty much finished. The first volume is coming out in audio book format about now. It’s late — it should have been out before that, but it’s coming out right now. Then the second and third volumes will come out throughout the summer and in the fall, and then the hardback book will be out at Christmas.
I’m really looking forward to reading that. When we spoke, you also said you have an album you want to release. What’s the status of that?
I’ve actually got more than one album. I’m actually recording all through the summer. I’m going to release a new record, so I don’t want to talk too much about it because whenever I talk about an album I’m going to release, it always changes in some way. Then everybody says, “Well, you said you were going to do this.” I’d rather just say I am working on a record, it will be hopefully ready for release before Christmas. So that’s really what I’m going to be doing.
And are you playing any songs from that record on your current tour?
Not right now.
I just want to ask you one last thing, and this is pretty much a general question I ask a lot of people. The music business has changed so much since the ’70s. The Internet has changed so many things – how we get our music, how we listen to it. Do you embrace this sort of change? What’s your take on all of this?
It depends on how far back you want to talk about. Socially, music has changed from being something which was a shared experience to something that tends to be a solitary experience. When you used to buy LPs that had record sleeves, you would buy an album, you would go home, you would share it with all your friends, you would sit around and listen to it. It got a lot of people into artwork. You know they used to see the old covers and they’d get into the art…that was their introduction to graphical arts. Nowadays, it’s a download reality. You click a button. Do you want to buy? Yes, you bought it. It’s a very personal and solitary experience. That side of it, I’m not keen on. I lament the days when music was a shared experience. That really changed when the Sony Walkman was invented.
Do you own an iPod?
I do it all, of course I do. I’ve got 1,500 songs on iTunes. But I just wish it wasn’t that way. I think music has become devalued by this process. I fear for the future of music and musicians because there’s no way there to protect intellectual property rights. Who’s going to pay for the development of artistic careers in music when you cannot protect the work that they’ve created? This cannot be good.
Are you for the record companies staying in business and nurturing the artists like they used to back in the day?
Well they can’t, there is not record business. There is no record shop. It’s a download reality. It’s an online reality. It’s a back catalog reality. It seems to me that until we’re able to protect intellectual copyright…I think really it’s the end of an era. I mean, it’s fair enough — every dog has its day. I was very, very lucky to be born when I was, probably at the end of that creative pinnacle…this amazing period between 1955 probably and 1975. There was this amazing, amazing explosion of unique and colorful art — musical art and graphical art. It was the expression of the Baby Boomer generation. They chose music and the graphical arts to be the banner or the spearhead for their expression. It was an incredibly colorful and vibrant period in which to grow up. I look today and it’s boring to me today, to be honest with you. If I was a young person today I would look back at my generation, with some degree of jealousy. The new generations have to find their expression. We were just lucky to have been born when we were. I don’t know how old you are – probably not as old as me – but certainly I pride myself as being very lucky. Well, I was probably at the very tail end of it, you see.
I’m actually just at the tail end of the Baby Boomers generation. I was born in ’59.
Right, so you were just at the end of it. So you know. But you were there enough to really be connected to it and to feel it and to feel its power and its goodness. I think a lot of good came from it. I have to say, although the world generally…I look at the world with some degree of despair, and I fear for our future, but if there’s one thing that did help it, it was music and art. It made people aware, it brought world consciousness. We started then to look at how we treated the planet, how we treated our fellow brothers and sisters in Africa, then the rainforest problem. All these things all came about really because musicians spotted it and were sensitive to it. It’s not just a question of hit records and popular songs, it’s been a question of world awareness, world culture. From that point of view it’s been a very important thing.
It’s funny you should say that, because I’m seeing this happening more and more with a lot of people who have enjoyed success, where they’re now making music for more altruistic means. I have a friend, for example, from a well-known band in the 80s, and he is now going over to Pakistan regularly and playing and recording for people over there and he doesn’t care about making the money. He just wants to touch people with his music. It’s an amazing transformation how a lot of musicians are doing this kind of thing.
Yes. I mean, look...when you spend time with someone like Ringo, he’s very spiritual. He’s as close as you get to a Buddhist monk, you know. He really is. He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t eat much food. He is very spiritual in his attitude. You hear him say “peace and love” and he means it. And he doesn’t buy anything for himself. He won’t allow any of his family to buy him gifts other than T-shirts. He’s forbidden any gifts from people other than T-shirts. He’s had it all, done it all, he’s been through it, and he’s told me on a number of occasions that material things have no value. And he’s right. What is the value in it? Things that mean something in life are not things that you can buy with money.
That’s true. I’m sure he picked up a little of that from his friend George Harrison.
Collectively, they were on that journey together. It’s a funny thing actually, talking to Ringo, because they, of course, didn’t experience the Beatles.
Not like the rest of us.
They were inside that bubble. They never experienced the influence by the Beatles. (Laughs) Which is really bizarre, when you really get to hear Ringo sometimes. He talks as though he didn’t know it. When you talk about the Beatles with him, he doesn’t know a lot of stuff. Because he never saw it because he was doing it, you know. Such a strange perspective.
Do you ever get that being in ELP? Do people come up and tell you stuff about ELP that you didn’t know about because you were inside that bubble?
Oh yes, I do. I get that sense sometimes that I missed it, that I never experienced seeing it because I was always doing it. And that perhaps is another reason I like to do this…is to learn more about what it was like and how people did feel. The other thing too is you write these songs, and when you write them of course they’re your own creation. But they really start to belong to the audience. They start to belong to people. People’s interpretation of them starts to change them almost. When I wrote “Lucky Man” it was a silly kids’ song. Now people take it on for having all kinds of meanings to them personally.
That’s funny, I was actually reading about that song on the Internet. A lot of people think John Lennon has some connection to that song. Somebody suggested that he sang on it; somebody else said you wrote it about him. It’s funny, all these interpretations.
Yeah, yeah, unbelievable.