Still You Turn Me On
Greg Lake died a few days ago, cancer it seems. I missed the initial reports, which made me feel ashamed, because he seemed almost a brother to me, even though I never met him or saw him play.
The first time I heard Greg Lake was through headphones attached to a record player. I wasn’t wearing the headphones, because that wasn’t permitted. I heard Lake, though I didn’t know who he was at the time, because his high clear voice was audible and understandable when Stephen pulled the headphones off as I spoke with him from the doorway to his room.
Do you want to be an angel
Do you want to be a star
Do you want to play some magic on my guitar?
Stephen, my older brother, was a musical prodigy. A violinist of some ability, he was concert master for the West Virginia University orchestra as a freshman. He was also an outstanding classical piano player who had soloed with the Harrisburg Symphony while still in high school and an award-winning painter.
Stephen’s ability with classical music may have been what initially drew him to groups such as King Crimson, Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. ELP, more than any of the other major prog-rock bands, pulled material directly from that musical genre. They covered pieces by Bach, Bartok and Mussorgsky, fusing symphonic motifs with pyrotechnic drum solos and screeching synthesizers.
I wasn’t allowed to listen to such things. In my parent’s house the preference was hymns by Handel, Fanny Crosby, and George Beverley Shea. Popular music was considered the devil’s illapses.
Stephen rebelled against such restrictions and won a limited victory because his teachers insisted such exposure would help him grow. The detente that arose from the conflict allowed him to buy his own records and stereo, but not have speakers — which would inflict the sin on the rest of us.
So, when I first heard Lake’s crystalline tenor, it was faint and thin, like a poor phone connection with someone calling from the other side of the world.
Do you want to be the lover of another undercover?
You could even be the man on the moon
My first immersive experience of ELP was as a freshman in high school. While at a friend’s house, I saw them perform “Karn Evil 9” on some late night television show. It was during the height of their popularity, as they arc-welded arena rock onto classical compositions under the gaze of H.R. Geiger automatons giving head. To my virgin eyes and ears it was shocking, amazing, intoxicating, entrancing.
I was attracted and repelled. I understood instantly why it was forbidden and irresistible. Keith Emerson playing keyboards from the ceiling, Karl Palmer’s spinning drum kit, Geiger’s pornographic confluence of flesh and machine, while Greg Lake — his face adolescently chubby, his voice soaring above the mad carousel of music and mechanism — repeated: I’ll be there, I’ll be there, I will be there.
Yet still I turned away from such influences through the rest of my secondary education, clinging to the stodgy and neutered songs from school band and choir concerts. I performed in those events, but without love or even feeling. Music, I had been taught by the harsh voice and heavy hand of my father, was a chore to be executed without emotion, much less enjoyment, for the edification of others. Done right it came out with machine-like precision that marched the faithful forward for an altar call. Done wrong, well look at the dissipated world and its denizens stumbling toward destruction.
When I left home for college, though, I brought my brother’s records along. I took them, and my parents didn’t argue, no doubt glad to have them gone after all the damage they had brought.
I didn’t consider how this might seem theft to Stephen, until he visited during one of his stints away from hospitals.
Do you want to be a poet
Do you want to be my string?
You could be anything
During my senior year in high school, Stephen lost his mind. He came home from his first semester at Temple University raving, barely coherent, violent. There was talk of schizophrenia, years of drug abuse, and a bad dose of LSD. From that point until the end he was in and out of state and private institutions, as his behavior became more unstable.
Different medications were employed, which left him swinging dangerously between zombie and whirling dervish. It was hell to be around him in either state. No friends could come over when he was around — there was no telling what he might say or do. Family counseling and hospital visits were torture, as siblings avoided talking through the fallout while parents carefully dodged culpability.
Blaming others was both a business and personal decision for my Dad. He was a pastor, public school teacher, and respected member of the community, thus his standing could be harmed by any acceptance of responsibility. He was also an expertly camouflaged abuser. My mother did her duty toward him, while silently absorbing all the guilt into herself until it oozed out like alcohol from a drunkard’s sweating pores.
And I pretended right along that everything was fine, everything normal, except for my psychotic brother.
Stephen ran away several times, once disappearing for weeks, only to turn up lying on the dotted line of an interstate highway in North Carolina. I liked it when he was gone.
Yet, like any cataclysm, his effect was impossible to ignore even when he was physically absent. The dread of him remained like the smell of smoke after a house fire. Despite spending much of the time locked away in a mental hospitals, he helped wreck my first serious romantic relationship, prom, and graduation. I finished my senior year of high school like a somnambulist, stumbling between waking and nightmare.
Perhaps I thought he owed me something. So when I went away to college I took his music for my own. I didn’t even consider the consequence until he visited my dorm room for the first and only time. At that point he was a shambling shell of man, musician and artist. Doped up on lithium, he shuffled and slurred and twitched. He could no longer hold a bow steady on the strings of his violin or focus for more than a few moments when painting.
He remarked on his stereo and records on my shelf. He thanked me for holding on to them.
Stephen only stayed a few minutes, unable to sit down or stand still. The door closing behind him was like the sound of a rescue team digging through the rubble.
Two months later he was dead, though we didn’t find out until nearly half-a-year later. Age 21, killed by his own hand, his body buried beneath ice and snow in a cold, cold stream.
He told me, during the last days of his life, that he felt robbed of everything. His childhood had stolen his future. His insanity looted the present. And the medicine took away all that he valued in himself.
You see it really doesn’t matter
When you`re buried in disguise
By the dark glass on your eyes
Though your flesh has crystallized
Stephen died in 1979, the same year as ELP. But bands aren’t like boys or men; they can be resurrected.
ELP made more than one comeback, reforming in the 1990s and again, in 2010, for a 40th anniversary tour. The individual members of the band also had lives and careers that spanned the ensuing decades. Greg Lake’s two solo albums became a peculiar pleasure of mine, their release coinciding with my short-lived career as an entertainment reporter. Nothing he did equaled the pretentious genius of his early work with that seminal super group, but he carried on despite gaining fat and losing vocal range.
Do you want to be the pillow where I lay my head
Do you want to be the feathers lying in my bed?
Do you want to be a color cover magazine
Create a scene
Every day a little sadder
A little madder?
Someone get me a ladder
Now Greg Lake has left us for whatever hereafter houses dead rock stars, his departure coming only a few months after Keith Emerson ended his own life in the face of declining health brought on by age and alcoholism.
Lake was 69. Emerson 71.
Perhaps they have become the angels of which they sang after living their lives as stars. But what seems salient at the moment is simply that they are gone. What remains of them, as with all the dead, are memories of what they were, especially when they were young.
ELP’s images and sounds have a larger audience than is afforded most of the departed. Fogies like me looking and listening for echoes of our own youth. Younger people cueing them up for the first time, trying to figure out why this death is worth a fuss.
But those mementos aren’t men, only remains; the voices of the dead faint and thin from the other side of the great divide.
Reminders of what was and what might have been.
You see, I really have to tell you
That it all gets so intense
From my experience
It just doesn’t seem to make sense
Still you turn me on