(Pictured: Greg Lake at a snowy rehearsal for an outdoor show in Montreal, 1977.)
We went to grade school together, and to the same church. When I started to really notice her, she was tall, with long hair, and glasses that made her look really intelligent (which she was), and I liked her.
She liked me, too, although not in the same way I liked her. I am sure you understand the difference.
It should have been easy. I should have been able to open my mouth and say, “Would you like to go to a movie/the dance/the game with me?” But I could not form those words in her presence.
One day, I hit upon an alternate plan. A conversation among a bunch of kids had gotten around to music, and she mentioned a group that she liked: Emerson Lake and Palmer. I had heard of them, but I hadn’t heard anything by them. And I made the following leap of logic: She likes ELP. If you listen to ELP, maybe you will like them too, and that might make her start to like you the way you like her.
I see now that there were some flaws in the plan, but 14-year-old me thought it made a lot of sense.
So I borrowed a copy of Brain Salad Surgery. (It might have been hers, actually; she was a kind and generous person even at 14. Or I may have snagged it from the public library.) Honesty compels me to report that I had trouble figuring out what she liked about it. I wouldn’t be confused for long, however. My adolescent prog-rock stage was not far off, and within a year or so, I became an ELP obsessive.
I was a keyboard nerd, so Keith Emerson was the focus for me. But Lake’s voice was the perfect instrument for the stories the band wanted to tell: the war between humanity and computers in “Karn Evil 9,” the brief and tragic love between a soldier and a nurse in the overlooked “Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman” from the otherwise-disastrous album Love Beach, the wild west tale of “The Sheriff,” and whatever the hell “Tarkus” is about. Several of his songs from the Works albums, co-written with Peter Sinfield—especially “Closer to Believing,” “C’est La Vie,” “Lend Your Love to Me Tonight,” and “Watching Over You”—are powerfully romantic. Lake’s acoustic guitar work on “Lucky Man,” “From the Beginning,” and “I Believe in Father Christmas” is beautiful, and his electric solo on “Battlefield” from the live album Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends still blows me out of my chair.
In 1977, Emerson Lake and Palmer played two shows in Madison within
an eight-month a five-month span. I went to both. If she went to either, it wasn’t with me. We were friendly all through school, though, and we stayed in touch after we went to separate colleges. One year, we were at the same New Year’s Eve party and she let me kiss her at midnight. She invited me to her wedding, and as I sat in the church, a guy in his 20s with his own life and his own wife, a little piece of my heart broke as she went up the aisle.
And suddenly, it’s 2016. Greg Lake dies, and somebody posts the story on Facebook. She comments, and I decide to jump on. “True story that you probably don’t know,” I write. “I started listening to Emerson Lake and Palmer because you said you liked them, and it was easier than asking you for a date.”
“I hope they brought you the years of happiness that they did for me,” she responds. “And I’d have probably said yes.”