Deaths in the Family

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By Chris Watson

There are times when events, random on surface inspection, intersect in our lives to form a nexus.  This last week two deaths, musician Greg Lake and Senator John Glenn formed such a crossing.  Their lives were unrelated to each other in general but hugely influential in my life in particular.  Their passing creates a pause both of reflection and hope. In their respective ways they were heroes to me and mark yet another moment when I am fully aware of my advancing age.

Greg Lake was not, by any definition, a top tier guitarist.  In an era (the 60’s and 70’s) when so many guitarists and bassists stood out as innovative bordering on manic genius, Greg Lake was a solid, middle of the road musician who, along with his steady instrumentals had a clear voice and genuine song writing talent.  In other words, he was a good musician.

It was this constant, skilled, and above all, clean musicianship that I most admired in him.  He never tried to sing higher or lower than his range comfortably allowed, never attempted to compete with voices like Freddie Mercury, Robert Plant, Sting, or Geddie Lee.  He KNEW that they had voices that elevated them from mere singer to icon. He also knew that there were guitarists, like Jimmie Page, Eric Clapton, and Bryan May (and that list barely scratches the surface), who created multiple techniques and styles that musicians still envy and emulate.

Even in his own primary bands consisting of a brief but influential stint with King Crimson and his long association with ELP (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer), he was over shadowed by shear equipment and boldness.  King Crimson, as a compellation band, would see a dozen guitarists and vocalists equal to or better than Lake.  In ELP he would share the stage with Emerson’s veritable wall of analog keyboards and Palmer’s army of drums and cymbals.  All the while he would stand, traditionally on a Persian rug, and play guitar and bass while lending clean but never grand vocals to the instrumental tapestry that was ELP.

John Glenn is known for a lot of things.  He is known, of course, for being the first American to orbit the earth. We know that he was one of only two Mercury 7 astronauts that didn’t stay in the space program (Glenn and Carpenter left and didn’t’ fly Gemini or Apollo missions although Glenn did return to space on the space shuttle as a mission specialist).

We know he became a senator.  We know that he tried to be president and was, for several presidential elections, in serious consideration for vice president. We know that he has been almost universally portrayed as a gung ho, true blue, red blooded AMERICAN, sometimes to a fault.

Sure, those are things that make him a public figure.  He was also married to the same woman for 73 years.  He was an original franchise owner in a Holiday Inn near Orlando Florida and his business partner (who Glenn described as his best friend) was a Holocaust survivor.  Besides being a test pilot and astronaut John Glenn flew 59 combat missions in the Pacific in WWII and 63 combat missions in Korea. He went on to become a test pilot in which his first major test flight came close to killing him. He also is on record for being the pilot to fly the first supersonic transcontinental flight (from California to New York in 3 hours 23 minutes).  For this feat he received his FIFTH Distinguished Flying Cross.

Both of these men represent something that I have always wanted to embrace: the ability to know absolutely and exactly what they are.  Greg Lake knew what kind of a guitar player, singer, and songwriter he was and he made the best of his not inconsiderable talent.  John Glenn was a husband, American, and combat pilot first and astronaut second.  These men had the ability to take their talents onto the national and international stage while not parleying themselves into something they weren’t.

Lake could have tried to be a more dominating presence in any of the bands he participated in.  He certainly had the stage chops and enough ability to sell himself beyond his capabilities.  While many of his contemporaries were doing falsely nostalgic retro tours, Greg Lake did tour but rarely in a “we are still 25” manor.  He was Greg Lake performing as a musician, including numerous guest appearances and forming, like so many good, working musicians, tour bands to highlight and present their mutual talents to those who chose to pause and listen.

Glenn, as well, could have pushed to be more in the astronaut program, despite his age.  He certainly had the public persona to do so.  In business and politics, he could have capitalized on his war record, using those combat missions and awards as a cudgel to his opponents.  He could have exploited his friendship with his business partner to all kinds of lengths to get what he wanted.  But he didn’t.  He knew that wasn’t the kind of man he was or wanted to be.  Sure, he was the guy who orbited the earth.  But also a public servant and veteran.

We don’t see public figures like this very often.  It seems that our airwaves and twitter accounts are filled with prima donnas who, unless adored for every mundane action they take, are offended by an “unfair” media and “ungrateful” public.  So many of our popular artists and elected public servants act less gracious in victory than they are in defeat, wanting more reward for their minimal effort than is necessary or deserved.

Our culture may want, and even demand, Mick Jaggers and Donald Trumps.  But we are blessed with Greg Lakes and John Glenns. I am so  grateful that, when I was young, I noticed them.  I am a better musician because of Lake, a better veteran because of Glenn.  The world is a bit smaller this week without them in it. God Bless their memory and their work.