Quite simply, “Epitaph” is one of the most stunning songs ever recorded. From King Crimson’s debut LP, In the Court of the Crimson King — a record, incidentally, that arguably created the progressive rock genre — the song crushes the image of what can be at all times beautiful, dark, ambitious, harrowing, and perfect.
An old friend of mine suddenly passed away a few years back. Someone I hadn’t seen in decades but with whom I still was in touch. Someone who was full of such charm, and laughter, and kind sincerity. She wasn’t yet forty.
And there was a great melancholy in my heart. Death makes me sad. And music is where I go when I’m sad. But there’s more to it than listening to the sonorous notes and melodies, those sounds that makes us ache further. Sometimes there’s a concept in the lyrics, which could be either meager or grandiloquent, that whispers to our fibers. Something that points past the Sun and says “look — what’s beyond there?”
The wall on which the prophets wrote
Is cracking at the seams
Upon the instruments of death
The sunlight brightly gleams
When every man is torn apart
With nightmares and with dreams
Will no one lay the laurel wreath
When silence drowns the screams?
There’s always a hope we will understand our lot in this corporeal existence, that we can fathom our purpose for living. But to know that, we would need to wonder too our purpose for dying. Because, truly, what provokes death?
Confusion will be my epitaph
As I crawl a cracked and broken path
If we make it we can all sit back and laugh
But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying
Yes, I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying
There’s nothing quite like Greg Lake’s vocals as he sings the above chorus, which also leads the ending section of the song. The anguish in his voice at the realization that he just doesn’t know what’s to come. Whether it be death, or just the demise of society or thinkers in general: there’s not only confusion, there’s pessimism wrapping its thick arms around that uncertainty.
Musically, the sounds are lush and gorgeous and at times sinister. Lake’s lonely bass, the odd and innovative drumming by Michael Giles, the mellotron and clarinet by Ian McDonald, the genius guitar bits by Robert Fripp: everything comes together. It’s a symphony housing a story (lyrics by Pete Sinfield) sung with impeccable precision by Lake.
It’s a song I come back to often, as it pushes me to question the reasons for existence. Not just mine but the lot of the Earth’s. It’s a song the lingers because of the weight of it all. Arguably, it’s the sound of my consciousness yearning to understand its place now and forever.
Dedicated to Sylvia Evans.
(Song recommendation by C. Aloysius Mariotti)