Jon Lord began life—his public life, that is—as a rock god. He ended it as a composer of classical concertos. The time I met him, both strands of his work entwined with memories of mine.
It was his first career that dominated the obituaries when Lord died last month at 71. He was a founder of Deep Purple, once designated the world’s loudest rock band by The Guinness Book of Records, and the songs he wrote in the 1960s and ’70s inspired the genre of heavy metal. But even as he was writing those songs, he was also composing grander works for orchestra. A decade ago he finally left the band to concentrate on his classical career. He released albums on important classical labels; the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performed his work.
It didn’t matter: Almost every newspaper obituary identified Lord—usually in the headline or first sentence—as the cowriter of “Smoke on the Water.” The song, released in 1972, chronicles a Frank Zappa concert that ended in disaster after a fan let off a flare into the rattan ceiling. The lyrics are less than elegant: But some stupid with a flare gun / Burned the place to the ground. It’s said that this was once the second-best-known song in America—after “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Its strange vitality is a testament to the sheer emotional freight a silly pop song can amass.
That isn’t a judgment. Though I was born years after it was recorded—and spend more time listening to Dvorák than Deep Purple—“Smoke on the Water” means a lot to me. I’m glad I unexpectedly got the chance to tell Lord so.
It was three years ago. I happened to be in London when the Royal Court Theatre offered a tribute to the novelist John Mortimer, who’d died not long before. Jeremy Irons, Alan Rickman, and other talented thespians were slated to perform at the venue for which Mortimer had written many plays. A fan ever since I saw his adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, I didn’t just buy a ticket, I splurged on one that included a post-party with the stars.
Spotting and speaking to Rickman, Irons, Stephen Fry, Edward Fox, and other luminaries of the English stage and screen was thrilling enough. (I’d interviewed Rickman before, but only by telephone—though that voice is more than half the pleasure.) Then I saw Jon Lord, composer of some of the music we’d heard in the Mortimer tribute. While Rickman and Irons were surrounded by beautiful young women, Lord was practically alone. I went over.
Lord had seemed an odd choice to honor the creator of the immortal wigged barrister Rumpole. But I soon learned the two had a personal connection. He told me they’d been neighbors in Buckinghamshire and developed a deep friendship. Mortimer had helped revitalize Lord’s classical career. Once, Mortimer asked Lord to write some incidental music for a show he was touring, “Mortimer’s Miscellany.” Lord had turned those short pieces into a flute concerto in honor of his friend, a version of which he’d presented that night.
Then it was my turn to tell Lord something personal. He listened patiently while I explained that “Smoke on the Water” can make me cry because it reminds me of my father, who died when I was 20.
I couldn’t tell him exactly why. My dad was a consummate lover of music who passed on to me that passion, though not all his tastes. Deep Purple wasn’t his favorite band. The lyrics of “Smoke on the Water,” as I say, are neither beautiful nor profound. But maybe our connection to pop songs and music generally is as inexplicable as our ties to those we love, and no less powerful for that.
Looking back on Jon Lord’s career, I—unlike the obituarists—remember his moving classical music. But I suspect he wouldn’t have minded being best known for a frankly facetious pop song. I once read that he’d likened the riff in “Smoke,” where his Hammond C3 organ sounds tougher than the guitar, to another work centered on a four-note motif: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Maybe now I’m starting to see: Just as my father gave me an appreciation for music and an education in rock, I later introduced him to classical music, including that of Ludwig van. Long-dead musicians allowed me to offer my father something of what he’d given me. It won’t be long before the artists he grew up listening to join them. But Beethoven, Lord, and all the rest—high and low, serious and ephemeral—live on in me, for a while at least. And through them, so does the man who taught me to hear.