Why does it feel like every time I open my mouth about a band or musician, they are stricken by tragedy.
And so it goes with Keith Emerson. Ex-bandmate Carl Palmer called him a visionary today, and I’m not sure he was wrong. Yesterday it was announced that Emerson was dead in Santa Monica, California, likely of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about Emerson. I have a couple of unlistened-to album albums by The Nice, Emerson’s first major band. I’ll try to rectify that this weekend. But I do know that Emerson, and the Yes’s Rick Wakeman, and Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright helped to put progressive rock on the map.
A classically inspired keyboardist, Emerson’s work is littered with “covers” of classical music, including Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and “Hoedown” and “Fanfare for the Common Man” by Aaron Copeland. But it’s the rest of his work that makes Emerson unique as he created his own breathtaking (and sometimes oxygen-stealing) compositions in a classical style.
Emerson emerged at a time of rumbling technological innovation opened to rock musicians in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The Hammond organ and the Moog with their early synthesizing and sequencing abilities offered an entre to musicians who weren’t convinced there had to be another Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin clone. He embellished his musical performance with a live stage presence that in terms of technical difficulty-exploding organs, playing his keyboards while throwing knives, somersaulting his entire kit onstage-endeared him to a generation of fans as interested in live excess as well as musical entertainment.
Though there are moments when I listen to an overlong Emerson composition, shake my head and blame him not so quietly for bringing about disco (but also acknowledge him for causing punk rock.) Karn Evil 9 is overlong and overdone, his symphonic works on Works Vol,1 are annoyingly annoying. But when he’s a member of the team, ELP was as good as prog rock could be. “Lucky Man” was a revelation in 1970. “From the Beginning” is one my very favorite songs (listening to it right now,) and there are so many others.
So I bid you adieu Mr. Emerson. I saw you in July 1977 at the Seattle Center Coliseum with your mates. I’ll never forget.
I visited his website yesterday. Last summer he was touring and playing, piloting Spitfires from the old Biggin Hill airfield. I don’t know what may have led to his final decision to end his life. I only know this gets harder and harder to write.