In Memoriam – Keith Emerson

“From the beginning” it seemed as though “The Three Fates” predestined Keith Emerson to be an “iconoclast”. “The hand of truth” deemed that Mr. Emerson would become a veritable “tiger in a spotlight”. He approached the keyboards like Jimi Hendrix played the guitar: tilting and contorting the instrument and performing “the miracle” of melding feedback into a melody. Other keyboardists had to “step aside” after he entered the music scene. Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s sheet music became like “paper blood”. While I never possessed the skill to play Mr. Emerson’s compositions, I’m a “lucky man” for having had the opportunity to listen to them. I have immense admiration for the composer.

Keith Emerson passed away at the age of 71 this past March 10th. I send my deepest condolences to his friends and family during this difficult time. I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing him personally. As with any artist I feel like I got to know him a bit through his work.

I first encountered his music in the early 1980’s. Synthesizer driven ditties were ubiquitous staples of pop radio. Based on what I heard over the airwaves I figured the instrument rather facile to master. As I matured musically and began exploring Progressive Rock, Mr. Emerson proved me wrong. He approached the instrument as a substitute for an entire orchestra on covers of “Fanfare for the Common Man“, “Mars, The Bringer of War” and “The Barbarian”. In fact, I first heard a rock group play with an orchestra on ELP’s 1979 release In Concert. The Third Movement from Mr. Emerson’s “Piano Concerto Number 1” inspired me to learn more about Classical Music.

Not that Mr. Emerson’s capabilities were limited to that one genre. Had he so chosen, he would’ve made an outstanding Jazz Pianist. His playing on tunes such as “Step Aside” and “Show Me the Way to Go Home” exhibited his range with the instrument. One should also include his proficiency with ragtime playing, as well. He delivered a fine rendition of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” on ELP Works Volume Two. With the aid of a synthesizer he even covered Blues legend Freddie King’s “Hideaway”; a tune Eric Clapton also recorded.

In addition, the man had a fantastic ear for pop music. I can still recall the days in 1986 when Emerson, Lake and Powell’s “Touch and Go” received continuous play on MTV as well as the radio. His playing on “Karn Evil 9 First Impression, Part Two” served as a unique melding of classical and pop music. Of course, his addition of the modest synthesizer solo at the end of “Lucky Man” gave that track a unique character.

While not known as a balladeer, Mr. Emerson wrote the music for some of my favorites. “Farewell to Arms” from 1992’s Black Moon earned a special place in the band’s catalogue for its message. 1986’s “Lay Down Your Guns” featured the most intricate musical arrangement I’ve ever heard on a song about a troubled romance.

Musicians such as Mr. Emerson convinced me that the keyboards were too challenging for someone of my limited abilities. After trying to learn the instrument for years, to the relief of friends, family and neighbors, I gave up in favor of the bass guitar. The man even intimidated me at that! The bass line he played on his Moog during the “Battlefield” section of “Tarkus” on the live 1974 album would’ve given Bach a run for his money. The fact he managed to do this with one hand while playing the chord progression on an organ with the other made this achievement even more remarkable.

In addition to these outstanding attributes of Mr. Emerson’s abilities, he truly excelled as an arranger. The way he coordinated all the parts to “Pirates” made that song one of the best ever recorded. I liked how the orchestra, the band and the melody all worked together in such a way that didn’t clutter the mix. While a great accomplishment, he reached his true apex on 1994’s In the Hot Seat. On that album he directed an arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “The Man in the Long Black Coat”. (Yes, you read that correctly. Even ELP covered Bob Dylan’s music.) While ELP played numerous classical pieces, I always felt this one their best non-original recording.

I did have one issue with Mr. Emerson. On the cover of 1979’s Love Beach he showed off his washboard abs. The man was a classically trained rock musician who spent a lot of time on the road. The fact he managed to keep himself in that kind of shape took away any excuse I had for letting myself go when I worked as a performing musician.

The next time I hear Greg Lake utter the iconic line, “welcome back my friends to the show that never ends” I’ll feel a tinge of sadness. Perhaps Mr. Lake said it best in the lyrics he wrote appropriately enough for “The End” section of “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

There’s no end to my life

No beginning to my death

Death is life.

C’est la vie.

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