Friday, March 11, 2016

Keith Emerson (1944 - 2016)

I think it was 1972 - I was 15, and visiting a distant cousin in his family's Southampton, PA home.  Bored with the adults, I had wandered out to their garage, where there was a stereo system and a stack of albums.
I remember listening to Thunderclap Newman's "Hollywood Dream," and Jethro Tull's "Thick as a Brick" (thumbing through the newspaper that was inside the album cover) and ... Emerson, Lake, & Palmer's first album - the one with "Lucky Man" on it.  I'm not sure where the adults were, but I was having quite a time listening to some wonderful music.
Perhaps that's where it started, I don't know; but at some point I decided that I loved the adventure of music.  Prior to that, I had been spoon-fed "pop music" on our local radio stations, and buying whatever records were available in the local W.T. Grant's record department - that is to say, the Top 40.
If your musical tastes only go as high as forty, you're missing out on a lot of good stuff.  Especially in the early-to-mid-1970's, when all sorts of clever music was being created:  Focus, Manfred Mann's Earth Band, Yes, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Genesis, and too many more to mention here.
As it turned out, those bands were at least partially influenced by Keith Emerson's band (No, not ELP) ... The Nice.  They took Dylan tunes and classical music and turned them into 3-piece rock tunes, which sometimes included a full symphony orchestra.  Perhaps that's where the term "Symphonic Rock" came from?  (I always hated that term, as well as "Progressive Rock," but that's another topic)  Jon Anderson said, "Saying Symphonic Rock is like saying Strawberry Bricks. It doesn't make sense."  But, I digress.
Once I figured out what was going on with ELP, I needed to go back and find their roots.  Whenever I could get $4 together, I would make a bee line to a record store (remember?) and pick out a new record.  Once, it was a Nice album called "Autumn '67 - Spring '68." Back in 1967, there he was, playing this incredible music.  Interesting that, historically "Sgt. Pepper" gets WAY more recognition, even though musically, what The Nice was doing was light years beyond the producer-heavy stuff The Beatles were up to.  But, I digress again.
The first big-time rock concert I ever saw was Emerson, Lake, and Palmer at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia on April 12, 1974.  I was not yet 17 years old. My cousin Joe and I were barely old enough to ask for a ride to the joint, but there we were, with our $5.50 tickets in the upper level.  A concern was that we wouldn't be able to hear the music from so far away.  Little did we know that when "Jerusalem" started up, their quadraphonic sound system could have been heard in the parking lot.
I don't know what 17-year-old's are listening to now, but it can't possibly be as interesting as that was.
There they were, cranking out tunes from the newly-released "Brain Salad Surgery" album, and somehow holding together the music that was clearly more complicated than any trio should have been able to perform.  Note:  Those were the days before pre-recorded tracks or sampling, so it was real music, kids.  If I wasn't already hooked on the stuff, that did it.  Hey, real music can be played LIVE and still sound great.  It didn't have to be over-produced pop fluff.
I was a sucker for the rock magazines back then.  There was no Internet, so the news we got was from monthly mags like Creem and Circus.  They liked to turn music into a competition.  Usually, pitting one against another, like Beatles vs. Stones, Deep Purple vs. Black Sabbath, or ELP vs. Yes.  As though it wasn't possible to like both.  One article I remember was titled: Keith Emerson's Favorite Cup of Blood - Genesis.  Well, if it was good enough for Keith, I should give them a go.  And off I went into Nursery Cryme and Foxtrot.  Again, a topic for another post.
Some didn't care for his showmanship.  Daggers in his keyboards (as a replacement for wooden spikes to hold notes down), a spinning piano, a Moog synthesizer that opened and "exploded" at the end of Karn Evil 9, and countless other efforts to entertain us.
When they interpreted a classical piece for one of their albums, they would take it to the composer and play it for them, seeking approval.  For Alberto Ginastera's "Toccata," Keith said, "I was dubious about taking my arrangement to such a famous man.  He didn't speak much English and his wife had to translate everything. Finally, Ginastera said, 'Diabolic!' I was terrified. I thought he hated it or thought I was the devil or something. But then, he smiled. He turned to me and said, "No one has been able to capture my music like that before! It's exactly the way I hear it myself!"  That surely must have warmed Keith's heart.
His interpretations of Copland's "Hoedown" and "Fanfare for the Common Man" are inspired and amazing.  Their third album, "Pictures at an Exhibition" was a full composition adapted for the trio, reminiscent of The Nice, and I imagine made Modest Mussorgsky smile in his grave.  Countless other tunes are spiked with pieces of Leoš Janáček, Béla Bartok, Joaquín Rodrigo, and Sergei Prokofiev. Today, it might seem trite, but in the 1970's it was innovative, fun, and critically panned as being pretentious.
Famous disc jockey (oxymoron) John Peel called them, "A waste of time, talent, and electricity." Hoo boy.  Their albums came out to mostly critical pans, because that's what they were supposed to do in those days.  Music like theirs was pretentious, overbearing, and excessive. I loved every minute of it, and perhaps the fact that most critics hated it made me love it even more.  I think there is a tendency for people to hate what they don't understand.  After all, there were huge pipe organs, giant drum kits, synthesizers, and (egad) classical music.  What's not to hate?
Keith wrote a Piano Concerto for their "Works Volume 1" album in 1977, and I remember reading a review by the cranky Matt Damsker, (who seemed to hate anything that wasn't mainstream) in our local newspaper.  He complained (complained!) that the concerto lacked a theme.  I wrote him an angry letter, because a concerto doesn't need a theme.  It's a composition in three movements.  I thought (and still do) it was a beautiful piece, but sometimes critics need to hate to get attention.  I suppose it worked.
I had tickets for that tour - where they were supposed to be accompanied by a full orchestra - again, at The Spectrum. Alas, they ran out of money and had to sack the orchestra.  The show went on, with the three of them.  I figured they could have financed it if they had charged more than $8.50 for a ticket.  Today, that show would probably cost $150. In those days, concerts were loss-leaders to promote record sales and pump-up interest in the band.  Now, they're profit centers.  Again -- another topic.
The band ran out of steam about the time "Love Beach" came out, whose title should have alerted us to the fact.  I lost track of Keith, outside of his soundtrack to the Sylvester Stallone film "Nighthawks."
I've never been one for going backwards or "tribute bands."  I prefer to remember greatness and move on with life.  As much as I loved him, I never went to see any of the incarnations of ELP-style bands that formed, including Emerson, Lake, and Powell or The Nice reunion.  Once the original energy is gone, something intrinsic to the music is lost, and I have no interest in re-living past glory.
What I have to remember from him is the musical wonderment that he brought me.  How could someone find that spark?  Where does that creative inertia come from?  His energy, verve, and passion.  I didn't (and still don't) know beans about playing the keyboards, outside of where the notes are, but there was something about him that inspired awe and wonder.  Every note had a purpose, and everything he did was inspired.
Whatever caused him to decide to take his own life is his business, and I can only imagine was done with much forethought.  It makes my heart ache, but he leaves a legacy of great music.  The wonderful thing about art - whether recorded, written, spoken, or drawn - is that it lives beyond our mortality.  We have memories, sure; but there are also tangible objects that we can carry along with us.  I'm sure Keith realized that, as did the others before him.  It is sad, but glorious at the same time.
His work here was done.  Whatever made this poor soul take his own life, I hope he is in a happier place, because he certainly left me in one. Rest in peace.

1 comment:

Pinewolf said...

Beautify stated.
I hope those that loved him get to read this.