One of rock music’s greatest keyboardists died on March 11th. Keith Emerson, most well known for his work with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, committed suicide at the age of 71 in his California home. Unfortunately, Keith had been despondent about health problems that were limiting his ability to play. According to The Guardian, his girlfriend said:
“His right hand and arm had given him problems for years. He had an operation a few years ago to take out a bad muscle but the pain and nerve issues in his right hand were getting worse.”
She added: “He had concerts coming up in Japan and even though they hired a back-up keyboard player to support him, Keith was worried. He read all the criticism online and was a sensitive soul. Last year he played concerts and people posted mean comments such as, ‘I wish he would stop playing.’ He was tormented with worry that he wouldn’t be good enough.”
I was depressed to hear that criticism of his playing contributed to his death. When I was in high school, I had a friend who was a huge ELP fan. He was a keyboard player himself, and if one had to emulate anyone, Emerson was the man to be. It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I embraced prog rock and added Emerson’s work to my record collection. The band’s self-titled first record has some of the best representations the genre has to offer.
The raw energy that Emerson pumped into those organ riffs should put to rest any rock critic’s argument that prog was nothing more than meandering flute solos dressed up in theatrical costumes. The fact that ELP was one of the biggest rock bands in the world during the early 70s still blows my mind. How could a band known for extended organ tracks really dominate the record market and touring circuit? Perhaps because, while the band adhered to many tropes regarding progressive rock, they also knew how to craft a fine melody to embed in their improvisations. One of my favorite songs of all time is the band’s track Tarkus; I loved it so much I named my car after said track.
The world would later reject the world-building themes present in music of this nature, but I have a deepened respect for the grandiose pretentiousness of the style. When done with the right degree of virtuosity and care, you get something as great as Tarkus.
The fact that Emerson was still expected to perform like he did in his youth is an unfortunate byproduct of this age’s musical expectations. I wrote a piece a few months back celebrating rock bands that continue into their grey years, and I wish Emerson could have overlooked the naysayers criticizing him for playing like, well, a 70 year old. There were still scores of fans, young and old, who would have been thrilled to see him perform.
Thanks for all the great records, Keith. I hope you found peace.
(Image: Keith Emerson with Moog – Wikicommons)