So Long, Keith Emerson

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)


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Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father just north of San Francisco who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular contributor at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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13 thoughts on “So Long, Keith Emerson

  1. I loved his stuff.

    Jerusalem (off of Brain Salad Surgery) is a wonderful modern revamping of a lovely hymn and reading about how it got banned when they wanted to release it as a single is just really funny/sad. It’s pretty much the go-to version of the song for me now… primarily because of Emerson’s keyboards.

    Hoedown is another traditional(ish) song that they turned around and flipped on its head and he did an absolutely brilliant job with it.

    Ah, poor Keith. Sigh.

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  2. from “Pictures at an Exhibition:”
    Lead me from tortured dreams
    Childhood themes of nights alone,
    Wipe away endless years,
    childhood tears as dry as stone.

    From seeds of confusion,
    illusions darks blossoms have grown.
    Even now in furrows of sorrow
    the doubt still is sown.
    I carry the dust of a journey
    that cannot be shaken away
    It lives deep within me
    For I breathe it every day.

    You and I are yesterday’s answers;
    The earth of the past come to flesh,
    Eroded by Time’s rivers
    To the shapes we now possess.

    Come share of my breath and my substance,
    and mingle our stream and our times.
    In bright, infinite moments,
    Our reasons are lost in our rhymes.

    My life’s course is guided
    decided by limits drawn
    on charts of my past days
    and pathways since I was born.

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  3. Always liked ELP although Yes and King Crimson were my favorite prog rock bands.

    This version of a classical piece, Tocatta, has really held up well for me. Emerson had to go ask the composer for permission to use it and was afraid of being denied as just some rock star. But he impressed the composer and got the permission which meant a lot to him.

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  4. Although I like “classical” music (encompassing all of the eras from pre-Baroque to post-modern) I tend not to like musical theater because I’m not into camp. Though I can respect the great works of artistic accomplishment there (it’s more a style than a substance thing for me). No one can deny the genius of Porter, Coward, Bernstein, & Sondheim. I’d rather listen to Bernstein conduct some intense classical stuff than West Side Story.

    Though I don’t think I appreciated just how great “America” is from West Side Story until I heard Keith rock it out and “de-camp” it. Love the hemiola.

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  5. I don’t know much about prog rock or ELP at all, but I like what I’m hearing here, and I’m very sorry to hear of Emerson’s troubles. In a way it’s inspiring, though, that they’re related to his music, still, this long after the apparent height of his musical success. That’s living out your passion.

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  6. The obsessive compulsive perfectionist mindset, in talented folks, can be a scary thing. It can drive greatness. But also break people in Black Swan moments.

    I haven’t seen the movie with the drill Instructor like drum teacher. But Buddy Rich seems to have been the real deal. Keith came off as a gentle soul. But Greg Lake intimated that since the late 70s, Keith’s dark side that made him hard to work with caused issues with the band.

    Listen to the Buddy Rich video (if you haven’t already) to understand what goes through minds of folks like this. It’s funny and tragic at the same time.

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