Keyboard Hero

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(Pictured: Keith Emerson, 1972.)

My reactions to the recent deaths of various musicians, as expressed at the moment I heard about them:

Natalie Cole: “Hmm.”

David Bowie: “Really?”

Glenn Frey: “Oh!”

Keith Emerson: “Goddammit!”

Now maybe it was exasperation over the way losses are beginning to pile upon losses, and how every week somebody else who matters to us is dying. That’s something we’d better start getting used to, however. The gods of the 1960s and 1970s are pushing past their biblical three-score-and-ten, and we’re going to lose them with disturbing frequency as the next few years unfold.

It’s more likely, however, that my reaction to Emerson’s death on Friday was due to the fact in my world, Keith Emerson was as cool as anybody could get. It’s a stupid damn world where somebody like that can die.

You could not become a fan of Emerson Lake and Palmer at the impressionable age of 15, as I did, and not see Keith Emerson as the rock star you wished you could be. The way he bent the keyboards to his will, using violence if necessary, flipping the piano or organ over, stabbing it with a knife, even making the damn thing fly. The way he tamed a rack of synthesizers. The bottle on the piano, signifying the kind of take-no-shit attitude every nerdy teenager wished he could pull off. The man’s obvious virtuosity—the fascination of watching and listening to someone do things you are unable to do.

The first real rock concert I ever attended, on June 9, 1977, starred Emerson Lake and Palmer with the incredible shrinking Works tour orchestra. Five months later, on November 8, they played Madison again as a trio, and I was there for that show, too. The version of “Peter Gunn” they played on that night remains the coolest concert opener I’ve ever seen. There has not been another moment in my life that felt like that.

Keith Emerson gave me that moment.

Most pieces about Emerson praise “Fanfare for the Common Man,” a nine-minute keyboard epic that became a hit single in England. It’s fine, but I think there are others that better display what he could do, and his remarkable range. As a kid with only enough piano lessons to make me into a stumbling one-fingered player, I couldn’t listen to ELP’s version of the Aaron Copland composition “Hoedown” without wondering how Emerson could play like that. Ultimate Classic Rock published an insightful piece that suggested he was rock’s first keyboard hero since Jerry Lee Lewis, and his debt to the Killer is easy to hear on “Are You Ready Eddy?,” a track that’s tacked onto the end of Tarkus like a throwaway, although it’s most definitely not. Emerson was also capable of improvising like a jazzman, on synth as he did on the Welcome Back My Friends version of “Aquatarkus,” or on piano when playing “Take a Pebble.” Do not doubt that his piano playing was firmly based in the old school, as on “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” a straight-up stride number written by Meade Lux Lewis, or his original “Barrelhouse Shakedown,” both from Works Volume 2.

If you’d like the whole history of Keith Emerson’s career, from his earliest days in anonymous British rock bands to his breakthrough with the Nice through ELP’s heyday and its reformations over the last two-plus decades, read the Ultimate Classic Rock piece. While you’re doing that, I’ll be over here listening to Brain Salad Surgery again. And “Peter Gunn.” And Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends. And. . . .

4 thoughts on “Keyboard Hero

  1. He played cool; he looked cool; and to make him even cooler to Anglophiles like myself, “Keith Emerson” is just about as British as a name can sound.
    (The only thing it lacks is a hyphen — like if he were Keith Gladstone-Emerson. Or Keith Hammond-Emerson.)

    Perhaps that explains why the ELP toon I have been whistling for the past 72 hours is their arrangement of “Jerusalem” from Brain Salad Surgery.
    Opening an album with the alternate British national anthem is kinda like James Bond using the Union Jack parachute in “The Spy Who Loved Me.”

    For the record, my favorite Keith Emerson moment is the solo organ version of “Promenade” that begins Pictures at an Exhibition. Pipe organs sound like God to start with, and Emerson takes full advantage.

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