Okay, this is hard. Very hard.
Keith Emerson is dead. Apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 71.
That in itself is difficult to square with the pictures in my mind of the epic artist of the heyday of one of the greatest musical outfits of the 20th Century.
It’s tempting to get into the justifications for Keith Emerson’s place as a composer and performer, what his music meant for rock, for classical, for a generation of people who found in his work an uncompromising dedication to a particular aesthetic and a level of quality found in few pop acts. Indeed, to even use that term—pop act—seems to diminish the breadth of the ambition he displayed throughout his career.
Post Sgt Pepper’s, rock music—what then without much hesitation or embarrassment was termed pop music, in the sense of it being “populist” as opposed to “elitist” and embodying an idea that popularity and depth were not mutually exclusive—went into a decade-long period of experiment and innovative “reaching” unparalleled since Romantic music shouldered aside Baroque, or when Be-bop and Cool displaced Swing in jazz. The “three-chords-and-bridge” format that had dominated rock’n’roll, built often around fatuously insipid lyric content and attempts to mask the underlying restiveness with whitebread presentations, gave way to genuine musical innovation and serious compositional challenges. Strumming guitars and 4/4 backbeat proved insufficient in this ecology, even while they served as the basis for forays into multiple key changes and experimental time signatures. Blues transmogrified into psychedelia and hard rock and a multiplicity of forms that took on meanings apart from their origins even while labels failed to define what was being attempted.
Keith Emerson began as an aspiring jazz pianist and emerged as every bit the “classicist” composers like Copland, Barber, or Bernstein were. First in The Nice, which began life as a backing band, and then in Emerson, Lake & Palmer he put out music that tore at expectations and demanded an attention to content unusual in the rock idiom. Sitting through any of the first five albums from ELP, you simply did not know where Emerson was taking you, but it was expansive, exciting, challenging, and in many ways other-worldly. For me, this was the soundtrack of the future I wanted to inhabit, the sound that went with the science fiction I was reading.
More, though, it was also a bridge with a past I imagine a great many of his fans did not know, a musical archive encoded in the templates of a new music. There was Bartok, Sibelius, Bach, Copland, Bernstein. There, too, were echoes of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Jellyroll Morton, Dave Brubeck. Emerson took the past, blent it into a melange of sound aimed at the part of the mind that hungered for the future.
The first concert I ever attended was The Nice. 1967. I’d heard those albums, that keyboard sound, and then found out about the show, and the first and only time I ever snuck out of my house I went and saw this guy in leather pants and knee-high boots playing multiple keyboards (no synthesizers at the time) and while I have since forgotten the details the impression was amazing. It sank into my brain and remained, so a few years later, when I finally came upon the wealth that has since been called Progressive Rock it was with instant recognition.
I’ve seen ELP six times.
I could go on about what it is in the music that is so important, but I’ll leave that for other, better equipped commentators. The subsequent backlash against ELP and all of progressive rock that came into vogue with the advent of Punk and then New Wave is only so much mosquito-noise of people with no patience, no sense of history, and who believe the only function of music is biokinetic. ELP is pompous and overblown? Well, so was Beethoven, much of Tchaikovsky, and certainly Mozart was arrogant. Yet the music does not fade, does not desiccate or dissolve with repeated listenings. Rather, if attention is paid, there is always more. Such music is not pompous but expansive and it requires a willingness to leave a certain provincialism behind, something many people are unwilling to do or uncomfortable in experiencing.
Keith Emerson opened the possibilities for taking the idioms of rock music and applying them to greater effect and leaving behind work that could be considered in the same breath as Brahms or Grieg or, certainly the composer who most reminds me of Emerson, Aaron Copland. Emerson was the composer at the center of my life’s musical aesthetic.
He damaged his right hand decades ago. He suffered a degenerative nerve condition as a result. There had been operations, he had worked hard to overcome it, but in recent years videos of his performances showed an increasing difficulty in playing. The last I had seen, he was learning how to conduct since playing was becoming perhaps problematic. Any look at him performing, though, shows us a man in love with the physical act of making music. That he might not be able to do that must have weighed heavily. He was always all about the music. Take that away and you lose what he was.
No one can presume to know what he felt in his last days. But by all means, go back and listen—really listen—to the music he left behind. Genius is too slippery and rarefied a term, but for me it applies. He created a space for amazing sounds and he should be celebrated even as he is mourned.
I’m going to go listen to Tarkus now. That tough armadillo has left us. But the music…the music is forever.