Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Keith Emerson - An Appreciation

I'm a few days late and more than a few dollars short but I feel the need to post an appreciation of Keith Emerson, who died last week in an apparent suicide. His passing is one thing, not completely out of the blue, since he was 71 and for all I know  all those wild years of tours might have started to catch up with him. But the fact that it was a suicide lends a bit of tragedy to it. People who commit suicide are not happy, consumed usually by either a mental or physical illness. Being sad is one thing, pulling the trigger means really crossing a dark line. I wish only the best to his family.

But I've come to praise Mr. Emerson.

I'm not sure exactly when I first heard Emerson, Lake and Palmer's first album, but there's a good chance that I was between the ages of 4 and 6. My oldest brother owned it, and he's 10 years older than me. I was at an age when I had no idea how music was made. I mean I knew my dad was a bassist and knew that he created music. But in listening to records, all my aural reference points were usually non-musical. So the opening fuzz bass of "The Barbarian" made me think of an electric razor. And the idea of a musical instrument approximating that was way cool. So I was into that album from the first note, literally. But that song got better. Emerson's Hammond organ sounded so vicious. So much so that when he switched to piano in the middle, it almost sounded comical, in the best possible way.

One of the magical things about that album was that, not being able to read the cover, I had no idea where one song ended and the next began. So "Take a Pebble," which goes from a folk song to a piano solo to a breakdown that morphs into a handclapping jam, and then goes in reverse, just felt magical. When that final verse came around, it always felt like another song.

"Knife Edge" continued the rockist side. Greg Lake's vocal always felt a tad menacing during the verses,and I loved the way the dynamics shifted when the organ kicked in. Then in the middle, the classical break reminded me of church. Incidentally I just discovered the remastered version of this song on youtube, where the tape isn't shut off at the end, which on the original record created the sound of the music melting into molten lava (what I always envisioned back in the day, since the sound was so eerie). It was cool to hear it a different way, but they were wise to end it the way they did.

Then there's "The Three Fates," Emerson's trio of keyboard spotlights, going from a heavy Royal Festival Hall Organ into a piano solo to a frantic piano trio. It was kind of creepy and eerie, especially those low, low organ notes but I couldn't get enough of it.

In the ELP canon, their debut might not be their most highly regarded work, but it's one that I go back to every six months or so. I also pull out Trilogy occasionally, the album that inspired me to deck out my bedroom with my own vision of Emerson's keyboard arsenal, and pretend to play along like I was him. But that first album has more staying power. Part of it probably has to do with hearing it so young and going back to that mental space where nothing in the world mattered except music, and the wilder the better. Another thing might be that the group was in their early stages - they supposedly didn't have a full set of material when they went into the studio - and they were discovering all of their capabilities and you share in their excitement by listening. I still feel that anytime I put that record on.

Of course, ELP later turned bombastic. Their pretension supposedly inspired the creation of punk rock. But I just read in an article about Emerson that even John Lydon himself eventually became friends with the master keyboardist. And as time went on Keith seemed to maintain a good measure of humility about his work, at least in more recent interviews. So I respect him for that as well.

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