Keith Emerson RIP. Brahms. Keyboardists. Alberto Ginastera. Michael Jordan.
Roger CortonAnother blow. Now Keith is gone.
JCHHe was a giant. The giant. The greatest of them all.
What mattered most about Keith Emerson, like all the really great players, was their gift of ‘memorability’. You think of Charlie Parker or Jaco or Hendrix or Keith and you hear these ear worms; these licks that are as fresh and eye-opening today as they were when the guy first laid them down.
RCI was thinking about that rant you did last year that you never posted.
JCHYou mean Stop Milking That Poor Little Tarkus?
RCPrecisely. How do you feel about it now, big boy?
JCHWell, when I read some comments from his girlfriend about how sensitive the guy was, I’m glad I didn’t publish it at the time. But that rant still feels true to me. When I listen to his stuff, I cannot help but think, “If only he’d made the turn into that second career…”
RCBut that’s because you’re Mr. Negative. So let’s focus on what made him the greatest.
JCHVerily, I shall not remain Mr. Negative! (How’s that for pretentious prog prose?)
RCThe absolute acme of alliteration. So… is his legacy Tarkus? Brain Salad Surgery? Works? Is there one piece you can recommend to readers which instantly explains why he was da man?
JCHFor me, it’s Karn Evil 9. When I did Compartments, which was you know, my first real ‘epic’ piece, I kept thinking of Karn Evil 9 and I felt intimidated.
RCYou felt like that was your model?
JCHFor meSort of. I mean it definitely occurred to me that I would need to up my keyboard playing to do something like this–I couldn’t just throw guitar in everywhere.
RCI never thought of that before, but now that you mention it, it’s totally obvious, ‘prog’ bands almost always have at least two solo voices.
JCHRight. They have to play off one another. But for that matter, I knew I’d have to make all the parts happening. Up until Compartments I wasn’t as concerned with the instrumental virtuosity. But I kept listening to Brain Salad Surgery and that just seemed like the way to go. I wanted my work to be like real chamber music–where all the parts were of equal importance. Like where a string quartet has a conversation between four equals. And then my balls just started shriveling up at what it would take for me to get there… like Brahms with his Symphony #1. The guy put it off for almost two decades because he just never felt like he could live up to his idol…
RC…Beethoven. So Keith was your idol? Is that why you’ve been so hard on the guy over the years?
JCHPretty much. I remember when Works Vol. I came out and he got all this crap about how pretentious and derivative his Piano Concerto was. The critics just ripped him a new one. But I liked it. Still do. I don’t think it’s a great piece of classical music, but it sure ain’t crap. It was a first effort. And if you’ve heard any of a lot of composers’ first efforts, they sure ain’t gems. It’s just that he put it out there. But I was always rooting for the guy to do MORE. I heard the potential. I figured he’d keep at it and by the time he was fifty he’d be killing it. But there was one thing I didn’t count on.
JCHHe was human. He wanted to keep being famous. Or maybe he couldn’t stand going through the learner period after living large. Or maybe… hell, I dunno. I certainly feel like throwing in the towel sometimes, what with the ups and downs of ‘the biz’.
RCEspecially after some of the criticism you’ve gotten after cancelling the Niagara show last month. We need to talk about that. Soon.
JCHYeah, well don’t hold yer breath. But in any case, what I’m saying is that I’ve been hard on Keith because he was one of the few prog guys who really could (and should) have gone on to do greater things. You’ll have to edit this, but think about all the things he did as well as or better than anyone else.
JCHWell, just listen to ‘Toccata’ (also off Brain Salad Surgery.) Ginastera himself loved it.
RCI agree. It’s as if Ginastera was actually waiting for Keith to come along. The original just doesn’t have enough ‘rawk’ (laughs).
JCHSeriously. Keith was an arranger par excellence. Rock critics like to mock arrangements of Copland and so on but have you listened to the other guys who have tried to do that? CHEESE! They all sound terrible. But tunes like ‘Hoedown’ still rock after 40 years.
RCForty years. Yeah.
JCHSynth pioneer? Check. Again, the programming on all those early albums was light years ahead of other rock keyboard players. He actually got inside the machines in a way that only a handful of people did. Tony Banks? Rick Wakeman? Basically just preset players. That gigantic Moog wasn’t just for show.
RCPreach. A few people, like Jan Hammer and Zawinul, were as innovative in jazz, but no one else came close in rock.
JCHAnd speaking of ‘show’, was there ever a keyboard player before or since with his stage presence? The guy was born for the leather pants. Everyone else in rock just kinda stood there. Maybe they wore a cape.
RCBut what a cape!
JCHA cape, nonetheless. Keith worked the audience. And this was way before those strap-on deals. The guy didn’t need no stinkin’ strap-on!
RCNo real man, does.
JCHYou bet. But then I think all his stage antics overshadowed the fact that he was, I have to believe, far and away the best actual player of his generation. The more I study the piano the clearer that becomes to me. Keith’s playing across so many genres was without parallel. The jazz in the middle section of Karn Evil 9 and on their first record wasn’t just fluff. And neither was his barrel house playing. Or his left hand. Or… hell, he was the complete package. I never felt that he was just ‘showing off’ by playing all his various styles. I felt like he was 100% legit at whatever he played. You just can’t know how far ahead of his peers the guy was without trying to do it yourself for about ten years.
RC(Laughs). The leather pants were just too distracting.
JCHNo doubt. My fave Keith anecdote is that, when they re-united, after one of their 80’s tiffs, Greg couldn’t sing the highest notes anymore. So Keith simply transposed tunes like Karn Evil 9–which is mostly in G major (a fairly easy key) down a half step to F#, which is a real finger-buster. Me? I woulda probably quit.
RCOr demanded Greg wear a tighter pair of briefs and sing in the original key fer cryin’ out loud!
JCHLosing 40 pounds probably wouldn’t have hurt Greg either. But I digress. One last thing… and I know this will sound hyperbolic, but at his best Keith reminded me of Duke Ellington in that it was easy to be distracted by all his other skills and forget one simple truth: the guy had an amazing gift for melody. Listen to any of ELP’s great pieces; they are all eminently hummable. Maybe Greg wrote the lion’s share of the ‘songs’ but all those instrumental bits are real ear worms. In Detroit, the Red Wings used ELP tunes like Tarkus and Hoedown as background music for their telecasts for decades. The melodies just pop. And if you don’t think that matters, try and think of a memorable instrumental melody by Rick Wakeman or Tony Banks. I’ll wait.
RCI take your point. Another case of what you call a ‘shiny penny’. I think everyone associated ‘melody’ in ELP with Greg Lake. But so much of ELP’s music is instrumental and melodic.
JCHSee the reason that matters, going back to my initial point, is that a composer needs to be melodic in order to find a general audience. If you can’t make it memorable, you’re only going to appeal to academics. And a gift for melody is something you either have or your don’t have. And Keith had that gift. His stuff is enjoyable on its own. I know that’s not what most people will remember about the guy, but I’m telling you, that’s what mattered most; not the flash. What mattered most about Keith Emerson, like all the really great players, was their gift of ‘memorability’. You think of Charlie Parker or Jaco or Hendrix or Keith and you hear these ear worms; these licks that are as fresh and eye-opening today as they were when the guy first laid them down. They astound technically at the time, but even decades later–after everyone else has learned how to do ‘the tricks’, they remain beautiful to behold and somehow inimitable.
RCLike Jordan in basketball. It’s still beautiful to watch his highlight reels today, even though many guys can do (at least some of) his tricks now. There’s something about his style that is still the best.
RCExactly! Jan Hammer had a great quote about Jeff Beck and ‘clichés’. “It’s not a cliché if you invented it!” Keith invented so many techniques that have now become cliché when it comes to what we now think of as “keyboards”? It’s easier to try and list the things he didn’t invent. I’ll make it even simpler: The man virtually invented the position of “keyboardist”. And I mean that for all genres of music; not just rock. There’s before Keith and after Keith. That over-used word ‘pioneer’ comes to mind. He was the pioneer and everyone in music, from Album Rock to Joe Zawinul follow in his wake to one degree or another.