I originally wrote this rant in November of 2014 but left it unpublished.
Emerson, Lake & Palmer recorded the album Tarkus in 1971. But since they disbanded many years ago, I think I’ve seen enough ‘solo versions’ of Tarkus for a Jon Stewart montage. Keith Emerson with a big band. Keith Emerson with an orchestra. Keith Emerson unplugged. Keith Emerson with some young guys. Keither Emerson with some old guys.
Look, Tarkus is a great piece of music. I don’t mean ‘for prog’, I mean of any kind of music. It may be the best instrumental piece of the entire genre. In fact, it may be one of the best pieces of music of any kind composed in my lifetime. It’s way better than almost any of the pretentious concert music I can think of at the moment. It sounds as fresh and challenging today as it did when Keith wrote it in 1971. But guess what? Tarkus was done in 1971. Complete. Fin.
Had he wished to, Keith might’ve achieved the status of a John Adams on the concert stage or, if we’re merely speaking of ‘ex-rockers’ certainly a Danny Elfman on the big screen.
The thing that irks the living crap outta me is when artists of great talent can’t seem to move forward. Don’t get me wrong. I’m as much in favour of shameless self-promotion as the next guy. And I’m certainly not jealous. I just think that at some point you gotta leave behind the past and put your best energies towards new things… whether your fans like it or not. Whether you like it or not.
As much as I constantly bitch about how pretentious visual artists tend to be… what with their endless post-modernist ‘performances’ and ‘statements’, at least they keep trying new things. If painters were like musicians, they’d simply go around re-selling the same damned painting over and over. At least painters have the decency to call the next one ‘Trees And Road #293’. As opposed to Trees And Road #292.
It’s like trying to figure out what’s wrong with politics. Is it the terrible politicians or the people who never demand more? I don’t have a clue. But as I’ve said many times, it’s a good indicator of how awful music is that the best selling album of the year will be named ‘1989’ and be sonically indistinguishable from music recorded in… 1989. Real musicians have to do more than that, even though one’s fans would be quite happy to have one keep sweating to the oldies right up until the hearse pulls up to the back of the casino. 😀
Consider for a moment a great composer like Beethoven. The guy was endlessly re-working pieces for sure–but mainly because he was often dissatisfied. He often (correctly) felt that things could be improved and so he kept tweaking. Many composers do that. But he had other commissions and other ideas that he moved forward with. I guess I shouldn’t have picked ‘Beethoven’ but all healthy composers do that.
I’m not picking on Keith in particular. But frankly, the guy had more talent than most people in ‘prog’ and by all rights he shoulda been able to leverage his successes into a second career as a ‘serious’ artist. Had he wished to, Keith might’ve achieved the status of a John Adams on the concert stage or, if we’re merely speaking of ‘ex-rockers’ certainly a Danny Elfman on the big screen.
Artists like Sting, Bruce Hornsby, David Byrne, Bela Fleck and Joni Mitchell are good examples of artists who knew when to re-invent themselves. They keep getting the gravy from ‘Roxanne’ and so on, but they don’t live off it. Some of their new work is OK, some less so, but that’s to be expected. The longer one works, the more one is like a baseball player… you only get a hit once every three or four times at bat and after a while that means a lot of misses. Regardless, one keeps swinging.
No artist that we take seriously keeps the focus of his artistic life on past successes. He may keep sucking on that old teat from time to time in order to pay the mortgage or even to get a quick morale boost. But he never expects that such milk is anything but fatty, disgusting, empty, stroke-inducing calories. One keeps it to an absolute minimum.
How that for imagery? 😀
By the way, this metaphor is not strictly coincidental. It may not be wholly accurate, but having played with enough fading artists who do keep playing the same old hits at ever-smaller casinos, I’ve concluded that there is likely something physically unhealthy about such a life. Put more plainly, I think it’s probably better for one’s physical as well as one’s artistic health to keep focused on new things.