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As many of you know, Keith Emerson passed away on March 10 of this year under tragic circumstances. His death was not just a loss for progressive rock fans: Keith Emerson is arguably the most influential keyboardist of all time, and his loss has been felt by millions of fans. Even if you are not a fan of Emerson’s music over the years (ELP, The Nice, solo work), chances are that he has influenced your favorite musicians. Almost every musician I follow on Facebook expressed considerable grief at the loss and mentioned the powerful influence Keith was for them. As the details unfolded, what was first an unfortunate and sad situation became an utterly tragic one. Keith Emerson apparently took his own life in his home. While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what the specific cause was, news outlets are reporting that he had begun to lose the ability to play the keyboard, and was fearful and depressed that he would let down his fans.
Emerson, Lake, and Palmer was one of the first progressive rock bands that I fell in love with. We had a tape that had some of the major hits- Tarkus, From the Beginning, Fanfare for the Common Man, Hoedown. I remember listening to the song ‘Hoedown’, Emerson’s lively remake of the famous Copeland piece, with my father. My dad would get so excited when he’d hear it, and even to this day, some 20 years later, I’m sure he secretly hopes I’ll be in a band that plays it live someday. ELP’s music was an exaggeration of the progressive ethos, but it was fun and intense and in-your-face. He exploded pianos, pushed his massive Hammond organs over mid-concert, and even jammed Hitler youth knives into the keys to hold notes and chords. This excitement stood as a sharp contrast to the brooding King Crimson or the obtuse, ephemeral sounds and lyrics of Yes. ELP was excessive and bombastic, and quintessentially progressive. While all three brought so much to the table, it was Emerson’s command of the keyboards that defined their band, and like electricity, surged through the music and gave it life. As many rock and roll critics have rightly said, Emerson was the Jimi Hendrix of the keyboard.
As a musician and a fan of Keith Emerson, there are several things that are highly disturbing about what has been revealed. Firstly, that he had internalized comments about him by careless fans online and in concerts. What may have felt like a harmless jab by an anonymous commenter may have cut to the core for someone that was struggling with both inner turmoil and debilitating physical ailments. I think it’s a good reminder to perhaps dial back the more hateful and strident commentary, and recognize the humanity of the subjects. Secondly, I am saddened if it was the case that Keith thought that his ability to play the keyboards was his only redeeming quality. There are countless stories of musicians who lose the ability to perform or play, and they find other highly meaningful ways to contribute. He was beloved by so many who had heard him play. There are countless videos of him interacting kindly with fans, indulging them in impromptu keyboard duets, and trading barbs with his former bandmates. The twilight years are frustrating for many, as the body begins to limit our abilities to do what we once were able to do.
A few years ago, Arthur and I had the amazing opportunity to meet one of our favorite bands, Yes. It was during one of the tours with Oliver Wakeman and Benoit David in the early ‘10s.. We were so excited to meet these musicians who we had idolized since our teenage years. I can’t completely speak for Arthur, but after being a fan for so long, and hearing their cryptic and obtuse lyrics, and seeing their otherworldly album art, and building up a band mythology in our heads, we expected them to be these sage-like figures. We met them and had some really great, normal conversations about family and work. They were pleasant and unpretentious. And then both of us realized: Yes is a band that consists of 5 people who have bills and mortgages to pay and families to support. They probably tour because they love music, but they also tour because this has been their job for decades. With all the pretentiousness of progressive rock, and the elevated status we give to our favorite musicians, they are, in many ways, ordinary people.
In Norse mythology, heroes of history get to go to Valhalla, where they drink and party for all eternity. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo gets to go to Valinor, the Undying Lands, where he can live forever in peace and tranquility as repayment for his contributions to Middle Earth. I wish we had something comparable for the artists that have given so much to enrich our lives. I wonder if it would have affected the outcome if Keith Emerson could have been reminded of the incredible contributions he had made to music and history. I wonder if being reminded of a song he wrote that lifted someone out of a depressive state, or being told by thousands, if not millions of keyboardists, that he was the reason they started playing, would have made him reconsider his choices. We’ve had several heroes move on this year so far, but this one is particularly existential and tragic. In the end, all we can do is remember the powerful influence he has had on the music we love.