Remembering Keith Emerson (the Way We Ought to)


Shortly after the death of rock keyboardist Keith Emerson was reported as a suicide last Friday, Greg Lake, his former bandmate in the eponymously named progressive rock juggernaut, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, was quoted on the website of the U.K.'s Sunday Express that he had recognized signs of Keith's depression since the late 70's, adding that "I have to be honest and say that his death didn't come as a shock to me."

"I think its [sic] a very difficult thing to actually describe what depression is... He lived, in the end, this very lonely existence of someone who was deeply troubled, He loved music -- that was his main purpose in life... But the music he made after ELP never bore fruit in the same way as it did in the early days."

He went on to make a plea for others who have similar feelings: "All I would say is that if anyone does have feelings like that, of being so desperate that they think it's better off not to wake up tomorrow, then please, go and talk to somebody -- the doctor, your friend, anybody."

The statements, sometimes quite harsh even if not lacking in understanding, are in stark contrast to his terse initial statement on his website, in which he stated that "[a]s sad and tragic as Keith's death is, I would not want this to be the lasting memory people take away with them."

A very sad facet of suicide is its ability to alter the conversation and taint our memories. Just as for many the death of Robin Williams forever painted him as the tragic sad clown figure, a sharp contrast to the lighting witted chameleon comic genius, I appreciate Lake's fear that Emerson's contributions will be colored by nature of his passing. At the same time, I also understand why he later felt the need to openly ruminate on it, and I certainly would never condemn his statement in support of psychological counseling.

But then there is also always the temptation for people who never knew Emerson beyond his work to speculate: "Did the stigma of mental illness prevent him from getting the help he may have needed?" "What if he hadn't had a gun in the house?" Some have even suggested that internet trolling was a factor in his anxiety and subsequent suicide.

I do think that all of these issues should be brought into open discussion, but I agree with Lakes' original statement that we should try to remember Keith Emerson for who he was at his best and strongest, a kick ass musician. Let's remember him as the guy who used to hold down notes on his Hammond organ with giant daggers (gifts from his roadie, Lemmy... yes that Lemmy), while also displaying dazzling, disciplined piano technique. Let's remember the guy whose use of the Moog synthesizer and collaboration with its inventor, Robert Moog, lead to significant developments in that instrument. Let his legacy include his compositional prowess, and his ability as a performer to arrange older pieces to make new statements and express new attitudes.

A lot of younger people do not know of these things (damned millennials!). Sadly, I find that many people who were not around in the 70s are unaware of a couple of things: Firstly, that Keith Emerson is largely considered to be one of the most technically proficient keyboardists ever to play rock music. Secondly, that Emerson, Lake and Palmer were one of the biggest bands in the world at that time. In their 1973-74 heyday, only The Who, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin were bigger concert draws.

To be sure (internet trolls be damned), Emerson was no stranger to criticism; in the 70's Emerson, Lake and Palmer were also one of the most critically reviled bands of the time, usually blasted for being pompous, bombastic, too cerebral and overly theatrical. Outwardly, the band brushed off, or even welcomed such criticism. This was a band that prided itself on something else, creating something bigger, something more grand, mixing elegant composition with sonic experimentation, intense volume, fiery chops and a brash stage show. They were unapologetic. They had no time for people who would slag off their incorporation of music by established jazz musicians and classical composers into performances. If you couldn't deal Mussorgsky mixed with some Hammond organ feedback, Led Zeppelin was playing across town (and they were a "pure" rock band; they only ripped off aging blues musicians).

And while to some it seemed overly heady and considered, this was a music that the band arrived at organically, mixing the classical training that the members had in their youth with the pop sounds that were coming out in England at the time, all the while emboldened by the experimental spirit of the age. If their music didn't have a raw sound like classic American rock n' roll or blues, it wasn't supposed to. Prog rock was its own beast. It was, and remains, at its best, ethereal, powerful and thought-provoking.

However, while immensely popular in the early to mid seventies, today prog rock is generally a cult affair. Its fans today are a smaller group, but one that is both rabid and discerning, while deliberately dismissive of concepts of cool versus uncool. Prog rock fans are more interested in exploring vistas of sound and atmosphere, music made with skill and commitment and less interested in musical scenes connected to social movements or attitudes. Prog rock fans do not look to music to tell them how to dress or who they should sneer at. It's all about the music.

And so it was for Keith. He was one of the titans of the genre, leading the charge for musicians of the time, and inspiring artists of the future. Needless to say, tributes poured out in the last few days. Peter Gabriel wrote that "Keith's passion for good music, whether it was classical, jazz or rock, was in itself one of the things that led the progressive rock movement."

Adrian Belew, the former King Crimson guitarist who also worked with Frank Zappa, David Bowie and Talking Heads, commented on how he wanted to get sounds like Emerson's keyboards out of his guitar and went on to say that "had I never heard Keith Emerson playing I might be a different guitarist than I am today. [T]hank you Keith."

Indeed, Greg Lake did say it best in his original statement when he declared that what he "will always remember about Keith Emerson was his remarkable talent as a musician and composer and his gift and passion to entertain. Music was his life and despite some of the difficulties he encountered I am sure that the music he created will live on forever."

Hear, Hear.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.