When David Bowie left us a couple of months ago, a lot of people talked about – quite apart from what his music meant to so many people – what his image, his personality, his presence meant for those of us who were growing up queer and/or gender-queer back before all the cool kids were doing it.
Keith Emerson was that, for keyboardists.
The guitarists have all the heroes – Hendrix, Zappa, Steve Vai, Clapton, etc etc etc, as do the drummers (Bonham, Moon, even Ringo). For the rock keyboardists, there was really only Emerson, and Rick Wakeman. Now, you see, I rate Wakeman as a raconteur, but not really as a keyboardist. Silver cape, King Arthur on Ice, endless twinkly arpeggios… all kind of fey, isn’t it?
Nothing fey about Emmo. Greg Lake referred to ELP as a “sabre-rattling band”, and Keith Emerson was the embodiment of keyboard playing with some chest hair. Knifing a Hammond organ to death, spinning grand pianos, modular synths shooting pyrotechnics out of the top… but aside from all the showmanship, Emerson’s compositional chops – heavily influenced by jazz and the twentieth-century avant-garde like Bartók or Janacek – were far more dissonant and interesting than Wakeman’s noodling. The quartile harmonies of “Tarkus”, the counterpoint of “Karn Evil 9” or the multilayered Mellotrons of “Abbaddon’s Bolero” have inspired many a young musician who wanted to do something interesting with the rock keyboards. Like me.
I came across Brain Salad Surgery in a used records bin in 1993, twenty years after it was produced. This was the heyday of grunge, where no-one was interested in rock keyboards any more. I chose a very unfashionable instrument for that period. So, I must admit, I was very excited about a band which gave me licence to say screw you, guitar snobs – give me the screaming analog synth over your six strings any day.
Yes. We all know, of course, how ELP made themselves the poster child for everything that was wrong with 70s progressive rock, too. Hubris, cocaine, hiring a 100-piece orchestra and having to lay them off halfway through a tour, and then making a god-awful piece of crap “easy listening” album out of contractual obligation. Well. There’s a rumour going around that no-one’s perfect.
Even from when I was first aware of him, Keith Emerson was beginning to have problems with his hands. A shock-horror cover story in Keyboard magazine in 1993 read: ‘Will Emerson Ever Play Again?’ It was Carpal Tunnel Syndrome at the time. At the last ELP gig in 2010, you could clearly see that he was having trouble with the twiddly bits, slurring his notes, but keeping going through sheer effort of will.
In daring, in bravado, in performance chops, in compositional uniqueness, and in sheer screw you opposition to guitar chauvinism, Keith Emerson was the best there ever was. And he blew his own brains out. Because he was 71 years old, and he couldn’t be the best any more, and he had nothing else.
I’m kind of having a hard time with that.