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Keith Emerson: Farewell To The Keyboard Genius

Classic Rock pays tribute to a unique talent and the keyboard player with The Nice, ELP and many other projects, who tragically took his own life in March.

Rock stars seem to be passing away with appalling regularity these days. This year’s abnormally high fatality rate has already claimed David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, Dale Griffin and Jimmy Bain, among others, struck down by physical illnesses that refused to quit.

The manner of Keith Emerson’s recent demise, however, seems particularly tragic. On March 10, the 71-year-old died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Santa Monica. After officially logging Emerson’s case as a suicide, the Los Angeles County coroner’s report listed further significant causes of death as heart disease and depression, caused by chronic alcohol use.

The overwhelming public reaction to his death was one of shock. But for those closer to him, there had been, for some time, signs that all had not quite been as it should in Keith Emerson’s life. His girlfriend, Mari Kawaguchi, revealed to The Daily Mail that a forthcoming gig in Japan had left the keyboardist “tormented with worry” after long‑standing nerve problems in his right hand and arm appeared to be getting worse. Despite undergoing an operation some years ago, she said, Emerson was still in pain and concerned that his musical capabilities were being steadily eroded. “He was planning to retire after Japan,” Kawaguchi is quoted as saying. “He was a perfectionist and the thought that he wouldn’t play perfectly made him depressed, nervous and anxious.”

Author and film producer Jill Gambaro added fuel to this theory when she gave an interview to the LA Weekly just after Emerson’s death. In it, she disclosed that she and Emerson had been in contact two years earlier, when Gambaro was researching her book, The Truth About Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Their email exchange included Emerson discussing the debilitating nature of focal dystonia, a neurological condition that often affects a group of muscles in the hand and wrist. As a long-term sufferer of repetitive strain injury herself, Gambaro began to discover that it was a serious issue for many musicians of a certain age. “Musicians can’t talk about their injuries because then they won’t get hired anymore,” Emerson wrote. “So there’s a lot of people basically suffering in silence.”

The LA Weekly picked up on one Emerson quote that seemed almost too prophetic: “Nobody wants to employ a session musician with any disability. Some musicians have resorted to suicide.”

It wold be easy to view Emerson’s death as a final, desperate response to this deteriorating condition, but that would be grossly over-simplistic. Rather, as is often the case with such terrible tragedies, it appears more complex than that. “I’m sorry to say it was not wholly shocking to any of us who knew Keith closely,” laments Greg Lake, his former bandmate in Emerson, Lake & Palmer. “It was likely to happen. My recollection is that his depression went back as far as 1977, when we were making [ELP’s] Works Volume 1. I’m not a doctor, but in retrospect there were indications that all was not well. I think Keith was a troubled soul, or at least one side of him was. He was really happy when he was playing, but when he wasn’t playing, he went into a dark place. And that was the problem, really.”

“I believe it was a combination of factors,” Lake continues. “He’d known about his hand since we made In The Hot Seat [1994], so that didn’t come as any shock to him. In any case, Keith was 71 when he died and where did he think he was going? You’d be retiring from active playing at that age, wouldn’t you? So I don’t think that was wholly the story. I think he got very depressed and compensated for that in some ways. And maybe the whole thing just crashed. I think that’s probably nearer the truth.”

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