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Keith Emerson: The visionary life of ELP’s endless enigma

On March 10 2016, Emerson, Lake & Palmer keyboard player Keith Emerson tragically passed away. Greg Lake, Carl Palmer and more salute the artistry and genius of a true prog pioneer.

I n The Year Of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s meditative exploration of sudden death and loss, she notes, “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.” Keith Emerson’s death in March this year came as a sudden blow to countless numbers of fans around the globe. Following so soon after the news of George Martin’s passing in the same week, the announcement was met with wearied dismay that yet another two hugely influential figures had been added to a grim roll call, which, in the last 12 months, included Edgar Froese, Ornette Coleman, Chris Squire, Lemmy and David Bowie.

Though artistically diverse, the common thread linking them all is that they hailed from a generation for whom excellence, innovation and experimentation was second nature. Whereas most mentioned succumbed to natural causes or illnesses, what made Emerson’s passing all the more shocking was the means of his going. Found in their apartment in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, by his long-term partner Mari Kawaguchi, Emerson had taken his own life with a single gunshot to the head.

We know that Keith had experienced problems with his right hand for many years. He required corrective surgery during the making of 1994’s In The Hot Seat, and was only able to complete the album by overdubbing with his left hand. When ELP re-formed for what would be their final gig at London’s High Voltage Festival in 2010, sequencers did all the heavy lifting when it came to those famously dextrous and exacting rhythmic lines which, in part, defined his playing.

The fact of the matter is the greatness of Keith Emerson was when he was himself, not when he was trying to get acceptance in the classical world.

We know also that he was dogged by depression in recent years, and that plans for a Japanese tour in 2016 had led him to worry about whether his deteriorating right hand would be able to cope with the demanding repertoire.
It’s simply not possible to say whether any of this contributed to Keith Emerson’s death. It’s impossible to truly know or understand what had led him to this moment; the point at which no other solution made sense to him any more. All we can say with any certainty is that in that dark, dreadful moment, everything was lost. Life, as Joan Didion observed, changing in the instant.

“It was following morning as I got onto the bus when I got the call,” says Carl Palmer, who was gigging in Italy with his band at the time. “It wasn’t something I thought was going to happen. None of us thought it would. We knew that there were problems but didn’t realise the extent of them. I don’t think many people did, even the people closest to him. From that point of view, it came out of the blue.”

Palmer reveals he had spoken to Emerson last year about the pair playing together at a special performance in 2016. “Because it’s my 50th anniversary as a professional musician, I said to Keith, ‘Let’s pick one date on my American tour that would suit you, and let’s play Carmina Burana, Fanfare..., Peter Gunn or whatever you’d like to play.’ He said yes, and we had it set up to do the gig but just hadn’t decided on the date. So that was very sad.”

Lee Jackson, bassist and vocalist with The Nice, remembers Emerson primarily as a friend but also as a unique musical force. “There was nobody doing what Keith did,” he says firmly. Too often dismissed simply as a career footnote, there’s a wild, untamed vitality to The Nice in their later period, featuring Jackson and drummer Brian Davison.

It was here Emerson honed his skills not only as showman but as an instrumentalist. Jackson recalls when he and Emerson were members of Gary Farr And the T-Bones in 1965, and shared an ambition to go beyond the soul-tinged pop filler of the day. “Keith and I said that one day, if we got the chance, we’d form our own band to play intelligent music. We’d sell it by dressing up like a pop group; whatever the fashion was at the time, that’s what we’d do. We’d try and do clever stuff but we’d make a show out of it as well.”

The Nice’s persuasive mix of spiky psychedelic pop and Emerson’s novel appropriations of themes by JS Bach and jazz pianist Dave Brubeck in Rondo from their 1967 debut, The Thoughts Of Emerlist Davjack, did just that.
Following guitarist Davy O’List’s departure, 1968’s Ars Longa Vita Brevis and 1969’s superb, but criminally underrated and jazz-infused Nice contained hard-edged, original material as well as vibrant, rocking arrangements of classical themes. Across those albums and others released after The Nice broke up, it’s possible to discern the extent and implications of Emerson’s progressive aspirations and his determination to push forward.

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