Word has it that Keith Emerson has passed away, bringing the tally of ’70s rockers who have died in the past year to… man, I’ve lost count. Too many.
Emerson’s greatest claim to fame, of course, had to do with his being one of the eponymous members of Emerson Lake & Palmer. No doubt your opinion of his work hinges entirely on your ability to tolerate 30-minute rock suites about mankind escaping the misery of earth via spaceflight only to be destroyed by his own creation, The Computer. Or 20-minute art-rock compositions about an armadillo-tank that battles Catholicism.
Speaking of which, “Tarkus” remains the finest thing ELP ever recorded, even if its underlying premise is completely insane:
But if that’s too much for you, you can always commemorate Emerson’s legacy by taking the safer, cool-kid-approved route and dig up some albums by ’60s psychedelic rockers The Nice. Before ELP, Emerson honed his craft with The Nice, and in fact several of his crowd-pleasers from his days in The Nice remained in circulation as part of ELP’s live sets up until the point that they disbanded for good in the ’90s… which happened in large part because Emerson’s showy, hyperactive keyboarding style destroyed his hands.
That was what made him so entertaining, though. His onstage antics included stabbing his keyboard with a Nazi-issue knife (!?) to hold down chords while he improvised. He also had commissioned a portable electric keyboard that he could play on stage while walking around, which wasn’t ostentation in and of itself. The fact that he had it fitted with a flamethrower to spit out gouts of fire while he wielded the instrument like a massive phallus, on the other hand… that was pretty over-the-top, even for the ’70s.
As I’ve gotten older, ELP has gravitated toward “guilty pleasure listening” — they can be a little hard to stomach at times. But that’s mainly because of their tendency toward dopey lyrics and some schmaltzy arrangements once they entered their “contractual obligation” phase. Emerson’s performances, however, I never have to make any excuses for liking. He got it into his head that keyboardists should be able to strut and posture the same as guitarists and made himself the centerpiece of one of the most ostentatious bands of rock’s most ostentation era… and completely backed it up with virtuous performances and showmanship. It’s a shame I never had the chance to see him perform live, but I own a whole pile of CDs and a few records in which his work will live on.