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Farewell to the Wizard: the Music of Keith Emerson

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The author and Keith Emerson at Keswick Theatre, 2010.

One of my least favorite words is “late.” I hate people and things being late. And I hate being informed in a Google news feed about the “late” somebody. Generally, it means they died way too soon. Why do I never hear about the “late” Henry Kissinger or the “late” Dick Cheney? Why does festering malignant evil seem to go on and on?

So it was today that I learned about Keith Emerson’s death on March 10. One third of the prog rock supergroup Emerson Lake and Palmer, Emerson was my keyboard hero since I was fourteen years old.

I first saw ELP in 1970 after the release of their self-titled debut. They couldn’t even fill the Hara Arena hockey rink in Dayton, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, however, they exploded and the next year when they came it was sold out. I had a seat on the floor, about ten rows from the stage. After Emerson finished playing the beautiful piano solo in the middle of “Take a Pebble,” a guy sitting in front of me pushed his way through the rows of folding chairs, leapt up on the stage and shook Emerson’s hand, before being hustled off by security guards. I totally understood why this guy did this — the tension, the beauty and the greatness were unbearable without some release. Years later, I read Emerson’s biography, Pictures of An Exibitionist, and he referred to being incredibly sick that night, not remarking on the beside-himself fan at all.

Emerson was responsible for turning a lot of young people on to classical music. Classical music could be exciting — not most of it, but plenty of it if one knew where to look — and Emerson was a great guide. Classical music could rock, whether it was Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” or Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Hoedown.” Emerson was also generous enough to transcribe many of ELP’s greatest songs and his most difficult piano parts, making them available to people like me who could read music but not play by ear. It’s incalculable how much enjoyment Emerson brought me since 1970. To see Emerson in action watch this video.

Back in 2010, after a Philadelphia show with Emerson and Greg Lake, I stuck around outside with dozens of other fans near the tour bus, freezing our asses off and, sure enough, Keith and Greg came out for pictures and autographs. (Wow, this rock god, this guy who gave us the flying piano, this whirlwind of passion and theatricality isn’t ten feet tall!) He was completely gracious and friendly. I never imagined that my little ol’ long-haired, head-banded, blacklit hippy self from Springfield, Ohio would ever get to meet the great Keith Emerson — but it happened. Maybe there’s hope on the Kissinger and Cheney thing yet.

Randy Shields can be reached at music2hi4thehumanear@gmail.com. His writings and art are collected at RandyShields.com.

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