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Keith Emerson, my mentor whether I knew it or not (August 19, 2016)

Keith Emerson, my mentor whether I knew it or not

Keith Emerson committed suicide in March, and that was a shocker. For quite a stretch in High School, Emerson Lake and Palmer was my favorite band, and nothing mattered to me more than music (which hasn't changed all that much). Seeing them on TV at California Jam the summer I turned 15 in 1974 was truly life-changing. Being obsessed with the drums (I began playing in 8th grade, and Ringo was my first hero), from then on, Carl Palmer was my personal god, and the band had a major impact on my tastes, at that time and really, for the rest of my life. A big part of that was because of their forays into classical music, and I didn't even always know it at first. My tastes began shifting from rock, and mainly prog rock, in the mid-70s to classical, midway through high school.

Imagine my surprise when I heard Janacek's Sinfonietta late in high school and recognized it immediately as Knife Edge, from ELP's first album, which also had lyrics! I am a serious Janacek nut and have been for decades.

In college, hearing Bartok's Allegro Barbaro, I thought, "Where the heck do I know that from?" It was ELP's The Barbarian, also with words!

I learned Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition through them, even if the encore from that live album -- "Nut Rocker" -- was from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and popular enough that I knew it was classical.

By the time they did a chunk of Prokofiev's Scythian Suite, I was graduating high school, knew who Prokofiev was and that the chunk that appeared on Works, Volume 1 didn't originate with them, even if I didn't know the work itself.

But Ginastera? I'm guessing ol' Alberto, a demanding, thorny composer I came to love many years later, made more money directly from the recording they titled Toccata, than anything else in his life -- ELP were top sellers. That's not even figuring in the larger exposure they gave him. It was the finale of his first piano concerto transformed into arena-ready virtuoso rock. I sure wouldn't have owned the Martins/Leinsdorf recording with the Boston Symphony back then -- bought out of curiosity to see what it REALLY sounded like -- or even heard of him if it weren't for them.

They also sought and received composers' blessings before putting them through their ringer. The blessings were returned tenfold. Any living composer they touched truly was blessed with one heckuva pot of gold.

They titled one of their original numbers "Fugue," pronounced "foogoo" by Zig, a fellow 16-year-old friend and fan, which looked right to me.

Aaron Copland came to me through them. I adored Hoedown from their Trilogy album, but thought Fanfare for the Common Man, from Works, Volume 1, was a bore. Actually, I still do, both their version and Copland's original. He was another composer to see plenty of cash come his way thanks to ELP.

And they were were ridiculed for their classical forays. So was another musical hero of mine, Leopold Stokowski, for giving Bach organ works massive, colorful and ingenious 20th century orchestrations, even though he followed every note in Bach's original 18th century scores.

ELP never did that. They edited as they went, arranged with a flamboyance that made Stokowski seem staid, and nauseated purists (ie 99% of actual classical music fans) with things like lyrics -- "Death is life" are the closing words to their Pictures at an Exhibition.

I loved it.

For those who were born into the Age of the Interwebs...IMAGINE A WORRRLLLD...where listening to an "album" meant pulling a slab of vinyl from a cardboard a sleeve that may or may not have information printed on it, and that information was often all you had. ELP didn't tell you a thing about these classical pieces they were hijacking. Composers were sometimes credited, in tiny print, and sometimes not. Either way, few of us, especially at that age, had easy access to libraries to research this stuff. No Google, no YouTube, no Facebook, and if you didn't know and hang with people who could say, "Oh yeah, that's Janacek I hear" (and how many of us did?!), then good luck in sorting it all out. But it didn't really matter much if you loved the music. Edification could wait.

When Emerson took his own life after what was reported as serious health problems and depression, I felt like I had lost a mentor I never had a chance to thank. Whenever I hear a certain theme from Respghi's "The Birds" (which I love), I flash back to Emerson's piano quoting it, not on a record, but tossed into their epic, Karn Evil 9, in that live performance from California Jam (which also featured a snippet from Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas," repeating the experience when I entered my jazz phase and discovered that Emerson was quoting jazz giants as well as classical).

They caught heat at the time. Progressive Rock itself was cool and groovy for only a half-dozen years or so before punk bashed it's head in and ELP (and Yes, Gentle Giant, early Genesis, King Crimson, and the rest of the prog rock behemouths -- all of which I adored) became "bombastic," "pompous," "flashy," and "vulgar."

But it seems we're allowed to come out of the closet these days, old fans who've never stopped loving this stuff, being loud (bombastic?) and proud (pretentious?) about our once and maybe always heroes. Some young'uns seem to like it too. By now, ELP's old enough to be almost classical music themselves. Keith Emerson did write and record a piano concerto himself after all (on Works, Volume 1).

I have not stopped exploring music as feverishly I did back then when my discoveries were bringing me to one masterpiece after another after another.

I don't listen to ELP much these days. Hardly at all, really, but not because I don't still love their stuff, more because my choices of what I want to hear are vastly more vast than they were 40 years ago.

But first loves are special. You never forget them no matter who you love later.

And I'll always love ELP, for their music, but also for what they did for me then, and ever since.

I found a site that attempts to compile everything Emerson Lake and Palmer quoted (collectively or, mainly by Emerson, with others), or arranged, on albums or in concert -- classical, jazz, rock, you name it. Besides those I mentioned above, these are the classical composers they performed:

Arnold, CPE Bach, JS Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Clarke, Dukas, Dvorak, Fucik, Respighi, Gershwin, Glazunov, Grieg, Gulda, Handel, Honegger, Holst, Ives, Khatchaturian, Lalo, Ligeti, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Orff, Poulenc, Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rodrigo, Rossini, Saint-Saens, Sanz, Sibelius, Strauss (Johann), Strauss (Richard), Stravinsky, Telesphorus, and Wagner.

I know at least one or two works by most every one of them, in many cases, much much more. It began with ELP.

I loved and hated the late great rock critic Lester Bangs. He hated ELP.

So, with words he might've used himself -- Screw you Lester.

And thank you Keith.


August, 2016

Cover by H.R. Geiger

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