Rocket 88’s “Keith Emerson”: Man and Myth in Images and Words

Keith Emerson was one of my most lasting musical heroes. His swashbuckling performance style, his virtuosic playing and his remarkable compositional mix of aggression and lyricism turned my head at the tender age of 16, sending me headlong into the vintage highlights of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s catalog, along with their numerous attempts to recapture lightning in a bottle over the decades. So when Emerson committed suicide on the eve of a Japanese tour in early 2016, it hurt — and none of the tributes to the musician and the man that followed could completely take away the sting.

Emerson’s career in and contributions to ELP have been well served in print throughout the years – there’s the fan-based band bio The Show That Never Ends, Edward Macan’s in-depth musical analysis Endless Enigma and Emo’s own bawdy, devil-may-care memoir Pictures of an Exhibitionist. Now, the British publishers Rocket 88 (who issued an “as-told-by” ELP book last year) are about to release Keith Emerson, “A lavish, fully illustrated book in which family, friends, colleagues, and fans talk to author Chris Welch about [his] life, work, and legacy.”

Rocket 88, whose fine books on Porcupine Tree and Talk Talk already grace my shelves, have done a first-class job. Scoff at the coffee table book format if you choose, but the mouthwateringly rich treasury of images — ranging from family and early professional snaps of a young Keith to widescreen shots of him in his pomp onstage — turns out to be utterly essential to the story told here. Long-standing rock journalist Welch, who knew Emerson throughout his career, proves a strong enough focal figure for the narrative to hold its own; without putting himself forward, he’s consistently able to coax out both the outline of Emo’s life and the raw material behind his myth through interviews with his partners, children and grandchildren (two of whom have followed in his footsteps as piano players), relatives, colleagues and peers in the music industry.

The tale told here is one of a life lived with bracing gusto and deep devotion to the muse — but also a life into which shadows fell, then gathered. In the wake of ELP’s late-1970s meltdown, Emerson bounced from project to project — solo albums, film soundtracks, a joint project with Greg Lake and drummer Cozy Powell (who I caught live in 1986), the trio 3 with Carl Palmer and Robert Berry — none of which gained lasting traction. The ELP reunion in the early 1990s (which I saw in concert in 1993) showed promise; but brought down by the rise of grunge and cumulative nerve damage to Emerson’s right hand from years of driven playing, it shrank to opening act status for Jethro Tull and Dream Theater, with the plug pulled after the trio disagreed on production credits for a comeback album.

Here’s where the book becomes most revealing, especially as Emerson’s later partners, guitarist/vocalists Dave Kilminster and Marc Bonilla, detail their experiences. Briefly reviving his innovative late-60s band The Nice, then manfully working to re-establish himself as a solo artist, Emerson’s stars refused to align; first Kilminster (who I saw with Emerson opening for Scorpions and Tesla in 2004) was poached by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, then Emo’s follow-up tour with Bonilla (promoting an excellent 2008 album) was cut short by focal dystonia in his right hand. From out of the blue, ELP pulled together one more time for a London festival show in 2010, winning acclaim despite Emerson’s physical problems and growing stage fright. But in the wake of Palmer’s refusal to continue and unexpected major illness for Emerson, nothing further followed.

There were alternatives afoot, as Emerson began an intriguing transition to orchestral conducting. And he continued to be loved and valued by the musical community in Los Angeles, where he’d settled with longtime partner Mari Kawaguchi. His spontaneous sense of fun, his love for his family, and his constant flow of new musical ideas all remained. But growing depression poorly treated, an increasing aversion to demanding Internet-based fans, and a hectic schedule with little to show for it all took their toll — and on March 11, 2016, a final spiral of despair led to tragedy in the classic sense. Keith Emerson, brought low by the thought of the heights he’d once scaled and his inability to live up to the standards he’d previously set, took his own life.

The impact of that tragedy still lingers, and it undeniably colors the final chapter of Keith Emerson, as his family and friends struggle to make sense of life without Emerson and remember the joy he brought into their lives as a musician and a human being. Their reminiscences and their mourning, as much as anything in this compelling book, bring the man out from behind the shadows of the myth, where he ultimately wins our respect and empathy. In the end, it’s this eyewitness testimony of Emerson’s triumphs and struggles — the highs and lows of a regular guy thrust into a larger than life story — that make the book well worth reading for fans of ELP in particular and of progressive rock in general.

Classic and limited Signature Editions of Keith Emerson can be purchased directly from Rocket 88, with November delivery currently expected.

— Rick Krueger

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