I suppose you must get tired of feigning interest when long-time fans confront you with lists of all the ELP concerts they saw, what was going on in their lives when they first heard Tarkus, how they named the family pet Emerson, etc. I can’t imagine the monotony of smiling at the same stories and politely answering the same questions again and again. All the same, I feel the fan’s compulsion to let you know about my personal appreciation of your work and why I believe you have made the world a better place. I’ll try to express my thoughts with some insights that perhaps you haven’t heard before!
The foremost quality of your music that holds the greatest appeal to me is an accomplishment I have never seen fully addressed in all that I have read about your career: your uncanny ability to coax organic sounds and expressive phrasing from electronic instruments. A favorite example: the synthesizer solo on the Pictures At An Exhibition album’s “The Old Castle,” a thrilling rush of notes that belies its keyboard origin and suggests the joyous spontaneity of scat singing. And then, to follow its satisfying finish by handing it off to yourself with a Hammond solo – I’m in musical heaven. I love the Hammond for its living, breathing quality, an aspect that you have exploited to its fullest potential throughout your career. It’s not like a man at a keyboard, it’s more like pure musical ideas straight from your head to our ears. From the Hammond to the Moog, no one has robbed electronic music of its inherent rigidity and made it come alive like you.
I recall one day when, in my profession as an elementary teacher, I was escorting my students from the school building to our modular classroom trailer. Some construction was going on somewhere nearby yet beyond our sight, and I heard a screeching of metal not unlike the peculiar roar of Godzilla in the classic movies. For just a moment, I was mentally transported into the Emersonian world of bizarre Moog invention. Was a construction crane scraping away at a stubborn piece of demolition, or was I hearing the piercing cry of the modular Moog?
And speaking of the Moog, I am also very fond of your capacity for creating heroic lead lines (e.g., the wailing fanfare of “Eruption,” the final layer of “Abaddon’s Bolero,” the trumpeting melody of “Changing States”). How you’ve done it is a mystery to me, though it must be some alchemy of catchy composition, tasteful phrasing and a knack for creating just the right voice. Why, for example, does the lead riff of Europe’s “The Final Countdown” sound like an adolescent imitation? Why does Manheim Steamroller’s take on “Deck The Halls” register as a repugnant approximation? It must be something to do with that aforementioned flair for creating the organic from the electronic.
Then there is the complexity of your work. There are certain pieces that I can listen to repeatedly with full engagement and concentration due to the richness of the composition. Karn Evil 9 is a work of which I never tire, and despite the numerous times I’ve heard it, I still have the nagging feeling that I haven’t quite figured it out. There is a beautiful thematic unity to it that I can appreciate without being quite able to explain. After all these years, it remains a wonderful and enigmatic puzzle to me. Oh, and it rocks!
And one other thing that seems to elude most critics: your sense of humor. That, to me, is one of the big elements that sets ELP and your solo work apart from most of the prog crowd. Without it, ELP might have been in danger of sinking from the gravity of their grander works. A favorite concert moment of mine occurred at Cincinnati’s Riverbend Music Center amphitheater during the 90s. You were making all sorts of godawful screeches and groans belch forth from the L-100 during “Rondo” when suddenly you tossed in the musical quote, “The hills are alive with the sound of music!” I had to wonder if the poor souls living just across the Ohio River were cracking up as much as I was.
There is so much more I could say, but it all comes down to this: your music has made my life more enjoyable than it otherwise would be. Think of the music that you cherish as a part of your life, and that is what your best work has meant to me. Multiply that by the hundreds of thousands of people like me around the world as well as those who will discover your talent in the future, and you have a legacy as great as any gift to the world, a treasure that will enhance lives as long as the music survives.
I know you’ve made your music simply because that is what you want to do, but thanks for all of the hard work and for sharing your talent with us, Keith. Whenever you feel down, know that somewhere right this moment, someone is being transported away from their cares and into a healing atmosphere of your unique and unrivalled creation. What a talent you have; what a gift you’ve given us.
So grateful you never made it in accountancy,
Robert Gerard Hunt
In June of 2013, I managed to send the above letter to Keith Emerson. Mari Kawaguchi, his longtime companion, kindly forwarded my words to him. “Keith is very touched by your letter,” she replied the next day. “Thank you for taking time to write it.” Earlier this week, Mari found Keith dead in the Santa Monica condominium they shared, a tragedy that local police are investigating as a suicide.
Had he died by any means other than his own hand, I might have accepted the news with reverent sadness tempered by an appreciation for a life well-lived. We all know our heroes won’t live forever. But that someone whose extraordinary talent has given me and so many others countless hours of listening pleasure should end his life in despair is deeply and painfully disappointing. Here’s a guy whose gift to the world certainly merited his enjoyment of many more autumn years. For whatever reasons, though, he apparently chose to stop living.
I’m not casting any blame here. The anger that I feel is directed not at Keith, but rather at human frailty and how the grind of existence can rob the world of goodness. His work will live on, but he is no longer here to accept our appreciation.
Keith Emerson was a great composer, a virtuoso musician and an unrivaled showman. His body of work, from the Nice through ELP and beyond, is ample evidence that he never failed to deliver a satisfying coda. It pains me that his own life has ended with such a rotten one.
Much love to his family, friends and fans.