I was trying to get away from writing these Requiems for Rock Stars, but they keep dropping like flies (Firesign Theatre callback alert), the most recent being Keith Emerson.
The former Emerson Lake and Palmer keyboardist died two weeks ago, two days after Beatles producer Sir George Martin, whose passing may have overshadowed Emerson’s. He was the sixth member of a major rock band to die this year.
But while the deaths of the previous five were the results of health conditions common to humans in their late 60s to mid 70s — heart ailments, Parkinsonism, Alzheimer’s — Emerson’s was something else entirely, and offers us Baby Boomers something to ponder. The keyboard wizard, reportedly depressed over a health condition that was affecting his ability to perform, took his own life.
I’ve often said that the Boomers will have hit the wall when we get the news flash that Mick Jagger is on life support. But what about those other ills that mortal flesh, including gray matter, is heir to? Ills that don’t perhaps kill immediately, or sooner rather than later, but take away an artist’s ability to perform?
Linda Ronstadt was diagnosed with Parkinson’s four years ago, and retired from performing. Ditto for Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, who also died earlier this year (but I didn’t include in the six).
Emerson suffered from a nerve condition, along the lines of carpal tunnel syndrome, and had for a couple decades, undergoing surgery in the 1990s that at that time seemed to have corrected the problem. But it apparently recurred, and he had become depressed about the possibility that he wouldn’t be able to perform well when he went on tour later this year — that he would disappoint his fans.
Emerson’s autopsy indicated that his depression was related to alcoholism, so his death — like most of our 2016 fatalities — could be at least partially attributed to the rock and roll lifestyle. But the carpal tunnel problem apparently was repetitive-stress injury-related; while that’s unsurprising, considering how much keyboard he played, and how he played it, one could say that his vocation helped kill him.
I was first exposed to Emerson through his work with Nice, his second group, which actually started out as the backing band for P.P. Arnold, an American soul singer who was better known in Emerson’s native U.K. I must have heard the band’s live version of Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” on Radio Free Madison, and picked up the album it’s on, their eponymous third LP.
(Interestingly, my copy of that album has a cover completely different from both the original Immediate release, and the version issued — under the new title “Everything As Nice As Mother Makes It” — after that label changed distributors from Columbia to Capitol. Or at least from the covers shown on Wikipedia.)
I think I must have been disappointed with the rest of the recording, because I never played the album that much; that didn’t change when I digitized the vinyl last year. The other cuts seemed to lack the punch of “She Belongs to Me,” and that probably was because the rest weren’t recorded live.
And Emerson was legendarily a frenetic performer, abusing his Hammond organ with knives and whips and using lots of other stage antics; some referred to him as the “Hendrix of the keyboard.” He was also a very accomplished keyboard player and composer — although, interestingly, he wasn’t a classically trained pianist.
Although I like progressive rock, I never became an ELP fan. The band’s music seemed to emphasize the worst traits and excesses of prog rock — the bombast, the obsession with technique, the theatrics — over the genre’s more redeeming features. (An ELP putdown administered by one of the Bots on “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” comes to mind.)
Compare, for instance, ELP with two other prog bands that did what could be called symphonic rock, Renaissance and Yes. The latter’s Rick Wakeman perhaps wasn’t technically as proficient on keyboards as Emerson, or nearly as theatrical, but the band’s music was lyrically and thematically more interesting; also, Chris Squire’s bass playing gave the songs more rock punch.
Renaissance had much better vocals, mostly because of Annie Haslam’s amazing voice. The songs were more accessible, too.
That said, ELP was very successful, a huge concert draw in the 1970s and a lot of people liked its music. Which makes the manner of Emerson’s passing so sad: success building expectations that an artist no longer feels he/she can satisfy, to the point where self-termination seems the only alternative.