I was a twenty-year-old kid, fumbling around, knowing I no longer belonged to a life I’d thought those twenty years was for me. Knowing my fairy tale had taken a sharp turn on a dark, rainy night, skidded off the road and gotten mired in the mud. And I sat there, spinning my wheels in 1973 from late May until November 28th. That night, at the Fairgrounds Arena in Oklahoma City, I sat on the seventh row, on the floor, just in front of Greg Lake at an ELP concert. Not long after they’d changed formats, going live with the Brain Salad Surgery album. Chapter one of the rest of my life.
I walked out of the arena and said, “That’s what I’m going to do.” Not that I was going to be Emerson Lake and Palmer, something I considered only briefly early on and discovered wasn’t going to happen, but it sent me down a road I’d seen the signposts for. I told people about it, what I was going to do. Build a pile of keyboards and rock the world. They said you have responsibilities, you can’t do that, you’re nuts. Sure I was. But I’d already punched my ticket to ride right on out of the mainstream, so why not?
The fastest way to get to be Keith Emerson, or someone like Keith Emerson, aside from piano lessons, was to buy a Moog synthesizer and learn how to use it. I put my MG Midget up for collateral at the bank and bought the second MiniMoog to hit the state of Oklahoma. Only hours behind the first one that went to a lounge band. I laughed. Screw those guys. I was going to be a synthesist!
And now I are one.
For just over six years I was the North American Product and Artist Relations manager for an Italian company that built digital pianos. Innovative and unique digital pianos. They were a small company and didn’t pay anyone much for endorsements or ship tons of gear to artist’s doors. They built an instrument, that’s it. Keith Emerson was one of our first “endorsees.” He sold a lot of pianos and got a few free ones in return. And he brought a number of great keyboardists with him. All unpaid, all friendly, all brilliant and talented. Keith or his tech Will would call, “I need a piano to meet me here or there.” Fine. Keith rode motorcycles with the Italian guy who owned the company. Through the desert, the wine country. “No problem,” I’d say. “Give me an address.”
All of that leads to me sitting with Keith in a Holiday Inn restaurant one evening, drinking way over-priced grocery store quality wine and, surprisingly, being roundly ignored by passers-by. I’ d often thought of telling him before, but that evening after enough of that expensive cheap wine, I informed him that the lost years of my mid-twenties were his fault. I told him about Oklahoma City, about how my screeching MiniMoog made my neighbors on 32nd and Barnes think I was sacrificing cats. Or worse, practicing some form of Godless Voodoo after I’d figured out his steel drum sound. More importantly, that I’d wanted to be him when I grew up. He laughed, said don’t blame me, and if trying to be him ever netted me any female companionship I owed him. For getting me out in front with the guitar players who, up until Emerson, invariably got all the girls. I told him that if I had to pay him what I owed him for that business I’d be way more than broke. He laughed again, we drank more wine, told more stories. I didn’t tell him that as disrepectful kids we often joked that ELP was what happened when Paul Revere and the Raiders discovered crack. If anyone still thinks that, it’s an urban myth and nothing more.
Keith was an uncommon man whose stiff-necked, iron-spined, no-holds-barred and totally uncompromising approach to rock ‘n roll changed the way the world looked at keyboard players over the last forty years of the Twentieth Century. He had ganglion cyst surgery, piano lids crashed down on his hands, roman candles hooked to a ribbon controller blew his thumbnails off, but the show we were always welcomed to always went on. Emo was the Jimi Hendrix style showman of keyboards and, as I said, he helped an entire generation of dorky piano lesson boys get off the bench and put them in front of serious guitarist’s electricity. The Moog went from Switched on Bach and the hallowed halls of academia to switched full-on rock. We were a legion, the Emerson-ites. A legion of white pirate shirts and vests, all of us turned up to eleven. Our old piano teachers covering their ears, spinning in their graves. It wasn’t about the chops as much as it was about balls. It was about relentlessly pushing the envelope. Turning three guys into five. It was putting ten pounds of music in a five-pound bag and keeping it from exploding. If you blew it up some nights getting there, that was okay.
The show that never ended, that we were all welcome to attend, has now come to a close. Suddenly and violently, just as the finale of Karn Evil 9.
I’ll miss you, Keith. And I’ll say “Thanks” as well. For making me miserable when I was young, making me laugh as I grew older, for being the tow-rope that got me out of the mud and back on the road when I was aimless and sightless. For being the inspiration that forced me to be better than I was. For setting a standard. For setting me on the path that ultimately led me to the rest of my life and for mercilessly demanding better than mediocrity. For making mediocrity, often my own, so easy to spot.
I blew up a studio monitor the other day listening to “Knife Edge.” It felt great and sounded magnificent even after I lit it up. You might consider trying it, if you have a fire extinguisher handy.