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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Post-Script: Emerson, Lake, & Palmer, a Band for the Ages

    "Memoirs of an Officer and a Gentleman" is one of those hidden treasure songs that grabs you and never lets go. When I first listened to it, trying to figure if anything good had been put on the notoriously underwhelming "Love Beach" LP, it took me aback that something this good could have been done at the band's nadir--Says something excellent about the quality of a band. The instrumental "Canario" wasn't a bad one, either, but by now you should sense that wasn't the ultimate stand-out. I remember hearing 'Memoirs...' once again when it came up on one of my burned CD's in late February of last year, and I marvelled at how they weaved that whole song together, just the three of them. Both the words and music struck incredibly powerful chords, in ways that not many songs can manage. Nobody gives this 20 minute piece the attention that's given to, say, "Tarkus." Curiously, another thought occurred to me, based on the news that had already come out at that early point of the year: It's going to be a really sad occasion when the members of this band start to die. Was almost as if I was keyed into something.

    Just less than two weeks after hearing that song in the car, the most awful news came: Keith Emerson, 71, was dead in an apparent suicide. It stoned me, a man of his copious talents being emotionally reduced to that. 2016 was a notoriously rough year in regards to deaths in entertainment, to say nothing of...other regards. Another thing that didn't help matters was the seeming contemptuous snickering from media and literati figures towards the fans of people like Emerson and Glenn Frey of the Eagles. They didn't want to know we existed, it seemed. Things were much the same when, at the tail end of the year, literally as I was reading an interview he'd done fairly recently, Greg Lake also died. He had cancer, and was 69. Wasn't as surprised over him as I was Emerson, but the duo-blow of Emerson & Lake was simply unfathomable. It dazed me that eternal fate could have worked out in this manner--After some of the events of this year, ELP and Allman Brothers fans can both relate. In the latter band, Butch Trucks committed suicide, brought on by financial difficulties, in January, and Gregg Allman died from liver cancer this past May. Both were 69, same age as Lake.

    Lake's death magnified, in a glaring way, what a horror Emerson's suicide was and is. Knowing he, the most talented and personable of that group, could easily still be living if he perhaps had a better support system and maybe some, erm, differently considered values(music is not, never has been, and never will be the end all, be all to life) is almost an overwhelming thing to consider. Beyond music, he could have still been here and serving as a continued joy to those around him and his fans--I have read about him only the most wonderful stories and recollections from friends and fans. That is truly more important than anything else. A dizzyingly sad reality all around.

    It merits a mention the most awful aspect of the suicide of Emerson, one that is especially common amongst school-age kids: He was reported to have read criticisms of his recent playing in the months leading up to his suicide, and he took these online bullies seriously, internalizing it all. He had issues stemming from various surgical operations over the course of almost a quarter-century on his arm and hand, which impaired his legendary ability to play. There were plans to tour Japan later that Spring, and anxiety over his performing ability was apparently mounting in those final weeks. The self-doubt and internalized hurt ended up making the fatal difference. It is difficult to fathom the darkness that anyone, let alone someone of incredible fame and fortunes would be in to take such desperate measures. This is something I, as a mere fan, still struggle to process over a year later.

    But the music, oh what a sound they made together. From 1970 to 1978, this band was one of the premier album-makers and live performers in the game. Just prior to the band's formation, and after his prior band the Nice had dissolved, Emerson, a keyboard virtuoso in his own right, had been in talks with guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix about being in a band together. The latter died before real progress could be made on furtherance of the idea(could the band have been called HELP?), but the groundwork for an adventurous musical template template had already been laid. While their best album may have been their debut, other albums such as "Trilogy," "Brain Salad Surgery," and the "Works" volumes offered listeners a varied hodgepodge of material representative of the band members' different musical sensibilities.

    It wasn't even just the music that Emerson, Lake, & Palmer made together that was great. There were also the solo albums, mainly from Emerson(Lake's efforts were only slightly better than the 80's average, and Palmer apparently picked up where the band left off on the generally forgettable "Love Beach" album). 1981 had him releasing his "Honky" album(done with reggae musicians during a stay in Jamaica), which proved to be his highest charting solo release and saw him doing promos on the foreign TV circuit. Later on in the decade, he fabulously one-upped Greg "I Believe in Father Christmas" Lake by putting out a full-length, distinctly ELP-flavoured Chirstmas album. The 1990's saw him, when he wasn't flailing away with the reconstituted ELP, releasing the ethereal "Changing States" album, featuring some stripped-down kernels of future ELP arrangements. He was also very active in the making of foreign film soundtracks, recently issuing a 3 CD box set of his film scores.

    One of the very best music purchases I ever made was Keith Emerson's 2003 "Emerson Plays Emerson" CD. If you get the chance, have around $60 to spare(it's quite the rare CD), and are a huge Emersonian, I definitely recommend this. Calming musical soundscapes mixed in with rollicking tunes--A real joy if you're an appreciator of all things Emerson. Might expend around half of a minimum wage pay-check, but well worth the while.

    The boys in the band were all 'meant to be near from the beginning,' and I'll wind down this posting with some words on my favourite ELP song. That song and Ten Years After's "I'd Love to Change the World" came to my attention in early 2009, when I was 14 and very musically impressionable. Both were acquired tastes, the latter being acquired some time before the former. However, there was something that stuck with me about "From the Beginning." Something in it deeply resonated with me at a time when I was madly in love with women on the news--The sentiment that they were meant to be there from the beginning. Love in spite of one's own flaws. No coincidence that when I saw one of my absolute favourites for the first time on CNN some years back, this song was among the first to come to mind. The "Trilogy" album became one of the first additions to my now-almost onerously large LP collection on the singular strength of that song. One of the truly great songs ever? In my opinion, yes.

"Who knows, who cares for me? C'est la vie"
Greg Lake, 1977

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