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As we lose rock icons at alarming rate, remember that music will live on

On Friday, I was playing the music of a recently departed hero of mine with some friends and family when I heard about the death of another one.

This is the way it’s gonna go for us now. Our heroes are leaving us. If you’re like me, you feel insulted, offended and angry, particularly when you consider the number of people who bring nothing but darkness and enmity into the world who still live on, while artists who have given such immense joy to so many are so often gone too soon.

But angry at what? Or at whom? Were we really expecting some sort of cosmic justice here? Did we really think the music would provide us with a hall pass, or excuse us from the Brutal Reality 101 symposium? No. Death waits for the genius and the jerk alike.

Losing David Bowie in January hit me and millions of others like a shovel to the back of the head. 2015 was a bang-up year for the rock ’n’ roll Grim Reaper in general. Lemmy, Allen Toussaint, Scott Weiland, George Martin, Glen Frey, Chris Squire ... can I please just stop now? This is starting to hurt all over again.

Add to the list the man who, for my money, was the most gifted and daring rock keyboardist of all time, the Maestro Keith Emerson, whose death was reported just as we were getting ready to pay tribute to Bowie last Friday evening. Hearing of Emerson’s death was bad enough. But when, a few hours later, news started spreading that Emerson had taken his own life, well, the universe felt cold and cruel and so far from just, fair and orderly that insisting otherwise seemed foolish and naive.

We have to let those feelings go, though. They do no one any good. Something Carlos Santana said to me in 2003 has stuck with me ever since: “It’s what we choose to acknowledge and to celebrate within ourselves that defines who we are,” Santana said, and he was right. If we spend our time with a clenched brow contemplating the injustice of it all and focusing on the pain, we’re not celebrating life or honoring those we’ve lost.

The only way to truly honor them is to listen to the music, to talk about it, play it, share it with others, and turn kids on to it. It’s clear that music can transcend the lives of the musicians themselves. I think of it this way: John Coltrane died on the day I was born. I’ve maintained a relationship with his music for decades, despite the fact that he has been dead my whole life. For me, Coltrane feels alive, every time I play his music.

Emerson’s death is a particularly bitter pill to swallow for fans of his genre-defining work with Emerson Lake & Palmer and the Nice. Having suffered pain from serious nerve damage in his hands for years, Emerson was finding it difficult to play piano at the level of virtuosity he’d been accustomed to for most of his life. Whether this fact created the depression into which he sank, or merely exacerbated it, is difficult to know. Regardless, Emerson’s girlfriend Mari Kawaguchi told the Daily Mail that Emerson was “tormented with worry that he wouldn’t be good enough” to perform at the expected level during a Japanese tour.

That “expected level” was dauntingly high, of course, for Emerson was a virtuoso of the first order, a pianist capable of playing complex classical pieces, revamped takes on Aaron Copland compositions, serious Dixieland and bebop solos, burning Hammond organ forays and highly inventive synthesizer interludes and solo excursions, all within the span of a single concert and often within a single song.

He was the most legitimate of the progressive rock keyboardists of the 1960s and ’70s, precisely because he was never faking his way through the music or hiding a lack of knowledge behind an excess of flash. Whether he was translating Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” into a majestic piece of rock music, pushing the capabilities of the Moog synth throughout the epic “Tarkus,” or filling the entirety of the first side of ELP’s 1977 double album “Works” with his brilliant and evocative “Piano Concerto #1,” Emerson was a breathtakingly inventive musician who understood music on a profoundly deep level.

It is by now accepted as fact that the first wave of punk rockers in the UK of the late ’70s was reacting against the flamboyant bombast and elite virtuosity of ’70s progressive rock bands, with ELP being the most offensive of the bunch. Punk, this logic suggests, came along to make the music primal again, thereby wresting it from the hands of schooled musicians and returning it to “the people.” This is mostly nonsense – after all, John Lydon (nee Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols) was a huge Bowie fan, and on the other side of the pond a few years later, Bob Stinson of post-punk/garage rock icons the Replacements revered Steve Howe of Yes. Most of the people who truly despised prog-rock were critics, who didn’t like it because they couldn’t possibly play it, and were far too lazy to attempt to understand it.

“I’m not one of those who exalt rock’s native ‘simplicity,’ who claim how much more authentic such efforts are and who regard efforts to intellectualize rock as misguided,” former Teenage Jesus & the Jerks and current Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds drummer James Sclavunos wrote in the Guardian shortly after Emerson’s death. “I’m more intrigued by rock musicians who overreached, and by the uncomfortable intersections of intellectual intent and popular music they came up with.”

Emerson was clearly one of those who overreached. Bless him for it.


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