Emerson, Lake & Palmer keyboardist had continued to push boundaries in Santa Monica
By Joe Piasecki and Gary Walker
Mashing elements of classical music and jazz into symphonic rock made Keith Emerson a star.
Such adulation had long become distant after public tastes shifted away from the progressive rock genre he helped create in the 1970s through the band Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but recently the classical music world was beginning to reassess his legacy as a keyboardist and composer.
On Friday, Emerson’s life ended in his Santa Monica condominium with what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, according to Santa Monica police and the L.A. County Coroner’s Office. He was 71.
At the height of his stardom, Emerson dazzled fans with dizzying live performances on a bank of keyboards anchored by a 550-pound Moog synthesizer that had enough exposed wiring to resemble an early vacuum tube computer.
But in recent years, Emerson struggled with a neurological condition that restricted the use of his right hand and also grappled with depression, according to statements by girlfriend Mari Kawaguchi.
Emerson’s death took ELP percussionist Carl Palmer by surprise.
“I had been in contact with Keith on fairly regular basis via email and phone. We would usually discuss what we were doing musically, and sometimes Emerson Lake & Palmer business. Got on very well, and while I knew he was very concerned about his hand and the ability to play at the standard people had come to expect from him, he was usually in good spirits. He and I talked about working together in 2016,” Palmer wrote Monday in an email to The Argonaut.
Jeffrey Biegel, a classical pianist and composer who collaborated with Emerson and reintroduced his work to classical music audiences, was also surprised by Emerson’s death.
Biegel began performing Emerson’s “Piano Concerto No. 1 (from the ELP album “Works”) in 2008, pairing it with Chopin and Gershwin. What followed was a friendship that led Biegel to organize symphony concerts featuring Emerson’s music and sometimes even Emerson performing or conducting.
“He was an icon, one of the founders of progressive music. I wanted to reinvigorate his name in the concert hall — give it renewed purpose there,” Biegel said. “I never saw him as the phrase he didn’t want to be called: rock star. It was as a close friend and a colleague; we respected each other for our genres, and our genres met with his piano concerto.”
Veteran Los Angeles music critic Steve Hochman was among the minority of music scribes who publicly proclaimed affection for progressive rock, which has been much-maligned by rock critics as stodgy and elitist.
Hochman, who wrote detailed liner notes for ELP box set releases, interviewed the band when they reunited in the early 1990s. He opened the interview with a joke that had started in the ‘70s: “How do you spell pretentious? ELP.”
“There are these blank stares and I’m thinking I just blew it, but one by one they start laughing. They start talking, saying there are pretentions of what they do, bringing elements of jazz and European music to rock ’n’ roll,” Hochman recalled.
“The classic line about prog rock, and with ELP being the point on this, is it provided the excuse for punk,” he said. “But if you listen to ELP, especially their early stuff, there’s a roughness to it. They were having it on, taking classical, jazz and plowing over it. … An irreverence along with the reverence.”