A Massive Loss and a Monumental and Ethereal Connection
For three days I have struggled to write a fitting tribute to Keith Emerson. All I could muster was his name, staring starkly back at me from my unrelenting computer screen. As I watched the outpouring of sentiments, articles, and remembrances stream by on social media from all over the world, I gradually began to recognize that my connection to Keith differed from the legions of devoted fans, friends, and admirers who have been so deeply affected by his passing. As I was only a small child in ELP’s heyday, I never attended one of their concerts, I didn’t know his music as well as many others, and I wasn’t as close to him as people who knew him for decades. Yet the bond between us is at once titanic and ethereal.
Last September I was fortunate enough to spend time with Keith and his girlfriend Mari. We shared a lovely dinner together, after which I offered to pick up the bill. Keith objected, but I persisted, saying it was a way to thank him for supporting the Bob Moog Foundation, and I concluded without even thinking about it by saying, “And Keith, you know, we’re family.”
This may have been an odd thing to say as I wasn’t family in the traditional sense, nor even in the sense of someone you spend a great deal of time with, but there was a dawning of recognition on his face, and he said, “Yes, Michelle, we are.”
And herein lies the weight of writing about Keith Emerson’s passing. My connection to him, our connection, is multifaceted, rooted in his musical relationship to my father and in my personal and professional bond to my father and his powerful legacy. When asked on several occasions by interviewers if my father were a musician, he would firmly reply no, that he was a toolmaker, and “I make tools for musicians.” This was an inherent acknowledgement that his technological creations were but silent machines unless musicians released their vast capabilities to the listener. The best musicians, starting with experimental jazz composer Herb Deutsch, astonished him with their pioneering efforts to weave early modular synthesizers into their music. Although Wendy Carlos was the first to bring the vastly expressive but technically complex Moog modular synthesizer to the popular consciousness (thanks to her musical prowess and painstaking technical achievements), it was Keith Emerson who dared to not only perform live with the instrument in front of tens of thousands of people each night, but to do so while using it as a featured voice. Keith pioneered the use of the Moog modular in a live rock context while fearlessly bringing it and other electronic keyboards to the fore of the genre.
In interviews and in my conversations with him, Keith spoke of his concerns when acquiring his original Moog modular. It was expensive, and he hadn’t a clue how to use it. Back in those days, it didn’t come with much instruction, and when he received it, he couldn’t get it to make a sound. But tapping into his inspiration of nearly a year earlier when first hearing Switched-On Bach and heeding his inner visionary, he embarked on a quest to master the instrument and harness its sonic power to expand the world’s musical experience.
Keith boldly used his unique position as a rock star musician to forge new sonic pathways for us all. He mounted a formidably powerful spaceship and explored the aural universe in a way that took tremendous courage, talent, and resources.
When my father first heard the song “Lucky Man,” he knew a paradigm shift in musical understanding had occurred. Perhaps that solo was not Keith’s most intricate work, but it was bold and supremely effective. In Dad’s own words, “Today we are familiar with that kind of sound, and those of us who are electronic keyboardists generally know how to produce a sound like that. But back in 1969 and 1970, nobody had ever heard anything like it. Keith invented it—and then he used it to play a tune that, in a lyrical way, really rocked. That was an amazing display of spontaneous creativity.”
As we all know, Keith went on to take the Moog modular synthesizer to astounding heights, both as a sound and a stage presence. As his use of the instrument grew, so did his connection to its creator. Keith and my father shared a 35-year friendship in which they delighted in their deep and symbiotic partnership that helped bring musical expression to new heights. They shared much in common as Keith explored new developments in Moog instruments and Dad reveled in Keith’s unique capacity to use the Moog sound in continuously creative ways. They were the ultimate geek and rock star pair. Beyond their musical partnership, they were friends with a kindred sense of humor, one in which they reveled each time they saw each other.
They were truly significant to each other’s lives, intrinsically intertwined for eternity in their quest for and dedication to higher musical expression.
Keith’s connection to Bob Moog’s legacy is so vital that his passing has affected me more than anything since my father’s passing over 10 years ago. The sense of loss is vast. His absence brings with it a sense of irreplaceability and impermanence. Regardless of contemporary musical visionaries, the impact of Keith’s work and of his audacious harnessing of unknown possibilities will never be duplicated.
Keith Emerson was more than his music. He was more than massive modular synthesizers, knives in organs, incomparable keyboard technique, savant-level musicianship, and spinning pianos. Keith Emerson was a fearless, revolutionary visionary who used technology and the transcendental language of music to demonstrate for all of us that surmounting monumental challenges could reap rewards of cosmic proportion.
And that is how I shall remember him.