One Saturday in April 1974 my parents left me alone in the house to babysit my younger siblings. It was nearly midnight and my brother and sisters were sleeping. I was watching a show on the ABC network called "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert". "Saturday Night Live" hadn't yet burst onto the scene. The only available stations were the eight or nine one could receive via the antenna on the roof of the house. On Saturday night they offered movies and talk shows. Rock Concert was sandwiched between Johnny Carson and Gone With The Wind, and it was the only thing that could hold interest. I was fourteen.
I'd started into the potato chips and onion dip I'd hidden from everyone else while they were awake and tuned the twenty-five inch Magnavox console to channel seven. That day Rock Concert was showing tapes of a big outdoor concert that had been held the prior week at Ontario Motor Speedway in California. The California Jam attracted a couple hundred thousand people in a Woodstock-like fashion to hear the likes of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Black Oak Arkansas, and Emerson Lake and Palmer.
I remember Ozzy Osborne tromping around the stage at mid-afternoon bellowing Paranoid and Iron Man. I remember seeing the vocalists of Black Oak Arkansas trading lines in a song called Jim Dandy to the Rescue. When it got dark, Richie Blackmore and Deep Purple took the stage. I marveled to Jon Lord wrenching tortured screams out of an overdriven B3 and decided playing Burn and Smoke on the Water in front of my 9th grade class would make me the coolest kid in school.
It was all nominal, perfunctory, late-night masturbatory adolescent male daydreaming.
I'd heard of Emerson Lake and Palmer. I was a member of the RCA record club. I'd signed up, got my twelve albums for fifty cents, and was ostensibly obliged to buy twelve more at regular club prices, which turned out to be about a buck more than I would have to pay at my local record store. A stern letter from my mother relieved me of my obligation to spend $100 for mail-order records (solicitation of a minor wasn't, and still isn't legal as far as I know, even though the death penalty may be), but the offers kept coming. Weekly, I'd receive the latest catalog of record titles. It arrived in the form of a sheet of postage-style stamps. Each stamp bore an album cover, and the customer only had to stick the covers of the albums he desired onto a reply-paid postcard and those titles would arrive in the mail the next week.
Unwilling to fork over any more of my lawn mowing money, I used the stamps as decoration for my classroom notebooks and any other flat surface I came across. Thus, while daydreaming in algebra class I frequently found myself staring at the cover of ELP's Brain Salad Surgery album, which was plastered on the cover of my spiral notebook for math.
But I had never heard their music. Radio in those days was almost exclusively top-40 hits. FM was in its infancy and there didn't seem to be any programming on that mode other than classical or talk. The albums I owned were all mindless pop music or the nearly progressive jazz of Chicago. Don Kirshner's Rock Concert exposed me to music I might not have heard otherwise.
A commercial came on after Deep Purple finished Space Truckin'. I went to the kitchen and poured myself a Coke. Sat down as Greg Lake began singing Karn Evil 9 - Third Impression.
My life changed, then. I believe that music appeals to each of us because the vibrations somehow coincide with the patterns of our own thoughts, or resonates at a harmonic of the EEG of our emotions. God knows what other people thought of ELP, but I'd never heard anything so absolutely musically perfect in my life.
And here was Keith Emerson, standing between racks of keyboards, arms stretched, each hand hammering a different instrument, playing with near complete abandon while chewing gum like a high school miscreant. He hopped over the top of the B3 to play it backward and upside down. Fingered a complex lead while diddling knobs on a Moog Synthesizer the size of a meat locker.
Greg Lake is the captain of a starship. Battling his computer the way Dave battled Hal. Engaging the nacent Skynet long before The Terminator. Carl Palmer pounding out rhythm in 7/12, 10/8, damn, the time signature changed so frequently I felt like someone massaging my mind with their bare hands.
To say I became an avid Emerson Lake and Palmer fan is a brash understatement. I spent every available cent I made on their albums, and through the 70's I consumed anything they touched. I read every article published. Saw the movie Nighthawks four times because Keith had done the soundtrack.
Some people become Fatal Attraction-style fans of particular musicians after they've developed a poetic internal representation of that artist. Music speaks to us at a very deep level. It's easy to imagine the source of that music as having a very personalized key to our psyche.
While I adored ELP's music, it was easy for me to "outgrow" my adoration. Eventually I grew to like other bands. And as I grew older, years would pass during which I wouldn't listen to a single ELP recording.
Still, I became a keyboard player in a vain effort to mimic Keith Emerson's virtuosity. Though I realize his style is somewhat harsh for lovers of classical music, he remains for me the best keyboard player who ever lived. And I still hold out hope that one day I will play the entire Karn Evil 9 suite before an audience (though now I am so unrehearsed I can barely accomplish an adequate scale in the key of C).
The music ELP created in the 70's held the key to my psyche. I thought that way. In those rhythms.
Much later, in a pub near Heathrow Airport, while I sat with a colleague quaffing Guinness and reviewing a long week of work in England, we were surrounded by a group of ELP fans who'd just seen them at Royal Albert Hall. We got to talking not only did we discover we both loved ELP (music was a subject that had never come up between us, despite working together for two years) but the group overheard us and adopted us. We began buying rounds on the company expense account (who was to know). The "leader" of the group was the president of the Emerson Lake and Palmer fan club. Because they ran into so few American fans, and because we were responsible for their rapid inebriation, they invited us to join them for the show the next day. In addition, they offered to let us join them for the "meet and greet" before the show, where we could actually converse and shake hands with our idols.
Upon returning to my hotel room I called my wife and asked her if she wouldn't mind me returning home to California on Sunday instead of Saturday -- by the way I was going to meet Keith Emerson.
I distinctly remember opening the door to my room and facing my colleague, who had the room across the hall. He'd hung up with his wife exactly when I had and was coming to deliver the news to me. He'd been denied.
"Get your ass home," was what he had been told. I believe I was told, "Your ass better be home on time," or something like that. Asses were involved in both cases.
So neither of us saw ELP at Royal Albert Hall, nor did we meet the band.
On the way home my friend said to me, "It's anal-retentive white boy music, anyway," which I'd never considered. ELP wasn't particularly hip. In fact, ELP music is probably the diametric opposite of "funk". Going to see them would probably make the statement all the more effectively to our colleagues back at the office.
"You went to see, who?"
"And you met them?"
"Shook Keith Emerson's hand."
"Is that some kind of band people like?"
And so on. Nobody ever danced to Bitches Crystal or Tarkus. Not without brain damage, anyway.
I'm currently reading Keith Emerson's autobiography: Pictures of an Exhibitionist. It's poorly written. If it wasn't the autobiography of my keyboard hero, I'd never have got past page ten. In addition to being poorly written, it's written in a stream of English colloquialisms. I can read the same ten-word sentence six times and not understand it, despite my belief that I understand the language.
But I get the drift.
At a couple points in the book, Emerson muses on the topic of superstardom, and how ELPs star fell rather dramatically while progressive groups like Yes and Genesis made a much more lasting impact on the music scene world-wide.
There is no doubt that ELP's music was much less "accessible" to the general listener. No high school dance band was going to cover Knife Edge. No radio station in Chicago was going to put Iconoclast into regular rotation. This wasn't club music, dance music, music to declare love to, or even cookie baking music. It was just as my friend had suggested.
Keith mentions appearances at various venues where the audience was almost solely white males. And I bet if he dug in a little further, he'd find that most of those white males were geeks.
While Greg Lake tried to bring a little passion to the catalogue, Keith dominated the music production and what he created was technically incredible, non-reproducable by normal humans, stuff. We used to call it classical rock (as opposed to classic rock). Many of the pieces were built around the work of the great masters.
Later in my life I tried without any success to get girlfriends and even my wife to sit through the entire Karn Evil 9 suite. In stark contrast, one of my first dates was to a Genesis concert, and my wife and I saw them no less than three times before they disbanded. (And we still go to Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins concerts whenever they're in town.) By his own admission, Emerson never wrote the kind of emotion-provoking music that makes for a classic loved by both sexes.
ELP did a couple albums after their initial breakup in the late 70's. They had to produce Love Beach because their contract with Atlantic records demanded it. They tried to create a work of 3-minute-ish, radio-playable songs. It sucked, generally. In 1994 they produced In The Hot Seat. I've never heard that album mentioned anywhere, for any reason. Even though I own it, I've only listened to it once, remembering that I could barely stand getting through it.
Pirates still gives me the chills. Endless Enigma runs through my head when I'm sitting in airports. I wish I could play Hoedown or Nutrocker, but I wonder if my fingers would move that fast anymore.
One day I was in the lab in McMurdo, sitting at the computer keyboard, trying to debug a particularly tricky problem, getting nowhere.
Who knows why people do the things they do. It seemed perfect to sing at the top of my lungs.
"No computer stands in my way,
Only blood can cancel my pain.
Guardians of a nuclear dawn.
Let the maps of war be drawn."
Nobody thought it was cute but me.
"What the hell is that?"
"Karn Evil 9, third impression."
"Go outside next time you have to do that."
Anal-retentive white boy music is dead, despite 600,000 people flooding the speedway in California back in 1974. It was a temporary blip on the stage of world music. Most people are happy both progressive rock and disco are long gone. Long live Maroon 5 and Gorillaz, they say.
I suppose. But someday soon there's going to be no one left who likes Blink 182.
I can hardly wait.