It’s been a difficult few months in the world of rock ‘n’ roll because everyone seems to be dying. I know this is a new phenomenon (rock stars dying not death per-say). This is because the commercial music industry is relatively young when compared to other artistic endeavors. The early pioneers of this industry are now reaching their late 60s and early 70s, so I suppose death is inevitable. An often-repeated quote is, “the only certainties in life are death and taxes”. Although death is inevitable, it is no less of a shock. Sadness and shock were the first emotions I felt when I heard of Keith Emerson’s death early morning on Saturday 12th March 2016, Melbourne time.
I worked with Keith Emerson in 2002 for almost the entire year as his tour manager and his de-facto go-to guy; that’s how I earned my living back then. However, my connection to Keith goes way back to a childhood in Hull, East Yorkshire. My hippie parents, Karl and Jenny, always had a very eclectic taste in music and I remember in 1972 that they played the Emerson Lake and Palmer album Pictures At An Exhibition in heavy rotation with other weird and wonderful tunes. As a ten year old I found this a very difficult piece of music to comprehend. Indeed any ten year old that could fully fathom the testosterone fuelled butchery of this classic Mussorsky piece would probably be painfully precocious and end up pursuing a career as a popular music academic later on in life. But lets give credit where its due because ELP’s iteration has become one of the seminal documents of the progressive rock era, a record that made its way into the collections of millions of high-school kids who had never heard of Modest Mussorgsky and knew nothing of Russia’s Nationalist ‘Five’. At the time, it introduced the new genre of classical rock to millions of listeners, including the classical community, most of whose members regarded this record as something akin to an armed violent assault. Track four off this record really stuck in my mind, a short original Moog synthesiser interlude, which was never part of the original Mussorsky template. Little did my parents know they were hegemonically pre-programming me to love synth-based music that would stay with me for life. Philip Larkin was right about parents.
I left school in 1979 at the age of 16 to pursue a backstage career in rock ‘n’ roll. Initially this was as a sound engineer before I drifted inevitably into tour management and subsequently a variety of other roles; but that’s a different story. This career development was all done without any formal education; I didn’t complete my first degree until I was 30. I learned on the job as everyone did back then. One of my frequent places of work was a rehearsal studio complex, John Henry Enterprises (JHE), located on Brewery Road just behind Kings Cross railway station in a shabby part of North London. Kings Cross was my de-facto arrival point in London when I rode the East Coats mainline train down from Hull. JHE also had an excellent on site café and a pro shop, which was managed by an incredibly scary; take no shit, Scouser called Barrington ‘Bazz’ Ward. Bazz was king roadie, the roadie’s roadie and what he didn’t know about roadieing probably wasn’t worth knowing. Many a time I stood before Bazz in JHE’s Pro Shop knees trembling while I attempted to purchase all the supplies for a forthcoming tour. Initially I was a very green; know nothing, regional kid working with crap up-and-coming regional bands. Bazz verbally and very bluntly confirmed this fact whenever I met him. But over the next 20 plus years my knowledge base and standing grew and Bazz had obviously taken all this in from behind his shop counter.
Jump forward to mid 2001 and I received an unsolicited out-of-the blue phone call from Bazz Ward, who even over the telephone sounded angry and scary. During this call he summoned me to a meeting at The Balmoral pub on the corner of Caledonia and Brewery Road right opposite the notorious Pentonville prison. During this meeting I discovered two things: 1. Bazz’s bark was much worse than his bite and 2. he had a cunning plan. Bazz had spent many years working with Keith Emerson. Keith was restless out in Santa Monica, California and wanted to tour again. Bazz made it very clear that I had undergone a 21-year observation period and it was deemed that I was now capable enough to be the tour manager, though Bazz was still the boss. Bazz would handle all things technical and I would take care of budgets, staff, contractors, musicians, travel, logistics, accommodation and anything else. For the next few months I worked with Bazz and spoke to Keith many times over the phone while we planned the tour. The tour was to be billed as Keith Emerson and The Nice. The Nice was Keith’s pre ELP band formed in 1967 with Lee Jackson (bass), David O’List (guitar) and Brian Davison (drums) to back soul singer PP Arnold. When PP Arnold departed, the band carried on but with a sound focused on Emerson’s Hammond organ showmanship, and abuse of the instrument, and their radical rearrangements of classical music themes and Bob Dylan songs.
Original member Lee Jackson and Brian Davison were augmented with seasoned session players Dave Kilminster on guitar, Phil Williams on bass and Pete Riley on drums. I hired a road crew, broke into Keith’s lock up, liberated his long retired equipment and commenced rehearsals at JHE. I hired and fired three sound engineers before I blackmailed an old colleague of mine to come out of retirement for the tour (it involved some graphic pictures of him and some strippers in Abilene, Texas that his wife wound not want to see).
It was day one of rehearsals when I got to meet Keith face-to-face for the first time. Soberly dressed in Prada he came across as a quiet successful businessman, which I suppose he was, as opposed to the show business exhibitionist. During these rehearsals I spent many hours discussing the tour with Keith. He was interested in all aspects of the tour including detailed scrutinising of my budgets, logistics, venue information, crew backgrounds and everything connected to the tour. I attended numerous meetings with his accountant in New Cavendish Street in London and even found myself sitting next to Bryan Ferry in reception on one of these occasions. I found the right coloured tour bus that met his very exacting requirements, made sure that hotels and transport details were precise.
I enjoyed my time with Keith as he was always polite, punctual, fair, humorous and strangely introverted often bordering on shy. On a personal level I found him annoying at times especially his inability to undertake everyday tasks such as opening a door, making a decision over mealtime menus or requesting “tepid water”. I guess that middle class upbringing and all those years of being a world famous, high-living rock star resulted in his aberrant behaviour. I hired one of my college students to work as his personal assistant during the tour to take care of these annoying shizzles; the best move I ever made. During the tour Keith would regularly throw me curve balls e.g. moments before departing on the carefully selected tour bus he’d announce that he wanted us to travel by train. Quite often the train option was a much slower, more expensive and more inconvenient then riding on the tour bus but he was the boss so I complied.
Off stage I found Keith very quiet; he spent almost every minute playing a small portable keyboard or harmonica. He’d sit on the train/tour bus with his headphones on ‘clacking’ away playing music (unheard by the other occupants) with a sly smile on his face. I often witnessed him playing his keyboard back-to-front just to make it more challenging. His offstage personality was in direct contrast to his stage persona. On stage he was a maniac and the audience loved it. He fought his Hammond organ every night, stabbed it with daggers until it howled with pain and forced weird and wonderful sounds from his ginormous six foot tall Moog synthesiser. I hated the music; I could not listen to Tarkus or Brain Salad Surgery but that was OK because once I’d put him on stage I would head to front of house to chat up the T-shirt girl while drinking tall glasses of Bombay Sapphire gin and tonic for the next two hours.
Our merchandising was as eclectic as the music. The biggest selling item was Keith’s self penned book Pictures of an Exhibitionist that we literally shifted by the truckload. Not many rock ‘n’ roll tours can claim that their biggest selling merchandise item was a high priced, 350 page piece of literature. He signed my copy “To Touringtim lots a luv careering Keith”. He knew of my love of Public Image Ltd album Metal Box and the single Careering. While on tour in Glasgow, we recorded a live album which turned into a three CD box set where I was credited ‘Executive Producer’; I really must add this to my CV. While on our way to the Croydon Fairfield Halls gig we stopped off to have afternoon tea and scones with his lovely elderly mum. Touring with Keith Emerson was full of these wonderful surprises.
Only last week I was stood in an open plan office taking the mickey out of Keith and doing my inept impression of him to a bewildered audience of wage slaves and office drones. Don’t let this mickey taking fool you. I was incredible fond of Keith Emerson, he made an indelible impression on me. I saw the vulnerable side of Keith and the last two nights have passed without much sleep thinking about his lonely violent suicide. His degenerative medical condition in his right hand, resulting in his inability to play keyboards, had taken to him to a very dark depressed place. Of course he could have bought a cheap plastic USB keyboard and smashed notes into a computer programme with a single finger and let some fruity loops software do all the work but that wasn’t Keith. He was a perfectionist. I remember when we were preparing for the tour, Keith absolutely insisted that we have a $150k Steinway 8’ 6” grand piano on tour with us. We found a piano, built the world’s biggest flight case and shipped the thing around the globe with us. The tour’s trucking company loved us because we had so much equipment; the bright blue pantechnicons with the eagle on the front sure made for an impressive sight outside of the loading bay each night.
My thoughts go out to Keith’s family, who he never discussed with me, and the fans that loved the man. I still feel shocked but not entirely surprised that he chose to take his own life in such a violent fashion. There’s another article to be written here about the absolutely appalling duty of care that the music industry has towards its participants, but that’s for another day. My memories of Keith are all pleasant ones, despite the mickey taking. He was a visionary musician who fused rock ‘n’ roll with classical, jazz and world music and he set a standard by which others would be judged. Thanks for the music and the memories Keith; to me you’ll always be the Dr Who of rock ‘n’ roll and part of my childhood past.