I was shocked by the news of Keith Emerson’s suicide, but not surprised. I knew that he had been suffering degenerative nerve damage for some time. The pain that he was enduring was unimaginable. Only those that suffer nerve diseases know his agony. Unstoppable by any means; an irreversible condition. Playing keyboards was Keith’s life. He felt that he had nothing left. Despair and depression became overwhelming and he decided to exit the stage on his own terms. I understand, Keith.
The Emerson that I will always remember is the genius who gave us a library of great music. One of my favorites – it’s impossible to choose a single favorite – is the magnificent odyssey of Pirates.
A true masterpiece, as he proved to us all in attendance in Montreal, 1977. Brilliantly orchestrated with Emerson’s keyboard work at center, Pirates reminds of a great Aaron Copeland composition or a Leonard Bernstein musical. The instrumentation is impeccable, no note out of place or unneeded. A crowning achievement for any composer.
The introduction begins with a few simple notes and a whirling, whizzing original synthesizer sound. The characteristic sound of the Hammond playing but a few mysterious percussive low notes. Then, prancing gems that begin the rise in tempo to an energetic pace. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom comes Carl Palmer on toms signaling the strings to join, followed by trumpets heralding the main theme. Flutes play bright contra with strings still pumping along to Keith’s keys.
You can feel the spray of salt in your face as the ship makes sail. Dramatic stops while violins and cellos accentuate pauses. French horns bound as the varied keyboard sounds dance the deck. Emerson’s virtuosity shines brightly as he switches between the armada of new keyboards surrounding him plus a vintage clanking Hohner Clavinet.
There has never before been a 3:30 intro to the verse more interesting and entertaining. The horns and string section retarding bark of a single note leads to the magic of Greg Lake’s bold voice.
At this point two more genius’ take over, the inimitable team of Greg Lake and Peter Sinfield, the lyrical powerhouse behind King Crimson and ELP. (another future blog topic)
“Who’ll make his mark
The captain cried
To the devil drink a toast
We’ll glut the hold
With cups of gold
And we’ll feed the sea with ghosts”
I’m signing on as I hear the captain’s call. I’m totally on with feeding the seas with ghosts. Continuing, “I see your hunger for a fortune
Could be better
Served beneath my flag
If you’ve the stomach
For a broadside
Come aboard my pretty boys”
I am a pretty boy. I picture two ships blasting canon fire at each other in a broadside as our voyage begins. The great Atlantic is ours for the taking. I am transported back to the times of the Jolly Roger and Captain Blood.
“Six days off the cuban coast
When a sail ahead they spied”
I know exactly where we are with this phrase, sliding down the coast of sparsely populated North America. The natives live unfettered on the bountiful land.
“A galleon of the treasure fleet
The mizzen lookout cried
Closer to the wind my boys
The mad-eyed captain roared
For every man that’s alive tonight
Will be hauling gold aboard”
I see the mad-eyed captain with a wicked scar running down face to neck from a previous sword fight. A fight that he won, though not unscathed. A majestic feathered hat crowning his massive head.
“Spare us the galleon begged
But mercy’s face had fled
Blood ran from the screaming souls
The cutlass harvested
Driven to the quarter deck
The last survivor fell
She’s ours my boys
The captain grinned
And no one left to tell”
They are telling a story with succinctly descriptive lyrics. They pillage the ship of the Treasure Fleet and send her to Davy Jones locker with all souls aboard.
“The captain rose from a silk divan
With a pistol in his fist
And shot the lock from an iron box
And a blood red ruby kissed
I give you jewelry of turquoise
A crucifix of solid gold
One hundred thousand silver pieces
It is just as I foretold
You, you see there before you
Everything you’ve ever dreamed”
Another boisterous transitional segment leads to a resounding stop. Fear not, more adventure lies ahead. Emerson breaks into a pulse-quickening tempo that leads to a breathtaking jump into a perfectly placed 3-note repeating passage.
And make it the finest
Make it a cup for a sea dogs thirst
Two long years of bones and beaches
Fever and leaches did their worst
So fill the night with paradise
Bring me peach and peacock
’till I burst
But first, I want a soft touch
In the right place
I want to feel like a king tonight”
Yes, it has been a treacherous and wearing journey; long since our last liberty. I see our ship docked in the bay of “an indigo moonlit bay”, one of the Bahamanian Islands, perhaps. Busty maidens serving wine and slipping off with sex-starved sailors for dalliances far overdue.
“I want an angel on a gold chain
And I’ll ride her to the stars
It’s the last time
For a long, long time
Come the daybreak we embark”
Sated, we board our vessel with visions of greater conquests in the life that chose us.
“On the flood of the morning tide
Once more the ocean cried”
I can never be far from the ocean, whether it be the Atlantic, or Gulf of Mexico, or the inland ocean of Lake Superior. The sea is in my blood. My soul is empty without it.
The genius manifested in this single tale of the sea will never be matched. Emerson, Lake, Palmer, and Sinfield – a blending of talents that came together for one transcend ode.
* Quoted lyrics belong to Greg Lake and Peter Sinfield. (Rights are lies)
* Pirate photo of drummer Ron Russel with Bertie Higgins Band of Pirates at Shrimp Fest on Fernandina Beach, circa 2001. Photo credit: Armond Blackwater.