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Progressive Rock Book Reviews

Keith Emerson

Pictures of an Exhibitionist written by Keith Emerson

Review by Steve Alspach

There's a saying going around the internet that the purpose of life is not to arrive in Heaven all nice, neat and well-preserved, but rather to arrive sliding in a big cloud of dust, dirty and disheveled, and saying "Holy @#$%! What a ride!" If you get to Heaven and see a banged-up motorcycle and a big dent in St. Peter's gates, you'll know Keith Emerson made it.

"Pictures of an Exhibitionist" is an insightful look at one of the biggest stars of the 1970s progressive music scene. At the same time, it is one of the funniest books I've ever read. Emerson has a very disarming sense of humor, and he's not above letting the reader have a laugh on him. Whether recounting his childhood, as when he peed his pants, lodged a piece of chalk up his nose, and beat up a classmate - all in his first week of school, or describing himself and fellow band members in the Nice, wearing the wildest fashions 1968 London had to offer, as "a herd of goats in search of Julie Andrews," Emerson never fails to amuse. He is also honest, admitting to personal foibles and errors that make all of us human.

The book starts in 1993 as Keith is in the hospital for a potentially career-ending surgery on his right wrist and is told in a "life-flashing-before-his-eyes" manner. From his childhood, he then smartly focuses on his halcyon days - those days between 1967 and 1978 when he found stardom with the Nice, and then Emerson Lake & Palmer. He recounts funny "Spinal Tap" moments, perhaps most notably when one of the "Armordillos" on stage blew an entire load of polystyrene pellets into Emerson's open-lidded grand piano, or during a Nice show when, during a delicate rendition of "Hang On to a Dream," a triangle Brian Davison was swinging around his head broke loose, went straight up in the air, and crash landed among his arsenal of gongs.

Of most interest is the transition that Emerson made from the Nice to ELP. It took a leap of faith to end one highly successful band and start another in basically the same format. All bands should also be so fortunate to debut at a large outdoor festival as ELP did at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970. Emerson is fair in his assessment of his band members in both bands, but has a penchant for picking some curious bassist-singers: Lee Jackson is viewed as a drug-popping sex addict with limited musical skills, and Greg Lake comes off as an ego-driven man with a sense for control, which Emerson admits served ELP well since Emerson didn't have much interest or skill for the business aspect of the band. The drummers in both bands, Brian Davison and Carl Palmer, appear to be congenial "partners in crime" with Emerson.

If there is a drawback to this book, it's that Emerson doesn't go into too much detail about the various albums he recorded with both bands. It would have been interesting to read about how he composed some of his larger works, such as "Karn Evil 9" or "Ars Longa Vita Brevis." His telling of ELP's breakup after recording Love Beach is not really discussed other than that "it was the end of an era."

In all, though, "Pictures of an Exhibitionist" is well-written, riotously funny in places, and a heartfelt look at one of the greats in rock. I got the impression that Keith Emerson was a guy I'd like to hang out with on a Saturday night. Read this book and you'll feel the same way.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2004 Year Book Volume 1 at lulu.com/strangesound.
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