“You’ve got to keep things ‘flying high’ in your personal life, Shirley! Stop letting people use and abuse you! Remember: you are no one’s ‘little slave’…unless you want to be!” -Keith Emerson
It’s hard to believe it, but yesterday marked the first anniversary of the death of a beloved Progressive rock music icon: Keith Emerson. It’s been 24 years since I met him, but in my mind it was only yesterday.
My introduction to Keith Emerson began with a naughty “gift” that he (with the assistance of Carl Palmer) left waiting for Greg Lake and me aboard Greg’s boat; left conspicuously on a table near the bed. In January of 1993, when Greg and me descended into Greg’s boat (docked at a marina in the Los Angeles area) the first thing that caught my eye was six Polaroid shots (close-up) of Keith’s bare derriere, in all its glory. “What in the hell is THIS?!” I demanded to know, as I picked up the photos and looked them over, wondering how (and why) they got there. Smooth as silk, Greg took the photos from my hand, studied them carefully, then replied: “There were some Swedish students that were using the boat recently. It looks like one of them was messing about and took some naughty photos of his bum! Never mind, Luv. That’s a grim thing to find waiting for you, but pay it no mind.” With that, Greg took away Keith’s ‘calling cards’, never to be seen again.
Two days later, as we got ready for Greg to drive me home to Camarillo (North of Los Angeles, in Ventura County) Greg casually asked me, “How would you feel about driving over this morning to meet my mates? They’re not far from the marina, and I know they’d love to meet you!” I agreed. Minutes later, Greg and me were back on the highway.
As we entered, there was Carl: sitting in his bathrobe, black stubble on his handsome face and a cup of coffee in his hand. As I looked at him, I immediately thought of my mother (except for the black stubble!) as this was her daily ritual every morning of her life. “Here’s SHIRLEY!” announced Greg, as he dropped me practically in Carl’s lap, then disappeared god knows where. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” Carl asked. Why thank you. Don’t mind if I do.
After we’d laughed ourselves stupid for at least a half hour, my peripheral vision caught sight of yet another handsome man in a bathrobe, swiftly approaching on my right. It was Keith Emerson. I reckon our laughter woke him up. “Keith, you won’t believe the shite that Greg has been pulling all this weekend!” With a roll of his eyes, Keith replied, “If it’s Greg, then I’ll believe anything!” With that pithy observation, Carl cast Keith a knowing look, as he introduced me. Keith gave me a sweet, gentle smile, then settled into the serious business of hearing exactly what his bandmate had been up to that weekend.
Once Keith joined us, the mood remained fairly solemn until the subject of those photos popped up, at which point Keith suddenly got the biggest grin I have seen anyone get in my 61 years of living. Keith howled with laughter, as I recalled Greg’s makeshift explanation for how those photos got there. “That liar!” Keith retorted. “He knows damn well there hasn’t been any ‘Swedish students’ aboard his boat at any time!” With that, Keith looked directly into my eyes as he asked, “Did it upset you to find the photos lying there?” “No” I replied. “Once I realized it wasn’t Greg’s hairy bottom on display, and it certainly wasn’t that of any woman I could imagine, then everything was okey-doke with me!” With that, Keith threw his head back and began laughing. He and Carl continued laughing to the point of tears for several minutes, as I calmly sat there drinking my coffee,
Later that day, alone just the two of us, Keith admitted it was he who had been the “model” for those ‘alluring’ shots that have-sadly-disappeared into the sands of time; alongside the countless photos taken of me clowning around with the guys on that fateful, unforgettable day. It remains a very special moment in my life. It’s a moment that I now know I won’t forget, long after I’ve forgotten so many other special moments in my life. Keith’s warm, wonderful, genuine smile is a major reason that I won’t forget that special day, ever.
Tragically, twenty-three years after our delightful first meeting, for reasons I (and countless others who love Keith) will never fully understand, Keith Emerson decided that Friday, March 11, 2016 was a good time to leave us. Keith was seventy-one. Like his bandmate Greg Lake, Keith Emerson never did say “goodbye.” Maybe that’s why (speaking for myself) it feels like Keith Emerson has never left us. A year has passed, and I catch myself talking about Keith in the present tense, often.
Today I closed my eyes, and my mind returned to the very last time I spoke with Keith. It was 2000, and the setting was the food court at the sprawling Santa Monica Mall. I was there, visiting with a then-friend,who noticed a man staring intently at me from across the food court. It was none other than Keith Emerson. Eventually, Keith came over to where we sat. Before Keith could utter a single word, Emitt stared at him and announced, “Hi. I’m Emitt Rhodes. I used to be famous!” Without missing a beat, Keith replied, “Hi! I’m Keith Emerson…and I used to be famous too!” At that moment, Keith beamed that very same disarming smile that caught my heart back in 1993, when we first met. It was a smile that you felt from your head to your toes when he directed it your way. A smile you’ll never forget, ever.
Keith was then and is today famous. His sheer brilliance as a musician, composer and fearless showman will doubtless ensure that he will remain famous for generations to come. However, what I hope will be equally remembered about Keith Emerson is that he wasn’t merely a man who was appreciated for his unique, stunning musical talents. He was a man who was truly loved by his countless fans world-wide, as well as by his many friends. Genuine friends, close friends. Friends who remained an active part of Keith Emerson’s life right up til his final moments. Ask any of Keith’s many friends. Ask his family. They will assure you that Keith Emerson was not living a “lonely existence” despite certain allegations made after Keith’s demise.
When I think of Keith, I’m reminded of what my grandfather Martin Peña told me at his 80th birthday party in 1968: “Mi hija, all of us have to die eventually! Don’t ever be afraid of dying, ever. The only thing you should be afraid of is to die unloved; without a single person in your life who loved or gave a shit about you. When you leave this earth, remember that’s the best way you can leave it: knowing you are loved. Nothing else matters!”
“Lead me from tortured dreams
Childhood themes of nights alone
Wipe away endless years
Childhood tears as dry as stone
From seeds of confusion, illusion
Dark blossoms have grown
Even now in furrows of sorrow
The dance still is sung
My life’s course is guided
Decided by limits drawn
On charts of my past days
And pathways, since I was born
There’s no end to my life
No beginning to my death
Death is life!”
Lyrics to ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ courtesy of Universal Music Publishing Group, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.
Featured image photo of Keith Emerson courtesy of Will Ireland/Classic Rock Magazine. Copyright 2017. All rights reserved.