It is part of the cultural fabric that binds society together. It’s as deep rooted in society as language and literature. And not unlike literature there are times when someone comes along and redefines a genre through a new approach and sound that builds upon the existing traditions but takes a direction not known before.
In popular music we have many examples of this. The Beatles for instance, or Radiohead. These are individuals who took an art form and made something that expanded the known universe of music. This is very different than an artist that has been successful financially in the industry. Captain Beefheart never knew commercial success, but influenced a huge amount of people who did enjoy success that followed him. You can find examples in any sub-genre of music, from Sleater-Kinney’s impact on punk rock to Sleep’s impact on doom metal. If there is a genre, there are people redefining it.
One of the pioneering giants in the modern era, Keith Emerson, founding member of Emerson Lake and Palmer, passed away yesterday at the age of 71. ELP rose to prominence in the 70s after their first release Pictures at an Exhibition. The album was essentially a live performance of their interpretation and arrangement of Mussorgsky’s seminal work. When I heard it for the first time, my universe of music had exploded wide open. I had never heard anything like it.
Emerson had stunning technical skills from his classical training. He joined forces with Greg Lake who had left King Crimson, and Carl Palmer to form a band not only of startling virtuosity, but who fused rock and classical music and motifs. His main instrument was the organ – that’s right, the organ– which he wielded awesomely. The band grew an enormously wide audience before the progressive rock movement started its long descent into new forms of music, primarily new wave and punk. By the time kids buying albums by the Clash, the Violent Femmes and even the Pretenders, prog already looked prehistoric.
But idolized Emerson and always will. I played piano and spent days and weeks trying to learn his licks, which were completely inaccessible for my level of skill. I never got a chance to see him live, and for that I am truly saddened. But I can still listen to him playing on Tarkus and marvel at the creations that he fused.
As a young person growing up in Gardiner I would trek with my friends to LaVerdiere’s Drug Store to buy the latest albums, though typically they only sold the most popular titles. For hard-to-find new music a long trek to Portland was required with extremely reluctant parents who knew that the trip would yield “noise” that they would have to endure upon later gathering around the record player. “You know, I could play some real music for you if you like” my father would say as he would reach for his Neil Diamond collection. “This noise is painful; who would willingly subject themselves to this punishment?” my father would opine. But listen we did, and we marveled at what we heard.
While I realize my focus is ultimately supposed to be about redevelopment, music is something that inspires me and my endeavors at every level. I will point out that last week I noticed that as part of the downtown resurgence of Gardiner there is now a store that sells records. Vinyl records. I couldn’t help but think it ironic that 40 years after my trips to the local drug store to buy albums when there was otherwise zero availability to recorded music there is now MORE availability even in the age of the omnipresence of digital media. This is part of the key long term success of the downtown – the famous niche strategy. You can buy digital music anywhere and buy anything online, but for some (myself included) I like to peruse before I purchase. And anywhere there is a niche, there is an economic success story – or at least an opportunity. Many downtowns are taking advantage of that.
I recently purchased a copy of the Who’s original Live at Leeds from a record store on Portland’s Congress Street. Some of the people in the shop purchased albums specifically to listen to an analog recording, and profess the superiority of that medium. But others, like me, were purchasing pieces of our musical history, not just to listen to but also to look at and have near, like a favorite book. Once again, many can buy our favorite albums in our local communities.
Brunswick, Portland, Gardiner and many other downtowns now have record stores. This is something that is truly remarkable. And when I am next in “Vinyl Haven” in Brunswick, I will be looking for a copy of the Pictures by ELP. Thank you Keith Emerson, a giant of the vinyl era of yesteryear whose impact continues on today.