On March 11th I was preparing a tribute to Italian horror director extraordinaire Lucio Fulci to appear on my film blog houseoffreudstein.wordpress.com two days later, marking the 20th anniversary of his passing. As usual, whenever my attention wandered I’d check my social media to see what was going on. What was going on, I learned, was the breaking news that Fulci’s sometime collaborator (on 1983’s Murder Rock), Keith Emerson, had died.
The most positive development in the immediate aftermath of this awful news was also the least predictable. The central tenet of revisionist “rock journalism” (if that’s not an oxymoron) has always been the risible “Year Zero” paradigm, by dint of which any music produced before 1977 was dismissed as dinosaur dropppings / boring old fartery and so on… particularly reviled was the perceived “pretentiousness” (read “musicality / ambition”) of Prog Rock… and the most pompous of all the Prog prannies, by this account, were Emerson, Lake And Palmer. Neglect can cut as deeply as vilification and while standard histories of electronica in popular music routinely rhapsodise about Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk, they are more likely to mention Chicory Tip than Keith Emerson. It was with equal parts surprise and delight, then, that I noted the outpouring of love and respect for Keith (if there some negative snittery going on in the more troglodyte corners of the internet I didn’t see it, nor would I want to) from across the board. The consensus emerging from the rapidly accelerating flood of tributes was that a genuine giant had vacated the stage, somebody whose renowned showmanship was outstripped only his musical genius. There were plentiful testimonies too, some from the unlikeliest sources, as to what a good bloke he was.
Whenever I’ve found myself being drawn into those idle pub conversations about “The Greatest Living Englishman” I would always cite Keith Emerson on the grounds that he was present at the conception of Prog Rock (which mutated out of Psyche, by my estimation, at some point during the Nice’s second album Ars Longa, Vita Brevis in 1968)… the fact that he scored Italian horror movies by Fulci, Dario Argento and Michele Soavi into the bargain didn’t exactly decrease my estimation of him.
Although I managed to meet and interview many of my heroes before they died, Emmo always eluded me. My last serious attempt had been on the publication of his autobiography Pictures Of An Exhibitionist (currently out of print and being touted for silly money online) in 2002 but his publicist’s promise to “get back to you” proved as reliable as such promises usually are. I did catch The Nice, briefly reformed to promote the book, at Leicester’s De Montfort Hall… a memorable evening, from which two memories retain a particular power and poignancy. Firstly, entering the auditorium to find the house lights dimmed and a spot illuminating THAT moog, surmounted by THAT bank of switches and spaghetti… talk about an iconic image! Then, at the conclusion of a storming performance, a fan leaned over the front of the stage and offered to shake Keith’s hand. His reflex
response was to reciprocate but, after a split second’s reflection, he sharply withdrew and followed up with an apologetic gesture. Precisely such concerns about the state of his hands and his ability to continue playing at the high standard he had set himself were allegedly tormenting him the night he took his life.
“It’s taken me some time to adjust to Chris Squire’s passing. I probably won’t” was Keith’s response to the passing of the Yes uberbassist and following hard on the heels of that woefully premature demise, the news of his own death (and even worse, the circustances of it) constituted a particularly bitter pill to swallow. For some time I’d been addressing the humdrum headaches and hassles attendant on bringing this blog to the light of day, to celebrate the music that’s inspired me for so many years. The news that Keith Emerson had so conclusively run out of inspiration on March 11th made me wonder whether it was worth pursuing such a project… and so I moped around feeling depressed for a few weeks, not getting much done.
Appropriately it was David Flint, via whose twitter account I had heard the news of Keith’s death, who suggested to me that I might want to check out somebody called Rachel Flowers on Youtube. On the specific clip to which he directed me, a cute girl – possibly in her late teens / early twenties – is playing the piano introduction to ELP’s Trilogy. Hey, not bad. Then she walks, hesitatingly (oh… OK) over to a moog synthesiser (correction… Keith Emerson’s moog synthesiser) and tears into the main body of the piece with a will. Now, this is seriously complex music. This kid is not messing around. Obviously intrigued, I had a quick peek around Youtube to see if I could find anything else on her. It wasn’t hard… there she is, picking up a Chapman Stick for the first time and commenting on what a difficult instrument it is, before noodling away impressively on it… and here she is, onstage with Zappa Plays Zappa, contributing keys on Inca Roads
.. not content with that, at the same gig we find her trading guitar solos with Dweezil (big shoes to fill? The last time I saw FZ’s fingers moving this nimbly around a fretboard, they were animated by Bruce Bickford!) … now she’s giving a video tutorial on how to get the correct harmonics out of your bass when attempting Jaco Pastorius’ intimidatingly intricate Portrait Of Tracy… elsewhere on Youtube you’ll find Rachel participating in several of those nifty “international collaborations”, whereby musos on various continents get to groove together on some canonical piece… my particular favourite from these is Hamburger Concerto, with a certain Jan Akkerman guesting on guitar.
Over on Soundcloud you can hear Rachel playing her own compositions and covering more Jaco and Zappa, Weather Report, Gentle Giant, King Crimson and Grateful Dead, Bach, and Debussy, among others… including The Nice, for Keith Emerson is clearly her major inspiration in life and in music (and you’ll glean from the great man’s Youtube testimonials that the admiration is entirely mutual): Tarkus, Karn Evil 9, Hoedown, Fanfare, Pictures At An Exhibition (great hat, girl!)… you name it, she nails it. Rachel’s commitment to music goes way beyond cold, clinical concern for technique, though. She is clearly consumed by it. On the rare occasions that an Emerson composition doesn’t demand the use of both her hands, the spare one is beating out some complex Carl Palmer polyrhythm on her stool. Her enjoyment of what she’s doing is almost palpable and at the completion of some pieces she just trembles with joy… her unselfconscious expressions of ecstasy at such moments recall nobody so much as Stevie Wonder, an artist with whom it’s all too easy to draw comparisons and yeah, in another of her Youtube clips Rachel does justice to Stevie’s sublime Superwoman (a title which could have served as an apt title for this piece.)
California’s Rachel Flowers was born on December 21, 1993. Arriving 15 weeks premature, she lost her eyesight as an infant due to Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP). Her mother Jeanie showed her how to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star when she was two. When she was four she was studying at The Southern California Conservatory of Music. Among the countless accolades she has collected since them are the John Phillip Souza Band Award and the Marine Corps Semper Fidelis Award for excellence in musicianship. Her official web-site http://rachelflowersmusic.com tells us that “at present Rachel is in the process of composing the original material which will form the basis of her musical career. Rachel’s music is informed by her extensive musical background, with jazz, classical, and progressive rock music all playing a part in helping Rachel to forge a style that is uniquely her own.” It’ll be a while before we get to savour some of those original compositions but the wait is almost over for Rachel Flowers – Hearing Is Believing, a documentary by Lorenzo DeStefano (who previously directed Los Zafiros: Music From The Edge Of Time  and Talmage Farlow, a 1981 homage to the J.D. Salinger of bebop guitar) that premieres in Ventura, CA on June 9th.
Here is not the place to get into speculation over whether Rachel Flowers developed her extraordinary talent in spite of or somehow because of the challenges that she has faced. Suffice to say, she’s a bona fide phenomenon and you’re going to be hearing a lot more about her. Nor, as her career blossoms, will the spirit of Keith Emerson ever cease to burn brightly.
Truly Ars Longa, Vita Brevis…