Another reason I started my blog was this song. I looked on the internet for any sort of essays or blog entries about personal impressions or meanings around it. Nothing. I was incredulous. How is it that one of the most haunting songs of the classic rock genre has nothing written about it? Maybe there is something in print, but I doubt it. All I can find written about it is that it was recorded, there were lawsuits finally settled around 2005 or so and the original version was much longer. It’s very easy to find the lyrics to just about any song these days. But no critical writing of any kind. Really I am still sort of baffled by this. You can look for any song and pretty much end up with the same result. Nothing. So I figured, what the hell, why don’t I do it? I know all of these songs meant something profound to me. I can do a serious critique of some kind. Who cares if anyone takes it seriously? I really believe there should be something there other than the lyrics and evangelical Christians co-opting the concepts when someone looks it up in a search engine
I went to high school at St. Thomas High School after I was basically kicked out of public school. St. Thomas eventually kicked me out as well, but not before making a profound impact on the way I thought about the world. I packed a lot into my year at St. Thomas. I really tried to make it happen there. It felt like my last opportunity for a normal childhood, which of course meant that the opportunity didn’t really exist. Kids with normal childhoods don’t feel this way.
I loved all of my classes and I loved the atmosphere. There was a lot of ambition and curiosity. If I had been there from the beginning, maybe I would have made it through. But once again, high school was probably not made for me. I wish I had known this sooner. But I really think it was better for my final discovery of this to be preceded by a lot of suffering.
One day I showed up for school, and I stood outside the building. There was no way I could make it inside at that moment. I didn’t know what to do, so I went into the woods behind the school and just laid down in the leaves to stare at the sky. It was a gray midwinter day and the trees were as bare as trees get in Houston. I don’t know what I thought about. But the morning moved like soup. Same as the tempo in A Whiter Shade of Pale.
“The room was humming harder
as the ceiling flew away”
My world started deconstucting at that point. A lot of my irreverance was sort of built from an understanding that it was all for nothing. And I lived that way for a long time.
The first time I saw The Graduate was at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Boston. It was the 30th anniversary of the original release, so they were showing it for a couple weeks. It was interesting that I got to see it on the big screen. Two scenes in the movie have this same feel. The first is when Dustin Hoffman is using the scuba gear in the pool and he lies on the bottom of the pool staring up. You get the impression that he really is looking for any way to eliminate the noise from all the pressure around him. The second is the end of the movie when Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross are on the back of the bus, and you see the dawning realization that despite their victory everything is still impossible.
“and although my eyes were open
they might have just as well’ve been closed”
And then you see them both their faces “turn a whiter shade of pale”.
I didn’t like taking responsibility for my actions over a long period of time, so I would create situations where I knew I woundn’t be in one place for very long. I would put a time limit on it at times. I would think, “I’ll stay in the city for six months and then drive away and go someplace else.” And in driving away my irreverance fell apart. I lost my right to the existential crisis. I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s what it came to. There’s something about this song that brings all of the reality of my existential contemplation to an embarrassing end.
“She said, ‘There is no reason
and the truth is plain to see.'”
In the plodding thickness of the apparent nonsense, I find a very personal criticism of my inability to respond to stimulus appropriately. I am failing in school. I go sit in the leaves and wait for someone else to decide. I graduate from college and sit at the bottom of the pool listening to myself breathing. I destroy every chance of being with a girl I feel would be perfect for me, so I create a situation where I can rub both of our noses in it. Rather than take responsibility for my actions, I would just create situations where I didn’t have to think about it. And drive away. I loved to make other people decide for me.
“But I wandered through my playing cards
and would not let her be”
Compulsion is so inexplicable. Every tragic flaw seems to have roots in compulsion. And as the events unravel in any given tragedy, there seem to be so many lessons that compulsion refuses to learn. There are so many stories that make up my life where just thinking about them I turn “a whiter shade of pale”. At the time, I didn’t think I had any other choice, but in retrospect, it’s obvious that I had plenty of choices. And for the outcome, I have no one to blame but myself. “And so it was later…” And so it was always later that we knew. I think this song is about regret. Not what might have been but regret in the nature of grief. Sometimes we just make a lot of mistakes and there is nothing to be done for it.
“And so it was that later
as the miller told his tale
that her face, at first just ghostly,
turned a whiter shade of pale”
This song is one of those moments where everything just came together. There are universal truths just floating on the ether, and sometimes if you are open to it and prepared to hear that particular truth, then you are the vehicle for expressing it. Procol Harum is the vehicle for expressing this truth. There is no subtracting an element of this ensemble to express it with the same power. It just happened that they were prepared and inspired, and they plucked this truth off of the wind and gave form to an idea so abstract that it can’t be adequately explained outside of the context of the song.