A Whiter Shade of Pale

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“And although my eyes were open
They might just as well have been closed.”

Keith Reid, Procul Harum, A Whiter Shade of Pale

In 1967 a bunch of young men in their early twenties released their first single. The song on the A-side became an enduring success and is now one of the most played and sold pop songs of all time. This year, the song was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the list of superlative acclaim is long. In a way, like few other songs, A Whiter Shade of Pale has become part of our cultural fabric. I wonder how such a thing happens. Especially, if the song has such opaque lyrics – or have you heard of the Fandango before?

There have been, of course, many interpretations of the song’s success. The Bach-inspired organ part, the soulful, mourning voice of Gary Brooker and yes, the mystery of the lyrics. Also the resemblance to another song, Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” has been noted, as well as the lyrics being sufficiently psychedelic to fuel the summer of love (and drugs) in 1967. I suspect that the raw emotion in Gary Brooker’s voice against the more bleak background of the organ did the trick. This is a strong reminder that art we love (vs such we merely admire) always seems to have this emotional communication between artist and audience going on.

But then there are, oh my, these lyrics… Keith Reid, who wrote the lyrics, said in an interview that he overheard the title line as part of a conversation on a party and he constructed the rest from it. He also mentioned his fondness for painting, and especially Dali paintings, and the process to put the lines on canvas as a pure stream of consciousness. No matter what else we might read into the lyrics of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” it might be just that: an unleashed stream of consciousness.

But the fact that the text reads mostly like nonsense doesn’t mean there aren’t memorable lines in it. I especially like

She said, “There is no reason
And the truth is plain to see”

I still don’t know what this is supposed to mean but it certainly sounds good. Recently, however, I was reminded of the line from the song on the top of this post. I was walking around a little lake. And while I walked, taking photos of the plants against the water became a kind of spontaneous, reflexive activity. Afterwards, I had a feeling as if my subconscious had taken the photos – they seemed like my own unfiltered stream of consciousness. My eyes were open but as well could have been closed.

Even though there is little more to the resulting photos than sheer delight in lines, shapes and rhythms, I got reminded of something else: even in nature we so often have purposes. We hike, bike, run, ride, do something and implicitly create stories about being there. In all this activity we easily overlook what is around us. But if we approach nature purposeless, hang just out and look, we can notice how our subconscious starts to react to nature on a deeper level. There is, I think, still something in our collective memory that tells us: this is where we belong.

For me this experience is both emotionally rewarding and refreshing. Unfortunately, this is very difficult to communicate. We still mostly expect stories, or something that sounds like a story, even if we can’t decipher the story like in A Whiter Shade of Pale. That just something is there rarely seems enough. That’s a pity, really. Gary Brooker could sing about trash cans and daisies and we still would feel the raw emotion in his voice. There are unnamed and unnamable things that are still important to us – not everything has to be a story.

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