I sat me down to write a simple story, a follow-up to my “Procol Pilgrimage,” which documents six Procol Harum gigs on the East Coast of North America in May 2003. No typewriter torment, however, propelled me to record until the eve of the band’s concert in London on 6 March 2005. As fans gathered to revel and make merry in England, I found myself once again wrestling with conquistador ghosts in the Archive of the Indies in Spain. Unable to cope with not being at the Bloomsbury concert and its attendant festivities, I look back and remember fondly – my friends were all around me – a West Coast pilgrimage I undertook in July 2003, when fires burnt brightly and energies were spent. What follows is but a semblance of what it was like to be there, to be read in the spirit in which all good things are made.
Friday 25 July
As the flight from Toronto approached Los Angeles, I could make out a message inscribed on the landscape below, not printed in the sky above. CRENSHAW CHRISTIAN CENTER, it read, HOME OF THE FAITH DOME. The structure identified as such was a pimple of a building that flared up even more irritably than the urban acne that engulfed it. Where I was headed was considerably more appealing: Jeremy Gilien’s place at 1434 South Spaulding Avenue, home that day to a different expression of faith – that of the music of Procol Harum, whose concert at the John Anson Ford Theatre three days hence proved the perfect pretext to stage a fifth Palers’ Festival, including performances by a Palers’ Band.
Jeremy’s place was the site of the first rehearsals before the Palers’ Band strutted their stuff two nights in a row at BB King’s Blues Club. I had plucked up the courage to offer my vocal services in a rendition of Rambling On, hence my inclusion as a novice in a Palers’ line-up replete with accomplished and seasoned musicians. It’s not that I’m so fearful, but how on earth would I fare?
A vehicle I rented at the airport allowed me the flexibility everyone needs when dealing with LA while at the same time contributing to its less-than-angelic condition as a great city all choked up with cars. I limped, as opposed to sped, along the freeway, Lankershim at Universal City the exit I needed to take in order to reach the Palers’ Base Camp at the Sheraton Hotel. I registered, napped, swam, and showered in quick succession, then drove to Jeremy’s, easily located four blocks east of Fairfax and half-a-block south of Pico. Even if I hadn’t had the advantage of specific directions provided by Webmasters Roland and Jens, my internal radar would have got me there, for before I had stopped the car I could discern, above the hum of the engine, the thudded beat of Kaleidoscope.
No jostle, hassle, or elbow bustle here, though, just the welcoming grin of Tito Davila. “Hola, Jorge! You made it! Great to see you again! Cold beer in the fridge, amigo – that way!”. His pointed finger led me to a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. A few sips helped calm me down. I then made my way to Jeremy’s VIP Music Room to await my début.
Rehearsals had been underway already for a few hours, with combinations of some twenty Palers serving up Procol Harum songs from the band’s extensive repertoire. I waved to Don Milione, seated at a regal Hammond, and listened to several more numbers – Jeremy crooning Nothing That I Didn’t Know, Tito evoking the immortal BJ Wilson on his drum entrance to A Salty Dog – before Roland gave me the nod.
“My mother used to say I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket,” I told him.
Roland smiled as he fingered that opening double phrase. Hesitatingly, I jumped in. After only a few toiled lines, a tortured course for sure, Roland stopped. “Much too high, George. Lower down, and easy does it. Try to relax and not be self-conscious. This is all about enjoying yourself.” A tall order, but with Roland’s patient coaching we eventually made it all the way through Rambling On twice. The title of the song matched its singer’s sense of not knowing where he was bound . By the end of the evening, however, encouragement over a late supper with Palers Gary Shepard, Jeff Levine, Donna Blue, and Beatle Buck convinced me that I must soldier on, if not shine on, as an aspiring vocalist in the chord of Gary Brooker. The lesson, after all, lies in learning.
Saturday 26 July
The Palers’ programme called for us to be at BB King’s Blues Club, an oasis of good taste in the sold dreams of American consumerism, at 11 am sharp. The club is not at all what you expect as you ascend the escalator that affords a panoramic view of the detritus that surrounds it. Tucked in the upper corner of a huge crass shrine to the mighty dollar – the club is part of Universal Studios Mega-Mall – an entranceway leads to a bar on the left and opens, on the right, to ample space for congregating and dancing. A raised stage is framed by old teak and mahogany, giving the interior of BB King’s a distinctly crepuscular feel even during the day, one at odds with the glare of glass and the sheen of steel outside. Tables and chairs line the back wall, which is adorned by photographs and paraphernalia of popular music greats, BB King himself among them. Upstairs, where the sound monitors get installed, offers a perfect vantage point from which to listen and observe. Whoever got us this place to celebrate our love of Procol Harum, I thought to myself, knew what they were doing.
Inspired by conducive surroundings, Palers rehearsed in myriad formats and with such a commitment as to raise the level of collective endeavour markedly from the day before.
“It’s coming together nicely, ” I remarked to Jill McMahon, who was keeping a cool eye on things. Even I was feeling better about how Rambling On was coming along, though hearing how Donna could belt out The Milk of Human Kindness made me realize there was much sea between us in terms of bringing home the bacon. Donna’s voice is something else, Donna herself for that matter. After two more airings of Rambling On, I went for lunch and in search of an item Marvin Chassman had suggested I acquire in order to complement my delivery on the Big Occasion itself, the day after tomorrow.
That evening we dined in the garden of Evan Edelist, film-maker brother of our very own and much-esteemed One-Eye. We could easily have mistaken Evan’s alluring home for the Grand Hotel itself, so fine and rare were what was served. There in Northridge – not quite beyond the pale as it lies a mere forty-five minutes’ drive from Universal City, a stone’s throw in the LA scheme of things – rum as well as anything else that took your fancy was served to all the Palers. Like the well-behaved pygmies of Whaling Stories, the Palers for the most part held themselves in check, for a public performance was scheduled the following evening.
Sunday 27 July
I’m a historical geographer who researches and writes about Latin America, especially Central America. I have a particularly soft spot for Guatemala, some of whose defining characteristics – malice and habit in that troubled country have long won the day – embody the essence of Keith Reid’s trenchant lyrics. Mixing business with pleasure, I was able to combine my West Coast pilgrimage with some work-related matters. Late morning I drove west along Sunset Drive to Pacific Palisades, where that afternoon I interviewed Jonathan Sauer, Professor of Geography at UCLA and son of the eminent historical geographer Carl O Sauer (1889–1975). The latter, whose book The Early Spanish Main (1966) could well have been the inspiration for Pandora’s Box, is my intellectual mentor. In the presence of Sauer junior I was treated to tales of Sauer senior, complete with a viewing of private correspondence, family photographs, and other such documentary treasures. In the evening I attended and gave a eulogy at a memorial service organized by the Jewish cultural group, Ivri-Nasawri, in Santa Monica in honour of my dear friend and fellow Guatemalan traveller, Victor Perera, who had died the month before. When Stefani Veladez offered a song of hers in honour of Victor – one called You Hold Up Half the Sky, which she sung half in Ladino, half in English – the Palers' Band was just then starting its first of two sets at BB King’s, having rehearsed again earlier in the day. Much as I would have loved to have been in on the Palers’ act that night, other commitments had to be met. Besides, when daybreak washed it would do so by offering not one but two Procol Harum events, a Palers’ Party at BB King’s in the afternoon and a concert by the band in the evening. I drove from Santa Monica back to Universal City with a keen sense of anticipation.
Read the second part of