In 1971 or so I had the privilege of studying Modern Poetry with Alicia Ostriker at Rutgers University. Alicia was a poet in her own right and a pretty good critic as well, chain-smoked and wore miniskirts and long hair, very much in a sort of academic / Beatnik tradition. The material we studied was what you'd expect, TS Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Leroi Baraka / Jones, Sylvia Plath. And of course the students in the permissive' atmosphere of the time were given the opportunity, if they so chose, to teach one class each on some modern poet they liked.
The only other person I can recall chose Mose Allison and his extremely pessimistic jazz / blues. The lyrics were a riot, very comic and very dark, sort of Lenny Bruce set to a slow twelve-bar, over and over and over.
I, of course, as you have by now deduced, chose Keith Reid's Procol Harum lyrics. This was definitely in a time-frame where Broken Barricades was the latest album, but Grand Hotel had not yet appeared. In honor of both Alicia's miniskirts and my relationship with a certain long-haired blonde student, I managed to include Luskus Delph as an example of something or other.
It was so long ago, that in order to reproduce the lyrics for all I had to type them on to mimeograph ... I recall making really obvious comparisons like Whaling Stories to The Waste Land, and A Salty Dog to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (on acid), things like that. Still There'll Be More I likened to the ancient insult poetry of the Roman poet Martial.
This particular class was taught in a set of rooms on the very bottom floor of a dormitory, with the paper-thin prefabricated nature of most such ticky-tacky Sixties construction. Thus the foreign-accented professor who was teaching Physics 101 to pocket-protected future employees of Dow Chemical seemed to have a constant problem with the volume of my presentation ... this probably had something to do with me piping my turntable through a Fender Bassman amp with two 12-inch speakers. I was a bass player at the time and couldn't afford a stereo ... twenty-five years later I read in my alumni newsletter of someone recalling the sound of Cream's Sunshine of Your Love blasting out of the very dormitory where I lived ... hey, that was me, dude, I had to practise.
Of course I got an A on the thing, mostly for having I think the guts to do something so bizarre, and marching out the proper big words and literary associations and whatnot. Alicia had two sort of I think interesting attitudes in response ... one, she was struck by the 'harshness' of the sound ... now, granted, Robin put out some rather nasty sounds, but PH as a whole was pretty mellifluous relative to a lot of the other rock around. Must have been that beatnik background, bongos and automatic writing and all that stuff.
The other thing she noted in both my presentation and the Mose Allison one was the pessimism, realism, cynicism, ... whatever you want to call it ... lack of optimistic naiveté and belief in whatever. I guess she must have really liked the flower-children period, and had hoped that somehow this generation would be able to do something impossible like change human nature and repair the world. But this was after Altamont, Hendrix and Joplin dead, the murders at Kent State and so many years of futile resistance to the war in Vietnam. To me and many others, by this time, the dark predilections of Keith Reid seemed to be more in tune with what was actually happening than the perhaps sincere but certainly unrealistic views from the last few remaining hippies in the Joni Mitchell / CSNY mode.
Other tunes I recall discussing the lyrics to include Nothing That I Didn't Know and The Dead Man's Dream. To someone who was 12 when the schoolgirls were crying at recess during the Cuban Missile Crisis while waiting for the clouds to turn mushroom, who had practised hiding under his desk in first grade in preparation for global thermo-nuclear warfare, and seen his contemporaries die at an early age both at home and away in pursuit of whatever the American establishment was chasing in Vietnam ... death was something all too real that could happen to anyone at any time. Worse, it was random and arbitrary, meaningless, as best exemplified by that wonderful lottery they held: the beautiful irony of basing it on one's date of birth.
Something about the 'sweetness of melancholy' in Keith's lyrics and Gary / Matthew's music seemed to deal with that and resolve it in some way as something you had to cope with, but were better able to deal with once it was accurately described ... Peter Handke has written better than I and at great length about this subject.
Somewhat bizarre in a Kafkaesque hunger-artist sense is the notion of dealing with such matters poetically, and then packaging the result as a form of 'entertainment' in competition with the mindless oral fixations of the Sugar Sugar, Yummy Yummy Yummy, and Chewy Chewy songs of the world. We – 'my generation' – were certainly weird at times, inefficient, unrealistic, whatever you want to call it. But certainly a major part of our problem / attitude was the unremitting, totally-unacknowledged weirdness of the standard consensus reality we were expected to accept, and even give our lives for, just on some greybeard loon's say-so.
Greg Panfile, author of the above, has been published in various publications including Beatlefan, Excitations, Off the Beatle Track, and the 910 Magazine. Some of his essays are available here; 'Beyond the Pale' briefly reviews his albums Resolution and Inferno; he writes about meeting Procol Harum here.