Procol Harum

the Pale

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AWSoP and psychedelics

Breck Breckenridge

Breck Breckenridge writes to BtP:

I am writing tonight to contribute some small, but rather divergent, opinion on what A Whiter Shade of Pale's words "mean". I should say I think I know what they are about. Having read others' ideas, as presented on the website, I find none remotely near what I've always thought Keith was about.

If (and that's a big if), If Keith Reid never did LSD or some other psychedelic substance back then I'd be very, very surprised. And I'd also have my whole premise squashed rather quickly! Because here is what I think....

One has to have been alive and somewhere beyond childhood in the mid- to late-1960s in order to realize just how much of the "Youth Culture" of that time was caught up in the whole Psychedelic Movement. Further one would have had to be a "hippie" as well to be a part of that whole milieu. It is inconceivable to me that Keith and the others were not a part of this self-same culture (heck they were in London, for God's sake!). One of the chief aspects of Procol Harum which drew me and my circle of seekers to them was how their music and lyrics affected us when we were tripping.

Surely, it cannot have been coincidence that so many of Keith's words and word images had, for want of a better word, a psychological effect upon us.

It must also be realized that back then many of the drug-taking hippies were not doing so for fun. They were approaching the psychedelic drugs in the serious manner of Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Aldous Huxley, ie using these mind-expanding chemicals in the hope of becoming in some way "enlightened". We sought to eliminate our egos long enough to see a deeper Reality, and any means that was effective in such endeavors was to be sought and used. Such was listening to Procol Harum.

I believe that A Whiter Shade of Pale is not about being drunk, as one writer posits. It is about being very, very stoned on some psychedelic, probably "acid" (LSD). I would in particular draw your attention to the first stanza, "We skipped a light fandango...". I don't believe the word 'fandango' has any particular reference to something Spanish, etc. It was just a handy word to use to describe how at first a psychedelic experience is kind of cool and exhilarating. But soon it isn't quite so easy! One starts feeling a bit "seasick" (nauseous, a common occurrence in the initial stages). 'But I'll be damned, the crowd wants MORE!', which is precisely what the fellow doesn't want! "The room was humming harder as the ceiling flew away", is one of the better ways I've heard to describe some of the sensations of a trip in progress. Walls and ceilings are especially likely to do weird things during the heavy hallucinating parts of a trip. The clincher in this stanza is the last verse, "When we called out for another drink, the waiter brought a tray". Again it is as if all we wanted was just a little bit of experience and instead what we get is a deluge. One can't control the trip; it controls you.

Concerning her face being at first ghostly, this simply means that others around you look pretty odd sometimes, not quite substantive sometimes, but just when you think that's all that's going to happen, the trip takes off again and now her face turns not just ghostly, but a "whiter shade of pale".

Women have always figured prominently in Keith's words, usually in the role of some psycho-therapeutic agent, challenging us men to "get it together" (see also She Wandered Through the Garden Fence!). Here 'She' says don't try and reason all this out, the Truth (the Reality we are seeking beyond reason and the ego) is "plain to see" right here, right now. But does he heed her? Oh no, off he goes again wandering through "playing cards" (it's a game right?). And that game doesn't let women like her be the agents of a man's come-uppance, his psychological maturing. As far as all this is concerned, his eyes "might as well've been closed".

At this point in the song words, the original recording ends. I never knew of the next two stanzas until I saw them printed on the website. But it seems to me that in no way do they alter or negate my hypothesis/analysis. (You will no doubt have noticed Keith's emphasis upon the word "straight" in the last two stanzas. Straight used to mean that one did not do drugs, rather than that one is not homosexual!).

So, that my friends, are my thoughts; the "thoughts I've brought along" these many years since 1967-68. Oddly I've found few if any souls on the Internet who share them. Which was a great surprise to me. Well, maybe that's because I'm wrong. But, there is also always the chance that the one in the minority is the one who is right after all.

Keith could settle my thesis quick enough, but I thought, 'Gosh, from what I've read he and Gary both have made such a protest that it all means nothing in particular that I figured I wouldn't get anything out of Keith anyway'. One of the hallmarks of Keith Reid's work is its undeniable ambiguity!

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