Procol Harum

the Pale 

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From Gary Brooker's funeral, 23 March 2022

The BtP team speak of Gary's remarkable relationship with the fans

The funeral of Gary Brooker MBE was a private affair, taking place at Guildford Crematorium on 23 March 2022 at 12.45 pm. In addition to many friends and colleagues
from different spheres of Gary's life, Geoff Whitehorn and Josh Phillips paid tribute on behalf of Procol Harum, and Jens and Roland, who run 'Beyond the Pale',
spoke – at Franky Brooker's request – about Gary's remarkable relationship with the Procol fanbase.

Roland Clare
My name is Roland, and this is my friend Jens from Norway: for 25 years we’ve been running, ‘Beyond the Pale’, boy and man, night and day, a labour of love. And that word, ‘love’, is the key to this brief talk about the relationship between Gary and his fans since 1967, when Procol Harum first entered our lives.

Jens Anders Ravnaas
At present our website is running a daily feature where fans describe their interactions with Gary. Personal reactions, from many different countries, yet they’re amazingly universal: how he was down-to-earth, friendly, funny, radiating confidence and humility at the same time. As somebody wrote, ‘He talked to me like I meant something.’

R: So many fans exactly remember the moment they first heard Gary singing … half a century seems as clear as yesterday. Time played interesting tricks where GB was concerned. Some fans treat the early Procol records – which never mention ‘Summer’ or ‘Love’ – as portals, back to their carefree youth. For others, his singing merges past and present, youth and wisdom. And on stage – with fellow musicians of whatever era – the old and new songs coexist, reflecting the same timeless musicality.

J: Gary believed every concert should be better than the last, and it’s a promise he kept. It was Covid that deleted Procol’s last sixty gigs, not the Commander. Gary himself scarcely cancelled a show: his long career was driven by a strong duty of care for his public. Procol had a paper Fanclub in London from day one, and local equivalents followed, in other countries. But ‘Beyond the Pale’ harnessed the world-wide web, and our crowd-sourced pages – eight thousand of them – demonstrate how a whole planet of fans responded to Gary’s legendary loyalty.

R: Gary was a late adopter of the Internet, initially a bit sceptical about the online community: ‘Isn’t it just the same fifteen people over and over again?’. (In fact, the day we announced Gary's death, BtP received over 100,000 page-views). And once we started running conventions the truth was plain to see: ‘the United Nations of Procol Harum’, with Gary’s music as their common language, would cross continents to enjoy physical gatherings, meeting the band and particularly getting to talk with Franky.

J: Many of these fans could play instruments, and we naturally started trying to recreate Procol’s music, like football fans, gathering for a kick-around during the World Cup. To date, players from thirteen nations have performed over a hundred songs from the Brooker repertoire at major parties in nine countries. The venues were listed on a tee-shirt we gave him once: ‘I’ve been to all your gigs,’ he declared in mock-surprise.

R: Imagine the camaraderie we all shared, wrestling with Brooker’s insane chord-progressions and rhythmical surprises. Unlike Prog rock, which puts the spotlight on complexity, Gary's writing often conceals the most delicious details. Those sessions spawned many significant friendships, sadly destined to outlive the man who catalysed them.

J: We talk about those gatherings as ‘old friends meeting for the first time’. But our first time playing, we didn’t realise Gary was in the corridor outside, tears in his eyes as he heard how deeply his influence had touched other lives. And over many years he got drawn in, generously sharing the stage with the amateurs, often giving performances of songs the proper Procol had never tackled live.

R: One of Gary’s tricks was to remain self-effacing, while simultaneously enjoying the adulation. Of course he realised how much his musical participation meant to fans, whether it was whispering ‘very nice’ behind your back,  or seeking you out next morning to discuss that recurrent wrong note in a particular bassline. He also recognised that our efforts were, in a pale sense, equivalent to his own amazing side-band, No Stiletto Shoes: a celebration of the formative music of his own youth, which is probably where his musical heart lay.

J: But he was really not a backward-looking man. Fans recorded six physical CDs, packed with new arrangements of his songs – sometimes almost too radical to recognise! – and Gary loved them. ‘Stuffed with gems,’ he wrote. ‘Compulsive listening’. But all these clever ‘covers’ highlight one simple fact: nothing on earth comes close to the magic of the Brooker voice itself.

R: That voice tackled some pretty strange lyrics, such as ‘some Arabian oilwell impersonates a padded cell’. Yet Gary sounds so soulful, even when there’s no human emotion or universal truth there to express. Rather, he’s sharing something about himself: his ability to find meaning in the random or bizarre, to take the absurd very seriously. Perhaps that’s the quality the world’s Procoholics have found so addictive?

J: The emotional effect of Gary’s performances can be overwhelming. But for hardcore fans, the Procol experience also includes his banter between songs, his mysterious remarks in the autograph queue, and far-reaching conversations in the bar afterwards. His stamina was amazing.

R: His onstage patter could be confusing to international audiences, given his unpredictable flights of surreal fancy. His carefully-researched references to local history and geography sometimes bordered on tactless: ‘We British always get on well with you Danes. Specially now you've stopped invading us’. His fluent French – ‘Les nuits qu’on passe à l’Hotel Grand’ – might charm a Paris audience, but in Berlin his guesswork – ‘Der Nacht ein kippen im Hotel Grossen’ – was probably less convincing.

J: How many times, in his long career, did he linger at the stage door, signing his name for the faithful, with his favourite-coloured Sharpies? And when they looked at that CD afterwards, they might find a little message in Latin, or a made-up Bible-reference, all signs of Gary’s attention to detail and his appetite for fun.

R: Then, back in the hotel bar, with a smaller posse, it was never possible to thank Gary; he instinctively deflected praise. He seemed to feel that his voice – his greatness – emanated from somewhere else, the same way his finest compositions supposedly ‘fell from heaven’. His natural mode in this late-night milieu was stories, eccentric, impossible, endless … a jukebox of anecdotes playing simultaneously in his head, recalling everything he’d ever heard, everyone he’d ever met.

J: Then finally, one-to-one, in the wee small hours, you’d discover how his feeling for fans went far beyond these things. ‘Yes, Procol will record All This and More with a special verse for that fan and her cancer treatment’. ‘Yes, I’ll send orchestral parts to that Head teacher for his students' concert’. Such gestures were never mechanical, or sentimental … just heartfelt. ‘How’s your daughter?’ ‘Your brother’s OK?’ He sent Roland a personalised pre-release of Procol’s final single, Missing Persons (Alive Forever), when his wife Linda died. Many fans and families could report similar tales of kindness. Specially end-of-life kindness.

R: And now … you always knew this day would come. Into a great tree a small worm did go. Gary – ‘the only one’ – becomes ‘one who I am with no more’, and the man of a thousand stories himself passes into the world of memory. Nous tenons à remercier Madame Françoise de nous avoir invités à prononcer ce petit discours, et d'avoir si fréquemment partagé son remarquable mari avec son public lors de ses longues tournées. We salute our dear friend Gary now as he leaves us to join up with history: history on which he made an indelible mark during his lifetime, a mark that legions of fans will cherish for the duration of our own.

Gary Brooker's page at 'Beyond the Pale' | Official obituary page | Funeral index | More features at BtP

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