Saturday, June 12, 2010

"A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procul Harum (1967)

I'll never be a church-goer. I just don't have it in me. But I acknowledge that in shutting myself off from religious experience, there is an aspect to the appreciation of music that I also, if not quite shut myself off from, at least limit myself access to. I can listen to the best of gospel or sufi music and feel something real – but undoubtedly something less, or at least different to, what believers experience. Not quite ecstasy. Secular people have to find ecstacy somewhere else.

It's not quite ecstasy that this song offers. It's not quite the meditative trance or the reverent awe. It's a little bit of all three, though. Procul Harum's first recorded effort, the organ-and-gibberish epic “Whiter Shade of Pale” has nothing much to do with traditional religion. Nothing in popular music in the 1960s, or the 1950s or 1940s before it, did. It would still be a few years before Jesus started appearing in pop songs like “Spirit in the Sky” or “Put Your Hand in the Hand”, and this is just as secular as anything by the Beatles before it. The lyrics seem to have more to do with seasickness than anything found in a church. Yet, to me – this is what religion sounds like. Or rather religion at its best. If I had a religion, the halls of its holy houses would ring out with music like this. Lindsay Buckingham calls it 'classical soul music', and it's that too: a perfect mixture of European classical grace and American popular music feeling, thus in both cases reverting back, pincer-like, through European pipe-organ liturgies and African-American folk spirituals, to religious experiences anyway. The organ line is apparently cobbled together from various classical pieces anyway. It sounds like it. But it also sounds more than a little like the hazy confusion of the lyrics, it sounds like accessing only a tiny bit of something much greater but seing awed by it nonetheless. It sounds profound, it sounds knowledgeable. It sounds like greatness. Whatever else, it sounds indescribably beautiful. And ageless, too. Though you get the sense that it truly is from 1967, from the so-called 'Summer of Love' where people were otherwise convincing themselves that their-less-than-stellar musical efforts were in some way the pinnacle of art, this quiet and understated piece feels like it could fit in any era, really.

Or any dimension, too. I don't happen to believe in heaven, but I have no problems convincing myself that such a place would nonetheless be filled with music. And much of it would sound like this.

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