It was a long winter, as cold and snowy as I remember. You cannot live in Canada, however, by choice – your own choice – and complain about winter. It would be like staying back home in Scotland and moaning about the rain: not much point to that piper’s tune. The best way to deal with Canadian winters is to do something about getting out of them, however fleetingly. That’s what I was able to do.
My work at Queen’s University, fortunately, calls for me to spend time in Spain and in Latin America, where I research and write about the conquistador legacy Procol Harum sing about in one of their most memorable songs. Spending part of February in Seville and part of March in Guatemala certainly helped take the bite out of winter in Canada. The warmth felt good and all the while the glare of the sun most welcome. Occasionally I’d find a cybercafé and go online, a habitual fix being 'Beyond the Pale', the website dedicated to the appreciation and enjoyment of Procol Harum (www.procolharum.com). There I’d learn about my fellow travellers, both the band whose music sustains me and the family of fans who, like me, follow Procol Harum (whenever circumstances permit) to wherever a live performance is scheduled. As I surfed through our diet of news my delight at being in warmer climes was tempered by the knowledge that where I was in early 2003 did not coincide with the feast of gigs arranged to showcase the release of Procol Harum’s twelfth album, The Well’s On Fire. I drooled and grew frustrated when I read about the tour planned for northern Europe, beyond the pale even for an itinerant geographer (and Procol pilgrim) like myself: this world is rich, but not always is it mine. Then came the announcement that the band would play a suite of venues in North America between May 3 and May 11, shortly after my return to Canada. The signpost began to sign. I looked at the calendar, rejigged my work load, and lined up six shows in eight days, a week before my birthday. What a treat!
Le Spectrum, Montreal (May 3, 2003)
The limestone city of Kingston, my home base in Canada, lies on the northern shores of Lake Ontario, near the point at which the waters of the Great Lakes become the St. Lawrence River and flow past the Thousand Islands. It’s a three-hour ride to Montreal, beautiful to drive in any season if you take the old road that hugs the St. Lawrence. Best to avoid the modern highway, choked up with cars most all of the time, enough to give anyone the blues. My partner, Maureen, came on this leg of the pilgrimage with me, her inaugural Procol Harum outing, my sixteenth through twenty-first. On the afternoon of the concert we ate lunch en route to Montreal by the river’s edge, contemplating the scene. With the ice finally melted, and the sun of a cloudless sky upon it, the St. Lawrence was a bright jewel glittering with the return of ducks, geese, and gulls, the trees along its shores starting to turn green. Spring in the air, no mortal place at all.
Our grand hotel, L’Institut, lay in the heart of town a pleasant stroll from Le Spectrum, one of Montreal’s musical landmarks. Seeing the name "Procol Harum" displayed on high made me smile and remember fondly, marvelling at how two words could encompass and mean so much. Le Spectrum’s doors had already opened. Inside the foyer, below a flight of stairs, Al ‘One-Eye’ Edelist welcomed me, as he would at the three subsequent locations I would get to on the tour. Avid Al planned to help out with merchandise and set up shop with Procol Harum at all six of the venues the band would play, catching every performance but one. As I was introducing Maureen to Al, up strolled Salvador Ortiz, who’d flown in from Mexico City.
"Salvador," I joked. "I beat you. I flew all the way from Guatemala to be here!" He conceded the point. "You’re right. Guatemala’s even farther away than Mexico."
Al, in actual fact, by jetting across the continent from Los Angeles, had travelled a greater distance than either Salvador or me, and would journey longer. That’s dedication.
Le Spectrum was a superb venue for Procol Harum to start the tour. Hats off to manager, Chris Cooke, for securing that one and only Canadian venue and to band personnel (Graham, John, Jules, and Tony) for looking after sound, light, staging, and other technicalities. While a club atmosphere prevails – bars off to the side, tables and chairs arranged in front of the stage – Le Spectrum’s ample space makes for fine acoustics.
We found ourselves a spot about twenty yards from the stage and introduced ourselves to fellow fifty-somethings Nancy, Serge, and Raymond. Maureen was amused to be in a public setting where those around us were predominantly our age. With more than an hour to go before show time, we asked our Quebec companions to save our seats while we grabbed a bite to eat. No sooner were we outside on Rue Ste. Catherine when we bumped into three men with a similar mission – band members Matthew Fisher, Mark Brzezicki, and Matt Pegg. They recognized me from previous engagements, confirmed by the T-shirt I was wearing, on which the cover of the band’s eponymous first album stood out in black and white splendour, true living colours.
"Welcome to Canada!" I burst out, echoing the salutation I’d written on a card addressed to all five playing members of the band, which Mark kindly offered to share with Geoff Whitehorn and deliver to Gary Brooker. We exchanged pleasantries. Maureen was struck by the spontaneity of the moment, how natural it all felt. When I inquired after the two Gs, Matt replied "Oh, they’ll be along." Gary, it turned out, had gone off on a spending spree earlier in the day, unable to resist purchasing some flashy item of footwear. The Commander’s new shoes, I hoped, might inspire the band to play The Emperor’s New Clothes, my favourite song from The Well’s On Fire, a vintage number among the very best of an already accomplished oeuvre.
"That’s Procol Harum." I said to Maureen. "Half of them at any rate. Three out of six." I made sure to include in the tally that weaver of words, Keith Reid, some of whose finest lyrics adorn and charge The Well’s On Fire.
We were back in our seats by eight o’clock. Procol Harum took to the stage shortly thereafter, to a tumultuous welcome. No spoken formalities, simply a nod to the audience followed by a couple of gestures between themselves. Then blast off.
I love it best not knowing what to expect, especially since the band has a repertoire of well over a hundred songs to draw from. I anticipated a mix of old and new, and was not disappointed. For me, however, nothing compares with the thrill of hearing a song I know from an album played live for the first time.
The opening three chords were all I needed. The VIP Room, I whispered to Maureen, "My first time live." She patted my leg and shook her head, wondering how on earth she ended up in a relationship with a fifty-one, soon-to-be fifty-two-year-old groupie. Be kind, the look I gave her pleaded, and humour me.
"If I’m gonna die ..."
Right away I could tell that Gary was in assertive, full-throated voice. He hadn’t been when last I heard Procol play, a year or so earlier at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, England, where he confessed an ailment had him toiling. A gig in Newcastle the night before, in fact, had been mysteriously cancelled, much to the bewilderment of myself and countless others who had made the journey.
"Wanna die in the VIP room."
Good as gold. No overload, no shadows for Gary’s voice to box on this occasion.
After the applause died down, Gary thanked the audience, in French, for being there. His command of the language was impressive and went over well, not least because he resorted to it throughout the evening and thus struck a responsive chord among Quebeçois listeners sensitive to Canada’s "language issue." It wasn’t an issue for Gary, though at one time he quipped: "Matthew seems to fall asleep every time I speak French."
After The VIP Room came Pandora’s Box and Robe of Silk, followed by Maureen’s favourite, Grand Hotel, played with Argentinian tango rhythms in the orchestral middle section. I wondered what other cultural influences his cameo appearance in Evita had exposed Gary to. Or did that Latin American improvisation stem from watching (and listening to) Come Dancing, a programme broadcast on British television Monday evenings in the sixties?
The Wall Street Blues preceded Homburg, which Gary introduced as having "one of Procol Harum’s classic opening lines," further evidence of his awareness of the language issue in Quebec and how a multilingual business friend might fix it. The audience loved it, as they did Robert’s Box and Fellow Travellers. An up-tempo As Strong As Samson, which allowed Gary a perfect opportunity to reflect on plus ça change, took us to the interval.
There was ample time to step outside for a breath of fresh air. Problem was, you couldn’t find any. Though wafts of weed, inside, meant there was trouble in the air, venues like Le Spectrum are now officially smoke-free, the result of a recent by-law being passed. Smokers clogged the club entranceway, so Maureen and I went for a coffee at a nearby Second Cup. I lost count, coming and going, of the number of people who asked about my T-shirt, especially where they could buy one just like it. I refused several offers to sell it, and directed all acquisition inquiries to Al.
Meanwhile, in preparation for the second set, Geoff had changed garb, replacing the T-shirt he wore during the first set with one emblazoned with the message 'Success Means Never Having To Wear A Suit'. Decidedly suitless, and with manifest success, he riffed straight into Simple Sister, after which came Shadow Boxed, with its mesmerizing split-second finish, the whole band as tight and compact as Mark’s drums, freezing statuesque still at the end.
Up to that juncture I’d heard five songs played lived for the first time, all of them from The Well’s On Fire. Four more numbers from the new compact disc were to follow. But right after Shadow Boxed something magic happened, which (as a Scottish immigrant to Canada) still has me reeling (pardon the pun).
Gary’s skills as a francophone ranconteur par excellence by now were well-honed. His easy repartee was the stuff of a consummate communicator. He went even further, however, by linking what he had to say about the song coming up next to Canadian geography, invoking Newfoundland and the Maritimes in the aftermath of a shipwreck during which vast quantities of whisky were washed ashore with a sole, surviving Scotsman.
"I forget the date," Gary mused. "1712? Maybe George Lovell can tell us."
I could hardly believe my ears. Acknowledgment of the card I’d written, of my mere presence, gave way to the thunderous opening airs of The Piper’s Tune, yet another 'first-time-live' experience for me. It was a glimpse of Nivana, right up there with a handful of other Procol epiphanies.
The Commander rolled on. A speaking toy doll, identified as Eminem, with Gary’s assistance playfully introduced So Far Behind. The mood turned solemn and somber in The Blink of an Eye, Keith’s meditation on the events surrounding 11 September 2001. "Pillars of dust blocked out the sun, all that the people could do was run." A reflective pause led to Beyond the Pale, delivered with thanks to Webmasters Jens and Roland, followed by (for me at any rate) a rare rendition of the sad and haunting For Liquorice John. Keith’s adaptation of WH Auden’s Refugee Blues, the poignant An Old English Dream, set things up nicely for Weisselklenzenacht, a Fisher instrumental (Opus 2 according to Gary) in the monumental mode of Repent Walpurgis, his legendary Opus 1. The crowd went wild, which I understand was a common reaction when the piece was played during the European tour earlier in the year. Matthew’s signature Hammond delivery in turn paved the way for a rousing version of Conquistador, which shook Salvador to his animated Mexican roots.
Exit the stage? Not likely! Calling out for more, a clamourous crowd brought Procol Harum back for two encores. We were treated to A Salty Dog and A Whiter Shade of Pale, a grand finale to the end of the evening.
"What a show!" Serge declared. He should know, having witnessed (so he informed me) such musical milestones as Jimi Hendrix opening for Cream. Montreal in the sixties must have been quite an experience. I thought wistfully of my brother, Douglas: born at the right time, but in the wrong place. What he’d have given to hear Jimi Hendrix open for Cream!
"I first heard Procol Harum play here during Expo 67," Serge continued. "I’m telling you, man, they sound even better now."
A contemporary of Serge’s, whose companion was half his age, wholeheartedly agreed. " I hear them now perhaps seven or eight times, always when they play Montreal." His girlfriend was ecstatic. As with Maureen, it was her first live performance too.
"I’m so happy this cradle robber brought me!" the babe glowed. The cat with the cream smiled back.
Adieu. Je me souviens. Le Spectrum had staged a terrific evening, something I hope will be repeated , especially given the synergy between band and audience. Close to midnight, Maureen and I found a chic little café adjacent to our hotel. We drank fine wine and ate delicious cheese, not rare meats. Silken sheets then beckoned.
The following morning broke gloriously warm and sunny. Procol Harum had ushered in spring, and Montreal was a great place to enjoy it. Streets lately deserted buzzed into life. Winter clothes were discarded, flesh exposed. Attitudes and relationships shifted. After breakfast we climbed Mont Royal and looked down at the fair city below, ten thousand souls and so many more. Maureen took the train back to Kingston and I drove to Vermont. There I spent Sunday night, waking early on Monday to put in a shift working on a journal I help edit, the Spanish-language Mesoamérica (www.plumsock.org). Our next issue commemorates the founding of the Republic of Panama, a country that came into being in 1903 but whose antecedents lie, broken and torn, in the tortuous history of the Spanish Main, a Pandora’s Box of treasure for some, tragedy for others. Mid-afternoon I headed off in search of my own Holy Grail, which I found that night in the House of Blues in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
House of Blues, Cambridge (May 5, 2003)
The farther south I headed, the more evident was the advent of spring. By the time I reached Boston the season was in full bloom, the banks of the Charles River lined by blossoming trees and beds of flowers. Parking was a bit of a problem until I found myself, appropriately, alongside the river on Memorial Drive. Messrs Trower and Reid eased me into a comfortable spot. Changing quickly into my first-album T-shirt, I walked the short distance to Harvard Sqare, off of which, on Winthrop Street, lies the House of Blues.
The original establishment of an initiative that spawned several other Houses of Blues across the United States, the Cambridge mother house is precisely that – a house that has been remodelled with music in mind. An elevated porch entrance leads to the main-level eating area, the basement below serving a similar function, with a tiny box office tucked under the stairs. The upper level incorporates attic or loft space at the far end of which lies a small stage, little more that a platform a step above an open area where listeners congregate, the bar off to one side. Cosy and intimate, no other way to describe it.
The band and personnel were still setting things up when I arrived. I greeted Al and got permission from two House of Blues staffers to approach the stage. Gary had his back to me, and I couldn’t resist.
"Bonsoir, Monsieur Brooker. Your French really is pretty good, you know." He turned and grinned.
"My Jock’s not bad either!" he shot back. It was my turn to grin. I left him to his final preparations, with a couple of hours or so left until show time.
Acoustically, to my ears at any rate, the House of Blues was a far cry from Le Spectrum, but the close proximity of band and audience – the front rank of fans were only a few feet away from their idols – was ample compensation. The Cambridge crowd took full advantage of this situation to be considerably more vocal than their Montreal counterparts, calling out for their favourite numbers, as well as their favourite drinks, and engaging in constant verbal exchanges with Gary. It made for a very entertaining evening.
With a handful of exceptions, the two sets of songs conformed in order and content to those performed at Montreal. In the first set, Fires (Which Burnt Brightly) replaced Grand Hotel, preceded by an impromptu Glimpses of Nirvana, spoken up to and including the line "so the Dalai Lama smiled and said ..." in response to a shouted request.
"We haven’t played either of these for a while," Gary conceded as the applause died down. Life is like a beanstalk, isn’t it? In the second set I heard This World Is Rich played live for the first time, which I relished. Shine On Brightly was delivered in response to another shouted request and Piggy Pig Pig" was threaded in. During the latter Al and I exchanged glances, most approvingly, at Geoff’s guitar prowess, as we did also during An Old English Dream. Brother Douglas had written, in his birthday letter to me, penned after he’d listened to The Well’s On Fire, "Big Geoff, he’s got Procol in his veins." He certainly has, as well as a knack for choosing exemplary T-shirts. His 'Success Means Never Having to Wear A Suit' he wore during both sets at the House of Blues, as opposed to only during the second set at Le Spectrum. Perhaps being really successful, I pondered, means never having to change or wash your T-shirt.
After the show, which closed with an encore of A Whiter Shade of Pale, I had the opportunity to speak with Geoff one-on-one by the bar.
"Geoff," I said, "this is terrific stuff the band’s playing. Everyone seems into it, and enjoying themselves. It’s so good to see and to hear. I’m very pleased for you all. And Gary in particular looks like he’s having a ball."
"He is, George, he is," replied Geoff, beer in one hand, cigarette in the other. "This is what he wants to be remembered for. Procol Harum. All the other jobs he does he likes. But the music of Procol Harum, that’s Gary." Geoff’s direct, affirmative disclosure means a lot to me, as it will to any fan of the band, for it implies that the Procol picture is far from closed, that still there’ll be more.
It was heartening to see how genial and approachable Geoff was, an attitude shared by his colleagues. Gary and Matthew signed old vinyl album covers without any hint of boredom or lost cause, and Matt and Mark mixed and chatted freely. I’d met up with a bunch of guys I first met when Procol Harum played the Paradise Club in Boston back in 1992: Bill McAbee, his buddy Mike Savage, Dave and Mike who’d driven up to the gig from Cape Cod, where we also heard the band play in 1995. Wilson Brown, John Nourse, their fellow musician Kenneth – they had quite a blast, getting me to take their photo with good-humoured Mark. As I paid my bar bill, I struck up a conversation with a young woman in her early twenties.
"Wait till my Mom and Dad hear about this! Dad would put on their music when I was a little girl, and Mom and I would dance to it. I’m gonna call them tonight! They’ll be sorry they couldn’t be here with me." She was all smiles. It gave me a kick to see her so happy.
As the crowd petered out, Gary made his way over to me.
"Thanks for the card, George. Exotic birds indeed."
The card I’d written up in Montreal, welcoming the band to North America, was actually from Central America, and had an image of two resplendent quetzals, beautiful tropical specimens that are the national emblem of Guatemala.
"I’m reading a book about Australia at the moment. Lots of exotic birds there. The card makes a perfect bookmark."
We were talking about the words to An Old English Dream when a couple drew near. Gary politely turned towards them.
"I’ve got something to show you, Gary," the man said. At first I thought he might be referring to his partner’s voluptuous breasts: spring was not the only thing bursting out all over in the Boston area. "Look," he said, handing Gary a photograph.
Gary did as the man instructed. The photograph was that of a dog, a dog with wrinkled, jowly, unbecoming face that only an owner could love. Gary look puzzled.
"Brooker," the man continued. "The dog’s called Brooker. I named him after you, Gary."
By this time Gary’s wife, Franky, had joined us, curious about what was going on. The look Gary gave her said it all.
"Brooker," he repeated. "The dog’s called Brooker." Franky’s classy style allowed her to be both courteous and speechless at the same time.
"Every dog must have its name," I muttered.
Gary groaned. Franky did too. The owner, however, was evidently taken by the idea, oblivious to anything but the compliment he so earnestly wanted to pay.
"Lots of dogs are named after famous people," I consoled Gary." "George Orwell, for instance, called his dog Marx." Gary’s incredulity was not the least diminished by my revelation.
While all this tomfoolery was taking place, it was just another day at the office for Chris and the road crew, who were dismantling Procol’s equipment for loading and transit to the next gig, the following evening in Alexandria, Virginia. I wasn’t going to make that venue, but as I walked back to my car I remembered a nice touch from the House of Blues that correspondent Tom Frolichstein has commented on.
Half-way through the second set, The Blink of an Eye was played. I was leaning against Al’s merchandise countertop – I minded the store for him briefly during a bathroom break, and actually convinced someone to buy a copy of The Well’s On Fire – when I looked up and noticed the friezes of blues legends that grace the House of Blues ceiling. My state of contemplation deepened as I became aware of a sparkling disco ball revolving slowly above me, spinning in harmony with Gary’s music, rotating like the earth itself in tune with Keith’s lyrics, illuminated in the same cosmic way as the globes depicted on the cover of The Well’s On Fire. "We thought we were living on easy street." A lucky few were, indeed still are; the problem is that most are not. Other rugs will be pulled from under our feet. Catharsis and communion in the House of Blues.
Tuesday and Wednesday I spent in the Boston area, working on a book. To that end I made a trip to Providence, Rhode Island, where I visited the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, which has offered me a two-month fellowship to finish that book next year. "There’s nothing hidden anywhere, it’s all there to be sought": that inspiring line from Look to Your Soul is exactly how I feel about the research work I do. The classroom part of my job Keith also sums up nicely: "the lesson lies in learning, and by teaching I’ll be taught." A schoolboy and university student in Scotland. A professor of geography in Canada. Strange but true, Procol Harum links the two.
Thursday I drove to Albany, capital of the Empire State. I parked the car at the Amtrak station and boarded a train to New York. There was important business I had to get down to at the Bottom Line.
The Bottom Line (May 9, 2003)
"You the Scottish guy from Canada, the one that’s been in Central America?"
I nodded. My amigo from Argentina, Tito Davila, had picked me up a ticket for the late show that Procol Harum were to perform. Gaining entry to the early show, however, had meant a flurry of emails and telephone calls to the Bottom Line just prior to my departure for Guatemala.
"Come inside." I did as I was told. "Wait here."
I was in the heart of Greenwich Village. While several people deliberated upon my dream of a ticket, I looked around the interior of the Bottom Line. It was much more spacious than the House of Blues and about half the size of Le Spectrum. Almost empty when I first arrived, both shows would see the Bottom Line packed to the rafters on Friday night.
"Here. Take this. Thirty bucks."
The ticket handed to me was numbered 001. I smiled appreciatively and paid up.
New York being New York, it turned out that a dear friend of mine, the writer and translator Alastair Reid, was giving a talk at Poets House on Spring Street in Soho shortly before Procol Harum played the first of their two shows. Tito and Evan Wagshul secured a spot for me at their table, directly in front of Matthew’s majestic Hammond, slightly above eye level ten yards away. I walked leisurely down Mercer Street to Poets House. I had the pleasure of hearing Alastair tell how his travels, like mine, take him to Spain and to Latin America, how his passion for Hispanic lands and cultures exposed him to prose and poetry very different from the Anglo ilk, including the work of Jorge Luis Borges, his subject of discussion that evening. The six or seven blocks back to the Bottom Line I legged quickly, making connections along the way between the webs of Borges and the words of Keith Reid. Energies spent, in I went.
The Early Show
There was much speculation beforehand about what songs would be played. Many of us, myself included, wondered if the fact that most fans planned to stay put for both shows might result in two different set-lists, one long song for a dreamer. It wasn’t to be, but wish me well in hoping that a similar situation in the future might be resolved differently. For the most part, the agenda set in Montreal and Cambridge was adhered to, with one or two notable improvisations. A buzzing audience soaked it all up nonetheless.
Eighteen numbers were delivered during the early show, with no break taken half-way through. The playing was solid throughout. Gary was in fine form, linking Keith’s lyrics to changed and changing times. Remembering salad days spent in the grand hotels of Old Europe, the New World – New York especially – in Gary’s mind fell well short of the mark.
"They should be paying us to stay there," he declared, referring to the band’s accommodation, conjuring up a run-down facility in stark contrast to the opulence of Grand Hotel.
Geoff clawed himself in agreement. His itch, however, may have had nothing to do with where he was staying, for I noticed he was again sporting his "Success" T-shirt.
Two tracks from The Well’s On Fire had a direct Manhattan resonance, which Gary handled adroitly. He was at his playful best as he introduced The Wall Street Blues, lamenting lost pensions and fallen investments yet reminding us that, in Keith’s trenchant words, "they couldn’t have done it without your greed." The act of retribution evoked in The Blink of An Eye constitutes a somber piece of accounting, a message not lost on the hushed, attentive audience. Gary even managed to connect his preamble to Beyond the Pale with how The New Yorker had seen fit to describe Procol Harum – "the landmark British progressive psychedelic band" – in its May 12 issue. Not one to disappoint, Gary traced the song’s origins in a "trip" he had once taken with the late BJ Wilson when Procol Harum were playing in Norway. Four songs later, A Whiter Shade of Pale brought the first part of our trip in the Bottom Line to a close.
The Late Show
For the second half of the evening I accepted an invitation from Unsteady Freddie, a whirling dervish of show and tell whom I’d met at the Procol convention in Manchester in 2001, to join him and partner Shirley at a table immediately in front of the stage. Though we sat below eye-level looking up, we were barely fifteen feet from Gary’s piano and less than that from Geoff’s guitar. Mark was positioned behind Geoff, with Matt and Matthew to his left, our right, the spatial configuration for all the performances I heard. Le Spectrum, for my money, still had the better acoustics, but the proximity factor, much like the House of Blues, was irresistible.
As in the early show, and at Montreal, Cambridge, and two subsequent concerts, The VIP Room, Pandora’s Box, and A Robe of Silk got us going, an opening trinity that by now had the feel of familiarity to it. Then came a moment I had been waiting for. I did not catch Gary’s words exactly, but they ran something like "This is for someone out there who knows it’s for her." Any sense of enigma faded with the opening notes. Here it was at last: The Emperor’s New Clothes. I sat enthralled, hanging on to every timbre in every phrase he sang:
You promise the moon
And squander the earth
The only person you fool
is yourself ...
You throw us a bone
Then ask for it back
The only thing you own
You stole from our backs ....
The roll of Mark’s drums. The assurance of Matt’s bass. The pitch of Geoff’s guitar. Matthew’s organ complementing Gary’s piano, both keyboards striking at plaintive essence. That captivating voice and those brave words. I may have been down low on the seating front, but I hit a high, there and then, in the Bottom Line.
After Grand Hotel a voice in the audience called out for The Worm and the Tree. Then suggestions as to what song to play next rained down from all over. Gary shrugged them off, maintaining his noble demeanor until Unsteady Freddie let rip with a cry of "Is it on, Tommy?" That line cracked Gary up, for it was unleashed as clear as yesterday.
"I got him," said Unsteady Freddie. "I got him." Shirley and I both agreed he had.
Beside us, in the very front row, sat a father and son who’d come all the way from Italy, Stefano and Andrea Ciccioriccio. Stefano scribbled notes of what songs were played. Young Andrea sang along to The Blink of an Eye and An Old English Dream, but dozed through other songs as the wee small hours fast approached.
In truth, as midnight came and went, the band themselves looked justifiably tired. Taking their cue from a stunning rendition of Shine On Brightly, however, they soldiered on through seventeen numbers, even throwing in an alternative stanza to A Whiter Shade of Pale. Gary had once written the words down for me, penned on the inner sleeve of my treasured copy of the first album, which he and Keith both autographed after a concert in Stowe, Vermont in 1993:
She said I’m home on shore-leave,
Though in truth we were at sea.
So I took her by the looking glass
And forced her to agree,
Saying "You must be the mermaid
That took Neptune for a ride."
She smiled at me so sadly
That my anger straightaway died.
After the show was over, I hung out by the bar for a while, not wanting to break the spell of having heard thirty-five songs played live by Procol Harum in the course of an evening. I chatted with Kaleidoscope Ken Stasion and a handful of other fans I knew. When, finally, I exited the Bottom Line, lots of people were still milling around. Standing at the junction of Mercer and West fourth Street, I noticed Chris Cooke, manager turned minder, lead Gary, Franky, and Keith through the throng and along Fourth Street towards Broadway.
After he had ensured their privacy, Chris returned to the Bottom Line to wind things down and prepare for the next gig in Huntington, Long Island. Gary, Franky, and Keith were swallowed up by the New York night. I wandered off to where I was staying.
Saturday morning, trying hard to force the pace, I walked all over Greenwich Village. At a shop on Hudson Street called The End of History, I bought an Encyclopaedia Britannica globe made in the 1960s, on which the continents and islands of Planet Earth are surrounded by seas and oceans coloured black. One boyhood Christmas decades ago in Glasgow, my mother had given me a globe just like it, the beginning of geography, a gift like no other, one only she knew how to make. Thinking nostalgically of home, I ate lunch in a restaurant on Cornelia Street which went by precisely that name, 'Home'. Portents of Procol Harum were everywhere, but nowhere more palpable than when I made my way to Ground Zero later that afternoon. It was a decidedly unquiet zone, right out of Procol’s Ninth:
They hunt us down like carrion crows,
They search us out like frightened moles.
This surely is an awful war,
An awful waste of guts and gore.
An awful waste of human life,
This senseless bloody bitter strife.
I was at Penn Station shortly after six, to catch the 6:39 train to Huntington.
IMAC Theatre, Huntington (May 10, 2003)
An hour or so east of New York City, Huntington is a Long Island town with much to be proud of, including a main street that people have looked after and cared for, epitomized by the IMAC (Inter-Media Art Center) theatre. When I called ahead to book my seat, the staff were friendly and helpful, amazed that someone would come from as far away as Canada to attend an IMAC concert. Their spirit of cooperation was a trademark of the place. I shared a taxi from the train station to downtown with Andrea and Stefano, and also a local resident who was so hospitable – "You Europeans do things with style, not like us Americans" – that he insisted on paying for our cab fare. While his gesture, not to mention his critical view of the US role in world affairs, we found endearing and refreshing, he would have been hard pressed to find a more tasteful restoration project than IMAC.
The theatre had been built and operated successfully during the golden age of cinema, but like so many former movie palaces had diversified of late in order to survive. While films are still shown on the silver screen, and the foyer functions as an art gallery, IMAC’s bread and butter is live performances of music. Procol Harum were described in the IMAC calendar as having "built a body of work that ranks among the thoroughbreds of British rock." The concert, which was sold out weeks in advance, took place in what was acoustically the best space of the tour, a luxury for both band and audience.
The ten songs of the first half of the show conformed to the established pattern, with The Wall Street Blues (fifth on the play list) and Robert’s Box (eighth on the play list) especially well-delivered. A stunning version of Shine on Brightly took us to the interval, during which I walked across the street to the Oaxaca Restaurant, named after a southern state in Mexico. As I exited IMAC, the theatre’s sound system was playing a cut from Joni Mitchell’s Night Ride Home, in which she pointedly asks "Who’re you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?" Judging by the origins of the workers in the Oaxaca Restaurant, the answer is clear: a multitude of Latin American immigrants who are in the United States mostly illegally, whose cheap labour is a massive subsidy to the American way of life. "A constant reminder," I found myself singing as I re-entered IMAC, "the plight of our brother."
Though As Strong as Samson was not played during the second set, eleven other songs were, including Quite Rightly So. Dedicated on this occasion to Avid Al for services rendered – the Monocular One was to fly back to Los Angeles the next day – hearing Quite Rightly So played live for the first time ever was for me the musical highlight of the pilgrimage. The thirty-odd years I had to wait was more than worth it. I smiled with glee. The band was rocking, loving every minute of playing in such a conducive setting. From where I was seated, I could see Chris hopping with delight off stage behind Gary.
And so, believing that nothing could surpass the magic of that moment, imagine my surprise when we were bade farewell with an encore of not one, nor two, but three numbers – Whisky Train, A Whiter Shade of Pale, and Repent Walpurgis, Matthew’s Opus 1, fellow Procoholic Jeff Levine agreed with me, was a fitting climax to the evening.
With the strains of Repent Walpurgis ringing in my ears, I met up with Andrea and Stefano to take a cab back to the train station. Stefano handed me his business card.
"Call me whenever you come to Italy," he said. "In fact, just call me even if you are not. Be sure to ask my secretary to put you on hold before I pick up the telephone. The music you hear on hold is Repent Walpurgis.
Andrea dozed off again as the train sped back to New York, which is where Procol Harum returned to play the following evening.
The VIP Room
Before leaving for the coast, Al had asked me to cover for him by attending the sound check for the Sunday night show at the Bottom Line. Details of its contents, along with the set list of the gig itself, I was to relay to Al by telephone, in order for him to pass on to Roland and Jens at 'Beyond the Pale'. My only previous sound-check experience was at the Croydon concert in 2002, when I walked into the proceedings quite inadvertently as I made my way to the Palers' Fair. This was an entirely different proposition.
Chris commented later that sitting in on a Procol Harum sound-check is a privilege. It surely is. For an hour or so after 5:00 pm on a rainy Sunday afternoon, the Bottom Line was the VIP Room. I had the opportunity not only to observe preparations for the show but also to mingle with Gary, Keith, Geoff, Matt, and Matthew’s wife, Carol, without any of them making me feel I was a bother. Geoff undertook to have the playing members of the band autograph the cover of my CD booklet of The Well’s On Fire. I approached Keith myself. He chose to autograph the inside, most appropriately alongside the text of "The VIP Room." I complimented him on his enduring way with words. Matt inquired if there were any particular songs I’d like to hear played that evening. After thought I replied The Emperor’s New Clothes and Quite Rightly So. Matt responded with a knowing smile, the milk of human kindness.
My technical savvy of acoustic matters is limited, but it appeared to me that, having played in the Bottom Line twice on Friday evening, barely forty-eight hours before, the Procol staff responsible for sound control had things pretty well figured out in advance. Astute professionalism was the order of the day. When the band plugged in, there was minimal fine tuning before three numbers – Holding On, Whaling Stories, and TV Caesar – were played all the way through. Only one of the three, Whaling Stories, featured in the eventual play-list.
Just before the doors opened, the Bottom Line staff allowed me to pick a table to sit at during the show. I opted for the one that Unsteady Freddie had staked out on Friday, which I shared with Cindy and Don Milione, whom I’d first met while rambling on at the Palers' Convention in Manchester. Don brought us drinks and shared with me a "wish-list" of songs he said he’d love to hear performed. As it turned out, Don didn’t have long to wait for some of his wishes to come true.
The Bottom Line (May 11, 2003)
With Gary sporting a spiffy cap, and Geoff yet again decked out in his Success T-shirt, the first six numbers were identical to the Early Show on Friday, namely (in sequence) The VIP Room, Pandora’s Box, Robe of Silk, Grand Hotel, The Wall Street Blues, and Homburg. The mix then began to change with a stomping rendition of Bringing Home the Bacon followed by The Blink of an Eye. Much to the pleasure of the crowd, Whaling Stories navigated us expertly to the intermission, after which Simple Sister and Shadow Boxed got us back in the groove. Up next was another life-affirming version of Quite Rightly So, during which I noticed Franky moving rapturously to the music, her friend Beverly too. In Held Twas in I someone shouted out.
"If we do that," Gary replied, "we’ll miss the last 'bus home!"
Second thoughts nonetheless prevailed, for we were served at least one course from the full five, a singalong 'Twas Tea-Time At The Circus. It was one big party. While introducing Weisselklenzenacht, Gary informed us that Matthew’s Opus 2 had come about in part by Diane Rolph lobbying for a Fisher follow-up to Repent Walpurgis. My night was made when The Emperor’s New Clothes was played, after which Beyond the Pale, An Old English Dream, and A Salty Dog took us to the threshold of closure.
As in Huntington the night before, the encore constituted a thrilling trinity of Whisky Train, A Whiter Shade of Pale, and Repent Walpurgis. Gary drew our attention, in between songs, to how the date May 11 figures prominently in the Procol Harum calendar of life and death. On 11 May 1967, 36 years ago to the day, A Whiter Shade of Pale was first released as an epoch-defining single; and on 11 May 1977, exactly ten years later, Procol Harum (Chapter One) came to an end, without anyone who played in a final New York gig knowing that was it.
Procol Harum (Chapter Two), however, is a going concern. For me, the pleasure of hearing the band play live, especially in a club setting, is usually accompanied by the pain of thinking that I may never have the opportunity to do so again. I never felt that way during my Procol pilgrimage. A band as together as the present line-up, one that has been in place now for several years, is a working outfit with a working future.
Before taking their farewell bows, Geoff decided to imbue another May 11 with further import in the grand scheme of Procol Harum. The medium, they say, is the message. Geoff’s superb guitar work does most of his talking, but his T-shirts also have something to say. During the encore out came one we had never seen before, one whose Big Apple punch was rich and fruity. Gary did his best to block the words on Geoff’s T-shirt from the tender eyes of children whose parents had brought them along. Despite the Commander’s agile attempts at censorship, Geoff’s T-shirt won the day. "Fuck You, You Fuckin’ Fuck," it declared defiantly. There, for all whose eyes were open wide, was Gravesend’s way of saying goodbye to New York.
I didn’t linger long thereafter, as I had to call Al and get the set-list to him. I did, however, speak with Beverly and Franky as I was leaving.
"Too bad Sam Cameron wasn’t here," Beverly said. "He’d have loved it as much as we did."
Franky added. "You know, they could have been playing those songs just for you."
As if upon Olympus, I kissed them both goodnight. Cheek to cheek, the three of us were aglow from a fire that still burns brightly. All of the pleasure, and none of the pain, left the Bottom Line with me.
W. George Lovell teaches geography at Queen’s University in Canada. His six-part East Coast pilgrimage will spawn a two-part West Coast equivalent in July 2003: and he is the key-note speaker at the Palers' Festival in LA on 28 July
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