Garry Herzog writes to BtP (July 2003)
Some thoughts on the 'meaning' of the lyrics to A Whiter Shade of Pale:
First, let me make it clear that all I have to say on this 'conundrum' is based on my own affinity for the lyrics as a writer; it has nothing to do with scholarly research or the like. There are some poems by Eliot, and books by Joyce, that apparently one cannot understand as the author intended without multitudes of footnotes referring to other sources and texts; let's hope AWSoP is not of that ilk.
And, since my views are just that, my views, a word from Mr Keith Reid could throw them all in the bucket.
Anyway, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that there is too much attempt at analysis and dissection in some quarters. I don't think one takes in these lyrics by attempting to run down each reference to some concrete interpretation; rather, you 'get' the song by soaking in the whole.
We are operating in the field of suggestion here, not necessarily a literal narrative. It's the same field Lennon explores in I Am the Walrus and especially Strawberry Fields, and elsewhere to a less striking extent -- The Sun King, A Day in the Life. (We know Lennon really liked A Whiter Shade of Pale. And who doesn't? But for him as a songwriter, I'm sure he was knocked out by how suggestive the lyrics are, and elusive at the same time, as if you are hearing a familiar story, with familiar points of reference, but the whole thing has been spun a bit strangely so the effect is exotic. I'm sure he liked the song because he was mining these same fields as a writer, and I'm sure it influenced him.)
I have no doubt -- again, my opinion -- that Keith Reid is conveying something from real experience here. He may be embellishing it with a little imagination, but I think to the extent that there is a narrative lurking behind these lyrics, it is born of real experience. But he is filtering whatever he experienced and imagined through a deliberately dense lens, and imbuing the experience with extra layers of mystery, and romance, and even a sense of doom, of innocence lost. It is not the experience as it happened, but as he remembers it and interprets it and broods over it. There is irony in the way he relates the experience, and some regret. 'And although my eyes were open, they might just as well been closed,' or words to that effect.
It's the mood of the lyrics that has captivated so many for so long. And that mood relies on suggestion, not literally 'showing' us the experience, which might seem rather commonplace if laid bare in a straightforward, confessional way. By suggesting a story to us, rather than telling us a story (as Chaucer might), Mr Reid engages our imaginations into an active partnership in determining the 'meaning' of this song.
I'm a bit reminded of Hitchcock's advice about manipulating an audience to the edge of its seat: If you want to scare them, don't show them whatever they're afraid of graphically, because then their imaginations will cease to fill in the dark blank spaces on the canvas. Show them bits and pieces to suggest what they fear; don't show them the whole exposed. What they imagine is far scarier than anything the filmmaker can put on the screen. It's true, isn't it? Now, Mr Reid's intent in his AWSoP lyric is not to scare us, but it is to have an emotional effect on us. And the emotion is all the richer because we have to bring something to it; it is not all explained to us.
So, I suppose I would submit that Mr Reid does not intend us to 'know the meaning' of these lyrics in the conventional, literal sense. If he chose I'm sure he could explain exactly what he was thinking of when he wrote each line. But that would tell us only what he had in mind when he invented specific lines and turns of phrase to translate his experience and imagination into a poetic form; it would not tell us what the song 'means.' If he'd wanted to tell us this story in a straight narrative so we could 'understand' it, he certainly could have done so. He went another way.
And by the way, that's a very difficult feat of writing to pull off -- to suggest a story, so that we are enticed to follow along with interest, even fascination, without 'giving the game away.' It's quite a feat because if the lyric becomes too obscure, too divorced from what resembles a narrative, you will 'lose' the listener; the story will drift too far afield from experience to strike the listener as credible, and the listener will cease to care.
But, as is clear all these years later, people do care about this lyric (evoked and completed so beautifully by the music of GB MBE and Matthew Fisher), and I think they care because listening to this lyric requires an investment of their own imaginations. The song isn't slapped into their faces; they must reach out to touch it. I don't think it's about understanding, so much, as about trying to understand. It's a very rare accomplishment, and I wonder if even now, in 2003, Mr Reid fully appreciates what he's done?
Thanks for considering this.
New Jersey, USA
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