'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'
In this very workmanlike composition Robin Trower appears to share Gary Brooker's disinclination to use the dominant chord, sensing that harmonic momentum can be preserved by avoiding a perfect cadence: Memorial Drive drives itself on a modest palette of three chords, I,
IV and the (bluesily decorated) major II. It shares its B major key with Poor Mohammed, with which the same composer concludes the record, but is a much more complete-sounding number, not least in that its melody is much more developed, and is sung by Gary, who seems entirely at home with it – one wishes he had sung the other Trower compositions the band recorded (except, perhaps, the inimitable Song for a Dreamer).
This is one of the first batch of three songs recorded in December 1970 at the brand new AIR Studios in London; the master reel was compiled on 29 December 1970. It became a favoured opening number in the promotional setlists, and acquired a mystifying misnomer, Normie, when it appeared on a well-known bootleg, The Elusive Procol Harum, taken from the NY concert Procol played for US Radio station WPLJ on 4 April 1971: this set is much favoured by fans of BJ in particular, as he is on top form (mp3 here). It is the only Trower composition from Broken Barricades that was played live, and stage versions of it approximated closely to the record, though without electric piano, and they inevitably lacked some of the choice moments – listen to Gary's piano and hollering at 1:52! – that were achieved in the studio.
Unusually the song starts on the fourth beat of the bar, and it is full of invention throughout, featuring many cross-metres laid by piano and drums across the exceptional rhythm guitar playing of Robin Trower. The texture is muscular, but light, thanks to the innovative use of electric piano (though the break by Brooker is – as on About to Die, where he solos over Trower's rhythm – taken on acoustic piano). Gary's left-hand technique is extremely strong and many of his own songs rely heavily on 'composed' basslines which he often hammers out alongside the bass guitar; but here, where the R&B conception does not call for any particular bass-line, he uses the more transparent electric piano which allows the inventive Copping bass to shine through. BJ's fills are exceptional – those ending the first verse start two bars early, in conventional terms, and compile a series of five-note, three-beat fills over four bars, coming out into verse two with unrepeatable finesse. At the end of the song the tension builds over a sustained C sharp major chord, with minor third interpolations, while the rocking bass of Copping explores: it is very different from the ending of Poor Mohammed. Jostling triplety piano and straight-rocking guitar gradually come to a rhythmical accommodation, only to have their new accord disrupted by a subtle shift in the drumming pattern, followed by a neat little dubbed-in roll, and the definitively 'live-sounding' ending. Quite a lot of studio chat, unintelligible, remains on the track from about from 3.19 onwards: but it does no harm, and many would wish that all Chris Thomas's Procol productions had had the clarity this achieves. Memorial Drive carries forward the energy of Still There'll be More, and adds swing; it is the perfect evangelising song to play to critics who argue that Procol couldn't rock; and one need only compare it with the relatively leaden Mark of the Claw to observe what a marvel Brooker and Reid briefly had in the Trower / Wilson / Copping power-house.
'Robin … just expressed a desire to write and I wrote some lyrics for him. I don’t envisage that anyone other than Gary and myself will be writing in the future but you never know,' Keith Reid told Disc in September 1971. This was Reid's first textual excursion to South Africa, yet Trower's music carries no overtones of that country, being somewhat reminiscent of New Orleans boogie which was modestly popular at this time thanks to the prominence of Dr John (admired by the Procols) and Redbone, who had a hit with Witch Queen of New Orleans in 1971. Playmate of the Mouth also betrays some New Orleans influence. The main correspondence between text and sound is the high-pitched cry near the end: this is a unique event in the catalogue and is, one presumes, a contradictory imitation of the abused woman in the text. The title forms a series with the fictitious addresses of Crucifiction Lane and Dylan's Desolation Row, but there are Memorial Drives in cities all over America, and no evidence ties this title to a particular town. The word 'memorial' is most often used in connection with war, and the events loosely depicted in the song are linked to economically-based warfare; and 'drive' is a most apt description of its rhythmic feel. As with Poor Mohammed, the song explores cruelty and racial oppression. Ross Taylor suggests that Memorial Drive follows the album's theme, that a greedy past has bankrupted the present and jeopardised the future; notions of slavery, and ecological waste, mix with the mermaid and the Zulu queen, 'perhaps to suggest the phony romantic ideas the rapers have about what they are destroying: empire-builders often glorify, in their imagination, the very 'noble savages' they are killing off.'
The song was first played during the short US tour in February 1971, and flourished in the April concerts; it can only be regretted that Trower's departure from Procol Harum in May meant that Memorial Drive was not heard again … until 1995, when Geoff Whitehorn successfully recreated the original sound of the record until letting rip 'as himself' at the very end.
- 'Cellar full of diamonds, turret full of gold': 'cellar' and 'turret' are opposite extremes of a building, suggesting that wealth absolutely pervades the world of the song's opening. A turret is a small tower on a building, usually fortified, or the covering of a gun on an aircraft or tank. With the following mermaid/locket image in mind, it may be worth pointing out the vaginal implication of 'cellar'. The word is found also in 'In the cellar lies my wife' (Mabel); 'put Mohammed in the cellar' (Poor Mohammed); 'the cellar is empty' (Drunk Again). Diamonds and gold are high-valued exports of South Africa, and contributed to some infamous wars involving the famously-brave warriors of the Zulu tribe [as clichéd into us by the film Zulu, which helped break the career of Michael Caine]. However 'diamonds' was 1960s' gay slang for testicles [cp crown jewels]; there are 'bright jewels; in Broken Barricades and the 'simmering jewel' in Luskus Delph: this album seems to have swallowed the full allotment of precious stones in the Procol treasury.
- 'All for a mermaid's locket, too much to hold': the mermaid is a creature of wide-spread, much-illustrated legend, half woman and half fish. Lacking a woman's reproductive organs, she symbolises unpossessibility as well as allure. Rene Magritte has wittily explored the possibility of reversing the parts that are combined: it does not really provide a very appetising alternative. In contradistinction to the lustful satyr, half man half goat, mermaids are much associated with virginity, and with the classical legend of the siren who lures sailors to their doom by singing [Tim Buckley's Song to the Siren was a hit when covered by Cocteau Twins]. Ulysses had himself tied to the mast so as to be able to hear the song, but not succumb. The carnation-lacing mermaids in Cerdes (Outside the Gates of) are rather more passive and compassionate than such sirens, albeit only to whales. In some legends, mermaids lose their voices with the onset of puberty (see 'crying without a sound' below). A locket is a piece of jewellery, worn on a neck chain, enclasping some keepsake of a loved one. As mermaid and mortal man cannot co-exist, should they fall in love (cp 'you must be the mermaid' in A Whiter Shade of Pale), the locket becomes the only real-world focus of their spiritual unity. The locket, shut tight, may also relate to virginity – but mermaids were also thought to have uphoarded treasure under the waves. The 'mermaid's purse' that we find on the beach is in fact the discarded egg-case of the ray, skate or shark.
- 'too much to hold': this ambiguous phrase could mean 'too much treasure to grasp', but in view of the martial imagery below we note that 'hold' can apply to the action of defending a fort or turret against the assault of an enemy: the image suggests that, with sufficient backing of wealth, the mermaid's chastity might somehow yield, and violation occur.
- 'Drink the seals' blood from the ocean': blood is used by sailors in the preparation of food; but here the expansive 'ocean' suggests a fur cull. We may assume the reference is to the sea-mammal, seal (the probable original of mermaids, transmuted into girlhood by sailors' fantasies of shore-leave fornication) though it could be to the sealing-wax (cp Luskus Delph) on a treaty or contract that led to bloodshed. Shakespeare's Macbeth contains the famous image of a murder so blasphemous that the killer's hand will 'the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red'. The seals are another image of natural wealth, pillaged.
NB Keith Reid advises BtP (January 2009) that 'seals''
should be 'seas'. Listening to the record, we think 'seals'' is what Gary's
singing: that doesn't mean it's correct, though
- 'Drink the whole ocean dry': draining the ocean by prodigious drinking occurs in various fairy-stories, but the combination with a sea of mammalian blood is a repulsive novel twist. Following lines constitute a concatenation of more-standard apocalyptic images, found in other mythical and religious texts, some of which do service in other Reid songs ('the sun and moon will shudder' in Homburg); the implication appears to be that the rapacity of man runs the risk of bringing the world, if not the cosmos, to an end [cp The Pursuit of Happiness]. In the specific context this presents a moral codicil on war and its offshoots ... slavery, rape etc.
- 'Steal the moonshine from the night-time': there are other impossible thefts in Procoldom, such as 'the alphabet' (Whaling Stories), 'my name' (A Rum Tale). Numerous songs allude to 'night', including A Christmas Camel, In The Wee Small Hours Of Sixpence, Wish me Well, Magdalene (My Regal Zonophone), Glimpses of Nirvana, In the Autumn of My Madness, Memorial Drive, Grand Hotel, Nothing But the Truth, Beyond The Pale, Something Magic, (You can't)
Turn Back the Page, Perpetual Motion, and the unpublished This Old Dog and I'm a Reader and a Writer.
- 'Steal the sun from the sky': both sun and moon are elemental, god-like manifestations, whose magical power, to say nothing of their practical benefit, goes back to the dawn of man. To think of 'stealing' these is to contemplate destroying some crucial foundations of human experience, upsetting the most fundamental patterns known to mankind.
- 'Black-skinned warrior, Zulu Queen': the Zulu language and people have a name of unknown origin: aptly, in view of the forgoing, it may mean 'sky'. A Zulu Queen would be a tribal matriarch; the verbal formula recalls the 'Amazon bride' of A Christmas Camel, even the 'Continental Bride' of Grand Hotel. Her terrain would very probably harbour the very diamonds and gold that were coveted by those who sold her into captivity and degradation.
- 'Sold for a silver dollar, shipped across the sea': the 'dollar' does not necessarily relate to US money; but 'across the sea' and 'Mexican', following, leave little room for doubt that the American slave-trade is being invoked here. 'Silver' will remind many listeners of the betrayal of Christ, for a paltry sum in the same metal; 'shipped' is applied more to cargoes than to human passengers; 'across the sea' again recalls images of the weary exiles in A Christmas Camel, and perhaps of the virgins 'leaving for the coast' in A Whiter Sahde of Pale.
- 'Worked like a Mexican donkey': the queen is reduced to the role of a beast of burden. Mexican donkeys may work hard for their keep, but they are also reportedly used in deviant sex, perhaps where no conventional mates are available; this links with the sailor's yearning for carnal contact with a mermaid. 'Mexican quarter horse' is a mule, and 'Mexican donkey' has been used to mean heroin.
- 'Used like a hole in the ground': 'shat on'. A hole in the ground is also useful for burial when the slave expires, and it refers ironically back to the extraction of mineral wealth in the home country. It seems unlikely that this line relates to bodily rape, unless evidence of geophiliac practices can be unearthed.
- 'Branded her skin like she didn't feel a thing': with slaves, as with cattle, owners burn their mark or initial into the skin; the brandee has no individuality, and is not recognisable to the owner by facial feature. Branding is intensely painful, but here it is evidently undertaken without regard to the possible feeling of the sufferer. Branding of course assists in recovery should the property escape; this image is the very opposite of the ungraspable mermaid; the skin colour is opposite too, as is the fact that the Zulu queen has yielded the treasure of her birthright in a way that the mermaid will not; furthermore the Zulu queen cries silently, while the mermaid's cry is heard far across the water, but is not caused by pain.
- 'Crying without a sound': this silence could be attributable to the intensity of the agony, or possibly to the removal of the tongue; it may also relate to the Zulu Queen's resolve to preserve a dignity that the owner can be seen not have assailed. However, the strange vocal cries at 2:35 on the record serve only to intensify the mysterious contradictions in this text which, like so much of Reid's best work, seems to yield to scrutiny at a local level, while defying it a global one.
Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song