Procol Harum

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Jonas Söderström : Friends in space

or 'The universe at the end of the restaurant'

(This is a slightly adapted version of a short speech given at the Paler's convention in Manchester, May 16 - the night before the concert. Please bear in mind that a speech is intended to be listened to and not to be read. Therefore, I hope Procol fans will read it "in the spirit in which it was meant to be listened to". )

It was the morning after the Guildford concert, September 2000. As we were having breakfast in the restaurant in the Jarvis Hotel, I asked Frans Steensma: "Do you think this was the last time PH played? Was this the final thrust?" And Frans (who knows everything about Procol Harum) said, "Yes, possibly; there were these little signs ..." and we exchanged interpretations of what Gary said or didn't say onstage, like two Kremlologists of the Cold War era.

It was a bittersweet feeling, for the night before had been splendid. There is always something special about outdoor concerts, but that evening had been absolutely, pure magic. If that was the end, it was almost a perfect end.

* * *

Luckily, we were wrong. Nine months later, to the very day, we all meet again, in Manchester this time, to feast and drink and to hear Procol Harum. Obviously, a lot of nice things were conceived that night, under most favourable stars.

Maybe it's the stars I remember best from Guildford. As the sun was setting over that wonderful green, so-English landscape, the stars came out; first a few faint ones, then more, and more. I remember pointing out a few of them to my company: "there's Vega, there's the Swan," and so on. And then the real stars of the evening entered the stage, and Procol Harum started playing.

Procol Harum at Guildford, September  17, 2000

* * *

Although I don't care for astrology, I know for a fact that the stars were favourable. Because as you can see in the composite picture below, the very minute that PH started to play, Pegasus, the winged horse, was rising right behind the scene, flying higher and higher during the concert.

The sky over the scene at Guildford, 2000

Pegasus – symbol of poetry, and the only constellation Keith Reid has ever written about (despite frequent use of mythological material)!

* * *

Actually, KR has written very little about stars, or other celestial objects. He seems much less interested in the universe, and more interested in - food!

I don't know any rock-poet who has written so much about cooking. As a matter of fact, you could put together a complete menu from his writing; it could look like this, perhaps (click to see the whole menu).

But others have recognized the celestial quality in Procol Harum tunes. As many of you know, Douglas Adams got the idea for The restaurant at the end of the universe from the middle part in Grand Hotel - you could imagine this, perhaps, as a menu from such a place. (A restaurant where the cook needs to be replaced, possibly.)

Sadly, Douglas Adams passed away just a few weeks ago. I'd be disappointed if he just rests in peace; I hope he's out there, hitchhiking his amazing universe. And I hope that he will meet another friend in space: our beloved BJ Wilson, who now 'plays upon the tails of comets', as Larry Pennisi puts it.

* * *

I don't know if Douglas Adams was present at Guildford. I hope he caught the opportunity to see Procol a last time. But I know BJ Wilson was there, looking down on the scene. BJ Wilson's star is in the constellation of Ophiuchus, and as you can see in the picture below, it was shining right upon the scene from the far end of the field with spectators. (This picture was made before we knew the exact location of BJ's star, which is actually just a little bit to the left of this picture).

The sky over the audience at Guildford
(Click to see an even bigger view)

* * *

He might not be able to see tomorrow night's concert, since it's indoors, but after the concert we can greet BJ's star - if we're lucky to escape the English rain. A view of the sky here in Manchester tomorrow night, just after the concert, can be seen here.

Perhaps not many people know how to find BJ's star, but in the Northern hemisphere, the summer is a good time to give it a try. At this time - mid-June - anywhere you are, Ophiuchus will be exactly to the south precisely at midnight. It will travel westward during the summer, and in mid-August, it will be to the west at midnight. How high it will rise over the horizon, and its angle, will depend on where your are.

It's difficult to give exact instructions how to find BJ's star for every location and time. The best way I've managed to come up with so far, is to first locate Vega. That's not hard: it's one of the strongest star in the summer sky.

Close to the left of Vega you'll find the constellation of Cygnus, The Swan. Deneb in the bird's tail is a very bright and easily identified star. The constellation has the form of a cross. When you've identified the whole constellation, doubling the line through the Swan, from Deneb to Albireo, the rather weak "beak" star of Cygnus, will get you very close to BJ.

BJ's star is also on almost the same "sky longitude" as Vega. That means, if you extend a line from the Pole star through Vega, you'll hit BJ's star.

To determine the sky "latitude", start with Altair in the Eagle, also a strong, easily identified, below or to the left of Vega (usually you'll see its fainter companion close below it too).

BJ's star is on almost the same "latitude" as Altair. So try to find the point where the line "down" from Vega (ever so slightly tilted to the right) intersects at (almost) right angels with a line from Altair to the right (ever so slightly tilted downwards). At that intersection is the star of BJ Wilson.

* * *

Ophiuchus is certainly not the most obvious or most easily recognized (or pronounced - my best guess is "o-FEE-ucus") constellation in the sky. Maybe there's a kind of interstellar poetic justice to that; just like Procol Harum's music, it is not widely known or over-exploited, but something for the literati, the connoisseurs; something rewarding for those who've had the luck to discover it, and the privilege to experience it.

Astronomers know, for example, that Ophiuchus is home to Barnard's star (quite close to 'Barrie's star', in fact). Barnard's star is the second closest star to Earth and the fastest-moving star in the entire sky, and suspected to have planets that could host life.

Ophiuchus has also been featured in a science fiction novel by the American writer John Varley, called The Ophiuchi Hotline. In this story, humanity receives a constant stream of signals from friends in space in Ophiuchus.

* * *

You might not know it, but just outside Manchester is the Jodrell Bank Radio Observatory, where they use all kinds of fancy equipment to record such signals from space. And when I examined the pictures from Jodrell Bank closer [above], it seemed someone there is listening to Ophiuchus, too

But it's debatable whether they would be able to really decipher signals from BJ. Probably, they'd need some help from true Procoholics, so - in the good tradition of Sam Cameron's quiz at the first Palers' Convention in Guildford - please examine these "signals from Ophiuchus" below (which are really the sound patterns of some of the few moments of solo drumming by BJ Wilson) and see if you can find out which signal corresponds to which tune.

(This quiz was maybe a bit too far-fetched for a night with beer and drinks, because the highest score I could find at the Palers' Convention was two correct matches. However, BtP and Shine On will award a very nice long-sleeve white polo shirt with the Procol Harum '30 year AWSoP' logo on to the first person to write in with these BJ waveform-clips correctly identified)

Which song is this then?

And this?

Third guess...

...yet another one...

...the last!

All you have to do is to match one of the numbers, above, to the song title whose drumming you think is represented by the corresponding wave-form:

___Repent Walpurgis    ___Bringing Home the Bacon    ___Backgammon
___She Wandered Through the Garden Fence    ___Power Failure

(Click … eventually … for the solution… meanwhile click here to see Matthew Fisher contemplating the problem)

* * *

The trick with all deciphering is to separate the noise from information, the junk from the worthwhile, to find what's really meaningful and what's unimportant. As that golden September evening darkened and night fell in Guildford nine months ago, you could see several bright lights in the sky, which you won't see in the sky views on this page at all. Guildford is close to Heathrow Airport, and some of the brightest shining lights in the sky that night were not stars at all, but just airplanes, passing - there for a brief moment - and then gone, and forgotten.

True stars may be much less bright than such false ones. But in contrast to those passing sparks, they shine on and on. We continue to gaze at them in awe and wonder. Forever and ever they stay in the sky, - and in our eyes, - and in our minds.

Thank you for your patience, and have a wonderful evening.

(Notes: The sky charts are made with Voyager II from Carina Software, and show the actual sky in the exact location at Guildford, 17 September 2000, and in Manchester, 17 June 2001. The picture of Procol Harum playing under the wings of Pegasus is a composite, which correctly shows the position of the stars relative the scene at the beginning of the concert; however, the actual image of Procol Harum is not from the beginning of the show but later. At the time of that particular shot, Pegasus had risen higher and to the right of the scene. The picture of the band itself is in fact a composite of two adjacent shots.)

Endnote: Having written this little speech, I have to admit it turned out rather strange: quirky, meandering from here to there, with sudden jumps and sharp bends. In its own and much inferior way, it perhaps has a little resemblance to the unexpected turns, modulations and shifts of Procol Harum tunes; the qualities that we admire so in their music.

Thanks Jonas: see also AWSoP goes extra-terrestrial … an equally-entertaining article about Procols in Space, from the same pen


Procol Harum 2001: index page

Palers' Convention: main page

Buy The Restaurant at the End of The Universe from Amazon

Buy The Ophiuchi Hotline from Amazon

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