Procol Harum

the Pale

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'Taking Notes and Stealing Quotes'

Song for a Dreamer

Album: Broken Barricades (1971)

Authors: Trower / Reid 

 Read the words

Performed: never

Cover-versions: none

Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer, observes that: '… every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future' (Kafka and his Precursors, 1951). Arguably Reid and Trower's sombre elegy Song for a Dreamer obliges us to recast pop records as diverse as Albatross (Fleetwood Mac) and Octopus's Garden (The Beatles) as ancestors in a bloodline that flowers in Twice Removed from Yesterday and – some would allege – runs to seed in the 90s records of Nirvana.

The song was famously inspired by an authorial coincidence: 'I was writing a piece of music in one room,' Trower told Rolling Stone (20 July 1973), 'and Keith happened to be writing lyrics in another. So he comes in and says, "I've got these lyrics, and they're sort of Hendrixy, and maybe we should do a sort of tribute to him," then I said, "Hey, that's funny, I've got this music, and …"' However the words bear little relation to the supposed circumstances of Hendrix's death, which have been re-evaluated on a number of occasions. This is not one of the four songs whose words are featured on the Broken Barricades album-sleeve, but it was selected, and re-written, by Keith Reid for his book, My Own Choice, which also contains a tribute lyric to Kurt Cobain. We may guess that Hendrix is the 'Dreamer' in the title, which uses 'for' in the same way that Liquorice John does. Interestingly no other Reid title has 'song' in it ('tale', 'story', 'stories', 'tune' are found) and none of his other songs contains the word 'dreamer'.

Is it a song? Much of the lyric is spoken, though a section of it does have a dreamy, catchy melody, which we hear often thanks to its ingenious, haunting, unsynchronised use in the reverse-recorded backing vocal; this is heard solo, in all its psychedelic glory, when it surfaces in at the third, wordless statement. The piece appears indeterminate in structure, but in fact it proves to have conventional verses, hooks and instrumental development; typically for Procol Harum – and for the blues – it has nothing corresponding to a middle eight. Its spoken elements, stereo trickery and the high sprangling guitar arguably imitate elements of If Six Was Nine, but the present song has a humility that we don't find in much of Hendrix. The spoken material and the sounds that fade in and out over the drone could equally reflect a debt to Procol's own Glimpses of Nirvana. And since there are historical connections between Procol and Hendrix anyway, there may have been some musical cross-breeding further back in evolutionary time. One of Chris Welch's Repertoire liner notes implies that Keith and Jimi wrote together; Reid was looking forward to having Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell on A Whiter Shade of Pale; Hendrix jammed onstage with Procol; and Hendrix's dilemma of being applauded more for antics than for musicianship seems to be glanced at in 'Twas Teatime at the Circus (About to Die may also be germane to his case, as may the re-evaluation 'unique entertainment no longer a joke' in New Lamps for Old – Hendrix was in the charts with The Burning of the Midnight Lamp at the same time as A Whiter Shade of Pale).

Trower told Guitar School magazine (July 1990) that he 'only had one Hendrix album at the time, because I was more into rootsier things … I went to a friend's house and spent a whole day just listening to Hendrix’s music … It was during that day I became very influenced by him and his music.' It's ironic, in view of this claim, the song's main harmonic feature, stated in the first flurry of high guitar chords, is so strongly influenced by Something Following Me (you can sing 'imagine my surprise …' over it: it's even in the right key). Brooker must in turn have heard this sequence in Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man, of course; but he had shifted it up a fourth into E minor, which key Trower's song inhabits. He gradually diminishes this chord, dropping its internal Es by a semitone each time, then turns (Eleanor Rigby-like) to a mellow C major, then attractively to an E major; a bluesy extended turnback through B completes its brief harmonic excursion. Despite this muted palette and near six-minute duration, the music remains full of interest: since its architecture is not easy to hold in mind: each play comes upon us with surprises.

From the performance point of view, however, Dreamer seems to have the lowest Brooker quotient of any Procol track; Trower reports that 'I sang it, I wrote it, I played just about everything on it', though tape-operator Chris 'The Grouts' Michie states that 'the others played on it' (here). Perhaps Brooker contributed what little piano we hear; the organ sounds come from Trower's array of pedals; the bass is Chris Copping (though some of the quiet songs in the Procol set obliged Robin to play that instrument on stage). The muted but inventive tom-tom work, however, is clearly BJ, though he is not hitting them with his usual implements. Otherwise, it's a fretster's piece: the track starts with some hollow strums, Stratocaster harmonics and Univibe throbbing; the high trilling guitar will be a recurring, Albatross-like feature. Trower's spoken parts are later reprised on his solo Twice Removed from Yesterday, which betrays signs of some uncredited Reid influence (why else would the title have become a line in the unpublished Last Train to Niagara, a sort of 'Pandora's Boxroom' collecting numerous repackaged images that had flown out of Reid's mind on its earliest openings?). That track, however, bears the mark of Trower's first solo producer, Matthew Fisher; and Song For a Dreamer also has the saturated intensity of some of Matthew's best loved Procol songs.

The twin lead guitars, one in each ear, and the near-vestigial autoharp, all confirm that this is a track that could never have presented a viable live option for a four-piece Procol Harum. Fleetwood Mac had sufficient guitarists to make a credible shot at stage performances of Albatross, but there is too much 'texturing' in the present piece for one guitarist to have achieved alone. However the playing remains exceptionally restrained, a characteristic that has not always been found in the band's New Testament guitarists. Following the verses, Trower allows the swathes of near-distortion to build up, his pedal-effects perhaps imitating the pelagic tenor of the text; dissonances gurgle in and out over the droning bass, and the heavy guitar sound – Les Paul played through a Leslie, Harrison-style – is the evident blueprint for I Can't Wait Much Longer, which kicks off the first solo Trower album. A new melody starts up with hints of Amazing Grace, the very influential multi-tracked guitar instrumental credited to 'The Great Awakening' (much admired by Mick Grabham, too); we also sense that Trower has listened to the organic washes in something like Blue Jay Way. Wonderfully alarming to those of us who first heard this track on headphones, the sound starts to seethe and boil at about 4:20, and at 4.56 or so the stereo field implodes; beyond this suffocating vortex lie quieter, finger-picked chords that bring the track to rest on a ringingly-explored E6th. This sweet effect – of weathering a storm, or descending into a maelstrom, and emerging in some Elysian landscape – lingers all too briefly before Brooker's disreputable piano interrupts, a semitone lower, with the next song. Dreamer is, in the traditional sense, Trower's masterpiece, the work that demonstrates he is no longer an apprentice, but must move out to run his own show. 'It was the first time I realised that I could do something, ' he said. 'After that there was no question that I had to go out on my own.'

It is probably not among Reid's masterpieces. The sense of two souls meeting in the astral sphere would be captured more poignantly later in Strangers in Space, the call to venture into unknown realms more stirringly in Beyond the Pale. Despite the sombre origins of the song, in some ways the words are reminiscent of the Beatles' novelty song Octopus's Garden. Song for a Dreamer, however, establishes a mysterious atmosphere with few words – along with Simple Sister, Boredom and About to Die it is one of the sparsest sets of words Reid presented to the band – and it offers a sense of other-worldly communion, as if in a shared lucid dream. Hendrix occasionally claimed to come from the planet Jupiter, so a lunar meeting would seem apposite for him, just as the ocean does for the compiler of so many songs'-worth of nautical imagery.

Thanks to Frans Steensma for additional information about this song

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