Saturday, August 28, 2010

The words have all been writ by one before me

How many rock'n'roll bands had a resident poet who was a non-performing member? I can think of only one - Procol Harum - and what a fine band they were. It took me many years to really turn on to them. I purchased Grand Hotel when it came out in 1973, and although I quite liked it I did not seek out further PH music. Little did I know that the group had radically changed by that point. The original guitarist Robin Trower had departed just prior to GH, and the groups' second (and possibly finest) songwriter Matthew Fisher had left after producing their third album A Salty Dog in 1969.

By 1973 only lead singer/songwriter Gary Brooker and drummer B. J. Wilson remained as original performing members. Poet Keith Reid continued on as lyricist, and his darkly disturbing words were a key link between the old and new lineups. With Fisher and Trower gone, Gary Brooker was now the undisputed leader. His distinctive vocals, songwriting craftsmanship, and powerful piano pounding kept the group going strong well into the mid 70s. But for me the original lineup was unsurpassable. With Trower's white hot guitar interjections a'la Hendrix and Fisher's gentle lead vocals and baroque Hammand organ counterpoint, this band was unique among its peers. Sometimes lumped in the "prog rock" bailywick, PH was really much more than that.

The closing number on A Salty Dog is Pilgrim's Progress. The third and last Fisher written composition on the album, it begins with his signature Hammond organ sound accompanying his sweet soft vocals. If ever there was a song that makes me take a long look back at my life, this would be it. The lyrics are introspective and full of truth. Damn - this song sends shivers down my spine.

A few things I wish to point out:
  • B. J. Wilson's drumming. I rank him up there with Keith Moon and Ringo. Never was a better percussion man.
  • Fisher's uncanny ability to write a melody that could have come out of a Bach cantata
  • The absolutely stunning beauty of that melody
  • The sound of the Hammond
  • The touching story arc and the realization that life really is a big circle
  • The opening of the piano-driven coda, and B. J.'s entrance therein
  • The hand claps in the closing section
  • The Beach Boys-esque vocal harmony at the end

In starting out I thought to go exploring
and set my foot upon the nearest road
In vain I looked to find the promised turning
but only saw how far I was from home

In searching I forsook the paths of learning
and sought instead to find some pirate's gold
In fighting I did hurt those dearest to me
and still no hidden truths could I unfold


Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Yay! Thanks for the tremendous post, Mr. P! I'll be back to re-listen and re-read more than once, as everyone is well advised to do with these wonderful pieces of yours.

I do have one nomination for another non-performing lyricist who slays me: the Grateful Dead's Robert Hunter.

Black Peter, for example is -- as all of us who have stood deathbed vigils know -- a stunning poetic summation by any standard:

See here how everything
Lead up to this day
And it's just like any other day
That's ever been
Sun going up and then
The sun going down
Shine through my window
And my friends they come around
Come around, come around

Yowza ...

Holly A Hughes said...

I was just about to mention the Grateful Dead in this respect -- the classic poet-in-residence.

Mister Pleasant said...

Powerful lyrics in that Grateful Dead song. I must admit I have not a single GD record in my collection. When it comes to late 60s San Francisco psych I am much more of a Jefferson Airplane guy. But I am always amazed at what I don't know. Thanks for bringing Robert Hunter to my attention.