Benny Jay: Pale Tale

November 8th, 2018

The other day my wife uncovered the secret to a mystery that’s been haunting people of the Baby Boomer persuasion for decades…

The meaning of Whiter Shade of Pale, the Procol Harum hit from 1967.

If this were a scholarly journal, I’d have a footnote alluding to a reference to this matter from The Commitments, the great Alan Parker movie.

But this is not a scholarly journal.

Plus, I still haven’t figured out how to make a footnote, even after all these years of blogging.

So I’ll just tell you that there’s a scene in the movie where one character, when asked what the song means, says: “I’m fucked if I know.”

That about sums it up.

Lately, the song’s been on my mind, as my wife’s been playing it on her guitar.

In case you forgot, here’s the opening lyrics…

“We skipped the light fandango
Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
But the crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
As the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
The waiter brought a tray…”

While we’re at it–here’s the rest…

“And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly,
Turned a whiter shade of pale
She said, ‘There is no reason
And the truth is plain to see.’
But I wandered through my playing cards
And would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast
And although my eyes were open
They might have just as well’ve been closed…”

proculharumDoes Procul Harum even understand the song?


Okay, some of this I understand.

The singer’s in a pub. He’s so drunk he’s about to pass out.

But who’s the miller? And what’s a vestal virgin? And what coast are they leaving for?

Sometimes I think the writer–Gary Brooker–was just fucking with us. Stringing together phrases that sound really deep, but don’t have any unifying meaning.

Bob Dylan made a fortune doing this.

One time years ago, I actually figured out the meaning. It came to me as in a dream.

But I forgot what I’d figured out. And since I never wrote it down, it’s lost.

The only thing worse than not achieving enlightenment is achieving it only to forget what you achieved.

Anyway, as I was saying, my wife recently announced she had figured it out.

“There’s this guy in a pub and he’s trying to pick up this girl. Only she’s so drunk, she passes out before he can pick her up…”

“Wow,” I say. “You’re a genius.”

She gets this cocky look as if to say–what can I say?

“But who are the vestal virgins?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” she says.

Alas–and so the mystery continues.

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