WORLD’s 2018 Books of the Year
Kids, put your hands over your ears! Mash-up Marvin is back.
Five years ago I had fun with the words of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (“Take every song captive,” Dec. 29, 2012). Some loved my Biblically optimistic version. Others thought it a desecration of the best-known song by my favorite singer-songwriter. You can judge for yourself by asking on YouTube for “Hallelujah cover by Brian LoPiccolo” or “Hallelujah cover by Nathan Petersheim.”
Now I turn to another beautiful tune, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” recorded by Procol Harum in 1967. The music itself was a melding of rock and Johann Sebastian Bach, with echoes of the great composer’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, his organ chorale prelude “O man, lament your great sin,” and his cantata “I stand with one foot in the grave.”
“A Whiter Shade of Pale” was one of the rare singles to sell more than 10 million copies. Its combination of musical beauty and financial success, in an industry known for cheap thrills, is astounding. It’s an elegy that touches something deep inside me and others. I think the secret sauce is that one-foot-in-the-grave resonance.
I wrote some words tying the elegiac music to our continuing tragedy.
In some way, though, the words—which deal with surface phenomena like drinking and playing cards—don’t rise up to the tragic splendor of the music. Leonard Cohen agonized over each syllable of “Hallelujah” and produced multiple versions, but Procol Harum lyricist Keith Reid said his wording “was just another bunch of lyrics. I had the phrase ‘a whiter shade of pale,’ that was a start, and I knew it was a song. It’s like a jigsaw where you’ve got one piece, then you make up all the others to fit it.”
Good for Reid: The music primarily made the hit. Procol Harum’s original music video used a church building to give it a Bach-like feel. Annie Lennox three decades later made the song a hit once again: Her video has her reeling as if drunk or stoned, and the song seems less tragic and more a hangover. But if all we’re mourning is a mixed-up night, where’s the pathos?
The Bible speaks of the bond between mother and child. So, with the imminent arrival of the 45th anniversary of a notorious Supreme Court decision, I wrote some words tying the elegiac music to our continuing tragedy. Picture Everywoman, a Jane, reeling as she confronts an unconfessed sin. Picture her new husband responding to an evangelical appeal, but Jane holds back as she thinks a holy God could never love a person like her.
Here’s “A Brighter Shade of Pale,” a tribute to Procol Harum—the first three lines are straight from its hit song, and the others stick close to the cadence—but a bigger homage to the God who created music and every human life:
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 soon the heavens opened, but we knew not what to say.
And so it was that later, as the Preacher told his tale, / That Jane’s face, at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale.
He said, ‘Our life is seasons, and our plans are vanity.’ / Then he taught us from the Bible. He would not let us be.
Preached Ezekiel and Jonah—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. / In time my eyes were opened, but Jane’s stayed tightly closed.
And so it was for months more, through rain and snow and hail. / Her face remained so ghostly—still a whiter shade of pale.
Jane finally told her story: Killed a baby in her womb. / So we read Ecclesiastes, and played this mournful tune.
A time to kill, a time to heal, a time to pray for grace. / Then she looked at me so sadly, while tears streamed down her face.
And so it was that later, as Jane wrote out this tale, / That her face, a long time ghostly, turned a brighter shade of pale.
I’ve sung it, but you wouldn’t want to hear my caterwauling. Please let me know if you take a crack at it on YouTube or elsewhere.