A Whiter Shade of Pale
What’s It All About?

If you have read many of my essays in the past several months, you will know that I am indebted to a former colleague of mine reintroducing me to Friedrich Nietzsche. In the past couple of months, I have discovered more about Nietzsche than many other famous writers and philosophers of which I have some understanding. The one-liner that started my pilgrimage to more fully grasp Nietzsche was found in my friend’s gift to me, A Music Lover’s Diary. The diary has places that I can jot down pieces of music and comments about them. However, every several pages contain famous people’s famous one-liners. The one that instantly captured me emotionally was this one from Nietzsche, “Without music, life would be a mistake…I would only believe in a God who knew how to dance.”

I too love music and without it, I wouldn’t be who I am today. Music is merely another way to talk and express one’s feelings. I have written about a number of my favorite classic musical pieces, but this essay deals with Procol Harum’s A Whiter Sade of Pale. One of the interesting items about the group is their name. Now, I had two years of Latin in high school, but I had no idea that their name was Latin for “far from these things,” which doesn’t even make sense in English. Either the Latin or English is hardly a name for a singing group.

The Far from These Things group

However, if I didn’t get the group’s name, surely, I didn’t get the message of the song. Watch this video and follow along with the words. This video is quite rare, since most recordings only have two verses. This version has the original four. Gary Brooker is the singer.

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 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 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, 'I'm home on shore leave,'
though in truth we were at sea
so I took her by the looking glass
and forced her to agree
saying, 'You must be the mermaid
who took Neptune for a ride.'
But she smiled at me so sadly
that my anger straightway died 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 If music be the food of love 
then laughter is its queen
and likewise if behind is in front
then dirt in truth is clean
My mouth by then like cardboard
seemed to slip straight through my head
So we crash-dived straightway quickly
and attacked the ocean bed  

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

When I don’t understand things, I’ll go to Google to find out. This song’s lyrics haunted me. So, that is precisely what I did. What I discovered was that many people had their notion of what the lyrics meant. Most of these authorities said the song “deals in metaphorical form with a male/female relationship which after some negotiation ends in a sexual act.” Really? Another person thinks that it was the result of being drunk in some nautical manner while having sex.

Those insights didn’t make any sense to me. Hey, I would have rated the song R for restricted and surely never rated it X. Finally, I came upon a link to Keith Reid, the writer, of A Whiter Shade of Pale. He discussed his reason for the lyrics.

I was trying to conjure a mood as much as tell a straightforward, girl-leaves-boy story. With the ceiling flying away and room humming harder, I wanted to paint an image of a scene. I wasn’t trying to be mysterious with those images, I was trying to be evocative. I suppose it seems like a decadent scene I’m describing. But I was too young to have experienced any decadence, then. I might have been smoking when I conceived it, but not when I wrote. It was influenced by books, not drugs.

While that explanation made more sense to me, what really captured my imagination was that those into Bach’s Air on the G String heard some similarities with the melody of A Whiter Shade of Pale.

What intrigued me about A Whiter Shade of Pale. was that it was written in the time of disco. Disco was the rage then, and this song wasn’t a disco song. Can you imagine John Travolta dancing to A Whiter Shade of Pale.? Actually, I don’t know what timeframe this song would belong. Nonetheless, for a half century, the song has mesmerized millions.

What haunts me about A Whiter Shade of Pale. is that I don’t fully or even partially get it. To my mind, the lyrics don’t grasp me, which drove me to comprehend the meaning of the lyrics. Everything of any true importance to me starts out with my question “why?” And to be honest, the why question includes my friend. I will continue until I have some resolution to all my hauntings…including my friend.

So, I listened again to A Whiter Shade of Pale. Again and again, I merely pondered my unresolved question “why?” Finally, I returned to Google. After an hour of failed attempts to determine the meaning, some ideas finally started to form. The first insight came from a great writer, Victor Hugo. “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” Eureka! Music provides for me and billions of others a means of expressing that which can’t be put into words. I get that, especially said by a great writer.

I got another explanation I discovered from Albert Einstein. “Imagination is the highest form of research.” Essentially, Einstein was telling the world to imagine…. Without imagination, we will all live two dimensional lives. We will live as hollow people. Imagine what that song means when it is applied to you yourself. Ponder. Wonder.

However, I have an advantage over most of you. I have done the dance with death. I grasp that my clock is ticking. You know that at an intellectual level for yourself. However, I know it in my gut. The time that I have remaining is limited, and I have miles to go before my final dance. I need to imagine the unimaginable, and I am.

This video was recorded just over 50-years ago but doesn’t contain all four verses.

This video was recorded in 2006.