Remembering Gary Brooker (1945-2022)
By Stuart Mitchner
The sickness that comes like a thief in the night
The courage to rage ’gainst the dying of the light
—Keith Reid, from “Missing Persons”
On February 19, less than a year after the surprise appearance of Procol Harum’s EP “Missing Persons (Alive Forever)” and “War Is Not Healthy,” the group’s founding member, singer, composer, and pianist Gary Brooker died.
In his prime, Brooker’s voice was a life force of joyous gusto and soulful, free spirited passion. Fifty-five years this side of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” one of the most spectacular instant-classic debut singles in rock history, the singer’s voice is closer to the “grainy, weathered-sounding” one described in the New York Times obituary, which gives a hint of Brooker’s genius, citing “a piano style steeped in gospel, classical music, blues and the British music hall,” and “songs that mixed pomp and whimsy, orchestral grandeur and rock drive.”
With Ukraine under attack and the pandemic still at large, Procol Harum’s characteristically enigmatic lyricist Keith Reid goes straight to the heart of the time in “Missing Persons” (“The sickness that comes like a thief in the night”) and again in lines like “War is not healthy for adults and children / It scars and it maims … It’s money in the pockets of the armament makers / It’s fame and it’s glory for the generals and dictators.”
Referring to Reid’s unorthodox lyrics — the Times obit points out “surreal paradoxes” that invoked “literary and historical allusions and spun tall tales, sometimes at the same time” — Brooker says, “I find his words easy to sing. I know that they’re not …. I mean something like ‘My amazon six-triggered bride,’ you know — “ Even so, Brooker thinks it “a great opening line,” and he sings it with joy and spirit in “Christmas Camel”:
My Amazon six-triggered bride
Now searching for a place to hide
Still sees truth quite easily
Shrouds all else in mystery
While madmen in top hats and tails
Impale themselves on six-inch nails
And some Arabian also-ran
Impersonates a watering can
“Your Own Choice”
At first glance this song from Procol Harum’s fourth and darkest album Home seems atypically prosaic for Reid, what with standard lines like “Draw your own conclusions” and “Choose your own examples.”
But listen to Brooker’s vocal, ebulliently belted out as if the whole world was a pub and doomsday was tomorrow:
There’s too many women and not enough wine
Too many poets and not enough rhyme
Too many glasses and not enough time
Draw your own conclusions.
Listen to the first four Procol Harum albums, and the conclusion you draw is that the songwriting team of Brooker and Reid can be spoken of in the same breath with Lennon and McCartney. As for choice, the fact that Reid and Brooker and the original Procol Harum, featuring organist Matthew Fisher and lead guitarist Robin Trower, are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tells you all you need to know about that establishment’s credibility. The group did get a last-minute nod of sorts in 2018 when “Whiter Shade of Pale” was admitted in a new category for songs.
Named for a Cat
Contrary to the standard explanation for the name “Procol Harum” (Latin for “beyond these things),” Keith Reid says it’s actually the slightly misspelled name of a Siamese cat that belonged to “somebody that we used to hang out with.” That was when Reid and Booker were forming the band. Both were born in predominantly Jewish East London, Brooker in Hackney and Reid in Mile End Road. While Brooker’s family eventually left the heavily bombed-out area for the suburbs, Reid’s stayed put. A Viennese lawyer, his father was one of more than six thousand Jews arrested in Vienna during Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938. After a brief internment in Dachau, he fled to England along with a younger brother. The paternal grandparents Reid never knew were apparently Holocaust victims. “The tone of my work is very dark,” he says, “and I think it’s probably from my background, in some subconscious way.”
A Place in Russia
A decade before “Whiter Shade of Pale” and the Summer of Love, my idea of thrilling music was “The Great Gate of Kiev,” from Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony’s recording of Pictures at an Exhibition. The history behind the piece didn’t interest me. I was a high school sophomore. Kiev was a place in Russia, and as far as I knew, Mussorgsky and Ravel had worked it out together like Brooker and Reid and handed the score to Toscanini in a recording studio.
In fact, Modest Mussorgsky was born March 21, 1839, and Maurice Ravel on March 7, 1875, meaning Ravel was on his way into the world when Mussorgsky composed Pictures in 1874 as a piece for two pianos inspired by his friend Viktor Hartman, an artist who had died suddenly at 39. Ravel didn’t compose his arrangement of Pictures for full orchestra until 1922. It was the grandeur and glory of Ravel’s arrangement of “The Great Gate of Kiev” that stirred me all those years ago and now more than ever. Renditions on YouTube come with comments about “Ukraine’s epic struggle,” or “in honor of Kyiv and the struggle against Russian tyranny.” One person simply wonders, “Is it right or wrong to listen to this today?”
“Death of Stalin”
When my wife and I saw The Death of Stalin in April 2018, we thought it was the funniest film since — what? Nothing comes to mind, maybe Monty Python or Peter Sellers in A Shot in the Dark. The whole packed-to-capacity theater was roaring. Maybe it was nothing more than a diversion from the Trump presidency. Last week we saw the same film “On Demand” and it wasn’t funny. Or you could say it seemed funny at a distance, as when the dying Stalin is told that all the best doctors have been sent to the gulag. We hadn’t expected to have that reaction. Stalin was long long ago, but not long ago enough to laugh at. And not now.
With the pictures at an exhibition idea in mind, I took a tour through the online images from Mariupol — a dog nosing in the rubble; a huge heap of fallen awning stretched out on pavement next to the bodies of two children with coats masking their faces; shards of plastic and glass scattered around, two among 1,200 civilians killed as of March 9, according to the mayor. There’s a photo from 2003 of Putin looking grim and uncomfortable during a visit to the Chekhov house-museum in Yalta where he ignored the plea for funding from the staff that had been witness to its steady degradation since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Chekhov’s birthplace in Taganrog (another museum) is only 70 miles east of Mariupol.
In “Alive Forever,” a Spill magazine interview conducted on the release of the “Missing Persons” EP, Gary Brooker says the songs remain a mystery. They were “recorded in the same place, in Brighton in England, but no one can remember doing them. I don’t remember when, it was sometime before 2016, but not long before.” He’s happy to point out that Procol Harum continues to attract younger fans, who are digging into the catalogue and enjoying the older music. At recent shows. it’s “not all beards and bald heads.”
“A Whiter Shade”
Once upon a time in Ann Arbor, a potent mix of Hammond Organ-magnitudinous Bach, rock, and a voice like that of a white Ray Charles exploded from the car radio of our benighted Corvair (“the most dangerous car in America”). The song was by a group I’d never hear of. What’s a procol harum? The singing was inspired and the lyrics were taking over, the car “humming harder” as “the ceiling flew away and the miller told his tale,” that “her face at first just ghostly turned a whiter shade of pale.”
About the cover of the first Procol Harum LP, shown here: Gary Brooker’s wife Franky posed for the face and Keith Reid’s future wife Dickinson did the artwork.
Most quotes by and about Booker and Reid are from “Beyond the Pale” at procolharum.com.