The passing of Procol Harum’s In-house Poet and thoughts on other Rock n’ Roll Wordsmiths

To my teenage self, dizzy with wonder at the lyrics of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Keith Reid looked brainy and hip, which I didn’t know could be a thing, but there he was in band photographs, usuall…

By Wayne Cresser

Often in recent years, I have said that I would not wish my music tastes on anyone, which is a variation of a very clever thing a friend once said on the same topic. “Hell is other people’s music,” he said, which is, of course, an extrapolation from Jean Paul Sartre’s line having to do with people in No Exit.

In my musical kingdom, I can be as enamored with the past as the present. I still find great joy in listening to Cream, and solo work by Jack Bruce, even Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton not so much. I can continue to spin the discs of Procol Harum, everything from 1967’s eponymous debut through 1973’s Grand Hotel. After that, I lose track.

The Grateful Dead is in there too, from the alpha to the omega. There’s lots of other stuff competing for my attention, but I mention these three, for as disparate as their music is, they share a common denominator.

And it has to do with words. The names of lyricists Pete Brown, Keith Reid, John Perry Barlow and Robert Hunter may not be familiar to average consumer of Classic Rock, but they will all mean something to ardent fans of this music.

Pete Brown started out as a Beat poet and sometime later wrote the lyrics to not only such Cream hits as “White Room” and “Sunshine of Your Love,” but also, “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” and Jack Bruce’s “Theme from an Imaginary Western”, which was more famously covered by Leslie West’s Mountain, and featured this mediation on searching for answers in the old west:

Sometimes they found it, sometimes they kept it

Often lost it along the way

Fought each other to possess it

Often died in sight of day

Of the lyricists mentioned here, only Brown is still alive and working. In January 2021, he talked to Please Kill Me’s John Kruth about his career both then and now. A great read, Brown’s recall of the British music scene in the early to late sixties is astounding for someone who was homeless in his teens. “I wanted to be part of the bohemian scenery. After I was expelled from school, I hitchhiked around Scotland, staying in hostels, and former ammo dumps from WWII. I was inspired by Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek, and visions of Kerouac.”

Here’s a link to the entire interview

Where Cream got by with one house writer, the Grateful Dead favored two. I don’t know that I’ve ever read that they especially liked the concept of pairing, or twinning, or doubling, but the motif is there: two guitarists, two drummers, lots of double albums (ha!), and two main lyricists. One for Bob and one for Jerry.

John Perry Barlow, who worked with Bob Weir, died at 70 in 2018. Reporting for NBC News at the time, Alex Johnson described Barlow as “the man behind the words on such Dead anthems as “Cassidy” “Estimated Prophet,” “Black-Throated Wind,” “Hell in a Bucket,” “Mexicali Blues,” “The Music Never Stopped” and “Throwing Stones.’”

An internet pioneer, at the time of his death, Barlow was a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and internationally known for co-founding the Electronic Frontier Foundation with Mitch Kapor and John Gilmore in 1990.

Like Pete Brown, Robert Hunter, who collaborated with Jerry Garcia, was a working musician. He  wrote with other people, including Bob Dylan, Bill Payne (for Little Feat) and Jim Lauderdale and released his own records. One of them, Flight of the Marie Helena, was a poem read against a musical background.

With Garcia he wrote from end to end, everything from “St Stephen” to “A Touch of Gray.” As his obit in the Guardian said, “A list of the songs that bear Hunter’s byline amounts to a road map of the Grateful Dead’s career.”

And lastly there is Keith Reid, the other half of Procol Harum’s Brooker/Reid, songwriting team, who died recently, on March 23 of this year, at age 76 after receiving cancer treatments for several years.

To my teenage self, dizzy with wonder at the lyrics of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Keith Reid looked brainy and hip, which I didn’t know could be a thing, but there he was in band photographs, usually front and center, as if he was Mr. Procol Harum himself. Then I read somewhere that he was their in-house lyricist. He did not play an instrument or take the stage with the rest of the band. I read too that he attended every rehearsal, comparing himself to a playwright who wouldn’t miss any run-through of his work. Not only did I like that, but I also thought, what a great job.

Although Procol Harum scored other hit singles in the US, “Homburg” (1967), and the live orchestral version of “Conquistador” (1972), and made intelligent, engaging music throughout their initial run (1967-1977), they never again approached the massive success of their debut single, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” the surreal break-up song inspired musically by Bach and lyrically, I’m guessing, by tabs of acid and loads of coffee.

Reid has said that he began with the title phrase: “Basically you have to invent a whole picture that this little piece you’ve got fits into. So, it’s kind of like you’ve been given the last piece first, and now you have to make up the picture that that piece completes.”

The picture conjured up by lead singer and pianist Gary Brooker, his fellow keyboardist Matthew Fisher (Hammond organ), and a guitarist and rhythm section that would be replaced by the band’s second album, was complete enough to eventually sell 10 million copies worldwide.

Subsequently, Procol Harum released a string of great albums, distinguished by the musicianship of a band that would eventually include the gifted Robin Trower on lead guitar and drummer B.J. Wilson, whose style so impressed Jimmy Page, that he asked him to join Led Zeppelin before he asked John Bonham, and the poetry of Keith Reid.

Reid’s words were often dark, whether screaming for vengeance, “Still There’ll Be More,” cynical, “Boredom,” or bleak, “Broken Barricades. The latter two songs may best demonstrate the fearless combination of Brooker’s and at times Brooker/Fisher’s  music and Reid’s potent lyrics. They were not afraid to defy expectations or take sublime or jaunty melodies to uncomfortable places.

In “Boredom,” the tune is playful; the melody and beat suggest a breezy calypso song while the downbeat lyrics create the opposite effect. Likewise, Brooker’s swirling piano in “Broken Barricades” suggests something sublime, but the hopeless lyrics, which are also some of Reid’s most polished, work against the uplifting tone.

Now gather up seashells,
And write down brave words
Your prayers are unanswered,
Your idols absurd
The seaweed and the cobweb,
Have rotted your sword
Your barricades broken,
Your enemies, lord.

Some insight regarding the mood of his writing for Procol Harum was shared with author Scott R. Benarde for a book called Stars of David: Rock n’ Roll’s Jewish Stories.

In the interview, Reid recounted his father’s experience being arrested by Nazis in 1938 Poland and later escaping to England, and the effect those stories had on his worldview at the time: “The tone of my work is very dark, and I think it’s probably from my background in some subconscious way.”

With Brooker, who died in 2022 at the age of 76, Keith Reid found a keyboard and a voice that could channel his subconscious in a way that might live up to the band’s audacious name, which was fractured Latin for “Far beyond these things,” which, I am sad to say, is now their address.

Here’s a link to “Broken Barricades”:



Wayne Cresser lives on an island in Narragansett Bay with his wife and dog. His work has appeared in six print anthologies, most recently The Four Seasons (Kind of a Hurricane Press), online at Gravel, Shark Reef Literary Magazine, Jerry Jazz Musician and Story and in such print journals as The Ocean State Review and SLAB. He was co-creator and managing editor of shaking like a mountain (later Shaking) from 2007-2011 and a contributing editor at the Ocean State Review from 2014-2017.

Leave a Reply