Thursday, May 29, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 149): "A SALTY DOG" (1969) Procol Harum

The beach visit is looming. I’m packing, so that means it’s happening. And it’s Gary Brooker’s birthday. Brooker, the pianist, main composer and main vocalist for Procol Harum. Brooker was the vocalist on all the songs I know best, but early on there are also vocals by Matthew Fisher and Robin Trower.

Today’s song is the title track from that initial band’s best LP, and it’s the album that features the most variety in composition credits, with lyricist Keith Reid writing with all three of the band’s composers. By the time I got around to buying PH material—the 45 “Conquistador” from the live album with symphony orchestra, in 1972 (a version of today’s track, with orchestra, was the B-side), and Exotic Birds and Fruit (1974)—Brooker was the man on the vocals. And I’ve always loved his singing. My favorite pick from the latter LP would probably be “Strong as Samson,” but I picked “A Salty Dog” for its seafaring theme. O let me get down to the sea again, y’know?

Of course their most famous song is “A Whiter Shade of Pale” with that indelible organ intro and Brooker’s voice coming in with a bluesy intonation in the midst of that Bach-like sound. Really gets to ya. But I find Brooker’s vocal on today’s song even more stirring, and the lyrics show Reid’s penchant for rather literary conceits.

This one, of a crew that lays waist to another ship, then flees pursuit only to find an island upon which to live (and escape), has associations with stories like the mutiny on the Bounty (and thus also shares something with a song I may get to next week, one of my favorites, Mekons’ “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian”). What’s key to the success of this song is the way that the big lifts in Brooker’s melody and vocal match to the lyrics in that section.

Each verse begins somberly enough with a verse that sets the mood and sets up the big burst of excitement that comes at its close and carries into the next verse’s bravura:

“All hands on deck, we’ve run afloat,”
I heard the captain cry,
“Explore the ship, replace the cook,
Let no one leave alive.”

One might assume the captain is speaking of his own ship, but then that makes no sense. They’ve “run afloat”—a drifting ship, I take it—and pillage it, slaying its crew, then take off: “Across the straits, around the Horn / how far can sailors fly? / A twisted path, our tortured course, / and no one left alive.”  The final line drops back into the mood of somber reflection after the stress of the flight—a “tortured course” to frustrate pursuit.

We sailed for parts unknown to man
Where ships come home to die
No lofty peak nor fortress bold
Could match our captain’s eye.

This part simply serves to let us know that they have become nomads, and that the captain, in his fortitude, is loftier than a peak and bolder than a fortress, then the big climb again for: “Upon the seventh seasick day / We made our port of call / A sand so white, a sea so blue / No mortal place at all.”

That’s the part that has always tugged at my heartstrings: that vision of a beach and the sea. Sounds like heaven, and “no mortal place at all” lets us know it’s deserted, much as Pitcairn Island was for the Bounty deserters. In my youth I used to think that perhaps the lyrics here were suggesting that the “port of call” in its perfection beyond the “mortal” was actually death. That the ship sank and this was Reid’s way of saying it in a very poetic way.  But then that makes the final verse pointless, and it is a very good, very pointed final verse.

“We fired the gun, and burnt the mast / And rowed from ship to shore / The captain cried, we sailors wept / Our tears were tears of joy.” That little pause as he climbs from the somber doings of the crew as it abandons and destroys the ship (again, like the Bounty) to the Joy! Is wonderful, particularly as this verse has very touching violin fills in the background. Then, the kicker (with its internal rhymes on lines 1 and 3):

Now many moons and many Junes
Have passed since we made land
A salty dog, this seaman’s log,
Your witness: my own hand.

Here, as with the Mekons’ “no one will know I got away,” we realize that the narrator is a crewman who remains on the island—which they reached many moons and many Junes ago. We may, if we like, assume that, in fact, they have all gone to those heavenly beaches by now, and “I alone am left to tell the tale”—a seaman’s log.  Very nicely done.

But what sells the song is that brooding orchestration, the major uplifts that soar highest on the title line “a salty dog,” making it an epithet of praise. The song didn’t break the top 40 and I’m not surprised as it's too brooding in its sound, too long in its duration, and too elliptical in its narrative for most listeners. And yet it is a key example of the majesty of Brooker’s singing and writing and the great economy of Reid’s lyrics.

And, with the sound of the gulls at the opening, it’s a song that feels as fully expansive as the ocean seems when you stand before it, as lung filling and as uplifting. And now it’s time to go back again.

Now many moons and many Junes have passed since we first went there. Actually, the family has been staying a week at least since the summer before this song came out. Many Junes indeed.

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