No. 39: ‘Song for a Dreamer’

Song for a Dreamer creator Robin Trower of Procol Harum“Song for a Dreamer” wasn’t really a Procol Harum song.

The lyrics weren’t about meeting the recently departed Jimi Hendrix “on the far side of the moon.”

And while Robin Trower wrote the music in tribute to Hendrix, he wasn’t all that familiar with the master’s music at the time.

Rock myths aside, “Song for a Dreamer” remains one of the best evocations of Hendrix ever recorded. Beautiful and mysterious, elegiac and seemingly profound, it is among the great dark works of psychedelic rock.

“I couldn’t believe I did that,” guitarist Trower said of the 1971 recording, essentially a solo effort on which he sang and played most of the instruments.

Thus inspired, the guitarist left Procol Harum for a long and fairly successful solo career — one, ironically, that drew never-ending comparisons to Hendrix. That all started here.

Trower clearly had outgrown the band, after four years in the shadows. “Song for a Dreamer” was among a trio of his songs on “Broken Barricades,” an outstanding but unusual album for Procol Harum because it rocked hard, with few keyboards. (This from the group forever known for the gothic-church-organ wash of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”)

The band “thought (“Dreamer”) was a bit off the Procol track,” a recording engineer recalls. They never performed the song live, but it was released as a B-side.

Procol Harum and Hendrix had shared a bill a few weeks before the guitar great died. The “Broken Barricades” liner notes recount how Trower watched from the wings as the German audience booed Hendrix for not playing his psychedelic “hits.” “(Trower) went bloody wild,” a Procol Harum member recalled. “He was ready to punch out 6,000 Germans.”

Hendrix’s death had stunned the rock world six months before recording began on “Broken Barricades.” Trower and group lyricist Keith Reid separately toyed with ideas for a tribute, merged them, and so was born “Song for a Dreamer.”

Reid’s brief lyrics, which he says are “sort of Hendrixy,” don’t directly address the guitarist’s death. They do share some of Hendrix’s own lyrical touchtones: the moon, lucid dreaming, afterlife communion, the sea and ocean. (Reid, of course, set sail in many of his lyrics for the band.)

What is “Song for a Dreamer” about? Something about death, probably.

“The doctors say they must operate soon” … “Our friend the Arab will guide us while we dream” … “I will meet you at the bottom of the sea” — perhaps it’s evocative nonsense, a virtual hashish delirium.

Before he wrote the music, Trower actually had to go to a friend’s house to hear the essential Hendrix albums. Quite likely he bonded with “1983: A Merman I Shall Turn to Be” and its companion “Moon, Turn the Tides … Gently Gently Away,” as well as “Burning of the Midnight Lamp,” “Third Stone From the Sun,” “One Rainy Wish” … mostly dreamlike midtempo pieces with flourishes of the Wes Montgomery-inspired guitar playing that found its apex in “Angel.”

Coincidentally, Trower had just switched from a Les Paul to a (’62) Stratocaster, Hendrix’s ax of choice. Trower says he wrote “Dreamer” on an acoustic guitar, however.

As with a number of important psychedelic songs from the era, “Dreamer’s” otherworldliness comes from running the guitar signal through through a Leslie speaker with its spinning cones. Similar high-end studio tricks of the day run throughout the song. Distortion and dissonance are brought to heel, barely.

Procol Harum 45 sleeveTrower lays down two lead guitar tracks, mixed in aggressive discrete stereo, each to a separate speaker. One of the song’s major guitar themes summons a wounded beast, its howls adding to the sense of unease.

It’s not hard to hear echoes of George Harrison’s darker minor-key works, certainly Peter Green’s “Albatross,” and the electronic explorations of Soft Machine, King Crimson and Pink Floyd.

“Dreamer,” despite its apparent repetitions, appears structured in three parts:

The first brings the listener into a dreamlike state, with Trower’s disembodied half-spoken intonations of Reid’s lyrics.

Chapter 2 features the howling guitar in full throat (about 3:15 minutes in).

Sated listeners find relief and closure at the 5-minute mark, in the dimming of this greatest of Robin Tower songs.

The lyrics to “Song for a Dreamer” by Keith Reid:

I will meet you on the other side of the moon
The doctors say they must operate soon
But there’s no knowing what they’ll find when they open up the wound
I will meet you on the other side of the moon

I will meet you at the bottom of the sea
We will lie inside the ocean and scheme
Our friend the Arab will guide us while we dream
I will meet you at the bottom of the sea

Hat tip to the “Song for a Dreamer” analysis on ProcolHarum.com and the 1974 Robin Trower interview in Guitar Player.

Comments

  1. Vibrolux45 says:

    I rember hearing Broken Barricades on WNEW FM in NY in 71 and having hitchhiked to the Mall to buy it
    It is still my favorite Procol LP and it was because of Trowers heavy influence most notable “Song For A Dreamer”
    A great piece of early seventies art and never to be duplicated.

    V

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