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*9.01-WHITE ROOM (Cream)

Cream

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[Intro]

In a white room
with black curtains
near the station

Black roof country,
no gold pavements,
tired starlings

Silver horses
ran down moonbeams
in your dark eyes.

Dawn light smiled
on you leaving
my contentment.

        I'll wait in this place
        Where the sun never shines;
        Wait in this place
        Where the shadows run from themselves.

You said no strings
could secure you
at the station.

Platform ticket,
restless diesels,
goodbye windows.

I walked into
such a sad time
at the station.

As I walked out,
felt my own need
just beginning.

        I'll wait in the queue
        When the trains come back;
        Lie with you
        Where the shadows run from themselves.

[Break]

At the party
she was kindness
in the hard crowd.

Consolation
for the old wound
now forgotten.

Yellow tigers
crouched in jungles
in her dark eyes.

She's just dressing,
goodbye windows,
tired starlings.

        I'll sleep in this place
        With the lonely crowd;
        Lie in the dark
        Where the shadows run from themselves.

[Coda]


Wheels of FireWheels of Fire was Cream’s greatest success, reaching the top of the Billboard chart, and according the Wikipedia, was the world’s first platinum double album. Perhaps more importantly, it was the first psychedelic album to reach the Number One position in the U.S. that was not by the Beatles. Wheels of Fire included a studio and a live disc, somewhat similar to what Moby Grape had done with Wow/Grape Jam three months earlier, reflecting a double standard in the Summer of 1968 when both studio and live performances could co-exist. Soon afterward, live performances (or at least minimally altered studio performances, like that of the Chambers Brothers in Time Has Come Today) would be preferred. By featuring Eric Clapton’s blues chops on the second disc, the studio disc was freed up to show what the group could do with an engineering crew, in a grand, often orchestrated way. At the time, I remember critics panned much of the psychedelic studio work, vastly preferring the live recording of Crossroads or the blues studio numbers free of glitz, like Born under a Bad Sign. I will however concentrate on the experimental psychedelic numbers. Wheels of Fire was among the last of the great experimental albums of the psychedelic period. (The album’s title, ironically, could refer to Bob Dylan’s Wheels on Fire, which was included in the Band’s Big Pink album, a recent watershed in the aesthetic shift I have been describing. Of course, both of them were probably referring to Ezekiel’s wheels of fire [the wheels within wheels] seen in a vision, as reported in the Bible.)

White Room opens the album with one of the grandest introductions of the psychedelic period, twenty seconds in 5/4 time, with Ginger Baker on timpani and producer Pappalardi droning on a viola. It sounds like the beginning of an overture to an opera! Only Garth Hudson’s church organ in the Band’s Chest Fever, and The Who, with Tommy’s Overture, came close to this grandiloquence in 60s rock music. I especially associate the introduction of White Room with that of Pinball Wizard from Tommy, released nearly a year later, but that particular introduction was solely on acoustic guitar with a French horn. And by that time, The Who had moved past all but the trimmings of psychedelia.

The verses that follow are somewhat closely bound to short syllabic meter of four beats per line, without regard for rhyme. The melody slowly falls through the verse (the guitar riff, also used for Tales of Brave Ulysses didn’t inspire much of a melody in that context either). Luckily the B section carries far more melody and anchors the listener in something that is far more familiarly a song. The intro is used for the break and the coda; only in the coda does Eric Clapton step away from the form and start improvising (wildly) on the new sound of a wah-wah guitar, though he was been shifting ever so slowly from soft to strident use of the device with each verse. I think I’m correct in believing that this was the first single to break into the Top 10 with the use of wah-wah in the United States. (Wah-wah had been part of the Summer of Love in the UK, with Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Burning the Midnight Lamp and Cream’s Tales of Brave Ulysses both becoming Top 20 hits there.) Herb Bowie wrote in his blog Reason to Rock: “Clapton’s guitar returns with a vengeance in the third verse, now openly playing on top of the singer and other musicians. Clapton is simply brilliant here. He improvises ruthlessly on guitar, opposing the melodies and rhythms of the rest of the performers. His playing is uncontained, seemingly uncontainable, as it claws and kicks against the impending doom of the rest of the song. In the context of the words and music, Clapton’s guitar seems to represent some anarchic, seminal life force fighting against the colorless, regimented, neatly contained emotional life of the singer.”

Pete Brown, who helped to write the lyrics with Jack Bruce, had been a member of the First Real Poetry Band, which he formed with John McLaughlin (later of the Mahavishnu Orchestra) in the mid-1960s. He partnered with Bruce to write lyrics for many of the Cream singles, including Sunshine of Your Love, and I Feel Free. The verses for White Room are surrealistic, leaving the listener with impressions rather than linear meaning. Vaguely, the poet seems to be saying that he fell in love with a one night stand near the train station, and that she left by train the next morning. He says he’ll await her return at the station, but he doesn’t seem to have much hope that she’ll be coming back his way. But this dull narrative is given a visionary quality by its dreamlike repetitions of symbols: the tired starlings, the goodbye windows, and of course, the most powerful, where the shadows run from themselves, which suggests a fast moving, passing headlight. I am reminded of Federico Garcia Lorca’s technique in his Canciones with the repeated overdetermined verses: Silver horses ran down moonbeams in her dark eyes and Yellow tigers crouched in jungles in her dark eyes, observations which exist in contrast to the “hard” and later, “lonely” crowd the poet runs with in a smoky town.

Trains were often used as metaphors in the popular music of the sixties and early seventies, to encourage the listener to “get on board” with a popular movement associated with peace or love. Trains didn’t come up often in psychedelic music considered in this collection, however: the Beach Boy’s Caroline No; 8:05 by Moby Grape (maybe); the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset (set in a train station); and later, Marrakesh Express by Crosby, Stills and Nash are all the examples that come to mind. Except for the sound of the lonesome whistle blowing at the end of Caroline No, none of these other songs use trains to serve as such an evocative metaphor for the passage of time. In White Room trains are perhaps the instrument by which the shadows run from themselves. To me this suggests that the natural shadows of the bodies of the poet and his lover have left their physical dimension and continue to exist as ghosts of memory.

Far more used than trains in the music of this Psychedelic Masterworks is the color white. Color in general is used a lot in psychedelic lyrics, but ironically, white is used more often than any other. The Summer of Love brought us White Rabbit (with its suggestion of magic) and Whiter Shade of Pale, where it is a sickly skin color. White Room is used to emphasize a black and white world, in essence, devoid of color. Later, White Bird by It’s a Beautiful Day would suggest a peaceful dove. Why this preoccupation with white in the psychedelic frame of mind? The occurrence of white is only matched by the mention of rainbow colors. Rainbows seem symbolic of diversity, of psychedelic wonder at the prism of the world’s reality. But why is white emphasized? Recently I read a book by Joe Boyd titled White Bicycles, which refers to a Summer of Love British psychedelic song by Tomorrow called My White Bicycle. (I confess to never having heard this song until the book referred me to it; it was not a hit record in the U.S.) This song referenced a program instituted by the provo (or “provocative”) party in Amsterdam, which provided free transportation on city-owned bicycles painted white. The white bicycles, as used by Joe Boyd in his book, provide a metaphor for the progressive social movements sweeping the Europe and America during the psychedelic period. The White Plan of the provos brought such ideas as closing downtown streets to traffic in order to provide a pedestrian mall, and squatting rights for folks who sought shelter in abandoned properties. Begun in the Summer of 1965, the provo movement was disbanded in May 1967, but its effect may have lingered in the imagination, particularly in the UK, geographically close to the Netherlands.

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