Thursday, April 22, 2010

Beyond These Things

I am not a big fan of Procol Harum and, in fact, frequently have to remind myself to check to make sure I am not misspelling their name "Procul Harum" — the supposedly Latin phrase from which the band derived their name — which does not mean "beyond these things", even if Gary Brooker, the founder of the band, thought it did. I wouldn't have to check my spelling every time if I were a big fan, would I? When I was in high school, even the zoniest, most Dazed and Confused druggie wasteoids in the school knew the correct spelling of "zeppelin", thanks to that eponymous group they worshiped, and would get righteously indignant, indeed, worked up into High Dudgeon, should they run across stray graffiti — Physical or otherwise — claiming "Zeplin [sic] Rules!" "Dude, yes, they rule! But duuuude — that is not how you fucking spell it!"

Nevertheless, there are a couple of Procol Harum songs I like, my favorite being — WAIT FOR IT! — no, not "A Whiter Shade of Pale" but rather "Conquistador". I have nothing against "AWSoP" other than the fact that it is overplayed and -praised. But it's still a good song; my reasons for being slightly sick of it have less to do with the song itself than with the fact that it gets played seemingly every ten minutes on FM radio and seems to make an appearance in every "hip" film that comes down the pike. Teh 'Bride, for instance, still loves "AWSoP" and considers me merely perverse for preferring "Conquistador".

But I just happen to think "Conquistador" is a better song, is all, and I think I'd prefer it to "AWSoP" even if the latter weren't so over-exposed. I like both versions of "Conquistador" — the original, slower, bluesier studio version as well as the one below, performed live with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. The live version is the one you always hear, and with good reason: The song is vastly enhanced by the inclusion of orchestration. The staccato strings that open the song are distinctive, and help to set a relevant tone of urgency that I consider thematically apropos for the song; and the inclusion of the Spanish bullfighter horns also enhances it, giving it a Latin flavor nearly entirely absent from the studio version.

The real Conquistador in the song is not any unnamed Spanish Explorer/Conqueror but Time Itself. The song is really a rumination on the inevitability of death, which brings everyone low and is the great equalizer. When it comes to death, there are no conquerors, only the many vanquished, among whom must be included the great Conquistador.

It is unclear whether the narrator is looking at a statue of a Spanish Conquistador or some other work of art or if he is just addressing an image in his mind's eye, but however he may be seeing this Conquistador, it is from a vantage point that spans a sea of time and through a prism that reveals to him the ravages that time visits upon both the meek and the mighty indiscriminately: The Conquistador's stallion stands alone, riderless, almost forlorn, the apostrophized Conquistador having been laid low, his "armour-plated breast ... [having] long since lost its sheen", his face a "death mask ... [where] ... there are no signs which can be seen." No signs of  life? Or no signs of a meaning to Life? The refrain "And though I hoped for something to find/ I could see no maze to unwind" suggests that the narrator is in search of some sort of, for lack of a better word, ultimate meaning ... and what he finds that ties all of humanity together is the ineluctability of death.

This is not a happy narrator or a happy song.

Historically speaking, the Spanish Conquistadors were — not to put too fine a point on it — ruthless murderers who brought whole civilizations down, plundering their wealth along the way, and sowing death wherever they went in the New World. This fact is barely alluded to in the song, though. We do know that the narrator originally "came to jeer at you [the Conquistador]" — perhaps for the Conquistador's historical crimes against humanity when he "came with sword held high"? — but the narrator ends up paying his respect to the dead man because the narrator, from his vantage point across the sea of time, soberly realizes that the Conquistador "did not conquer, only die".

The Mighty Conquistador ultimately suffered the same fate as his victims, the same fate as everyone who ever lived — the fate that will be shared by everyone who ever will live: death.

Time conquered the Conquistador as it will conquer us all.

Conquistador your stallion stands
in need of company
and like some angel's haloed brow
you reek of purity
I see your armour-plated breast
has long since lost its sheen
and in your death mask face
there are no signs which can be seen

And though I hoped for something to find
I could see no maze to unwind

Conquistador a vulture sits
upon your silver shield
and in your rusty scabbard now
the sand has taken seed
and though your jewel-encrusted blade
has not been plundered still
the sea has washed across your face
and taken of its fill

And though I hoped for something to find
I could see no maze to unwind

Conquistador there is no time
I must pay my respect
and though I came to jeer at you
I leave now with regret
and as the gloom begins to fall
I see there is no, only all
and though you came with sword held high
you did not conquer, only die

And though I hoped for something to find
I could see no maze to unwind


  1. (Stephen) Furst!

    I have a deep personal connection to "Conquistador." And I'm not saying what it is.

    So there.

  2. When I saw Ringo Starr and His All Star Band in concert (man - it must be over 10 years ago by now), Gary Brooker was part of the all stars. The opening song in the set was 'Whiskey Train' and they absolutely rocked it!

    After going back and hearing the original, I was super disappointed. The All Star Band live version is king - at least on that night. I'd love a recording of that...

  3. That was cool. Shades of "Ozymandias", no?

  4. Hey, that's my fave PC song too! Thanks for the info on the lyrics.