Pete Brown – Poet and Lyricist

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Continuing with my look at lyrics as poetry, Pete Brown is interesting as being someone who makes a clear distinction between the two. He is also personally interesting for a few reasons I will explain.

Best known for his writing of lyrics for Cream, especially his close work with Jack Bruce, one of my favourites is for his own band, the Pete Brown and Piblokto song High Flying Electric Bird. I cannot separate the beauty of this song from the beauty of its lyrics, and thus I may over-hear and overstate the poetry. But that doesn’t matter.

Before printing that lyric, and a link to the song, I’ll mention his poetry and one more lyric. I recently acquired a second hand edition of the excellent Penguin poetry anthology Children of Albion – Poetry of the ‘Underground’ in Britain edited by Michael Horovitz, having lost my original copy. Published in 1969, Brown is one of the writers represented, and here is one of his 15 poems included,

Few

Alone and halfdrunk hopeful
I staggered into the bogs
at Green Park station
and found 30 written on the wall

Appalled I lurched out
into the windy blaring Piccadilly night
thinking surely,
Surely there must be more of us than that….

This is typical of the playful selection made of his work here, as well as more generally typical of the irreverent, unconventional poetry of this ‘underground’ time.

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Fascinating then to compare this with one of his lyrics, this one for the Cream [Jack Bruce] song White Room. Much is written on the origins of the lyric, and Brown tells us that Bruce had rejected his first offering and how the version we now have  was hastily composed,

In the white room with black curtains near the station.
Black-roof country, no gold pavements, tired starlings.
Silver horses run down moonbeams in your dark eyes.
Dawn-light smiles 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.
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.

Compared with his poetry, certainly that anthologised by Horovitz, this is actually far more conventional, or perhaps ostensibly poetic.

In an interview I found online at The Argotist here, when asked if Brown considered his lyrics as poetry, he replied:

I don’t usually think of my lyrics as poetry, but having said that some have more “poetic” content than others. You have to bear in mind that I came from poetry initially. The earlier lyrics thus had more residue from that. As I progressed, I found that working in more day-to-day language suited me better, except in certain instances when I wrote for other people who wanted the other thing. Having said that, I also had a huge influence from films and the more surrealist of painters, which led to a certain flavour of imagery which some thought “poetic”, whereas I mainly didn’t think of it as that.

I don’t think this helps all that much! I’m not going to attempt a fuller analysis of Brown’s lyrics, especially chronologically in order to trace what he claims, but it doesn’t matter all that much anyway as it is down to how we as listeners/readers respond.

I respond to the writing in High Flying Electric Bird as being poetic, and that sounds, I know, like a linguistic compromise in not calling it ‘poetry’. But again, I don’t intend to analyse further.

Having posted this lyric on another blog some years ago, I had a reader response which supplied an alternative version, or more precisely an alternative hearing. This is a difficult song in which to hear the lyrics clearly, and many of these variations are printed online. The one I have here seems to match perfectly when one listens to the song being sung, so I’m happy with this,

High flying bird, I don’t hear the last for me
High flying bird, I don’t know the rest of it
Into the dark where electric wings spark you into life

Sketches of night are first to fade away
Stretches of light grow wings to greet the day
Into the waves where submarine slaves kiss you into life

Flying over the mountains of rust
Blowing over the weddings of dust
Into the dark where electric wings spark you into life

High flying bird, I don’t hear the rest for me
High flying bird, the sky’s where I need to be
Into the grin where electric eyes spin you into life

Sounds of the day smash themselves into dreams
Somewhere I lay are tears running down my beams
Into the sun where the silver wings run themselves into ground

Flying over the mounts of gold light
Blowing over the bottles of night
Into the grin where electric eyes spin you into life

Flying over the mounts of gold light
Blowing over the bottles of night
Into the grin where electric eyes spin you into life

High flying bird I don’t hear the last for me
High flying bird I don’t know the rest of it
Into the dark where electric wings spark you into life

Sketches of night are first to fade away
Stretches of light grow wings to greet the day
Into the waves where submarine slaves kiss you into life

Flying over the mountains of rust
Blowing over the weddings of dust
Into the dark where electric wings spark you into life

I think its poetry is obvious and I think it is obvious that Brown was writing poetically. The rhyming is a feature of it as a song lyric, I think, but it doesn’t have the sound of twee and/or forced rhyme.

Here is the song and I’d recommend just listening and enjoying first, if you don’t already know, and then listen again whilst following the lyrics.

This link is an engaging read, written by Brown in 1979 as a correction of details to The Gargoyle Magazine. It tells us quite a bit about Pete Brown in the early days of his writing as a poet and then his move to writing lyrics, and is an excellent brief account.

I have one of Pete Brown’s latest cds with Phil Ryan, Road of Cobras [2010] which is excellent, and I ordered yesterday, and am excited about receiving, a second-hand copy of his 1969 book of poems Let ‘em Roll Kafka,

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One thought on “Pete Brown – Poet and Lyricist

  1. Pingback: Pete Brown – Let ‘em Roll Kafka | mikeandenglish

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