from the desk of H. Bowie...

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"White Room"

A song written by Jack Bruce and Pete Brown in 1968

This song was a huge hit single for Cream, off their Wheels of Fire album. Lyricist Pete Brown says of the track, “It was a miracle it worked, considering it was me writing a monologue about a new flat” (1). Let’s take a look at the words Brown wrote about his new accommodations.

In the 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 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.

Probably the first observation worth making is that this is a fairly serious bit of modern poetry to be used as a lyric for a rock song. Considering its singularly uncatchy title, its lack of rhyme or alliteration, and the absence of any easily discernible or involving subject matter, one might even agree with its author that it is a miracle that it worked at all.

The next thing one notices, perhaps, is that, despite the absence of other traditional poetic trappings, the lyrics have a very structured, and highly unusual meter. The verses have twelve syllables per line, and these tend primarily to fall into three feet per line, four syllables per foot, with the accent on the third syllable of each foot. The conformity to this meter is not perfect, and the first two syllables of each four-syllable foot tend in particular to vary from this pattern. But the effect is still striking, and the attempt to stick to this pattern is one explanation for the frequent variation from regular grammatical structures, since it would be hard to accommodate both.

Given all this other variation from normal pop standards, it is positively reassuring to see that the words fall into a straightforward verse and chorus structure. Although each chorus is worded differently, the repetition of the phrase “where the shadows run from themselves” to conclude each chorus provides some familiar grounding. The choruses also provide some relief from the rather demanding meter in the verses, offering a more familiar beat to the listener’s ears. The future tense used consistently in the choruses also offers some contrast to the present and past tenses used in the verses.

We also find some reassurance when we turn our attention to the meaning of the poem, seeing that there is a familiar “boy meets girl, boy loses girl” theme. However, the absence of a smooth narrative flow is somewhat disconcerting. The poem is written in the first person, and what we hear are a series of somewhat disjointed observations made by the poet. What makes the poem interesting, in part, is that the nature of the observations shift dramatically and frequently. If we take the first verse, for example, we find that the first two lines offer literal descriptions of almost random elements of external physical reality: “In the white room, with black curtains, near the station: / Black roof country, no gold pavements, tired starlings.” The third line, however, shifts to a fantastic metaphor: “Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes.” The fourth line shifts again, mixing the first two modes somewhat, and adding an internal observation on the poet’s feelings: “Dawn light smiles on you leaving, my contentment.”

Beneath the somewhat jumbled narrative of the boy/girl story line, however, lies another conflict, and one that is really at the center of the poem. What is most striking about the words are the utter lack of meaning or feeling in the poet, outside of his contact with the girl in the story. If we take the poet’s observations as reflections of his inner state, what we find initially is a flat existence. Let’s look again at the first two lines: “In the white room, with black curtains, near the station / Black roof country, no gold pavements, tired starlings.” Note the monochromatic nature of the poet’s world: the room is white, the curtains and rooftops are black, the pavements are not gold. Even the birds are tired.

Now contrast this flat, colorless language with that of the next line: “Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes.” Now we have excitement, motion, color, beauty, energy.

This same sort of contrast is continued in the remaining verses. Beginning the third verse, for example, we find that, even at a party, the crowd is “hard,” with the woman offering the only “kindness.” And again we have color and life associated with the woman, and the woman only: “Yellow tigers crouched in jungles in her dark eyes.”

The choruses make the poet’s situation more poignant, referring to his room as a place where “the sun never shines,” and “where the shadows run from themselves.”

At this point it is hard not to identify the poet’s room with his own internal consciousness. Certainly it is hard to picture an objective physical meaning to the image of shadows running from themselves. But if we take this as an internal symbol, then this makes perfect sense: given what we have learned in the verses, it is easy to see the poet himself as one of the shadows, running from himself in order to escape his colorless view of the world, and his own isolation.

I have spent a lot of time focusing exclusively on the words, but as we turn to the recording, produced by Felix Pappalardi, we will find that the music beautifully amplifies and extends these devices we have discovered in the lyrics. To begin with, the track opens with a brilliantly ominous sound, composed partly from the unlikely rock instruments of viola and tympani.

Ginger Baker provides the transition to the first verse by striking his snare, and then we are off. The melody and chords provided by Jack Bruce perfectly complement the lyrics provided by Pete Brown, with the pacing of the melody for the verse emphasizing the unusual meter with a pause after each four syllables, neatly breaking each line up into three feet. The descending melodic line is suggestive of the mood and seriousness of the piece. Bruce’s reading of the lyrics is relatively flat and unemotional, again reinforcing the lyric intent. Bruce’s bass and Baker’s drums are propulsive but slow and regimented, again suggesting the internal state of the singer. Clapton’s guitar lurks in the background at this point, quietly playing the chords, going almost unnoticed.

Bruce sings the chorus in a sweet falsetto, emphasizing the poignancy of the lyrics.

As we end the chorus and start the second verse, however, a new element is introduced in the form of Clapton’s lead guitar. The contrast between Clapton’s lines and the rest of the song is extreme. The stinging guitar is played with heavy wah-wah pedal, at a higher pitch than the vocal and other instruments, and with melodic lines that seem to fight against the slowly descending lines of the rest of the track.

After the second verse and chorus the ominous sound of the opening is repeated, taking the place of a bridge or solo, either of which would be a distraction.

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.

Following the third and final verse and chorus, the ominous sound is repeated, then extended slightly, as if the song were ending. But then the music starts up again with a crash from Baker’s drums, and Clapton’s guitar returns to its heroic struggle against the forces of darkness and lifelessness. The music slowly fades, the conflict unresolved, the tension still continuing.

This recording is simply a brilliant example of the best that rock has to offer. Lyrics, vocals, music and instrumental parts all work together to produce a complex, unified, unique effect.

  1. Sandford, Christopher. 1999. Clapton : Edge of Darkness, Rev. Ed.. New York: Da Capo Press.  ↩

June 1, 2009