Let’s get this clear right up front…with lyrics by Bernie Taupin, one of the world’s greatest living lyricists.
I was a big Elton John fan growing up. “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” is the first record I ever bought…still got it in the original picture sleeve up in the attic.
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was the first non-classical piece of music I learned to play on the piano…not terribly well, I have to say, but the chord progression on the intro just did something to me the first time I heard it on the radio. I was desperate to find out how to play it.
I’ve got “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” on a vinyl single in the attic too…although sadly with a much less glamorous sleeve this time.
And, of course, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was also the title of one of Elton John’s albums.
Back then, albums were rare purchases for me. They cost several weeks’ pocket money. So I tended to buy singles instead…I could get one of those in about three weeks if I went easy on the chocolate…(by no means as easy as it sounds…)
So I missed “Candle In The Wind” at first, which was a track on the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album. It was released as a single in the UK, but was only a moderate hit. I don’t remember it at the time.
But a few years later, probably in the late 1970s as best I can remember, I was watching a TV documentary about Elton John which featured a performance of “Candle In The Wind”. The song took my breath away, it was so tender and heartfelt.
The production was really simple, just Elton at the piano. But that put the words front and centre.
And I will admit that, when I first heard it, I had no idea what the song was about and who this woman called Norma was. I was just struck by its beauty and tenderness.
So I set off to find out more, and discovered that Norman Jean was the birth name of someone who’s still an iconic figure today, nearly 60 years after her death…Marilyn Monroe.
And I was fascinated by the opening line…
Goodbye Norma Jean
Though I never knew you at all
Don’t be silly, I thought, everyone knows who Marilyn Monroe is. I’d never seen any of her films, admittedly, but even I knew who she was.
Which is the skill of a great lyricist…that little trick confuses the old grey matter and your subconscious almost forces you to try to make sense of a statement about one of the most famous movie stars on the planet which, on the surface, doesn’t make sense at all.
Of course, this was a commentary on how we never really know other people…not deep down in their hearts…not as the person they really are in their most private moments.
We don’t know members of our own families like that. And we certainly don’t know iconic celebrities like that.
So we knew a character called “Marilyn Monroe”. But we did not know who she really was…a little girl called Norma Jean…
Like a lot of people, little Norma Jean was attracted by the bright lights of Hollywood and the chance of fame and fortune.
There’s no doubt she was taken advantage of by powerful men who should have been ashamed of their conduct. Maybe Norma Jean was a little too trusting and naive. Maybe she was even prepared to go along with some of it at first as a price she felt she had to pay to climb up the ladder.
That doesn’t make what people did to her right, though.
She was fashioned into an object that would be “marketable” by some pretty sleazy operators…
You had the grace to hold yourself
While those around you crawled
They crawled out of the woodwork
And they whispered into your brain
They set you on the treadmill
And they made you change your name
As Bernie Taupin has pointed out in interviews, “Candle In The Wind” might have been about Marilyn Monroe on the surface, but it could have been about anyone who had been manipulated by people who saw a performer purely as their meal-ticket to be worked to exhaustion just to boost their cut of the artist’s ever-increasing earnings.
That’s why drink and drugs often plays a part. It’s easier for manipulators to get artists to do their bidding if they’ve got them hooked on something.
More often than not, they don’t even need to get them hooked in the first place. People do that themselves as a way to numb the pain they feel…the first gulp of something, the first line of something, the first smoke of something…
After that, manipulating them couldn’t be easier. You just hold out the promise of whatever they need a fix of as the price for doing what you tell them to do.
But the people telling you what to do are never really there for you. They’re only there for themselves. When you’re not producing they don’t care…
Loneliness was tough
The toughest role you ever played
Hollywood created a superstar
And pain was the price you paid
I know I’m a bit of a softie, but I can’t bear to see someone in pain. I’m always motivated to try to help them get to a better place.
But if you’re the sort of person who likes to flog their meal-ticket for all it’s worth to boost your own earning power, pain is probably a good sign.
You’ve moved your prize asset into a place where they’re even more vulnerable, even more in need to support and affection. So who do they turn to? Well you, of course.
A few kind words…not so many that you take away the pain altogether, just enough to make them grateful to you for helping them feel a little better for a while…a little pick-me-up of some sort…the promise of a night off…
That’s all it takes to keep the show on the road. Or, put another way, the cash register ticking over…
“Candle In The Wind” pulls no punches. Next Bernie Taupin takes aim at the sad, but regretfully predictable, end…when your body and mind can’t take any more.
Even then, the gutter press can’t help but extract the last ounce of salaciousness out of the tragic end of a flesh-and-blood human being’s life so they can sell more newspapers, or get more eyeballs tuning in to their TV news channel…
Even when you died
Oh, the press still hounded you
All the papers had to say
Was that Marilyn was found in the nude
I don’t think anyone would argue Marilyn Monroe was the best actor who ever trod the boards. Iconic, for sure, but there were plenty of others at least as good.
I think she knew that, which was why she went along with the people who manipulated her at first. She was easy prey. She was trying to get an edge. Trying to find a path through the armies of beautiful and talented young women with their sights on getting their name above the title in a big Hollywood movie.
She ended up being drawn into a world that ultimately took everything she had to offer…her mind, her dignity and, in the end, her life…only to cast her aside when she was no longer useful, leaving her to die alone.
The expression “Candle In The Wind” is a brilliant image too…Bernie Taupin conjures up the image of something very fragile, doing its best to flicker away and continue to provide even a pin-prick of illumination in the face of an unstoppable force trying to snuff out the light and bring darkness to the world.
Which, although Bernie Taupin admits he took the line from a review about Janis Joplin’s life, is a perfect way to sum up Marilyn Monroe’s life…and indeed the life of anyone who has been through a similar experience.
They passed away decades ago, but we still remember Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Elvis…and of course Marilyn Monroe. Victims all, in their own way…
But what we remember is the character. Not the person. Not the real person.
We never knew them. We knew the role they played to capture our interests and meet our needs.
And in many ways, that’s the greatest tragedy of all. We thought we knew them, but we never did, really…
And it seemed to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
Never knowing who to turn to
When the rain set in
And I would have liked to have known you
But I was just a kid
The candle burned out long before
You legend ever did
And if I’m writing about Marilyn Monroe today, getting on for 60 years after her death, it’s probably safe to say she keeps that legendary status still…and will for a lot longer, thanks to Bernie Taupin’s wonderful way with words and Elton John’s skill for composition and performance.
But, as I’m sure you know, the tale of “Candle In The Wind” doesn’t end with a 1973 track on one of Elton John’s best-selling albums.
Tragically, but with so many uncannily upsetting parallels to the original concept, “Candle In The Wind” was re-written in 1997 after the death of Princess Diana…another tragic woman, sadly taken from us far too early.
Elton John famously performed the re-written “Candle In The Wind”, re-titled “Goodbye England’s Rose”, at Princess Diana’s funeral in Westminster Abbey. To this day I don’t know how he held himself together during that performance.
It was a beautiful tribute to someone he clearly cared for very much.
I know I was in tears listening to it. I can remember the moment very clearly because I was on holiday in San Francisco at the time and had set my alarm early so I could watch the proceedings early in the morning, West Coast time.
I thought that modest gesture of respect from someone she’d never met was the least Princess Diana deserved.
I never knew her, of course. But I knew the public persona, the warmth towards others and the care she showed to the most vulnerable…the orphans from war-torn regions, the AIDS victims, the homeless…whilst being so very vulnerable herself.
She put her own vulnerability on one side to help make people more vulnerable than she was feel better. That’s the sign of a kind, empathetic person….and we don’t have enough of them to go around at the moment, that’s for sure.
It’s easy to say “she’s a princess who lives in a palace, what problems could she possibly have?”
But none of us know the struggles going on inside someone else’s mind.
In a different way, admittedly, Princess Diana was just as mistreated and manipulated as Marilyn Monroe was. Her death, leaving behind two young boys who had to deal with the grief of losing their mother in the close-up gaze of a camera lens, was unimaginably tragic.
Someone who spent a fair chunk of her life trying to relieve the suffering of others suffered too.
That made Bernie Taupin’s re-written opening verse of “Candle In The Wind” so poignant. That was why I found myself in tears in a San Francisco hotel room on the morning of the 6th of September 1997 listening to these words…
Goodbye England’s rose
May you ever grow in our hearts
You were the grace that placed yourself
Where lives were torn apart
You called out to our country
And you whispered to those in pain
Now you belong to heaven
And the stars spell out your name
Bernie Taupin was 23 when he wrote the original lyrics for “Candle In The Wind”.
Just 23 years old.
And yet he described a tragic life, and wove a story, like a grand master who’d been writing songs for 60 years.
There’s no question in my mind that Bernie Taupin is one of our greatest living lyricists…and one of the greatest lyricists who ever lived.
If you need proof of that, look no further than the beautiful, tender, haunting lyrics to “Candle In The Wind” which challenge us to treat people more kindly, and to be there for others more when they’re standing on their own in the rain and need someone to turn to.
And let’s not overlook Elton John’s wonderful music and performance which made “Candle In The Wind” into a masterpiece…here it is…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for your time and attention. I know you could have spent your time doing something else, so I’m very grateful that you’ve spent the last few minutes in the company of one of my favourite songs.
The video is below, but if you prefer to listen to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/5khtjkzX0pzH1cjDgM6K6H