ELTON JOHN: In Search of the Sublime
Joseph Azize Page
Elton John: In Search of the Sublime
1 The Sublime
Music can communicate a feeling of the sublime. I call the “sublime” that precious, subtle feeling of myself as if on the cusp of touching the mystery of eternity. It is the life of what Gurdjieff called the “higher emotional centre”, and its music is, as it were, music delivered through the flesh, but heard by the ears of the soul. For me, the clearest examples of it are in traditional sacred chant, such as Gregorian and Syriac. But not only there. Traces, sometimes very substantial traces, are found elsewhere, and not only in classical composers like Bach and Mozart. For example, when I listen, with quiet attention, to Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” or “Funeral for a Friend”, I feel that there is something majestic swelling in and above the music, which calls me on and upwards. And I think many others have had something of a similar response, even if they have never tried to name it.
I am speaking of moments where we feel the reality of the sublime, even while we are capable of acknowledging the claims of the mundane world. In the Medieval tradition, the “higher reason” is what contemplates eternity, while the lower reason deals with all our necessary business in ephemeral time. Yet, as it has always been known, the two levels are related. They are lived together, for it is by knowledge of this world that we come to know the eternal, while our sense of the eternal informs our perception of the mundane, and is, ideally, our criterion for judging and valuing temporal objects. The sublime, then, is the feeling side of higher reason.
We are not strong enough to experience the sublime in its unalloyed state, except perhaps in certain states where we are, to an extent, apart from the world (in meditation or contemplation, for example). It comes and only can come to us filtered through culture. No one, not even Bach, could express the sublime in all its purity for any sustained period, but one can experience moments of it with intensity. Even Gregorian chant, probably the purest accessible form of this music, is of a very varying quality: I, at least, find that side by side with the masterpiece, such as “Veni Sancte Spiritus”, some Gregorian chant is little more than pleasant.
One cannot demand half an hour of sublime music: one will cease to respond to it with the same intensity. The sublime is a candle which burns the wick and the wax of a moment before it eludes us again. One may glimpse it at any moment, or in-between moments; and can receive it through any medium, or through none. This is partly why architecture, painting and music are so valuable: at their best they crystallize an illumination, and can provide a patient hand to hold our faces upwards. Spiritual art is a trellis for the distractible attention.
But art can approach the spiritual without being spiritual art. It can be occupied with something else, something not overtly spiritual, and yet contain a spark of the sublime. The reason I am writing this piece now is because I believe that this very thing happens with Elton John’s music, and I have not yet heard anyone else say this. Yet, that is how I hear some of his work. Take a song like “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”. It starts out with a measured piano line. The verses are slow, and the choruses are more emotional, but still measured and grave. Only at the end, with the last chorus and the orchestral line, does it rise to a torpor. It may take several hearings before it starts to come together: certainly, I had to listen to it many times before the grandeur of the song became evident to me even in those first sounds. But now, having a feeling for the whole of the song, it invites me, as it were, to enter into it, to meditate with it, from the start. From the very first notes, I can sense the crescendo to come. The slow start is the necessary prelude which prepares us for the climax. What happens when that build-up is lost is shown by the butchering of Bowie’s “Heroes” to produce a short radio-friendly single. To make the three minute version they hacked off the first verses of the piece as it appears on the album, cut to the climax without allowing it time to gather momentum, and added gimmicky sounds to compensate. It was, for me, a travesty.
Elton John did not need to do this in 1974 with “Don’t Let the Sun”. Despite its length, it was accepted on release as a classic, and in 1991 was a hit as a duet with George Michael. Now I no longer put it on as background music: that would seem to me to savour of a betrayal, and yet, if I hear part of it by chance, say in a shop, I am pleased to be reminded that these heights exist. I think, too, that the effect is so clear on that song because the lyrics are enigmatic, but in a reflective direction. Beneath the love-song angle (“but these cuts I have, oh they need love to help them heal”), it cuts deep:
I’m growing tired, and time stands still before me,
Frozen here, on the ladder of my life.
Although most of the lyrics are not at that level, the music most certainly is. Maybe this was even fortunate: if someone tries to make a point with too heavy a hand, too philosophically, it often fails: I think that was the problem with acts like Yes and the Moody Blues. Words can speak to the feelings, but they must speak to the intellect. Music and pictures can be interpreted by the intellect, but they must be received by the emotions. If the words are too easily captured by the intellect, and there is nothing left over for feeling, the effect soon pales. I think that is why some of Dylan’s work, initially striking, later fades: for example, the first time I heard “With God On Our Side” it sounded like a prophetic revelation. Now, however, I can’t listen to it: it sounds like someone who wants to sound like a prophetic revelation.
So the tangential or oblique approach of “Don’t Let the Sun” is the secret of its lasting power. A suggestive picture is more alluring than a sermon. This is but one example, and, in the next blog, I shall consider others.
Of course my response to music is subjective and culturally conditioned. Not everyone hears “Don’t Let the Sun” as a summons to another world. But this doesn’t mean that the sublimity is all in my head: it just means that the chemistry cannot take place unless there is something corresponding in me. Culture, here represented by Elton John’s music, is only part of the platform upon which this miracle takes place. What is evoked, however, is beyond it. Like the eternal, the sublime can only be known through the mundane; but the mundane finds its highest purpose as the means of this revelation.
As for subjectivity, it is a problem only when we need objectivity. Otherwise, it is a manifestation of our individuality, the psychic element wherein we are different from every other person. The subjective cannot be escaped: what is real is known not in its naked self, but in the only way we can know it, in culture and as a personal impression. Subjectivity is not necessarily fantasy.
That is, there seems to me to be something objective in these songs, even if the receipt of it is subjectively conditioned, depending on my state when listening, and my personal history. For example, I was about 15 years old when I first heard Elton’s “High Flying Bird”, and I didn’t like it too much: I received it chiefly as a rather mournful song. But already, only a year or two later, I could hear in it something poignant, a sort of elegy for Everyman, transcending the love song which it also undoubtedly is. Now, many years later, I hear in it even more, a sort of meditation on the preciousness of life under the sun, and how the precious moments can be acknowledged only as they fly by. Now, many years on, I can apply it to various past relationships and configurations in my life. Indeed, it practically applies itself to them.
A really good song will find feeling associations my head had missed.
The fact is that many people, perhaps even the great majority, do perceive a special quality in certain melodies, arrangements of sounds, chords and rhythms. But why does not everyone hear the same transcendent values in music? Can we not prove what we perceive? For example, a review I once read in a magazine referred to “The One”, from the album of the same name, but the critic only heard what they referred to as “overproduction”. Personally, I may have preferred a lighter touch, but, for me, there is something so exalted in that song, that to criticise the production strikes me as carping.
Does the music really speak as I hear it? Yes, I say that it does, because I feel it. My feeling is of myself in whatever state I happen to be in. My feeling is how my individuality is known to me. It is therefore impossible to prove to another that the sublime exists where I feel its existence. At a different period of my life, when I am in a different place, I may not be able to hear anything there.
To repeat what I have said earlier: that does not mean that the sublime has disappeared from the music. It’s always available, it’s just that it can only be brought down to earth by an alchemical process which takes place between the music and myself.
I know that some people are accustomed to associate Elton John’s music with outsize, neon-illuminated glasses and platform shoes. They can hardly believe that I could find sublimity in his music. Rightly or wrongly, and I think it’s a bit of both, a lot of people see him as a showman, a sort of Liberace with a gift for melody, but above all, perhaps, a dinosaur who had his moment in the 1970s, and now seeks to distinguish himself by wearing expensive suits. To many people, Elton John is not much more than tantrums and tiaras made famous by a keyboard.
However, I think that to dismiss EJ like that is to be even more superficial than his image supposedly is. I don’t see much point in trying to prove his qualifications to be a artist of the sublime by retailing stories of his intelligence, or of his work for charity. One cannot weigh the sensible side against the silliness in some balance. I think the real point lies elsewhere.
Elton John is a talented pianist and a tremendously gifted songwriter. There have been many such, but few have had his impact, and I predict that his reputation will rise, practically to Lennon or McCartney status, when memories of his image have dimmed, or he has been forgiven for his very public excesses.
But I do not think that the real point lies even there.
To put it in a nutshell, I think the truth of Elton John’s music is that often, very often, and without knowing himself how he does it, he receives inspiration, he brings down to earth the music of the higher emotional centre, he touches eternity.
Elton is an interesting study partly because he does not, I think, aim to capture a transcendental quality is his work. And yet, I doubt, despite his antagonism to religion, that he aims not to do this. The fact that he brings a very high quality down into his music gives him an anthropological significance: if one human can do so without the explicit intention, why not others? Perhaps, in fact, we do. I would not be the first person who has thought that in very many small ways, small emotions of wonder, peace and compassion, ordinary persons in everyday situations manifest the sublime. I would think, in fact, that every person does so at innumerable moments in their life, although those moments may grow fewer after childhood, and have less and less influence in their presences.
It may even be that the sublime is more apparent in Elton John’s music, and more powerful when it is apparent, precisely because he does not set out to capture it. Perhaps he does not interfere with it, or try and augment it. The one example of where I am quite sure he knew he had touched something eternal, and had sought to do so, is an instance where it was marred. This was “Song for Guy”, dedicated to a young chap who worked for him or the recording studio, and died tragically young. If I am not wrong, Elton said that he had musically depicted the soul looking down on the body. And he knew he had succeeded, but unfortunately, knowing this, he turned it into a six minute epic, where the melody is endlessly repeated with little variation. My own humble view, for what it’s worth, is that had it lasted just three minutes, introduced by the eldritch, evocative “Reverie” which precedes it on the album A Single Man, it would probably have been a masterpiece, ranking with some of his other unforgettable meditations on death and eternity, such as “One More Arrow”, “Emily” and “Empty Garden”.
I am not saying that Elton John is anything but a highly sensitive songwriter, or tunesmith, of the first order. I am not suggesting, for example, that he is crass. All that I am saying in this regard is that somehow, when he writes his music, there are occasions when a higher faculty (I would say a spiritual faculty) operates in him, and infuses his song writing with something magical. The word I have used is sublime, because that is how I hear it.
I am suggesting that with Elton John, the process of music making provides opportunities for that channel between the ordinary person and the higher spiritual realities which we are everlastingly linked to and made to seek, to be opened, and to nourish our lives.
This phenomenon can be explained in Gurdjieff’s terms quite easily. The conduit between the lower centres and the higher emotional centre is rarely open. If one tries to open it, one may fail altogether, or alternatively may force it too far open by violence, to one’s own damage. But perhaps because Elton John does not understand what he is doing, and so he does it naturally, he has done himself no harm. On the contrary, the process has been to the immeasurable benefit of his music and to ourselves.
How to carry this insight, if it is an insight, further? Listening to the music is the obvious answer. With the exception of only a few albums, I think the sublime is to be heard leavening his music through his entire career. I think that the first stirrings of something special can be heard on the Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection albums, but the first unmistakable blossoming was, to my ear, “Indian Sunset” from Madman Across the Water, and the latest full-blown triumph has been “My Elusive Drug”, on Peachtree Road, although his very latest album, The Captain and the Kid is also a masterpiece.
This story is to be continued.
Joseph Azize has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.
The third book, George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.