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ELTON JOHN: The Songs of Self-Knowledge (Part 1)



Elton and Bernie young

Bernie Taupin and Elton John

“It is on your own self-knowledge and experience that the knowledge and experience of everything else depend.”So spoke the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing more than 600 years ago, in what is the greatest work of mysticism in the English tongue known to me (see ch 43 of Clifton Wolters’ translation). As I said in the first Elton John blog, it is through knowledge of this life and our selves that we come to knowledge of a higher life and, once more, our selves. But, of course, our experience of our selves on that other level is quite different.

And so it is that I return to Elton John, because I sense that sometimes something sublime comes from beyond and can be felt through the songs Of all their work, perhaps John and Taupin touch the sublime most often on these songs of self-knowledge, such as “Someone Saved my Life Tonight”, “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” and “The Sweetest Addiction”.

Other than John Lennon, I can think of no other artistes of their era like Elton John and Bernie Taupin for excelling in what I might call “songs of self-knowledge” or perhaps “songs of reflective biography “. Certainly, I do not know of anyone else in popular music who has developed such a sustained corpus of work over a period of 30 years. I think that Taupin’s work is marked by an impartiality and even fearlessness as much as Lennon’s was. After all, Taupin is writing lyrics for another person to set to music and perform, and not just anyone, but Elton John.

Meditating on the Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy album led me to a discovery which really should have been apparent before, but had somehow escaped me. And that is that although we exclusively think of Taupin as someone who writes the words, he is in a very real way, a musician. His instrument just happens to be his words, an instrument few can master, and his great achievement is that he developed his art to the lofty degree where his words sing on the page with an unheard melody. Incidentally, much as I respect Dylan’s achievements, I don’t hear that much self-knowledge in his songs, although there is certainly tremendous insight and his lyrics often have the musicality I find in Taupin’s. But in the end, Dylan seems to me to hide behind his presentation, while John and Taupin reveal, and so whatever self-understanding he has remains in obscurity. Only outside of popular music, for example with Gerard Hopkins, do I find even more self-knowledge and musicality combined than I do in Taupin.

However, we must come back to this fundamentally important question of the search for self-knowledge. If one has been touched by the search, then the questions “Who am I?” and “What am I?” always demand a response, although – and perhaps even because – they can never be answered once and for all. If we speak of self-knowledge, then because it is self-knowledge, we can take no one else’s word for it. Self-discovery is only possible because a higher part of us is impartial. When I see myself, the lower self becomes transparent to a higher part in myself, and that higher part operates under entirely different rules, and has different powers.

Even if I am alone in my room, yet all of my learning takes place within a socially-constructed world, and I am forever learning from and with others. It is not just that we can compare ourselves to others, find similarities and draw distinctions. Neither is it just that we can get good ideas, or follow other people’s methods. We can also, to an extent, recognize ourselves in others. This doesn’t mean seeing that the details of our loves are identical, although this can occur. More deeply, it means seeing the human condition beneath the accidental facts and biographical details; seeing that we all share in this common humanity, and that we make it what it is in all its inexhaustible variety.

The essential self may be approximately described in words, and we can even figure out some things about ourselves with our intellects, but it’s only discovered through feeling, and, of course, there are levels of feeling and hence of self-knowledge. But affirmation of the goodness of life is a feeling impulse which will bring impartiality. This entails seeing myself without undue self-appreciation or self-hatred. Full and complete impartiality, however, is a function of the essential self, the soul. The soul brings something trans-personal in self-knowledge, an awareness of a call, a memory of something always just forgotten.

When I speak of songs of self-knowledge I am not speaking of narcissism. “My Way” is narcissistic and self-congratulatory, but as we shall see, the music I’m discussing is not. It is not spiritual, either, and yet it isn’t divorced from the spirit. Perhaps the first striking feature of these “songs of self-knowledge” is their quantity: John and Taupin entered the field in a convincing way with 1975’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and updated this tour de force on 2006’s The Captain and the Kid. These were albums completely devoted to reflection on their own history as artistes. In addition, there are many songs of this genre on The Fox, Made in England, Songs from the West Coast, and Peachtree Road. The theme clearly means a great deal to them, and has meant more as they grow older, having both more material and more leisure for reflection. To really understand what I am writing about, you will need to hear the music, beginning with Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, which for my money (and I’m not alone in this) is their greatest achievement, surpassing even the magnificent Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. In the discussion, I’ll be referring to the tracks as they were on the record, five tracks on each of its two sides. We shall see why a little later.

The first track, the title track, is a good example of Elton John’s originality: it sounds like no song you’ve ever heard before. Until the chorus, it has no almost melody, although it has a sound and a rhythm, and the effect of the song seems perhaps even stronger for all that. You know that this song was not produced in a hit factory, because small clusters of words are broken into islands of sense by a jagged phrasing and oddly placed emphasis: “Captain Fan-tastic … raised and regimented … hardly a hero … Just someone his mother might know.” This works, partly, I think, because he’s telling a story, and an achingly beautiful tune like that of “Your Song” might distract from the narrative, while the strength of the lyrics is quite sufficient to hold our attention and interest. “Raised and regimented”: it is hard to imagine that any three less assuming words could be found to say so much about what in a later song they would describe as a “repressed” youth.

Elton, of course, is Captain Fantastic, while Taupin is the Brown Dirt Cowboy, turning brown in his ‘saddle’ even as the precocious Captain inhabits the stimulating but artificial city. They are painted not quite as opposites, but as contrasts united by a common aspiration for the “honey the hive could be holding”. In a wonderful expression, their pursuit of their art takes them “from the end of the world to your town”. After all, wherever they are seems to them to be the end of the world, while wherever you are, and no matter how small a target, they are infallibly delivered to you through the electronic media. And yet, for them, their careers have been a ‘long and lonely climb’, which they also describe as walking on a wire and as ‘stepping in the ring’.

In an artistic touch of considerable finesse, these two characters, our hosts in this autobiography-for-two, are distinguished by their food. The Captain has cornflakes and tea with sugar: the Cowboy eats “sweet chocolate biscuits, and red rosy apples in summer”. Later in the song, when they are struggling to establish themselves in their chosen careers, they share the same food, “cheap easy meals”, which as Taupin wryly notes, “are hardly a home on the range”. I am fairly certain that readers will be able to point me to many examples of autobiography rock, hitherto unknown to me. And I’m quite sure that some of these will prove to be considerable achievements. But I’ll be very surprised if any of these use simple references to differences in diet with anything like the symbolic force that Taupin does.

There is a lot of history in these lines: one couplet juxtaposes the ‘City Slick Captain’ with the ‘still green and growing’ Cowboy. Then we’re told of “weak winged young sparrows that starve in the winter” and “broken young children on the wheels of the winners”. The Captain and the Kid must have seen a lot of callousness and even bastardry. The lyrics for a song called “Dogs in the Kitchen” were printed with the lyrics, although the song is not on the album, if it was ever recorded. The sentiments seem so raw that if Elton did them justice, the product may not have been a palatable release for the average record company. The very first line is: “All our innocence gave way to lust”. And that was the sweetener:

Poor boys fight to stay alive …
Uncage us, we’re restless, snarled the dogs in the kitchen.
Howling in the heatwave, riding all the bitchin’ ladies.
Who got the first bite in on the greasy bone?
… the vultures belch in their swivel chairs,
And the vampires all wear ties.

It is unnerving to think of writers being likened to greasy bones and quarrelled over by cannibalistic entrepreneurs. This gives us a gritty perspective on the title track, where Elton sings: “We’ve thrown in the towel too many times, our for the count when we’re down”. This is why I say that this is fundamentally a universe apart, and two dimensions deeper than Sinatra’s “regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again …”.

However, even the most powerful missiles need to be launched and guided, and it’s the music which delivers these words. The real magic, for me, is in the combination. To start with, the simplicity of the title track is like innocence made audible. Then, at about 1’ 46” when Elton begins to sing about the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the music picks up. Steady country and western strumming effortlessly evokes an air of ‘childhood at home’ feel, but becomes ‘rockier’ as the song proceeds. This musical development naturally bridges the twin worlds of town and country, the passage from youth to adolescence, the fall from fruit to fat, and the journey from the idyllic woods to wherever we are. The important connection, of course, is between John and Taupin: “hand in hand went music and the rhyme”. One of the odd things is that while Elton is the city-slicker and is significantly called ‘the Captain’, he was, in some ways more vulnerable and innocent than Taupin: one has the feeling that the Cowboy was canny enough for the two of them. This masterly track nicely sets the stage, and introduces its heroes to the challenging world at the same time as it introduces them to us.

The very next track is the knowing “Tower of Babel”. Its first sounds are as ominous and resonant as two tolls on an undertaker’s bell: “Snow – cement – “ and we are immediately submerged in a world of barely speakable cynicism:

Were the darlings on the sideline
Dreaming up such cherished lies
To whisper in your ears before you die?

As with the title track, Taupin is not saying that their early years were tough. He is saying that they were facing starvation, and even the prospect of death. There is not much here about knowing yourself, but knowledge is demonstrated. Too often, we lie to ourselves about the past: we paint it in pictures either too black or too white. In each case we’re really trying to project an image of ourselves (“I understand and forgive all”, or the opposite). But there is no honesty without fearlessness. If someone was a bastard, why not say so? Here, someone has learned a lesson and tells the truth, let the chips fall where they may. Had he said it in those words, it would have sounded indulgent. But Taupin just tells it as it was, so we can take it or leave it. Then we’re into the chorus:

It’s party time for the guys in the Tower of Babel
Sodom meet Gomorrah, Cain meet Abel. …
Watch them dig their graves,
‘Cos Jesus don’t save the guys in the Tower of Babel.

The Biblical terms add a surprising solemnity, and universalise the experience of these two young men. Taupin will open his bible again, for example, on “Just like Noah’s Ark”, from The Captain and the Kid. It’s funny how often non-believers quote the Bible and appeal to Jesus and salvation. It’s also an odd image because the point of the Tower is that it was never completed. The ‘Babel’ here is both the ‘Babylon’ of John’s Apocalypse, the city of the harlot and unspeakable sin, and the Tower which is cast down and has became a symbol of false pride and arrogance. And it also fits the skyscrapers where the captains of industry lurk as if it were designed for them. So, even if it’s a rather anomalous metaphor, it’s nonetheless evocative and multi-dimensional. The crudity of their money-chase is underscored by the fact that, as even more than with the title track, there is no tuneful melodic line : it is as if the omen-like intensity of the words breaks their symphonic chains. But that changes at the chorus “It’s party time for the guys in the Tower of Babel. Sodom meet Gomorrah! Cain, meet Abel!”

So “Babel” is one raw and fiery song. The significance of its first black statement, the stark single word ‘Snow’, is obvious. The second verse opens with the knell of two words ‘Junk – Angel’, and takes us down beneath the floorboards into the company of cockroaches, where the dealers in the basement are “filling your prescription for a brand new heart attack”.

On track three, the tone softens with the beguilingly musical: “Bitter Fingers”. It opens in the voice of an entertainer addressing the songwriters:

I’m going on the circuit, doing all the pubs,
And I really need a song, boys, to stir those workers up,
And get their wives to sing it with me …

It isn’t that the entertainer is insincere, he’s just selfish, insensitive and second-rate. He’s been deeply dyed in the industry. After two bouncing verses of this blarney, the gears crunch, and Elton snarls:

It’s hard to write a song with bitter fingers,
So much to prove, so few to tell you why.
Those old die-hards in Denmark Street start laughing
At the keyboard player’s hollow haunted eyes …
No more long days hocking hunks of garbage.
Bitter fingers never swung on swinging stars.

I had to cite those last two lines if not just for the alliteration. Although it is the first track on side two, I shall deal here with “Meal Ticket”. It covers something of the same ground as “Tower of Babel” and “Bitter Fingers”, but this time, it directly reveals what “Fingers” had only implied: that the songwriters could themselves be mercenary. I take it that, in the very first line, Elton is aggressively addressing music industry power brokers:

I can hound you if I need to,
Sip your brandy from a crystal shoe …
While the others climb reaching dizzy heights,
The world’s in front of me in black and white:
I’m on the bottom line, I’m on the bottom line.

… While the Diamond Jims
And the Kings Road pimps
Breathe heavy in their brand new clothes.

So here are both sides: the boys’ desperation, and the cynical, selfish parasitism which has driven them where they never thought to go. We’re now removed from the innocence of the title track by a margin that can be crossed but not measured:

And I gotta get a meal ticket.
To survive you need a meal ticket,
To stay alive you need a meal ticket.
Feel no pain, no pain; no regret, no regret.
When the line’s been signed you’re someone else.

I took this song out of turn because these last three songs, like “Dogs in the Kitchen”, deal directly with an important issue: how we relate to being abused. Here the abuse is bloodsucking by professionals in suits and ties, but in life we find countless other examples. The starting point is to see it for what it is. Of course we have been taught to love our enemies, but this does not mean to pretend that they are not your enemies or have not harmed you. One can aspire to say “Forgive them for they know not what they do”, although to be candid, one can know that but yet be incapable of feeling anything which corresponds to it. As the late George Adie said, that sentiment is the ultimate in impartiality. We are still learning to be impartial for short moments. The ultimate is not yet within grasp, though we must not give up on that account.

What I like about these three songs, indeed, what I respect, is that Taupin states his disgust in all its bare ugliness without excuse, apology or evasion. He does not indulge in hatred, he just paints what he saw and felt. It isn’t pretty, but it is arresting. It has, to my mind, something of the quality of some of Tennessee Williams’ work, which is noteworthy, because Taupin mentions him at least twice, on “Lies” from Made in England, and on “Old Sixty Seven” from The Captain and the Kid. Of course, Taupin was attracted to Williams’ work because of a pre-existing similarity of disposition, just as Lennon was. You could, perhaps, call it a thirst for the truth, accepting that someone may be hurt. And I have to add here that I just don’t believe people who urge ‘love’ as if it were as accessible to the heart as money to the hand. This is one area where Taupin has never, from what I can presently recall, slipped in syrup. Even on an early piece like “Border Song” on the Elton John album, he is aware that the love which ends enmities must be sweated and prayed for. Perhaps I shall come to that in a future article. For now, we have the powerful and almost transcendent close of side one: “Tell me when the Whistle Blows” and “Someone Saved my Life Tonight”.

“Whistle Blows” is a story of the country boy going back home for a visit: “And I still feel the need of your apron strings once in a while”. The London railway is seedy, and he himself feels like “a black sheep going home”. Yet, he’s drawn back, and wonders whether the “street kids (will) remember”, whether he can still play pool like he used to, and whether “this country kid (has) still got his soul”. I hear something big in the music, rather as if Elton John also related to it, although it’s really Bernie’s story. What I hear in it, and in its inspired string arrangement, is “moving on to the moment of truth”, if I can put it that way. Has he changed? Who is he now? How will others, his family and his peers receive him? What it comes down to, perhaps, is this: has he been true to himself?

Perhaps questioning yourself is always the first step to seeing yourself, and thus to self-knowledge. This song is Taupin’s record of questioning himself. Great as this song is, it’s greatest value perhaps, is to set the stage and open the curtain for what may be the strongest song this duo ever produced: “Someone Saved my Life Tonight”. On the record, this track closes side 1 with the closure of a red curtain at intermission; and these two tracks are balanced by the last two tracks on side 2, which reprise them in a different emotional key. If “Whistle Blows” is a story of going back home, “Someone” is the same story, but in tragic-triumphant tones, of returning home, to light from darkness. Just quickly, the loss of the two-side album has not only spelled the effective end of the art of record covers, but has robbed the artiste and their audience of the dramatic opportunity to close one side and open another. This is why the record is different from, and superior to the CD.

The piano and cymbals of “Someone Saved my Life Tonight” take us to a world far from that the black sheep waiting at the station, however near it may be in miles: “When I think of those East End lights, muggy nights, curtains drawn in the little room downstairs.”It is not innocent, and its stolid respectability is barely skin deep. The woman Elton almost married is hardly painted in flattering terms: “Prima donna, lord, you really should have been there; sitting like a princess perched in her electric chair”. He gets drunk so that he can’t hear her, and his friends are as legless as he is. We know that this is all true, and that to escape a marriage he felt he could not disavow, he tried to gas himself, but was saved by Long John Baldry. This is the song of the man who came through:

And someone saved my life tonight, sugar bear.
… You nearly had me roped and tied,
Altar bound, hypnotised.
Sweet freedom whispered in my ear,
You’re a butterfly, and butterflies are free to fly,
Fly away, high away … bye, bye!

The lyrics are almost stunning in places: “A slip noose hanging in my darkest dreams. … Just a pawn outplayed by a dominating queen. … Saved in time, thank God my music’s still alive.”

This last line is the key to the album, that music equals life. Yet, as we shall see, there’s more. There is an odd kind of contemplative interlude, where he says “I would have walked head on into the deep end of the river”, almost as if he is somewhere above his body, watching it move. The same disembodied calm possesses the line “They’re coming in the morning with a truck to take me home”, the line which formally links this to “Whistle Blows”. Then the music swells until it is would be too intense to bear but for the band’s masterly restraint: “Someone saved my life tonight, so save your strength and run the field you play alone”.

Bear in mind that this is the man whom Bernie Taupin calls ‘The Captain’. And after Taupin wrote him these lyrics, he set them to music of singular potency and sang them. Somewhere or other, I came across that when it was being recorded, Gus Dudgeon asked Elton to put more emotion into his voice, until Davey Johnstone told him to let up: “he’s singing about an attempted suicide”, or words to that effect. That the Captain should submit himself to the ordeal is significant. It had a life purpose, it was written and recorded for a purpose, for fulfilment, not for money.

This is one of those songs where I feel that although the spirit is never mentioned, yet the music bears within itself something of the sublime. In the first blog, I wrote: “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 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’m not alone in that.

Now, as mentioned, side two opens with the visceral “Meal Ticket”, but from there, the mood of the record changes. Track two is the startlingly original “Better Off Dead”. Driven by the piano, Elton sounds almost derring-do. If a song were to be written for the Scarlet Pimpernel, this could be it. It’s early morning in the grimy city, people are being arrested as the fag end of the night plays itself out: there’s vandalism, and there’s trouble. And yet, here is life! As in “Someone Saved”, music and life are linked:

‘Cause the steam’s in the boiler, the coal’s in the fire!
If you ask how I am, then I’ll just say ‘inspired’!
If the thorn of the rose is the fire in your side,
Then you’re better off dead and you haven’t yet died.

Life is acknowledged, accepted and affirmed with its thorns and all. The means to affirmation is the music, or to be more precise, the feeling of self which comes through their music. This feeling comes through clearly and warmly on the next track: “Writing”:

Inspiration for navigation of our new found craft.
… Will the things we wrote today sound as good tomorrow?
Will we still be writing in approaching years?
… Don’t disturb us if you hear us trying
To instigate the structure of another line or two,
‘Cause writing’s lightin’ up,
And I like life enough to see it through.

I don’t think the music of this song is particularly wonderful, but it’s pleasant, and it allows one a nice breathing space between the precocity of “Better Off Dead” and the symphonic triumph of “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” and “Curtains”, which really form one sustained statement. Here, the love we all happen to fall for is their music. Now not everyone writes music, but music here is a symbol of realising one’s potential, and love for what we have made of ourselves.

This is, I think, the manifesto of the album, if it has one. If the music is alive (not prostituted to the highest bidder), if it is your music, and you are true to yourself, everything life sends you can be accepted. We have seen how the preceding songs have provided the material of this ‘manifesto’, and it all comes together now on “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” and “Curtains”

The song opens with some simple descending piano lines. It’s as if someone has walked into the room. Then Elton starts singing, describing the two of them, late at night on a subway station, tired and aching, but believing that “it’s all worth it, we all fall in love sometimes”. Accidentally or not, Elton’s accent falls equally on the three words “all – worth – it”. Exactly what it conveys, beyond the intuition that ‘it’ is something special, is hard to say; yet I feel meaning in it. Now comes the romance:

Full moon’s bright, starlight filled the evening,
We wrote it, and I played it,
Something’s happened,
It’s so strange this feeling.
Naive notions that were childish,
Simple tunes that tried to hide it.
When it comes, we all fall in love sometime.

The melody is simple, and has a subtle sway which comes more to the fore in the chorus: “Did we, didn’t we, should we, could we …”. The evocation of close-of-day fatigue married with the discovery of the wonders of their “newfound craft”, is as accomplished as it is – to my best knowledge – unique. In a funny way, such is the achievement of this song that there I have very little to say about it. To my ear, at least, these songs of self-knowledge are amongst the greatest songs of the last hundred years, and “We All Fall” is perhaps the jewel in the crown. It segues straight into “Curtains”, once more, a strikingly original song in melody, lyrics and format. Like the total track, it practically has no tunefulness, and yet, as chimes softly toll, its slowly paced incantation gives the lyrics an almost oracular status:

I used to know this old scarecrow,
He was my song, my joy and sorrow.
Cast alone between the furrows
Of a field no longer sown by anyone.

As with the previous song, there are no illusions that everything they wrote was brilliant. Yet, the old scarecrow is not disowned, and in one concise phrase we have a generous spectrum of feeling: “He was my song, my joy and sorrow”. The next words are given poignancy by the bells which have been unobtrusively sounding:

I held a dandelion that said the time had come,
To leave upon the wind, never to return,
When summer burned the earth again.
Cultivate the freshest flower
This garden ever grew.
In between these branches
I once wrote such childish words for you.

We have seen these motifs above, the country imagery, and the naivety of some of their earliest songs. But the themes are now drawn together and bring a coherent, almost convincing power, as Taupin refigures them. We have come now from summers in the saddle to summers which will never be repeated, from aspiration to achieving. Yes, the lyrics were naive:

But that’s okay, there’s treasure children always seek to find,
And just like us, you must have had A Once Upon A Time.

This is an important insight: we can punish ourselves for the mistakes of childhood and adolescence, but we were learning and, we can punish ourselves beyond any sane reason for our ignorance. This understanding is allowed its full weight by the evenly chanted spell which Elton John casts. Finally, there is a lengthy “outro” in which Elton and the vocalists compete in bursts of “o-o-o-o-o” and “lum-de-dum-de-day-do” while the drums rumble and the bells ring. No wonder Elton John’s output went into a slump after this. Where else could he go? If it is a law that every force has an equal and opposite reaction, then the law applies to output (which makes me think of how the Beatle’s greatest triumphs, Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt Pepper were followed by the mediocre Magical Mystery Tour, and the splendid John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Imagine by the barely listenable Some Time in New York City).

Captains Fantastic is the most perfectly executed concept album I have ever heard, forming a satisfying thematically unified whole. I mean that it makes a better album because, being integrated, it leaves one with a sense of the whole which rounds out any uneven spots along the way. It’s as if the weak points are effaced by the strengths, because after the title track, no song is beginning from zero point. There is a building, an accumulation, and it’s all gathered and harvested in the almost spectacularly brilliant “We All Fall in Love Sometimes” and “Curtains”, two limbs of one musical statement.

More than I can recall in popular music, John and Taupin demonstrate the continuity between childhood and adulthood, acknowledge it, and understand that with the development there come also lawful changes. It is an album of metamorphosis. Although it’s never stated, there is something of the story of the Ugly Duckling here about Elton John: the nerd who grows up to reveal a soul of heroic steel.

The album is a statement of metamorphosis: the album cover, the work of Alan Aldridge and Harry Willcock, but conceived by Taupin, I believe, evokes a world of chimeras, unearthly combinations and familiar monstrosities. Once again, I have reason to mourn the passing of the album cover. Perhaps if CDs could be released within record sleeves? It is a manifesto of metamorphosis, because the message is that only if you are true to yourself and do not compromise on the music inside you (whatever form that music takes) can you realise your potential. This message is rather more explicitly developed on The Captain and the Kid, so I’m fortunate to have the advantage of hearing that music in my head as I consider this one.

While Captain Fantastic is about the lives of John and Taupin, it is also of almost universal relevance: it deals with ambition, love of life, sacrifice, great sadness, triumph, realism, creation, manipulation, excess, generosity of spirit, perseverance, and human existence. Ultimately, everyone can relate to its forceful artistic statement that life is worth living, despite the pain. And the statement is put all the more powerfully for not being put directly. If you let the music in, the enlightenment rises upon you, in all its splendour, and lives inside your feeling. Considering Captain Fantastic from that perspective, it’s clear why it is, at least in conception, superior to Yellow Brick Road.

But that’s not all. When I said that the message is that life is worth living, despite the pain, I think that there’s something else implied. And that is that you have to make it worth living. I would say that an aim is needed, and in Gurdjieff’s terms, this would be an aim to discover and develop your essential individuality. In Taupin’s terms, speaking about Elton and himself, it was the development of their musicianship. When he said “thank God my music’s still alive”, what was his highest gratitude for: himself or his muse? And yet, perhaps the two come down to the same thing.

Elton and Bernie

Elton John and Bernie Taupin

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.

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.



February 23, 2009 at 10:48 pm

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