In which I, well, never mind
This week we arrive at something that has been on my mind all year: the half-century of the release of one of the most special songs in popular music. I’ll execute a smooth transition out of last week by introducing it as the song that prompted Lennon to say, “Great, that’s the first new thing that’s happened since we happened.”
I say ‘special’ because it is genuinely unlike any other very famous song I can think of. It came into the world as a B-side; it contains almost no complete sentences; it made a career—two, really. And it delights me while simultaneously irritating the hell out of me.
I grew up listening to Elton John, but not to “Your Song.” From the outset I recognized Bernie Taupin’s presence and function, though I knew nothing about him personally. The albums I heard most often were Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road: the latter was so familiar that I didn’t understand people who connected “Candle in the Wind” to Princess Diana, because I wasn’t aware there was a second version. I just went around secretly baffled as to how they could mix up Princess Di and Marilyn Monroe.
Besides, my favorite track was the one about the grey seal, an early cut of which coincidentally features on the same album as “Your Song.” But that album was anathema to me. In middle school I got into Honky Château via my dad—the highlight being “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself,” which I used in a class project on Romeo and Juliet and which remains one of my all-time favorites. (Wasn’t I the chipper twelve-year-old.) Also in middle school came my first conscious exposure to “Your Song” amidst our choir’s vast and varied repertoire.
My first unconscious exposure must have been Ewan McGregor and that opera singer guy wailing it out on the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. It was great in a stressful way. (I would react similarly to the film itself several years later.)
Back to choir. Keeping it real: I have a lot of anxious memories surrounding middle-school choir. To this day, hearing any of the songs we sang could be a trigger. It took me years to feel normal about “Walking in Memphis,” and I’m still working on this one—don’t even ask about “Wonderful Christmastime.”
Anyway, the first verse was split into a duet between me and another girl. I didn’t know if she was a newcomer to the song too, but I detected unknown variables galore. How was I supposed to interpret this first line? “It’s a little bit funny” how? Should I look at her when she sang the next line, or when we joined in unison starting at “I don’t have much money,” or ever? And the harmony on the last line was a little low for me—could I try it up the octave? Performing was, after all, my one chance to be cool. But would my choir teacher hate me for experimenting, or was he already disappointed with the lack of resonance on those low notes? I knew he counted on my vocal versatility. He seemed so chill about most things, so okay with life, which intimidated me. I wanted to impress him so bad. The situation was fraught.
All that worrying made for a solid distraction from the words being sung. So it didn’t hit me until long down the line what a scattered text it is. There are interruptions and corrections and self-putdowns, somewhat softened by an enchanting melody and a tasteful string arrangement (in E-flat major, for God’s sake—this score does not fool around). The recording sounds as if the composer-singer might even be reading the lyric cold, the way he sort of chuckles to himself at points. Like oh, typical Bernie. Or he could simply be stepping into character as an exceedingly self-conscious narrator, apparently not a far cry from his true personality. Who’s to say?
The lyrical oddities stay veiled at first, behind fairly straightforward sentiments about being unsettled by one’s own emotions and wanting to make a home with a loved one. But things start to go off the rails immediately thereafter.
If I was a sculptor—but then again, no—
Or a man who makes potions in a traveling show
I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do
What? What’s the best you can do? List other potential professions? Or does it refer to songwriting? Perhaps the next line—My gift is my song, and this one’s for you—is meant to be the conclusion of the thought. Even so, if he’s portraying songwriting as a humble and non-lucrative occupation, you’d think he would contrast it with some, well, lucrative occupations. A troubadour stands out more against a doctor or a lawyer than against a sculptor or a circus medicine man.
(See what I did there? Snuck in the site of Elton John’s first big-time show? It was a highlight of Rocketman. Moving on.)
Then we have the first chorus, ushering in some more substantial issues.
And you can tell everybody this is your song
It may be quite simple, but now that it’s done
Whoa, whoa, whoa, what do you mean, ‘done’? This all hardly constitutes a start! I guess it’s nice that you’ve given me a song, but in fact I can’t tell anyone about it—they’ll say, “Oh, how sweet of him to dedicate a song to you, what is it about?” and I’ll be all, “I don’t really know, honestly, listen for yourself.” And they’ll listen, and what are the odds that they’ll be able to glean an overarching message from what’s here?
Astoundingly, the Moulin Rouge rendition manages to skip the entire first verse. Which, as we’ve established, says exactly nothing. To omit it, then, leaves us with…less than nothing? How does this work? What can such a song do?
But okay, Lyricist Taupin, you get the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you actually wrote the chorus last and meant us to ascribe retroactive significance to “now that it’s done.” This I hope you don’t mind bit is the first unimpeachable section yet: you’ve written a good couplet, and your composer-singer has set it superbly.
In any event, you’re obviously about to go on; far be it from me to obstruct your way. Second verse should provide a fuller picture, right?
I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss
Well, a few of the verses, well, they’ve got me quite cross
‘A few’ seems generous, considering your output thus far, but I’ll shut up. I do commend your use of the rather uncommon ‘moss.’ Next, a nice meditation on the sun—that’s an old pop standby for a reason.
So excuse me forgetting, but these things I do—
You see I’ve forgotten if they’re green or they’re blue
Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean:
Yours are the sweetest eyes I’ve ever seen
Hold it. Pardon me while I tear off my headphones and throw my phone across the room. We get three fragmented attempts to formulate this thought, only to learn that our fumbling narrator has forgotten the eye color of his addressee? This supposed beloved, for whom he would bother to craft a song? Which, with its textual meandering, is shaping up to be a non-song? That’s the last verse! There isn’t even a bridge! We have to take ‘done’ literally now!!
Think about if someone presumably close to you tried to compliment your eyes without remembering the color, and then was like, “but we’d totally live together if I could afford it!” You’d reconsider your relationship to that person. You’d think, maybe we don’t know each other as well as I thought.
And now a reprise of “I hope you don’t mind that I put down in words…” I mean, barely.
Last but not at all least, I’m befuddled by this: did Bernie write the lyric with the intention that it was for Elton? Because when Elton then sings it, it sounds like he is singing for Bernie. Was Bernie directing a song toward himself all along? Or is it addressing some unspecified other? The fundamental nature of the narrative, the truth we’re meant to take from the title, is in question.
WHOSE SONG?? WHOSE IS IT???
Part of me wonders how these lyrical shortcomings slipped by so many studio people—and then I hear that intro, which might ultimately excuse the offenses of the ensuing content. Efficiently atmospheric, winning us over then and there. A pretty extraordinary four measures. (In the same vein is the intro to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” except that the rest of the song doesn’t need excusing; structural quirks aside, it has a conceit and full sentences! wow!)
I’m not asking Bernie to be Bob Dylan (in fact I would discourage anyone from trying). I don’t mean that only sophisticated texts merit success. Hell, the band America wrote a hit using two chords and lines such as “there were plants and birds and rocks and things,” and they didn’t even name the horse. But this, while not much to go on, is still more than what Bernie gave Elton and us. I wonder if he meant it to stumble as it does, or if it just turned out that way. I wonder how long he spent on it; it’s urban legend by now that Elton spent about fifteen minutes on the tune. What a testament to the strength of that tune that “Your Song” has achieved such distinction with so little to its lyric.
Come to think of it, it was originally the B-side to “Take Me to the Pilot,” another song that succeeds possibly in spite of a strange lyric. No doubt we could fill hours and volumes parsing apart Bernie’s wordsmithing motivations.
I suppose what we have here is a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. There’s something to it that makes me feel—has made me feel, ever since that neurotic twelve-year-old took it on—like all will be well in the end. Plenty of people over the past fifty years have felt that way. Maybe…you guys, maybe it’s become our song.
I’ll see myself out.
*deep breath* …how wonderful life is… *Ewan McGregor yell* while YOU’RE IN THE WOOOOOOOOOOOOOORLD
Dedicated to Haley, one of the best parts of that middle-school choir, for being a longtime friend and teaching me to chill the hell out.
Image: the captain and the kid, from Esquire