Written by Bernie Taupin and Elton John
Sometimes, a song is just a song, and there’s no deeper meaning behind it. Such is the case with Elton John’s “Levon,” a plaintive, piano-hooked song off his fourth album, 1971’s Madman Across the Water. While the track centers around “a guy who just gets bored doing the same thing,” as John explained in Susan Black’s “Elton John in His Own Words,” it isn’t referencing any real person or event.
“It’s just somebody who gets bored with blowing up balloons, and he just wants to get away from it… but he can’t because it’s the family ritual,” he continued.
“Levon bears his war wound like a crown / He calls his child Jesus / ‘Cause he likes the name,” sings John over a sweeping mix. “And he sends him to the finest school in town / Levon, Levon likes his money / He makes a lot, they say / Spends his days countin’ / In a garage by the motorway.”
Levon appears to be a veteran of some unnamed war and now enjoys quite a bit of wealth. His thriving family business, selling “cartoon balloons” in the park, doesn’t interest his son Jesus much. In fact, Jesus longs to galavant off to “Venus” and “leave Levon far behind.” Jesus is chained to tradition, yet is very much part of a new generation of free, unconventional thinkers. “Take a balloon and go sailin’ / While Levon, Levon slowly dies,” John refects.
Contrary to popular belief, the character Levon is not a reference to Levon Helm, legendary band member, singer, and drummer of The Band. “Robbie Robertson himself said to me that it confused Levon when he heard the song, because he didn’t understand how it related to him,” Taupin told Rolling Stone in 2013. “The thing is – and in the press I’ve seen ‘the song was inspired by Levon Helm.’ No, it wasn’t. It never was. I just liked the name.”
As much as the listener could dissect and sift through the song for a larger message, the images with which Taupin painted simply sounded good. He explained, “Quite honestly, [the song] was written so long [ago] that I really don’t know what was in my head at the time. It was a free-form writing. It’s not David Bowie throwing words into a hat and picking them out. It’s a totally different way. I think that Bob Dylan did that, too. It was just lines that came out that were interesting.”
“Levon” became a chart hit, rising to No. 24 on Billboard’s Hot 100.