Behind The Song: Elton John, “Candle In The Wind”

Written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin

A long-standing fan of Marilyn Monroe, songwriter Bernie Taupin was struck by her widely-accessible persona that seemed to stretch beyond any particular barrier. After co-writing “Tiny Dancer,” as found on Elton John’s 1971 studio album Madman Across the Water, the video for which stars a Monroe homage, Taupin had always “wanted to write a song about her,” he told BBC News, “but I’d never found the right way of doing it without being incredibly tacky.”

“I tried to make it a song that told you the reason she was so popular,” he continued, “[and] that she was very much somebody people could fall in love with without her being out of reach. I really don’t think people thought of her as a sex symbol.”

“Goodbye Norma Jean / Though I never knew you at all / You had the grace to hold yourself / While those around you crawled,” sings John on the opening verse, referencing Monroe’s real birth name. Simple piano, light percussion, and guitars accompany him, underscoring the almost ethereal quality of such a tribute. “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 much as “Candle in the Wind” (from John’s 1973 record, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) is most certainly a dedication to Marilyn Monroe, it speaks to a much wider conversation on the pressures put upon celebrities. “I think the biggest misconception about [this song] is that I was this rabid Marilyn Monroe fanatic, which really couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s not that I didn’t have a respect for her,” Taupin has said. “It’s just that the song could just as easily have been about James Dean or Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain.”

He also suggested it could have easily been depicting tragic lives of such groundbreaking authors as Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. “I mean, basically, anybody, any writer, actor, actress, or musician who died young and sort of became this iconic picture of Dorian Gray, that thing where they simply stopped aging. It’s a beauty frozen in time,” he said.

The song’s chorus hits upon this emotional thread. “And it seems to me you lived your life / Like a candle in the wind / Never knowing who to cling to / When the rain set in,” sings John. “And I would have liked to have known you / But I was just a kid / Your candle burned out long before / Your legend ever did.”

Taupin first came across the concept of “candle in the wind” after industry producer and executive Clive Davis had allegedly used it to describe Janis Joplin. “I just kept hearing this term. I thought, what a great way of describing someone’s life,” he told Mojo magazine. He elaborated in another interview, “In a way, I’m fascinated with that concept. So, [this song is] really about how fame affects the man or woman in the street, that whole adulation thing and the fanaticism of fandom. It’s pretty freaky how people really believe these people are somehow different from us. It’s a theme that’s figured prominently in a lot of our songs, and I think it’ll probably continue to do so.”

Taupin later gave John the lyrics, and the song quickly sprouted wings. As album engineer and musician David Hentschel later remembered it, many of the songs were composed over breakfast “before going to record them the same day,” he told Mojo in 2019. With “Candle in the wind,” John wrote “the music at a piano in the large dining area at the Chateau while everyone else was eating breakfast. Quite magical.”

The band ─ consisting of Davey Johnstone (guitar), Dee Murray (bass), and Nigel Olsson (drums) ─ “would be listening as this happened,” he continued, “and then we all went over to the studio and laid the track down.”

Elton John later released a live version in 1986, as part of the set Live in Australia with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He took home the 1988 Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance – Male, and deservedly so. Years later, in 1997, he re-recorded the song as a tribute to Princess Diana, swapping the lyrics “Goodbye Norma Jean” for “Goodbye England’s Rose.”

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