I’m not a lyric writer. I get all my inspiration from looking at the written page. – Elton John
Inspiration is one thing. Acting on it is another. Sir Elton’s output seems to go beyond his magical combination of talent, work ethic, and training. He claims to have taken all of 30 minutes to complete “Your Song.” In his 2005 appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio, excerpted above, he passed his genius off as something akin to a party trick, calling on the audience to pass up a book—any book—as source material for an insta-song.
Given the number of student actors in the audience, it’s really not so surprising that the first volume to hit the stage was Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 verse play Peer Gynt.
Magicians heighten the drama by demanding absolute silence prior to a difficult trick.
John swings the other way. The resulting improvised tune is all the more impressive for his off the cuff, raunchy text-based patter. It’s hard to imagine Ibsen playing so fast and loose with lines like:
Everything spites me with a vengeance
Sky and water and those wicked mountains
Fog pouring out of the sky to confound him
The water hurling in to drown him
The mountains pointing their rocks to fall-
And those people, all of them out for the kill!
Oh no, not to die!
I mustn’t lose him. The lout!
Why’s the devil have to tease him?
What might Metallica or Iron Maiden have conjured from such material? In John’s hands, it becomes a lush, emotionally charged ballad, the mountains and fog apt metaphors.
In his book Inside Inside, host James Lipton names this as one of “the two most astounding improvisations in the history of Inside the Actors Studio.” The other was Robin Williams making merry with a pink pashmina shawl.
In a 2012 interview with NPR, John went into the nature of his collaboration with his longtime word man, Bernie Taupin. Unlike other lyricists, Taupin does not think in terms of verse and chorus, leaving it to John to free the song from a wall of text:
It’s just a blank—well, not a blank, but it’s a piece of paper. In the old days, it was handwritten. Then it got typed. Then it got faxed. Now it gets emailed. And it’s no suggestions, nothing. And we’ve never written in the same room. I don’t know if people know that. But he gives me the lyric, and I go away and write the song, and then come back and play it to him. And I’ve never lost the enjoyment or the thrill of playing him the song that I’ve just written to his lyric.
If you’d like to finish what John started by further musicalizing Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, the complete script can be read here. Or listen to the 1946 radio adaptation starring Ralph Richardson as Peer Gynt and Laurence Olivier as the Troll King and a button-moulder, below. Also above, you can watch John turn instructions for using an oven (yes, that daily appliance) into song.
Elton John Sings His Classic Hit ‘Your Song’ Through the Years
Tom Petty Takes You Inside His Songwriting Craft
Enjoy a Bluegrass Performance of Elton John’s 1972 Hit, “Rocket Man”
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Join her in NYC on March 20 for the second installment of Necromancers of the Public Domain at The Tank. Follow her @AyunHalliday.
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