“Your Song” – Elton John, 1970.
Kids these days (ugh) probably don’t know what a B-side is. Well, young’uns, back in the dark ages of analogue music, songs were released on these archaic, dinner plate-shaped things called records, which, unlike their later brethren the CD, could be played on a mind-blowing TWO sides, helpfully labeled A and B for quick reference. “B-side” was generally bandspeak for “throwaway”: when a band put out a single they’d usually stick some filler or weird experimental crap on the B-side, fated to be swiftly forgotten by all but hipsters and pretentious music critics. Elton John’s “Your Song” is that rare example of when the B-side outshone the ostensible hit. Released in 1970 as the backing track for the single “Take Me to the Pilot,” the DJs of the day decided they liked “Your Song” better and put it in heavy rotation instead. It’s arguably the most beautiful piece of music ever created by the songwriting duo of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, and was praised by none other than John Lennon as the best thing done in rock following the breakup of the Beatles (never one for modesty was he). Interestingly enough, Elton John has suggested in interviews that he took only about half an hour to write it. Not bad for something banged out over a tea break, n’est-ce-pas?
What I’ve always liked about “Your Song,” and what I suppose appeals most to my nature, is the modest, insecure manner in which the lyrics shuffle themselves forward. This isn’t the kind of bravado and boasting about wealth and sheer awesomeness we’d see in say, gangsta rap. Instead, the singer is apologetic at his lack of money, offering the usual empty promises about what he would buy for his love if only he could afford it. Then, he can’t even decide what hypothetical successful person he wants to be – “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.” In life, love demands confidence, but the shy still feel it and burn with it and need it as much as anyone else. As he struggles on, the singer complains about getting the verses wrong and not even being able to remember the color of his love’s eyes, asserting only that they are the sweetest he has ever seen. The chorus, too, pleads for reassurance that the object of the affections doesn’t mind this grossly inadequate tribute, which in the end can but say simply “how wonderful life is while you’re in the world.”
When you style yourself a writer, or indeed, any kind of artist, there is something of an unconscious expectation among others that you should be able to express yourself flawlessly in each moment. That you should be a boundless reservoir of wisdom concerning the human heart, that you should be able to navigate relationships with the ease and skill of an emotional Magellan, and moreover, always know exactly what to write on a birthday card. In fact, I have lost track of the number of serious conversations I’ve been in where I have sat dumbfounded and dumbstruck and totally without words, and come away thinking there was something wrong with me, unable to reconcile the contradiction of being adept in one medium of language and inept in another. So too do I find that when I’m trying to reassure my loved ones or my dearest friends in a difficult moment my platitudes sound to me like bad soap opera lines that have been translated from Mandarin Chinese via Czech, Swahili and Esperanto. There was a point in my twenties when it felt like everyone was coming to me for advice on some matter or another, though I wasn’t sure where I got the guru reputation. The best I could do would be to recycle something I heard or read and hope that it fit the occasion. Wisdom is a quality I’ve never perceived in myself; rather, I’m like the narrator in “Your Song,” stumbling about in the dark, only ever by happenstance finding words that fit. My idle fantasy of giving a TED talk one day seems destined to remain just that. Dammit.
My wife and I met at a karaoke bar, and we used to go to that same one every couple of weeks when we were first dating. “Your Song” was heavy on my performance rotation, along with “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (the first song she ever heard me sing) and a few of the others who’ve found their way into this series of posts. (Also “Love Shack,” but that’s another story.) “Your Song” was my favorite to sing to her, however, and it remains in the opinion of your humble narrator the greatest love song for the tongue-tied. It also happens, in my case, to be true – my wife’s pale, enchanting blues are indeed the sweetest eyes I have ever seen. Love songs like this one resonate most because they are surrogates that let us speak the emotions we can’t articulate ourselves, directly and without distraction, cutting right to the unburdened clarity of one person’s passion for another. We often can’t say – or sing – it better. Though I’ve never fancied being a sculptor or a snake oil huckster, this song fills that slot for me. It’s a good reminder at those instances of awkward flailing that I remain one of the better B-sides, a person of deep feeling, though my inability to speak such things aloud can make me seem in person to be cold, verging on Vulcan, as if the heart beats only at the basic task of pumping blood. That blood, however, runs hot. And I hope you don’t mind if I put it down in words.