A discussion that was raised on the one of the Elton forums the other day reminded me about this topic. Through many of the songs when Elton is singing, he singing about himself, or Bernie, both of them or in fact neither. I read an interview with Bernie a while back where he said that a lot of the sings that Elton thought were about him(Elton) actually weren't about him at all! What songs they are would be a real eye opener I suspect. I've always thought of this song as being about Elton first and foremost. In fact, as we'll see further in, it's more than that.
The time, late 1988. The place, a very dark one. For Elton, certainly. On this blog I don't delve into anyone's personal lives as this is not what the blog is all about. If you want that type of thing, there's plenty of man hole covers on the web to lift up. But sometimes we do have peer in and see what's happening as and when it affects the music. No bigger example than this case. At that time Elton had just gotten divorced from Renate, he'd completed a 'comeback' tour after his voice op. The latest album, Reg Strikes Back was about to 'cardboard' as he remarked later on tour. There is no doubt that at this time his substance abuse was on the inevitable destination. If it weren't arrested in time. For the best part of two decades this on/off lifestyle was now mounting up in terms of problems. Which again are well documented elsewhere. So it was no surprise that those around him, especially Bernie, would be well aware the futility of it all.
What Bernie penned for Elton was in effect a message to him. Not coded, with very few metaphors laced through it. It's very simple in it's message...'reach out for her healing hands'. Bernie himself had gone down the same road in the past but by this stage had been on an even keel for a long time. So he knew better than anyone what it was to experience being like that, then to acknowledge it and finally to get something done about it. A few steps to the twelve steps. He worded what is one of his greatest pieces of support that anyone could give a friend. The first two verses recounting his lowest point, the third verse his determination to rise up and the chorus his championing over the darkness and letting the light back in. In other words, it's there, Elton. Salvation is at hand...but you gotta reach out first. Only Elton can make the first step, the hardest one of course, but when he does his vision of life will be clearer and brighter.
I've said it before about Bernie, he has great honesty in his lyrics. Elton has great honesty too when it comes to singing about himself. Especially when it's somebody else who has 'spoken' for him. That's why the partnership works. I'm sure Elton at the time was well aware of the songs meaning, not just on a wider scale but for him in particular, As we know he didn't immediately take up Bernie's invite to reach out, it would be another 18 months before that road was travelled. But there's no doubt this was of many catalysts for that long road.
The song itself is superb, Sleeping With The Past is one of my favourite albums. It took me a while to get into but it is incredibly accessible now. Great polished production from Chris Thomas, using what was a contemporary sound (1980's) to recreate a retro (1960's & 70's) style. At the time it was normal procedure, but if it were done now the synth parts would be played by real instruments (strings and brass). In retrospect it's very much of it's time so that uniqueness may prove in the long term to be as just important as the songwriting on it, which is very strong. A great piano solo from Elton...from a time when he didn't play much piano, or so the old yarn goes...with a terrific intro to the song, The unusually clean sounding drum line from Moffatt...he not being a favourite of this blog I'm afraid...with those grinding guitar announcements from Davey. Elton's late 80's/early 90's voice has the right degree of soul without getting too heart wringing.
To sum up, we can all speculate what Bernie is on about and as we all know that is a never ending task. But I think here he's left the listener...and the performer...in no doubt about what the method is in the lyric. Thankfully it came to fruition is all I can say...
I never dreamed I could cry so hard
That ain't like a man
I could fly like a bird some days
Had a place where I could land
I could have sworn we were all locked in
Ain't that what you said
I never knew it could hurt so bad
When the power of love is dead
But giving into the nighttime
Ain't no cure for the pain
You gotta wade into the water
You gotta learn to live again
And reach out for her healing hands
Reach out for her healing hands
There's a light, where the darkness ends
Touch me now and let me see again
Rock me now in your gentle healing hands
I never knew love like poison
That burned like a fire
All I ever wanted was a reason
To drown in your eyes
I never knew sleep so restless
Empty arms so cold
That's not the way it's supposed to be
It ain't the spell that I was sold