Back to 1971 again, can’t help it. It’s Elton John’s birthday and today’s song is the title song from the LP of his I bought first, in 1972, followed by Honky Château later that year. That was the time of my interest in Elton which quickly fizzled after that. Though later I did come to see that his best LP was Tumbleweed Connection (1970). All the stuff that followed HC was more or less annoying to me—cloying, corny, or simply over-the-top.
Madman Across the Water was Elton’s worst-selling LP in the UK, but it put him on the map in the States. “Tiny Dancer,” the lead-off song, I bought as a 45. Then heard “Levon” and the title song, then bought the album. Those are the highpoints, to me, but “Indian Sunset” is grand Native American pop opera in the era of Wounded Knee. And “Rotten Peaches” is also worthwhile.
Still “Madman” is my favorite Elton track. And I’d like to dedicate this to Will Eno’s play Open House, playing the rest of this month in NYC, which I saw on Sunday. The play is about how deadening the family can become, how stifling and oppressive. And in this song, lyricist Bernie Taupin gets at a bit of that: “We’ll come again next Thursday afternoon / The in-laws hope they’ll see you very soon / But is it in your conscience that you’re after / Another glimpse of the madman across the water.”
The song is in some ways not only a protracted kvetch about having to deal with the in-laws (“jeeze, the things I married into”), but I always took it—I was 12 when I got this album—as a glance at the very thing Eno is getting at: the complacencies of the recliner and settee of a Sunday—or Thursday afternoon. Hanging about to no purpose, tortured by small-talk. “Will they come again next week / Can my mind really take it?” Of course, the song is actually suggesting the condition of the person committed to some home where people come during visitation hours. "They think it's very funny, everything I say" certainly applies to the situation of the barbed father in Eno's play, but also to the guy locked up for being a bit too weird.
“There’s a joke and I know it very well / It’s one that I told you long ago / Take my word I’m a madman, don’t you know.” Yeah, by the time I was 13 I’d be reading things like Hesse’s Steppenwolf (“For Madmen Only”) and relishing the idea that the extraordinary individual was “mad” by society’s requirements. All that angst about being somebody’s hubby forever and ever, fixed in the domestic museum, was only too relevant to a teen, y’know. “Was a fool, had a good part in the play.” There was a given that, if you were a poetic type, you had to see yourself as a character in a play, or as a tragic clown or holy fool. You had to be eating your bitter heart at some level most of the time. The tension between being "committed" to the everyday and committed to some institution for the mad was the point, to me.
Somewhere back in 2006 I picked up re-masters of Elton’s LPs, from Elton John through Château. What I discovered is how much I still love the orchestrations on these records, and how great the session work is. The drums are very well recorded too. And this album has guest appearances by none less than Yes’ wizard of the keyboards, Rick Wakeman.
This song has Chris Spedding on guitar and the string arrangement by Paul Buckmaster is eerie, brooding and bombastic by turns. And those long “ohhhhhs” with all the reverb on. I liked Elton’s vocals a lot in those days, the way he stretched and blended vowel sounds often made the words part of the music in a memorable and unmistakable way. Taupin’s lyrics are never great but they are often unusual, and that was good enough, mostly. This was the period when Dylan was more or less on hiatus, there were no more LPs by The Beatles forthcoming, and new musical heroes were needed. For a time, it seemed, Elton and Bernie might fill the bill.
What about that “madman across the water” anyway? It’s a decent enough poetic figure: the idea that madness awaits on the other side—whether of a mirror or a river—is prevalent enough. The “boat on the reef with a broken back” indicates there’s no easy way to get across. And that’s what intrigues me about the song: it seems that in the midst of his well-intentioned relatives, this guy is worrying some haunting, dreamlike image. It’s as if the idyll of “picture yourself in a boat on the river” has capsized, ditto that great image from “Where to Now St. Peter” on Tumbleweed Connection: “I took myself a blue canoe / And I floated like a leaf / Dazzling, dancing, oh, enchanted / In my Merlin sleeves.”
Not no more. Marooned. Stranded. “The odor of evening and a child full of sorrow who stoops to launch a crumpled paper boat”—to quote Paul Schmidt’s rendering of the end of Rimbaud’s Le bateau ivre. What can I say? I like boat imagery. Another glimpse . . .