An Old Flame Burns Again It made barely a flicker when it was first recorded almost 25 years ago. Now 'Candle in the Wind' is blazing into history.

September 13, 1997|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

In 1973, the pianist and the princess-to-be unwittingly bonded over a pop song that took maybe 30 minutes to compose.

The subject was old, and the song title wasn't original. At the time, the song wasn't even released as a single in this country. But in Great Britain, the ode to Marilyn Monroe struck a chord with British teen-agers. The tune peaked at No. 11 on the British charts before burning out.

Nearly 25 years later, "Candle in the Wind" is ablaze.

Elton John's reworked version of the song premiered during the funeral for his friend Princess Diana. The moment was indelible. John performed solo before mourners in and outside Westminster Abbey. Goodbye England's rose, may you ever grow in our hearts Who wasn't listening?

Who hasn't heard the replay? MTV and VH-1 have been broadcasting the video taken directly from the funeral. Top-40 radio can't play it enough. A studio version of "Candle in the Wind 1997" on CD and cassette will be in U.S. stores Sept. 23.

The Polygram record company says it has orders for 8 million copies already, and John believes its sales may raise more than $15 million for Diana's favorite charities. John's current concert tour stops are selling out within hours, although he intends never to perform the Diana tribute again.

The history of "Candle in the Wind" is a Cinderella story -- a fairy tale of modern music. Once upon a time, there was a prince, a pop singer and a song with nine lives...

Elton John was on the ceiling of popularity in the early 1970s. After a rash of hits -- "Your Song," "Rocket Man," "Daniel," "Crocodile Rock" -- John began recording his next album -- one destined for pop greatness. The album's prevailing theme would be that old devil fame. Sooner or later, fame equals despair. Public life is the toughest gig. Hello, "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."

The double LP would be recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, in January 1973. That was the idea. But Elton John and his band couldn't find a hotel room. In Jamaica, George Foreman had just beaten Joe Frazier to win the heavyweight boxing championship, and the island was packed. Eventually, John did hunker down to write the music to the LP's 21 songs. Characteristically, he took only three days to do so.

"I think songs should be disposable," John said in a 1973 documentary about him. "To me, songs are like postage stamps. You lick them, put them on a letter, and never see them again."

A world away, 12-year-old Diana Frances Spencer was four years from meeting Prince Charles and beginning her climb to popularity. In 1973, Diana was living with her mother on a remote pTC island off the coast of Scotland. At boarding school that year, Diana made decent-enough grades at West Heath. Her love of music was noted in school records.

She must have heard "Daniel" or "Rocket Man" on the radio. Maybe she owned "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Who didn't?

On Side A, "Candle in the Wind" was sandwiched between "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" and "Bennie and the Jets." "Bennie," a song about a sci-fi rock goddess, went to No. 1 in the United States. "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting" was another hit from the album.

Bernie Taupin, John's long-time lyricist, wrote "Candle" as a tribute to Monroe and as a commentary on the world's fascination with the late actress. Andy Warhol had already helped make her into an icon of pop culture.

"The theme could hardly be called new," Philip Norman wrote in his 1991 biography, "Elton John." "Even the title he chose was not original. It had earlier been said of the [late] rock star Janis Joplin that she was 'a candle in the wind.' "

But John and Taupin were drawn to Marilyn -- her glamour, her pain, her life, her death:

Even when you died

The press still hounded you

All the papers had to say

Was that Marilyn was found in the nude

"It's so unrelievedly embarrassing," critic Ken Tucker wrote of "Candle" in Rolling Stone, "that the song actually exerts a certain queer fascination that impels listening, which a lilting chorus encourages."

Goodbye Norma Jean

Though I never knew you at all

You had the grace to hold yourself

While those around you crawled

By the end of 1973, Elton John had moved on and begun work on a disappointing follow-up album, "Caribou." "Candle in the Wind" -- all three minutes and 41 seconds of it -- would have to wait to be royally rediscovered.

Gratitude

Whatever your opinion of "Candle in the Wind," the world can be grateful that lyricist Taupin didn't rush to customize other old songs for Princess Diana's funeral. "Candle" was indeed the safest bet from "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."

That album included, for instance, songs about an unhygienic nymphet ("Dirty Little Girl"), a mariner's whore ("Sweet Painted Lady"), a teen-aged lesbian ("All the Girls Love Alice"), a song called "Social Disease," and a reggae ditty called "Jamaica Jerk-Off," which also didn't see a lot of radio play.

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