Candle In The Wind: Marilyn, Lady D and the meaning of the lyrics

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To some extent, Marilyn Monroe and Lady Diana – besides their premature death – have nothing in common: two completely different figures that influenced popular culture on different levels. But for sure they share one thing, in fact known by everybody: the song Candle In The Wind by Elton John.

Goodbye Norma Jean
Though I never knew you at all
You had the grace to hold yourself
While those around you crawled

When Elton John publishes the album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on October 5th, 1973, Diana Frances Spencer is a twelve year old English woman with quite a turbulent life, still far from the fame she will get after she will join the British royal family; whereas Marilyn Monroe, born Norma Jean Baker, has been at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles for eleven years. Apparently, nothing can correlate these two persons. Nevertheless, the connection at some point has been disclosed, and Elton John is the man who created it.

Candle in the Wind, written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, owes its title to an expression used for the death of Janis Joplin, destined for the same fate as the American actress. As its author reveals, the song is not “just” a tribute dedicated to one of the greatest stars of Hollywood cinema:

“[It’s about] the idea of fame or youth or somebody being cut short in the prime of their life. The song could have been about James Dean, it could have been about Montgomery Clift, it could have been about Jim Morrison … how we glamorise death, how we immortalise people.”

Bernie Taupin

Marilyn Monroe, in short, is (also) a symbol: if in life she was the quintessence of femininity and beauty, her death reminds every person that you can’t escape your pain, even if the spotlight is on you. The lyrics of the song are focused on the events that led to the public figure we know. In some ways, they are described in chronological order, starting from the change of name (from Norma Jean Baker to Marilyn Monroe), passing to the difficulties she experienced in life, to the pressure coming from Hollywood and the media, to her never-ending solitude, up to the moment when they discovered her dead body (“Was that Marilyn was found in the nude”). The storyteller shows some regret for not having been able to know her, because in 1962 he was a little kid. Nevertheless, he really understands her and won’t depict her just as the greatest object of desire ever appeared on screen.

Loneliness was tough
The toughest role you ever played
Hollywood created a superstar
And pain was the price you paid

Candle in the Wind will be the second single extracted from the album and it will be listed among the 500 best songs ever made, according to Rolling Stone. Twelve years later, Elton John performs again the song during a concert in Sydney, dressed as Mozart.

Candle In The Wind (Live At Sydney Entertainment Centre, Sydney, Australia / 1986)

Quick step forward: on the night of August 31st, 1997, Lady Diana dies after a car accident in the Alma Tunnel in Paris, together with Dodi Al Fayed. A few days later, at the funeral of the most beloved figure of the British monarchy, Sir Elton John presented a new version of the song at Westminster Abbey, adapted by Bernie Taupin and produced by Sir George Martin (the “fifth Beatle”). The British radios will play it for about a month, turning it into the best-selling single in history – overtaking Bing Crosby’s White Christmas.

Taupin’s intention is to ensure that “the song would sound like a country singing it. From the first couple of lines [“Goodbye England’s Rose”], the rest sort of fell into place”. It is the last farewell to Lady D, aware that she would never come back: a truth that now torments everyone, putting them in front of “empty days without her smile” (the adjusted lyrics of the new song version).

As a sign of respect for Diana and her family, the version played at the funeral is the only live version of the “second” Candle in the Wind, destined to always carry the memory of a day when “no earthquakes were recorded around the world”.

Elton John - Candle in the Wind/Goodbye England's Rose (Live at Princess Diana's Funeral - 1997)

Marilyn Monroe and Lady Diana, therefore, share just a tragic event. And a song that, perhaps more than anything else, can pay the right tribute to them. And to humanity in general.

And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
Never knowing who to cling to
When the rain set in

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