"Madman Across the Water," Elton John
Elton John turns seventy years old on March 25, and as I am publishing this on March 24, I'm just in time to celebrate Elton making it to the biblical three score and ten with a 1971 clip of him performing with his band on BBC television as Music Video Of the Week.
"Madman Across the Water" is the title track of Elton's fourth studio album, released toward the end of 1971, a very busy year for him. Tumbleweed Connection, his previous studio LP, had been released in America at the beginning of January, followed by his and arranger Paul Buckmaster's soundtrack album for the movie Friends and then his live album 11/17/70, a recording of a New York radio concert (no prizes for guessing the date). And he was just getting started.
"Madman Across the Water" is a Bernie Taupin lyric about a man who is committed to a mental institution and waits patiently for regular visits from his family. But is he really crazy? Or is he playing people for fools - fools who have good parts in this play?
As with a lot of the lyrics Bernie Taupin wrote for Elton in the early seventies, "Madman Across the Water" is a song in which what it's about and what it means may be two different things. Many American fans - the same people, evidently, who discerned from Beatles records tah Paul McCartney had died in a car crash and replaced with a double, decided that Elton and Bernie were coded messages to them about the madness of U.S. President Richard Nixon. Nixon was the madman, the Thursday meetings were with his aides, and as he was three thousand miles away on the other side of the ocean from Britain, he was across the water. Bernie Taupin has denied this, and he has laughed at the idea that Elton's next album was named to suggest an anti-Nixon slur - Honky Château. Honky - "White," Château - House. White House! (Actually, Honky Château was named for the French castle in which it was recorded.)
There are two studio recordings of "Madman Across the Water." One is a heavy-rock version with David Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson, not released until 1992, and the other is the version released on the Madman Across the Water album, six minutes in length and with full orchestration from Paul Buckmaster. In this BBC performance, Elton and his band - bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson are highlighted prominently here - go on for eleven minutes, as long as his "Funeral For a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding," with no strings whatsoever. Rather long, yes, but it's worth the effort to see and hear. Enjoy.