Elton John: Madman Across the Water

Excerpt from The Rock Commentaries:

Madman Across the Water

Here again we see the image of this shore-water-other shore, only here it is madness that is symbolized by a boat broken on a reef out at sea, or it is himself that the poet sees, and he can see the meaning of this image very well. The song is about the pain of the stigma of madness or apparent madness from those in our world, the isolation and the difficulty of finding love in a way that works with the world, or with the “in-laws.” That the poet can see it very well means that his heart breaks in self-pity at his circumstance, and in madness, this self-pity may not be excessive or derogatory, since it is in truth a grave misfortune to be so isolated, and the madman is not oblivious to his misfortune, but has the same emotions regarding it that any sane person would have.

I can see very well

There’s a boat on a reef with a broken back

and I can see it very well

There’s a joke and I know it very well

Its one of those that I told you long ago

Take my word, I’m a madman don’t you know

Once a fool had a good part in the play

If its so, would I still be here today?

Its so peculiar in a funny sort of way

They think it’s very funny everything I say

Get a load of him, he’s so insane

You’d better get your coat dear, it looks like rain

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.

I can see very well

There’s a boat on a reef with a broken back

and I can see it very well.

There’s a joke and I know it very well

Its one of those that I told you long ago

Take my word, I’m a madman, don’t you know?

The grounds a long way down but I need more

Is the nightmare black, or are the windows painted?

Will you come again next week, can my mind really take it?

Well come again next Thursday afternoon

The in-laws hope to see you very soon.

But is it in your conscience that you’re after

Another glimpse of the madman across the water.

(1970 Dick James Music, LTD.)

Bernie Taupin is the unrecognized genius behind Elton John. The knowing of the madman is like understanding the punch line to a joke that no one else gets. He can see the boat on the reef, and knows the joke, very well. He can see through the images to their meaning regarding the soul, and so is in this respect like one awake compared to those dreaming. The madman is like the court jester or fool in that his low social status allows him to speak the truth, even to the king. His low social status may be the result of seeing the truth, or seeing certain truths. This fool once had a good part in the play, or had a place in the world that would allow him to participate and bring enough of a dowry to persuade the in-laws to give their daughter to him, rather than another. The in-laws come to examine him. One is reminded of Someone Saved My Life Tonight, a song where the potential in-laws try to pull the writer into a life of finance, giving up on his music. He needs more than the ground, and that’s a long way down. “Is the nightmare black, or are the windows painted?” that is, is the world he is seeing really that dark, or is it the darkness of his own perception, his dusk colored glasses, that makes the world look so dark? He ends wondering if his mind can take another Thursday afternoon interview with the in-laws.

This sort of madness is the result of seeing more than we can entirely “integrate,” and is the sort akin to Genius. These potential in-laws would soon be refuted with the stunning success of this very poetry, even according to their measure, of money. But this is a lucky circumstance. What of those for whom no such validation is to occur? Soon, in his song “Rocket Man” (1971) he would compare his activity as a poet and thinker to one who, unknown to others back home, is an astronaut.

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